Valleys of Neptune

Several 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 many ways 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.

Growth Measures

This post is from 2016 originally, and you will note some dated references.  I repost it in conjunction with discussions this week in our Government class.

The original post follows . . .

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In his account of the Athenian debate over their proposed expedition to Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides has Alicibiades close with a famous analogy on the fate of states and nations that remain inert.

And as for security, whether for remaining there, in case of any success, or for returning, our fleet will provide us with it; for by sea we shall be superior to all the Siceliots put together. And let not the non-interfering policy which Nicias recommends in his speeches, nor his setting the young against the old, divert you from your purpose; but acting in your usual order, just as our fathers, by consulting young with old, raised the state to its present height, do ye now too, in the same manner, endeavor to advance it; being convinced that youth and old age can do nothing without each other; but that the period of levity, and of mid-age, and of extreme preciseness, will have most power when joined together; and that the state, if it remain quiet, will be worn out on itself, like anything else, and its skill in everything grow dull; while by entering into contest it will continually gain fresh experience, and will find self-defense habitual to it, not in word, but rather in deed. My decided opinion then is, that I think a state of no inactive character would most quickly be ruined by a change to inactivity; and that those men live most securely, who regulate their affairs in accordance with their existing habits and institutions, even though they may be of an inferior character, with the least variation.

The Athenian adventure into Sicily ended in disaster, but the idea that states and people must essentially “keep swimming or die” entered into our consciousness.  Progress must involve motion, the conquering of challenges.  So J.S. Huxley comments that,

Life can never be about equilibrium.  Given the well established facts that change . . . multiplies in an expanding geometric ratio, then change in the status quo is inevitable.  A status quo may exist for a time, but with one organism bumping against another means a rearrangement of them all.   

And J.R. Smuts adds,

A peculiar feature about the change in equilibrium in a physico-chemical structure is that it is never such as to produce a perfect new equilibrium; the new is merely approximate, just as the old was.  We may say the change was from too little to too much.

The instance of a super-saturated solution is a case in point, where the crystallization lags behind the conditions which bring it about.  When the change comes it swings beyond the necessities of the case.  Again there is the condition of instability which has to be righted by a swing back in due course.  Thence arises the character of natural change.  Complete equilibrium is never attained and would be fatal if attained, because it would mean stagnation, atrophy, and death.

Once let a large, favorable variation take place . . . others must keep up or perish.  So it comes to pass that history moves in successive phases of momentary equilibrium, with extended periods of “conflict” and readjustment, each one a higher plane of independence than the one before, and each giving place to the other.

So it seems nearly an axiom (at least for post-Enlightenment western societies) that change=growth, growth=progress, progress= something good (?).

But Thucydides had no love for Alicibades, and whether or not he reports fairly, clearly the scope of his narrative means to show the disastrous nature of Alcibiades’ logic.  Earlier in the war his hero Pericles urged the Athenians to accept war with Sparta, but only if they resolved firmly not to add any new territory to their empire.

But Pericles may not have been entirely consistent.  In his famous “Funeral Oration” he celebrated the dynamic, maritime nature of Athenian life in his famous funeral oration.

If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates; while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbour, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes. Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because we have at once to attend to our marine and to dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different services; so that, wherever they engage with some such fraction of our strength, a success against a detachment is magnified into a victory over the nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.

“In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves.

Pericles’ words have resonated strongly with western societies for at least the last two centuries.  Democracies have long wanted to be thought of as progressive, diverse, open to new experiences and new people, etc.  But this vision had its critics, most notably Plato, who wrote in his Laws,

Athenian Stranger. And now, what will this city be? I do not mean to ask what is or will hereafter be the name of the place; that may be determined by the accident of locality or of the original settlement-a river or fountain, or some local deity may give the sanction of a name to the newly-founded city; but I do want to know what the situation is, whether maritime or inland.

Cleinias. I should imagine, Stranger, that the city of which we are speaking is about eighty stadia distant from the sea.

Ath: If the city were to be built at the seaside and were going to be well supplied with harbors but ill-supplied with the necessities of life from the soil, then it would have needed mighty saviors and divinely inspired legislators to escape the moral confusion and moral corruption that are the inevitable penalty of such environments.

For the sea is an insidious neighbor which makes itself agreeable to the daily interaction [between good soil and good harbors], but is salt and bitter inasmuch as it fills the country with tradesmen’s business, and the souls of the country with deceit, and the body politic with distrust–each seeking advantage over his fellow man and neighboring states.

These social evils are to some extent counteracted if the soil produces something of everything; and, if it is a rough and highland country . . . it will not be able to do so.  If it could not, it would produce a large export surplus and would attract to itself the equivalent import of gold and silver currency–and that is the greatest moral disaster that can overtake a country.

[As for sea power], it would have profited the Athenians to lose seventy times seven children a year to the tyrant Minos [referring here to the ancient legend of the Minotaur] before turning themselves in defense to a sea power instead of heavy infantry, and so lose the  power of standing fast, acquiring instead the habit of perpetually jumping ashore and then running back to their ships at a run hardly after landing.

This method of warfare erases any sense of shame at being too cowardly to risk one’s life by standing one’s ground and receiving the enemy’s attack.  It suggests facile and “plausible” excuses for taking to one’s heels–never of course in disorder but always “according to plan.”

There is nothing so demoralizing for infantry as their allied fleet riding at anchor in their rear.  Why, even lions, if they took to tactics of that sort, would run away from deer.

Cle: Yet all the same, sir–well, what about the Battle of Salamis?  That, after all, was a naval battle, in which the Athenians beat the barbarians, and it is our belief that this victory was the salvation of Greece.

Ath: I know that is the general view . . . But in [my] belief, it was the land battles of Marathon and Platea that were the day-spring of the salvation of Greece and its crowning mercy.

Arnold Toynbee took up the question of how civilizations grow in volume 3 of his A Study of History.  He first considers civilizations in an “arrested” state.  The nomads and the Eskimos perform near heroic feats of adaptation to survive in their environment.  However, the environment requires too much adaptation, leaving those in them stuck at a particular point in its development.  Ultimately the social organization can never transcend their environment.*

Toynbee has a lot in common with Spengler, but ultimately rejects Spengler’s “biological life span” template for civilizations.  Toynbee believes that civilization transcends individuals so in theory, civilizations can extend themselves ad-infinitum if they play their cards right.  So to find the clue Toynbee uses scientific analogies about crystallization and so forth.  Civilizations have to keep moving to avoid stagnation.  But what kind of movement?  Toynbee is too smart to focus on mere territorial enlargement.  Measuring growth by technological advancement also fails as rubric for many reasons, one of them being the question, “Which is more impressive, the ‘invention’ and original mastery of fire, or the steam engine?”

Ultimately knows that spiritual/psychological growth should occupy pride of place along with other factors.  But how to measure this?  How would it manifest itself?  This is not so easy, as Toynbee knows (though credit him for trying).

Recently I wrote about the “noon-day” devil of acedia.  Essentially acedia involves the temptation to distraction out of a sense of listlessness and no purpose.  The key to fighting this temptation involved drilling down into the recesses of the self, and ultimately to train oneself not to bored with the things of God.  So one monk tells his confessor, “Father, I have been troubled by acedia, but praise be, the temptation vanishes whenever I go visit Abba Paul.” “On the contrary,” his confessor replies, “you have entirely given into the temptation and will soon be in its power.”

Hence the dictum–“stay in your cell.”

St. John Cassian writes,

When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. It will not suffer us to stay in our cell, or to attend to our reading: we lament that in all this while, living in the same spot, we have made no progress, we sigh and complain that bereft of sympathetic fellowship we have no spiritual fruit; and bewail ourselves as empty of all spiritual profit, abiding vacant and useless in this place; and we that could guide others and be of value to multitudes have edified no man, enriched no man with our precept and example. We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. We paint the fellowship of the brethren there, its suavity, its richness in spiritual conversation, contrasting it with the harshness of all that is at hand, where not only is there no edification to be had from any of the brethren who dwell here, but where one cannot even procure one’s victuals without enormous toil. Finally we conclude that there is not health for us so long as we stay in this place, short of abandoning the cell wherein to tarry further will be only to perish with it, and betaking ourselves elsewhere as quickly as possible.

Towards eleven o’clock or midday it induces such lassitude of body and craving for food, as one might feel after the exhaustion of a long journey and hard toil, or the postponing of a meal throughout a two or three days fast. Finally one gazes anxiously here and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen approaching: one is for ever in and out of one’s cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting: one’s mind is in an irrational confusion, like the earth befogged in a mist, one is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some brother, or the solace of sleep. Finally our malady suggests that in common courtesy one should salute the brethren, and visit the sick, near or far. It dictates such offices of duty and piety as to seek out this relative or that, and make haste to visit them; or there is that religious and devout lady, destitute of any support from her family, whom it is a pious act to visit now and then and supply in holy wise with necessary comforts, neglected and despised as she is by her own relations: far better to bestow one’s pious labour upon these than sit without benefit or profit in one’s cell. . . .

The wisdom and achievement (both spiritual and social) of the desert fathers has few historical parallels.  This points us in a new and more profitable direction than standard measures of growth, such as the health of the economy or advancement in technology.

Certainly, for example, the western world has achieved tremendous technological leaps over the past 150 years, but we should not necessarily call this “growth.”  These technological advances have largely served to help us to the things democratic nations tend to do, such as move and consume, except now we can do this more quickly.  I don’t mean this to sound harsh or cynical.  Democracies tend to be forward looking and anti-tradition.  This has its place.  Democracies seek to empower choice, and this has its most obvious reflection in choosing where we go and what we buy.  Technology has changed nothing in the spiritual and social plane for us.  We remain on the go, we remain distracted, with the facilities for spinning our wheels vastly improved over time.

De Tocqueville, as usual, predicted something like this, writing

The first thing which strikes a traveler in the United States is the innumerable multitude of those who seek to emerge from their original condition; and the second is the rarity of lofty ambition to be observed in the universally ambitious stir of society.  No Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise; but hardly any appear to entertain hopes of a great magnitude, or to pursue lofty aims.  All constantly to acquire property, power, and reputation; few contemplate these things on a great scale.

Without this great ambition (if he is correct) we will tend to spin our wheels in the same direction.  Again–we should not call this growth automatically.**

We assume that the desert monks had no social impact.  Sure, we assume, they helped their own souls, or perhaps those of their brotherhood, but not society at large.  But a careful reading of the biographies of such fathers shows the opposite.  People came to them all the time for healing and advice.  Many stories exist of their charity to others.  Some lived as solitary hermits, but many others lived in monasteries close to towns where a fair amount of interaction between them took place.

Perhaps the secret of real growth lies here.  No tree can bear fruit if constantly uprooted.

Dave

*This can be contrasted to civilizations that seem “petrified” or “frozen,” such as a certain time period of ancient Egypt.  Nothing about their physical circumstances forces a frozen civilization to stay at a particular level of development, but they choose to do so for a variety of reasons.

**I realize that what follows puts me squarely within the company of other grumpy old men.  But I’ll take the plunge . . . .  The fact that The Force Awakens was so popular reveals this very fact about our culture.  The movie had nothing original about it, with no memorable dialogue, acting, or even memorable scenes.  With its casting it was calculated precisely to hit squarely within the middle of our cultural mindset.  People praised it for “being the movie fans wanted to see.” It hit all its marks, giving us all the old characters plus an even bigger Death Star.  But this is precisely the reason why the movie failed to challenge or move us in any way.

To plunge even further . . . one might almost say that an “acedic” listlessness pervades the whole movie.  What happened to the Republic?  Nobody knows, nobody cares–it’s not important.  What is the “First Order” and what do they want?  How did they get here?  Nobody knows, nobody cares.  In A New Hope Alderann is destroyed cruelly but for a “reason.”  Now whole systems are destroyed for no apparent reason.  Obi-Wan’s death had some meaning or purpose within the Star Wars universe, but not Han’s death–it just happened.  Han himself as a character appears stuck in an endless loop of meaningless activity.  The heroine receives Jedi powers and can fly the spaceships with no context, no training, again for no apparent reason.  Why?  Nobody knows, nobody cares.  What is important is that we saw what we desired.  The movie fulfilled our list of demands.

Democratic Personalities and Democratic Laws

I posted originally some years ago–you will see the dated references–and repost it now in conjunction with our Government class discussions this week.

The original post is follows . . .

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Barring any unusual excitement at the Democratic and Republican conventions, it appears that many Americans will feel caught between a rock and a hard place regarding their two main choices for president.  Many blanch at the thought of “President Trump,” and I wondered if history might suggest hope for such a possibility.

Our founders may have had Republican Rome as their model, but as the U.S. continues to approach a more immediate democracy perhaps we should look to ancient Athens for a historical parallel. Athenian democracy experienced several points of crisis, with perhaps the most notorious coming after their defeat in the Peloponnesian War when they put Socrates on trial.

Many reasons have been given as to Socrates died at the hands of the Athenians. I am intrigued by the theory Mark Munn expounds in his book The School of History.  Munn argues that by 399 B.C. Athens searched desperately for stability.  Their democracy had transformed significantly under Pericles ca. 450-435 B.C., then switched to a partial oligarchy after the Sicilian disaster in 411 B.C., then back to a democracy by 410, then back to oligarchy in 404-03, then to a restored democracy once more.  But the democracy that ruled Athens ca. 400 B.C. was not the same that Athens experienced a generation earlier.

It seems a reasonable conclusion its heyday, Athenian democracy was driven by great personalities and not by procedures.  Pericles stands as the foremost example of this, but others come to mind.  Herodotus and Thucydides’ histories give us a picture of dynamic men acting on inspiration.  Callimachus votes to attack at Marathon. Themistocles devises his own plan apart from the generals to win the Battle of Salamis.  Even lesser men like Nicias, Alcibiades, and Cleon sparkle on the page.*  Exact fidelity to the law itself did not concern the demos.  At their worst, the Athenians may have just wanted a diversion from their politics out of boredom, but another interpretation might point to the fact that the Athenians in this period of their history trusted in inspirational leadership of the moment, as opposed to fidelity to the expression of the “general will” embodied in law.  One might even call it a humble characteristic of Athenian democracy.  “The People” passed laws but willingly stepped aside at points in the face of “personality.”

But in time the plague, the disaster in Sicily, and their ultimate defeat by Sparta exacted a heavy psychological toll.

With the final restoration of democracy in Athens in 401, Athens moved away from dynamic leadership and towards the exacting nature of the enthronement of law.  Law offered a clear path and if nothing else, stability.  Munn argues that this passion for law and this movement away from “personality” put Socrates afoul of the will of the people.  The orator Aeschines, born in 389 B.C., wrote,

In fact, as I have often heard my own father say, for he lived to be 95 years old and had shared in all the toils of the city, which he often described to me in his leisure hours–well, he said that in the early days of the reestablished democracy , in any indictment for an illegal motion came into court, the matter was no sooner said than done . . .. It frequently happened that they made the clerk str and told him to read to the the laws and the the motion a second time; and they convicted a man of making an illegal proposal not because he had overleaped the laws entirely, but that one syllable only was contravened.

Socrates probably did run afoul of the exacting nature of Athenian religious law after 401 B.C., and he certainly ran directly counter to the spirit behind such laws with his claims to personal, divine inspiration that transcended any earthly authority/law.  He was a throwback to time associated with chaos, and to be frank, military disaster.

Of course democracies traditionally have the “rule of law” as a bedrock principle, and we should prefer exacting rule of law to the whims of a despot.  But few civilizations can match the cultural achievements of Athens in 5th century.  Also, the personality driven democracy of the 5th century certainly outperformed the law driven democracy of the 4th century.**  Perhaps one lesson we might draw from this is that a mixing forms and styles of government might outperform monochromatic governments, much like mutts are generally healthier and less crazy than pure-brads.^

Observers of Trump often comment that, aside from his ideas on immigration, he seems to have no particular policies (others would disagree).  Yet, unquestionably, he is a “personality,” one that the media, for all their antipathy towards him, cannot resist.  Is it possible that such an injection of “personality” might be what could help us from stale rigidity in our political life?  Certainly we have plenty of bureaucracy, plenty of incomprehensible law, as it stands now.

I say, yes, it is . . . possible.

*Cleon’s expedition and victory in Pylos during the Peloponnesian War is evidence of this preference for personality over procedure.  It was technically illegal for Cleon to even lead the expedition in the first place, but the Assembly could not resist enjoying the personal rivalry between Nicias and Cleon, and allowed/shamed Cleon into having his chance, which he then took advantage of.

**The great achievements of the 5th century came to a halt during the Peloponnesian War, a self-inflicted wound if there ever was one.  But the 4th century did no better, succumbing to Macedon after decades of vanilla tapioca laziness (as the traditional interpretation has it, anyway) in 338 B.C.

^Some might argue on behalf of the 4th century by citing that it produced Plato and Aristotle, luminaries 1 and 1a in western philosophy.  This argument should not be pushed too far.  A glance at the history of philosophy shows that most advances in this field occur in times of societal breakdown or even decay.  This is in contrast, I think to other areas of cultural achievement, whose health usually parallels that of the rest of society.  The 4th century had no Parthenon, no Euripides, etc.

Democracies and their Aristocracies, pt. 2

This is a post of multiple lives, written originally about 4-5 years ago, reposted based on class discussions . . .

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

Thanks 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 . . .

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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.”

Dave

*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.

“We have a great king, who loves ham.”

Originally written a few years ago, reposted based on recent material in class . . .

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I recently came across an interesting article about a man who commands fees of $4000 for slicing a leg of ham.

If one reads the article, the startling headline begins to make a bit of sense.  Many consider Florencio Sanchez the pre-eminent international voice for Iberian ham, a traditional Spanish cuisine/delicacy.  Apparently Iberian ham means to Spain what barbecue might mean for Texan.  The pig must be raised in a certain way, cut in a certain way, and so on.  Clearly as well, Sanchez styles himself as an “artiste.”  For Iberian ham to truly be Iberian ham it must be presented in a certain way, with certain instruments that . . .  only he may ever touch. Among other things, Sanchez believes that no true slicer of ham would ever speak English.

One comment in the video below particularly stuck with me, however:

Sanchez clearly takes the most pride in having cut ham for the King of Spain, which should not surprise us.  But he added that, “We have a great king, who loves ham.”

It seemed to me that he could have almost said, “We have a great king because he loves ham.”

Of course, Sanchez has honed and practices a very traditional skill, and monarchy is a traditional form of government that relies on tradition to succeed.  And if the king appreciates Sanchez’s life’s work, we should not blame Sanchez if he feels flattered and even vindicated.  But with this comment, I think Sanchez has an insight into political leadership, and why many in the west–not just in the U.S.– feel less confidence about our democracies at the moment.

A successful monarch need not necessarily have the right policies.  He/she will generally be loved if their actions in some measure reflect well on their country.  So Richard I, the “Lionhearted,” can be revered in English memory although he actually spent very little time in England.  Saint Louis IX lost on two crusades and emptied the treasury in payments to Moslems for his own ransom, but his noble character and sanctity earned him the love of France.  Louis XIV had an enormous appetite (apparently due to his abnormally huge stomach), eating multiple courses for dinner, making a huge show of it in the process, and Frenchmen took pride in that.  “Look what our king can do!”   So too, “Our king loves ham.”  He acts in ways that embody something of Spain, just as Richard did for England.  Such kings overshadow more “successful” monarchs like Henry II, if we think of success in modern terms.*

Our founders recognized the need for this on some level.  I think they wanted the president to always be George Washington–that is–someone above reproach who used his powers sparingly but with forbearance and wisdom, someone who had no political skin in the game. They utterly failed to anticipate the almost immediate rise of the presidency as a popular/populist office and the impact that would have on our democracy.

Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and others point out the radical nature of the American Revolution and its clean break with tradition and the past.  This bold move helped make the Revolution successful and gave it its influence worldwide.  But, this recent election might make us wish that we had a king, “who loves ham,” or in our case, perhaps cheeseburgers.

Dave

*Before we think that, “Hey, I’ll gladly love ham if you make me king of Spain,” kingship has some very tricky elements.  By the end of his reign the people hated Louis XIV.  Louis might say, “Sure, I lost two big wars, but after all, so did St. Louis IX!  And . . . I can still eat more than most mortal men, right?”

But it wouldn’t have helped him.

People cheered Louis XVI at the opening of the Estates General in 1789.  They executed him a few years later. Kingship works when a quasi-mystical, perhaps sacred connection exists between him and his people–when he rightly acts as the “pater-familias.”

Wikipedia tells us that Felipe VI of Spain has the favor of the Spanish people, and that many want him to intervene a bit more to reconcile party differences.  He seems to have popularity and good-will at the moment. But if Wikipedia accurately reports, he will need great caution, because some of his popularity seems rooted in his abandonment of certain long-standing traditions, such as the practice of elected officials taking their oaths of office upon a Bible or crucifix.

A king’s power rests in large measure upon tradition, and he tampers with that as his peril.  Many assume France’s Louis XVI was reactionary and inflexible.  In fact, as Simon Schama points out in his Citizens, Louis attempted many progressive reforms.  Some of the Enlightenment philosophes initially praised him as just the sort of king France needed (Louis probably did not want their praise, but still . . . ).  Events show that this stance almost certainly hurt rather than helped.

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.

And

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.

Dave

*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 . . .

Time vs. Space

This post was originally written in 2019 . . . .

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In an essay he wrote a few years ago called “The Four America’s” conservative columnist David Brooks pointed to the need for a new unifying narrative for America. What he called the “Exodus” paradigm held from our founding as a nation until recently. We told ourselves that America was essentially replaying the story of the Israelites, who fled religious oppression in Egypt, and came to the promised land to be a light unto the nations. Americans too fled oppression in the old world and came to a new one, establishing a special and unique nation that could broadcast freedom to the rest of the world. We existed to inspire others to follow in our footsteps.

Obviously this national myth no longer holds the imagination of our culture. In some ways we can lament the loss of this sense of mission and purpose, but I also think that the story never quite fit to begin with. Granted, every myth compresses and synthesizes, but our treatment of Native Americans and slavery stand as massive exceptions that the myth simply cannot hold within it. Our relative ignorance of these “anomalies” in our story* for centuries then naturally led people to focus almost exclusively upon the “exception” to the story, and so the pendulum swung entirely in the other direction. I am no friend of the modern progressive left, but reluctantly, I understand why they exist. We will have to endure them at least a little longer, it seems, perhaps as penance for our sins.

In addition, the Exodus story works wonderfully for a pioneer people, but less well for a major superpower. And, finally, even a cursory look suggests the possibility that the Enlightenment had just as much, if not more, influence on our founding than Christianity.

Brooks then suggests four other off-shoots from this myth, though admits that neither of them work even as well as the Exodus narrative.

  • The Libertarian myth sees us as “a land of free individuals responsible for our own fate.” It celebrates choice and the free market. It borrows from the freedom element of the Exodus story, but economic choice isn’t as powerful as religious choice. And–simply focusing on personal choice and responsibility cannot sufficiently unify us.
  • The “Globalized America” narrative celebrates a sliver of the “America as beacon for the world” from the Exodus story, as well as the dismantling of old hierarchies celebrated by our founders. But this story fails to provide an America distinctive enough to give us an identity.
  • “Multicultural America” borrows from the “Exodus” story with its narrative of oppression and the idea of a melting pot nation. But in always focusing on the exceptions and purely personal identity, no common core can be built to rally around.
  • The “America First” story gives us a common core and reinforces American distinctives, unlike the above three options. It has a brashness that can be bracing, especially compared to the other options. But it leaves out the inclusive aspect of the American story. It can tend to produce a “patriotism for the sake of patriotism” whirlpool. It gives America no transcendent reason to exist beyond its mere existence.

I agree with Brooks that neither of these four approaches are even as good as our discarded “Exodus” story. I agree that we need another narrative, but am not sure how we’re going to get one in our polarized culture. But as to what polarizes us a country–we don’t agree on this either. This is not only America’s problem–most everywhere else at least in the developed world seems to have the “first world problem” of no unifying narrative.** But we do not look deep enough for the cause of this rift, and blame different sides for the wrong reasons.

Though democracies have done much to alter traditions, they cannot change the basic ways in which the world works and the ways we perceive the world, at least on a subconscious level. Ancient creation stories agree in many ways, perhaps most fundamentally in that they conceived of creation as a harmony of contrasting forces. “Salvation” in a Christian sense is about the marriage of Heaven and Earth, and of course, the Incarnation is Christ the God-Man uniting Heaven and Earth in one Person. I do not intend this post to be an explicit argument for the truth of the Christian story, but I do believe it contains the most coherent and best “version” of all the ancient cosmologies. Biblical cosmology overlaps with many other ancient cosmologies, and this only serves as a point in its favor. Acknowledging these huge questions, from here on I will proceed by discussing ancient cosmologies in general.

The modern age measures time in what I would consider to be rather an insane way:

The second (abbreviation, s or sec) is the Standard International ( SI ) unit of time. One second is the time that elapses during 9,192,631,770 (9.192631770 x 10 9 ) cycles of the radiation produced by the transition between two levels of the cesium 133 atom . . .

This has advantages, as it allows to universalize and quantify precisely, but it happens completely outside of our experience, and thus, time can have little real meaning for us. The way we parse out units of time remains essentially arbitrary. For the ancient world, time had a manifest reality because it brought observable change. Day turns to night, and then night turns to day. Seasons change, and death and new life come with these changes. Thus the ancients conceived time as something moving, fluid, in flux–like water, but also solid and experientially verifiable.

Space gives us stability. Time allows us to become, but we need to “be” something to “become” anything (apologies to Brad Goodman). Time needs space to act upon. The relationship between time and space can only work well when we have a strong concept of the unity of heaven and earth. Possibly, we could have an acceptable range of this relationship. Some parents are more strict and some more permissive, but as long as one avoids the red line on either side, families can be stable and healthy.

For example, ancient Egypt leaned heavily on the side of space. They lived within a narrow strip of land, with the “chaos” of desert and death right next to them. Even their greatest architectural achievements mainly had the psychological effect of weights pressing on the ground. The Nile flooding formed in integral part of Egyptian life, but they put all their energy into controlling the Nile flood. Theirs was a “masculine” civilization all in all, and some historians criticize them for being too rigid and not sufficiently adaptable to change.

Babylon favored the fluidity of time (too much so, I would say, but we’ll let it pass for now–they had a long and storied history, after all). The Euphrates bisected their city, and they sought not to control the river–they had no great need to do so anyway–but to utilize it for their benefit. One of their main deities, Ishtar, was goddess of love, war, marriage, and prostitution, and sometimes was pictured with a beard. Aristocratic males were known to cross-dress and temple prostitution was the norm. Babylon was the quintessential cosmopolitan city–home of every philosophy and religious idea in existence in their known world. Theirs was a “feminine” civilization, in the sense that they had little devotion to the concept of a stable, unified form.

We can debate the merits of both civilizations, but should acknowledge that although they had different answers as to the balance between time and space, both at least were conscious of the realities of both. Our problem is twofold: 1) We lack even basic awareness of these concepts on a metaphysical level, and 2) We have abandoned the “marriage” of Heaven and Earth (a mirror also for “Time, and “Space” respectively) in Christ, and so have lost any hope of holding them in tension. With both freed from each other, Time makes war on Space, and vice-versa.^

Some argue that Time reigns supreme. In favor of the victory of Time, we see the rapid expansion of “time saving” technologies. Cars and planes compress space, but nothing compresses space quite like the internet. We erode boundaries of privacy, and we live in a “hot-take” world of moving information. Very few media outlets can afford patient reflection. Time’s triumph–thinking in terms of the “fluid” aspect of time–seems most evident in our culture’s support for people changing genders.

But, not so fast . . . “Space” does not take this lying down. If Democrats propose open borders, Trump will build a wall. In countries such as Poland and Hungary we see a resurgence of a strong nationalistic mindset. As we do more to celebrate exceptions and fluidity in the west, at the same time we have more absolute boundaries enforced by the culture as to what we can and cannot say. College students demand rigid “safe spaces” on the one hand while simultaneously affirming the legitimacy of every possible identity–a perfect incarnation of the intense stalemate between time and space. And–every spot on earth is mapped out, which means that space has complete definition. No country would possibly consider negotiating space with another country to resolve a dispute. Lest our modern avoidance of this seem perfectly natural, it stands in sharp contrast to politics before perhaps 1789, where king’s would routinely trade provinces here and there as diplomatic chips.

So today we have both “Time” and “Space” making a strong play for dominance, and just like the whole family suffers when dad and mom fight, so too we suffer in the midst of this contest. But children have little hope of solving their parent’s problems. We have more control of ours. We need the King to return to end the vicious squabbling of princes. When the dust settles, then we may see clearly enough to tell ourselves the story we all need to hear.

Dave

*I suppose there are those that would not call slavery and our treatment of Native Americans as anomalies to the story. Israel did have slaves–and some might draw a parallel to our treatment of Native Americans with what Israel did at Jericho. I disagree with this interpretation, but I want to acknowledge its existence.

**I know some do not want a unifying narrative because they fear the unity that this provides, and the concentration of power it gives. We saw the destructive potential of this in the early 20th century. But you can shove this basic human need under the carpet for only so long, and the longer we wait, the more chances for a destructive “pendulum swing” identity to emerge.

^Those familiar with Jonathan Pageau’s Symbolic World podcast will note my debt in what follows to episode 62, along with Matthew Pageau’s The Language of Creation.

Comparing civilizations on the Time/Space axis can be fun and illuminating. Clearly America, along with Babylon, heavily leans in the direction of “Time.” We have pioneered many so-called “time saving” technologies. The great Tyler Cowen proclaimed that our decline in physical mobility is a worrisome problem. We love our cars, and some argue that we lost our mojo as a civilization the moment the frontier closed. Bob Dylan mythologized the rolling stone, and who can possibly forget Journey telling us that the wheel in the sky keeps on turning, and that he doesn’t know where he’ll be tomorrow?

We have countless writers and other aspects of our culture that celebrate movement, the open road, etc. I can think only of Wendell Berry as perhaps our only cultural contributor of note who writes in celebration of Space.

Janus

Machiavelli inspires polarizing reactions. I find that often that initially I immediate reject his idea, largely because there is something I don’t quite trust about him. But, just as often, I end up rethinking my initial reaction and revising my thoughts.

One such instance happened for me reading Machiavelli’s assertion that republics must have their foundation with one man, writing in the Discourses (I.9),

But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic. It is well that, when the act accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when the result is good, as in the case of Romulus, it will always absolve him from blame. For he is to apprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficial purposes.

Machiavelli often engages in this kind of paradoxical thinking, i.e., “if you want peace the ruler must sometimes be cruel,” and so forth. As his logic applies to republics, he argues that concentration of power in the hands of one initially will allow for the spreading out of power later.

America’s history seems to contradict this–don’t we have founding fathers, and anyone who knows anything about them sees a multitude of disagreements about various important ideas about what they wanted. And yet, America has managed reasonable success as a republic for 250 years. But before rendering a judgment here, I realized that two of history’s most famous republics, Athens, and Rome, had foundations in one man–Theseus and Romulus.

The stories of two men, as told by Plutarch and other sources, agree in certain general particulars, especially in regards to their uncertain parentage. Both functioned as kings in their respective realms, but neither ruled as king’s in the sense that we might assume in our modern context. It seems that both functioned primarily as religious leaders and as military commanders primarily. Later, both Athens and Rome underwent significant political changes contemporaneously in the years 509/508 BC. But Rome and Athens had many differences, reflected in the lives of Theseus and Romulus.

We can chart the differences between Athens and Rome

Athens

  • Attached to water–their key lie in their navy
  • As they had roots with water, they were active in trade
  • We see this physical movement linked with significant intellectual exploration–they basically invent modern concepts of science, philosophy, literature, etc.

Rome

  • Attached to land–their key lie in their infantry
  • Ringed round with their famous seven hills, Rome remained devoted to land and agriculture. They disdained trade.
  • This rootedness to place has its echoes in Rome’s intellectual conservatism, espoused most fully in writing by Cato the Elder. Rome’s main contribution to future civilizations would be in law, i.e., how people in the same community relate to one another.

When one looks at the lives of their “mythical” founders, we see striking parallels. Theseus hardly could keep his feet still, roaming from one place to another, never truly even settling in Athens. He had a variety of women that he “married”/grew familiar with. We moderns would diagnose him with wanderlust. Athens’ narrative seems to me to always involve something beyond Athens, the next colony, the next discovery, the next idea or theory.

Romulus founded the city of Rome and stayed there. Plutarch has much good to say of him, but with no sugarcoating–many found him a “hard” man. He gained glory through military exploits on land against Rome’s neighbors. Rome always made the narrative about Rome itself.

Though an Athenian by birth, Plato thought little of Athens’ legacy. In The Republic Socrates continually affirms conclusions that limit movement–we shouldn’t move jobs, we shouldn’t trade, we should limit too the “movement” of our souls by restricting the kind of music we listen to. In The Laws Plato writes,

Athenian Stranger. And now, what will this city be? I do not mean to ask what is or will hereafter be the name of the place; that may be determined by the accident of locality or of the original settlement-a river or fountain, or some local deity may give the sanction of a name to the newly-founded city; but I do want to know what the situation is, whether maritime or inland. 

Cleinias. I should imagine, Stranger, that the city of which we are speaking is about eighty stadia distant from the sea. 

Ath: If the city were to be built at the seaside and were going to be well supplied with harbors but ill-supplied with the necessities of life from the soil, then it would have needed mighty saviors and divinely inspired legislators to escape the moral confusion and moral corruption that are the inevitable penalty of such environments.  

For the sea is an insidious neighbor which makes itself agreeable to the daily interaction [between good soil and good harbors], but is salt and bitter inasmuch as it fills the country with tradesmen’s business, and the souls of the country with deceit, and the body politic with distrust–each seeking advantage over his fellow man and neighboring states.  

These social evils are to some extent counteracted if the soil produces something of everything; and, if it is a rough and highland country . . . it will not be able to do so.  If it could not, it would produce a large export surplus and would attract to itself the equivalent import of gold and silver currency–and that is the greatest moral disaster that can overtake a country.

[As for sea power], it would have profited the Athenians to lose seventy times seven children a year to the tyrant Minos [referring here to the ancient legend of the Minotaur] before turning themselves in defense to a sea power instead of heavy infantry, and so lose the  power of standing fast, acquiring instead the habit of perpetually jumping ashore and then running back to their ships at a run hardly after landing.  

This method of warfare erases any sense of shame at being too cowardly to risk one’s life by standing one’s ground and receiving the enemy’s attack.  It suggests facile and “plausible” excuses for taking to one’s heels–never of course in disorder but always “according to plan.”  

There is nothing so demoralizing for infantry as their allied fleet riding at anchor in their rear.  Why, even lions, if they took to tactics of that sort, would run away from deer.

Cle: Yet all the same, sir–well, what about the Battle of Salamis?  That, after all, was a naval battle, in which the Athenians beat the barbarians, and it is our belief that this victory was the salvation of Greece.

Ath: I know that is the general view . . . But in [my] belief, it was the land battles of Marathon and Platea that were the day-spring of the salvation of Greece and its crowning mercy.  . . . My good friend, I am afraid that the course of my speculations is leading me to say something depreciatory of legislators; but if the word be to the purpose, there can be no harm. And yet, why am I disquieted, for I believe that the same principle applies equally to all human things? 

Cle. To what are you referring? 

Ath. I was going to say that man never legislates, but accidents of all sorts, which legislate for us in all sorts of ways. The violence of war and the hard necessity of poverty are constantly overturning governments and changing laws. And the power of disease has often caused innovations in the state, when there have been pestilences, or when there has been a succession of bad seasons continuing during many years. Any one who sees all this, naturally rushes to the conclusion of which I was speaking, that no mortal legislates in anything, but that in human affairs chance is almost everything. And this may be said of the arts of the sailor, and the pilot, and the physician, and the general, and may seem to be well said; and yet there is another thing which may be said with equal truth of all of them. 

Cle. What is it? 

Ath. That God governs all things, and that chance and opportunity co-operate with him in the government of human affairs. There is, however, a third and less extreme view, that art should be there also; for I should say that in a storm there must surely be a great advantage in having the aid of the pilot’s art. You would agree?

Plato willingly gives a nod to the need for the “pilot’s art.” but concedes to it almost as a result of the Fall, so to speak.

Aristotle saw things differently. One of the quietly “subversive” sections in his Politics comes when he favorably compares the constitutions of Sparta and Carthage. I think some exaggerate the attraction some Greek theorists–including Plato–had for Sparta. But certainly with its minimal trade, almost no navy, and fearsome infantry, Sparta resembled the kind of society Plato wanted in certain respects. Carthage had more in common with Athens–an almost exclusively maritime power that relied on mercenaries for infantry. He writes

The constitution of Carthage is general accounted a good constitution, one that is peculiar in many respects, but the chief thing about it is the likeness . . . to the Spartan. . . . Many of the institutions at Carthage are certainly good. It is a proof of a well-ordered constitution that Carthage, with her large populace, should steadily keep to the same political system: she has had no civil dissensions worth mentioning, nor any attempt at tyranny.

[He then goes on at length to discuss the oligarchic and democratic elements in the constitution, and how it sometimes deviates in both directions. The oligarchic leaning comes based on the election of those by wealth–acquired from trade more often than not].

Carthage has a constitution which is in practice oligarchical; but they avoid the dangers of oligarchy by encouraging the diffusion of wealth [made possible by the constant shifting of goods and money through trade].

I think Aristotle saw that being open like Carthage or closed like Sparta was not the problem. The problems for both soceities would come when they could not maintain that equilibrium. If Sparta started to “move,” as they chose after the Peloponnesian War, it exposed contradictions and tensions within their own culture. They never recovered from their defeat at Leuctra, at the hands of Thebes, of all places. Aristotle wrote around 350 B.C., knowing the fate of Sparta. But Carthage’s problems started about 150 years later. Once Carthage lost the ability to trade and roam at leisure after the 1st Punic War, their days were similarly numbered. They had their first insurrection when, partly due to the changing terms of the Roman treaty, and partly due to the destruction of much of their fleet, they could no longer trade. Without the free flow of money, they could not pay their mercenaries, and one thing leads to another.

It seems that Machiavelli might have been onto something after all. The influence of the founders made a definite imprint on both civilizations. And this draws us back to America. We have a few options:

  • George Washington is our actual founder. He was the point of unity during and after the Revolution, without which–we never would have made it as a country.

On the one hand, we can say that

  • His two terms in office set a clear precedent
  • He embodied a spirit of political compromise, such as using Jefferson and Hamilton in prominent ways in his administration, and
  • We have to admit, his owning of slaves, but then also his freeing of his slaves, may have influenced us in both directions.

But I have doubts. Washington’s life and demeanor seem to have no real influence on the culture of the United States.

We can argue, then, that we have no founder. America is a bumpy ride, carried along by change, and so on. We should stop looking for a center and embrace change for its own sake. But this view to me holds no water. America did succeed in various ways, we grew, we built things, and so on. One can’t do all of this on quicksand.

Or we can assert that we are founded on an idea, or a set of principles, and not on a particular person. This explains or messy founding. And–it explains why the ideas, not limited by time and space, could travel so far so fast, just as we ourselves did across the country. It explains why we disagree so much seemingly about the same thing–the incarnation of the ideas might take different form in different places.

Theseus and Romulus overlap, as do Aristotle and Plato. But in the end we must choose a point of emphasis.

Aristotle, for his part, would have approved of our attempt at a mean between ideas, of commerce and agriculture, of conservative and liberal, and so on. But he surely he too would disapprove of how far the idea of democracy has traveled–the franchise for he saw as mob rule.Plato might approve of our founding in the “purity” of an ideal, but I am convinced he as not as gnostic as some make him out. I think that he would see that ideas rooted only in the mind would cause too much “movement” in our culture. In The Republic, Plato only looked at the state as a means of understanding the souls of real men.

The exact nature of the historical reality of Theseus and Romulus even Plutarch wondered at, and so we in America, built more on myth than history, can extrapolate a bit to find our founder. Perhaps we should name Janus, he who looked in opposite directions. This would explain our ability to move, our ability to always find something accommodating and infuriating all at once in America. Yet in the end, Janus still was one person, and perhaps the good ol’ U.S. of A can remain one as well.

Dave

*Hannibal without question was a brilliant battlefield commander and leader of men. But . . . military men write all of his biographies and hence see things from his point of view. What is needed (if it exists I haven’t seen it) is a biography of Hannibal written by a career politician. Most criticize Carthage’s Senate for not backing Hannibal and going for Rome’s jugular after Cannae. They lament the Senate’s focus on keeping trade open and the money flowing from Spain. But, armed with Aristotle’s thoughts, perhaps the Senators were onto something, consciously or no. Without access to trade, Carthage could not be Carthage, and so would surely collapse, as happened in the 3rd Punic War.

The Logic of a Lack of Conviction

This post was originally written in 2018 . . .

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One of Arnold Toynbee’s missions involved reacting against the Enlightenment-inspired Whig historian that saw progress as inevitable and assured.  For this school the advance of science and the decline of religion–the influence of priests or the Church over the state–served as ‘Exhibit A’ of this march towards continual progress.  Toynbee developed an overall pattern of history that worked against this notion.  In his critique he warned against the pollyanna idea of equating the decline of religious belief with improvements in civilization.  Rather, he cautioned, failure to believe in the God of the “higher religions” would not lead to a pleasant garden of pure reason, but rather encourage attachment to the “darker gods” of tribalism and paganism.

On Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen linked to an article by Shadi Hamid, in which he wrote that,

In polarized times, political competition comes to resemble tribal warfare. Everyone is under pressure to close ranks and boost morale. Lacking an animating vision beyond expert-led incrementalism, center-left politicians and pundits have few options to rally the Democratic base other than by attacking adversaries and heightening partisan divides. The other option—laying out an alternative that differs from what Hillary Clinton or even President Obama offered—requires ideological conviction.

That would explain why Rep. Adam Schiff —previously “known as a milquetoast moderate,” according to the New Yorker—has emerged as one of the most outspoken figures in the Russian collusion investigation. Before being appointed to succeed Mrs. Clinton in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand was an upstate New York representative who belonged to the Blue Dog Coalition. Her 2013 New Yorker profile was titled “Strong Vanilla”—and she now boasts the upper chamber’s most anti- Trump voting record.

Cowen added that,

When people don’t believe in so much with conviction, the logic of the crowd will sometimes dominate, because actual belief is no longer such a constraining force.  This is one reason why a totally secular “Enlightenment” society is not in every way to be welcomed . . .

Hamid comments later in the article that, “Lack of real belief,” and lack of genuine religious communities, is often more of a problem behind terrorism than is “excessively fanatical belief.”

Both President Obama and President Trump inspired strong reactions from their political opposition.  Republicans seemed for the most part to simply oppose whatever policy Obama supported, and Democrats now seem to be following suit.  However effectively this rallies their political base, it leads to a steep decline in democratic practice, a rise of tribal mentalities, and a resurgence of the “darker gods” mentioned by Toynbee.  In 2018 we can easily see that neither religion, nor social institutions, nor even a common social class unites us now.  Toynbee wrote in his An Historian’s Approach to Religion that,

The erosion of the west’s traditional institutions and common outlook . . . has been progressive.  The unity of the clergy in western Christendom was broken by the Reformation.  The unity of the Western “Republic of Letters” as it had existed down to the generation of Erasmus and St. Thomas More, was broken when Latin was ousted by the local vernaculars, and it was re-established only very imperfectly when Latin was partially replaced by French in the 17th century.  The unity of the West European aristocracy–a polygot social circle knit together by intermarriage–was broken by the French Revolution, by the smothering of the aristocracy in Britain in the 19th century in the embrace of the prolific middle class, and by the rise of the United States, where the West European aristocracy had never taken root.

He penned those words in 1956, and we  might follow this up by adding that post-modernism has contributed further to this erosion.  We no longer have a common belief in progress, and even our faith in democracy itself has declined.

Machiavelli wrote during a time of political upheaval in Italy, and understood the temptation to lash out and “fight fire with fire.”  But in his Discourses on Livy he advocated a different course in a chapter he titled “Temporize with Evil.”

In connection with this league against Rome we have first to note, that when a mischief which springs up either in or against a republic, and whether occasioned by internal or external causes, has grown to such proportions that it begins to fill the whole community with alarm, it is a far safer course to temporize with it than to attempt to quell it by violence. For commonly those who make this attempt only add fuel to the flame, and hasten the impending ruin. Such disorders arise in a republic more often from internal causes than external, either through some citizen being suffered to acquire undue influence, or from the corruption of some institution of that republic, which had once been the life and sinew of its freedom; and from this corruption being allowed to gain such head that the attempt to check it is more dangerous than to let it be. And it is all the harder to recognize these disorders in their beginning, because it seems natural to men to look with favour on the beginnings of things. Favour of this sort, more than by anything else, is attracted by those actions which seem to have in them a quality of greatness, or which are performed by the young. For when in a republic some young man is seen to come forward endowed with rare excellence, the eyes of all the citizens are at once turned upon him, and all, without distinction, concur to do him honour; so that if he have one spark of ambition, the advantages which he has from nature, together with those he takes from this favourable disposition of men’s minds, raise him to such a pitch of power, that when the citizens at last see their mistake it is almost impossible for them to correct it; and when they do what they can to oppose his influence the only result is to extend it. Of this I might cite numerous examples, but shall content myself with one relating to our own city.

Cosimo de’ Medici, to whom the house of the Medici in Florence owes the origin of its fortunes, acquired so great a name from the favour wherewith his own prudence and the blindness of others invested him, that coming to be held in awe by the government, his fellow-citizens deemed it dangerous to offend him, but still more dangerous to let him alone. Nicolò da Uzzano, his cotemporary, who was accounted well versed in all civil affairs, but who had made a first mistake in not discerning the dangers which might grow from the rising influence of Cosimo, would never while he lived, permit a second mistake to be made in attempting to crush him; judging that such an attempt would be the ruin of the State, as in truth it proved after his death. For some who survived him, disregarding his counsels, combined against Cosimo and banished him from Florence. And so it came about that the partisans of Cosimo, angry at the wrong done him, soon afterwards recalled him and made him prince of the republic, a dignity he never would have reached but for this open opposition. The very same thing happened in Rome in the case of Cæsar. For his services having gained him the good-will of Pompey and other citizens, their favour was presently turned to fear, as Cicero testifies where he says that “it was late that Pompey began to fear Cæsar.” This fear led men to think of remedies, and the remedies to which they resorted accelerated the destruction of the republic.

His advice is sound, but it requires conviction to heed.  We can’t “temporize” unless we know equally well what we want to happen as well as what we wish to prevent.

Chaos Theory

In the wake of 9/11 Patrick Deneen wrote an essay entitled “Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World made Strange,” in which he lamented the dichotomy he saw in public opinion. On the one hand, you had an entirely uncritical belief among many of the righteousness of the United States. Politicians needed to wear a small flag on their jacket lapels, (couldn’t happen now), and waved through sweeping legislation (the “Patriot Act”) that dramatically increased the surveillance powers of the government. On the other . . . you had many in academia, perhaps especially among our elite institutions, that could barely contain their smugness with pronouncements that America had gotten what it deserved for its overbearing foreign policy. Deneen published this essay in early 2002, and this split would only grow in run-up to the Iraq War. Remember “America Fries?”

Two seems to be a natural number for democracies to fall into, and perhaps somewhat natural in general for any society. We have night and day, sun and moon, major and minor keys, and so on. But “two” has always been something of a dangerous number, symbolically speaking. The either/or paths “2” creates bring inevitable division among extremes. Still, if we think of myths and creation accounts as, among other things, poetic interpretations of the world, we note that “2,” while obviously prevalent in creation, does not have the final say.

Between day and night, and night and day, lies twilight and dawn, the grey area linking them both. We have Adam and Eve, but they are supposed to “be fruitful and multiply,” i.e., not stay just the two of them. We have six days of creation and the seventh day–a breathing space of sorts within the normal cycle of the week. In Revelation the Apostle John is told to measure the inner court of the temple of God, but to leave the outer court unmeasured (Rev. 11:1-2), i.e., we need to loosen our intellectual hold on at least parts of reality. St. John’s gives us grand cosmic visions, but the Old Testament has this need for an unmeasured, in-between space, displayed even in the most prosaic of ways. The Israelites had to leave the fringe of their fields unharvested, and to leave the edges of their garments loose (Duet. 24, Num. 15).

It is on this fringe, the in-between spaces, where fruitful interaction and new creation can happen.

Certainly Deneen’s essay has resonance with us today. But he did not seek merely to lament the situation that existed in 2002, nor do I seek only to bemoan 2020. Rather, Deneen pointed to the classical world for a possible solution to the dilemma of “2”–the Greek vocation of the “theorist.”

One form of education seeks to construct by rote a particular view of the world. In regard to our own history some proclaim that the founders were all wise and good men–and only wise and good–our wars are always just, etc. Without cultivating any possibility of error, no repentance can happen and growth a forlorn hope. Such infants can never eat meat. As Aristotle noted, the perfect citizen would rarely be a good man. He could never grow into virtue.

The other education aims only at deconstruction–our founders were all misogynists, slave owners, etc. Of course this deconstruction supposes the need to construct something else in its place. Nothing can exist based on a universal negative. But often, having despised their birthright, deconstructionists have no idea what or where to build, and can feed only on dreams, or worse–themselves, and thereby “starve for feeding”(Coriolanus, Act 4.2). We need another approach.

Enter “one who sees,” which is a translation from the Greek word “theorist.” Certain elected officials within most classical Greek city-states had the title of “theoroi.” To quote Deneen,

To “theorize” was to take part in a sacred journey to visit the “other,” to “see” events such as religious or athletic festivals, and to return to their home city to give an account . . . the theorist would then attempt to comprehend, assess, compare, and then, in the idiom of his own city, explain what he had seen. The encounter would inevitably raise questions about the customs and practices of the theorists own city. . . . Might their be a best way of organizing the city that is not our way?

. . . The activity of “seeing” other ways of foreign life comprised half of the theorist’s duty. The other half . . . was the “giving an account” of what the theorist had seen. A “theorist” would betray his office if he were, so to speak, “go native” while abroad. . . . Even if a theorist were persuaded that that foreign practices were superior to those of his own city, the primacy of the theorist’s allegiance to his own city demanded careful and prudent explanation . . .

The “theorist” then, was not chosen only for his ability to “see” and apprehend with sensitivity the new and unusual but equally for the abiding customs of his own way of life. . . . it was by means of deep familiarity and love for that cultural inheritance that the theorist was able to move fellow citizens to renewed devotion to those practices . . . or to subtle questioning of dubious customs . . .

Conserving America: Essays on Present Discontents, pp. 18-20

It is through this lens that Deneen suggests we should see Socrates. He self-consciously went on a “sacred journey” of philosophy and saw himself as a “gadfly” to Athens, but also someone who would never consider disobedience to the laws of his city.*

Deneen examines Rene Descartes as possibly the first example of a modern “theorist.” As a French Catholic fighting other Catholics in the brutal 30 Years War, Descartes had a unique opportunity for serious soul-searching. As Deneen points out, however, he operated purely with his mind and imagination, and not with his heart. He “begins with radical suspicion of all that preceded him in act or thought, and especially all that is the result of the common endeavors of a community or people” (23). Descartes prefers to think by himself in a foreign land, but cares not even for the foreign locale. Time and place matter not to him. “A thinker like Descartes would be content to think anywhere on earth” (24). Descartes loved to sit in bed and think–all well and good. But what person, or place, or custom, did he love?

The abstract method Descartes employed led him to question everything . . . except himself (“I think, therefore, I am”). The mind, powered by egotism and unfettered from the body, became a weapon to remake nations and nature itself for civilizations that followed his wake. But to be free from one’s time and place is also to be estranged from it. We tend to lash out at strangers, even if the stranger is our very selves.

Those younger than me may groan at this assertion–but a line runs straight from Descartes’ abstractions to the internet and social media-the “cloud.” The internet has perfected the art of taking you away from where you reside and placing you nowhere in particular. I suppose with very simple and direct messages, social media works well, i.e., “Look, my son graduated from high school,” or, “I love my new haircut.” But anything involving complexity requires context, and context requires “full body” communication–not just the mind. Misunderstandings become almost the norm if we ignore this, which brings chaos. Our connections to one another disappear. To compensate for the interpersonal gap (which we perhaps feel but may not be fully aware of), we use manipulation as a method to bridge the chasm. Christians are guilty of this just as others are, i.e., “Jesus is the Light of the World–If you love God you will share with all your Friends!” Marshall McLuhan was right–the medium often dictates the message.

In difficult times we face two temptations. One is to bury our vision into the dark and tangled soil. There we meet the demons of blood and earth. The early 20th century saw this nightmare made real. The other involves a flight into escapist utopian fantasy with our heads in the sky. Devils lay there as well (i.e. the “prince of the powers of the air”–Eph. 2:2**). Both soil and clouds exist for a reason, however. Both have their place. We need to see what lies below and above at the same time, with Christ in the center, holding all things together.

*We can note that in The Republic he places his ideal, or perhaps, imaginary, city outside of Athens (I tend to think of The Republic as a thought experiment and not a description of Plato’s “real” beliefs–others disagree). Deneen also notes that the great Athenian dramatists played the role of “theorists,” and they, like Plato, often set their events outside of Athens.

**Perhaps we should think of Paul’s words in a strictly spatial manner, but I am fairly sure that we should interpret his words metaphorically (the two are not mutually exclusive–both meanings are in play). That is, the “air” shifts to and fro–it has no boundaries, no direction–its shiftiness resembles the snake, who speaks with a forked tongue, etc.

The Metal Mountain

I am guessing that many of you have seen this video from Boston Dynamics:

Most of the comments either say that this is the greatest or worst thing ever. I asked a science teacher friend of mine for his reaction. He said, “Really cool and impressive, but . . . also terrifying.” I had a similar, but flipped, reaction. I find the video viscerally horrible, and I had the strong urge to reach through the screen and smash the robots with baseball bats. But I have to admit–it is pretty cool.

“Both-And” trumps “Either-Or” in this instance, and so far my friend and I agree. But we can’t both be right in our emphasis.

In the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch*, an apocalyptic text associated with Second Temple Judaism, we read of a “metal mountain” in chapter 52.

And after those days, in that place where I had seen all the visions of that which is secret, for I had been carried off by a whirlwind, and they had brought me to the west. There my eyes saw the secrets of Heaven; everything that will occur on Earth: a mountain of iron, and a mountain of copper, and a mountain of silver, and a mountain of gold, and a mountain of soft metal, and a mountain of lead.

And I asked the Angel who went with me, saying: “What are these things which I have seen in secret?”

And he said to me: “All these things which you have seen serve the authority of His Messiah, so that he may be strong and powerful on the Earth.” And that Angel of Peace answered me, saying: “Wait a little and you will see, and everything which is secret, which the Lord of Spirits has established, will be revealed to you.

And these mountains, that you have seen; the mountain of iron, and the mountain of copper, and the mountain of silver, and the mountain of gold, and the mountain of soft metal, and the mountain of lead. All these in front of the Chosen One will be like wax before fire, and like the water that comes down from above onto these mountains they will be weak under his feet. And it will come to pass in those days, that neither by gold, nor by silver, will men save themselves; they will be unable to save themselves, or to flee.

And there will be neither iron for war nor material for a breastplate; bronze will be no use, and tin will be of no use and will count for nothing, and lead will not be wanted. All these will be wiped out and destroyed from the face of the earth when the Chosen One appears in front of the Lord of Spirits.”

I am no scholar of such literature, but I believe a connection exists with the meaning of robots for us now and our current political situation–why both are full of wonder and terror all at once.

I begin my case in what seem will think a strange place . . .

We all remember the excitement of dating our spouse, or even dating in general. At the root of this excitement lies the mystery of possibility. A dating relationship has a great deal of “potential energy,” to use a scientific term. But we must convert this potential into actual energy, or the “potential” is dead and meaningless. We see the same relationship with money. If I receive an Amazon gift card, it is always fun browsing and imagining what I might purchase. Sometimes the actual purchase fails to live up to the fun of ‘window shopping.’ But if I never actually converted potential reality (the gift card) into lived reality (the book I would read), then the gift card is “dead,” lacking any purpose or telos.**

It is no coincidence that money–which represents a multiplicity of possible reality, traditionally comes from the earth in the form of precious metals. We can see the “mountain of metal” in Enoch symbolically as a mass of possibility attempting to reach up to heaven, akin to the Tower of Babel.

Whatever status we accord the Book of Enoch, this interpretation should not surprise anyone reading the early chapters of Genesis. Here we see that it is Cain and his descendants that cultivate the earth for its potential. They develop the earth for tools, cities, and weapons. This technological development leads to violence and disaster, the unleashed chaos of the Flood. When we understand that the paradise was located on a mountain (cf. Ez. 28), we understand the Fall as a coming down from “heaven” to “earth,” a physical as well as spiritual descent.^ After murdering his brother, Cain descends further into the earth in the development of various technologies. He becomes enamored with potentiality, and his descendants develop it for violent ends. We usually see new technologies creating disruption. While it might be a chicken-egg situation, I think the pattern in Genesis points to

  • First, chaos, then
  • Technological development

Might the 1960’s show forth this pattern? We had large scale social upheaval starting around 1959, then the space-race/moon landing.

The metal mountain–a mountain full of “dead” metal, can also be contrasted with the paradisal mountain bursting with life in Gen. 1-2. No one expects to see a mountain lush with life, but this is the kind of paradox that suffuses the Christian faith. Perhaps the metal mountain can be seen as a kind of anti-paradise. Most every culture has some kind of sacred mountain, as mountains represent a union of heaven and earth.^ The metal mountain, then, would represent a bastardization of this reality, an “earth only” mountain.

This is not to say that all cities, shovels, trumpets, and swords are evil in themselves, any more than the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was evil. But Adam and Eve were not ready for such a gift, not ready for the power such knowledge would convey. Acquiring this knowledge before its appointed time severed them from God, each other, and themselves. The theme of dangerous and thus forbidden knowledge has a reflection in other mythologies, most familiarly for us in the story of Prometheus who brought the tools of civilization to humanity.

So, yes, I fear the robots, not because they are evil but because I don’t think we can possibly handle such things rightly in our current moment. But I must acknowledge the romance of the “potential” the robots convey, just as I love to receive Amazon gift cards.

We can understand our current political situation with the same symbolic framework.

There are those on both the right and the left that want nothing to do with the mundane realities of “married” political life. Some on the left looted Portland for weeks, and others occupied Seattle. Some on the right did something similar with the Capitol. Both sides have elements within them that want to transcend politics, that want a divorce from the constitutional order. They are enamored with the possibilities of a brand-new trophy wife. Those on the left envision a utopia of equality from below. Those on the right envision a strong Caesar from above to lead them to glory and defend them from all evil. Both imagine a perfect marriage to Brad Pitt or Emma Stone is theirs for the taking. Again–we cannot deny the intoxicating nature of “potential.” Gold has always exercised this spell.

Many have remarked how social media, which exponentially increases the potential power of language, has exacerbated this problem. This makes perfect sense when we see language as the manifestation of potential from the earth, much like gold or silver coins.

In his The Language of Creation Matthieu Pageau develops this idea convincingly, and what follows here merely seeks to condense his description. If we think of letters as random marks condensed into form, we can see that this process of incarnating ideas in language essentially boils down to turning potential into reality, the same as turning a hunk of iron into a sword. First, the basic union of Heaven and Earth pattern illustrated by Pageau as developed in Scripture:

We should note well that “symbol” here means not an ephemeral representation of something real, but instead an embodiment of meaning, something more real than a mere fact.

Forgive the crude nature of the drawing below which attempts to illustrate the principle as it applies to language (also stolen from Pageau):

The internet adds even more potential to the reach of the human mind, and it is both terrifying and glorious.

The current political climate mostly reflects this terrifying aspect of the internet. Imagine our body politic as the guy in a marriage who constantly gets different women paraded before him, an endless array of options and perspectives. He might eventually grow tired of his wife, with so much intriguing “potential” before his eyes. Many elites and institutions have lost trust, and this accelerates the problem. But these untested political realities are the elusive fantasy girlfriend that you never have to live real life with.

Exposing ourselves to robots during such a chaotic time (in fact such things are more likely to appear during chaotic times–just like Cain’s tool-making was directly preceded by his wandering) may greatly exacerbate the “meaning crisis.” We should not storm the Capitol, ransack Portland, or mess around with dancing robots.

But . . . as much as we should hedge and protect our current political symbols and institutions, our political life is akin to, but not the same as, our sacramental married life. The unformed potential is not evil, but how we use it might be. No good can come to a husband witnessing a parade of super-models, but our political life needs more “give” than a marriage to stay fresh and alert. A political system needs to occasionally integrate new ideas. But the only thing one can do during a flood is batten down the hatches. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube–who can doubt they bring a “flood” of “biblical proportions?”

As usual, Genesis gives us the pattern from which to operate. We have the paradisal mountain with four rivers flowing through it. The mountain encases the dynamism of the rivers–“change” safely residing within solidity. Without this solidity, even small challenges to existing order will pose an existential threat. Maybe conservatives will have to tone down market dynamism. Maybe liberals will have de-escalate the speed of social change. Maybe that works, but we’ll need to turn our keys at the same time.

Dave

*The Book of Enoch is not regarded as canonical Scripture for any Christian group except the Ethiopian Orthodox. But, it was a book held in great respect by the early Church. The Apostle Jude quotes it in his epistle. We may say that it was part of the vernacular, perhaps, of the early Christians.

**It is in translating the “potential” into reality that determines a good or bad marriage. The husband/wife run the risk of things growing “dead” through the lack of potential. This can lead to affairs, or more benignly to the buying of sports cars. This is one reason (among others) why couples should have children–to have new “potential” come into reality. After a couple completes the child-rearing stage, which for many can last into their 50’s, they enter a new transformative phase of “death to glory.” The couple can no longer generate new “potential life,” and their hair grows gray. But even their gray hair manifests glory–“white light” streaming from their heads.

^The importance of mountains becomes obvious in Scripture once we get clued into this pattern, i.e., Mt. Sinai, Mt. Zion, Mt. Carmel, Mt. Tabor, the Sermon on the Mount, Christ crucified on the ‘Hill of the Skull,’ and so on.

Democracy and the Feminine

This was originally written in March 2019 . . .

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Any observer of our political and media cycles knows that we have a problem. Unfortunately, for as much as we talk about various problems, we seem no closer to solving them. We do not understand the roots of the problem, or what the problem even is. We have no common platform on which to stand to start to discuss it meaningfully. Here I do not wish to discuss red-state/blue-state divides, inequality, immigration, or any such thing. They all have importance. But we must go deeper into basic symbolic language to see what these issues mean in our context. Without this, we will continue to spin our wheels

Many who care not for President Trump seem mystified that he can violate a variety of established presidential norms and have more or less the same approval rating. Those with other political perspectives felt similarly about President Obama. To their great frustration, neither a terrible Iran deal, or the labryinth of the financially unsustainable health care bill–his two main initiatives–had any effect on his supporters. Neither president inspires(d) middle-ground opinions, and I believe that we can explain this only by understanding that neither one of them functions(ed) as traditional politicians, but rather as heavily symbolic figures. People identify with them primarily not through their policies or even their personal actions, but by what they represent.

If true, this may forebode difficult times ahead, for it shows that we disagree on fundamental things, and that whatever we say about the marginal tax-rate may only serve as a smokescreen for what we really mean beneath our words. We will fight hard for our narratives. This should impel us not just to understand the symbolic nature of our politicians, but also the “location” of democracy within traditional symbolic archetypes.* I will primarily reference biblical models and explanations, but I readily acknowledge that other civilizations use many of the same understandings.

Much confusion exists as to the meaning of masculinity today. We can start correcting this by understanding that all of us, men and women, are “feminine” in relation to God. That is, the masculine is the originator, the beginning and the end, the initiator. The “masculine” is steady, solid, not in flux. We might expect the feminine to have a merely passive role, and true, we see the feminine as “becoming,” rather than “being.” It is God who seeks us out, hunts us down (think of Francis Thompson’s great “The Hound of Heaven”). But, the feminine plays a strong supporting role.

We can see this even in the modern penchant for guys to call cars and boats “she.” The feminine gives the masculine a context for action, a space to develop. Cars and boats both create a womb of sorts, and (most) every mythological male hero needs a ship. Indeed, we are all born from water, just as God drew creation itself out of water in Genesis 1. And because water involves flux, so too the feminine can give flexibility to the straight and “narrow” nature of the masculine.

I confess that I find it rather silly that some feminists find the modern west toxically patriarchal. If we understand male and female archetypes, one immediately sees that modern democracy may be the most Feminine form of government in human history. We embrace change, possibility, and the new. We allow for individual expression and variation–all archetypal feminine strengths. While the west’s history with immigration has been somewhat erratic, overall we have welcomed far more foreign people’s than other cultures. We should expect this in democracies, for women are usually the best and most gracious hosts. They are generally better at managing social dynamics than men.

In human history, myth, and folklore the masculine tyrannizes much more often than the feminine. St. Francis’ marvelous Canticle of the Sun praises “Brother Fire” for being bright and strong, but fire so easily gets out of hand, flaring up at any time and place. Heat burns, but we quickly can remove ourselves from it (hopefully). So too, St. Francis honors “Sister Water” as being humble, clear, and pure. But Scripture, myth, and folklore all attest that, when feminine tyrants do happen to arise–though they are rare–they are the most dangerous.

One might see this in Medusa, Medea, and Jezebel. In Babylonian myth, the goddess of the sea, Tiamat, oversteps her bounds and inspires the other gods to rebel against her, with Marduk gaining the victory. Not surprisingly, the feminine aspects of Babylonian thought lingered on in their culture ever after, with the goddesss Ishtar reigning over most aspects of everyday life.** True to their feminine nature, Babylon was probably the most cosmopolitan and open city in the ancient world, but so open, however, that Scripture refers to the city in the book of Revelation as the archetypal harlot to the world.

In his magisterial Democracy in America, Tocqueville says much in praise of what he observed. But he devotes some time to discussing “What Sort of Tyranny Democracies Have to Fear.” Though he does not use Male/Female categories of thought explicitly, one can see them when he contrasts two types of abuse of power. “Masculine” forms of government such as monarchy or aristocracy go wrong in obvious ways. They rage, they lash out. But such tyrants usually care nothing for what you think. They are too direct for such subtlety. Tocqueville points out that the more masculine forms of tyranny may imprison the body, but they leave the mind free.

In contrast, democratic/feminine tyranny may be more rare, but will have greater power over individuals indirectly. They care not so much for the body but the soul. They don’t want you to empty the dishwasher, so much as they want you to want to empty the dishwasher. They want love, not obedience.^ They come for your soul and care little for the body, weakening one from the inside out.

Still, those that lament the feminization or infantilization of our culture have to acknowledge that, as already stated, democracy itself borrows much more heavily from feminine archetypes. It has no hierarchy for us to consult.^^ But, even if one wanted to establish a more “masculine” form of government like monarchy to counteract this, such an endeavor would be foolish and impossible. It seems, then, that we have an impasse between masculine and feminine visions.

I suggest, however, that the Church gives us a path forward, showing us how the feminine plays a crucial role in establishing, or reestablishing, a new sense of order. I will take just a few examples, but many more exist.

Postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida talk of the need for “radical hospitality,” a radical openness to the “other,” a dramatic extension of the feminine archetype. Such openness obviously invites chaos and self-obliteration. But, look again . . . perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that when Joshua sends spies to the Promised Land it is a woman (Rahab), and a prostitute who practices “radical hospitality,” that shelters them (my thanks, once again, to Jonathan Pageau for this example). So too Mary Magdalene, another loose woman, devotes herself completely to Christ before His disciples. Rahab’s openness to the new allows her to see that her civilization must be destroyed–by men of war. She becomes a hero of the faith (Heb. 11:31). But we must not also forget that she joins with Israel, and has her head shaved as a sign of her submission to the new order, and her devotion to God the Father.

The Virgin Mary gives us an even more constructive example. Tradition tells us that she was raised as a servant in the Temple, the very center of life for the people of God. Germanos of Constantinople marveled in the 8th century that

Do [we] not see a girl born as a result of a promise, and she at the age of three, being taken within the inner veil as an umblemished gift to live there without interruption, also being carried in procession by the wealthy among the people? . . . What then will this child become (Lk. 1:66). But as for us, the peculiar people of God . . . let us approach the [Virgin Mary] and approach the divine mysteries! . . . Let us see how the prophet admits her by his own hand and brings her into inaccessible places, having been in no way displeased, and without having said to her parents, “I am not undertaking this most novel practice and leading a girl into the holy of holies to dwell there without interruption, where I have been instructed to enter only once a year.” The prophet uttered no such thing; instead he knew in advance what would come to pass, since he was a prophet.

Mary Cunningham, translator for the above text, notes that

The high priest was only allowed to enter the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the building, shielded by a veil, representing the boundary of the created order and the realm of divinity. The preacher emphasizes here the extraordinary exception that was made in admitting the Virgin Mary to this sacred space and allowing her to live there throughout her childhood.

We might say that Rahab serves as a precursor to Mary–both women expressed an openness to God that made salvation–entering the Promised Land–possible. We might say that it is convenient that God could only become Man through a woman, but it makes “sense” mythically and archetypally just as it does biologically. And in her Magnificat, Mary alludes that this “openness” will not destroy order but in fact reaffirm it. Her “radical hospitality” becomes not a tyranny of chaos, but instead, wondrous devotion to the new kingdom ruled by her Son.

When “I AM” is both Alpha and Omega (Rev. 21:6) the hierarchy can be inverted and reaffirmed at the same time. This forms the solution to our current political and social difficulty. On the one hand, the “Masculine” must acknowledge that the possibilities inherent in the “Feminine” might bring about our “salvation” (using that term in an earthly and limited sense). But even in a democracy, the “Feminine” must acknowledge that the openness they bring best serves the reaffirmation of order, and not its destruction.

Dave

*All of what comes after this point assumes the following:

  • That gender/sex differences are real, rooted in creation, and not mere social constructs (though some degree of variation may occur over time and space as to how these differences manifest themselves).
  • That certain mythological constructs/ideas are also not mere human constructs–however universal they may be–but go deeper, and express “real reality.”

**True to the potential of excessive openness in the feminine, Ishtar reigned over love, marriage, war, and . . . prostitution.

^We see this in some of the worst democratic tyrannies, such as the French Revolution. In a near parody of the “impossible female,” one could get imprisoned in Paris ca. 1793-94 for either being too excessive in one’s love of liberty, or conversely, not excited enough about liberty. So too in Stalinist Russia (for communism is a western form of government), you could be shot for not keeping up with the intricacies of party dogma.

Today the idea of safe spaces, of the regulation of language so no one gets feelings hurt, etc., conjures up the image of a smothering mother–in contrast to the typical bad dad who is absent or physically abusive.

^^Perhaps not surprisingly, the first great western democracy had Athena, goddess of wisdom, for their patron deity. Scripture also calls Wisdom “she,” for wisdom is often subtle and contextual, not always straightforward and direct.


Renaissance and Reformation, Act 2 (?)

I published this originally in 2016 a few weeks after Trump’s election.  In re-reading it, I would change very little of my original thoughts.  I am still not sure of what to make of Trump’s presidency and what it might mean for our future, and I still am not sure what criteria to use to evaluate his presidency.

Without further comment, the original post . . .

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Like many I awoke Wednesday, November 9 to a big surprise.  Like many I wonder in what sense business as usual (more or less) will be the order of the day as Trump begins to actually govern, or whether or not we will see a significant pivot in our national life.  Time will tell (full disclosure, I supported neither candidate and hoped for a 3rd party revolution that never materialized).

I confess there is much I fail to understand about the election.  I have no strong opinions as to why Trump won.   I will attempt to focus on a broader historical perspective and will not deal with issues specific to the campaign, whatever their importance might have been.  I will not seek to take sides so much as to explain.

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Like many I search for historical parallels to our situation.  Many months ago I suggested Andrew Jackson, or perhaps Rome’s Marius, as a historical counterpart to Trump.  A few months ago Tyler Cowen suggested that, based on a book he had read, our world might resemble that of the Reformation.  I filed that away and thought little of it–until November 9.  All six of Cowen’s observations have merit, but two immediately jumped out at me:

1. Many of the structures in places are perceived as failing, even though in absolute terms they are not obviously doing worse than previous times.

2. There is a rise in nationalist sentiment and a semi-cosmopolitan ethic is starting to lose influence.

In his Civilisation series Kenneth Clark displayed an obvious affection for Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).  Who can blame him?  Erasmus had a great intellect and a good sense of humor, especially about himself.  Erasmus had no particular attachments anywhere and so he cultivated friends all over Europe.  He represented what some might see as the apotheosis of the medieval vision–a cosmopolitan, universal man of Christendom.

Such status did not prevent Erasmus from engaging in polemical criticism.  From what I hear, his Praise of Folly (I have not read it) mercilessly lambasts much of society at that time, in and out of the Church.  And yet, Clark points out that Erasmus could not accept challenges to authority from the common man.  In a personal letter he wrote with horror at the fact that hardly anyone in a town he visited doffed their caps to him–to him–a respectable pillar of Society.  We can almost hear him say, “I’m the one who gets to criticize society.  Not you!  You don’t know what you’re doing, whereas I (obviously) do!”*

Erasmus could criticize aspects of society but would never think of criticizing Society itself and the conventions that held it together.  He lived in an urbane, intelligent, tolerant world of reason, progress, proportion, and the like.  But the temper of times overwhelmed him.  Europe’s darling in 1511 found himself playing the role of “Mr. Irrelevant” soon after the Reformation began in 1517.

Even Clarke, I think, sees the problem with Erasmus.  No one doubted his character, but they questioned his conviction. Erasmus wore too much on his sleeve and not enough (at least to observers) in his heart.  His glib dance throughout Europe made many wonder what he actually believed.

Many assume the that the medieval period practiced more than its fair share of intolerance.  Scholar and historian Regine Pernoud points out, however, that the latter Renaissance had many more persecutions of heretics and witches than any period in the Middle Ages.  She offers no direct reasons for this, but we can speculate.  By 1200 A.D. Europe had attained a significant measure of stability, but not yet a great deal of movement.  The elite of society had “real” jobs and connections to the common man.  The “people” did not live as well as the aristocracy, but they lived with the elite in the same communities and moved in the same circles.  The sea had yet to tempt medieval society, which limited physical mobility and perhaps added to the stability.

By the mid 13th century Thomas Aquinas begins to dabble in the powers of reason and Aristotle.  The Black Plague disrupted the settled social arrangements (among other things).  The 15th century saw plenty of change with the beginnings of exploration and the printing press.  The papal court practiced pagan Greek city-state thinking more so than the service of God.  Now too, elites like Erasmus moved in entirely different circles than “the people.”  With the revival of classical culture came the revival of classical pagan religion, and the rise of occult practices.  It adds up to too much change too quickly.  The Reformation happened not just because of Luther, but in part because Europe had several different people rise up simultaneously willing to challenge an out of touch status quo many no longer cared anything for.  Rightly or wrongly, many felt that elite Renaissance culture had gone too far.**  As Pernoud points out, the reaction against this outwardly benign march of “progress” began before the Reformation in the late Renaissance.

In another post, again from a few months ago, Cowen suggests the possibility that too much immigration may result in a backlash against immigration (we should note that Cowen favors increased immigration as a matter of ideology, but might be pragmatic as a matter of policy–I don’t know). If the pace of change moves too fast, people react against it even if the change itself benefits them overall (most data shows the increased benefits of increased immigration). Rapid change often creates psychological problems of dislocation.

Others with different ideological perspectives seem to agree with him.  Slavoj Zizek argues (warning to those who follow the link: Zizek uses profanity rather “liberally” in places:) that on European immigration issue, allowing for more democracy would significantly restrict immigration policies in multiple countries.  Right now more inclusive policies must come from the state and not from the people.^  Ezra Klein had an interesting exchange with Tyler Cowen recently where they discussed the subject of diversity.

COWEN: …Now Putman, let me ask you about Putnam, and how Putnam relates to Donald Trump. As you know, Robert Putnam at Harvard, he has some work showing that when ethnic diversity goes up that there’s less trust, less cooperation, less social capital.

If you think of yourself in the role of an editor, so you have an American society, diversity has gone up, and a lot of people have reacted to this I would say rather badly — and I think you would agree with me they’ve reacted rather badly — but there’s still a way in which the issue could be framed that while diversity is actually a problem, we can’t handle diversity.

Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?

KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”

Might Trump have a doppelgänger of sorts (not religiously, not even close!) in Martin Luther?  In Luther, we see, among other things, someone with an authoritarian nationalist streak, one who could not stand the polite pagan-infused niceness of elite Europe, one who had no trouble calling fire and brimstone down upon a variety of people, and one who dabbled in opportunism from time to time.

One possible explanation for Trump might lie in the reaction against some of the sweeping changes that have come into the consciousness of America, such as

  • The “trigger warning” and “snowflake” phenomena across many college campuses
  • The Supreme Court case legalizing homosexual marriage across the land (overturning a variety of state laws in the process).
  • The extreme pressure directed against those who refuse to cater, provide flowers, etc. for homosexual weddings
  • The debate over transgender bathrooms, the reaction against the NC law, etc.

None of these changes directly effect the well-being of very many at all, but they do impact how one sees the their place in the world.  Without considering who is right or wrong in these actions, might the western cosmopolitan set across the U.S. and Europe have flown too close to the sun too quickly?

I listen to classical music on a very low level, when I actually listen to it. I can usually tell if it’s Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart, but that’s about it.   One day I decided to get cultured and tried to listen to a Mahler symphony.  My reaction?

In Absolutely on Music, Japanese author Haruki Murakami recorded a series of interviews with the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa.  In one interview Murakami asks,

Just listening to the third movement of [Mahler’s] First Symphony, it seems clear to me that his music is filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without logical connection, and sometimes in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldview–a huge variety of stuff, no single one at the center of things . . . .  Isn’t there something particularly universal or cosmopolitan about Mahler’s music?

To my admittedly very limited experience of attempting to listen to Mahler, Murakami could have just as easily asked, “Isn’t there something meaningless and incomprehensible about Mahler’s music?  After 1/2 hour of attempting to “elevate” my cultural understanding, I would have begged someone to play me a Sousa march to at least bring my brain back into focus.

Cowen’s final thought on how this world might resemble that of the Reformation . . .

The world may nonetheless end up much better off, but the ride to get there will be rocky indeed.

Dave

*A possible parallel to this exists today.  A variety of high-profile fashion designers have said that they will not provide gowns for Melania Trump.  Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in North Carolina over his objections to their transgender laws.  The great jazz pianist Ethan Iverson called for a boycott of Steinway pianos because the owner of Steinway supported Trump in some vague fashion (in 2012 Iverson urged a boycott of a particular jazz musician for his support of Romney.  Were Iverson a politician, this would be extremely dangerous territory, i.e., punishing someone not for their actions but for their particular beliefs). All of them were perfectly within their rights to do so.  Many applauded them putting moral convictions over profit or convenience.

Can progressives not extend the same rights to those who wish not to cater homosexual weddings?  It appears that some do not wish to extend the same right of protest.  Stephanie Slade at Reason magazine wrote,

The problem is not that Theallet was willing to dress Michelle Obama and isn’t willing to dress Melania Trump (which is, like it or not, a form of discrimination). The problem is just how many people don’t seem to think that same freedom should be extended to bakery owners, photographers, and other wedding vendors who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

As Theallet put it, “we consider our voice an expression of our artistic and philosophical ideals.” I suspect Barronelle Stutzman, the white-haired grandmother who owns Arlene’s Flowers, feels the same way about her craft. But instead of assuming a live-and-let-live attitude on the matter, Washington state has systematically worked to destroy Stutzman’s business unless she agrees to take part in a celebration to which she is morally opposed.

**Whatever authoritarian streak the Middle Ages might have had, the Renaissance had it too, but it came not from the people, but from the elite makers of taste.  In many cathedrals the colorful stained glass (made by a variety of local artisans) got smashed out and replaced with clear glass to better fit wth their ideas of classical purity and decorum.

Pernoud argued with some force that the culture of the Middle Ages was “populist,” which the culture of the Renaissance was “elitist.”

^We can see the Brexit vote as a symptom of this same phenomena.  Europe’s pundits all seemingly declared that Britain would vote to stay in the European Union.  Part of me wonders whether or not the vote to leave had more to do with “sticking it to the cosmopolitan man” (which certainly includes most pundits) than any particular economic or social issue.

Telegraph, the Change

When you teach the same classes year after year as I have, one starts to realize that what seems like great material one year seems to fall flat in another. Many reasons exist for this, some of them obvious, such as whether or not you taught the lesson on a Tuesday or a Friday, or at the beginning or the end of the day. Sometimes more mysterious factors present themselves, such as whether or not you have a critical mass of students interested in the topic.

Thankfully, some things work even if you teach it last period on the day before Christmas vacation, such as Assyrian tortures with 8th grade boys, and the Kennedy-Nixon debates. I am always impressed how students, with very little context or introduction, immediately pick up that “somethin’ ain’t right” with Nixon–setting aside the infamous sweat on his lower lip.

What Nixon gets wrong has nothing to do with what he says. Students note, too, that the debate, while it suffers somewhat from the medium of television, has some actual substance to it from both candidates. The problem lies deeper, in the “atmosphere” around Nixon.

At times I think that Marshal McCluhan, for all his brilliance, sees everything as a nail, armed as he is with his significant insight into how the “medium is the message.” But his comments about this seminal debate in 1960 led me to following him down a rabbit hole of sorts, and wondering if our current cultural angst has its roots in transformation of our media landscape.

In a famous interview McCluhan describes the differences between what he calls “hot” and “cool” mediums, saying,

Basically, a hot medium excludes and a cool medium includes. Hot media are high in completion, and low in audience participation. Cool media are high in participation. A Hot medium extends a single sense with high definition . . . A photography for example, is “hot” whereas a rough sketch cartoon is “cool.” Radio is a hot medium because it sharply and intensely provides a great amount of high definition auditory information that leaves little or nothing to be filled in by the audience. A lecture is hot, a seminar is cool.

He continues by suggesting that television is not even a strictly visual medium. Its low definition (here we must remember that McCluhan is speaking around 1968. He might think differently about today’s “high definition” tv’s) means that we the audience have to be “drawn in.” Those who come across “hot” rather than “cool” will put off their audience. He continues

Kennedy was the first tv president . . . . TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to tv. [Without this] any candidate will electrocute himself on television–as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy. Nixon was essentially hot, he presents a high-definition, sharply defined image . . . that contributed to his reputation as a phony. . . . He didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.

McCluhan’s analysis explains why those who listened to the debate on the radio gave the edge to Nixon. It has nothing per se to do with the content of their messages, but the medium itself.* Nixon’s earnest and direct manner worked much better on radio. McCluhan makes clear in the interview that the process of our interaction with this new media would transform western society–a society built upon the printing press.

I think McCluhan overstates his case a bit, but his analysis of media and culture have a great deal of explanatory power. I will try to present him as best as I can, starting with a long excerpt from the interview (slightly edited for clarity by myself–the ‘M’ is McCluhan):


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

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

M: Yes.  Any culture is an order of sensory preferences, and in the tribal world, the senses of touch, taste, smell, and hearing were more developed.  Into this world, the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell . . . literacy put the eye above all else.  Linear, visual values replaced an integral communal interplay.  The writing of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Mayan were an extension of multiple senses–they gave pictorial expression to reality and used many signs to cover a wide range of data.  The achievement of phonics demands the separation of both sight and sound from their semantic and dramatic meanings in order to render speech visually.  

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

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

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

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

M: It was both.  . . . the old Greek myth has Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to man, sowing dragons teeth that sprang up from the earth as armed men. The age of print, which held sway from 1500-1900, had its obituary tapped out by the telegraph, the first of the new electric media, and further obsequies were registered by the perception of curved space and non-Euclidean mathematics in the early years of the century, which revived [pre-modern] man’s discontinuous space-time concepts–and which even Spengler dimly perceived as the death-knell of Western literate values.  The development of tv, film, and the computer have driven further nails into the coffin.  It is tv that is primarily responsible for ending the visual supremacy that characterized all mechanical technology.  

Q: But isn’t TV primarily a visual medium?

M: No, quite the opposite.  . . . The TV image is a mosaic mesh not only of horizontal lines but of millions of tiny dots, of which the viewer is only able to pick out 50 or 60 from which he shapes the image; thus he is constantly bringing himself into involvement with the screen and acting out a creative dialog with the iconoscope, which tattoos its message directly onto our skins.  Each viewer is thus an unconscious pointilist painter, like Seurat.  

Q: How is tv reshaping our political institutions? 

 
M: For one thing, it is creating an entirely new type of national leader, a man who is much more a tribal chieftain than a politician. 

In his The Medium is the Message McCluhan quotes a poem of Yeats,

Locke sank into a swoon;

The garden died;

God took the spinning jenny

Out of his side

McCluhan sees the man’s interaction with media thusly:

  • Pre-literate man was essentially oral. He lived in an sensory integrated world, and an “immediate” world. He lived in a world he could cohere into a totality of experience. His sense of space-time, how he got his information, etc. came within an embodied context.
  • True–a few unusual people might have been merchants who traveled a lot, whose sense of time and space might have been somewhat different, but these people were rare, on the fringe of society.
  • The printing press both mechanized information and intensified how we received it, “assuring the eye a position of total dominance in man’s sensorium. . . . The schism between thought and action was institutionalized, and fragmented man, first sundered by the alphabet, was at last diced into bite-sized tidbits.”

Commenting on the poem above, McCluhan writes, “Yeats presents Locke, the philosopher of linear and mechanical association, as hypnotized by his own image, but the “garden” of unified consciousness had ended.”

“Literate Man,” as McCluhan names western man from 1500-1900, valued highly the detachment cultivated by textual interaction. Indeed–we have to detach ourselves to a degree to read at all. We see the values of literate man producing “detached” scientific exploration and experimentation, promoting distance, toleration, and a political transformation away from the directly personal monarchies to impersonal democratic republics. Perhaps we can say that such values peaked in the late 18th century. We begin to see with 19th century Romanticism a yearning for a more holistic way of life. McCluhan’s focus stays on media, with

  • The invention of the telegraph for McCluhan was the beginning of the end of “Literate Man,” a point he admits to borrowing from the enigmatic Oswald Spengler. The telegraph both began the process of altering our perception of time and space, and made information more direct and immediate, a feature of pre-literate experience.
  • The radio followed suit quickly, then tv, etc. We saw cultural conflict and disintegration in the 1960’s because television accelerated the process of a cultural transference away from literate man. Our educational system offered all of the values of literate man, a complete mismatch with the desire for holistic integration our interaction with modern media produces.**
  • Had McCluhan lived to see the internet (some say he clearly predicted it), he would likely say that such instantly available means of breaking down time and space might very well put the nails in the coffin of Literate Man and cause a deep cultural division. Indeed, McCluhan’s analysis can shed light on the division between Gen X–the last generation not raised with the internet–and Millennials, etc. Many under 30 today care little for the Literate Man values that helped found our country, i.e., rational debate, give and take, etc. They want a more integrated communal experience.^

Our current political struggle, then, pits not Republicans against Democrats–who knows what it means to be a Republican or Democrat anyway now?–but against literate/printing press man values of privacy, debate, and individualism vs. the tribal/internet man values of community and integrated life. We see this conflict running through different aspects of our society, such as in journalism. The old journalistic ethic taught that the reporter should cultivate distance and a degree of objectivity. The new school of reporting seeks engagement, communal change, etc.

McCluhan admitted that early in his career he saw the decline of “Literate Man” as a moral catastrophe, but by the late 1960’s he committed himself to trying to observe (ironically, perhaps, a quintessential Literate Man pose) and not attach value judgments to his preferences. But with an additional 50 years of perspective on the influence of new media, I think we should venture some conclusions about its impact.

I agree that no absolute moral difference exists between Printing Press Man and Integrated/Tribal Man. McCluhan’s focus on the telegraph makes one realize that the technological/cultural changes many of us think are 15-20 years in the making are really 150 years old. McCluhan points out rightly that the advent of the printing press, industrialization, etc. into traditional societies was at least in part “a psychic and social disaster.” But he put less attention on the switch back the other way–it too will be experienced as a “disaster” by Literate Man for society to go back to Integrated Man.

I agree too that something mysterious exists with our relationship to media, which includes not just radio and the internet, but all of the ways in which we seek to extend our being, including our clothes. A meshing of man and media leads to a switch in perception and how we act. For example, our reaction to COVID had just as much to do with the media we use as it did with the disease itself. I am not saying that COVID is just the flu, but it is not the Black Plague either. Without online shopping, Zoom, etc. we would never have taken the measures we did with COVID. Some will say, “Thank goodness we had Zoom so we did not have to go into work, and more lives were saved.” Others, like myself, see something not so much sinister as deeply skewed. The media we use focuses our attention, and our view of the world is “made” from where we direct our attention. COVID and the internet worked symbiotically to form our decisions.

McCluhan rightly points out the many advantages of pre-modern societies. He saw us recapturing some of those values as our media landscape transformed. I wouldn’t mind a return of some pre-modern values. But contrary to McCluhan (if I understand him rightly), we don’t see these values returning. Or rather, we see them returning, but in a distorted way. No question, visiting a waterfall would be an “integrative” experience–sight, smell, touch, etc.–in ways that seeing the waterfall online would not. The continual availability of a fragmented online experience has not given us a holistic society but one where, according to some accounts, one in four young adults take some form of anti-depressant. McCluhan might say that this is exactly what we should expect when we ask kids to spend 7 hours a day in a detached, “Literate” environment when the media they use calls them to an entirely different way of life. I would perhaps argue that what we see now is a combination of

  • Literate Man reaching the end of its days
  • No good Integrated Man alternative available.

One can argue that there was an “Anti-Nature” strand in the history of Literate Man, with its extreme focus on linear thought and the eye. But so far, the new Integrated Man all in all shows no signs of actually wanting to create a holistic society. For example,

  • Many of the same environmentalists who want us to be closer to nature also tell us not to have children. But few other things are more “natural” than men and women getting married and having children. How can one speak of integration of our experience while excluding humanity from that experience?
  • Many advocates of an extreme individual fluidty/”rights” with their bodies (abortion, sexual differences, etc.) also are quite rigid about certain other areas around race, speech, etc.

Most all of us use the internet not as a tool of integration but escape. Television, in some ways at least, brought people together, i.e., we all watched “I Love Lucy,” “The Cosby Show,” and the Super Bowl.

Richard Rohlin noted that one can define conservatism simply as love of one’s parents. By that he meant our biological parents, but also our spiritual fathers, our culture, our past. We need not believe that our parents are perfect, or even particularly “good.” We love ourselves and hopefully know that we have deep flaws that need work, but we cannot build or change anything by starting with a void, a negative. America’s problem, as it relates to McCluhan, can be boiled down to

  • Conservatives should embrace tradition, but American “Conservatives” hearken back to a tradition of individually oriented, linear, and “cool” world. This is perhaps one reason why appeals to the past in American politics never quite seem to work, and only seem to further individualism.
  • Modern progressives seem to seek a more communal and holistic vision of society, which has the earmarks of “Tradition.” However, progressives tend to reject the past outright as evil. They seek the impossibility of a traditional society constructed out of revolutionary ideology.

If neither vision can succeed, then our solution has to lie beyond adaptation or understanding of our new media. McCluhan shows us where we are better than most, but he can’t say where we need to go.

Dave

*McCluhan commented about Lyndon Johnson in a spot-on analysis . . . “[Johnson] botched [tv] in the same way that Nixon did in 1960. He was too intense, too obsessed with making his audience love and revere him as father and teacher. Johnson became a stereotype–even a parody–of himself, and earned the same reputation as a phony that plagued Nixon for so long. The people wouldn’t have cared about Kennedy lying to them on tv, but they couldn’t stomach Johnson even when he told them the truth.”

He also noted how Nixon rehabilitated his image by changing his tv demeanor, starting with his appearance on the Jack Parr show in 1963. “In the recent [1968] election,” he comments, “it was Nixon who was cool and Humphrey who was hot.” Correctly, he noticed in 1968 that this was a mask for Nixon. His presidency would prove this the case. If there is anything one can say about Nixon–he was not someone who “invited people in.”

**We see the maddening apotheosis of literate man in the form of the ultra-scholar who only seeks to point out facts, and never wants to commit to a conclusion, never wants to integrate his knowledge into anything cohesive or final. As for McCluhan’s point about “immediacy” and “participation,” think of the impact of television on the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Everyone could see the images, the marches, and participate to a degree in the “cultural moment.”

^Note the stereotype of the detached, unengaged Gen X’er, with slacker anti-heroes, i.e., The Breakfast Club and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, etc. — very different movies, but with the same overall theme. Today’s heroes tend to be about “family”–think Amazon’s series The Expanse and the Fast and Furious franchise.

The Year 0

I have never been much for math but the concept of the ‘0’ has always intrigued me, perhaps because of its philosophical nature. How can one count or measure something that by definition has nothing to count or measure? The ancient Greeks, obsessed as they were with perfection, never came to terms with it. The Romans–ever practical by nature–used numbers for recording, bartering, etc. only, so they seemed to have no need for it, or never thought of it. Or perhaps, they feared and consciously avoided the 0, dimly perceiving its immense metaphysical weight.

In ancient cultures, from India, Egypt, China, and Meso-America, the ‘0’ had a differing but overall overlapping meaning. A ‘zero’ is the “space between” what we can measure. A zero dwells where reason cannot. As a practical example, the Roman Ptolemy apparently used a ‘0’ to measure the time of solar eclipses, when it was day, but not day, as one might interpret it. In China, a 0 functioned in writing as a “full stop.” One hits the reset button with the 0. More poetically, we might say that in calendars, a 0 functions as a beginning outside of time. The 0 creates time, or certainly at least, the meaning of time. Something has stopped, something else will begin, a new demarcation.

Over the last several years, we have seen the rise of BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) to mark our passage through time. This shift has happened without anyone in particular decreeing it so, an interesting fact in itself. I came across a description of this change here from a reputable encyclopedic website, where they make two basic claims:

  • That the change from BC/AD to BCE/CE has “nothing to do with removing Christ from the calendar and everything to do with historical accuracy, and
  • That calendars should be concerned only with scientific accuracy.

Regarding the second point, Robert Cargill writes,

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. According to multiple ancient sources, Herod died in 4 BCE. If the Gospel of Matthew is historically accurate, this would mean that Jesus of Nazareth was born on or before 4 BCE—meaning Jesus was born 4 BC (4 years Before Christ)! If we add to these 4 years the fact that Herod the Great did not die immediately after the birth of Jesus, but, according to Matthew, ordered the death of all children two years of age and younger in an attempt to kill Jesus, we can add an additional two years to the birth of Jesus, making his birth approximately 6 BCE. If we also add the missing year zero, it is most likely that, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born around 7 BCE!A

Thus, the BC/AD system is fundamentally flawed in that it misrepresents the birth of Jesus by approximately 7 years. This means that Jesus’ ministry did not begin around the year 30, but instead around the year 23. Likewise, Pentecost and the origin of the Christian Church should not be dated to “33 AD,” but to about 26 CE.

An even greater problem still exists with the BC/AD system: the year of Jesus’ birth differs depending on which Gospel one reads. While the Gospel of Matthew states in chapter 2:1 that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, the Gospel of Luke states in chapter 2:1-2 that Jesus was born during the first census of the rule of Quirinius, governor of Syria. According to ancient sources, the date of this census is about 6 CE. Thus, the Bible is internally inconsistent regarding the year of Jesus’ birth. (2)

The article explains that the phrase “Common Era” (instead of A.D.) should not be viewed as a bow to political correctness, for scholars in the 17th-19th century used the term when communicating with non-Christians. The article notes that,

Non-Christian scholars, especially, embraced the new designations because they could now communicate more easily with the Christian community. Jewish and Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist, scholars could retain their calendar but refer to events using the Gregorian Calendar as BCE and CE without compromising their own beliefs about the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Since the BCE/CE designations corresponded to the Christian BC/AD, Christians could correspond back just as clearly. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, “common era” was used frequently with a respectful nod to Christianity in phrases such as “the common era of Christ” or “the common era of the Incarnation” until, by the late 20th century, it again reverted to simply “common era”.

All in all, the article’s author Josh Mark tells everyone to calm down. The Gregorian calendar is not really accurate, and the new designations make communication easier across cultures.

But I disagree. This change, now adopted across western-speak, portends a great deal. To make this case we first need to understand something of the nature of time itself.

As to the question, “What is time?” many things could be said. In his book The Ethics of Time John Pateleimon Manoussakis makes the observation that time should be primarily thought of as “movement.” We might assume this an obvious given, but some ancient philosophers thought movement essentially impossible. Zeno’s paradox suggests the impossibility of movement. Parmenides concurs, writing that Being

is simple, immovable, and without end. Nor was it ever, nor will it ever be; for now it is, all at once, one and continuous . . .

Heraclitus seems to promote movement, but his concept of flux remains so completely continuous, that we can truly said to go nowhere at all because we lack a solid reference point from which to measure. Without this, we cannot truly know if we have moved at all.

Anaxagoras broke this mold by claiming that Parmenides reached his conclusion by the movement of thinking, the movement of the “nous,” I.e., the “soul” or “heart” of a man (the word has various translations). This movement of our inmost being need not take us away from, but rather towards our perfection. To the question, “How does something become what is best for it?” Anaxagoras answered, “By being moved.” Plato tells us that Socrates joined in with Anaxagoras’ approach, and Manoussakis summarizes Socrates’ thoughts thusly:

If then one wishes to know the cause of each thing, why it comes to be or perishes or exists, one had to find what was the best way for it, the best way for it to be, or to be acted upon, or to act.

St. Maximus the Confessor, likely quite familiar with Greek philosophy, saw as one of its problematic manifestations this fundamental disbelief in movement through the idea of “eternal return.” Anaxagoras and Socrates broke free from its clutches to an extent, but lacked a definitive goal. For St. Maximus,

rest is not simply the cessation of motion, but its intensification, so with the human will whose willful self-surrender to God’s will finds its fulfillment, a fulfillment that will never know any satiety.

The Ethics of Time, p. 90

We can heartily agree with Anaxagoras, Plato/Socrates, and St. Maximus, but only if we know where we begin and where we should go. We can only discern “movement” with a fixed point of reference. With this in mind we can tackle the two main claims above.

Sure, the move to ‘BCE’ has some precedent, but it also obviously means to alter the Christian reference point. I have no love for the French revolutionaries, but at least they perfectly understood the meaning of time. When they wanted to change society, they changed the calendar, declaring the French Revolution itself as their ‘0’. To say that some in the 17th century used the term “Common Era” fails to answer the question. The question should be–what is meant by the change? Anyone who knows anything about the history of the west knows that a movement away from a strictly Christian conception of the world began in the 17th century. Scientists like Kepler wished to set aside a Christian way of speaking so that they could engage in where their treasure truly lay–scientific research and discovery.

Secondly, no calendar can have scientific accuracy as its main concern. Every philosopher and mathematician of repute acknowledges that the ‘0’ of any system has to lay outside the system itself. Every pre-modern dating system puts their ‘0’ outside of time, or at least on the margins of time and eternity. But one cannot use the tools of the system to measure outside of the system. Every calendar, then, is at root a religious enterprise, and not strictly scientific.

So too the switch to BCE/CE involves religion more than science.

We have yet to receive an explanation as to what this new reference point means by “common” (as in “Common Era”). I can think of two possibilities:

  • It is the first salvo of a move to reorient time in another direction. Obviously, “Common” is without meaning but we will replace “Common” with what we really mean when we have got rid of Christian conceptions of time. Or,
  • The meaning of time is that it really has no meaning. There is no real past for us to be concerned about–i.e., many made arguments in favor of gay marriage by simply stating, “Hey, it’s 2015.” In other words, “We live now and this is what we want to do, so . . . your objection is . . . ?”

This second view basically assumes that what matters is getting along and not thinking about such things like a ‘0’ or the meaning of time. Best to live our lives, watch what we want on Netflix, and buy what we want on Amazon.

All well and good . . . people have fought and killed each other over the concept of ‘0’ and the meaning of time, and people with the 2nd view are not likely to do this.

But we can’t live this way for long. We have to have a point of reference.

On a podcast that serves as the impetus for this post, the host and his guest made the observation that in many non-western countries, very few people know their birthdays. This perplexes many Americans–they can’t quite conceive of such a world. They obviously have the technical capacity to know this information, but it has no importance for them. When asked, “When were you born?” they get the quizzical response, “When my mother gave birth to me.” Their concept of themselves and their place in the world has no need of such precise information.

The fact that we have a hard time imagining our world without this information (think of how often we use our birthday as a means of identifying ourselves to companies, etc.) means that we may have found our own personal ‘0’ for our lives. Perhaps this explains why no one has put up much fuss over how we perceive the past. Our shared sense of things need not matter if we surmise the world began with us.*

Dave

*Evidence that birthday party celebrations may be what we truly have in common: