The Rings of Saturn

Bernard Bailyn starts his book The Peopling of British North America with an illuminating analogy about the rings of Saturn.  When astronomers first noticed Saturn’s rings their beauty appeared as a shimmering uniformity.  Now that technology has given us a closer look, we see that in fact, the “rings” are comprised of thousands of bits of rock and dust, some as big as your hand, some as big as a car, some almost microscopic.

History, he then argues, is often like this.  From a distance things look easy to understand but get up close and the elegant simplicity and uniformity of the past dissipates into confusing bits that won’t go together.  Reality will confound our ability to understand it as a coherent whole.

A lot about this analogy rings true for me.  When young we learn that George Washington was the father of our country, a great leader, and so on.  As we get older, we need to deal with his owning slaves, his social striving, his possible mixed motives for fighting the British, etc.

But ultimately historians can’t stop where Bailyn leaves off.  After seeing what the rings of Saturn actually are, he/she then needs to find a way to have them make sense.  He must interpret and synthesize.  Bailyn’s book tantalizes at times with revealing details about early colonial settlement, but I found myself frustrated that the book never quite got off the ground.

The book shows us that settlement of the colonies happened seemingly without real pattern, aside from the obvious facts that most immigrants were young, male, from a middle-class or lower background.  Different things seemed to happen for different reasons.  In sifting through the data, Bailyn admits that it might take a a poet or impressionist painter to make sense of the disparate information.  This is a wonderful admission of his, and seems to go against his “rings of Saturn” analogy.  Bailyn admits that in this instance he can’t fulfill that role (though he did just this in his great Ideological Origins of the American Revolution).  Interestingly, Bailyn contrasts the disparate design and feel of American settlements with new towns in Germany of the same period.  In Germany, new towns all looked the same.  So again, sometimes the rings of Saturn look exactly like we think they should look.  It may be American history in particular, rather than History in general, that presents a unique picture.

Ultimately, of course, this must be Bailyn’s point.  We might imagine the early days of European settlement to have uniformity, with diversity coming in the 19th century with large scale immigration, but no — from the earliest times no one story could account for everything.  “Let us celebrate America’s diversity,” and all that.

I thought of Bailyn’s work while reflecting on 8th grade reactions to the history of the Roman Republic.  In the year’s “Great Debate” over whether ancient Greece or Rome was the superior civilization, the boys invariably choose Rome by about a 2/3 margin, and the girls Greece by the same amount.  Many years of teaching this class bear this out for me, so why might this be?

Though images of the ancient Greeks reveal a touch of brutishness, they had more feminine qualities than the Romans.  They displayed more creativity and originality than the Romans.  They appreciated beauty and proportion.  As for the Romans, their plodding, methodical nature probably fits very easily within the mind of an 8th grade boy.  Their lack of imagination and their pig-headed stubbornness may have been designed specifically to both infuriate their ancient opponents and the average modern 8th grade girl.  I have seen a few young ladies actually stomp their feet in anger when Rome manages to rise after their disaster at Cannae, as the boys chuckle in Beavis and Butt-head like fashion.  “We’re still here,” the Romans seem to be saying to Carthage, “dunking your pigtails in inkwells yet again.”

I can identify somewhat with this aggravation, but there is something magnificent about how the Romans embraced their sense of identity.  The Roman scholar J.V.P.D. Balsdon makes the observation that the Roman origin story of Romulus and Remus raised by wolves had nothing to commend it to the ancient world.  Apparently it would have been much better if they had been suckled by she-goats, as the Greeks did with Zeus.  To what extent they truly believed in the myths I can’t say, but even a quick perusal of Rome’s stories show fratricide, violence, and no hint of elegance.  The touching Greek story of Pygmalion carried no truck with the Romans.  When they needed women, they simply stole them from the Sabines.  Even when the Romans “invent” their stories (though I am not comfortable with that word, but like a typical guy I can’t think of a better one) they utterly lack imagination and adornment.  And the Romans chuckle stupidly again.  They’re perfectly happy with their unimaginative early history.  Aggravating or no, their fierce sense of identity, no doubt gleaned partially from their commonly accepted founding mythology, gave them great strength of purpose and dedication.  They knew they were a gritty, uncouth, blue collar bunch and reveled in it.

When discussing the Arthurian legend in his A Short History of England G.K. Chesterton made the comment that the “tradition” surrounding Arthur was more true than the “history” surrounding him.  He meant that the Arthurian tradition may not be entirely accurate, but expressed more truth about the past than the confusion produced by historians who tackle the same subject.  I think the same holds true for Rome.  Take Will Durant (whom I like, for the record) in his Caesar and Christ, where he vaguely talks of Roman origins in terms of nomads from the steppes, and scraps of pottery dated to some people at some unsure time.  This tells us nothing.  No one should trust in the full accuracy of Livy’s history, but Livy communicates something more true about Rome’s early period than Durant.

If Chesterton is right we should consider his principle in light of America’s history.  The newness of our country means that we can have far more accurate information about our past than almost any other civilization.  For many of us, the stories we learned in elementary school no longer have persuasive power.  Postmodernism has done its deconstructive work well.  We see this in the words of the great jazz pianist Vijay Iyer who recently spoke at Yale, where he seemed to suggest that all success in America is somehow linked to exploitation (I hope I’m reading him incorrectly, as I like Iyer’s music and don’t want his name attached to something silly like this).  Iyer commented,

And as we continue to consider, construct and develop our trajectories as Americans, I am also constantly mindful of what it means to be complicit with a system like this country, with all of its structural inequalities, its patterns of domination, and its ghastly histories of slavery and violence.

Many of us are here because we’ve become successful in that very context. That’s how we got into Yale, by being voted most likely to succeed; and that may be what emboldened some of us to show our faces here this weekend, because we actually have something to show for ourselves, that somehow in the years since we first dined at the Alternate Food Line we’ve managed to carve a place for ourselves in the landscape of America. Whether you attribute it to some mysterious triple package or to your own Horatio Alger story, to succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America—which means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past.

Perhaps at least a few of those voted, “Most Likely to Succeed” actually worked hard?

But we need not fear or lament the postmodern landscape, but see an opportunity.  We need to seek the truth, and the deconstructive project has helped us do that.  But somewhere out there, I hope, is a historian who can give us a “true tradition” amidst the rings of Saturn to anchor us moving forward.

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The Etiquette of Battle

A friend of mine has a friend who teaches in a classics department at a university.  On different campuses different kinds of progressive ideologies have more sway, and at this particular school the administration required the classics professor to document how he would help his students encounter “the other” in the time periods he studied.

This in itself is a worthy goal, for getting outside of the prejudices and perspectives of one’s own time is one of history’s great benefits.  Like C.S. Lewis said about great literature, history can get one outside of oneself, and ultimately can prepare us for worship.

My friend’s friend made the argument that in studying the Greeks and Romans one studies “the other.”  We need nothing else.  Many aspects of their society make them very weird indeed to our current sensibilities.  Anyone from ancient Greece or Rome would feel completely out of place in the modern world.

Alas that his argument held no sway with the administration.*

But we need not go back thousands of years to get at “the other.”  Even certain aspects of European culture from just a few centuries ago would suffice.  We inherited a great deal from the Enlightenment era, but even so, we could not imagine settling disagreements as they did.

I have dealt with the subject of dueling before, but wish to speculate on the connections between dueling, warfare, and ceremony.

Many unwritten rules governed duels, but eventually a man named Crow Ryan (perhaps a pseudonym?) codified them into the “Code Duello.”  No need to review all 26 stipulations, but a few examples will help illustrate for us how they thought.  First, the hierarchy of insults:

I. The first offence requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. Example: A tells B he is impertinent, etc. B retorts that he lies; yet A must make the first apology, because he gave the first offence, and (after one fire) B may explain away the retort by subsequent apology.

II. But if the parties would rather fight on, then, after two shots each (but in no case before), B may explain first and A apologize afterwards.

N.B. The above rules apply to all cases of offences in retort not of a stronger class than the example.

And

V. As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. The alternatives, therefore, are: The offender handing a cane to the injured party to be used on his back, at the same time begging pardon, firing until one or both are disabled; or exchanging three shots and then begging pardon without the proffer of the cane.

N.B. If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed, or until, after receiving a wound and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.

VI. If A gives B the lie and B retorts by a blow (being the two greatest offences), no reconciliation can take place till after two discharges each or a severe hit, after which B may beg A’s pardon for the blow, and then A may explain simply for the lie, because a blow is never allowable, and the offence of the lie, therefore, merges in it. (See preceding rule.)

It seems obvious to me (someone correct me if I’m wrong) that the code prohibited “blows” because any Joe Six-Pack can use their fists.  Fists then, would offer no opportunity to distinguish oneself as a gentleman.  In addition, fists lack the deadly power of pistols or sabres.  If we’re going to fight, let’s really fight and not play around as children. To use your fists on someone communicates to them that they are not “worth your sword.”  The contest wouldn’t count because it would lack any real gravitas.

But I think that fists lacked the proper ceremony that helped legitimize dueling.  The rituals of the duel gave the duel the power to confer status on the participants.  We see an example of this ceremony from a scene in Barry Lyndon:

This short scene captures much:

  • The setting for the duel serves the immediate purpose of being away from the law or other bystanders.  But it also is a “genteel” spot that elevates the occasion.
  • The seconds do their duty and attempt a reconciliation before the event.
  • Once the apology was refused, they must fight.  Though Captain Quinn looks as if he had second thoughts, he cannot back down now.
  • Captain Quinn’s second accepts the results and even encourages the other to get away so as to avoid the police.**

The word for duel comes from the Latin “duo” and “bellum,”–a “two-person war,” shortened to “duel.”  It should not surprise us that at the height of dueling, war itself had some of the same rituals.

Another scene from Barry Lyndon shows the ritual nature of battle to some extent.  Neither side employs any strategy.  They declare themselves plainly and come at each other simply and openly.

The first 1:30 of this next clip show the ritual nature of battle well:

In his magnificent The Centurions, Jean Larteguy has the character of Jacques Glatigny, who hails from an established French military family, muse on how things have changed during the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu:

Glatigny’s reaction [he has just been captured near Dien Bien Phu] was that of a regular officer; he could not believe that this “officer” squatting over him and smoking foul tobacco was, like him, a battalion commander with the same rank and responsibilities as his own.  

Glatigny thought that his “opposite number” looked much like a peasant.  His face was neither cruel nor intelligent but rather sly, patient, and attentive.

So this was one of the officers of the 308th Division, the best unit the Vietminh had; it was this peasant from the fields that had beaten him, Glatigny, the descendant of one of the great military dynasties of the West, for whom was was a profession.  He looked at the Vietminh captain with some confusion.  They had fought against each other on equal terms. Their heavy mortars were just as effective as French artillery, and the French air force had not been able to operate over the battlefield.  They had fought hand-to-hand and the position had changed several times throughout the battle, but there remained neither respect, hatred, or even anything resembling interest on his inscrutable face.

The days when the victorious side presented arms to the vanquished garrison that had fought bravely were over.  There was no room left for military chivalry.  In the deadly world of Communism the vanquished was a culprit and reduced to the position of a man condemned by law.  

Up to 1945 the principles of the old world still held.  Second Lt. Glatigny was then in command of a platoon outside Karlruhe.  He had taken a German major prisoner and brought him back to his squadron commander, of the same social class as himself.  The commander had established his HQ in a forester’s cottage.  They saluted and then introduced themselves.  The captured major, after all, had fought gallantly himself and came from a vaunted division of the Wehrmacht.  

The German and the Frenchman, completely at ease with one another, discussed where they might have fought against each other since 1939.  To them it was of little consequence that one was the victor and one the loser, provided that they had observed the rules and fought bravely.  They respected each other and became fast friends.  The major drove the captured German to the prison in his personal Jeep and before departing, shook hands.

Democracies tend to eschew ceremony as elitist, and this has some truth to it.  Ceremonies need presiding, and those that know how to conduct them must have some kind of training not available to all.    But without ceremony we will have a hard time finding meaning in our military endeavors–or in general, for that matter.  This perhaps sheds light on the current problem of the “War on Terror.”  What are we doing, where are we doing it, how are we fighting, and to what end?

But one can have the opposite reaction.  Many students who view the videos above see the actions of the army and the duelists as essentially meaningless.  Two of the clips above come from Stanley Kubrick’s highly praised Barry Lyndon, and one might interpret the movie as an indictment of the meaningless nature of Lyndon’s life in pursuit of aristocratic status.

Maybe, maybe.  But if we eschew one form of ceremony, we will need to replace it with something else, as nature abhors a vacuum.

Dave

*For the administration in question, the “other” had to be defined ethnically.  The Greeks and Romans were “white.”  This tendency of some progressives to label people primarily or almost exclusively by their gender and ethnicity is quite unfortunate and even dangerous, but that is another post.

**Those who have seen the movie know that this is not quite the whole story . . .

10th Grade: Image and Reality in Louis XIV France

Greetings to all,

We continued with Louis by looking at France’s tax structure, and to understand it, a few things need to be kept in mind:

Louis was in a sense, attempting to cook the nobles like frogs in a pot of water slowly heated up.  He wanted to make them politically impotent, as we saw last week, and this involved using Versailles to cast a ‘spell’ of sorts. The key to a magic spell working, however, is that you don’t know that a spell is indeed being performed upon you.

The problem centered around Louis wanting to change things without anyone noticing that things had changed.  In the heyday of the feudal era, the nobility had tax exempt status, for a variety of reasons:

  • One was probably coldly political, i.e., the king needs the support of the nobles, and gets it through tax exemptions.
  • But the king also needed an army from time to time, and the nobles were largely in charge both of fighting his wars and paying and equipping the troops under their command.  This required a lot of financial flexibility on short notice — hence, the tax exemptions.
  • Their service in the wars went unpaid, so their “tax” could be “paid” in the form of their free military service.

We talked last week about Louis’ neutering of the nobility, but he also used this opportunity to create an army that was more professional, and more accountable directly to him.  He did not bypass the nobility entirely, but did do so partially.

Thus, Louis did not need the nobility in the same way his predecessors did, and logic dictates that therefore, he should tax at least a portion of the nobility.  But to do so risked exposing the fiction he created with Versailles.  He could not “awaken” the nobles to the reality of their own decline, therefore, he could not take the risk of taxing them.

Towards the end of  C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair the Queen of Underland attempts to put a spell on the her visitors to make them forget Narnia.  Lewis writes

[Jill] was very angry because she could feel the enchantment getting hold of her every moment.  But of course the very fact that she could still feel it, showed that it had not yet fully worked.

Louis attempted to have his cake and eat it too, and this can never work for long.  He began to create a more modern governmental infrastructure, while at the same time only reinforcing some of the older ways of doing things.  The French Revolution will have many causes, but this disconnect between practice and reality will be one of them.  In the short term, it may have contributed to the financial crisis France faced at the time of Louis’ death.

Louis’s legacy will be a debatable one.  He made France matter in world affairs, and made France the cultural leader for western civilization.  After Louis, all ‘gentlemen’ had to know French as a matter of course.  WIth men like Descartes, Pascal, and Moliere they dominated the intellectual landscape.  We discussed how cultural leadership can be a kind of power that can translate on the world stage.

Part of France’s power came from Louis cutting the red tape between executive decisions and the nobility.  The efficiency and centralization of his government gave him a certain advantage over other European countries. Red tape isn’t always a bad thing.  There are certain things we don’t want the government to be efficient at.  We might suggest that we do not want the government to be efficient at spending money.  We wouldn’t want them to be able efficiently enslave all brunettes.  Having said that, red tape often hinders normal and reasonable social functions.  We may recall the congressional debates and inaction surrounding the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, and recently now.  In 2011 we made the decision the credit agencies wanted us to make, but Standard and Poor’s was so appalled by the bickering, infighting, and stalling that they lowered our rating anyway.  Here is a quote,

“More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policy making and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011,” the statement continues.

Of course there are those that disagree with Standard and Poor’s, but some may have felt that it would have been better for someone to just ‘make a decision.’  Louis’ system of government allowed for many “decisions” to get made quickly, but he also lost two major wars and brought France close to financial ruin.  In politics as in other areas of life, sometimes one must “pick their poison.”
Blessings,
Dave

Dueling for your Health

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis makes a provocative point about the modern mind.  In discussing love and marriage, he observes that we have a hard time talking about degrees of good and bad.  We can only discuss absolutes and never relative goods.  This leads to a narrowing of societal discourse.  So he writes about duels that,

They ask you what you think of dueling.  If you reply that it is far better to forgive a man than to fight a duel with him, but that even a duel might be better than a lifelong enmity which leads to continuous secret efforts to ‘do the man down,’ they complain that you have not given them a straight answer.

V.G. Keirnan’s book The Duel in European History has certain strengths but lacks some of the necessary subtlety that Lewis urges.  He has a lot of juicy gems and some incisive points.  He searches for a unified field theory of dueling, which I admire.  He seems to think that dueling’s best explanation lies in a quasi-Marxist theory of maintaining class dominance, which fails in my view for a few reasons.  Of course dueling had something to do with class, but not always. Of course dueling is wrong, but . . . maybe not always?

Some personal examples . . .

I had a good friend growing up and we did various things together.  Around our freshman year we decided to add some spice to our various games of ping-pong, poker, H-O-R-S-E, or video games.  We invented consequences for the loser of these contests.  These consequences either brought great discomfort (put hot pepper on your tongue for five minutes, run barefoot in the snow, eat a spoonful of mustard, etc.), or great embarrassment (fall down dramatically in a restaurant, sing loudly in the middle of the street, etc.).  Looking back, many of these things were essentially harmless and created some good memories.  I should say too that losing brought no shame, but to back out of the “consequence” would have been unthinkable and damaging to the friendship.  You made a pledge, now see it through.

But . . . I think a lot our motivation stemmed from boredom.  No longer could we play “just for fun.”  The game itself no longer satisfied.  As you might imagine, with this motivation the consequences themselves inevitably intensified over time.  Also it seemed that we both sought to find great enjoyment in the suffering of the other person, what the Germans call “schadenfreude.” So perhaps on balance this was “primitive” or “destructive.”

Another example . . .

In college I remember walking into my dorm room one day and seeing my roommate and another guy on the hall wrestling.  It was not purely play, neither were they “fighting” in any real sense of the word.  They engaged in something in between those two.  Some sort of personal disagreement lie at the heart of this–I have no idea what.

I stayed to watch.  Keirnan might want to ascribe the fact that I watched to some sort of love of destructive spectacle.  Obviously I preferred watching the “match” to opening my biology textbook. Keirnan has a point.  But I also stayed to act as a kind of “second” for my roommate should level of fighting go too far.  Soon enough a few others came and watched, much for the same reasons, I’m sure.

After several minutes one of them agreed to say “uncle” and they stopped.  Commendations for both participants flowed from the audience.  It seemed entirely natural that now we should all go to dinner, and the first 15 minutes of conversation had most of us laughing about this or that moment in their match.  The two participants seemed entirely reconciled and never again had another such incident.  One of them had “lost,” but that carried no consequence.

I would love to know what Keirnan would think about this “duel.”  Can duels ever be good for you or society, and if so, why?  To answer this question we need to think about why duels happen in the first place.

Before we think about anything possibly positive about duels, Keirnan deals well with their obvious problems:

  • Most duels occur inextricably bound up with the sin of pride.  Perhaps this, even more so than the violence, explains their consistent condemnation by the Church.
  • Many duels bring death or grave physical harm that had no relation to the nature of the “offense” that caused the duel in the first place.  For example, towards the end of the era of dueling poets and musicians fought over particular points of artistic criticism.
  • At certain points in history duels happened not to settle disputes, but to prove manhood or courage.  Duels might then morph almost into a way of life–a way of life that can only end in death.
  • And yes, Keirnan has a point about the “social-control” aspect of dueling as its link to aristocracies.  Democratic peoples resort to dueling at a vastly lower rate than aristocratic nations, and this tells us something.

None of this surprises the reader.  But Keirnan has more interesting parts of his book.

From his tour through the history of the duel, we may guess at when duels tend to emerge more so than other times.

First, it appears that the amount duels rose in times of significant cultural and political shift.  Two main examples hint at this possibility.  First, dueling increased in the 17th century as the power of monarchs increased.  Increased power to the king meant perhaps that aristocrats felt the need to “strut their stuff” and duel more often.  They may have had the political motive of settling disputes outside of royal courts–an act of survival.

In time the power of the state grew and aristocracies declined.  Duels faded gradually through the 18th century.  But the coming of the Industrial Revolution revived it again.  Here we have part two of their attempt at survival, as the Industrial Revolution made mince-meat of the aristocratic class. This time, however, the dueling had no obvious political purpose.   Also–as to how they thought dueling would ensure their survival . . . ?  Maybe they thought they needed to leave the stage in dramatic and pointless fashion?  I don’t buy the “irrational” motif Keirnan may favor, but he can put this one in his corner.*

In his eyewitness account of the English Civil War, Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon, spends his first chapter criticizing the government of Charles I.  One might suppose that certain policies impoverished England and this led to rebellion.   In fact, as Hyde and other historians point out, England enjoyed relative prosperity during Parliament’s long exile under Charles.  The problem lay not in the suffering of the country, but in part in its lack of suffering.  At length Hyde argues that Charles’ chief error lay in not giving England’s political class anything to do for several years.  They had nothing to do in part because times were good in most respects.  In other words, boredom and restlessness helped lead to the Civil War.

Keirnan mentions this as well at certain points in his narrative, and this rings true with my own experience that I mentioned above.  At some point, things got stale and we wanted to liven them up.  But I keep coming back to the question of the possible validity of some kinds of duels.

I had a long talk with my wife about this and she brought up several interesting questions about my experiences.  “Couldn’t we have had mercy on one another and forgiven the consequence?”  I answered that would not have been possible.

“But why not?”

True, many duelists had “mercy” on their combatant by firing in the air or some other such method.  But this was possible because they had already “won” by showing up and standing for the contest.  Victory was a side benefit.  They had already proven themselves.

For my friend and I, we could only prove ourselves by going through with the consequence.  That was the whole point.  When reminiscing about what happened we never said, “Remember that time you made that shot and won at H-O-R-S-E?”  Instead we reflected, “Remember that time when your feet bled from running in the snow, or when I had to sing the Police’s “Roxanne” in the middle of my street?”  Going through with the consequence gained us fame, not winning the contest.

To “forgive” a consequence in our case would have made the whole process pointless.**

So on the one hand we “proved ourselves” as “men” without doing any real harm to ourselves or others.  We bonded over this.

But on the other hand, it had all the negatives I listed above.

I still wonder about the possible ancillary benefits of duels.

Amidst the many reasons for duels–obscene pride, class control, the destructive impulse, etc.–what stands out to me most is boredom.  In some way, shape, or form, deep down we know that we need to suffer to be who we need to be.  Democracies don’t encourage suffering in any way.  We are told to gratify our desires.  Most modern American manifestations of Protestantism have no concept of voluntary suffering and many churches do all they can to accommodate, not challenge, the modern man.

I think if we can recover the true purpose and place of suffering, we may get closer than Keirnan to understanding duels.  And it is here that I must demur, for I have been a somewhat silly teenager, but I am not a saint.

-Dave

 

*I generally disagree with Marxist interpretations of history but they sometimes have merit.  Kiernan’s class emphasis makes historical sense, but not logical sense–at least to me.  Aristocrats have power because of their birth.  They do not need to “earn” it in the modern sense of the word.  Clearly dueling at times served a purpose of validating their status as aristocrats.  But why feel this need?  Again, they never had to earn their status in the first place.  Perhaps the duel represented for some a kind of atonement oriented suffering for their societal position?  Perhaps this might allow them to feel that they had “earned” their role?

I wonder why democracies eschew the duel.  After all, in theory all of their citizens are born equal and must distinguish themselves in some way from their fellow man.

**In fact I believe this happened once and only once in our years of performing “consequences” and I was the lucky recipient.  If memory serves, we were playing some kind of basketball video game and I had lost multiple times, which meant I had to drink a concoction consisting (I think) of raw egg, tabasco sauce, and mustard.

But my friend did not simply just “forgive” this consequence.  Rather, he had to back out of plans we had made for the following day and in compensation released me from drinking the miserable concoction.

Needless to say, however grave and disappointed I made myself sound when he told me this, I accepted his offer quite readily!

 

 

A Method to the Madness

In the heady days of youth, many a man in my position (i.e., newly engaged, etc.) allowed themselves to watch a whole host of Jane Austen movies with their literarily inclined fiance.  Depending on our taste and level of courage, some of us liked the movies, while others pretended to like them to one degree or another.  But as watched them I recall having a thought (one that I most definitely did not voice at the time) I think most people have when exposed to Austen’s world: “What exactly did these women do all day?”

Enter Norbert Elias to answer this, and other perplexing questions about European aristocratic life in the age of Louis XIV and beyond.  His book The Court Society sets out to give the European aristocracy a context in which they lived.  They had reasons for their actions, reasons that made at least some sense in their world.  And like any other system, the seeds of its destruction embedded themselves right within the virtues the aristocracy practiced.

By early on in the book one realizes that, yes, the aristocracy did have “jobs.”  Of course menial/”blue collar” labor remained beneath them, but each member of an aristocratic household had charge of the family name, and advancing that family name.  Americans have little concept of this, but once we understand this idea, most everything else about the aristocracy falls into place.

While Elias did not deal with Austen’s period, I couldn’t help but reference her work when thinking of what Elias described.  In the Austen movies the women spend a great deal of time visiting one another, and Elias points out how this practice allowed for a display of rank and honor.  Thus, these meetings between aristocracy rarely had a “purely social” character to them.  Some may recall the surprise visit of Elizabeth to Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice.  Darcy quickly puts on his “Sunday best” to receive visitors.  Of course it is polite in any society not to receive visitors in the equivalent of pajamas, but it is important to Darcy as well to reflect the dignity of his house to others.  Of course this may be why his house (like other aristocratic houses) remained open to the public, which seems quite strange to modern Americans.  How can one just show up uninvited?  But the aristocracy generally welcomed such visits, as an actor welcomes a chance to perform.  Proper dress and decorum went beyond mere politeness — it served as a means of displaying and advancing status.  Being a good host/guest was “work” for the aristocracy.  Advancing the family name meant advancing the family fortunes.  One might even imagine the members of the family often “on campaign” to advance or defend the family honor, as this note from the Duchess of Orleans to the Duchess of Hanover makes clear:

I must really tell you how just the King is. The Duchesse de Bourgogne’s ladies, who are called Ladies of the Palace, tried to arrogate the rank and take the place of my ladies everywhere. Such a thing was never done either in the time of the Queen or of the Dauphiness. They got the King’s Guards to keep their places and push back the chairs belonging to my ladies. I complained first of all to the Duc de Noailles, who replied that it was the King’s order. Then I went immediately to the King and said to him, “May I ask your Majesty if it is by your orders that my ladies have now no place or rank as they used to have? If it is your desire, I have nothing more to say, because I only wish to obey you, but your Majesty knows that formerly when the Queen and the Dauphiness were alive the Ladies of the Palace had no rank, and my Maids of Honour, Gentlemen of Honour, and Ladies of the Robe had their places like those of the Queen and the Dauphiness. I do not know why the Ladies of the Palace should pretend to anything else.” The King became quite red, and replied, “I have given no such order, who said that I had?” “The Maréchal de Noailles,” I replied. The King asked him why he had said such a thing, and he denied it entirely. “I am willing to believe, since you say so,” l replied, “that my lackey misunderstood you, but as the King has given no such orders, see that your Guards don’t keep places for those ladies and hinder my servants from carrying chairs for my service,” as we say here. Although these ladies are high in favour, the King, nevertheless, sent the majordomo to find out how things should be done. I told him, and it will not happen again. These women are becoming far too insolent now that they are in favour, and they imagined that I would not have the courage to report the matter to the King. But I shall not lose my rank nor prerogatives on account of the favour they enjoy. The King is too just for that.

The greatness of the “House” depended on the greatness of the family, which explains why Darcy would have hesitated to be in their company.  A man of Darcy’s status would naturally hesitate to confer “honor” to Elizabeth’s family by visiting, or especially dancing, which would have conferred an extra measure of approval for their “low status” behavior.  And with Elizabeth’s family’s status teetering on the brink, one can then see how potentially damaging Lydia’s behavior would be later in the book.

Elias points out that the aristocracy needed to visit others not only to forge connections and give and receive honor, but also to understand their place in the social hierarchy.  Take fashion, for example.  One should always dress appropriate to one’s station, never above it or below.  But the appropriate dress might shift over time depending on how others dressed and what approval they received from those above them.  A lord “goes for broke” and wears a cravat a bit frillier than he might normally while visiting a duke.  The duke gives his tacit approval by wearing an even more outlandish cravat, and now everyone must level jump on their cravat’s.  Suddenly, the “normal” cravat another lord wears is out of fashion — he now dresses as a bore.  If he had been invited to more places and been busier with his “job” he would have known this.  His family’s status declines.  Hence the near obsession with the aristocracy with visiting and being visited.  It was the only way to have “information,” to use a phrase Austen’s Emma frequently uttered.

Family status often had little to do with money.  No aristocrat worth his salt would stoop to such vulgar behavior as to actually care about money.  I believe Saint-Simon relates a story of one baron who gave his son some money to spend on the town.  When the son returned with money leftover he received harsh criticism from his father, who then threw the remaining money out of the window.  In returning with money the son showed not prudence, but foolishness.  Anyone who looked like they counted their money might look like they cared about money, and that stigma would hurt their reputation severely.

Americans often get accused, and rightly so, of focusing way too much on money, which proves our essential boorishness as a nation.  We have to see this malady in some ways as a by-product of equality.  Americans for the most part have no built in social framework for support, no “society” (to use another term from Emma) where we can claim membership.  Money, therefore, more so than family or connections, becomes our primary, if not our only tool, to keep us afloat.  The charge against us is just, but the charge is easier to avoid in aristocratic societies.

Many aristocrats got their names inscribed in stone by risking vast sums on throws of dice and turns of cards.  One might go broke with such games, but even an incredible loss had glory in it and at least proved one’s cavalier approach to money.  Far better a spendthrift than a miser, but this half-virtue ruined many families.  For of course, they did need money just as anyone else did.  Tradition mitigated against them developing a trade, speculating, or becoming a merchant.  They hoped for an appointment to high ranking government or military posts which traditionally went to high ranking aristocrats.  The only way to prove oneself worthy of this honor was not only to have impeccable taste and sense within the pecking order, but also to demonstrate that they never needed to ask the price of anything.  They played a dangerous game, one that Louis XIV must have been only too delighted to see them play.  As long as the fortunes of the aristocracy ebbed and flowed unpredictably, the greater his power.

So a method did exist.  And we see that, yes, they did work of a kind and had many constraints on their existence.  They were not free in the sense we might imagine.  I had students watch the following video about how aristocrats dressed in the 18th century:

As one might expect, they thought their habits pointless, wasteful, and weird (so much makeup for the man!)*, and so on.  But we must seek to understand.

  • Fundamentally, they sought to dress in ways in which commoners could not possibly dress.  They needed to reflect their proper status, for their own benefit, of course.  But it went beyond that–it was for the good of society too (at least in their minds).  To reflect their station was to give witness to the great chain of being.
  • Most of us dress in rather plain ways.  I think they might say of us that, “You have nothing in your society to lift you above the mundane and ordinary.  You have no higher goal than your base entertainment.  Should there be no glory, nothing to strive for?”

I think this last point has some merit.  But I’m not wearing makeup.

Perhaps one might think the life of the king free from constraint, but not so.  Louis XIV put before himself a tremendous task, to become the state.  While apparently he did not utter the phrase, “L ‘etat c’est moi,” he did say

 “The interests of the state come first. When one gives these priority, one labours for one’s own good. These advantage to the state redounds to one’s glory.”

So, while Louis did get to set the rules of fashion (being the top aristocrat all matters of taste and decorum flowed down from him), he had to organize methodically his use of power.  In order to effectively display the glory of France/himself and set the rules, he had to be “on call” all the time.  This lends more sympathy perhaps to the comical and bizarre rituals of various select noblemen watching Louis dress, undress, and eat.  I had always focused on the prison the nobles had allowed themselves to enter, but to keep the nobles beholden to himself, Louis had to keep himself beholden to them.  He too faced severe constraints on his behavior.

This element of control had to be extended at Versailles to nature itself.

garden-versailles_6475_600x450

With Louis XIV one has a possible glimpse of the final apogee of the Medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being, where happiness consisted in knowing who you were by knowing your place in the universe, and how that related to redemption of all things.  But in what could be called its culmination, the egg goes bad instead of hatching.  No wonder so many aristocrats supported the French Revolution, and even supported abolishing feudal titles.  One must always take caution when using one’s own culture and experience to judge the past, but perhaps the aristocracy simply got tired of playing a game no one had any real chance of winning.  One can make a good argument for the real usefulness of the aristocracy during the medieval period, but that time had long past, and one wonders if the French nobility somehow, deep down, knew that to be true.

Dave

*Yes, I too am disturbed by the use of makeup.  But we must be careful . . . it would not have been too long ago that a woman wearing pants would have been considered a form of cross-dressing.  Men wearing earrings takes on different meanings at different times, and so on.

10th Grade: The Galileo Myth

This week we continued with many of the same themes as last week, with a special focus on Galileo.

Thomas HobbesBefore tackling him, we looked at the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ concerned himself mainly with outlining his vision of a workable political system, but he was strongly influenced by the tenor of the times.  Hobbes, like Descartes before him, believed that getting at the truth meant reducing the world to its simplest, most understandable components.  If we dig deep enough, we will finally find an irreducible foundation.  For Descartes, it was thought, and Hobbes builds his politics on the concept of motion.  Mankind, for Hobbes, was in many ways “matter in motion.”

The Scientific Revolution did indeed change many things, and this concept of knowledge may have been at the heart of those changes.  The Medieval philosopher would have argued that to see a thing truly, it must be seen as a whole of many parts.  Not only that, they would have gone further and said that to know a thing, one must know its purpose, its end, its “telos.”

Galileo continued the revolution in other facets of thought.  Copernicus had established the possibility of a heliocentric universe in the 16th century, and while his ideas did not gain wide acceptance, Copernicus was not a controversial figure.  Aristarchus of Samos had, in fact, proposed a similar theory in the 3rd century B.C.  Galileo caused controversy by proposing a new idea of how we arrive at truth, and blurred the lines between theory and fact.  In 1543 a man named Osiander wrote in the preface to Copernicus’ work that,

[W]hen from time to time there are offered for one and the same motion different hypotheses…, the astronomer will accept above all others the one which is easiest to grasp. The philosopher will perhaps seek the semblance of the truth. But neither of them will understand or state anything certain unless it has been divinely revealed to him…. So far as hypotheses are concerned, let no one expect anything certain from astronomy which cannot furnish it, lest he accept as the truth ideas conceived for another purpose and depart from this study a greater fool than when he entered it.

Owen Barfield, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, wrote in his Saving the Appearances, that Galileo

began to affirm that the heliocentric hypothesis not only ‘saved the appearances,’ but was physically true.” What they professed was in fact a new theory of the nature of theory; namely that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with truth.

What (I think) Barfield meant by the idea of “saving the appearances” was the old idea that our notions of scientific truth should do their best to explain the reality that we see around us, to preserve the validity of the senses.  However, this was always recognized to represent our “best guess” and may not reflect actual truth.

But after Galileo the burden of proof shifted.   Arthur Koestler writes in his book The Sleepwalkers that,

if theologians could not refute Galileo their case [would] go by default, and Scripture must be reinterpreted.  This implied (though Galileo did not dare state it explicitly) that the truth of the system was rigorously demonstrated. It is all so subtly done that the trick is almost imperceptible to the reader and, as far as I know, has escaped the attention of students to this very day. Yet it decided the strategy he was to follow in the coming years.

Galileo was right about the Earth’s rotation around the sun, though we would later discover that the sun, too, is in motion.  The issue that I wanted to stress to the students, however, was the fact that one can be right for the wrong reasons.  Many great scientific minds of this time were likely sincere Christians, but the ways which they reached their conclusions may have helped lead people away from Christianity.  True knowledge must involve more than what we see with our senses.

The Scientific Revolution also raised the question of how we should interpret Scripture.  To what degree should scientific discoveries impact how we read the famous passage about the sun standing still in Joshua?

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
 So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,

as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

Of course the Church made mistakes at this time too.  In condemning Galileo they surely overreached and made themselves look silly, contributing to an unnecessary and unhealthy divide between science and faith that lasted for at least three centuries, from which we have fully to recover.
Dave

“A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” by Galileo Galilei

The Dedication of the Dialogue

The Dedication of the Dialogue

I repost this wonderful offering from my friend and colleague Bill Carey . . .

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A Gallup poll of 6 July 1999 of more than a thousand adults determined that only about four out of five Americans believe that the Earth orbits the Sun. Fully one in five believes that the Sun orbits the Earth. [1] It’s interesting that four in five Americans believe something that seems obviously and demonstrably false. The Earth doesn’t feel like its moving underfoot, and every day we see the Sun rise and set. We believe the moon orbits the Earth, and it sure looks like the behavior of the Sun and moon is pretty similar. Why do four out of five Americans believe that, contrary to our intuition, the Earth orbits the Sun?

I’ve been taking an informal survey of my friends, with just two questions. The first is whether the Earth or the Sun is the center of the solar system. [2] After I assure them it’s not a trick question, everyone answers the Sun. We’re beating Gallup’s averages. The second question confuses people: “How do you know?” The most common answer I’ve gotten is, “Duh, everyone knows that”. Some people know that Copernicus and Galileo got in trouble with the Church for saying the Sun was the center of the solar system. Others vaguely remember a science or history teacher telling them about “heliocentrism”. Fair enough.

When I rephrased the question to ask how human beings originally figured that the Earth orbits the Sun, my friends gave me a quizzical look. I was no better off than them; I knew that Galileo and Copernicus had gotten everyone to switch from the geocentric view to the heliocentric. I didn’t know how or why. How did those astronomers convince everyone to abandon more than a thousand years of careful science and replace it with a new framework? What arguments and data struck the telling blows for heliocentrism?

The Retrogradation of Mars

The Retrogradation of Mars

The work that I turned to to understand the arguments for heliocentrism is Galileo’s delightful Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It is a surprising book. The first surprise it delivers is its style and structure. Galileo imitates a Socratic dialogue. Like all good literature, conflict drives the plot of the Dialogue. In particular, the conflict between Ptolemy and Aristotle on the one hand, and Copernicus on the other, motivates Galileo. His protagonist, Salviati, argues for the Copernican world system. The canny, initially neutral Sagredo drives the conversation forward. The wryly named Simplicio attempts to prop up the Ptolemaic system. Simplicio’s bumbling affords Galileo an opportunity to clearly articulate his ideas about physics and the motion of the stars. Of Aristotle, Salviati says that “[w]e need guides in forests and in unknown lands, but on plains and in open places only the blind need guides. It is better for such people to stay at home, but anyone with eyes in his head and his wits about him could serve as a guide for them. In saying this I do not mean that a person should not listen to Aristotle; indeed, I applaud the reading and careful study of his works, and I reproach only those who give themselves up as slaves to him in such a way as to subscribe blindly to everything he says and take it as inviolable.” [3] The arguments about the motion of the heavens make the work science; the metaphors, plot, dialogue, and humor make it literature.

The second surprise in the Dialogue is Galileo’s outstanding ear for argument. He refutes Aristotle’s arguments bluntly and often amusingly. Aristotle claims that a ball of iron will fall one hundred cubits in the time a block of wood falls ten cubit. This is preposterously false, and Sagredo doubts whether Aristotle ever actually tried it out: “I greatly doubt that Aristotle ever tested by experiment whether it be true that two stones, one weighing ten times as much as the other, if allowed to fall, at the same instant, from a height of, say, 100 cubits, would so differ in speed that when the heavier had reached the ground, the other would not have fallen more than 10 cubits.” Simplicio leaps to the defense of his preposterously wrong philosopher by pointing out that “[Aristotle’s] language would seem to indicate that he had tried the experiment, because he says: ‘we see the heavier’; now the word ‘see’ shows he had made the experiment.” Galileo’s characters are forthright in dismissing this tomfoolery. They describe experimental procedures that we can repeat today that confirm Galileo’s ideas and to refute Aristotle’s.

Epicycles and Deferents

Epicycles and Deferents

Claudius Ptolemy offers Galileo a foil with more scientific substance. [3] Ptolemy’s exposition of the geocentric world system in the unreadably complex Almagest is a surprisingly empirical and scientific work. Ptolemy’s system of deferents and epicycles is a compelling, mathematically precise, vision of the world. To refute it, Galileo works through a detailed analysis of the parallax of various celestial bodies and their distances from the Earth. The argument is technical and subtle. Writing before the great tectonic shift from Euclid to Descartes, Galileo’s mathematical reasoning tends towards geometry as well. Here he argues with Ptolemy on the latter’s home turf. A good edition that reproduces the figures is essential, as the characters lean on them as much as the reader. When a character references a table of astronomical data, Galileo’s language leads one to vividly imagine the characters sitting around a table passing papers to one another as they eat and drink.

The third surprise nestled in the Dialogue is that it’s deeply unsatisfying. It’d be tempting to say that, having read Galileo’s dialogue, I can answer the question about how we know the Earth goes around the Sun. The truth, though, is that I’ve just replaced one authority with another. I haven’t observed the phases of Venus, and I haven’t observed the parallax of the fixed stars (much less of the planets) that would let me work out the celestial mechanics on my own. Even so, reading Galileo’s argument is valuable. When I trust his authority, it’s an authority that I understand a little better than before. It’s an authority that’s grounded in reason and argument that I can wrestle with and assess critically. But if I want to add to the conversation myself, take a stand along with Ptolemy and Galileo, I need to telescope-up and start looking at the stars.

Too often we treat science as an Athena, sprung full grown and clothed from the head of Zeus. We trust our predecessors when they say that the Earth orbits the Sun without understanding how they came to believe that. We belittle people who disagree without understanding the arguments that make us correct. It turns out that the story of scientific discovery is always messy, usually fascinating, often wildly contingent, and occasionally well told. Whenever we can grapple with not only the results of scientific inquiry, but also the story behind it, we should. In his preface to the Dialogue, Einstein writes that, “[t]he leitmotif which I recognize in Galileo’s work is the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority.” Galileo would rue his fate; like Aristotle before him, he’s become an authority, chalky and dead. We can rescue him from that cruel fate by listening carefully to the scientific conversation and the adding our voices to the tumultous banter.

[1] See http://www.gallup.com/poll/3742/new-poll-gauges-americans-general-knowledge-levels.aspx

[2] An astute reader pointed out to me that I beg the question here, so ingrained is the heliocentric system in my mental picture of the universe.

[3] Galileo, The Dialogue, p. 131

[4] Ptolemy will be the subject of another post, I hope. He deserves far more credit as a scientist than we’re inclined to give him.