Cultures are all Different, except when they’re the Same

It strikes me as a plausible proposition that anthropology developed primarily as a science out of democratic cultures. The openness fostered by democracy may contribute to curiosity and a desire for travel. Many consider the Athenian Herodotus the “Father of History,” but his work has many anthropological dimensions as well. I discussed in another post the archetypal Feminine within democracy, so it may be no surprise that the most famous anthropologists in the 20th century were two women, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

We can imagine the stereotypical male being almost a parody of an anthropologist–narrow, rigid, calling anything different “stupid,” or “dumb” (this could have been a marvelous Monty Python skit with John Cleese). So we can see how typical feminine traits of fluidity, appreciating context, nurture and acceptance, and so on, might fit women best–in general of course.

Many have written extensively on Ruth Benedict’s classic, Patterns of Culture, and I will not seek to say what has already been said. Briefly, however, Benedict seems to have two main goals:

  • To demonstrate that various aspects of a particular culture all interconnect and influence one another, and
  • To show that cultures are fundamentally different from one another, and are developed internally, not dependent on race or geography
  • Benedict of course makes many interesting observations about the societies she observes and her work has great merit. But, just as John Cleese might marvelously enact a parody of an anthropologist in the field, so too anthropologists can sometimes parody themselves. It is possible to be so open, so fluid, as to lose one’s moorings.

By this I mean that, of course cultures are different from one another, but this should not surprise us at all. People are different too. What I find more striking are the similarities across cultures that testify to the essential unity of human nature. For example, Benedict tackles how different cultures treat adolescent girls. In one place, young teens are primarily feared. The transformation they undergo has an element of sacredness about it, but, the sacred can also bring terror. So the young girls are sent away from the community to live in tents apart for months at a time. In another culture, they are celebrated and receive something akin to adoration, with men of the tribe literally bowing to them as potential and future mothers of the tribe. In Polynesian cultures, Benedict asserts that no one makes a big deal of adolescence at all. No ceremonies exist to mark the passing from youth to young adulthood, but . . . during this time teens are granted a great deal of sexual freedom, which they readily take advantage of until marriage.

Benedict’s strong accentuation of differences, however, have her miss the overall point. Each of these cultures treat the teen years as a distinct phase of development, each other them apply different standards of conduct for teens and others in the tribe treat them differently than either children or adults. To me, this seems more striking than their differences.

I find this emphasis on difference–not at all unique to Benedict among anthropologists–as a symptom of the democratic cultures from whence they arise which also stress individual differences and uniqueness. Paradoxically, I think this leads us towards a fascination with cultures that are tightly interlocked and cohesive, for democratic cultures can produce no such thing.

When a book gets reviewed positively by diverse thinkers such as Rod Dreher and Cornel West, one should take note. Patrick Deneeen’s Why Liberalism Failed partially indulges in too much romanticism for the past. His book is more of an essay or a thought-piece, and so it has holes. Still, I find his paradoxical analysis that Liberalism–by which he means the liberal democratic order that forms the foundation of both Republicans and Democrats–has failed because it has in fact done everything it set out to do, compelling, and an interesting companion to Benedict and other anthropologists.

Deneen argues that the Liberal order, which had its origins in with the work of Hobbes and Locke, set out to create a radically new society with a very different conception of how an individual relates to the state and one another. Traditional societies saw the state fundamentally as a community of persons pointed in the same direction with the same values.

Liberal society starts with the premise that recognizing and maximizing individuals, and the inherent competition that comes with it, will create a more prosperous and workable state. Liberalism seeks to free us from all group oriented authorities that are not consensual, be it tradition, community norms, etc. It achieved its goals in spectacular fashion and we all partake readily of what it has to offer. It has brought unprecedented prosperity, but left us adrift at sea in a mass of individuals. In turn, this has led to the rise of statism, and emotionally driven authoritarian politics. Gone is the world of George H.W. Bush. Welcome to the world of Trump and Ocasio-Cortez. The success of Liberalism has brought us to place that will naturally usher in its demise.*

Deneen explains himself well on any number of podcast interviews, and the book has various and detailed reviews. I will mention two of his main points that might help us understand the polarity of the self-loathing expressed by some in academia and the progressive left, and the chest-thumping of the more nationalistic right.

Deneen mentions that Liberalism is supposed to make men “free” and “liberal” in their disposition. But the whole tradition of the liberal arts expounds a very different meaning of freedom. The great thinkers and writers from the ancients down through Austen and Dickens all characterize freedom as living with limits, be it the limits of nature, tradition, or the law of God. But the Liberal order defines freedom as acting without any constraint, be it constraints on the market, on family, on biology, and so on. So, Wal-Mart should be free to eradicate mom-and-pop Main Street. And, if every civilization that ever existed defined marriage in a certain way, that stricture simply sets up another bowling pin for the Liberal order to knock down. The whole history of the human past has no authority over the now.

Our orientation towards living without limits has led to our striking crisis of inequality. Our solution to this, however, is not to champion the limitations taught by the liberal arts, rooted in God, natural law, or nature itself, but instead to blame liberal education for being “impractical.” For Deneen, an insistent STEM emphasis only continues to feed the beast, though he surmises that we will avoid violence. John Locke himself argued that, of course his proposed new order would bring about a new kind of inequality. But this new inequality will give us much more overall prosperity, and indeed he was correct. Even the poor may not mind inequality so much because we all have iphones.** Still, the benefits of a liberal economy do not feed the soul.

So too, Deneen argues that Liberalism destroys “culture” as part of its operating procedure. To develop, culture requires place, habit, tradition, and local difference, none of which have a role in the Liberal state. We have no place, and if we live in a particular place for long, it may not have any “place” about it (suburbs are wonderfully convenient and give many obvious benefits, but most are interchangeable with each other).

I think this might explain why many in the west have a fascination with other cultures. The Pueblo and the Dobu people profiled by Benedict have a tight culture in which roles and identity stand out with perfect clarity to all who live within them. We may not want to live among them but we long for their sense of solidity. Conversely, the Dobu do not send out anthropologists to find out about us. A man who is full need not scavenge for food.

This may help explain the progressive liberal drive to limit free speech. They seek not the liberal idea of freedom, but taboos that might give us identity. I completely object to their methods and their goals, though I understand the impulse. You can only celebrate diversity for so long, until you realize that everyone has the same need to define themselves as a people, and we cannot define ourselves without living within limits .

Deneen’s book has few solutions in mind, and this has frustrated some reviewers. But he does he offer the following from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution:

In this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, [and] that instead of throwing away our old prejudices, we cherish them . . . . W are are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock of each man is small, and the individuals do better to avail themselves of the general captital of nations and of ages. . . . Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes part of his nature.

Dave

*In an interesting aside, Deneen points out that James Madison specifically sought to develop a government where different political interests were inexorably pitted against one another. He eschewed the idea of community almost from the start. These different and intractable differences would preserve liberty for each group by each interest group canceling each other out. Alas, he probably envisioned several kinds of difference, and not just two.

Or . . . perhaps just two versions of the same impulse? Many criticize Trump for his relationship to facts. But Oscasio-Cortez recently derided those who are “more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

**Deneen said in a recent speech that he leads at Notre Dame a class on the idea of utopia, from ancient days until now. At the end, he polled the class to ask them which society of those he presented would they least want to live in, and which they would most want to live in. They all said 1984 is the one they wouldn’t want to live in. But which would they choose? A handful chose the world Wendell Berry presents in Hannah Coulter. But about half the class said Brave New World.

“It was stunning that they saw it as a utopia,” Deneen said. “That’s liberalism succeeding, and that’s liberalism failing.”

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Cortes and Alexander the Great

Sometimes how historical figures are perceived has much more to do with how perceptions change over time than what people actually did in their own lifetimes.  Sometimes certain people in the past take on a romantic hue that also can distort our vision.

I thought about this phenomena while reading Five Letters of Cortes, a collection of letters Cortes sent 51iimHx9yvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_back to the continent detailing events in Mexico.  The book interested me because historians today routinely treat Cortes as a great villain, and I wanted to see how he measured up to that reputation in his own words. Scholars of course debate the veracity of some details Cortes narrates (without giving much credence to the idea that he simply told the truth as he saw it).  But my interest was not what happened so much as how Cortes wanted his readers to perceive him, regardless of whether or not he spoke fairly and truly.

As I read I thought of how history views Alexander the Great.  The two men have some similarities. Both sought glory, perhaps Alexander most of all.  Both conquered and destroyed a foreign people and culture with at least questionable justification.  Both dealt with internal disputes in their own ranks. Both used diplomacy to great effect, perhaps Cortes most of all.  And yet, history loves Alexander and despises Cortes, generally speaking, and we should ask why.

A few things stood out to me in Cortes’ letters.

  • Cortes de-emphasizes violence and tries to play up his relationship with the natives when he can.  He writes early in the first letter that, “the Indians went among us with as little fear as if they had already had dealings with us for many years.”  He seems proudest when he makes friends.  The “battles” (not battles in a traditional sense) and violence that occur happen when things break down, or in response to a tough situation initiated (in Cortes’ view) by the misunderstanding of the natives.
  • Cortes clearly admires the natives.  A modern westerner expecting to find a racially motivated imperialist will be disappointed.  He describes the sacrifices and violence surrounding Aztec religion in a lengthy passage:

And always on the day before some important enterprise they burn incense in their temples, and sometimes even sacrifice their own persons, some cutting out their tongues, others their ears, still others slicing their bodies with knives in order to offer to their idols the blood which flows from their wounds; sometimes sprinkling the whole of the temple with blood and throwing it up in the air, and many other fashions of sacrifice they use . . .

One very horrible and abominable custom they have which we have seen in no other part, and that is that whenever they wish to beg anything of their idols, in order that their petition may find more acceptance, they take large numbers of boys and girls and even of grown men and women and tear out their heart and bowels while still alive, burning them in the presence of those idols . . .  Some of us have actually seen this done and they say it is the most terrible and frightful thing that they have ever seen.  . . . Your majesties can therefore be certain that there can be no year in which they have not sacrificed some three to four thousand souls.

As to what the Spanish should do in light of this, I leave the reader to decide.  Cortes continues,

Your majesties may therefore perceive whether it is their duty to prevent such loss and evil, and certainly it will be pleasing to God if by means of, and under the protection of your royal majesties, these people are introduced to and instructed in the Holy Catholic Faith . . .

And yet, after describing the most horrible aspect of Aztec society, Cortes concludes the section by writing,

For it is certain that if they should ever serve God with that same faith, fervor, and diligence [as their idols] they would work many miracles.   We believe that by the aid of interpreters who should plainly declare to them the truths of the Holy Faith and the error in which they are, many, perhaps all of them, would quickly depart from their evil ways and come to true knowledge, for they live more equably and reasonably than any other of the tribes which we have hitherto come across.

Cortes also hates the fact that some of the Spanish use the Indians as currency in slaves.  This, he argues, earns the “notorious” Diego Velazquez followers, and Cortes urges the king to remove him from any position of authority at once.

Spanish commentary on the Aztec king Montezuma strike a poignant note.  Multiple sources all converge on the idea of admiration for the man.  Here is Diaz de Casillo writing,

The Great Montezuma was about forty years old, of good height, well proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin. His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was very neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon. He had many women as his mistresses, the daughters of chieftains, but two legitimate wives who were Caciques in their own right, and only some of his servants knew of it. He was quite free from sodomy. The clothes he wore one day he did not wear again till three or four days later. He had a guard of two hundred chieftains lodged in rooms beside his own, only some of whom were permitted to speak to him.”

When Moctezuma was allegedly killed by being stoned to death by his own people Cortés and all of us captains and soldiers wept for him, and there was no one among us that knew him and had dealings with him who did not mourn him as if he were our father, which was not surprising, since he was so good. It was stated that he had reigned for seventeen years, and was the best king they ever had in Mexico, and that he had personally triumphed in three wars against countries he had subjugated. I have spoken of the sorrow we all felt when we saw that Montezuma was dead. We even blamed the Mercederian friar for not having persuaded him to become a Christian.

Of course Cortes used violence at times directly and on purpose, however much he wanted to avoid it. In one such instance, we have both Aztec and Spanish sources for the same event.  Regarding a terrible massacre, the Aztecs write,

Here it is told how the Spaniards killed, they murdered the Mexicans who were celebrating the Fiesta of Huitzilopochtli in the place they called The Patio of the Gods

At this time, when everyone was enjoying the celebration, when everyone was already dancing, when everyone was already singing, when song was linked to song and the songs roared like waves, in that precise moment the Spaniards determined to kill people. They came into the patio, armed for battle.
They came to close the exits, the steps, the entrances [to the patio]: The Gate of the Eagle in the smallest palace, The Gate of the Canestalk and the Gate of the Snake of Mirrors. And when they had closed them, no one could get out anywhere.
Once they had done this, they entered the Sacred Patio to kill people. They came on foot, carrying swords and wooden and metal shields. Immediately, they surrounded those who danced, then rushed to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off both his arms. Then they cut off his head [with such a force] that it flew off, falling far away.
At that moment, they then attacked all the people, stabbing them, spearing them, wounding them with their swords. They struck some from behind, who fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out [of their bodies]. They cut off the heads of some and smashed the heads of others into little pieces.
They struck others in the shoulders and tore their arms from their bodies. They struck some in the thighs and some in the calves. They slashed others in the abdomen and their entrails fell to the earth. There were some who even ran in vain, but their bowels spilled as they ran; they seemed to get their feet entangled with their own entrails. Eager to flee, they found nowhere to go.
Some tried to escape, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates while they laughed. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Others entered the communal house, where they were safe for a while. Others lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again they [the Spaniards] would see them and kill them.
The blood of the warriors ran like water as they ran, forming pools, which widened, as the smell of blood and entrails fouled the air.
And the Spaniards walked everywhere, searching the communal houses to kill those who were hiding. They ran everywhere, they searched every place.
When [people] outside [the Sacred Patio learned of the massacre], shouting began, “Captains, Mexicas, come here quickly! Come here with all arms, spears, and shields! Our captains have been murdered! Our warriors have been slain! Oh Mexica captains, [our warriors] have been annihilated!”

Then a roar was heard, screams, people wailed, as they beat their palms against their lips. Quickly the captains assembled, as if planned in advance, and carried their spears and shields. Then the battle began. [The Mexicas] attacked them with arrows and even javelins, including small javelins used for hunting birds. They furiously hurled their javelins [at the Spaniards]. It was as if a layer of yellow canes spread over the Spaniards.

And the Spanish version of the same event:

Cortes wanted to entirely understand the cause of the Indians’ rebellion. He interrogated them [the Spaniards] altogether. Some said it was caused by the message sent by Narváez, others because the people wanted to toss the Spaniards out of Mexico [Tenochtitlan], which had been planned as soon as the ships had arrived, because while they were fighting they shouted “Get out!” at them. Others said it was to liberate Moctezuma, for they fought saying, “Free our god and King if you don’t want to die!” Still others said it was to steal the gold, silver, and jewels that the Spaniards had, because they heard the Indians say, “Here you shall leave the gold that you have taken!” Again, some said it was to keep the Tlaxcalans and other mortal enemies out of Mexico. Finally, many believed that taking their idols as gods, they had given themselves to the devil.

Any of these things would have been enough to cause the rebellion, not to mention all of them together. But the principal one was that a few days after Cortes left to confront Narváez, it became time for a festival the Mexicas wanted to celebrate in their traditional way. . . . They begged Pedro de Alvarado to give them his permission, so [the Spaniards] wouldn’t think that they planned to kill them. Alvarado consented provided that there were no sacrifices, no people killed, and no one had weapons.

More than 600 gentlemen and several lords gathered in the yard of the largest temple; some said there were more than a thousand there. They made a lot of noise with their drums, shells, bugles, and hendidos, which sounded like a loud whistle. Preparing their festival, they were naked, but covered with precious stones, pearls, necklaces, belts, bracelets, many jewels of gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl, wearing very rich feathers on their heads. They performed a dance called the mazeualiztli, which is called that because it is a holiday from work [symbolized by the word for farmer, macehaulli]. . . . They laid mats in the patio of the temple and played drums on them. They danced in circles, holding hands, to the music of the singers, to which they responded.

The songs were sacred, and not profane, and were sung to praise the god honored in the festival, to induce him to provide water and grain, health, and victory, or to thank him for healthy children and other things. And those who knew the language and these ceremonial rites said that when the people danced in the temples, they perform very different from those who danced the netoteliztli, in voice, movement of the body, head, arms, and feet, by which they manifested their concepts of good and evil. The Spaniards called this dance, an areito, a word they brought from the islands of Cuba and Santo Domingo.  While the Mexica gentlemen were dancing in the temple yard of Vitcilopuchtli [Huitzilopochtli], Pedro de Alvarado went there. Whether on [the basis of] his own opinion or in an agreement decided by everyone, I don’t know, but some say he had been warned that the Indian nobles of the city had assembled to plot the mutiny and the rebellion, which they later carried out; others, believe that [the Spaniards] went to watch them perform this famous and praised dance, and seeing how rich they were and wanting the gold the Indians were wearing, he [Alvarado] covered each of the entrances with ten or twelve Spaniards and went inside with more than fifty [Spaniards], and without remorse and lacking any Christian piety, they brutally stabbed and killed the Indians, and took what they were wearing.

I have no wish to downplay a terrible massacre.  For our purposes, however, a few things surprised me about the Spanish account.

  • We might expect ‘righteous’ conquistadors rejoicing in their deed.  Some accounts of the Crusaders massacring civilians in Jerusalem in 1099 sound this way.  Instead we them troubled and very much aware of the fact that they departed from their faith with their actions.
  • Confusion, not certainty, dominates the text.  They search for answers and have a hard time understanding what it is they face or why it happened in the first place.  Some historians/sources apparently indicate that the Spanish may have believed that they were about to do another human sacrifice, though the account above does not hint at this or use it as an excuse.

One can disagree with the reasons for the Spanish presence in the new world.  One can lament the results of the Spanish conquest and the subsequent treatment of the natives.  But I found my overall opinion about Cortes changed from reading his writings, though I still lack a great deal of familiarity with the events in general and other particular sources to come to definite conclusions.

But other historians presumably do not.  And this brings us back to my question earlier about comparing Alexander and Cortes.  Some historians fall over themselves fawning about Alexander, and no one treats Cortes this way, despite their similarities.

Alexander had a few points in his favor . . .

  • The fact that he was king and thus the focal point of all narratives about him.  Cortes reported to the emperor, there were other conquistadors, Montezuma is a striking figure, etc.
  • Alexander destroyed the Persians in classic and dramatic pitched battles, the events of which featured himself.  The Aztecs died partly as a result of cunning diplomacy, Montezuma’s attitude, some skirmishes, etc.  Lacking a Battle of Issus or Gaugemela, we have a hard time latching onto Cortes to fully appreciate his skills (you don’t have to approve of Cortes to admire certain aspects of him).
  • Alexander operated within a “heroic” culture where for the most part, great deeds needed no particular justification. Even modern treatments of Alexander pick up on this, consciously or no.  I can’t recall any in depth discussion from ancient writers, for example, about Alexander’s motives, or the justice of his cause.  They simply don’t matter.  Cortes operated within a much different (and certainly superior) moral framework that calls much of the Spanish enterprise into question.
  • Of course we cannot discount the fact that, however well intentioned Cortes may have been, those that followed often exploited the natives for wealth and personal gain.  We should not directly blame Cortes for this, but his association with it taints him inevitably, and perhaps with some justice.

Of course unlike Alexander, Cortes never killed those close to him out of paranoia or political expediency (i.e. as Alexander did with Parmenio and Callisthenes), nor did he murder his friends in fits of drunken rage (Cleitus).  But these acts usually get overlooked amidst the grandeur of Gaugemela.

Whatever we may think of Cortes, sifting through accumulated historiography about him is a tricky business, especially in light of his own words.

 

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.  Other worlds other than the ones they have 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, “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 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.

Seeing what you Mean

It seems that we occupy a strange place in our national life.  We have more political divisions even though we have much less actual discretionary spending in the federal budget than in the past.  President’s Trump and Obama function/ed largely as symbols for their supporters and detractors.  Many do not care much to look at their particular actions, rather, an action becomes bad or good because of who did it.  We have a hard time seeing past the ad hominem.

But this should not surprise us.  Perhaps it is our very lack of flexibility in the budget that heightens the symbolic role of the president.  I suspect also that especially since the end of the Cold War, and probably since Vietnam, America has searched for a new identity, and forming an identity requires strong symbols.  And, while I think that we would struggle in our political life currently in any case because of this, as (bad) luck would have it, our last two presidents have been near opposites in terms of their personalities and style.  Some argue that Obama was the far more “rational” president, but even if that were true, Obama’s supporters had a strong emotional, gut-level attachment to him, akin to Trump’s current supporters.  In any case, we will miss what is really happening if we focus only on the policies, or the outward appearance of things (though to be sure, we could use some dispassionate focus on what presidents are actually doing in addition to their symbolic perception).

What is a president, exactly?

Childish interpretations of kingship in earlier eras tend to argue along the lines of, “Kings dressed up in all their finery because they were greedy, cruel, and didn’t care about the people.”  Much better interpretations see monarchs as an extension of the people themselves in some way.  The people would not want them to dress in a dowdy fashion, for that would reflect poorly on them too.  So, for example, many Frenchman took great pride in the fact that Louis XIV could eat 2-3x more than a normal man with no apparent ill effects.  But I have struggled with even some of these more sympathetic approaches.  I still feel that they leave something out.

Alice Hunt’s The Drama of Coronation brings out many nuances and subtleties of English coronation rites.  She demonstrates a great ability to let the texts breathe and speak for themselves.  Her analysis strikes me as fair and careful, and her comments attempt to illumine what for 21st-century moderns is a great mystery.  She traces the coronations of five English monarchs in attempt to answer the question:

What is a king (or queen), exactly?

We will miss the mark widely if we think only in terms of having an executive function in government.  One problem that faces historians with this question is that we have very few records of medieval coronation rites.  This in itself gives us a clue that coronation ceremonies had a primarily religious function.  In the older Byzantine rite, we see that the public, and even catechumens, had to leave the service during the canon of the mass.  In the western rite of St. Gregory the Great, the confession of sin has communicants proclaim, “I will not speak of thy mysteries to thine enemies.”  Hunt suggests that at least beginning with Pepin the Short, coronations took place in a sacramental and liturgical sphere, which would have meant “private” in at least some ways.

But we have many records or eyewitnesses of England’s 16th-century coronations.  The crowning of Henry VIII would not have been unusual, but each subsequent coronation had its own unique elements that perhaps called for a more public justification, aside from the turbulent historical circumstances:

  • Anne Boleyn was crowned.  The fact that a new queen would be publicly crowned while the king still reigned was entirely novel.
  • The coronations of Mary and Elizabeth as “queens regnant” had not happened before
  • Edward VI coronation involved that of a boy king amidst stark religious changes

As mentioned, Hunt handles the sources marvelously.  My only quibble is one that I have with many (it seems) English historians, which involves their failure to raise their eyes above the various perspectives and declare something definite.  I am all for intellectual humility, but sometimes it takes more humility to take a risk of being wrong than to say nothing at all.

The first issue Hunt tackles involves historians who try and argue for something along the lines of “exploitation of ceremonies” to achieve power.  She cites some historians of the Wars of the Roses that accuse the Yorkist faction of attempting just this to achieve power.  Hunt dismisses this perspective quickly.  Along with David Kertzer and others, she argues that ceremonies don’t exploit as much as they create legitimate rule.  This may sound silly to some modern ears if they think only of ancient robes and mitres.  But if we imagine a disputed presidential election in the U.S., and one candidate had the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administer the oath of office, we would not say that he “exploited ceremony.”  Rather, the ceremony–at least in part–made him president.  He could not be president without the ceremony, nor would we say the ceremony meant nothing more than empty ritual.

Henry VIII gives us a good place to begin as the last great coronation before the Reformation.  Here we reside in the realm, so we imagine, of absolute divine right before the advent of more popular Reformation polities.  But just as the Roman emperors opposed themselves to the aristocratic senate and ruled in the name of the people, so too did Henry and other European kings.  Kingship had an element of “popularity” about it, in the strict sense of the Latin meaning of “populares.”  Hunt quotes from the Liber Regalis:

Here followers a device for the manner and order of Coronation of the most excellent and Christian prince Henry VIII, rightful and undoubted inheritor of the Crown of England and of France with all appurtenances, which is only by the whole assed and consent of every of the three estates of his realm.

Henry’s legitimacy is real, rooted not just in Heaven but on Earth.  Thus, the “physicality” of his rule has a reflection in his person, and required the physical objects of rulers past, especially the chalice of St. Edward, among other things.  These various objects had a hierarchy of value, and who carried them and where people processed gave rather than reflected status.  Contra the modern assumption of the homogenization of space and time, the king stood somewhere between heaven and earth.  Heaven of course was not earth, but the two met in various times and places in the medieval view.  Church buildings themselves were a touchstone, and the designs of the buildings manifested this.*  Clergy were consecrated, set apart, so they could receive the ultimate intersection between heaven and earth–the holy eucharist.  The City of God was not the City of Man, but they sought to model earthly order on heavenly order, or reality itself.  Thus, officiating clergy elevated the king at a certain point in the coronation, just as they would elevate the bread and wine.  The ceremony made the connection of “consecration” immediately obvious to all.

Many assume that Henry’s Reformation might make such “catholic” ceremonies obsolete, but in fact Henry seems to have gone “all out” in Anne’s coronation ceremony.  To start, he held a separate coronation service for her, which may have had no precedent.  Second, the ceremony took place on Whitsunday (Pentecost), the second most holy day in the church calendar.  Third, Henry absented himself from being seen directly during the ceremony itself, which gave him more “god-like” status, the unseen yet present “earthly god” bidding Anne receive the crown.  Finally, Henry wanted for Anne to wear Katherine’s crown during the ceremony. Yet here even Henry met a roadblock he could not overcome, as the man in charge of the crown would not give it up.  The ambassador of Venice relates,

Accordingly, the king wrathfully sent to the one who has charge  of the queen’s [i.e. Katherine] crown, Master Sadocho by name, a great man in that island, requiring the crown for the coronation.  Master Sadocho replied he could not give it up because of the oath he had taken to the said queen, that he would guard that crown faithfully. The king then went to see him and expressed his desire.  At this, Master Sadocho, who is a man of ripe age, took off his cap and flung it to the ground without saying a word.  When the king saw this he asked what moved him to do such a thing as this, to which Master Sadocho replied that rather than give him the crown he would suffer his head to lie where his cap did.  . . . As he is a  great personage who also has a son also of great worth and numerous followers, the king took no further steps, but had another crown made for the coronation of the new queen, who has been pregnant for five months.

Obviously, symbols had real meaning for those outside of the king and clergy.

In all these things Henry to me seems to overreach, realizing the precarious nature of his enterprise.  He had founded a new church, divorced/annulled his marriage with Katherine, and married someone already pregnant.  He gave Anne all the symbolism he could.  Prayers said during the coronation directly assumed that the child Anne carried was a boy.  Alas for Anne, perhaps the connection between symbolism and reality could only go so far.

The real shift took place with Edward VI.  Here we had a combination of 1) No Henry to go all out to get his way, 2) More evangelical reformers in charge in the Church of England, 3) A boy king who had no real say in what went on.  The crucial distinction came when Bishop Cranmer stated that, “the oil [for consecration], if added, is but a ceremony,” and not strictly necessary.  Nothing really happens at the coronation that could not happen elsewhere.  Heredity, the system, and his oath made Edward king, and nothing more.  Certainly the ceremony had to have the Church presiding–or so it seemed obvious at the time–but the Church no longer had to “do” anything important.

One might argue that this shifted politics wholly into the realm of the secular, and so made kingship defendant on the right exercise of power.  This made kings potentially just as politically vulnerable as any president, but in a more precarious position, as Charles I and Louis XVI discovered.

As a culture, we clearly crave symbolic archetypes more than in the past.  We see this in the consistent popularity of super-hero movies, and the somewhat polarizing popularity of Jordan Peterson.  We see it in recent political commentary, as a handful of mostly normal people believed that Obama was the anti-Christ in 2008, or that Bush and Trump were/are Nazis. We see it in our woeful neglect of Congress–perhaps there are just too many of them to affix any meaningful archetypes.  It may be that we are forced into this symbolic realm by the incomprehensibility of our laws. However we got here, this unsettling political moment gives our culture some interesting opportunities to understand our symbols and to recover an older view of reality.

Today we tend to assume that if something is a symbol it is not really real, but only a signifier for the real.  Hence, we know what a male sign for the bathroom means, even though of course no one in the bathroom looks like the symbol.  Symbol and reality live in different worlds, in different planes of meaning.  But the older meaning of “symbol” meant the bringing together of reality to create “real” meaning.  St. Maximos the Confessor writes,

…for he who starting from the spiritual world sees appear the visible world or else who sees appear symbolically the contour of spiritual things freeing themselves from visible things… that one does not consider anything of what is visible as impure, because he does not find any irreconcilable contradiction with the ideas of things.

To quote Jonathan Pageau, “a symbol is a meeting place of two worlds, the meeting of the will of God with His creation.”  Pageau goes on to say that the most real things are that way because precisely because they are symbols.  Reality “really happens” when heaven and earth unite, when they “symbol together.”^

I can’t say for sure if this older view of reality will help us understand exactly what a president is, but I think it will help.  The more self-aware we can be of what we are doing, the more hope we have.   Then, maybe we can go back to the lemonade on the porch days of debating the finer points of Social Security reform.

Dave

 

*Pageau talks mostly of church designs in the eastern Roman empire, though his point applies in the west, though with different applications.

**I am indebted to Pageau’s article here: https://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/the-recovery-of-symbolism/

^This is exactly what St. Luke tells us the Virgin Mary did in Lk. 2:19 when she “gathered” or (as the Greek states) “symballoussa” all of what had happened to her.

 

 

 

 

 

10th Grade: You Can’t Go Home Again

Greetings,

This week we put our main focus on the Congress of Vienna, where the nations of England, Russia, Prussia, Austria and France gathered to try and redraw the map of Europe in Napoleon’s wake.

Historians have debated many issues about this peace conference from the moment it met.

France

What do to with France?  Napoleon’s conquests discombobulated every nation in Europe, and perhaps as many as 3 million died in what we call the Napoleonic Wars.  Should France be punished?

Most give the Congress credit for realizing that taking revenge on France would not serve peace in Europe.  France weakened would wave the red flag at every other strong nation in Europe.  Soon nations might fight over French spoils.  Besides, during the Napoleonic Wars the other nations made it clear that they made war on Napoleon, not France.  France was not the problem in their minds during the war, they could not very well make France the issue during the peace.

The French too made the point that if other nations wanted to avoid another Napoleon, they needed to hand the recently re-installed Louis XVIII the keys to a nice car.   If he inherited weakness, the Bourbon dynasty would crumble once again, and Europe would revisit all the issues  brought on by events in 1789.  For example, one of the problems of the Weimar Republic in Germany in 1919 was that the new democratic regime came into being only because of Germany’s defeat in World War I.  That government lacked the psychological or cultural legitimacy to have a solid chance at success.  Louis XVIII was a nice guy, but didn’t impress like Napoleon.  He would need some help.

Louis XVIII

Napoleon on Horseback at the St Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David

The Congress of Vienna explicitly rejected the “Romantic” notion of expansive ideals transforming states and creating new national boundaries, and returned to the 18th century Enlightenment policies of security through interlocking and more or less equal parts.  Those familiar with Madison’s “Federalist #10” and his theory on democracy and political factions will see the same concept writ large on the European stage in Vienna.  In reacting against the French Revolution ideologically, they also returned to the pre-French Revolution methods of foreign policy.  The genie needed stuffed back into the bottle.

For the most part the countries involved agreed on these principles, but the practical outworking of meant a great deal of jockeying for position.  The map had changed so much so quickly, a lot seemed up for grabs.

Here is Europe in 1789, just prior to the French Revolution

Now Europe in 1800, just after Napoleon took power

Europe in 1807, after Napoleon’s victorious Peace of Tilsit

Europe in 1812, at the peak of Napoleon’s power

Europe in 1813, after his first exile

Napoleon’s success and the subsequent rise of Russia made the fate of Poland crucial to the peace process.  Their turbulent history get reflected in the many ways the map below reflects how their country got sliced and diced over the years.

Napoleon made it a point of policy to resurrect Poland to check the power of Russia, and also to limit the expansion of Austria and Prussia.  England, however, also waned a strong Poland to check the very same countries.  Napoleon’s conquests also demolished the tottering Holy Roman Empire, making a complete mish-mash of central Europe, sure to draw the attention of Prussia and Austria.

For a class activity I wanted the students to deal with the issues divided the class into five different groups, each representing the interests of their assigned country.  The winning group would be the one that got the best deal relative to their interests.

England

Wants:

  • To maintain its absolute dominance of the sea
  • To prevent anyone else from having the dominance on land that they enjoy currently at sea
  • The independence of the “Low Countries” (Belgium, Holland, Netherlands) to prevent any other major power from obtaining the coastal ports there.

Fears:

  • The rising land power of Russia – England likes the idea of Poland as a buffer to Russian power.
  • The possible westward expansion ideas of Prussia

Russia

Wants:

  • What it considers to be its rightful place in the sun given the fact that their repulse of Napoleon in 1812 opened the floodgates for all of Europe to overthrow him
  • The elimination of Poland, which Napoleon recreated to reduce Russian power
  • A weak Austria

Fears:

  • England using its economic whip to get its way on the continent
  • A strong Austria
  • A strong Prussia

Prussia

Wants:

  • Its rightful place in the sun considering their efforts in 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig, and at Waterloo in 1815.
  • The possibility of westward expansion if Austria were strengthened.  They would rather see Austria strengthened rather than Russia

Fears:

  • A strong Russia
  • French Expansion

France

Wants:

  • An extension of their borders to their “natural” borders near the Rhine River
  • Territory in the Low Countries, who speak French after all
  • A curbing of English naval power

Fears:

  • English dominance
  • Reduction to 2nd rate status

Austria

Wants:

  • To restore national honor, for no one got beat more often than Austria during Napoleon’s reign.
  • To prevent instability in central Europe, which would likely lead to a war they would lose

Fears:

  • The joint rise of Prussia and Russia.  Should those two ever fight, they would inevitably be drawn in as a second-banana ally.  No matter who won that war, they would lose

The actual Congress of Vienna decided on this. . .

Did the Congress of Vienna work?  Can we call it a successful peace conference?

By most measures we can answer “yes.”  The system started to break down after 35 years in 1848, and had broken completely by 1871.  Still, while so-called “small wars” popped up intermittently, Europe did not see another general war until World War I in 1914.

Critics of the Congress call it reactionary.  Those that thought they could truly put the French Revolutionary genie away deluded themselves, for it had roamed throughout Europe for 25 years.  They felt that they could smother the liberal democratic impulse to death, when really it turned out that they had created a pressure cooker instead.  When it finally burst in 1914, nationalistic impulses that had been held in check unleashed a conflict that essentially destroyed Europe.

I personally have a lot of sympathy with this latter view, but feel it may be too harsh on the participants.  Their immediate experience of French romantic nationalism saw France overthrowing religion, traditional values, and killing one’s fellow man over shades of political difference.  It would be quite natural for them to throw the baby out with the bath water, and they did not have the benefit of hindsight.   Maybe we can say the countries represented had high levels of competence and lower amounts of imaginative foresight.  Even so, on some level they wanted to pretend that the French Revolution never happened, that everything could go back to normal after 25 years of philosophical, cultural, and political upheaval.  The saying, “You can’t go home again,” proved itself true in this case.

Next week we begin to review for the final exam.  Many thanks for a great year,

Dave

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier

History comes to us in many forms.  Most historians try and make sense of their time directly, or perhaps try and 6314understand their time through understanding the past. In his diary, Jakob Walter only seeks to relate his own experience.  He doesn’t even really attempt to understand  his experience in context.  He has no comments on Napoleon and his policies, wars, and treaties.  His field of vision concerned himself only.

This certainly does not make Walter a selfish man, or even a narrow one automatically.  Walter came from Germany, an area conquered by Napoleon probably around 1807.  When his army got pressed into Napoleon’s service, his main concern became hoping that he and his brother (also a soldier for Napoleon) would stay alive.  He likely cared nothing for Napoleon himself or any grand moral or political scheme Napoleon may have had.  It was not his war.

So his narrow focus has no moral overtones necessarily, but this narrow vision of Walter’s writing has occasional parallels in his actions.  We know the invasion of Russia made for a hellish retreat for Napoleon’s army.  Walter lets us know that even in the initial months of advance into Russia supplies were scanty, at least for the “allied troops” like Walter.  This meant foraging, which the Russians made difficult by hiding and burning their own supplies.  Walter writes,

If they had voluntarily removed the simple covers [of their storage areas] much of their household furniture would have remained unspoiled.  For it was necessary to raise the floors and the beams in order to find anything, and to turn upside down anything that was covered.

Walter may have cared somewhat for Russians, but his argument boils down to, “If only they wouldn’t hide their food we wouldn’t have to destroy their homes to find it.”  He doesn’t concern himself at all about the larger picture, only the practical aspects of staying alive.  Limiting oneself to purely “practical” concerns will likely have moral consequences.

Most anyone with a vague familiarity of the Russian campaign will know of the terrible retreat. Walter’s details of Napoelon’s withdraw bring out the ghastly nature of his experience.  All semblance of unity and order broke down in the quest to stay alive.  I remember years ago reading Elie Weisel’s Night, a great book that should be read, but one I never wish to read again.  What made Weisel’s experience so tragic and terrible for me was not just the inhumanity of the Nazi’s.  Instead, Weisel’s descriptions of how the prisoners often turned on each other for bread or “good” jobs really devastated me.  Perhaps, I thought, had the prisoners united against the Nazi’s they could have redeemed the situation to some degree, but in Weisel’s account they rarely, if ever, did this.  Obviously the retreat from Russia is not the same thing, yet I was reminded of Night when reading how Napoleon’s army turned on each other, stealing food and horses from their comrades in arms with no hesitations.  Hobbes might say that this is what happens to human nature when the veneer of civilization gets stripped away.

Napoleon's Retreat

While Walter had a narrow vision some larger aspects of Napoleon’s empire reveal themselves.  The FrenchRevolution proclaimed “The Rights of Man,” at least in theory.  In practice it tended to mean rights for those who agreed with the Revolution’s shifting meaning of what it meant to be French particularly, not human generally.  After Robespierre’s execution much of this petered out, and Napoleon helped end it.  But though Napoleon was in some ways an ambassador of the French Revolution’s ideals of universal equality, the “French” emphasis made itself evident.  Whatever supplies Napoleon could muster from headquarters went first to French troops (especially his Imperial Guard), then to the “Allied” troops.  In the Russian campaign, supplies were scarce enough that there was never a “then” at all.  The sham flimsiness of Napoleon’s alliance gets indirectly exposed in Walter’s account.  That many of the “allies” Napoleon fought with in Russia in 1812 would turn on him in 1813 makes perfect sense.

So perhaps sometimes narrow keyholes can open up a vision of broader vistas.

 

 

Napoleon on Napoleon

Those who find themselves ill-disposed towards Napoleon (as I am on balance) should avoid reading the 25 page introduction of his abridged autobiography.  With crackling prose Napoleon gives us

  • An explanation of the success of his siege of Toulon
  • A concise theory of his rules of war
  • A demonstration of how Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great, . . . and he himself . . .  all followed these rules (he also makes sure to say how he fought in more campaigns and battles than many of those he lists).
  • An outline of recent French campaigns that failed to adhere to these rules and failed . . . neither of which directly involved him in any way (other generals made the mistakes).
  • An explanation of Charles XII failed invasion of Russia, told with no irony or self-awareness whatsoever.
  • A comparison of his wars and the wars of Louis XIV, in which he shows that the Sun-King’s wars did far more damage to France, and had far less legality, than his own campaigns (some estimates place French casualties in the Napoleonic Wars at around 1 million).

Such audacity and restless energy is hard to comprehend and one can’t help but admire it at least on some level.  He is the consummate NYC cab driver.  If this is the imagesman in exile at the end of his life (when he wrote his memoirs, ca. 1816-17), imagine how many secretaries he drove insane in 1805. His meteoric rise to power makes perfect sense in those first 25 pages. But for those who wish to dislike Napoleon, fear not!  Simply read a bit further and one grows weary of such energy, audacity, and his utter and complete moral blindness.  You begin to understand not just his ascension to power, but why he alienated almost everyone close to him and why those characteristics would inevitably carry him too far.

Napoleon shows his best side when discussing practical matters of policy.  In the beginning of his career at least he showed a keen political sense.  He criticism of the Assembly in the days preceding the Terror ring true:

[The Assembly] committed two errors, which might have produced the total ruin of the nation.  The first was to establish a Constitution at odds with the experience of all ages, whose mechanism contrived to restrict public power [during a time of uncertainty].  Great as this error was, it was less fragrant and had less deplorable consequences than the second — that or persisting in re-establishing Louis XVI on the throne after his flight to Varennes.  It ought to have sent commissioners to Varennes not to bring the king back to Paris, but to clear the way for him to abdicate; to have proclaimed Louis XVII king, and to have created a regency, to a princess of the House of Conde and a regency council composed of principal members of the Assembly.

Later he shows the same clarity in his analysis of the controversy between the Jacobins and Girondins (though also a touch of ruthless practicality):

The factions of the Girondins and the Mountain [Jacobins] were too violent in their mutual animosity.  Had they both continued to exist, impediments to the administration of government would have multiplied and France would not have been able to maintain her territory in the face of all Europe.  The good of the country required the triumph of one of those parties.  . . . Would the result have been the same had it been the Girondin party that gained the day and the Mountain sacrificed?  I think not.  The mountain party, although checked, would always have possessed great influence, in the popular societies and armies.  There was undoubtedly more talented and better men in the Girondin, but the Girondins had more speculative men, less resolute and less decisive.

Though this kind of analysis has its darker side (many worthy Girondins lost their lives unjustly in the Terror), Napoleon at least writes convincingly in these sections.  In his campaigns he insisted on a strict unity of command and clear lines of communication at all times.  His armies marched with great speed and yet avoided confusion in the ranks.  So too, his political analysis and his prose have the same distinguishing marks.  He maintains fidelity to his emphasis on practical results and his love of the simplicity of power.  He never leaves any doubt as to what he means to say.  This is a man soldiers would instinctively respect, a man easy to follow.  All such a man would need is an opening, and the French Revolution provided many such openings for Napoleon.

Napoleon has his charms, to be sure, and should not be regarded as a vicious monster.  But his ego led him to make almost absurd claims about his career.  Even a massively abridged version of his autobiography (in this case, 275 pages as compared to about 1200), even a very sympathetic editor, cannot hide this.  Nothing is his fault, and everything has an explanation.  The fall of Cairo goes on Kleber’s shoulders, the murder of the Duke of Engheim was England’s fault, and so on, and so on.  “I never committed crimes,” he writes.

I reached the summit of greatness by direct paths, without ever having committed an act that morality could reproach.  In that respect my rise is unparalleled in history — in order to reign, David destroyed the house of Saul, his benefactor;* Caesar kindled a civil war and overthrew the government of his country; Cromwell caused his master to perish on the scaffold.  I was a stranger to the crimes of the Revolution.

We may assume that by “morality” he means “political morality,” and not personal morality, for which he seemingly cared nothing.  But even so, what of the death of the Duke of Engheim?  His murder irrevocably turned Europe’s aristocracy against him.  It turned Tolstoy against him, years later.  Even Napoleon’s exceedingly practical Chief of Police, Joseph Fouche, said of the Duke’s execution, “It was worse than a crime.  It was a mistake.”**

Explaining away the Russian disaster no doubt called upon all of Napoleon’s skills. He first argues that, “If Moscow had not been burnt [most all agree the French army did not do this], Alexander would have been compelled to make peace.”  But he offers no argument as to why, and I at least can’t see why the czar would make peace.  Whatever the case, Moscow burned, and a practical man like Napoleon should cease wondering why.

The cold of the Russian winter was “premature,” leading Napoleon to admit that, ok, I “remained in Moscow four days too long.”  I believe that this is the only place where Napoleon admits to a mistake.  It seems unlikely that the disintegration of an army 1/2 million men strong could rest entirely on this mistake alone.  And indeed,

When the army was within two days march of Vilna, and no further dangers threatened it, I conceived that the urgency of affairs required my presence in Paris — only there could I dictate to Prussia and Austria.  Had I delayed the passage might have been closed against me.  . . . The [Imperial] Guard was then entire and the army contained more than 80,000 combatants . . .   The Russian army did not now exceed 50,000 men.  [Supplies] abounded at Vilna.  Considerable stores of clothing and ammunition had likewise been established.  Had I remained with the army . . . it would never have retreated beyond Vilna.  . . . It is from this period in particular that the great losses of the campaign may be dated.  Nothing was, or could have been more totally unforeseen by me than the senseless conduct adopted at Vilna.

Again, just as in Egypt, he, being a good father, left his children with every opportunity of success.  Leave it to his prodigal subordinates to ruin everything.

But still, Napoleon had and has his devotees.  You can see the blinding effect of Napoleon’s ego even on the editor of this abridged version of his memoirs, Somerset de Chair.  Chair writes regarding Napoleon’s recounting of the Moscow campaign,

Almost all historians have treated the Russian campaign as a unmitigated disaster.  Here Napoleon sets the record straight.  After defeating Russia at Borodin . . . Napoleon withdrew.  He experienced devastating weather conditions, but this does not alter Napoleon’s claim to have achieved what he set out to do.  [He sought] to teach Russia a lesson not to interfere in French affairs in the future when his son should become Emperor and to punish the Tsar for opening his ports to Britain.  [Napoleon’s] view that he left a defeated and humiliated Russia in his wake is hard to ignore.  It was, admittedly, a harassed return . . . it was not as if the French had intended to occupy Russia indefinitely.  If Hitler had succeeded [in Russia], where Napoleon did not ever intend to remain, it would have been a very different story.

I think we can agree with Chair that yes, Napoleon was not as bad as Hitler.  Score a point for hero-worship if you wish.  But to suggest that Napoleon achieved his aims in Russia by preventing Russia from challenging his son and heir is a gross absurdity.  His failure in Russia directly led to his first abdication and the impossibility of his son ever succeeding him, and led also to the rise (not humiliation) of Russia an an expansive, imperial power in the 19th century.

Napoleon’s life can be viewed as tragic even if we don’t call him a tragic hero.  Many of Napoleon’s top generals abandoned him and defected to the Bourbons.  This must have been a bewildering and devastating blow.  But I think that such men simply learned from their master that when a situation warrants it, find a way to survive.  For Napoleon, even on St. Helena, his memoirs stand as his final battle, his last attempt to conquer.  For me at least, his autobiography has a minor appeal as a kind of grand, doomed adventure — like that of Waterloo.  And they must fail, that Napoleon might possibly learn humility.***

Dave

*Certainly not true from any glance at 1 Samuel – 1 Kings.

**Some believe that Talleyrand said this instead.  Whoever said it, the difference is the same.  Both men devoted themselves to Napoleon’s practical morality and they saw the consequences of such an “ill-considered” action.

***Towards the end of the memoirs he blames the allies for violating the Treaty of Fontanblieu and sending him to St. Helena.  Again, he is either joking or willfully blind.  He tore up that treaty when he escaped from Elba.

Still, there is some evidence at the very end of his life he may have had a genuine religious awakening.