Death in the Days of Louis the Fat

Consider some of what follows a thought experiment rather than a settled conclusion . . .

For some time now I have contemplated Charles Taylor’s idea that a significant impetus in creating the modern world is that we homogenize space and time.  This belief/practice has shaped us for at least 350 years, and it has led us to try and combine many different elements of nature and the subsequent explosion of technological invention.  Many of these creations have greatly improved human life, at least in the physical sense.  But of course, it has also brought about the destruction of any corporate sense of meaning, and an immense decline in the idea of sanctity.

To homogenize something makes it ubiquitous.  Recently Marginal Revolution linked to an article about how technology has made music unimportant in our culture, largely through its constant availability.  The author’s conclusion in the linked article is not original, as many have declared something similar, but it serves as another reminder of the cost of the homogenization of space and time.

By contrast, the medieval world presents itself as one of the careful delineation of all things.  We need not say here whether their world or ours is better or worse to appreciate the difference.  Reading primary sources from a particular era gives one such an appreciation, and Abbot Suger’s crackling style makes The Deeds of Louis the Fat an enjoyable read.*  He centers his writing on how Louis enhanced the power of the monarchy by bringing several dastardly nobles back in line.  His people loved him, if for no other reason that he kept the peace and stood up for those oppressed.  Suger clearly admires his subject, though he recognizes that the good king had his moniker for a reason, writing that,

By now his body was quite heavy, weighed down as it was by burdensome flesh; no one else, not even a beggar, would have wanted to–or even been able–to ride a horse when hampered by such a dangerously large body.

And later . . .

Thus [Louis] spoke, and–despite his corpulence– he set off with astonishing enthusiasm.

I confess to reading the text with an eye to what would most engage the boys in my 9th/10th grade Medieval History class, and that meant primarily looking for stories of gruesome deaths.**  Suger delivers the goods!  For example:

There can be no doubt that the hand of God exacted this swift vengeance upon William of Laroche Guyon [who had murdered a husband and wife in cold blood to gain possession of their castle].  His accomplices were thrown out of the windows dead or alive, bristling with innumerable arrows like hedgehogs. They waved about in the air on the points of the lances, as if the very earth had rejected them. For the unparalleled deed of William they discovered a rare vengeance; for he who in life had been heartless had his heart cut out of his dead body. When they had taken it from his entrails, all swollen with fraud and iniquity, they put it on a stake and set it up for many days in a fixed place to demonstrate the punishment for crime.  

His body and those of some of his companions, were placed on hurdles tied with cords and ropes, and sent sailing down the Seine so that, if nothing stopped them floating down to Rouen, the Normans should see the punishment incurred by his crime, and also so that those who had briefly fouled France with their stink should in death continue to foul Normandy, their native soil.

Suger later discusses the murder of  Charles the Good, killed while praying prostrate in church along with his cohorts.  He spares no details and seems to relish them. First, the execution of the plotters:

Now [the criminals] despaired of life, and their lyre was turned to mourning and their organ into the voice of them that weep (Job XXX, 31); the most wicked Bourchard left with the agreement of his companions, hoping to flee the land but found himself unable to do so, though only his own iniquity prevented him. On his return to the castle of one of his intimate friends he was seized by the king’s command and suffered exquisite torture in death. Tied to the upper part of a high wheel, exposed naked to the rapacity of crows and other birds of prey, his eyes torn out and his whole face lacerated, pierced by a thousand blows from arrows, lances and spears, he perished miserably and his body was thrown into a sewer.  

Bertold, the brains behind the plot, also decided to flee; but when he found he was able to wander around without restriction, he returned through sheer pride; for he asked himself, ‘Who am I and what have I done?’ So he was captured by his own men, handed over to the king’s judgement and condemned to a well-merited and wretched death. They hanged him from a gibbet with a dog and as the dog was struck it took its anger out on Bertold, chewed his whole face and, horrible to relate, covered him with excrement; so, more miserable than the most miserable of men, he ended his wretched life in perpetual death.  

The men the king had besieged in the tower were forced by many hardships to surrender. In front of their relations Louis had them thrown our one by one from the top of the tower to crush their skulls. One of them called Isaac had been tonsured in a monastery to avoid death; Louis ordered him to be defrocked and hanged on a gibbet. Thus victorious at Bruges, the king rapidly led his army to Ypres, an excellent castle, to take vengeance on William the Bastard, who had fomented the treason. He sent messengers to the people of Bruges and brought them around to his side by threats and flattery. Then as William barred his way with three hundred knights, half the royal army rushed against him and the other half went off at an angle and boldly occupied the castle by way of its other gate. The king kept it, William lost all claim to Flanders, and was banished. Because he had aspired to gain Flanders through treachery, it was right that he should gain nothing whatever in Flanders.  

Suger closes this narrative commenting that,

Flanders was washed clean and almost re-baptized by these various forms of revenge and the great outpouring of blood. So having installed William the Norman as count, the king returned to France, victorious by God’s help.  

At first glance the means of their death, and Suger’s possible delight in such details, surely strikes us as barbaric and unChristian.  We tell ourselves that we have come much farther since those “dark days.”  But I want to suggest–or at least explore–the possibility, that Suger and the medievals may have been on to something.

I tread lightly, for I am aware that this may be one of the craziest of my crazy ideas.

To begin, we can reflect on John Wilkes Booth.  He killed Lincoln, and no one denied that he should face the death penalty.  Everyone wanted him captured alive . . . so that he could be tried and then executed.  He died while pursued by troops either by his own hand or that of a trigger-happy soldier, and people were upset.  But why bother?  Dead is dead, right?  He saved us the expense of a trial. Why all the fuss?  But, everyone recognized at the time that while his death was important, the manner of his death was also important.  To be tried and publicly executed would have a different meaning than if he took his own life, a collective, and cathartic, justice, vs. the “triumphant” and defiant individual.

If we accept this reasoning we begin to see that not every death is alike.  Different kinds of death carry with them different meanings.

If different kinds of death carry with them different meanings, then we may feel inclined to accept that our bodies have meaning, and bodily actions have certain meanings.  Some of this is obvious–certain facial expressions and gestures have a universal meaning across cultures, time, and space.  Other implications follow.  If the body has meaning then gender has an inherent meaning, and so on.  We simply cannot invent ourselves from thin air.

So far, so good, but from here it gets trickier.  Before considering the manner of their deaths we should consider the crimes committed.

  • The crimes were done in cold blood, against defenseless victims.  One of the victims was killed in church alone while praying.  The other was ambushed in his castle after he welcomed them inside, and then his wife was also brutally stabbed to death as threw herself on the body of her dying husband.
  • The crimes had many witnesses to them and no doubt existed as to their guilt.
  • Those that murdered the lord in his castle did so with the express purpose of rebelling against the king.  Those that murdered Charles the Good seemed intent on seizing his land and title.
  • Aside from the cold-blooded nature of the murders, the crimes violated a) the sacrosanct nature of the Church as a safe place of devotion to God, and b) the direct violation of hospitality.

Would an ordinary punishment suffice, that is, an ordinary death sentence, a simple, dignified, beheading?

I have not seen the movie Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won a Best Actor Oscar.  I did hear an interview with Washington, however, in which he discussed how he agreed to the movie only if they changed the script.  He felt that the original ending left the possibility that his character survived, which meant the possibility of a sequel.  Instead, he said that, (my memory is close but not exact) “My character lived like a dog, so he should die like a dog.  Anything else would not be right, or fair to the story.”

Again, we see the manner of death as having significance to the story.  Perhaps the same could be true of the events Suger relates.  We cannot see the meaning of their actions without seeing the consequences those actions have.  The public nature of the punishments inflicted rub us wrongly as well.  But we must also wonder whether or not we have swung too far in the direction of privacy in last century or so.  We no longer vote in public, we no longer need to speak in public (we can comment anonymously on line).  Perhaps this has contributed to the cultural divide and polarization we now face.

Our modern homogenization of life and death has not made unjust deaths any less frequent.  If anything, one might suggest that, at certain times at least, it has positively increased it.  The beginning of this phenomena may have been the French Revolution, where the guillotine treated all alike.  But this industrialization of death led to its mass production, and numbed much of France for years.  The class and racial identity politics of Hitler and Lenin led to further industrialized butchery.  Equality in death led to piles of statistics, an undecipherable mass.  The vast majority of these deaths were hidden far from the people at large.

I truncated the above accounts from Suger, but even still, it seems that the deaths inflicted give the stories a “satisfying” ending (the effect increases by reading the whole story). We can call this a latent string of barbarism in our psyche or . . . it may be that the medievals acted rightly, provided of course that such punishments truly fit the crimes and that no one could dispute their guilt.  Suger, an Abbott and scholar,  has no doubt of this, for he mentions specifically that the violent end of the malefactors “washed clean” Flanders, for example.

Perhaps our executions should be more public. Perhaps this could be a means for us to process important truths of life and death. I hesitate to say that the method of execution should vary depending on the crime, for in the accounts above things seemed to happen at least in part “in the heat of the moment.”  To inflict such punishments in cold blood presents a host of problems.  But I feel a certain amount of tension.  If we treat every death alike, the body may lose its inherent meaning, and then death will lose its meaning. If death loses its meaning, so too will life.  All we will have left, then, will be a monotonous march to oblivion.

*The Carolingians win for having the best names for their kings, i.e., Pepin the Short, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Louis the Pious, Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple (i.e, Charles the Stupid), and of course, Louis the Fat.

**I know of no better way to get 15 year old boys interested in learning about feudal hierarchy and symbolism, a classic bait and switch. The girls, who are usually far more agreeable but often far less interested in the gory details, “must endure their going hence.”

11th/12th Grade: The Left-Handed 1920’s

This week we wrapped up the Versailles treaty and introduced the “Roaring 20’s” in America, a time when the mood of the country shifted significantly away from the values of the Progressive Era, and what it meant to be an individual in America took on new meaning.  We discussed a few different things:
1. The Automobile
We take cars so much for granted these days we might forget about how they changed so much of ordinary  life when originally mass produced.  How did cars change things?
  • They made us more personally independent and mobile in general, although in time this became especially true for youth.  Cars became the equivalent of what making a name for yourself in the western frontier might have meant for generation in the 19th century.  Americans love cars, and not just for convenience sake, but because cars still feed our sense of identity and independence.
  • The car freed people from geographical limitations.  But this “freedom wasn’t free.”  The increase of our geographical mobility lessened ties to our local communities and families.  In an age less overtly Christian than previous ages, people would find their concept of community increasingly in the nation itself.
2. Prohibition
Prohibition failed in nearly every respect and must rank as one of our worst legal experiments.  It’s genesis had to do with a weird conflagration of unusual interests.  For example, the KKK backed prohibition as part of their overall anti-immigrant anti-Jewish agenda, but many women’s groups did as well.  The political power of women’s movements grew in the years prior to Prohibition, which culminated in the 20th Amendment giving them the right to vote.   In any case, Prohibition’s failure led to some good questions for us to discuss.
Why did it fail so badly?
Prohibition served as the last gasp of the Progressive Era, a time of energetic communal action to make things “better.”  But one can wind things so tight for only so long.  The war had exhausted much of that energy, and Warren G. Harding propelled himself to a landslide victory in 1920 based on his made up phrase, “A return to normalcy.”  And yet we picked just this time to forbid people from doing something they had always done, a juxtoposition made all the more awkward by the increased independence given by the car and the nation’s newfound status as a global economic power.
Here are a few indications of that failure, the first being crime rate:
Prohibition Era Crime Rate
 People were certainly not drinking less during Prohibition. . .
What comparisons can be made with the Drug Wars of Today?
Many have compared our current failures in the “War on Drugs” to our failure during Prohibition.  Is such a comparison justified?
Prohibition and Crime Rates
Despite some important similarities, alcohol has been used and abused in every age.  It has formed the fabric of many religious rites and celebrations across time and space.  Narcotics simply do not have the roots in human experience that alcohol does.
Another difference is that, while the vast majority use alcohol appropriately, narcotics destroy the lives of most all who use them.
This does not mean, however, that practical realities may not force our hand in some respect.  Some in the class advocated strongly for much less tougher laws on even the strongest narcotics.
3. The Culture that Was the 1920’s
“Ragtime” reflected and helped fuel the image and feel of the 1920’s.  Here is Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”
We can see how the tempo and bounciness of the song reflects the spirit of the times.  But the innovation of “Stride Piano” in the later 20’s only fueled this sense of ‘movement.’  Here is James Johnson’s famous “Carolina Shout.”  Note the active and “bouncy” left hand in the bass clef, and how he plays around with standard meter.  The herky-jerky unpredictability of the song can be seen in sections like .49-1:12.  In the topsy-turvy world of prohibition, cars, women voting, and so on, here was music to fit its time.
To see a modern stride pianist where you can visually get a sense of the movement in the left hand, see the video below (fast forward to the 2:00 mark if you get impatient:)
Most of the time the right hand leads the way in piano music, but here the left steals the show, which again makes things seem upside down.   Music and society connect once more.
Hope you enjoy the music,
Dave Mathwin

9th/10th Grade: Planetary Influences


Last week when we looked at medieval society we saw that the basic “flow” of their civilization ran towards security and stability over opportunity and change.  This week we looked at the historical context of this choice, and what other areas of belief may have influenced those choices.

Many of us may believe that we have freedom to make of our lives what we will, that we paint upon a blank canvas.  In reality, where we live, when we live, and what happens around us influence us a great deal, sometimes subconsciously.  So too, we must evaluate the choices made by the medievals in light of the context from which they emerged.

In the centuries after the fall of Rome, change and uncertainty formed the dominant theme, as the map below indicates.

Barbarian Invasions

No one can live like this for long.  Wen respite came after the conversion of many of these tribes, it made sense that one would want to create a society where one knew their place for themselves and their children.  We see this love of “knowing one’s place” in their cosmology.  A few different ideas dominated their view of the cosmos.


In space up and and down is all relative, but we need to find an orientation to make sense of our surroundings.  When we look at the sky moderns today would say we look “across” the universe (like the famous Beatles song) at other stars, planets, etc.  All of the pictures I remember of the Solar System had the planets in a horizontal line, like this one:

For the medievals one looked “up” at the stars from a fixed position on Earth.  Everything you saw stood higher than you, and naturally height conveyed superiority.  The Earth occupied a pride of place, in the sense that other planets revolved around it, but what many overlook is that it also occupied the bottom rung of the ladder, a combination of dignity and humility.

Spheres of Influence

Each planet, or section of the universe, had its own sphere of influence, it’s own “part to play.”  If you play second chair oboe, you keep your eyes off the music of first chair trumpet.  Here is a rough outline of how they saw things:

This concept of “spheres of influence” may have seeped into medieval feudalism, where each noble had their own territory, or “sphere” where they had a large amount of power and discretion.  Thus feudal Europe knew little of the problem of political centralization (though they had other problems).  I should note that the above picture shows Earth much larger than they believed it to be in reality.  Everyone followed Ptolemy’s Almagest which stated that,

The Earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point.

As my colleague Mr. Rogers pointed out, they represented the Earth thematically in relation to the rest of the cosmos, for here is where the drama of salvation takes place.


It is precisely this division and separation that created the overall harmony.  Space for medievals brimmed with energy and life, in contrast to the modern view of a great cold void.  Sound comes from motion, and it seems that they literally believed in the “music of the spheres,” a grand cosmic symphony created by planetary motion.

Everyone knew their place in the cosmos, and knew that place to have significance.

One can exaggerate the importance of these ideas on everyday life.  The path of Saturn would not change the fact that you have pick up your kids at soccer practice.  But deep down, surely our view of a vast, linear, and empty universe impacts us.  Some of us might echo the French philosopher/mathematician Pascal, who wrote that, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.”

As a brief aside, we note that for the medievals, education involved not just the “trivium” — the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of a subject — but also the “quadrivium,” consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.  To see music grouped with these three will strike us as odd.  But for the medievals the only way to understand math was to understand music, and so too, astronomy could not be properly understood without knowing music.  Music then, served not just to entertain but to teach us about the reality of the universe itself.

Whether they consciously linked their cosmology and their daily life or not, we can see a direct connection between their view of society, though can’t tell if the chicken preceded the egg.  Like all societies they had their own system, their own strengths and weaknesses.  Whatever its faults, in feudal Europe you knew your duties and what was expected of you, as this text from ca. AD 1200 shows. . .

I, Thiebault, count palatine of Troyes, make known to those present and to come that I have given in fee to Jocelyn of Avalon and his heirs the manor Gillencourt, which is of the castle La Ferte sur Aube; and whatever this same Jocelyn shall be able to acquire in the same manor I have granted to him and his heirs in augmentation of that fief I have granted, moreover, to him that no free manor of mine will I retain men who are of this gift.  The same Jocelyn, moreover, on account of this, has become my liege man, saving however, his allegiance to Gerard d’ Arcy, and to the lord duke of Burgundy, and to Peterm count of Auxerre.  Done at Chouadude, by my own witness, in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1200 in the month of January.

Yes, it could be complicated (but less so that the software contracts we “agree” to).  Basically the king ruled at the behest of the nobility, but the nobles owed the king military service.  Peasants farmed the land of the lord, but the lord owed them protection and patronage, and so on.  The whole of society was a dance of mutual obligation.  But just as the Earth could not switch places with Jupiter, so too your station is your station, whatever betide (for the most part).

Next week we will look at those outside the basic feudal structure, the craftsmen and merchants.  Until then,


A Prohibiting Question

If it did nothing else, Mark Bergen’s Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube’s Chaotic Rise to World Domination gave me a great deal of sympathy for those that tried to run this unusual company. Everyone in the early years of the web believed that the power the internet granted for anyone to say anything would work overwhelmingly for good. Much of YouTube’s history can get boiled down to dealing with the continual disproval of this hope. For every click on a silly, weird, enlightening or endearing video, another of icky sexual, violent, racist content, would crop up somewhere else. Keeping up with problematic videos quickly proved impossible. Deciding what should stay and what should go sometimes came down to blunt metrics, other times to personal judgments by a few harried staff. Neither approach could solve the problem–the problem has no solution. The internet disrupts everything. To quote Yeats, with the internet the center no longer holds. When that happens, movement away from the center takes one up, down, and every which way possible–certainly not always up! And yet, despite its missteps and issues, no one can conceive of YouTube somehow failing. Very quickly it became part of the American experience.

Many have attempted to define the essence of America. My personal stab involves the concept of “movement.” I suppose that means that I basically agree with Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis. From the moment Europeans arrived on the continent, they began expanding their reach at a rapid pace. After the French-Indian War, England made a treaty with France that guaranteed English settlers everything east of the Appalachians. Not good enough. The Americans wanted more, and almost immediately violated the treaty terms, which resulted in Pontiac’s War of 1764. The English surely felt angry and confused. We had perhaps 10x as much land as England, and somehow this was not enough? Can’t we settle down for five minutes?

Of course we rapidly set ourselves on.a course of acquiring more land, by fair means or foul. We can understand this phenomena in part through our associations of land with liberty, which comes partly through John Locke, and partly through various other streams. But more deeply, our national predilection for movement comes naturally vis a vis our geographical symbolism. Sure, the world is round, but for Europeans at least America represented the end of the world, the edge of the world. Naturally we lived into this mental model. On the edge, things get blurry and more fluid in a literal sense (rivers or bodies of water often form boundaries of different places), and culturally and spiritually as well. America has always existed on that fluid margin.

It should not surprise us, therefore, that America has created technologies that compress time and eroded space, such as the telegraph (which admittedly had various people in different places working simultaneously with Samuel Morse), the car, the airplane, the internet, and so on. All of these technologies have had the overall impact of adding fluidity and movement to our world.

Prohibition has always perplexed me. Ken Burns’ documentary series succeeded admirably in looking at the small details of how the movement came about and collapsed. But whatever explanations we offer, from a distance Prohibition must strike us as historically bizarre. Alcohol has played a significant role* in every civilization ever that I am aware of, and we somehow believed that we could and should turn off that spigot.

Initially at least, it should also strike us as strange that an era that that moved so fluidly and loosely in a progressive direction, with

  • The beginning of cars going mainstream
  • Women getting the right to vote
  • Women starting to look and act more like men (hair and clothing styles changed)
  • General economic growth and prosperity
  • The advent of radio

should on a dime attempt a very ambitious “tighten” in an area more or less destined to fail. What follows is my attempt to understand this seeming paradox.

We tend to believe that

  • Liberals like to ‘liberalize’ and keep things moving in a fluid direction, and
  • Conservatives like to tighten things and prevent change.

So, the political left favors “time,” and the right “space.”

But in reality, both sides have their aspects of their opposite. Progressives tend towards fluidity and the consequent “mixing” of gender identities, sexual identities, and the like. They disdain borders in culture and politics, preferring a global outlook. But they want much more stability on questions of speech, they seek to protect and create “safe spaces” for those they believe disadvantaged. They also prefer equality, which wants everyone together in one place, and want the market contained to prevent inequalities.

For their part, conservatives want to contain traditional ideas of family, sexuality, and the like. They value the defined space of country and flag. But they also want the market flowing freely. And–they value liberty over equality, which separates people and allows for distinctions in accolades, money, and the like.

One could see this as a kind of schizophrenia for both sides, a manner of confusion that could exist on the geo-spatial margin. I think that explains American politics partially. No question–America is weird, and likely always will be. Our political disagreements then, involve not “Tight v. Loose” but where to tighten, and where to loosen.

Though American politics is weird, I also think that fundamentally each person–and each civilization–must create some kind of balance between stability and change, because it forms the pattern of existence. Life requires it. Too much fluidity and mixing brings the flood and chaos–we perish from drowning. Too much rigidity puts us in the petrified forest, where we perish from dehydration. So we need to craft if not an actual balance between these two aspects, at least some kind of working relationship. One of our problems in the modern era is that traditional societies had this relationship worked out in theory, but mostly in practice. You see this in times in liturgical calendars for fasting, feasting, carnivals, and so on. Today, we subconsciously understand the need for stability and fluidity but have no clear idea of how to have both properly, and no guides in our culture to inform us. So, we flail about blindly instead.

I think something similar happened with Prohibition. For the above mentioned reasons, American society in 1920 felt itself on the edge of a precipice of sorts, ready to engage in a great deal of fluid movement socially, culturally, and economically. I fit most aspects of a conservative and so favor stability, but I do not subscribe to Fluidity=Bad, Stability=Good. Obviously both are good or bad depending on context. So, I do not mean to say here that the changes in the 1920’s were bad per se, but that their scale contributed to our need to tighten somewhere else. The dramatic and foolish nature of the tightening that occurred over Prohibition, I propose, was a subconscious reaction to a dramatic acceleration of fluidity. So perhaps either

  • Because we lacked a coherent means of knowing how and where to tighten a particular area of society, we landed on alcohol more or less randomly, or
  • The unprecedented loosening would require an unprecedented tightening, with alcohol then as the somewhat natural choice.

I find the latter more persuasive, though either one helps us answer the mystery of Prohibition.


*I understand the argument that a) Americans drank more than other civilizations had at any time previously, and b) Drank maybe too much harder stuff than wine, mead, beer, etc. Perhaps Prohibition might have had a better chance of success if they had focused on liquors instead of everything, but I doubt it.

Gods of the Sideways World

This post was originally published some years ago.  You will note the dated references . . .


Many across the political spectrum seem to feel that things in the U.S. have gone crazy, or upside-down.  Those on the left marshall Triump’s presidency, Charlottesville, and the Kavannaugh hearings, to prove their point, while those on the right do so with transgenderism, campus snowflakes, and . . . their own perspective on the Kavanaugh hearings.*

It appears that we can look at the same thing and not see the same thing.

Different theories exist to explain our predicament.  Some trace the beginnings of it all to Bush’s controversial foreign wars, others to the rise of the internet, or the Clinton presidency, or to the end of the Cold War.  Peter Thiel postulated that our cycles of cultural leaders skipped Generation X and went from the boomers–who artifically held on too long to power–straight to the millennials.**  Thus, lacking “Generation X” to mediate the generation gap, we jerk awkwardly to and fro like a record skipping across a turntable.

We can give all these theories their due.  But I wonder if we may be witnessing something more fundamental.  Without knowing it, akin to frogs in the pot, we are experiencing the final stages of the life in a vertical world, which existed in every ancient civilization up until the 17th century, and seem ready to fully embrace the victory of the sideways world, which has been gaining ground steadily since that time.

One can say anything in blogs . . . but, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

Mattheiu Pageau’s (brother of the more famous Jonathan PageauThe Language of Creation has all the appearance of quackery.  The book has no reviews or endorsements on the back cover.  The book has no footnotes, or even a bibliography, despite the obvious fact that he draws heavily on early Christian and Jewish sources.  This sends shivers down my spine and I can think of no defense for it.  While some parts of the book desperately needed footnotes to have a shot at convincing me, the opening several chapters made complete sense, and the book in a general way hits its target by helping one to reimagine the world.  Once embarked with The Language of Creation, it is probably best to turn to St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Maximos the Confessor for surer guides.

The key to Pageau’s thoughts, and indeed to much of the ancient and medieval world, lies in how we conceive of our experience of space.

Everyone who has read Ender’s Game realizes that space has no up or down, at least in a scientific or absolute sense.  But we must order our sense of space to exist in it, and that involves choices on our part, choices that upon closer examination are not arbitrary.  And since we must choose, we should be struck by the fact that everyone (in the west at least) up until the present day concieved of the cosmos as heirarchical, as up and down.^

And it may be no coincidence that our current depiction of the solar system conceives it as existing horizontally, and not heirarchically.

This choice of how we depict the cosmos was certainly intentional in older civilizations, and we can fairly assume that it remains intentional today.

There is a difference.  The order and shape we give to the space around creates a framework for meaning.

The up/down nature of reality helps us understand creation and our experience of the world in many different ways:


  • We first note in Genesis 1 that God resides “above the waters,” above that is, undifferentiated, unformed chaos.  The immensity of God cannot be contained, thus He must mediate our experience of Himself for us to know Him at all.
  • Creation happens through speech, and not coincidentally.  Speech gives form to thoughts and ideas, it gives them a public reality.
  • Creation happens via continual separation and differentiation.  God ‘draws out’ reality from above.
  • The purpose of creation is for God to unite Heaven and Earth.

Plant Life

  • Plants grow from seeds.  The seed falls from above, containing the “idea” of the plant, the entirety of the plant’s particulars.
  • Seeds bury themselves in the earth, which produces the manifestation, the “incarnation” of the idea in more variety.


  • The upright nature of man is also no coincidence.  It separates us from other creatures (while at the same time, giving us no evolutionary advantage per se.  Many robotics designers have pointed out how inefficient the design of the human body is).  But it also corresponds to heirarchy–the intellect is above and governs the body below. Our thoughts move as the thoughts of angels, thus the “heavenly” nature of our intellect. Our “earthy” parts are lower and more chaotic.  Our appetites need structure.  Our “heart,” which lies between our heads and our bellies, serves as the mediator and point of unity between the two, between “heaven” and “earth.”  The structure of our bodies, then, gives us a clue as to the meaning of space.
  • Man himself serves as the mediator of creation, a priesthood meant to image God to all of creation.  As a hybrid creature of Earth and Heaven, we stand between both worlds.


  • Language itself serves as a kind of union of heaven and earth.  We have “”heavenly” thoughts in our intellect.  We take bits of “earth” in the form of random marks, and arrange them into a pattern to make letters.  We then further organize them into words, and so on.
  • Language, then, takes earthly random particulars and gives them structure and distinction from above–according to ideas, principles, etc.  We make ideas manifest through language.

Christ Himself

One could go on and on seeing the extent of this pattern, but all of these patterns cohere most fully in Christ Himself.  He “came down from Heaven,” (John 6:38, the Nicene Creed) as the Word of God, but then took on human nature through the Virgin Mary.  After His death He went even “lower” down and, “descended into hell” (as in the Apostles Creed).  His ressurection and ascencion^^ complete the redemptive process of descending and ascending, a link back to Jacob’s ladder.

Such was the view of the world, more or less, from at least the time of Nero down to the 16th century.

The Copernican Revolution certainly transformed how we view the cosmos, but the hierarchical nature of reality could have been maintained.  I cannot trace the exact time we started to depict the solar system horizontally, but perhaps we have an inkling now that this change involved more than mere astronomy.  Perhaps a trend towards this leveling can be seen, starting from this depiction in the 18th century

which still seems to preserve a sense of heirarchy, and then 100 years later we see

which seems to advance the leveling process a bit further.  Of course the present day, (as seen above) completes the progression towards a flat world.

The leveling of the cosmos presaged a levelling of society, and the ushering in of chaos and confusion.  Geographically speaking, both oceans and deserts represented chaos for the ancient and medieval world–i.e., both areas have no visibile differentiation in their form, and we cannot live there.  With chaos comes death.  For to understand anything and understand its meaning, we need differentiation and distinction.  Again, this is one of the main teachings of Genesis 1. The same holds true of society in general.  The early phases of dismantling existing heirarchies and norms come with great excitement.  Maybe the old forms had run their course, maybe change was overdue.  But the dismantling of all distinctions between up and down, creation and creature, men and women, etc. will usher in a blindness that will hinder our ability to understand the world God made and to understand God Himself.  Without this foundation, we will hardly be able to understand each other.

Since we cannot live in chaos, we will soon find that heirarchy will have to return.  Given our seeming embrace chaos (i.e. a world with no heirarchy and no distinctions), it may end up returning with a vengeance.  We already can see what distorted forms it might take. Those on the far left would make the most marginalized “victim” king^^^, and those on the far right would repeat Charlottesville en masse.  New gods would rule over us.

I believe most people want to avoid both of these extremes, but have no idea what to do about it.  Perhaps we can start with the very simple move of thinking about the world as up and down instead of side-to-side.


*I continue to hope that the world of twitter and political commentating is merely a distorted reflection of the real world we all inhabit.  Indeed, I have come across very few in my neighborhood or at church who got terribly bent out of shape one way or the other about Kavannaugh’s nomination.

**Peter Thiel believes that the dearth of viable presidential candidates in their 40’s-50’s in the last election proves this point.

^Like most medieval maps, this does not represent an accurate spatial depiction of the cosmos, but the cosmos as it appears “spiritually” to them in their hearts and minds.  Ptolemy’s Almagest was the standard work of astronomy of the Middle Ages and speaks of the Earth as a mathematical point in the universe.  But, they represented the Earth as larger than other planets because this is where the drama of the redemption of the cosmos plays itself out.

^^Most churches hardly focus on Christ’s Ascencion and stop at Easter.  But the structure and scope of redemption shows us how crucial the Ascencion is, for Heaven and Earth cannot be fully reconciled until Christ presents Himself spotless before the Father.  Only after this does the Spirit of God descend that God may dwell within us.

^^^I have no settled thoughts on the trigger warning and micro-aggression phenomena, aside from an obvious distaste for it.  But I do wonder at its logic.  If victimhood gives one power and the right to speak, would it not serve their interests to increase their victim status by having themselves “assaulted?”  Perhaps then, the enthroned victims wish to keep their power by preventing anyone else from gaining status?  That would make them like everyone else.  Those in power tend to guard it jealously.

8th Grade: Finding the Persian Center of Gravity


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

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

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

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

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

The Jazz Age

Some no doubt find themselves enormously annoyed at the rise of flat earth ideas. I find flat earth theories fascinating, though in no way do I profess belief in a scientifically measurable flat earth. The Earth is round. But, I confess, I would find it hilariously fun if indeed the Earth was physically flat, probably because I am not a scientist.

I find the recent appearance of these ideas intriguing not because I find them convincing, but because of what it says about our cultural moment. In other words, the “physical” part of what flat-earthers say might amount to nothing. The fact that they say it, and that many seem to agree, surely evidences a general weakening of the center in our culture–a signal amidst the noise. We no longer trust even the most basic of assumed narratives.

Traditional authorities and traditional ways of creating meaning in our culture no longer work. Many loaded criticism onto the CDC for how they handled COVID. I have no great love for the CDC, but one could view them not as the main character in a tragedy, but almost as a minor player in a much larger narrative. This breakdown of trust in the central narrative has happened in other areas as well, in elections, in the media in general, and so on.

But, while I have a large amount of trust that we live on a round earth, we all know that experientially we live on a flat earth most of the time. We do not experience the rotation of the earth–we see the sun move. Our senses are not lying to us. Here the bare facts of the Earth’s rotation matters much less than our experienced reality. Our experience shapes reality more so than the other way round.

On his Marginal Revolution blog Tyler Cowen posted an amusing link to every problem laid at the feet of jazz in the 1920’s and 30’s. If one takes the time to peruse, we see jazz blamed for

  • Warts
  • Small family sizes
  • Indigestion
  • Difficulties in college athletics

and so on. The natural reaction for us moderns typically involves a bemused smile at the obtuseness of panicky fools in the past. Perhaps we imagine that we ourselves would never react in such a way. The key here for historians at least, involves seeing if any signals exist amidst this mishmash of chatter.*

Most every western culture experienced profound shifts after W.W. I. One can argue that such changes had their roots in developments decades earlier, in the Industrial Revolution, or centuries earlier with the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. One can go back further if you want. Making connections like this has its place, but we also need to separate, to delineate, as well as join together. Acknowledging the myriad of forces that drive change, we should ask if Jazz in the 20’s and 30’s stands out in any particular way.

Many have remarked how W.W. I destroyed the last vestiges of aristocracy in Europe, both physically and culturally/spiritually. This brought about more democracy politically, but perhaps more importantly, also culturally. Now the “bottom,” or “low” culture would have more prominence. I do not use these terms in a derogatory way. High and Low culture both have their place–the question involves what place, exactly. Perhaps one could argue that

  • Beethoven (maybe Mozart?) helped start this downward movement by using emotional themes and motifs heavily starting in the middle of his career. This has significance because of the place of emotions in the structure of the body, which reflects in certain respects the structure of the cosmos. Appealing to the emotions meant appealing to our bellies, what lays “lower” in our being.
  • With Franz Liszt, we see a mixture of high and low culture (‘high’ skill with ‘low’ folk motifs) with a ‘low’ reaction to him (ladies swoon and scream–he’s a rock star).
  • At the turn of the century Mahler (whose music I neither like nor understand, so take this with salt) completes the destruction of the classical forms, paving the way for something else. Maybe Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring worked in a similar way upon the world.

The visual arts mirror this trend in music, starting with Turner as early impressionism, down to Monet, Van Gogh, and then finally Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase

Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, London 1775–1851 London) The Lake of Zug, 1843 British, Watercolor over graphite; 11 3/4 x 18
Nude Descending a Staircase

This progression towards less fixed form and more loose, popular expression up until W.W I certainly took place, but the dam had not burst, so to speak, however many cracks any perceptive observer might have noted at the time.

But with the breakout of jazz and swing. suddenly popular, “low” culture became the dominant culture, flipping things from a top-down/old-to-young to the reverse. Now the young grabbed the throne, and culture obligingly followed. The manic way people took to this new form should indicate that something was not quite right. Clearly, something happened in how we viewed the world, something throttled us, in a sense, and made us into something new.

Marshal McLuhan has the fascinating idea that the switch to electricity primarily drove this change, which began in earnest just before W.W. I. His complex argument can get boiled down to his belief that

  • The culture of ‘printing press’ man would lend itself to a filtered experience of the world. We gained the ability to separate our experiences in a detached way. For example, any selection from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier has emotional content, but that comes later in the listening experience and not right away.
  • The electric age would thrust western man back in time, to a more tribal mode of culture, where sensory experience integrates and brings everything “all at once.”
  • Whichever culture we prefer, this sort of culture will not facilitate the “cool” detachment needed in a linear print culture. We would now run “hot,” experiencing culture When listening to, for example, James Brown, the impact is immediate, and does not lend itself to analysis as does Bach.

Again, whether one regards this shift as good, bad, or indifferent, it represents a massive psychic shift in perception, which would lead to a new way of life.

I do not suggest that we should adopt McCluhan’s thoughts whole hog. Exploring religious factors would also yield interesting results. But culture stands right next to religion, and I find his lens a good one. The music of jazz, appearing right at the advent of radio and electricity, fits into this shift. The experience of early swing music at least has an immediacy, and totality of effect.

The linked post from Marginal Revolution about the impacts of jazz show lack of thought, some stabs in the dark, and some panic. But those early worry-warts had an intuitive insight–they knew that something big was afoot that would alter everything.

In its modern incarnation, democracy arose from the pinnacle of the print age in the late 18th century. Our political practice, and our rights, such as freedom of speech, require a certain amount of practiced detachment. This posture now runs in short supply in certain aspects of our culture, and we may soon experience a seismic shift akin to what took place in the 20’s and 30’s. So, when we poke fun at the past and assume our own superiority, we should pause. Our modern world might resemble chickens without their heads soon enough. If the bare facts don’t tell that story, our experience might. Historians should look in both places.


*None of what follows should be seen as disparaging to jazz. It is one of my favorite musical genres. I regard Count Basie (more than Louie Armstrong or Miles Davis, though obviously they are all magnificent), as one of the great emblems of American culture of the 20th century. No one managed such a distinctive, punchy, groove for longer. Miles Davis had more intellectual inventiveness, and John Coltrane played with more rich emotion. Neither of them have nearly as much fun as Count Basie. Likewise, Basie could never be considered the best piano player, and maybe not even a “great” piano player (though I would say so, but admittedly in a certain sense of the term). But he was always the most fun, as this little moment at the 4:05 mark attests.

11th/12th Grade: War Narratives and the Failure of Peace


We all know that peace treaties have a shaky track record.  When wars end we hope that the suffering might mean something, that it might translate into a political order that helps ensure that history does not repeat itself.  And yet, often these treaties fail.  We might think of the numerous wars between France and England, for example.  Various forms of “Punic Peaces” work, whether they take the form of utter destruction or sending Napoleon to St. Helena.  Most agree, however, that when we think of “peace” we often have something loftier in mind.

Some treaties do work.  The Civil War will not restart anytime soon.  Japan and the U.S. have been friends since 1945, and the same is true of our relationship to West Germany/Germany.  But many don’t work, and fewer treaties failed more spectacularly than the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.

Historians offer many theories to explain why treaties fail in general.  The typical mistakes usually fall into a few categories or patterns:

1. Failure to View the War as an Organic Whole

Though it may seem artificial, I think that major events should be viewed through a narrative lens.  World War I had its own prologue, beginning, middle, and end.  Wars tend to take on a life of their own once they get started.  As the “story” changes shape one can easily forget how it all started.  But this is a mistake.  A peace treaty should serve as the end of a story that had a certain beginning and middle.  If the end has nothing to do with the beginning, people will hate the ending and demand a rewrite, or at least a sequel.

I think this is one key reason why many treaties end up being no more than pauses in the action.  Combatants want an intermission, but don’t want the end to come just yet.  For them, there remains more to the story.

I think the victors in W.W. I would be strongly tempted to forget this principle.  Any analysis of the causes  of the war would have to blame a variety of factors and nations.  Certainly one could blame Germany mainly for the causes of the war, but other nations had their part to play as well.  Yet the combatants fought the war so grimly, and the death toll rose so unimaginably, that the victors would almost certainly think only of the fighting (the middle) and forget the beginning of the story.  The ending, then, would not fit within the story as a whole.

2. Failure to Look Ahead

Perhaps one can take my “story” analogy too far, because if we try and keep a war purely contained as its own entity, we miss the inevitable ripple effects that have spilled out into society because of the conflict.  Thus, a peace treaty has to deal with the war behind and look ahead to the world it made.  This need to “look ahead,” however, does not come easily.  We rarely see the nose on our own face, and lacking omnipotence, are left somewhat in the dark.

Treaties usually handle the “physical” aspects of ending wars such as reassigning territory, reparations, etc. but rarely consider the psychological aspects.  The horrors of the conflict imprint themselves on our minds, and the victors often want to “close the book” on that period as soon as possible.  We want to move on, relax, be happy.  The victors feel this way, at least.  But often the losers don’t want to move on.  They often want to dwell on the pain and humiliation they feel.  They want to be heard, and will not want to “move on.” Exhaustion on the side of the victors, more than apathy or ignorance, can be society’s greatest foe at this stage.

I think a good example of this is The Congress of Vienna, which decided that shape of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars of 1797-1815.  Millions died as the French Revolution convulsed the world and every monarch knew their days might be numbered.  My interpretation is that the assembled powers, smarting under years of war, tried to put Pandora, i.e. the French Revolution,  back in the box.  They suppressed popular movements, conceptions of “rights” — anything that smacked of the Revolution, and threw the baby out with the bath water.  Some might argue that the Congress of Vienna worked to keep the peace throughout the 19th century, but to my mind the Revolutions of 1848, The Crimean War, the wars of Italian and German Unification, the conflict between Turkey and Russia, and the eventual explosion that was World War I say otherwise.  Pressure cookers explode sooner or later.

3. Avoid Too Many Mixed Messages

Try as we might, mixed messages can’t be avoided.  As parents we give lip service to the ideal that we treat our children equally, but then reality sets in.  The age, gender, and personality of our children all play a role in how we parent.  We modify our expectations and begin to tailor certain things to certain children.  Children pounce on these discrepancies immediately and bemoan their fate, but if parents keep their different expectations reasonable  and at least mostly clear, we can keep the ship afloat.

Every peace treaty should have justice in view, but practical reality will always intervene.  Even the justly victorious must account for the fallenness of the world and the messiness of reality.  The vanquished will seize upon these crossed signals of justice and cry foul, but if the signal mixing is not too serious, they deal with it.

Problems come when the victors take a sanctimonious stance.  The infamous “War Guilt” clauses of the Versailles Treaty did just this.  Germany had to assume full blame for everything, despite the fact that no country had their hands clean during the conflict.  The infamous Article 231 reads,

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

Versailles also tried to reorder Europe along the idea of “national self determination,” and the elimination of empires.  Such was President Wilson’s grand vision for peace.  So, the war’s aftermath saw the creation of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, etc.  Except for Germany — Germans don’t get to be “self-determined.”   Some Germans went to Czechoslovakia, others to Poland, others faced occupation by the French.  We can compare the following two maps, the first showing the political divisions, the next, the ethno-linguistic ones, and the differences reveal themselves.

Europe, 1919

Overseas England and France kept their empires, however, but not Germany.  Neither did the U.S. give up its interests in the Philippines.  The gaps between “What we say,” and “What we do” grew very large at Versailles for the allies, and Germany noticed.

4. Don’t Kick them when They’re Down

This applies to Germany, but also Russia.  The Communist Revolution threw Russia into a tumult and made them persona non grata at Versailles.  They too lost big chunks of territory to Poland.  Both Germany and the Soviets had little to no choice on accepting the terms given their immediate internal domestic realities .   But both would seek to, in their mind, “set things to rights” as soon as they had a chance.  In Europe’s case, it took about 20 years for this to happen.

Next week we look at the Communist Revolution in Russia, and touch on the ‘Roaring 20’s back in America.


Dave Mathwin

Just War as Christian Discipleship

Methodical.  Inexorable.  Annoying, sometimes provoking, and yet, ultimately convincing and convicting.  All these words sum up my 1441206817reaction Daniel Bell’s important book on the Christian just war tradition.

First the bad:

Bell could have used a better editor, and bears the hallmarks of a first book from the author.  He slides all too often into a repetitive and heavy didactic style, and uses paragraphs chock full of rhetorical questions that pile onto one another.  Not as bad as Mr. Chadband from Bleak House, but I might parody this habit of Bell’s thusly:

“And what are we to make of the Gadsden flag motto (used by Marines) “Don’t Tread on Me?”  Does it express a sentiment in line with the sacrificial love of Christ?  Does it encourage a transformative view of suffering?  Would such an attitude lead to just warriors?  What kind of motto’s should our soldiers use?  Is the church ready to inform the military about such things?”

So this was wearisome.

Bell also never applies his ideas to any particular conflict, which seems too easy for me.  Bell espouses some controversial ideas, but I wish he stuck his neck out a bit more and applied his thinking to some actual wars.  Granted, the reader can do this for himself, but Bell should have guided the reader a bit more in the interpretation of his ideas.

Despite these weaknesses, the book reminds us that the Church, nations, and militaries have almost completely lost touch with Christian concepts of “Just War” theory and practice.   Bell’s book does not condemn war outright.  Rather, he seeks to completely reframe the way we examine the issue, which may explain why both pacifist theologians and military chaplains have endorsed his work.

Speaking from a “Just War” tradition within the Church has its limitations.  Rarely did any accomplished theologian comment on the issue at length.  The Church’s most powerful voices on the topic, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, dealt with just war theory only in an in ad-hoc fashion.  Bell points out, however, that while the Church had few official individual voices on the topic, an agreed upon understanding more or less existed from the early days right up until the modern era around the 17th century.  Thus, Christians have access not just to Scripture, but also to an authoritative history of understanding of just war, what I will refer to as “The Tradition” in the rest of this post.

Bell’s main argument centers around his assertion that waging “Just War” has much more do with sanctification than a checklist of criteria that then give us justification to act as we please.  To fight justly means fighting as a Christian, with love for one’s neighbor and one’s enemy.  Fighting justly means not seeking to maximize personal well-being, or national safety, but working for the good of others.  Bell rejects pacifism.  There are times when acting faithfully might mean using force to achieve just ends.  But Bell argues well that if we cannot apply the central truths of the gospel message in how and when we fight, we have no business fighting at all.

This has many implications for us.

Self Defense

Modern understandings of just war often primarily focus on personal self-defense, or defending property, or maintaining a “way of life.”  But this approach puts ourselves, or our nation, before others.  Thus, “self-defense” can thinly disguise selfishness. As Augustine stated, “Christians should rather be killed than kill, rather suffer harm than harm others.”  Charity must prevail even under dire circumstances.

But as happens so often in this book, when you think Bell resolves the issue it deepens.  Christians can fight to defend others, particularly those who cannot defend themselves.  Christians can put others first by risking their own well-being to serve others.

If we wonder how we tell the difference between defense of self and others, Bell sympathizes.  The Tradition gives us no formula, no checklist, and this flows directly from the gospel itself.  For example, no checklist can tell you when you love your wife.  A husband cannot say, “I bought her flowers and watched the movie she wanted to see.  Therefore, I love her, and she should know I love her as long as I continue to do those things.”

What really guides the practice of Just War is not a list but just warriors themselves, who apply the gospel ethic to their situation.  This lack of black and white guidance may frustrate us at times, but Bell fears that the checklist mentality will give us carte blanche to do as we please once “the enemy” meets certain conditions.  I remember an anecdote about an ex-boxer bothered by a drunk. The drunk hit the boxer a few times, and the boxer responded, “The Lord told me to turn one cheek, and then the other.  He said nothing about a third time,” and proceeded to whale away on the unfortunate man.

The Purpose of War

From General Sherman we get the modern view that, “War is all hell.”  Those that follow Sherman believe that war remains essentially irredeemable, and making war as short as possible forms much of our strategy as to how we fight.

The Tradition offers another perspective.  In one sense we must treat fighting a war like any other activity.  We fight wars that we might grow in holiness, that we would grow closer to God.  For Christians war should develop the fruits of the Spirit.  If it can’t we have no business in it.

This may mean exercising patience.  It may mean that we fight in such a way where we give up physical advantages because of the moral problems that may result from our use of these advantages.  If we maximize the pain and suffering of our enemy in such a way that minimizes our own, we cannot claim to be just warriors following the call of Christ.

When We Fight

Following Christ means exercising charity towards one’s enemy, and charity requires us to give every reasonable chance to settle differences without violence through diplomatic pursuits.  We can use violence only when we know we have given other measures a fair try.  This raises questions about the impact of a large, professional, full-time standing army.  German theologian Karl Barth (no pacifist) argued that standing armies make it much easier for states to go to war than it should be.  Having an army always ready strongly tempts nations to use it much quicker than they ought.

We might reasonably ask whether or not one can exercise love and charity and kill another human being.  The Tradition says yes.  Justice can never rise to the dignity of the word if it stands separate from love.  “The Lord disciplines those He loves.”  Using force against another could be an act of charity.  You may be preventing them doing evil. Your “discipline” might move them to repentance.  Of course, once a person dies they cannot repent.  So the Tradition states that while we may at times use force, we must try not to kill our adversaries if we can avoid it.  Again Bell urges us to abandon the checklist in favor of Christ-like character.  Sometimes a just warrior may kill, but this killing must serve the gospel for the world and, crucially ourselves.  We cannot sacrifice our own souls or our own humanity in war.  One thinks, for example, of Joan of Arc, weeping over the English dead and praying over their wounded after a battle.

This might reduce the effectiveness of the military.  But it would be grossly uncharitable for us to urge that the military de-humanize itself and stand outside the Tradition so that we may be safer.  And–a dehumanized military would not serve us well in the long run anyway, and perhaps might even pose a threat to us.

Bell’s calls us all to own the call of “Just War.”  The military draws its direction from society, so the public must practice just policies if we want our military to do the same.  Again, the “just war” lifestyle is nothing less a Christian lifestyle, and we are all called to this.

In light of the witness of the Tradition, we have much to consider from not only our history (Sherman’s march through the South, carpet bombing in W.W. II, etc.) but also our current practice.  We already have extensive moral failures in how we use drones.  We waterboard but use the “checklist” mentality and avoid calling it torture.   The Guardian reports that we get doctors to harm prisoners by a perverse use of semantics.  The full articles is here, but the pertinent quote from it might be,

“Medical professionals were in effect told that their ethical mantra “first do no harm” did not apply, because they were not treating people who were ill.”

This does not mean that soldiers sin more than the rest of us.  Rather, soldiers sin in the same spiteful and selfish ways as all of us.  And this is part of the point Bell tries to make.  Fighting involves the application of our Christian faith just as much as teaching Sunday school.  Whatever, our problems as nation, whatever issues we have in the military,  all of us own them.

Bell touches on other topics, but at its core, the Tradition calls us back to our primary allegiance to Christ, not victory, the “mission,” expediency, country or tribe.  If our main concern is the salvation of our soul and the spread of His Kingdom, we will view war very differently than we do currently.  We may need to reevaluate why, when, and how we fight.  We may need to adopt the practice of  stepping outside our national context and ask if our side even represents justice in the first place.  This is what makes Bell’s book so necessary for us, and so difficult to accept.  As the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain wrote,

We have no illusions about the misery of human nature.  But we have no illusions, either, about the pseudo-realists who cultivate and exalt evil in order to fight against evil, and who consider the gospel a decorative myth that we could not take seriously without throwing the machinery of the world out of order.

8th Grade: Enslaving Others, Enslaving the Self


This week we looked at Spartan civilization and began our look at the beginnings of democracy in Athens.  We will have a test next week on Early Greece.

We began our look at Sparta by examining its geography.  They had access to a limited water supply via a river, but otherwise a variety of mountains nestled them inland, and they had little contact with the sea.  We have seen this kind of geography before — in Assyria.  Geography never commands, but it does suggest, and like Assyria, Sparta developed with an almost exclusive focus on warfare.  One historian commented

When the Spartans found their ploughlands too narrow for their population, they did not turn their eyes to the sea, like the Corinthians or Megarians.   The sea is not visible either from Sparta city or at any point on the Spartan plain.  The natural feature which dominates the Spartan landscape is the towering mountain range of Taygetus.

Archeological records indicate a significant shift in Spartan civilization sometime around the year 730 B.C.  According to tradition a group of Dorian Greeks invaded Sparta successfully, and became the “new” Spartans, enslaving the locals called Messenians.  But they quickly faced a problem.  The Messenians vastly outnumbered them and had already attempted one revolt.  It seemed likely that other revolts would follow, and eventually they would overwhelm their conquerors.

The Spartans could have retreated, or they could have simply slaughtered the inhabitants and moved on somewhere else.  But their solution to the problem seems uniquely Greek to me.  They transformed their society by militarizing it, making every male a soldier, allowing themselves to continually have a challenge to master.  All this provided extra opportunity for showing “arete,” or, “excellence.”  No longer could one choose to be a shoemaker, farmer, and so on.  By 620 B.C., after the second war between Sparta and its enslaved population, every male now carried a spear, and the slaves grew the food.  Herodotus records one  Greek commenting to the Persians in 480 B.C. that

Free though the Spartans are, they are not free altogether.  They too serve a master in the shape of Law.  They show this by doing whatever their master orders, and his orders are always the same: ‘In action it is forbidden to retire in the face of the enemy forces of whatever strength.  Troops are to keep their formation and either conquer or die.

They sacrificed everything to make this happen.  Making every male a soldier, and using the slaves to farm did consolidate their conquest.  But 1) All traces of cultural creativity disappeared, 2) No personal freedom of job, lifestyle, or travel, was allowed, 3) Boys were separated from their families at a young age, 4) Slave economies lack effeciency, so resources were precious.  Any infant deemed physically unfit was usually killed, and so on.  Spartan society  ‘stopped’ in sense.  But they developed the most feared heavy infantry force in ancient Greece, and that was enough to give them power and influence.

This ideal impacted their marriages.  They arranged to have the strongest men marry the strongest women to create the best chances of strong sons.  If marriages did not produce strong children, they were encouraged to look elsewhere.  Women bought into this ideal as well.  They spent their time training their bodies to have children.

Their society had all the strength of a high powered rifle bullet.  Powerful, yes, but narrow in its application.  The Spartans sacrificed what most would consider to be the things that made life worth living, such as personal freedoms, family life, cultural experiences, etc.  Truly, you are what you worship.

Was it worth it?  Some might argue that their slaves lived better lives than the Spartans.  It appears they had more variety in their diet, and possibly more personal freedom as to who they married.  Of course, they had harsh lives under the constant watch of Spartan overlords, but did the Spartans live much better?  The Spartan world and lifestyle had all the narrowness of slavery.  The old adage, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” might stand true for the Spartan regime.

Aristotle wrote the best epitaph of the Spartan system, saying,

Peoples ought not to train themselves in the art of war with an eye to subjugating neighbors who do not deserve subjugation. . . . The paramount aim of any social system should be to frame military institutions, like all social institutions, with an eye to peace-time, when the soldier is off duty; and this proposition is borne out by the facts of experience.  For militaristic states are apt to survive only so long as they remain at war, while they go to ruin as soon as they complete their conquests.  Peace causes their metal to lose its temper; and the fault lies with the social system which does not teach its soldiers what to make of their lives when off duty.

Arnold Toynbee concurred and wrote,

The superhuman–or inhuman–fixity of Sparta’s posture, like the [doom] of Lot’s wife, was manifestly a curse and not a blessing.



9th/10th Grade: Societies Give, Societies Take Away


We did not cover a lot of new ground this week, but did manage to introduce the basic premise of feudal society.

Imagine you had the following choices at age 16:

Option 1: You have the maximum possibility of social and professional  mobility.  A variety of opportunities will be open to you.  Therefore, there is the possibility of great success and the “life of your dreams.”  However, there are no guarantees, and no safety net.  What you achieve will be up to you and up to circumstances.  Perhaps you fail, and be left destitute with nothing.

Option 2: You will be guaranteed a basic middle class life that  conforms to our image of the 1950’s.  You will have a house, 2 cars, and 2.5 children.  You will  live in a community where people know you and will look out for you, but your ability to move jobs and locations is significantly restricted.  You may not love your job, but it will not be horrible.   You will be able to work at your job for many years and retire modestly.

What would you choose?   Most students chose door #1, but some definitely preferred the security of #2.

Neither option is right or wrong per se, but each  option does reflect different values.  We distribute the benefits of each this way:

The Modern West

  • Opportunity
  • Individuality
  • Mobility

Feudal Europe

  • Stability and Security
  • Community
  • A sense of “place,” a “rhythm of life”

When I surveyed the students about the jobs of their parents, many of them had held at least 2-3 different ones over their lives already, and this represents a slight difference, I think, from my parents generation.  Many of my friends that are my age have already held 2-3 different jobs.  It seems that are moving more and more in the direction of increased social mobility, which may translate into a lesser degree of social stability.  If I’m right we will have to wait and see what this will mean for us in the future.

Whatever we choose, we must realize that to some extent these choice are mutually exclusive.  We cannot have unlimited opportunity and a maximum amount of security.  We cannot have strong communities and great mobility.  We must choose, and whatever our choice, we need to own the consequences of those choices.

For example, there is much that we find distasteful about the feudal idea of birth and class.  It runs directly counter to many ideas we hold dear.  But to be born into nobility was to be born into responsibility.  You would have many tenants on the land, but their condition reflected on you.  At least in theory, a sense of mutual obligation existed between noble and peasant.

Today we have (in theory) no difference in class, but also no sense of obligation to others, and our physical mobility makes it hard for many of us to connect in our neighborhoods.  This leads us to rely a great deal on money as a means of security, as we have no “social network” to fall back upon.  Our societies do have places and programs for the poor, but as they are often run by the state, they can have a distinctly impersonal feel to them.  Plus, most of us do not interact with the poor on any regular basis, whereas in medieval times, the poor had a much greater chance to be part of a community.

A key to understanding medieval society is the idea of “knowing one’s place.”  We can imagine the evil person in every Disney movie telling some plucky young child to “know your place,” but it had a different connotation in the medieval period.  The medieval view of society resembled something of a jig-saw puzzle.  No matter how unique each piece might be, it has a specific role within the whole.  When Jesus says, “the poor you will always have with you,”

  • We would say that the poor will always be with you because of social injustice, economic injustice, or the presence of sin in general, while
  • Medievals probably would argue that we will always have the poor because we will always need opportunities to exercise charity (the poor demonstrate the virtue of humility in receiving charity), just as some have money in order to exercise liberality.  Both are necessary because both are meant to image/reflect different aspects of the Christian life to us.

I do not mean here to romanticize feudal society, but only to point out that their structure gave them a good chance of doing some things better than the modern west does currently.


Dave Mathwin