Truisms that are (at least mostly) Not True

I have an affinity for the crazy theory.  I know that they can’t all be true, if for the only reason that if all of them were true, we would have no crazy theories to enjoy contemplating.  Our times have a strange character to them, however, for it seems the crackpot plays the role of conservative.  Older views of things look bizarre today.  Before continuing, I should fully disclose that, though I love crazy ideas, I am actually a very boring person.  The reason these two fit together in my life is that today the harebrained idea is sometimes quite conservative and, xpon closer examination, sometimes even obvious.

Take, for example, a variety of truisms in our day.  We say that in football you have to have a great quarterback but . . .  Blake Bortles, Nick Foles, Case Keenum . . . at least one of them will play in the Super Bowl this year.  One can easily envision some coach with a crew-cut from the early 1960’s telling us how it’s a “team game, and not one of you means more than another,” and so on. We have traveled back in time.

History has its truisms as well.  I hear all the time, even from religious conservatives, that America’s religious competition has saved America from going the way of secular Western Europe.*  I have a particular antipathy for this obvious falsehood.  Medieval Europe had very little religious competition, and religion did quite well there.  Religion thrived in ancient Egypt with almost no competition for millennia.  To take the reverse, ancient Babylon had a lot more religious competition and their religion and morals seemed to suffer.  Today France may be nominally Catholic and Sweden nominally Lutheran, but no laws exist forbidding one from becoming Baptist, Methodist, or Buddhist in either place.  At least some religious competition surely exists there today.  This truism about religious competition is actually a far-fetched theory, based on only the most recent evidence.

To get slightly more controversial, we hear all the time how printing serves as one of the great civilizing tools for mankind.  No one questions this truism. But, just look for a moment . . . it seems obvious to me that the 15th century in Europe had a higher degree of civilization than the century after the printing press gained prevalence.  The printing press brought a lot of religious violence and political fragmentation in its wake. We hear too the truism that, “getting a Bible into everyone’s hands” is the key to spiritual health.  But, again, just look . . . it seems clear that the Church did quite well without the printing press for quite some time.  And, to return to an aforementioned truism, the fact that the Bible always tops bestseller lists has not prevented the west from becoming more and more secular over the last two-three centuries.

Maybe civilization and religion actually rely on things far older, far more “tried and true,” for success rather than new technologies–the crackpot as bland conservative strikes again.

I have written before about another one of my least favorite truisms, that of the evolutionary view of history and progress.  The theory basically means that civilization starts small and has run in a more or less unbroken line of progress and advancement.  Though this theory has general acceptance in many textbooks and the minds of men, it is, in fact, a radical, crazy, notion, for it ignores obvious facts.  For one, we know that a complex civilization could collapse more easily, quickly, and completely than a primitive one, due to its inevitable interdependence.  The presence of advancement makes large steps backward more, not less likely, like stock-market bubbles.  For another, we have a universally acknowledged and plain example of the fall of Rome and the subsequent so-called Dark Ages.  Whatever one thinks of the Dark Ages, Italy ca. 100 A.D. had a much higher level of civilization in most respects than Italy ca. 600 A.D.  Still, the prevalence of the evolutionary view makes those who state otherwise seem crazy.

Enter Charles Hapgood, whose book Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings postulates that, based on an examination of certain ancient maps, it appears that an unknown and likely quite ancient civilization developed a geographical and nautical understanding that humanity would not equal until the modern era. Hapgood’s theory joins the voices of Graham Hancock, Jon Anthony West, and other megalithic architecture (such as Gobeckli-Tepe) that argues that pre-historic people not only existed, but existed at a far higher level of civilization than anyone previously imagined.

Unfortunately for the layman like me, Hapgood immerses the book in large amounts of technical terms and technical data.  I think one would need special knowledge of cartography, geography, and math to understand large portions of the book.  Perhaps no other way existed to make his case.  I found myself junping over much of the technical sections but hope I still understood the basic case, which runs like this:

  • In 1929 an unusual map, named, the Piri Re’is, was discovered in the old Imperial Palace of Constantinople, dated the year 1513 A.D. (Moslem reckoning 919).
  • The map was extensive and showed the coast of North America in excellent detail.  This map differed from all other 16th century maps by giving correct longitudes for South America and Africa.  No 16th-century navigator that we know of knew how to calculate longitude except by guesswork.
  • Further investigation showed that Piri Re’is (or basically, Admiral Piri) claimed to copy this map from earlier maps, some of them dating back to (he claimed) the time of Alexander the Great.
  • Even a rough study of this map indicated that it used highly advanced mathematics, including spherical trigonometry, which we do not believe existed in the classical world

So, where did the map come from?

Perhaps Hapgood’s critics are right, and the Greeks knew enough spherical trigonometry to make these maps.  But did they sail across the Atlantic?  No evidence exists for this.  Did the Egyptians or Babylonians have this knowledge?  It appears not, but if they did, they did not sail across the Atlantic to map the coasts of the Americas.  Maybe the Romans in Ptolemy’s time had the knowledge, but again, did not sail across the ocean. Did it come from the medieval period?  But they did not sail much, and no other medieval map exists that compares with the quality of the Piri Re’is.

The best map from the classical period comes from Ptolemy, who worked in Alexandria and had access to all of the accumulated knowledge the world knew at the time.  His map shows great skill:

 

But it cannot compare with the Piri Re’is (although this is only a portion):

And again:

The Portolano Map, of late Medieval/Renaissance origin, is again, very good, but not quite up to snuff, at least in terms of the extent of what it mapped:

The inclusion of Antartica on the Piri Re’is map is particularly noteworthy, as many speculate that it maps landforms that for thousands of years have been covered with ice. In other words, the map seems to have been made before the ice age, and not after.

A few quotes scattered throughout the book from Hapgood illustrate his proposition:

We have discovered that in most cases the errors on the Piri Re’is mapper due to mistakes in the compilation of the world map, presumably in Alexandrian times [that is, the Piri Re’is was discovered in different pieces and put back together not quite accurately], since it appears that Piri Re’is could not himself have put them together at all.  The component maps, coming from a far greater antiquity, were far more accurate.  The Piri Re’is Map appears, therefore, to be evidence of a decline of science from remote antiquity to classical times (p. 39).

******

For a long time after the voyages of Columbus we find the latitudes of Cuba and Haiti are wrong on most maps.  Almost all the mapmakers put the islands above rather than below the Tropic of Cancer [in contrast to the Piri Re’is] (p. 41).

********

To sum up, then, this part of the Piri Re’is Map suggests a source map of Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic islands probably drawn originally on some sort of trigonmetric projection adjusted to the curvature of the earth.  By default of any other narrative, we must assign this map’s origin to a pre-Hellenic people.  The trigonometry of the projection suggests the work of Alexandrian geographers, but the evident knowledge of longitude implies a people unknown to us, a people of seafarers with instruments undreamed of by the Greeks, and as far we know, not possessed by the Phoenicians either (p. 49).

********

The suggestion of a vast antiquity behind the [Piri Re’is] is conveyed by a feature to which Captain Mallery first drew my attention.  He pointed out that the Zeno Map [which very likely had the Piri Re’is as a source map] shows Greenland with no ice caps.  The interior is filled with mountains, and rivers are shown entering the sea, in some cases at the points where glaciers now move through mountains to the coast (p. 152).**

*********

This culture [that made the Piri Re’is] may well have more advanced than Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.  In astronomy, nautical science, mapmaking, it was likely more advanced than any culture before the 18th century of the Christian era.  Not until the 18th century did we begin to send ships to the Arctic or Antarctic regions.  Organized government is indicated [by the map], as many expeditions would be needed to gather the appropriate information to map the area so precisely (p. 193).

Hapgood writes haphazardly and does not always reason in a clear, linear fashion, a trait he shares with his modern fellow believer in pre-historically advanced ancient civilizations, Graham Hancock.  The key I think to both writers lies not in the exactness of their data but in the accumulation of enough “probably’s” to make their case.  I heard most of a conversation between Hancock and Sceptic editor Michael Shermer.  The discussion went nowhere, with Shermer begging for even a small handful absolute, concrete, data points, and Hancock pleading with him to consider the mass of “probably’s,” while admitting in the end that the study of ancient civilizations cannot provide the kind of concrete proof Shermer demanded.

Rather than ask, “Can we be absolutely sure if an ancient, advanced, prehistoric civilization existed,” (obvious answer-“no”), or, is it possible that such a civilization existed (obvious answer–“yes”) we should instead wonder whether we should expect or not expect to find such a civilization.  Is the idea reasonably likely?  Hapgood will likely not convince anyone who needs something along the lines of what Shermer requires.  He may entice others who think it likely that some kind of ancient civilization along the lines of those who like Hancock’s work.

To give Hapgood’s theory a shot, it helps to believe that:

  • The myths and folklore of most every ancient civilization that describe advanced civilizations that experienced thorough destruction (like the Atlantis story) likely have a fundamental truth behind them.
  • Civilization devolves just as much as it evolves, and in fact, devolution may be more prevalent than evolution in civilizations.
  • The flood described in Genesis 6 (and many other ancient religious texts) was substantive, historical in at least some sense, and would have had the power to destroy civilizations very quickly.
  • The absence of evidence would not condemn the case outright, as civilizations have at times experienced a catastrophic loss of a great deal of accumulated knowledge (the burning of the library at Alexandria, the collapse of Rome, etc.)

With this in place you might buy what Hapgood sells.  But without these beliefs, his book will likely frustrate readers.  In any case, I don’t find the above propositions crazy.  In fact, I find them rather ordinary.  Folklore and myth are common to all.  Belief in a historical flood of some kind is nothing new, with most ancient civilizations sharing this story.^  We have actual historically undisputed losses of vast amounts of intellectual capital at certain times in the past, such as the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

As I said earlier, despite my inclination towards “crazy” theories, I’m actually a very boring guy.

Dave

P.S.–A good friend and a math/science teacher glanced over the basic arguments of the book and found them wanting, and Hapgood’s selection of material suspicious.  He has a better nose for such things than I and his thoughts give me pause.

My friend and I both believe that ancient civilizations tend to be far more advanced then we might think.   Neither one of us believes that the history of civilization always proceeds in a directly linear way, and certainly not in a progressive evolutionary way.  We thus share some crucial assumptions.

My friend thought that Hapgood underestimates the knowledge of ancients.  For example, we know the ancient Phoenicians existed, we know they were great sailors.  It makes much more sense to say that perhaps they made the map and sailed farther than we thought, then to suggest that an unknown civilization of which we know nothing made the map.

My response would be something like, “If we know a lot about the ancients but have no record of them sailing to the Antarctic, it is plausible that they did not do so.  Thus, someone else must have.”

Plus, I confess that I just simply find the idea of advanced pre-historic civilizations fun, satisfying, and enormously entertaining.  Someone could wave such ideas in front of me daily and they would always get me pretty excited.

*One might modify this theory and argue that perhaps in today’s intellectual and cultural climate, one must have religious competition for religion to survive.  This argument has more plausibility.

**Some believe the Zeno Map to be a hoax precisely because of this feature and other “phantom islands” that do not now show themselves above water.  But Hapgood argues that a perfectly plausible explanation exists for this if the Piri Re’is was a source.  Another map, the Ibn Ben Zara Map, has a remarkably accurate depiction of the Aegean.  But it also includes several islands no longer visible.  How to explain this paradox?  How could the map be so accurate in some respects and so false in others?  We can say the map is a hoax or is filled with errors.  But another possibility is that a source map of great antiquity was constructed when these islands stood above sea-level.

^I do not mean to suggest that the Bible is merely historical.  It certainly has metaphysical, “mythological,” symbolic, and theological meaning beyond history.  But I don’t see these categories as exclusive.  What is real is not opposed to what is mystical, symbolic, or spiritual.

 

 

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8th Grade: Enslaving Others, Enslaving the Self

Greetings,

This week we looked at Spartan civilization and began our look at the beginnings of democracy in Athens.  We will have a test next week on Early Greece.

We began our look at Sparta by examining its geography.  They had access to a limited water supply via a river, but otherwise a variety of mountains nestled them inland, and they had little contact with the sea.  We have seen this kind of geography before — in Assyria.  Geography never commands, but it does suggest, and like Assyria, Sparta developed with an almost exclusive focus on warfare.  One historian commented

When the Spartans found their ploughlands too narrow for their population, they did not turn their eyes to the sea, like the Corinthians or Megarians.   The sea is not visible either from Sparta city or at any point on the Spartan plain.  The natural feature which dominates the Spartan landscape is the towering mountain range of Taygetus.

Archeological records indicate a significant shift in Spartan civilization sometime around the year 730 B.C.  According to tradition a group of Dorian Greeks invaded Sparta successfully, and became the “new” Spartans, enslaving the locals called Messenians.  But they quickly faced a problem.  The Messenians vastly outnumbered them and had already attempted one revolt.  It seemed likely that other revolts would follow, and eventually they would overwhelm their conquerors.

The Spartans could have retreated, or they could have simply slaughtered the inhabitants and moved on somewhere else.  But their solution to the problem seems uniquely Greek to me.  They transformed their society by militarizing it, making every male a soldier, allowing themselves to continually have a challenge to master.  All this provided extra opportunity for showing “arete,” or, “excellence.”  No longer could one choose to be a shoemaker, farmer, and so on.  By 620 B.C., after the second war between Sparta and its enslaved population, every male now carried a spear, and the slaves grew the food.  Herodotus records one  Greek commenting to the Persians in 480 B.C. that

Free though the Spartans are, they are not free altogether.  They too serve a master in the shape of Law.  They show this by doing whatever their master orders, and his orders are always the same: ‘In action it is forbidden to retire in the face of the enemy forces of whatever strength.  Troops are to keep their formation and either conquer or die.

They sacrificed everything to make this happen.  Making every male a soldier, and using the slaves to farm did consolidate their conquest.  But 1) All traces of cultural creativity disappeared, 2) No personal freedom of job, lifestyle, or travel, was allowed, 3) Boys were separated from their families at a young age, 4) Slave economies lack effeciency, so resources were precious.  Any infant deemed physically unfit was usually killed, and so on.  Spartan society  ‘stopped’ in sense.  But they developed the most feared heavy infantry force in ancient Greece, and that was enough to give them power and influence.

This ideal impacted their marriages.  They arranged to have the strongest men marry the strongest women to create the best chances of strong sons.  If marriages did not produce strong children, they were encouraged to look elsewhere.  Women bought into this ideal as well.  They spent their time training their bodies to have children.

Their society had all the strength of a high powered rifle bullet.  Powerful, yes, but narrow in its application.  The Spartans sacrificed what most would consider to be the things that made life worth living, such as personal freedoms, family life, cultural experiences, etc.  Truly, you are what you worship.

Was it worth it?  Some might argue that their slaves lived better lives than the Spartans.  It appears they had more variety in their diet, and possibly more personal freedom as to who they married.  Of course, they had harsh lives under the constant watch of Spartan overlords, but did the Spartans live much better?  The Spartan world and lifestyle had all the narrowness of slavery.  The old adage, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” might stand true for the Spartan regime.

Aristotle wrote the best epitaph of the Spartan system, saying,

Peoples ought not to train themselves in the art of war with an eye to subjugating neighbors who do not deserve subjugation. . . . The paramount aim of any social system should be to frame military institutions, like all social institutions, with an eye to peace-time, when the soldier is off duty; and this proposition is borne out by the facts of experience.  For militaristic states are apt to survive only so long as they remain at war, while they go to ruin as soon as they complete their conquests.  Peace causes their metal to lose its temper; and the fault lies with the social system which does not teach its soldiers what to make of their lives when off duty.

Arnold Toynbee concurred and wrote,

The superhuman–or inhuman–fixity of Sparta’s posture, like the [doom] of Lot’s wife, was manifestly a curse and not a blessing.

Blessings,

Dave

8th Grade: Victory and Defeat

Greetings,

This week we looked at the Trojan War and its aftermath in Greece.

In some ways the Trojan War belongs to province of literature rather than history, because no real “history” books describe the events as we know them.  But that does beg the question, what is evidence?  Is Homer’s Illiad a kind of historical evidence for the Trojan War?   That of course depends.  As part of our study of the Trojan War we looked at different kinds of historical evidence, and the strengths of each.

The points in favor of “Historical Accounts” seem obvious to most:

  • We know the author, and we assume that either he was a eyewitness himself, or had access to eyewitnesses, or access to the records of eyewitnesses.
  • The fixed nature of the text means the story cannot change over time.

But we should be careful not to discount Oral Tradition

  • Do we unnecessarily give undue weight to books merely because they are written down?  Why is reading a book more trustworthy than hearing a story?
  • Books have a fixed text, but many times we remain at the author’s mercy.  He may  twist and distort the truth in his writing, and we give it extra weight because it is writing.
  • Books are the product of one man, but oral tradition comes from whole communities.  Thus, some argue, oral tradition has more external checks upon its veracity than texts.

Archeological evidence is both the strongest and weakest of the three

  • Archeology gives us direct access to the past, often times unfiltered.
  • But, in contrast to texts or traditions, archeology usually gives us only a fragment of the story, and must be fitted into a larger context that archeology often cannot provide.

The best extended treatment I have seen of the evidence for the Trojan War is Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War.  Unfortunately, this video series is nearly 35 years old and parts of it stand outdated.  Time has tended to confirm and extend evidence for the conflict.  If interested you can view a more “popular” (and shorter) account here

The aftermath of the conflict did not turn out as the Greeks no doubt hoped.  We know the Greeks plundered Troy for gold, jewels, and slaves, and we might expect that this sudden influx of cash, and the long-awaited return of its leaders might lead Greece into a golden age.

In fact the opposite happened, and Greece descended into a dark age that lasted somewhere between two and four centuries.  It certainly appears at least that the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War brought general dissolution to the Greek mainland.

Why did this happen?

In the end we can do little better than speculate, but in class we advanced a few theories:

  • In winning the war, Greece won the lottery.  But by a decent margin, lottery winners report that their winnings made them less happy, not more.  The added wealth brings added stress, and conflict over that wealth with much higher stakes.  Perhaps the same thing happened to Greece on a grand scale.
  • Civilizations, like individuals,  tend to thrive when responding to a challenge.  Greece especially emphasized this through their doctrine and practice of arete.  But the massive cash infusion might have made them rest on their laurels, making them less vigilant about things in general.
  • The Trojan War took most of Greece’s leaders away for 10+ years, according to tradition.  When parents go out for the night they have a talk with their kids — “be good to your babysitter, or when I get home I’ll ask how you behaved and then you will be punished.”  Thus, babysitters have a delegated, proxy authority in the eyes children.  But what if mom and dad never came home?  Would the sitter still have authority?

I asked students to envision what would happen if, on their block, every parent went out for the night, and everyone had a sitter.  But, only 2/3 of the parents returned to their homes, leaving the sitters there permanently.  Without mom and dad to enforce the sitters’ word, their authority would collapse almost immediately.  What would happen to the block?  If even just five parents did not return, what would happen to the “society” of the block, and its social interaction?  When we realize that many “parents” of various Greek provinces did not return from Troy, we can imagine the results for the whole of Greek society.

Dark Ages usually occur when fear and instability lead to isolation, and then isolation leads to a breakdown in the way society functions.  Perhaps this is what happened with Greece.  Dealing with failure requires careful thought and wise action, but so to does dealing with success.

Next week we will leapfrog a few centuries and focus on how Sparta and Athens emerge from the Dark Ages.

Blessings,

Dave

Valleys of Neptune

A few years ago I attended a conference in which Dr. Peter Kreeft was one of the featured speakers.  I have read a few of Dr. Kreeft’s works and liked them all, and especially enjoyed his essay on surfing, one of his great loves.

During one of the lunch breaks I had the immense good fortune to find myself sitting next to Dr. Kreeft at one the random round tables in the dining area.  I asked him for some surfing tips and he proved gracious and helpful.  Based on his love for the sea I also wanted to run a pet theory of mine by him.

The theory runs something like this. . .

Mankind’s greatest feats of creativity have always come near water.

  • Egypt had the Nile and the Mediterranean
  • Babylon had the Tigris and Euphrates
  • Greece had the Mediterranean
  • Northern Europe gave birth to the Gothic Age, by the English Channel and the North Sea
  • London then led the way with the Channel, North Sea, etc.
  • The Dutch had a brief but brilliant golden age, again right on the water
  • In America the great cultural centers have always been Boston, New York, L.A., etc.

Even when sometimes you think of an exception, the theory still holds.  Chicago is in the middle of the U.S., but has the Great Lakes.  Twain invented American Literature in the Mid-West. . . but his formative years were spent on the Mississippi.

And so on, and so on.

Assyria was in the Ancient Near East, but not creative in any way that contributed to humanity. They did not live near any great body of water.  The Greek city-state of Sparta was one of the few far away from the Mediterranean, and their culture stagnated.  Rome obviously had lots of power, but came to the Mediterranean late in their game and thus borrowed a great deal from everyone. Their creative cultural contributions pale in comparison to Greece, but also Egypt and probably Babylon as well.

Some might suggest that the key is majestic expanse, not just water.  But I disagree.  The Great Plains have majestic expanse in spades and have not led the way in creative impulse.  The Himalayas have the tallest mountains on Earth but have not produced great thinkers, architects, etc.  Sparta was surrounded by mountains on all sides and may have been one of the more culturally stagnant of all civilizations.  Of course mountains and plains have a beauty all their own and can inspire, but they do not appear to have the universal impact of water.  I still think there must be something to water itself.

A purely rational or mechanical view of this would probably put the emphasis on the fact that living near water would inevitably result in overseas trade, which would blend cultures and ideas to a degree that would naturally lead to creativity.

But I think that this puts the cart before the horse.  For a civilization to think of something beyond survival and necessity, it has to think outside of itself, and for that it needs inspired.  It is this sense of inspiration that opens them up to travel, other cultures, and other things.  In other words, substantial bodies of water subconsciously unlocks our creativity and then civilizations take advantage of the opportunities before them.

“What do you think?” I asked Dr. Kreeft.

“I agree.”

There followed a pregnant pause but all I could think was, “He agreed!  Yee-ha!”

He continued (I paraphrase his words), “There is something about water that ties us to creation itself.  It is where we came from.”  And with that, he politely excused himself.

Part of me wanted him to say more, but upon reflection he had in fact said it all.  I doubt very much that by the “where we came from” comment he meant anything in a purely Darwinian sense.  Genesis 1 talks of creation being drawn up through water.  Our new creation involves the waters of baptism.  1 John 5 talks mysteriously of the three-fold agreement of the Spirit, water and blood.  I know of a physics teacher who begins the year by looking at ancient views of creation and the cosmos, and mentions Thales’ idea that all matter comes from water.  The students tend to scoff until they re-read Genesis 1.  There is the Tradition of the Church which portrays Mary hearing the Annunciation, with the attendant re-creation of all things through the Incarnation, sitting by a well.  The creation of the “new Adam” would obviously take us back to Genesis 1, just as St. John does in the opening of his gospel.

In the Odyssey (13.102-112) Homer refers to a cave sacred to nymphs which contains “ever flowing springs of water.”  Also in the cave are “jars made of stone,” along with “looms, likewise of stone, in which the nymphs weave sea-purple garments.”  The Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry writes,

The “garments of sea-purple” are obviously the flesh, which is woven together from blood; the sea-purple dye is derived from blood, and the wool that it colors is also the vital fluids of animals.  All flesh is thus fashioned from blood through blood . . .

To this day Jimi Hendrix stands firmly entrenched as the greatest electric guitarist of all time.  He did things with the guitar that still no one else can equal.  I don’t think it coincidental that some of his most intriguing songs (“Rainy Day, Dream Away,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “May This be Love,” “1983 . . .A Merman I Should Be”) involve water.  Perhaps in some way he understood the power and meaning of water as Peter Kreeft did that day at lunch, a serendipitous moment for me if there ever was one.

 

8th Grade: Water and Mountains in Greece

Greetings,

This week we began Greek civilization.

We began where we began where we began our look at Egyptian civilization, with geography.

Greek geography has three dominant features I wanted the students to notice: water, mountains, and climate (below is rough topography of the region)

MapTopoGreece

I believe water had a few key impacts on the Greeks:

1. Psychological — it is nearly universal human reaction to be drawn out by large bodies of water.   At least I tend to think it is.  Most of us have probably vacationed at the beach before.  Have most of you, like me, stood looking at the horizon of the sea and thought, “One day I shall go forth and seek out boldly new lands and new places”?

Alright, maybe not for everybody.

But why does waterfront property sell at such a high price?  Water may not call us all to adventure, but it does seem to impact our psyche in some way.

2. Water also serves as a means to communicate and interact with others.  So those that live near water tend to explore and trade, and this in turn creates vibrant economies and cultures.  England, the Netherlands, and Venice might be examples of this.

In the end, we can see why great cultural explosions often come from places near water if we combine the possible psychological and obvious practical effects (Greece, Renaissance Italy, the Dutch, England)  Of course like most things, this has its limits.  Witness, for example, classical music from Bach though Strauss, Russian music and literature, etc. in essentially land-locked places.  Still — it seems to me that there may be a connection between water and a civilization’s creativity.  I expand on these possibilities here for those interested.

Mountains and Soil

1. Greece had farmers, but in general the soil was rockier and poorer than in the Fertile Crescent.  This in turn, of course, might only serve to push them outwards all the more.

2. The mountains divided them geographically, which in turn divided them politically.  These mostly independent communities may have helped originate, or at least broaden, the concept of self-government.  All of the civilizations we have studied so far have chosen the ‘big’ route to success, partly through choice and partly through circumstance.  In contrast, the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the ideal political community should have more than 5000 citizens.

Climate

If most people could pick their ideal climate it would probably be between 50-80 degrees, light breeze, low humidity.  This would be a general description of a Mediterranean climate, and one impact this had on the Greeks was that they lived life outdoors.  So — as they interacted with other areas throughout Greece and the Mediterranean, they also interacted a lot with each other, and this too might have helped contribute to the creativity of ancient Greek civilization.

After looking at geography we went to another key foundation of ancient Greece and looked at their concept of ‘Arete,’ which I think can be best translated as ‘excellence.’  ‘Excellence’ is an amoral concept.  The Greeks admired people who were ‘excellent’ people.  Odysseus was excellent at cleverness and like a cat, always landing on his feet.  Achilles is admired because no one can best him in battle.  But neither would be considered moral people in any Christian sense.  Arete tells you to continually pursue excellence, to never rest on one’s laurels.  One of the problems with arete, however, is that it does not tell you when to stop, something that we will see working itself out in Greek civilization.

We have discussed before that what a civilization worships is what it follows after at all costs, and this may not be found ultimately in the gods themselves.  One question I posed to the students was, which came first, the Greek gods, or Greek arete?  Greek gods have power and beauty, but not morality.  In Greek sculpture their is not much difference between how gods and men are depicted.  This one is of Poseidon:

Posiedon

And another famous one of the discus thrower (stance obviously different, but the ‘body’ is the same:

I should say that the students were right to point out some minor differences, as the gods usually tend to look more imposing or regal, but in general the gods were just somewhat better versions of mankind.

We can contrast this with the Egyptian gods.

Egyptian Gods

The difference is more than mere artistic technique.  When they wanted, the Egyptians could be quite expressive, as this tomb painting with birds shows.

Often times the Greeks depicted the gods in motion, perhaps reflecting the fluid nature of their civilization.  The Egyptians, in contrast, often showed their deities in a static posed, often with arms crossed, reflecting the more stable, tradition oriented nature of the Egyptians.

Next week we will look at the Trojan War and the possible historical roots of the conflict.

Thanks again,

Dave

8th Grade: The Clash of East and West at Marathon

Greetings,

The week before break we had our discussion on the forms of government, and this week we concluded our look at Persian civilization.  Early next week we will have a test on our Persia unit.

We looked at Persia’s expansion in Europe under Darius as they crossed the Hellespont into Greece.  Why did they do this?  I think there are a variety of possibilities.

  • We talked before about the ‘Burden of Cyrus.’  His extraordinary accomplishments made Persia a world power.  However, this legacy could be a burden as well as a gift.  Both with Cambyses and Darius we see this ‘need’ to do something grand that Cyrus did not do, something that would allow them to leave their own mark on Persia.  For Cambyses, this took the form of the conquest of Egypt.  For Darius one could argue, it took the form of conquering Greece.  One needs only look at how childhood stars often fare in their adult lives to see the problems of too much success too quickly.
  • The answer could be simpler.  Expansion may erase current enemies but it usually creates new ones.  The Aegean Sea may simply have been the ‘next’ enemy for Persia given their previous expansion through Asia Minor.
  • A more obvious and practical reason may have been Athens’ support for rebellions against Persia amongst “Greek” cities in Asia Minor.  Though this support amounted to little more than a token gesture, Darius may have felt than any slight to Persian power needed dealt with.  If this story is true, it has similarities to Emperor Claudius’ decision to invade Britain (Britain may have been giving aid — in the barest sense of the term — to conquered Gauls) during his reign in Rome.
  • Herodotus records a few stories that suggest that Darius may have had personal motivations for conquering Greece involving a personal attendant of his who was Greek.  The stories may or may not be true, but they might have a ring of truth.  It is not unknown for kings or country’s to act at least in part with this kind of motivation.

We wanted to realize, however, that expansion across the Aegean would be a different kind of expansion than the Persians were used to.  Almost the entirety of their empire was land based.  Anyone can walk.  Not everyone can sail.  Their expansion overseas would mean the creation of a whole wing of their empire.  Embarking on the sea would put them in a position where they would need a strong presence but have little experience.  In contrast, most Greek city-states grew up on the water.  Persia would still be able to muster an overwhelming advantage in raw manpower.  For most city-states this would be enough.  But as we shall see, not for all.

We looked at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., and what it revealed about Persia.  Persia’s defeat at Marathon hardly spelled doom for Persia, but it did demonstrate their weaknesses, and perhaps, the fact that they had finally stretched out their imperial arm too far.  The map below shows them coming right up against classical Greece at this time:

Persian Empire

Persia was, in general, less oppressive and more tolerant than previous empires.  They provided economic advantage and security.  But being part of Persia did not come with any sort of identity.  One might argue that Persia was all head, but no heart, and on some level people need inspired.  They possessed huge armies, but the majority of those armies had conquered troops that probably felt little reason to fight for Persia.  Thankfully for Persia, most of the time their huge numbers meant that they often did not have to fight at all.  In fact, Persia’s absolute requirement for military service for all eligible males shows them at their least tolerant.  When one father asked King Xerxes to exempt his youngest son to stay on the family farm, Xerxes executed his son, hacked his body in two, and had his departing forces march between the pieces of his son’s body as they left the city.  They allowed for no exception to their ‘No Exceptions’ policy.

At Marathon, the Athenians gained a tactical advantage by focusing their attack on the non-Persian members of Persia’s force.  The Persian force collapsed quickly as large portions of their force beat a hasty retreat.  They may have been willing to follow orders and march where told.  Why would they risk more than that?  What were they fighting for?  On a variety of occasions, Herodotus speaks of the bravery and skill of the purely Persian troops. But the conquered and incorporated troops proved to be a hindrance rather than an asset.  But I also think that the Athenian victory was part psychological.  They ran at the Persians — they actually attacked!  Herodotus hints at the shock the Persians must have felt under such a circumstance.  In Greece, Persia would meet a people who refused to accept their ‘deal.’  The fact that Persia needed to build a navy to deal with this threat put them in an unusual position, like fish out of water.  We will see in a few months how and why the Greeks defeated Persia when their clash grows into something much more than a skirmish.

Many thanks,

Dave

8th Grade: Cyrus and the Medo-Persian Empire

Greetings,

This week we began our next civilization, Medo-Persia, and began the story of the origin of Cyrus the Great as told by Herodotus.

There are those who dispute the story’s accuracy.   It does resemble in some ways the stories of both Moses and Paris of Troy.  We can trust the Moses story, but we need not immediately discount the Cyrus story merely for that it resembles the story of Moses. The story of Paris seems to reside in myth and folklore, but again, this should not immediately preclude the veracity of the Cyrus story.  These are interesting questions to ponder, and I don’t know if we can find absolute answers.  What it obvious is that it is a great story.  If you ask your children about it, I’m hoping they can retell it to you if you would like.  You can find it in full online in Herodotus’ Histories in Book 1, beginning in chapter 107.

The Persian Empire had its flaws, but did most things right and represented a vast improvement over the Babylonian, and especially the Assyrian empire.  Some of this had to do with historical coincidence, but a lot of it had to do with the values and practices of Cyrus, the empire’s founder.

Some things to note. . .

1. Cyrus arose to power at a time when no other dominant power dominated the ancient Near East.  Egypt had been on the wane for some time, Assyria was destroyed, and the Babylonians had lost their former shine.  Thus, Cyrus was able to expand by slowly incorporating smaller kingdoms into his realm, without a major challenge posed by any other empire.

2. I think the biggest factor, however, was Cyrus’s foreign policy/diplomacy.  According to Herodotus, he set the tone during his usurpation of the Mede King Astyages.  Cyrus was half Mede, half Persian.  Conquering the Medes in the traditional sense would have meant conquering himself.  He spares Astyages and integrates Median and Persian alike.

Cyrus used this same model for most all of his conquests.  He wanted expansion, but he also strove for incorporation and integration.  He tolerated a variety of customs and religions.  You got the benefits of security and participation in Cyrus’s growing network of trade and prosperity.  Very little about your daily life would change. True, the former king would be exiled to a distant palace, but Cyrus tried to promote from within.  He might use local lesser magistrates to rule in his stead.  In class I put it this way: If Cyrus conquered the U.S. he might exile the President and V.P., but perhaps promote the Senate Majority leader and Secretary of State.  He would create loyalty to himself by this, because those promoted would owe their position to him.  The transition of leadership would be softly felt by the locals.

It could be said that Cyrus positioned himself as a ‘liberator,’ and not a conqueror.  He could somewhat truthfully pledge that you would be better off under his dominion.  Slavery came close to disappearing in his realm.  The only thing he asked in exchange was that your army get attached to his and you pledged your loyalty to his person.  He succeeded like few others, and we will not see such effective empire builders until we look at Rome.  One sees something of his personality and humility in his surprisingly simple tomb.

This method of course differed significantly from others that we have seen so far.  One tremendous benefit of this method was that it appears that the Persians had far less slavery than previous civilizations.  As we progress, however, we will see that the splendid machine known as the Medo-Persian empire did have an Achilles heel. What, after all, did it mean to be Persian?  Can an empire’s identity revolve only around economic advantage and efficiency?  The other possible weak link was the army.  This was the one sticking point in an otherwise tolerant (at least for the time) regime.  They mandated and enforced military participation throughout their empire.  This army grew so huge and so multi-national that it might conquer merely by showing up.  But what held the army together?

After break we will look at the reign of his son Cambyses.