The Eye of the Storm

In October 1867 various Indians tribes gathered with U.S. army officers in an attempt to reach a formal peace in what became known as the Medicine Lodge Peace Commission.  Most of the Cheyennes arrived fashionably late.  One Cheyenne chief named Black Kettle assured General Harney that the Cheyennes had a traditional greeting that differed from other tribes, and he should not worry.

When they arrived, they put their horses into four columns on the other side of a creek.  A bugle sounded, and the Cheyennes charged across the creek one column after another, roding hard straight towards General Harney, shooting in the air and hollering.

Harney received assurances.  Stand still.  Everything is fine.

Still, they galloped on towards him.  Harney clearly had his doubts but remained unmoved.  Other Comanche Indians already present clearly had misgivings and grabbed their own weapons.

Just a few feet in front of the general and the Comanche’s, the Cheyenne horses roared to a halt and bent low in one fluid motion as the Cheyenne warriors dismounted.  They broke out laughing and started shaking hands with all present.

Among the hundreds of anecdotes from Peter Cozzen’s excellent The Earth is Weeping, this one stands out for me as most emblematic.  When different cultures came together–and not just white and Indian cultures but differing Indian cultures–conflict can seem almost inevitable.  The slightest error would mean violence and further mistrust, even if neither side necessarily wanted violence.  Here, some patience and personal risk on the side of General Harney and the Comanche’s paid off, but we should not kid ourselves and say that such an outcome was easily obtained or even likely to occur.

Alas, after this auspicious beginning, the conference itself completely failed to produce anything like peace.

For much of our nation’s past we believed in our history.  That is, our textbooks taught us that, while we were not perfect as a nation, we were on the right side of history.  Older westerns may have shown “good” Indians, but consistently sided with the whites.  But with the publication of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and the movie Little Big Man, the narrative pivoted almost entirely.  Now, just as in Dances with Wolves, the army was the bad guys and the Indians were the good guys.  The story we once told about our past no longer convinced us.

Cozzens attempts to redress the imbalance and provide a much more complex view.  When one’s work receives positive reviews from National Review and The New York Times, you have probably hit upon something we need for our understanding of this period, if not for our whole culture.  One reviewer labeled his work “quietly subversive,” which I think apt.  Cozzens will not let us rest with easy categories.  I would not call him as attempting to reverse the narrative by saying, “All those bad things you’ve heard that whites did to Indians?  Not true!”  While he mentions a variety of Indian atrocities against whites and each other, for the most part he blames Americans for the failure to achieve peace.

He takes care to show a murky tapestry and blurred lines.  He shows us generals and Indians who respected each other and sought friendship, and those on both sides who hated each other and wanted war.  And–we have to find a place for the African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” in the narrative.  Some tribes turned against other tribes and showed no mercy, and Cozzens admits that the Indians’ version of total war against each other had much more brutality than ours did against them. Some Indian agents had great ideas as well as good intent, others tried to implement grand visions that made no sense and would surely only lead to violence through unrealistic expectations–as some generals took pains to explain.  Instead of race vs. race, The Earth is Weeping shows us a web of confusing and shifting alliances. In the end, the main problem seemed to rest not in our official policy, but in that we had no coherent peace policy or any means of enforcing one, which left events at the mercy of violence on both sides.

Thus, Cozzens’ account takes on elements of Shakespearean tragedy, where certain key individuals take action that creates terrible situations.  But aspects of Greek tragedy present themselves as well, where it seems almost inevitable that gigantic, unseen forces would certainly frustrate those with goodwill on both sides.

Surely the Indian wars of the West shared in some ways with wars that others have fought across time, but we should seek for what made this conflict unique to our context.  Many of the tribes Cozzens writes about had a warrior culture.  To earn status in the tribe, a young man had to show bravery and fight.  No other path to status existed.  Younger braves would surely resent their elders who told them not to fight–easy for them to say, who already had status and power.  Of course, various tribes never sought peace at all.  Many Indians knew that they had little chance against the army, but . . . better to go down remaining true to your identity.

But, as Tocqueville pointed out, America lacks a warrior elite mentality.  Democracies he believed, naturally seek to avoid war, though they become quite formidable if united to actually fight.  In time a united democratic force, he believed, would destroy an aristocratic warrior-elite society.  But America had no unity on this issue, with political divisions on Indian questions as deep as exist today on other matters, and this begs the question–how then was our victory over the Indians so decisive?

Our political divisions can be separated broadly into “conservatives,” and “liberals.”

Conservatives tend to believe in a limited government that allows its citizens the broadest possible latitude.  Self-government means that culture should have pride of place, not law–which comes in only at the margins.  Liberals can look at the Indian wars and say, “This is the fault of conservatives.  With a bigger and more powerful government we could have had a more coherent policy that we could enforce.  If only we had the power to curtail our liberty of movement and actually enforce various laws (with the attendant higher taxes to increase revenue) and treaties, we could have averted the tragedy of the Indian wars.”  Gary Gerstle makes this very argument in his Liberty and Coercion.

Liberals tend to believe in bigger government, but what purpose does this bigger government serve?  For those on the left, the government exists to protect the right of individuals to do what they want.  So conservatives can level a charge akin to, “You liberals care nothing for Law.  If you want abortion, you override all law and custom to get it.  If you want gay marriage, you will have it.  You care little for the boundaries of code or culture–you simply want the government big enough so that no one can stop you from doing what you want to do.”  Liberals tend to have a special focus on aiding those perceived to occupy the margins of society.  Well, those who moved west certainly were not wealthy, elite, industrialists, the “one percenters.”

What Americans “wanted” in the latter half of the 19th century was the unencumbered ability to move west.  No prominent leader of either side questioned this basic premise.

Tentatively, I suggest that herein lies the root of U.S. unity in the Indian wars, and perhaps our unity as a culture at large.  We believe that we should have what we want.  With this unity, our democratic society would surely defeat the more “aristocratic” Indian tribes.*  Perhaps unity was subconscious then, and perhaps it is subconscious now, but both liberals and conservatives seem to want the same thing–doing what we want–via different means.  Thus, neither a large government or a small one, neither a conservative or liberal policy, would have made much difference.  If Americans wanted to move west, and if they believed that they should have the freedom to move west, it was bound to happen.

Perhaps this is the Greek element of this part of our history.

For the Shakespearean, I offer a variety of quotes below from The Earth is Weeping.

Dave

*We tend to think of the Indian tribes monolithically, but Cozzens shows that no real unified sense of “Indianness” existed among the tribes until the very end of the conflict–when it was far too late.  This lack of unity among the tribes (perhaps common among other warrior-elite societies, like ancient Greece?), must also be a factor in this war.

We have heard much talk of the treachery of the Indian.  In treachery, broken pledges on the part of high officials, lies, thievery, slaughter of defenseless women and children . . . the Indian was a mere amatuer in comparison to the “noble white man.”

  • Lt. Britton Davis, US Army

******

I knew that the white man was coming to fight us and take away our land, and I thought it was not right.  We are humans too and God created us all alike, and I was going to do the best I could to defend our nation.  So I started on the warpath when I was 16 years old.

  • Fire Thunder, Cheyenne Warrior

******

If the lands of the white man are taken, civilization justifies him in resisting the invader.  Civilization does more than this: it brands him a coward and a slave if he submits to the wrong.  If the savage resists civilization, with the 10 Commandments in one hand and the sword in the other, demands his immediate extermination.  

  • Report of the Indian Peace Commission, 1868

******

You have asked for my advice . . . I can say that I can see no way in which your race can become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except if you live by the cultivation of the soil [instead of roaming and hunting].  It is the object of this government to be at peace with all our red brethren, and if our children should sometimes behave badly and violate treaties, it is against our wish. You know, it is not always possible for a father to have his children behave precisely as he might wish.

  • Abraham Lincoln, 1863

*******

I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when the Indians see their game driven away and their people starve, their source of supplies cut off . . . that they go to war.  They are surrounded on all sides, and they can only fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.

  • General George Crook

*******

An army officer once asked a Cheyenne chief why his tribe made war on the neighboring Crow tribe.  He responded, “We stole land from the Crow because they had the best hunting ground. We wanted more room for ourselves.”

******

The savage requires a greater extent of territory to sustain themselves than is compatible with progress and the just claims of civilized life, and must yield to those claims.

  • President James Monroe, 1817

******

I feel pity for the poor devil who naturally wriggles against his doom, and I have seen whites who would kill Indians just as they would bears, all for gold, and care nothing for it.  Such men have no regard for treaties. But the savage is slothful, and is in need of discipline.

  • Gen. Wiiliam T. Sherman, 1866

******

The Great White Father sends us presents and wants us to sell him the road.  But the White Chief goes with soldiers on the road before we say Yes or No.

  • Red Cloud, 1868

******

Disease, drink, intertribal warfare, the aggression of lawless whites, and the steady and restless emigration into Indian hunting lands–all of these factors endanger the very existence of the Plains Indians.

  • The Senate’s “Doolittle Commission,” 1867

******

The Indian is the best rough rider, the best soldier, and certainly the best natural horseman in the world [white scalps counted for little in Indian villages, as little honor was to be had from killing whites, viewed as inferior opponents].

  • Col. Richard Dodge, 1869

*******

When Congress offered to build homes for the Indians upon reasonably good land where they would stay, Cheyenne warrior Satanta replied,

“This building of homes for us is nonsense.  We don’t want you to build homes for us. We would all die.  My country is small enough already. If you build us houses, I know that our land would be smaller.  Why do you insist on this?

  • Medicine Lodge Peace Commission (MLPC) talks

**********

I was born on the prairies, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun.  i live like my fathers before me, and like them, I live happy.

  • Comanche Chief Ten Bears, MLPC — this speech did not please those from other tribes, however, as they accused Ten Bears for his “womanly manner” of  “talking of everything to death.”

***********

You think you are doing a great deal for us by giving us these presents, yet if you gave all the goods you could give, still we would prefer our own life.  You give us presents, then take our lands. That produces war. I have said all there is to say.

  • Cheyenne Chief Buffalo Chip

**********
At the conclusion of the MLPC meeting, there was this exchange between General Sheridan and a Congressional Indian Agent:

Agent: When the guns arrive [guns were promised to the Indians as part of the peace negotiations] may i distribute them to the Indians?

Sheridan: Yes, give them arms, and if they go to war with us, the soldiers will kill them honorably.

Buffalo Chip: Let your soldiers grow long hair, so that we may have some honor in killing them.

*********

The more I see of these Indians, the more I become convinced that they all have to be killed or maintained as a species of paupers.  Their attempts at civilization are simply ridiculous.

  • General Sherman, said after continuing incursions by Arapaho and Cheyenne on the “Smoky Hill” region left 79 dead civilians, 13 women raped, and thousands of livestock destroyed or scattered

******

The white man never lived who truly loved the Indian, and no true Indian ever lived that did not hate the white man.

  • Lakota chief Sitting Bull

*******

When Cheyenne “Dog Soldiers” raided white settlements (including kidnapping and execution of white women), Sheridan used Pawnee warriors to help track them down.  They caught them at a place called Seven Springs, and the Pawnee killed the Cheyenne indiscriminately without mercy. One Cheyenne survivor of the raid said, “I do not blame the Pawnee for killing our women and children.  As far back as I remember the Cheyenne and Sioux slaughtered every male, female, and child we found of the Pawnee. Each hated the other with savage hearts that know only total war.

******

Modoc Indian raiders were captured.  Some Modocs went on the “warpath” after some Oregonian settlers had killed defenseless Modoc villagers.  When arrested, the leader of the band, “Captain Jack,” said, “If the white men that killed our villagers had been tried and punished, I would submit to you much more willingly.  Do we Indians stand any show for justice with you white people, with your own laws? I say no. I know it. You people can shoot any Indian any time you want whether we are at war or peace.  I charge the white people with wholesale murder.

 

 

 

 

8th Grade: Cyrus and the Medo-Persian Empire

Greetings,

This week we began our next civilization, Medo-Persia, and began the story of the origin of Cyrus the Great as told by Herodotus.

There are those who dispute the story’s accuracy.   It does resemble in some ways the stories of both Moses and Paris of Troy.  We can trust the Moses story, but we need not immediately discount the Cyrus story merely for that it resembles the story of Moses. The story of Paris seems to reside in myth and folklore, but again, this should not immediately preclude the veracity of the Cyrus story.  These are interesting questions to ponder, and I don’t know if we can find absolute answers.  What it obvious is that it is a great story.  If you ask your children about it, I’m hoping they can retell it to you if you would like.  You can find it in full online in Herodotus’ Histories in Book 1, beginning in chapter 107.

The Persian Empire had its flaws, but did most things right and represented a vast improvement over the Babylonian, and especially the Assyrian empire.  Some of this had to do with historical coincidence, but a lot of it had to do with the values and practices of Cyrus, the empire’s founder.

Some things to note. . .

1. Cyrus arose to power at a time when no other dominant power dominated the ancient Near East.  Egypt had been on the wane for some time, Assyria was destroyed, and the Babylonians had lost their former shine.  Thus, Cyrus was able to expand by slowly incorporating smaller kingdoms into his realm, without a major challenge posed by any other empire.

2. I think the biggest factor, however, was Cyrus’s foreign policy/diplomacy.  According to Herodotus, he set the tone during his usurpation of the Mede King Astyages.  Cyrus was half Mede, half Persian.  Conquering the Medes in the traditional sense would have meant conquering himself.  He spares Astyages and integrates Median and Persian alike.

Cyrus used this same model for most all of his conquests.  He wanted expansion, but he also strove for incorporation and integration.  He tolerated a variety of customs and religions.  You got the benefits of security and participation in Cyrus’s growing network of trade and prosperity.  Very little about your daily life would change. True, the former king would be exiled to a distant palace, but Cyrus tried to promote from within.  He might use local lesser magistrates to rule in his stead.  In class I put it this way: If Cyrus conquered the U.S. he might exile the President and V.P., but perhaps promote the Senate Majority leader and Secretary of State.  He would create loyalty to himself by this, because those promoted would owe their position to him.  The transition of leadership would be softly felt by the locals.

It could be said that Cyrus positioned himself as a ‘liberator,’ and not a conqueror.  He could somewhat truthfully pledge that you would be better off under his dominion.  Slavery came close to disappearing in his realm.  The only thing he asked in exchange was that your army get attached to his and you pledged your loyalty to his person.  He succeeded like few others, and we will not see such effective empire builders until we look at Rome.  One sees something of his personality and humility in his surprisingly simple tomb.

This method of course differed significantly from others that we have seen so far.  One tremendous benefit of this method was that it appears that the Persians had far less slavery than previous civilizations.  As we progress, however, we will see that the splendid machine known as the Medo-Persian empire did have an Achilles heel. What, after all, did it mean to be Persian?  Can an empire’s identity revolve only around economic advantage and efficiency?  The other possible weak link was the army.  This was the one sticking point in an otherwise tolerant (at least for the time) regime.  They mandated and enforced military participation throughout their empire.  This army grew so huge and so multi-national that it might conquer merely by showing up.  But what held the army together?

The history of Persia will in some ways revolve around this question, as we shall see in the weeks to come.

 

Dave

 

9th/10th Grade: The World Charlemagne Made

Greetings,

Few reigns have had more significance than that of Charlemagne.  When he assumed the throne of the Franks in 768 the “dark ages” had run of things on the European continent.  Little settled political order existed, and the world of most villagers narrowed to their immediate sphere.  Travel and mobility came with far too much unpredictability.

Upon his death in 814, Europe had begun its transformation into what we might recognize as civilization.  Not only had a discernible political order emerged, but the “Carolingian Renaissance” started to bring back the rudiments of culture and learning.  The geography of Europe changed, as these “before” (ca. AD 700) and “after” (AD 814) maps of Europe indicate. . .

Europe AD 700

Map of Europe, AD 814

. . . but the change involved much more than geography alone.  With Charlemagne came the return of building with stone.  We discussed in class about the significance of building with stone, and what it reveals about a time period that introduces it:

  • Building with stone requires a higher degree of specialized skill than either mud-brick or wood, showing advancement.
  • Building with stone is more costly, showing economic improvement
  • Stone is more time-consuming, but also more durable.  No one would build with stone who thought about moving anytime soon.

The use of stone in the 9th century AD shows more than mere political stability, it shows a return of confidence, what historian Kenneth Clark argues is one of the unseen foundations of any civilization.  Clark may or may not have been a Christian, but he recognized the key truth that civilization rests ultimately on psychological/spiritual factors, rather than mere “physical” factors like good laws and good economies.  He is one of the few historians I’ve come across who gives the lion’s share of credit to the Church for recovering civilization after Rome’s fall.

Last week the students go their first introduction to Clark, one of my favorite historians.  This site’s title is in fact an homage to Clark.  I realize that students may not go ga-ga over a mildly stuffy British lord with bad teeth, but Clark has much to teach us.  He possessed a discerning eye and a careful mind, one that could read a great deal from the creative works left by the past.  Here is the first few minutes of the first episode, though I recommend just about everything he did. . .

Charlemagne’s times raised difficult questions for the Church then, and by proxy for the Church today.  The Church has an interest in good government and good order for society.  All in all, the Church would prefer a government friendly to its interests.  But all government rests in the end, on owning the monopoly on violence in a particular geography.  This is inevitable in any age.  The Church then, and the Church today, has hard choices about what to support and what to protest.  The state does not bear the sword for nothing, as St. Paul stated in Romans.  But the state has its own interests apart from the Kingdom that the Church should critique.  In this intricate dance, it’s easy to miss a few steps.

Charlemagne’s constant wars mean we can find much to dislike about him.  After his death his kingdom got divided amongst his sons, and with this political division came instability and the return of violence, and this raises two possibilities:

  1. However much we might deplore Charlemagne’s violence we might be forced to see it as necessary for the “reboot” of civilization to have one strong-man impose his singular vision. While this vision may have been less than perfect, it stood superior to anything before it.
  2. Or, we can say that the breakup of his kingdom after his death comes as a byproduct of the violence of his reign.  Charlemagne taught his successors that violence was the pathway to getting what you wanted.

Division of Charlemagne's Kingdom

Civilization took a few backward steps after Charlemagne, but the seeds planted during his reign bore fruit later. This is why I personally can’t fully accept argument #2 above.  Charlemagne had an eye to something other than just violence.  Take for example the development of the elegant “Carolingian” script during his time, which shows a different side of the man.  First, the script that preceded it, the “Merovingian” style . . .

994b135a41e90a4376d0274d17fbd81f

And now the Carolingian . . .

One can perhaps see Charlemagne’s practical, decisive, hand in the handwriting that bears his namesake.  I think it an improvement over the Merovingian — it’s more accessible to the common man.  But Carolingian script is not strictly a “military” in nature, it shows a softer side of Charlemagne — it has a decided elegance about it.

While handwriting styles shouldn’t always be taken as decisive evidence, I think it telling in this instance.  The undercurrent of some semblance of Christian civilization had taken root, though the prevailing winds might blow in various directions.

After the break we will look at the Norman Conquest and the subsequent formation of an identity called “Europe.”

Blessings,

Dave

11th/12th Grade: Roosevelt and the Modern Presidency

Greetings

This week we started on what is known as ‘The Progressive Era’ in America (dated ca. 1880-1920), or the Victorian Era in England (ca. 1860-1900).

We first looked at how Teddy Roosevelt embodied this period in American history.  Born a bit sickly and weak, he transformed himself into a ‘healthy’ and physically vigorous man.  He believed that nothing good in life came easily.  Struggle was essential to growth and achievement, so he rarely backed down from either a personal or political challenge.  His relentless energy and enthusiasm reflected America’s ‘can do’ spirit of the time.  This is certainly revealed in some famous photos of him:

Teddy Roosevelt is known as the first ‘modern’ president for a variety of reasons.  He made the presidency the focus instead of Congress.  His energy and drive made him a national figure.  A keen and perceptive man, he also understand the power of the modern press to craft and publicize an image.  Of course with Roosevelt there was a strong connection between these images and reality, but he used them nevertheless.  These famous photos of him with his family garnered national attention, for example:
I handed out a sheet of quotes from Roosevelt that I hope accurately reflect his beliefs and personality.  While he was a Republican, you can see that he would probably not fit into the Republican party of today in some crucial ways.  These quotes are at the bottom of this update.  We also looked at the phenomena of expansion and imperialism.  While Europeans had been colonizing on some level since the age of exploration, we see a significant expansion throughout Europe and the United States at this time.  Clearly, something was in the air.  What made this period so focused on imperialistic pursuits?  We can postulate a few possible answers:
  • Industrialization allowed for bigger and more powerful things to be built, which made sea travel over longer distances possible
  • Rapid industrialization would create the need for raw materials to be imported
  • England had always had an empire.  Industrialization meant that others could try and catch up.  England, wanting to keep its lead, would expand to do so.
  • Missionary efforts, while probably not the motive for imperialism, was certainly a by-product of it.
These are good answers, but they do not quite touch on what expansion reveals about the heart of western civilization at this time.There are two main schools of thought:
The traditional view states that expansion is the sign of health.  By 1900 western civilization controlled perhaps as much as half the globe.  Expansion requires energy and drive, and this in turn, requires health.   In this line of reasoning, western civilization peaks as its territorial and ideological expansion peaks.  Niall Ferguson adheres to this, arguing that western culture peaked around the turn of the 20th century.
The minority view states the opposite.  The first historian I am aware of to advance this theory was Oswald Spengler, a quirky German recluse who first published his ‘Decline of the West’ in 1926.  Spengler interpreted the life of civilizations much in the way we might view the life of an individual.  For Spengler, a civilization is healthy when it possesses a vibrant ‘inner-life’ and is at peace with their place in the world.  When a civilization exhausts its inner life, the only thing left is to extend the possibilities of the self outwardly.  So — expansion is sign of boredom, of weakness, of an actual lack of vitality.  Just as we would think that a person who needed constant variety would be bored, so too civilizations.

Spengler’s analysis was not greeted with wild enthusiasm at the time, as you might imagine.  His work generated a lot of controversy due to the variety of atypical opinions he espoused.  He also wrote sentences like, “So we see that historical investigation can be reduced to interpretation of morphological symbolisms” — sentences that might make you wonder if you’ve been had.  Still, his thesis would be picked up and reinterpreted later by AJ Toynbee, and to some degree by Kenneth Clark.  It deserves consideration.

Teddy Roosevelt Quotes:
War
  • Preparation for war is the best guarantee of peace.
  • I killed a Spaniard with my own hand, like a Jackrabbit!
  • When I took my gun to Cuba, I made a vow to kill at least one Spaniard with it, and I did!
  • The most absolutely righteous foreign war of the century! – Opinion on the Spanish American War
  • I deserve the Congressional Medal of Honor, and I want it.
Business and Government
  •  The greatest corporations should be responsible to popular wish and government command.
  • . . .in no other country was such power held by the men who had gained these fortunes.  the government was impotent.   Of all forms of tyranny, the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of plutocracy.
  • As a people we cannot let any citizen live or labor under conditions which are injurious to the common welfare.  Industry, therefore, must submit to the public regulation as will make it a means of life and health.
  • We stand for a living wage.  Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide for those in industrial occupations.  A living wage must include . . . enough money to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during sickness, and to permit reasonable savings for old age.
Nationalism and Imperialism
  • Of course our whole national history has been one of expansion. . . . That the barbarians recede or are conquered. . . . is due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace in the red wastes where the barbarians held sway.
  • We shall never be successful over the dangers that confront us; we shall never achieve true greatness, unless we are Americans in heart and soul, in spirit and purpose, keenly alive to the possibility implied in the very name American, and proud beyond measure of the glorious pleasure of hearing it.
  • It is, I’m sure, the desire of every American that the people of each island, as rapidly as they show themselves ready for self-government, shall be endowed with self-government.  But it would be criminal folly to sacrifice the real welfare of the islands . . . under the plea of some doctrine which, if it had been lived up to, would have made the entire continent of North America the happy hunting ground of savages. — TR urging that America put down the rebellion in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.
  • America’s duty to the people living in barbarism is to see that they are freed from their chains, and we can free them only by destroying barbarism itself.
TR the Conservationist
  • The lesson of deforestation in China is a lesson mankind should have learned already.  Denudation leaves naked soil, they gullying down to the bare rock.   When the soil is gone men must go, and the process does not take long.  What happened in other parts of the world will surely happen in our own country if we do not exercise that wise foresight which should be one of the chief marks of any people calling itself civilized.
  • Forests do not exist for the present generation alone.  They are for the people, [which] always must include the people unborn as the people now alive, or the democratic ideal is not realized.
  • As a people, we have the right and duty . . . to protect ourselves and our children against the wasteful development of our natural resources.
  • 512 — The number of animals Roosevelt and Kermit killed while on safari in Africa, including 17 lions, 11 elephants, 2 rhinos, 9 giraffes, 47 gazelles, and other creatures including the kudo, aardwolf, and klipspringer.
Being President
  • My view was that the executive officer was a steward of the people bound actively and affirmatively to do all he could for the people, and not content himself with . . . keeping his talents undamaged in a napkin.  I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the nation could not be done by the president unless he found some specific authorization to do it.  My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything the needs of the nation demanded unless it was forbidden expressly by the Constitution.
  • I do not believe any president has had as much fun as I have.
Miscellaneous
  •  ‘Why, that’s bully!’ — One of his favorite expressions
  • Why couldn’t they call them ‘Theodore Bears?’  — He hated the name ‘Teddy.’
  • I will make this speech or die.  — Said after an assassins bullet had passed through his lung while campaigning for president in 1912.
  • Father wants to be the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral — Remark attributed to one of Roosevelt’s sons.

Healing Hierarchies

A good education should expose people to “otherness,” but our current discourse gives far too narrow a definition of “otherness.” We tend to focus on ethnicity or gender differences, and not necessarily other ways of perceiving the world. I believe the best form of “otherness” comes through exposure to other worldviews, other ways of thinking, and this can come in the most unlikely of places.

Many generally assume that we share much in common with medieval Europeans, and perhaps this accounts for our striking reaction when we find profound differences. We can judge them quite harshly when they do not match our expectations. But if we started from a different mindset we might see them more clearly as fundamentally different from us. This, in turn, would help us actually learn more from them.

No scholarly consensus exists that I am aware of on the identity of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, except that he was not the Dionysius encountered by St. Paul in Athens. Perhaps “St. Dionysius” wrote in the tradition developed by this same Dionysius. Whoever he was, his writings had enormous influence over the medieval world, as C.S. Lewis points out in his great work The Discarded Image. In one section he writes,

In my opinion a hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding, and an activity approximating, as closely as possible to the divine . . .  The goal of hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like unto God as possible and to be at one with Him. Hierarchy causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors  of reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God Himself. It ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God’s will to those members further down the scale.

We might expect St. Dionysius to praise hierarchy as a form of divine order on earth, and indeed he does just this. What might surprise us, however, is how he uses the term “generous” in regards to hierarchy, and how communally oriented his hierarchical vision is.

Author Andrew Louth comments on this passage that,

What St. Denys means, is that hierarchy is a radiant display that reaches out from God throughout the whole created order and draws it back into union with Him.  Whereas hierarchies to modern ears evoke separation, exclusion, [and perhaps exploitation], for St. Denys it connotes inclusion and union.

How far back in time should our concept of “western civilization” go? Lots of possible answers exist, but most would probably include the Middle Ages. Yet, St. Dionysius had a significant impact on the life and culture of the medievals, and in this passage he entirely runs against the grain of one of our major assumptions today regarding hierarchies. For St. Dionysius, it seems that hierarchies include rather than exclude because it ensures that everyone has a place, and that everyone has responsibility for someone else. The coherence of the world inhabited by St. Dionysius also allowed for everyone to know their place and, in theory, navigate it successfully.

St. Dionysius’ passage calls to mind an observation by Tocqueville, who warned at the potential downsides of democratic individualism. In a a guest post on the U.S. Intellectual History blog Jordan Heykoop commented that,

Americans are lonely. “Americanization”–understood by European intellectuals and political leaders in the twentieth century as an export of American products and values, an investment strategy to control the economies of other countries, an attempt to educate foreigners in the superiority of American institutions, or a process of modernization, all in the name of the free market–was in some sense an export of glorified loneliness.

A democratic and capitalist spirit cultivated this loneliness in America. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that aristocracy made “of all citizens a long chain that went up from the peasant to the king. Democracy, on the other hand, “breaks the chain and sets each link apart” as it constantly draws each individual “back towards himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly to the solitude of his own heart.” People in a democratic era are no longer bound through loyalty and obligation, values which are far-reaching and stable, but through common interest, which is malleable and subjective. Individuals gather to negotiate and calculate their interests, then disband. This sense of equality breaks social and communal links and leaves the individual looking inward for identity, place, and meaning.[

For Max Weber, a Protestant society, free from the structure and liturgy of the Catholic [or Orthodox] Church, cultivated a deep inner loneliness in which individuals worked desperately to discern signs of God’s favor. This discipline and sense of calling in a worldly vocation created the foundation for a capitalist spirit–the conditions under which a free market economy could thrive. America is the paragon of these processes. Late capitalism had become a “monstrous cosmos,” a world where the values of hard work and the sense of inner loneliness remained entrenched, but was completely unhinged from any religious foundation or teleological connection.

Even supposing that you agree with Haykoop, we cannot snap our fingers, import the distant past, and make everyone feel comfortable again.* We are a democracy and cannot invent or import a hierarchy wholesale from nothing.

Perhaps the greatest expounder of St. Dionysius’ ideas was St. Maximus the Confessor. The back cover of Andrew Louth’s book on St. Maximus encourages us with the statement that St. Maximus is the theologian for a world in crisis. Indeed, St. Maximus shows us how practical theology can be.

Monistic religions leave no room to breathe, no room for distinctions, and thus create tyrannies. For example, though officially an atheistic state, the “party” represented a monistic tyranny in Soviet Russia. By definition, the “Party” was always correct, and all outside it cannot belong to the body politic. Such outsiders needed dealt with. Polytheistic religions might give more freedom in theory, but lack any point of unity. So these societies tend to succumb to (in Toynbee’s phrase) “the idolization of the parochial community.” Wars of all against all arise, like the Peloponnesian War in Greece at the end of the 5th century B.C.

By the 7th century A.D., the Church had worked out the doctrine of the Trinity (more or less), but had yet to fully develop the doctrine of Christ and the relationship between His deity and humanity. One key issue involved whether or not Christ had one divine will, or two wills in one person, a human and divine will. Maximus asserted that Christ had to have a human will to be fully human. In addition, it is the submission of Christ’s human will to His divine will that makes a pathway for us to become more like Christ and thereby “participate in the divine nature.”

Perhaps St. Maximus is best known for his development of the cosmic nature of redemption, and Christ’s fulfillment of various patterns within redemptive history.As one example of this, we can examine the Christ’s entering into the pattern of the right and left hand, and simultaneously affirming and transforming that pattern.

The idea of a “righteous” right hand and sinister “left-hand” go far back into history–at least the to Egyptians–but other ancient cultures used it as well. Even so-called “rational” cultures like the Greeks used such categories frequently. Indeed, while many today will mock such as ideas as superstitious, unless we want to fully embrace chronological snobbery, we must assume a universal truth to this pattern and category even if we fail to understand it.

Christ used such imagery when speaking of the last judgment in Matthew 25, and icons of this event depict this consistently.

Perhaps the most famous icon of Christ is the “Pantocrater” image, with Christ blessing all with his right hand, and holding the Scriptures (which also represents separation, categorization, and therefore some sense of judgment), with his left.

But we should hold back if we assume that Christ categorizes His creation merely terms of right and left imagery. Two of the greatest saints of the Church are of course Mary His Mother and St. John the Baptist. Mary bears God within her womb, and spent her formative years in the temple in Jersusalem–right at the very center of God’s presence. John the Baptist, on other hand (a phrase that indicates that we too still use something of the right/left imagery) wears odd clothing, eats odd food, and resides in the wilderness outside the city, in the realm of chaos. So, the Church depicts Mary on the right of Christ, and St. John on the left to indicate a hierarchical difference between them

Yet obviously the “left-handedness” of St. John does nothing to diminish his status per se in the kingdom. Christ calls him “the greatest among men.”

We see the same treatment of the two great apostles of the Church, Saints Peter and Paul. St. Paul comes later, he’s younger, and he actively persecuted the church. He comes as one “unnaturally born,” to use his own words. St. Peter was one of the original twelve, the “rock,” a witness to the resurrection, and the preacher at Pentecost. Peter will therefore be shown on the right of Christ, Paul on the left.

Yet we remember too Peter also denied Christ, and Paul rebuked him for embracing the teaching of the Judaizers in the book of Galatians. The right hand has its faults just as the left hand. The hierarchy can be both affirmed and transcended at the same time.

We need a St. Maximus’ today, or at least we need to heed his wisdom. On the right of the political spectrum we have those that affirm the values of order and unity at the “center.” They are wary of the fringe’s of society, and this can make for rigid authoritarianism. The far left exalts the fringe above the center, idealizing the exception rather than the rule.** But if the falcon’s widening gyre leaves no center at all, we will have chaos. Or rather, we will have a hierarchy, but one that will invert basic reality and create a purposeless and powerless structure, with the “oppression olympics” and the race not towards strength, purpose, and so on, but towards impotent victimhood as one example of this.

Christ shows us that submission of the human to the divine does not debase the human, but exalts it. Rather than set the right hand against the left He affirms both without denying the place of either. In fact, for the right and left to work properly, they need each other. His hierarchy includes rather than excludes. This, our only viable political path forward, gives witness to deep theological truths. Of course, St. Maximus suffered for these truths and for this way of life,^ and perhaps we may need to as well.

St. Peter on the right (of Christ that is, imagining Him at the center), St. Paul on the left

*The medieval period had its share of rebellions, violence, etc. I am not trying to glorify the past so much as point out the difference in how they saw their place in the world, and to attempt to put a finger on our current malaise.

**We should ask the question whether or not we have a genuine “right hand” in America. The left is socially liberal but wants more government control over the market. The right tends towards more social conservatism but wants the market to operate without restrictions to maximize efficiency, not seeing how the market easily disrupts traditional communities and economies (for example, when Wal-Mart comes to a small town, say goodbye to Main Street). In the end, libertarians embrace both “left-handed” sides of things.

As Patrick Deneen has commented, we have solid anti-authoritarian safeguards built into our national DNA, but it appears that we lack an antidote for excessive individualism. Of course, both sides have elements of the excessive fringe and the excessive center embedded within them. For the right, the excessive center manifests itself in dangerous forms of nationalism, but their fringe enters with its exaltation of individual rights. The left praises every form of fringe behavior as liberation from group consensus, but their “center” manifestation that all must adhere to proper speech guidelines, for example (note the various numbers of people banned from Twitter, for example, who do not conform to proper speech as defined by the socially powerful).

What we witness now, in fact, is what happens when we lose sight of Christ, the Son of Man, and the Son of God.

^As an old man the theological and political tide turned against St. Maximus, and he had his tongue and right hand cut off. He died without seeing any earthly vindication of his theological vision.

8th Grade: Babylon’s “Ball of Confusion”

Greetings,

This week we began our look at Babylonian civilization.

Babylon had many things going for it.  They were the quintessential cosmopolitan city of the ancient world.  Their geography funneled trade, cash, and resources towards them.  Much of ancient learning concentrated itself there.  This would be a city in general more tolerant, vibrant, and diverse than most other cities in the ancient world.  I hope that the students remember our examination of the geographical influence of all of this.  ‘Cosmopolitan’ cities throughout history have to be accessible, which usually puts them in relatively flat areas near water.  One thinks of New York, London, and Los Angeles as examples.  Of course, such cities not only need favorable geography, but they need to be accessible and open-minded culturally as well.  Geography can bring you to water, but can’t make you drink.

But enormous cracks in the foundation lay below the surface.  Babylonian creation accounts paint a bleak picture: Ultimately things “come to be”  because of chaos and confusion amongst the gods.  Unlike in Genesis 1, creation had no intentionality or design behind it.  Nor can we say that the “good” gods triumphed over evil.  Rather, one side simply emerged as the stronger.  This impacted Babylonian thought in several ways:

  • Humanity is an afterthought that exists to be manipulated by the gods
  • Stability and order are generally absent (a stark contrast to Genesis 1).This chaos spilled over into other areas.
  • Sin, at root, was not your fault, as you could be ‘jumped’ by malicious spirits (jinn) who would lead you down the wrong path
  • Ishtar was their major goddess – goddess of love and marriage but also war and prostitution.  She was again, a goddess, but was often depicted with a beard.  The ambiguity was reflected in the statue of her to the side, which shows her as a warrior showing quite a bit of leg for an ancient goddess.
  • Not surprisingly, this gender confusion spilled over into society, as Herodotus tells us of the fad among society’s elite for cross-dressing
  • Not surprisingly, Babylon was known for its immorality, and notorious for its rampant temple prostitution, among other things.

A society where so much is left to chance is bound to try and find a way to explain it all, and this may have led to the Babylonian passion for dream interpretation.*  A whole list of possible dreams and their meanings was drawn up, but this did not necessarily help.  One tells us that if you dream that you eat meat you will have a son.  Later, it says that if you have meat in a dream you will not have a son.  How could one know the truth?

Or perhaps, with the mysteries of the universe completely unknowable, one might stop looking and settle for the ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,’ philosophy.  It is any surprise that Babylon is conquered in Daniel 5 as they are partying?  Perhaps we might also surmise that Babylon’s endless possibilities led in the end to boredom.  We looked at this famous Babylonian text,

Babylon’s View of Life: “The Dialog of Pessimism,” (M stands for Master, S for slave)

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will love a woman!”

S “So love, my lord, love!

The man who loves a woman forgets want and misery!”

M “No, slave, I will not love  a woman!”

S “Love not, my lord, love not!

Woman is a snare, a trap, a pitfall;

Woman is a sharpened iron sword

Which will cut a young man’s neck!”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Straightaway order me water for my hands,

I will make a libation to my god!”

S “Do my lord, do!  As for the man who makes a libation

To his god, his heart is at ease;

He makes loan upon loan!”

M “No slave, I will not make a libation!”

S “Make it not, my lord, make it not!

Teach the god to run after thee like a dog.”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will give money to my country.”

S “So do, my lord, so do!

The man who gives money to his land,

His alms have been put in the palms of the god

Marduk himself.”

M “No, slave, I will not give alms to my land!”

S “Do it not, my lord, do it not!

Look upon the ruined mounds of

Ancient cities and look around;

Behold the skulls of those of earlier and later times.

Who is the evildoer, who is the benefactor?”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Now then, what is good?

To break my neck and thy neck,

To fall into the river — that is good!”

S “Yes my lord.  Who is tall enough to reach up to heaven;

Who is broad enough that he might encompass the earth?

M “No slave, I will kill only you — you go first!”

S “But, you my lord, would not last three days after me!

Or consider this collection of Babylonian proverbs, which speak similarly:

Without relations, she conceived!  Without eating, she became fat!

When I labor, they take away my reward.  When I increase my efforts, who will give me anything?

The strong man is fed through the price of his hire, the weak man through the price of his child.

My feet keep walking, my knees do not tire, yet a foolish man pursues me with sorrow.

Am I not a thoroughbred steed?  Yet I am harnessed with a mule and must draw a wagon.

I dwell in a fancy house, yet some clay pours over me (i.e., the roof leaks).

The life of the day before yesterday is that of any day.

You are placed in a river and your water at once becomes stinking; you sit in an orchard and your fruit becomes bitter.

Will ripe grain grow?  How do we know?  Will dried grain grow?  Who can tell?

Very soon I will be dead.  Let me eat, drink, and spend.  Soon I will be well.  Let me save for later!

You go and take the field of your enemy.  The enemy comes and takes your field.  

The fox had a stick with him.  He asks, “Whom shall I hit?”  He has a legal document.  He asks, “Whom shall I challenge?”

No agreement can be reached when the women talk without ceasing.

Into an open mouth, a fly will enter!

The horse, after he had thrown his rider, lamented, “If my burden be like this always, soon I shall be weak!”

The dog understands: “Take it!”  He does not understand.  “Put it down!”

As I mentioned in class, in studying Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon–in that order–is not so much chronological but thematic in purpose. In Egypt, we see a self-contained, stable culture that highly valued stability and balance. With Assyria, we saw a culture that was ‘self-contained’ and homogeneous to a certain extent, but who highly valued movement. With Babylon, we have a a creation account that demonstrates chaos, and a geography that maximizes diversity. Each set of circumstances and beliefs creates different kinds of civilizations.

And–as long as we have ‘confusion’ as our theme, who can forget:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HjUxggPd6E

Many thanks,

Dave

The Burden of Nineveh

David F. Noble’s The Religion of Technology starts with an intriguing premise. Many, he argues, assume that religion and technology have a long standing enmity with each other. This narrative, bolstered by the urban legend of the church’s opposition to Columbus, and a misunderstanding of what happened with Galileo, runs deep in our cultural mindset. The triumph of Enlightenment thinking for some seals the deal in religion’s ultimate defeat by the march of progress and reason. Noble’s book sets out to show the opposite, that the creation of technology has always stemmed from a religious impulse, and that many of the world’s great technological pioneers created with a distinctly religious aim in mind.

Noble makes a few interesting claims. On the one hand, he points out that the church sponsored, or helped create certain technologies, such as the heavy plow in the Frankish empire, and a variety of other things. He also attempts to show such sponsorship meant a departure from established Orthodoxy, assuming that such ‘orthodoxy’ stood against technical development, and then traces this religious impulse down to the modern day. I can appreciate any attempt to help understand and heal the divide between religion and science, and Noble’s work accomplishes this to a slight degree. His problems stem from his lack of understanding of the meaning of technology, and the Scriptural tradition related to the topic. He misses crucial nuance and context.*

For starters, how anti-technology can Christian orthodoxy be if

  • The Old Testament has a variety of sections in which craftsmen are praised, especially those who build the temple.
  • Adam was told to tend and develop the garden. One might suppose that he would do so with more than just his hands.
  • Jesus was the (earthly) son of a carpenter

But Noble rightly points out ambiguity in the text and tradition, for we also see

  • That Cain’s line was the first to develop technology
  • That the early chapters of Genesis show that those that develop technology use it first for bad ends
  • That cities get a bad rap in OT at least, with Cain, Babel, Sodom, Egypt, and the like.

Noble makes no attempt to resolve these seeming contradictions and place technology in its proper context.

First we need to understand the meaning of mankind in creation, and why Cain developed tools and cities.

One can read Genesis 1 in a variety of ways. I think it best read as, at its core, an explication of the meaning of creation. Mankind comes last, but throughout the process of creation we see continual duality, first cosmically between light and dark, and then later between sea and dry land, fishes and birds, plants and animals, and so on. This dualities get closer together until we get the creation of man and woman. Mankind has the role of mediating between heaven and earth, of being the center point of the ladder of meaning that travels between what lies above and below.

The picture deepens when we see the Garden in Genesis residing on a mountain. The idea of a mountain bursting with life–this kind of paradox permeates the Christian faith, a paradox that we need to understand to interpret technologies role correctly. When Adam and Eve leave the garden, they descend down the mountain, a descent away from heaven toward earth, from meaning to fact. This “fall” downwards also gives one more earthly power, which makes sense as a kind of parody of heavenly wisdom.

In the Old Testament, as well as in other mythic traditions, the problem with technology comes not with the thing itself, but mankind receiving or grasping it before the proper time. We see this in the myth of Prometheus, for example. In the Garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was declared “good” along with the rest of creation. To help destroy man the snake tempts them to take it before the proper time.** Cain’s subsequent wandering takes him down under the mountain, in fact. He begins to look not up to heaven but under the earth. He and his descendants build cities, tools, and even musical instruments. All of this has its roots in death–even the earliest instruments came from the horns or skins of dead animals. Naturally, actual physical death comes right on the heels of these technologies (Gen. 4:23-24).

Alienated from God, mankind no longer can properly unite heaven and earth. Many have speculated on the proper interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. The early church saw these verses as the Book of Enoch interprets them. Fallen angels have, likely through demonic possession of some sort, join with women and their offspring become the Nephilim, a race of giants. Others see it in simpler terms, with the godly line of Seth intermarrying with the ungodly line of Cain. I prefer the former option, but either way, we see again the same problem, that of improper mixing, and mankind failing to properly mediate between heaven and earth. Once again, this results in violence and the flood. The flood represents chaos and a return to a formless void, but it only mirror the chaos already introduced by mankind who fell to the temptations of technology.

Science participates in the same pattern of uniting heaven and earth as other areas of life. No contradiction should exist between science and religion. Scientists take an idea, a hypothesis, and try and coherently unite that idea (what is ‘above’) to observable phenomena (what is ‘below’). One might argue that the power Science grants has a kinship with the power of words properly structured in a great speech. But, science seems to operate on a different scale. We many not initially see that the increase of power granted by technology serves in turn to make us more vulnerable. This shows itself in any number of ways in our experience. For example, if in traveling from New York to California we

  • walked, it would take us a long time, but the worst that could happen more or less is that we would sprain our ankle, or
  • ran, we could go a bit faster, but in falling, with the extra momentum, we could do more damage to our legs and feet, or
  • drove, we would get there faster still, but if something went wrong with the car we could get badly hurt in an accident, or
  • flew in a plane, we would go fastest of all, but if even a small thing goes wrong with the craft, death would be the likely outcome.

This quick sketch no doubt leaves many unanswered questions, but hopefully this shows that reticence the Church expresses about technology has nothing to do with fear of change, or control, but in something far deeper and more important. However, the biblical narrative develops another parallel track regarding the use of technology that begins just as the detrimental effects of the Fall take root. With Adam and Eve now naked and ashamed, God makes them a “garment of skin,” a covering, that allows them to encounter the world and each other. Such garments come from the death of animals, and we can see them as the first “technology.” This technology allows mankind to interact with the world. The garments come from death and are a concession to death, but serve a good purpose.

This turning of death into life also forms part of the pattern of creation, for “Christ was slain from the foundation of the world.” For, while the OT shows us the problem of cities within the patterns, the NT shows us that even the idea of the city becomes part of the glorification of all things (Rev. 20-21). We see hints of this in the OT as well, with the construction of the Tabernacle, which can be seen as a “covering,” a means for us to encounter God, since seeing Him directly would destroy us. The Temple later serves something of the the same purpose, but interestingly, many of the materials and craftsmen for the Temple came from foreign nations. such as Tyre and Lebanon, which allows to see two things simultaneously:

  • A foreshadowing of the gathering in of all nations to under the coming Messiah, of God reconciling all things to Himself in Christ, and
  • That these coverings come from Outside, they are not quite part of the “core” of kingdom culture, that the Temple is “tainted” in some way.

Noble makes the great point that our technological impulse is essentially religious. Done rightly, it can manifest our calling to unite Heaven and Earth properly. But a wrong application leads toward a potentially demonic path, where our worst impulses to make ourselves into one of the old gods. Noble fails to see this pattern and so he cannot coherently organize his thoughts to make a point beyond mere observations of particulars. To say that technological development cuts against “religious orthodoxy” is too strong a claim. To say that Church tradition has usually expressed a wariness with new inventions puts us nearer the truth. We need such caution on today’s rapidly expanding digital technology to give us a chance to navigate it rightly, and give us the best chance avoiding violence and destabilization.

In War and Civilization, a short work compiling Arnold Toynbee’s thoughts on the relationship between war and society, Arnold Toynbee quotes from a prominent biologist that,

One seductive and ultimately fatal path [of Evolution] has been the development of protective armor. An organism can protect itself by concealment, by swiftness in flight, by counter-attack, by uniting for counter-attack by others of his species and also by encasing itself within bony plates and spines. The last course was adopted by ganoid fishes of the Devonian with their shining armor. Some of the great lizards of the later Mesozoic were elaborately encased. Always the experiment of armor failed. Creatures adopting it tended to become unwieldy. They had to move relatively slowly. Hence they were forced to live on vegetative matter compared to living on more “profitable” animal food. The repeated failure of armor shows that, even a somewhat low evolutionary level, mind triumphed over mere matter. It is this sort of triumph which has been supremely exemplified in Man.

Toynbee used this analogy of armor as a reference point to the David and Goliath story. David’s rejection of armor gave him more than a potential tactical advantage over Goliath. We can see David refusing armor as a putting off of the Garments of Skin, as a return to something like the Garden. Jesus cursing the fig tree accomplishes much the same thing, which we can see as Christ reversing the fall–fig leaves formed the first covering for man (Gen. 3:7). And, when Jesus tells us that “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” He refers directly to the humility of His poverty. But he also hearkens back to the fact that He has no covering, that He shed his garments, so to speak.

With his commitment to seeing history through a spiritual lens, Toynbee arrived, perhaps unwittingly, had some of these same hesitations regarding power–another “covering” akin to the Garments in Genesis. He writes about the Roman Empire:

In the downward course of a civilization there is truth in the saying of the philosopher Heraclitus: “War is the father of all things.”  The sinister concentration of the resources of a civilization upon the business of fratricidal warfare may generate a military prowess that will place their neighbors at their mercy, may create a military technique that may grant them a far reaching technical mastery over the merely “Material World.”   

Since it is common to reckon success primarily by power and wealth, the opening chapters in the decline of a civilization will be hailed as times of blessing and growth, and this misconception can persist even for centuries.  Sooner or later, however, disillusionment is bound to follow, for a society that is hopelessly divided against itself is almost certain to try and double down on military might, for that is what seemed to work initially. 

For example, we see the money-power and man-power won for Greek society by Alexander the Great, and these same vast resources used to intensify the civil wars between Alexander’s successors.  This same power swept into Roman hands through the meteoric rise in Rome’s land and wealth ca. 241-146 B.C.  was just as quickly spent in the various civil wars that wracked Rome before the rise of Augustus and the Pax Romana.  For Spain, the treasure gained in the new world and the free labor of the essentially enslaved native populations was the food for their wars in Europe during the late 16th and early 17th centuries–the same wars that brought them into second-rate power status in Europe.

Thus the increasing command over the environment gained is apt to bestow upon a society a disintegration that puts a greater driving power into the suicidally demented society’s chosen work of self-destruction; and that story turns out to be a simple illustration of the theme that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  And again, the empires of industrialized Europe in the late 19th century gained the material resources to nearly destroy European civilization in our great Western civil war of 1914-18.  

War and Civilization centers around Toynbee’s examination of Assyrian civilization. Assyria stands as the poster child of how a quick, massive expansion of power actually can bring about a swift ruin and complete dissipation of that power. Such near instant bursts of physical growth bring with them commensurate problems, hence Toynbee’s chapter entitled, “The Burden of Nineveh.” With this in mind, we have a possible lens through which we can know whether or not we choose our garments well or poorly. We can begin by realizing that whatever coverings we put on will not actually solve our psychological, spiritual, or physical longings, though they can deceive us not thinking so. Sometimes these coverings hinder and obscure the best parts of us. But at times they are a necessary expedient to cope with challenges we face. Different people, and different civilizations might need to choose differently depending on circumstance. We should walk these paths with caution. The only way to avoid the deception of our garments of skin is to wear them with humility.

Dave

*Noble annoyed me early on by quoting with approval Max Weber’s idea that Christianity revived Roman polytheism. I can appreciate that Christianity is not strictly monistic as is Islam and perhaps Judaism, but Noble should know better. I suppose he left it in for supposed shock value, since it adds nothing to his thesis.

**We can see this same element in human sexuality. It is good, created by God. Only when we are properly prepared, in the right context (marriage between a man and a woman) can this “power” be wielded in a good and proper manner.

The Law of Gus

Ostensibly, this post discusses Michael Oriard’s fine book, Brand NFL, which I enjoyed. This post also serves as a companion piece to another post from about a year ago, “Every Sacrifice Needs a Witness.” I will try not to repeat points I have already made. I mention both of these things because I am starting in what will seem like an unrelated place for a book largely about football marketing and labor relations.

First, there exists a theory about sportscaster Gus Johnson. articulated by Bill Simmons:

I keep mentioning the Law of Gus without ever really defining it, so let’s do it right now. If Gus Johnson is calling an NFL game, the odds quintuple that (A) the lead will change hands in the fourth quarter; (B) someone will complete a long pass in a big moment that will make Gus’ voice hit an octave only dogs can hear; and (C) the game will go into overtime or at least come damned close. It seems impossible that the mere presence of an announcer would alter the course of the game, but . . .

Here are some of Johnson’s greatest moments and phrases . . .

One might perform some kind of statistical analysis of Johnson’s games, and perhaps discover that indeed there are more big moments, more exciting comebacks, than for other announcers. One could come up with any number of plausible materialistic explanations for this, i.e., Johnson is the best announcer, so they put him on the best games. Possibly, one might grant some kind of psychological reason–the players know that Johnson is announcing and that if they make a great play they will attain youtube immortality with the Gus Johnson call in accompaniment.

But . . .maybe there exists some kind of transformation of reality when Gus Johnson announces a game. Perhaps at times he is not merely a sportscaster, but a ringmaster. Otherwise, how could Vermont possibly beat Syracuse? I mean, Vermont?

Secondly, why do so many athletes pray before and during a game? On the one hand, it seems so silly. Surely God cares nothing for a mere game, and surely . . . athletes know this? Yet the behavior persists. Growing up I played baseball in high school, and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer before games, though my coach seemed indifferent to religion. I confess that praying before a baseball game seemed a bit off to me then and now, but football . . . that’s different. Though I never played high school football, I never experienced a combination of more fear and elation than in 10th grade, when catching a pass in a playground game with friends, I juked John–a merciless tackler now embarrassed and enraged–and then had to outrun him for 40 yards. Never again would I run as fast as I did that day, and strange (and sad) as it may seem, I still remember the exact words of praise I received from one friend after that run.

Aside from the “foolishness” of associating prayer with sports, many would object to differentiating between sports and the “appropriateness” of prayer at such events. If prayer “works” with one sport, it should work with another. But I would rank the major sports from Most to Least appropriate to associate with prayer thusly:

  • Football
  • Hockey
  • Basketball
  • Baseball

My explanation . . .

Football involves the highest levels of 1) Danger/”sacrifice” and 2) Communal action. Baseball involves some danger (batters facing a 95 mph fastball, pitchers dodging a comeback line drive), but that danger is limited to just a few people at a particular moment. Baseball might have more danger than basketball, but much less communal action. One could stand out in right field all day and have literally zero impact on the game. In basketball everyone on the court can rebound, pass, etc. and will have to do so at some point. During football games, almost anyone can get injured on almost any play, and, in contrast to baseball (but not hockey or basketball quite as much) everyone on the offense or defense has to move together, i.e., “communal action.”* It is in “communal action” that sports mimic religion, and that added element of danger and drama provide catharsis to players and fans alike. Just as every Sunday, in liturgical worship, worshippers go through the journey of death and resurrection.

As good as Oriard’s book is, it never even broaches subjects like this, and so his analysis comes up a bit thin at times.

Oriard played NFL football for Kansas City, and he combines his personal experience with good writing and insightful analysis in certain parts. I loved his take on the relationship between the changing passing rules and the increasing size of lineman, a nice compliment to Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side. Though he has an obvious bias in his discussions of the labor issues that beset the NFL between 1974-1987, I found it hard to disagree with him, or to dispute his claim that labor peace contributed significantly to the NFL’s rise to prominence in the 1990’s.

At times, however, Oriard wants it both ways. He laments the “paternalism” of the NFL’s in the 1950’s and 60’s with its coaches treating players like a strong, willful, caring, but occasionally crazy father. But when that era ended and players got more power, they also seemed to get into more trouble. Or–more likely, became bigger targets for journalists in the post-Watergate era, trained to always look for what lay behind the curtain. So, when players started to get exposed for taking drugs, did that primarily implicate the league, the player, or the fan who looked the other way so long as the players performed on the field?

Oriard’s method of laying out the issues, is quite familiar to us, and helpful in a way. We have our tradition of two political parties, prosecution and defense, etc. But we have no way to “break through” the common divides over such questions with the lens Oriard gives us. Another example—Oriard professes confusion as to why the public tended to side with the owners in the strikes during the 70’s and 80’s. Most of the time, people side with workers against “the man,” but not when it came to athletes striking. Oriard offers the possibility that the public wanted nothing to do with a dispute between billionaires and millionaires as an explanation. But that would only work if the public blamed each side equally. Besides, players did not really become “millionaires” until the late 1980’s at the earliest. Oriard frames the issues well, but his frame needs enlarged.

That fans tended to side with owners in labor disputes has its true explanation in the fact that elite athletes exist outside normal categories. Obviously they have outsized physical gifts, but I mean something more: their participation in liturgized communal danger “transforms” them into something more than a regular person. They morph into priests of ritualized conflict. We, the fans, acknowledge this, but perhaps only semi-consciously. Players may not be as rich as owners, but we do not watch highlights of owner’s meetings, we do not put owners on the covers of magazines, and we do not dream of being an owner–we dream of being Lebron, Tom Brady, Messi, and so on. Money is nothing compared to one’s ability to break tackles and run for 80 yards. When the chance to participate, however indirectly, in such a transformation gets “taken away,” we naturally focus on those to whom we give glory.** Mary Renault’s imagining of Theseus at Crete with the bull dancers in her The King Must Die give us perhaps a more accurate picture than Oriard. For Renault, the bull-dancers were pampered, feted, praised, glorified . . . and not expected to live long. No one cared about those that owned the bull-dancers one way or another.

As Oriard notes, when people dislike baseball they call it boring, but when they dislike football they find football “inhuman.” Not having the religious lens, again Oriard can’t quite see why this might be, beyond the violence of football. But both criticisms are correct. Baseball between two bad teams in August can personify boredom. The ritualized violence of football indeed both degrades and transcends normal human life. The ancients that went into battle understood this, the Greeks, the Vikings, and so on. This should give us additional perspective on the goal and achievement of medieval chivalry. To go into battle and remain something akin to a normal human being–neither a beast nor a dark god–stands as a tremendous achievement for a civilization. To reject Achilles and Alexander the Great as models for war, you need a strong, real, and powerful replacement.

I thought Oriard spot-on when discussing the narrative of domestic abuse and violence off the field. He showed decisively that players do not commit more crimes than the average person, and are not more violent than the average citizen. But in his discussion of drug-use, Oriard misses the religious side of the question. To share another brief personal example . . . very few fans ever came to our high school baseball games. But one day we played our arch rival. Late in the game, I came up with the bases loaded, down a run. I hit a line-drive over the 3rd baseman’s head, and I as I ran to first, I heard the roar of the crowd. Alas–it went foul by an inch or so–had it been fair at least 2 runs score, maybe we win, and maybe I’m the hero. When it might have gone fair, running down to first, hearing the crowd . . . I experienced something akin to transcendence. As it turned out, a couple of pitches later I grounded into a double-play–inning over. We ended up losing. Anyone who has played organized sports can relate to this experience. What one might feel in front of 50,000 instead of 150 I can only guess. That one might try and artificially recreate that feeling of transformation makes perfect sense, though a losing proposition from the start.

Of course I think religion important and often neglected as a subject, but I don’t praise every religion, any more that I applaud football’s connection to religion. In fact, football’s strong religious associations make it a viable competitor to the “higher” religion of Christianity. In addition to labor peace, football’s rise might also have something to do with the decline of institutional religion in America. Indeed, love it or not, football seems the quintessential sport for a civilization founded at the edge of the world, a place where utopia mingles easily with violence.

Dave

*One can apply this lens to other sports . . . soccer, large amount of communal action, but little danger (despite the writhing of various soccer players), bullfighting and bullriding, with its high levels of danger with almost no communal action related to that danger, and Formula 1, with its high level of danger, and high levels of communal action–but only behind the scenes, and the drivers being the only ones subject to great risk.

**One simple test for the religious nature of the sport and how much it draws in fans to the ritual participation is–do fans storm the field/court? They do so in football, and basketball too. But . . . not baseball.

Tolerating Toleration

I have written on a few occasions that those who write history books can fall into one of two errors:

  • Over-emphasizing the differences between things, which means that nothing can be compared to anything with any confidence, and
  • Over-emphasizing the similarities between things, which these days means that everyone is either Hitler or Stalin.

The best historians combine factual mastery with poetic gifts. They see rhyme and rhythm, but they never force it, letting the “occasional” square pegs stand aside from the round holes when appropriate.*

The first error (the “differences” error) is more useful. If you over-emphasize particular facts at the expense of synthesis, you have hopefully uncovered many useful pieces of information. But these kinds of historians are in my view not really historians, but researchers. They have definite skills, but play too close to the vest. Without extending themselves and taking a risk, they limit their impact.

The second error involves more chutzpah and dash, and so I tend to be more forgiving to those who synthesize too much. Toynbee, one of my great heroes, conflated Greek and Roman civilizations to such a degree that he claimed that Rome began its decline in 431 B.C., the year the Peloponnesian War started in Greece. Such an assertion perhaps has some grandeur in its theatricality. But no one could claim that this whopper arose from intellectual laziness on his part.

Other times, however, errors of the second kind can only arise from a combination of laziness and willful blindness. These types of errors of the “Over-emphasizing similarities” school are more dangerous than the “differences” school. When you aim higher, you fall farther.

One “similarities” error that has lingered on in the scholarship of late antiquity, and subsequently in the public consciousness, involves the interplay between Christianity post-Constantine and the older paganism. Sir Geoffrey Elton–a knight no less!–expresses this basic idea concisely, writing,

. . . religions organized in powerful churches and in command of the field persecute as a matter of course and tend to regard toleration as a sign of weakness or even wickedness towards whatever deity they worship. Among the religious, toleration is demanded by the persecuted who need it if they are to be triumphant, when, all too often, they then persecute in their turn. . . . To say this is not cynicism but sobriety of judgment.

Ugh–one can just imagine Sir Geoffrey Elton saying this with some British smugness. Intolerable, I say! It just won’t do!

So, Elton, followed by Peter Garnsey, and Francois Paschoud on the French side–and a host of others–mash everything up and declare that basically no difference existed between the intolerance of Rome towards Christians, and intolerance of Christians towards Roman pagans.

But even a brief look at this assertion shows its utter fatuity.

How did Rome persecute Christians? Over a span of 250 years (though not continuous over that period, but sporadic in its intensity) Rome imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands and thousands of Christians. Many died in a gruesome manner, as even Roman sources hostile to Christians attest. By the late empire, feeding Christians to lions in the arena was old hat. Even mild, tolerant, and “good” emperors like Trajan admitted that, yes, if push came to shove, Pliny should arrest and even execute Christians.

How did Christians persecute pagan Romans once in “command of the field?” They closed and sometimes destroyed temples. They refused to give state funding for pagan rites. They closed the Academy of Athens. Some sporadic–and important to note–non-state sponsored violence probably happened in some instances. One can cite the era of Theodosius I, from AD 379-395, where

hands and feet . . . were broken; their faces and genitals smashed . . .

But this violence was not directed at people but at the statues of gods and goddesses. However “purposeful” and “vindictive” (as one historian terms it) such actions may have been, it is not quite the same thing as watching people eaten alive for entertainment.**

Enter historian Peter Brown to set the record partially aright. Alas, I have only slight exposure to Brown, an acknowledged master of late Roman antiquity. My first impressions peg him tending towards the “differences” error, but this might suit him well to clean up the typical sludge created by Elton et. al. on this issue. He entitled chapter 1 of his work Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman World, “Christianization: Narratives and Processes,” which can only elicit one response:

But chapter two deals with the question of religious toleration in a much more promising manner.

Brown points out a few helpful counterpoints to Elton and his crew.

Most every ruler’s first priority involves money, which comes mostly through taxation. Any ruler of moderate ability understands the tricky nature of taxation, and how it relies upon a network of trust and compliance that is not easily enforced. Brown comments,

It is easy to assume that a tax system . . . so successful, indicated the indomitable will of the emperors to control the souls of their subjects as surely as they had come to control their wealth. In fact, the exact opposite may be the case. In most areas, the system of negotiated consensus was usually stretched to its limits by the task of exacting taxes. It had little energy left to give ‘bite’ to intolerant policies in matters of religion. It is no surprise that many sources indicate a clear relation between taxation and toleration. Faced by demands of Porphyry of Gaza for permission to destroy the temples of the city, supposedly in 400, the emperor Arcadius is presented as having said: ‘I know the city is full of idols, but it shows “devotio” in paying taxes and contributes much to the treasury. If we suddenly terrorize these people, they will run away, and we lose considerable revenues.”

Brown also stresses that late imperial Rome even in the Christian era involved shared power among elites. And these elites had strong common bonds between them that crossed religious lines. Brown writes again,

As far as the formation of the new governing class of the post-Constantinian empire was concerned, the fourth century was very definitely not a century overshadowed by [religious conflict]. Nothing could have been more distressing to the Roman upper-classes than the suggestion that ‘Pagan’ and ‘Christian’ were overriding designations in their style of life and choice of friends and allies. . . . Rather . . . studied ambiguity and strong loyalty to common symbolic forms . . . prevailed at this time.

Pagan and Jewish religious leaders, Brown notes, received not just toleration, but sometimes even support from the empire.

It would be wrong to imply, as Menachem Stern has done, that [Libanius and the rabbi Hillel] . . . found themselves drawn together “under the yoke of Christian emperors.” They were drawn together by common enjoyment of an imperial system that conferred high status on them both. . . . Both enjoyed high honorary rank, conferred by imperial codicilli–those precious purple letters of personal esteem signed by Theodosius in his own hand.

Theodosius, it bears mentioning, is often thought of as one of the great “intolerant” emperors.

So far, well and good. Brown, with his eye for detail and his great reluctance to generalize, gives an admirable riposte to the traditional academic narrative. But something still needs addressed. Brown blocks effectively, but asserts little beyond, “It wasn’t as clear cut as many think,” he seems to say. But everything is complicated. The historian should at least offer a way to make the complicated intelligible.

Alas, the elephant is still in the room, in the form of two important questions for scholars like Elton and Garnsey–questions that Brown fails to ask:

The first: toleration may be a good thing, but what are its limits? One can praise the virtue of getting along despite differences. Everyone knows this already, however. It’s not a hard thing to say. The hard thing means saying when the differences have become so great that co-existence no longer works, when the house divided cannot stand.

Drawing this line ultimately comes down to values, and values come from religious beliefs. My second question to Elton, etc. would be, “What is your religion? You seem to be neither pagan, nor Christian–and that’s fine. But what or who is your God/god? And what does He/She/It not like? What do you not tolerate? Surely He/She/It can’t like everything.

Brown avoids such questions, and that’s too bad. He has my respect, and a historian of his heft should apply his knowledge to this problem. As for our own situation in our own time, such questions have unfortunately become more than just theoretical. I believe that the media accentuates the differences between Americans for profit. Also, professional tweeters are more divided than average Americans. But a breaking point lies out there somewhere for all of us. We must acknowledge this, and at the same time, hope that we never find it.

Dave

*This observation might seem quite obvious, and so it is. But it is rooted in the profound truth of the nature of the Trinity–unity and diversity at the root of all being.

**I admit this is not the whole truth of all of Christian history. There were times and places where it got worse than this in the next 1000 years. But though it did at times get worse than what I describe above, it never equaled what Rome did.

Impress Imbalance

I encourage my students to play, “Would you rather?” games, i.e., “Would you rather eat 500 live ants or 1 live cricket?” Often questions like this involve no specific moral quandary, but the practice of creating and defending mental hierarchies has great value, even when such hierarchies are relative. Comparing civilizations has something of the apples/oranges dilemma, I admit. And reigning cultural relativism tells us not to judge. But I believe that the mental process involved in deciding whether Greece was better than Rome, or in this case, whether or not Egypt has the leg up over Babylon, helps bring clarity and meaning to the study of history–even if one should hold on loosely to these kinds of distinctions.

Many have used various criteria for evaluating civilizations, such as how long they last, the power they accumulated, their technology, and so on. I think a better lens involves us seeing how each civilization aligns itself with the reality of creation–with the patterns and Truth found in the created order, available for any with eyes to see.

Henri Frankfurt’s Kingship and the Gods gives us more than a rundown of Egyptian and Sumerian/Babylonian kingship. He seeks to integrate religion and politics not just with their history, but also the geography and the general patterns of living from both cultures. He reveals his method early in the introduction, writing,

Mesopotamian society was entirely adapted to the cyclic succession of the seasons.  While each winter resolved its harshness in the spring and the plague of summer was succeeded by autumn rains, human society moved through a succession of seasons in which humanity joined in of the cosmic crisis of life, death, rain, and drought.  The [Babyonian] sees a dramatic conception played out in nature between the divine and the demoniac, between forces of order and chaos.

The most important seasonal celebrations in [Babylon]  centered around the bewailing of the death of Tammuz and his rebirth on the New Year–his victory over death  and his sacred marriage to the mother-goddess.

Egypt, too, reflected the natural rhythm of the seasons in the course of the official year.  But their celebrations differ profoundly in character from those in Babylon.  In the plain of the two rivers, the festivals were never free from anxiety, and those which we know best show a change from deep gloom to exaltation.  In Egypt, festivals provided the occasion to affirm that all was well, for Egypt viewed the universe as essentially static.  Revolts against the established order happened, but never got classified as anything more than a few ripples under the surface.

The rich Nile valley lies isolated and protected on both sides by a vast desert, while Mesopotamia lacks clear boundaries and was periodically assaulted on its fringes by mountain tribes.  Egypt derived its prosperity from the Nile, which never fails to rise, even if the floods differ in effectiveness.  But Babylon depended on uncertain rainfall and  the Tigris was an unaccountable, turbulent, and dangerous river. 

Some might then conclude that religion means nothing more than a natural phenomena, though Frankfurt himself does not suggest this.* Rather, Frankfurt wants to integrate our vision of each society–to see Egypt and the Egyptians as one and not many. When we pull back and see the integrated whole of a civilization, the impression they leave comes into greater focus.

If I had to choose between Egypt and Babylon, I would likely choose Egypt, but one of their key weaknesses lay in their failure to appreciate the feminine aspects of creation and experience. Nearly every religion I am aware of sees creation as essentially feminine, Christianity included. As C.S. Lewis commented, we all stand as essentially feminine in relation to God. All in the Church, whether man or woman, are the “bride” of Christ. Various pagan beliefs have “Mother-goddesses,” whereas Christianity might talk of “Mother Earth” in a slightly more abstract way, as St. Francis did in his “Canticle of the Sun.” Egypt had no “Mother Earth”–for them the earth itself was not even feminine. The idea of power had strong play in Egyptian thought, and so rather than the traditional “receiving and transforming” aspect of Earth, the Egyptians saw supreme power in the male diety of Ptah or Geb. In some creation stories, Ra stands on the Primeval Hill to create, again over-emphasizing the male aspect of reality. Apparently Egypt did not want creation to have any derivative existence.

Most every religion, including ancient Israel, had harvest festivals of some kind. Nearly all of these festivals focus on the idea of death, the earth receiving death, and then having that death transformed into life. Harvest festivals connect us with birth and new life, and so highlight feminine aspects of life in general. A proper conception of this pattern must allow for three days in the tomb, so to speak. So in Greece, as elsewhere, the seed could be identified with the king (think of Mary Renault’s classic, The King Must Die), who “dies” for the people to give them grain. No grain comes without the earth receiving and transforming the seed. But things were different in Egypt. Yes, the king ceremoniously started the harvest by cutting a symbolic stalk, but the forgoing ceremony emphasized that he was the wheat which went up to the cloud, not the chaff that fell to earth. Frankfurt comments that,

All we know of the Egyptians shows they would have found [a festival centering on the death of the seed] distasteful. They did not readily admit the shadow side of life, perhaps on hedonistic grounds, but also because, in their static conception of the world, grief had no [place].

We see this in the Egyptian harvest prayers, i.e.,

Osisris is Unas in the mounting chaff

His loathing is the earth;

He has not entered Geb to perish.

He is not sleeping in his house (i.e., tomb) upon earth

So that his bones may be broken.

His hurt is driven out!

He has purified himself with the Horus Eye.

Unas is up and away to heaven;

Unas is up and away to heaven

With the wind, with the wind!

A Christian might be tempted to see here a foreshadowing of victory over death in the resurrection. Perhaps an aspect of that exists here, but along with Frankfurt I extend a word of caution–even God Himself “submitted” to the pattern of first going down before rising up. The Egyptians seemed to want to short-circuit the process. A Christian might think of something akin to banishing “worldly sorrow”–something the Babylonians struggled mightily with–but they should have remembered that “blessed are those that mourn,” and that it is usually our moms that take pity on us when we scrape our knee or need visited in the hospital.

This same imbalance shows in their depictions of royalty. Certainly every society has a hierarchy and kings might naturally be depicted in some outsized way to show his importance. But in Egypt, one often sees only the king, as in this relief of the conquests of Thutmose III:

Tuthmosis III smiting his enemies, the Cannaanites, at the Battle fo Megiddo from the north wall of the Great Hypostyle Court, Egypt. Ancient Egyptian. New Kingdom 18th Dynasty, 1473 BC. Karnak. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

If we compare this to how Babylon depicted one of its greatest kings, Nebuchadnezzar a contrast immediately becomes evident:

and

I have mentioned a few times above that Christians should be cautious in interpreting Egypt’s religion in an overly Christological manner. Now, I offer the same caution to women in general. Some might look at certain aspects of Egyptian belief and celebrate that even the feminine earth has been raised to the level of the masculine sky. But in fact Egypt did not raise the feminine up–they (mostly) abolished the feminine aspects of reality from their experience.

Most every traditional belief system sees the following pairings:

Masculine

  • Strength
  • Vertical Hierachy
  • Steady/Unchanging

Feminine

  • Compassion
  • Togetherness
  • Protean

This “exchange,” this relationship between these two different aspects of reality, help form healthy civilizations just as they form healthy families. Historian Kenneth Clark noted when guys and gals are separated too stridently for too long in social situations, the level of discourse tends to decline in both camps.

The history of Egypt, perhaps akin to the history of China (of which I know much less about) could plausibly show forth this pattern of the elimination of feminine qualities. In his A Study of History Toynbee makes the case that after the pyramids, Egypt tightens and “freezes up.” Much of Frankfurt’s religious analysis comes from this post-pyramid era, and the evidence shows an exaggerated desire to eliminate all variability, all doubt and grief, from their way of life. Such an attitude surely helped contribute to their failure when confronted by Moses.

Babylon shows us the opposite problem–too much of the archetypal feminine. As Frankfurt aptly points out, the stately nature of Egyptian geography shows a direct contrast to that of Babylon. Women go through more changes overall than men**–this is neither a virtue or vice–and so a civilization that over-emphasized feminine qualities would tend towards too much change, and not enough solidity. This shows up in Babylonian creation mythology, with its constant conflict and shifting alliances between different gods. It arises in their depictions of the goddess Ishtar, sometimes shown wearing a beard. Aristocratic Babylonian men followed the trend in their religious beliefs and may have engaged in cross-dressing, and so on.

Other manifestations of this imbalance show up:

  • Coronation rituals for Babylonian kings took place in the temple of Ishtar, and their royal insignia came from the goddesses “Lady of the Crown,” and “Lady of the Scepter.”
  • Frankfurt suggests that, while obviously Egypt and Babylon had various religious festivals, Babylon had more festivals that “required” everyone to participate at the same time in unison–it is the mom who generally wants to have everyone home for the holidays, etc.
  • In Egypt, water was effectively tamed. For the Babylonians, “the ways of water are devious. It avoids obstacles rather than conquering them, goes around and yet gets to its goal.” Traditional religions always associate water with the feminine, and we see something of the “mystery of Woman” (guys are not that mysterious) in Babylonian views of water.

For clarification, I am not here suggesting that any of these things are good or bad per se. The question is more of emphasis.

One sometimes hears silly things such as, “If only women were in charge throughout the world then there would be no wars, and everyone would love each other.” But Babylon had an empire as well. And Babylon for biblical writers became (along with Egypt), an archetypal tyranny, albeit with some different manifestations than that of Egypt. I have written elsewhere of the possibilities of feminine tyranny, and will not rehash that here. In Egypt’s case, the excessive emphasis on order “naturally” called forth the chaos of the 10 Plagues. For Babylon, the undue emphasis of the market, of change and flux, of possibility, inevitably called forth excessive order–it is no coincidence that Babylon produced the world’s first known extensive code of law and punishment.

Ancient Egyptian and Babylon societies show us that masculine and feminine “gods,” when freed from proper relationship with the other side, become demons.

Dave

*I would not say that Egyptian and Babylonian religions were false because of this either. Obviously, a Christian would say that such beliefs had deep flaws, while at the same time one can affirm the aspects of the Truth that they professed. Occasionally, a skewed religious belief can at times show forth an aspect of Truth in a more compelling fashion, as they give it undue emphasis in the wrong place. Still, all in all, I think the key problem of pagan religions was their inescapable imminence of the gods. The undue focus on imminence leads to a narrowing, an entrapment of sorts, a tautology. You see this today whenever an argument is based on the fact that, “It’s 2021.” In other words, whatever we happen to be doing must be right because we are in fact doing it–the ethics of imminence. One is inevitably influenced by our surroundings, including our geography. We should not be trapped by it, to be excessively determined by it.

**I think it fair to say that puberty involves more changes for women than men. Marriage involves more change for women. Women obviously go through a lot of change in terms of conceiving and giving birth to children, and then, menopause, and so on.

Rebels Against the Future

(The Grumpy Old Man podcast that touches on some of these themes can be found here.).

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

A few years ago at the Circe Institute conference Andrew Kern made a startling statement.  In the midst of his opening speech he mentioned the Luddites.  I have always assumed (like most of us I suppose) that the Luddites attacked the mechanical looms for economic reasons.  But Kern suggested that perhaps the Luddites acted unknowingly for more fundamental reasons.

All throughout ancient literature (which people in the early 19th century would be familiar with) weaving relates strongly to wisdom.  So Penelope’s weaving, for example, is not merely a clever device to stall the suitors.  She represents wisdom and faithfulness in contrast to the suitors who grasp for power and wealth.  They will not confirm Odysseus’ death, rather they will take what they want in defiance of the pattern of creation and marriage.  The idea of the “fabric of society” closely relates to weaving, and so on.

So, Kern surmised, the Luddites didn’t just act to try and preserve their jobs.  They may have acted to preserve the idea of wisdom itself, though almost certainly not overtly but in a sub-conscious, Jungian sense.

I thought the idea intriguing at the time, but perhaps a bit of a stretch.  But I started to look for weaving in ancient literature.  To my surprise Plato uses weaving in “The Statesmen” as an analogy for good government.  With Jason and his Argonauts we see Medea the sorceress contrasted with Queen Arete, who is weaving when we first meet her.  In Homer’s The Odyssey we see a couple of references to the span of life compared to a thread (7.197-198, 24.38-29).  Melville uses similar imagery in chapter 47 of Moby Dickand we also see it in the Upanishads.  Isaiah 38:12 reads, “My life was with me as cloth on a loom, when she that weaves draws near to cut off the thread.”

The philosopher Porphyry uses very similar imagery in his On the Cave of the Nymphs, another reference to the Odyssey (13.102-112).  Here Homer refers to a murky cave which contains, among other things, “looms, likewise of stone, on which the nymphs wear weave sea-purple garments.”  Porphyry writes (and we should remember that he–unfortunately–believed in the pre-existence of the soul),

What symbol could be more appropriate than “looms” for souls descending to birth and the creation of the body?  , . . For flesh is formed in and around the bones, which in living beings resemble stones.

We should not miss the connections to the fundamental facts of weaving, birth, death, blood, and the like.

So perhaps Kern, and the Luddites themselves, were on to something.

I finally went in search of a book on the Luddites and came across Rebels Against the Future by Kirkpatrick Sale.  Sale gives a good overview of the Luddites but does little else.  He gives us some important perspective, showing us that the Luddites had nothing against technology per se, but only against, to quote from a Luddite letter, “Machinery hurtful to commonality.”   He clearly favors the Luddite cause and shows many examples of their courage.  Sale’s explanation for the Luddites ultimate failure, however, leaves out to my mind the most basic reason.  In resorting to violence, they at times fired upon common men like themselves, and thus abandoned their moral high ground.  Furthermore, their use of violence played directly into the hands of their adversaries.  Once they broke the law, the state naturally would defend the men behind the machines.  And the state had much more force to use than the Luddites.*  Had the Luddites exercised more patience and used a non-violent, grass-roots approach, history might have been different.  As to how different, Sale offers no thoughts.  Did industrial looms pose more of a threat than factories that performed other tasks?  Would it be possible to industrialize in some areas and not others?  If other countries industrialized their economy, and thus, their armies, what would the consequences be for a non-industrial country?  The age of imperialism might offer some hints on this, and questions about community balanced with security (among other questions) should be asked.

Sale just scratches the surface.  Maybe not much else exists to see.  Maybe the Luddites had no higher purpose than saving their jobs.  But I think the Luddites continual references to “commonality” hints that Kern had more insight than I first supposed.  I will hope to find other books that can take the issue deeper.

My favorite part of Toynbee’s sixth volume of his A Study of History deals with his examination of what he calls archaism.  “Archaics” in his context seek to recover their civilization in a time of crisis by using a time-machine to travel back to some imagined golden age.  We should much prefer archaism to “futurism.”  The past has the advantage of having an actual reality and thus restrains action somewhat.  The futurist has no such limitations, and the evil they work in their earnest desperation will likely be much more terrible.  Toynbee points out that archaists would usually rather be archaeologists than politicians.  Alas, political realities set in and something must give.  The impossibility of drawing back the masses to the past with you means that archaists often choose violence in the end.  And this ends up dooming their movement.**

I think the Luddites use of violence contributed heavily to their defeat, but I would not call them “archaists.”  They sat on the knife-edge of change and saw a darkness on the horizon.  The “past” they tried to preserve was in fact the present.  Given that they did not reject all technology they had no wish to futilely put the brakes on all aspects of societal change.  They saw clearly what the Industrial Revolution would do to their communities and their sense of self.  If they did not submit to “archaism” they had more psychological flexibility at their disposal, which makes their use of violence more troubling to me.  Perhaps in the end they simply lacked the very rare traits necessary to translate those ideas politically.

Or perhaps their concerns went far away from politics.  Perhaps they saw themselves as doomed crusaders, but bound, like crusaders, to something deeper and older than politics.

Maybe.

According to the Tradition of the Church, at the Annunciation the Virgin Mary was found by Gabriel in the Temple . . . weaving a veil for the Temple where she resided, and some icons of the Annunciation (such as the one below from the 14th century in Serbia) show this as well.

In Hebrews 10:20 we see the identification with Christ’s body with the veil of the sanctuary (10:20), and we know that both the Temple curtain and the Body of Christ were broken for the life of the world.  Father Maximos Constas writes, “With the strictest visual economy, then, Mary’s thread gives consummate expression the . . . continuum of conception and crucifixion.”^

From St. Epiphianos:

About Eve and Mary it was said, “Who gave women the wisdom of weaving, and the knowledge of embroidering? (Job 38:36).  For the first wise woman, Eve, wove material garments for Adam, whom she had stripped naked.  This labor was given to her, for it was through her that the knowledge of nakedness was acquired, and thus to her was given the task of clothing the perceptible body.

To Mary, on the other hand, it was granted by God to give birth to the Lamb and the Shepherd [cf. John 1:29, 10:11], so that from his glory we might be clothed in a garment of incorruptibility (1 Cor. 15:53-54).

And from St. Nelios the Ascetic:

The Theotokos [that is, Mary, the “Mother of God”] displayed such “wisdom and manifold knowledge” (Job 38:36) that, from the wool of the Lamb who was born from her, she was able to clothe all the faithful with garments of incorruptibility.  For all true Christians stand at the right hand of the King, in golden-fringed garments, embroidered in myriad forms of the virtues.

So it may be that the liturgy of the loom points us toward the wisdom of knowing salvation itself.  I’d like to believe that the Luddites thought likewise, and would love for someone to prove or at least suggest this in another book about them.

Dave

*Gene Sharp makes brilliant points about the benefits of non-violent struggle against states or state-sponsored entities in “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” available online.

**I.e, Tiberius Graachi, who committed himself almost entirely to non-violence.  But he did violate the Roman constitution and so became a law-breaker.  This may have cost his movement the fence-sitters they needed, and it also opened the door for the Senate to respond with force.

^The entirety of this paragraph owes everything to The Art of Seeing by Father Maximos Constans, pp. 108-109, as do the quotes below, found on p. 129

A Culture of Victory, a Culture of Collapse

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

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

But . . . he lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organization:

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

Discipline:

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

Honor and Ego:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

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

Symbolic Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

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


8th Grade: The Definition of Collapse

Greetings,

This week we very nearly wrapped up Assyrian civilization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historian Arnold Toynbee comments,

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

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

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

Slant Deeds to Straight Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this brings us to Constantine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Soldier Emperors

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

Gallic Empire (West)

following the death of Valerian

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

Palmyrene Empire

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

The Soldier Emperors (continued)

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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