The Rings of Saturn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Etiquette of Battle

A friend of mine has a friend who teaches in a classics department at a university.  On different campuses different kinds of progressive ideologies have more sway, and at this particular school the administration required the classics professor to document how he would help his students encounter “the other” in the time periods he studied.

This in itself is a worthy goal, for getting outside of the prejudices and perspectives of one’s own time is one of history’s great benefits.  Like C.S. Lewis said about great literature, history can get one outside of oneself, and ultimately can prepare us for worship.

My friend’s friend made the argument that in studying the Greeks and Romans one studies “the other.”  We need nothing else.  Many aspects of their society make them very weird indeed to our current sensibilities.  Anyone from ancient Greece or Rome would feel completely out of place in the modern world.

Alas that his argument held no sway with the administration.*

But we need not go back thousands of years to get at “the other.”  Even certain aspects of European culture from just a few centuries ago would suffice.  We inherited a great deal from the Enlightenment era, but even so, we could not imagine settling disagreements as they did.

I have dealt with the subject of dueling before, but wish to speculate on the connections between dueling, warfare, and ceremony.

Many unwritten rules governed duels, but eventually a man named Crow Ryan (perhaps a pseudonym?) codified them into the “Code Duello.”  No need to review all 26 stipulations, but a few examples will help illustrate for us how they thought.  First, the hierarchy of insults:

I. The first offence requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. Example: A tells B he is impertinent, etc. B retorts that he lies; yet A must make the first apology, because he gave the first offence, and (after one fire) B may explain away the retort by subsequent apology.

II. But if the parties would rather fight on, then, after two shots each (but in no case before), B may explain first and A apologize afterwards.

N.B. The above rules apply to all cases of offences in retort not of a stronger class than the example.


V. As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. The alternatives, therefore, are: The offender handing a cane to the injured party to be used on his back, at the same time begging pardon, firing until one or both are disabled; or exchanging three shots and then begging pardon without the proffer of the cane.

N.B. If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed, or until, after receiving a wound and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.

VI. If A gives B the lie and B retorts by a blow (being the two greatest offences), no reconciliation can take place till after two discharges each or a severe hit, after which B may beg A’s pardon for the blow, and then A may explain simply for the lie, because a blow is never allowable, and the offence of the lie, therefore, merges in it. (See preceding rule.)

It seems obvious to me (someone correct me if I’m wrong) that the code prohibited “blows” because any Joe Six-Pack can use their fists.  Fists then, would offer no opportunity to distinguish oneself as a gentleman.  In addition, fists lack the deadly power of pistols or sabres.  If we’re going to fight, let’s really fight and not play around as children. To use your fists on someone communicates to them that they are not “worth your sword.”  The contest wouldn’t count because it would lack any real gravitas.

But I think that fists lacked the proper ceremony that helped legitimize dueling.  The rituals of the duel gave the duel the power to confer status on the participants.  We see an example of this ceremony from a scene in Barry Lyndon:

This short scene captures much:

  • The setting for the duel serves the immediate purpose of being away from the law or other bystanders.  But it also is a “genteel” spot that elevates the occasion.
  • The seconds do their duty and attempt a reconciliation before the event.
  • Once the apology was refused, they must fight.  Though Captain Quinn looks as if he had second thoughts, he cannot back down now.
  • Captain Quinn’s second accepts the results and even encourages the other to get away so as to avoid the police.**

The word for duel comes from the Latin “duo” and “bellum,”–a “two-person war,” shortened to “duel.”  It should not surprise us that at the height of dueling, war itself had some of the same rituals.

Another scene from Barry Lyndon shows the ritual nature of battle to some extent.  Neither side employs any strategy.  They declare themselves plainly and come at each other simply and openly.

The first 1:30 of this next clip show the ritual nature of battle well:

In his magnificent The Centurions, Jean Larteguy has the character of Jacques Glatigny, who hails from an established French military family, muse on how things have changed during the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu:

Glatigny’s reaction [he has just been captured near Dien Bien Phu] was that of a regular officer; he could not believe that this “officer” squatting over him and smoking foul tobacco was, like him, a battalion commander with the same rank and responsibilities as his own.  

Glatigny thought that his “opposite number” looked much like a peasant.  His face was neither cruel nor intelligent but rather sly, patient, and attentive.

So this was one of the officers of the 308th Division, the best unit the Vietminh had; it was this peasant from the fields that had beaten him, Glatigny, the descendant of one of the great military dynasties of the West, for whom was was a profession.  He looked at the Vietminh captain with some confusion.  They had fought against each other on equal terms. Their heavy mortars were just as effective as French artillery, and the French air force had not been able to operate over the battlefield.  They had fought hand-to-hand and the position had changed several times throughout the battle, but there remained neither respect, hatred, or even anything resembling interest on his inscrutable face.

The days when the victorious side presented arms to the vanquished garrison that had fought bravely were over.  There was no room left for military chivalry.  In the deadly world of Communism the vanquished was a culprit and reduced to the position of a man condemned by law.  

Up to 1945 the principles of the old world still held.  Second Lt. Glatigny was then in command of a platoon outside Karlruhe.  He had taken a German major prisoner and brought him back to his squadron commander, of the same social class as himself.  The commander had established his HQ in a forester’s cottage.  They saluted and then introduced themselves.  The captured major, after all, had fought gallantly himself and came from a vaunted division of the Wehrmacht.  

The German and the Frenchman, completely at ease with one another, discussed where they might have fought against each other since 1939.  To them it was of little consequence that one was the victor and one the loser, provided that they had observed the rules and fought bravely.  They respected each other and became fast friends.  The major drove the captured German to the prison in his personal Jeep and before departing, shook hands.

Democracies tend to eschew ceremony as elitist, and this has some truth to it.  Ceremonies need presiding, and those that know how to conduct them must have some kind of training not available to all.    But without ceremony we will have a hard time finding meaning in our military endeavors–or in general, for that matter.  This perhaps sheds light on the current problem of the “War on Terror.”  What are we doing, where are we doing it, how are we fighting, and to what end?

But one can have the opposite reaction.  Many students who view the videos above see the actions of the army and the duelists as essentially meaningless.  Two of the clips above come from Stanley Kubrick’s highly praised Barry Lyndon, and one might interpret the movie as an indictment of the meaningless nature of Lyndon’s life in pursuit of aristocratic status.

Maybe, maybe.  But if we eschew one form of ceremony, we will need to replace it with something else, as nature abhors a vacuum.


*For the administration in question, the “other” had to be defined ethnically.  The Greeks and Romans were “white.”  This tendency of some progressives to label people primarily or almost exclusively by their gender and ethnicity is quite unfortunate and even dangerous, but that is another post.

**Those who have seen the movie know that this is not quite the whole story . . .

Valleys of Neptune

A few years ago I attended a conference in which Dr. Peter Kreeft was one of the featured speakers.  I have read a few of Dr. Kreeft’s works and liked them all, and especially enjoyed his essay on surfing, one of his great loves.

During one of the lunch breaks I had the immense good fortune to find myself sitting next to Dr. Kreeft at one the random round tables in the dining area.  I asked him for some surfing tips and he proved gracious and helpful.  Based on his love for the sea I also wanted to run a pet theory of mine by him.

The theory runs something like this. . .

Mankind’s greatest feats of creativity have always come near water.

  • Egypt had the Nile and the Mediterranean
  • Babylon had the Tigris and Euphrates
  • Greece had the Mediterranean
  • Northern Europe gave birth to the Gothic Age, by the English Channel and the North Sea
  • London then led the way with the Channel, North Sea, etc.
  • The Dutch had a brief but brilliant golden age, again right on the water
  • In America the great cultural centers have always been Boston, New York, L.A., etc.

Even when sometimes you think of an exception, the theory still holds.  Chicago is in the middle of the U.S., but has the Great Lakes.  Twain invented American Literature in the Mid-West. . . but his formative years were spent on the Mississippi.

And so on, and so on.

Assyria was in the Ancient Near East, but not creative in any way that contributed to humanity. They did not live near any great body of water.  The Greek city-state of Sparta was one of the few far away from the Mediterranean, and their culture stagnated.  Rome obviously had lots of power, but came to the Mediterranean late in their game and thus borrowed a great deal from everyone. Their creative cultural contributions pale in comparison to Greece, but also Egypt and probably Babylon as well.

Some might suggest that the key is majestic expanse, not just water.  But I disagree.  The Great Plains have majestic expanse in spades and have not led the way in creative impulse.  The Himalayas have the tallest mountains on Earth but have not produced great thinkers, architects, etc.  Sparta was surrounded by mountains on all sides and may have been one of the more culturally stagnant of all civilizations.  Of course mountains and plains have a beauty all their own and can inspire, but they do not appear to have the universal impact of water.  I still think there must be something to water itself.

A purely rational or mechanical view of this would probably put the emphasis on the fact that living near water would inevitably result in overseas trade, which would blend cultures and ideas to a degree that would naturally lead to creativity.

But I think that this puts the cart before the horse.  For a civilization to think of something beyond survival and necessity, it has to think outside of itself, and for that it needs inspired.  It is this sense of inspiration that opens them up to travel, other cultures, and other things.  In other words, substantial bodies of water subconsciously unlocks our creativity and then civilizations take advantage of the opportunities before them.

“What do you think?” I asked Dr. Kreeft.

“I agree.”

There followed a pregnant pause but all I could think was, “He agreed!  Yee-ha!”

He continued (I paraphrase his words), “There is something about water that ties us to creation itself.  It is where we came from.”  And with that, he politely excused himself.

Part of me wanted him to say more, but upon reflection he had in fact said it all.  I doubt very much that by the “where we came from” comment he meant anything in a purely Darwinian sense.  Genesis 1 talks of creation being drawn up through water.  Our new creation involves the waters of baptism.  1 John 5 talks mysteriously of the three-fold agreement of the Spirit, water and blood.  I know of a physics teacher who begins the year by looking at ancient views of creation and the cosmos, and mentions Thales’ idea that all matter comes from water.  The students tend to scoff until they re-read Genesis 1.  There is the Tradition of the Church which portrays Mary hearing the Annunciation, with the attendant re-creation of all things through the Incarnation, sitting by a well.  The creation of the “new Adam” would obviously take us back to Genesis 1, just as St. John does in the opening of his gospel.

In the Odyssey (13.102-112) Homer refers to a cave sacred to nymphs which contains “ever flowing springs of water.”  Also in the cave are “jars made of stone,” along with “looms, likewise of stone, in which the nymphs weave sea-purple garments.”  The Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry writes,

The “garments of sea-purple” are obviously the flesh, which is woven together from blood; the sea-purple dye is derived from blood, and the wool that it colors is also the vital fluids of animals.  All flesh is thus fashioned from blood through blood . . .

To this day Jimi Hendrix stands firmly entrenched as the greatest electric guitarist of all time.  He did things with the guitar that still no one else can equal.  I don’t think it coincidental that some of his most intriguing songs (“Rainy Day, Dream Away,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “May This be Love,” “1983 . . .A Merman I Should Be”) involve water.  Perhaps in some way he understood the power and meaning of water as Peter Kreeft did that day at lunch, a serendipitous moment for me if there ever was one.


Rebels Against the Future

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

From St. Epiphianos:

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

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

And from St. Nelios the Ascetic:

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

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


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

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

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



Democracies and their Aristocracies, pt. 2

This serves as a companion piece to this post of some time ago . . .

Hat tip to Martin Gurri, who makes an excellent point in his new book.  The information revolution may very well serve mass democratic movements, and that may not be a good thing . . .


Many events leading up to the Peloponnesian War helped increase tensions between Athens and Sparta.  I never ascribe to theories that make certain events “inevitable,” but given the history between two of Greece’s pre-eminent powers, war was probably a better than 50-50 bet as tensions between them increased in the mid-5th century B.C.  Athens’ decision to build walls around the interior of the city and its harbor clearly added to these tensions.

I had always interpreted Athens’ decision in almost entirely military terms.  The Persians sacked their city in 480 B.C., and the Athenians recovered it only after a last stand naval battle in Salamis.  The psychological and physical scars of that event would naturally lead to a desire for more defense.

Naturally such an action strained things between Athens and Sparta.  Athens had a great navy, Sparta had its infantry.  Each could hurt the other in its own way, a kind of ancient application of “M.A.D.”  Now, Athens could hypothetically hurt Sparta or its allies without worrying too much about the consequences.  As great as Sparta fought in open battle, they had limited abilities in siege warfare.  Athens could remain safely behind the walls of Athens.  You could see the walls of Athens as a first strike weapon, one that allowed them to sally forth with Sparta not able to retaliate in kind.  So too, when President Reagan proposed his SDI “Star Wars” defense, many believed the invention would create a more dangerous world, not a safer one.

Peter J. Fleiss’ book Thucydides and the Politics of Bipolarity showed me a side of this issue I had not realized before.  Athens’ walls would never have been built without a decisive shift towards democracy in mid-5th century Athens.

Like almost any other place in the ancient world, Athens’ identity came from its landowning farmers.  However, around 600 B.C. the wealthier oligarchs gained an unstable amount of power via the Code of Draco.  At this point, Athens chose a tyrant named Solon to take control of Athens for 20 years, beginning in 590 B.C.  The choice revealed a lot about the Athenians.  Solon had wealth, which earned him the trust of the aristocracy, but . . . he was not an aristocrat, which earned him the respect of the people at large.

Solon embarked on a program to bring social stability back to Athens.  He had to walk a tightrope between competing factions and earned high praise from the ancient world for his reforms. For our purposes here, we note that

  • He refused to redivide land and let the wealthier aristocrats keep what they had acquired from the newly poor.
  • At the same time, he taxed the wealthy at a much higher rate
  • He helped grow a middle class by encouraging the growth of a merchant fleet

The growth of merchants provided a valve to let off social steam.  In addition, many of the city’s poor got jobs rowing the ships.  Solon attempted balance in his reforms, but hindsight shows us that the power of traditional elites was on the clock.

The economic story of Athens ca. 590-450 B.C. mirrors what happened to Rome when she started to shift to a more merchant oriented economy from 200-60 B.C.  Rome’s shift helped to destroy the very elites who profited most from this shift.  The power of elites rests on tradition.  Tradition comes from continuity, and continuity comes from land.  This has been the way of things from the days of yore.  Once cash money, and not land, formed the primary currency, the land-owning elites lost much of their power.

As Athens naval might grew the population shifted to more urban areas.  Of course poorer farmers resided outside the 350px-pelopennesian_war_walls_protecting_the_city_431_b-ccity walls, but we can be sure that the older, established families had most of their land outside the city limits.  This land would be the first target of any invading army.  Building the wall would allow for more protection, but any defensive structure sends a double message.  The Germans, for example, could invade Poland with confidence in 1939 because the Maginot line signaled a purely defensive posture for France along the frontier.  Building the walls around the city signaled that in the event of war Athens would willingly let the majority of its exterior farms fall into Spartan hands–until the war was won, of course.

Popular democracy would be the only plausible political vehicle to accomplish this.  Land of the elites outside the walls would suffer before the merchant class within the city.  In the event of a Spartan invasion, the navy, and the poor who rowed the ships, would rise even more in importance.  Only the navy could then procure food for the city under siege.  When the time came, Pericles proposed this exact strategy.*  At the start of the Peloponnesian War Athens retreated inside its walls and let Sparta have the run of the countryside, while their navy shouldered the military load.

Athens’ walls signaled a cultural shift as well.  Some of the established elites outside the walls were obviously more conservative, and might have had more in common with the average Spartan than the average Athenian inside the city.  The walls repudiated the statesmanship of leaders like Cimon who sought rapprochement with Sparta.**

To me Pericles’ strategy could have the hallmarks of the “tyranny of the majority” problem discussed by so many political philosophers.  Older, elite families lost land, but more importantly, they lost the possibility of gaining status in the war.  In the Greek world, status gave power, not vice-versa.  Pericles’ proposed strategy greatly limited the chances of the landed gentry gaining honor and status via battle, while greatly increasing the chances of the “demos” to gain in both departments.^

The failure of Pericles’ strategy, partly caused by the unforeseen plague that hit Athens, does not prove that democracies need elites.  But their failure in the overall war effort might suggest it.  Solon gained fame, honor, and success by pursuing a political agenda that both rewarded and burdened both the people and the elites.  In the 100 years after Solon left power, Athens went from an also-ran to a major power in the Greek world.  As democracy grew, so too did the people’s opportunities to strike back at their own elite.  They should have resisted the temptation.  As Tocqueville wrote, democracies usually win their wars, but that’s only when they unite against a common enemy.  In Athens’ day the political infighting that began the war lasted only until their situation got desperate.  We can’t measure the effect, but it surely hampered their efforts.  We might wonder if things would have been different if Pericles pursued a military strategy that allowed for participation and honor for both the people and the gentry.

Our recent election saw much ink spilled on the question of “elites.”  Some argued that Clinton is “elite” because of her connections and long political career.  Others argue that Trump is elite because of his wealth.  Whatever your definition, “elite” has become a dirty word.  That’s a shame, because history tells us that healthy democracies need, and perhaps even embrace, their “elites.”


*Thucydides argues that such a strategy would have worked had the Athenians had the discipline to stick with it.  This comment has always perplexed me for three main reasons: 1) At some point the Athenians would have had to deal with the Spartan infantry, and a policy of withdrawing behind walls would only embolden the Spartans, 2) The Athenians did have patience.  They tried this strategy for about 4 years, with no real success.  Initially the Spartans came, burned what they could, and left.  But eventually they realized they could come and stay for much of the year with impunity, because the Athenians never challenged them, and 3) Thucydides shows some disdain for the popular democracy throughout his narrative, and this policy only strengthened the hold of the demos on affairs of state.

**The mood shifted decisively with Cimon’s ostracism.  He father fought and won the Battle of Marathon.  Cimon himself had many noteworthy victories against the Persians.  Everything about “traditional values” pointed to a long and respected career for Cimon.

^This is one reason why I disagree with Thucydides’ assertion that Pericles’ time in power created an aristocratically leaning government with some democratic underpinnings.  Here I agree with Donald Kagan that Periclean democracy was really fully democratic.




The Social Justice Warrior and the Meaning of Creation

Before I write anything I should say that anyone familiar with the ideas of Dr. Jordan Peterson or Jonathan Pagaeu will note their presence all over what follows.  My debt to them is deep in this post.  My thanks to them both.

I recently had fun debating with a colleague about Russia’s recent move to restrict the freedom’s of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  No western commentator approved the move.  Everyone thought that this added to the examples of how Russia is lurching away from the West, is authoritarian, is evil, and so on.  Even Trump lodged a protest.  Now, while I happen to agree with Russia’s move (mostly–it’s hard to explain), I acknowledge that my position is far from a slam-dunk.  In fact, my colleague and I agreed to have our sides in the debate be chosen at random.  We both ended up arguing for the side opposite of our opinions, which added to the fun and lightened the mood of the occasion.

It seems impossible for us to imagine society working without more or less complete freedom of religion.  But, every society up until quite recently, from ancient Egypt down through the Scientific Revolution, limited freedom of religion.  Somehow their societies functioned just fine.  Even here and now we restrict the liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in some ways, along with other religions.  Would we give “freedom of religion” to satanists who sacrificed chickens next door?

Anyway, Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not allow for blood transfusions.  When one of their children comes to the hospital needing a transfusion, the state assumes temporary guardianship if the parents refuse to allow for proper treatment.  The child receives a transfusion and lives.  We have no problem with restricting the religious liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this respect.  Russia just takes our approach a bit further. The difference between us is one of degree and not kind.  In fact Russia stated that the blood-transfusion issue particularly bothered them.  Russia may not even have the guardianship laws we do in the U.S., making the possibility of children dying in their hospitals potentially a genuine reality.

The point being, every society has to draw a line somewhere.  Every society must distinguish between order and chaos.  Civilization could not exist otherwise.  Maybe Russia has erred in judgment.  But all must acknowledge that freedom has limits, and maybe those limits should have different boundaries in different places depending on the culture and context.  As Peter Augustine Lawler noted, many of those who champion a homogenous amorality concerning religion get quite judgmental regarding “obesity, smoking, alcohol, and seatbelts.”

Every society has a doctrine of creation that flows from their creation story, and this story informs every society in how they will deal with the boundary between order and chaos. Genesis deals with this quite directly and more clearly than any other I have read.  In one chapter we see the following:

  • The existence of a formless void far too vast for us to begin to understand.  We are finite, and cannot comprehend the infinite (some brilliant mathematicians have gone insane trying to do this).  If the vast scope of the created order defies imagination and numbs the mind, how can we begin to understand God Himself?
  • God creating differentiation, separating light from dark, the sea from dry land, plants from animals, and so on.
  • God creating mankind in His own image–differentiating them as male and female–inviting them to participate in this process of dominion and creating differentiation themselves  In chapter 2, for example, we see Adam naming the animals.
  • It is this very order, then, that allows for us to understand our place in the world and begin to know God.

The Mosaic law extends this in a variety of ways.  God called the Israelites to differentiate in the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, and of course, in the God they worshipped.  And yet, sprinkled throughout the Old Testament God gives reminders that the laws He gave and the differentiation he required were not absolute.  One thinks of the visions of Isaiah or Ezekiel, for example.  Often we see God and/or the psalmists tell us that He does not desire sacrifice, but then of course tells us to sacrifice all the same.  David understands this tension perfectly in Psalm 51, one of the most important psalms for the Church.

The Incarnation destroyed some of the old paradigms and created new ones.  Jesus breaks down the differentiation between Jew and Gentile, slave and free.  He destroys the dominion of sin and death.  He creates, or perhaps re-creates, a new kind of humanity.  The “chaos” outside of our categories invaded and transformed the world.  But . . . He still left us with “categories.”  We still have the Apostles as the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20), the canon, the liturgy, the bishops, and so on.

In his recent writing and in his numerous interviews, Jonathan Pageau discusses (among other things) the relationship between the core of society, its margins, and the chaos beyond.  Every society has a core of values and behaviors that shape culture, social interaction, politics, and so on.  So too each society has people and behavior on the margins, and the realm of nonsense and chaos beyond.  Total devotion to complete order would suffocate us.  If we let anything go at any time you have (to use Pageau’s phrase) “the flood”–a complete absence of differentiation that would destroy us in short order.

Each element has its place.  Generally speaking, the chaos exists as a warning.*  We can’t go there and live.  No one can see the face of God. The margins serve the dual purpose of challenging the core and thereby strengthen it at the same time.  Sometimes the margins penetrate the core and find ways to enlarge it and reshape in a healthy way.  The margin reminds us as well that the order we created is not absolute.  Societies need their margins and need to respond to them.

Not to stereotype too dramatically, but usually the artistic, creative groups in society occupy the margins.  To say this is “where they belong” is no insult.  That is where they are most effective.  We need only think of how certain musicians, comedians, and actors helped with the Civil Rights movement, for example.  But, would we want Picasso or Miles Davis as our congressmen?  What would happen to our arts and music?  Unfortunately at the moment, the margins of society, especially those in favor of radically different understandings of sexuality and gender, seek to become the core via judicial or executive fiat (and not the legislative process), and to enforce the ethics of the margin upon the mainstream.

This flipping of roles will work out badly for everyone.  The margins have no idea how to maintain a stable core–their whole business involves continually exploring new possibilities.  The core, ousted from their traditional role, will serve us very poorly as the prodding margin.  Just imagine a Sousa march as radical, avant-garde culture.  The end result will either result in another flood or a swing toward stifling authoritarianism, just as in France ca. 1791, or Germany in 1933, or perhaps even in Athens in 404 B.C.**

We have lived with democracy too long to see the nose on our face.  We cannot comprehend why others, including Russia, might feel apprehensive about adopting our system and our values wholesale. Democracy has a time-tested ability to plow through core traditions with extreme rapidity.  One need only look at how quickly our sexual ethics have gone from thinking about homosexual rights in the late 1990’s to state mandated speech regarding gender in about 20 years.  Perhaps we might think of democracy akin to an Italian sports car.  A sight to behold, powerful, able to move quickly in any direction.  At the same time, such cars are temperamental, break easily, and shouldn’t be driven by just anyone.

This remarkable adaptivity, however, may save us in the end.  Maybe the margin and the core can trade places rather quickly.  We have gone through transitions in the past and at least mostly righted the ship.  Hopefully soon we’ll have Aristophanes making us laugh again, and we’ll get Brad Lauhaus off the perimeter and back to grabbing rebounds on the low block.  All would be right with the world.


*I believe it is in Mere Christianity where C.S. Lewis mentions that many atheists or agnostics have no clue what it means to say, “If God would only show Himself plainly to all, then I would believe,” or something to that effect.  Lewis rightly points out that when the playwright steps on stage, the play is over.  God’s full revelation of Himself would overwhelm everything.  There would be no time for “belief.”

**Examples of this abound everywhere, especially on campuses around the country.  Just recently Brandeis University pulled the plug on a play by one of their own students about Lenny Bruce . . . for being too controversial.  Or read what happened to Prof. Bret Weinstein (an acknowledged supporter of Bernie Sanders, and far from a conservative) at Evergreen State University.

Finally, some might say that I contradict myself.  I favor (sort of) Russia putting limits on Jehovah’s Witnesses, while I am critical of those on the left imposing their own limits.  To clarify, I see a difference.

  • The actions of Russia are taken to reinforce their core.  Russia has a tremendously long history, and a religious history very different from our own.  We have a hard time understanding this in America, as we build off an abstract concept of rights divorced from culture, whereas Russia builds first from culture.
  • The actions of the progressive left seek to radically alter the core with ethics and practices from the margin.

Russia’s action may go too far, but fundamentally it changes very little about who they are as a people. Our recent changes are an attempt to radically shift what our core is, and introduces uncertainty about what we should be, which is dangerous to a society.



Enlightenment Liberty and its Children

The website Aeon recently posted a solid article from historian Josiah Ober.  In the article Ober makes the point that democracy and liberal government — that is, rule of law, free speech, protection of minority rights, etc. — do not always go hand in hand.  Indeed, we have seen many good marriages between the two concepts over time.  But at times democracy has not produced liberal government, and historical examples exist of other forms of government ruling in a liberal way.

Ober states that liberal ideas that limited the power of government and enthroned the autonomy of the individual came from the Enlightenment, ca. 1650-1750.  I have no qualms with this, and I applaud Ober pointing out the tension that sometimes exists between democracy and liberalism.  But we should pause for a moment to consider the implications for the minority protections the Enlightenment sought to enthrone.

I’ll start by saying that rule of law brings a huge amount of good to a society.  But a quick scan of the heritage of the Enlightenment will confuse us.  For as we saw the rise of political and individual liberty enshrined in democratic regimes we also see a rise in slavery — at least in America.*  Surely many reasons exist for the rise of slavery ca. 1700-1860 — too many for me to explore or fully understand.  But we cannot deny the confluence of political liberalism and oppression of the natives and African Americans.  Does a link exist between freedom and slavery?

We often hear arguments such as, “Of course pornography is bad for society.  But the remedy for the evil (i.e., making it illegal) would be worse than the disease.”  We hear these kinds of statements all the time, they roll off the tongue without thinking.  But not long ago people used similar arguments to justify slavery.  “Yes slavery is bad, but in order to have freedom we cannot give government the power to curtail it.”  I don’t want to over-spiritualize the issue, but the fact remains that pornography enslaves the passions and the basic humanity of hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of men and women.  The abortion issue has similar rhetoric. I had a college professor argue that, “Yes, abortion is a terrible thing, but what you pro-life people don’t understand is that without abortion, women would not have the rights and opportunities they have today.”  All over the Enlightenment view of individual autonomy we see this ghastly trade-off between “liberty” and death — be it physical or spiritual — again and again.  We may have to entertain the notion that slavery often comes on the coattails of this kind of freedom.

In our history, at certain times at least, we definitely lacked the will to restrain ourselves.  Historian Pauline Maier notes that at the Constitutional Convention George Mason wanted to include a provision to have all trade laws pass by a super majority.  He foresaw that northern commercial interests, combined with its more numerous population, would alienate southern agricultural interests. In exchange, he willingly hoped to grant Congress the power to abolish slavery.  He lost on this issue, according to him, because Georgia and South Carolina would not agree.  In exchange for precluding even the possibility of the banning of slavery until 1808, trade laws would pass with simple majorities.

Sure enough, in 1860 such states complained of laws that favored northern manufacturing interests as one motive for secession (the issue also came up in the Nullification Crisis during Jackson’s presidency).  Of course, they complained as well about Republican plans with regards to slavery.

In a recent interview the Archimandrite Tikhon said that,

Today . . . we talk not of the possible limitations of the freedom of speech, but of the real everyday criminal abuses of this freedom. Who are those that shout of the threat of ‘limitations’ most of all? Those, who have monopolized information and turned the media into real weapons, which are meant not only for manipulating the public conscience, but also aiming at ruining personality and society.   . . . Of course, I’m for limiting speech that ruins freedom, as well for limitation of drugs and alcohol, for limitation of abortions – and everything which causes loss of health, degradation and ruin of nation. And the opportunity to watch vileness on TV, the right to be duped, the ability to develop a brutal cruelty and the lowest instincts in oneself – this is not freedom. Plainly, it is an absolute slavery.

In spite of any prohibitions man will have the right and possibility to choose evil anyway, nobody will take away this right, don’t worry. But the state must protect its citizens from aggressive foisting this evil upon them.

The man interviewing him got quite nervous at such a response, as would many in the United States today.  Who should make the decisions, and to what degree, remains a very thorny question.  One might even successfully argue that no good method of making that decision exists today, at least in America. But the fact that, at least in theory, we should certainly limit liberty in certain respects, appears obvious.  To say otherwise is to bring pure selfishness and greed into the fabric of our lives  Many would say that this has already happened.

Once we realize this we must re-evaluate the whole heritage of the Enlightenment view of liberty and the individual.  The rule of law seems a nearly unqualified good.  But I don’t think it need go hand-in-glove with a view of liberty that inevitably leads to slavery in some form.  Law after all, by its very nature, asks us to give up some form of liberty for the good of others.

Aristotle’s Politics adds another perspective.  He discusses the concept of proportionality in the state and teases out how imbalances even of virtues can cause harm.  The concept of “the golden mean” drips throughout his writings.  When even certain particular virtues assume too much of a place in the life of the state, it will cause harm.  In this situation, the inevitable counter-reaction will cause harm, because it too will lack balance and proportion.  One might posit that the whole “snowflake,” “safe space,” and trigger-warning phenomena present on some college campuses is just such a misshapen and destructive reaction to the abuse of freedom.

Tocqueville made the boring but true statement that, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”  Aristotle would add that such liberty must exist in proportion to other necessary virtues of the state.


*I know that of course slavery existed before the Enlightenment.  But slavery had generally disappeared during the Middle Ages, and revived again only during the Renaissance, when certain Roman concepts of law, property, and a classical idea of liberty made its way back into the stream of European civilization.  The Enlightenment built off this Renaissance heritage in many respects, and so it is no surprise that its heirs practiced a revival of slavery — something worse even than Roman slavery.