A Culture of Victory, a Culture of Collapse

The evaluations of the historically minded often move like a pendulum.  I see this throughout my own life.  Initially, like everyone, I thought Napoleon a great genius.  But then you think again . . . after all, he lost.  And what about what happened in Egypt, to say nothing of Russia?  And what of all those armies he beat from 1799-1809–nothing more than decrepit, out-dated Enlightenment entities destined for the trash-heap anyway.

After a while, however, I thought again and gave credit where due.  Sure, his armies were the perfect foil for the Austrians and Prussians, but he helped create the French army that formed that perfect foil.  Like any great leader he imprinted himself all over his army.  And we say that the armies he faced were bound for trash-heap only with the benefit of hindsight.  Napoleon put them there, after all.

But . . . he lost.

Writing about The Civil War comes with similar pitfalls.  As the states began to come together in the Progressive Era (ca. 1880-1920) we looked for unity and healing from our past, and we lionized Lee as a romantically doomed warrior, who nevertheless, performed heroic feats.  Lee’s generalship for that era stood second to none.  Beginning in the 1960’s historians swung the narrative.  They focused on Lee’s irascible temper, his huge losses, his weak opponents, his strategic failures at Antietam, Gettysburg, and so on.

Joseph Glatthar’s excellent General Lee’s Army brings balance back to this narrative.  He studies the army of Northern Virginia in depth and concludes51tuzkutcjl that of course, Lee was a great commander.  He helped forge a great army with a great record in the field.  He deserves much of the credit he receives.

But . . . he lost, and we do well to remember this.

Glathaar shows us how the strengths and weaknesses of Lee and his army come from the same place by looking at culture, demographics, the life of the common solider, and those directly under Lee’s command.

We do have to take into account Lee’s frequent opponent, the Union’s Army of the Potomac.  From a pure match-up standpoint, it would have been interesting to have Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson oppose Grant, Sherman, and Thomas for the duration of the conflict.  As it happened Lee only faced Grant towards the end of the war, and then Grant had to work with the Army of the Potomac, where he inherited a completely different, and vastly inferior, operational and command culture than he worked with out west.

In  A Savage War, the authors point out that the Army of the Potomac inherited a disproportionate number of soldiers recently graduated from West Point.  A West Point education tended at that time to over-emphasize math, engineering, and organization (something that U.S. Grant lamented in his memoirs).  Such skills have their place, but should not have pride of place in officer training.  Those that drank from the firehose of this approach would inevitably give way to excessive caution. Meticulous organization takes a lot of time.  In addition, once you have built something so “pure” and pretty, one might not wish to do anything that might get it dirty. This helps explain why McClellan (tops in his class at West Point) could think himself a great general even though he couldn’t actually win a battle.  He was excellent in doing what his education, at least in the narrow sense, trained him to do.

The plodding, rigidly organized Army of the Potomac gave Lee and his men a perfect target given their particular strengths.

Glaathar points out that the men in Lee’s army fully believed in their cause and came with the strongest of motivations.  Ante-bellum southern society had the duel influences of the aristocratic planter and the Appalachian border-settlers.  Both of these cultures emphasized honor and courage.  Both of these cultures preached a vision of manliness that gave way to no one.  Letters home from top officers on down the ranks show a constant desire for combat and to prove themselves.

Lee both understood and embodied this himself.  Many other accounts of his generalship focus on his ability to psychologically assess his opposite number on the Union side and devise the proper approach accordingly.  Glaathar adds to this, showing how Lee knew how to use his men expertly.  They proved superlative in the counter-attack, and could march quickly and fight hard back-to-back.  We see this at Bull Run, in Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign, and at Chancellorsville, as at other times.

But both the aristocratic planter and border settler culture had its weaknesses, and these too had a significant impact on the war.

Organization:

Appalachian border culture emphasized freedom of initiative and eschewed “systems” like tight and itchy collars.  Lack of formal structure gives one great freedom.  But an army of tens of thousands needs tight organization to act as a unit.  Without this organization, large scale offensives could never be undertaken.

Discipline:

Many in the south seceded because they did not want to be told what to do by anyone they did not like or respect.  They tended to run hot and cold alternatively.  Sure enough, Lee had a hard time enforcing discipline.  We hear a lot about Union armies looting in the South, but Lee’s army at times looted the Virginia countryside for supplies, stole from the bodies of dead Union soldiers,** and had a hard time maintaining equipment.  Many went AWOL unexpectedly not necessarily out of cowardice but because “they felt like it.”

Honor and Ego:

The aristocratic nature of the army came through in the upper echelon of the officers.  The bickered for position and rank.  At times they disobeyed directly if they felt insulted.   Some at times seemed to prefer maintaining their honor to winning a battle.

All of these weaknesses would make coordinated action over a large distance difficult.  Perhaps this is why Lee spread out his armies in his invasion of the north in 1863.  It gave each commander more independence. But . . . when the time came for coordinated action, invariably Lee’s forces could not pull it off.

Shelby Foote wrote that, “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Lee command their army.”  I’m guessing that he meant at least that no one is perfect.  But I surmise that he meant more.  The weaknesses of Lee’s army, and of much of southern culture, outed themselves at that battle.   There the Confederacy fought a weaker opponent, but in ways that favored Union’s strengths.  The good ground and interior lines of the Union forces at Gettysburg played right into the laps of the North’s slower, plodding, yet more bull-headed nature.^

Lee’s 1863 invasion may have been a mistake, but he intuited correctly that the South could not win a long and protracted war.  He emphasized the Confederacy’s logistical shortcomings, but the army had cultural shortcomings as well.  Perhaps Lee had read and recalled Tocqueville’s commentary on aristocratic and democratic societies at war.  Tocqueville comments that,

In aristocracies the military profession, being a privileged career, is held in honor even in time of peace. Men of great talents, great attainments, and great ambition embrace it; the army is in all respects on a level with the nation, and frequently above it.

We have seen, on the contrary, that among a democratic people the choicer minds of the nation are gradually drawn away from the military profession, to seek by other paths distinction, power, and especially wealth. After a long peace, and in democratic times the periods of peace are long, the army is always inferior to the country itself. In this state it is called into active service, and until war has altered it, there is danger for the country as well as for the army.

It may be remarked with surprise that in a democratic army after a long peace all the soldiers are mere boys, and all the superior officers in declining years, so that the former are wanting in experience, the latter in vigor. This is a leading cause of defeat, for the first condition of successful generalship is youth. I should not have ventured to say so if the greatest captain of modern times had not made the observation.

A long war produces upon a democratic army the same effects that a revolution produces upon a people; it breaks through regulations and allows extraordinary men to rise above the common level. Those officers whose bodies and minds have grown old in peace are removed or superannuated, or they die. In their stead a host of young men is pressing on, whose frames are already hardened, whose desires are extended and inflamed by active service. They are bent on advancement at all hazards, and perpetual advancement; they are followed by others with the same passions and desires, and after these are others, yet unlimited by aught but the size of the army. The principle of equality opens the door of ambition to all, and death provides chances for ambition. Death is constantly thinning the ranks, making vacancies, closing and opening the career of arms.

. . . An aristocratic nation that in a contest with a democratic people does not succeed in ruining the latter at the outset of the war always runs a great risk of being conquered by it.

Dave

*Interesting parallels exist between Lee and Napoleon’s armies.  Both faced stiff, rigidly organized opponents.  Both emphasized movement, speed, and capitalized on the energy and spirit of their men.  Both had great success early, but both also suffered significant setbacks as their respective wars dragged on.  Each faced manpower issues, but also, their opponents got better over time and neither Napoleon or Lee made the necessary adjustments based on the improvement in their opponents.

In fairness to the Army of the Potomac, the soldiers displayed extreme courage at Fredericksburg, and were stalwart in the defense at Gettysburg.

**Many southerners decry the actions of Sherman.  Glaathar demonstrates that Lee’s army did many of the same things, albeit on a smaller, less organized scale, as Sherman’s army.  And . . . they did this not just in Pennsylvania but in Virginia as well.

^Fredericksburg might serve as a good example of these qualities, with a negative outcome.

Symbolic Matters

In Ezra Klein’s podcast with Rod Dreher, the subject of media and culture was front and center. They conversed at length with each person making important points, and I commend them both. Klein brought up what is a fairly standard critique of conservative Christians, that is (in sum), “Why so much focus on gay and transgender issues when there are many poor and suffering people in the world? Surely the Bible says at least as much about the poor as it does about sexuality?”

Dreher had a fine response, and no doubt the format might have limited his remarks. But I think Klein, and possibly Dreher to a lesser extent, fail to take into account the strong symbolic role sexuality has played in most every culture, and the role of the body as one of the primary means of communication.

Dreher linked to a post of Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex who speculates that the Pride/LGBT etc. movement may become the new civil religion in America. Alexander–who I believe writes as a supporter of his proposed theory, comments,

Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?

Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.

There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:

What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.

Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.

What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.

Again, based on Smith’s book discussed below, if it happens it should not surprise us, given the strong symbolic role that body has in our existence.

In the letters of the Roman magistrate Pliny to the emperor Trajan, Pliny asks him about the official policy towards Christians. Christians have been brought before him, and he has condemned them to execution, but such matters are not trivial, and he wanted to make sure he followed the letter and spirit of the law.

Trajan wrote back and declared that, yes, if Christians appear before him, who will not recant, then such people should be executed. Trajan agreed with Pliny that Christians generally had nothing else against them other than that they professed the Christian faith, so, no need to seek them out. But Pliny should continue to follow the law. Christians continued to face death for being Christians.

But Trajan never addressed Pliny’s second question, which was (in sum), “Why, if Christians are generally good citizens who do not disturb the peace, do we need to punish them in the first place?” Many rank Trajan as one of Rome’s best emperors, but Rome loved practicality and viewed the Greeks as sissified for all of their reflective philosophizing. My guess–Trajan probably regarded the question with slight derision and, being a nice guy, politely ignored it. The law is law, end of story.

Steven D. Smith begins his insightful work Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac with this historical nugget, for he wants to attempt to answer Pliny’s unanswered question of “why?” Christian luminaries such as Tertullian, Athenagoras, and St. Augustine all pointed out the utter folly and injustice of Rome’s actions. In persecuting Christians, they argued, Rome removed its best citizens. Without discounting the truth of Rome’s cruelty, Smith considers if the Romans may actually been right in their instinct (without articulating it coherently) that Christianity truly posed a threat to their way of life. Gibbon, Pelikan, and many others point out that the Church did triumph over Rome, and that the Church, while able to reside peacefully within Rome, truly meant to end Rome’s way of life.

Recently we have witnessed a variety of almost entirely symbolic prosecutions and attacks of bakers, florists, and pizza joints who do not join in with the prevailing sexual orthodoxy. In a series of articles, Libertarian UVA Law professor Douglas Laycock bemoans the attitudes of those on the left. Plenty of options exist for gay couples for all marriage-related services. Why ferret out those who do nothing to stop you but simply disagree with your choices? Such people do nothing to impinge the freedom of homosexuals. In the same vein, why do conservatives attempt to stop people from engaging in sexual practices they object to, but have no impact on the lives of those who object? Both sides strive for the same symbolic but essentially “meaningless” victory, and it ruins our political discourse.

Laycock sounds quite reasonable, but Smith points out that these “victories” for which different sides strive have a great deal of symbolic value attached to them. Though symbols may not fit into a strictly rational worldview, Smith concludes that, “we live by symbols” and can derive meaning only from symbols.* Furthermore, religious belief always demands communal expression, and symbols shape and embody that expression. From this point, Smith’s book explores what the modern culture wars are all about through the lens of Christianity’s first conflict with imperial Rome.

Many today will likely admire the Romans for their tolerance, and wonder why Christians could not accommodate themselves to Rome. Rome, after all, found a way to accommodate a great many different religions into their empire. But no society can tolerate everything. And we, too, have “zero-tolerance” policies for what we truly deem important, such as drugs or sexual harassment, and so on. With the example of offering incense to the emperor, which many Christians refused to do, we can invent the following conversation:

Roman: You Christians are impossible. We let you hold your bizarre religious gatherings–albeit outside the city–but we let you hold them. We let you believe whatever you want to believe. We give you the benefits of the greatest empire the world has ever known, and you enjoy those benefits. We do so much for you, and we ask but very little, that you acknowledge the blessings of the authority under which you live. If you live among us we must know that you will follow our laws, and this is how you pledge yourself to that. You are disobedient. You are uncharitable–you take from us and give nothing back. And so . . . we cannot trust you, and how could we do so, after giving so much and receiving back so little?

Christian: We should be grateful for all that Rome does for us, and indeed, we pray for those in authority during every liturgy. In our sojourn here on Earth we can partake of much the world has to offer, and justice demands that we give honor where it is rightly due. But your policy asks us to accommodate our monotheism to your polytheism. You suppose that sacrifices to the emperor are a small accommodation, but you ask us to abandon monotheism and accept polytheism. You ask us to change our religious beliefs, which is surely the most significant accommodation you could possibly ask.

Striking parallels exist between imperial Rome and our own day, and the conflicts engendered between Christians and pagans. One such area involved creation and the natural world. For the Romans, the gods infused the world around them with their presence, and every city had its sacred sites. Christians rejected this direct immanence by emphasizing the transcendent nature of God that had little to no overlap with pagan belief.

But the complexity of Christianity greatly mitigated these differences regarding creation. While God is transcendent, He is also imminent. Many scriptural passages talk of creation praising God, and God calls humanity to steward creation. Christians too had/have their sacred sites involving saints, relics, pilgrimages, and the like. So too today, while many viewed as “anti-science” come from certain segments of the evangelical community, Christians and “pagans” find much common ground with moderate environmentalists, though will eventually part ways over certain particulars.

A much more significant divide came with sexuality, where the Roman approach to sexual ethics looks strikingly modern (what follows applied almost entirely to men in the ancient world, not women):

  • Sexual behavior was entirely natural, and few restrictions should be placed upon it.
  • Sex was “healthy,” and self-denial in regard to sex was considered mildly dangerous and “anti-human.”
  • Sex brings us closer to the divine, for all the stories of the gods (goddesses, not as much) have them cavorting with various women.
  • Use of the male sexual organ had a halo of sacredness surrounding it, but how one used it had very few restrictions. One could “sleep with” slaves, prostitutes, or even other men or boys, provided that one was never the “female” in such a relationship.

I am not the person and this is not the format to give a full treatment of the traditional Christian view of sexuality. But in brief:

  • The Fathers of the church quickly realized the Scriptural hints about the sacred nature of sexual behavior, and its connections to our life in God. But . . . sex serves at most as a pointer to a more fuller, transcendent reality that will be present only when the Kingdom of God is fully present. It is not an end in itself.
  • Many Christians believed in the sanctity of sexuality in some way, but the sanctity of sex is the reason for the various restrictions Christians placed on sexual behavior. To protect its meaning and purpose, sex needs strong fences, such as limiting it within marriage between a man and woman
  • Living fully as human beings meant taming and restricting our “appetites,” for the ability to do separates us from the beasts. So, while the Romans thought that the more or less indiscriminate indulgence in sex made us more human, Christians believed it made us sub-human–just as over indulgence in eating would do the same, i.e., a dogs will eat anything put before them, as much as they are given.

How deep these differences really go, Smith asserts, comes down not to logic and private self-interest, but the more nebulous (but simultaneously more real) world of symbol. Symbols cannot be fully explained, but have to be experienced–one knows it when we live it. I lament the effect the culture wars have had on eroding our social fabric and institutions. But though Smith never quite explicitly states it (that I found), he strongly hints that such wars will inevitably be fought. For our culture to have cohesion it must have meaning, and this meaning can only come from a common communal understanding. Symbols work only in this way.

Clearly, for us today as the Romans then, sexual behavior occupies a crucial space within our culture. We may not believe sex to have the sacredness that it did for the Romans, at least in an overtly conscious sense. We likely relate sex in America to our deep beliefs about personal expression and the self. What unifies modern and ancients on both sides, Smith suggests, is the divide between the transcendent and the imminent.

For example, Smith states, no one really questions the motto, “In God we Trust” on our money, but “one nation, under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance has received significant constitutional scrutiny. Smith finds the difference in the word “under,” which assumes a transcendent deity in ways that “In God we Trust” does not (this “God” need not be above us but exclusively “among us” for us to define and control).

If Smith is right about this in particular, so much the better, for it gives us clarity in a confusing debate. But his other assertion holds more weight. Our disagreements about sex** may very well be an unconscious proxy for our ideas about meaning and community. Perhaps Smith doesn’t excuse the culture wars, but suggests they will continue. It also suggests that our diseased political culture has not caused this divide. Rather, we might flip our normal way of discussing the culture wars on its head. Perhaps our divergent ideas about sexuality (dating back at least to Roe v. Wade and the Sexual Revolution) have fractured our idea of meaning and community, and this fracture manifests itself in various ways.^

Our founders put priority on minimizing centralized power. They knew that humans can get contentious, but sought to make lemonade out of lemons. Our propensity to conflict would create different interest groups, but in the end they would all cancel each other out, preserving liberty. Thus, the Constitution was not meant to create a tight-knit political community, but essentially sought to prevent its formation.Obviously, this experiment has worked on a number of levels. But now that most churches and other community defining organizations have declined in numbers and importance, we have lost our ability to determine meaning in any kind of public sphere. Tocqueville warned us that this might happen if our more private and local communal connections eroded. And so, here we are, seeking meaning from the only viable institutions most of us have any familiarity with–the federal government. This may be what distinguishes our current cultural problems from those we previously experienced, and why we invest so much emotional and moral weight into our politics.^^

Following Smith’s largely unspoken line of thought brings us to a sober realization. Our seemingly silly fights might actually have great importance. If we can focus on the real issue at hand, perhaps we could make progress in solving them.

Dave

*This comment may seem confusing or silly if you think of symbols as images only. If we take the older meaning of symbol and apply the term to ways of understanding beyond the literal and physical, it makes more sense. Parents of teens will surely have encountered this before. Your child asks for “reasons” and “explanations” for your various edicts, but you can’t always provide to the degree they wish. No amount of explanation suffices, for you want them how to live “into” a world, one that can’t be entirely shown them from the outside.

**This includes abortion as well. Some hard cases exist on the fringe of the issue, but at its root is the issue of human autonomy and sexual freedom. I believe it likely that most of the debate about “when life begins” for the pro-choice side is a smokescreen for the right to create a “safe space” for us to adopt a more pagan attitude towards sexual behavior.

^The rapid changes in accepted sexual morality recently may be extra evidence for Smith’s claim. He points out that Seinfeld may have been a turning point. Most every character led sexual lives that would not have fit into any previous sitcom. But to balance this, the show did not promote the main characters as morally serious in any way. From there, we had Friends, and then The Office which were still comedies but the moral seriousness of the characters increased as their sexual ethics remained much the same as in Seinfeld.

^^Perhaps the one place where people can find some semblance of community and belonging is college campuses, and perhaps this is why many students and professors have sought to make their campus into a kind of temple and dramatically infuse it with doctrinaire ideologies, sacred spaces, and taboo speech. Like Ross Douthat, I deplore a great deal about the campus protests, but I understand the impulse. While I admire efforts from a quite ideologically diverse group of people like Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Camille Paglia, and Candace Owens to further free-speech and open debate, we need to realize that such things in themselves will not save us.


8th Grade: The Definition of Collapse

Greetings,

This week we very nearly wrapped up Assyrian civilization.

Last week I mentioned our look at Assyria’s religion and the concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch’ as factors in Assyria’s decline.  This week we considered Assyria in light of Christ’s words to Peter and the Apostles, ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword.’

In a fallen world, force can have a legitimate place in government.  But both from a historical, moral, and political perspective, force can never be the foundation for order.  Force can gain acceptance, or have legitimacy, if people see it as an extension of justice.  But when a power uses force detached from justice, people sense that they use violence merely to serve their own selfish ends.  This inspires them to seek justice/revenge, and this is why violence apart from justice is a wasting asset.

All of the problems Assyria faced they brought upon themselves.  They treated subject populations brutally out of a combination of a) religious belief, and b) policy that sought the quickest route towards “getting everyone in line” with their conquests.  But as their power grew, the attention they could give to subject territories lessened, which reduced their chances of stopping rebellions.

Eventually too, their obsession with violence and conquest would be bound to turn back on themselves.  After Ashurbanipal II completed the conquest of the fertile crescent, (which left nothing for the next guy) Assyria descended into civil war (having no one left to fight but themselves).  Simultaneously, they faced rebellions from a few major provinces, which mean that they faced a dire crisis from within as well as without.  They had nothing left on which to stand, and collapsed completely within a few short years.  Regarding their incessant militarism and addiction to violence, Toynbee comments,

The loss and misery which Assyria inflicted on her neighbors is beyond calculation, and yet the legendary remark of the schoolmaster to the boy he is whipping–‘It hurts you less than it hurts me,’–would be a pertinent critique of Assyrian military activities. . . .  The full and bombastic Assyrian record of victories abroad is significantly supplemented by rarer and briefer notices of troubles at home that give us an inkling of the price at which Assyrian victories were purchased.

An increasing military strain revenged itself with increasing frequency of palace revolutions and peasant revolts.  As early as the close of the second bout of aggression in the ninth century B.C. we find Shalmaneser III dying in 827 B.C. with his son on the war-path against him, and Ninevah, Asshur, and Arbela in rebellion. . .

Toynbee goes on then to cite rebellions in 763, 760, and 746, and ca. 730 B.C., and then he continues,

After this the two streams of domestic stasis and foreign warfare merge into one; after Ashurbanipal’s death this swells into a mighty river whose rushing waters bear Assyria away to her now inevitable doom.  During the last years of Assyrian history the domestic and foreign aspect of Assyria’s disintegration are hardly distinguishable.

Can a civilization be rooted entirely in a frontier mentality and lifestyle?  Assyria was located on the ‘frontier’ of Mesopotamian civilization.  Like many frontier people, they could be inventive and self-reliant.  But their beliefs, their foreign policy led them to conquest ‘a outrance’ as the French say.   Assyria’s attacks against Babylon come with an animosity that a farmer in West Virginia might feel for Manhattan investment bankers.  But frontiers need a home base, and with this attack, Assyria was cutting off its face to spite its nose.  The arm which held the sword stabbed the heart.  Without Babylon, Assyria suffered much in the same way that the West Virginia farmer would suffer.   Without the banks, where would be the corporations to buy the food they grew?  If they always looked outward, could they build a solid cultural foundation on which to rest?  While some aspects of Assyria’s cultural heritage can be disputed, no one would doubt that in comparison to Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, Assyria’s cultural output was quite low.  Their architecture, art, and literature all were inferior to their neighbors.

In the end, Assyria contributed heartily to its own demise.  I quote now from Ashurbanipal II, the last great king of Assyria, who wrote as he saw things crumbling around him:

‘The rules for making offerings to the dead. . . which had not been practiced, I reintroduced.  I did well unto god and man, to dead and living.  Why have sickness and misery descended upon me?  I cannot away with strife and dissension.  Misery of flesh and mind oppress me.   Death is seizing hold of me. With lamentation and mourning I wail day and night.  O God wilt thou deal thus with me?  Even as one who has not feared God and Goddess I am reckoned.’

Historian Arnold Toynbee comments,

‘This confession is  . . . moving in its sincerity and in its bewilderment, but above all illuminating in its blindness. When this mood overtook him, did the last of the Assyrian war-lords never find himself reciting that terrible catalogue of cities sacked and people’s wiped out by Assyrian arms — a list which concluded with his own sack of Susa and annihilation of Elam?’

One sees a complete lack of self-awareness on Assyria’s part.  It’s as if they erased their conscience through centuries of systematic cruelty.  They reveled in their conquests and never questioned their actions, celebrating them in their meager artistic achievements.

Next week I will update you on our investigation of Babylon.

Slant Deeds to Straight Times

I very much appreciate Peter Thiel’s contributions to public discourse. I likely lean away from his overall optimism about technology–I wish we could think of a way to grow economically without needing to radically altering the labor market and public discourse with the latest invention every few years. That said, those who can combine business acumen, incisive cultural commentary, and theological insight deserve a listen.

The subject of Constantine came up in his recent interview on the Meeting of Minds podcast with Jerry Bowyer. Thiel alluded to the problems of governance in accordance with truth and goodness. Politics is inevitably icky, and linking Christianity with such ickiness has always proved problematic. Thiel made the intriguing comment that given the chaotic nature of the times, perhaps Constantine had it right in postponing his baptism and official conversion until near his death.

I had never thought this way before about Constantine, and while I wished Thiel had continued his thoughts on this point, the fact that he left it at that leaves me room to speculate with abandon.

To understand politics, and to try and have some sympathy with Constantine’s decision, we need to see the difference between Authority and Power. Hopefully both have a strong relation to each other. But in strange times, they tend to move further apart.

“Authority” contains the core, and the origin, of a particular action. The core must be solid, and stable. For Authority to work, it has to embody this reality. Authority gives legitimacy, or impetus, or perhaps even permission, to Power.

“Power” applies Authority, and so must have more fluidity and movement. It is this movement which gives Power, well, its power. This motion will have an effect, however, regardless of its association to Authority. That is why we hope that Power will always stay connected to legitimate Authority.

Some examples of this Authority-Power dynamic at work . . .

  • An army waits to go right or left. The general, back at HQ, gives the order. The corporals and privates eventually start to move and they begin the attack. The general has authority, but has no power by himself. What can one man do? But, the general actuates Power, and gives Power its purpose. The army starts to move. Authority (hopefully) tames and directs Power.
  • In chess the King/Authority moves little, and hence has little Power. Power belongs to the Queen, and so she has the most freedom of movement. But everything depends on the existence of the King/Authority.
  • People often stated about Queen Elizabeth that she had no real power. Very true. But she was beloved nearly the world over because we instinctively realized that she embodied Authority to near perfection. Her bearing, countenance, and behavior all spoke of Authority. It was crucial, in fact, that she rarely sought to have Power–this allowed her to maintain Authority.
  • We see these patterns on Earth because it is the foundation of all things in the life of the Trinity. God the Father does not “move.”** He is, in a way, the Origin. God the Son moves more, but His movement is somewhat “restricted” to going down and then up again in a specific place. It is the Holy Spirit, the “power of God,” which “blows where it wishes” (John 3:8) going to a fro throughout the Earth.

When Authority and Power have no clear connection, then things get a little weird, and actually have to get a little weird, to set the times right again. Think of King Saul pursuing David. God’s anointed king (Saul) betrayed his calling, making authority in the realm more or less of no effect. Note, for example, the story of Jonathan and the honey, or the fact that Saul cannot catch David. David must then resort to weirdness to come to a place where things get right again, even to the extent of

  • Feigning insanity to ingratiate himself with the Philistines, and
  • Leading a portion of the Philistine army

Centuries later, with the Romans occupying Palestine and the Jewish religious leaders failing the people, no true Authority existed among the people of God. It took a man dressed in camel skins who ate bugs to bring hope and point to the one who “taught with authority” (Lk. 4:32).

Many legends and folklore point to this same dynamic. When King Richard languished in prison and King John took the throne, the only honest men were the thieves in the forest with Robin Hood. When we remember that the forest for medievals meant a dark, dangerous, unpredictable place, this dynamic looks even stranger. Once King Richard returned, the merry band disbanded.

Understanding this dynamic gives us a good lens to understand controversial political actions. For example, some criticize Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation, usually on two fronts:

  • Lincoln had no Constitutional authority to issue the edict, and
  • The edict actually accomplished nothing, serving as a mere empty symbol

Though I am no Lincoln expert, I suspect that he thought that Authority (i.e., the Constitution) had fled the scene by 1860. The Constitution already suffered mightily “de facto” by the very fact of the secession of several states. The Constitution was designed to bind the states together. More importantly, “Authority” failed to solve slavery, our most pressing moral, cultural, and political problem. Not only could operating under the Constitution not solve the slavery problem, slavery got much worse from 1788-1860.

This meant that Lincoln might have to lean into the weird, and use Power to knock Authority back into place. The Emancipation Proclamation was weird, no question. One can argue that it actually freed no slaves at all. But if one looks at a bit of a slant, we might see that it set in motion events that led to Authority set back in place with the 13th Amendment banning slavery. Lincoln rightly intuited that the U.S. could not exist on any other basis, because otherwise the Constitution could not serve the role of Authority for the nation.

All of this brings us to Constantine.

Constantine remains an ambiguous and problematic figure for many westerners for a few different reasons.

  • Some see him as corrupting the church by linking it with the state
  • Some see him as using the church to further his own power
  • Some see him as a hypocrite, using Christianity as a cover to accomplish certain political ends.

Of course, Christians at the time saw him much differently.

  • He ended Diocletian’s persecution of Christians
  • He commissioned the building of numerous churches, including the Church of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem
  • He restored property taken by Diocletian to Christians/Churches
  • He used the Church as the main arm of charity for the state
  • He made Sunday, the “Lord’s Day,” a holy day with no work mandated, allowing space for everyone to attend church
  • He exempted clergy from civic duties, significantly contributing to the church’s freedom
  • Perhaps most importantly, by “neutering” pagan religion and removing the foundation of the state from pagan sacrifices, he made it possible to found civilizations on an entirely new basis.

But for sure, many of his other actions raise eyebrows, such as the possible execution of his son, his turning on Licinius, Crispus, and the like. And then, if he was such a Christian, why postpone baptism until the end of his life?

Certainly, Constantine presents us with many conundrums. But we might get more clarity if we think of him as exercising Power in an attempt to create a new Authority. His behavior will look odd and wrong looking straight on, but if we look from angle, we might see different things.

Rome experienced an almost absurd amount of political instability in the 3rd century AD, as the following list shows:

  • Septimius 193–211 
  • Caracalla 211–217 
  • Geta 211–212
  • Macrinus 217–218 A.D.
  • Diadumenianus 218 A.D.
  • Elagabalus 218–222 A.D.
  • Alexander Severus 222-235

The Soldier Emperors

  • Maximinus I 235–238 
  • Gordian 238 A.D.
  • Balbinus and 238
  • Pupienus (in Italy) 238
  • Gordian III 238–244 A.D.
  • Philip the Arab 244–249 A.D.
  • Trajan Decius 249–251 A.D.
  • Trebonianus Gallus 
  • (with Volusian) 251–253 A.D.
  • Aemilianus 253 A.D.
  • Gallienus 253–268 
  • with Valerian 253–260 A.D.

Gallic Empire (West)

following the death of Valerian

  • Postumus 260–269 A.D.
  • Laelian 268 A.D.
  • Marius 268 A.D.
  • Victorinus 268–270 A.D.
  • Domitianus 271 A.D.
  • Tetricus I and II 270–274 A.D.

Palmyrene Empire

  • Odenathus c. 250–267 A.D.
  • Vaballathus 
  • (with Zenobia) 267–272 A.D.

The Soldier Emperors (continued)

  • Claudius II Gothicus 268–270 A.D.
  • Quintillus 270 A.D.
  • Aurelian 270–275 A.D.
  • Tacitus 275–276 A.D.
  • Florianus 276 A.D.
  • Probus 276–282 A.D.
  • Carus 282–283 A.D.
  • Carinus 283–284 A.D.
  • Numerianus 283–284 A.D.

Obviously, any reality of Authority had flown the coop in Rome, and only Power remained. After winning the battle at Milvan Bridge, Constantine entered Rome as someone not yet a Christian, but sympathetic to Christianity, where Christianity remained a distinct minority faith. The life of any Roman general at this time meant dancing on the edge of a knife. Those too ambitious too soon would likely get noticed in a bad way by those in power. But armies wanted their generals ambitious. The success of the general inevitably meant good things for them. Generals–and Emperors as well–not ambitious enough might have their army turn on them and kill them.

In interpreting Constantine, we must take into account that he tried simultaneously to a) End a century of civil wars, and b) Not just re-establish an old Authority but install a new one. His situation was more precarious, and more weird, than that of Lincoln. In this light, establishing New Rome (what would later be Constantinople) went far beyond politics or military policy. In New Rome he could lay the foundation of a new Authority, from whence could flow a moderated, tamed Power. Those who simultaneously blame him for hypocrisy and for postponing his baptism should look again. In delaying joining the Church officially, Constantine perhaps tried to avoid the very things he gets blamed for. Maybe what he did had to be done. To do them as a Christian would have sullied the Church.

Neither Lincoln or Constantine stand without blemish.^ Neither of them had the chance to play entirely fair, but both used Power rightly. The proof lies with the Authority they established.

Dave

*These next few paragraphs have a deep debt to Jonathan Pageau’s thoughts found here.

**I lack the knowledge to know if Thomas Aquinas meant something like this Authority/Power distinction in his “Unmoved Mover” argument for the existence of God. If so, I find that argument more convincing.

9th/10th Grade: You Can’t Go Home Again

Greetings,

This week we continued with Rome’s decline and saw the rise of Constantine, and with it a significant change in the history of the west.

The 3rd century AD was a bad one for Rome.  General after general assumed power, with no real progress or change to show for it.  In 284 Emperor Diocletian took control, and one might surmise, here for the first time in a while was a sane man.  He realized that:

1. Rome was too big to control himself.  He divided up the empire into administrative regions and delegated much of his power, which was quite unusual for a Roman emperor.

2. Rome’s problems went far beyond the military.  They had a ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’ problem at heart.  Diocletian sought to revive Roman values, tradition, and religion.

Diocletian was a man of insight in this regard, but his solution begs the following questions:

1. Can you ‘go home again’?  Can you use force to create things like patriotism, or belief in general, for that matter?

2. Was Christianity a threat to Rome?  In one sense the answer is of course, ‘no.’  In general Christians were good citizens who could have breathed new spiritual life into Rome.  But in another sense, Diocletian shows his insight by recognizing that Christians were indeed a threat to Rome’s values of strength, pride, and power.  Christianity baffled Rome by preaching weakness and humility.  His persecution of Christians was Rome’s last and most intense.  It’s failure only helped contribute to the ‘triumph’ of the Church.

I mentioned in class that I feel bad for Diocletian.  Far from being mad with power, he actually sought to divest himself of power to make Rome more secure.  He saw the various political and economic problems Rome faced and realized that their real problems lie deeper — in culture and morality.  He had some keen insights, but came to disastrous conclusions from those insights.

We see some of this transition in the busts made of Diocletian.  Here, early in his life, he reflects the typical Greek image so prevalent among his predecessors:

But later in life, he abandoned that for a much more Roman look, consistent with his goal of revitalizing Rome:

Still, Diocletian’s persecution of Christians only continued Rome’s blindness.  They failed to see their own selves as the problem.  Typically, they projected their problems onto others.  As many historians have noted, Rome’s own decadence, decline, and violence helped create a spiritual vacuum that Christianity filled.

Not surprisingly, Diocletian’s passion for re-ordering Rome through direct control spilled over into his desire to control Rome’s economy and manage prices throughout the empire.  Price-controls in any circumstance almost always have negative effects.  Price-controls across an expanse as vast and diverse as the Roman empire would without question bring disaster.

With the rise of Constantine, some new questions emerge:

1. Would Constantine’s support of the Church be good for society?  Would it be good for the Church?  If we arrive at different answers for those questions, should we favor the Church or society?

2. Constantine claimed to be a Christian, but as emperor he had many official duties related to the old Roman religion.   Can a leader have ‘two bodies,’ one public and the other private?  If he represents more than just himself, might he have duties that put him in conflict with his private convictions?  What should leaders do in these situations?  Does Constantine’s dual roles put his ‘conversion’ into doubt?

On another note. . .

Next week I want to show the students another kind of archeological evidence.  Roman fort design changed over the centuries, and these changes tell a story.

In the second century AD, their forts looked like this:

2nd Century Roman Fort

The relatively little effort put towards defense shows the openness and confidence of not just the army itself, but the army’s sense of security in occupied territory.  Rome may very well have expected a good relationship in its provinces.

But we see things change in the next century:

3rd Century Roman Fort

Now they placed much more emphasis on defense, and the trend continues in the 4th century, where Rome not only focused on defense, but made sure to build forts on the high ground:

4th Century Fort Design

 

The nature of Rome’s army, and the nature of its relationship to the world outside Rome, had changed dramatically.

Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: He Who Lives by the Sword. . .

Greetings,

This week we looked at Assyrian civilization.  Their meteoric rise was surpassed only by their complete and total destruction at the hands of several enemies.  What made them who they were?

We first looked at their geography. . .

1. Assyria began in the north of the Fertile Crescent, in one of its less fertile areas, nestled in mountains towards the fringe of that region.  We discussed how people who live in mountainous regions tend to display similar characteristics.  Necessity might force them to rely on hunting.  They grow to be tough and adaptive, and generally warlike, with built in mistrust of foreigners due to their relative isolation (think Afghanistan).  Assyrians had similar characteristics.

2. Their geography may have lent impetus to their expansionist desires.  These tough, warlike people were generally surrounded by more wealthy civilizations that might have been a bit ‘softer’ than the Assyrians.   Nomadic civilizations (those that have to/choose to follow ‘the herd’) can never be as wealthy as more agrarian civilizations, for they can never stay in one place long enough to produce anything.  Perhaps they could not resist all they saw around them.  Perhaps after a while, jealousy and envy took hold.

Then we looked at their army . . .

1. Mountainous regions generally are not as populous as other places, but the Assyrians managed to create a brilliant militia force.  Without the mass of other armies (nomadic hunting oriented civilizations inevitably have smaller populations) they had to rely on speed and movement.  But their citizens, used to hunting, would have been used to moving, tracking, and outwitting their prey.

In class I compared their army to the new ‘Blur Offense’ in football popularized by the University of Oregon.

2. The Assyrian army was a lightning fast ‘light infantry’ force, overwhelming their opponents by swift and brutal assaults.  Of course the makeup of the army impacted their foreign policy, which

  • Usually did not emphasize diplomacy.  They could not integrate their conquered foes into their army (think about how the effectiveness of a Navy Seal platoon would be diminished by adding army regulars into their ranks).
  • So – how do you hold onto your territory?  The Assyrian army was not generally interested in occupation. They wanted movement.  If ‘you are what you worship,’ we would expect the Assyrians to use terror as a weapon, and so they did.  My guess is that the students will remember the various forms of torture and death the Assyrians inflicted if you are curious enough to ask them.
  • With the conquered cowed into submission the Assyrians could move on.  We looked at Paul Kennedy’s concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch,’ when size becomes a disadvantage as opposed to an advantage.  Clearly the Assyrians suffered from this, for as we discussed, fear is a wasting asset.  It tends to be a very effective short term, but disastrous long term policy.

Some of you may remember the boxer Mike Tyson, and I think he is a good representation of the Assyrian army.  Tyson was almost always the smaller man in the ring, outweighed and outreached by his opponent.  But his lightning speed confused his opponent, and he hit with such devastating force that he surely “ruled by fear” over his foes.

The students had fun with excerpts from these clips in class.

Then we looked at their religion. . .

The Assyrians were polytheistic, but tended to emphasize the worship of their war god Ashur.  Ashur demanded blood, as the Assyrians obliged, presenting large amounts of the severed heads of their enemies at worship services.  Interestingly, apparently the most common way of representing Ashur was on his winged disc, which hearkens back to the dominance of movement in Assyrian civilization.

For this coming week we will continue to see connections between Assyria’s religion, army, and foreign policy.  For them, as for all of us, “you are what you worship.”
Thanks so much,
Dave

11th/12th Grade: The Politics of Emancipation

Greetings,

This week we put a special focus on the Emancipation Proclamation, in its context and meaning for its time and beyond.

Critics of Lincoln then and now point out that when the war began slavery, or ending slavery, was not seen as a motivating factor in the conflict.  In an immediate and particular context in 1860-61, this was undoubtedly true.  Before Lincoln even took office several Southern states seceded, but many (VA, NC, AR, TN, KN, MD) had not.  Lincoln believed he needed to stop the bleeding as quickly as possible.  To make the war about slavery might have driven every slave state out of the Union and made reunification impossible.

But very soon after the war started events began to take over and push policy in a different direction.  Slaves ran away and took shelter with Union forces.  England might recognize the Confederacy if the war had nothing to do with slavery.  If it did, Lincoln knew that England could never go against a country trying to end slavery when they themselves had already abolished the slave trade.  By 1862, Lincoln thought the time had come to make slavery an official issue of the war.

Historians have their fashions just as any other discipline, and opinion has swayed back and forth on Lincoln’s actions and motivations surrounding his famous Proclamation.

Most of us grew up with the idea of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” who freed the slaves with the Emancipation.  In this view, Lincoln gets the lions share of credit for ending a great stain upon our democracy, culture, and so on.

More recently, however, scholarship has shifted.  Many critics, both from the “Long live the South” community and African-American scholars have pointed out that:

  • Technically, the Emancipation freed no slaves, since the only slaves that Lincoln freed were slaves in areas in rebellion — areas he did not control.  Slavery in the border states loyal to the Union remained untouched.
  • Some African-American scholars have argued that slaves had begun to liberate themselves by leaving plantations, finding Union armies, etc. long before the Emancipation Proclamation.  Thus, Lincoln only added window dressing to an already existing reality.  He jumped on the band-wagon and got credit he did not deserve.
  • Some constitutional scholars argue that Lincoln had no authority to end slavery by executive fiat.  The Constitution did not forbid slavery, therefore at the very least Congress would have to make a law regarding slavery, or more likely, a Constitutional amendment would be needed.

With these two extreme points on the pendulum, others have come down somewhere in the middle.  The Emancipation Proclamation, they argue, had no technical legal authority, and in this sense made no difference.  But the Emancipation did accomplish other things, i.e.

  • It freed no slaves but did transform the war into a war of liberation, giving extra moral impetus to Union armies.
  • It sent a clear message to England (who had at times seriously considered recognizing the Confederacy) that the war would now be about slavery, and England (having banned slavery and the slave trade themselves) could not now easily side against a country trying to end slavery in their own territory.
  • It did not start slaves freeing themselves, but it gave active encouragement to other slaves who may not have considered it otherwise.  Not only that, the Emancipation guaranteed slaves legal protection from Union armies.
  • While slaves in the border states could keep their slavery, Lincoln’s message surely implied slavery’s eventual demise across the nation.

But this “middle ground” position still leaves open the question of Lincoln and the Constitution.

Lincoln believed that he had a right and a duty to defend Constitutional democracy.  History told him that wars and democracies do not always mix well.  Athenian democracy destroyed itself in the Peloponnesian War.  Many believe that Rome’s many wars brought down its Republic.  Machiavelli praised Rome for at least making the possibility of a temporary dictatorship a provision of its constitution, as it seemed better to do something drastic by law than otherwise.  But even this did not save them from the Emperors.  French Revolutionary democracy quickly turned into Napoleonic dictatorship.  Lincoln himself knew that some of his generals, like George McClellan, contemplated the possibility of military dictatorship.  Today we think of Lincoln as a strong war leader but many at the time saw him as weak, bumbling, inexperienced.  We can’t sit back comfortably this side of history and tell Lincoln, “There, there, it will be alright.”

Lincoln’s perception of the danger of dictatorship led him to embrace occasionally aggressive measures, and a “generous” reading of the Constitution.  The Constitution does allow for the suspension of habeus corpus, for example.  Article I, Section 9 reads,

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

This seems straightforward, but this clause is part of the section on the legislative branch of government, not the executive.  Of course, the Constitution does not explicitly forbid presidents from suspending the right themselves, but it could be said to imply it.  In fairness, Confederate president Jefferson Davis also suspended habeas corpus, but the fact that he receives less criticism than Lincoln is probably fair.  We did not, after all, build a hagiographic memorial to Jefferson Davis.

Subsequent presidents have also suspended the writ, perhaps FDR most famously during W.W. II.  Lincoln felt that this expansive use of power helped him seize firm control of the government, which in turn he felt would prevent the far worse evil of military dictatorship.  Lincoln’s critics argue that in order to achieve this, he assumed semi-dictatorial powers.  How one evaluates Lincoln depends on. . .
  • How grave you feel the threat was to the Constitution
  • How flexible your view of the Constitution is
  • To what extent you feel that strange times call for unusual measures, or if it is during those times that absolute discipline must be maintained even if it a worse evil results.  As many have said, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”  But of course, we established a Constitution specifically to protect liberty and put restraints on the powers of government.
  • The extent to which you feel that “America” means a certain process of separation of powers, or a more nebulous idea of freedom.

Other issues exist besides the problem of Habeus Corpus, such as his establishment of martial law in Missouri.  In some ways, Lincoln felt that the Constitution established by the founders had not been sufficient to deal with the crisis.  It proved insufficient to deal with slavery.  Thus, he felt he had the right and the duty to act outside the system.  On this view, Lincoln did well to preserve so much of the original founders vision for America while facing an unprecedented crisis that no other president has faced.

Lincoln also believed that the American people would quickly revert back to normal after the war.  A sick man will take necessary medicine, but once cured he stops.   The overall result proves Lincoln correct in his assessment, but events in Missouri (where governors and state officials refused to give up martial law in spite of Lincoln’s orders to do so), for example, showed that granting extreme powers and giving them up are two different things.  Sometimes, people get addicted to prescription drugs.

Blessings,
Dave

Mix and Match

I recently moved to a more rural area, but for most of my life lived in suburbia. Suburbia has many charms, but everyone knows that community almost never happens in such areas. Of my 40 years of suburban living, I surmise that I had only a semblance of a relationship with perhaps 6-7 families. I guess this is fairly typical.

I remember some years ago voicing an idea to my wife: What if on a corner house, someone was allowed to set up a small bar or cafe? Maybe even one for each street? My mind raced to the possibilities of front yards set up as family friendly areas with a few games and such. I thought that this could work, and communal bonds form. People generally want to get to know others, but nothing in the suburbs helps foster this in any way. In fact, everything more or less works against it.

Of course even if my idea would work in principle, it would fall afoul of zoning laws. As Jane Jacobs points out in her Dark Age Ahead, “purity” formed one of the key principles of zoning laws in the 20th century. Thou shalt not mix commercial and residential areas. One of Jacobs’ tasks in this, her final book, was to question this and other sacred cows.

In his A History of Needs (1978) Ivan Illich heavily criticized various aspects of the modern world on both the right and the left. Broadly speaking, we could group his attacks under the banner of his intolerance for what he termed “hygienic industrial ‘progess.'” Basically, whatever “made sense” in terms of measurement, neatness, and uniformity we counted as “good.” Illich thought most often the opposite would result.

Jacobs has a few main lines of attack, though she wished that readers would take Dark Age Ahead as a hopeful book in the end. I see her as essentially an heir of Illich, one who urges us to abandon our fixation with “purity” and stratification in order to achieve something more real.*

Zoning laws come under particular fire from Jacobs, though she is hardly a free-market libertarian. She writes,

Only in 1916 did zoning take appreciable hold in North American culture. The three ideas that shaped zoning were these:

  1. High ground coverages are bad.
  2. High densities are bad
  3. The mingling of commercial or other work uses with residences is bad.

All three assumptions are rejections of cities and city life, devised by utopians and reformers who tried to overcome public health problems and “disorder” with these abstract, dysfunctional solutions.

Jacobs continues to argue that people object not to these particular things, but poor versions of their implementation. In theory at least, we should have the ability to legislate proper boundaries for all of the above. Jacobs hints at the real issue governments shy away from fruitful messiness–the lack of ability for them to effectively control outcomes. Organic “messiness” resists the neatness governments require, for governments these days govern mainly through data, which requires order to collect.

Jacobs sees that our “Dark Age” cometh because we rely on abstractions and theories, and refuse to properly observe. We might say that proper observation means noticing proper mixing. One of her touchstone examples involved the Chicago heat wave in the summer of 1995, where hundreds of elderly people died. One could easily observe the cascading effects, as overloaded power grids shut down, children opened hydrants, which meant no AC and no water for some poorer neighborhoods.

The CDC came in to study the problem, and Jacobs spares them not a whit. The study, conducted by nearly 100 intelligent people, found that people died because they remained in their rooms and faced heat stroke and dehydration. The study discovered what any 3rd rate medical examiner might–the medical cause of death. Congratulations.

Thankfully, another researcher named Eric Klinenberg came in and performed a far more useful task. He noticed that in some neighborhoods, the death rate was 10x that of other locales. The difference lay not in the temperature or even the direct access to AC and water, but in neighborhoods. In some boroughs, the at-risk elderly had people to check on them and give direct aid. This happened because different groups of people knew each other, and the elderly trusted those that came to check because they had seen them around. The CDC study pointed out that many who died did not follow the well publicized advice to leave apartments and go walk in the neighborhoods, go to a store with AC, etc. Klinenberg pointed out that neighborhoods with exorbitant fatalities had no place for people to walk to, no businesses to enjoy AC in, etc., because of zoning laws that do not mix the residential and commercial.

For Jacobs, such limited thinking by one of our top scientific institutions, combined with neighborhoods that do not allow for real life to take place, risks conjuring up a new Dark Age. The “high” of our institutions cannot properly assess the “low” of everyday life and appreciate what actually makes civilization possible.**

As Jane Jacobs wrote Dark Age Ahead (2005) we experienced the erosion of the situation in Iraq, and some might say, the end of American hegemony. In 2019 the Rand Corporation published a study entitled The Battle for Baghdad: Lessons Learned–and Still to be Learned. I feared that the book would have a know-it-all tone and paint everyone as idiots who should have known better. I found it fair and sympathetic to most everyone, while at the same time avoiding explaining everything away.

More than enough blame exists between civilians and the military to go around. The authors point out that some things went right–food and water distribution went according to plan. Few Iraqi’s died of starvation, malnutrition, or improper medical care. Huzzah for us, but aside from that . . . well. . .

The long list of what went wrong begins with:

  • The U.S. has a good record with humanitarian relief. It is one of our strengths. We spent tons of time and resources planning for such aid, but never had a chance to implement it effectively, because the war continued long past the conventional stage. We prepped for something that we never could implement.
  • Conversely, time and money spend prepping for humanitarian aid was not spent on preparing for the political, cultural, and asymmetrical military mess we had after we took Baghdad.
  • We expected that the Iraqi government would continue to function after top-level ministers and advisors (i.e. Saddam’s cronies) left office. Since Saddam’s regime depended on highly centralized decisions, we assumed that those ministries operated as effective state structures. If so, then the top leadership could be replaced without much fallout, and no large-scale reconstruction would be needed. Instead, we badly misread the nature of Saddam’s governance and Iraqi society.
  • The military won a brilliantly clean conventional campaign. As for what came next, as one commentator put it, “The military wanted to put a civilian face on it, while the civilians [State Department] wanted to put an Iraqi face on it, and meanwhile we had 150,000 troops on the ground, and a UN order saying that what we were doing wasn’t what we thought we were doing, which was an occupation.”
  • The question of looting confused many people on the ground at the time. One general talked of how he saw the looting as non-violent wealth redistribution. They expressed no hostility towards the army or each other. He saw the looting as a natural response to Saddam’s oppression, as a communally peaceful way to solve a problem, so why stop it? In hindsight of course, this “wealth redistribution” set the stage for lawlessness later.

We need to seek a path through such confusing events and attempt to find a central cause or problem.

I tentatively venture that the core problem involved just what Jacobs diagnosed stateside, a failure to embrace or even recognize beneficial messiness/appropriate mixing between agencies, peoples, and so forth. We can see this through a couple of different issues.

To start, a lack of cooperation between the Departments of Defense and State led to an elimination State’s meaningful role, for all intents and purposes. We always need unity of command, but not unity of perspective. This lack of cooperation hurt our available intellectual resources.

This lack of good internal mixing led to external problems. In a variety of instances, the authors cite the problems of our preference to tear down existing structures and build from scratch, rather than use what we found already in existence. This preference was surely easier on paper, but its application in a society with complex social dynamics proved most difficult.

Another example that fit this failure to mix pattern might be the “De-Ba’athification” of top level Ba’ath party officials close to Saddam. The authors acknowledge the deep complexity of the problem. Saddam governed Iraq as a mostly secular Sunni Moslem in a state where Shia’s and Kurds formed 80% of the population. Indeed, the removal of these generally corrupt party officials met with strong approval from this broad 80%. However, this move scarred and humiliated Sunni’s publicly. The authors strongly suggest that perhaps these officials needed removed, but not removed as a matter of public policy, which would bring public shame. Sunni insurgent groups very likely arose from this action. They felt threatened by the new order, and responded in kind.

The U.S. also usually sought to tear down existing structures of government and rebuild from scratch. Iraq had so much unexpected complexity, it made sense to seek more simplicity and clarity. However, this move also backfired. We failed to build an infrastructure for effective governance.

The theme I see often involves a strong avoidance of “mess.” Our democratic, Enlightenment inspired, science driven culture loves clarity, transparency, and simplicity. These values serve us well, up to a point. They fail us in situations akin to Iraq, where we need to ditch many of the qualities that form our society, and hence, our military as well. Among other things, our values lead us towards greater standardization and speed. These qualities will not promote the wisdom to recognize a good “mess” when we need to.

Jane Jacobs began her diagnosis of this problem with her groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The pristine clarity sought by developers, the separation of residential and commercial, would prevent real communities from developing like those that saved the lives of many of Chicago’s elderly in 1995. Jacobs thinks that “the people” often get betrayed, in.a sense, from on-high. Perhaps. I tend to think that democracies get the kind of culture they want, and thus, the kind they deserve. Our current cultural polarization, i.e., our failure to mix well, may not be the byproduct of the debacle in Iraq but its cause.

Dave

*For the sake of clarity, purity is not a morally bad or good thing–it is a descriptive term of something that can sometimes be good, sometimes be bad, depending.

**One can see significant similarities between the CDC’s handling of this limited incident, and their handling of COVID 25 years later.

9th/10th Grade: The Window of Roman Architecture

Greetings to all,

I am a believer in the revealing power of architecture in a civilization.  There are many ways to get insight into the past, but I think that architecture is one of the best, for it puts a civilization’s creative power on display, and it involves much more than the work of one individual.  One of themes I wanted to stress with this was a shift in emphasis in how Rome built its buildings, and what this revealed about them as a civilization.  Arches, for example, were a great innovation used in aqueducts to bring water into cities.

The design of cities pushed people toward the center, which was in keeping with Rome’s Republic (literally a ‘public thing’).

But as time went by, arches are used to build monuments to emperors, and whatever talent they possessed went to make things like the Emperor Hadrian’s villa:

Here below is the general outline of the whole of Hadrian’s villa:

And again, another so-called “good emperor” of Rome (Marcus Aurelius) put his focus on the building of private monuments, like this personal “arch” monument below (contrasted with the public use of the arch for water above)

And another personal monument column to add to that. . .

If Rome was committed to understanding the changes in their culture, perhaps they may have been used for good, but Rome would not do this, and preferred to live in the past.  Their innovations (never a strong point) dried up, and whatever was new in Rome was simply borrowed from the Greeks (as the statue in Hadrian’s villa indicates).  Rome had grown stale and petrified, but would they see this?  As we noted, this would not be likely, for another thing the architecture reveals is whereas in the past their energies were directed to the public sphere, now most of what they did centered around the emperor.

A bored and uncreative people will  tend to think bigger is better all the time.  The Romans were no exception. Like an addict, it takes more and more over time to get the same response.  As the activity’s reward decreases, more effort only gives diminishing returns.  As we began our discussion of the games, we saw  how an old Etruscan funeral rite grew into an unregulated black market trade, to ‘opening act’ for the chariot races, eventually growing to a hideous and repulsive spectacle on a grand scale before tens of thousands.  How did this happen, and what does it say about Rome?

We need to see not only the moral dimension of this problem, but the political one as well.  The Games served to enhance the prestige of the emperor and keep people amused and distracted, in a sense, from the reality around them.  One may recall the Wizard of Oz’s line not to look behind the curtain.  The whole system of Empire had degenerated essentially into a military dictatorship by Vespasian’s time.  No emperor could ill afford a populace too rowdy or too thoughtful.  The Games helped buy them off.
Casinos, for example, want you to lose money, but not all of your money.  After all, they want you to leave happy so you will come back.  When you start to lose too much, often times an employee will appear suddenly, encourage you to stop, and offer you a coupon for a free steak dinner at their award winning restaurant. Their goal of course, is that you think, “Hey, that casino is really great for giving me this free dinner,” instead of, “I just lost X amount of money at that casino.”  I think the Games worked much in the same way.
Certain emperors, of course, may have felt more of a need to establish their legitimacy than others.  Claudius, for example, was a big proponent of the games, and he was the ‘runt’ of the Julio-Claudian line, and Caligula’s uncle.  Vespasian built the Colosseum specifically for the games, and he came to power after a year of civil war.
There are other means of cementing your power, notably, buying your friends.  This dynamic was not, I think, the main reason for the debasement of Roman currency, but it surely did not help.  I passed this chart out to the students showing the general decline of currency value, with some being more responsible than others.  Those emperors that rose to power after a change in dynasty often did so after civil war (marked with an *), and would have extra need to buy the loyalty of key people, and especially, key army legions (though to be fair, Nerva does not fit this pattern).

9th/10th Grade: Bad Roman Fathers

Greetings,

This week we looked at the aftermath of Nero’s suicide in 68 A.D.  Having no heirs, Nero did not establish any process for a succession.  Three generals, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius ended up holding power alternately before the last, Vespasian, remained standing and took up Imperium himself and stability returned.

The Civil Wars did not last long and probably did not impact the common people very much, but this “Year of 3 Emperors,” portended ill for Rome.

  • It showed that in the absence of any family successor, power could simply go to the strongest
  • The system Augustus established at least maintained a fictional role for the Senate.  Some emperors (like Claudius) used the Senate to a moderate degree.  Now however, the Senate lost all role in who governed Rome.  The mask was off the pig.  Power belonged to the army, not to any of the pre-existing public institutions.

Vespasian looks like a solid sort, and he ruled well by most standards.  He eliminated a massive debt (largely through raising taxes).  He had no obvious vices to bring himself or Rome down.  He began the project that turned the land that housed Nero’s ridiculous private palace into a large public building for all people, known then as the Flavian Amphitheater (after his family name), known to us as the Colosseum.

One of the main functions of this intricately engineered building was to house the gladiator contests, that by Vespasian’s time, became more and central to Rome’s way of life.  What began as a holdover from old Etruscan funeral rite ca. 600 B.C. then became ad hoc neighborhood entertainment by 50 B.C., and finally turned into a horrendous spectacle where criminals (and Christians) were tortured and killed for amusement by 100 A.D.  When we realize that Rome financed much of the construction from looting the Temple in Jerusalem, and that thousands of Jewish slaves built it, we see that even when Rome tried to go “good” it brought about a terrible evil.  We discussed how this could happen. . .

1. Among other things, the Romans demonstrated what happens to addicts.  More and more is needed as the ‘drug’ gives less and less back, but it becomes so much a part of you that stopping is near impossible, at least humanly speaking.  Along those lines we discussed how in Scripture sin is described as a ‘power,’ a kind of black hole like vortex.  We delude ourselves when we think that we can easily jump back and forth between sinning and not sinning.  Quicksand doesn’t work that way.

2. The games satisfied Rome’s need for glory and courage.  Rome believed that they were still Rome, but very few citizens fought anymore.  Cicero, among others, thought the games served the purpose of ‘toughening’ the citizens. The Pax Romana created a breathing space for Rome that they could have used to transform themselves to some degree.  However, the very foundation of the Augustus’s principate system was built on the idea that Rome had not changed.  The games allowed the Romans to imagine that they were just like their ancestors, tough and able to deal with violence.

3. The games were also related to Rome’s broken political system.  Like the Wizard of Oz, Rome’s emperors could ill afford the citizens a look behind the curtain.  The games proved a marvelous distraction for the populace.  Also, since all power became centralized with the emperor, he needed to appear all powerful.  The bigger the spectacle, the better it tended to reflect on the emperor.

But the political problem had broader foundations than this.  With the rise of wealthy landowners gobbling up the small farms, thousands ended up flocking to the cities to find work, especially Rome.  What could be done with these people? Ultimately. . .

4. The games also show Rome’s continual band-aid approach to its problems.  They were not good at making hard choices about who they were at this point in their history.  The games distracted people and bought the short term favor of the lower classes, but it produced nothing for their society.  Whole armies of soldiers, slaves, and animals perished, countless money was spent, merely to enhance the image of the emperor and entertain the people.   But no creative or productive activity flowed from the games.  It was all ‘sunk costs.’

5. The Romans viewed the games as a means of displaying their power, in at least two ways.  First, it meant that Romans could say something to the effect of, “Look at what we can make people do for us!”  Perhaps this was more subconsciously believed than stated.  But the variety of people and the different fighting styles they employed did serve as a visual reminder of the scope of their power.

Had Rome been more productive or creative economically, this population influx might have led to a economic revolution of sorts for Rome, if we imagine the mid-late 19th century Industrial Revolution on a smaller, less technical scale.  However, being economically creative can’t just happen when you want it to.  It takes a foundation in education and attitude that Rome did not have.

Thus, the games reveal not only Rome’s moral bankruptcy, but its political and economic stagnation.

7. Finally, the games reflect Rome’s social and cultural climate “gone bad.”

When thinking of how the empire functioned we cannot lose hold of the context of Rome’s past Republican history.  Rome’s revolution in 508 B.C. created some measure of what we would call democracy, but it mainly gave the aristocracy/patricians more direct control over policy.  Americans view aristocracy as a dirty word, but Rome’s Republic functioned very well for many centuries.  One reason for this is that Rome’s aristocracy usually considered themselves patrons and acted as “patrons of Rome” without being overly “patronizing.”  The “patrons” sought to look after the lower classes, to provide for them, give them gifts, and sometimes be the stern father figure.  In fact, the patrons of Rome came from the “patrician” class, i.e. the “fathers.”

Good Roman fathers have many roles.  They lead worship.  They provide law.  They provide continuance of the family line.  Sometimes, too, they give gifts.  “Here’s 20 bucks, go have a good time at the movies with your friends,” and so on.  Emperors served as Rome’s ultimate patrons.  The Civil Wars of 133-31 B.C. decimated Rome’s aristocracy and left the Senate impotent.  Thus, whereas before Rome had many “fathers,” now for the most part, they have just one, the Emperor.

We understand Roman reaction to their emperors better if we view it through this lens.

  • Augustus cast the perfect balance between stern, reliable Roman father upholding the morals of Rome, with a sprinkling of gifts (of money, bread, etc.) and indulgence.
  • Tiberius was a great manager of money, but viewed as a miser.  He never threw a party, never gave gifts, etc.  He had no “heart.”
  • Caligula was a disaster — completely unreliable, giving no family stability
  • Claudius didn’t look the part, which was a drawback.  He had some problems with women — also a drawback.  But in the main he followed Augustus’ model.
  • Nero was the dad in perpetual mid-life crisis, who spent your inheritance and that of his brothers. He steals from other families when that runs dry.  He quits his job to become a very unsuccessful opera-singer and provides no leadership, no example, for his children.

Roman fathers had to show that they identified with their children’s interests.  The Roman Games were one big party, given as a gift.  Of course because Rome’s political system meant that they had just one father, the party had to be huge to cover the whole population.  The expense, the expectation, and the length of the games (by the 2nd century the games might last 4-5 months) all grew as each emperor tried to establish his credentials as a proper Roman father.*

All of this is bound to catch up with them at some point.  This week we will take a look at Rome’s decline through the lens of economics and architecture, and begin to find our way towards the coming of Constantine.

Dave

 *We want dads to provide the party for his teenage children, but not really to join in the party.  That would be weird and off-putting, most “un-fatherly” conduct.  Hence, the Romans did not like it when Emperor Commodus “joined the party” by participating personally in the gladiatorial games.

Despair and Exaltation in Ancient Rome

The phenomena of Roman gladiators has gotten lots of attention over the years, and that’s no surprise.  One way of quickly getting a sense of an ancient people is to seek what details stand out and makes them look odd, impressive, or otherwise shocking to modern eyes.  The gladiatorial games, like human sacrifices for the Aztecs, Egyptian tombs, or medieval cathedrals all fit the bill.

We usually see the gladiatorial contests as evidence of Rome’s decline.  Rome got wealthy, Rome got bored and decadent, and so it needed the bread and circuses to maintain order in a tumultuous political climate. “How sad,” some say, “and how dramatic a change from Rome’s hard and flinty past!  But, when a big empire goes south, it will go south on a grand and terrible scale.”

So the story goes.  But, what if, like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, we had it contrariwise?  What if the Rome of the gladiatorial games is simply the Rome that always was, and money and power just gave them more opportunities to expand their sense of themselves?  Such are the implications of Carlin Barton’s eye-opening The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster.  Barton wants to show us that our modern categories of thought and experience will not work for Rome.  We cannot say, “Well, we like football so we’re just like the Romans.”  This shallow method will not cut it for Barton.  She asks us to go deeper and to notice the Romans on their own terms, and gives us plenty of food for thought to reconsider the meaning of Rome, and what it means that Rome was a “religious” society.

Barton examines the gladiatorial games, one of the more sensational aspects of Rome’s past.  The title focuses on the concept of “sorrow,” but Barton tries to examine the games through a lens of the tension between asceticism, discipline, glory, indulgence, and exaltation.  We might think of the Romans as orderly people who lived in the middle of the road.  If true, Barton suggests that they could do so only by holding opposites in constant tension.

For an example we have the Roman triumph.  Anyone familiar with Roman lore and tradition knows that Rome itself, not a particular individual, occupies the heroic position.  They wove their fear of too much individualism into their laws and customs.  The valued communal fraternity so much that one of their laws states that,

If any person has sung or composed against another person a song such as was causing slander or insult…. he shall be clubbed to death,+

and they valued order and gravitas to the extent that they banned excessive mourning at funerals.

But at the same time they gave massive official “Triumphs” to certain generals on occasion, where the whole city came out to shower the victor with praise.  But as the victor processed, his soldiers could–and perhaps should?–sing bawdy or insulting songs about their general in direct violation of law, while a slave rode with him as well to remind him of his mortality.*

Barton tries to explore this at least seeming tension through the lens of the so-called “circuses” of Rome, which Barton writes were a, “Powerful opera of emotions in which the gladiator was the star.”

Most people, most of the time, imagine themselves doing good more often than not, and suppose that others will naturally share the assumptions they make about themselves.  The same holds true for countries and perhaps especially for imperial powers, who tell themselves that they come with blessings for all, and get a shock when they find themselves not always as appreciated as they feel they deserve.**  So too with gladiators and the games, the Romans saw themselves as benefactors.  Barton pushes back on the modern notion that they served as mere entertainment for a swelling populace that needed distracted.

The Romans saw themselves as giving gladiators a chance to redeem their low-estate, even to become something more than a mere man–an act of generosity.  The crowd attends to cooperate and encourage this transformation, not so much to gratify idle curiosity but rather to partake in a kind of religious apotheosis.  To begin, the military oath had a great deal of similarity to the gladiatorial oath. Seneca wrote,

You have enlisted under oath.  If any man say that this is a soft or easy form of soldiering they will only wish to mock you.  But be not deceived: the words of this most honorable of compacts are the very same as those of the most foulest [i.e., the gladiator’s oath]: to be burned, to be bound, to be slain by the sword.  You must die erect and invincible. What difference will it make if you gain a few more days or years? We are born into a world in which no quarter is given.

Thus, Barton comments, the gladiator became a kind of soldier/philosopher, one who lives between life and death, understands both, and can mock at both.  This in turn gave him license to become a new man.   If the emperor claimed his life, one might see it as akin to a god claiming his own.  His death, then, was not necessarily a cause for sorrow.

This gives us a new image of the crowd’s role at the games.  The crowd does not so much cheer for life, or death, but for a communal religious right.  Seneca again comments,

I judge you wretched because you have never been wretched yourself.  You have passed through life without an adversary. No one will know what you are capable of, not even you yourself will know.  And so there are men of their own accord [i.e. gladiators] come forward to challenge reluctant misfortune, and sought an opportunity to blazon forth their worth when it was about to pass into obscurity.  Great men glory in adversity, as do brave men in battle. 

The injuries inflicted by the powerful must be borne, not just patiently, but with a glad countenance.  At the table of a king every meal is a delight. So must they drink, so must they respond, so must the laugh at the funerals of their loved ones.

To glory in suffering is to become glorious.  So even in death, the gladiator wins.  He shows his exalted status by despising life.  As one commented on D. Junius Brutus: “He behaved so basely that he deserved to live.”  The crowd could occasionally assume risk as well, flocking to rickety theaters that could collapse or catch fire at any time.  They cheer on the gladiator toward his glorious suffering just as they–albeit in a more limited fashion–participate in that same suffering, that same embrace and defiance of death.

With this in place we can view the decadence of the Romans in new light.  Gladiators lived beyond normal life, so they could indulge themselves freely, embracing the extremes of life and death.  St. Augustine commented that the life of the gladiator involved licenstious cruelty, an excess of indulgence in everything.  And yet at the same time, they functioned as Rome’s ascetics, able to abandon their very lives to the people of Rome.  Their lives do not belong to them and in so doing their lives can belong to all. They simultaneously embraced both extremes, the demi-gods of Rome who lived beyond the lot of mortals.

This is why the crowd could cheer even the losers in combat, for in their death they display their superiority to death, unblinking, and unafraid.  It was only when the combatants shrank from death that crowd turned on them, and then with stern vengeance.  Showing fear of death made them normal once again, and once they became “normal” they turned the games into something shameful and cruel, rather than something “exalted.”  A gladiator’s fear of death ended the crowd’s participation in the ritual and suddenly transformed the event to a mere butchery.  Who wants to see that?

This is why Rome embraced fleshly decadence as a kind of asceticism.  In Rome one must learn to endure all things and keep going.  A Roman can embrace everything and maintain his dignity.  He can die, and he can eat, vomit it all up, and eat some more.  He can endure death and every form of excess life throws at him and “triumph.”  It is hard to say whether the banquets and excess of late-Republican Rome derived from gladiator culture or vice-versa, but I suspect the former.  J.E. Lendon at the University of Virginia seems to suggest in his Soldiers and Ghosts that the Romans had an extraordinary ability to do almost anything to avoid shame.  That ability could include

  • A strong aversion to any kind of trickery in warfare.  The only honorable way to fight was to march straight into the enemy and smash them in the mouth.
  • A strong aversion to a fear of death and ready acceptance of suicide as superior to even small personal or political failures among the political elite, and
  • As Barton points out, a refusal to accept any limits not just on pains^ but even on the pleasures that one could endure, such as eating six meat pies, spewing it out, and still look forward to eating the seventh.  The man who lost the ability to desire had lost something of himself.

One might see the how these practices could stray into some rather bizarre sexual realms.  Clearly gladiators enjoyed status as sexual objects, and Barton is hardly the first to discuss this.  But she did, if it be possible, help me understand Caligula, at least indirectly.  Of course no one can possibly excuse Caligula via “understanding!”  But in Caligula we see the same kind of excess of cruelty, physical and sexual indulgence, along with religious ecstasy as we see in gladiators.  Caligula claimed a kind of deity for himself.  Perhaps this was insanity, but perhaps he was simply following the gladiator ethic of testing himself, pushing himself, to extremes of vice and religious glorification, courting disaster but not shirking from the challenge.

Maybe.

I found Barton’s book in turns fascinating and perplexing.  I don’t know what it means for understanding the breadth of Rome’s existence from start to finish.  In the preface to his history, Livy wrote that, “Of late wealth has brought us avarice, and abundant pleasures, yearning–amidst both excess and the desire to perish and destroy all things.”  It is a familiar trope of ancient historians, but that has no particular bearing on the accuracy of his interpretation.  Still, I tend to see what happened with gladiators not as a weird appendage of the late-Republic/Empire, but as an integral part of Rome that lay under the surface initially, and grew in prominence over time.

For example, the Romans established the office of aedile very early in their history in the 5th century B.C.  Most aspects of how they functioned look very Roman in our usual sense of the word, as they maintained buildings, streets, laws, etc.  But, they also had charge of public entertainments or other public events, such as large funerals.  Aedlies were expected to fund these out of their own pocket, and many could easily go bankrupt during their time in office.

But the Romans saw the role of aedile as a crucial stepping stone to higher office, where the opportunities for glory and riches increased.  Caesar risked everything and beggared himself to win the election of pontiff, then used the office for fabulous gain.  This pattern was established long before him, however, this yo-yo between poverty and wealth, despair and exaltation.

It seems fitting to give the last word here to an important critic of all of this mess, St. Cyprian of Carthage, who wrote,

Man is killed for the pleasure of man, and to be able to kill is a skill, an employment, an art.  He undergoes discipline in order to kill, and when he does kill, it is a glory. What is this, I ask you, of what nature is it, where those offer themselves to wild beasts, whom no one has condemned, in the prime of life, of comely appearance, in costly garments?  While alive they adorn themselves for voluntary death and miserable as they are, they even glory in their sufferings

Dave

+It seems particularly Roman to me that their wouldn’t say, “shall be executed,” but rather the more stark, “shall be clubbed to death.”

*Some might say that these exceptions have much in common with medieval carnivals or days of “misrule.”  I disagree, and I assume Barton would as well.  The medieval carnival temporarily suspended normal reality to a) reset/refresh the existing order, and b) demonstrate the reality of a world beyond our own.  The Romans seemed to live in perpetual earthly tension within one plane of existence.

**I do not mean for this to serve as an all-encompassing statement on the question of how empires do or do not benefit those under their control.  The question is complicated and perhaps no one good general answer exists.  All I mean to assert here is that imperial powers assume that they are helping and not hurting.

^If we look at the 2nd Punic War, one can imagine almost any civilization surrendering in 216 B.C. after Cannae.  Poylbius points out the political structure of Rome as one of the keys to their ultimate victory and ability to persevere.  Certainly that helped.  I think the real key, however, was Rome’s culture/religion that told them to suffer–to embrace suffering.  This should tell us that:

  • Indeed, what we saw with gladiators was present earlier in Rome’s history (in a more noble form).
  • Culture and religion trump politics.  One can see a parallel in W.W. II where Germany inflicted unimaginable losses against the Soviets in the first few months their attacks.  Any rational man would assume a surrender would be forthcoming.  Yet, somehow, the Soviets kept going and eventually destroyed the Nazi’s.  The Soviets and the Romans had very different political systems, but both drew from religions that taught them how to suffer–albeit in different ways for different reasons (in the case of the Soviets it was Orthodox Christianity, which made a significant unofficial comeback during the war).

 

 

The Frontier Garden City

I am no fan of the “Woke” but a few years ago Ross Douthat wrote a piece entitled “A Crisis our Universities Deserve,” which showed me that at the core of this movement lay something admirable. At some point in the 20th century, college lost its emphasis on ennobling the soul, the great virtues, ideas, etc., and became a means to make more money in life. Certainly in the early 90’s, most of the encouragement from society to go to college came in this form. Students today rightly rebel from this, want more from their education than this, and more from life in general. Many “woke” students seek something moral, something transcendent. Douthat commends them for this, at least.

My public school education left me with the impression that the arc of American History bent towards the good, but of course we had x,y,z, and 1, 2,3, things wrong with us. The list of wrong things had grown since my dad’s day, but still stopped just short of overthrowing the basic arc. Subsequent generations have had the scales tipped. Manifest Destiny, the idea that History/God/Fate/Benign Providence wanted/needed America to span the continent, stood very near the core of our things wrong with us, and seemingly impossible to redeem in any way. After reading Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth I had the realization that the Woke and the various champions of Manifest Destiny have a great deal in common, including a highly idealistic goal and rebellion against the complacent stuffed shirts of status quo.

This comparison may surprise some, but makes at least temperamental sense to me. My first reaction to the Woke and Manifest Destiny comes from the gut: “Ick . . . it’s just too much work, too much angst and yearning, too much of everything. Enough, already.” I feel Jerry Seinfeld should have a bit on this–he would agree with me, I’m sure. But one needs more of a foundation to denigrate these two major epochs of our country’s past and present, and one has to admire the energy and drive in both movements.

Smith shows that Manifest Destiny had no direct racial motivations. When race entered into the discussion from some, it usually involved spreading “free labor” across the continent to help limit and eventually squeeze out slavery. Manifest Destiny’s sharpest critics in fact often came from pro-slavery camps, who poured cold water on all of the messianic expectations of free labor across the continent. I found it curious as well that the native Indians got little mention. It strikes me not that they were discounted, but rather not counted from the start. Maybe promoters of expansion automatically assumed that the natives would go along with it. More likely, thoughts of overland Asian trade routes, the fusion of independence, wealth, and power, the sweep of empires throughout time–left no room to see particular people such as the natives. Certainly one could critique the impact of the idea on native peoples, but harming them seems absent from the original intent.

At its core, then Manifest Destiny

  • Believed firmly in America’s unique role in world history
  • Allied with many of the progressive causes of the day–causes that today would certainly look progressive–grants of free government things (not $, but land), the belief that the hand of government should engineer certain social and political ends.
  • Believed strongly in unity–national unity, but also a more expansive international unity, for which the United States could hold the standard. Walt Whitman wrote in his A Passage to India that

The people [are] to become brothers and sisters,

Their races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,

The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,

The lands welded together.

Whitman being Whitman, he waxes rhapsodically about how Man and Nature shall once again fuse together under the “true Son of God”–not sure whom this was supposed to be. We conclude, then, that Manifest Destiny involved not just our national greatness, but

  • A grand union of all humanity, abolishing all national differences and dismantling the hierarchies of the old, worn out traditional world.

All of these are strongly progressive causes.

The progressive Woke have their virtues, but their virtues lean so far in one direction that they have to overcompensate, consciously or no, towards the other pole. So while they talk of abolishing all forms of difference in some grand human unity on the one hand, with the other they proclaim a certain kind of radical individuality. We see this in their insistence that anyone can do anything they like with their body, sexuality, etc. On the one hand, the Woke can be fiercely anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional, but on the other, as Patrick Deneen has pointed out, they need Government writ-large to protect them from local, more traditionally minded majorities. And, while the Woke encourage a general sort of mixing, they have a hard time mixing in a fruitful manner, i.e., with relationships, marriages, and families.

With the heroes of expansion west, real or fictional, we see the same motifs. Civilization requires cooperation, but Cooper’s Leatherstocking, Whitman’s rhapsodies, and the real Daniel Boone can never settle and build. The unbounded horizon calls more strongly to them than any particular place. They decide things for themselves on the fly. Their freedom from the shackles of civilization gives them a newfound moral clarity and moral authority, for they are freed from all bigotry of place. They see with universal eyes. In his novel Old Hicks the then-famous Charles W. Webber (a product of Princeton), declares of the Texas Ranger that,

With them the primitive virtues of a heroic manhood are all-sufficient, and they care nothing for reverences, forms, and duties, as civilization has them, but respect each others rights and recognize the awful presence of a benign God in the grandeur of the mountain, forest, plain, valley, and river. . . . Such men do not look to society except with disgust . . .

Interestingly, as part of the plot, Webber has the head mountain man romantically pursue the wife of the villain, and marry her despite she actually being the wife of the evil Count. The “Laws of Nature” here easily become the Laws of God, which trumps the laws of man. Similar arguments today justify ditching traditional sexual ethics. For example, those that transition, or “come out,” are granted a carte blanche in their decisions regardless of its impact on those around them, for their very distance from society with these decisions grants them supposed insight and authority.

Webber wrote fictional characters, but life imitated art in some respects with the foremost advocates for the frontier. Francis Parkman, another ivy-league grad (Harvard) traveled west in the summer of 1842 following his sophomore year. In his journal Parkman showed disdain for most of the actual people he met, especially the livestock farmer, a foreshadowing of sorts of the frayed relationship between coastal elites and flyover country. After passing beyond civilization further into the forest, Smith notes that “[Parkman’s] tone changes completely.” The independent woodsman garners immense respect: “He is a remarkably intelligent fellow . . . resolute and independent as the wind.” Smith writes,

Parkman’s antithetical attitudes towards farmers and the hunters of the wilderness illustrate the fact that . . . two distinct “West’s” existed in the minds of many [advocates of the frontier from the east]. The agricultural west was tedious. Its inhabitants belonged to a despised social class. The Wild West was by contrast an exhilarating region of adventure in the open air. Its heroes . . . were in reality not members of society at all, but noble anarchs owning no master, free denizens of a limitless wilderness.

Advocates for Manifest Destiny could, like the Woke, see civilization in sweeping terms, and they could see the heroic individual. They both have a harder time with groups in between these categories, the basic societal building blocks of villages, farms, towns, etc.

A competing mythos, that of the west as paradisal garden, also informed America’s westward push. This motif had more to say for it, as it usually involved families, but still had its rose-colored glasses. Timothy Flint wrote against attitudes like Parkman’s, and gloried in farm life, writing in 1827:

Thousands of independent and happy yeoman reside [in the west], with their numerous, healthy, and happy families about them, with the ample abundance that fills their granaries, with their young orchards, whose branches must be propped to sustain the weight of their fruit, beside their beautiful rivers and beech woods, in which the squirrels skip, the deer browse, and the sweet red-bird sings, and with the prospect of settling their children on any of the dozens of farms that surround them.

James Lanman echoed such ideas in the 1830’s . . .

If, as has been remarked by distinguished statesman, cities are the sores of the political body where the bad matter of the state concentrates what healthful attitudes of mind and body are afforded by agricultural enterprise. The exhilarating atmosphere of rural life, the invigorating exercise afforded by its various occupations, the pure water, the necessities supplied for daily existence, leading to early and virtuous marriages, all point to this pursuit as best adapted to the comfort of the individual man.

I do not like to agree with the anti Free-soil crowd (often, though not always, secessionists and pro-slavery) on much of anything, but the “Messenger” was on to something in 1856, when it opined that

Farming is hardly a pleasant occupation, and the idea that it is comes from dreamers and poets. The actual, manual operations of farming are irksome and repulsive to the great mass of mankind.

Alas, reality set in for the devotees of the garden myth shortly after the Civil War. Smith writes,

The yawning gap between agrarian theory and post-war reality . . . comes out in the farmer’s crusades of the last 25 years of the 19th century. The western farmer had been told that he was not a peasant but a peer of the realm; that his contribution to society was basic, and all others peripheral or parasitic, in comparison cities were sores on the body politic. . . . He had been told that he was compensated for any austerity in his mode of life by receiving shelter from the temptations of luxury and vice, and against the ups and downs of the market. His outstanding characteristic was his independence of character and condition.

But after the Civil War Republican policy obviously favored the city against the country, the merchant against the farmer. And the western farmer found that instead of being independent, he was at the mercy not only of the Chicago and New York and Liverpool grain pits, but also of the railways and steamships lines that he must rely on to get his crop to market

I have read most of the volumes of Toynbee’s unabridged A Study of History. I think him a great master and I owe him a great debt, but I found the central theme of Volume III, which describes the growth of civilizations after their infancies, so annoying I stopped reading about halfway through some years ago. I have yet to pick it up again. Toynbee rightly reacted against material measures of progress. A civilization surely must be able to advance in more ways that territory and GDP. Toynbee developed a different approach, which meant a good start. But he ended with what he called “etherealization.” The idea seems to run along the lines of

  • A civilization develops an idea or technique that works for them, but that idea/process, has a limited growth potential because it is anchored to its locality
  • The civilization then extracts the core of the idea, removing it from its trappings, thus making it more transferrable across space.
  • This allows for more sharing of ideas, etc. which aids growth. The process is essentially cooperative and other oriented.

He takes, as an example, the alphabet as an etherealization of language, as opposed to ideograms. Alphabets transfer across cultures relatively easily, but China’s writing, among other things, will not allow for this, keeping them isolated.

Toynbee often nods via anecdote and analysis to “the old ways are best.” He wasn’t always consistent in his ideas, but this is not a fault. He usually explored possibilities as opposed to asserting things absolutely. But etherealization shows Toynbee’s weakness for too much generality, too much “Platonism” (but only in the worst sense of that word). Lifting something too far off the ground tends to make it dangerous and destabilizing to society, like a steroid. Supporters of Woke politics, and mid-19th century supporters of Manifest Destiny, have this same problem. What masks itself as “progress” in fact only abstracts what in embodied form might actually be good, though less dramatic, ideas.

American history mashes together so many competing concepts. Sometimes this results in great creative tension. We get into trouble when succumb to the lure of the unbounded everything America has always foolishly promised.

We should note that the Old Testament takes a dim view of cities. Cain builds the first one, from which evil and violence come, and then you have Sodom, the cities built by Hebrew slaves for Pharaoh, Babylon, Ninevah, and the like. But the end of the New Testament shows the final restoration taking place with a garden within a city–even cities get redeemed in God’s providence over history. So, the frontier, the farm, the city–every civilization that actually functions needs all three.

Dave

8th Grade: Elements of the Exodus Debate

Greetings,

Last week we looked at the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenation IV, also known as Ikhneton.  Ikhneton had many distinctive qualities — a most unusual pharaoh.

  • He was a monotheist, a tremendous contrast to the polytheism of his surrounding culture.
  • He likely had only one wife — a significant departure from the usual practice of pharaoh
  • He wrote poetry

The surviving images of Ikhneton are not typical for pharaohs either.  His bust does not exude power, but rather thoughtfulness, depth, and caring.  The image to the right with his family highlights this as well.  Again, as far as I know, for pharaoh’s to depict themselves like this in public was quite unusual.

Where did these beliefs and practices come from?  A few theories exist:

1. He learned them from the Jews, possibly enslaved during his reign.

2. He learned them from stories he heard about the Exodus, which may have happened about 75-100 years before he came to power.

3. Perhaps God appeared to him in a vision.

4. Perhaps he learned it from creation around him.

Did he believe in the true God under a different name?  I wanted to pose the following to the students:

  • Whether or not Ikhneton believed in the true God, he was certainly at least far closer to the truth than his countrymen.  What should he do with this knowledge?  If people don’t believe him, should he use force?  What would the responsibility be of the average Egyptian who agreed with him?  Is Ikhneton responsibility different because of his position of power?
  •  Ikhneton’s project to ‘convert’ his countrymen failed almost entirely.  Why was this?  Can any kind of force ever work in religious matters?  If so, which kind?  What does his failure tell us about the power of tradition.
  • While many historians come down hard on Ikhneteon, we looked at the Book of the Dead to understand exactly what it was that Ikhneton fought against.  Here we see inside Egyptian religion, and are confronted with a maze of charms, spells, and formulas to assure a good afterlife.  I can’t imagine anyone keeping it all straight, and this gave enormous power to the priesthood of their hundreds and hundreds of gods.  Ikhneton did fail, and perhaps went about his project in the wrong way.  But Egypt remained trapped in a religion that gave enormous power to the priesthood.

In this way, Ikhenton’s story can have meaning for our own day.  We too need to consider the strengths and weaknesses that come whenever religion is associated with law.

We also looked at the Exodus.  As Christians we can have confidence that the Exodus was an historical event, but there is not a great deal of evidence within  Egypt itself to support it.  Some modern scholars use this as evidence against the Exodus, but we discussed in class why Egypt might want to “cover-up” such events.

An interesting possibility involves the presence of the Hyksos in Egyptian history.   The word “hyksos” can apparently mean either “foreign invader,” or “foreign dweller.”  Egyptologists propound different theories as to their identity, with some believing them to have been occasional foreign invaders, others foreign immigrants.  A couple of curious details, however, may link the Hyksos to the Exodus:

  • The dates given for the Hyksos presence in Egypt correspond roughly to the time span the Israelites spent in Egypt (ca. 1800-1300 B.C.)
  • Many Hyksos names appear to be semitic in origin
  • Many debate whether or not the Hyksos coexisted peacefully or not with Egyptians.  But if their co-existence was sometimes peaceful, sometimes not, that would fit the Exodus narrative.

I am intrigued by the theory that suggests that the Hyksos may have been the Israelites.  It would fit with the “foreign immigrant” theory, and melds also with the narrative in Exodus 1, which indicates that the as the Israelites grew more numerous they had less favor with some in Egypt.  Thus, when the Egyptians talk about “expelling” them from the land in possibly ca. 1300-1200 B.C. they may have engaged in the ultimate historical spin.  In the official Egyptian narrative then, the Israelites didn’t leave due to plagues, God, etc., but because we forced them to leave!  It was a great moment of national pride!  I should stress, however, that this is only a theory–a lot disagreement exists over who the Hyksos were and when they resided in Egypt.

After ca. 1200 B.C. archaeologists note a transition in how the Egyptians built cities.  Previously, most Egyptian cities had no walls, contrary to Mesopotamian cities of the same time.  After ca. 1200 B.C., most Egyptian cities had walls, marking a transition perhaps to a more unstable, frightening period.  Clearly, the 10 plagues would have devastated and de-stabilized Egypt significantly, and this of course weakened them.  The presence of walls may very well reflect the kind of dramatic decline the plagues would bring.

Still, I stress that this is only a theory.

Whenever we think the Exodus took place, we should realize that the plagues exposed every foundation that Egypt built its society and identity upon.  In class I compared the plagues to waking up and realizing that the life you thought you led wasn’t real, and actually you lived as a nomad in the Sahara with an entirely different family.  The psychological impact must have been devastating, which explains why many Egyptians left with the Israelites.  I also think it explains why many stayed.  With such a radical change required, many might prefer to live in a dream.

Wide disagreement exists within the scholarly community on when the Exodus took place, but there are two main theories:

1. An ‘Early’ Exodus somewhere around 1450 B.C.   1 Kings 6:1 talks of ‘480 years’ between the Exodus and Solomon’s reign,B.C.  And might the Hyksos invasion, which took place around the same time, have been facilitated by the disaster of the plagues?  Could we then see the rally of Egyptian civilization under Ramses II as a kind of Indian summer, a last gasp?

2. A ‘Late’ Exodus somewhere around 1250 B.C., which would be at the time of Ramses II.  Didn’t Ramses build a new city, which would fit with the Israelites task of making mud brick, as described in Exodus?  Might ‘480 years’ be a symbolic number (12 x 40, or the completion of the wandering of the tribes)?  I wanted the students to think through the various possibilities, with the caveat that faithful Christians can easily disagree on this, as the Bible does not speak with absolute clarity.

Still, the images of Ramses II seem to reflect the kind of image conscious, stubborn, and arrogant man Moses must have confronted (much different than Ikhneton’s):

Good evidence exists on both sides of this question.  Here is one interesting piece of ‘internal evidence’  on the historicity of the Exodus from Egypt itself that may recall the plagues and confirm parts of the Exodus narrative, the Ipuwer Papyrus, which has some possible parallels with the Exodus account, though it is important to stress the date of the papyrus is in great doubt, and may in fact precede the Exodus by at least 400 years):

1. The Plague of Blood as mentioned in Exodus 7: 14-25

Ipuwer 2:3 “Pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere.”

Ipuwer 2:9 “The River (Nile) is Blood. Men shrink…and thirst after water.”

2. The Plague on Egyptian Livestock as found in Exodus 9: 1-7

Ipuwer 5:5 “All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan.”

3. The Plague of Hail and Fire as mentioned in Exodus 9: 22-26

Ipuwer 9:23 “The fire ran along the ground. There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail.”

Ipuwer 2:10 “Forsooth (Help Us), gates, columns, and walls are consumed by fire.”

4. The Plague of Locusts as mentioned in Exodus 10: 1-20 (possible allusion)

Ipuwer 6:1: “No fruit nor herbs are found…Oh, that the earth would cease from noise, and tumult (uproar) be no more.”

Ipuwer 4:14: “Trees are destroyed and the branches are stripped off.”

5. The Plague of Darkness as mentioned in Exodus 10: 21-29

Ipuwer 9:11 “The land is without light.”

6. The Plague on Egypt’s Firstborn in Exodus 12

Ipuwer 2:13 “He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere.”

Ipuwer 3:14 “Groaning is throughout the land, mingled with lamentations.”

Ipuwer 4:3 “Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls.”

Ipuwer 6:12 “€œForsooth, the children of the princes are cast out in the streets.”

7. Freeing of the Slaves and their Pillage of Egypt as seen in Exodus 12: 31-36

Ipuwer 1: “The plunderer is everywhere, and the servant takes what he finds.”€

Ipuwer 2: “Indeed, poor men have become wealthy.”

Ipuwer 3: “Gold, silver and jewels are fastened to the necks of female slaves.”€

Ipuwer 5: “Slaves (who have now been freed) are throughout the land.”

Ipuwer 10: “€œThe king’€™s storehouse has now become common property.”

And here is a good discussion of the evidence for and against various dates for the  Exodus, if you are interested.

Blesssings,

Dave

“The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”

The Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon pointed out with some ridicule that in the Arian controversy, Christianity got into a kerfuffle over the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet — the iota.  At the Council of Nicea Arians wanted the word “homoiousios,” meaning “similar substance” inserted into the creed concerning the nature of Christ.  They were comfortable thinking of Jesus in divine terms, but not as an equal to the Father in His essence.  Led by Athanasius, the orthodox contingent objected, insisting on the word “homoousious,” meaning “same substance.”

For Gibbon and other Enlightenment oriented thinkers, this all seemed too much.  Such minutiae, such trifling, would upset things so unnecessarily.  Given that Gibbon liked nothing better than a well-oiled worldly machine, he saw the controversy as so many wrenches in the works.  Of course Gibbon missed the point entirely.  The difference between viewing Christ as fully God as opposed to merely “God-like” changes one’s conception of the entire universe, creation, and history itself.  When it comes to our theological understanding, what we worship will have dramatic consequences.

I’ve always believed that understanding religious belief formed the key to understanding any event in history, be it great or small.  Often this is more easily seen in the ancient world, where religion showed on the sleeves much more so than today. But men are men, and as a man thinks, so he is (Prov. 23:7).   Mark Noll  points out the religious roots and the religious mistakes of both North and South in his excellent The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.  Noll’s analysis gets to the heart of the real differences between North and South, and shows how these religious differences formed the roots of the political disagreements that led to war.  Both sides professed belief in the authority of the Bible, and both sides reached different conclusions.  That’s obvious to anyone, but Noll’s approach shows these different interpretations came from the same source American/Enlightenment source, and that makes this brief work a real treasure.

By 1850 America experienced a deep political crisis, but astute observers of the day saw that the roots went deeper. A Protestant ethos merged nicely with Democratic principles in America quite easily.  The individual should be able to read, reason, and think for himself.  Both Protestantism and Democratic government rest on the idea that truth always has a “plain” and obvious character.  It could be argued that an agreed upon “atmosphere” of sorts existed between Protestant denominations despite their differences (Noll takes this for granted and does not argue the point).  But in 1844 both Methodist and Baptist churches (the largest in the U.S. at that time) experienced deep schisms.  A broken Church will lead to a broken nation, and leaders from the North and South predicted this. Henry Clay opined that, “this sundering of religious ties . . . I consider the greatest source of danger to our country. In 1850 John Calhoun of South Carolina warned that if the great Protestant denominations finally broke, “nothing would be left to hold the States together except force.”*  Noll writes,

If we keep in mind that it was never only a matter of interpreting individual biblical texts, but always a question of putting actively to use the authoritative Book on which the national culture of the United States had been built, then we are in a position to understand why in 1860 battles over the Bible were so important, why divergent views of providence cut so deeply, and . . . why the Civil War illuminated much about the general character of religion in America.

First, the South.

Southern arguments in defense of slavery had the advantage of simplicity and (the apparent) strict fidelity to the Biblical text.  They pointed out that . . .

  • God allowed Israel to have slavery
  • Abraham and other luminaries owned slaves
  • Jesus never condemned the institution of slavery
  • Nowhere in the epistles is slavery ever condemned.  In fact, slaves are repeatedly told to obey their masters.  Paul, after finding Onesimus, an escaped slave, has him return to Philemon.

Thus, to argue (as abolitionists often did) that anyone who practiced slavery could have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity flies in the face of the entire and obvious biblical teaching on slavery.  The case was open and shut.

Northern arguments also strove for stark clarity and simplicity.

The most common arguments usually had the following characteristics:

  • Slavery had inextricable links to tyranny and moral abuses that the ethic of the Gospel strenuously opposed
  • Slavery contradicted principles of justice, love, and mercy found throughout the Bible
  • Slavery went against the general spirit of the “brotherhood of mankind” propounded by certain texts, like Galatians 3:28.

In other words, anti-slavery arguments inevitably used first principles but tended to avoid textual rigor and so failed to deal head-on with what pro-slavery advocates said.  Furthermore, many anti-slavery arguments wedded themselves to “natural reason,” “self-evident truths,” and “republican practices” and at times relied on these ideas more than Scripture itself.  Thus, as Noll comments, “The primary reason the biblical defense of slavery remained so strong was that biblical attacks on slavery were so weak.”  Again, Noll doesn’t dispute that slavery was wrong.  His point is one rarely made, that Northern arguments against slavery had some of the same flaws as pro-slavery arguments.  Thus, the two ships were likely to pass in the night.

Much better arguments against American slavery existed from some Protestants, and interestingly, some Catholics as well. Such arguments pointed out that . . .

  • Using Israel as an example for American slavery made the mistake of conflating Israel with America, a mistake Americans had been making for generations.
  • If the South could used ancient Israel for support, they should be informed by their practices.  For one, slaves had rights in Israel, and they did not in the South.  For another, Mosaic law prescribed years of Jubilee every 7th year and again at the 50th year in which all slaves were freed and all debts canceled.  The South never practiced this.  And again, slavery in Israel was not racial, perpetual, or hereditary. The South condemned themselves by asking to be judged by the law.
  • Certain biblical principles of justice, mercy, and love certainly applied to arguments against slavery.  But these more careful Protestant and Catholic voices applied them differently than most abolitionists.  For starters, they kept such principles clear of democratic ideology — on which Scripture remains silent at least directly (and pro-slavery arguments pointed this out).  The goal for the Christian, according to these arguments, was not so much to live in light of specific texts, but in light of the flow of history itself.  If God’s Kingdom is not just coming but is already here in Christ, we have to live in light of the “now” reality of God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom we will not/do not enslave one another.  Evidence exists for this not just in Scripture, but in the early history of the Church.  Christians worked to liberate slaves and medieval civilization stood as the first major civilization in history to essentially eliminate slavery.  It got reintroduced only in the Renaissance, when pagan, Roman concepts of property and ownership tragically got transported back into Europe’s bloodstream.
  • The Roman example of slavery also condemned southerners, at least to an extent.   For one, Roman slavery lacked the racial character of Southern slavery.  In one of the best chapters in the book, Noll pulls from numerous sources that show that the real problem for the South was not slavery but race.

So whatever one might say about slavery in a general vacuum, no good arguments existed for slavery as practiced by the ante-bellum South.

Unfortunately such arguments never made it into the mainstream of American cultural life.  As to why, we might assume something along the lines of a “short attention span,” but this fits modern times more readily.  In fact, audiences flocked to hear discourses and debates of all kinds in the mid 19th century. Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 spoke for many hours at a time to packed audiences.  One debate on slavery lasted for multiple hours over multiple days to an audience of several hundred.  Rather, the reason lies in the common roots shared by mainstream arguments about slavery on both sides.

The mainstream arguments for and against slavery before the Civil War had the following characteristics:

  • They involve no more than a 1-2 step reasoning process
  • They insist on the “plain” character of truth.  Neither side could be described as anti-intellectual, but arguers for both sides seemed to show an exasperation with the need to develop arguments at all.  The truth was so obvious!
  • Anti-slavery arguments relied on “simple” principle, pro-slavery arguments on isolated small texts.  Both arguments only functioned along one track, one line of thought.

Whichever side won the argument (i.e., the war), the future for having the Church influence culture looked bleak.  The Enlightenment had done its dirty work.

Subconsciously perhaps, we reject oversimplifications because reality and our experience have more complexity and mystery than the Enlightenment can fathom.  Rejecting this truth condemned us to search aimlessly for generations hence to fill the void with politics, “The American Dream,” sex, and the like.**  Obviously western theologians could and did make nuanced and complex arguments, but western culture as a whole failed to notice or heed them.

As a buttress to his observations about slavery arguments, Noll includes a section on the idea of God’s providence as debated before and after the war.  True to form, both sides found obvious answers to the results of the conflict.  For the Southerners, even their defeat showed the rightness of their cause, for “God disciplines those He loves” — i.e. — “We are experiencing discipline, showing God’s love for us, showing the rightness of our cause.  For it is often true that the godly rarely prosper in this world.”  For the North, their arguments had a simpler character, though no doubt the South would have made them had they won the war.  “We won.  God was and is on our side.   Therefore we were/are right.”  Lincoln understood better, and pushed back on this simple approach.  We may always know that God has events in His hand, he agreed, but the particular application of His providence often remains a mystery to us.  Not even someone of Lincoln’s stature could get others to embrace this more nuanced view.

Noll’s work has great value for his illumination of the state of religion in 19th century America.  What makes it even more intriguing is how he reveals what may be the central problem of American political and educational life.  Our problem really resides not in short attention spans, not in one political party or the other, not the sexual revolution, or other such movement. Rather, Americans need to grapple with how our democratic ideology meshes with the nature of truth itself.

Dave

*Noll includes some interesting statistics showing the decline of religion and growth of government.  This should not surprise us, as Calhoun (not someone I’d like to agree with very often) foretold.

  • In 1860 about 4.7 million people voted in the presidential election, but in that same year between 3-4 times that many regularly attended church  on Sundays.  In 2004, about 115 million went to the polls, which equaled the number of regular church attendees in 1860 (Noll should take into account, however, the fact that women and many minorities did not vote in 1860).
  • In 1860 the number of Methodist clergy alone equaled the number of postal workers.  Today the ratio of postal workers to Methodist clergy approximates 9-1.
  • Before mobilization in 1860 the number of active duty military was about 1/2 the number of clergy in the country.  In the early 21st century, before mobilization for the war in Iraq, the ratio of military to clergy was about 3-1.
  • In 1860 the total income of the churches and religious organizations nearly equaled the federal budget.  Today the ratio of federal income to annual religion-related giving is about 25-1.
  • In 1860 about 400 institutions of higher-learning existed, with nearly all of them run by religious groups.
  • In 1860 there were 35 churches for each bank.  Today there are four churches for each bank.

**In an interesting digression, Noll points out that warfare and dramatic social change have often produced great works of lasting theological depth.  One thinks immediately of Augustine’s The City of God, but numerous other examples exist (St. Bernard during the Crusades, and St. Francis experienced a dramatic shift after fighting in a small war.  In the modern era, Bonhoeffer comes most clearly to mind).  By that model, the Civil War should have, but failed, to produce any significant theological insight, and this reveals a thin theology throughout North and South at that time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the great storytellers of the 20th century, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy — all came from liturgical and historical traditions.  Lewis and Tolkien both fought in W.W. I, and O’Connor and Percy both suffered from lifelong illnesses.