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:

The Marriage of Handwriting and Architecture

It did not take me long to get miffed by Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve.  Almost right away  he commits two cardinal sins in my book when discussing the Medieval period.
  • He brings up all the worst aspects of the Medieval period without any of its virtues, and
  • He asserts that the discovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is one of the main causes for the “swerve” from the Medieval to the Modern world.  He does not assert this absolutely, but hedging all on one manuscript still seemed too reductionistic to me.

But Greenblat’s charm and narrative style kept me going.  In the end, I didn’t read the whole thing and skimmed some sections, but one thing in particular struck me forcefully — how handwriting can be a reflection of the personality of a society.

‘Gothic’ script dominated the ‘Gothic’ era, and it can be contrasted with the Carolingian script revived by many Renaissance scribes:

Petrarch complained that Gothic script, “had been designed for something other than reading,” and he was not whining, but speaking the truth.

Gothic Script

The height and cramped fashion of letters makes it difficult to read, and may subconsciously have been designed to be “seen and not heard.”  When we remember that very few could read, and that books were meant to educate visually just as much as textually, the Gothic “font” makes more sense.

Gothic Manuscript

Here are examples of the Carolingian script fashionable during the Renaissance:

Perhaps pro-Renaissance scholars do not exaggerate the real shift that took place as far as education is concerned.  Perhaps this shift in handwriting style helped pave the way for the printing press itself.

If the “font’s” a society uses reflect something of its larger worldview, we would expect to see this expressed in other aspects of their culture.  Gothic architecture mirrors gothic script in uncanny script in uncanny ways, with the “bunched up” nature of its space.

Flying Buttresses

True, the high ceilings of these cathedrals did give a sense of space, but it was space that meant to overpower you, a weight and bulk of a different kind.  The stained glass windows again reveal the same thing as the buttresses — the “cramming” full of space with color.

In the Renaissance we see something else entirely, a more “human” scale in architecture, and a greater sense of space.

The Pazzi Chapel

Michelangelo, the Medici Chapel

So apparently, handwriting can be an expression of a culture’s personality just as architecture can, which should not have surprised me.

When I realized that the Renaissance basically just revived Carolingian script, this gave new significance to the Carolingian Renaissance itself under Charlemagne six centuries earlier.  Those that invented the style and not merely copied it should get greater credit.  Some scholars dismiss the “Carolingian Renaissance,” as small potatoes, but the script they used showed an interest in reading, which sheds new light on the work of Nottker and Einhard.  So, what about architecture under Charlemagne — will it show that same sense of space?  Naturally we must consider Aachen Cathedral, the central building of Charlemagne’s realm:

Aachen Cathedral, Exterior

Aachener_dom_oktagon

Well, it appears that we have a mixed verdict.  It is part Gothic, part Byzantine, and part something all its own.  Will I allow this to overthrow my theory of seeing links between handwriting and architecture? Perish the thought!  I can always say that Charlemagne’s time had so much going on that they had no time to be particularly self-aware of these choices, in contrast to both the Gothic and Renaissance periods.

Does America’s utter lack of defining architectural identity have anything to do with our confusion about teaching handwriting?

Blessings,

Dave

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

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

And now, the original review. . .

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

First, the weaknesses:

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

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

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

His argument runs like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Effects:

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

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

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

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

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

What lessons can be learned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Internet of Things

Nature is not always “natural.” We “naturally” recognize a standard above nature. For example, nuclear weapons are made from the very stuff of nature (atoms, etc.) but strike as distinctly unnatural in their effect. We understand that technology in warfare has progressed over time. We can process at least some of these changes as a kind of natural progression of what has always been. So, a rifle is akin to a bow and arrow, artillery has its origins in the catapult, and so on. But nuclear weapons turns nature itself against us. Watching nuclear weapons detonate can transfix us with a kind of horrifying beauty. We know that we have encountered something on a different plane . . .

Historians and others have many explanations for our current cultural moment, and I will try my hand in what follows.

I recently heard a priest online state that, “We are still fighting World War I.” Obviously he wasn’t referring to the physical fighting, or the geopolitical situation. Germany, England and France are friends now, more or less. I suspect that he meant that we still fight the war in cultural or religious sense, that we have not understood or solved the central question of the war, which I think runs like so:

How is it that a culture brimming with confidence and optimism (in general), possessing an overwhelming share of global GDP, and controlling in a direct or indirect way perhaps as much as 50% of the globe, throw it all away in a mind-numbingly horrific 30 stretch (1914-45)? Again, while western civilization ca. 1900 had real flaws, we can envy their confident, secure identity and purpose. We have never as a culture come to terms with why western civilization tumbled down the hill, and we still have not learned the basic lessons that period can teach us.

In the biblical narrative, mankind begins by living in Eden, a garden on a mountain. After their exile from Eden, they come down from the mountain, closer, in a sense, to Earth, farther from communion with God. Immediately, Cain’s descendents go further into the earth, using what dig up to build cities and other implements of iron (Gen. 4:22). With this knowledge they tame animals. They gain the power to manipulate nature. But this power makes them uneasy and thin-skinned. It brings them no security–in fact, one could argue that Lamech’s speech (Gen. 4:23-24) comes either from fear, hubris, or both. The Scriptural pattern then is*

Increase of Power=Increase of Vulnerability=Violence, Destabilization, and Dislocation

This sense of “dislocation” struck Cain with full force just after demonstrating his possession of power over the life of his brother (Gen. 4:14).

Of course western civilization has significantly increased its power by using raw materials of the earth in the Industrial Revolution. Our physical power increased exponentially, but not via new machines only. We should also see the preceding political movements towards more democracy as a movement “down the mountain.” Monarchy is a “top of the mountain” form of governance. It concentrates identity into a single point. This concentration, however, limits possibility and potential, which in turn limits power. Moving “down the mountain” gives more possibilities, more “weight,” to political actions (the bottom of the mountain is obviously heavier than the top). Thus, we can see our Constitution as a kind of technological development, one that increased our power vis a vis the rest of the world. If the pattern holds, it should have also made us more “touchy” and prone to violence.

Most shake their heads in disbelief when they see what triggered W.W. I. The various chains of causation–the German navy, Russian interest in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary’s weakness, etc. have a logic to them. But I wouldn’t buy any argument that said that all this was worth war. It seems to me that we see every major power an with advanced case of touchiness and paranoia, a grave sense of insecurity. World War I has a parallel in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. By 431 B.C. Athens had grown wealthy and extended its territorial reach throughout the Aegean Sea. But rather than have all of this make them more secure, it seemed to open them up to great fear about it being taken away. As with Lamech and Germany, Athens went to war in the end over the Sparta’s reaction to the Megaran decree–an insult only in the barest sense of the word. To those that say, “If it wasn’t the Megaran decree it would have been something else,” I agree. But this proves my point. Touchy people will get mad at just about anything.

If the Industrial Revolution represented a movement down the mountain to what lies underneath it, so nuclear weapons means traveling even further down into the physical structure of matter itself. What could be more “natural?” This of course granted us enormous destructive power. But surely, it is not natural that handful of people scattered throughout the world should have the ability wipe out billions of people in under 30 minutes. Wielding a knife gives one power, but it is very difficult to accidentally hurt or kill someone else with a knife. A gun gives more power, and hence, it is easier to accidentally–or intentionally–kill someone with a gun.

With nuclear weapons, a small accident, malfunction, or misunderstanding–let alone an actual act of malice–could kill millions.

We need not restrict our purview to weapons only. Cars, for example, give us great power to move quickly. But to enable this, we had to construct roads, a massive traffic apparatus, etc. that leaves us vulnerable to serious injury and death. We could drive well, and our car could work perfectly. But many things are outside of our control. If someone else makes a mistake, or if someone’s else truck blows a tire, it could endanger us easily.

Other digital technology, such as the internet, continues our journey down the mountain. We can manipulate atoms now to vastly increase our communicative ability. We can gain information from anywhere, know anything from any time, and so on. We all know the satisfaction that comes from shopping online, watching a funny youtube, and so on. But virtually every commentator on our current cultural situation acknowledges that internet often hurts more than it helps. With Twitter perhaps especially, we experience the destabilization that comes with chaos. Twitter gives us a sea of information with no editing, structure, or system to guide us. We talk of the “Internet of Things” as it relates to connecting our appliances and other tools to the worldwide web. The moniker is ironic–what the internet gives us is a plethora of “things” with no coherence.

If we mistrust each other it is not because of our weakness but because of the outsized power we possess. At the top of the mountain we can orient ourselves, we can locate ourselves vis a vis our surroundings. At the bottom, however, we have only multiplicity and no unity. This in turn has led to an acute sense of dislocation, which in turn feeds a tendency towards all the wrong kinds of identity, as we have seen recently.**

Fixing western civilization–we all want to see the day, in theory at least. But coming to a solution will mean lightening our load to climb back up the mountain.

Dave

*We see this not just in Genesis 4. The Tower of Babel could be another example of Increase of Power=Dislocation–quite literally in that case. In 1 Samuel 24, King David takes a census, something for which he is punished. It seems incomprehensible to us that taking a census should be a sin. Yet, in the narrative even the amoral Abner warns David against taking this action. If we see the pattern, a census increases ones knowledge of “particulars” dramatically. It is a journey “down the mountain” that makes David quite vulnerable. Abner’s reaction should clue us into the innate understanding they had of this pattern, the danger of David “trying to throw his arms around the world.”

It should not surprise us, then, to see a repeat of this pattern as the New Testament begins. It is not a coincidence that the birth of Christ, the King who would in time destroy the Roman Empire, is preceded by a census (Luke 2).

**In terms of sexual identity, we no longer seek even to mine the minutiae of nature. Instead we wish to transcend it all together. We have accumulated such power over nature that we feel we can discard it at our leisure. Obviously there is a link here between our current sexual identities and our environmental issues. Here exists a possible link-up between social conservatives and environmentalists.

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 . . .

World War II, Japan’s Peloponnesian War

Any student of classical history must admire the incredible flourishing of 5th century Periclean Athens.   From the years 480-430 B.C. we see the birth/enormous growth of drama, architecture, sculpture, politics, etc., etc. Kenneth Clark called this period one of the four or five great eras in human history, and few would dispute this.

Historians also always point out how the unexpected victory of the Greeks in the Persian Wars between 490-479 B.C. propelled them into this golden age.  The victory gave them an unexpected burst of confidence and a validation of their identity.  I have not read anyone who has not made this connection, for it seems obvious.  More than this, we can see that golden ages in other civilizations have origins in similar bouts of resistance against an apparently stronger foe.  So, the Florentines resist the French in the early 15th century, and the English defeat Spain’s Armada in 1588 (not long after we get Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, etc.), and the Dutch defeat the Spanish in the early 17th century, after which we get Rembrandt.

The epilogue to this glory comes with the Peloponnesian War, where Athens flushes away this incredible storehouse of achievement in a messy and long conflict with its rival Sparta.  Athens loses and the golden age ends, but . . . all good things must end, the wheel of fortune spins, and no one doubts the salutary effect of their victory in the Persian Wars.

Recently I have read a slight amount of Japanese history and I wondered about certain possible parallels.  The Russo-Japanese War had all the makings of an equivalent to Greece’s triumph against Persia.  With Japan, we see a ‘rising star’ defeat a much larger power in Russia that everyone expected to win.  Like Greece, the Dutch, the English, etc. the Japanese also were a rising naval power.  Like the Greeks, the Japanese experienced a surge of confidence which led them into a disastrous conflict between 1937-45.  Yet I have yet to read anyone who makes this connection.

Add to this, certain historical conditions for the emergence of a golden age in Japan existed in addition to their underdog victory over Russia.

  • Their naval power gave them a chance to come in contact with other civilization to experience a cultural fusion, (like the Dutch and the English), and
  • A cultural fusion of sorts already existed in their country, with a revival of traditional Japanese culture combined with the western industrial influence.

In response to this at least partial connection, a few thoughts arise:

  1. Though the classic conditions for a golden age in Japan existed, they did not experience a golden age for various possible reasons (most seem to think that Japan’s golden age existed in the Edo Era (1605-1868).
  2. Maybe they did experience a golden age, or at least a silver age, of cultural achievement but we in the west don’t recognize it as easily.
  3. Perhaps neither the Japanese or the Greeks experienced a golden age after their unexpected victories! Perhaps the appearance of a golden age in Greece in the 5th century B.C. is simply a sham propagated by generations of uncritical historians!
  4. Perhaps unexpected military victories are in fact not the necessary spark that ignites a golden age.  Perhaps instead they serve as impediments.

Numbers 1-2 both could be possible, but both lie beyond my abilities to discern.  Alas, though I love the exhilarating death or glory dash of number 3, we must conclude that yes, at least Athens experienced a golden age in 5th century B.C.   We shall have no slaying of dragons today.

Sigh.

But I am intrigued by #4.

Let us revisit the “Golden Ages” I listed above with a fresh eye.

After Dutch independence from Spain we did get Rembrandt and certain pleasant, if unremarkable architectural style.  But the other byproducts of this victory appear more prosaic, such as the first corporation and the first stock exchange.  Of course Shakespeare has few if any equals, but might we see a more sustained English cultural flowering from the late 18th-mid 19th century with Turner, Dickens, etc.?*

Furthermore, we see that some of the greatest and most profound cultural landmarks have come in the midst of defeat or decline.  St. Augustine writes The City of God after the fall of Rome.  Plato and Aristotle pen their penetrating insights after the Peloponnesian War.  Homer’s tales come to us in the midst of the Greek Dark Ages.  The Byzantines may have done their best art just decades before their fall to the Turks.  The golden age of Russian literature came in the final years of the Romanov’s.**

We should also surmise, did civilizations experience a golden age without the assumed prerequisite of unexpected military victory?

Florence’s true golden age may have had nothing to do with the French in the 15th century and more to do with double-entry bookkeeping developed far earlier for medieval fairs.  This skill put them in demand throughout Europe.  The increased revenue and attention led to a burst of innovative construction way back in the 11th century.  This lacks the pizazz of defeating the Persians, but may have been more effective.

Northern Europe experienced one of the great golden ages in history during the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  Here we had a revival of individual scholarship but also the invention of Gothic architecture.  One could argue that this had something to do with the Crusades, but not necessarily a direct military victory that impacted local communities.  I agree with Kenneth Clark, who argues that this particular cultural boom had more to do with movement in general (even for double-entry bookkeeping) than the Crusades which took place so far away, and from which no news would be had for years at a time.

Maybe a military victory such as Athens and Japan experienced might serve as a dangerous stimulant.  Both victories did not contribute to golden ages, but both contributed certainly to overconfidence and expansion.  In the case of Athens they turned the Delian League and the Aegean Sea into an Empire, which certainly contributed to their demise as a result of the Peloponnesian War.  As for Japan, their triumph over Russia may have spurred on efforts to turn much of Asia into their backyard.^  Historian Niall Ferguson I believe argues that Japanese expansion had more to do with the origins of W.W. II than Germany’s expansion.

The Russo-Japanese War may have been akin for Japan to the Persian Wars for Greece.  But if so, perhaps World War II served as their own version of Greece’s disastrous Peloponnesian War.

Dave

*One could argue that this happened after England’s triumph in the Napoleonic Wars, however.

**A possible answer to this might be the civilizations do their best work amidst heady and confident days–things like great architectural works, whereas individuals have their most penetrating insights only in the midst of suffering.

^We think of W.W. II as a global war, but we can see Japan mainly trying to establish dominance over other Asians.  The Greek city-states had a relatively common religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage (with certain distinct differences), just as perhaps did Japan, Korea, China, Manchuria, etc.

 

Democracies and their Special Forces

Field Marshal Viscount Slim memoir Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India is generally regarded as one the finest, if not the finest military memoir.  Having read it (and not having read many others) I won’t dispute the claim.  I often have a hard time with books written by ex-officers, who I find usually bog down in details.  I also, to be fair, have a hard time with spatial relations and without solid maps right in front of me I often get lost.

Slim’s writing bears some marks of what usually gives me trouble with books like this.  What distinguishes this book is his sense of style and humor.  He shares many anecdotes that paint himself a bit poorly.  He shares honest introspection about his actions without getting too much inside his own head.  When he asserts opinions of people he likes or dislikes he admits that others have different opinions.  Finally, he seemed interested in the campaign as a whole, more so than his role in it.

One of his slightly controversial opinions involved Orde Wingate.  Wingate was just the sort of commander that would appeal to Churchill.  Like Churchill he loved the knight-errant approach to war, and so the Chindits, or special forces, of the Burma campaign, gave Wingate a chance to sally forth boldly behind enemy lines.  The direct military effectiveness of his operations seemed limited, though even Slim admits that he boosted morale through the exploits of his men in the aftermath of a complete defeat inflicted by Japan.

Slim’s concluding comments interested me most about this aspect of the Burma campaign.  He thought that England’s reliance on special forces, and the mythology surrounding special forces, did not serve an overall good purpose.  He mentions the variety of special forces the British used (i.e. mountain divisions, amphibious divisions, long-range penetration divisions, and so on).  He acknowledged that some showed great examples of courage but writes,

Yet I came firmly to the conclusion that such [special forces] . . . were wasteful.  They did not give, militarily, a worth-while return the resources in men, material, and time they absorbed.

To begin with, they were usually formed by attracting the best men from the normal units by better conditions, promises of excitement, and not a little propaganda.   . . . The result of these methods was to undoubtedly to lower the quality of the rest of the army, not only by drawing off the cream from it, but by encouraging the idea that certain of the normal operations of war were so difficult that only specially equipped elite corp could undertake them.  Anything, whatever short-cuts to victory it may promise, which thus weakens the army spirit is dangerous.

. . . The level of initiative, training, and weapon skill required in a commando is admirable; what is not admirable is that it should be confined to a few small units.  Any well-trained infantry battalion should be able to do what any commando can do . . .   This cult of special forces is as sensible as to form a Royal Corp of Tree Climbers and say that no soldier who does not wear its green hat with a bunch of oak leaves stuck in it should be allowed to climb a tree.

Slim retracts a wee bit of this statement when he acknowledges that certain special units devoted to intelligence and sabotage, which fall outside the duties of standard training for  a soldier, but reiterates his main point when he stresses that the multiplication of special forces in Burma made unified command difficult to attain.

Our current war on terrorism presents many political and military challenges.  We have responded in part by significantly increasing the prominence of our special forces, both in budgets, deployments, and perhaps also in a surrounding “mythos” about them.  Like Slim, I am grateful for their courage and dedication.  Perhaps unlike him, I am not willing to apply his thoughts wholesale to our current situation just yet.  We face different sorts of military challenges now as opposed to W.W. II.  But we should not assume that we can do whatever we like militarily without it  having consequences on our values and political practices.   We should at least ask whether or not the increase of special forces may distance the military from the general public, or whether or not the military will be for “the common man” in the near future.

Special Forces demand, among other things, a great deal more secrecy, something else Slim abhorred.  Along with drones, they can be used with less public notice and oversight.  Democracies do not thrive with a populace disconnected from its government.  Is there a parallel between the increase of special forces use and the recent NSA scandals?  In other words, a military disconnected from a general democratic population may work (even unconsciously) to undermine the political application of democratic values.

Other wars have brought about shifts in our country’s values, sometimes for the better.  Maybe this current war will lead us into a better place as well.  Whatever the case, we cannot escape some kind of social and political change if we continue to fight in almost exclusively in a clandestine manner, and these changes will likely alter how we practice democracy at home.

Carnival Time

One of my favorite of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries is “The Guru of Go,” about Loyola Marymount University’s run-and-gun style of basketball.  Those who follow college basketball today know that scores routinely end up in the 60’s, but LMU routinely scored in the 90’s and had many games of over 100 points or more.  Their command over their own style of play “forced” other teams to try and keep up.  But . . . even when teams could stick with Loyola Marymount  in the short-term, the fact that they got caught up in the fast pace meant that they played on enemy territory.  Inevitably, the pace would wear down opponents and Loyola would shoot ahead, leaving their opponents wheezing on the bench.

Most every Christian in the west of an orthodox (small “o”) bent acknowledges that the so-called culture war is over and has been for some time.  We lost.  This might surprise someone transported from, say, the 1980’s when it appeared that “victory” was at hand, with the ascendancy of the moral majority and political conservatism firmly entrenched.  Now looking back we see that marshaling coalitions and votes for laws and Supreme Court justices only meant playing on enemy territory.  Rather, the “City of God” cannot arise using the tools of the “City of Man.”  Like Loyola’s opponents, we got enticed into playing a game ill suited to us–a secular game on secular turf.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age will likely prove too deep and dense for me to glean much from.  He writes in a conversational style but with deep concepts and many variations of thought.  One needs a great deal of focus to follow him.  But I felt, perhaps rashly, that the whole of his thesis made sense when he discussed . . .

medieval carnivals.

Medieval carnivals took some different forms in different times and places.  Some days merely involved eating and drinking too much, such as “Fat Tuesday.”  Some had more complexity/absurdity, such as the “Lord of Misrule,” which happened around Christmastide.  In this space of time a sub-deacon or even a peasant might get appointed as chief of festivities, which obviously involved eating and drinking, among other things.   Other such similar days had dukes serve as peasants and peasants occupy manorial houses, and so on.  So in the carnival emblem to the side, all of creation seems reversed, as the hare triumphantly rides the hunting hound.

Most commentators point out that such festivals allowed people to let off steam, especially necessary in a structured and hierarchical society such as medieval Europe.  Even some contemporary clerics acknowledge this role for the carnival.  But this forms only the baseline for understanding the role of the carnival.  The emblem of the hare and hounds attest to something grander at work.

Those committed to Christianity know that it provides a means to understand all of experience, not just life after death.  Much of our Christian life involves holding things in tension.  So we believe that God is one God in three persons, neither favoring the unity or the plurality, but going “straight ahead.”  Jesus is fully God and fully man, “without confusion,” as stated by the Council of Chalcedon.  The Church hymns the Virgin Mary as the “unwedded bride.”  For the Mother of God both terms truly apply, without confusion.  Scripture is the Word of God, written by particular men at particular times, and so on it goes.  Christians rightly recognized the Incarnation as the focal point of human experience, for in the coming of Christ creation gets remade and reborn, as John attests in his Gospel by obviously referencing Genesis 1.  After the Incarnation we live in a new world, but in many ways outwardly it exactly resembles the old world.

In the world B.C.*, people saw childlessness as a curse.  Of course children are a blessing in a physical, natural sense, but at a deeper level we were meant to perpetuate the continuing natural order as a means of bringing about the coming of Messiah.  No children meant no participation in redemption.

In the kingdom to come, however, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage.  Thus, we honor monastics.  At the baseline, we honor them for their sacrifice.  But their vows of poverty and chastity mean that they do not live in ordinary time. Their lives transcend the ordinary needs of the world with its buying, selling, and saving, and also reflects the reality of the new creation wrought by Christ. They live partially in eternal time, which contains all time.  They “neither marry, or are given in marriage,” and of course in the heavenly kingdom no one needs money.**  Monastics may or may not live exemplary lives, but the fact of their “station in life” puts them closer to eternal time than laity and even priests, who must concern themselves with affairs in the world.

In his essay Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper makes that case that the only way to escape the cycle of work is to receive breaks in time from without.  Even vacations, he points out, cannot be “leisure” if we view them strictly as breaks from work.  Modern views of labor probably originated with Marx and his followers, and certainly we should sympathize with the “proletariat,” if we wish to use the term.  But as Pieper wryly remarks, “Proletarianism cannot obviously be overcome by making everyone proletarian.”

Ordinary time may be strictly linear, but not “eternal time.”  Eternal time contains all moments.  We the laity, despite our ordinary and natural station, can still at times participate in eternal time.  Taking the crucifixion as an example, Taylor writes,

Meanwhile the Church, in its liturgical year, remembers and re-enacts what happened . . . [at Christ’s crucifixion].  Which is why this year’s Good Friday can be closer to the Crucifixion than last year’s mid-summer’s day.  And the Crucifixion itself, since Christ’s passion here participates in God’s eternity, is closer to all times than they in secular terms are to each other.

Put in other terms, on this view tracts of secular time were not homogenous and interchangeable.  They were [differentiated] by their placing in relation to higher time.

Medieval carnivals did not participate in sacred time, but they did recognize the duality.  By breaking down the natural order of ordinary time, they testified to the reality of sacred eternity, where a completely new order will forever take hold of the cosmos.  Thus, the breaking down of the order gives it new life, the secular/ordinary order gets reborn freshly after each carnival.  It makes perfect sense that the “Lord of Misrule” would “reign” during Christmastide, for this time on calendar celebrated the breaking in of the eternal into temporal via the Incarnation.  “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while He is with them (Mk. 2:19)?”

Carnivals did not protest against the prevailing order so much as re-affirm it.  Recognizing its temporary and inferior status was the only way it could be reaffirmed, the only way order could perpetuate.

We remember Henry VIII for his many marriages, but it makes perfect sense that an absolutist like Henry would also abolish the days of misrule at Christmastide.  This too accompanies his seizure of monastic lands.  The monastic vocation and the carnival testify to this tension in time, and to the transitory nature of the state.  No statist like Henry likes such things.  Worlds other than those they made frighten and confuse them.

We see too that whatever its intentions, by abolishing liturgies and the church calendar, the Reformation paved the way for secularization.  Bit by bit Protestant denominations moved away from the “sacred time” of the church calendar year. Taylor cites Walter Benjamin’s description of “homogenous and empty time” as the mark of modern consciousness.  “On this view,” Taylor writes, “time [has no meaning in itself] but is like a container, indifferent to what fills it.  Without “eternal liturgics,” and without a sense of time as a gift to mold and shape us, all that is left is for us to fill time with meaning.  And so we have, and created the secular state thereby.

This secular victory is quite empty, however. The homogenization of time makes everything sterile.  Nothing can have real meaning.  Without fasting, our materialistic civilization cannot even feast.  With the homogenization of time comes the homogenization of space–including space for worship.  With no delineation of either time and space, it’s no wonder that, to riff on Milton Friedman, “we’re all secular now.”

We see this view of the homogeneity and plasticity of time permeate our society. Take Fridays for example.  Back in ye olden days Fridays for everyone involved fasting of some kind, for each Friday participated in some way in the Crucifixion–not just in memory, but in reality.  After abandoning the dual sense of time described above we instead oriented time around our work/school week.  Now Friday has taken on the opposite role in our secular liturgy as a day of release, fun, and celebration.  Imagine a family trying to establish something of the older sense of Fridays, and the enormous accompanying societal/liturgical pressure to go out and have fun with friends from work or school facing them square in the face.

“Resistance is futile.”

Of course, this same story has been played out in so many other areas. Without Advent we get Black Friday.  Without Paschaltide we get “Spring Breakers.”

In a recent conversation with Hank Hannegraaf Rod Drehrer recounted his meeting with a group of evangelical pastors near the election.  While Drehrer understood why one might vote for Trump “in sorrow,” as an alternative to Clinton, he admitted an utter incredulity in seeing some pastors positively enthused about Trump.  The response from another evangelical who shared his lament was, “You have to understand, they have no Plan B.  Politics is the only way they can conceive of changing the world.”^

The statism of Henry VIII–and others– has born disastrous fruit.

Many on the more secular left might lament Trump’s election and see it as proof that the “war has yet to be won,” or something like that.  They can relax and break out the cigars.  The war was won long ago, the rest has been mopping-up operations here and there.

I find it hard to tell if Taylor laments or merely describes the shift towards secularism.  He does state that at most all those who hope for a return can do is indulge in nostalgia.  I agree that the tide ran out long ago, but I have more hope.  A proper and effective response will first recognize that turning the battleship will take generations of small faithfulness in our lives and homes.  We should begin with a developing a new sense of time.

Dave

Written (originally in 2018) on the Feast of the Chains of St. Peter, and the Commemoration of St. Paul the Apostle

*The attempt to replace B.C./A.D. with BCE/CE may only be meant as a sop to political correctness or inclusivity.  No doubt people mean well.  But still, the switch is at root an attempt to remake our understanding of time.  Though I lament this shift, it is in many ways long overdue, as we no longer order our lives around the impact of the Incarnation.  It took the French just four years of Revolution to switch their calendar.  It will take us much longer, because we have nothing to replace it with.  We lack the bold audacity of the French, which is a good thing, considering that tens of thousands died in the French Revolution and millions died in the Napoleonic wars.

**Visitors to the monasteries on Mount Athos notice that two different clocks are used in many of the monasteries.  One, the familiar ordinary/secular time, the other clocks measure the now nearly extinct “Byzantine” time (Byzantine clock seen bel0w) to reflect this dual reality.

^So too the French Revolutionaries, which explains the failure of their festivals.  They sought to ape medieval carnivals, but key differences persisted:

  • They were attempting to construct a new order, not deconstruct an existing order.
  • Thus, their festivals had a much more didactic emphasis than medieval carnivals, which
  • Made them much more boring.

Meandering Thoughts on Equality

For the past several years now we have seen a fair amount of thought on the idea of economic inequality. Some see it as a serious problem, others perhaps as a temporary byproduct of the switch from a production economy to one rooted in service.  I suppose a very few might celebrate the possibilities free market economies in the fact of inequality.

I had a chance to think about this a bit recently, and attempt to bring some historical perspective.

It is hard to imagine this issue being resolved more successfully than the Athenians under Solon, ca. 590-570 B.C.  There were the aristocrats and the commoners, with law and wealth heavily sided in favor of the aristocratic class (the ‘Code of Draco’).  Debt spiraled out of control, society was coming apart.

Enter Solon.  He was given full powers to resolve this crisis. He did not need to curry votes or constituents. He was not an aristocrat, but he was rich.  He could appeal to both sides and be trusted by both sides.  He believed that Athens needed its rich citizens, as we might expect.  More crucially, he knew how to motivate reform by appealing to the aristocratic ‘need’ for glory, or arete.  One can’t just dismiss this, as it was part of the Greek mindset for centuries.

He made paying high taxes a sign of arete. You could pay your high taxes not in terms of a fixed percentage, but in terms of

  • Pay for this religious festival, and we’ll say loud and long that you paid for it
  • Build a trireme and pay the crew, but you get to command the ship
  • Build this bridge and we’ll name it after you
  • Etc.  You get the idea.

By some accounts aristocrats paid a percentage 12x higher than the poor, but they got ‘arete’ for those taxes, and they had a direct hand in how they were spent.  

He did other things, like expanding the merchant fleet and encouraging trade, which put a lot of people to work.  This sounds easy but must have been politically difficult, given the role of farming in almost every ancient civilization.

He canceled all debts, but he refused to redistribute property.  

In the end

  • Athens had a stronger middle class
  • Athens had relative social stability
  • Many believe that this helped lead to the cultural/political explosion in their ‘golden age’ a century later.  They  create modern science, literature, democracy, etc.)

Alas, many things about Solon are not replicable for us.  For one thing, change did not come from a democratic process.  He was a ‘tyrant’ (a technical description and not a bad word).  C.S. Lewis commented a few times that to get good results for democracies often you have to achieve them in non-democratic ways.  We are locked into our one democratic tradition, and have not nearly the flexibility the Athenians had.

I love his taxes idea, but we just too big and bureaucratic to copy it.  Could we do something like it–give the rich the privilege of naming how they contribute if they willingly contribute more, and giving them public recognition for this (i.e. naming a bridge after them, getting their name on a fighter jet’s wings, I don’t know)?

The idea of a ‘bridge-builder’ politician we can do, and have done successfully before.  But we lack the civic-mindedness of the Athenians.  For better or worse we are more individualistic.  The ancient world would find our attitude towards the state unfathomable.  

Unfathomable, yes, but their conception of rule, society, etc. was far more personal, far more uniform, and far more religious than ours.  Ancient Persia could be an exception.  The Roman Republic could also serve as an exception.  They did integration and pluralism quite well until they ventured beyond Italy and the Alps and into the Mediterranean.  It proved too much for them to swallow. Most Italians had similar cultures.  But in North Africa, Spain, etc., . . . they were different, and no one wanted to try integrating them into the Republic, and no one thought of not ruling over them in some way.  This is another factor, I’m sure, in the collapse of the Republic.  It may be that societies with higher ethnic diversity have a harder time with equality.  If so, this makes America’s relative equality all the more impressive.*

The trade-offs are huge.  You can get more civic buy-in, in theory, in America, but you would probably have to sacrifice some sense of personal rights, and you would definitely have to ditch pluralism and relatively open immigration.  The first is highly unlikely, the second probably impossible.  Even if we could do those things, it is debatable that we should.

Anyway, we can’t dismiss the rugged individualism out of our national DNA, nor should we want to. Solon could not dismiss arete.  But . . . he found a way to work with it.  

Can we create low-skilled jobs from the digital revolution and keep them in America?  If we did so, would it make things worse for workers in Asia?  Would we want the flag-waving and possible economic confrontations that would come from a more nationalistic America?  Would the world be safer?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.

We are such a big nation (like almost every other one) that our problems become abstract and impersonal.  In Athens more or less everyone knew everyone in some way.  Dealing with inequality has much more meaning when we have a personal connection to the problem.

Rome faced a similar problem ca. 150 B.C. that Athens faced in 600 B.C.  They never found a way out, and the Republic collapsed.  All agree this period has many complexities, and historians hotly debate why the collapse happened, but I think most agree that

  • Both sides used violence to settle issues
  • Both sides tended to view politics as a zero-sum game, very much an ‘us vs. them.’  They destroyed each other with a century of intermittent civil war.

The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the revolutions in China, SE Asia, Cuba, and even arguably the American Revolution created far worse tyrannies than those they replaced (this is a stretch in the U.S.– the British weren’t tyrants, and neither were the victors, but the victors did exile many loyalists, slavery expanded, Indians fared far worse than under the British, etc.).  The Roman civil wars over the political questions of the day gave them the emperors.  

We need a political genius of sorts, who can find a synthesis between liberty and equality, between civic responsibility and rugged individualism. He/she would need to be trusted by the common man in Iowa and in Silicon Valley.  He/she would have to, perhaps, give huge tax breaks to corporations who did not outsource jobs–a pro-nationalist low taxes weird hybrid.  If we find him (and I don’t see him/her around), he would not have nearly the power Solon had, at least by the letter of the law.  

None of these mostly unoriginal thoughts get to the unspoken root issue.  Why is inequality a problem in the first place?  By “problem” I don’t mean whether or not inequality exists, but whether or not people perceive it as an issue worthy of much attention.

We might think that inequality is problem in every society but, not so.  For example, monastics renounce property and have all things in common.  We say that communism has never worked, but it works in monastic societies, though of course on a small scale and with everyone present strongly and voluntarily committed to that idea.

Other societies experience inequality, but seem not to think much of it. Neither Homer, Plato, Augustine, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Austen ever made it a burning issue.  But we do see the issue move right to the front of political thinking just after Austen in the mid-19th century.**  We see it in Marx as well as Dickens, and thereafter inequality could be a rallying cry for political revolution.

Surely the Industrial Revolution has something to do with this, for it created a society where, having mastered the elements of nature, one could quickly have great material success.  The first two generations of factory workers at least likely lived at lower standard of living than previously.  Vast gaps between classes opened up.

Vast gaps existed in ancient Egypt as well between the pharaoh and the peasants, for example, but these gaps made sense to their society historically and theologically.  In a society where “all men are created equal” inequality hits with much greater force.

Marx thought that in the first 50 years or so of Industrialism some of these “non-sensical” gaps would certainly destroy the capitalistic state.  Marx had many things wrong.  But on this, I can’t blame him for his guess.  Why did the capitalist state survive?  Marx, the great materialist, had ironically underestimated our materialism as a society.  Its reasonable to assume that the social gaps created by the industrial revolution, coupled with our ideology of equality, would end the industrial-capitalist society.

The “cause” of the problem of inequality perhaps lies in solving this riddle.  It seems that the poor want what the rich have. Both rich and poor want the same thing, and the values of western society tell them they should have the same thing.  I don’t mean to say that inequality is not a problem or no such problem of economic injustice exists, or that the poor should rest content with the rich as mortal gods on earth.  I am not advocating a revival of ancient Egypt.  I merely point out that our society as a whole has surrendered to the materialist impulse which makes easing the problem that much harder.

Of course this parallels the rise of the issue in the mid-19th century just as social Darwinism, textual biblical criticism, and other de-mythologizers of life gained pride of place.  All that we left ourselves had to do with the here and now, i.e. applied science to increase our standard of living, and our various abstractions to make these things real.

All this to say, dealing with crippling inequality in society will involve a spiritual solution.  The monastics show us that it is possible.

Dave

*If this is true, we are faced with choosing between the competing goods of liberty and equality.  Would we prefer economic peace between our citizens or freedom of movement for all?

**Others I’m sure would disagree, but I don’t see the French Revolution being driven primarily by inequality.

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.

What comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.'”

I am republishing this post as a companion piece to the review of Michael Psellus’ Fourteen Byzantine Rulers. The original post begins below . . .

*******

Proximate causes to events are always easier to see, and depending on one’s role in the sweep of history, more satisfying to the ego.  The rise of Nazism in Germany horrified the civilized world of Europe. “Sore losers after W.W. I,” many no doubt thought. But the Nazi’s drew strength in part from the centuries old feeling that they (Germany) were no longer going to be the doormat of Europe.  After all, from the time of the 30 Years War (1618-1648) most of Europe’s conflicts played themselves out on German soil.  England, France, and Russia had a part in creating the monster that nearly destroyed them. The Jews of Jesus’ day faced a variety of problems, and the Romans could hypothetically be blamed for nearly all of them.  “It’s their fault that we have no nation, freedom, etc. etc.”  But Jesus never let His fellow Jews sink to this attitude.  His famous words in Matthew 15:11,

It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.

applied directly to the spiritual leaders of the time, but have broader application.  Speaking as one of God’s prophets, he speaks as the prophets do.  “Your problems are your own faults.  Don’t project blame elsewhere.” In the fourth volume of his A Study of History Toynbee applies this principle in a fascinating way regarding the Byzantine Empire. A look at Byzantium’s history that hit only the highlights would likely make a long jump from Justinian over to the Crusades, which would give the impression of an embattled area of Christendom making a desperate stand against the rise of Islam.  The political and military failure of the Crusades (to say nothing of the moral failures on all sides) end up sealing their fate, and the Moslems finish them off in 1453 when Constantinople falls.  Thus, they could easily say that the fell due to Islamic aggression.  It’s “their” fault. But this perspective ignores what happened in the intermittent period between these bookmark events, and especially ignores the Byzantine’s war with Bulgaria from A.D. 977-1018, which took place long before the Seljuk Turks posed any real threat to the Byzantines (those who read the review of “Fourteen Byzantine Rulers will note that this was during the reign of Basil II). A look at the map just before the conflict reveals the situation, with the Byzantines in Pink and Bulgaria in green. Byzantium ca. 950 ADIn fairness to the Byzantines, the Kingdom of Bulgaria represented a political division from the old Roman empire, and since the Byzantines had always seen themselves as “Roman,” they likely felt the duty of reclaiming lost territory.  It also appears that the Bulgarians may have initiated conflict in 700’s-800’s A.D., and perhaps the Byzantines this time thought of payback. But this political division ran only skin deep.  Both kingdoms had unity on a deeper level, as both committed themselves to Christianity, but more specifically, to the distinctive “Eastern Orthodox” brand of Christianity prevalent in Eastern Europe at the time.  Whatever the Byzantines might gain from such a conflict, an inevitable cost on the “back end” would wait them for them as in all civil wars.  If they could forego the political division, they would still likely have had unity against a common foe. Still, as a result of the war, the map changed and their territory increased. . . Byzantine Empire 1000-1100 The map also shows, however, that their gains in a long, desperate conflict between evenly matched foes came in part by ignoring the growing threat to the east.  By gaining in the west they ignored Anatolia and the growing power of an enemy with whom their differences were more fundamental. The map doesn’t show the social strain placed on Byzantium as a result of the war.  Emperor Basil the Bulgar Killer gained glory in war, but ignored the growing strife of his subjects in agricultural areas of Anatolia, a product of what  Toynbee calls, “their profound political distress and economic discontent, too frequent to be dismissed as the work of ambitious or unruly individuals.”  What should have been the core of Byzantium’s strength was in fact rotten with decay, ready to fall away at a mere touch to the Turks. Though their territory had increased since the 700’s, their burden of defense had increased, and not just in terms of territory.  They also had to care for more people, and thus had even reason to distract themselves from the social problems in Anatolia. The maps tell the rest of the story. . . 1025 A.D. Byzantium 1355 A.D.: Bulgaria is back, showing that their previous conquest could not hold amidst growing internal social strife.  All of that effort did nothing for them in the long run. And then, the end of it all, proving Matthew 15:11 true, though it took centuries for it to apply in the Byzantine case. Ottoman Empire

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, 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 Christian truth. 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.

Oligarchies, Expansion, and a “Time of Troubles”

I posted this originally back in 2012.  While I could have added some new thoughts to the post I wrote directly on Eric Voegelin’s Science Politics, and Gnosticism (found here), I thought it better to include in this post as a sub-set on the idea of territorial expansion.

It may very well be that to read Eric Voegelin is to be confused.  I have had my struggles with his book Order and History: The Ecumenic Age.  But, remembering that he made a special study of gnostic ideas and philosophy, I found his thoughts on the origins of Gnosticism and its relation to territorial expansion very intriguing.

Gnosticism has many permutations, but at its core it propounds an opposition of matter and spirit, the soul and the body, and so on.  Some biblical scholars believe that the Apostle John may be attempting to counter Gnosticism in his epistles. Those who have read St. Augustine’s Confessions know that he involved himself in the gnostic ideas of Manicheism before converting to Christianity.  But gnosticism as a general philosophy pre-dates the coming of Christ by many centuries. Voegelin writes on its origins,

The genetic context to which I refer is the interaction between expansion of empire and differentiation of consciousness.  In pragmatic history, Gnosticism arises from six centuries of imperial expansion and civilizational destruction (p. 21).

Thus, we may assume that gnostic ideas had their roots in the first great ecumenic empire of the Persians, and this fits with the Zoroastrianism and its adoption by Darius I as the semi-official religion of his court.

As to the “why” behind the link between expansion and Gnosticism, I am less able to penetrate Voegelin’s thoughts.  But I believe that we can surmise the following:

  • Significant expansion destroys our sense of proportion.  If the empire is everywhere, it is nowhere.
  • Lacking perspective, we lack attachment to place.  Without attachment to place, we lose our attachment to creation itself.  As an old Irish proverb states (I’m not quoting exactly), “Those who travel much lose their faith.”
  • The power that comes with empire inflates one’s sense of self and distances us from others.  As Chesterton stated, one should pray in valleys, not mountaintops.

Related to the original post below, the disconnect from creation might form the spiritual basis of the problems faced by expansion.

Having recently glanced over The Goebbels Diaries I wondered —  did Hitler’s refusal to allow Rommel to withdraw at El Alamein, and his “fight to the last bullet” order to Von Paulus at Stalingrad arise not from hope of victory but desire for the extinguishing of matter?  As Germany’s territory increased, Hitler seemed more focused on a “refining” cataclysm for creation than in actual victory.  Once separated from creation, we come to hate it, with death as the (perceived) only escape.

And now, the original post . . .

Reading Explorers of the Nile spurred on a thought experiment.

While I have not been overly compelled by the story, there have been several interesting tidbits.  Regardless of one’s feelings toward the Victorian age in general, or the Brits in particular, one can’t help but admire the sheer will and energy of the second great wave of western exploration (the first being in the 15th-early 16th centuries via the Atlantic).  Many hundreds of men risked everything for the sheer thrill of discovery, and yes, for the glory of it as well.  In the early phases from ca. 1840-1860’s, most of this exploration seemed to me to have a generally innocent tinge to it.  The more acquisitive imperialism came later.

This energy and striving for glory reminded me of late Republic Rome, and the quote from Sallust in The Jurgurthine War, which reads,

I have often heard that Quintus Maximus Publius Scipio, and other distinguished men of our country were accustomed to declare that, whenever they looked on the masks of their ancestors, their hearts were set aflame in the pursuit of virtue [i.e. worthy deeds].  Of course they did not mean that the wax or the effigy had any power over them, but it is the memory of great achievements that kindles a flame in the breasts of eminent men that cannot be extinguished until their own excellence has come to rival the reputation and glory of their forefathers.

It struck me that it was during the later phase of the Republic that Rome grew the most in size.  If we look at a map of the Mediterranean at the beginning of the first Punic War in 264 B.C. . . .

Mediterranean, 264 BC

we see that Rome, though decent in size, does not dominate.  They have their sphere, along with Carthage, Egypt, Macedon, etc.

If we fast-forward 100 years we get a different picture, and as the map below indicates, Rome continues to grow almost geometrically down to the death of Caesar in 44 B.C.

Roman Growth Timeline

While Rome had a Republic at this time, I agree with Toynbee that while the government had democratic elements, it was for all intents and purposes an oligarchy.  The aristocratic senate dominated policy, however much voting by the masses took place.

Is there a connection then, between oligarchic democracies and expansion?  As time marched on from Charles I, England did by fits and starts become more democratic.  But 19th century England surely was not democracy in our sense of the word, and instead like the Republic showed strong oligarchic tinges.  As a monarchy, England’s overseas holdings were modest compared with the rest of the world, ca. 1800. . .

Colonisation, 1800

But a century later, after more democracy (while still having an oligarchy) and we see a different scene:

British Empire, 1920

As in late Republic in Rome, we have a near doubling in size.  Of course, something similar could be said of the other major European powers during the same time, many of them become more democratic after 1848, though again, like England, not fully so until after W.W. I.

Two examples do not really suffice to prove the connection.  But three will!

America gets accused of being an imperial power, but I think the charge false in our current, strongly democratic time.  It might have had more merit in the more oligarchic 19th century, however.

America, 1800:

America, 1800

America, 1900:

When America became more democratic in the 20th century, our expansion rapidly slowed.  Now, to be fair, we acquired Louisiana “fairly” from France by buying it, and Alaska fair and square from Russia.  But the same cannot be said for the Philippines, or the vast territory taken from Indians, including territory in Louisiana.  Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant thought that our war with Mexico in 1846 to be manifestly unjust.

If we believe Thucydides, and call Athenian democracy in its golden age really a Pericles-led oligarchy of the best (a claim, to be fair, disputed by the great classicist Donald Kagan), we again see this principle of growth.  In 490 B.C. Athens stood as one city-state among many.  Not so 50 years later. . .

Map, Athenian Empire 431 B.C.

As to why oligarchic democracies have such expansionistic tendencies, I cannot say.  Perhaps it can be the subject of another post filled with wild theories.  But it does seem clear that this period of expansion leads to a “Time of Troubles,” for all parties involved.

For England and the rest of Europe, expansion gave way to the two World Wars.  America had its Civil War, caused largely by the exacerbation of the slavery issue.  The inflaming of the slavery question in its turn had its roots in the Mexican-American war in 1846.  Athens and the Greek world faced the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.).  Though the proximate causes and results of these conflicts differ, they each have an age of expansion to precede it.

Any thoughts from anyone else, with more examples, or a connection between oligarchic democracies and expansion, are heartily welcome.

Blessings,

Dave

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki

Some paint the Middle Ages as a period of narrow intolerance.  I’ve said enough in other posts not to address that directly here, but in short, that view has little support in the lives or sources of the time.  We see in Beowulf, for example an appreciation for the pagan past and an understanding of the difficulties in trying to make sense of the Christian faith in light of their past, not a “narrow intolerance.”

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki can’t quite equal the power and style of Beowulf, but it has many of its outstanding 71ebyqgznclqualities, as well as a similar task.  The author retells a famous Norse story to a newly Christian Norse audience.  At various points he likely altered the story slightly to make certain theological points.  One such instance caught my attention.

At the end of the story our hero returns triumphant from defeating the villain.  Before setting out on his expedition, he took advice from a seemingly simple farmer and reduced his army (in similar fashion to Gideon in the book of Judges).  After victory he marches back and sees the same farmer again.  They greet each other warmly, after which the farmer offers more help.

This time King Hrolf refuses.  It’s not immediately clear why.

As they take their leave Hrolf declares that the farmer was none other than the Norse god Odin in disguise.  He had to refuse his help.  He would not take advice from a pagan god though all knew that Odin brought success to those who honored him.

In refusing Odin’s help, he refused “Victory.”  The consequences of this decision for him and his kingdom follow predictably.  Hrolf Kraki loses everything by the end.  But the author clearly believes he should indeed have preferred failure to success at the price of aid from a pagan god.

In an article entitled “No Enduring City,” author David Bentley Hart muses on the success of Christians and their involvement in politics.  He begins citing two events in medieval Europe.  He writes,

The first occurred on August 25, 1256, when the  podest  and  capitano del popolo of ­Bologna summoned the citizens of the  comune to the Piazza Maggiore in order to announce the abolition of all bonded servitude within the city’s civil and ­diocesan jurisdictions. Some 5,855 serfs were redeemed from their  signori—who were remunerated out of the communal treasury at a total price of 54,014 lire—then placed under ecclesiastical authority, and then granted their liberty.

An irrevocable abolition of serfdom in Bologna was then issued in a short text known as the  Liber Paradisus, in which was indited the name of every emancipated serf. Historians have occasionally ­spe­culated on the economic benefits that Bologna may have reaped from this decision—for one thing, freedmen were eligible to pay taxes—but the actual cost of the manumission, immediate and deferred, was so exorbitant that it is rather difficult to see how the municipal administration could have calculated any plausible profit from its actions.

Perhaps, then, one should take seriously the motives the  Liber Paradisus itself actually adduces: “Paradisum voluptatis plantavit dominus Deus omnipotens a principio,” it begins,“in quo posuit hominem, quem formaverat, et ipsius corpus ornavit veste candenti, sibi donans perfectissimam et perpetuam libertatem”: “In the beginning, the Lord God Almighty planted a paradise of delight, in which he placed man, whom he had formed, and whose body he had adorned with the garb of radiance [a shining raiment], endowing him with perfect and perpetual freedom.” It was only by sinning, the argument proceeds, that humanity bound itself in servitude to corruption; God in his mercy, however, sent his Son into the world to break the bonds that hold humanity in thrall, that by Christ’s own dignity all of us should have our natural liberty restored. Thus all persons currently bound in servitude by human law should have their proper freedom granted them, for they along with all the rest of us belong to a single  massa libertatis wherein now not so much as a single  modicum fermentum of servitude can be tolerated, lest it corrupt the whole.

Hart continues . . .

The second episode, however, which to our sensibilities might seem the more outlandish of the two, was for its time far and away the more ordinary. Some twelve to fifteen years after the promulgation of the  Liber Paradisus (the date cannot be more precisely determined than that), Thomas Aquinas put the finishing touches on that famous (or infamous) passage in the  Summa Theologiae  where he defends the practice of executing heretics. The argument he laid out there was quite a simple one, consisting of only two points, both of which he considered more or less incontestable. First, as regards the heretics themselves, their sin by itself warrants both excommunication and death. Second, as regards the Church, the graver evil of heresy is that it corrupts the faith, which gives life to the soul; and so, if we execute forgers for merely corrupting our currency, which can sustain only temporal life, how much more justly may we deal with convicted heretics not only by excommunicating them, but by putting them to death as well.

Of course, Thomas adds, out of her mercy towards each man who has strayed, the Church hesitates to pronounce a final condemnation until “the first and second admonition” have both failed; but then, if the heretic remains obstinate, “the Church, no longer hoping for his conversion, turns itself to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him over to the secular tribunal so that the latter might remove him from the world by death.” Nor can ecclesial compassion extend any further than this. Recidivism, for instance, even of the most transient kind, is unpardonable. Says Thomas, “At God’s tribunal, all who return are always received, because God is a searcher of hearts, and knows those who return in sincerity. But the Church cannot imitate God in this, for she presumes that those who relapse after being once received are insincere when they return; so she does not obstruct their path to salvation, but neither does she shield them from the sentence of death.”

Both examples have their counterpoints.  Some rather cynically suggest that the economic motive of creating more taxpayers formed the real motivation behind freeing the serfs.  Others point out, that, whatever we may think of Thomas’ counsel, he sought to save souls and not to kill people.  It is easy to cherry-pick the weaknesses of any man or any civilization.

Still, however we slice it, we cannot avoid a contradiction.

Hart suggests that Christian involvement in politics always seems to go south at some point.  On the one hand, when Christians have the power to do good, they can accomplish good things in a unique and lasting way.  On the other, such power either corrupts or puts one in an awkward enough position where a compromise of gospel ethics becomes inevitable.  We can cite numerous examples of the good and the bad.  Betrayals of the gospel ethic may not even be anyone’s “fault,” per se–it could be the nature of the beast.  He draws no firm conclusions, but asks us to consider how we should deal with this problem.

I admire Hart a great deal.  He has a powerful mind and thinks deeply.  His The Doors of the Sea is the best book I have read on the problem of evil.  But I found myself a bit frustrated with “No Enduring City.”  He has the intellectual capital to spend, but plays the miser. He holds too much back. I wanted more from him to try and settle this conundrum.

When surveying the history of Christian involvement in politics, I think we have the following options:

  • Christians should never be involved in politics.  Whatever good they will do will be outweighed by the inevitable corruption of their witness to the gospel.
  • Christians will likely fail in some way in the political realm.  But, we should expect that their failures will be less damaging, and they will accomplish more good in their time in power.  Thus, Christians should be involved in politics as much as they can.
  • Compromising one’s Christian witness may likely happen in the political realm, but it is not inevitable.  Thus, the potential good from Christians involvement in politics is worth the risk, with the right people.
  • Compromising our witness to Christ is indeed quite likely in the political realm. Christians should avoid political office. However, Christians should do what they can to influence those in power.  In this way they can hopefully create some good for society and escape direct blame for the bad in politics.

Other options likely exist.

In his article Hart hints (but not outright declares) that the continual cycle of success/failure might serve the good purpose of continual renewal, keeping the Church on its toes and supplied with fresh blood.  This parallels in some ways Toynbee’s creative/dominant minorities in society.  A particular system gets stale and rigid.  A ‘creative minority’ finds a way to challenge this system successfully, which brings them into power.  Eventually, however, this ‘creative minority’ succumbs to temptation and morphs into its own ‘dominant minority,’ starting the cycle over again.

But Hart will not outright declare one way or the other, because the mere fact of such a cycle doesn’t mean that the good of the creative minority outweighs the bad of dominant minority.

If such a man as Hart cannot decide, I will not either.  Perhaps historical analysis is not our best servant for this question.  Perhaps we need epic poetry to instruct us.

King Hrolf Kraki ultimately fails.  His realm grows a bit soft and corrupt.  Yet before that happened he managed to defeat a wicked and truly evil king who had wrought chaos throughout the land for years.  He fails, but the good outweighed the bad.  So too king Arthur fails.  His sins, and the sins of others catch up with them.  Yet, the good that came from the golden age of Camelot inspired the very idea of chivalry, which formed the ethic of the west for 500 years at least.  When Roland receives the assignment of the rear guard, he suspects treachery, but turns to his stepfather and says,

Ah, slave and coward, malicious heir of dishonored ancestors, did you think I would let the glove fall to the ground as you did the staff when you stood before Charles?

The rearguard is destroyed under Roland’s command, but Charlemagne returns just in time. Beowulf defeats the dragon but could not establish the kind of kingdom that meant that others took up similar fights as he.  But . . . who doesn’t love the character of Beowulf?

The attempts referenced above, however, were all “grand gestures” involving personal risk.  Epic literature is of course literature and not history.  But they give some historical insights.  The politicking of the religious right involved no grand gesture, no personal risk for anyone.  Christian involvement in the political realm will likely fail in some way, no matter how great the sacrifice.  But the utterly mundane garnering of power through votes not only failed in the U.S., it engendered resentment against the religious right.  The relative political disengagement of most younger Christians today testifies to the insipid nature of such action.

At the end of The Song of Roland Charlemagne cries out, “O God, my life is a burden!”  He knows that all of his fighting and all of the sacrifice will not bring about a heaven on earth.  But, he smashed the pagans, avenged treachery, and Julienne was led triumphantly to the baptismal font.

Truly sacrificial action, whether political or otherwise, has a lasting impact despite our sins and limitations.

Perhaps herein lies the answer Hart seeks.