Command Performance

The poor often are more conservative than the rich, at least in certain respects. If we define “conservative” only in terms of policy, this distinction won’t apply. But, if we think of “conservative” in the traditional sense of opposition to change, the label fits more aptly. Perhaps this is because the rich can navigate change much more easily than others. The wealthy can create their “place” in society, but the poor rely on “tradition,” for lack of a better word, to give them a coherent identity.

Those “higher” than the lower classes have always exercised authority in every age, and this in itself I have no problem with. If one believes, as I do, that the world manifests itself in a hierarchical way, then we should adapt ourselves into this pattern. But how one exercises authority proves one’s “fitness” to rule. The patterns in creation reveal a liturgy, of sorts, of experience, and those who rule should abide by this pattern.

All of this may sound rather esoteric, and indeed I lack the language for a full and general explanation. But I found a fascinating and provoking example of this principle in Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language, by Greg Dening. The mutiny on the “Bounty” has inspired at least 3 movies and a variety of interpretations as to why it happened. Analysis of the event often focus on the strictly legal aspects of the case–was Captain Bligh too severe or not, and so on. Others focus on the psychological aspects of Bligh and Fletcher Christian, the first-mate who led the mutiny. Dening examines another field of inquiry entirely. He looks beyond the strictly legal and and avoids undue psychological guesswork, focusing not on the technical limits of Bligh’s authority, but how he used it.

Some look for the cause of mutiny in leaving the pleasurable confines of Tahiti for a long voyage home. We all have experienced relaxing after a strain, and how hard it can be to resume the task. But extant diaries and testimony shows that the sailors had no deep objections to leaving Tahiti. Many talked of looking forward to getting back home to England.

Other theories (and movies) imagine Bligh a “harsh” commander, a severe disciplinarian. Sailing into the Pacific meant a very long journey into hostile territory. We need no imagination to understand the need for order, though we may blanch at flogging as the most typical punishment.* But of the captains who sailed into the Pacific in Bligh’s era, Bligh punished less than most other captains, and far less than some. From ca. 1760-1800 on Pacific voyages, Dening estimates that all told, about 21% of sailors received flogging punishments.* Captain Vancouver flogged about 45% of his sailors during his time in command and never faced mutiny. Bligh–on the Bounty voyage and other subsequent journeys–flogged between 8-9% of his men. We must throw out the idea of “tyranny” and “severity” as the explanation of the mutiny.

Flogging seems unnaturally harsh to us for minor offenses, yet Dening points out the sailors accepted it without much fuss. This can be ascribed to their innate conservatism, but also to other factors. Flogging was short in duration and then the matter was over and settled. Flogging was the common lot of sailors, something they could bond over. Thus–flogging did not single anyone out or humiliate anyone. Legal formality and especially tradition hedged flogging. Sailors had no serious issues with flogging per se. Dening writes, “Sailors liked that flogging left no debt. Those punishments that sought to leave a mark on the sailors soul rather than his body–leg irons, mockery, badges of guilt–required a dangerous sort of theater.”

It is in this concept of “theater” that Dening finds his thesis.

A kind of “theater” exists in teaching, somewhat akin to stand-up comedy. In a sense the teacher puts on a “performance,”–think of a 1st grade teacher doing different voices in a story they read. But it also holds true for teaching older students. The way one presents their material, their voice inflections, their pauses, etc., and then the punchline, i.e., the king died, or the molecules fizzed in the cup, and so on. A classroom, like a theater or a ship at sea, functions as a separate kind of liturgical space. Good teachers know how to use that space well for their purposes.

Dening points out that the very design of the Bounty meant that navigating the space of the ship presented challenges to Bligh–challenges to which he seemed wholly unaware. The main purpose of the Bounty’s voyage involved transplanting breadfruit from Tahiti, which the British navy wanted to transplant to the Caribbean as food for native/slave workers. Bringing back cargo that would need space, light, and water meant redesigning the ship to accommodate their presence. That in turn meant less space for the crew. Bligh himself accepted less space than a captain would normally have for his cabin. That likely was a good move on his part, but the meaning of space in cabins and the all important quarterdeck (the ship’s “throne” so to speak) was altered. Bligh saw himself as an “enlightened” captain. He saw great scientific purpose in the voyage. He envisioned the Bounty “making history” and made various speeches to the crew to that effect. One can imagine that “salty” types would hardly see things that way. The breadfruits–“stupid plants,” of all things, stole their space, their water, and their captain’s kind attention. They would have probably preferred Bligh’s attention directed towards a mistress from Tahiti. It would have been more relatable–more “human.”

Bligh also acted as his own “purser” for the voyage. The purser kept charge of accounts for the Navy. He oversaw the profitability of the voyage. Nobody likes the purser, and the Captain might at times play against the purser to boost his standing with the crew–a crew who cared nothing for how much money the voyage made. Every time that Bligh shorted rations or cut corners, no matter his real intent–the crew could suspect that he was shorting them to fill his own pockets. Indeed, Bligh had taken much less than his usual fee to captain the voyage, believing in the trip’s historic importance and opportunities it would afford him in the future. The fact that none of the rest of the crew shared in his convictions or cared about his “sacrifices” alienated Bligh psychologically from his men. Bligh in turn took their lack of zeal personally.

Taking things personally is one of the cardinal sins a teacher can commit. As for myself, I liked history classes in high school and college but not the science, math, or Spanish classes–and it was nothing personal. Every teacher thinks their subject is the most important and everyone should love it as they do. Those that verbalize this thought, however, sound bonkers to students. They just want to get through the day–they owe you nothing, they owe “history” nothing. Likewise the best classroom discipline involves minimal talking and no lectures, i.e., “You did ‘x,’ the consequence is ‘y,'” end of story. Bligh had the habit of haranguing the crew for their lack of appreciation of his efforts on their behalf. Dening compares the discipline of “harsher” captains who flogged more to Bligh, and the “harsher” ones talked much less, and made the discipline much less personal.

Dening sees Bligh as making mistakes even when sincerely trying to be good to the crew. The sailors had a hazing ritual of sorts known as “Dunking,” which involved having a rope tied to your leg and being lowered overboard under the water. Many sailors actually could not swim, but even so, if the rope ever came loose, even a swimmer might drown, for the boat might not be able to turn around in time. Bligh saw this ritual as exploitative and put a stop to it, even increasing the rations of “grog” in the process. Bligh no doubt saw himself as stamping out barbarism on behalf of his men. Dening hints strongly that the men would have seen it very differently:**

  • To start, “dunking” was the province of the men below deck. In stopping the ritual, Bligh intruded on their space. In fact, the sailors had their own economy regarding the practice, with grog rations as the currency.
  • On every voyage, the officers had a chance to further their careers and gain honor. This ritual, though dangerous, was how ‘enlisted men’ could obtain honor among each other. Bligh thus appeared no doubt to ‘steal’ honor from them so he could keep it for himself.

Bligh’s attempts to appear benevolent surely fell flat. Sailors would have resented his intrusion into their ‘private’ lives. In a world where no space had any physical privacy, Bligh should not have intruded on the privacy of their ritual.

A man who punished mercilessly might guess that he risked the affections of his men. Bligh’s problem involved him trampling on his men’s good will while all the while deluding himself that he acted as their benefactor. No wonder the mutiny struck him with complete surprise.

Any Trump-Bligh comparison fails at every level except perhaps that neither one seemed to understand that the main objection to their power came not from what they did but how and when they did it. One can note the visible relief of mainstream media commentators at Biden’s cabinet choices. Some have crooned that his picks are even ‘apolitical,’ which is pure silliness. What I think they mean by ‘apolitical’ is that Biden’s cabinet understand the accepted liturgies of how to exercise power, as did Obama and most other presidents before him. Liturgies constrain reach in some ways, and mostly extend it, I think, in others. We shall see what the means for a Biden presidency.

The fact that leaders like Bligh and Trump are ‘anti-liturgical’ does not necessarily mean they are ‘bad’ for their time. Systems sometimes wear out, and then the old ways need smashed. Bligh represents the Enlightenment intellectual entrepreneur type. He had outstanding personal ability in navigation, and was self-made man in many ways. One might have thought the common sailor would take to him.

Not so. Interestingly enough, Dening cites data that shows that sailors in fact preferred officers from the ‘officer class’ and not those that rose through the ranks.

Not being from the traditional officer class, Bligh would not naturally take to the varieties of arcane naval tradition. But on a long and dangerous voyage, the only shelter from chaos would be the ship itself and the “world” it represented. As such, the routine, the manners, etc. would have to be ironclad to give a sense of safety and permanence. When Bligh messed with that, he altered the sailors sense of stability and security. The strain would be psychological, not physical. Perhaps this accounts for 1st Officer Fletcher Christian’s comment to Bligh during the mutiny–“I am in hell.”

As for Trump, the fact that so many reacted so severely not to his policies but to his person means that they may perceive the state adrift at sea. For such folk, only solid liturgical performances can shore up their sense of security and identity. I do not say that these people are all wrong, but the question lies in a sense of proportion. No matter how much one might have disliked Bligh, not even Dening argued that the mutineers had right on their side.

Good teachers, like good statesman (or sea captains) understand that the world reveals itself not fundamentally in laws but in relationships. The longer the friendship, the greater the liturgy of that relationship, due to all of the accumulated experiences. Bligh’s “bad language” the title alludes to were not the actual words he spoke–words that any other sea captain would have used–but how and when he spoke them. The weirder the situation, such as being on wooden boards in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth, require tighter “security” of the liturgy of the existing relationships. Such mysteries are felt more than explained. Dening might not have pure logic on the side of his argument, but he does have something we’ve all felt and experienced, and that makes his book a delight.

Dave

*I should note that Dening cites another study that puts the average much lower–at around 10% instead of 21%. The two studies count differently, but even this alternate view does no damage to understanding Bligh’s ‘severity.’

**I have seen two movie versions of the Bounty mutiny, the version from the 1960’s with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando, and the one from the 1980’s with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. The Hopkins/Gibson version comes closer in most respects to what Dening presents. It includes a “dunking” scene and Hopkins does very well in expressing barely restrained disapproval.

The Prophet or the Madman

A good education should prepare one to see many sides of an issue and to see the complex nature of problems. Solutions, should they exist, come from seeing the good in things and building upon that, along with balance, patience, and so on.

It seems to me that about 95% of problems or questions should get handled in this fashion.

But the remaining 5% probably require none of the aforementioned qualities, but instead call for a prophet.  Some problems have such deep and destructive roots in society that only radical solutions suffice, and coming to these conclusions require a complete change of perspective not unlike repentance.  In such cases balance and moderation hurt more than help.

The problem with prophets is that they usually sound crazy.  They are entirely “unreasonable” and see nothing among us to build on.  They abhor compromise.  No doubt this explains why most of Israel’s prophets were dismissed as lunatics or dangerous subversives.

The fact that not all prophets deserve the title of “Prophet” adds to the dilemma.  God mandated harsh punishments for false prophets, who unnecessarily rile up/provide false comfort in addition to the far worse consequence of giving us the wrong view of God and our place in the universe.

If we took the Industrial Revolution as an example, we might expect a “reasonable” historian to take a standard cost/benefit approach.  On the one hand, the Industrial Revolution eventually ushered in higher wages and higher standards of living.  Medical technology improved and helped us lead healthier lives.  Mass production led to greater social and political equality.  On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution also disconnected us from nature and allowed us to mass produce destructive things like weapons and pollutants.  The regimentation of the factory led to regimentation of other areas of life.  Modern conveniences also facilitated longer working hours, which helped erode the family.  Some good, some bad, and the trick lies in deciding how to weigh the importance of each category.

Enter Ivan Illich.

Illich (a one time Catholic priest turned social critic) wants nothing to do with the above paragraph.  The Industrial Revolution, or in his phrase, “hygenic progress” has led to continuing impoverishment of all who drink from its waters.

Perhaps you think he means impoverishment of the soul, and then we can still perhaps argue that certain economic benefits outweigh that at least in some circumstances.

But no — he means impoverishment of the soul and economic impoverishment. Industrial society has made us poorer in every sense, which on the surface seems demonstrably untrue.  But nevertheless, he wants to burn it all down, if not physically, then at least in our whole approach to what lies around us.

Do we have a madman or a prophet?

I will say that having read his book Toward a History of Needs I’m not quite sure myself. He fits one criteria for having a prophetic voice — neither the political right or left knew what to do with him in his day.  On the imgresone hand, Illich heavily criticized market-based solutions as essentially imperialistic projects that in the end only benefitted producers.  On the other hand, he spoke just as harshly against the industrialized “do-gooders” of the left and their projects like the Peace Corp and The Alliance for Progress.  He saw both sides as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum — the same person with a different face, sharing essentially the same destructive perspective.

Illich’s main idea is that the “hygenic progress” of the last two centuries has not solved any problem mankind faces so much as it has created needs that have become mandatory for civilization. These “mandatory needs” continue to increase and drain both soul and wallet.  This favors not only producers but also, “anyone in the driver seat” (government bureaucracy). He cites many examples to prove his point, and we can add to those examples today.

Some of his examples (with hardly an exhaustive list) . . .

Medicine has become vastly more expensive over the last few decades without necessarily making us healthier. Pregnant women, for example, now have seemingly dozens of “mandatory” checkups involving expensive lab work to check on her health.  But babies are not measurably more healthy than they were 20-30 years ago.  These checkups did not come in response to a severe crisis, but as part of the logic of the “producers of health.”  Ilich also argues that most of the vast costs involving medical care for the elderly go more towards prolonging suffering than actually making us healthier.  Of course, this suffering in turn drives us back to the health producers.

Simple things like driving also fall prey to this logic.  In days of yore, you acquired driving skills more or less by osmosis and guided practice from parents.  Now prospective drivers need a certification from driving schools to prove their merit.  The fact that many who take courses from “driving schools” spend their time doing errands for the producer of the certificates should call for us to abolish the criteria altogether.  Instead, because we are a society of “hygenic progress,” we call for reform, not abolition, of such institutions, which bring in government bureaucrats once again.  The system continually empowers “those in the driver’s seat” literally and figuratively.

This dynamic impoverishes us financially by forcing us to pay for the certification and government authentication of our lives, and it also steals away time and personal initiative.  Citizens of “hygenic progress” societies will get boxed in continually.  We realize that one “must” have a car to survive in modern society (with the rare exception of a few cities), and the logic of car ownership has followed suit. No layman can repair their car anymore, which drives us toward complete reliance on the producers of car health.  Writing in the early 1970’s, Illich did not foresee the rise of digital technology.  Now, we “need” not just computers and internet, but cell phones and the like to “survive” the modern world.  Failure to keep up brings nebulous social penalties, along with more realistic drawbacks.  Who communicates by phone anymore?**

Education has gone through the same process.  Public education once was conceived as a free gift.  Now this gift is mandatory, with a mandated curriculum.  Initially the system called for you to stay through 8th grade, now one must stay until 16.  Of course, society’s demands for more pieces of paper to certify one as “educated” has increased. Now everyone “must” graduate high school to have any chance in society, and to get a “real job” everyone must go to college — though we know that many high school and college educations hardly dignify the name.  Now Master’s Degrees have become “required” in many professions.  Some of this might be acceptable if the certificates proved that you actually had a good education, when what it really proves it that you jumped through the required hoops.  The role of government oversight and financial enrichment of the producers of certificates (think of the growth of private companies in the standardized testing industry) again go hand in hand.

Of course not all want this outcome, but that’s just “the way it goes.”  I have an autistic son, and from time to time speculate on why autism diagnoses have dramatically increased over the last 20-odd years.  With the caveat that the question is complex and mysterious, part of me wonders if the increased regimentation in education makes those who lack the social skills necessary to navigate that world stand out in much bolder relief than previously.

Illich uses many more examples which I will pass over.  He astutely references the classical concept of “nemesis” from Greek mythology.  Nemesis served justice and punished hubris.  In the modern sense, nemesis stood for the punishment of a rash abuse of privilege.  In heroic literature the truly elite of society experience “nemesis” by going too far beyond the lot of mortals.  Now, Illich comments that nemesis has been democratized and no longer is reserved for rash abuse of a privilege.  Rather, “Industrialized nemesis is retribution for dutiful participation in society.”

At this point we may want to push back a bit.  Maybe the benefits of industrial society have plateaued somewhat, but if we do a before/after look since the start of industrialization, we see that life expectancy has gone up, and more people have access to more conveniences of life.  Who would want to return to pre-industrial living?  And while we can’t repair our cars, they do last a lot longer than they used to, which puts us back to the +/- calculus of the “reasonable” historian.  Some products over time became ubiquitous, but also cheap.  A perfectly good land-line phone, for example, costs no more than $15.  DVD players began by costing a few hundred bucks and now come at 1/10 of that price.  These examples seem to go against the idea that producers will get continually enriched at consumer expense.

I’m not sure how Illich would respond to these arguments, but I would guess that he would say that producers will continue to turn today’s luxuries into tomorrow’s “needs.”  And — they will continue to partner with government to make the needs mandatory — hence, good bye rabbit ears, hello to required conversion to digital.  DVD players are cheap, but look out for Blue-Ray, which will likely supplant DVD’s soon enough and start the cycle over again.

Of course prophets don’t just critique, they also offer hope and a way forward.  For Illich that means more creative and especially, autonomous action on the part of individuals.  We must escape the professionalization, the certificates of approval, and the commodification that governs modern lives.  We no longer make decisions — we have algorithms or rubrics to that for us.

However, a question remains — do we wish to be free? Do we even know what that means?  Would it matter if we did?  I am reminded of a passage in Machiavelli’s Discourses which captures the essence of the issue.  Are we a healthy body with a corrupt head, i.e. Rome at the time of the latter Tarquin kings? After the expulsion of Tarquin Superbus the Romans immediately had the ability to form a stable, successful, alternative government.  Or, has the whole body been infected, and cutting off the head will produce only more problems?  Much later in Rome’s history a new “Tarquin” arose in the form of Julius Caesar, but his death only made things worse for Rome — the whole body had become corrupt.

Illich also fails to discuss another question — is the situation he describes (if he correctly describes it — I am at least partially persuaded) a necessary or contingent consequence of industrialization?  If the latter, then we can work to change things.  If the former is true, then we need to pattern ourselves after the characters in many of Phillip K. Dick’s stories and go “through” the situation rather than running away from it, and find a spot of peace therein.

I suspect, however, that if Illich is correct, then we are living with contingent consequences of industrialization.  We can get pushed in certain directions but never off the road entirely.  While I would not call him a madman, nor would I yet call him a prophet.  He describes some of the technical reasons for our situation, but he fails to unmask the religious devotion that created this situation.  The key question, “What does industrial bureaucratic capitalism truly worship?” has yet to receive an answer.  Until we understand this, we will have no power to change our circumstances.  We need also to see that the situation Illich describes results not just from the confluence of bureaucrats and producers, but from everyone.  We “the people” cannot be part of whatever path forward may exist without acknowledging our own complicity.

Dave

*Hence his book Deschooling Society on the surface seems like a call to dismantle public education in favor of more market based approaches (the “Right” cheers).  But what Illich really calls for is that society “de-school” itself and fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between “school” and “society” (the Right and the Left look at each other quizzically).

**The confluence of the producers of society’s digital “needs” and government oversight continues with a vengeance with the rise of technology in education.  Now curricula get planned around the assumption that students have technology in the classroom.  Those who don’t will be given access.  The option to “drop out” — i.e., “I don’t want my child to have access to a tablet, phone, etc.” — doesn’t really exist.  Most teacher training now gets geared towards showing teachers how to better serve the god “Technology in the Classroom.”  All of this of course is “necessary” because we must “prepare students for the modern world.”  Meanwhile of course, we create the “modern world” via the use of technology in the classroom.  One hand washes the other.  This seems a similar argument to Hillaire Belloc’s The Servile State.

“. . . And in the End”

My dad has a large record collection, and growing up I heard a lot of different music. One of my earliest memories involves me asking him to, “Put the Apple record on,” by which I meant, “Put on Abbey Road by the Beatles, side two, “The End.” There I would hear the vastly underrated (by the general public) Ringo Starr play his one and only drum solo. I grabbed Tinker Toys, made two mallets, and attempted to play along with the music on the sofa.

Years later when I started playing the drums myself, I sometimes tried to replicate the sound Starr got out of his kit on that album, with no success. Reading And in the End: The Last Days of the Beatles, I discovered the secret–a new way of mic’ing the drums was employed, but the real trick may have been his switch to calfskin drum heads on his tom-toms. Ringo loved the new sound and feel, and credited the heads for giving him some newfound excitement on the kit. With the drum heads sounding so good, it inspired him to integrate his toms more than he had on previous albums–the result can be heard especially on “Come Together,” and “Something,” to say nothing of his famous aforementioned solo.

This little nugget may not be of much interest to anyone but myself, but And in the End gives everyone lots to chew on about the decline and final fall of the Beatles. I have skimmed through biographies of Lennon and McCartney and seen a few documentaries about them, which prepped me for this book. Author Ken McNab gives little background information, which suited me just fine. For anyone with an interest in The Beatles and a passing familiarity with their dynamics, this book will do nicely in filling out some unexplored corners of Beatles lore.

Most of us know about Lennon and McCartney’s personality feuds, the presence of Yoko Ono, and Harrison’s rise in prominence. And in the End mentions this but knows that we have heard about it before. Instead McNab spends a lot of time talking about the business side of The Beatles and how that, perhaps even more than personality differences, contributed heavily to their demise as a group.

The Beatles faced in formidable challenges to their cohesion in 1969:

  • John married Yoko, and Paul married Linda. Again, we are aware of the challenges Yoko brought to the table. Many have well documented the unnerving effects of her awkward presence during rehearsals. But McNab puts a different focus on Paul’s marriage to Linda Eastman as a major contributor to the widening John-Paul divide. Eastman came from New York high society money. Paul’s marriage, then, confirmed and deepened every suspicion John had about Paul–his social striving, his “bourgeoise” aspirations, etc.
  • At the same time, George Harrison began to assert himself much more aggressively in the group. John and Paul had previously worked out truces and trades in sharing the spotlight and wrote “together” at least officially. Now they would have share even more than they had before at a time of much higher tension.
  • At the same time, the “Apple” company they founded floundered badly, obviously bleeding cash. Their image and their pocketbooks would take a big wallop.
  • At the same time, The Beatles attempted to rework their financial arrangements, with John, George, and Ringo favoring one company, and Paul favoring another company–which happened to be run by his new brother-in-law (this did not go over well with the other three. John especially tore into the fact that the Eastman’s had changed their name from Epstein to Eastman, a sign of “inauthenticity”).
  • At the same time, Lennon–who had smoked plenty of weed and experimented with psychedelics in the past, now began a much more problematic heroin habit.

In other words, to paraphrase Fletch in his visit to Dr. Dolan, the Beatles may have been dying for years, but the end was very sudden.

A few bands have lasted more than a few decades, and fewer still have stayed productive during their span instead of merely rehashing older hits on tour. So on the one hand, the demise of The Beatles should not surprise anyone. But McNab’s treatment of the band’s final year made me realize that the main failure of the Beatles involved their failure to “institutionalize” themselves in some respect–a failure to scale up their issues to a point where the issues were “solved” by the institution known as “The Beatles.”

I can think of only two other bands that managed to last long and stay reasonably productive: Kiss and Rush (who actually toured together in 1975). In the case of Rush, they perhaps solved their problem by always having two guys write the songs and one guy write the lyrics. Harmony could be maintained as long as they stuck with this formula, and they did so right until the end. This very stark division of labor will be exceedingly rare in any collaborative group.

The more typical path is that of KISS, who had two strong frontmen with strong personalities. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons certainly feuded over the years. But the outfits–Starman, Catman, Spaceman, etc.–gave them an identity outside themselves. This allowed them to replace particular musicians when needed (such as Peter Criss, Ace Frehly) while still maintaining their individual identity. They could do a solo album or a solo project as “Paul Stanley”–who is not KISS, then put on the makeup and become KISS again.

Not having Rush’s division of labor, the Beatles needed something of the KISS formula to work, but they could not create it in time. Given the challenges they faced along with their particular personalities, this was not likely to happen, but perhaps the possibility existed.

As I finished the book it appeared that Trump will not have a second term, and this spurred some reflection on the purpose of institutions, and their role in our culture at the moment.

In the Democratic primaries many lamented that anti-establishment figures like Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang got the freeze-out from mainstream media and the party establishment. In the end, the Democratic base chose the most “establishment” figure possible in Biden. On the one hand, Trump vs. Biden at first glance appears to boil down to “Anti-Establishment v. Establishment. That is short-sighted view of the situation–just as seeing the Beatles conflict as purely Lennon v. McCartney–Anti-Establishment v. Establishment–also interprets a lot of the signal as noise.

First we can see Trump akin to John Lennon. Both despised or could not work within institutions. Both always had/have the most gravity in the room. Those freed from an institutional ‘gloss’ or ‘crust’ can shine forth with a particularly concentrated vitality. Lennon would at times impress everyone with his clarity and intelligence, and at other times embarrass everyone with his rash anger and insane narcissism. His partnership with McCartney worked so well because he needed someone to ground him, someone to “land” his ideas, which Paul did with some of John’s best songs*

The Trump-Lennon connection is easy . . . making McCartney into Biden stretches things a bit. Well–it works in some ways. Lennon always hated the “grandma” tunes that McCartney loved, the sweetly melodic semi-vaudeville stuff that Paul dipped into now and then. Paul always believed that the Beatles had to be a “band,” which meant recording and then touring. “Back to basics,” and so on. So we can see the election of Biden as a vindication of our institutions, and at least the perception of “normalcy.”

Certainly Trump is “anti-establishment”–but particularly in his personal behavior. He cared nothing for the niceties, decorum, and customs of acting “presidential.” Some of his political agenda, however, had roots in old Pat Buchanan Republicanism. He had broad support for his judicial nominees and support for pro-life policies, all of which would fit within the Reagan heyday.

Biden on the one hand is quintessential “Establishment,” having served in the Senate for who knows how long. He is nothing if not boring in his personal behavior–which at times can be a strength. He will uphold presidential cultural and political norms.

But he also brings with him a long trail of supporters who also wish to dismantle certain aspects of the Establishment and its norms. It wasn’t too long ago that we heard chants of “Defund the Police.” Biden’s supporters have already created an “enemies list” of Trump staffers and “enablers” that may be used to exclude them from various aspects of public life. No such acts have ever been perpetrated so openly before, at least that I am aware of.** We shall see to what degree Biden takes the Democratic party into more anti-institutional waters. Note that some Democratic supporters have called for the abolition of the Electoral College, a dismantling of certain powers of the Senate, and so on. To alter the Constitution is to dismantle the American institution.

But just as Biden may have a slightly jaded take on institutions, so perhaps did McCartney.

As mentioned above, the problems faced by The Beatles were legion–too much to handle all at once. But–had it boiled down to Lennon’s ‘anti-establishment’ and Paul’s ‘establishment’ they could have compromised here and there, just as they did with their songwriting. In reality, they represented two different mixes of both ‘establishment’ and ‘anti-establishment,’ the combinations of which could not compromise.

John as “Anti-Establishment” (this is rather obvious)

  • The drugs, the weird behavior, founding “Bagism,” the marriage to an avant-garde artist who would lay down inside a bag and scream during performances
  • Etc.

Paul as “Anti-Establishment”

  • Paul was a rock star who did not fit a conventional rock star mold. He was much more fruitfully experimental than John
  • Paul utilized orchestras, audio experimenting, etc.
  • He did the India thing just as the others did

John as “Establishment”

  • The counter-culture is admittedly not the Culture, but the counterculture had enormous power in the late 60’s and John was at the crest of that wave.
  • John wanted to be seen as a rock star who played rock music, and who at times loathed Paul’s “sissified” experimentation.

Paul as “Establishment”

  • He marries into wealthy NYC society
  • He appeals to a much broader cross section of the population than John. He is “the cute one”–certainly much “safer” than John.

A big part of the problem for the Beatles lay here–two different blends of establishment/anti-establishment that allowed both to call the other “squares” on the one hand and feel good personally about stretching boundaries on the other. This dynamic makes compromise a lot harder, because you see the other side as lacking everything while you already “have it all.” When at their best, for example, Paul saw that he needed John to get him to take more risks, and John saw that he needed Paul to “ground him” and give his ideas shape. But as they both grew, Paul found a way to experiment without John, and John found a “grounding” in the counter-culture. Then–they perceived no need for each other.

The right and the left in the U.S. have good and bad things about them and always have. When both sides can even just occasionally see how they need each other, our democracy will be healthy. But now that both sides have both Anti-Institutional and Institutional impulses within them, they will feel this need for each other much less. This, perhaps more than any particular policy change, may be our most significant political challenge.

Dave

*If anyone argues that “Imagine” or “Instant Karma” is as good as “In My Life,” or even “Come Together,” they are just being plain silly or purely ideological. Neither Lennon or McCartney ever topped solo what they did with each other.

**Trump said dangerous things like, “Lock her up,” but never acted on anything. Again–he had a hard time acting on his various statements (look at how little he accomplished when Republicans controlled House and Senate from 2016-18) which we can be thankful for in part.

The ideological left, on the other hand, is much more connected to institutions in media, academia, and increasingly, in the corporate world as well. We shall see whether or not this threat of a “list” becomes reality.

Rebels Against the Future

(The Grumpy Old Man podcast that touches on some of these themes can be found here.).

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

A few years ago at the Circe Institute conference Andrew Kern made a startling statement.  In the midst of his opening speech he mentioned the Luddites.  I have always assumed (like most of us I suppose) that the Luddites attacked the mechanical looms for economic reasons.  But Kern suggested that perhaps the Luddites acted unknowingly for more fundamental reasons.

All throughout ancient literature (which people in the early 19th century would be familiar with) weaving relates strongly to wisdom.  So Penelope’s weaving, for example, is not merely a clever device to stall the suitors.  She represents wisdom and faithfulness in contrast to the suitors who grasp for power and wealth.  They will not confirm Odysseus’ death, rather they will take what they want in defiance of the pattern of creation and marriage.  The idea of the “fabric of society” closely relates to weaving, and so on.

So, Kern surmised, the Luddites didn’t just act to try and preserve their jobs.  They may have acted to preserve the idea of wisdom itself, though almost certainly not overtly but in a sub-conscious, Jungian sense.

I thought the idea intriguing at the time, but perhaps a bit of a stretch.  But I started to look for weaving in ancient literature.  To my surprise Plato uses weaving in “The Statesmen” as an analogy for good government.  With Jason and his Argonauts we see Medea the sorceress contrasted with Queen Arete, who is weaving when we first meet her.  In Homer’s The Odyssey we see a couple of references to the span of life compared to a thread (7.197-198, 24.38-29).  Melville uses similar imagery in chapter 47 of Moby Dickand we also see it in the Upanishads.  Isaiah 38:12 reads, “My life was with me as cloth on a loom, when she that weaves draws near to cut off the thread.”

The philosopher Porphyry uses very similar imagery in his On the Cave of the Nymphs, another reference to the Odyssey (13.102-112).  Here Homer refers to a murky cave which contains, among other things, “looms, likewise of stone, on which the nymphs wear weave sea-purple garments.”  Porphyry writes (and we should remember that he–unfortunately–believed in the pre-existence of the soul),

What symbol could be more appropriate than “looms” for souls descending to birth and the creation of the body?  , . . For flesh is formed in and around the bones, which in living beings resemble stones.

We should not miss the connections to the fundamental facts of weaving, birth, death, blood, and the like.

So perhaps Kern, and the Luddites themselves, were on to something.

I finally went in search of a book on the Luddites and came across Rebels Against the Future by Kirkpatrick Sale.  Sale gives a good overview of the Luddites but does little else.  He gives us some important perspective, showing us that the Luddites had nothing against technology per se, but only against, to quote from a Luddite letter, “Machinery hurtful to commonality.”   He clearly favors the Luddite cause and shows many examples of their courage.  Sale’s explanation for the Luddites ultimate failure, however, leaves out to my mind the most basic reason.  In resorting to violence, they at times fired upon common men like themselves, and thus abandoned their moral high ground.  Furthermore, their use of violence played directly into the hands of their adversaries.  Once they broke the law, the state naturally would defend the men behind the machines.  And the state had much more force to use than the Luddites.*  Had the Luddites exercised more patience and used a non-violent, grass-roots approach, history might have been different.  As to how different, Sale offers no thoughts.  Did industrial looms pose more of a threat than factories that performed other tasks?  Would it be possible to industrialize in some areas and not others?  If other countries industrialized their economy, and thus, their armies, what would the consequences be for a non-industrial country?  The age of imperialism might offer some hints on this, and questions about community balanced with security (among other questions) should be asked.

Sale just scratches the surface.  Maybe not much else exists to see.  Maybe the Luddites had no higher purpose than saving their jobs.  But I think the Luddites continual references to “commonality” hints that Kern had more insight than I first supposed.  I will hope to find other books that can take the issue deeper.

My favorite part of Toynbee’s sixth volume of his A Study of History deals with his examination of what he calls archaism.  “Archaics” in his context seek to recover their civilization in a time of crisis by using a time-machine to travel back to some imagined golden age.  We should much prefer archaism to “futurism.”  The past has the advantage of having an actual reality and thus restrains action somewhat.  The futurist has no such limitations, and the evil they work in their earnest desperation will likely be much more terrible.  Toynbee points out that archaists would usually rather be archaeologists than politicians.  Alas, political realities set in and something must give.  The impossibility of drawing back the masses to the past with you means that archaists often choose violence in the end.  And this ends up dooming their movement.**

I think the Luddites use of violence contributed heavily to their defeat, but I would not call them “archaists.”  They sat on the knife-edge of change and saw a darkness on the horizon.  The “past” they tried to preserve was in fact the present.  Given that they did not reject all technology they had no wish to futilely put the brakes on all aspects of societal change.  They saw clearly what the Industrial Revolution would do to their communities and their sense of self.  If they did not submit to “archaism” they had more psychological flexibility at their disposal, which makes their use of violence more troubling to me.  Perhaps in the end they simply lacked the very rare traits necessary to translate those ideas politically.

Or perhaps their concerns went far away from politics.  Perhaps they saw themselves as doomed crusaders, but bound, like crusaders, to something deeper and older than politics.

Maybe.

According to the Tradition of the Church, at the Annunciation the Virgin Mary was found by Gabriel in the Temple . . . weaving a veil for the Temple where she resided, and some icons of the Annunciation (such as the one below from the 14th century in Serbia) show this as well.

In Hebrews 10:20 we see the identification with Christ’s body with the veil of the sanctuary (10:20), and we know that both the Temple curtain and the Body of Christ were broken for the life of the world.  Father Maximos Constas writes, “With the strictest visual economy, then, Mary’s thread gives consummate expression the . . . continuum of conception and crucifixion.”^

From St. Epiphianos:

About Eve and Mary it was said, “Who gave women the wisdom of weaving, and the knowledge of embroidering? (Job 38:36).  For the first wise woman, Eve, wove material garments for Adam, whom she had stripped naked.  This labor was given to her, for it was through her that the knowledge of nakedness was acquired, and thus to her was given the task of clothing the perceptible body.

To Mary, on the other hand, it was granted by God to give birth to the Lamb and the Shepherd [cf. John 1:29, 10:11], so that from his glory we might be clothed in a garment of incorruptibility (1 Cor. 15:53-54).

And from St. Nelios the Ascetic:

The Theotokos [that is, Mary, the “Mother of God”] displayed such “wisdom and manifold knowledge” (Job 38:36) that, from the wool of the Lamb who was born from her, she was able to clothe all the faithful with garments of incorruptibility.  For all true Christians stand at the right hand of the King, in golden-fringed garments, embroidered in myriad forms of the virtues.

So it may be that the liturgy of the loom points us toward the wisdom of knowing salvation itself.  I’d like to believe that the Luddites thought likewise, and would love for someone to prove or at least suggest this in another book about them.

Dave

*Gene Sharp makes brilliant points about the benefits of non-violent struggle against states or state-sponsored entities in “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” available online.

**I.e, Tiberius Graachi, who committed himself almost entirely to non-violence.  But he did violate the Roman constitution and so became a law-breaker.  This may have cost his movement the fence-sitters they needed, and it also opened the door for the Senate to respond with force.

^The entirety of this paragraph owes everything to The Art of Seeing by Father Maximos Constans, pp. 108-109, as do the quotes below, found on p. 129

Healing Hierarchies

A good education should expose people to “otherness,” but our current discourse gives far too narrow a definition of “otherness.” We tend to focus on ethnicity or gender differences, and not necessarily other ways of perceiving the world. I believe the best form of “otherness” comes through exposure to other worldviews, other ways of thinking, and this can come in the most unlikely of places.

Many generally assume that we share much in common with medieval Europeans, and perhaps this accounts for our striking reaction to find profound differences, and we judge them quite harshly when they do not match our expectations. But if we started from a different mindset we would see them more clearly as fundamentally different from us, and this would help us actually learn more from them.

No scholarly consensus exists that I am aware of on the identity of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, except that he was not the Dionysius encountered by St. Paul in Athens. Perhaps “St. Dionysius” wrote in the tradition developed by this same Dionysius. Whoever he was, his writings had enormous influence over the medieval world, as C.S. Lewis points out in his great work The Discarded Image, and perhaps none had the influence of his On the Celestial Hierarchy. In one section he writes,

In my opinion a hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding, and an activity approximating, as closely as possible to the divine . . .  The goal of hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like unto God as possible and to be at one with Him. Hierarchy causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors  of reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God Himself. It ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God’s will to those members further down the scale.

We might expect St. Dionysius to praise hierarchy as a form of divine order on earth, and indeed he does just this. What might surprise us, however, is how he uses the term “generous” in regards to hierarchy, and how communally oriented his hierarchical vision is.

Author Andrew Louth comments on this passage that,

What St. Denys means, is that hierarchy is a radiant display that reaches out from God throughout the whole created order and draws it back into union with Him.  Whereas hierarchies to modern ears evoke separation, exclusion, [and perhaps exploitation], for St. Denys it connotes inclusion and union.

How far back in time should our concept of “western civilization” go? Lots of possible answers exist, but most would probably include the Middle Ages as part of western civilization. Yet, St. Dionysius had a significant impact on the life and culture of the medievals, and in this passage he entirely runs against the grain of one of major assumptions today regarding hierarchies. For St. Dionysius, it seems that hierarchies include rather than exclude because it ensures that everyone has a place, and that everyone has responsibility for someone else. The coherence of the world inhabited by St. Dionysius also allowed for everyone to know their place and, in theory, navigate it successfully.

St. Dionysius’ passage calls to mind an observation by Tocqueville, who warned at the potential downsides of democratic individualism. In a a guest post on the U.S. Intellectual History blog Jordan Heykoop commented that,

Americans are lonely. “Americanization”–understood by European intellectuals and political leaders in the twentieth century as an export of American products and values, an investment strategy to control the economies of other countries, an attempt to educate foreigners in the superiority of American institutions, or a process of modernization, all in the name of the free market–was in some sense an export of glorified loneliness.

A democratic and capitalist spirit cultivated this loneliness in America. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that aristocracy made “of all citizens a long chain that went up from the peasant to the king. Democracy, on the other hand, “breaks the chain and sets each link apart” as it constantly draws each individual “back towards himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly to the solitude of his own heart.” People in a democratic era are no longer bound through loyalty and obligation, values which are far-reaching and stable, but through common interest, which is malleable and subjective. Individuals gather to negotiate and calculate their interests, then disband. This sense of equality breaks social and communal links and leaves the individual looking inward for identity, place, and meaning.[

For Max Weber, a Protestant society, free from the structure and liturgy of the Catholic [or Orthodox] Church, cultivated a deep inner loneliness in which individuals worked desperately to discern signs of God’s favor. This discipline and sense of calling in a worldly vocation created the foundation for a capitalist spirit–the conditions under which a free market economy could thrive. America is the paragon of these processes. Late capitalism had become a “monstrous cosmos,” a world where the values of hard work and the sense of inner loneliness remained entrenched, but was completely unhinged from any religious foundation or teleological connection.[

Even supposing that you agree with Haykoop, we cannot snap our fingers, import the distant past, and make everyone feel comfortable again.* We are a democracy and cannot invent or import a hierarchy wholesale from nothing.

Perhaps the greatest expounder of St. Dionysius’ ideas was St. Maximus the Confessor. The back cover of Andrew Louth’s book on St. Maximus encourages us with the statement that St. Maximus is the theologian for a world in crisis. Indeed, St. Maximus shows us how practical theology can be.

Monistic religions leave no room to breathe, no room for distinctions, and thus create tyrannies. For example, though officially an atheistic state, the “party” represented a monistic tyranny in Soviet Russia. By definition, the “Party” was always correct, and all outside it cannot belong to the body politic. Such outsiders needed dealt with. Polytheistic religions might give more freedom in theory, but lack any point of unity. So these societies tend to succumb to (in Toynbee’s phrase) “the idolization of the parochial community.” Wars of all against all arise, like the Peloponnesian War in Greece at the end of the 5th century B.C.

By the 7th century A.D., the Church had worked out the doctrine of the Trinity (more or less), but had yet to fully develop the doctrine of Christ and the relationship between His deity and humanity. One key issue involved whether or not Christ had one divine will, or two wills in one person, a human and divine will. Maximus asserted that Christ had to have a human will to be fully human. In addition, it is the submission of Christ’s human will to His divine will that makes a pathway for us to become more like Christ and thereby “participate in the divine nature.”

Perhaps St. Maximus is best known for his development of the cosmic nature of redemption, and Christ’s fulfillment of various patterns within redemptive history.As one example of this, we can examine the Christ’s entering into the pattern of the right and left hand, and simultaneously affirming and transforming that pattern.

The idea of a “righteous” right hand and sinister “left-hand” go far back into history–at least the to Egyptians–but other ancient cultures used it as well. Even so-called “rational” cultures like the Greeks used such categories frequently. Indeed, while many today will mock such as ideas as superstitious, unless we want to fully embrace chronological snobbery, we must assume a universal truth to this pattern and category even if we fail to understand it.

Christ used such imagery when speaking of the last judgment in Matthew 25, and icons of this event depict this consistently.

Perhaps the most famous icon of Christ is the “Pantocrater” image, with Christ blessing all with his right hand, and holding the Scriptures (which also represents separation, categorization, and therefore some sense of judgment), with his left.

But we should hold back if we assume that Christ categorizes His creation merely terms of right and left imagery. Two of the greatest saints of the Church are of course Mary His Mother and St. John the Baptist. Mary bears God within her womb, and spent her formative years in the temple in Jersusalem–right at the very center of God’s presence. John the Baptist, on other hand (a phrase that indicates that we too still use something of the right/left imagery) wears odd clothing, eats odd food, and resides in the wilderness outside the city, in the realm of chaos. So, the Church depicts Mary on the right of Christ, and St. John on the left to indicate a hierarchical difference between them

Yet obviously the “left-handedness” of St. John does nothing to diminish his status per se in the kingdom. Christ calls him “the greatest among men.”

We see the same treatment of the two great apostles of the Church, Saints Peter and Paul. St. Paul comes later, he’s younger, and he actively persecuted the church. He comes as one “unnaturally born,” to use his own words. St. Peter was one of the original twelve, the “rock,” a witness to the resurrection, and the preacher at Pentecost. Peter will therefore be shown on the right of Christ, Paul on the left.

Yet we remember too Peter also denied Christ, and Paul rebuked him for embracing the teaching of the Judaizers in the book of Galatians. The right hand has its faults just as the left hand. The hierarchy can be both affirmed and transcended at the same time.

We need a St. Maximus’ today, or at least we need to heed his wisdom. On the right of the political spectrum we have those that affirm the values of order and unity at the “center.” They are wary of the fringe’s of society, and this can make for rigid authoritarianism. The far left exalts the fringe above the center, idealizing the exception rather than the rule.** But if the falcon’s widening gyre leaves no center at all, we will have chaos. Or rather, we will have a hierarchy, but one that will invert basic reality and create a purposeless and powerless structure, with the “oppression olympics” and the race not towards strength, purpose, and so on, but towards impotent victimhood as one example of this.

Christ shows us that submission of the human to the divine does not debase the human, but exalts it. Rather than set the right hand against the left He affirms both without denying the place of either. In fact, for the right and left to work properly, they need each other. His hierarchy includes rather than excludes. This, our only viable political path forward, gives witness to deep theological truths. Of course, St. Maximus suffered for these truths and for this way of life,^ and perhaps we may need to as well.

St. Peter on the right (of Christ that is, imagining Him at the center), St. Paul on the left

*The medieval period had its share of rebellions, violence, etc. I am not trying to glorify the past so much as point out the difference in how they saw their place in the world, and to attempt to put a finger on our current malaise.

**We should ask the question whether or not we have a genuine “right hand” in America. The left is socially liberal but wants more government control over the market. The right tends towards more social conservatism but wants the market to operate without restrictions to maximize efficiency, not seeing how the market easily disrupts traditional communities and economies (for example, when Wal-Mart comes to a small town, say goodbye to Main Street). In the end, libertarians embrace both “left-handed” sides of things.

As Patrick Deneen has commented, we have solid anti-authoritarian safeguards built into our national DNA, but it appears that we lack an antidote for excessive individualism. Of course, both sides have elements of the excessive fringe and the excessive center embedded within them. For the right, the excessive center manifests itself in dangerous forms of nationalism, but their fringe enters with its exaltation of individual rights. The left praises every form of fringe behavior as liberation from group consensus, but their “center” manifestation that all must adhere to proper speech guidelines, for example (note the various numbers of people banned from Twitter, for example, who do not conform to proper speech as defined by the socially powerful).

What we witness now, in fact, is what happens when we lose sight of Christ, the Son of Man, and the Son of God.

^As an old man the theological and political tide turned against St. Maximus, and he had his tongue and right hand cut off. He died without seeing any earthly vindication of his theological vision.

The Care of Souls

The Bill of Rights occupies a cherished place within American life and jurisprudence, so it comes as a surprise to many (as it did to me back in high school) that the founders added the Bill of Rights only reluctantly to get the Constitution ratified by enough states. It seems that the framers found such cherished guarantees as essentially unnecessary, and so adding them could only create confusion.

But they did add them, likely thinking that, “We think such things are not needed. Obviously, the federal government has no power to regulate speech, assembly, etc. But if you would like it made crystal-clear to alleviate anxiety, fine–here you go.”

The idea of “freedom of religion” in America comes in part from our history and our ideology. In a legal sense, it arises from the 1st Amendment, which reads,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

What once seemed solid now melts into the ether, as many today question proper limits for freedom of speech and religion. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed through Congress in near unanimous fashion back in 1993 (97-3 in the Senate) but might not pass through Congress today. No one has yet made a direct attack against freedom of religion, but recent controversies about sexuality have led to many now sniping at the edges.

As a conservative of some kind, part of me feels the obligation to defend religious liberty and our past traditions. But Steven K. Smith’s book, Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Principle of Religious Freedom made me rethink everything. His 2018 book Pagans and Christians in the City is bar-none the best book on the legal problem of religion and sexual ethics. This work details how legally and logically, the idea of everyone having complete “freedom of religion” was never attainable and should not be attempted. What I find most impressive is that Smith saw our modern problem coming back in 1993 when he wrote Foreordained Failure, a time when it seemed when America had re-enshrined religious liberty for all time with RFRA. Reading Smith is akin to cold water on your face in the morning–startling, but in the end, you draw a breath and see more clearly.

Onto Smith’s argument . . .

First, we should not see the Establishment Clause as an attempt to formulate a grand principle that could be used to adjudicate the future of the United States. Great differences existed among the states that ratified the Constitution, for example:

  • Relatively liberal Pennsylvania had blasphemy laws on the books well into the 19th century.
  • In New York, though they had no explicit laws, we find prosecutions for blasphemy into the 19th century as well.
  • Many states had Sabbath observance laws, the range of which differed widely. Virginia’s law (proposed by Madison the same day he proposed a religious freedom bill) prohibited disruption of services and unnecessary labor on Sundays. Many New England states went much further.

Many objected to these laws–John Adams thought blasphemy proscriptions inappropriate, for example. Still, while some questioned the laws’ morality or efficacy, none challenged the state’s legal right to have such laws.

The Establishment Clause could never have proclaimed a tight-knit principle about religion for the country because no national consensus existed. Rather, it proclaimed what everyone more or less agreed with–that the federal government could not make laws respecting religion, however much the states could do so.

Even the intellectual founders of the Liberal Order cannot accurately guide us. Smith looks at John Locke, whose A Letter Concerning Toleration outlines much of the modern ideology concerning religious freedom. Locke writes,

The care of souls cannot belong to a civil magistrate, because his power consists in outward force: but true and saving religion consists in inward persuasion of mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by force.

In this sense, Locke’s influence shines clearly–the government cannot regulate religion because it has no power to do so–whatever power it hopes to exercise will have no real effect anyway. Church and commonwealth are “perfectly distinct, infinitely different from one another.”

To some this could seem like the absolute principle we need for modern times, but Locke also seemingly contradicts himself. For one, he admits that morality comes under the purview of the state, and that morality and religion share beds. Thus, Locke will not tolerate atheists, because their denial of the existence of God undermines public faith and morality, and he denies toleration to Moslems, whose potential loyalty to foreign sultans make them suspect.

The second dilemma . . . Locke’s theory of toleration depends on a view of religion not shared by many religious people (Smith impresses me again again in this book by catching what many often miss). Locke assumes that:

  • Saving faith is a purely voluntary act
  • The church’s only business is that of ‘saving souls.’
  • He has no concept of the importance of ritual or outward observance or “show.”
  • For Locke, truth is where we arrive through independent and careful consideration of evidence, not through our communities, our rituals, etc. These inner beliefs can resist any outside coercion.

Even many secular Americans today would question at least one of these premises–probably #2. Most would criticize a church that sought to have no impact on the community. In America’s history we have numerous examples of churches seeking political and social goals that many would approve of, such as the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century, and the support given to the Civil Rights movement by many churches in the 1960’s. Smith writes,

The object of this discussion is not to determine whether either Locke’s premises or conclusion are sound or not. The point is that Locke’s account of toleration is dependent upon background beliefs about religion, government, society, and human psychology [that many will not agree with].

Whatever practices and precedents we set, we will have to favor a particular set of assumptions. We will have to discriminate, in a sense, as every law discriminates by declaring some things ok and some things not. The problem is that we

  • Believe that we are not discriminating, and that we can arrive a place of “neutrality” where all can agree, and we
  • Believe that we can find a universal principle to guide us in all circumstances

Smith thinks otherwise. At least in the 18th-19th centuries we left religion to the particular variances of the states, and so avoided our modern problem.

“Religious freedom,” then, will inevitably contain high levels of relativity.

Smith gives an example of a community with four hypothetically different perspectives:

  • Religious Voluntarists (traditional Baptists, non-denominationalists, etc.)
  • Religious Behaviorists (Catholics, Orthodox, some Lutherans and Presbyterians, perhaps Jews and Moslems as well)
  • Secular Optimists–those in favor of the idea of public good and collective action (progressives?)
  • Secular Pessimists–those opposed to collective action and the concept of public goods (libertarians).

Imagine a man named John wants to marry 3 wives, believing sincerely that this will aid in the salvation of his soul, and that of his family.

The religious voluntarist would grudgingly support his claim. Nothing should stand between a man and his conscience. The religious behaviorist would deny it–we cannot allow people to willfully harm their souls in such an overtly blatant fashion. The secular optimist might also deny it, based on a belief that polygamy hurts women, but the secular pessimist would likely allow it out of fear of too much state power.

Whatever the decision about John’s desire, some kind of religious belief must be preferred, and others discriminated against. We cannot avoid it, as it is the very essence of law itself to “discriminate.”

As an example, Smith takes the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, which overturned a law which forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools. The court understood that the law had at its root religious objections to evolution, but “the state may not adopt programs which aid or oppose any religion. This prohibition is absolute.” Smith finds the Court’s (basically unanimous) line of reasoning faulty.

First, it creates a syllogistic reasoning that could favor either side. If we cannot aid or oppose any religion, then the law in place aids some religious believers and opposes others. But the same happens if you strike down the law. Either way we must “aid” or “oppose” certain beliefs.

Second, those that favored banning evolution from schools did so not because six day creation was a religious idea, but because they thought six day creation true and evolution false. Many other religious ideas lend support to evolutionary theory. The plaintiffs had no interest in generically “religious” teaching, but in “true” teaching.

Smith pushes against this false idea of neutrality with a quick examination of Grove v. Mead School District, in which the plaintiff objected to the book The Learning Tree in her daughter’s public school curriculum along religious grounds. Judge Canby sided with Mead. He admitted that The Learning Tree challenges certain religious dogmas. But he took pains to point out that a variety of Christian thinkers, among them Paul Tillich, Hans Kung, and Karl Barth, all argue that “honest, and even agonizing doubt, is not incompatible with Christian theism.”

Whatever one thinks of the above quote, those who object to The Learning Tree on religious grounds would likely not respect Tillich and Kung as authorities on the question. Again, the issue is truth, not religion. Grove felt that the inclusion of the book was wrong, not anti-religious. Grove might not have minded a book her daughter had to read that criticized Buddhism or Greek paganism. Judge Canby favored one religion over another–and would have done so no matter how he ruled.

Smith also dismantles the idea of a “common denominator,” a frequent and comfortable refuge for the centrist American. The argument runs, “Some favor religion ‘X,’ some religion ‘Y,’ some favor no religion at all. But we can base jurisprudence on what all sides have “in common.” Smith writes,

In more familiar contexts we would immediately spot the common denominator strategy as fraudulent. Suppose Dad and his daughter have a disagreement about dinner. Daughter proposes: “Let’s just have desert.” Dad suggests it would be better to have a full meal . . . then desert. Daughter reponds: “Dad, we have some disagreements. But there is something we both agree on; we both want desert. Clearly . . . the “neutral” solution is to accept what we agree on. So serve up the desert.”

Dad is not likely to be taken in by this ploy.

Again, as in other examples cited here, for both daughter and Dad, the issue is not desert itself, but the meaning of desert. For the daughter, desert is dinner. For Dad, desert has no meaning without dinner. Smith quotes Michael McConnell, who writes,

If the public school day and all its teaching is strictly secular, the child is likely to learn the lesson that religion is irrelevant to the significant things of this world, or at least that the spiritual realm is radically distinct and separate from the temporal. However intended, that is a lesson about religion. [That curriculum] is not “neutral.”

Smith asks his readers to dismantle false ideas about freedom and neutrality. Much like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, he has a magnificent diagnosis of the problem. Like Deneen as well, he has no particular path forward. Liberalism–love it or not–we can’t really leave it. We have to make the best of it.

In 1993 those that disagreed with Smith could look around and see the ground holding in a general sense. Now, our religious divisions seem much more obvious. “Secularism,” as Smith points out, will not fix the problem, but probably just deepen the religious divide because it too picks a side. It appears, however, that we have gone through different dominant religions, and need to accept that at certain times, different religions take center stage and receive preference.

We might see it this way:

  • 1776-1846 — a frontier, democratized, individualistic Protestantism
  • 1846-1918 — a more universalized/nationalized Protestantism
  • 1918-68 — A civic faith in work, nation, and gain
  • 1968-2008 — Democracy as faith in self-discovery and self-expression
  • 2008-? — Something else that has yet to be decided. Who can say, but also –who can deny we are in the midst of another religious upheaval and redefinition?

This is a rather lame attempt to trace our religious history, but I might prefer open recognition of our particular religious faith over continual confusion. As always, religious dissenters will have protections and freedom of conscience and worship. This is a great thing about America. The “losers” need not lose everything. But they will lose something, and we should be prepared.

Dave

*Writing as someone who is Orthodox, reading Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, it now makes perfect sense to me why early America had a great suspicion of Catholics as detrimental to democracy. They–and the Orthodox–both believe that we know truth not primarily though independent and abstract investigation, but through community, tradition, participation, and ritual–in addition to some notion of “faith,” of course. As Mark Noll wrote, American democratic practice seeks to reduce truth to simple abstract propositions. Our beliefs about liberty eschew tradition and hierarchy, both crucial to Catholic & Orthodox practice.

Catholics, Orthodox, and others like them can “shoehorn” their beliefs and practice into democratic society, but they may not find it naturally compatible with their worldview.

Symbolic Matters

I am republishing this in light of a more recent post on another book by Steven D. Smith.

In Ezra Klein’s podcast with Rod Dreher, the subject of media and culture was front and center. They conversed at length with each person making important points, and I commend them both. Klein brought up what is a fairly standard critique of conservative Christians, that is (in sum), “Why so much focus on gay and transgender issues when there are many poor and suffering people in the world? Surely the Bible says at least as much about the poor as it does about sexuality?”

Dreher had a fine response, and no doubt the format might have limited his remarks. But I think Klein, and possibly Dreher to a lesser extent, fail to take into account the strong symbolic role sexuality has played in most every culture, and the role of the body as one of the primary means of communication.

Dreher linked to a post of Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex who speculates that the Pride/LGBT etc. movement may become the new civil religion in America. Alexander–who I believe writes as a supporter of his proposed theory, comments,

Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?

Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.

There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:

What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.

Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.

What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.

Again, based on Smith’s book discussed below, if it happens it should not surprise us, given the strong symbolic role that body has in our existence.

And now, the original post . . . .

In the letters of the Roman magistrate Pliny to the emperor Trajan, Pliny asks him about the official policy towards Christians. Christians have been brought before him, and he has condemned them to execution, but such matters are not trivial, and he wanted to make sure he followed the letter and spirit of the law.

Trajan wrote back and declared that, yes, if Christians appear before him, who will not recant, then such people should be executed. Trajan agreed with Pliny that Christians generally had nothing else against them other than that they professed the Christian faith, so, no need to seek them out. But Pliny should continue to follow the law. Christians continued to face death for being Christians.

But Trajan never addressed Pliny’s second question, which was (in sum), “Why, if Christians are generally good citizens who do not disturb the peace, do we need to punish them in the first place?” Many rank Trajan as one of Rome’s best emperors, but Rome loved practicality and viewed the Greeks as sissified for all of their reflective philosophizing. My guess–Trajan probably regarded the question with slight derision and, being a nice guy, politely ignored it. The law is law, end of story.

Steven D. Smith begins his insightful work Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac with this historical nugget, for he wants to attempt to answer Pliny’s unanswered question of “why?” Christian luminaries such as Tertullian, Athenagoras, and St. Augustine all pointed out the utter folly and injustice of Rome’s actions. In persecuting Christians, they argued, Rome removed its best citizens. Without discounting the truth of Rome’s cruelty, Smith considers if the Romans may actually been right in their instinct (without articulating it coherently) that Christianity truly posed a threat to their way of life. Gibbon, Pelikan, and many others point out that the Church did triumph over Rome, and that the Church, while able to reside peacefully within Rome, truly meant to end Rome’s way of life.

Recently we have witnessed a variety of almost entirely symbolic prosecutions and attacks of bakers, florists, and pizza joints who do not join in with the prevailing sexual orthodoxy. In a series of articles, Libertarian UVA Law professor Douglas Laycock bemoans the attitudes of those on the left. Plenty of options exist for gay couples for all marriage-related services. Why ferret out those who do nothing to stop you but simply disagree with your choices? Such people do nothing to impinge the freedom of homosexuals. In the same vein, why do conservatives attempt to stop people from engaging in sexual practices they object to, but have no impact on the lives of those who object? Both sides strive for the same symbolic but essentially “meaningless” victory, and it ruins our political discourse.

Laycock sounds quite reasonable, but Smith points out that these “victories” for which different sides strive have a great deal of symbolic value attached to them. Though symbols may not fit into a strictly rational worldview, Smith concludes that, “we live by symbols” and can derive meaning only from symbols.* Furthermore, religious belief always demands communal expression, and symbols shape and embody that expression. From this point, Smith’s book explores what the modern culture wars are all about through the lens of Christianity’s first conflict with imperial Rome.

Many today will likely admire the Romans for their tolerance, and wonder why Christians could not accommodate themselves to Rome. Rome, after all, found a way to accommodate a great many different religions into their empire. But no society can tolerate everything. And we, too, have “zero-tolerance” policies for what we truly deem important, such as drugs or sexual harassment, and so on. With the example of offering incense to the emperor, which many Christians refused to do, we can invent the following conversation:

Roman: You Christians are impossible. We let you hold your bizarre religious gatherings–albeit outside the city–but we let you hold them. We let you believe whatever you want to believe. We give you the benefits of the greatest empire the world has ever known, and you enjoy those benefits. We do so much for you, and we ask but very little, that you acknowledge the blessings of the authority under which you live. If you live among us we must know that you will follow our laws, and this is how you pledge yourself to that. You are disobedient. You are uncharitable–you take from us and give nothing back. And so . . . we cannot trust you, and how could we do so, after giving so much and receiving back so little?

Christian: We should be grateful for all that Rome does for us, and indeed, we pray for those in authority during every liturgy. In our sojourn here on Earth we can partake of much the world has to offer, and justice demands that we give honor where it is rightly due. But your policy asks us to accommodate our monotheism to your polytheism. You suppose that sacrifices to the emperor are a small accommodation, but you ask us to abandon monotheism and accept polytheism. You ask us to change our religious beliefs, which is surely the most significant accommodation you could possibly ask.

Striking parallels exist between imperial Rome and our own day, and the conflicts engendered between Christians and pagans. One such area involved creation and the natural world. For the Romans, the gods infused the world around them with their presence, and every city had its sacred sites. Christians rejected this direct immanence by emphasizing the transcendent nature of God that had little to no overlap with pagan belief.

But the complexity of Christianity greatly mitigated these differences regarding creation. While God is transcendent, He is also imminent. Many scriptural passages talk of creation praising God, and God calls humanity to steward creation. Christians too had/have their sacred sites involving saints, relics, pilgrimages, and the like. So too today, while many viewed as “anti-science” come from certain segments of the evangelical community, Christians and “pagans” find much common ground with moderate environmentalists, though will eventually part ways over certain particulars.

A much more significant divide came with sexuality, where the Roman approach to sexual ethics looks strikingly modern (what follows applied almost entirely to men in the ancient world, not women):

  • Sexual behavior was entirely natural, and few restrictions should be placed upon it.
  • Sex was “healthy,” and self-denial in regard to sex was considered mildly dangerous and “anti-human.”
  • Sex brings us closer to the divine, for all the stories of the gods (goddesses, not as much) have them cavorting with various women.
  • Use of the male sexual organ had a halo of sacredness surrounding it, but how one used it had very few restrictions. One could “sleep with” slaves, prostitutes, or even other men or boys, provided that one was never the “female” in such a relationship.

I am not the person and this is not the format to give a full treatment of the traditional Christian view of sexuality. But in brief:

  • The Fathers of the church quickly realized the Scriptural hints about the sacred nature of sexual behavior, and its connections to our life in God. But . . . sex serves at most as a pointer to a more fuller, transcendent reality that will be present only when the Kingdom of God is fully present. It is not an end in itself.
  • Many Christians believed in the sanctity of sexuality in some way, but the sanctity of sex is the reason for the various restrictions Christians placed on sexual behavior. To protect its meaning and purpose, sex needs strong fences, such as limiting it within marriage between a man and woman
  • Living fully as human beings meant taming and restricting our “appetites,” for the ability to do separates us from the beasts. So, while the Romans thought that the more or less indiscriminate indulgence in sex made us more human, Christians believed it made us sub-human–just as over indulgence in eating would do the same, i.e., a dogs will eat anything put before them, as much as they are given.

How deep these differences really go, Smith asserts, comes down not to logic and private self-interest, but the more nebulous (but simultaneously more real) world of symbol. Symbols cannot be fully explained, but have to be experienced–one knows it when we live it. I lament the effect the culture wars have had on eroding our social fabric and institutions. But though Smith never quite explicitly states it (that I found), he strongly hints that such wars will inevitably be fought. For our culture to have cohesion it must have meaning, and this meaning can only come from a common communal understanding. Symbols work only in this way.

Clearly, for us today as the Romans then, sexual behavior occupies a crucial space within our culture. We may not believe sex to have the sacredness that it did for the Romans, at least in an overtly conscious sense. We likely relate sex in America to our deep beliefs about personal expression and the self. What unifies modern and ancients on both sides, Smith suggests, is the divide between the transcendent and the imminent.

For example, Smith states, no one really questions the motto, “In God we Trust” on our money, but “one nation, under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance has received significant constitutional scrutiny. Smith finds the difference in the word “under,” which assumes a transcendent deity in ways that “In God we Trust” does not (this “God” need not be above us but exclusively “among us” for us to define and control).

If Smith is right about this in particular, so much the better, for it gives us clarity in a confusing debate. But his other assertion holds more weight. Our disagreements about sex** may very well be an unconscious proxy for our ideas about meaning and community. Perhaps Smith doesn’t excuse the culture wars, but suggests they will continue. It also suggests that our diseased political culture has not caused this divide. Rather, we might flip our normal way of discussing the culture wars on its head. Perhaps our divergent ideas about sexuality (dating back at least to Roe v. Wade and the Sexual Revolution) have fractured our idea of meaning and community, and this fracture manifests itself in various ways.^

Our founders put priority on minimizing centralized power. They knew that humans can get contentious, but sought to make lemonade out of lemons. Our propensity to conflict would create different interest groups, but in the end they would all cancel each other out, preserving liberty. Thus, the Constitution was not meant to create a tight-knit political community, but essentially sought to prevent its formation.Obviously, this experiment has worked on a number of levels. But now that most churches and other community defining organizations have declined in numbers and importance, we have lost our ability to determine meaning in any kind of public sphere. Tocqueville warned us that this might happen if our more private and local communal connections eroded. And so, here we are, seeking meaning from the only viable institutions most of us have any familiarity with–the federal government. This may be what distinguishes our current cultural problems from those we previously experienced, and why we invest so much emotional and moral weight into our politics.^^

Following Smith’s largely unspoken line of thought brings us to a sober realization. Our seemingly silly fights might actually have great importance. If we can focus on the real issue at hand, perhaps we could make progress in solving them.

Dave

*This comment may seem confusing or silly if you think of symbols as images only. If we take the older meaning of symbol and apply the term to ways of understanding beyond the literal and physical, it makes more sense. Parents of teens will surely have encountered this before. Your child asks for “reasons” and “explanations” for your various edicts, but you can’t always provide to the degree they wish. No amount of explanation suffices, for you want them how to live “into” a world, one that can’t be entirely shown them from the outside.

**This includes abortion as well. Some hard cases exist on the fringe of the issue, but at its root is the issue of human autonomy and sexual freedom. I believe it likely that most of the debate about “when life begins” for the pro-choice side is a smokescreen for the right to create a “safe space” for us to adopt a more pagan attitude towards sexual behavior.

^The rapid changes in accepted sexual morality recently may be extra evidence for Smith’s claim. He points out that Seinfeld may have been a turning point. Most every character led sexual lives that would not have fit into any previous sitcom. But to balance this, the show did not promote the main characters as morally serious in any way. From there, we had Friends, and then The Office which were still comedies but the moral seriousness of the characters increased as their sexual ethics remained much the same as in Seinfeld.

^^Perhaps the one place where people can find some semblance of community and belonging is college campuses, and perhaps this is why many students and professors have sought to make their campus into a kind of temple and dramatically infuse it with doctrinaire ideologies, sacred spaces, and taboo speech. Like Ross Douthat, I deplore a great deal about the campus protests, but I understand the impulse. While I admire efforts from a quite ideologically diverse group of people like Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Camille Paglia, and Candace Owens to further free-speech and open debate, we need to realize that such things in themselves will not save us.


G.L. Cheesman: “The Auxilia of the Roman Imperial Army”

The author knows he is writing about something arcane and of little general interest. He does little to spruce up the writing — he at times seems to wallow in the details, perhaps getting a secret laugh out of boring his readers. My eyes glazed over more than once.

The book is thorough, but still brief enough for someone with just enough interest to glean some tidbits. I am far, far from having any comprehensive knowledge about Rome, but I wanted to read this to test a theory. Gibbon puts the fall of Rome essentially beginning after Marcus Aurelius. Others, like Toynbee put it far earlier. I tend to see it happening sometime after the 2nd and before the 3rd Punic War, and I wanted to see what Cheesman analysis of the Roman army had to contribute to this debate.

Early on Cheesman makes some interesting observations, namely that the imperial army was more versatile and specialized than any army of the Republic. This probably has do with the fact that they encountered different cultures and fighting styles as they expanded. They added cavalry (one may recall the serious weakness of the Roman cavalry when they faced Hannibal), usually getting them from far flung conquered provinces.  But no one would think that the Imperial armies were superior to say, those under Scipio Africanus ca. 210 BC. In other words, increasing complexity and specialization may not have been a sign of strength, but subtle weakness.  The increased specialization shows they had too many burdens in too many places around the globe to maintain a coherent fighting force with a fixed identity.

Also, Cheesman points out that many of the recruited ‘auxilia’ (auxiliary troops attached to the legions, recruited from conquered provinces) often rebelled against their new masters when stationed near their home territory. This could be fixed by shipping them elsewhere, but this created awkward burdens and costs involving transport.  Surely it also lessened the effectiveness of these auxiliaries, as they had to fight far from familiar territory.

The fact that Rome faced so many rebellions within its ranks tells me that Rome lost its mojo long before Marcus Aurelius, contra Gibbon. These rebellions came despite the fact that some emperors fast-tracked the path to rights and citizenship for many auxiliary regiments. They were being more ‘progressive’ in a sense, but it made no difference — things were not working as they used to for Rome. One need only recall the general solidity of their alliance system during the much greater stress of the 2nd Punic War to see this happening.

With more knowledge of Imperial Rome, more patience, and more military background I might have gleaned more from this work.  Still, one always likes their theories backed by neutral observers! So, my gratitude to G.L. Cheesman for his somewhat tedious, partially sleep inducing, yet still occasionally quite insightful book.

Dave

What Happens when Germans Go Nuts?

They make a rational, thoroughly scientific, argument for the existence of Atlantis, located in the Atlantic (right where Plato said it was) destroyed cataclysmically somewhere around 9000 B.C. (apologies to one of my favorite ad campaigns).

I have written before about the likelihood of advanced civilizations that existed long before their so-called beginning around 4000 B.C.  But it is so much easier to propound vague ideas then to make a concrete case for a specific civilization, let alone one for which we (seemingly) have no evidence for except Plato’s account in one of his dialogues.  And then you realize that one of the more credible arguments for the existence of Atlantis was written by Otto Muck . . . who invented the U-boat schnorkel for the Germans in W.W. II.  Yes, he came over to the U.S. like many other former German scientists after the war, but still, it does not help the case that he worked for the Nazis.

But first, Muck reminds us that Plato discussed Atlantis in two dialogues, not one, the Timaeus and Critias.  Plato has Socrates relate many myths throughout his work, but he speaks of Atlantis in strictly factual terms.  Like many others, I suppose, I had never actually read the full account of Atlantis in the dialogues and Muck makes a good point.  Plato, at least, seems to believe in the historicity of Atlantis, or certainly, Critias does, and he gives a lengthy description filling at least 15 pages of its size, location, topography, plants, and the like.  Critias talked about how the Greeks first learned of Atlantis from the Egyptians, still considered quite wise by the Greeks even in Plato’s day, via the great legislator Solon–Athens’ George Washington.  Plato invests a lot of heavy-hitters in his account of Atlantis.

It makes perfect sense to me to believe in a cataclysmic flood, as it is spoken of in every major religion of the ancient world.  I expect to find, along with Graham Hancock and others, the existence of civilizations that long predate the fertile crescent of 4000 B.C.  I delight in Jon Anthony West’s interpretation of Egypt’s history, for example, and find it persuasive.  But I cracked the cover of Muck’s book skeptically.  I don’t approach questions like this even primarily scientifically, let alone entirely so.  Still, with Atlantis, even I needed something to hold onto besides stories.  With other sites, you have megalithic architecture, for example.  For Atlantis, I need more than Plato’s account.

I give Muck credit.  He understands skepticism as a scientist and confronts head-on, piece by piece, in methodical fashion.  Some of what Muck wrote I found very intriguing, and other stuff, not so much.

To begin, Muck asks where the Atlantic ocean got its name.  Well, obviously from the Atlantis story, but this means very, very little.  Slightly more intriguing is Muck’s examination of the very similar phonetics between the god Atlas (apparently spelled out ‘Atlants’), who stood at the middle of the world upholding it, and the name “Atlantis” and its topography, which Plato tells us had a large mountain.  Well . . . ok, but . . . ?

He moves on.

If we look closely at Plato’s description of the topography he tells of a huge variety of plants and food that one could find there.  It seems almost fantastical. We assume the variety couldn’t really exist, given the size and location Plato mentions.  But if we consider the gulf stream moving across the Atlantic, then match it with the mountains described by Plato as well as the location, it matches.  You would have warm air from the south-east, with a large mountain in the center impacting the Arctic air, and the variety described by Plato is possible.  What makes this more intriguing is that Plato probably did not have the biological and topographical knowledge to make this up.

More interesting is the Gulf Stream itself.  If you compare latitudes for northwestern Europe and its overseas counterpart, you know that Europe is a lot warmer than the upper reaches of North America.  The Gulf Stream makes this possible.  But we also know that thousands of years ago Europe was much colder.  Then, around the time of Atlantis’ supposed destruction, it started to warm up.  What if the Gulf Stream did not always flow across to Europe, but instead was diverted by a continent in the middle of the ocean?  That could account for the temperature difference at first, and the shift after.

Perhaps the most bizarre, yet intriguing, argument Muck makes involves the habits of eels.

Apparently, a breed of eels exists that spawns in the Sargasso Sea (located just to the east of Atlantis on the map above).  For the longest time scientists could never understand why these eels undertook a long and dangerous migration across the Atlantic.  The females find European rivers, the males sit and wait in the ocean while the female eels fix their hair.  Ok, ok . . . observers discovered that the females can only come to sexual maturity in fresh water, hence their need for rivers.  But why travel east across the Atlantic.  It makes much more sense, from an evolutionary perspective and every other perspective, to go west from the Sargasoo.  The existence of Atlantis, however, would explain this.  For who knows how long the eels would go east for only a short distance from the Sargasso to the rivers of Atlantis.  The destruction of Atlantis did not alter their genetic memory.  They still swim east, and no doubt suppose that when they hit the coast of Europe they are back in Atlantis, more or less.

Plato considered Atlantis a bridge of sorts between land on either side of the ocean, and Muck explores some of the connections between the Americas and the world of Plato’s day.  He considers possible racial connections, considering that the typical look of the Basque people would fit well for a possible Atlantean type, since that “look” could fit in the western parts of Europe, north Africa, and Meso-America–the old sphere of Atlantean influence.  Muck makes you think hard throughout his work, but I think this the most ridiculous of Muck’s arguments.  Maybe I am just squeamish when an ex-Nazi helper-guy talks about race, but it seems that if the Atlantis story is true, 10,000 years of post-Atlantis destruction intermarriage would dilute the racial stock.

Perhaps more interesting are the ancient pyramids built by the Egyptians and Meso-Americans.  Muck seems to argue that both cultures acted as preservers of some kind of Atlantean legacy even thousands later in the post-apocalyptic reboot of civilization.  Perhaps the pyramid shape was meant to recall Atlas and Atlantis’ great mountain. This is more convincing than the racial argument, but I still think it fairly weak.  Both cultures built their structures thousands of years apart, and it seems they had different purposes in mind.  Muck’s earlier arguments about climate, topography, and the gulf stream stand on much more solid footing.  His analysis about the mapping of the ocean floor of the Atlantic indicates the possibility of an Atlantean like form still lying on the ocean floor.

As for the cataclysmic end, Muck has an answer for that as well.  Plato’s description has Atlantis lying right around the mid-Atlantic ridge, a potentially volcanic region.  The diagram below right shows the ridge shows the newest ocean floor crust in red:

Muck believes that a very large asteroid struck earth right around 9000 B.C., which matches remarkably with the chronology offered by Plato’s account.  Here is one of a variety of articles on the subject, with impact dates ranging between 10,000 to 13,000 years ago.  Some argue that this asteroid or comet struck the polar ice caps.  Muck argues that it struck somewhere around the mid-Atlantic ridge.  If Atlantis existed, and if a very large asteroid struck near the mid-atlantic ridge, you could easily have had a gigantically massive subterranean volcanic eruption that literally could have had Atlantis sink into the sea in a single night.

Muck doesn’t need the asteroid to hit the mid-Atlantic ridge necessarily.  If it did strike the polar ice-caps, it would have caused the destruction of Atlantis in a global deluge not overnight, but within a week or so at the most.

I have left out a great deal of technical information Muck includes, and must content myself with a general summary.

Muck knows he cannot absolutely prove his case one way or another.

I am a big fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work with Heterodox Academy, which encourages more ideological diversity on campus.  Haidt readily acknowledges his liberal beliefs–he has never voted Republican–but even he agrees that the situation has gotten dangerously imbalanced in many departments across many campuses.  He has discovered some interesting links, not surprisingly, between religious belief, psychological temperament, and political affiliations.  You can take various fun tests at his link here.

Just as political leanings often come from moral and religious beliefs, I think what one thinks of Muck’s book will depend on a variety of factors that go a bit deeper than the evidence itself.

If you look to disagree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a committed ‘gradualist’ in all things geological
  • You are strictly scientific in deciding about the past and would hardly value Plato’s account as evidence of any kind.
  • You probably hesitate in part because you don’t want to be associated with various new age crazy people who believe in the existence of Atlantis for all the wrong reasons.
  • You need “hard” evidence like clay tablets, pots with markings, the stuff that archaeologists would find, before you would acquiesece to Muck

If you look to agree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a contrarian by temperment
  • You weigh lots of different kinds of evidence much more equally than those committed to a particular field
  • You think it would be “cool” if Atlantis once existed (an attitude most abhorred by the strict scientific type, who would see this feeling as meaning absolutely nothing.  I think they are right, but only about 90% right in their approbation of this attitude).
  • You admit the possibility of great catastrophe’s altering the fabric of human history as well as geology.

I fall in the latter category, but hope that I have been fair to the former.  Again,some parts of Muck’s book I found nearly persuasive, and others not so much.

To illustrate some of the above differences, we can examine Jon Anthony West’s work in Egyptology.  He got famous/infamous for suggesting that erosion patterns on the Sphinx suggested that it was much older than was commonly believed, and was likely built by a civilization that predated Egypt perhaps by a thousands of years.  Dr. Robert Schoch, who earned his Ph.D in geology at Yale, analyzed the Sphinx and agreed with him.  You can see the video–narrated by Charlton Heston!:)–here.

When Schoch presented his findings at a conference, Egyptologists present could say little about the actual data he presented.  But one retorted, “Well, you say that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before, but if another civilization built it, where is the evidence?  Where are their tools?  Where is their writing?”  Schoch could only stare back rather dumbfounded. Hadn’t he just presented evidence in the form of the Sphinx?  Perhaps they did not accept the fact of the Sphinx itself as evidence because it did not fit into their preconceived notions of what constitutes evidence, which has to be in the form of writing, pottery, etc.  Of course, if a highly developed civilization did exist somewhere around 10,000 B.C., it would have suffered catastrophic collapse as a result of the asteroids that struck Earth around that time.  If they did have a written language and if they made pottery, it would have been washed away almost immediately.

We see how these different areas of belief work together.

So I say, let the Germans go nuts.  Let them make far-fetched claims.  It beats some other avenues they have taken in the past . . .

Magicians of the Gods

I consider myself a mild agnostic on certain things about the ancient past.

I have no firm commitments about the age of the Earth.  I also have no commitment to the development of life on a macroevolutionary scale, thus I have no need for a very old earth.  As much as I understand the science, it looks like the earth (or at least the universe) has a very, very long history.  But I am intrigued by some young-earth arguments on the periphery out of curiosity.  Among other things, a lot of ‘old-earth’ arguments don’t take into account a cataclysmic worldwide flood.  If such an event happened, geological dating would need recalibrating.

When it comes to the book of Genesis, my commitments get deeper.  I am open to both literal and ‘mythopoetic’ interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis.  We can also combine them and probably both methods have their place.  But certain messages seem absolutely clear, among them:

  • That humanity fell from a state of grace, innocence, peace, etc. into a type of chaos
  • That our sin fundamentally altered the nature of human existence
  • That the change in humanity was physical as well as spiritual.  One may not believe that the lifespans given in Genesis are literal.  But the pattern is clear.  Adam and the earliest humans lived much longer than those at the end of the book.  By the end of Genesis we see that something about humanity has changed drastically.
  • The formation of civilizations happens very quickly.  It is almost the default mechanism of humanity.  Cain builds cities right away.  After the flood we have the Tower of Babel, and so on.

This reading of Genesis informs my reading of ancient history.

There is a version of early pre-history, common in most textbooks, that runs like so:

  • The earliest humans were basically ignorant and violent hunter-gatherers that lived in small groups.
  • At some point the climate changes or the herds thin out.  Food resources dwindle, forcing them to cooperate with larger groups to survive.
  • Because now you have to stick close to water, you get rooted to a particular spot.  You can’t just follow the herds.
  • So, you invent agriculture.  When you have really good harvests, you have a surplus.
  • This surplus gives the group leisure.  With this leisure they build more tools.  Eventually they build governments and laws.
  • As society expands governments have a harder time holding everything together.  So, they either invent religious practices or codify them in some way for the masses, which finishes the development of civilization.

This view is called “gradualism” or “evolutionary gradualism” or something like that.

I entirely disagree with this view.  The book of Genesis certainly at bare minimum strongly hints at something much more akin to devolution, and myths from other cultures hint at the same thing.

Enter Graham Hancock.

I don’t know exactly what to make of him.  The fact that he is an amateur bothers me not at all.  Those very familiar with this blog know of my love for Arnold Toynbee, and one of his main causes involved championing the amateur historian.  He makes no claims to fully understand some of the science he cites but relies on others with special degrees.  You can’t fault him for this.

He also has a restless curiosity about the ancient world that I love.  He willingly dives into unusual theories with a seemingly open mind.  His understanding of Christianity is deeply flawed.  But . . . his argument against the evolutionary development of religion could have come from any Christian.  Many evolutionary theorists acknowledge the social utility and advantage of religious belief.  But, he argues, there would be no obvious evolutionary advantage to saying, “We must take time and effort away from survival, making weapons, improving our shelter, etc. to build a large structure for a god that, fundamentally, we are making up.  In the evolutionary model it makes no sense that anyone would think of this and that others would somehow agree. Or, you would have to believe that the intelligent people that planned and built these temples were tremendously deluded, and furthermore, that this delusion occurred in every culture.  To crown it, if all we have is matter in motion, how would anyone think of something beyond matter in the first place?

Magicians of the Gods has some flaws.  It bounces around too much for my taste, and in some sections of the book the arguments change.  One review stated that,

Speaking as someone who found [Hancock’s earlier book] Fingerprints of the Gods to be entertaining and engaging, even when it was wrong, I can say that Magicians of the Gods is not a good book by either the standards of entertainment or science. It is Hancock at his worst: angry, petulant, and slipshod. Hancock assumes readers have already read and remembered all of his previous books going back decades, and his new book fails to stand on its own either as an argument or as a piece of literature. It is an update and an appendix masquerading as a revelation. This much is evident from the amount of material Hancock asks readers to return to Fingerprints to consult, and the number of references—bad, secondary ones—he copies wholesale from the earlier book, or cites directly to himself in that book.

Alas, I agree with some of these criticisms.  But I think some of them miss the overall point Hancock attempts to make.

When evaluating Hancock v. the Scientific Establishment, we should consider the following:

  • Arguments in the book involve interpretations of archaeology and geology, two branches of science that are relatively young, both of which have to make conclusions based on a variety of circumstantial evidence.  Science usually comes down hard on circumstantial evidence, and “proof” is hard to come by in these disciplines.  But some that attack Hancock do so when he suggests or speculates, and then blame him for not having “proof.”
  • Hancock is right to say that the Scientific Establishment is too conservative.  But, this is probably a good thing that Science is this way.  This is how Science operates.
  • Hancock cites a variety of specialists and laments that the “Establishment” pays them little heed.  I think that some of these “fringe” scientists may truly be on to something that the conservatism of the academy wants to ignore.  But . . . some of them may be ignored by the academy because they are doing bad science.  How does the layman decide when degreed specialists radically disagree?  We may need a paradigm outside of science to judge.  In any case, Hancock too often assumes that scientists with alternative ideas get rejected only for reasons that have nothing to do with science.
  • Some reviews give Hancock a hard time for referencing earlier books of his. This can be annoying, but . . . on a few occasions Hancock references his earlier books to disagree with or modify his earlier conclusions.  In the 20 years since he wrote Fingerprints of the Gods he has “pulled back” from some earlier assertions in light of some new evidence.  This seems at least something like a scientific cast of mind, but his critics seem not to have noticed this.  Should he be criticized for changing his views?
  • His book cover and title might help him sell copies, but it looks too gimmicky, and is guaranteed to draw the suspicion of “Science.”

I wish he made his central point clearer throughout and summed it up forcefully at the end of the book.  But we can glean the main thrust of his argument.

First . . .

Emerging evidence exists that a major comet, or series of comets, struck Earth some 12,000 years ago.  While this may not yet have the full weight of the scientific establishment behind it, many regard it as an entirely legitimate proposition.  It is not a fringe idea.

Many in turn believe that this comet struck to polar ice-caps, causing a flood of literally biblical proportions.  Those who believe in the Biblical flood need not ascribe this as the cause, but perhaps it could have been.  Of course many other ancient cultures have stories involving a cataclysmic flood.

Well, all this may be interesting, but this had little to do with the history  of civilization (so the argument goes) because civilization did not emerge until sometime around 4000 B.C., well after the possible/likely? meteor impact flood.

This brings us to Hancock’s second assertion, that civilization is much older than we think.

The discovery of Gobeki-Tepe some 25 years ago began to revolutionize our understanding of the ancient world.

No one disputes that the site dates to thousands of years before the so-called beginnings of human civilization.  The stone work is precise and impressive.  Recent radar penetrations indicate that even bigger, likely more impressive stone work lies beneath the site.

Here we come to a fork in the road.

  • We can rethink our assumption of early hunter-gatherers.  We can assume that they were far more advanced than we originally thought.  We can assume that they could organize in large groups and they possessed a high level of development and skill, including that of agriculture.  But then, would they be hunter-gatherers if they acted this way?
  • Or, we can assume that mingled with hunter-gatherers might have been the holdovers of a previous advanced civilization, perhaps one mostly wiped out by a global cataclysm.  These are the “magicians of the gods” Hancock postulates–those that emerged from the mass extinctions caused by global flooding, who perhaps took refuge with hunter-gatherers.  Perhaps they had a trade of sorts in mind: 1) You teach us survival skills, and 2) We teach you how to build, plant, and organize.

Option 2 might seem crazy.  It would probably mean reversing our gradual, evolutionary view of the development of civilization at least in the last 10,000 years.  But we have seen something like this already–an undisputed example of it after the fall of Rome.  All agree that in almost every respect, Roman civilization of 100 A.D. stood far above early medieval civilization of 800 A.D.

But Gobekli Tepe is not the only example of something like this.  Archaeologists observe other sites where earlier architecture seems far more advanced than later architecture.  Take, for example, the Sascayhuaman site in Peru, not far from where the Incas developed.  This wall, for example,

almost certainly predate the Incas by thousands of years.  The Incas later certainly could build things, but not in the same way, as the picture below attests (and it looks like they tried to copy the older design in some respects).

At Gobekli-Tepe, the recently deceased project head Klaus Schmidt commented regarding the parts of the site still underground that, “The truly monumental structures are in the older layers; in the younger layers [i.e., those visible to us at the moment] they get smaller and there is a significant decline in quality.”

Some similar possibilities of much older and possibly more advanced civilizations exist in Indonesia and other sites around the world. For example some believe that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before the pyramids.  There is some water erosion evidence that could support this theory.  There is also this intriguing ancient alignment with the Sphinx and the Leo constellation:

If true, this could mean that the Egyptians built the Pyramids where they did because they knew the site was already sacred from a previous era, or even possibly, a previous civilization.

With this before us, at bare minimum, we can strongly argue that the standard gradual and uniform process of the development of civilization should be in serious doubt.  If we accept this, then two other possibilities follow:

  1. Some civilizations went through periods of great advancement* and then fell into a period of steep decline, after which they never quite recovered their former glory.  A massive flood certainly could have triggered this decline.
  2. Another possibility is that we may be dealing with different civilizations altogether.  Hancock ascribes to this view.  For him, sites like Gobeckli Tepe served as a time capsule of sorts, a clue, or a deposit of knowledge for others to use in case of another disaster.  This may raise an eyebrow or two, but one of the mysterious aspects of Gobeckli-Tepe that all agree on is that they deliberately buried the site and left it. Who does this?  Why? Perhaps they wanted this site preserved so that it could be used in case of another emergency to restart civilization.  If this is true, there is much we do not understand at all about this site.

Those that want a tightly knit argument heavily supported by the scientific community will be disappointed by Magicians of the Gods.  But for those that want a springboard for rethinking the standard timeline of the ancient world, the book does very nicely.

Dave

*Michael Shurmer of Skeptic magazine argued against Hancock, saying that, “If they were so advanced, where is the writing?  Where are the tools?”  But why must writing be a pre-requisite for advancement?  Or if you believe writing is a hallmark of advancement, what if this previous civilization was more advanced in many other ways? And if they built buildings, isn’t it obvious that they used tools, even if we can’t find them?  If they built them without tools, wouldn’t they be really smart?

Maybe no tools exist at the site because they didn’t live near the site, for whatever reason.  But where they lived has nothing to do with how advanced they seem to have been.  Like Hancock, I’m not sure what else we need other than Gobekli Tepe to prove the point.

 

 

 

To the Victor go Some of the Spoils

Many often declare that since, “To the victor go the spoils,” so too, that, “Victors write the history books.”  This pithy phrase assumes that historical narratives boil down to power, a concession to postmodern theory that I am loathe to make.  Aside from the debate over the theory, however, history itself will not confirm the statement.  Several examples exist to prove this point:

  • The Athenians exiled Thucydides but we read of the war that helped bring about his exile almost exclusively through him.
  • Athenian Democracy “won” by executing Socrates, but subsequent generations of readers learned Athenian democracy primarily through Plato’s eyes.
  • The triumph of the “imperial” system over the Republic in Rome became a fact of life after Augustus, but we think of that triumph foremost through the writings of Tacitus, a significant critic of most of the emperors.
  • The North won the American Civil War, but the Confederacy had a variety of champions shortly after the war and a variety of sympathizers today,

and so on.

As Tocqueville noted, mere physical force can control the body but often has the opposite impact on the soul.  The examples above demonstrate also that, contra the mundane postmodernist, shaping how we see the world has much more to do with our imagination that rote political force.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Excellent Empire disappointed me overall.  He is likely one of the few who could have possibly made a history of Christian doctrine an exciting read, and he did just that in his four volume work The Christian Tradition.  In The Excellent Empire he flashes his ability to deftly dance from text to text, but seems to get trapped into the detached tone of his main subject, Edward Gibbon, whose The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire forms the backdrop of this book.

I give Gibbon much credit for his labors, his erudition, and for having a defined point of view.  Alas, he writes like a know-it-all, and I cannot buy into how he frames his narrative.  Pelikan seems to accept Gibbon’s perspective (or–is just playing a scholarly game, or am I too dense to notice something else?), and discusses how GIbbon’s perspective relates to Christian thoughts at the time from Sts. Jerome and Augustine, as well as a touch of Salvian and Orosius.

Gibbon’s work is an interesting examination of who gets the last laugh.

Roman contemporary critics of Christians viewed them as a drain on the Roman state, and in many ways enemies of the Roman state.  Jerome saw the collapse of Rome in the most starkly apocalyptic terms, and in the most anguished.  He compared Rome’s end to various passages from Revelation.  He saw Rome as ripe for judgement.  Yet, he grieved over their fall, seeing their end as the end of all things as he knew them.  Augustine took a more cerebral approach, which gained him some more penetrating insights.  He conceived of a Rome built upon shaky foundations from the start.  In one brilliant passage from Book 3 of The City of God he writes,

First, then, why was Troy or Ilium, the cradle of the Roman people (for I must not overlook nor disguise what I touched upon in the first book(2)), conquered, taken and destroyed by the Greeks, though it esteemed and worshipped the same gods as they? Priam, some answer, paid the penalty of the perjury of his father Laomedon.(3) Then it is true that Laomedon hired Apollo and Neptune as his workmen. For the story goes that he promised them wages, and then broke his bargain. I wonder that famous diviner Apollo toiled at so huge a work, and never suspected Laomedon was going to cheat him of his pay. And Neptune too, his uncle, brother of Jupiter, king of the sea, it really was not seemly that he should be ignorant of what was to happen. For he is introduced by Homer(4) (who lived and wrote before the building of Rome) as predicting something great of the posterity of AEneas, who in fact founded Rome. And as Homer says, Neptune also rescued AEneas in a cloud from the wrath of Achilles, though (according to Virgil (1))

“All his will was to destroy
His own creation, perjured Troy.”

Gods, then, so great as Apollo and Neptune, in ignorance of the cheat that was to defraud them of their wages, built the walls of Troy for nothing but thanks and thankless people.(2) There may be some doubt whether it is not a worse crime to believe such persons to be gods, than to cheat such gods. Even Homer himself did not give full credence to the story for while he represents Neptune, indeed, as hostile to the Trojans, he introduces Apollo as their champion, though the story implies that both were offended by that fraud. If, therefore, they believe their fables, let them blush to worship such gods; if they discredit the fables, let no more be said of the “Trojan perjury;” or let them explain how the gods hated Trojan, but loved Roman perjury. For how did the conspiracy of Catiline, even in so large and corrupt a city, find so abundant a supply of men whose hands and tongues found them a living by perjury and civic broils? What else but perjury corrupted the judgments pronounced by so many of the senators? What else corrupted the people’s votes and decisions of all causes tried before them? For it seems that the ancient practice of taking oaths has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of perjury.

Such analysis gave medieval Europe a whole new foundation of political and religious ideology on which to proceed.

Rome attacked Christians for not giving themselves fully to the well-being of the state.  For the Romans, this might have taken the form of not giving due sacrifices to the emperor, or not joining the army.  Gibbon pointed out as well that the best men in the Church gave themselves to the Church, and not Rome.  Imagine a Rome where Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, etc.–with all of their energy and intelligence–served as provincial governors instead of bishops.

Jerome and Augustine responded variously with how Rome had doomed itself to destruction via its sins, or how Christians were in fact the best citizens of Rome.  Their analysis won the day.  Monastics, for example, appear on the surface at least, to not contribute anything to the well-being of civilization.  But monastics would be honored in the west for the next 1000 years.  Their presence made no sense to either the Romans or to Gibbon.  The “social triumph of the church,” as Pelikan calls it, gave the Church the power of interpreting Rome’s history.  But I gathered that Pelikan thought Augustine and Jerome thieves, to a certain extent.*  Perhaps for Pelikan, Gibbon restored Rome’s vision of itself back to the stream of history.

Augustine and Jerome appeared to be the victors in the 5th century A.D. and beyond, as the Church had a strong hand on shaping the next millennium.  But historical spoils can be slippery things.  In an irony that perhaps not even Gibbon might have foreseen, today’s Christians, having abandoned much of the otherworldliness of the Church of the 5th century, may find more congeniality with Gibbon’s interpretation as opposed to Augustine’s.  What modern mega-church leader, for example, would tell anyone to become a monk?  We have our eyes set on this world and have no concept of how to patttern ourselves after the heavenly realms.  Some may applaud this.  But without the worldview of Augustine and Jerome we may find ourselves wishing, along with Gibbon, that St. Augustine had served as proconsul of Alexandria.

DM

*I could be totally wrong here.  Part of the difficulty I had with this book was I felt that I was reading a different Pelikan than the one I encountered in The Christian Tradition.  I had assumed that The Excellent Empire was written before this series, because its tone seemed more distant to me, less committed to the idea of truth than The Christian Tradition.  I knew that Pelikan had converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1998.  But I had somehow thought (how I thought this I’m not sure) that The Christian Tradition was written during/after his conversion, when in reality the early volumes stretch back to 1973, and the last volume predates his official reception into the Church by eight years.

This could mean that

  • I have misread Pelikan entirely in The Excellent Empire
  • Pelikan is deft at hiding his particular point of view from the reader and is simply examining certain points of view in a more detached way.
  • He does admire Gibbon (which is understandable) and agrees with Gibbon that Christians really did bring down Rome from the inside out.  This stance is not Augustine’s or Jerome’s, but it is certainly not an anti-Christian idea in itself.  Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream may hint at this (Daniel 2).  Perhaps I am too ingrained in my distaste for Gibbon’s pompous Enlightenment attitude to see that, despite this weakness, he may have been right after all about the Church’s relationship to Rome.

 

 

 

Animalia Agonistes

Given that I was 17 when Nirvana released Nevermind, the album obviously completely blew me away. For some time the subversive nature of the lyrics eluded me, lost as I was in the joy of our culture granting new-found permission to wear flannel shirts untucked. But then, one notices their audience mockery, such as in “In Bloom”–“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, but he knows not what it means.”

I confess to feeling a bit guilty for thinking of this song in reference to the monumental achievement of J.M.C Toynbee and her book Animals in Roman Life and Art (yes, she was the sister of that Toynbee). I have no wish to mock as did Kurt Cobain, but I confess frustration with the traditional British historian. The British, like all cultures, should own and even celebrate their quirks. And perhaps nothing quite says “British” like the charming codger who has spent his entire life curating a particular old building, and can tell you everything that has ever happened to every plank of wood. This same trait gets passed on to many of their historians, our esteemed author included. In her day she stood as a substantial authority on Roman art in general, and perhaps the authority for the Romans and animals–no mean achievement.

But she takes all of that knowledge and . . . writes a reference book. She fails to make her facts into a poem, to make her knowledge sing. Knowing everything, she “knows not what it means.”

I will make a meager attempt to do so.

But first, some of the fascinating facts about Romans and their relationship to animals.

Some years ago I saw a documentary on gladiators, and the video mentioned the “ecological disaster” inflicted upon wildlife. Surely, I thought this must be overdramatized. Apparently not! The numbers are numbing:

  • Some 9000 animals were killed at the inaugeration of the Colosseum, many of them “ordinary” animals which were not ferocious, such as foxes. Women killed some of these animals.
  • Trajan killed 11,000 to celebrate his Dacian Triumph
  • In one show, Nero’s bodyguard brought down 400 lions and 300 bears
  • Having beasts fight each other formed part of the spectacle as well.
  • From the late Republic on, having thousands of animals killed (most of them threatening) for a particular “celebration” was rather ordinary–the examples are too numerous to list to here, though Toynbee lays them out nicely.
  • All in all, some estimate that as many as 1,000,000 animals died in the arena (not to mention 400,000 humans), and it does indeed appear that certain species disappeared from certain regions of the globe due to this.

Some other more “tame”(zing!) factoids:

  • Elephants may have become a symbol of divinization for the Romans by the time of Emperor Tiberius. In addition, the Romans appear to have been able to train elephants to do unusual tricks, including walk a tightrope.
  • Aelian noted that he had seen a monkey trained to drive a chariot.
  • Lions were frequently featured on tombs by the age of Augustus, and dogs also were symbols of death.
  • On rare occasions, they kept bears as private pets.
  • In contrast to Judeo-Christian civilizations (and most others), the Romans regarded snakes as beneficial creatures.
  • The Romans had little regard for the tortoise, but the term they used for their interlocking shields was “testudo,” obviously borrowed from turtles. Turtle shells were also prized as baths for infants.

And so on. The book has hundreds of observations akin to these. So far, so good–she brings forward a variety of interesting facts. She helpfully reminds us that in a civilization that Rome’s relationship to its animals would have been much closer than ours. They relied on animals for farming, transport, and the like far more than we, and perhaps more than other contemporary civilizations (given their size, road structure, mobility of their army, etc.). But the data points never take us anywhere. Some might find this a humble attitude. I do not. Certainly there are plenty of times when one should keep their mouth shut, but I think Chesterton’s quote applies here:

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition and settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table

If you are the world’s foremost authority on animals in Roman art, surely you can risk some of your accumulated capital and venture some highly educated guesses. Alas that she does not.

Two points in particular raised eyebrows with me that might shed a more general light on Roman civilization.

One is from page 68, where she writes,

[Here] two mosaic panels show a well-maned lion devouring a dark grey fawn. . . . The lions are arena beasts . . . [Another example] shows a lion holding in its maw the head of an antlered stag, which drips abundantly with blood. Lively amphitheater scenes are indeed, not uncommon on the floors of well-mannered houses.

Later, on page 83, she writes about leopards and describes another mosaic:

Above the three are dying leopards, each transfixed murderously by a barbed spear, writhing in agony, one rolled over on its back. Below, two venatores, one labeled MELITTO, are each driving a spear into the leopard’s chest, from which gush streams of blood. A dying leopard, also speared, lies in the background. . . . the realism with which they are portrayed is excruciating; and this picture raises in a most acute form the problem of how householders could wish to perpetuate such scenes of carnage on the floors of their home.

Though the problem be “acute,” she says not one word about it!

In a few other instances, usually involving lions or elephants, Toynbee tells of written texts that speak of people starting to sympathize with animals in the arena, even coming to root for them against their human counterparts, with thousands in the crowd weeping as they were killed. One might expect that such instances would serve as a spark for moral revolution, but this never came close to happening. Objections to the practice in any written record can be listed easily on one hand over a period that spans many centuries.

Can we put these curiosities together?

On one hand we have the “modern” answer to the problem which would run like so:

  • The Romans were a calloused, bored, and violent people. Such people would go to the games, cheer the games, and celebrate the games. The fact that they decorate their floors with scenes from the games is not much different than us putting up posters of our sports heroes in action.
  • Yes, they did lament the cruelty of the games at times. But again, when a player gets badly injured we too get quiet. If the injury is particularly bad players and fans might cry. But though the injury may cause us pause, this will not stop us from watching the next game or even the next play.

This explanation might be true, but I doubt it is. It seems too neat, too comfortable to the modern mind, to fit an ancient civilization.

We can start an alternate inquiry by asking what purpose the games served in Rome. Based on Carlin Barton’s wonderful insights, we can say that the games did not serve strictly as entertainment, but rather as an extension of their religious belief. Moderns like to separate religion from other aspects of life, the ancients would not have understood this distinction.

Most know that the Romans saw themselves as “tough” and “hard,” so we naturally assume that their drunken revels were a departure from that, a sign of decadence. But the Romans saw these seemingly disparate aspects as part of the same cloth. We are hard on ourselves in the army–we are hard on ourselves at parties too. We will eat until we cannot eat, then vomit, and eat some more–and still strive to enjoy it all. We push ourselves to endure both pain and pleasure in its maximum degree. Moderation?–not a thing in Rome.

My guess, then, with the animals and the arena, is that they could weep for them not so much because they felt sorry for them, but because they saw them as partners in the struggle of life. They weep for them falling as they would lament the deaths of their soldiers. Toynbee points out the close and varied relationship Rome had with animals, so this might fit with her work. So too, they have mosaics of dying animals in their homes not to revel in their destruction, but to honor them as fellow participants in the “Roman way,” just as we have posters of our sports heroes to honor their achievements.

So too, seeing lions and elephants as symbols of death and divinization might explain why they participated in the arena. Just as a Roman could be “divinized” by transcending normal human attributes such as fear of death, so too the animals could achieve this same level, in a sense. The title of this post recalls Milton’s poem, “Samson Agonistes.” Milton portrays Samson as a great champion,, but one imprisoned also by his “inner struggle” (a rough translation of “agonistes”)–and perhaps glorified by this same struggle? The Romans may have thought they were being generous in sharing their glory by sharing their struggle with the animals.

I may be wrong, but I do feel that ancient civilizations are generally “weirder” than we usually expect, and taking this approach will eventually lead to the right answer. Given how many unusual observations Toynbee made, it grieves me that she failed to use her enormous gifts to attempt a synthesis.

“The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”

The Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon pointed out with some ridicule that in the Arian controversy, Christianity got into a kerfuffle over the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet — the iota.  At the Council of Nicea Arians wanted the word “homoiousios,” meaning “similar substance” inserted into the creed concerning the nature of Christ.  They were comfortable thinking of Jesus in divine terms, but not as an equal to the Father in His essence.  Led by Athanasius, the orthodox contingent objected, insisting on the word “homoousious,” meaning “same substance.”

For Gibbon and other Enlightenment oriented thinkers, this all seemed too much.  Such minutiae, such trifling, would upset things so unnecessarily.  Given that Gibbon liked nothing better than a well-oiled worldly machine, he saw the controversy as so many wrenches in the works.  Of course Gibbon missed the point entirely.  The difference between viewing Christ as fully God as opposed to merely “God-like” changes one’s conception of the entire universe, creation, and history itself.  When it comes to our theological understanding, what we worship will have dramatic consequences.

I’ve always believed that understanding religious belief formed the key to understanding any event in history, be it great or small.  Often this is more easily seen in the ancient world, where religion showed on the sleeves much more so than today. But men are men, and as a man thinks, so he is (Prov. 23:7).   Mark Noll  points out the religious roots and the religious mistakes of both North and South in his excellent The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.  Noll’s analysis gets to the heart of the real differences between North and South, and shows how these religious differences formed the roots of the political disagreements that led to war.  Both sides professed belief in the authority of the Bible, and both sides reached different conclusions.  That’s obvious to anyone, but Noll’s approach shows these different interpretations came from the same source American/Enlightenment source, and that makes this brief work a real treasure.

By 1850 America experienced a deep political crisis, but astute observers of the day saw that the roots went deeper. A Protestant ethos merged nicely with Democratic principles in America quite easily.  The individual should be able to read, reason, and think for himself.  Both Protestantism and Democratic government rest on the idea that truth always has a “plain” and obvious character.  It could be argued that an agreed upon “atmosphere” of sorts existed between Protestant denominations despite their differences (Noll takes this for granted and does not argue the point).  But in 1844 both Methodist and Baptist churches (the largest in the U.S. at that time) experienced deep schisms.  A broken Church will lead to a broken nation, and leaders from the North and South predicted this. Henry Clay opined that, “this sundering of religious ties . . . I consider the greatest source of danger to our country. In 1850 John Calhoun of South Carolina warned that if the great Protestant denominations finally broke, “nothing would be left to hold the States together except force.”*  Noll writes,

If we keep in mind that it was never only a matter of interpreting individual biblical texts, but always a question of putting actively to use the authoritative Book on which the national culture of the United States had been built, then we are in a position to understand why in 1860 battles over the Bible were so important, why divergent views of providence cut so deeply, and . . . why the Civil War illuminated much about the general character of religion in America.

First, the South.

Southern arguments in defense of slavery had the advantage of simplicity and (the apparent) strict fidelity to the Biblical text.  They pointed out that . . .

  • God allowed Israel to have slavery
  • Abraham and other luminaries owned slaves
  • Jesus never condemned the institution of slavery
  • Nowhere in the epistles is slavery ever condemned.  In fact, slaves are repeatedly told to obey their masters.  Paul, after finding Onesimus, an escaped slave, has him return to Philemon.

Thus, to argue (as abolitionists often did) that anyone who practiced slavery could have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity flies in the face of the entire and obvious biblical teaching on slavery.  The case was open and shut.

Northern arguments also strove for stark clarity and simplicity.

The most common arguments usually had the following characteristics:

  • Slavery had inextricable links to tyranny and moral abuses that the ethic of the Gospel strenuously opposed
  • Slavery contradicted principles of justice, love, and mercy found throughout the Bible
  • Slavery went against the general spirit of the “brotherhood of mankind” propounded by certain texts, like Galatians 3:28.

In other words, anti-slavery arguments inevitably used first principles but tended to avoid textual rigor and so failed to deal head-on with what pro-slavery advocates said.  Furthermore, many anti-slavery arguments wedded themselves to “natural reason,” “self-evident truths,” and “republican practices” and at times relied on these ideas more than Scripture itself.  Thus, as Noll comments, “The primary reason the biblical defense of slavery remained so strong was that biblical attacks on slavery were so weak.”  Again, Noll doesn’t dispute that slavery was wrong.  His point is one rarely made, that Northern arguments against slavery had some of the same flaws as pro-slavery arguments.  Thus, the two ships were likely to pass in the night.

Much better arguments against American slavery existed from some Protestants, and interestingly, some Catholics as well. Such arguments pointed out that . . .

  • Using Israel as an example for American slavery made the mistake of conflating Israel with America, a mistake Americans had been making for generations.
  • If the South could used ancient Israel for support, they should be informed by their practices.  For one, slaves had rights in Israel, and they did not in the South.  For another, Mosaic law prescribed years of Jubilee every 7th year and again at the 50th year in which all slaves were freed and all debts canceled.  The South never practiced this.  And again, slavery in Israel was not racial, perpetual, or hereditary. The South condemned themselves by asking to be judged by the law.
  • Certain biblical principles of justice, mercy, and love certainly applied to arguments against slavery.  But these more careful Protestant and Catholic voices applied them differently than most abolitionists.  For starters, they kept such principles clear of democratic ideology — on which Scripture remains silent at least directly (and pro-slavery arguments pointed this out).  The goal for the Christian, according to these arguments, was not so much to live in light of specific texts, but in light of the flow of history itself.  If God’s Kingdom is not just coming but is already here in Christ, we have to live in light of the “now” reality of God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom we will not/do not enslave one another.  Evidence exists for this not just in Scripture, but in the early history of the Church.  Christians worked to liberate slaves and medieval civilization stood as the first major civilization in history to essentially eliminate slavery.  It got reintroduced only in the Renaissance, when pagan, Roman concepts of property and ownership tragically got transported back into Europe’s bloodstream.
  • The Roman example of slavery also condemned southerners, at least to an extent.   For one, Roman slavery lacked the racial character of Southern slavery.  In one of the best chapters in the book, Noll pulls from numerous sources that show that the real problem for the South was not slavery but race.

So whatever one might say about slavery in a general vacuum, no good arguments existed for slavery as practiced by the ante-bellum South.

Unfortunately such arguments never made it into the mainstream of American cultural life.  As to why, we might assume something along the lines of a “short attention span,” but this fits modern times more readily.  In fact, audiences flocked to hear discourses and debates of all kinds in the mid 19th century. Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 spoke for many hours at a time to packed audiences.  One debate on slavery lasted for multiple hours over multiple days to an audience of several hundred.  Rather, the reason lies in the common roots shared by mainstream arguments about slavery on both sides.

The mainstream arguments for and against slavery before the Civil War had the following characteristics:

  • They involve no more than a 1-2 step reasoning process
  • They insist on the “plain” character of truth.  Neither side could be described as anti-intellectual, but arguers for both sides seemed to show an exasperation with the need to develop arguments at all.  The truth was so obvious!
  • Anti-slavery arguments relied on “simple” principle, pro-slavery arguments on isolated small texts.  Both arguments only functioned along one track, one line of thought.

Whichever side won the argument (i.e., the war), the future for having the Church influence culture looked bleak.  The Enlightenment had done its dirty work.

Subconsciously perhaps, we reject oversimplifications because reality and our experience have more complexity and mystery than the Enlightenment can fathom.  Rejecting this truth condemned us to search aimlessly for generations hence to fill the void with politics, “The American Dream,” sex, and the like.**  Obviously western theologians could and did make nuanced and complex arguments, but western culture as a whole failed to notice or heed them.

As a buttress to his observations about slavery arguments, Noll includes a section on the idea of God’s providence as debated before and after the war.  True to form, both sides found obvious answers to the results of the conflict.  For the Southerners, even their defeat showed the rightness of their cause, for “God disciplines those He loves” — i.e. — “We are experiencing discipline, showing God’s love for us, showing the rightness of our cause.  For it is often true that the godly rarely prosper in this world.”  For the North, their arguments had a simpler character, though no doubt the South would have made them had they won the war.  “We won.  God was and is on our side.   Therefore we were/are right.”  Lincoln understood better, and pushed back on this simple approach.  We may always know that God has events in His hand, he agreed, but the particular application of His providence often remains a mystery to us.  Not even someone of Lincoln’s stature could get others to embrace this more nuanced view.

Noll’s work has great value for his illumination of the state of religion in 19th century America.  What makes it even more intriguing is how he reveals what may be the central problem of American political and educational life.  Our problem really resides not in short attention spans, not in one political party or the other, not the sexual revolution, or other such movement. Rather, Americans need to grapple with how our democratic ideology meshes with the nature of truth itself.

Dave

*Noll includes some interesting statistics showing the decline of religion and growth of government.  This should not surprise us, as Calhoun (not someone I’d like to agree with very often) foretold.

  • In 1860 about 4.7 million people voted in the presidential election, but in that same year between 3-4 times that many regularly attended church  on Sundays.  In 2004, about 115 million went to the polls, which equaled the number of regular church attendees in 1860 (Noll should take into account, however, the fact that women and many minorities did not vote in 1860).
  • In 1860 the number of Methodist clergy alone equaled the number of postal workers.  Today the ratio of postal workers to Methodist clergy approximates 9-1.
  • Before mobilization in 1860 the number of active duty military was about 1/2 the number of clergy in the country.  In the early 21st century, before mobilization for the war in Iraq, the ratio of military to clergy was about 3-1.
  • In 1860 the total income of the churches and religious organizations nearly equaled the federal budget.  Today the ratio of federal income to annual religion-related giving is about 25-1.
  • In 1860 about 400 institutions of higher-learning existed, with nearly all of them run by religious groups.
  • In 1860 there were 35 churches for each bank.  Today there are four churches for each bank.

**In an interesting digression, Noll points out that warfare and dramatic social change have often produced great works of lasting theological depth.  One thinks immediately of Augustine’s The City of God, but numerous other examples exist (St. Bernard during the Crusades, and St. Francis experienced a dramatic shift after fighting in a small war.  In the modern era, Bonhoeffer comes most clearly to mind).  By that model, the Civil War should have, but failed, to produce any significant theological insight, and this reveals a thin theology throughout North and South at that time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the great storytellers of the 20th century, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy — all came from liturgical and historical traditions.  Lewis and Tolkien both fought in W.W. I, and O’Connor and Percy both suffered from lifelong illnesses.

Despair and Exaltation in Ancient Rome

The phenomena of Roman gladiators has gotten lots of attention over the years, and that’s no surprise.  One way of quickly getting a sense of an ancient people is to seek what details stand out and makes them look odd, impressive, or otherwise shocking to modern eyes.  The gladiatorial games, like human sacrifices for the Aztecs, Egyptian tombs, or medieval cathedrals all fit the bill.

We usually see the gladiatorial contests as evidence of Rome’s decline.  Rome got wealthy, Rome got bored and decadent, and so it needed the bread and circuses to maintain order in a tumultuous political climate. “How sad,” some say, “and how dramatic a change from Rome’s hard and flinty past!  But, when a big empire goes south, it will go south on a grand and terrible scale.”

So the story goes.  But, what if, like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, we had it contrariwise?  What if the Rome of the gladiatorial games is simply the Rome that always was, and money and power just gave them more opportunities to expand their sense of themselves?  Such are the implications of Carlin Barton’s eye-opening The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster.  Barton wants to show us that our modern categories of thought and experience will not work for Rome.  We cannot say, “Well, we like football so we’re just like the Romans.”  This shallow method will not cut it for Barton.  She asks us to go deeper and to notice the Romans on their own terms, and gives us plenty of food for thought to reconsider the meaning of Rome, and what it means that Rome was a “religious” society.

Barton examines the gladiatorial games, one of the more sensational aspects of Rome’s past.  The title focuses on the concept of “sorrow,” but Barton tries to examine the games through a lens of the tension between asceticism, discipline, glory, indulgence, and exaltation.  We might think of the Romans as orderly people who lived in the middle of the road.  If true, Barton suggests that they could do so only by holding opposites in constant tension.

For an example we have the Roman triumph.  Anyone familiar with Roman lore and tradition knows that Rome itself, not a particular individual, occupies the heroic position.  They wove their fear of too much individualism into their laws and customs.  The valued communal fraternity so much that one of their laws states that,

If any person has sung or composed against another person a song such as was causing slander or insult…. he shall be clubbed to death,+

and they valued order and gravitas to the extent that they banned excessive mourning at funerals.

But at the same time they gave massive official “Triumphs” to certain generals on occasion, where the whole city came out to shower the victor with praise.  But as the victor processed, his soldiers could–and perhaps should?–sing bawdy or insulting songs about their general in direct violation of law, while a slave rode with him as well to remind him of his mortality.*

Barton tries to explore this at least seeming tension through the lens of the so-called “circuses” of Rome, which Barton writes were a, “Powerful opera of emotions in which the gladiator was the star.”

Most people, most of the time, imagine themselves doing good more often than not, and suppose that others will naturally share the assumptions they make about themselves.  The same holds true for countries and perhaps especially for imperial powers, who tell themselves that they come with blessings for all, and get a shock when they find themselves not always as appreciated as they feel they deserve.**  So too with gladiators and the games, the Romans saw themselves as benefactors.  Barton pushes back on the modern notion that they served as mere entertainment for a swelling populace that needed distracted.

The Romans saw themselves as giving gladiators a chance to redeem their low-estate, even to become something more than a mere man–an act of generosity.  The crowd attends to cooperate and encourage this transformation, not so much to gratify idle curiosity but rather to partake in a kind of religious apotheosis.  To begin, the military oath had a great deal of similarity to the gladiatorial oath. Seneca wrote,

You have enlisted under oath.  If any man say that this is a soft or easy form of soldiering they will only wish to mock you.  But be not deceived: the words of this most honorable of compacts are the very same as those of the most foulest [i.e., the gladiator’s oath]: to be burned, to be bound, to be slain by the sword.  You must die erect and invincible. What difference will it make if you gain a few more days or years? We are born into a world in which no quarter is given.

Thus, Barton comments, the gladiator became a kind of soldier/philosopher, one who lives between life and death, understands both, and can mock at both.  This in turn gave him license to become a new man.   If the emperor claimed his life, one might see it as akin to a god claiming his own.  His death, then, was not necessarily a cause for sorrow.

This gives us a new image of the crowd’s role at the games.  The crowd does not so much cheer for life, or death, but for a communal religious right.  Seneca again comments,

I judge you wretched because you have never been wretched yourself.  You have passed through life without an adversary. No one will know what you are capable of, not even you yourself will know.  And so there are men of their own accord [i.e. gladiators] come forward to challenge reluctant misfortune, and sought an opportunity to blazon forth their worth when it was about to pass into obscurity.  Great men glory in adversity, as do brave men in battle. 

The injuries inflicted by the powerful must be borne, not just patiently, but with a glad countenance.  At the table of a king every meal is a delight. So must they drink, so must they respond, so must the laugh at the funerals of their loved ones.

To glory in suffering is to become glorious.  So even in death, the gladiator wins.  He shows his exalted status by despising life.  As one commented on D. Junius Brutus: “He behaved so basely that he deserved to live.”  The crowd could occasionally assume risk as well, flocking to rickety theaters that could collapse or catch fire at any time.  They cheer on the gladiator toward his glorious suffering just as they–albeit in a more limited fashion–participate in that same suffering, that same embrace and defiance of death.

With this in place we can view the decadence of the Romans in new light.  Gladiators lived beyond normal life, so they could indulge themselves freely, embracing the extremes of life and death.  St. Augustine commented that the life of the gladiator involved licenstious cruelty, an excess of indulgence in everything.  And yet at the same time, they functioned as Rome’s ascetics, able to abandon their very lives to the people of Rome.  Their lives do not belong to them and in so doing their lives can belong to all. They simultaneously embraced both extremes, the demi-gods of Rome who lived beyond the lot of mortals.

This is why the crowd could cheer even the losers in combat, for in their death they display their superiority to death, unblinking, and unafraid.  It was only when the combatants shrank from death that crowd turned on them, and then with stern vengeance.  Showing fear of death made them normal once again, and once they became “normal” they turned the games into something shameful and cruel, rather than something “exalted.”  A gladiator’s fear of death ended the crowd’s participation in the ritual and suddenly transformed the event to a mere butchery.  Who wants to see that?

This is why Rome embraced fleshly decadence as a kind of asceticism.  In Rome one must learn to endure all things and keep going.  A Roman can embrace everything and maintain his dignity.  He can die, and he can eat, vomit it all up, and eat some more.  He can endure death and every form of excess life throws at him and “triumph.”  It is hard to say whether the banquets and excess of late-Republican Rome derived from gladiator culture or vice-versa, but I suspect the former.  J.E. Lendon at the University of Virginia seems to suggest in his Soldiers and Ghosts that the Romans had an extraordinary ability to do almost anything to avoid shame.  That ability could include

  • A strong aversion to any kind of trickery in warfare.  The only honorable way to fight was to march straight into the enemy and smash them in the mouth.
  • A strong aversion to a fear of death and ready acceptance of suicide as superior to even small personal or political failures among the political elite, and
  • As Barton points out, a refusal to accept any limits not just on pains^ but even on the pleasures that one could endure, such as eating six meat pies, spewing it out, and still look forward to eating the seventh.  The man who lost the ability to desire had lost something of himself.

One might see the how these practices could stray into some rather bizarre sexual realms.  Clearly gladiators enjoyed status as sexual objects, and Barton is hardly the first to discuss this.  But she did, if it be possible, help me understand Caligula, at least indirectly.  Of course no one can possibly excuse Caligula via “understanding!”  But in Caligula we see the same kind of excess of cruelty, physical and sexual indulgence, along with religious ecstasy as we see in gladiators.  Caligula claimed a kind of deity for himself.  Perhaps this was insanity, but perhaps he was simply following the gladiator ethic of testing himself, pushing himself, to extremes of vice and religious glorification, courting disaster but not shirking from the challenge.

Maybe.

I found Barton’s book in turns fascinating and perplexing.  I don’t know what it means for understanding the breadth of Rome’s existence from start to finish.  In the preface to his history, Livy wrote that, “Of late wealth has brought us avarice, and abundant pleasures, yearning–amidst both excess and the desire to perish and destroy all things.”  It is a familiar trope of ancient historians, but that has no particular bearing on the accuracy of his interpretation.  Still, I tend to see what happened with gladiators not as a weird appendage of the late-Republic/Empire, but as an integral part of Rome that lay under the surface initially, and grew in prominence over time.

For example, the Romans established the office of aedile very early in their history in the 5th century B.C.  Most aspects of how they functioned look very Roman in our usual sense of the word, as they maintained buildings, streets, laws, etc.  But, they also had charge of public entertainments or other public events, such as large funerals.  Aedlies were expected to fund these out of their own pocket, and many could easily go bankrupt during their time in office.

But the Romans saw the role of aedile as a crucial stepping stone to higher office, where the opportunities for glory and riches increased.  Caesar risked everything and beggared himself to win the election of pontiff, then used the office for fabulous gain.  This pattern was established long before him, however, this yo-yo between poverty and wealth, despair and exaltation.

It seems fitting to give the last word here to an important critic of all of this mess, St. Cyprian of Carthage, who wrote,

Man is killed for the pleasure of man, and to be able to kill is a skill, an employment, an art.  He undergoes discipline in order to kill, and when he does kill, it is a glory. What is this, I ask you, of what nature is it, where those offer themselves to wild beasts, whom no one has condemned, in the prime of life, of comely appearance, in costly garments?  While alive they adorn themselves for voluntary death and miserable as they are, they even glory in their sufferings

Dave

+It seems particularly Roman to me that their wouldn’t say, “shall be executed,” but rather the more stark, “shall be clubbed to death.”

*Some might say that these exceptions have much in common with medieval carnivals or days of “misrule.”  I disagree, and I assume Barton would as well.  The medieval carnival temporarily suspended normal reality to a) reset/refresh the existing order, and b) demonstrate the reality of a world beyond our own.  The Romans seemed to live in perpetual earthly tension within one plane of existence.

**I do not mean for this to serve as an all-encompassing statement on the question of how empires do or do not benefit those under their control.  The question is complicated and perhaps no one good general answer exists.  All I mean to assert here is that imperial powers assume that they are helping and not hurting.

^If we look at the 2nd Punic War, one can imagine almost any civilization surrendering in 216 B.C. after Cannae.  Poylbius points out the political structure of Rome as one of the keys to their ultimate victory and ability to persevere.  Certainly that helped.  I think the real key, however, was Rome’s culture/religion that told them to suffer–to embrace suffering.  This should tell us that:

  • Indeed, what we saw with gladiators was present earlier in Rome’s history (in a more noble form).
  • Culture and religion trump politics.  One can see a parallel in W.W. II where Germany inflicted unimaginable losses against the Soviets in the first few months their attacks.  Any rational man would assume a surrender would be forthcoming.  Yet, somehow, the Soviets kept going and eventually destroyed the Nazi’s.  The Soviets and the Romans had very different political systems, but both drew from religions that taught them how to suffer–albeit in different ways for different reasons (in the case of the Soviets it was Orthodox Christianity, which made a significant unofficial comeback during the war).

 

 

The Mysteries of the Monotheistic Pharaoh

I loved The City of Akenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People. I loved it even though I skipped large chunks of it, and some of what I read went beyond my understanding.  This may sound strange, but Barry Kemp’s work is such an obviously great achievement that it goes beyond whether I like it or not.   All that to say, I do really like the book, and wish I had knowledge and the ability to follow him all the way down the marvelous rabbit holes he traverses.

The book puts a capstone on Kemp’s 35 years excavating the city of Amarna, a city built by Akenaten IV (sometimes known as Ikhneton).  Akenaten has long fascinated Egyptian scholars, mostly because of his religious beliefs.  He departed from the religious beliefs that dominated Egypt for centuries and clearly attempted to change the religious landscape of Egypt in general.  He may have been a monotheist, which adds to the potentially radical nature of his rule.

Differing interpretations swirl around his time in power, as we might expect.  Some like to view him as a great rebel against the constraints of his society.  Some view him as a great religious reformer.  Today, given the overwhelming influence of tolerance, the mood has switched to seeing him as a tyrant and usurper.  I hoped Kemp could help sort out some of these dilemmas.  His book reveals much, and also creates more mystery at the same time.  After reading we get no absolute conclusions.  Usually when authors do this I get frustrated.  But in Kemp’s case, who can blame him?  The historical record is 3400 years old.

But before we get to this, Kemp and the publisher deserve praise for the aesthetic aspects of the book.  It feels good in your hands.  It has thick and glossy paper.  The text and numerous illustrations mesh very nicely.  The book has an almost ennobling quality.  You feel smart just looking at it.

I also have to admire Kemp’s style.  If I had spent 35 years in excavations at Amarna and then wrote a book it would almost certainly have a shrill, demanding tone.  “I spent all this time here and now you are going to look, see, and appreciate it all!”  But Kemp writes in a relaxed, thoughtful manner that seems to say, “Ah, how nice of you to drop by.  If you’d like, I have something to show you.”

So many kudos to Kemp.

But now on to Akhenaten himself.

What was he really trying to do, and how did he try and accomplish it?

Clearly Akenaten wanted something of a fresh start for Egypt.  He moved his whole seat of government and started building a new city called Amarna.  In Egypt’s history this in itself was not all that radical, and other rulers have done something similar, notably Constantine with “New Rome.”  Unlike “New Rome”/Constantinople, however, Amarna appears to be way off of Egypt’s beaten path.  This idea in Egypt means something different than it might for us, as nearly all of life got compressed within a few miles of the Nile.  Even so, Akenaten chose a place rather out of the way by Egyptian standards, perhaps the equivalent of the U.S. making its new capital Des Moines.

Perhaps Akenaten didn’t just want a fresh start, he wanted a totally clean slate upon which to build, free from all outside interference (shot from British excavations in the 1930’s below).

Early Excavations at Amarna

So he was a radical, then?

Perhaps, but in building a city, how radical could one be?  Most cities tend to look like other cities.  He faced limits of resources and experience.  So Amarna looked like most other cities, but a few subtle differences might reveal a lot.

For example, the builders made the entrance to the “Great Aten Temple” much wider than usual temples, so wide that one could not envision doors ever being present.  This may mean nothing other than they ran out of material.  But interestingly, most city-dwellings had this same open feel to it.  In great detail Kemp describes how the houses in the city had few boundaries.  Slaves, officials, and commoners would use the same pathways in and out of the same houses.

Kemp also mentions that the plain of Amarna itself presented itself as very open and flat.

No conclusion forces itself as definitive here.  We can say that,

  • Most places in Egypt had a similar geographic layout to Amarna
  • The houses may have been constructed in an ad-hoc fashion due to lack of resources or time
  • Maybe Akhenaten wanted a really open feel to the front of the Great Temple, but that may not have any particular connection to anything else.  Or maybe they had a plan for very large, ostentatious doors that never got realized.

Or perhaps we should see intentionality in all these elements.  And if intentionality is indeed present, what might that reveal that he really did have a grand vision for real change in Egyptian society.

Another intriguing problem deals with Akhenaten himself.  The most famous statues linked to him and his reign look generally like this:

This one makes him look more thoughtful and perhaps more humanized

Akhenaten

Both statues reveal an intense and thoughtful man, given to much introspection.  Or possibly, obsession?  Kemp points out that the offering tables in the temples stood much larger than those in other standard Egyptian temples.  Was he consumed by an idea, or a Reality?  His faces here perhaps reveal just this.

And yet, it is entirely possible (though far from certain) that he actually looked like this:

What should we make of this?

One possibility is that the last image is not of Akhenaten at all, and this solves the riddle by eliminating it.  But Kemp thinks this last sculpture to be an accurate portrayal of what he really looked like.  I’ll go with the guy who spent his life studying the ruins.

So if he portrayed himself differently than he actually looked, it must have been a propaganda tool of manipulation?

No, Kemp thinks not.  Pharaoh’s often had the moniker, “Lord of the Appearances.”  They would be seen by people often, even commoners.  And this would likely be all the more true in the isolated and not terribly large city of Amarna.  Besides, the statue directly above dates from Akhenaten’s time and surely was “official” and not black market.  Kemp often cautions us not to look for consistency in Ancient Egypt, or at least our modern and Greek influenced sense of consistency.

Kemp suggests that the image Akhenaten projected may have had to do with his role as teacher of righteous living.  Certainly it seems he viewed himself this way, and others did too.  This may not make him a prig necessarily, because it was a role Pharaoh’s often assumed, perhaps as a matter of tradition.  The austere intensity of the first two busts (at least 6 ft. high) help confer the image of a deeply felt inner life that he wanted to communicate.  And since the Egyptians loved visuals more than the written word, his busts carry his theological message.

I didn’t buy the modern, “Akhenaten as a religious tyrant” argument before reading the book, and I think Kemp indirectly argues against this.  For one, we find small statues of other gods in scattered Amarna households.  Their houses were small and the statues of normal size.  Given the free-flowing nature of Amarna neighborhoods, other citizens would easily know about the statues.  For Akhenaten to have no awareness of these gods would mean that he had no secret police, no informants, and this speaks against the possibility of ‘tyrannical rule.’  He almost certainly knew about the gods, and tolerated them, however grudgingly.

Or perhaps he actually wasn’t a monotheist?  But then, how radical could he have been?  Or perhaps he had strong views and wanted wholesale change but approached the issue pragmatically.  Neither option gives us a Stalin-esque tyrant.

Other curious details make me lean away from the “tyrant” position.  Cities designed before Akhenaten had rigid layouts and exacting aesthetics.  But as Kemp writes elsewhere, “Most of this city was built around a rejection of, or an indifference to, a social prescription and a geometric aesthetic.” Instead, “organic harmonies” and “personal decision making prevail instead.”  My bet is that Akhenaten may have been too consumed with his religious ideas to really be a tyrant even if he wanted to.

Akhenaten seems to have had a “smart-bomb” approach to religious reform, at least politically.  His main innovation/change might appear slight to some of us.  The Egyptians depicted their gods in at least partial human form.

But over and over again, Akhenaten depicted himself only with Aten, and in these images, Aten has no quasi-human form.  The sun itself sufficed for him.

And this image from the Aten temple . . .

So perhaps in this area we see clarity of vision and consistency of follow-through, as to what it means, I don’t know.  It fits, though, with his overall theme of simplifying religious belief.

Kemp shows us that Akhenaten worked hard at cultivating the image of a good life at Amarna.  Many wall murals show him as a generous provider and consumer of goods.  Excavations reveal that this may not have been entirely propaganda, but Kemp reminds us Akhenaten reigned during a prosperous and secure time in Egypt.  But in 2006 excavators discovered a series of tombs for commoners that reveal high incidents of early childhood death, malnutrition,or skeletal injury.   This could throw us right back to the Stalinist image some have of him.  But the high incidents of childhood death could reveal an epidemic in Amarna, which would spread rapidly in its densely packed population.  Hittite records tell of a plague that spread from Egyptian prisoners of war during Akhenaten’s time.  As to the injuries, I can’t say whether or not this is typical for when new cities get built.  Akhenaten may have harshly driven the people to work harder and more dangerously than normal, or it may have been par for the course with ancient construction projects.

The insistence on building a new city may reveal an element of monomania, but certainly other pharaohs did the same thing.  The pyramid builders demanded vastly more labor from their people/slaves.  Besides, Akhenaten had many critics within Egypt after his death, but no one blamed him for building a city.  This fit within the normal roles pharaohs played.

Akhenaten likely saw himself as a religious liberator of the people.  I see a man with a purity of vision, but also a pragmatist in good and bad ways.  He possessed great intelligence and valued introspection.  I see him dialoguing with himself, along the lines of, “I want ‘x.’  But the people only know ‘y’ and expect ‘y.’  So I will try and lead to them to ‘x’ through a modified version of ‘y’ — not to say that I hate everything about ‘y’ — just some things.” If I’m right, this  inner wrestling match would lead to inconsistency and confusion in his own mind.  Perhaps he lost his way a bit.  “I must have a nice new city to show the people the greatness of the truth,” or something like that.

Or maybe not.  I wish I knew more.  Akhenaten provides a great template for a historical novel.

Perhaps he went too far, but I do think he had good intentions.  Of course much evil gets done with this mindset.  We all know where the road of “good intentions” leads.  But it’s hard to say for certain what evil he actually did.   But he did seek to remove certain key beliefs about the afterlife.  The traditional Egyptian’s journey to eternity had many perils and thus required many charms, protections, and so forth.  All this gave a lot of power to certain priests.  Akhenaten’s tomb stands in marked contrast to almost all other kings for its simplicity.  Clearly he sought in some ways to “democratize” death in his religious beliefs.  I think that Akhenaten wanted to simplify things in general for the common man.  But then again, his tomb contains other traditional pieces, such as the “shabti” — special figures designed to do conscripted labor in the next life.  So even the intense, focused Akehenaten either conceded to some traditional beliefs or really believed these apparently inconsistent ideas.

The mystery of Akhenaten continues.

We know that his religious ideas more or less died with him, and indications exist that foreshadow this even during his lifetime. Very few people changed their names to reflect the new ‘Atenist’ belief, and this we know from the many tombs in the area.  Had his beliefs caught on the switch in names would have also, as happened at other times in Egyptian history.  The narrative that we naturally accept about his attempt at religious change sounds similar to this text from Tutankamun, who may have been his son.

…the temples and the cities of the gods and goddesses, starting from Elephantine as far as the Delta marshes . . .were fallen into decay and their shrines fallen into ruin, having become mounds overgrown with grass . . .   The gods were ignoring this land.  If an army was sent to Syria to extend the boundaries of Egypt it met with no success at all.  If one beseeched any goddess in the same way, she did not respond at all.  Their hearts were faint in their bodies, and they destroyed what was made.

But Kemp shows that the above text doesn’t reflect the truth.  Akhenaten kept open most all the temples in the land, and left his reforms for Amarna.  And as we’ve seen, he apparently let the worship of other gods go on unofficially even in Amarna itself.  So if Akhenaten engaged in political hocus-pocus (and maybe he didn’t) then at least two played that game.

So by the end of the book we arrive where we started.  But Kemp’s extraordinary archaeological skills take the reader as far as they can go.  From here on, one must take a leap into the realms of poetry, which is where History really belongs.