Breathe In, Breathe Out

I have very fond feelings for Will Durant. His multi-volume series The Story of Civilization was an absolute lifeline for me in my early years of teaching, and reading those volumes propelled me to some wonderful primary sources. His insights were not as profound as those of his contemporary AJ Toynbee, but he wrote with a more whimsical touch.

In Durant’s The Lessons of History (co-authored by his wife Ariel) he includes as essay on the question of whether or not progress is real. In grand Thomistic fashion Durant begins by proposing a negative answer. Philosophy will never eclipse Plato, literature will not move beyond Shakespeare. Science heals but also has created new forms of death and accelerated our means to destroy each other.

But Durant then pivots, and affirms that we have progressed–not in happiness (we will always find ways to be unhappy)–but in command over the environment. Famine and other natural disasters no longer decimate millions each year, and Durant asks,

“Are we ready to scuttle the science that has so diminished superstition, obscurantism, and religious intolerance, or the technology that has spread food, home ownership, comfort, education, and leisure beyond any precedent?”

He continues and admires the expansion of education, stating that

“If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing … our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all … we have raised the level and average level of knowledge beyond any age in history.”

It is a fine argument, and as always, wonderfully written.

In 1845 Thomas Macaulay wrote eloquently in favor of the Progress narrative:

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.

We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man

But even Macaulay, amidst his rhapsody, at least gives a quick nod to the counter argument:

And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.

Most ancient historians claim that things have gotten worse, that we progress from golden ages, to silver, to bronze and iron, a descent from heaven to earth. A middle position exists that I want to explore, one that questions the main arguments of the progress and decline narratives–though obviously certain kinds of progress and decline happen–and instead focus on the idea that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and be guided by St. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise, On the Making of Man.*

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Humanity may progress in certain ways, and decline in others, but will always be limited by the circumstances of his creation. We are meant both to reflect God to world and to mediate the world to God. As such we have elements both of movement and stability in our nature. St. Gregory writes,

It may be, by a providential dispensation, so that the property of nature which constitutes its immutability and immobility might not, when viewed in any created object, cause the creature to be accounted as God; for that which may happen to move or change would cease to admit the conception of the Godhead.

Hence the earth is stable without being immutable, while the heavens, on the contrary, as it has no mutability, so has not stability either, that the Divine power, by weaving change in the stable nature and motion with that which is not subject to change, might by the interchange of attributes, at once join them both closely to each other, and make them alien from the conception of Deity.

That is, God makes us in such a way so that we can neither have the presumption to be God, but also see that we are more than the beasts. We have this duality within us, meant to exist in harmony.

St. Gregory makes many such connections between the rhythms and operations of nature and our own flourishing as human beings made by God. He comments that many creatures are larger, stronger, and faster than us, yet we have dominion over them–a seeming puzzle. He answers this disarmingly by stating that if we were to be the largest, fastest, and strongest of the creatures we would surely look rather funny–misshapen and unbalanced, “wild looking.” But as he stresses our dominion over creation, he does so again by establishing our connection with it.

. . . moreover, he would have neglected his rule over the other creatures if he had no need of the co-operation of his subjects.

St. Gregory establishes (so it seems to me) an irrevocable connection between God, man, and nature, writing elsewhere that,

The creation of man is related as coming last, as of one who took up into himself every single form of life, both that of plants and that which is seen in brutes.

So, although we are all always in a state of flux, we also have stable elements, just as creation itself is both stable and fluid. We never step into the same river twice, and yet it is still the same river. And while some may see hints of evolutionary ideas in St. Gregory’s above comment, I think that he would say that creation reflects man more so than man reflects creation.

Given this, we can ask in regards to the question of progress–can creation “progress?” Certainly dirty water can become clean, but we might call this a “return” more than an “advance.”

We should think similarly in terms of human progress.

What I mean is that what we often call progress may be simply a reflection of how we breathe. We inhale, that is:

  • We draw things into ourselves
  • We concentrate our being, we focus, or in other words,
  • We centralize our being

And we exhale, meaning

  • We disperse things from our being
  • We separate the good and bad, the proper and improper
  • We get looser physically and mentally, we de-centralize**

We shouldn’t call inhalation or exhalation progress, but we often do. So, for example, many heralded the changes we made in the area of national intelligence in the wake of 9/11. We centralized our intelligence gathering–we inhaled. Surely this was correct? But in the wake of our intelligence failure after Pearl Harbor we determined that we needed to exhale and de-centralize intelligence agencies so we could have multiple views to consider. Both seemed like exactly the right thing to do given their respective contexts, and maybe both were correct actions to take, but neither can be termed “progress,” though it may feel like it at the time. What we might instead be doing is returning to a proper balance, or recalibrating temporarily.

Of course we usually want avoid dramatic inhalation and exhalation, which we only do as humans exerting ourselves or trying to de-escalate an emotional situation. We cannot continue for long in such a state.

We can take the state of education, so lauded by Durant, among others. Democratic education “inhales” a great deal by taking in everyone it can. But this has led to a kind of hyper-concentration in education, which can only lead to more centralization and standardization. So, naturally we see the rise of importance in standardized tests, which have the effect of getting teachers to “teach to the test.” In what sense has education truly improved in the last 100 years? What we can say for sure is that it has done some things at the expense of others.

As democracies we possibly overvalue the “fluid” elements of our created selves, and trust in the free flow of people, goods, and information. The New York Times recently announced, for example, that it would “open up” its process of how it endorses presidential candidates and make it more transparent. Surely transparency is progress in any democracy? But as Alex Tabbarok pointed out, this will likely make all of the candidates far less candid than they might have otherwise been when talking with the Times. Certain stances they might have explained as a kind of horse-trading off the record they would never reveal in a more public forum. When the scale tips too far in the “fluid” direction, the natural reaction is to revert to solidity. “Progress,” so called, seems impossible in either direction–by design. The very design of creation makes utopias impossible.

Perhaps the most striking form of progress surely is the application of science to food production and the eradication of disease. We live healthier and longer than in the past. Infant mortality has decreased dramatically. Unquestionably, the argument goes, this is progress that all can champion without qualification.

This certainly strongly challenges my argument–and most every argument has its limits. Still, perhaps these significant improvements do have a hidden cost of separation from the very creation that nurtures us and with whom our identity is inextricably linked. Here, I will admit, however, that it is hard to argue against progress of this kind.

Maybe . . . certain kinds of progress are possible.

But I think the larger point still remains, one that we do well to consider as we head towards another election cycle. Some may feel that Trump has lurched us too far in one direction, so that the solution is go hard in the opposite direction. This will exhaust us quickly. Rather, as St. Gregory taught us, we need to be a nation that takes calm and measured breaths.

Dave

*I should state at the outset that I do not find St. Gregory an easy read, and I make no certain claim to interpreting him correctly, though hopefully I have at least applied his words in the right spirit.

**This process of gathering in and pushing out is reflected in almost every icon of Christ, as He blesses with His right hand (drawing in) and separates with his left (in the form of a scroll, the Book of Life, which makes distinctions between people, etc.), further testimony to this pattern at the very Head of Humanity itself.

In the Byzantine icon below, the blessing/”drawing in” motif is more explicit, as His right hand almost seems to draw one towards Him:

A more modern icon, “Christ of the Isles” (Celtic style), that abides by the traditional pattern . . .

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.

Zombie Markets in Everything

This post’s title, of course, has its origins with Tyler Cowen . . .

It seems as if we are living in a tale of two cities. It is the best and worst of times. One the one hand, the economy is great, and unemployment is way down. Public intelllectuals like Steven Pinker proclaim that, however bad things may be in certain segments of life, all the most important indicators show remarkable growth and progress, such as a sharp decline in infant mortality. Momentary trends may not always look favorable, but the arc of the last 300 years shows a continual rise in progress thanks to science and the application of reason. The complaining and angst so prevalent in the media, then, resembles that of a spoiled child. If we could all just calm down and count our blessings . . .

But others like Jordan Peterson, John Vervacke, and Jonathan Pageau state that western civilization exists by a thin thread in the midst of a deep meaning crisis–a crisis that perhaps hits men harder than women. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide have risen dramatically over the last 20 years. I think Vervacke would tell Pinker that he sees only a fragmented surface. I suppose Pinker and others like him would say such people are fundamentally deluded.

Chronologically we have mirror images from both camps. Pinker and his crowd write that starting around AD 1700, the Enlightenment took hold and over the next few centuries the world became a dramatically better place. But for those on the other side, the Enlightenment disastrously contributed to all the problems we have now in relation to meaning and knowing our place in the world (though others would go further back still, into the Renaissance).

Most would say one or the other is true, and you have to choose. Below I propose a theory that will attempt a “both-and” explanation–a highly speculative one–that will attempt to explain how the economy can grow and life can improve in various measurable ways and we can still struggle with meaning. In fact, the two may have a symbiotic relationship.

The perception of a current meaning crisis has led to the dramatic recent rise of the psychologist as guru, i.e., Jordan Peterson. John Vervacke has less fame, and popularizes less than Peterson (I do not use the term ‘popularizes’ derogatorily). His analysis goes deeper, and his co-authored book Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis gives a slightly sideways but effective analysis of modern culture. Vervacke et. al do not blame the right or the left, campus ideology, or Trumpism, for the decay. “Decay” is indeed the right word, for zombies are decomposed beings of some undefinable kind. Our modern disease has infected most all of us to some degree.

Each era has its monsters that help define its zeitgeist. As the Enlightenment settled across western Europe, and scientific materialism began to entrench itself as the dominant ideology, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, which explores the limits of man’s powers over nature. The monster in the book of course, is not the “Monster” but Dr. Frankenstein, it’s creator. A few decades later we have Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the Victorian era, the aristocracy still exists, but exists in a weird place in society given the nascent rise of democratic ideals. Everyone perhaps feels in their bones that the aristocracy no longer serve a real purpose, isolated as they are within a culture that no longer needs them. One notes that, in contrast with pre-modern Europe, in the modern age the monster is a twisted human, though perhaps still a kind of tragically grand monster. That is, at least there exists some kind of high aspiration for a Dr. Frankenstein or Count Dracula.

Vervacke argues that the zombie is the monster for the 21st century, and the graph below shows the dramatic increase of the word in the popular culture just recently, just as the Cold War ended.

Zombies have the following characteristics:

  • They move in packs, but have no connection to one another
  • They have no particular intent–they exercise no conscious will towards evil.
  • They live only to consume, and their hunger to consume cannot be satiated or even lessened.
  • Constantly on the move, they have no home base or concept of home.

In other words, they form the perfect monster for the democratic age.

The zombie personifies our crisis of meaning. The internet, globalization, etc. means we can indeed consume as we like virtually for free, but though we like to sing along, we “know not what it means.”* The market also thrives on fluidity and movement. It is best for everybody to give everybody else money, for example, rather than everybody put it under their mattress, even if that consumption has no real overall purpose or goal in mind.

So too the market of information thrives on abundance and transfer. But like zombies, we both crave and lack Mind, and so have no way to integrate our experience into a meaningful whole. Vervacke writes regarding this,

This is because the information we obtain from the world has never been more unreliable. Abundance is one dimension of the problem; one need look no further than news media to appreciate the sheer volume of (often irreconcilable) narratives.

And again,

Humans are animals who most fundamentally understand what reality is . . . by locating ourselves within larger narratives and meta narratives that we hear and tell . . . When such narratives collapse, we are lost in the dislocation, fragmentation, and disorientation of homelessness.

So far so good, but what of the other side of the coin, i.e., a strong economy, less violence worldwide, and so on? Vervacke gives us the link. If truly we are the “walking dead,” then lacking mind and the means to integrate our experience, we would naturally seek expansive consumption as a means of coping. This consumption is a byproduct of all of the intense focus on the material aspects of creation fostered in western culture during the time period Pinker cites. It indeed brought great blessings of a certain kind, but it could possibly be nearing the end of its string.

Of course all humanity throughout all time has sought some sort of solution for a lack of understanding of the self. But our typical response is indeed to consume. We are depressed, we might go shopping. We are anxious, we “stress-eat.” We are out of sorts, we might consume information by browsing Facebook or news feeds. Such actions can distract us for a time, but also creates an unsustainable cycle. It is this drive to consume that makes solving certain environmental problems so difficult for all of us, whether Green or not so Green. The “peace” of the modern world championed by Steven Pinker has in some ways brought this out of us.

In contrast [to times of war], in times of relative peace, internal issues become more focal and so the opportunity for a relative loss of social integration is greater, hence the increase in the suicide rate.

This antipathy to peace can lead to increased participation in what the authors call the “pseudo-religion” of politics. Politics gives us much that religion provides.

As politics is, by necessity of governance naturally integrative of other systems, it was a proximal replacement for [meaning]. . . . systematic complexity made [politics] a convincing imitator of that normatively as the influence of religion diminished. The 20th century, therefore, bore witness to the rise of the most potent political pseudo-religion we have known in the modern world.

We risk ending the “peace” we have then, by feeding upon our own body politic, unable to stop our consumption of so called “outrage porn.” specialized in by Twitter and news media of all kinds. We can see this process of disintegration at work since the time of the vampire as monster. First, modernism deconstructed the church, and told us that it could no longer function as a means of communal coherence. “Religion should be private.” We then expected the state could serve that purpose, and so we developed various rituals around the symbols of the idea of nationhood. By the mid-20th century, we saw the folly of that project, but no fear–we can rally around our freedom to consume. So we built malls, accurately described by James K. Smith as spaces constructed for liturgical communal consumption.** But this no longer holds either. Now, like zombies, we roam the internet to consume, with no defined space to bind us.

In the old tales, the hero slays the dragon, but Vervacke points out that our zombie stories offer little hope. The plague always seems to grow, and those that survive will be continuously on the run. Rebuilding something new in these scenarios becomes extremely difficult. Patrick Deneen, for example, has a persuasive critique of the whole modern enterprise in Why Liberalism Failed. He blames progressives and conservatives nearly equally but offers no alternative political reality to which we can aspire. Slightly more hopeful is Rod Dreher, whose The Benedict Option, while giving no grand solution, at least points us towards embodied liturgical relationships with others as a good beginning.

With a quick search I found one place in our culture where a cure for zombies is possible: Minecraft. I find it charming that such a thing exists within this relatively benign (I dislike video games) world building enterprise, and that even many teens still play this game. It is interesting to see how they use traditional archetypes for this cure. Among other things needed to cure local villagers from being a zombie is dragon’s breath. In other words, the monster may be the only hope for the monster. Jonathan Pageau has often talked about how once a culture reaches the outer limits of the fringe, it takes just a small tap for everything to come right round again. The clown, or the fool, or perhaps even the monster is needed to make things right. It may be that if we are indeed in such a dark place, dawn is not far behind.

Dave

*Those my age, or fans of the music of early 90’s music, will recognize the Nirvana reference. In retrospect grunge music might be seen as a harbinger of the meaning crisis. How is it that right after winning the Cold War, when we should have celebrated and entered something of a golden age, we plunged ourselves into music that fundamentally celebrated alienation?

**We need not absolutely throw the baby out with the bathwater. National symbols and national identity can do us good. Market exchanges often benefit both parties. The problem is putting a weight on such things that they cannot bear. The only way they can bear the load of culture for long is to give them a kind of steroid. Of course one recalls the specter of the early 20th century regarding the problems of nationality. I also remember post-9/11 how we were all encouraged to keep spending so the terrorists would not win. It can work for a while, but the body gives out eventually.

Democratic Personalities and Democratic Laws

I posted originally some years ago, and repost it now in conjunction with our senior Government class and, obviously, the recent impeachment.

The original post is below . . .

******************

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 fair to say that in 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.

Time vs. Space Redux

Whether the conversations be thoughtful or awkward, Thanksgiving seems to be a time to think about the times we live in with our families. About a month ago I tried to think about our culture in deeper terms than merely red state vs. blue state, taxes, immigration, and so on. I think what’s plaguing us runs deeper (I base what follows on my previous post on this topic, which is here), though what follows should be seen as a thought experiment more so than anything definitive.

In that previous post I suggested that what might be “proper” tension between Time and Space could vary depending on the culture. So Egypt leaned heavily toward Space, Babylon towards Time, but both civilizations could be considered “great” in different ways. I have only scratched their respective surfaces, but if one reads their mythology and folklore I think we see that they both had some awareness of this necessary tension. My point previously was that we lack even this basic awareness and need to recast our thinking in order to understand our culture more fully.

The problem is not that we contain contradictions within ourselves. We overpraise consistency in most cases. We need the fluidity of Time and the stability of Space in some measure–a society built 100% on either reality would be both an absurdity and an impossibility. One can be 2-1 in favor of space, or 3-2 in favor of time. I think that our issue is, rather, that our different political sides embrace 100% of both without even realizing it. Our political choices then, border on the non-sensical and thus can only go into more subconscious symbolic realms.*

On the Left Time/Fluidity Scale:

  • Open borders–which makes the capital and labor maximally fluid
  • LGBT agendas (which often involve the erosion of the “fixed” state of nature and biology)
  • Maximal “Equality” for men/women (which includes strong pro-choice stances–“safe, legal, and rare” won’t cut it any more), which flatten out distinctions and traditions.

On the Right Time/Fluidity Scale:

  • Free market and free trade (few forces are more destabilizing to tradition, be it good or bad, then the free market, so though I apologize that I can only think of one example for the right, it is a really big one:).

On the Left Space/Stability Scale:

  • Higher minimum wage laws, which restricts the flow of free labor, along with a penchant for corporate regulation.
  • Safe spaces and tight restrictions on what can be said so that the “communal identity” might be preserved

On the Right Space/Stability Scale:

  • Build a wall, protect our borders
  • I don’t see a strident nationalism in the U.S. as a huge problem, but if it came it would certainly come from the right

Again, it is one thing to hold positions in some kind of balance, it is another to hold them maximally in different areas without even being aware of the contradictions.

Once we see that our differences run into mutually contradictory realms, we naturally look for who or what to blame for our predicament. Some say the iPhone, the internet, the 2008 stock market crash, identity politics, the War in Iraq, Newt Gingrich, and so on. But I think we have to go further back. If there is any consolation for us, I don’t think millennials, Get-X’ers, or Boomers started all this.

Perhaps we can begin with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment valued (at least at the beginning) common things for common people. That era valued self-control of body and emotions. So far they lean heavily on the side of Stability/Space. But at the same time they gave strong preference to syllogistic reason, the province of the mind and the elite. Jefferson, Rousseau and others also propounded the most universal ideas (which have no boundaries) in the modern era–“all men are created equal,” and “the rights of man,” from the French Revolution, and so on. It is no wonder that the French Revolution swung so wildly so quickly.

Then we have the Romantic era. On the one hand, they praised emotion which put them heavily on the side of Time/Fluidity. But at the same time the Romantic movement gave birth to the modern recovery of folklore, fairy tales, and a kind of ethno-nationalism seen in Wagner, among others, all of which strongly favor Space/Stability.

The dramatic tension in the Romantic movement has a touchstone example in England’s empire. They spread throughout the globe (Time) but also sought to bring England’s culture (Space) everywhere they went. Such tension might very well produce something of a “schism in the soul” that Toynbee often wrote about.

In W.W. II both of the major Axis powers (Germany and Japan) sought to mimic the British in far, far more hideous ways.

  • Both Germany and Japan were strong ethno-nationalist states, yet both sought a significant increase of their territorial reach.
  • Both had strongly hierarchical views of authority (Space), but their military strategies strongly favored continual motion and speed (observe how Hitler took the traditional swastika image and pivoted it to give the impression of continuous forward motion. The problem being, of course, is that the swastika shape cannot “move.” It could not spin or roll forward. Thus, the inherent contradictions of Nazism were present right within its foremost symbol).
  • I believe that both countries perhaps subconsciously pursued impossible objectives that could only end in cataclysmic defeat–the kind of destruction that can come only with a violent clash of two opposing forces (I write a bit about this here).

In our own land we have struggled with the same dichotomies. Our blended form of government gets somewhat near a political balance of Time & Space. But in truth, we have no truly conservative tradition outside of democracy to call upon, which can lead to excess fluidity of the liberal democratic tradition. We have a strong sense of land (stability) being tied to liberty (fluidity) inherited from Aristotle, Locke, et al. but showed an outsized and continuous desire for more and more land–a quasi schizophrenia between Time and Space. Every political theorist on democracy thought that for it to work it needed contained in a small space–“stability” to balance out the “fluidity” of liberty. We said “no thanks” to that and immediately upon getting our independence, we began rapidly expanding our territory, believing that perhaps everyone else was wrong about this political calculus.

Possibly this can give us some perspective on the current Time/Space war in our culture. If it feels like it is accelerating, it may be because we are entering another election cycle, or perhaps it is the pace of life which our ubiquitous “time-saving” technologies push us towards. But I think too that both political parties contribute to this by jumping into the mosh-pit.

On the ACLU Twitter homepage their banner reads, “Fight for the Country We Want to Live In.” I don’t wish to pick on the ACLU per se–my point likely could have been made with other organizations, though I do fear that they too are becoming overly politicized. The country we “want” to live in? The country I want to live in is an impossible pipe-dream of my own personal fancies.** No one should want me to fight for the country I want to live in. The country I need involves something much more sane–a balance between Time and Space, and left and right. That perhaps, is worth a fight.

Dave

A postscript from the recent British election which may show us how to reduce the tension between Time and Space:

He has done what no other conservative leader in the West has done: He has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. The reactionary Brexit Party has all but collapsed since Boris took over. Anti-immigration fervor has calmed. The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social center under Johnson’s leadership. And there is a strategy to this. What Cummings and Johnson believe is that the E.U., far from being an engine for liberal progress, has, through its overreach and hubris, actually become a major cause of the rise of the far right across the Continent. By forcing many very different countries into one increasingly powerful Eurocratic rubric, the E.U. has spawned a nationalist reaction. From Germany and France to Hungary and Poland, the hardest right is gaining. Getting out of the E.U. is, Johnson and Cummings argue, a way to counter and disarm this nationalism and to transform it into a more benign patriotism. Only the Johnson Tories have grasped this, and the Johnson strategy is one every other major democracy should examine.

*By this I mean that we will make our political choices more from our gut and less from our head. This will likely give an advantage to Trump, who seems quite comfortable governing from his gut impulses.

**Growing up I swore that if I ever became King of the U.S.A., I would first and foremost make it illegal for bands to release a “Greatest Hits” album with one new song on it. The internet has fortunately solved this for me, but in so doing it did take away what was to be a major plank in my policy platform.

Time vs. Space

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.

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

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.