Gods of the Sideways World

Many across the political spectrum seem to feel that things in the U.S. have gone crazy, or upside-down.  Those on the left marshall Triump’s presidency, Charlottesville, and the Kavannaugh hearings, to prove their point, while those on the right do so with transgenderism, campus snowflakes, and . . . their own perspective on the Kavanaugh hearings.*

It appears that we can look at the same thing and not see the same thing.

Different theories exist to explain our predicament.  Some trace the beginnings of it all to Bush’s controversial foreign wars, others to the rise of the internet, or the Clinton presidency, or to the end of the Cold War.  Peter Thiel postulated that our cycles of cultural leaders skipped Generation X and went from the boomers–who artifically held on too long to power–straight to the millennials.**  Thus, lacking “Generation X” to mediate the generation gap, we jerk awkwardly to and fro like a record skipping across a turntable.

We can give all these theories their due.  But I wonder if we may be witnessing something more fundamental.  Without knowing it, akin to frogs in the pot, we are experiencing the final stages of the life in a vertical world, which existed in every ancient civilization up until the 17th century, and seem ready to fully embrace the victory of the sideways world, which has been gaining ground steadily since that time.

One can say anything in blogs . . . but, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

Mattheiu Pageau’s (brother of the more famous Jonathan PageauThe Language of Creation has all the appearance of quackery.  The book has no reviews or endorsements on the back cover.  The book has no footnotes, or even a bibliography, despite the obvious fact that he draws heavily on early Christian and Jewish sources.  This sends shivers down my spine and I can think of no defense for it.  While some parts of the book desperately needed footnotes to have a shot at convincing me, the opening several chapters made complete sense, and the book in a general way hits its target by helping one to reimagine the world.  Once embarked with The Language of Creation, it is probably best to turn to St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Maximos the Confessor for surer guides.

The key to Pageau’s thoughts, and indeed to much of the ancient and medieval world, lies in how we conceive of our experience of space.

Everyone who has read Ender’s Game realizes that space has no up or down, at least in a scientific or absolute sense.  But we must order our sense of space to exist in it, and that involves choices on our part, choices that upon closer examination are not arbitrary.  And since we must choose, we should be struck by the fact that everyone (in the west at least) up until the present day concieved of the cosmos as heirarchical, as up and down.^

And it may be no coincidence that our current depiction of the solar system conceives it as existing horizontally, and not heirarchically.

This choice of how we depict the cosmos was certainly intentional in older civilizations, and we can fairly assume that it remains intentional today.

There is a difference.  The order and shape we give to the space around creates a framework for meaning.

The up/down nature of reality helps us understand creation and our experience of the world in many different ways:

Creation

  • We first note in Genesis 1 that God resides “above the waters,” above that is, undifferentiated, unformed chaos.  The immensity of God cannot be contained, thus He must mediate our experience of Himself for us to know Him at all.
  • Creation happens through speech, and not coincidentally.  Speech gives form to thoughts and ideas, it gives them a public reality.
  • Creation happens via continual separation and differentiation.  God ‘draws out’ reality from above.
  • The purpose of creation is for God to unite Heaven and Earth.

Plant Life

  • Plants grow from seeds.  The seed falls from above, containing the “idea” of the plant, the entirety of the plant’s particulars.
  • Seeds bury themselves in the earth, which produces the manifestation, the “incarnation” of the idea in more variety.

Man

  • The upright nature of man is also no coincidence.  It separates us from other creatures (while at the same time, giving us no evolutionary advantage per se.  Many robotics designers have pointed out how inefficient the design of the human body is).  But it also corresponds to heirarchy–the intellect is above and governs the body below. Our thoughts move as the thoughts of angels, thus the “heavenly” nature of our intellect. Our “earthy” parts are lower and more chaotic.  Our appetites need structure.  Our “heart,” which lies between our heads and our bellies, serves as the mediator and point of unity between the two, between “heaven” and “earth.”  The structure of our bodies, then, gives us a clue as to the meaning of space.
  • Man himself serves as the mediator of creation, a priesthood meant to image God to all of creation.  As a hybrid creature of Earth and Heaven, we stand between both worlds.

Language

  • Language itself serves as a kind of union of heaven and earth.  We have “”heavenly” thoughts in our intellect.  We take bits of “earth” in the form of random marks, and arrange them into a pattern to make letters.  We then further organize them into words, and so on.
  • Language, then, takes earthly random particulars and gives them structure and distinction from above–according to ideas, principles, etc.  We make ideas manifest through language.

Christ Himself

One could go on and on seeing the extent of this pattern, but all of these patterns cohere most fully in Christ Himself.  He “came down from Heaven,” (John 6:38, the Nicene Creed) as the Word of God, but then took on human nature through the Virgin Mary.  After His death He went even “lower” down and, “descended into hell” (as in the Apostles Creed).  His ressurection and ascencion^^ complete the redemptive process of descending and ascending, a link back to Jacob’s ladder.

Such was the view of the world, more or less, from at least the time of Nero down to the 16th century.

The Copernican Revolution certainly transformed how we view the cosmos, but the hierarchical nature of reality could have been maintained.  I cannot trace the exact time we started to depict the solar system horizontally, but perhaps we have an inkling now that this change involved more than mere astronomy.  Perhaps a trend towards this leveling can be seen, starting from this depiction in the 18th century

which still seems to preserve a sense of heirarchy, and then 100 years later we see

which seems to advance the leveling process a bit further.  Of course the present day, (as seen above) completes the progression towards a flat world.

The leveling of the cosmos presaged a levelling of society, and the ushering in of chaos and confusion.  Geographically speaking, both oceans and deserts represented chaos for the ancient and medieval world–i.e., both areas have no visibile differentiation in their form, and we cannot live there.  With chaos comes death.  For to understand anything and understand its meaning, we need differentiation and distinction.  Again, this is one of the main teachings of Genesis 1. The same holds true of society in general.  The early phases of dismantling existing heirarchies and norms come with great excitement.  Maybe the old forms had run their course, maybe change was overdue.  But the dismantling of all distinctions between up and down, creation and creature, men and women, etc. will usher in a blindness that will hinder our ability to understand the world God made and to understand God Himself.  Without this foundation, we will hardly be able to understand each other.

Since we cannot live in chaos, we will soon find that heirarchy will have to return.  Given our seeming embrace chaos (i.e. a world with no heirarchy and no distinctions), it may end up returning with a vengeance.  We already can see what distorted forms it might take. Those on the far left would make the most marginalized “victim” king^^^, and those on the far right would repeat Charlottesville en masse.  New gods would rule over us.

I believe most people want to avoid both of these extremes, but have no idea what to do about it.  Perhaps we can start with the very simple move of thinking about the world as up and down instead of side-to-side.

Dave

*I continue to hope that the world of twitter and political commentating is merely a distorted reflection of the real world we all inhabit.  Indeed, I have come across very few in my neighborhood or at church who got terribly bent out of shape one way or the other about Kavannaugh’s nomination.

**Peter Thiel believes that the dearth of viable presidential candidates in their 40’s-50’s in the last election proves this point.

^Like most medieval maps, this does not represent an accurate spatial depiction of the cosmos, but the cosmos as it appears “spiritually” to them in their hearts and minds.  Ptolemy’s Almagest was the standard work of astronomy of the Middle Ages and speaks of the Earth as a mathematical point in the universe.  But, they represented the Earth as larger than other planets because this is where the drama of the redemption of the cosmos plays itself out.

^^Most churches hardly focus on Christ’s Ascencion and stop at Easter.  But the structure and scope of redemption shows us how crucial the Ascencion is, for Heaven and Earth cannot be fully reconciled until Christ presents Himself spotless before the Father.  Only after this does the Spirit of God descend that God may dwell within us.

^^^I have no settled thoughts on the trigger warning and micro-aggression phenomena, aside from an obvious distaste for it.  But I do wonder at its logic.  If victimhood gives one power and the right to speak, would it not serve their interests to increase their victim status by having themselves “assaulted?”  Perhaps then, the enthroned victims wish to keep their power by preventing anyone else from gaining status?  That would make them like everyone else.  Those in power tend to guard it jealously.

A Pattern Language

Many years ago I witnessed a debate between the Christian William Lane Craig, an atheist, and a Buddhist. Naturally I “rooted” for Craig, but also hoped for an interesting discussion. The atheist cut a poor figure. Craig possesses an enormous intellect and made quick and brutal work of the scientific materialist. In so doing, however, he neglected the Buddhist, who had a much more interesting argument, Though I disagreed with the Buddhist, I wished Craig had stopped shooting fish in the barrel and paid more attention to him. The Buddhist basically argued that values certainly exist in the world, contra the strict materialist. But he thought Christians too interested in the explanation for the values in the world–why not simply live in light of them? Craig never dealt with this enigmatic assertion.

Everyone should read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, or at least glance through it as I did. 🙂 On its surface the book is about architecture, and he provides much directly for the professional builder. What makes the book remarkable, however, is how easily Alexander connects architecture to everyday life, and orients it not around outsized auteur individual creation, but making spaces for people to live communally and “normally.” To do so, one must tap into the “patterns” in everyday living. Though I know very, very little about Asian religious philosophy, I sensed something of the Buddhist or Taoist in Alexander. He felt no need to justify these patterns or explain their meaning. As far as I could tell he called mainly upon the intuition of our experience in presenting his ideas. Many have written about the increasing privatization of our culture, and no doubt this reflects itself in the buildings we create. Alexander injects a comforting warmth into our sterile sense of the meaning of a building, something quite needed given the state of modern architecture.

I agree that values present themselves in the world as real entities. I disagree that the origin of these values is a red herring–I think that it matters very much. But I agree again that the experience of such values matters much more than debating or discussing them. To understand the reality of symbols we have to enact them, to incarnate them, in our daily lives. The argument over when we started living in our modern linear, factual. and personalized way has a different contenders–some say the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food for Medieval Women work hints that this process began in the late Middle Ages-early Renaissance, though answering this question was not the intent of her work.

Bynum won me over immediately in her introduction. She makes it clear that we have to understand medievals on their own terms. She quotes John Tauler of the 14th century, who writes,

St. Bernard compared this Sacrament [the eucharist] with the human processes of eating when he used the similes of chewing, swallowing, assimilation, and digestion. To some this will seem crude, but let such refined persons be aware of pride, which comes from the devil; a humble spirit will not take offense at simple things.

The words form an introduction to the subject of her book, and indeed–unlike Henry Charles Lea–Bynum knows that to understand medieval ideas of food (or almost anything) means understanding the eucharist first and foremost. The words also bracket ones whole approach to any part of the past–humility usually triumphs over judgment.*

The humble everyday nature of food is a great place to start understanding the nature of things.

The remarkable Alexander Schemmen began his classic For the Life of the World with these words:

“Man is what he eats.”  With this statement the German materialistic philosopher Feurbach thought he had put to an end all “idealistic” speculations about human nature.  In fact, he was expressing, without knowing it, the most religious idea of man.  For long before the same definition of man was given in Genesis.  The biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.  . . . Man must eat in order to live; he must take into the world his body and transform into himself.  He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one banquet table for man.  It is the image of life at its creation and at its fulfillment at the end of time . . . “that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom” (Lk. 22:30).

We remember too, that just as, “the whole world is one banquet table” so too, the first sin involved breaking the fast. How and when we eat matters as to how we understand the world.**

Individually, food involves taking the life of something else and making it part of ones own life. Even a stalk of wheat or an apple must be plucked from its source of life and ‘die’ so that we may live. So eating mirrors Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I talked in a recent post about adopting a theopomorphic view of our experience with the concept of bodies, and we should understanding eating as part of our joining our life to Christ’s life. He offered himself as food for us (John 6:56).

In addition, eating joins us to creation’s pattern. The earth receives water and bears fruit. The earth receives death and decay–think compost or manure–and turns it into life. The church in the early west established “ember” days of fasting to mirror changes in seasons, and the longest fasts of the church year (Advent and Lent) occur during times of year when the ground lies essentially inactive.

Establishing this pattern, Bynum then leads into understanding medieval women and their relationship to food. Creation has always been associated with the feminine, i.e., “Mother Earth.” We know too the trope of the mother who “sacrifices herself,” who will eat less, eat last, or . . . not eat at all. She “dies” so that she can provide.

Bynum frames the context of medieval female religious experience through this lens. Bynum looks at the fasting and eucharistic devotion of certain medieval women, including a long discourse on the whether or not such women suffered from anorexia that is tedious in a scholarly way, but fair and sympathetic nonetheless.

But this intense personal piety as it related to food has a problematic endgame. Connecting fasting and feasting to the patterns in creation meant that communities could experience it together in the same way, with the same meaning. The physicality of things makes itself obvious to all, from the saint, to the scholar, to the ploughman. By separating the practice from “normal” rhythms, the experience became intensely personal, and less communal. This is not to say absolutely that no variance can exist in a community, and the late medievals never normalized the experience of these unusual women. But a decisive shift happened. Fasting meant no longer primarily a communal experience linked with the pattern of the life of Christ and creation, but a vehicle for personal, and possibly idiosyncratic, devotion.

From here dominos start to fall. Without the connection to creation, the common language of food might disappear. In time, one could fast from Netflix or shopping instead of certain foods. Maybe such things have their place for individuals, but the reduction of fasting to individual experience and individual authority robs us of meaning and identity (something Mary Douglas pointed out in her excellent work).

This same radical personalization and consequent loss of meaning have done similar work in the realm of sexuality. In ye olden days marriages happened not primarily because people were “in love,” but rather as a vehicle whereby people could participate in what it means to be human and the drama of salvation. If we think of our humanity and the humanity of Christ as one–before the foundation of the world–we see this clearly especially as it relates to women who get married:

  • The woman is led to the altar by her father
  • She “dies” at the altar–Miss Jane Smith is no more
  • She is “reborn”–meet Mrs. Jane Johnson
  • After marriage comes the “fruit” of the marriage, say hello to little baby Jack Johnson

The meaning of sexuality comes from this mirroring of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. And here we see why we need “Heaven,” and “Earth,” man, and woman, for our sexuality to make any sense at all. We have divorced this aspect of our being from all such patterns, and made it purely personal inside the chaotic variability of our minds. It appears the end of this rope has come, when some experts tell us that not only is the created order not a model for sexuality, but our very bodies should be discarded to achieve our purely personal goals.

Many today focus on our political confusion, and we should lament this. But these political issues have far deeper roots which we cannot see. Not only do we not see a pattern, we don’t expect to see a pattern. We won’t be able to solve these problems until we start looking.

Dave

*Another aspect of her writing that I appreciated . . . She delineated in the introduction chapters geared more towards layman like myself, and those written more with the professional scholar in mind. I personally have no taste for the hemming and hawing of scholar-speak, but I understand it has its place. It was kind of her to let me know what to avoid and where to focus my attention.

**This may seem a crazy assertion, but if we think of our lived experience we begin to understand. Let’s take drinking alcohol as an example. We instinctively recognize that someone who drinks scotch at 10 am has a problem, but if they did so at 10 pm, no problem. But why? What is the difference between drinking in the morning or at night?

Life is full of “inhaling” and “exhaling.” At night we begin to “exhale,” we reach the “fringe” of our being for the day. As we move through the “fringe” of the day we begin to approach the “chaos” of the unconscious. It intuitively makes sense, then, for us to match drinking something that relaxes us, that moves us toward the “fringe” of our being, at night rather than during the day. If we move towards the “fringe” in the morning when we should be “inhaling”–focusing and getting active–we create personal and societal dissonance. Our distinctions are not arbitrary.

Likewise, we understand that drinking socially is better than drinking alone. A person who drinks too much socially we might perceive as having a minor problem. A person who drinks too much alone we perceive as being in grave danger. But why? The pattern tells us, and again, we understand not so much logically but in our lived experience. Social groups exist for people to blend and mix together. Alcohol can bring us to the fringe of our being, we can “extend” the self in some respects through alcohol. Hence, “Can I buy you a drink?” can be a means of introduction in ways that, “Can I buy you some carrots?” would not. Someone who drank too much alone would extend themselves and connect with no one–it would be an intentionally fruitless action, in which we rightly recognize despair and nihilism.

Communism and Gnosticism

I have written before that I think the best historians are always part-time philosophers and theologians.  For events to have meaning, they can’t just “be,” they need a context.  If we have no interpretive framework, we have no meaning.

Eric Voegelin may not be a historian by some definitions, but he certainly qualifies as a 650308philosopher/theologian.  His short pamphlet Science, Politics, and Gnosticism gives the reader a lot to digest, and provides a framework for understanding modern political movements.

First he gives his working definition of “Gnosticism.”  At root, gnostics believe that “God,” the “Demiurge,” or whatever goodness that exists had nothing to do with the creation of the physical world.  The world in fact separates us from true goodness, and to “get back” to our original, pure, and spiritual state we must somehow escape creation and its ill effects.  Of course, only a select few will have the will, but most importantly, the knowledge, (or the “gnosis”) to do this.  “Salvation” comes only for the “inner man.”

Every political philosopher must decide what to do with creation.  Should we seek to accommodate ourselves to it, have dominion over it, or seek to transcend or abolish it altogether?  While these choices may not always come directly from our conscious selves, we make these choices in one way or another.  Voegelin shows that even so-called “materialistic” ideologies like Marxism and Nazism have strong gnostic roots.

On the surface at least, Marxism appears to be all about this world.  It has a “materialistic” cause for the changes in history (economics and class struggle). It argues for an abolition of traditional religion.  It seems to preach an earthly utopia of sorts.  Nazism also focused on racial purity.  Hitler wanted a 1000 year Reich on earth.  He wanted to transform the world politically and aesthetically.  But Voegelin helps us look behind the mask.

To take an “anti-science” stance is to take a stand fundamentally against the created order.  Part of our humanity is the desire to grow in wisdom and understanding, to seek, to knock.  (Lk. 2:52, Mt. 7:7).  Science itself demands a continual re-evaluation of even its basic principles.  But Marxism, along with all totalitarian societies, demands an end to questioning.  Voegelin quotes Marx,

When you inquire about the nature of creation and man, you abstract nature and man.  Give up your abstraction and you will give up your questions along with it.  For socialist man, [such a question] becomes a practical impossibility.

Thus, in denying the right to questions, the supposedly scientific basis of Marxism breaks down.

Many focus on Marx’s view of class warfare and an oppressive industrial capitalism–more “material” factors.  He and other devotees expected the Revolution to start in England or Germany, where such political and economic systems had developed farthest.  But the fact that it started in Russia, the most religious country in Europe at the time, strongly testifies to the religious roots of communist ideology.  “History” for Marx was nothing but a mistake.  Humanity’s experience in and with creation offered nothing but a universal negative of oppression.  Again we see this desire to break free from the created order, to transcend it, rather than transform it.

Gnosticism had appeal mainly to the intellectual elite of late antiquity, possibly because it told the elite what they wanted to hear.  “This knowledge is not available to all, or easy to see or understand.  How clever of you to have found it!”  Gnostic religions create a distance between the elite and the rest of humanity, with the “knowledgeable” able to dictate to the rest of us.  However much Marx may have hoped for a people’s dictatorship, the movement never got past the party-elite enjoying privileges they specifically denied the people themselves.  If Voegelin is right, communists movements never could have advanced beyond this because of their essential gnostic roots.

For Nazism (Communism and Nazism formed the immediate context of Voegelin’s writing in the early 1950’s) some of the same truths emerge.  They claimed a “scientific” basis for much of their theories involving race.  But in the end their totalitarian society naturally denied individual freedoms, but also desired escape from creation through death.  Whether through Hitler’s obsession with Wagner, the killing-squads of the SS, or blitzkrieg, itself, I think more than enough evidence exists to see the Nazi hatred for creation.  For them as well, redemption can only come via escape from creation.

All this offers more evidence for the historian to see economics, politics, etc. as downstream from religious ideology.

God’s Legs

Translation will always be a tricky business, but two rules of thumb remain: 1) Make it readable for modern audiences, without 2) Losing the flavor of the original. Nigel Bryant’s The History of William Marshal hits this mark admirably. He translates the original poem into prose, but preserves the period’s idiomatic way of speaking. I confess a great fondness for medieval diction which perhaps runs in literature from Beowulf through Shakespeare. Part of this comes simply from seeing new phrases that inject life into staid platitudes. So, one can smile at the fact that they use the word “nanny-goat” in place of “chicken” for a coward. But more to the point–the medievals combined high-flown sentiment with an earthy directness that we lack today.

A few examples . . .

  • “Sir Thomas Coulances added his two ounces of salt. Making sauces was all he was good for. In sum, five got involved in this mustard” [i.e., they ‘stirred up trouble’].
  • “The Marshall grabbed a stick and gave him such a whack across the brow that the rogue had made his last blink with that eye–it went flying from his head. Well, they do say, ‘an appropriate feast day for such a saint'” [said ironically–the ‘rogue’ in question had stolen a horse. Normally the feast day of a saint would occur on the day of his martyrdom/death, though in this case the Marshall actually prevented the thief’s death by hanging and let him go–missing an eye].

And my favorite:

  • Sir Richard foolishly inserted himself–he should never have goaded the ass [i.e., he should have “let sleeping dogs lie”–“ass” here refers to a donkey and not the grumpy personage].

My admiration for Bryant increased as I read the introduction. The History of William Marshall author remains unknown but may have been his son. Some treat the book as pure literature and leave aside any historical value, thinking it an “obvious panegyric” to Marshall and not to be trusted. Bryant affirms the historical value of the work, pointing out that most of the books’s audience knew the famous man in England and France. Perhaps it contains exaggerations in places but its basic foundation remains, like stories you might tell about a relative at Thanksgiving dinner. Change the tale too much and you get called out.

Primary sources, if one willingly dives in, can give great insight into how those at the time viewed the world. In other medieval or Elizabethan texts one readily comes across such phrases as “God’s eyes!” or “God’s blood!” as vows or mark’s of irritation and (righteous?) anger, i.e., “By God’s blood I’ll do no such thing,” or, “God’s eyes, I’ll have him out!” upon hearing that some dastardly earl has seized a castle of the king. Never before have I seen the phrase “God’s legs!” as it used in The History of William Marshall, though the author uses it in a similar manner as the above phrases. Seeing this new idiom helped me think about this whole phenomena anew. What could they have meant by such expressions? We do have phrases for “stirring up trouble,” for example, but not anything like “God’s teeth!”

An easy explanation might sound like

  • This shows the “top-heavy” nature of medieval society. Sure, you have some brilliant theologians and marvelous architecture, but the bulk of the masses were ignorant of such things and descended into blasphemous superstition at the drop of a hat.

This view, however, violates one of my cardinal rules: we should never assume the ignorance of others in the past. People might be wrong about things, but that doesn’t mean they lack good reasons for being wrong. A better explanation might sound like,

  • These phrases show the “low” of the “high” and “low” dichotomy in the medieval period, ably expounded by brilliant commentators such as the author of the blog “astickinthemud.com.” Phrases such as “God’s legs!” simply give evidence that this tension could not always be maintained coherently–i.e., sometimes the “low” went a bit too low.

Still, I don’t buy it. Numerous examples exist of the “high” and “low” existing in the same person throughout the medieval period, such as Boccaccio, Chaucer, Dante, Marguerite of Navarre, etc. So, we should entertain the idea that such phrases do not betray the medieval synthesis but rather give witness to it.*

Does God have a body?

In one very important sense obviously of course He does. In the incarnation Christ assumed the fullness of human nature. He did not simply “appear” as a man, He was a fully human man with a real human body. Christ remains both God and glorified Man. And being Man, this means that He has arms, legs, etc. just as we do, or if you prefer–just as we will in the resurrection.

In another sense God has no body. All orthodox theologians tell us that He is “simple” and not composed of parts. Having arms, legs, etc. seems to imply parts to God. But we must be careful with the meaning of “parts.” Divine simplicity at its root might mean something along the lines of, “God is not divided from Himself,” or perhaps that no separation exists between God and His attributes. The “justice” or “mercy” of God is simply God Himself. But I am no theologian and will leave off the exact meaning of “divine simplicity.”

Even before the Incarnation it seems that God has a “body.” He walks in the Garden, He has “eyes” (Ps. 119:18, etc.), and a “right hand” (Is. 41:10, etc.). “Ahh,” we say, “but that is anthropomorphic language.” Well, maybe not.**

We assume that the Bible speaks of God as having arms, eyes, etc. as a concession to our understanding and language. God obviously has no physical body of flesh and bone. In this sense certainly God is bodiless as are the angels. Orthodox testimony unanimously speaks to the immaterial nature of God, and the “simplicity” of God. God has no parts:

Far removed is the Father of all from those things which operate among men, the affections and passions. He is simple, not composed of parts, without structure, altogether like and equal to himself alone. He is all mind, all spirit, all thought, all intelligence, all reason.

St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.13.3

God, however, being without parts, is Father of the Son without division and without being acted upon. For neither is there an effluence from that which is incorporeal, nor is there anything flowering into him from without, as in the case of men. Being simple in nature, he is the Father of one only Son.

St. Athanasius, Letter on the Council of Nicea, 11

These are just two examples. Nothing in what follows is meant to contradict this in any way. But we should understand that God the Father begets a Son (eternally), and that our begetting is a shadow of His begetting, and not vice-versa. We are made in His image, not vice-versa. God’s eyes do not see like our eyes, our eyes see, however dimly, like His. But of course, God does not have squishy white things just below His forehead, rods, cones, and so on.

Perhaps, then, we can understand that the concept of “body” should not be understood in an anthropocentric way. We have, unfortunately, significantly bought into anthropocentric thought when it comes to the ancient and medieval world. The Greeks thought Zeus threw thunderbolts because they did not know about electricity, or Poseidon caused earthquakes because they had no knowledge of tectonic plates. We really should give the Greeks–and others in the past–more credit than that. So with bodies–maybe we should not think of bodies as an assemblage of physically moving parts, but as a “nexus of potentiality,” to quote Father Stephen de Young. God’s being contains all true potential. He sees but needs no organ called “eyes” to do so. He moves but has no need of physical legs to make that happen. We lack the “simplicity” of God and so we need bones, tissue, etc. to enact such impulses as the desire to move or perceive.

It seems to me that the medievals nearly always tended to think in a top-down manner. One sees this in their bestiary’s, where it is not so much the physical lion that is seen, but a kingly symbol. Their desire to know particulars of the lion were not as strong as their desire to “scale up” the lion and integrate with God’s existence. Perhaps they thought similarly about the body itself. In the 3rd century AD Origen wrote,

The apostle Paul teaches us that the invisible things of God may be known through the visible, and that which is not seen may be known by what is seen. The Earth contains patterns of the heavenly, so that we may rise from lower to higher things.

As a certain likeness of these, the Creator has given us a likeness of creatures on earth, by which the differences might be gathered and perceived. And perhaps just as God made man in His own image and likeness, so also did He make remaining creatures after certain other heavenly images as a likeness. And perhaps every single thing on earth has something of an image or likeness to heavenly things, to such a degree that even the grain of mustard, which is the smallest of seeds, may have something of an image and likeness in heaven.

Perhaps this can explain medieval explications such as “God’s legs!” I say perhaps–it may be that I read too much into this and have strayed too near the wind. But I will stretch things a bit and declare that rather than see such statements as departures from the piety of the age, we should see them as part of their intertwined view of the world that saw all categories of being flowing down from Heaven to Earth.

Dave

*I leave off the question of whether or not acclamations of this sort violate Christ’s words in Matthew 5 about oaths, etc. My answer is “no” or at least “not necessarily” but I give no defense for that here.

**In what follows I am enormously indebted to the 1/15/21 episode of the “Lord of Spirits” podcast from Ancient Faith Radio.

Just War as Christian Discipleship

Methodical.  Inexorable.  Annoying, sometimes provoking, and yet, ultimately convincing and convicting.  All these words sum up my 1441206817reaction Daniel Bell’s important book on the Christian just war tradition.

First the bad:

Bell could have used a better editor, and bears the hallmarks of a first book from the author.  He slides all too often into a repetitive and heavy didactic style, and uses paragraphs chock full of rhetorical questions that pile onto one another.  Not as bad as Mr. Chadband from Bleak House, but I might parody this habit of Bell’s thusly:

“And what are we to make of the Gadsden flag motto (used by Marines) “Don’t Tread on Me?”  Does it express a sentiment in line with the sacrificial love of Christ?  Does it encourage a transformative view of suffering?  Would such an attitude lead to just warriors?  What kind of motto’s should our soldiers use?  Is the church ready to inform the military about such things?”

So this was wearisome.

Bell also never applies his ideas to any particular conflict, which seems too easy for me.  Bell espouses some controversial ideas, but I wish he stuck his neck out a bit more and applied his thinking to some actual wars.  Granted, the reader can do this for himself, but Bell should have guided the reader a bit more in the interpretation of his ideas.

Despite these weaknesses, the book reminds us that the Church, nations, and militaries have almost completely lost touch with Christian concepts of “Just War” theory and practice.   Bell’s book does not condemn war outright.  Rather, he seeks to completely reframe the way we examine the issue, which may explain why both pacifist theologians and military chaplains have endorsed his work.

Speaking from a “Just War” tradition within the Church has its limitations.  Rarely did any accomplished theologian comment on the issue at length.  The Church’s most powerful voices on the topic, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, dealt with just war theory only in an in ad-hoc fashion.  Bell points out, however, that while the Church had few official individual voices on the topic, an agreed upon understanding more or less existed from the early days right up until the modern era around the 17th century.  Thus, Christians have access not just to Scripture, but also to an authoritative history of understanding of just war, what I will refer to as “The Tradition” in the rest of this post.

Bell’s main argument centers around his assertion that waging “Just War” has much more do with sanctification than a checklist of criteria that then give us justification to act as we please.  To fight justly means fighting as a Christian, with love for one’s neighbor and one’s enemy.  Fighting justly means not seeking to maximize personal well-being, or national safety, but working for the good of others.  Bell rejects pacifism.  There are times when acting faithfully might mean using force to achieve just ends.  But Bell argues well that if we cannot apply the central truths of the gospel message in how and when we fight, we have no business fighting at all.

This has many implications for us.

Self Defense

Modern understandings of just war often primarily focus on personal self-defense, or defending property, or maintaining a “way of life.”  But this approach puts ourselves, or our nation, before others.  Thus, “self-defense” can thinly disguise selfishness. As Augustine stated, “Christians should rather be killed than kill, rather suffer harm than harm others.”  Charity must prevail even under dire circumstances.

But as happens so often in this book, when you think Bell resolves the issue it deepens.  Christians can fight to defend others, particularly those who cannot defend themselves.  Christians can put others first by risking their own well-being to serve others.

If we wonder how we tell the difference between defense of self and others, Bell sympathizes.  The Tradition gives us no formula, no checklist, and this flows directly from the gospel itself.  For example, no checklist can tell you when you love your wife.  A husband cannot say, “I bought her flowers and watched the movie she wanted to see.  Therefore, I love her, and she should know I love her as long as I continue to do those things.”

What really guides the practice of Just War is not a list but just warriors themselves, who apply the gospel ethic to their situation.  This lack of black and white guidance may frustrate us at times, but Bell fears that the checklist mentality will give us carte blanche to do as we please once “the enemy” meets certain conditions.  I remember an anecdote about an ex-boxer bothered by a drunk. The drunk hit the boxer a few times, and the boxer responded, “The Lord told me to turn one cheek, and then the other.  He said nothing about a third time,” and proceeded to whale away on the unfortunate man.

The Purpose of War

From General Sherman we get the modern view that, “War is all hell.”  Those that follow Sherman believe that war remains essentially irredeemable, and making war as short as possible forms much of our strategy as to how we fight.

The Tradition offers another perspective.  In one sense we must treat fighting a war like any other activity.  We fight wars that we might grow in holiness, that we would grow closer to God.  For Christians war should develop the fruits of the Spirit.  If it can’t we have no business in it.

This may mean exercising patience.  It may mean that we fight in such a way where we give up physical advantages because of the moral problems that may result from our use of these advantages.  If we maximize the pain and suffering of our enemy in such a way that minimizes our own, we cannot claim to be just warriors following the call of Christ.

When We Fight

Following Christ means exercising charity towards one’s enemy, and charity requires us to give every reasonable chance to settle differences without violence through diplomatic pursuits.  We can use violence only when we know we have given other measures a fair try.  This raises questions about the impact of a large, professional, full-time standing army.  German theologian Karl Barth (no pacifist) argued that standing armies make it much easier for states to go to war than it should be.  Having an army always ready strongly tempts nations to use it much quicker than they ought.

We might reasonably ask whether or not one can exercise love and charity and kill another human being.  The Tradition says yes.  Justice can never rise to the dignity of the word if it stands separate from love.  “The Lord disciplines those He loves.”  Using force against another could be an act of charity.  You may be preventing them doing evil. Your “discipline” might move them to repentance.  Of course, once a person dies they cannot repent.  So the Tradition states that while we may at times use force, we must try not to kill our adversaries if we can avoid it.  Again Bell urges us to abandon the checklist in favor of Christ-like character.  Sometimes a just warrior may kill, but this killing must serve the gospel for the world and, crucially ourselves.  We cannot sacrifice our own souls or our own humanity in war.  One thinks, for example, of Joan of Arc, weeping over the English dead and praying over their wounded after a battle.

This might reduce the effectiveness of the military.  But it would be grossly uncharitable for us to urge that the military de-humanize itself and stand outside the Tradition so that we may be safer.  And–a dehumanized military would not serve us well in the long run anyway, and perhaps might even pose a threat to us.

Bell’s calls us all to own the call of “Just War.”  The military draws its direction from society, so the public must practice just policies if we want our military to do the same.  Again, the “just war” lifestyle is nothing less a Christian lifestyle, and we are all called to this.

In light of the witness of the Tradition, we have much to consider from not only our history (Sherman’s march through the South, carpet bombing in W.W. II, etc.) but also our current practice.  We already have extensive moral failures in how we use drones.  We waterboard but use the “checklist” mentality and avoid calling it torture.   The Guardian reports that we get doctors to harm prisoners by a perverse use of semantics.  The full articles is here, but the pertinent quote from it might be,

“Medical professionals were in effect told that their ethical mantra “first do no harm” did not apply, because they were not treating people who were ill.”

This does not mean that soldiers sin more than the rest of us.  Rather, soldiers sin in the same spiteful and selfish ways as all of us.  And this is part of the point Bell tries to make.  Fighting involves the application of our Christian faith just as much as teaching Sunday school.  Whatever, our problems as nation, whatever issues we have in the military,  all of us own them.

Bell touches on other topics, but at its core, the Tradition calls us back to our primary allegiance to Christ, not victory, the “mission,” expediency, country or tribe.  If our main concern is the salvation of our soul and the spread of His Kingdom, we will view war very differently than we do currently.  We may need to reevaluate why, when, and how we fight.  We may need to adopt the practice of  stepping outside our national context and ask if our side even represents justice in the first place.  This is what makes Bell’s book so necessary for us, and so difficult to accept.  As the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain wrote,

We have no illusions about the misery of human nature.  But we have no illusions, either, about the pseudo-realists who cultivate and exalt evil in order to fight against evil, and who consider the gospel a decorative myth that we could not take seriously without throwing the machinery of the world out of order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

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

Most of the Time, the World is Flat

Our struggle with economic equality has many roots.  For starters, we have the dual affirmation of the values of liberty and equality, something Tocqueville noted as perhaps the key tension in modern democracies.  Modern democracies also elevate the status of the individual choice much more highly than traditional societies.   This honoring of the individual adds fuel to the free market, which ultimately seeks to commodify our choices.  We will likely see laws supporting “traditional” morality, such as those against gambling and certain kinds of drug use, get removed from the books.   I read with dismay this article, which indicates that Washington state now allows one to commodify the womb.

The multiplication of choices in the market dovetails with additional freedoms for the individual, and of course we generally want and desire such freedoms.  But we cannot have such freedoms and have economic equality at the same time.

The roots of this trend towards an absolute market of things, and even using oneself as an economic object, has origins that predate modern democracies.  To have an unending market of things we need to first have control over things, and to establish control the thing must be emptied of its own significance that we might fill it.  In his A Secular Age, Charles Taylor observes that it is the homogenization of time and space that makes the modern era (ca. 18th century-today) possible, for it allows us to give our own meanings to our experiences.  We can add that our perception of things as mere objects contributes to this trend.

Marcel Mauss’ book The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies poses many questions, such as, “Do books with absurdly boring titles, written by French sociologists, have an inverse or complimentary relationship with the inevitable nerdiness and pomposity of those that read such books?”  Sure, having this book in front of you at your local Starbucks will likely make you look like a prig, but for those willing to assume the risk, Mauss has some interesting nuggets to reveal about the economies of the ancient world.

The societies Mauss surveys have an economy, but not ones we might expect.  Some minor differences exist between the societies he examines across time and space, but in the main we can say that:

  • One can never truly own a thing, because the thing (be it a gold coin, a chair, a paddle) has an identity all its own.  It is its “own” (ha!) thing before it ever was “your” thing.
  • One should not keep anything for too long.  To do so would risk courting vengeance of a sort from thing itself (some societies had a more magical view of this, some abstracted it a bit more), which “longs” to go to someone else.  Our stuff wants to roam wild and free.
  • One could potentially amass even a great surplus of things, but in end, everyone needed to give things to others and keep the cycle of exchange moving.* This was not mere self-emptying or even generosity per se, because all acknowledged that receiving a gift came with reciprocal responsibilities and burdens.**  Failure to reciprocate courted disaster.

Of course these societies had a hierarchy, determined by birth or honorific achievements, or something else, but material wealth got passed around with much more fluidity in the ancient world than today.  We may admire this, but quite frankly, we could never replicate it.  For starters, we no longer see the world of things as full of meaning.  As Taylor observed, in a world of homogeneity only we ourselves can transmit this meaning to things.  Again, the concept of magic enters in with some of the early societies, but Mauss delineates between magic and some form of “embodied meaning.”  I did not find him terribly clear on this point, but it is a hard concept to describe (and for me to understand).  Something has to do with the idea that in the societies Mauss describes one more directly experiences the world.  This too is hard to describe, but I would venture that

  • Today we assume that a thing has no meaning in itself.  So its meaning must be mediated or transmitted by layers of society and the self.
  • Whereas “back then,” our experience of the world and the meaning of the world were one and the same.

We might catch a glimpse of this difference by looking a a different issue.

About four years ago Jonathan Pageau wrote a series of articles about ancient cosmology, and gave his first post the intriguing title, “Most of the Time the World is Flat.”  Pageau obviously does not mean to imply that the Earth is not really round, and of course the earth does not change its shape. Rather, he postulates a significant disconnect between what we believe the world/cosmos to actually be like and our everyday experience of it.  Science has not given us, and perhaps cannot give us, a workable, experiential model of the world.  So we live divided, having to import a meaning to our experience that has no solid reality behind it.  He writes,

I would like to propose something that might seem provocative at first, but will hopefully help people see the world with different eyes. There is a growing image on the recent horizon of human experience, it is an image of a family or a group of friends all next to each other at a table or in some other intimate setting, yet all interacting with tablets, ipods and smartphones as if the people around them didn’t exist. I would like to propose that this image, this reality is the final result of Galileo’s cosmological model. Some of you might think I am exaggerating, so I will need to explain.

The Copernican/Galilean worldview, that is the heliocentric worldview and its further development into our modern cosmology of galaxies and nebulas and black holes has two important aspects. It is an artificial vision and it is an alienating vision. It is artificial in the strictest sense of “art” or “techne”. It is a technical vision because we cannot experience this vision without technology, without telescopes and other apparatuses. Because technology is a supplementary thing, a garment of skin, something which we add to our natures in order to physically bolster them toward the material world, it therefore also leads further into the material world itself. (emphasis mine).

. . . modern cosmology is not only artificial, but it is alienating, it moves Man away from himself. Once Man accepted that what he saw through his telescopes and microscopes is more real than his natural experience, he made inevitable the artificial world, he made inevitable as its end the plastic, synthetic, genetically modified, photoshopped, pornographic, social-networked reality we live in. When at the very core of vision, the shape of your cosmos leads you to believe that technology provides a perception which is more true, more real than your experience, more real than walking out of your house and looking at the sky, then the telescope and the microscope will soon be side by side with the camera, the screen and the accelerated time and space of the car window. The metal and glass frame will swallow us and human beings will lose themselves for their incapacity to fully inhabit the world.

Pageau knows that his desired task of reorienting our perspective will likely fail, with a gulf too broad for us to comprehend.  Still, I encourage you to read the whole article here and try for yourself.

It is the strict materialization of our things that creates the gulf between us and our things, which then means we cannot access the economies of the past.

If we wish to regain access to this world, we need a different conception of reality itself.  We should take care and not romanticize this version of society.  Mauss points out that violence existed in these societies–though probably not because of stark material inequality.  The societies he describes sometimes had huge surpluses, which they then sometimes consumed in spectacular fashion.  On the other hand, rarely did these societies have much of the technological innovation that we would appreciate.  But, if we wish to access this way of life, we need to stop treating the inanimate things we create and consume as mere means to an end.  Indeed, we often treat others as a means to an end as part of our contribution to a fallen world.  Unfortunately, as the new surrogacy law in Washington state reveals, we are now so completely alienated even from our selves that we will cannibalize our own bodies as a means to an end for ourselves–a bifurcation that puts us far from the world Mauss describes.

“Man is what he eats.”  Alexander Schemmann began his classic For the Life of the World quoting this epigram of Fuerbach.  One might assume that an Orthodox priest would disagree with this radically materialist statement, but Schemmann turns the quote on its head and argues that with this quote Fuerbach, “expressed the most religious idea of man.”  Mere matter does not exist, at least in the way we usually think.  Perhaps the place to begin is with the eucharist, for it is here that symbol and reality fuse together most profoundly, and it is here that the world’s transformation begins anew.

Dave

*This reminds a bit of the modern economic idea that money must circulate through society like blood must circulate through the body.  Was this Ricardo’s idea originally?

**Norbert Elias talks about aristocrats even as late as the 17th century in Spain who were expected to beggar themselves once every 10-15 years or so by hosting grand feasts for entire villages.  After which, the cycle would begin again.  This hosting/feasting was a crucial basis of their authority.

Death in the Days of Louis the Fat

Consider some of what follows a thought experiment rather than a settled conclusion . . .

For some time now I have contemplated Charles Taylor’s idea that a significant impetus in creating the modern world is that we homogenize space and time.  This belief/practice has shaped us for at least 350 years, and it has led us to try and combine many different elements of nature and the subsequent explosion of technological invention.  Many of these creations have greatly improved human life, at least in the physical sense.  But of course, it has also brought about the destruction of any corporate sense of meaning, and an immense decline in the idea of sanctity.

To homogenize something makes it ubiquitous.  Recently Marginal Revolution linked to an article about how technology has made music unimportant in our culture, largely through its constant availability.  The author’s conclusion in the linked article is not original, as many have declared something similar, but it serves as another reminder of the cost of the homogenization of space and time.

By contrast, the medieval world presents itself as one of careful delineation of all things.  We need not say here whether their world or ours is better or worse to appreciate the difference.  Reading primary sources from a particular era gives one such an appreciation, and Abbot Suger’s crackling style makes The Deeds of Louis the Fat an enjoyable, if still slightly monotonous read.*  He centers his writing on how Louis enhanced the power of the monarchy by bringing several dastardly nobles back in line.  His people loved him, if for no other reason that he kept the peace and stood up for those oppressed.  Suger clearly admires his subject, though he recognizes that he had his moniker for a reason, writing that,

By now his body was quite heavy, weighed down as it was by burdensome flesh; no one else, not even a beggar, would have wanted to–or even been able–to ride a horse when hampered by such a dangerously large body.

And later . . .

Thus [Louis] spoke, and–despite his corpulence– he set off with astonishing enthusiasm.

I confess to reading the text with an eye to what would most engage the boys in my 9th grade Medieval History class, and that meant primarily looking for stories of gruesome deaths.**  Suger delivers the goods!  For example:

There can be no doubt that the hand of God exacted this swift vengeance upon William of Laroche Guyon [who had murdered a husband and wife in cold blood to gain possession of their castle].  His accomplices were thrown out of the windows dead or alive, bristling with innumerable arrows like hedgehogs. They waved about in the air on the points of the lances, as if the very earth had rejected them. For the unparalleled deed of William they discovered a rare vengeance; for he who in life had been heartless had his heart cut out of his dead body. When they had taken it from his entrails, all swollen with fraud and iniquity, they put it on a stake and set it up for many days in a fixed place to demonstrate the punishment for crime.  

His body and those of some of his companions, were placed on hurdles tied with cords and ropes, and sent sailing down the Seine so that, if nothing stopped them floating down to Rouen, the Normans should see the punishment incurred by his crime, and also so that those who had briefly fouled France with their stink should in death continue to foul Normandy, their native soil.

Suger later discusses the murder of  Charles the Good, killed while praying prostrate in church along with his cohorts.  He spares no details and seems to relish them. First, the execution of the plotters:

Now [the criminals] despaired of life, and their lyre was turned to mourning and their organ into the voice of them that weep (Job XXX, 31); the most wicked Bourchard left with the agreement of his companions, hoping to flee the land but found himself unable to do so, though only his own iniquity prevented him. On his return to the castle of one of his intimate friends he was seized by the king’s command and suffered exquisite torture in death. Tied to the upper part of a high wheel, exposed naked to the rapacity of crows and other birds of prey, his eyes torn out and his whole face lacerated, pierced by a thousand blows from arrows, lances and spears, he perished miserably and his body was thrown into a sewer.  

Bertold, the brains behind the plot, also decided to flee; but when he found he was able to wander around without restriction, he returned through sheer pride; for he asked himself, ‘Who am I and what have I done?’ So he was captured by his own men, handed over to the king’s judgement and condemned to a well-merited and wretched death. They hanged him from a gibbet with a dog and as the dog was struck it took its anger out on Bertold, chewed his whole face and, horrible to relate, covered him with excrement; so, more miserable than the most miserable of men, he ended his wretched life in perpetual death.  

The men the king had besieged in the tower were forced by many hardships to surrender. In front of their relations Louis had them thrown our one by one from the top of the tower to crush their skulls. One of them called Isaac had been tonsured in a monastery to avoid death; Louis ordered him to be defrocked and hanged on a gibbet. Thus victorious at Bruges, the king rapidly led his army to Ypres, an excellent castle, to take vengeance on William the Bastard, who had fomented the treason. He sent messengers to the people of Bruges and brought them around to his side by threats and flattery. Then as William barred his way with three hundred knights, half the royal army rushed against him and the other half went off at an angle and boldly occupied the castle by way of its other gate. The king kept it, William lost all claim to Flanders, and was banished. Because he had aspired to gain Flanders through treachery, it was right that he should gain nothing whatever in Flanders.  

Suger closes this narrative commenting that,

Flanders was washed clean and almost re-baptized by these various forms of revenge and the great outpouring of blood. So having installed William the Norman as count, the king returned to France, victorious by God’s help.  

At first glance the means of their death, and Suger’s possible delight in such details, surely strikes us as barbaric and unChristian.  We tell ourselves that we have come much farther since those “dark days.”  But I want to suggest–or at least explore–the possibility, that Suger and the medievals may have been on to something.

I tread lightly, for I am aware that this may be one of the craziest of my crazy ideas.

To begin, we can reflect on John Wilkes Booth.  He killed Lincoln, and no one denied that he should face the death penalty.  Everyone wanted him captured alive . . . so that he could be tried and then executed.  He died while pursued by troops either by his own hand or that of a trigger-happy soldier, and people were upset.  But why bother?  Dead is dead, right?  He saved us the expense of a trial. Why all the fuss?  But, everyone recognized at the time that while his death was important, the manner of his death was also important.  To be tried and publicly executed would have a different meaning than if he took his own life, a collective, and cathartic, justice, vs. the “triumphant” and defiant individual.

If we accept this reasoning we begin to see that not every death is alike.  Different kinds of death carry with them different meanings.

If different kinds of death carry with them different meanings, then we may feel inclined to accept that our bodies have meaning, and bodily actions have certain meanings.  Some of this is obvious–certain facial expressions and gestures have a universal meaning across cultures, time, and space.  Other implications follow.  If the body has meaning then gender has an inherent meaning, and so on.  We simply cannot invent ourselves from thin air.

So far, so good, but from here it gets trickier.  Before considering the manner of their deaths we should consider the crimes committed.

  • The crimes were done in cold blood, against defenseless victims.  One of the victims was killed in church alone while praying.  The other was ambushed in his castle after he welcomed them inside, and then his wife was also brutally stabbed to death as threw herself on the body of her dying husband.
  • The crimes had many witnesses to them and no doubt existed as to their guilt.
  • Those that murdered the lord in his castle did so with the express purpose of rebelling against the king.  Those that murdered Charles the Good seemed intent on seizing his land and title.
  • Aside from the cold-blooded nature of the murders, the crimes violated a) the sacrosanct nature of the Church as a safe place of devotion to God, and b) the direct violation of hospitality.

Would an ordinary punishment suffice, that is, an ordinary death sentence, a simple, dignified, beheading?

I have not seen the movie Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won a Best Actor Oscar.  I did hear an interview with Washington, however, in which he discussed how he agreed to the movie only if they changed the script.  He felt that the original ending left the possibility that his character survived, which meant the possibility of a sequel.  Instead, he said that, (my memory is close but not exact) “My character lived like a dog, so he should die like a dog.  Anything else would not be right, or fair to the story.”

Again, we see the manner of death as having significance to the story.  Perhaps the same could be true of the events Suger relates.  We cannot see the meaning of their actions without seeing the consequences those actions have.  The public nature of the punishments inflicted rub us wrongly as well.  But we must also wonder whether or not we have swung too far in the direction of privacy in last century or so.  We no longer vote in public, we no longer need to speak in public (we can comment anonymously on line).  Perhaps this has contributed to the cultural divide and polarization we now face.

Our modern homogenization of life and death has not made unjust deaths any less frequent.  If anything, one might suggest that, at certain times at least, it has positively increased it.  The beginning of this phenomena may have been the French Revolution, where the guillotine treated all alike.  But this industrialization of death led to its mass production, and numbed much of France for years.  The class and racial identity politics of Hitler and Lenin led to further industrialized butchery.  Equality in death led to piles of statistics, an undecipherable mass.  The vast majority of these deaths were hidden far from the people at large.

I truncated the above accounts from Suger, but even still, it seems that the deaths inflicted give the stories a “satisfying” ending (the effect increases by reading the whole story). We can call this a latent string of barbarism in our psyche or . . . it may be that the medievals acted rightly, provided of course that such punishments truly fit the crimes and that no one could dispute their guilt.  Suger, an Abbott and scholar,  has no doubt of this, for he mentions specifically that the violent end of the malefactors “washed clean” Flanders, for example.

Perhaps our executions should be more public. Perhaps this could be a means for us to process important truths of life and death. I hesitate to say that the method of execution should vary depending on the crime, for in the accounts above things seemed to happen at least in part “in the heat of the moment.”  To inflict such punishments in cold blood presents a host of problems.  But I feel a certain amount of tension.  If we treat every death alike, the body may lose its inherent meaning, and then death will lose its meaning. If death loses its meaning, so too will life.  All we will have left, then, will be a monotonous march to oblivion.

 

*The Carolingians win for having the best names for their kings, i.e., Pepin the Short, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Louis the Pious, Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple (i.e, Charles the Stupid), and of course, Louis the Fat.

**I know of no better way to get 15 year old boys interested in learning about feudal hierarchy and symbolism, a classic bait and switch. The girls, who are usually far more agreeable but often far less interested in the gory details, “must endure their going hence.”

 

 

A Flip of the Script

A few days ago I came across the trailer for a mini-series on Amazon called Redbad, a harbinger of Europe’s (and perhaps ours as well) cultural moment. The movie involves the advancement of Christianity into a pagan land. The story proceeds from the pagans’ perspective. A few things immediately stand out:

  • The cross is associated not with sacrificial love, but with a ‘dark god’ who presumably loves punishment, an enormous ‘flip’ of its symbolic meaning for the last two millennia.
  • The series depicts Christians as intolerant bigots, the pagans as allowing something akin to freedom of conscience.
  • The Christians are usually filmed amidst darkness and smoke. Scenes with pagans alone seem to give them brighter light.

A few comments . . .

  • I would not say that Charlemagne allowed for freedom of conscience, but the idea that the pagans did . . . well–no one practiced this in the 8th century.
  • Charlemagne’s reign had plenty of messiness. But ‘messiness’ reigned in the West politically more or less since the time of Roman emperor Septimus Severus ca. 200 A.D. What historians should look for, as Will Durant suggested, was not how particular people shared in the vices of their time, but whether or not they swam against the current in any way with their virtues. With this standard, the cultural impact of the “Carolingian Renaissance” gleams brightly. As Kenneth Clark stated, paraphrasing Ruskin, “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their words, the book of their deeds, and the book of their art.” If we think, like Clark, that the last is the most trustworthy, Charlemagne’s reign comes off rather well.

A few examples:

  • The invention of a beautiful script (the Carolingian).
  • The creation of books, and the elevation of books as highly prized articles (studding the cover with jewels couldn’t make their value more obvious to their contemporaries).
  • Architectural innovations. Charlemagne put of the building talent of his empire not into palaces and castles, but the church at Aachen:

None of these things belong to pagan achievement.

One should not criticize Redbad for ‘historical inaccuracy’ per se. The medium of film works differently and tells stories differently. “Accuracy” is not my real concern. The mythos surrounding Charlemagne in the centuries after his death lacked “accuracy” in the strict sense of the word, just as any reporting or retelling of any event lacks “accuracy.” We edit and shape all the time, this is how our brain works as well as our souls. The problem with Redbad comes from the replacement of the standard Christian mythos entirely, and inventing another out of whole cloth, a perverse parody of creation ‘ex nihilo.’ As we see from the “book of their art,” the mythos surrounding Charlemagne has basis in fact.

Per Fexneld

When seeing a book titled, Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Women in the 19th Century, one should proceed with caution. The book could be written by a crazy feminist, or a crazy anti-feminist. The book could hardly be a book at all, and instead a mere rant. But this book stands as a work of scholarship, carefully (mostly too carefully) written with extensive bibliography and footnotes. The author, Per Fexneld, teaches at the University of Stockholm and seems an ordinary professorial sort, with perhaps a small chip on his shoulder. Digging a bit further, you see that he intends not necessarily to praise or condemn with what he finds, but merely to put the facts before the dear reader. I will usually at least pick up books with bold titles like these, merely out of curiosity and admiration for the sense of dash the writer displays.*

I kept reading the book because Fexneld faithfully executes his task of providing copious information, albeit at arms length from the material. But his perspective seems trustworthy because of this distance. He clearly has no love for Christianity and has much sympathy with women of the 19th century. He never identifies as a “Satanist” himself but seems to value, or at least understand, the role the idea of Satan plays in transgressing norms for the sake of liberation as it relates to feminism.

A few things I did not like:

  • As an Orthodox Christian, naturally I would be sensitive as to how Fexneld uses ancient Christian sources. I found to my chagrin that when discussing them, he uses secondary sources rather than direct quotes from the primary texts. I sense that these secondary sources shaped his opinions of the early fathers, not reading the primary texts directly. Despite this, he treats early Christian commentators mostly with fairness, but he could have done much better than this for what aims to be a serious scholarly study. My sense is that he cherrypicked what early Christian witnesses said about women, and to his credit, he partially admits this at least one point.
  • Fexneld takes his place among the many (mostly European? it seems to me) “historians” that don’t write history at all, but reference books. He has good information, but writes with such obviously posed dry detachment that his style could light a fire on a wet day. Where are the Abbot Suger’s, the Thomas Carlyle’s? Alas, gone are the poet historians from the world.
  • The “reference book” feel means that he tries hard not let the reader in on how one should interpret his information. Should we denounce the “satanic” feminists? Should we praise them? Or should we merely observe and think nothing about these feminists, besides concluding that a=a?

But in the end I have to confess that he created an effective and interesting reference book. My frustration above stems from the fact that he has talent that he holds back through fear or misperceptions regarding his chosen profession. If you want to do research, well and good. If you want to write, at least make an attempt at poetry that seeks meaning and synthesis.

To the thrust of his work, then . . .

With copious notes and numerous examples, Fexneld amply shows a “Satanic” strain that ran through many early feminists. He distinguishes full blown “Satanists” (of which there were a few) from those that merely used Satanic tropes (the majority of his examples). With different particular manifestations, these women

  • Built upon Romantic ideas from Byron and Shelley that recast Satan as a tragic hero of the Biblical narrative. He attempted to bring knowledge and liberation, and so on.
  • Recast Eve as the mankind’s savior, of sorts, a figure akin to Prometheus. She boldly went where Adam refused to go and paid the price, but she gave mankind knowledge and self-awareness.
  • Thus, for these women, feminism represented a real social and theological revolution, not just icing on a semi-Christian foundation. They wanted an overthrow of the Christian narrative and the patriarchy which it established. To do so, it simultaneously exalted Eve, Satan, and the fall itself.

The multitude of examples is the strength of the book, but Fexneld throws them together in ‘one after another’ fashion. Worse, one cannot sense if any one example or group of examples accurately embodies or represents the whole. He very carefully hedges many of his statements. This caution has its place in parts, but not for the whole. When writing a book like this you have to actually say something. To mitigate this, the breadth of his treatment touches on

  • The rise of the occult in the period
  • The focus from the pre-Raphaelites on feminine figures from classical cultures, “strange” women, and even Lillith, Adam’s first wife in certain Jewish texts.
  • How popular literature and art veered into occult themes with the thinnest Christian veneer, with significant attacks on “Christian patriarchy” hidden below the surface.
  • The popularity of certain occult female writers like Mary McClane and Sylvia Townsend
  • The connection of feminist social inversion to sexual inversion (lesbianism).
  • The rise of women depicted as Satan (in a positive sense) or at least, womanly figures depicted as Satan.
  • The publication of The Woman’s Bible which inverted the basic biblical narrative, praising Eve, etc.

. . . and other things. One gets the sense of a tidal wave of either direct, or mostly indirect, Satanism flooding the feminist movement from 1880-1920. But the central question–was 1st wave feminism driven primarily by “Satanism” or not? I have the feeling Fexneld would recoil at the thought of the volumes of his research intended to answer that question one way or the other. No doubt he would see such a commitment as a grave faux pas.

Let us deal with this crucial question which Fexneld leaves untouched.

First, the feminist movement obviously challenged and successfully upended certain elements of society. Certainly Satan, among other things, sought to upend the order God established in creation. So perhaps feminist women found themselves naturally drawn to satanic symbols or Satan himself. But, not all orders should stay in place. Scripture has numerous examples of the established order needing “flipped” or inverted to attain proper wholeness again. David, the youngest son of Jesse and a shepherd, will overthrow Saul, the “demonic” king who consulted with witches. Herod, for example, rightly feared that Christ would give him a run for his money.

So, second . . . was the feminist movement a proper or improper inversion? I don’t think we should answer this question based on the rote numbers of “satanic” vs. non-satanic feminists. I think the question has its roots in the nature of the inversion. If the inversion was proper, then we can relegate the trends Fexneld observes to the fringe. If improper, then we can say that even the “good” feminists participated in something wrong.

This is a very tricky question, and I can see why Fexneld failed to tackle it. But how can we truly avoid it? I’m sure that Fexneld has an answer for this conundrum somewhere in his own mind, or at least I hope he has answered it. I cannot claim to know enough to answer it definitively. I will try a pass at it, however–why not?

I begin with the obvious statement that calling upon Satan in reality or in tropes, for any cause, will ultimately destroy you, just as the flood and chaos will destroy anyone.

Not surprisingly, the feminist movements occurred within democratic societies. One can see democracy itself as a kind of inversion against traditional monarchy, replacing a “top down” political order with one from the “bottom up.” Just like Saturn eating his children in a fruitless attempt to stop the slippery slope of revolution, so too the feminist movement seems like an inevitable byproduct of democracy itself–the revolt of “Earth” against “Heaven.” Feminist detractors could not prevent this ‘revolt’ even as they might praise and affirm a democratic way of life.

Were Victorian era women “oppressed” in some sense of the word? If we look at women’s fashion as a piece of evidence, we see that–whether or not women created/embraced these fashions, their movement, the way for them to show themselves to the world, was certainly restricted–especially if we accept Fexneld’s “proto-feminists” from the mid-19th century starting the modern feminist movement. This may shed light on their overall place in society. But the place of women in Victorian society is something which I know too little about to comment on.

I suspect that the “oppression” of women lacked the severity that some claimed, but disconnects from equality are hard to bear within a democracy. I withhold sympathy from many of Fexneld’s female examples, but would extend it to more moderate feminists.

The age old problem of revolutions has always been, however, where and when do they stop?

Obviously, I oppose the rebellion against Christianity that at least some feminists then and now espouse, on historical as well as religious grounds. I trust my religious objections are obvious. As to the historical, we can briefly consider Regine Pernoud’s Women in the Days of Cathedrals, which shows us an era where

  • The earliest medieval treatise on education was written by a woman
  • We see the invention of romantic love (at least as an accepted part of general society)
  • Women regularly practiced medicine
  • Women in monastic orders could get more or less the same education men in the church received

In short, the status of women at the height of medievalism–a patriarchal society in most respects–far surpassed that of any pagan society. Pernoud suggests, however, that the Renaissance and subsequent ages introduced more Roman and classical pagan concepts of property and ownership. Possibly this did have an impact on women’s status in the Renaissance and future centuries.

Of course, one cannot construct a society entirely of “Heaven” anymore than entirely out of “Earth.” Mankind itself is both “heavenly” and “earthly,” (just as mankind is not just men or just women) made from the dust of the earth and the spirit from above. Strikingly, many of the cathedrals in the “Age of Cathedrals” reference by Pernoud were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, including Chartes, Notre Dame, Burgos, and Cologne, just to name a few. Here, I am convinced, lies the heart of the matter Fexneld misses entirely. Yes, Christianity is obviously patriarchal. We pray to our Father in Heaven. But Christians made the “Woman” (John 2:24, 19:26) the representative of Creation itself. On the one hand, Mary flips the hierarchy. As a young girl, she resided in the Holy of Holies–unheard of within Judaism. This seems a radical inversion. But it is her assent to God “flips” everything– she sets what was askew right again, the harm of Eve healed.** But what Mary put back in place is not a revolutionary society but a the right hierarchy, the reign of the true king–the subject of her Magnificat.

A blessed Advent to all.

A 13th century manuscript drawing showing Mary punching a devil.

*Some of Fexneld’s other work includes a published article: “Bleed for the Devil: Self-injury as Transgressive Practice in Contemporary Satanism, and the Re-enchantment of Late Modernity.” Clearly he has Satan on the brain. As an aside, should I ever become President my first executive order would ban all titles that that have something short and arresting to start, and then ruin it with a long and boring subtitle.

**Many of the fathers from St. Justin Martyr (ca. AD 150) onward develop the Eve-Mary parallel. Both are approached by an angel, and both assent to the angel, but it is Mary who in questioning Gabriel shows wisdom–Eve should have questioned the serpent. Eve’s pride humbles her, whereas Mary’s humility exalts her to the highest place.

Time in Joint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

Egyptian Mummy

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

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

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

Hannah Arendt’s “Imperialism”

This is a short, very dense, sometimes erratic, but mostly very insightful book on a topic that has a lot of heavy hitters in the field.

Briefly, the negatives:

  • I agree that imperialism had mostly negative effects for all concerned, but I don’t agree that it was 100% negative in every way. Arendt mentions nothing positive. To be fair, she did not set out to write the definitive treatment of the subject.
  • She strongly links the rise of imperialism with the political rise of the middle and upper-middle class early in the book. Both happened at the same time, but it seemed to me to assume the cause and effect link rather than prove it. I am definitely intrigued by the argument, but must have missed something.

Her strengths far outweigh the negatives. Among her arguments:

  • Imperialism (which does not involve consent) by governments based on consent of the governed is bound to result in disaster.

The contradictions and hypocrisy will force governments into a quandary. To maintain control, they must employ people who have no real respect for the political process. Power, and ‘the Game’ become the only justifying forces. Thus, abuses of power would be very likely, which make control over the areas all the more difficult.

  • If you don’t want to go this route, than you have to go the route of the non-sensical double standard. So, the French called the Algerians “Brothers and Subjects.” So. . . which is it?

Imagine never knowing about a great party going on somewhere.  You don’t miss it because you didn’t even know about it, and even if you did, you never have any inkling of attending.  But now imagine being invited to this party.  How exciting!  Except when you get there you discover that various rooms, foods, and activities are all off limits to you, while available for others.

Which is worse?  To my mind, the answer is the latter, and this was and is the central problem of imperialism.

Her basic theme through the book is that imperialism quickly became a ‘this is going to hurt me more than you’ venture for Europe in the late 19th century.  It created a split personality for involved nations, and it led to ideologies of expansion, with power at its root. So it is no coincidence that the all-encompassing theories of Social-Darwinism, Communism, Neitzche, Anarchism make their mark during this time. Arendt argues that imperialism did benefit Europe economically. But even this, she argues, is dangerous. Economic power, like tyranny, has no real limitations. So–it is fools gold, for without limits a things cannot have definition, and without some kind of definition, it can have no real meaning. Some recent scholarship argues it was worse than that -imperialism did not profit even the dominant countries, however much certain individuals (like Cecil Rhodes) benefitted.

  • This focus on power and expansion would naturally lead to a clash and mutual destruction, i.e. the two World Wars.

 

  • Imperialism heightened focus on race, and a focus on race would inevitably destroy the concept of nations and human rights. There is no ‘humanity’ in racial ideology. With race such a vague concept, groups dominated by racial thinking will inevitably be rootless and continually need more ‘living space.’

I think her overall theme is that imperialism separated Europe (and America to a lesser extent) from the confines of reality. The natural limitations of creation prevent us from allowing our bad tendencies to have too much free reign.

On page 89 she has great quote, one that I don’t fully grasp but would like to one day:

“Legends [rooted in facts, which give us a sense of responsibility] attract the very best of our times, just as ideologies attract the average, and the whispered tales of gruesome secret powers behind the scenes attract the very worst.”

 

Dave

The Eye of the Storm

In October 1867 various Indians tribes gathered with U.S. army officers in an attempt to reach a formal peace in what became known as the Medicine Lodge Peace Commission.  Most of the Cheyennes arrived fashionably late.  One Cheyenne chief named Black Kettle assured General Harney that the Cheyennes had a traditional greeting that differed from other tribes, and he should not worry.

When they arrived, they put their horses into four columns on the other side of a creek.  A bugle sounded, and the Cheyennes charged across the creek one column after another, roding hard straight towards General Harney, shooting in the air and hollering.

Harney received assurances.  Stand still.  Everything is fine.

Still, they galloped on towards him.  Harney clearly had his doubts but remained unmoved.  Other Comanche Indians already present clearly had misgivings and grabbed their own weapons.

Just a few feet in front of the general and the Comanche’s, the Cheyenne horses roared to a halt and bent low in one fluid motion as the Cheyenne warriors dismounted.  They broke out laughing and started shaking hands with all present.

Among the hundreds of anecdotes from Peter Cozzen’s excellent The Earth is Weeping, this one stands out for me as most emblematic.  When different cultures came together–and not just white and Indian cultures but differing Indian cultures–conflict can seem almost inevitable.  The slightest error would mean violence and further mistrust, even if neither side necessarily wanted violence.  Here, some patience and personal risk on the side of General Harney and the Comanche’s paid off, but we should not kid ourselves and say that such an outcome was easily obtained or even likely to occur.

Alas, after this auspicious beginning, the conference itself completely failed to produce anything like peace.

For much of our nation’s past we believed in our history.  That is, our textbooks taught us that, while we were not perfect as a nation, we were on the right side of history.  Older westerns may have shown “good” Indians, but consistently sided with the whites.  But with the publication of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and the movie Little Big Man, the narrative pivoted almost entirely.  Now, just as in Dances with Wolves, the army was the bad guys and the Indians were the good guys.  The story we once told about our past no longer convinced us.

Cozzens attempts to redress the imbalance and provide a much more complex view.  When one’s work receives positive reviews from National Review and The New York Times, you have probably hit upon something we need for our understanding of this period, if not for our whole culture.  One reviewer labeled his work “quietly subversive,” which I think apt.  Cozzens will not let us rest with easy categories.  I would not call him as attempting to reverse the narrative by saying, “All those bad things you’ve heard that whites did to Indians?  Not true!”  While he mentions a variety of Indian atrocities against whites and each other, for the most part he blames Americans for the failure to achieve peace.

He takes care to show a murky tapestry and blurred lines.  He shows us generals and Indians who respected each other and sought friendship, and those on both sides who hated each other and wanted war.  And–we have to find a place for the African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” in the narrative.  Some tribes turned against other tribes and showed no mercy, and Cozzens admits that the Indians’ version of total war against each other had much more brutality than ours did against them. Some Indian agents had great ideas as well as good intent, others tried to implement grand visions that made no sense and would surely only lead to violence through unrealistic expectations–as some generals took pains to explain.  Instead of race vs. race, The Earth is Weeping shows us a web of confusing and shifting alliances. In the end, the main problem seemed to rest not in our official policy, but in that we had no coherent peace policy or any means of enforcing one, which left events at the mercy of violence on both sides.

Thus, Cozzens’ account takes on elements of Shakespearean tragedy, where certain key individuals take action that creates terrible situations.  But aspects of Greek tragedy present themselves as well, where it seems almost inevitable that gigantic, unseen forces would certainly frustrate those with goodwill on both sides.

Surely the Indian wars of the West shared in some ways with wars that others have fought across time, but we should seek for what made this conflict unique to our context.  Many of the tribes Cozzens writes about had a warrior culture.  To earn status in the tribe, a young man had to show bravery and fight.  No other path to status existed.  Younger braves would surely resent their elders who told them not to fight–easy for them to say, who already had status and power.  Of course, various tribes never sought peace at all.  Many Indians knew that they had little chance against the army, but . . . better to go down remaining true to your identity.

But, as Tocqueville pointed out, America lacks a warrior elite mentality.  Democracies he believed, naturally seek to avoid war, though they become quite formidable if united to actually fight.  In time a united democratic force, he believed, would destroy an aristocratic warrior-elite society.  But America had no unity on this issue, with political divisions on Indian questions as deep as exist today on other matters, and this begs the question–how then was our victory over the Indians so decisive?

Our political divisions can be separated broadly into “conservatives,” and “liberals.”

Conservatives tend to believe in a limited government that allows its citizens the broadest possible latitude.  Self-government means that culture should have pride of place, not law–which comes in only at the margins.  Liberals can look at the Indian wars and say, “This is the fault of conservatives.  With a bigger and more powerful government we could have had a more coherent policy that we could enforce.  If only we had the power to curtail our liberty of movement and actually enforce various laws (with the attendant higher taxes to increase revenue) and treaties, we could have averted the tragedy of the Indian wars.”  Gary Gerstle makes this very argument in his Liberty and Coercion.

Liberals tend to believe in bigger government, but what purpose does this bigger government serve?  For those on the left, the government exists to protect the right of individuals to do what they want.  So conservatives can level a charge akin to, “You liberals care nothing for Law.  If you want abortion, you override all law and custom to get it.  If you want gay marriage, you will have it.  You care little for the boundaries of code or culture–you simply want the government big enough so that no one can stop you from doing what you want to do.”  Liberals tend to have a special focus on aiding those perceived to occupy the margins of society.  Well, those who moved west certainly were not wealthy, elite, industrialists, the “one percenters.”

What Americans “wanted” in the latter half of the 19th century was the unencumbered ability to move west.  No prominent leader of either side questioned this basic premise.

Tentatively, I suggest that herein lies the root of U.S. unity in the Indian wars, and perhaps our unity as a culture at large.  We believe that we should have what we want.  With this unity, our democratic society would surely defeat the more “aristocratic” Indian tribes.*  Perhaps unity was subconscious then, and perhaps it is subconscious now, but both liberals and conservatives seem to want the same thing–doing what we want–via different means.  Thus, neither a large government or a small one, neither a conservative or liberal policy, would have made much difference.  If Americans wanted to move west, and if they believed that they should have the freedom to move west, it was bound to happen.

Perhaps this is the Greek element of this part of our history.

For the Shakespearean, I offer a variety of quotes below from The Earth is Weeping.

Dave

*We tend to think of the Indian tribes monolithically, but Cozzens shows that no real unified sense of “Indianness” existed among the tribes until the very end of the conflict–when it was far too late.  This lack of unity among the tribes (perhaps common among other warrior-elite societies, like ancient Greece?), must also be a factor in this war.

We have heard much talk of the treachery of the Indian.  In treachery, broken pledges on the part of high officials, lies, thievery, slaughter of defenseless women and children . . . the Indian was a mere amatuer in comparison to the “noble white man.”

  • Lt. Britton Davis, US Army

******

I knew that the white man was coming to fight us and take away our land, and I thought it was not right.  We are humans too and God created us all alike, and I was going to do the best I could to defend our nation.  So I started on the warpath when I was 16 years old.

  • Fire Thunder, Cheyenne Warrior

******

If the lands of the white man are taken, civilization justifies him in resisting the invader.  Civilization does more than this: it brands him a coward and a slave if he submits to the wrong.  If the savage resists civilization, with the 10 Commandments in one hand and the sword in the other, demands his immediate extermination.  

  • Report of the Indian Peace Commission, 1868

******

You have asked for my advice . . . I can say that I can see no way in which your race can become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except if you live by the cultivation of the soil [instead of roaming and hunting].  It is the object of this government to be at peace with all our red brethren, and if our children should sometimes behave badly and violate treaties, it is against our wish. You know, it is not always possible for a father to have his children behave precisely as he might wish.

  • Abraham Lincoln, 1863

*******

I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when the Indians see their game driven away and their people starve, their source of supplies cut off . . . that they go to war.  They are surrounded on all sides, and they can only fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.

  • General George Crook

*******

An army officer once asked a Cheyenne chief why his tribe made war on the neighboring Crow tribe.  He responded, “We stole land from the Crow because they had the best hunting ground. We wanted more room for ourselves.”

******

The savage requires a greater extent of territory to sustain themselves than is compatible with progress and the just claims of civilized life, and must yield to those claims.

  • President James Monroe, 1817

******

I feel pity for the poor devil who naturally wriggles against his doom, and I have seen whites who would kill Indians just as they would bears, all for gold, and care nothing for it.  Such men have no regard for treaties. But the savage is slothful, and is in need of discipline.

  • Gen. Wiiliam T. Sherman, 1866

******

The Great White Father sends us presents and wants us to sell him the road.  But the White Chief goes with soldiers on the road before we say Yes or No.

  • Red Cloud, 1868

******

Disease, drink, intertribal warfare, the aggression of lawless whites, and the steady and restless emigration into Indian hunting lands–all of these factors endanger the very existence of the Plains Indians.

  • The Senate’s “Doolittle Commission,” 1867

******

The Indian is the best rough rider, the best soldier, and certainly the best natural horseman in the world [white scalps counted for little in Indian villages, as little honor was to be had from killing whites, viewed as inferior opponents].

  • Col. Richard Dodge, 1869

*******

When Congress offered to build homes for the Indians upon reasonably good land where they would stay, Cheyenne warrior Satanta replied,

“This building of homes for us is nonsense.  We don’t want you to build homes for us. We would all die.  My country is small enough already. If you build us houses, I know that our land would be smaller.  Why do you insist on this?

  • Medicine Lodge Peace Commission (MLPC) talks

**********

I was born on the prairies, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun.  i live like my fathers before me, and like them, I live happy.

  • Comanche Chief Ten Bears, MLPC — this speech did not please those from other tribes, however, as they accused Ten Bears for his “womanly manner” of  “talking of everything to death.”

***********

You think you are doing a great deal for us by giving us these presents, yet if you gave all the goods you could give, still we would prefer our own life.  You give us presents, then take our lands. That produces war. I have said all there is to say.

  • Cheyenne Chief Buffalo Chip

**********
At the conclusion of the MLPC meeting, there was this exchange between General Sheridan and a Congressional Indian Agent:

Agent: When the guns arrive [guns were promised to the Indians as part of the peace negotiations] may i distribute them to the Indians?

Sheridan: Yes, give them arms, and if they go to war with us, the soldiers will kill them honorably.

Buffalo Chip: Let your soldiers grow long hair, so that we may have some honor in killing them.

*********

The more I see of these Indians, the more I become convinced that they all have to be killed or maintained as a species of paupers.  Their attempts at civilization are simply ridiculous.

  • General Sherman, said after continuing incursions by Arapaho and Cheyenne on the “Smoky Hill” region left 79 dead civilians, 13 women raped, and thousands of livestock destroyed or scattered

******

The white man never lived who truly loved the Indian, and no true Indian ever lived that did not hate the white man.

  • Lakota chief Sitting Bull

*******

When Cheyenne “Dog Soldiers” raided white settlements (including kidnapping and execution of white women), Sheridan used Pawnee warriors to help track them down.  They caught them at a place called Seven Springs, and the Pawnee killed the Cheyenne indiscriminately without mercy. One Cheyenne survivor of the raid said, “I do not blame the Pawnee for killing our women and children.  As far back as I remember the Cheyenne and Sioux slaughtered every male, female, and child we found of the Pawnee. Each hated the other with savage hearts that know only total war.

******

Modoc Indian raiders were captured.  Some Modocs went on the “warpath” after some Oregonian settlers had killed defenseless Modoc villagers.  When arrested, the leader of the band, “Captain Jack,” said, “If the white men that killed our villagers had been tried and punished, I would submit to you much more willingly.  Do we Indians stand any show for justice with you white people, with your own laws? I say no. I know it. You people can shoot any Indian any time you want whether we are at war or peace.  I charge the white people with wholesale murder.

 

 

 

 

Command Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

The Prophet or the Madman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Ivan Illich.

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

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

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

Do we have a madman or a prophet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

“. . . And in the End”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul as “Anti-Establishment”

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

John as “Establishment”

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

Paul as “Establishment”

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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