The Analogy Gap

I remember that back in my day, we had multiple sections of analogies on the SAT.  I always thought they were fun, but alas, analogies are no longer part of the test.  Apparently different reasons exist as to their absence, ranging from cultural bias to not wanting the test to seem too “tricky.”  I care little for standardized tests so I wouldn’t argue the point too strongly, but I think any look around at our discourse, where everyone who sneezes wrongly gets compared to Hitler, shows that we need more rigorous analogical thinking in our lives.

Of course analogies can be tricky, but making sense of reality requires them, so we need good ones and we need to distinguish good ones from bad. As long as we know that using a three-leaf clover to describe the Trinity works in some ways and fails in others, we can benefit from the illustration.  But using a car, a cigarette, and an oven as a replacement analogy can’t help anyone, despite the fact that all three can sometimes produce smoke.

MIT professor Vaclav Smil specializes in the study of energy, but he has a hobby of reading Roman history.  In the wake of our post 9/11 military ventures, and especially after things in Iraq began to go south, we saw many academics proclaiming the demise of the American “empire,” with comparisons to the fate of Rome everywhere across the media landscape.  Smil smelled a rat, and wrote Why America is not a New Rome to counter this wave.  I wish he put more thought into his title, but it points to the straightforward approach of his work.  He brings the discipline of a scientist to the fog of blogs and talking heads.

The question is one of analogy–how alike are the American and Roman experiences?

The comparisons should not surprise us, and have some basis in fact.  Our founders modeled our constitution on Rome’s.  Our early years resemble the heyday of the aristocratically oriented Roman Republic governed primarily by a strong Senate.  Since the Industrial Revolution, and especially since the Great Depression, we have witnessed the continual growth of executive power until now Congress has nearly reached rubber-stamp status, akin to the senate in Rome under the emperors.

Briefly, then, the case for strong links between America and Rome:

  • After 1989, America had no real military or economic competitor, just as Rome had no real competition in its sphere of influence after the 2nd Punic War
  • America has more than 200 overseas bases and can put its military in action most anywhere in the globe much faster than anyone else, just as Rome could move with its road system throughout its empire.
  • The world economy is controlled through New York, and Washington sets the basic rules of this economy, just as Rome did so for centuries in its era.
  • At the same time, both societies experienced drains on the real power of their economy through foolish military ventures and lack of stable monetary policy.
  • Both societies developed professional militaries that have grown increasingly distant from the general public
  • Both societies exercised considerable soft power through their cultural exports
  • The population of both societies seemed driven by distraction and entertainment.  Some point out strong connections between the gladiatorial games and our love for (American) football.
  • A loss of cultural glue across large geography means that trust and the ability to suffer together both decrease.  Hence, both societies would “buy off” the population with bread, buyouts, stimulus packages, etc.
  • Some even went so far as to say that both civilizations had a, “common obsession with central heating and plumbing.”

Stated this way some connections seem strong, but Smil doesn’t buy it.

First we can consider the concept of “empire.”  Some understand that if America has an empire, it is “informal,” and “an empire without an emperor.”  Smil argues that some concepts of empire are so vague as to be meaningless, and pushes for a very specific definition:

Empire means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from it and alien to it.  Its essential core is political: the possession of final authority by one entity over the vital political decisions of another.

With this definition in place we should consider if America ever exercised imperial ambitions.  Perhaps one could begin with the Mexican War of 1846, or perhaps earlier with the Indian wars that made the Northwest Territories into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. With our various conflicts on the continent we did not so much seek to control ‘alien’ peoples as much as we sought to move in and displace them.  Perhaps one could argue that the Spanish-American War made us an imperial power, but even then, we gave Cuba independence immediately and the Philippines got their independence right after W.W. II.  Smil spends a lot of time on this rather technical argument over what exactly constitutes an empire.  He has some good points to make, but only stylistically.  The real question, I think, involves how much power the U.S. has vis a vis the rest of the world.

Here Smil gets more interesting and convincing.  He cites a variety of data to show that American power, or at least our relative share of power (in political, economic, and military terms), has actually declined dramatically since the end of W.W. II.  Our global share of economic output has dropped by at least 1/3 since 1945, with continuing trade deficits largely due to reliance on foreign energy.  We send much less of our military abroad than we used to.  True, we have hundreds of military bases all over the world, but less than 20 of them have more than 1000 troops.  President Eisenhower served as our top military commander in our most glorious and successful war.  Yet he denounced the “Military-Industrial Complex in his farewell address.  One cannot even conceive of any Roman ever doing any such thing.  Empires do not act this way.

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Smil agrees that we might call the U.S. a “hegemonic” power and not an empire.  But . . . he argues that we are either a weak hegemon or a benign one.  Castro ruled Cuba for decades and all agreed he posed a potential threat to our well being, yet we could do nothing to stop him.  Similarly, we could not get rid of North Korea or beat North Vietnam.  Smil continues,

Germany was defeated by the United States in a protracted war that cost more than 180,000 lives, subsequently received America’s generous financial aid to resurrect its formidable economic potential, and is home to more than 60,000 U.S. troops.  Yet when its foreign minister was asked to join the Iraq War coalition, he simply told the U.S. Secretary of Defense, “Sorry, you haven’t convinced me,” and there the matter ended.

No less tellingly, the Turkish government (with NATO’s second largest standing army and after decades of a close relationship with the U.S.), forbade US forces to use its territory for the invasion of Iraq, a move that complicated the drive to Baghdad and undoubtedly prolonged the campaign.  America in a time of war could not even count on two of its closer allies, but there was no retaliation, no hint of indirect punishment, such as economic sanctions or suspension of certain relations.  One could cite many other such instances . . . both illustrating America’s ineffective hegemony and non-imperial behavior.

With a proliferation of graphs and paragraphs like these, Smil makes a good case that America exercises far less power than its critics at home and abroad surmise.  Smil’s book is not brilliant, but he writes with a concision and clarity that cannot but convince the reader.

Or perhaps, very nearly convince.  American political culture struggles for coherence at the moment, but we have experienced times in our past very much like this before.  We have a disconnect between cultural elites and everyday people, but as Smil points out, this happens in almost every advanced civilization.  Economic inequality is a problem, but again, Smil shows how this tends to happen in many advanced economies, and in any case, our inequality now is not nearly as great as it was in the late 19th century.  By these measures we are no more an empire, or no more in decline, than other countries with power at different times.  The analogy is too thin to make anything of.

But . . . perhaps the strongest point of comparison lies elsewhere.  Toynbee argued that the military and economic problems Rome experienced in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD had their roots in the spiritual detachment of stoicism.  In a similar vein, Eric Voegelin wrote frequently that global power and global influence (of which the U.S. certainly has in some measure) easily leads to a gnostic view of the created order, which again inspires a detachment and loss of engagement.

Perhaps this should be our biggest concern.  We have recently legalized pot, the new drug of choice (in contrast to stimulants like cocaine of 30-40 years ago).  The digital revolution allows us to entertain ourselves with our screens and enter fantasy lands alone in our rooms.  Recently the Caspar mattress company founded a line of stores dedicated to napping as an art form.  It may be a good thing not to have a political, military, or other such analogous connections to Rome.  Here’s hoping that our growing sense of detachment is not in fact the strongest point of comparison between us.

 

Dave

 

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Seeing what you Mean

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

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

What is a president, exactly?

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

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

What is a king (or queen), exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Death in the Days of Louis the Fat

Consider some of what follows a thought experiment rather than a settled conclusion . . .

For some time now I have contemplated Charles Taylor’s idea that a significant impetus in creating the modern world is that we homogenize space and time.  This belief/practice has shaped us for at least 350 years, and it has led us to try and combine many different elements of nature and the subsequent explosion of technological invention.  Many of these creations have greatly improved human life, at least in the physical sense.  But of course, it has also brought about the destruction of any corporate sense of meaning, and an immense decline in the idea of sanctity.

To homogenize something makes it ubiquitous.  Recently Marginal Revolution linked to an article about how technology has made music unimportant in our culture, largely through its constant availability.  The author’s conclusion in the linked article is not original, as many have declared something similar, but it serves as another reminder of the cost of the homogenization of space and time.

By contrast, the medieval world presents itself as one of careful delineation of all things.  We need not say here whether their world or ours is better or worse to appreciate the difference.  Reading primary sources from a particular era gives one such an appreciation, and Abbot Suger’s crackling style makes The Deeds of Louis the Fat an enjoyable, if still slightly monotonous read.*  He centers his writing on how Louis enhanced the power of the monarchy by bringing several dastardly nobles back in line.  His people loved him, if for no other reason that he kept the peace and stood up for those oppressed.  Suger clearly admires his subject, though he recognizes that he had his moniker for a reason, writing that,

By now his body was quite heavy, weighed down as it was by burdensome flesh; no one else, not even a beggar, would have wanted to–or even been able–to ride a horse when hampered by such a dangerously large body.

And later . . .

Thus [Louis] spoke, and–despite his corpulence– he set off with astonishing enthusiasm.

I confess to reading the text with an eye to what would most engage the boys in my 9th grade Medieval History class, and that meant primarily looking for stories of gruesome deaths.**  Suger delivers the goods!  For example:

There can be no doubt that the hand of God exacted this swift vengeance upon William of Laroche Guyon [who had murdered a husband and wife in cold blood to gain possession of their castle].  His accomplices were thrown out of the windows dead or alive, bristling with innumerable arrows like hedgehogs. They waved about in the air on the points of the lances, as if the very earth had rejected them. For the unparalleled deed of William they discovered a rare vengeance; for he who in life had been heartless had his heart cut out of his dead body. When they had taken it from his entrails, all swollen with fraud and iniquity, they put it on a stake and set it up for many days in a fixed place to demonstrate the punishment for crime.  

His body and those of some of his companions, were placed on hurdles tied with cords and ropes, and sent sailing down the Seine so that, if nothing stopped them floating down to Rouen, the Normans should see the punishment incurred by his crime, and also so that those who had briefly fouled France with their stink should in death continue to foul Normandy, their native soil.

Suger later discusses the murder of  Charles the Good, killed while praying prostrate in church along with his cohorts.  He spares no details and seems to relish them. First, the execution of the plotters:

Now [the criminals] despaired of life, and their lyre was turned to mourning and their organ into the voice of them that weep (Job XXX, 31); the most wicked Bourchard left with the agreement of his companions, hoping to flee the land but found himself unable to do so, though only his own iniquity prevented him. On his return to the castle of one of his intimate friends he was seized by the king’s command and suffered exquisite torture in death. Tied to the upper part of a high wheel, exposed naked to the rapacity of crows and other birds of prey, his eyes torn out and his whole face lacerated, pierced by a thousand blows from arrows, lances and spears, he perished miserably and his body was thrown into a sewer.  

Bertold, the brains behind the plot, also decided to flee; but when he found he was able to wander around without restriction, he returned through sheer pride; for he asked himself, ‘Who am I and what have I done?’ So he was captured by his own men, handed over to the king’s judgement and condemned to a well-merited and wretched death. They hanged him from a gibbet with a dog and as the dog was struck it took its anger out on Bertold, chewed his whole face and, horrible to relate, covered him with excrement; so, more miserable than the most miserable of men, he ended his wretched life in perpetual death.  

The men the king had besieged in the tower were forced by many hardships to surrender. In front of their relations Louis had them thrown our one by one from the top of the tower to crush their skulls. One of them called Isaac had been tonsured in a monastery to avoid death; Louis ordered him to be defrocked and hanged on a gibbet. Thus victorious at Bruges, the king rapidly led his army to Ypres, an excellent castle, to take vengeance on William the Bastard, who had fomented the treason. He sent messengers to the people of Bruges and brought them around to his side by threats and flattery. Then as William barred his way with three hundred knights, half the royal army rushed against him and the other half went off at an angle and boldly occupied the castle by way of its other gate. The king kept it, William lost all claim to Flanders, and was banished. Because he had aspired to gain Flanders through treachery, it was right that he should gain nothing whatever in Flanders.  

Suger closes this narrative commenting that,

Flanders was washed clean and almost re-baptized by these various forms of revenge and the great outpouring of blood. So having installed William the Norman as count, the king returned to France, victorious by God’s help.  

At first glance the means of their death, and Suger’s possible delight in such details, surely strikes us as barbaric and unChristian.  We tell ourselves that we have come much farther since those “dark days.”  But I want to suggest–or at least explore–the possibility, that Suger and the medievals may have been on to something.

I tread lightly, for I am aware that this may be one of the craziest of my crazy ideas.

To begin, we can reflect on John Wilkes Booth.  He killed Lincoln, and no one denied that he should face the death penalty.  Everyone wanted him captured alive . . . so that he could be tried and then executed.  He died while pursued by troops either by his own hand or that of a trigger-happy soldier, and people were upset.  But why bother?  Dead is dead, right?  He saved us the expense of a trial. Why all the fuss?  But, everyone recognized at the time that while his death was important, the manner of his death was also important.  To be tried and publicly executed would have a different meaning than if he took his own life, a collective, and cathartic, justice, vs. the “triumphant” and defiant individual.

If we accept this reasoning we begin to see that not every death is alike.  Different kinds of death carry with them different meanings.

If different kinds of death carry with them different meanings, then we may feel inclined to accept that our bodies have meaning, and bodily actions have certain meanings.  Some of this is obvious–certain facial expressions and gestures have a universal meaning across cultures, time, and space.  Other implications follow.  If the body has meaning then gender has an inherent meaning, and so on.  We simply cannot invent ourselves from thin air.

So far, so good, but from here it gets trickier.  Before considering the manner of their deaths we should consider the crimes committed.

  • The crimes were done in cold blood, against defenseless victims.  One of the victims was killed in church alone while praying.  The other was ambushed in his castle after he welcomed them inside, and then his wife was also brutally stabbed to death as threw herself on the body of her dying husband.
  • The crimes had many witnesses to them and no doubt existed as to their guilt.
  • Those that murdered the lord in his castle did so with the express purpose of rebelling against the king.  Those that murdered Charles the Good seemed intent on seizing his land and title.
  • Aside from the cold-blooded nature of the murders, the crimes violated a) the sacrosanct nature of the Church as a safe place of devotion to God, and b) the direct violation of hospitality.

Would an ordinary punishment suffice, that is, an ordinary death sentence, a simple, dignified, beheading?

I have not seen the movie Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won a Best Actor Oscar.  I did hear an interview with Washington, however, in which he discussed how he agreed to the movie only if they changed the script.  He felt that the original ending left the possibility that his character survived, which meant the possibility of a sequel.  Instead, he said that, (my memory is close but not exact) “My character lived like a dog, so he should die like a dog.  Anything else would not be right, or fair to the story.”

Again, we see the manner of death as having significance to the story.  Perhaps the same could be true of the events Suger relates.  We cannot see the meaning of their actions without seeing the consequences those actions have.  The public nature of the punishments inflicted rub us wrongly as well.  But we must also wonder whether or not we have swung too far in the direction of privacy in last century or so.  We no longer vote in public, we no longer need to speak in public (we can comment anonymously on line).  Perhaps this has contributed to the cultural divide and polarization we now face.

Our modern homogenization of life and death has not made unjust deaths any less frequent.  If anything, one might suggest that, at certain times at least, it has positively increased it.  The beginning of this phenomena may have been the French Revolution, where the guillotine treated all alike.  But this industrialization of death led to its mass production, and numbed much of France for years.  The class and racial identity politics of Hitler and Lenin led to further industrialized butchery.  Equality in death led to piles of statistics, an undecipherable mass.  The vast majority of these deaths were hidden far from the people at large.

I truncated the above accounts from Suger, but even still, it seems that the deaths inflicted give the stories a “satisfying” ending (the effect increases by reading the whole story). We can call this a latent string of barbarism in our psyche or . . . it may be that the medievals acted rightly, provided of course that such punishments truly fit the crimes and that no one could dispute their guilt.  Suger, an Abbott and scholar,  has no doubt of this, for he mentions specifically that the violent end of the malefactors “washed clean” Flanders, for example.

Perhaps our executions should be more public. Perhaps this could be a means for us to process important truths of life and death. I hesitate to say that the method of execution should vary depending on the crime, for in the accounts above things seemed to happen at least in part “in the heat of the moment.”  To inflict such punishments in cold blood presents a host of problems.  But I feel a certain amount of tension.  If we treat every death alike, the body may lose its inherent meaning, and then death will lose its meaning. If death loses its meaning, so too will life.  All we will have left, then, will be a monotonous march to oblivion.

 

*The Carolingians win for having the best names for their kings, i.e., Pepin the Short, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Louis the Pious, Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple (i.e, Charles the Stupid), and of course, Louis the Fat.

**I know of no better way to get 15 year old boys interested in learning about feudal hierarchy and symbolism, a classic bait and switch. The girls, who are usually far more agreeable but often far less interested in the gory details, “must endure their going hence.”

 

 

The Royal Touch

As often as we may try and manage and control our experience of the world around us, we cannot avoid reality breaking into our lives from time to time.  Our secular age orients itself almost entirely around making our day to day lives workable and enjoyable on a strictly horizontal level.  We have long since abandoned ultimate “vertical” questions as unwieldy and unhelpful towards this end.  But then, the fact of death itself strikes us occasionally with great force.  As we have no common liturgies surrounding death, and no common way to experience loss, death lingers among us like a fog.  So too, the 2016 election in some ways exposed the thin veneer of our “horizontal” happiness, and ever since we have had to try and deal with the unconscious, sometimes darker Jungian aspects of our selves and our body politic.

Like life, history sometimes breaks in on us with sudden and unusual force.

One begins Henry of Huntingdon’s History of the English People:1000-1154 like any other medieval history book, and it reads similarly to other works in this genre.  Henry was nobleman with a good education in the Latin classics and knew Scripture well, and it shows.  He describes the political scene of his time with care and skill, and dances around enough hot-button issues of the day to make scholars wonder about his motives from time to time.  All of this falls well within the range of “normal” history.

But then . . .

On page 48 (Oxford Classics Edition) he drops in this comment when discussing the abrupt death of the rogue King William:

In the year 1100 King William ended his cruel life in a wretched death.  For when he had gloriously, and with historic pomp, held his court at Gloucester at Christmas, at Winchester at Easter [April 1], and in London on Whitsun [Pentecost], he went to hunt in the New Forest on 2 August. There Walter Tirel, aiming at a stag, accidentally hit the king with an arrow.  The king was struck in the heart, and fell without uttering a word.  A little earlier blood was seen to bubble up from the ground in Berkshire.

William was rightly cut off in the midst of his injustice.  For in himself, and because of the counsels of wicked men, whom he invariably chose, he was more evil to his people than any man, and most evil to himself . . .

“A little earlier blood was seen to bubble up . . . ”  What are we to make of this?  Yes, Henry wants to make a theological point, and some may feel the temptation to explain it away as allegorizing.  But he also carefully mentions specific dates and specific places, and he does not write in a “Once upon a time,” fashion. Well, perhaps we could sweep this oddity under the rug as scribal error or flight of fancy.  The casual, offhand nature of his remark, however, makes this an unlikely choice.

And then, a bit later in the book (p. 83):

In this year [1144], Earl Geoffrey de Mandeville harassed the king exceedingly, and in everything he did basked in vainglory.  But in the month of August the splendor of God showed forth a miracle worthy of His justice.  For He inflicted similar punishments on men who forcibly removed two monks and turned God’s churches into castles.  Robert Marmion–a warlike and evil man–had carried this out in the church of Coventry, and Geoffrey, as I have already said, perpetrated the same crime in Ramsey.  Robert Marmion, attacking his enemies in front of the monastery itself, was the only man killed, although he stood in the midst of a huge squadron.  As an excommunicate, he is being devoured by eternal death.

In the same way Earl Geoffrey, among the ranks of his own . . . was struck by an arrow from a foot-soldier.  He scoffed at the wound, but after a few days died of this injury, excommunicate.  See how the vengeance of God . . . is made known throughout the ages, and is executed in the same way for the same crime!  While the church in Ramsey was being held as a castle [by the Earl] blood bubbled out of the walls of the church and the adjoining cloister, clearly demonstrating the divine wrath and prophesying the destruction of the wrong-doers.  Many witnessed this, and I myself saw it with my own eyes.

Though Henry has theological points to make, this in no way should blunt the force of his report.  He mentions himself along with others as eyewitnesses to this additional sighting of blood.  Unless we wish to say he lied outright twice, we must consider whether our conception of how God, man, and nature interact needs abruptly altered.

Marc Bloch rightly deserves his reputation as one of the great scholars of the feudal era.  He has a rare knack for simply dealing with the texts before him without much evident preconception.   His book, The Royal Touch offers just such another slap of cold water, as he reminds us of the copious textual evidence for the power medieval kings possessed, at least at certain times, to heal their subjects.  Bloch’s Wikipedia page describes him as a “thoroughly modern” historian in outlook, and as he was Jewish, we would assume he has no particular theological axe to grind.  This makes his presentation all the more striking.

We may surmise that the medievals lived in an “age of faith” which made them credulous.*  Bloch will not allow this.  Medieval people may have had different standards of what constituted proof, but they argued over the evidence.  He cites William of Malmsbury’s (a respected historian in his own right) account of the miracles of St. Edward the Confessor:

But now to speak of the miracles of St. Edward.  A young woman had married a man but had no children, and the humors gathered about her neck, she contracted a sore disorder.  Admonished in a dream to the have the affected parts washed by King Edward himself, she entered the palace and the king did as she wished.  Joyous health followed his healing hand–the lurid skin opened so that worms flowed out with the putrid matter, so that the tumor subsided.  Nothing of the original wound could be found after many weeks, and she soon gave birth to twins. She increased the admiration of Edward’s holiness.

A certain man, blind, persisted in walking around the palace, certain that he should be cured if he could touch his eyes with water in which Edward had washed.  This was related to Edward, who looked angrily upon the man, confessing himself sinner, and that the works of holy men did not belong to him.

But his servants tried the experiment when he was ignorant of it, praying in church.  They gave some water to the blind man, upon which the darkness fled from him and his eyes filled with light.  

That you may know the perfect virtue of this prince, I will excite your wonder still more.  Wulwin, surnamed Spillecorn, one day cut wood and fell blind as a result, perhaps because of his excessive sleep after his labors.  He was admonished in a dream to go round to 87 churches, and earnestly entreat relief from his blindness from the saints.

At last he came to the king’s court, where he remained for a long time, being held back by the king’s men.  Finally he received admittance, whom after he had heard the dream, answered mildly, “By my lady St. Mary, I shall be truly grateful, if God, through my means, shall choose to take pity upon you.”  Though with no confidence in himself with respect to miracles, yet he placed his hand, dipped in water, on the blind man.

In a moment blood flowed from his eyes and the man restored to sight, cried, “I see you O king, I see you!”  In this recovered state he was given charge of the royal castle at Windsor, for that is where his cure was effected.  He held this job many years, having outlived his restorer.

In our day, some have used the miracles of King Edward to support a false idea.  They have claimed that the king possessed this power to heal illness, not by virtue of his holiness, but by hereditary title, as a privilege of the royal line.

Bloch comments, that

This is a doubly valuable observation, because it informs us of both William’s ideas and of the very different ones held by his contemporaries.  They disagreed about why he had power to heal, but not about the fact that he did heal.

So this text (and there are others like it) will not leave us the “out” they lacked critical thought.

Eyewitness accounts to miracles like this date back many centuries, with Gregory of Tours (another respected historian) perhaps with the first written account of this phenomena in ca. A.D. 540:

It was commonly related among the faithful that a certain woman whose son lay stretched out upon a bed of pain, suffering from fever, made her way through the crowd from behind the king, and without his noticing it, managed to pull off part of the fringe of the royal cloak.  She soaked it in water, and then gave this water to her son to drink.

The fever immediately abated, and the disease was cured.  

For my part, I do not doubt this matter.  For indeed I have often seen demons who inhabit the bodies of those possessed cry out in the name of the king, and being unmasked by the virtue proceeding from him, confess their crimes.

Bloch considers many important questions in the book.  One major topic of discussion and disagreement among medieval chroniclers had to do with whether or not

  • The power to heal came exclusively from the dignity and chrism of the office itself, or
  • If such grace to heal required personal sanctity in addition to the chrism of kingship.

But again, no debate existed as to whether or not such healings in fact took place.

Bloch also wonders why such miracles seem confined the French and English monarchies.  Perhaps it happened elsewhere, but we have little to no textual evidence to support it.  We might also plausibly wonder why it reports of such miracles slowed considerably during the 17th century and cease practically altogether in the 18th.

For that matter, we not see blood bubble up from the ground anymore either.

Such questions are certainly uncomfortable, but we should not ignore them.  Amidst its sometime “one thing after another” tedium, History can occasionally wake us up and show us a different world.

Dave

 

*”Stupid” is a less polite, but more accurate description of what those that use this word really mean in such contexts.

 

 

Despair and Exaltation in Ancient Rome

The phenomena of Roman gladiators has gotten lots of attention over the years, and that’s no surprise.  One way of quickly getting a sense of an ancient people is to seek what details stand out and makes them look odd, impressive, or otherwise shocking to modern eyes.  The gladiatorial games, like human sacrifices for the Aztecs, Egyptian tombs, or medieval cathedrals all fit the bill.

We usually see the gladiatorial contests as evidence of Rome’s decline.  Rome got wealthy, Rome got bored and decadent, and so it needed the bread and circuses to maintain order in a tumultuous political climate. “How sad,” some say, “and how dramatic a change from Rome’s hard and flinty past!  But, when a big empire goes south, it will go south on a grand and terrible scale.”

So the story goes.  But, what if, like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, we had it contrariwise?  What if the Rome of the gladiatorial games is simply the Rome that always was, and money and power just gave them more opportunities to expand their sense of themselves?  Such are the implications of Carlin Barton’s eye-opening The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster.  Barton wants to show us that our modern categories of thought and experience will not work for Rome.  We cannot say, “Well, we like football so we’re just like the Romans.”  This shallow method will not cut it for Barton.  She asks us to go deeper and to notice the Romans on their own terms, and gives us plenty of food for thought to reconsider the meaning of Rome, and what it means that Rome was a “religious” society.

Barton examines the gladiatorial games, one of the more sensational aspects of Rome’s past.  The title focuses on the concept of “sorrow,” but Barton tries to examine the games through a lens of the tension between asceticism, discipline, glory, indulgence, and exaltation.  We might think of the Romans as orderly people who lived in the middle of the road.  If true, Barton suggests that they could do so only by holding opposites in constant tension.

For an example we have the Roman triumph.  Anyone familiar with Roman lore and tradition knows that Rome itself, not a particular individual, occupies the heroic position.  They wove their fear of too much individualism into their laws and customs.  The valued communal fraternity so much that one of their laws states that,

If any person has sung or composed against another person a song such as was causing slander or insult…. he shall be clubbed to death,+

and they valued order and gravitas to the extent that they banned excessive mourning at funerals.

But at the same time they gave massive official “Triumphs” to certain generals on occasion, where the whole city came out to shower the victor with praise.  But as the victor processed, his soldiers could–and perhaps should?–sing bawdy or insulting songs about their general in direct violation of law, while a slave rode with him as well to remind him of his mortality.*

Barton tries to explore this at least seeming tension through the lens of the so-called “circuses” of Rome, which Barton writes were a, “Powerful opera of emotions in which the gladiator was the star.”

Most people, most of the time, imagine themselves doing good more often than not, and suppose that others will naturally share the assumptions they make about themselves.  The same holds true for countries and perhaps especially for imperial powers, who tell themselves that they come with blessings for all, and get a shock when they find themselves not always as appreciated as they feel they deserve.**  So too with gladiators and the games, the Romans saw themselves as benefactors.  Barton pushes back on the modern notion that they served as mere entertainment for a swelling populace that needed distracted.

The Romans saw themselves as giving gladiators a chance to redeem their low-estate, even to become something more than a mere man–an act of generosity.  The crowd attends to cooperate and encourage this transformation, not so much to gratify idle curiosity but rather to partake in a kind of religious apotheosis.  To begin, the military oath had a great deal of similarity to the gladiatorial oath. Seneca wrote,

You have enlisted under oath.  If any man say that this is a soft or easy form of soldiering they will only wish to mock you.  But be not deceived: the words of this most honorable of compacts are the very same as those of the most foulest [i.e., the gladiator’s oath]: to be burned, to be bound, to be slain by the sword.  You must die erect and invincible. What difference will it make if you gain a few more days or years? We are born into a world in which no quarter is given.

Thus, Barton comments, the gladiator became a kind of soldier/philosopher, one who lives between life and death, understands both, and can mock at both.  This in turn gave him license to become a new man.   If the emperor claimed his life, one might see it as akin to a god claiming his own.  His death, then, was not necessarily a cause for sorrow.

This gives us a new image of the crowd’s role at the games.  The crowd does not so much cheer for life, or death, but for a communal religious right.  Seneca again comments,

I judge you wretched because you have never been wretched yourself.  You have passed through life without an adversary. No one will know what you are capable of, not even you yourself will know.  And so there are men of their own accord [i.e. gladiators] come forward to challenge reluctant misfortune, and sought an opportunity to blazon forth their worth when it was about to pass into obscurity.  Great men glory in adversity, as do brave men in battle. 

The injuries inflicted by the powerful must be borne, not just patiently, but with a glad countenance.  At the table of a king every meal is a delight. So must they drink, so must they respond, so must the laugh at the funerals of their loved ones.

To glory in suffering is to become glorious.  So even in death, the gladiator wins.  He shows his exalted status by despising life.  As one commented on D. Junius Brutus: “He behaved so basely that he deserved to live.”  The crowd could occasionally assume risk as well, flocking to rickety theaters that could collapse or catch fire at any time.  They cheer on the gladiator toward his glorious suffering just as they–albeit in a more limited fashion–participate in that same suffering, that same embrace and defiance of death.

With this in place we can view the decadence of the Romans in new light.  Gladiators lived beyond normal life, so they could indulge themselves freely, embracing the extremes of life and death.  St. Augustine commented that the life of the gladiator involved licenstious cruelty, an excess of indulgence in everything.  And yet at the same time, they functioned as Rome’s ascetics, able to abandon their very lives to the people of Rome.  Their lives do not belong to them and in so doing their lives can belong to all. They simultaneously embraced both extremes, the demi-gods of Rome who lived beyond the lot of mortals.

This is why the crowd could cheer even the losers in combat, for in their death they display their superiority to death, unblinking, and unafraid.  It was only when the combatants shrank from death that crowd turned on them, and then with stern vengeance.  Showing fear of death made them normal once again, and once they became “normal” they turned the games into something shameful and cruel, rather than something “exalted.”  A gladiator’s fear of death ended the crowd’s participation in the ritual and suddenly transformed the event to a mere butchery.  Who wants to see that?

This is why Rome embraced fleshly decadence as a kind of asceticism.  In Rome one must learn to endure all things and keep going.  A Roman can embrace everything and maintain his dignity.  He can die, and he can eat, vomit it all up, and eat some more.  He can endure death and every form of excess life throws at him and “triumph.”  It is hard to say whether the banquets and excess of late-Republican Rome derived from gladiator culture or vice-versa, but I suspect the former.  J.E. Lendon at the University of Virginia seems to suggest in his Soldiers and Ghosts that the Romans had an extraordinary ability to do almost anything to avoid shame.  That ability could include

  • A strong aversion to any kind of trickery in warfare.  The only honorable way to fight was to march straight into the enemy and smash them in the mouth.
  • A strong aversion to a fear of death and ready acceptance of suicide as superior to even small personal or political failures among the political elite, and
  • As Barton points out, a refusal to accept any limits not just on pains^ but even on the pleasures that one could endure, such as eating six meat pies, spewing it out, and still look forward to eating the seventh.  The man who lost the ability to desire had lost something of himself.

One might see the how these practices could stray into some rather bizarre sexual realms.  Clearly gladiators enjoyed status as sexual objects, and Barton is hardly the first to discuss this.  But she did, if it be possible, help me understand Caligula, at least indirectly.  Of course no one can possibly excuse Caligula via “understanding!”  But in Caligula we see the same kind of excess of cruelty, physical and sexual indulgence, along with religious ecstasy as we see in gladiators.  Caligula claimed a kind of deity for himself.  Perhaps this was insanity, but perhaps he was simply following the gladiator ethic of testing himself, pushing himself, to extremes of vice and religious glorification, courting disaster but not shirking from the challenge.

Maybe.

I found Barton’s book in turns fascinating and perplexing.  I don’t know what it means for understanding the breadth of Rome’s existence from start to finish.  In the preface to his history, Livy wrote that, “Of late wealth has brought us avarice, and abundant pleasures, yearning–amidst both excess and the desire to perish and destroy all things.”  It is a familiar trope of ancient historians, but that has no particular bearing on the accuracy of his interpretation.  Still, I tend to see what happened with gladiators not as a weird appendage of the late-Republic/Empire, but as an integral part of Rome that lay under the surface initially, and grew in prominence over time.

For example, the Romans established the office of aedile very early in their history in the 5th century B.C.  Most aspects of how they functioned look very Roman in our usual sense of the word, as they maintained buildings, streets, laws, etc.  But, they also had charge of public entertainments or other public events, such as large funerals.  Aedlies were expected to fund these out of their own pocket, and many could easily go bankrupt during their time in office.

But the Romans saw the role of aedile as a crucial stepping stone to higher office, where the opportunities for glory and riches increased.  Caesar risked everything and beggared himself to win the election of pontiff, then used the office for fabulous gain.  This pattern was established long before him, however, this yo-yo between poverty and wealth, despair and exaltation.

It seems fitting to give the last word here to an important critic of all of this mess, St. Cyprian of Carthage, who wrote,

Man is killed for the pleasure of man, and to be able to kill is a skill, an employment, an art.  He undergoes discipline in order to kill, and when he does kill, it is a glory. What is this, I ask you, of what nature is it, where those offer themselves to wild beasts, whom no one has condemned, in the prime of life, of comely appearance, in costly garments?  While alive they adorn themselves for voluntary death and miserable as they are, they even glory in their sufferings

Dave

+It seems particularly Roman to me that their wouldn’t say, “shall be executed,” but rather the more stark, “shall be clubbed to death.”

*Some might say that these exceptions have much in common with medieval carnivals or days of “misrule.”  I disagree, and I assume Barton would as well.  The medieval carnival temporarily suspended normal reality to a) reset/refresh the existing order, and b) demonstrate the reality of a world beyond our own.  The Romans seemed to live in perpetual earthly tension within one plane of existence.

**I do not mean for this to serve as an all-encompassing statement on the question of how empires do or do not benefit those under their control.  The question is complicated and perhaps no one good general answer exists.  All I mean to assert here is that imperial powers assume that they are helping and not hurting.

^If we look at the 2nd Punic War, one can imagine almost any civilization surrendering in 216 B.C. after Cannae.  Poylbius points out the political structure of Rome as one of the keys to their ultimate victory and ability to persevere.  Certainly that helped.  I think the real key, however, was Rome’s culture/religion that told them to suffer–to embrace suffering.  This should tell us that:

  • Indeed, what we saw with gladiators was present earlier in Rome’s history (in a more noble form).
  • Culture and religion trump politics.  One can see a parallel in W.W. II where Germany inflicted unimaginable losses against the Soviets in the first few months their attacks.  Any rational man would assume a surrender would be forthcoming.  Yet, somehow, the Soviets kept going and eventually destroyed the Nazi’s.  The Soviets and the Romans had very different political systems, but both drew from religions that taught them how to suffer–albeit in different ways for different reasons (in the case of the Soviets it was Orthodox Christianity, which made a significant unofficial comeback during the war).

 

 

Most of the Time, the World is Flat

Our struggle with economic equality has many roots.  For starters, we have the dual affirmation of the values of liberty and equality, something Tocqueville noted as perhaps the key tension in modern democracies.  Modern democracies also elevate the status of the individual choice much more highly than traditional societies.   This honoring of the individual adds fuel to the free market, which ultimately seeks to commodify our choices.  We will likely see laws supporting “traditional” morality, such as those against gambling and certain kinds of drug use, get removed from the books.   I read with dismay this article, which indicates that Washington state now allows one to commodify the womb.

The multiplication of choices in the market dovetails with additional freedoms for the individual, and of course we generally want and desire such freedoms.  But we cannot have such freedoms and have economic equality at the same time.

The roots of this trend towards an absolute market of things, and even using oneself as an economic object, has origins that predate modern democracies.  To have an unending market of things we need to first have control over things, and to establish control the thing must be emptied of its own significance that we might fill it.  In his A Secular Age, Charles Taylor observes that it is the homogenization of time and space that makes the modern era (ca. 18th century-today) possible, for it allows us to give our own meanings to our experiences.  We can add that our perception of things as mere objects contributes to this trend.

Marcel Mauss’ book The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies poses many questions, such as, “Do books with absurdly boring titles, written by French sociologists, have an inverse or complimentary relationship with the inevitable nerdiness and pomposity of those that read such books?”  Sure, having this book in front of you at your local Starbucks will likely make you look like a prig, but for those willing to assume the risk, Mauss has some interesting nuggets to reveal about the economies of the ancient world.

The societies Mauss surveys have an economy, but not ones we might expect.  Some minor differences exist between the societies he examines across time and space, but in the main we can say that:

  • One can never truly own a thing, because the thing (be it a gold coin, a chair, a paddle) has an identity all its own.  It is its “own” (ha!) thing before it ever was “your” thing.
  • One should not keep anything for too long.  To do so would risk courting vengeance of a sort from thing itself (some societies had a more magical view of this, some abstracted it a bit more), which “longs” to go to someone else.  Our stuff wants to roam wild and free.
  • One could potentially amass even a great surplus of things, but in end, everyone needed to give things to others and keep the cycle of exchange moving.* This was not mere self-emptying or even generosity per se, because all acknowledged that receiving a gift came with reciprocal responsibilities and burdens.**  Failure to reciprocate courted disaster.

Of course these societies had a hierarchy, determined by birth or honorific achievements, or something else, but material wealth got passed around with much more fluidity in the ancient world than today.  We may admire this, but quite frankly, we could never replicate it.  For starters, we no longer see the world of things as full of meaning.  As Taylor observed, in a world of homogeneity only we ourselves can transmit this meaning to things.  Again, the concept of magic enters in with some of the early societies, but Mauss delineates between magic and some form of “embodied meaning.”  I did not find him terribly clear on this point, but it is a hard concept to describe (and for me to understand).  Something has to do with the idea that in the societies Mauss describes one more directly experiences the world.  This too is hard to describe, but I would venture that

  • Today we assume that a thing has no meaning in itself.  So its meaning must be mediated or transmitted by layers of society and the self.
  • Whereas “back then,” our experience of the world and the meaning of the world were one and the same.

We might catch a glimpse of this difference by looking a a different issue.

About four years ago Jonathan Pageau wrote a series of articles about ancient cosmology, and gave his first post the intriguing title, “Most of the Time the World is Flat.”  Pageau obviously does not mean to imply that the Earth is not really round, and of course the earth does not change its shape.  Rather, he postulates a significant disconnect between what we believe the world/cosmos to actually be like and our everyday experience of it.  Science has not given us, and perhaps cannot give us, a workable, experiential model of the world.  So we live divided, having to import a meaning to our experience that has no solid reality behind it.  He writes,

I would like to propose something that might seem provocative at first, but will hopefully help people see the world with different eyes. There is a growing image on the recent horizon of human experience, it is an image of a family or a group of friends all next to each other at a table or in some other intimate setting, yet all interacting with tablets, ipods and smartphones as if the people around them didn’t exist. I would like to propose that this image, this reality is the final result of Galileo’s cosmological model. Some of you might think I am exaggerating, so I will need to explain.

The Copernican/Galilean worldview, that is the heliocentric worldview and its further development into our modern cosmology of galaxies and nebulas and black holes has two important aspects. It is an artificial vision and it is an alienating vision. It is artificial in the strictest sense of “art” or “techne”. It is a technical vision because we cannot experience this vision without technology, without telescopes and other apparatuses. Because technology is a supplementary thing, a garment of skin, something which we add to our natures in order to physically bolster them toward the material world, it therefore also leads further into the material world itself. (emphasis mine).

. . . modern cosmology is not only artificial, but it is alienating, it moves Man away from himself. Once Man accepted that what he saw through his telescopes and microscopes is more real than his natural experience, he made inevitable the artificial world, he made inevitable as its end the plastic, synthetic, genetically modified, photoshopped, pornographic, social-networked reality we live in. When at the very core of vision, the shape of your cosmos leads you to believe that technology provides a perception which is more true, more real than your experience, more real than walking out of your house and looking at the sky, then the telescope and the microscope will soon be side by side with the camera, the screen and the accelerated time and space of the car window. The metal and glass frame will swallow us and human beings will lose themselves for their incapacity to fully inhabit the world.

Pageau knows that his desired task of reorienting our perspective will likely fail, with a gulf too broad for us to comprehend.  Still, I encourage you to read the whole article here and try for yourself.^

It is the strict materialization of our things that creates the gulf between us and our things, which then means we cannot access the economies of the past.

If we wish to regain access to this world, we need a different conception of reality itself.  We should take care and not romanticize this version of society.  Mauss points out that violence existed in these societies–though probably not because of stark material inequality.  The societies he describes sometimes had huge surpluses, which they then sometimes consumed in spectacular fashion.  On the other hand, rarely did these societies have much of the technological innovation that we would appreciate.  But, if we wish to access this way of life, we need to stop treating the inanimate things we create and consume as mere means to an end.  Indeed, we often treat others as a means to an end as part of our contribution to a fallen world.  Unfortunately, as the new surrogacy law in Washington state reveals, we are now so completely alienated even from our selves that we will cannibalize our own bodies as a means to an end for ourselves–a bifurcation that puts us far from the world Mauss describes.

“Man is what he eats.”  Alexander Schemmann began his classic For the Life of the World quoting this epigram of Fuerbach.  One might assume that an Orthodox priest would disagree with this radically materialist statement, but Schemmann turns the quote on its head and argues that with this quote Fuerbach, “expressed the most religious idea of man.”  Mere matter does not exist, at least in the way we usually think.  Perhaps the place to begin is with the eucharist, for it is here that symbol and reality fuse together most profoundly, and it is here that the world’s transformation begins anew.

Dave

*This reminds a bit of the modern economic idea that money must circulate through society like blood must circulate through the body.  Was this Ricardo’s idea originally?

**Norbert Elias talks about aristocrats even as late as the 17th century in Spain who were expected to beggar themselves once every 10-15 years or so by hosting grand feasts for entire villages.  After which, the cycle would begin again.  This hosting/feasting was a crucial basis of their authority.

^Pageau has since walked back partially some of the “anti-science” approach he takes in this article.  He has credited Jordan Peterson with helping him see some possible connections between science and the symbolic worldview.

Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France

Like many of you I have spent some time wondering where we are as a civilization and how we got here.

It might seem like a book about French historians of the 16th century might have very little to do with this question.  But bear with me!–George Huppert’s book The Idea of Perfect History: Historical Erudition and Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France might indeed have something to do with where we find ourselves.

Though perhaps getting there via this informative but slightly dry tome may require more patience from readers than usual!

Huppert makes that point that the writing of history changed dramatically during the period he examines, but to understand this we need to briefly glimpse the history of “History,” for the study of history as we know it came into being comparatively recently.

In the ancient world various kings had their escapades recorded for posterity.  A text of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III, for example, has him slaying 1000 lions with a single arrow and other such things.  We can wonder, did Thutmose expect others to believe him?  Did he believe it himself?  More likely, he had no wish to record exactly what happened but inhabited another way of thinking and another form of writing.  Herodotus records a combination of personal observations, investigations, and poetic constructions.  He saw no need to differentiate.  Apparently, he didn’t think it mattered.  He saw no need to concern himself exclusively with what “actually happened.”  Even Thucydides–who had a much more scientific bent and witnessed many of the events he records–surely invents certain speeches to craft an artful narrative.

The medieval period formed the immediate context for many of Huppert’s subjects.  Many wrote first-hand accounts of kings or crusades during this period.  What they knew and saw they described.  But when going beyond this, they no problem filling in gaps with some educated guesswork, and like the ancients, saw no need to be clear about the difference.  Others went further.  In his History of the Kings of Britain Geoffrey of Monmouth includes a lengthy section on King Arthur.  Here Geoffrey is on at least semi-historical footing.  King Arthur, or someone like him, may have existed.  But Geoffrey includes a section detailing Arthur’s denunciation by the senate of Rome, and his combat against a rag-tag army which included “Kings from the Orient,” which certainly never happened.  Moreover, Geoffrey and his readers must have known this never happened.

We also see in many medieval histories the desire to connect one’s own particular history with a grander narrative.  One can do this with myth directly, but others did this “mythically.”  Vergil has the origins of Rome come from Troy, and Geoffrey has the English, in turn, come from Rome/Troy.  French historians have the Franks come from Troy as well.*  Again, the desire to connect poetically/narratively with the grand story of civilization trumps that of what “actually happened.”  They did this quite self-consciously.

Nicole Gilles’ Annals of France (ca. 1525) gives us a late example of this.  He begins with Creation itself and then recounts some aspects of Biblical history.  He moves quickly to the history of France’s kings, but here he includes many legends and miracles.  The giants he describes, as well as the kings, have an ancestry. It just so happens in the Annals that the Franks were founded by a man named Francio, . . . also from Troy. Even the giant Feragut, slain by Roland, descends from Goliath.  Perhaps Roland and Francio did not exist, but certainly Charlemagne did.  But he has Charlemagne do things that few would really think actually happened, such as undertake a crusade to Jerusalem.  His book was a wild success, which surely frustrated many of the France’s emerging humanist scholars.  Those scholars might have taken solace had they known that the Annals were the last of its kind.

We see the shift evidenced by the comments of two humanist scholars in the mid 16th century.  Claude Fauchet wrote that medieval historians had, “failed in the chief responsibility of the historian, that is, to tell the truth.” And Lancelot Popeliniere declared that “no man of honor ever practiced [history in France], since the profession had always been in the hands of clerics,” whose limitations and biases prevented them from giving an objective appraisal of events.

These statements contain within them a revolution of thought, but they both beg questions: What does it mean for a historian to tell the truth?  And who is objective?

Their passion for “what really happened” involved the following:

  • Making history a science that concerned itself with the affairs of men, not so much the intervention of God, which cannot be measured or predicted.
  • Broadening the scope of history beyond national or religious concerns, and focusing on the history of all, and
  • Getting the best texts, and staying faithful to the best texts, would get us to the truth.  Truth comes from texts, not so much from tradition.

The astute observer no doubt notices a strong correlation between this last goal and the emerging Protestant Reformation.  Indeed, some of this new breed of historians had much sympathy with the French Protestants, and we can say more on this later.  But regardless of religious affiliation, all three goals also added up to a rejection of the idea that history involved a kind of devolution, a falling away from grace.  Rather, for these French humanists, just as we could improve the study of history and cleanse from the muck of the errors of the past, so too could our whole society move forward and progress.**

Huppert details the writing of several French historians of the 16th century who followed these axioms.  The details here ran a bit dry for me, but the overall effect was the same.  When one combines the work of these scholars in the 16th century with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, the work of history changed dramatically, and we should evaluate the fallout for good or ill.

The passion for precision and the value of the text have done a great deal to improve history in a variety of ways that seem axiomatic to mention.  We have more access to more information, we have more texts in translation, and almost certainly, a better idea for “what really happened,” than previously.  The late Renaissance humanists foreshadowed the Enlightenment, which gave us a variety of other secondary blessings, especially related to advancements in science that comes with breaking things down into component parts.

But we have lost a great deal in the exchange, and the exchange may not have worth it.

First, I stress that while we have a “better idea” for what really happened in the past, we still don’t really know.  We still have to guess and be comfortable with guessing.  Having more texts will not solve the problem of interpreting the texts.  But all this says is that the French humanists had a bit too much optimism, hardly a dreadful fault.  But this optimism has had certain consequences.

Their methods assert that we can get outside traditions and into a place of pure perspective and rationality.  We know that we cannot do this.  Their reliance on texts exacerbates this.  A text, divorced from tradition, can have an almost infinite amount of interpretations.  Note how the reliance on “sola Scriptura” has doomed Protestants into constant splintering and thousands of factions, each claiming to base their ideas on the “text” of the Bible.  In the end, different traditions of interpretation do in fact form, with Reformed Study Bibles, Scofield Reference Bibles, and so on.

We must also deal with Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nicole Gilles and ask if they write history. We may say that the discipline of History involves many things, but we must first ask what it involves primarily.  Is it primarily an art or science?  If we had to choose would we rather have eyewitness testimonies to tell us what happened in Guernica, or Picasso’s painting?

If we side with Picasso we will begin to understand medieval historians.

For History to have any real significance, it must have meaning.  Meaning requires interpretation, and interpretation requires poetry, something beyond mere facts.  We might surmise that in having Arthur deal with Rome, Geoffrey sought to display his view of Arthur as the inheritor of the mantle of Christendom after the fall of Rome–the literary equivalent to an interpretative painting of him, or perhaps an “icon” of Arthur (a great example of how truth can be communicated in image can be found here). The same could be said of Gilles’ “depiction” of Charlemagne.

We do not critique paintings by saying things such as, “He didn’t look exactly like that, so that’s not painting.”  But humanistic rationalism treated the text as having more truth than the image.  This is why they treated medieval historians unfairly.  They failed to see how truth claims could be communicated in the text artistically (and entertainingly as well, as anyone who has read Geoffrey of Monmouth can attest).^  I have no problem calling Geoffrey and Gilles historians, albeit historians of a different type.  They told the “truth,” (if their interpretations were accurate), but in a different way.  They had their biases, but so do you and I.

One can point to many reasons why we experience our current political situation.  Some of them do indeed have a connection to the historians of Renaissance France.  The founders (not the early colonists) drank deeply from the same Enlightenment-oriented spirit of our aforementioned historians.  They too focused heavily on texts, and indeed, we base our life together not on shared traditions, but the texts of the Declaration and Constitution, and this has certain consequences.

The postmoderns rightly tell us that texts can have an almost uncountable number of interpretations.  The search for the “absolute” interpretation of the text will get us nowhere.  So, both those who drive pickups with big American flags, and those who drink latte’s and protest the national anthem can claim to live out what it means to be an American (i.e., “protest is the most American thing one can do,” and so on).  On the one hand, Trump takes an ax to many traditions of how a president should act.  But on the other hand, he “connects with the common man,” and isn’t America all about the common man and freedom from tradition?

Hence, we see our dilemma.

But postmoderns fail us because not every interpretation has the same validity.  We have to have a way of distinguishing and separating the good from the bad.  With only texts and no traditions at our disposal, however, we will have a hard time reigning in the various interpretations.  Other ways of seeing and apprehending the “truths” of history can provide checks, balances, and possibly, a return to sanity.  In his introduction to Fr. Maximos Constas’ The Art of Seeing Bishop Maxim asks

For example, if you have a photograph of Christ and an icon painting of Christ, which is more truthful?  Certainly, if you have a naturalistic approach, you would say, “the photograph.”  But if you say [the icon] you point to unconventional and eschatological truth.  . . . .Therefore, there is truth in art that does not correspond to the mind of reality.

Dave

*I find it interesting that everyone wanted to come from Troy and not Greece.  Troy lost.  Many say that the Europeans wanted to come from Troy to connect themselves with Rome.  I can’t deny this might have something to do with it, but I think it goes beyond that.  Hector, for example, became a Christian name, while Odysseus and Achilles did not.  I’m sure there is more here to explore.

**The idea that history means speaking of such devolution is hardly the property of medievals alone.  Most every ancient society had myths of golden ages in the past we should attempt to emulate, whether these ages be mythical, quasi-mythical, or presented as historical (as perhaps Livy does in his work).  What looks benign to us in the French scholars really represented a radical shift from the past.

I consider the idea of devolution in history here.

^I think this attitude towards texts and the reduction of the idea of truth to “what actually happened” contributed greatly to the Galileo controversy and the subsequent tension between science and religion. In my limited reading of the situation, no such tension existed before this time.