The Frontier Garden City

I am no fan of the “Woke” but a few years ago Ross Douthat wrote a piece entitled “A Crisis our Universities Deserve,” which showed me that at the core of this movement lay something admirable. At some point in the 20th century, college lost its emphasis on ennobling the soul, the great virtues, ideas, etc., and became a means to make more money in life. Certainly in the early 90’s, most of the encouragement from society to go to college came in this form. Students today rightly rebel from this, want more from their education than this, and more from life in general. Many “woke” students seek something moral, something transcendent. Douthat commends them for this, at least. So far, so good.

My public school education left me with the impression that the arc of American History bent towards the good, but of course we had x,y,z, and 1, 2,3, things wrong with us. The list of wrong things had grown since my dad’s day, but still stopped just short of overthrowing the basic arc. Subsequent generations have had the scales tipped. Manifest Destiny, the idea that History/God/Fate/Benign Providence wanted/needed America to span the continent, stood very near the core of our things wrong with us, and seemingly impossible to redeem in any way. After reading Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth I had the realization that the Woke and the various champions of Manifest Destiny have a great deal in common, including a highly idealistic goal and rebellion against the complacent stuffed shirts of status quo.

This comparison may surprise some, but makes at least temperamental sense to me. My first reaction to the Woke and Manifest Destiny comes from the gut: “Ick . . . it’s just too much work, too much angst and yearning, too much of everything. Enough, already.” I feel Jerry Seinfeld should have a bit on this–he would agree with me, I’m sure. But one needs more of a foundation to denigrate these two major epochs of our country’s past and present, and one has to admire the energy and drive in both movements.

Smith shows that Manifest Destiny had no direct racial motivations. When race entered into the discussion from some, it usually involved spreading “free labor” across the continent to help limit and eventually squeeze out slavery. Manifest Destiny’s sharpest critics in fact often came from pro-slavery camps, who poured cold water on all of the messianic expectations of free labor across the continent. I found it curious as well that the native Indians got little mention. It strikes me not that they were discounted, but rather not counted from the start. Maybe promoters of expansion automatically assumed that the natives would go along with it. More likely, thoughts of overland Asian trade routes, the fusion of independence, wealth, and power, the sweep of empires throughout time–left no room to see particular people such as the natives. Certainly one could critique the impact of the idea on native peoples, but harming them seems absent from the original intent.

At its core, then Manifest Destiny

  • Believed firmly in America’s unique role in world history
  • Allied with many of the progressive causes of the day–causes that today would certainly look progressive–grants of free government things (not $, but land), the belief that the hand of government should engineer certain social and political ends.
  • Believed strongly in unity–national unity, but also a more expansive international unity, for which the United States could hold the standard. Walt Whitman wrote in his A Passage to India that

The people [are] to become brothers and sisters,

Their races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,

The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,

The lands welded together.

Whitman being Whitman, he waxes rhapsodically about how Man and Nature shall once again fuse together under the “true Son of God”–not sure whom this was supposed to be. We conclude, then, that Manifest Destiny involved not just our national greatness, but

  • A grand union of all humanity, abolishing all national differences and dismantling the hierarchies of the old, worn out traditional world.

All of these are strongly progressive causes.

The progressive Woke have their virtues, but their virtues lean so far in one direction that they have to overcompensate, consciously or no, towards the other pole. So while they talk of abolishing all forms of difference in some grand human unity on the one hand, with the other they proclaim a certain kind of radical individuality. We see this in their insistence that anyone can do anything they like with their body, sexuality, etc. On the one hand, the Woke can be fiercely anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional, but on the other, as Patrick Deneen has pointed out they need Government writ-large to protect them from local, more traditionally minded majorities. And, while the Woke encourage a general sort of mixing, they have a hard time mixing in a fruitful manner, i.e., with relationships, marriages, and families.

With the heroes of expansion west, real or fictional, we see the same motifs. Civilization requires cooperation, but Cooper’s Leatherstocking, Whitman’s rhapsodies, and the real Daniel Boone can never settle and build. The unbounded horizon calls more strongly to them than any particular place. They decide things for themselves on the fly. Their freedom from the shackles of civilization gives them a newfound moral clarity and moral authority, for they are freed from all bigotry of place. They see with universal eyes. In his novel Old Hicks the then-famous Charles W. Webber (a product of Princeton), declares of the Texas Ranger that,

With them the primitive virtues of a heroic manhood are all-sufficient, and they care nothing for reverences, forms, and duties, as civilization has them, but respect each others rights and recognize the awful presence of a benign God in the grandeur of the mountain, forest, plain, valley, and river. . . . Such men do not look to society except with disgust . . .

Interestingly, as part of the plot, Webber has the head mountain man romantically pursue the wife of the villain, and marry her despite she actually being the wife of the evil Count. The “Laws of Nature” here easily become the Laws of God, which trumps the laws of man. Similar arguments today justify ditching traditional sexual ethics. For example, those that transition, or “come out,” are granted a carte blanche in their decisions regardless of its impact on those around them, for their very distance from society with these decisions grants them insight and authority.

Webber wrote fictional characters, but life imitated art in some respects with the foremost advocates for the frontier. Francis Parkman, another ivy-league grad (Harvard) traveled west in the summer of 1842 following his sophomore year. In a foreshadowing of the coastal elite frayed relationship with flyover country, in his journal Parkman showed disdain for most of the actual people he met, especially the livestock farmer. After passing beyond civilization further into the forest, Smith notes that “[Parkman’s] tone changes completely.” The independent woodsman garners immense respect: “He is a remarkably intelligent fellow . . . resolute and independent as the wind.” Smith writes,

Parkman’s antithetical attitudes towards farmers and the hunters of the wilderness illustrate the fact that . . . two distinct “West’s” existed in the minds of many [advocates of the frontier from the east]. The agricultural west was tedious. Its inhabitants belonged to a despised social class. The Wild West was by contrast an exhilarating region of adventure in the open air. Its heroes . . . were in reality not members of society at all, but noble anarchs owning no master, free denizens of a limitless wilderness.

Advocates for Manifest Destiny could, like the Woke, see civilization in sweeping terms, and they could see the heroic individual. They both have a harder time with groups in between these categories.

A competing mythos, that of the west as paradisal garden, also informed America’s westward push. This motif had more to say for it, as it usually involved families, but still had its rose-colored glasses. Timothy Flint against attitudes like Parkman’s, and gloried in farm life, writing in 1827:

Thousands of independent and happy yeoman reside [in the west], with their numerous, healthy, and happy families about them, with the ample abundance that fills their granaries, with their young orchards, whose branches must be propped to sustain the weight of their fruit, beside their beautiful rivers and beech woods, in which the squirrels skip, the deer browse, and the sweet red-bird sings, and with the prospect of settling their children on any of the dozens of farms that surround them.

James Lanman echoed such ideas in the 1830’s . . .

If, as has been remarked by distinguished statesman, cities are the sores of the political body where the bad matter of the state concentrates what healthful attitudes of mind and body are afforded by agricultural enterprise. The exhilarating atmosphere of rural life, the invigorating exercise afforded by its various occupations, the pure water, the necessities supplied for daily existence, leading to early and virtuous marriages, all point to this pursuit as best adapted to the comfort of the individual man.

I do not like to agree with the anti Free-soil crowd (often, though not always, secessionists and pro-slavery) on much of anything, but the “Messenger” was on to something in 1856, when it opined that

Farming is hardly a pleasant occupation, and the idea that it is comes from dreamers and poets. The actual, manual operations of farming are irksome and repulsive to the great mass of mankind.

Alas, reality set in for the devotees of the garden myth shortly after the Civil War. Smith writes,

The yawning gap between agrarian theory and post-war reality . . . comes out in the farmer’s crusades of the last 25 years of the 19th century. The western farmer had been told that he was not a peasant but a peer of the realm; that his contribution to society was basic, and all others peripheral or parasitic, in comparison cities were sores on the body politic. . . . He had been told that he was compensated for any austerity in his mode of life by receiving shelter from the temptations of luxury and vice, and against the ups and downs of the market. His outstanding characteristic was his independence of character and condition.

But after the Civil War Republican policy obviously favored the city against the country, the merchant against the farmer. And the western farmer found that instead of being independent, he was at the mercy not only of the Chicago and New York and Liverpool grain pits, but also of the railways and steamships lines that he must rely on to get his crop to market

I have read most of the volumes of Toynbee’s unabridged A Study of History. I think him a great master and I owe him a great debt, but I found the central theme of Volume III–which describes the growth of civilizations after their infancies–so annoying I stopped reading about halfway through some years ago. I have yet to pick it up again. Toynbee rightly reacted against material measures of progress. Instead he looked towards what he called “etherealization.” The idea seems to run along the lines of

  • A civilization develops an idea or technique that works for them, but that idea/process, has a limited growth potential because it is anchored to its locality
  • The civilization then extracts the core of the idea, removing from its trappings, thus making it more transferrable across space.
  • This allows for more sharing of ideas, etc. which aids growth. It is essentially cooperative and other oriented.

He takes, as an example, the alphabet as an etherealization of language, as opposed to ideograms. Alphabets transfer across cultures relatively easily, but China’s writing, among other things, will not allow for this, keeping them isolated.

Toynbee often nods via anecdote and analysis to “the old ways are best.” He wasn’t always consistent in his ideas, but this is not a fault. He usually explored possibilities as opposed to asserting things absolutely. But etherealization shows Toynbee’s weakness for too much generality, too much “Platonism” (but only in the worst sense of that word). Lifting something too far off the ground tends to make it dangerous and destabilizing to society, like a steroid. Supporters of Woke politics, and mid-19th century supporters of Manifest Destiny have this same problem. What masks itself as “progress” in fact only abstracts what in embodied form might actually be good, though less dramatic, ideas.

American history mashes together so many competing concepts. Sometimes this results in great creative tension. We get into trouble when succumb to the lure of the unbounded everything America has always foolishly promised. The possibilities of the frontier will always have more romance than a farm, and a farm will have greater appeal for most than the grime of a city.

We should note that the Old Testament takes a dim view of cities. Cain builds the first one, from which evil and violence come, and then you have Sodom, the cities built by Hebrew slaves for Pharaoh, Babylon, Ninevah, and the like. But the end of the New Testament shows the final restoration taking place with a garden within a city–even cities get redeemed in God’s providence over history. So, the frontier, the farm, the city–every civilization that actually functions needs all three.

Dave

The Adventures of Dog Man

David Gordon White’s Myths of the Dog-Man examines how cultures interact with the concept of the “other” in three major civilizational traditions: Christendom, India, and China. White has a number of keen insights and makes impressive connections across cultures. But a key aspect of his work bothered me greatly, and so first, a rant.

Before warming up, I acknowledge that the job of the academic involves risk. They should not just affirm the immediate cultural norms in a rote manner. The scholar who functions as they ought will always walk a tight-rope, which can feel lonely. Like anyone, they search for community, but perhaps have a harder time of it because of their partial distance cultural from many of those around them.

Perhaps that is why many academics feel their job involves the opposite–that of praising the “other” while critiquing one’s own culture. That, at least, puts them on the other side of the suspended rope. We can see this as a personal attempt to connect with something. Having started by crafting a respectful, and perhaps even appropriate, distance with one’s surrounding culture, perhaps even unconsciously, the academic seeks something new to connect with.

But at least the narrow-minded idiot disdained by the academic has built a thing that people can live in, however narrowly they live. The academic always in love with the “other” can offer critique of their home base aplenty, for sure. But could they navigate a monster-truck rally?*

White seems to treat the “other” in his work as an inherent moral good, which is extremely flat thinking. The “other” we encounter could be bad or good. It would depend. I elaborated at length about this dynamic, found in Christ and patterned throughout the world, in this post here, so I will not elaborate at length now. White seemingly has no cognizance that navigating the other brings great peril to one’s soul and one’s civilization. Union with the “foreign other” brought down Solomon, the wisest of kings, and his failure brought down Israel. Abraham made his servant swear to find a wife for Isaac only among his own people, and God showed him Rebecca by the well. It took Wisdom Himself to navigate to “marry” the “other” at another well with success many centuries later (John 4).

Of course the Old Testament takes care to avoid the sclerosis that possibly infected ancient Egypt and China. The Israelites were to take care to “leave” a day at the end of the week, to leave their garments and their fields with a fringe (Lev. 23:22), so that the edges of society could come right to your door. And of course, we see Ruth, and especially Rahab, who prefigures Photine.**. What White fails to see is that the “foreign” does not just change the core. The foreign “other” also must change–the change goes both ways.

So yes, I–perhaps unjustly–detected some know-it-all smarminess from White, who looks a fool for telling us that a quarter has a picture of an eagle on one side.

But I still absolutely liked this book. White teaches us a great deal about the symbolic role of the “other.”

First, regarding the title of this post, apologies and thanks to the wondrous Dav Pilkey, whose books about a half-man, half-dog crime fighter had great truck in the Mathwin household some years ago Pilkey’s books usually have the the core as boring, stuffy, adult authority figures. His heroes come from the fringe to bring justice and order. Pilkey may not be pleased to hear it, but this pattern fits many biblical heroes, such as Ehud (left-handed), Samson, and the like. But his use specifically of a “dog-man” certainly qualifies as a “symbolism happens” moment.^

For as White shows, different cultures across time and space have viewed the dog as an outsider, and “unclean.” At the same time, dogs guard boundaries, and they help protect the center. This paradox, this interplay between good and bad, outside and inside, shows in our experience in a number of ways:

  • Dogs form the boundary between the human and the animal world. No other pet does this in quite the same way. Think of how having a dog will lead you to interact more with nature when you take them for walks, and how the dog will protect you from nature. Think too of how dogs, much more than cats, for example, function as a social lubricant between humans who might otherwise stand awkwardly beside each other.
  • The Romans conceived of the “Lares,” the ancestral divinities who wandered borders protecting home and hearth, as dogs or men clad in the skins of dogs.
Two Lares flank a dog
Lares as Dog-Men
While we do not see the dog motif here directly with the Lares above, note how they guard against the snakes below
  • Note how many many military veterans suffering from trauma work with dogs to help integrate them back into “normal” human society.
  • Think of Cerebus, who guarded the passage of death, or Anubis in Egyptian civilization. Here again, dogs stand in the gap. For the Egyptians, Anubis had close association to the “Dog-Star,” Sirius. The rise of Sirius heralded the “dog-days” of summer, the terrible heat linked with death. But–the rise of Sirius also meant the Nile would soon flood, bringing life back to Egypt. Once again, we see the dog associated with boundary and transition, the bringer of death and life.
  • In the Alexander Romance, of which versions exist across multiple different cultures, Alexander meets the “Cynocephalae,” men with faces of dogs, at the edge of his travels in the east.
  • In Hindu tradition, there is the example of the great sage Visimitra. He shows up in story about “how to rule when time has arrived at a low-point, when all things have become slave-like.” In the story, a terrible drought has beset the land at the end of the Treta age for 12 years. Visimitra, known for his strict purity and asceticism, goes into the forest and eats the hind leg of a dog, over and against strong objections from those around him, for the dog was most unclean, “the vilest of all game.” After he eats, Indra sends rain and the earth revives. “Thus one who is expert and high-souled, and a knower of solutions,” the story concludes, ” . . . ought to maintain a firm conviction of dharma and adharma in this world.”
  • Chinese culture generally closed itself off from the outside, yet they too have stories involving dog-men. But in an indirect way (no dog-men directly in the story) the following Taoist acecdote I find most illustrative:

The Emperor of the South was called Shu. The Emperor of the North was called Hu. And the Emperor of the center was called Hun-tun. Shu and Hu at times came together and in Hun-tun’s territory. Hun-Tun treated them very generously. Shu and Hu discussed how they could emulate Hun-tun’s virtue, saying: “Men all have seven openings in order to see, hear, eat, and breathe. He alone has none. Let’s try boring him some.” Each day, they bored one hole, and on the seventh day, Hun-Tun died.

White notes that the Taoists saw the greatest good in optimal potential, i.e., uncut stone, uncut cloth, etc., with the Tao preceding the regimentation of creation itself. This parable then, spoke against the Confucian school, the “meddling busybodies” who wanted all things ordered, classified, managed, and understood. One has to leave some room for the fringe.

But . . . the tradition that seems most open to the dog man comes from White’s very own backyard, that of Christendom. In your face, White! It seems as if the cat has been caught . . . by the very person trying to catch him

For sure, White spends plenty of time looking at the The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, a medieval text that emphasizes the role of the Church in keeping out the “other” from infecting the world. “Methodius” may have borrowed from stories about Alexander the Great building a wall to keep out the barbarians. Again, if we turn to the paradigm outlined above, we can say that the emphasis on the dangerous aspects of the other absolutely has its place. Another example of this emphasis comes from the Estonian Kynocephalae Daemon, similar in theme to the Apocalypse noted above:

The Dog Snouts live at the edge of the world, where the earth ends and heaven begins.  They must stand guard at this edge, so that no one may enter heaven there. . . . They dwell behind a great mountain.  The mountain forms a border between the land of men and that of the Dog Snouts.  By general consensus, a company of Russian soldiers stands guard here, lest the Dog Snouts come over the mountain.  Were they to come, they would tear every man limb from limb.  They have great strength so that none can resist.

The Dog Snouts threaten the world with destruction.  One need not fear, however, so long as the troops stand guard.  Those soldiers refuse to be trifled with, and victory always stands with them.  

In some regions it is believed that each town contributes a portion of the guard of this mountain, because all share in the burden of not wanting the end of the world.  Even so, one time the Dog Snouts did break through into the world of men.  They came to lay waste our land, but a violent hailstorm drove them back across the mountain, which we guard now more strongly than ever.

Though this idea of the other bringing destruction certainly has its role in the Christian tradition, a variety of Christian saints have strong associations with dogs. The birth of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order, took place after his mother dreamt she carried a dog with a torch in its mouth in her womb. His feast day in the west also took place in summer’s “dog days,” observed in the first week of August. Compostello in Spain still is one of the most traveled of Christian pilgrimages, and has very early roots. This has significance, for the Compostello site resides right at the western edge of medieval Christendom, the place where the sun sets, towards the land of the dead. One tradition states that on July 25, the rise of the Sirius star, St. James of Compostello opened the gates of heaven to the souls of the dead.

But the story of St. Christopher the Cynocephalae has pride of place. Different versions of the story exist, with some overlap. The first, from an Ethiopian text called “The Acts of the Apostles Andrew and Bartholomew . . .

Then did our Lord Jesus Christ appear unto Andrew and Bartholomew and say, “Now depart into the desert, and I will be with you; and be not afraid, for I will send unto you a man whose face is like unto a dog, and you shall take him into the city.”

And the apostles went forth with sorrow, for the people of the city had not believed.  They walked for a time and came to rest and fell asleep.  When they slept, the Angel of God lifted them up and brought them to the City of Cannibals.  Now there came from that city a man looking for another man to eat.  And the Angel of God said unto him, “O thou man whose face is that of a dog, behold–you shall find two men sitting under a rock, and when you arrive there, let no evil thing happen to them through you, for they are servants of God.

And the dog-man trembled and asked the Angel, “Who art Thou?  I know neither thee nor thy God, but tell me of whom you speak.”  

[Here follows a long discourse of the angel to the man about God, the gospel, etc.]

Then the man said, “I wish to see some sign so that I may believe in all His miraculous powers.”  Then at the same hour fire came down from heaven and surrounded that man with the face of a dog, and he was unable to withdraw himself.  He cried out, “O God whom I know not, have compassion upon me and I will believe.”  The angel answered and said, “You must go with the Apostles every place they go, and follow all of their commands.”  

“O my Lord, I am not like other men, and I have no knowledge of their speech.  And if I be hungry, where will I find men to eat?  I should certainly then fall upon them and devour them.”  The angel replied, “God will give unto thee the nature of the children of men, and will restrain thy nature.”  The angel stretched out his hands and brought the dog man out of the fire and cried out to him in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Then the dog-faced man became as gentle as a lamb.

The dog-faced man rose up and went to find the Apostles.  Now–his appearance was terrible.  He stood 4 cubits in height, with teeth like that of a wild boar, and the nails of his hands were like great hooks, and his hair came down over his arms to resemble the mane of a lion.  When he came upon the Apostles, they became as dead men through fear of this man.  Then he laid hold upon them and said, “Be not afraid, O my spiritual fathers,” and God took the fear from Andrew and Bartholomew.

Then Andew said, “May God bless thee, my son.  But tell me thy name.”   “My name is Hasum [meaning ‘Abominable’ in Parthian].  And Andrew said, “You speak rightly, for a name is oneself.  But here is a hidden mystery, for from now on, your name shall be ‘Christian.’”  Then they journeyed back to the city.

Now Satan had gone ahead of them into the city.  Andrew prayed as they approached, “Let all the city gates open quickly.”  And as Andrew spoke, the gates of the city fell down, and the Apostles and ‘Christian’ (he who had the face of a dog) entered.

Then the Governor commanded the town to bring hungry and savage beasts to attack the men.  Then the man with the dog-face prayed, “O Lord Christ, who did take my former nature away from me, restore it now and strengthen me with thy power, so they may know there is no other God but thee.”

And then he became as he had been, and grew quickly in wrath and might.  He looked at all in great fury, and slew all of the beasts set against them, and tore out their bowels and ate their flesh.  When the men of the city saw this, they feared exceedingly, and set upon the men and each.  More than 700 of them died.  And God sent a fire to surround the city, and none of them could escape.  Then the people cried, “We believe that there is no other God but your God, and no other savior other than Christ the Lord.  Have compassion upon us!”  And so the Apostles prayed to God for them . . . 

And the Apostles came unto the dog-man, and prayed that his bestial nature would flee from him, and that the nature of the children of men would be restored, and Christian became as gentle as a lamb once more.  When the people and the governor saw this, they took olive branches in their hand and bowed before the Apostles, who told them of the grace of God.

The western version of the story . . .

Christopher was of the lineage of the Canaanites, and he was of a right great stature, and had a terrible and fearful cheer and countenance, and he was twelve cubits  of length.

And as it is read in some histories that, when he served and dwelled with the king of Canaan, it came in his mind that he would seek the greatest prince that was in the world, and him would he serve and obey. And so far he went that he came to a right great king, of whom the renown generally was that he was the greatest of the world. And when the king saw him, he received him into his service, and made him to dwell in his court. 

Upon a time a minstrel sang tofore him a song in which he named the devil, and the king, who was a Christian man, when he heard him name the devil, made anon the sign of the cross in his visage.  And when Christopher saw that, he had great marvel at what sign it was, and wherefore the king made it, and he demanded of him. And because the king would not say, he said: If thou tell me not, I shall no longer dwell with thee. 

And then the king told to him, saying: Alway when I hear the devil named, I fear that he should have power over me, and I garnish me with this sign that I have protection from him.

Then Christopher said to him: Can  the devil hurt you? Then is the devil more mighty and greater than you. I am then deceived of my hope and purpose, for I had supposed I had found the most mighty and the most greatest Lord of the world, but I commend thee to the Devil, for I will go seek him to be my Lord, and I his servant.

And then [Christopher] departed from this king, and hastened him to seek the devil. And as he went by a great desert, he saw a great company of knights, of which a knight cruel and horrible came to him and demanded where he was going. Christopher answered him and said: I go seek the devil for to be my master. And he said: I am he that thou seekest. And then Christopher was glad, and took him for his master and Lord. 

And as they went together by a common way, they found there a cross, erect and standing. 

When the devil saw the cross he fled, and brought Christopher about by a sharp turn. And after, when they were past the cross, he brought him to the highway that they had left. And when Christopher saw that, he marvelled, and demanded why he feared that sign.  And the devil would not tell him.  So Christopher started to take his leave.

So the devil told him: There was a man called Christ which was hanged on the cross, and when I see his sign I flee from it. 

Christopher said: Then he is greater, and more mightier than thou, when thou art afraid of his sign, and I see that I have chosen you in vain, when I have not found the greatest Lord of the world. And I will serve thee no longer, go thy way then, for I will go seek Christ.

And when he had long sought and demanded where he should find Christ, at last he came into a great desert, to an hermit that dwelt there, and this hermit preached to him of Jesu Christ and informed him in the faith diligently, and said to him: This king whom thou desirest to serve, requireth the service that you fast often. 

And Christopher said to him: Require of me some other thing, and I shall do it, for how can I fast?  I know nothing of this. And the hermit said: Thou must then wake and make many prayers. And Christopher said to him: What are prayers?  I can do no such thing. And then the hermit said to him: Knowest thou such a river, in which many be perished and lost? Christopher said he knew it well.

Then said the hermit, “Because you are strong and tall, reside by that river, and take them on your shoulders to the other side.  Do this and I pray our Lord will show Himself to you.”  Christopher agreed and went to the river.

Christopher took a staff to help him traverse the river, and he stayed there many days.  One night he heard a voice in his sleep.  He awoke and went out, but he found no man. And when he was again in his house, he heard the same voice and he ran out and found nobody. The third time he was called and came thither, and found a child beside the river, who asked Christopher to bear him across the river.

And then Christopher put  the child on his shoulders, and took his staff, and entered into the river. And the water of the river arose and swelled more and more: and the child was heavy as lead, and as he went farther the water increased and grew more, and the child got heavier, so that Christopher struggled mightily and thought himself and the child lost.  Finally he made it to the other side and dropped to the ground.  “Child, what is this, seeing that I almost died in carrying someone so little.”

And the child answered: Christopher, you have not only borne all the world upon thee, but also borne Him that created and made all the world, upon your shoulders. I am Jesus Christ the King, whom you serve at this river. And because you know that I say the truth, set your staff in the earth by thy house, and tomorrow it shall bear flowers and fruit, and then he vanished from his eyes. And then Christopher set his staff in the earth, and when he arose on the morn, he found his staff bearing flowers, leaves and dates.

And then Christopher went into the city of Lycia, and understood not their language. Then he prayed our Lord that he might understand them, and so he did. And as he was in this prayer, the judges supposed that he had been a fool, and left him there. And then when Christopher understood the language, he covered his face and went to the place where they martyred Christian men, and comforted them in our Lord. 

And then the judges smote him in the face, and Christopher said to them: If I were not Christian I should avenge mine injury. Christopher pitched his rod in the earth, and prayed to our Lord that to convert the people it might bear flowers and fruit, and it did so. And then he converted eight thousand men.

And then the king sent two knights to fetch him to the king. They found him praying. The king sent many more, and they set them down to pray with him. And when Christopher arose, he said to them: What do you seek? 

And when they saw him in the visage they said to him: The king hath sent us, that we should lead thee bound unto him.  And Christopher said to them: If I would, you should not lead me to him bound.  And they said to him: If you put it that way, we’ll say that we could not find you.

It shall not be so, but I shall go with you. 

And then he converted them in the faith, and commanded them that they should bind his hands behind his back, and lead him so bound to the king. And when the king saw him he fell down off the seat, and his servants lifted him up and revived him. And then the king inquired his name and his country; and Christopher said to him: Before I was baptized I was named Reprobus, and after, I am Christopher; before baptism, a Canaanite, now, a Christian man. 

The king said: You have the foolish name of Christ crucified.  He could not help himself–he cannot help you. So, cursed Canaanite, why not sacrifice to our gods?  Christopher said: Thou art rightfully called Dagnus, for thou art the death of the world, and fellow of the devil, and thy gods be made with the hands of men. 

And the king said to him: You nourished among wild beasts, your words are wild language, unknown to men. If you now sacrifice to the gods I shall give to you great gifts and great honors. If not,  I shall destroy you by great torments. Christopher refused.  The king killed the knights with him, and threw Christopher in prison.

And after this he sent into the prison to St. Christopher two fair women, of whom one was named Nicæa and that other Aquilina.  The king promised them many great gifts if they could draw Christopher to sin with them. 

And when Christopher saw that, he set him down in prayer, and when he was constrained by them that embraced him to move, he arose and said: What do you seek?And they were afraid of his cheer and clearness of his face, said: Holy saint of God, have pity on us so that we may believe in God.

And when the king heard that, he commanded that they should be let out and brought to him. “You women are deceived, but I swear to you by my gods that, if you do no sacrifice to my gods, you shall perish by an evil death.” they said to him: “We will sacrifice.  Command that people come to the temple to witness.”And when this was done they entered in to the temple, and took their girdles, and put them about the necks of their gods, and drew them to the earth, and brake them all in pieces, and said to them that were there: “Go and call the doctors to heal your gods!”

And then, by the commandment of the king, Aquilina was hanged, and a right great and heavy stone was hanged at her feet, so that her body broke severely. And when she was dead, and passed to our Lord, her sister Nicæa was cast into a great fire, but she issued out without harm all whole, and then he made to smite off her head, and so suffered death.

After this Christopher was brought to the king, and the king commanded that he should be beaten with rods of iron, and that there should be set upon his head a cross of iron red hot and burning, and then after, he sat Christopher on a stool of iron, and set fire under it, and cast therein pitch. But Christopher took no harm.

And when the king saw that, he commanded that he should be bound to a strong stake, and that forty archers pierce him with arrows. But try as they would, the arrows always missed. Then by the commandment of the king he was led  to be beheaded, and then, there made he his death. His head was smitten off, and so suffered martyrdom. 

Now the king had suffered a wound in his eye. And the king then took a little of Christopher’s blood and laid it on his eye, and said: “In the name of God and of Christopher!” and he was healed. Then the king believed in God, and gave commandment that if any person blamed God or St. Christopher, he should be slain with the sword.

Many icons of St. Christopher depict him with a dog’s head:

For many years, St. Christopher’s feast day occurred on July 25, which coincided with the rise of the Sirius star, so important to the ancient Egyptians.

My favorite St. Christopher icon comes from the East and shows him with St. Stephen the proto-martyr. The image reveals something crucial that White misses. Yes, Church acknowledges the importance of the other, that Christ reaches the outer-limits, and even that the beast in us can be used against evil if tamed and transformed. But it also shows St. Christopher on the left, and St. Stephen on the right, the place of honor, vis a vis the unseen Christ. Furthermore, it also shows that how what lies outside pays honor to the inside. Christopher shows deference to Stephen here. The fringe has legitimacy, but contra White, the center, not the fringe, gets pride of place. An addiction to the “other,” so common in so many today, will serve no one, and does no honor to the greatest hero of the Dog-Men. That’s not how St. Christopher would want it.

Your physique was overwhelming and your face horrifying. You willingly suffered trauma from your own people. Men and women tried to arouse consuming fires of passion in you, but instead they followed you to your martyrdom. You are our strong protector, o great martyr Christopher!

Prayer for the feast day of St. Christopher

Dave

*Perhaps this is unfair. I would have a hard time with this as well.

**St. Photine is the name of given by Catholics and Orthodox to the woman in John 4.

^I suppose I should say that it would be a mistake for the reader to get caught up in whether or not people with actual dog’s heads really ever had a physically observable existence. To ask the question in itself means that one fails to perceive in the manner of traditional cultures. Whether or not such creatures had a “physically observable existence” was not the point for them–it should not be for us. Rather, we can begin by thinking of the meaning of Dog-Men–they are bestial, they have lost something crucial of their humanity, they have become unclean and must be made whole once more.

I find it intriguing that American culture seems to value dogs more highly than almost any other culture. Why might this be–many theories no doubt exist. I am convinced, however, that a large part of the answer involves the fact that America itself lies at the “edge,” the farthest reaches of Western civilization. In a traditional concept of the world, America, the un-tapped “pure potential” functioned as the ultimate symbolic fringe. No surprise, then, that we would associate ourselves with the animal traditionally relegated to the fringe.

Kevin Kelly’s Mind, and . . . Matter

I vaguely remember sometime in high school discovering the idea that “technology is neither good or bad in itself, but one can use technology for good or bad ends.” As a young American teen whose greatest life-changing event might have been the switch from cassettes (the sound muddied and faded so quickly!) to CD’s, that idea served as an important corrective.

But years later I distinctly remember coming across Lewis Mumford, who made the striking point that the design and use of the technology shapes us as much as we shape it. We may create a tool, but then immediately afterwards, the relationship turns symbiotic. Using a shovel all day will shape certain muscles more than others. A civilization, for example, that comes to rely on computers will inevitably prioritize certain skills and values over others.

The developed world’s response to COVID made me wonder whether or not Mumford could have gone even further. As many have noted (Paul Kingsnorth, Mary Harrington, etc.), the existence of the internet and other digital technology seemed to drive our policy, i.e., “We can work online and have food delivered, so we should do so.” The tail wagged the dog.

Some intellectual spaces, such as perhaps The World Economic Forum, believe that technology will fix all of our GDP’s everywhere, have yet to learn what I learned at 16. I have few worries about such people, because they seem fundamentally naive and out of touch. Much more interesting, and so potentially much more impactful for good or ill, is the work of someone like Kevin Kelly, as demonstrated by his two books, What Technology Wants, and The Inevitable. Kelly helped cofound Wired magazine and has a wealth of practical experience with technology and the tech world. He spent much of his youth trekking around the world technology free. He has worked extensively with conservation efforts. Kelly has his foot in many worlds, and possesses much more experience and intellect than most anyone who talks about technology. As his recent Wikipedia page picture indicates, this man has the look of a true believer–a prophet or a madman, but certainly no fool.

At the core of Kelly’s thoughts lay a few key principals:

  • Certain technological advances and changes are ‘inevitable’ precisely because we do not choose them. Rather, technology, which he names in corporately personal terms, “The Technetium,” functions as a living part of our environment.*
  • Just as we have the task of cooperating with our natural environment, so too we have the task of cooperating with the “technical” environment. But because both Nature and the Technium are alive in like ways, the process of adaptation to technology is not artificial, or anti-human, but natural and organic to human existence over time.

As he writes,

Our concern should not be about whether to embrace [the Technium]. We are beyond embrace; we are already symbiotic with it. At a macro-scale, the technium follows an inevitable progression. Yet at the microscope, volition rules. Our choice is to align ourselves with this direction, to expand choice and possibilities for everyone and everything.

Technology, he argues, wants what all life wants, which means increasing flexibility, opportunity, emergence, complexity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, beauty, diversity, and yes, sentience. He writes elsewhere that,

Living organisms and ecosystems are characterized by a high degree of indirect collaboration, transparency of function, decentralization, flexibility, redundancy of roles, and natural efficiency; these are all traits that make biology useful to us and reasons why life can sustain its own evolution indefinitely. So the more lifelike we train our technology to be, the more convivial it becomes for us . . .

The fact that the pace of societal adaptation of new technology has dramatically increased over the last century shows us that this process of conviviality and symbiosis has also increased. Kelly want us to know that life works this way, and always has. We can try and invent better technologies as opposed to worse ones. But we cannot avoid a partnership with technology, just as we cannot avoid a partnership with Nature.

Kelly has a variety of observations to demonstrate that the development of new ideas and technology acts independently from material linear causation. Something operates outside of purely singular human volition. Among other things, he notes that successful authors/screenwriters get sued all the time for supposedly stealing ideas from other authors. Investigation then shows that such authors never came across the work of those that sue them.** We see the simultaneous development of blowgun techniques from tribes in the Amazon and in Borneo with no contact whatsoever. We see Luther and Zwingli coming up with very similar theology at the same time without ever interacting with each other. We see similar technological progression across cultures that have no contact. Some of the processes have an explanation in material causation, but others not, such as why rock art precedes sewing development almost uniformly.

Such propositions get at something transcendent, and Kelly quotes Carver Mead on this, who writes,

Moore’s Law is really about belief systems, it’s not a law of physics. After long enough, people talk about it in retrospect, and in retrospect it looks like a curve, a physical law, and people talk about it that way. But if you actually live it, as I am now, then it doesn’t feel like a physical law. It’s really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe.

Kelly obviously recognizes variability. Not everything, or even most developments, end up fully entering the Technium. The question revolves more around the “wanting” of technology. He writes, “The poppy seed wants to become a plant, even though a fair amount of them end up on bagels.”

Kelly writes persuasively and uses a variety of examples and techniques to drive his points home. He avoids claiming that every technology has value. He spent a lot of time among the Amish, and praises them for how they interact with technology. Contrary to typical belief, the Amish have nothing against technology per se. But they put a tremendous amount of energy into monitoring how technology impacts their community. They make distinctions, but they base these distinctions (such as riding in cars, but not owning cars) on careful observation over long periods of time. They are not arbitrary, nor hypocritical. The point he wishes to make I think is–even with the Amish, human interaction with technology will happen, as it has always happened. Let’s work together, like the Amish, to maximize our understanding of technology and how it shapes us, while understanding that it will certainly shape us.

All of this sounds reasonable. I remember railing against email in the late 90’s, but I use it all the time now. I resisted getting a smart phone for many years, but now have one. Kelly would tell me, “There, there, it’s ok. You’re not a bad person, you haven’t betrayed any crucial moral principle. You simply are doing what humanity has always done.”

But I can’t quite accept this. Perhaps email and smart phones have a reasonable place in the world. In the end, however, the totality of Kelly’s book left me cold, though I could not put my finger on why for a few weeks . . . until I read portions of a book on medieval views of memory.

Mary Carruthers’ The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture is alas, not one that I could read cover-to-cover. Long stretches of the work delve into very technical matters that I lack the patience or interest to digest. But she makes some of her more general points with great clarity, and charitably illumines a world with different values than our own. In her introduction she cites the reflections of the contemporaries of two acknowledged great geniuses–first Einstein from our time, and then, St. Thomas Aquinas.

The greatness of Einstein lies in his tremendous imagination, in the unbelievable obstinacy with which he pursues problems.  Originality is the most important factor in any scientific work.  Intuition leads to unexplored regions of thought, though intuition is difficult to explain rationally.

No great scientific achievement happens without wandering in the darkness of error.  The more imagination is restricted, the more work moves only along a definite track, which limits new ideas. The ground is safer here, and that means fewer mistakes.  No great man is always correct.  Einstein’s recent paper might be wrong, and Einstein would still be the greatest of scientists today.

The most amazing aspect of Einstein is that he directs his whole vital force to one object–original thinking.  Slowly I came to realize that here his greatness lies.  Nothing has the importance of physics.  No personal life can match the comprehension of how God created the world.  One feels that behind his external calm his brain works without interruption–nothing can stop it.  

The clue to Einstein’s role in science lies in his loneliness and aloofness.  In this respect he differs from other scientists.  He never studied at a famous university–he worked at a patent office.  The isolation served as a blessing, since it prevented his thought from wandering into already established channels.  This ‘loneliness,’ this refusal to march with the crowds but looking instead to his own path, is the most essential feature of his creations.

Reflections of Leopold Infeld, who worked with Einstein at Princeton

And now, St. Thomas:

Of the brilliance of his intellect and his soundness of judgment, sufficient proof lies in his vast literary output.  His memory was extremely rich and retentive: whatever he once read and grasped he never forgot; it was as if knowledge were added to his soul as one might add pages to a book.  

Consider, for example, that admirable compilation of patristic commentaries on the four gospels he made for Pope Urban, and for the most part, he dictated from texts that he already had read and committed to memory while staying in various monasteries.  Still stronger is the testimony of Reginald [his secretary] and of others who took dictation for him.  All declare that he used to dictate to three separate secretaries at once, and occasionally four, on different subjects at the same time, completely from memory.  No one could do such a thing without a special grace.  Nor did he seem to search for things yet unknown to him.  Rather, he simply let his memory pour out its treasures.

He never set himself to study or argue a point, without first having recourse to prayer mingled with tears.  When perplexed, he would pause and pray at length, and when returning, he found his thought so clear that it seemed to show him, as in a book, the pages that he needed.

Reflections of Thomas of Celano, friend of Reginald, one of St. Thomas’ principal secretaries

On can glean a great deal from these short few paragraphs. We can start by noticing that the modern world view of genius means breaking from the past, and the older view meant connecting more firmly with it. Moreover, we see that the development of a strong memory for the medievals involved something akin to moral virtue, a “special grace.”

Memory involved reading, among other things. Carruthers shows that for the medievals, reading and memory were not for their own sakes. Rather, like the bee (the medievals viewed bees very highly for a number of reasons), they were to take the raw material of the text and turn into something “sweet,” like honey. This sounds unremarkable, but the medievals put a particularly earthy twist on how they discussed the process of reading. She writes,

The writer [of the Regula Monachorum] speaks of various stomach rumblings, belchings, and fartings that accompany the nightly gathering of monks.  But, he continues, as a famous pastor has said, just as smoke drives out bees, so belching caused by indigestion drives away the Holy Spirit [i.e., improper eating, or the taking of things into the body, caused improper means of expelling things from the body].”  

But this does not mean that all belches and farts were viewed negatively, per se, as it would be possible to have proper bodily “ex-takes” as you would proper bodily intake.  The Regula Monachorum declares,

Wherefore, as the belch bursts forth from the stomach according to the quality of food, and the index of a fart is according to the sweetness and stench of its odor, so the cogitations of the inner man brings forth words, and “from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).  The just man, eating, fills his soul.  And when he is replete with sacred doctrine, from the good treasury of his memory he brings forth those things which are good.

Carruthers comments,

The notion of Spirit as breath or wind is biblical; modern scholars, accustomed to thinking of this trope as a mere figure of speech, would never make the connection with a belch or fart that the medieval writer did.  Modern scholars who think they have observed class rivalries, or a “medieval unconscious” at odds with its piety in the texts that deal with memory work, would do well to consider the pervasive image of monks at prayer as spiritual flatulence.  This trope was often intended to provoke laughter and humility, and we should not assume it to be impious.

Just as we might say that our Constitution, for example, functions as a kind of decision-making technology, so also medieval memory techniques functioned as a technology. But what differentiates Kelly from the older understanding is this mixing of the heavenly and the earthly, talked of so starkly by the medievals. Kelly only seems to care for what comes next, and concerns himself more or less only with how we will adapt to the Technium. As to why the medievals thought of memory as a moral quality, I assume that one must gather the past to live rightly in the present. As for the future, well, it has no reality because it has no existence. But the past, while not equal in “reality” to the present, functions differently for us. We can, and must, have a connection to it.

Kelly sees a continuing “loss of body” as humanity’s only possible future. It is “inevitable” that we fly upwards and join with all of the etherealizing tendencies of modern digital technology. Thankfully such a vision can certainly never completely come to pass. Those that want the Metaverse will still need workers to lay cable. The heavens, after all, cannot exist without Atlas holding them up.

Dave

*This post is not the place to discuss the reality of corporate identities and personalities. But John Vervake and Jonathan Pageau do a good job of trying to explain the idea here and here.

**Some of the examples he cites are weird and uncanny, like JK Rowling getting sued for stealing the idea of an author who developed a story about a wizard school, whose hero is named Larry Potter, who has a scar, etc.

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier

History comes to us in many forms.  Most historians try and make sense of their time directly, or perhaps try and 6314understand their time through understanding the past. In his diary, Jakob Walter only seeks to relate his own experience.  He doesn’t even really attempt to understand  his experience in context.  He has no comments on Napoleon and his policies, wars, and treaties.  His field of vision concerned himself only.

This certainly does not make Walter a selfish man, or even a narrow one automatically.  Walter came from Germany, an area conquered by Napoleon probably around 1807.  When his army got pressed into Napoleon’s service, his main concern became hoping that he and his brother (also a soldier for Napoleon) would stay alive.  He likely cared nothing for Napoleon himself or any grand moral or political scheme Napoleon may have had.  It was not his war.

So his narrow focus has no moral overtones necessarily, but this narrow vision of Walter’s writing has occasional parallels in his actions.  We know the invasion of Russia made for a hellish retreat for Napoleon’s army.  Walter lets us know that even in the initial months of advance into Russia supplies were scanty, at least for the “allied troops” like Walter.  This meant foraging, which the Russians made difficult by hiding and burning their own supplies.  Walter writes,

If they had voluntarily removed the simple covers [of their storage areas] much of their household furniture would have remained unspoiled.  For it was necessary to raise the floors and the beams in order to find anything, and to turn upside down anything that was covered.

Walter may have cared somewhat for Russians, but his argument boils down to, “If only they wouldn’t hide their food we wouldn’t have to destroy their homes to find it.”  He doesn’t concern himself at all about the larger picture, only the practical aspects of staying alive.  Limiting oneself to purely “practical” concerns will likely have moral consequences.

Most anyone with a vague familiarity of the Russian campaign will know of the terrible retreat. Walter’s details of Napoelon’s withdraw bring out the ghastly nature of his experience.  All semblance of unity and order broke down in the quest to stay alive.  I remember years ago reading Elie Weisel’s Night, a great book that should be read, but one I never wish to read again.  What made Weisel’s experience so tragic and terrible for me was not just the inhumanity of the Nazi’s.  Instead, Weisel’s descriptions of how the prisoners often turned on each other for bread or “good” jobs really devastated me.  Perhaps, I thought, had the prisoners united against the Nazi’s they could have redeemed the situation to some degree, but in Weisel’s account they rarely, if ever, did this.  Obviously the retreat from Russia is not the same thing, yet I was reminded of Night when reading how Napoleon’s army turned on each other, stealing food and horses from their comrades in arms with no hesitations.  Hobbes might say that this is what happens to human nature when the veneer of civilization gets stripped away.

Napoleon's Retreat

While Walter had a narrow vision some larger aspects of Napoleon’s empire reveal themselves.  The FrenchRevolution proclaimed “The Rights of Man,” at least in theory.  In practice it tended to mean rights for those who agreed with the Revolution’s shifting meaning of what it meant to be French particularly, not human generally.  After Robespierre’s execution much of this petered out, and Napoleon helped end it.  But though Napoleon was in some ways an ambassador of the French Revolution’s ideals of universal equality, the “French” emphasis made itself evident.  Whatever supplies Napoleon could muster from headquarters went first to French troops (especially his Imperial Guard), then to the “Allied” troops.  In the Russian campaign, supplies were scarce enough that there was never a “then” at all.  The sham flimsiness of Napoleon’s alliance gets indirectly exposed in Walter’s account.  That many of the “allies” Napoleon fought with in Russia in 1812 would turn on him in 1813 makes perfect sense.

So perhaps sometimes narrow keyholes can open up a vision of broader vistas.

 

 

Napoleon on Napoleon

Those who find themselves ill-disposed towards Napoleon (as I am on balance) should avoid reading the 25 page introduction of his abridged autobiography.  With crackling prose Napoleon gives us

  • An explanation of the success of his siege of Toulon
  • A concise theory of his rules of war
  • A demonstration of how Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great, . . . and he himself . . .  all followed these rules (he also makes sure to say how he fought in more campaigns and battles than many of those he lists).
  • An outline of recent French campaigns that failed to adhere to these rules and failed . . . neither of which directly involved him in any way (other generals made the mistakes).
  • An explanation of Charles XII failed invasion of Russia, told with no irony or self-awareness whatsoever.
  • A comparison of his wars and the wars of Louis XIV, in which he shows that the Sun-King’s wars did far more damage to France, and had far less legality, than his own campaigns (some estimates place French casualties in the Napoleonic Wars at around 1 million).

Such audacity and restless energy is hard to comprehend and one can’t help but admire it at least on some level.  He is the consummate NYC cab driver.  If this is the imagesman in exile at the end of his life (when he wrote his memoirs, ca. 1816-17), imagine how many secretaries he drove insane in 1805. His meteoric rise to power makes perfect sense in those first 25 pages. But for those who wish to dislike Napoleon, fear not!  Simply read a bit further and one grows weary of such energy, audacity, and his utter and complete moral blindness.  You begin to understand not just his ascension to power, but why he alienated almost everyone close to him and why those characteristics would inevitably carry him too far.

Napoleon shows his best side when discussing practical matters of policy.  In the beginning of his career at least he showed a keen political sense.  He criticism of the Assembly in the days preceding the Terror ring true:

[The Assembly] committed two errors, which might have produced the total ruin of the nation.  The first was to establish a Constitution at odds with the experience of all ages, whose mechanism contrived to restrict public power [during a time of uncertainty].  Great as this error was, it was less fragrant and had less deplorable consequences than the second — that or persisting in re-establishing Louis XVI on the throne after his flight to Varennes.  It ought to have sent commissioners to Varennes not to bring the king back to Paris, but to clear the way for him to abdicate; to have proclaimed Louis XVII king, and to have created a regency, to a princess of the House of Conde and a regency council composed of principal members of the Assembly.

Later he shows the same clarity in his analysis of the controversy between the Jacobins and Girondins (though also a touch of ruthless practicality):

The factions of the Girondins and the Mountain [Jacobins] were too violent in their mutual animosity.  Had they both continued to exist, impediments to the administration of government would have multiplied and France would not have been able to maintain her territory in the face of all Europe.  The good of the country required the triumph of one of those parties.  . . . Would the result have been the same had it been the Girondin party that gained the day and the Mountain sacrificed?  I think not.  The mountain party, although checked, would always have possessed great influence, in the popular societies and armies.  There was undoubtedly more talented and better men in the Girondin, but the Girondins had more speculative men, less resolute and less decisive.

Though this kind of analysis has its darker side (many worthy Girondins lost their lives unjustly in the Terror), Napoleon at least writes convincingly in these sections.  In his campaigns he insisted on a strict unity of command and clear lines of communication at all times.  His armies marched with great speed and yet avoided confusion in the ranks.  So too, his political analysis and his prose have the same distinguishing marks.  He maintains fidelity to his emphasis on practical results and his love of the simplicity of power.  He never leaves any doubt as to what he means to say.  This is a man soldiers would instinctively respect, a man easy to follow.  All such a man would need is an opening, and the French Revolution provided many such openings for Napoleon.

Napoleon has his charms, to be sure, and should not be regarded as a vicious monster.  But his ego led him to make almost absurd claims about his career.  Even a massively abridged version of his autobiography (in this case, 275 pages as compared to about 1200), even a very sympathetic editor, cannot hide this.  Nothing is his fault, and everything has an explanation.  The fall of Cairo goes on Kleber’s shoulders, the murder of the Duke of Engheim was England’s fault, and so on, and so on.  “I never committed crimes,” he writes.

I reached the summit of greatness by direct paths, without ever having committed an act that morality could reproach.  In that respect my rise is unparalleled in history — in order to reign, David destroyed the house of Saul, his benefactor;* Caesar kindled a civil war and overthrew the government of his country; Cromwell caused his master to perish on the scaffold.  I was a stranger to the crimes of the Revolution.

We may assume that by “morality” he means “political morality,” and not personal morality, for which he seemingly cared nothing.  But even so, what of the death of the Duke of Engheim?  His murder irrevocably turned Europe’s aristocracy against him.  It turned Tolstoy against him, years later.  Even Napoleon’s exceedingly practical Chief of Police, Joseph Fouche, said of the Duke’s execution, “It was worse than a crime.  It was a mistake.”**

Explaining away the Russian disaster no doubt called upon all of Napoleon’s skills. He first argues that, “If Moscow had not been burnt [most all agree the French army did not do this], Alexander would have been compelled to make peace.”  But he offers no argument as to why, and I at least can’t see why the czar would make peace.  Whatever the case, Moscow burned, and a practical man like Napoleon should cease wondering why.

The cold of the Russian winter was “premature,” leading Napoleon to admit that, ok, I “remained in Moscow four days too long.”  I believe that this is the only place where Napoleon admits to a mistake.  It seems unlikely that the disintegration of an army 1/2 million men strong could rest entirely on this mistake alone.  And indeed,

When the army was within two days march of Vilna, and no further dangers threatened it, I conceived that the urgency of affairs required my presence in Paris — only there could I dictate to Prussia and Austria.  Had I delayed the passage might have been closed against me.  . . . The [Imperial] Guard was then entire and the army contained more than 80,000 combatants . . .   The Russian army did not now exceed 50,000 men.  [Supplies] abounded at Vilna.  Considerable stores of clothing and ammunition had likewise been established.  Had I remained with the army . . . it would never have retreated beyond Vilna.  . . . It is from this period in particular that the great losses of the campaign may be dated.  Nothing was, or could have been more totally unforeseen by me than the senseless conduct adopted at Vilna.

Again, just as in Egypt, he, being a good father, left his children with every opportunity of success.  Leave it to his prodigal subordinates to ruin everything.

But still, Napoleon had and has his devotees.  You can see the blinding effect of Napoleon’s ego even on the editor of this abridged version of his memoirs, Somerset de Chair.  Chair writes regarding Napoleon’s recounting of the Moscow campaign,

Almost all historians have treated the Russian campaign as a unmitigated disaster.  Here Napoleon sets the record straight.  After defeating Russia at Borodin . . . Napoleon withdrew.  He experienced devastating weather conditions, but this does not alter Napoleon’s claim to have achieved what he set out to do.  [He sought] to teach Russia a lesson not to interfere in French affairs in the future when his son should become Emperor and to punish the Tsar for opening his ports to Britain.  [Napoleon’s] view that he left a defeated and humiliated Russia in his wake is hard to ignore.  It was, admittedly, a harassed return . . . it was not as if the French had intended to occupy Russia indefinitely.  If Hitler had succeeded [in Russia], where Napoleon did not ever intend to remain, it would have been a very different story.

I think we can agree with Chair that yes, Napoleon was not as bad as Hitler.  Score a point for hero-worship if you wish.  But to suggest that Napoleon achieved his aims in Russia by preventing Russia from challenging his son and heir is a gross absurdity.  His failure in Russia directly led to his first abdication and the impossibility of his son ever succeeding him, and led also to the rise (not humiliation) of Russia an an expansive, imperial power in the 19th century.

Napoleon’s life can be viewed as tragic even if we don’t call him a tragic hero.  Many of Napoleon’s top generals abandoned him and defected to the Bourbons.  This must have been a bewildering and devastating blow.  But I think that such men simply learned from their master that when a situation warrants it, find a way to survive.  For Napoleon, even on St. Helena, his memoirs stand as his final battle, his last attempt to conquer.  For me at least, his autobiography has a minor appeal as a kind of grand, doomed adventure — like that of Waterloo.  And they must fail, that Napoleon might possibly learn humility.***

Dave

*Certainly not true from any glance at 1 Samuel – 1 Kings.

**Some believe that Talleyrand said this instead.  Whoever said it, the difference is the same.  Both men devoted themselves to Napoleon’s practical morality and they saw the consequences of such an “ill-considered” action.

***Towards the end of the memoirs he blames the allies for violating the Treaty of Fontanblieu and sending him to St. Helena.  Again, he is either joking or willfully blind.  He tore up that treaty when he escaped from Elba.

Still, there is some evidence at the very end of his life he may have had a genuine religious awakening.

Mapping the Middle

Some years ago I listened to an interview with a historian whose name I cannot remember, but she made a startling observation I had never before considered. We cherish the idea of voting in our secret booths. Many regard it as impolite to ask who one voted for. But this method, so cherished as a foundation of democratic practice, has a purely modern origin.* In ye olden days we voted in public, sometimes simply by standing on one side of a room, with those voting for the other guy on the other side, and then counting heads. In a republic, thinking went, one should live openly with their fellow man. The idea of ‘private’ political opinions would have seemed absurd and anti-democratic to Americans of the early-mid 1800’s.

I come back to this nugget often, for it reminds me that things we assume about the ‘absolute’ meaning of America, or democratic identity, may not be quite what we assume. Stories like this also should help us reflect on whether or not the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Gordon Wood needs no praise from me. I find his analysis consistently penetrating and illuminating. One reason for this . . . he seems to know how to appreciate the weirdness of American history and maintain tension between competing perspectives. For those who praise America’s unique role in the history of western civilization, he can say, “Yes, but . . . ,” and for those that decry our faults, he says the same. He draws us into an appreciation for the tensions and oddities of our national life. The best historians make the past seem at once strange and yet familiar. Wood accomplishes this with deep learning and a light touch. His book Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution serves as a great summary of some of his previous work.

Some surprising details emerge here. We know that the founders had many differences on a variety of issues, but I didn’t know that they had unity in their condemnation of . . . Rhode Island. They objected not to their religious oddities, inspired by the likes of Roger William’s and Anne Hutchinson, nor to their commercial turn–something Alexander Hamilton, at least, appreciated. No, they directed their universal ire towards Rhode Island’s use of paper money. “The cry for paper money,” John Adams commented, “is downright Wickedness and Dishonesty. Every Man must see that it is the worst engine of Knavery that ever was invented.”

Of course we can choose to smile benignly and call them curmudgeons, but Wood reminds us in a variety of other places the radical and progressive nature of the American Revolution. The fact that more or less everyone across the spectrum condemned Rhode Island should tell us something. All knew that paper money represented a loosening of the hierarchy, and a preference for debtors over creditors, Whether they consciously intuited it or not, paper money also meant a more fluid and democratic society than perhaps any of the founders desired.

In discussing the Constitutional Convention, Wood mentions a curious bifurcation in American society. Some progressives and libertarians call the Constitution basically the byproduct of a conspiracy. This groups sees America in the 1780’s as flourishing and in no need of significant alteration. As usual, Wood answers, “Yes, but” and adds nuance. Various state economies performed well in this decade, but the problem lay in the strong commercial push for markets and regulated trade. The government under the Articles of Confederation had no powers regarding trade. This desire for markets ran so deep that Wood suggests a significant portion of Americans would have allied with any foreign power that would ensure their products access to the sea. George Washington commented of such folk in 1784 that, “the slightest touch of a feather would turn them any way.” We needed some kind of stronger national government. But Wood agrees that had the American people actually known how strong a government some of the delegates to Philadelphia wanted during the summer of 1787, they might very well have shut down the process entirely.

Most key members of the Convention sought to supersede state government power with the Federal government, but the theme that almost no one who helped start the American Revolution truly understood what they had unleashed runs throughout Wood’s work. This sometimes had good effects such as with the slavery question. Wood argues that we had a blindness about African-American slavery before the Revolution because we had a basic blindness towards white “slavery” as well. White “indentured servitude” was indeed not the same as “slavery” as we know it, but it was close, most particularly in the idea that owners could sell the labor contracts of their servants. Also,

“because labor was so valuable in America, colonists enacted numerous laws to control the movement of white servants and prevent runaways. There was nothing in England resembling the passes required for traveling servants. . . . No wonder newly arriving Britons were astonished to see how ruthlessly Americans treated their white servants. ‘Generally speaking,’ said William Eddis upon his introduction to Maryland society in 1769, ‘they groan beneath a burden worse than Egyptian bondage.'”

This started changing when the rhetoric of revolution started focusing on “slavery” to England, making “slavery” unacceptable to many for the first time–again–this was not the plan. Wood, a critic of the 1619 Project, wants to focus on the significant progress made by the revolutionary impulse to end slavery/servitude in most of the colonies, rather than its tragic persistence in the few. Of course, slavery didn’t just persist in southern colonies, it actually dramatically expanded from 1775-1850. At least here, Wood cannot explain how the impulse that ended slavery in some places seemed to increase it in others. By the early 19th century, one could accurately describe America both as dramatically more and less free than England.

Perhaps because Wood possesses great knowledge and a great ability to parse the details, he cannot quite bring the unusual disparities of America into an explanatory whole. We have already touched on the freedom/slavery divide, but others exist too:

  • Some wanted much less central unity than England had, some wanted much more power for the federal government than King George ever had.
  • The equating of land with freedom, and the “ravenous” appetite for land among colonists that shocked European observers, despite land’s vast abundance.

If we see America in a spatial, symbolic/mythological way an explanation emerges.

Many look at medieval maps and wonder, “what in the world . . . ?

The Hereford “Mappa Mundi,” ca. 1250 (?)

At first glance, and at a second and third glance, the map gives very little physical information. At times the physical data it gives is not even accurate, such as the separation of England and Scotland on the map above. But if we see the map as a means of guiding us to understanding how to navigate the world, or a “map of meaning,” we see as the medievals (and other cultures before them) saw.**

This post has little to do with the map directly, so I will limit my comments to its application for America. If you magnify the map, you see that towards the edges, one meets strange creatures. Reality starts to blur, there exists at once a strange mixing and a strange separation of bodily form, yet also, if managed rightly, a chance for wisdom and new growth. This happens on the “fringe” of reality. Most every great story involves the hero leaving home and being remade, casting bread upon the waters that it might return–in short–heroes must successfully navigate the fringe.^

The key to managing the fringe first involves understanding its meaning. We can consider alcohol as one example of how the fringe works. Taverns and bars have always been a place to meet others and mix. This is not an arbitrary social convention. Alcohol serves to “loosen” us, which is why we should drink only in the evening, as our being naturally gets looser as we move towards sleep. This “loosening” facilitates mixing and mingling with others more easily. So, “Can I buy you a drink?” works better as a pick-up line than, “Can I buy you some carrots?”

But one must be careful. If we stay too long on the fringe–i.e., drink too much–our being splits. We may discover too late that we have “mixed” with someone we should have avoided. Notice too that those who get drunk tend to experience either an unnatural extremity of the fringe (they are over-social, thinking everything is funny, etc.) or they get surly and overly anti-social–i.e., they seek to return “home” from the fringe but return misshapen. They attempt to recalibrate their mixing but their “monstrous” form, acquired from too much transformative “mixing potion,” means they cannot “tighten” themselves with proper form and grace. The moral of the story–one should not stay too long on the fringe.

Though we may not see it easily now, for European settlers in the New World, America was “the fringe,” The glories, degradations, and strangeness of America have their explanation here. Europeans traveled out to the edge, and decided not to return but camp out for good. This has several implications:

  • I have already alluded to the “more free,” and “less free” polarity.
  • Those who wanted to try and implement extreme forms of religiosity might find a home here. The Puritans could implement their views, but the continual implementation of their ideas required close knit communities, which “the fringe” would naturally work against.
  • Those who wanted to basically try and transplant something of the society of the English gentry, like many of transplants into Virginia, could achieve this only through strenuous effort and hence, malformation. This could explain the large number of slaves in Virginia.
  • Washington’s desire that we eschew political parties had no chance of success whatsoever. The fringe brings out extremes, it divides.
  • It might additionally mean that the fringe would define America. Examples might be–American literature has its origins with Twain, who lived out west. Many of our folktales involve strange, misshapen people, or those who lived in continual movement (Daniel Boone, Jonny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, etc.). African Americans, who resided obviously on the social fringe, created some of the best and most noteworthy culture, especially in terms of music. Finally, when we got out as far we could physically go on the fringe (California), we made this “fringe of the fringe” America’s heart with the advent of Hollywood.

We can quickly see that some of this is good (who wouldn’t take American 20th century music over any and all European countries?), some bad, and some of it confusing. It is the fringe, however, that defines American life, and this means that we will experience extremes, and that the lines between “good” and “bad” will blur quickly, right before our eyes. This template also explains much of early American history and the heightened versions of good and bad we see.

Thomas Jefferson took great pride in helping Virginia, and in time, all of America, to develop the practice of religious tolerance and avoiding state sponsored religions. Wood suggests that Jefferson thought this meant that a democratic people could arrive at an “enlightened” understanding. Madison thought differently, and knew better. We allowed for toleration only because we feared the monopoly that other religions might gain. Mutual collision, and not mutual understanding, made us “healthy.” Lacking a defined core, “collision” was our last, best option.

The American Revolution saw the European fringe break decisively from the core. Once free, new practices embedded in the ideas of revolution spread rapidly. Having lived on the fringe, Americans could navigate the changes rather easily. When a society with a more traditional core, such as France, tried something similar, it had a much more disruptive impact. When the ideas migrated into an even more traditional society like Russia toward the end of the 20th century, an oppressive tyranny reigned for 70 years, instead of the five we saw in France.

Americans love to spread their ideas, and always have. We believe that our beliefs and practices should transplant everywhere. Many of us look around us and surmise that significant change is coming for western civilization. I don’t think I will like many of the changes coming, but I take some comfort in knowing that America has a large bandwidth for adaptation. My concern lies in what happens when these new ideas migrate into more traditional societies. The impact there will be more traumatic (i.e., Russia and Ukraine?).

Ok, my concerns also lie with us. We need a middle to navigate the extremes, but alas, “middle ground” will always be elusive on the fringe.

Dave

*The historian was not entirely sure of why this switch happened, but speculated that it likely had something to do with Victorian ideas of propriety, and with the new involvement of women voting. In ye olden days, fisticuffs on Election Day with those on the other side were relatively normal occurrences. But with the new system, one didn’t know how the other voted, which made fighting much less likely.

**In this case, obviously the creators of the map knew that England and Scotland were geographically connected, but they remained culturally separate in their experience. The map then, reflects an understanding of their experience, not a mere physical representation.

^There is a great present in Scripture about the core, fringe, etc. if one knows how to look. Consider creation in 6 days, and leaving 1 untouched, leaving something on the edge of plowed fields, not weaving one’s garments to totality (i.e., leave the edge of your garments with a fringe), and so on. But just as Christ ministered first on Israel’s geographic fringe, He came to back “home” to Jerusalem.

Napoleon Dynamite

The statistical revolution has transformed how we watch and evaluate baseball, and has made similar inroads into basketball as well. Granted, this has its benefits, but one important downside for all of this is that it ends all of the fun arguments about who is the better player, and so on. With the advent of WAR (wins above replacement player value) we can’t even argue about what is the best statistic to use in player evaluations.

The Roman historian Livy includes a great vignette from the 2nd Punic War between Hannibal and Scipio, with Scipio beginning:

When Africanus asked who, in Hannibal’s opinion, was the greatest general, Hannibal named Alexander… as to whom he would rank second, Hannibal selected Pyrrhus…asking whom Hannibal considered third, he named himself without hesitation. Then Scipio broke into a laugh and said, “What would you say if you had defeated me?

But alas, some of these quips may no longer be possible, thanks to the statistical revolution. A brilliant fellow named Ethan Arsht has used statistics to rank many of the great generals of all-time. He admits that he intends his findings to spark fun debate and not be the final word, but it is impressive all the same. He explains his methodology, and you can check out the full interactive rankings here.

Arsht has many surprises for us, some of which confirm my own thoughts (I have always thought R.E. Lee overrated by most, and Grant underrated by most), some that dramatically challenge them (George McClellan has a higher WAR than Lee–have at it Civil War buffs). But perhaps the starkest shock to my own thoughts is that his model ranks Napoleon Bonaparte as history’s greatest general by a very, very wide margin.

This would surprise no one who lived in the 19th century or perhaps the early 20th. Recently, however, some have challenged the traditional adoration of Napoleon and focused on his debacles in Egypt and Russia, and the fact that he lost in the end. When he started to face reformed and refitted armies, and better leaders, from 1809 onward, his fortunes changed dramatically. My own bias often leans towards challenging prevailing opinion, and I ate this up. But the study has challenged me to reexamine Napoleon and perhaps discover that (horror of horrors) received opinion has always been correct about him.

For my rethinking of Napoleon I turned to Harold Parker’s Three Napoleonic Battles. His premise intrigued me in that he proposed to look at different battles at different points in Napoleon’s career and see what, if anything, changed about his abilities over time. He first shows Napoleon at the peak of his powers against a weak general at the Battle of Friedland. Then, at Aspern-Essling about two years later, his abilities seem to wane as he faces a decent opposing commander within a trickier geography. Finally, we see Napoleon defeated at Waterloo by an excellent opposing commander in Wellington.

Even for those like myself who tend not to like Napoleon, one cannot deny the dash, charm, and incisive brilliance of the man, and all this is on full display at Friedland in June of 1807. At Eylau months previously, Napoleon failed to get a decisive victory over Russia. He got it here.

The battle began and the Russian General Bennigsen noticed a seemingly somewhat isolated French corp commanded by Marshal Lannes. Likely Bennigsen never intended to engage the French, for to do so he would need to cross the river Alle. Still, it looked inviting enough for Bennigsen–he need not engage the whole of the French army, but merely wound it with a quick excursion against a weaker force.

Herein perhaps lies a lesson of leadership: great generals can make great things out of the unexpected, but average to poor leaders need to stay on script to achieve anything at all.

Lannes held remarkably well, and Benningsen, having put his hand to plow, did not want to pull back, assuming that victory was just a few more committed troops away. He pushed more troops over the Alle, but in so doing, put the Russians in a tight spot of having their backs to the river. Time, however, was not on his side. Lannes sent messengers to Napoleon asking him to come with all haste, and if French reinforcements could arrive in time–and the French marched very fast for their day–Russia’s numerical advantage would disappear.*

True to his sanguine spirit and quick mind, Napoleon minded not at all the surprise of the Russian attack, and saw great opportunity in it. He had the knack, too, for creating memorable vignettes of speech, such as the following as he rode hard to the battlefield:

Do you have a good memory?

Passable, sire.

Well, do you know what anniversary is today, June 14?

That of Marengo.

Yes, yes, that of Marengo–and I shall beat the Russians just as a I beat the Austrians.

Below is a map of the field at Friedland

Napoleon arrived on the field of battle, and my impression is that he gave the following orders after perhaps one to two hours of personal reconnaissance of the field.

Marshal Ney will take the right, from Sortlack to Posthenen, and he will bear to the present position of General Oudinot. Marshal Lannes will have the center, which will begin at the left of Marshal Ney from the village of Posthenen to Henrichsdorf.

The grenadiers of Oudinot, which at present form the right of Marshal Lannes, will by slow degrees bear to the left, in order to attract the attention of the enemy to themselves.

The left will be formed by Marshal Motlier, holding Henrichsdorff and the the road to Konigsberg, and and from there extending across the front of the Russian right wing. Marshal Mortier will never advance, the movement is to be made by our right which will pivot on our left.

The cavalry of General Espagne and the dragoons of General Grouchy, joined with the cavalry of the left wing, will maneuver to do the most harm to the enemy when the latter, pressed by the vigorous attack of our right, will find it necessary to retreat.

General Victor and the infantry and cavalry of the Imperial Guard will form the reserve and will be placed in Grunhof, Bothkeim, and behind Posthenen. I shall be with the reserve.

One should always advance by the right, and one should leave the initiative to Marshal Ney, who will await my orders to begin.

From the moment that the right advances on the enemy, all the cannon of the line must double their fire in a useful direction to protect the attack of the wing.

All of Napoleon’s brilliance is here–the energy of the prose, the clarity of the orders, and the strategic overlay of the entire battle are all present. Bennigsen and the Russians fought hard. But seeing Napoleon’s mental command of the situation in the above orders, it surprises us not that he gained a decisive victory and brought (for a time) the Russians in line with his empire as a result.

Parker then forwards to the Battle of Aspern-Essling, where Napoleon faced a better commander a few years later, in a more confusing situation. Here too, the geography was more difficult, and the river (the Danube), more formidable:

By this time Napoleon had occupied Vienna and controlled much of the Austrian empire, but still had not destroyed the Austrian army in the field. The Archduke Charles led the Austrians, and most rate him as a thorough and competent tactician not likely to make mistakes, but lacking in strategic vision. Napoleon sought to destroy the Austrians, but as you can see from the map above, a competent commander could make that difficult given that Napoleon was in enemy territory with problematic geography.

The battle was confusing and lacked the decisive clarity Napoleon so desired. He needed good bridges over the Danube to concentrate his forces in Lobau, but the Danube, and the Austrians, had no intention of making it easy on them. At Friedland Napoleon assumes the air of absolute mastery, but here he pleads with fate rather than commanding it. A sample of some of his orders:

The interruption of the bridge has prevented us from receiving supplies; at 10:00 we ran out of munitions. The enemy perceived this and has done us great damage. In this state of affairs, to repair the bridges, to send us munitions and food, to keep an eye on Vienna, is extremely important. Write to the Prince of Ponte-Corvo . . . that he may draw toward us.

Here we are far from the Napoleon of Friedland, a commander who seems helpless, who needs reinforcements, who has no direct command of the action.

The Austrians were thus able to pound some French detachments for hours with no threat of retaliation due to their lack of ammunition. Many of the French naturally wanted to withdraw. Napoleon had not badly blundered–the field was confusing, and he had been somewhat unlucky with the bridges. While he lacked tactical clarity in the battle’s first stages, he managed to demonstrate his trademark strategic clarity in his response to his men’s request for withdrawal.

“You wish,” he said to [his field marshals] “to recross the Danube! And how? Are not the bridges destroyed? Without that, would we not be united as victors? We can, it is true, have the men and horses cross on boats; but what will become of the artillery? Shall we abandon our wounded? Shall we say thus to the enemy, and to Europe, that the victors today are vanquished? And if the Archduke, more puffed up by our retreat than by his earlier, pretended success, crosses the Danube behind us at Tulln, at Krems, and Lintz . . . if he brings together his different corp . . . where shall we retire? Will it be to the positions I have intrenched on the Traun, on the Inn, or the Lech? . . . . No! we must run as far as the Rhine; for those allies which victory and fortune have given us, an apparent defeat will take from us and even turn against us. We must remain [in the Lobau]. We must threaten an enemy accustomed to fearing us and keep him before us. Before he has made up his mind, before he has begun to act, we will repair the bridges in a manner to defy all accident, the corp will be able to unite and fight on either bank. The army of Italy, followed by that of Lefebvre, will bring us aid. . . . Then we shall be masters of our operations.

It worked. Parker quotes from Marshal Massena, who commented, “That’s true, that’s right! Yes, the Danube alone has conquered us so far, and not the Archduke!” The French managed to turn the tide the next day enough to allow a complete withdrawal in greater safety for the entirety of their army. The battle belonged to the Austrians, but the Archduke–quite capable in a limited tactical situation–failed strategically in the aftermath. They did not follow-up appropriately. Given this breathing space, the French dealt more decisively with the Austrians later at Wagram.

In the quote above, Napoleon showed that

  • He did not foolishly underrate his opponent the Archduke
  • He framed the issue in larger strategic terms
  • He focused on the problems the river had caused, not the Austrians or their own failures.
  • He summed up their overall strategic situation in Europe honestly and accurately, as it related to their allies.

So, at Aspern-Essling one could say that Napoleon either bit off more than he could chew, or waded into a situation he failed to fully grasp immediately, as he did at Friedland. Still, his energy and sense of the moment remain with him.

For his third battle Parker examines Waterloo. So many have written so much about this battle that neither he or I have much to say about it. What seems clear to almost every observer is

  • Napoleon’s health had declined markedly and he was no longer the same in the field (though obviously still a very good general).
  • At Waterloo he faced a top notch opponent in Wellington, who had sound tactical and strategic sense, had defeated the French in Spain, and had superlatively defensive capability.
  • While Napoleon showed hints of his former self in moments, he showed little of his usual tactical brilliance, relying on frontal assaults against entrenched positions.

Sir Edward Creasy ranked Waterloo as one of the 15 decisive battles of all-time. His account of the battle is worth reading, but his sense of the importance of the battle fails to convince. Napoleon’s own words make this evident. Quoting from his comments at Aspern-Essling again,

. . . for those allies which victory and fortune have given us, an apparent defeat will take from us and even turn against us. We must remain [in the Lobau].

At Aspern-Essling his clarity about his overall grand strategical situation led to his remaining on the field. It was the right call, for he was correct about the nature of his allies. Events with Russia and Austria proved him right. I can appreciate Arsht and Parker for helping me to see Napoleon with new eyes. Napoleon was a brilliant tactician, and an excellent strategist. My push-back to Arsht would be Napoleon’s failure in grand strategy. I suppose no one can do everything. But, Napoleon’s victories never really created anything lasting for France, for it would all go away after a significant defeat, as it did after Russia in 1812, as it did after Waterloo in 1815. But even if he won at Waterloo, he would have faced similar circumstances soon thereafter, and then again, and again.

Not even the best should burden themselves with being perfect, and if they do, maybe this should be held against them.

Dave

*It seems obvious in hindsight that Bennigsen should have withdrawn back across the river when his initial attack failed. There is even the chance that he could have lured the French to counter-attack him, and he would then be in the advantageous position of defending a bridgehead. But the history of human nature shows that this is psychologically very difficult to do–akin to an act of great repentance.

A.J. Toynbee: “Hannibal’s Legacy” in 2 vols.

I have republished this because of the partial similarities in theme with Hillaire Belloc’s Waterloo, reviewed here.

And now, the original review. . .

This is a great work, probably a labor of love to write and certainly at times to read. It bogs down in parts, at times too technical and obscure. But if you let it wash over you and absorb the full effects, one sees the book’s great value. It’s theme of how war pressures a society, and how victory can be turned into a defeat of sorts, is entirely relevant for us today.

First, the weaknesses:

  • Toynbee’s subject fits an epic scope, but the book becomes very technical at times. He loads the writing with untranslated Latin phrases. I realize he may have had the specialist in mind with because he does not do this in his other writings. But it’s still aggravating and pointless.
  • The book is too long. I admire his desire to touch on everything related to the subject (such as animal husbandry habits), I often lost focus and momentum reading it.

But don’t let this stop you. Look at me for example. I skipped big chunks of it and here I am, confidently reviewing it!

Toynbee believed that studying the classical world had importance not so much because of its influence on western civilization, however true that may be, but because we have with the Hellenic world a complete story fairly well documented. Given the uniformity of human nature, their story can be instructive for all us.

His argument runs like this:

1. One key to understanding the Hellenic world is the city-state model. Time and again, this model proved its superiority over other political organizations in the Mediterranean and beyond. The Greeks beat Persia for example. Organized along these lines, the Romans were poised to better their less well organized neighbors.

2. Conflict is part of life, and Rome eventually and continually got into conflicts with provinces around them. Their inward structure and at least moderately progressive alliance structure gave them a final advantage in these various conflicts.

Toynbee does not exalt Rome as the paragons of ancient virtue. But neither does he dismiss the good parts of what made them great. It’s ok to discover good things about western civilization!

Their victories solved some problems but created others. By the mid 4th century B.C. Rome’s expansion had done two things

  • It brought them up to the Mediterranean which likely would have inevitably involved them in conflict with Mediterranean naval powers. Should this conflict come the impact on Rome would be far reaching, win or lose. But this particular law of unintended consequence is faced by every civilization.
  • More importantly, Rome’s territorial expansion put great stress on the concept of the city-state. City-state’s work well when their is enough familiarity with one another to share rights, privileges, and responsibilities equally. When done, the resulting social cohesion can be personally fulfilling and politically dynamic.

Now such cohesion would be impossible. They were too big. Rome had a choice to make. They could either a) Transition into a more bureaucratic state with more central authority, b) Expand the base of their rights and go to a broad-based representative democracy, or c) Forget social cohesion and extend the power of their ruling class to these other areas as well.

Given their aversion to monarchy, ‘a’ was not likely, but ‘b’ was possible. Alas, they chose ‘c.’

Toynbee elsewhere makes the somewhat dubious assertion that the Hellenic world (which included Rome in his view) began to collapse in 431 BC with the Peloponnesian War. As it applies to Greece, it works, but not Rome. His argument here though, that Rome began to lose itself somewhere around 350 BC makes more sense. This is when Rome makes the transition from some kind of admirable democracy to a less admirable oligarchy.

3. It is the nature of oligarchies (like most regimes) to maintain control. Rome was still progressive in some ways, but in moral/political matters going half-way is worse than nothing. For example, most would rather not be invited to a party at all, instead of being invited and then told, “You can’t eat that. These rooms are off limits, etc.” They could be benevolent at times, but insisted on control. This dynamic often led to a unity of prominent families over and against the masses. They condescended to give allies some rights, but never equality.  This made them vulnerable.  Pride often does.

4. This was the climate that Hannibal hoped to exploit when he invaded. The traditional narrative is that Rome, pressed to the brink by a military genius, rallied itself and  gained the victory. They add lots of territory in Africa and Spain. It’s a triumph for western civilization.  Rome’s victory over Hannibal saved them from coming under the thumb of an an elitist merchant class oligarchy that would never have let them exercise their political wings.  That was the best case scenario, with the worst case being utter destruction.  Hurray — western civilization is saved!

Not so fast, says Toynbee.  He dedicates the vast majority of vol. 2 to showing the unintended negative ripple effects of Rome’s victory. Some of them were inevitable, but most Rome had a direct or indirect hand in.  They could have avoided their fate.

The Effects:

  • Rome had treated allies generally well before the 2nd Punic War, and often imposed extra burdens on themselves, sparing allied troops certain duties. After the war (during which some key allied states left for Hannibal) this was no longer the case. Rome now often gave the extra/harder duties to their allies. This is just part of the psychological scars the war left on Rome.
  • Much of the SE Italian population and land had been devastated by the war. Many peasants fled to the cities, which caused a manpower shortage in terms of raising troops from the provincial areas. But Rome, being less trusting, would not let their allies short them in any way on troop requirements any longer. But the extra burden came at a time when they were much less able to meet it.

  • New territory had to be manned, but this meant that troops would be away from farms for long extended periods, making their farms unprofitable. The people who get stationed in Spain can’t come back to vote. If they can’t vote they have no power. Legions in Spain would end up serving for 5-10 years at a time. Out of sight out of mind — until you can’t possibly ignore it any longer.  They do not return as happy campers.
  • In general, the war destroyed the average independent peasant farmer. Wealthy oligarchs could easily buy up lots of cheap property and turn them into plantation farms. But who could work these farms? A free peasantry might get called off to war. Slaves made more sense, and of course, were readily available from the conquests. Thus, slavery expands in Rome during and after the 2nd Punic War, which would rot away the core of Rome’s traditional republican values.
  • As the army grew more disconnected from the social and political life of Rome, their habits became more self-serving. Hence, their abuse and looting of the provinces, of seeking conflict for the sake of loot, and of their increased loyalty to the commander instead of Rome itself.
  • Religion changed in Rome as they became exposed to the more emotive Mediterranean faiths. Traditional Roman religion could not provide for the new needs of the people to deal with the trauma of the war. Of course for the most part, the ruling oligarchy responded as they usually did, with force to suppress. But as you might imagine, this did not work very well.
  • The Romans lost perspective in many foreign crisis. ‘Hannibal’ was everywhere, and so what should have been perceived as a minor threat became a major one, which led to the more frequent drafting of larger armies. This put even more stress on an already stressed peasantry.

The main theme of the post-war years is the oligarchy attempting to maintain their hold on power, but shooting themselves in the foot with most every attempt. For example,

  • Vast new flocks and herds required shepherds to watch them. Shepherds need to be armed against theft and animal predators. But shepherds were often also slaves.  So. . . we see a sharp increase in slave rebellions against the oligarchy.  The Romans armed their potential destroyers.
  • The oligarchy maintained their power through accumulation of land, which led to wealth. Their wealth, along with Rome’s Mediterranean expansion, allowed them to acquire more exotic goods from all over. But this created a new class of wealthy merchants who inevitably challenged the oligarchy for control, and the resulting political tension spilled over into violence.

In the end Rome’s response to their victory led to the destruction of the oligarchy, first in their alienation of the peasantry, then in their fratricidal civil wars, and finally, in their death at the hands of the Principate with Augustus.

What lessons can be learned?

Rome made many mistakes, but many of these were not unusual mistakes. When people win the lottery they take the money and don’t consider the consequences. Most civilizations would take the territory gained in war in the same way.

The fact that Rome ‘lashed out’ and became more controlling and paranoid is also not unusual given the horrific shock and destruction Hannibal inflicted. In their minds it must have been ‘prudence.’ ‘Fool me once,’ and all that.

But Rome was not doomed to follow this path. Though Toynbee does not mention this specifically, I believe that his thesis fits with his overall belief that civilization routinely destroy themselves through acts of pride, fear, and envy. Only sacrificial love can allow a civilization to maintain itself long-term. This is not mere sentimentality. In fact, he takes 800 pages with gobs of footnotes from obscure German historians who wrote books with very long titles to prove his point. If we cast our bread upon the waters, we’ll get it back eventually.

For us today, in light of 9/11, the lessons are similar.

We cannot compare the shock of 9/11 to what Rome endured in the 2nd Punic War. The two events are not even close in magnitude, so the fact that our reaction has not been as extreme as Rome’s is nothing to write home about. We should be thankful.

However, in some areas, such as the extension of our military, the possible ‘tightening’ of our society, the easy way which our civilization can give way to fear, should be a warning to us. Through acts we could and perhaps could not help, we find ourselves stretched economically and more divided culturally than before. We would be silly to suppose that are automatically immune from Rome’s fate.

To close the review (too long!) in the true style of Toynbee’s book (also too long!), I need to include a large appendix. So, below is ‘Exhibit A’ for the change of Rome’s character: the expansion of slavery beginning with the first Punic War (264 B.C.) and ending with the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C.

Expansion of Roman Slavery During Punic Wars (not a complete list): 264-146 B.C.

  • 262 B.C. 25,000 Agrigentines sold into slavery
  • 258 B.C. Myttisstraton massacred by Romans, survivors sold into slavery
  • 258 B.C. Camarinans population into slavery
  • 254 B.C. 13,000 Panormitans, into slavery
  • 241 B.C. 10,000 Carthaginian POW’s into slavery
  • 230 B.C. Romans buy large batch of slaves from Boii
  • 214 B.C. 25,000 killed or enslaved by Fabius Maximus
  • 210 B.C. 2,000 artisans from New Carthage enslaved
  • 210 B.C. Akragas population into slavery by Valerius, leaders executed
  • 210 B.C. Anticyrans sold into slavery, though they had previously made a good faith pledge with Rome
  • 209 B.C. African POW’s in Hasdrubal’s camp enslaved by Scipio
  • 207 B.C. Dymaeans enslaved by Galba
  • 204 B.C. 8,000 African civilians sold into slavery
  • 202 B.C. Wholesale African populations enslaved by Scipio
  • 189 B.C. Samean population enslaved by Fulvius
  • 177 B.C. 5700 from Istrian towns enslaved
  • 177 B.C. 80,000 killed or captured by Sempronius Graachus
  • 171 B.C. Haliatus population massacred, 2500 survivors enslaved
  • 171 B.C. Anti-Roman party at Thisbe enslaved with families
  • 167 B.C. 150,000 from 70 Molossian towns enslaved by direct Senatorial order
  • 155 B.C. Delminium population enslaved by Scipio Nascia
  • 146 B.C. Remaining women-children survivors from the seige of Carthage (perhaps 50,000?) enslaved.
  • 146 B.C. Captured Corinthians massacred, women and children enslaved, liberated Greek slaves re-enslaved by Romans
  • 133 B.C. Numantines enslaved by Scipio Aemilianus

Ritual, Politics, and Power

This post was originally written in 2017 . . .

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President Reagan garnered political popularity and power in part by his skillful use of political theater and imagery.

But in 1985 even this great master of ritual and belief stumbled a bit with the infamous “Bitburg” affair.  A New York Times article read,

It was a day Ronald Reagan had dreaded, even though it was a rite he felt bound to endure.  Walking beside Chancellor Kohl amidst the German military graves of the Bitburg cemetery, he looked stiff and uncomfortable, in awkward contrast to his usual ease.  While Kohl brushed aside tears, Reagan looked straight ahead, careful not to glance down at the graves less he spy the SS symbols sprinkled across the cemetery lawn.  In spite of the West German’s desire to clasp hands over the graves of the war dead, the President’s arms remained resolutely at his side.  Earlier in the day, at a hastily arranged ceremony at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Reagan laid a wreath inscribed, “From the People of the United States.”  At the cemetery, in a ceremony that he was able to limit to just eight minutes, the wreath bore a somewhat different message: “From the President of the United States.”

Reagan got himself into this mess through a series of awkward political circumstances.  First, West Germany had emerged as a crucial ally in the Cold War and Reagan wanted to put a new kind of missile on West German soil.  Second, Chancellor Kohl had engaged in a long campaign of rehabilitation for Germany, and argued that the German people were also the victims of the Nazi regime–a statement most found (and I find) partially true but mostly false.  Still, things in West Germany had obviously changed since the 1940’s.  Still, rehabilitating the Nazi regime . . . ?

Most world leaders balked at any ceremonial recognition.  Reagan felt that he needed to acknowledge West Germany’s emerging role and commitment to freedom.  Plus, the missiles . . . he needed enough political capital with the West Germans to install them on their soil.

So, he decided to go.  He asked that the ceremony be limited in time, pomp, and circumstance.  He asked his aides to pick a spot that would incur the least amount of political damage.  Somehow, in a gaffe of gaffes, his aides picked a spot that included graves of SS officers!  One might understand mourning the ordinary German soldier, but not even Reagan could pull this off.  Still, Reagan had pledged–but he then insisted on another visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in last-ditch attempt to balance things out.  Hence, his stiff posture at the Bitburg cemetery, and the different messages on the wreaths.

The amount of controversy these simple and subtle gestures caused shows us that such gestures are not that simple.  Rituals reflect deeply held beliefs.  More than that, rituals create beliefs that stick in the minds of men.

David Kertzer’s Ritual, Politics, and Power discusses this topic brilliantly.  He writes about weighty topics like ritual, psychology, and sociology with a spring in his step, and shares numerous revealing examples across time and space.  By far, his is the best book I have seen on the subject.

Some of us of a more rationalistic bent might say that rituals have no meaning in themselves.  Perhaps they give outward expression to inward meaning, but certainly cannot create meaning.  Meaning and ritual can easily part ways.

But how far could one take the separation of meaning and ritual?  Imagine we felt respect for someone but failed to shake their hand.  Would we really have this respect?  Some might say, “We love each other and we don’t need the state or the church to tell us that we’re married.” But I doubt that such people would refuse the “act of marriage” that creates intimacy in the first place.  “That’s ok, it’s the thought that counts” would not work as a defense.  Without a physical embodiment of the thought, no evidence of the thought exists.  More than that, our thoughts cannot be said to conform to reality without a physical manifestation of them.  We know a tree by its fruits.

In the Socratic dialogue Phaedo, Socrates argues about the nature of reality.  He comments,

Is their true nature contemplated by means of the body? Is it not rather the case that he who prepares himself most carefully to understand the true essence of each thing that he examines would come nearest to the knowledge of it?”  “Would not that man do this most perfectly who approaches each thing, so far as possible, with the reason alone, not introducing sight into his reasoning nor dragging in any of the other senses along with his thinking, but who employs pure, absolute reason in his attempt to search out the pure, absolute essence of things, and who removes himself, so far as possible, from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from his whole body, because he feels that its companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom? Is not this the man, Simmias, if anyone, to attain to the knowledge of reality?”

In On the Celestial Hierarchy, St. Dionysius the Areopagite acknowledges that human beings cannot immediately or directly attain to spiritual contemplation.  Being flesh and blood, we require visible symbols and embodiments to know truth.  Kertzer in turn acknowledges that the president mainly functions as, “the chief symbol maker of the land,” so the minute analysis of Reagan’s gestures should not surprise us.*  Kertzer quotes another scholar who similarly wrote, “Most political controversy centers around which myth to apply to a particular problem.”

Kertzer generally ignores religion in his book, but the thin line between religion and politics makes itself perfectly obvious throughout his work–a huge strength in my view.  It illumines the fact that our political commitments come very near, or equivalent to, our religious beliefs, consciously or otherwise.  One immediately thinks of the vesting of clergy to perform religious rites.  We should not be gnostics.  You cannot just “think” yourself into being married.  Even today we still understand that you need a rite, you need “the act of marriage” to create marriage.  We know of the crown, robes, and mitres of kings.  But even in our much more casual modern American democracy, we have fixed expectations of how to look presidential.  To take one example, presidents give the pens they use to sign laws and treaties to favored confidantes or privileged citizens as “sacred” tokens of leadership.

Some may recall how Jimmy Carter’s popularity fell at least in part due to his failure to manage the symbolic nature of his leadership, either in his dress, relationship with Congress, or his tone of voice when speaking.  To take an opposite case, Kertzer shows how Rajiv Ghandi skillfully managed the symbolism of his mother Indira’s funeral to make a political career from nothing to India’s youngest Prime Minister in a matter of months.

We will know that our country’s religion is changing when we see its basic rituals come under fire.  Personally I find the singing of our national anthem at sporting events laborious and excessive.  But once the toothpaste gets out of the tube . . . things get complicated.  Though I find the ritual onerous and misplaced, I acknowledge the power of the rite.  Objectors to singing the anthem wisely engage in a symbolic action of their own.  The fact that they kneel has much more power than holding a press conference to voice their objections.

The more our country moves away from religion and its overt religious rite and symbolism, the more we will seek it elsewhere, the more important our political symbols will likely become, and the more power their proper execution will confer.  Ritual, Politics, and Power makes it clear that we need symbols to make sense of reality, and will have them one way or another.

Dave

*What do our modern presidential elections decide?  Given entitlement and defense spending, our federal budget has very little room to maneuver.  Our system of government and regular elections keep the president more or less in check.  Many believed the world would soon end after Trump’s election, but little of real substance has changed.  I think Kertzer would argue that what is most often really at stake is who gets to craft our symbols.  Neither candidate proposed any radical policy measure, and when Trump talked about a wall few thought it would actually happen.  But . . . it symbolically meant something to talk about it.  The election was bitter and contentious because of the symbolic nature of the candidates.  They may not have actually done radically different things in office but they represent very different symbols of what America is or should be.

Drinking Tea in Wartime

My grandfather fought in W.W. II for the 101st Airborne.  He took part in the invasion of Arnhem in September 1944, a campaign immortalized by the book/movie A Bridge too Far. One story he related dealt with the British love of tea.  If the British/American plan had a chance of success allied forces needed to move as fast as possible to seize several key bridgeheads across the Rhine River.  But at around 4:00, British units pulled over on the side of the road and had their tea for 15 minutes, driving their American counterparts nuts.  How anyone could justify teatime at such a time baffled them.

I suppose the British might have responded along the lines of, “If we don’t stop for tea at 4:00, then the Nazi’s have already won!”

Tensions between tradition and the exigencies of the moment have always been with us. In every instance where it arises good arguments exist on both sides that invariably go something like

  • We must change in order to survive, vs.
  • If we change the wrong things, or change too much, it won’t be “we” that survive but another sort of society entirely.

I very much enjoyed the many strengths of Basil Liddell Hart’s Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon.  My one quibble with the book is his failure to tackle this dilemma as it relates to Rome in the 2nd Punic War.

But first, the book’s strengths . . .

The title indicates that Hart might indulge in a bit of hero-worship, but I have no problem with this in itself.  First of all, he lets the reader know from the outset where he stands. And, while her0-worship books have inevitable weaknesses, I very much prefer this approach to writing that equivocates to such a degree so that the author says nothing at all.

Hart’s book also reverses the common tendency to glorify the romantic loser.  We love Robert E. Lee, but Grant, well, he’s boring.  We love Napoleon and see Wellington as . . . boring.  Historians of the 2nd Punic War have devoted an overwhelming amount of attention to Hannibal.  His march through the Alps and his enormously impressive successes at Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae have inspired military minds for centuries. Sure, Rome won in the end, but for “boring” reasons like better political structure and more human resources–just as many assume Grant won not because of what he did, but because of the North’s “boring” industrialization and economy.

But surely Hannibal’s defeat had something to do with Scipio himself, especially seeing as how a variety of other Roman commanders failed spectacularly at fighting the wily Carthaginian.  To add to this, if you knock out the champ, doesn’t that mean that we have a new champion?

Liddell Hart gives us some great insights in this book.

Those familiar with Hart’s philosophy know that he constantly praised the value of what he called the “indirect approach” to war, both tactically and strategically.  Rome at first tried the direct approach with Hannibal and lost badly.  Then with Fabius they practiced what some might call “no approach” with a debatable amount of success.  Scipio struck a balance.  After assuming command he fought the Carthaginians, but not in Italy.  He took the fight to Carthage’s important base in Spain.  He fought against Carthaginian troops with Carthaginian commanders, but avoided Hannibal.

I have no great military knowledge and no experience, but Hart’s concise explanation of Scipio’s maneuvering in Spain impressed me greatly.  His “double envelopment” move at the Battle of Ilipa against a numerically superior foe was an inspired stroke:

battle-of-ilipa

But I found Scipio’s diplomatic and grand-strategical vision more impressive.  Hart admits that Hannibal had the edge over Scipio in tactics, but I feel that most overlook or excuse Hannibal’s deficiencies at accomplishing his strategy of prying allies away from Rome.  In a very short time Scipio turned the tables completely in Spain, giving Rome a foundation on which to build a Mediterranean empire.  Unlike other great commanders such as Napoleon and Alexander, and even Hannibal, Scipio never had full control of his forces or his agenda.  He accomplished more than most any other commander while navigating more difficult political terrain.  He established the basis militarily and diplomatically for Rome’s preeminence in the Mediterranean.  He deserves the praise Hart heaps on him.

However, the ‘hero-worship’ part of the book needs addressing.  Hart writes with much more balance than Theodore Dodge, who wrote about Scipio’s counterpart Hannibal.  But he makes the same kind of mistakes as Dodge by dismissing some of the political realities Rome faced because of Scipio’s success.  In sum, Hart has no appreciation for the tension between Roman tradition and Roman military success at the heart of this conflict.

Rome’s Republic had no written constitution.  It ran according to tradition.  The bedrock principles were:

  • Sharing power amongst the aristocratic class
  • Yearly rotation of offices
  • Direct appeals to the people smelled of dictatorship
  • No one stands out too much more than anyone else.  They sought more or less to divvy up honor equally.
  • You wait your turn like everyone else.  No one jumps in line ahead of anyone.

From the start of his career Scipio challenged nearly all of these principles in a dramatic way.  Hart himself admits that:

  • He ‘level-jumped’ to high office far earlier than anyone else, breaking the unofficial rules that held things together.
  • He frequently received his support directly from the people against the wishes of the aristocracy
  • He at times used religious claims to boost his appeal for office, which the people responded to over and against the scowls of the aristocracy.
  • In defeating Hannibal he raised his status far higher than any other Roman of his day.  This can’t be held against him obviously, but everyone noticed.

Of course we naturally have a distaste for aristocracy and so does Hart, who loses no opportunities to cast aspersions on Cato, Fabius, and other grumpy, jealous old men.

But . . . by any measure the Roman Republic ranks as one of the more successful governments of all-time.  While they were not close to fully democratic, they had many democratic elements, and still managed annual, peaceful transitions of power across all levels of government for (at the time of the 2nd Punic War) for 300 years.  Judged by the standards of their day, some might even label them as “progressives.”  They had a great thing going and we should not rashly blame them for wanting to protect it.

During the war itself one can easily agree with Hart and his roasting of Fabius and especially Cato the Elder. But events in the generations after the 2nd Punic War show that Scipio’s enemies may have been at least partially on to something.  Within 30 years of their victory, the Republic had major cracks.  After 75 years, the Republic began its collapse.  In time the Republic could not even pretend to contain Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar.  One could argue that Scipio in an indirect way set the stage for this.

Hart wrote a very good book, but not a great one.  I wonder what he would have thought of the British soldiers at Arnhem.  The disruption Rome suffered as a result of the 2nd Punic War had a lot more to do with Hannibal than Scipio.  And yet, Scipio played some part, albeit a small one. Was it worth it?   Could it have reasonably happened differently?  Hart doesn’t say, and leaves us to wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

The Tactics of Religious Revolution

J.E. Lendon’s Song of Wrath helped me see the early phases of the Peloponnesian War differently. From a modern perspective a stalemate between Athens and Sparta ca. 431-427 B.C. Sparta could not touch Athens’ navy, Athens could not deal with Sparta’s infantry, and so they danced. Lendon pointed out, however, that the culture of honor that permeated Greece allowed each side to declare victory–not victory over their opponents physical ability to wage war, but victory as a kind of pride of place. Confusion about what exactly constituted victory led to an expansion of the conflict.

This confusion, however, would never have happened had Athens not developed a navy, and broadened their source of strength. The growth of the navy and the growth of Athenian democracy went hand in hand. The growth of the navy meant expanding contact with others, and expanding one’s access to the material wealth of others. The growth of democracy meant more participation and involvement from more people in the daily operations of the state. Both involve movements “down the mountain” toward greater potential, but also towards more instability. This greater “diversity” in sense, would naturally bring about more confusion regarding the application of core values.

History does not always proceed in one direction, but the same patterns and connections emerge over time. “Politics flows downstream from culture,” and culture likewise with religion. This would mean, then, that Greece experienced a theological shift before its political shift. Though I believe in the theory, I am on very shaky ground in my knowledge of the history of Greek religion. But, I venture the theory that the beginnings of Athenian drama hearkened to a more “expansive” Greek religion rooted in the ecstatic reveries of Dionysius. Before, I think, they confined such “madness” to oracles located towards the periphery, and not easily accessed by the general population. Now, with the arrival of Dionysius and the dramatic arts, everyone (in theory) could taste something of such states. Significant democratic reform followed shortly thereafter.

Such is my theory, tenuous at best.

But as we move forward in time, towards epochs more easily observed, I think the connections between religion and ultimately, war itself, have more clarity. Gunther Rothenberg’s The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon makes no connections to religion and culture per se, but his thorough detail and clear analysis give one a good foundation to speculate a bit here and there.

Rothenberg starts with the armies that directly preceded the French Revolution. He focuses on the particular facts “on the ground” that influenced how armies functioned. What appears strange to us about the early-mid 18th century armies is how they often sought to avoid battle, and how quickly and easily generals broke off battles when the outcome appeared even slightly in doubt. We see this with in commanders like Prussia’s Duke of Brunswick, who refused to give battle to French Revolutionary forces at Valmy. No one thought this amiss–he retained the trust of Prussia’s king, changed little, and stayed in command until 1806, when Napoleon destroyed his forces at Jena. He was hardly alone.

A variety of factors helped bring about this template:

  • Muskets of the time had very low accuracy, so inflicting serious harm required massing of men to fire. Of course, one’s opponent would also have to mass men to do likewise. Battles where both sides actually fought hard meant very high casualties, such Torgau (1760, 30% casualties) and Zorndorf (1758, 50% casualties).
  • Artillery pieces existed, but they were much heavier in 1750 than in 1800. Thus, artillery was much less mobile, meaning that battle had to happen in pre-arranged spots for them to be used, or battle would not happen.
  • Enlisted men had a difficult life–desertion was common. To limit this, armies moved slowly, in large formations, supported by supply lines. Foraging, after all, could lead to desertion.
  • We talk of bloated military budgets today, but the dawn of professional armies paired with a pre-modern state apparatus meant that the military routinely took up to 25% of annual revenue, or sometimes as much as 50%.

All this meant that many kings and commanders naturally found decisive battle elusive, and casualties enormously expensive.

These factors come from “below,” so to speak. I mean by this that the particulars of strategy and tactics seemingly get created from particular physical details, such as the accuracy of muskets. We should absolutely look at history from this perspective, but we need more. We should speculate what cultural and religious underpinnings helped create these conditions from “above.” Beliefs or ideas helped bring about such conditions, just as you need rain (from above, of course) and soil to make anything grow.

Kenneth Clark pointed out that the Enlightenment defined itself by the “Smile of Reason”–a dignified, reasonable happiness, undergirded by control. Bernard Bouvier, the long-lived French Enlightenment philosophe, remarked that he had never run, and never lost his temper. When asked if he had ever laughed, he replied, “No, I have never made Ha Ha.” The thread throughout–he maintains control over his mind and body. An era devoted to such things would never value glory, which is fundamentally irrational. Also, we cannot measure glory. In a sense, glory requires an abandonment of control. This has in its religious origins “Deism”–a God who has power to create, but a God who “controls himself,” content with the benign “smile of reason.” Deism cannot brook an upsetting of the apple cart.

The French Revolution, from a political and cultural perspective, smashed all of this to pieces, and later, Napoleon finished the job. The roots of this come not from the politics of the French Revolution, but from its antecedent theological revolution.

When Louis XVI called together the Estates General, he wanted them to deal with a specific problem of taxation and tax law. Very briefly, the Estates General was comprised of three “estates,” the Church, nobility, and the “everybody else.” Each block voted as an estate, and 2 out of 3 wins. The clergy and nobility represented perhaps 5% of the population, so the third estate naturally (on this side of the American Revolution) did not want shut out by a vast minority. They insisted that Louis disband the three estates and create a new National Assembly, which would eliminate the “Estates” and obviously give the masses much more say.

This demand makes perfect sense to us, and likely we can only interpret Louis’ initial objections to this as stick-in-the-mud obscurantism. But this request contained the kernels of much more than a political revolution. We see this by looking at the medieval view of God and political power.

We know that we exist, we know that things around us exist. But in a truer sense, only God exists. That is, only God exists in a completely self-sufficient way. We need water, food, etc., to keep our existence, among other things. More importantly, we exist only because God exists–“in Him we live and move and have our being.”

God certainly has no need of us to do anything He wants done. But He creates out of fulness, out of love, to share. God shares something of His existence as well as His power. But we cannot fully participate in God’s essence–“No one has seen God at any time.” We can however, participate in His “energies,” or–in “parts” of God doled out to us (though of course God has no “parts”). Genesis 1 shows us that we cannot take everything into ourselves “in full.”

The same holds for power. In the truest sense, only God has power to accomplish His will and purpose. But, he shares, and just as He shares with us existence, so too He grants us agency and will. But we cannot have power concentrated all together. Reality, and power, must be separated and made distinct for us to have dominion over it. The works of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, hugely influential in the medieval era, make a similar point. Heaven has a distinct hierarchy, present most particularly in the angelic hosts, that we should mimic on earth, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer–“thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”

So, a governments separation of powers has particular theological roots, with a definite social and cultural purpose. If we think of the three “estates” in France, certainly the Church should not blend/meld with the world around it, lest it be captured by the world. An aristocracy in part provides guides for culture and taste. In theory, they elevate culture through their patronage and example. To blend them in with everyone else would eliminate their distinctiveness, and culture would descend to the lower level of pork rinds and Youtube fails.*

This religious shift away from traditional understanding gave way to a very different kind of army and different kinds of wars. For starters, the jumbling up of everything and the resulting political chaos meant that the French army under the Revolution had much fewer supplies. This in turn meant that the French armies had to forage for their food. But having no supply lines also made the army more mobile. It in turn made the army more offensively oriented. If you want to eat, win the next battle and take what you can from the enemy. Napoleon said as much to his army in Italy in 1796.

Tocqueville noted the immense potential power of democratic armies which comes from the concentration of resources. To reference the mountain pattern I mentioned earlier, the base has the most mass. This increase of power would not easily be contained. With the full embrace of the descent down the mountain in Romantic ideology came a dramatic increase in the ferocity of how the French fought. Rothenburg cites a variety of examples of this. St. Just (Robespierre’s lieutenant) declared that the army should emphasize “shock tactics.” Carnot, the premier military engineer of the Revolution told his generals that,

The general instructions are always to maneuver in mass and offensively; to maintain strict, but not overly meticulous discipline . . . and to use the bayonet on every occasion.

Both Carnot and St. Just both intuited the meaning of the religious and political changes for the tactics of the French army, and perhaps this synchronization made the army so effective. Gone were the days of elegant and precise movements of armies, enter the ferocity of the massed charge. Rothenberg also shows that the French revolutionary government proved much more effective at supplying bullets than food to its army, which fits the pattern above.

Napoleon inherited rather instigated these changes, but his keen intuitive sense and knack for precise detail gave the French army a direction and impetus it previously lacked. The religion of Romanticism had its apotheosis here. The political concentration that began with the Three Estates merging into the National Assembly eventually finds Napoleon to finish the job.

We need not debate Napoleon’s great strengths as a leader, but they came at a.price. Most militaries have different armies within their Army, i.e., First Army Group, Second Army Group, etc. But Napoleon had just one army, the “Grand Army.” Just as France was One, so too would the army function as One, with one in command of all. This extreme unity of command came from Napoleon’s large ego, but also from the Revolution’s hatred of “Federalism.” Being a “federalist,” which meant wanting a separation of powers within the state, could easily get one executed between 1792-94. Such a strong reaction to a political concept demonstrates the religious roots of the change. Desire for something other than extreme unity meant something akin to an existential threat. Rothenberg notes that when Napoleon had command of the field the French did very well. But when he could not be present, and had to delegate command, as in Spain, the French army collapsed.

This concentration of power influenced everything about Napoleon’s governance, strategy, and tactics.

  • Napoleon naturally wanted to screen the path of the army’s advance, so he controlled borders, controlled information, prevented foreigners from staying in the country, and so on. Such control was unheard of in his day.
  • Because Napoleon needed total control to accomplish his strategic design of one decisive blow, he valued commanders with physical bravery as their main (and only?) virtue. Certainly commanders need courage, but Napoleon cared very little for intelligence, creativity, initiative, etc. He wanted generals that served mainly as instruments of his will.
  • Napoleon’s goal to win via one decisive blow required all that has already been said, but in addition, he needed a certain type of geography, as at Friedland, for example. He needed a space where he could force, or perhaps lure, his opponents in an all or nothing contest. When his opponents could easily withdraw with depth (as in Russia, most obviously) he had real problems.

Napoleon mastered the tactics of the crushing, decisive blow, but perhaps he inherited the strategy. Robespierre wrote in 1794 that,

The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world’s destinies, and France is the scene of this fearful combat. Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny’s friends conspire; they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.

 If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic.

Napoleon’s own words after his participation in the siege of Toulon in 1793 differ little from Robespierre:

Among so many conflicting ideas and so many different perspectives, the honest man is confused and distressed and the skeptic becomes wicked . . .  Since one must take sides, one might as well choose the side that is victorious, the side that devastates, loots, and burns.  Considering the alternative, it is better to eat than be eaten.

My point here is not to equate Robespierre with Napoleon–I would rather have neither, but would much prefer Napoleon to Robespierre–nor even to morally condemn him. Politics is a dirty but necessary business. Instead, I think we should see a connection between the religious changes brought about by Rousseau, and see how it filters down into why Napoleon’s armies smashed through Europe. At the Congress of Vienna, we can see how the extremes of unity would inevitably swing back to making borders preeminent, and then, to nationalism in the latter 19th century.

With the rise of China, crypto, the war in Ukraine, twitter, and so on, most everyone has the sense that the world is changing, and most everyone disagrees on the meaning or direction of the change. We might get more clarity if we looked at how religion has changed over the last 30 years or so, which might equip us to head some things off at the pass.

Dave

*I don’t mean to be a high-brow curmudgeon. “Low” culture can and should exist. My point here is that most of the time that we want to partake of “high” culture we have to go back to pre-democratic ages, a Michelangelo statue, a Bach cantata, etc. Democratic cultures can produce “high” culture, but I would submit that they cannot create as much and not the same enduring quality. I also acknowledge, however, that not enough time has elapsed for democratic culture to be fairly judged.

The Invention of Strategy . . . Sort of

I have written at times about my dislike for the “great man” theory of historical interpretation (here extensively).  My objections to this theory, in brief, are that

  • The writer invariably sees events only through one lens, which limits their vision
  • The writer’s hero worship distorts their vision

I could not resist the Kindle deal of Theodore Dodge’s Hannibal: A History of the Art of War Among the Carthaginians and Romans Down to the Battle of Pydna, 168 B.C., with a Detailed Account of the Second Punic War.  I suspected from some reviews that Dodge would fall prey to the aforementioned hero-worship, the besetting sin of many a 19th century historian.  I happily discovered that while I took issue with some of Dodge’s emphasis and conclusions, he writes an informative and engaging account of the Punic War era.  His is a much better book than Druesel’s Bismarck biography linked above, for example.  Likely Dodge was simply a more sane and intellectually honest person than Druesel.  Or it may be that Dodge’s more practical American sensibility and his own experience in our Civil War gave him better perspective.  Whatever the reason, his book pleasantly surprised me.  He delves into some hero worship, but keeps it to acceptable levels.

Dodge first argues briefly that Hannibal, with some help from Alexander the Great, invented the art of military strategy.  This at first struck me as “hero worship” but upon reflection I mostly agree with him.  For the ancients, battle was battle in the way for us that a handshake is a handshake.  We don’t think of strategizing a handshake.  Handshakes represent our pledge, ourselves.  To strategize a handshake seems impersonal, disconnecting us from ourselves and putting up a false pretense.

For the ancients, in battle you lined up in a field and fought.  Battle tested not the intellect but the will, the discipline, and the courage of the armies.  To have it become something more than that struck many as absurd, or perhaps cheating.  Certainly some Romans viewed Hannibal this way.  Some of our generals in Vietnam felt similarly.  I recall one of them saying, “To *&^% with them!  They wouldn’t come out and fight!”  So the attitude may have a universality beyond the ancient world.

Hannibal often fought with deception, move, and counter-move.  At times he sacrificed a small portion of his men in hopes that Rome would bite on a bait-and-switch.  He always seemed to have several tools in his bag to try and get what he wanted.  I wondered with a colleague of mine how this came to be.  What context helped create Hannibal?  Major shifts like this do not happen in a vacuum.

Carthage had a great naval tradition, but little overt military tradition to speak of.  A society centered around merchants, they contracted out nearly the entirety of their infantry.  An army with dozens of different traditions is an army with no traditions.  Dodge does a solid job of explaining the jigsaw puzzle that was the Carthaginian army, which would need a charismatic and forceful leader to hold together, let alone use effectively.  Hannibal deserves much of the credit he receives.

Hannibal also spent the majority of his life away from Carthage in Spain with the army, including his formative years.  Thus, Hannibal had little connection to Carthaginian civilization (something that would hurt him later in his war with Rome).  He roamed as a “free agent” in many respects, and could be dedicated to victory while others dedicated themselves to honor or tradition.

Many of Hannibal’s admirers rightly point out that unlike Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon Hannibal faced  rather than actually had the best army in the known world.  True, Rome’s infantry distinguished itself for an almost 200 year unbroken string of victories by the time Hannibal invaded.  But for someone like Hannibal Rome offered unique opportunities.  Unlike Carthage, their army was embedded directly within their civilization of farmers.  And, like farmers, Rome’s army stuck to routine.  They could be counted on to charge at any red flag in any environment, and a patient commander with excellent command over his men might find a way to exploit this.  Certainly Hannibal did, with Cannae as the exemplar par excellence of his theatrical genius.

In the end, however, Dodge reverts to the hero-worship mentality.  The “objective” view (ok — my view) of Hannibal makes him a bit too clever by half.  The 2nd Punic War ostensibly began as a dispute over territory in Spain.  Had Hannibal stayed in Spain and waited for Rome to come to him, he would have been well supplied and could pick his spots more or less at will.  One can easily foresee a significant victory for Carthage in that scenario.  But Hannibal chose to play for much bigger and riskier stakes by invading Italy itself.  Any full treatment of the 2nd Punic War then, must be largely a biography of Hannibal.  Understanding what made him tick would make a great template for a great writer, but Dodge is not it.  Granted, Dodge never claimed to write a Hannibal biography, but I don’t see how one can ignore this side of Hannibal in writing about the war.  For example, in faithful hero-worship fashion, Dodge brushes off the many cruel acts of Hannibal and never uses them to try and gain insight into the man.  When Hannibal makes two prisoners fight each other to the death for their freedom merely as an object lesson for his men, all Dodge can say is, “This had a remarkable effect on his army.”

Essentially, Hannibal’s strategy boiled down to:

  • Crossing the Alps to invade Italy — this would surprise Rome and put him in a position to quickly ally himself with the Gauls in the north of Italy, long time enemies of Rome, then
  • March south and hope to gather more allies as he went — to do this he would need a few big battles to impress/scare the locals
  • Eventually he would have enough troops to march on Rome itself

I think Hannibal a great military commander, but we have to remember that he lost.  It’s easy to love Lee, but Grant beat him.  Napoleon is more interesting than Wellington, but Wellington had the last laugh.  So if we avoid getting carried away with the brilliant nature of some of Hannibal’s victories, we may wonder how great a grand strategist Hannibal really was.  His plan had significant flaws.

Many point out that Hannibal got very little support from Carthage itself, and then argue that had he had this support, he would have been victorious.  Dodge writes,

That Hannibal eventually failed was not from lack of intelligent policy, but because he had no aid from home. . .

and again,

The opposition of Hanno [a Carthaginian politician] wrecked all of Hannibal’s wonderful work.

and later again,

When we look at the [internal condition of Carthaginian politics], it ceases to be a matter of curiosity why so little was done to aid Hannibal.

It is a mark of faith in the “great men” school of thought that nothing can ever be really the fault of the great man.

True, Hannibal received little support from Carthage, but Hannibal should have been quite familiar with the topsy-turvy nature of his home civilization’s politics.  Besides, in crossing the Alps Hannibal adopted a strategy that would isolate him from any kind of supply line.  Finally, and most tellingly for me, even Dodge admits that Carthaginian armies had a tradition of operating independently and self-sufficiently apart from Carthage’s government.  All this Hannibal should have taken into account, and it was a serious mistake for him not to connect his strategy to his political situation.  Again, even Dodge himself writes about the Carthaginian government,

. . . it was natural that [the Carthaginian government] should prefer to hold Spain to winning in Italy.  They believed they could do the first, they doubted the other.

So Hannibal adopted a strategy (rather than hold Spain, go for the jugular in Italy) that he either knew or should have known went in direct opposition to Carthage’s political leadership.  Carthage refused to take extra risks for a general that had defied them, and this should not surprise us, nor should it have surprised Hannibal.  It seems to have surprised Dodge.

For Hannibal’s strategy to work, he would need to pry allies away from Rome.  But in cutting his army off from a supply line, he forced them to rely on foraging the countryside, alienating the very people he tried to win over.  Oil and water just don’t mix.

Besides this, I think Hannibal also showed a basic ignorance of Rome’s alliance system.  Rome wasn’t perfect.  No one is.  But in general Rome offered a good deal to those they conquered and incorporated into their Republic.  They required taxes and military service, and little else.  How could Hannibal top this?  What better offer could he make?  He could, of course, exempt them from military service, but then their “help” would not be much help at all.

I think Hannibal failed to understand the political system his enemy really operated, and by my tally that means he failed to understand politics at all.  A general who operated on Hannibal’s scale needed to, and this failure cost him everything.  Dodge writes,

Like Napoleon, Hannibal saw that a peace, to be a peace, must be conquered at the doors of the enemy’s capital.  This was his policy.  It was the proper one; but it failed because he could not control the resources of Carthage.

That Dodge writes this without attaching any blame to Hannibal speaks volumes.  Why should we praise a man who undertook a strategy that required he control Carthage’s resources when Hannibal lacked the power to control them?  And why be so sure that Napoleon was correct when he too lost, and lost badly?

Those in the romantic “Great Men” school ultimately have to explain why their heroes lost (losers are always more romantic than winners).  For R.E. Lee, it was his generals.  “If only Jackson had lived, or Ewell had taken the hill, or if Stuart were there, etc. (Lee of course only blamed himself).  Napoleon, serving as his own “Great Men” autobiographer, and perhaps the founder of the “Great Men” school, blamed fate.  For him, I think, to blame others would have meant admitting that others had real power, which perhaps he hesitated to do.  Alas, Dodge (though thankfully not Hannibal) takes refuge behind Fate as well, writing,

Hannibal . . . was hoping against hope; he recognized that the stars in their courses were fighting against him.

and,

[Alexander the Great] was a prime favorite of Fortune.  She smiled on Hannibal until after Cannae.  Thereafter no man ever faced luck so contrary.

Fate is a refuge for those who refuse to face the message Reality wishes to convey.

In the end, the traditional story of the 2nd Punic War as a war of personal revenge of Hannibal on Rome may make the most sense.   The strategy employed, the blitzkrieg nature of his execution, and his “anger” flaming out after Cannae may speak to the truth of this version.

So, I disagree with Dodge, but I enjoyed his book, and others will too.  At least he had an opinion to go with his fine writing and interesting way of presenting Rome and Hannibal’s epic confrontation.  Though Rome had the last laugh, Hannibal remains a fascinating figure.

Though see here for the possibility that Hannibal had the last, last laugh after all.

 

 

 

 

Festivals of the French Revolution

The modern west, and certainly the United States, has a weird relationship with sports.  Many reasons exist for this, including the fact that sports involve great skill and entertain us.  One key to their hold on us, however, certainly involves the fact that our culture has no communal rituals and emotions.  Politics remains too divisive and negative to provide this.  Democracy tends to prioritize individual vis a vis the group.  Most forms of American Protestantism have no liturgies and no “physicality” to provide the necessary framework for shared experiences.  Sporting events can provide this.  Many fans have pre-game routines, rituals, dress–“liturgies,” in effect.  These routines come with the eating of certain foods, and so on.

All this to say, sports functions much more like a religion than many of our churches–at least in terms of visible manifestations.  Perhaps too, this explains the growth of round-the-clock, all year coverage of seasonal sports.  Our need for communal “religious” experience overpowers even our well-founded moral concerns about certain sports such as football.

Because non-liturgical Protestants formed the ethos of America many of us have little experience with religious communal celebrations.  Often they involve parades, food, music, and a physical embodiment of a particular belief or historical event.  Below, for example, is footage from the festival on the Greek island of Cephalonia, where the relics of St. Gerasimos reside.  On the saint’s feast day, one such embodiment happens when the body of St. Gerasimos “passes over” the town.

The French Revolution sought to transform all of French society.  To do so, the revolutionary leaders recognized that they needed to eliminate Catholicism from the hearts and minds of the people–easier said then done.  The church dictated the calendar and its rhythms, with a proliferation of festivals.  These festivals formed the habits, which formed the hearts, of the French.

They needed new festivals to replace the traditional Catholic celebrations.  Mona Azouf takes up this oft-neglected topic in her book, Festivals of the French Revolution.  

I believe Jaroslav Pelikan made the observation that Christian feasts all celebrate events that happened in observable time.  We celebrate the Incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.  We have days for remembering the Mother of God and saints of whose lives we have a record.  The only obvious exception to this is Trinity Sunday.  But the Trinitarian nature of God is not an abstract concept, but the concrete–though also mysterious–reality of the Universe.  Celebrations of actual things can have a “natural” atmosphere about them.

We can envision a joyous party for a team when they win the championship.  But what about a team that, during the season itself, had a banquet to celebrate “Victory”?  Things might get awkward quickly.

This challenge confronted France’s revolutionary leadership.  If they wanted wholesale change, then everything old would have to go.  They eliminated a great deal of the previous political leadership.  They transformed the military.  They killed or exiled many recalcitrant aristocrats.  They went farther than almost any other revolutionary group I know of and literally changed the calendar.  They understood that the Gregorian calendar, despite its mainly pagan roots, had been thoroughly Christianized and formed the unconscious rhythms of daily French life.  Some argued that the new France needed no celebrations.  Now that they had banished oppression, each day would have a moderate and joyous character.  But eventually even the die-hards realized that they needed to give the people holy-days (i.e. holidays) to create a new national liturgy.

The festivals for the new calendar attempted to change the concept of time.  They also attempted to alter the concept of space.  Most old Catholic festivals took place in the town near the church.  This meant that the majority of events happened within view of the cathedrals (always the tallest buildings) and in the town streets.  Of course having the church building silently governing the festival would not do.  But the narrow streets and the inevitable buying and selling of goods in the market, conjured up thoughts of secrecy, narrowness, “feudal conspiracy,” and the like.  Festivals of the Revolution often took place in wide fields away from towns and cities.  There they could escape the church building, and the open fields also aided their ideology of equality.  In addition the French Revolution’s obsession with “Nature” had its role to play.  Everything seems new and promising in a lush meadow at springtime.

So far so good.  Here is one contemporary description of the “Festival of Liberty:”

The procession began late, around noon; it was not that the people were made to wait, as by despots at court festivals.  The people turned up at daybreak in large numbers . . . but all waited until all had arrived.  They took pleasure in each other’s company; nonetheless it was time to leave.

On the site of the Bastille an inauguration of the Statue of Liberty was held.  Here more gathered, and it should be noted, they were favored with perfect weather.

There was no excess of pomp; no gold dazzled the eye or insulted the citizens’ humble and honorable poverty.  No soldiers dripping with braid came to cast a condescending eye on the poorly dressed crowd as they passed.  Here actors and witnesses merged, each taking part in the procession.  They had little order but a good deal accord with one another.  No one indulged in the vanity of the haughty gaze, no one set out to be a spectacle.  Boredom, that son of uniformity, found no foothold among the various groups; at each step the scene changed–everyone wanted a part in the Festival of Liberty.

The festival banished luxury, but notable commemorative objects had their role.  The procession opened with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, written on two stone tablets such as the 10 Commandments, though that is no match for the Declaration.  Four citizens proudly carried this noble burden, each reading aloud those immeasurable first lines: “Men are born free and remain free and equal.”

Four busts followed in like manner.  “Ah, there is Voltaire, that old rascal who made us laugh so much at the priests.  That other, worried looking individual [Roussaeu] loved the nobles even less and never sought their favor.  Who is the third?  It is an Englishman, Sydney, who put his head on the block rather than bend a knee to a king.  That old man there, we know him well.  It is Franklin, who can be more rightly called the Liberator of the New World than a certain fop who lives not far from here [i.e. Louis XVI].

The two coffins that followed threw a somber coloring over events as we remembered the martyrs of the massacre at Nancy [some soldiers refused to obey their royalist leaning officers and were shot].  

Preceded by their chains, suspended from trophies and born aloft by young ladies dressed in white, marched our loyal soldiers [loyal to the Revolution that is], with several regular citizen volunteers.  They in turn preceded the Chariot of Liberty, which used the same wheels as the chariot that served for the enshrinement of Voltaire at the Palace of Reason.  Let us not forget that philosophy gave us Liberty.

The chariot, modeled on the antique, was of imposing construction.  On one side David sketched the story of Brutus the Elder of Rome, himself sentencing his royalist sons to death for their disobedience to the law.  On the other he depicted William Tell, aiming a javelin, the target of which was an apple on his own son’s head.  But at his feet we spy another javelin, one that gave independence to Switzerland by slaying the Governor of Austria.  The Lady of Liberty rests on her throne, her hand at her side holding a club, with a gaze that would make king’s blush.   We should never forget that the sceptre of liberty is a bludgeon to her enemies.  It should also be said that six daggers formed the prow of the front of the chariot to threaten any despotism bold enough to impede the march of liberty.

With steady steps 20 democratic horses drew the chariot of the sovereign of the French people.  Their progress had none of the insolence of those idle coursers fed at the stables in Versailles.  They did not hold their heads high; their manes had no gold plait, nor were there plumes adorned.  They walked rather ploddingly, but they kept a steady course.  

Four hundred thousand citizens came to one spot with nary a mishap.  The soldiers on foot had no need to mark the route, none had need to go before the crowds with bayonettes to make way.  Words of peace contained this multitude, it fell into line at the sight of an ear of corn presented to it rather than a musket.

Even a breezy reading of this account reveals that the new foundation was not close to drying.

How do celebrate with the threat of force lingering?  We know of the many imprisonments and beheadings in general, but even here, “Lady Liberty” holds a club. Brutus kills his sons.  The chariot has daggers in the front, and so on. I have some sympathy . . . the only way to completely turn your country 180 degrees is by wrenching the wheel and holding on for dear life.  The question, remains, however . . . how much can you celebrate when you have the sword of Damocles hanging over your head?

A big difference exists between saying, “Everybody dance now!” and, “Everybody dance now.

No particular rhyme or reason exists for how the festival looks and proceeds.  Certain decisions will have to be arbitrary on some level of course.  Perhaps we understand, for example, that “democratic horses” would move “ploddingly” at a “steady” pace. But what if the choreographer had the horses hold their heads high and gallop down the causeway to show the “energy of liberty”?  Would that have been “democratic”. . . or “aristocratic?”

Many such confusions and differences in perception led to imprisonments and even death during the Reign of Terror.

Ultimately Azouf argues that the festivals served not as an emblem of the Revolution’s success but it’s failure.  One cannot invent out of thin air an embodiment of abstract ideals and expect everyone to go along with it.  Azouf herself comments that the revolution in general, and the festivals in particular, represented France’s attempt to reject the entirety of their history–tantamount to rejection of their very selves.  No one can sustain such efforts for long.

And yet . . . while the king eventually came back to France it did not take long to banish him again.  The cultural victory of the French Revolution’s de-sacralization campaign (which, as Azouf points out, involved “sacralizing” different values) took a long time, but France’s subsequent history shows that the revolutionaries won the political battle.

We too have a similar inheritance as the French, having undergone our own radical break from the past at much the same time.  We in time developed some national festivals (the World Series, the Super Bowl, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc.).  Time will tell whether or not this age of atomized individualism will wash those away.  If so, Azouf’s work testifies to the fact that at our core we need such celebrations, and even atomized individuals will find a way to create new festivals.

 

 

Same Story, Different Day

Once upon a time a man lived in a good land.  His family prospered, and in time, his children and his children’s children filled this good land.  They had their own customs, faith, and rhythms of daily life.

But these good times did not last.  Eventually many others sought to rob these good people of their land.  Various kings and principalities invaded, one after the other.

The people resisted.  They fought bravely, but often these foreign invaders divided to conquer.  At times these good people found themselves at odds with one another.  Eventually the invaders persecuted them. Their very existence as a people seemed threatened.  But they had faith, and this faith will be rewarded.  Their perseverance led them to outlast the forces of history, and so their history in the modern era begins right where it left off many generations ago.

In a post about the failure of the Treaty of Versailles I discuss my view of the importance of narrative in the field of history, whether we study the past or make “history” in the present.  Analytical data or “rational” analysis about costs/benefits in the abstract will lead to wrong perceptions of reality.  A narrative view gives us a more full understanding, and when faced with a problem, a much better chance at solutions.

It sounds odd to say that I really enjoyed Padraig O’ Malley’s * The Two State Delusion: Israel and Palestine — A Tale of Two Narratives.  O’ Malley has little hope for peace if the “peace process” continues as before, and this gives the book a somber tone.  But I enjoyed it because I felt that O’Malley must be onto something by focusing not on particular events, or even security for one side or the other, but on the idea of the narratives both sides bring to the table.  One problem the two sides face is the distinct similarity in their narratives.  The structure of the story remains relatively same for them both, with different characters.

The story I told above fits both sides of the conflict, and to some extent both sides use the above narrative.

For Israel

  • They gained possession of a good land, grew and prospered, reaching their ancient peak during the reign of Solomon.
  • But soon after that, their kingdom fell prey to multiple invasions from the outside, be it Assyrians, Babylonians, or Romans.  They had to scatter throughout neighboring lands, but maintained their identity and culture.
  • They faced persecution from outsiders, culminating in the almost unimaginable horror of the Holocaust.
  • But — their persistence and faith paid off.  They returned, forged by suffering, and established themselves securely back in the land of their forefathers.

For the Palestinians . . .

  • They dwelt peacefully in the land in small communities for many generations
  • But — they fell prey to imperial forces, throughout time.  We can date their unjust subjugation in the modern era with their occupation by the Ottoman Turks from the 16th century to W.W. I.
  • At the turn of the 20th century they had independence promised them from another imperial power (the British).
  • But when it seemed like they might have their land back once again, they were betrayed and occupied  (by the British, who sponsored the return of Israeli’s).
  • Eventually, a host of foreign powers (the U.N.) imposed another conquering people upon them (the establishment of Israel — whose military might is financed from the west).  This new occupier fought a series of wars , scattering them from their homes in a host of illegal land grabs (Israel has routinely violated a varietyU.N. resolution and established settlements in occupied land).
  • But — they have faith.  Forged by suffering, their common bond to one another remains stronger than ever before.  They believe that one day, the land will be theirs once again.

Their narratives remain starkly similar, with the main problem being that:

  • For Israel, Palestinians are not often identified as average people, but as the next in a long line of foreign persecutors of Jews (i.e. PLO, Hamas, etc.)
  • For Palestinians, Israel is identified as an imperial power along the lines of the Ottomans and the British.

O’Malley rightly hones in on the common thread of the suffering of both sides.

The suffering of the Jewish people hardly needs an explanation.  Of course we have the Holocaust, but a lot of lower-level persecution existed before that for centuries throughout Europe.

What may be less obvious to us, and certainly seems less obvious to Israel, is the suffering of the Palestinians.  O’Malley asserts, and I agree, that if we could find any kernel to the disastrous relationship between the two, it lays here.

The Palestinian population has suffered greatly indirectly or directly from the presence of Israeli’s.  We could measure this in land lost to Israel, or in civilian deaths of Palestinians, which greatly outweigh those of Israeli’s due to terrorist attacks.  There also exists what one cannot measure–the wholesale breakup of communities and families due to Israeli occupation and settlements, and the wholesale dismemberment of the Palestinian Church–something Christian supporters of Israel sometimes forget.

The reason why I think it forms the core of the problem is that Israel cannot seem to admit that they have caused these problems.  Some of them one could plausibly ascribe to the “fortunes of war” or the “march of time,” but others, like the direct violation of U.N. resolutions to establish settlements, fall directly into their laps.  But it appears that the Jews in Israel, who has suffered so much at the hands of others, cannot admit that they themselves cause so much suffering to others.

The Palestinians, for their part, want more than grants of certain territory or water rights, they insist on a repentant, contrite Israel.  Having felt impotent and humiliated for so long themselves, they insist that Israel feel the same way.  The Palestinians cannot accept half-measures in this regard.  For example, Ariel Sharon released a statement along the lines of, “Israel regrets the suffering of the Palestinian people,” that the Palestinians found not just unacceptable, but insulting.  They don’t want Israel’s sympathy, they want Israel to admit fault without equivocation.  Nor can they see the above statement as a beginning of a process.  Rather, for them it represents a slap in the face.  “Ha!  This is all you get!”

Formal peace negotiations put Israel in a bit of bind, and we must sympathize with their position. Who speaks for Palestinians as a whole?  Who can negotiate for them?  If none can truly speak for them, then what good is any particular deal?  Why bother?

Israel complains that the Palestinians have not been able to absorb refugees and form stable, coherent political organizations.  After all, they themselves (that is, the Jewish settler in Israel) started with nothing and have formed a modern first-world state.  They absorbed thousands of newcomers and refugees from different countries.  They speak truth in this claim.  But, as O’Malley points out, why should the Palestinians have to form modern western political organizations?  Things moved along nicely for them without such things before Israel arrived, and can continue to do. But it appears that history may overwhelm the Palestinians and force them into an uncomfortable mold, one which will put them at a disadvantage vis a vis Israel.

The relationship between the two has calcified to such an extent that O’Malley recommends that they cease the formal peace process itself, and instead focus on healing their own psychological scars.  The peace process has also been initiated not by each other but by various American presidents looking to make their mark.  Whatever the cause, O’Malley suggests that now “negotiations” serve as a platform for each side to vent grievances or talk to their respective political bases, and not each other.  The peace process serves now to simply enable and confirm their already deeply held beliefs.

In one section of Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis talked about his impatience for how many make moral judgments.  “War is a terrible evil!” some cried.  “Yes,” Lewis agreed, but times exist when war is more morally justifiable than the current “peace.”  Sometimes issues must be considered on a relative scale.  He even mentioned dueling.  Yes, dueling often involved murder, but he admitted that there might be some instances when even a duel to the death might be preferable to indulging in a lifetime of hatred and bitterness, and passing on that hatred, that would in time destroy one’s soul.

I thought of this section when reading this book.  In this scenario both sides have their share of the blame.  As purely personal opinion I give a slight majority of blame to the Israeli side.  They are the stronger (though they don’t realize this), and they–as a formal nation with coherent leadership–have violated international law on numerous occasions.  I distinguish this from Palestinian acts of terror, which I do not believe represent–or at least always represent–the whole of the Palestinian people.  So I root for a Palestinian homeland, and feel that surely this cause has justice on its side.

And yet, the current situation destroys both sides, and there appears no end in sight.  All O’ Malley can see in is a continuation of deep fear and deep hatred growing — hence the title of his book.  A two-state solution simply will not work in the current psychological climate.

So would a “duel” of sorts be a preferable solution?  What would that even look like?  Should Israel just “get on with it” and exile the Palestinians?  This would be cruel, but it would hopefully have the ancillary effect of forcing Palestinians to start over.

On the other hand . . .

Many Palestinians believe they are close to winning.  This victory would not be physical in nature, but moral and psychological.  Some feel that if Israel goes much further they will completely delegitimize themselves internationally, and rot themselves from within morally.  They will then, as an act of atonement, give Palestinians a homeland at least to the 1967 borders.

I do not share this view, but see no other solution that will work in the current environment.  The two sides share the same space and tell the same story, but with different characters playing different roles.  I would guess that nothing will change until both sides tell themselves a different story.

Dave

*It sounds odd for an Irishman to write a definitive book on this subject, but his previous books dealt with Irish/English history and apartheid in South Africa.

“The Sword and the Olive”

The modern history of Israel poses many questions, their 65 years lived at breakneck speed have given us many lessons.  But the questions about their state, the Palestinians, their neighbors, and so on are enormously complex.  Some historians seek to tackle all aspects of the problem but books of that nature can often be too long, heavy on details, weak on conclusions, leaving readers with no clear answers and no path to discover them on their own.

With problems of this sort, I tend to think that books that focus on one particular aspect of the issues often serve readers better than all-encompassing tomes.  The narrowness of focus makes no pretense to answer every question, but it can provide a clear narrative arc, and thus give definite shape to at least some of the puzzle pieces. Martin van Creveld’s The Sword and the Olive fulfills this purpose, much like Byron Farwell’s The Armies of the Raj.  Creveld does not tackle the broader “should” questions (i.e. should Israel have been given ‘x’ land, should they occupy the West Bank, etc.), but traces the effects of various decisions nicely in this history of the Israeli army.

While various militarized Zionist groups long predated W.W. II, the Israeli army takes as its main starting point the formation of the state.  Early on Creveld introduces one of his main themes, that the trauma of the Holocaust created a moral weight to the Jewish cause.  This in turn formed a social cohesion that enabled an army to achieve near mythical status within a few short years.  Creveld lives in Israel and I assume is Jewish himself, but he attempts no sugarcoating of either Jews, Palestinians, or Arabs.   His seeks to show, however, that whatever the strength of Palestinian claims, the Jews simply had stronger ones in the immediate context of the post-war years.  When Palestine lingered under lame-duck British authority thousands of Jewish immigrants poured illegally into Palestine and settled beyond established boundaries.  These illegal settlements received protection from Jewish militias.  The British discovered that sometimes the strong must suffer the actions of the weak.  How could the British enforce their authority and detain/fire upon people with numbered tattoos on their arms from Auschwitz in 1947?   Every British “victory” over Jewish militias only made their position more and more untenable.

The story of the “War for Independence” in 1948 had a similar theme.  Palestinians outnumbered Jews but tended to spread out in rural areas, whereas Jews settled in mostly urban areas and therefore had a more formal political structure.  The countries that attacked Israel shared few common goals and even had some conflicting ones.  The psychological sense of mission and purpose gave Israel a great army.  As Napoleon remarked, “In war the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”

Israel was a democracy in many ways, but their initial victory helped lead to some generally non-democratic ideas.

  • Democracies at least like to think of themselves as defensive in nature, and so did Israel.  But the nature of their geography led to a sense of being continually under siege.  In war, they developed a “strike-first” mentality — war must always be fought on the enemies territory.  They would have ironically agreed with the Prussian Frederick the Great’s motto of “Audacity, audacity, and still more audacity!”  Even more ironically, this led Israel to develop tactics that strongly resembled the blitzkrieg of 1939-41.
  • As Tocqueville noted, most democracies have a generally ambivalent attitude toward the army, but not Israel.  After 1948, and especially after 1967, the army had near god-like status within the state.  This led to a political structure where the army had very little official civilian oversight, and even less in practical terms.
  • The sense of unity had to do with their circumstances, but also perhaps due to the settling of Israel by many eastern-European Jews with socialist leanings.  In any case, Israel quickly developed strong censorship laws with anything to do with security.  They deemed this necessary given that they felt alone not only where they stood geographically, but also in the international arena.  The Holocaust showed that the world would abandon Jews if it suited them.  The media helped develop these laws.  But democracies are also open societies, so usually censors had the job of keeping Israeli’s ignorant of what everyone else around the world knew.

Some of these contradictions would have to work themselves out at some point.

The psychological and moral factors of the post-war years created a juggernaut military with sky high morale.  But Israel’s very success would help to change this dynamic.  Occupying more territory meant the need to increase the size of the army.  This in turn meant more recruits, and the social cohesion that once characterized the army — an army where everyone knew everyone else — began to erode.  An army with a civilian-militia ethos turned professional.  Israel condensed about 200 years of Roman history (ca. 202-27 B.C.) into about 20 of their own.

Israel soon developed a much stronger military than their neighbors, but they kept their siege mentality.  This meant that when they engaged the PLO in the 1970’s, and especially in Lebanon in the early 1980’s, that the strong/weak dynamic that had served them so well psychologically had now flipped against them.  They were now strong and secure, their enemies had “weakness” on their side.  The “us against the world” attitude that served them so well now fought against them.  Now Israel faced an identity crisis.  What would they do with success?  Bold, aggressive, and occasional “outside the lines” actions could be tolerated and even expected when “fighting for one’s life.”  But they did not get the same pass under these new circumstances.  No one thought that PLO hideouts within Lebanon posed anything more than a nuisance to the state.  As Creveld commented, the strong should never fight the weak for very long.  Lao-Tsu noted similarly that a sword thrust into sea-water turns to rust.

The unquestioning public support that the military enjoyed for so many years now eroded, and this led to erosion within the army itself.  Their war in Lebanon had far fewer casualties and far less real fighting than their previous wars, but the number of psychological maladies effecting soldiers skyrocketed, as did the number of civilians who refused to serve, or found medical exemptions for their service.  The power of the government to investigate the military increased, albeit only slightly.  Certainly soldiers no longer wore their uniforms off-duty, as once was common.

The Israeli army today still maintains a high level of professional competence and tactical superiority over its neighbors, but they unquestionably lost something of the “soul” of their army.  And because Israel made the army such a integral part of their identity, something in Israel itself has no doubt been lost as well.  What Vietnam was for us, Lebanon was for them.  If our experience proves any kind of mirror, they can recover some of what they lost, but Israel will not be able to go home again.  The golden age of the Israeli military has come and gone.