Chronicling and Creating History

Being a history teacher, I sometimes come across articles and studies detailing various forms of bias in history textbooks. Most of the time this bias leans in a liberal direction, but I have also seen Christian texts that are just as bad in the opposite direction. Two wrongs do not make a right. History textbooks are notoriously wretched things in any form, one of the worst examples of design by committee. You can solve the problem partially by removing textbooks altogether and simply rely on primary sources in the classroom, as I do. But of course bias still remains in which texts I select, how I present them, and so on.

The answer to “bias” is not to remove it, which would be impossible in any case, but to recognize that we have bias and to use it rightly. As to what “right” bias might be, well . . .

When we read ancient and medieval historians we can see this crafting of narrative openly. The authors seek to make a point about their universe. Herodotus shapes the story of the Persian Wars around the idea on heeding the limits of nature, be they physical or moral limits. Polybius looks for universal laws of the rise and fall of nations and explicitly applies that paradigm to Rome. Plutarch dug and found moral lessons in his parallel lives, and so on.

Father Patrick Henry Reardon made a point I had not considered before in his excellent commentary on the Books of Chronicles. The Books of 1 & 2 Chronicles covers the same era as parts of 2 Samuel–2 Kings, written some centuries prior. Father Patrick made the point that the author of Chronicles selected his material and his emphasis differently, a perfectly obvious point. What really got me thinking was his assertion that,

This spiritual exegesis of the sacred Scriptures, however, always takes place in history and pertains to the movement of history. . . . Understanding of the Bible must not be abstracted from the historical movement of the Bible itself. Its continuous line, which records history, is recorded within history, and gives form and shape to future history (emphasis mine).

I had never considered this idea that the narrative focus of Scripture would necessarily shape the way people acted in the future, and thus create history. But why else would the author (which the rabbinical tradition believed was Ezra, but Reardon thinks probably not) write at all? For he wrote not just to record events but to try and convince people of the centrality of Davidic Kingship and Temple worship, intending that the Jewish people would cling to these truths and be blessed accordingly. He wanted to shape history through his narrative.

We can take Thucydides as an example. Many see his brilliant work on the Peloponnesian War as a pioneering work of political realism. He almost entirely avoids standard historical tropes involving the gods, myth, heroes, etc. I don’t think Thucydides necessarily reflected the general mindset of the Athenians of his day,* but his philosophical concerns certainly shaped many in the future. It is no coincidence, for example, that Thomas Hobbes translated Thucydides. Thucydides also had a great influence on George Marshall’s thinking about the Cold War. It seems that Thucydides truly did both chronicle and create history.

Accepting this premise gives me great pause. I entirely abhor the “safe space” culture of many campuses, the shouting down of speakers, and so on. But–might they have a point? Their contention that words have power to mold and shape not just thoughts but future actions, seems born out by Reardon’s analysis and history itself. They would have us believe that all we are left with are words and action, in short–power. And if power is all that exists, then we should fight to have it used in service of our narrative (I suppose they could not even call their narratives “good” things if all we have is power).

We cannot live in a world of abstract facts as the modern age would have liked–that world never existed. We have our biases, and words and narratives have more power than we might have thought.** But I am convinced that neither are we left with the wasteland modern campus radicals would leave us. They promise liberation from oppressive structures (or something like that), but the real result is a narrowing of human thought and experience, and a demand to toe the party line without thinking.

Language theorists could likely comment on this question far better than I. But I offer that, as a start at least, we need to rethink the meaning of boundaries itself. We naturally think that boundaries restrict freedom, but not always. G.K. Chesterton had a wonderfully helpful analogy, in which he asked us to imagine children at a playground perched on a cliff. With the security of a fence keeping them from disaster, they will happily roam about the whole area. Remove the fence, and watch them huddle in the middle, fearful of falling to their doom. He writes in his famous work, Orthodoxy that,

. . .the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

In the Book of Chronicles, the author devotes a great deal of space to Israel’s construction of the temple. David passed on to Solomon a whole host of specific instructions. We might initially recoil at the specificity, the restrictions on freedom of thought and design! And yet, the second half of Chronicles details what happens when Israel is deprived of temple worship, and Judah deviates from it and squanders their inheritance—corruption, war, division–all such things as restrict our freedom.

When we write history, then, we will know when have hit upon the proper bias, the proper orientation, when that bias leads to an enhancement of the human person. A concentration, yes, but a concentrated vitality. St. Augustine understood our dilemma. The Roman idea of freedom meant freedom from others determining your actions–the more options, the better. The Christian sees dissipation in such a idea. Rather, God means for us to share in His life. This involves a conformity, to be sure, but one that makes us far more than we are by nature, not less. Pressing home his point, he writes in the City of God that,

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

Such can be the healing power of the right “bias.”

Dave

*The Athenians must have cared about religion enough to put Socrates to death for impiety in 399 B.C. Those dying of the plague during the war went to the Parthenon (dedicated to Athena) to die. But I do not say either that Thucydides was a complete outlier. There is a noticeable difference, for example, between the plays of Aeschylus written a generation before Thucydides, and Euripides, his contemporary.

**Understanding this might give us further insight into God creating in Genesis 1 through speech..

Time Me

This post is slightly dated, as it was originally written three years ago.  I repost it based on our discussions in class this week . . . . .

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

I don’t follow baseball vey closely, nor do I watch many games.  I had no interest in watching the Home Run Derby before the All-Star game.  Unfortunately I still listen too frequently to sports talk radio.  After the said derby, commentators proclaimed that the new rules involving time limits had made the experience much more enjoyable.  “The clock saved the Home Run Derby,” proclaimed one radio host.  After discussing it briefly, they quickly turned to other areas of life where clocks could make things better, like for teenage daughters in bathrooms, bank lines, and so on.  If only we could have more clocks in our lives!

This got me reflecting a bit on the the invention of the clock.  Besides fire and the wheel, I have a hard time thinking of other inventions with as much staying power.  The influence of the clock goes so deep we don’t notice it.  Part of the motivation for me to read Authority, Liberty, & Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe by Otto Mayr was the hope that, among other things, he would give some perspective on the clock and its impact.

By “clock” Mayr means the mechanical clock.  People used sun-dials from ancient times, but even the most reliable  sun dials (in Egypt where the sun always shined) did not facilitate an acute subdivision of our experience of time.  In other more cloudy locales the sun-dial had even less influence.  The mechanical clock came on the scene in the late middle-ages and immediately made a dramatic impact on that society.  People fell in love immediately.  In his Paradiso Dante used the metaphor of the movement of a clock’s implements to describe the movement of the angels in heaven, and this merely stood as one example among many. The rare dissenting voice did exist.  The Welsh bard David Gwillym wrote,

Woe to the black faced clock which awoke me on the ditch side.  A curse on its head and tongue, its two ropes and heavy wheels, its weights, yards, and hammer, its ducks which think it day and its unquiet mills.  Uncivil clock like the foolish tapping of a tipsy cobbler, a blasphemy on its face.

But on the whole the “ayes” substantially overwhelmed the dissenters.  People praised the precision and complexity of the instrument, and almost immediately various metaphors for God’s design of the universe arose.  And as we might expect, no people sang such great peans to the clock as in Germany.

Such was the scene on the continent.  Yet those in England reacted far differently.  Yes, many liked the clock and it came into general use.  But far more dissented in England than in other places. In Love’s Labor Lost Shakespeare uses a “German clock” as an epithet.  In Richard II Shakespeare flips all the positive clock metaphors and in a soliloquy by Richard has the clock stands for a symbol of undue self-consciousness and a failed life.

Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is

Are clamorous groans, that strike upon my heart

Which is the bell.  So sighs, and tears, and groans

Show minutes, times, and hours . . .

Why did they feel this way?  Here we get to the heart of the main idea of Mayr’s book.

Mayr believes that ultimately the answer lies in the different kinds of political cultures of England and the continent.  Briefly, authoritarian style politics had far more “boots on the ground” in places like Germany and France, which explains their love of the clock.  He develops the connection thusly: England’s political theory emphasized balance.  Whether they invented the idea of the “separation of powers” is beside the point.  They had a long history, predating the Magna Carta, of seeking equilibrium between different political bodies, which the European continent lacked.  This led England to put much more emphasis on developing “feedback” technologies.  These devices did not exert power so much as prevented one element from gaining too much power.  The thermostat serves as a good example of such a device.  It helps create balance.  Neither heat nor cold win the day. Notably, thermostats only come on when they need to correct the temperature.  Otherwise they lie dormant.

We may balk a bit at this distinction.  We may not consider the clock a device associated with unchecked power.  The clock may always be “on,” we surmise, but it exerts no direct influence over us.  Perhaps, but I think Mayr has a good point.  During the talk show I mentioned earlier, for example, all the ideas that people had related to people having to move faster because of the presence of the clock. They wanted the clock to make people act in certain definite ways.  Our speech reflects this as well. We “answer to the clock,” and so forth.  This idea played itself out politically.*  France had Louis XIV, Robespierre, and Napoleon. Prussia had Frederick the Great.  When England’s Charles I attempted to reign more independently he faced a revolution and the loss of his life.  Mary Tudor and James II also failed to introduce significant changes.**

The book moves along nicely to show how other “self-regulating” systems developed in England.  Aside from the political self-regulation between king, parliament, and courts, Adam Smith developed the idea of a self-regulating economy. Mercantilism, the prevailing economic theory in the 18th century, called for one to dominate other countries via exports over imports.  Smith believed the market could work much like a thermostat and correct itself with no government interference.  Central control of trade not only was unnecessary, but counter-productive.  We need not wonder about the veracity of Smith’s theory here.  What seems obvious from Mayr’s extensive knowledge is how developments throughout a particular culture have a common root.  The thermostat and Smith’s free market ideology come from the same place.

If the clock occupied pride of place for inventions from 1300-1800, what shall we say about our own day?  We would first need to decide what invention has pride of place in our society.  One would at this moment probably say the smart-phone, but we might wonder if in 10 years we will have moved on.  So we should settle on something larger, like “digital technology.”  As Peter Thiel has commented frequently, we have dramatically advanced the world of “bits” while the world of atoms has remained stagnant.  We need to look beyond mere profit and opportunity to understand why we have done so.

The digital universe excites us perhaps mainly because it has no discernible limits.  The powers of computers change all the time.  We can assume different identities, and so on.  We can always have our music.  We can contact anyone we want at any time.  It seems at times as if we can defy reality itself.  The world of atoms, however, confronts us with limits.  And if our recent behavior surrounding gender and sexuality give us any clues, we do not like limits.^  Our politics may soon start to reflect this and our corporate practice.^^  Who can say exactly where this will end up?  But if the trend continues we may need to revisit De Tocqueville’s dilemma regarding liberty (no limits on our actions) and equality.  We cannot have unfettered doses of both, for at some point they work against each other.  We must choose.  We still live in the real world.

Dave

*Compare Bishop Bousset’s explication of absolute monarchy for Louis XIV to James I (King of England) own writing on the subject.  Both reach similar conclusions, but in very different ways.  Bousset’s writing has an inexorable logical methodology.  James I writes more haphazardly, and more poetically.

**Henry VIII may be the exception that proves the rule.

^I re-watched The Matrix recently and noticed something curious.  At the end of the movie Neo speaks into the phone to the machines and tells them that he will show people “a world without limits, a world of possibility” and so on, and then proceeds to fly in the air.  But surely he refers to the world of the Matrix?  This is the world that offers the possibilities of dodging bullets.  In reality we remain subject to gravity.  On board their ship they have to wear dingy clothes and eat protein goop.  So what did Neo really mean?

True to form, the story starts to bleed out in the next two installments.  The Wachowski’s can’t stay content to let Neo be limitless merely in the Matrix (which makes some sense within their invented world).  By the end of Matrix Revolutions Neo can stop the Sentinels in reality just as he could stop bullets in the Matrix.  The Wachowski’s refuse even stay within the limits of their own story.

^^I like Amazon, but I found it a bit odd that they essentially tried to start their own holiday (Prime Day).

Most of the Time, the World is Flat

Our struggle with economic equality has many roots.  For starters, we have the dual affirmation of the values of liberty and equality, something Tocqueville noted as perhaps the key tension in modern democracies.  Modern democracies also elevate the status of the individual choice much more highly than traditional societies.   This honoring of the individual adds fuel to the free market, which ultimately seeks to commodify our choices.  We will likely see laws supporting “traditional” morality, such as those against gambling and certain kinds of drug use, get removed from the books.   I read with dismay this article, which indicates that Washington state now allows one to commodify the womb.

The multiplication of choices in the market dovetails with additional freedoms for the individual, and of course we generally want and desire such freedoms.  But we cannot have such freedoms and have economic equality at the same time.

The roots of this trend towards an absolute market of things, and even using oneself as an economic object, has origins that predate modern democracies.  To have an unending market of things we need to first have control over things, and to establish control the thing must be emptied of its own significance that we might fill it.  In his A Secular Age, Charles Taylor observes that it is the homogenization of time and space that makes the modern era (ca. 18th century-today) possible, for it allows us to give our own meanings to our experiences.  We can add that our perception of things as mere objects contributes to this trend.

Marcel Mauss’ book The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies poses many questions, such as, “Do books with absurdly boring titles, written by French sociologists, have an inverse or complimentary relationship with the inevitable nerdiness and pomposity of those that read such books?”  Sure, having this book in front of you at your local Starbucks will likely make you look like a prig, but for those willing to assume the risk, Mauss has some interesting nuggets to reveal about the economies of the ancient world.

The societies Mauss surveys have an economy, but not ones we might expect.  Some minor differences exist between the societies he examines across time and space, but in the main we can say that:

  • One can never truly own a thing, because the thing (be it a gold coin, a chair, a paddle) has an identity all its own.  It is its “own” (ha!) thing before it ever was “your” thing.
  • One should not keep anything for too long.  To do so would risk courting vengeance of a sort from thing itself (some societies had a more magical view of this, some abstracted it a bit more), which “longs” to go to someone else.  Our stuff wants to roam wild and free.
  • One could potentially amass even a great surplus of things, but in end, everyone needed to give things to others and keep the cycle of exchange moving.* This was not mere self-emptying or even generosity per se, because all acknowledged that receiving a gift came with reciprocal responsibilities and burdens.**  Failure to reciprocate courted disaster.

Of course these societies had a hierarchy, determined by birth or honorific achievements, or something else, but material wealth got passed around with much more fluidity in the ancient world than today.  We may admire this, but quite frankly, we could never replicate it.  For starters, we no longer see the world of things as full of meaning.  As Taylor observed, in a world of homogeneity only we ourselves can transmit this meaning to things.  Again, the concept of magic enters in with some of the early societies, but Mauss delineates between magic and some form of “embodied meaning.”  I did not find him terribly clear on this point, but it is a hard concept to describe (and for me to understand).  Something has to do with the idea that in the societies Mauss describes one more directly experiences the world.  This too is hard to describe, but I would venture that

  • Today we assume that a thing has no meaning in itself.  So its meaning must be mediated or transmitted by layers of society and the self.
  • Whereas “back then,” our experience of the world and the meaning of the world were one and the same.

We might catch a glimpse of this difference by looking a a different issue.

About four years ago Jonathan Pageau wrote a series of articles about ancient cosmology, and gave his first post the intriguing title, “Most of the Time the World is Flat.”  Pageau obviously does not mean to imply that the Earth is not really round, and of course the earth does not change its shape. Rather, he postulates a significant disconnect between what we believe the world/cosmos to actually be like and our everyday experience of it.  Science has not given us, and perhaps cannot give us, a workable, experiential model of the world.  So we live divided, having to import a meaning to our experience that has no solid reality behind it.  He writes,

I would like to propose something that might seem provocative at first, but will hopefully help people see the world with different eyes. There is a growing image on the recent horizon of human experience, it is an image of a family or a group of friends all next to each other at a table or in some other intimate setting, yet all interacting with tablets, ipods and smartphones as if the people around them didn’t exist. I would like to propose that this image, this reality is the final result of Galileo’s cosmological model. Some of you might think I am exaggerating, so I will need to explain.

The Copernican/Galilean worldview, that is the heliocentric worldview and its further development into our modern cosmology of galaxies and nebulas and black holes has two important aspects. It is an artificial vision and it is an alienating vision. It is artificial in the strictest sense of “art” or “techne”. It is a technical vision because we cannot experience this vision without technology, without telescopes and other apparatuses. Because technology is a supplementary thing, a garment of skin, something which we add to our natures in order to physically bolster them toward the material world, it therefore also leads further into the material world itself. (emphasis mine).

. . . modern cosmology is not only artificial, but it is alienating, it moves Man away from himself. Once Man accepted that what he saw through his telescopes and microscopes is more real than his natural experience, he made inevitable the artificial world, he made inevitable as its end the plastic, synthetic, genetically modified, photoshopped, pornographic, social-networked reality we live in. When at the very core of vision, the shape of your cosmos leads you to believe that technology provides a perception which is more true, more real than your experience, more real than walking out of your house and looking at the sky, then the telescope and the microscope will soon be side by side with the camera, the screen and the accelerated time and space of the car window. The metal and glass frame will swallow us and human beings will lose themselves for their incapacity to fully inhabit the world.

Pageau knows that his desired task of reorienting our perspective will likely fail, with a gulf too broad for us to comprehend.  Still, I encourage you to read the whole article here and try for yourself.^

It is the strict materialization of our things that creates the gulf between us and our things, which then means we cannot access the economies of the past.

If we wish to regain access to this world, we need a different conception of reality itself.  We should take care and not romanticize this version of society.  Mauss points out that violence existed in these societies–though probably not because of stark material inequality.  The societies he describes sometimes had huge surpluses, which they then sometimes consumed in spectacular fashion.  On the other hand, rarely did these societies have much of the technological innovation that we would appreciate.  But, if we wish to access this way of life, we need to stop treating the inanimate things we create and consume as mere means to an end.  Indeed, we often treat others as a means to an end as part of our contribution to a fallen world.  Unfortunately, as the new surrogacy law in Washington state reveals, we are now so completely alienated even from our selves that we will cannibalize our own bodies as a means to an end for ourselves–a bifurcation that puts us far from the world Mauss describes.

“Man is what he eats.”  Alexander Schemmann began his classic For the Life of the World quoting this epigram of Fuerbach.  One might assume that an Orthodox priest would disagree with this radically materialist statement, but Schemmann turns the quote on its head and argues that with this quote Fuerbach, “expressed the most religious idea of man.”  Mere matter does not exist, at least in the way we usually think.  Perhaps the place to begin is with the eucharist, for it is here that symbol and reality fuse together most profoundly, and it is here that the world’s transformation begins anew.

Dave

*This reminds a bit of the modern economic idea that money must circulate through society like blood must circulate through the body.  Was this Ricardo’s idea originally?

**Norbert Elias talks about aristocrats even as late as the 17th century in Spain who were expected to beggar themselves once every 10-15 years or so by hosting grand feasts for entire villages.  After which, the cycle would begin again.  This hosting/feasting was a crucial basis of their authority.

^Pageau has since walked back partially some of the “anti-science” approach he takes in this article.  He has credited Jordan Peterson with helping him see some possible connections between science and the symbolic worldview.

Song of Wrath

For years now I have wondered how many books actually get published.  In the Christian book world every year, for example, more books on prayer, grace, parenting, and so on tumble off the shelves.  Those I glance at sound almost exactly the same.  Of course it’s no business of mine, but nonetheless, I am surprised.

The same phenomena exists in the world of history as well, perhaps especially in ancient history. Here we deal with limited sources and unsure timelines, and so it seems that one can say only so much.  When dealing with the Peloponnesian War I thought that we had reached our limit.  The advent of archaeology and the concomitant renewed interest in the ancient world in the late 19th century begot groundbreaking history on ancient Greece. This all culminated, I thought, with Donald Kagan’s masterful four-volume work published in the 1960’s-70’s.  Having read portions of those books, I thought that the final word had been uttered.  Victor Davis Hanson’s disappointing A War Like No Other, and Nigel Bagnall’s  even more disappointing book on the conflict proved to me that indeed Kagan had the last word. Now saying anything else would put one in an awkward position . . .

Or so I thought.

After all, in any field we should encourage new books because we have to encourage new ways of thinking.  Maybe 90% of what gets published never need see the light of day but that 90% might be needed to get the 10% that shines new light just where it’s needed.

Enter J.E. Lendon, Virginia’s own spirited iconoclast, and his new book Song of Wrath.

Every student of the Peloponessian War rightly begins with Thucydides, and he impresses immediately with his penetrating analysis and fluid arguments.  He talks little about what would be for us, the curiosities of ancient life (commonplaces to them of course), and instead focuses on what moderns would tend to appreciate.  For Thucydides, practical power politics and universal psychological principles explained the war.  But Lendon points out that the very fact that Thucydides has to argue for his point of view shows that he departed from traditional ways the Greeks understood conflict.  He did not reflect, then, a typical Greek understanding of the war.  This does not mean he was wrong, but it means that we must wonder if this great authority spoke rightly.  In the end, Lendon admirably challenges some of Thucydides’ key beliefs and conclusions.

Lendon begins his work by discussing Achilles.  The Iliad begins with a seemingly petty dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles over who has the right to a captured slave-girl.  Agamemnon pulls rank on Achilles and takes Achilles’ woman which leads Achilles to withdraw from the fighting altogether.  Most every modern reader inevitably views Achilles as a total heel, a petulant jerk who would rather see his companions die than accept Agamemnon’s decision, however unfair it may be.  And yet Achilles, not Agamemnon or Odysseus, remained for centuries a revered hero of the Greeks, nearly worshipped by such luminaries as Alexander the Great.

How can this be?

Lendon uses this as a window into what the Greeks valued and how they structured their world.  Once we see the great value they placed on rank and honor, we understand the reasons for the war, and the reasons for certain strategies pursued by both sides much more clearly.  Achilles earned his reputation by sacrificing all to the Greek concept of honor.  We know that he sacrificed long life for glory in battle for starters, but he also willingly defies his king and his friends to preserve his honor.  He reenters the conflict not when his honor receives satisfaction, but when his friend Patroclus dies.  When Achilles fights  he does so not for Agamemnon, but to revenge Patroclus, another key Greek concept.  After slaying Hector, Achilles goes too far and succumbs to hybris.  He drags around Hector’s body and initially refuses burial.  For this, he suffers ignominious retribution in the form of an arrow from spineless Paris. But — he had a magnificent run before he ran aground, and that’s what mattered most.

If we understand honor, revenge, and hybris, Lendon argues, we will understand the Peloponnesian War.

Some might suppose this to be a mere gimmick, but I found this lens suddenly made sense of things that had always puzzled me.  Take the strategy of Athens’ star politician Pericles in the wars earliest days.  Thucydides records Pericles arguing that,

[Sparta’s] greatest difficulty will be want of money, which they can only provide slowly; delay will thus occur, and war waits for no man. Further, no fortified place which they can raise against us is to be feared any more than their navy. As to the first, even in time of peace it would be hard for them to build a city able to compete with Athens; and how much more so when they are in an enemy’s country, and our walls will be a menace to them quite as much as theirs to us! Or, again, if they simply raise a fort in our territory, they may do mischief to some part of our lands by sallies, and the slaves may desert to them; but that will not prevent us from sailing to the Peloponnese and there raising forts against them, and defending ourselves there by the help of our navy, which is our strong arm. For we have gained more experience of fighting on land from warfare at sea than they of naval affairs from warfare on land. And they will not easily acquire the art of seamanship; even you yourselves, who have been practising ever since the Persian War, are not yet perfect. How can they, who are not sailors, but tillers of the soil, do much? They will not even be permitted to practise, because a large fleet will constantly be lying in wait for them. If they were watched by a few ships only, they might run the risk, trusting to their numbers and forgetting their inexperience; but if they are kept off the sea by our superior strength, their want of practice will make them unskilful, and their want of skill timid. Maritime skill is like skill of other kinds, not a thing to be cultivated by the way or at chance times; it is jealous of any other pursuit which distracts the mind for an instant from itself.

The Athenians, Thucydides, and the ancients who commented on the war all approved of Pericles’ strategy, which the above quote outlines in bare detail.  Essentially Pericles wanted to make Athens an island by bringing the population within its walls and refusing to fight the Spartans on land.  Then, with their superior navy they could ravage the Peloponnesian coasts.  Most moderns, on the other hand (myself included) have thought little of his approach.  At best it appears a recipe to avoid losing rather than actually winning.  At worst, it’s a passive strategy guaranteed to give all the advantages to the other side.

Lendon argues that we misunderstand the strategy because we misunderstand the Athens’ war aims.  Athens did not care about imposing their will on Sparta, or finding their “center of gravity” (a la Clauswitz) so much as they desired equal rank with Sparta.  Sparta had the rank of “hegemon” in the Peloponnese, Athens sought hegemon status in Attica and thus, equal status with Sparta in the Greek world.  Sparta will ravage our lands, but we can ravage theirs as well.  We don’t need a “shock and awe” response because we strive not to prove our absolute superiority, but our equality.  Besides, the Athenians would wish to avoid the hybris of seeking something beyond their station. They contented themselves with equality, follow the unspoken rules of war, and avoid the wrath of the gods.*

Armed with this perspective, suddenly other aspects of the war made sense to me. Before I criticized Athenian coastal raids for wasting time and resources to achieve purely symbolic results. This led me to make broader conclusions about the vacillating nature of democracies at war.

Lendon argues of course, that honor and rank have everything to do with symbolism. The Athenian coastal raids had nothing to do with “imposing their will” or tactical advantage, and everything to do with displaying status.  So Lendon’s work not only entertained me, it has forced me to reconsider most of my lesson plans for teaching the war.  Grudgingly . . . I give Lendon my thanks.

Does any of this new analysis have a modern application in war?  Some have suggested that 3rd-world warfare resembles many of these “traditional” concepts of honor and symbolism, and that we must abandon all the Cold-War principles that guided our statecraft.  Some argue that acts of terrorism have a lot more to do with symbols of honor than tactical advantage.^ I cannot comment on this as I lack the knowledge to do so.  But I do think we see a lot of the same principles in our modern political scene.  Democrats and Republicans both press for legislation that will give them “honor” in their districts or with their national following, and often this legislation has mere symbolic value.  Both sides too can obstruct purely for reasons of status, or to refuse honor to the other side.  Some might argue that this is part and parcel of any democracy.  If so, we will need to redefine our definition of democracy, and accept that at least in its modern context, it has little to do with Christianity. It may bear much more direct similarity to our pagan democratic ancestors, and to the song of wrath sung in ancient times . . .

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus. . . .

*In Kagan’s great work he comes close to understanding this.  He addresses the modern puzzlement over Pericles’ strategy by pointing out that the Athenians essentially voted for it on multiple occasions and kept it going even after a plague struck their city  In other words, he points out that the strategy surely made sense to them and they must have thought it effective for their purposes.  Lendon argues that after a few years, Athens could have made a legitimate argument that they had won and proved themselves.  The problem with such conflicts lie in that they need interpreted, and Sparta did not interpret events as the Athenians did.  So the war continued, and in time ended with defeat for Athens in a way no one could misconstrue.

^The tragic attacks on Charlie Hebdo led to a massive and inspiring show of solidarity from the French public.  I applaud them, and to us it appears as a striking rebuke to terrorists.  Part of me wonders, however, if the terrorists derived a sense of satisfaction from it all, i.e. “Look at what we made them do!  Clearly we touched a nerve, which is what we really care about.”  Did they gain status and honor from such a demonstration?

I hope not.  But if the answer is “yes,” the show of solidarity for the side of freedom is worth it regardless of how it gets interpreted by radicals.

This response is also very exciting.

10th Grade: The Galileo Myth

This week we continued with many of the same themes as last week, with a special focus on Galileo.

Thomas HobbesBefore tackling him, we looked at the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ concerned himself mainly with outlining his vision of a workable political system, but he was strongly influenced by the tenor of the times.  Hobbes, like Descartes before him, believed that getting at the truth meant reducing the world to its simplest, most understandable components.  If we dig deep enough, we will finally find an irreducible foundation.  For Descartes, it was thought, and Hobbes builds his politics on the concept of motion.  Mankind, for Hobbes, was in many ways “matter in motion.”

The Scientific Revolution did indeed change many things, and this concept of knowledge may have been at the heart of those changes.  The Medieval philosopher would have argued that to see a thing truly, it must be seen as a whole of many parts.  Not only that, they would have gone further and said that to know a thing, one must know its purpose, its end, its “telos.”

Galileo continued the revolution in other facets of thought.  Copernicus had established the possibility of a heliocentric universe in the 16th century, and while his ideas did not gain wide acceptance, Copernicus was not a controversial figure.  Aristarchus of Samos had, in fact, proposed a similar theory in the 3rd century B.C.  Galileo caused controversy by proposing a new idea of how we arrive at truth, and blurred the lines between theory and fact.  In 1543 a man named Osiander wrote in the preface to Copernicus’ work that,

[W]hen from time to time there are offered for one and the same motion different hypotheses…, the astronomer will accept above all others the one which is easiest to grasp. The philosopher will perhaps seek the semblance of the truth. But neither of them will understand or state anything certain unless it has been divinely revealed to him…. So far as hypotheses are concerned, let no one expect anything certain from astronomy which cannot furnish it, lest he accept as the truth ideas conceived for another purpose and depart from this study a greater fool than when he entered it.

Owen Barfield, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, wrote in his Saving the Appearances, that Galileo

began to affirm that the heliocentric hypothesis not only ‘saved the appearances,’ but was physically true.” What they professed was in fact a new theory of the nature of theory; namely that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with truth.

What (I think) Barfield meant by the idea of “saving the appearances” was the old idea that our notions of scientific truth should do their best to explain the reality that we see around us, to preserve the validity of the senses.  However, this was always recognized to represent our “best guess” and may not reflect actual truth.

But after Galileo the burden of proof shifted.   Arthur Koestler writes in his book The Sleepwalkers that,

if theologians could not refute Galileo their case [would] go by default, and Scripture must be reinterpreted.  This implied (though Galileo did not dare state it explicitly) that the truth of the system was rigorously demonstrated. It is all so subtly done that the trick is almost imperceptible to the reader and, as far as I know, has escaped the attention of students to this very day. Yet it decided the strategy he was to follow in the coming years.

Galileo was right about the Earth’s rotation around the sun, though we would later discover that the sun, too, is in motion.  The issue that I wanted to stress to the students, however, was the fact that one can be right for the wrong reasons.  Many great scientific minds of this time were likely sincere Christians, but the ways which they reached their conclusions may have helped lead people away from Christianity.  True knowledge must involve more than what we see with our senses.

The Scientific Revolution also raised the question of how we should interpret Scripture.  To what degree should scientific discoveries impact how we read the famous passage about the sun standing still in Joshua?

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
 So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,

as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

Of course the Church made mistakes at this time too.  In condemning Galileo they surely overreached and made themselves look silly, contributing to an unnecessary and unhealthy divide between science and faith that lasted for at least three centuries, from which we have fully to recover.
Dave

Time vs. Space Redux

Whether the conversations be thoughtful or awkward, Thanksgiving seems to be a time to think about the times we live in with our families. About a month ago I tried to think about our culture in deeper terms than merely red state vs. blue state, taxes, immigration, and so on. I think what’s plaguing us runs deeper (I base what follows on my previous post on this topic, which is here), though what follows should be seen as a thought experiment more so than anything definitive.

In that previous post I suggested that what might be “proper” tension between Time and Space could vary depending on the culture. So Egypt leaned heavily toward Space, Babylon towards Time, but both civilizations could be considered “great” in different ways. I have only scratched their respective surfaces, but if one reads their mythology and folklore I think we see that they both had some awareness of this necessary tension. My point previously was that we lack even this basic awareness and need to recast our thinking in order to understand our culture more fully.

The problem is not that we contain contradictions within ourselves. We overpraise consistency in most cases. We need the fluidity of Time and the stability of Space in some measure–a society built 100% on either reality would be both an absurdity and an impossibility. One can be 2-1 in favor of space, or 3-2 in favor of time. I think that our issue is, rather, that our different political sides embrace 100% of both without even realizing it. Our political choices then, border on the non-sensical and thus can only go into more subconscious symbolic realms.*

On the Left Time/Fluidity Scale:

  • Open borders–which makes the capital and labor maximally fluid
  • LGBT agendas (which often involve the erosion of the “fixed” state of nature and biology)
  • Maximal “Equality” for men/women (which includes strong pro-choice stances–“safe, legal, and rare” won’t cut it any more), which flatten out distinctions and traditions.

On the Right Time/Fluidity Scale:

  • Free market and free trade (few forces are more destabilizing to tradition, be it good or bad, then the free market, so though I apologize that I can only think of one example for the right, it is a really big one:).

On the Left Space/Stability Scale:

  • Higher minimum wage laws, which restricts the flow of free labor, along with a penchant for corporate regulation.
  • Safe spaces and tight restrictions on what can be said so that the “communal identity” might be preserved

On the Right Space/Stability Scale:

  • Build a wall, protect our borders
  • I don’t see a strident nationalism in the U.S. as a huge problem, but if it came it would certainly come from the right

Again, it is one thing to hold positions in some kind of balance, it is another to hold them maximally in different areas without even being aware of the contradictions.

Once we see that our differences run into mutually contradictory realms, we naturally look for who or what to blame for our predicament. Some say the iPhone, the internet, the 2008 stock market crash, identity politics, the War in Iraq, Newt Gingrich, and so on. But I think we have to go further back. If there is any consolation for us, I don’t think millennials, Get-X’ers, or Boomers started all this.

Perhaps we can begin with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment valued (at least at the beginning) common things for common people. That era valued self-control of body and emotions. So far they lean heavily on the side of Stability/Space. But at the same time they gave strong preference to syllogistic reason, the province of the mind and the elite. Jefferson, Rousseau and others also propounded the most universal ideas (which have no boundaries) in the modern era–“all men are created equal,” and “the rights of man,” from the French Revolution, and so on. It is no wonder that the French Revolution swung so wildly so quickly.

Then we have the Romantic era. On the one hand, they praised emotion which put them heavily on the side of Time/Fluidity. But at the same time the Romantic movement gave birth to the modern recovery of folklore, fairy tales, and a kind of ethno-nationalism seen in Wagner, among others, all of which strongly favor Space/Stability.

The dramatic tension in the Romantic movement has a touchstone example in England’s empire. They spread throughout the globe (Time) but also sought to bring England’s culture (Space) everywhere they went. Such tension might very well produce something of a “schism in the soul” that Toynbee often wrote about.

In W.W. II both of the major Axis powers (Germany and Japan) sought to mimic the British in far, far more hideous ways.

  • Both Germany and Japan were strong ethno-nationalist states, yet both sought a significant increase of their territorial reach.
  • Both had strongly hierarchical views of authority (Space), but their military strategies strongly favored continual motion and speed (observe how Hitler took the traditional swastika image and pivoted it to give the impression of continuous forward motion. The problem being, of course, is that the swastika shape cannot “move.” It could not spin or roll forward. Thus, the inherent contradictions of Nazism were present right within its foremost symbol).
  • I believe that both countries perhaps subconsciously pursued impossible objectives that could only end in cataclysmic defeat–the kind of destruction that can come only with a violent clash of two opposing forces (I write a bit about this here).

In our own land we have struggled with the same dichotomies. Our blended form of government gets somewhat near a political balance of Time & Space. But in truth, we have no truly conservative tradition outside of democracy to call upon, which can lead to excess fluidity of the liberal democratic tradition. We have a strong sense of land (stability) being tied to liberty (fluidity) inherited from Aristotle, Locke, et al. but showed an outsized and continuous desire for more and more land–a quasi schizophrenia between Time and Space. Every political theorist on democracy thought that for it to work it needed contained in a small space–“stability” to balance out the “fluidity” of liberty. We said “no thanks” to that and immediately upon getting our independence, we began rapidly expanding our territory, believing that perhaps everyone else was wrong about this political calculus.

Possibly this can give us some perspective on the current Time/Space war in our culture. If it feels like it is accelerating, it may be because we are entering another election cycle, or perhaps it is the pace of life which our ubiquitous “time-saving” technologies push us towards. But I think too that both political parties contribute to this by jumping into the mosh-pit.

On the ACLU Twitter homepage their banner reads, “Fight for the Country We Want to Live In.” I don’t wish to pick on the ACLU per se–my point likely could have been made with other organizations, though I do fear that they too are becoming overly politicized. The country we “want” to live in? The country I want to live in is an impossible pipe-dream of my own personal fancies.** No one should want me to fight for the country I want to live in. The country I need involves something much more sane–a balance between Time and Space, and left and right. That perhaps, is worth a fight.

Dave

*By this I mean that we will make our political choices more from our gut and less from our head. This will likely give an advantage to Trump, who seems quite comfortable governing from his gut impulses.

**Growing up I swore that if I ever became King of the U.S.A., I would first and foremost make it illegal for bands to release a “Greatest Hits” album with one new song on it. The internet has fortunately solved this for me, but in so doing it did take away what was to be a major plank in my policy platform.

10th Grade: Ramandu and the Scientific Revolution

Greetings to all,

We spent the week looking at three key figures of the Scientific Revolution.  An explosion of scientific awareness and knowledge occurred from the beginning of the 17th to the middle of the 18th centuries.  Some of the great minds in history like Descartes, Galileo, and Newton made extraordinary discoveries and changed the way we viewed the world.  All three of these men may have been devout believers but their ideas seemed to push people away from Christianity.  Why was this?

In the aftermath of the devastating period of religious wars that ended after the Thirty Years War in 1648, people began to search for a new way of understanding the world.  During the Middle Ages things were understood first as a whole, then broken into its component parts.  Now knowledge would begin with the particulars.  One gained understanding of a thing through observation and induction.

This new way of understanding is perhaps best encapsulated by a conversation in C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Dawn Treader.’  In this volume of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the character Eustace meets a retired star named Ramandu (in Narnia stars are personal beings), and tells him that “in our world a star is  a huge ball of flaming gas.”  “That is not what a star is,” replied  Ramandu, “but only what it is made of.”  Eustace represents this new way of understanding as a result of the Scientific Revolution, the star the old.  Eustace has a reductionistic view of reality, one influenced by our modern scientific outlook.  The star sees things more in terms of their teleological purpose — who we are should be defined not by our biology, our circumstances, or even our choices — all measurable, tangible things.  Rather, our identity should come from we were made for, our design, our “telos.”

Perhaps one can see the impact this might have on Christianity, which would ultimately be robbed of mystery and imagination.  Without mystery and imagination, orthodox belief about the incarnation, the trinity, and the atonement, among others, cannot be sustained.  The full impact of this way of thinking for society would not be felt until the 20th century (at least in my opinion), but we will see the beginnings of its effects in the Enlightenment and French Revolution, and more debatably, perhaps also in the founding of America.

We began by looking at Francis Bacon, the “Father of the Scientific Method.”  He believed that science had long laid imprisoned by dogma.  Medieval Science had largely proceeded along the following lines.

1. Deduction over Induction

Deduction works like this:

All Men are Mortal

Socrates was a Man

Therefore, Socrates was mortal.

We have a certain conclusion based upon a universal premise.  But of course, the premise must be assumed, it can’t be proven.  In other words, you have to work from assumptions, from ‘faith.’

2. The Dominance of the Past

Aristotle, Ptolemy, and others held great sway over Medieval science.  Part of this fact was rooted in humility.  If you and Einstein did the same problem and arrived at different results, would you trust Einstein or yourself?  Part of this attitude had its roots in the loss of so much scientific heritage after the fall of Rome, and the fact that the Romans were not particularly scientific to begin with.  This led to an assumption that past thinkers were smarter than you.

In general, Medieval society was not geared towards innovation, both in economics, industry, and science.  That is not to say that no innovation existed in the Medieval world.  It did exist, especially in architecture.  But,  it was not their priority.

Bacon sought to overturn the whole basis of science by focusing not on unproved assumptions, but measurement, observation, and experimentation.  He favored Induction.  If we return to our previous syllogism we see it would run this way.

Socrates was a man

Socrates was mortal

Therefore, ???

What can you say in the final analysis?  You cannot say that all men are mortal.  You can only say that Socrates is mortal, or perhaps that ‘Some men (meaning at least 1 man) are mortal.  Nothing needs to be ‘taken on faith,’ but on the other hand, no ultimate truth can be discovered.  Modern science would be much more effective at advancing our specific knowledge of the finite world, but would not be able to communicate any grand meaning.

Marshal McLuhan wrote in 1964 that, “The medium is the message.”  This idea has many facets, but one of them is that the form of communication will have a decisive influence over what exactly we communicate.  Bacon did much for Science in freeing from over-reliance on accepted theory. But, if Science has as its “modus operandi” observation and experimentation, then the ability to do something becomes the reason for doing it.  Hence, science  can gallop far ahead of a society’s moral compass, i.e. abortion, nuclear weapons, cloning, and so on.

We see this specifically in the philosophy of Descartes.  Descartes fought in the 30 Years War and must have thought that the world he knew, all the old certainties, were crashing down about him.  He sought a new path to certainty.  Ultimately he wanted a fresh basis for acting in the world which certainly included God and the Church.  What went wrong?  With his famous phrase, “Cognito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) Descartes builds his system on

  • Doubt.  He found that he could doubt everything — except the fact that he was doubting.  This doubting proved that he must be thinking, and if he was thinking he must exist.
  • Himself.  It is the individual thinking man on which Descartes builds his universal system.  But we are finite, and not universal.  Thus, any system built upon something finite would be bound to fail.  In a famous Socratic dialogue, the philosopher Protagoras proclaimed that ‘Man is the measure of all things.’  “Which man?” was the essence of Socrates’s famous reply.

Again, and again, with Thomas Hobbes, Galileo, and perhaps even Newton we will see this phenomena.  Galilelo, for example, said,

“In every hypothesis of reason error may lurk unnoticed, but a discovery of sense cannot be at odds with the truth.”

Is this indeed true?  Are our senses infallible?  Is what we can measure the highest standard of truth?

A great deal of good came from the Scientific Revolution, and many of these pioneering scientists professed a Christian faith.   What I want the students to recognize for how, however, is the reductionistic view of reality shared by most of these Scientific pioneers.  Descartes, for example, reduced everything to doubt, while Hobbes reduced everything to motion.  The de-mystifying of the world around us would not serve Christianity in the long run.  Below are Descartes’ own drawings.  Who would not admire their elegance and grace?  I do feel, however, that they belie something of Descartes’ materialism.

It is not so much the conclusions they reached, but how they reached them, that should have been of great concern to the Church.  Unfortunately the Church’s hold on the populace had diminished, mostly thanks to their own actions, wars, and brutalities.  We see this spirit of reaction against the concept of ‘faith’ in general throughout these eminent men.  Many, like Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo, seemed to be honest Christian men who thought they did Christianity a favor.  No doubt in some respects they did.  But some of  their assumptions were just as unproven as Aristotle’s.

Next week we will continue with a few other thinkers of the Scientific Revolution as we work towards the mid-term exam.

If you are curious, I include below some primary source text from the period indicating the shift that took place.

The Great Divide: Primary Sources on the Scientific Revolution and Religion

The fierceness of violent inspirations is in good measure departed: the remains of it will soon be chased out of the World by the remembrance of the the terrible footsteps it has everywhere left behind it.  And yet, though the Church of Rome still preserves its pomp, yet its real authority is also decaying.   This is the present state of Christendom.  It is now impossible to spread the same cloud over the world again: the universal disposition of this age is bent on rational religion.

Let it be a true observation that many modern naturalists have been negligent in the worship of God; yet perhaps they have been driven on this profaneness by the late excesses of enthusiasm.  The infinite pretences to . . . Divine inspiration that have abounded in this age have carried several men of wit so far as to reject the whole matter.   From hence it derives that [for religion to recover its place] it must not endeavor to cast a veil of darkness, but chiefly to allay spiritual madness.

Sprat, The History of the Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge, 1667

Man’s lot is so unfortunately placed that those lights that deliver him from one evil precipitate him into another.  Cast out ignorance and barbarism, and you will overthrow superstition.  But in the act of illuminating men’s mind’s regarding these [mental disorders], you will inspire them for a passion to examine everything, and they will apply the fine tooth comb, and they will go into such subtleties that they will find nothing to content their wretched Reason.

Bayle, The Dictionary, 1696

It is worthy to be observed and lamented that the most violent of these defenders of truth, the “opposers of errors,”  . . .do hardly ever let loose this their zeal for God, with which they are so inflamed, unless they have the civil magistrate on their side.  As soon as court favor has given them the better end of the staff, they begin to feel themselves the stronger, then presently peace and charity are laid aside.

One finds that, as soon as Christians were in a position to persecute, they leveled the same reproach against religious error that Paganism leveled at Christianity.  Unhappy advocates of intolerance!  Your malady must indeed be a bizarre one, considering that it is proof against being cured by the application of lex talionis.

John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689

When [the spirit of religious division] is rife, you need have no fear that the multiplicity of sects will create many skeptics.

Bayle, Letters, ca. 1690

The doctrine of right and wrong is perpetually disputed, whereas the doctrine of lines and figures is not so, because men care not so what be the truth as pertains to their lust or ambition.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

Mechanics is the paradise of the mathematical sciences, because with mechanics, we reach the fruit that mathematics can be made to bear.

Mechanical science is most noble above all sciences, because this one is the means by which all living bodies that have the power of movement perform all their operations.

Science is the Captain and Practice the rank and file. . . .   People who fall in love with Practice without Science are like the skipper who boards ship without rudder or compass and who consequently never knows where he is going

Leonardo da Vinci

All knowledge is to be got the same way that a language is: by industry, use, and observation.

Whatever other hurt or good comes by such holy speculative wars, yet certainly by this means the knowledge of Nature has been very much retarded. . . .  The wit of men has been profusely poured out on religion, which needed not its help, and which was thereby made tempestuous.  Experimental Philosophy [i.e. Science] will prevent men spending the strength of their thoughts about disputes by turning them into works.

Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London, 1667

It cannot be denied that it is rare to find any great religious devotion in people who have tasted of the study of mathematics, or have made any progress in the province of Science.

Bayle, The Dictionary, 1696

Only let Mankind regain their rights over Nature, assigned to them by the gift of God, and obtain that power, whose exercise will be governed by right reason and true religion.

F. Bacon, Novum Organum (emphasis mine), 1620

I perceived it to be possible to arrive at a knowledge highly useful in life, . . . .to discover a practical philosophy, by means of which — knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, . . .we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus make ourselves the lords and possessors of Nature.

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, 1637

 

Have a great weekend,

Dave