The Unprofessional Historian

I can’t quite help myself when it comes to Arnold Toynbee.  But I acknowledge  . . . In his 12 volume A Study of History (I have read about 8 of them) he repeats himself many times, and uses some of same examples more than a few times.  He veers sometimes wildly between philosophical speculation and the facts of the case (which I love but I understand might bother others).  A central point of his examination of Greece and Rome involves conflating them to such a degree that he seems to claim that Rome began to decline when the Pelopponesian War began.(!) He drifts too easily into gnostic, or perhaps Neo-Platonic, tendencies that raise many of my eyebrows.

Still, he takes huge swings, takes big risks with his thoughts, and offers a coherent picture of civilizations that mixes various disciplines such as archaeology, philosophy, myth, and the like.  He is in my mind the ideal of what a historian should be, not so much in his conclusions, but in his methods.

‘Volume 10’ is almost last volume of his A Study of History and has only about 150 pages of straight text, with a few appendices and a long and needed index to the other 9 volumes. This conclusion might even serve as a good introduction to the whole of his work, for here he fully describes and defends his view of what an historian is, and what History should be all about.

I say he ‘defends’ but this might be misleading, for it sounds like a didactic argument. It’s not. Part of the charm of this book for me is that he let’s himself go and speaks with passion from the heart. But the Toynbee magic is still here, as even in the first few pages we see him seamlessly weave in his grand view of history with personal recollections and observations about changes in women’s headgear in Victorian England and Turkey in the 1920’s.

I can understand people disagreeing with certain particulars of his “system,” but doesn’t this sound like fun?

His main points are

  • A historian’s proper vocation (as is the case in other vocations) is to receive and act on a call from God to ‘feel after Him and find Him.’ (Acts 17:27). There are as many ‘angles of vision’ as there are proper vocations. The historian’s vision is not greater or lesser than these, but he has a task nonetheless.
  • The inspiration of a historian is ultimately a spiritual one. The ‘muse’ of curiosity leads into broader fields of vision. Since God aims to unite all of humanity, one’s field of vision under the inspiration of the ‘muse’ (I think Toynbee means to use this term in at least a mostly literal sense) will inevitably broaden.
  • He does not spend much time on this, but this question leads to a small digression on Toynbee’s dislike of the ‘professional’ specialist. The ‘professional’ pursues not true knowledge but an impossible omniscience. This pursuit is of course impossible, and whatever knowledge he gains will be sterile — it will in fact not be real knowledge at all, and certainly not wisdom. His lack of ‘action’ in the world has a humble mask, but only serves to camouflage ‘the three deadly sins of Satanic pride, negligence, and sloth.’ (p. 26). God calls us to add to the stream of human knowledge of the world and Himself by adding one’s own thimbleful to the stream. Knowledge is never for one’s own sake or for the sake of knowledge itself, but to put humanity in a better position to know God. The same Spirit that inspires us to investigate human affairs calls us to action in service, however small, to humanity as a whole.

Perhaps this gives us some insight into his admiration for Heinrich Schliemann. Of all the historians he admires here (Polybius, Herodotus, St. Augustine, etc.) it is Schliemann, the messy amateur par excellence, whom he spends the most time with. Surely in Schliemann we find a man “inspired,” one who led with his heart rather than his head. It may be said that he created the modern field of archaeological study by going on a goose chase of absurd proportions.  And yet, he discovered Troy and Mycenae. He created the discipline of archaeology. But as soon as archaeology developed into a profession the “professionals” he creaetd dismissed him as a carnival barker. Toynbee does not dwell on Schliemann’s personal life or professional errors, but surely he would say for every step back he took two or three forward.

Finally, towards the end of the work, Toynbee sheds light on his religious views. He does this in a more straightforward and polemical way in ‘Experiences,’ which he wrote about a decade after this, and his views did not change much from this volume to then. I do not agree with his final conclusion in either volume. But here his conclusions make more sense to me in the context offered — that is — I can see how much his ‘heart’ was in his views. This is a point made by his friend Columba Cary-Elwes, a monk, in their correspondence (“An Historian’s Conscience”) which I accepted but did not understand until now. Cary-Elwes also disagreed with Toynbee ultimately, but felt that there was more agreement than Toynbee may have been aware of. Of course, as a “friend’”of Toynbee myself, I would like to think the same thing. This may be purely wishful or even ego-centric thinking on my part, but I hope not.

Basically, Toynbee believes that ultimate reality is spiritual reality, and that this spiritual reality is Love. Love is best expressed in action, not in words or syllogisms. Hence, Historian’s are called to action, and hence, Toynbee’s rejection of the various dogmas of religion as essentially unimportant distractions. He saw unity in human affairs throughout time, and a uniformity of human nature. All this led him to affirm the essential unity of religions. Claims to exclusivity are at best misdirected and at worst rooted in pride.

This is a good argument, and Toynbee was far from a cynic. He did not seek to attack religion so much as promote what he saw as something ‘higher.’ I think the Church would say that Toynbee was right about many things. But, as Chesterton said, “You cannot make a success of anything, even loving, without thinking.” He said in Orthodoxy,

The things said most confidently by advanced persons to crowded audiences are generally those quite opposite to the fact; it is actually our truisms that are untrue. Here is a case. There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: “the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach.” It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach. It is as if a man were to say, “Do not be misled by the fact that the CHURCH TIMES and the FREETHINKER look utterly different, that one is painted on vellum and the other carved on marble, that one is triangular and the other hectagonal; read them and you will see that they say the same thing.” The truth is, of course, that they are alike in everything except in the fact that they don’t say the same thing. An atheist stockbroker in Surbiton looks exactly like a Swedenborgian stockbroker in Wimbledon. You may walk round and round them and subject them to the most personal and offensive study without seeing anything Swedenborgian in the hat or anything particularly godless in the umbrella. It is exactly in their souls that they are divided.

So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught. Pagan optimists and Eastern pessimists would both have temples, just as Liberals and Tories would both have newspapers. Creeds that exist to destroy each other both have scriptures, just as armies that exist to destroy each other both have guns.

Chesterton is mostly, but not absolutely correct with this. I would add what C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, that he would not have believed in Christianity unless it professed some similarity with other religions. As he came to see, it would be impossible for other faiths to contain no truths. But Christianity could be the fulfillment of the hints and whispers in other places. Toynbee came to close to asserting this himself in his “Christianity and Civilization” essay included in “Civilization on Trial.”* It is not arrogance to believe that one has found the truth, or more correctly, that the Truth has found you.**

Please pardon the long digression (for those still reading :), but I have learned a great deal from Toynbee. I feel the clue to much of his genius is in his religious views. For him, History was very much a religious endeavor, with an emphatically religious goal. I couldn’t agree more. But here too is his greatest error.

This volume is eminently suited for anyone interested in these kind of questions. The prose is lively, and the heart and mind are both engaged.


*It is probable that Toynbee came closest to a profession of traditional Christian belief when he wrote this essay in the late 40’s.  Indeed, it is Volumes 4-6 of his study, written just before this time (I think), that are his best work with his best religious insights into the meaning of history.

**After publishing this volume, Toynbee’s views if anything only drifted further from Orthodox Christianity. But there is this brief excerpt from Toynbee’s good friend Columba Cary-Elwes, a monk and frequent correspondent with Toynbee.

During our last meeting, during which he was incapable of clear speech or writing, suddenly he said very distinctly, ‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ and then fell back into silence. As I wrote before, I do not use that to prove anything to the general public. It may have been an act of courtesy to me on his part, as Veronica suggested. For me it was an answer to prayer!


A Culture of Victory, a Culture of Collapse

The evaluations of the historically minded often move like a pendulum.  I see this throughout my own life.  Initially, like everyone, I thought Napoleon a great genius.  But then you think again . . . after all, he lost.  And what about what happened in Egypt, to say nothing of Russia?  And what of all those armies he beat from 1799-1809–nothing more than decrepit, out-dated Enlightenment entities destined for the trash-heap anyway.

After a while, however, I thought again and gave credit where due.  Sure, his armies were the perfect foil for the Austrians and Prussians, but he helped create the French army that formed that perfect foil.  Like any great leader he imprinted himself all over his army.  And we say that the armies he faced were bound for trash-heap only with the benefit of hindsight.  Napoleon put them there, after all.

But . . . he lost.

Writing about The Civil War comes with similar pitfalls.  As the states began to come together in the Progressive Era (ca. 1880-1920) we looked for unity and healing from our past, and we lionized Lee as a romantically doomed warrior, who nevertheless, performed heroic feats.  Lee’s generalship for that era stood second to none.  Beginning in the 1960’s historians swung the narrative.  They focused on Lee’s irascible temper, his huge losses, his weak opponents, his strategic failures at Antietam, Gettysburg, and so on.

Joseph Glatthar’s excellent General Lee’s Army brings balance back to this narrative.  He studies the army of Northern Virginia in depth and concludes51tuzkutcjl that of course, Lee was a great commander.  He helped forge a great army with a great record in the field.  He deserves much of the credit he receives.

But . . . he lost, and we do well to remember this.

Glathaar shows us how the strengths and weaknesses of Lee and his army come from the same place by looking at culture, demographics, the life of the common solider, and those directly under Lee’s command.

We do have to take into account Lee’s frequent opponent, the Union’s Army of the Potomac.  From a pure match-up standpoint, it would have been interesting to have Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson oppose Grant, Sherman, and Thomas for the duration of the conflict.  As it happened Lee only faced Grant towards the end of the war, and then Grant had to work with the Army of the Potomac, where he inherited a completely different, and vastly inferior, operational and command culture than he worked with out west.

In  A Savage War, the authors point out that the Army of the Potomac inherited a disproportionate number of soldiers recently graduated from West Point.  A West Point education tended at that time to over-emphasize math, engineering, and organization (something that U.S. Grant lamented in his memoirs).  Such skills have their place, but should not have pride of place in officer training.  Those that drank from the firehose of this approach would inevitably give way to excessive caution. Meticulous organization takes a lot of time.  In addition, once you have built something so “pure” and pretty, one might not wish to do anything that might get it dirty. This helps explain why McClellan (tops in his class at West Point) could think himself a great general even though he couldn’t actually win a battle.  He was excellent in doing what his education, at least in the narrow sense, trained him to do.

The plodding, rigidly organized Army of the Potomac gave Lee and his men a perfect target given their particular strengths.

Glaathar points out that the men in Lee’s army fully believed in their cause and came with the strongest of motivations.  Ante-bellum southern society had the duel influences of the aristocratic planter and the Appalachian border-settlers.  Both of these cultures emphasized honor and courage.  Both of these cultures preached a vision of manliness that gave way to no one.  Letters home from top officers on down the ranks show a constant desire for combat and to prove themselves.

Lee both understood and embodied this himself.  Many other accounts of his generalship focus on his ability to psychologically assess his opposite number on the Union side and devise the proper approach accordingly.  Glaathar adds to this, showing how Lee knew how to use his men expertly.  They proved superlative in the counter-attack, and could march quickly and fight hard back-to-back.  We see this at Bull Run, in Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign, and at Chancellorsville, as at other times.

But both the aristocratic planter and border settler culture had its weaknesses, and these too had a significant impact on the war.


Appalachian border culture emphasized freedom of initiative and eschewed “systems” like tight and itchy collars.  Lack of formal structure gives one great freedom.  But an army of tens of thousands needs tight organization to act as a unit.  Without this organization, large scale offensives could never be undertaken.


Many in the south seceded because they did not want to be told what to do by anyone they did not like or respect.  They tended to run hot and cold alternatively.  Sure enough, Lee had a hard time enforcing discipline.  The army at time looted the Virginia countryside for supplies, stole from the bodies of dead Union soldiers,** and had a hard time maintaining equipment.  Many went AWOL unexpectedly not necessarily out of cowardice but because “they felt like it.”

Honor and Ego:

The aristocratic nature of the army came through in the upper echelon of the officers.  The bickered for position and rank.  At times they disobeyed directly if they felt insulted.   Some at times seemed to prefer maintaining their honor to winning a battle.

All of these weaknesses would make coordinated action over a large distance difficult.  Perhaps this is why Lee spread out his armies in his invasion of the north in 1863.  It gave each commander more independence. But . . . when the time came for coordinated action, invariably Lee’s forces could not pull it off.

Shelby Foote wrote that, “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Lee command their army.”  I’m guessing that he meant at least that no one is perfect.  But I surmise that he meant more.  The weaknesses of Lee’s army, and of much of southern culture, outed themselves at that battle.   To make their situation worse, the Confederacy fought their weaker opponent in ways that favored their slim strengths.  The good ground and interior lines of the Union forces at Gettysburg played right into the laps of their slower, plodding, yet more bull-headed nature.^

Lee’s 1863 invasion may have been a mistake, but he intuited correctly that the South could not win a long and protracted war.  He emphasized the Confederacy’s logistical shortcomings, but the army had cultural shortcomings as well.  Perhaps Lee had read and recalled Tocqueville’s commentary on aristocratic and democratic societies at war.  In Chapter 24 of his musings, Tocqueville comments that,

In aristocracies the military profession, being a privileged career, is held in honor even in time of peace. Men of great talents, great attainments, and great ambition embrace it; the army is in all respects on a level with the nation, and frequently above it.

We have seen, on the contrary, that among a democratic people the choicer minds of the nation are gradually drawn away from the military profession, to seek by other paths distinction, power, and especially wealth. After a long peace, and in democratic times the periods of peace are long, the army is always inferior to the country itself. In this state it is called into active service, and until war has altered it, there is danger for the country as well as for the army.

It may be remarked with surprise that in a democratic army after a long peace all the soldiers are mere boys, and all the superior officers in declining years, so that the former are wanting in experience, the latter in vigor. This is a leading cause of defeat, for the first condition of successful generalship is youth. I should not have ventured to say so if the greatest captain of modern times had not made the observation.

A long war produces upon a democratic army the same effects that a revolution produces upon a people; it breaks through regulations and allows extraordinary men to rise above the common level. Those officers whose bodies and minds have grown old in peace are removed or superannuated, or they die. In their stead a host of young men is pressing on, whose frames are already hardened, whose desires are extended and inflamed by active service. They are bent on advancement at all hazards, and perpetual advancement; they are followed by others with the same passions and desires, and after these are others, yet unlimited by aught but the size of the army. The principle of equality opens the door of ambition to all, and death provides chances for ambition. Death is constantly thinning the ranks, making vacancies, closing and opening the career of arms.

. . . An aristocratic nation that in a contest with a democratic people does not succeed in ruining the latter at the outset of the war always runs a great risk of being conquered by it.



*Interesting parallels exist between Lee and Napoleon’s armies.  Both faced stiff, rigidly organized opponents.  Both emphasized movement, speed, and capitalized on the energy and spirit of their men.  Both had great success early, but both also suffered significant setbacks as their respective wars dragged on.  Each faced manpower issues, but also, their opponents got better over time and neither Napoleon or Lee made the necessary adjustments based on the improvement in their opponents.

In fairness to the Army of the Potomac, the soldiers displayed extreme courage at Fredericksburg, and were stalwart in the defense at Gettysburg.

**Many southerners decry the actions of Sherman.  Glaathar demonstrates that Lee’s army did many of the same things, albeit on a smaller, less organized scale, as Sherman’s army.  And . . . they did this not just in Pennsylvania but in Virginia as well.

^Fredericksburg might serve as a good example of these qualities, with a negative outcome.

If Civilization is Worth Doing, it’s Worth Doing Badly

Historian Arnold Toynbee takes the long view–the very long view, on the fall of Rome.  We think of Rome as a grand empire, but Toynbee reminds us both in his book Hellenism, and in Hannibal’s Legacy, that Rome originally organized itself very much like other Greek city-states.  The early Roman Republic was essentially a polis.  As they grew in size, the political dynamics changed until little to nothing remained of its more democratic past.  But if we think of Rome as a “Republic” first and foremost, we should place the decline of Rome somewhere in the transition between the 3rd-2nd cenutry B.C. at the absolute latest.*

Toynbee takes this approach because he sees civilizations operating in a spiritual sense.  He focuses on the beliefs, the internal coherence, the relationships between different groups in society, and so on.  He has long sections in volumes five and six of his multi-volume A Study of History on the “schism in the soul” present in declining civilizations, which might strike one with a more materialist bent as rather absurd.

Niall Ferguson takes a different approach, and I believe that I see common themes in his books, Civilization, Colossus, and Empire.  Ferguson sees civilization running on various physical platforms, such as the quality of roads, a good sewer system, and a good way of gathering and using tax revenue.**  He eschewed the idea of slow, steady decline–or at least one that we could observe in any meaningful way.  For him, the system works until suddenly it doesn’t, and no one can really predict when it will stop working. This explains why no one saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming, or various stock-market crashes.  The collapses, when they come, will therefore come out of the blue suddenly.

Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Socieities is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject. Tainter does a good job with his argument, which I admit even I though I disagree with some of his basic premises.

His argument boils down to a few key points:

  • Major civilizations tend to experience an early period of rapid growth through the ‘low hanging fruit’ of available territory, resources, etc.
  • This growth inevitably leads to specialization, stratification, and complexity which initially serves growth–though this “low-hanging fruit” won’t last forever.
  • The civilization plateau’s and the structure established to help it grow becomes an inextricable  part of society just at the moment that it is no longer really needed.
  • When the ‘low hanging fruit’ disappears, further expansion (be it territorial, trade-oriented) becomes less and less profitable, and eventually starts to work against the civilization.
  • Finally, the complex structure gets too unwieldy, a ball and chain, as the state has to spend more and more to get less and less. But now we depend on the structure.   It has become too big to fail, but like a house of cards, easy to knock over.

Tainter supports his theory well from civilizations across time, and uses very obvious info, like territory, and some other more unusual information, like crop yields, colonial administrations, and so on. No doubt there are many lessons for economists here.

But, while his book is valuable, it has big holes.

In his quest for absolute objectivity, he rejects all value-judgment theories of collapse. If you can’t measure it, it’s not useful. We can never be sure exactly a civilization really believes, and even if we could, it is not an objective field of study, so has nothing to contribute to the study of collapse. After a brief summary of  the work of people like Gibbon, Toynbee, Spengler, and others he dismisses them with a wave of his hand. But as C.S. Lewis once pointed out, very few people are actually German economists. Any study of history must involve people, which will involve more than graphs on paper.

This over-emphasizing of economics shows up in what is actually a thought-provoking idea. What happens after collapse, he argues, may actually be beneficial to society, because it removes a great deal of inefficiency that the old system labored under. Collapse, might be the cleansing forest fires of history, events to almost welcome.

This sounds good on paper, but no actual human being who lived through collapses would have agreed with him. Imagine living in Western Europe ca. 550 AD and thinking, “Boy, I sure am glad for the fall of Rome. Of course, our ramshackle village could be overrun, destroyed, and our people pillaged who knows when by some Goth, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Vandal, Hun, or some other kind of Goth I have forgotten about. But I’ll take that any day over the economic inefficiency of the late Roman Empire.”

To augment Chesterton’s oft-quoted phrase (If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” “If civilization is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”



*I love and admire Toynbee for many reasons.  But in some places he puts the decline of Rome at 431 B.C. (!), the same year as the outbreak of the Pelopponesian War in Greece.  He does this mostly because he sees much more similarity than difference between Greece and Rome.  One can make that argument, and he does so decently in his Recollections, but to carry it so far as to say that Rome began declining when Athens hit the wall goes way too far.

**In some ways the difference between Toynbee and Ferguson boils down, as (almost) always, to the differences between Plato and Aristotle.  Both are great–I prefer Toynbee and Plato.


I almost always find Toynbee stimulating, and I include some of his collected thoughts on the fall of Rome . . .

It is indeed, one of the tragic ironies that the idealists that arise within the ruling class should tread the same path of social migration as the wastrels.  The Graachi worked far greater havoc through a nobility [in the late Republic] to which someone like Commodus could never aspire. Commodus did far less damage by his own social truancy [i.e., pretending to be Hercules, fighting in the arena, etc.], by engaging in a vulgarity that represents a spiritual malaise, to which the Graachi would never fall.  

By their ‘downward migration’ towards the plebs, the Graachi incurred the wrath of their fellows, who punished them severely for abandoning their class privilege.  Commodus is uneventfully swallowed by the slough in which he delighted to wallow, whereas the Graachi released a kind of demonic energy into the masses of Rome.


Seneca writes ca. A.D. 60 concerning the social function of the Emperor in one of his treatises. . .


“He is the bond that holds the Commonwealth together, he is the breath of life is breathed by his subjects, who in themselves would be nothing but a burden and a prey if they were left to their own devices through the removal of a presence which is the soul of the Empire.


Their king is safe?  One mind informs them all;

Lost?  They break faith straightway.


If this calamity, written about by Vergil in his Georgics (IV, 212-13), which he imagines overtaking the bees, would overtake us, the people would be safe so long as it does not snap the reins, or–if they refuse to be bridled again.  Should this happen–then the texture of this mighty empire would be rent and its present tidiness would fly apart into a hundred shreds. Rome will cease to rule the moment they cease to render obedience.”

A foretaste of the fulfillment of the prophecy that Seneca made to the Emperor Nero was inflicted on the Roman world in A.D. 68-69 as an immediate result of Nero’s tyranny; but the first time round this calamity acted as a stimulus, for after the chaos Rome got Vespasian as emperor and relative calm.  Though Domitian (d. A.D. 96) tried his utmost to revive the chaos by claiming deity for himself, the tide was turned by a series of beneficial philosopher emperors who succeeded one another from Nerva (A.D. 96) through Marcus Aurelius (d. A.D. 180).

It was only after Marcus that the new “time of troubles” set in, and even then foolishness of Commodus managed to right itself after the civil wars of Severus, who repeated Vespasian’s work, though with a rougher and less skilled hand.  It was only after the death of Alexander Severus (A.D. 235) that the storm broke with shattering and uncontrollable violence.


And finally, some of his thoughts on the drawn out length of Roman decline:

In the downward course of a civilization there is truth in the saying of the philosopher Heraclitus: “War is the father of all things.”  The sinister concentration of the resources of a civilization upon the business of fratricidal warfare may generate a military prowess that will place their neighbors at their mercy, may create a military technique that may grant them a far reaching technical mastery over the merely “Material World.”   

Since it is common to reckon success primarily by power and wealth, the opening chapters in the decline of a civilization will be hailed as times of blessing and growth, and this misconception can persist even for centuries.  Sooner or later, however, disillusionment is bound to follow, for a society that is hopelessly divided against itself is almost certain to try and double down on military might, for that is what seemed to work initially.

For example, we see the money-power and man-power won for Greek society by Alexander the Great, and these same vast resources used to intensify the civil wars between Alexander’s successors.  This same power swept into Roman hands through the meteoric rise in Rome’s land and wealth ca. 241-146 B.C. was just as quickly spent in the various civil wars that wracked Rome before the rise of Augustus and the Pax Romana.  For Spain, the treasure gained in the new world and the free labor of the essentially enslaved native populations was the food for their wars in Europe during the late 16th and early 17th centuries–the same wars that brought them into second-rate power status in Europe.

Thus the increasing command over the environment gained is apt to bestow upon a society a disintegration that puts a greater driving power into the suicidally demented society’s chosen work of self-destruction; and that story turns out to be a simple illustration of the theme that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  And again, the empires of industrialized Europe in the late 19th century gained the material resources to nearly destroy European civilization in our great Western civil war of 1914-18.

[Toynbee goes on to argue at length that Augustan synthesis bought Rome time, and brought Rome increased prosperity, nevertheless, it was an “Indian Summer” that lasted about 175 years that did nothing to fix Rome’s basic issues or  prevent the coming winter.]




Invictus Diplomacy

Historians are people too, and they need jobs just like everyone else.  One way some seek to perpetuate their role in society is by coming up with new and different perspectives on the past.  I am all for reexamining things and keeping them fresh, but . . .  recently I have noticed a few attempts to redeem Rome’s most notorious Emperors, Nero and Caligula, and I wonder if this carries things a bit too far.*  Still, despite my concerns that this represents something “weird for the sake of being weird,” we must contend, for example, with the fact that Nero had a great deal of popularity with the masses in general.  We need not assume that Tacitus and Suetonius deliberately lied and distorted things to wonder if they failed to give us the full picture.

Aloys Winterling recently published a well-received biography of Caligula.  Some reviews got my ire up with the word “rehabilitation,” but upon further examination, Winterling seeks to condemn Caligula in a different way, and not “rehabilitate” him.  Winterling allows us to understand Rome and his reign in a different light.  Traditionally most assume that Caligula’s actions had their roots in some type of madness, and this allows for us to excuse them in some ways, obscuring Caligula’s true motives.**

The Augustan synthesis fixed the bleeding in Rome after a century of intermittent civil war, but at a price of the straightforward approach Rome prided itself on.  Augustus may have “pretended” not to want power and the Senate likely “pretended” to rule.  But in the end, Augustus had the power and the senate didn’t. Augustus performed an intricate kibuki dance of sorts that allowed everyone to assume, if they wished, that Rome was still Rome, after all.

Caligula wanted to end this charade, Winterling argues, by carrying its logic as far it went.  He deliberately sought to expose the hypocrisy involved amongst Roman elite.  So, he made his horse a senator and consul as a deliberate insult, as a joke, not because he was “crazy.”  Nero had a thing for the stage and part of me wonders if we might not see Caligula’s time in power as something akin to Andy Kauffman as Emperor, where all masks come off because all masks are on, and things are funny because they are . . . not really that funny.  His goal seemed to be make people feel uncomfortable, something slightly akin to an act of social ‘violence,’^ which of course would presage the very real violence that characterized Caligula’s reign.

In attempting to strip off masks by putting on masks–such as “pretending” to be a god (though he might really have believed it?  Anything is possible). Many other examples exist of this.  When Caligula fell ill one Senator prayed for his recovery and, in an act of great ‘devotion,’ pledged his life for the health of the emperor.  When he recovered, Caligula made him go through with his pledge and end his life. No more masks, no more empty words. Caligula sought to break everything down and rule by himself with no need for social niceties.  One might think of Caligula’s reign as a 3 1/2 year stage act of a much more evil version of Andy Kauffman.

Diplomacy (and most aspects ofpolitics, I suppose) involves masks, and wearing such things must get tiresome.  One has to say things indirectly, if at all.  One says things with posture, and what one eats.  The job grants one high status and honor, yet it often requires a self-effacing temperment that often will not mesh with such requirements.  To say what one wants, to be an authentic man, such is the dream of every romantic.  It is this same romantic who no doubt envisions that his bracing personality is just what the world has been waiting for.

Liuprand of Cremona came from northern Italy as an ambassador for Emperor Otto in the middle of the 10th century A.D.  Otto sent him to Constantinople in hopes of arranging a royal marriage.  Liuprand’s life as a churchman gave him an excellent education, and he had a reputation as a fine speaker.  He seemed the best possible candidate to navigate the highly developed and occasionally strange world of Byzantium.

Liuprand wrote Otto an account of all of his exploits, and what makes his work so enjoyable is that he thinks he’s doing a great job.  He’s “telling it like it is,” not giving the Byzantines an inch!  He fights a valiant war of words on behalf of his emperor, of whom he seems to forget . . . wants a marriage into the Byzantine royal family.

One exchange, involving precedence and the tension between eastern and western churches, got a bit testy.  The Byzantines speak first (Liuprand writes in the first person) . . .

“But he will do that,” said Basil, the head of the imperial bedchamber, “when he makes Rome and the Roman church obedient to his nod.”

Then I said, “A certain fellow, having suffered much harm from another, approached God and said, “Lord, avenge me of my enemy!” God answered him, “I will do it, on the day on which I will give each according to his deeds.”

But to this Basil relpied, “How late!” [this exchange weaves together quotes from Ps. 61:13, Lk 18:3].

Then they all left the disputation shaking with laughter . . .

Liuprand walks away angry, but doesn’t seem to recognize the light-hearted touch from the Byzantines throughout this conversation, obvious in their laughter over his theological “zinger.”

In another instance, Liuprand grows incensed at the “masks” of the Byzantines, as they honored the emperor’s father, with the traditional song, “God grant you many years,” often sung in Orthodox churches even today.  We enter his narrative moments after he has been chastised by the emperor for finding their food too dainty and smelly.

[The Emperor] did not permit me a reply to his words, but instead ordered me back to the table.  Then his father entered and sat down, a man, it seemed, born 150 years before.  In their praises, or rather, their venting, the Greeks sang out, asking God  to multiply his years.

From this we can discern just how ignorant and greedy the Greeks are, and how enamored they are of their own glory.  They wish upon an old man, indeed–a walking corpse–what they certainly know nature will not allow, and the walking corpse wishes that which he knows will never happen, which he knows God will not do, and would not even be good for him if He did do it, but bad.

Liuprand is just the man to set them straight, if only they would listen!  How greedy the Greeks are, indeed!

As one might surmise, Liuprand failed to secure a royal bride for Otto. He has no capability to see his role in this disaster, or perhaps thinks it just as well.  How awful, he must have thought, to think of his leige Otto allying himself with these fish-eating onion lovers. Early during his visit he had been allowed to purchase some costly robes (though LIuprand seemed to despise all he saw and met, he did like their robes), but now the Emperor asked for them back.

When this was done, they took from me five very precious purple robes, judging that you [that is, Otto] and all the Italians, Saxons, Franks, Bavarians, Swabians, indeed all the nations, are unworthy to go about decked in cloth of that quality.  But how unsuitable and how insulting it is that soft, effeminate, long-sleeved, tiara wearing, hooded, lying, unsexed, idle people strut about in purple, while heroes, that is, strong men, who know war, full of faith and charity, in submission to God, full of virtues, do not!  What an insult, if that is not!” [he does add, we should note, that they reimbursed him for the price of the robes].

Thus ended his hilariously inept diplomatic career.

I know that many noble and worthy souls love the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernst Henley, but I have never liked a thing about it. The bald pagan statements in the poem always seemed to me a bit ridiculous and silly coming from the pen of a Victorian Brit.  I won’t argue the point too strongly, but I think we can at least say this, that when diplomats and politicians in sticky situations attempt to be “captains of their souls” and give nothing to no man, they become at best failures, at worst, a horrible wreck of humanity.  The final irony may be that such scrupulously confident people often end up the butt of jokes.


*Most academics, especially in the humanities, tend to lean left politically.  I wonder then, if we should be encouraged or worried that a variety of them seem to be trying to redeem, or perhaps lean towards “explaining away,” autocratic emperors.

**We should not call Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., “mad” unless we do wish to excuse them in some way.

^For any who might not know, Tony Clifton is Andy Kaufmann.  I am one of those who (his Might Mouse routine aside), do not find him all that funny.  In my defense, reading the entire Great Gatsby on stage as his ‘act’ might be audacious (he actually did this at least once), but is it funny?  You might laugh at hearing about it, but would you pay to see it?


What Happens when Germans Go Nuts?

They make a rational, thoroughly scientific, argument for the existence of Atlantis, located in the Atlantic (right where Plato said it was) destroyed cataclysmically somewhere around 9000 B.C. (apologies to one of my favorite ad campaigns).

I have written before about the likelihood of advanced civilizations that existed long before their so-called beginning around 4000 B.C.  But it is so much easier to propound vague ideas then to make a concrete case for a specific civilization, let alone one for which we (seemingly) have no evidence for except Plato’s account in one of his dialogues.  And then you realize that one of the more credible arguments for the existence of Atlantis was written by Otto Muck . . . who invented the U-boat schnorkel for the Germans in W.W. II.  Yes, he came over to the U.S. like many other former German scientists after the war, but still,it does not help the case that he worked for the Nazis.

But first, Muck reminds us that Plato discussed Atlantis in two dialogues, not one, the Timaeus and Critias.  Plato has Socrates relate many myths throughout his work, but he speaks of Atlantis in strictly factual terms.  Like many others, I suppose, I had never actually read the full account of Atlantis in the dialogues and Muck makes a good point.  Plato, at least, seems to believe in the historicity of Atlantis, or certainly, Critias does, and he gives a lengthy description filling at least 15 pages of its size, location, topography, plants, and the like.  Critias talked about how the Greeks first learned of Atlantis from the Egyptians, still considered quite wise by the Greeks even in Plato’s day, via the great legislator Solon–America’s George Washington.  Plato invests a lot of heavy-hitters in his account of Atlantis.

It makes perfect sense to me to believe in a cataclysmic flood, as it is spoken of in every major religion of the ancient world.  I expect to find, along with Graham Hancock and others, the existence of civilizations that long predate the fertile crescent of 4000 B.C.  I delight in Jon Anthony West’s interpretation of Egypt’s history, for example, and find it persuasive.  But I cracked the cover of Muck’s book skeptically.  I don’t approach questions like this even primarily scientifically, let alone entirely so.  Still, with Atlantis, even I needed something to hold onto besides stories.  With other sites, you have megalithic architecture, for example.  For Atlantis, I need more than Plato’s account.

I give Muck credit.  He understands skepticism as a scientist and confronts head-on, piece by piece, in methodical fashion.  Some of what Muck wrote I found very intriguing, and others, not so much.

To begin, Muck asks where the Atlantic ocean got its name.  Well, obviously from the Atlantis story, but this means very, very little.  Slightly more intriguing is Muck’s examination of the very similar phonetics between the god Atlas (apparently spelled out ‘Atlants’), who stood at the middle of the world upholding it, and the name “Atlantis” and its topography, which Plato tells us had a large mountain.  Well . . . ok, but . . . ?

He moves on.

If we look closely at Plato’s description of the topography he tells of a huge variety of plants and food that one could find there.  It seems almost fantastical. We assume the variety couldn’t really exist, given the size and location Plato mentions.  But if we consider the gulf stream moving across the Atlantic, then match it with the mountains described by Plato as well as the location, it matches.  You would have warm air from the south-east, with a large mountain in the center impacting the Arctic air, and the variety described by Plato is possible.  What makes this more intriguing is that Plato probably did not have the biological and topographical knowledge to make this up.

More interesting is the Gulf Stream itself.  If you compare latitudes for northwestern Europe and its overseas counterpart, you know that Europe is a lot warmer than the upper reaches of North America.  The Gulf Stream makes this possible.  But we also know that thousands of years ago Europe was much colder.  Then, around the time of Atlantis’ supposed destruction, it started to warm up.  What if the Gulf Stream did not always flow across to Europe, but instead was diverted by a continent in the middle of the ocean?  That could account for the temperature difference at first, and the shift after.

Perhaps the most bizarre, yet intriguing, argument Muck makes involves the habits of eels.

Apparently, a breed of eels exists that spawns in the Sargasso Sea (located just to the east of Atlantis on the map above).  For the longest time scientists could never understand why these eels undertook a long and dangerous migration across the Atlantic.  The females find European rivers, the males sit and wait in the ocean while the female eels fix their hair.  Ok, ok . . . observers discovered that the females can only come to sexual maturity in fresh water, hence their need for rivers.  But why travel east across the Atlantic.  It makes much more sense, from an evolutionary perspective and every other perspective, to go west from the Sargasoo.  The existence of Atlantis, however, would explain this.  For who knows how long the eels would go east for only a short distance from the Sargasso to the rivers of Atlantis.  The destruction of Atlantis did not alter their genetic memory.  They still swim east, and no doubt suppose that when they hit the coast of Europe they are back in Atlantis, more or less.

Plato considered Atlantis a bridge of sorts between land on either side of the ocean, and Muck explores some of the connections between the Americas and the world of Plato’s day.  He considers possible racial connections, considering that the typical look of the Basque people would fit well for a possible Atlantean type, since that “look” could fit in the western parts of Europe, north Africa, and Meso-America–the old sphere of Atlantean influence.  Muck makes you think hard throughout his work, but I think this the most ridiculous of Muck’s arguments.  Maybe I am just squeamish when an ex-Nazi helper-guy talks about race, but it seems that if the Atlantis story is true, 10,000 years of post-Atlantis destruction intermarriage would dilute the racial stock.

Perhaps more interesting are the ancient pyramids built by the Egyptians and Meso-Americans.  Muck seems to argue that both cultures acted as preservers of some kind of Atlantean legacy even thousands later in the post-apocalyptic reboot of civilization.  Perhaps the pyramid shape was meant to recall Atlas and Atlantis’ great mountain. This is more convincing than the racial argument, but I still think it fairly weak.  Both cultures built their structures thousands of years apart, and it seems they had different purposes in mind.  Muck’s earlier arguments about climate, topography, and the gulf stream stand on much more solid footing.  His analysis about the mapping of the ocean floor of the Atlantic indicates the possibility of an Atlantean like form still lying on the ocean floor.

As for the cataclysmic end, Muck has an answer for that as well.  Plato’s description has Atlantis lying right around the mid-Atlantic ridge, a potentially volcanic region.  The diagram below right shows the ridge shows the newest ocean floor crust in red:

Muck believes that a very large asteroid struck earth right around 9000 B.C., which matches remarkably with the chronology offered by Plato’s account.  Here is one of a variety of articles on the subject, with impact dates ranging between 10,000 to 13,000 years ago.  Some argue that this asteroid or comet struck the polar ice caps.  Muck argues that it struck somewhere around the mid-Atlantic ridge.  If Atlantis existed, and if a very large asteroid struck near the mid-atlantic ridge, you could easily have had a gigantically massive subterranean volcanic eruption that literally could have had Atlantis sink into the sea in a single night.


Muck doesn’t need the asteroid to hit the mid-Atlantic ridge necessarily.  If it did strike the polar ice-caps, it would have caused the destruction of Atlantis in a global deluge not overnight, but within a week or so at the most.

I have left out a great deal of technical information Muck includes, and must content myself with a general summary.

Muck knows he cannot absolutely prove his case one way or another.

I am a big fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work with Heterodox Academy, which encourages more ideological diversity on campus.  Haidt readily acknowledges his liberal beliefs–he has never voted Republican–but even he agrees that the situation has gotten dangerously imbalanced in many departments across many campuses.  He has discovered some interesting links, not surprisingly, between religious belief, psychological temperament, and political affiliations.  You can take various fun tests at his link here.

Just as political leanings often come from moral and religious beliefs, I think what one thinks of Muck’s book will depend on a variety of factors that go a bit deeper than the evidence itself.

If you look to disagree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a committed ‘gradualist’ in all things geological
  • You are strictly scientific in deciding about the past and would hardly value Plato’s account as evidence of any kind.
  • You probably hesitate in part because you don’t want to be associated with various new age crazy people who believe in the existence of Atlantis for all the wrong reasons.
  • You need “hard” evidence like clay tablets, pots with markings, the stuff that archaeologists would find, before you would acquiesece to Muck

If you look to agree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a contrarian by temperment
  • You weigh lots of different kinds of evidence much more equally than those committed to a particular field
  • You think it would be “cool” if Atlantis once existed (an attitude most abhorred by the strict scientific type, who would see this feeling as meaning absolutely nothing.  I think they are right, but only about 90% right in their approbation of this attitude).
  • You admit the possibility of great catastrophe’s altering the fabric of human history as well as geology.

I fall in the latter category, but hope that I have been fair to the former.  Again,some parts of Muck’s book I found nearly persuasive, and others not so much.

To illustrate some of the above differences, we can examine Jon Anthony West’s work in Egyptology.  He got famous/infamous for suggesting that erosion patterns on the Sphinx suggested that it was much older than was commonly believed, and was likely built by a civilization that predated Egypt perhaps by a thousands of years.  Dr. Robert Schoch, who earned his Ph.D in geology at Yale, analyzed the Sphinx and agreed with him.  You can see the video–narrated by Charlton Heston!:)–here.

When Schoch presented his findings at a conference, Egyptologists present could say little about the actual data he presented.  But one retorted, “Well, you say that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before, but if another civilization built it, where is the evidence?  Where are their tools?  Where is their writing?”  Schoch could only stare back rather dumbfounded. Hadn’t he just presented evidence in the form of the Sphinx?  Perhaps they did not accept the fact of the Sphinx itself as evidence because it did not fit into their preconceived notions of what constitutes evidence, which has to be in the form of writing, pottery, etc.  Of course, if a highly developed civilization did exist somewhere around 10,000 B.C., it would have suffered catastrophic collapse as a result of the asteroids that struck Earth around that time.  If they did have a written language and if they made pottery, it would have been washed away almost immediately.

We see how these different areas of belief work together.

So I say, let the Germans go nuts.  Let them make far-fetched claims.  It beats some other avenues they have taken in the past . . .



To the Victor go Some of the Spoils

Many often declare that since, “To the victor go the spoils,” so too, that, “Victors write the history books.”  This pithy phrase assumes that historical narratives boil down to power, a concession to postmodern theory that I am loathe to make.  Aside from the debate over the theory, however, history itself will not confirm the statement.  Several examples exist to prove this point:

  • The Athenians exiled Thucydides but we read of the war that helped bring about his exile almost exclusively through him.
  • Athenian Democracy “won” by executing Socrates, but subsequent generations of readers learned Athenian democracy primarily through Plato’s eyes.
  • The triumph of the “imperial” system over the Republic in Rome became a fact of life after Augustus, but we think of that triumph foremost through the writings of Tacitus, a significant critic of most of the emperors.
  • The North won the American Civil War, but the Confederacy had a variety of champions shortly after the war and a variety of sympathizers today,

and so on.

As Tocqueville noted, mere physical force can control the body but often has the opposite impact on the soul.  The examples above demonstrate also that, contra the mundane postmodernist, shaping how we see the world has much more to do with our imagination that rote political force.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Excellent Empire disappointed me overall.  He is likely one of the few who could have possibly made a history of Christian doctrine an exciting read, and he did just that in his four volume work The Christian Tradition.  In The Excellent Empire he flashes his ability to deftly dance from text to text, but seems to get trapped into the detached tone of his main subject, Edward Gibbon, whose The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire forms the backdrop of this book.

I give Gibbon much credit for his labors, his erudition, and for having a defined point of view.  Alas, he writes like a know-it-all, and I cannot buy into how he frames his narrative.  Pelikan seems to accept Gibbon’s perspective (or–is just playing a scholarly game, or am I too dense to notice something else?), and discusses how GIbbon’s perspective relates to Christian thoughts at the time from Sts. Jerome and Augustine, as well as a touch of Salvian and Orosius.

Gibbon’s work is an interesting examination of who gets the last laugh.

Roman contemporary critics of Christians viewed them as a drain on the Roman state, and in many ways enemies of the Roman state.  Jerome saw the collapse of Rome in the most starkly apocalyptic terms, and in the most anguished.  He compared Rome’s end to various passages from Revelation.  He saw Rome as ripe for judgement.  Yet, he grieved over their fall, seeing their end as the end of all things as he knew them.  Augustine took a more cerebral approach, which gained him some more penetrating insights.  He conceived of a Rome built upon shaky foundations from the start.  In one brilliant passage from Book 3 of The City of God he writes,

First, then, why was Troy or Ilium, the cradle of the Roman people (for I must not overlook nor disguise what I touched upon in the first book(2)), conquered, taken and destroyed by the Greeks, though it esteemed and worshipped the same gods as they? Priam, some answer, paid the penalty of the perjury of his father Laomedon.(3) Then it is true that Laomedon hired Apollo and Neptune as his workmen. For the story goes that he promised them wages, and then broke his bargain. I wonder that famous diviner Apollo toiled at so huge a work, and never suspected Laomedon was going to cheat him of his pay. And Neptune too, his uncle, brother of Jupiter, king of the sea, it really was not seemly that he should be ignorant of what was to happen. For he is introduced by Homer(4) (who lived and wrote before the building of Rome) as predicting something great of the posterity of AEneas, who in fact founded Rome. And as Homer says, Neptune also rescued AEneas in a cloud from the wrath of Achilles, though (according to Virgil (1))

“All his will was to destroy
His own creation, perjured Troy.”

Gods, then, so great as Apollo and Neptune, in ignorance of the cheat that was to defraud them of their wages, built the walls of Troy for nothing but thanks and thankless people.(2) There may be some doubt whether it is not a worse crime to believe such persons to be gods, than to cheat such gods. Even Homer himself did not give full credence to the story for while he represents Neptune, indeed, as hostile to the Trojans, he introduces Apollo as their champion, though the story implies that both were offended by that fraud. If, therefore, they believe their fables, let them blush to worship such gods; if they discredit the fables, let no more be said of the “Trojan perjury;” or let them explain how the gods hated Trojan, but loved Roman perjury. For how did the conspiracy of Catiline, even in so large and corrupt a city, find so abundant a supply of men whose hands and tongues found them a living by perjury and civic broils? What else but perjury corrupted the judgments pronounced by so many of the senators? What else corrupted the people’s votes and decisions of all causes tried before them? For it seems that the ancient practice of taking oaths has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of perjury.

Such analysis gave medieval Europe a whole new foundation of political and religious ideology on which to proceed.

Rome attacked Christians for not giving themselves fully to the well-being of the state.  For the Romans, this might have taken the form of not giving due sacrifices to the emperor, or not joining the army.  Gibbon pointed out as well that the best men in the Church gave themselves to the Church, and not Rome.  Imagine a Rome where Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, etc.–with all of their energy and intelligence–served as provincial governors instead of bishops.

Jerome and Augustine responded variously with how Rome had doomed itself to destruction via its sins, or how Christians were in fact the best citizens of Rome.  Their analysis won the day.  Monastics, for example, appear on the surface at least, to not contribute anything to the well-being of civilization.  But monastics would be honored in the west for the next 1000 years.  Their presence made no sense to either the Romans or to Gibbon.  The “social triumph of the church,” as Pelikan calls it, gave the Church the power of interpreting Rome’s history.  But I gathered that Pelikan thought Augustine and Jerome thieves, to a certain extent.*  Perhaps for Pelikan, Gibbon restored Rome’s vision of itself back to the stream of history.

Augustine and Jerome appeared to be the victors in the 5th century A.D. and beyond, as the Church had a strong hand on shaping the next millennium.  But historical spoils can be slippery things.  In an irony that perhaps not even Gibbon might have foreseen, today’s Christians, having abandoned much of the otherworldliness of the Church of the 5th century, may find more congeniality with Gibbon’s interpretation as opposed to Augustine’s.  What modern mega-church leader, for example, would tell anyone to become a monk?  We have our eyes set on this world and have no concept of how to patttern ourselves after the heavenly realms.  Some may applaud this.  But without the worldview of Augustine and Jerome we may find ourselves wishing, along with Gibbon, that St. Augustine had served as proconsul of Alexandria.


*I could be totally wrong here.  Part of the difficulty I had with this book was I felt that I was reading a different Pelikan than the one I encountered in The Christian Tradition.  I had assumed that The Excellent Empire was written before this series, because its tone seemed more distant to me, less committed to the idea of truth than The Christian Tradition.  I knew that Pelikan had converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1998.  But I had somehow thought (how I thought this I’m not sure) that The Christian Tradition was written during/after his conversion, when in reality the early volumes stretch back to 1973, and the last volume predates his official reception into the Church by eight years.

This could mean that

  • I have misread Pelikan entirely in The Excellent Empire
  • Pelikan is deft at hiding his particular point of view from the reader and is simply examining certain points of view in a more detached way.
  • He does admire Gibbon (which is understandable) and agrees with Gibbon that Christians really did bring down Rome from the inside out.  This stance is not Augustine’s or Jerome’s, but it is certainly not an anti-Christian idea in itself.  Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream may hint at this (Daniel 2).  Perhaps I am too ingrained in my distaste for Gibbon’s pompous Enlightenment attitude to see that, despite this weakness, he may have been right after all about the Church’s relationship to Rome.




Festivals of the French Revolution

The modern west, and certainly the United States, has a weird relationship with sports.  Many reasons exist for this, including the fact that sports involve great skill and entertain us.  One key to their hold on us, however, certainly involves the fact that our culture has no communal rituals and emotions.  Politics remains too divisive and negative to provide this.  Democracy tends to prioritize individual vis a vis the group.  Most forms of American Protestantism have no liturgies and no “physicality” to provide the necessary framework for shared experiences.  Sporting events can provide this.  Many fans have pre-game routines, rituals, dress–“liturgies,” in effect.  These routines come with the eating of certain foods, and so on.

All this to say, sports functions much more like a religion than many of our churches–at least in terms of visible manifestations.  Perhaps too, this explains the growth of round-the-clock, all year coverage of seasonal sports.  Our need for communal “religious” experience overpowers even our well-founded moral concerns about certain sports such as football.

Because non-liturgical Protestants formed the ethos of America many of us have little experience with religious communal celebrations.  Often they involve parades, food, music, and a physical embodiment of a particular belief or historical event.  Below, for example, is footage from the festival on the Greek island of Cephalonia, where the relics of St. Gerasimos reside.  On the saint’s feast day, one such embodiment happens when the body of St. Gerasimos “passes over” the town.

The French Revolution sought to transform all of French society.  To do so, the revolutionary leaders recognized that they needed to eliminate Catholicism from the hearts and minds of the people–easier said then done.  The church dictated the calendar and its rhythms, with a proliferation of festivals.  These festivals formed the habits, which formed the hearts, of the French.

They needed new festivals to replace the traditional Catholic celebrations.  Mona Azouf takes up this oft-neglected topic in her book, Festivals of the French Revolution.  

I believe Jaroslav Pelikan made the observation that Christian feasts all celebrate events that happened in observable time.  We celebrate the Incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.  We have days for remembering the Mother of God and saints of whose lives we have a record.  The only obvious exception to this is Trinity Sunday.  But the Trinitarian nature of God is not an abstract concept, but the concrete–though also mysterious–reality of the Universe.  Celebrations of actual things can have a “natural” atmosphere about them.

We can envision a joyous party for a team when they win the championship.  But what about a team that, during the season itself, had a banquet to celebrate “Victory”?  Things might get awkward quickly.

This challenge confronted France’s revolutionary leadership.  If they wanted wholesale change, then everything old would have to go.  They eliminated a great deal of the previous political leadership.  They transformed the military.  They killed or exiled many recalcitrant aristocrats.  They went farther than almost any other revolutionary group I know of and literally changed the calendar.  They understood that the Gregorian calendar, despite its mainly pagan roots, had been thoroughly Christianized and formed the unconscious rhythms of daily French life.  Some argued that the new France needed no celebrations.  Now that they had banished oppression, each day would have a moderate and joyous character.  But eventually even the die-hards realized that they needed to give the people holy-days (i.e. holidays) to create a new national liturgy.

The festivals for the new calendar attempted to change the concept of time.  They also attempted to alter the concept of space.  Most old Catholic festivals took place in the town near the church.  This meant that the majority of events happened within view of the cathedrals (always the tallest buildings) and in the town streets.  Of course having the church building silently governing the festival would not do.  But the narrow streets and the inevitable buying and selling of goods in the market, conjured up thoughts of secrecy, narrowness, “feudal conspiracy,” and the like.  Festivals of the Revolution often took place in wide fields away from towns and cities.  There they could escape the church building, and the open fields also aided their ideology of equality.  In addition the French Revolution’s obsession with “Nature” had its role to play.  Everything seems new and promising in a lush meadow at springtime.

So far so good.  Here is one contemporary description of the “Festival of Liberty:”

The procession began late, around noon; it was not that the people were made to wait, as by despots at court festivals.  The people turned up at daybreak in large numbers . . . but all waited until all had arrived.  They took pleasure in each other’s company; nonetheless it was time to leave.

On the site of the Bastille an inauguration of the Statue of Liberty was held.  Here more gathered, and it should be noted, they were favored with perfect weather.

There was no excess of pomp; no gold dazzled the eye or insulted the citizens’ humble and honorable poverty.  No soldiers dripping with braid came to cast a condescending eye on the poorly dressed crowd as they passed.  Here actors and witnesses merged, each taking part in the procession.  They had little order but a good deal accord with one another.  No one indulged in the vanity of the haughty gaze, no one set out to be a spectacle.  Boredom, that son of uniformity, found no foothold among the various groups; at each step the scene changed–everyone wanted a part in the Festival of Liberty.

The festival banished luxury, but notable commemorative objects had their role.  The procession opened with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, written on two stone tablets such as the 10 Commandments, though that is no match for the Declaration.  Four citizens proudly carried this noble burden, each reading aloud those immeasurable first lines: “Men are born free and remain free and equal.”

Four busts followed in like manner.  “Ah, there is Voltaire, that old rascal who made us laugh so much at the priests.  That other, worried looking individual [Roussaeu] loved the nobles even less and never sought their favor.  Who is the third?  It is an Englishman, Sydney, who put his head on the block rather than bend a knee to a king.  That old man there, we know him well.  It is Franklin, who can be more rightly called the Liberator of the New World than a certain fop who lives not far from here [i.e. Louis XVI].

The two coffins that followed threw a somber coloring over events as we remembered the martyrs of the massacre at Nancy [some soldiers refused to obey their royalist leaning officers and were shot].  

Preceded by their chains, suspended from trophies and born aloft by young ladies dressed in white, marched our loyal soldiers [loyal to the Revolution that is], with several regular citizen volunteers.  They in turn preceded the Chariot of Liberty, which used the same wheels as the chariot that served for the enshrinement of Voltaire at the Palace of Reason.  Let us not forget that philosophy gave us Liberty.

The chariot, modeled on the antique, was of imposing construction.  On one side David sketched the story of Brutus the Elder of Rome, himself sentencing his royalist sons to death for their disobedience to the law.  On the other he depicted William Tell, aiming a javelin, the target of which was an apple on his own son’s head.  But at his feet we spy another javelin, one that gave independence to Switzerland by slaying the Governor of Austria.  The Lady of Liberty rests on her throne, her hand at her side holding a club, with a gaze that would make king’s blush.   We should never forget that the sceptre of liberty is a bludgeon to her enemies.  It should also be said that six daggers formed the prow of the front of the chariot to threaten any despotism bold enough to impede the march of liberty.

With steady steps 20 democratic horses drew the chariot of the sovereign of the French people.  Their progress had none of the insolence of those idle coursers fed at the stables in Versailles.  They did not hold their heads high; their manes had no gold plait, nor were there plumes adorned.  They walked rather ploddingly, but they kept a steady course.  

Four hundred thousand citizens came to one spot with nary a mishap.  The soldiers on foot had no need to mark the route, none had need to go before the crowds with bayonettes to make way.  Words of peace contained this multitude, it fell into line at the sight of an ear of corn presented to it rather than a musket.

Even a breezy reading of this account reveals that the new foundation was not close to drying.

How do celebrate with the threat of force lingering?  We know of the many imprisonments and beheadings in general, but even here, “Lady Liberty” holds a club. Brutus kills his sons.  The chariot has daggers in the front, and so on. I have some sympathy . . . the only way to completely turn your country 180 degrees is by wrenching the wheel and holding on for dear life.  The question, remains, however . . . how much can you celebrate when you have the sword of Damocles hanging over your head?

A big difference exists between saying, “Everybody dance now!” and, “Everybody dance now.

No particular rhyme or reason exists for how the festival looks and proceeds.  Certain decisions will have to be arbitrary on some level of course.  Perhaps we understand, for example, that “democratic horses” would move “ploddingly” at a “steady” pace. But what if the choreographer had the horses hold their heads high and gallop down the causeway to show the “energy of liberty”?  Would that have been “democratic”. . . or “aristocratic?”

Many such confusions and differences in perception led to imprisonments and even death during the Reign of Terror.

Ultimately Azouf argues that the festivals served not as an emblem of the Revolution’s success but it’s failure.  One cannot invent out of thin air an embodiment of abstract ideals and expect everyone to go along with it.  Azouf herself comments that the revolution in general, and the festivals in particular, represented France’s attempt to reject the entirety of their history–tantamount to rejection of their very selves.  No one can sustain such efforts for long.

And yet . . . while the king eventually came back to France it did not take long to banish him again.  The cultural victory of the French Revolution’s de-sacralization campaign (which, as Azouf points out, involved “sacralizing” different values) took a long time, but France’s subsequent history shows that the revolutionaries won the political battle.

We too have a similar inheritance as the French, having undergone our own radical break from the past at much the same time.  We in time developed some national festivals (the World Series, the Super Bowl, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc.).  Time will tell whether or not this age of atomized individualism will wash those away.  If so, Azouf’s work testifies to the fact that at our core we need such celebrations, and even atomized individuals will find a way to create new festivals.