Mr. No Depth Perception Man

There is an old SNL skit of the aforementioned title, in which a hapless suburbanite can only see in 2-D. He makes terribly awkward comments about his guests, assuming that he does so without the offended party being aware. An excerpt:

Mr. No Depth Perception Man: I can’t believe Brenda’s dating this loser! You know what she’s after, right?! I bet he’s got money, or something! [the “loser” he’s talking about is 7-8 feet away, looking quite awkward at his comments].

[Embarrassed Guest who knows the “loser” tries to get him to be quiet].

Mr. No Depth Perception Man: What are you worried about? Relax! He can’t hear me–he’s way down there!

I thought of the sketch when reading Leo Deuel’s enlightening and eminently fair Memoirs of Heinrich Schliemann. The book intersperses Schliemann’s own writing with commentary and context from Deuel throughout. This is needed to get an accurate picture, because Schliemann is, alas, not a reliable narrator–much less reliable than most.

I say, “alas,” because I confess to liking Schliemann, despite his enormous faults. Most modern history films I have seen that discuss him focus almost entirely on those faults (which I will get to) and basically pass by his vast contribution to the study of the ancient world and archaeology itself. He possessed an enormous talent for languages and learned several of them. He did this through optimism, the ability to engage in drudgery, and enormous exertions of will and energy–truly the quintessential 19th century man.*

Such men are out of fashion in our day, but I admit that I am not terribly sad that they are mostly gone. Such people are charming but also exhausting. Their vices, though perhaps childlike in a way, are all the more infuriating for the fact that they seem completely blind to them.** Schliemmann lived in a two dimensional world.

For example . . .

To get permission for his ground-breaking (zing!) work at Troy, Schliemann had to promise to turn over all he found to a museum being planned in Instanbul. He ended up giving them very little. As to the famous, “Treasure of Priam,” he very intentionally hid it from the Turkish authorities. His escape with various relics from the past got his Turkish overseer in a lot of trouble. Schliemann was a bit bothered by this, but it never crossed his mind to think of the artifacts as belonging to anyone but himself. Since I don’t think we can assume that Schliemann was directly evil, I suppose this was an unfortunate byproduct of his enormous self-will.

Schliemann uncovered some spectacular finds but often misinterpreted their significance. His errors would be easily excusable as a mistake or misguided educated guess. In Schliemann’s case, his mistakes came from his enormous though unconscious self-regard. Almost incredibly, his main justification, for example, for his claim that he had uncovered Agamemmnon himself at Mycenae was that the death mask he uncovered, “looks just as I imagined [Agamemmnon].” For Schliemann, his own imagination was all the “evidence” he needed.

Perhaps Schliemann’s daughter might sum him up best, with this brief recollection:

My early years living with this explosive, dedicated, and tireless man of genius was a stern trial . . . . Throughout my own girlhood he would often get me up at 5:00 in the morning in winter to ride horseback five miles to go swim in the sea, as he himself did every day. He built us a palace to live in, but it contained not one stick of comfortable furniture. He worked and studied standing at a high bookkeeper’s desk. As a gentle hint, Mother made him a present of an armchair, but he banished it to the garden.

His concern with health was fanatical. When my younger brother was baptized, with many guests solemnly assembled in church, my father suddenly whisked out a thermometer and took the temperature of the holy water. There was a great commotion; the priest was outraged. It took my mother’s gentle intervention to reinvest the water with holiness.

Beneath these imperious traits Father was warmhearted and generous to a fault. He was humble, too, in his own way.

After reviewing his life, I am hard-pressed to find a great deal of “humility” in Schliemann. Schliemann did mature a bit with each passing archaeological dig, both in his methods, and–by the end he let others take credit for their own discoveries! Perhaps Schliemann also possessed a humility towards the past, a virtue of his that should return.

Some of Schliemmann’s comments about his Greek workers grabbed my eye. It bothered him that they would not work on Sundays, but this he understood to a degree. What he could not understand was their refusal to work on certain other days, such as the festival of certain saints.

I suggested a likeness of Schliemann to a certain short-lived SNL character. He absolutely had his own superstitions, though he proceeded through life entirely unaware of them. Chief among Schliemann’s suerstitions I already mentioned, namely the implicit trust in his own imagination. So strong was this trust that it led him to declare that some discoveries of others were in fact his own!

We cannot say that this was an example of cultural bias or prejudice. Schliemann nearly worshipped Greece, or at least his idea of it. He married a Greek woman and gave his two children ancient Greek names (Andromache and Agamemmnon). He lived in Athens for much of his later life. Rather, it was the customs, or beliefs, that he could not understand. He wrote in his diary that,

There have been, including today, three great and two lesser Greek church festivals, so that out of these 12 days I have had in reality only seven days of work. Poor as the people are, and as they would like to work, it is impossible to persuade them to do so on feast days, even if it be the day of some unimportant saint . . . . I try to persuade the poor creatures to set their superstition aside for higher wages.

Even a cursory look at Schilemann’s life reveals at least a few “superstitions” of his own. Naturally, it depends on how one should define such a thing. But surely uncritical assumption that we can define reality for ourselves fits any reasonable description of “superstition.”

I am reminded of a famous passage in Plato’s Phaedrus in which Socrates and Phaedrus are walking through the city and come upon the supposed site of ancient story involving the gods. Phaedrus asks if Socrates believes the story, and he replies,

The wise are doubtful, and I should be singular if, like them, I too doubted. . . . Now if one were skeptical [about all stories] and would fain reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy will take up a great deal of time. Now I have no leisure for such inquiries. Do you wish to know why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance about myself, would be ridiculous. And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me.

If we might take another example of the “common opinion . . . ”

A long standing tradition states that Joseph of Arimethea came to Britain as a missionary shortly after Christ’s resurrection. Other parts of the story indicate that Joseph obtained his wealth via trade in tin, and likely made many excursions to the island for his business. Some parts of the tale indicate that Jesus Himself traveled with Joseph (His uncle) as a young boy on an adventure, and still some other parts of the tale say that the Virgin Mother accompanied Joseph on his missionary journey to the island.

Most of us might be inclined to doubt the whole story, if not at least some of its parts. No doubt Schliemann would call it “superstition.” And yet, the belief of Britain being evangelized quite early in the first century A.D. dates back to St. Clement of Rome, and St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine and others all testify to this fact. A great deal more evidence for this “superstitious tradition” may exist than we previously thought–such is the conclusion of Lionel Lewis in his informative work on St. Joseph and the Glastonbury tradition. Not all details of the traditional story have the same level of evidence for their historicity, but still, much more exists than we might suppose.

Schliemann’s intensely narrow passion helped him ignite a whole era of discovery about the ancient world. Indeed, many before him might have regarded some kind of historical belief in a Trojan War as a superstition backed only by “tradition.” Alas for him that this narrowness of vision closed him off to world’s outside of his own.

The “common opinion” perhaps might be true in the case of St. Joseph of Arimethea, just as it was about the Trojan War–as further excavations at Schliemann’s site have only further confirmed at least a rudimentary historical context to Homer’s tale. I wonder if Schliemann could grant the same to Greek saints of the Church–even the “unimportant” ones.

Dave

*England “ruled the world” during Schliemann’s era, and it is perhaps no coincidence that it was England that gave him the most favorable reception to his work. Schliemann might be described almost as an incarnation of England itself in all of their virtues and faults of the Victorian era.

**One thinks of the great line uttered by Patton in the Patton movie where he states to General Bradley, “Hell, I know I’m a prima dona! I admit it! What I can’t stand about Monty [General Bernard Montgomery] is that he won’t admit it!”

Words in Play

Lots of pendulum swings happen in the history of thought, but these pendulum swings sometimes resemble more the bending of a line towards the form of a circle instead of opposite points on a line horizontally. In other words, when certain positions get to their extremes, they start to resemble what they claim to oppose. Reality, when warped, curves back on itself.

For example, one could argue that the age of imperialism in Europe came from the conviction that a) We are better than you, and b) We are different than you. This is a caricature, but we can let it stand for our purposes. In turn, this attitude called forth the work of Joseph Cambell, who argued in his religious analysis that actually, nothing has any difference from anything else. Narcissus, Christ, Osiris, and so on all participate in the same reality and are basically the same god. On the surface this looks like the opposite end of the imperialist impulse, but as imperialism grew, the mingling of cultures grew, and the differences between the cultures start to blur. For example, we have Rudyard Kipling as one of imperialism’s strongest advocates, but much of his writing shows a fascination not with English culture, but with that of India and Afghanistan.

So . . . McBain was entirely correct to conflate the Commies and the Nazi’s.

Plato and Aristotle give us the foundation to western philosophy. Many first notice their differences, and certainly they parted ways in key areas. Plato emphasized the unity of things via the world of the forms. He sought to draw everything up into the eternal, i.e., when we come to know and understand something, we are in fact remembering something we used to know.* Aristotle differed from his teacher and focused on particulars. We know him best through his extensive categorizations. He separates that we might see things more clearly. It seems they occupy opposite points on a line, with opposite strengths and weaknesses. But in certain ways they share the same strengths and faults. Aristotle critiqued Plato’s overgeneralizing of concepts, but he himself seemed to overgeneralize everything in the mythical/spiritual realm, consigning it all to irrelevancy. Like Plato, he criticized aspects of Athenian religion but could not see the particular threads of truth within it. In turn, Plato’s focus on finding the eternal kernel of truth led him to define concepts so finely that in the Laches a general does not know what courage is due to his faulty definition. They both over-generalized at times, they both hyper-categorized other times.

Avoiding this warping effect might involve taking Aristotle’s “advice:” If you drill a hole all the way through the earth and fall down from the North Pole, stop and hover at the halfway point. The key to healthy societies as well as healthy thought comes from fusing “Heaven” and “Earth,” and not by camping out at either locale.

I never knew that Plato’s dialogue Cratylus even existed until a few weeks ago. Rather than the usual meandering conversation in most of his work, here he focuses entirely on the role of language, and names in particular. The issue has relevance especially in times of societal breakdown. Without a common cultural framework, language loses its power as a conveyor of meaning and a means of discourse, i.e., we no longer have an agreed upon meaning for important words such as “male and female,” “racism,” “love,” and so on.

The dialogue begins with one extreme tentatively suggested by Hermogenes, who argues that, “whatever anyone agrees to call a particular thing is its name.” Socrates teases out the implication of such a position, which means that something can have infinite names, “And however many names someone says there are for each thing, it will really have that number at whatever time he says it?” Hermogenes reluctantly agrees.

Of course this won’t do, and Socrates leads Hermogenes out of this thicket. The problem of meaning has a link to the problem of virtue. If we can give names to anything we wish and have that in fact be its name, then we in effect, become the arbiters of reality itself. For, “some statements are true, while others are false,” and “it is possible to say things that are and that are not in a statement.” We are not God and cannot make reality come into being by merely declaring it so. Otherwise good and evil have no real existence outside of our own minds, and so we can call nothing truly good or evil at all. Meaning and coherence break down. The question of language is much more than academic.

So words and their meaning cannot come into being from below. The “bottom of the mountain,” so to speak, has too much individuation and division to provide a platform for societies. As our examples above show (i.e., Kipling, etc.), this extreme individuation shakes hands with extreme unity, for it cannot properly divide anything at all according to its nature. So in the end, with this view, everything mashes up together.

Socrates and Hermogenes then seek to go up to the “top of the mountain” to attempt to find the origin of names. Names function as a means of instruction, as a means of “divid[ing] things according to their natures. As Socrates comments,

So just as a shuttle is a tool for dividing warp and woof, a name is a tool for giving instruction, that is to say, for dividing being.**

Just as not all can use the loom, so Socrates asks, “Do you think every man is a rule-setter, or only those who possess the craft?” Hermogenes concedes that one must have the craft. Control of language cannot belong to the individual alone, but nor to “every man.” One must have “the craft.”

So Cratylus is right in saying that things have natural names, and that not everyone is a craftsman of names, but only someone who looks the natural name of a thing and is able to put its form into letters and symbols.

Undoubtedly language shapes our perception of reality, and possibly more than that, for in Genesis God’s speech creates reality as we know it. The names He gives fixes the distinctions between things, and Adam’s naming of animals gives humanity a cooperative role in the creative process.

The theological dilemma of, “Is something good because God declares it to be good, or does God declare something good because it is good already,” has a mirror in the dilemma about language.^ No one person can simply declare a word to be a word and have it fixed for all time. Socrates struggles with finding the absolute in each word. He had penetrating insights regarding the essence of truth, but stumbled in its application. The same hold true in Cratylus. The dialogue continues on a long excursion where Socrates seeks the unity of the principle embodied in names, and their particular Greek phonetics. Some of these endeavors succeed more than others. But in the end, Socrates must face reality–other cultures have different phonetical constructions for words embodying the same principles.

Socrates: Here is what I suspect. I think that the Greeks, especially those who live abroad, have adopted many names from foreign tongues.

Hermogenes: What of it?

Socrates: Well, if someone were trying to discover whether the names had been reasonably given, and he treated them as belonging to the Greek language rather than the one they were really from, then he would be in a quandary.

Hermogenes: He very probably would.

Socrates: . . . Consequently, though one might say something about these names, one mustn’t push them too far.

This realization leads Socrates nearer the truth, that language, like truth itself, involves a union of the masculine principle of declaration from those “who know,” from above, and the fluidity of things on earth. Socrates comments,

Perhaps you didn’t that [the names] are given on the assumption that the they name are moving, flowing, and coming into being. . . . Wisdom (phronesis) is the understanding of motion (phoras noesis) and flow. Or it might be interpreted as taking delight in motion. . . . Wisdom signifies the grasping of this motion.

For the rest of the dialogue Socrates struggles to find a way to unite the masculine and feminine aspects of language, but can’t quite get there. Still, he makes the crucial realization of the need for the seed from above, the plant from below, or the pattern and its manifestation must go together. For Adam in the Garden (Genesis 2) his names correctly manifested this, for at that time he had perfect communion with the Father above and the (Mother) Earth below. But since the sin entered the world, we essentially fail in proper manifestation of language, which furthers confusion of meaning.

But though we fall short, we still have the image of God within us, and can use Socrates’ insight to evaluate how we use words and their relationship to truth. There exists, for example, a certain method of Bible study among Christians that involves

  • Finding out the Hebrew/Greek meaning of a particular word
  • Grabbing a concordance to see where that word gets used in different parts of the Bible, and then
  • Using the meaning in one context to determine its meaning everywhere in Scripture.

This ignores the fluid aspects of language, and the central importance of context over strict phonetics. We all know that the word “radical” can be a math term in one context, an outdated term from the 80’s in another, an adjective for a political ideology, and so on.

Many of our current cultural debates, however, center around ignoring the fixed aspects of language. We can all acknowledge that the meaning of “male” and “female,” for example, have certain contextual fluidities determined in part by culture. Some men may be more effeminate, some women more masculine, than others of the same sex. But surely being either male or female cannot mean anything we wish it to mean. Biology certainly gives us constraints on the meaning of sex. The very fact that we call some men more masculine than other men shows that we have a defined concept of masculinity we cannot escape even if we wanted to. Indeed, some of those who wish to introduce more fluidity to the concept of sex/gender also decry “toxic masculinity” more than others.

It seems that we must see language, along with the reality language describes/creates, existing in a hierarchy. At the top we have God, who in Christian theology can only be defined as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. Then at the bottom we have words like “green,” a collection of phonetic sounds that can refer to a color, a newbie on the job, a person with sea-sickness, and so on. Yet while these phonetic sounds can take on meanings essentially unrelated to each other, they each manifest connections to a particular idea. More fluidity in language exists at the bottom of the mountain, but . . . not chaos. Then somewhere in the middle of reality, we have words such as “male and female,” which have more defined limits, along with a degree of contextual meaning.

Though the Cratylus fails to stick the landing on a unified theory of language, Socrates rightly intuits that correct naming is a “beautiful work.” We recognize beauty when we recognize a pattern, a pattern of the marriage of heaven and earth, of unity and diversity.^^ When this reality gets warped both the language absolutist and the language relativist both destroy the beauty of language and its meaning. Contrary to some, language is not a tool of power, but of meaning. When weaponized we lose beauty, wisdom, and also power. For in reality, power cannot truly exist without its connection to Heaven.

Dave

*I should state now that I am a rank amateur in my knowledge of Plato and Aristotle. My critique is not meant to deny their rightful place in the history of philosophy.

**Here we see more evidence of Andrew Kern’s suggestion that weaving and wisdom are interrelated in the ancient world, thus, the Luddites rebellion against mechanical looms had little to do with economics and much more to do with maintaining meaning and coherence in society.

^This dilemma is really no dilemma at all to those who understand Christian theology. The Church has always said that the answer to the above dilemma involves splitting the horns–things are “good” because God made them, and are stamped with God’s being and character.

^^I will attempt an explanation of my meaning by thinking about a spectacular sunset. We look up, and see light from above-that’s purity/Heaven. The light then transforms, becomes more fluid/diverse as it interacts with matter, the stuff of Earth. This combination produces the beauty we are drawn to.

While only God is eternal and infinite, this union of Heaven and Earth will continue into eternity. In His resurrection Christ continues to have a physical body. And when He returns, He will descend, and we will rise to “meet Him in the air.”

Ascetic Harmony

I talked with a friend of mine recently who works in upper management of a major company. Officially, companies have a dedication to bottom line. But appearances can leave out part of the story. My friend talked of how different aspects of the company need to cooperate to achieve the goal of expanding customer base, increasing profit, and so on. It became obvious that certain programs advanced certain departments failed to work in achieving these goals. But in high-level meetings, this could never be said outright. He mentioned that he spent the better part of an hour on one slide for a presentation, and particularly one sentence on that slide where he had to say that ‘X’ hadn’t worked without actually saying it directly.

In the end he attempted a solution by bypassing direct criticism and instead left out mention of the program in what his team had accomplished. Not good enough–he had several rounds of post-meeting meetings to ‘clarify’ the situation.

We may think such behavior odd for a business in competition with others. Reading Philip Mansel’s new biography of Louis XIV, entitled King of the World, provided an interesting insight into this behavior. Essentially, the upper level of management at this particular company–and no doubt many others–functioned like a court, where etiquette and harmony trump the achievement of certain objectives. Or, rather, we might say that harmony, order, and gentility were the objective.

Though I have read some other things about Louis XIV before, Mansel provided an important insight I had not considered. For Mansel, Versailles existed primarily because Louis loved Versailles. It served as a grand passion for him. I and others often focus on the particular political ends Louis achieved partially as a result of Versailles, such as his centralization of government, control over the nobles, and so on. But I can’t stand medieval historians who say that the French built Chartes to increase trade in the area–an utterly absurd statement. But the same holds true for Louis. One might build a road to aid trade, but not a cathedral, which is essentially how Versailles functioned. Only acts of “love” can truly take root. Just as the Gothic cathedrals gave impetus to the shape of culture for 250 years, so too Versailles launched France into a place of prominence for perhaps 150 years, give or take.

The lens of “emotional attachment” through which Mansel viewed Louis makes a lot of sense. We see Louis elevating his illegitimate children in rank above certain other nobility, in defiance of custom. Was this a mere political ploy? One can also see him as acutely interested in the harmony of his family, though perhaps not necessarily as a devoted father. Louis also elevated the status of many women at court to never before seen heights. Again–a political, cultural move, or one rooted in his definite fondness for at least certain women? Mansel looks at the wars of Louis XIV, and again sees his actions rooted in a somewhat irrational longing, rather than clear-headed policy.

Though Louis had his significant failures we have to see him as overall a very successful monarch, at least in the sense of creating political stability and vaulting France into prominence in Europe.

But as we all know, coupled with the “romantic” side of Louis came strict and unusual etiquette. One could commit a grave offense for trivial matters such as knocking at the door in the wrong manner, or sitting in the wrong chair, or failing to open both doors for a Countess instead of just one, and so on. We see this passion for harmony and order throughout the grounds of Versailles, both inside

and out.

We should not see this as pure self-indulgence–the rigorous etiquette shows that. Many other anecdotes exist about the behavior of the nobles in Versailles, especially as it relates to money. One of the few activities at Versailles that all could engage in more or less equally was gambling. Before reading Mansel, I saw this primarily as a means of control, with the ebb and flow of fortunes exchanging hands serving to weaken the nobility. Now, I see it more so as a gift from Louis which allowed everyone present to engage in aristocratic disdain for money. The gambling tables created a sense of harmony in that winning or losing mattered little in comparison to display of aristocratic virtues and conviviality.

Indeed, perhaps we can see court behavior at Versailles as a kind of rigorous self-abandonment–one leaves their estates, some of their family, their customs, and their fortunes to join together as one happy family.

Not long after Louis’ death in 1715 a new kind of ethic arose, one ably elucidated by Max Weber in his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber was certainly a genius, and a German one at that, which makes his prose quite dense. But, despite the significant criticisms leveled at this seminal work over the last century, I’m convinced his core points remain standing.

Early in the work, Weber cites a letter of Ben Franklin to his son to show the new Protestant ethic, at its face a radical departure from the nobles at Versailles just 30-40 years earlier. Franklin writes,

Remember that time is money. He that can earn 10 shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, though he spends only 6 pence on diversions, ought not to reckon that as his only expense.  He must think of what he could have made through labor, rather than what he lost through diversion.  

Remember that credit is money.  If a man lets his money in my hands after it is due, he gives me the interest, or so much as I can make of it during that time.  This amounts to a considerable sum, if a man can make use of it.  Remember that money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more.  The more there is, the more is produced.  He that kills a breeding sow destroys not just the cow but her offspring unto the generations.  

Remember this saying, “The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse.”  He that is known to pay punctually and exactly to the time he promises, may at any time, raise all the money his friends can spare.  This is sometimes of great use.  After industry and frugality, nothing raises a man more in the world than punctuality in all of his dealings. 

The most trifling actions that can affect a man’s credit are to be regarded.  The sound of your hammer on the anvil at 5 in the morning and 8 at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy 6 months longer; but if he hears your voice in a tavern when you should be at work, he will demand payment in full without fail and without delay.

Keep an exact account of all you owe and all payments coming to you.  You will then notice well how even trifling expenses add up against you, and you will discern what might have been.  You will grow wise with little effort.

One might see here a self-indulgent of luxury, of riches for the sake of riches. But we see here a similar sense of self-abandonment as at Versailles, with different tools directed at different ends. We must live frugally, arrive punctually, etc. so that . . . ? Weber sees the connections between Protestantism–especially the Calvinistic stripes–and Capitalism, in the following ways:

  • The grace of God, and hence, salvation, can never be earned. Forms, ceremonies, etc. are not aids but distractions to proper devotion. We should ascetically remove all such distractions, lest we indulge ourselves and think that any ceremony has any efficacious quality.
  • But how to know that we are truly elect? We can do the works God has commanded us to do. These works, of course, cannot save us but can witness to others of our convictions.
  • Since God orders all things providentially, and is no respecter of persons, all activities can serve as a means of displaying Christian virtues.
  • In the old Catholic world, different seasons of the year called for different levels of piety and devotion, and different practices. But–aside from unnecessary ceremony–this is a crutch, allowing one to “get off easy.” Just as God is no respecter of persons, He is no respecter of time or space. Everything at all time deserves our full attention and best effort.

This “worldly asceticism,” as Weber calls it, creates capitalist economies. Of course, “the love of money is the root of all evil,” but Franklin’s pursuits have money only as a byproduct. The real goal is virtue and “election.”* The aristocrat and the capitalist both disdain and embrace the world, but in different ways for different reasons.**

One can see how harmony might come about as a result of Louis XIV. Instead of having aristocrats fight each other and the king, he brought them together and unified them through their enchanted surroundings and ritualized behavior. We know this world could not withstand the mulititude of changes that arose almost right after Louis’ death, but it has an internal consistency. One problem–Louis’, while outwardly pious, made the highest end his own Disneyland.^ Unlike the medieval construction, Louis’ France could not “scale up” high enough to include enough particularity throughout his realm. We are now in the midst of wondering whether or not our world can create enough harmony to sustain our civilization. The capitalist ethic, like our political system in general, is built on the idea of mutual opposition and competition (between companies or branches of government) creating enough unity through this clash of mutual self-interest (i.e., Madison’s “Federalist #10). We shall see.

Many conservatives were surprised, even blindsided, by the fact that so many corporations adopted woke policies. Weber would see this as a natural byproduct of “worldly asceticism,” a form of self-denial to create harmony. Like Louis’ Versailles, even slight, trivial missteps assume grand proportions. But like Louis’ construct, it cannot scale to include enough particularity. Their god is too small.

Dave

*Some critics of Weber point out that capitalism existed long before Protestantism. True–in the sense that people have sought profit and traded with others since time immemorial. However, I think it no coincidence that modern Democratic capitalism was created by both Dutch Calvinists (New York, Amsterdam, the Vanderbilts) and Scotch/English Low Country Calvinists (Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie, London, and Boston).

**Seen this way, it makes total sense to me why many Americans wanted to keep Catholics out of America up until the late 19th century. The issue goes beyond religious difference and into two very different ideas of cultural formation. As it turned out, they need not have worried, as the American system soon captured Catholics and most other immigrants.

^Versailles and Disneyland have much in common. They both have immaculate landscaping, and seek to create a kind of alternate universe. Some years ago I knew someone who had worked at Disneyland as a landscape supervisor. The pay was good, but he grew weary of the job due largely to the severe etiquette involved, such as

  • Tools always had to be lined up parallel to each other on the ground
  • Golf cart drivers always had to have two hands on the wheel
  • Regular band-aids could not worn for cuts. Disneyland supplied their own flesh-colored ‘invisible’ band-aids.
  • Workers could not really talk to each other while working in public view–they needed to be as invisible as possible (much like household servants in all of those British dramas).

Tradition and Technology

Those who regularly read this blog know that I tend to favor traditional values and traditional societies. Those like me need to realize that things change inevitably, making the challenge knowing how to change and stay the same all at once. Those on the opposite side need to realize that “change” is not a good word, any more than “tradition” is a dirty one.

Traditionalists must face the question of the role of technology. Certainly one could have a society that held tightly to tradition with little-no technological development. Is it possible for tradition to captain the ship while innovating technologically, and maintaining a robust economy? The question has immediate cultural and political relevance for those like me, Charles Haywood, and others. Much of our economic growth appears dependent on new technology. If a new cultural and political version of America is on the horizon, can it combine an anchor of tradition and still give us Amazon (which I do not regard as a dirty word necessarily)? Or, perhaps we need to choose one or the other, and accept the consequences. I have no clarity on this, though I suspect we may have to choose.

This question has interest in the abstract, but possibly we gain more clarity if we have a specific example, maybe even one out of left field . . . such as the development of handwriting from the classical era until today.

Ancient Writing and its Influence by B.L. Ullman lives up to its title but in a narrow sense. Ullman wrote originally in 1932–thankfully. I think if he wrote today it would be impossibly technical with much poorer writing. Even so, many parts of the book I read with semi or fully glazed eyes. As a sample, I open randomly to page 74, which reads,

The term half-uncial is sometimes used for mixed uncials of the type described, but in a narrower sense it applied to a very definite script that became a rival of uncial as a book script from the fifth to eight centuries. Again the name is unfortunate in its suggestion that it was derived from uncial. Rather it is the younger brother of that script, making us of an almost complete minuscule alphabet. It does not use the shapes of ‘a’, ‘d’, ‘e’, ‘m’ characteristic of uncial script but rather those of modern minuscule type, except that the ‘a’ is in the form used in italics, not roman. The only letter which maintains its capital form is ‘N’, and this letter readily enables one to distinguish this script from later minuscule. The reason for the preservation of this kind of ‘N’ was to avoid confusion with the minuscule ‘r,’ which in some half-uncials is very much like ‘n.’ The desire to avoid ambiguity is seen also in the ‘b,’ which is the form familiar to . . .

So, what Ullman means mostly about influence is how one form of writing influenced another kind of writing in a nearly purely technical sense. I wanted more on how changes in writing either propelled or reflected changes in the culture at large. Ullman gives us some hints of this, and his extensive, precise knowledge gives some space to the reader for guessing on our own.

We can start by recognizing that the phonetic alphabet itself ranks as one of the more propulsive and destructive (creatively or otherwise) of human technologies. Marshall McCluhan noted this with keen historical insight, in a famous interview (the ‘M’ is McCluhan, the ‘Q’ for the interviewer):

M: Oral cultures act and react simultaneously, whereas the capacity to act without reacting, without involvement, is the special gift of literate man.  Another basic characteristic of [pre-modern] man is that he lived in a world of acoustic space, which gave him a radically different concept of space-time relationships.

Q: Was phonetic literacy alone responsible for this shift in values from tribal ‘involvement’ to civilized detachment?

As knowledge is extended in alphabetic form, it is localized and fragmented into specialities, creating divisions of function, classes, nations.   The rich interplay of the senses is sacrificed.

Q: But aren’t their corresponding gains in insight to compensate for the loss of tribal values?

M: Literacy . . . creates people who are less complex and diverse.  . . . But he is also given a tremendous advantage over non-literate man, who is hamstrung by cultural pluralism–values that make the African as easy a prey for the European colonialist as the barbarian was for the Greeks and Romans.  Only alphabetic cultures ever succeeded in mastering connected linear sequences as a means of social organization. 

Q: Isn’t the thrust of your argument then, that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet was not progress, but a psychic and social disaster?

M: It was both.  . . . the old Greek myth has Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to man, sowing dragon’s teeth that sprang up from the earth as armed men.

My meager knowledge of pre-historic man (so called) will not prevent me from thinking that McCluhan exaggerates to a degree–the written word need totalize all of our being. Still, we must acknowledge that we cannot expand our abilities infinitely, and if we go “deep” in one area we will certainly see shallow waters in other aspects of our being. We can also acknowledge that we how we present the world to others will reflect and shape our beliefs about the world. It need be the chicken or the egg as to whether it reflects or shapes–we can say that both happen.

Ullman makes a few opening technical remarks perhaps designed to quell those who want to make large conclusions from changes in writing over the years. Sometimes changes in writing come from changes in the medium of the writing. Writing primarily on stone lends itself much more to straight lines and hard angles, as opposed to paper or even papyrus. Very true, but this also begs the question as to why a people use stone or scrolls in the first place. Eventually certain choices become second nature, but not at the beginning of the switch, which involves more conscious choice. I remain convinced that switches in the medium for writing, and how they write, surely mean something. Few aspects of our being rank higher in importance in our desire to connect with others, to achieve understanding from person-person, not just of content but of the meaning of that content. We accomplish this best face-to-face, where we express the full panoply of the message with our bodies as well as words. This means that when apart, the written words we choose, and how we present those words, seek in some way to make up for the absence of the body.

For this reason, and others, I say we can deduce much from the script of a civilization.

My theory runs like so: the more a civilization develops, the more refined its writing. This, I admit, means hardly saying anything more important than 2+2=4. But I hope to venture a step further, and suggest that perhaps we can wonder whether that development/refinement will preserve its civilizational ethos, or propel it away from its center. Not all growth is good.

We can start by examining the development of Roman script, with the first example from perhaps the 6th century B.C.

And now, moving forward in time to ca. AD 70

The latter examples show refinement and a development into a clear style that everyone recognizes as “Roman.” But with the codification has come “Empire.”

As the empire declined and we move into late antiquity, their writing changed as well, showing perhaps more of a Greek influence, with these first examples from likely the 400’s AD (apologies for intrusion of my fingers).

and these from 1-2 centuries later.

I suggest the changes could come from from more cultural blending, and less control over the empire, as the differences between “barbarian” and “Roman” blurred.

And now, for the development of Greek script. First, from 700 B.C.

Within just a few centuries, we see quick development of a more elegant but also more “rigid” script style, from the 5th century BC in Athens, with the second example a few decades later than the first.

As Greek power wanes in the 4th century BC, their script becomes a bit more fluid, just as in Rome:

With the establishment of more Roman presence in the Greek east after Constantine, Greek script grows a bit more fluid over time, with the examples below showing a progression of about a century.

Then, as the western part of the empire collapses, the writing gets more fluid and stylized, with the dating as the 9th century, 12th century, and the 15th century, respectively, just before Moslem conquest of Constantinople.

In the west, the collapse of Rome led to the development of a new civilization. First, for some context, Roman writing in the 5th/6th centuries, AD:

and Visigothic writing from north Italy, ca. 9th century AD:

Other European cultures had a bit more development than the Visigoths, however, and we see this reflected somewhat in their script, with the first two being Anglo-Saxon from the 8th century, and the last Carolingian from the 9th century, as the “Carolingian Renaissance” had gotten underway by then:

By the 12th century, we see more elegance and uniformity, as in previous civilizations over time.

In parts of France, we have a parallel development of sorts, with each example progressing from the early to late 9th century near Tours.

As the Middle Ages develop, you get more refinement, but less overall readability, with these examples from the 12th century,

and then into the 13th and 14th centuries,

which seems to almost beg for a correction with the coming of the Italian Renaissance in the mid-15th century.

Ullman’s excellent visuals make his text intelligible for novice’s like myself, and allow us to speculate on some broader conclusions.

It seems that the scripts go through three phases that seem to circle back on one another.

  • First, you have early script, which has less uniformity, is “sloppier,” and more free, in a way.
  • Second, as the civilization develops and gets on its feet and flexes a bit, the script gets more uniform, and certainly in the case of Greece and Rome, “blockier.”
  • Then, as the civilization wanes, either physically, intellectually, or both, the script gets more fluid. In Rome, you see the blending of Greek and Roman influences towards late antiquity. In the Middle Ages, you see ornamentation increase nearly beyond the pale, which brings back the Carolingian, more Roman, unified style.

One might suggest that we get a an interesting comparison between the Roman Empire of the Augustan age, the Byzantines, and the Latin west at the “peak” of their powers. Roman script screams empire and control (see “Plate 2” above), whereas the other two have more breath in their writing, with more feminine qualities. I think the comparison helps, but we must take the scholar’s caution, for Ullman reminds us that writing on parchment allows for a lot more fluid motion than writing on stone.

We can apply all of this to our original question: can a civilization maintain a firm anchor in tradition and still innovate?

As Rome’s republic fell into disarray, many contemporary historians lamented the decline of the old ways. Historians always lament the decline of the old ways. But Rome’s unwritten constitution relied on tradition to work, and the letter of the law could not save the republic. We know too that Augustus sought to promote a return of traditional values even as he consolidated power in a non-traditional way, an indication that the perception that “times had change” involved more than grumpy historians. We can confidently say that Rome’s gives us one significant data point that points to tradition eroding as innovation in their writing increased.

Greece has a slightly different story. They standardize their writing more quickly than Rome, and then change it a bit more quickly again after that. Their more fluid and script has a warmer, more human feel, and suggests that perhaps they maintained traditions more effectively than Rome. However, no one argues that Greece in the 4th-3rd centuries BC were at the top of their game.

As for the Byzantines, a variety of historians from the Enlightenment onwards critiqued what they saw as their slippery, devious methodology in international relations. Edward Luttwak’s brilliant book on the Byzantine’s grand strategy shows that their foreign policy choices were methodical and moral, consistent with a power facing multiple enemies over a wide front. Surprisingly or no, their handwriting seems to mimic the fluidity of their geopolitics. My knowledge of Byzantine history has gaping holes, but based on my perusal of The Glory of Byzantium they maintained a clear and consistent artistic style while innovating and changing their technique. Marcus Plested has shown that many theologians interacted positively with the early medieval philosophical tradition. They seemed to manage a balance of some kinds of innovation without sacrificing tradition and identity. However, they fell to the Moslems, albeit after a 1000 year run. If innovation forms the kernel of success and power (a big “if), they failed to innovate fast enough to protect themselves fully.

With the medievals we see something similar. They created an original style that peaked perhaps in the 11th-12th century, the same century that saw an explosion of cathedral construction in the Gothic style. In both writing and architecture, one sees innovation that reinforced rather than altered their traditions. But Ullman argues–and the visual evidence seems indisputable–that as their script continued to “innovate” its functionality markedly decreased. They then snapped back to the tradition of writing extant centuries prior. But the Renaissance had no intention of reaffirming tradition per se. Instead, Renaissance humanists led an artistic, architectural, and philosophic movement that dramatically changed society, abandoning a host of traditions (though in fairness the Black Death had something to do with this as well).

Our look at four civilizations fails to provide a decisive answer. In Rome and classical Greece, innovation seemed to stifle tradition and presaged decline. In Byzantium and medieval Europe, innovation initially accompanied “measurable” growth in their civilizations, to say nothing of what we cannot measure, but it seemed also to run its course. People imagine Nothing lasts forever, and one wonders whether or not civilizations can possibly extend their lives ad infinitum regardless of their choices to rapidly change or resist it at all costs.

It seems we must table the discussion, but we have hints. We don’t often think of tradition and fluidity existing in tandem, but it works at least when both sides get the balance right. After all, men and women have been marrying each other since the dawn of time. Perhaps what we see in Gothic Europe and Byzantium should not therefore surprise us. Perhaps the desire to lock things in place too severely effectively takes the air out of tradition, killing the best of what makes a civilization tick, i.e., Athens killed Socrates just as they rigidified their script. Perhaps we can conclude these things if handwriting reliably guides us.

Perhaps . . . to be continued . . .

Dave

A Method to the Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

garden-versailles_6475_600x450

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

Dave

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

Tolerance and Intolerance

I appreciate writers with strong points of view who take big swings. I wince at those who swing and miss badly, but I can usually admire the effort. I can usually forgive those whom I think get things wrong if I perceive that they try to see different sides of an issue. For example, I think Arthur Miller gets the Puritan witch trials mostly wrong in The Crucible, but he still writes a good play, because he clearly understands the strengths of the Puritans and what virtues might have led them down a wrong path. One can see good and bad, but misinterpret the place and balance of each in a particular epoch. What sends me to an early grave are those who see different possible sides of a civilization and interpret all sides negatively as it suits their purpose.

For example, the Old Testament has come under deconstructive criticism for the last 150 years or so, as various Germans have tried to reduce the authority of the text by pointing out two contradictory things:

  • The texts are a mashup of various Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian etceteras that contradict each other at a variety of places, or
  • The text is the work of a devious editor, carefully culling and sculpting a single product from a variety of sources, who tries to present a Potemkin village of unity, and hence, authority. Thank goodness for all those 19th century Germans, who, after millennia of wool pulling by said devious editors, finally exposed their wicked ways.

In other words, the Old Testament is made to seem meaningless for completely opposite reasons. Choose whatever view of the text you like–you can’t win either way. Or, you can have any color you like, as long as it’s black.

The Middle Ages, a relatively recent battleground for modern political controversies, also gets it with both barrels for different reasons. On the one hand,

  • They were strongly authoritarian and narrow, throttling heretics and witches, science and philosophy, at their leisure, or
  • That out of weakness, unable to stamp out pagan gods and folkways, they stooped to a muddy, broad syncretism in culture and religion.

Hypothetically they could resemble one or the other, but not both at the same time.

Every civilization must have its “narrow” traits, for we must define ourselves in some particular way in order to distinguish from others. And, every civilization has its broad traits, for every human friendship, marriage, or political association will involve some kind of “mixing” and compromise. Intolerance and tolerance both have their place–just make sure you have the proper places for them. The historian then, must construct a narrative by attempting to see how and why civilizations made their choices, by attempting to find their modus operandi, and work outwards from there. If they fail to see this central point of departure, they will conflate things in all the wrong ways.

Ultimately I found myself conflicted by John Williamson’s The Oak King, the Holly King, and the Unicorn, which attempts to explain medieval symbolic thought and culture. Williamson knows many facts, and I found some of his observations about the famous unicorn tapestries illuminating. But at times, he commits the worst of errors, stooping to sheer imbecility.

For example . . .

As the title indicates, he devotes a portion of the book to showing the role of oak trees in the medieval mind. Now, most anyone who has seen an oak tree and noted their size and age, might easily guess as to why such wondrous things might fascinate anyone. But for his answer as to why the medievals valued oaks, Williamson quotes approvingly from Joseph Frazer, who writes,

“Long before the dawn of history, Europe was covered with a vast primeval forest which must have exercised a profound influence on the thought as well as the life of our rude ancestors who dwelt dispersed under the gloomy shadow or in the open glades and clearings of the forest. Now, of all the trees which composed those woods the oak appears to have been the most common and the most useful.” Thus [writes Williamson], it was natural enough that the oak should loom so large in the religion of a people who “lived in oak forests, used oak timber for building, oak sticks for fuel. “

So–the “rude” ancestors who lived in a “primeval” forest “must have”–surely they must have–had a fascination with oaks because of the particular geography they inhabited. They then passed this fascination on down to their ancestors. Ok, I think this wrong-headed, but it is a coherent point of view.

But, in the next few paragraphs, Williamson then shows the universality of the importance of oaks, citing that the Greeks and the Norse both gave a high place to oak trees also–neither of which lived in geographies with dense “primeval” forests. So they “must have” been fascinated with oaks because they were not so plentiful where they lived? Almost on the same page, seemingly without realizing, Williamson

  • Shows that the medievals got their ideas from “rude” ancestors in their one, narrow, backward part of the world, and
  • They borrowed from universal, pre-Christian “pagan” ideas from more developed civilizations with more developed mythologies.

It baffles me, and keeps me up late at night clacking on the keyboard, that Williamson cannot see the inherent contradiction.* To make matters worse (if possible), Williamson never wonders why a similar symbolic meaning for oak trees has permeated different cultures across time and space. His curiosity extends only to the facts, and not to the reason for, or the meaning of, the facts, despite the fact that anyone who has seen an oak tree can make a better guess than he. This too I find incomprehensible and indefensible, and errors of approach like this find their way into different aspects of the book.

Williamson has strengths as an author. Many see the medievals lack of experimentation as an inherent weakness. Williamson sees it as at least a semi-deliberate choice, and I say bravo to him for that. Medieval people preferred bringing things together rather than pulling them apart. They constructed, while we deconstruct. Science, or certain kinds of science, has the marvelous ability to break things down into smaller components–no doubt a useful skill at times. Williamson rightly recognizes, however, that science cannot give the kind of cohesion that medievals sought. The medievals constructed cohesion and meaning through story and symbol, realms where science has little to no part to play.

I also appreciated Williamson’s insights into holly, which strangely I had never thought of before, despite a variety of Christmas hymns that reference holly. Every culture has more or less associated winter with death, but evergreens remind us of the promise of new life even in the midst of death. The red berries on holly trees add extra meaning, with a foreshadowing of Christ’s shed blood even in His birth. Williamson then deftly turns to an interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with insights that I had thought of before related to oak and holly, and the interplay between winter and summer, death and life, that mirrors the tension between the Green Knight and Gawain.

Kudos to Williamson for seeing that medieval people, and most any other pre-modern people, consciously constructed their world through participation. They of course concerned themselves to a point with belief in a more abstract sense. But participation mattered much more to them, that is, entering into the reality professed through ritual reenactment. He applies this pattern to medieval thoughts about unicorns. I address whether or not unicorns actually physically existed in another post. For us “literal” existence of the unicorn is what really matters, but not so for medieval people. For them, the meaning of the unicorn was its reality. We might understand this, if we say that “obviously Santa Claus exists.” We know what he looks like, and how he is supposed to act. We know that when he steps outside of certain bounds, he will be unmasked as “not really Santa.” In this sense, most of us interact with Santa every year.

“Ah,” one might say, “but we can visit Santa at the mall, whereas we cannot hunt unicorns unless they actually exist somewhere.”

This is certainly a fair point.

But given the Christological symbolism of the unicorn hunt–the ‘wooing’ of God through beauty, the death of the Christ figure, etc.–medieval people entered into the hunt through participation in the liturgical cycle. Even supposing that unicorns physically existed and that medieval people really hunted them (this is not my view), the unicorn hunt tapestries did not depict an actual hunt, for the final frame has the unicorn resurrected, enclosed in a wedding band of sorts, “married” to the people as an image of salvation, it’s wounds still visible just as Christ’s.

Working Title/Artist: The Unicorn in Captivity Department: Medieval Art Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: ca. 1495-1505 photography by mma, DP118991.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 4_2_08

So despite my heavy criticism of Wiliamson earlier, he understands and appreciates certain aspects of medieval thought better than most. But as mentioned earlier, he has no larger frame into which he can think about the bigger, more important questions of why Christians used classical and mythological sources as they did.

Those who seek for a “pure” Christianity unmixed with any particular culture will seek for a long time. Some aspects of Mosaic law resemble laws from Babylon and other cultures. Certain parts of Genesis seem written at least partly in response to surrounding creation narratives. Some decry the “Greek” influence on the early church fathers but Judaism and Greek culture had interacted for centuries prior to Christ’s coming, at least as far back as the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, from which the Apostles quoted in the New Testament. Very early in the church’s history depictions of Christ took on some Roman forms and tropes.

True, the Church warred against the pagan culture around them, showing their “intolerance.” But almost all of our written sources from the classical world come down to us only because monks copied, preserved, and protected those manuscripts. Many are aware of this fact, yet few take it into their heads why the Church encouraged such behavior. It takes quite a leap of faith to imagine monks scattered throughout saying something like, “The Church has grown stronger and more numerous through the blood of countless martyrs for three centuries. We have done what no other civilization accomplished and conquered Rome. But we have no confidence in our message or our faith. Let’s copy their manuscripts, and incorporate their artistic style, and maybe if we’re lucky they’ll hear us out and convert.” Most sane people look at Dante, for example, and marvel at his integration of biblical and contemporary history, and classical and Christian culture. We don’t assume that he made Virgil his initial guide due to the weakness of his faith. We should not do so with the civilization that produced him.

One must decide how to interpret medieval incorporation of pre-Christian ideas, whether they acted out of weakness or confidence.

Every reason exists within the history of the church to see this move as one of confidence, a consistent outworking of bedrock theological principles.

If, as the Creed declares, that all things were created in, through, and by Christ, then we might naturally expect creation to witness to that fact. In the 3rd century Origen wrote that,

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

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

Dionysius the Areopagite later wrote (perhaps 6th century AD?) concerning hierarchies and their images that,

The purpose, then, of Hierarchy is the assimilation and union, as far as attainable, with God, having Him Leader of all religious science and operation, by looking unflinchingly to His most Divine comeliness, and copying, as far as possible, and by perfecting its own followers as Divine images, mirrors most luminous and without flaw, receptive of the primal light and the supremely Divine ray, and devoutly filled with the entrusted radiance, and again, spreading this radiance ungrudgingly to those after it, in accordance with the supremely Divine regulations. 

We can add St. Maximos the Confessor (7th century) to our query, one of the very greatest minds of the Church. He picked up these threads and developed the idea of the Logos and the logoi, that is, how the diversity of things coheres in the Logos/God-Man (without confusing or diminishing any particularity). One commentator writes,

The supreme unity of the logoi is realised in and by the Logos, the Word of God himself which is the principle and the end of all the logoi. The logoi of all beings have in effect been determined together by God in the divine Logos, the Word of God, before the ages, and therefore before these beings were created; it is in him that they contained before the centures and subsist invariably, and it is by them that all things, before they even came into existence, are known by God. Thus every being, according to its own logos, exists in potential in God before the centuries. But it does not exist in act, according to this same logos, except at the time that God, in his wisdom, has judged it opportune to create it. Once created according to its logos, it is according to this same logos again that God, in his providence, conserves it, actualises its potentialities and directs it toward its end in taking care of it, and in the same way by his judgment he assures the maintenance of its difference, which distinguishes it from all other beings.

Here–and elsewhere–lies the foundation for how to deal with the pagan past. It need not be wholly good, for “all the gods of the nation are demons” (Ps. 96:5). But, pagans also are made in the image of God, and so the Church knew that fractals of the Logos lay there as well. Here lies an entire framework for medieval people to examine and integrate the past. One might debate what to include, and what to exclude, but clearly they knew the necessity of both.

As we approach Epiphany, the pattern for how to see as the medievals saw shows itself in the Scriptures and prayers of the Church. The magi, likely from Babylon, looked to astrology, and a star guided them to the maker of stars. “Those who worshiped the stars were taught by the stars to worship You, o Sun of Righteousness” (Christmas troparion). The “Sun” here is not a typo. God uses their idolatry and affirms something of it–that’s tolerance, if you like. But the Church also shows where the magi fall short, and transforms their false faith into a pointer to Truth, the Sun who is the Son. At a certain point, one cannot tolerate paganism and remain a Christian.

To my mind, this is the project of Christendom in a nutshell.

Dave

*Any student of mine, past or present, actually reading this post who wants to get revenge on me in any way . . . you need not worry about putting a tack on my chair, or not turning in homework, or talking in class. You simply need to go onto graduate school, get an advanced degree in Cultural Studies (or something like that), get published, and write the kind of nonsense as Williamson has here. I guarantee you will make me question the very reason for my existence.

When Williamson strays from the details and attempts to draw broad conclusions, he makes blood boiling mistakes dealing with Christian and pagan distinctives. For example, on page 98, he compares Christ to “other vegetation deities . . . such as Narcissus and Adonis.” Narcissus and Christ?! I ask you!

Dueling for your Health

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

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

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

Some personal examples . . .

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

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

Another example . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

I still wonder about the possible ancillary benefits of duels.

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

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

-Dave

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

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

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

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

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

Song of Wrath

For years now I have wondered how many books actually get published.  In the Christian book world every year, for example, books on prayer, grace, parenting, and so on tumble off the shelves each year.  Those I glance at sound almost exactly the same.  Of course it’s no business of mine that books are published, but nonetheless, I am surprised.

The same phenomena exists in the world of history as well, perhaps especially in ancient history. Here we deal with limited sources and unsure timelines, and so it seems that one can say only so much.  When dealing with the Peloponnesian War I thought that we had reached our limit.  The advent of archaeology and the concomitant renewed interest in the ancient world in the late 19th century begot groundbreaking history on ancient Greece. This all culminated, I thought, with Donald Kagan’s masterful four-volume work published in the 1960’s-70’s.  Having read portions of those books, I thought that the final word had been uttered.  Victor Davis Hanson’s uneven A War Like No Other, and Nigel Bagnall’s  disappointing book on the conflict proved to me that indeed Kagan had the last word. Now saying anything else would put one in an awkward position . . .

Or so I thought.

After all, in any field we should encourage new books because we have to encourage new ways of thinking.  Maybe 90% of what gets published never need see the light of day but that 90% might be needed to get the 10% that shines new light just where it’s needed.

Enter J.E. Lendon, Virginia’s own spirited iconoclast, and his new book Song of Wrath.

Every student of the Peloponessian War rightly begins with Thucydides, and he impresses immediately with his penetrating analysis and fluid arguments.  He talks little about what would be for us, the curiosities of ancient life (commonplaces to them of course), and instead focuses on what moderns would tend to appreciate.  For Thucydides, practical power politics and universal psychological principles explained the war.  But Lendon points out that the very fact that Thucydides has to argue for his point of view shows that he departed from traditional ways the Greeks understood conflict.  He did not reflect, then, a typical Greek understanding of the war.  This does not mean he was wrong, but it means that we must wonder if this great authority spoke rightly.  In the end, Lendon admirably challenges some of Thucydides’ key beliefs and conclusions.

Lendon begins his work by discussing Achilles.  The Iliad begins with a seemingly petty dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles over who has the right to a captured slave-girl.  Agamemnon pulls rank on Achilles and takes Achilles’ woman which leads Achilles to withdraw from the fighting altogether.  Most every modern reader inevitably views Achilles as a total heel, a petulant jerk who would rather see his companions die than accept Agamemnon’s decision, however unfair it may be.  And yet Achilles, not Agamemnon or Odysseus, remained for centuries a revered hero of the Greeks, nearly worshipped by such luminaries as Alexander the Great.

How can this be?

Lendon uses this as a window into what the Greeks valued and how they structured their world.  Once we see the great value they placed on rank and honor, we understand the reasons for the war, and the reasons for certain strategies pursued by both sides much more clearly.  Achilles earned his reputation by sacrificing all to the Greek concept of honor.  We know that he sacrificed long life for glory in battle for starters, but he also willingly defies his king and his friends to preserve his honor.  He reenters the conflict not when his honor receives satisfaction, but when his friend Patroclus dies.  When Achilles fights  he does so not for Agamemnon, but to revenge Patroclus, another key Greek concept.  After slaying Hector, Achilles goes too far and succumbs to hybris.  He drags around Hector’s body and initially refuses burial.  For this, he suffers ignominious retribution in the form of an arrow from spineless Paris. But — he had a magnificent run before he ran aground, and that’s what mattered most.

If we understand honor, revenge, and hybris, Lendon argues, we will understand the Peloponnesian War.

Some might suppose this to be a mere gimmick, but I found this lens suddenly made sense of things that had always puzzled me.  Take the strategy of Athens’ star politician Pericles in the wars earliest days.  Thucydides records Pericles arguing that,

[Sparta’s] greatest difficulty will be want of money, which they can only provide slowly; delay will thus occur, and war waits for no man. Further, no fortified place which they can raise against us is to be feared any more than their navy. As to the first, even in time of peace it would be hard for them to build a city able to compete with Athens; and how much more so when they are in an enemy’s country, and our walls will be a menace to them quite as much as theirs to us! Or, again, if they simply raise a fort in our territory, they may do mischief to some part of our lands by sallies, and the slaves may desert to them; but that will not prevent us from sailing to the Peloponnese and there raising forts against them, and defending ourselves there by the help of our navy, which is our strong arm. For we have gained more experience of fighting on land from warfare at sea than they of naval affairs from warfare on land. And they will not easily acquire the art of seamanship; even you yourselves, who have been practising ever since the Persian War, are not yet perfect. How can they, who are not sailors, but tillers of the soil, do much? They will not even be permitted to practise, because a large fleet will constantly be lying in wait for them. If they were watched by a few ships only, they might run the risk, trusting to their numbers and forgetting their inexperience; but if they are kept off the sea by our superior strength, their want of practice will make them unskilful, and their want of skill timid. Maritime skill is like skill of other kinds, not a thing to be cultivated by the way or at chance times; it is jealous of any other pursuit which distracts the mind for an instant from itself.

The Athenians, Thucydides, and the ancients who commented on the war all approved of Pericles’ strategy, which the above quote outlines in bare detail.  Essentially Pericles wanted to make Athens an island by bringing the population within its walls and refusing to fight the Spartans on land.  Then, with their superior navy they could ravage the Peloponnesian coasts.  Most moderns, on the other hand (myself included) have thought little of his approach.  At best it appears a recipe to avoid losing rather than actually winning.  At worst, it’s a passive strategy guaranteed to give all the advantages to the other side.

Lendon argues that we misunderstand the strategy because we misunderstand the Athens’ war aims.  Athens did not care about imposing their will on Sparta, or finding their “center of gravity” (a la Clauswitz) so much as they desired equal rank with Sparta.  Sparta had the rank of “hegemon” in the Peloponnese, Athens sought hegemon status in Attica and thus, equal status with Sparta in the Greek world.  Sparta will ravage our lands, but we can ravage theirs as well.  We don’t need a “shock and awe” response because we strive not to prove our absolute superiority, but our equality.  Besides, the Athenians would wish to avoid the hybris of seeking something beyond their station. They contented themselves with equality, follow the unspoken rules of war, and avoid the wrath of the gods.*

Armed with this perspective, suddenly other aspects of the war made sense to me. Before I criticized Athenian coastal raids for wasting time and resources to achieve purely symbolic results. This led me to make broader conclusions about the vacillating nature of democracies at war.

Lendon argues of course, that honor and rank have everything to do with symbolism. The Athenian coastal raids had nothing to do with “imposing their will” or tactical advantage, and everything to do with displaying status.  So Lendon’s work not only entertained me, it has forced me to reconsider most of my lesson plans for teaching the war.  Grudgingly . . . I give Lendon my thanks.

Does any of this new analysis have a modern application in war?  Some have suggested that 3rd-world warfare resembles many of these “traditional” concepts of honor and symbolism, and that we must abandon all the Cold-War principles that guided our statecraft.  Some argue that acts of terrorism have a lot more to do with symbols of honor than tactical advantage. I cannot comment on this as I lack the knowledge to do so.  But I do think we see a lot of the same principles in our modern political scene.  Democrats and Republicans both press for legislation that will give them “honor” in their districts or with their national following, and often this legislation has mere symbolic value.  Both sides too can obstruct purely for reasons of status, or to refuse honor to the other side.  Some might argue that this is part and parcel of any democracy.  If so, we will need to redefine our definition of democracy, and accept that at least in its modern context, it has little to do with Christianity. It may bear much more direct similarity to our pagan democratic ancestors, and to the song of wrath sung in ancient times . . .

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus. . . .

*In Kagan’s great work he comes close to understanding this.  He addresses the modern puzzlement over Pericles’ strategy by pointing out that the Athenians essentially voted for it on multiple occasions and kept it going even after a plague struck their city  In other words, he points out that the strategy surely made sense to them and they must have thought it effective for their purposes.  Lendon argues that after a few years, Athens could have made a legitimate argument that they had won and proved themselves.  The problem with such conflicts lie in that they need interpreted, and Sparta did not interpret events as the Athenians did.  So the war continued, and in time ended with defeat for Athens in a way no one could misconstrue.

A Can of Corn

I was never a great baseball player but I had my moments. Somehow, though I am not tall and never was very fast or in possession of a strong arm, I fanangled my way into playing the outfield. Compared to the infield, one had less action, but the action was superior and more intense. The stakes were higher. Muff a grounder and no one really notices, but not so a fly ball. Of course chasing down a long moon shot had its pleasures, but my favorite moments were always the high, lazy fly balls, the “cans of corn” as known in baseball parlance. You knew you would catch these, and so you could just stand under them serenely, watching the ball spin against the blue sky. Time stood still, one needn’t worry about Republicans or Democrats, the past or the future–it was enormously satisfying.

This will sound weird, but Odell Shepherd’s The Lore of the Unicorn, an examination of various arguments before and against the existence of the fabled beast, struck me in just this way. There were so many ways this book could have gone wrong. We would be disinclined to believe a medieval writer. In the 17th century the book would have been too technical. In the 18th century it would have had way too many commas and semi-colons. A 19th century treatment would be too emotional and romantic. Bill Bryson on this topic would be too jocular and snarky. But Shepherd brings a light writing style combined with proper reverence for the sources pro and con.

Why not unplug for a bit and consider the unicorn?

When I began the book I thought the foundation for belief in the unicorn’s existence in the pre-modern west rested on a few old Greek guys, and that is true. But, it is only partially true, and true in more complex ways than I expected:

  • Ctesias wrote about the unicorn around 400 B.C., but he lived much of his life in Persia in service to the Persian kings. Xenophon writes that Ctesias healed the wound of Artaxerxes II after the Battle of Cunaxa. Seeing as how Ctesias kick’s this question off, we’ll quote him in full.

“There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger.  Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes blue. They have a horn on their forehead which is about 1 ½ feet long.  The dust from this horn ground is made into a potion that protects against poisons. The base of the horn is pure white, but the top is the purest crimson, and the remainder is black.  Those who drink from this horn, they say, are not subject to epilepsy.

The animal is exceedingly swift–powerful and fierce, so that nothing can overtake it.”

  • Aristotle thought Ctesias untrustworthy overall, but he agreed with him that the unicorn did exist.

“We have never seen an animal with a solid hoof (i.e., not cloven) and two horns, and there are only a few with a solid hoof and one horn, as the Indian ass [unicorn] and the oryx.  Of all animals with a solid hoof, the Indian ass alone has a talus [he large bone in the ankle that articulates with the tibia of the leg and the calcaneum and navicular bone of the foot].

Animalium Book 3, Chapter 41

Perhaps only second to Aristotle in authority for such questions would have been

  • Pliny the Elder, ca. 60 A.D.

The Orsean Indians hunt an exceedingly wild beast called the monoceros, which has a stag’s head, elephant’s feet, and a boar’s tail, the rest of its body belng like that of a horse.  It makes a deep lowing noise, and one black horn two cubits long projects from the middle of its forehead. This animal, they say, cannot be taken alive.

Natural History, Book 8, Chapter 33

Some of what we read here may perplex us, such as the multi-colored horn (did he see painted or decorated horns?) and the fact that the unicorn is not white. If we take also the testimony of Appolonius of Tyana and Aelian, we get some basic agreement, but more disagreement than I expected. Pliny introduces the question of whether or not we should be thinking of a rhinoceros. All in all, the ancient sources appear to me to operate basically independently.

If you have a King James Bible, one notes that several passages mention a unicorn (Num. 23:22, Deut. 33:17, Ps. 39:6, Is. 34:7, Job 39:9-10, etc.). Some of these passages could possibly refer to a rhinoceros, and others, not so much, i.e., in Psalm 39:6 the unicorn is said to “skip like a calf”–rhinos don’t skip. Also, different passages mention “exaltation” like the horn of a unicorn, and a rhinoceros horn doesn’t quite fit this.

For some, the fact that the Bible mentions the unicorn is proof that it never existed, since for them the Bible contains so much fanciful gobbledygook. Others assert that the unicorn can’t exist because they haven’t seen it and don’t know anyone who has. These silly attitudes merit little attention. But I have also seen Christians who say, “The Bible mentions unicorns, so if you believe in the authority of the Bible, you must believe in unicorns.”

The question has more complexity, however. It mainly involves the translation of a two key words: “re’em” in Hebrew and “monoceros” in Greek. St. Justin Martyr, St. Ireneaus, and St. Basil the Great all seem to profess belief in the unicorn based on how they translate the Greek along with other factors. But St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory the Great all believed that the passages quoted above speak of a rhinoceros and may have denied the existence of unicorns altogether. We cannot say that such men denied the authority of Scripture.

Still, for medievals the case for the unicorn remained stronger than the case against. Even Albert the Great, teacher to St. Thomas and one of the best scientific minds of that era, believed in its existence (though doubted the horn’s medicinal effects). Interestingly, belief in the unicorn may have increased in the Renaissance as the ancient Roman arts of poisoning found a new home in the classically obsessed Italians. Various dukes traveled with unicorn horns (so called) in hopes of having them ward off poisons.

But in time, belief in the unicorn ebbed away, and why this happened deserves attention as well, but more on this later. All throughout the history of unicorn belief, skeptics have weighed in with alternate theories.

Theory 1: The Unicorn as Rhinoceros

We have touched on this briefly already from the Bible, but a few other points of interest could be mentioned:

  • With its very tough hide, the rhino cannot be hunted in the standard way other beasts can
  • Like the ancient descriptions say, the rhino is very strong
  • Some even today believe in the medicinal powers of its horn
  • The “elephant’s feet” from Pliny’s description match that of a rhino.

For me, however, this stretches things a bit too far. More persuasive, in my view is

Theory 2: The Unicorn as the African Oryx

  • Like the descriptions of the unicorn, it is tall, fast, and powerful
  • It somewhat matches the colors mentioned by some ancient authors
  • Its location in Africa matches that of many ancient sightings
  • The oryx was known as difficult to hunt and rare even in the time of Oppian (ca. 160 A.D.).
  • As for the two horns, there are two possibilities: 1) African natives testify that when two oryx’s fight, sometimes a horn can break off, or 2) Some naturalists suppose the possibility of a genetic anomaly occurring and an onyx being born with just one horn.

And, one rare form of the species, the Arabian Oryx, is actually white:

Some also think that Aristotle thought that unicorn was in fact, the oryx.

I much prefer this theory to the unicorn as rhinoceros. I am very nearly convinced, but still . . . two horns is not one horn, and the ancients and medievals could count.

Theory 3: The Unicorn as a Transmuted Eastern/Christian Myth

St. Isidore of Seville (7th century) did believe in the unicorn, and he had a strong influence on the formation of medieval bestiaries. He writes,

“Rhinoceron” in Greek means “Horn in the nose,” and “Monoceros” is a Unicorn, and it is a right cruel beast.  And he has that name for he has a horn in the middle of his forehead of 4 feet long. And that horn is so sharp and strong that he throweth down all, and all he rests upon.  And this beast fights oft with the elephant and wounds him and sticks him in the belly, and throws him down to the ground. And a unicorn is so strong that he cannot be taken with the might of hunters.  But men that write of such things say that if you set out a maid [i.e., a virgin] he shall come. And she opens her lap [or possibly, her breast], and he lays his head thereon, and leaves all of his fire, and sleeps thereon.

In the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis there is a curious image of what appears to be a unicorn and a lion:

Lions represent the masculine and kingly power. Some see in this image, then, that either 1) The power of the king was mighty enough even to hunt and kill a unicorn, or 2) The masculine sun triumphs over the feminine moon, day triumphs over night (it seems even in Persia unicorns may have been thought of as white in color).

I agree with Shepherd that we should view this image mostly in mythological rather than historical or political terms. But Shepherd makes nothing of the violent depiction here, and the contrast with the medieval version of the similar story.

We have already noted the power of the unicorn and that no one can capture or contain him. The medieval versions of the story go deeper into the archetypal patterns. First, the singular horn. Shepherd cites numerous stories of how single-horned beasts had a position of great honor. For example,

  • Plutarch relates that Pericles’ farmhands presented him with a one-horned bull (the horns had merged into one) as a mark of thanks and honor.
  • One-horned cattle are seen as bending towards the king in Ethiopian carvings.
  • In the Jewish Talmud, Adam offers to God a one-horned bull after his exile from Paradise, the most precious thing he owned.

The singularity of the horn unites all these instances. In the standard bestiary of the middle ages, the author writes as a postscript,

The unicorn signifies Christ, who was made incarnate in Mary’s womb, was captured by the Jews, and was put to death. The unicorn’s fierce wildness shows the inability of hell to hold Christ. The single horn represents the unity of God and Christ. The small size of the unicorn [relatively, one must assume–an elephant is certainly bigger], is a symbol of Christ’s humility in becoming human.

Even as far back as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the feminine has always humanized or tamed the masculine. This pattern finds its ultimate expression in the Incarnation itself, where the Virgin Mary contains the uncontainable God, and, dare we say, “humanizes” God? They went on to say that that through the virtues of the spotless Virgin Mary, humanity “wooed” God–the so-called “Holy Hunt.”

So, it should not surprise us that in the famous Unicorn Tapestry, the unicorn is captured within a circular fence, reminding us of a wedding ring–God binding Himself to humanity.

Lions make their way into this tapestry as well, though in a different way than ancient Persia:

So, some argue that the maybe the medievals never really thought the unicorn was a real beast, but simply a helpful story to convey spiritual truth. Or, if they did believe in a real unicorn, they did so only as a mistake, a pleasing and helpful tale incarnated too far in their fertile imaginations.

My one beef with Shepherd’s marvelous book is that he refuses to pick a side in this debate, but I will do so.

I am able to accept that the theory of the unicorn as rhinoceros has merit, but I am not convinced. It does have one horn which many regarded as salutary. But the horn is not “exalted,” and the rhino simply lacks the grace, dignity, and metaphorical heft history has placed upon it.

The oryx theory very nearly convinces me. The speed, elusivity, and necessary “dignity” of the beast are present. Imagine a genetic anomaly with an Arabian oryx with one horn and it nearly solves the problem stem to stern. But oryx’s have two horns, and as we have seen, the singular horn stands as a crucial fact in the case. True, in a pure profile one would only see one horn of the oryx. But again, oryx’s do move, and people can count to two.

In fact, Shepherd mentions many citings of the unicorn throughout the centuries. Yes, hypothetically all could be mistaken, exaggerating, or lying. Maybe some saw the Arabian oryx. And yes, it seems strange that in the era of iphones, that none would have a picture if it existed. Possibly it did exist and went extinct some centuries ago.

What I can’t abide are those that say that because the medievals allegorized at length with the unicorn, it shows that they are easily fooled or cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction. It also minimizes the importance of the patterns laid down throughout all the ages–as if isolated”facts” that have no meaning had greater importance than all of our stories. Undeniably certain myths existed around the unicorn, but myth is not a symbol for “falsehood.”

Which brings us to why belief in the unicorn has sharply declined over the last few centuries, and especially in our day. Belief in dragons declined rather markedly after the Middle Ages, if they were ever literally believed in at all. Clearly many ancient and medieval people believed literally in unicorns. Unlike other so-called fanciful beasts, unicorn belief persisted after the medieval era, into the Renaissance and beyond. Even in the 17th century some still believed in the unicorn, as did some British explorers into the 19th century–a Major Latter wrote in 1820 that he had definitely seen a unicorn in Africa. None of this has happened with dragons.

I think the reason for the decline, regardless of whether the unicorn ever existed or not, is that we have lost the stories, we have lost the reasons for anything being anything in the first place. True, if the unicorn had not existed, the medieval people might have made him up–it fits that well into their symbolic world, just as it did for other cultures. I suppose this could be slight critique against them if one really felt the need for it. But we, on the other hand, have no need for anything to exist for any particular reason, including ourselves. Many of us are, as Walker Percy brilliantly deduced some 40 years ago, Lost in the Cosmos.

I think a discussion on cable news over whether or not the unicorn existed would reveal a lot about us, such as the role of tradition, science, and the sexes. I say, we should get at all our major worldview questions not through Twitter, CNN, Fox, or the National Review, but through pleasant cans of corn like the one Odell Shepherd has given us. These moments that stop time are likely the most important of all.

Dave

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.’

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, 2020), 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.

Magicians of the Gods

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

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

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

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

This reading of Genesis informs my reading of ancient history.

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

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

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

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

Enter Graham Hancock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we come to a fork in the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

 

 

 

“Therefore,” and “Nevertheless”

Towards the end of the Benedictine office of Lauds there exists a prayer which uses the old King James English which seems like a shock of cold water amidst the pleasant praises of God’s majesty–“and blessed are the paps which gave suck to Christ the Lord.” Such language could put off different people for different reasons, but mostly I think it boils down to a “disturbing” physicality and particularity. High-flown theological language suits us better. A Christian must confess that the second Person of the Trinity became a male human being in all fulness. The Benedicitine office, as other prayers of the Church, puts the focus on “higher” things of majesty and praise, but rightly will not conclude without bringing us back to earth and ourselves, reminding us of this stark truth. Clearly, Christ did nurse at the breasts of the Virgin Mary, and we must decide whether we celebrate this or feel embarrassed and horrified by it.

Many react with such embarrassment to time. Temporality flows inexorably, which makes those moments of glory, grandeur, and insight we experience at once so powerful and frustrating. We long for their return, but they will not come even for the asking. Our society in general seems embarrassed and frustrated by Time (manifested in some respects with bands like Kiss, Judas Priest, and even the Rolling Stones apparently still touring). Some may accept Time in the sense of merely resigning oneself to its power, but while this may be a superior attitude over ignoring or “rebelling” against Time, it too seems to see the physicality of time not as a blessing but as part of what we must endure in our going hence.

William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo: Dimensions of the Literary Imagination examines the question of physicality and particularity in theology and literature. I lack the depth and breadth of reading needed to truly benefit from this book, but the applications of his insights go beyond the literary and into life and redemption itself. Lynch keeps focus on his crucial question: Does God accomplish His purposes through the finite, or in spite of it? Authors, “regular people,” and civilizations face the temptation to either ignore or despise creation, thereby failing to see through it and discern the patterns of grace. Lynch diagrams this basic idea like so,

with the diagram on the left as the proper path. Heraclitus may have had the same intuition, stating that, “the way up and the way down are one in the same.” Tension has always existed in Christian thought between 1) Moving down “the mountain” as moving away from God (a pattern present from the Garden of Eden, Mt. Sinai, Mt. Tabor, etc.), and seeing that movement as a kind of death, and 2) Recognition that we have no other option other than to take this passage down into death to return to God whole, i.e., “He who wishes to save his life must lose it,” and “unless a seed falleth into the earth and die, it bears no fruit.”* Escape from this tension provides only an illusion of freedom, and in fact produces a kind of slavery to a fear of things, and even of ourselves. Our glimpse into the infinite comes only through the finite.** Dante’s grand cosmological vision would not have been complete without tethering it to 14th century Florence. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky knows that Aloysha’s great mystical visions can only come through his engagement with his wretchedly dysfunctional family.

But many modern authors cannot embrace this paradoxical pattern. Lynch examines a few different metaphysical categories to demonstrate the paradox. For Proust, time is man’s greatest enemy. The cubist painter can not accept the finite image–instead they must represent all of the possible angles of vision of the minding a futile attempt to see only the abstract. Lynch writes,

Perhaps the most ambitious, most brilliant, and most sophisticated vendetta launched against time was that of Descartes, who first put forward the notion of a pure intelligence within us not subject to time. . . . when that ambition takes the form of a desire to wipe out the succession and the partial quantities of time, and to live in an isolated area of the personality where the temporal has no meaning or power, then a grave folly has been committed. . . . The “man in the street” knows what the intellectual does not: that true reality is contained within the dramatic temporal life of the body. The peasant knows he will be healed not only by doctors but also by time. [He knows that time] is as much a part of him as his own skin, out of which he cannot leap.

Christ and Apollo, p. 50, 53

Christ exemplifies this true approach to time as a positive good: He refuses to cling to childhood (Lk 2:41-52), He refuses the easy path to glory (Mt. 4), and allows His death to come to Him “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4).

Different literary genres can make the same mistake of rejecting creation. In tragedy, Lynch cites the modern tendency that “exaltation must come from exaltation, and that infinites must come out of infinites.” This path leads to two consequences:

  1. The idea that the achievement of great tragedy has its roots in the mystical conquest of the “human spirit” against pain–the tragic figure as exalted conqueror, which
  2. In fact makes the writing of tragedy more difficult, not easier, because it seems that tragedy, like death, doesn’t really exist.

Comedies too can make the same error. Comedy (in the modern sense of “what makes us laugh”) often deals with the breakdown of order and expectations–all well and good. But if we ask ourselves why A Midsummer Night’s Dream still gets staged four centuries after its debut, we need look no further than that “the play, [even] in its wildest fantasy [in Act 5], is only dealing with Snug the joiner and Bottom the weaver.” T.S. Eliot commented that, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” “I am not so sure of that,” Lynch writes, “The bigger truth is that they cannot stand very much unreality.”

Perhaps part of the problem lies in that great literary minds can see their idea so clearly that the idea burns away all around it if they fail to take care. Here then, lies Lynch’s “Univocal Man:”

He is, emotionally, full of extraordinary energies–in fact, a kind of energy seems to mark the whole of his character. He has a genius for a unilateral passion, and is, and therefore always has been–a passionate center of good and bad in civilization. . . . Superficially, then, he resembles the religious genius. . . . It is only by exercising great caution that we will avoid this profound mistake and will refrain from giving this character the veneration that is not his due. . . . The univocal man has no respect for reality; he is contemptuous of it, or distorts it, or flattens it–or he refuses to take responsibility in the face of it. . . . The univocal man is not free. He is rigid, unbending, fixed. One can understand the fixity of the idea of logic and essences, but his fixed ideas are born of a fixity of all the forces of his personality and a refusal to remain open to existence. . . . To put the matter simply, these would reject all the unities and relations projected by any sentence, for example, “The horse is white,” for a horse is a horse, and white is white, and that is the end of the discussion.

pp. 141, 144, 147

We might say that the Univocal man has too much “purity” in him. He cannot or will not mix his idea with the stuff of reality. That this should happen to a literary type is no surprise. In general they write because they are gripped by an idea or image.^ The one who mixes things up too much would likely never have the clarity or organization to get anything down on paper to begin with. Lynch shows us Eugene O’Neil, who wants us to be sad, and so gives us Sadness in Mourning Becomes Electra, with her mansion as her prison. Or, even more absurdly, he gives us Laughter in Lazarus Laughed, with this ridiculous passage where Lazarus speaks to Caligula,

You are proud of being evil! What if there is no evil? Believe in the Healthy God called Man within you! . . . Believe! What if you are a man and man is despicable? Men are also unimportant! Men pass! Like rain into the sea! The sea remains! Man remains! . . . For Man death is not! Man, Son of God’s laughter, is! . . . Believe in the laughing God within you!

Alas, too many exclamation points. O’Neill wants rapture but he attempts to achieve it by rebounding off of creation and denying it altogether. Only a fool would say that “death is not.”

With a denial of creation will come an absence of transcendence, purchased at the price of avoiding all mess. George Bernard Shaw claimed a sort of spiritualism but could not stand religion actually practiced, writing,

In Italy, for instance, churches are used in such a way that priceless pictures become smeared with filthy tallow-soot, and have to be rescued by the temporal power and placed in national galleries. But worse than this are the innumerable daily services which disturb the truly religious visitor. If these were decently and intelligently conducted by genuine mystics to whom the mass were no mere rite or miracle, but genuine communion, the celebrants might reasonably claim a place in the church as their share of the common right to its use. But the average Italian priest, personally unclean and with a chronic catarrh in his nose from living in frowsy, ill-ventilated rooms, punctuating his gabbled Latin only by expectorate hawking . . . this unseemly wretch should be seized and put out . . . until he learns to behave himself.

Whatever communion Shaw desires, it would have to include rite, miracle, and perhaps even the dirty priest, for it to happen at all. But for Shaw, such things are too messy and not “spiritual” enough. We should not suppose that he would enter in absent the dirty priest, either–something physical would always bar his way. It is much easier to comment online, or even to read books.

We in our day have the bigger and smaller problem of not even being able to enter into politics. The problem is smaller in that religion is more important than politics, but bigger in that we cannot hope to solve big questions if we cannot solve smaller ones. Too many on the right and left want nothing to do with mixing their ideas in the mess of politics. Some want a Caesar from above to wave a magic wand, some want the “innocent” people to rise up from below to abolish the Bill of Rights. Neither will achieve anything like an ordered communion, for neither wants to find the path to grace through creation. They do have their dreams. These dreams will have to content them, for they can know nothing of sorrow or joy.

Dave

*Perhaps this might explain in part Christ’s sometime reluctance to work miracles. Miracles, could, hypothetically, interrupt the U-shaped pattern and hinder us on our journey back to God.

**If we learn to see this pattern and interpret the Scriptures more analogically and less in a directly moral fashion, many things make themselves more clear. For example, we should honor the elderly not simply because of their wisdom–for some have none of it–but because they are closer to death, and thus also closer to glory. So too, this explains why the Church has always warned less against the “earthly,” “physical” sins of gluttony, too many women, etc., than the “spiritual” sins of pride. Many have gone down the path of fleshly indulgence and found the place where it turns upwards to God. But no path to God exists through pride. Of course, it is best still not to dabble in either.

**The literary, educated types–one always has to watch out for them . . .

Impress Imbalance

I encourage my students to play, “Would you rather?” games, i.e., “Would you rather eat 500 live ants or 1 live cricket?” Often questions like this involve no specific moral quandary, but the practice of creating and defending mental hierarchies has great value, even when such hierarchies are relative. Comparing civilizations has something of the apples/oranges dilemma, I admit. And reigning cultural relativism tells us not to judge. But I believe that the mental process involved in deciding whether Greece was better than Rome, or in this case, whether or not Egypt has the leg up over Babylon, helps bring clarity and meaning to the study of history–even if one should hold on loosely to these kinds of distinctions.

Many have used various criteria for evaluating civilizations, such as how long they last, the power they accumulated, their technology, and so on. I think a better lens involves us seeing how each civilization aligns itself with the reality of creation–with the patterns and Truth found in the created order, available for any with eyes to see.

Henri Frankfurt’s Kingship and the Gods gives us more than a rundown of Egyptian and Sumerian/Babylonian kingship. He seeks to integrate religion and politics not just with their history, but also the geography and the general patterns of living from both cultures. He reveals his method early in the introduction, writing,

Mesopotamian society was entirely adapted to the cyclic succession of the seasons.  While each winter resolved its harshness in the spring and the plague of summer was succeeded by autumn rains, human society moved through a succession of seasons in which humanity joined in of the cosmic crisis of life, death, rain, and drought.  The [Babyonian] sees a dramatic conception played out in nature between the divine and the demoniac, between forces of order and chaos.

The most important seasonal celebrations in [Babylon]  centered around the bewailing of the death of Tammuz and his rebirth on the New Year–his victory over death  and his sacred marriage to the mother-goddess.

Egypt, too, reflected the natural rhythm of the seasons in the course of the official year.  But their celebrations differ profoundly in character from those in Babylon.  In the plain of the two rivers, the festivals were never free from anxiety, and those which we know best show a change from deep gloom to exaltation.  In Egypt, festivals provided the occasion to affirm that all was well, for Egypt viewed the universe as essentially static.  Revolts against the established order happened, but never got classified as anything more than a few ripples under the surface.

The rich Nile valley lies isolated and protected on both sides by a vast desert, while Mesopotamia lacks clear boundaries and was periodically assaulted on its fringes by mountain tribes.  Egypt derived its prosperity from the Nile, which never fails to rise, even if the floods differ in effectiveness.  But Babylon depended on uncertain rainfall and  the Tigris was an unaccountable, turbulent, and dangerous river. 

Some might then conclude that religion means nothing more than a natural phenomena, though Frankfurt himself does not suggest this.* Rather, Frankfurt wants to integrate our vision of each society–to see Egypt and the Egyptians as one and not many. When we pull back and see the integrated whole of a civilization, the impression they leave comes into greater focus.

If I had to choose between Egypt and Babylon, I would likely choose Egypt, but one of their key weaknesses lay in their failure to appreciate the feminine aspects of creation and experience. Nearly every religion I am aware of sees creation as essentially feminine, Christianity included. As C.S. Lewis commented, we all stand as essentially feminine in relation to God. All in the Church, whether man or woman, are the “bride” of Christ. Various pagan beliefs have “Mother-goddesses,” whereas Christianity might talk of “Mother Earth” in a slightly more abstract way, as St. Francis did in his “Canticle of the Sun.” Egypt had no “Mother Earth”–for them the earth itself was not even feminine. The idea of power had strong play in Egyptian thought, and so rather than the traditional “receiving and transforming” aspect of Earth, the Egyptians saw supreme power in the male diety of Ptah or Geb. In some creation stories, Ra stands on the Primeval Hill to create, again over-emphasizing the male aspect of reality. Apparently Egypt did not want creation to have any derivative existence.

Most every religion, including ancient Israel, had harvest festivals of some kind. Nearly all of these festivals focus on the idea of death, the earth receiving death, and then having that death transformed into life. Harvest festivals connect us with birth and new life, and so highlight feminine aspects of life. A proper conception of this pattern must allow for three days in the tomb, so to speak. So in Greece, as elsewhere, the seed could be identified with the king (think of Mary Renault’s classic, The King Must Die), who “dies” for the people to give them grain. No grain comes without the earth receiving and transforming the seed. But things were different in Egypt. Yes, the king ceremoniously started the harvest by cutting a symbolic stalk, but the forgoing ceremony emphasized that he was the wheat which went up to the cloud, not the chaff that fell to earth. Frankfurt comments that,

All we know of the Egyptians shows they would have found [a festival centering on the death of the seed] distasteful. They did not readily admit the shadow side of life, perhaps on hedonistic grounds, but also because, in their static conception of the world, grief had no [place].

We see this in the Egyptian harvest prayers, i.e.,

Osisris is Unas in the mounting chaff

His loathing is the earth;

He has not entered Geb to perish.

He is not sleeping in his house (i.e., tomb) upon earth

So that his bones may be broken.

His hurt is driven out!

He has purified himself with the Horus Eye.

Unas is up and away to heaven;

Unas is up and away to heaven

With the wind, with the wind!

A Christian might be tempted to see here a foreshadowing of victory over death in the resurrection. Perhaps an aspect of that exists here, but with Frankfurt I extend a word of caution–even God Himself submitted to the pattern of first going down before rising up. The Egyptians seemed to want to short-circuit the process. A Christian might think of something akin to banishing “worldly sorrow”–something the Babylonians struggled mightily with–but they would be wise to remember that “blessed are those that mourn,” and that it is usually our moms that take pity on us when we scrape our knee or need visited in the hospital.

This same imbalance shows in their depictions of royalty. Certainly every society has a hierarchy and kings might naturally be depicted in some outsized way to show his importance. But in Egypt, one often sees only the king, as in this relief of the conquests of Thutmose III:

Tuthmosis III smiting his enemies, the Cannaanites, at the Battle fo Megiddo from the north wall of the Great Hypostyle Court, Egypt. Ancient Egyptian. New Kingdom 18th Dynasty, 1473 BC. Karnak. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

If we compare this to how Babylon depicted one of its greatest kings, Nebuchadnezzar a contrast immediately becomes evident:

and

I have mentioned a few times above that Christians should be cautious in interpreting Egypt’s religion in an overly Christological manner. Now, I offer the same caution to women in general. Some might look at certain aspects of Egyptian belief and celebrate that even the feminine earth has been raised to the level of the masculine sky. But in fact Egypt did not raise the feminine up–they (mostly) abolished the feminine aspects of reality from their experience.

Most every traditional belief system sees the following pairings:

Masculine

  • Strength
  • Vertical Hierachy
  • Steady/Unchanging

Feminine

  • Compassion
  • Togetherness
  • Protean

This “exchange,” this relationship between these two different aspects of reality, help form healthy civilizations just as they form healthy families. As Kenneth Clark stated, when guys and gals are separated too stridently for too long in social situations, the level of discourse tends to decline in both camps.

The history of Egypt, perhaps akin to the history of China (of which I know much less about) could plausibly show forth this pattern of the elimination of feminine qualities. In his A Study of History Toynbee makes the case that after the pyramids, Egypt tightens and “freezes up.” Much of Frankfurt’s religious analysis comes from this post-pyramid era, and the evidence shows an exaggerated desire to eliminate all variability, all doubt and grief, from their way of life. Such an attitude surely helped contribute to their failure when confronted by Moses.

Babylon shows us the opposite problem–too much of the archetypal feminine. As Frankfurt aptly points out, the stately nature of Egyptian geography shows a direct contrast to that of Babylon. Women go through more changes overall than men**–this is neither a virtue or vice–and so a civilization that over-emphasized feminine qualities would tend towards too much change, and not enough solidity. This shows up in Babylonian creation mythology, with its constant conflict and shifting alliances between different gods. It arises in their depictions of the goddess Ishtar, sometimes shown wearing a beard. Aristocratic Babylonian men followed the trend in their religious beliefs and may have engaged in cross-dressing, and so on.

Other manifestations of this imbalance show up:

  • Coronation rituals for Babylonian kings took place in the temple of Ishtar, and their royal insignia came from the goddesses “Lady of the Crown,” and “Lady of the Scepter.”
  • Frankfurt suggests that, while obviously Egypt and Babylon had various religious festivals, Babylon had more festivals that “required” everyone to participate at the same time in unison–it is the mom who generally wants to have everyone home for the holidays, etc.
  • In Egypt, water was effectively tamed. For the Babylonians, “the ways of water are devious. It avoids obstacles rather than conquering them, goes around and yet gets to its goal.” Traditional religions always associate water with the feminine, and we see something of the “mystery of Woman” (guys are not that mysterious) in Babylonian views of water.

For clarification, I am not here suggesting that any of these things are good or bad per se. The question is more of emphasis.

One sometimes hears silly things such as, “If only women were in charge throughout the world then there would be no wars, and everyone would love each other.” But Babylon had an empire as well. And Babylon for biblical writers became (along with Egypt), an archetypal tyranny, albeit with some different manifestations than that of Egypt. I have written elsewhere of the possibilities of feminine tyranny, and will not rehash that here. In Egypt’s case, the excessive emphasis on order “naturally” called forth the chaos of the 10 Plagues. For Babylon, the undue emphasis of the market, of change and flux, of possibility, inevitably called forth excessive order–it is no coincidence that Babylon produced the world’s first known extensive code of law and punishment.

Ancient Egyptian and Babylon societies show us that masculine and feminine “gods,” when freed from proper relationship with the other side, become demons.

Dave

*I would not say that Egyptian and Babylonian religions were false because of this either. Obviously, a Christian would say that such beliefs had deep flaws, while at the same time one can affirm the aspects of the Truth that they professed. Occasionally, a skewed religious belief can at times show forth an aspect of Truth in a more compelling fashion, as they give it undue emphasis in the wrong place. Still, all in all, I think the key problem of pagan religions was their inescapable imminence of the gods (this is something excellently discussed by **** in his book *****. The undue focus on imminence leads to a narrowing, an entrapment of sorts, a tautology. You see this today whenever an argument is based on the fact that, “It’s 2021.” In other words, whatever we happen to be doing must be right because we are in fact doing it–the ethics of imminence. One is inevitably influenced by our surroundings, including our geography. We should not be trapped by it, to be excessively determined by it.

**I think it fair to say that puberty involves more changes for women than men. Marriage involves more change for women. Women obviously go through a lot of change in terms of conceiving and giving birth to children, and then, menopause, and so on.

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.

The Law of Gus

Ostensibly, this post discusses Michael Oriard’s fine book, Brand NFL, which I enjoyed. This post also serves as a companion piece to another post from about a year ago, “Every Sacrifice Needs a Witness.” I will try not to repeat points I have already made. I mention both of these things because I am starting in what will seem like an unrelated place for a book largely about football marketing and labor relations.

First, there exists a theory about sportscaster Gus Johnson. articulated by Bill Simmons:

I keep mentioning the Law of Gus without ever really defining it, so let’s do it right now. If Gus Johnson is calling an NFL game, the odds quintuple that (A) the lead will change hands in the fourth quarter; (B) someone will complete a long pass in a big moment that will make Gus’ voice hit an octave only dogs can hear; and (C) the game will go into overtime or at least come damned close. It seems impossible that the mere presence of an announcer would alter the course of the game, but . . .

Here are some of Johnson’s greatest moments and phrases . . .

One might perform some kind of statistical analysis of Johnson’s games, and perhaps discover that indeed there are more big moments, more exciting comebacks, than for other announcers. One could come up with any number of plausible materialistic explanations for this, i.e., Johnson is the best announcer, so they put him on the best games. Possibly, one might grant some kind of psychological reason–the players know that Johnson is announcing and that if they make a great play they will attain youtube immortality with the Gus Johnson call in accompaniment.

But . . .maybe there exists some kind of transformation of reality when Gus Johnson announces a game. Perhaps at times he is not merely a sportscaster, but a ringmaster. Otherwise, how could Vermont possibly beat Syracuse? I mean, Vermont?

Secondly, why do so many athletes pray before and during a game? On the one hand, it seems so silly. Surely God cares nothing for a mere game, and surely . . . athletes know this? Yet the behavior persists. Growing up I played baseball in high school, and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer before games, though my coach seemed indifferent to religion. I confess that praying before a baseball game seemed a bit off to me then and now, but football . . . that’s different. Though I never played high school football, I never experienced a combination of more fear and elation than in 10th grade, when catching a pass in a playground game with friends, I juked John–a merciless tackler now embarrassed and enraged–and then had to outrun him for 40 yards. Never again would I run as fast as I did that day, and strange (and sad) as it may seem, I still remember the exact words of praise I received from one friend after that run.

Aside from the “foolishness” of associating prayer with sports, many would object to differentiating between sports and the “appropriateness” of prayer at such events. If prayer “works” with one sport, it should work with another. But I would rank the major sports from Most to Least appropriate to associate with prayer thusly:

  • Football
  • Hockey
  • Basketball
  • Baseball

My explanation . . .

Football involves the highest levels of 1) Danger/”sacrifice” and 2) Communal action. Baseball involves some danger (batters facing a 95 mph fastball, pitchers dodging a comeback linedrive), but that danger is limited to just a few people at a particular moment. Baseball might have more danger than basketball, but much less communal action. One could stand out in right field all day and have literally zero impact on the game. In basketball everyone on the court can rebound, pass, etc. and will have to do so at some point. During football games, almost anyone can get injured on almost any play, and, in contrast to baseball (but not hockey or basketball quite as much) everyone on the offense or defense has to move together, i.e., “communal action.”* It is “communal action” that sports mimic religion, and that added element of danger and drama provide catharsis to players and fans alike–just as every Sunday, in liturgical worship, worshippers go through the journey of death and resurrection.

As good as Oriard’s book is, it never even broaches subjects like this, and so his analysis comes up a bit thin in parts.

Oriard played NFL football for Kansas City, and he combines his personal experience with good writing and insightful analysis in certain parts. I loved his take on the relationship between the changing passing rules and the increasing size of lineman, a nice compliment to Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side. Though he has an obvious bias in his discussions of the labor issues that beset the NFL between 1974-1987, I found it hard to disagree with him, or to dispute his claim that labor peace contributed significantly to the NFL’s rise to prominence in the 1990’s.

At times, however, Oriard wants it both ways. He laments the “paternalism” of the NFL’s in the 1950’s and 60’s with its coaches treating players like a strong, willful, caring, but occasionally crazy father. But when that era ended and players got more power, they also seemed to get into more trouble. Or–more likely, became bigger targets for journalists in the post-Watergate era, trained to always look for what lay behind the curtain. So, when players started to get exposed for taking drugs, did that primarily implicate the league, the player, or the fan who looked the other way so long as they “performed” on the field?

Oriard’s method of laying out the issues, is quite familiar to us, and helpful in a way. We have our tradition of two political parties, prosecution and defense, etc. But we have no way to “break through” the common divides over such questions with the lens Oriard gives us. Another example—Oriard professes confusion as to why the public tended to side with the owners in the strikes in the 70’s and 80’s. Most of the time, people side with workers against “the man,” but not when it came to players striking. Oriard offers the possibility that the public wanted nothing to do with a dispute between billionaires and millionaires as an explanation. But that would only work if the public blamed each side equally. Besides, players did not really become “millionaires” until the late 1980’s at the earliest. If Oriard frames the issues well, his frame needs enlarged.

That fans tended to side with owners in labor disputes has its true explanation in the fact that elite athletes exist outside normal categories. Obviously they have outsized physical gifts, but I mean something more: their participation in liturgized communal danger “transforms” them into something more than a regular person. They morph into priests of ritualized conflict. We, the fans, acknowledge this, but perhaps only semi-consciously. Players may not be as rich as owners, but we do not watch highlights of owner’s meetings, we do not put owners on the covers of magazines, and we do not dream of being an owner–we dream of being Lebron, Tom Brady, Messi, and so on. Money is nothing compared to one’s ability to break tackles and run for 50 yards. When the chance to participate, however indirectly, in such a transformation gets “taken away,” we naturally focus on those to whom we give glory.** Mary Renault’s imagining of Theseus at Crete with the bull dancers in her The King Must Die give us perhaps a more accurate picture than Oriard. For Renault, the bull-dancers were pampered, feted, praised, glorified . . . and not expected to live long. No one cared about those that owned the bull-dancers one way or another.

As Oriard notes, when people dislike baseball they call it boring, but when they dislike football they find football “inhuman.” Not having the religious lens, again Oriard can’t quite see why this might be, beyond the violence of football. But both criticisms are correct. Baseball between two bad teams in August can personify boredom. The ritualized violence of football indeed both degrades and transcends normal human life. The ancients that went into battle understood this, the Greeks, the Vikings, and so on. This should give us additional perspective on the goal and achievement of medieval chivalry. To go into battle and remain something akin to a normal human being–neither a beast nor a dark god–stands as a tremendous achievement for a civilization. To reject Achilles and Alexander the Great as models for war, you need a strong, real, and powerful replacement.

I thought Oriard spot-on when discussing the narrative of domestic abuse and violence off the field. He showed decisively that players do not commit more crimes than the average person, and are not more violent than the average citizen. But in his discussion of drug-use, Oriard misses the religious side of the question. To share another brief personal example . . . very few fans ever came to our high school baseball games. But one day we played our arch rival. Late in the game, I came up with the bases loaded, down a run. I hit a line-drive over the 3rd baseman’s head, and I as I ran to first, I heard the roar of the crowd. Alas–it went foul by an inch or so–had it been fair at least 2 runs score, maybe we win, and maybe I’m the hero. When it might have gone fair, running down to first, hearing the crowd . . . a transcendent feeling. As it turned out, a couple of pitches later I grounded into a double-play–inning over. We ended up losing. Anyone who has played organized sports can relate to this experience. What one might feel in front of 50,000 instead of 150 I can only guess. That one might try and artificially recreate that feeling of transformation makes perfect sense, though a losing proposition from the start.

Of course I think religion important and often neglected as a subject, but I don’t praise every religion, any more that I applaud football’s connection to religion. In fact, football’s strong religious associations make it a viable competitor to the “higher” religion of Christianity. In addition to labor peace, football’s rise might also have something to do with the decline of institutional religion in America. Indeed love it or not, football seems the quintessential sport for a civilization founded at the edge of the world, a place where utopia mingles easily with violence.

Dave

*One can apply this lens to other sports . . . soccer, large amount of communal action, but little danger (despite the writhing of various soccer players), bullfighting and bullriding, with its high levels of danger with almost no communal action, and Formula 1, with its high level of danger, and high levels of communal action–but only behind the scenes, and the drivers being the only ones subject to great risk.

**One simple test for the religious nature of the sport and how much it draws in fans to the ritual participation is–do fans storm the field/court? They do so in football, and basketball too. But . . . not baseball.