Language as Myth

One will sometimes hear thinkers of a materialist stripe say something along the lines of, “A table is obviously a table, but words like truth or beauty are mere abstractions, a placeholder/convenience for certain ideas that different cultures have,” and so on. The problem with this lies in the fact that most everything anyone can think of deserves the title, “abstraction.” A table is not one thing but many things put together in a particular arrangement. Is it only a delusion that we call a table a table? Any living creature has many millions of separate parts, yet these parts function as a unity. Even an atom has multiple parts that we “conveniently” put together as a whole. We all “abstract” reality. Reality functions, in this way, as myth. The title of Ernst Cassirer’s difficult (for me at least) but significant work, Language and Myth could perhaps have the title Language IS Myth.

Writing at the end of WW II mean that Cassirer stood near the end of the unquestioned dominance of the scientific worldview. The deconstruction of the coherence of more traditional ways of knowing seemed complete. Cassirer was struck with the fact that the, “theory of knowledge as philosophers had developed it since the Middle Ages concerned itself solely with ‘facts’ and the development of orderly thoughts about facts. . . . Human intelligence begins with conception, the prime mental activity; the process of conception always culminates in symbolic expression. ” The book’s translator Susanne Langer noted in her introduction that, “Myth never breaks out of the magic circle of its figurative ideas. . . . But language, born in that same magic circle, has the power to break its bounds; language takes us from the myth making to phase of logical thought and the conception of facts.”

Hence, “Myth is an inherent necessity of language.”

In the early chapters Cassirer looks at theorist Max Muller. For Muller,

the mythical world is essentially one of illusion–but an illusion that sings its explanation whenever, the original, necessary self-deception of the mind, from which the error arises, is discovered. . . . From this point it is but a single step to the conclusion which the modern skeptical critics of language have drawn: the complete dissolution of any alleged truth content of language . . . Moreover, from this standpoint, not only myth, art, and language, but even theoretical knowledge itself becomes a phantasmagoria; for even knowledge can never reproduce the true nature of things as they are.

If myth be nothing, Cassirer writes, “it is mystifying indeed that this shadow should . . . evolve a positive activity and vitality in its own right, which tends to eclipse the immediate reality of things . . .” All in all Cassirer critiques “that naive realism which regards the reality of objects as something directly and unequivocally given–literally something tangible.” Objects in themselves cannot give meaning directly, for every object is a contract of other objects–hence, reality requires myth-making to achieve any sort of comprehension.

Most interesting to me were his thoughts on the idea that gods in the ancient world served mainly as embodied synthesized concepts. Much of what I learned about ancient religion growing up often amounted to something like, “The ancients didn’t know about electricity, so they thought Zeus threw lightning bolts.” Of course, how such unsophisticated people all over the ancient world managed to achieve such great heights of philosophy, architecture, etc. remains a mystery. Perhaps aliens?” Cassirer has a better approach, though also incomplete.

He begins talking about the “realness” of ancient religious feeling, even through the classical period in Greece, often thought of an an irreligious era. “Reason, Wealth, Chance, Feasting . . . Whatever comes to us suddenly [is] like a sending from heaven. Whatever rejoices or oppresses us, seems to religious consciousness like a divine being.” From these momentary “daimons” a new kind of god emerged, not from immediate experience but from “the ordered and continual activities of mankind,” which happened as our relation to the outer world went from passivity to active engagement. These gods have a narrow “width” but a degree of depth and permanence, as every year one needs to plant, sow, fish, and so forth. “Whenever a special god is conceived, it is invested with a special name, which is derived from the particular activity that has given rise to the deity.” Here we see the connection between language and religion, and how we need both to synthesize and create meaning from experience. Cassirer, using the work of Hermann Usener, thinks too much in an evolutionary way, but represents a big improvement from standard ways of viewing ancient religion.

Again–we have the link between language, myth, religion, all as examples of a synthesizing of material (be that material certain sounds or certain experiences) into meaning. Cassirer seems to lean heavily on the side of “emergence” in the Emanation/Emergence debate, but we can take his point. Cognitive scientist John Vervake has made a similar point about the current conflict in the Ukraine. Everyone is worried that something will happen to expand the war, but that “something” may not come from individual agency. Rather, war means participation in “Ares/Mars.” When we describe war as having “a logic of its own” we mean that a separate “life” exists as a corporate personality that drives decisions. We get enmeshed within this life and follow its bidding.

We can assert that we control this “life” because we created it. But I think it more accurate to say that we, speaking from the “emergence” side of the coin, call it into being rather than create it. History shows that such “ghosts” can be notoriously difficult to control. Think for example, of all of the allied moral denunciations of German use of chemical warfare in W.W. I, or the German bombing of civilian England in W.W. II. But England used chemical weapons in W.W. I shortly after the Germans, and the British and American forces killed far more civilians with bombs than the axis powers in W.W. II. As Vervake noted, these “collective ideations” (which I think was his term) resemble gods of the Bronze Age in Homer’s Iliad. They have abundant power, but grant no wisdom.

We can say the same for the internet itself. Humans created it, but we also called something into being, as we entered a hybrid-partnership of sorts. We feed it with attention, and it in turn learns and feeds things back to us. Surely, the internet has an agency, and seeks to add to its agency all the time.

Ok, the stuff about the internet I stole directly from

and both Vervake and Pageau explain the concept much better than I could.

The new Compact magazine has an article by Edwin Aponte that attempts to split the horns of the free speech wars. Most look at the fact that the left championed free speech in the 60’s, and now seems to favor more restrictions, or that the Right championed the “Moral Majority” and now wants comedians to say whatever they feel like saying, as either ironic or puzzling. But Aponte sees something else, writing

Consider also the activist left’s resistance to the Reagan White House’s unofficial gag order on public discussion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and then, barely a decade later, when the Democratic Party held the executive branch, the push for what was at the time called “political correctness”—a speech rubric spearheaded by many of the same left organizers.

In other words, today conservatives are out of power and railing against the canceling of comedians who make jokes about transgender people; tomorrow, the same people may be in power and leading the charge in favor of a ban against transgenderism in schools. This is borne out by the Times editorial. Per the survey, 66 percent of respondents agreed that democracy is built on the free and open exchange of ideas, yet a whole 30 percent also allowed for the curbing of speech if it runs afoul of acceptable etiquette.

Aponte makes the noteworthy claim that the root of this dichotomy lies in the Liberal (the term includes the modern Left and Right) project itself, which pledges unrestrained autonomy to grant one’s desires. Well, one’s desires could easily include both the right to say what you think and to not be bothered by what other people think. When Liberalism chucked Tradition and social mores as guides, they opened these floodgates.

I think, however, that something else is happening. In his farewell address, George Washington warned his countrymen against the formation of political parties, advice which we ignored almost immediately. Perhaps participation in democracies means that we cannot help but form political collectives to try and get what we want. This in turn catches us up in the war of “gods” who seek power but grant no wisdom. Language itself shows that we cannot avoid synthesizing meaning, but how we do so . . . that’s up to us.

Dave

The Bottom of the Mountain

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

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

Historians tend to think about Alexander along three standard deviations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This image comes from a medieval Russian cathedral:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

Tribal Bureaucracy

This was originally posted in 2015–you will see some dated references.

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The phrase “All is fair in love and war,” has various attributions, but it certainly has a direct hold on the popular imagination.  But I wonder if those that cite it truly believe in it.  What I think we tend to mean when we say this is, “If the side I’m rooting for does something that helps them win, I generally approve.”  But if the other side does it . . .

War also tends to come with a relentless osmosis.  So the English and French cried “foul” when the Germans started using chemical weapons in W.W. I, and then used them themselves.  The same happened in W.W. II.  First the Nazi’s bombed London and then the Allies retaliated in more than kind.  It is this spiritual cost of war that often gets ignored amidst the loss of life.

These things flitted through my mind as I read the painful and at times darkly comic Guantanamo_diaryGuantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Slahi.  The scars and trauma of 9/11 come through on almost every page of this book, and if his narrative speaks even half-truths, we have much to mourn and much to fear about who we are as a people.

Briefly, Slahi received an excellent education growing up in Mauritania, gaining fluency in French and German along with Arabic (in prison he learned English well enough to write his diary in English).  He traveled a lot as well throughout Europe and also visited Canada.  During the 1990’s he traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Russians (so he claims) where he certainly met others in the Taliban and Al Queda.  He returned to his native Mauritania.  While there he was arrested and questioned in relationship to the Millennium plot, and then released.  His government, at the request/likely insistence of the United States  then asked him to come in for questioning again after 9/11.  He agreed to come in voluntarily to “clear the air,” so to speak, and from that moment on, disappeared into the bureaucratic abyss.  He has yet to be charged with anything, and yet remains in detention.

Shahi comes off as a very sympathetic figure in his narrative.  Perhaps we should expect this.  We naturally sympathize and accept the point of view of the main character of almost any story.  But surely we might just as naturally wonder to what degree we can trust his account of events.

In a recent podcast interview, Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman discuss Klosterman’s recent GQ article on Tom Brady.  In their remarks both agreed that our culture has a serious problem.  Whatever narrative emerges first (in this case they were discussing the ridiculous nature of “Deflate-gate”) embeds itself deeply in the American consciousness.  Whatever narrative emerges next not only has to fight for space in the national narrative, it has the unfair burden of having to also disprove the first narrative, even though its only “crime” was to be known second and not first.  Perhaps this is not only a modern American problem — perhaps this has always been the case with humanity in general.  But if so the problem seems accentuated in our day by the fact that we have a very short national attention span and will quickly to move from one issue to the next.

Quite possibly, this same problem exists when reading Slahi’s diary.  We should not hold his account to a higher standard than accounts from our own government who initially branded him as a mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, just because this comes from “our side” and it was the story we heard first.  We should treat his account as truthful unless otherwise contradicted by some other source.  Admittedly, this is difficult as contradicting him might reveal classified information.  Such is the dilemma of democracy in the 21st century.*

Briefly the “case” against him:

  • He had been in Afghanistan and fought with Al-Qaida against the Russians.  His own words on this subject — “I fought with Al Qaida, but then we did not wage jihad against America.  They told us to fight against the Communists.  In the mid-90’s they wanted to wage jihad against America, but . . . I didn’t join them in that idea; that’s their problem. . . . I am completely independent of this problem.”
  • His brother-in-law, Abu Safs, was a high-ranking member of Al-Queda.  Alhough interestingly, we have documented transcripts of Safs urging AQ leadership not to proceed with the 9/11 attacks.  In turn, might this have meant that Slahi knew of the impending attacks?
  • He knew different languages and had traveled abroad a great deal.
  • The United States accepted that he had no knowledge of/participation in the Millennium plot.  But it became apparent that Slahi had not told the whole truth about other matters during this questioning, which even Slahi himself admits.  Apparently he denied knowing a man whom he did meet at one point for a short time (although we know nothing about the nature of their relationship). Might then he know other things about terrorists that he has not revealed?
  • In any case, a federal judge reviewed his case and found no basis to detain him any further.  After some outrage from some New York newspapers, the Obama administration appealed the decision, which has yet to come to trial again.  He remains in a bottomless, meaningless detention.

There appears to be very little else against him, and ten plus years of detention have yet to produce a single criminal charge.  It appears we have, as Marine prosecutor Col. Morris Davis commented, a case of, “a lot of smoke and no fire.”  Another interesting testimony comes from Lt. Col. Stuart Crouch, a former prosecutor on the case.  He had left the military, but a good friend died in one of the planes on 9/11.  He decided to reenlist to, in his words, “get a crack at the guys who attacked the United States.”  Eventually he had a total change of heart and withdrew from the case.  He recounted in an interview his realization.

Right in the middle of this time . . . I was in church and we had a baptism.  We got to the part of the liturgy where the congregation repeats–I’m paraphrasing here–but the essence is that we respect the dignity of every human being and seek peace and justice on earth.  And when we spoke those words . . . I could have been the only one there.  You can’t come in here on Sunday and as a Christian ascribe to the dignity of every human being and . . . continue with the prosecution using that kind of evidence.

Some may argue that while we do not have enough evidence to charge him with a crime, a very slim chance remains that Slahi is smart enough to pull a huge snow-job on us.  A chance remains that he may possibly know of some person we don’t know about yet that may seek to do us or others harm (though honestly, since he has been detained for so long, it seems he could know nothing about any possible plans).

Are we willing to take that chance?  To me it seems a really safe bet.

Ironically, it appears that his intellect worked against him in a Catch-22 fashion.  Interrogators admitted that they had nothing concrete to pin on him, but “smart people leave no traces.”  If he wasn’t smart, he would obviously be guilty . . .  because he would have left traces.  Being smart, he naturally left no traces of his guilt.

Such bizarre moments pockmarked his narrative.

For example, interrogators revisited one particular conversation he had with his brother in which Slahi urged him to “concentrate on school,” with an extended conversation about “tea and sugar.”  Since this came up in more than one interrogation, U.S. intel must have thought that such statements involved a code of some kind.  Shahi could not convince them otherwise.

Of course some detainees no doubt bear some measure of guilt.  One prisoner sought a plea-bargain with prosectors.  But this detainee wanted to be generous to Slahi, who resided in the cell next to his.  He would only accept a plea-bargain if they gave one to him as well.  Prosecutors would have loved to offer Slahi a deal, but do to so they would have to charge him with something, and despite repeated efforts, they could not come up with anything.

So the end result was no charge and no plea bargain, but instead a renewed insistence that he must be guilty of something, and so renewed interrogations.  After all, Slahi’s next door neighbor thought he was guilty.

A few final reflections . . .

I absolutely hate and abhor attempts to change meaning of words based on the “letter of the law.”  Interrogators subjected him to sexual molestation, sleep deprivation, forced continuous water drinking (to bring about constant urination and sleep deprivation), and the like.  They did not physically pummel him, but no matter.  He was tortured.  I beg us to call a spade a spade.

Shahi does not paint himself a brave resistance hero or a martyr for truth.  He routinely complains of his back pain.  He admits freely that he lied at points during torture and finally even implicated others, something he earlier vowed not to do, simply to make the torture stop.  He hated certain guards, but liked others and even sympathized with their plight.  He mentioned several times that war brings out the best and worst on both sides.

Surprisingly, when he vented his anger — which was not often — he did so not at the United States but at his home country of Mauritania.  He saw the Mauritanian government as utter cowards for handing him over the U.S. with no specific charges, in direct violation of their constitution and his rights as a Mauritanian citizen.

Eventually he gained the privilege to see movies and watched Black Hawk Down with his interrogators and guards.  He did not enjoy the movie much, but the reaction of the Americans troubled him greatly.  Some soldiers cried bitterly for the Americans that died, no doubt justly.  But Slahi wondered why they shed no tears for the hundreds of Somalis who died, some of them no doubt forced to fight by a warlord dictatorship, some of them civilians.  Americans, Slahi mused, are essentially tribal and care for their own kind not just in preference to others, but to the exclusion of others.  In this we are not exceptional, but just like most anyone else. Ultimately, however, Shahi’s continued detention shows us entirely sacrificing his dignity and freedom on the slim chance that perhaps he knows (or once knew) something or someone.

I will pass over his experiences with guards who knew very little about Christianity trying to evangelize him amidst torture and illegal detention. Shahi, for his part, seemed to enjoy picking apart their arguments. But a few other comments on his opinions about Americans are amusing if not instructive:

Americans are just big babies.  In my country it’s not appropriate for somebody my age to sit in front of a console and waste his time.  And Americans worship their bodies.  They eat well.  [Name redacted] was like anyone else.  He bought more food than he needed, worked out even during duty, talked constantly [about sex], played computer games, and was very confused when it came to his religion.

And,

Many young men and women join the U.S. forces under the misleading propaganda . . . which makes people believe that the Armed Forces are nothing but a big Battle of Honor.   . . . But the reality is a little bit different.  To go directly to the bottom line, the rest of the world thinks of Americans as revengeful barbarians.  That may be harsh, and I don’t believe the dead average American is a revengeful barbarian.  But the U.S. government bets its last penny on violence as the magic solution for every problem.

A few brief comments on the blurbs on the jacket cover and other such comments made about the book.  Those that read it, like myself, emerge fairly convinced of at least Shahi’s legal innocence as well as liking him.  I believe that we have done a grave injustice to Slahi and his family that nothing can erase.  But some commentators fall into the tribalism that Slahi denounced, that Slahi himself avoids.  For some, the U.S. gets no sympathy at all.  They make no attempt to understand the serious intel dilemmas after the trauma of 9/11 we faced, no attempt to understand the gravity of our situation.  For them, the U.S. is a kind of “evil empire.”**

I think rather that we acted, and do still act, the way many frightened and confused people act when they have very little to comfort them.  I agree that we sometimes act foolishly and wrongly, but probably no more so than most other major powers.  We had a few strands of intel that might mean something . . . and we felt forced to act because not acting might possibly result in catastrophe.  It is a terrible situation, and it appears that we have done terrible things in its midst.

But I do not mean to let ourselves off the hook.  We no doubt  felt forced.  But in reality, we are simply selfish*** and will remain so as long as Slahi stays in the legal Neverland of Guantanamo.

Dave

*There is the added question of whether or not the various tortures he underwent may have altered his perception of the past.

**John le Carre must have been only too delighted to write a blurb for this book, as he been roasting the west in general, and the U.S. in particular, for years.  Alas for the bygone days of his great spy fiction from the 1960’s and 70’s.

***Via Marginal Revolution came this quote related to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Even 4-year-old Syrian orphans are too dangerous to welcome to the United States, says New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. What sort of man turns away desperate orphans out of fear? Christie’s words and actions are shameful and unbecoming of a great nation—as are those of 25 other governors who said they will work to keep Syrian refugees from moving to their state. Is America no longer the home of the brave?

9th/10th Grade: Truth Without Tension

Greetings.

This week we returned to Europe in the mid 18th century and began to look at the ideas that shaped the coming French Revolution.  In this “Prelude to the Revolution” unit I hope that students will see that ideas have consequences.  The French pursued truth, or at least what they believed to be truth, with a passion, but this pursuit nearly destroyed them as they attempted to entirely remake their nation from the ground up.

How then, can we recognize truth?

Christians have many answers at their disposal to this question, but we discussed in class that many of our foundational truths are truths in tension.  So we see that God is one God in three persons, Christ is fully God and fully Man, Scripture is the Word of God written by men, and so on.  Sometimes we can know that we are close to Truth when we feel pulled in different directions at once.

Christians also realize that Ultimate Reality (God Himself) is personal, not abstract or propositional.  In inviting us to know Him, God does not want us primarily to know truths about Him (though this too is necessary), but to have a relationship with Him.  So truth must have an incarnational, or personal aspect to it for it to fully achieve the status of “Truth.”

French society needed reform in the mid-18th century.  The dominance Louis XIV bought came at a cost, and one cost was the inherent contradictions that Louis’s France left unresolved, and in fact widened.   When untethered from “truth in tension” we might expect wild swings or “over-corrections” in the ideas and solutions of the time.  The Enlightenment is no exception.  But the Church needs to have judgment begin at home, for it was precisely the Church’s relative weakness in the aftermath of the wars of religion and the Scientific Revolution that opened the door for people to seek truth elsewhere.

The Enlightenment had many noble motives and goals.  Many “philosophes” (as French Enlightenment philosophers were known) saw that society had become a kind of anachronism, guided by long outdated feudal customs.  Certain areas in society operated autonomously, without reason or justice.  Many stories abound for example, of “press-gangs” rounding up derelicts or drunks and forcing them into the navy or infantry.  From the perspective of many, society seemed to be made only for the elite, or for those with connections, or special, secret knowledge (the echoes of Louis’s ridiculous system at Versailles form a good example).  Enlightenment thinkers sought to free society from archaic mystery and make it livable for the common man.  Reason’s clear light revealed the absurdity of class and privilege.  The Philosophes prided themselves as sensible men.  Ben Franklin, for example, records basic advice like, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”  No wild Platonistic musings here, thank you very much.

One sees this spirit animating their music as well.  Haydn, for example, wanted to write for the farmer and tradesman, so his music has a popular danceability to it that one immediately perceives.  Odd meter changes, wild swings in tempo, and so on might have been perceived as “elitist,” or inaccessible.

In the early Enlightenment one also sees a glorification of the everyday.  Those outside the nobility, like Christopher Wren in England, got picked to design St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Enlightenment era paintings depicted women realistically, and showed life as it was really lived by most people.  It elevated simple pleasures of good company and conversation.

For centuries the Church had controlled much of daily life, especially education.  This too needed freed for “the people.”  With people loosed from institutional religion, they would be freed to be their “natural” religious selves.   No more obscure doctrines, no more mystery, just the clear light of reason.  So in the end, society, education, religion, culture — all this seemed to come down from their pedestals on high and into the people’s hands.  The early years of the Enlightenment must have been quite exciting.

But this excitement masked certain key problems.

For all of their realism and so-called common sense, the philosophes tended to be quite unrealistic about human nature.  For them, part of their liberation from mankind meant liberating them from their sense of sin.  “You’re not bad, just ignorant!”  But in severing people from their sense of sin they dehumanized them.  We know we sin, and we know that it is part of being human to sin.  To say that sin doesn’t exist makes us less responsible, and if we are less responsible, we are less human.  Again, Enlightenment thinkers surely thought they were doing mankind a favor by removing the idea of punishment for sin.  I want the students to appreciate the Enlightenment’s strengths, but the tragic irony of the Enlightenment is while they sought to liberate they set us on a path of potential slavery.  We deserve to be held responsible for sin because we are human beings responsible for our actions.  Dogs are not responsible for their actions.  C.S. Lewis elaborates on this in his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.

The Enlightenment frowned on mystery.  We know that many key doctrines of Christianity are mysteries at heart, but what about other areas?  Is not life itself mysterious?  What about love?  Guys, what about women?  Again, to be fully human we must have a sense of mystery about our existence.  In its eagerness to redress an imbalance, the Enlightenment abandoned “truth in tension” and created other kinds of problems, some worse than those it fixed.

The ironic tragedy of the Enlightenment is that while they sought to liberate, they ended up dehumanizing people on a path to slavery, for dehumanization is the first step towards control.  One sees this in subtle ways in the “Smile of Reason”  in many philosophe portrayals:

The constant tight-lipped smile of these reasonable, agreeable people tips the hand of the Enlightenment.  As Clarke notes, the philosophes might smile, but never laugh.  They restricted what it meant to be human.  Life can be enjoyed, but only in moderation.  They prized control above all else.

I don’t want to overreach, but the Enlightenment insistence on control paved the way for some of the tyrannies of the French Revolution and beyond.  The Enlightenment gave us good things to be sure.  No doubt many good Christians made the best of what the Enlightenment had to offer.  But its legacy, like all heresies, continues to haunt us.

Blessings,

Dave

 

8th Grade: The Possible Alexanders

Greetings,

This week we examined the brief and turbulent life of Alexander the Great, a man who has enthralled people for centuries.  No one conquered more people quicker than he.  Of course, his early death immortalized him and helps us tend to see his successes.

I offered the students four different ways of thinking about Alexander, adopted by different historians in different times and places.

  1. Historian J.F.C. Fuller sees in Alexander one the great men of the ancient world.  In him we see statesman, philosopher, and man of action all rolled into one.  He at times sunk to the morals of his time, but often rose above them.
  2. Some see Alexander as the embodiment of a romantic ideal, a young boy out to change the world, an idealist visionary.  A variation of this view would be one that does not see Alexander in primarily moral terms, but views him as a “force of nature.”  We do not call a tornado good or bad, but we cannot help but stand and stare, perhaps even in spite of ourselves.
  3. Some see him as a great military leader, but a failed statesman.  Great generals win battles, but great statesman get men to transform their view of the world.  Regardless of how we view Alexander’s desire to unite East and West, he failed to sell this to his men and his dream collapsed.
  4. Still others, like Victor Davis Hanson, see in Alexander a common thug, a man who lived to kill.  He massacred Thebans and most in Tyre after their defeats.  Like Stalin, most of those close to him ended up dead.  He demanded practices like prostration, and may have believed what his mother told him, that he was the Son of Zeus.  Hanson sees admiration for Alexander as dangerous, a symptom of boredom and our will to escape this boredom through death.

This image of Alexander, though made long after his death, captures something of his madness, focus, brilliance, and lust for conquest:

alex11

alexander2

The battle that defined Alexander’s life and career was Guagemela in 331 B.C.

He had already beaten the Persians decisively twice, but this time Darius III, king of Persia, seemed to have learned his lesson.  He choose a wide open plain for battle, which could maximize his numeric advantage which was probably at least 5-1.  He brought with him chariots, one of the fearsome weapons of the ancient world.  He gave more heavy weaponry to his infantry.

Many of Alexander’s advisors urged him to wait, to go around, or perhaps fight Darius at night.  Alexander would have none of it.  He would not, he argued, “steal his victory.”

How did an army of around 45,000 defeat an army at least 5x its size?

Part of understanding Alexander’s victory is to see that many problems that most generals traditionally worried about Alexander felt he could ignore.  For example, most generals would take troops to protect supplies, but Alexander didn’t mind if the Persians raided his supplies.  If he won the battle, he could march straight to Babylon and have all the supplies he needed.

Alexander also believed that he make up for his lack of numbers by speed.  In fact, he probably hoped that the deficiency in his own numbers might provoke the Persians to over-commit themselves in a certain area, leaving a gap in their lines.  By a lightning quick cavalry thrust from what may have been the best cavalry in the known world at the time, Alexander could cause panic and confusion in the ranks, and once that set in, Persia’s numbers would work against them.  Imagine a horrible accident on the interstate that forces people to turn around and redirect their route.  In that case, this redirection would be much more easily accomplished with fewer numbers.  The large amount of cars, or people in our case at Guagemela, would make for nightmarish confusion.

Here are a couple of depictions of how things went.

It was the gap in the Persians indicated by the map directly above, that gave Alexander the opening he needed.  He plunged through and rode right at Darius, who lost his nerve and fled.

I confess that I am cheating a bit with the image above, because most think that this mosaic depicted Darius’s flight at the Battle of Issus two years earlier.   But accurate or not, Darius fled the scene in both battles, and this, just as much as Alexander’s cavalry charge, cost the Persians the battle.

Guagemela stands for all time as Alexander’s most impressive victory and crowning achievement.  It also may have marked a turning point in his character.  Darker elements always latent in him rose to the surface much more often than before.

Dave

11th/12th Grade: The Battleground of Democratic Ideas

Greetings,

This year we have examined how democracies function across time and space.  What do they do well?  What challenges put great stress upon them?  Are their paths that democracies generally take that they should always avoid?  Under the umbrella of these big picture questions, we begin the year looking at the French-Algerian War from 1954-62.

I chose this conflict to study for a variety of reasons:

  • The conflict is a recent example of a western democratic power fighting both against and amongst Moslems
  • The conflict is far enough removed from us to allow objective analysis, and to allow us to see its ripple effects
  • The French dealt with many similar issues as we currently do in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Iraq (such as the use of torture, attempts to win over local populations, etc.)
  • The excellent movie  (based largely in actual events) The Battle of Algiers is a great tie-in to our study

We introduced a few key background concepts before delving into the main events.

1. Why did France feel the absolute need to win in Algeria?

From the time of Charlemagne (or perhaps even dating back to the pre-Romanized Gauls) France was regarded as having the world’s pre-eminent military, from the Charlemagne, the Crusades, to Joan of Arc, to Napoleon.  In W.W. I they fought heroically and with great determination.  In 1940, however, they suffered a humiliating and shockingly quick defeat to the Nazi’s.  Desperately seeking to regain their pre-war glory, they did not give up their colonies (unlike their friendly rival England).  They lost again in humiliating fashion in 1954 in Southeast Asia — but they would not lose in Algeria.  This was where they would prove to the world that France was still France after all.

The French began colonizing Algeria as far back as 1830, and over time millions of French had come to live there.  As France’s reputation declined in the post-W.W. II years, Algeria became the place where they staked their reputation as a nation “good for the world.”  France was still France after all, a bastion of liberty and democratic, western ideals.  Algeria would be their proving ground.  They would bring the blessings of their civilization to North Africa.  They would show how Moslems could prosper in a western context.  Many other European powers shed their colonial empires after W.W. II.  France left S.E. Asia with their tails between their legs.  They granted independence to a few other colonies.  But not Algeria.  Algeria would be different.  Algeria would prove the validity of western ideals across cultures and the globe.

We shall see how this psychological and cultural attitude influenced how they fought

2. What is the battleground in an insurgent campaign?

As a modern “First-World” country, the French could easily outspend and outmuscle the Algerians who opposed them.  The Algerians naturally quickly turned to guerilla tactics.  It seems clear that the French thought that the battle was against the insurgents primarily, and so put their military foot forward almost exclusively.

Why did this fail?  What is the primary battleground in an insurgent campaign?  Is it the people, or is it an idea?  If so, what role can the military play?  What role does the government and people play?  In our discussion, one student suggested that the only way France could have saved its position in Algeria was through lots of apologies for their poor treatment of them, and lots of financial and social programs to rectify the situation.   In other words, was the problem a military one at all?

Well, it certainly might have been.  But there is a difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics.’  In large measure,* France’s problem was that their use of the military was their strategy.  It was not used as a ‘tactic’ in a broader campaign.

How does an army battle an idea?  As one student suggested last year, the only way to do defeat an idea is to have a better one. Did the French, in fact, have a better idea?  If they did, how did they present it?

3. What happens when an army fights in disconnected way from its country’s values?

There is a great deal of evidence that French troops tortured and killed some prisoners as a matter of policy.  This was done with the tacit approval of French politicians, but not the French people.  As revelations of the torture emerged, the French public began to turn against the war, feeling betrayed by the army.  The army in turn felt betrayed by the people.  This tension between identity and actions needed resolution in some way — and the result was one successful military coup that put De Gaulle in as president, and another coup attempt that failed to get De Gaulle out of power a few years later.

Why are cultural and political values an important ‘weapon’ in a war?  Under what circumstances can we depart from those values?  How is a country’s identity a part of its strategy in conflict?

4. Related to #3, what should the role of the press be in a free society?

Next week we will discuss a few different options related to this question.  Opinions differ. . .

  • Some say the press should be an entirely objective entity, focused on presenting ‘just the facts.’  But, however much of an ideal this is, it is rarely, if ever attained.
  • Others argue that the press should be an implicit supporter of the government, or the majority.  This does not mean ignoring obvious truths, but it would mean using the press as a means to ‘rally the people.’
  • Still others assert that the press should be oriented ‘against’ the government.  That is, the press’ main function is to provide an alternate viewpoint apart from the government’s message.  The government gets its chance, the press provides the people with ‘the other side of the story.’

This week we watched and discussed The Battle of Algiers.  Our discussion and analysis of it will help form the basis of our own insurgency game coming up in a couple of weeks.

Here is the preview for the movie, which is also available (I believe) to watch in full on You Tube.

Sincerely,

Dave Mathwin

*France did attempt some small scale political reforms, but almost everyone viewed it as ‘too little, too late.’

9th/10th Grade: Past and Present Imperfect

Greetings,

This week we delved quickly into our unit on the Constitution, where we focused on a few main ideas, and lay the groundwork for what we will discuss next week:

  • We sometimes have the idea that drafting the Constitution was simply a matter of getting on paper what everybody already thought.  In reality, many of those present had strongly divergent ideas of what federal government should look like.  Some wanted no executive at all, while others (like Alexander Hamilton) wanted a very strong executive elected for life.  The federal judiciary seems almost an afterthought as did the Vice-Presidency, and so on.
  • Compromise tended to be how the delegates operated, and many today praise the fact that they forged consensus amidst uncertain times, which usually give rise to fear and rigid dogmatism.  But this process of compromise extended also to slavery with disastrous moral, and long-term political, effects.  For better or worse, they decided that compromise for the sake of union (which they had already done with many other issues) on slavery was worthwhile.  A variety of theories exists as to why this happened.  Some argue that many believed that slavery would die out eventually on its own within a generation, and thus was not worth forcing some of the die-hards from South Carolina out of the nation entirely.  Others state that slavery involved directly only private moral issues that best belonged outside the purview of federal power (some make the same argument regarding abortion today).  Finally, some assert a simple exhaustion among the delegates.  Having performed so many arduous climbs, the thought of ascending Everest proved too much for them.  I enjoyed the students thoughts on the validity of their decision.  This issue we will raise again next year as we move towards the Civil War.
  • Despite their significant differences, delegates did share some basic principles, such as 1) The federal government did need strengthening, and 2) Federal power needed to avoid concentration in the hands of any particular branch, lest our liberties suffer danger, and 3) A fear of the ‘power of the people.’  While the Constitution did create a more democratic government that existed anywhere else in the West, it contains several barriers to translating the people’s desire into government action.  We often complain of gridlock in government, but may not always realize that the Constitution seems tailor made to create it.
  • For all its tremendous success, the Constitution did not foresee the quickly approaching era of a popular, national president that embodied the will of the people.  This almost led to disaster in the election of 1800, as we will discuss in a few weeks.

People did not immediately embrace the Constitution.  Patrick Henry read the first to the three words, “We the people,” and began his vehement objections.  States, in Henry’s view, should be the basis of federal power.  Henry may have been right or wrong about the wisdom of making “the people” the foundation of political power, but he certainly astutely recognize the difference.  The Constitution created a new kind of America, one where national identity would trump local identity in the long run.

Henry also believed that the proposed national capital would in fact become a vast armory, one that would inevitably destroy liberties.  In the strict literal sense, he was wrong about that.  But he was right that the creation of a national, federal army would put a great deal of power in the hands of the national government.  It is an odd and unsettling thought, but we should realize that the only thing preventing the military from taking over the government is that they don’t want to.  Should the army desire to march on the Capitol, for example, the Capitol would fall in about 15 minutes.

We spent the bulk of our week on our 4th Amendment unit.  I wanted to focus in on one particular aspect of the Constitution to help drill the down the implication of some of its core principles.  The 4th Amendment, which reads

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This amendment has tremendous relevance for us today.  Technology has changed the meaning of privacy, and our enemies have no qualms with using our system against us.  The government has extraordinary powers at its disposal.  Should privacy or security concerns take precedence?

9780815722120Scholar and author Jeffrey Rosen has done a lot of thinking in the areas of technology and privacy.  He raises many key questions, such as

  • How private can public space be in the digital age?  Do we have a right to privacy from Google or Facebook cameras if we walk down a public sidewalk?
  • Can Facebook violate the 4th Amendment, which after all, only prohibits government from infringing on our liberties, and not the private sector?
  • Europe has already done a lot to regulate the private sector in regard to digital privacy.  Many civil libertarians, for example, would applaud the upholding of privacy concerns that Europe is pioneering.  But, given the tremendous growth of technology, regulating these companies requires strong government interference.  But — the same people who applaud the privacy are usually ones who do not want government regulation of the private sector.  How should we resolve this paradox?

These are some of the issues we will attempt to tackle with out mock Supreme Court Case this past week.

Many thanks,

Dave

Tradition under Control

To combine high and low is a rare thing. Historians usually write either “high” with an overarching idea or theme but weak support, or they write “low” with lots of details and specific observations but little overall goal or point. The best historians know how to unite “Heaven” and “Earth,” for only in this union can one glean wisdom. A few years ago I read Carlin Barton’s book on the gladiatorial games and immediately decreed it the best book ever on the subject, case closed. Barton knows how to write in both directions, and she has bold ideas.

In the Sorrows of the Ancient Romans Barton successfully sought to see the gladiator contests not in light of the “bread and circuses” lens of Roman politics, but in the cultural and religious meaning of “suffering” for the Romans. In Imagine No Religion, cowritten with Daniel Boyarin, Barton remakes our understanding of Roman religion. She suggests in her introduction that the problem many scholars have in translating ancient texts comes from their natural love for abstraction.

Intellectuals and academics in the contemporary world are cosmopolites . . . . They are like the relativist Xenophanes who boasted of traveling the “world” for 67 years. They are pressed hard to find ways of ordering the variety of human experience. We scholars, like all cosmopolites, cope . . . by creating abstractions.

Barton argues that many translators see the world “religio” in Latin, and fail to see the nuance inherent in the word. I would add that academics might also tend to see the Roman concept of “religio” much in the way that those they connect with in the ancient world might see it. Hence, academics have tended to see Roman religion too much through the lens of Cicero. Cicero–a brilliant man who could see different sides of issues, alternating between retreat and involvement–seems a perfect doppelgänger for the modern don.

But when we look at Cicero in the 1st century B.C., we are not looking at the traditional reality of Roman religion, but at a reaction to political tumult, which likely sprang from the cultural and social upheaval of the Roman Republic at that time.

Some of Cicero’s more famous pronouncements on religion reveal something of a hierarchical and ordered system. He writes,

So from the very beginning we must persuade our citizens that the gods are the masters and regulators of all things, . . . that the race of humans are greatly indebted to them. They observe the character of every individual . . . with what intentions and with what pietas he fulfills his religiones . . .

In De Natura Deorum Cicero writes again in a similar vein,

. . . I ought to uphold the opinions about the immortal gods that we have received from the mayors, the caerimoniae, and the religiones. Indeed, I will always defend them, and always have. When it is a matter of religio I am guided by the pontifex maximus Titus . . .

Barton sees the concept of “religio” working much differently than as a means of social control, and cites the work of other scholars who translate the word as “care for the gods,” “hesitation,” “anxiety,” and the like. Clearly, some kind of cultural “attitude” is at work, a balancing of emotional attitudes and actions, and this forms the heart of Barton’s project with the book.

Earliest preserved appearances show that religio meant not so much a system of thought, but something akin to “what gave men pause.” In the Mercator of Plautus (184 B.C.) Charinus wants to leave home, his friend Eutyches tries to change his mind. Charinus responds, “That man causes me to have second thoughts–he makes me pause and wonder. I”ll turn round and go over to him” (Religionem mi obiecit: recipiam me illuc). In other sections of Plautus “religio” indicates the thought/emotion of holding back, thinking twice. A century later Cicero uses the word in a like manner when he recounts that Publius was greatly angry at Valerius, “Yet he kept hesitating and religio repeatedly resisted, holding back his anger.” In turn, acting against such a feeling caused one to feel pudor, whose symtoms gave one high anxiety more than shame. Barton suggests a parallel–“A modern man might approach a lapdog casually, but might hesitate before a Doberman or a pit bull. . . .Just so, ‘religio’ was evoked in dealing with the risky ventures of life, causing the Romans to behave with awe or circumspection.

Livy recounts the interactions between the consuls Paulus and Varro as they approached Cannae:

Paulus himself wished to delay . . . . Varro was greatly vexed at this hindrance, but the recent disaster of Flaminius and the memorable defeat of the consul Claudius in the First Punic struck his animus with religio.

Seneca writes similarly,

If a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not made with hands but hollowed out by natural causes, it will strike your spirit with a certain religio.

Barton again comments, “‘Religio‘ was especially evoked by highly charged boundaries, and the fear of transgressing taboos, such as we might approach the edge of an electric fence. No fear of magisterial authority or divine judgment was necessary.”

But religio had negative connotations as well. One could hem and haw too much, and in the wrong times and places. Cicero criticizes a rhetor named Calvus, who spoke with excessive precision and balancing, so that “his language was weakened with too much religio.” So too, superstition had a close alliance with religio, which should be seen, as Barton states, as “not the antithesis but the excess of religio.” One needed a steady balance of the right religio to act rightly in the world. Failure to have a proper balance would later result in unhelpful wild swings. Livy writes of Tullus Hostilius, “[a] man who had so far thought nothing of . . . sacred rites, [who then] suddenly fell prey all sorts of superstitions, and filled even the minds of the people with religiones.” Livy also recounts the impact of the 2nd Punic War warping the people’s sense of religio:

The longer the war dragged on and success or failure altered the spirits of men no less than their fortunes, such a great religio invaded the republic, for the most part from the outside, so that gods or men suddenly seemed changed. Now that the disorder appeared too strong, the senate assigned . . . the city praetor the task of freeing people from these religiones.

An intriguing “chicken or the egg” question arises when one looks at the collapse of the Roman Republic. Most look at the political disorder beginning with the Graachi and then see the concomitant centralization of power that culminated with Caesar as a solution to the breakdown. Another option–could the centralization of power in fact have indirectly caused the disorder? An alteration of the traditional political give and take would send shock waves through the psyches of the populace. Of course, most chicken-egg questions have no possibility of resolution, but thinking of the relationship between power and disorder will help us understand the fabric of reality.

We can apply this to Roman religion, and we see the possibility that too much control may have come before religio got out of balance. Toynbee and others document how the 2nd Punic War (218-202) particularly challenged traditional religion by exposing Romans to new ideas, cults, and (as we saw above), an excess of religio as superstition. As the Republic collapsed in the late 1st century BC, Lucretius expounds the notion of the gods keeping everyone in perpetual fear–through excessive control. “Religio” had gotten out of control:

Human life lay for all to see foully groveling on the ground, crushed beneath the weight of religio which displayed her head in the regions of heaven, threatening mortals on high with horrible aspect . . .

I must show in what ways fear of the gods crept into the heart which our earth keeps holy their shrines and pools and groves, their altars and images.

De reruns natura, 1.62ff., 5.73ff.

Statius in the mid 1st century A.D. wrote that, “It was fear that first made gods in the world.” I’m not sure we would have seen such language 200 years prior.

Lucretius did not likely represent the majority opinion, but the authors look at what they call the “Ciceronian Turn,” where Cicero at least, and perhaps Rome as a whole, begins to look at religion as a tool for countering chaos. With the proper balance of religio gone, now things needed more hierarchy, more top-down structure. This in turn created the need for more “noble falsehoods” from the elite and a greater separation from patricians and the plebs.

It appears at first glance that the religious expansion/innovation happened first, and then we have the tightening afterwards. This view appeals to me as someone who views that religion, whether that religion have a direct conscious expression or no, forms the heart of any civilization. But the connection between excessive control and freedom will always be a close one. We can perhaps see Rome’s politics and culture tightening during the Punic Wars, the devastation of Italy due to Hannibal, etc., and then–religio starts to get out of alignment, showing more extremes.

However we see this relationship, the west will always play with fire when we focus alternately on the rights of individuals and the limits of government power, for that puts the focus on the edge rather than the center. Then, just as when we breathe heavily, we get unbalanced. A civilization cannot breathe heavily in and out for very long. A civilization cannot exist as a negotiation between extremes. It functions instead optimally when the tension between different elements is intuitive and thus, healthy. In Rome, for whatever reason this tension got out of alignment, with a resulting political and cultural decline from which they never quite recovered.

This relationship between extremes manifesting themselves simultaneously runs rampant throughout our world:

  • The internet allows us to have more options than ever and to be surveilled as never before.
  • Social media platforms give us essentially no limits on whom we reach with our thoughts, but online speech is also the most heavily regulated/punished.
  • Technology gives us the possibilities of travel even into the uninhabitable regions of space, but even slight damage to the craft in the wrong place would kill everyone onboard.
  • Nuclear power on the one hand could give the world abundant clean energy, and on the other hand, could destroy civilization entirely.

And so on. To take another example, Russia may have done wrong by invading Ukraine, but observe . . . even Russians who protest the war are being “canceled”, presumably because they are Russian. This absolutist way of acting in the world will hurt far more than it helps.

Imagine No Religion gives us great insight into the relationship between culture, religion and power. It is an open question as to whether or not America ever was a “Christian nation,” but certainly we are not that now, and have not been for some time. Many debate the nature of the “real” religion of America. Whatever that might actually be, the cultural and political tightening we have witnessed recently, however, either has come on the heels of a religious shift, or presages one. As man is, as St. Maximos put it, a macrocosm, individuals and civilizations need to breathe in and out calmly, intuiting the boundaries of our conduct. Healthy people and healthy civilizations result.

Dave

8th Grade: The Military Revolution of Macedon

Greetings,

This week we began looking at Macedonian civilization, and as usual we began with geography.

The map shows Macedon as a land-locked and mountainous area, and we would expect this kind of terrain to have a particular emphasis on its people. . .

Map

  • Mountainous areas are always difficult to control, leading to weak central governments
  • Usually an aristocratic warrior elite seeps into the culture, which usually divides the people into warring clans (for this and the above point, think of Afghanistan, which has a similar geography to Macedon).
  • With this environment, we usually see a low level of cultural output, due to their relative isolation and internal divisions (this is not the case with Scotland, but Scotland is not land-locked as Macedon is).

I was glad to see the students start to make connections between Macedon, Assyria, and Sparta.  All three share a similar geography, and all three share a similar geographic position — on the periphery of their respective societies.  Sparta and Assyria had stronger central governments than Macedon, but their similarities should make us realize of the power of geography to shape the course of a civilization.

As I mentioned, Macedon had little role in Greek civilization for many centuries.  But as luck would have it, Macedon saw the rise of the charismatic and ruthless Phillip II just at the very moment of Phillip of Macedongrave political weakness for Athens, Thebes, and Sparta.  Opportunity knocked for Macedon.   Phillip looked every inch the tough customer he portrayed, wearing an eye patch over his wounded eye for necessity, and probably, for effect as well.  But Phillip combined his personality and appearance with a keen understanding of how to maximize the qualities of his society into a formidable military machine.

One key to the effectiveness of his military was that he matched the personality of his culture with his army.  Infantrymen in other Greek city-states often came from the middle-upper classes.  He owned land and had a stake in the politics and way of life of his city-state.  The Athenian hoplite, for example, therefore oriented himself toward defense of what he had.  He wore heavy armor and carried a large shield.  This was not a mobile force, but one geared to “make a stand” to defend home turf.  A standard Greek military formation might look like this:

Greek Phalanx

In contrast to other city-states, Macedon had virtually no middle class.  Anyone recruited for the infantry would be either poor or a mercenary.  This type of man would not fight to defend anything in particular.  He has no stake in the society for which he fights.  Such a man might be motivated to take from others, however, and this would require shifting the balance toward an offensively minded and equipped infantry, which you see below:

Macedonian PhalanxIn addition to the long spears you see above, their soldiers also carried a long dagger, another offensive weapon.   While the image above does show the Macedonians with shields, I agree with Victor Davis Hanson (and others) that argue that Macedonian shields had no real function in battle.  They were worn apparently mostly around the neck and draped to the side (as both arms would be needed to wield their spears).  Some argue that the shields were used in battle, but mainly as a prop for their spears.  If this is so, we see that even their shield served as a offensive weapon of sorts.

Phillip’s infantry gave them much more firepower at the point of attack.  Not only did they have longer spears, but because they had to stand sideways to hold the spears, they could fit more men in each row.  Some students wisely pointed out that the Macedonians would be vulnerable to a quick flanking movement, but the Greek infantry Phillip faced was “heavier” infantry, and not equipped for fast movement.  They could not exploit this weakness of Phillip’s force (though a century later, the Romans would do so).

I hope that the students understood that militaries don’t, or at least should not, be created in a vacuum. They function best when they are a direct product of the civilization from which they arise.  Next week we will continue by looking at the most famous Macedonian of all, Phillip’s son Alexander.

Many thanks,

Dave

 

The Garments of Court and Palace

Despite ourselves, Machiavelli fascinates us. He writes with an enviable brevity and clarity, and then supplies a pertinent historical example to back up his point. Had he been a worse writer, we would care much less about him. There exists as well an easy transference of his thought–he fires the imagination of the global strategist and everyone who has played Risk.

The Garments of Court and Palace has a grand air about it. The title comes from a phrase of Machiavelli, describing his perception of how one had to don a different persona, in a sense, to enter into the political realm. One can write rather easily how Machiavelli advocated for a dangerous amoralism in statecraft. One could also write about how a conflicted Machiavelli seemed a chameleon of sorts depending on time and place. Again–such books would be easy to write and have no reason to exist. But Philip Bobbitt has an entirely different approach, arguing that

  • Not only was Machiavelli not a amoral thinker, and
  • Not only was he not a chameleon, but
  • He was a consistent thinker with a distinct aim of promoting virtue, whose teachings fit easily within a Christian worldview

Now there’s an argument for you. This is a book worth writing.

I have great respect for Bobbitt. I found his Shield of Achilles revelatory and prophetic in certain ways. He takes big swings and at his best writes with the clarity of Machiavelli. I found Bobbitt’s argument ultimately a bridge too far. To go along with him fully, one would have to agree that essentially all of Machiavelli’s contemporaries, and nearly every political philosopher since then, had him wrong. For me, there exists too many areas of Machiavelli’s thought one can’t quite stuff into Bobbitt’s construction, leaving Bobbitt’s only option to impersonate Michael Palin’s befuddled George Bernard Shaw, i.e., “What Machiavelli merely meant . . . “

Still, Bobbitt succeeds in getting one to see Machiavelli more clearly within his time. And while I do not agree with the totality of Bobbitt’s argument, the book reveals the problems of the modern state in fresh ways. Bobbitt rightly argues that Machiavelli had prophetic insight far ahead of his time, and we must grapple honestly with him.

Machiavelli’s world faced great changes, changes that, as usual, were not immediately obvious to nearly everyone living through them. The Black Plague and the breakdown of the Church meant that the personal connections that guided law and culture in the feudal era no longer applied–however much some still wished to make it so. Bobbitt sees Machiavelli clearly perceiving this shift, and attempting to orient Italy and all of Europe towards a new constitutional order. But periods of transition bring great uncertainty, and the need for attendant flexibility. Bobbitt writes,

Imagine you wish to train yourself to be a professional poker player. Part of that training must involve learning all the tricks of the trade, marking cards, palming a card, dealing from the bottom, and so on. But must you practice these tricks yourself? I suppose it depends on how good your game is, and whether the persons with whom you are playing will enforce the rules once you have exposed the cheat. To the question, “Must it be this way? Can’t we do better?” the answers do not lie entirely within your power.

In sum, Bobbitt sees Machiavelli playing a slippery game of poker, both in his personal life and in his writings–yet, with an ultimately just and moral goal in mind. “Republics must be founded by one man,” as Machiavelli wrote in his Discourses. So,

  • First, the chaos must end, and existing structures cannot end it. It takes someone operating outside those structures to bring order, and then
  • A republic can emerge, one that governs communally and perhaps abstractly, rather than personally

Of Machiavelli’s two major works, one can very broadly say that The Prince attempted to accomplish the first goal, and The Discourses the latter. Machiavelli must sometimes, then, assume the appearance of Janus, the Roman god who faced in opposite directions.

We can consider the idea of deception. On the face of it, people should never lie or deceive. But few people would actually make this an absolute claim. You might not like your wife’s dress, but if she loves it, you’ll say you think it looks great. In the Bible, men of faith use deception. King David pretended insanity amongst the Philistines. Ehud manipulated King Eglon so that he might kill him. Rahab protects the spies by lying. We praise them for such actions. But we know the difference between “good” lies and true lies. While David rightly deceives the Philistines, he wrongly deceives Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, and suffers for it. Bobbitt places Machiavelli within a traditional moral structure because virtuous people know how and when to deceive for the common good. Machiavellian morality is “good” morality, because he flexibly orients it towards the formation of a virtuous state. Bobbitt makes other such arguments throughout with different aspects of Machiavelli’s thought, and it has merit up to a point.

At root, Bobbitt believes that states evolve and that wise and “good” rulers adapt to changing circumstances to maintain the supremacy of “good” states over bad ones. The state will be formed via “strategy, law, and history,” to use Bobbitt’s terms, and one must use Machiavellian wisdom to appropriately ride the crest of the wave. Republics have a much better chance of adaptation because of their composite nature. Machiavelli cites the Roman example of Fabius and Cicero. Fabius was right in 218 BC to adopt his cautious approach to Hannibal, but a few years later, the situation had changed. Yet–Fabius had not changed with the changing situation. Indeed, few can do so. But because Rome was a Republic, they had the more aggressive Scipio at their disposal. And, because of the Republic’s ability to pool wisdom from a large group, they chose correctly with Scipio. A monarchy or principality had more limitations, and indeed, Hannibal, for all his greatness, could not quite adopt changes in his own strategy when his fortunes started to ebb.

Again, so far so good. But we should go deeper into the nature of the new state Machiavelli heralded and why we should remain uncomfortable with a full embrace of his ideas. I think the final answer lies in the fact that the state Machiavelli saw coming and wanted to bring about would not allow one to safely and wisely live out his advice. So, in what follows below, I make my own grand, foolhardy attempt to solve the Machiavelli conundrum.

The feudal kingdoms that Machiavelli saw retreating from the scene had a few things in common:

  • Relationships, more so than laws, determined the way of life in a particular region
  • Particular land was not so much owned, but held in a trust, of sorts with the surrounding culture and people
  • While various leaders had certain boundaries of church, custom, etc., power resided in people, not principles, ideas, or even laws.

Machiavelli hoped for, and foresaw, a state that would

  • Be governed more by laws than specific people
  • Be governed more by procedures of representative bodies than by people directly
  • Have a more Roman/absolute/legal concept of ownership of land

The modern state, therefore, would be more fixed and abstract in nature.

Though in many ways a modern, Machiavelli still had some roots in the traditional pre-modern world. He understood that sometimes the hero has to go the margins of behavior–like King David. He understood that when facing the evil of disintegration one sometimes has to fight fire with fire. Sometimes society’s solid moral core cannot defeat the monster. You need Godzilla to battle Ghidorah. The law can do nothing to Terry Benedict, so we cheer when “Ocean’s Eleven” take him down. But we should still remember that the guys of “Ocean’s Eleven” are not really good guys. You cannot build a society on Danny, Rusty, and the Mormon twins.

If one sees Machiavelli’s advice within this traditional pattern of reality–a Core, Fringe, and the Chaos beyond, a lot of his advice in The Prince makes sense. People can make difficult moral judgments. People can experience different levels of reality and process them accordingly. Hence–for all of its “radical” nature, The Prince can actually make sense within a traditional society, where governing relationships remain distinctly personal and not abstract.

Machiavelli reacted strongly against the medieval approach, but the irony might be that The Prince is actually a treatise that might find a place in the pre-modern world under certain circumstances.

Machiavelli’s problem . . . modern states cannot experience life this way. We remain too distant from reality with the multitude of hedges of laws and institutions. People can make judgment calls–laws cannot. Bobbitt himself declares that states get their formation through the intersection of “strategy, law, and history.” But he leaves out, “personal relationships.” Modern states have very little to do with personal connections and much more to do with contract, procedure, and so on.*

What about Machiavelli’s Discourses, which many, Bobbitt included, see as a great treatise for modern democratic-republics? The Discourses has many insightful things to say, but we must remember that Rome is the subject. The “imminence” of pagan religion shines through in Livy’s work. The Roman self, Roman religion, and Roman politics all seem intertwined. One could say that Rome worshipped Rome (I include an excerpt from the Discouses below which I think illustrates this). Thus, when the Roman state “moved” the Romans “moved” with it. Of course, if the identity of the state lies in the King/Prince, then when he “moves” we can move with him, because we have a personal tie to him, and he physically embodies the principality/realm where we live.

Not so in the modern age, which still have some tension between the state and that which resides outside the state. It can take various forms across the spectrum, including:

  • A strong sense of the Kingdom of God residing within and without the state
  • A strong sense of the autonomous individual
  • No coherent cultural “north” on the compass
  • A sense of the “destiny” or purpose of the nation, which lies at least somewhat outside the actions of the nation–this has different manifestations on the right and the left.

I believe this explains our frustration and puzzlement with Machiavelli. We recognize his wisdom. We feel that we should apply at least some of it, but our detachment from our institutions won’t allow us to access it.

Dave

*Hence–suburbia and why we do not know our neighbors, disembodied forms of exchange, and so on.

Machiavelli on Roman Religion

Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances, in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.

Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle. 

But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.

But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so threw them into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness . . . 

9th/10th Grade: The World Turned Upside Down

This week we discussed the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.  Certainly the whole document has great importance for us, but whereas the specific grievances have come and gone, we rightly remember the words of the first paragraphs.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

We take this wording for granted today, but Jefferson’s words espoused some revolutionary ideas.  In 1765, the colonists (for the most part) couched their dispute with England in terms of English rights, i.e. “The English government fails to give English liberties to its citizens.”  In the Declaration, however, we see the colonists fighting for human, not British rights.  Their struggle took place specifically against England, but in the broader sense the colonists fought to be more human.

Jefferson professed Deism and not Christianity, but he clearly states that these rights have universality because of the identity and purpose of our Creator.   Jefferson takes the Romans 13 dilemma we discussed a few weeks ago and turns it on its head.  Government’s exist to protect human dignity.  If they fail in this, government becomes the rebel against God, and this means people have a duty to fight them, not merely permission.  Jefferson’s stroke remains brilliant and controversial even today.

Unlike other countries (founded on shared history or shared biology), the United States founded itself on an idea.  The universality of this idea has done much to shape our history.  Critics of our policy often accuse us of “meddling” in affairs that don’t concern us.  Certainly this charge has at least some merit.  But in our defense, we might say that we can’t help it.  The Declaration makes humanity itself our business.  We might further state that we have no wish to make others more like us, rather, we wish to help them become more human.  There may be some self-deception in this line of reasoning, but I think many Americans think this way whether consciously or no.  On the flip-side, this universality has helped us be more open to other peoples emigrating and finding a place in our society.

We also discussed two other controversial aspects of the Declaration:

  • Should we have the right to “pursue happiness?”  What has this meant for us?  I touch on some of these ideas in this post here.

Author/commentator Malcolm Muggeridge thought the inclusion of the “pursuit of happiness in the Declaration a great disaster.  He said,

There is something ridiculous and even quite indecent in an individual claiming to be happy. Still more a people or a nation making such a claim. The pursuit of happiness… is without any question the most fatuous which could possibly be undertaken. This lamentable phrase ”the pursuit of happiness” is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world.

The truth is that a lost empire, lost power and lost wealth provide perfect circumstances for living happily and contentedly in our enchanted island.

I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.

  • Jefferson’s original draft of the Constitution contained a strong anti-slavery section, but in the end he removed it to allow for all colonies to join in signing the document.  This may have helped us fight the war for independence, but it disastrously postponed our nation dealing with the terrible crime of slavery.  Was this worth it?

We then moved on to finish the fighting in the war, and focused on the battles of Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781).  On Friday we played a game in class where the rules gave certain advantages to the “favorite.”  But the “underdog” also had key advantages. .

  • They could afford to play more recklessly as they had less to lose
  • If they got luck or could bluff their way to one big success, they could simply fold (i.e. retreat in orderly fashion) and wait until time ran out in the game.

Many of you may have seen an action movie where the lone hero has to fight his way into a compound, boat, or other structure.  Despite being badly outnumbered, he manages to get the bad guys and escape.  Along with Hollywood convention at work, the hero does have some actual advantages.  He knows that every person he sees is a bad guy, where his opponents must exercise much more caution.  They hesitate and give the hero the advantage, who can shoot first and ask questions later.

This analogy could easily get stretched too far, but British failures at Saratoga and Yorktown show the great difficulty the British faced to win the war.  How could they solve the problems that created the war in the first place through violence?  The deteriorating situation between England and the colonies between 1763-1775 craved a political response that the English proved unable to provide.  Victory through violence therefore demanded an absolutely crushing military victory, and would have to take great risks to achieve it.  Both times they attempted this, it backfired on them.

Americans had more “freedom” in their strategy because their failures mattered little and their successes got magnified greatly in their political effect.  England’s political bungling prior to the war itself paved the way for their defeat.

Here is the march the British played when they surrendered at Yorktown, “The World Turned Upside Down.”

8th Grade: All Good Things Must Come to an End

Greetings,

This week we saw the great golden age of Periclean Athens collapse into the abyss of the Peloponnesian War.  We began the week by asking why “Golden Ages” tend to last not much longer than a generation.

  • Some suggest that the success and power a golden age brings would bring about the envy of others, and this envy could turn into a threat.
  • Another might suggest that the generation that grew up with the ‘golden age’ in place would likely have a much different experience than their parents.  I found this comment especially perceptive.  As we saw last week, golden ages usually arise from a creative response to a particular challenge.  Those that grow up without the challenge won’t have the experience or ‘training’ to continue what their parents started.
  • Last week we also noted how golden ages require a variety of factors coming together at once, some physical and others psychological.  No one can reasonably keep all the plates spinning for long.  Eventually nature dictates that something will begin to spin off the axis sooner or later, and this will drag other things down with it.

Some of their comments did in fact apply directly to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, especially#1.  Athens went from plucky underdog in 490 B.C. to the then equivalent of the New York Yankees or New England Patriots by 431 B.C.  Many city-states lined up against them with Sparta. We did not spend a great deal of time on the war itself, as during their senior year we devote a few weeks entirely to this conflict and the issues it raises, but we did touch on a few key points

1. How in war the unexpected and unforeseen can occur

Of course the unforeseen can always occur, in war or at any other point.  But since war requires a great deal of planning, many assume that the conflict will go as we wish.  The making of the plans itself creates that expectation.  Yet, in war as in life, things rarely go according to our preconceived version of events.

2. Peace treaties may not be what they seem

After 10 years of intermittent conflict, both Athens and Sparta signed a treaty called the Peace of Nicias.  But treaties in name may not be in fact.  Some treaties bring real peace, some only reflect a desire to call a ‘time out’ in the fighting.  Unfortunately for Athens, this treaty turned out to be one of the latter.

3. War Stresses Democracy

War will put stress on any form of government and any society.  Some wars brought down monarchies — like W.W. I.  We assume that democracies are more stable, but the Peloponnesian War brought out many weaknesses within Athenian democracy and for a time ended it within Athens.  We looked at how desperation and panic act on a democratic people in the battle of Arginusae.  The Athenians won this battle, but the generals failed to pick up the dead and give them proper burial, something that could be considered sacrilege, and sacrilege could be punished by death.  Grief stricken, the city put the generals on trial, found them guilty, and executed them.  A few days later they regretted their actions. They put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals on trial for murder, found him guilty, and executed him also.

Ostensibly, Sparta won the Peloponnesian War.  But in truth the war had no real winners in Southern Greece.  All exhausted themselves in the conflict.  Thebes, involved in the conflict but slightly to the north, emerged as the strongest party in the more immediate aftermath of the war.  But it would be Macedon, further still to the north, and never involved in the fighting at all, that would eventually assert absolute supremacy over Greece in the person of Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander.  We’ll look at them next week.

You can see the geography of it below here, with everything pink or yellow caught up in the fighting (with even blue areas involved sporadically), and Macedon waiting patiently above in brown.

Peloponnesian War

For those of you who have seen From Russia with Love, the scene where “Number 1” talks about the Siamese Fighting Fish is a good parallel, if we think of Macedon as the fish who stays out of the fight.