The Marriage of Handwriting and Architecture

It did not take me long to get miffed by Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve.  Almost right away  he commits two cardinal sins in my book when discussing the Medieval period.
  • He brings up all the worst aspects of the Medieval period without any of its virtues, and
  • He asserts that the discovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is one of the main causes for the “swerve” from the Medieval to the Modern world.  He does not assert this absolutely, but hedging all on one manuscript still seemed too reductionistic to me.

But Greenblat’s charm and narrative style kept me going.  In the end, I didn’t read the whole thing and skimmed some sections, but one thing in particular struck me forcefully — how handwriting can be a reflection of the personality of a society.

‘Gothic’ script dominated the ‘Gothic’ era, and it can be contrasted with the Carolingian script revived by many Renaissance scribes:

Petrarch complained that Gothic script, “had been designed for something other than reading,” and he was not whining, but speaking the truth.

Gothic Script

The height and cramped fashion of letters makes it difficult to read, and may subconsciously have been designed to be “seen and not heard.”  When we remember that very few could read, and that books were meant to educate visually just as much as textually, the Gothic “font” makes more sense.

Gothic Manuscript

Here are examples of the Carolingian script fashionable during the Renaissance:

Perhaps pro-Renaissance scholars do not exaggerate the real shift that took place as far as education is concerned.  Perhaps this shift in handwriting style helped pave the way for the printing press itself.

If the “font’s” a society uses reflect something of its larger worldview, we would expect to see this expressed in other aspects of their culture.  Gothic architecture mirrors gothic script in uncanny script in uncanny ways, with the “bunched up” nature of its space.

Flying Buttresses

True, the high ceilings of these cathedrals did give a sense of space, but it was space that meant to overpower you, a weight and bulk of a different kind.  The stained glass windows again reveal the same thing as the buttresses — the “cramming” full of space with color.

In the Renaissance we see something else entirely, a more “human” scale in architecture, and a greater sense of space.

The Pazzi Chapel

Michelangelo, the Medici Chapel

So apparently, handwriting can be an expression of a culture’s personality just as architecture can, which should not have surprised me.

When I realized that the Renaissance basically just revived Carolingian script, this gave new significance to the Carolingian Renaissance itself under Charlemagne six centuries earlier.  Those that invented the style and not merely copied it should get greater credit.  Some scholars dismiss the “Carolingian Renaissance,” as small potatoes, but the script they used showed an interest in reading, which sheds new light on the work of Nottker and Einhard.  So, what about architecture under Charlemagne — will it show that same sense of space?  Naturally we must consider Aachen Cathedral, the central building of Charlemagne’s realm:

Aachen Cathedral, Exterior

Aachener_dom_oktagon

Well, it appears that we have a mixed verdict.  It is part Gothic, part Byzantine, and part something all its own.  Will I allow this to overthrow my theory of seeing links between handwriting and architecture? Perish the thought!  I can always say that Charlemagne’s time had so much going on that they had no time to be particularly self-aware of these choices, in contrast to both the Gothic and Renaissance periods.

Does America’s utter lack of defining architectural identity have anything to do with our confusion about teaching handwriting?

Blessings,

Dave

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Renaissances and Ghosts: “Contacts Between Civilizations in Time”

This is not a book unto itself, but merely one-third of Volume 9 of his multi-volume A Study of History series, subtitled, “Contacts Between Civilizations in Time.” However, it can stand apart from the other sections, and it is so dense and at times so insightful it deserves its own treatment.

Naturally when one mentions “The Renaissance,” in the West, we think of the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century, but this, Toynbee states, serves us poorly for three main reasons:

1. There have been many “renaissances” throughout history and to call the one we know “The Renaissance” narrows our vision and prevents us from seeing patterns throughout time and place.

2. When we think of The Renaissance we think mostly about its art, but the classical style came from a broader classical culture.  One thing inevitably spills over into another.

3. Finally, what a “renaissance” really involves  is not so much a resurrection of an idea in the sense of new life, but an act of necromancy designed to bring back to life a dead past.  Think Frankenstein instead of a “new heavens and new earth.”  After all, we cannot bring back the dead, but we can contact a dead past’s “ghost.”  It is this concept of a Renaissance as an act of necromancy that gives this part of the book its unifying theme and key spiritual insight. With that in mind. . .

Toynbee begins with the Italian Renaissance, with which most of us are familiar.  Imagine yourself in Florence, ca. 1400 A.D.  Let’s suppose that you discover the artistic classical style and you begin to replace the prevailing gothic way of seeing the world.  Soon you find yourself, however, noticing the classical political ideology can lend credence to your fight for more independence for  parochial communities (i.e. Venice, Florence, etc.) in one fell swoop.  The city-state system experiences a revival in Italy, which leads to a different role for the Church.  In time, the nation-state is born.  So, “one thing leads to another.”  We cannot expect that we can revive just the artistic style without the accompanying framework.

But if you want the blessings, you get the curses.  The parochial nation-state idea nearly destroyed Europe from 1914-1945, just as it destroyed Greece from 431-338 B.C.  As Toynbee indicates, there is a reason for the death of a previous civilization, and “if you latch onto a decayed society’s social ethos, you will likely suffer their fate.”

This leads naturally into his “necromancy” template.  He makes a few points,

1. Necromancy is by definition an act of desperation (i.e., Saul and the witch at Endor, the rise of spiritualism and seances in England during World War I).  The desperate act may be warranted/worth the cost, or it may be a reaction in the wrong direction.

2. Necromancy reveals not only desperation but a lack of confidence.  Necromancy signals an abdication in our ability to create something new and the passive acceptance to what others already did for you.  Regine Pernoud made similar points in Those Terrible Middle Ages.  But there may be more to it; a renaissance may reflect something deeply lacking in the era in which it happens.

3. When civilizations connect with each other in living “space,” the interaction between the two has potential for equality and mutual exchange, but not with ghosts.  While in Hades, the ghost has no power.  You live; it does not.  But call up the ghost and you discover, like Hamlet, that the ghost has all the power.  You have no influence over the dead, who cannot hear you.  All you can do is listen to them.  Again — you have abdicated something of yourself by reviving the ghost.  “Renaissances are bound to be insulated experiences,” Toynbee commented.  You are now in his power.  The US helped support the revival of the ghost of 19th century Sudanese Wahabi’ism in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, and that did not work out so well for us.

But maybe drastic times call for drastic measures.  Take Charlemagne, for example, who along with Pope Leo III revived the ghost of the Roman Empire.   Was it worth it?  Many historians credit Charlemagne with reviving civilization itself in Europe for the first time in three centuries.  Perhaps inventing a new model would have been preferred, but how much do we blame them given the chaotic times?

Still, even if we agree with Pope Leo and Charlemagne, we must count the cost.  Empires mean conquest; conquest means death, centralization, and other attendant evils.  You can’t have Charlemagne be the “Holy Roman Emperor” without bringing back the filth attendant to the glory.

4. The effect of the ghostly presence will depend in part on geography.  Reviving a direct family member works differently than a distant cousin.  So in Italy the effect of the reviving the classical ghost would be like bringing back the stern father, while in the north the response would have more latitude, and probably, more creativity.

Of course the closer the relation, the greater power the ghost has.

We will also have a difficult time getting the ghost to leave.  In Europe the classical artistic style faded within a century, but in architecture it remained centuries longer, and politically longer still, into the 20th century.

However necessary they may be, renaissances remain unpredictable and dangerous.   Approach at your peril.

Just as renaissances are messy and unpredictable, so too evaluating them remains difficult.  Toynbee cuts through the grey in his typically incisive way, saying,

“Renaissances must be judged by their hindrance or help to the soul with the sin of idolatry.”

Here Toynbee shows his great insight that all human affairs have a theological dimension.  A renaissance may help pry us from a lifeless and destructive present, or it may make us greater slaves to an even more lifeless past and put us, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

Dave

I enjoyed this analysis on the dangers of calling up ghosts in the music industry.

9th Grade: Bodies in Art

When discussing the Renaissance, one must discuss its art, and one cannot escape a key feature of Renaissance art: nudity.  Next week we will be looking at Renaissance art in more depth, and we (as individuals) have to answer this question before we can evaluate its relation to a Christian worldview.

We started by discussing the idea of the purpose of art.  How do we know when art is good, and when it is not?  I am no art critic, and am not the person to offer a complete answer to that question. But I suggested that good art, among other things, reveals truth to us, be it truth about God, mankind, ourselves, or the world He made.  We agreed also that there nothing is true for any reason other than that, ultimately, God exists.  This led to other questions.

  • If non-Christians can arrive at some truths because these truths reside in the world God made, (1+1=2, we should practice generosity, etc.) can non-Christians reveal truth in the art they create?
  • If they can reveal truth, can we say that non-Christians can paint “Christian” art?  Would this mean that any art that reveals truth can be considered Christian?

Most students reached no definite conclusions on these questions, but I hope they enjoyed considering them.

We understand that creation reveals something of the Creator, but we may not often consider that the body itself is also a form of revelation.  In fact, the body may reveal more about God than other aspects of creation because we are made in His image (though of course this should be taken in an exclusively, or even primarily physical sense).

We began the discussion with looking at the three things that make movies objectionable: violence, language, and sexuality.  Of these three, what bothers us most?  The students and I all agreed that sexuality was most problematic, but why?  Answers do not come easily to this question, we “feel” it more than we can explain it.  But we gave it shot and concluded that . . .

  • Violence bothers us less because we understand it is not real.  No one really gets shot, blown up, or what have you.  The unreality of at least much of movie violence creates a comfortable distance for the audience.
  • Language may be offensive, but we understand that some people do talk in those ways, and in some places anyway, that language has  a public context.  When see it the context of a movie (a public forum), we don’t notice a disconnect.
  • Sexuality/nudity often involves situations where it is inappropriate, but even when shown in a proper husband/wife context, we instinctively understand that the movie makes something public that should be private.  Movie violence “keeps its distance” but with sexuality the movie moves right in close — too close. We understand that movies are not real, but there remains an undeniable reality to the displays of nudity we see in movies.  Unlike violence, the people really are nude, or really are kissing, etc. someone.  Besides, even if within the movie the situation involves a husband/wife, they are not husband/wife in reality.  Even if they were–why should we see it?

Having said this, none of the students objected to the concept of nudity in art per se, and again we should ask why most object to it in movies but not in art.  What is the difference?

Students agreed that since God made the body and seeks to redeem and glorify the body, the physical world itself becomes worthy of awe and reverence.  The Incarnation testifies to the same truth.  But while they agreed that nudity per se could be appropriate, we would not want to see the painting of our next door neighbor in the nude.  With this observation, we came back to the idea of the need to have a separation from direct reality.  Nudity can allow us to contemplate the reality of the body in the abstract, but we do not want to contemplate the nudity of our neighbors.

We took the conversation to a different level when we asked, “Could Jesus be portrayed nude?”  After all, Jesus was and is fully Man as well as fully God.  Some portrayals of the crucifixion have him nearly nude.  Could one show Him nude in a more glorified context?  How do we react to this painting, called “The Resurrection,” done by Ed Knippers?

The Resurrection

His artist statement is here, for those interested.

The first time many see his art, they react uncomfortably.  Is this because we are uncomfortable with physicality, with bodies in general, our own humanity?  Or, does the art cross a line, for here we deal not with an abstract body, but a particular one?

I enjoyed hearing the students discuss these difficult, but important questions.

Many thanks,

Dave M

Symbolic Matters

In the letters of the Roman magistrate Pliny to the emperor Trajan, Pliny asks him about the official policy towards Christians. Christians have been brought before him, and he has condemned them to execution, but such matters are not trivial, and he wanted to make sure he followed the letter and spirit of the law.

Trajan wrote back and declared that, yes, if Christians appear before him, who will not recant, then such people should be executed. Trajan agreed with Pliny that Christians generally had nothing else against them other than that they professed the Christian faith, so, no need to seek them out. But Pliny should continue to follow the law. Christians continued to face death for being Christians.

But Trajan never addressed Pliny’s second question, which was (in sum), “Why, if Christians are generally good citizens who do not disturb the peace, do we need to punish them in the first place?” Many rank Trajan as one of Rome’s best emperors, but Rome loved practicality and viewed the Greeks as sissified for all of their reflective philosophizing. My guess–Trajan probably regarded the question with slight derision and, being a nice guy, politely ignored it. The law is law, end of story.

Steven D. Smith begins his insightful work Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac with this historical nugget, for he wants to attempt to answer Pliny’s unanswered question of “why?” Christian luminaries such as Tertullian, Athenagoras, and St. Augustine all pointed out the utter folly and injustice of Rome’s actions. In persecuting Christians, they argued, Rome removed its best citizens. Without discounting the truth of Rome’s cruelty, Smith considers if the Romans may actually been right in their instinct (without articulating it coherently) that Christianity truly posed a threat to their way of life. Gibbon, Pelikan, and many others point out that the Church did triumph over Rome, and that the Church, while able to reside peacefully within Rome, truly meant to end Rome’s way of life.

Recently we have witnessed a variety of almost entirely symbolic prosecutions and attacks of bakers, florists, and pizza joints who do not join in with the prevailing sexual orthodoxy. In a series of articles, Libertarian UVA Law professor Douglas Laycock bemoans the attitudes of those on the left. Plenty of options exist for gay couples for all marriage-related services. Why ferret out those who do nothing to stop you but simply disagree with your choices? Such people do nothing to impinge the freedom of homosexuals. In the same vein, why do conservatives attempt to stop people from engaging in sexual practices they object to, but have no impact on the lives of those who object? Both sides strive for the same symbolic but essentially “meaningless” victory, and it ruins our political discourse.

Laycock sounds quite reasonable, but Smith points out that these “victories” for which different sides strive have a great deal of symbolic value attached to them. Though symbols may not fit into a strictly rational worldview, Smith concludes that, “we live by symbols” and can derive meaning only from symbols.* Furthermore, religious belief always demands communal expression, and symbols shape and embody that expression. From this point, Smith’s book explores what the modern culture wars are all about through the lens of Christianity’s first conflict with imperial Rome.

Many today will likely admire the Romans for their tolerance, and wonder why Christians could not accommodate themselves to Rome. Rome, after all, found a way to accommodate a great many different religions into their empire. But no society can tolerate everything. And we, too, have “zero-tolerance” policies for what we truly deem important, such as drugs or sexual harassment, and so on. If we take the example of offering incense to the emperor, which many Christians refused to do, the conversation might look like this:

Roman: You Christians are impossible. We let you hold your bizarre religious gatherings–albeit outside the city–but we let you hold them. We let you believe whatever you want to believe. We give you the benefits of the greatest empire the world has ever known, and you enjoy those benefits. We do so much for you, and we ask but very little, that you acknowledge the blessings of the authority under which you live. If you live among us we must know that you will follow our laws, and this is how you pledge yourself to that. You are disobedient. You are uncharitable–you take from us and give nothing back. And so . . . we cannot trust you, and how could we do so, after giving so much and receiving back so little?

Christian: We should be grateful for all that Rome does for us, and indeed, we pray for those in authority during every liturgy. In our sojourn here on Earth we can partake of much the world has to offer, and justice demands that we give honor where it is rightly due. But your policy asks us to accommodate our monotheism to your polytheism. You suppose that sacrifices to the emperor are a small accommodation, but you ask us to abandon monotheism and accept polytheism. You ask us to change our religious beliefs, which is surely the most significant accommodation you could possibly ask.

Striking parallels exist between imperial Rome and our own day, and the conflicts engendered between Christians and pagans. One such area involved creation and the natural world. For the Romans, the gods infused the world around them with their presence, and every city had its sacred sites. Christians rejected this direct immanence by emphasizing the transcendent nature of God that had little to no overlap with pagan belief.

But the complexity of Christianity greatly mitigated these differences regarding creation. While God is transcendent, He is also imminent. Many scriptural passages talk of creation praising God, and God calls humanity to steward creation. Christians too had/have their sacred sites involving saints, relics, pilgrimages, and the like. So too today, while many viewed as “anti-science” come from certain segments of the evangelical community, Christians and “pagans” find much common ground with moderate environmentalists, though will eventually part ways over certain particulars.

A much more significant divide came with sexuality, where the Roman approach to sexual ethics looks strikingly modern (what follows applied almost entirely to men in the ancient world, not women):

  • Sexual behavior was entirely natural, and few restrictions should be placed upon it.
  • Sex was “healthy,” and self-denial in regard to sex was considered mildly dangerous and “anti-human.”
  • Sex brings us closer to the divine, for all the stories of the gods (goddesses, not as much) have them cavorting with various women.
  • Use of the male sexual organ had a halo of sacredness surrounding it, but how one used it had very few restrictions. One could “sleep with” slaves, prostitutes, or even other men or boys, provided that one was never the “female” in such a relationship.

I am not the person and this is not the format to give a full treatment of the traditional Christian view of sexuality. But in brief:

  • The Fathers of the church quickly realized the Scriptural hints about the sacred nature of sexual behavior, and its connections to our life in God. But . . . sex serves at most as a pointer to a more fuller, transcendent reality that will be present only when the Kingdom of God is fully present. It is not an end in itself.
  • Many Christians believed in the sanctity of sexuality in some way, but the sanctity of sex is the reason for the various restrictions Christians placed on sexual behavior. To protect its meaning and purpose, sex needs strong fences, such as limiting it within marriage between a man and woman
  • Living fully as human beings meant taming and restricting our “appetites,” for the ability to do separates us from the beasts. So, while the Romans thought that the more or less indiscriminate indulgence in sex made us more human, Christians believed it made us sub-human–just as over indulgence in eating would do the same, i.e., a dogs will eat anything put before them, as much as they are given.

How deep these differences really go, Smith asserts, comes down not to logic and private self-interest, but the more nebulous (but simultaneously more real) world of symbol. Symbols cannot be fully explained, but have to be experienced–one knows it when we live it. I lament the effect the culture wars have had on eroding our social fabric and institutions. But though Smith never quite explicitly states it (that I found), he strongly hints that such wars will inevitably be fought. For our culture to have cohesion it must have meaning, and this meaning can only come from a common communal understanding. Symbols work only in this way.

Clearly, for us today as the Romans then, sexual behavior occupies a crucial space within our culture. We may not believe sex to have the sacredness that it did for the Romans, at least in an overtly conscious sense. We likely relate sex in America to our deep beliefs about personal expression and the self. What unifies modern and ancients on both sides, Smith suggests, is the divide between the transcendent and the imminent.

For example, Smith states, no one really questions the motto, “In God we Trust” on our money, but “one nation, under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance has received significant constitutional scrutiny. Smith finds the difference in the word “under,” which assumes a transcendent deity in ways that “In God we Trust” does not (this “God” need not be above us but exclusively “among us” for us to define and control).

If Smith is right about this in particular, so much the better, for it gives us clarity in a confusing debate. But his other assertion holds more weight. Our disagreements about sex** may very well be an unconscious proxy for our ideas about meaning and community. Perhaps Smith doesn’t excuse the culture wars, but suggests they will continue. It also suggests that our diseased political culture has not caused this divide. Rather, we might flip our normal way of discussing the culture wars on its head. Perhaps our divergent ideas about sexuality (dating back at least to Roe v. Wade and the Sexual Revolution) have fractured our idea of meaning and community, and this fracture manifests itself in various ways.^

Our founders put priority on minimizing centralized power. They knew that humans can get contentious, but sought to make lemonade out of lemons. Our propensity to conflict would create different interest groups, but in the end they would all cancel each other out, preserving liberty. Thus, the Constitution was not meant to create a tight-knit political community, but essentially sought to prevent its formation.Obviously, this experiment has worked on a number of levels. But now that most churches and other community defining organizations have declined in numbers and importance, we have lost our ability to determine meaning in any kind of public sphere. Tocqueville warned us that this might happen if our more private and local communal connections eroded. And so, here we are, seeking meaning from the only viable institutions most of us have any familiarity with–the federal government. This may be what distinguishes our current cultural problems from those we previously experienced, and why we invest so much emotional and moral weight into our politics.^^

Following Smith’s largely unspoken line of thought brings us to a sober realization. Are all our silly fights really about something important? If we can focus on the real issue at hand, perhaps we could make progress in solving them.

Dave

*This comment may seem confusing or silly if you think of symbols as images only. If we take the older meaning of symbol and apply the term to ways of understanding beyond the literal and physical, it makes more sense. Parents of teens will surely have encountered this before. Your child asks for “reasons” and “explanations” for your various edicts, but you can’t always provide to the degree they wish. No amount of explanation suffices, for you want them how to live “into” a world, one that can’t be entirely shown them from the outside.

**This includes abortion as well. Some hard cases exist on the fringe of the issue, but at its root is the issue of human autonomy and sexual freedom. I believe it likely that most of the debate about “when life begins” for the pro-choice side is a smokescreen for the right to create a “safe space” for us to adopt a more pagan attitude towards sexual behavior.

^The rapid changes in accepted sexual morality recently may be extra evidence for Smith’s claim. He points out that Seinfeld may have been a turning point. Most every character led sexual lives that would not have fit into any previous sitcom. But to balance this, the show did not promote the main characters as morally serious in any way. From there, we had Friends, and then The Office which were still comedies but the moral seriousness of the characters increased as their sexual ethics remained much the same as in Seinfeld.

^^Perhaps the one place where people can find some semblance of community and belonging is college campuses, and perhaps this is why many students and professors have sought to make their campus into a kind of temple and dramatically infuse it with doctrinaire ideologies, sacred spaces, and taboo speech. Like Ross Douthat, I deplore a great deal about the campus protests, but I understand the impulse. While I admire efforts from a quite ideologically diverse group of people like Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Camille Paglia, and Candace Owens to further free-speech and open debate, we need to realize that such things in themselves will not save us.


9th Grade: Machiavelli’s Bombshell

Greetings,

This we week we wrapped up some aspects of Renaissance exploration by thinking about why exactly Europe experienced such a huge burst of exploration activity in the mid-late 15th century.

Most of us might tend to think that the key to the increased activity was the advent of new technology.  That is, Europeans discovered new tools that would help them sail the seas, and so now they could make the attempts to find new lands that lack of technology made previously impossible.

In his book Pathfinders, historian Felipe-Fernandez Armesto discounts this notion.  Very few technological advances took place in the decades leading up to the great expansion of exploration.  One thing did change significantly, however, and that was their desire to explore.  Quite simply, they wanted to go, whereas before they did not. Exploration resulted from a belief that mankind should take great risks to find out more about the world.  While they made some technological advances as a result of their sailing, things continued more or less as they had been from 1450 until the discovery of how to measure longitude in late 18th century.  Belief, not technology, spurred on exploration.

What happened?  The Renaissance shifted the emphasis from orienting one’s life from “top to bottom,” as the Medievals viewed life and thought, to a more “side to side” perspective that focused on the knowable, observable, and measurable.  Whether this shift indicated that the Renaissance tried to “improve upon God’s handiwork of creation,” as the great Umberto Eco stated, or that, “the people of the Renaissance had a renewed sense of humanity’s responsibility and stewardship of creation,” as the great art appreciator Sister Wendy postulated, is a question I want the students to consider.

So, what building cathedrals was to medievals, exploration was to the Renaissance.  Both capture the spirit of the times, and show the values of each time and place.  A good question for us to consider is, “What values does our society pursue?”  Do cultures need to dream, to risk, to reach beyond themselves to function well?

We then went on to discuss the controversial political philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli.  To help set the groundwork for understanding him, I asked the students a few questions:

1. Martin Luther supposedly said, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian” (though many now believe that Luther never said this exactly, though he said other things like it).  If we agree with Luther, this assumes that what we want from political governance differs from what we want from our spiritual leaders.  If we followed Machiavelli, for example, we would not put moral character or spiritual guidance at the top of our list for qualities we look for in political leadership.  Consider these two alternatives for president

  • A solid Christian in belief and morals, but possessing little political experience, imagination, or intelligence,

or

  • A shrewd, intelligent, and experienced leader with respect from the international community, but who does not consider himself a Christian.

“See,” Machiavelli might argue, “Contrary to your instincts, religion is not most important in politics.”  Machiavelli encourages rulers not to be hostile to religion, but believes that politics operates independently from it.

2. Can politics have a redemptive effect on humanity?  St. Augustine argued that politics, as it dealt with the ordering of earthly relationships, could not by definition help lead one to God.  Other theologians disagree with Augustine, but if you agree with him, then one opens the door for politics to have different rules than “normal” life.  For example, we have no problem admitting that trying to bluff in poker is not a sin, however much one tries to deceive others in the game.  Poker is not “normal” life.  When we play poker, we enter into an agreed upon alternate reality.

Politics functioned in a similar kind of alternate reality, according to Machiavelli.  There are times when we expect our leaders to lie or disseminate false information, especially about military operations.  Most of us would not only expect it, we might even admire the tactic should it prove successful and give our country a greater measure of safety.  Whether we agree or not, if we understand these questions we can understand where Machiavelli came from with some of his ideas.

In a famous phrase intended as jibe against Plato, Machiavelli urges us not to seek out “imagined republics.”  Like the Renaissance in general he sought guidance from what he saw in front of him, a consummate political realist.  For example. . .

1. It would be best if you (the ruler) were perfect.  But you’re not, so you will have faults and vices.  First, seek to turn your faults to your advantage if you can.  If you lack consistency of character, perhaps this could mean that your enemies will fear your unpredictability. Failing that, make sure you avoid vices that will directly effect your ability to rule.  Much better for you to run around with women, for example, than to steal from the public till.  God can forgive all sin, people will probably forgive the former, but not the latter.  Above all, power is your guiding star.  Do what you needed to do to maintain and keep power, for without that, nothing else matters (from a political perspective).

2. Should a ruler prefer to be loved or feared?  Again, ideally the answer is, “both.”  But very few can achieve this.  Since nearly all of us must choose one or the other, Machiavelli writes,

Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Some of you may remember the controversy Surgeon General C. Everett Koop created when he allowed for contraceptive education in public schools.  He stood against abortion and as a Christian privately supported abstinence, but as a public servant he believed in that if teens did have sex, they should use contraceptives, as it would protect them from disease and reduce teen pregnancy and abortions.  Some Christians applauded this stance. Others believed that Koop did not just take sin into account with his policy, he gave it the victory.  One can level the same charge against Machiavelli.  Koop and Machiavelli both, though in different ways and to different degrees, touch on the dilemma between public service and personal belief and practice.

Few Christians would want to go as far as Machiavelli did, yet many would probably find themselves agreeing with some of his assumptions.  Drawing the line appropriately will require great wisdom, and the students did a great job discussing some of these tough questions this past week.

Many thanks,

Dave M

9th Grade: Mark Twain and Renaissance Florence

Greetings,

This week we began looking at the Renaissance in Europe.  The Renaissance can be viewed as a either a reaction to, or an extension of, the feudal period that preceded it.  Whatever position one takes on that issue, no one doubts that that the Renaissance represents a new way of thinking about the world and our relationship to it.

Historians debate exactly when the Renaissance began, but most agree that the ‘Spirit of the Renaissance’ had its origin in Florence, a city in northern Italy.  Why this city, previously of no real importance, should suddenly be the epicenter of a whole new way of thinking poses a question we needed to explore.

If we look at the conditions under which cultural revolutions take place throughout history, a few general trends emerge.  For one, it appears that they generally arise in geographical and social frontiers, and not as we might expect, in the centers of power and influence.  Thus, in the Middle Ages, we see the Gothic style originate in northern France, which saw so much conflict with England and the Vikings.  On top of that, northern France had relatively less Roman influence than southern France near the Mediterranean, making them less “civilized” in the eyes of many.  But the tension between “Gallic” and “Roman” may have given them the freedom to think of things in new ways.

UnknownIn our own history Mark Twain invents American literature on what was for the time, the geographic and social frontier of America.  Today, the mythology and folklore of the “frontier” still do much to shape the American psyche. If we think of Twain’s vocabulary and compare it to say, Hawthorne’s, we see that Twain occupied a social frontier as well as a geographic one.

Notice also, for example the incredibly dynamic & spiritual  response of African-Americans to persecution from say, 1880-1964 or thereabouts.  Swing, jazz, blues, motown, soul, rock and roll — all of them basically their creations, and that hardly encompasses a final account of their contributions to American life and culture.  Perhaps their disadvantaged social position led them to think of creative ways to deal with that challenge, which helped them create such vibrant music.

Florence found itself on the geographic frontier of two more established civilizations, that of France and southern Italy.  Divided politically (as the map below indicates) northern Italy never quite had the chance to develop its own social identity.  It appears that culture arises not from comfort, but from a challenge, be that challenge physical or social.

 

 

Another common thread in cultural innovation seems to be water.  The great cultural explosions, be it in Athens, Amsterdam, London, New York, or New Orleans, all have water in common.  I don’t think this is a coincidence, something I take up much more fully in this post, which we discussed in class.  Here is a link to a post that formed part of the basis of our discussion about water and creativity.

As we delve into the Renaissance, we face many questions:

1. Inherent in the names “Middle Ages,” and “Renaissance” (which means “rebirth”) are a lot of assumptions, namely, that the Renaissance took major leaps forward for humanity after we treaded water in the “Middle Ages” after the fall of Rome.  Some historians, however, like Regine Pernoud, see the Renaissance as a step backward from what came before.  Who is right?

2. Will the new view of mankind in the Renaissance be consistent with Christianity?  Will it correct what some perceive to be a medieval over-spiritualization, or will it give humanity too much pride of place?

3. How will this new view of mankind spill over into the rest of Renaissance society?

The Renaissance emerged from the wreckage of the feudal system in the 14th century.  The old social structure did not hold, the Church was busy shooting itself in the foot, and so on.  Different ways of thinking had opportunity to emerge, and we looked at the financial innovations of the Renaissance, particularly in banking.

Many thanks,

Dave

9th Grade: Maps as Worldview

Greetings,

This week we spent time with two maps, each respective of their time, each revealing much about the societies that created it.

First, the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Map of the World), from the late 13th century :

 

We noted that, among other things

  • The map has very little water
  • The map is filled with animals, real or fanciful
  • Jerusalem is at the map’s center
  • The map has no actual geographical accuracy to speak of, almost on purpose

Basically the Hereford Mappa Mundi does not attempt to a map in any modern sense of the world.  It tells you nothing about physical geography.  But it does mean to orient one spiritually.  Christ sits enthroned above, the word “MORS” (Latin for death) forms a ring around the sphere, reminding us that death encompasses the globe.  Jerusalem stands at the center to remind us of the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Did they know nothing of physical geography.  Well, they may not have known much, but they knew more than this map indicates.  I think they just did not particularly care about it, it had no real importance in their society, and other Mappa Mundi’s of the era reflect the same values.

About 150 years later, we see this map:

Obviously many differences exist between the two.

  • The geography approaches reasonably accuracy
  • If you look closely you might see that upon the water there are many ships, obviously reflecting the explosion of exploration.
  • The spiritual symbolism is nowhere to be seen

The map is intended to represent physical reality, to perhaps guide one (at least marginally) while physically traveling.

Of course the map could have had spiritual symbolism if it wanted to.  But it had other purposes and goals in mind, and reflected the different values of the period, and this brings us to one of the crucial differences between the feudal period and the Renaissance.

For the Medievals, what counted most was not the actual, physical person/place/thing as it existed in reality, but the meaning behind the physical, or the symbolism inherent in the object.  So when they want to make a map of the world they did not really make a map of the world, but a spiritual map, a gospel tract.  When Dante uses Beatrice in his Divine Comedy Beatrice as an actual woman has no real importance.  But for Dante she serves as a powerful symbol of how the feminine can help lead him to salvation.

During the Renaissance we begin to see a shift in the other direction.  The physical world in itself has value, and is worth investigating and depicting.  I think both perspectives have value, and neither one has much value apart from the other.  Neither a peanut-butter sandwich, or a jelly sandwich, satisfies, but combined it works beautifully.  The Renaissance began by offering a helpful balance or corrective to some weak spots of the medieval order.  Whether it finishes there or not, we shall see.

If you have interest, last week we watched a brief portion of a video on the development of perspective in art which I include below.   Medieval art did not use perspective, partly because they did not know of the technique.  But I think that part of the reason why they did not discover perspective is that they never looked to develop an artistic technique that would allow them to represent the physical world accurately.  It had no real importance for them.

Blessings,

Dave