Festivals of the French Revolution

The modern west, and certainly the United States, has a weird relationship with sports.  Many reasons exist for this, including the fact that sports involve great skill and entertain us.  One key to their hold on us, however, certainly involves the fact that our culture has no communal rituals and emotions.  Politics remains too divisive and negative to provide this.  Democracy tends to prioritize individual vis a vis the group.  Most forms of American Protestantism have no liturgies and no “physicality” to provide the necessary framework for shared experiences.  Sporting events can provide this.  Many fans have pre-game routines, rituals, dress–“liturgies,” in effect.  These routines come with the eating of certain foods, and so on.

All this to say, sports functions much more like a religion than many of our churches–at least in terms of visible manifestations.  Perhaps too, this explains the growth of round-the-clock, all year coverage of seasonal sports.  Our need for communal “religious” experience overpowers even our well-founded moral concerns about certain sports such as football.

Because non-liturgical Protestants formed the ethos of America many of us have little experience with religious communal celebrations.  Often they involve parades, food, music, and a physical embodiment of a particular belief or historical event.  Below, for example, is footage from the festival on the Greek island of Cephalonia, where the relics of St. Gerasimos reside.  On the saint’s feast day, one such embodiment happens when the body of St. Gerasimos “passes over” the town.

The French Revolution sought to transform all of French society.  To do so, the revolutionary leaders recognized that they needed to eliminate Catholicism from the hearts and minds of the people–easier said then done.  The church dictated the calendar and its rhythms, with a proliferation of festivals.  These festivals formed the habits, which formed the hearts, of the French.

They needed new festivals to replace the traditional Catholic celebrations.  Mona Azouf takes up this oft-neglected topic in her book, Festivals of the French Revolution.  

I believe Jaroslav Pelikan made the observation that Christian feasts all celebrate events that happened in observable time.  We celebrate the Incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.  We have days for remembering the Mother of God and saints of whose lives we have a record.  The only obvious exception to this is Trinity Sunday.  But the Trinitarian nature of God is not an abstract concept, but the concrete–though also mysterious–reality of the Universe.  Celebrations of actual things can have a “natural” atmosphere about them.

We can envision a joyous party for a team when they win the championship.  But what about a team that, during the season itself, had a banquet to celebrate “Victory”?  Things might get awkward quickly.

This challenge confronted France’s revolutionary leadership.  If they wanted wholesale change, then everything old would have to go.  They eliminated a great deal of the previous political leadership.  They transformed the military.  They killed or exiled many recalcitrant aristocrats.  They went farther than almost any other revolutionary group I know of and literally changed the calendar.  They understood that the Gregorian calendar, despite its mainly pagan roots, had been thoroughly Christianized and formed the unconscious rhythms of daily French life.  Some argued that the new France needed no celebrations.  Now that they had banished oppression, each day would have a moderate and joyous character.  But eventually even the die-hards realized that they needed to give the people holy-days (i.e. holidays) to create a new national liturgy.

The festivals for the new calendar attempted to change the concept of time.  They also attempted to alter the concept of space.  Most old Catholic festivals took place in the town near the church.  This meant that the majority of events happened within view of the cathedrals (always the tallest buildings) and in the town streets.  Of course having the church building silently governing the festival would not do.  But the narrow streets and the inevitable buying and selling of goods in the market, conjured up thoughts of secrecy, narrowness, “feudal conspiracy,” and the like.  Festivals of the Revolution often took place in wide fields away from towns and cities.  There they could escape the church building, and the open fields also aided their ideology of equality.  In addition the French Revolution’s obsession with “Nature” had its role to play.  Everything seems new and promising in a lush meadow at springtime.

So far so good.  Here is one contemporary description of the “Festival of Liberty:”

The procession began late, around noon; it was not that the people were made to wait, as by despots at court festivals.  The people turned up at daybreak in large numbers . . . but all waited until all had arrived.  They took pleasure in each other’s company; nonetheless it was time to leave.

On the site of the Bastille an inauguration of the Statue of Liberty was held.  Here more gathered, and it should be noted, they were favored with perfect weather.

There was no excess of pomp; no gold dazzled the eye or insulted the citizens’ humble and honorable poverty.  No soldiers dripping with braid came to cast a condescending eye on the poorly dressed crowd as they passed.  Here actors and witnesses merged, each taking part in the procession.  They had little order but a good deal accord with one another.  No one indulged in the vanity of the haughty gaze, no one set out to be a spectacle.  Boredom, that son of uniformity, found no foothold among the various groups; at each step the scene changed–everyone wanted a part in the Festival of Liberty.

The festival banished luxury, but notable commemorative objects had their role.  The procession opened with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, written on two stone tablets such as the 10 Commandments, though that is no match for the Declaration.  Four citizens proudly carried this noble burden, each reading aloud those immeasurable first lines: “Men are born free and remain free and equal.”

Four busts followed in like manner.  “Ah, there is Voltaire, that old rascal who made us laugh so much at the priests.  That other, worried looking individual [Roussaeu] loved the nobles even less and never sought their favor.  Who is the third?  It is an Englishman, Sydney, who put his head on the block rather than bend a knee to a king.  That old man there, we know him well.  It is Franklin, who can be more rightly called the Liberator of the New World than a certain fop who lives not far from here [i.e. Louis XVI].

The two coffins that followed threw a somber coloring over events as we remembered the martyrs of the massacre at Nancy [some soldiers refused to obey their royalist leaning officers and were shot].  

Preceded by their chains, suspended from trophies and born aloft by young ladies dressed in white, marched our loyal soldiers [loyal to the Revolution that is], with several regular citizen volunteers.  They in turn preceded the Chariot of Liberty, which used the same wheels as the chariot that served for the enshrinement of Voltaire at the Palace of Reason.  Let us not forget that philosophy gave us Liberty.

The chariot, modeled on the antique, was of imposing construction.  On one side David sketched the story of Brutus the Elder of Rome, himself sentencing his royalist sons to death for their disobedience to the law.  On the other he depicted William Tell, aiming a javelin, the target of which was an apple on his own son’s head.  But at his feet we spy another javelin, one that gave independence to Switzerland by slaying the Governor of Austria.  The Lady of Liberty rests on her throne, her hand at her side holding a club, with a gaze that would make king’s blush.   We should never forget that the sceptre of liberty is a bludgeon to her enemies.  It should also be said that six daggers formed the prow of the front of the chariot to threaten any despotism bold enough to impede the march of liberty.

With steady steps 20 democratic horses drew the chariot of the sovereign of the French people.  Their progress had none of the insolence of those idle coursers fed at the stables in Versailles.  They did not hold their heads high; their manes had no gold plait, nor were there plumes adorned.  They walked rather ploddingly, but they kept a steady course.  

Four hundred thousand citizens came to one spot with nary a mishap.  The soldiers on foot had no need to mark the route, none had need to go before the crowds with bayonettes to make way.  Words of peace contained this multitude, it fell into line at the sight of an ear of corn presented to it rather than a musket.

Even a breezy reading of this account reveals that the new foundation was not close to drying.

How do celebrate with the threat of force lingering?  We know of the many imprisonments and beheadings in general, but even here, “Lady Liberty” holds a club. Brutus kills his sons.  The chariot has daggers in the front, and so on. I have some sympathy . . . the only way to completely turn your country 180 degrees is by wrenching the wheel and holding on for dear life.  The question, remains, however . . . how much can you celebrate when you have the sword of Damocles hanging over your head?

A big difference exists between saying, “Everybody dance now!” and, “Everybody dance now.

No particular rhyme or reason exists for how the festival looks and proceeds.  Certain decisions will have to be arbitrary on some level of course.  Perhaps we understand, for example, that “democratic horses” would move “ploddingly” at a “steady” pace. But what if the choreographer had the horses hold their heads high and gallop down the causeway to show the “energy of liberty”?  Would that have been “democratic”. . . or “aristocratic?”

Many such confusions and differences in perception led to imprisonments and even death during the Reign of Terror.

Ultimately Azouf argues that the festivals served not as an emblem of the Revolution’s success but it’s failure.  One cannot invent out of thin air an embodiment of abstract ideals and expect everyone to go along with it.  Azouf herself comments that the revolution in general, and the festivals in particular, represented France’s attempt to reject the entirety of their history–tantamount to rejection of their very selves.  No one can sustain such efforts for long.

And yet . . . while the king eventually came back to France it did not take long to banish him again.  The cultural victory of the French Revolution’s de-sacralization campaign (which, as Azouf points out, involved “sacralizing” different values) took a long time, but France’s subsequent history shows that the revolutionaries won the political battle.

We too have a similar inheritance as the French, having undergone our own radical break from the past at much the same time.  We in time developed some national festivals (the World Series, the Super Bowl, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc.).  Time will tell whether or not this age of atomized individualism will wash those away.  If so, Azouf’s work testifies to the fact that at our core we need such celebrations, and even atomized individuals will find a way to create new festivals.

 

 

8th Grade: The Values of the Republic, The Practice of the Army

Greetings,

This week we continued our look at Rome by looking at the establishment of the Republic in 508 B.C., and how that related to power sharing between Patricians and Plebians.

We can see a variety of similarities between Rome’s revolution, and our own, and this comparison surely would have pleased on our own founding fathers.  But that does not necessarily mean that we should see democracy, in the technical sense of the word, in either time.    The Romans came to object to their kings for the following reasons:

1. Arbitrary and Personal Power

Ultimately, Roman kings did not have to use law as the basis of their rule.  They could, in the end, do as they pleased.  Law had the advantages of being public and stable.  Rulers could now be accountable to something outside of themselves

2. Secret Power

When kings make decisions, they often do so in secret,  perhaps with a few advisors.  Whether he took counsel or not, the reasons behind the decision would be unknown.  The Romans wanted to create a government where decisions got made in an open forum, with open debate.

3. Concentrated Power

In the pure monarchies all power flows from one source at all times.  The Romans took political power and divided it among various offices and branches.  They then made sure that they always had more than one person serving in a particular office.  Finally, each of their offices had only one year terms, and while they did not outright forbid serving multiple terms, they frowned sternly  upon it.

The best way to think about what the Romans did is to go to the technical definition of a Republic – a “Res Publica” – a “Public Thing.”  Laws, expectations, debates, all these things were out in the open for the Romans.  We should not expect to see the kind of democracy that Athens practiced here, though Rome’s republic certainly had democratic elements.  Their main priority lay in making sure that the government was “public” — open to debate, open to observation, etc.

This does not mean that the Romans established a democracy, though they did broaden the base of political power.  Still, for the most part power stayed in the hands of the Patricians, Rome’s aristocracy.  This happened not necessarily by design, but certain factors heavily contributed to it.

  • The Senate (comprised almost entirely of Patricians) had almost complete control of War and Peace.  Rome was often at war, and often won, which naturally enhanced the prestige and power of the Senate.  We have seen in our own democracy that whenever a foreign policy crisis strikes, domestic issues invariably take a back-seat.  Such was the relationship between the Assembly and the Senate in Rome.
  • As we noted last week, Rome was strongly traditional in its cultural leanings, and the Patricians had a vested interest in maintaining tradition.
  • The differences in wealth between Patricians and Plebians remained modest for most of the Republic’s history.  As we shall see in a few weeks, when this begins to change the Patricians faced more challenges to their power.
  • Finally, nothing succeeds like success.  For centuries, Rome grew and prospered under the general guidance of patricians.

The argument went deeper than this, however.  At root the question of, “What is Rome,” ran underneath the surface arguments.  For Patricians, Rome was an idea.  Rome’s ideals made Rome great, and Rome could only stay great if the people who led had dedication to those ideals.  For Plebians, Rome’s people made Rome great, and so Rome’s people deserved a greater share of power.  This tension would bubble beneath the surface for a long time, and how Rome eventually dealt with the problem would contribute to the unraveling of the Republic itself.

We also looked the basic grid plan of Roman cities, and discussed what they reflect about Rome.

Nothing shocks us here, but the methodical nature of the design reflects a few key Roman values, such as simplicity and unity.  The design pushes people toward the center, with an emphasis on togetherness.  The grid plan may also hint at the idea of equality, or at least equality under the law.

As Rome expanded they “cut and pasted” their city design into the conquered areas.  Rome valued habit, tradition, and togetherness.  They tended to look down on “going your own way” in general, and as we might expect, in the army as well.  The key to their military success lie in the fact that everyone stayed together, everyone did what they were told.

The values that went into the formation of their government and city design also went into their army, whether consciously or not. The standard Roman military formation looks somewhat like its city design, with the men spread out in checkerboard fashion:

Rome’s design gave them more flexibility of movement in the field, but each “maniple,” or individual grouping, had a high level of discipline.  This clip below, manages in 1:30 to show some of those values (warning: not bloody, but violent).

Greece, being a more individualistic society, had a long history of heroic individuals.  In Roman stories, the hero is Rome itself.  The clip illustrates a few key ideas along these lines:

  • When the whistle blows, the front lines move back, and others move up.  Normally soldiers would fight in front for much longer than the clip shows, but the principle is clear: we all share the burden equally.
  • Roman tactics, like their other values, were simple.  Block with the shield, strike with the sword around the enemy’s waist, step back into formation.  With this basic move they conquered much of the world around them.
  • No one gets out of line.  They do not tolerate even the successful “hero.”  Rome itself will always get the credit.  The cohesiveness of the line reflects the cohesive nature of their society.  And these cohesive military formations gave them a great advantage over other less cohesive, more heroically oriented tribes surrounding them.  In these kinds of circumstances, Rome simply did not lose.

Here is a clip from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, where you see the Roman army advance in their maniples.  The message seems to be that the city of Rome itself has come to fight as they fan out into their grid pattern.

Next week we will begin to look at Rome’s conflict with Carthage, a struggle that would define the destinies of both societies.

Have a great weekend,

Dave

Same Story, Different Day

Once upon a time a man lived in a good land.  His family prospered, and in time, his children and his children’s children filled this good land.  They had their own customs, faith, and rhythms of daily life.

But these good times did not last.  Eventually many others sought to rob these good people of their land.  Various kings and principalities invaded, one after the other.

The people resisted.  They fought bravely, but often these foreign invaders divided to conquer.  At times these good people found themselves at odds with one another.  Eventually the invaders persecuted them. Their very existence as a people seemed threatened.  But they had faith, and this faith will be rewarded.  Their perseverance led them to outlast the forces of history, and so their history in the modern era begins right where it left off many generations ago.

In a post about the failure of the Treaty of Versailles I discuss my view of the importance of narrative in the field of history, whether we study the past or make “history” in the present.  Analytical data or “rational” analysis about costs/benefits in the abstract will lead to wrong perceptions of reality.  A narrative view gives us a more full understanding, and when faced with a problem, a much better chance at solutions.

It sounds odd to say that I really enjoyed Padraig O’ Malley’s * The Two State Delusion: Israel and Palestine — A Tale of Two Narratives.  O’ Malley has little hope for peace if the “peace process” continues as before, and this gives the book a somber tone.  But I enjoyed it because I felt that O’Malley must be onto something by focusing not on particular events, or even security for one side or the other, but on the idea of the narratives both sides bring to the table.  One problem the two sides face is the distinct similarity in their narratives.  The structure of the story remains relatively same for them both, with different characters.

The story I told above fits both sides of the conflict, and to some extent both sides use the above narrative.

For Israel

  • They gained possession of a good land, grew and prospered, reaching their ancient peak during the reign of Solomon.
  • But soon after that, their kingdom fell prey to multiple invasions from the outside, be it Assyrians, Babylonians, or Romans.  They had to scatter throughout neighboring lands, but maintained their identity and culture.
  • They faced persecution from outsiders, culminating in the almost unimaginable horror of the Holocaust.
  • But — their persistence and faith paid off.  They returned, forged by suffering, and established themselves securely back in the land of their forefathers.

For the Palestinians . . .

  • They dwelt peacefully in the land in small communities for many generations
  • But — they fell prey to imperial forces, throughout time.  We can date their unjust subjugation in the modern era with their occupation by the Ottoman Turks from the 16th century to W.W. I.
  • At the turn of the 20th century they had independence promised them from another imperial power (the British).
  • But when it seemed like they might have their land back once again, they were betrayed and occupied  (by the British, who sponsored the return of Israeli’s).
  • Eventually, a host of foreign powers (the U.N.) imposed another conquering people upon them (the establishment of Israel — whose military might is financed from the west).  This new occupier fought a series of wars , scattering them from their homes in a host of illegal land grabs (Israel has routinely violated a varietyU.N. resolution and established settlements in occupied land).
  • But — they have faith.  Forged by suffering, their common bond to one another remains stronger than ever before.  They believe that one day, the land will be theirs once again.

Their narratives remain starkly similar, with the main problem being that:

  • For Israel, Palestinians are not often identified as average people, but as the next in a long line of foreign persecutors of Jews (i.e. PLO, Hamas, etc.)
  • For Palestinians, Israel is identified as an imperial power along the lines of the Ottomans and the British.

O’Malley rightly hones in on the common thread of the suffering of both sides.

The suffering of the Jewish people hardly needs an explanation.  Of course we have the Holocaust, but a lot of lower-level persecution existed before that for centuries throughout Europe.

What may be less obvious to us, and certainly seems less obvious to Israel, is the suffering of the Palestinians.  O’Malley asserts, and I agree, that if we could find any kernel to the disastrous relationship between the two, it lays here.

The Palestinian population has suffered greatly indirectly or directly from the presence of Israeli’s.  We could measure this in land lost to Israel, or in civilian deaths of Palestinians, which greatly outweigh those of Israeli’s due to terrorist attacks.  There also exists what one cannot measure–the wholesale breakup of communities and families due to Israeli occupation and settlements, and the wholesale dismemberment of the Palestinian Church–something Christian supporters of Israel sometimes forget.

The reason why I think it forms the core of the problem is that Israel cannot seem to admit that they have caused these problems.  Some of them one could plausibly ascribe to the “fortunes of war” or the “march of time,” but others, like the direct violation of U.N. resolutions to establish settlements, fall directly into their laps.  But it appears that the Jews in Israel, who has suffered so much at the hands of others, cannot admit that they themselves cause so much suffering to others.

The Palestinians, for their part, want more than grants of certain territory or water rights, they insist on a repentant, contrite Israel.  Having felt impotent and humiliated for so long themselves, they insist that Israel feel the same way.  The Palestinians cannot accept half-measures in this regard.  For example, Ariel Sharon released a statement along the lines of, “Israel regrets the suffering of the Palestinian people,” that the Palestinians found not just unacceptable, but insulting.  They don’t want Israel’s sympathy, they want Israel to admit fault without equivocation.  Nor can they see the above statement as a beginning of a process.  Rather, for them it represents a slap in the face.  “Ha!  This is all you get!”

Formal peace negotiations put Israel in a bit of bind, and we must sympathize with their position. Who speaks for Palestinians as a whole?  Who can negotiate for them?  If none can truly speak for them, then what good is any particular deal?  Why bother?

Israel complains that the Palestinians have not been able to absorb refugees and form stable, coherent political organizations.  After all, they themselves (that is, the Jewish settler in Israel) started with nothing and have formed a modern first-world state.  They absorbed thousands of newcomers and refugees from different countries.  They speak truth in this claim.  But, as O’Malley points out, why should the Palestinians have to form modern western political organizations?  Things moved along nicely for them without such things before Israel arrived, and can continue to do. But it appears that history may overwhelm the Palestinians and force them into an uncomfortable mold, one which will put them at a disadvantage vis a vis Israel.

The relationship between the two has calcified to such an extent that O’Malley recommends that they cease the formal peace process itself, and instead focus on healing their own psychological scars.  The peace process has also been initiated not by each other but by various American presidents looking to make their mark.  Whatever the cause, O’Malley suggests that now “negotiations” serve as a platform for each side to vent grievances or talk to their respective political bases, and not each other.  The peace process serves now to simply enable and confirm their already deeply held beliefs.

In one section of Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis talked about his impatience for how many make moral judgments.  “War is a terrible evil!” some cried.  “Yes,” Lewis agreed, but times exist when war is more morally justifiable than the current “peace.”  Sometimes issues must be considered on a relative scale.  He even mentioned dueling.  Yes, dueling often involved murder, but he admitted that there might be some instances when even a duel to the death might be preferable to indulging in a lifetime of hatred and bitterness, and passing on that hatred, that would in time destroy one’s soul.

I thought of this section when reading this book.  In this scenario both sides have their share of the blame.  As purely personal opinion I give a slight majority of blame to the Israeli side.  They are the stronger (though they don’t realize this), and they–as a formal nation with coherent leadership–have violated international law on numerous occasions.  I distinguish this from Palestinian acts of terror, which I do not believe represent–or at least always represent–the whole of the Palestinian people.  So I root for a Palestinian homeland, and feel that surely this cause has justice on its side.

And yet, the current situation destroys both sides, and there appears no end in sight.  All O’ Malley can see in is a continuation of deep fear and deep hatred growing — hence the title of his book.  A two-state solution simply will not work in the current psychological climate.

So would a “duel” of sorts be a preferable solution?  What would that even look like?  Should Israel just “get on with it” and exile the Palestinians?  This would be cruel, but it would hopefully have the ancillary effect of forcing Palestinians to start over.

On the other hand . . .

Many Palestinians believe they are close to winning.  This victory would not be physical in nature, but moral and psychological.  Some feel that if Israel goes much further they will completely delegitimize themselves internationally, and rot themselves from within morally.  They will then, as an act of atonement, give Palestinians a homeland at least to the 1967 borders.

I do not share this view, but see no other solution that will work in the current environment.  The two sides share the same space and tell the same story, but with different characters playing different roles.  I would guess that nothing will change until both sides tell themselves a different story.

Dave

*It sounds odd for an Irishman to write a definitive book on this subject, but his previous books dealt with Irish/English history and apartheid in South Africa.

“The Sword and the Olive”

The modern history of Israel poses many questions, their 65 years lived at breakneck speed have given us many lessons.  But the questions about their state, the Palestinians, their neighbors, and so on are enormously complex.  Some historians seek to tackle all aspects of the problem but books of that nature can often be too long, heavy on details, weak on conclusions, leaving readers with no clear answers and no path to discover them on their own.

With problems of this sort, I tend to think that books that focus on one particular aspect of the issues often serve readers better than all-encompassing tomes.  The narrowness of focus makes no pretense to answer every question, but it can provide a clear narrative arc, and thus give definite shape to at least some of the puzzle pieces. Martin van Creveld’s The Sword and the Olive fulfills this purpose, much like Byron Farwell’s The Armies of the Raj.  Creveld does not tackle the broader “should” questions (i.e. should Israel have been given ‘x’ land, should they occupy the West Bank, etc.), but traces the effects of various decisions nicely in this history of the Israeli army.

While various militarized Zionist groups long predated W.W. II, the Israeli army takes as its main starting point the formation of the state.  Early on Creveld introduces one of his main themes, that the trauma of the Holocaust created a moral weight to the Jewish cause.  This in turn formed a social cohesion that enabled an army to achieve near mythical status within a few short years.  Creveld lives in Israel and I assume is Jewish himself, but he attempts no sugarcoating of either Jews, Palestinians, or Arabs.   His seeks to show, however, that whatever the strength of Palestinian claims, the Jews simply had stronger ones in the immediate context of the post-war years.  When Palestine lingered under lame-duck British authority thousands of Jewish immigrants poured illegally into Palestine and settled beyond established boundaries.  These illegal settlements received protection from Jewish militias.  The British discovered that sometimes the strong must suffer the actions of the weak.  How could the British enforce their authority and detain/fire upon people with numbered tattoos on their arms from Auschwitz in 1947?   Every British “victory” over Jewish militias only made their position more and more untenable.

The story of the “War for Independence” in 1948 had a similar theme.  Palestinians outnumbered Jews but tended to spread out in rural areas, whereas Jews settled in mostly urban areas and therefore had a more formal political structure.  The countries that attacked Israel shared few common goals and even had some conflicting ones.  The psychological sense of mission and purpose gave Israel a great army.  As Napoleon remarked, “In war the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”

Israel was a democracy in many ways, but their initial victory helped lead to some generally non-democratic ideas.

  • Democracies at least like to think of themselves as defensive in nature, and so did Israel.  But the nature of their geography led to a sense of being continually under siege.  In war, they developed a “strike-first” mentality — war must always be fought on the enemies territory.  They would have ironically agreed with the Prussian Frederick the Great’s motto of “Audacity, audacity, and still more audacity!”  Even more ironically, this led Israel to develop tactics that strongly resembled the blitzkrieg of 1939-41.
  • As Tocqueville noted, most democracies have a generally ambivalent attitude toward the army, but not Israel.  After 1948, and especially after 1967, the army had near god-like status within the state.  This led to a political structure where the army had very little official civilian oversight, and even less in practical terms.
  • The sense of unity had to do with their circumstances, but also perhaps due to the settling of Israel by many eastern-European Jews with socialist leanings.  In any case, Israel quickly developed strong censorship laws with anything to do with security.  They deemed this necessary given that they felt alone not only where they stood geographically, but also in the international arena.  The Holocaust showed that the world would abandon Jews if it suited them.  The media helped develop these laws.  But democracies are also open societies, so usually censors had the job of keeping Israeli’s ignorant of what everyone else around the world knew.

Some of these contradictions would have to work themselves out at some point.

The psychological and moral factors of the post-war years created a juggernaut military with sky high morale.  But Israel’s very success would help to change this dynamic.  Occupying more territory meant the need to increase the size of the army.  This in turn meant more recruits, and the social cohesion that once characterized the army — an army where everyone knew everyone else — began to erode.  An army with a civilian-militia ethos turned professional.  Israel condensed about 200 years of Roman history (ca. 202-27 B.C.) into about 20 of their own.

Israel soon developed a much stronger military than their neighbors, but they kept their siege mentality.  This meant that when they engaged the PLO in the 1970’s, and especially in Lebanon in the early 1980’s, that the strong/weak dynamic that had served them so well psychologically had now flipped against them.  They were now strong and secure, their enemies had “weakness” on their side.  The “us against the world” attitude that served them so well now fought against them.  Now Israel faced an identity crisis.  What would they do with success?  Bold, aggressive, and occasional “outside the lines” actions could be tolerated and even expected when “fighting for one’s life.”  But they did not get the same pass under these new circumstances.  No one thought that PLO hideouts within Lebanon posed anything more than a nuisance to the state.  As Creveld commented, the strong should never fight the weak for very long.  Lao-Tsu noted similarly that a sword thrust into sea-water turns to rust.

The unquestioning public support that the military enjoyed for so many years now eroded, and this led to erosion within the army itself.  Their war in Lebanon had far fewer casualties and far less real fighting than their previous wars, but the number of psychological maladies effecting soldiers skyrocketed, as did the number of civilians who refused to serve, or found medical exemptions for their service.  The power of the government to investigate the military increased, albeit only slightly.  Certainly soldiers no longer wore their uniforms off-duty, as once was common.

The Israeli army today still maintains a high level of professional competence and tactical superiority over its neighbors, but they unquestionably lost something of the “soul” of their army.  And because Israel made the army such a integral part of their identity, something in Israel itself has no doubt been lost as well.  What Vietnam was for us, Lebanon was for them.  If our experience proves any kind of mirror, they can recover some of what they lost, but Israel will not be able to go home again.  The golden age of the Israeli military has come and gone.

9th/10th Grade: The Gods Athirst

Greetings,

This week we continued to look at the French Revolution through a few different events.

As I mentioned last week, how the French defined the “people” of France would be crucial to how the revolution itself would take shape.  I asked the students how they would define who the “people” of America would be, and I got the following responses:

  • Anyone who lives here (but does this also include illegal immigrants, or people here legally on visas, green cards, etc.?)
  • Anyone who is a citizen (but would this include those who live here legally but are not citizens?)
  • Anyone who “believes” in American values and our way of life (but would this mean that someone living in Sweden could be part of the “people,” and would it exclude a citizen who did not believe in the American way?

The concept is obviously hard to define even for us, with a settled way of life and political traditions.  Imagine how much harder, then, it would be to define “the people” in the midst of internal upheaval and the threat of foreign invasion.  We sparked a good debate when I proposed the following scenario:

Imagine that America has undergone a major political revolution.  We have replaced our form of government with a divine-right monarchy that holds power tenuously throughout the country.  Of course, there are many who object to these changes and wish to see a return of the old ways.

Now suppose that China has decided to invade America with the express purpose of restoring the constitution and the president ousted by the revolution that replaced him with a king.  We can further suppose that the ex-president had good relations with China and the current king wants to alter all of our trade agreements with them.  Many oppose the invasion out of a sense of patriotism and/or loyalty to the Revolution, but many others hope for a Chinese victory and a restoration of the Constitution.

Which group would be more “American?”  The group that wanted to defeat China, or the group that hoped for a Chinese victory over American forces?

The question carries enormous weight, for only “the people” of France will get the rights due to the French people.

With this in mind, we can look at two key events.

1. The Storming of the Royal Residence: August 10, 1792

One of the keys to kingship working is the perceived mystical distance between the king and other men.  No one makes a king, kings are born.  He does not chose his life, God chooses him to rule by virtue of his birth.  As a man, a king is no different from anyone, but as king he takes on a different identity.

Royalty has always sought to maintain this distance through their dress, their manners, their homes, and so on.

At the start of the revolution many still wanted a strong king in France.  As the revolution progressed most slowly abandoned tat idea until Louis’ very existence threatened the revolution itself.  Finally on August 10 a mob stormed the palace, brutally slew many of the guards and servants, and might have done the same to Louis and Marie had they not escaped.  In one act, the people eradicated the perceived distance between the monarchy and themselves.  Louis had no power left.

2. The September Massacres, 1792

The events of August 10 did not cause the Austrians and Prussians to invade France all by itself, but it did propel those armies to greater alacrity in their attempt to restore Louis’ power.  As the armies moved closer to France, many feared that prisons in France (which contained ‘counter-revolutionaries’ after all) would be liberated to serve as “5th Column” to aid the foreign invasion.

From September 2-5 mobs went to various prisons, monasteries, and convents in France systematically butchering most of those inside.  The death of Marie Antoinette’ friend Princess Lamballe exemplifies France’s descent into paganism.  They cut off her head and paraded it in front of Marie’s prison window.  Then, according some accounts, they also cut out her heart and ate it.

3. The Death of Marat

Jean-Paul Marat failed at most things in life before he came to edit the tabloid “The Friend of the People.”  More than others he celebrated and encouraged the violence of the revolution, at one point calling for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of the “enemies of the people.”  A young woman named Charlotte Corday believed in the Revolution but also thought Marat a tyrant.  She gained access to him and plunged a knife into his chest.

Corday hoped that Marat’s death would quell violence, but tragically it had the opposite effect.  She hoped to end tyranny, but created a martyr.  It also served to confirm the paranoia of many other revolutionary leaders.  Who could you trust?  Corday posed as a revolutionary, but struck against it.  Anyone, in fact, could secretly be an enemy.  Marat’s death did not create the Reign of Terror, but it did help contribute to it.

If you have interest, Simon Schama has an excellent treatment of David’s famous painting of Marat’s death below.

One of the ways in which they attempted to smoke-out counter-revolutionaries was through the then equivalent of a modern day block party.  Usually attendance at such gatherings was mandatory, for they meant to celebrate the revolutionary oneness of the people.  It sounds harmless enough, but these “parties” terrified many.  You had to be careful not to stand out in the crowd.  The government had proclaimed the need to strike out against “fanaticism” and “moderation.”  If you showed too much enthusiasm for the Revolution, you probably were not being natural and so only sought to mask your true anti-revolutionary intent.  If you showed too little enthusiasm, you again showed your lack of zeal.  This is why these “parties” terrified so many.  You had to avoid standing out in the crowd.

What would you wear to such gatherings?  If you overdressed, you could be seen as “better than others.”  If you underdressed, you obviously showed no respect for the “people of France.”  What food should you bring?  Bring too little, you’re a cheapskate, don’t care about the people, etc.  Bring too much and you fall prey to the “you think you’re better than us,” suspicion, or perhaps others might think that you have secretly hoarded goods and hidden wealth from “the people.”

This fear of being labelled a hoarder proved especially potent.  The revolution had not improved economic conditions in France, contrary to expectations.  But with their Enlightenment beliefs, the removal of the bad monarchical institutions should have, by definition, fixed the problem.  The fact that everything did not work well showed that the Revolution must have been undermined from within.  Hence, the need to find hoarders, the secret enemies of the people.  Saturn had turned on his children — the gods athirst.

I also wanted the students to think about how the layout of the city can contribute to the possibility of a revolt.  Many in 1789 commented that few cities had a layout more conducive to revolution than Paris.  Here is an image of the city in 1788:

I then asked the students to redesign the city to make revolution less likely, which meant of course they had to think about why the city might be susceptible to revolution in the first place.

A few generations later Napoleon III wanted the city redesigned specifically to discourage the possibility of further revolution.  The map below indicates some of his changes, with the red strips representing broad thoroughfares, and the the darker blue representing wide public spaces.

Many thanks!

Dave M

Guenon and the Monsters

A recent local article mentioned that one Fairfax County School (Herndon HS) will cease allowing students to use their phones in class. Anyone familiar with reality knows that listening to one’s phone in class, or texting, or scrolling through Instagram, will hinder the learning process. Of course, the rule has loopholes that some will exploit. Perhaps more embarrassing for our civilization than the actual presence of phones in class–teachers may give students a 5 minute “phone break” during instruction if necessary. Most interesting to me from a cultural perspective, however, was the stated rationale for the policy: the phones need removed, for they may distract from other students learning. I applaud the school’s principal move to ban phones. The rationale for the decision, however, will not allow any real progress in education.

When we cannot state the obvious–i.e., students with phones out distract themselves far more than others–we have discovered a sacred cow of our times. But this fits in with other aspects of our culture. So strong runs our belief even in the power of a 15 year-old to define their lives ad nauseam, that parents, teachers, our society, will not attempt to define reality for them. We will not tell them that phones hurt themselves, for we likely would have response for, “It might hurt others, but not me,” and no idea what kind of general embodiment we would ask from our children.

If this reads so far like a cranky reactionary, well, that can be me at times. But I have far to go to reach the crankiness of Rene Guenon. He appreciated essentially nothing of modern life. But we should not dismiss him. The Crisis of the Modern World shows real prescience (he wrote this in 1927). His symbolic framing of the topics he examines make his work intuitive to understand and important for our times.

First, what failed to impress me about the book:

  • Guenon has some brilliant insights in his critique of the modern west, but he ascribes nothing good at all to the West and finds salvation only in the East. I understand taking a big swing for effect, but in this case, the book made me want to think of ways to defend the west. His overreach has the opposite effect on me.
  • I cannot tell quite where Guenon stands religiously, which I think important in a work like this. On the one hand, he has much to praise about Hinduism. On the other, we know he converted to Islam a bit after writing this work. He also argued that the West’s only hope lay in the faint possibility of revival of true Catholicism. Perhaps he dabbled in the idea of Perennialism, which seems to run counter to his main point of commitment to a tradition. Or–perhaps Guenon at the time of this writing lacked internal clarity himself, and if so it shows a bit in this book.

Now, on to the good stuff. . .

Guenon begins by critiquing the modern west’s view of linear progress. We see time functioning as a line, and our technological and political progress demonstrating that this line moves upwards. We no longer have the same attachment to the idea of inevitable progress as 100 years ago, but we still measure progress in material terms, i.e., how the economy functions, what new technology we invent, etc. But the core of our problem lies here. How we measure time and progress put us in continuously impossible situations that we cannot comprehend, due to the angle of our vision, akin to someone who scratches their irritation and wonders why it still itches.

Ancient and traditional societies put their focus on retaining meaning within their culture, not in increasing power or wealth. Our focus on power over our environment has led us “down the mountain” towards disunity of mind and society in general. The ancient world also tended to see time as cyclical, which Guenon thinks key to his thesis about time. I disagree, but it influences his view of how our culture has moved from “higher” to “lower” things. He writes,

It will doubtless be asked why cyclic development must proceed in this manner, in a downward direction, from higher to lower, a course that will at once be perceived as a complete antithesis to progress as the moderns understand it. The reason is . . . it implies a gradual increasing of distance fro the principle from which it proceeds; starting from the highest point, it tends downward, and as with heavy bodies, the speed of its motion increases continuously until finally it reaches a point at which it is stopped. This fall could be described as “progressive materialization.”

The project of the western world for the last 500 years or so has generally involved deconstruction of the world through a focus on gaining power over our environment. Rather than a circle, I prefer the image of a mountain to explain this process, something that I will not rehash in full here (I have written about this in other posts linked above). Of course mountains have a prominent role in almost every traditional culture, including ancient Israel (Mt. Sinai, Mt. Zion, etc.). The top of the mountain allows one a unity of vision, though it entails a necessary blending of various particularities. Descending down the mountain comes naturally. It’s easier than going up. This downward movement also gives you increased ability to see particular things with greater distinction and contrast to other things around it. But to accomplish this, one must sacrifice a unity of perspective. The methods western society employs lead us to chaos and disunity, which will manifest itself in our souls and our societies.

For example, we can take the idea prevalent in modern parlance that trade will unify countries and draw them together. The more trade, the more unity. Guenon argues that, in fact, increased trade between peoples will likely lead to more conflict, not less. Perhaps we see the pattern. Trade in goods means focusing on materiality, and focusing on matter means dividing reality–and we divide to conquer. Guenon wrote just shortly after the horror of W.W. I. But in the years leading up to that conflict, Germany and England were primary trading partners.

Thirty years ago many argued that the U.S. should increase trade with China to cement good relations between us, which would help China improve its record on human rights. In fact, what has happened is just as Guenon would predict–China and the U.S. like each other less, and trade in material goods has only served to increase China’s power. A more immediate example–Europe’s use of Russian oil and gas has done nothing to make them like each other more. Perhaps trade may make disparate cultures a bit more alike, but history shows that we tend to fight more with those who look a bit skewed to us, rather than those who are completely different. For example, lots of historians pour vitriol on the Middle Ages, which has similarities and differences to the modern world, but no one “hates” ancient Egypt, which maintains a proper, non-threatening distance from us. In any case, when we act against the pattern of reality, we suffer for it.

The political schisms the western world experiences now have their origin in our souls. Many marvel at why, despite unprecedented material opportunities and prosperity, we see such a spike in suicide, escapist drugs, depression, and other mental illnesses. Guenon sees an obvious connection. A focus on “materiality” inevitably means a focus on particularity, which means division. Two years ago many believed that the presence of COVID might at least have the silver lining effect of bringing us together and helping heal our political divisions. Of course, nearly two years of focus on the particularity of tiny molecules and the various means of treating said molecules have driven us even farther apart, which again Guenon could have predicted.*

But because Guenon has a primarily cyclical view of reality, a degree of hope exists, for this is not the first time civilization has experienced this descent into “progressive materialization.” In the history of the world, he sees in the 6th century B.C. a period when unity descended into division. He writes,

In the sixth century [B.C.] changes took place for one reason or another amongst almost all peoples . . . for example, in China, where doctrine previously established as a unified whole divided clearly into two distinct parts: Taoism, reserved for the elite and comprising pure metaphysics . . ., and Confuscianism, . . . whose domain was that of practical and social applications. In India . . . this period saw the rise of Buddhism, that is to say, a revolt against the traditional spirit . . . Moving westward we see that for the Jews this was the time of the Babylonian captivity and perhaps one of the most astonishing of all these happenings is that a short period of 70 years should have sufficed for the Jews to forget even their alphabet . . .

. . . for Rome it was the beginning of the ‘historical’ period, which followed on the ‘legendary’ period of the kings. [In Greece also], the 6th century was the start of so-called ‘classical’ civilization, which alone is entitled–according to the moderns–to be considered ‘historical.’**

This moment in Greece inaugurated the discipline of philosophy, so dear to the western intellectual tradition. What began more or less in innocence devolved into an exaltation of the rational, and hence, the analytical side of man over and above all things.

The tendencies that found expression among the Greeks had to be pushed to the extreme . . . before we could arrive at “rationalism,” a specifically modern attitude that consists in not merely ignoring, but expressly denying, everything of a supra-rational order.

Christianity arose via the collapse of western civilization in the 5th century A.D., and reasserted more traditional ways of knowing. We can see this in how history got written, with the examples of Ammianus Marcellinus, writing at the time of Rome’s decline. His precise factual accuracy has high value in today’s world. But even Gibbon found him unreadably dull and shortsighted, commenting that, “The coarse and undistinguishing pencil of Ammianus has delineated his bloody figures with tedious and disgusting accuracy.” We can compare him with the author/s? of the roughly contemporaneous Alexander Romance, which had universal appeal, with eventual versions written in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Ethiopian, to name a few. Many dismiss the work as “fantastical” (it has Alexander encountering mythical beasts such centaurs) but it had broad appeal for a reason. The work seeks to interpret the life of Alexander, and thus communicate meaning, not facts. Traditional cultures understand this difference in ways that elude us, making much of the “legendary” histories written in the past unintelligible to us.

With medieval culture Guenon believes that we see the turn of history’s wheel back towards the apex of the cycle. They focused on wisdom through inhabiting meaning over analysis. But the wheel keeps turning, which brings us to the Renaissance. For Guenon, moderns get it backwards. The “Middle Ages” was not merely a bridge between “civilization” (which the term “Middle Ages” implies), but a time of actual civilization in between decayed epochs. As for the Renaissance,

As we have said . . . . the Renaissance was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things; on the pretext of being a return to Greco-Latin civilization, it merely took over the outward part of it, since this was the only part that could be expressed clearly in written texts; and in any case, this incomplete restoration was bound to have very artificial character, as it meant a re-establishment of forms whose real life had gone out of them centuries before. . . . Henceforth there was only ‘profane’ philosophy and ‘profane’ science, in other words, the negation of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, namely the empirical and analytical study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion of an indefinite multitude of insignificant details . . .^

All of this ends with the ‘Individual’ as the only form of reality left that we recognize, hence the problem one encounters in a public school when you want to ban cellphones. Our individuality has generated the chaos of defining one’s own reality through social media, or through simple assertions of will, as Neo lamely articulated in the third Matrix installment. Some try and plug the holes in the ship by earnestly urging us to focus on the “facts.” Alas, like those that focus on trade, or “the science,” to bring us together fail to see that the “facts” can never accomplish that task. Focusing on meaning by examining things outside of their context separates things from other things, and so it will divide selves from other selves.^^.

The distortions of the modern have created a reality that Guenon calls “monstrous.” A “monster,” by definition, is something that exists internally and externally out of proper proportion. We may think that we have traded unity for diversity, and since both have their place, we will at least have one even if we lack the other. Guenon disagrees, “since unity is the principle out of which all multiplicity arises.” So–we will be left only with a naked assertion of will whereby we seek to subsume all things into ourselves. This brings the flood, and a restarting of the cycle.

As powerfully as Guenon writes, I push back in one particular. Guenon, influenced by his possible Perennialism, hovers perhaps a bit too far above the mountaintop. He seemingly fails to see that the reality he wants to inhabit has irregularities. The orbiting of the planets, like our own bodies, lack perfect symmetry. Parts of reality are “weird,” and we occasionally see creatures and situations that defy categories. Exceptions to rules exist. Where Guenon is right, however, is that those exceptions don’t destroy the form, but merely give it room to breathe.

Dave

*Many social conservatives like myself who want to rein in society’s affirmation of school-children wanting gender reassignment surgery put the focus on biology–“there are only two genders,” and so on. I have seen Ben Shapiro, for example, consistently go to this well. But focusing on “the science” perpetuates confusion, for the same reasons discussed above. A focus on deconstructing physical matter will never answer this question, because one can always find exceptions when looking to deconstruct. Those that push back against him are wrong in their conclusion but at least partially right in their method. “Why should I submit to matter?” they seem to be saying. “Shouldn’t the lower serve the higher?”

**Curiously, Guenon fails to note that at around exactly the same time in Greece and in Rome, we see a movement towards more democracy. I would not call the Roman Republic ‘democratic,’ but certainly it was more democratic than their previous era. I find it curious that he passes on a chance to point out another move away from unity towards diversity/particularity.

^Guenon later writes that philosophy, following this form, has grown obsessed with abstractions and “problems,” and multiplying difficulties rather than expounding “wisdom.”

^^COVID did indeed present us with an opportunity, but one that we missed. Rather than exclusively focusing on how to combat the disease, and whether or not this or that measure helped prevent it and by how much, we should have focused on how to preserve meaning and coherence amidst the disease. Instead, we were basically told to stay at home and watch Netflix.

9th/10th Grade: The Inevitability of Revolutionary Violence?

Greetings,

This week we saw the French Revolution immediately take a dangerous turn, and I wanted us to consider why violence formed such an integral part of the Revolution.  I think we can offer a variety of possible answers to this question.

Historian Simon Schama made an interesting observation regarding the nature of the change that gripped France.  If we go back to the France during the heyday of Versailles, we see the king rigidly controlling events.  The spectacle of Versailles began with the king and sometimes ended with him as well.

Louis XVI had a modernist, progressive bent.  He loved science, and joyfully hosted some of the first ballooning experiments on the grounds of Versailles.  The experiments were a great triumph, but in some ways worked against Louis.  With the balloons up in the air, nature controlled the spectacle.  The wind blows,i.e., nature speaks, and the reaction occurs.  The air was public space.  We see this concept of the Revolution as a “force of nature” in David’s drawing of the Tennis Court Oath (note the rush of wind occupying the top areas of the painting).

The revolution then, was a “force of nature” in the minds of many,  outside the control of the king, or anyone else, for that matter.  One must follow where it led — you had no choice.

Traditionally historians have viewed the Revolution as happening in two phases:

1) The idealistic, peaceful, “good” phase from 1789-1792, and

2) The ugly, destructive phase that began in 1792 and lasted until 1794.

Following Simon Schama and his stellar book Citizens, I disagree with this characterization.  Violence and political action went hand in hand in 1788, for example, a year before the Revolution proper began.  Bastille Day in 1789 saw the mob beat Captain DeLaunay to death and put his head on a pike.  The language of blood had much cache in the rhetoric of the time, with orators often proclaiming their desire to shed their blood for the cause, or the need for blood to “water the soil of the fatherland,” blood as the “cement of the new republic,” and so on.

Part of understanding the violence involves understanding the nature of sin itself.  How often have we thought that if we do this one bad thing, we can quickly then step back, shut the lid on our misdeeds, and return to righteous behavior.  But as Scriptural language makes clear, once sin has room to maneuver it tends to take control.  Once they used violence to achieve small objectives, it began to have a life and logic of its own.  Pandora’s box had opened.

Part of the reason for the violence also involves what the French tried to accomplish with their revolution.  Stop and ponder for a moment how many political questions we take for granted. Who gets rights?  Who is a citizen?  How should we apportion political power?  Americans disagree a lot about politics, but nearly all our arguments deal with what to do within the existing system.

But what if we had to completely rethink all of those things on the fly, for this is what the French faced.  Naturally they had many disagreements about fundamental political questions.  Under pressure from foreign powers, did the French have the space and time to decide these questions?  The lazy way out would mean violence.  One can weary of talking endlessly, especially under pressure.  “Since we cannot agree on who gets the last cookie and I’m tired of talking, I’ll shove you out of the way and grab it myself.”

The art of the period reflected some of this change of mindset.  The artistic style called “Rococo” tended to dominate in the period prior to the Revolution, with this painting as perhaps the pre-eminent example:

The emphasis here was on light, softness, and the pleasures (though its critics used the word “frivolity) of life.  Art presaged the political shift of the Revolution.  The colors got bolder, the subject matter more serious, and the focus shifted from celebrating life to facing death.

Here is Jacques Louis-David’s “The Oath of the Horatii,” from a story in Roman history that celebrated the sacrifice of the three brothers for Rome.

And below, “Brutus and His Sons,” which again uses Rome as the narrative template.  Brutus served as one of Rome’s first consuls, its chief law enforcement officer.  But two of his sons participated in a plot to bring back the monarchy.  The punishment was death, and Brutus had the duty of executing the punishment.  As in the picture above, the men have steely resolve while the women swoon:

The semi-apocalyptic tone of the art no doubt captured the existing mood, but also propelled French society toward violence.

We also cannot underestimate the climate of fear that gripped France.  They knew that their attempts to remake their society would draw the ire of other nations.  Austria and Prussia sent armies to invade their country, and France itself had to deal with an army whose aristocratic officer corp had largely fled or been discredited.  But once the French began the Revolution, they could not turn back.  They had already done enough to face punishment from other nations or a restored Louis XVI.  If, for example, you knew you would be hung for the thefts you committed, would you try and kill the witnesses?  What more could the authorities do to you?  Facing domestic uncertainty and international pressure, success became mandatory for the revolutionaries.  This desperation surely contributed to the violence.  Tragically (and not surprisingly) they eventually turned this fear and desperation on each other.  Saturn would eat his children.

It was in this climate of fear that the French had to decide who constituted the “people” of France.  Usually nations decide this along the lines of birth, but many in France thought this could not work, since not all favored the Revolution.  If those who did not go along with the Revolution were “oppressors” of the people, could oppressors of the people be part of the people?  Why give rights to those who work against the nation? This led to the French defining citizenship along ideological lines, which had a disastrous impact on the Revolution.

Violence played a crucial part in this decision too.  On Bastille Day crowds already began executing people without trial.  If those executed were part of “the people” then their actions were obviously illegal.  But to call those actions illegal would call the whole revolution into question.  So, the natural conclusion would be that those executed were not in fact part of France after all, and not deserving of rights.

Next week we will see where these ideas lead the Revolution.

8th Grade: The Country Rome and the City Rome

Greetings,

This week we started our unit on the Romans, where will remain for the rest of the year.  We began by looking at Italian geography and made the following observations:

  • Roman civilization began not in the more fertile southeast of Italy, but in the more challenging south-central area near Rome itself.  We have met the concept that civilizations flourish not in ideal circumstances, but moderately challenging ones, as in other civilizations like Egypt.
  • We noted that unlike Greece, Italy favored more agriculture. While Italy is a peninsula and never too far from water, it has a fairly even coastline without many ports.  The best ports are in the southeast, but Rome did not get there until nearly five centuries of its history had elapsed.  By that time, Rome had a thoroughly rural bent to their way of life.
  • If one stands in Rome, it seems the land tended to run downhill in a north-eastern direction.  If true, even slightly, this may help explain why Rome’s conquests ran initially towards that direction.  This in turn meant that Rome would not have any significant interaction with the naval oriented cultures of Greece and Carthage until around 300 B.C.  So, while Greece and Rome would inevitably share certain similarities due in part to their common geography, Rome developed along different lines than Greece in the early part of its history.

Here is a topographical map of Italy:

This agricultural bent of Rome shaped their civilization in ways similar to other agriculturally oriented areas, like Egypt.  Just like rural cultures today, Rome based much of their way of life around tradition, the past, routine, and practicality.  Both urban and rural cultures have strengths, but a key question for Rome would how they would react when they did interact with the more cosmopolitan Mediterranean.   When it comes, this clash will determine the fate of Rome, Greece, and Carthage.  As Rome conquered others, they could not avoid confronting the possibility of changing their own identity.

We likened Rome to a young farm boy (we’ll call him ‘Jim’)who goes off to New York City for college, and postulated three different outcomes.

  • Benign Awkwardness — Jim doesn’t really fit in city life, and knows it.  He try particularly hard to fit in either, and soon wearies of his clumsy attempts.  He keeps his rural identity, plugs along more or less alone at school, goes home on weekends, and returns home after graduation.
  • A Happy Medium — Here Jim keeps his roots, but also approaches NYC with an open mind.  He learns to see the good and bad of both city and rural life, and picks and chooses from both like a cafeteria menu.  The experience changes Jim, but he learns to enjoy both environments without changing who he fundamentally is.  This ideal reaction, however, is probably the least likely of the three possibilities I list here.
  • Drink from the Fire hose — Jim becomes completely enamored with his new surroundings.  He chucks his rural identity and jumps in with both feet into city life.  Tragically, he doesn’t even manage to attach an urban identity to himself.  He so obviously ‘tries too hard’ that he fails to find acceptance, and this rejection only makes him try harder.  His actions leave him with no identity at all.

How Rome faces this challenge will be the subject of our study in the weeks to come.

Next week we will look at Roman religion and the extreme emphasis on the practical over the theoretical.  Again, it will help us if we remember that Rome was a nation of farmers, who often have little use for theory and speculation, and who focus on soil, crops, and so on.

Ancient chroniclers agree that the Romans were a religious people, unlike the Greeks.  But their sense of religion was also much different than in Egypt, for example, another ancient “religious” people.  In Egypt, their beliefs filtered down into the government, architecture, and where they lived.  Their literature is filled with stories of the gods.  They wrote psalms/hymns of praise to their gods.

We see nothing like this in Rome.  The Romans had devotion to their religious duties, but they saw “religion” usually in terms of “checking off the box.”  They would do what they needed to do, but rarely did their religion touch their souls, and a variety of stories from their past illustrate this.

Machiavelli recounts a story from Livy, where a Roman general wanted to attack the enemy, which I recount below. . .

The consul Papirius, in conducting a war against the Samnites, [saw a favorable moment to fight], and ordered that the priests take the auspices.  The birds, however, did not eat.  But the chief priest, seeing the great desire of the army to fight, and their confidence in victory, reported to the consul that the auspices were in fact favorable.  But one of the assistant priests told the consul that the chief priest lied.  . . . And so the consul put the Chief Priest in the front ranks of the army, and it happened by chance that a Roman arrow struck the chief priest, whereupon he died. When Papirius heard this, he declared that whatever wrath the gods felt toward them had been appeased, and thus by apparently to accommodate his designs to the auspices, Papirius gave battle without giving the appearance of neglecting his religious duty.

Was the general ‘impious?

According to the Romans, not at all.  He did his duty.  He took the sacrifices.  A priest told him that the gods approved.  And they won.

Machiavelli relates another story. . .

Appius Pulcher acted just the contrary way in Sicily during the first Punic war; for wishing to fight the Carthaginian army, he caused the priests to take the auspices, and when they reported that they did not eat, he said, “Then let us see whether or not they drink,” and threw the birds into the sea.  He then went into battle and was defeated, for which he was punished in Rome.

The historian Livy goes on to say that Pulcher was not punished for losing, but for his brazen impiety.  Paprius “kept up appearances,” whereas Pulcher did not.  But I have doubts.  If Pulcher had won the battle, would he have been punished?  What these stories show, I think, is that Rome really worshipped Rome itself.  All things bowed to glory of Rome.  Was then their religion a mere smokescreen?  We know, for example, that Roman religion technically forbade offensive war of any kind, yet they became one of the greatest conquering empires they world has ever known.  Something it seems, gave at some point.

Blessings,

Dave

Mankind, Armies, and Strategy

I have always had great sympathy for Louis XVI. As far as moral character goes, he far outstripped his two predecessors. He had a genuine Christian faith and a genuine love for his family. The first several years of his reign show a movement towards humanitarian and scientific improvements throughout the country, and he sought to limit spending and the Versailles fluffery that characterized Louis XIV-XV. It seems ironic and almost non-sensical that the French Revolution should have come for him. It makes sense, however, when one realizes that for all his virtues, Louis could not play the role of King when it counted most. He had the very common foibles of indecisiveness, and wanting to be liked a bit too much. One can easily pass over such flaws in a common person, but at the wrong place and time, those in power with such flaws receive no mercy from history.

One can see this crucial difference between the three monarchs in their portraits. First, Louis XIV, then Louis XV:

Louis XV would have washed out as anybody but a king. His flaws would have overborne him as a blacksmith, lawyer, or baker. But . . . he could fill the royal robes. Whatever one can say about him, he cared little what others thought.*

Louis XVI in the same pose

comes up short. He shows the required leg, with none of the confidence. While Louis XIV and XV seem to leap out of the frame, Louis XVI wants us to go away so he can go back to fixing his clocks. Alas that 1789 came for such a decent, normal person. Pressed in trying times to puff out his chest and stand firm, he could not. Let us not say that he lacked the courage for this, for he proved at his trial and death to have plenty of it. Rather, we might say that leopards cannot change their spots. Faced with situations entirely unsuited to his temperament, he blundered into bad move after bad move, vacillating here and there in the process.

Some years ago I came across Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, a title that, at the time, struck me as bizarre yet intriguing on its face. I thought, like many, that the Byzantines blundered around willy-nilly for some centuries, with their hesitations and diplomatic ploys betraying a complete lack of strategy. But Luttwak masterfully pointed out that

  • Most wars of any people are unnecessary, and should be avoided if possible. Investing in diplomacy as the Byzantines did costs far less in cash and in human lives.
  • The Byzantines faced enormous problems of different kinds on. multiple fronts for centuries that called for flexible and careful thought.
  • Like anyone, they made mistakes, but their survival for 1000 years as essentially 1/2 of the Roman Empire shows that they had great success overall in managing their resources with accuracy and effectiveness.

Luttwak performs a similar turn with his The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. Emperors of varied quality came and went over the centuries. But, the Romans had a method to how they comprised and used their army. Again, having a strategy won’t always mean that one stays faithful to it, or even that they have a good strategy. But a method, unconscious or no, existed for the Roman Empire, independent of good generals and emperors.

His introduction lays out his basic approach regarding the use of force:

The superiority of the empire, and it was vast, . . . derived from the whole complex of ideas and traditions that informed the organization of Roman military force and it harnessed the power of the empire to a political purpose. The firm subordination of tactical priorities, martial ideals, and warlike instincts to political priorities was the essential condition of success. . . . In the imperial period at least, force was recognized for what it is, an essentially limited instrument of power, costly and brittle. Much better to conserve force, and use military power indirectly.

As an example . . . Romans considered the loss of a military standard something akin to a national tragedy. The Parthians captured a few such standards at Crassus’ disaster at Carrhae. Luttwak writes,

Augustus did not try and avenge the great defeat inflicted by the Parthians . . . in 53 B.C. Instead, in 20 B.C. he reached a compromise settlement under which Armenia was to be ruled by a king of the Arascid family, who would receive his investiture from Rome. Behind the neatly balanced formula there was strategy, for Parthian troops would thereby be kept out of a neutralized Armenia and far from undefended Anatolia and valuable Syria. There was also politics. The standards lost at Carrhae would be returned to Rome and received with great ceremony. Augustus issued coins falsely proclaiming the “capture” of Armenia.

Not very dramatic or inspiring, but Sun Tzu proclaimed that the best generals win without fighting.**

Luttwak organizes the book into a few different eras, i.e., the Julio-Claudians, the Flavians to the Severi, and so on. He examines the military composition at the time, what that should mean for how they used those forces, and to what degree the tactical situation on the ground matched policy in Rome. Certain eras interested me more than others, so what follows reflects that.

During the heyday of the Republic era, Rome’s legions had some variety and flexibility built within them, with light infantry (effective) and cavalry (not as much) attached to the standard Roman heavy infantry. As Rome underwent political changes, so too its army changed. During the early years of the principate they coalesced their forces to make them “heavier”–gone more or less were the javelin throwers and the horses. Exactly why this happened is hard to say, but interestingly, the centralization of political power mirrored itself in the centralization of the army.

However true this may be, it cannot explain everything–a diplomatic method existed behind it. Rome used client states to aid in their security, and used the militaries of the client states to supplement their own. So–Rome provided the main course, so to speak, and their clients the rest. Luttwak writes,

It is the absence of a perimeter defense that is the key to the entire system of Roman security during this period. There were neither border defenses nor local forces to guard against the “low intensity” threats of petty infiltration, transborder incursions, or localized attack. . . . such protection was provided, by indirect and non-military means. By virtually eliminating the burden of maintaining continuous frontier defenses, the net “disposable” military power generated by the imperial forces was maximized. . . . Thus, the empire’s potential military power could be converted into actual political control at a high rate of exchange.

Luttwak adds the following visual, which helps explain the idea of what he calls the “Hegemonic Empire.”

The weakness of such a system lies in that it requires someone with deft political skills to manage it, but Augustus possessed these in abundance. Some of his successors entirely lacked anything like it, but they ruled for a short time–i.e., Caligula. Others, like Tiberius, had sufficient ability, even if they lacked brilliance. Rome all in all prospered under this system because they had “good enough” emperors rule long enough to cover over the disasters. Rome tended to trust its clients and spent few resources watching over them. In turn, this meant that Rome made itself vulnerable to collapse if multiple clients rebelled at once. But again, the strength of the system and the overall competence of leadership made such a result quite unlikely.

In turn, the structure of the army and the attending political realities mean that,

the Roman army was clearly best equipped to serve an an instrument of warfare against enemies with fixed assets to protect–primarily cities, but also such things as arable lands or even irrigation systems. Conversely, Roman capabilities [declined] when enemies assets were not fixed, or at any rate, not concentrated.

This makes Roman disasters like Teutoburg Forest more understandable. You had Varus in command, one who lacked sufficient political ability in Germany. Perhaps more importantly, you had the Roman army far from any help from client states to supplement their ranks, and thus, able to fight well only against fixed assets. When the Germans under Arminius made his own army less “fixed” by “retreating” into the forest, the Romans got mauled. Rome won battles in subsequent years against certain German tribes, but the lack of fixed assets explains why they never could really conquer Germany, nor Parthia and the Sassanids. Grand strategic nuggets like this make Luttwak’s book a real gem.

Luttwak adds that at times the army could prevail in battle even against those lacking a majority of fixed assets. But such situations called forth the dark side of Roman power, writing that

the Romans could [not] apply their strength effectively against the widely dispersed rural base of warrior nations whose strength did not depend on the survival of city-based economic and social structure. Consequently, if the Romans persisted in their efforts, their only real alternative meant attacking the population base itself, in a war of extermination. . . . Thus at the conclusion of Domitian’s campaign against the Nasamones of North Africa, he reported to the Senate that the war had been won, and that the Nasamones has ceased to exist.

Though Luttwak’s analyzes almost everything dispassionately, one can see an example of the truth of St. Maximos’ dictum that man is a macrocosm of the universe, and that we should therefore interpret history through the lens of the human person. For example, I remember years ago when I tried my hand at fixing a plumbing problem in our house. I have no plumbing skills, but the problem seemed simple enough for me to try. Three trips to Home Depot and various tirades worthy of the dad in A Christmas Story later, I called a plumber, who humored me when he arrived by saying that he had seen worse.

My point here is that it would have been much better for me had the plumbing issue been bad enough that I never would have tried to fix it at all. Instead, it hovered in a tempting in-between space. Having waded in, I lost perspective and my cool. The same thing happened more or less to Roman armies in Parthia. And I can remember feeling akin to the Romans against the Nassamones–that if I bashed the pipes to oblivion, I could tell my wife that we had no more problem with the sink. Louis XVI had courage, and humility as well. In the case of serious invasion of France by a foreign enemy, I can imagine him deferring entirely generals while standing firm in an appropriately kingly way. In that case, the situation would have had clarity for him. When he tried to wade into managing internal social and political dynamics, he stumbled badly and tens of thousands died.

In time, Rome switched from a “Hegemonic Empire” to a “Territorial Empire,” to use Luttwak’s term. They switched from a “defense in depth” to having all the eggs in the “border security” basket. This mean that Rome either annexed, absorbed, or abandoned client states. Luttwak masterfully helps us not attach moral categories to this choice, or even to judge immediately the effectiveness of the switch. Rather, this choice involved different risks and problems.

The most common fallacy of analyses is the tendency to evaluate defensive systems in absolute terms. . . . Defensive systems should instead be evaluated in relative terms: their cost in resources should be compared to their military “output.”

Luttwak, p. 61

One can surmise that the “Territorial Empire” had the advantage of simplifying certain problems. More unity meant more control over various factors of defense. Rome need not have emperors equipped with cunning and subtlety to manage the empire effectively. A bulldog would do just fine. But–any penetration of the line brought a significant crises, and if the armies got either lazy or turned on each other–as (the latter) happened frequently in the 3rd century A.D., disaster would follow.

In my view, we should see the “Hegemonic” model of empire as a holdover from the Republic era. It’s flexible fringe with its solid core mirrors that of the structure of the Republic itself. We can see with hindsight that he principate system inaugurated by Augustus fell in between the stools of Republic and Empire, for which the Territorial model makes more sense.

For our own time . . . the NATO alliance in theory projects maximum deterrence and maximum fragility, akin to the Territorial model above. If someone does anything to any member of NATO, all in theory will respond. Possibly, the penetration of one of its members (by Russia) would rally everyone in the ranks for a defense. Possibly as well, an attack at any point might actually reveal the fragility of the system. NATO might abandon one of its own to prevent a general war, which would effectively end NATO as a viable entity.

A third possibility exists . . . one that shows that NATO in facts functions hegemonically. Perhaps the U.S, acting as NATO’s hegemon, might instead delegate defense based on complex diplomatic relationships. Such a move offers us a way out of the either/or of our current situation, and prevent a general war. But it also requires better political leadership than either or current or previous president could provide. If no one more deft arrives on the scene in 2024, we are stuck with the pro’s . . . and con’s of having all of our eggs in the “Territorial” basket.

Dave

*Incidentally, Charles II of England, a distracted (though certainly intelligent) debauchee much like Louis XV, also could transform himself. He knew how to be a king when it really counted, as this brief clip perfectly captures. If Louis XVI could have acted similarly in 1789 with the Estates General, perhaps things would have been different.

**I have nothing to add to the Russia-Ukraine situation except to say that hopefully, Ukraine can find something akin to a military standard to offer to Russia. It would have be something of little value to them, enormous value to Russia. I don’t know if anything like that exists between them.

9th/10th Grade: Romanticism

Greetings,

This week we looked at Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Romantic movement.  Last week in our examination of  the Enlightenment, we said that it both built upon the past (Scientific Revolution) and reacted against it (Louis XIV’s Versailles).  So Romanticism both reacted against the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and built upon its rejection of current society.

We think of the Romantics praising the virtues of emotion, but we should not interpret the word ’emotion’ in a narrow sense.  Rousseau focused more on our ‘gut,’ or our ‘inner man.’  For Romantics society itself was humanity’s enemy.  All of its trappings, like wigs, crevattes, five-fork dinners, etc. put a ridiculous husk over the kernel of our true selves.  Anyone who ever felt uncomfortable among the wine and cheese set, for example, can identify with at least some of what Rousseau preached.  Manners and mores, if taken too far, can be elitist, exclusionary, and anti-human.  When we consider that the picture to the left depicted actual hairstyles as worn by aristocratic ladies, we begin to identify with what the Romantics advocated.  Rousseau wanted to return to what was “natural.”  It makes sense, then, that one of his main causes involved getting mothers to breast feed their own children, rather than handing them over to wet-nurses.

Rousseau and the Romantics wanted to free people from society to live as they were truly meant to live.

For them, mankind need not fear logic and reason, but instead  needed to realize that they do not come first in human development.  We add them later, whereas our emotions arise naturally from within us from the very start.  Reason, on the other hand, must be imposed from without.  So our ‘guts’ are better guides to behavior than our reason.

From a Christian perspective one can say that God gave both emotion and reason, and that both can guide us to truth.  We come back to the idea of truth in tension.  Unfortunately we see the abandonment of this tension in Rousseau, who thought for example, that the tragic Lisbon earthquake was God’s judgment against cities.  C.S. Lewis’ famous essay “Men Without Chests” makes the point that, as valuable as our heads and our guts are, they need the “Chest” to act as a moral mediator.  Separated from right moral guidance, both emotion and reason turn tyrant. Jonah Goldberg has a humorous but insightful take on what happens when men are left to their own devices here.  When the forces of Enlightenment and Romanticism combined and then turned against each other in the French Revolution, the results would be less humorous.

Like the Enlightenment movement, the Romantics were on to at least a part of something.  One example of this is the idea of breastfeeding.  For centuries women in the elite of society considered it “vulgar” to breastfeed their own children and farmed them out to wet-nurses. One of the first goals of the “Romantic” movement was to get women to see that what was “natural” in this case was good.  What could be more “unnatural” than the separation of mother and infant child?  And yet, such practices persisted.

The problem of course lay in how one defined “natural.”  If every “natural” thing has a direct moral imperative, then we must define “natural” very carefully.  Like the Enlightenment then, the Romantics did not see the world or humanity as basically fallen, and this would bring forth terrible consequences in due course.

We looked at the tragic case of Louis XVI.  In him we have a good man who, in turbulent times, lacked the foresight to be a good king.  As a French king, he probably thought that supporting the Americans against the British was just something that French kings do.  But Louis’ aid to the colonies, which involved people trying to overthrow a monarchy, can be compared to bringing the kudzu plant to the U.S.  You are importing your own destruction, though Louis likely did not see this, just as we did not with the infamous plant.  When an idea (like some plants) gets transplanted away from its native soil the results may be much different than we anticipated.

As the official diplomat to Paris, Ben Franklin knew exactly what chord to strike with the French.  He knew that the French idealized the Americans as fulfilling Rousseau’s dream of living close to nature, and milked that as much as possible.  To the left is a famous portrait of Rousseau, and the outfit Franklin donned for his portrait in France while on a diplomatic mission.

Louis attempted to enact many helpful reforms, and this makes his tragedy more poignant.  Many have the mistaken idea that France rebelled against a decrepit regime bent on maintaining the status quo at all costs.  In fact, many philosophes felt that France had the perfect king for the times.  Louis worked hard at fiscal responsibility.  He abandoned much of the waste and foolishness of Versailles. He avidly patronized the sciences, and founded the first known school anywhere for the blind.  France did not rebel against a king who refused to change, they rebelled against a king who tried hard to modernize France.  We shall have to unpack the significance of this later when we look at his trial under the Revolutionary government.

Usually no matter how often we criticize our Presidents we profess admiration for our First Ladies.  Not so in France.  Marie Antoinette, queen of France, was hated almost from the moment she set foot in the country.  Many stood against her from the very start, but her actions, innocent though many may have been did not help her cause.

The bad press began the moment the French found out that Louis’ bride hailed from Austria, a traditional rival of France, a step-child.  Louis, and thus France as a whole, was seen as “marrying down.”

Strike one against Marie.

Marie was desperate to please.  So, if the above picture showed how high-born ladies should wear their hear, she would do one better.   She wore this hairstyle (the picture is accurate, not satirical) to commemorate a French naval victory.   The French, with their vicious eye for taste, could easily detect when someone tries too hard.

So, as the Romantic movement gained acceptance, the pendulum swung the other way.  Marie eagerly dove headfirst into the new style.  She would be “simple.”  She asked Louis to build her a special estate where she and her friends could pretend to be farm girls and feed sheep, milk cows, and so on.  Again, Marie seems to be “trying too hard” to almost ludicrous proportions.

Her friend Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun painted the famous portrait of her to the left.

This new image would surely work, right?  In this portrait she was elegantly simple, just as Rousseau would want her.  Marie very much hopedInstead, once again the French detected desperation, someone who obviously was not “natural.”   “You are queen of France.  Act like one, dress like one!”  the French seemed to say.  Marie did not figure out how to act like a queen to anyone’s liking, perhaps not even her own.

When Marie finally had children, she settled down, and enjoyed her role as a mother.  But much damage had already been done.  Part of this damage stemmed from the personality differences between Louis and Marie.  Introverted Louis never liked parties, and used any excuse to retire early (one source indicates that Marie purposely set Louis’ clocks ahead in hopes of having Louis retire even earlier).  Once Louis left, Marie felt like she could cut loose, and played cards and danced the night away.   Much of this behavior was very likely innocent, but it raised many eyebrows, and rumors flew.  Louis, did what any wealthy, decent, and befuddled husband might do and bought her lots of expensive things.  Marie got the blame for this, not Louis.  In time various epitaphs floated around France, including, “The Austrian Whore,” and “Madame Deficit.”  Marie could never understand the impact of her actions, and how important image was to her success in politics.

Next week we will see Louis lose control of events in the French Revolution, and how France’s abandonment of what Lewis called “the chest” would wreak terrible havoc.

 

 

Dave

8th Grade: Burning Out vs. Fading Away

Greetings,

This week we wrapped up our look at ancient Greek civilization.  The death of Alexander the Great allowed for the Greek city-states to try and rebel once more from Macedon.  They did not have the strength to do it on their own, so they asked for help from Rome.

As the Greek’s found out, however, it’s dangerous to ask Rome over to visit.  They had a knack for overstaying their welcome.  From around 200-150 B.C., Greece became a satellite of the then mighty Romans.  Their culture lived on in a kind of degenerated way afterwards (see Luke’s comment in Acts 17:21), but as an independent political entity, they were done.

As we leave Greece and introduce Rome I wanted the students to think about the following choice.  I chose basketball because of March Madness, but one could apply the same concept to other areas of life.  In class we had fun thinking about the ultimate hamburger, for example.

Choice #1

You will be given the ability to dunk, but only one time.  However, this dunk can be the most spectacular dunk you can possibly imagine.  You can jump from half-court, do a double summersault reverse spin, twirl, reverse jam — whatever you can think of.  Furthermore, you will execute this dunk in stadium full of people, and it will immediately go viral on You Tube.  The dunk will be forever known as the greatest dunk of all time.

Or

Choice #2

You will be given the ability to dunk as often as you like.  You will be able to dunk in games, but the dunks will be unimpressive, and not noteworthy in any way.  But it will be a dunk, and you will be able to do it whenever you wish.

This choice illustrates one of the differences between Greece and Rome.  In their heyday Greece ended up bequeathing more towards the formation of the future than perhaps any other civilization.  They practically invented science, literature, drama, democracy, and so on.  But their run was relatively brief.  They followed Neil Young’s dictum, “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”  They compressed most of their brilliance into about a 100 year period of practically unmatched excellence, but the intensity of the heat may have led to their fire putting itself by devouring all the oxygen around them.

Rome will have many similarities with Greece, as we might expect from sharing the Mediterranean basin.  But I think that one of their differences is that Rome would not have agreed with Neil Young.  They were good, sometimes very good, at most things they tried.  And they managed consistently to achieve this level of “very good” for much longer than Greece maintained their “excellent” status.  But, the Romans never achieved the level of brilliance of Greece.

What kind of dunk the students choose will probably reflect what side they will defend in one of our year’s great debates on whether Greece was superior to Rome, or vice-versa.

Next we will examine Roman civilization.  As usual we will begin with geography.  If we look at a topographical map of Italy, how might we expect Italian geography to influence Roman civilization?  How might this differ from how Greek geography influenced the Greeks?

More on this next week.

Many thanks,

Dave