Truisms that are (at least mostly) Not True

I have an affinity for the crazy theory.  I know that they can’t all be true, if for the only reason that if all of them were true, we would have no crazy theories to enjoy contemplating.  Our times have a strange character to them, however, for it seems the crackpot plays the role of conservative.  Older views of things look bizarre today.  Before continuing, I should fully disclose that, though I love crazy ideas, I am actually a very boring person.  The reason these two fit together in my life is that today the harebrained idea is sometimes quite conservative and, xpon closer examination, sometimes even obvious.

Take, for example, a variety of truisms in our day.  We say that in football you have to have a great quarterback but . . .  Blake Bortles, Nick Foles, Case Keenum . . . at least one of them will play in the Super Bowl this year.  One can easily envision some coach with a crew-cut from the early 1960’s telling us how it’s a “team game, and not one of you means more than another,” and so on. We have traveled back in time.

History has its truisms as well.  I hear all the time, even from religious conservatives, that America’s religious competition has saved America from going the way of secular Western Europe.*  I have a particular antipathy for this obvious falsehood.  Medieval Europe had very little religious competition, and religion did quite well there.  Religion thrived in ancient Egypt with almost no competition for millennia.  To take the reverse, ancient Babylon had a lot more religious competition and their religion and morals seemed to suffer.  Today France may be nominally Catholic and Sweden nominally Lutheran, but no laws exist forbidding one from becoming Baptist, Methodist, or Buddhist in either place.  At least some religious competition surely exists there today.  This truism about religious competition is actually a far-fetched theory, based on only the most recent evidence.

To get slightly more controversial, we hear all the time how printing serves as one of the great civilizing tools for mankind.  No one questions this truism. But, just look for a moment . . . it seems obvious to me that the 15th century in Europe had a higher degree of civilization than the century after the printing press gained prevalence.  The printing press brought a lot of religious violence and political fragmentation in its wake. We hear too the truism that, “getting a Bible into everyone’s hands” is the key to spiritual health.  But, again, just look . . . it seems clear that the Church did quite well without the printing press for quite some time.  And, to return to an aforementioned truism, the fact that the Bible always tops bestseller lists has not prevented the west from becoming more and more secular over the last two-three centuries.

Maybe civilization and religion actually rely on things far older, far more “tried and true,” for success rather than new technologies–the crackpot as bland conservative strikes again.

I have written before about another one of my least favorite truisms, that of the evolutionary view of history and progress.  The theory basically means that civilization starts small and has run in a more or less unbroken line of progress and advancement.  Though this theory has general acceptance in many textbooks and the minds of men, it is, in fact, a radical, crazy, notion, for it ignores obvious facts.  For one, we know that a complex civilization could collapse more easily, quickly, and completely than a primitive one, due to its inevitable interdependence.  The presence of advancement makes large steps backward more, not less likely, like stock-market bubbles.  For another, we have a universally acknowledged and plain example of the fall of Rome and the subsequent so-called Dark Ages.  Whatever one thinks of the Dark Ages, Italy ca. 100 A.D. had a much higher level of civilization in most respects than Italy ca. 600 A.D.  Still, the prevalence of the evolutionary view makes those who state otherwise seem crazy.

Enter Charles Hapgood, whose book Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings postulates that, based on an examination of certain ancient maps, it appears that an unknown and likely quite ancient civilization developed a geographical and nautical understanding that humanity would not equal until the modern era. Hapgood’s theory joins the voices of Graham Hancock, Jon Anthony West, and other megalithic architecture (such as Gobeckli-Tepe) that argues that pre-historic people not only existed, but existed at a far higher level of civilization than anyone previously imagined.

Unfortunately for the layman like me, Hapgood immerses the book in large amounts of technical terms and technical data.  I think one would need special knowledge of cartography, geography, and math to understand large portions of the book.  Perhaps no other way existed to make his case.  I found myself junping over much of the technical sections but hope I still understood the basic case, which runs like this:

  • In 1929 an unusual map, named, the Piri Re’is, was discovered in the old Imperial Palace of Constantinople, dated the year 1513 A.D. (Moslem reckoning 919).
  • The map was extensive and showed the coast of North America in excellent detail.  This map differed from all other 16th century maps by giving correct longitudes for South America and Africa.  No 16th-century navigator that we know of knew how to calculate longitude except by guesswork.
  • Further investigation showed that Piri Re’is (or basically, Admiral Piri) claimed to copy this map from earlier maps, some of them dating back to (he claimed) the time of Alexander the Great.
  • Even a rough study of this map indicated that it used highly advanced mathematics, including spherical trigonometry, which we do not believe existed in the classical world

So, where did the map come from?

Perhaps Hapgood’s critics are right, and the Greeks knew enough spherical trigonometry to make these maps.  But did they sail across the Atlantic?  No evidence exists for this.  Did the Egyptians or Babylonians have this knowledge?  It appears not, but if they did, they did not sail across the Atlantic to map the coasts of the Americas.  Maybe the Romans in Ptolemy’s time had the knowledge, but again, did not sail across the ocean. Did it come from the medieval period?  But they did not sail much, and no other medieval map exists that compares with the quality of the Piri Re’is.

The best map from the classical period comes from Ptolemy, who worked in Alexandria and had access to all of the accumulated knowledge the world knew at the time.  His map shows great skill:

 

But it cannot compare with the Piri Re’is (although this is only a portion):

And again:

The Portolano Map, of late Medieval/Renaissance origin, is again, very good, but not quite up to snuff, at least in terms of the extent of what it mapped:

The inclusion of Antartica on the Piri Re’is map is particularly noteworthy, as many speculate that it maps landforms that for thousands of years have been covered with ice. In other words, the map seems to have been made before the ice age, and not after.

A few quotes scattered throughout the book from Hapgood illustrate his proposition:

We have discovered that in most cases the errors on the Piri Re’is mapper due to mistakes in the compilation of the world map, presumably in Alexandrian times [that is, the Piri Re’is was discovered in different pieces and put back together not quite accurately], since it appears that Piri Re’is could not himself have put them together at all.  The component maps, coming from a far greater antiquity, were far more accurate.  The Piri Re’is Map appears, therefore, to be evidence of a decline of science from remote antiquity to classical times (p. 39).

******

For a long time after the voyages of Columbus we find the latitudes of Cuba and Haiti are wrong on most maps.  Almost all the mapmakers put the islands above rather than below the Tropic of Cancer [in contrast to the Piri Re’is] (p. 41).

********

To sum up, then, this part of the Piri Re’is Map suggests a source map of Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic islands probably drawn originally on some sort of trigonmetric projection adjusted to the curvature of the earth.  By default of any other narrative, we must assign this map’s origin to a pre-Hellenic people.  The trigonometry of the projection suggests the work of Alexandrian geographers, but the evident knowledge of longitude implies a people unknown to us, a people of seafarers with instruments undreamed of by the Greeks, and as far we know, not possessed by the Phoenicians either (p. 49).

********

The suggestion of a vast antiquity behind the [Piri Re’is] is conveyed by a feature to which Captain Mallery first drew my attention.  He pointed out that the Zeno Map [which very likely had the Piri Re’is as a source map] shows Greenland with no ice caps.  The interior is filled with mountains, and rivers are shown entering the sea, in some cases at the points where glaciers now move through mountains to the coast (p. 152).**

*********

This culture [that made the Piri Re’is] may well have more advanced than Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.  In astronomy, nautical science, mapmaking, it was likely more advanced than any culture before the 18th century of the Christian era.  Not until the 18th century did we begin to send ships to the Arctic or Antarctic regions.  Organized government is indicated [by the map], as many expeditions would be needed to gather the appropriate information to map the area so precisely (p. 193).

Hapgood writes haphazardly and does not always reason in a clear, linear fashion, a trait he shares with his modern fellow believer in pre-historically advanced ancient civilizations, Graham Hancock.  The key I think to both writers lies not in the exactness of their data but in the accumulation of enough “probably’s” to make their case.  I heard most of a conversation between Hancock and Sceptic editor Michael Shermer.  The discussion went nowhere, with Shermer begging for even a small handful absolute, concrete, data points, and Hancock pleading with him to consider the mass of “probably’s,” while admitting in the end that the study of ancient civilizations cannot provide the kind of concrete proof Shermer demanded.

Rather than ask, “Can we be absolutely sure if an ancient, advanced, prehistoric civilization existed,” (obvious answer-“no”), or, is it possible that such a civilization existed (obvious answer–“yes”) we should instead wonder whether we should expect or not expect to find such a civilization.  Is the idea reasonably likely?  Hapgood will likely not convince anyone who needs something along the lines of what Shermer requires.  He may entice others who think it likely that some kind of ancient civilization along the lines of those who like Hancock’s work.

To give Hapgood’s theory a shot, it helps to believe that:

  • The myths and folklore of most every ancient civilization that describe advanced civilizations that experienced thorough destruction (like the Atlantis story) likely have a fundamental truth behind them.
  • Civilization devolves just as much as it evolves, and in fact, devolution may be more prevalent than evolution in civilizations.
  • The flood described in Genesis 6 (and many other ancient religious texts) was substantive, historical in at least some sense, and would have had the power to destroy civilizations very quickly.
  • The absence of evidence would not condemn the case outright, as civilizations have at times experienced a catastrophic loss of a great deal of accumulated knowledge (the burning of the library at Alexandria, the collapse of Rome, etc.)

With this in place you might buy what Hapgood sells.  But without these beliefs, his book will likely frustrate readers.  In any case, I don’t find the above propositions crazy.  In fact, I find them rather ordinary.  Folklore and myth are common to all.  Belief in a historical flood of some kind is nothing new, with most ancient civilizations sharing this story.^  We have actual historically undisputed losses of vast amounts of intellectual capital at certain times in the past, such as the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

As I said earlier, despite my inclination towards “crazy” theories, I’m actually a very boring guy.

Dave

P.S.–A good friend and a math/science teacher glanced over the basic arguments of the book and found them wanting, and Hapgood’s selection of material suspicious.  He has a better nose for such things than I and his thoughts give me pause.

My friend and I both believe that ancient civilizations tend to be far more advanced then we might think.   Neither one of us believes that the history of civilization always proceeds in a directly linear way, and certainly not in a progressive evolutionary way.  We thus share some crucial assumptions.

My friend thought that Hapgood underestimates the knowledge of ancients.  For example, we know the ancient Phoenicians existed, we know they were great sailors.  It makes much more sense to say that perhaps they made the map and sailed farther than we thought, then to suggest that an unknown civilization of which we know nothing made the map.

My response would be something like, “If we know a lot about the ancients but have no record of them sailing to the Antarctic, it is plausible that they did not do so.  Thus, someone else must have.”

Plus, I confess that I just simply find the idea of advanced pre-historic civilizations fun, satisfying, and enormously entertaining.  Someone could wave such ideas in front of me daily and they would always get me pretty excited.

*One might modify this theory and argue that perhaps in today’s intellectual and cultural climate, one must have religious competition for religion to survive.  This argument has more plausibility.

**Some believe the Zeno Map to be a hoax precisely because of this feature and other “phantom islands” that do not now show themselves above water.  But Hapgood argues that a perfectly plausible explanation exists for this if the Piri Re’is was a source.  Another map, the Ibn Ben Zara Map, has a remarkably accurate depiction of the Aegean.  But it also includes several islands no longer visible.  How to explain this paradox?  How could the map be so accurate in some respects and so false in others?  We can say the map is a hoax or is filled with errors.  But another possibility is that a source map of great antiquity was constructed when these islands stood above sea-level.

^I do not mean to suggest that the Bible is merely historical.  It certainly has metaphysical, “mythological,” symbolic, and theological meaning beyond history.  But I don’t see these categories as exclusive.  What is real is not opposed to what is mystical, symbolic, or spiritual.

 

 

Advertisements

The Rings of Saturn

Bernard Bailyn starts his book The Peopling of British North America with an illuminating analogy about the rings of Saturn.  When astronomers first noticed Saturn’s rings their beauty appeared as a shimmering uniformity.  Now that technology has given us a closer look, we see that in fact, the “rings” are comprised of thousands of bits of rock and dust, some as big as your hand, some as big as a car, some almost microscopic.

History, he then argues, is often like this.  From a distance things look easy to understand but get up close and the elegant simplicity and uniformity of the past dissipates into confusing bits that won’t go together.  Reality will confound our ability to understand it as a coherent whole.

A lot about this analogy rings true for me.  When young we learn that George Washington was the father of our country, a great leader, and so on.  As we get older, we need to deal with his owning slaves, his social striving, his possible mixed motives for fighting the British, etc.

But ultimately historians can’t stop where Bailyn leaves off.  After seeing what the rings of Saturn actually are, he/she then needs to find a way to have them make sense.  He must interpret and synthesize.  Bailyn’s book tantalizes at times with revealing details about early colonial settlement, but I found myself frustrated that the book never quite got off the ground.

The book shows us that settlement of the colonies happened seemingly without real pattern, aside from the obvious facts that most immigrants were young, male, from a middle-class or lower background.  Different things seemed to happen for different reasons.  In sifting through the data, Bailyn admits that it might take a a poet or impressionist painter to make sense of the disparate information.  This is a wonderful admission of his, and seems to go against his “rings of Saturn” analogy.  Bailyn admits that in this instance he can’t fulfill that role (though he did just this in his great Ideological Origins of the American Revolution).  Interestingly, Bailyn contrasts the disparate design and feel of American settlements with new towns in Germany of the same period.  In Germany, new towns all looked the same.  So again, sometimes the rings of Saturn look exactly like we think they should look.  It may be American history in particular, rather than History in general, that presents a unique picture.

Ultimately, of course, this must be Bailyn’s point.  We might imagine the early days of European settlement to have uniformity, with diversity coming in the 19th century with large scale immigration, but no — from the earliest times no one story could account for everything.  “Let us celebrate America’s diversity,” and all that.

I thought of Bailyn’s work while reflecting on 8th grade reactions to the history of the Roman Republic.  In the year’s “Great Debate” over whether ancient Greece or Rome was the superior civilization, the boys invariably choose Rome by about a 2/3 margin, and the girls Greece by the same amount.  Many years of teaching this class bear this out for me, so why might this be?

Though images of the ancient Greeks reveal a touch of brutishness, they had more feminine qualities than the Romans.  They displayed more creativity and originality than the Romans.  They appreciated beauty and proportion.  As for the Romans, their plodding, methodical nature probably fits very easily within the mind of an 8th grade boy.  Their lack of imagination and their pig-headed stubbornness may have been designed specifically to both infuriate their ancient opponents and the average modern 8th grade girl.  I have seen a few young ladies actually stomp their feet in anger when Rome manages to rise after their disaster at Cannae, as the boys chuckle in Beavis and Butt-head like fashion.  “We’re still here,” the Romans seem to be saying to Carthage, “dunking your pigtails in inkwells yet again.”

I can identify somewhat with this aggravation, but there is something magnificent about how the Romans embraced their sense of identity.  The Roman scholar J.V.P.D. Balsdon makes the observation that the Roman origin story of Romulus and Remus raised by wolves had nothing to commend it to the ancient world.  Apparently it would have been much better if they had been suckled by she-goats, as the Greeks did with Zeus.  To what extent they truly believed in the myths I can’t say, but even a quick perusal of Rome’s stories show fratricide, violence, and no hint of elegance.  The touching Greek story of Pygmalion carried no truck with the Romans.  When they needed women, they simply stole them from the Sabines.  Even when the Romans “invent” their stories (though I am not comfortable with that word, but like a typical guy I can’t think of a better one) they utterly lack imagination and adornment.  And the Romans chuckle stupidly again.  They’re perfectly happy with their unimaginative early history.  Aggravating or no, their fierce sense of identity, no doubt gleaned partially from their commonly accepted founding mythology, gave them great strength of purpose and dedication.  They knew they were a gritty, uncouth, blue collar bunch and reveled in it.

When discussing the Arthurian legend in his A Short History of England G.K. Chesterton made the comment that the “tradition” surrounding Arthur was more true than the “history” surrounding him.  He meant that the Arthurian tradition may not be entirely accurate, but expressed more truth about the past than the confusion produced by historians who tackle the same subject.  I think the same holds true for Rome.  Take Will Durant (whom I like, for the record) in his Caesar and Christ, where he vaguely talks of Roman origins in terms of nomads from the steppes, and scraps of pottery dated to some people at some unsure time.  This tells us nothing.  No one should trust in the full accuracy of Livy’s history, but Livy communicates something more true about Rome’s early period than Durant.

If Chesterton is right we should consider his principle in light of America’s history.  The newness of our country means that we can have far more accurate information about our past than almost any other civilization.  For many of us, the stories we learned in elementary school no longer have persuasive power.  Postmodernism has done its deconstructive work well.  We see this in the words of the great jazz pianist Vijay Iyer who recently spoke at Yale, where he seemed to suggest that all success in America is somehow linked to exploitation (I hope I’m reading him incorrectly, as I like Iyer’s music and don’t want his name attached to something silly like this).  Iyer commented,

And as we continue to consider, construct and develop our trajectories as Americans, I am also constantly mindful of what it means to be complicit with a system like this country, with all of its structural inequalities, its patterns of domination, and its ghastly histories of slavery and violence.

Many of us are here because we’ve become successful in that very context. That’s how we got into Yale, by being voted most likely to succeed; and that may be what emboldened some of us to show our faces here this weekend, because we actually have something to show for ourselves, that somehow in the years since we first dined at the Alternate Food Line we’ve managed to carve a place for ourselves in the landscape of America. Whether you attribute it to some mysterious triple package or to your own Horatio Alger story, to succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America—which means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past.

Perhaps at least a few of those voted, “Most Likely to Succeed” actually worked hard?

But we need not fear or lament the postmodern landscape, but see an opportunity.  We need to seek the truth, and the deconstructive project has helped us do that.  But somewhere out there, I hope, is a historian who can give us a “true tradition” amidst the rings of Saturn to anchor us moving forward.

The Best Reason for Democracy is . . . Democracy?

Several years ago I read an article where the man interviewed had positive things to say about some developments in Italian democracy.  “The people are now ready to criticize and poke fun of their leaders,” he commented.  “We’ll know we have arrived as a democracy when the people can criticize themselves.”  At the time I read this, I thought, “Good for you, Italy.  One day you may join us.  We’ve got something better here.”  But upon reflection, I’m not so sure this is true.  How many politicians, for example, could get away with criticizing the American people?  How many political documentaries create a divide between us and them, whether they come from Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore?  It always appears to be “their” fault, never “our” fault.

Judgments about one’s own society, however, are tricky.  To see the nose on one’s face you need a mirror.  Without significant experience of democracies on a historical scale, the example of Athens from 508-338 B.C. will always prove important for us to get our bearings.

Writing critical assessments of things or events can be more fun than offering praise. Critical people can sometimes come from a distant and cynical spiritual place, and we shouldn’t give much weight to their comments.  Sometimes, however, criticism arises out of love, and this should grab our attention.  Loren J. Samons’ What’s Wrong with Democracy does this.  He seeks to get past our modern adulation of democracy, and thus, our adulation with classical Athens.  When we examine them afresh, he argues, we won’t always like what we see.  In his criticism Simons sometimes overreaches and sometimes seems to contradict himself.  But his book is, as historian J.E. Lendon stated, “cleansing.”

Amidst the various topics Samons discusses, I think the essence boils down to the following issues:

What is democracy really about after all?

Christopher Ferrara tackled this question head-on in his book Liberty: The God the Failed.  Samons takes a more indirect approach, but still feels that democracy, standing by itself, may lead to little more than a means to perpetuate whatever we happen to desire.  The only reason we will have for democracy is . . . democracy.

He looks at Athens’ financial history and its relationship to democracy.  He traces a few distinct stages:

  • An early phase where the ‘tyrants’ got overthrown and the franchise expanded.
  • The heralded Periclean phase, often seen as the high-point of democracy.  But Samons points out that this phase of democracy was made possible only by 1) Their silver mines, and 2) The imperial tribute they received from their client states.  The practices we tend to admire about them, such as paying people to attend the Assembly, and large cash payments for their very large juries (101-501) people, could happen only because of their predatory practices abroad.
  • The era after the Peloponnesian War, where they lacked the cash reserves of earlier times, but refused to modify their practices.  This led to serious financial problems and hard choices for the Athenians.  Yet, when faced with the task of defending themselves against Macedon or continuing to vote themselves cash payments, they consistently chose the latter.

Perhaps the Athenians didn’t just simply make bad choices, perhaps the kind of democracy they practiced would naturally encourage them to make bad choices.  If democracy is all about “serving the people” or “giving the people what they want,” then democracies will inevitably choose to short-term gains and quick fixes.  Salmons wrote his book before our own failure to arrive at a budget, or to either 1) Decrease spending, or 2) Raise taxes made itself manifest. Is our own system of government equipped to make hard choices?  Given how we consume energy, we may also have to conclude that our democratic lifestyles have a predatory aspect.

Samons’ next points out that in Athens, their more aristocratic past provided a healthy check on democracy.  Having a different past gave them a compass from which to orient their democratic practice.  It could also serve as a reminder that democracy need not serve as the be all and end all of political life.  In America we have no such check, which leads us to nearly worship democracy as a vital part of our existence.  This in turn, has led to a confused and misguided foreign policy.  On a couple of occasions Athens even voted to switch to a more aristocratic oriented governance, which Samons views as healthy.  In time, Athens banned any alternative to their democracy, and this choice contributed to their eventual conquest by Macedon.  They refused to allow any other method of making decisions, even when they methods they employed to make choices had no real hope of facilitating good outcomes.

On this issue Samons has weaker arguments.  True, I very much wish that we would appreciate democracy because it is ours, instead of investing it with angelic qualities. But the political instability in Athens from 411-400 B.C. was not always as smooth as Samons lets on.  Political exiles and political murders came with such transitions. Having the alternative to democracy came at a price.

However, if a democracy has no reference point outside itself, we should consider whether it may be worth the risk to have such an alternative.  Currently we have no particular ‘North Star’ of religion or virtue to guide our own political practice, and this will lead to everyone scrambling for whatever they can get. We may be in a position now where we could really benefit from a distinct alternative to borrow from, to get some separation from democracy that we might understand its strengths and weaknesses more clearly.  If we have no firm moral guidelines derived from a common faith, the check on democracy may have to come from other viable political ideologies and practices.  Of course such an alternative is entirely unthinkable in our modern context. This may bode ill for us.

This lack of an outside reference point for many modern historians  impacts how they view ancient critics of Athens.  Invariably, whether the ancient chronicler be Thucydides, Xenophon, Socrates, or the “Old Oligarch,” they get discounted due to their “aristocratic bias.”  Now, naturally all historians have bias — even democratic ones. But we cannot dismiss them for this bias alone, however uncomfortable their conclusions may be.  Perhaps the the extreme form of democratic bias comes in the form of the book by I.F. Stone on the trial of Socrates. I applaud Stone for his enjoyable and Herculean efforts to at least partially exonerate Athenian democracy while writing about one of its great crimes.  His book rises to the level of a  great counter-factual history.  But in the text Stone spills a lot more ink discussing Socrates’ “aristocratic bias” then in blaming the governmental system that executed him unjustly.

Critics of Salmons conclusions have two good points.

Salmons offers some good criticisms of Athens in particular and democracy in general. But he proposes no alternatives.  What does he want?  Would he prefer a monarchy or a dictatorship?  I grant this makes the book somewhat unsatisfying, but I can’t fault him for it.  To develop a viable alternative with historical and philosophical backing would require another book.

More problematic is Salmons’ seemingly simplistic take on the problems Athens faced. Surely he realizes that other forms of government have their problems too?  Yes, Athens had issues, but exactly how much blame can we put for their problems on democracy?  Would their problems have been less with a monarchy?  He can say that Athenian democracy made bad decisions, but kings make bad decisions, oligarchies make bad decisions, and so on.  For his book to really work he would have to show that democracies will make more bade decisions, or more catastrophic decisions, then other forms of government.  He fails to do so.

Even still, these flaws don’t bother me that much.  Salmons modestly set out to 1) Give a more balanced picture of Athenian democracy, and 2) Pour some cold water over our ardent devotion to democracy.  He succeeds, and this makes his book worthwhile.

Machiavelli is at various turns a cold man, a dangerous man, and a wise one.  Below I include a section from his Discourses on Livy where he discusses the merits of Rome’s Republic building into its foundation an alternative to the Republic when necessary. This, I think, was Machiavelli in one of his wiser moments.

Dave

Book XXIV

Those citizens who first devised a dictatorship for Rome have been
blamed by certain writers, as though this had been the cause of the
tyranny afterwards established there. For these authors allege that the
first tyrant of Rome governed it with the title of Dictator, and that,
but for the existence of the office, Cæsar could never have cloaked
his usurpation under a constitutional name. He who first took up this
opinion had not well considered the matter, and his conclusion has been
accepted without good ground. For it was not the name nor office of
Dictator which brought Rome to servitude, but the influence which
certain of her citizens were able to assume from the prolongation of
their term of power; so that even had the name of Dictator been wanting
in Rome, some other had been found to serve their ends, since power may
readily give titles, but not titles power. We find, accordingly,
that while the dictatorship was conferred in conformity with public
ordinances, and not through personal influence, it was constantly
beneficial to the city. For it is the magistracies created and the
powers usurped in unconstitutional ways that hurt a republic, not those
which conform to ordinary rule; so that in Rome, through the whole
period of her history, we never find a dictator who acted otherwise than
well for the republic. For which there were the plainest reasons. In
the first place, to enable a citizen to work harm and to acquire undue
authority, many circumstances must be present which never can be
present in a State which is not corrupted. For such a citizen must be
exceedingly rich, and must have many retainers and partisans, whom he
cannot have where the laws are strictly observed, and who, if he had
them, would occasion so much alarm, that the free suffrage of the people
would seldom be in his favour. In the second place, the dictator was not
created for life, but for a fixed term, and only to meet the emergency
for which he was appointed. Power was indeed given him to determine by
himself what measures the exigency demanded; to do what he had to do
without consultation; and to punish without appeal. But he had no
authority to do anything to the prejudice of the State, as it would have
been to deprive the senate or the people of their privileges, to subvert
the ancient institutions of the city, or introduce new. So that taking
into account the brief time for which his office lasted, its limited
authority, and the circumstance that the Roman people were still
uncorrupted, it was impossible for him to overstep the just limits of
his power so as to injure the city; and in fact we find that he was
always useful to it.

And, in truth, among the institutions of Rome, this of the dictatorship
deserves our special admiration, and to be linked with the chief causes
of her greatness; for without some such safeguard a city can hardly
pass unharmed through extraordinary dangers. Because as the ordinary
institutions of a commonwealth work but slowly, no council and no
magistrate having authority to act in everything alone, but in most
matters one standing in need of the other, and time being required to
reconcile their differences, the remedies which they provide are most
dangerous when they have to be applied in cases which do not brook
delay. For which reason, every republic ought to have some resource of
this nature provided by its constitution; as we find that the Republic
of Venice, one of the best of those now existing, has in cases of urgent
danger reserved authority to a few of her citizens, if agreed among
themselves, to determine without further consultation what course is to
be followed. When a republic is not provided with some safeguard such
as this, either it must be ruined by observing constitutional forms,
or else, to save it, these must be broken through. But in a republic
nothing should be left to be effected by irregular methods, because,
although for the time the irregularity may be useful, the example will
nevertheless be pernicious, as giving rise to a practice of violating
the laws for good ends, under colour of which they may afterwards be
violated for ends which are not good. For which reason, that can never
become a perfect republic wherein every contingency has not been
foreseen and provided for by the laws, and the method of dealing with it
defined. To sum up, therefore, I say that those republics which cannot
in sudden emergencies resort either to a dictator or to some similar
authority, will, when the danger is serious, always be undone.

We may note, moreover, how prudently the Romans, in introducing this new
office, contrived the conditions under which it was to be exercised.
For perceiving that the appointment of a dictator involved something of
humiliation for the consuls, who, from being the heads of the State,
were reduced to render obedience like every one else, and anticipating
that this might give offence, they determined that the power to appoint
should rest with the consuls, thinking that when the occasion came when
Rome should have need of this regal authority, they would have the
consuls acting willingly and feeling the less aggrieved from the
appointment being in their own hands. For those wounds or other injuries
which a man inflicts upon himself by choice, and of his own free will,
pain him far less than those inflicted by another. Nevertheless, in the
later days of the republic the Romans were wont to entrust this power to
a consul instead of to a dictator, using the formula, _Videat_ CONSUL
_ne quid respublica detrimenti capiat_.

But to return to the matter in hand, I say briefly, that when the
neighbours of Rome sought to crush her, they led her to take measures
not merely for her readier defence, but such as enabled her to attack
them with a stronger force, with better skill, and with an undivided
command.

 

Rebels Against the Future

I posted this originally a few years ago, but repost it with some additional content relevant to the season . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

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

From St. Epiphianos:

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

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

And from St. Nelios the Ascetic:

The Theotokos [that is, Mary, the “Mother of God”] displayed such “wisdom and manifold knowledge” (Job38:36) that, from the wool of the Lamb who was born from her, she was able to clothe all the faithful with garments of incorruptibility.  For all true Christians stand at the right hand of the King, in golden-fringed garments, embroidered in myriad forms of the virtues.

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

Dave

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

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

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

 

 

Dueling for your Health

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis makes a provocative point about the modern mind.  In discussing love and marriage, he observes that we have a hard time talking about degrees of good and bad.  We can only discuss absolutes and never relative goods.  This leads to a narrowing of societal discourse.  So he writes about duels that,

They ask you what you think of dueling.  If you reply that it is far better to forgive a man than to fight a duel with him, but that even a duel might be better than a lifelong enmity which leads to continuous secret efforts to ‘do the man down,’ they complain that you have not given them a straight answer.

V.G. Keirnan’s book The Duel in European History has certain strengths but lacks some of the necessary subtlety that Lewis urges.  He has a lot of juicy gems and some incisive points.  He searches for a unified field theory of dueling, which I admire.  He seems to think that dueling’s best explanation lies in a quasi-Marxist theory of maintaining class dominance, which fails in my view for a few reasons.  Of course dueling had something to do with class, but not always. Of course dueling is wrong, but . . . maybe not always?

Some personal examples . . .

I had a good friend growing up and we did various things together.  Around our freshman year we decided to add some spice to our various games of ping-pong, poker, H-O-R-S-E, or video games.  We invented consequences for the loser of these contests.  These consequences either brought great discomfort (put hot pepper on your tongue for five minutes, run barefoot in the snow, eat a spoonful of mustard, etc.), or great embarrassment (fall down dramatically in a restaurant, sing loudly in the middle of the street, etc.).  Looking back, many of these things were essentially harmless and created some good memories.  I should say too that losing brought no shame, but to back out of the “consequence” would have been unthinkable and damaging to the friendship.  You made a pledge, now see it through.

But . . . I think a lot our motivation stemmed from boredom.  No longer could we play “just for fun.”  The game itself no longer satisfied.  As you might imagine, with this motivation the consequences themselves inevitably intensified over time.  Also it seemed that we both sought to find great enjoyment in the suffering of the other person, what the Germans call “schadenfreude.” So perhaps on balance this was “primitive” or “destructive.”

Another example . . .

In college I remember walking into my dorm room one day and seeing my roommate and another guy on the hall wrestling.  It was not purely play, neither were they “fighting” in any real sense of the word.  They engaged in something in between those two.  Some sort of personal disagreement lie at the heart of this–I have no idea what.

I stayed to watch.  Keirnan might want to ascribe the fact that I watched to some sort of love of destructive spectacle.  Obviously I preferred watching the “match” to opening my biology textbook. Keirnan has a point.  But I also stayed to act as a kind of “second” for my roommate should level of fighting go too far.  Soon enough a few others came and watched, much for the same reasons, I’m sure.

After several minutes one of them agreed to say “uncle” and they stopped.  Commendations for both participants flowed from the audience.  It seemed entirely natural that now we should all go to dinner, and the first 15 minutes of conversation had most of us laughing about this or that moment in their match.  The two participants seemed entirely reconciled and never again had another such incident.  One of them had “lost,” but that carried no consequence.

I would love to know what Keirnan would think about this “duel.”  Can duels ever be good for you or society, and if so, why?  To answer this question we need to think about why duels happen in the first place.

Before we think about anything possibly positive about duels, Keirnan deals well with their obvious problems:

  • Most duels occur inextricably bound up with the sin of pride.  Perhaps this, even more so than the violence, explains their consistent condemnation by the Church.
  • Many duels bring death or grave physical harm that had no relation to the nature of the “offense” that caused the duel in the first place.  For example, towards the end of the era of dueling poets and musicians fought over particular points of artistic criticism.
  • At certain points in history duels happened not to settle disputes, but to prove manhood or courage.  Duels might then morph almost into a way of life–a way of life that can only end in death.
  • And yes, Keirnan has a point about the “social-control” aspect of dueling as its link to aristocracies.  Democratic peoples resort to dueling at a vastly lower rate than aristocratic nations, and this tells us something.

None of this surprises the reader.  But Keirnan has more interesting parts of his book.

From his tour through the history of the duel, we may guess at when duels tend to emerge more so than other times.

First, it appears that the amount duels rose in times of significant cultural and political shift.  Two main examples hint at this possibility.  First, dueling increased in the 17th century as the power of monarchs increased.  Increased power to the king meant perhaps that aristocrats felt the need to “strut their stuff” and duel more often.  They may have had the political motive of settling disputes outside of royal courts–an act of survival.

In time the power of the state grew and aristocracies declined.  Duels faded gradually through the 18th century.  But the coming of the Industrial Revolution revived it again.  Here we have part two of their attempt at survival, as the Industrial Revolution made mince-meat of the aristocratic class. This time, however, the dueling had no obvious political purpose.   Also–as to how they thought dueling would ensure their survival . . . ?  Maybe they thought they needed to leave the stage in dramatic and pointless fashion?  I don’t buy the “irrational” motif Keirnan may favor, but he can put this one in his corner.*

In his eyewitness account of the English Civil War, Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon, spends his first chapter criticizing the government of Charles I.  One might suppose that certain policies impoverished England and this led to rebellion.   In fact, as Hyde and other historians point out, England enjoyed relative prosperity during Parliament’s long exile under Charles.  The problem lay not in the suffering of the country, but in part in its lack of suffering.  At length Hyde argues that Charles’ chief error lay in not giving England’s political class anything to do for several years.  They had nothing to do in part because times were good in most respects.  In other words, boredom and restlessness helped lead to the Civil War.

Keirnan mentions this as well at certain points in his narrative, and this rings true with my own experience that I mentioned above.  At some point, things got stale and we wanted to liven them up.  But I keep coming back to the question of the possible validity of some kinds of duels.

I had a long talk with my wife about this and she brought up several interesting questions about my experiences.  “Couldn’t we have had mercy on one another and forgiven the consequence?”  I answered that would not have been possible.

“But why not?”

True, many duelists had “mercy” on their combatant by firing in the air or some other such method.  But this was possible because they had already “won” by showing up and standing for the contest.  Victory was a side benefit.  They had already proven themselves.

For my friend and I, we could only prove ourselves by going through with the consequence.  That was the whole point.  When reminiscing about what happened we never said, “Remember that time you made that shot and won at H-O-R-S-E?”  Instead we reflected, “Remember that time when your feet bled from running in the snow, or when I had to sing the Police’s “Roxanne” in the middle of my street?”  Going through with the consequence gained us fame, not winning the contest.

To “forgive” a consequence in our case would have made the whole process pointless.**

So on the one hand we “proved ourselves” as “men” without doing any real harm to ourselves or others.  We bonded over this.

But on the other hand, it had all the negatives I listed above.

I still wonder about the possible ancillary benefits of duels.

Amidst the many reasons for duels–obscene pride, class control, the destructive impulse, etc.–what stands out to me most is boredom.  In some way, shape, or form, deep down we know that we need to suffer to be who we need to be.  Democracies don’t encourage suffering in any way.  We are told to gratify our desires.  Most modern American manifestations of Protestantism have no concept of voluntary suffering and many churches do all they can to accommodate, not challenge, the modern man.

I think if we can recover the true purpose and place of suffering, we may get closer than Keirnan to understanding duels.  And it is here that I must demur, for I have been a somewhat silly teenager, but I am not a saint.

-Dave

 

*I generally disagree with Marxist interpretations of history but they sometimes have merit.  Kiernan’s class emphasis makes historical sense, but not logical sense–at least to me.  Aristocrats have power because of their birth.  They do not need to “earn” it in the modern sense of the word.  Clearly dueling at times served a purpose of validating their status as aristocrats.  But why feel this need?  Again, they never had to earn their status in the first place.  Perhaps the duel represented for some a kind of atonement oriented suffering for their societal position?  Perhaps this might allow them to feel that they had “earned” their role?

I wonder why democracies eschew the duel.  After all, in theory all of their citizens are born equal and must distinguish themselves in some way from their fellow man.

**In fact I believe this happened once and only once in our years of performing “consequences” and I was the lucky recipient.  If memory serves, we were playing some kind of basketball video game and I had lost multiple times, which meant I had to drink a concoction consisting (I think) of raw egg, tabasco sauce, and mustard.

But my friend did not simply just “forgive” this consequence.  Rather, he had to back out of plans we had made for the following day and in compensation released me from drinking the miserable concoction.

Needless to say, however grave and disappointed I made myself sound when he told me this, I accepted his offer quite readily!

 

 

A Method to the Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

garden-versailles_6475_600x450

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

Dave

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

Ritual, Politics, and Power

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.