Mr. No Depth Perception Man

There is an old SNL skit of the aforementioned title, in which a hapless suburbanite can only see in 2-D. He makes terribly awkward comments about his guests, assuming that he does so without the offended party being aware. An excerpt:

Mr. No Depth Perception Man: I can’t believe Brenda’s dating this loser! You know what she’s after, right?! I bet he’s got money, or something! [the “loser” he’s talking about is 7-8 feet away, looking quite awkward at his comments].

[Embarrassed Guest who knows the “loser” tries to get him to be quiet].

Mr. No Depth Perception Man: What are you worried about? Relax! He can’t hear me–he’s way down there!

I thought of the sketch when reading Leo Deuel’s enlightening and eminently fair Memoirs of Heinrich Schliemann. The book intersperses Schliemann’s own writing with commentary and context from Deuel throughout. This is needed to get an accurate picture, because Schliemann is, alas, not a reliable narrator–much less reliable than most.

I say, “alas,” because I confess to liking Schliemann, despite his enormous faults. Most modern history films I have seen that discuss him focus almost entirely on those faults (which I will get to) and basically pass by his vast contribution to the study of the ancient world and archaeology itself. He possessed an enormous talent for languages and learned several of them. He did this through optimism, the ability to engage in drudgery, and enormous exertions of will and energy–truly the quintessential 19th century man.*

Such men are out of fashion in our day, but I admit that I am not terribly sad that they are mostly gone. Such people are charming but also exhausting. Their vices, though perhaps childlike in a way, are all the more infuriating for the fact that they seem completely blind to them.** Schliemmann lived in a two dimensional world.

For example . . .

To get permission for his ground-breaking (zing!) work at Troy, Schliemann had to promise to turn over all he found to a museum being planned in Instanbul. He ended up giving them very little. As to the famous, “Treasure of Priam,” he very intentionally hid it from the Turkish authorities. His escape with various relics from the past got his Turkish overseer in a lot of trouble. Schliemann was a bit bothered by this, but it never crossed his mind to think of the artifacts as belonging to anyone but himself. Since I don’t think we can assume that Schliemann was directly evil, I suppose this was an unfortunate byproduct of his enormous self-will.

Schliemann uncovered some spectacular finds but often misinterpreted their significance. His errors would be easily excusable as a mistake or misguided educated guess. In Schliemann’s case, his mistakes came from his enormous though unconscious self-regard. Almost incredibly, his main justification, for example, for his claim that he had uncovered Agamemmnon himself at Mycenae was that the death mask he uncovered, “looks just as I imagined [Agamemmnon].” For Schliemann, his own imagination was all the “evidence” he needed.

Perhaps Schliemann’s daughter might sum him up best, with this brief recollection:

My early years living with this explosive, dedicated, and tireless man of genius was a stern trial . . . . Throughout my own girlhood he would often get me up at 5:00 in the morning in winter to ride horseback five miles to go swim in the sea, as he himself did every day. He built us a palace to live in, but it contained not one stick of comfortable furniture. He worked and studied standing at a high bookkeeper’s desk. As a gentle hint, Mother made him a present of an armchair, but he banished it to the garden.

His concern with health was fanatical. When my younger brother was baptized, with many guests solemnly assembled in church, my father suddenly whisked out a thermometer and took the temperature of the holy water. There was a great commotion; the priest was outraged. It took my mother’s gentle intervention to reinvest the water with holiness.

Beneath these imperious traits Father was warmhearted and generous to a fault. He was humble, too, in his own way.

After reviewing his life, I am hard-pressed to find a great deal of “humility” in Schliemann. Schliemann did mature a bit with each passing archaeological dig, both in his methods, and–by the end he let others take credit for their own discoveries! Perhaps Schliemann also possessed a humility towards the past, a virtue of his that should return.

Some of Schliemmann’s comments about his Greek workers grabbed my eye. It bothered him that they would not work on Sundays, but this he understood to a degree. What he could not understand was their refusal to work on certain other days, such as the festival of certain saints.

I suggested a likeness of Schliemann to a certain short-lived SNL character. He absolutely had his own superstitions, though he proceeded through life entirely unaware of them. Chief among Schliemann’s suerstitions I already mentioned, namely the implicit trust in his own imagination. So strong was this trust that it led him to declare that some discoveries of others were in fact his own!

We cannot say that this was an example of cultural bias or prejudice. Schliemann nearly worshipped Greece, or at least his idea of it. He married a Greek woman and gave his two children ancient Greek names (Andromache and Agamemmnon). He lived in Athens for much of his later life. Rather, it was the customs, or beliefs, that he could not understand. He wrote in his diary that,

There have been, including today, three great and two lesser Greek church festivals, so that out of these 12 days I have had in reality only seven days of work. Poor as the people are, and as they would like to work, it is impossible to persuade them to do so on feast days, even if it be the day of some unimportant saint . . . . I try to persuade the poor creatures to set their superstition aside for higher wages.

Even a cursory look at Schilemann’s life reveals at least a few “superstitions” of his own. Naturally, it depends on how one should define such a thing. But surely uncritical assumption that we can define reality for ourselves fits any reasonable description of “superstition.”

I am reminded of a famous passage in Plato’s Phaedrus in which Socrates and Phaedrus are walking through the city and come upon the supposed site of ancient story involving the gods. Phaedrus asks if Socrates believes the story, and he replies,

The wise are doubtful, and I should be singular if, like them, I too doubted. . . . Now if one were skeptical [about all stories] and would fain reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy will take up a great deal of time. Now I have no leisure for such inquiries. Do you wish to know why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance about myself, would be ridiculous. And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me.

If we might take another example of the “common opinion . . . ”

A long standing tradition states that Joseph of Arimethea came to Britain as a missionary shortly after Christ’s resurrection. Other parts of the story indicate that Joseph obtained his wealth via trade in tin, and likely made many excursions to the island for his business. Some parts of the tale indicate that Jesus Himself traveled with Joseph (His uncle) as a young boy on an adventure, and still some other parts of the tale say that the Virgin Mother accompanied Joseph on his missionary journey to the island.

Most of us might be inclined to doubt the whole story, if not at least some of its parts. No doubt Schliemann would call it “superstition.” And yet, the belief of Britain being evangelized quite early in the first century A.D. dates back to St. Clement of Rome, and St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine and others all testify to this fact. A great deal more evidence for this “superstitious tradition” may exist than we previously thought–such is the conclusion of Lionel Lewis in his informative work on St. Joseph and the Glastonbury tradition. Not all details of the traditional story have the same level of evidence for their historicity, but still, much more exists than we might suppose.

Schliemann’s intensely narrow passion helped him ignite a whole era of discovery about the ancient world. Indeed, many before him might have regarded some kind of historical belief in a Trojan War as a superstition backed only by “tradition.” Alas for him that this narrowness of vision closed him off to world’s outside of his own.

The “common opinion” perhaps might be true in the case of St. Joseph of Arimethea, just as it was about the Trojan War–as further excavations at Schliemann’s site have only further confirmed at least a rudimentary historical context to Homer’s tale. I wonder if Schliemann could grant the same to Greek saints of the Church–even the “unimportant” ones.

Dave

*England “ruled the world” during Schliemann’s era, and it is perhaps no coincidence that it was England that gave him the most favorable reception to his work. Schliemann might be described almost as an incarnation of England itself in all of their virtues and faults of the Victorian era.

**One thinks of the great line uttered by Patton in the Patton movie where he states to General Bradley, “Hell, I know I’m a prima dona! I admit it! What I can’t stand about Monty [General Bernard Montgomery] is that he won’t admit it!”

9th/10th Grade: “It’s the Economy, Stupid.”

Greetings,

This week we looked at the Seven Years War, and the puzzling question as to why the aftermath of the war ended up driving Americans and the British apart. Why this happened should puzzle us, because usually when two sides ally, fight together, and win, it draws them closer together.  We got some hints this week as to how this might have happened.

In the end, I think the war had this effect because of fundamental disagreements about the reasons for the war, the reasons for changes in British policy, and the question of colonial identity.

1. Why was the war fought:

  • I think the British thought of the war being fought for the benefit of empire generally, but more specifically for the benefit of the colonies.  The French were now far away,  a secure border established with the Indians, and a clear treaties signed to that effect.
  • The colonists fought out of a sense of duty to empire, but they did not ask for or cause this war.  The border was just fine, thank you, before you came.  We hate your treaties because it limits our expansion.  You are infringing upon our rights of self-determination

2. Changes in Policy

  • The British faced enormous debts at the end of the war.  They felt that they should shoulder the overwhelming % of the cost.  But they did ask the colonies to help bear perhaps around 10-15% of the burden of maintaining troops out west along the frontier.   These troops, of course, were there to protect the colonists, and to enforce the treaty (i.e. make sure we did not cause trouble along the border).
  • The colonists saw the British debt as England’s problem.  What if we were taxed to help relieve the debt of Greece, for example?  The troops were there not to protect but to possibly infringe on our liberties, and meddle in our affairs.

3. The Question of Identity

  • The British saw the colonies as an extension of England itself — England transplanted far away — hence names like ‘New England,’ ‘New York,’ etc.
  • The colonies saw themselves as part of the British Empire, yes, but much in the same position as Ireland or Scotland, who had sovereign control of their own domestic affairs, and England could not tax them.

Another backdrop to this dispute was the role of Parliament in English affairs.  Over the course of the 18th England saw a gradual rise in the role of Parliament in relation to the power of the king, after many immigrants to the colonies had already left. All early colonial charters and governemtns professed their allegiance and loyalty to English kings like James I, Charles II, etc. but are silent on the question of Parliament.  They did not directly experience this gradual in English history. They recognized the authority of the king as a kind of figurehead of empire, but Parliament?  Parliament, in their experience, was a body sovereign only in domestic English affairs, and not in the empire as a whole.

The Seven Years War also created a perfect storm of factors involving land.

The war settled questions of the colonies’ western frontier, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that the British victory helped spur on massive emigration west towards the newly acquired land.

At the same time, the new land may have been at least a partial impetus for a massive influx of immigration from the British isles of people wanting a “fresh start” in America on basically free land.

Thus, at just the moment when the British wanted to restrict western movement to prevent another conflict with France, settlers poured into these very same territories and pushed the limits of the treaty.  Ideally I include a map below to show you this, but alas, I could not find an electronic version of the map I handed out in class showing this western push, so do feel free to look at the map I handed the students last week.

Like ships passing in the night, the colonists and the English saw land differently as well.

For the colonists, land represented opportunity, opportunity that did not exist in the more aristocratic, patron-oriented system in England.  Restricting land, for many colonists, meant restricting self-government.

The British must have found this hard to swallow.  They could understand the link with land and independence, even if they did not feel the link as keenly.  But, as far as they were concerned, the colonists surely had far more than enough to go around.  The original colonies contained about 430,000 square miles, compared to about 70,000 square miles in England.  The Seven Years War only added perhaps an additional 200,000 square miles for the colonists.  Now you say you want more?  How much is enough?

We closed the week by examining the Sugar Act, in particular.

The Sugar Act has to be put in context with the following:

  • England’s Debt.  Their normal peacetime budget was 8 million pounds a year.  The interest payment on their war debt alone was 5 million pds./year.
  • The fact that colonists on the border had, hardly before the ink dried on the treaty, strayed across the Appalachian border and brought on a conflict with the Pontiac tribe.  This worried England to no end.  They just got finished fighting a long and expensive war.  The last thing they wanted was to be drawn into another conflict.  Some students rightly asked why the British would care about skirmishes with Indians.  I don’t think the British worried too much about the Indians, but beyond the Indians lay the French.  If the colonists clashed with the French, it would become England’s business.  Besides this, the treaty that ended the war was a mutually agreed upon international treaty.

Of course, no colonial representatives had a part in the terms of this treaty.

  • During the war many New England merchants expanded their operations to deal with increased trans-Atlantic traffic.  The end of the war left many over-extended and in financial trouble.  A number of merchants resorted to smuggling to help make up the difference.  The smuggling mostly centered around the molasses trade.  England collected a 6 pence/gallon duty, but people knew that if you approached the right people you could get a 1 1/2 pence/gallon ‘off the books’ price, which England would never see.

So, Parliament enacted the Sugar Act in 1764.  It had a broad purpose, ultimately geared towards getting England back on its feet economically. Over the last few years, we are all familiar with a political atmosphere dominated by economic concerns, and we can understand the hope we might feel if a plan emerged to ease our pain.  England hoped to raise about 20% of the cost of maintaining English troops along the border out west.

Ultimately, the act was designed to raise revenue indirectly from the colonists.  Here’s how they wanted to do it:

  • The British lowered the import duty to 3 pence per gallon (instead of the normal 6 pence) in the hopes that this would deter smuggling.
  • They gave expanded powers to customs agents to search cargo.  And, they gave them legal protection in case of a mistaken accusation.  Currently, accused smugglers went on trial before their peers, and, of course, were often acquitted.  Customs officials would then have to pay a heavy, heavy fine for ‘false accusation.’
  • They wanted to encourage the colonists to manufacture and sell their own rum.  Hence, they erected a variety of barriers to the purchase of French rum from the Carribbean, and lowered the import duty on British sugar. That way, the British get the import duty, and the tax from the sale of local rum (taxes on the sale and manufacture of alcohol was a primary revenue source for governments in the early modern age, before things like income tax, sales tax, etc.)  Aside from that – be good British subjects and stop giving money to the French!

Thus, no one is hurt, or even directly taxed.  We stop breaking the law.  The British get money.  Colonists are protected from Indians.  It is all very reasonable in the typical British way.

So, why did we object to the import duty being lowered (in fact, colonists continued to smuggle until the British lowered the duty to 1 pence p/gallon, below the smuggling price)?

  • The expanded search powers gave customs officials the right to seize cargo on mere suspicion.  Their warrants were in effect, blank checks.  Colonists felt that this violated their rights.
  • A large amount of hoop jumping was now required to prove the validity of cargo.  The lives of many merchants got much harder.  Think of how the process of obtaining a loan changed after 2009, making it more cumbersome and time consuming.
  • Accused smugglers could now be tried not in local courts, but special admiralty courts.  In other words, they would not be tried by a civilian court of their peers, and again, the colonists believed this violated their traditional rights.
  • Who cares about the troops in the forts anyway?  We were doing just fine before you showed up, thank you very much.  We managed our own affairs for the last 125 years and can still do so without your help.  We helped you with the war, like we were supposed to.  But this war was your idea, not ours.  We should not have to help pay for it, indirectly or otherwise.  Here, I think, it was not the amount of money, but the principle that mattered.

At root in this controversy is the exact nature of the relationship between the colonists and England.  England saw the colonists as essentially extensions of themselves.  Thus, Parliament had jurisdiction over them just as they would any town in England.  The colonists saw themselves akin to Ireland, part of the empire but internally, entirely self-governing.  Even a little bit of meddling was still meddling, and still unjustified.

Students hopefully see that both sides have good arguments, but they will need to try and discern which side has the better argument, and the exact nature of the disagreement between the colonists and England.  Parents may recognize my reference in the title to the 1992 Presidential race, but in the end, what brought on the American Revolution was not money, but something deeper.

Blessings,

Dave

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

Words in Play

Lots of pendulum swings happen in the history of thought, but these pendulum swings sometimes resemble more the bending of a line towards the form of a circle instead of opposite points on a line horizontally. In other words, when certain positions get to their extremes, they start to resemble what they claim to oppose. Reality, when warped, curves back on itself.

For example, one could argue that the age of imperialism in Europe came from the conviction that a) We are better than you, and b) We are different than you. This is a caricature, but we can let it stand for our purposes. In turn, this attitude called forth the work of Joseph Cambell, who argued in his religious analysis that actually, nothing has any difference from anything else. Narcissus, Christ, Osiris, and so on all participate in the same reality and are basically the same god. On the surface this looks like the opposite end of the imperialist impulse, but as imperialism grew, the mingling of cultures grew, and the differences between the cultures start to blur. For example, we have Rudyard Kipling as one of imperialism’s strongest advocates, but much of his writing shows a fascination not with English culture, but with that of India and Afghanistan.

So . . . McBain was entirely correct to conflate the Commies and the Nazi’s.

Plato and Aristotle give us the foundation to western philosophy. Many first notice their differences, and certainly they parted ways in key areas. Plato emphasized the unity of things via the world of the forms. He sought to draw everything up into the eternal, i.e., when we come to know and understand something, we are in fact remembering something we used to know.* Aristotle differed from his teacher and focused on particulars. We know him best through his extensive categorizations. He separates that we might see things more clearly. It seems they occupy opposite points on a line, with opposite strengths and weaknesses. But in certain ways they share the same strengths and faults. Aristotle critiqued Plato’s overgeneralizing of concepts, but he himself seemed to overgeneralize everything in the mythical/spiritual realm, consigning it all to irrelevancy. Like Plato, he criticized aspects of Athenian religion but could not see the particular threads of truth within it. In turn, Plato’s focus on finding the eternal kernel of truth led him to define concepts so finely that in the Laches a general does not know what courage is due to his faulty definition. They both over-generalized at times, they both hyper-categorized other times.

Avoiding this warping effect might involve taking Aristotle’s “advice:” If you drill a hole all the way through the earth and fall down from the North Pole, stop and hover at the halfway point. The key to healthy societies as well as healthy thought comes from fusing “Heaven” and “Earth,” and not by camping out at either locale.

I never knew that Plato’s dialogue Cratylus even existed until a few weeks ago. Rather than the usual meandering conversation in most of his work, here he focuses entirely on the role of language, and names in particular. The issue has relevance especially in times of societal breakdown. Without a common cultural framework, language loses its power as a conveyor of meaning and a means of discourse, i.e., we no longer have an agreed upon meaning for important words such as “male and female,” “racism,” “love,” and so on.

The dialogue begins with one extreme tentatively suggested by Hermogenes, who argues that, “whatever anyone agrees to call a particular thing is its name.” Socrates teases out the implication of such a position, which means that something can have infinite names, “And however many names someone says there are for each thing, it will really have that number at whatever time he says it?” Hermogenes reluctantly agrees.

Of course this won’t do, and Socrates leads Hermogenes out of this thicket. The problem of meaning has a link to the problem of virtue. If we can give names to anything we wish and have that in fact be its name, then we in effect, become the arbiters of reality itself. For, “some statements are true, while others are false,” and “it is possible to say things that are and that are not in a statement.” We are not God and cannot make reality come into being by merely declaring it so. Otherwise good and evil have no real existence outside of our own minds, and so we can call nothing truly good or evil at all. Meaning and coherence break down. The question of language is much more than academic.

So words and their meaning cannot come into being from below. The “bottom of the mountain,” so to speak, has too much individuation and division to provide a platform for societies. As our examples above show (i.e., Kipling, etc.), this extreme individuation shakes hands with extreme unity, for it cannot properly divide anything at all according to its nature. So in the end, with this view, everything mashes up together.

Socrates and Hermogenes then seek to go up to the “top of the mountain” to attempt to find the origin of names. Names function as a means of instruction, as a means of “divid[ing] things according to their natures. As Socrates comments,

So just as a shuttle is a tool for dividing warp and woof, a name is a tool for giving instruction, that is to say, for dividing being.**

Just as not all can use the loom, so Socrates asks, “Do you think every man is a rule-setter, or only those who possess the craft?” Hermogenes concedes that one must have the craft. Control of language cannot belong to the individual alone, but nor to “every man.” One must have “the craft.”

So Cratylus is right in saying that things have natural names, and that not everyone is a craftsman of names, but only someone who looks the natural name of a thing and is able to put its form into letters and symbols.

Undoubtedly language shapes our perception of reality, and possibly more than that, for in Genesis God’s speech creates reality as we know it. The names He gives fixes the distinctions between things, and Adam’s naming of animals gives humanity a cooperative role in the creative process.

The theological dilemma of, “Is something good because God declares it to be good, or does God declare something good because it is good already,” has a mirror in the dilemma about language.^ No one person can simply declare a word to be a word and have it fixed for all time. Socrates struggles with finding the absolute in each word. He had penetrating insights regarding the essence of truth, but stumbled in its application. The same hold true in Cratylus. The dialogue continues on a long excursion where Socrates seeks the unity of the principle embodied in names, and their particular Greek phonetics. Some of these endeavors succeed more than others. But in the end, Socrates must face reality–other cultures have different phonetical constructions for words embodying the same principles.

Socrates: Here is what I suspect. I think that the Greeks, especially those who live abroad, have adopted many names from foreign tongues.

Hermogenes: What of it?

Socrates: Well, if someone were trying to discover whether the names had been reasonably given, and he treated them as belonging to the Greek language rather than the one they were really from, then he would be in a quandary.

Hermogenes: He very probably would.

Socrates: . . . Consequently, though one might say something about these names, one mustn’t push them too far.

This realization leads Socrates nearer the truth, that language, like truth itself, involves a union of the masculine principle of declaration from those “who know,” from above, and the fluidity of things on earth. Socrates comments,

Perhaps you didn’t that [the names] are given on the assumption that the they name are moving, flowing, and coming into being. . . . Wisdom (phronesis) is the understanding of motion (phoras noesis) and flow. Or it might be interpreted as taking delight in motion. . . . Wisdom signifies the grasping of this motion.

For the rest of the dialogue Socrates struggles to find a way to unite the masculine and feminine aspects of language, but can’t quite get there. Still, he makes the crucial realization of the need for the seed from above, the plant from below, or the pattern and its manifestation must go together. For Adam in the Garden (Genesis 2) his names correctly manifested this, for at that time he had perfect communion with the Father above and the (Mother) Earth below. But since the sin entered the world, we essentially fail in proper manifestation of language, which furthers confusion of meaning.

But though we fall short, we still have the image of God within us, and can use Socrates’ insight to evaluate how we use words and their relationship to truth. There exists, for example, a certain method of Bible study among Christians that involves

  • Finding out the Hebrew/Greek meaning of a particular word
  • Grabbing a concordance to see where that word gets used in different parts of the Bible, and then
  • Using the meaning in one context to determine its meaning everywhere in Scripture.

This ignores the fluid aspects of language, and the central importance of context over strict phonetics. We all know that the word “radical” can be a math term in one context, an outdated term from the 80’s in another, an adjective for a political ideology, and so on.

Many of our current cultural debates, however, center around ignoring the fixed aspects of language. We can all acknowledge that the meaning of “male” and “female,” for example, have certain contextual fluidities determined in part by culture. Some men may be more effeminate, some women more masculine, than others of the same sex. But surely being either male or female cannot mean anything we wish it to mean. Biology certainly gives us constraints on the meaning of sex. The very fact that we call some men more masculine than other men shows that we have a defined concept of masculinity we cannot escape even if we wanted to. Indeed, some of those who wish to introduce more fluidity to the concept of sex/gender also decry “toxic masculinity” more than others.

It seems that we must see language, along with the reality language describes/creates, existing in a hierarchy. At the top we have God, who in Christian theology can only be defined as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. Then at the bottom we have words like “green,” a collection of phonetic sounds that can refer to a color, a newbie on the job, a person with sea-sickness, and so on. Yet while these phonetic sounds can take on meanings essentially unrelated to each other, they each manifest connections to a particular idea. More fluidity in language exists at the bottom of the mountain, but . . . not chaos. Then somewhere in the middle of reality, we have words such as “male and female,” which have more defined limits, along with a degree of contextual meaning.

Though the Cratylus fails to stick the landing on a unified theory of language, Socrates rightly intuits that correct naming is a “beautiful work.” We recognize beauty when we recognize a pattern, a pattern of the marriage of heaven and earth, of unity and diversity.^^ When this reality gets warped both the language absolutist and the language relativist both destroy the beauty of language and its meaning. Contrary to some, language is not a tool of power, but of meaning. When weaponized we lose beauty, wisdom, and also power. For in reality, power cannot truly exist without its connection to Heaven.

Dave

*I should state now that I am a rank amateur in my knowledge of Plato and Aristotle. My critique is not meant to deny their rightful place in the history of philosophy.

**Here we see more evidence of Andrew Kern’s suggestion that weaving and wisdom are interrelated in the ancient world, thus, the Luddites rebellion against mechanical looms had little to do with economics and much more to do with maintaining meaning and coherence in society.

^This dilemma is really no dilemma at all to those who understand Christian theology. The Church has always said that the answer to the above dilemma involves splitting the horns–things are “good” because God made them, and are stamped with God’s being and character.

^^I will attempt an explanation of my meaning by thinking about a spectacular sunset. We look up, and see light from above-that’s purity/Heaven. The light then transforms, becomes more fluid/diverse as it interacts with matter, the stuff of Earth. This combination produces the beauty we are drawn to.

While only God is eternal and infinite, this union of Heaven and Earth will continue into eternity. In His resurrection Christ continues to have a physical body. And when He returns, He will descend, and we will rise to “meet Him in the air.”

Valleys of Neptune

Several 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 many ways 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.

Growth Measures

This post is from 2016 originally, and you will note some dated references.  I repost it in conjunction with discussions this week in our Government class.

The original post follows . . .

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

In his account of the Athenian debate over their proposed expedition to Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides has Alicibiades close with a famous analogy on the fate of states and nations that remain inert.

And as for security, whether for remaining there, in case of any success, or for returning, our fleet will provide us with it; for by sea we shall be superior to all the Siceliots put together. And let not the non-interfering policy which Nicias recommends in his speeches, nor his setting the young against the old, divert you from your purpose; but acting in your usual order, just as our fathers, by consulting young with old, raised the state to its present height, do ye now too, in the same manner, endeavor to advance it; being convinced that youth and old age can do nothing without each other; but that the period of levity, and of mid-age, and of extreme preciseness, will have most power when joined together; and that the state, if it remain quiet, will be worn out on itself, like anything else, and its skill in everything grow dull; while by entering into contest it will continually gain fresh experience, and will find self-defense habitual to it, not in word, but rather in deed. My decided opinion then is, that I think a state of no inactive character would most quickly be ruined by a change to inactivity; and that those men live most securely, who regulate their affairs in accordance with their existing habits and institutions, even though they may be of an inferior character, with the least variation.

The Athenian adventure into Sicily ended in disaster, but the idea that states and people must essentially “keep swimming or die” entered into our consciousness.  Progress must involve motion, the conquering of challenges.  So J.S. Huxley comments that,

Life can never be about equilibrium.  Given the well established facts that change . . . multiplies in an expanding geometric ratio, then change in the status quo is inevitable.  A status quo may exist for a time, but with one organism bumping against another means a rearrangement of them all.   

And J.R. Smuts adds,

A peculiar feature about the change in equilibrium in a physico-chemical structure is that it is never such as to produce a perfect new equilibrium; the new is merely approximate, just as the old was.  We may say the change was from too little to too much.

The instance of a super-saturated solution is a case in point, where the crystallization lags behind the conditions which bring it about.  When the change comes it swings beyond the necessities of the case.  Again there is the condition of instability which has to be righted by a swing back in due course.  Thence arises the character of natural change.  Complete equilibrium is never attained and would be fatal if attained, because it would mean stagnation, atrophy, and death.

Once let a large, favorable variation take place . . . others must keep up or perish.  So it comes to pass that history moves in successive phases of momentary equilibrium, with extended periods of “conflict” and readjustment, each one a higher plane of independence than the one before, and each giving place to the other.

So it seems nearly an axiom (at least for post-Enlightenment western societies) that change=growth, growth=progress, progress= something good (?).

But Thucydides had no love for Alicibades, and whether or not he reports fairly, clearly the scope of his narrative means to show the disastrous nature of Alcibiades’ logic.  Earlier in the war his hero Pericles urged the Athenians to accept war with Sparta, but only if they resolved firmly not to add any new territory to their empire.

But Pericles may not have been entirely consistent.  In his famous “Funeral Oration” he celebrated the dynamic, maritime nature of Athenian life in his famous funeral oration.

If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates; while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbour, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes. Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because we have at once to attend to our marine and to dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different services; so that, wherever they engage with some such fraction of our strength, a success against a detachment is magnified into a victory over the nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.

“In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves.

Pericles’ words have resonated strongly with western societies for at least the last two centuries.  Democracies have long wanted to be thought of as progressive, diverse, open to new experiences and new people, etc.  But this vision had its critics, most notably Plato, who wrote in his Laws,

Athenian Stranger. And now, what will this city be? I do not mean to ask what is or will hereafter be the name of the place; that may be determined by the accident of locality or of the original settlement-a river or fountain, or some local deity may give the sanction of a name to the newly-founded city; but I do want to know what the situation is, whether maritime or inland.

Cleinias. I should imagine, Stranger, that the city of which we are speaking is about eighty stadia distant from the sea.

Ath: If the city were to be built at the seaside and were going to be well supplied with harbors but ill-supplied with the necessities of life from the soil, then it would have needed mighty saviors and divinely inspired legislators to escape the moral confusion and moral corruption that are the inevitable penalty of such environments.

For the sea is an insidious neighbor which makes itself agreeable to the daily interaction [between good soil and good harbors], but is salt and bitter inasmuch as it fills the country with tradesmen’s business, and the souls of the country with deceit, and the body politic with distrust–each seeking advantage over his fellow man and neighboring states.

These social evils are to some extent counteracted if the soil produces something of everything; and, if it is a rough and highland country . . . it will not be able to do so.  If it could not, it would produce a large export surplus and would attract to itself the equivalent import of gold and silver currency–and that is the greatest moral disaster that can overtake a country.

[As for sea power], it would have profited the Athenians to lose seventy times seven children a year to the tyrant Minos [referring here to the ancient legend of the Minotaur] before turning themselves in defense to a sea power instead of heavy infantry, and so lose the  power of standing fast, acquiring instead the habit of perpetually jumping ashore and then running back to their ships at a run hardly after landing.

This method of warfare erases any sense of shame at being too cowardly to risk one’s life by standing one’s ground and receiving the enemy’s attack.  It suggests facile and “plausible” excuses for taking to one’s heels–never of course in disorder but always “according to plan.”

There is nothing so demoralizing for infantry as their allied fleet riding at anchor in their rear.  Why, even lions, if they took to tactics of that sort, would run away from deer.

Cle: Yet all the same, sir–well, what about the Battle of Salamis?  That, after all, was a naval battle, in which the Athenians beat the barbarians, and it is our belief that this victory was the salvation of Greece.

Ath: I know that is the general view . . . But in [my] belief, it was the land battles of Marathon and Platea that were the day-spring of the salvation of Greece and its crowning mercy.

Arnold Toynbee took up the question of how civilizations grow in volume 3 of his A Study of History.  He first considers civilizations in an “arrested” state.  The nomads and the Eskimos perform near heroic feats of adaptation to survive in their environment.  However, the environment requires too much adaptation, leaving those in them stuck at a particular point in its development.  Ultimately the social organization can never transcend their environment.*

Toynbee has a lot in common with Spengler, but ultimately rejects Spengler’s “biological life span” template for civilizations.  Toynbee believes that civilization transcends individuals so in theory, civilizations can extend themselves ad-infinitum if they play their cards right.  So to find the clue Toynbee uses scientific analogies about crystallization and so forth.  Civilizations have to keep moving to avoid stagnation.  But what kind of movement?  Toynbee is too smart to focus on mere territorial enlargement.  Measuring growth by technological advancement also fails as rubric for many reasons, one of them being the question, “Which is more impressive, the ‘invention’ and original mastery of fire, or the steam engine?”

Ultimately knows that spiritual/psychological growth should occupy pride of place along with other factors.  But how to measure this?  How would it manifest itself?  This is not so easy, as Toynbee knows (though credit him for trying).

Recently I wrote about the “noon-day” devil of acedia.  Essentially acedia involves the temptation to distraction out of a sense of listlessness and no purpose.  The key to fighting this temptation involved drilling down into the recesses of the self, and ultimately to train oneself not to bored with the things of God.  So one monk tells his confessor, “Father, I have been troubled by acedia, but praise be, the temptation vanishes whenever I go visit Abba Paul.” “On the contrary,” his confessor replies, “you have entirely given into the temptation and will soon be in its power.”

Hence the dictum–“stay in your cell.”

St. John Cassian writes,

When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. It will not suffer us to stay in our cell, or to attend to our reading: we lament that in all this while, living in the same spot, we have made no progress, we sigh and complain that bereft of sympathetic fellowship we have no spiritual fruit; and bewail ourselves as empty of all spiritual profit, abiding vacant and useless in this place; and we that could guide others and be of value to multitudes have edified no man, enriched no man with our precept and example. We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. We paint the fellowship of the brethren there, its suavity, its richness in spiritual conversation, contrasting it with the harshness of all that is at hand, where not only is there no edification to be had from any of the brethren who dwell here, but where one cannot even procure one’s victuals without enormous toil. Finally we conclude that there is not health for us so long as we stay in this place, short of abandoning the cell wherein to tarry further will be only to perish with it, and betaking ourselves elsewhere as quickly as possible.

Towards eleven o’clock or midday it induces such lassitude of body and craving for food, as one might feel after the exhaustion of a long journey and hard toil, or the postponing of a meal throughout a two or three days fast. Finally one gazes anxiously here and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen approaching: one is for ever in and out of one’s cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting: one’s mind is in an irrational confusion, like the earth befogged in a mist, one is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some brother, or the solace of sleep. Finally our malady suggests that in common courtesy one should salute the brethren, and visit the sick, near or far. It dictates such offices of duty and piety as to seek out this relative or that, and make haste to visit them; or there is that religious and devout lady, destitute of any support from her family, whom it is a pious act to visit now and then and supply in holy wise with necessary comforts, neglected and despised as she is by her own relations: far better to bestow one’s pious labour upon these than sit without benefit or profit in one’s cell. . . .

The wisdom and achievement (both spiritual and social) of the desert fathers has few historical parallels.  This points us in a new and more profitable direction than standard measures of growth, such as the health of the economy or advancement in technology.

Certainly, for example, the western world has achieved tremendous technological leaps over the past 150 years, but we should not necessarily call this “growth.”  These technological advances have largely served to help us to the things democratic nations tend to do, such as move and consume, except now we can do this more quickly.  I don’t mean this to sound harsh or cynical.  Democracies tend to be forward looking and anti-tradition.  This has its place.  Democracies seek to empower choice, and this has its most obvious reflection in choosing where we go and what we buy.  Technology has changed nothing in the spiritual and social plane for us.  We remain on the go, we remain distracted, with the facilities for spinning our wheels vastly improved over time.

De Tocqueville, as usual, predicted something like this, writing

The first thing which strikes a traveler in the United States is the innumerable multitude of those who seek to emerge from their original condition; and the second is the rarity of lofty ambition to be observed in the universally ambitious stir of society.  No Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise; but hardly any appear to entertain hopes of a great magnitude, or to pursue lofty aims.  All constantly to acquire property, power, and reputation; few contemplate these things on a great scale.

Without this great ambition (if he is correct) we will tend to spin our wheels in the same direction.  Again–we should not call this growth automatically.**

We assume that the desert monks had no social impact.  Sure, we assume, they helped their own souls, or perhaps those of their brotherhood, but not society at large.  But a careful reading of the biographies of such fathers shows the opposite.  People came to them all the time for healing and advice.  Many stories exist of their charity to others.  Some lived as solitary hermits, but many others lived in monasteries close to towns where a fair amount of interaction between them took place.

Perhaps the secret of real growth lies here.  No tree can bear fruit if constantly uprooted.

Dave

*This can be contrasted to civilizations that seem “petrified” or “frozen,” such as a certain time period of ancient Egypt.  Nothing about their physical circumstances forces a frozen civilization to stay at a particular level of development, but they choose to do so for a variety of reasons.

**I realize that what follows puts me squarely within the company of other grumpy old men.  But I’ll take the plunge . . . .  The fact that The Force Awakens was so popular reveals this very fact about our culture.  The movie had nothing original about it, with no memorable dialogue, acting, or even memorable scenes.  With its casting it was calculated precisely to hit squarely within the middle of our cultural mindset.  People praised it for “being the movie fans wanted to see.” It hit all its marks, giving us all the old characters plus an even bigger Death Star.  But this is precisely the reason why the movie failed to challenge or move us in any way.

To plunge even further . . . one might almost say that an “acedic” listlessness pervades the whole movie.  What happened to the Republic?  Nobody knows, nobody cares–it’s not important.  What is the “First Order” and what do they want?  How did they get here?  Nobody knows, nobody cares.  In A New Hope Alderann is destroyed cruelly but for a “reason.”  Now whole systems are destroyed for no apparent reason.  Obi-Wan’s death had some meaning or purpose within the Star Wars universe, but not Han’s death–it just happened.  Han himself as a character appears stuck in an endless loop of meaningless activity.  The heroine receives Jedi powers and can fly the spaceships with no context, no training, again for no apparent reason.  Why?  Nobody knows, nobody cares.  What is important is that we saw what we desired.  The movie fulfilled our list of demands.

11th/12th Grade: Only in a Democracy

This week we continued the Peloponnesian War by looking at the Peace of Nicias, and why it failed.

Like most things, not all peace treaties are created equal.  Throughout history some treaties have worked and many others have not.  Can we detect any patterns or similarities to their success or failure?

“Punic Peaces” (which refers to Rome’s complete obliteration of Carthage during the 3rd Punic War) always work because the enemy ceases to exist.  A lesser version of a Punic Peace might be what England did to Napoleon after Waterloo.  France technically could have continued to resist, as the bulk of their army remained intact, but the English put Napoleon in exile on St. Helena, which might as well have been the moon.  His continued resistance was impossible.

But in thinking of peace treaties, most of us would not want conflict to get to that point.  We prefer to avoid to save lives and avoid cataclysmic destruction if we can.  But it is these kinds of treaties, where both sides retain much of their original strength, that are so hard to devise and so hard to have succeed.

Why might this be?  The best treaties reflect reality as it really is, and not merely the whims or circumstances of the moment.  The best treaties factor in the reasons for the war starting, as well as how both sides fought.  They would also account for the current political dynamics in each country, as well as their psychological and emotional state.  Treaties are problematic because reality will not be caught so easily.

After 10 years of fighting both Athens and Sparta signed onto the “Peace of Nicias,” designed to last 50 years.  Alas, it never really took firm root in either society and lasted about six.  Even a cursory glance will tell us why the treaty failed.

  • If we follow the mantra of considering the beginning before deciding on an end, we should ask ourselves why the war started in the first place, and what each side fought for.  Indeed, the war lacked a defining physical cause.  One side did not invade the other.  Instead, the war seemed to be over honor and perception.
  • But the treaty shoved a couple of significant “dishonors” into the face of both sides.  Athens had abandoned Platea earlier in the war, a stain on their honor.  But now they could not get it back — the stain would be permanent.
  • Sparta had “liberated” Amphibolus from Athenian clutches, redeeming their embarrassing “no-show” in Mytilene.  Now, the treaty required them to give Amphibolus back to Athens.
  • Corinth, one of Sparta’s major allies, did not sign onto the treaty.  Naturally they would do much to try and undermine it.

At the core, the Peace of Nicias failed because it reflected temporary moods.  Neither side had expended even half of its strength in the fight so far.  Both sides smarted under the recent death of prominent generals (Cleon for Athens, Brasidas for Sparta).  Athenian failure at Delium helped the political rise to the “dove” Nicias, but democratic politics sways to and fro.  Facing dishonor, with more bullets left in the gun, both Athens and Sparta would likely begin fighting again.

We also began our look at the famous/infamous Alcibiades of Athens.Alcibiades

Only a democracy could produce someone like him.  He was. . .

  • Young
  • Rich
  • Handsome
  • Charismatic
  • Heedless of tradition
  • A man of “action”

In addition, no one could accuse him of being a dandy .  He fought in a few infantry engagements with some distinction.

I say that Alcibiades could exist only in a democracy because most other societies, especially aristocratic ones, value

  • The Elderly
  • Tradition
  • Stability

Political conservatives in the U.S. often talk about “returning to our Constitutional roots,” but have not had much success recently in presidential or senatorial elections.  o arguments like, “That’s the way the founders did it,” have any success?  I would tend to think not, and the reason might not be the willful ignorance or decadence of the electorate, but the pervading forward looking spirit of democratic cultures.

Blessings,

Dave

9th/10th Grade: The Iroquois Get Nothing for Their Trouble

Greetings to all,

During this week we left Europe and went back to America ca. 1700.  We will begin the buildup to the American Revolution over the next few weeks.  As a backdrop, I wanted the following questions to be in our minds:

  • Why did the American Revolution happen?  Was it inevitable?  Was it mainly motivated by economics, politics, culture, or religion?  From the beginning, the colonists were in an unusual relationship to England.  England did not usually force them out — most left on their own accord.  And yet most left for a reason rooted in dissatisfaction with England.  Colonial charters affirm loyalty to the king, but don’t say anything about Parliament.  More on that difference later. . .
Of course, a combination of distance and internal English politics meant that both sides mutually ignored one another for generations.  All that began to change around 1750.
  • Was the American Revolution Christian in origin and execution?  Or did it have to do more with prevailing Enlightenment ideas of the time?  Can the desire for ‘liberty’ in the colonies be reconciled with the presence of slavery?  What did the colonists mean by ‘liberty?’
  • How did the Revolution look from the British perspective?  Most of us have always heard the story from ‘our’ side, so I think it’s crucial that we try and understand the issues from the English point of view.
We began by looking at the events that precipitated the Seven Years War, also known as the French-Indian War, from 1756-63.
The war involved the major European powers overseas, but on the continent the war had some of its origin in the fate of the Iroquois Nation.  Here is a map:
 
When the colonies were first being settled, had the Indians united against them the European settlers would have had no chance.  Native American tribal unity appears to have been rare, however, except in the case of the Iroquois Nation.  This unified stance allowed them to maintain themselves with the British to the NE in the South in the New England settlements, and French to the West of them.
They maintained their survival by trying to play the British and French off one another and never letting one get too powerful — a tricky game to be sure.  One could easily argue that the British posed the greater threat.  Their settlers formed unified social and political communities, whereas the French just did trading posts.  But, if you thought that the British might one day just take it, perhaps you should find a way to pre-empt and get something for it?  Of course this risked alienating the French, who were more likely to be their natural allies.
In the 1740’s the Iroquois sold land to the British.  Did this solve their problems?  No — for the French got scared, and bulked up their presence, so the British returned the favor and bulked up theirs  Eventually war broke out between the two powers and the Iroquois would not be able to survive.  One can’t help but feel bad for the Indians in this.  The “Iroquois Nation” managed to do what so few other tribes managed to do — unify in the face of the European threat.  But this bought them only a slight amount of time.  Sandwiched between two greater powers with a history of animosity, almost every move they made would bring suspicion from one side or the other.  Their fate was the unfortunate fate of so many small nations caught between bigger ones.  One only needs to think of Poland and their history with Prussia/Germany and Russia, for example, to see that their fate was the fate of many other such nations in similar circumstances.
The conflict had other roots too, perhaps in the basic perception of the continent both the English and French had.  Here is America according to the French:
And here according to the British (look how far the faint pink line extends west!)
Blessings,
Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: Water and Mountains in Greece

Greetings,

This week we began Greek civilization.

We began where we began where we began our look at Egyptian civilization, with geography.

Greek geography has three dominant features I wanted the students to notice: water, mountains, and climate (below is rough topography of the region)

MapTopoGreece

I believe water had a few key impacts on the Greeks:

1. Psychological — it is nearly universal human reaction to be drawn out by large bodies of water.   At least I tend to think it is.  Most of us have probably vacationed at the beach before.  Have most of you, like me, stood looking at the horizon of the sea and thought, “One day I shall go forth and seek out boldly new lands and new places”?

Alright, maybe not for everybody.

But why does waterfront property sell at such a high price?  Water may not call us all to adventure, but it does seem to impact our psyche in some way.

2. Water also serves as a means to communicate and interact with others.  So those that live near water tend to explore and trade, and this in turn creates vibrant economies and cultures.  England, the Netherlands, and Venice might be examples of this.

In the end, we can see why great cultural explosions often come from places near water if we combine the possible psychological and obvious practical effects (Greece, Renaissance Italy, the Dutch, England)  Of course like most things, this has its limits.  Witness, for example, classical music from Bach though Strauss, Russian music and literature, etc. in essentially land-locked places.  Still — it seems to me that there may be a connection between water and a civilization’s creativity.  I expand on these possibilities here for those interested.

Mountains and Soil

1. Greece had farmers, but in general the soil was rockier and poorer than in the Fertile Crescent.  This in turn, of course, might only serve to push them outwards all the more.

2. The mountains divided them geographically, which in turn divided them politically.  These mostly independent communities may have helped originate, or at least broaden, the concept of self-government.  All of the civilizations we have studied so far have chosen the ‘big’ route to success, partly through choice and partly through circumstance.  In contrast, the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the ideal political community should have more than 5000 citizens.

Climate

If most people could pick their ideal climate it would probably be between 50-80 degrees, light breeze, low humidity.  This would be a general description of a Mediterranean climate, and one impact this had on the Greeks was that they lived life outdoors.  So — as they interacted with other areas throughout Greece and the Mediterranean, they also interacted a lot with each other, and this too might have helped contribute to the creativity of ancient Greek civilization.

After looking at geography we went to another key foundation of ancient Greece and looked at their concept of ‘Arete,’ which I think can be best translated as ‘excellence.’  ‘Excellence’ is an amoral concept.  The Greeks admired people who were ‘excellent’ people.  Odysseus was excellent at cleverness and like a cat, always landing on his feet.  Achilles is admired because no one can best him in battle.  But neither would be considered moral people in any Christian sense.  Arete tells you to continually pursue excellence, to never rest on one’s laurels.  One of the problems with arete, however, is that it does not tell you when to stop, something that we will see working itself out in Greek civilization.

We have discussed before that what a civilization worships is what it follows after at all costs, and this may not be found ultimately in the gods themselves.  One question I posed to the students was, which came first, the Greek gods, or Greek arete?  Greek gods have power and beauty, but not morality.  In Greek sculpture their is not much difference between how gods and men are depicted.  This one is of Poseidon:

Posiedon

And another famous one of the discus thrower (stance obviously different, but the ‘body’ is the same:

I should say that the students were right to point out some minor differences, as the gods usually tend to look more imposing or regal, but in general the gods were just somewhat better versions of mankind.

We can contrast this with the Egyptian gods.

Egyptian Gods

The difference is more than mere artistic technique.  When they wanted, the Egyptians could be quite expressive, as this tomb painting with birds shows.

Often times the Greeks depicted the gods in motion, perhaps reflecting the fluid nature of their civilization.  The Egyptians, in contrast, often showed their deities in a static posed, often with arms crossed, reflecting the more stable, tradition oriented nature of the Egyptians.

Next week we will look at the Trojan War and the possible historical roots of the conflict.

Thanks again,

Dave

Ascetic Harmony

I talked with a friend of mine recently who works in upper management of a major company. Officially, companies have a dedication to bottom line. But appearances can leave out part of the story. My friend talked of how different aspects of the company need to cooperate to achieve the goal of expanding customer base, increasing profit, and so on. It became obvious that certain programs advanced certain departments failed to work in achieving these goals. But in high-level meetings, this could never be said outright. He mentioned that he spent the better part of an hour on one slide for a presentation, and particularly one sentence on that slide where he had to say that ‘X’ hadn’t worked without actually saying it directly.

In the end he attempted a solution by bypassing direct criticism and instead left out mention of the program in what his team had accomplished. Not good enough–he had several rounds of post-meeting meetings to ‘clarify’ the situation.

We may think such behavior odd for a business in competition with others. Reading Philip Mansel’s new biography of Louis XIV, entitled King of the World, provided an interesting insight into this behavior. Essentially, the upper level of management at this particular company–and no doubt many others–functioned like a court, where etiquette and harmony trump the achievement of certain objectives. Or, rather, we might say that harmony, order, and gentility were the objective.

Though I have read some other things about Louis XIV before, Mansel provided an important insight I had not considered. For Mansel, Versailles existed primarily because Louis loved Versailles. It served as a grand passion for him. I and others often focus on the particular political ends Louis achieved partially as a result of Versailles, such as his centralization of government, control over the nobles, and so on. But I can’t stand medieval historians who say that the French built Chartes to increase trade in the area–an utterly absurd statement. But the same holds true for Louis. One might build a road to aid trade, but not a cathedral, which is essentially how Versailles functioned. Only acts of “love” can truly take root. Just as the Gothic cathedrals gave impetus to the shape of culture for 250 years, so too Versailles launched France into a place of prominence for perhaps 150 years, give or take.

The lens of “emotional attachment” through which Mansel viewed Louis makes a lot of sense. We see Louis elevating his illegitimate children in rank above certain other nobility, in defiance of custom. Was this a mere political ploy? One can also see him as acutely interested in the harmony of his family, though perhaps not necessarily as a devoted father. Louis also elevated the status of many women at court to never before seen heights. Again–a political, cultural move, or one rooted in his definite fondness for at least certain women? Mansel looks at the wars of Louis XIV, and again sees his actions rooted in a somewhat irrational longing, rather than clear-headed policy.

Though Louis had his significant failures we have to see him as overall a very successful monarch, at least in the sense of creating political stability and vaulting France into prominence in Europe.

But as we all know, coupled with the “romantic” side of Louis came strict and unusual etiquette. One could commit a grave offense for trivial matters such as knocking at the door in the wrong manner, or sitting in the wrong chair, or failing to open both doors for a Countess instead of just one, and so on. We see this passion for harmony and order throughout the grounds of Versailles, both inside

and out.

We should not see this as pure self-indulgence–the rigorous etiquette shows that. Many other anecdotes exist about the behavior of the nobles in Versailles, especially as it relates to money. One of the few activities at Versailles that all could engage in more or less equally was gambling. Before reading Mansel, I saw this primarily as a means of control, with the ebb and flow of fortunes exchanging hands serving to weaken the nobility. Now, I see it more so as a gift from Louis which allowed everyone present to engage in aristocratic disdain for money. The gambling tables created a sense of harmony in that winning or losing mattered little in comparison to display of aristocratic virtues and conviviality.

Indeed, perhaps we can see court behavior at Versailles as a kind of rigorous self-abandonment–one leaves their estates, some of their family, their customs, and their fortunes to join together as one happy family.

Not long after Louis’ death in 1715 a new kind of ethic arose, one ably elucidated by Max Weber in his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber was certainly a genius, and a German one at that, which makes his prose quite dense. But, despite the significant criticisms leveled at this seminal work over the last century, I’m convinced his core points remain standing.

Early in the work, Weber cites a letter of Ben Franklin to his son to show the new Protestant ethic, at its face a radical departure from the nobles at Versailles just 30-40 years earlier. Franklin writes,

Remember that time is money. He that can earn 10 shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, though he spends only 6 pence on diversions, ought not to reckon that as his only expense.  He must think of what he could have made through labor, rather than what he lost through diversion.  

Remember that credit is money.  If a man lets his money in my hands after it is due, he gives me the interest, or so much as I can make of it during that time.  This amounts to a considerable sum, if a man can make use of it.  Remember that money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more.  The more there is, the more is produced.  He that kills a breeding sow destroys not just the cow but her offspring unto the generations.  

Remember this saying, “The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse.”  He that is known to pay punctually and exactly to the time he promises, may at any time, raise all the money his friends can spare.  This is sometimes of great use.  After industry and frugality, nothing raises a man more in the world than punctuality in all of his dealings. 

The most trifling actions that can affect a man’s credit are to be regarded.  The sound of your hammer on the anvil at 5 in the morning and 8 at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy 6 months longer; but if he hears your voice in a tavern when you should be at work, he will demand payment in full without fail and without delay.

Keep an exact account of all you owe and all payments coming to you.  You will then notice well how even trifling expenses add up against you, and you will discern what might have been.  You will grow wise with little effort.

One might see here a self-indulgent of luxury, of riches for the sake of riches. But we see here a similar sense of self-abandonment as at Versailles, with different tools directed at different ends. We must live frugally, arrive punctually, etc. so that . . . ? Weber sees the connections between Protestantism–especially the Calvinistic stripes–and Capitalism, in the following ways:

  • The grace of God, and hence, salvation, can never be earned. Forms, ceremonies, etc. are not aids but distractions to proper devotion. We should ascetically remove all such distractions, lest we indulge ourselves and think that any ceremony has any efficacious quality.
  • But how to know that we are truly elect? We can do the works God has commanded us to do. These works, of course, cannot save us but can witness to others of our convictions.
  • Since God orders all things providentially, and is no respecter of persons, all activities can serve as a means of displaying Christian virtues.
  • In the old Catholic world, different seasons of the year called for different levels of piety and devotion, and different practices. But–aside from unnecessary ceremony–this is a crutch, allowing one to “get off easy.” Just as God is no respecter of persons, He is no respecter of time or space. Everything at all time deserves our full attention and best effort.

This “worldly asceticism,” as Weber calls it, creates capitalist economies. Of course, “the love of money is the root of all evil,” but Franklin’s pursuits have money only as a byproduct. The real goal is virtue and “election.”* The aristocrat and the capitalist both disdain and embrace the world, but in different ways for different reasons.**

One can see how harmony might come about as a result of Louis XIV. Instead of having aristocrats fight each other and the king, he brought them together and unified them through their enchanted surroundings and ritualized behavior. We know this world could not withstand the mulititude of changes that arose almost right after Louis’ death, but it has an internal consistency. One problem–Louis’, while outwardly pious, made the highest end his own Disneyland.^ Unlike the medieval construction, Louis’ France could not “scale up” high enough to include enough particularity throughout his realm. We are now in the midst of wondering whether or not our world can create enough harmony to sustain our civilization. The capitalist ethic, like our political system in general, is built on the idea of mutual opposition and competition (between companies or branches of government) creating enough unity through this clash of mutual self-interest (i.e., Madison’s “Federalist #10). We shall see.

Many conservatives were surprised, even blindsided, by the fact that so many corporations adopted woke policies. Weber would see this as a natural byproduct of “worldly asceticism,” a form of self-denial to create harmony. Like Louis’ Versailles, even slight, trivial missteps assume grand proportions. But like Louis’ construct, it cannot scale to include enough particularity. Their god is too small.

Dave

*Some critics of Weber point out that capitalism existed long before Protestantism. True–in the sense that people have sought profit and traded with others since time immemorial. However, I think it no coincidence that modern Democratic capitalism was created by both Dutch Calvinists (New York, Amsterdam, the Vanderbilts) and Scotch/English Low Country Calvinists (Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie, London, and Boston).

**Seen this way, it makes total sense to me why many Americans wanted to keep Catholics out of America up until the late 19th century. The issue goes beyond religious difference and into two very different ideas of cultural formation. As it turned out, they need not have worried, as the American system soon captured Catholics and most other immigrants.

^Versailles and Disneyland have much in common. They both have immaculate landscaping, and seek to create a kind of alternate universe. Some years ago I knew someone who had worked at Disneyland as a landscape supervisor. The pay was good, but he grew weary of the job due largely to the severe etiquette involved, such as

  • Tools always had to be lined up parallel to each other on the ground
  • Golf cart drivers always had to have two hands on the wheel
  • Regular band-aids could not worn for cuts. Disneyland supplied their own flesh-colored ‘invisible’ band-aids.
  • Workers could not really talk to each other while working in public view–they needed to be as invisible as possible (much like household servants in all of those British dramas).

Democratic Personalities and Democratic Laws

I posted originally some years ago–you will see the dated references–and repost it now in conjunction with our Government class discussions this week.

The original post is follows . . .

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

Barring any unusual excitement at the Democratic and Republican conventions, it appears that many Americans will feel caught between a rock and a hard place regarding their two main choices for president.  Many blanch at the thought of “President Trump,” and I wondered if history might suggest hope for such a possibility.

Our founders may have had Republican Rome as their model, but as the U.S. continues to approach a more immediate democracy perhaps we should look to ancient Athens for a historical parallel. Athenian democracy experienced several points of crisis, with perhaps the most notorious coming after their defeat in the Peloponnesian War when they put Socrates on trial.

Many reasons have been given as to Socrates died at the hands of the Athenians. I am intrigued by the theory Mark Munn expounds in his book The School of History.  Munn argues that by 399 B.C. Athens searched desperately for stability.  Their democracy had transformed significantly under Pericles ca. 450-435 B.C., then switched to a partial oligarchy after the Sicilian disaster in 411 B.C., then back to a democracy by 410, then back to oligarchy in 404-03, then to a restored democracy once more.  But the democracy that ruled Athens ca. 400 B.C. was not the same that Athens experienced a generation earlier.

It seems a reasonable conclusion its heyday, Athenian democracy was driven by great personalities and not by procedures.  Pericles stands as the foremost example of this, but others come to mind.  Herodotus and Thucydides’ histories give us a picture of dynamic men acting on inspiration.  Callimachus votes to attack at Marathon. Themistocles devises his own plan apart from the generals to win the Battle of Salamis.  Even lesser men like Nicias, Alcibiades, and Cleon sparkle on the page.*  Exact fidelity to the law itself did not concern the demos.  At their worst, the Athenians may have just wanted a diversion from their politics out of boredom, but another interpretation might point to the fact that the Athenians in this period of their history trusted in inspirational leadership of the moment, as opposed to fidelity to the expression of the “general will” embodied in law.  One might even call it a humble characteristic of Athenian democracy.  “The People” passed laws but willingly stepped aside at points in the face of “personality.”

But in time the plague, the disaster in Sicily, and their ultimate defeat by Sparta exacted a heavy psychological toll.

With the final restoration of democracy in Athens in 401, Athens moved away from dynamic leadership and towards the exacting nature of the enthronement of law.  Law offered a clear path and if nothing else, stability.  Munn argues that this passion for law and this movement away from “personality” put Socrates afoul of the will of the people.  The orator Aeschines, born in 389 B.C., wrote,

In fact, as I have often heard my own father say, for he lived to be 95 years old and had shared in all the toils of the city, which he often described to me in his leisure hours–well, he said that in the early days of the reestablished democracy , in any indictment for an illegal motion came into court, the matter was no sooner said than done . . .. It frequently happened that they made the clerk str and told him to read to the the laws and the the motion a second time; and they convicted a man of making an illegal proposal not because he had overleaped the laws entirely, but that one syllable only was contravened.

Socrates probably did run afoul of the exacting nature of Athenian religious law after 401 B.C., and he certainly ran directly counter to the spirit behind such laws with his claims to personal, divine inspiration that transcended any earthly authority/law.  He was a throwback to time associated with chaos, and to be frank, military disaster.

Of course democracies traditionally have the “rule of law” as a bedrock principle, and we should prefer exacting rule of law to the whims of a despot.  But few civilizations can match the cultural achievements of Athens in 5th century.  Also, the personality driven democracy of the 5th century certainly outperformed the law driven democracy of the 4th century.**  Perhaps one lesson we might draw from this is that a mixing forms and styles of government might outperform monochromatic governments, much like mutts are generally healthier and less crazy than pure-brads.^

Observers of Trump often comment that, aside from his ideas on immigration, he seems to have no particular policies (others would disagree).  Yet, unquestionably, he is a “personality,” one that the media, for all their antipathy towards him, cannot resist.  Is it possible that such an injection of “personality” might be what could help us from stale rigidity in our political life?  Certainly we have plenty of bureaucracy, plenty of incomprehensible law, as it stands now.

I say, yes, it is . . . possible.

*Cleon’s expedition and victory in Pylos during the Peloponnesian War is evidence of this preference for personality over procedure.  It was technically illegal for Cleon to even lead the expedition in the first place, but the Assembly could not resist enjoying the personal rivalry between Nicias and Cleon, and allowed/shamed Cleon into having his chance, which he then took advantage of.

**The great achievements of the 5th century came to a halt during the Peloponnesian War, a self-inflicted wound if there ever was one.  But the 4th century did no better, succumbing to Macedon after decades of vanilla tapioca laziness (as the traditional interpretation has it, anyway) in 338 B.C.

^Some might argue on behalf of the 4th century by citing that it produced Plato and Aristotle, luminaries 1 and 1a in western philosophy.  This argument should not be pushed too far.  A glance at the history of philosophy shows that most advances in this field occur in times of societal breakdown or even decay.  This is in contrast, I think to other areas of cultural achievement, whose health usually parallels that of the rest of society.  The 4th century had no Parthenon, no Euripides, etc.

Tradition and Technology

Those who regularly read this blog know that I tend to favor traditional values and traditional societies. Those like me need to realize that things change inevitably, making the challenge knowing how to change and stay the same all at once. Those on the opposite side need to realize that “change” is not a good word, any more than “tradition” is a dirty one.

Traditionalists must face the question of the role of technology. Certainly one could have a society that held tightly to tradition with little-no technological development. Is it possible for tradition to captain the ship while innovating technologically, and maintaining a robust economy? The question has immediate cultural and political relevance for those like me, Charles Haywood, and others. Much of our economic growth appears dependent on new technology. If a new cultural and political version of America is on the horizon, can it combine an anchor of tradition and still give us Amazon (which I do not regard as a dirty word necessarily)? Or, perhaps we need to choose one or the other, and accept the consequences. I have no clarity on this, though I suspect we may have to choose.

This question has interest in the abstract, but possibly we gain more clarity if we have a specific example, maybe even one out of left field . . . such as the development of handwriting from the classical era until today.

Ancient Writing and its Influence by B.L. Ullman lives up to its title but in a narrow sense. Ullman wrote originally in 1932–thankfully. I think if he wrote today it would be impossibly technical with much poorer writing. Even so, many parts of the book I read with semi or fully glazed eyes. As a sample, I open randomly to page 74, which reads,

The term half-uncial is sometimes used for mixed uncials of the type described, but in a narrower sense it applied to a very definite script that became a rival of uncial as a book script from the fifth to eight centuries. Again the name is unfortunate in its suggestion that it was derived from uncial. Rather it is the younger brother of that script, making us of an almost complete minuscule alphabet. It does not use the shapes of ‘a’, ‘d’, ‘e’, ‘m’ characteristic of uncial script but rather those of modern minuscule type, except that the ‘a’ is in the form used in italics, not roman. The only letter which maintains its capital form is ‘N’, and this letter readily enables one to distinguish this script from later minuscule. The reason for the preservation of this kind of ‘N’ was to avoid confusion with the minuscule ‘r,’ which in some half-uncials is very much like ‘n.’ The desire to avoid ambiguity is seen also in the ‘b,’ which is the form familiar to . . .

So, what Ullman means mostly about influence is how one form of writing influenced another kind of writing in a nearly purely technical sense. I wanted more on how changes in writing either propelled or reflected changes in the culture at large. Ullman gives us some hints of this, and his extensive, precise knowledge gives some space to the reader for guessing on our own.

We can start by recognizing that the phonetic alphabet itself ranks as one of the more propulsive and destructive (creatively or otherwise) of human technologies. Marshall McCluhan noted this with keen historical insight, in a famous interview (the ‘M’ is McCluhan, the ‘Q’ for the interviewer):

M: Oral cultures act and react simultaneously, whereas the capacity to act without reacting, without involvement, is the special gift of literate man.  Another basic characteristic of [pre-modern] man is that he lived in a world of acoustic space, which gave him a radically different concept of space-time relationships.

Q: Was phonetic literacy alone responsible for this shift in values from tribal ‘involvement’ to civilized detachment?

As knowledge is extended in alphabetic form, it is localized and fragmented into specialities, creating divisions of function, classes, nations.   The rich interplay of the senses is sacrificed.

Q: But aren’t their corresponding gains in insight to compensate for the loss of tribal values?

M: Literacy . . . creates people who are less complex and diverse.  . . . But he is also given a tremendous advantage over non-literate man, who is hamstrung by cultural pluralism–values that make the African as easy a prey for the European colonialist as the barbarian was for the Greeks and Romans.  Only alphabetic cultures ever succeeded in mastering connected linear sequences as a means of social organization. 

Q: Isn’t the thrust of your argument then, that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet was not progress, but a psychic and social disaster?

M: It was both.  . . . the old Greek myth has Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to man, sowing dragon’s teeth that sprang up from the earth as armed men.

My meager knowledge of pre-historic man (so called) will not prevent me from thinking that McCluhan exaggerates to a degree–the written word need totalize all of our being. Still, we must acknowledge that we cannot expand our abilities infinitely, and if we go “deep” in one area we will certainly see shallow waters in other aspects of our being. We can also acknowledge that we how we present the world to others will reflect and shape our beliefs about the world. It need be the chicken or the egg as to whether it reflects or shapes–we can say that both happen.

Ullman makes a few opening technical remarks perhaps designed to quell those who want to make large conclusions from changes in writing over the years. Sometimes changes in writing come from changes in the medium of the writing. Writing primarily on stone lends itself much more to straight lines and hard angles, as opposed to paper or even papyrus. Very true, but this also begs the question as to why a people use stone or scrolls in the first place. Eventually certain choices become second nature, but not at the beginning of the switch, which involves more conscious choice. I remain convinced that switches in the medium for writing, and how they write, surely mean something. Few aspects of our being rank higher in importance in our desire to connect with others, to achieve understanding from person-person, not just of content but of the meaning of that content. We accomplish this best face-to-face, where we express the full panoply of the message with our bodies as well as words. This means that when apart, the written words we choose, and how we present those words, seek in some way to make up for the absence of the body.

For this reason, and others, I say we can deduce much from the script of a civilization.

My theory runs like so: the more a civilization develops, the more refined its writing. This, I admit, means hardly saying anything more important than 2+2=4. But I hope to venture a step further, and suggest that perhaps we can wonder whether that development/refinement will preserve its civilizational ethos, or propel it away from its center. Not all growth is good.

We can start by examining the development of Roman script, with the first example from perhaps the 6th century B.C.

And now, moving forward in time to ca. AD 70

The latter examples show refinement and a development into a clear style that everyone recognizes as “Roman.” But with the codification has come “Empire.”

As the empire declined and we move into late antiquity, their writing changed as well, showing perhaps more of a Greek influence, with these first examples from likely the 400’s AD (apologies for intrusion of my fingers).

and these from 1-2 centuries later.

I suggest the changes could come from from more cultural blending, and less control over the empire, as the differences between “barbarian” and “Roman” blurred.

And now, for the development of Greek script. First, from 700 B.C.

Within just a few centuries, we see quick development of a more elegant but also more “rigid” script style, from the 5th century BC in Athens, with the second example a few decades later than the first.

As Greek power wanes in the 4th century BC, their script becomes a bit more fluid, just as in Rome:

With the establishment of more Roman presence in the Greek east after Constantine, Greek script grows a bit more fluid over time, with the examples below showing a progression of about a century.

Then, as the western part of the empire collapses, the writing gets more fluid and stylized, with the dating as the 9th century, 12th century, and the 15th century, respectively, just before Moslem conquest of Constantinople.

In the west, the collapse of Rome led to the development of a new civilization. First, for some context, Roman writing in the 5th/6th centuries, AD:

and Visigothic writing from north Italy, ca. 9th century AD:

Other European cultures had a bit more development than the Visigoths, however, and we see this reflected somewhat in their script, with the first two being Anglo-Saxon from the 8th century, and the last Carolingian from the 9th century, as the “Carolingian Renaissance” had gotten underway by then:

By the 12th century, we see more elegance and uniformity, as in previous civilizations over time.

In parts of France, we have a parallel development of sorts, with each example progressing from the early to late 9th century near Tours.

As the Middle Ages develop, you get more refinement, but less overall readability, with these examples from the 12th century,

and then into the 13th and 14th centuries,

which seems to almost beg for a correction with the coming of the Italian Renaissance in the mid-15th century.

Ullman’s excellent visuals make his text intelligible for novice’s like myself, and allow us to speculate on some broader conclusions.

It seems that the scripts go through three phases that seem to circle back on one another.

  • First, you have early script, which has less uniformity, is “sloppier,” and more free, in a way.
  • Second, as the civilization develops and gets on its feet and flexes a bit, the script gets more uniform, and certainly in the case of Greece and Rome, “blockier.”
  • Then, as the civilization wanes, either physically, intellectually, or both, the script gets more fluid. In Rome, you see the blending of Greek and Roman influences towards late antiquity. In the Middle Ages, you see ornamentation increase nearly beyond the pale, which brings back the Carolingian, more Roman, unified style.

One might suggest that we get a an interesting comparison between the Roman Empire of the Augustan age, the Byzantines, and the Latin west at the “peak” of their powers. Roman script screams empire and control (see “Plate 2” above), whereas the other two have more breath in their writing, with more feminine qualities. I think the comparison helps, but we must take the scholar’s caution, for Ullman reminds us that writing on parchment allows for a lot more fluid motion than writing on stone.

We can apply all of this to our original question: can a civilization maintain a firm anchor in tradition and still innovate?

As Rome’s republic fell into disarray, many contemporary historians lamented the decline of the old ways. Historians always lament the decline of the old ways. But Rome’s unwritten constitution relied on tradition to work, and the letter of the law could not save the republic. We know too that Augustus sought to promote a return of traditional values even as he consolidated power in a non-traditional way, an indication that the perception that “times had change” involved more than grumpy historians. We can confidently say that Rome’s gives us one significant data point that points to tradition eroding as innovation in their writing increased.

Greece has a slightly different story. They standardize their writing more quickly than Rome, and then change it a bit more quickly again after that. Their more fluid and script has a warmer, more human feel, and suggests that perhaps they maintained traditions more effectively than Rome. However, no one argues that Greece in the 4th-3rd centuries BC were at the top of their game.

As for the Byzantines, a variety of historians from the Enlightenment onwards critiqued what they saw as their slippery, devious methodology in international relations. Edward Luttwak’s brilliant book on the Byzantine’s grand strategy shows that their foreign policy choices were methodical and moral, consistent with a power facing multiple enemies over a wide front. Surprisingly or no, their handwriting seems to mimic the fluidity of their geopolitics. My knowledge of Byzantine history has gaping holes, but based on my perusal of The Glory of Byzantium they maintained a clear and consistent artistic style while innovating and changing their technique. Marcus Plested has shown that many theologians interacted positively with the early medieval philosophical tradition. They seemed to manage a balance of some kinds of innovation without sacrificing tradition and identity. However, they fell to the Moslems, albeit after a 1000 year run. If innovation forms the kernel of success and power (a big “if), they failed to innovate fast enough to protect themselves fully.

With the medievals we see something similar. They created an original style that peaked perhaps in the 11th-12th century, the same century that saw an explosion of cathedral construction in the Gothic style. In both writing and architecture, one sees innovation that reinforced rather than altered their traditions. But Ullman argues–and the visual evidence seems indisputable–that as their script continued to “innovate” its functionality markedly decreased. They then snapped back to the tradition of writing extant centuries prior. But the Renaissance had no intention of reaffirming tradition per se. Instead, Renaissance humanists led an artistic, architectural, and philosophic movement that dramatically changed society, abandoning a host of traditions (though in fairness the Black Death had something to do with this as well).

Our look at four civilizations fails to provide a decisive answer. In Rome and classical Greece, innovation seemed to stifle tradition and presaged decline. In Byzantium and medieval Europe, innovation initially accompanied “measurable” growth in their civilizations, to say nothing of what we cannot measure, but it seemed also to run its course. People imagine Nothing lasts forever, and one wonders whether or not civilizations can possibly extend their lives ad infinitum regardless of their choices to rapidly change or resist it at all costs.

It seems we must table the discussion, but we have hints. We don’t often think of tradition and fluidity existing in tandem, but it works at least when both sides get the balance right. After all, men and women have been marrying each other since the dawn of time. Perhaps what we see in Gothic Europe and Byzantium should not therefore surprise us. Perhaps the desire to lock things in place too severely effectively takes the air out of tradition, killing the best of what makes a civilization tick, i.e., Athens killed Socrates just as they rigidified their script. Perhaps we can conclude these things if handwriting reliably guides us.

Perhaps . . . to be continued . . .

Dave

Democracies and their Aristocracies, pt. 2

This is a post of multiple lives, written originally about 4-5 years ago, reposted based on class discussions . . .

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This serves as a companion piece to this post of some time ago . . .

Thanks to Martin Gurri, who makes an excellent point in his new book.  The information revolution may very well serve mass democratic movements, and that may not be a good thing . . .

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Many events leading up to the Peloponnesian War helped increase tensions between Athens and Sparta.  I never ascribe to theories that make certain events “inevitable,” but given the history between two of Greece’s pre-eminent powers, war was probably a better than 50-50 bet as tensions between them increased in the mid-5th century B.C.  Athens’ decision to build walls around the interior of the city and its harbor clearly added to these tensions.

I had always interpreted Athens’ decision in almost entirely military terms.  The Persians sacked their city in 480 B.C., and the Athenians recovered it only after a last stand naval battle in Salamis.  The psychological and physical scars of that event would naturally lead to a desire for more defense.

Naturally such an action strained things between Athens and Sparta.  Athens had a great navy, Sparta had its infantry.  Each could hurt the other in its own way, a kind of ancient application of “M.A.D.”  Now, Athens could hypothetically hurt Sparta or its allies without worrying too much about the consequences.  As great as Sparta fought in open battle, they had limited abilities in siege warfare.  Athens could remain safely behind the walls of Athens.  You could see the walls of Athens as a first strike weapon, one that allowed them to sally forth with Sparta not able to retaliate in kind.  So too, when President Reagan proposed his SDI “Star Wars” defense, many believed the invention would create a more dangerous world, not a safer one.

Peter J. Fleiss’ book Thucydides and the Politics of Bipolarity showed me a side of this issue I had not realized before.  Athens’ walls would never have been built without a decisive shift towards democracy in mid-5th century Athens.

Like almost any other place in the ancient world, Athens’ identity came from its landowning farmers.  However, around 600 B.C. the wealthier oligarchs gained an unstable amount of power via the Code of Draco.  At this point, Athens chose a tyrant named Solon to take control of Athens for 20 years, beginning in 590 B.C.  The choice revealed a lot about the Athenians.  Solon had wealth, which earned him the trust of the aristocracy, but . . . he was not an aristocrat, which earned him the respect of the people at large.

Solon embarked on a program to bring social stability back to Athens.  He had to walk a tightrope between competing factions and earned high praise from the ancient world for his reforms. For our purposes here, we note that

  • He refused to redivide land and let the wealthier aristocrats keep what they had acquired from the newly poor.
  • At the same time, he taxed the wealthy at a much higher rate
  • He helped grow a middle class by encouraging the growth of a merchant fleet

The growth of merchants provided a valve to let off social steam.  In addition, many of the city’s poor got jobs rowing the ships.  Solon attempted balance in his reforms, but hindsight shows us that the power of traditional elites was on the clock.

The economic story of Athens ca. 590-450 B.C. mirrors what happened to Rome when she started to shift to a more merchant oriented economy from 200-60 B.C.  Rome’s shift helped to destroy the very elites who profited most from this shift.  The power of elites rests on tradition.  Tradition comes from continuity, and continuity comes from land.  This has been the way of things from the days of yore.  Once cash money, and not land, formed the primary currency, the land-owning elites lost much of their power.

As Athens naval might grew the population shifted to more urban areas.  Of course poorer farmers resided outside the 350px-pelopennesian_war_walls_protecting_the_city_431_b-ccity walls, but we can be sure that the older, established families had most of their land outside the city limits.  This land would be the first target of any invading army.  Building the wall would allow for more protection, but any defensive structure sends a double message.  The Germans, for example, could invade Poland with confidence in 1939 because the Maginot line signaled a purely defensive posture for France along the frontier.  Building the walls around the city signaled that in the event of war Athens would willingly let the majority of its exterior farms fall into Spartan hands–until the war was won, of course.

Popular democracy would be the only plausible political vehicle to accomplish this.  Land of the elites outside the walls would suffer before the merchant class within the city.  In the event of a Spartan invasion, the navy, and the poor who rowed the ships, would rise even more in importance.  Only the navy could then procure food for the city under siege.  When the time came, Pericles proposed this exact strategy.*  At the start of the Peloponnesian War Athens retreated inside its walls and let Sparta have the run of the countryside, while their navy shouldered the military load.

Athens’ walls signaled a cultural shift as well.  Some of the established elites outside the walls were obviously more conservative, and might have had more in common with the average Spartan than the average Athenian inside the city.  The walls repudiated the statesmanship of leaders like Cimon who sought rapprochement with Sparta.**

To me Pericles’ strategy could have the hallmarks of the “tyranny of the majority” problem discussed by so many political philosophers.  Older, elite families lost land, but more importantly, they lost the possibility of gaining status in the war.  In the Greek world, status gave power, not vice-versa.  Pericles’ proposed strategy greatly limited the chances of the landed gentry gaining honor and status via battle, while greatly increasing the chances of the “demos” to gain in both departments.^

The failure of Pericles’ strategy, partly caused by the unforeseen plague that hit Athens, does not prove that democracies need elites.  But their failure in the overall war effort might suggest it.  Solon gained fame, honor, and success by pursuing a political agenda that both rewarded and burdened both the people and the elites.  In the 100 years after Solon left power, Athens went from an also-ran to a major power in the Greek world.  As democracy grew, so too did the people’s opportunities to strike back at their own elite.  They should have resisted the temptation.  As Tocqueville wrote, democracies usually win their wars, but that’s only when they unite against a common enemy.  In Athens’ day the political infighting that began the war lasted only until their situation got desperate.  We can’t measure the effect, but it surely hampered their efforts.  We might wonder if things would have been different if Pericles pursued a military strategy that allowed for participation and honor for both the people and the gentry.

Our recent election saw much ink spilled on the question of “elites.”  Some argued that Clinton is “elite” because of her connections and long political career.  Others argue that Trump is elite because of his wealth.  Whatever your definition, “elite” has become a dirty word.  That’s a shame, because history tells us that healthy democracies need, and perhaps even embrace, their “elites.”

Dave

*Thucydides argues that such a strategy would have worked had the Athenians had the discipline to stick with it.  This comment has always perplexed me for three main reasons: 1) At some point the Athenians would have had to deal with the Spartan infantry, and a policy of withdrawing behind walls would only embolden the Spartans, 2) The Athenians did have patience.  They tried this strategy for about 4 years, with no real success.  Initially the Spartans came, burned what they could, and left.  But eventually they realized they could come and stay for much of the year with impunity, because the Athenians never challenged them, and 3) Thucydides shows some disdain for the popular democracy throughout his narrative, and this policy only strengthened the hold of the demos on affairs of state.

**The mood shifted decisively with Cimon’s ostracism.  He father fought and won the Battle of Marathon.  Cimon himself had many noteworthy victories against the Persians.  Everything about “traditional values” pointed to a long and respected career for Cimon.

^This is one reason why I disagree with Thucydides’ assertion that Pericles’ time in power created an aristocratically leaning government with some democratic underpinnings.  Here I agree with Donald Kagan that Periclean democracy was really fully democratic.

“We have a great king, who loves ham.”

Originally written a few years ago, reposted based on recent material in class . . .

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I recently came across an interesting article about a man who commands fees of $4000 for slicing a leg of ham.

If one reads the article, the startling headline begins to make a bit of sense.  Many consider Florencio Sanchez the pre-eminent international voice for Iberian ham, a traditional Spanish cuisine/delicacy.  Apparently Iberian ham means to Spain what barbecue might mean for Texan.  The pig must be raised in a certain way, cut in a certain way, and so on.  Clearly as well, Sanchez styles himself as an “artiste.”  For Iberian ham to truly be Iberian ham it must be presented in a certain way, with certain instruments that . . .  only he may ever touch. Among other things, Sanchez believes that no true slicer of ham would ever speak English.

One comment in the video below particularly stuck with me, however:

Sanchez clearly takes the most pride in having cut ham for the King of Spain, which should not surprise us.  But he added that, “We have a great king, who loves ham.”

It seemed to me that he could have almost said, “We have a great king because he loves ham.”

Of course, Sanchez has honed and practices a very traditional skill, and monarchy is a traditional form of government that relies on tradition to succeed.  And if the king appreciates Sanchez’s life’s work, we should not blame Sanchez if he feels flattered and even vindicated.  But with this comment, I think Sanchez has an insight into political leadership, and why many in the west–not just in the U.S.– feel less confidence about our democracies at the moment.

A successful monarch need not necessarily have the right policies.  He/she will generally be loved if their actions in some measure reflect well on their country.  So Richard I, the “Lionhearted,” can be revered in English memory although he actually spent very little time in England.  Saint Louis IX lost on two crusades and emptied the treasury in payments to Moslems for his own ransom, but his noble character and sanctity earned him the love of France.  Louis XIV had an enormous appetite (apparently due to his abnormally huge stomach), eating multiple courses for dinner, making a huge show of it in the process, and Frenchmen took pride in that.  “Look what our king can do!”   So too, “Our king loves ham.”  He acts in ways that embody something of Spain, just as Richard did for England.  Such kings overshadow more “successful” monarchs like Henry II, if we think of success in modern terms.*

Our founders recognized the need for this on some level.  I think they wanted the president to always be George Washington–that is–someone above reproach who used his powers sparingly but with forbearance and wisdom, someone who had no political skin in the game. They utterly failed to anticipate the almost immediate rise of the presidency as a popular/populist office and the impact that would have on our democracy.

Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and others point out the radical nature of the American Revolution and its clean break with tradition and the past.  This bold move helped make the Revolution successful and gave it its influence worldwide.  But, this recent election might make us wish that we had a king, “who loves ham,” or in our case, perhaps cheeseburgers.

Dave

*Before we think that, “Hey, I’ll gladly love ham if you make me king of Spain,” kingship has some very tricky elements.  By the end of his reign the people hated Louis XIV.  Louis might say, “Sure, I lost two big wars, but after all, so did St. Louis IX!  And . . . I can still eat more than most mortal men, right?”

But it wouldn’t have helped him.

People cheered Louis XVI at the opening of the Estates General in 1789.  They executed him a few years later. Kingship works when a quasi-mystical, perhaps sacred connection exists between him and his people–when he rightly acts as the “pater-familias.”

Wikipedia tells us that Felipe VI of Spain has the favor of the Spanish people, and that many want him to intervene a bit more to reconcile party differences.  He seems to have popularity and good-will at the moment. But if Wikipedia accurately reports, he will need great caution, because some of his popularity seems rooted in his abandonment of certain long-standing traditions, such as the practice of elected officials taking their oaths of office upon a Bible or crucifix.

A king’s power rests in large measure upon tradition, and he tampers with that as his peril.  Many assume France’s Louis XVI was reactionary and inflexible.  In fact, as Simon Schama points out in his Citizens, Louis attempted many progressive reforms.  Some of the Enlightenment philosophes initially praised him as just the sort of king France needed (Louis probably did not want their praise, but still . . . ).  Events show that this stance almost certainly hurt rather than helped.

9th/10th Grade: Image and Reality in Louis XIV France

Greetings to all,

We continued with Louis by looking at France’s tax structure, and to understand it, a few things need to be kept in mind:

Louis was in a sense, attempting to cook the nobles like frogs in a pot of water slowly heated up.  He wanted to make them politically impotent, as we saw last week, and this involved using Versailles to cast a ‘spell’ of sorts. The key to a magic spell working, however, is that you don’t know that a spell is indeed being performed upon you.

The problem centered around Louis wanting to change things without anyone noticing that things had changed.  In the heyday of the feudal era, the nobility had tax exempt status, for a variety of reasons:

  • One was probably coldly political, i.e., the king needs the support of the nobles, and gets it through tax exemptions.
  • But the king also needed an army from time to time, and the nobles were largely in charge both of fighting his wars and paying and equipping the troops under their command.  This required a lot of financial flexibility on short notice — hence, the tax exemptions.
  • Their service in the wars went unpaid, so their “tax” could be “paid” in the form of their free military service.

We talked last week about Louis’ neutering of the nobility, but he also used this opportunity to create an army that was more professional, and more accountable directly to him.  He did not bypass the nobility entirely, but did do so partially.

Thus, Louis did not need the nobility in the same way his predecessors did, and logic dictates that therefore, he should tax at least a portion of the nobility.  But to do so risked exposing the fiction he created with Versailles.  He could not “awaken” the nobles to the reality of their own decline, therefore, he could not take the risk of taxing them.

Towards the end of  C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair the Queen of Underland attempts to put a spell on the her visitors to make them forget Narnia.  Lewis writes

[Jill] was very angry because she could feel the enchantment getting hold of her every moment.  But of course the very fact that she could still feel it, showed that it had not yet fully worked.

Louis attempted to have his cake and eat it too, and this can never work for long.  He began to create a more modern governmental infrastructure, while at the same time only reinforcing some of the older ways of doing things.  The French Revolution will have many causes, but this disconnect between practice and reality will be one of them.  In the short term, it may have contributed to the financial crisis France faced at the time of Louis’ death.

Louis’s legacy will be a debatable one.  He made France matter in world affairs, and made France the cultural leader for western civilization.  After Louis, all ‘gentlemen’ had to know French as a matter of course.  WIth men like Descartes, Pascal, and Moliere they dominated the intellectual landscape.  We discussed how cultural leadership can be a kind of power that can translate on the world stage.

Part of France’s power came from Louis cutting the red tape between executive decisions and the nobility.  The efficiency and centralization of his government gave him a certain advantage over other European countries. Red tape isn’t always a bad thing.  There are certain things we don’t want the government to be efficient at.  We might suggest that we do not want the government to be efficient at spending money.  We wouldn’t want them to be able efficiently enslave all brunettes.  Having said that, red tape often hinders normal and reasonable social functions.  We may recall the congressional debates and inaction surrounding the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, and recently now.  In 2011 we made the decision the credit agencies wanted us to make, but Standard and Poor’s was so appalled by the bickering, infighting, and stalling that they lowered our rating anyway.  Here is a quote,

“More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policy making and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011,” the statement continues.

Of course there are those that disagree with Standard and Poor’s, but some may have felt that it would have been better for someone to just ‘make a decision.’  Louis’ system of government allowed for many “decisions” to get made quickly, but he also lost two major wars and brought France close to financial ruin.  In politics as in other areas of life, sometimes one must “pick their poison.”
Blessings,
Dave