8th Grade: Egypt’s Desert Formation

Greetings to all,

I hope you have had a good week, and I hope too that you will enjoy the weekend before us.

This week we began our unit on Egypt, and first considered the influence of geography on the formation of their civilization.  I wanted to ask the following of the students:

1. What is the central feature of Egyptian geography, and why might this promote civilization?

2. What about Egyptian geography might influence it towards strong centralized government?

3. How might Egyptian geography have influenced their religion?

I do not believe geography exercises an absolute authority over humankind.  We are always left with choice & responsibility for those choices.  Having said that, we should not neglect the impact our surroundings may have upon us.  I do also stress to the students that the heart of any civilization is not its surroundings, resources, etc., but what it worships.  What a civilization worships is, in its turn, often reflected in its architecture.  With that in mind, I anticipate us taking a hard look at the pyramids next week.

When we think about Geography and its connections to Egypt, we noted the following:
1. The extremes of Egyptian geography: Only somewhere between 5-10% of their land was arable, but that land was some of the best farmland in the ancient world due to the yearly Nile floods.  Lush farm land backed right up against barren desert (as seen in the picture below).  This geographical tension probably produced psychological tension.  We see in Egypt, for example, the duality between the worship of almost any life whatsoever, and the reign of death just beyond.  The pictures of the Nile river valley below illustrate this stark contrast.
Nile River Valley
This tension had to be resolved in either a positive or negative way.  As time went by, death gained the upper hand.  Here is an early Egyptian poem that reflects this.  Some of these sentiments may ring true from a Christian perspective, and some lines resemble aspects of Biblical Wisdom literature. I think, however, that the overall imbalance towards death as an escape from the “claustrophobia” of life rather than a source of redemption is evident.
Egypt and Death: An Early Poem
To whom can I speak today?
One’s fellows are evil;
The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
The gentle man has perished,
But the violent man has access to all.
To whom can I speak today?
No one remembers the past;
No one at this time does good in return for good.
Death stands before me today
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going outside after being confined.
Death stands before me today
Like the fragrance of myrrh,
Like sitting under the shade on a breezy day.
Death stands before me today
As a man longs to see his house,
After he has spent many years in captivity.
The Nile River valley had to serve as the center of Egyptian civilization, and in turn, we note that the Egyptians had an unusual inward focus.  They did not interact with many other peoples in the ancient near east.  Some geographies push people out of their settings, but we might imagine the Nile river as a giant vacuum, sucking everyone towards it.
  • The extremes may have led to Egypt’s focus on ‘Ma’at,’ or keeping things in balance. When one lives in between stark images of life and death constantly, it should not surprise us to see an inordinate focus on the concept of “balance.”  Keeping the order of things (ma’at) was the central job of the pharaoh, and of course this is a semi-divine task.  No problem per se for the Egyptians, as in their mind  the pharaoh’s were divine, or perhaps semi-divine, themselves.  When we look at the Exodus in a little bit we should keep in mind that among other things, God exposes Pharaoh’s complete inability to maintain “ma’at.”  God uses the plagues as a means to free His people, but also a message to the Egyptians to come join the Israelites.  Pharaoh’s inability to maintain harmony and balance gets decisively exposed.
  • The relative sameness and flatness of Egypt contributed to the political centralization of Egypt.  Egyptian society could not exist without fair and equitable distribution of the Nile floodwaters, and this would have required executive oversight.  But it may also have psychologically contributed to the eventual rigidity of thought that eventually overtook Egypt from about 1800 B.C. onward.

With this emphasis on Ma’at we get confronted with a very different way of thinking, and a very different set of priorities.  A president who wanted to look successful in his memoirs would probably highlight the great changes he brought to America.  In Egypt, Pharaoh’s “memoirs” focused on how they kept things exactly the same, in just the proper proportion (for those interested one can read this post on Ma’at and Pharaoh Userkaf).

Towards the end of the week we began our look at Thutmose III and the Battle of Meggido.  We will continue that next week as well examine the Book of the Dead and the monotheistic Pharaoh Ikhneton.




12th Grade: Bad Music Begets Bad Government

This week we continued in our reading of Plato’s Republic.  In class we have simply been reading and discussing excerpts from this great philosophical treatise, and I have enjoyed seeing them to react to Plato and responding to him.

As we hinted last week, The Republic has political implications, but the dialog begins with a discussion about justice.  The participants realize that to see justice more clearly, they had to talk about something larger than justice in individuals.  “If we look at justice in the state we will see justice more clearly,” they suppose, “for the state has a much greater size than any one individual.”  But justice itself becomes a vehicle for larger questions of truth.  Thus, the dialog always has immediate application for individual lives even as we consider their political implications.  Plato writes The Republic, I think, not so much to create a better state but to hopefully make better people, who will then make a better state.

The dialog starts early on discussing the origins of the state.  No matter their talents, everybody at one point realizes that they need others even to meet basic needs.  We then divide up tasks to accomplish them more efficiently.  Providing for our basic needs is relatively natural and easy, but then we begin to want “luxuries,” which Plato terms anything more than what we need for a decent, ordinary life.  This desire for luxury corrupts the soul and creates problems in the state itself, because now the state will have to provide for something beyond the “natural,” and at times the only way to do this involves taking from others.  Hence, war and the attendant expansion of the state come into being.

How to avoid this?  Some see the state as a mere conduit of whatever the people desire.  The government’s job, in this view, is to actualize our choices.  Plato feels differently, and like many Greeks believed that the state should help us live the good life, which might sometimes mean giving us what we might even dislike–just like parents helping their kids healthy by feeding them vegetables.  In Plato’s famous analogy of the cave he imagines humanity bound in chains underground.  All they can see are their shadows cast on the cave walls made by the fire behind them.  They believe the shadows are reality, and the fire true light.  But eventually some break free and walk out of the cave to see true light and true reality.  Their discovery brings pain — we shrink from the sun’s light, and the reality we discover will be so much different than what we imagined.  When these people go back to the cave, few if any believe them, and nearly all prefer to live in the shadows.

Plato asks us to understand that just because we fail to immediately appreciate the truth might even point to the truth of what he argues.

Plato may surprise his modern readers at least with going from war as a result of greed to a discussion of music and the arts.  But political problems for Plato begin with disordered souls, and Plato believes that little has more power to shape the soul than music.  Plato relates a common anecdote of the time of Sparta banning certain kinds of music altogether.  Perhaps even Plato thought the Spartans too severe, but he agrees with the fundamental idea that musical change brings  political changes.

Many moderns think of music as a matter of personal taste and personal enjoyment.  We listen to the music we like, and imagine ourselves having control over the music.  Plato asks us to think more carefully about the music we hear, and wants us to admit that “gets under our skin” in ways we might not even notice.  Upon reflection some of us might testify to the power of music.  It can move us even when we might not want to be moved.

Understanding Plato’s doctrine of the soul helps explain his views here.  Some think of the soul as encompassing the merely moral part of us.  Plato went further.  For him the soul was the “heart” of man in the Hebraic sense, encompassing everything about someone.  Our moral acts do define, mold, and shape us, but we are more than our moral acts.  So for Plato, a beautiful soul would be one that not only loved truth, but also had it itself shaped by beautiful things.  Separating truth from beauty never occurred to Plato.

So if we want to concern ourselves with “doing right” we need first to provide the necessary surroundings, the necessary training, for our souls.  Plato admits that this means certain music can stay, and other forms must go in the ideal state.  The state has a vested interest in the arts because the arts shape the soul.  Badly formed souls will create badly formed governments.  He writes,

Philosophy, [said Socrates], tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, . . . is the only saviour of his virtue throughout life.

Justice for Plato means having all things in their proper place, or giving each thing its proper due.  This leads to Plato’s prescription that only music that emphasizes balance and proportion should be allowed.  If we want harmony in the state we must have proper training of the soul, and that means the right harmonies in our music.  The rhythm must not over-excite, nor should it be too “soft.”  Curiously for the students, Plato seemed to link rhythm with the idea of grace.  He writes,

But there is no difficulty in seeing that grace or the absence of grace is an effect of good or bad rhythm.


Then beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity, — I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character, not that other simplicity which is only an euphemism for folly?

What can Plato mean here?

When we see the word “grace” we immediately put it in a distinctly Christian context.  The Greek word for grace is “charis,” which had different connotations.  The basic meaning had roots in something like “power” or “movement” — hence a “charismatic” man has the ability to “move” people.  The Greeks also used the word in the context of the social graces, which can have the sense of proper “movement” in society.  But Plato, I think, has something more in mind besides mere politeness.  If we think of a gracious hostess, for example, we think of how she controls, or “moves” a social event.  She will possess a certain rhythm of movement and speech.  She’ll have impeccable timing, she’ll neither be overbearing nor invisible, akin to a symphony conductor.  Thus, for Plato, if we immerse ourselves in proper rhythm and harmony, we will train our souls towards “graciousness.”^

Plato has an ulterior motive for his seeming harshness about music.  Problems in the state arise from the people’s desire for luxury.  This desire is almost inevitable given human nature, but Plato believes the state can curb it (thereby saving everyone lots of trouble) by proper training of the souls of the young.  If we purge the person of luxurious taste in music, or the desire for too much variety in music, we can form the soul to desire less.* This can get into a “chicken or the egg” argument.  Does music reflect or shape the culture?  Well, we can say  perhaps that it performs both functions, but which primarily?  Here, I at least agree with Plato (and Francis Schaeffer, Kenneth Clark, and others) who feel that in general, artists work ahead of culture and do more to shape it than reflect it.

If all this seems hopelessly idealistic, I think Plato would respond by saying that,

  • You have to aim for something to hit anything, and
  • My point here is not to create the perfect state so much as it is to use the state to better see Justice and apply that understanding to how we live our lives.

For all his fans, Plato probably has more critics. To achieve anything resembling this we would have to appoint leaders with a great deal of power, and some see Plato as the forerunner of modern tyranny.  I think this goes too far, but Plato clearly challenges many modern western notions of government and life itself.  I see it as my task first and foremost to help students understand Plato and to get the full force of his arguments.  Just because he is old and famous doesn’t mean that he is right, and just because we are modern Americans doesn’t mean that we are right either.  After we conclude Plato, students will have a chance to formally respond to his ideas.

Next week we will look at Plato’s ideas of how different souls create different forms of government.

*Many in the modern world make the argument that classical music makes one smarter.  Plato did not focus so much on classical music (it didn’t exist) or increased intelligence.  Rather, the right music would help form the right kind of soul, not brain.

^Since the New Testament writes use “charis” to denote grace in the Christian sense, we may wonder whether or not a certain “rhythm” exists in God’s grace — a certain pattern, timing, or tempo, perhaps?

10th Grade: The Reformation Roller Coaster


This week we looked at how the Reformation began to spread beyond Luther and his theology.  We looked at a couple of key ideas and themes:

1. Erasmus was a notable scholar.  He wrote many powerful critiques of the Catholic hierarchy.  He believed in going “back to the sources,” and translated the New Testament into Greek.  He initially admired Luther, but felt that a) Luther went too far, and b) Breaking with the Church would cause more harm than good.  Erasmus’ life should make us consider whether or not the cost of the Reformation outweighed its benefits.

2. Mainstream reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli believed that while the Church needed reform, society as it stood should be preserved.  Others of a more radical bent believed that both Church and society needed drastic overhauls.  They borrowed heavily from Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” theology and established their own views of faith, revelation, and the culture around them.  They went much further than Luther ever intended.  The logic of their ideas ran something like. . .

  • All believers have equal access to God, and have an equal chance of understanding His Word
  • Therefore, we have no need of any kind of hierarchical leadership in the Church
  • Those with the Spirit of God have more wisdom than those who do not.  Therefore, we have no real need of local governments.
  • To achieve real holiness of life, and real holiness in society, the godly must separate themselves from the ungodly.

Luther and others were aghast when they saw how others interpreted their ideas.  When Luther wrote pamphlets urging the nobility to crush the radicals without mercy, some felt that Luther had become a ‘Protestant Pope.’

Our look at the ‘Radical Reformation’ forced us to consider the Church’s relationship to society.  Calvin’s followers wanted to blend civic and religious duties almost until there was no distinction.  In other words, Church and Society in their view should blend seamlessly together.  Radical Reformers wanted the kept entirely separate.  I hope the students understood that our ideas of how the Church should function impact how we think Christians should interact with society.

Of course, Luther never envisioned that he was starting “The Reformation.”  He believed that the Church needed reformed, and that under his guidance, the Church had more or less done so.  In his mind, after the reforms he helped initiate, it was time to stop “The Reformation.”  But Luther had unwittingly opened the floodgates.  The genie was out of the lamp, roaming free across Europe.

We discussed that while Protestantism solved many problems, it created others:

1. There are thousands and thousands of Protestant denominations worldwide.  What did this mean for society in the 16th century?  What does this mean for us today? Is this a problem?  If so, can Protestantism solve it, or is it part of its very nature?

2. In the 16th century, Catholics persecuted Protestants (and vice versa), but Protestants also persecuted each other, largely over disagreements over what is ‘essential’ to the faith.  How do we know what an essential of the faith is?  Can Protestants reach unity on this question today?  Why could they not do so in the 16th century?  As we discussed in class, few disagree about what Scripture says.  We disagree about what it means.  Why did the social, political, and religious climate of this time lead to so much violence?

The peasant revolts, the political shifts, and the multitude of opinions that emerged from this period should make us ask — “What was the Reformation exactly?”  For our first formal discussion of the year we got different perspectives on this question.  Whatever our answer, we must see that the Reformation involved much more than a change of church doctrine.  In fact, the Reformation shows us that changes in the Church will get reflected in society at large.

We continued to examine the Reformation in England, and its consequences for the rest of Europe. On Thursday we looked at Henry VIII early life and reign.  I include here four pictures of him at various points in his life.   No matter the period — I don’t trust those eyes!

Last Thursday I had the students look at a variety of maps in an effort to look at the Reformation from a purely geographical perspective.  In other words, did geography do anything to shape the course of the Reformation? Are there any patterns for us to observe?  The maps are here, which include the topography that the students had to match up with the religious divisions.

European Topography:

Some of them noted how mountains walled off certain religious groups.  Some theorized that different countries of like religious beliefs usually were close enough to be trading partners.  Religious groups in more rugged terrain (Spanish Catholics, French and Scottish Protestants) tended to have a bit more militancy to them than others did.  The possible link with rugged terrain and more intense religious expression may go beyond Europe.  Most of radical Islam, for example, does not come from Indonesia (the most populous Moslem country) but from the deserts of the Mid-East.  Looking at events from different angles hopefully can give us a more full complete picture of an era.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

A New, Old, View of Civilizations

Generations of history textbooks have assumed two things about the history of civilizations:

  • Human civilization is a relatively new phenomena, originating in the Fertile Crescent sometime around 3500 B.C.
  • Human civilization developed largely because of an increase in technical skill which allowed for plowing, increase of production, storage, etc.

I have never liked the second assumption.  It seems so easy for us to make it, for it reflects our bias perfectly.  Toynbee wrote of the predilections of western civilization,

The Hellenic civilization displays a manifest tendency towards a predominantly aesthetic rubric for orienting and defining itself.   The Hellenic tendency to view life as a whole distinctively in such terms that the ancient Greek adjective “kalos,” which denotes what is aesthetically beautiful, is used in addition to describe what is morally good.  In other words, Greek concepts of beauty and morality . . . were indistinguishable.

When we come to our own western civilization we find no difficulty discovering our own bent or bias.  It is, of course, a penchant towards machinery: a concentration of interest and effort upon applying discoveries of Natural Science to material purposes through the creation of social-clockwork devices, i.e. steam engines, motor cars, but also social engines like representative governments and military mobilizations.

We sometimes talk as if this appetite for mechanics was a quite recent occurrence in western civilization  . . . But this is precisely how westerners were viewed by the courts in Japan and China [in the early 1800’s]–as “barbarians” redeemed partially by our manifest and outsized technical ability.   The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena had the same impression of the first crusaders in 1099 A.D.  She called  their  crossbow a “devilish construction” that, while ingenious in its mechanics, fitted perfectly the barbarians who wielded it . . .

Though I find James Burke’s Connections series entertaining, he too makes the same assumptions about the development of civilization.  What brings people together for Burke is tools, food, and political organization.  Our “appetite for mechanics” has us assume that others had the same appetite.

Recent finds at the enigmatic site of Gobekli Tepe look to possibly overthrow both of the common assumptions.

Essentially, the site contains precision stone work thousands of years before the Egyptians supposedly invented working with stone.  Not only that, we have no evidence of any habitations near the site-it appears to be the only structure at all in the vicinity.  Add to this, the site appears to have no “practical” purpose to it.  Most think it served as a place of worship.  A recent article reads,

 . . . these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.

Any student of ancient history will almost immediately realize that the ancients did not share our passion for mechanics, and surmise that the origins of civilization lies elsewhere.  But common sense will suffice for anyone lacking such rudimentary knowledge.  Common love of something draws people together and creates relationships.  Common needs may bring people together temporarily.  Common loves will sustain and likely originate such relationships.  We all experience this. We are what we worship.*

Others suggest that the Gobeckli-Tepe site dates just after what appears to be a cataclysmic flood–perhaps caused by large meteors striking the polar ice-caps.  Those that built Gobeckli-Tepe may have been, in fact, transferring technology from a previous, post-flood civilization.  It is striking that the first thing they do, then, is to build a religious temple.

I should stress that these remain theories, but I find them an exciting indication of a reworking of our theories of the past.

Gobekli Tepe may rouse the historical/archaeological community to rethink their views of the past, and I welcome this.  But we should realize that such a shift would not lead to a discovery of something new about mankind, but something as old as the world itself.


*This helps explain why most moderns judge those like Charlemagne so harshly.  How can he insist on a common faith of those he governs?  Not only does it fly against our sense of individual rights, it seems so unnecessary.  Didn’t Charlemagne know that starting in the late 18th century we decided that a shared use of certain technological tools creates stable societies, and not religion?

We may scoff at those who fight over religious belief.  But western powers have fought over natural resources that will allow us to create more technological tools, or more powerful tools, and so on.  Maybe ‘technological advancement’ functions like a religion for much of the modern west.

Maybe all wars can be boiled down to religious belief.


8th Grade: Civilization is Dinner with Friends


This week we wrapped up our introductory unit on civilizations in general and moved into more specific civilizations, beginning with Sumeria.

Earlier this week I wanted the students to consider exactly what purpose civilizations serve.

In 1 Corinthians Paul seeks to address the pride and competitiveness of the Corinthian congregation.  He uses the analogy of the “Body of Christ” to show that no one can be a one-man show.  Whether we be arms or eyes, we need each other to function.  “No man is an island,” as the saying goes.

This same analogy applies to civilizations in general.  We cannot do all that we need to do to survive, or at least, thrive.  Since we cannot do all ourselves, we need the gifts and talents of others to help make our lives consist of something beyond mere survival.  Civilizations therefore exist to make communal life, and communal creation, possible.  When we realize this, many other things come into proper focus.   As C.S. Lewis once remarked, civilization boils down to dinner with friends or a game of darts at a pub.  The power that civilizations can muster, the roads, the armies, the buildings, really serve this end. It’s easy for us to forget this, and it’s easy for civilizations themselves to do the same.

This means that civilizations, in my opinion, should ultimately be about the maintenance of small communities, and not the amorphous group.  But the awesome power generated by the social connectivity of civilizations opens them up to tremendous temptations. Civilizations can drift, and start to think that the social order itself as the “Ultimate.”  Civilizations can think that they exist to serve their own ends and perpetuate itself. With this attitude civilizations become our master and not our servant.  This leads into a subtle idolatry, man worship, not of the individual, but of the group.  When a civilization loses sight of things beyond themselves and the everyday, they lose vision, and hope for the future.  It is the first step toward decline.

This is not to say that civilizations are not good things.  The alternative is barbarism, a sub-human existence. But civilizations are tricky things.  One only has to think about our homes to realize this.  We make a great effort to sweep and clean, and the house looks great.  Then someone leaves a coat here, and shoes there.  The dishes pile up, and our wills and energy reserves slacken.  Given the human tendency towards decay, destruction, and death, the relative success of civilizations is a gift of God. It goes against our human tendencies.

As we moved into Sumeria, we looked at Sargon the Great, probably the first empire builder.  This brought up the issue of the benefits of size.  Empires/large countries often do have more power and resources and their disposal. Their size can also lead to diversity, which can cushion them from specific problems in certain areas.   For example, If Louisiana was a civilization unto itself, Hurricane Katrina would have destroyed it, or at least dramatically weakened it for decades. Because they are but a small part of whole, however, it can be rebuilt.

But smaller countries have less to manage, less to defend, and less to worry about in general.  I often wonder, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were Belgium?  What does Belgium have to worry about?”  Riches and power alone can never bring happiness.  Also, might there be a correlation between the size of the population and the liberty that population can enjoy?  Most classical theorists of government, like Aristotle for example, believed that democracy could only exist in small self contained communities.  When a babysitter watches just 1-2 children, those children have a large degree of freedom as to what they do.  When a sitter has to watch 15 children, all the children must stay together and do the same thing in the same place.  So too, a general truth of history is that large countries with large populations tend to offer less individual freedom than smaller ones (this rule has exceptions).  Which model is superior, and why have most civilizations chosen to pursue expansion and empire?  These are some of the questions I want the students to consider.

On Friday we had our first mini class discussion, where half the class tackled the topic of ancient cave paintings like these below . . .

These drawing predate what most historians and archaeologists would consider the dawn of “civilization” by thousands and thousands of years.  I wanted them to consider whether or not those that produced these works came from a society that could be called civilization.  Students presented good arguments on both sides of the issue.  I think that the drawings (especially, in my opinion, those from Chauvet cave, which includes the 2nd picture of the bears above) have remarkable communicative power.  This power can only come from great skill, and for them to develop this skill, civilization most likely existed.  Of course we can’t know for sure, but it’s fun to speculate.

If you have further interest in the cave paintings, Werner Herzog made an excellent film about them that is worth seeing called Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Have a great weekend,


12th Grade: An Ideal Republic


We started off the year by reading some excerpts from St. Augustine’s City of God to examine how we are defined by our loves.  This “definition” holds true for civilizations, states, and individuals.

Our first major work that we will spend significant time will be Plato’s Republic, one of his earlier and perhaps most significant works.

Plato grew up in Athens and experienced the decline and fall of Athens as a result of the Peloponnesian War.  Not only did they lose the war, the character of their democratic practice changed, and not long after their defeat they execute Socrates (Plato’s mentor) for impiety.  All of this must have shaken Plato to his core, and he uses this psychological disruption to examine what went wrong.  Clearly Athens’ foundation must have been faulty for it to crumble so quickly under stress.  What purpose should government’s serve?  How should they best accomplish this?  These questions drove Plato’s thoughts throughout the Republic.

We will look at the early books of The Republic next week.

Socrates begins the dialog by assuming that people and governments naturally desire justice.  But his companions immediately challenge this and make the following arguments:

  • People give lip service to justice, but really what everybody wants is to practice injustice to their own advantage and get away with it, and they want their country to do the same.
  • Even if people seek justice, it will only be for show.  People will pursue it for a good reputation, or as a bargaining chip on future actions.

Thus, people don’t want justice, so it cannot form the foundation of any state.  It won’t work, because it won’t be built for those who live in it.  The most we can hope for is to limit the desire and practice of injustice.

Before we think these arguments harsh, let us examine them.

As to point 1, who among us has not gone to the grey areas of not being courteous in traffic, or dropped something and not picked it up, because “we were in a hurry.”  We expect to get away with these actions — we justify them by our own self-interest.  According to us, it is in fact “just” that do these things.

As to point 2, some research has shown that when people perform a moral act, they then feel entitled to do an immoral one in exchange.  The moral act “paid” for the transgression.  The fact that many of these “exchanges” involve “small” sins is beside the point.  I recall a recent example in my own life where, when driving I let a couple into my lane, but then the light went yellow before I could cross the intersection.  I remember distinctly thinking to myself (as I went through the intersection on yellow-red) that, given my kindness, I “deserved” to go through the light.  Perhaps I am not alone.

Socrates counters that even our bad actions are often an attempt to seek justice, however skewed that version of justice might be.  So I “deserved” to cross the intersection, or we believe that “being in a hurry” makes it just that I run the light, or what have you.  So justice remains a central concern. We can’t escape it, as our sins bear witness to it.  But at this point the dialog shifts.  Socrates supposes that, as a state is larger than an individual, we will see justice writ larger if we look at the state instead of individuals.  So the key to understanding justice lies in understanding the state.  If we want to understand the state, we must imagine a world where no state exists that we might see how it should be built from the ground up.  When we see the state in this way, we will see the true nature of justice.

Plato has an expansive definition of justice.  We tend to think of punishing right and wrong.  But we can go further–justice “happens” when all is rightly ordered, when we can say that peace has been established.  A just man will have rightly ordered loves and affections.  A just state will not really even need laws, for just people govern themselves.

Understanding Plato involves entering into a pre-modern understanding of the world.  We in the modern world usually tend to think that governments and societies are for us to mold and shape according to our needs and desires.  The world comes to us as series of malleable situations.  What matters most is that we agree on how to mold the clay of our society.

Ancient/medieval societies differed in their perception of the universe.  They believed that human society should be ordered around a pre-existing and hierarchical reality.  Life meant living into an already existing reality.  Perhaps some of you may have said to your children, “The men of our family don’t act like this.”  In other words, you expect your children to live into a reality, a habit or pattern, that predates them that they are not free to alter.  This is a modified form of the pre-modern view–modified because the Johnson family still created this reality.  For the Egyptians, Aztecs, Medievals, many Greeks and Romans, and so on, the structure of their society came from God/the gods.

Next week we will continue to explore these themes, and our journey will lead us into all sorts of interesting places, such as art, music, and education.

Until then,


Ordinary Men

If you have driven much at all in any urban or suburban area, I’m guessing that you have experienced something like the following:

You are at a stoplight in a busy intersection, waiting to turn left.  You are towards the back of the line but have a hope of making the light, which usually lets several cars through.  By the intersection a person in need stands with a sign asking for money.

You have a few dollars and would gladly give it, but you are towards the back of the line before the man in need reaches your car.  The cars start to inch forward, anxious to make the light.  You have two choices:

  • Stop your car and give the man some money.  This would reasonably take 10 seconds of time, especially if you wanted to look him in the eye and address him as a person.  But this means that you might not make the light.  For sure, it means that cars behind you would not make the light and the intersection would pile up, with a rubberneck ensuing that would take perhaps three light cycles to clear out.
  • Go through the light and not stop, keeping up with the flow of traffic.

If you are like me in the situation I described, you have taken option 2 more often than you might care to admit.

Why does this happen?  Why does this feel like a no-win situation?  Why do we feel such tremendous pressure to get through the intersection as quickly as possible?

Aside from general answers to the question involving the human condition, we need to consider the specific situation.  When driving you enter into an unspoken covenant with other drivers that share your immediate space. When on the road other drivers–and not the rest of mankind–become your primary obligation  One part of this covenant involves being alert at intersections.  We all want to get to our destination.  Don’t be on your phone and miss the light change.  Be ready to go.  This isn’t about selfishness but courtesy to others.  Your primary obligation to other drivers overrides secondary obligations, even those of greater moral weight.  When you are behind the wheel, your fellow drivers get preference over the poor of the third world.

Sure, we don’t want honked at.  But we also don’t want to break the covenant with drivers.

Reading Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men brought this everyday situation into starker light.  Browning focuses not on Nazi ideology, nor the ideologically committed SS thugs.  Rather, he focuses on one particular reserve police battalion and the evolution of most of them into mass murderers.  We would like to believe that Nazi’s committed mass murder because they had a previous commitment to racial genocide.  The war simply gave them the opportunity to enact their beliefs.  This would be safer for us because we do not have a belief that we should mass murder in a racially motivated way.  Thus, we would not slaughter Jews.  But Browning points out that, while beliefs played a role, what seemed more decisive was the particular situation the men faced.  Their actions transformed them over time into mass murderers, not their beliefs.  Indeed for many, their actions transformed their beliefs, and not vice-versa.

This means that no one is immune.  Our beliefs–what we hold true in our heads–won’t save us.

Those that comprised Reserve Police Battalions shared the following general characteristics:

  • They were middle-aged men with other careers apart from the war.  All of them came of age before the Nazi’s took power.
  • Most all of them had membership in the Nazi party, but most all of those had joined late, and one expects, rather as a matter of course.
  • Reserve police battalions were held in general contempt by the SS rank and file as lacking true commitment to the Nazi cause.
  • Perhaps most surprisingly, very few expressed overt agreement with Nazi beliefs about Jews.  Some of them even expressed specific disagreements with anti-semitic beliefs.
  • Nearly all of them had blood on their hands in one form or another.

As the Nazi’s occupied much of Eastern Europe by 1942 they sought to clear the area of Jews and other communist partisans–but most particularly Jews were the target.  Himmler and Heydrich would much rather have had the SS do the work of mass killing, but the army at that time fought desperately in Russia and could not spare the men.  Hence, the calling up of reserve police battalions for this job.

The Nazi’s were smart in how they managed these men.  The first job for the battalion involved murdering thousands of Jews point blank in a Polish town called Jozefow, but the officers kept this order secret right up until zero hour. They let bit of information trickle out slowly, none of it objectionable by itself, i.e., “report to place x,” “prepare to help keep order,” and so on.  In relaying the mass-murder order to his men, the major of Battalion 101 showed visible distress.  He broke down almost in tears, he expressed disagreement with the order, and even gave anyone the option of abstaining themselves from this action.

But he did give the order.

At this point what options do these men have?

  • If you have strong moral scruples, you have no time to organize any resistance.  But even if you wanted to resist, will you fire on your comrades, men with whom you have trained and share a bond?
  • If the battalion refuses to carry out the order, what will the SS do to you?
  • You could take your commander’s offer and refuse to fire on the Jews and be given guard duty.  Does being on guard duty absolve you?
  • Perhaps most significantly, if you don’t do the job, someone else will have extra work.  The army runs on the principle of all for one, one for all.  Your “weakness” means that others have harder jobs and more work.  No one wants to put their fellows in such a position.  The institutional pressure not to shirk your duty and obey orders must have been enormous.

Browning wants us to face the truth that most of us would obey the order. Most of us would shoot Jews, and most of us would find the means to rationalize it.  Testimonies given years later reveal that nearly all of them found a way to make peace with this atrocity in different ways:

  • War is terrible and cannot be redeemed. Besides the enemy bombs our own women and children.
  • Surely this is an isolated, one-time action.  It is horrible that we have this assignment.  But given the horrible nature of this job, these Jews must therefore be particularly dangerous.  Best to just “rip off the band-aid.”
  • Some stood in line and fired, but deliberately missed.  Perhaps they trusted that their fellow soldiers would not deliberately miss, and this will preserve them from the horror in some way.  Indeed, mop-up crews with sub-machine guns came through to finish the job.  So . . . some tried to technically not kill anyone.
  • One soldier even went so far as to say that (paraphrasing), “I paired up with someone who had no problem shooting the women, and then I would shoot the children.  I could not shoot mothers, but I figured, once their mother was dead, I could shoot the children as an act of mercy to them.  Their lives without their parents would be misery.  I could free them from suffering.”

Those that did not join in bore the stigma of “cowards” and shirkers.  Those that attempted to obey, but found that “their nerves” could not handle it, were viewed as those who “tried their best.”  Even Himmler himself said in 1943, that while firm obedience stood as the pinnacle of virtue, exceptions came to those whose “nerves are shot, to one who is finished, who has become weak.  Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.”  Even a small amount participation guaranteed your personal safety, no doubt a strong impetus to at least do something in a token way.

After Jozefow many men got violently ill and many showed acute emotional distress.  We might think that this rebellion of the body as a witness to moral truth would turn the tide and what happened would never happen again.  In fact, many men who openly wept and got terribly ill after the Josefow massacre later became hardened and even enthusiastic killers of more Jews.  Initially, the body rebelled against the mind, but eventually, with enough practice, the two worked in tandem.  Eventually, the SS could trust the battalion to commit larger and larger massacres:

The Numbers of Those Murdered by Battalion 101 in

1942: 7-8,000 (minimum)

1943: 30,000 (minimum)

In between their assignments to mass-murder, Battalion 101 received orders to clear the forests of Jews who had fled Nazi roundups.  These “Jew-hunts” (as they were known) could also be rationalized:

  • The main enemy of fascism is communism.  Many Jews are communists (so went the party line), thus, they are a threat.
  • Some of these Jews who fled now have arms.  They will likely engage in guerrilla operations against our forces.  Thus, they are not civilians but enemy soldiers, enemies too cowardly to come out and fight.  They deserve their fate.

Perhaps because one might possibly find even the thinnest “legitimate” military motive for such action explains why the battalion never had a shortage of volunteers for these missions.  It far more resembled “real soldiering” and may have helped them justify their actions in military terms.  Such missions made them soldiers in their minds, not murderers.

Ordinary Men demonstrates that one need not be an SS ideologue to commit such atrocities.  The commitment to your immediate circle of fellow men, your desire to “do something” for the war, your general patriotism, and perhaps even a lingering sense of guilt that in serving in the reserve police battalions made one a whole lot safer than a front-line solider–thus you might seek to make up for it with brutal deeds– all combine to wreak moral havoc on your soul.  Within a year normal middle-age men without overt Nazi sympathies, without being educated in Nazi ideology in their formative years, without defined anti-semitic beliefs, became butchers on an unreal scale.*

We can understand this if we remember the intersection with the man asking for money.

I think the main reason why we fail at the intersection is the competition between our two commitments, one to our fellow drivers, the other to the needy man.  Throw in as a side-car our selfishness and desire to get home and be inconvenienced, etc., and game/set/match for our values.  The only way to really navigate this successfully is to park the car and approach him on foot.  In one sense this is harder, because it costs us more in time.  But in many ways this is the easier path, for now we need not worry about the drivers behind us at all.  We have removed ourselves from obligations to them and can act much more freely.

Of course the men in Battalion 101 faced a drastically more difficult situation.  You cannot escape blame by opting out of shooting and taking guard duty instead.  Reasonably, you would not (and perhaps even should not?) turn your gun against your comrades and go out in a hail of bullets.  The only thing you can do is remove your uniform, perhaps facing court martial and even death.  Perhaps you could do this if you were a bachelor, but if you have a wife and kids . . . ?  What happens to them?  Can you sacrifice them in addition to yourself? How many of us would shoot?  How many of us would take guard duty?

In the epilogue, Browning quotes from Primo Levi’s book, The Drowned and the Saved, and it seems a fitting way to close. In his book Levi argues passionately that,

It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.

Such was the fate of Reserve Police Battalion 101.



*Browning also traces the evolution of their anti-semitism.  In time many came to hold the same kinds of beliefs about the Jews as Hitler and Himmler.  They didn’t start that way, but their actions formed their beliefs.