Ordinary Men

If you have driven much at all in any urban or suburban area, I’m guessing that you have experienced something like the following:

You are at a stoplight in a busy intersection, waiting to turn left.  You are towards the back of the line but have a hope of making the light, which usually lets several cars through.  By the intersection a person in need stands with a sign asking for money.

You have a few dollars and would gladly give it, but you are towards the back of the line before the man in need reaches your car.  The cars start to inch forward, anxious to make the light.  You have two choices:

  • Stop your car and give the man some money.  This would reasonably take 10 seconds of time, especially if you wanted to look him in the eye and address him as a person.  But this means that you might not make the light.  For sure, it means that cars behind you would not make the light and the intersection would pile up, with a rubberneck ensuing that would take perhaps three light cycles to clear out.
  • Go through the light and not stop, keeping up with the flow of traffic.

If you are like me in the situation I described, you have taken option 2 more often than you might care to admit.

Why does this happen?  Why does this feel like a no-win situation?  Why do we feel such tremendous pressure to get through the intersection as quickly as possible?

Aside from general answers to the question involving the human condition, we need to consider the specific situation.  When driving you enter into an unspoken covenant with other drivers that share your immediate space. When on the road other drivers–and not the rest of mankind–become your primary obligation  One part of this covenant involves being alert at intersections.  We all want to get to our destination.  Don’t be on your phone and miss the light change.  Be ready to go.  This isn’t about selfishness but courtesy to others.  Your primary and immediate obligation to other drivers overrides secondary obligations, even those of greater moral weight.  When you are behind the wheel, your fellow drivers, for example, get preference over the poor of the third world.

Sure, we don’t want honked at.  But we also don’t want to break the covenant with our momentary “brothers” behind the wheel.

Reading Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men brought this everyday situation into starker light.  Browning focuses not on Nazi ideology, nor the ideologically committed SS thugs.  Rather, he focuses on one particular reserve police battalion and the evolution of most of them into mass murderers.  We would like to believe that Nazi’s committed mass murder because they had a previous commitment to racial genocide.  The war simply gave them the opportunity to enact their beliefs.  This would be safer for us because we do not have a belief that we should mass murder in a racially motivated way.  Thus, we would not slaughter Jews. But Browning points out that, while beliefs played a role, what seemed more decisive was the particular situation the men faced.  Their actions transformed them over time into mass murderers, not their beliefs.  Indeed for many, their actions transformed their beliefs, and not vice-versa.

This means that no one is immune.  Our beliefs–what we hold true in our heads–won’t save us.

Those that comprised Reserve Police Battalions shared the following general characteristics:

  • They were middle-aged men with other careers apart from the war.  All of them came of age before the Nazi’s took power.
  • Most all of them had membership in the Nazi party, but most all of those had joined late, and one expects, rather as a matter of course.
  • Reserve police battalions were held in general contempt by the SS rank and file as lacking true commitment to the Nazi cause.
  • Perhaps most surprisingly, very few expressed overt agreement with Nazi beliefs about Jews.  Some of them even expressed specific disagreements with anti-semitic beliefs.
  • Nearly all of them had blood on their hands in one form or another.

As the Nazi’s occupied much of Eastern Europe by 1942 they sought to clear the area of Jews and other communist partisans–but most particularly Jews were the target.  Himmler and Heydrich would much rather have had the SS do the work of mass killing, but the army at that time fought desperately in Russia and could not spare the men.  Hence, the calling up of reserve police battalions for this job.

The Nazi’s were smart in how they managed these men.  The first job for the battalion involved murdering thousands of Jews point blank in a Polish town called Jozefow, but the officers kept this order secret right up until zero hour. They let bits of information trickle out slowly, none of it objectionable by itself, i.e., “report to place x,” “prepare to help keep order,” and so on.  In relaying the mass-murder order to his men, the major of Battalion 101 showed visible distress.  He broke down almost in tears, he expressed disagreement with the order, and even gave anyone the option of abstaining themselves from this action.

But he did give the order.

At this point what options do these men have?

  • If you have strong moral scruples, you have no time to organize any resistance.  But even if you wanted to resist, will you fire on your comrades, men with whom you have trained and share a bond, to prevent such a crime?
  • If the battalion refuses to carry out the order, what will the SS do to you?
  • You could take your commander’s offer and refuse to fire on the Jews and be given guard duty.  Does being on guard duty absolve you?
  • Perhaps most significantly, soldiering tells you that if you don’t do the job, someone else will have extra work.  The army runs on the principle of all for one, one for all.  Your “weakness” means that others have harder jobs and more work.  No one wants to put their fellows in such a position.  The institutional pressure not to shirk your duty and obey orders must have been enormous.

Browning wants us to face the truth that most of us would obey the order. Most of us would shoot Jews, and most of us would find the means to rationalize it.  Testimonies given years later reveal that nearly all of them found a way to make peace with this atrocity in different ways, such as:

  • War is terrible and cannot be redeemed. Besides the enemy bombs our own women and children.
  • Surely this is an isolated, one-time action.  It is horrible that we have this assignment.  But given the horrible nature of this job, these Jews must therefore be particularly dangerous.  Best to just “rip off the band-aid.”
  • Some stood in line and fired, but deliberately missed.  Perhaps they trusted that their fellow soldiers would not deliberately miss, and this will preserve them from the horror in some way.  Indeed, mop-up crews with sub-machine guns came through to finish the job.  So . . . some tried to technically not kill anyone.
  • One soldier even went so far as to say that (paraphrasing), “I paired up with someone who had no problem shooting the women, and then I would shoot the children.  I could not shoot mothers, but I figured, once their mother was dead, I could shoot the children as an act of mercy to them.  Their lives without their parents would be misery.  I could free them from suffering.”

Those that did not join in bore the stigma of cowards and shirkers.  Those that attempted to obey, but found that “their nerves” could not handle it, were viewed as those who “tried their best.”  Even Himmler himself said in 1943, that while firm obedience stood as the pinnacle of virtue, exceptions came to those whose “nerves are shot, to one who is finished, who has become weak.  Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.”  Even a small amount participation guaranteed your personal safety, no doubt a strong impetus to at least do something in a token way.

After Jozefow many men got violently ill and many showed acute emotional distress.  We might think that this rebellion of the body as a witness to moral truth would turn the tide and what happened would never happen again.  In fact, many men who openly wept and got terribly ill after the Josefow massacre later became hardened and even enthusiastic killers of more Jews.  Initially, the body rebelled against the mind, but eventually, with enough practice, the two worked in tandem.  Eventually, the SS could trust the battalion to commit larger and larger massacres:

The Numbers of Those Murdered by Battalion 101 in

1942: 7-8,000 (minimum)

1943: 30,000 (minimum)

In between their assignments to mass-murder, Battalion 101 received orders to clear the forests of Jews who had fled Nazi roundups.  These “Jew-hunts” (as they were known) could also be rationalized:

  • The main enemy of fascism is communism.  Many Jews are communists (so went the party line), thus, they are a threat.
  • Some of these Jews who fled now have arms.  They will likely engage in guerrilla operations against our forces.  Thus, they are not civilians but enemy soldiers, enemies too cowardly to come out and fight.  They deserve their fate.

Perhaps because one might possibly find even the thinnest “legitimate” military motive for such action explains why the battalion never had a shortage of volunteers for these missions.  It far more resembled “real soldiering” and may have helped them justify their actions in military terms.  Such missions made them soldiers in their minds, not murderers.

Ordinary Men demonstrates that one need not be an SS ideologue to commit such atrocities.  The commitment to your immediate circle of fellow men, your desire to “do something” for the war, your general patriotism, and perhaps even a lingering sense of guilt that in serving in the reserve police battalions made one a whole lot safer than a front-line solider–thus you might seek to make up for it with brutal deeds– all combine to wreak moral havoc on your soul.  Within a year normal middle-age men without overt Nazi sympathies, without being educated in Nazi ideology in their formative years, without defined anti-semitic beliefs, became butchers on an unreal scale.*

We can understand this if we remember the intersection with the man asking for money.

I think the main reason why we fail at the intersection is the competition between our two commitments, one to our fellow drivers, the other to the needy man.  Throw in the side-car of our selfishness and desire to get home and not be inconvenienced, etc., and game/set/match for our values.  The only way to really navigate this successfully is to park the car and approach him on foot.  In one sense this is harder, because it costs us more in time.  But in many ways this is the easier path, for now we need not worry about the drivers behind us at all.  We have removed ourselves from obligations to them and can act much more freely.

Of course the men in Battalion 101 faced a drastically more difficult situation.  You cannot escape blame by opting out of shooting and taking guard duty instead.  Reasonably, you would not (and perhaps even should not?) turn your gun against your comrades and go out in a hail of bullets.  The only thing you can do is remove your uniform, perhaps facing court martial and even death.  Perhaps you could do this if you were a bachelor, but if you have a wife and kids . . . ?  What happens to them?  Can you sacrifice them in addition to yourself? How many of us would shoot?  How many of us would take guard duty?

In the epilogue, Browning quotes from Primo Levi’s book, The Drowned and the Saved, and it seems a fitting way to close. In his book Levi argues passionately that,

It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.

Such was the fate of Reserve Police Battalion 101.

Dave

*Browning also traces the evolution of their anti-semitism.  In time many came to hold the same kinds of beliefs about the Jews as Hitler and Himmler.  They didn’t start that way, but their actions formed their beliefs.

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

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

And now, the original review. . .

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

First, the weaknesses:

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

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

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

His argument runs like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Effects:

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

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

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

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

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

What lessons can be learned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Invention of Strategy . . . Sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essentially, Hannibal’s strategy boiled down to:

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

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

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

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

and again,

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

and later again,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and,

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Blind Swordsman

Some years ago I watched the movie The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi and enjoyed it, though it did not match my expectations.  I watch martial arts movies from time to time, but usually not for the plot or character development.  As a kid, I watched any movie I could with big explosions.  Now I am a sucker for the balletic action common in many great kung-fu movies from the east.

Certainly the movie has its share of sword fights, but the style of fighting surprised me, ignorant as I was (and am) of Japanese fighting styles.  I expected long, drawn out battles.  In fact, the fights lasted mere seconds as the combatants focused on short, intense stabs.  Towards the end of the movie the best swordsman of the bad guys and Zatoichi face off alone.  “Ah, here we go,” I thought.  No . . . this was the shortest fight of all, consisting of each man doing only one move.

I thought of this movie reading Japanese Destroyer Captain* by Captain Temeichi Hara of the Japanese Imperial navy.  During W.W. II his record made him Japan’s best captain of destroyers, if not one of their top captains in the whole navy.  Much of his memoir reads like I suppose an American or British naval man would recount the war.  I hoped also to glean something of the culture of Japan that would help illumine the war beyond the narrow confines Hara discusses.

Captain Hara avoids using too much military jargon.  At times I had to strain to understand the battles he describes, but usually not.  He writes openly without any obvious agenda.  He has criticism and praise alike for certain American actions, and even sharply criticizes certain member of Japanese high command (I believe he was the first to do so after the war).

I mentioned The Blind Swordsman because the whole atmosphere of Hara’s account has its roots in samurai lore.  Hara often references maxim’s from different literature and famous swordsmen, but he seems to do more than just quote them.  He gives evidence of living inside of them.  His grandfather actually was a samurai and he speaks at the beginning of the book of his deep connection with his grandfather.  He obviously sought to live out this connection in battle.  Often his thoughts on tactics and strategy come couched in aphorisms of the samurai, especially Mushashi Miyamoto.

But this applies to the whole Japanese naval effort.  Certainly Japan faced certain strategic limitations given their relatively small industrial capacity, but their tactics reminded me of the final sword battle of Zatoichi.  The best samurai win with one stroke.  The Japanese developed torpedoes that had longer range and ran without leaving a distinct trail in the water.  This gave them an advantage that they attempted to exploit in samurai like fashion.  They sought to fire first from long range, well before U.S. ships could fire.  If successful, the naval battle would over immediately.  But if not–and the long ranges from which they fired made this less than likely–the advantage would immediately swing to the Americans.  On the one hand, their concepts make sense apart from samurai lore.  If you have a smaller chance of winning a close-fought battle (Americans never had to worry about supplies of ammo) try and win it from long-range.  Even so, we still see the samurai connection.

We this seeking after a decisive final-blow in other aspects of Hara’s account.  He frequently criticized any effort of Japan that failed to use its forces en masse in decisive faction, citing the adage, “A lion uses all its strength when catching a rabbit.”  Even in April of 1945, with no chance of victory, Hara seems strangely at peace with their final naval assault.  Many eagerly sought death in samurai fashion in an entirely hopeless battle.  Hara, if I may venture  a guess, seems pleased in a more detached sense that the navy had marshaled all its remaining ships and at least would now use them all at once.  In this last moment for the Japanese navy we see the Zatoichi sword fight connection.  Rather than keep their ships back to defend Japan, they sought a grand offensive thrust at our beachhead in Okinawa (which also mirrors how they used their torpedos).**

When discussing Guadalcanal Hara shows a keen understanding of strategic and tactical success.  The Japanese at one point won a key battle by sinking several U.S. ships.  The Japanese celebrated.  Hara did not.  He noted that nothing about the situation in Guadalcanal had fundamentally changed.  The U.S. could still supply its men, and the Japanese still could not supply their own.  Soon after the Japanese evacuated their troops.

I thought of this earlier section of the book when reading the last paragraph.  Hara writes,

The powerful navy which had launched the Pacific war 40 months before with the attack on Pearl Harbor had at last been struck down.  On April 7, 1945, the Japanese Navy died.

That’s it?  After giving many opinions and demonstrating time and again the ability and courage to criticize and analyze situations, I found myself mystified that he offered no general conclusions.   Why?  Again, I am guessing . . . but in the midst of battle, Hara dedicated himself to victory at (almost) any cost.^  Part of this ‘cost’ came in the form of even criticizing high command.  But once the war ended, perhaps Hara thought of himself as a ronin, masterless and without purpose.  Reflection about some grand meaning after the fact might for him resemble one hand clapping in a void of space–what would be the point?  Perhaps . . . perhaps, Hara resembled Zatoichi in more than just a sense of samurai vocation.  Perhaps his field of psychological vision was likewise obscured.

Dave

*I assume this is a poor translation and the title in Japanese is not so wooden.

**Perhaps another connection . . . Hara laments that the Japanese could not build small torpedo boats akin to our PT class ships.  They had the requisite physical capability, of course, but not, it seems, the ability to match the mental will and physical capacity.  Hara offers no explanation for this so my guess will be exceedingly tentative . . . the PT boat offered nothing that would produce a decisive and grand blow.  No samurai wanted to inflict a death of 1000 cuts.

I mentioned one effect of the democratization of the samurai ethos in this post.  In a more mild vein, Hara mentions a samurai drinking ceremony related to battle.  Now, with all supposed to embody the samurai spirit, all would drink as the samurai did.  But, there are many more men in the navy than there were samurai.  Hara recounts several amusing instances when he “had” to drink many many toasts with his men, with almost any occasion an excuse to drink.

^Hara felt that too many in Japan’s military applied the bushido ethic too far and too liberally, merely seeking death as preferable to life.  Hara did not fundamentally object to suicide missions, but he did believe that they must serve some purpose beyond the merely symbolic.  He objected to the final sortie to Okinawa not because it would involve the destruction of the fleet, but because it would needlessly destroy the fleet.  Hara wanted instead to sell his life attacking supply and transport ships, to do at least some damage to the U.S.

“Our danger is that we win all the battles except the last one.”

Despite a mountain of documentary evidence that survived the war in Germany, the Nuremberg trial prosecutors had a difficult time establishing guilt.  Many of the top Nazi leaders had already died, and many of the accused found it quite convenient to blame things on those who could no longer answer.   What they knew and when they knew it, and where their responsibility lay was not always easy to ascertain.

Acclaimed military writer Basil Liddell Hart scored a great coup by getting several top German Unknowncommanders in W.W. II to talk to him about their war experience.  It proved all to easy for the generals to ascribe whatever success they had to themselves, and their failure to Hitler.  As Hart notes in his prologue, this means it’s hard to know how reliable Hart’s generals can be.

Still, Hart’s The German Generals Talk succeeds on many levels.  While exact particulars remain cloudy in some cases, a definite overall picture emerges. Among other things, the paradigm the generals created (and we also tend to create) in regard to Hitler and the military needs tweaking, at least in some instances.

For example, we think of Hitler as a megalomaniac bent on conquest at all costs.  But how to explain, then, Hitler’s attitude towards Britain?  Hart shows that at least in the minds of the generals, Hitler wanted to back off of Britain.  At Dunkirk the generals thought that Hitler wanted the British to get away.  With Operation Sea Lion, generals complained that Hitler barely involved himself in the planning and seemed to care little for the details. He seemed almost relieved to break it off in its infant stages.

In truth, Hitler had always admired the British.  He praised them in Mein Kampf, which fit his racial view of the world.  The British, after all, had largely German and Nordic stock and thus were not Germany’s “natural” enemies.  Apparently Hitler believed that in allowing the British to save their honor at Dunkirk, they would more prone to accept a peace settlement.  Like Kaiser Wilhelm II, he implicitly thought that Germany and England were friends deep down.  Hitler’s egocentrism led to him to believe that everyone thought as he did.  All of us share this characteristic to some extent, but in Hitler it grew far out of proportion.  In this rare instance, his race theories actually made him less aggressive, and in this case, this instinct proved disastrous for Germany, a double irony.

Hart shows how the army never really trusted or liked Hitler.  Every general interviewed sought to distance himself from Hitler in some way. But then this begs the question as to why very few military leaders stood up to Hitler, let alone actively tried to change the situation.  They explained their situation this way:

  • While many of the upper level officers might have gone against Hitler, their troops would not have.  Those from Major on down had been raised with the Nazi system and had much more loyalty to it.  Many officers doubted whether or not their troops would have followed them in rebellion.
  • The army had an ensconced officer corp with traditions that survived W.W. I.  But the Air Force and navies did not.  Many army officers believed these branches were comprised almost entirely of pro-Hitler sympathizers, as both owed their very existence to the Nazi regime.  Even if the army as a unit rebelled, the Air Force and Navy would not.

Hart offers little comment on this line of defense.  It has merit, and it touches on a larger question.  For democracy to thrive the army must be apolitical.  Is the Nazi army any different?  When do we want the army suddenly to get a conscience?  Commenting on on our military’s experience in Vietnam, one general stated that, “To argue that officers should be guided primarily by their conscience is to argue for military dictatorship.”  But of course we don’t want soldiers, or any human being, to reduce themselves to be a mere robotic arm of the state.

Interestingly the generals’ objections to Hitler had everything to do with Hitler’s military policies and nothing about the morality of the Nazi regime. Nowhere in this 300 page book is the Holocaust even mentioned, let alone the “killing groups” on the eastern front.  Maybe this has something to do with exactly who Hart interviewed, but I think it has more to do with the strict stratification of Nazi society, and the technocratic nature of their military education.  In the end, neither of these things can explain away their ultimate failure to act in any significant way.  None of them went nearly as far as Adolph Eichmann’s ridiculous assertion that, “I only transported people to the concentration camps.  I never actually killed anyone!” but they show the same tendency, albeit to a much lesser degree.

This point touches on how the generals conducted the war.  While Hart (a military man himself) often sympathizes with the military’s side of the story, he points out that the generals lacked strategic imagination.  At least at certain points and times, Hart shows how Hitler had greater grand strategic insight.  Hitler and his generals often clashed.  They had profound class differences.  The Prussian aristocracy surely resented the social mixing engendered by the Nazi regime.  But Hart shows that the differences between them also had roots in their personalities and training.  Hitler’s poetic mind gave him a potentially greater field of vision than his technocratic generals.

But this “greater field of vision” needs moral and “physical” roots.   Art has no merit for its own sake. Hitler often preferred the great and memorable deed to reality.  If he were to win the war, it would have to be on his aesthetic terms.  So he ordered what in his mind were “gallant last stands” that really condemned his troops to slaughter.  The “Battle of the Bulge” had no real possibility of success due to lack of air support and supplies, but it would be so much more heroic than waiting behind fortified positions behind the Rhine.   Hitler seemed to live more fully in the world of Wagner’s operas than reality.

Hitler may have had at times greater strategic insight than his generals.  But this distance from reality made it so that he could never bother with mundane details.  As far as children are concerned, meat comes from the grocery store, and water comes from the faucet.  Hitler never either could or would take logistics like supplies into account.  That is why Germany could fall prey so quickly to “imperial overstretch.”  General Halder warned Hitler that, “Our danger is that we win all the battles except the last one,” and this proved prophetic in Africa, Russia, and even Europe.  Like Hannibal and Napoleon before him, Hitler forgot the need for political as well as military conquests.

It would be more satisfying for us if Hitler had a moment of self-revelation at his end.  But like many other Nazi leaders who took their own life, no such moment came.  Hitler never wavered from playing his part.  As various Nazi functionaries urged Hitler to flee Berlin, apparently it was Albert Speer who countered their advice by telling Hitler, “You must be on stage when the curtain falls.”  Speer knew that the best way to motivate Hitler was to play to his sense of theater.  Perhaps he wanted Hitler’s demise as much as some of the generals did.

Dave

Cultures are all Different, except when they’re the Same

It strikes me as a plausible proposition that anthropology developed primarily as a science out of democratic cultures. The openness fostered by democracy may contribute to curiosity and a desire for travel. Many consider the Athenian Herodotus the “Father of History,” but his work has many anthropological dimensions as well. I discussed in another post the archetypal Feminine within democracy, so it may be no surprise that the most famous anthropologists in the 20th century were two women, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

We can imagine the stereotypical male being almost a parody of an anthropologist–narrow, rigid, calling anything different “stupid,” or “dumb” (this could have been a marvelous Monty Python skit with John Cleese). So we can see how typical feminine traits of fluidity, appreciating context, nurture and acceptance, and so on, might fit women best–in general of course.

Many have written extensively on Ruth Benedict’s classic, Patterns of Culture, and I will not seek to say what has already been said. Briefly, however, Benedict seems to have two main goals:

  • To demonstrate that various aspects of a particular culture all interconnect and influence one another, and
  • To show that cultures are fundamentally different from one another, and are developed internally, not dependent on race or geography
  • Benedict of course makes many interesting observations about the societies she observes and her work has great merit. But, just as John Cleese might marvelously enact a parody of an anthropologist in the field, so too anthropologists can sometimes parody themselves. It is possible to be so open, so fluid, as to lose one’s moorings.

By this I mean that, of course cultures are different from one another, but this should not surprise us at all. People are different too. What I find more striking are the similarities across cultures that testify to the essential unity of human nature. For example, Benedict tackles how different cultures treat adolescent girls. In one place, young teens are primarily feared. The transformation they undergo has an element of sacredness about it, but, the sacred can also bring terror. So the young girls are sent away from the community to live in tents apart for months at a time. In another culture, they are celebrated and receive something akin to adoration, with men of the tribe literally bowing to them as potential and future mothers of the tribe. In Polynesian cultures, Benedict asserts that no one makes a big deal of adolescence at all. No ceremonies exist to mark the passing from youth to young adulthood, but . . . during this time teens are granted a great deal of sexual freedom, which they readily take advantage of until marriage.

Benedict’s strong accentuation of differences, however, have her miss the overall point. Each of these cultures treat the teen years as a distinct phase of development, each other them apply different standards of conduct for teens and others in the tribe treat them differently than either children or adults. To me, this seems more striking than their differences.

I find this emphasis on difference–not at all unique to Benedict among anthropologists–as a symptom of the democratic cultures from whence they arise which also stress individual differences and uniqueness. Paradoxically, I think this leads us towards a fascination with cultures that are tightly interlocked and cohesive, for democratic cultures can produce no such thing.

When a book gets reviewed positively by diverse thinkers such as Rod Dreher and Cornel West, one should take note. Patrick Deneeen’s Why Liberalism Failed partially indulges in too much romanticism for the past. His book is more of an essay or a thought-piece, and so it has holes. Still, I find his paradoxical analysis that Liberalism–by which he means the liberal democratic order that forms the foundation of both Republicans and Democrats–has failed because it has in fact done everything it set out to do, compelling, and an interesting companion to Benedict and other anthropologists.

Deneen argues that the Liberal order, which had its origins in with the work of Hobbes and Locke, set out to create a radically new society with a very different conception of how an individual relates to the state and one another. Traditional societies saw the state fundamentally as a community of persons pointed in the same direction with the same values.

Liberal society starts with the premise that recognizing and maximizing individuals, and the inherent competition that comes with it, will create a more prosperous and workable state. Liberalism seeks to free us from all group oriented authorities that are not consensual, be it tradition, community norms, etc. It achieved its goals in spectacular fashion and we all partake readily of what it has to offer. It has brought unprecedented prosperity, but left us adrift at sea in a mass of individuals. In turn, this has led to the rise of statism, and emotionally driven authoritarian politics. Gone is the world of George H.W. Bush. Welcome to the world of Trump and Ocasio-Cortez. The success of Liberalism has brought us to place that will naturally usher in its demise.*

Deneen explains himself well on any number of podcast interviews, and the book has various and detailed reviews. I will mention two of his main points that might help us understand the polarity of the self-loathing expressed by some in academia and the progressive left, and the chest-thumping of the more nationalistic right.

Deneen mentions that Liberalism is supposed to make men “free” and “liberal” in their disposition. But the whole tradition of the liberal arts expounds a very different meaning of freedom. The great thinkers and writers from the ancients down through Austen and Dickens all characterize freedom as living with limits, be it the limits of nature, tradition, or the law of God. But the Liberal order defines freedom as acting without any constraint, be it constraints on the market, on family, on biology, and so on. So, Wal-Mart should be free to eradicate mom-and-pop Main Street. And, if every civilization that ever existed defined marriage in a certain way, that stricture simply sets up another bowling pin for the Liberal order to knock down. The whole history of the human past has no authority over the now.

Our orientation towards living without limits has led to our striking crisis of inequality. Our solution to this, however, is not to champion the limitations taught by the liberal arts, rooted in God, natural law, or nature itself, but instead to blame liberal education for being “impractical.” For Deneen, an insistent STEM emphasis only continues to feed the beast, though he surmises that we will avoid violence. John Locke himself argued that, of course his proposed new order would bring about a new kind of inequality. But this new inequality will give us much more overall prosperity, and indeed he was correct. Even the poor may not mind inequality so much because we all have iphones.** Still, the benefits of a liberal economy do not feed the soul.

So too, Deneen argues that Liberalism destroys “culture” as part of its operating procedure. To develop, culture requires place, habit, tradition, and local difference, none of which have a role in the Liberal state. We have no place, and if we live in a particular place for long, it may not have any “place” about it (suburbs are wonderfully convenient and give many obvious benefits, but most are interchangeable with each other).

I think this might explain why many in the west have a fascination with other cultures. The Pueblo and the Dobu people profiled by Benedict have a tight culture in which roles and identity stand out with perfect clarity to all who live within them. We may not want to live among them but we long for their sense of solidity. Conversely, the Dobu do not send out anthropologists to find out about us. A man who is full need not scavenge for food.

This may help explain the progressive liberal drive to limit free speech. They seek not the liberal idea of freedom, but taboos that might give us identity. I completely object to their methods and their goals, though I understand the impulse. You can only celebrate diversity for so long, until you realize that everyone has the same need to define themselves as a people, and we cannot define ourselves without living within limits .

Deneen’s book has few solutions in mind, and this has frustrated some reviewers. But he does he offer the following from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution:

In this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, [and] that instead of throwing away our old prejudices, we cherish them . . . . W are are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock of each man is small, and the individuals do better to avail themselves of the general captital of nations and of ages. . . . Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes part of his nature.

Dave

*In an interesting aside, Deneen points out that James Madison specifically sought to develop a government where different political interests were inexorably pitted against one another. He eschewed the idea of community almost from the start. These different and intractable differences would preserve liberty for each group by each interest group canceling each other out. Alas, he probably envisioned several kinds of difference, and not just two.

Or . . . perhaps just two versions of the same impulse? Many criticize Trump for his relationship to facts. But Oscasio-Cortez recently derided those who are “more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

**Deneen said in a recent speech that he leads at Notre Dame a class on the idea of utopia, from ancient days until now. At the end, he polled the class to ask them which society of those he presented would they least want to live in, and which they would most want to live in. They all said 1984 is the one they wouldn’t want to live in. But which would they choose? A handful chose the world Wendell Berry presents in Hannah Coulter. But about half the class said Brave New World.

“It was stunning that they saw it as a utopia,” Deneen said. “That’s liberalism succeeding, and that’s liberalism failing.”

“The (Optimistic) Spirit of Medieval Philosophy”

There exists an “old saw” approach to Christianity that runs something like this: A long time ago Christians devoted themselves to practical matters of personal morality.  The early Church lived as a community of love devoted to good works.  Then, along comes ________ (this “blank” takes many forms — St. Paul, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, etc.) and Christianity forever tainted itself with “theology” and a philosophical turn of mind completely at odds with the spirit of Christ and his early followers.”

I believe firmly in the idea that every organization gets the culture they deserve.  Perhaps the Church over time has contributed to the great error described above by focusing too much on morality as such and not on transformation.  Perhaps Christian education has concerned itself too much at various times with mere outward good results and good looks rather than giving a firm foundation in eternal principles.

But I also think that those that attack the “philosophical” elements of Christianity have a conscious or unconscious agenda to keep religion tucked away in its own small corner.  “You Christians please continue to be nice to each other and try and help others.  We’ll handle the big stuff.”

In his The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Etienne Gilson sets out to refute those who wish to keep Christian belief in a 1124081small corner.  Gilson was a pre-eminent scholar and philosopher in his day, and alas for me, some of his philosophical vocabulary went over my head.  But one of the great strengths of his work is its simplicity.  He asks the critic to please, just actually read the Bible and Christian theologians honestly, and the idea that Christian belief was never “philosophical” melts away.

For starters we have the book of Job as a deep philosophical statement on the nature of suffering.  Many Old Testament history books like the book of Judges show artful arrangement to make pointed statements about the nature of man.  We have Ecclesiastes and many Psalms.  Some would say Jesus said nothing “philosophical” but this can only possibly hold water if one discounts the Gospel of John entirely.  Then of course we have the “dreaded” St. Paul who “intruded” with his theological cast of mind, and so on, and so on.

Gilson’s main point, however, deals with the Middle Ages.  Here most critics (at least in his day) stated that whatever philosophy the medievals attempted strictly copied from the Greeks.  They had no originality.  Gilson’s quick retort to this deals with the nature of originality itself.  In one sense, “all philosophy is a footnote to Plato,” as Alfred North Whitehead stated.  Of course the medievals took some ideas from the Greeks.  What philosopher would not?

Others (like Edward Gibbon) charge the medievals with dimming the light of reason with the obscurantism of faith and revelation.  Gilson shows with many examples that the bulk of medieval thinkers saw reason enhanced, not diminished, by faith.  He writes,

By revealing to man what he could not actually know, revelation opens up the way for the work of reason.

God’s gift of rationality now has more to chew on, and thus gets more of a workout.  For the medievals revelation makes mankind more rational, not less.*

But the bulk of the book forms Gilson’s main point that the medievals creatively used and transmuted Greek philosophy rather than copied them rote.  They had a strong desire to save everything they could and use it for Christian purposes.  My favorite example of this comes from Boethius. Gilson writes,

Fate had weighed too heavily on men’s mind’s to be too summarily dismissed.  Boethius took the trouble to put up some rather complicated architecture in order to ensure it a niche in the Christian temple.  Providence is then the divine intelligence comprehending all things in the world; that is to say their natures and the laws of their development.  As reunited therefore in the divine ideas the universal order is one with Providence; as particularized, broken up, and so to speak, incorporated with the the things it rules, the providential order may be called Fate.  All that is subject to Fate is thus subject to Providence, since Fate depends on Providence as a consequence on its principle.

Boethius himself wrote,

For as the innermost of several circles revolving around the same center approaches the simplicity of the mid-most point . . . while the outermost, whirled in an ampler orbit takes in a wider sweep of space–even so whatever departs from the Primal mind is involved more deeply in the meshes of fate, and things are free from fate in proportion as they seek to approach the center; while if aught cleaves close to the supreme mind in absolute fixity, this too, being free from movement, rises above Necessity.  Therefore as is reasoning to pure intelligence, as that which is generated to that which is, time to eternity, a circle to its center, so is the shifting series of fate to the steadfastness and simplicity of providence.

I admit I don’t fully understand it, nor might I buy what he sells. Whatever the explanation, I think it best to avoid the word “Fate” altogether.  But who wouldn’t smile at Boethius’ boyish enthusiasm and deft mental gymnastics? Aquinas, to my mind a more mature and clearer thinker than Boethius, rejects this concept of Fate as well.  I’m sure that Aquinas understood him, and I’ll stick with his analysis.

Of particular interest to me was Gilson’s explanation of the medieval view of history.  Previous historians in the Greek and Roman tradition did brilliant work.  But even the best of the ancients, i.e. Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius, all show the tendency toward Fate and Inevitability.  For Herodotus, everyone eventually crosses the boundaries of natural law — even Cyrus — and gets crushed for it.  Thucydides sees civilization doomed by the passions and fears of man that lie just below the surface.  Even the more spiritually minded Polybius sees mighty Rome caught up in the grand cycle of growth, peak, and decay from which they cannot escape.

Medievals demonstrated originality in their historical vision.  They saw linear progression where others saw only vicious cycle.  With revelation illumining reason we can build on the past, move forward, and advance.  The medievals had humility in relation to the past.  They knew the Romans and Greeks had done better than they in most ways.  But they never felt imprisoned by that presumption.  Rather, they sought to press on and hopefully help carry mankind to a better place.  In comparison to what came before, Gilson rightly claims this as an original philosophical development.

This view of history has its roots of course in theology.  History is a poem, which makes sense only when we know the beginning and the end.  Thanks to revelation, we know both, and can now see Christ building His kingdom on Earth, one that grows as a mustard seed.  If God be true, we have the opportunity to progress in relation to the past, though of course we may reject that chance.  This explains Boethius’ desire to save Fate from the chopping block — we must save everything so we can build on everything — but it also explains Aquinas refusal to yield.  God binds no one by Fate.  Otherwise, how can God’s kingdom advance?

The medievals, often portrayed as dour and gloomy, strike me as a hopeful people.

Dave

*Perhaps one example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity, a reality beyond the realm of reason.  But after revelation announces the doctrine, reason and experience can then deepen our understanding, which seems to be the experience of the early Church.