9th/10th Grade: Ramandu and the Scientific Revolution

Greetings to all,

We spent the week looking at three key figures of the Scientific Revolution.  An explosion of scientific awareness and knowledge occurred from the beginning of the 17th to the middle of the 18th centuries.  Some of the great minds in history like Descartes, Galileo, and Newton made extraordinary discoveries and changed the way we viewed the world.  All three of these men may have been devout believers but their ideas seemed to push people away from Christianity.  Why was this?

In the aftermath of the devastating period of religious wars that ended after the Thirty Years War in 1648, people began to search for a new way of understanding the world.  During the Middle Ages things were understood first as a whole, then broken into its component parts.  Now knowledge would begin with the particulars.  One gained understanding of a thing through observation and induction.

This new way of understanding is perhaps best encapsulated by a conversation in C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Dawn Treader.’  In this volume of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the character Eustace meets a retired star named Ramandu (in Narnia stars are personal beings), and tells him that “in our world a star is  a huge ball of flaming gas.”  “That is not what a star is,” replied  Ramandu, “but only what it is made of.”  Eustace represents this new way of understanding as a result of the Scientific Revolution, the star the old.  Eustace has a reductionistic view of reality, one influenced by our modern scientific outlook.  The star sees things more in terms of their teleological purpose — who we are should be defined not by our biology, our circumstances, or even our choices — all measurable, tangible things.  Rather, our identity should come from we were made for, our design, our “telos.”

Perhaps one can see the impact this might have on Christianity, which would ultimately be robbed of mystery and imagination.  Without mystery and imagination, orthodox belief about the incarnation, the trinity, and the atonement, among others, cannot be sustained.  The full impact of this way of thinking for society would not be felt until the 20th century (at least in my opinion), but we will see the beginnings of its effects in the Enlightenment and French Revolution, and more debatably, perhaps also in the founding of America.

We began by looking at Francis Bacon, the “Father of the Scientific Method.”  He believed that science had long laid imprisoned by dogma.  Medieval Science had largely proceeded along the following lines.

1. Deduction over Induction

Deduction works like this:

All Men are Mortal

Socrates was a Man

Therefore, Socrates was mortal.

We have a certain conclusion based upon a universal premise.  But of course, the premise must be assumed, it can’t be proven.  In other words, you have to work from assumptions, from ‘faith.’

2. The Dominance of the Past

Aristotle, Ptolemy, and others held great sway over Medieval science.  Part of this fact was rooted in humility.  If you and Einstein did the same problem and arrived at different results, would you trust Einstein or yourself?  Part of this attitude had its roots in the loss of so much scientific heritage after the fall of Rome, and the fact that the Romans were not particularly scientific to begin with.  This led to an assumption that past thinkers were smarter than you.

In general, Medieval society was not geared towards innovation, both in economics, industry, and science.  That is not to say that no innovation existed in the Medieval world.  It did exist, especially in architecture.  But,  it was not their priority.

Bacon sought to overturn the whole basis of science by focusing not on unproved assumptions, but measurement, observation, and experimentation.  He favored Induction.  If we return to our previous syllogism we see it would run this way.

Socrates was a man

Socrates was mortal

Therefore, ???

What can you say in the final analysis?  You cannot say that all men are mortal.  You can only say that Socrates is mortal, or perhaps that ‘Some men (meaning at least 1 man) are mortal.  Nothing needs to be ‘taken on faith,’ but on the other hand, no ultimate truth can be discovered.  Modern science would be much more effective at advancing our specific knowledge of the finite world, but would not be able to communicate any grand meaning.

Marshal McLuhan wrote in 1964 that, “The medium is the message.”  This idea has many facets, but one of them is that the form of communication will have a decisive influence over what exactly we communicate.  Bacon did much for Science in freeing from over-reliance on accepted theory. But, if Science has as its “modus operandi” observation and experimentation, then the ability to do something becomes the reason for doing it.  Hence, science  can gallop far ahead of a society’s moral compass, i.e. abortion, nuclear weapons, cloning, and so on.

We see this specifically in the philosophy of Descartes.  Descartes fought in the 30 Years War and must have thought that the world he knew, all the old certainties, were crashing down about him.  He sought a new path to certainty.  Ultimately he wanted a fresh basis for acting in the world which certainly included God and the Church.  What went wrong?  With his famous phrase, “Cognito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) Descartes builds his system on

  • Doubt.  He found that he could doubt everything — except the fact that he was doubting.  This doubting proved that he must be thinking, and if he was thinking he must exist.
  • Himself.  It is the individual thinking man on which Descartes builds his universal system.  But we are finite, and not universal.  Thus, any system built upon something finite would be bound to fail.  In a famous Socratic dialogue, the philosopher Protagoras proclaimed that ‘Man is the measure of all things.’  “Which man?” was the essence of Socrates’s famous reply.

Again, and again, with Thomas Hobbes, Galileo, and perhaps even Newton we will see this phenomena.  Galilelo, for example, said,

“In every hypothesis of reason error may lurk unnoticed, but a discovery of sense cannot be at odds with the truth.”

Is this indeed true?  Are our senses infallible?  Is what we can measure the highest standard of truth?

A great deal of good came from the Scientific Revolution, and many of these pioneering scientists professed a Christian faith.   What I want the students to recognize for how, however, is the reductionistic view of reality shared by most of these Scientific pioneers.  Descartes, for example, reduced everything to doubt, while Hobbes reduced everything to motion.  The de-mystifying of the world around us would not serve Christianity in the long run.  Below are Descartes’ own drawings.  Who would not admire their elegance and grace?  I do feel, however, that they belie something of Descartes’ materialism.

It is not so much the conclusions they reached, but how they reached them, that should have been of great concern to the Church.  Unfortunately the Church’s hold on the populace had diminished, mostly thanks to their own actions, wars, and brutalities.  We see this spirit of reaction against the concept of ‘faith’ in general throughout these eminent men.  Many, like Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo, seemed to be honest Christian men who thought they did Christianity a favor.  No doubt in some respects they did.  But some of  their assumptions were just as unproven as Aristotle’s.

Next week we will continue with a few other thinkers of the Scientific Revolution as we work towards the mid-term exam.

If you are curious, I include below some primary source text from the period indicating the shift that took place.

The Great Divide: Primary Sources on the Scientific Revolution and Religion

The fierceness of violent inspirations is in good measure departed: the remains of it will soon be chased out of the World by the remembrance of the the terrible footsteps it has everywhere left behind it.  And yet, though the Church of Rome still preserves its pomp, yet its real authority is also decaying.   This is the present state of Christendom.  It is now impossible to spread the same cloud over the world again: the universal disposition of this age is bent on rational religion.

Let it be a true observation that many modern naturalists have been negligent in the worship of God; yet perhaps they have been driven on this profaneness by the late excesses of enthusiasm.  The infinite pretences to . . . Divine inspiration that have abounded in this age have carried several men of wit so far as to reject the whole matter.   From hence it derives that [for religion to recover its place] it must not endeavor to cast a veil of darkness, but chiefly to allay spiritual madness.

Sprat, The History of the Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge, 1667

Man’s lot is so unfortunately placed that those lights that deliver him from one evil precipitate him into another.  Cast out ignorance and barbarism, and you will overthrow superstition.  But in the act of illuminating men’s mind’s regarding these [mental disorders], you will inspire them for a passion to examine everything, and they will apply the fine tooth comb, and they will go into such subtleties that they will find nothing to content their wretched Reason.

Bayle, The Dictionary, 1696

It is worthy to be observed and lamented that the most violent of these defenders of truth, the “opposers of errors,”  . . .do hardly ever let loose this their zeal for God, with which they are so inflamed, unless they have the civil magistrate on their side.  As soon as court favor has given them the better end of the staff, they begin to feel themselves the stronger, then presently peace and charity are laid aside.

One finds that, as soon as Christians were in a position to persecute, they leveled the same reproach against religious error that Paganism leveled at Christianity.  Unhappy advocates of intolerance!  Your malady must indeed be a bizarre one, considering that it is proof against being cured by the application of lex talionis.

John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689

When [the spirit of religious division] is rife, you need have no fear that the multiplicity of sects will create many skeptics.

Bayle, Letters, ca. 1690

The doctrine of right and wrong is perpetually disputed, whereas the doctrine of lines and figures is not so, because men care not so what be the truth as pertains to their lust or ambition.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

Mechanics is the paradise of the mathematical sciences, because with mechanics, we reach the fruit that mathematics can be made to bear.

Mechanical science is most noble above all sciences, because this one is the means by which all living bodies that have the power of movement perform all their operations.

Science is the Captain and Practice the rank and file. . . .   People who fall in love with Practice without Science are like the skipper who boards ship without rudder or compass and who consequently never knows where he is going

Leonardo da Vinci

All knowledge is to be got the same way that a language is: by industry, use, and observation.

Whatever other hurt or good comes by such holy speculative wars, yet certainly by this means the knowledge of Nature has been very much retarded. . . .  The wit of men has been profusely poured out on religion, which needed not its help, and which was thereby made tempestuous.  Experimental Philosophy [i.e. Science] will prevent men spending the strength of their thoughts about disputes by turning them into works.

Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London, 1667

It cannot be denied that it is rare to find any great religious devotion in people who have tasted of the study of mathematics, or have made any progress in the province of Science.

Bayle, The Dictionary, 1696

Only let Mankind regain their rights over Nature, assigned to them by the gift of God, and obtain that power, whose exercise will be governed by right reason and true religion.

F. Bacon, Novum Organum (emphasis mine), 1620

I perceived it to be possible to arrive at a knowledge highly useful in life, . . . .to discover a practical philosophy, by means of which — knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, . . .we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus make ourselves the lords and possessors of Nature.

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, 1637

 

Have a great weekend,

Dave

9th/10th Grade: Richelieu and the New World Order

Greetings to all,

This week we looked at the 30 Years War and previewed the coming change towards the ‘Scientific Revolution.’

The 30 Years War was a devastating conflict in terms of loss of life.  But it was also devastating in a psychological, moral sense.  For decades Catholics and Protestants killed each other, burned towns, committed atrocities, all in the name of the Christian faith.  The map below shows the casualties in various parts of Germany alone.

Part of the reason the war became so destructive is that various nations, like Sweden, Spain, and France found reasons to get involved at various times during the war and extended it artificially. But part of the reason that religious conflicts  persist in general is that:

  • It is difficult to compromise or negotiate with religious belief
  • Victory in a religious war is hard to define

One can only come to terms in a religious war when either

  • Both sides are completely exhausted, or
  • You change what the war is about, making it something that you can compromise on, such as possession of territory.

This is in fact what happened, and this second reason is a clue to the coming transformation in the worldview of Europe.  Since the start of the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants had both lead with religion in the political and philosophical realm.  Now, their focus shifted towards the more tangible and measurable. We will explore this in more depth in coming weeks.

Essentially, we see a shift from theory, which would include intellectual ideas as well as the unproven realm of ‘faith,’ to experience, observation, and the natural world.  It is the Dutch school of the 17th century that  exemplified this change.  One can see it in the work of Van Hals:

Here are practical, reasonable men.  They are a long way from the emotionally and spiritually moved men from, say, Carravaggio’s work just a few decades earlier.  This passion for representing reality apart from meaning reached it’s peak with this work of Paulus Potter:

.Probably the artist who married the best of the observational school with meaning had to be Rembrandt.   He depicted people “realistically,” but he managed to depict them as morally imaginative as well.  We think of him as a painter, but he was best known in his day for his etchings.  Here is one example:

If the Dutch exemplified the change in art, the French did so in the political realm.  Cardinal Richelieu is known for many things, but this quote exemplifies his philosophy:

‘People are immortal, and thus subject to the law of God.  States are mortal [that is, ‘unnatural,’ artificial, man-made creations], and are thus subject to the law of what works.’

Richelieu believed that nations did not interact with each other in the way that individuals did.  After all, people cannot kill each other, but nations can have armies that kill each other without necessarily sinning.  People can’t lie, but nations can send spies to other places where they ‘lawfully’ engage in deception.  It might be similar to people bluffing in poker.  They are trying to deceive, but are they sinning?  Most would say not, because when we play poker we enter into a world that has its own set of rules set apart from normal life.  Frenchmen will be judged by God.  But the geographical entity we call ‘France’ will pass away, it will not be judged.  Thus, ‘France’ could play by different rules than Frenchmen.

This famous painting of him shows his famously lean, intelligent frame:

With this perspective, Richelieu astounded and infuriated his contemporaries.  As France’s chief minister, he sought to serve the entity ‘France.’  This meant that:

  • France would intervene on behalf of Protestants in the 30 Years War, despite the fact that they were a Catholic nation.  Except that Richelieu didn’t see ‘Catholic France,’ but ‘France, where most people are Catholic.’  Richelieu fought not to protect Catholics, but the entity France, which he did not want surrounded by Catholic Spain.  Spain fought in the 30 Years War in part to recover the Netherlands, territory they had lost in the early 1600’s.  This new perspective shocked many, but it would be the way of the future
  • He believed that strengthening France would have to mean strengthening the king.  This in turn meant weakening the nobles.  We will see this European turn  away from the feudal era, and toward more centralized authority.  It would be another Frenchmen, Louis XIV, that would push these ideas even further later in the 17th century.

Dave Mathwin

9th/10th Grade: Light and Darkness in New England

Greetings,

This week we examined Puritan society in New England during the 17th century. We will not examine much else in regard to North American colonization, but I feel that a focus on the Puritans is appropriate.  Of all the early colonization efforts, theirs had the most influence on the formation of what America would become, for better or worse.

We first looked at what motivated North American colonization in the first place.  Sometimes we tend to think that such colonization must have resulted from great oppression of the lower classes.  In reality many in England who came to North America had some limitations on their lives under Charles I, but all could live out their daily existence without much change, and most of them came from the middle-classes.  After all, a journey across the Atlantic did cost money, and the poor did not have much of it.

The basic characteristics of most who came probably consisted of. . .

  • People not afraid to take risks.  A journey across the ocean in a boat this small (see below) would not be for the faint of heart.
  • People who could afford (see above), but given the risk-reward ratio of sailing across the ocean to hew civilization out of the wilderness from scratch, very few if any of the aristocracy (who “had it all” in Europe) would come.  Hence, though Europeans (all who came from places with aristocracies) founded American civilization, from the start they had an anti-aristocratic bias.
  • While many who came sought their financial well-being, I believe the majority came for deeper reasons.  One could find business opportunity at home if need be.  Many who came were fired by an idea, or at minimum, the sense of adventure.  The risks were too great, and the rewards too uncertain, to be motivated by much less.

All these categories fit the Puritans, and then some.

We have some unfair misconceptions of the Puritans.  They were not, “Puritanical” in their morals.  At Harvard College, which they founded, a mug of beer came with the “meal plan” for lunch. . . and breakfast.  A surprising number of sermons (which were lengthy) dealt with sexuality.  In one town a married woman complained to the Church elders that her husband was not, shall we say, performing his husbandly duties in the bedroom.  The husband got put in the stockade for a day, with a sign around his neck indicating the reason for his being there.

But the Puritans were deadly serious about their mission, and about life in general.  They wanted to leave England not so much because they were sorely oppressed, but because England would let them fully live out how they perceived God’s call on their lives.  The Puritans did not want merely to tweak society, but remake it from top to bottom along more Biblical lines.  England simply offered no room for this, and so, like Constantine (Constantinople) and Ikhneton (Amarna) before them, they sought a fresh canvas to live out their vision.

They did not do this blindly.  After all, God had already called a people to flee a wicked land, and led them to a new place where He gave them special laws to live as a witness to the nations.  The Puritans modeled themselves on Israel, which perhaps explains the vast increase in Old Testament names like Jacob, Joseph, Sarah, etc. in Puritan communities.*  Some went so far as to give their children hortatory names, with actual examples like. . .

  • Fight-the-good-fight-of faith (last name, Snat)
  • Kill-sin (last name, Pemble)
  • Humiliation (last name, Scratcher)

And the very unfortunate young lady who was named

  • Flee-fornication (she married a man named Goodman, last name, Woodman).

They saw their mission not just for themselves, but for all of Christendom.  If they could show the world the blessings that came from living according to God’s law, other places would repent and copy them.  Thus, their success was imperative, not just for themselves, but in their eyes, for all the world.  They were to be a “City on a Hill.”

The light that they hoped would shine could not be dimmed in any way.  While they came to have the freedom to exercise their faith, they could not afford to have “error” contaminate them.  Within their communities they granted no freedom of religion to others, and came into conflict most frequently with Quakers.

This strong sense of mission made a huge impact on Puritan communities.  When compared with other places in Europe or North America, the Puritans had a much lower illegitimate birthrate, and a much higher literacy rate.  Man for man the Puritans gave more sacrificially than their contemporaries.  Nowhere else was their more attention to Scripture, more “clean and sober” living.

As with any zealous people, however, this sense of mission had a darker side.  Since their entire society had a spiritual overtone, all that happened could be explained in spiritual terms.  If you went sailing on the Sabbath (forbidden in Puritan communities) and drowned, well, that was what you get for breaking God’s law.  If you had a toothache, no doubt you had sinned with your teeth.  The Puritans frowned on taverns, not because of alcohol, but because it tended to lead to boisterous singing.  All that energy was better spent elsewhere.  The Puritans wanted no blending, no syncretism with what they considered “pagan.”  The Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, which ’12 Days’ has its roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and fined those that did celebrate it.

We can trace this approach back to the Puritans attitude about life in general.  Typical was this quote from Puritan Richard Sibbes,

There are two grand sides in the world, to which all belong: there is God’s side and those that are His, and there is another side that is Satan’s and those that are his. . . two contrary dispositions that pursue one another.

And from another fellow Puritan,

God hath placed us in the world to do him some work.  This is God’s working place; He hath houses of work for us: now, our lot here is to do work, to be in some calling. . . to work for God.

While the Puritans had many strengths, many of their weaknesses made themselves manifest in the infamous Salem Witch Trials.  When approaching this event, we should keep a couple of things in mind.

  • Could witchcraft real?  That is, is it possible that someone could give themselves over to Satan and use that power to work evil in the world?
  • If yes, then how would you know if someone was a witch?
  • If you thought someone was a real witch, what should be done with them?  As we discussed in class, if they had real powers, those powers would not be limited by geography.

In 1692, Salem experienced a burst of hysteria and a flurry of accusations over witchcraft.  They did not dispense with people on mere whims.  They had trials, brought forward witnesses, and had standard of evidence.  Those convicted usually had several witnesses against them, and many claimed to see spectres of the accused out and about in the community.  Astral Projection is a claimed power of witches.

If convicted, you had a chance to repent and be spared death.  However, one problem with the trials was the court’s demand that to demonstrate repentance, the accused name other witches in the community.  Refusal to name others could be taken as a sign that you had not really repented after all.

Within a few months they put the brakes on this runaway train, mainly because 1) They recognized that the trials tore the community apart, and this could not be the work of God, and 2) Significantly, they did not discount “spectral evidence,” or claim that the witnesses lied, but rather, that spectral evidence could be faked by demonic powers, again revealing their worldview.  They believed in evidence, but their standard for evidence, for better or worse, differs a good deal from ours today.

Though the trials stopped, they revealed deep divisions within Salem itself and a sign of the failing of the Puritan dream of a unified, godly community.  As the map below indicates, most of the accusers (‘A’) came from the poorer western sections of town, and most of those accused came from the wealthier eastern section.

The Puritans would fade away in the 18th century, but their stamp upon America remains, especially in regard to “family values,” and education.  In the early colonial era, New England could be described as perhaps the most “conservative” area, and is now one of the most liberal.  Some see this as evidence that, being wound so tight, New Englanders simply “snapped” and went the other way.  Some trace this to the influx of immigrants in the mid 19th century and beyond.  Personally, I tend to see more continuity.  In the 19th century, New England formed the hotbed of the abolitionist movement, and I think the Puritan, crusading spirit lives on, for better or worse, in New England today.

Blessings,

Dave

*One can see cultural differences reflected in how those in colonial Virginia, for example, named their children, with a predominance of famous English kings (William, Henry, etc.) and classic English female names like Margaret.  Clearly, Virginia had a more traditional Anglo-centric emphasis to their society.

9th/10th Grade: The Puritans in Power

Greetings,

This week we looked at the aftermath of the trial and execution of Charles I in England, and the ascension of the Puritans, represented by Oliver Cromwell, to power.

It’s hard to get more controversial than Oliver Cromwell.  Some see him as a champion of republican liberty, while some go so far as to label him a proto-fascist.    The facts are that the army dominated Parliament, and so Cromwell dominated Parliament.  He used this power to clear Parliament out of many of his opponents. He then went on campaigns in Ireland and Scotland to put down Stuart inspired resistance known for their brutality, and attempted to resign upon his return.  When this seemed impossible, he continued in power and became ‘Lord Protector’ of England and practically a king in all but name.

If you are a fan of Oliver Cromwell, you look at the events this way:

  • He did not have the luxury of waiting for Parliament to decide on a proper course.  Society will not stop to wait while the Revolution makes its decisions.  Cromwell felt that if Parliament would not act, society might descend into anarchy.
  • His campaigns were brutal, but you could argue that they were traitors and needed to be killed.
  • His attempt to resign shows that he was not interested in power as such, and wanted broader based democratic government.

Those against could just as well argue that

  • His lack of patience with Parliament may have had much more to due with the fact that he viewed Parliament as ineffectual not because they couldn’t function, so much as they would not agree with him.
  • His brutality during the Irish campaign became notorious, as he executed even those who surrendered voluntarily.  This poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for centuries to come.
  • His assuming essential monarchical powers does not help those who argue that Cromwell was not interested in power for the sake of power alone.

The English Civil War gives witness to a key principle of revolutions in general.  For an existing power to get overthrown, one usually needs significant power to oppose it.  For the existing power to in danger of getting overthrown usually (not always) means some kind of misrule and perhaps abuse of power which would affect many people.  However, this abuse of power would not affect everyone in the same way.  So, while the government falls because many opposed it, they did not oppose it for the same reasons.  After the revolution, the victorious discover that they could agree on what was wrong, but not what to do in its place.

Who gets the power in these circumstances?  Usually whoever exerts the most direct control over the army.  The dynamic that played out in England may resemble what happened in Egypt, for example, after they overthrew Mubarak.

Cromwell’s attempt to found a republic also raises uncomfortable questions about the line between morality and practicality in politics.  In his Discourses on Livy Machiavelli argues that any major shift in power, especially to a more democratic form of government, must be the work of one man (I include the full text at the end of the post).  In the end, the changes in government must have a point of unity, a point of control.  One might think that the American Revolution defeats this argument, but I think it unlikely the colonies would have successfully transitioned without George Washington, who “had” to serve as our first president.  One need not agree with Machiavelli’s moral implications (he excuses Romulus’ murder of his brother) to see the practical side of his ideas.

What did the Revolution Accomplish?

At first glance it seems the revolution accomplished little.  After Cromwell’s death Parliament recalled Charles I son Charles from exile and asked him to be King Charles II.  Charles did not rule without Parliament as his father had, but the powers of Parliament had clearly declined.  People rejoiced in Charles’s return from exile in France.  On the surface, since Charles II would have succeeded his father had their been no civil war, it seems like nothing changed.

But the proof would be felt in the long term.  Parliament had set a precedent.  Even in recalling Charles, they showed that it was they who could make kings as well as unmake them.  This would be felt most clearly after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Parliament kicked out James II and brought in William and Mary to be king in 1689.  Of course, William and Mary could reign, but on Parliament’s terms, not their own.

Still the aftermath of the Revolution does show the power of embedded habits and tradition.  We should expect that in uncertain times we fall back upon what we know — hence — Charles II.

The “Restoration” under Charles II had many strengths.  After the tumult of the previous 15-20 years people desperately wanted to relax and live their normal lives.  Charles II proved to be a very different man than his father, both in governing style and in temperament, as this portrait reveals.

Pulling off those shoes would require, if nothing else, a sense of humor, something Charles I lacked.  He also had more political sense regarding Parliament, and though he had little strong religious feeling himself (until the very end of his life, apparently) this at least meant that the religious furor that had wracked England for the past few decades could subside.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527):
Founding a Republic,
Excerpt from Discourses I, 9


To found a new republic, or to reform entirely the old institutions of an existing one, must be the work of one man only

It may perhaps appear to some that I have gone too far into the details of Roman history before having made any mention of the founders of that republic, or of her institutions, her religion and her military establishment. Not wishing, therefore, to keep any longer in suspense the desires of those who wish to understand these matters, I say that many will perhaps consider it an evil example that the founder of a civil society, as Romulus was, should first have killed his brother, and then have consented to the death of Titus Tatius, who had been elected to share the royal authority with him; from which it might be concluded that the citizens, according to the example of their prince, might, from ambition and the desire to rule, destroy those who attempt to oppose their authority. This opinion would be correct, if we do not take into consideration the object which Romulus had in view in committing that homicide. 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 be reprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficent purposes. The lawgiver should, however, be sufficiently wise and virtuous not to leave this authority which he has assumed either to his heirs or to any one else; for mankind being more prone to evil than to good, his successor might employ for evil purposes the power which he had used only for good ends. Besides, although one man alone should organise a government, yet it will not endure long if the administration of it remains on the shoulders of a single individual; it is well, then, to confide this to the charge of many, for thus it will be sustained by the many. Therefore, as the organisation of anything cannot be made by many, because the divergence of their opinions hinders them from agreeing as to what is best, yet, when once they do understand it, they will not readily agree to abandon it. That Romulus deserves to be excused for the death of his brother and that of his associate, and that what he had done was for the general good, and not for the gratification of his own ambition, is proved by the fact that he immediately instituted a senate with which to consult, and according to the opinions of which he might form his resolutions. And on carefully considering the authority which Romulus reserved for himself, we see that all he kept was the command of the army in case of war, and the power of convoking the senate. This was seen when Rome became free, after the expulsion of the Tarquins, when there was no other innovation made upon the existing order of things than the substitution of two consuls, appointed annually, in place of an hereditary king; which proves clearly that all the original institutions of that city were more in conformity with the requirements of a free and civil society than with an absolute and tyrannical government.

The above views might be corroborated by any number of examples, such as those of Moses, Lycurgus, Solon, and other founders of monarchies and republics, who were enabled to establish laws suitable for the general good only by keeping for themselves an exclusive authority; but all these are so well known that I will not further refer to them. I will adduce only one instance, not so celebrated, but which merits the consideration of those who aim to become good legislators: it is this. Agis, king of Sparta, desired to bring back the Spartans to the strict observance of the laws of Lycurgus, being convinced that, by deviating from them, their city had lost much of her ancient virtue, and consequently her power and dominion; but the Spartan ephors had him promptly killed, as one who attempted to make himself a tyrant. His successor, Cleomenes, had conceived the same desire, from studying the records and writings of Agis, which he had found, and which explained his aims and intentions. Cleomenes was convinced that he would be unable to render this service to his country unless he possessed sole authority; for he judged that, owing to the ambitious nature of men, he could not promote the interests of the many against the will of the few; and therefore he availed himself of a convenient opportunity to have all the ephors slain, as well as all such others as might oppose his project, after which he restored the laws of Lycurgus entirely. This course was calculated to resuscitate the greatness of Sparta, and to give Cleomenes a reputation equal to that of Lycurgus, had it not been for the power of the Macedonians and the weakness of the other Greek republics. For being soon after attacked by the Macedonians, and Sparta by herself being inferior in strength, and there being no one whom he could call to his aid, he was defeated; and thus his project, so just and laudable, was never put into execution. Considering, then, all these things, I conclude that, to found a republic, one must be alone; and that Romulus deserves to be absolved from, and not blamed for, the death of Remus and of Tatius.

10th Grade: Authority and the Stuart Kings

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our story in England.  With the death of Elizabeth, the male Tudor line ended, but the line could continue through Henry’s niece Mary, known as Mary Queen of Scots.  She had been executed for treason by Elizabeth, but now ironically, it was her son James that was called upon to take the reigns of power in England.

James I defense of absolute monarchy raises a dilemma occasioned by  the Reformation.  Protestants often accused Catholics of being ‘authoritarian.’  “Look,” they might say, “you have to obey bishops, popes, councils, and the like. Man has no chance to have an individual, personal relationship to God.”  Thus, according to this argument, Catholicism and democratic government could never go hand in hand.  Catholicism is inherently authoritarian.

Catholics would likely respond that Protestantism has the “authoritarian” problem.  By reducing everything to “Scripture alone” and forgoing reason, tradition, etc. we put ourselves at the mercy of whoever has the authority to give the “right” interpretation of Scripture.  With no buffer between man and the state in an independent church, the state would naturally grab up all the power.

As for Catholicism and democracy, what about the local village elections in the Middle Ages, or the Italian city-state republics of the 15th century?  Democracy has its roots in Catholicism, not Protestantism.

Both sides of this debate are a bit of a caricature, but absolute monarchy arose first within Protestantism, beginning with Henry VIII and extending down to James I.  In class we discussed when absolutism can gain acceptance by the people.  It takes certain historical circumstances, generally, for that sort of thing to fly.  One needs a time of great transition or crisis for people to accept this kind of authority.  In the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VIII had the license to reign autocratically.  In the aftermath of “Bloody” Mary and the Spanish Armada, perhaps his daughter Elizabeth did as well.  By the time of James I, however, this license may have expired.  But James exercised his absolute rule generally to bring moderation.  His portraits reveal an ease with himself and his surroundings,  He is comfortable in power, and makes others comfortable thereby.

James_I_of_England_404446 James_I_of_England_by_Daniel_Mytens

His son Charles, however, inherited his father’s ideas about absolute rule, but without the political sense  and personality of his father.  One look at his most famous portrait shows a man of unease and intensity, someone who might “upset the apple cart.”

His actions and those of others would bring about a clash that would shape the question of power and rights in England and perhaps western Europe, for decades to come.

From our vantage point monarchy seems quaint and outdated.  But we must realize that democratic movements are the relative newcomer on the historical stage.  It behooves us then, to consider the arguments for monarchical government.

Most such arguments that I encountered focus on some the technical aspects of kingly rule.  Monarchy is faster, more efficient,  and more unifying than democracies, and so on.   I think these arguments, whatever their merits, miss the major point of monarchies from a Christian perspective.  We should consider whether or not certain forms of government, and not just how they function, can aid or detract from our spiritual lives.

We begin by recognizing that the physical world is inextricably bound up with our spiritual lives.  Of course creation itself reflects God, but it goes beyond that.  Certain physical states may be more “spiritual” than others at certain times.  Thus, kneeling to pray put our bodies in a submissive posture, which can aid our prayers.  Or we stand to praise God, rather than recline on a couch during worship.   God gave humanity the special privilege of being created in His image, and we in turn should “image” God to the rest of creation as well as to each other.

In this line of thought, our form of government should image God’s governance of His creation.  Having a king, then, (regardless of whether the king acts well or poorly) gives us a physical reminder that we serve a heavenly king.  Serving a king (whether or not we agree with him) trains and prepares us to serve the King of Kings.

Thus, king’s should at times be dressed regally to reflect the splendor and majesty of kingly rule.  Also, a king should lead in service, modeling himself after how Jesus exercised His kingship (St. Louis IX of France and Emperor Michael II of Byzantium are notable examples of this).  Either way, it is the office of kingship that teaches us about God’s Kingship over creation. It has nothing to do with the person itself, who got the job merely by accident of birth.  And that’s the point (in part): some have the job of lawyer, or shoemaker, and some have the job of pantomiming the kingship of God.  Democracy, in contrast, gives us not just a poor but even detrimental spiritual example (the argument goes), because it essentially states, “What you want, you get.”  Democracy then, can encourage the worst of our spiritual impulses.

When we get to the democratic movements that sweep America and France we will make the case for a different form of government.  For now, I want students to understand the logic and motivation behind the actions and attitudes like James and Charles.

As some of you may know, the title of this site is drawn from the historian Kenneth Clarke, one of my favorites.  Last week we looked at parts of the ‘Protest and Communication” episode of his epic “Civilisation” series.  I include the entire episode below if you are interested, but even if you had time to see just the first few minutes, that alone reveals how much insight art can give into an era.

A Religious War that was about . . . Religion

Most modern westerners have a hard time with the notion of a religious war.  After 9/11 many commentators scrambled to find other alternatives to the notion that the conflict had religious differences at its core.  We talked about the relative poverty of the Mideast as the cause, though many leaders of terror groups come from wealthy backgrounds.  We argued that they simply fail to understand us, even though many terrorists lived (and currently live) in western countries and got fully exposed to our culture and way of life.

Quite simply, it may be the case that most of us in the west can no longer understand faith as a motive for much of anything, seeing no purpose for religion aside from something purely private and “spiritual.”

Many scholars of the wars that convulsed Europe in the wake of the Reformation take the same approach.  Whatever the religious differences between the sides, many point to rising tides of nationalism, economic concerns, class strife, and so on, to explain the crises. While all these issues have their place, they are almost always not the cause, but the fruit of underlying religious differences.

For example, let us take the rise of nationalist feeling in late 15th and early 16th centuries.  Such ideas arose no doubt as an outgrowth of the revival of classical culture.  Classical culture meant a revival of the city-state ethos, which worked directly against the medieval notion of Christendom.  Certainly, the weakness of church leadership in the 15th century did little to stem this tide.  But nationalism came from a revival of classical culture, a new life for an old religion buried 12 centuries prior.

Mack Holt’s The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629 impressed me immediately by his simple declaration that yes, the French wars of religion really were about religion.  If we only realized that sanity comes at such a simple price.

From John Wycliffe on down, reformers often focused their attacks on the Mass and the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic feast.  The same happened in France, with the first major Protestant salvo coming with with the “Affair of the Placards” in 1534.  Various pamphlets distributed throughout Paris read thusly:

By this mass the poor people are like ewes or miserable sheep, kept and maintained by these priests, then eaten, gnawed, and devoured.  Is there anyone who would not say and think that this is larceny and debauchery?  

By this mass they have seized, destroyed, and swallowed up everything.  They have disinherited kings, princes, nobles, merchants, and everything else alive.  Because of this, the priests live without any duty to anyone or anything, even the need to study.  What more do you want?  Do not be amazed then, that they defend it with such force.

They kill, burn, and destroy all who oppose them.  For now, all they have left is force.  Truth is lacking in them, but it menaces them, follows them, and chases them, and in the end, truth will find them out.  By it they shall be destroyed, Amen. Amen.  Amen.

For many Protestants, issues such as the eucharist began and ended in the theologically intellectual realm.  Strongly influenced by Renaissance humanists, they believed that truth came via textual analysis and debate.  Their arguments centered on interpretation of Scripture.  Holt gives a clear yet subtle analysis with this incident.  He points out that for Catholics the issue went far beyond abstract theological interpretation.  Obviously they had a theological position.  But for Frenchmen at least at this time, the celebration of the mass formed crucial social bonds between its participants.  The Church placed strong emphasis on not communing unless one had peace with your neighbors.  So in the end, attacking the mass meant attacking the linchpin of social cohesion in France.  It was the mass, and not any particular laws, political, or social organization that made France “France.”  To change the theology of the mass would be akin to dramatically altering our Constitution.

Critics of religious wars today might often wonder why they couldn’t all just get along.  Holt again parries and shows us the coronation oath all French kings took, which reads:

I shall protect the canonical privilege, due law, and justice, and I shall exercise defense of each bishop and of each church committed unto him, as much as I am able, with God’s help, just as a king properly ought to do in his kingdom.

To this Christian populace entrusted and subject to me, I promise in the name of Christ:

First, that by our authority the whole Christian populace shall preserve at all times true peace for the  Church of God.

Also, that in good faith to all men I shall be diligent to expel from my land all heretics designated by the Church

I affirm by oath all this said above.

Faced with the “Affair of the Placards,” any French king could either abjure his oath or try and fulfill it.  We can legitimately question some of the approaches used, but should not fault the French king for trying.  He had no other choice, at least initially.

Things got out of hand quickly.  The untimely death of certain French kings left a power vacuum filled at different times with different factions.  Huguenots often converted from the merchant class.  They had money and lived in towns that could easily be fortified against attackers.  It would have taken a dynamic king with a budget in the black to defeat them if it came to fighting.  France had neither.  Eventually, commoners took up the cause themselves, and then things got really ugly, even allowing for the possibility of exaggeration in some accounts.

Catholics and Protestants both committed atrocities for various reasons.  Catholics seem to have perpetrated more than their fair share of terrible deeds.  Holt shows us, however, how the issues that divided them went far below the skin.  Each side fought for a certain theology, and in so doing, fought for different versions of the meaning and purpose of France.

I find understanding the differences between the Protestant and Catholic versions of France tricky, but my best guess would be

  • Catholic France had an agricultural bent, while Protestantism favored merchants.
  • Protestants defined community via intellectual and doctrinal agreement.  Catholics found community in common visible practices and common observance of the liturgical calendar.
  • Protestants stressed the written word, Catholics looked to a more embodied “word” in their mass, liturgy, architecture, sacraments, and so on.

Whatever the overlap between Catholics and Protestants, these religious differences would produce different cultures.  We can imagine a Huguenot triumph perhaps resembling the Dutch Republic, where Protestants triumphed with a similar theology as the Huguenots–though Huguenots never had the numbers to actually take over France as they did the Netherlands.

For various reasons the monarchy never could root out Protestants.  An uneasy peace developed which allowed for toleration and Protestants to have a firm minority presence in France.  Some might say this proves that France could still be France with the two faiths co-existing.

Maybe.  But France could no longer have the same basis of political and social order if the celebration of the mass no longer held the country together.  The role of the king would have to change, his person would inevitably become less sacred, his job more administrative.  In time the brilliant but enigmatic Richelieu stated that, “People are immortal, and so must live by the law of God.  States are mortal, and thus are subject to the law of what works.”  Possibly the emphasis on the text for Huguenots led to a decidedly different, more disembodied intellectual climate, and perhaps this helped lead to the universal dream of a rational Enlightenment.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  In the event that you find your house divided, you will therefore need to find a new place to live.  In our own Civil War, one side triumphed decisively enough to force their opponents to live with them.  In this case, the minority never succumbed to the majority, and so it seems that they both had to find a different house to live in.

Holt’s book reminded me of the quote from Adam Wayne, a character in G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill.  Wayne commented that,

There were never any just wars but the religious wars.  There were never any humane wars, but the religious wars.  For these men fought for something they claimed at least, to be the happiness of a man, the virtue  of a man.  A Crusader at least thought that Islam hurt the soul of every man, king, or tinker that it could capture.

9th/10th Grade: The Big Armada that Couldn’t

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our look at Elizabeth’s reign in England, and began our special focus on the Spanish Armada of 1588.  This crucial naval battle was the high water mark of the Hapsburg Empire.  With hindsight, we can see that Spain’s defeat here sent them spiraling into a decline for the next few centuries.  Traditionally, the conflict between England and Spain is viewed through the following lens:

1. Spain was the big dominant empire, with all the advantages that brings, led by an intolerant king bent only on increasing his power.

2. England was the ‘Little Island that Could’ — the huge underdog that through scrap and pluck defeated the big bully.

I think this analysis is flawed for a number of reasons:

  • Did Spain have a legitimate strategic reason to attack England?  The English had been raiding the Spanish coastline, as well as Spanish ships in the Atlantic, for years.  England’s support of the Dutch’s rebellion against the Spanish would have made communication and supply very difficult for the Spanish.  None of this is to say that Spain had a good plan, or that you have to root for Spain — but it is important to understand what might have motivated the Spanish in the first place.
  • England’s ‘privateering’ could in one sense be called ‘state-sponsored piracy,’ and what the Spanish might have called, ‘State-Sponsored Terrorism’ (though the Spanish, with the conditions of their mines and their treatment of the natives across the Atlantic, cannot claim moral high ground either).  The English knew they could not beat Spain in the purely conventional sense.  But they also knew they did not need to.  If they could hit them here and there unpredictably, the Spanish would be forced to expend a great deal of resources to cover themselves everywhere.  Maybe Spain could be slowly weakened not by destroying them from without, but putting too much strain on them from within.
 We can see Spain in the mirror when we look at our current situation.  In some ways, we are the Spain of today, one of the few nations with a truly global reach of power and presence.  Al Queda and other like minded groups are in some ways in the position of England.  What happened on 9/11 was devastating in the sense of shock and loss of life.  The ripple effects, both financial (new government agencies, extra security measures, wars, etc.) and psychological continue to this day.  They don’t have to hit us everywhere all the time to hurt us.  To help identify with Phillip further I  asked the students to consider the following hypothetical possibility:
  • You are president, and your Secretary of Defense comes to you with a plan.  If the U.S. acts quickly, he has an idea, that if successful, could end the War on Terror and bring peace to the Mid East for the next 50 years.  The plan is realistic and achievable
  • However, the plan requires a large commitment of our available forces
  • The plan has about a 50% chance of success
  • If the plan fails, perhaps as much as 1/3 of our forces might be wiped out.

Would you approve of the plan and take the risk?  Most students said they would.  Though if it failed, history would likely paint you as an ignorant fool who had blind faith, just as Phillip tended to get portrayed until the latter 20th century.

3. What were the strategic burdens the Spanish faced?  They had more ships, but their ship were bigger, slower, and of course, needed to carry a lot of men and supplies (for the invasion).  Spanish ships had, at best, 5% of their weight as weaponry, while the average English ship had about 14% of its weight as weapons.  Who is the real underdog?

Below is the image of the newly designed English “race” ship:

And here we have the a typical Spanish ship of the time:

Of course, these differences in their respective ships are not the product of coincidence, but of the overall culture of Spain and England.  Spain and England had many similarities, with neither monarch presenting us with either the image of a saint or sinner.  Spain fought Protestants, but Elizabeth persecuted Catholics.   We must careful to find good and bad guys too quickly.

I do think we can say with confidence that England was a more ‘open’ society.  Next week we will examine the relative advantages more open societies have over their more ‘closed society’ counterparts.  England was not necessarily more tolerant than Spain.  They persecuted Catholics with the same zeal as Spain persecuted Protestants.   But England had more social mobility.  For example, in England non-nobles like Francis Drake could have enormous influence.  In Spain, Philip II appointed the Duke of Medina Sedona as the top commander of the Armada, chiefly I think because he was the highest ranking nobleman available.  He did this in spite of the fact that the Duke had rarely even been at sea, let alone commanded ships at sea.  The Duke protested to the king to no avail.  For Philip, the nature of things dictated that the highest ranking nobleman command the fleet.

Philip II may not have been tyrannical, but he did close himself off from his people.  He never communicated in person – it was all done through official letters.  While he communicated frequently with people, it was not in a manner that would generate a free flow of ideas.   He issued pronouncements, and did not invite dialogue.  Take a look at his palace in this image here, which shows his physical as well as psychological isolation:

In any contest, there are many factors at work, including what we might call luck.  But we should not be surprised to see connections between winning and losing armies, and the respective contexts from which they are born.
As a total aside, here is a painting of Philip II, not afraid to show a little leg!  Elizabethan fashion remains a mystery to me.  When I asked what fashion accessory future generations will scratch their heads at, a few students said, “Ties.”  I say, “Stiletto heels.”
Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

9th/10th Grade: Gnawing Insecurity

Greetings,

This week we looked at the English Reformation, beginning with Henry VIII, and culminating with Elizabeth I.  Wherever the Reformation took root, it did so for slightly different reasons and took different forms.  Some say that the English Reformation was driven more by personality and nationality than theology, and there may be truth to this.  In time, Anglicanism would develop a distinct theological voice, but in the beginning the marriages of the monarch determined much of the course of events.

When we think of Henry VIII we often think of a domineering and abusive man, perhaps too much in love with his own power.  This may capture much of the truth of who Henry was, but he did not necessarily begin that way.  He had great intelligence.  He spoke fluently in perhaps three different languages.  He was an accomplished musician and dancer.  He wrote a legitimate and scholarly work on the sacraments.   He had a love for crowds and spectacle, and England adored him in the early years.

When we see him as a young man . . .

we may wonder how eventually he became this man. . .

But I think both pictures share something in common.  We often think of Henry as all confidence and show, like this. . .

But I wonder if this last picture shows Henry “protesting too much.”  The first two pictures to me show a lurking insecurity.  The man in the first two pictures is not at ease with himself or his place in the world.  Perhaps I go too far in psychological speculation, but the image above with him jutting out his chest seems to reinforce this idea of insecurity.  If we see Henry this way, his near obsession for a son begins to make sense to us.  Strong as Henry wanted to appear, his theological views depended greatly on those who he surrounded himself at a given moment in time.  Perhaps this is why many assert that Henry’s last wife, the evangelical Catherine Parr (here below giving her best “Excuse me, will you please keep your children quiet — this is a library!” look) may have been his most important.  She tutored Henry’s son Edward, and had the strength of will to get her vision of Anglicanism imprinted on England.  To outlive Henry (the only of his wives to do so) she must have been a strong woman!

Six years after his death, his oldest daughter Mary assumed the throne.  History knows her as “Bloody Mary,” because of her persecution of Protestants.  In many ways she deserved this epithet, but we must try and sympathize with her.  Henry unjustly divorced and banished her mother Catherine of Aragon.  She had little contact with Protestants, and plenty of time to nurse a grudge, to plan to right the wrongs of the past.  We might understand better if we we realize that she thought that Henry had “ruined the country,” and God placed her in authority to bring England back to a godly foundation.  We can imagine becoming president where your predecessor had done everything against your most deepest convictions.  You would want to set things aright.

To this psychological motivation we should add that neither Henry or Mary’s mother lived very long.  What if she felt that she had precious little time to accomplish her goals before her death?  As the saying goes, “Beware of an old man (or woman) in a hurry.”  In this image to the right we see the same gnawing insecurity her father could not hide.  Like Henry she knew she needed a son if her attempt at reform would last, but as an older woman nearly past childbearing years, she had little hope of a suitor actually appearing.  We can lament the tragic nature of her life without condoning her actions.

After Mary’s death the stage was set for her half-sister Elizabeth to have a glorious reign.  Yet she too had reason to fear.  The pope had declared Henry’s marriage to Anne illegitimate, which meant that Elizabeth herself had no right to rule.  After Elizabeth, the closest to the throne was her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, niece of Henry VIII.  She stayed Catholic, and so remained the focus of Catholic plots to unseat Elizabeth.

Matters got more complicated when Mary fled to England for refuge after some accused her of murder. Personal letter between the two reveal a long friendship between them, but almost immediately after her arrival in England, Elizabeth imprisoned her.  Eventually one of Elizabeth’s spies uncovers evidence of Mary implicating herself  in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth.  The trial is a foregone conclusion — she’s guilty of treason.

We know that Elizabeth agonized over the options about what to do with her friend and cousin.  Many  believed that England and Elizabeth could never be safe as long as Mary lived.  Now that Mary had committed treason, Elizabeth had every right to deal with the problem once and for all.  Elizabeth had a few options:

  • She could execute her
  • She could keep Mary imprisoned, knowing that plots could still arise
  • She could exile Mary, but in exile she could still raise an army and return
  • She could ignore it altogether and hope it would not happen again.  But what head of state can ignore treason?

Neither option appealed to Elizabeth.  Sometimes we don’t have good choices, only a series of bad ones.

Some students wondered astutely if Elizabeth could escape all these choices by marrying herself.  If she had kids, her place on the throne, and the future of Protestantism, would be much more secure.  As to why she never did marry, my theory is the Tudor love of power.  If she married, she would still be queen, but someone else would be king.  This image below shows Elizabeth, like her father, perfectly comfortable in the role of outsized, grand monarch.

Next, the Spanish Armada.

Many thanks,

Dave

Seeing what you Mean

This was originally written in 2018 . . . .

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

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

What is a president, exactly?

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

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

What is a king (or queen), exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hence, we see our dilemma.

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

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

Dave

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

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

I consider the idea of devolution in history here.

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

 

 

Renaissance and Reformation, Act 2 (?)

I published this originally in 2016 a few weeks after Trump’s election.  In re-reading it, I would change very little of my original thoughts.  I am still not sure of what to make of Trump’s presidency and what it might mean for our future, and I still am not sure what criteria to use to evaluate his presidency.

Without further comment, the original post . . .

**************************

Like many I awoke Wednesday, November 9 to a big surprise.  Like many I wonder in what sense business as usual (more or less) will be the order of the day as Trump begins to actually govern, or whether or not we will see a significant pivot in our national life.  Time will tell (full disclosure, I supported neither candidate and hoped for a 3rd party revolution that never materialized).

I confess there is much I fail to understand about the election.  I have no strong opinions as to why Trump won.   I will attempt to focus on a broader historical perspective and will not deal with issues specific to the campaign, whatever their importance might have been.  I will not seek to take sides so much as to explain.

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Like many I search for historical parallels to our situation.  Many months ago I suggested Andrew Jackson, or perhaps Rome’s Marius, as a historical counterpart to Trump.  A few months ago Tyler Cowen suggested that, based on a book he had read, our world might resemble that of the Reformation.  I filed that away and thought little of it–until November 9.  All six of Cowen’s observations have merit, but two immediately jumped out at me:

1. Many of the structures in places are perceived as failing, even though in absolute terms they are not obviously doing worse than previous times.

2. There is a rise in nationalist sentiment and a semi-cosmopolitan ethic is starting to lose influence.

In his Civilisation series Kenneth Clark displayed an obvious affection for Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).  Who can blame him?  Erasmus had a great intellect and a good sense of humor, especially about himself.  Erasmus had no particular attachments anywhere and so he cultivated friends all over Europe.  He represented what some might see as the apotheosis of the medieval vision–a cosmopolitan, universal man of Christendom.

Such status did not prevent Erasmus from engaging in polemical criticism.  From what I hear, his Praise of Folly (I have not read it) mercilessly lambasts much of society at that time, in and out of the Church.  And yet, Clark points out that Erasmus could not accept challenges to authority from the common man.  In a personal letter he wrote with horror at the fact that hardly anyone in a town he visited doffed their caps to him–to him–a respectable pillar of Society.  We can almost hear him say, “I’m the one who gets to criticize society.  Not you!  You don’t know what you’re doing, whereas I (obviously) do!”*

Erasmus could criticize aspects of society but would never think of criticizing Society itself and the conventions that held it together.  He lived in an urbane, intelligent, tolerant world of reason, progress, proportion, and the like.  But the temper of times overwhelmed him.  Europe’s darling in 1511 found himself playing the role of “Mr. Irrelevant” soon after the Reformation began in 1517.

Even Clarke, I think, sees the problem with Erasmus.  No one doubted his character, but they questioned his conviction. Erasmus wore too much on his sleeve and not enough (at least to observers) in his heart.  His glib dance throughout Europe made many wonder what he actually believed.

Many assume the that the medieval period practiced more than its fair share of intolerance.  Scholar and historian Regine Pernoud points out, however, that the latter Renaissance had many more persecutions of heretics and witches than any period in the Middle Ages.  She offers no direct reasons for this, but we can speculate.  By 1200 A.D. Europe had attained a significant measure of stability, but not yet a great deal of movement.  The elite of society had “real” jobs and connections to the common man.  The “people” did not live as well as the aristocracy, but they lived with the elite in the same communities and moved in the same circles.  The sea had yet to tempt medieval society, which limited physical mobility and perhaps added to the stability.

By the mid 13th century Thomas Aquinas begins to dabble in the powers of reason and Aristotle.  The Black Plague disrupted the settled social arrangements (among other things).  The 15th century saw plenty of change with the beginnings of exploration and the printing press.  The papal court practiced pagan Greek city-state thinking more so than the service of God.  Now too, elites like Erasmus moved in entirely different circles than “the people.”  With the revival of classical culture came the revival of classical pagan religion, and the rise of occult practices.  It adds up to too much change too quickly.  The Reformation happened not just because of Luther, but in part because Europe had several different people rise up simultaneously willing to challenge an out of touch status quo many no longer cared anything for.  Rightly or wrongly, many felt that elite Renaissance culture had gone too far.**  As Pernoud points out, the reaction against this outwardly benign march of “progress” began before the Reformation in the late Renaissance.

In another post, again from a few months ago, Cowen suggests the possibility that too much immigration may result in a backlash against immigration (we should note that Cowen favors increased immigration as a matter of ideology, but might be pragmatic as a matter of policy–I don’t know). If the pace of change moves too fast, people react against it even if the change itself benefits them overall (most data shows the increased benefits of increased immigration). Rapid change often creates psychological problems of dislocation.

Others with different ideological perspectives seem to agree with him.  Slavoj Zizek argues (warning to those who follow the link: Zizek uses profanity rather “liberally” in places:) that on European immigration issue, allowing for more democracy would significantly restrict immigration policies in multiple countries.  Right now more inclusive policies must come from the state and not from the people.^  Ezra Klein had an interesting exchange with Tyler Cowen recently where they discussed the subject of diversity.

COWEN: …Now Putman, let me ask you about Putnam, and how Putnam relates to Donald Trump. As you know, Robert Putnam at Harvard, he has some work showing that when ethnic diversity goes up that there’s less trust, less cooperation, less social capital.

If you think of yourself in the role of an editor, so you have an American society, diversity has gone up, and a lot of people have reacted to this I would say rather badly — and I think you would agree with me they’ve reacted rather badly — but there’s still a way in which the issue could be framed that while diversity is actually a problem, we can’t handle diversity.

Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?

KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”

Might Trump have a doppelgänger of sorts (not religiously, not even close!) in Martin Luther?  In Luther, we see, among other things, someone with an authoritarian nationalist streak, one who could not stand the polite pagan-infused niceness of elite Europe, one who had no trouble calling fire and brimstone down upon a variety of people, and one who dabbled in opportunism from time to time.

One possible explanation for Trump might lie in the reaction against some of the sweeping changes that have come into the consciousness of America, such as

  • The “trigger warning” and “snowflake” phenomena across many college campuses
  • The Supreme Court case legalizing homosexual marriage across the land (overturning a variety of state laws in the process).
  • The extreme pressure directed against those who refuse to cater, provide flowers, etc. for homosexual weddings
  • The debate over transgender bathrooms, the reaction against the NC law, etc.

None of these changes directly effect the well-being of very many at all, but they do impact how one sees the their place in the world.  Without considering who is right or wrong in these actions, might the western cosmopolitan set across the U.S. and Europe have flown too close to the sun too quickly?

I listen to classical music on a very low level, when I actually listen to it. I can usually tell if it’s Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart, but that’s about it.   One day I decided to get cultured and tried to listen to a Mahler symphony.  My reaction?

In Absolutely on Music, Japanese author Haruki Murakami recorded a series of interviews with the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa.  In one interview Murakami asks,

Just listening to the third movement of [Mahler’s] First Symphony, it seems clear to me that his music is filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without logical connection, and sometimes in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldview–a huge variety of stuff, no single one at the center of things . . . .  Isn’t there something particularly universal or cosmopolitan about Mahler’s music?

To my admittedly very limited experience of attempting to listen to Mahler, Murakami could have just as easily asked, “Isn’t there something meaningless and incomprehensible about Mahler’s music?  After 1/2 hour of attempting to “elevate” my cultural understanding, I would have begged someone to play me a Sousa march to at least bring my brain back into focus.

Cowen’s final thought on how this world might resemble that of the Reformation . . .

The world may nonetheless end up much better off, but the ride to get there will be rocky indeed.

Dave

*A possible parallel to this exists today.  A variety of high-profile fashion designers have said that they will not provide gowns for Melania Trump.  Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in North Carolina over his objections to their transgender laws.  The great jazz pianist Ethan Iverson called for a boycott of Steinway pianos because the owner of Steinway supported Trump in some vague fashion (in 2012 Iverson urged a boycott of a particular jazz musician for his support of Romney.  Were Iverson a politician, this would be extremely dangerous territory, i.e., punishing someone not for their actions but for their particular beliefs). All of them were perfectly within their rights to do so.  Many applauded them putting moral convictions over profit or convenience.

Can progressives not extend the same rights to those who wish not to cater homosexual weddings?  It appears that some do not wish to extend the same right of protest.  Stephanie Slade at Reason magazine wrote,

The problem is not that Theallet was willing to dress Michelle Obama and isn’t willing to dress Melania Trump (which is, like it or not, a form of discrimination). The problem is just how many people don’t seem to think that same freedom should be extended to bakery owners, photographers, and other wedding vendors who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

As Theallet put it, “we consider our voice an expression of our artistic and philosophical ideals.” I suspect Barronelle Stutzman, the white-haired grandmother who owns Arlene’s Flowers, feels the same way about her craft. But instead of assuming a live-and-let-live attitude on the matter, Washington state has systematically worked to destroy Stutzman’s business unless she agrees to take part in a celebration to which she is morally opposed.

**Whatever authoritarian streak the Middle Ages might have had, the Renaissance had it too, but it came not from the people, but from the elite makers of taste.  In many cathedrals the colorful stained glass (made by a variety of local artisans) got smashed out and replaced with clear glass to better fit wth their ideas of classical purity and decorum.

Pernoud argued with some force that the culture of the Middle Ages was “populist,” which the culture of the Renaissance was “elitist.”

^We can see the Brexit vote as a symptom of this same phenomena.  Europe’s pundits all seemingly declared that Britain would vote to stay in the European Union.  Part of me wonders whether or not the vote to leave had more to do with “sticking it to the cosmopolitan man” (which certainly includes most pundits) than any particular economic or social issue.

9th/10th Grade: The Reformation Roller Coaster

Greetings,

This week we looked at how the Reformation began to spread beyond Luther and his theology.  We looked at a couple of key ideas and themes:

1. Erasmus was a notable scholar.  He wrote many powerful critiques of the Catholic hierarchy.  He believed in going “back to the sources,” and translated the New Testament into Greek.  He initially admired Luther, but felt that a) Luther went too far, and b) Breaking with the Church would cause more harm than good.  Erasmus’ life should make us consider whether or not the cost of the Reformation outweighed its benefits.

2. Mainstream reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli believed that while the Church needed reform, society as it stood should be preserved.  Others of a more radical bent believed that both Church and society needed drastic overhauls.  They borrowed heavily from Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” theology and established their own views of faith, revelation, and the culture around them.  They went much further than Luther ever intended.  The logic of their ideas ran something like. . .

  • All believers have equal access to God, and have an equal chance of understanding His Word
  • Therefore, we have no need of any kind of hierarchical leadership in the Church
  • Those with the Spirit of God have more wisdom than those who do not.  Therefore, we have no real need of local governments.
  • To achieve real holiness of life, and real holiness in society, the godly must separate themselves from the ungodly.

Luther and others were aghast when they saw how others interpreted their ideas.  When Luther wrote pamphlets urging the nobility to crush the radicals without mercy, some felt that Luther had become a ‘Protestant Pope.’

Our look at the ‘Radical Reformation’ forced us to consider the Church’s relationship to society.  Calvin’s followers wanted to blend civic and religious duties almost until there was no distinction.  In other words, Church and Society in their view should blend seamlessly together.  Radical Reformers wanted the kept entirely separate.  I hope the students understood that our ideas of how the Church should function impact how we think Christians should interact with society.

Of course, Luther never envisioned that he was starting “The Reformation.”  He believed that the Church needed reformed, and that under his guidance, the Church had more or less done so.  In his mind, after the reforms he helped initiate, it was time to stop “The Reformation.”  But Luther had unwittingly opened the floodgates.  The genie was out of the lamp, roaming free across Europe.

We discussed that while Protestantism solved many problems, it created others:

1. There are thousands and thousands of Protestant denominations worldwide.  What did this mean for society in the 16th century?  What does this mean for us today? Is this a problem?  If so, can Protestantism solve it, or is it part of its very nature?

2. In the 16th century, Catholics persecuted Protestants (and vice versa), but Protestants also persecuted each other, largely over disagreements over what is ‘essential’ to the faith.  How do we know what an essential of the faith is?  Can Protestants reach unity on this question today?  Why could they not do so in the 16th century?  As we discussed in class, few disagree about what Scripture says.  We disagree about what it means.  Why did the social, political, and religious climate of this time lead to so much violence?

The peasant revolts, the political shifts, and the multitude of opinions that emerged from this period should make us ask — “What was the Reformation exactly?”  For our first formal discussion of the year we got different perspectives on this question.  Whatever our answer, we must see that the Reformation involved much more than a change of church doctrine.  In fact, the Reformation shows us that changes in the Church will get reflected in society at large.

We continued to examine the Reformation in England, and its consequences for the rest of Europe. On Thursday we looked at Henry VIII early life and reign.  I include here four pictures of him at various points in his life.   No matter the period — I don’t trust those eyes!

Last Thursday I had the students look at a variety of maps in an effort to look at the Reformation from a purely geographical perspective.  In other words, did geography do anything to shape the course of the Reformation? Are there any patterns for us to observe?  The maps are here, which include the topography that the students had to match up with the religious divisions.

European Topography:

Some of them noted how mountains walled off certain religious groups.  Some theorized that different countries of like religious beliefs usually were close enough to be trading partners.  Religious groups in more rugged terrain (Spanish Catholics, French and Scottish Protestants) tended to have a bit more militancy to them than others did.  The possible link with rugged terrain and more intense religious expression may go beyond Europe.  Most of radical Islam, for example, does not come from Indonesia (the most populous Moslem country) but from the deserts of the Mid-East.  Looking at events from different angles hopefully can give us a more full complete picture of an era.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

9th/10th Grade: Looking back from the Reformation

Greetings to all,

This will be the first of what should be weekly updates about what we are doing in class.  My goal is to have these updates to you no later than Sunday afternoon, so if you do not receive one by Monday, do let me know.  My purpose is to let you have a glimpse of the classroom so you can keep abreast of what we are learning and discussing.  I hope you will join in the conversation with us as we move through the year.

We spent part of the first week reviewing and setting the context for the Reformation.  For the new students, this meant entering a story somewhere in the middle, which can always be difficult.  For some of the returning students, summer has understandably flushed some of their brains.  Any student who feels shaky on the medieval and Renaissance period may want to look here and here, or perhaps other places in the “9th Grade” category in the archives here at astickinthemud.

As I mentioned at orientation, this class primarily involves understanding what it means to transition from the pre-modern to the modern world.  We tend to use “modern” as a synonym for “good,” and indeed, students may feel that the changes from 1500-1850 represent a substantial improvement for mankind.  However, others may just as legitimately feel that we lost a great deal of our Christian heritage as a result of this transition.  Understanding both sides of this debate is one of the key goals of this class, regardless of where students stand on this transition.

The transition can be best understood I think in the following ways:

  • The pre-modern world believed that time and space had a meaning of its own apart from our own actions, whereas the modern world, in the words of scholar Charles Taylor, believes in the homogeneity of time and space.

For example, some churches today have spaces that they use for basketball on one day, picnics on another day, and worship on Sundays.  The meaning of the space depends on the meaning the people give it.  The space has no “meaning” in itself.

The pre-modern world believed in sacred time (Lent, Paschaltide, Advent, etc.) and sacred space.  No one would every think of playing basketball inside Chartes Cathedral.  The space has a meaning apart from us, inherent in the nature of the space itself.

  • The modern world puts a lot more emphasis on the individual than the pre-modern world, which had a more communal and historically oriented approach to meaning.

For example, many in the modern world feel comfortable with the idea than anyone can interpret the scriptures, which empowers the laity to read for themselves.  On the flip side, however, the modern world has a harder time deciding which interpretation is correct.  The pre-modern world had little concept of the individual and derived meaning and understanding from the past more so than the present.

No Church historian, whether Protestant or Catholic, believes that things in the Church in 1500 A.D. were fine.  Many wanted reform in the Church and believed it was desperately needed.   Among scholars and contemporaries, disagreements come in the following areas:

1. When did the problems in the Church begin?  Some say that it began with the popes of the 15th century.  Some say it began with the Great Schism of 1378.  Some argue that it can be traced to the Avignon Papacy, or to the papal decree ‘Unam Sanctum.’  Some go as far back as the Investiture Controversy of 1077.  Some reformers would want to go back further still, and argued that the problems began with Constantine in the 4th century A.D. How people answered this question influenced what they believe was the root problem the church faced.

2. What  indeed was the root problem the Church faced?  Was it a question of the ethics of the Church hierarchy? Was the issue mainly theological?  Or was it the Church’s long involvement with politics?  Or perhaps, all three?  Each choice represented a new fork in the road, one that would involve different choices and divergent paths.  For example, if you believed the Church’s problems to be recent, you likely would focus on the Church’s moral lapses.  The further back one found the so-called “root” of the problem, the more theological and institutional the criticisms, the more radical the operation required to correct the abuses.

Another issue was not only how far reform should go, but, cut free from Church hierarchy, what criteria should they use to make theological decisions?  What authority should tradition be granted?  Is it just “What the Bible means to me?”  If it is more than that, what is it?  Reformers at the time did not always agree on this question, and the results of their disagreement would do much to shape events throughout Europe.

Despite its fairly innocuous beginning when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, the Reformation would snowball into a revolution.  Martin Luther had all of the necessary qualities that revolutionaries need.  He possessed great courage and great belief in his convictions.  He had charisma and keen intelligence.  The same qualities that make for good revolutionaries, however, do not make for good diplomats.  This type needs patience, flexibility, and the ability to see many points of view.  Historically speaking, very, very few have been good at both.*  This too will have a significant impact on Protestantism in particular, and the history of Europe in general.  Below I include some quotes from Martin Luther (and others) that illustrate Luther’s keen insights, sense of humor, temper, and stubbornness.

Next week we will see how the Reformation spreads throughout northern Europe, and the different guises reform takes.  If we believe that religion forms the heart of any civilization, the religious upheaval in Europe in 16th century will have significant ripple effects into all areas of life.  We shall examine some of these things next week.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

*The only two I can think of are Nelson Mandela and George Washington.  Can anyone else think of others?

Reformation Quotes:

I think his [95 Theses] will please all, except a few regarding Purgatory who make their money thereby.  I perceive that the monarchy of the Roman high priest is the plague of Christendom, yet I hardly know if it is expedient to touch this open sore. — Erasmus in 1518

Most blessed Father, I offer myself prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I am and have. . . .I will acknowledge your voice as the voice of Christ, residing and speaking in you.  — Martin Luther to Pope Leo, 1518

Dearest brother in Christ, your epistle, showing the keeness of your mind and breathing a Christian spirit, was most pleasant to me.  Christ gave you his spirit, for His glory and the world’s good. [My advice] is that quiet argument may do more than wholesale condemnation.  Keep cool.  Do not get angry. — Erasmus 1519, in a letter to Luther

Luther’s books are everywhere and in every language.  No one would believe the influence he now has on men. — Erasmus, 1521

Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason . . . I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe.  God help me. — Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521

If we strike thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, heretics with fire, why do we not much more attack these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and this sink of Roman Sodom . . . and wash our hands in their blood? —  Martin Luther, 1520

It would be better if every bishop were murdered, every foundation of every cloister rooted out, then one soul destroyed, let alone that all souls should be lost due to their trumpery and idolatry. – Martin Luther, 1521

Begone, unclean swine!  Touch not the altars with your desecrated hands!  The cup is full.  See ye not that the breath of liberty is stirring?  – John Hutten, German priest speaking to the Roman bishops

The common man is learning to think, and contempt of princes is gathering among the multitude.  Men will not suffer your tyranny much longer. — Luther to the German princes

You lords, let down your stubborness and oppression, and give the poor air to breathe.  The peasants, for their part, should let themselves be instructed, and [withdraw some of their demands]. – Luther to German Nobility

Forward!  Forward while the fire is hot!  Let your swords be ever warm with blood. . . . The godless have no right to live except as they are permitted to do so by the elect.  – Thomas Munster, to his peasant army, 1524

In my former book, I did not venture to judge the peasants, since they had offered to be set right and instructed, [but they did not listen].  Any man against whom sedition can be proved is outside the law of God, so that the first who can slay him does right and well.  Therefore let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab.  There is nothing more devilish than a rebel. – Luther, ‘Against the Robbing and Murderous Horde Of Peasants.’ – 1525

He who will not hear God’s Word when it is spoken with kindness must hear the headsman when he comes with his axe. . . . Of mercy I will give no heed but to God’s will in His word.  If He will have wrath and not mercy, what are you to do with mercy?  Did not Saul sin by showing mercy upon Malek? — Luther, ‘An Open Letter concerning the Hard Book Against the Peasants.

Why should we pity men more than God does? – Philip Melancthon on the destruction of the Anabaptists

Anyone who is aware of [Anabaptist] teaching and preaching must give names to the magistrate, in order that the offender may be taken and punished.  Those aware of such breeches of this order and do not give information, shall be punished by loss of life or property. – Edict of Saxony, 1528

Quotes from Luther on Various Topics:

All the articles of our Christian faith are in the presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd and false.  Reason is the greatest enemy faith has.  She is the Devil’s greatest whore.

The Bible teaches us to feel, hope, grasp, and comprehend faith, hope, and charity far otherwise than mere human reason can.

The human will is a beast of burden.  If God mounts it, it goes where He wills, and if Satan, it goes where he wills.  Nor can it choose the rider.

Christianity is nothing but a continual exercise in feeling that though you sin, you have no sin.  It is enough to know that the Lamb bears the sins of the world, whether we commit a thousand fornications a day or as many murders.

Man is as unfree as a block of wood, a lump of clay, a pillar of salt.

I do not admit that my doctrine can be judged by anyone.  He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.

Seek out the society of your boon companions, drink, play talk bawdy, amuse yourself.  One must sometimes commit a great sin out of hate for the Devil, so as not to give you the chance to feel scrupulous over mere nothings.

Sin powerfully.  God can only forgive a hearty sinner.

I eat like a Bohemian and drink like a German.  Thanks be to God.

I seek and accept joy where I can find it.  We now know, thank God, that we can be happy with a good conscience.

Our loving God wills that we eat, drink, and be merry.

Dances are instituted that courtesy may contracted between young men and girls.  I myself would attend them sometimes, but the youth would whirl less giddily if I did.

I would not give up my humble musical gift for anything, however great.  Next to theology, there is no art that can be compared to music, for it alone, after theology, gives us rest and joy of heart.

Christians need not altogether shun plays because there is sometimes coarseness and adulteries therein; for such reasons they would have to give up the Bible too.

If God can forgive me for having crucified Him . . . He can also bear with me for occasionally taking a good drink to honor Him.

My enemies examine all that I do.  If I break wind in Wittenberg they smell it in Rome.

Punish if you must, but let the sugar plum go with the rod.

Take women from their housewifery and they are good for nothing.  But there she can do more with the children with one finger than a man with two fists.

My Lord Katie (his pet name for his wife Katharine).

I wish you peace and grace in Christ, and send you my infirm love.  Dear Katie, I was weak on the road to Eisleben, but that was my own fault. . . . now, thank God I am so well that I am sore tempted by fair women and care not how gallant I am.  God bless you.

I never work better than when I am inspired by anger.

Luther the Anti-Semite?

 I would not have the Gospel defended by violence or murder.  Since belief and unbelief is a matter of everyone’s conscience . . . the secular power should be content to attend to its own affairs and constrain no one by force.

Since our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists and monks, those donkeys have dealt poorly with the Jews.  Indeed, had I been a Jew and seen such idiots, I would rather be a hog than a Christian.  I would advise everybody to deal kindly with the Jews.

And let whosoever can throw brimstone and pitch upon [the Jews]; if one could hurl hellfire so much the better. . . .And this must be done, so that our Lord will see that we are indeed Christians.  Let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land.

Opinions of Luther

Luther is the ‘Morning Star’ of Wittenberg. – Mutantius, contemporary of Luther

Luther has all the fury of a maniac. – Mutantius, spoken about a year after the previous comment

If we judge greatness by influence – which is the least subjective test we can use – we may rank Luther with Copernicus, Voltaire, and Darwin as the most powerful personalities in the modern world. – Will Durant

The Stripping of the Altars

A friend of mine and I sometimes argue about A.I. He contends that it is literally impossible for the Singularity to happen. I agree with Jonathan Pageau, who stated that whether or not the Singularity “actually” happens won’t matter if people believe that it has happened. Our perception of reality trumps “reality” all the time, and then calls that reality into being. If you believe that you have an imaginary friend you act on that belief and shape your life around it. Those choices count much more than the fact that Billy the Rabbit has no actual physical existence.*

Perception obviously shapes historical analysis as well and can easily trump “facts on the ground.”

Sean McMeekin has written The Russian Revolution: A New History that challenges the version of events that I (and many others) learned in high school. Because of newly declassified documents available, McMeekin has solid footing for his conclusions. Textbooks told us that,

  • Russia was hopelessly backward and corrupt
  • The people were starving
  • The army wouldn’t fight in WW I, but the Czar made them anyway
  • That the people rose up spontaneously with the Bolsheviks, etc.

Naturally, the Left in Europe and America eagerly accepted this narrative–it was a narrative they very much wanted to be true.

We now know that

  • Bolsheviks paid the modern equivalent of hundreds of dollars per person per protest, which came direct from German financing
  • The Red Army in the Civil War (1918-1919) had lots of help from Sweden, it was not a purely popular movement
  • The Russian army in WW I actually fought well most of the time and had high morale until the Provisional Government made catastrophic errors after Czar Nicholas abdicated
  • Czarist Russia actually had a milder justice/police system than most any other comparable westernized country.

McMeekin points out perfectly well that a) Communism is bad, and b) Communists lied and manipulated to get into power, and then promptly dreadfully abused said power. But what this doesn’t tell us is why Lenin and Trotsky won and could maintain power, if they didn’t necessarily represent the people.

Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 attempts something similar. The standard narrative of the English Reformation generally assumes, that, yes–Henry VIII was a bit of wild boar, but Catholicism had reached a decrepit state and the laity, on the whole, wanted change. In some ways, then, the Reformation proved a blessing in disguise for Catholicism, as it spurred on their own revival. Duffy’s extensive research seeks to change our perception of the Catholic church in England leading up to the momentous decade of the 1530’s. Duffy combines copious research with an intimate and engaged style. One can see why this book won awards for historical writing in England. Duffy avoids any direct comments on the theological controversies that surround the book, but stays engaged as a writer through the ebb and flow of events he describes.

Duffy uses a few different lenses to make his points. Many assume that the laity must not have understood services in Latin (however much Latin was known in AD 1000, it was the language of scholars and clergy by the mid-15th century), and therefore disengaged themselves from liturgical life. With multiple types of sources, one in fact sees almost the opposite. Participation in church life on Sundays and other important feasts formed a crucial part of the lives of nearly everyone. Many laity gave gifts to churches not just of money, but of items for liturgical use. Indeed, in the English church at least, the clergy had responsibility for the adornment of the altar, but the laity for the nave of the church. Different sources indicate that the laity saw this not as imposition or burden imposed from the clergy, but as a privilege and a chance to take responsibility for the “their” church. We do not see a distant, “authoritarian” clergy in England in the century leading up to Henry VIII. We instead see partnership between clerical authority and the people.

Ah, but perhaps the laity blindly followed along to a service and a faith of which they had no understanding? Certain treatises or plays from the time do make a boorish cleric or layman the butt of fun for his lack of knowledge. Duffy cites a few examples of such things, but urges us not to make too much of such texts. We should not assume that such characters reflected standard fare. Such literary characters had comic effect precisely because they defied typical expectations. No one laughs at a man walking down the stairs, but if he tumbled down, that would be different.

Another standard narrative has the printing press prepping the ground for the Reformation by giving voices to those outside the theological and cultural mainstream. Once people read such material, they jumped on board with change. Again, Duffy pulls the reins. Indeed many printers had a good business selling books . . . with Catholic theological primers and prayer books topping the list. The “Book of Hours” (a compendium of prayers for different times of day based on the prayers recited by monastics) topped lists, selling thousands of copies and going through several editions for decades. More surprisingly, most of these books were written in Latin, not English. The people bought them either in spite of, or perhaps even because of, this fact.

Duffy speculates at length what this might mean. He points out that having the books themselves served as a mark of devotion. The books contained many pious illustrations as well. But good evidence exists that people knew the content and meaning of at least some of the psalms and prayers through repeption, participation in church life, and so on. In the post-printing press world we assume reading the only path to knowledge, but it ain’t necessarily so.

Having started the freight train of revisionist thought, Duffy (who keeps his own religious opinions unstated throughout the book) keeps going . . .

Many Reformation scholars assume that restriction of lay participation in religious life created a great need that reformers could exploit. Thus, the Reformation succeeds not so much through doctrinal change but by giving the laity new roles and responsibilities in their worship. Perhaps a grain of truth exists in this, but overall Duffy disagrees, citing numerous examples of popular devotions and practices that if anything, the laity foisted on the clergy. From Duffy’s perspective a healthy lay input of practice and devotion existed across England during Henry’s reign, which combined easily with the universal liturgical worship.

Ok, but surely the Catholicism of the time with all of its “smells and bells” must have emphasized a remote, distant, God, one we can access only through Mary and the saints, and so on. Wrong again. Duffy devotes significant space to the place of saints in late medieval religion, prevalent as it was. But this devotion to saints took nothing away from their sense of closeness to Christ. Both in formal liturgical worship and prayer, and in popular religious expressions (often in the form of “mystery plays”) the consistent emphasis came down on the side of Jesus as our brother, sharing in our humanity and sufferings, and so forth.

Duffy adds little new to our understanding of Henry VIII. We suspect that Henry broke from Catholicism for political reasons overwhelmingly, and Duffy’s research backs this view. Henry concerned himself exclusively with stability. He wanted to keep people quiet and so keep “traditional” religion. His problem lay in that to break with Rome, divorce Katherine, and marry Anne, he needed the support of religious leaders who wanted much more than to simply replace Henry with the Pope. Henry occupied an island by himself. Most wanted to stay Catholic. Others wanted more evangelical Protestantism. No one besides Henry’s wanted his solution–he fell “in between two stools.” And so, while he constantly had to reign in more zealous Protestants who stirred up trouble by changing too much too fast, he could not get rid of them and have his various marriages legitimated.

Some Catholics resisted openly, but I think that–whether Henry consciously intended this or no (I think not)–Henry’s regular reigning in of people like Cranmer and Cromwell gave Catholics hope that he would return to Catholicism. They might legitimately think that time favored them. Perhaps Henry’s ministers caused all the problems, and he might dismiss them any day now. In other words, “rocking the boat” might easily appear against their interests. In actuality, this movement of two steps forward, one step back, brought them further away from shore over time. This can explain the relative lack of resistance to Henry’s changes.

Edward VI reigned but a few years, though certainly all in a Protestant direction. Then, a truly Catholic Queen Mary followed, and it looked as if the temporizing strategy of most Catholics during Henry’s reign might pay off. As Duffy indicates, a truly fair picture of Mary Tudor’s (“Bloody Mary”) reign has yet to emerge.** Duffy shows that Mary tried temporizing to a degree herself. She did not immediately try and revert to the full Catholic liturgical rites, but instead first pushed things back to the state of things during her father’s reign. Again, Catholics could see things moving their way. But Mary’s short reign threw things decisively in favor of Protestantism, as Elizabeth came next.

Duffy shows us convincingly that the movement towards Protestantism never had majority support until Elizabeth’s reign. So we then must wonder why the English Reformation happened at all. A few theories exist:

  • Catholicism had grown corrupt, the laity desiring change, but kept in the dark by dumb, corrupt, obscurantist clerics. If one only wants to accept half of what Duffy claims, this view makes no sense of the actual evidence.
  • The people wanted more things that were distinctively English, as a form of rebellion against the cosmopolitan elitism of the late Renaissance. Thus, the English Reformation had more to do with native/national feeling than religious belief. But this won’t fly either–Duffy points out countless examples of English Catholic churches “localizing” certain practices and celebrations of saints–often ahead of the church hierarchy. Their practice of Catholicism had distinctive English elements. Besides, while the liturgy continued in Latin, numerous other religious works existed in English approved by the Church.
  • Catholicism remained strong, but societal elites, from the gentry on up, had grown distant from popular piety through the distribution of private prayer books and private family chapels. The English Reformation worked because Henry VIII appealed to the aristocrats of little piety with gifts of land, and to other sincerely religious elites who disdained the “vulgar” and distinctly physical practices of English Catholicism ca. 1500.

I have strong sympathy with this view, but Duffy disagrees with it for a few important reasons:

  • Many aristocrats made it a point to furnish churches with liturgical decorations and stayed involved with church life
  • Many aristocrats made a point to continue to fund the printing and distribution of Catholic materials.
  • Many aristocrats became central pillars of Catholic resistance, especially during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I.

At least we can say that the English Reformation, while supported by some aristocracy, did not primarily involve class divisions.

Duffy never offers a direct answer to the question of how exactly the marginalization of Catholicism happended, but he leaves some bread crumbs for us to follow. Part of the success of Protestantism involved time. The slow, steady move away from religious practice of 1530 sometimes changed course, but the overall direction favored Protestant innovations or simplifications. By the 1580’s only a minority of closet Catholics and the very old would remember “the way things were.” From a Catholic perspective, Protestants eventually cooked the frog in the pot.

Another subtle attack made deep inroads, one that piggy-backed with prevailing Renaissance humanist methodology. Catholics believe/d that holy water actually contains spiritual power and grace from God. It is not only or even primarily a mental reminder of one’s baptism. Holy images actually serve as a way to enter into the real presence of the saints, not just as a mental reminder that they once existed and led holy lives. Because Henry wanted to change and also not change things, many of his lieutenants attacked not the images themselves, or the use of holy water in itself, but their meaning and interpretation. For Henry’s reformers, such things served only to remind us of this or that. Their continued use provided continuity, but this new interpretation laid the foundations for their eventual removal. As the saying goes, if to appreciate the music you have to listen to the notes they are not playing, well, you can do that at home. To change the reason or the meaning of the action will effectively change the thing itself.^ The proof lies with the pudding . . . what Anglican church today uses holy water, incense, or venerates images as part of their worship?

I say that this piggy-backed on humanist methods because with the Reformation one saw a contemporaneous change in other areas. Renaissance humanists wanted things clean and tidy. They removed multi-colored stained glass in many cathedrals and replaced it with clear panes. They significantly curtailed the so-called “mystery plays” done by the laity, so prevalent in medieval times. Previous historians wrote with an eye towards myth and meaning, but starting around 1500 historians switched towards embracing exacting accuracy, and “fact.” The general trend for these scholars involved moving away from a “messy” physical/spiritual interaction towards the clean, unfettered world of the mind. Henry’s use of this trend put him squarely on the crest of the wave of deconstructing meaning that has only started to reverse itself within the last four or five years.

Duffy’s justly praised work leaves us with some uncomfortable questions.

Though this is a minor point, those committed to a view of “temporizing” with change have to face up to the fact that this strategy failed miserably for Catholics. Maybe it would have worked had a few things been different, but we know that temporizing failed. I have a natural sympathy with the dictum of Don Fabrizio Cabrera in The Leopard who states that, “we must change so that things stay the same.” Maybe sometimes this would work. But just as obviously, sometimes it fails, and one needs to hold the line at all costs. We should acknowledge that our preference for either prudent compromise or steely resolve comes from temperament, and examples of the prudence of both approaches litter the pages of history. Hopefully we can cultivate wisdom to know when we need one or the other. In the case of the English Reformation, even if Henry kept everything the same minus the Pope, well–it turns out you can’t have Catholicism without the Pope.

More substantively, The Stripping of the Altars may challenge one’s view of history, as it has mine. I would say that up until about 7-8 years ago, I leaned heavily on the side of history proceeding mainly from the bottom up. That is, I saw things happening because for better or worse, “the people,” or “the culture” brought it into being. Unless someone decisively challenges Duffy, this emphatically was not the case with the English Reformation. Rather, a few people close to power at the top managed within a generation to end centuries of belief and practice. This picture fits with emerging work on the Russian Revolution, and possibly the American Revolution as well. It fits with the aftermath of the Obergefell decision has had on our culture. It fits too with how people have responded to COVID, and how quickly the world fell in line. History may very well proceed from the top-down even in our more democratic age. For as much as Catholics here and there found bold or wily ways to resist change in pockets, they lacked cohesive national leadership.

Perhaps one should lean towards compromise most of the time. But, regardless of one’s convictions, every man, culture, and faith needs a solid center that will not budge when it encounters the world.

DM

*For example, if we make a progressive algorithm and feed it to a computer, and tell the computer to make decisions based on the algorithm–or–if we made decisions based on the computer algorithim–who has agency and volition in this scenario? I say that in the above scenario we act as is the computer has volition, for we follow its commands. This matters much more than the technical origins of the algorithm.

**If we look at strictly the numbers, Elizabeth persecuted Catholics far more than Mary did Protestants, though of course she reigned for a much longer time. As a further aside, the image we have of Mary owes much to John Foxe’s Foxe’s Christian Martyrs, an indication of how a particular image/book at the right time can sway centuries of opinion.

^I.e., if you change the meaning of marriage from a sacramental union showing forth salvation to something instituted primarily for human happiness, you end up with marriage subordinated to human happiness–and there are plenty of ways to be happy as a couple without marriage.

The Year 0

I have never been much for math but the concept of the ‘0’ has always intrigued me, perhaps because of its philosophical nature. How can one count or measure something that by definition has nothing to count or measure? The ancient Greeks, obsessed as they were with perfection, never came to terms with it. The Romans–ever practical by nature–used numbers for recording, bartering, etc. only, so they seemed to have no need for it, or never thought of it. Or perhaps, they feared and consciously avoided the 0, dimly perceiving its immense metaphysical weight.

In ancient cultures, from India, Egypt, China, and Meso-America, the ‘0’ had a differing but overall overlapping meaning. A ‘zero’ is the “space between” what we can measure. A zero dwells where reason cannot. As a practical example, the Roman Ptolemy apparently used a ‘0’ to measure the time of solar eclipses, when it was day, but not day, as one might interpret it. In China, a 0 functioned in writing as a “full stop.” One hits the reset button with the 0. More poetically, we might say that in calendars, a 0 functions as a beginning outside of time. The 0 creates time, or certainly at least, the meaning of time. Something has stopped, something else will begin, a new demarcation.

Over the last several years, we have seen the rise of BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) to mark our passage through time. This shift has happened without anyone in particular decreeing it so, an interesting fact in itself. I came across a description of this change here from a reputable encyclopedic website, where they make two basic claims:

  • That the change from BC/AD to BCE/CE has “nothing to do with removing Christ from the calendar and everything to do with historical accuracy, and
  • That calendars should be concerned only with scientific accuracy.

Regarding the second point, Robert Cargill writes,

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. According to multiple ancient sources, Herod died in 4 BCE. If the Gospel of Matthew is historically accurate, this would mean that Jesus of Nazareth was born on or before 4 BCE—meaning Jesus was born 4 BC (4 years Before Christ)! If we add to these 4 years the fact that Herod the Great did not die immediately after the birth of Jesus, but, according to Matthew, ordered the death of all children two years of age and younger in an attempt to kill Jesus, we can add an additional two years to the birth of Jesus, making his birth approximately 6 BCE. If we also add the missing year zero, it is most likely that, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born around 7 BCE!A

Thus, the BC/AD system is fundamentally flawed in that it misrepresents the birth of Jesus by approximately 7 years. This means that Jesus’ ministry did not begin around the year 30, but instead around the year 23. Likewise, Pentecost and the origin of the Christian Church should not be dated to “33 AD,” but to about 26 CE.

An even greater problem still exists with the BC/AD system: the year of Jesus’ birth differs depending on which Gospel one reads. While the Gospel of Matthew states in chapter 2:1 that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, the Gospel of Luke states in chapter 2:1-2 that Jesus was born during the first census of the rule of Quirinius, governor of Syria. According to ancient sources, the date of this census is about 6 CE. Thus, the Bible is internally inconsistent regarding the year of Jesus’ birth. (2)

The article explains that the phrase “Common Era” (instead of A.D.) should not be viewed as a bow to political correctness, for scholars in the 17th-19th century used the term when communicating with non-Christians. The article notes that,

Non-Christian scholars, especially, embraced the new designations because they could now communicate more easily with the Christian community. Jewish and Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist, scholars could retain their calendar but refer to events using the Gregorian Calendar as BCE and CE without compromising their own beliefs about the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Since the BCE/CE designations corresponded to the Christian BC/AD, Christians could correspond back just as clearly. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, “common era” was used frequently with a respectful nod to Christianity in phrases such as “the common era of Christ” or “the common era of the Incarnation” until, by the late 20th century, it again reverted to simply “common era”.

All in all, the article’s author Josh Mark tells everyone to calm down. The Gregorian calendar is not really accurate, and the new designations make communication easier across cultures.

But I disagree. This change, now adopted across western-speak, portends a great deal. To make this case we first need to understand something of the nature of time itself.

As to the question, “What is time?” many things could be said. In his book The Ethics of Time John Pateleimon Manoussakis makes the observation that time should be primarily thought of as “movement.” We might assume this an obvious given, but some ancient philosophers thought movement essentially impossible. Zeno’s paradox suggests the impossibility of movement. Parmenides concurs, writing that Being

is simple, immovable, and without end. Nor was it ever, nor will it ever be; for now it is, all at once, one and continuous . . .

Heraclitus seems to promote movement, but his concept of flux remains so completely continuous, that we can truly said to go nowhere at all because we lack a solid reference point from which to measure. Without this, we cannot truly know if we have moved at all.

Anaxagoras broke this mold by claiming that Parmenides reached his conclusion by the movement of thinking, the movement of the “nous,” I.e., the “soul” or “heart” of a man (the word has various translations). This movement of our inmost being need not take us away from, but rather towards our perfection. To the question, “How does something become what is best for it?” Anaxagoras answered, “By being moved.” Plato tells us that Socrates joined in with Anaxagoras’ approach, and Manoussakis summarizes Socrates’ thoughts thusly:

If then one wishes to know the cause of each thing, why it comes to be or perishes or exists, one had to find what was the best way for it, the best way for it to be, or to be acted upon, or to act.

St. Maximus the Confessor, likely quite familiar with Greek philosophy, saw as one of its problematic manifestations this fundamental disbelief in movement through the idea of “eternal return.” Anaxagoras and Socrates broke free from its clutches to an extent, but lacked a definitive goal. For St. Maximus,

rest is not simply the cessation of motion, but its intensification, so with the human will whose willful self-surrender to God’s will finds its fulfillment, a fulfillment that will never know any satiety.

The Ethics of Time, p. 90

We can heartily agree with Anaxagoras, Plato/Socrates, and St. Maximus, but only if we know where we begin and where we should go. We can only discern “movement” with a fixed point of reference. With this in mind we can tackle the two main claims above.

Sure, the move to ‘BCE’ has some precedent, but it also obviously means to alter the Christian reference point. I have no love for the French revolutionaries, but at least they perfectly understood the meaning of time. When they wanted to change society, they changed the calendar, declaring the French Revolution itself as their ‘0’. To say that some in the 17th century used the term “Common Era” fails to answer the question. The question should be–what is meant by the change? Anyone who knows anything about the history of the west knows that a movement away from a strictly Christian conception of the world began in the 17th century. Scientists like Kepler wished to set aside a Christian way of speaking so that they could engage in where their treasure truly lay–scientific research and discovery.

Secondly, no calendar can have scientific accuracy as its main concern. Every philosopher and mathematician of repute acknowledges that the ‘0’ of any system has to lay outside the system itself. Every pre-modern dating system puts their ‘0’ outside of time, or at least on the margins of time and eternity. But one cannot use the tools of the system to measure outside of the system. Every calendar, then, is at root a religious enterprise, and not strictly scientific.

So too the switch to BCE/CE involves religion more than science.

We have yet to receive an explanation as to what this new reference point means by “common” (as in “Common Era”). I can think of two possibilities:

  • It is the first salvo of a move to reorient time in another direction. Obviously, “Common” is without meaning but we will replace “Common” with what we really mean when we have got rid of Christian conceptions of time. Or,
  • The meaning of time is that it really has no meaning. There is no real past for us to be concerned about–i.e., many made arguments in favor of gay marriage by simply stating, “Hey, it’s 2015.” In other words, “We live now and this is what we want to do, so . . . your objection is . . . ?”

This second view basically assumes that what matters is getting along and not thinking about such things like a ‘0’ or the meaning of time. Best to live our lives, watch what we want on Netflix, and buy what we want on Amazon.

All well and good . . . people have fought and killed each other over the concept of ‘0’ and the meaning of time, and people with the 2nd view are not likely to do this.

But we can’t live this way for long. We have to have a point of reference.

On a podcast that serves as the impetus for this post, the host and his guest made the observation that in many non-western countries, very few people know their birthdays. This perplexes many Americans–they can’t quite conceive of such a world. They obviously have the technical capacity to know this information, but it has no importance for them. When asked, “When were you born?” they get the quizzical response, “When my mother gave birth to me.” Their concept of themselves and their place in the world has no need of such precise information.

The fact that we have a hard time imagining our world without this information (think of how often we use our birthday as a means of identifying ourselves to companies, etc.) means that we may have found our own personal ‘0’ for our lives. Perhaps this explains why no one has put up much fuss over how we perceive the past. Our shared sense of things need not matter if we surmise the world began with us.*

Dave

*Evidence that birthday party celebrations may be what we truly have in common: