Healing Hierarchies

A good education should expose people to “otherness,” but our current discourse gives far too narrow a definition of “otherness.” We tend to focus on ethnicity or gender differences, and not necessarily other ways of perceiving the world. I believe the best form of “otherness” comes through exposure to other worldviews, other ways of thinking, and this can come in the most unlikely of places.

Many generally assume that we share much in common with medieval Europeans, and perhaps this accounts for our striking reaction to find profound differences, and we judge them quite harshly when they do not match our expectations. But if we started from a different mindset we would see them more clearly as fundamentally different from us, and this would help us actually learn more from them.

No scholarly consensus exists that I am aware of on the identity of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, except that he was not the Dionysius encountered by St. Paul in Athens. Perhaps “St. Dionysius” wrote in the tradition developed by this same Dionysius. Whoever he was, his writings had enormous influence over the medieval world, as C.S. Lewis points out in his great work The Discarded Image, and perhaps none had the influence of his On the Celestial Hierarchy. In one section he writes,

In my opinion a hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding, and an activity approximating, as closely as possible to the divine . . .  The goal of hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like unto God as possible and to be at one with Him. Hierarchy causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors  of reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God Himself. It ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God’s will to those members further down the scale.

We might expect St. Dionysius to praise hierarchy as a form of divine order on earth, and indeed he does just this. What might surprise us, however, is how he uses the term “generous” in regards to hierarchy, and how communally oriented his hierarchical vision is.

Author Andrew Louth comments on this passage that,

What St. Denys means, is that hierarchy is a radiant display that reaches out from God throughout the whole created order and draws it back into union with Him.  Whereas hierarchies to modern ears evoke separation, exclusion, [and perhaps exploitation], for St. Denys it connotes inclusion and union.

How far back in time should our concept of “western civilization” go? Lots of possible answers exist, but most would probably include the Middle Ages as part of western civilization. Yet, St. Dionysius had a significant impact on the life and culture of the medievals, and in this passage he entirely runs against the grain of one of major assumptions today regarding hierarchies. For St. Dionysius, it seems that hierarchies include rather than exclude because it ensures that everyone has a place, and that everyone has responsibility for someone else. The coherence of the world inhabited by St. Dionysius also allowed for everyone to know their place and, in theory, navigate it successfully.

St. Dionysius’ passage calls to mind an observation by Tocqueville, who warned at the potential downsides of democratic individualism. In a a guest post on the U.S. Intellectual History blog Jordan Heykoop commented that,

Americans are lonely. “Americanization”–understood by European intellectuals and political leaders in the twentieth century as an export of American products and values, an investment strategy to control the economies of other countries, an attempt to educate foreigners in the superiority of American institutions, or a process of modernization, all in the name of the free market–was in some sense an export of glorified loneliness.

A democratic and capitalist spirit cultivated this loneliness in America. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that aristocracy made “of all citizens a long chain that went up from the peasant to the king. Democracy, on the other hand, “breaks the chain and sets each link apart” as it constantly draws each individual “back towards himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly to the solitude of his own heart.” People in a democratic era are no longer bound through loyalty and obligation, values which are far-reaching and stable, but through common interest, which is malleable and subjective. Individuals gather to negotiate and calculate their interests, then disband. This sense of equality breaks social and communal links and leaves the individual looking inward for identity, place, and meaning.[

For Max Weber, a Protestant society, free from the structure and liturgy of the Catholic [or Orthodox] Church, cultivated a deep inner loneliness in which individuals worked desperately to discern signs of God’s favor. This discipline and sense of calling in a worldly vocation created the foundation for a capitalist spirit–the conditions under which a free market economy could thrive. America is the paragon of these processes. Late capitalism had become a “monstrous cosmos,” a world where the values of hard work and the sense of inner loneliness remained entrenched, but was completely unhinged from any religious foundation or teleological connection.[

Even supposing that you agree with Haykoop, we cannot snap our fingers, import the distant past, and make everyone feel comfortable again.* We are a democracy and cannot invent or import a hierarchy wholesale from nothing.

Perhaps the greatest expounder of St. Dionysius’ ideas was St. Maximus the Confessor. The back cover of Andrew Louth’s book on St. Maximus encourages us with the statement that St. Maximus is the theologian for a world in crisis. Indeed, St. Maximus shows us how practical theology can be.

Monistic religions leave no room to breathe, no room for distinctions, and thus create tyrannies. For example, though officially an atheistic state, the “party” represented a monistic tyranny in Soviet Russia. By definition, the “Party” was always correct, and all outside it cannot belong to the body politic. Such outsiders needed dealt with. Polytheistic religions might give more freedom in theory, but lack any point of unity. So these societies tend to succumb to (in Toynbee’s phrase) “the idolization of the parochial community.” Wars of all against all arise, like the Peloponnesian War in Greece at the end of the 5th century B.C.

By the 7th century A.D., the Church had worked out the doctrine of the Trinity (more or less), but had yet to fully develop the doctrine of Christ and the relationship between His deity and humanity. One key issue involved whether or not Christ had one divine will, or two wills in one person, a human and divine will. Maximus asserted that Christ had to have a human will to be fully human. In addition, it is the submission of Christ’s human will to His divine will that makes a pathway for us to become more like Christ and thereby “participate in the divine nature.”

Perhaps St. Maximus is best known for his development of the cosmic nature of redemption, and Christ’s fulfillment of various patterns within redemptive history.As one example of this, we can examine the Christ’s entering into the pattern of the right and left hand, and simultaneously affirming and transforming that pattern.

The idea of a “righteous” right hand and sinister “left-hand” go far back into history–at least the to Egyptians–but other ancient cultures used it as well. Even so-called “rational” cultures like the Greeks used such categories frequently. Indeed, while many today will mock such as ideas as superstitious, unless we want to fully embrace chronological snobbery, we must assume a universal truth to this pattern and category even if we fail to understand it.

Christ used such imagery when speaking of the last judgment in Matthew 25, and icons of this event depict this consistently.

Perhaps the most famous icon of Christ is the “Pantocrater” image, with Christ blessing all with his right hand, and holding the Scriptures (which also represents separation, categorization, and therefore some sense of judgment), with his left.

But we should hold back if we assume that Christ categorizes His creation merely terms of right and left imagery. Two of the greatest saints of the Church are of course Mary His Mother and St. John the Baptist. Mary bears God within her womb, and spent her formative years in the temple in Jersusalem–right at the very center of God’s presence. John the Baptist, on other hand (a phrase that indicates that we too still use something of the right/left imagery) wears odd clothing, eats odd food, and resides in the wilderness outside the city, in the realm of chaos. So, the Church depicts Mary on the right of Christ, and St. John on the left to indicate a hierarchical difference between them

Yet obviously the “left-handedness” of St. John does nothing to diminish his status per se in the kingdom. Christ calls him “the greatest among men.”

We see the same treatment of the two great apostles of the Church, Saints Peter and Paul. St. Paul comes later, he’s younger, and he actively persecuted the church. He comes as one “unnaturally born,” to use his own words. St. Peter was one of the original twelve, the “rock,” a witness to the resurrection, and the preacher at Pentecost. Peter will therefore be shown on the right of Christ, Paul on the left.

Yet we remember too Peter also denied Christ, and Paul rebuked him for embracing the teaching of the Judaizers in the book of Galatians. The right hand has its faults just as the left hand. The hierarchy can be both affirmed and transcended at the same time.

We need a St. Maximus’ today, or at least we need to heed his wisdom. On the right of the political spectrum we have those that affirm the values of order and unity at the “center.” They are wary of the fringe’s of society, and this can make for rigid authoritarianism. The far left exalts the fringe above the center, idealizing the exception rather than the rule.** But if the falcon’s widening gyre leaves no center at all, we will have chaos. Or rather, we will have a hierarchy, but one that will invert basic reality and create a purposeless and powerless structure, with the “oppression olympics” and the race not towards strength, purpose, and so on, but towards impotent victimhood as one example of this.

Christ shows us that submission of the human to the divine does not debase the human, but exalts it. Rather than set the right hand against the left He affirms both without denying the place of either. In fact, for the right and left to work properly, they need each other. His hierarchy includes rather than excludes. This, our only viable political path forward, gives witness to deep theological truths. Of course, St. Maximus suffered for these truths and for this way of life,^ and perhaps we may need to as well.

St. Peter on the right (of Christ that is, imagining Him at the center), St. Paul on the left

*The medieval period had its share of rebellions, violence, etc. I am not trying to glorify the past so much as point out the difference in how they saw their place in the world, and to attempt to put a finger on our current malaise.

**We should ask the question whether or not we have a genuine “right hand” in America. The left is socially liberal but wants more government control over the market. The right tends towards more social conservatism but wants the market to operate without restrictions to maximize efficiency, not seeing how the market easily disrupts traditional communities and economies (for example, when Wal-Mart comes to a small town, say goodbye to Main Street). In the end, libertarians embrace both “left-handed” sides of things.

As Patrick Deneen has commented, we have solid anti-authoritarian safeguards built into our national DNA, but it appears that we lack an antidote for excessive individualism. Of course, both sides have elements of the excessive fringe and the excessive center embedded within them. For the right, the excessive center manifests itself in dangerous forms of nationalism, but their fringe enters with its exaltation of individual rights. The left praises every form of fringe behavior as liberation from group consensus, but their “center” manifestation that all must adhere to proper speech guidelines, for example (note the various numbers of people banned from Twitter, for example, who do not conform to proper speech as defined by the socially powerful).

What we witness now, in fact, is what happens when we lose sight of Christ, the Son of Man, and the Son of God.

^As an old man the theological and political tide turned against St. Maximus, and he had his tongue and right hand cut off. He died without seeing any earthly vindication of his theological vision.

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Fantasy Island

I did not grow up watching a lot of TV, as my parents were (thankfully) on the stricter side of things in that regard. Yet, like most everyone else, I watched what I could when they were not around. Almost anything would do when these opportunities struck, and I distinctly remember even watching a few scattered episodes of Fantasy Island. Some of you will remember this show, in which Ricardo Montalban presided over an island resort of sorts, where people would come for vacations. But inevitably, guests would have some kind of unreal and usually traumatic experience, whereby certain unknown issues in their lives would attain resolution. The guests would leave happy, Montalban smiling benignly as they left.

Again, I watched this show even though I never particularly enjoyed it (it was on tv, and that was enough). What’s more, I could never grasp its basic premise or understand what was happening. Were the experiences of the guests real or not? They seemed unreal, but then if unreal, why did people feel so satisfied at the end? How could the island produce just what was needed for each guest (The Lost series, after an intriguing start, definitely borrowed way too much from Fantasy Island in its later seasons)? I remember no explanation, just that, “it had all worked out” somehow in a package that always seemed too neat and tidy

Again, the aggravations I had with the show didn’t prevent me from watching. In my defense, how can one look away from Ricardo Montalblan (still the best Star Trek villain to date)?

Much has been said about the dust-up over the brief video clips from the Pro-Life March involving the “clash” between Catholic high-school students and other protestors. I will say little here, except that

  • I was glad to see some who made ridiculous and ill-founded statements retract their comments when new, extended video evidence came to light. I wish I saw far more laments that thousands of people rushed to extreme judgment of a 17-year-old after seeing 1 minute of video–in other words, the very exercise of commenting on Twitter “in the moment” is desperately fraught with peril. It wasn’t just that people got it wrong, but that no one should have commented in the first place.*
  • I basically agree with David Brooks, who argued that 1) this scary and tribal rush to judgment happens on both sides** (this time the left was at fault) , and 2) the problem we have is also a byproduct a new technology (phones and social media) that we must understand more fully and use more wisely.

But as much as I appreciated Brooks’ wisdom, I think he misses something deeper and more fundamental. No one questions the impact of smart phones on how we interact with each other and the world. We should remember, however, that inventions do not simply randomly drop from the sky. They emerge within specific cultural contexts. While the phone was certainly not fated to arise in America, it makes perfect sense that it did. Apple marketed its products with the letter “i” in front, itunes, the ipod, the iMac, and of course, the iphone. Apple wanted one to think of these tools as a way to radically personalize our worlds, which fits within our cultural and political notions of individualism. It’s no surprise that their products made them billions of dollars. They did not create the need for radical personalization of our lives, they tapped into what already existed and helped us expand the horizons of our collective felt need.

I agree that we need to work as a society to understand the technologies we create, but that is just another way of saying we need to understand ourselves.

Harold Bloom’s The American Religion attempts to do just this. He argues that, as diverse as we are religiously, every culture must have some unifying belief, even if this belief remains below the level of consciousness. Bloom states that America is in fact a gnostic nation and not a Christian one, and he defines gnosticism as:

  • A belief that the physical world is essentially evil, and the “spiritual” is good.
  • That all people have a “divine spark” within them covered over by experience, culture, history, and materiality (the “all people” part of this is our particular democratization of what was an elitist religion in the ancient world).
  • We must find a way to liberate our true selves, this “divine spark,” from its constraints. Culture, tradition, history, etc. often stand as enemies in this effort.

Bloom postulates that this faith lies underneath other professed faiths, be they agnostic, Baptist, Jewish, or Mormon. It has invaded and colonized our institutional religions and our overall mindset. He finds it particular present in Southern Baptists of his era, but today he would likely look to the various mega-churches, which operate on the idea that Sundays should be friendly, relatable, accessible, and above all, not “boring.” Ralph Waldo Emerson no doubt helped found our particular version of gnostic faith, writing in 1838 that,

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it . . . . Alone in history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. . . . He spoke of miracles, for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this miracle shines as the character ascends.

1838 Divinity School Address

So too William James wrote that

Religion, as I ask you take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. . . . as I have already said, the immediate personal experiences the immediate personal experiences will amply fill our time, and we shall hardly consider theology or ecclesiasticism at all.

“The Variety of Religious Experience, 1902

We could easily sandwich Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in between these two thinkers for the trifecta of the prophets of non-contextualized, disembodied, American hyper-individualism. This kind of individualism has as its mission liberation from other groups other entities that would seek to mold, shape, and define. And, as we look at the crumbling of institutional churches, our lack of respect for governmental instiutions, the crisis at many universities, etc. we must declare that the individualism of Emerson and Whitman has triumphed almost completely.^

I can think of few things more compatible with this faith than combining Twitter and iphones. We can both memorialize our lives (which are of course special and worthy of documentation) and express our inmost thoughts to the world at any time. Conventions of privacy, or politeness, you say? Sorry, the god of individualism is a jealous god and will brook no rivals for his throne. Do we contradict oursevles and treat others as we would rather not be treated? Well, we are large, to paraphrase Whitman, and contain multitudes. We believe firmly that our souls should have the right to break free at all times.

Thus, if Bloom is correct, if we want to avoid such miscarriages of justice in the future, we may need to do much more than get a better understanding of technology. Brooks is wrong. No quick and mysterious sitcom-like fix is in sight. We need a new religion to avoid such disasters in the future. Our nation, relatively isolated as it is, is still not an island. And, double alas, Ricardo Montalblan is not here to save us.

Dave

*I know that we need journalism, public records of public events, etc., but I will go one step farther. I don’t know why anyone was filming the students in the first place. I know this happens all the time, but it seems to me that you should go to a protest march to protest, not film others protesting. If you want to counter-protest, do so, but don’t go to film others counter-protesting. I agree with Jonathan Pageau, who argued that our incessant desire to mediate our experience through screens fits into the kind of gnosticism Bloom describes. The screen inevitably creates an abstraction, a disconnect between ourselves and reality. He writes,

It is only in the 17th century that men framed their vision with metal and glass, projecting their mind out into an artificially augmented space. Men always had artificial spaces, painting, sculpture, maps, but the telescope and microscope are self-effacing artifices, they attempt to replace the eye, to convince us that they are not artificial but are more real than the eye. It is not only the physical gesture of looking at the world through a machine that demonstrates the radical change, though this is symbolic enough, but it is the very fact that people would do that and come to the conclusion that what they saw through these machines was truer than how they experienced the world without them.

from his “Most of the Time the World is Flat,” a post for the Orthodox Arts Journal

**I am basically conservative and run mostly in conservative circles. So, while I feel that it is mostly the left that mobs people for now for breathing too loudly through their nose, I should say that the right engages in it as well. I remember some years ago glumly sitting through a presentation where a commentator dissected and destroyed the whole personality of Bill Clinton based on 6 seconds of a video clip played in slow-motion. At least Clinton was the most public figure at the time, and not a 17 year old high school student.

^Patrick Deneen has related that when he taught at Princeton, an important study came out that on the Amish that showed that more than 90% of all those who experience “rumspringa” (when as later teens they leave the community to experience the world) return back to their communities. Deneen was taken aback by how much this bothered his colleagues, who could not conceive of living a life bound by tradition and communal standards. For many of our elite Princteton dons, such a life could only be termed as oppression, and some went so far as to suggest that they should be liberated from this oppression.

This, I’m sure, backs up Bloom’s thesis all the more.

Imagined Communities

Today there is much talk surrounding the idea of the lack of communal identification in America.  We have red states, and blue states, and we bowl alone.  Our kids don’t go outside to play with other neighborhood kids.  We have much to lament.

On the other hand, this social/cultural shift (for our purposes here we’ll assume it’s true) has given us some distance from the whole concept of a “nation.”  Paul Graham has a marvelous post entitled “The Re-fragmentation” in which he discusses the darker side of everyone huddled together around the center.  One could argue that the prime era of nationalism produced an eerie cultural conformity on a scale perhaps not seen since ancient times.

It is this spirit that Benedict Anderson writes Imagined Communities.  The book attempts to tackle how it is that communities71hPv-gXglL called “nations” formed.  At times I thought he drifted into a bit of esotericism, but I found other insights of his incisive and quite helpful.  The first of these insights is in the title itself.  Nations require imagination.  We can understand that those within an immediate geographic proximity could be a community.  We can surmise that those of like-minded belief could find a way to become a community.  But how might I be connected with someone in Oregon with whom I may not share either belief, geography, experience, or culture?  It requires a certain leap of the imagination.

Anderson cites two texts from the fathers of Filipino nationalism to demonstrate how this idea of a national community could be formed.  The first is from Jose Rizal:

Towards the end of October, Don Santiago de los Santos, popularly known as Capitan Tiago, was giving a dinner party.  Although, contrary to his usual practice, he announced it only that afternoon, it was already the subject of every conversation in Binondo, in other quarters of the city, and even in the city of Intramuros.  In those days Capitan Tiago had the reputation of a lavish host.  It was known that his house, like his country, closed his doors to nothing — except to commerce or any new or daring idea.

So the news coursed like an electric shock through the community of parasites, spongers, and gatecrashers, whom God, in His infinite goodness, created, and so tenderly multiplies in Manila.  Some hunted polish for their boots, others looked for collar buttons and cravats.  But one and all were occupied with the problem of how to greet their host with the familiarity required to create the appearance of long-standing friendship, or if need be, to excuse themselves for not having arrived earlier .
The dinner was being given on a house on Anloague Street.  Since we cannot recall the street number, we shall describe it such a way that it may be recognized — that is, if earthquakes have not yet destroyed it.  We do not believe that its owner will have had it torn down, since such work is usually left to God or Nature, which besides, holds many contracts with our Government.  

The second from Marko Kartikromo

It was 7 o’clock Saturday evening; young people in Semarang never at home Saturday night.  On this night, however, no one was about.  Because the heavy day-long rain had made the roads wet and very slippery, all had stayed at home.  

For the workers in shops and offices Saturday morning was a time of anticipation–anticipating their leisure and the fun of walking around the city in the evening, but on this night they were to be disappointed–because of the lethargy created by the bad weather.  The main roads usually crammed with all sorts of traffic, the footpaths usually teeming with people, all were deserted.  Now and then the crack of horse cab’s whip could be heard spurring a horse on its way.

Samerang was deserted.  The light from the gas lamps shone on the shining asphalt road.

A young man was seated on a long rattan lounge reading a newspaper.  He was totally engrossed.  His occasional anger and smiles showed his deep interest in the stories.  He turned the pages of the newspaper, thinking that he might find something to make him feel less miserable.  Suddenly he came upon an article entitled:

PROSPERITY

A destitute vagrant became ill on the side of the road and died of exposure

The report moved the young man.  He could just conjure up the the suffering of the poor soul as he lay dying on the side of the road.  One moment he felt an explosive anger well-up inside.  Another moment he felt pity, and yet again he felt anger at the social system which made some men poor and others rich.

If we contrast these texts with two other famous opening passages (The Iliad, and Pride and Prejudice) we may begin to see why the above texts could be described as “nationalistic.”

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto; for he was angry with the king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people, because the son of Atreus had dishonoured Chryses his priest. Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand the sceptre of Apollo wreathed with a suppliant’s wreath and he besought the Achaeans, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs.

“Sons of Atreus,” he cried, “and all other Achaeans, may the gods who dwell in Olympus grant you to sack the city of Priam, and to reach your homes in safety; but free my daughter, and accept a ransom for her, in reverence to Apollo, son of Jove.”

On this the rest of the Achaeans with one voice were for respecting the priest and taking the ransom that he offered; but not so Agamemnon, who spoke fiercely to him and sent him roughly away. “Old man,” said he, “let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your sceptre of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you.”

The old man feared him and obeyed. Not a word he spoke, but went by the shore of the sounding sea and prayed apart to King Apollo whom lovely Leto had borne. “Hear me,” he cried, “O god of the silver bow, that protects Chryse and holy Cilla and rulest Tenedos with thy might, hear me oh thou of Sminthe. If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge these my tears upon the Danaans.”

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

******

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

If we consider the idea that nations are primarily imagined communities we can examine the texts.

The first two texts . . .

  • Conjure up a sense of belonging to a particular place.  The reader may not know the locations described in experience but can imagine being there.
  • Establish a connection between the large groups of people in the story, despite the fact that these people do not know each other — note that in the second text the man feels a connection to the vagrant though they had never met.
  • Presuppose an almost jocular familiarity with the the concept of a “nation.”

But neither The Illiad or Pride and Prejudice do any of these things.  The reader gets dropped into a world that is not theirs, and neither author shows much concern to make it so.  The reader observes the story, but does not participate in the story.  If we consider Austen one of the primary literary voices of her day, we can surmise that the transition to considering “nations” as communities is quite recent.  C.S. Lewis commented that the world of Austen and Homer had much more in common with each other, despite their 2500 year separation, than his world and Austen’s, despite the mere 150 year time difference.^

Too many causes exist for this momentous shift to consider them here.  Anderson focuses on a couple, however, worth considering.

As mentioned above, one can have a sense of community based on physical proximity.  Anderson’s brilliance is to focus on the idea of “imagination” creating this sense of community.  We must always realize, then, in the essential unreality of nationhood, a subject to which we will return.  But Anderson also shows the concrete foundation for the myth of nationality.

Ideologically the idea of equality had to arise before the idea of nationality had a chance.  But the idea of equality needed fertile soil, and Anderson names “print-capitalism” as one primary ingredient.  With the Enlightenment came the idea of rational standardization of measurement (of distance, time, weight, etc.) and language.

The printed book, kept a permanent form, capable of infinite reproduction, temporally and spatially.  It was no longer subject to the ‘unconsciously modernizing’ habits of monastic scribes.  Thus, while 12th century French differed markedly from that written by Villon in the 15th, the rate of change slowed markedly by the in the 16th.  ‘By the end of the 17th century languages in Europe had generally assumed their modern forms.’

Capitalism too played its part.  “In the Middle Ages,” commented Umberto Eco, “one did not ‘make money.’  You either had money or you didn’t.”  Today we hear a great deal about the inequalities of capitalism.  But capitalism helped produced a society in which the vast majority of people can share in common experiences though common consumption.*  The mass production made possible by political unification helped create mass consumption, and so one hand washes the other.  Capitalism and print media together created the newspaper, which formed the ‘daily liturgy’ of the national community.

So to what extent can we say that “nations” have value?  One student of mine refused to take the bait and argued bluntly (but effectively) that “they seem to be doing pretty well so far.”  Ross Douthat writes,

The nation-state is real, and (thus far) irreplaceable. Yes, the world of nations is full of arbitrary borders, invented traditions, and convenient mythologies layered atop histories of plunder and pillage. And yes, not every government or polity constitutes a nation (see Iraq, or Belgium, or half of Africa). But as guarantors of public order and personal liberty, as sources of meaning and memory and solidarity, as engines of common purpose in the service of the common good, successful nation-states offer something that few of the transnational institutions or organizations bestriding our globalized world have been able to supply. (The arguable exception of Roman Catholicism is, I fear, only arguable these days.) So amid trends that tend to weaken, balkanize or dissolve nation-states, it should not be assumed that a glorious alternative awaits us if we hurry that dissolution to its end.

I agree that the effectiveness of nations vis a vis other forms of organization is at least arguable.**  I agree with Douthat that the premature burial of  “nations” before their time, with nothing ready to replace it, would be silly at best.  But . . . Anderson’s work reminds us that we live in purely imagined communities.  They exist not in reality, but for expediency, a product of contingent historical circumstances.

The question remains — will their imaginary existence, like that of the zero, prove so valuable that they will last far into the future?  We can see the challenge posed to them already by the internet, globalization, and political polarization.  We shall see how strong our imaginations can be in the next generation or two.

Dave

*I do not suggest that defining ourselves through consumption is a good thing in itself, merely that consumerism has had this particular impact.

**In brief, we might say that the birth of nations was bloody (ca. 1800-1871), with the next generation settling into a relative peace.  But the first half of the 20th century was catastrophically destructive, with a moderately peaceful era to follow.  For whatever it’s worth, the possibly waning age of “nations” — ca. 1970’s – present, has been a period of steadily decreasing world violence.

^M.I. Finley makes an interesting connection between the two eras in his classic, The World of Odysseus.  Finley looks at Achilles’ comment in Hades and draws an unexpected conclusion.  Achilles seems to state that he would rather be a “thes” on earth than king in Hades.  Most translations assume that “thes” means “slave,” but Finley argues that the best translation would mean something like, “unattached free small landholder.”  This, and not slavery, was the worst fate Achilles could imagine.

This reminds me of a part in the Gwyenth Paltrow Emma movie where Emma disdains the independent farmer.  “He has no society, no information.”  We get another confirmation of the role capitalism and the concept of “equality” played in the creation of nations.

The Family and Civilization

Recently in Government class we briefly discussed Francis Fukuyama’s famous/infamous The End of History and the Last Man, a book often cited but perhaps much less read these days.

I have not read it myself.

The occasion for this discussion came from a student question.  Might monarchy return to western civilization? Even 30 years ago such a question would be absurd.  But, Plato, Machiavelli, and other thinkers tacitly assume a cycle of governments that repeat themselves over time.  Fukuyama, as best as I understand, challenges this assumption by stating that democracy has proven itself and will now always remain in the conversation.  It will always be “in play” in the world and some type of democracy would become the dominant form of government from here on out.  The cycle of “History” has ended.  Now all that we have left are “events.”

When we discussed this question in class I remained skeptical about monarchy’s return.  But a colleague pointed out that of course it could happen.  The cycle of monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, monarchy (in all but name) played out in Rome.  Rome began as a monarchy, but expanded as a Republic.  If the Republic stood against anything, it was monarchy.  Yet, while monarchs did not return to Rome, Emperors made an appearance for nearly 500 years, a revision to monarchy in all but name.  Furthermore, after Rome’s fall monarchies appeared even in areas formerly controlled by Rome.

Perhaps, then, monarchies could return even to the West, given several generations.  We tend to believe that history progresses or declines, more or less in a continuous line.  Maybe we should give more credence to a more cyclically influenced theory of events.

I thought of this conversation reading Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization.  He wrote just after W.W. II and foresaw our modern family crisis.  But because he roots his observations in historical observation over many centuries, the book has a timeless quality.  Fundamentally, Zimmerman argues that we should abandon linear evolutionary concepts of the family, not just because he may not agree with evolutionary scientific theory, but primarily because the history of western civilization shows a circle rather than a straight line.

Zimmerman identifies three different basic family models throughout history:

  • The ‘Trustee Family’ resembles something akin to our idea of Scottish clans. Trustee families are so called because each family member acts as a mere caretaker of the bloodline, property, customs, and traditions of the extended family.  Powerful families are a law unto themselves–a kind of miniature state–and stand in active solidarity with other family members in terms of rewards and punishments.
  • The “Domestic Family” has more of a nuclear composition and mentality.  The father heads the family, but they can own property outright.  The domestic family shares corporate blame for minor offenses, but the trend leans toward individual responsibility.  Neither the clan nor the state makes a domestic family or governs it, but the Church (or other religious affiliation).
  • The “Atomistic Family” describes our own age.  In the absence of the state, the Trustee Family assumes significant control over “horizontal” relationships.  The Domestic Family has a sacramental sacredness ordered primarily though religion.  The Atomistic Family is based on the idea of functionality and convenience.  It’s horizontal nature extends only to individual members.  It has no horizontal sacred dimension.  Personal choice determines the shape of individual families.

Few disagree with Zimmerman’s descriptions, but most modern sociologists assume an evolutionary line of change that will eventually dissolve the family as we know it.  Zimmerman shows that each type existed before in Greece and Rome, and that after Rome’s fall, the cycle began again.  He traces all three models this way:

Trustee Family Era’s

  • Homeric Greece–ca. 800 B.C.
  • Early Roman tribal era–12 Tables of Law (ca. 450 B.C.)
  • The post-Roman barbarian Age (ca. 500 A.D.-12th Century)

Domestic Family Era’s

  • 8th-5th century Greece, from Hesiod-Pericles
  • 12 Tables of Roman Law–Dissolution of the Republic
  • 13th Century-18th Century (Aquinas-Enlightenment)

Atomistic Era’s

  • Sophists-End of classical Greece ca. 150 B.C.
  • Augustus-Barbarian Age of Europe
  • Enlightenment Rationalism-Present Day

The main part of the book concerns itself with showing the family transitions from the fall of Rome until today.

The church stood against much of accepted family mores in Rome’s decline.  From an early point the Church declared marriage a sacrament, and worked against the atomistic view of marriage and family in late Rome.  This makes sense.  After Rome’s fall, we they had two polar opposite views of the family to contend with, as the atomistic model lingered alongside of the trustee model brought by barbarian tribes.

The church found itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.  They abhorred the individualism of the atomistic Roman family, but the trustee model led to uncontrolled violence and lack of individual moral responsibility.  Caught between these two, the Church leaned towards working with the trustee model.  Part of this may have had to do with the fact that the collapse of the Roman state made the trustee model almost inevitable.  It also shows, I think, that the values of the early Church do not match our own.  Needing to choose, they preferred unchecked violence to rampant individualism.*

However, the Church quickly worked to transform ideas of the family in small but concrete ways.  They allowed for marriages even in the absence of familial consent.  They insisted that, as marriage was a sacrament, the Church and not the family made a marriage.  Under most barbarian trusteeships, the groom had to provide a financial gift to his father-in-law, as he “took” someone from his family.  The Church transformed this practice into the groom giving a gift of property/cash to his wife.  The practice of writing wills also allowed for a widow to inherit property independent of her husband’s family.

All of these things helped bring about the Domestic Family, though the slow and steady rise of the state also aided in this as well.

Zimmerman sees the Domestic model as the ideal.  Marriage has a sacramental purpose and reality, but the family is not absolute, as many Scriptures attest.  Because the Church creates a new family, the family has a degree of independence from the state.  Civilizations were healthier with these kinds of families.  Greece experienced its explosion of cultural and political growth largely under the Domestic Family.  In Rome the Republic never had healthier days than during the prevalence of the Domestic Family.  In Europe we see the 12th century golden age that experienced innovations in architecture, philosophy, music, etc. etc.

Several things happened over two centuries that eroded the domestic family.

  • Erasmus (Zimmerman calls him a “sophistic playboy” and other Renaissance humanists began to enamored with classical culture and its attendant individualism.
  • Building on this, the Reformation 1) Removed marriage as a sacrament, giving the Church less power over marriage and giving more to the state, and 2) Marriage had a higher place than celibacy, which lessened marriage’s spiritually symbolic purpose and paved the way for the “contract view of marriage.**
  • Social contract theory put the emphasis of marriage on fulfilling mutual needs of each “party,” and opened the door to different kinds of marriages–all legitimate in theory provided only that both parties freely consented.

Many in the west today see the rise of the atomistic model concomitant with the rise of political and social freedom.  This view has some merit.  The Reformation and Enlightenment democracies broke down nearly all traditions, which led to a focus on the individual.  The individual rights we enjoy likely would not have come without a breakdown in the “Domestic Family.”

But Zimmerman has an apt word of caution–society cannot exist without some method of organization and accountability.  The family has long served as the repository for moral training, education, preparation for life, and so on.  If the family can no longer perform these functions, the state will have to step in, making the state itself our de-facto family.  This happened in Rome.  When social order decayed, the state had to take up the mantle, and they proved in their laws and actions much more stern than the typical pater-familias.  The history of the west, at least, shows us no more than three mechanisms of control: the clan, religion, and the state.  We must choose.  But the state, due to the variable nature of law, and with no particular method or goal, has shown itself the most unpredictable of the three.

We should not assume that the family has disappeared.  It may have gone underground for now but remains the key element of society.  It will return.^  Zimmermann is not a historical determinist or a pessimist.  In his reflections on the history of the family Zimmermann believes that had a few things happened here and there at the top of each society, the history of the family could have gone much differently and better.  He believes that societal elites have been largely responsible for inculcating anti-family policies into society.  If they can be converted we might turn the tide.

I wish it would be so simple.  Today it seems that much of the flow of modern life in its labor, technology, habits, etc. exert great pressure on the family.  Our recent election suggests that our cultural elites have less influence than ever before.  Then again, I believe in the witness of history, and believe that no one period of time is so starkly different from another.  This era then, might have more in common with Imperial Rome than otherwise.  That might sound like bad news, but from the perspective of the family, it isn’t.  It would mean that turning the heads of a few elites could dramatically improve our situation.  This would be vastly easier than a total societal breakdown that occurred during the last major family crisis.

Dave

*We see this in other areas as well.  The medievals viewed Saturn (which makes melancholy isolationists) as the Infortuna Major, while Mars, (which brought war–but war at least brings some groups together) as the Infortuna Minor.

**In an interesting aside, Zimmerman points out how the influence of the primacy of the text over tradition in the Reformation helped aid this transition.  Nothing in the history of the Church supported this shift to de-sacralize marriage, but a) Reformers had a hard time finding a text in the NT saying exactly that marriage was a sacrament (although Ephesians 5 certainly fits–what text is supposed to say exactly that anything is a sacrament?  The undue influence of the bare text quickly gave Protestant denominations doctrinal confusion with the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other areas–and b) They found a couple of OT texts that they used to support this lessened view of marriage.

However, Zimmerman also argues that most of the Reformers were strongly traditional pro-family in many other ways.  It was not so much the Protestant preacher in the pulpit that eroded the family, but instead the humanist scholars who influenced the Reformation.  The influence of the Reformation on the family, then, is mixed.

^Zimmerman sees the rise of divorce, homosexuality, youth crime, etc. as the symptom of family breakdown, not its cause.

Stopping the Buck in Russia and Elsewhere

I have always been amused by Milo Yiannapoulos, and have regarded him primarily as a funny person, an obvious provocateur.  Every court jester knows that he has to push the envelope to fulfill his duty.  The king must remain flexible enough of mind and heart to laugh rather than get angry.  It is indeed the foolish king that gets angry at his fool.

Milo has always contained contradictions and has never hid his admiration for Catholicism, despite the fact that he was abused by a priest as a young boy. Despite the fact that he lives as openly gay, he has never wanted the Church to change its official position on gay marriage or homosexual behavior in general.  But despite his support of traditional morality, he is gay married.  But, he then goes on to insist that his is not a marriage at all–which can only be between a man and a woman– but rather a civil partnership of some kind.

In a recent interview with Patrick Coffin, Milo showed that he honestly wrestles with some of these contradictions.  He spoke of how he used free speech as a tool against the radical left and the good effect he felt it had.  But he also acknowledged his realization that free speech by itself remains a mere tool and not a destination.  The tools need used in the service of some greater good, and he feels now that this “greater good” is found in the Christian foundations of western civilization.

But he still remains gay married.  We’ll see where this all ends up for him in the coming years.

I have felt for some time that the current debates about free speech and our current political mess are really about our search for a new center, a new place where we can all agree that the buck stops.  The left, which used to ardently defend free speech, now uses exeedingly irresponsible language in regard to curtailing this right on campuses and beyond.*  We all recognize at least subconsciously that free speech cannot stand as our absolute monarch.  No one thinks we can yell “fire” in a crowded theater.  We know that free speech needs some limits and direction. Our problem now is that we have no agreement as to what end we should direct our rights.  And, if we do not know how they should be used, some now think that we should put away these “weapons,” or at least reduce the scope of these rights.

I use the word “monarch” intentionally.  We booted out George III and banned aristocracy.  But of course we have makers of taste, and of course the buck must stop somewhere in any culture.  In some cases it might be with a person, or possibly a place, or in America’s case, most likely in some shared ideas and beliefs.  As Milo has discovered, not even our vitally important right to free speech is an absolute value or a final destination.

Russia has been in the news for some time lately, and we are used once again to the idea of Russia autocracy.  Certainly Russia’s history gives ample evidence that they have less of a problem with authority than most Americans.  But Russia too has at times had crises of authority, and George Fedotov gives us the context and story of one of their most famous confrontations involving the power of the state in volume three of his collected works entitled, St. Fillipp, Metropolitan of Moscow: Encounter with Ivan the Terrible.

Fedotov gives good background to the conflict between the czar and the saint:

  • Czar Ivan III (grandfather to Ivan IV, the Terrible) began to introduce more “foreign” court subservience via his marriage to a Byzantine princess.  One can argue that the expansion of royal courts could hypothetically serve as a buffer to the unlimited power of the king.  Alas, they can also tend to create competitions for the favor of the monarch, with the resul that royal favorites are merely obsequious to the king, and this seemed to happen in Russia.
  • Fedotov gives proper blame to the church under the reigns of Ivan III and Vasilli III (grandfather and father of Ivan IV, respectively) for continually extolling and promoting the wars of the monarchs.  Many church heirarchs made sacrifices of conscience to honor the power of the czar.
  • As a case in point, Fedotov highlights the divorce and remarriage of Vasilli III, who while not an abusive despot, obtained a most uncanonical divorce due to his lack of children with his first wife.  Some church heirarchs supported the divorce on purely political grounds of succession, which set a dangerous precedent of the church finding ways to justify whatever the czar wanted to do, of putting the state before God–or confusing the state with God.

Thus, by the time we reach the reign of Ivan IV (the Terrible, b. 1530, d. 1584), the power of czars badly needed curbed, and the church desperately needed a soul and spine to give proper direction to the government and the people of Russia.

Ivan IV likely had some kind of genuine religious faith.  However, his faith focused on apocalytpic visions, and he felt himself beseiged by traitors everywhere.  He saw himself as Russia’s last bastion of hope.  Perhaps Ivan truly suffered from a psychological disorder, but as Metropolitan Fillip knew, Ivan did not need “understood” so much as he needed stopped.  Ivan built on his grandfather’s court policies and elevated certain favorites, even foreign favorites from Germany.  He executed his brutal repression of “traitors” through them, the so called “Oprichina.”  In a time reminiscent of the Reign of Terror in France, thousands had property seized, and thousands of random murders took place on a whim.  Fedotov rightly points out that Ivan inaugerated civil war within his own land, a likely reflection of the torments and divisions in his own mind.  No one who looks at those persecuted by Ivan believes that no more than a few were guilty of anything.  But, the will of the Tsar prevailed without question.

Beneath the tragedy lay the genuine questions: what is the basis for authority in the state?  What is authority for?

Ivan possessed great intelligence and had a keenly developed theory to buttress his use of power.  Like many other monarchs of his day he believed in the divine right and gifting of kings.  He saw his power like that of the emperors of Constantine, and even Augustus, showing that he believed Russia to be the new “Rome” after the collapse of the west and of Byzantium.  Ivan asks, “How can an autocrat rule if he does not do so by himself?”  In the realms of the “godless” a different situation exists, he argued, but in Russia, “autocracy has always been supreme in the realm.”  “Every kingdom is destroyed when it is ruled by priests.  [Priests] destroyed the Greek state and now it is ruled by the Turks.”  In Israel as well, “God did not place a priest or commoners as the ruler or rulers of the people when he led them out of Egypt, but gave power only to Moses, like a Czar.  But when Aaron the priest “temporarily assumed this authority over people he led them away from God,” and the same happened in the days of Eli (see I Samuel) “who took unto himself the sacerdotal and lay power,” leading Israel into disaster.  “Do you see how it is not good for the clergy to rule over that which belongs to the czar?”

Ivan points out further that of course, the czar might sin, but even many of the saints “were among the fallen and the rebellious.”  His sins then, did nothing to limit his power.  Russia may suffer, but through suffering Russia will be purified and brought to greater faith.

In his political writings Ivan talks much about justice and wrath against evildoers, and the need for God to rule unfettered in the state through his chosen man.  The czar should promote the good and punish the wicked. Fedotov skillfully points out, however, that for Ivan the reality of truth rarely receives mention, and that, “The patriarchial relationship of the Tsar to the people as his children, as ‘wards of the state,’ gives way to the severe rule of a master over his slaves.”

We may not want the Church to weild political power, but as Fedotov states, “The Church’s participation in worldly affairs is natural, because the world too is subject to Christ’s truth.”   We have many recorded words from Fillip, some of which I include below:

The crown of piety adorns the Tsar more than any earthly glory.  It is glorious to display one’s power over one’s enemies, and one’s humanity to those who are submissive.  And, in defeating enemies by force of arms, it is glorious to be conquered by one’s own unarmed love.

You have been placed by God to judge the Lord’s people in truth, not to take upon yourself the image of a torturer.  Do not divide the realm.  Unify your people, for God is present only when there exists a spirit of sincere love.  Forgive, and you shall be forgiven.  Do not put your trust in any kind of justice which is not from God.

Ivan told Fillip he had heard enough and warned him on many occasions to be silent.  Fillip responded,

Our silence places a sin on your soul and causes national death.   Our faith will be in vain as will the very Incarnation of God.  If I maintain silence in matters of truth, then I cannot retain episcopal rank.

Fillip’s failure to maintain this silence eventually brought about his death at the hands of Ivan, who felt that he had found yet another “traitor” seeking to undermine his holy will.

One notable aspect of Fillip’s responses to Ivan is that they do not concentrate on legal distinctions, but rather personal commitment to something beyond rights and arrangement of power.  In the west, for better or worse, church and state fought at times over legal rights.  Fillip makes no appeal to the legal rights of the church or his own legal standing as Metropolitan.  He sought not a legal solution but a moral or spiritual one.  The “buck stopped” not with a code of conduct, but in the hearts of men committed to universal truth.

For all of my numerous objections regarding the progressive left’s attack on free speech, I acknowledge that they, along with Milo, see that free speech alone gets us nowhere, and should be in service of some higher truth.  One area where I diverge from the left is that their persistent insistence on dividing people into separate identities of race, sexuality, and gender will defeat their very purpose of finding this universal higher truth and lead us all, like Ivan the Terrible, to find “enemies” everywhere we look.

The postscript to Fillip’s death illustrates this.

In 1590, 21 years after his death, the monastery of which he as formerly the head requested that his body be returned to them.  They wrote to Ivan’s grandson Tsar Fedor, who eagerly gave his permission.  His exhumed body showed no decay, and very shortly after he was reinterred at the monastery, many were healed at his tomb.  The miracles continued, and by the 1650’s, Fillip was now St. Fillip of Moscow.  Czar Alexis (who had the interesting moniker of “the Quiet”) wrote a letter to the monastery, addressing St. Fillip directly,

Even though I am innocent of your vexation, my great-grandfather’s coffin convicts me and leads me to grief.  For this reason I bow my imperial dignity for him who sinned against you, that you forgive him by your coming here.  I submit the honor of my kingdom to your venerable relics.  For the sake of his penitence, and for our forgivenesss, come to us, holy one. You have accomplished the word of the Gospel . . . and there is no controversy about the commandments of God.

The monastery did send the body of St. Fillip, and when he appeared in Moscow Tsar Alexis spoke,

O blessed commandments of Christ!   O blessed truth!  O blessed is he, and thrice blessed, who carried out Christ’s commandments and suffered for them for his own people.  Truly, one can choose no better than to be glad and joyous in truth, to suffer for it, and to reason with God’s people about truth.  . . . God’s judgement does not dwell in falsehood . . . . and we have concern for all Christian souls, and it is our duty to stand strong and pillar like in the faith and in truth, and to suffer unto death unto ages of ages.

The Tsar understood that the repentence needed to be on a national level, for many had profitted from Ivan’s plunders and murders, contributing to the de facto civil war within Russia, and many cooperated with the notorious Oprichina.  But if the repentence involved all, so too the joy.  Tsar Alexis wrote to Prince Odoevskii that,

God has given us a great sovereign, a great sun.  Just as the relics of the radiant John Chrysostom were returned to the ancient emperor Theodosius, so also God has granted us a healer, a new Peter, a second Paul . . . the most splendid and most radiant sun.  We have been granted the return of the relics of the miracle-worker Fillip, Metropolitan of Moscow.  . . . We greeted Fillip at the Naprudnaia settlement, and took the relics upon our heads with great honor.  As we were taking them, a miracle occurred–a raving and dumb woman immediately became well and began to speak.  . . . And when we brought [Fillip] to the square across from the Granovitaia, here again a miracle occurred.  A blind man was healed, and just as in the days of Christ, people cried, “Have mercy upon us son of David!

DM

*I refer primarily to Justice Kagan’s remark about the right seeking to “weaponize” the first amendment.  The Janus case has complexity that deserves a fair hearing on both sides, but I found the phrase itself troubling.  But as a counterpoint, see this argument as to why we should think of righs as weapons (though he makes no comment on the merits of the case itself).

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

His argument boils down to a few key points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

 

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Their king is safe?  One mind informs them all;

Lost?  They break faith straightway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Oligarchies, Expansion, and a “Time of Troubles”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the original post . . .

Reading Explorers of the Nile spurred on a thought experiment.

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

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

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

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

Mediterranean, 264 BC

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

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

Roman Growth Timeline

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

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

Colonisation, 1800

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

British Empire, 1920

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

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

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

America, 1800:

America, 1800

America, 1900:

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

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

Map, Athenian Empire 431 B.C.

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

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

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

Blessings,

Dave