Mr. No Depth Perception Man

There is an old SNL skit of the aforementioned title, in which a hapless suburbanite can only see in 2-D. He makes terribly awkward comments about his guests, assuming that he does so without the offended party being aware. An excerpt:

Mr. No Depth Perception Man: I can’t believe Brenda’s dating this loser! You know what she’s after, right?! I bet he’s got money, or something! [the “loser” he’s talking about is 7-8 feet away, looking quite awkward at his comments].

[Embarrassed Guest who knows the “loser” tries to get him to be quiet].

Mr. No Depth Perception Man: What are you worried about? Relax! He can’t hear me–he’s way down there!

I thought of the sketch when reading Leo Deuel’s enlightening and eminently fair Memoirs of Heinrich Schliemann. The book intersperses Schliemann’s own writing with commentary and context from Deuel throughout. This is needed to get an accurate picture, because Schliemann is, alas, not a reliable narrator–much less reliable than most.

I say, “alas,” because I confess to liking Schliemann, despite his enormous faults. Most modern history films I have seen that discuss him focus almost entirely on those faults (which I will get to) and basically pass by his vast contribution to the study of the ancient world and archaeology itself. He possessed an enormous talent for languages and learned several of them. He did this through optimism, the ability to engage in drudgery, and enormous exertions of will and energy–truly the quintessential 19th century man.*

Such men are out of fashion in our day, but I admit that I am not terribly sad that they are mostly gone. Such people are charming but also exhausting. Their vices, though perhaps childlike in a way, are all the more infuriating for the fact that they seem completely blind to them.** Schliemmann lived in a two dimensional world.

For example . . .

To get permission for his ground-breaking (zing!) work at Troy, Schliemann had to promise to turn over all he found to a museum being planned in Instanbul. He ended up giving them very little. As to the famous, “Treasure of Priam,” he very intentionally hid it from the Turkish authorities. His escape with various relics from the past got his Turkish overseer in a lot of trouble. Schliemann was a bit bothered by this, but it never crossed his mind to think of the artifacts as belonging to anyone but himself. Since I don’t think we can assume that Schliemann was directly evil, I suppose this was an unfortunate byproduct of his enormous self-will.

Schliemann uncovered some spectacular finds but often misinterpreted their significance. His errors would be easily excusable as a mistake or misguided educated guess. In Schliemann’s case, his mistakes came from his enormous though unconscious self-regard. Almost incredibly, his main justification, for example, for his claim that he had uncovered Agamemmnon himself at Mycenae was that the death mask he uncovered, “looks just as I imagined [Agamemmnon].” For Schliemann, his own imagination was all the “evidence” he needed.

Perhaps Schliemann’s daughter might sum him up best, with this brief recollection:

My early years living with this explosive, dedicated, and tireless man of genius was a stern trial . . . . Throughout my own girlhood he would often get me up at 5:00 in the morning in winter to ride horseback five miles to go swim in the sea, as he himself did every day. He built us a palace to live in, but it contained not one stick of comfortable furniture. He worked and studied standing at a high bookkeeper’s desk. As a gentle hint, Mother made him a present of an armchair, but he banished it to the garden.

His concern with health was fanatical. When my younger brother was baptized, with many guests solemnly assembled in church, my father suddenly whisked out a thermometer and took the temperature of the holy water. There was a great commotion; the priest was outraged. It took my mother’s gentle intervention to reinvest the water with holiness.

Beneath these imperious traits Father was warmhearted and generous to a fault. He was humble, too, in his own way.

After reviewing his life, I am hard-pressed to find a great deal of “humility” in Schliemann. Schliemann did mature a bit with each passing archaeological dig, both in his methods, and–by the end he let others take credit for their own discoveries! Perhaps Schliemann also possessed a humility towards the past, a virtue of his that should return.

Some of Schliemmann’s comments about his Greek workers grabbed my eye. It bothered him that they would not work on Sundays, but this he understood to a degree. What he could not understand was their refusal to work on certain other days, such as the festival of certain saints.

I suggested a likeness of Schliemann to a certain short-lived SNL character. He absolutely had his own superstitions, though he proceeded through life entirely unaware of them. Chief among Schliemann’s suerstitions I already mentioned, namely the implicit trust in his own imagination. So strong was this trust that it led him to declare that some discoveries of others were in fact his own!

We cannot say that this was an example of cultural bias or prejudice. Schliemann nearly worshipped Greece, or at least his idea of it. He married a Greek woman and gave his two children ancient Greek names (Andromache and Agamemmnon). He lived in Athens for much of his later life. Rather, it was the customs, or beliefs, that he could not understand. He wrote in his diary that,

There have been, including today, three great and two lesser Greek church festivals, so that out of these 12 days I have had in reality only seven days of work. Poor as the people are, and as they would like to work, it is impossible to persuade them to do so on feast days, even if it be the day of some unimportant saint . . . . I try to persuade the poor creatures to set their superstition aside for higher wages.

Even a cursory look at Schilemann’s life reveals at least a few “superstitions” of his own. Naturally, it depends on how one should define such a thing. But surely uncritical assumption that we can define reality for ourselves fits any reasonable description of “superstition.”

I am reminded of a famous passage in Plato’s Phaedrus in which Socrates and Phaedrus are walking through the city and come upon the supposed site of ancient story involving the gods. Phaedrus asks if Socrates believes the story, and he replies,

The wise are doubtful, and I should be singular if, like them, I too doubted. . . . Now if one were skeptical [about all stories] and would fain reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy will take up a great deal of time. Now I have no leisure for such inquiries. Do you wish to know why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance about myself, would be ridiculous. And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me.

If we might take another example of the “common opinion . . . ”

A long standing tradition states that Joseph of Arimethea came to Britain as a missionary shortly after Christ’s resurrection. Other parts of the story indicate that Joseph obtained his wealth via trade in tin, and likely made many excursions to the island for his business. Some parts of the tale indicate that Jesus Himself traveled with Joseph (His uncle) as a young boy on an adventure, and still some other parts of the tale say that the Virgin Mother accompanied Joseph on his missionary journey to the island.

Most of us might be inclined to doubt the whole story, if not at least some of its parts. No doubt Schliemann would call it “superstition.” And yet, the belief of Britain being evangelized quite early in the first century A.D. dates back to St. Clement of Rome, and St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine and others all testify to this fact. A great deal more evidence for this “superstitious tradition” may exist than we previously thought–such is the conclusion of Lionel Lewis in his informative work on St. Joseph and the Glastonbury tradition. Not all details of the traditional story have the same level of evidence for their historicity, but still, much more exists than we might suppose.

Schliemann’s intensely narrow passion helped him ignite a whole era of discovery about the ancient world. Indeed, many before him might have regarded some kind of historical belief in a Trojan War as a superstition backed only by “tradition.” Alas for him that this narrowness of vision closed him off to world’s outside of his own.

The “common opinion” perhaps might be true in the case of St. Joseph of Arimethea, just as it was about the Trojan War–as further excavations at Schliemann’s site have only further confirmed at least a rudimentary historical context to Homer’s tale. I wonder if Schliemann could grant the same to Greek saints of the Church–even the “unimportant” ones.

Dave

*England “ruled the world” during Schliemann’s era, and it is perhaps no coincidence that it was England that gave him the most favorable reception to his work. Schliemann might be described almost as an incarnation of England itself in all of their virtues and faults of the Victorian era.

**One thinks of the great line uttered by Patton in the Patton movie where he states to General Bradley, “Hell, I know I’m a prima dona! I admit it! What I can’t stand about Monty [General Bernard Montgomery] is that he won’t admit it!”

8th Grade: Victory and Defeat

Greetings,

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

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

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

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

But we should be careful not to discount Oral Tradition

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

Archeological evidence is both the strongest and weakest of the three

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

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

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

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

Why did this happen?

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,

Dave

Valleys of Neptune

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

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

The theory runs something like this. . .

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

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

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

And so on, and so on.

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

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

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

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

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

“I agree.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

8th Grade: Water and Mountains in Greece

Greetings,

This week we began Greek civilization.

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

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

MapTopoGreece

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

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

Alright, maybe not for everybody.

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

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

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

Mountains and Soil

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

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

Climate

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

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

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

Posiedon

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

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

We can contrast this with the Egyptian gods.

Egyptian Gods

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

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

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

Thanks again,

Dave

Tradition and Technology

Those who regularly read this blog know that I tend to favor traditional values and traditional societies. Those like me need to realize that things change inevitably, making the challenge knowing how to change and stay the same all at once. Those on the opposite side need to realize that “change” is not a good word, any more than “tradition” is a dirty one.

Traditionalists must face the question of the role of technology. Certainly one could have a society that held tightly to tradition with little-no technological development. Is it possible for tradition to captain the ship while innovating technologically, and maintaining a robust economy? The question has immediate cultural and political relevance for those like me, Charles Haywood, and others. Much of our economic growth appears dependent on new technology. If a new cultural and political version of America is on the horizon, can it combine an anchor of tradition and still give us Amazon (which I do not regard as a dirty word necessarily)? Or, perhaps we need to choose one or the other, and accept the consequences. I have no clarity on this, though I suspect we may have to choose.

This question has interest in the abstract, but possibly we gain more clarity if we have a specific example, maybe even one out of left field . . . such as the development of handwriting from the classical era until today.

Ancient Writing and its Influence by B.L. Ullman lives up to its title but in a narrow sense. Ullman wrote originally in 1932–thankfully. I think if he wrote today it would be impossibly technical with much poorer writing. Even so, many parts of the book I read with semi or fully glazed eyes. As a sample, I open randomly to page 74, which reads,

The term half-uncial is sometimes used for mixed uncials of the type described, but in a narrower sense it applied to a very definite script that became a rival of uncial as a book script from the fifth to eight centuries. Again the name is unfortunate in its suggestion that it was derived from uncial. Rather it is the younger brother of that script, making us of an almost complete minuscule alphabet. It does not use the shapes of ‘a’, ‘d’, ‘e’, ‘m’ characteristic of uncial script but rather those of modern minuscule type, except that the ‘a’ is in the form used in italics, not roman. The only letter which maintains its capital form is ‘N’, and this letter readily enables one to distinguish this script from later minuscule. The reason for the preservation of this kind of ‘N’ was to avoid confusion with the minuscule ‘r,’ which in some half-uncials is very much like ‘n.’ The desire to avoid ambiguity is seen also in the ‘b,’ which is the form familiar to . . .

So, what Ullman means mostly about influence is how one form of writing influenced another kind of writing in a nearly purely technical sense. I wanted more on how changes in writing either propelled or reflected changes in the culture at large. Ullman gives us some hints of this, and his extensive, precise knowledge gives some space to the reader for guessing on our own.

We can start by recognizing that the phonetic alphabet itself ranks as one of the more propulsive and destructive (creatively or otherwise) of human technologies. Marshall McCluhan noted this with keen historical insight, in a famous interview (the ‘M’ is McCluhan, the ‘Q’ for the interviewer):

M: Oral cultures act and react simultaneously, whereas the capacity to act without reacting, without involvement, is the special gift of literate man.  Another basic characteristic of [pre-modern] man is that he lived in a world of acoustic space, which gave him a radically different concept of space-time relationships.

Q: Was phonetic literacy alone responsible for this shift in values from tribal ‘involvement’ to civilized detachment?

As knowledge is extended in alphabetic form, it is localized and fragmented into specialities, creating divisions of function, classes, nations.   The rich interplay of the senses is sacrificed.

Q: But aren’t their corresponding gains in insight to compensate for the loss of tribal values?

M: Literacy . . . creates people who are less complex and diverse.  . . . But he is also given a tremendous advantage over non-literate man, who is hamstrung by cultural pluralism–values that make the African as easy a prey for the European colonialist as the barbarian was for the Greeks and Romans.  Only alphabetic cultures ever succeeded in mastering connected linear sequences as a means of social organization. 

Q: Isn’t the thrust of your argument then, that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet was not progress, but a psychic and social disaster?

M: It was both.  . . . the old Greek myth has Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to man, sowing dragon’s teeth that sprang up from the earth as armed men.

My meager knowledge of pre-historic man (so called) will not prevent me from thinking that McCluhan exaggerates to a degree–the written word need totalize all of our being. Still, we must acknowledge that we cannot expand our abilities infinitely, and if we go “deep” in one area we will certainly see shallow waters in other aspects of our being. We can also acknowledge that we how we present the world to others will reflect and shape our beliefs about the world. It need be the chicken or the egg as to whether it reflects or shapes–we can say that both happen.

Ullman makes a few opening technical remarks perhaps designed to quell those who want to make large conclusions from changes in writing over the years. Sometimes changes in writing come from changes in the medium of the writing. Writing primarily on stone lends itself much more to straight lines and hard angles, as opposed to paper or even papyrus. Very true, but this also begs the question as to why a people use stone or scrolls in the first place. Eventually certain choices become second nature, but not at the beginning of the switch, which involves more conscious choice. I remain convinced that switches in the medium for writing, and how they write, surely mean something. Few aspects of our being rank higher in importance in our desire to connect with others, to achieve understanding from person-person, not just of content but of the meaning of that content. We accomplish this best face-to-face, where we express the full panoply of the message with our bodies as well as words. This means that when apart, the written words we choose, and how we present those words, seek in some way to make up for the absence of the body.

For this reason, and others, I say we can deduce much from the script of a civilization.

My theory runs like so: the more a civilization develops, the more refined its writing. This, I admit, means hardly saying anything more important than 2+2=4. But I hope to venture a step further, and suggest that perhaps we can wonder whether that development/refinement will preserve its civilizational ethos, or propel it away from its center. Not all growth is good.

We can start by examining the development of Roman script, with the first example from perhaps the 6th century B.C.

And now, moving forward in time to ca. AD 70

The latter examples show refinement and a development into a clear style that everyone recognizes as “Roman.” But with the codification has come “Empire.”

As the empire declined and we move into late antiquity, their writing changed as well, showing perhaps more of a Greek influence, with these first examples from likely the 400’s AD (apologies for intrusion of my fingers).

and these from 1-2 centuries later.

I suggest the changes could come from from more cultural blending, and less control over the empire, as the differences between “barbarian” and “Roman” blurred.

And now, for the development of Greek script. First, from 700 B.C.

Within just a few centuries, we see quick development of a more elegant but also more “rigid” script style, from the 5th century BC in Athens, with the second example a few decades later than the first.

As Greek power wanes in the 4th century BC, their script becomes a bit more fluid, just as in Rome:

With the establishment of more Roman presence in the Greek east after Constantine, Greek script grows a bit more fluid over time, with the examples below showing a progression of about a century.

Then, as the western part of the empire collapses, the writing gets more fluid and stylized, with the dating as the 9th century, 12th century, and the 15th century, respectively, just before Moslem conquest of Constantinople.

In the west, the collapse of Rome led to the development of a new civilization. First, for some context, Roman writing in the 5th/6th centuries, AD:

and Visigothic writing from north Italy, ca. 9th century AD:

Other European cultures had a bit more development than the Visigoths, however, and we see this reflected somewhat in their script, with the first two being Anglo-Saxon from the 8th century, and the last Carolingian from the 9th century, as the “Carolingian Renaissance” had gotten underway by then:

By the 12th century, we see more elegance and uniformity, as in previous civilizations over time.

In parts of France, we have a parallel development of sorts, with each example progressing from the early to late 9th century near Tours.

As the Middle Ages develop, you get more refinement, but less overall readability, with these examples from the 12th century,

and then into the 13th and 14th centuries,

which seems to almost beg for a correction with the coming of the Italian Renaissance in the mid-15th century.

Ullman’s excellent visuals make his text intelligible for novice’s like myself, and allow us to speculate on some broader conclusions.

It seems that the scripts go through three phases that seem to circle back on one another.

  • First, you have early script, which has less uniformity, is “sloppier,” and more free, in a way.
  • Second, as the civilization develops and gets on its feet and flexes a bit, the script gets more uniform, and certainly in the case of Greece and Rome, “blockier.”
  • Then, as the civilization wanes, either physically, intellectually, or both, the script gets more fluid. In Rome, you see the blending of Greek and Roman influences towards late antiquity. In the Middle Ages, you see ornamentation increase nearly beyond the pale, which brings back the Carolingian, more Roman, unified style.

One might suggest that we get a an interesting comparison between the Roman Empire of the Augustan age, the Byzantines, and the Latin west at the “peak” of their powers. Roman script screams empire and control (see “Plate 2” above), whereas the other two have more breath in their writing, with more feminine qualities. I think the comparison helps, but we must take the scholar’s caution, for Ullman reminds us that writing on parchment allows for a lot more fluid motion than writing on stone.

We can apply all of this to our original question: can a civilization maintain a firm anchor in tradition and still innovate?

As Rome’s republic fell into disarray, many contemporary historians lamented the decline of the old ways. Historians always lament the decline of the old ways. But Rome’s unwritten constitution relied on tradition to work, and the letter of the law could not save the republic. We know too that Augustus sought to promote a return of traditional values even as he consolidated power in a non-traditional way, an indication that the perception that “times had change” involved more than grumpy historians. We can confidently say that Rome’s gives us one significant data point that points to tradition eroding as innovation in their writing increased.

Greece has a slightly different story. They standardize their writing more quickly than Rome, and then change it a bit more quickly again after that. Their more fluid and script has a warmer, more human feel, and suggests that perhaps they maintained traditions more effectively than Rome. However, no one argues that Greece in the 4th-3rd centuries BC were at the top of their game.

As for the Byzantines, a variety of historians from the Enlightenment onwards critiqued what they saw as their slippery, devious methodology in international relations. Edward Luttwak’s brilliant book on the Byzantine’s grand strategy shows that their foreign policy choices were methodical and moral, consistent with a power facing multiple enemies over a wide front. Surprisingly or no, their handwriting seems to mimic the fluidity of their geopolitics. My knowledge of Byzantine history has gaping holes, but based on my perusal of The Glory of Byzantium they maintained a clear and consistent artistic style while innovating and changing their technique. Marcus Plested has shown that many theologians interacted positively with the early medieval philosophical tradition. They seemed to manage a balance of some kinds of innovation without sacrificing tradition and identity. However, they fell to the Moslems, albeit after a 1000 year run. If innovation forms the kernel of success and power (a big “if), they failed to innovate fast enough to protect themselves fully.

With the medievals we see something similar. They created an original style that peaked perhaps in the 11th-12th century, the same century that saw an explosion of cathedral construction in the Gothic style. In both writing and architecture, one sees innovation that reinforced rather than altered their traditions. But Ullman argues–and the visual evidence seems indisputable–that as their script continued to “innovate” its functionality markedly decreased. They then snapped back to the tradition of writing extant centuries prior. But the Renaissance had no intention of reaffirming tradition per se. Instead, Renaissance humanists led an artistic, architectural, and philosophic movement that dramatically changed society, abandoning a host of traditions (though in fairness the Black Death had something to do with this as well).

Our look at four civilizations fails to provide a decisive answer. In Rome and classical Greece, innovation seemed to stifle tradition and presaged decline. In Byzantium and medieval Europe, innovation initially accompanied “measurable” growth in their civilizations, to say nothing of what we cannot measure, but it seemed also to run its course. People imagine Nothing lasts forever, and one wonders whether or not civilizations can possibly extend their lives ad infinitum regardless of their choices to rapidly change or resist it at all costs.

It seems we must table the discussion, but we have hints. We don’t often think of tradition and fluidity existing in tandem, but it works at least when both sides get the balance right. After all, men and women have been marrying each other since the dawn of time. Perhaps what we see in Gothic Europe and Byzantium should not therefore surprise us. Perhaps the desire to lock things in place too severely effectively takes the air out of tradition, killing the best of what makes a civilization tick, i.e., Athens killed Socrates just as they rigidified their script. Perhaps we can conclude these things if handwriting reliably guides us.

Perhaps . . . to be continued . . .

Dave

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

Greetings,

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

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

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

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

Persian Empire

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

At Marathon, the Athenians gained a tactical advantage by focusing their attack on the non-Persian members of Persia’s force.  The Persian force collapsed quickly as large portions of their force beat a hasty retreat.  They may have been willing to follow orders and march where told.  Why would they risk more than that?  What were they fighting for?  On a variety of occasions, Herodotus speaks of the bravery and skill of the purely Persian troops. But the conquered and incorporated troops proved to be a hindrance rather than an asset.

I also think that the Athenian victory was part psychological.  They ran at the Persians — they actually attacked!  Herodotus hints at the shock the Persians must have felt under such a circumstance.  In Greece, Persia would meet a people who refused to accept their ‘deal.’  The fact that Persia needed to build a navy to deal with this threat put them in an unusual position, like fish out of water.  We will see in a few months how and why the Greeks defeated Persia when their clash grows into something much more than a skirmish.

Many thanks,

Dave

Magicians of the Gods

I consider myself a mild agnostic on certain things about the ancient past.

I have no firm commitments about the age of the Earth.  I also have no commitment to the development of life on a macroevolutionary scale, thus I have no need for a very old earth.  As much as I understand the science, it looks like the earth (or at least the universe) has a very, very long history.  But I am intrigued by some young-earth arguments on the periphery out of curiosity.  Among other things, a lot of ‘old-earth’ arguments don’t take into account a cataclysmic worldwide flood.  If such an event happened, geological dating would need recalibrating.

When it comes to the book of Genesis, my commitments get deeper.  I am open to both literal and ‘mythopoetic’ interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis.  We can also combine them and probably both methods have their place.  But certain messages seem absolutely clear, among them:

  • That humanity fell from a state of grace, innocence, peace, etc. into a type of chaos
  • That our sin fundamentally altered the nature of human existence
  • That the change in humanity was physical as well as spiritual.  One may not believe that the lifespans given in Genesis are literal.  But the pattern is clear.  Adam and the earliest humans lived much longer than those at the end of the book.  By the end of Genesis we see that something about humanity has changed drastically.
  • The formation of civilizations happens very quickly.  It is almost the default mechanism of humanity.  Cain builds cities right away.  After the flood we have the Tower of Babel, and so on.

This reading of Genesis informs my reading of ancient history.

There is a version of early pre-history, common in most textbooks, that runs like so:

  • The earliest humans were basically ignorant and violent hunter-gatherers that lived in small groups.
  • At some point the climate changes or the herds thin out.  Food resources dwindle, forcing them to cooperate with larger groups to survive.
  • Because now you have to stick close to water, you get rooted to a particular spot.  You can’t just follow the herds.
  • So, you invent agriculture.  When you have really good harvests, you have a surplus.
  • This surplus gives the group leisure.  With this leisure they build more tools.  Eventually they build governments and laws.
  • As society expands governments have a harder time holding everything together.  So, they either invent religious practices or codify them in some way for the masses, which finishes the development of civilization.

This view is called “gradualism” or “evolutionary gradualism” or something like that.

I entirely disagree with this view.  The book of Genesis certainly at bare minimum strongly hints at something much more akin to devolution, and myths from other cultures hint at the same thing.

Enter Graham Hancock.

I don’t know exactly what to make of him.  The fact that he is an amateur bothers me not at all.  Those very familiar with this blog know of my love for Arnold Toynbee, and one of his main causes involved championing the amateur historian.  He makes no claims to fully understand some of the science he cites but relies on others with special degrees.  You can’t fault him for this.

He also has a restless curiosity about the ancient world that I love.  He willingly dives into unusual theories with a seemingly open mind.  His understanding of Christianity is deeply flawed.  But . . . his argument against the evolutionary development of religion could have come from any Christian.  Many evolutionary theorists acknowledge the social utility and advantage of religious belief.  But, he argues, there would be no obvious evolutionary advantage to saying, “We must take time and effort away from survival, making weapons, improving our shelter, etc. to build a large structure for a god that, fundamentally, we are making up.  In the evolutionary model it makes no sense that anyone would think of this and that others would somehow agree. Or, you would have to believe that the intelligent people that planned and built these temples were tremendously deluded, and furthermore, that this delusion occurred in every culture.  To crown it, if all we have is matter in motion, how would anyone think of something beyond matter in the first place?

Magicians of the Gods has some flaws.  It bounces around too much for my taste, and in some sections of the book the arguments change.  One review stated that,

Speaking as someone who found [Hancock’s earlier book] Fingerprints of the Gods to be entertaining and engaging, even when it was wrong, I can say that Magicians of the Gods is not a good book by either the standards of entertainment or science. It is Hancock at his worst: angry, petulant, and slipshod. Hancock assumes readers have already read and remembered all of his previous books going back decades, and his new book fails to stand on its own either as an argument or as a piece of literature. It is an update and an appendix masquerading as a revelation. This much is evident from the amount of material Hancock asks readers to return to Fingerprints to consult, and the number of references—bad, secondary ones—he copies wholesale from the earlier book, or cites directly to himself in that book.

Alas, I agree with some of these criticisms.  But I think some of them miss the overall point Hancock attempts to make.

When evaluating Hancock v. the Scientific Establishment, we should consider the following:

  • Arguments in the book involve interpretations of archaeology and geology, two branches of science that are relatively young, both of which have to make conclusions based on a variety of circumstantial evidence.  Science usually comes down hard on circumstantial evidence, and “proof” is hard to come by in these disciplines.  But some that attack Hancock do so when he suggests or speculates, and then blame him for not having “proof.”
  • Hancock is right to say that the Scientific Establishment is too conservative.  But, this is probably a good thing that Science is this way.  This is how Science operates.
  • Hancock cites a variety of specialists and laments that the “Establishment” pays them little heed.  I think that some of these “fringe” scientists may truly be on to something that the conservatism of the academy wants to ignore.  But . . . some of them may be ignored by the academy because they are doing bad science.  How does the layman decide when degreed specialists radically disagree?  We may need a paradigm outside of science to judge.  In any case, Hancock too often assumes that scientists with alternative ideas get rejected only for reasons that have nothing to do with science.
  • Some reviews give Hancock a hard time for referencing earlier books of his. This can be annoying, but . . . on a few occasions Hancock references his earlier books to disagree with or modify his earlier conclusions.  In the 20 years since he wrote Fingerprints of the Gods he has “pulled back” from some earlier assertions in light of some new evidence.  This seems at least something like a scientific cast of mind, but his critics seem not to have noticed this.  Should he be criticized for changing his views?
  • His book cover and title might help him sell copies, but it looks too gimmicky, and is guaranteed to draw the suspicion of “Science.”

I wish he made his central point clearer throughout and summed it up forcefully at the end of the book.  But we can glean the main thrust of his argument.

First . . .

Emerging evidence exists that a major comet, or series of comets, struck Earth some 12,000 years ago.  While this may not yet have the full weight of the scientific establishment behind it, many regard it as an entirely legitimate proposition.  It is not a fringe idea.

Many in turn believe that this comet struck to polar ice-caps, causing a flood of literally biblical proportions.  Those who believe in the Biblical flood need not ascribe this as the cause, but perhaps it could have been.  Of course many other ancient cultures have stories involving a cataclysmic flood.

Well, all this may be interesting, but this had little to do with the history  of civilization (so the argument goes) because civilization did not emerge until sometime around 4000 B.C., well after the possible/likely? meteor impact flood.

This brings us to Hancock’s second assertion, that civilization is much older than we think.

The discovery of Gobeki-Tepe some 25 years ago began to revolutionize our understanding of the ancient world.

No one disputes that the site dates to thousands of years before the so-called beginnings of human civilization.  The stone work is precise and impressive.  Recent radar penetrations indicate that even bigger, likely more impressive stone work lies beneath the site.

Here we come to a fork in the road.

  • We can rethink our assumption of early hunter-gatherers.  We can assume that they were far more advanced than we originally thought.  We can assume that they could organize in large groups and they possessed a high level of development and skill, including that of agriculture.  But then, would they be hunter-gatherers if they acted this way?
  • Or, we can assume that mingled with hunter-gatherers might have been the holdovers of a previous advanced civilization, perhaps one mostly wiped out by a global cataclysm.  These are the “magicians of the gods” Hancock postulates–those that emerged from the mass extinctions caused by global flooding, who perhaps took refuge with hunter-gatherers.  Perhaps they had a trade of sorts in mind: 1) You teach us survival skills, and 2) We teach you how to build, plant, and organize.

Option 2 might seem crazy.  It would probably mean reversing our gradual, evolutionary view of the development of civilization at least in the last 10,000 years.  But we have seen something like this already–an undisputed example of it after the fall of Rome.  All agree that in almost every respect, Roman civilization of 100 A.D. stood far above early medieval civilization of 800 A.D.

But Gobekli Tepe is not the only example of something like this.  Archaeologists observe other sites where earlier architecture seems far more advanced than later architecture.  Take, for example, the Sascayhuaman site in Peru, not far from where the Incas developed.  This wall, for example,

almost certainly predate the Incas by thousands of years.  The Incas later certainly could build things, but not in the same way, as the picture below attests (and it looks like they tried to copy the older design in some respects).

At Gobekli-Tepe, the recently deceased project head Klaus Schmidt commented regarding the parts of the site still underground that, “The truly monumental structures are in the older layers; in the younger layers [i.e., those visible to us at the moment] they get smaller and there is a significant decline in quality.”

Some similar possibilities of much older and possibly more advanced civilizations exist in Indonesia and other sites around the world. For example some believe that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before the pyramids.  There is some water erosion evidence that could support this theory.  There is also this intriguing ancient alignment with the Sphinx and the Leo constellation:

If true, this could mean that the Egyptians built the Pyramids where they did because they knew the site was already sacred from a previous era, or even possibly, a previous civilization.

With this before us, at bare minimum, we can strongly argue that the standard gradual and uniform process of the development of civilization should be in serious doubt.  If we accept this, then two other possibilities follow:

  1. Some civilizations went through periods of great advancement* and then fell into a period of steep decline, after which they never quite recovered their former glory.  A massive flood certainly could have triggered this decline.
  2. Another possibility is that we may be dealing with different civilizations altogether.  Hancock ascribes to this view.  For him, sites like Gobeckli Tepe served as a time capsule of sorts, a clue, or a deposit of knowledge for others to use in case of another disaster.  This may raise an eyebrow or two, but one of the mysterious aspects of Gobeckli-Tepe that all agree on is that they deliberately buried the site and left it. Who does this?  Why? Perhaps they wanted this site preserved so that it could be used in case of another emergency to restart civilization.  If this is true, there is much we do not understand at all about this site.

Those that want a tightly knit argument heavily supported by the scientific community will be disappointed by Magicians of the Gods.  But for those that want a springboard for rethinking the standard timeline of the ancient world, the book does very nicely.

Dave

*Michael Shurmer of Skeptic magazine argued against Hancock, saying that, “If they were so advanced, where is the writing?  Where are the tools?”  But why must writing be a pre-requisite for advancement?  Or if you believe writing is a hallmark of advancement, what if this previous civilization was more advanced in many other ways? And if they built buildings, isn’t it obvious that they used tools, even if we can’t find them?  If they built them without tools, wouldn’t they be really smart?

Maybe no tools exist at the site because they didn’t live near the site, for whatever reason.  But where they lived has nothing to do with how advanced they seem to have been.  Like Hancock, I’m not sure what else we need other than Gobekli Tepe to prove the point.

 

 

 

8th Grade: Cyrus and the Medo-Persian Empire

Greetings,

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

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

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

Some things to note. . .

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

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

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

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

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

The history of Persia will in some ways revolve around this question, as we shall see in the weeks to come.

 

Dave

 

Impress Imbalance

I encourage my students to play, “Would you rather?” games, i.e., “Would you rather eat 500 live ants or 1 live cricket?” Often questions like this involve no specific moral quandary, but the practice of creating and defending mental hierarchies has great value, even when such hierarchies are relative. Comparing civilizations has something of the apples/oranges dilemma, I admit. And reigning cultural relativism tells us not to judge. But I believe that the mental process involved in deciding whether Greece was better than Rome, or in this case, whether or not Egypt has the leg up over Babylon, helps bring clarity and meaning to the study of history–even if one should hold on loosely to these kinds of distinctions.

Many have used various criteria for evaluating civilizations, such as how long they last, the power they accumulated, their technology, and so on. I think a better lens involves us seeing how each civilization aligns itself with the reality of creation–with the patterns and Truth found in the created order, available for any with eyes to see.

Henri Frankfurt’s Kingship and the Gods gives us more than a rundown of Egyptian and Sumerian/Babylonian kingship. He seeks to integrate religion and politics not just with their history, but also the geography and the general patterns of living from both cultures. He reveals his method early in the introduction, writing,

Mesopotamian society was entirely adapted to the cyclic succession of the seasons.  While each winter resolved its harshness in the spring and the plague of summer was succeeded by autumn rains, human society moved through a succession of seasons in which humanity joined in of the cosmic crisis of life, death, rain, and drought.  The [Babyonian] sees a dramatic conception played out in nature between the divine and the demoniac, between forces of order and chaos.

The most important seasonal celebrations in [Babylon]  centered around the bewailing of the death of Tammuz and his rebirth on the New Year–his victory over death  and his sacred marriage to the mother-goddess.

Egypt, too, reflected the natural rhythm of the seasons in the course of the official year.  But their celebrations differ profoundly in character from those in Babylon.  In the plain of the two rivers, the festivals were never free from anxiety, and those which we know best show a change from deep gloom to exaltation.  In Egypt, festivals provided the occasion to affirm that all was well, for Egypt viewed the universe as essentially static.  Revolts against the established order happened, but never got classified as anything more than a few ripples under the surface.

The rich Nile valley lies isolated and protected on both sides by a vast desert, while Mesopotamia lacks clear boundaries and was periodically assaulted on its fringes by mountain tribes.  Egypt derived its prosperity from the Nile, which never fails to rise, even if the floods differ in effectiveness.  But Babylon depended on uncertain rainfall and  the Tigris was an unaccountable, turbulent, and dangerous river. 

Some might then conclude that religion means nothing more than a natural phenomena, though Frankfurt himself does not suggest this.* Rather, Frankfurt wants to integrate our vision of each society–to see Egypt and the Egyptians as one and not many. When we pull back and see the integrated whole of a civilization, the impression they leave comes into greater focus.

If I had to choose between Egypt and Babylon, I would likely choose Egypt, but one of their key weaknesses lay in their failure to appreciate the feminine aspects of creation and experience. Nearly every religion I am aware of sees creation as essentially feminine, Christianity included. As C.S. Lewis commented, we all stand as essentially feminine in relation to God. All in the Church, whether man or woman, are the “bride” of Christ. Various pagan beliefs have “Mother-goddesses,” whereas Christianity might talk of “Mother Earth” in a slightly more abstract way, as St. Francis did in his “Canticle of the Sun.” Egypt had no “Mother Earth”–for them the earth itself was not even feminine. The idea of power had strong play in Egyptian thought, and so rather than the traditional “receiving and transforming” aspect of Earth, the Egyptians saw supreme power in the male diety of Ptah or Geb. In some creation stories, Ra stands on the Primeval Hill to create, again over-emphasizing the male aspect of reality. Apparently Egypt did not want creation to have any derivative existence.

Most every religion, including ancient Israel, had harvest festivals of some kind. Nearly all of these festivals focus on the idea of death, the earth receiving death, and then having that death transformed into life. Harvest festivals connect us with birth and new life, and so highlight feminine aspects of life. A proper conception of this pattern must allow for three days in the tomb, so to speak. So in Greece, as elsewhere, the seed could be identified with the king (think of Mary Renault’s classic, The King Must Die), who “dies” for the people to give them grain. No grain comes without the earth receiving and transforming the seed. But things were different in Egypt. Yes, the king ceremoniously started the harvest by cutting a symbolic stalk, but the forgoing ceremony emphasized that he was the wheat which went up to the cloud, not the chaff that fell to earth. Frankfurt comments that,

All we know of the Egyptians shows they would have found [a festival centering on the death of the seed] distasteful. They did not readily admit the shadow side of life, perhaps on hedonistic grounds, but also because, in their static conception of the world, grief had no [place].

We see this in the Egyptian harvest prayers, i.e.,

Osisris is Unas in the mounting chaff

His loathing is the earth;

He has not entered Geb to perish.

He is not sleeping in his house (i.e., tomb) upon earth

So that his bones may be broken.

His hurt is driven out!

He has purified himself with the Horus Eye.

Unas is up and away to heaven;

Unas is up and away to heaven

With the wind, with the wind!

A Christian might be tempted to see here a foreshadowing of victory over death in the resurrection. Perhaps an aspect of that exists here, but with Frankfurt I extend a word of caution–even God Himself submitted to the pattern of first going down before rising up. The Egyptians seemed to want to short-circuit the process. A Christian might think of something akin to banishing “worldly sorrow”–something the Babylonians struggled mightily with–but they would be wise to remember that “blessed are those that mourn,” and that it is usually our moms that take pity on us when we scrape our knee or need visited in the hospital.

This same imbalance shows in their depictions of royalty. Certainly every society has a hierarchy and kings might naturally be depicted in some outsized way to show his importance. But in Egypt, one often sees only the king, as in this relief of the conquests of Thutmose III:

Tuthmosis III smiting his enemies, the Cannaanites, at the Battle fo Megiddo from the north wall of the Great Hypostyle Court, Egypt. Ancient Egyptian. New Kingdom 18th Dynasty, 1473 BC. Karnak. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

If we compare this to how Babylon depicted one of its greatest kings, Nebuchadnezzar a contrast immediately becomes evident:

and

I have mentioned a few times above that Christians should be cautious in interpreting Egypt’s religion in an overly Christological manner. Now, I offer the same caution to women in general. Some might look at certain aspects of Egyptian belief and celebrate that even the feminine earth has been raised to the level of the masculine sky. But in fact Egypt did not raise the feminine up–they (mostly) abolished the feminine aspects of reality from their experience.

Most every traditional belief system sees the following pairings:

Masculine

  • Strength
  • Vertical Hierachy
  • Steady/Unchanging

Feminine

  • Compassion
  • Togetherness
  • Protean

This “exchange,” this relationship between these two different aspects of reality, help form healthy civilizations just as they form healthy families. As Kenneth Clark stated, when guys and gals are separated too stridently for too long in social situations, the level of discourse tends to decline in both camps.

The history of Egypt, perhaps akin to the history of China (of which I know much less about) could plausibly show forth this pattern of the elimination of feminine qualities. In his A Study of History Toynbee makes the case that after the pyramids, Egypt tightens and “freezes up.” Much of Frankfurt’s religious analysis comes from this post-pyramid era, and the evidence shows an exaggerated desire to eliminate all variability, all doubt and grief, from their way of life. Such an attitude surely helped contribute to their failure when confronted by Moses.

Babylon shows us the opposite problem–too much of the archetypal feminine. As Frankfurt aptly points out, the stately nature of Egyptian geography shows a direct contrast to that of Babylon. Women go through more changes overall than men**–this is neither a virtue or vice–and so a civilization that over-emphasized feminine qualities would tend towards too much change, and not enough solidity. This shows up in Babylonian creation mythology, with its constant conflict and shifting alliances between different gods. It arises in their depictions of the goddess Ishtar, sometimes shown wearing a beard. Aristocratic Babylonian men followed the trend in their religious beliefs and may have engaged in cross-dressing, and so on.

Other manifestations of this imbalance show up:

  • Coronation rituals for Babylonian kings took place in the temple of Ishtar, and their royal insignia came from the goddesses “Lady of the Crown,” and “Lady of the Scepter.”
  • Frankfurt suggests that, while obviously Egypt and Babylon had various religious festivals, Babylon had more festivals that “required” everyone to participate at the same time in unison–it is the mom who generally wants to have everyone home for the holidays, etc.
  • In Egypt, water was effectively tamed. For the Babylonians, “the ways of water are devious. It avoids obstacles rather than conquering them, goes around and yet gets to its goal.” Traditional religions always associate water with the feminine, and we see something of the “mystery of Woman” (guys are not that mysterious) in Babylonian views of water.

For clarification, I am not here suggesting that any of these things are good or bad per se. The question is more of emphasis.

One sometimes hears silly things such as, “If only women were in charge throughout the world then there would be no wars, and everyone would love each other.” But Babylon had an empire as well. And Babylon for biblical writers became (along with Egypt), an archetypal tyranny, albeit with some different manifestations than that of Egypt. I have written elsewhere of the possibilities of feminine tyranny, and will not rehash that here. In Egypt’s case, the excessive emphasis on order “naturally” called forth the chaos of the 10 Plagues. For Babylon, the undue emphasis of the market, of change and flux, of possibility, inevitably called forth excessive order–it is no coincidence that Babylon produced the world’s first known extensive code of law and punishment.

Ancient Egyptian and Babylon societies show us that masculine and feminine “gods,” when freed from proper relationship with the other side, become demons.

Dave

*I would not say that Egyptian and Babylonian religions were false because of this either. Obviously, a Christian would say that such beliefs had deep flaws, while at the same time one can affirm the aspects of the Truth that they professed. Occasionally, a skewed religious belief can at times show forth an aspect of Truth in a more compelling fashion, as they give it undue emphasis in the wrong place. Still, all in all, I think the key problem of pagan religions was their inescapable imminence of the gods (this is something excellently discussed by **** in his book *****. The undue focus on imminence leads to a narrowing, an entrapment of sorts, a tautology. You see this today whenever an argument is based on the fact that, “It’s 2021.” In other words, whatever we happen to be doing must be right because we are in fact doing it–the ethics of imminence. One is inevitably influenced by our surroundings, including our geography. We should not be trapped by it, to be excessively determined by it.

**I think it fair to say that puberty involves more changes for women than men. Marriage involves more change for women. Women obviously go through a lot of change in terms of conceiving and giving birth to children, and then, menopause, and so on.

Janus

Machiavelli inspires polarizing reactions. I find that often that initially I immediate reject his idea, largely because there is something I don’t quite trust about him. But, just as often, I end up rethinking my initial reaction and revising my thoughts.

One such instance happened for me reading Machiavelli’s assertion that republics must have their foundation with one man, writing in the Discourses (I.9),

But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic. It is well that, when the act accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when the result is good, as in the case of Romulus, it will always absolve him from blame. For he is to apprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficial purposes.

Machiavelli often engages in this kind of paradoxical thinking, i.e., “if you want peace the ruler must sometimes be cruel,” and so forth. As his logic applies to republics, he argues that concentration of power in the hands of one initially will allow for the spreading out of power later.

America’s history seems to contradict this–don’t we have founding fathers, and anyone who knows anything about them sees a multitude of disagreements about various important ideas about what they wanted. And yet, America has managed reasonable success as a republic for 250 years. But before rendering a judgment here, I realized that two of history’s most famous republics, Athens, and Rome, had foundations in one man–Theseus and Romulus.

The stories of two men, as told by Plutarch and other sources, agree in certain general particulars, especially in regards to their uncertain parentage. Both functioned as kings in their respective realms, but neither ruled as king’s in the sense that we might assume in our modern context. It seems that both functioned primarily as religious leaders and as military commanders primarily. Later, both Athens and Rome underwent significant political changes contemporaneously in the years 509/508 BC. But Rome and Athens had many differences, reflected in the lives of Theseus and Romulus.

We can chart the differences between Athens and Rome

Athens

  • Attached to water–their key lie in their navy
  • As they had roots with water, they were active in trade
  • We see this physical movement linked with significant intellectual exploration–they basically invent modern concepts of science, philosophy, literature, etc.

Rome

  • Attached to land–their key lie in their infantry
  • Ringed round with their famous seven hills, Rome remained devoted to land and agriculture. They disdained trade.
  • This rootedness to place has its echoes in Rome’s intellectual conservatism, espoused most fully in writing by Cato the Elder. Rome’s main contribution to future civilizations would be in law, i.e., how people in the same community relate to one another.

When one looks at the lives of their “mythical” founders, we see striking parallels. Theseus hardly could keep his feet still, roaming from one place to another, never truly even settling in Athens. He had a variety of women that he “married”/grew familiar with. We moderns would diagnose him with wanderlust. Athens’ narrative seems to me to always involve something beyond Athens, the next colony, the next discovery, the next idea or theory.

Romulus founded the city of Rome and stayed there. Plutarch has much good to say of him, but with no sugarcoating–many found him a “hard” man. He gained glory through military exploits on land against Rome’s neighbors. Rome always made the narrative about Rome itself.

Though an Athenian by birth, Plato thought little of Athens’ legacy. In The Republic Socrates continually affirms conclusions that limit movement–we shouldn’t move jobs, we shouldn’t trade, we should limit too the “movement” of our souls by restricting the kind of music we listen to. In The Laws Plato writes,

Athenian Stranger. And now, what will this city be? I do not mean to ask what is or will hereafter be the name of the place; that may be determined by the accident of locality or of the original settlement-a river or fountain, or some local deity may give the sanction of a name to the newly-founded city; but I do want to know what the situation is, whether maritime or inland. 

Cleinias. I should imagine, Stranger, that the city of which we are speaking is about eighty stadia distant from the sea. 

Ath: If the city were to be built at the seaside and were going to be well supplied with harbors but ill-supplied with the necessities of life from the soil, then it would have needed mighty saviors and divinely inspired legislators to escape the moral confusion and moral corruption that are the inevitable penalty of such environments.  

For the sea is an insidious neighbor which makes itself agreeable to the daily interaction [between good soil and good harbors], but is salt and bitter inasmuch as it fills the country with tradesmen’s business, and the souls of the country with deceit, and the body politic with distrust–each seeking advantage over his fellow man and neighboring states.  

These social evils are to some extent counteracted if the soil produces something of everything; and, if it is a rough and highland country . . . it will not be able to do so.  If it could not, it would produce a large export surplus and would attract to itself the equivalent import of gold and silver currency–and that is the greatest moral disaster that can overtake a country.

[As for sea power], it would have profited the Athenians to lose seventy times seven children a year to the tyrant Minos [referring here to the ancient legend of the Minotaur] before turning themselves in defense to a sea power instead of heavy infantry, and so lose the  power of standing fast, acquiring instead the habit of perpetually jumping ashore and then running back to their ships at a run hardly after landing.  

This method of warfare erases any sense of shame at being too cowardly to risk one’s life by standing one’s ground and receiving the enemy’s attack.  It suggests facile and “plausible” excuses for taking to one’s heels–never of course in disorder but always “according to plan.”  

There is nothing so demoralizing for infantry as their allied fleet riding at anchor in their rear.  Why, even lions, if they took to tactics of that sort, would run away from deer.

Cle: Yet all the same, sir–well, what about the Battle of Salamis?  That, after all, was a naval battle, in which the Athenians beat the barbarians, and it is our belief that this victory was the salvation of Greece.

Ath: I know that is the general view . . . But in [my] belief, it was the land battles of Marathon and Platea that were the day-spring of the salvation of Greece and its crowning mercy.  . . . My good friend, I am afraid that the course of my speculations is leading me to say something depreciatory of legislators; but if the word be to the purpose, there can be no harm. And yet, why am I disquieted, for I believe that the same principle applies equally to all human things? 

Cle. To what are you referring? 

Ath. I was going to say that man never legislates, but accidents of all sorts, which legislate for us in all sorts of ways. The violence of war and the hard necessity of poverty are constantly overturning governments and changing laws. And the power of disease has often caused innovations in the state, when there have been pestilences, or when there has been a succession of bad seasons continuing during many years. Any one who sees all this, naturally rushes to the conclusion of which I was speaking, that no mortal legislates in anything, but that in human affairs chance is almost everything. And this may be said of the arts of the sailor, and the pilot, and the physician, and the general, and may seem to be well said; and yet there is another thing which may be said with equal truth of all of them. 

Cle. What is it? 

Ath. That God governs all things, and that chance and opportunity co-operate with him in the government of human affairs. There is, however, a third and less extreme view, that art should be there also; for I should say that in a storm there must surely be a great advantage in having the aid of the pilot’s art. You would agree?

Plato willingly gives a nod to the need for the “pilot’s art.” but concedes to it almost as a result of the Fall, so to speak.

Aristotle saw things differently. One of the quietly “subversive” sections in his Politics comes when he favorably compares the constitutions of Sparta and Carthage. I think some exaggerate the attraction some Greek theorists–including Plato–had for Sparta. But certainly with its minimal trade, almost no navy, and fearsome infantry, Sparta resembled the kind of society Plato wanted in certain respects. Carthage had more in common with Athens–an almost exclusively maritime power that relied on mercenaries for infantry. He writes

The constitution of Carthage is general accounted a good constitution, one that is peculiar in many respects, but the chief thing about it is the likeness . . . to the Spartan. . . . Many of the institutions at Carthage are certainly good. It is a proof of a well-ordered constitution that Carthage, with her large populace, should steadily keep to the same political system: she has had no civil dissensions worth mentioning, nor any attempt at tyranny.

[He then goes on at length to discuss the oligarchic and democratic elements in the constitution, and how it sometimes deviates in both directions. The oligarchic leaning comes based on the election of those by wealth–acquired from trade more often than not].

Carthage has a constitution which is in practice oligarchical; but they avoid the dangers of oligarchy by encouraging the diffusion of wealth [made possible by the constant shifting of goods and money through trade].

I think Aristotle saw that being open like Carthage or closed like Sparta was not the problem. The problems for both soceities would come when they could not maintain that equilibrium. If Sparta started to “move,” as they chose after the Peloponnesian War, it exposed contradictions and tensions within their own culture. They never recovered from their defeat at Leuctra, at the hands of Thebes, of all places. Aristotle wrote around 350 B.C., knowing the fate of Sparta. But Carthage’s problems started about 150 years later. Once Carthage lost the ability to trade and roam at leisure after the 1st Punic War, their days were similarly numbered. They had their first insurrection when, partly due to the changing terms of the Roman treaty, and partly due to the destruction of much of their fleet, they could no longer trade. Without the free flow of money, they could not pay their mercenaries, and one thing leads to another.

It seems that Machiavelli might have been onto something after all. The influence of the founders made a definite imprint on both civilizations. And this draws us back to America. We have a few options:

  • George Washington is our actual founder. He was the point of unity during and after the Revolution, without which–we never would have made it as a country.

On the one hand, we can say that

  • His two terms in office set a clear precedent
  • He embodied a spirit of political compromise, such as using Jefferson and Hamilton in prominent ways in his administration, and
  • We have to admit, his owning of slaves, but then also his freeing of his slaves, may have influenced us in both directions.

But I have doubts. Washington’s life and demeanor seem to have no real influence on the culture of the United States.

We can argue, then, that we have no founder. America is a bumpy ride, carried along by change, and so on. We should stop looking for a center and embrace change for its own sake. But this view to me holds no water. America did succeed in various ways, we grew, we built things, and so on. One can’t do all of this on quicksand.

Or we can assert that we are founded on an idea, or a set of principles, and not on a particular person. This explains or messy founding. And–it explains why the ideas, not limited by time and space, could travel so far so fast, just as we ourselves did across the country. It explains why we disagree so much seemingly about the same thing–the incarnation of the ideas might take different form in different places.

Theseus and Romulus overlap, as do Aristotle and Plato. But in the end we must choose a point of emphasis.

Aristotle, for his part, would have approved of our attempt at a mean between ideas, of commerce and agriculture, of conservative and liberal, and so on. But he surely he too would disapprove of how far the idea of democracy has traveled–the franchise for he saw as mob rule.Plato might approve of our founding in the “purity” of an ideal, but I am convinced he as not as gnostic as some make him out. I think that he would see that ideas rooted only in the mind would cause too much “movement” in our culture. In The Republic, Plato only looked at the state as a means of understanding the souls of real men.

The exact nature of the historical reality of Theseus and Romulus even Plutarch wondered at, and so we in America, built more on myth than history, can extrapolate a bit to find our founder. Perhaps we should name Janus, he who looked in opposite directions. This would explain our ability to move, our ability to always find something accommodating and infuriating all at once in America. Yet in the end, Janus still was one person, and perhaps the good ol’ U.S. of A can remain one as well.

Dave

*Hannibal without question was a brilliant battlefield commander and leader of men. But . . . military men write all of his biographies and hence see things from his point of view. What is needed (if it exists I haven’t seen it) is a biography of Hannibal written by a career politician. Most criticize Carthage’s Senate for not backing Hannibal and going for Rome’s jugular after Cannae. They lament the Senate’s focus on keeping trade open and the money flowing from Spain. But, armed with Aristotle’s thoughts, perhaps the Senators were onto something, consciously or no. Without access to trade, Carthage could not be Carthage, and so would surely collapse, as happened in the 3rd Punic War.

8th Grade: Babylon’s “Ball of Confusion”

Greetings,

This week we began our look at Babylonian civilization.

Babylon had many things going for it.  They were the quintessential cosmopolitan city of the ancient world.  Their geography funneled trade, cash, and resources towards them.  Much of ancient learning concentrated itself there.  This would be a city in general more tolerant, vibrant, and diverse than most other cities in the ancient world.  I hope that they remember our examination of the geographical influence of all of this.  ‘Cosmopolitan’ cities throughout history have to be accessible, which usually puts them in relatively flat areas near water.  One thinks of New York, London, and Los Angeles as examples.  Of course, the such cities not only need favorable geography, but they need to be accessible and open-minded culturally as well.  Geography can bring you to water, but can’t make you drink.

But enormous cracks in the foundation lay below the surface.  Babylonian creation accounts paint a bleak picture: Ultimately things “come to be”  because of chaos and confusion amongst the gods.  Unlike in Genesis 1, creation had no intentionality or design behind it.  Nor can we say that the “good” gods triumphed over evil.  Rather, one side simply emerged as the stronger.  This impacted their thought in several ways:

  • Humanity is an afterthought that exists to be manipulated by the gods
  • Stability and order are generally absent (a stark contrast to Genesis 1).This chaos spilled over into other areas:
  • Sin, at root, was not your fault, as you could be ‘jumped’ by malicious spirits (jinn) who would lead you down the wrong path
  • Ishtar was their major goddess – goddess of love and marriage but also war and prostitution.  She was again, a goddess, but was often depicted with a beard.  The ambiguity was reflected in the statue of her to the side, which shows her as a warrior showing quite a bit of leg for an ancient goddess.
  • Not surprisingly, this gender confusion spilled over into society, as Herodotus tells us of the fad among society’s elite for cross-dressing
  • Not surprisingly, Babylon was known for its immorality, notorious for its rampant temple prostitution, among other things.

A society where so much is left to chance is bound to try and find a way to explain it all, and this may have led to the Babylonian passion for dream interpretation.*  A whole list of possible dreams and their meanings was drawn up, but this did not necessarily help.  One tells us that if you dream that you have meat you will have a son.  Later, it says that if you have meat in a dream you will not have a son.  How could one know the truth?

Or perhaps, with the mysteries of the universe completely unknowable, one might stop looking and settle for the ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,’ philosophy.  It is any surprise that Babylon is conquered in Daniel 5 as they are partying?  Perhaps we might also surmise that Babylon’s endless possibilities led in the end to boredom.  We looked at this famous Babylonian text,

 

Babylon’s View of Life: “The Dialog of Pessimism,” (M stands for Master, S for slave)

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will love a woman!”

S “So love, my lord, love!

The man who loves a woman forgets want and misery!”

M “No, slave, I will not love  a woman!”

S “Love not, my lord, love not!

Woman is a snare, a trap, a pitfall;

Woman is a sharpened iron sword

Which will cut a young man’s neck!”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Straightaway order me water for my hands,

I will make a libation to my god!”

S “Do my lord, do!  As for the man who makes a libation

To his god, his heart is at ease;

He makes loan upon loan!”

M “No slave, I will not make a libation!”

S “Make it not, my lord, make it not!

Teach the god to run after thee like a dog.”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will give money to my country.”

S “So do, my lord, so do!

The man who gives money to his land,

His alms have been put in the palms of the god

Marduk himself.”

M “No, slave, I will not give alms to my land!”

S “Do it not, my lord, do it not!

Look upon the ruined mounds of

Ancient cities and look around;

Behold the skulls of those of earlier and later times.

Who is the evildoer, who is the benefactor?”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Now then, what is good?

To break my neck and thy neck,

To fall into the river — that is good!”

S “Yes my lord.  Who is tall enough to reach up to heaven;

Who is broad enough that he might encompass the earth?

M “No slave, I will kill only you — you go first!”

S “But, you my lord, would not last three days after me!

Or consider this collection of Babylonian proverbs, which speak similarly:
 
 

Greetings,

This week we began our look at Babylonian civilization.

Babylon had many things going for it.  They were the quintessential cosmopolitan city of the ancient world.  Their geography funneled trade, cash, and resources towards them.  Much of ancient learning concentrated itself there.  This would be a city in general more tolerant, vibrant, and diverse than most other cities in the ancient world.  I hope that they remember our examination of the geographical influence of all of this.  ‘Cosmopolitan’ cities throughout history have to be accessible, which usually puts them in relatively flat areas near water.  One thinks of New York, London, and Los Angeles as examples.  Of course, the such cities not only need favorable geography, but they need to be accessible and open-minded culturally as well.  Geography can bring you to water, but can’t make you drink.

But enormous cracks in the foundation lay below the surface.  Babylonian creation accounts paint a bleak picture: Ultimately things “come to be”  because of chaos and confusion amongst the gods.  Unlike in Genesis 1, creation had no intentionality or design behind it.  Nor can we say that the “good” gods triumphed over evil.  Rather, one side simply emerged as the stronger.  This impacted their thought in several ways:

  • Humanity is an afterthought that exists to be manipulated by the gods
  • Stability and order are generally absent (a stark contrast to Genesis 1).This chaos spilled over into other areas:
  • Sin, at root, was not your fault, as you could be ‘jumped’ by malicious spirits (jinn) who would lead you down the wrong path
  • Ishtar was their major goddess – goddess of love and marriage but also war and prostitution.  She was again, a goddess, but was often depicted with a beard.  The ambiguity was reflected in the statue of her to the side, which shows her as a warrior showing quite a bit of leg for an ancient goddess.
  • Not surprisingly, this gender confusion spilled over into society, as Herodotus tells us of the fad among society’s elite for cross-dressing
  • Not surprisingly, Babylon was known for its immorality, notorious for its rampant temple prostitution, among other things.

A society where so much is left to chance is bound to try and find a way to explain it all, and this may have led to the Babylonian passion for dream interpretation.*  A whole list of possible dreams and their meanings was drawn up, but this did not necessarily help.  One tells us that if you dream that you have meat you will have a son.  Later, it says that if you have meat in a dream you will not have a son.  How could one know the truth?

Or perhaps, with the mysteries of the universe completely unknowable, one might stop looking and settle for the ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,’ philosophy.  It is any surprise that Babylon is conquered in Daniel 5 as they are partying?  Perhaps we might also surmise that Babylon’s endless possibilities led in the end to boredom.  We looked at this famous Babylonian text,

Babylon’s View of Life: “The Dialog of Pessimism,” (M stands for Master, S for slave)

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will love a woman!”

S “So love, my lord, love!

The man who loves a woman forgets want and misery!”

M “No, slave, I will not love  a woman!”

S “Love not, my lord, love not!

Woman is a snare, a trap, a pitfall;

Woman is a sharpened iron sword

Which will cut a young man’s neck!”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Straightaway order me water for my hands,

I will make a libation to my god!”

S “Do my lord, do!  As for the man who makes a libation

To his god, his heart is at ease;

He makes loan upon loan!”

M “No slave, I will not make a libation!”

S “Make it not, my lord, make it not!

Teach the god to run after thee like a dog.”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will give money to my country.”

S “So do, my lord, so do!

The man who gives money to his land,

His alms have been put in the palms of the god

Marduk himself.”

M “No, slave, I will not give alms to my land!”

S “Do it not, my lord, do it not!

Look upon the ruined mounds of

Ancient cities and look around;

Behold the skulls of those of earlier and later times.

Who is the evildoer, who is the benefactor?”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Now then, what is good?

To break my neck and thy neck,

To fall into the river — that is good!”

S “Yes my lord.  Who is tall enough to reach up to heaven;

Who is broad enough that he might encompass the earth?

M “No slave, I will kill only you — you go first!”

S “But, you my lord, would not last three days after me!

Or consider this collection of Babylonian proverbs, which speak similarly:    

Greetings,

This week we began our look at Babylonian civilization.

Babylon had many things going for it.  They were the quintessential cosmopolitan city of the ancient world.  Their geography funneled trade, cash, and resources towards them.  Much of ancient learning concentrated itself there.  This would be a city in general more tolerant, vibrant, and diverse than most other cities in the ancient world.  I hope that they remember our examination of the geographical influence of all of this.  ‘Cosmopolitan’ cities throughout history have to be accessible, which usually puts them in relatively flat areas near water.  One thinks of New York, London, and Los Angeles as examples.  Of course, the such cities not only need favorable geography, but they need to be accessible and open-minded culturally as well.  Geography can bring you to water, but can’t make you drink.

But enormous cracks in the foundation lay below the surface.  Babylonian creation accounts paint a bleak picture: Ultimately things “come to be”  because of chaos and confusion amongst the gods.  Unlike in Genesis 1, creation had no intentionality or design behind it.  Nor can we say that the “good” gods triumphed over evil.  Rather, one side simply emerged as the stronger.  This impacted their thought in several ways:

  • Humanity is an afterthought that exists to be manipulated by the gods
  • Stability and order are generally absent (a stark contrast to Genesis 1).This chaos spilled over into other areas:
  • Sin, at root, was not your fault, as you could be ‘jumped’ by malicious spirits (jinn) who would lead you down the wrong path
  • Ishtar was their major goddess – goddess of love and marriage but also war and prostitution.  She was again, a goddess, but was often depicted with a beard.  The ambiguity was reflected in the statue of her to the side, which shows her as a warrior showing quite a bit of leg for an ancient goddess.
  • Not surprisingly, this gender confusion spilled over into society, as Herodotus tells us of the fad among society’s elite for cross-dressing
  • Not surprisingly, Babylon was known for its immorality, notorious for its rampant temple prostitution, among other things.

A society where so much is left to chance is bound to try and find a way to explain it all, and this may have led to the Babylonian passion for dream interpretation.*  A whole list of possible dreams and their meanings was drawn up, but this did not necessarily help.  One tells us that if you dream that you have meat you will have a son.  Later, it says that if you have meat in a dream you will not have a son.  How could one know the truth?

Or perhaps, with the mysteries of the universe completely unknowable, one might stop looking and settle for the ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,’ philosophy.  It is any surprise that Babylon is conquered in Daniel 5 as they are partying?  Perhaps we might also surmise that Babylon’s endless possibilities led in the end to boredom.  We looked at this famous Babylonian text,

Babylon’s View of Life: “The Dialog of Pessimism,” (M stands for Master, S for slave)

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will love a woman!”

S “So love, my lord, love!

The man who loves a woman forgets want and misery!”

M “No, slave, I will not love  a woman!”

S “Love not, my lord, love not!

Woman is a snare, a trap, a pitfall;

Woman is a sharpened iron sword

Which will cut a young man’s neck!”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Straightaway order me water for my hands,

I will make a libation to my god!”

S “Do my lord, do!  As for the man who makes a libation

To his god, his heart is at ease;

He makes loan upon loan!”

M “No slave, I will not make a libation!”

S “Make it not, my lord, make it not!

Teach the god to run after thee like a dog.”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will give money to my country.”

S “So do, my lord, so do!

The man who gives money to his land,

His alms have been put in the palms of the god

Marduk himself.”

M “No, slave, I will not give alms to my land!”

S “Do it not, my lord, do it not!

Look upon the ruined mounds of

Ancient cities and look around;

Behold the skulls of those of earlier and later times.

Who is the evildoer, who is the benefactor?”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Now then, what is good?

To break my neck and thy neck,

To fall into the river — that is good!”

S “Yes my lord.  Who is tall enough to reach up to heaven;

Who is broad enough that he might encompass the earth?

M “No slave, I will kill only you — you go first!”

S “But, you my lord, would not last three days after me!

Or consider this collection of Babylonian proverbs, which speak similarly:    

Without relations, she conceived!  Without eating, she became fat!

When I labor, they take away my reward.  When I increase my efforts, who will give me anything?

The strong man is fed through the price of his hire, the weak man through the price of his child.

My feet keep walking, my knees do not tire, yet a foolish man pursues me with sorrow.

Am I not a thoroughbred steed?  Yet I am harnessed with a mule and must draw a wagon.

I dwell in a fancy house, yet some clay pours over me (i.e., the roof leaks).

The life of the day before yesterday is that of any day.

You are placed in a river and your water at once becomes stinking; you sit in an orchard and your fruit becomes bitter.

Will ripe grain grow?  How do we know?  Will dried grain grow?  Who can tell?

Very soon I will be dead.  Let me eat, drink, and spend.  Soon I will be well.  Let me save for later!

You go and take the field of your enemy.  The enemy comes and takes your field.  

The fox had a stick with him.  He asks, “Whom shall I hit?”  He has a legal document.  He asks, “Whom shall I challenge?”

No agreement can be reached when the women talk without ceasing.

Into an open mouth, a fly will enter!

The horse, after he had thrown his rider, lamented, “If my burden be like this always, soon I shall be weak!”

The dog understands: “Take it!”  He does not understand.  “Put it down!”

As I mentioned in class, in studying Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon–in that order–is not so much chronological but thematic in purpose. In Egypt, we see a self-contained, stable culture that highly valued stability and balance. With Assyria, we saw a culture that was ‘self-contained’ and homogeneous to a certain extent, but who highly valued movement. With Babylon, we have a a creation account that demonstrates chaos, and a geography that maximizes diversity. Each set of circumstances and beliefs creates different kinds of civilizations.

And–as long as we have ‘confusion’ as our theme, who can forget

8th Grade: The Definition of Collapse

Greetings,

This week we very nearly wrapped up Assyrian civilization.

Last week I mentioned our look at Assyria’s religion and the concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch’ as factors in Assyria’s decline.  This week we considered Assyria in light of Christ’s words to Peter and the Apostles, ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword.’

In a fallen world, force can have a legitimate place in government.  But both from a historical, moral, and political perspective, force can never be the foundation for order.  Force can gain acceptance, or have legitimacy, if people see it as an extension of justice.  But when a power uses force detached from justice, people sense that they use violence merely to serve their own selfish ends.  This inspires them to seek justice/revenge, and this is why violence apart from justice is a wasting asset.

All of the problems Assyria faced they brought upon themselves.  They treated subject populations brutally out of a combination of a) religious belief, and b) policy that sought the quickest route towards “getting everyone in line” with their conquests.  But as their power grew, the attention they could give to subject territories lessened, which reduced their chances of stopping rebellions.

Eventually too, their obsession with violence and conquest would be bound to turn back on themselves.  After Ashurbanipal II completed the conquest of the fertile crescent, (which left nothing for the next guy) Assyria descended into civil war (having no one left to fight but themselves).  Simultaneously, they faced rebellions from a few major provinces, which mean that they faced a dire crisis from within as well as without.  They had nothing left on which to stand, and collapsed completely within a few short years.  Regarding their incessant militarism and addiction to violence, Toynbee comments,

The loss and misery which Assyria inflicted on her neighbors is beyond calculation, and yet the legendary remark of the schoolmaster to the boy he is whipping–‘It hurts you less than it hurts me,’–would be a pertinent critique of Assyrian military activities. . . .  The full and bombastic Assyrian record of victories abroad is significantly supplemented by rarer and briefer notices of troubles at home that give us an inkling of the price at which Assyrian victories were purchased.

An increasing military strain revenged itself with increasing frequency of palace revolutions and peasant revolts.  As early as the close of the second bout of aggression in the ninth century B.C. we find Shalmaneser III dying in 827 B.C. with his son on the war-path against him, and Ninevah, Asshur, and Arbela in rebellion. . .

Toynbee goes on then to cite rebellions in 763, 760, and 746, and ca. 730 B.C., and then he continues,

After this the two streams of domestic stasis and foreign warfare merge into one; after Ashurbanipal’s death this swells into a mighty river whose rushing waters bear Assyria away to her now inevitable doom.  During the last years of Assyrian history the domestic and foreign aspect of Assyria’s disintegration are hardly distinguishable.

Can a civilization be rooted entirely in a frontier mentality and lifestyle?  Assyria was located on the ‘frontier’ of Mesopotamian civilization.  Like many frontier people, they could be inventive and self-reliant.  But their beliefs, their foreign policy led them to conquest ‘a outrance’ as the French say.   Assyria’s attacks against Babylon come with an animosity that a farmer in West Virginia might feel for Manhattan investment bankers.  But frontiers need a home base, and with this attack, Assyria was cutting off its face to spite its nose.  The arm which held the sword stabbed the heart.  Without Babylon, Assyria suffered much in the same way that the West Virginia farmer would suffer.   Without the banks, where would be the corporations to buy the food they grew?  If they always looked outward, could they build a solid cultural foundation on which to rest?  While some aspects of Assyria’s cultural heritage can be disputed, no one would doubt that in comparison to Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, Assyria’s cultural output was quite low.  Their architecture, art, and literature all were inferior to their neighbors.

In the end, Assyria contributed heartily to its own demise.  I quote now from Ashurbanipal II, the last great king of Assyria, who wrote as he saw things crumbling around him:

‘The rules for making offerings to the dead. . . which had not been practiced, I reintroduced.  I did well unto god and man, to dead and living.  Why have sickness and misery descended upon me?  I cannot away with strife and dissension.  Misery of flesh and mind oppress me.   Death is seizing hold of me. With lamentation and mourning I wail day and night.  O God wilt thou deal thus with me?  Even as one who has not feared God and Goddess I am reckoned.’

Historian Arnold Toynbee comments,

‘This confession is  . . . moving in its sincerity and in its bewilderment, but above all illuminating in its blindness. When this mood overtook him, did the last of the Assyrian war-lords never find himself reciting that terrible catalogue of cities sacked and people’s wiped out by Assyrian arms — a list which concluded with his own sack of Susa and annihilation of Elam?’

One sees a complete lack of self-awareness on Assyria’s part.  It’s as if they erased their conscience through centuries of systematic cruelty.  They reveled in their conquests and never questioned their actions, celebrating them in their meager artistic achievements.

Next week I will update you on our investigation of Babylon.

8th Grade: He Who Lives by the Sword. . .

Greetings,

This week we looked at Assyrian civilization.  Their meteoric rise was surpassed only by their complete and total destruction at the hands of several enemies.  What made them who they were?

We first looked at their geography. . .

1. Assyria began in the north of the Fertile Crescent, in one of its less fertile areas, nestled in mountains towards the fringe of that region.  We discussed how people who live in mountainous regions tend to display similar characteristics.  Necessity might force them to rely on hunting.  They grow to be tough and adaptive, and generally warlike, with built in mistrust of foreigners due to their relative isolation (think Afghanistan).  Assyrians had similar characteristics.

2. Their geography may have lent impetus to their expansionist desires.  These tough, warlike people were generally surrounded by more wealthy civilizations that might have been a bit ‘softer’ than the Assyrians.   Nomadic civilizations (those that have to/choose to follow ‘the herd’) can never be as wealthy as more agrarian civilizations, for they can never stay in one place long enough to produce anything.  Perhaps they could not resist all they saw around them.  Perhaps after a while, jealousy and envy took hold.

Then we looked at their army . . .

1. Mountainous regions generally are not as populous as other places, but the Assyrians managed to create a brilliant militia force.  Without the mass of other armies (nomadic hunting oriented civilizations inevitably have smaller populations) they had to rely on speed and movement.  But their citizens, used to hunting, would have been used to moving, tracking, and outwitting their prey.

In class I compared their army to the new ‘Blur Offense’ in football popularized by the University of Oregon.

2. The Assyrian army was a lightning fast ‘light infantry’ force, overwhelming their opponents by swift and brutal assaults.  Of course the makeup of the army impacted their foreign policy, which

  • Usually did not emphasize diplomacy.  They could not integrate their conquered foes into their army (think about how the effectiveness of a Navy Seal platoon would be diminished by adding army regulars into their ranks).
  • So – how do you hold onto your territory?  The Assyrian army was not generally interested in occupation. They wanted movement.  If ‘you are what you worship,’ we would expect the Assyrians to use terror as a weapon, and so they did.  My guess is that the students will remember the various forms of torture and death the Assyrians inflicted if you are curious enough to ask them.
  • With the conquered cowed into submission the Assyrians could move on.  We looked at Paul Kennedy’s concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch,’ when size becomes a disadvantage as opposed to an advantage.  Clearly the Assyrians suffered from this, for as we discussed, fear is a wasting asset.  It tends to be a very effective short term, but disastrous long term policy.

Some of you may remember the boxer Mike Tyson, and I think he is a good representation of the Assyrian army.  Tyson was almost always the smaller man in the ring, outweighed and outreached by his opponent.  But his lightning speed confused his opponent, and he hit with such devastating force that he surely “ruled by fear” over his foes.

The students had fun with excerpts from these clips in class.

Then we looked at their religion. . .

The Assyrians were polytheistic, but tended to emphasize the worship of their war god Ashur.  Ashur demanded blood, as the Assyrians obliged, presenting large amounts of the severed heads of their enemies at worship services.  Interestingly, apparently the most common way of representing Ashur was on his winged disc, which hearkens back to the dominance of movement in Assyrian civilization.

For this coming week we will continue to see connections between Assyria’s religion, army, and foreign policy.  For them, as for all of us, “you are what you worship.”
Thanks so much,
Dave

8th Grade: Elements of the Exodus Debate

Greetings,

Last week we looked at the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenation IV, also known as Ikhneton.  Ikhneton had many distinctive qualities — a most unusual pharaoh.

  • He was a monotheist, a tremendous contrast to the polytheism of his surrounding culture.
  • He had only one wife — a significant departure from the usual practice of pharaoh
  • He wrote poetry

The surviving images of Ikhneton are not typical for pharaohs either.  His bust does not exude power, but rather thoughtfulness, depth, and caring.  The image to the right with his family highlights this as well.  Again, as far as I know, for pharaoh’s to depict themselves like this in public was quite unusual.

Where did these beliefs and practices come from?  A few theories exist:

1. He learned them from the Jews, possibly enslaved during his reign.

2. He learned them from stories he heard about the Exodus, which may have happened about 75 years before he came to power.

3. Perhaps God appeared to him in a vision.

4. Perhaps he learned it from creation around him.

Did he believe in the true God under a different name?  I wanted to pose the following to the students:

  • Whether or not Ikhneton believed in the true God, he was certainly at least far closer to the truth than his countrymen.  What should he do with this knowledge?  If people don’t believe him, should he use force?  What would the responsibility be of the average Egyptian who agreed with him?  Is Ikhneton responsibility different because of his position of power?

As it happened Ikhneton did attempt to use force to spread his religion.  He destroyed/banned worship of other gods and declared his own faith to be the only legal one in the realm.  Was this the right choice?

  •  Ikhneton’s project to ‘convert’ his countrymen failed almost entirely.  Why was this?  Can any kind of force ever work in religious matters?  If so, which kind?  What does his failure tell us about the power of tradition.
  • While many historians come down hard on Ikhneteon, we looked at the Book of the Dead to understand exactly what it was that Ikhneton fought against.  Here we see inside Egyptian religion, and are confronted with a maze of charms, spells, and formulas to assure a good afterlife.  I can’t imagine anyone keeping it all straight, and this gave enormous power to the priesthood of their hundreds and hundreds of gods.  Ikhneton did fail, and perhaps went about his project in the wrong way.  But Egypt remained trapped in a religion that gave enormous power to the priesthood.

In this way, Ikhenton’s story can have meaning for our own day.  We too need to consider the strengths and weaknesses that come whenever religion is associated with law.

We also looked at the Exodus.  As Christians we can have confidence that the Exodus was an historical event, but there is not a great deal of evidence within  Egypt itself to support it.  Some modern scholars use this as evidence against the Exodus, but we discussed in class why Egypt might want to “cover-up” such events.

An interesting possibility involves the presence of the Hyksos in Egyptian history.   The word “hyksos” can apparently mean either “foreign invader,” or “foreign dweller.”  Egyptologists propound different theories as to their identity, with some believing them to have been occasional foreign invaders, others foreign immigrants.  A couple of curious details, however, may link the Hyksos to the Exodus:

  • The dates given for the Hyksos presence in Egypt correspond roughly to the time span the Israelites spent in Egypt (ca. 1800-1300 B.C.)
  • Many Hyksos names appear to be semitic in origin
  • Many debate whether or not the Hyksos coexisted peacefully or not with Egyptians.  But if their co-existence was sometimes peaceful, sometimes not, that would fit the Exodus narrative.

I am intrigued by the theory that suggests that the Hyksos may have been the Israelites.  It would fit with the “foreign immigrant” theory, and melds also with the narrative in Exodus 1, which indicates that the as the Israelites grew more numerous they had less favor with some in Egypt.  Thus, when the Egyptians talk about “expelling” them from the land ca. 1300-1200 B.C. they may have engaged in the ultimate historical spin.  In the official Egyptian narrative then, the Israelites didn’t leave due to plagues, God, etc., but because we forced them to leave!  It was a great moment of national pride!

After ca. 1200 B.C. archaeologists note a transition in how the Egyptians built cities.  Previously, most Egyptian cities had no walls, contrary to Mesopotamian cities of the same time.  After ca. 1200 B.C., most Egyptian cities had walls, marking a transition perhaps to a more unstable, frightening period.  Clearly, the 10 plagues would have devastated and de-stabilized Egypt significantly, and this of course weakened them.  The presence of walls may very well reflect the kind of dramatic decline the plagues would bring.

Still, I stress that this is only a theory.

Whenever we think the Exodus took place, we should realize that the plagues exposed every foundation that Egypt built its society and identity upon.  In class I compared the plagues to waking up and realizing that the life you thought you led wasn’t real, and actually you lived as a nomad in the Sahara with an entirely different family.  The psychological impact must have been devastating, which explains why many left Egypt with the Israelites.  I also think it explains why many stayed.  With such a radical change required, many might prefer to live in a dream.

Another issue is, when did the Exodus take place, and who might the pharaoh have been?  Wide disagreement exists within the scholarly community on this issue, but there are two main theories:

1. An ‘Early’ Exodus somewhere around 1450 B.C.   1 Kings 6:1 talks of ‘480 years’ between the Exodus and Solomon’s reign,B.C.  And might the Hyksos invasion, which took place around the same time, have been facilitated by the disaster of the plagues?  Could we then see the rally of Egyptian civilization under Ramses II as a kind of Indian summer, a last gasp?

2. A ‘Late’ Exodus somewhere around 1250 B.C., which would be at the time of Ramses II.  Didn’t Ramses build a new city, which would fit with the Israelites task of making mud brick, as described in Exodus?  Might ‘480 years’ be a symbolic number (12 x 40, or the completion of the wandering of the tribes)?  I wanted the students to think through the various possibilities, with the caveat that faithful Christians can easily disagree on this, as the Bible does not speak with absolute clarity.

Still, the images of Ramses II seem to reflect the kind of image conscious, stubborn, and arrogant man Moses must have confronted (much different than Ikhneton’s):

Good evidence exists on both sides of this question.  Here is one interesting piece of ‘internal evidence’  on the historicity of the Exodus from Egypt itself that may recall the plagues and confirm parts of the Exodus narrative, the Ipuwer Papyrus, which has some possible parallels with the Exodus account, though it is important to stress the date of the papyrus is in great doubt, and may in fact precede the Exodus by at least 400 years):

1. The Plague of Blood as mentioned in Exodus 7: 14-25

Ipuwer 2:3 “Pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere.”

Ipuwer 2:9 “The River (Nile) is Blood. Men shrink…and thirst after water.”

2. The Plague on Egyptian Livestock as found in Exodus 9: 1-7

Ipuwer 5:5 “All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan.”

3. The Plague of Hail and Fire as mentioned in Exodus 9: 22-26

Ipuwer 9:23 “The fire ran along the ground. There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail.”

Ipuwer 2:10 “Forsooth (Help Us), gates, columns, and walls are consumed by fire.”

4. The Plague of Locusts as mentioned in Exodus 10: 1-20 (possible allusion)

Ipuwer 6:1: “No fruit nor herbs are found…Oh, that the earth would cease from noise, and tumult (uproar) be no more.”

Ipuwer 4:14: “Trees are destroyed and the branches are stripped off.”

5. The Plague of Darkness as mentioned in Exodus 10: 21-29

Ipuwer 9:11 “The land is without light.”

6. The Plague on Egypt’s Firstborn in Exodus 12

Ipuwer 2:13 “He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere.”

Ipuwer 3:14 “Groaning is throughout the land, mingled with lamentations.”

Ipuwer 4:3 “Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls.”

Ipuwer 6:12 “€œForsooth, the children of the princes are cast out in the streets.”

7. Freeing of the Slaves and their Pillage of Egypt as seen in Exodus 12: 31-36

Ipuwer 1: “The plunderer is everywhere, and the servant takes what he finds.”€

Ipuwer 2: “Indeed, poor men have become wealthy.”

Ipuwer 3: “Gold, silver and jewels are fastened to the necks of female slaves.”€

Ipuwer 5: “Slaves (who have now been freed) are throughout the land.”

Ipuwer 10: “€œThe king’€™s storehouse has now become common property.”

And here is a good discussion of the evidence for and against various dates for the  Exodus, if you are interested.

Blesssings,

Dave

Trade Off

One of the great strengths of one of my former bosses involved his ability to see that the pie never extended unto forever. Everything one did in the classroom came with costs and benefits. Whenever trying something new, consider what that meant one would conversely not do, and judge the consequences. We see little of this thinking on either side of the political aisle today. When looking at issues, one should consider not just the benefits it would bring, but also consider which costs and drawbacks one can live with most reasonably.

The words “free trade” are a major coup for laissez-faire capitalists. Even those against such practices have to stand against something “free.” One can understand what the term means in one sense–that no barriers should exist between those who want to exchange something. But, the term obscures the fact that no trade is “free.” In every trade, one gives up something, and the term “free-trade” might not clue us into this fact.

In his book, Global Squeeze author Richard Longworth argues that the global “free trading” market which opened up in the post-Cold War era hurt us much more than it helped. We have exchanged much more than we thought in the bargain. This in itself is nothing remarkable–many books have argued likewise. What drew me to the book initially was that

  • He predicted many of our economic and resulting political concerns today (such as the rise of ethno-nationalism, populism, etc.) way back in 1998, when virtually everyone else saw only one side of the new globalism. At the same time,
  • I felt that this was not just a lucky guess, because he clearly understood the nature of trade-off’s even in “free trade,” and most of all,
  • He asked questions that no other economics book I’ve read asked, such as, “What is an economy for?”

That question we rarely ask. We want a “good” economy, but we have no clear idea what a “good” economy means. While I have no impression that Longworth has a conscious understanding of the patterns and symbolic structure of reality, his book helped me see economics within this frame. So, with apologies to all who find where I begin a bit odd . . .

Theologian Dumitru Staniloae wrote concerning St. Maximos the Confessor

Some of the Fathers of the Church have said that man is a microcosm, a world which sums up in itself the larger world. Saint Maximus the Confessor remarked that the more correct way would be to consider man as a macrocosm because he is called to comprehend the whole world within himself, as one capable of comprehending it without losing himself, for he is distinct from the world. Therefore man effects a unity greater than the world exterior to himself whereas, on the contrary, the world as cosmos, as nature, cannot contain man fully within itself without losing him, that is, without losing in this way the most important reality, that part which more than all others gives reality its meaning. The idea that man is called to become ‘the world writ large’ has a more precise expression, however, in the term macroanthropos. 

The term conveys the fact that in the strict sense the world is called to be humanised entirely, that is, to bear the entire stamp of the human, to become panhuman, making real through that stamp a need that is implicit in the world’s own meaning, to become in its entirety a humanised cosmos in a way that the human being is not called to become nor can ever fully become, even at the farthest limit of his attachment to the world where he is completely identified with it, a cosmosised man. The destiny of the cosmos is found in man not man’s destiny in the cosmos. This is shown, not only by the fact that the cosmos is the object of human consciousness and knowledge and not the reverse, but also by the fact that the entire cosmos serves human existence in a practical way.

Taking this view of man and the cosmos as my premise, I argue that we should interpret our experience of the world and derive meaning through the lens of what it means to be human, a composite being of body, soul, and spirit. This does not mean that all truth is relative or subjective–far from it. Rather, it is a perspective that recognizes that, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). God creates the world through the Logos, who is Christ (John 1). Ultimately then, Christ is not the image of Adam so much as Adam is the image of Christ, mysteriously “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

So for things to have intelligibility and proper functionality, they should scale to human experience (I realize that I am about to take a massive leap from this premise which I have not done a lot to prove, but . . . :)*

We have to trade things to live, in a sense, both in our bodies individually and in the body social. We have to take in food, water, and so on. We are not autonomous or self-sufficient. Longworth agrees, giving us examples of cultures that have no trade that end up drab, and lifeless. One might think of the ancient Spartans, and the more contemporary Soviet Union. But we can’t just take in anything from anywhere, for any reason–“trade” is not an inherent good, but a contingent one. If we trade too much, even of a good thing, it will be bad for us. One can drown even by drinking excessive amounts of water–too much water brings a flood. In addition, for reality to make sense to us, ideally at least, we should have some connection to those we trade with. Personal contact and personal relationships help let us know if we have a fair trade or not, one that pleases both sides.**

In sum, for an economy to work as it should, it should benefit all sides involved, and benefit them in a way that preserves meaning and coherence. Nations should trade, just as people should trade oxygen for carbon dioxide.

While Longworth does not engage in these kinds of symbolic connections, they do form the unspoken background to his foundational question of, “Whom is an economy meant to serve?”

We come into the world and into a family, if not sociologically, at least biologically. A family economy, then, primarily should serve the family. But it gets tricky, because no family should only concern itself with itself. When this happens, one gets The Godfather saga. Christian teaching pushes outwards towards those on the fringe socially and economically, but we need balance. A mom or dad who devoted too much of their energies to those outside the family would erode the very foundation of their well intentioned actions. Here, C.S. Lewis’ great principle of “First and Second Things” directly applies, which runs something like,

Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things. We never get, say, even the sensual pleasure of food at its best when we are being greedy.^

Many have discussed the lack of connection we have to what we purchase. We have divorced the thing we buy from who made it, where it was made, and so on. Many have spoken of a “meaning crisis” in our culture and surely the fact that what we trade for and consume has no “context” for us contributes to this dislocation. However, Longworth doesn’t address this, and altering this societal condition remains impossible for almost everyone. We can focus then, on what we can fix, at least on a national level.

Longworth points out in multiple ways how our globalized economy violates the “First and Second Things,” principle. The “nature” of capital seeks out the most efficient way of doing business, so naturally labor would migrate out of the country. We anticipated this in part economically, but not at all sociologically. Longworth mentions that many African-American families (to take one example) rose to the middle class in part through blue-collar jobs in inner-cities. These jobs offered stability and helped build distinct local neighborhoods. As these jobs left, these communities eroded (something seen by Jane Jacobs way back in the 1960’s–this is not NAFTA’s fault alone). Just as we can see the distortions of Marxism as a reaction to the distortions of industrialism, so too we can see racial identity politics as the current distortion to try and correct for the distortions of the market. We can bring it back to the family concept. If your plumber brother really needed work, but you had a 20% discount coupon for some other guy you didn’t know, and hired him instead of your brother, you could expect family difficulties.

As Longworth points out, the medieval peasant always had work, but rarely had prospects for growth. Now, we have the opposite problem of the possibility of growth for all, but no promise of work.

Many today fear the presence of national populism, but here too Longworth had prescience. When we exhale deeply we will inhale in a like manner. One can look at the Hapsburg dominions of the mid 16th century . . .

and compare it with modern European global trading connections

The discontinuities lack coherence on both examples. The Hapsburg holdings don’t make sense, and most students recognize this immediately at some level. They then rarely root for them in any of their various wars. Starting around the mid 17th century, we saw the beginnings of concentration of identity into national states, partly as a reaction to the wars involving the Habsburg dominions. The trade map above concerns Europe primarily, but the principle applies to other regions. Start neglecting meaning and coherence in the family, and look for the kids to try and recover that meaning in ways the parents might not like–look no further than the relationship between the EU and Hungary.

Our modern free trade policies evolved for various reasons in the wake of W.W. II. Free-trade could legitimately serve (perhaps) as a means to combat communism in part because the vast majority of major players shared many in things in common:

  • Common cultures and religions
  • Similar pools of labor and technological access
  • A common political goal

Japan participated in this as well, which posed problems for the U.S. in particular. Japan had different cultural and political goals, which led to more protection of its labor force and different economic practices. However, Japan’s labor pool was small enough not to erode and distort the system. With the entrance of China and India, however, things changed dramatically. Economist Richard Koo commented in the early 1990’s

The free trade system has lasted this long only because China and India are not in it. The U.S started this system after the war and other countries joined in. Japan is not a full member even yet–Japan is certainly not a free-trader. But if the problem is just Japan, it’s tolerable. But if China plays the game as Japan has done, the system will not last without safeguards. With the 3rd world entering–there is no end to the potential problem.

Trade in finance may prove an even bigger problem than trade of goods, and again, Longworth showed remarkable foresight here. Bartering goods has a direct coherence to it. You give me your apples, I give you my wheat. But bartering is cumbersome, so we go to money. But in the early stages at least, one could exert a degree of control over money and give it a degree of coherence in a local context–i.e., the money that “works” in a given place is the money with the king’s head on it. That too, limits us, so we went to a more universal, though still concrete, “gold standard” to determine the value of money and limit its movement at least partially. Then Nixon abandoned the Bretton-Woods arrangement and broke from the gold standard, which pushed money into an even further abstraction. Non-national currencies in the cloud are the inevitable conclusion to this process, a process which–however many it benefits materially–pushes us further away from meaning and coherence in our exchanges with each other. I am not one to often quote Keynes approvingly, but he understood–perhaps subconsciously–the necessary symbolic balance of trade, stating,

I sympathize therefore, with those who would minimize, rather than maximize economic entanglement between nations. Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel–these are things which of their nature should be international. But let goods be homespun whenever reasonably possible. Above all, let finance be primarily national.

But nations cannot control the flow of money because they cannot control trade. Merely trying to control currency movement by the elite, therefore will not work and only hurt the “everybody else” in the economy.

The bigger question, however, of “Can we stop this?” relates strongly to the question, “Do we want to stop it?” Here it gets difficult for all of us. Longworth rightly says that technology is not the problem. The internet obviously has the ability to “actualize” many of the trends Longworth saw developing, but the shift had begun decades before the internet entered society. For Longworth, the root lies in trade, but I say, let’s go one deeper–what in our cultural leads us to practice trade as we do?

Democracies foster a sense of individualism, which maximizes opportunities for the self vis a vis the group. Democracies tend towards dynamism, which bodes ill for stability. For example, a recent study shows that

…democratic rule and high state capacity combined produce higher levels of income inequality over time. This relationship operates through the positive effect of high-capacity democratic context on foreign direct investment and financial development. By making use of a novel measure of state capacity based on cumulative census administration, we find empirical support for these claims using fixed-effects panel regressions with the data from 126 industrial and developing countries between 1970 and 2013.

Aye, there’s the rub. To change how trade works, we may have to change more than just trade.^^

Dave

*Suggesting any kind of absolute relativism is the last thing I mean to do, but unfortunately I fear I may not be explaining it well. By ‘human experience’ I don’t mean anything at all that humans might experience. We experience many things that are obviously wrong and bad for us. I mean then, something akin to a union of Heaven and Earth that is supremely Christ Himself, then the Virgin Mary, the saints, and so on down the line. Of course man himself was meant to function as a union of Heaven and Earth originally in creation. One can see this in the very structure of our bodies. Some animals soar above the earth, some slither under it (fish). Most every animal has all of its appendages on the ground, whereas we have two on the ground, with our intellect–our ‘heavenly’ aspect on the commanding heights above us. Our heart unites the two.

**For those that used to trade baseball cards, think of those times when you might see when you drove too hard a bargain for the “Mutton Chop Yaz” in the face of your friend. Unless you were Comic Book Guy, hopefully you adjusted the cost so that you prioritized your relationship and avoided taking advantage of him.

^In seminary many years ago I heard several cautionary tales along the lines of:

  • Young, energetic pastor and young family come to the church
  • Young pastor becomes popular and receives lots of affirmation from church. He throws himself into his work at church–glory and acclaim can be like a drug.
  • But because of this, he spends less time at home, where things are inevitably more mundane. His wife eventually grows resentful and distant.
  • Wife leaves husband, which makes it impossible for him to keep his job at church. Thus, he loses both the “first thing” (family, in this case), and the “second thing” (job) all at once.

^^Supposing the accuracy of the study, one can react in the following ways:

  • Inequalities in wealth are such a bad thing that if democracy contributes to it we should overthrow it.
  • Inequalities in wealth are not good, but perhaps it is one of the costs we must endure to have the greater good of democracy.
  • Inequalities in wealth are not always bad–and in fact can sometimes become a positive good. The wealthy (individuals or companies) can dramatically advance society in important ways, etc. We cannot avoid hierarchy.

As to #1–I would wonder what we would replace it with. Certainly most modern replacement ideas involve a revival of Marxism which we should reject out of hand. The other two make more sense to me, but I am still not satisfied. I feel that if a solution to the problem exists, it exists outside the system itself, and this would mean letting go of some aspects of our modern world as it relates to culture, politics, etc.