Tolerating Toleration

I have written on a few occasions that those who write history books can fall into one of two errors:

  • Over-emphasizing the differences between things, which means that nothing can be compared to anything with any confidence, and
  • Over-emphasizing the similarities between things, which these days means that everyone is either Hitler or Stalin.

The best historians combine factual mastery with poetic gifts. They see rhyme and rhythm, but they never force it, letting the “occasional” square pegs stand aside from the round holes when appropriate.*

The first error (the “differences” error) is more useful. If you over-emphasize particular facts at the expense of synthesis, you have hopefully uncovered many useful pieces of information. But these kinds of historians are in my view not really historians, but researchers. They have definite skills, but play too close to the vest. Without extending themselves and taking a risk, they limit their impact.

The second error involves more chutzpah and dash, and so I tend to be more forgiving to those who synthesize too much. Toynbee, one of my great heroes, conflated Greek and Roman civilizations to such a degree that he claimed that Rome began its decline in 431 B.C., the year the Peloponnesian War started in Greece. Such an assertion perhaps has some grandeur in its theatricality. But no one could claim that this whopper arose from intellectual laziness on his part.

Other times, however, errors of the second kind can only arise from a combination of laziness and willful blindness. These types of errors of the “Over-emphasizing similarities” school are more dangerous than the “differences” school. When you aim higher, you fall farther.

One “similarities” error that has lingered on in the scholarship of late antiquity, and subsequently in the public consciousness, involves the interplay between Christianity post-Constantine and the older paganism. Sir Geoffrey Elton–a knight no less!–expresses this basic idea concisely, writing,

. . . religions organized in powerful churches and in command of the field persecute as a matter of course and tend to regard toleration as a sign of weakness or even wickedness towards whatever deity they worship. Among the religious, toleration is demanded by the persecuted who need it if they are to be triumphant, when, all too often, they then persecute in their turn. . . . To say this is not cynicism but sobriety of judgment.

Ugh–one can just imagine Sir Geoffrey Elton saying this with some British smugness. Intolerable, I say! It just won’t do!

So, Elton, followed by Peter Garnsey, and Francois Paschoud on the French side–and a host of others–mash everything up and declare that basically no difference existed between the intolerance of Rome towards Christians, and intolerance of Christians towards Roman pagans.

But even a brief look at this assertion shows its utter fatuity.

How did Rome persecute Christians? Over a span of 250 years (though not continuous over that period, but sporadic in its intensity) Rome imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands and thousands of Christians. Many died in a gruesome manner, as even Roman sources hostile to Christians attest. By the late empire, feeding Christians to lions in the arena was old hat. Even mild, tolerant, and “good” emperors like Trajan admitted that, yes, if push came to shove, Pliny should arrest and even execute Christians.

How did Christians persecute pagan Romans once in “command of the field?” They closed and sometimes destroyed temples. They refused to give state funding for pagan rites. They closed the Academy of Athens. Some sporadic–and important to note–non-state sponsored violence probably happened in some instances. One can cite the era of Theodosius I, from AD 379-395, where

hands and feet . . . were broken; their faces and genitals smashed . . .

But this violence was not directed at people but at the statues of gods and goddesses. However “purposeful” and “vindictive” (as one historian terms it) such actions may have been, it is not quite the same thing as watching people eaten alive for entertainment.**

Enter historian Peter Brown to set the record partially aright. Alas, I have only slight exposure to Brown, an acknowledged master of late Roman antiquity. My first impressions peg him tending towards the “differences” error, but this might suit him well to clean up the typical sludge created by Elton et. al. on this issue. He entitled chapter 1 of his work Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman World, “Christianization: Narratives and Processes,” which can only elicit one response:

But chapter two deals with the question of religious toleration in a much more promising manner.

Brown points out a few helpful counterpoints to Elton and his crew.

Most every ruler’s first priority involves money, which comes mostly through taxation. Any ruler of moderate ability understands the tricky nature of taxation, and how it relies upon a network of trust and compliance that is not easily enforced. Brown comments,

It is easy to assume that a tax system . . . so successful, indicated the indomitable will of the emperors to control the souls of their subjects as surely as they had come to control their wealth. In fact, the exact opposite may be the case. In most areas, the system of negotiated consensus was usually stretched to its limits by the task of exacting taxes. It had little energy left to give ‘bite’ to intolerant policies in matters of religion. It is no surprise that many sources indicate a clear relation between taxation and toleration. Faced by demands of Porphyry of Gaza for permission to destroy the temples of the city, supposedly in 400, the emperor Arcadius is presented as having said: ‘I know the city is full of idols, but it shows “devotio” in paying taxes and contributes much to the treasury. If we suddenly terrorize these people, they will run away, and we lose considerable revenues.”

Brown also stresses that late imperial Rome even in the Christian era involved shared power among elites. And these elites had strong common bonds between them that crossed religious lines. Brown writes again,

As far as the formation of the new governing class of the post-Constantinian empire was concerned, the fourth century was very definitely not a century overshadowed by [religious conflict]. Nothing could have been more distressing to the Roman upper-classes than the suggestion that ‘Pagan’ and ‘Christian’ were overriding designations in their style of life and choice of friends and allies. . . . Rather . . . studied ambiguity and strong loyalty to common symbolic forms . . . prevailed at this time.

Pagan and Jewish religious leaders, Brown notes, received not just toleration, but sometimes even support from the empire.

It would be wrong to imply, as Menachem Stern has done, that [Libanius and the rabbi Hillel] . . . found themselves drawn together “under the yoke of Christian emperors.” They were drawn together by common enjoyment of an imperial system that conferred high status on them both. . . . Both enjoyed high honorary rank, conferred by imperial codicilli–those precious purple letters of personal esteem signed by Theodosius in his own hand.

Theodosius, it bears mentioning, is often thought of as one of the great “intolerant” emperors.

So far, well and good. Brown, with his eye for detail and his great reluctance to generalize, gives an admirable riposte to the traditional academic narrative. But something still needs addressed. Brown blocks effectively, but asserts little beyond, “It wasn’t as clear cut as many think,” he seems to say. But everything is complicated. The historian should at least offer a way to make the complicated intelligible.

Alas, the elephant is still in the room, in the form of two important questions for scholars like Elton and Garnsey–questions that Brown fails to ask:

The first: toleration may be a good thing, but what are its limits? One can praise the virtue of getting along despite differences. Everyone knows this already, however. It’s not a hard thing to say. The hard thing means saying when the differences have become so great that co-existence no longer works, when the house divided cannot stand.

Drawing this line ultimately comes down to values, and values come from religious beliefs. My second question to Elton, etc. would be, “What is your religion? You seem to be neither pagan, nor Christian–and that’s fine. But what or who is your God/god? And what does He/She/It not like? What do you not tolerate? Surely He/She/It can’t like everything.

Brown avoids such questions, and that’s too bad. He has my respect, and a historian of his heft should apply his knowledge to this problem. As for our own situation in our own time, such questions have unfortunately become more than just theoretical. I believe that the media accentuates the differences between Americans for profit. Also, professional tweeters are more divided than average Americans. But a breaking point lies out there somewhere for all of us. We must acknowledge this, and at the same time, hope that we never find it.

Dave

*This observation might seem quite obvious, and so it is. But it is rooted in the profound truth of the nature of the Trinity–unity and diversity at the root of all being.

**I admit this is not the whole truth of all of Christian history. There were times and places where it got worse than this in the next 1000 years. But though it did at times get worse than what I describe above, it never equaled what Rome did.

Lost in the Cosmos

(For those interested, check out the Grumpy Old Man podcast on this same topic here.)

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We all know the Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times,” and we now fully understand why they regarded it as a curse. But we should look for the silver linings whenever we can. Our normal customs give us the advantage, as Edmund Burke argued, of not having to think about the myriad of everything all the time, freeing us for hopefully finer pursuits. Perhaps the one advantage of strange times is that it allows us to either more deeply understand and affirm basic assumptions (such as our need for meaningful human interaction), or to question them and see how strange they might be. If we are unmoored, maybe we might reach something better than we knew before.

Maybe.

Few would doubt that the two greatest Catholic southern writers of the 20th century were Flannery O’ Connor and Walker Percy. O’Connor took her normal, everyday characters, and confronted them with something strange to jolt them out of complacency. Walker Percy, to my mind, went one better. He took normal people in normal situations showed how how strange the ‘normal’ really was. This was his great accomplishment in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.* It seems that Percy (who had medical training) wanted to administer a kind of shock-therapy for his readers He induced trauma to help us recover equilibrium.

Percy administers this shock of sorts through very simple questions, such as:

  • When yearbooks are handed out, why does everyone look to see how many pictures they are in? Don’t we know what we already look like?Why do we all also not want anyone to know that we are doing this if everyone is indeed doing it?
  • Why do we value antiques? Why do we seem to exhaust the meaning of things? Did past eras value antiques? Would a 17th century gentlemen want something from the 12th century more than his own time?
  • Why do we have so many different versions of selves in the modern world?

Percy also includes this conversation he had with someone recalling the Kennedy assassination:

I remember that I was watching the soap opera As the World Turns. There was a scene between Chris and Grandpa, and I remember that particularly because I saw something scroll on the bottom of the screen that shots had been fired at President Kennedy. I remember thinking how insignificant the soap opera seemed in relation to what was happening in Dallas.

But before you saw that message, the soap opera seemed much more important than Kennedy’s visit to Dallas?

Yes.

And, afterwards, did you resume watching the soap opera?

Yes.

Lost in the Cosmos contains a section on semiotics in the middle of the book that I found too difficult, and some short fiction on some of this themes at the end of the book, but for me the heart of the work lies in the first 50-70 pages. Percy may intend to lean us towards particular answers, but mostly he remains content to ask the questions of meaning the self in the modern world (I include more excerpts in the postscript).

Many now recognize that we are disconnected now, but think that it is only the particular circumstances we face in the moment that creates this, i.e., masks, social media, polarization, and so on. I grant that this has a part to play, but I would like to go deeper and suggest that we are alienated from ourselves because the modern world alienates us from reality in general.

First some of the particular and surface elements of our discontent . . .

We like to assume that every technology occupies neutral space. It is neither good or bad, for us or against us. But surely, the way we interact with a technology will change us, and not all change is neutral. Working a hoe or hammer might give you stronger shoulders or forearms. Social media attempts a daring exploit. We know that communication works best when we use our whole being, which involves our bodies. Face to face we catch expressions and subtleties we would miss over the phone. Over the phone, we at least get voice inflections, and presumably speak with someone we know.

Facebook, Twitter, etc. attempts to gather all of our communicative apparatus and squeeze it through the eye a needle. Obviously, this fails–the narrowing of our being in our communication modes always narrows our ability to communicate effectively. Alienation and confusion result–“Why is everyone so angry on Twitter?” is because it is impossible to be a whole self on Twitter. We are unmoored when using this kind of communication and perhaps subconsciously rant against not so much the politics we disagree with but the fact of alienation itself.

Many have commented on this already, and perhaps we are learning this as a society, but alas–we are learning slowly.

We have paid less attention to the deeper nature of the right and the left, which also contributes significantly to the problem.

The “right” and “left” as categories of thought and being go far back into the earliest civilizations. There is a profound Christian tradition linked to this reality, which others have spoken of much better than I ever could. Perhaps its modern political derivations have their roots not in the Christian tradition, but in Greek tragedy, and how one reacts to Fate. The “Left” in such works argues for striving against established order. One need not accept everything just as it is. We can work to better our lot in life and the lives of others–the structure of things can alter. The ‘Right’ talks of acceptance and working within established norms, for to challenge them is to challenge divine order and invite even greater chaos–a kind of “nemesis.”

Both the “Left” and the “Right” have their place. I doubt even the staunchest conservative would object to the invention of glasses, for example, which does better one’s “natural” condition. But those on the left too have to understand at least some limits imposed by Nature, i.e., night cannot become day, winter will never be summer.**

The Greeks sought a mediator between these two poles and perhaps never found it. We too need such mediation. Percy hinted at how we are alienated from ourselves. It goes deeper–we are alienated from creation as well. I won’t make a direct case for the Christian perspective on Creation and the our expulsion from Paradise here. For our purposes we not that most every culture has creation myths that resemble the Christian story in some way. Since the Fall, perhaps a natural tension exists between night and day, earth and sea, and men and women. But we have forgotten that mankind was placed on earth in part to reconcile and mediate these polarities back to God. Men and women are reconciled through marriage.^ Indeed–life itself can bring a kind of trauma. Our broken state can be repaired, but not through ideology, but instead, the recreation of the world and ourselves through liturgy.

What was lost, can be found.

Dave

*There is a section in the book about a theory of language/semiotics that Percy admits will not satisfy the scholar and could be too ‘high’ for the layman. I reside in the latter category, and will not comment there.

Perhaps one day . . .

**There is a curious flip on certain issues that only highlight the strangeness of our times. The Left seems, on the one hand, to grant maximum autonomy for individuals to rebel against the ‘fixity’ of human biology. Pregnant? Get an abortion. You’re a man but you think you should be a woman? Take hormones and get surgery. But with non-human nature many are staunch conservatives. Climate change is bad for the modern left at least in part because of the change it brings to nature, which should be protected from alteration. Their attitudes hearken back to pre-modern ideas that sought harmony, not growth.

The Right on the one hand promotes traditional family values. On the other, they advocate for an economic system geared towards maximum individual autonomy and disruption of tradition. Marx, for example, supported capitalism and democracy because he saw them as weapons against traditional values and practices, which would have to go in order for the proletariat revolution to come about.

We don’t want people who are entirely either right or left. At least, our society cannot handle too many on either extreme. Of course we need some kind of harmonization of the two within our own persons as well as in society. What puzzles me is how those on both sides hold oil & water types of beliefs that have no internal coherence that I can discern.

^A hint as to why, if you think of marriage as an image of cosmic reconciliation, marriage requires priestly mediation.

And now . . .

Lost in the Cosmos Excerpts

(What follows is 95% copied from Percy’s book, which I have tweaked in parts for more accessible student use).

Which of the following selves, if any, do you identify with?

The Cosmological Self

The self is unconscious of itself only insofar as it can identify itself with a cosmological myth or classificatory system.  For example, ask an LSU fan at a football game who they are, and they may reply, “I am a tiger.”

The Hindu/Buddhist Self

My self is impaled on the wheel of non-being, obscured by the veil of unreality.  But it can realize itself by plumbing the depths of self until it achieves nirvana, or absorption and destruction into nirvana, or the Atman.

The Authentic Self

A more modern and secular version of this might run, “My self is buried somewhere within me, caked over with customs, habits, etc. that are not truly my own.  I become a true self by my choices which may involve rejecting all traditions, norms, and if necessary, even Nature itself to become who I am truly supposed to be.

The Role Taking Self

We become a ‘self’ by taking on certain roles, as a mother, a lawyer, a mechanic, a macho-man, an ‘independent woman,’ and so on.  When ‘in action’ within these roles, we feel ‘actualized’ and ‘alive.’

The High School Graduation Speech Self

You are created with certain rights and the freedom to pursue happiness and fulfill your potential.  You achieve your potential through participation in society via family, work, political engagement, and so on.  This happiness can be pursued and eventually caught.

The Diverted Self, or the Woody Allen Self

Our “selves” are in fact unbearable.  That is–we cannot make anything of the “self,” either because the idea of the self is  too light and insubstantial, or too heavy, for us to comprehend. The path to happiness is, frankly, diversion, or escape from the self.  Thankfully, we live in a time when endless diversion is easily accessible.

The Free Self in Bondange

The rational pursuit of happiness that Jefferson espoused has become a flaky emptiness in our time.  Every advance of objective understanding  of the Cosmos, and the technologies we invent to gain that understanding, distances the self from the Cosmos precisely as far as we advance in understanding the physical world.  The self, then, roams like a ghost through the Cosmos which it happens to understand very well.  Thus, the self is free in a sense through its understanding of its predicament, but is powerless to do much about that predicament.  

The Abandoned Self

The self only achieves ‘actualization’ by abandoning itself utterly to some goal or task.  Think of the fevered artist, possessed by a sculpture they must finish, or the scientist who must complete the experiment at all costs.  

Would a Christian conception of the self be like any of these?  Which of the above is perhaps the furthest away from a Christian view of the self?

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Amnesia

In many soap-operas of the late 20th century, amnesia was a favorite plot tool.  A character would experience a trauma, and suddenly not know who they were.  The world for them became at once hostile and confused, but also, re-enchanted.  With the slate clean, anything was possible–you have a new lease on life and the self.

But this plot device is not confined to old soap-operas.  The James Bond series of movies fits this in some ways.  With each movie, reality is reset–new bad guys, new women, new locations to visit, etc.  In these scenarios, previous excitement, trauma, encounters–none of them really move or shape the character.  

Question: Is “amnesia” a favorite plot-device because 

  • The character in the story is sick of himself and needs a change, a reboot
  • The writers are sick of their characters
  • The writers are sick of themselves and they need a change
  • The viewers long for the same amnesiac-like experience and they want to experience this vicariously through the characters.
  • All of the above?

Things and Their Meaning

Pick up a home decor magazine, or watch one of the home decoration shows that are always playing in dentist’s offices, and you will note that we have a penchant for making simple things out of unusual objects.  What I mean is–a coffee table can usually not be a normal coffee table.  It is has to be 

  • A tree trunk made of cypress wood
  • A vintage Coca-Cola crate
  • An old lobster trap
  • A large, flat rock

In other words, a coffee table can be anything but a board of wood with four legs.  

Why has this happened?

  • Because we are tired of ordinary tables, and we need novelty
  • Because to feel like a self, we must distinguish ourselves from other selves in some way  
  • Because an unusual table is a great conversation piece, a way to break the ice with company
  • Because it is good to recycle older things into newer uses and to repurpose their meaning
  • Because the older thing comes from a time of greater coherence and ‘weight,’ possession of such objects seems to give ourselves more substance and ‘weight.’
  • Because the modern self is voracious and consumes meaning.  We continually need to expand, like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish itself with new objects, but like a vacuole, only in fact empties them.  

Consider to what extent an antique is prized.  Is it because

  • It is  beautiful and wonderfully made

 or

  • Because it is saturated with another time and place, and therefore resistant to absorption by the self?  After all, things resistant to absorption by the self have a higher degree of power to form the self. 

or . . . because the older thing comes from a time of greater coherence and ‘solidity’ unlike our modern plastic age.  Thus, possession of such objects seems to give ourselves more substance and ‘weight.’

Has mankind always been like this?  Would someone of the 14th century prefer something of his own time, or something from 4th century Rome?

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The Self Amidst other Selves

Imagine that you are at a dinner party in a beautiful, urbane setting.  You have wonderful food and drink to consume.  You are at the party alone and are standing near another person whom the host “thinks you should meet.”  You oblige your host and go to talk to the eligible young man/young woman, but quite frankly, after about 3 minutes you think the person is boring and you are not that interested.  You are in a room by yourselves, with nothing to interrupt conversation should it occur, but things are going nowhere and getting awkward quickly. You know that the host will make sure you are alone for at least another five minutes (they are really hoping you hit it off) so extracting yourself from the conversation will not be possible without a lot of awkwardness.  

Or

Imagine that you are at that same dinner party, and have just been introduced to the same person.  You have said ‘hello,’ you’ve known them for literally about 5 seconds.  Suddenly, an earthquake strikes and much of the house collapses.  Thankfully you both suffer only minor scrapes, and it seems that everyone else is more or less ok also.  But–you are pinned underneath some rubble about 3 feet away from each other and will have to wait about 30 minutes for help.

Which situation would you prefer?  Under which scenario is a good conversation more likely to occur?  

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Imagine that you are a movie star, say Robert Downey, Jr., or Emma Stone, and you have to stop in a small town to buy some food.  Which is the greater fear?

  • That the townspeople will recognize you, that they will detain you for 20 minutes or more, make you take selfies with them, you will have to sign autographs, they will expect you to say something funny or memorable, because they will tell everyone about meeting you, etc.  You will have to be “on” for them.

Or

  • That no one will recognize you at all, and, in fact, you hear someone criticizing one of the movies you were recently in, a movie you thought was actually quite good.

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Imagine . . .

You wake up with some dread.  You have to make a big speech today, and you aren’t really prepared. You also have a physics test coming up, and you suppose you will fail that as well. You are nervous, and haven’t slept well recently. Things seem to be slipping in general–there was the argument with your friend last week and you haven’t really ‘made-up’ after that.

As you walk out of the house, a crazy person pulls up in his car and shoots you.  He speeds off, but hits a fire hydrant and is apprehended by the police.  The ambulance comes and helps you.  You are in pain, but your mind is clear.  People gather around and give you encouraging words.  You make a few witty remarks to the EMT’s helping you, and people laugh. Your mom comes out terribly anxious, but you quote President Reagan back to her when he was shot–”Sorry, mom, I forgot to duck.”  You notice the amazement of onlookers at your wit and presence in the moment. They whisk you away to the hospital.  You will survive, the bullet missed everything vital, though of course you will have a long recovery.

As far as school goes, of course the speech and the test are waved, as is a lot of other schoolwork.  Your estranged friend, feeling bad, apologizes to you and your relationship is restored.  People from school come to visit you, and stories are told of how you responded to the terrible incident with bravery and charm.  

Is this

  • Unreservedly bad news.  You have been shot and that is a terrible thing. There will be some minor damage you will carry in your body into old age. Not to mention–the person who shot you will of course suffer, via arrest, institutionalization, etc.  This is also bad for him–physically and spiritually.  You both would be much better off if he did not shoot you.

Or

  • Relatively bad news.  All of the above is true, but the incident seems to have reset your life entirely in your favor.  People view you differently now.  

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Anxiety and Depression

Many have remarked that people, and especially younger people, seem more anxious and disaffected than at any other time in recent memory. Why might this be?

Pick one or more

  1. Because modern life is more difficult and anxiety producing than during other times in the past.
  2. The young have always been anxious and whiny.  There is no crisis.  We just have many more ways to measure things now. People did not used to want to know how everyone was feeling, and we had far fewer ways to express our thoughts.  In fact, by talking about it so much, we create the problem.  Back in the old days, the young would be anxious, but just then be told to get over it and get back to work.
  3. Because for men, there has never been a time when your role in the world seemed so unstable.  People talk of ‘toxic masculinity.’  In the media we consume, some men may be good guys but women will almost never be the bad guys.The educational system, so crucial to our success, is firmly oriented towards female achievement, which statistics bear out. Men want to provide but the job market is constantly in flux–there are no guarantees. 
  4. Because things have never been harder for women.  For those that want to stay home with kids, society will not support you, and there will be no community of moms to share life with.  For those that work, there will be the impossible juggling of family in addition to dealing with the “man’s world” at work.
  5. Because our educational institutions have failed to prepare young people for the world, and so no wonder they struggle with coping with the future.
  6. Because the decline of religious belief and church attendance has left youth today completely adrift, and therefore, naturally anxious.
  7. Because the self has in fact experienced a radical loss of sovereignty, as technology has increased.  We have the real sense that we have no place, that we are not really needed. We are like the astronauts in the movie 2001, punching at the air, unable to connect.
  8. Because modern life is insane, and enough to make anyone anxious and depressed.  In fact, anyone who is not depressed and anxious at the nature of modern life are themselves deranged, or living in the land of the Lotus Eaters.

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Boredom

The word ‘boredom’ did enter our vocabulary until the 18th century.  No one knows its etymology.  One guess is that it comes from the French word, ‘to stuff.’

Why was there no such word before the 18th century?  Pick all that apply.

  1. Was it because people were not bored before that time?
  2. Was it because people were bored but did not have a word for it?
  3. Was it because people were too busy trying to stay alive to be bored (but of course, rich dilettantes have always existed).
  4. Is it that we have been encouraged to be so self-aware, to ‘pursue happiness,’ that we inevitably become alienated from ourselves and therefore ‘stuff’ ourselves into oblivion?
  5. Is it because, starting in the 18th century, we have had an increasingly scientific view that disenchants the world,  and thereby renders it meaningless?

Why is it that man is the only species that gets bored?  Under the circumstances in which a person gets bored, a dog happily takes a nap.

Liberty and Coercion

Almost every political philosopher I am aware of from Aristotle down through Montesquieu believed that a democracy/republic had to be small in size.  Self-government required, among other things:

  • A population where people know each other enough to trust each other to some degree.
  • A population where people can have enough land to support themselves, but a geography that does not allow any one particular faction to have too much land, thus gaining too much of an advantage over their fellows.
  • A relatively culturally homogeneous population that shares core values

The American experiment is unique in many ways, one of which being that Jefferson and Madison attempted to turn this reasoning on its head.  They argued that

  • Democracies/Republics floundered because of too much population concentration, not too little.
  • These population concentrations gave way to passions and factionalism that could easily destroy liberty by trampling on the minority (cf. Madison’s brilliant Federalist #10).
  • Hence, what Democracies/Republics need is not a small geography, but a large one.  People need to spread out so that 1) All will be sure to have land, and 2) No one particular faction could concentrate its power enough to override the rights of minorities (hence, Jefferson’s impetus for his semi-Constitutional Louisiana Purchase).

Maybe necessity helped them invent these ideas, maybe it sprung direct out of their heads.  Either way, with this reasoning Madison and Jefferson show their genius, confidence, and perhaps, their arrogance.  I have wondered if one might not view the whole of American history through the lens of this question: Were Jefferson and Madison right or wrong?*

I expected Gary Gerstle’s Liberty and Coercion to take on the grand question of the thorny question of the interaction between liberty and power, and how sometimes “liberty” for oneself means power over others.  Instead, he narrowed his focus and proceeded in a methodical way to show how over time the “police power” of the federal government grew.  Gerstle disappointed me by never exploring the relationship of our founding ideals to this question.  But at times his narrower focus allows him to make some incisive observations.

For example . .  .

Many presidents and perhaps many Americans had a desire to act in some measure of good faith with Native Americans, but things never went right.  Some might explain this via a grand clash of civilizations.  Gerstle looks instead at the inherent dilemmas posed by our philosophic commitments.  Our commitment to self-government limited the scope of federal government.  No one, whether a Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Democratic/Republican or the like, believed that a large professional army went well with liberty.  But with no money and no political will to even create agencies to establish firm borders and grant land titles, let alone enforce such borders militarily, various presidents found themselves giving in to the settlers “squatters rights.”  We wanted to prevent the national government from having too much power to coerce, but without this power, settlers had the liberty and the power to coerce others.

Time and time again, our sheer size made the relationship between governmental power and self-government difficult.

A similar line of reasoning happened with non-WASP immigrants, be they Catholics from Ireland/southern Europe or Asians settling in the west.  They did not have the same rights as others, but how could they?  For communal self-government relied on shared religious and cultural beliefs and habits.  If these immigrants did have these same values, they could possibly participate in the democracy.  Gerstle shared Teddy Roosevelt’s fury and frustration with the treatment of Japanese migrants in the U.S. just as he was negotiating sensitive deals with Japan.  But he had no ability to force local governments to do as he wished.

Here Gerstle misses an opportunity to connect our dilemmas with our founding ideology.  American colonization began with the idea of transplanting certain distinct communities intact.  But by the later 18th century Enlightenment ideas led to the bold “All men are created equal” mindset of the Declaration.  Simultaneously, America had no real justification to exclude anyone from its shores, but neither could they practice local, autonomous, self-government if they did.

The history of political philosophy has its revenge–or at least makes itself known.

Of course slavery is the preeminent manifestation of this dilemma.  On the one hand, I think most of the founders knew that slavery ran against their moral principles as a nation.  But their political principle of limiting the power of national government meant granting a lot of autonomy to the states.  The clash of these two propositions embedded the possibility of civil war into the fabric of our origins.

Gerstle cites one illuminating aspect of this problem that I had not heard of before.  After Nat Turner’s rebellion many abolitionist presses mailed anti-slavery publications “free of charge” to the South.  This infuriated President Jackson, who believed that such publications only sought to stir up more trouble.  He asked for Congress to ban their mailing.

But southerner John C. Calhoun recognized that such a ban would not serve southern interests.  They would gain in the short term but give away one of their core principles–the right of states to decide such questions.  He advocated against the ban.  But many states arrived at a solution by instructing local postal workers to simply not deliver this mail.  This at best awkward compromise could only last so long, however much it tried to resolve federal and state issues.**

States were seen early on as the means by which well-ordered communities could be established.  Thus, they had broad ranging police power.  The constitution reflects this by enumerating the powers of the federal government and giving everything else to the states.  Today the power of states is much weaker relative to even just a few generations ago.

This changed in stages.

The Industrial Revolution may have done more damage to the vision of the founders than any president or political party.  It broke down local rural life and lumped most people together in the cities as one amorphous mass.  Such conditions created a national state. Without any direct power to act, the government outsourced, deputizing local civic groups to undertake tasks related to civil order.

Whatever the successes such organizations had, they were destined for embarrassing failures.  They discriminated against blacks and immigrants.  They imprisoned without fair trials, and so on, all in the name of the Justice Department.  They needed stopped, but the only way to do so involved finding a way to increase the power of the national government.

Over time the national government used various legal strategies mostly related to the 14th amendment and the commerce clause to achieve their aims.  Perhaps the Industrial Revolution destroyed the possibility of self-government that our constitution depends on.  Rather than create a new constitution, we sought to stretch certain enumerated powers far beyond their original purpose.  Much hay has been made of the commerce clause, for example, which many conservatives lament.  However, our military and national defense (an issue dear to many conservatives) has also assumed a shape utterly unrecognizable to anyone who lived before W.W. II.  The size and cost of our military has in turn stretched the power of the presidency far beyond the vision of the constitution.  Gerstle cites many examples of how our military ballooned in size and then rapidly decreased when conflicts ceased.  Of course we can cite the strategic dilemmas faced by the U.S. after W.W. II as a justification for maintaining a large military.  In a very real sense, W.W. II did not end until 1989.

Strategic considerations aside, we should speculate if any other forces influenced this shift.

Eighteenth-century theorists drew upon the “citizen-soldiers” of times past.  Greece and Rome both provided examples of this.  On the one hand, we cannot have a militarized state, which would jeopardize our liberty.  On the other hand, we need national defense.  A nation of property owners motivated by legitimate self-interest would certainly rally to defend their land, their communities, if need be.  The first 175 years (give or take) of our history demonstrated this.  Right up through the end of W.W. I we demonstrated the ability to dramatically expand and contract the size of our military.

Perhaps our strategic situation changed so dramatically in 1945 that it necessitated the rise of a “military-industrial complex.” Or perhaps it was we ourselves that changed.  Gerstle does not speculate.

Embedded in this question is the relationship between liberty and order.  We have always recognized the need for someone to have the final say, and the need for people to “pursue happiness” in the way they see fit.  This has always meant tolerating things one may disagree with.  Should we ban pornography or not?  Do we grant the freedom of some to own slaves?  Do we grant the freedom of some to oppose same-sex marriages?  Who gets to decide?

Gerstle’s book rather prosaically shows how this power to decide has transferred over time from the states to the federal government.  This happened mainly under Democratic leadership.  But conservatives also played a role at crucial times with their traditional issues of national defense/military.  By “prosaically” I don’t mean that it was easy or unconvincing.  He has extensive research and uses a methodical style that makes him quite convincing.  But he leaves us with some unexplored questions and neglects to swing for the fences.

He makes clear the fact that ideas of liberty and coercion have always existed.  All we have done over time is basically transferred the power of coercion from the state to the national government.  As to whether representative government can exist in the post-industrial era, as to whether or not Jefferson was right or wrong, these grand questions go largely untouched.  I for one can’t help but admire the brilliance and confident boldness of Jefferson’s vision–though I think I disagree.  I wish Gerstle had done a bit more to inspire me one way or another, and done a bit more to help answer the perplexing question of the nature of America’s idea of liberty.

Dave

*Another possible historical lens would be the “wheel of fortune”–the idea that every civilization (and every ruler?) will experience a kind of boom/bust cycle.  The medievals would argue, I think, that this cycle was meant to teach us about redemption.  This lens would argue that some choices could delay the progress of the cycle perhaps even for a long time, but that “nothing lasts forever” and that some kind of decline remains inevitable.

Again, this idea had a historically long run, from the ancients down through Machiavelli at least.  Our founders, many of them heirs to the Enlightenment, would not have accepted this idea.

**The same held true for the Fugitive Slave Act.  Most pro-slavery advocates rejoiced at the new provisions of the law, but others saw that to achieve this they abandoned a key principle of keeping the federal government away from the slavery issue.

Without question slavery is a terrible moral evil.  We must realize that the issue had other dimensions to understand the colonial and ante-bellum period.  We may deplore the actions of another country or culture.  When should we use force to change them?  By what authority?

Entourage Trauma

In his wonderful book, Lost in the Cosmos Walker Percy guides his readers into uncomfortable (but also funny) questions about the human condition. In one scenario, he asks us to imagine a famous movie star stopping in a small town local grocery store. On the one hand, there is the prospect that he will be recognized and fawned over. He will have to take selfies, make witty remarks, give autographs, and so on. He will have to assume something of a mask. On the other hand–what if, having prepped himself for this eventuality, no one recognized him at all? Which is the worse fate?

Thinking about this dilemma made more sympathetic for athletes who bring entourages with them wherever they go. I used to see this phenomena motivated purely by ego and money. Now it looks like a coping mechanism for an entirely weird situation. Back in my father’s day athletes often had off-season jobs and lived in neighborhoods with other middle class families. Some had great renown but to see them you usually had to go in person. No highlight reels existed, so slow-motion footage, to make them seem super-human. How does a 23 year-old deal with extreme fame and fortune for having the talent of pretending to be someone else or putting a ball in a round cylinder? Such success could be traumatic, and the entourage a means of dealing with the world at a distance.

We can make similar diagnoses of cultures in general.

Historical comparisons of one era to another are no doubt tricky. We assume that anyone can easily make one thing look like another by selective choosing of our material. I admit that this was my first reaction to Kirby Farrell’s Post Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the 90’s. Farrell attempts to link the 1890’s and the 1990’s examining its culture (books and movies) through the tense of personal and cultural trauma. The neat 100 year gap seems all too convenient at first glance.

I have mixed feelings about the book, which I experienced as a combination of excellent insights and thoughts that Farrell wielded the hammer of psychoanalysis and saw everything as a nail. It is possible, for example, that if a character in a story drinks a cup of coffee, it may be a simple background detail and not meant to conjure the idea of fetishizing the exotic, or some other such trope. And, while he cites a variety of examples of similar themes in the two decades, he never seeks to prove that the 1890’s/1990’s had more focus on his themes than other decades. Granted–proving this would involve a different kind of writing and research, but its lack allows for doubt about his thesis.

This premise nonetheless intrigued me. Certain things about the 1990’s in retrospect appear strange. I distinctly remember fearing nuclear war in the early 1980’s. But we first win the Cold War, and then the first Persian Gulf war in overwhelming fashion my senior year of high school. I remember thinking that a burden had lifted, that skies had cleared. The 1990’s–good times, right?

And yet, in looking back . . .

If we take music, for example, we see that in the 1980’s, songs about fun, love, and pastel colors routinely topped the charts in a time when many had real fears of nuclear annihilation. But almost immediately after the Cold War, grunge music dominated the airwaves. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden, etc. celebrated anger, alienation, confusion, and disillusionment. Fashion changed from accentuating and celebrating oneself with shoulder pads and coifed hair to wallowing in degradation with greasy hair, ripped jeans, and heroin chic.

None of this seemed odd at the time to me–it just was. I suppose some might tell me to get over myself, that culture changed because it changed, with no reason behind it. But if that’s true than there are no reasons for anything. Three explanations, then, present themselves to me:

  • People are by nature self-indulgent, and having no crises to validate us, we invented crisis to grant ourselves legitimacy.
  • Democracies especially need an outside enemy to maintain social cohesion and a sense of purpose–recall what happened to Rome’s republic after they conquered Carthage and Greece. Rome turned on itself as a body politic. But being less communally oriented than the ancient Romans, who destroyed their public institutions, we turned to destroy ourselves as individuals (i.e., heroin chic and ripped jeans)
  • We faced a (clinically) real sense of psychological trauma that fits a ‘normal’ pattern of human experience. Our cultural obsessions of the 1990’s could be termed not “self indulgent,” or ” typical of democracies,” but typical of modern man in general. The two decades had western man face a similar kind of challenge that evoked a similar response.

This last premise forms the basis of Farrell’s book.

He asserts that the 1890’s and the 1990’s shared important things in common:

  • The 1890’s saw the closing of the frontier for America and western Europe. As Cecil Rhodes remarked, “The world is all carved up now.” The idea of the problem of “no frontier” would be taken up as a major theme in American history, beginning with Frederick Jackson Turner.
  • In the 1990’s we had the sense of the “End of History,” with no enemies on the horizon, and nothing to do with ourselves.
  • The 1890’s had the sense that they had gone so far, that good times could not last. The encounter with the ‘other’ overseas would surely rebound and perhaps destroy them. They felt their culture endangered.
  • Our efforts to win the Cold War took into Asia, Africa, and South America. Our contact with the ‘other’ brought on the infamous ‘Culture Wars’ of the 1990’s–the sense with many that the key aspects of our identity faced grave threats.
  • Many accounts exist of people describing dread in confronting the enormous scale of life introduced by the Industrial Revolution. Yes, by the 1890’s people had lived with this change for nearly a generation. But the 1890’s saw the application of electricity to society begin, just as the 1990’s saw the internet begin to become part of the everyday. Both inventions dramatically altered our experience of creation, eradicating natural boundaries and expanding the scope of life unnaturally.

All of these factors combined gave us a real sense of dislocation, as we had lost our bearings and become unmoored. The man of internet lives everywhere and nowhere. The similarities asserted between the decades, which seemed arbitrary to me at first, make more sense upon reflection.

Farrell’s best insights come when he discusses the concept of the prosthetic, by which he means what we add to ourselves in attempt to make ourselves whole. An athlete’s entourage, for example, can be seen as a prosthetic, an artificially constructed way to deal with the world, to make us whole. In Schindler’s List, for example, Schindler creates much of his cache with Nazi elites through providing more and more extreme forms of entertainment. “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” The trauma that the Nazi’s inflicted on others cannot help but rebound back at them. To cope with this and to create something of an internal balance, or something of an escape, they douse themselves with physical pleasures–they escape their misery through a kind of “beserking.”* He cites numerous examples of how various forms of culture in the 1990’s manifested something similar–grunge music among them.

I remember reading parts of Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, her examination of life in Europe before W.W. I. In the preface, she mentioned that she thought to find a calm and tranquil world shaken out of a slumber of sorts by the war. Instead, she saw a world even in the 1890’s on the edge of its seat psychologically, and to a lesser extent, politically. Like 1990’s America, 1890’s western Europe stood atop the world, seemingly having it all. And yet–that fact seemingly hurt them more than it helped.

Farrell cites the novels of H.G. Wells from this period, almost all of them having an apocalyptic subtext. Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes’ whole existence on trauma–unable to handle real life, Holmes must live through the prosthetic of the trauma of others. The art of the briefly dominant pre-Raphaelite school focused so often on Arthurian themes of the end of a golden age, of mourning and loss. This style appears just as out of place as the dominance of Nirvana and Pearl Jam right after winning the Cold War. It would seem as if the golden age should be beginning, not ending. Farrell suggests that we could not handle the scale of life, and the power it conferred–“winning” as a kind of trauma. Oscar Wilde, the man of the 1890’s, seemed unable to function without masks–and in fact he celebrated the very idea of people masking themselves to others. As he wrote about in A Picture of Dorian Gray, however, those masks hid deeper and darker realities.

All in all, Farrell had too much of psychoanalytic lens on his subject to completely convince me of the connection between the 1890’s and the 1990’s. Not everything comes from trauma. But–he got a lot farther than I thought he would.

Dave

*With this term Farrell references the Viking warriors, who would put themselves into a frenzied state before going into battle, no doubt to disassociate themselves in some ways from the death they inflicted.

Signs over North America

On April 14 a report arose stating that “a very frightful spectacle seen by numerous men and women” appeared in the skies. Globes of “blood-red, or bluish” color appeared in large numbers near the sun,

some three in a row, now and then four in a square, also some standing alone. And amongst these globes some blood-colored crosses were seen.

There were two great tubes in which three, four, and more globes were to be seen. They all began to fight one another. They all fell from the sun and sky down to the earth, as if all were on fire, fading away on the earth, producing much steam.

This appears to us like any other modern UFO sighting. But the April 14 in question came from Basel in 1561–the quotes are from reports at that time.

On August 7, 1566 a Samuel Coccius in Nuremberg recored that

At the time of sunrise many saw large black globes in the air, moving before the sun with great speed and turning against one another as though fighting. Some of them became red and fiery and afterwards went out.

Below are the images produced by these reports, first from Basel, then Nuremberg.

Carl Jung wrote, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies as attempt to deal with the phenomena of post W.W. II UFO sightings, most of which came from North America. As to the sightings, we usually divide into two camps:

  • The sightings are real, or at least a great many of them remain genuine, and therefore UFO’s are real.
  • The sightings are lies, distortions, etc. and UFO’s are not real.

Jung takes an interesting third position, stating that he firmly believes that “something is seen”–and those “somethings” are not weather balloons, experimental military aircraft, or some other natural occurrence. But at the same time, he remains skeptical of anyone seeing actual physical aliens.

Along with Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung developed new theories of psychology in the early 20th century. Both men shared an aversion to the overt materialism of prevailing theories of their day–perhaps Jung especially. Jung looked for archetypal and psychic explanations for human personality problems. Eventually he applied these ideas to civilizations in general.

Jung first notes that a great number of sightings seem to fall within a similar pattern, including

  • They happen to people who are almost universally skeptical–before the claimed sighting–of UFO’s in general.
  • They involve circular or possibly cylindrical shapes.
  • They occasionally tend to produce apocalyptic dread, but often a sense of calm and inner contentment–one that brings with a “higher wisdom” that transcends current norms or beliefs.
  • Most sightings happen in North America.

Jung considers all of this in psychic terms, first considering the importance of the shape of UFO’s.* He argues that the circle or cylinder has deep roots in mythic structures of consciousness. Circles have always represented eternity and perfection–heaven as opposed to earth. Note below, the mother of the saint on the left, still living at the mosaic’s creation, depicted with a square halo, with the departed saints with the traditional circle halo.

As the Chinese proverb states, “The way of heaven is round, and the way of earth is square.”

Jung argues that the constant theme of circular shape strongly suggests the psychic desire of the observer for encounter, wholeness, and transformation. Of course, encounters with “eternity” will also frighten us and change us, possibly even shaming and exposing us. The fact that these appearances happen to initial skeptics heightens the power of this encounter, a Damascus road of sorts for the UFO observer. For Jung, the very skepticism of the observer creates the perfect mental conditions for sightings. Such people starve certain metaphysical aspects of their being, and then when these deep parts of ourselves finally break out, they do so in strange and overwhelming ways.

Of course possibly UFO’s actually exist, and by coincidence appear to people fitting a particular pattern. Maybe these UFO’s just happen to be circular. Maybe they appeared mostly over North America either by coincidence or for some unknown reason. Jung thinks otherwise, and takes particular interest in the question of, “Why North America?”**

The UFO movement for the most part started after W.W. II in America, just as we were grappling with world power status and the real possibility that this power and knowledge would destroy all of us, i.e., atomic weapons. Jung makes explicit links between the H-Bomb and UFO’s. It makes “psychic-sense” that we should be primed for UFO appearances amidst this existential crisis.

True, religion had a strong presence in America at that time. But aside from very traditional Catholicism or Orthodoxy–an especially small minority–American Christianity has almost nothing to do with the pre-modern. Influenced by democracy and Enlightenment values, American believers often focused on plain truths in a materialistic way. Instead of the traditional “one-storey” universe, we have added a second floor and banished spiritual elements “upstairs” and outside our experience. Jung would say we have ignored the subconscious and the deeper elements of being. We can ignore such aspects of reality for a time, but they will come roaring back–starved and ready to make up for lost time.

The strange sights in the sky in 16th century Germany fit this same pattern.

  • That era was dominated by thoughts of the end of the world either literally by divine intervention or figuratively via invasion of Moslems who had entirely taken over the Byzantine empire.
  • Germany found itself geographically at the center of religious and geopolitical controversy.
  • The Protestant world was not yet “modern” in their outlook, but they had perhaps (according to Jung at least) began to sever themselves from the mythic (which does not mean “false”) substructure of their faith.

For Jung, these manifestations reveal more about the people or civilizations that report them than what may actually be “out there.”^ Whether or not you agree with Jung on UFO’s I think he has some interesting thoughts for us as we manage our multiple crises as a nation. As to what follows, well . . . I’m no expert.

As we tackle the COVID crisis, I am hopeful that we have learned that we cannot treat public health only in terms of material physical health. Our approach to COVID mirrors the modern approach to religion in general–reductionistic and materialistic. We quarantined for weeks, “fasting” from communing with one another. After starving ourselves of this element of our being, the moment an opportunity came to “feast” on group interaction we did so. Alas that some chose to do so violently–surely a Jungian moment for our society. We see that strong societies have to foster regular and “healthy” interactions between people. When the next pandemic comes along, hopefully we now understand that telling people to simply play video games and watch Netflix fails in the long run.

So too our politics have become more and more totemistic. I have discussed before Trump’s symbolic status for his supporters. Recently Alex Morgan at The Atlantic argued that, “It’s as if Biden exists primarily as an idea, rather than an actual candidate.” All we need, she intoned, is for Biden to “stay alive.” “Democrats need little from the front-runner beyond his corporeal presence,” as the byline states. Politics always has contained certain symbolic elements. Pre-modern societies had strong symbolism woven directly into their political cultures, and so their politics could bear the necessary weight of psychic modes of being (to borrow Jung’s language). Certainly our founders had the opposite view. They created a form of government built on a philosophy quite wary of concentrating coherence of meaning, leaving that to the individual or local community.

But as our society has grown more connected, technocratic and incorporeal, i.e., more digital, we have seen strange apparitions. We have gone into our subconscious, a world both potentially more rewarding and more dangerous and open to temptation. Even rather anodyne statements about free speech have become actual debating points. And, no matter who wins the presidential election in November, America will see a strange symbolic presence above us in our “highest” office. It appears that try as we might, we cannot be quite as secular and “modern” as some might wish.

Dave

*Those interested in further reading on this may wish to consider Father Seraphim Rose’s Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future. Father Seraphim had a serious background in mathematics and philosophy of the west and east, which may help buttress his overall conclusion for skeptical readers. Father Seraphim does not deny the possibility of UFO’s per se, but argues that it is very likely that many recent claims of sightings are demonic apparitions or temptations. His analysis differs from Jung’s, obviously, but has some interesting overlaps, including:

  • “Something is seen”
  • This “something” is primarily not a physical something
  • For Rose, the apparitions may indeed have something to do with the observer’s psychic or spiritual state.

Neither Jung, Fr. Seraphim, or myself discount the idea that UFO’s exist. They may exist, and perhaps just maybe some recorded sightings prove this. Rather, they both argue that the accumulated evidence on hand leads to a different conclusion.

If I had to choose, I would choose Fr. Seraphim’s analysis over Jung’s.

**I am discussing the parts of the book I found possibly persuasive. I am not discussing here Jung’s interpretations of dreams where UFO’s are encountered. I can believe that Jung might be onto something at least in part with his universal archetypes, but dream interpretations seem much more subjective and not a subject for argument. Alas that about 1/2 of the book involves his interpretations of different dreams of UFO encounters reported to him.

Jung mentions the possibility of mass hallucinations but never sets out to prove this is possible. A more full treatment of UFO sightings would have to include something about this. If Fr. Seraphim is right in his conclusions, he needs no mass hallucinations to explain the phenomena. To be fair to Jung, he would probably not term these sighting “hallucinations” but perhaps psychic projections. These “projections” would be entirely real, just as our psyche is real–though not materially so.

^Jung has an interesting psychological theory on why pilots often report UFO’s–too complex for me to understand–but essentially involving a psychic effect of contrasting the combination of precision mechanical instruments directly in front of the pilot in the midst of a vast open expanse.

The Secret of Fiery Women

Though issues surrounding COVID and race occupy our present discourse, we will likely see the question of women in our society revisited soon. Questions about patriarchy and equal pay have not played themselves out yet, and democracy, which often favors abandoning tradition and rapid change, will likely provide a platform for us to hash these issues out more fully.

Camille Paglia–certainly no conservative–has argued that women in traditional societies actually had a great deal of power, maybe even more than in the modern west. Coming from an Italian background, she observed large family gatherings and saw women deciding the course of events, the menu, etc. while the men mostly stood around and looked under the hoods of cars.*

We think of Rome as a masculine society, with its emphasis on conquest, the ‘pater familias,’ and their Senate. And yet, it appears that the most important job in Rome belonged to women–their Vestal Virgins.

We moderns might blanch at such a statement. We rarely talk about the importance of religion, and certainly never would dream of thinking about virginity as even remotely resembling a civilizational issue. But Robin Lorsch Wildfang (who doesn’t wish that their own name was Robin Lorsch Wildfang?) reminds us in her useful book Rome’s Vestal Virgins: A Study of Rome’s Vestal priestesses in the late Republic and early Empire, that the Romans were not moderns. We have borrowed so much from Rome for our political and legal system. And yet, anyone perusing this book knows a vast gulf separates our two civilizations.

I give credit to Wildfang for telegraphing exactly the nature of her work. As a reader, one knows that the author will give you densely packed facts with gobs of footnotes, with little overall agenda. We read these books for enjoyment no more than we eat those sawdust-like “power bars” for the taste. But both deliver on their promise. So many other books fail on this account.

Several times Wildfang mentions that, “Without the Vestals and their cult, in the eyes of Romans there would be no Rome.” Roman Vestals had unique privileges among women in Rome especially regarding their property rights. They could also suffer the most severe forms of punishment. But their duties seem to boil down to:

  • Their maintenance of the sacred fire, which always had to stay lit
  • Their oversight of a secret storeroom/offerings of basic crops
  • The continuation of the virginity as long as they served (Vestals usually began their service between 8-10 years old, and had to serve for 30 years at least, but could leave after that time).

How we interpret these duties will say much about how one interprets the past.

For the fire . . .

Ovid, Cicero, Dionysius of Hallicanarsus, and Plutarch all agree that the Vestals maintained the sacred fire because fire consumes rather than bears fruit. The “dryness” of fire would be linked then with their virginity. The ancient authors talk of two fires, one of Vulcan, the other of Vesta, goddess of the hearth.

But Wildfang looks for an alternative explanation. Rather than delve into the symbolism here for an explanation, she stresses the antiquity of the rite. Since the Vestal cult predated Rome’s founding, we should see only Rome’s desire to maintain its ties to antiquity, and the various associations some make to virginity and fruitfulness (or its lack) become unnecessary.

I admire Wildfang’s thoroughness and academic integrity, but I rarely approve of Occam’s razor as it applies to historical conclusions. Here at least, it just seems to convenient, too much of an “easy out” for us moderns.

I think that we gain interesting insights by taking these sources along with the scope of Rome’s history. This in turn might lead to understanding the sources in a different way. Wildfang mentions in a few places that Vestals entered into the order via “abduction” somewhere between 6-10 years old. This abduction rite happened with the father’s consent, as the girls were taken from their families in front of their father in a prepared ceremony of sorts. We may blanch at the fact that the girls likely rarely consented themselves, but this in itself gives an important clue as to the meaning of their order for Rome.

Of all the peripheral clues she gives as to the meaning of the abduction ceremony, Wildfang never deal with the story of Rome’s founding, which happened in part through the abduction of Sabine women. Romulus and his male cohorts invite a variety of women on the pretext of a religious festival. They then basically kidnap them and “marry” them–no doubt forcibly for many of them. In the telling Livy refuses to sugarcoat or condemn the deed. He seems to shrug his shoulders over it. Simply put, the Roman state could not have a future without families and children. Maybe this tale has within it some deep symbolism. Maybe the practical Romans just stated the facts and expected one to deal with it. Whatever the case, the abduction into the Vestal order mirrors this event rather evenly. This comparison makes more sense to me when we recall that Romulus’ mother Rhea was a Vestal herself, and begat her twin boys either through the rape/seduction of Mars or some other guy, depending on the tale.

Thus, I think we can say that the Vestals “married” Rome when they entered the order. So I am not sure that we should view the fire they had to maintain so precisely as “sterile.” If the Romans thought of this fire as “fruitless” why punish them so severely for letting it go out?**

If we think of fire as a “heavenly” substance of the “air” and we recall their duty to maintain the sacred storehouse of food, we might see these two elements as a reflection of marriage itself, a union of the masculine and feminine, of Sky father and Earth mother. Relations with another man would effectively then become adultery to Rome itself. The women maintain the fire possibly because women in general are the foremost keepers of the marriage institution. For example, Penelope worked harder to maintain her marriage than Odysseus did.

No Vestal rites means no marriage of heaven and earth, and so no families, and no “future” for Rome. Thus, the Romans took the extinguishing of the Vestal fire after the Battle of Cannae as a worse omen than the massive death toll of the battle itself.

We see Wildfang employ Occam’s razor again with another related issue. If the vestals had sexual relations, they faced a charge of “incestum.” Certainly by the time period covered in the book, the word had just the meaning we would assume–sex with a family member. Wildfang can’t grasp the sense of this. Why would having sex with average Joe Roman be specifically incestuous? Seeking clarity, she suggests that “incestum” didn’t mean “incest,” but “impurity.” The Latin for impurity is “incastum,” so it “makes sense” to Wildfang that, because incastum predates incestum as a word, “incestum” need not be a special, more horrible form of impurity. Best to translate “incestum” in this case as simply impurity, i.e., incastum.

Again, I protest. If “incestum” was not a such an unusual crime, why the unusual punishment of being buried alive? Also, let us assume the Romans meant what they said, when they said it. They had two different words, and distinguished between them. Whatever the original context, in the time period Wildfang examines they had different words with different meanings. Finally, I think the natural meaning of “incestum” could make sense within my interpretation of the vestals “marrying” Rome. Maybe, to have relations with any Roman meant, then, having relations with a family member.

Consider this line of thought above speculative. I am obviously no expert. But I think this makes certain odd pieces of the vestal puzzle fit together.

Wildfang talks briefly about the political influence vestals had on rare occasions. Normally they stayed out of politics, but every so often they intervened. Why didn’t the vestals intervene more, or if they had only a religious function, why intervene at all? If we think of the vestals as married to Rome, per my earlier suggestion, our own experience of family dynamics helps explain this difficulty Wildfang mentions.

I had one set of grandparents who had a lot of influence over family events and dynamics. This influence came not from frequent edicts. They had no need to issue them, and certainly they did not look to control anyone. Their influence came by our love and respect for them. My grandfather might occasionally make a pronouncement or two. Of course we listened, but with my grandfather, we might discuss or mildly argue with him.

My grandmother made “pronouncements” even more rarely than my grandfather, but when she spoke that meant the end of the matter. In my world, challenging or even disagreeing with my grandmother simply was not possible (though please understand that she was the sweetest person in the world–everyone she knew thought that they were her favorite person–she had that effect on people). When I found out that she was a Yankee fan around the age of 9-10 I could not have been more stunned, or had my world more shaken (my dad spent formative years in Brooklyn and we were Dodger fans by birth). With my grandfather, I might have argued the case. Yet, I received this news from my grandmother in silence. I could conceive of no other reaction.^

The vestals likely had a similar power, but if used too frequently it would likely have diminished. When a plant blooms, what secures its life lies hidden in the earth. So too, the vestals kept their symbolic fruits of the earth hidden as part of their duties. They likely thought that the power of women remained greatest when they chose to conceal rather than reveal. Even the masculine, patriarchal Romans seem to have understood this. Perhaps it was just this overt masculinity allowed them to see the importance of the feminine with clarity.

Dave

*Paglia, an self-described atheist and also a lesbian, can speak fondly of ‘tradition’ because of her appreciation for paganism. Perhaps these days, even a pagan could qualify as some kind of conservative.

**I criticize Wildfang for not trusting the ancient sources in regards to “incestum,” but one could throw a similar charge back at me in this instance. Ovid makes a direct reference to linking the flame with the fact that a vestal “yields no seeds.” Dionysius of Halicanarsus makes a similar suggestion, but asserts it only as a suggestion. Plutarch follows Dionysius in making this interpretation one option among many.

In my defense, I would say the following:

  • Ovid seems to play fast, loose, and as he pleases with his material. I see him as something of a prankster. This does not mean he lied or was inaccurate, but I would not trust him on a point of historical accuracy. That was not his aim.
  • Dionysius and Plutarch have more gravitas, but both of them give only “some say” credence to this interpretation.

I think that the general sense of the vestal’s history and Rome’s history guide us better than these texts by themselves. The “first” of Rome’s vestals, Rhea, did “bear fruit” in birthing Romulus. When we combine this fact with the parallel to the abduction of the Sabine women, well . . . that’s my argument for my interpretation. It may not fit with with Ovid, but I don’t think it absolutely goes against the others.

^Another story to illustrate this point . . . I collected baseball cards for a few years growing up. When my grandparents visited she would often take me to the local baseball card shop to make a purchase for me. I remember driving home one day from such a trip–I was about 11 years old–and we saw a beautiful motorcycle pass us on the road. She asked if I liked the motorcycle and I said absolutely I did. She stated, “Those are not safe. If you decide to buy a motorcycle, no more trips to the baseball card store.”

In one sense her comment did not make much sense. By the time I was old enough for a motorcycle she would not be taking me to buy baseball cards (nor would I be collecting them).

But her comment absolutely stuck with me. I put all thoughts of motorcycle riding out of my head immediately. I still hear her voice whenever I take wistful middle-aged man glances at a Harley. But in my 30+ years of knowing her on Earth, this was one of only two times she ever told me not to do something. She shot very, very few “bullets” but those hit their mark and left an indelible impression

Malleus Maleficarum

Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (translation–possibly, “The Hammer for Devils/Witches/, i.e., “Malefactors”) ranks way up there among the more strange historical documents I have read. Published in 1484, this tome tells one all about witches and other sundry works of the devil. It deals with the reality of the supernatural quite openly and frankly, and in this way strikes us as “pre-modern.” And yet, the “hammer” the title alludes to appears to strike hardest through the use of the farthest reaches of the logic parsing of the scholastic method. Those familiar with the Summa Theologica (dating more than two centuries prior to the Malleus) can testify to Thomas Aquinas’ clarity and brevity, even if he relies possibly too much on Aristotelian logic. Aquinas leaves a certain amount of space and room to breathe in his work. It is that mystical fringe that exists in Aquinas’ best writing that gives it its staying power.

Not so Kramer and Sprenger. Though grudgingly–I have to admire their ability to go on for pages on end, giving all counterarguments incredible deference and losing the reader in a labyrinth, before finally turning the battleship slowly round towards their correct conclusion. I firmly believe that Christians should take the supernatural seriously–much more so than many do today. However, one must wonder of the efficacy of extended discussion on “Whether Witches may work some Prestidigitatory Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be Entirely Removed from the Body”–which is only Question IX of Part One, of the First Part, or what final precautions should be observed in the trial of a witch in the eleventh action of the second examination (3rd Part, 2nd Head, q. 16).

At least one does get the sense that Kramer and Sprenger enjoy their work. Here is a very mild excerpt . . .

If it be accordance with the Catholic faith to maintain that in order to bring about some effect of magic, the devil must intimately cooperate with some witch, or whether, one without the other, that is to say, the devil without the witch, or conversely, could produce the same effect.

And the first argument is this, that the Devil can bring about an effect of magic without the help of any witch.  So St. Augustine holds . . . and we learn from Holy Scripture of the disasters which fell upon Job, . . . which the Devil himself was able to bring about, with God’s permission.  What a superior power has within itself to do, it may do without reference to a lesser power.

So too, an inferior power may work within its “sphere” to produce effects without reference to a power greater than itself.  For Blessed Albertus Magnus says in his treatise De Pasionibus Aeris that rotten sage, if used according to certain specifications and thrown into running water, will arouse fearful tempests and storms.  

Moreover it may be said that the devil makes use of the witch not because he has any need of her agency, but because he seeks the damnation of the witch.  We may refer to what Aristotle says in the 3rd book of his Ethics, where Evil is a voluntary act . . . 

But an opposite opinion holds, that the Devil, being unlike man, cannot readily do harm to man without the effect of material agency, such as the instrumentality of witches. For every act, some kind of contact must be established.  And many hold this to be proven by the text of St. Paul to the Galatians, where the gloss on the text who have singular, and fiery eyes, who by a mere look can harm others.  And Avicenna [Abn Ibn Sina] also bears this out, in Naturalism book 3, “Very often the soul may have an impact on the body of another, for such is the influence of the eyes.”  And the same opinion by Ali Ghaza in the fifth book of his Physics  . . .   St. Thomas too speaks of this in the Summa, part I, q. 117, whereupon he states that the influence of the soul may be concentrated in the eyes. 

Without any mental powers insensible bodies may produce effects, and so a living man, if he pass near the corpse of a murdered man, is often seized with fear though unaware of the dead body.  Moreover, it would seem that most extraordinary and miraculous events come to passby thte workings of the power of nature, and St. Gregory points out in his Second Dialogue. The saints perform miracles, sometimes by prayer, sometimes by their power alone.  St. Peter prayed and Tabitha was restored to life.  By rebuking Ananias and Saphira who told a lie, he slew them without any prayer.  Therefore a man by his mental influence can change the condition of another material body.*  

Can any doubt that a man with courage will warm his body, and a man with fear will cool and enfeeble his body?

St. Isidore in Etymologies calls witches guilty of greater sin, for they stir up and confound the elements with the aid of the Devil, and bring about terrible storms and tempests.  And Vincent of Beauvais, quoting many learned authorities in his Speculum Historiale, says that he who first practiced magical arts was Zoroaster, in the line of Ham, son of Noah, and according to St. Augustine in the City of God, Ham laughed aloud when he was born, showing that he would give service to the Devil.

When comparing Aquinas and these authors, I reminded of analogy used I believe by both Toynbee and C.S. Lewis–that bacon and eggs smells so much better when hungry at 9 am, as opposed to when satiated later in the day. Even in the text above, though I largely agree with the conclusion, the method conjures up the smell of bacon and eggs after one has eaten. The scholastic method has run its course.

That late-medievals thought seriously about witches should surprise no one. But to many moderns, the breadth of discussion, the familiarity with many texts both within and without the Christian tradition, will surprise many. When we disagree fundamentally with others, we assume that they do not have actual reasons for their belief. We assume their ignorance, selfishness, or some other such flaw. About 150 years later, an Ambrosian monk named Francesco Guazzo published a companion volume, the Compendium Maleficarum. In Book I, Chapter III he writes,

Any man who maintained that all effects of magic were true, or who believed that they were all illusions, would be a radish rather than a man.

This spirit of balance characterizes the work, which a modern must acknowledge even if one believed that witches and demons did not exist.

Of course the Devil works in various ways, both through physical and spiritual/mental means. I have no thoughts on the exact nature of the Devil’s work regarding COVID-19. What we can say in general is that the Devil always seeks to sow confusion, doubt, and fear. He is the accuser, the divider of the brethren. Just as he seeks to divide us from God, so too he brings death–a literal decomposition of soul from body, and of the various connections in our physical form. He seeks to “decompose” meaning as well, and we have certainly seen this in our society the last few months.

The uncertain nature of the disease relates strongly to this decomposition of meaning. But I feel sure that others factors must be at play, and I wonder at the manifestation of this confusion as it relates to masks. Some people, given their circumstances, probably should wear masks, but I am curious about the vast majority of us who have options and feel the tension between wearing/not wearing them. What motivates our choices, and why do those choices often divide along political lines? Liberals want more mask wearing, conservatives seem to wear them less–although the terms “liberal” and “conservative” lack a defined meeting. We should approach the subject with the method of the Malleus in mind, aware that not everyone who believes in wearing masks is a coward or out to control everyone, and those who eschew masks may not always be selfish jerks, or ignorant of “Science.”

I am sure that something else is going on, but not sure exactly what. Consider what follows speculative, and certainly incomplete . . .

Perhaps the most obvious connection might relate to debates over the last few years around free speech. Progressives want to limit certain kinds of speech in certain places to protect the “vulnerable” minority. Conservatives push against this. So progressives stress protection from the disease, even if this protection should extend far beyond those directly at risk. Conservatives who favor a more rough and tumble approach to speech might then favor the same approach to the disease. We should be tough, have thick skins, and so on.

Perhaps this might go some way to explaining the difference with mask attitudes now. But just 50 years ago, liberals championed free speech, not conservatives. And–liberals tend to prefer longer shut-downs of the economy, even though the shut-down obviously hurts the poor far more than the rich. Restrictions on the economy–favored more by progressives–also will hurt illegal immigrants–another progressive issue.** It makes sense that conservatives want order, sanctity, protection, and liberals would want freedom, and the knocking down of boundaries. But part of the confusion the world experiences lies in the lack of coherent meaning in our political designations.

With rates of abuse, depression, suicide, time on screens, opioid and alcohol use, etc. all going way up during the quarantine, we must realize that the temptation to go a bit nuts will significantly increase. And when our visible structures of decision-making and common institutions fail us–as they largely have during our various recent crises, we will revert to archetypal symbolic modes of being. When the visible symbols of unity fails us, we will retreat inward even subconsciously to find meaning and direction.

These subconscious symbolic actions make themselves perhaps most evident with masks. I have no solid thoughts here as to why they have caused such disagreement among good people. I think we have to go beyond politics (i.e., does the government have the right to order this or not?). And–let us borrow from the Malleus and assume that the Devil would like nothing better than to tear us apart. And to borrow again from Sprenger and Kraemer–no doubt both sides have good arguments that could fill many pages. I shudder to think how many the two of them could find to apply to the mask argument.^

When we think of masks, we should think of the use of veils, for masks function much like a veil. Veils have very little role in our society today. Even in weddings, very few brides today would consider wearing a veil. But most ancient societies used veils (or something like them) in many religious settings, and certainly for weddings. In the ancient world veils would be used to cordon off portions of a temple, for example. You would use veils as means of

  • Protecting the people from the power/holiness of what lay behind the veil, or
  • Protecting what was special/holy from intrusion by the people.

We live in a society that builds on a foundation of “openness”–trade with others, traveling from place to place with few barriers, free speech, etc. and so the notion of veils initially strikes us as odd. This “open” view of life is certainly part of existence. We cannot sustain our own lives. Whenever we eat anything, we take the life of something else into our bodies and incorporate into our own lives–this holds true for plants just as it does for pigs and cows. We do not generate life for ourselves. We must be filled from outside ourselves and ultimately, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

But . . . we must be “closed” to some things in order to survive. We cannot play in traffic, swim with sharks, or take candy from strangers. And other things are so powerful that we can only have a little bit of at a time lest it destroy us, like whiskey, for example. In ancient Israel the high priest went into the Holy of Holies only once a year, alone, with a rope tied around his leg to remove him in case he died from the experience.

As to veils for brides, both of the above purposes could fit. On the one hand, the bride is the most precious “item” of the day, and she is meant for her husband only. Thus she should not be “revealed” until the ceremony is completed. So too, to veil the bride is to honor her beauty and to protect us from it. This may not make sense historically or scientifically, but certainly it does mythologically–recall “the face that launched 1000 ships,” or Lucy’s desire in The Dawn Treader to say a spell that would make her “beautiful beyond the lot of mortals,” and have men and nations fight over her. In the medieval Marian office of “None” (the ninth hour) the antiphon before the psalms hearkens to the power of the beauty of the feminine:

Thou art fair and comely, O daughter of Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in array.

Song of Solomon 6:4

To wear masks in public places may be entirely appropriate and necessary, but we should understand what it means. It means, in certain respects, that we cannot act as a community of trust that mutually shares life together. And this is not necessarily our fault, as the insidious nature of the virus means that one can have it and spread it without any knowledge. But neither is it a trifling thing. To “veil” ourselves means that we set ourselves apart from society. One cannot have a conversation with a mask on–one cannot really share life with another with a mask on. It is terribly ironic that we have to “come together” in such polarized times to essentially isolate ourselves socially from each other. As Jean-Claude Larchet writes,

Through our body we reach out and communicate with others–by exchanging glances, smiles, handshakes, and so on.  It is through our body that others gain their first impressions of us–our character, or our mood at the time.  Our body both reveals and hides us from others . . . 

I believe this accounts for much of the confusion about masks. Larchet rightly suggests that even small physical gestures of communication that we normally make at the grocery store become impossible with masks. Circumstances ask us to hold an impossible tension in our minds and we can’t quite do it. Telling the difference won’t always be easy.

In such times we may want to reach out and look for solutions and healing in what is distant from us–in our political leadership. These days we will not find it there, and likely were never meant to. We should return to our immediate center–our churches, families, and friends–a Malleus Malleficarum for our times

Dave

*I think Jonathan Pageau makes some good points here about the validity of the so-called “Evil Eye,” tradition, derided by some materialists.

**I have heard some suggest that those out of work should get checks from the rich/the government, and so what’s the problem? This strikes me as not ‘progressive’ in any sense. What about the ‘dignity of labor’ so hallowed by the Marxist tradition? I find the ‘just give them a check and they should be happy’ mentality degrading and paternalistic. Perhaps it is necessary–but don’t dismiss the cost to the soul.

^A brief parody of Kraemer and Sprenger (with all references entirely made up)

There are many who say that we should not wear masks in public. For has not Aristotle said in his Physic that, “to one is one thing, and another, like unto it, has the same properties” (B.V-8.12). So we see that all things “come unto all other things” (Averroes, De Civitate, Q. 12, p.4, S.4), so then it follows naturally that we follow The Almagest and declare that we maintain the motion of the “heavenly spheres,” which in this case means, our bodies. For Ptolemy has said much that many of the wise would hardly dare to gainsay.

And should not our bodies be compared to the heavenly spheres? For Plotinus has called us all a microcosm of the worthy cosmos, as have many holy men, though others have not agreed (Quintus, et al, Deus Mirabilius, Book II, p. 8). And is not the face the “bearer of all things” (Isocrates, Etymologies Part II, 6.7.8)? We bear with one another, then, for how else shall we live if we bear not with another, as Ulfin stated in Amor Arondus Ibid (Bk. II, p. 5)?

But others deny it, stating along with Avicenna that, “As things move, so they are distinct, for not all motion is equal (Figures, Book V.3-1).” Now if motion is not equal, than it means that motion must be set in a hierarchy, and to appear contrarian is not in the habit of the scholar, who seeks to have “all put in its proper place (Fabius, Magnus Opus, Bk. 1.3).” . . .

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

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

And now, the original review. . .

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

First, the weaknesses:

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

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

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

His argument runs like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Effects:

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

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

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

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

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

What lessons can be learned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking Tea in Wartime

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

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

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

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

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

But first, the book’s strengths . . .

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

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

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

Liddell Hart gives us some great insights in this book.

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

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

battle-of-ilipa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

A Donut Shaped Universe

If anyone every feels a tinge of excitement opening Plato’s Republic for the first time, many find the text quickly snuffs it out. This foundational philosophical work starts off with a rather mundane conversation. Then, when Plato starts to talk about how the state should be built, one of the first points he makes is that no one should more than one job, one task. Stay in your lane, and do not deviate. Otherwise, “great evil” would result.

Such pronouncements strike moderns as absurd and non-sensical. I myself like Plato and think The Republic deserves its place in the canon, but I too never really liked the explanation given by various commentators about this section of the work.

Ah . . . but Jane Jacobs may have discovered the answer–one I had never heard or considered before.

All readers know the pleasure of discovering a new author, with the prospect not only of the current book in front of you, but of all of their other works. Well, historians get the same thrill as seekers of fiction, and I have to say . . . Jane Jacobs has been too long absent from my life. I am not sure if I agree with her, but that is not the point. The best teachers you have had may not have agreed with you, but pushed you to think, explore, and wonder.

But I have another qualification for a good historian–one cannot be simply a “one thing after another” type of historian. I would not say that such people are in fact not historians–however good their research skills–for historians must create meaning. This means that historians must consciously synthesize even they do not wish to overtly systematize, Jacobs showed in her most famous work (which I have not read) The Life and Death of American Cities that she can pick order out of the seemingly scattered flotsam of different neighborhoods.

One wants to agree with such people, and I find it annoying for the moment that I cannot decide quite what I think about one of her perhaps lesser-known works, Systems of Survival, a book that attempts to unify the entirety of history into two moral systems, or two ways in which civilizations, organizations, or movements, can order themselves. I admire the audacity of the attempt, and I love too that she organizes her thoughts in the form of hypothetical conversations–more more books should take this accessible approach.*

Jacobs broadly identifies two “casts of mind” throughout history that derive from these two moral modes of being. The first, the “Guardian,” and the second, the “Commercial.” I think that “Cosmopolitan” fits better (my first minor disagreement with Jacobs), but I will stick with her terms. She has two of her characters demonstrate this with the following conversation:

Guardian: The love of money is the root of all evil.

Commercial: The love of power is the root of all evil.

G: History tells of the dynasties and the fates of nations and empires.

C: History tells us of how social, material, and economic conditions have changed.

G: The most valuable archeological findings are of art, religious artifacts, tombs, of kings, etc.

C: The most valuable artifacts are clues to how people lived everyday life, how they made their living, their tools and materials.

G: War and preparations for war are normal and peace a hiatus from war.

C: No–peace is normal, war is the aberration.

G: Man is a territorial animal.

C: People are city-building animals.

G: Knowledge is a weapon or possibly an adornment

C: Knowledge is a tool.

G: Intelligence gives us insight into others’ way of thinking–we should focus on what divides us.

C: Intelligence means primarily the ability to pick up new skills and good reasoning.  We should focus on what unites us.

G: China is prosperous at our expense.

C: China’s prosperity raises everyone’s standard of living.  Economic gain is not zero-sum.

G: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

Guardian: The love of money is the root of all evil.

Cosmopolitan: The love of power is the root of all evil

G: History tells of the dynasties and the fates of nations and empires.

C: History tells us of how social, material, and economic conditions have changed.

G: The most valuable archeological findings are of art, religious artifacts, tombs, of kings, etc.

C: The most valuable artifacts are clues to how people lived everyday life, how they made their living, their tools and materials.

G: War and preparations for war are normal and peace a hiatus from war.

C: No–peace is normal, war is the aberration.

G: Man is a territorial animal.

C: People are city-building animals.

G: Knowledge is a weapon or an adornment

C: Knowledge is a tool.

G: Intelligence gives us insight into others’ way of thinking–we should focus on what divides us.

C: Intelligence means primarily the ability to pick up new skills and good reasoning.  We should focus on what unites us.

G: China is prosperous at our expense.

C: China’s prosperity raises everyone’s standard of living.  Economic gain is not zero-sum.

G: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

C: The state exists for the sake of the people–that’s Locke, Rousseau, Madison–the social contract.

These casts of mind come from what Jacobs describes as two “moral syndromes.” By “syndrome” she simply means that the various parts of the moral system necessarily run together. She calls these the “Commercial” and “Guardian” moralities, and part of the vim and dash of the book is that she commits to the idea that these two “syndromes” are all that have ever existed. The values of each system are . . .

The “Commercial” Syndrome

Shun Force–Come to voluntary agreements

Be honest–collaborate easily with strangers

Compete–but respect contracts and other voluntary agreements

Use initiative and creativity

Be open to new things–change should be embraced

Be thrifty and efficient

Promote comfort and convenience

Dissent is valuable for the sake of the task

Invest for productive and practical results

Be optimistic

The Guardian Moral Syndrome

Shun trading, and exert prowess

Be disciplined and obedient

Value tradition and the ‘old ways’

Respect hierarchy–strive for loyalty

Make rich use of leisure–be ostentatious

Dispense largesse

Group exclusivity strengthens internal identity

Treasure honor

Jacobs has much to say about both, and of course both go right and wrong in different ways. In general, must of the world used to subscribe to a Guardian morality and now certainly the first world at least has shifted to the Commercial syndrome. But the shift has not been absolute, as ancient Babylon and classical Athens strike me as mainly “Commercial” in nature, and even “Guardian” civilizations had Commercial aspects. Cities, and any civilization with a port, generally needs to adopt a commercial mentality.

I found myself much taken with her analysis, as it explains a lot of the success and frustrations we have with our predicament. The benefits of the Commercial syndrome seem almost second-nature. Our religious and political freedoms arise from it. The material comforts we enjoy come from the speed of innovation (and its accompanying trampling of tradition) over the last 250 years.** Many of our “freedoms” have also resulted from a variety of moral innovations, especially in the area of sexual morality. To point out the obvious, if we like democracy we have to value collaborating with strangers.^

But a second look reveals its weaknesses. A “Commercial” society will never build pyramids or cathedrals–hence the constant critique of the vanilla tapioca nature democratic culture. The promotion of comfort will make it hard for us to sacrifice without an extreme need. The combination of valuing comfort and dissent make it hard to act as one with common purpose.

The Guardian Syndrome obviously has its associations with aristocracy and its attendant abuses–be they spiritual (such as pride), moral, (indolence) or otherwise–we see right away. But the Guardian syndrome can also give more civic-mindedness & “noblesse oblige.” Those in a Guardian society know their place and need not fight for it. Most every kind of environmental advocate, for example, uses aspects of the Guardian syndrome, i.e., hedging in and protecting defined spaces, and knows the futility of their approach to a Commercial syndrome society. Though it is anathema to the Guardian mentality of the movement, we will have to use Commercial moral values to solve the problem.

But back to Plato . . .

Jacobs surmises that what Plato might have meant by his condemnation of having more than one job or “calling” strongly correlates to these moral syndromes. When we “mix” these syndromes together we have the possibility of dangerous moral hybrids. A few examples . . .

  • In the 1980’s NYC sought to help fix crime on their subways by injecting the Transit Police (police have a natural Guardian morality) with certain Commercial incentives. The cops got rewards for things like efficiency, i.e., numbers of arrests, and competition (promotions for higher numbers). The result–Transit Police began falsely arresting people least able to fight the charges–the poor–who were mostly minorities.
  • The Nazi’s took certain aspects of the Guardian morality (such as defense of the homeland) and combined them with Commercial science, whose ‘innovation’ had spawned new racial theories, military ideas, and industrial capacity.
  • Marx hated bourgeois Commercial morality. But all of his theories lay rooted in western political categories of thought. One result–A generally Guardian mentality in terms of communal unity, but applied on a scale of universal Commercial ideology. Guardians tend towards being apolitical, but the Soviet Union also united the Guardian aspect of loyalty with Commercial ideological innovation. So–to be on the wrong side of the prevailing ideology=disloyalty to the state.
  • I think that SJW’s make the same moral monster, but start from the other end–the Commercial values of openness, inclusion, and moral innovation combined with the Guardian mentality of rigid loyalty and protection of its own–i.e. “safe spaces.”

Yes, Jacobs also discusses positive moral hybrids, but seems to lean towards Plato’s conclusion that mixing them brings problems more often than solutions.

So far, so good. I found Jacobs’ thoughts stimulating and illuminating. Where I part ways with her comes with her theory of how these two moral syndromes developed. She postulates a material cause for each, with the guardian mentality arising from war, and the commercial from trade. But it is mind that generates matter, so to speak. It is mind that shapes matter. I won’t defend this proposition here, suffice to say, as a Christian I reject a strictly materialist argument for the origins of civilization. But, still think that Jacobs has a point. These moral syndromes have ancient roots–more ancient than she supposes.

For civilizations to work, they must take into account both unity and diversity. Something must bring them together for a society to form at all, yet if this “something” binds them too tightly it will neglect their individuality. This has its roots in Being Itself. God is both Unity (1 God) and Diversity (3 Persons).

Christ, being both God and Man incarnated this duality/tension. He revealed to us both what I will “Open” and “Closed” ways of being. The Open way shows how God shows Himself in Nature (Ps. 19:1) or our fellow man (Mt. 25). Marriage is an icon of Christ and His Church. (Eph. 5). In other words, the Open way encourages us seek Truth in our experience of the world.

But just as often, we are encouraged to take the Closed way. We must gouge out our eye if it causes us to sin (Mt. 5). St. Paul often posits enmity between the world, the flesh, and the Spirit. Christ tells us that we must “hate” even our mother and father for the sake of the Kingdom. The Closed approach urges us to seek the Truth by narrowing, not broadening, our focus and shunning the trappings of this mortal coil that we might see God and God alone.

So–is the Open or Closed way superior? The answer, of course, is ‘Yes.”

I love that the world Jacob’s presents has coherence–two halves, coming together to make a whole. The problem is that, like a donut, it lacks a center. Without this center, Jacobs’ outstanding observations lack any real meaning. But with it . . . well, we have the possibility of real coherence.

And who would complain about having another bite of a donut?

Update . . . if only Jane Jacobs were here to comment on the Blue Angels flyover that happened Saturday (May 2), she might argue that one’s reaction to the event would pefectly pigenhole a person into one of the two aforementioned moral syndromes–if we keep in mind that heavily symbolic and “ostentatious” nature of the event:

Commercial:

  • This display wasted money that could have been used to so much better practical good
  • This display wasted time and effort.
  • This display foolishly misdirected our attention–encouraging the American public to look at the shiny object, rather than a) the problem itself, or b) the politicians and agency heads responsible for gross mismanagement of the whole pandemic.

Guardian:

  • We live by symbols, and having our most famous and powerful planes flyover gave the nation a powerful symbol of American pride and resolve.
  • These “unnecessary” displays are in fact, absolutely necessary. We are not materialists–we need such acts to lift us out of the mundane of our lives. We need ‘elevated’ out of our current circumstances. We need inspiration as a people if we are to win the “war” against the virus.
  • Leaders act responsibly when they provide these symbols for the people–something to inspire awe and help unify them.

*Another notable fact about Jacobs–she had no college degree and can be therefore classified as an amateur. Toynbee would have rejoiced.

**Though–different writers from different perspectives, such as Tyler Cowen, Ross Douthat, Peter Thiel, and even Jane Jacobs herself (in her last book Dark Age Ahead) have declared that innovation has essentially ceased in western economies.

^This kind of collaboration also seems on the decline, in Congress, in marriages (Republicans don’t marry Democrats, and vice-versa), etc.–and this may herald a decline in democratic practice.

The Invention of Strategy . . . Sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essentially, Hannibal’s strategy boiled down to:

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

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

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

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

and again,

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

and later again,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and,

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Festivals of the French Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Best Reason for Democracy is . . . Democracy?

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

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

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

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

What is democracy really about after all?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critics of Salmons conclusions have two good points.

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

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

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

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

Dave

Book XXIV

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

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

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

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

 

“The Sword and the Olive”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottoms Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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