A Can of Corn

I was never a great baseball player but I had my moments. Somehow, though I am not tall and never was very fast or in possession of a strong arm, I fanangled my way into playing the outfield. Compared to the infield, one had less action, but the action was superior and more intense. The stakes were higher. Muff a grounder and no one really notices, but not so a fly ball. Of course chasing down a long moon shot had its pleasures, but my favorite moments were always the high, lazy fly balls, the “cans of corn” as known in baseball parlance. You knew you would catch these, and so you could just stand under them serenely, watching the ball spin against the blue sky. Time stood still, one needn’t worry about Republicans or Democrats, the past or the future–it was enormously satisfying.

This will sound weird, but Odell Shepherd’s The Lore of the Unicorn, an examination of various arguments before and against the existence of the fabled beast, struck me in just this way. There were so many ways this book could have gone wrong. We would be disinclined to believe a medieval writer. In the 17th century the book would have been too technical. In the 18th century it would have had way too many commas and semi-colons. A 19th century treatment would be too emotional and romantic. Bill Bryson on this topic would be too jocular and snarky. But Shepherd brings a light writing style combined with proper reverence for the sources pro and con.

Why not unplug for a bit and consider the unicorn?

When I began the book I thought the foundation for belief in the unicorn’s existence in the pre-modern west rested on a few old Greek guys, and that is true. But, it is only partially true, and true in more complex ways than I expected:

  • Ctesias wrote about the unicorn around 400 B.C., but he lived much of his life in Persia in service to the Persian kings. Xenophon writes that Ctesias healed the wound of Artaxerxes II after the Battle of Cunaxa. Seeing as how Ctesias kick’s this question off, we’ll quote him in full.

“There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger.  Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes blue. They have a horn on their forehead which is about 1 ½ feet long.  The dust from this horn ground is made into a potion that protects against poisons. The base of the horn is pure white, but the top is the purest crimson, and the remainder is black.  Those who drink from this horn, they say, are not subject to epilepsy.

The animal is exceedingly swift–powerful and fierce, so that nothing can overtake it.”

  • Aristotle thought Ctesias untrustworthy overall, but he agreed with him that the unicorn did exist.

“We have never seen an animal with a solid hoof (i.e., not cloven) and two horns, and there are only a few with a solid hoof and one horn, as the Indian ass [unicorn] and the oryx.  Of all animals with a solid hoof, the Indian ass alone has a talus [he large bone in the ankle that articulates with the tibia of the leg and the calcaneum and navicular bone of the foot].

Animalium Book 3, Chapter 41

Perhaps only second to Aristotle in authority for such questions would have been

  • Pliny the Elder, ca. 60 A.D.

The Orsean Indians hunt an exceedingly wild beast called the monoceros, which has a stag’s head, elephant’s feet, and a boar’s tail, the rest of its body belng like that of a horse.  It makes a deep lowing noise, and one black horn two cubits long projects from the middle of its forehead. This animal, they say, cannot be taken alive.

Natural History, Book 8, Chapter 33

Some of what we read here may perplex us, such as the multi-colored horn (did he see painted or decorated horns?) and the fact that the unicorn is not white. If we take also the testimony of Appolonius of Tyana and Aelian, we get some basic agreement, but more disagreement than I expected. Pliny introduces the question of whether or not we should be thinking of a rhinoceros. All in all, the ancient sources appear to me to operate basically independently.

If you have a King James Bible, one notes that several passages mention a unicorn (Num. 23:22, Deut. 33:17, Ps. 39:6, Is. 34:7, Job 39:9-10, etc.). Some of these passages could possibly refer to a rhinoceros, and others, not so much, i.e., in Psalm 39:6 the unicorn is said to “skip like a calf”–rhinos don’t skip. Also, different passages mention “exaltation” like the horn of a unicorn, and a rhinoceros horn doesn’t quite fit this.

For some, the fact that the Bible mentions the unicorn is proof that it never existed, since for them the Bible contains so much fanciful gobbledygook. Others assert that the unicorn can’t exist because they haven’t seen it and don’t know anyone who has. These silly attitudes merit little attention. But I have also seen Christians who say, “The Bible mentions unicorns, so if you believe in the authority of the Bible, you must believe in unicorns.”

The question has more complexity, however. It mainly involves the translation of a two key words: “re’em” in Hebrew and “monoceros” in Greek. St. Justin Martyr, St. Ireneaus, and St. Basil the Great all seem to profess belief in the unicorn based on how they translate the Greek along with other factors. But St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory the Great all believed that the passages quoted above speak of a rhinoceros and may have denied the existence of unicorns altogether. We cannot say that such men denied the authority of Scripture.

Still, for medievals the case for the unicorn remained stronger than the case against. Even Albert the Great, teacher to St. Thomas and one of the best scientific minds of that era, believed in its existence (though doubted the horn’s medicinal effects). Interestingly, belief in the unicorn may have increased in the Renaissance as the ancient Roman arts of poisoning found a new home in the classically obsessed Italians. Various dukes traveled with unicorn horns (so called) in hopes of having them ward off poisons.

But in time, belief in the unicorn ebbed away, and why this happened deserves attention as well, but more on this later. All throughout the history of unicorn belief, skeptics have weighed in with alternate theories.

Theory 1: The Unicorn as Rhinoceros

We have touched on this briefly already from the Bible, but a few other points of interest could be mentioned:

  • With its very tough hide, the rhino cannot be hunted in the standard way other beasts can
  • Like the ancient descriptions say, the rhino is very strong
  • Some even today believe in the medicinal powers of its horn
  • The “elephant’s feet” from Pliny’s description match that of a rhino.

For me, however, this stretches things a bit too far. More persuasive, in my view is

Theory 2: The Unicorn as the African Oryx

  • Like the descriptions of the unicorn, it is tall, fast, and powerful
  • It somewhat matches the colors mentioned by some ancient authors
  • Its location in Africa matches that of many ancient sightings
  • The oryx was known as difficult to hunt and rare even in the time of Oppian (ca. 160 A.D.).
  • As for the two horns, there are two possibilities: 1) African natives testify that when two oryx’s fight, sometimes a horn can break off, or 2) Some naturalists suppose the possibility of a genetic anomaly occurring and an onyx being born with just one horn.

And, one rare form of the species, the Arabian Oryx, is actually white:

Some also think that Aristotle thought that unicorn was in fact, the oryx.

I much prefer this theory to the unicorn as rhinoceros. I am very nearly convinced, but still . . . two horns is not one horn, and the ancients and medievals could count.

Theory 3: The Unicorn as a Transmuted Eastern/Christian Myth

St. Isidore of Seville (7th century) did believe in the unicorn, and he had a strong influence on the formation of medieval bestiaries. He writes,

“Rhinoceron” in Greek means “Horn in the nose,” and “Monoceros” is a Unicorn, and it is a right cruel beast.  And he has that name for he has a horn in the middle of his forehead of 4 feet long. And that horn is so sharp and strong that he throweth down all, and all he rests upon.  And this beast fights oft with the elephant and wounds him and sticks him in the belly, and throws him down to the ground. And a unicorn is so strong that he cannot be taken with the might of hunters.  But men that write of such things say that if you set out a maid [i.e., a virgin] he shall come. And she opens her lap [or possibly, her breast], and he lays his head thereon, and leaves all of his fire, and sleeps thereon.

In the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis there is a curious image of what appears to be a unicorn and a lion:

Lions represent the masculine and kingly power. Some see in this image, then, that either 1) The power of the king was mighty enough even to hunt and kill a unicorn, or 2) The masculine sun triumphs over the feminine moon, day triumphs over night (it seems even in Persia unicorns may have been thought of as white in color).

I agree with Shepherd that we should view this image mostly in mythological rather than historical or political terms. But Shepherd makes nothing of the violent depiction here, and the contrast with the medieval version of the similar story.

We have already noted the power of the unicorn and that no one can capture or contain him. The medieval versions of the story go deeper into the archetypal patterns. First, the singular horn. Shepherd cites numerous stories of how single-horned beasts had a position of great honor. For example,

  • Plutarch relates that Pericles’ farmhands presented him with a one-horned bull (the horns had merged into one) as a mark of thanks and honor.
  • One-horned cattle are seen as bending towards the king in Ethiopian carvings.
  • In the Jewish Talmud, Adam offers to God a one-horned bull after his exile from Paradise, the most precious thing he owned.

The singularity of the horn unites all these instances. In the standard bestiary of the middle ages, the author writes as a postscript,

The unicorn signifies Christ, who was made incarnate in Mary’s womb, was captured by the Jews, and was put to death. The unicorn’s fierce wildness shows the inability of hell to hold Christ. The single horn represents the unity of God and Christ. The small size of the unicorn [relatively, one must assume–an elephant is certainly bigger], is a symbol of Christ’s humility in becoming human.

Even as far back as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the feminine has always humanized or tamed the masculine. This pattern finds its ultimate expression in the Incarnation itself, where the Virgin Mary contains the uncontainable God, and, dare we say, “humanizes” God? They went on to say that that through the virtues of the spotless Virgin Mary, humanity “wooed” God–the so-called “Holy Hunt.”

So, it should not surprise us that in the famous Unicorn Tapestry, the unicorn is captured within a circular fence, reminding us of a wedding ring–God binding Himself to humanity.

Lions make their way into this tapestry as well, though in a different way than ancient Persia:

So, some argue that the maybe the medievals never really thought the unicorn was a real beast, but simply a helpful story to convey spiritual truth. Or, if they did believe in a real unicorn, they did so only as a mistake, a pleasing and helpful tale incarnated too far in their fertile imaginations.

My one beef with Shepherd’s marvelous book is that he refuses to pick a side in this debate, but I will do so.

I am able to accept that the theory of the unicorn as rhinoceros has merit, but I am not convinced. It does have one horn which many regarded as salutary. But the horn is not “exalted,” and the rhino simply lacks the grace, dignity, and metaphorical heft history has placed upon it.

The oryx theory very nearly convinces me. The speed, elusivity, and necessary “dignity” of the beast are present. Imagine a genetic ‘mistake’ with an Arabian oryx with one horn and it nearly solves the problem stem to stern. But oryx’s have two horns, and as we have seen, the singular horn stands as a crucial fact in the case. True, in a pure profile one would only see one horn of the oryx. But again, oryx’s do move, and people can count to two.

In fact, Shepherd mentions many citings of the unicorn throughout the centuries. Yes, hypothetically all could be mistaken, exaggerating, or lying. Maybe some saw the Arabian oryx. And yes, it seems strange that in the era of iphones, that none would have a picture if it existed. Possibly it did exist and went extinct some centuries ago.

What I can’t abide are those that say that because the medievals allegorized at length with the unicorn, it shows that they are easily fooled or cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction. It also minimizes the importance of the patterns laid down throughout all the ages–as if isolated”facts” that have no meaning had greater importance than all of our stories. Undeniably certain myths existed around the unicorn, but myth is not a symbol for “falsehood.”

Which brings us to why belief in the unicorn has sharply declined over the last few centuries, and especially in our day. Belief in dragons declined rather markedly after the Middle Ages, if they were ever literally believed in at all. Clearly many ancient and medieval people believed literally in unicorns. Unlike other so-called fanciful beasts, unicorn belief persisted after the medieval era, into the Renaissance and beyond. Even in the 17th century some still believed in the unicorn, as did some British explorers into the 19th century–a Major Latter wrote in 1820 that he had definitely seen a unicorn in Africa. None of this has happened with dragons.

I think the reason for the decline, regardless of whether the unicorn ever existed or not, is that we have lost the stories, we have lost the reasons for anything being anything in the first place. True, if the unicorn had not existed, the medieval people might have made him up–it fits that well into their symbolic world, just as it did for other cultures. I suppose this could be slight critique against them if one really felt the need for it. But we, on the other hand, have no need for anything to exist for any particular reason, including ourselves. Many of us are, as Walker Percy brilliantly deduced some 40 years ago, Lost in the Cosmos.

I think a discussion on cable news over whether or not the unicorn existed would reveal a lot about us, such as the role of tradition, science, and the sexes. I say, we should get at all our major worldview questions not through Twitter, CNN, Fox, or the National Review, but through pleasant cans of corn like the one Odell Shepherd has given us. These moments that stop time are likely the most important of all.

Dave

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“It was . . . Soap Poisoning!”

Abstract logic is the weapon of choice of most teenagers. Certainly this tool can intoxicate, but . . . it can often be fool’s gold.

For example, a parent tells their teenage driver to be home from a night out with friends at no later than 10:30. The teen arrives home at 10:50 and shrugs, “It’s not that big of a deal.” The teen will often attempt to atomize the parental rebuke with logic: “It’s just 20 minutes. if I was 20 minutes late coming home from work you wouldn’t care, or 20 minutes late coming home from school, you wouldn’t care. So to get angry about this particular 20 minutes only shows utter arbitrariness in your distinctions. It is your power, and your power alone to define what constitutes a meaningful 20 minutes is why I am in trouble, and no other reason.”

Ah yes, nothing burns so fiercely in the teenage soul as the apparent arbitrary nature of various parental decisions and distinctions. The teenager may suffer consequences, but they will suffer them rejoicing in their moral superiority. They see, they know the Injustice, and dream that perhaps one day, one day, parents will be struck by a terrible self-knowledge . . .

Reading Murray Edelman’s Constructing the Political Spectacle left me feeling that I was listening to a 16 year-old who thinks he has discovered the secret truth of the universe that somehow everyone over 30 for the last several millennia has missed.

Edelman’s bases his book on the idea that our politics do not reflect an objective reality that we recognize, but a constructed reality made by those in power. Often, politicians will do things to perpetuate their power artificially by creating enemies or crises. We create such things via the terms we use, or the definitions we create. Very skillful politicians construct reality with tone or posture. It seems to me that Edelman believes we are puppets on the strings of language, a fairly standard postmodern perspective.

As an example of his perspective, Edelman discusses the idea of a political crisis through the Cuban Missile Crisis. We called the Russians placing missiles in Cuba a “crisis,” one that nearly triggered war. But we had missiles just as close to Russia as they did to us–many more of them, in fact. Another narrative of seeing the Russians striving for greater global security through strategic parity emerges. Which narrative we pick will depend on which definition we use, and the definitions those in power chose elevated the government’s status. The “Cuban Missile Crisis” was a crisis only because we defined it so–we could have easily chosen other language to create a different reality.

Certainly we have to get below the surface narrative that favors our side, but the equivalency Edelman attempts make sense only in a pure abstraction. In the real world we know that placing missiles under a cloak of deceit (which the Russians did in Cuba) means that we have to see beyond merely where missiles are located and how many each side has. In the same way, we know that when a teenager comes home 20 minutes late from school, and another time comes home 20 minutes late from being out with his friends at night, the difference between these two 20 minutes is hardly arbitrary.

Other problems exist with the book . . .

  • He discusses how political leaders have power in part because of their visibility. They can control the symbols by which they are viewed, which in turn makes them seem more than just figments. But every leader since the dawn of time has been invested with some kind of symbolic/semi-sacred (in some cases fully sacred) authority. Has every civilization simply not had the advantage of getting to Derrida’s philosophy? It seems much more reasonable to assume that these symbolic forms mean something real, and are not just pure manipulations.
  • He discusses how political leaders might create enemies to boost their power, i.e. Wag the Dog. Sure, it can happen sometimes, but some enemies are real. ISIS is not a semantic construction. How would Edelman propose we tell the difference between real and fake enemies?
  • He criticizes the use of semantic and symbolic constructions to achieve collective action. Yes, this can be bad sometimes, but he never reminds us that it can also be done for good ends. I had the suspicion that collective action itself was presumed guilty, but surely we cannot exist apart from some occasional collective action.

As I read my frustration with Edelman grew, and not so much even because I am conservative and every example he used in the book made conservatives (or those with power, such as generals) the bad people for how they used symbols and defined the terms. After all, people can write books that critique conservatives, and I can learn from them. No–my frustration stemmed from the assumptions his arguments made about those on the left, and even himself. Edelman’s thesis leaves us with the following choices:

  • Only bad conservatives know how to wield symbols and construct the political spectacle in their favor, which makes those on the left either blind sheep or slaphappy stupid.
  • Those on the left can construct political realities but not get others to follow very often, which seems to cede much of the high ground to conservatives–maybe their policies really do represent the majority of citizens?– or assume that the great mass of people are dumb and easily manipulated, but only by conservatives (the left must lack the talent?)
  • Every unified political action is nothing more than symbol and word manipulation, which means that those on the right and left are “bad” when they try and do this.
  • Not to mention, Edelman himself becomes “bad” for trying to impose his narrative of definitions and language on me, the innocent reader. “Don’t impose your ‘there is no Narrative’ narrative on me, man. I just want to live and let live.

I have been quite critical of Edelman, but he, like other postmoderns, latches onto an important truth. The teenager has to arrive at a point where they realize that their parents are not gods and that the world they live in–constructed largely by their parents–has many arbitrary elements in them. Applying these insights into society and politics has its place. The Enlightenment modern project needed taken down a notch or two. But the teen can’t stay in a constant critique. He needs to build something, but Edelman gives us no tools for the task.

Andrew Kern of the Circe Institute has a helpful breakdown of different kinds of education. First, there is the Pragmatic education, then the Traditional, then the Wisdom education. Each type, Kern reminds us, is based on faith in something.

  • A Pragmatic education bases itself on the belief that all that is worthy is what can be seen, measured, and useful for his brute survival–food, water, shelter.
  • A Traditional education respects the past and knows that things exist beyond what he can see or measure–his society, or heritage, for one. He believes in the value of this inheritance, and receives the proper training to honor that tradition and to sacrifice for it.
  • A Wisdom education tries to do more, to stand outside the Tradition and ask questions of it. It tries to get at the roots of a society. It can lead one to see faults within the Tradition and hopefully correct it when needed. If the Traditionalist has faith in an unseen inheritance, it is still an earthly oriented inheritance. A Wisdom education believes in something transcendent above all traditions. 

One might think that Edelman gives us wisdom, because of his ability to see through traditions. I disagree. First, true education has to lead us somewhere, and Edelman merely deconstructs. Second, a wisdom education has to involve love, has to involve a giving of oneself to something higher. No societal critique works without roots in love of the Tradition.* I sense nothing of this in Edelman. He gives us logic-chopping straight from the freezer.

But even a “Wisdom” education rooted in love of the Tradition would not fully complete our education. Kern reminds us that there remains a fourth and final stage of education, one that even many Christians miss, just as the Corinthian church in St. Paul’s day missed it. The proof of their failure was their disunity. They used all of their wisdom to fight with each another. Indeed, being able to evaluate a tradition doesn’t mean that we will agree on what is right or wrong about the tradition. Perhaps one might arguably see some of this division of mind present even in Solomon, the wisest of the wise, and the presumed author of the somewhat confusing book of Ecclesiastes.

The final stage of education, then involves something beyond critique, and into the realm of Play, into the great dance of the Triune God, where unity and diversity cohere in the foundation of Being itself, where we are fully united one with another but are never more our own unique selves simultaneously.

Herein lies the Secret of the Gospel, and the answer to Edelman.

Dave

*If we could summarize the basic problems with the political Left and Right, it would be

  • The Right wants to uphold the Tradition with little to no critique of it.
  • The Left simply critiques the Tradition without any love for it (or, if they praise America, they praise it almost exclusively for being able to correct its mistakes–a perpetual motion machine of self doubt, and sometimes, self loathing).

Both sides have something to offer, and both sides often see with one eye closed. As I mentioned elsewhere, the first half of the 20th century shows us the horror that unquestioning love of a Tradition can bring. Since then we see the spiritual and moral vacuum of deconstruction with no place to stand with no map available.

Symbolic Matters

I am republishing this fairly recent post in the dog-days of summer based on a few observations . . .

First . . .

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

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

Secondly . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the original post . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following Smith’s largely unspoken line of thought brings us to a sober realization. Are all our silly fights really about something important? If we can focus on the real issue at hand, perhaps we could make progress in solving them.

Dave

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

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

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

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


Familial Anxiety

Perhaps Mary Douglas’ Catholic faith gave her great perception in her examination of the so-called “Bog Irish,” who emigrated from Ireland to London to find work in the mid-20th century.

This group of Irish Catholics found themselves in a country that had long persecuted them on some level, and who had slim tolerance for their faith. What bound them together was their observance from abstinence from meat on Fridays. Perhaps they did not always pray or love their neighbor as they should, but they faithfully avoided eating meat on Fridays. Whatever one feels about such practice, it had the effect of binding themselves together as a “peculiar people” in the midst of exile.

Of course, the injunction against eating meat went beyond mere cultural significance, as each Friday fast could link us in some small physical way to Christ’s death. In the late 1960’s modernist Catholic bishops made the decision to eliminate the obligatory Friday abstinence. Some of them seemed to worry about their parishioners seeming “weird” to the surrounding culture. In general, they expected that the faithful could take their zeal for Friday abstinence from meat and apply it instead to other more “meaningful” good works, such as prayer and serving their fellow man.

But the opposite happened. For Douglas, anyone versed in the actual history of human experience should have known this. The removal of the binding ritual did not create more good works, but less belief, and most likely, fewer good works. The “good works” asked for by the bishops, of course, should be done by any Christian, but “we live by symbols,” as Douglas states, and the removal of the ritual removed the ground that their faith rested on. No identity=no faith. Douglas writes,

The Catholic hierarchy today [1968] are under pressure to underestimate the expressive function of ritual. [They exhort] Catholics to invent individual acts of almsgiving as a more meaningful celebration of Friday. But why Friday? Why not be good and generous all the time? As soon as the symbolic action is denied value in its own right, the floodgates to confusion are opened.

[As] there is no person whose life does not need to unfold in a coherent symbolic system.. . . there is a dreary conclusion for those who turn to good works to solve problems about their own identity. They are liable to be frustrated on every count. First, it would seem that they must give their good causes over to bureaucratic energies of industrial organization, or they will have no effect. Second, . . . they will never be able to arrange their personal relations so that a structure of non-verbal symbols can emerge. For only a ritual structure makes possible a wordless channel of communication that is not entirely incoherent.

Douglas, p. 38, pp. 50-51

She then points out that the Maccabean martyrs (cf. 1 & 2 Maccabees) equated not eating pork with the entirety of obedience to God’s law. Their abstinence from pork formed an integral part of a whole way of existing.

Mary Douglas’ title, Natural Symbols, Explorations in Cosmology may be daunting to many, as it was to me. But she writes in a manner to match her clear, concise perception I thought her work superior to Ruth Benedict’s. Benedict could describe entwined patters of culture well, but she seemed to not quite grasp the meaning of these patterns. Perhaps Douglas built on her work, for she not only sees the patters, she perceives their meaning–perhaps her Irish Catholic background helped her with this.

As an entry point into this shift, Douglas first looks at how families function. She offers two basic modes, what she calls “Positional” and “Personal.”

Positional families

  • Value truth, piety, and duty
  • The cardinal sins relate to failures to live into the expectations of the group, or to maintain the appropriate ritual behaviors. Discipline takes the form of, “You should know that members of our group do not act that way.”
  • Have a wide network/structure over the individual, to which the individual has reference to

Personal families

  • Value sincerity, authenticity, individuality
  • The main sins relate to failures to “be all that you can be,” and discipline takes the form of “How could you do this to me?” or, “How could you do this to yourself?”
  • Celebrate the individual triumphing over the structure

For most of human history, we have had some kind of positional family structure, but now most everyone in the western world has grown up in at least a mostly “Personal” family. The consequences of this shift have profound implications for us, and involve, among other things, a movement from the concrete to the abstract.

Douglas points to the Reformation as the origin of this shift with some merit, but I will take a flyer and point to the Renaissance as when this began. We can see this in the art of the Renaissance and the medieval era which preceded it.

Many might assume that medieval religious art was ‘obscurantist.’ Certainly they used symbols in their art, but it communicated a concrete message. St. Anthony the Great, for example, had great stature but the depictions of him tell us that, “you can be like him, he is one of us.” So too the statues astride their cathedrals. Whatever “legends” may have been told about such saints, they lived real lives as you and I did.

But, to take perhaps the most famous example, who can be Michelangelo’s “David?”

Of course, no one can be such a man, and thus David becomes not a saint or even a man, but an ideal in the ether. The Renaissance also revived an interest in mythology. I agree that myths are not simply lies, and that they can have value in leading one to truth. But one must careful with such stories. The pagan could believe that Marsyas was literally flayed by Apollo, but not the man of the Renaissance. So any depiction of such an event ca. 1500 would inevitably be transmuted into an ideal. And indeed, the beloved Sister Wendy, in fact, explained Titian’s masterpiece as showing something akin to the intense “challenge of the artist,” whatever that might mean.

Alas, one of my great heroes, A.J. Toynbee wrote that such “etherialization” of concrete principles was a prime factor in the growth of civilizations, but Douglas argues that what this usually leads to is cultural confusion.* This movement toward abstraction continued in the west as the Reformation over time removed the liturgies, images, and sacramentalism from their worship. This put everything inside one’s head or heart, and again, put things in abstract categories–such as the unknowable “elect” for the Calvinists.

The different ways of conceiving reality always take on particular manifestations in our bodies, the main way we express meaning and our cosmological belief. A moment’s thought about this shows its truth. When Douglas wrote this book (1970), of course, it was even more obvious. The 1960’s started tight and neat but ended with long hair, open collars, psychedelic prints, and so on. We know the “Law and Order” look–what policeman has long hair and a scruffy beard (unless going undercover to mix with the more dangerous types)?** So too, no non-denominational pastor could ever think of wearing anything but jeans, and perhaps a polo shirt.

Thus, what happened in the 1960’s was a real revolution, and not just kids blowing off steam. Douglas cringes at contemporary commentators who called the destruction wrought by various riots and protests in the 60’s as “mindless.” College campuses exist as liturgical institutions, a manifestation of a particular order and authority structure. Today we see many of the same things as in the 60’s, such as more casual dress and campus protests. It would not surprise Douglas to see such behaviors coupled with a loosening of other body oriented morality, especially the highly charged area of sexual morality. Perhaps some of the intended meaning of such acts may not be conscious, but they are far from “mindless,” as they point towards a very definite goal.

Most educators have noted a rise in the anxiety of their students. Different theories exist for this phenomena. Some explain it with the rise of social media and their attendant lack of real personal connections. Others point out that the 9/11 generation has come of age in the age of terrorism, where threats can come from anywhere anytime.

No one I know of has pointed out that the rise of anxiety may come from the continual loosening of our societal structures, both in worship, family, dress, and so on. But Douglas hints at this quite strongly. True, the “Personal Family” structure brings many benefits. She mentions that this path often develops strong verbal skills and meshes nicely with the need to do well in social environments like school, which dominates the lives of children. Besides, even if we wanted to orient ourselves in a more “Positional” way many of us have no tradition, social class, or family history to build upon.

Teens today not only have jobs and careers to choose, but whole selves to construct, a heavy burden to carry.^^ Add to this that the reasons for doing or not doing a thing could be endless. Douglas writes,

Above all, the [“Personal Family”] child’s behavior is controlled by being made sensitive to the feelings of others, and by inspecting his own feelings. Why can’t I do it? Because father’s feeling worried; because I have a headache. How would you like it if you were a fly? Or a dog?^ In this way the child is freed from a system of rigid positions but made a prisoner of a system of feelings and abstract principles. (emphasis mine).

Douglas, pp. 26-27

We have had many good anthropologists, but I am not aware of any who wrote with such clarity as Mary Douglas.

Dave

*I acknowledge that energy can be released in the early stages of breaking with concrete societal forms, and perhaps this is what Toynbee saw and admired. I liken it, however, to taking a fussy toddler bundled in bulky clothes. You take them out of the crib, remove the onesie, and they are so happy, arms and legs unfettered! They whirl around like spinning tops for five minutes. But then, the look of, “What do I do now?” strikes them, and of course, the pajamas will have to come back on sooner or later.

I should say that Douglas may disagree with me, as she thinks that loose “etherialization” (to use Toynbee’s phrase) can continue indefinitely if it is paired with loose social structures.

**Douglas asserts the universality of the patterns she describes, but how to explain the long beards of Orthodox monks, priests, etc? The Orthodox are likely the most liturgically formal of all Christian denominations, yet have the most unkempt facial hair. Perhaps we could see the connection in a kind of manly disdain such priests/monks have for the world. But again, there may be limits to this, as for Old Testament Jews–another structured and highly liturgical society–long beards for men were normal and could not be seen as a form of distancing oneself from society.

But . . . this pattern certainly played out in Greece and Rome, two similar civilizations. The Greeks loved the sea, and thus valued beards and more fluid and flowing hair. Their society was more fluid as well. The Romans valued farming, and with it, law and order. With that comes shorter hair and clean shaves. Not until the empire was past its prime did we see the Romans going native, sporting beards and longer hair.

The pattern hold also for the Egyptians (clean-shaven, less ornamentation in dress, more order focused) and the Babylonians (more fluid as a society, more fluid in their dress).

^We might add today, “Do you feel like a boy? Or a girl?” The Personal Family’s predilection for rebelling against all forms of imposed identity have stretched out to rebelling against Nature itself.

^^It is no coincidence that we invented technologies to help us in this very endeavor, and that these technologies would further advance abstraction. In addition–we usually view the creation of public schools as a response to industrialization. Douglas might want us to view the creation of the public school system as a response to the dominance of the Personal Family model. If we have a self to construct apart from the family/neighborhood, we will need a tangible place to do so.

A National Man of Mystery

Anyone who knows anything about the first half of the 20th century knows that the concept of “nation” has a lot to answer for. We have such familiarity with it that we need not rehash the sins of “nationality” here. Slightly less obvious might be the impact, or pendulum swing we experienced in the second half of the 20th century towards the individual related to the state, or the community. This manifested itself in a variety of ways:

  • The proliferation of international bodies like the EU, G-8, World Bank, IMF, etc.
  • Expansion of global markets, facilitated by the internet and the removal of boundaries on communication and information
  • Significant expansion of media technologies that allow us to radically personalize our world everywhere we go, like Facebook, iTunes, Netflix, etc.
  • Removal of barriers to self-expression, encapsulated in the hey-day of free speech in the 1960’s, and now, with the end of traditional beliefs and social norms about gender and sexuality.*

But, if the pendulum swung too far in one direction from 1900-1960, many think that it has gone too far in the other direction (i.e., Bowling Alone, Why Liberalism Failed, etc.). Some form of such swings might be inevitable from a historical perspective, and might even be healthy when mild, as it might prevent stagnation. But dramatic swings destabilize societies and make it harder to get our bearings. At such times, terrible mistakes can occur.

Over the past 5-10 years we have witnessed the reemergence of national populism. In America, the phenomena manifested itself with Trump’s election, but almost every democracy in the western world has dealt with this, both in old and established democracies (Brexit, Marie le Pen), and relatively new ones (Poland, Hungary, etc.). Some see in national populism the dreaded extreme pendulum swing, but authors Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin disagree. In their book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, they seek not to praise or bury the phenomena, but to understand its reasons for being and the nuances of the movement. Some critics of the book see it as a sympathetic defense of right-leaning populism, a Marc Antony style bait and switch. Instead, I view the book as a careful delineation of the nuances of the movement. Above all, we must resist the urge to cast the label “Fascist,” to all or even most manifestations of national populism. Yes, the authors believe that certain populist leaders have dangerous leanings, but others simply seek to stand against real/perceived excesses of progressive ideology. We must exercise caution in our examination.

The authors first remind readers that populist movements have always existed within democratic governments. Greece had so much direct participation that it scared off our own founders. Rome’s Republic often existed in uneasy tension with more populist strains. More recently, America has seen populist presidents like Andrew Jackson, and to some extent, Teddy Roosevelt, in addition to various populist governors like Huey Long. Some may dislike all of these leaders on balance, but even if one did, democracy survived, and the country stayed far away from “fascism” or even overt nationalism. Of course, we could arguethat, given the horrors of how national populism operated in Germany from 1933-45, we should avoid even minute drops of it.

Eatwell and Goodwin think that this both unfair and unrealistic. They distinguish between fascism and populism in a variety of ways. Fascist regimes have a strong racial ideology, they often wish to expand territorially, and they often have apocalyptic goals. But even if the similarities were more acute, we simply cannot avoid populism if we wish to remain democratic–we cannot ignore the “voice of the people” in a democracy.

I have sympathy for Eatwell and Goodwin’s presentation of their ideas, though I have written before that I think that democratic societies need “elites.” The question comes to, “What kind of elites?” It seems too easy to say that we need elites with connections to the “common man,” “on the ground,” but so it goes. The “elite” culture of Periclean Athens was a very public culture, accessible to the people (recall the free theater performances of plays). Their leaders often competed with one another as to who served in office, who led armies, and so on. Roman elites were likewise quite civically minded, and for much of the Republic’s history patricians did not greatly exceed the wealth of the plebs–and when this gap widened tremendously after the 3rd Punic War so began the breakdown of the Republic (one factor among many, to be sure). Medieval elites lived in castles, but defended the realm, and were obliged to host a variety of festivals and parties for their tenants. They socially mixed frequently with peasants. Our own founding fathers took great risks and served in the army. Some of them had farms or worked as ordinary town lawyers, again, with strong connections to the “common man.”

Perhaps the chicken of the Republican right in the 1990’s, starting perhaps with Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, pushed the left farther from the center. Or perhaps the egg of the radical progressive ideologies about immigration, abortion, sexuality, etc. have made it hard to maintain something of a traditional conservatism. Or possibly grander historical forces play upon us, or maybe still, we are now experiencing something cyclical akin to the changing of seasons. Whatever the cause, we now have elites at universities, in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, and in certain segments of the media (a short list that I know does not apply equally everyehere) that drive the agenda of much of the left throughout the democratic world, and I think this is the main cause for the rise of populism.

For example . . .

  • We “know” that “Empire” is a bad word
  • “Nation” is increasingly becoming a bad word in certain circles
  • In the U.S. at least, we don’t want to give much autonomy to states or local communities to decide things, to have any variance on issues that divide us like abortion, gender, sexuality, immigration, etc.

So, all that certain segments of the political spectrum will leave us with is a stateless individualism with no unifying theme, culture, or nod to tradition. Very few can live in such a way or have ever lived in such a way. Older, more personal and familial conceptions of political realities, such as the “realms” of medieval kings, will not return any time soon.

So it appears that, unless we want civil wars across the western world**, we are stuck with the political entity of nations.

I concede, with Benedict Anderson, that there is something mysterious and imaginary about nations, but they undeniably exist, and people want some sense of identity within them. For that to happen, they need to take their bearings and locate themselves within the culture. The ancients often equated the formless and boundless ocean with chaos–moderns with freedom, and this might hint at the differences in how we interpret the meaning of our communities then and now. Nations may have less of a concrete reality than a particular individual, but for people to be truly human we need connections with others. These connections can only come with the presence of trust and familiarity. Dramatic change in law, demographics, and ideology make this hard to come by.

One reviewer rightly pointed out that whereas Eatwell and Goodwin take pains to point out the complexity and nuances of populist movements, populist movements themselves reject complexity–the problems we face have self-evident solutions. Maybe so, but I think that, as academic “elites,” Eatwell and Goodwin do one good turn towards rectifying the gap between elites and the common man. They have at least written a serious book about the “average Joe.”

For those who fear this movement on the right and the left, I would suggest them giving us something for us to feel tangible pride in as a nation. The right too often resorts to our expanded freedom to consume, but this comes from the nameless, faceless market–a stark contrast to what “going to market” meant in bygone eras. Many on the left constantly undermine our cultural inheritance and see the past and present as nothing but evil. They would offer instead foolish fantasies of a future that will always reside outside of our grasp. Neither approach will help us build a reasonable national identity and pride, and so neither approach will prevent the global rise of national populism.

Dave

*Free speech today is under attack on campus’ especially, which is ironic considering the modern free speech movement had its birth at the university. Perhaps this means that free speech is at its most vibrant when a) People wish to challenge the existing order, and b) The existing order is at least partially out of alignment with the rest of the culture, and thus ripe for a “fall” of sorts. Free speech in those contexts might just look like “saying what everyone is thinking (or at least the “right” “everyone”). Today there are plenty of people who fit into the first category, but perhaps the prevailing orthodoxy is not yet ready to fall, backed as it is not just by cultural elites but also most businesses. In the 60’s, the main forms of national culture sided with those challenging the existing moral and political order.

Also, free speech can never be an absolute value even in the context of academic freedom. For example, one might imagine a hypothetical Professor Smith, who advocates with extended argument an absurd defense of Jim Crow laws. Whether public or private, no college should allow his continued employment. The problems today are that 1) Such standards are very unevenly applied, with very slippery standards used to decide what is racist and what is not, and 2) Standards get formed very quickly that alienate, at minimum, very large numbers of people with different opinions that until quite recently were quite acceptable–one recalls President Obama’s support for traditional marriage in 2008, and 3) One can get “mobbed” for things far less than careful, systematically expressed thoughts.

**I dread the possibility, but could the U.S. separate into “Red” and “Blue” nations peacefully? One thinks of the famous dictum from the Chinese epic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which states, “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.” Maybe, possibly, we should not view the political union of the states as an absolutely fixed good. New York and Texas could easily go their separate ways, but what about the swing states, like Ohio and Florida? Like Kansas in 1854, one can imagine a frightful spectacle of their destiny decided by a few thousand votes one way or the other.

The lack of geographic contiguity would make the prospect difficult even with no violence, and so we would have the problem of 4-5 separate nations, new constitutions, etc. While nodding to the hypothetical possibly, we should do all we can to avoid it.

The Marriage of Handwriting and Architecture

It did not take me long to get miffed by Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve.  Almost right away  he commits two cardinal sins in my book when discussing the Medieval period.
  • He brings up all the worst aspects of the Medieval period without any of its virtues, and
  • He asserts that the discovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is one of the main causes for the “swerve” from the Medieval to the Modern world.  He does not assert this absolutely, but hedging all on one manuscript still seemed too reductionistic to me.

But Greenblat’s charm and narrative style kept me going.  In the end, I didn’t read the whole thing and skimmed some sections, but one thing in particular struck me forcefully — how handwriting can be a reflection of the personality of a society.

‘Gothic’ script dominated the ‘Gothic’ era, and it can be contrasted with the Carolingian script revived by many Renaissance scribes:

Petrarch complained that Gothic script, “had been designed for something other than reading,” and he was not whining, but speaking the truth.

Gothic Script

The height and cramped fashion of letters makes it difficult to read, and may subconsciously have been designed to be “seen and not heard.”  When we remember that very few could read, and that books were meant to educate visually just as much as textually, the Gothic “font” makes more sense.

Gothic Manuscript

Here are examples of the Carolingian script fashionable during the Renaissance:

Perhaps pro-Renaissance scholars do not exaggerate the real shift that took place as far as education is concerned.  Perhaps this shift in handwriting style helped pave the way for the printing press itself.

If the “font’s” a society uses reflect something of its larger worldview, we would expect to see this expressed in other aspects of their culture.  Gothic architecture mirrors gothic script in uncanny script in uncanny ways, with the “bunched up” nature of its space.

Flying Buttresses

True, the high ceilings of these cathedrals did give a sense of space, but it was space that meant to overpower you, a weight and bulk of a different kind.  The stained glass windows again reveal the same thing as the buttresses — the “cramming” full of space with color.

In the Renaissance we see something else entirely, a more “human” scale in architecture, and a greater sense of space.

The Pazzi Chapel

Michelangelo, the Medici Chapel

So apparently, handwriting can be an expression of a culture’s personality just as architecture can, which should not have surprised me.

When I realized that the Renaissance basically just revived Carolingian script, this gave new significance to the Carolingian Renaissance itself under Charlemagne six centuries earlier.  Those that invented the style and not merely copied it should get greater credit.  Some scholars dismiss the “Carolingian Renaissance,” as small potatoes, but the script they used showed an interest in reading, which sheds new light on the work of Nottker and Einhard.  So, what about architecture under Charlemagne — will it show that same sense of space?  Naturally we must consider Aachen Cathedral, the central building of Charlemagne’s realm:

Aachen Cathedral, Exterior

Aachener_dom_oktagon

Well, it appears that we have a mixed verdict.  It is part Gothic, part Byzantine, and part something all its own.  Will I allow this to overthrow my theory of seeing links between handwriting and architecture? Perish the thought!  I can always say that Charlemagne’s time had so much going on that they had no time to be particularly self-aware of these choices, in contrast to both the Gothic and Renaissance periods.

Does America’s utter lack of defining architectural identity have anything to do with our confusion about teaching handwriting?

Blessings,

Dave

11th Grade: “The bombs in Vietnam explode at Home”

Greetings,

This week we continued our look at the Vietnam War, but also focused on the Civil Rights movement.

Vietnam has many controversial aspects, including the way we fought the war.  I think our massive bombing campaigns attracted Johnson for political reasons.  He campaigned in ’64 on a “I don’t want to want to get too involved in Vietnam,” platform and won easily. Bombing allowed us to do something while committing relatively few men and risking relatively few lives compared to other options.  At the same time, our bombing could send the message to the North that we meant business.

But our military actions have a meaning to them that extends far beyond their direct military impact.  Bombing proved disastrous in a number of ways:

  • Bombing, while low-risk, comes with great expense.  As Martin Luther King said, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home.  They destroy the chance for us to create a decent America.”
  • In jungle terrain, bombing had little to no effect on enemy movements or their ability to fight
  • Bombing makes us look like a bully.  Here we are, the most advanced society on earth, dropping explosives from a safe distance upon a peasant society.  Human nature loves an underdog, and perhaps Americans especially loves them.  Our tactics made the North Vietnamese look like the team a neutral observer would root for (we need to think in similar ways about our use of drones today — how are drone strikes interpreted by the global population?)
  • Finally, one could argue that bombing sent a message not of the strength of our resolve, but of our lack of it.  We know that Johnson wished desperately that the war in Vietnam would “go away.”  Bombing brought little domestic fall-out initially, because it would mean relatively few casualties for us. Ho Chi Minh could easily have interpreted bombing as Johnson’s way of trying to avoid the hard questions Vietnam brought.  It appears that they did just that.

We lost the battle for public opinion in the war by around 1967.

General Westmoreland’s tactics of “Search and Destroy” proved strategically ineffective in the long run.  We like to think of our armed forces as tool for good.  We understand that that might mean violence, but most of don’t want to think of our military primarily being used to kill others.  Westmoreland did not focus on protection, but on “body counts.”  How many of the enemy did we kill?  This does not have the same ring, as “How many innocent lives did we protect?” though obviously that could involve killing the enemy.

The North Vietnamese certainly committed atrocities — more of them than we did and with greater scope.  They usually treated civilians much worse than us, sometimes intentionally using them as human shields.  Their atrocities did  not get equal media attention.  But I suspect that even if such atrocities had been well-reported, it may not have made much difference.  We expected others, the “them,” to be the bad guys.  Nothing in our national psyche or identity prepared us not to like what we saw in the mirror.  One sees this self-delusion in those that said, “The only thing that can defeat America is America,” which asserts that we can attain omnipotence if only we will it.

De Tocqueville and many others have commented that when democratic armies have the support of the population they become very difficult to stop.  Democratic armies naturally seek to draw strength from the people.  But when they cannot do this, their effectiveness gets diminished.  This is something that democratic societies must bear in mind in a way that dictatorships, for example, do not.  In Vietnam, I believe that most historians would agree that we did not fashion a “way of war” that lent itself to gaining the support of the people.  The North Vietnamese realized our predicament long before we did.  Le Duan Thoc, a North Vietnamese strategist, commented fairly early in the war,

[We can win no matter what the United States does.]  They will fight far from home and will be regarded as an old style colonial invader, in a climate to which they are not accustomed, against indigenous forces backed by China and the Soviets.  If they invade the North they will face 17 million of us, and potentially hundreds of millions from China.   If they use nuclear weapons the Soviets will retaliate.  The more they risk, the more they alienate the international community and erode support domestically – the more too they are vulnerable to a crisis in other parts of the world.   The enemy is in a weak position.

Some argue that, in fact, we could never have won in Vietnam.  Eventually we would go home, and they would remain.  Others counter with the argument that, had we fought in a way that focused on security for the South rather than killing the enemy, we could have won over public opinion and given the South Vietnamese government a chance to work.  We in fact began to try this strategy in 1969 when General Abrams replaced Westmoreland, but by then America had given up the fight in our hearts and minds.  Of course, some believe we could have won if we had fought differently, either with more bombing in Cambodia and Laos, or with a different style of fighting (perhaps fewer men and more covert operations).

We also looked this week at how the Civil Rights movement transformed over time.  The enormous moral force of those that demonstrated for equal treatment overwhelmed opposition.  Television brought the issue to the forefront of American homes across the country, much as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 moved the slavery question from the abstract to the real for many Americans.  The movement peaked in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.

But then something happened.  Violence erupted in many cities across America over the next two years, beginning with the Watts riots in Los Angeles.  Student protests spiked sharply.  The fringe “Hippy” movement went into the mainstream.  How did this happen?  At the moment when it seemed that America had become more of the kind of country it was supposed to be, why did so many subsequently turn to violence?

This paradoxical question will occupy us next week.  What I suggest for now is that King’s words above may not have  been merely metaphorical.

Many thanks,

Dave