Truisms that are (at least mostly) Not True

I have an affinity for the crazy theory.  I know that they can’t all be true, if for the only reason that if all of them were true, we would have no crazy theories to enjoy contemplating.  Our times have a strange character to them, however, for it seems the crackpot plays the role of conservative.  Older views of things look bizarre today.  Before continuing, I should fully disclose that, though I love crazy ideas, I am actually a very boring person.  The reason these two fit together in my life is that today the harebrained idea is sometimes quite conservative and, xpon closer examination, sometimes even obvious.

Take, for example, a variety of truisms in our day.  We say that in football you have to have a great quarterback but . . .  Blake Bortles, Nick Foles, Case Keenum . . . at least one of them will play in the Super Bowl this year.  One can easily envision some coach with a crew-cut from the early 1960’s telling us how it’s a “team game, and not one of you means more than another,” and so on. We have traveled back in time.

History has its truisms as well.  I hear all the time, even from religious conservatives, that America’s religious competition has saved America from going the way of secular Western Europe.*  I have a particular antipathy for this obvious falsehood.  Medieval Europe had very little religious competition, and religion did quite well there.  Religion thrived in ancient Egypt with almost no competition for millennia.  To take the reverse, ancient Babylon had a lot more religious competition and their religion and morals seemed to suffer.  Today France may be nominally Catholic and Sweden nominally Lutheran, but no laws exist forbidding one from becoming Baptist, Methodist, or Buddhist in either place.  At least some religious competition surely exists there today.  This truism about religious competition is actually a far-fetched theory, based on only the most recent evidence.

To get slightly more controversial, we hear all the time how printing serves as one of the great civilizing tools for mankind.  No one questions this truism. But, just look for a moment . . . it seems obvious to me that the 15th century in Europe had a higher degree of civilization than the century after the printing press gained prevalence.  The printing press brought a lot of religious violence and political fragmentation in its wake. We hear too the truism that, “getting a Bible into everyone’s hands” is the key to spiritual health.  But, again, just look . . . it seems clear that the Church did quite well without the printing press for quite some time.  And, to return to an aforementioned truism, the fact that the Bible always tops bestseller lists has not prevented the west from becoming more and more secular over the last two-three centuries.

Maybe civilization and religion actually rely on things far older, far more “tried and true,” for success rather than new technologies–the crackpot as bland conservative strikes again.

I have written before about another one of my least favorite truisms, that of the evolutionary view of history and progress.  The theory basically means that civilization starts small and has run in a more or less unbroken line of progress and advancement.  Though this theory has general acceptance in many textbooks and the minds of men, it is, in fact, a radical, crazy, notion, for it ignores obvious facts.  For one, we know that a complex civilization could collapse more easily, quickly, and completely than a primitive one, due to its inevitable interdependence.  The presence of advancement makes large steps backward more, not less likely, like stock-market bubbles.  For another, we have a universally acknowledged and plain example of the fall of Rome and the subsequent so-called Dark Ages.  Whatever one thinks of the Dark Ages, Italy ca. 100 A.D. had a much higher level of civilization in most respects than Italy ca. 600 A.D.  Still, the prevalence of the evolutionary view makes those who state otherwise seem crazy.

Enter Charles Hapgood, whose book Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings postulates that, based on an examination of certain ancient maps, it appears that an unknown and likely quite ancient civilization developed a geographical and nautical understanding that humanity would not equal until the modern era. Hapgood’s theory joins the voices of Graham Hancock, Jon Anthony West, and other megalithic architecture (such as Gobeckli-Tepe) that argues that pre-historic people not only existed, but existed at a far higher level of civilization than anyone previously imagined.

Unfortunately for the layman like me, Hapgood immerses the book in large amounts of technical terms and technical data.  I think one would need special knowledge of cartography, geography, and math to understand large portions of the book.  Perhaps no other way existed to make his case.  I found myself junping over much of the technical sections but hope I still understood the basic case, which runs like this:

  • In 1929 an unusual map, named, the Piri Re’is, was discovered in the old Imperial Palace of Constantinople, dated the year 1513 A.D. (Moslem reckoning 919).
  • The map was extensive and showed the coast of North America in excellent detail.  This map differed from all other 16th century maps by giving correct longitudes for South America and Africa.  No 16th-century navigator that we know of knew how to calculate longitude except by guesswork.
  • Further investigation showed that Piri Re’is (or basically, Admiral Piri) claimed to copy this map from earlier maps, some of them dating back to (he claimed) the time of Alexander the Great.
  • Even a rough study of this map indicated that it used highly advanced mathematics, including spherical trigonometry, which we do not believe existed in the classical world

So, where did the map come from?

Perhaps Hapgood’s critics are right, and the Greeks knew enough spherical trigonometry to make these maps.  But did they sail across the Atlantic?  No evidence exists for this.  Did the Egyptians or Babylonians have this knowledge?  It appears not, but if they did, they did not sail across the Atlantic to map the coasts of the Americas.  Maybe the Romans in Ptolemy’s time had the knowledge, but again, did not sail across the ocean. Did it come from the medieval period?  But they did not sail much, and no other medieval map exists that compares with the quality of the Piri Re’is.

The best map from the classical period comes from Ptolemy, who worked in Alexandria and had access to all of the accumulated knowledge the world knew at the time.  His map shows great skill:

 

But it cannot compare with the Piri Re’is (although this is only a portion):

And again:

The Portolano Map, of late Medieval/Renaissance origin, is again, very good, but not quite up to snuff, at least in terms of the extent of what it mapped:

The inclusion of Antartica on the Piri Re’is map is particularly noteworthy, as many speculate that it maps landforms that for thousands of years have been covered with ice. In other words, the map seems to have been made before the ice age, and not after.

A few quotes scattered throughout the book from Hapgood illustrate his proposition:

We have discovered that in most cases the errors on the Piri Re’is mapper due to mistakes in the compilation of the world map, presumably in Alexandrian times [that is, the Piri Re’is was discovered in different pieces and put back together not quite accurately], since it appears that Piri Re’is could not himself have put them together at all.  The component maps, coming from a far greater antiquity, were far more accurate.  The Piri Re’is Map appears, therefore, to be evidence of a decline of science from remote antiquity to classical times (p. 39).

******

For a long time after the voyages of Columbus we find the latitudes of Cuba and Haiti are wrong on most maps.  Almost all the mapmakers put the islands above rather than below the Tropic of Cancer [in contrast to the Piri Re’is] (p. 41).

********

To sum up, then, this part of the Piri Re’is Map suggests a source map of Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic islands probably drawn originally on some sort of trigonmetric projection adjusted to the curvature of the earth.  By default of any other narrative, we must assign this map’s origin to a pre-Hellenic people.  The trigonometry of the projection suggests the work of Alexandrian geographers, but the evident knowledge of longitude implies a people unknown to us, a people of seafarers with instruments undreamed of by the Greeks, and as far we know, not possessed by the Phoenicians either (p. 49).

********

The suggestion of a vast antiquity behind the [Piri Re’is] is conveyed by a feature to which Captain Mallery first drew my attention.  He pointed out that the Zeno Map [which very likely had the Piri Re’is as a source map] shows Greenland with no ice caps.  The interior is filled with mountains, and rivers are shown entering the sea, in some cases at the points where glaciers now move through mountains to the coast (p. 152).**

*********

This culture [that made the Piri Re’is] may well have more advanced than Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.  In astronomy, nautical science, mapmaking, it was likely more advanced than any culture before the 18th century of the Christian era.  Not until the 18th century did we begin to send ships to the Arctic or Antarctic regions.  Organized government is indicated [by the map], as many expeditions would be needed to gather the appropriate information to map the area so precisely (p. 193).

Hapgood writes haphazardly and does not always reason in a clear, linear fashion, a trait he shares with his modern fellow believer in pre-historically advanced ancient civilizations, Graham Hancock.  The key I think to both writers lies not in the exactness of their data but in the accumulation of enough “probably’s” to make their case.  I heard most of a conversation between Hancock and Sceptic editor Michael Shermer.  The discussion went nowhere, with Shermer begging for even a small handful absolute, concrete, data points, and Hancock pleading with him to consider the mass of “probably’s,” while admitting in the end that the study of ancient civilizations cannot provide the kind of concrete proof Shermer demanded.

Rather than ask, “Can we be absolutely sure if an ancient, advanced, prehistoric civilization existed,” (obvious answer-“no”), or, is it possible that such a civilization existed (obvious answer–“yes”) we should instead wonder whether we should expect or not expect to find such a civilization.  Is the idea reasonably likely?  Hapgood will likely not convince anyone who needs something along the lines of what Shermer requires.  He may entice others who think it likely that some kind of ancient civilization along the lines of those who like Hancock’s work.

To give Hapgood’s theory a shot, it helps to believe that:

  • The myths and folklore of most every ancient civilization that describe advanced civilizations that experienced thorough destruction (like the Atlantis story) likely have a fundamental truth behind them.
  • Civilization devolves just as much as it evolves, and in fact, devolution may be more prevalent than evolution in civilizations.
  • The flood described in Genesis 6 (and many other ancient religious texts) was substantive, historical in at least some sense, and would have had the power to destroy civilizations very quickly.
  • The absence of evidence would not condemn the case outright, as civilizations have at times experienced a catastrophic loss of a great deal of accumulated knowledge (the burning of the library at Alexandria, the collapse of Rome, etc.)

With this in place you might buy what Hapgood sells.  But without these beliefs, his book will likely frustrate readers.  In any case, I don’t find the above propositions crazy.  In fact, I find them rather ordinary.  Folklore and myth are common to all.  Belief in a historical flood of some kind is nothing new, with most ancient civilizations sharing this story.^  We have actual historically undisputed losses of vast amounts of intellectual capital at certain times in the past, such as the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

As I said earlier, despite my inclination towards “crazy” theories, I’m actually a very boring guy.

Dave

P.S.–A good friend and a math/science teacher glanced over the basic arguments of the book and found them wanting, and Hapgood’s selection of material suspicious.  He has a better nose for such things than I and his thoughts give me pause.

My friend and I both believe that ancient civilizations tend to be far more advanced then we might think.   Neither one of us believes that the history of civilization always proceeds in a directly linear way, and certainly not in a progressive evolutionary way.  We thus share some crucial assumptions.

My friend thought that Hapgood underestimates the knowledge of ancients.  For example, we know the ancient Phoenicians existed, we know they were great sailors.  It makes much more sense to say that perhaps they made the map and sailed farther than we thought, then to suggest that an unknown civilization of which we know nothing made the map.

My response would be something like, “If we know a lot about the ancients but have no record of them sailing to the Antarctic, it is plausible that they did not do so.  Thus, someone else must have.”

Plus, I confess that I just simply find the idea of advanced pre-historic civilizations fun, satisfying, and enormously entertaining.  Someone could wave such ideas in front of me daily and they would always get me pretty excited.

*One might modify this theory and argue that perhaps in today’s intellectual and cultural climate, one must have religious competition for religion to survive.  This argument has more plausibility.

**Some believe the Zeno Map to be a hoax precisely because of this feature and other “phantom islands” that do not now show themselves above water.  But Hapgood argues that a perfectly plausible explanation exists for this if the Piri Re’is was a source.  Another map, the Ibn Ben Zara Map, has a remarkably accurate depiction of the Aegean.  But it also includes several islands no longer visible.  How to explain this paradox?  How could the map be so accurate in some respects and so false in others?  We can say the map is a hoax or is filled with errors.  But another possibility is that a source map of great antiquity was constructed when these islands stood above sea-level.

^I do not mean to suggest that the Bible is merely historical.  It certainly has metaphysical, “mythological,” symbolic, and theological meaning beyond history.  But I don’t see these categories as exclusive.  What is real is not opposed to what is mystical, symbolic, or spiritual.

 

 

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8th Grade: Enslaving Others, Enslaving the Self

Greetings,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arnold Toynbee concurred and wrote,

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

Blessings,

Dave

The Rings of Saturn

Bernard Bailyn starts his book The Peopling of British North America with an illuminating analogy about the rings of Saturn.  When astronomers first noticed Saturn’s rings their beauty appeared as a shimmering uniformity.  Now that technology has given us a closer look, we see that in fact, the “rings” are comprised of thousands of bits of rock and dust, some as big as your hand, some as big as a car, some almost microscopic.

History, he then argues, is often like this.  From a distance things look easy to understand but get up close and the elegant simplicity and uniformity of the past dissipates into confusing bits that won’t go together.  Reality will confound our ability to understand it as a coherent whole.

A lot about this analogy rings true for me.  When young we learn that George Washington was the father of our country, a great leader, and so on.  As we get older, we need to deal with his owning slaves, his social striving, his possible mixed motives for fighting the British, etc.

But ultimately historians can’t stop where Bailyn leaves off.  After seeing what the rings of Saturn actually are, he/she then needs to find a way to have them make sense.  He must interpret and synthesize.  Bailyn’s book tantalizes at times with revealing details about early colonial settlement, but I found myself frustrated that the book never quite got off the ground.

The book shows us that settlement of the colonies happened seemingly without real pattern, aside from the obvious facts that most immigrants were young, male, from a middle-class or lower background.  Different things seemed to happen for different reasons.  In sifting through the data, Bailyn admits that it might take a a poet or impressionist painter to make sense of the disparate information.  This is a wonderful admission of his, and seems to go against his “rings of Saturn” analogy.  Bailyn admits that in this instance he can’t fulfill that role (though he did just this in his great Ideological Origins of the American Revolution).  Interestingly, Bailyn contrasts the disparate design and feel of American settlements with new towns in Germany of the same period.  In Germany, new towns all looked the same.  So again, sometimes the rings of Saturn look exactly like we think they should look.  It may be American history in particular, rather than History in general, that presents a unique picture.

Ultimately, of course, this must be Bailyn’s point.  We might imagine the early days of European settlement to have uniformity, with diversity coming in the 19th century with large scale immigration, but no — from the earliest times no one story could account for everything.  “Let us celebrate America’s diversity,” and all that.

I thought of Bailyn’s work while reflecting on 8th grade reactions to the history of the Roman Republic.  In the year’s “Great Debate” over whether ancient Greece or Rome was the superior civilization, the boys invariably choose Rome by about a 2/3 margin, and the girls Greece by the same amount.  Many years of teaching this class bear this out for me, so why might this be?

Though images of the ancient Greeks reveal a touch of brutishness, they had more feminine qualities than the Romans.  They displayed more creativity and originality than the Romans.  They appreciated beauty and proportion.  As for the Romans, their plodding, methodical nature probably fits very easily within the mind of an 8th grade boy.  Their lack of imagination and their pig-headed stubbornness may have been designed specifically to both infuriate their ancient opponents and the average modern 8th grade girl.  I have seen a few young ladies actually stomp their feet in anger when Rome manages to rise after their disaster at Cannae, as the boys chuckle in Beavis and Butt-head like fashion.  “We’re still here,” the Romans seem to be saying to Carthage, “dunking your pigtails in inkwells yet again.”

I can identify somewhat with this aggravation, but there is something magnificent about how the Romans embraced their sense of identity.  The Roman scholar J.V.P.D. Balsdon makes the observation that the Roman origin story of Romulus and Remus raised by wolves had nothing to commend it to the ancient world.  Apparently it would have been much better if they had been suckled by she-goats, as the Greeks did with Zeus.  To what extent they truly believed in the myths I can’t say, but even a quick perusal of Rome’s stories show fratricide, violence, and no hint of elegance.  The touching Greek story of Pygmalion carried no truck with the Romans.  When they needed women, they simply stole them from the Sabines.  Even when the Romans “invent” their stories (though I am not comfortable with that word, but like a typical guy I can’t think of a better one) they utterly lack imagination and adornment.  And the Romans chuckle stupidly again.  They’re perfectly happy with their unimaginative early history.  Aggravating or no, their fierce sense of identity, no doubt gleaned partially from their commonly accepted founding mythology, gave them great strength of purpose and dedication.  They knew they were a gritty, uncouth, blue collar bunch and reveled in it.

When discussing the Arthurian legend in his A Short History of England G.K. Chesterton made the comment that the “tradition” surrounding Arthur was more true than the “history” surrounding him.  He meant that the Arthurian tradition may not be entirely accurate, but expressed more truth about the past than the confusion produced by historians who tackle the same subject.  I think the same holds true for Rome.  Take Will Durant (whom I like, for the record) in his Caesar and Christ, where he vaguely talks of Roman origins in terms of nomads from the steppes, and scraps of pottery dated to some people at some unsure time.  This tells us nothing.  No one should trust in the full accuracy of Livy’s history, but Livy communicates something more true about Rome’s early period than Durant.

If Chesterton is right we should consider his principle in light of America’s history.  The newness of our country means that we can have far more accurate information about our past than almost any other civilization.  For many of us, the stories we learned in elementary school no longer have persuasive power.  Postmodernism has done its deconstructive work well.  We see this in the words of the great jazz pianist Vijay Iyer who recently spoke at Yale, where he seemed to suggest that all success in America is somehow linked to exploitation (I hope I’m reading him incorrectly, as I like Iyer’s music and don’t want his name attached to something silly like this).  Iyer commented,

And as we continue to consider, construct and develop our trajectories as Americans, I am also constantly mindful of what it means to be complicit with a system like this country, with all of its structural inequalities, its patterns of domination, and its ghastly histories of slavery and violence.

Many of us are here because we’ve become successful in that very context. That’s how we got into Yale, by being voted most likely to succeed; and that may be what emboldened some of us to show our faces here this weekend, because we actually have something to show for ourselves, that somehow in the years since we first dined at the Alternate Food Line we’ve managed to carve a place for ourselves in the landscape of America. Whether you attribute it to some mysterious triple package or to your own Horatio Alger story, to succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America—which means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past.

Perhaps at least a few of those voted, “Most Likely to Succeed” actually worked hard?

But we need not fear or lament the postmodern landscape, but see an opportunity.  We need to seek the truth, and the deconstructive project has helped us do that.  But somewhere out there, I hope, is a historian who can give us a “true tradition” amidst the rings of Saturn to anchor us moving forward.

The Best Reason for Democracy is . . . Democracy?

Several years ago I read an article where the man interviewed had positive things to say about some developments in Italian democracy.  “The people are now ready to criticize and poke fun of their leaders,” he commented.  “We’ll know we have arrived as a democracy when the people can criticize themselves.”  At the time I read this, I thought, “Good for you, Italy.  One day you may join us.  We’ve got something better here.”  But upon reflection, I’m not so sure this is true.  How many politicians, for example, could get away with criticizing the American people?  How many political documentaries create a divide between us and them, whether they come from Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore?  It always appears to be “their” fault, never “our” fault.

Judgments about one’s own society, however, are tricky.  To see the nose on one’s face you need a mirror.  Without significant experience of democracies on a historical scale, the example of Athens from 508-338 B.C. will always prove important for us to get our bearings.

Writing critical assessments of things or events can be more fun than offering praise. Critical people can sometimes come from a distant and cynical spiritual place, and we shouldn’t give much weight to their comments.  Sometimes, however, criticism arises out of love, and this should grab our attention.  Loren J. Samons’ What’s Wrong with Democracy does this.  He seeks to get past our modern adulation of democracy, and thus, our adulation with classical Athens.  When we examine them afresh, he argues, we won’t always like what we see.  In his criticism Simons sometimes overreaches and sometimes seems to contradict himself.  But his book is, as historian J.E. Lendon stated, “cleansing.”

Amidst the various topics Samons discusses, I think the essence boils down to the following issues:

What is democracy really about after all?

Christopher Ferrara tackled this question head-on in his book Liberty: The God the Failed.  Samons takes a more indirect approach, but still feels that democracy, standing by itself, may lead to little more than a means to perpetuate whatever we happen to desire.  The only reason we will have for democracy is . . . democracy.

He looks at Athens’ financial history and its relationship to democracy.  He traces a few distinct stages:

  • An early phase where the ‘tyrants’ got overthrown and the franchise expanded.
  • The heralded Periclean phase, often seen as the high-point of democracy.  But Samons points out that this phase of democracy was made possible only by 1) Their silver mines, and 2) The imperial tribute they received from their client states.  The practices we tend to admire about them, such as paying people to attend the Assembly, and large cash payments for their very large juries (101-501) people, could happen only because of their predatory practices abroad.
  • The era after the Peloponnesian War, where they lacked the cash reserves of earlier times, but refused to modify their practices.  This led to serious financial problems and hard choices for the Athenians.  Yet, when faced with the task of defending themselves against Macedon or continuing to vote themselves cash payments, they consistently chose the latter.

Perhaps the Athenians didn’t just simply make bad choices, perhaps the kind of democracy they practiced would naturally encourage them to make bad choices.  If democracy is all about “serving the people” or “giving the people what they want,” then democracies will inevitably choose to short-term gains and quick fixes.  Salmons wrote his book before our own failure to arrive at a budget, or to either 1) Decrease spending, or 2) Raise taxes made itself manifest. Is our own system of government equipped to make hard choices?  Given how we consume energy, we may also have to conclude that our democratic lifestyles have a predatory aspect.

Samons’ next points out that in Athens, their more aristocratic past provided a healthy check on democracy.  Having a different past gave them a compass from which to orient their democratic practice.  It could also serve as a reminder that democracy need not serve as the be all and end all of political life.  In America we have no such check, which leads us to nearly worship democracy as a vital part of our existence.  This in turn, has led to a confused and misguided foreign policy.  On a couple of occasions Athens even voted to switch to a more aristocratic oriented governance, which Samons views as healthy.  In time, Athens banned any alternative to their democracy, and this choice contributed to their eventual conquest by Macedon.  They refused to allow any other method of making decisions, even when they methods they employed to make choices had no real hope of facilitating good outcomes.

On this issue Samons has weaker arguments.  True, I very much wish that we would appreciate democracy because it is ours, instead of investing it with angelic qualities. But the political instability in Athens from 411-400 B.C. was not always as smooth as Samons lets on.  Political exiles and political murders came with such transitions. Having the alternative to democracy came at a price.

However, if a democracy has no reference point outside itself, we should consider whether it may be worth the risk to have such an alternative.  Currently we have no particular ‘North Star’ of religion or virtue to guide our own political practice, and this will lead to everyone scrambling for whatever they can get. We may be in a position now where we could really benefit from a distinct alternative to borrow from, to get some separation from democracy that we might understand its strengths and weaknesses more clearly.  If we have no firm moral guidelines derived from a common faith, the check on democracy may have to come from other viable political ideologies and practices.  Of course such an alternative is entirely unthinkable in our modern context. This may bode ill for us.

This lack of an outside reference point for many modern historians  impacts how they view ancient critics of Athens.  Invariably, whether the ancient chronicler be Thucydides, Xenophon, Socrates, or the “Old Oligarch,” they get discounted due to their “aristocratic bias.”  Now, naturally all historians have bias — even democratic ones. But we cannot dismiss them for this bias alone, however uncomfortable their conclusions may be.  Perhaps the the extreme form of democratic bias comes in the form of the book by I.F. Stone on the trial of Socrates. I applaud Stone for his enjoyable and Herculean efforts to at least partially exonerate Athenian democracy while writing about one of its great crimes.  His book rises to the level of a  great counter-factual history.  But in the text Stone spills a lot more ink discussing Socrates’ “aristocratic bias” then in blaming the governmental system that executed him unjustly.

Critics of Salmons conclusions have two good points.

Salmons offers some good criticisms of Athens in particular and democracy in general. But he proposes no alternatives.  What does he want?  Would he prefer a monarchy or a dictatorship?  I grant this makes the book somewhat unsatisfying, but I can’t fault him for it.  To develop a viable alternative with historical and philosophical backing would require another book.

More problematic is Salmons’ seemingly simplistic take on the problems Athens faced. Surely he realizes that other forms of government have their problems too?  Yes, Athens had issues, but exactly how much blame can we put for their problems on democracy?  Would their problems have been less with a monarchy?  He can say that Athenian democracy made bad decisions, but kings make bad decisions, oligarchies make bad decisions, and so on.  For his book to really work he would have to show that democracies will make more bade decisions, or more catastrophic decisions, then other forms of government.  He fails to do so.

Even still, these flaws don’t bother me that much.  Salmons modestly set out to 1) Give a more balanced picture of Athenian democracy, and 2) Pour some cold water over our ardent devotion to democracy.  He succeeds, and this makes his book worthwhile.

Machiavelli is at various turns a cold man, a dangerous man, and a wise one.  Below I include a section from his Discourses on Livy where he discusses the merits of Rome’s Republic building into its foundation an alternative to the Republic when necessary. This, I think, was Machiavelli in one of his wiser moments.

Dave

Book XXIV

Those citizens who first devised a dictatorship for Rome have been
blamed by certain writers, as though this had been the cause of the
tyranny afterwards established there. For these authors allege that the
first tyrant of Rome governed it with the title of Dictator, and that,
but for the existence of the office, Cæsar could never have cloaked
his usurpation under a constitutional name. He who first took up this
opinion had not well considered the matter, and his conclusion has been
accepted without good ground. For it was not the name nor office of
Dictator which brought Rome to servitude, but the influence which
certain of her citizens were able to assume from the prolongation of
their term of power; so that even had the name of Dictator been wanting
in Rome, some other had been found to serve their ends, since power may
readily give titles, but not titles power. We find, accordingly,
that while the dictatorship was conferred in conformity with public
ordinances, and not through personal influence, it was constantly
beneficial to the city. For it is the magistracies created and the
powers usurped in unconstitutional ways that hurt a republic, not those
which conform to ordinary rule; so that in Rome, through the whole
period of her history, we never find a dictator who acted otherwise than
well for the republic. For which there were the plainest reasons. In
the first place, to enable a citizen to work harm and to acquire undue
authority, many circumstances must be present which never can be
present in a State which is not corrupted. For such a citizen must be
exceedingly rich, and must have many retainers and partisans, whom he
cannot have where the laws are strictly observed, and who, if he had
them, would occasion so much alarm, that the free suffrage of the people
would seldom be in his favour. In the second place, the dictator was not
created for life, but for a fixed term, and only to meet the emergency
for which he was appointed. Power was indeed given him to determine by
himself what measures the exigency demanded; to do what he had to do
without consultation; and to punish without appeal. But he had no
authority to do anything to the prejudice of the State, as it would have
been to deprive the senate or the people of their privileges, to subvert
the ancient institutions of the city, or introduce new. So that taking
into account the brief time for which his office lasted, its limited
authority, and the circumstance that the Roman people were still
uncorrupted, it was impossible for him to overstep the just limits of
his power so as to injure the city; and in fact we find that he was
always useful to it.

And, in truth, among the institutions of Rome, this of the dictatorship
deserves our special admiration, and to be linked with the chief causes
of her greatness; for without some such safeguard a city can hardly
pass unharmed through extraordinary dangers. Because as the ordinary
institutions of a commonwealth work but slowly, no council and no
magistrate having authority to act in everything alone, but in most
matters one standing in need of the other, and time being required to
reconcile their differences, the remedies which they provide are most
dangerous when they have to be applied in cases which do not brook
delay. For which reason, every republic ought to have some resource of
this nature provided by its constitution; as we find that the Republic
of Venice, one of the best of those now existing, has in cases of urgent
danger reserved authority to a few of her citizens, if agreed among
themselves, to determine without further consultation what course is to
be followed. When a republic is not provided with some safeguard such
as this, either it must be ruined by observing constitutional forms,
or else, to save it, these must be broken through. But in a republic
nothing should be left to be effected by irregular methods, because,
although for the time the irregularity may be useful, the example will
nevertheless be pernicious, as giving rise to a practice of violating
the laws for good ends, under colour of which they may afterwards be
violated for ends which are not good. For which reason, that can never
become a perfect republic wherein every contingency has not been
foreseen and provided for by the laws, and the method of dealing with it
defined. To sum up, therefore, I say that those republics which cannot
in sudden emergencies resort either to a dictator or to some similar
authority, will, when the danger is serious, always be undone.

We may note, moreover, how prudently the Romans, in introducing this new
office, contrived the conditions under which it was to be exercised.
For perceiving that the appointment of a dictator involved something of
humiliation for the consuls, who, from being the heads of the State,
were reduced to render obedience like every one else, and anticipating
that this might give offence, they determined that the power to appoint
should rest with the consuls, thinking that when the occasion came when
Rome should have need of this regal authority, they would have the
consuls acting willingly and feeling the less aggrieved from the
appointment being in their own hands. For those wounds or other injuries
which a man inflicts upon himself by choice, and of his own free will,
pain him far less than those inflicted by another. Nevertheless, in the
later days of the republic the Romans were wont to entrust this power to
a consul instead of to a dictator, using the formula, _Videat_ CONSUL
_ne quid respublica detrimenti capiat_.

But to return to the matter in hand, I say briefly, that when the
neighbours of Rome sought to crush her, they led her to take measures
not merely for her readier defence, but such as enabled her to attack
them with a stronger force, with better skill, and with an undivided
command.

 

8th Grade: Victory and Defeat

Greetings,

This week we looked at the Trojan War and its aftermath in Greece.

In some ways the Trojan War belongs to province of literature rather than history, because no real “history” books describe the events as we know them.  But that does beg the question, what is evidence?  Is Homer’s Illiad a kind of historical evidence for the Trojan War?   That of course depends.  As part of our study of the Trojan War we looked at different kinds of historical evidence, and the strengths of each.

The points in favor of “Historical Accounts” seem obvious to most:

  • We know the author, and we assume that either he was a eyewitness himself, or had access to eyewitnesses, or access to the records of eyewitnesses.
  • The fixed nature of the text means the story cannot change over time.

But we should be careful not to discount Oral Tradition

  • Do we unnecessarily give undue weight to books merely because they are written down?  Why is reading a book more trustworthy than hearing a story?
  • Books have a fixed text, but many times we remain at the author’s mercy.  He may  twist and distort the truth in his writing, and we give it extra weight because it is writing.
  • Books are the product of one man, but oral tradition comes from whole communities.  Thus, some argue, oral tradition has more external checks upon its veracity than texts.

Archeological evidence is both the strongest and weakest of the three

  • Archeology gives us direct access to the past, often times unfiltered.
  • But, in contrast to texts or traditions, archeology usually gives us only a fragment of the story, and must be fitted into a larger context that archeology often cannot provide.

The best extended treatment I have seen of the evidence for the Trojan War is Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War.  Unfortunately, this video series is nearly 35 years old and parts of it stand outdated.  Time has tended to confirm and extend evidence for the conflict.  If interested you can view a more “popular” (and shorter) account here

The aftermath of the conflict did not turn out as the Greeks no doubt hoped.  We know the Greeks plundered Troy for gold, jewels, and slaves, and we might expect that this sudden influx of cash, and the long-awaited return of its leaders might lead Greece into a golden age.

In fact the opposite happened, and Greece descended into a dark age that lasted somewhere between two and four centuries.  It certainly appears at least that the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War brought general dissolution to the Greek mainland.

Why did this happen?

In the end we can do little better than speculate, but in class we advanced a few theories:

  • In winning the war, Greece won the lottery.  But by a decent margin, lottery winners report that their winnings made them less happy, not more.  The added wealth brings added stress, and conflict over that wealth with much higher stakes.  Perhaps the same thing happened to Greece on a grand scale.
  • Civilizations, like individuals,  tend to thrive when responding to a challenge.  Greece especially emphasized this through their doctrine and practice of arete.  But the massive cash infusion might have made them rest on their laurels, making them less vigilant about things in general.
  • The Trojan War took most of Greece’s leaders away for 10+ years, according to tradition.  When parents go out for the night they have a talk with their kids — “be good to your babysitter, or when I get home I’ll ask how you behaved and then you will be punished.”  Thus, babysitters have a delegated, proxy authority in the eyes children.  But what if mom and dad never came home?  Would the sitter still have authority?

I asked students to envision what would happen if, on their block, every parent went out for the night, and everyone had a sitter.  But, only 2/3 of the parents returned to their homes, leaving the sitters there permanently.  Without mom and dad to enforce the sitters’ word, their authority would collapse almost immediately.  What would happen to the block?  If even just five parents did not return, what would happen to the “society” of the block, and its social interaction?  When we realize that many “parents” of various Greek provinces did not return from Troy, we can imagine the results for the whole of Greek society.

Dark Ages usually occur when fear and instability lead to isolation, and then isolation leads to a breakdown in the way society functions.  Perhaps this is what happened with Greece.  Dealing with failure requires careful thought and wise action, but so to does dealing with success.

Next week we will leapfrog a few centuries and focus on how Sparta and Athens emerge from the Dark Ages.

Blessings,

Dave

The Etiquette of Battle

A friend of mine has a friend who teaches in a classics department at a university.  On different campuses different kinds of progressive ideologies have more sway, and at this particular school the administration required the classics professor to document how he would help his students encounter “the other” in the time periods he studied.

This in itself is a worthy goal, for getting outside of the prejudices and perspectives of one’s own time is one of history’s great benefits.  Like C.S. Lewis said about great literature, history can get one outside of oneself, and ultimately can prepare us for worship.

My friend’s friend made the argument that in studying the Greeks and Romans one studies “the other.”  We need nothing else.  Many aspects of their society make them very weird indeed to our current sensibilities.  Anyone from ancient Greece or Rome would feel completely out of place in the modern world.

Alas that his argument held no sway with the administration.*

But we need not go back thousands of years to get at “the other.”  Even certain aspects of European culture from just a few centuries ago would suffice.  We inherited a great deal from the Enlightenment era, but even so, we could not imagine settling disagreements as they did.

I have dealt with the subject of dueling before, but wish to speculate on the connections between dueling, warfare, and ceremony.

Many unwritten rules governed duels, but eventually a man named Crow Ryan (perhaps a pseudonym?) codified them into the “Code Duello.”  No need to review all 26 stipulations, but a few examples will help illustrate for us how they thought.  First, the hierarchy of insults:

I. The first offence requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. Example: A tells B he is impertinent, etc. B retorts that he lies; yet A must make the first apology, because he gave the first offence, and (after one fire) B may explain away the retort by subsequent apology.

II. But if the parties would rather fight on, then, after two shots each (but in no case before), B may explain first and A apologize afterwards.

N.B. The above rules apply to all cases of offences in retort not of a stronger class than the example.

And

V. As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. The alternatives, therefore, are: The offender handing a cane to the injured party to be used on his back, at the same time begging pardon, firing until one or both are disabled; or exchanging three shots and then begging pardon without the proffer of the cane.

N.B. If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed, or until, after receiving a wound and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.

VI. If A gives B the lie and B retorts by a blow (being the two greatest offences), no reconciliation can take place till after two discharges each or a severe hit, after which B may beg A’s pardon for the blow, and then A may explain simply for the lie, because a blow is never allowable, and the offence of the lie, therefore, merges in it. (See preceding rule.)

It seems obvious to me (someone correct me if I’m wrong) that the code prohibited “blows” because any Joe Six-Pack can use their fists.  Fists then, would offer no opportunity to distinguish oneself as a gentleman.  In addition, fists lack the deadly power of pistols or sabres.  If we’re going to fight, let’s really fight and not play around as children. To use your fists on someone communicates to them that they are not “worth your sword.”  The contest wouldn’t count because it would lack any real gravitas.

But I think that fists lacked the proper ceremony that helped legitimize dueling.  The rituals of the duel gave the duel the power to confer status on the participants.  We see an example of this ceremony from a scene in Barry Lyndon:

This short scene captures much:

  • The setting for the duel serves the immediate purpose of being away from the law or other bystanders.  But it also is a “genteel” spot that elevates the occasion.
  • The seconds do their duty and attempt a reconciliation before the event.
  • Once the apology was refused, they must fight.  Though Captain Quinn looks as if he had second thoughts, he cannot back down now.
  • Captain Quinn’s second accepts the results and even encourages the other to get away so as to avoid the police.**

The word for duel comes from the Latin “duo” and “bellum,”–a “two-person war,” shortened to “duel.”  It should not surprise us that at the height of dueling, war itself had some of the same rituals.

Another scene from Barry Lyndon shows the ritual nature of battle to some extent.  Neither side employs any strategy.  They declare themselves plainly and come at each other simply and openly.

The first 1:30 of this next clip show the ritual nature of battle well:

In his magnificent The Centurions, Jean Larteguy has the character of Jacques Glatigny, who hails from an established French military family, muse on how things have changed during the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu:

Glatigny’s reaction [he has just been captured near Dien Bien Phu] was that of a regular officer; he could not believe that this “officer” squatting over him and smoking foul tobacco was, like him, a battalion commander with the same rank and responsibilities as his own.  

Glatigny thought that his “opposite number” looked much like a peasant.  His face was neither cruel nor intelligent but rather sly, patient, and attentive.

So this was one of the officers of the 308th Division, the best unit the Vietminh had; it was this peasant from the fields that had beaten him, Glatigny, the descendant of one of the great military dynasties of the West, for whom was was a profession.  He looked at the Vietminh captain with some confusion.  They had fought against each other on equal terms. Their heavy mortars were just as effective as French artillery, and the French air force had not been able to operate over the battlefield.  They had fought hand-to-hand and the position had changed several times throughout the battle, but there remained neither respect, hatred, or even anything resembling interest on his inscrutable face.

The days when the victorious side presented arms to the vanquished garrison that had fought bravely were over.  There was no room left for military chivalry.  In the deadly world of Communism the vanquished was a culprit and reduced to the position of a man condemned by law.  

Up to 1945 the principles of the old world still held.  Second Lt. Glatigny was then in command of a platoon outside Karlruhe.  He had taken a German major prisoner and brought him back to his squadron commander, of the same social class as himself.  The commander had established his HQ in a forester’s cottage.  They saluted and then introduced themselves.  The captured major, after all, had fought gallantly himself and came from a vaunted division of the Wehrmacht.  

The German and the Frenchman, completely at ease with one another, discussed where they might have fought against each other since 1939.  To them it was of little consequence that one was the victor and one the loser, provided that they had observed the rules and fought bravely.  They respected each other and became fast friends.  The major drove the captured German to the prison in his personal Jeep and before departing, shook hands.

Democracies tend to eschew ceremony as elitist, and this has some truth to it.  Ceremonies need presiding, and those that know how to conduct them must have some kind of training not available to all.    But without ceremony we will have a hard time finding meaning in our military endeavors–or in general, for that matter.  This perhaps sheds light on the current problem of the “War on Terror.”  What are we doing, where are we doing it, how are we fighting, and to what end?

But one can have the opposite reaction.  Many students who view the videos above see the actions of the army and the duelists as essentially meaningless.  Two of the clips above come from Stanley Kubrick’s highly praised Barry Lyndon, and one might interpret the movie as an indictment of the meaningless nature of Lyndon’s life in pursuit of aristocratic status.

Maybe, maybe.  But if we eschew one form of ceremony, we will need to replace it with something else, as nature abhors a vacuum.

Dave

*For the administration in question, the “other” had to be defined ethnically.  The Greeks and Romans were “white.”  This tendency of some progressives to label people primarily or almost exclusively by their gender and ethnicity is quite unfortunate and even dangerous, but that is another post.

**Those who have seen the movie know that this is not quite the whole story . . .

Valleys of Neptune

A few years ago I attended a conference in which Dr. Peter Kreeft was one of the featured speakers.  I have read a few of Dr. Kreeft’s works and liked them all, and especially enjoyed his essay on surfing, one of his great loves.

During one of the lunch breaks I had the immense good fortune to find myself sitting next to Dr. Kreeft at one the random round tables in the dining area.  I asked him for some surfing tips and he proved gracious and helpful.  Based on his love for the sea I also wanted to run a pet theory of mine by him.

The theory runs something like this. . .

Mankind’s greatest feats of creativity have always come near water.

  • Egypt had the Nile and the Mediterranean
  • Babylon had the Tigris and Euphrates
  • Greece had the Mediterranean
  • Northern Europe gave birth to the Gothic Age, by the English Channel and the North Sea
  • London then led the way with the Channel, North Sea, etc.
  • The Dutch had a brief but brilliant golden age, again right on the water
  • In America the great cultural centers have always been Boston, New York, L.A., etc.

Even when sometimes you think of an exception, the theory still holds.  Chicago is in the middle of the U.S., but has the Great Lakes.  Twain invented American Literature in the Mid-West. . . but his formative years were spent on the Mississippi.

And so on, and so on.

Assyria was in the Ancient Near East, but not creative in any way that contributed to humanity. They did not live near any great body of water.  The Greek city-state of Sparta was one of the few far away from the Mediterranean, and their culture stagnated.  Rome obviously had lots of power, but came to the Mediterranean late in their game and thus borrowed a great deal from everyone. Their creative cultural contributions pale in comparison to Greece, but also Egypt and probably Babylon as well.

Some might suggest that the key is majestic expanse, not just water.  But I disagree.  The Great Plains have majestic expanse in spades and have not led the way in creative impulse.  The Himalayas have the tallest mountains on Earth but have not produced great thinkers, architects, etc.  Sparta was surrounded by mountains on all sides and may have been one of the more culturally stagnant of all civilizations.  Of course mountains and plains have a beauty all their own and can inspire, but they do not appear to have the universal impact of water.  I still think there must be something to water itself.

A purely rational or mechanical view of this would probably put the emphasis on the fact that living near water would inevitably result in overseas trade, which would blend cultures and ideas to a degree that would naturally lead to creativity.

But I think that this puts the cart before the horse.  For a civilization to think of something beyond survival and necessity, it has to think outside of itself, and for that it needs inspired.  It is this sense of inspiration that opens them up to travel, other cultures, and other things.  In other words, substantial bodies of water subconsciously unlocks our creativity and then civilizations take advantage of the opportunities before them.

“What do you think?” I asked Dr. Kreeft.

“I agree.”

There followed a pregnant pause but all I could think was, “He agreed!  Yee-ha!”

He continued (I paraphrase his words), “There is something about water that ties us to creation itself.  It is where we came from.”  And with that, he politely excused himself.

Part of me wanted him to say more, but upon reflection he had in fact said it all.  I doubt very much that by the “where we came from” comment he meant anything in a purely Darwinian sense.  Genesis 1 talks of creation being drawn up through water.  Our new creation involves the waters of baptism.  1 John 5 talks mysteriously of the three-fold agreement of the Spirit, water and blood.  I know of a physics teacher who begins the year by looking at ancient views of creation and the cosmos, and mentions Thales’ idea that all matter comes from water.  The students tend to scoff until they re-read Genesis 1.  There is the Tradition of the Church which portrays Mary hearing the Annunciation, with the attendant re-creation of all things through the Incarnation, sitting by a well.  The creation of the “new Adam” would obviously take us back to Genesis 1, just as St. John does in the opening of his gospel.

In the Odyssey (13.102-112) Homer refers to a cave sacred to nymphs which contains “ever flowing springs of water.”  Also in the cave are “jars made of stone,” along with “looms, likewise of stone, in which the nymphs weave sea-purple garments.”  The Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry writes,

The “garments of sea-purple” are obviously the flesh, which is woven together from blood; the sea-purple dye is derived from blood, and the wool that it colors is also the vital fluids of animals.  All flesh is thus fashioned from blood through blood . . .

To this day Jimi Hendrix stands firmly entrenched as the greatest electric guitarist of all time.  He did things with the guitar that still no one else can equal.  I don’t think it coincidental that some of his most intriguing songs (“Rainy Day, Dream Away,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “May This be Love,” “1983 . . .A Merman I Should Be”) involve water.  Perhaps in some way he understood the power and meaning of water as Peter Kreeft did that day at lunch, a serendipitous moment for me if there ever was one.