The American “Prestige”

 

In our senior Government class, we spend a good amount of time discussing the question, “What is America?” throughout the year.  The question is deceptively simple, and we have a difficult time answering it.  We discussed Book 1, Ch. 4 from The Prince recently in class, and it spurred some interesting discussion.

The text reads as follows . . .

Why The Kingdom Of Darius, Conquered By Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against The Successors Of Alexander At His Death

CONSIDERING the difficulties which men have had to hold a newly acquired state, some might wonder how, seeing that Alexander the Great became the master of Asia in a few years, and died whilst it was yet scarcely settled (whence it might appear reasonable that the whole empire would have rebelled), nevertheless his successors maintained themselves, and had to meet no other difficulty than that which arose among themselves from their own ambitions.

I answer that the principalities of which one has record are found to be governed in two different ways: either by a prince, with a body of servants, who assist him to govern the kingdom as ministers by his favour and permission; or by a prince and barons, who hold that dignity by antiquity of blood and not by the grace of the prince. Such barons have states and their own subjects, who recognize them as lords and hold them in natural affection. Those states that are governed by a prince and his servants hold their prince in more consideration, because in all the country there is no one who is recognized as superior to him, and if they yield obedience to another they do it as to a minister and official, and they do not bear him any particular affection.

The examples of these two governments in our time are the Turk and the King of France. The entire monarchy of the Turk is governed by one lord, the others are his servants; and, dividing his kingdom into sanjaks, he sends there different administrators, and shifts and changes them as he chooses. But the King of France is placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords, acknowledged by their own subjects, and beloved by them; they have their own prerogatives, nor can the king take these away except at his peril. Therefore, he who considers both of these states will recognize great difficulties in seizing the state of the Turk, but, once it is conquered, great ease in holding it. The causes of the difficulties in seizing the kingdom of the Turk are that the usurper cannot be called in by the princes of the kingdom, nor can he hope to be assisted in his designs by the revolt of those whom the lord has around him. This arises from the reasons given above; for his ministers, being all slaves and bondmen, can only be corrupted with great difficulty, and one can expect little advantage from them when they have been corrupted, as they cannot carry the people with them, for the reasons assigned. Hence, he who attacks the Turk must bear in mind that he will find him united, and he will have to rely more on his own strength than on the revolt of others; but, if once the Turk has been conquered, and routed in the field in such a way that he cannot replace his armies, there is nothing to fear but the family of the prince, and, this being exterminated, there remains no one to fear, the others having no credit with the people; and as the conqueror did not rely on them before his victory, so he ought not to fear them after it.

The contrary happens in kingdoms governed like that of France, because one can easily enter there by gaining over some baron of the kingdom, for one always finds malcontents and such as desire a change. Such men, for the reasons given, can open the way into the state and render the victory easy; but if you wish to hold it afterwards, you meet with infinite difficulties, both from those who have assisted you and from those you have crushed. Nor is it enough for you to have exterminated the family of the prince, because the lords that remain make themselves the heads of fresh movements against you, and as you are unable either to satisfy or exterminate them, that state is lost whenever time brings the opportunity.

Now if you will consider what was the nature of the government of Darius, you will find it similar to the kingdom of the Turk, and therefore it was only necessary for Alexander, first to overthrow him in the field, and then to take the country from him. After which victory, Darius being killed, the state remained secure to Alexander, for the above reasons. And if his successors had been united they would have enjoyed it securely and at their ease, for there were no tumults raised in the kingdom except those they provoked themselves.

But it is impossible to hold with such tranquillity states constituted like that of France. Hence arose those frequent rebellions against the Romans in Spain, France, and Greece, owing to the many principalities there were in these states, of which, as long as the memory of them endured, the Romans always held an insecure possession; but with the power and long continuance of the empire the memory of them passed away, and the Romans then became secure possessors. And when fighting afterwards amongst themselves, each one was able to attach to himself his own parts of the country, according to the authority he had assumed there; and the family of the former lord being exterminated, none other than the Romans were acknowledged.

When these things are remembered no one will marvel at the ease with which Alexander held the Empire of Asia, or at the difficulties which others have had to keep an acquisition, such as Pyrrhus and many more; this is not occasioned by the little or abundance of ability in the conqueror, but by the want of uniformity in the subject state.

Machiavelli’s distinction helps make sense of other historical events.  We can look, for example, at Napoleon and Hitler’s invasion of Russia/Soviet Union.  At first glance, Russia must have seemed akin to Persia in Napoleon’s eyes.  After all, Czar Alexander I certainly looked like most other autocrats in history.  But . . . for most of Russia’s existence it resembled France.  Tales in the old Russian folk-epics reveal a shaky relationship of the people to their ruler, but more importantly, old Russia had several distinct provinces/cities that competed for precedence and had their own history and identity.  Napoleon found Russia easy to enter but hard to hold.  The Nazi’s found the same true even 130 years later.  When force no longer sufficed to hold the Soviet Union together ca. 1989-91, the old identities resurfaced almost immediately.

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” also has some of the same logic behind it.  A country like China has the appearance of resembling Persia, just as Russia did.  But most of China’s history reveals competing provinces, dialects, and an uncertain relationship to the emperor until later in its existence.

So we asked the question, “Which kind of kingdom is America?”  Does it resemble France, or Persia?  In contrast to Russia, China, or France,  Persia did not have a long, zig-zag run-up to the height of its power.  Their civilization had a jump-start, meteoric rise under Cyrus the Great, who immediately set a pattern of charismatic dominance over the whole of his empire.  In future generations the Persians took their cue it seemed almost entirely from future dynamic leaders like Darius.  Their reliance on this pattern shows even in the failed rebellion of Cyrus the Younger, who fit this mold of dynamic leader better than his brother Artaxerxes II.  The fact that he almost succeeded with no other claim to rule besides his personality says a lot about Persia.

Some students thought that America had a beginning akin to that of France or Russia.  We had different colonies in different parts of the Atlantic coast that developed entirely apart from each other.  These colonies came together only to fight against a common enemy, but essentially remained separate kingdoms until sometime after the Civil War — perhaps not even until into the Great Depression.

The majority thought otherwise.  True, the first colonies hardly interacted with one another, but they came to America with similar purposes from similar cultures.  At the core, they were about the same thing, which is why the French-Indian War could so easily unite them and start us thinking about the “people.”  When examining the history of China, Russia, or France one sees a host of regularly occurring rivalries, small conflicts, and so on.  But America we only see one big blowup  — the Civil War.  The Civil War showed that obviously, we differed on much.  But it was the kind of big blowup that occurs in families, when often unity exists. It was the exception that proved the rule.

I acknowledge much merit in the “France” argument, but in this case I sided with the majority.  Tocqueville noticed back in the 1830’s the tendency towards centralization in our democratic experiment, and the already growing power of the majority.  He wrote,

The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority; for there is nothing in democratic states that is capable of resisting it.

We have different political opinions, but in no political election is any fundamental question of identity at stake.  Many rejoice/lament the election of a particular president.  But whoever may win the election, the next day our lives remain unchanged.

In Book Five of his Poliitcs Aristotle speculates that democratic constitutions* remain most safest when threats to said constitution remain either far away or very close.  The first seems obvious.  When nothing threatens us we live at ease, and it’s easy to have peace with others.  A very near threat like an invasion would bind us together quickly.    This kind of threat might also be merely an obvious one, like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which immediately united a divided country in the war effort.

The in-between threats, however, pose a real challenge.  Since the danger is neither obvious or near, we can easily divide not just on how to respond but whether or not to respond.  We might think of the Vietnam War as an example of this, and sure enough, it brought on significant internal changes to our constitution.  The “War on Terror” fits into a similar mold. Should we intervene here or there?  Should we increase surveillance or not, what about privacy rights, and so on.  And, true to Aristotle’s form, we see increased political polarization with this “intermediate” threat.

But our class speculated on exactly what an “invader” — whatever form that might take — would find.  Once Cyrus the Younger died in the Battle of Cunaxa his cause died with him.  Once Darius III died, Alexander had essentially conquered Persia.  But at what would America’s enemies take aim?  Not the president, surely, for at any given time half the country will not like him.  Not the capital, either.  As the British discovered in 1813, burning D.C. did little to aid their war effort.  One could hypothetically detonate a strong EMP in the atmosphere to knock out our electrical system.  But that would take out any first or second world country and so that answer lacks enough specificity to the United States.  This “absolute sovereignty of the majority,” would be hard to pin down.  Where is it?  And how would one attack it?  Get too close, and the unity of the people to defend their “constitution” would quickly emerge.

The “prestige” in magic is the trick’s big reveal, and of course sometimes what is revealed is nothing at all.  This would happen perhaps to an invader, who might never find the rabbit inside the hat.  Rather, as Aristotle suggests, and the experience of Rome certainly plays out, democracies will be far more likely to erode themselves from within as opposed to without.

Dave

 

*By “constitution” he does not mean merely a written document, but our way of relating to one another in general.

 

 

10th Grade: The Rules of War

Greetings,

We began the actual fighting of the Revolutionary War this week, with a focus on the generalship of George Washington.

But we began by looking at the tactics employed by the colonials at the Battle of Concord.

After the British broke through the lines like a knife through hot butter at Lexington, the colonials changed tactics after the British abandoned their search for weapons in Concord.  Rather than meet them out in the open, the hid amidst the treelines, taking potshots and then melting back into the woods.  The British had no effective way of countering this.

This infuriated the British, of course.  This was not how men fought!  What kind of coward fires from safety and then runs away?  Battle was meant as a test of honor, solidarity in the ranks, and courage under fire.  Fighting as the colonials did at Concord might be akin to one team poisoning the water of their opponent.  If they then won the game, would we call that victory?

There is a possibly apocryphal story of the Battle of Fontenoy, between the British and French in 1745.  Tradition says that both sides argued about who which side would strike the first blow. Lord Hay, the British general, supposedly asked, “Gentlemen of France, perhaps you would care to fire first?”

The Battle of Fontenoy

For the Europeans, for battle to be decisive, for it to mean anything, it must be ‘fair.’  Victory without ‘fairness’ solved nothing.

Students wisely countered with the fact that this analogy of a sports team doesn’t quite add up.  First of all, it’s against the law to poison water, where there is no law saying that armies must line up in the middle of field.  Secondly, why should the colonials have to fight on British terms according to British strengths?  The  colonial troops should be free to do what they do best.

These are good arguments.  What happens when we apply them to our current situation in “The War on Terror?”  We would all wish that the terrorist radicals would all line up in a field somewhere.  If this happened, the “War on Terror” would be over in about 15 minutes.  Naturally, they possess enough intelligence not to do this, so they choose other tactics.  Does this make them cowards?  Are they “playing fair?”  Where are the differences?  Some said that the differences lie in the treatment of civilians, and this is an excellent point.  Does the same difference apply to the Ft. Hood shooting a few years ago, where only military personnel were targeted?

To turn this further on ourselves, we should confront the fact that our extensive use of drones inspire a great deal of hatred.  For our enemies (and the innocent civilians in the line of fire), our use of drones is ultimately a cowardly act.  We put others at risk while risking nothing ourselves.  The drones hover in ways not accessible to retaliation, and they strike without giving anyone a chance to escape.  My guess is that if terrorists flew a small drone into a large city remotely and attacked people, we would be tempted to call it a “cowardly act.”

It’s important for us to realize (returning to our original context) that for the British raw military victory did not count in the same way that honor and integrity did in battle.  Wars happened, but wars should take place within the confines of civilization, not outside it.  How one fought was in itself a victory of sorts, and could not get separated from the tangible results on the field.

During our look at Washington, we noted that he won only 3 of his 9 revolutionary war battles.  Previously to the American Revolution, he may have been responsible for the Fort Necessity disaster with the French, and he accompanied Braddock on his ill-fated attempt to capture Fort Duquense.  Does he deserve his high reputation?

Some years ago I came across a book entitled, ‘The 100 Greatest Generals of All-Time’ (or something very close to that).  Lists are always fun for me, so I opened it out of curiosity.  As one might expect the usual suspects of Julius Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Ghengis Khan, etc. could be found in the top 10.  But his number 1 general of all-time?  George Washington.

This shocked me so I had to read his thoughts (was this shock value part of the author’s motivation for listing him at #1, and not say, at #4?).  His points were these:

  • Many of the generals in the list accomplished a great deal militarily but failed politically (i.e. Alexander, Julius Caesar).  Some had short-term political success, but could not make it last (i.e. Napoleon).
  • Some of the generals (again Alexander and Caesar) inherited what was likely the best army in the known world at the time and fought against weaker opponents (this could especially be said about Alexander).
  • By contrast, Washington faced the best with an untrained army with weak political support.  As commander-in-chief, not only did he win the war, he turned that victory into lasting political success for his side.  Not only did he help usher in a new political era, he did so without seizing control himself.
  • Washington had a solid understanding of the fact that the Americans only needed to ‘not lose’ the war to win it. He knew that keeping the army intact and functional was more important than risking the army in unsure scenarios. Orderly retreat could sometimes be the better part of valor.  Most military men can’t do this consistently even when intellectually they know it’s the right thing to do.  Washington did so, and distinguished himself thereby.
  • Former Georgetown Hoya basketball coach John Thompson says on occasion, “I don’t want to know how many points somebody scores in a game.  I want to know when he scores them.  What do his points mean for the team in a given situation?”  In the same vein, Washington knew how to minimize the impact of his defeats and maximize his victories.  When things looked bleak in the winter of 1776, for example, he came through in the battles of Trenton and Princeton.  It would be years before his next victory at Yorktown in 1781, but the British surrender there basically gave America its independence.

As I mentioned previously, it is possible the author listed Washington so high to distinguish his book from others. Still, I feel he has solid arguments to at least rank him highly.  I wanted to use our look at Washington to introduce the concept that in war success can come in many ways.  Since war is ultimately a political act, the battles themselves are simply one extension of the conflict.

When we think about war in broader terms, we see how many of England’s advantages (such as an elite professional army) meant little in the political context of the Revolution.  They had the unenviable task taking someone who didn’t want to be your friend anymore and making them a friend.  Would beating them up do the trick?  Over the previous 10 years (1764-75) the British proved politically inept with the colonies, so a political solution would not come easily for them.  If they went the route of force more or less exclusively they would need to absolutely pulverize the colonies so badly that further resistance would be physically and psychologically impossible.   As long as the Americans kept their heart beating, they could outlast England.  Washington, I think, understood this to his advantage.

Next week we will look at the battles of Saratoga as well as the Declaration of Independence.

Enjoy the weekend, and many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: The Parthenon

Greetings,

Recently we spent time looking at the Parthenon in Athens, in my opinion one of the greatest buildings ever constructed.  I think that looking at architecture is one of the best ways to gain insight into the past.  I didn’t come up with this idea, but borrowed it from the man to whom this site pays homage.  As I have said before, a civilization might throw a banking system together haphazardly, but would not do so with a sculpture.  And buildings, more so than individual works of genius, reveal more because they involve the mind and skills of whole civilizations.

Here is what the building probably looked like ca. 435 B.C.

Parthenon Original

They built it atop of their Acropolis, the highest point in the city which served as Athens’ religious epicenter.

Acropolis Recreation

The building as it looks today. . .

Of course most people when first gazing upon the Parthenon usually think, “Yes it’s good, but what’s the big deal?”  We understand instinctively perhaps the influence this style has had on western culture.  Banks, the Supreme Court, and almost any other building that wants to convey wisdom and trust copy this style.  That in itself should clue us in that the Athenians had something special in their design, but we have to look closely to see the real genius of the Athenians.

When we look at tall buildings like skyscrapers on the Washington Monument, at least from certain angles, the buildings do not appear straight.  Built with 90 degree right angles, our eyes fail to perceive the perfectly straight.  I don’t understand the science of why this happens, but we have all experienced it.  Part of it has to do with how our converging line of sight deceives us.  For example. . .

the top line appears longer, but is in fact the same size as the bottom line.  In this second image the middle lines appear bowed, but are perfectly straight.

The Athenians understood this and built the Parthenon to compensate for the tricks our eyes play.  Each column has extremely slight variations throughout its many cylinders, sometimes with fractions of a millimeter the only thing distinguishing one block from another.  But the cumulative effect compensates for our vision and always makes the columns appear perfectly straight.  The following images exaggerate the effect, but give us the basic idea of what the Greeks accomplished:

Parthenon Columns

In fact a close look at the Parthenon reveals few right angles.  Each of the thousands of column drums remains an unique construction to that particular column.  This is not a lego set of interchangeable parts, but each part of the building stands as work of art unto itself.  If you have the time and interest, this video, and especially the last 30 minutes, give a good overview of their techniques in creating this building.

We can and should marvel at its construction, but we should go one step further and ask what the Parthenon means, and whey the Athenians built it as they did.  In class we focused on a few key areas:

  • The Greek Ideal of Perfection

In much of their philosophy and politics, the Greeks searched for the abstract ideal beyond the visible, a trend that would not really shift until Aristotle.  The Romans, for example, or at least the early Republican Romans, rarely idealized people when depicting them,

Cato the Elder

but we can say with only slight exaggeration that the Greeks did nothing but idealize people in their sculpture.

The Athenians went to tremendous lengths to bring make this ideal of perfection at least  seem  real among them in stone.

  • A Theological Statement

In theory, the Athenians built the Parthenon as a temple to Athena.  Originally a huge 35 foot statue of Athena overlaid in gold stood right at the center inside the building.  But architecture rarely lies.  The figures on the outside of the Parthenon tell a different story.  Here the Athenians put sculptures of Athenian heroes, with the clear intent of showing that the gods and men can intermingle, that Athens itself can achieve the perfection the gods embody.

That, at least, is one interpretation.

But another interpretation argues that this “temple” to Athena merely served as a cover for their true (even if subconscious) intent to glorify themselves.  It would be as if we built a church and called it “Trinity Church,” but put images of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc. throughout (this actually begs the question of whether or not American flags should reside in churches, or perhaps whether or not the Capitol building is a church of sorts).

  • Mankind as the Measure

The Greek philosopher Protagoras has received a lot of bad press over the years for his comment that, “Man is the measure of all things,” and deservedly so.  But before we critique him we should understand the context of what he said and ask ourselves if the Greek gods were good “measures” of things.  Clearly, Protagoras and other philosophers had a measure of genuine spiritual insight in rejecting standard Greek religion as a guide for their lives.  The gods lived lives free of consequence, free of any restraint other than the power of other gods.

In the Parthenon the Greeks did not use the “eternal” or “mystical” dimensions as in the pyramids.  Some suggest that the proportions of the building in fact reflect the proportions found in the human body, as represented in Da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man” (named after a famous Roman architect).

Vitruvian Man

What exactly the Greeks meant by this phrase, “man is the measure of all things” is not clear to me, at least. It may have been a statement of moral relativism, or it may have been a theological/cosmological assertion that mankind functioned as a “microcosm” of the cosmos itself.  After all, we have physical elements to our being and spiritual elements.   Our higher, “heavenly” aspect (the intellect) guides our “lower,” more earthly parts, and so on.  Again, I’m not sure how to unwrap this phrase, and I’m happy to add it to the list of mysteries surrounding the Parthenon.

Blessings,

Dave

8th Grade: All Good Things Must Come to an End

Greetings,

This week we saw the great golden age of Periclean Athens collapse into the abyss of the Peloponnesian War.  We began the week by asking why “Golden Ages” tend to last not much longer than a generation.

  • Some suggest that the success and power a golden age brings would bring about the envy of others, and this envy could turn into a threat.
  • Another might suggest that the generation that grew up with the ‘golden age’ in place would likely have a much different experience than their parents.  I found this comment especially perceptive.  As we saw last week, golden ages usually arise from a creative response to a particular challenge.  Those that grow up without the challenge won’t have the experience or ‘training’ to continue what their parents started.
  • Last week we also noted how golden ages require a variety of factors coming together at once, some physical and others psychological.  No one can reasonably keep all the plates spinning for long.  Eventually nature dictates that something will begin to spin off the axis sooner or later, and this will drag other things down with it.

Some of their comments did in fact apply directly to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, especially#1.  Athens went from plucky underdog in 490 B.C. to the then equivalent of the New York Yankees or New England Patriots by 431 B.C.  Many city-states lined up against them with Sparta. We did not spend a great deal of time on the war itself, as during their senior year we devote a few weeks entirely to this conflict and the issues it raises, but we did touch on a few key points

1. How in war the unexpected and unforeseen can occur

Of course the unforeseen can always occur, in war or at any other point.  But since war requires a great deal of planning, many assume that the conflict will go as we wish.  The making of the plans itself creates that expectation.  Yet, in war as in life, things rarely go according to our preconceived version of events.

2. Peace treaties may not be what they seem

After 10 years of intermittent conflict, both Athens and Sparta signed a treaty called the Peace of Nicias.  But treaties in name may not be in fact.  Some treaties bring real peace, some only reflect a desire to call a ‘time out’ in the fighting.  Unfortunately for Athens, this treaty turned out to be one of the latter.

3. War Stresses Democracy

War will put stress on any form of government and any society.  Some wars brought down monarchies — like W.W. I.  We assume that democracies are more stable, but the Peloponnesian War brought out many weaknesses within Athenian democracy and for a time ended it within Athens.  We looked at how desperation and panic act on a democratic people in the battle of Arginusae.  The Athenians won this battle, but the generals failed to pick up the dead and give them proper burial, something that could be considered sacrilege, and sacrilege could be punished by death.  Grief stricken, the city put the generals on trial, found them guilty, and executed them.  A few days later they regretted their actions. They put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals on trial for murder, found him guilty, and executed him also.

Ostensibly, Sparta won the Peloponnesian War.  But in truth the war had no real winners in Southern Greece.  All exhausted themselves in the conflict.  Thebes, involved in the conflict but slightly to the north, emerged as the strongest party in the more immediate aftermath of the war.  But it would be Macedon, further still to the north, and never involved in the fighting at all, that would eventually assert absolute supremacy over Greece in the person of Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander.  We’ll look at them next week.

You can see the geography of it below here, with everything pink or yellow caught up in the fighting (with even blue areas involved sporadically), and Macedon waiting patiently above in brown.

Peloponnesian War

For those of you who have seen From Russia with Love, the scene where “Number 1” talks about the Siamese Fighting Fish is a good parallel, if we think of Macedon as the fish who stays out of the fight.

8th Grade: Finding the Persian Center of Gravity

Greetings,

This week we focused on The Persian Wars, a conflict that historians claim marks a transition point between Eastern and Western dominance.  Persia staked a lot of their invasion, and their failure would lead to the rise of Greece in general, and Athens in particular.  Our main focus Thursday and Friday lay with  the Battle of Salamis, one of the more crucial naval engagements of the ancient world.  As I mentioned back in September, one of the things we focus on this year and throughout the history curriculum is how to make choices.  This can be applied in a  variety of different settings, and this week I wanted the students to consider that on the level of strategy and tactics.
  • The Fleets

The Persian fleet was bigger, with a variety of incorporated Greek city-states that had surrendered to Persia.  Ionians, Phonecians, Egyptians and more went into the mixture.  In general, their ships were lighter and faster.  Athens controlled the Greek fleet, and in general they had heavier, bulkier ships.  But the weight of the ships did perhaps produce an innovation, that of a ramming prow.  This in turn, led to a change in how the Athenians fought.  Whereas most ancient navies wanted to get close and board other ships, the Athenians wanted to use their prow to ram other ships and sink them with a broadside charge.The Persians had sacked Athens, and the Athenians in desperation abandoned their city, got in their boats, and headed for the island of Salamis.

  • The Questions:
  1. Would an immediate battle be more to the Persians advantage, or the Greeks?
  2. If a battle were to be fought, what side would have the advantage in wide open water?  What about in more narrow confines?

I enjoyed the student responses to this question, and most of them did get around to seeing that

  • Battle now definitely favored the Greeks, and
  • The geography of the Bay of Salamis definitely favored the Greeks.
 Bay of Salamis
  • Why?
The Athenians needed a battle.  The Persians did not.  With Athens abandoned they could have simply occupied the city, and hemmed in the fleet at Salamis.  If they wait eventually a tired and bedraggled fleet would have to come out of hiding and face the Persians on their terms.  Fighting in the bay itself would mean narrower corridors where the Persians could not use their numbers and speed to their full effect.  Think of a heavier boxer vs. a lighter, quicker opponent.  The heavier one (Athens) seeks to trap or corner the other to take away his advantage.  By fighting in the bay, the Persian fleet gave up much of its advantage.
  • The Result
Again, with so many of our choices there are no guarantees.  We must weigh the options and make our best guess. But it is important not to choose blindly.  So why then, did the Persians attack the Greeks?Here we are back, at least possibly, to the personality of Xerxes.   We saw that both Herodotus and the Book of Esther show us a king who was not wicked, but perhaps indolent, and someone who tended to flit from one thing to another.  Note that Esther 1 begins by describing lavish parties amidst opulent splendor. Herodotus mentions that Xerxes wanted the invasion over as soon as possible.  Ideally, of course, the Persians should have bottled up the fleet, entrenched themselves in the city, and watch Athens suffocate to death.  When Themistocles sent a messenger to lie to the Persians about the disorder in the Greek ranks, the Persians jumped at the chance and moved into the bay to attack.  Xerxes seems a suggestible, impatient type.  “Let’s get this over with. . .”  The result was a complete victory for the Greeks.  It turned the tide of the whole Persian invasion.  Having been smacked on the nose, Xerxes decided enough was enough.  He withdrew most of his navy from the region.  His infantry at current levels could not live off the land in Greece, and besides, winter approached.  Without the navy to supply them, Xerxes withdrew a good portion of his troops back to Persia.  The Battle of Platea in 479 BC would, for all intents and purposes, finish them off.
  • The “Center of Gravity”
Clausewitz used the term “center of gravity” to describe what one colonel described as a “factor of balance” in a campaign.  This does not have to be something purely physical, but in this case, the “factor of balance” in the Persian Wars would surely include control of the sea.  In invading Greece en masse as they did, Persia made naval superiority a key to the campaign.  But for about 75 years prior to this they concentrated their strength on their infantry.  They did not play to their strength. But we might also conclude that the whims of Xerxes would constitute part of the “center of gravity.”  The Book of Esther gives us clues.  Note how casually he decides on the Jews destruction, and how quickly he reverses course.  Of course, it’s good that he changed his mind!  My point, however, is that Xerxes never seemed fitted for the role of a noble kingly persona.  He would much rather not be bothered.  In every conflict, the hidden factor can often be each combatant’s internal political system.  In this case, the nascent democracy of Athens had an advantage over the indolent monarchy of Persia.

10th Grade: Liberty and Terror

Greetings,

This week we finished the preliminaries of the American Revolution and will start the fighting in earnest after the weekend.  I hope that our examination of the events leading up to the Revolution has  helped see the issue from both sides.  Can we get out of our American skin and at least sympathize with the British?  Quite a few of the students have developed some sympathy with the British perspective, which shows me that they are thinking and honestly engaging the material.
One crucial issue involves the ‘Sons of Liberty.’  Were they freedom fighters or terrorists?  Against them we might say that. . .
  • They used violence, and the threat of violence, to achieve political ends.  They destroyed property, tarred and feathered people, etc.
1773 Engraving
Man Tarred and Feathered for not Buying War Bonds
  • They used force to rob people of their freedom.  For example, lets take the Tea Act.  Let us suppose that you lived in Boston and in general, supported the British perspective in this debate.  This would have put you in the minority, but it’s a free country, right?  You have been looking forward to drinking tea again, but after the Tea Party you can’t.
The pro-British colonists could easily say that, “You Sons of ‘Liberty'” act under the cloak of freedom.  But you are not willing to let the people choose freely.  If the tea gets unloaded and you convince people not to buy it, well and good.  If you can’t then you don’t represent the people anyway.  You use force to take away my liberty to buy tea, which is perfectly legal, so you can have your way.  Your violent acts show you don’t really trust people at all.
In their favor we could argue that
  • A variety of peaceful means of protest had been tried, and those failed to even be acknowledged by Parliament.
  • They would often warn people beforehand, and as far as I know, they did not kill anyone.

In response to #2 above, the Sons of Liberty might say,

  • “It is true that we deprive you of your liberty to buy tea.  But, this was for your own good and that of the whole community.  If people bought tea we would become slaves to the British.  It is right to take away the liberty to destroy yourself, just as we would take away your right to buy heroin on the open market.  If you become an addict, that effects everyone around you.
  • The same is true for tea in this case.  If you buy it, everyone will indirectly suffer a loss of their liberty, yours included.
We are faced with a tough choice here.  If we say that they are in fact ‘terrorists,’ what does this do to our view of the Revolution itself?  If we say they are ‘freedom fighters,’ how do we respond to acts of terror today?  Some of them at least claim that the current political situation has left them with no other option.  Since they have no planes, tanks, and missiles they will fight with what means they have available.  Are they ‘freedom fighters’ too?
Or, does the label ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’ depend on the purpose of the acts and the end in view? Lincoln believed that Revolution was a moral, and not a political right.  In this vein of thought the line between terrorist and freedom fighter can be drawn by the purposes they serve.  So, if Al Queda attempts to establish a Medieval caliphate on the Mid-East they are terrorists, but the Sons of Liberty act for “freedom for all.”   But does this mean that, “the ends justifies the means?”  I do not mean to say that suicide bombers and the Sons of Liberty are the same.  There is a big difference between smashing a customs house and the willful and random destruction of human life.  But we must at least ask ourselves if there are in fact, uncomfortable similarities.
This week I wanted the students to consider whether or not the American Revolution can be justified from a Biblical perspective.  This of course involves moral and political questions in general, but I did want them to consider the issue specifically in light of Romans 13:1 -7.
It reads:

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Related to the America Revolution, I think prominent Christian thinkers would have viewed this passage differently in light of our study.
Luther:
I think he would have been anti-Revolution and pro-British.  He strongly supported secular authority in general.   I think he would have told the colonists to be quiet and get back in line.  He may have thought the colonists concerns with taxes made them too worldly.
Calvin:
He developed what he called the ‘Lesser Magistrates Theory.’  He was not in favor of revolution coming from the people as a whole, as he believed it violated Romans 13.  But what if those in authority violate their trust?  And what if ‘lesser magistrates’ (i.e. colonial officials, Continental Congress?) took up the mantle on behalf of the people.  These ‘lesser magistrates’ are still people ‘in authority’ and they can lawfully lead a Revolution provided it was for the right reasons, etc.  Perhaps this is why many New England Presbyterians and Congregationalists supported the Revolution.
Aquinas:
I can’t say exactly what he would have thought and will make a guess.  I do think that Aquinas saw government originating not in a ‘top down’ way,’ but in a more ‘bottom up’ way in line with his thought of the natural law and the fact that he believed that government, or some sort of organizing principle, would have come about even if mankind had never sinned.  He might have emphasized that governments originate with the people, and they have power only ‘to do good.’  When they stray from that, they lose their real power.  Evil never has authority over anyone.
We know what John Wesley, the great Methodist evangelist, thought it quite hypocritical that slave owners would talk loud and long about “liberty.”
Friday we took a break from our heavy discussions over the past few weeks and did an activity comparing 18th and early 19th century American art and architecture to England’s at the same time.  Of course there are many similarities, as one might expect.  After all, the two places were, and still are, similar in many ways.  I wanted the students to focus on the differences.  In the end I think we deduced that:
  • American art at times lacks developed style and technique
  • Americans tended to be simpler and more straightforward people
  • Americans did not have the wealth of the English, and clearly were not an aristocratic people
  • European art could tend to idealize the frontier experience of nature.  Naturally, having not experienced it, one could more easily idealize it.  American art did not portray an idealized nature.
  • Clearly too, Americans and the British thought of themselves differently.  The British are more “cultured,” while the Americans seems more “sober-minded.”
You can probably see some of the differences below.  First, a couple of Americans:
The Ellsworths
 Roger Sherman
Below are some  contemporary British aristocrats:
John Perceval, Earl of Egmont
 Duke John Churchill
Their expressions say it all.  In a fight, I’m putting my money on Ellsworth and Sherman.  Even in this famous painting of Benjamin West (a European) on the death of General Wolfe, one gets the impression that Ellsworth and Sherman would have said something like, “Sir, if you are going to die would you please be quick about it  . . .and stop mugging for the audience!”
Death of General Wolfe Benjamin West
I hope the students will enjoy our look at the war itself beginning next week.

If you like it, why don't you marry it?

Many of us I’m sure remember this elementary school taunt. Often you would be unknowingly baited in some way, i.e., “What do you think of Cheetos?” and then declare that you thoughts Cheetos were pretty great. The “Then why don’t you marry it?!” response is of course colossally dumb, but I admit that it often had its intended unsettling effect on me. Be careful of declaring that you liked something! I believe C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Four Loves that loving anything at all, even a plant or a sunset, opens oneself up to pain and loss.

Historians of a traditional mindset such as myself often express admiration for the past. We may even pine for a return of the past in some way, and this naturally opens us up to the old school taunt: if you like knights and cathedrals and gilds so much, why don’t you marry medieval society? It is easy to “date” any civilization and pick out just the things you like. But all of what you like, about medieval civilization, for example, also came with a near total lack of indoor plumbing, and no mouth wash either. You have to accept everything, and if you are not willing to do so, one’s admiration is stupid fancy at best, dangerous idealism at worst.

This charge has some of the same flaws as the old schoolyard taunt. The past surely can offer some salutary guidance even if reliving it remains obviously impossible. Aren’t we allowed to like things? But I acknowledge that one must not selectively pick, choose, and romanticize. One must “marry” the civilizations we study.

Books on the Middle Ages almost always fall into one of three camps:

  • Look at how dumb, superstitious, and oppressive they were. Aren’t you glad you didn’t live then?*
  • Look at how smart, chivalrous, beautiful they were. Don’t you wish you lived then?
  • Look at this culture. I examine it thoroughly, and discover that they did things, upon which I pronounce no judgments whatsoever.

Of the three, most fall into the first two, but I like the last the least. The first two types of authors at least strike me as human beings with something to say. The temptation to try and avoid is that of swinging entirely into the other camp. Henry Charles Lea’s The Ordeal, written in an era when the progressive ascent of democratic modernism seemed the only future, falls into the first camp. He examines the medieval practice of trial by various ordeals to illuminate the progress we have made since then. He comes not to praise, but bury.

We can admire much about this book. It is not an uninformed screed, nor is it a hit-piece on the Middle Ages itself, for he mentions that trial by ordeal happened in many other ancient cultures. He has a lot of primary source texts and reports things with some air of detachment. If his overall point is clear, as I said earlier, at least he has a point. Like Chesterton, Lewis, and other of my literary heroes, I like the Middle Ages but need to contend with the fact that they did have trials by ordeal, and do I really want to substitute a jury for a hot piece of iron?

In what follows, then, I hope to fall into neither of the three aforementioned camps.

I appreciated that Lea took time to show that other cultures also used trial by ordeal, such as Hindu and Islamic civilizations, as well as many ancient cultures. Lea also used a lot of primary sources–indeed most of his book involves simply recounting the sources and commenting on them briefly. I also admired the fact that he included a section on the eucharist as an ordeal, for every other treatment I have seen ignores this aspect of medieval life, focusing on the more sensational ordeals by fire, water, and so on. Lea buries his treatment of this towards the back, but I feel this is where one should start if we want to have some understanding of the practices of ordeal in general.

If the central aspect of medieval life was the church, then the pearl within the oyster was the eucharist, where the faithful feed upon God Himself. Certainly I make no attempt here to develop any theology of the eucharist. But we may gain more insight if we pan out further to the last judgment. Many today have the idea that God’s final judgment involves Him declaring some fit and others unfit, and then banishing the unfit. Rather, the picture the early church gives us is that God’s love (and the presence of God is the love of God) both saves and condemns. God’s showers His love upon all, but His love is so strong that it resembles a refining fire. For some made strong, made holy, the love of God warms and comforts. For others who reject the love of God, God’s love leads to their further destruction, for the hate the love of God, and it burns them. As St. Isaac the Syrian stated,

. . .those who find themselves in Gehenna will be chastised with the scourge of love. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God . . . But love acts in two different ways, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed.

An icon of the Last Judgment shows forth this same idea:

Salvation in a Christian context means that one is not so much declared righteous but made righteous through the grace of God–made able to receive the love of God as blessing and not as curse (I acknowledge that both terms have their place, however, in discussing the meaning of salvation).

So too communion, when even thought about for a moment, takes on monumental proportions. As Fr. Schmemman stated in his classic For the Life of the World, Fuerbach’s “you are what you eat,” quip, meant as a materialistic taunt, actually expresses a profound religious truth. To eat anything means to take the life of the fruit, meat, etc. into oneself. So too, in the eucharist God offers us the chance to take His life into our own. But this free gift does not come cheap. Scripture warns us about taking communion unworthily. We must realize that the presence of God can heal and transform or destroy us. As one prayer from perhaps the 8th century states,

Though I am hindered by so many and such great evils, I now add to them by approaching holy mysteries so heavenly and divine that even the angels desire to understand them. . . . Because of my unworthiness, I fear that, rather than receive divine enlightenment and a share of grace, I will be condemned . . . What am I to do? By partaking of the awesome mysteries, I subject myself to these and greater punishments. By abstaining from them, I shall fall into greater evils . . .

Mother of the Light, pp. 27-28

Lea’s work has many merits, but his leaving this background out of the discussion can lead one to a more superstitious understanding of the practice then is warranted. As an example we can take the ordeal of boiling water. Before the ordeal the water would be prayed over by a priest:

O creature of water, I adjure thee by the living God, by the holy God, who in the beginning separated thee from the dry land; I adjure thee by the living God who led thee from the fountain of Paradise, and in four rivers commanded thee to encompass the world; I adjure thee by Him who in Cana of Galilee by His will changed thee to wine, who trod on thee with His holy feet . . . water which washes away the dust and sins of the world, I adjure thee . . . to make manifest and bring to light all truth . . .

This prayer, quite similar to the prayers said for baptism, ask that God make the water a revealer of truth in the same way that water is used to fashion the world. That is–water must serve truth, which is a manifestation of God Himself, who is Truth.** The 3rd century bishop St. Gregory the Wonderworker stated, “The Lord, Who has come upon the Jordan River, through its streams transmitted sanctification to all streams (of water),” with Christ imparting to all water, “a sign of heavenly streams” of grace.”

For the early medievals, the same held true for the ordeal of fire/the hot iron. Prayers recalled how fire revealed much in Scripture–Fire found Sodom guilty but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego innocent, and the burning bush of Horeb reveals God Himself. Again, I don’t think we should see the verdict’s rendered by the fire ordeal as merely forensic. The fire, the water (and other types of ordeals) manifest God to men. Some by their holiness and innocence are able to stand, some by their sin cannot. Lea writes with a seemingly exclusive legal bent, and so misses the theological import.

Lea stated that, “The History of Jurisprudence is the History of Civilization.” The sentiment has nobility but is misplaced. One must go deeper at least to culture, and preferably to religion, to see its influence on jurisprudence. This too means that he overemphasizes looking at the technical matters of the law and misses some important caveats to the use of ordeals, two of which are worth noting.

First–Lea gives the impression that the medievals used ordeals willy-nilly at the drop of a hat. Rather, I believe they used ordeals usually as a last resort when they exhausted other means of determining the truth of the matter. Perhaps it is easier for modern, depersonalized society to let matters such as hung-juries or mistrials stand. For those in a pre-modern, more personal and local context, having a unresolved verdict on a matter of great importance might put an unbearable strain on the community.

Second–Lea misses something of the “objectivity” of the ordeal. With no such measure justice might tend toward the “justice” of the strong and powerful. It was not always the case that ordeals vindicated the weak against the strong, but it seems to me that it happened much more often than Lea cared to admit or notice.^

Lea’s anti-religious cards come into full display with certain choice vocabulary words like “superstition,” and “fetish.” Indeed, when the Catholic church issued a general condemnation of ordeals in 1215, Lea does not see the triumph of a more reasonable religion, but a political power play. So Lea blames the church for fostering and encouraging ordeals (including a quip about how they preferred the ordeal of fire, no doubt for its impressive aesthetic qualities), then fails to credit them for dramatically curtailing the practice.

By now the reader may assume that in seeking to explain ordeals more fully and expressing guarded appreciation, I now should “marry” them. I object to such a burden placed on the historian. A practice may have been less onerous than some suppose, but that wouldn’t mean that the practice has no issues. No Church today (with the exception of the snake-handler cult), indeed no churchman I am aware of for basically the last 500 years has recommended the practice. I don’t feel the need to do so either.

Historians usually come in absolutist or relativist garb. The absolutist would say that, “If ordeals are wrong now, it was wrong then. The stories of people emerging unscathed from ordeals are either lies, exaggerations, or works of the devil, for no good can come from such an unjust practice.” A relativist might tell us that we should not judge the past–and indeed cannot judge anyone ever for anything. The historian should work for “understanding” and should avoid “judgment.”

One should use from both perspectives to a degree, but embracing either one in its totality leads to incoherence. Will Durant posed a generous means of interpreting people and cultures from the past. If a man shares the vices of the past, that was unfortunate, but does he have virtues that cut against the grain of his society? How does a culture compare relatively to other cultures of its time? I find the medievals did not so badly on the relative scale, but on the absolute scale, I would not want to bring them back.

I have the feeling that Lea would dismiss all of the accounts of God working through the ordeals as fabrications and propaganda. I will not so glibly dismiss numerous testimonies, and so that leaves me the position of believing that God used an imperfect and “arbitrary” means to achieve His ends. But this is hardly a problem–He has done this since the beginning of time.

The Catholic Church’s Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which attempted to ban trial by ordeal, gave as one reason the fact that ordeals “tested God.” That is, God pledges Himself to act in certain ways in the sacraments of the Church, but we cannot take this pledge and extrapolate it to any sticky situation we face. We have not the power to call God down and demand He reveal Himself when we are stuck. As C.S. Lewis famously noted regarding Aslan–“He is not a tame Lion.” It may be, then, that the story of trial by ordeal involves not so much the folly of men, but the humility of God, who accommodated Himself to our weakness patiently for a time.

Dave

*It is interesting that no one really writes about the ancient Babylonians, Chinese, Mayans, etc. in the way that we write about the Middle Ages.

**To his credit Lea cites several instances from saints lives of people putting their arms in boiling cauldrons, either to test obedience or another point of dispute, and emerging unscathed.

^As an example, see Eric Jager’s book The Last Duel, which chronicled the plight of a woman who accused another prominent nobleman of raping her. The issue could not be definitively resolved at trial, and her husband agreed to fight the accused to the death to determine the verdict. He won, and the accused was pronounced guilty.

We should pause for a moment and flip the script, putting jury trials under a touch of scrutiny. One can read online a plethora of articles about the fairness of juries, the random nature of verdicts, and so forth. Again, I would not suggest replacing jury trials with medieval ordeals, but for someone like Lea, who believed that ordeals were entirely arbitrary, modern evidence about juries does not give us as much separation from the past as we might wish. And yet, we too have to invest the jury trial with a kind of sacredness if we are to have any kind of society at all.