Teacher Bodies

There is a section of Plato’s Laws in which the “wise” Athenian states that,

Countless ages before the foundation of modern states, they say there existed a form of government in the age of Cronus that was a great success.  The traditional account tells of the happy life led then, and how they had everything in abundance without toil.

The reason alleged for it is this: Cronus knew that human nature is never able to take complete control of human affairs without falling to arrogance and injustice.  Bearing this in mind, he appointed kings; but they were not men, but beings of a higher order, that is, spirits.  We act on the same principle today in regards to our domesticated animals.  We don’t put goats in charge of goats, or cattle in charge of cattle, but control them ourselves.

The story has a moral for us, for when men rule a state we have no respite from toil.  We should make every effort to imitate life under Cronus; we should run our private and public lives in obedience to whatever divine spark remains in us, and dignify this distribution of reason with the name ‘law.’

But today . . . most take the line that laws should be given not to the end of attaining virtue or even waging war, but to safeguard the interests of the established political system, whatever it is, so that it is never overthrown and remains always in force.  The point is this–whoever is in control lays down the law, right?

For many of us this may seem remarkably modern, and perhaps even a cynical, viewpoint on politics as nothing but the manipulation of power to serve the interests of power. But from his other writings, and indeed, the whole of The Laws we know that Plato may have not thought much of the politics of his day, but certainly believed in the possibility of a better world through the application of the right political practices. His reference to the time of Cronus likely hearkens to his belief that this wisdom had to come from outside or above the world of experience.

Plato seems to be saying that when one abandons a transcendent ideal, the power of men over other men can only get reduced to pure power. If I am right about that, perhaps Plato is wrong. I’m not sure that any concept of power can come without a “spiritual” reason, plainly spoken or otherwise.

K.R. Bradley’s Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire: A Study in Social Control bears all of the marks of the professional classicist–long on important and impressive detail (he cites some primary sources I have never heard of before), a bit short on style. Yet a philosophy emerges behind Bradley’s many details, one that Plato might understand: When men must rule other men who have no wish to be ruled, one must use a complex system of rewards and punishments, all towards the goal of maintaining control–of maintaining power. Bradley’s concern lies there, and only there, and therein lies my objection.

Writing about slavery brings with it certain necessary introductory statements:

  • Just because slavery was a common social institution in the ancient world does not mean that it is ok. Indeed, the existence of slavery anywhere at anytime is tragic.
  • Although slavery is bad, it might be that certain forms of slavery at certain times and places was better than other forms. Calling one form of slavery better than another would not mean that the better form was “good,” in itself, but only less bad.

First let us consider the concept of power and control. On the one hand we have the theocratic forms, where God, a god, gods, or their representative(s) make judgments in their name. These forms very obviously appeal to something outside the system to run the system. To that extent at least, Plato would approve. But what of systems that have no defined referent? Well, just because we cannot definitively name the outside referent/intelligence doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

We can use the example of school. Of course students are not slaves, but very few of them over 12 want to be there, and they outnumber all those in authority by a large margin. Teachers obviously benefit from centuries of social expectations, but to control a class, they need to liturgically fulfill certain expectations of what a teacher is and does. If you go too far outside the lines, you break the spell, and your authority disappears, something Key and Peele know well (see clip here–for some reason it would not imbed in the post).

The materialist might argue that obviously the teacher in question could restore order in the class. Of course, the clip above is not real life. But those who have taught know that reestablishing control in such a situation would involve a great deal of work and some deft maneuvering. That control could possibly come from force, i.e., “Everyone be quiet or get sent to the office,” accompanied with stomping and yelling. But that kind of power has a very short shelf life. Threat and fear cannot provide a foundation for learning–it is a strictly materialist structure. Students know this, and will always defeat a teacher who uses force too often, akin to Paul Kennedy’s “imperial overstretch.”

If we reflect on our experience, a teacher has authority when they put on the “body” of a teacher. This means

  • Knowing your subject
  • Being on time for class
  • Having everything ready for class

And so on. One must continually inhabit this “body” every time you enter a classroom. I have taught for 24 years, but if I set up the projector to play a video, quiet everyone down, press “play,” and technology fails me, I have about 7 seconds to get it to work. Otherwise, the “teacher” flees and the spell breaks. Order resets only as I re-inhabit the teacher body.*

Certain aspects of Roman slavery in the Imperial age may surprise us:

  • Slaves were encouraged to marry and have children, and exemption from work came especially to women with at least 3 children.
  • Emancipation from slavery may not have been common per se, but was a regular feature built into the institution.
  • Cato (I had heard of before) and Columella (not heard of him before) both testify that slaves had certain holidays designated just for them, and along with designated times of rest, had perhaps about 75 days off during the year (this would apply at least to rural slaves, who probably had worse treatment than household slaves).
  • During these slave holidays, they had relative freedom of movement
  • Romans wrote admiringly of slaves who stood by their masters, and saw them capable of living out the Roman virtues of pietas and fidelity.

The fact that republican Rome had three major slave rebellions between 140-70 B.C., and none to speak of in the imperial era could well mean that Rome found a better “pattern” of slavery, with “better” obviously not meaning “good.” Bradley takes this to mean only that Rome found a better systems of rewards and punishments, a better means of psychological manipulation. Perhaps . . . but it seems to me that Bradley has a very one-dimensional view of power. He forgets the collective intelligence inherent in any group. Again, slavery is bad, but even an oppressive system cannot work solely based on a materialistic appeal to fear, or even a proper balancing of reward and punishment. Something must guide it.

Bertrand de Jouvenel’s On Power: It’s History and Growth, at certain moments at least, brilliantly shows what happens to governmental authority over time, increasing even though nobody necessarily intends such growth. Every revolution in the modern era shows this pattern. Lenin was much worse than any czar, Mao much worse than Chang Kai Shek, Robespierre outdid by great enormities anything Louis XVI envisioned, and so on. Even the American Revolution followed this pattern. George III may lacked a certain mental alacrity, but he never seized property and exiled any of his political foes among the colonists. The newly minted United States performed this task instead with those who remained loyal to the British. And speaking of slavery, slavery increased dramatically after the Revolution, despite the, I believe, genuine expectation that it would disappear within a generation. A variety of economic and sociological reasons exist for why they were wrong, but “the rest of the story” must exist somewhere. Democracy, conceived as a rebellion against tyranny, may be most prone to this logic precisely because “the people” cannot repent as an individual might.

The latter sections of this book (which I have not yet read, but skimmed portions) promise much in the way of historical examples. In the early sections Jouvenel explores various theories of the origins of power itself. Here he stumbles a bit, for he cannot quite figure out where power comes from. He begins with nominalist conceptions of power, which means that abstract concepts have no validity, but we assign names for convenience. He admires Rome’s Republic, stating

[The Romans] of “the Senate and people of Rome.” [They] had little need of the word “state” because they were not conscious of a thing transcendent, living above and beyond themselves . . . . In this conception, the reality that Rome bequeathed to the Middle Ages, the only reality is men.

Jouvenel says rightly that Romans never thought of a “state,” but they did think of a Senate that functioned as a body, and they had the “people” also represented as a body. Individual men cannot be the only reality. Senators made up The Senate. He quotes Aquinas approvingly when he wrote,

Any group would break up if there were none to take care of it. And in the same way the body of a man, like that of any other animal, would fall to pieces if there were not a directing force within it seeking the common good of all members. . . . In every mass of men there must be the same principle of direction.

Jouvenel examines some other philosophical ideas about power and can only conclude that,

Power possesses some mysterious force of attraction by which it can quickly bring to heal even intellectual systems conceived to hurt it. There we see one of Power’s attributes. Something it is which endures, something which can produce both physical and moral effects. Can we yet say that understand its nature? We cannot. Away then with these fine theories which have taught us nothing . . .

These “fine theories” essentially belong to the field of “emergence” or bottom-up ideas about the establishment of power. Our experience shows us that some kind of intelligence, some kind of reality, hovers above or around certain activities. For example, in an Orthodox worship service there are a variety of prayers or confessions repeated every week that I have memorized over the years. But . . . this memorization of mine applies to the church service only. If you stopped me on the street randomly and asked me to repeat the confession before communion, I wouldn’t get it right. The materialist would ascribe this likely to mere mental association, and while that no doubt plays a part, I’m convinced

From here he explores what he calls “Magical” theories of power, some of which still exist in traditional societies. Most interesting to me from this group is Joseph Frazer’s “Sacrificial King.” This form requires some kind of descent from the king to renew the power of the office. This sacrifice can take various forms, and some would not look like sacrifices to us now, but this principle of descending to ascend, and having this process repeated, enacts a pattern where authority rarely gets abused. The taboos surrounding the office have a binding strength that prevents such abuse.

I am convinced that here we have the true origins of real power (though obviously some manifestations of this model cited by Jouvenel deviate sharply from Christian morality), for it models descent and ascent of Christ Himself.

To return to classroom experience, our best teachers likely instantiated a definite pattern into their classroom–that forms the “high” aspect of their authority. But they likely also “descend” and come alongside you to help you with class or possibly a personal issue. When they do this, they in effect climb into the body of “Teacher.” Those who own slaves can succeed in putting an imprint of themselves on the people they “own.” Bradley shares some stories of slaves who grew very attached to their “owners” and even suffered and died on their behalf. But such power does not deserve the name because it fails to free, and instead can only end in death. On the flip side, some today argue that suffering gives power, hence, the so-called “victim Olympics.” But Christ does not receive power from on high merely because of His suffering, but because He conquered death in His suffering. Today’s “sufferers” often wish to remain victims, thinking that only the descent gives one power. Not so–recall a teacher from your past who “descended” and got too familiar with their students. Without an aspect of an Imprint from above, the body of “teacher” leaves those who only descend post haste. Students walk all over such “teachers.”

Comparing citizens to students breaks down quickly–not nearly as quickly as the comparison of citizens to slaves. But we cannot escape the fact that some guiding collective imprint from above forms our interactions with each other in the state. Whether or not this collective intelligence be angel or demon will depend on how their pattern of being mimics both the suffering and glory of Christ.


*When this happens, I will sometimes fix the problem, and then leave the room for 10 seconds merely to give me an occasion to re-enter and reestablish the body of a teacher–just like the Spanish Inquisition.

The Mirror Crack’d

Some years ago I saw a video about the emergence of Greek culture and the talking heads discussed the magnificent achievements of Greek drama.  Before talking about the drama itself, they mentioned the origins of drama, though only very briefly.  After all, Greek drama began in the worship of Dionysius, a confusing and strange subject for modern ears. I found it fascinating to watch the speakers deal with this aspect of Greek civilization.  They hated being on unfamiliar territory — unfamiliar not so much intellectually, that is, but ideologically and experientially.


  • Dionysian worship started with women sneaking off illegally, or at least shamefully, for their rites. Dionysius himself occupied, at minimum, the barest fringe of Greek religion.  Some of the commentators latched onto this, for it promised a narrative we could identify with.  “Aha!  A sisterhood of oppressed women, sharing radical beliefs! And observe the vital contribution they made to their society and the world at large, etc.”  But Dionysian rites also involved men, too, so they couldn’t press that narrative too far.
  • The Dionysian rites for women also seemed to involve ecstatic experiences invoking bulls, snakes, wine, and so on. This too got the barest mention, for the “oppressed sisterhood” narrative didn’t really match the fact that Dionysius was a fertility god.  So the women may have been praying and dancing furiously for the chance to have children, a very traditional “role” (ha!) for women to play.
  • To add insult to injury, male Dionysian worship may have invoked blessings to “survive ordeals.”  This got no mention at all.  It appears that these “rebels” danced around madly and got drunk to attempt to fulfill the most prosaic of traditional gender roles of “tough guy,” and “nurturing mother.”  This square peg had no place in their round hole interpretations.

So, after passing over all this in the quickest fashion, finally smiles came to their faces as they talked about the drama itself. Here they felt far more comfortable.  Greek drama “allows for the community to come together and deal with issues of importance,” or something like that.  Ah, yes, the “humanism” of the Greeks.  This we understand, so this they talked about at length.  Gone were any of the unusual religious associations involving Dionysius.  The important thing to us is the emergence of drama, for without the emergence of drama, how could we watch Dumb and Dumber today instantly on Netflix?*  And we very naturally assume that what is important to us must have been of prime importance to the Greeks.  Dionysian worship, then, got relegated to a mere carrying device for what we understand and what we feel is important.  As a friend of mine stated, whenever we use a word to describe an ancient people that they themselves did not use (in this case, the word “humanism”), we will likely reach false conclusions. The talking heads are not unusual. Most of us unfortunately avoid confrontations with the “other.”

I’m not an Alfred Lord Tennyson fan (to be fair I’ve read hardly anything he wrote), but his poem “The Lady of Shallot” intrigues me in one way.  The Lady in question deals with a curse, and can only look at reflections in a mirror to ascertain reality.  The mirror of course serves as a poor substitute of reality, and later cracks upon her sad and untimely death.

Out flew the web and floated wide-

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.

Tennyson’s work came from the same spiritual place as the dreaded pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings reveal an intense desire to recover something of antiquity.  And yet the grossly over-dramatized version of the past in their eyes reveals far more about themselves, with their aspirations fit perhaps for the teenage soul more than an adult world (hence L.M. Montgomery has her young Anne of Green Gables grow fascinated with the “Lady of Shallot”).

All of us tend to distort reality to fit our own images of it, but the way the Parthenon has been interpreted over time stands as one of the more curious episodes of this typical human folly.  Joan Breton Connelly chronicles this and gives her own interpretation of the architectural masterpiece in her recent book, The Parthenon Enigma.  The building occupies pride of place in the history of western civilization.  Its marble facade inspired those who saw it to grand notions of ideal beauty.  The building’s perfect proportions inspired noble visions of clarity and a sense of true humanity.  Certain technical achievements of the building are practically unparalleled.

But we made the building in our own image, and Connelly writes to set the record straight.  Ever since the Enlightenment we have seen the Parthenon as reflecting the “humanism” of the Athenians.  We have some justification for this.  If you trace the religion of the Athenians one sees a clear descent from Aeschylus (who takes religion seriously) to Thucydides (who didn’t).  The Athenians elected Pericles to multiple terms of their highest office, and he certainly fits the humanist mold. Observers therefore assumed, as the Parthenon was Pericles’ project that it would reflect his values.  Then again, maybe not.

She has two main arguments, with the first drawn from the he Parthenon friezes, long thought to depict contemporary Athenians mingling with the gods.  Connelly has an ironclad argument that Athens instead hearkens to not to its present but its mythological past.  At Athens’ founding it had a king named Erechtheus, who had three daughters that sacrificed themselves that Athens might survive (images below on a Parthenon frieze).  Athens makes an explicit statement, and explicit prayer of hope, that death might come from life with the Parthenon.

Amidst our wondering at the architectural genius of the building and the democratic (and therefore mostly familiar) practices of the Athenians, we forget that the Parthenon was a temple to Athena.  Excavations show that they built the Parthenon on top of an older temple, so clearly the Parthenon was sacred space, and not merely civic space with a civic purpose.

Corinthian_Column_Head_JerashModern eyes miss many such death-life associations in Greece.  For example, look up any article on Corinthian columns and you will likely see something about their fancy, or perhaps excessive, ornamentation.  Certainly Corinthian columns do not fit with Enlightenment sensibilities about classical decorum and proportion — such people always prefer the Ionic column (I prefer the Ionic — to the right — as well so I don’t mean to cast stones).  But Connelly points out that the plants in Corinthian columns hearken back to ancient myths about death and rebirth in their city.  Articles may describe Corinthian columns as “one example of a Greek votive column” (as one site does) without paying any attention at all to the fact that “votive” columns, like votive candles, have a distinctly religious purpose.  It’s almost as if they use the big words to obscure the meaning.  We will have the Greeks be “humanists” by hook or crook.

A fascinating sub-plot is the length Victorian society went to deny that the Parthenon originally was painted.  Evidence after evidence turned up, mostly brushed aside and denied with too much protest.  A painted Parthenon would overturn all of their ideas of classical beauty and classical purity.  Whole artistic theories got erected on an unpainted Parthenon, and they could not let it go.  This in turn clouded their vision in other areas, and allowed false ideas about the Parthenon to persist well into the 20th century.


Did the Parthenon have no contemporary political meaning?  Perhaps . . . perhaps Pericles wanted to heal the fractious wounds of a prosperous democracy.  Success has never sat well with democracies, and it would make sense that Athens would want to go back to its founding and a story of sacrifice for the common good.  All this rings partially true, but the bulk of the evidence makes the Parthenon an overtly religious shrine — one that seeks life from death.  Plenty of evidence exists that Athenians saw it this way themselves.  For example, during the plague that struck during the Peloponnesian War, sick Athenians came to the Parthenon for refuge, as well as for healing, and possibly, to die.  It would be hard to imagine them doing so if the Parthenon was their equivalent of our Capitol or Washington Monument.

But this interpretation also challenges my own thoughts regarding the Parthenon.  The “humanist” interpretation fit how I tended to see the late 5th century Athenians as essentially worshippers of themselves.  This view gets lots of support from seeing contemporary Athenians mixed with gods on the Parthenon friezes.  With the Parthenon cast in this new light, I think that interpretation gets challenged but not overthrown.  I think other evidence exists for seeing the Athenians as self-worshippers, and perhaps the Parthenon itself still supports that view.  But this will need rethinking on my part.

The lesson of this book is the peril of using history rather than receiving and letting it change you. Self-idolatry is alas, not only confined only to the Greeks, or the Enlightenment and Victorian eras.


*To be fair, this is actually a pretty good movie . . .

The Way of the Fox

I can always count on a few “Let’s conquer Canada!” “jokes” a year from my students.  We might be studying the Mexican-American War and someone will say, “No, no, no.  We need to find our ‘true north’ and fight Canada!”  If it’s the Spanish-American War it could be, “Spain?  Why Spain?  We should fight Canada!”  If it’s W.W. II . . . “We fought on the same side?  Phooey.  After the Germans, on to Canada!”

Mild groans or exasperated rebukes (from the girls) usually ensue.

So it comes as a delightful surprise (to the boys) to actually find out that we did try and conquer Canada in 1775.

Because the idea of conquering Canada is such a passe joke, we assume that George Washington was crazy to order such an attempt.  In the minds of many our invasion comes to nothing more than a madcap escapade, a schoolboy’s lark.

Dave R. Palmer argues in his book The Way of the Fox (newer editions have a different title indicated by the cover to the right) that in fact such an invasion not only nearly succeeded, but also made sound strategic sense.  Palmer seeks to rescue Washington from his saccharine and wooden image and recasts him as an effective and in some ways brilliant grand strategist for the American Revolution.  And yes, this includes his invasion of Canada.

Today many think of Washington as either a great man/demi-god or nothing more than a member of elite/exploiting class.  Both views are cardboard cutouts.  Palmer shows us someone who thought carefully and with subtlety, someone who adjusted his thinking on multiple occasions to deal with changing reality.  British generals often referred to Washington as the “old fox,” sometimes with contempt because he would not fight, sometimes with admiration for his cleverness.  The moniker should stick — it brings Washington and the war to life.

First and foremost Washington stood as the perfect symbol for the Revolution. Certain qualities made him the obvious choice for command, such as his experience, his height, his bearing, and the fact that he hailed from the South.  But none of these things would matter if Washington failed to think in broad strategic terms effectively. Palmer divides the Revolution into three stages, and correspondingly sees Washington adjust his strategy each time.  Washington made specific mistakes as he went, but in terms of broad strategic goals Palmer has Washington never miss a beat.

Palmer argues that revolutions possess an offensive character by their very nature.  They seek to effect change and so must act accordingly.  Thus, Washington was entirely right to begin the war with an aggressive strategy that sought to expel the British.

This failed to fully succeed, which allowed the British to send massive reinforcements.  This meant that Washington, now outmanned and outgunned, needed to withdraw and avoid having his army destroyed by a pitched battle he could not win.

France’s entry after 1778 changed the situation yet again.  Now momentum and manpower lay with the Americans. Washington needed to take advantage of the alliance while it lasted.  So during this period Washington should have sought to press his dramatic advantage, which he did with great effect at Yorktown.

I take no issue with either Palmer’s interpretation or Washington’s actions for phases two and three.  But it’s the first phase, which includes the invasion of Canada, where we can push back most easily.  It seems to me that Washington should have been cautious until the final phase where the advantage finally tipped in his favor.  His aggressiveness at the start of the conflict seems out of place to me.

True, at the beginning of the war you have an emotional high that you can capitalize on.  But you will have undisciplined and untested troops. What’s more, they will not yet have developed that cohesion that great armies have of sharing routines, time, space, and danger.  Think of Caesar’s legions — nothing remarkable when they started into Gaul, and unbeatable five years later.  In our Civil War one reason for the South’s early success had to do with the offensive burden the North faced.  When General Irwin McDowell objected to offensive action at Bull Run in 1861 due to the lack of experience of his men, Lincoln replied that “[both sides] are green together.”  Yes, but McDowell knew that a green attacker has a lot more to worry about than a green defender, and so it proved.

Beyond this psychological reason, Palmer asserts another more narrowly strategic goal for invading Canada.  America’s size and her numerous ports put a huge strategic burden on England.  Colonial armies could easily retreat inland and lead British forces on goose chases through the wilderness.  Add to that, the layout of the land presented very few “choke points” at which the British could use their superior manpower to any real effect.  Perhaps the only such point lay at the nexus between England and Canada — the Hudson River.

Flowing from north of Albany down to New York City, British control of the Hudson would have allowed them to control the upper third of the colonies.  Controlling New York and Boston would have meant control of America’s biggest ports.  Cutting off New England would further mean nabbing most of the colonies financial resources and a hefty portion of its intellectual political capital.  Everyone on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that control of the Hudson could determine the war.

So if it makes sense for Washington to defend the Hudson, why not go just a bit further into Canada itself?  To capture Quebec would have given the colonies everything else in Canada.  Success would have prevented England from having a free “back door” entry point into the colonies via the St. Lawrence River.  Shutting down the St. Lawrence would topple another domino by cutting off England from potential Indian allies* out in the west.

Reading Palmer’s lucid and logical defense, I found myself almost persuaded.  Palmer urges us to remember that the failure of Benedict Arnold’s invasion (yes, that Benedict Arnold) — and it nearly succeeded, does not prove that the idea or the goal was faulty.  Had it paid off, the war might have been over within a year or two instead of eight.

Yes, but . . .

Arnold  lost in Quebec and Washington lost in New York City.  Palmer gives a generous interpretation of Washington’s actions in New York and believes that politically speaking, Washington had to defend the city.  Maybe so.  But if he had to defend the city for the sake of politics, then why also invade Canada and divide your forces? Palmer wants it both ways.  He believes that circumstances called for an aggressive campaign in 1775-early ’76, but that politics and not military necessity alone forced Washington’s hand to defend New York.  This seems to admit the fact that Washington should have given ground and played defense in New York alone.

All in all I agree that Washington brilliantly guided the colonies to victory, and Palmer argues this decisively.  He points out also that Washington faced a bungling and confused command structure in England.  But Washington had Congress to deal with, who although more intelligent and capable by far than their British counterparts, had much less experience in running a war.  By any measure, Washington deserves his place as one of the great generals of the modern era.

But I can’t let go of the invasion of Canada.

If we try and evaluate Washington’s gambit in Canada we should try and compare it to similar kinds of military actions across time.  My case remains that the invasion made logical sense in a certain way.  He was not reckless or foolhardy to try.  But I feel that he should have focused more on defense, and perhaps even success might have hurt him in the long run.  The colonies might have had the direct motivation to expel the British, but would they support long-term the occupation of Canada?**

I can think of three campaigns that might be comparable in certain ways . . .

  • Athens’ invasion of Sicily in 415 B.C.
  • Hannibal attacking Rome directly instead of defending Spain
  • Napoleon going on the offensive in Belgium in 1815 instead of rallying the people to “defend France.”
  • Our invasion of Iraq in 2003***

Sometimes foxes can be a bit too clever.  Still, unlike Athens, Hannibal, and Napoleon, Washington committed a relatively small portion of his forces to the plan.  As a general most would not rank Washington with Hannibal, Napoleon, and the like.  But Palmer argues that not only should we put Washington in their company, but given his military and political success, make him the general of the modern era.


*This no mere fancy.  In 1777 the British did invade via the St. Lawrence and did gather some Indian allies for their “Saratoga” campaign.  That escapade ended in disaster for the British, but Washington’s strategic fears did come true nonetheless.

**Strange as it may sound now, Palmer points out that the motivation to occupy and settle Canada ourselves might have existed not on strategic but religious grounds.  Many in 1775 saw Canadian Catholicism as a mortal threat to our freedoms and would have gladly occupied it in the name of liberty.  Certainly we showed the ability to expand and settle territory in the west. Why not in the north as well?

***Right or wrong, Bush enjoyed overwhelming support to fight in Afghanistan in 2001.  It made sense to us in the way that (again, right or wrong) responding to Pearl Harbor made sense.  But his case in 2003 was much less compelling, at least to the international community.

8th Grade: The Parthenon


Recently we spent time looking at the Parthenon in Athens, which, along with Egypt’s Great Pyramid, stands as a seminal achievement of ancient architecture.  I think that looking at architecture is one of the best ways to gain insight into the past.  I didn’t come up with this idea, but borrowed it from the man to whom this site pays homage.  As I have said before, a civilization might throw a banking system together haphazardly, but would not do so with a sculpture.  And buildings, more so than individual works of genius, reveal more because they involve the mind and skills of whole civilizations.

Here is what the building probably looked like ca. 432 B.C.

Parthenon Original

They built it atop of their Acropolis, the highest point in the city which served as Athens’ religious epicenter.

Acropolis Recreation

The building as it looks today. . .

Of course most people when first gazing upon the Parthenon usually think, “Yes it’s good, but what’s the big deal?”  We understand instinctively perhaps the influence this style has had on western culture.  Banks, the Supreme Court, and almost any other building that wants to convey wisdom and trust copy this style.  That in itself should clue us in that the Athenians had something special in their design, but we have to look closely to see the real genius of the Athenians.

When we look at tall buildings like skyscrapers on the Washington Monument, at least from certain angles, the buildings do not appear straight.  Built with 90 degree right angles, our eyes fail to perceive the perfectly straight.  I don’t understand the science of why this happens, but we have all experienced it.  Part of it has to do with how our converging line of sight deceives us.  For example. . .

the top line appears longer, but is in fact the same size as the bottom line.  In this second image the middle lines appear bowed, but are perfectly straight.

The Athenians understood this and built the Parthenon to compensate for the tricks our eyes play.  Each column has extremely slight variations throughout its many cylinders, sometimes with fractions of a millimeter the only thing distinguishing one block from another.  But the cumulative effect compensates for our vision and always makes the columns appear perfectly straight.  The following images exaggerate the effect, but give us the basic idea of what the Greeks accomplished:

Parthenon Columns

In fact a close look at the Parthenon reveals few right angles.  Each of the thousands of column drums remains an unique construction to that particular column.  This is not a lego set of interchangeable parts, but each part of the building stands as work of art unto itself.  If you have the time and interest, this video, and especially the last 30 minutes, give a good overview of their techniques in creating this building.

We can and should marvel at its construction, but we should go one step further and ask what the Parthenon means, and whey the Athenians built it as they did.  In class we focused on a few key areas:

  • The Greek Ideal of Perfection

In much of their philosophy and politics, the Greeks searched for the abstract ideal beyond the visible, a trend that would not really shift until Aristotle.  The Romans, for example, or at least the early Republican Romans, rarely idealized people when depicting them,

Cato the Elder

but we can say with only slight exaggeration that the Greeks did nothing but idealize people in their sculpture.

The Athenians went to tremendous lengths to bring make this ideal of perfection at least  seem  real among them in stone.

  • A Theological Statement

In theory, the Athenians built the Parthenon as a temple to Athena.  Originally a huge 35 foot statue of Athena overlaid in gold stood right at the center inside the building.  But architecture rarely lies.  The figures on the outside of the Parthenon tell a different story.  Here the Athenians put sculptures of Athenian heroes, with the clear intent of showing that the gods and men can intermingle, that Athens itself can achieve the perfection the gods embody.

That, at least, is one interpretation.

But another interpretation argues that this “temple” to Athena merely served as a cover for their true (even if subconscious) intent to glorify themselves.  It would be as if we built a church and called it “Trinity Church,” but put images of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc. throughout (this actually begs the question of whether or not American flags should reside in churches, or perhaps whether or not the Capitol building is a church of sorts).

  • Mankind as the Measure

The Greek philosopher Protagoras has received a lot of bad press over the years for his comment that, “Man is the measure of all things,” and deservedly so.  But before we critique him we should understand the context of what he said and ask ourselves if the Greek gods were good “measures” of things.  Clearly, Protagoras and other philosophers had a measure of genuine spiritual insight in rejecting standard Greek religion as a guide for their lives.  The gods lived lives free of consequence, free of any restraint other than the power of other gods.

In the Parthenon the Greeks did not use the “eternal” or “mystical” dimensions as in the pyramids.  Some suggest that the proportions of the building in fact reflect the proportions found in the human body, as represented in Da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man” (named after a famous Roman architect).

Vitruvian Man

What exactly the Greeks meant by this phrase, “man is the measure of all things” is not clear to me. It may have been a statement of moral relativism, or it may have been a theological/cosmological assertion that mankind functioned as a “microcosm” of the cosmos itself.  After all, we have physical elements to our being and spiritual elements.   Our higher, “heavenly” aspect (the intellect) guides our “lower,” more earthly parts, and so on.  Again, I’m not sure how to unwrap this phrase, and I’m happy to add it to the list of mysteries surrounding the Parthenon.



From Puritan to Yankee

Recently I found myself talking politics with a Trump supporter.  Interestingly, he mentioned very little about his policies or personality.  Rather, he seemed drawn to him because of the multitude of attacks against him.  No one, he argued, deserved what Trump receives from at least some in the media.  Politics had very little to do with this, for this same person said that he liked both Obama and Hillary Clinton for much the same reason–in his mind of them have been attacked to an unfair extreme.

I have no great love for the Puritans, and perhaps this might explain why I sometimes seek to defend them.  I certainly felt this way at the start of Richard Bushman’s From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765.  When describing Puritan society in the first chapter he invariably uses words like, “austere,” “imposing,” “monolithic,” and that most dreaded word for an academic who originally published this book in 1967, “conformity.”*

Later in the book Bushman shows his excellence as a historian of a certain type, but I did not like the first chapter.

We naturally have difficulty in understanding and evaluating the Puritans.  They look like us in many respects, but then part with modern society in other radical ways.  It is the heretic, rather than the unbeliever, who always poses the greater threat.  Hence, our natural distaste for the Puritans.  But we must keep certain things in mind.

First of all, the Puritan ideal of social order oriented around religion hardly broke new ground.  They borrowed from the medieval idea of the “great chain of being,” and in orienting their society around religion they merely did what most civilizations practiced up until that point.  Numerous examples of this exist, with the Egyptians, early Romans, the Mezo-American civilizations, and the aforementioned medievals to name a few (this should clue us in on the radical nature of post-Enlightenment western society–more on this later).

Secondly, many moderns, progressive or otherwise, would likely admire some of the main goals of Puritan society.  The Puritans sought to live a common life together by minimizing  (though not eliminating) economic competition and distinctions in wealth.  Bushman himself notes that in the early days of settlement even the richer members of society lived much in the same way as their neighbors, working fields and milking cows like anyone else.  Bushman and others may not realize that such a society cannot exist with modern notions of liberty that tell us to “find our own way,” “follow your heart,” and so on.  Societies like the early Puritans must get their formation from shared conviction that only comes with religious belief. You cannot have one without the other.  One Puritan stated, “Law should serve free exercise of just privileges.  Without this, lives and liberties would be a prey to the covetous and cruel.”  Modern notions of liberty, in the view of early Puritans, would lead to exploitation and alienation.

Bushman himself cites early in chapter two that this shared communal life allowed government in Connecticut to be, in his words, “flexible” in ways that “minimized local conflicts.”  This hardly seems “austere,” or “monolithic.”

True, certain “upper-crust” Puritans (apologies for the emotionally laden word choice) had a fear of any of the “lesser sort” getting into political power.  We can snub our noses at this.  But we should remember that it is 1700.  Puritan Connecticut was more democratic than the England of William and Mary, and infinitely more so than Louis XIV France or Frederick the Great’s Prussia.  Almost every other European society at the time shared these same fears of “lesser men” ruining everything. We have good evidence that many of our founders decades later had these same fears, as of course did every major western political thinker from Homer on down the line.

Finally, nearly all the early Puritan settlers came from the same east-Anglia towns and villages.  They knew the content of Puritan theology, they knew Puritan leadership.  It’s not as if the Puritans pulled a bait-and-switch on the journey across the Atlantic–“You thought you signed up to run wild and free in the woods, but no!  Now that we have you in the middle of the ocean, welcome to John Calvin!”

If some settlers grew frustrated with Puritan leadership, well, they knew what to expect.

So yes, the Puritans need criticism, but criticism with the right context in mind, and aimed in the right place.

After chapter one, Bushman shows his great skill at sifting through data to form larger conclusions.  He puts the focus on the problems settlers faced due to a growing population, which would necessitate an inevitable territorial expansion of the colony.  Some civilizations, like the Romans, link most everything in life to land.  Some see the beginning of the  Roman Republic’s political problems beginning the moment land in Italy disappeared for their soldiers.**  Not every civilization operates with this mentality.  Carthage, for example, and possibly Periclean Athens, largely freed themselves from land as a measure of identity (they had different problems).  But our early settlers fit well within the Roman mindset.

In the first generation or two land distribution remained equitable.  The size of the colony allowed everyone to attend the most important churches pastored by the acknowledged town leaders in piety and purpose.  The population’s proximity to these churches and to town hall bound the colony together politically.

But time marches on, and fathers want the same for their younger sons as for the oldest. In a settled mostly aristocratic society like England of the time, the younger sons of even minor aristocracy join the army or perhaps the clergy.  You see this even in Austen’s novels 100 years later.  Settlers in the new world, however, believed in equality, more or less, and wanted everyone to have an equal chance.

Expanding the size of the colony meant greater distances from the town center.  Naturally those predisposed to want to lead the settlement would stay close to its center.  Those with some disaffection towards leadership might more easily head a few miles outbound.  With this even small scale migration came an inevitable tension, and an inevitable choice.

The colony could either, a) Split off in different settlements and grant autonomy to each.  However, this came with the problem of effectively ending the Puritan dream.  Those who left for outbound land tended towards a more enterprising, individualistic mindset.  Or they could, b) Increase the power of the original settlement’s leaders and weaken the participatory democracy carefully crafted by the original settlers.

As is typical of most any democratically government they chose neither absolutely, though probably favored option ‘b.’  Everyone recognized that the social order had suffered due to increased wealth–a wealth occasioned by expansion (again, similar to Rome ca. 200-75 B.C.).  But try as they might, too many things swirled in conflict with one another to make sense of it all.  In the end tensions increased between eastern and western settlers in most religious and economic matters.  Once they let the’Yankee’ mentality of individual enterprise get its foot in the door, their social construct had its days numbered.

Let us give credit where due.  Bushman’s work should help us to see certain larger issues with more clarity.  For example, Thomas Jefferson bucked historical convention in his belief that a republic should have lots rather than a little territory.  He hoped that the Louisiana Purchase would allow everyone to practice self-government and live free and independently on their own land.  But–if everyone can live free and independently from one another, how can we maintain order?  Only by doing as the Puritans attempted to do–by increasing executive authority.  If we want the kind of liberty envisioned by Jefferson, let us count the cost.  Rome saw this same increase of executive authority as their territory expanded beyond Italy.  Whatever our uniqueness as a nation, we cannot escape history.

But in the end I think Bushman misses the real point.

Bushman mentions religious issues and gives them due treatment, but he gives pride of place to the decline of Puritanism to land and economic issues.  He deals with the source material masterfully.  But he seems to argue that certain geographic and social issues caused the religious issues to manifest themselves later.  We can acknowledge the influence of geographic and economic factors.  But in the end, I think he puts the cart before the horse.  The key to Puritan disintegration must be found in their religion.

For example . . . the Roman Republic experienced some of the same stresses faced by the CT settlers, with a much larger population over much larger territory.  Yet, the Republic maintained its central identity for at least two and perhaps three and half centuries, in contrast to Puritan ideals lasting no more than  two generations.  Egyptian civilization also had some of the same issues regarding land, and though obviously not a republic, maintained their identity for perhaps 1500 years.

Yes, democracies traditionally have a problem maintaining identity and cohesion.  One can a make a good case that Pericles built the Parthenon primarily as a way to reestablish unity by calling people back to their religious roots, whereas we today tend to look at this period in Athens as the pinnacle of democratic experience. This “pinnacle of democratic experience” may have had more cracks than we initially assume.  Athens at this time certainly had lots of money, which tends to work ill upon democracies.  If Thucydides tells only mostly the truth, they did not have much social cohesion. Rome lasted longer than CT or Athens with similar geographic and economic factors at play, and so I feel a reason exists beyond land distribution and the expansion of trade that Bushman focuses on.^

In the Puritans particular case we should note that their theology departed from traditional orthodox Christianity in certain respects.  Their emphasis on the will of God rather than the love of God reduced their faith to more of a philosophy, a handbook of propositions for life.^^  They had no appreciation for sacraments and thus no way for the grace of God to be made manifest in their lives except by how they thought. This led to impersonal abstractions gaining sway.  The famous (or infamous if you prefer) 5 Points of Calvinism work on the mind like a geometric proof, inexorably moving toward a foreordained conclusion.  Abstract ideas, however, are slippery things, and ideas floating in the air don’t always land on the ground in the same form for repeated generations.  Like a point in infinite space, various lines can connect with it and go almost anywhere.

Interestingly, Puritans created a government structure that tended toward defending an abstract notion of rights.  As the colony expanded, Bushman documents a swell of lawsuits and disputes centered around the “claims” of one settler vs. another.  Communal relationships disappeared as “rights” dominated public discourse.  Religious revivals like the Great Awakening followed this pattern in some ways..  The religious impulse coming from this revival did not push people back into communal life.  Rather, we see a rise in the individualistic idea of the “liberty of the conscience” gaining the upper hand among the (formerly) Puritan settlers.

Whatever the merits of my very incomplete analysis above, by the early 19th century New England certainly had adopted a vague mixture of theism and deism as its unofficial religion–a death by abstraction.

We see hints of 1776 as this abstract notion of rights grew.  In time colonial corporations made grants of land to settlers.  When royal officials came over and examined these title deeds they annulled them outright.  No “corporation,” they argued, can grant title to anything.  What is a “corporation” after all?  It’s surpra-personal identity meant it had in effect no personality, and with no personality, how could it truly exist?  A king can grant title, for the king is an actual person, and actual people can own things and give them to others.

The colonists may have nodded “sure!” to these royal representatives, but likely crossed their fingers behind their backs. Though kingship has the advantage of being personal, a king across an ocean has perhaps even less personality than a corporation.  In any case, they no longer had a connection to government rooted directly in either religious belief or social ties. They put their eggs in propositions, in “rights,” in “liberty of conscience,” which no one can touch.  Their point in infinite space must be free to go where it pleases.

A standard debate among historians of the American Revolution involves the question of whether or not the founders were radical or conservative in their ideas.  Years ago I would have answered with the latter, but not anymore.  Bushman’s work accompanies Bernard Bailyn’s and Gordon Wood’s thesis that our stodgy, wig-wearing founders had radical ideas.  For the first time, society would not be oriented around God/the gods.  Nor would social order have its roots in personal relationships, i.e., feudal society, or the lives and patronage of prominent families.  Now for the basically the first time, society would be organized around certain ideas, or we might almost say, geometric axioms.  What Bushman’s book shows us is that you don’t need to go to 1776 to see these principles at work.  If you wish, you can content yourself with a small CT settlement, ca. 1700.


*Here I must give credit to the playwright Arthur Miller.  His work The Crucible certainly criticized certain aspects of Puritan society.  And yet in his preface to the play he spends most of his time trying to get the reader to sympathize with the Puritans.  This sympathy, in fact, serves as the only solid basis for critique.

**I think the land issue a contributing factor accompanying deeper causes for Rome’s Republic, much in the same way I think Bushman overstates land issues as the primary cause for the collapse of the Puritan ideal.  In Rome’s case, one can see a shift in religious belief occasioned by their contact with Greece and the Mediterranean as the precursor to their political and social fragmentation.

^This is another great example of how Bushman’s book shed’s light on larger issues.  Most every commentator on Plato’ Laws calls Plato a grumpy old fart for banning trade from his theoretical realm.  But increased trade undeniably negatively impacted CT’s social order. Farmers deal roughly with the same soil and the same weather.  Surplus food grown by one poses no real threat to other farmers.

But trade seems to encourage more of the competitive spirit.  Trade deals more with luxuries than necessities, so unsold surpluses can ruin a merchant.  Hence, the extra competition to sell, and so on.  The rise of money and trade certainly played a role in the demise of Rome’s Republic.

^^I realize that this one sentence is hardly a reasonable defense for my views on Puritan theology,   My apologies–to defend them here is a bridge too far for me.  If I am correct, however, there are some  similarities in Puritanism to Stoicism (I stress “some”–the Puritans probably gave much more room for the emotions than the Stoics), a religion for Greece and Rome’s intellectual elite, but not for the masses.

The Best Reason for Democracy is . . . Democracy?

Several years ago I read an article where the man interviewed had positive things to say about some developments in Italian democracy.  “The people are now ready to criticize and poke fun of their leaders,” he commented.  “We’ll know we have arrived as a democracy when the people can criticize themselves.”  At the time I read this, I thought, “Good for you, Italy.  One day you may join us.  We’ve got something better here.”  But upon reflection, I’m not so sure this is true.  How many politicians, for example, could get away with criticizing the American people?  How many political documentaries create a divide between us and them, whether they come from Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore?  It always appears to be “their” fault, never “our” fault.

Judgments about one’s own society, however, are tricky.  To see the nose on one’s face you need a mirror.  Without significant experience of democracies on a historical scale, the example of Athens from 508-338 B.C. will always prove important for us to get our bearings.

Writing critical assessments of things or events can be more fun than offering praise. Critical people can sometimes come from a distant and cynical spiritual place, and we shouldn’t give much weight to their comments.  Sometimes, however, criticism arises out of love, and this should grab our attention.  Loren J. Samons’ What’s Wrong with Democracy does this.  He seeks to get past our modern adulation of democracy, and thus, our adulation with classical Athens.  When we examine them afresh, he argues, we won’t always like what we see.  In his criticism Simons sometimes overreaches and sometimes seems to contradict himself.  But his book is, as historian J.E. Lendon stated, “cleansing.”

Amidst the various topics Samons discusses, I think the essence boils down to the following issues:

What is democracy really about after all?

Christopher Ferrara tackled this question head-on in his book Liberty: The God the Failed.  Samons takes a more indirect approach, but still feels that democracy, standing by itself, may lead to little more than a means to perpetuate whatever we happen to desire.  The only reason we will have for democracy is . . . democracy.

He looks at Athens’ financial history and its relationship to democracy.  He traces a few distinct stages:

  • An early phase where the ‘tyrants’ got overthrown and the franchise expanded.
  • The heralded Periclean phase, often seen as the high-point of democracy.  But Samons points out that this phase of democracy was made possible only by 1) Their silver mines, and 2) The imperial tribute they received from their client states.  The practices we tend to admire about them, such as paying people to attend the Assembly, and large cash payments for their very large juries (101-501) people, could happen only because of their predatory practices abroad.
  • The era after the Peloponnesian War, where they lacked the cash reserves of earlier times, but refused to modify their practices.  This led to serious financial problems and hard choices for the Athenians.  Yet, when faced with the task of defending themselves against Macedon or continuing to vote themselves cash payments, they consistently chose the latter.

Perhaps the Athenians didn’t just simply make bad choices, perhaps the kind of democracy they practiced would naturally encourage them to make bad choices.  If democracy is all about “serving the people” or “giving the people what they want,” then democracies will inevitably choose to short-term gains and quick fixes.  Salmons wrote his book before our own failure to arrive at a budget, or to either 1) Decrease spending, or 2) Raise taxes made itself manifest. Is our own system of government equipped to make hard choices?  Given how we consume energy, we may also have to conclude that our democratic lifestyles have a predatory aspect.

Samons’ next points out that in Athens, their more aristocratic past provided a healthy check on democracy.  Having a different past gave them a compass from which to orient their democratic practice.  It could also serve as a reminder that democracy need not serve as the be all and end all of political life.  In America we have no such check, which leads us to nearly worship democracy as a vital part of our existence.  This in turn, has led to a confused and misguided foreign policy.  On a couple of occasions Athens even voted to switch to a more aristocratic oriented governance, which Samons views as healthy.  In time, Athens banned any alternative to their democracy, and this choice contributed to their eventual conquest by Macedon.  They refused to allow any other method of making decisions, even when they methods they employed to make choices had no real hope of facilitating good outcomes.

On this issue Samons has weaker arguments.  True, I very much wish that we would appreciate democracy because it is ours, instead of investing it with angelic qualities. But the political instability in Athens from 411-400 B.C. was not always as smooth as Samons lets on.  Political exiles and political murders came with such transitions. Having the alternative to democracy came at a price.

However, if a democracy has no reference point outside itself, we should consider whether it may be worth the risk to have such an alternative.  Currently we have no particular ‘North Star’ of religion or virtue to guide our own political practice, and this will lead to everyone scrambling for whatever they can get. We may be in a position now where we could really benefit from a distinct alternative to borrow from, to get some separation from democracy that we might understand its strengths and weaknesses more clearly.  If we have no firm moral guidelines derived from a common faith, the check on democracy may have to come from other viable political ideologies and practices.  Of course such an alternative is entirely unthinkable in our modern context. This may bode ill for us.

This lack of an outside reference point for many modern historians  impacts how they view ancient critics of Athens.  Invariably, whether the ancient chronicler be Thucydides, Xenophon, Socrates, or the “Old Oligarch,” they get discounted due to their “aristocratic bias.”  Now, naturally all historians have bias — even democratic ones. But we cannot dismiss them for this bias alone, however uncomfortable their conclusions may be.  Perhaps the the extreme form of democratic bias comes in the form of the book by I.F. Stone on the trial of Socrates. I applaud Stone for his enjoyable and Herculean efforts to at least partially exonerate Athenian democracy while writing about one of its great crimes.  His book rises to the level of a  great counter-factual history.  But in the text Stone spills a lot more ink discussing Socrates’ “aristocratic bias” then in blaming the governmental system that executed him unjustly.

Critics of Salmons conclusions have two good points.

Salmons offers some good criticisms of Athens in particular and democracy in general. But he proposes no alternatives.  What does he want?  Would he prefer a monarchy or a dictatorship?  I grant this makes the book somewhat unsatisfying, but I can’t fault him for it.  To develop a viable alternative with historical and philosophical backing would require another book.

More problematic is Salmons’ seemingly simplistic take on the problems Athens faced. Surely he realizes that other forms of government have their problems too?  Yes, Athens had issues, but exactly how much blame can we put for their problems on democracy?  Would their problems have been less with a monarchy?  He can say that Athenian democracy made bad decisions, but kings make bad decisions, oligarchies make bad decisions, and so on.  For his book to really work he would have to show that democracies will make more bade decisions, or more catastrophic decisions, then other forms of government.  He fails to do so.

Even still, these flaws don’t bother me that much.  Salmons modestly set out to 1) Give a more balanced picture of Athenian democracy, and 2) Pour some cold water over our ardent devotion to democracy.  He succeeds, and this makes his book worthwhile.

Machiavelli is at various turns a cold man, a dangerous man, and a wise one.  Below I include a section from his Discourses on Livy where he discusses the merits of Rome’s Republic building into its foundation an alternative to the Republic when necessary. This, I think, was Machiavelli in one of his wiser moments.



Those citizens who first devised a dictatorship for Rome have been
blamed by certain writers, as though this had been the cause of the
tyranny afterwards established there. For these authors allege that the
first tyrant of Rome governed it with the title of Dictator, and that,
but for the existence of the office, Cæsar could never have cloaked
his usurpation under a constitutional name. He who first took up this
opinion had not well considered the matter, and his conclusion has been
accepted without good ground. For it was not the name nor office of
Dictator which brought Rome to servitude, but the influence which
certain of her citizens were able to assume from the prolongation of
their term of power; so that even had the name of Dictator been wanting
in Rome, some other had been found to serve their ends, since power may
readily give titles, but not titles power. We find, accordingly,
that while the dictatorship was conferred in conformity with public
ordinances, and not through personal influence, it was constantly
beneficial to the city. For it is the magistracies created and the
powers usurped in unconstitutional ways that hurt a republic, not those
which conform to ordinary rule; so that in Rome, through the whole
period of her history, we never find a dictator who acted otherwise than
well for the republic. For which there were the plainest reasons. In
the first place, to enable a citizen to work harm and to acquire undue
authority, many circumstances must be present which never can be
present in a State which is not corrupted. For such a citizen must be
exceedingly rich, and must have many retainers and partisans, whom he
cannot have where the laws are strictly observed, and who, if he had
them, would occasion so much alarm, that the free suffrage of the people
would seldom be in his favour. In the second place, the dictator was not
created for life, but for a fixed term, and only to meet the emergency
for which he was appointed. Power was indeed given him to determine by
himself what measures the exigency demanded; to do what he had to do
without consultation; and to punish without appeal. But he had no
authority to do anything to the prejudice of the State, as it would have
been to deprive the senate or the people of their privileges, to subvert
the ancient institutions of the city, or introduce new. So that taking
into account the brief time for which his office lasted, its limited
authority, and the circumstance that the Roman people were still
uncorrupted, it was impossible for him to overstep the just limits of
his power so as to injure the city; and in fact we find that he was
always useful to it.

And, in truth, among the institutions of Rome, this of the dictatorship
deserves our special admiration, and to be linked with the chief causes
of her greatness; for without some such safeguard a city can hardly
pass unharmed through extraordinary dangers. Because as the ordinary
institutions of a commonwealth work but slowly, no council and no
magistrate having authority to act in everything alone, but in most
matters one standing in need of the other, and time being required to
reconcile their differences, the remedies which they provide are most
dangerous when they have to be applied in cases which do not brook
delay. For which reason, every republic ought to have some resource of
this nature provided by its constitution; as we find that the Republic
of Venice, one of the best of those now existing, has in cases of urgent
danger reserved authority to a few of her citizens, if agreed among
themselves, to determine without further consultation what course is to
be followed. When a republic is not provided with some safeguard such
as this, either it must be ruined by observing constitutional forms,
or else, to save it, these must be broken through. But in a republic
nothing should be left to be effected by irregular methods, because,
although for the time the irregularity may be useful, the example will
nevertheless be pernicious, as giving rise to a practice of violating
the laws for good ends, under colour of which they may afterwards be
violated for ends which are not good. For which reason, that can never
become a perfect republic wherein every contingency has not been
foreseen and provided for by the laws, and the method of dealing with it
defined. To sum up, therefore, I say that those republics which cannot
in sudden emergencies resort either to a dictator or to some similar
authority, will, when the danger is serious, always be undone.

We may note, moreover, how prudently the Romans, in introducing this new
office, contrived the conditions under which it was to be exercised.
For perceiving that the appointment of a dictator involved something of
humiliation for the consuls, who, from being the heads of the State,
were reduced to render obedience like every one else, and anticipating
that this might give offence, they determined that the power to appoint
should rest with the consuls, thinking that when the occasion came when
Rome should have need of this regal authority, they would have the
consuls acting willingly and feeling the less aggrieved from the
appointment being in their own hands. For those wounds or other injuries
which a man inflicts upon himself by choice, and of his own free will,
pain him far less than those inflicted by another. Nevertheless, in the
later days of the republic the Romans were wont to entrust this power to
a consul instead of to a dictator, using the formula, _Videat_ CONSUL
_ne quid respublica detrimenti capiat_.

But to return to the matter in hand, I say briefly, that when the
neighbours of Rome sought to crush her, they led her to take measures
not merely for her readier defence, but such as enabled her to attack
them with a stronger force, with better skill, and with an undivided


8th Grade: Finding the Persian Center of Gravity


This week we focused on The Persian Wars, a conflict that historians claim marks a transition point between Eastern and Western dominance.  Persia staked a lot of their invasion, and their failure would lead to the rise of Greece in general, and Athens in particular.  Our main focus Thursday and Friday lay with  the Battle of Salamis, one of the more crucial naval engagements of the ancient world.  As I mentioned back in September, one of the things we focus on this year and throughout the history curriculum is how to make choices.  This can be applied in a  variety of different settings, and this week I wanted the students to consider that on the level of strategy and tactics.
  • The Fleets

The Persian fleet was bigger, with a variety of incorporated Greek city-states that had surrendered to Persia.  Ionians, Phonecians, Egyptians and more went into the mixture.  In general, their ships were lighter and faster.  Athens controlled the Greek fleet, and in general they had heavier, bulkier ships.  But the weight of the ships did perhaps produce an innovation, that of a ramming prow.  This in turn, led to a change in how the Athenians fought.  Whereas most ancient navies wanted to get close and board other ships, the Athenians wanted to use their prow to ram other ships and sink them with a broadside charge.The Persians had sacked Athens, and the Athenians in desperation abandoned their city, got in their boats, and headed for the island of Salamis.

  • The Questions:
  1. Would an immediate battle be more to the Persians advantage, or the Greeks?
  2. If a battle were to be fought, what side would have the advantage in wide open water?  What about in more narrow confines?

I enjoyed the student responses to this question, and most of them did get around to seeing that

  • Battle now definitely favored the Greeks, and
  • The geography of the Bay of Salamis definitely favored the Greeks.
 Bay of Salamis
  • Why?
The Athenians needed a battle.  The Persians did not.  With Athens abandoned they could have simply occupied the city, and hemmed in the fleet at Salamis.  If they wait eventually a tired and bedraggled fleet would have to come out of hiding and face the Persians on their terms.  Fighting in the bay itself would mean narrower corridors where the Persians could not use their numbers and speed to their full effect.  Think of a heavier boxer vs. a lighter, quicker opponent.  The heavier one (Athens) seeks to trap or corner the other to take away his advantage.  By fighting in the bay, the Persian fleet gave up much of its advantage.
  • The Result
Again, with so many of our choices there are no guarantees.  We must weigh the options and make our best guess. But it is important not to choose blindly.  So why then, did the Persians attack the Greeks?Here we are back, at least possibly, to the personality of Xerxes.   We saw that both Herodotus and the Book of Esther show us a king who was not wicked, but perhaps indolent, and someone who tended to flit from one thing to another.  Note that Esther 1 begins by describing lavish parties amidst opulent splendor. Herodotus mentions that Xerxes wanted the invasion over as soon as possible.  Ideally, of course, the Persians should have bottled up the fleet, entrenched themselves in the city, and watch Athens suffocate to death.  When Themistocles sent a messenger to lie to the Persians about the disorder in the Greek ranks, the Persians jumped at the chance and moved into the bay to attack.  Xerxes seems a suggestible, impatient type.  “Let’s get this over with. . .”  The result was a complete victory for the Greeks.  It turned the tide of the whole Persian invasion.  Having been smacked on the nose, Xerxes decided enough was enough.  He withdrew most of his navy from the region.  His infantry at current levels could not live off the land in Greece, and besides, winter approached.  Without the navy to supply them, Xerxes withdrew a good portion of his troops back to Persia.  The Battle of Platea in 479 BC would, for all intents and purposes, finish them off.
  • The “Center of Gravity”
Clausewitz used the term “center of gravity” to describe what one colonel described as a “factor of balance” in a campaign.  This does not have to be something purely physical, but in this case, the “factor of balance” in the Persian Wars would surely include control of the sea.  In invading Greece en masse as they did, Persia made naval superiority a key to the campaign.  But for about 75 years prior to this they concentrated their strength on their infantry.  They did not play to their strength. But we might also conclude that the whims of Xerxes would constitute part of the “center of gravity.”  The Book of Esther gives us clues.  Note how casually he decides on the Jews destruction, and how quickly he reverses course.  Of course, it’s good that he changed his mind!  My point, however, is that Xerxes never seemed fitted for the role of a noble kingly persona.  He would much rather not be bothered.  In every conflict, the hidden factor can often be each combatant’s internal political system.  In this case, the nascent democracy of Athens had an advantage over the indolent monarchy of Persia.

9th/10th Grade: Liberty and Terror


This week we finished the preliminaries of the American Revolution and will start the fighting in earnest after the weekend.  I hope that our examination of the events leading up to the Revolution has  helped see the issue from both sides.  Can we get out of our American skin and at least sympathize with the British?  Quite a few of the students have developed some sympathy with the British perspective, which shows me that they are thinking and honestly engaging the material.
One crucial issue involves the ‘Sons of Liberty.’  Were they freedom fighters or terrorists?  Against them we might say that. . .
  • They used violence, and the threat of violence, to achieve political ends.  They destroyed property, tarred and feathered people, etc.
1773 Engraving
Man Tarred and Feathered for not Buying War Bonds
  • They used force to rob people of their freedom.  For example, lets take the Tea Act.  Let us suppose that you lived in Boston and in general, supported the British perspective in this debate.  This would have put you in the minority, but it’s a free country, right?  You have been looking forward to drinking tea again, but after the Tea Party you can’t.
The pro-British colonists could easily say that, “You Sons of ‘Liberty'” act under the cloak of freedom.  But you are not willing to let the people choose freely.  If the tea gets unloaded and you convince people not to buy it, well and good.  If you can’t then you don’t represent the people anyway.  You use force to take away my liberty to buy tea, which is perfectly legal, so you can have your way.  Your violent acts show you don’t really trust people at all.
In their favor we could argue that
  • A variety of peaceful means of protest had been tried, and those failed to even be acknowledged by Parliament.
  • They would often warn people beforehand, and as far as I know, they did not kill anyone.

In response to #2 above, the Sons of Liberty might say,

  • “It is true that we deprive you of your liberty to buy tea.  But, this was for your own good and that of the whole community.  If people bought tea we would become slaves to the British.  It is right to take away the liberty to destroy yourself, just as we would take away your right to buy heroin on the open market.  If you become an addict, that effects everyone around you.
  • The same is true for tea in this case.  If you buy it, everyone will indirectly suffer a loss of their liberty, yours included.
We are faced with a tough choice here.  If we say that they are in fact ‘terrorists,’ what does this do to our view of the Revolution itself?  If we say they are ‘freedom fighters,’ how do we respond to acts of terror today?  Some of them at least claim that the current political situation has left them with no other option.  Since they have no planes, tanks, and missiles they will fight with what means they have available.  Are they ‘freedom fighters’ too?
Or, does the label ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’ depend on the purpose of the acts and the end in view? Lincoln believed that Revolution was a moral, and not a political right.  In this vein of thought the line between terrorist and freedom fighter can be drawn by the purposes they serve.  So, if Al Queda attempts to establish a Medieval caliphate on the Mid-East they are terrorists, but the Sons of Liberty act for “freedom for all.”   But does this mean that, “the ends justifies the means?”  I do not mean to say that suicide bombers and the Sons of Liberty are the same.  There is a big difference between smashing a customs house and the willful and random destruction of human life.  But we must at least ask ourselves if there are in fact, uncomfortable similarities.
This week I wanted the students to consider whether or not the American Revolution can be justified from a Biblical perspective.  This of course involves moral and political questions in general, but I did want them to consider the issue specifically in light of Romans 13:1 -7.
It reads:

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Related to the America Revolution, I think prominent Christian thinkers would have viewed this passage differently in light of our study.
I think he would have been anti-Revolution and pro-British.  He strongly supported secular authority in general.   I think he would have told the colonists to be quiet and get back in line.  He may have thought the colonists concerns with taxes made them too worldly.
He developed what he called the ‘Lesser Magistrates Theory.’  He was not in favor of revolution coming from the people as a whole, as he believed it violated Romans 13.  But what if those in authority violate their trust?  And what if ‘lesser magistrates’ (i.e. colonial officials, Continental Congress?) took up the mantle on behalf of the people.  These ‘lesser magistrates’ are still people ‘in authority’ and they can lawfully lead a Revolution provided it was for the right reasons, etc.  Perhaps this is why many New England Presbyterians and Congregationalists supported the Revolution.
I can’t say exactly what he would have thought and will make a guess.  I do think that Aquinas saw government originating not in a ‘top down’ way,’ but in a more ‘bottom up’ way in line with his thought of the natural law and the fact that he believed that government, or some sort of organizing principle, would have come about even if mankind had never sinned.  He might have emphasized that governments originate with the people, and they have power only ‘to do good.’  When they stray from that, they lose their real power.  Evil never has authority over anyone.
We know what John Wesley, the great Methodist evangelist, thought it quite hypocritical that slave owners would talk loud and long about “liberty.”
Friday we took a break from our heavy discussions over the past few weeks and did an activity comparing 18th and early 19th century American art and architecture to England’s at the same time.  Of course there are many similarities, as one might expect.  After all, the two places were, and still are, similar in many ways.  I wanted the students to focus on the differences.  In the end I think we deduced that:
  • American art at times lacks developed style and technique
  • Americans tended to be simpler and more straightforward people
  • Americans did not have the wealth of the English, and clearly were not an aristocratic people
  • European art could tend to idealize the frontier experience of nature.  Naturally, having not experienced it, one could more easily idealize it.  American art did not portray an idealized nature.
  • Clearly too, Americans and the British thought of themselves differently.  The British are more “cultured,” while the Americans seems more “sober-minded.”
You can probably see some of the differences below.  First, a couple of Americans:
The Ellsworths
 Roger Sherman
Below are some  contemporary British aristocrats:
John Perceval, Earl of Egmont
 Duke John Churchill
Their expressions say it all.  In a fight, I’m putting my money on Ellsworth and Sherman.  Even in this famous painting of Benjamin West (a European) on the death of General Wolfe, one gets the impression that Ellsworth and Sherman would have said something like, “Sir, if you are going to die would you please be quick about it  . . .and stop mugging for the audience!”
Death of General Wolfe Benjamin West
I hope the students will enjoy our look at the war itself beginning next week.

A Leopard Cannot Change His Spots

I originally write this in January 2013, so don’t be too puzzled by the very dated football playoff reference!


It’s playoff time in the NFL, and many talking heads now say that Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has “made the leap” by engineering a late game comeback against the Seahawks this past Sunday.  Having won the “big game,” Ryan can now join the club of “clutch” quarterbacks.

But if Matt Bryant had missed the field goal, we would be having a different conversation, one that focused on Ryan’s crucial 4th quarter interception that helped lead to a Seahawks comeback.  I agree with Grantland’s Bill Barnwell.  A lot depends on context.  After the Falcons lost to the 49ers, thanks in part to a Matt Ryan fumble, Barnwell wrote amusing follow-up here.

What is the stuff of leadership?

Any visitor to a library can get stuffed to the gills with theories of leadership, and while I admit to judging these books by their covers, I don’t think I buy any particular “theory” of leadership.

Of course all good leaders demonstrate the same basic characteristics.  They show firmness at the right time, or flexibility at the right time, or the willingness to listen and adapt at the right time, or to maintain the strength of their convictions at the right time, and so on, and so on.  But anyone can write this without any special talent.  Add to that, much leadership theory presupposes that people can fundamentally change who they are, that “type B” leaders can become “type A” leaders whenever the situation arises.  I doubt this happens much.  The same firmness and clarity of vision from Winston Churchill that helped save Europe in W.W. II also led him to be nearly all wrong on the Indian question throughout the 1930’s.

Bernard Bailyn’s book The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson demonstrates that people who might be great leaders in certain circumstances are utter failures in others.

Bailyn begins his book by revisiting the worst of the riots over the Stamp Act of 1765.  A variety of British officials received threats and intimidation, but none received the level of concentrated violence as Thomas Hutchinson, the Lt. Governor of Massachussets and also the Supreme Court justice.  Looters ransacked his house methodically for three days straight, taking several thousand dollars in cash and valuables, while causing another few thousand dollars damage to his house.

With this in mind, we would naturally make many assumptions about the man.  He probably gave loud and hearty support to the Stamp Act.   He probably displayed a haughty character.  Maybe he was even not native to the land, but a British import.  Probably he lived ostentatiously and lorded it over his fellow men.

But nearly all of our natural assumptions about him would be wrong.  His portrait reveals a man of some reserve with the pleasant “Smile of Reason” the Enlightenment philosophes had down pat.   His house was nice, but not over the top.  He was born and bred in the colonies, and even wrote what is considered to be the best contemporary history of the Massachusetts  Colony.  He never published it. He commented to a few friends that it had too many flaws.

Thomas Hutchinson

The Hutchinson HouseAdd to that, he opposed the Stamp Act!  As Chief Justice he commented that he thought the Stamp Act bad policy and sure to fail.  He earnestly hoped that the British would see reason and cease their plans for the doomed tax.

But he, more than any other, received the laser-like focus of wrath from the Sons of Liberty.  John Adams, along with James Otis, vilified him in print year after year, and Hutchinson, perhaps totally flummoxed, never seems to have responded in kind.  How did this happen?  Why did such a mild-mannered man as Hutchinson cause so much anger and resentment?

John Adams rarely passed up an opportunity to call Hutchinson a “courtier” — someone of no account who fawned his way to the top of society.  True, the marriages within his family aided his cause, but this form of social climbing was hardly unknown even in the colonies, and certainly known in England.  For what it’s worth, Hutchinson appeared to have a very good marriage, and he grieved long and hard for his wife who died in childbirth.

Others point to the fact that in 1765 Hutchinson held two offices, Lt. Governor and Chief Justice, and thus ran afoul of the emerging doctrine of the separation of powers that would make itself manifest in the Constitution.  But Hutchinson never sought a position on the court.  The governor nominated him, and he initially refused, claiming that he “had not the necessary legal mind” for the job.  He took it only reluctantly after repeated entreaties from the governor himself.

But Bailyn holds that the main cause of Hutchinson’s singular failure lie in his personality.  His love of careful compromise, his lifelong aversion to stirring the pot unnecessarily, made him singularly unsuited to leadership in a revolutionary age.  Indeed, had Hutchinson held power in England, we might very well be reading about how his careful, compromising leadership helped King George avoid war with the colonies.  But in America, that shoe did not fit.

We get an idea of the temper of the times when colonists criticized Hutchinson not for being for the Stamp Act, but for being against it for the wrong reasons.  Where people like Adams and Otis saw deep-seated principle at stake, Hutchinson saw misguided policy, and this attitude led to Hutchinson’s most unfortunate and damaging mistake.  Bostonians drew up  an eloquent and passionate objection to the Stamp Act to send to Parliament, but Hutchinson put on the brakes.  He argued, tinkered and pleaded for a month to change much of the tone and some of the substance of their entreaty, while still sharing their objections to the tax.  In the interval, other colonies gained fame and glory by publishing their own heated objections, making Boston look weak and tepid.  Between their first headstrong and final lukewarm drafts, England settled their minds and began the road to enforcing the Act.

Boston was not amused.  They vented all their considerable anger directly at Hutchinson.  Many of them suspected him (erroneously) of merely stalling for time and not really being against the Act at all.

If the revolution had never happened, who’s to say that the colonies would not in time have developed their essential independence along the lines of Canada? Such a smooth, uneventful and gradual transition would have tickled Hutchinson pink.

What Hutchinson never saw, however, was how his own mindset and personality had been shaped by a revolution 75-100 years prior — the intellectual paradigm shift known as the Enlightenment.   All that calm reasonableness would not have fit within the late 16th century any more than it did in late 18th century North America.

Alas for Thomas Hutchinson, a good and decent man, but one decidedly not of his time — a leopard who could not change his spots.

Edmund Burke on how to Prevent a Revolution

UnknownIt might be a good sign when those one admirers disagree among themselves, but for me it can be painful.  Few have taught me more than G.K. Chesterton, but I also like Edmund Burke.  Had the two co-existed they would not have been friends.  Chesterton believed that Burke’s innate conservatism meant that he disapproved of any change at any price, or that whatever political and social order in existence had divine sanction behind it.  Burke tended towards the stodgy, but I think Chesterton overreacted.  I see Burke as a champion of workable, reasonable policy, an Enlightenment man in a Romantic era.  Perhaps this is what Chesterton, the art school dropout, could not forgive in Burke.  Practicality can be maddening.

Burke’s marshaling of logic expressed in dense Enlightenment style can infuriate, all the more so when he’s right.  His Reflections on the French Revolution is a hard read but deserves its acclaim for its early prediction of all that would go wrong in France.   When I saw his Speeches and Letters on American Affairs for sale cheap, I felt I had to pounce and take a dose of good sense, albeit in protein bar form.

Burke speaks better than he writes, but I still found it rough going.  Despite this, Burke’s patented insight strikes again in England’s dealings with America. Burke saw England kill the golden goose between the years 1765-74 through one bad decision after another.  England never heeded his advice, and two wars resulted.  Burke’s thoughts have universal roots and application, and proceed as follows:

I hear the honorable gentlemen say, ‘I don’t care how we got into our predicament.  I only care now how to get out of it.’  . . . No possible good can come from this attitude towards our situation . . .

Burke calls England back to first principles.  Is the problem English debt, or colonial recalcitrance?  By 1774 the revolution had nearly begun, and England scrambled to make things right.  Burke saw England concerning itself only with dealing with whatever situation lay in front of them.  Constantly reacting, they never reflected.  One can’t solve a problem until you understand the problem, and this England never bothered to do.

In this case, Burke calls England to look in the mirror.  However bad the colonies have acted, we ourselves first damaged the relationship by our own actions.  Their policy adjustments thus amounted to little more than course corrections to avoid icebergs, when you should think more about heading south in the first place.

Besides, some of the things taxed were so trivial, that the loss of the objects themselves and their utter annihilation out of American commerce would have been comparatively as nothing.

Perhaps the English had a right to tax the colonists in some respects.  But Burke rightly calls out the English for foolish and paltry duties on things like playing cards.  Such taxes only aggravate and obscure whatever good purpose you might have.

. . . but whatever it is, [you] gentlemen will force the colonists to take the teas.  You will force them?

Burke admits that the Tea Act had many benign and even generous provisions.  To then use force risked ruining everything.

“Incredible as it many seem, you know that you have deliberately thrown away a large duty [the normal course of trade in tea] for the vain hope of getting one 3/4 less, through every hazard, certain litigation, and possibly through war.”

Had they left well enough alone they would have collected plenty of money.  They reduced duties on tea, but then used force to ensure they would collect it.  Again, Burke argues that it appears that the true purpose of the British is to assert their authority rather than enrich their people and make peace.  This gets to the root of the problem itself — England had its priorities all wrong.

Force over time wastes away.

Burke continues . . .

To repeal by the denial of our right to tax in the preamble would have cut, in the heroic style, the Gordian knot with a sword.

The English piddled around the fringes of the various taxes they imposed, modifying this or that over time.  True, sometimes they lessened the duties instead of increasing them, but this yo-yo act ensured colonial aggravation.  Had they simply denied their right to tax altogether they would solved the problem immediately.  Nor would it have cost them money in the long run.  Burke cites the exponentially increasing British imports pouring into America over the past 50 years.  Forcing certain duties, having the Americans object, followed by the inevitable British penalty of closing ports, has the British run the long way round for nothing, or less than nothing.  Much better to act on principle (which the colonists would respect) and be done with it.

Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. . . . I do not mean, Sir, to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride and virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man.

Burke acknowledges that some colonists talked far too much of liberty, perhaps without any sense of responsibility.  John Wesley certainly thought so.  Slavery proves it.  But Burke realized that England had no ability to change what the colonists believe.  Force would certainly not accomplish this, and likely make it worse.

But England would not back down, because at least on Burke’s reading of the situation, they cared more about asserting power than peace.  Perhaps they cared about peace, but it would have to be on their terms.  The outbreak of war and its result proved how wrong they were, and that sometimes stodgy, methodical wisdom is best after all.

I can’t assert this with blanket accuracy, but it seems to me that whenever nations disconnect from reality by doing one thing not for the purpose of the thing itself, but as a placeholder for something else entirely, the results never pan out.  One thinks of Johnson’s bombing in Vietnam.   No one thought the actual bombing particularly effective, but we assumed it would send a political message to the North.  We know how that worked out.  Burke’s message to live in reality stands the test of time.


8th Grade: Enslaving Others, Enslaving the Self


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.