Bottoms Up

I wonder what the “revisionist” historians of the 1960’s might say if they knew how they contributed to the rise of “Trumpism” (they might not mind having helped birth Sanders). At that time a variety of scholars challenged academic and social norms, some good norms and some bad ones, and quite successfully overturned the established historical narratives. No longer need history tell just of kings and battles, no longer would history depend on a “top-down” narrative. Now the bottom mattered, and often mattered much more than the top, in determining the true meaning and purpose of history.

To focus only on the 1960’s however, means focusing on the bloom of the plant and missing the tilling of the soil. Perhaps one sees this process beginning two generations prior with the rise of a passion for folktales in the late 19th century. Some of the greatest historians of the early-mid 20th century like Toynbee and Christopher Dawson sought to broaden the scope of their inquiries. And–certainly not every historian before them only talked of kings and battles. Polybius found the key to Rome’s greatness in its institutions. St. Augustine’s masterful City of God incorporated a variety of approaches in his analysis of the fall of Rome. But still–one cannot question that a decisive revolution in academia 50-60 years ago succeeded in overthrowing the “normal” meaning and practice of history.

This habit of questioning the establishment has now left the ivory tower and entered into the mainstream. For example, many more now question vaccinations than used to be the case. The flat earth society has a legitimate looking website. Despite general scientific consensus many deny global warming. Most people now get their political news and perspectives from Youtube or podcasts and not mainstream networks such as ABC or CNN. Both Trump and Sanders tell their strongest followers that the system is rigged, and both seek to overthrow a variety of political norms.

If you are like me, there are things about this shift that you like, and things you don’t like. But it is hard to disentangle them at a larger sociological level. It may be a package deal, take it or leave it.

Carlo Ginzburg’s work fits squarely within this school. His Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the 16th & 17th Centuries gives a detailed look at a strange episode in European history. He uses many primary sources and uses them well. But it seems to me that he consistently assumes that everyone on the “bottom” is ill treated by those on the “top,” and this assumption I cannot buy into.

First, I praise Ginzburg for his respect for the peasants in the book. Other authors might treat the subject of supernaturalism and witchcraft with words like “superstition” or worse, dress it up in condescending, overly complex language, i.e., “cultic fetishism.” Ginzburg takes the stories the peasants tell at face value and rarely attempts to deconstruct them.

Second, I praise him for finding such an unusual story to examine, which runs something like this:

  • In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the church in northern Italy became aware of an unusual practice involving battles taking place between witches and the bendamenti over the health of the years crops.
  • The witches came usually as disembodied spirits, and the bendamatti usually appeared in this guise as well–those they were the good guys in this contest–they fought against the witches to protect the crops.
  • They fought four times a year, always during the Ember day fasts in the church calendar, but the clashes did not seem to be overtly violent, and often ended with both groups together drinking wine–though the witches would always end the evening by peeing in the wine casks.
  • The people questioned invariably believed themselves to fight on behalf of God and for the people, and against evil and all its works.

Strange as it may sound, testimony from different people from different places,who would not have known each other, confirm this basic outline of events.

I had the feeling, however, that Ginzburg’s approach put the church on the side of an oppressing power. Certainly anything that involved the supernatural and witches would arouse the attention of the Church. Naturally, they would investigate. Ginzburg’s word choices about these conversations revel much–his even-handed and sympathetic approach to the peasants does not extend to the church. To cite just a few examples . . . (all italicized portions are my emphasis) . . .

Gasparutto had barely finished speaking about the apparition of the angel ‘made of gold’ when the inquisitor broke in with an abrupt insinuation . . . ‘

Father Felice could no longer contain himself. ‘How could you make yourself believe that these were God’s works? Men do not have the power either to render themselves invisible . . . nor are God’s works carried out in secret.’ It was an impetuous, frontal attack.

A cowherd of Latisana, Menichino, admitted to being a benandante and asserted that he went out at night in the form of smoke to fight the witches. During his trial . . . the inquisitor asked him, in the usual insinuating manner . . .

In Gasparo’s case as well, we observed the inquisitor twist the interrogation . . .

This attitude of Ginzburg, expressed in these and many more such examples, should give us pause. Surely the peasants’ no doubt sincere belief that they were indeed doing God’s work in should warrant at least a degree of skepticism and suspicion? And surely the priests cannot be blamed if they seek to fit these stories into what they already understand? Everyone does this most all the time, not just those with “power.”*

Beyond that, anyone remotely familiar with monastic literature and spiritual discipline knows that Satan often appears as an angel of light. Many well-known stories existed to confirm this, and no doubt the priests knew of them. Other details in some of the stories, such as smoke, and the lack of invoking the name of Christ, warrant much suspicion on behalf of the priests. And, unless we want to believe the worst about the inquisitor priests, we should assume that their concerns ultimately rested not with maintaining their “narrative” but with the souls of those they questioned.**

Ginzburg’s many strengths make his work interesting, but he seems to self-consciously over-compensate for centuries of history written from the standpoint of those in power, the “winners” (or at least–Ginzburg’s perception that this has been the case). His whole approach raises the larger question about whether it makes a difference if we tell of history from the bottom up, or the top down. Why did the latter approach dominate for so long, and why then have we just recently abandoned it?

Our beliefs about history should not boil down to who has power. We often assume that only the winners write history. But Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the best account of the war that Athens lost. Polybius and Josephus wrote intelligently about Rome even though both represented those conquered by Rome. And sometimes the ‘winners’ can write with more understanding than the losers. For example, I find Livy’s take on Hannibal a bit more sympathetic and persuasive than Polybius’. The record shows that history can be about much more than the power and manipulation of the privileged elite.

So too, we need a different explanation other than power and manipulation to explain why history often gets written from the “top down” and not the “bottom up.”

Let’s take the very phrase, “Bottoms Up!” as a starter. Legend has it that it originates with the tricks played on Englishmen to get them to join the navy, involving a coin at the bottom of the glass. But most every story of the phrase involves more than moderate drinking. Whatever story we pick, the basic symbolic meaning seems clear. Heavy drinking makes things “topsy-turvy.” It can put your bottom on top in a metaphoric and literal sense. This is why it is right and proper for us to look askance at someone who starts to drink early in the day. When we awake, things are new again, we return to our center, recharged from rest. We might drink in the evening as our body begins to wear down and fray at the edges. That is, as our physical state morphs into something more “fringe-like,” we can mirror with our alcohol consumption.

Whether or not this makes absolute physical sense, it makes complete metaphorical sense. Civilizations have followed this pattern for millennia. When you drink alcohol early in the morning, you act against this pattern, this way of mirroring reality. “To everything there is a season,”–a time exists for right order and for messing with that order, but nary the two should mix.

So too in creation we see that the “seeds” of things, the encapsulating ideas, come from “above.” Seeds fall literally from above and contain the whole of the oak. They germinate what lies below. If someone has an idea it comes from the intellect, which lies on the top of your body. It flows downward into the rest of the body and gets incarnated, taking up residence in the heart, the mediator of heaven (intellect) and earth (the belly, etc.).

Sacred history shows forth this same pattern. The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles show that Israel’s fortunes rested on its kings and priests–as they went, so did Israel. The sins of the fathers get passed down generations, as attested by Deuteronomy, and almost any sociological study.

To write history from the “top-down,” then, need not be a form of hero-worship, placating those in power, an exercise in sycophancy, or a form of oppression. Many of these “top down” accounts were in fact critical of those they chronicled. In its simplest form this method merely seeks to mirror reality itself. The recent trend among historians to view the world differently may indicate a general flattening of our worldview, a sub-conscious rebellion against hierarchy and Natural Law.

But while this might be true in certain cricumstances, it may go too far as a general statement.

A famous ancient Persian proverb states, that one should debate important matters twice: once while sober, once while drunk. If we take this symbolically as well as literally we see that approaching questions from unusual places and angles certainly has its place. King David himself played the fool (1 Sm. 21), there is Amos the prophet (not from the priestly tribe), John the Baptist, and so on. And we have the words of Christ that, “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”

So, even if one might argue that ‘top-down” historical approaches should take priority, certainly we should have histories like those of Ginzburg that take a different approach, for they too reflect something true about the nature of reality. My objection to Night Battles lies not, then, in the subject matter, but in his unspoken assumption that Earth must be at war with Heaven. We should rather look forward to their union.

Dave

*I wonder what “power” Ginzburg believes the church had. It could not really stop these events from occurring, for example.

**We should also note that, while the church certainly was a powerful organization at this time, it was also in one sense the most democratic institution. A commoner could theoretically distinguish themselves in piety, learning, etc. and rise to positions of “power” within the church. Many of the priests who questioned the bendetti may have grown up peasants themselves.

Also of note is that for many (though to be fair, not all) of the people questioned, the church imposed very moderate forms of penance, indicating that they had some hesitancy as to what they were dealing with, and sympathy for those they interviewed. The priests were hunting witches, but it does not seem like they engaged in a witch-hunt.

Time in Joint

Historians tend towards the romantic, which means they can develop an undue fascination with decay. The best historians add to this a grand sweeping view of all things and thus see (with good reason) the vicissitudes of time and the sin to which all men are drawn. Historians hopefully are not cranks or kill-joys–rather they at least believe themselves saying, “I’ve seen this movie before . . . . ”

Exceptions exist of course, but Polybius, while writing of the glorious successes of the Republic saw the wheel of time moving that same Republic inexorably towards decline. Oswald Spengler also shared the basic assumption that civilizations, like every living thing, had its inevitable death built into their DNA. Plato too saw forms of government moving in a definite cycle, and Machiavelli–though departing from Plato as much as he could philosophically–shared this basic assumption. He hoped that practical wisdom could elongate the good parts of the cycle and shorten the bad ones, but sought nothing beyond that. Toynbee, being more influenced by Christianity than any of the aforementioned greats, saw more hope but still admitted that every civilization he studied had declined and disappeared.

All of these historians (others could be mentioned, such as Thucydides, and though Herodotus may have been the most hopeful, he did not write about the Peloponnesian War) dealt with civilizational decline but not with the concept of time itself. Some might say that historians should not bother about “Time” and let it stand as the purview of either science or theology. Well, history involves a degree of science, and no one can write about mankind without at least subconsciously thinking about God.

Enter Olivier Clement, and his dense, difficult, but still fascinating Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in Light of the Orthodox Tradition. I cannot claim to have understood him thoroughly, but I hope to have gleaned the most important aspects of his work.

History shows us that civilizations had two main ways of conceiving of time, either as cyclical or linear. The cyclical view dominated most pre-Christian civilizations. Clement writes that

For primitive society, authentic time is the dawning moment of creation. At that moment . . . heaven was still very close to earth. . . . This first blessedness disappeared as a result of a fall, a cataclysm that separated heaven and earth . . . Thereafter he was isolated from the divine and from the cosmos.

The whole effort of fallen man was therefore to seek an end of this fallen state in order once again to be in paradise.

One sees this in the mythologies of most civilizations I am aware of. For the Greeks, Egyptians, Meso-Americans, etc. history begins with the gods ruling on earth in some capacity, a golden age of harmony and justice.

As the gods fled, all people had left to them was mimicry. By participating in the “cycles” initiated by the gods they could perhaps glean something. So we marry because heaven and earth were once married. We farm because of the motif of life from death, death from life we see played out in agriculture. Night becomes day, and day becomes night. Clement writes,

One important symbol (and ritual), the dance, sums up this conception of time. According to a very ancient tantric expression, the cosmos is the “game of god,” the divine dance. Primitive cyclical time is nothing less than the rhythm of this dance, ever tighter cycle in which the dancer is drawn in and assimilated.

Clement acknowledges that much truth exists in this conception of time, but emphasizes that it is fruitless in the end and thus, hopeless, a “hellish” repetition.* “Time is always experienced as degradation” as we move further out from the original marriage of heaven and earth. As we move further out, our connection lessens, hence the origin of ecstatic religious manifestations as an attempt to escape the cycle of reality and return to innocence. The Dionysian cult, for example, was universally acknowledged as “new” by the Greeks in the 5th century. Toynbee mentions that in the aftermath of Hannibal’s invasion, the more disciplined Romans found themselves “plagued” with an onslaught of much more emotional religious expressions. The old gods could no longer meet the new needs

This severing of man from meaning makes time itself meaningless. Eventually not even the regularity of the cycles can entice. One sees this clearly in the Viking epic Egil’s Saga. The prose sparkles, and the poetry is even better. But in the end we have feast, feud, violence, victory–rinse and repeat. So too in other cultures. Clement cites the famous story of Narada from the Sayings of Sri Ramikrishna which illustrate this well:

Narada, the model of piety, gained the favor of Vishnu by his fervent devotion and asceticism.  Narada demanded of Vishnu that he reveal to him the secret of his “maya.” Vishnu replied with an ambiguous smile, “Will you go over yonder to fetch me a little water?”  “Certainly, master,” he replied, and began to walk to a distant village. Vishnu waited in the cool shade of a rock for him to return.

Narada knocked at the first door he came to, eager to complete the errand.  A very beautiful young woman opened the door and the saintly man experienced something entirely new in his life.  He was spellbound by her eyes, which resembled those of Vishnu. He stood transfixed, forgetting why he had come. The young woman welcomed him in a friendly and straightforward way.  Her voice was like that of a gold cord passed around the neck of a stranger. 

He entered the house as if in a dream.  The occupants of the house greeted him respectfully.  He was greeted with honor, treated as a long lost friend.  After some time he asked the father of the house for permission to marry his daughter who greeted him at the door.  This is what everyone had been waiting for. He became a member of the household, sharing its burdens and joys.  

Twelve years passed.  He had three children and when his father-in-law died he became head of the family.  In the 12th year the rainy season was especially violent. The rivers swelled and floods came down from the mountains and the village was swamped with water.  During the night the waters swept away houses and cattle. Everyone fled.  

Holding his wife with one hand and two of his children with the other, with the third perched on his shoulders, Narada left with great haste.  He staggered along, battered by torrents of water. Suddenly he stumbled, and the child on his shoulders fell and plunged into the flood. With a cry of despair Narada let go of his two other children and flailed away to try and reach the littlest one, but he was too late.  At this moment, the raging water swept away his wife and two other children.  

He lost his own footing, and the flood took him away, dashing his head against a rock.  He lost consciousness. We he awoke he could see only a vast plain of muddy water, and he wept for his loss.  He heard a familiar voice, “My child, where is the water you said you would fetch me. I have been waiting for almost ½ an hour.”  

Narada turned and saw only desert scorched by the mid-day sun.  Vishnu sat beside him and smiled with cruel tenderness, “Do you now understand the secret of my maya?”

Commenting on this story, Clement cites two Hindu scholars, who write that,

The nature of each existing thing is its own instantaneity, created from an incalculable number of destructions of stasis.

and

Because the transformation from existence non-existence is instantaneous, there is no movement.

Thus, for Hindus as well as Greeks, eternity is seen in opposition to time, with immobility being the means of entering into eternity, which is again, in opposition to all that is transitory on earth.**

Viewed against other pre-Christian societies, Israel of the Old Testament looks quite different in their view of time and space. Some comment on the “crudeness” of the anthropomorphic language in the Old Testament about God, but this language, “demonstrates that eternity is oriented towards time, and that eternity marches with time towards encounter and fulfillment.” Clement uses the word “courtship” to describe this relationship, which I find most apt. One might then say that the Old Testament culminates in the fiat of the Virgin Mary to bear the union of Heaven and Earth. Time takes on a linear dimension and events take on definite meaning. True–time is part of creation and thus partakes of the curse of the fall–it marches us towards death and non-being. Existence gets mechanized. But this also means time will be redeemed, and this process of redemption begins not at the future “Day of the Lord,” but in the Incarnation itself, and in the everyday “now.”

The Christian worldview has elements of the cyclical time of many pre-Christian civilizations. Many medieval calendars, for example were often expressed in a circular, not linear, manner.

The Church is both eschatological and paradisal–a paradise regained–though importantly, a paradise regained that will be greater than that which was lost. Levitical liturgical life prescribed yearly festivals that mirrored the seasons of the year. In some ways, the world is a “game of God,” as St. Maximos the Confessor states.^ The liturgy recapitulates not our vain longings for a return, but the real interaction of time and eternity at the heart of existence.

In the Old Testament, time had meaning in part because it moved to a definite fulfillment with the coming of the Messiah. With the Messiah rejected, the Jewish people lost their connection with the eternal purpose of time. Now time as a straight line simply ends in death, and proclaims the reign of death just as strongly as the vain repetitive cycles of the most ancient cultures.

If I understood Clement rightly, he argues that the Christian sense of time preserves the best of both Jewish and pagan time, while introducing an entirely new element. The liturgical cycles give us continual entrance into a defined pattern life as we move in a distinctly forward direction towards the Day of the Lord. But these cycles don’t just recall the past or proclaim the future, but bring about an intersection of eternal and temporal. Liturgical prayers often speak of the “today” of the historical event celebrated. And if time is part of creation, then the “line” of history too will be redeemed and circumscribed by eternity.

As to the implications on blog about history and culture, well, here I have less confidence than in my attempts to understand Clement. But if I may venture forth . . . it does seem that an undue amount of political commentators have fallen prey to the romantic idea of cyclical and irretrievable decay. Right after Trump was elected, for example, a new edition of Plutarch’s lives detailing the end of the Roman Republic got published. A Sanders/Trump showdown, I admit, hardly has me bubbling over with hope for the Republic. But Clement would tell us that is at precisely these times that we must remember: time no longer bears us unceasingly towards decay. If we so choose, we can live in a world infused with the paradise of eternity.

Dave

*Clement mentions that many ancient societies buried their dead in the fetal position as an indication that the cycle of life/death was to repeat ad infinitum. Many Native American tribes did this, as did the Egyptians, apparently. As far as I know, Christians have never buried their dead in a like position, testifying to a different theology of time and redemption.

Egyptian Mummy

Cremation practiced at times by the Greeks and others also testifies in some ways to the futility of the cycle–we began as nothing and return to nothing.

**Clement notes some similarity between this concept of “immobility” and Orthodox ascesis. Many monastic fathers speak of “stillness of heart” and “remaining in your cell.” Again, Clement acknowledges the complexity of the topic and the need to emphasize that sometimes the differences are not of “kind” but of degree & orientation.

^The idea being not something arbitrary but something playful and in flux, compared to the stability of the heavenly realms.

The Way of the Fox

I can always count on a few “Let’s conquer Canada!” “jokes” a year from my students.  We might be studying the Mexican-American War and someone will say, “No, no, no.  We need to find our ‘true north’ and fight Canada!”  If it’s the Spanish-American War it could be, “Spain?  Why Spain?  We should fight Canada!”  If it’s W.W. II . . . “We fought on the same side?  Phooey.  After the Germans, on to Canada!”

Mild groans or exasperated rebukes (from the girls) usually ensue.

So it comes as a delightful surprise (to the boys) to actually find out that we did try and conquer Canada in 1775.

Because the idea of conquering Canada is such a passe joke, we assume that George Washington was crazy to order such an attempt.  In the minds of many our invasion comes to nothing more than a madcap escapade, a schoolboy’s lark.

Dave R. Palmer argues in his book The Way of the Fox (newer editions have a different title indicated by the cover to the right) that in fact such an invasion not only nearly succeeded, but also made sound strategic sense.  Palmer seeks to rescue Washington from his saccharine and wooden image and recasts him as an effective and in some ways brilliant grand strategist for the American Revolution.  And yes, this includes his invasion of Canada.

Today many think of Washington as either a great man/demi-god or nothing more than a member of elite/exploiting class.  Both views are cardboard cutouts.  Palmer shows us someone who thought carefully and with subtlety, someone who adjusted his thinking on multiple occasions to deal with changing reality.  British generals often referred to Washington as the “old fox,” sometimes with contempt because he would not fight, sometimes with admiration for his cleverness.  The moniker should stick — it brings Washington and the war to life.

First and foremost Washington stood as the perfect symbol for the Revolution. Certain qualities made him the obvious choice for command, such as his experience, his height, his bearing, and the fact that he hailed from the South.  But none of these things would matter if Washington failed to think in broad strategic terms effectively. Palmer divides the Revolution into three stages, and correspondingly sees Washington adjust his strategy each time.  Washington made specific mistakes as he went, but in terms of broad strategic goals Palmer has Washington never miss a beat.

Palmer argues that revolutions possess an offensive character by their very nature.  They seek to effect change and so must act accordingly.  Thus, Washington was entirely right to begin the war with an aggressive strategy that sought to expel the British.

This failed to fully succeed, which allowed the British to send massive reinforcements.  This meant that Washington, now outmanned and outgunned, needed to withdraw and avoid having his army destroyed by a pitched battle he could not win.

France’s entry after 1778 changed the situation yet again.  Now momentum and manpower lay with the Americans. Washington needed to take advantage of the alliance while it lasted.  So during this period Washington should have sought to press his dramatic advantage, which he did with great effect at Yorktown.

I take no issue with either Palmer’s interpretation or Washington’s actions for phases two and three.  But it’s the first phase, which includes the invasion of Canada, where we can push back most easily.  It seems to me that Washington should have been cautious until the final phase where the advantage finally tipped in his favor.  His aggressiveness at the start of the conflict seems out of place to me.

True, at the beginning of the war you have an emotional high that you can capitalize on.  But you will have undisciplined and untested troops. What’s more, they will not yet have developed that cohesion that great armies have of sharing routines, time, space, and danger.  Think of Caesar’s legions — nothing remarkable when they started into Gaul, and unbeatable five years later.  In our Civil War one reason for the South’s early success had to do with the offensive burden the North faced.  When General Irwin McDowell objected to offensive action at Bull Run in 1861 due to the lack of experience of his men, Lincoln replied that “[both sides] are green together.”  Yes, but McDowell knew that a green attacker has a lot more to worry about than a green defender, and so it proved.

Beyond this psychological reason, Palmer asserts another more narrowly strategic goal for invading Canada.  America’s size and her numerous ports put a huge strategic burden on England.  Colonial armies could easily retreat inland and lead British forces on goose chases through the wilderness.  Add to that, the layout of the land presented very few “choke points” at which the British could use their superior manpower to any real effect.  Perhaps the only such point lay at the nexus between England and Canada — the Hudson River.

Flowing from north of Albany down to New York City, British control of the Hudson would have allowed them to control the upper third of the colonies.  Controlling New York and Boston would have meant control of America’s biggest ports.  Cutting off New England would further mean nabbing most of the colonies financial resources and a hefty portion of its intellectual political capital.  Everyone on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that control of the Hudson could determine the war.

So if it makes sense for Washington to defend the Hudson, why not go just a bit further into Canada itself?  To capture Quebec would have given the colonies everything else in Canada.  Success would have prevented England from having a free “back door” entry point into the colonies via the St. Lawrence River.  Shutting down the St. Lawrence would topple another domino by cutting off England from potential Indian allies* out in the west.

Reading Palmer’s lucid and logical defense, I found myself almost persuaded.  Palmer urges us to remember that the failure of Benedict Arnold’s invasion (yes, that Benedict Arnold) — and it nearly succeeded, does not prove that the idea or the goal was faulty.  Had it paid off, the war might have been over within a year or two instead of eight.

Yes, but . . .

Arnold  lost in Quebec and Washington lost in New York City.  Palmer gives a generous interpretation of Washington’s actions in New York and believes that politically speaking, Washington had to defend the city.  Maybe so.  But if he had to defend the city for the sake of politics, then why also invade Canada and divide your forces? Palmer wants it both ways.  He believes that circumstances called for an aggressive campaign in 1775-early ’76, but that politics and not military necessity alone forced Washington’s hand to defend New York.  This seems to admit the fact that Washington should have given ground and played defense in New York alone.

All in all I agree that Washington brilliantly guided the colonies to victory, and Palmer argues this decisively.  He points out also that Washington faced a bungling and confused command structure in England.  But Washington had Congress to deal with, who although more intelligent and capable by far than their British counterparts, had much less experience in running a war.  By any measure, Washington deserves his place as one of the great generals of the modern era.

But I can’t let go of the invasion of Canada.

If we try and evaluate Washington’s gambit in Canada we should try and compare it to similar kinds of military actions across time.  My case remains that the invasion made logical sense in a certain way.  He was not reckless or foolhardy to try.  But I feel that he should have focused more on defense, and perhaps even success might have hurt him in the long run.  The colonies might have had the direct motivation to expel the British, but would they support long-term the occupation of Canada?**

I can think of three campaigns that might be comparable in certain ways . . .

  • Athens’ invasion of Sicily in 415 B.C.
  • Hannibal attacking Rome directly instead of defending Spain
  • Napoleon going on the offensive in Belgium in 1815 instead of rallying the people to “defend France.”
  • Our invasion of Iraq in 2003***

Sometimes foxes can be a bit too clever.  Still, unlike Athens, Hannibal, and Napoleon, Washington committed a relatively small portion of his forces to the plan.  As a general most would not rank Washington with Hannibal, Napoleon, and the like.  But Palmer argues that not only should we put Washington in their company, but given his military and political success, make him the general of the modern era.

Dave

*This no mere fancy.  In 1777 the British did invade via the St. Lawrence and did gather some Indian allies for their “Saratoga” campaign.  That escapade ended in disaster for the British, but Washington’s strategic fears did come true nonetheless.

**Strange as it may sound now, Palmer points out that the motivation to occupy and settle Canada ourselves might have existed not on strategic but religious grounds.  Many in 1775 saw Canadian Catholicism as a mortal threat to our freedoms and would have gladly occupied it in the name of liberty.  Certainly we showed the ability to expand and settle territory in the west. Why not in the north as well?

***Right or wrong, Bush enjoyed overwhelming support to fight in Afghanistan in 2001.  It made sense to us in the way that (again, right or wrong) responding to Pearl Harbor made sense.  But his case in 2003 was much less compelling, at least to the international community.

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.

The Idea of an “Empire of Liberty”

How we label things, or how we construct their meaning and place in history, obviously will say a lot about us.

The Constitution serves as a good example.

The Constitution has its flaws, its oversights, and some ungainliness about it.  We understand that it’s obviously not perfect. But it surely has worked on some level, having lasted this long.  Because it has worked (or at least we assume it has — more thoughts on this later), we think of it as a very “modern” and forward-looking document.  This matches how we think of ourselves.  We are a “progressive” people, the documents that define us must also have the same character.

But in his two books Empire of Liberty, and The Idea of America acclaimed historian Gordon Wood makes the point that the Constitution tried in fact to stem the rising tide of “liberty” and change unleashed by the “spirit of ’76.” The Constitution may not have been a completely “reactionary” document but it was a response to a quick erosion in society of what many elite revolutionaries like Adams and Madison held dear.

Through various quotes and citations, Wood lists the changes seen and feared by such men in the 1780’s . . .

  • A loosening of traditional relationships between men and women — parents had much less control over who their children married.
  • Riots and protests against professors at the few (and elite) colleges by many students demanding curriculum changes, attitude changes, and the like
  • A decided turn against the virtues of the ancient Romans and a great movement toward the ideas of tolerance and conviviality as the means to hold society together
  • Democratization of religion, which became much less authority driven and much more ‘touchy-feely.’
  • Extreme partisan politics on local levels, with stories of violent behavior in state legislatures rampant.  The rise of the “party-spirit” in politics bewildered many.
  • Both “free love” and drugs going mainstream into the culture

Ok — the last is not true, but if one looks at the list, it looks quite familiar to us, making us think of the 1920’s or the 1960’s, or today.  Maybe we must face the fact that this is what America was, is, and ever shall be.  As Alfred North Whitehead once said, “The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”

Wood asserts that while the Constitution succeeded in establishing a structure that put up some barriers to change, overall the idea of liberty and “the people” triumphed over the Constitution’s conservative aspirations.  In the end, the idea liberty and the reality of the voice of the people ended up remaking the Constitution in its own image.  The Anti-Federalists, those who opposed the Constitution’s ratification, lost the battle but won the war.  The best the ideals of Washington and Adams can do now is fight rear-guard actions against the overwhelming power of the “people.”

Though initially shocking to our sensibilities, the idea of a reactionary Constitution helps make sense of much of American history down to the present day.  It also partially explains why appeals to the vision of the founders, or the intent of the founders falls on deaf ears.  For one, Madison and others probably believed that the factional “evils” they saw in state governments would not transfer to the national legislature.  Perhaps Madison wanted a stronger national government because he thought that only the “better sort” would get elected to the national legislature and thereby elevate discourse.  This “better sort” would not fall prey to party politics.  He sought then, more power not so much to the national government but to the “better men.”  However strong Madison’s hopes on this score, they quickly proved illusory.  Madison and others like him either misinterpreted or remained ignorant of exactly what their revolution had wrought.**

At a deeper level, two other questions arise.  Can the structures of organizations curtail underlying driving principles that form such organizations?  I tend to side on this one with the Jurassic Park dictum, “Life finds a way.”  The early “conservatives” could not call upon the spirit of self-determination in 1776 and then expect to put the toothpaste back in the tube once the Revolution had accomplished what they wanted it to.  The population at large could rightly retort, “What about us?” Bowing to the “will of the people” became a necessity, and eventually, a foreordained, positive good. Even a Constitutional “literalist” or “minimalist” like Jefferson gladly dispensed with his principles with the Louisiana Purchase, among other instances.  Like a nuclear blast, the concept of “liberty” leveled everything in its path.  What mattered to most was not the past, but the future.  The founders had done their part, but our vehement abhorrence to anything smacking of aristocracy made us quickly resistant to anything resembling the determining “tyranny of the past.”  John Adams, among others, quickly tried to assert that, “Wait!  That’s not what we meant!”  Most responded with some form of “I don’t care!”  Within a generation of the Constitution’s ratification, “egghead” professions like that of lawyer already were viewed as “elitist” by many, especially towards the frontier.  The seeming radical nature of the “Jacksonian Revolution” actually had its roots laid years prior.

Wood deals with the slavery question related to these political questions, but I found his analysis of the relationship between Americans and Native Americans more intriguing.  He writes,

Conceiving itself as a composite of different peoples, the British Empire could somehow accommodate the existence of Indians within its territory.  But the new American Republic was different: it contained only citizens who were presumably equal with one another.  Since the United States could scarcely imagine the Indians as citizens equal to all other American citizens, it had to regard Native Americans as members of foreign nations with which treaties had to be negotiated.  Of course, most of the Indians themselves had no desire to become citizens of the American Republic.

While the 17th century colonists did fight with Indians, little doubt exists that American Independence proved a disaster for Native Americans.  Problems began years before the war itself — one of the driving issues behind the Sugar Act and Stamp Act involved keeping colonists off Native American land.  Wood’s reasoning fits with de Tocqueville’s thoughts on equality, and the problem persists today. We have yet to work out the tension between liberty and equality.  When the “people” speak (however we measure this) we cannot tolerate deviation from the norm.  The example of Bruce/Caitlin Jenner speaks to this.  How many ESPN commentator’s could keep their jobs and declare that Jenner is tragically mistaken in his actions?  To be fair, had ESPN existed 50 years ago, could anyone have then applauded his actions and kept his job?

One unsaid implication of Wood’s book is pride of place between the American and French Revolutions.  Most see the American Revolution as giving birth to the French Revolution, with the French Revolution as the bastardization of all that went well in America, then withering on the vine as Napoleon took over.  But we might instead see the French Revolution as the real victor, with its sense of the power and authority of the “people” in more or less full swing by the early 19th century in America.  He who laughs last laughs loudest.  Or perhaps both of these positions wrongly presume an essential difference between the two events.  Maybe the American Revolution started to resemble the French Revolution because they had the same origins — fraternal if not identical twins.  If we consider this option, then we may need to reevaluate America history as a whole — an exciting if not daunting task.

“A man’s worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes.” — T.H. Huxley

Dave

*We should note that those at the the Constitutional Convention had different ideas, and others whom we might consider “founders” like Patrick Henry, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were not at the Convention at all.

**Wood cites a variety of sources to demonstrate that the traditional understanding of the need for the Constitutional Convention being the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation are false.  Many had perfect awareness of these weaknesses and their fix remained relatively simple.  The real concerns of men like Madison and Washington lie rather in their observations of the petty bickering of state legislatures, and the fact any man Jack seemingly could get elected to state legislatures.

Authenticity, Man

Having flamed out on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I was happy to find a more bite-sized chunk of his thought in The Ethics of Authenticity. I admit to approaching the book, like others of a traditional bent, leaning against the very idea of authenticity. “Get over yourself, already.” The search for meaning within the self can never go anywhere and remains something of an illusion. What, after all is there to really “experience?”

The whole concept of “authenticity,” born out of the 1960’s (or so I thought), has given rise to a whole host of modern problems. All of the issues with sex and gender have their roots here, as does a great deal of spiritual innovation with the church, along with the Trump presidency. Many inclined to read this book of Taylor’s might hope for a thorough denunciation from the venerable professor.

Of course, boring conservatives such as myself may not have always been such. We may remember the days of our youth when it seemed we had to break free from our surroundings to see what we were made of. Taylor taps into this, and so, while he criticizes much of what the “Authenticity” stands for, and finds it ultimately self-defeating, he reminds us that a kernel of something like the truth remains within this–in my view– unpleasant husk. Taylor writes,

The picture I am offering is rather than of an ideal that has been degraded . . . So what we need is neither root-and-branch condemnation nor uncritical praise; and not a carefully balanced tradeoff. What we need is a work of retrieval . . .

Taylor demonstrates that of what we term “authenticity” has its roots in Christianity. In the ancient world nearly every person received their identity by what lay wholly outside their control, be it birth, race, family, etc. The triumph of Christianity meant believing that an entirely other world lay outside of our normal lives, the Kingdom of God, in which there existed “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free . . . (Gal. 3:28).” The book of Revelation tells us that God “will also give that person a white stone, with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it (Rev. 2:17). St. Augustine’s magnum opus told us that the City of God lies nestled, in some ways, within the City of Man, to be discovered by anyone willing to walk through wardrobe.

18th century Romantic thinkers, primarily Jean-Jacques Rousseau, picked up this dormant thread, albeit thin sprinting with it in ways that St. Augustine would abhor. I find the 18th century an absolute disaster for the Church, but still, Taylor calls me to at least a degree of balance. There was something quite ridiculous and artificial about the French aristocracy, for example, ca. 1770, accurately portrayed (I think) in this clip from John Adams

Perhaps St. Augustine did see “the road to God as passing through a reflexive awareness of ourselves” (p. 27). Many have pointed out how psychologically oriented was Martin Luther’s view of salvation. John Calvin began his Institutes by asking his readers to heed the Socratic dictum to “know thyself,” for knowledge of God and ourselves have an inextricable link. But Taylor sees Rousseau as the main originator of the modern view of authenticity. For Rousseau, “Our moral salavation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves,” and, “Self determining freedom demands that I break free from external impositions and decide for myself alone” (p. 27).

Well . . . ok. I don’t like the concept of authenticity but perhaps the difference lies in the “time of day.” What I mean is, bacon and eggs smells wonderful on the skillet when you’re hungry before breakfast, but that same smell hits one very differently with a full belly after lunch. The early Romantic movement, just as with the early Enlightenment, had good points to make. Rousseau championed, among other things, mothers actually breast-feeding their own children–something dramatically out of fashion for his time. Connecting with “nature” and the “self” I suppose could lead to more morally responsible living. You cannot blame your birth or other circumstances for who you are. But let it linger too long and you get the ridiculous movie Titanic, riddled through with romantic and “authentic” ideology–the smell of bacon and eggs at 10 am after you have already eaten. Still, Taylor asks the reader to see the premise of the morning before jumping straight to the twilight.

As for today, Taylor points out a variety of ways in which the “authenticity” narrative has gone astray.

Rousseau and his followers helped fuel democratic movements at home and abroad, but having created democracies in part through the dignifying the self, these same democracies would make a mockery of the original golden thread. Liberated from tradition, democratic man seemed to attain authenticity not via stern moral struggle against tradition, but as a birthright. If we are all authentic, then are all special, and thus, we all need recognized and regarded by others.

Taylor’s insights show us why those, for example, like Kaitlyn Jenner can be granted moral weight. The Authenticity narrative tells us that such people have attained a status of “real” humans because of their “courage” to make war even on biology itself–the final frontier–in order to achieve their version of true personhood. And, while I believe that those who alter their sex (if such a thing is truly possible) make terrible and tragic decisions, Taylor hints at why those that make these decisions often find them so empowering. Seeking a “genuine” connection with the self is the modern version of a transcendent experience. We grant large amounts of authority to those that have them, like the mystics of old.

Taylor also points out the endgame in store for “authenticity” lay implicit in its origins. If the self is to be the guide, and self-actualization has the ultimate authority, then we have a contradiction. For–the self can never be absolute, certainly not over others. Telling someone about your “experience” is nearly as bad as telling someone about the dream you had last night. In the end, we require an outside reference.

Alas, logical contradictions will likely not derail the Authenticity movement. But it is possible that time may take of this in ways that logic cannot.

I mentioned above the analogy of the smell of bacon before and after breakfast, and the analogy holds true in other aspects of life. In his War and Civilization compilation Toynbee admits the allure of the “morning” of a military outlook when reading the Iliad. Homer’s battle scenes have a dramatically bracing effect. Then, fast-forward to 19th century, where Prussian militarists like Helmuth von Moltke give one an entirely different impression of essentially the same thing that Homer described:

Perpetual Peace is a dream–and not even a beautiful dream–and War is an integral part of God’s ordering of the Universe. In War, Man’s noblest virtues come into play: courage and renunciation, fidelity to duty and a readiness to sacrifice that does not stop short of offering up Life itself. Without War the World would be swamped in materialism

Toynbee comments that, “there is a note of passion, of anxiety, and of rancor,” here that takes far away from the Greek poets. Moltke continues, perhaps even aware that he sails too close to the wind;

It is when an institution no longer appears necessary that fantastic reasons are sought or invented for satisfying the instinctive prejudice in its favor, which its long persistence has created.

If the modern Liberal order was created in part on the back of Authenticity, then surely we might say that those who still champion the idea copy Moltke and indeed invent “fantastic reasons” for the path they take. Perhaps Authenticity has run its course and can go into hibernation. We will wake it up when the scales have tipped too far in the other direction.

Dave

A Method to the Madness

In the heady days of youth, many a man in my position (i.e., newly engaged, etc.) allowed themselves to watch a whole host of Jane Austen movies with their literarily inclined fiance.  Depending on our taste and level of courage, some of us liked the movies, while others pretended to like them to one degree or another.  But as watched them I recall having a thought (one that I most definitely did not voice at the time) I think most people have when exposed to Austen’s world: “What exactly did these women do all day?”

Enter Norbert Elias to answer this, and other perplexing questions about European aristocratic life in the age of Louis XIV and beyond.  His book The Court Society sets out to give the European aristocracy a context in which they lived.  They had reasons for their actions, reasons that made at least some sense in their world.  And like any other system, the seeds of its destruction embedded themselves right within the virtues the aristocracy practiced.

By early on in the book one realizes that, yes, the aristocracy did have “jobs.”  Of course menial/”blue collar” labor remained beneath them, but each member of an aristocratic household had charge of the family name, and advancing that family name.  Americans have little concept of this, but once we understand this idea, most everything else about the aristocracy falls into place.

While Elias did not deal with Austen’s period, I couldn’t help but reference her work when thinking of what Elias described.  In the Austen movies the women spend a great deal of time visiting one another, and Elias points out how this practice allowed for a display of rank and honor.  Thus, these meetings between aristocracy rarely had a “purely social” character to them.  Some may recall the surprise visit of Elizabeth to Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice.  Darcy quickly puts on his “Sunday best” to receive visitors.  Of course it is polite in any society not to receive visitors in the equivalent of pajamas, but it is important to Darcy as well to reflect the dignity of his house to others.  Of course this may be why his house (like other aristocratic houses) remained open to the public, which seems quite strange to modern Americans.  How can one just show up uninvited?  But the aristocracy generally welcomed such visits, as an actor welcomes a chance to perform.  Proper dress and decorum went beyond mere politeness — it served as a means of displaying and advancing status.  Being a good host/guest was “work” for the aristocracy.  Advancing the family name meant advancing the family fortunes.  One might even imagine the members of the family often “on campaign” to advance or defend the family honor, as this note from the Duchess of Orleans to the Duchess of Hanover makes clear:

I must really tell you how just the King is. The Duchesse de Bourgogne’s ladies, who are called Ladies of the Palace, tried to arrogate the rank and take the place of my ladies everywhere. Such a thing was never done either in the time of the Queen or of the Dauphiness. They got the King’s Guards to keep their places and push back the chairs belonging to my ladies. I complained first of all to the Duc de Noailles, who replied that it was the King’s order. Then I went immediately to the King and said to him, “May I ask your Majesty if it is by your orders that my ladies have now no place or rank as they used to have? If it is your desire, I have nothing more to say, because I only wish to obey you, but your Majesty knows that formerly when the Queen and the Dauphiness were alive the Ladies of the Palace had no rank, and my Maids of Honour, Gentlemen of Honour, and Ladies of the Robe had their places like those of the Queen and the Dauphiness. I do not know why the Ladies of the Palace should pretend to anything else.” The King became quite red, and replied, “I have given no such order, who said that I had?” “The Maréchal de Noailles,” I replied. The King asked him why he had said such a thing, and he denied it entirely. “I am willing to believe, since you say so,” l replied, “that my lackey misunderstood you, but as the King has given no such orders, see that your Guards don’t keep places for those ladies and hinder my servants from carrying chairs for my service,” as we say here. Although these ladies are high in favour, the King, nevertheless, sent the majordomo to find out how things should be done. I told him, and it will not happen again. These women are becoming far too insolent now that they are in favour, and they imagined that I would not have the courage to report the matter to the King. But I shall not lose my rank nor prerogatives on account of the favour they enjoy. The King is too just for that.

The greatness of the “House” depended on the greatness of the family, which explains why Darcy would have hesitated to be in their company.  A man of Darcy’s status would naturally hesitate to confer “honor” to Elizabeth’s family by visiting, or especially dancing, which would have conferred an extra measure of approval for their “low status” behavior.  And with Elizabeth’s family’s status teetering on the brink, one can then see how potentially damaging Lydia’s behavior would be later in the book.

Elias points out that the aristocracy needed to visit others not only to forge connections and give and receive honor, but also to understand their place in the social hierarchy.  Take fashion, for example.  One should always dress appropriate to one’s station, never above it or below.  But the appropriate dress might shift over time depending on how others dressed and what approval they received from those above them.  A lord “goes for broke” and wears a cravat a bit frillier than he might normally while visiting a duke.  The duke gives his tacit approval by wearing an even more outlandish cravat, and now everyone must level jump on their cravat’s.  Suddenly, the “normal” cravat another lord wears is out of fashion — he now dresses as a bore.  If he had been invited to more places and been busier with his “job” he would have known this.  His family’s status declines.  Hence the near obsession with the aristocracy with visiting and being visited.  It was the only way to have “information,” to use a phrase Austen’s Emma frequently uttered.

Family status often had little to do with money.  No aristocrat worth his salt would stoop to such vulgar behavior as to actually care about money.  I believe Saint-Simon relates a story of one baron who gave his son some money to spend on the town.  When the son returned with money leftover he received harsh criticism from his father, who then threw the remaining money out of the window.  In returning with money the son showed not prudence, but foolishness.  Anyone who looked like they counted their money might look like they cared about money, and that stigma would hurt their reputation severely.

Americans often get accused, and rightly so, of focusing way too much on money, which proves our essential boorishness as a nation.  We have to see this malady in some ways as a by-product of equality.  Americans for the most part have no built in social framework for support, no “society” (to use another term from Emma) where we can claim membership.  Money, therefore, more so than family or connections, becomes our primary, if not our only tool, to keep us afloat.  The charge against us is just, but the charge is easier to avoid in aristocratic societies.

Many aristocrats got their names inscribed in stone by risking vast sums on throws of dice and turns of cards.  One might go broke with such games, but even an incredible loss had glory in it and at least proved one’s cavalier approach to money.  Far better a spendthrift than a miser, but this half-virtue ruined many families.  For of course, they did need money just as anyone else did.  Tradition mitigated against them developing a trade, speculating, or becoming a merchant.  They hoped for an appointment to high ranking government or military posts which traditionally went to high ranking aristocrats.  The only way to prove oneself worthy of this honor was not only to have impeccable taste and sense within the pecking order, but also to demonstrate that they never needed to ask the price of anything.  They played a dangerous game, one that Louis XIV must have been only too delighted to see them play.  As long as the fortunes of the aristocracy ebbed and flowed unpredictably, the greater his power.

So a method did exist.  And we see that, yes, they did work of a kind and had many constraints on their existence.  They were not free in the sense we might imagine.  I had students watch the following video about how aristocrats dressed in the 18th century:

As one might expect, they thought their habits pointless, wasteful, and weird (so much makeup for the man!)*, and so on.  But we must seek to understand.

  • Fundamentally, they sought to dress in ways in which commoners could not possibly dress.  They needed to reflect their proper status, for their own benefit, of course.  But it went beyond that–it was for the good of society too (at least in their minds).  To reflect their station was to give witness to the great chain of being.
  • Most of us dress in rather plain ways.  I think they might say of us that, “You have nothing in your society to lift you above the mundane and ordinary.  You have no higher goal than your base entertainment.  Should there be no glory, nothing to strive for?”

I think this last point has some merit.  But I’m not wearing makeup.

Perhaps one might think the life of the king free from constraint, but not so.  Louis XIV put before himself a tremendous task, to become the state.  While apparently he did not utter the phrase, “L ‘etat c’est moi,” he did say

 “The interests of the state come first. When one gives these priority, one labours for one’s own good. These advantage to the state redounds to one’s glory.”

So, while Louis did get to set the rules of fashion (being the top aristocrat all matters of taste and decorum flowed down from him), he had to organize methodically his use of power.  In order to effectively display the glory of France/himself and set the rules, he had to be “on call” all the time.  This lends more sympathy perhaps to the comical and bizarre rituals of various select noblemen watching Louis dress, undress, and eat.  I had always focused on the prison the nobles had allowed themselves to enter, but to keep the nobles beholden to himself, Louis had to keep himself beholden to them.  He too faced severe constraints on his behavior.

This element of control had to be extended at Versailles to nature itself.

garden-versailles_6475_600x450

With Louis XIV one has a possible glimpse of the final apogee of the Medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being, where happiness consisted in knowing who you were by knowing your place in the universe, and how that related to redemption of all things.  But in what could be called its culmination, the egg goes bad instead of hatching.  No wonder so many aristocrats supported the French Revolution, and even supported abolishing feudal titles.  One must always take caution when using one’s own culture and experience to judge the past, but perhaps the aristocracy simply got tired of playing a game no one had any real chance of winning.  One can make a good argument for the real usefulness of the aristocracy during the medieval period, but that time had long past, and one wonders if the French nobility somehow, deep down, knew that to be true.

Dave

*Yes, I too am disturbed by the use of makeup.  But we must be careful . . . it would not have been too long ago that a woman wearing pants would have been considered a form of cross-dressing.  Men wearing earrings takes on different meanings at different times, and so on.