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.

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

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

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

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

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

His argument boils down to a few key points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

 

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

*********

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

 

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

 

Their king is safe?  One mind informs them all;

Lost?  They break faith straightway.

*********

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Symbolic Matters

I am republishing this fairly recent post in the dog-days of summer based on a few observations . . .

First . . .

In Ezra Klein’s recent podcast with Rod Dreher, the subject of media and culture was front and center. They conversed at length with each person making important points, and I commend them both. Klein brought up what is a fairly standard critique of conservative Christians, that is (in sum), “Why so much focus on gay and transgender issues when there are many poor and suffering people in the world? Surely the Bible says at least as much about the poor as it does about sexuality?”

Dreher had a fine response, and no doubt the format might have limited his remarks. But I think Klein, and possibly Dreher to a lesser extent, fail to take into account the strong symbolic role sexuality has played in most every culture, and the role of the body as one of the primary means of communication.

Secondly . . .

Dreher linked to a post of Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex who speculates that the Pride/LGBT etc. movement may become the new civil religion in America. Alexander–who I believe writes as a supporter of his proposed theory, comments,

Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?

Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.

There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:

What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.

Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.

What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.

Again, based on Smith’s book discussed below, if it happens it should not surprise us, given the strong symbolic role that body has in our existence.

And now, the original post . . . .

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.


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

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

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