Old Virginia

I have read very few books on the topic of American slavery, but Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 is the best book I’ve read on the subject.  It has gotten national attention, and deservedly so.  Taylor reveals alternate angles and puts a human faces on a great national disaster.  He avoids getting preachy, and he doesn’t need to be, for his writing, and the story he tells, does it for him.

As to why one should focus on Virginia. . . .  Well, first, it’s his area of expertise.  But Virginia arguably had more influence on the founding of this nation than any other state, and so the focus has justification in any sense.  Virginia has more than slavery in its history of course, but slavery had an enormous impact on us as a whole, and so in some ways Virginia’s story is America’s as well.

Two things make this book a great success.

Taylor puts special focus on the lives of struggling plantation owners.  Some of them believe, or at least almost believe, in the injustice of slavery.  But they also felt trapped.  Many had debts from living the required “Virginia Gentlemen” lifestyle that needed paid off.  Many farms started failing due to bad weather and failing soil.  Many also worried that freeing slaves might create a de facto army of those who would eagerly do them in.  In their minds at least (Taylor’s book has copious original source footnotes) they had inherited tiger riding from their fathers and could not get off.  Many at least wanted no more slaves in Virginia than they already had, for fear of tipping the ethnic balance against them even more.  But again, they trapped themselves by their view of slaves as property.  The whole practice of slavery built itself on a certain idea of property, and the liberty of property. Within this framework ownership of slaves could never be restricted. Countless idealistic 20 year olds become weary and defeated 40 year old inheritors of failing estates.  The web of of sin ensnared just about everyone, including many who  initially wanted nothing to do with it.

Of course this sense of feeling trapped had a way out, but it would involve not just tinkering with the existing social system, but destroying it root and branch.  Most simply did not have either the vision or the courage to do this (as an aside — if we judge a man by his contemporaries George Washington shines brightly while Jefferson flows along with the mass.  Washington not only freed his slaves but provided land for them and a fund for their medical care.  This may have been easier for him because he had no children, but still, he who sought so much to be a Virginia gentlemen for much of his life willingly let that go at the end.  Of course this does not excuse everything, but should be noted).

This web involved not only personal contradictions but political ones as well.  Virginia state politics routinely pitted county vs. county, so certainly they had no love for the federal government.  But when war with the British came many demanded federal troops to protect their plantations and prevent slaves from running away, and many demanded federal restitution for runaway slaves.  At least in Taylor’s book, few if any saw the hypocrisy in this, a willful blindness that sin often creates.

Another fascinating plot in the book deals with the impact of the American Revolution on slavery in Virginia.  Many founders believed that slavery would die out hopefully on its own within a generation of the American victory.  Many perhaps followed Jefferson’s assertion (in his original draft of the Declaration) that slavery had a lot more to do with the British than the Americans, and once they left, the condition of slaves would inevitably improve.

The laws of primogeniture seek to keep estates intact by preventing them from suffering division among multiple heirs.  As long as slaves counted as part of an estates’ property, freeing them brought many difficulties under primogeniture law and custom.  In abolishing primogeniture laws, many may have thought that their absence would indirectly help slavery disappear.  But in increasing social and political freedom, they increased their economic freedom as well.  In a cruel twist of unintended consequence, slave owners now found many more ways to profit from their slaves, including selling and even renting them at much greater rates.  And this meant, first, that slave families got broken up much more frequently than before.  Secondly, it meant that the possibility of some cordiality and respect for slaves by masters (Taylor shows how this did happen on occasion) due to familiarity and stability eroded quickly.  In other words slaves became much more like disposable assets rather than valuable family heirlooms.  Finally, the extra profits from slavery made a political solution to the problem much more difficult.  Too many hands got dirty.

Matters complicated themselves further during the War of 1812, when invading British armies sought to liberate slaves whenever possible.  Many slaves “switched sides” and served with British regiments as scouts and guides in what was unfamiliar territory for the British.  Who does one root for in these circumstances?

Today we cannot safely distance ourselves from this and claim it has nothing to do with us.  Maybe your entire family grew up in Maine.  But Virginia’s story is part of all Americans, and the state certainly played an unusually significant rol in the founding of the United States. We have to face this, and should not spare anyone in any era.  Marginal Revolution recently posted the following blurb on George Washington (full article can be found here)

During the president’s two terms in office, the Washingtons relocated first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Although slavery had steadily declined in the North, the Washingtons decided that they could not live without it. Once settled in Philadelphia, Washington encountered his first roadblock to slave ownership in the region — Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780.

The act began dismantling slavery, eventually releasing people from bondage after their 28th birthdays. Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This presented a problem for the new president.

Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president’s slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. The president was secretive when writing to his personal secretary Tobias Lear in 1791: “I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.”

Ugh.

Kenneth Clark made the astute observation in his Civilisation series that a society really depends on confidence — confidence in institutions, in laws, in “what we’re about,” and in each other.  Without this belief, civilization will collapse quickly, for the foundation upon which our laws, economy, etc. stand will cease to exist.   With it, a society can withstand even great disasters (i.e. Rome in the 2nd Punic War).  And this raises the problem of how we teach our past.  What will happen to us if we can have no “confidence” in the sense Clark meant it?

Someone recently asked me the great question, “Is it the duty of a Christian teacher to promote patriotism, love of country, and devotion to the American way of life?”

To me this question should receive a strong and resounding “No,” in the main, but with a smaller, qualifying, parenthetical “Sort of,” attached to the epilogue of the “No.”

As C.S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity Christians easily fall into the trap of what he called “Christianity and. . . ”  We should apply our Christianity to all areas of life certainly, but “Christianity and Pacifism,” or “Christianity and Low Taxes,” easily morphs into “Pacifism and Christianity,” which then leaves you with just “Pacifism.”  The Truth stands above all civilizations and must remain so in order that civilizations might learn, repent, and change.  Whenever the Truth gets co-opted into an agenda for creating citizens, Truth is the first casualty, but down the line the civilization gets harmed by the collateral damage.  The City of God must never get confused with the City of Man, for the good of both.

But. . . Christians are also called to love particular places, and invest in those around them.  We don’t live disembodied lives, we live as unique people in unique contexts.  To hate and denounce the history of one’s country, or merely to live apart from it in a disembodied state to me seems akin to hating one’s own body.  I don’t appreciate the whitewasher of our country’s sins, but his fault is almost always childlike, like the 8 year old who believes that the sports team he roots for always wears the white hat.  I have much less stomach for the cynical debunker of everything, of the professor who only seeks to get students not to believe in anything, in order that they might believe only in the professor.

A third type exists, seen in what I suspect may be the trend in high school history textbooks today.  This path seeks to uncritically praise other cultures (especially non-western cultures) while giving hefty criticism to one’s own (I have seen this with my oldest son’s textbook).   This has the appearance of humility, i.e. “think of others as better than yourselves.”  But I think it falls short of that, for it’s not rooted in an actual love of one’s own place.  The “virtue” comes at far too cheap a price. This approach reminds me of the teenager who thinks that his parents are hopelessly stupid — if only we could be like this family, or that family, or any other family but their own.  In other words, this view falls fails as an intellectually mature perspective.

Christian teachers do not have a duty to “see the best side of everything,” but they should encourage a healthy sense of appreciating where they are, for it is where God has placed them.  We must come to terms with our country just as we must come to terms with ourselves.  But hating oneself is not Christian.  St. Francis used the term “Brother Ass” for his body/himself.  Chesterton made the great point that, like a donkey, our bodies can be stubborn, stupid, foolish, and even willfully spiteful at times.  But how could one really hate a donkey?  Just look at that face!

The term, and the attitude seem appropriate to have towards one’s country.  “No one hates his own body” (Eph. 5:29).  I am guessing that just about every nation could qualify for the moniker, “Brother Ass.” I confess I don’t know exactly what this means in light of our past with slavery, Native Americans, and so on.  I also couldn’t say how African-Americans, for example, might react to my proposed metaphor.  But for now . . . it will serve as a place for me at least to start.

Dave

The Mysteries of the Monotheistic Pharaoh

I loved The City of Akenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People. I loved it even though I skipped large chunks of it, and some of what I read went beyond my understanding.  This may sound strange, but Barry Kemp’s work is such an obviously great achievement that it goes beyond whether I like it or not.   All that to say, I do really like the book, and wish I had knowledge and the ability to follow him all the way down the marvelous rabbit holes he traverses.

The book puts a capstone on Kemp’s 35 years excavating the city of Amarna, a city built by Akenaten IV (sometimes known as Ikhneton).  Akenaten has long fascinated Egyptian scholars, mostly because of his religious beliefs.  He departed from the religious beliefs that dominated Egypt for centuries and clearly attempted to change the religious landscape of Egypt in general.  He may have been a monotheist, which adds to the potentially radical nature of his rule.

Differing interpretations swirl around his time in power, as we might expect.  Some like to view him as a great rebel against the constraints of his society.  Some view him as a great religious reformer.  Today, given the overwhelming influence of tolerance, the mood has switched to seeing him as a tyrant and usurper.  I hoped Kemp could help sort out some of these dilemmas.  His book reveals much, and also creates more mystery at the same time.  After reading we get no absolute conclusions.  Usually when authors do this I get frustrated.  But in Kemp’s case, who can blame him?  The historical record is 3400 years old.

But before we get to this, Kemp and the publisher deserve praise for the aesthetic aspects of the book.  It feels good in your hands.  It has thick and glossy paper.  The text and numerous illustrations mesh very nicely.  The book has an almost ennobling quality.  You feel smart just looking at it.

I also have to admire Kemp’s style.  If I had spent 35 years in excavations at Amarna and then wrote a book it would almost certainly have a shrill, demanding tone.  “I spent all this time here and now you are going to look, see, and appreciate it all!”  But Kemp writes in a relaxed, thoughtful manner that seems to say, “Ah, how nice of you to drop by.  If you’d like, I have something to show you.”

So many kudos to Kemp.

But now on to Akhenaten himself.

What was he really trying to do, and how did he try and accomplish it?

Clearly Akenaten wanted something of a fresh start for Egypt.  He moved his whole seat of government and started building a new city called Amarna.  In Egypt’s history this in itself was not all that radical, and other rulers have done something similar, notably Constantine with “New Rome.”  Unlike “New Rome”/Constantinople, however, Amarna appears to be way off of Egypt’s beaten path.  This idea in Egypt means something different than it might for us, as nearly all of life got compressed within a few miles of the Nile.  Even so, Akenaten chose a place rather out of the way by Egyptian standards, perhaps the equivalent of the U.S. making its new capital Des Moines.

Perhaps Akenaten didn’t just want a fresh start, he wanted a totally clean slate upon which to build, free from all outside interference (shot from British excavations in the 1930’s below).

Early Excavations at Amarna

So he was a radical, then?

Perhaps, but in building a city, how radical could one be?  Most cities tend to look like other cities.  He faced limits of resources and experience.  So Amarna looked like most other cities, but a few subtle differences might reveal a lot.

For example, the builders made the entrance to the “Great Aten Temple” much wider than usual temples, so wide that one could not envision doors ever being present.  This may mean nothing other than they ran out of material.  But interestingly, most city-dwellings had this same open feel to it.  In great detail Kemp describes how the houses in the city had few boundaries.  Slaves, officials, and commoners would use the same pathways in and out of the same houses.

Kemp also mentions that the plain of Amarna itself presented itself as very open and flat.

No conclusion forces itself as definitive here.  We can say that,

  • Most places in Egypt had a similar geographic layout to Amarna
  • The houses may have been constructed in an ad-hoc fashion due to lack of resources or time
  • Maybe Akhenaten wanted a really open feel to the front of the Great Temple, but that may not have any particular connection to anything else.  Or maybe they had a plan for very large, ostentatious doors that never got realized.

Or perhaps we should see intentionality in all these elements.  And if intentionality is indeed present, what might that reveal that he really did have a grand vision for real change in Egyptian society.

Another intriguing problem deals with Akhenaten himself.  The most famous statues linked to him and his reign look generally like this:

This one makes him look more thoughtful and perhaps more humanized

Akhenaten

Both statues reveal an intense and thoughtful man, given to much introspection.  Or possibly, obsession?  Kemp points out that the offering tables in the temples stood much larger than those in other standard Egyptian temples.  Was he consumed by an idea, or a Reality?  His faces here perhaps reveal just this.

And yet, it is entirely possible (though far from certain) that he actually looked like this:

What should we make of this?

One possibility is that the last image is not of Akhenaten at all, and this solves the riddle by eliminating it.  But Kemp thinks this last sculpture to be an accurate portrayal of what he really looked like.  I’ll go with the guy who spent his life studying the ruins.

So if he portrayed himself differently than he actually looked, it must have been a propaganda tool of manipulation?

No, Kemp thinks not.  Pharaoh’s often had the moniker, “Lord of the Appearances.”  They would be seen by people often, even commoners.  And this would likely be all the more true in the isolated and not terribly large city of Amarna.  Besides, the statue directly above dates from Akhenaten’s time and surely was “official” and not black market.  Kemp often cautions us not to look for consistency in Ancient Egypt, or at least our modern and Greek influenced sense of consistency.

Kemp suggests that the image Akhenaten projected may have had to do with his role as teacher of righteous living.  Certainly it seems he viewed himself this way, and others did too.  This may not make him a prig necessarily, because it was a role Pharaoh’s often assumed, perhaps as a matter of tradition.  The austere intensity of the first two busts (at least 6 ft. high) help confer the image of a deeply felt inner life that he wanted to communicate.  And since the Egyptians loved visuals more than the written word, his busts carry his theological message.

I didn’t buy the modern, “Akhenaten as a religious tyrant” argument before reading the book, and I think Kemp indirectly argues against this.  For one, we find small statues of other gods in scattered Amarna households.  Their houses were small and the statues of normal size.  Given the free-flowing nature of Amarna neighborhoods, other citizens would easily know about the statues.  For Akhenaten to have no awareness of these gods would mean that he had no secret police, no informants, and this speaks against the possibility of ‘tyrannical rule.’  He almost certainly knew about the gods, and tolerated them, however grudgingly.

Or perhaps he actually wasn’t a monotheist?  But then, how radical could he have been?  Or perhaps he had strong views and wanted wholesale change but approached the issue pragmatically.  Neither option gives us a Stalin-esque tyrant.

Other curious details make me lean away from the “tyrant” position.  Cities designed before Akhenaten had rigid layouts and exacting aesthetics.  But as Kemp writes elsewhere, “Most of this city was built around a rejection of, or an indifference to, a social prescription and a geometric aesthetic.” Instead, “organic harmonies” and “personal decision making prevail instead.”  My bet is that Akhenaten may have been too consumed with his religious ideas to really be a tyrant even if he wanted to.

Akhenaten seems to have had a “smart-bomb” approach to religious reform, at least politically.  His main innovation/change might appear slight to some of us.  The Egyptians depicted their gods in at least partial human form.

But over and over again, Akhenaten depicted himself only with Aten, and in these images, Aten has no quasi-human form.  The sun itself sufficed for him.

And this image from the Aten temple . . .

So perhaps in this area we see clarity of vision and consistency of follow-through, as to what it means, I don’t know.  It fits, though, with his overall theme of simplifying religious belief.

Kemp shows us that Akhenaten worked hard at cultivating the image of a good life at Amarna.  Many wall murals show him as a generous provider and consumer of goods.  Excavations reveal that this may not have been entirely propaganda, but Kemp reminds us Akhenaten reigned during a prosperous and secure time in Egypt.  But in 2006 excavators discovered a series of tombs for commoners that reveal high incidents of early childhood death, malnutrition,or skeletal injury.   This could throw us right back to the Stalinist image some have of him.  But the high incidents of childhood death could reveal an epidemic in Amarna, which would spread rapidly in its densely packed population.  Hittite records tell of a plague that spread from Egyptian prisoners of war during Akhenaten’s time.  As to the injuries, I can’t say whether or not this is typical for when new cities get built.  Akhenaten may have harshly driven the people to work harder and more dangerously than normal, or it may have been par for the course with ancient construction projects.

The insistence on building a new city may reveal an element of monomania, but certainly other pharaohs did the same thing.  The pyramid builders demanded vastly more labor from their people/slaves.  Besides, Akhenaten had many critics within Egypt after his death, but no one blamed him for building a city.  This fit within the normal roles pharaohs played.

Akhenaten likely saw himself as a religious liberator of the people.  I see a man with a purity of vision, but also a pragmatist in good and bad ways.  He possessed great intelligence and valued introspection.  I see him dialoguing with himself, along the lines of, “I want ‘x.’  But the people only know ‘y’ and expect ‘y.’  So I will try and lead to them to ‘x’ through a modified version of ‘y’ — not to say that I hate everything about ‘y’ — just some things.” If I’m right, this  inner wrestling match would lead to inconsistency and confusion in his own mind.  Perhaps he lost his way a bit.  “I must have a nice new city to show the people the greatness of the truth,” or something like that.

Or maybe not.  I wish I knew more.  Akhenaten provides a great template for a historical novel.

Perhaps he went too far, but I do think he had good intentions.  Of course much evil gets done with this mindset.  We all know where the road of “good intentions” leads.  But it’s hard to say for certain what evil he actually did.   But he did seek to remove certain key beliefs about the afterlife.  The traditional Egyptian’s journey to eternity had many perils and thus required many charms, protections, and so forth.  All this gave a lot of power to certain priests.  Akhenaten’s tomb stands in marked contrast to almost all other kings for its simplicity.  Clearly he sought in some ways to “democratize” death in his religious beliefs.  I think that Akhenaten wanted to simplify things in general for the common man.  But then again, his tomb contains other traditional pieces, such as the “shabti” — special figures designed to do conscripted labor in the next life.  So even the intense, focused Akehenaten either conceded to some traditional beliefs or really believed these apparently inconsistent ideas.

The mystery of Akhenaten continues.

We know that his religious ideas more or less died with him, and indications exist that foreshadow this even during his lifetime. Very few people changed their names to reflect the new ‘Atenist’ belief, and this we know from the many tombs in the area.  Had his beliefs caught on the switch in names would have also, as happened at other times in Egyptian history.  The narrative that we naturally accept about his attempt at religious change sounds similar to this text from Tutankamun, who may have been his son.

…the temples and the cities of the gods and goddesses, starting from Elephantine as far as the Delta marshes . . .were fallen into decay and their shrines fallen into ruin, having become mounds overgrown with grass . . .   The gods were ignoring this land.  If an army was sent to Syria to extend the boundaries of Egypt it met with no success at all.  If one beseeched any goddess in the same way, she did not respond at all.  Their hearts were faint in their bodies, and they destroyed what was made.

But Kemp shows that the above text doesn’t reflect the truth.  Akhenaten kept open most all the temples in the land, and left his reforms for Amarna.  And as we’ve seen, he apparently let the worship of other gods go on unofficially even in Amarna itself.  So if Akhenaten engaged in political hocus-pocus (and maybe he didn’t) then at least two played that game.

So by the end of the book we arrive where we started.  But Kemp’s extraordinary archaeological skills take the reader as far as they can go.  From here on, one must take a leap into the realms of poetry, which is where History really belongs.

Animalia Agonistes

Given that I was 17 when Nirvana released Nevermind, the album obviously completely blew me away. For some time the subversive nature of the lyrics eluded me, lost as I was in the joy of our culture granting new-found permission to wear flannel shirts untucked. But then, one notices their audience mockery, such as in “In Bloom”–“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, but he knows not what it means.”

I confess to feeling a bit guilty for thinking of this song in reference to the monumental achievement of J.M.C Toynbee and her book Animals in Roman Life and Art (yes, she was the sister of that Toynbee). I have no wish to mock as did Kurt Cobain, but I confess frustration with the traditional British historian. The British, like all cultures, should own and even celebrate their quirks. And perhaps nothing quite says “British” like the charming codger who has spent his entire life curating a particular old building, and can tell you everything that has ever happened to every plank of wood. This same trait gets passed on to many of their historians, our esteemed author included. In her day she stood as a substantial authority on Roman art in general, and perhaps the authority for the Romans and animals–no small achievement.

But she takes all of that knowledge and . . . writes a reference book. She fails to make her facts into a poem, to make her knowledge sing. Knowing everything, she “knows not what it means.”

I will make a meager attempt to do so.

But first, some of the fascinating facts about Romans and their relationship to animals.

Some years ago I saw a documentary on gladiators, and the video mentioned the “ecological disaster” inflicted upon wildlife. Surely, I thought this must be overdramatized. Apparently not! The numbers are numbing:

  • Some 9000 animals were killed at the inaugeration of the Colosseum, many of them “ordinary” animals which were not ferocious, such as foxes. Women killed some of these animals.
  • Trajan killed 11,000 to celebrate his Dacian Triumph
  • In one show, Nero’s bodyguard brought down 400 lions and 300 bears
  • Having beasts fight each other formed part of the spectacle as well.
  • From the late Republic on, having thousands of animals killed (most of them threatening) for a particular “celebration” was rather ordinary–the examples are too numerous to list to here, though Toynbee lays them out nicely.
  • All in all, some estimate that as many as 1,000,000 animals died in the arena (not to mention 400,000 humans), and it does indeed appear that certain species disappeared from certain regions of the globe due to this.

Some other more “tame”(zing!) factoids:

  • Elephants may have become a symbol of divinization for the Romans by the time of Emperor Tiberius. In addition, the Romans appear to have been able to train elephants to do unusual tricks, including walk a tightrope.
  • Aelian noted that he had seen a monkey trained to drive a chariot.
  • Lions were frequently featured on tombs by the age of Augustus, and dogs also were symbols of death.
  • On rare occasions, they kept bears as private pets.
  • In contrast to Judeo-Christian civilizations (and most others), the Romans regarded snakes as beneficial creatures.
  • The Romans had little regard for the tortoise, but the term they used for their interlocking shields was “testudo,” obviously borrowed from turtles. Turtle shells were also prized as baths for infants.

And so on. The book has hundreds of observations akin to these. So far, so good–she brings forward a variety of interesting facts. She helpfully reminds us that in a civilization that Rome’s relationship to its animals would have been much closer than ours. They relied on animals for farming, transport, and the like far more than we, and perhaps more than other contemporary civilizations (given their size, road structure, mobility of their army, etc.). But the data points never take us anywhere. Some might find this a humble attitude. I do not. Certainly there are plenty of times when one should keep their mouth shut, but I think Chesterton’s quote applies here:

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition and settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table

If you are the world’s foremost authority on animals in Roman art, surely you can risk some of your accumulated capital and venture some highly educated guesses. Alas that she does not.

Two points in particular raised eyebrows with me that might shed a more general light on Roman civilization.

One is from page 68, where she writes,

[Here] two mosaic panels show a well-maned lion devouring a dark grey fawn. . . . The lions are arena beasts . . . [Another example] shows a lion holding in its maw the head of an antlered stag, which drips abundantly with blood. Lively amphitheater scenes are indeed, not uncommon on the floors of well-mannered houses.

Later, on page 83, she writes about leopards and describes another mosaic:

Above the three are dying leopards, each transfixed murderously by a barbed spear, writhing in agony, one rolled over on its back. Below, two venatores, one labeled MELITTO, are each driving a spear into the leopard’s chest, from which gush streams of blood. A dying leopard, also speared, lies in the background. . . . the realism with which they are portrayed is excruciating; and this picture raises in a most acute form the problem of how householders could wish to perpetuate such scenes of carnage on the floors of their home.

Though the problem be “acute,” she says not one word about it!

In a few other instances, usually involving lions or elephants, Toynbee tells of written texts that speak of people starting to sympathize with animals in the arena, even coming to root for them against their human counterparts, with thousands in the crowd weeping as they were killed. One might expect that such instances would serve as a spark for moral revolution, but this never came close to happening. Objections to the practice in any written record can be listed easily on one hand over a period that spans many centuries.

Can we put these curiosities together?

On one hand we have the “modern” answer to the problem which would run like so:

  • The Romans were a calloused, bored, and violent people. Such people would go to the games, cheer the games, and celebrate the games. The fact that they decorate their floors with scenes from the games is not much different than us putting up posters of our sports heroes in action.
  • Yes, they did lament the cruelty of the games at times. But again, when a player gets badly injured we too get quiet. If the injury is particularly bad players and fans might cry. But though the injury may cause us pause, this will not stop us from watching the next game or even the next play.

This explanation might be true, but I doubt it is. It seems too neat, too comfortable to the modern mind, to fit an ancient civilization.

We can start an alternate inquiry by asking what purpose the games served in Rome. Based on Carlin Barton’s wonderful insights, we can say that the games did not serve strictly as entertainment, but rather as an extension of their religious belief. Moderns like to separate religion from other aspects of life, the ancients would not have understood this distinction.

Most know that the Romans saw themselves as “tough” and “hard,” so we naturally assume that their drunken revels were a departure from that, a sign of decadence. But the Romans saw these seemingly disparate aspects as part of the same cloth. We are hard on ourselves in the army–we are hard on ourselves at parties too. We will eat until we cannot eat, then vomit, and eat some more–and still strive to enjoy it all. We push ourselves to endure both pain and pleasure in its maximum degree. Moderation?–not a thing in Rome.

My guess, then, with the animals and the arena, is that they could weep for them not so much because they felt sorry for them, but because they saw them as partners in the struggle of life. They weep for them falling as they would lament the deaths of their soldiers. Toynbee points out the close and varied relationship Rome had with animals, so this might fit with her work. So too, they have mosaics of dying animals in their homes not to revel in their destruction, but to honor them as fellow participants in the “Roman way,” just as we have posters of our sports heroes to honor their achievements.

So too, seeing lions and elephants as symbols of death and divinization might explain why they participated in the arena. Just as a Roman could be “divinized” by transcending normal human attributes such as fear of death, so too the animals could achieve this same level, in a sense. The title of this post recalls Milton’s poem, “Samson Agonistes.” Milton portrays Samson as a great champion,, but one imprisoned also by his “inner struggle” (a rough translation of “agonistes”)–and perhaps glorified by this same struggle? The Romans may have thought they were being generous in sharing their glory by sharing their struggle with the animals.

I may be wrong, but I do feel that ancient civilizations are generally “weirder” than we usually expect, and taking this approach will eventually lead to the right answer. Given how many unusual observations Toynbee made, it grieves me that she failed to use her enormous gifts to attempt a synthesis.

9th/10th Grade: Fiddling with Flames

Greetings,

This week we looked at Emperors Claudius and Nero and the problems he caused Rome.

Claudius had his good points.  He was intelligent and hard working.  Some of his legislative and judicial reforms improved things in Rome.  His bust tells us that he was a “normal” guy, and he did not demonstrate any of the insanely cruel tendencies of Caligula.

But generally he is known for three things:

1. The conquest of Britain

What Julius Caesar began in the most tentative way, Claudius finished.  Ostensibly, Rome did this because Gaul may have been receiving aid from across the channel.  To me at least, however, this conquest served no real purpose for Rome accept to continue to delude itself that it was still strong as ever.  Some conquests could potentially make geographical sense even if based on shaky moral grounds.  It’s hard to see how the conquest of Britain fits into any category except that of  Claudius’s ego.  But it may simply been a way to solidify his legitimacy as emperor.  In other words, Claudius (a scholar, a man with a speech impediment and slightly deformed shoulder — not things Romans would have valued) may have thought that some kind of conquest was necessary to prove himself as a Roman leader.

Claudius may have further justified the action as ‘for the good of Rome,’ because if his regime faltered civil war might result, and Rome as a whole would suffer.  If we accept this line of reasoning we see how Rome’s system of government may have worked against the chances of Rome’s success.

We talked of how empire expansion can in some ways, resemble acquisitions done by companies.  I I listened months ago to an interview with the CEO of Ebay, who mentioned that the company’s mission was to “connect buyers and sellers.”  Previously Ebay bought Skype, and then under his tenure, sold it off again.  I asked the students if they had ever used Skype to call a business or seller, or if they had ever received a business call on Skype.  No one had, and this was Ebay’s CEO main point.  However neat Skype may be, it did not fit within their company mission.  Dumping even a “neat” product made their company healthier.

So too, territorial acquisitions have to make some sense, have to fit within the “mission” of the conqueror for it to have any hope of benefitting them (I realize that for the moment, I am not directly considering the moral issue of conquest).  I can’t see how Britain’s conquest could possibly fit within Rome’ s interests, though one student suggested that it fit perfectly well — Rome only cared about being bigger than before.

2. The expansion of the civil service

Claudius can be admired for having a soft spot for recently freed slaves who showed intelligence.  But, being clever, he used them to expand his own power.  The civil service was in many ways necessary, but it was also a tool to bypass whatever vestiges remained of Republican government in the Senate and other elected officers.  The Senate did little to object.  Some have commented that our own predilection for appointing ‘Czars’ (“Education Czar,” “Drug Czar,” over the last 20-25 years for the war on drugs, the economy, trade, etc. does the same thing, putting more and more in the hands of the executive branch.

3. His taste in women

For all his intelligence, Claudius had a blind spot when it came to women.  His first wife was named Urganulilla (enough said there), who may have murdered his sister.  Some suggest he divorced his second wife for emotional abuse.  His third wife had numerous affairs and probably involved herself in a plot to overthrow him.  Grudgingly, he executed her for treason.  His fourth wife probably instigated his death via poisoned mushrooms.  Well, no one’s perfect!

Claudius seemed to have a thing for women stronger in personality than him, and maybe was a glutton for punishment.  Perhaps a connection exists between his taste in women and his love for the gladitorial games, which he frequented.

Nero’s reign, like that of Caligula and other bad emperors, raises a question: Can anyone be, in historian Will Durant’s words, “both omnipotent and sane?”  Nero was not on the scale of say, Caligula, but clearly he distanced himself from reality.

He had a passion for the arts.  He spent much of his time devoted to singing.  He held concerts, where attendance was unofficially mandatory for Rome’s political class.  The Roman historian Seutonius writes that some  feigned death or heart attack in hopes of being carried out of these concerts early.  No doubt many volunteers rushed to the scene to “help” if they could.  Nero appears not to have noticed.

Nero’s passion surely must have struck the Romans as bizarre.  Imagine a campaign ad for a president that showed him, not shaking hands or looking smart at a desk, but taking lessons in how to sing an opera aria.

Nero attended the Greek Olympics in AD 68, giving many concerts to “wild applause.”  Nero also entered the chariot race, but alas, his chariot broke during the competition and he did not finish.  Nevertheless the Greeks awarded Nero first prize, and gave him their most distinguished award for excellence in competition.  Any normal person should have seen right through this, but Nero appears to have missed what the Greeks were trying to accomplish.  He proclaimed that the Greeks recognized “true greatness” and in appreciation removed Greece from the list of provinces that paid annual tributes to Rome.

Whatever their faults, no one ever said the Greeks were idiots.

I find something almost childlike about Nero’s utter lack of self-awareness.  But as we have said in previous updates, distancing oneself from reality to such a degree, combined with great power, would inevitably lead to disaster.  Nero’s self-delusion manifested itself in other ways.  He may have murdered his mother to obtain the divorce and remarriage he sought.  He may have had a hand in the great fire of 64 AD that burned much of Rome.  Nero had always talked of redesigning Rome on more aesthetic lines, and now with much of the city destroyed he could (Christians became a convenient scapegoat).  He almost certainly did not really “fiddle while Rome burned,” but the story points to a truth about his character.

When he died by suicide, he is reported to have lamented, “What a great artist dies with me!” delusional to the bitter end.  Few of us will always like the limits imposed on us by law, custom, circumstance, and conscience, but maybe these are some of the things God uses to keep us from being enslaved to our own self, and trapped in our own view of reality.

The aftermath of Nero’s death removed all traces of what remained of the Republic.  While under Augustus, the Senate at least served as a rubber stamp, now the position of emperor simply went to the general who could control Rome.

The Romans were glad enough to get rid of Nero, but eliminating him meant the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and a power vacuum that needed filled.  Rome burned in A.D. 64, but Rome itself played with fire with a political system bound to rupture at some point.

Blessings,

Dave

Seeing is not Believing

Imagine a large group attending a traditional bull fight in Spain, replete with the attendant pageantry. You would all witness the same actions, and the same events. But, interpretations of the events and their ultimate meaning would likely differ widely, and thus, what what one “sees” would diverge strongly as well. A possible smattering of interpretations might include

  • Some would find the event barbaric, shameful, and cruel–a terrible relic of some pre-modern past.
  • Some, a la Hemingway, would see an exhilarating, if not slightly problematic, affirmation of masculinity
  • Some would not go any deeper than pure entertainment–they would see a spectacle and be glad they had that chance.
  • Some would see a noble re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ, and his traveling the Via Dolorosa, the path of sorrow.

This last suggestion no doubt strikes many moderns, Christians included, as absurd. And yet, the Catholic faithful called the passing of the bull through the cape the “Veronica Pass,” after the story of a young woman named Veronica (translation–“true image”–think veracity, verdict, and ‘icon’) who offered Christ her veil to wipe his face as he carried the cross. Some say that Christ accepted the offer, and an image of His face remained imprinted on the veil, the “icon made without hands.”

Some might accuse Christians here of very conveniently glomming on to something pagan like a bullfight, to make sure that Christians 1) could still have fun, 2) or still have a dark side, 3) or to appease a paganism that they could not expunge. A variety of pre-Christian cultures made extensive use of bulls and bull imagery, as did other pagan European cultures the church encountered as it grew throughout Europe. Certainly in general Christianity incorporated and transformed certain pagan customs from different cultures. But all in all, the practice likely has most of its roots in a vision of the prophet Ezekiel. In chapter 1 of his prophesy, within a larger vision of a wheel of fire, Ezekiel sees something else:

there was as it were the likeness of four living creatures. This was their appearance, and the likeness of man upon them. Each had four faces, and each had four wings. . . . This was the likeness of their faces: the face of a man, the face of a lion on the right side of the foursome, the face of an ox on the left, and the face of an eagle

Ezekiel 1:5-6, 10

Traditionally, according to St. Gregory the Great (late 6th century AD) and other commentators* from the early church

  • Matthew and his gospel is identified with the man, for he begins with a geneology
  • Mark is the lion, the “voice crying in the wilderness” (Mk. 1:1)
  • Luke is the ox, who begins with a sacrifice (Lk. 1:8)
  • John is the eagle, “who stretched towards the very substance of God” (St. Gregory, Jn. 1:1)–it is John who is regarded as the Theologian par excellence, hence his association with what is high above.

Ezekiel also mentions the essential unity of the four creatures as well, just as the four evangelists have an essential harmony, which leant early commentators to ultimately see each creature as a partial image of Christ.

Along with other cultures we also today associate the bull with virility and the source of life. This association naturally leads one to the idea of a supreme sacrifice, the outpouring of the fullness of life. In the Old Testament, the sacrifice of a bull was the highest sacrifice one could offer, the fullest outward expression of devotion (Ps. 51:19, etc.). In this light, linking the bullfight with Christ’s death makes much more sense, but nothing in what we physically saw would lead us to that conclusion. We would need the proper interpretive framework to “see” this in what we saw.

Historically speaking, the way we see now has very little to do with how most people have seen in the past. The difference probably boils down to the idea of symbols. One author writes,

The simplest way of defining this difference [between the old world and the modern] is to recall the changed meaning and function of the word “symbol.” For us the symbol is an in am image that invests physical reality with poetic meaning. For medieval man, the physical world as we understand it has no reality except as a symbol. But even the term “symbol” is misleading. For us the symbol is the creation of poetic fancy; for medieval man what we would call symbol is the only objectively valid definition of reality. We find it necessary to suppress the symbolic instinct if we seek to understand the world as it is rather than as it seems. Medieval man conceived the symbolic instinct as the only reliable guide to to such an understanding. Maximus the Confessor . . . actually defines what he calls “symbolic vision” as the ability to apprehend within the objects of sense perception the invisible reality of the intelligible that lays beyond them.

But still some might object that realm of symbol has far too much subjectivity to rely on these associations and intuitions. After all, bull imagery has a variety of pagan associations. One need only think of Assyria, one of the more cruel empires, and their winged bulls, or Egypt and their Apis bull.

However ambiguous some of these association might be (is the Assyrian depiction meant to be somewhat demonic or angelic?), we have no doubt when we look at images of Bel/Baal and the bull horn attendant imagery, or even the golden calf.

Noting this ambiguity, the materialist will assert that this proves the arbitrary nature of language and our symbols, that nothing has any meaning in itself. But this position in fact makes a grand metaphysical claim about reality, that it is univocal, that if it speaks it must speak with one voice only. But our experience tells us this is false. Meaning has multiple layers.

Mircea Eliade continues,

It is therefore the image as such, as the whole bundle of meanings, that is true, and not any one of its meanings, nor one alone of its many frames of reference. To translate an image into a concrete terminology by restricting it to any one of these frames of reference is to do worse than multilate it–it is to annihilate, to annul it as an instrument of cognition.” — Eliade, Images and Symbols, 13

We can see that the New Testament is well aware of the tension inherent in symbols. Christ is the “Lion of Judah,” but Peter also compares a lion to Satan, a merciless prowler (1 Pet. 5:8). We shouldn’t say that Peter rejects one form of symbolism for another, however. Both are possible at the same time. Our experience of objects manifests a reality that does not belong strictly to the physical, observable world. The “real” world is full of grace, yet fallen, and our symbols naturally reflect this as well.

We can go further. As I mentioned above, I think the bull image has Christian roots, for I count the Old Testament as part of the Christian tradition. But suppose I throw this out and say that any associations with a bull/ox and Christ has purely pagan roots. Well, the very act of taking something fallen, baptizing it, “cleaning it up,” and re-presenting it to God anew–this has everything to do with our role as image-bearers of God and stewards of creation.** Through repentance, we hopefully do this with ourselves every day. This is, in part, what it means to grow the Kingdom of God.

Ultimately, however, one cannot “prove” any of this in a strictly rational way. I propose, however, that we can see the superiority of the symbolic way of thinking by examining what happens when we assume a more materialistic approach.

We can start with our very selves. I have participated in discussions where a strict materialist argued that all things beyond neurons, chemicals, synapses, etc. were simply fabrications of evolution. Whatever he could not measure he discarded. Yet, this meant that everything he valued, his friends, his choices, even food he liked, would ultimately mean nothing. Thankfully, he agreed that things like love, friendship, etc. were important, just not real. Without this thin anchor, actual existence in the world for him would not be possible. To believe that chemicals are “real” and friendship is not puts one quite near the wind, as they say.

We can scale up a bit to a family. If you think in a purely materialistic manner, one could easily argue that the concept of a family is only social convention. “Names” are certain phonetic sounds, “families” just a group of people whose DNA has more in common with each other than with other people. “Marriage” gets reduced to a convenient, or not so convenient, voluntary arrangement. Marriages only really work, however, when the people involved believe that what they cannot see or measure about their relationship has a greater reality than themselves as individuals. Participating in this greater intangible reality makes the lesser reality possible.

We can only live through symbols. Our experience of objects involves the manifestation of something other, a reality that transcends our world while including it at the same time.

But we must use caution with these symbols. We can take the corporate identity of a political party, for example. Political parties can serve good ends. They bring people together across geographical space. They help aggregate ideas and should, in theory at least, filter out extremism. They can give a sense of identity. But if one makes that identity supreme, it becomes a demon instead of an angel. The person loses agency to the party–whatever the party says, they think. Like rooting for a sports team, the key is the color of the laundry, not the particular ideology. Initially being a Republican/Democrat likely bestowed a sense of belonging and purpose. Now–you are food. You exist to vote and feed the machine. The same can happen with a family. The “higher reality” of the family can give one guidance and meaning beyond our own individual existence. But if we make family the highest reality, it too will eat us. This happens in gangs, organized crime, and so on–Michael Corleone’s Godfather tragedy.

The bull can and should scale up to Christ, but if we miss the mark, or stop too short, we end up with the devil.

Dave

*St. Bruno d’ Asti, St. Yves of Chartes, among others. Perhaps we might see further symbolism in that the three synoptic gospels have more similarity in their “earthiness,” but John’s gospel departs significantly in emphasis, thus his association with the heavenly eagle(?).

**This is why the obvious fact that the church refashioned certain pagan festivals and images for Christian use is not anything to apologize for, but something to celebrate. It is part of the triumph of the Church.

Invictus Diplomacy

Historians are people too, and they need jobs just like everyone else.  One way some seek to perpetuate their role in society is by coming up with new and different perspectives on the past.  I am all for reexamining things and keeping them fresh, but . . .  recently I have noticed a few attempts to redeem Rome’s most notorious Emperors, Nero and Caligula, and I wonder if this carries things a bit too far.*  Still, despite my concerns that this represents something “weird for the sake of being weird,” we must contend, for example, with the fact that Nero had a great deal of popularity with the masses in general.  We need not assume that Tacitus and Suetonius deliberately lied and distorted things to wonder if they failed to give us the full picture.

Aloys Winterling recently published a well-received biography of Caligula.  Some reviews got my ire up with the word “rehabilitation,” but upon further examination, Winterling seeks to condemn Caligula in a different way, and not “rehabilitate” him.  Winterling allows us to understand Rome and his reign in a different light.  Traditionally most assume that Caligula’s actions had their roots in some type of madness, and this allows for us to excuse them in some ways, obscuring Caligula’s true motives.**

The Augustan synthesis fixed the bleeding in Rome after a century of intermittent civil war, but at a price of the straightforward approach Rome prided itself on.  Augustus may have “pretended” not to want power and the Senate likely “pretended” to rule.  But in the end, Augustus had the power and the senate didn’t. Augustus performed an intricate kibuki dance of sorts that allowed everyone to assume, if they wished, that Rome was still Rome, after all.

Caligula wanted to end this charade, Winterling argues, by carrying its logic as far it went.  He deliberately sought to expose the hypocrisy involved amongst Roman elite.  So, he made his horse a senator and consul as a deliberate insult, as a joke, not because he was “crazy.”  Nero had a thing for the stage and part of me wonders if we might not see Caligula’s time in power as something akin to Andy Kauffman as Emperor, where all masks come off because all masks are on, and things are funny because they are . . . not really that funny.  His goal seemed to be make people feel uncomfortable, something slightly akin to an act of social ‘violence,’^ which of course would presage the very real violence that characterized Caligula’s reign.

In attempting to strip off masks by putting on masks–such as “pretending” to be a god (though he might really have believed it?  Anything is possible). Many other examples exist of this.  When Caligula fell ill one Senator prayed for his recovery and, in an act of great ‘devotion,’ pledged his life for the health of the emperor.  When he recovered, Caligula made him go through with his pledge and end his life. No more masks, no more empty words. Caligula sought to break everything down and rule by himself with no need for social niceties.  One might think of Caligula’s reign as a 3 1/2 year stage act of a much more evil version of Andy Kauffman.

Diplomacy (and most aspects ofpolitics, I suppose) involves masks, and wearing such things must get tiresome.  One has to say things indirectly, if at all.  One says things with posture, and what one eats.  The job grants one high status and honor, yet it often requires a self-effacing temperment that often will not mesh with such requirements.  To say what one wants, to be an authentic man, such is the dream of every romantic.  It is this same romantic who no doubt envisions that his bracing personality is just what the world has been waiting for.

Liuprand of Cremona came from northern Italy as an ambassador for Emperor Otto in the middle of the 10th century A.D.  Otto sent him to Constantinople in hopes of arranging a royal marriage.  Liuprand’s life as a churchman gave him an excellent education, and he had a reputation as a fine speaker.  He seemed the best possible candidate to navigate the highly developed and occasionally strange world of Byzantium.

Liuprand wrote Otto an account of all of his exploits, and what makes his work so enjoyable is that he thinks he’s doing a great job.  He’s “telling it like it is,” not giving the Byzantines an inch!  He fights a valiant war of words on behalf of his emperor, of whom he seems to forget . . . wants a marriage into the Byzantine royal family.

One exchange, involving precedence and the tension between eastern and western churches, got a bit testy.  The Byzantines speak first (Liuprand writes in the first person) . . .

“But he will do that,” said Basil, the head of the imperial bedchamber, “when he makes Rome and the Roman church obedient to his nod.”

Then I said, “A certain fellow, having suffered much harm from another, approached God and said, “Lord, avenge me of my enemy!” God answered him, “I will do it, on the day on which I will give each according to his deeds.”

But to this Basil relpied, “How late!” [this exchange weaves together quotes from Ps. 61:13, Lk 18:3].

Then they all left the disputation shaking with laughter . . .

Liuprand walks away angry, but doesn’t seem to recognize the light-hearted touch from the Byzantines throughout this conversation, obvious in their laughter over his theological “zinger.”

In another instance, Liuprand grows incensed at the “masks” of the Byzantines, as they honored the emperor’s father, with the traditional song, “God grant you many years,” often sung in Orthodox churches even today.  We enter his narrative moments after he has been chastised by the emperor for finding their food too dainty and smelly.

[The Emperor] did not permit me a reply to his words, but instead ordered me back to the table.  Then his father entered and sat down, a man, it seemed, born 150 years before.  In their praises, or rather, their venting, the Greeks sang out, asking God  to multiply his years.

From this we can discern just how ignorant and greedy the Greeks are, and how enamored they are of their own glory.  They wish upon an old man, indeed–a walking corpse–what they certainly know nature will not allow, and the walking corpse wishes that which he knows will never happen, which he knows God will not do, and would not even be good for him if He did do it, but bad.

Liuprand is just the man to set them straight, if only they would listen!  How greedy the Greeks are, indeed!

As one might surmise, Liuprand failed to secure a royal bride for Otto. He has no capability to see his role in this disaster, or perhaps thinks it just as well.  How awful, he must have thought, to think of his leige Otto allying himself with these fish-eating onion lovers. Early during his visit he had been allowed to purchase some costly robes (though LIuprand seemed to despise all he saw and met, he did like their robes), but now the Emperor asked for them back.

When this was done, they took from me five very precious purple robes, judging that you [that is, Otto] and all the Italians, Saxons, Franks, Bavarians, Swabians, indeed all the nations, are unworthy to go about decked in cloth of that quality.  But how unsuitable and how insulting it is that soft, effeminate, long-sleeved, tiara wearing, hooded, lying, unsexed, idle people strut about in purple, while heroes, that is, strong men, who know war, full of faith and charity, in submission to God, full of virtues, do not!  What an insult, if that is not!” [he does add, we should note, that they reimbursed him for the price of the robes].

Thus ended his hilariously inept diplomatic career.

I know that many noble and worthy souls love the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernst Henley, but I have never liked a thing about it. The bald pagan statements in the poem always seemed to me a bit ridiculous and silly coming from the pen of a Victorian Brit.  I won’t argue the point too strongly, but I think we can at least say this, that when diplomats and politicians in sticky situations attempt to be “captains of their souls” and give nothing to no man, they become at best failures, at worst, a horrible wreck of humanity.  The final irony may be that such scrupulously confident people often end up the butt of jokes.

Dave

*Most academics, especially in the humanities, tend to lean left politically.  I wonder then, if we should be encouraged or worried that a variety of them seem to be trying to redeem, or perhaps lean towards “explaining away,” autocratic emperors.

**We should not call Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., “mad” unless we do wish to excuse them in some way.

^For any who might not know, Tony Clifton is Andy Kaufmann.  I am one of those who (his Might Mouse routine aside), do not find him all that funny.  In my defense, reading the entire Great Gatsby on stage as his ‘act’ might be audacious (he actually did this at least once), but is it funny?  You might laugh at hearing about it, but would you pay to see it?

 

Magicians of the Gods

I consider myself a mild agnostic on certain things about the ancient past.

I have no firm commitments about the age of the Earth.  I also have no commitment to the development of life on a macroevolutionary scale, thus I have no need for a very old earth.  As much as I understand the science, it looks like the earth (or at least the universe) has a very, very long history.  But I am intrigued by some young-earth arguments on the periphery out of curiosity.  Among other things, a lot of ‘old-earth’ arguments don’t take into account a cataclysmic worldwide flood.  If such an event happened, geological dating would need recalibrating.

When it comes to the book of Genesis, my commitments get deeper.  I am open to both literal and ‘mythopoetic’ interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis.  We can also combine them and probably both methods have their place.  But certain messages seem absolutely clear, among them:

  • That humanity fell from a state of grace, innocence, peace, etc. into a type of chaos
  • That our sin fundamentally altered the nature of human existence
  • That the change in humanity was physical as well as spiritual.  One may not believe that the lifespans given in Genesis are literal.  But the pattern is clear.  Adam and the earliest humans lived much longer than those at the end of the book.  By the end of Genesis we see that something about humanity has changed drastically.
  • The formation of civilizations happens very quickly.  It is almost the default mechanism of humanity.  Cain builds cities right away.  After the flood we have the Tower of Babel, and so on.

This reading of Genesis informs my reading of ancient history.

There is a version of early pre-history, common in most textbooks, that runs like so:

  • The earliest humans were basically ignorant and violent hunter-gatherers that lived in small groups.
  • At some point the climate changes or the herds thin out.  Food resources dwindle, forcing them to cooperate with larger groups to survive.
  • Because now you have to stick close to water, you get rooted to a particular spot.  You can’t just follow the herds.
  • So, you invent agriculture.  When you have really good harvests, you have a surplus.
  • This surplus gives the group leisure.  With this leisure they build more tools.  Eventually they build governments and laws.
  • As society expands governments have a harder time holding everything together.  So, they either invent religious practices or codify them in some way for the masses, which finishes the development of civilization.

This view is called “gradualism” or “evolutionary gradualism” or something like that.

I entirely disagree with this view.  The book of Genesis certainly at bare minimum strongly hints at something much more akin to devolution, and myths from other cultures hint at the same thing.

Enter Graham Hancock.

I don’t know exactly what to make of him.  The fact that he is an amateur bothers me not at all.  Those very familiar with this blog know of my love for Arnold Toynbee, and one of his main causes involved championing the amateur historian.  He makes no claims to fully understand some of the science he cites but relies on others with special degrees.  You can’t fault him for this.

He also has a restless curiosity about the ancient world that I love.  He willingly dives into unusual theories with a seemingly open mind.  His understanding of Christianity is deeply flawed.  But . . . his argument against the evolutionary development of religion could have come from any Christian.  Many evolutionary theorists acknowledge the social utility and advantage of religious belief.  But, he argues, there would be no obvious evolutionary advantage to saying, “We must take time and effort away from survival, making weapons, improving our shelter, etc. to build a large structure for a god that, fundamentally, we are making up.  In the evolutionary model it makes no sense that anyone would think of this and that others would somehow agree. Or, you would have to believe that the intelligent people that planned and built these temples were tremendously deluded, and furthermore, that this delusion occurred in every culture.  To crown it, if all we have is matter in motion, how would anyone think of something beyond matter in the first place?

Magicians of the Gods has some flaws.  It bounces around too much for my taste, and in some sections of the book the arguments change.  One review stated that,

Speaking as someone who found [Hancock’s earlier book] Fingerprints of the Gods to be entertaining and engaging, even when it was wrong, I can say that Magicians of the Gods is not a good book by either the standards of entertainment or science. It is Hancock at his worst: angry, petulant, and slipshod. Hancock assumes readers have already read and remembered all of his previous books going back decades, and his new book fails to stand on its own either as an argument or as a piece of literature. It is an update and an appendix masquerading as a revelation. This much is evident from the amount of material Hancock asks readers to return to Fingerprints to consult, and the number of references—bad, secondary ones—he copies wholesale from the earlier book, or cites directly to himself in that book.

Alas, I agree with some of these criticisms.  But I think some of them miss the overall point Hancock attempts to make.

When evaluating Hancock v. the Scientific Establishment, we should consider the following:

  • Arguments in the book involve interpretations of archaeology and geology, two branches of science that are relatively young, both of which have to make conclusions based on a variety of circumstantial evidence.  Science usually comes down hard on circumstantial evidence, and “proof” is hard to come by in these disciplines.  But some that attack Hancock do so when he suggests or speculates, and then blame him for not having “proof.”
  • Hancock is right to say that the Scientific Establishment is too conservative.  But, this is probably a good thing that Science is this way.  This is how Science operates.
  • Hancock cites a variety of specialists and laments that the “Establishment” pays them little heed.  I think that some of these “fringe” scientists may truly be on to something that the conservatism of the academy wants to ignore.  But . . . some of them may be ignored by the academy because they are doing bad science.  How does the layman decide when degreed specialists radically disagree?  We may need a paradigm outside of science to judge.  In any case, Hancock too often assumes that scientists with alternative ideas get rejected only for reasons that have nothing to do with science.
  • Some reviews give Hancock a hard time for referencing earlier books of his. This can be annoying, but . . . on a few occasions Hancock references his earlier books to disagree with or modify his earlier conclusions.  In the 20 years since he wrote Fingerprints of the Gods he has “pulled back” from some earlier assertions in light of some new evidence.  This seems at least something like a scientific cast of mind, but his critics seem not to have noticed this.  Should he be criticized for changing his views?
  • His book cover and title might help him sell copies, but it looks too gimmicky, and is guaranteed to draw the suspicion of “Science.”

I wish he made his central point clearer throughout and summed it up forcefully at the end of the book.  But we can glean the main thrust of his argument.

First . . .

Emerging evidence exists that a major comet, or series of comets, struck Earth some 12,000 years ago.  While this may not yet have the full weight of the scientific establishment behind it, many regard it as an entirely legitimate proposition.  It is not a fringe idea.

Many in turn believe that this comet struck to polar ice-caps, causing a flood of literally biblical proportions.  Those who believe in the Biblical flood need not ascribe this as the cause, but perhaps it could have been.  Of course many other ancient cultures have stories involving a cataclysmic flood.

Well, all this may be interesting, but this had little to do with the history  of civilization (so the argument goes) because civilization did not emerge until sometime around 4000 B.C., well after the possible/likely? meteor impact flood.

This brings us to Hancock’s second assertion, that civilization is much older than we think.

The discovery of Gobeki-Tepe some 25 years ago began to revolutionize our understanding of the ancient world.

No one disputes that the site dates to thousands of years before the so-called beginnings of human civilization.  The stone work is precise and impressive.  Recent radar penetrations indicate that even bigger, likely more impressive stone work lies beneath the site.

Here we come to a fork in the road.

  • We can rethink our assumption of early hunter-gatherers.  We can assume that they were far more advanced than we originally thought.  We can assume that they could organize in large groups and they possessed a high level of development and skill, including that of agriculture.  But then, would they be hunter-gatherers if they acted this way?
  • Or, we can assume that mingled with hunter-gatherers might have been the holdovers of a previous advanced civilization, perhaps one mostly wiped out by a global cataclysm.  These are the “magicians of the gods” Hancock postulates–those that emerged from the mass extinctions caused by global flooding, who perhaps took refuge with hunter-gatherers.  Perhaps they had a trade of sorts in mind: 1) You teach us survival skills, and 2) We teach you how to build, plant, and organize.

Option 2 might seem crazy.  It would probably mean reversing our gradual, evolutionary view of the development of civilization at least in the last 10,000 years.  But we have seen something like this already–an undisputed example of it after the fall of Rome.  All agree that in almost every respect, Roman civilization of 100 A.D. stood far above early medieval civilization of 800 A.D.

But Gobekli Tepe is not the only example of something like this.  Archaeologists observe other sites where earlier architecture seems far more advanced than later architecture.  Take, for example, the Sascayhuaman site in Peru, not far from where the Incas developed.  This wall, for example,

almost certainly predate the Incas by thousands of years.  The Incas later certainly could build things, but not in the same way, as the picture below attests (and it looks like they tried to copy the older design in some respects).

At Gobekli-Tepe, the recently deceased project head Klaus Schmidt commented regarding the parts of the site still underground that, “The truly monumental structures are in the older layers; in the younger layers [i.e., those visible to us at the moment] they get smaller and there is a significant decline in quality.”

Some similar possibilities of much older and possibly more advanced civilizations exist in Indonesia and other sites around the world. For example some believe that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before the pyramids.  There is some water erosion evidence that could support this theory.  There is also this intriguing ancient alignment with the Sphinx and the Leo constellation:

If true, this could mean that the Egyptians built the Pyramids where they did because they knew the site was already sacred from a previous era, or even possibly, a previous civilization.

With this before us, at bare minimum, we can strongly argue that the standard gradual and uniform process of the development of civilization should be in serious doubt.  If we accept this, then two other possibilities follow:

  1. Some civilizations went through periods of great advancement* and then fell into a period of steep decline, after which they never quite recovered their former glory.  A massive flood certainly could have triggered this decline.
  2. Another possibility is that we may be dealing with different civilizations altogether.  Hancock ascribes to this view.  For him, sites like Gobeckli Tepe served as a time capsule of sorts, a clue, or a deposit of knowledge for others to use in case of another disaster.  This may raise an eyebrow or two, but one of the mysterious aspects of Gobeckli-Tepe that all agree on is that they deliberately buried the site and left it. Who does this?  Why? Perhaps they wanted this site preserved so that it could be used in case of another emergency to restart civilization.  If this is true, there is much we do not understand at all about this site.

Those that want a tightly knit argument heavily supported by the scientific community will be disappointed by Magicians of the Gods.  But for those that want a springboard for rethinking the standard timeline of the ancient world, the book does very nicely.

Dave

*Michael Shurmer of Skeptic magazine argued against Hancock, saying that, “If they were so advanced, where is the writing?  Where are the tools?”  But why must writing be a pre-requisite for advancement?  Or if you believe writing is a hallmark of advancement, what if this previous civilization was more advanced in many other ways? And if they built buildings, isn’t it obvious that they used tools, even if we can’t find them?  If they built them without tools, wouldn’t they be really smart?

Maybe no tools exist at the site because they didn’t live near the site, for whatever reason.  But where they lived has nothing to do with how advanced they seem to have been.  Like Hancock, I’m not sure what else we need other than Gobekli Tepe to prove the point.

 

 

 

9th/10th Grade: Pride and Insanity

Greetings,

This week we continued our look at the early Roman emperors.  After the death of Augustus came the reign of Emperor Tiberius.

There is  good evidence that suggests that Tiberius never wanted to be emperor at all.  Duty bound, he did not shrink from service.  In many key ways, Tiberius was a good emperor (generally just, sound money manager, no foolish military adventures), but his introverted personality distanced him from the population and the ruling elite.  His bust shows him at least at a young age to be a decent, unassuming man.  As time went on, he grew more bitter, more distant.

His time in power raises a few questions:

As the Republic faded and Augustus’s system took over, was it possible for the emperor to be a simple civil servant?  Did the principate system of Augustus require a more dynamic kind of leadership than Tiberius could muster?   I recently heard an interview with an actor who had senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein guest-star on the sitcom he is a part of.  He mentioned how naturally acting came to the politicians.  It initially surprised him at first, but then he thought that in fact, politicians play a role all the time.

Some decry this situation, while others accept it passively.  But we should wonder if our system of government and our society do not almost require our leaders to be at least part image.  They need to represent something abstract beyond themselves in order to appeal to a broad enough cross-section of people to get elected.

Tiberius’s reaction to his unpopularity exacerbated the problem.   Tiberius took his unpopularity personally.  He grew distant and sullen.  The distance eventually became physical as well as social, as he withdrew from Rome and ruled from the island of Capri.  His isolation forced him to trust a select few.  When one of them named Sejanus betrayed him, Tiberius went off the rails.  Now no one was trustworthy, and many were arrested on flimsy treason charges.  Once he could take refuge in the good work he did for Rome, but now he spent much of his time trying to find “traitors.”  Whereas before people may have grudgingly respected him without liking him, now he had the hatred of most of the political class in Rome.

So strong was their dislike of Tiberius, the Romans rejoiced at his murder in favor of Emperor Gaius, known to us and his contemporaries as Caligula.  With Caligula, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Here was a man of some charm, but almost no real care for the actual demands of office.

Unlike Tiberius, he actually had a sense of humor — but this often had a cruel edge to it even when expressed in its most benign forms.  Growing as the mascot of the army in Germany, the son of the beloved but murdered General Germanicus, Caligula never had any check on his whims.  In normal society he would have been an annoying brat.  Unfortunately for Rome, his birth and connections made him emperor of the most powerful empire in the western world.

As his reign progressed, he grew more and proud and insane with power.

Caligula may never have been “normal,” but he wasn’t always insane (however unnerving this most famous bust of him might be, with that smirk and those distant eyes).  We call those insane who cannot cope with reality, and pride and delusions of omnipotence certainly distance us from reality.  This distance can lead to paranoia and erratic behavior, perhaps out of fear.  A paranoid and erratic emperor would spell disaster for Rome’s political class.

Can a person make oneself insane through their actions?  We can consider Daniel 4 and the story of Nebuchadnezzar, where his pride led to his insanity.  The same might be said of Caligula.

Next week, we examine the reign of Claudius and Nero.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

11th/12th Grade: Negative and Positive Liberty

Greetings to all,

As I mentioned at Orientation, the class this years is entitled, “American History” even though we will not spend the entirety of our time studying America particularly.  Still, 19th and 20th century America will receive special focus.  In light of this, I introduced a few key questions that will form the backdrop of our study this year:

  • What does it mean to be an American?
  • Is America unique?  If so, in what way?  Our founders indeed believed that America did represent something unique in its time, but our way of life has influenced others over time.  If we are no longer unique, how has that impacted our sense of identity?
  • Many have commented that America gets birthed from an idea, rather than “within history.”  What advantages and disadvantages does this bring, and how has this impacted us?

Hopefully students will enjoy grappling with these difficult questions.

We began the year looking quickly at the early American presidents during the years 1788-1800.  The founders did much to lay down on paper a workable outline of government in the Constitution.  But the Constitution could not answer every question or foresee every circumstance that would arise.  How would the principles laid down in the Constitution work themselves out in real life?  Nowhere does the Consitution explicitly guarantee the right to privacy, for example, but does that mean we don’t have that right?  Does the Constitution forbid what it does not explicitly allow, or does it allow what it does not explicitly forbid?  The founders themselves did not agree on this question, and the Constitution does not say one way or the other.

We looked at the transformation of American democracy under Andrew Jackson, and this ultimately led to discussions on the following topics:

1. Do we elect our representatives because of their wisdom, experience, etc. (the attitude of George Washington), or to simply be ‘the voice of the people (more of Andrew Jackson’s idea)?  Do we want our representatives to follow their own ideas and convictions, or to follow the opinion polls?

2. In some ways, Jackson was our first “American” president.  Washington, Jefferson, Monroe — all of them had an essentially European style upbringing and education.  Jackson grew up on the frontier without the formal training.  Previously, government was for the “best” men to rule on the people’s behalf.  Jackson believed that if he could be president, certainly anyone could be Secretary of State.  He began the so-called “Spoils System” by rewarding his political friends with government posts.  However distasteful this might be, it had its roots in a passionate belief in equality, that no one should be thought of as “elite.”  His inaugural celebration had a much more loose and informal feel than that of his predecessors.

3. Just at the end of class Friday I introduced  political philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s formulation of ‘Negative’ and ‘Positive’ liberty.  Does liberty mean freedom from outside constraint, or are we not truly free unless directed toward a greater good, as the Puritans might have argued?  Do restaurants rob smokers of their liberty by banning them, or does that ban in fact enhance the freedom of non-smokers not to inhale second-hand smoke?  Non-smokers are certainly in the majority, but every democracy must protect minority rights to be considered a democracy at all.  How much, and what kind, of protection should minorities receive?  This becomes all the more problematic when extending rights to the minority means the minority inconveniences the majority.

The interesting and problematic part of this debate is that both sides believe they are enhancing liberty.  The restaurant that allows smoking everywhere believes that they are simply letting people do what they choose to do, even if the choice is a bad one.  What business is it of theirs what people do with their lives?  Who are they to make choices for others?  On the other side, some would say that such ‘liberty’ is in fact liberty only for the minority to do as they please.  The ‘liberty’ of some is ‘oppression’ for others forced to breathe in the smoke.  With everyone smoking in restaurants, the freedom of non-smokers to eat where they please has significant limits.

Many of our political debates, I feel, may have something to do with these different definitions of liberty.

Of course this discussion of liberty cannot divorced in our context from a discussion of slavery, and may help us understand why many came to defend slavery in the name of liberty.  To help us understand slavery in America we will look briefly at the history of slavery at some point next week.  Why did it disappear in the Middle Ages?  Why did it start to return in the Renaissance?  Was indentured servitude slavery?  Why did slavery linger in the South?  Why did we not ‘solve’ the slavery question with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution?  Below I include the brief reading selections I gave the students on the issue of “Negative” and “Positive” liberty if you would like to read yourself.

Next week we will look at the expansion of America to the west and south in the 1840’s, and what impact this had on the political climate of the period.  I look forward to a wonderful year.

Dave Mathwin

 

Negative and Positive Conceptions of Liberty

Negative Liberty

Philosophers such as Locke or Adam Smith or, in some moods, Mill, believed that social harmony and progress were compatible with reserving a large area for private life over which neither the State nor any other authority must be allowed to trespass. Hobbes, and those who agreed with him, especially conservative or reactionary thinkers, argued that if men were to be prevented from destroying one another and making social life a jungle or a wilderness, greater safeguards must be instituted to keep them in their places; he wished correspondingly to increase the area of centralised control and decrease that of the individual. But both sides agreed that some portion of human existence must remain independent of the sphere of social control. To invade that preserve, however small, would be despotism. The most eloquent of all defenders of freedom and privacy, Benjamin Constant, who had not forgotten the Jacobin dictatorship, declared that at the very least the liberty of religion, opinion, expression, property must be guaranteed against arbitrary invasion. Jefferson, Burke, Paine, Mill compiled different catalogues of individual liberties, but the argument for keeping authority at bay is always substantially the same. We must preserve a minimum area of personal freedom if we are not to ‘degrade or deny our nature’. We cannot remain absolutely free, and must give up some of our liberty to preserve the rest. But total self-surrender is self-defeating.

What then must the minimum be? That which a man cannot give up without offending against the essence of his human nature. What is this essence? What are the standards which it entails? This has been, and perhaps always will be, a matter of infinite debate. But whatever the principle in terms of which the area of non-interference is to be drawn, whether it is that of natural law or natural rights, or of utility, or the pronouncements of a categorical imperative, or the sanctity of the social contract, or any other concept with which men have sought to clarify and justify their ‘convictions, liberty in this sense means liberty from, absence of interference beyond the shifting, but always recognisable, frontier. ‘The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way’, said the most celebrated of its champions.  If this is so, is compulsion ever justified? Mill had no doubt that it was. Since justice demands that all individuals be entitled to a minimum of freedom, all other individuals were of necessity to be restrained, if need be by force, from depriving anyone of it. Indeed, the whole function of law was the prevention I of just such collisions: the State was reduced to what Lassalle contemptuously described as the functions of a night-watchman or traffic policeman. What made the protection of individual liberty so sacred to Mill? In his famous essay he declares that, unless the individual is left to live as he wishes in ‘the part [of his conduct] which merely concerns himself’, civilisation cannot advance; the truth will not, for lack of a free market in ideas, come to light; there will be no scope for spontaneity, originality, genius, for mental energy, for moral courage. Society will be crushed by the weight of ‘collective mediocrity’.

Whatever is rich and diversified will be crushed by the weight of custom, by men’s constant tendency to conformity, which breeds only ‘withered’ capacities, ‘pinched and hidebound’, ‘cramped and dwarfed’ human beings. ‘Pagan self-assertion’ is as worthy as ‘Christian self-denial’. ‘All errors which [a man] is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.’  The defence of liberty consists in the ‘negative’ goal of warding off interference. To threaten a man with persecution unless he submits to a life in which he exercises no choices of his goals; to block before him every door but one, no matter how noble the prospect upon which it opens, or how benevolent the motives of those who arrange this, is to sin against the truth that he is a man, a being with a life of his own to live. This is liberty as it has been conceived by liberals in the modern world from the days of Erasmus (some would say of Occam) to our own. Every plea for civil liberties and individual rights, every protest against exploitation and humiliation, against the encroachment of public authority, or the mass hypnosis of custom or organised propaganda, springs from this individualistic, and much disputed, conception of man.

Positive Liberty

One way of making this clear is in terms of the independent momentum which the, initially perhaps quite harmless, metaphor of self-mastery acquired. ‘I am my own master’; ‘I am slave to no man’; but may I not (as Platonists or Hegelians tend to say) be a slave to nature? Or to my own ‘unbridled’ passions? Are these not so many species of the identical genus ‘slave’ – some political or legal, others moral or spiritual? Have not men had the experience of liberating themselves from spiritual slavery, or slavery to nature, and do they not in the course of it become aware, on the one hand, of a self which dominates, and, on the other, of something in them which is brought to heel? This dominant self is then variously identified with reason, with my ‘higher nature’, with the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run, with my ‘real’, or ‘ideal’, or with my self at its best.

Dominion and rationality necessarily presuppose freedom. Moreover,  freedom is a necessary condition of morality and love, love cannot be coerced. Man’s freedom and will is at the very heart of man made in God’s image. But as we will see man’s freedom is complex. Freedom has two stages, the first stage of freedom is an imperfect freedom which if used properly leads to perfect freedom. The first stage of freedom is the condition man is in at his creation, it is freedom to choose, I will have the pear and not the banana, I will not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, I will obey God, I will ignore God.  This kind of simple choice is not perfect and true freedom but only the means by which we achieve true freedom. Perfect freedom in the fullest sense is not about choice. This is the lie of the Devil, we believe that freedom means being free to do what one wants, free to choose for oneself. But true freedom is achieved when man simply becomes, when he comes to the place in his being that  he is free from the possibility of choosing the bad.  St. Augustine distinguishes between “the first freedom of the will, the ability not to sin” and “the final freedom… the inability to sin.”  St. Augustine writes in The City of God

Nay rather, it will be more truly free, when set free from the delight of sinning to enjoy the steadfast delight of not sinning.  . . . This new freedom will be the more powerful just because it will not have the power to sin; and this, not by its unaided natural ability, but by the gift of God has received from him the inability to sin . . .   It surely cannot be said that God Himself has not freedom, because he is unable to sin?

Compromise, Compromising

Our era eschews compromise–it seems almost a dirty word to some. We prefer purity. Of course, neither compromise or purity describes a something morally good or bad. Too much purity and you have the desert. Life cannot exist without proper mixing. But . . . too much improper mixing and coherence breaks down and chaos follows soon after. Life cannot exist amidst the flood.

Purity seems simpler than compromise, but purity too has its twists and turns. With COVID, for example, you have the ‘anti-vax’ group, who refuse to ‘contaminate’ themselves (either medically, religiously, or politically) by taking the vaccine. This seems the very definition of purity. But then, this group mixes with much greater ease with the general population. Then you have the incongruous practice of requiring the “purity” of having the vaccine/boosters to “mix” (or compromise, in a sense) with others. Usually, purity involves the absence of something rather than the addition of something. But, this same group shows much more hesitancy actually mixing with others. So, which group should have the higher rank on the purity scale?

The ascendancy of purity signals that for reasons good or otherwise, for many mixing even of a moderate kind (socially, politically, etc.) means “the flood.” We can take the recent Supreme Court abortion decision as an example. In the Clinton era, “safe, legal, and rare,” were the watchwords. But as opposition to Roe v. Wade continued, the position hardened. Now, many encourage pro-choice proponents to Shout Your Abortion. They require affirmation–tolerance will not suffice any longer. Purity (which again, may be good or bad, depending) requires absolutes. The recent decision overturning Roe did not ban abortion, but rather, put the question to the states, requiring pro-choice and pro-life states to mix with each other, which many on the pro-choice side lament.

Something similar happened with the slavery issue in America. I realize the two issues have differences, but their trajectory in American political life looks quite alike up to a point. With the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the country had a chance to deal with the slavery issue with one blow. We failed, partly for good reasons, such as the need for unity, and partly for bad ones, such as the usual human problems of power, greed, and fear. But part of this failure lay in the near universal consensus that

  • Slavery was foisted on us by the British, and with them gone, slavery would fade away.
  • Slavery was an evil, though for a time a necessary evil. Straight out emancipation immediately could be dangerous.
  • Slavery would certainly fade away within a generation or so–no need to stir up a dying hornet’s nest.

When slavery in fact started to grow rather than fade, slave states changed their tune. Slavery grew from a necessary evil, to an entrenched political right inherent in our system, and finally to a positive blessing for one in all. Robert Forbes’ excellent The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath picks up the national dialogue at the “entrenched political right” stage. Forbes sees 1820 as the year that the nation shifted the dialogue on slavery, where the fragile unspoken consensus which allowed for political cooperation between slave and free states started eroding. The new narrative that emerged would put the country on a potential collision course.

Forbes has a a difficult task. Writing about the political machinations surrounding slavery requires a degree of detachment, which can come across as cold. Secondly, slavery is one of the few moral questions where we have more clarity now than in the past, and this brings a temptation of judging people in the past only according to their vices and not their virtues. Despite the fact that Forbes writes nearly entirely about the politicians and not the actual slaves, he steadfastly avoids the first pitfall. The second task is harder, and he mostly succeeds there as well.

Before diving in, a few preliminaries . . .

Many who claimed anti-slavery beliefs compromised with others to keep slavery around. Some pro-slavery advocates talked of the issue more in terms of state’s rights vis a vis federal power, and not in terms of race, humans as property, and so forth. What should an historian make of this?

The first question involves sources–do we believe what people say? Barring something unusual, an historian has to trust what people say, and avoid playing armchair psychologist to those who lived 100 or 1000 years ago. This might change when confronted with a difference in personal v. public actions, or a comparison of public and private statements. In other words, we should need solid evidence not to take what people say at face value. Possibly, this means that when people say that they are against slavery in principle, but believe that we have to tolerate it for a time, that we in turn believe them.

The second relates to the first–should we have an optimistic outlook on our country’s history and give it the benefit of the doubt? Evidence exists for both the narrative that a) slavery was essentially an aberration on the American project, and b) that, while slavery may not have been the raison d’ etre of America (a la 1619 Project, a framework which I believe has no real support in evidence), nevertheless, it was inextricably woven into the American fabric and our concept of liberty from the start.

Starting by thinking of a country involves too much abstraction. We can start instead with a family. I think it important, for example, for parents to give their kids the benefit of the doubt with their actions and choices (kids should do the same for parents–a novel concept!). It should take a lot for you to have the a priori assumption that your child is lying and up to no good–though possibly you need to get there.

The state is not your family, but . . . it bears some resemblance. We owe the state less than we owe our family (or friends), perhaps much less, but we do owe it something. Do we owe it the benefit of the doubt? I will put my cards out there and say, “Very slightly,” and this colors my interpretation of the events as follows. Though certainly, this tenuous “benefit of the doubt” for American history should get strongly challenged by the persistence of slavery.

Forbes begins sketching national attitudes towards slavery at the turn of the 19th century. In the late 18th century, America had two chances to decisively deal with slavery, first with the Declaration, then with the Constitution. In both cases, one could argue that the need for unity trumped the consequence of the “United States” never coming into existence. Politically, this unity was made possible in large measure because of an alliance between slave states and some northern farmers, many of them in Pennsylvania. This may surprise us, for PA had a high concentration of Quakers, who had strong anti-slavery sentiments. Quakers, and others, however, made the following calculation:

  • Slavery (as everyone agreed at the time) will disappear within a generation. So, while it is odious, it is not a threat to Republican liberty
  • Northeastern merchants back the expansion of Federal power, through the ‘Federalist’ party. As everyone knows, power, once granted, only tends to grow. In other words, slavery will go away, but checking federal power requires constant vigilance.

Federalists strongly opposed America’s war with England in 1812. Had the war ended differently, their political fortunes might have waxed, but Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans (which took place after the war was technically over) gave the Americans a sense of overall triumph. This finished the Federalists, which in turn, ended the alliance between northern farmers and southern states. Suddenly, the growth of federal power seemed much less of a threat, and, oh by the way, slavery seemed not to be going away any time soon. Now without direct political allies, and the slavery issue under more exposure, southern states banded together. Now too, cross-sectional political alliances dissipated, opening the door for more direct north-south tension.

Much of the north already distrusted the south. The north saw no possibility of pleasing them. Seven of the first eight presidents came from the south, yet they remained cantankerous and loved to play the victim. For their part, much of the south had for some time distrusted the north. Most every great political thinker associated liberty with agriculture and warned of the dangers of excess commerce. The north’s love of trade would inevitably bring in a greater Federal presence. Manufacturing interests would demand tariffs and other protections for their goods, and this meant a growth of national power.

Many supporters of the south today claim that support for slavery involved not supporting slavery as such, but a certain idea of freedom and belief in limited government that inevitably had consequences others might not like. Still, one must safeguard this freedom. So, we can draw a comparison between, say, the presence of pornography and the presence of slavery. No one should question the evils of pornography and its negative effects on women and men both. But, we might tolerate that evil to get the greater good of government not deciding what “speech” to restrict . . . or so the argument goes. I think this argument might have merit for a period of time. It reminds me of a professor of mine in college who told all of us pro-life advocates that

  • She and many others like had no love for abortion as such, but
  • We needed to appreciate the attendant opportunities that came for women in the aftermath of Roe, a point hard to deny historically.*
  • In her mind and those of others, then, abortion served as a kind of symbolic stand-in for something much larger, i.e., equality and the rights of women.

Again, however, the abortion dialogue, like the slavery issue, morphed into abortion for its own sake. And now with the internet, pornography can have a ubiquitous presence in people’s lives.

President James Monroe took office amidst the collapsing consensus around slavery and its future, but had the “good feelings” of the aftermath of the war of 1812. Churchill famously commented of Monroe that, “He was a humble man, with much to be humble about,” but Forbes sees Monroe as a man of clear vision, even if attaining it involved a difficult tightrope walk. Monroe came from the Virginia school of thought, which stressed limited government. But Forbes sees him leaning anti-slavery in ways that blended with a soft nationalism. Monroe saw slavery as a divisive factional wedge that would split the country. Connecting states through commerce, he believed, would help smooth the rough edges and induce dependency and cooperation. He shied away from tackling the slave issue directly as this would inflame sectional tensions. One problem with this . . . does increased trade in one’s property mean increased trade in slaves? Monroe hoped not, but the logic of slavery eventually worked against him. Slavery proved something of black hole for our politics.

Many southerners stood against even Monroe’s plans, foreseeing that an expanding national economy meant expanding federal power. And if federal power expanded, the government could claim the right to eliminate slavery all together. If Monroe sought to thread the needle, many pro-slavery advocates sought to go through its eye. They wanted to expand commerce in slaves, but have no attendant increase of federal power. They wanted to block construction of the Erie Canal on the one handand allow more freedom of movement in the slave trade.

Around this time we see the first serious growth of the movement to send slaves back to Africa–the colonization movement. However distasteful such an idea seems to us, and however distasteful it became in later decades, Forbes shows great fairness to the idea’s early advocates, a mark of a good historian. He points out that the movement initially came from those most anti-slavery, those who made real sacrifices to try and aid the cause of slaves.

To understand this, we need familiarity with classical political theory on democracies, which ran thusly:

  • Democracies need to be small in size to allow for everyone to know each other. With our size, we had already blown this criteria.
  • One reason for the small size was the need for trust, and shared religious and cultural heritage.
  • In other words, since democracies are built on the premise of disagreement and conflict, they need a firm, wide base of agreement to make sure our disagreements center on the color of paint on the walls, and not on ultimate questions.

Colonization advocates saw such great cultural differences between Africans and Europeans that they surmised that neither group could exercise self-government amongst the other. Returning slaves to Africa allowed them as well as us to pursue our own political destinies.**

All of this brings us to 1820 and the Missouri Compromise. Forbes gives us a high volume of precise detail about the how the deal went down. To get a compromise, one must brand the outliers on both sides as extremists. From our vantage point, we can easily do this to the ‘anti-restrictionists,’ who wanted to take the twisted logic of slavery to its conclusion, i.e., the national government has no power to restrict slavery anywhere.^

Looking back, we can see the Missouri Compromise as fatally flawed, not only because of the evil of slavery itself, but also because it opened to the door to the expansion of slavery. At the time, however, many of those against slavery felt content. A look at the map showed a legislative future that looked to bend in the right direction.

My reason for slight optimism regarding our history referenced above . . . even with 9/10 of future territory destined to exclude slavery, many Americans (as opposed to the politicians) hated that the compromise meant any expansion for slavery at all. Many politicians in free states that voted for the compromise saw their political careers finished.

And yet, we know that slavery continued, and in fact grew over the next few decades. One could argue that this is what you deserve if you compromise with slavery. One could also reasonably assume that the slavery question would have peacefully resolved itself if it had not been for the Mexican-American war, which opened up vast swaths of land eligible for slavery under the 1820 agreement.

I have great sympathy for those that voted for the compromise. As an overall optimist for America, I can see myself believing that north and south could eventually get along, because eventually what kept us apart would no longer be around. But had I lived long enough after, that vote would have haunted me.

Thomas Jefferson lived to see the Compromise vote. He saw abolitionists, and even strong restrictionists, (those that wanted to restrict slavery to where it currently existed and have it go no further) on the wrong side. In a letter to a friend he wrote that

The Missouri controversy, is a question of having just enough of the semblance of morality to throw dust into the eyes of people, and to fanaticize them; while with the knowing ones it is simply a question of power. . .. Real morality is on the [anti-restrictionist] side. The spreading of slaves over a larger surface adds to their happiness and renders their future emancipation more practicable.

Jefferson had a brilliant and incisive mind, but here he is not just dead wrong morally, but his great learning has made him insane. To honestly think that spreading slavery further throughout the country would more speedily bring emancipation boggles my mind. It would, however, make it harder for slaves to revolt.

Perhaps Jefferson’s quote illumines the tragedy of slavery. His belief here seems genuine to me. The only conclusion to draw is that his sins regarding slavery, and the sins of the nation, have warped his sense of reality. When that happens, we cannot expect to have the wisdom to seek the right kind of compromises.

Dave

*The question then might be–was this worth the cost?

**I have very limited knowledge, but I think it fair to say that later advocates of colonization likely based their reasons more on the “inferiority” of blacks, and not merely their cultural differences, though some early advocates no doubt shared this conviction.

^Such a demand comes across as morally repugnant, of course. Forbes shows, however, that this claim also made hash of the Constitution and of our history. We established the Northwest Territories explicitly as free states at the time of the Constitution’s ratification. To deny the government this power was tantamount to denying almost any power to government.

Rome’s Final Frontier

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our look at the formation of the Empire under Augustus Caesar.  His leadership gave Rome peace and stability, but this came at a price.  Augustus solved some of the decayed Republic, but his solution created other problems.

Decades of civil war faced Rome with the need for change.  Rome’s society, however, was built on tradition. Augustus carried himself as a leader in the old tradition, but in reality eroded all of the old checks and balances of the Republic.  He was much more careful than his uncle Julius, who made no secret of his power.  In reality, however, Augustus had just as much, if not more power than Julius ever did.  He certainly understood the power inherent in manipulating his image. . .

The problem may not have been the power itself, but the fact that it was done more or less secretly, and so did not encourage Rome to face reality.  We talked of how Rome was in a sense, ‘pretending’ — living in a fantasy land that told them that Rome was still Rome, after all.  This pretending, however, can be dangerous for a civilization, because the tension between your imagination and reality can grow over time.

In their “Res Getae” assignment the students got an idea of the subtlety with which Augustus worked.  He saw what happened to his uncle Julius, and modified his actions accordingly.  He never (or hardly ever) took power, he waited to receive it from others.  He rejected the title of Dictator which would have brought odium upon himself, but he took bits and pieces of other offices that added up to total control in the end, a kind of “majority ownership” of Rome.

Next week we will see that one problem Augustus faced was the German frontier along the Rhine and Danube river.  He was right to recognize its weaknesses.  This map shows the wedge into Roman territory created by the meeting of the Rhine and Danube river.

Do rivers make for good frontiers?  We might think so, for rivers are not easy for armies to cross.  But when compared with mountains or deserts we see that rivers can be quite porous. Neither side, after all, has a barrier to using the river on their side of territory.  Furthermore, most people use rivers for fishing, travel, and commerce.  Thus, rivers often act to bring people together rather than separate them.  The MD/D.C./No. VA area is a good example of this.  Augustus needed a new frontier, a more secure border.

Prudence might dictate falling back to something more secure.  But Augustus built his power in part on the fantasy that Rome had not changed.  Rome never falls back!  He tried to push forward further into Germany to the more advantageous Elbe/Danube frontier, seen here below. . .

and picked the arrogant Varus to command.  Varus fell for Arminius’s trap and led his army to disaster at the Battle of Tuetonburg Forest.  We will discuss how Augustus was right about his frontier being vulnerable, but was he right in his solution?

We shall see that their are limits to what the military can accomplish when the situation requires a  political solution While Rome would win battles against Germans in the future, they could never end their power of resistance.

Next week we will do an activity where I want the students to rethink the Roman frontier.  In the ideal world Rome could have pulled back a great deal.  But of course that would completely ignore political realities.  If he withdrew in one place, would he have to advance in another?  If so, where?  I hope the students enjoyed this change of pace and the chance to view the problem in a different way.

Here is a map of the Empire from a topographical perspective:

Where could Rome get an ‘easy’ victory to allow them to withdraw on the German border?  Where should troops be concentrated?

When we wrap up Augustus we will discuss various aspects of his reign.  He ended a century of civil war and brought peace throughout the Roman empire.  Under his leadership the economy and culture of Rome revived.  The system he established did give Rome stability long after he departed, and as far as masterful politicians go, I would rank Augustus as one of the all-time greats.  On the other hand, while Augustus was very effective, he had to curtail civil liberties to achieve his goals.  He never sought to make Rome face reality, to take them from their current perception of reality at point ‘A’ and bring them to the necessary point ‘B.’  In this way, Augustus lacked true leadership greatness.

After Augustus we will see how the system he established fared under different emperors.  Tiberius and Caligula will get our attention next week.

Many thanks,

Dave

9th/10th Grade: Let’s Pretend

Greetings to all,

It’s always exciting to begin a new year, and I have enjoyed the students and our interactions.  I trust that we will have a great year together.

We begin the year resuming the story of Rome in 44 B.C., after the death of Julius Caesar.  I am aware that for new students, it is not easy to pick up the story in the middle.  We have reviewed the context of Caesar’s assassination, but I would urge all students (and parents if you wish) to read this and this — both will hopefully help provide some additional insight into the background from Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire.  I would also suggest a review the Five Elements of Civilization that  formed the backbone of the 8th Grade Ancient History class.  If anyone wishes to review that (especially new students), look here.

To get new students up to speed, we went quickly through the first two of Rome’s three stages.  The first stage was the monarchy phase (753-508 B.C.), the second the Republic (508-44 B.C.).  Whatever their differences, both phases showed forth Rome’s main characteristics:

  • An emphasis on tradition.  Rome looked back to the past for guidance, not forward to the future.  They valued stability over change.
  • Rome began as an agrarian oriented society, which usually goes hand-in-hand with tradition oriented societies.  Though Rome began to develop a wealthy merchant class around 100 B.C., the ruling elite always thought of themselves as farmers.
  • In the Republic phase, they shared and divided power amongst different people and institutions, though usually monopolized by the nobility.  They feared that a concentration of power, especially in executive offices, would bring about a tyrannical government.

We spent this week reviewing the decline of the Roman Republic, setting the stage for our look at the Roman Empire and Augustus next week.   I wanted to with a few main themes:

1. Don’t Pretend

We reviewed the basics of the structure of the Republic, and how this helped form Rome’s identity, along with their self-image.  In Rome’s eyes, they were, and had always been, a nation of self reliant farmers.  But Rome changed over time, and because of Rome’s strong (at least stated) belief in tradition, Rome never felt the need to change. When they did change, they usually pretended that they were, in fact, not changing at all.

Next week we will discuss how potentially dangerous this attitude can be.  For example, a couple years ago during the summer I got  a minor shoulder injury at the beach.  Thinking myself to be 24 instead of the 38 I was at the time, after a few days I used the muscles much too soon and tweaked it all over again.  I need to realize that things take longer to heal at 38 than they did at 24, however sad a realization this might be!  This is all the more true for me at 41.   If I were to continue to pretend to be 24 the damage and bodily dysfunction would grow worse.  Imagine if a whole civilization did this, and what consequences would be in store for people that did so.

As the Republic collapsed, the distance between Rome’s self-image and reality grew wider and wider.  Will Augustus help solve the problem, or will he exacerbate it?

2. The Power and Vulnerability of Tradition

Most of us have probably experienced the positive power of tradition.  It provides structure, and sometimes comfort to our lives. Many families have holiday traditions that add depth and meaning to the occasion.  Tradition seems to have a magical power of sorts — we do something because that’s what we do, and it works.  In this way, tradition can be stronger than law.  It has a power all its own.

But the spell of tradition can be easily broken.  There is nothing, for example, to stop you from violating tradition.  Once you stop, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.  Tradition’s power can be broken in a moment, whereas law takes much longer to whittle away.  Rome prided itself on being guided by the past, of “not departing from the ways of their fathers.”  Yet a century of civil war eroded most, if not all of those “old ways.”

Did they perceive this truth?  Can a tradition oriented society make necessary adaptations?  It’s safe to say that nearly every civilization would likely collapse after so much inner conflict and turmoil.  Rome will survive under Augustus, but they will pay a steep price to do so, as we shall see.

Next week we will look at some of the dilemmas facing Augustus as he ruled Rome, and see how the dynamic of ‘pretending’ likely pushed him into the disastrous Battle of Tuetonborg Forest.  We will also ask the question, “Should you ever trade liberty for security?”

Blessings,

Dave

8th Grade: Egypt’s Desert Formation

Greetings to all,

I hope you have had a good week, and I hope too that you will enjoy the weekend before us.

This week we began our unit on Egypt, and first considered the influence of geography on the formation of their civilization.  I wanted to ask the following of the students:

1. What is the central feature of Egyptian geography, and why might this promote civilization?

2. What about Egyptian geography might influence it towards strong centralized government?

3. How might Egyptian geography have influenced their religion?

I do not believe geography exercises an absolute authority over humankind.  We are always left with choice & responsibility for those choices.  Having said that, we should not neglect the impact our surroundings may have upon us.  I do also stress to the students that the heart of any civilization is not its surroundings, resources, etc., but what it worships.  What a civilization worships is, in its turn, often reflected in its architecture.  With that in mind, I anticipate us taking a hard look at the pyramids next week.

When we think about Geography and its connections to Egypt, we noted the following:
1. The extremes of Egyptian geography: Only somewhere between 5-10% of their land was arable, but that land was some of the best farmland in the ancient world due to the yearly Nile floods.  Lush farm land backed right up against barren desert (as seen in the picture below).  This geographical tension probably produced psychological tension.  We see in Egypt, for example, the duality between the worship of almost any life whatsoever, and the reign of death just beyond.  The pictures of the Nile river valley below illustrate this stark contrast.
Nile River Valley
This tension had to be resolved in either a positive or negative way.  As time went by, death gained the upper hand.  Here is an early Egyptian poem that reflects this.  Some of these sentiments may ring true from a Christian perspective, and some lines resemble aspects of Biblical Wisdom literature. I think, however, that the overall imbalance towards death as an escape from the “claustrophobia” of life rather than a source of redemption is evident.
Egypt and Death: An Early Poem
To whom can I speak today?
One’s fellows are evil;
The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
The gentle man has perished,
But the violent man has access to all.
To whom can I speak today?
No one remembers the past;
No one at this time does good in return for good.
Death stands before me today
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going outside after being confined.
Death stands before me today
Like the fragrance of myrrh,
Like sitting under the shade on a breezy day.
Death stands before me today
As a man longs to see his house,
After he has spent many years in captivity.
The Nile River valley had to serve as the center of Egyptian civilization, and in turn, we note that the Egyptians had an unusual inward focus.  They did not interact with many other peoples in the ancient near east.  Some geographies push people out of their settings, but we might imagine the Nile river as a giant vacuum, sucking everyone towards it.
  • The extremes may have led to Egypt’s focus on ‘Ma’at,’ or keeping things in balance. When one lives in between stark images of life and death constantly, it should not surprise us to see an inordinate focus on the concept of “balance.”  Keeping the order of things (ma’at) was the central job of the pharaoh, and of course this is a semi-divine task.  No problem per se for the Egyptians, as in their mind  the pharaoh’s were divine, or perhaps semi-divine, themselves.  When we look at the Exodus in a little bit we should keep in mind that among other things, God exposes Pharaoh’s complete inability to maintain “ma’at.”  God uses the plagues as a means to free His people, but also a message to the Egyptians to come join the Israelites.  Pharaoh’s inability to maintain harmony and balance gets decisively exposed.
  • The relative sameness and flatness of Egypt contributed to the political centralization of Egypt.  Egyptian society could not exist without fair and equitable distribution of the Nile floodwaters, and this would have required executive oversight.  But it may also have psychologically contributed to the eventual rigidity of thought that eventually overtook Egypt from about 1800 B.C. onward.

With this emphasis on Ma’at we get confronted with a very different way of thinking, and a very different set of priorities.  A president who wanted to look successful in his memoirs would probably highlight the great changes he brought to America.  In Egypt, Pharaoh’s “memoirs” focused on how they kept things exactly the same, in just the proper proportion (for those interested one can read this post on Ma’at and Pharaoh Userkaf).

Towards the end of the week we began our look at Thutmose III and the Battle of Meggido.  We will continue that next week as well examine the Book of the Dead and the monotheistic Pharaoh Ikhneton.

Blessings,

Dave

The Care of Souls

The Bill of Rights occupies a cherished place within American life and jurisprudence, so it comes as a surprise to many (as it did to me back in high school) that the founders added the Bill of Rights only reluctantly to get the Constitution ratified by enough states. It seems that the framers found such cherished guarantees as essentially unnecessary, and so adding them could only create confusion.

But they did add them, likely thinking that, “We think such things are not needed. Obviously, the federal government has no power to regulate speech, assembly, etc. But if you would like it made crystal-clear to alleviate anxiety, fine–here you go.”

The idea of “freedom of religion” in America comes in part from our history and our ideology. In a legal sense, it arises from the 1st Amendment, which reads,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

What once seemed solid now melts into the ether, as many today question proper limits for freedom of speech and religion. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed through Congress in near unanimous fashion back in 1993 (97-3 in the Senate) but might not pass through Congress today. No one has yet made a direct attack against freedom of religion, but recent controversies about sexuality have led to many now sniping at the edges.

As a conservative of some kind, part of me feels the obligation to defend religious liberty and our past traditions. But Steven K. Smith’s book, Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Principle of Religious Freedom made me rethink everything. His 2018 book Pagans and Christians in the City is bar-none the best book on the legal problem of religion and sexual ethics. This work details how legally and logically, the idea of everyone having complete “freedom of religion” was never attainable and should not be attempted. What I find most impressive is that Smith saw our modern problem coming back in 1993 when he wrote Foreordained Failure, a time when it seemed when America had re-enshrined religious liberty for all time with RFRA. Reading Smith is akin to cold water on your face in the morning–startling, but in the end, you draw a breath and see more clearly.

Onto Smith’s argument . . .

First, we should not see the Establishment Clause as an attempt to formulate a grand principle that could be used to adjudicate the future of the United States. Great differences existed among the states that ratified the Constitution, for example:

  • Relatively liberal Pennsylvania had blasphemy laws on the books well into the 19th century.
  • In New York, though they had no explicit laws, we find prosecutions for blasphemy into the 19th century as well.
  • Many states had Sabbath observance laws, the range of which differed widely. Virginia’s law (proposed by Madison the same day he proposed a religious freedom bill) prohibited disruption of services and unnecessary labor on Sundays. Many New England states went much further.

Many objected to these laws–John Adams thought blasphemy proscriptions inappropriate, for example. Still, while some questioned the laws’ morality or efficacy, none challenged the state’s legal right to have such laws.

The Establishment Clause could never have proclaimed a tight-knit principle about religion for the country because no national consensus existed. Rather, it proclaimed what everyone more or less agreed with–that the federal government could not make laws respecting religion, however much the states could do so.

Even the intellectual founders of the Liberal Order cannot accurately guide us. Smith looks at John Locke, whose A Letter Concerning Toleration outlines much of the modern ideology concerning religious freedom. Locke writes,

The care of souls cannot belong to a civil magistrate, because his power consists in outward force: but true and saving religion consists in inward persuasion of mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by force.

In this sense, Locke’s influence shines clearly–the government cannot regulate religion because it has no power to do so, and whatever power it hopes to exercise will have no real effect anyway. Church and commonwealth are “perfectly distinct, infinitely different from one another.”

To some this could seem like the absolute principle we need for modern times, but Locke also seemingly contradicts himself. For one, he admits that morality comes under the purview of the state, and that morality and religion share beds. Thus, Locke will not tolerate atheists, because their denial of the existence of God undermines public faith and morality, and he denies toleration to Moslems, whose potential loyalty to foreign sultans make them suspect.

The second dilemma . . . Locke’s theory of toleration depends on a view of religion not shared by many religious people (Smith impresses me again and again in this book by catching what many often miss). Locke assumes that:

  • Saving faith is a purely voluntary act
  • The church’s only business is that of ‘saving souls.’
  • He has no concept of the importance of ritual or outward observance or “show.”
  • For Locke, truth is where we arrive through independent and careful consideration of evidence, not through our communities, our rituals, etc. These inner beliefs can resist any outside coercion.

Even many secular Americans today would question at least one of these premises–probably #2. Most would criticize a church that sought to have no broader impact on the community. In America’s history we have numerous examples of churches seeking political and social goals that many would approve of, such as the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century, and the support given to the Civil Rights movement by many churches in the 1960’s. Smith writes,

The object of this discussion is not to determine whether either Locke’s premises or conclusion are sound or not. The point is that Locke’s account of toleration is dependent upon background beliefs about religion, government, society, and human psychology [that many will not agree with].

Whatever practices and precedents we set, we will have to favor a particular set of assumptions. We will have to discriminate, in a sense, as every law discriminates by declaring some things ok and some things not. The problem is that we

  • Believe that we are not discriminating, and that we can arrive a place of “neutrality” where all can agree, and we
  • Believe that we can find a universal principle to guide us in all circumstances

Smith thinks otherwise. At least in the 18th-19th centuries we left religion to the particular variances of the states, and so avoided our modern problem.

“Religious freedom,” then, will inevitably contain high levels of relativity.

Smith gives an example of a community with four hypothetically different perspectives:

  • Religious Voluntarists (traditional Baptists, non-denominationalists, etc.)
  • Religious Behaviorists (Catholics, Orthodox, some Lutherans and Presbyterians, perhaps Jews and Moslems as well)
  • Secular Optimists–those in favor of the idea of public good and collective action (progressives?)
  • Secular Pessimists–those opposed to collective action and the concept of public goods (libertarians).

Imagine a man named John wants to marry 3 wives, believing sincerely that this will aid in the salvation of his soul, and that of his family.

The religious voluntarist would grudgingly support his claim. Nothing should stand between a man and his conscience. The religious behaviorist would deny it–we cannot allow people to willfully harm their souls in such an overtly blatant fashion. The secular optimist might also deny it, based on a belief that polygamy hurts women, but the secular pessimist would likely allow it out of fear of too much state power.

Whatever the decision about John’s desire, some kind of religious belief must be preferred, and others discriminated against. We cannot avoid it, as it is the very essence of law itself to “discriminate.”

As an example, Smith takes the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, which overturned a law which forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools. The court understood that the law had at its root religious objections to evolution, but “the state may not adopt programs which aid or oppose any religion. This prohibition is absolute.” Smith finds the Court’s (basically unanimous) line of reasoning faulty.

First, it creates a syllogistic reasoning that could favor either side. If we cannot aid or oppose any religion, then the law in place aids some religious believers and opposes others. But the same happens if you strike down the law. Either way we must “aid” or “oppose” certain beliefs.

Second, those that favored banning evolution from schools did so not because six day creation was a religious idea, but because they thought six day creation true and evolution false. Many other religious ideas lend support to evolutionary theory. The plaintiffs had no interest in generically “religious” teaching, but in “true” teaching.

Smith pushes against this false idea of neutrality with a quick examination of Grove v. Mead School District, in which the plaintiff objected to the book The Learning Tree in her daughter’s public school curriculum along religious grounds. Judge Canby sided with Mead. He admitted that The Learning Tree challenges certain religious dogmas. But he took pains to point out that a variety of Christian thinkers, among them Paul Tillich, Hans Kung, and Karl Barth, all argue that “honest, and even agonizing doubt, is not incompatible with Christian theism.”

Whatever one thinks of the above quote, those who object to The Learning Tree on religious grounds would likely not respect Tillich and Kung as authorities on the question. Again, the issue is truth, not religion. Grove felt that the inclusion of the book was wrong, not anti-religious. Grove might not have minded a book her daughter had to read that criticized Buddhism or Greek paganism. Judge Canby favored one religion over another–and would have done so no matter how he ruled.

Smith also dismantles the idea of a “common denominator,” a frequent and comfortable refuge for the centrist American. The argument runs, “Some favor religion ‘X,’ some religion ‘Y,’ some favor no religion at all. But we can base jurisprudence on what all sides have “in common.” Smith writes,

In more familiar contexts we would immediately spot the common denominator strategy as fraudulent. Suppose Dad and his daughter have a disagreement about dinner. Daughter proposes: “Let’s just have desert.” Dad suggests it would be better to have a full meal . . . then desert. Daughter reponds: “Dad, we have some disagreements. But there is something we both agree on; we both want desert. Clearly . . . the “neutral” solution is to accept what we agree on. So serve up the desert.”

Dad is not likely to be taken in by this ploy.

Again, as in other examples cited here, for both daughter and Dad, the issue is not desert itself, but the meaning of desert. For the daughter, desert is dinner. For Dad, desert has no meaning without dinner. Smith quotes Michael McConnell, who writes,

If the public school day and all its teaching is strictly secular, the child is likely to learn the lesson that religion is irrelevant to the significant things of this world, or at least that the spiritual realm is radically distinct and separate from the temporal. However intended, that is a lesson about religion. [That curriculum] is not “neutral.”

Smith asks his readers to dismantle false ideas about freedom and neutrality. Much like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, he has a magnificent diagnosis of the problem. Like Deneen as well, he has no particular path forward. Liberalism–love it or not–we can’t really leave it. We have to make the best of it.

In 1993 those that disagreed with Smith could look around and see the ground holding in a general sense. Now, our religious divisions seem much more obvious. “Secularism,” as Smith points out, will not fix the problem, but probably just deepen the religious divide because it too picks a side. It appears, however, that we have gone through different dominant religions, and need to accept that at certain times, different religions take center stage and receive preference.

We might see it this way:

  • 1776-1846 — a frontier, democratized, individualistic Protestantism
  • 1846-1918 — a more universalized/nationalized Protestantism
  • 1918-68 — A civic faith in work, nation, and gain
  • 1968-2008 — Democracy as faith in self-discovery and self-expression
  • 2008-? — Something else that has yet to be decided. Who can say, but also –who can deny we are in the midst of another religious upheaval and redefinition?

This is a rather lame attempt to trace our religious history, but I might prefer open recognition of our particular religious faith over continual confusion. As always, religious dissenters will have protections and freedom of conscience and worship. This is a great thing about America. The “losers” need not lose everything. But they will lose something, and we should be prepared.

Dave

*Writing as someone who is Orthodox, reading Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, it now makes perfect sense to me why early America had a great suspicion of Catholics as detrimental to democracy. They–and the Orthodox–both believe that we know truth not primarily though independent and abstract investigation, but through community, tradition, participation, and ritual–in addition to some notion of “faith,” of course. As Mark Noll wrote, American democratic practice seeks to reduce truth to simple abstract propositions. Our beliefs about liberty eschew tradition and hierarchy, both crucial to Catholic & Orthodox practice.

Catholics, Orthodox, and others like them can “shoehorn” their beliefs and practice into democratic society, but they may not find it naturally compatible with their worldview.

Fantasy Island

You will notice the dated references from 2019 to the Covington kids caught on film at pro-life protest. I repost this in conjunction with the start of our American History class.

***************

I did not grow up watching a lot of TV, as my parents were (thankfully) on the stricter side of things in that regard. Yet, like most everyone else, I watched what I could when they were not around. Almost anything would do when these opportunities struck, and I distinctly remember even watching a few scattered episodes of Fantasy Island. Some of you will remember this show, in which Ricardo Montalban presided over an island resort of sorts, where people would come for vacations. But inevitably, guests would have some kind of unreal and usually traumatic experience, whereby certain unknown issues in their lives would attain resolution. The guests would leave happy, Montalban smiling benignly as they left.

Again, I watched this show even though I never particularly enjoyed it (it was on tv, and that was enough). What’s more, I could never grasp its basic premise or understand what was happening. Were the experiences of the guests real or not? They seemed unreal, but then if unreal, why did people feel so satisfied at the end? How could the island produce just what was needed for each guest (The Lost series, after an intriguing start, definitely borrowed way too much from Fantasy Island in its later seasons)? I remember no explanation, just that, “it had all worked out” somehow in a package that always seemed too neat and tidy

Again, the aggravations I had with the show didn’t prevent me from watching. In my defense, how can one look away from Ricardo Montalblan (still the best Star Trek villain to date)?

Much has been said about the dust-up over the brief video clips from the Pro-Life March involving the “clash” between Catholic high-school students and other protestors. I will say little here, except that

  • I was glad to see some who made ridiculous and ill-founded statements retract their comments when new, extended video evidence came to light. I wish I saw far more laments that thousands of people rushed to extreme judgment of a 17-year-old after seeing 1 minute of video–in other words, the very exercise of commenting on Twitter “in the moment” is desperately fraught with peril. It wasn’t just that people got it wrong, but that no one should have commented in the first place.*
  • I basically agree with David Brooks, who argued that 1) this scary and tribal rush to judgment happens on both sides** (this time the left was at fault) , and 2) the problem we have is also a byproduct a new technology (phones and social media) that we must understand more fully and use more wisely.

But as much as I appreciated Brooks’ wisdom, I think he misses something deeper and more fundamental. No one questions the impact of smart phones on how we interact with each other and the world. We should remember, however, that inventions do not simply randomly drop from the sky. They emerge within specific cultural contexts. While the phone was certainly not fated to arise in America, it makes perfect sense that it did. Apple marketed its products with the letter “i” in front, itunes, the ipod, the iMac, and of course, the iphone. Apple wanted one to think of these tools as a way to radically personalize our worlds, which fits within our cultural and political notions of individualism. It’s no surprise that their products made them billions of dollars. They did not create the need for radical personalization of our lives, they tapped into what already existed and helped us expand the horizons of our collective felt need.

I agree that we need to work as a society to understand the technologies we create, but that is just another way of saying we need to understand ourselves.

Harold Bloom’s The American Religion attempts to do just this. He argues that, as diverse as we are religiously, every culture must have some unifying belief, even if this belief remains below the level of consciousness. Bloom states that America is in fact a gnostic nation and not a Christian one, and he defines gnosticism as:

  • A belief that the physical world is essentially evil, and the “spiritual” is good.
  • That all people have a “divine spark” within them covered over by experience, culture, history, and materiality (the “all people” part of this is our particular democratization of what was an elitist religion in the ancient world).
  • We must find a way to liberate our true selves, this “divine spark,” from its constraints. Culture, tradition, history, etc. often stand as enemies in this effort.

Bloom postulates that this faith lies underneath other professed faiths, be they agnostic, Baptist, Jewish, or Mormon. It has invaded and colonized our institutional religions and our overall mindset. He finds it particular present in Southern Baptists of his era, but today he would likely look to the various mega-churches, which operate on the idea that Sundays should be friendly, relatable, accessible, and above all, not “boring.” Ralph Waldo Emerson no doubt helped found our particular version of gnostic faith, writing in 1838 that,

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it . . . . Alone in history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. . . . He spoke of miracles, for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this miracle shines as the character ascends.

1838 Divinity School Address

So too William James wrote that

Religion, as I ask you take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. . . . as I have already said, the immediate personal experiences the immediate personal experiences will amply fill our time, and we shall hardly consider theology or ecclesiasticism at all.

“The Variety of Religious Experience, 1902

We could easily sandwich Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in between these two thinkers for the trifecta of the prophets of non-contextualized, disembodied, American hyper-individualism. This kind of individualism has as its mission liberation from other groups other entities that would seek to mold, shape, and define. And, as we look at the crumbling of institutional churches, our lack of respect for governmental instiutions, the crisis at many universities, etc. we must declare that the individualism of Emerson and Whitman has triumphed almost completely.^

I can think of few things more compatible with this faith than combining Twitter and iphones. We can both memorialize our lives (which are of course special and worthy of documentation) and express our inmost thoughts to the world at any time. Conventions of privacy, or politeness, you say? Sorry, the god of individualism is a jealous god and will brook no rivals for his throne. Do we contradict oursevles and treat others as we would rather not be treated? Well, we are large, to paraphrase Whitman, and contain multitudes. We believe firmly that our souls should have the right to break free at all times.

Thus, if Bloom is correct, if we want to avoid such miscarriages of justice in the future, we may need to do much more than get a better understanding of technology. Brooks is wrong. No quick and mysterious sitcom-like fix is in sight. We need a new religion to avoid such disasters in the future. Our nation, relatively isolated as it is, is still not an island. And, double alas, Ricardo Montalblan is not here to save us.

Dave

*I know that we need journalism, public records of public events, etc., but I will go one step farther. I don’t know why anyone was filming the students in the first place. I know this happens all the time, but it seems to me that you should go to a protest march to protest, not film others protesting. If you want to counter-protest, do so, but don’t go to film others counter-protesting. I agree with Jonathan Pageau, who argued that our incessant desire to mediate our experience through screens fits into the kind of gnosticism Bloom describes. The screen inevitably creates an abstraction, a disconnect between ourselves and reality. He writes,

It is only in the 17th century that men framed their vision with metal and glass, projecting their mind out into an artificially augmented space. Men always had artificial spaces, painting, sculpture, maps, but the telescope and microscope are self-effacing artifices, they attempt to replace the eye, to convince us that they are not artificial but are more real than the eye. It is not only the physical gesture of looking at the world through a machine that demonstrates the radical change, though this is symbolic enough, but it is the very fact that people would do that and come to the conclusion that what they saw through these machines was truer than how they experienced the world without them.

from his “Most of the Time the World is Flat,” a post for the Orthodox Arts Journal

**I am basically conservative and run mostly in conservative circles. So, while I feel that it is mostly the left that mobs people for now for breathing too loudly through their nose, I should say that the right engages in it as well. I remember some years ago glumly sitting through a presentation where a commentator dissected and destroyed the whole personality of Bill Clinton based on 6 seconds of a video clip played in slow-motion.

^Patrick Deneen has related that when he taught at Princeton, an important study came out that on the Amish that showed that more than 90% of all those who experience “rumspringa” (when as later teens they leave the community to experience the world) return back to their communities. Deneen was taken aback by how much this bothered his colleagues, who could not conceive of living a life bound by tradition and communal standards. For many of our elite Princteton dons, such a life could only be termed as oppression, and some went so far as to suggest that they should be liberated from this oppression.

This, I’m sure, backs up Bloom’s thesis all the more.