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:

Ascetic Harmony

I talked with a friend of mine recently who works in upper management of a major company. Officially, companies have a dedication to bottom line. But appearances can leave out part of the story. My friend talked of how different aspects of the company need to cooperate to achieve the goal of expanding customer base, increasing profit, and so on. It became obvious that certain programs advanced certain departments failed to work in achieving these goals. But in high-level meetings, this could never be said outright. He mentioned that he spent the better part of an hour on one slide for a presentation, and particularly one sentence on that slide where he had to say that ‘X’ hadn’t worked without actually saying it directly.

In the end he attempted a solution by bypassing direct criticism and instead left out mention of the program in what his team had accomplished. Not good enough–he had several rounds of post-meeting meetings to ‘clarify’ the situation.

We may think such behavior odd for a business in competition with others. Reading Philip Mansel’s new biography of Louis XIV, entitled King of the World, provided an interesting insight into this behavior. Essentially, the upper level of management at this particular company–and no doubt many others–functioned like a court, where etiquette and harmony trump the achievement of certain objectives. Or, rather, we might say that harmony, order, and gentility were the objective.

Though I have read some other things about Louis XIV before, Mansel provided an important insight I had not considered. For Mansel, Versailles existed primarily because Louis loved Versailles. It served as a grand passion for him. I and others often focus on the particular political ends Louis achieved partially as a result of Versailles, such as his centralization of government, control over the nobles, and so on. But I can’t stand medieval historians who say that the French built Chartes to increase trade in the area–an utterly absurd statement. But the same holds true for Louis. One might build a road to aid trade, but not a cathedral, which is essentially how Versailles functioned. Only acts of “love” can truly take root. Just as the Gothic cathedrals gave impetus to the shape of culture for 250 years, so too Versailles launched France into a place of prominence for perhaps 150 years, give or take.

The lens of “emotional attachment” through which Mansel viewed Louis makes a lot of sense. We see Louis elevating his illegitimate children in rank above certain other nobility, in defiance of custom. Was this a mere political ploy? One can also see him as acutely interested in the harmony of his family, though perhaps not necessarily as a devoted father. Louis also elevated the status of many women at court to never before seen heights. Again–a political, cultural move, or one rooted in his definite fondness for at least certain women? Mansel looks at the wars of Louis XIV, and again sees his actions rooted in a somewhat irrational longing, rather than clear-headed policy.

Though Louis had his significant failures we have to see him as overall a very successful monarch, at least in the sense of creating political stability and vaulting France into prominence in Europe.

But as we all know, coupled with the “romantic” side of Louis came strict and unusual etiquette. One could commit a grave offense for trivial matters such as knocking at the door in the wrong manner, or sitting in the wrong chair, or failing to open both doors for a Countess instead of just one, and so on. We see this passion for harmony and order throughout the grounds of Versailles, both inside

and out.

We should not see this as pure self-indulgence–the rigorous etiquette shows that. Many other anecdotes exist about the behavior of the nobles in Versailles, especially as it relates to money. One of the few activities at Versailles that all could engage in more or less equally was gambling. Before reading Mansel, I saw this primarily as a means of control, with the ebb and flow of fortunes exchanging hands serving to weaken the nobility. Now, I see it more so as a gift from Louis which allowed everyone present to engage in aristocratic disdain for money. The gambling tables created a sense of harmony in that winning or losing mattered little in comparison to display of aristocratic virtues and conviviality.

Indeed, perhaps we can see court behavior at Versailles as a kind of rigorous self-abandonment–one leaves their estates, some of their family, their customs, and their fortunes to join together as one happy family.

Not long after Louis’ death in 1715 a new kind of ethic arose, one ably elucidated by Max Weber in his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber was certainly a genius, and a German one at that, which makes his prose quite dense. But, despite the significant criticisms leveled at this seminal work over the last century, I’m convinced his core points remain standing.

Early in the work, Weber cites a letter of Ben Franklin to his son to show the new Protestant ethic, at its face a radical departure from the nobles at Versailles just 30-40 years earlier. Franklin writes,

Remember that time is money. He that can earn 10 shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, though he spends only 6 pence on diversions, ought not to reckon that as his only expense.  He must think of what he could have made through labor, rather than what he lost through diversion.  

Remember that credit is money.  If a man lets his money in my hands after it is due, he gives me the interest, or so much as I can make of it during that time.  This amounts to a considerable sum, if a man can make use of it.  Remember that money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more.  The more there is, the more is produced.  He that kills a breeding sow destroys not just the cow but her offspring unto the generations.  

Remember this saying, “The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse.”  He that is known to pay punctually and exactly to the time he promises, may at any time, raise all the money his friends can spare.  This is sometimes of great use.  After industry and frugality, nothing raises a man more in the world than punctuality in all of his dealings. 

The most trifling actions that can affect a man’s credit are to be regarded.  The sound of your hammer on the anvil at 5 in the morning and 8 at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy 6 months longer; but if he hears your voice in a tavern when you should be at work, he will demand payment in full without fail and without delay.

Keep an exact account of all you owe and all payments coming to you.  You will then notice well how even trifling expenses add up against you, and you will discern what might have been.  You will grow wise with little effort.

One might see here a self-indulgent of luxury, of riches for the sake of riches. But we see here a similar sense of self-abandonment as at Versailles, with different tools directed at different ends. We must live frugally, arrive punctually, etc. so that . . . ? Weber sees the connections between Protestantism–especially the Calvinistic stripes–and Capitalism, in the following ways:

  • The grace of God, and hence, salvation, can never be earned. Forms, ceremonies, etc. are not aids but distractions to proper devotion. We should ascetically remove all such distractions, lest we indulge ourselves and think that any ceremony has any efficacious quality.
  • But how to know that we are truly elect? We can do the works God has commanded us to do. These works, of course, cannot save us but can witness to others of our convictions.
  • Since God orders all things providentially, and is no respecter of persons, all activities can serve as a means of displaying Christian virtues.
  • In the old Catholic world, different seasons of the year called for different levels of piety and devotion, and different practices. But–aside from unnecessary ceremony–this is a crutch, allowing one to “get off easy.” Just as God is no respecter of persons, He is no respecter of time or space. Everything at all time deserves our full attention and best effort.

This “worldly asceticism,” as Weber calls it, creates capitalist economies. Of course, “the love of money is the root of all evil,” but Franklin’s pursuits have money only as a byproduct. The real goal is virtue and “election.”* The aristocrat and the capitalist both disdain and embrace the world, but in different ways for different reasons.**

One can see how harmony might come about as a result of Louis XIV. Instead of having aristocrats fight each other and the king, he brought them together and unified them through their enchanted surroundings and ritualized behavior. We know this world could not withstand the mulititude of changes that arose almost right after Louis’ death, but it has an internal consistency. One problem–Louis’, while outwardly pious, made the highest end his own Disneyland.^ Unlike the medieval construction, Louis’ France could not “scale up” high enough to include enough particularity throughout his realm. We are now in the midst of wondering whether or not our world can create enough harmony to sustain our civilization. The capitalist ethic, like our political system in general, is built on the idea of mutual opposition and competition (between companies or branches of government) creating enough unity through this clash of mutual self-interest (i.e., Madison’s “Federalist #10). We shall see.

Many conservatives were surprised, even blindsided, by the fact that so many corporations adopted woke policies. Weber would see this as a natural byproduct of “worldly asceticism,” a form of self-denial to create harmony. Like Louis’ Versailles, even slight, trivial missteps assume grand proportions. But like Louis’ construct, it cannot scale to include enough particularity. Their god is too small.

Dave

*Some critics of Weber point out that capitalism existed long before Protestantism. True–in the sense that people have sought profit and traded with others since time immemorial. However, I think it no coincidence that modern Democratic capitalism was created by both Dutch Calvinists (New York, Amsterdam, the Vanderbilts) and Scotch/English Low Country Calvinists (Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie, London, and Boston).

**Seen this way, it makes total sense to me why many Americans wanted to keep Catholics out of America up until the late 19th century. The issue goes beyond religious difference and into two very different ideas of cultural formation. As it turned out, they need not have worried, as the American system soon captured Catholics and most other immigrants.

^Versailles and Disneyland have much in common. They both have immaculate landscaping, and seek to create a kind of alternate universe. Some years ago I knew someone who had worked at Disneyland as a landscape supervisor. The pay was good, but he grew weary of the job due largely to the severe etiquette involved, such as

  • Tools always had to be lined up parallel to each other on the ground
  • Golf cart drivers always had to have two hands on the wheel
  • Regular band-aids could not worn for cuts. Disneyland supplied their own flesh-colored ‘invisible’ band-aids.
  • Workers could not really talk to each other while working in public view–they needed to be as invisible as possible (much like household servants in all of those British dramas).

The Garments of Court and Palace

Despite ourselves, Machiavelli fascinates us. He writes with an enviable brevity and clarity, and then supplies a pertinent historical example to back up his point. Had he been a worse writer, we would care much less about him. There exists as well an easy transference of his thought–he fires the imagination of the global strategist and everyone who has played Risk.

The Garments of Court and Palace has a grand air about it. The title comes from a phrase of Machiavelli, describing his perception of how one had to don a different persona, in a sense, to enter into the political realm. One can write rather easily how Machiavelli advocated for a dangerous amoralism in statecraft. One could also write about how a conflicted Machiavelli seemed a chameleon of sorts depending on time and place. Again–such books would be easy to write and have no reason to exist. But Philip Bobbitt has an entirely different approach, arguing that

  • Not only was Machiavelli not a amoral thinker, and
  • Not only was he not a chameleon, but
  • He was a consistent thinker with a distinct aim of promoting virtue, whose teachings fit easily within a Christian worldview

Now there’s an argument for you. This is a book worth writing.

I have great respect for Bobbitt. I found his Shield of Achilles revelatory and prophetic in certain ways. He takes big swings and at his best writes with the clarity of Machiavelli. I found Bobbitt’s argument ultimately a bridge too far. To go along with him fully, one would have to agree that essentially all of Machiavelli’s contemporaries, and nearly every political philosopher since then, had him wrong. For me, there exists too many areas of Machiavelli’s thought one can’t quite stuff into Bobbitt’s construction, leaving Bobbitt’s only option to impersonate Michael Palin’s befuddled George Bernard Shaw, i.e., “What Machiavelli merely meant . . . “

Still, Bobbitt succeeds in getting one to see Machiavelli more clearly within his time. And while I do not agree with the totality of Bobbitt’s argument, the book reveals the problems of the modern state in fresh ways. Bobbitt rightly argues that Machiavelli had prophetic insight far ahead of his time, and we must grapple honestly with him.

Machiavelli’s world faced great changes, changes that, as usual, were not immediately obvious to nearly everyone living through them. The Black Plague and the breakdown of the Church meant that the personal connections that guided law and culture in the feudal era no longer applied–however much some still wished to make it so. Bobbitt sees Machiavelli clearly perceiving this shift, and attempting to orient Italy and all of Europe towards a new constitutional order. But periods of transition bring great uncertainty, and the need for attendant flexibility. Bobbitt writes,

Imagine you wish to train yourself to be a professional poker player. Part of that training must involve learning all the tricks of the trade, marking cards, palming a card, dealing from the bottom, and so on. But must you practice these tricks yourself? I suppose it depends on how good your game is, and whether the persons with whom you are playing will enforce the rules once you have exposed the cheat. To the question, “Must it be this way? Can’t we do better?” the answers do not lie entirely within your power.

In sum, Bobbitt sees Machiavelli playing a slippery game of poker, both in his personal life and in his writings–yet, with an ultimately just and moral goal in mind. “Republics must be founded by one man,” as Machiavelli wrote in his Discourses. So,

  • First, the chaos must end, and existing structures cannot end it. It takes someone operating outside those structures to bring order, and then
  • A republic can emerge, one that governs communally and perhaps abstractly, rather than personally

Of Machiavelli’s two major works, one can very broadly say that The Prince attempted to accomplish the first goal, and The Discourses the latter. Machiavelli must sometimes, then, assume the appearance of Janus, the Roman god who faced in opposite directions.

We can consider the idea of deception. On the face of it, people should never lie or deceive. But few people would actually make this an absolute claim. You might not like your wife’s dress, but if she loves it, you’ll say you think it looks great. In the Bible, men of faith use deception. King David pretended insanity amongst the Philistines. Ehud manipulated King Eglon so that he might kill him. Rahab protects the spies by lying. We praise them for such actions. But we know the difference between “good” lies and true lies. While David rightly deceives the Philistines, he wrongly deceives Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, and suffers for it. Bobbitt places Machiavelli within a traditional moral structure because virtuous people know how and when to deceive for the common good. Machiavellian morality is “good” morality, because he flexibly orients it towards the formation of a virtuous state. Bobbitt makes other such arguments throughout with different aspects of Machiavelli’s thought, and it has merit up to a point.

At root, Bobbitt believes that states evolve and that wise and “good” rulers adapt to changing circumstances to maintain the supremacy of “good” states over bad ones. The state will be formed via “strategy, law, and history,” to use Bobbitt’s terms, and one must use Machiavellian wisdom to appropriately ride the crest of the wave. Republics have a much better chance of adaptation because of their composite nature. Machiavelli cites the Roman example of Fabius and Cicero. Fabius was right in 218 BC to adopt his cautious approach to Hannibal, but a few years later, the situation had changed. Yet–Fabius had not changed with the changing situation. Indeed, few can do so. But because Rome was a Republic, they had the more aggressive Scipio at their disposal. And, because of the Republic’s ability to pool wisdom from a large group, they chose correctly with Scipio. A monarchy or principality had more limitations, and indeed, Hannibal, for all his greatness, could not quite adopt changes in his own strategy when his fortunes started to ebb.

Again, so far so good. But we should go deeper into the nature of the new state Machiavelli heralded and why we should remain uncomfortable with a full embrace of his ideas. I think the final answer lies in the fact that the state Machiavelli saw coming and wanted to bring about would not allow one to safely and wisely live out his advice. So, in what follows below, I make my own grand, foolhardy attempt to solve the Machiavelli conundrum.

The feudal kingdoms that Machiavelli saw retreating from the scene had a few things in common:

  • Relationships, more so than laws, determined the way of life in a particular region
  • Particular land was not so much owned, but held in a trust, of sorts with the surrounding culture and people
  • While various leaders had certain boundaries of church, custom, etc., power resided in people, not principles, ideas, or even laws.

Machiavelli hoped for, and foresaw, a state that would

  • Be governed more by laws than specific people
  • Be governed more by procedures of representative bodies than by people directly
  • Have a more Roman/absolute/legal concept of ownership of land

The modern state, therefore, would be more fixed and abstract in nature.

Though in many ways a modern, Machiavelli still had some roots in the traditional pre-modern world. He understood that sometimes the hero has to go the margins of behavior–like King David. He understood that when facing the evil of disintegration one sometimes has to fight fire with fire. Sometimes society’s solid moral core cannot defeat the monster. You need Godzilla to battle Ghidorah. The law can do nothing to Terry Benedict, so we cheer when “Ocean’s Eleven” take him down. But we should still remember that the guys of “Ocean’s Eleven” are not really good guys. You cannot build a society on Danny, Rusty, and the Mormon twins.

If one sees Machiavelli’s advice within this traditional pattern of reality–a Core, Fringe, and the Chaos beyond, a lot of his advice in The Prince makes sense. People can make difficult moral judgments. People can experience different levels of reality and process them accordingly. Hence–for all of its “radical” nature, The Prince can actually make sense within a traditional society, where governing relationships remain distinctly personal and not abstract.

Machiavelli reacted strongly against the medieval approach, but the irony might be that The Prince is actually a treatise that might find a place in the pre-modern world under certain circumstances.

Machiavelli’s problem . . . modern states cannot experience life this way. We remain too distant from reality with the multitude of hedges of laws and institutions. People can make judgment calls–laws cannot. Bobbitt himself declares that states get their formation through the intersection of “strategy, law, and history.” But he leaves out, “personal relationships.” Modern states have very little to do with personal connections and much more to do with contract, procedure, and so on.*

What about Machiavelli’s Discourses, which many, Bobbitt included, see as a great treatise for modern democratic-republics? The Discourses has many insightful things to say, but we must remember that Rome is the subject. The “imminence” of pagan religion shines through in Livy’s work. The Roman self, Roman religion, and Roman politics all seem intertwined. One could say that Rome worshipped Rome (I include an excerpt from the Discouses below which I think illustrates this). Thus, when the Roman state “moved” the Romans “moved” with it. Of course, if the identity of the state lies in the King/Prince, then when he “moves” we can move with him, because we have a personal tie to him, and he physically embodies the principality/realm where we live.

Not so in the modern age, which still have some tension between the state and that which resides outside the state. It can take various forms across the spectrum, including:

  • A strong sense of the Kingdom of God residing within and without the state
  • A strong sense of the autonomous individual
  • No coherent cultural “north” on the compass
  • A sense of the “destiny” or purpose of the nation, which lies at least somewhat outside the actions of the nation–this has different manifestations on the right and the left.

I believe this explains our frustration and puzzlement with Machiavelli. We recognize his wisdom. We feel that we should apply at least some of it, but our detachment from our institutions won’t allow us to access it.

Dave

*Hence–suburbia and why we do not know our neighbors, disembodied forms of exchange, and so on.

Machiavelli on Roman Religion

Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances, in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.

Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle. 

But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.

But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so threw them into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness . . . 

Carnival Time

One of my favorite of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries is “The Guru of Go,” about Loyola Marymount University’s run-and-gun style of basketball.  Those who follow college basketball today know that scores routinely end up in the 60’s, but LMU routinely scored in the 90’s and had many games of over 100 points or more.  Their command over their own style of play “forced” other teams to try and keep up.  But . . . even when teams could stick with Loyola Marymount  in the short-term, the fact that they got caught up in the fast pace meant that they played on enemy territory.  Inevitably, the pace would wear down opponents and Loyola would shoot ahead, leaving their opponents wheezing on the bench.

Most every Christian in the west of an orthodox (small “o”) bent acknowledges that the so-called culture war is over and has been for some time.  We lost.  This might surprise someone transported from, say, the 1980’s when it appeared that “victory” was at hand, with the ascendancy of the moral majority and political conservatism firmly entrenched.  Now looking back we see that marshaling coalitions and votes for laws and Supreme Court justices only meant playing on enemy territory.  Rather, the “City of God” cannot arise using the tools of the “City of Man.”  Like Loyola’s opponents, we got enticed into playing a game ill suited to us–a secular game on secular turf.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age will likely prove too deep and dense for me to glean much from.  He writes in a conversational style but with deep concepts and many variations of thought.  One needs a great deal of focus to follow him.  But I felt, perhaps rashly, that the whole of his thesis made sense when he discussed . . .

medieval carnivals.

Medieval carnivals took some different forms in different times and places.  Some days merely involved eating and drinking too much, such as “Fat Tuesday.”  Some had more complexity/absurdity, such as the “Lord of Misrule,” which happened around Christmastide.  In this space of time a sub-deacon or even a peasant might get appointed as chief of festivities, which obviously involved eating and drinking, among other things.   Other such similar days had dukes serve as peasants and peasants occupy manorial houses, and so on.  So in the carnival emblem to the side, all of creation seems reversed, as the hare triumphantly rides the hunting hound.

Most commentators point out that such festivals allowed people to let off steam, especially necessary in a structured and hierarchical society such as medieval Europe.  Even some contemporary clerics acknowledge this role for the carnival.  But this forms only the baseline for understanding the role of the carnival.  The emblem of the hare and hounds attest to something grander at work.

Those committed to Christianity know that it provides a means to understand all of experience, not just life after death.  Much of our Christian life involves holding things in tension.  So we believe that God is one God in three persons, neither favoring the unity or the plurality, but going “straight ahead.”  Jesus is fully God and fully man, “without confusion,” as stated by the Council of Chalcedon.  The Church hymns the Virgin Mary as the “unwedded bride.”  For the Mother of God both terms truly apply, without confusion.  Scripture is the Word of God, written by particular men at particular times, and so on it goes.  Christians rightly recognized the Incarnation as the focal point of human experience, for in the coming of Christ creation gets remade and reborn, as John attests in his Gospel by obviously referencing Genesis 1.  After the Incarnation we live in a new world, but in many ways outwardly it exactly resembles the old world.

In the world B.C.*, people saw childlessness as a curse.  Of course children are a blessing in a physical, natural sense, but at a deeper level we were meant to perpetuate the continuing natural order as a means of bringing about the coming of Messiah.  No children meant no participation in redemption.

In the kingdom to come, however, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage.  Thus, we honor monastics.  At the baseline, we honor them for their sacrifice.  But their vows of poverty and chastity mean that they do not live in ordinary time. Their lives transcend the ordinary needs of the world with its buying, selling, and saving, and also reflects the reality of the new creation wrought by Christ. They live partially in eternal time, which contains all time.  They “neither marry, or are given in marriage,” and of course in the heavenly kingdom no one needs money.**  Monastics may or may not live exemplary lives, but the fact of their “station in life” puts them closer to eternal time than laity and even priests, who must concern themselves with affairs in the world.

In his essay Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper makes that case that the only way to escape the cycle of work is to receive breaks in time from without.  Even vacations, he points out, cannot be “leisure” if we view them strictly as breaks from work.  Modern views of labor probably originated with Marx and his followers, and certainly we should sympathize with the “proletariat,” if we wish to use the term.  But as Pieper wryly remarks, “Proletarianism cannot obviously be overcome by making everyone proletarian.”

Ordinary time may be strictly linear, but not “eternal time.”  Eternal time contains all moments.  We the laity, despite our ordinary and natural station, can still at times participate in eternal time.  Taking the crucifixion as an example, Taylor writes,

Meanwhile the Church, in its liturgical year, remembers and re-enacts what happened . . . [at Christ’s crucifixion].  Which is why this year’s Good Friday can be closer to the Crucifixion than last year’s mid-summer’s day.  And the Crucifixion itself, since Christ’s passion here participates in God’s eternity, is closer to all times than they in secular terms are to each other.

Put in other terms, on this view tracts of secular time were not homogenous and interchangeable.  They were [differentiated] by their placing in relation to higher time.

Medieval carnivals did not participate in sacred time, but they did recognize the duality.  By breaking down the natural order of ordinary time, they testified to the reality of sacred eternity, where a completely new order will forever take hold of the cosmos.  Thus, the breaking down of the order gives it new life, the secular/ordinary order gets reborn freshly after each carnival.  It makes perfect sense that the “Lord of Misrule” would “reign” during Christmastide, for this time on calendar celebrated the breaking in of the eternal into temporal via the Incarnation.  “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while He is with them (Mk. 2:19)?”

Carnivals did not protest against the prevailing order so much as re-affirm it.  Recognizing its temporary and inferior status was the only way it could be reaffirmed, the only way order could perpetuate.

We remember Henry VIII for his many marriages, but it makes perfect sense that an absolutist like Henry would also abolish the days of misrule at Christmastide.  This too accompanies his seizure of monastic lands.  The monastic vocation and the carnival testify to this tension in time, and to the transitory nature of the state.  No statist like Henry likes such things.  Worlds other than those they made frighten and confuse them.

We see too that whatever its intentions, by abolishing liturgies and the church calendar, the Reformation paved the way for secularization.  Bit by bit Protestant denominations moved away from the “sacred time” of the church calendar year. Taylor cites Walter Benjamin’s description of “homogenous and empty time” as the mark of modern consciousness.  “On this view,” Taylor writes, “time [has no meaning in itself] but is like a container, indifferent to what fills it.  Without “eternal liturgics,” and without a sense of time as a gift to mold and shape us, all that is left is for us to fill time with meaning.  And so we have, and created the secular state thereby.

This secular victory is quite empty, however. The homogenization of time makes everything sterile.  Nothing can have real meaning.  Without fasting, our materialistic civilization cannot even feast.  With the homogenization of time comes the homogenization of space–including space for worship.  With no delineation of either time and space, it’s no wonder that, to riff on Milton Friedman, “we’re all secular now.”

We see this view of the homogeneity and plasticity of time permeate our society. Take Fridays for example.  Back in ye olden days Fridays for everyone involved fasting of some kind, for each Friday participated in some way in the Crucifixion–not just in memory, but in reality.  After abandoning the dual sense of time described above we instead oriented time around our work/school week.  Now Friday has taken on the opposite role in our secular liturgy as a day of release, fun, and celebration.  Imagine a family trying to establish something of the older sense of Fridays, and the enormous accompanying societal/liturgical pressure to go out and have fun with friends from work or school facing them square in the face.

“Resistance is futile.”

Of course, this same story has been played out in so many other areas. Without Advent we get Black Friday.  Without Paschaltide we get “Spring Breakers.”

In a recent conversation with Hank Hannegraaf Rod Drehrer recounted his meeting with a group of evangelical pastors near the election.  While Drehrer understood why one might vote for Trump “in sorrow,” as an alternative to Clinton, he admitted an utter incredulity in seeing some pastors positively enthused about Trump.  The response from another evangelical who shared his lament was, “You have to understand, they have no Plan B.  Politics is the only way they can conceive of changing the world.”^

The statism of Henry VIII–and others– has born disastrous fruit.

Many on the more secular left might lament Trump’s election and see it as proof that the “war has yet to be won,” or something like that.  They can relax and break out the cigars.  The war was won long ago, the rest has been mopping-up operations here and there.

I find it hard to tell if Taylor laments or merely describes the shift towards secularism.  He does state that at most all those who hope for a return can do is indulge in nostalgia.  I agree that the tide ran out long ago, but I have more hope.  A proper and effective response will first recognize that turning the battleship will take generations of small faithfulness in our lives and homes.  We should begin with a developing a new sense of time.

Dave

Written (originally in 2018) on the Feast of the Chains of St. Peter, and the Commemoration of St. Paul the Apostle

*The attempt to replace B.C./A.D. with BCE/CE may only be meant as a sop to political correctness or inclusivity.  No doubt people mean well.  But still, the switch is at root an attempt to remake our understanding of time.  Though I lament this shift, it is in many ways long overdue, as we no longer order our lives around the impact of the Incarnation.  It took the French just four years of Revolution to switch their calendar.  It will take us much longer, because we have nothing to replace it with.  We lack the bold audacity of the French, which is a good thing, considering that tens of thousands died in the French Revolution and millions died in the Napoleonic wars.

**Visitors to the monasteries on Mount Athos notice that two different clocks are used in many of the monasteries.  One, the familiar ordinary/secular time, the other clocks measure the now nearly extinct “Byzantine” time (Byzantine clock seen bel0w) to reflect this dual reality.

^So too the French Revolutionaries, which explains the failure of their festivals.  They sought to ape medieval carnivals, but key differences persisted:

  • They were attempting to construct a new order, not deconstruct an existing order.
  • Thus, their festivals had a much more didactic emphasis than medieval carnivals, which
  • Made them much more boring.

Every Sacrifice Needs a Witness

I enjoy athletics, but since the lockdown last March I have watched zero hours of live sports. One might think that televised sports would act as a lifeline for people like me during these strained times, but my interest has markedly declined. But it’s not just me, apparently. Ratings have plummeted for live sports across the board. Here are some statistics:

  • US Open (golf) final round: down 56%
  • US Open (tennis) was down 45% and the French open is down 57%
  • Kentucky Derby: down 43%
  • Indy 500: down 32%
  • Through four weeks, NFL viewership is down approximately 10%
  • NHL Playoffs were down 39% (Pre Stanley Cup playoffs was down 28% while the Stanley Cup was down 61%).
  • NBA finals are down 45% (so far). Conference finals were down 35%, while the first round was 27% down. To match the viewership, activity on the NBA reddit fan community is also down 50% from the NBA finals last year.

So it’s not just the “woke” politics in some of our major sports that are driving people away. The above statistics are from blogger Daniel Frank. He suggests a variety of reasons for this decline, including the rise in mental health issues and political uncertainties that eliminate our “bandwidth” for consuming sports. He has other reasons, all of them thoughtful and possibly true, but I think he misses the heart of the matter.

My thoughts below should be, as Tyler Cowen states, filed under “speculative.”

Sports occupies a very large place in our civilizations bandwidth. The growth of the importance of sports, and the money associated with sports, accelerated on a national scale as a few different things happened over the last 50 years:

  • Growth of technology allowed people across the country to discover sports hero’s from other locales.
  • Beginning around the 1960’s a dramatic moral shift happened that eroded certain key foundations Tocqueville and others cite as necessary to support democracy, such as shared trust and a robust family structure.
  • Perhaps we can also cite the growth of suburbia as a factor eroding another key facet of healthy democratic life cited by Tocqueville–local neighborhoods and local institutions and customs.

So as things start to erode on a local and particular level, they homogenized on a national level. Sports benefitted from this, but its growth was necessary, in a sense, to account for the above trends. We lacked local means of conflict mediation on front porches, coffee shops, etc. Sports stepped into that void. Fundamentally, we can understand sports as a highly ritualized, liturgical, and controlled means of combat. For those two hours we can “hate” the team wearing the other jersey, but we know that we don’t really “hate” them. The liturgy of competition creates a parallel world where we can control conflict. We have all played games against friends–for a time they function as the “enemy,” then real life resumes. “Bad sportsmanship” means in part the inability to come back to the real world from the parallel world. Whether at cards, basketball, or the like–our competition serves as a way to mediate/navigate our relationships.

Without shared trust, without real communities, we need sports now more than we did 50-100 years ago.

But then–why did the ratings plummet for sports at a time when a need for controlled conflict mediation seems quite high?

If sports serve as a parallel liturgy of rivalry, we can see that this “conflict” gets resolved via sacrifice. Athletes, then, function in certain ways as priests of this liturgy. We expect them to “sacrifice” for the team, their time, their bodies, etc. Thus, they serve as “victims” in some ways of the liturgy. But in addition, at least our star athletes also control the liturgical space. They ask us to cheer, we cheer. When they complain to the ref, we join in with them–the ref’s call was obviously wrong–and so forth.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? If you have a materialist-leaning view of the universe, the answer is an obvious ‘yes.’ You can ‘prove’ your point by recording the event with no one around, and then listening to the recording. You hear the tree falling and presto, you have your answer. But if you have something of an ‘idealist’ view of the world, as did Bishop Berkeley,* you answer in the negative. Is there “sound” on that recording? Can you carry around “sound” that you do not hear? It seems to me that for reality to be Real it requires perception.

This idea closely relates to the dictum in both Catholic and Orthodox churches (and perhaps others) that no priest can celebrate the sacrifice of the mass alone–though of course certain unusual exceptions allow for it. Many reasons exist for this restriction, but briefly:

  • The sacrifice of the mass is always for the people–the body of Christ, and not merely the priest.
  • The priest, representing Christ, cannot be the sole ‘beneficiary’ of the mass, just as Christ did not “benefit” from His own death (of course He does “benefit” in the end, but I trust all take my meaning).
  • The “power” of the sacrifice has to “land” to take form and reality. Without this “landing” the sacrifice has no power and no life to give.
  • The Head (Christ) must nourish the body. Just as we take in physical nourishment through our mouths, so too–what is the point of the sacrifice of food (for all food was once alive and now has died that we might have life) if we have no body? The food–which has already undergone death, will not be transformed into life for us, but rather, stay “dead” as it falls out of our throats onto the floor. Or to put it another way, maybe Berkeley was right about trees falling in forests all by their lonesome.

All well and good, but this fancy talk, some might say, forgets that the televised sporting events do have witnesses, both in person and at home. Most watched at home anyway in the first place before the virus hit. Very little has changed about how the vast majority of us consume sports now except the immediate social factors Frank listed above.

Well, I concede partially. But just as virtual church is not church, and a virtual concert is no real concert–a virtual sporting event is not a real sporting event. Anyone who has watched on tv senses this. The viewers themselves sense it, which is why teams pipe in crowd noise. It is a trick meant to fool those watching at home more than the players, I think. The “sacrifice” of sports needs a place to land within the “church”/arena. If it disappears into the ether, its power disperses with it.**

The ratings decline in sports confuse us only if we fail to see connections between liturgical worship and sports.

Dave

*I do not claim to understand more than the bare outline of Berkeley’s premises, and could not defend his general philosophy even if I wanted to.

**We can also consider the sudden collapse of Rome’s gladiatorial games in the mid-4th century. No question–one main factor had to be the rise of the Christian ethic. But the growth of the games themselves also had something to do with it. When one man fought one man in front of 50,000, whatever took place would be witnessed and participated in by all. But as the games grew in importance they grew in scope, and the cruelty of the games grew more random and bizarre. As the games (unknowingly) neared the precipice, dozens of men fought other dozens of others more or less randomly.

At that point, if you were a gladiator you could not be sure that anything that happened would be directly seen by anyone. One could kill or die with honor and dignity and who knows who witnessed it? If nothing is affirmed, nothing glorified, then why fight at all? With no glory possible, only chaotic death remains. Why would a Roman citizen want to witness a “nothing?”

Festivals of the French Revolution

The modern west, and certainly the United States, has a weird relationship with sports.  Many reasons exist for this, including the fact that sports involve great skill and entertain us.  One key to their hold on us, however, certainly involves the fact that our culture has no communal rituals and emotions.  Politics remains too divisive and negative to provide this.  Democracy tends to prioritize individual vis a vis the group.  Most forms of American Protestantism have no liturgies and no “physicality” to provide the necessary framework for shared experiences.  Sporting events can provide this.  Many fans have pre-game routines, rituals, dress–“liturgies,” in effect.  These routines come with the eating of certain foods, and so on.

All this to say, sports functions much more like a religion than many of our churches–at least in terms of visible manifestations.  Perhaps too, this explains the growth of round-the-clock, all year coverage of seasonal sports.  Our need for communal “religious” experience overpowers even our well-founded moral concerns about certain sports such as football.

Because non-liturgical Protestants formed the ethos of America many of us have little experience with religious communal celebrations.  Often they involve parades, food, music, and a physical embodiment of a particular belief or historical event.  Below, for example, is footage from the festival on the Greek island of Cephalonia, where the relics of St. Gerasimos reside.  On the saint’s feast day, one such embodiment happens when the body of St. Gerasimos “passes over” the town.

The French Revolution sought to transform all of French society.  To do so, the revolutionary leaders recognized that they needed to eliminate Catholicism from the hearts and minds of the people–easier said then done.  The church dictated the calendar and its rhythms, with a proliferation of festivals.  These festivals formed the habits, which formed the hearts, of the French.

They needed new festivals to replace the traditional Catholic celebrations.  Mona Azouf takes up this oft-neglected topic in her book, Festivals of the French Revolution.  

I believe Jaroslav Pelikan made the observation that Christian feasts all celebrate events that happened in observable time.  We celebrate the Incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.  We have days for remembering the Mother of God and saints of whose lives we have a record.  The only obvious exception to this is Trinity Sunday.  But the Trinitarian nature of God is not an abstract concept, but the concrete–though also mysterious–reality of the Universe.  Celebrations of actual things can have a “natural” atmosphere about them.

We can envision a joyous party for a team when they win the championship.  But what about a team that, during the season itself, had a banquet to celebrate “Victory”?  Things might get awkward quickly.

This challenge confronted France’s revolutionary leadership.  If they wanted wholesale change, then everything old would have to go.  They eliminated a great deal of the previous political leadership.  They transformed the military.  They killed or exiled many recalcitrant aristocrats.  They went farther than almost any other revolutionary group I know of and literally changed the calendar.  They understood that the Gregorian calendar, despite its mainly pagan roots, had been thoroughly Christianized and formed the unconscious rhythms of daily French life.  Some argued that the new France needed no celebrations.  Now that they had banished oppression, each day would have a moderate and joyous character.  But eventually even the die-hards realized that they needed to give the people holy-days (i.e. holidays) to create a new national liturgy.

The festivals for the new calendar attempted to change the concept of time.  They also attempted to alter the concept of space.  Most old Catholic festivals took place in the town near the church.  This meant that the majority of events happened within view of the cathedrals (always the tallest buildings) and in the town streets.  Of course having the church building silently governing the festival would not do.  But the narrow streets and the inevitable buying and selling of goods in the market, conjured up thoughts of secrecy, narrowness, “feudal conspiracy,” and the like.  Festivals of the Revolution often took place in wide fields away from towns and cities.  There they could escape the church building, and the open fields also aided their ideology of equality.  In addition the French Revolution’s obsession with “Nature” had its role to play.  Everything seems new and promising in a lush meadow at springtime.

So far so good.  Here is one contemporary description of the “Festival of Liberty:”

The procession began late, around noon; it was not that the people were made to wait, as by despots at court festivals.  The people turned up at daybreak in large numbers . . . but all waited until all had arrived.  They took pleasure in each other’s company; nonetheless it was time to leave.

On the site of the Bastille an inauguration of the Statue of Liberty was held.  Here more gathered, and it should be noted, they were favored with perfect weather.

There was no excess of pomp; no gold dazzled the eye or insulted the citizens’ humble and honorable poverty.  No soldiers dripping with braid came to cast a condescending eye on the poorly dressed crowd as they passed.  Here actors and witnesses merged, each taking part in the procession.  They had little order but a good deal accord with one another.  No one indulged in the vanity of the haughty gaze, no one set out to be a spectacle.  Boredom, that son of uniformity, found no foothold among the various groups; at each step the scene changed–everyone wanted a part in the Festival of Liberty.

The festival banished luxury, but notable commemorative objects had their role.  The procession opened with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, written on two stone tablets such as the 10 Commandments, though that is no match for the Declaration.  Four citizens proudly carried this noble burden, each reading aloud those immeasurable first lines: “Men are born free and remain free and equal.”

Four busts followed in like manner.  “Ah, there is Voltaire, that old rascal who made us laugh so much at the priests.  That other, worried looking individual [Roussaeu] loved the nobles even less and never sought their favor.  Who is the third?  It is an Englishman, Sydney, who put his head on the block rather than bend a knee to a king.  That old man there, we know him well.  It is Franklin, who can be more rightly called the Liberator of the New World than a certain fop who lives not far from here [i.e. Louis XVI].

The two coffins that followed threw a somber coloring over events as we remembered the martyrs of the massacre at Nancy [some soldiers refused to obey their royalist leaning officers and were shot].  

Preceded by their chains, suspended from trophies and born aloft by young ladies dressed in white, marched our loyal soldiers [loyal to the Revolution that is], with several regular citizen volunteers.  They in turn preceded the Chariot of Liberty, which used the same wheels as the chariot that served for the enshrinement of Voltaire at the Palace of Reason.  Let us not forget that philosophy gave us Liberty.

The chariot, modeled on the antique, was of imposing construction.  On one side David sketched the story of Brutus the Elder of Rome, himself sentencing his royalist sons to death for their disobedience to the law.  On the other he depicted William Tell, aiming a javelin, the target of which was an apple on his own son’s head.  But at his feet we spy another javelin, one that gave independence to Switzerland by slaying the Governor of Austria.  The Lady of Liberty rests on her throne, her hand at her side holding a club, with a gaze that would make king’s blush.   We should never forget that the sceptre of liberty is a bludgeon to her enemies.  It should also be said that six daggers formed the prow of the front of the chariot to threaten any despotism bold enough to impede the march of liberty.

With steady steps 20 democratic horses drew the chariot of the sovereign of the French people.  Their progress had none of the insolence of those idle coursers fed at the stables in Versailles.  They did not hold their heads high; their manes had no gold plait, nor were there plumes adorned.  They walked rather ploddingly, but they kept a steady course.  

Four hundred thousand citizens came to one spot with nary a mishap.  The soldiers on foot had no need to mark the route, none had need to go before the crowds with bayonettes to make way.  Words of peace contained this multitude, it fell into line at the sight of an ear of corn presented to it rather than a musket.

Even a breezy reading of this account reveals that the new foundation was not close to drying.

How do celebrate with the threat of force lingering?  We know of the many imprisonments and beheadings in general, but even here, “Lady Liberty” holds a club. Brutus kills his sons.  The chariot has daggers in the front, and so on. I have some sympathy . . . the only way to completely turn your country 180 degrees is by wrenching the wheel and holding on for dear life.  The question, remains, however . . . how much can you celebrate when you have the sword of Damocles hanging over your head?

A big difference exists between saying, “Everybody dance now!” and, “Everybody dance now.

No particular rhyme or reason exists for how the festival looks and proceeds.  Certain decisions will have to be arbitrary on some level of course.  Perhaps we understand, for example, that “democratic horses” would move “ploddingly” at a “steady” pace. But what if the choreographer had the horses hold their heads high and gallop down the causeway to show the “energy of liberty”?  Would that have been “democratic”. . . or “aristocratic?”

Many such confusions and differences in perception led to imprisonments and even death during the Reign of Terror.

Ultimately Azouf argues that the festivals served not as an emblem of the Revolution’s success but it’s failure.  One cannot invent out of thin air an embodiment of abstract ideals and expect everyone to go along with it.  Azouf herself comments that the revolution in general, and the festivals in particular, represented France’s attempt to reject the entirety of their history–tantamount to rejection of their very selves.  No one can sustain such efforts for long.

And yet . . . while the king eventually came back to France it did not take long to banish him again.  The cultural victory of the French Revolution’s de-sacralization campaign (which, as Azouf points out, involved “sacralizing” different values) took a long time, but France’s subsequent history shows that the revolutionaries won the political battle.

We too have a similar inheritance as the French, having undergone our own radical break from the past at much the same time.  We in time developed some national festivals (the World Series, the Super Bowl, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc.).  Time will tell whether or not this age of atomized individualism will wash those away.  If so, Azouf’s work testifies to the fact that at our core we need such celebrations, and even atomized individuals will find a way to create new festivals.

 

 

10th Grade: The Feeding Frenzy

Greetings,

This week we came close to wrapping up the events of the Reign of Terror.  During the terrible years of 1793-94 somewhere between 15-40 thousand people died and some 300,000 were imprisoned.  How did a Republic dedicated to “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” descend into this barbaric nightmare.  Many theories exist, and here I would like to highlight a few we will discuss in class.

David Andress – The Terror & Outside Pressure

Historian David Andress wants us to consider what happened inside France in light of events outside of France.  England, Austria, and Prussia all tried militarily to oppose France, and all looked for the the fledgling republic to collapse.  The stress of war on an already fragile government heightened the stakes inside France, and they cracked under the pressure.

Edmund Burke – The Abandonment of Tradition

A contemporary of the Revolution, Burke warned back in 1790 that France would pay a terrible price for putting people in power who had no idea how to use it.  Having no political experience, France’s leaders would quickly grow frustrated, and then lash out in the most basic way possible: violence.  Burke would prove a prophet.

Burke may seem stodgy at fist glance, because of his strong emphasis on tradition and habit.  But in a paradoxical way, he believed that habits were the only sure foundation for progress in the world.  We make thousands upon thousands of decisions in a given day, and Burke sees these these habits as a path to freedom, giving us time to pursue new things rather than have to “rationally” whether or not to eat breakfast first or get dressed first.

In a terrible irony Burke predicted, those fired by the Enlightenment idea to apply the strong light of reason to all things would end up erasing habit and thereby condemn us to starting all over again, setting us back to a barbarian past.  The Revolution saw multiple constitutions over a short period of time, a change of calendar, a change of morals.  No one could be sure of anything, and in this environment, fear and violence would likely take over.

Burke applied the same thought process to the exercise of power.  We often make two mistakes regarding political power:

  • We assume that it is a kind of magic, reserved only for society’s wizards.
  • We assume that anyone can do it.

Burke believed that good use of political power functioned like many other things in life, as a matter of experience and training — a matter of habit.  Certainly we want intelligent people to hold office, but this intelligence needed training like anything else in life.  The problem with the revolutionary leaders was not their lack of intelligence.  It was not their wicked designs (we can grant that some of them, at least, meant well).  The main problem lie in the fact that no one really knew what they were doing, and so fell back on force as a last resort.

Simon Schama – Dangers of Ideology

In his great work Citizens, Schama took another approach.  He focused how the French defined what it meant to be a citizen of their country. Increasingly they defined citizenship in moral and ideological and not legal terms.  Frenchmen had rights, but only those truly “virtuous,” or dedicated to the Revolution were truly French.  Those not revolutionary enough could not be French, and so they had no rights.  They functioned as a cancerous tumor, foreign to the national body, and had to be excised.

All three of these eminent thinkers emphasize important aspects of the political context. But all three I think leave out some fundamental aspects of human nature.  I think this image of Robespierre, the head of the ironically named “Committee of Public Safety,”  speaks volumes.  Here we have a man who believed in his own virtue, and had a passion for enforcing his rules on others.  Imagine the ultimate HOA Board Member on steroids.

Robespierre believed in perfection and insisted upon it.  Unfortunately he more or less thought he had achieved it himself.  People called Robespierre the “Incorruptible.”  In all his dealings, Robespierre appears to have been that rare politician who truly did not take bribes or show favoritism.  It would have been better for France (and Robespierre).  Perhaps then he would not have been able to maintain his furious streak of self-righteousness, which led to so many deaths (perhaps thinking of Robespierre might help us to understand Martin Luther’s oft misunderstood “Sin boldly.  God can only forgive a hearty sinner,” line to his quibbling friend Melancthon).

A passion for moral and political purity destroyed France. One can think of a potter attempting to make the perfect circle.  It wouldn’t be perfect at first, and one would have to shave off bits of clay continually to get it just right.  Eventually, however, you would not have any clay left.  While they said they cared for liberty, they did not realize that the amount of liberty one can enjoy is the amount you are willing to have abused.  France found that it could tolerate no abuse of liberty, so in the end they had none at all.  As the Terror increased, even the Committee of Public Safety members turned on each other and many of them faced the guillotine.

The guillotine itself represents part of the tragedy of the Revolution.  Dr. Guillotin invented the instrument to make executions more humane.  In the past, death by beheading was actually a privilege reserved for the nobility.  Those of more “common” lineage might face execution through hanging, disembowling, or even being drawn and quartered.

The guillotine meant now that everyone would have the “right” to death by beheading, and the mechanism meant now that no executioner might potentially botch the job.  Instead, in an almost bizarre parody, the mechanical nature of the machine gave the state power to execute more people more quickly, and now indeed “the people” could all face death equally.

Emmett Kennedy, author of A Cultural History of the French Revolution makes a great observation about French Romanticism and its relation to violence.  If man is naturally good, he suggests, than grace becomes irrelevant.  But what can take the place of grace as a proper inducement to virtue?  St. Just, Robespierre’s lieutenant, had the answer.  Kennedy writes,

Sensibilite (right sentiments, for lack of a better word) impels a man toward virtue, it affirms his natural goodness; it does for him what grace does for Christians.  If “sentiments”  do not produce virtue, then [St. Just argues] terror must take its place (emphasis mine).

In a round-about way Kennedy hits at a central truth.  The doctrine of the Fall of Man leads us not towards cruelty but mercy.  The Revolution denied mankind’s nature, but this “liberation” from sin could only lead them to destroy one another in blind and merciless search for perfection.

10th Grade: The Gods Athirst

Greetings,

This week we continued to look at the French Revolution through a few different events.

As I mentioned last week, how the French defined the “people” of France would be crucial to how the revolution itself would take shape.  I asked the students how they would define who the “people” of America would be, and I got the following responses:

  • Anyone who lives here (but does this also include illegal immigrants, or people here legally on visas, green cards, etc.?)
  • Anyone who is a citizen (but would this include those who live here legally but are not citizens?)
  • Anyone who “believes” in American values and our way of life (but would this mean that someone living in Sweden could be part of the “people,” and would it exclude a citizen who did not believe in the American way?

The concept is obviously hard to define even for us, with a settled way of life and political traditions.  Imagine how much harder, then, it would be to define “the people” in the midst of internal upheaval and the threat of foreign invasion.  We sparked a good debate when I proposed the following scenario:

Imagine that America has undergone a major political revolution.  We have replaced our form of government with a divine-right monarchy that holds power tenuously throughout the country.  Of course, there are many who object to these changes and wish to see a return of the old ways.

Now suppose that China has decided to invade America with the express purpose of restoring the constitution and the president ousted by the revolution that replaced him with a king.  We can further suppose that the ex-president had good relations with China and the current king wants to alter all of our trade agreements with them.  Many oppose the invasion out of a sense of patriotism and/or loyalty to the Revolution, but many others hope for a Chinese victory and a restoration of the Constitution.

Which group would be more “American?”  The group that wanted to defeat China, or the group that hoped for a Chinese victory over American forces?

The question carries enormous weight, for only “the people” of France will get the rights due to the French people.

With this in mind, we can look at two key events.

1. The Storming of the Royal Residence: August 10, 1792

One of the keys to kingship working is the perceived mystical distance between the king and other men.  No one makes a king, kings are born.  He does not chose his life, God chooses him to rule by virtue of his birth.  As a man, a king is no different from anyone, but as king he takes on a different identity.

Royalty has always sought to maintain this distance through their dress, their manners, their homes, and so on.

At the start of the revolution many still wanted a strong king in France.  As the revolution progressed most slowly abandoned tat idea until Louis’ very existence threatened the revolution itself.  Finally on August 10 a mob stormed the palace, brutally slew many of the guards and servants, and might have done the same to Louis and Marie had they not escaped.  In one act, the people eradicated the perceived distance between the monarchy and themselves.  Louis had no power left.

2. The September Massacres, 1792

The events of August 10 did not cause the Austrians and Prussians to invade France all by itself, but it did propel those armies to greater alacrity in their attempt to restore Louis’ power.  As the armies moved closer to France, many feared that prisons in France (which contained ‘counter-revolutionaries’ after all) would be liberated to serve as “5th Column” to aid the foreign invasion.

From September 2-5 mobs went to various prisons, monasteries, and convents in France systematically butchering most of those inside.  The death of Marie Antoinette’ friend Princess Lamballe exemplifies France’s descent into paganism.  They cut off her head and paraded it in front of Marie’s prison window.  Then, according some accounts, they also cut out her heart and ate it.

3. The Death of Marat

Jean-Paul Marat failed at most things in life before he came to edit the tabloid “The Friend of the People.”  More than others he celebrated and encouraged the violence of the revolution, at one point calling for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of the “enemies of the people.”  A young woman named Charlotte Corday believed in the Revolution but also thought Marat a tyrant.  She gained access to him and plunged a knife into his chest.

Corday hoped that Marat’s death would quell violence, but tragically it had the opposite effect.  She hoped to end tyranny, but created a martyr.  It also served to confirm the paranoia of many other revolutionary leaders.  Who could you trust?  Corday posed as a revolutionary, but struck against it.  Anyone, in fact, could secretly be an enemy.  Marat’s death did not create the Reign of Terror, but it did help contribute to it.

If you have interest, Simon Schama has an excellent treatment of David’s famous painting of Marat’s death below.

One of the ways in which they attempted to smoke-out counter-revolutionaries was through the then equivalent of a modern day block party.  Usually attendance at such gatherings was mandatory, for they meant to celebrate the revolutionary oneness of the people.  It sounds harmless enough, but these “parties” terrified many.  You had to be careful not to stand out in the crowd.  The government had proclaimed the need to strike out against “fanaticism” and “moderation.”  If you showed too much enthusiasm for the Revolution, you probably were not being natural and so only sought to mask your true anti-revolutionary intent.  If you showed too little enthusiasm, you again showed your lack of zeal.  This is why these “parties” terrified so many.  You had to avoid standing out in the crowd.

What would you wear to such gatherings?  If you overdressed, you could be seen as “better than others.”  If you underdressed, you obviously showed no respect for the “people of France.”  What food should you bring?  Bring too little, you’re a cheapskate, don’t care about the people, etc.  Bring too much and you fall prey to the “you think you’re better than us,” suspicion, or perhaps others might think that you have secretly hoarded goods and hidden wealth from “the people.”

This fear of being labelled a hoarder proved especially potent.  The revolution had not improved economic conditions in France, contrary to expectations.  But with their Enlightenment beliefs, the removal of the bad monarchical institutions should have, by definition, fixed the problem.  The fact that everything did not work well showed that the Revolution must have been undermined from within.  Hence, the need to find hoarders, the secret enemies of the people.  Saturn had turned on his children — the gods athirst.

On Thursday I wanted the students to think about how the layout of the city can contribute to the possibility of a revolt.  Many in 1789 commented that few cities had a layout more conducive to revolution than Paris.  Here is an image of the city in 1788:

I then asked the students to redesign the city to make revolution less likely, which meant of course they had to think about why the city might be susceptible to revolution in the first place.

A few generations later Napoleon III wanted the city redesigned specifically to discourage the possibility of further revolution.  The map below indicates some of his changes, with the red strips representing broad thoroughfares, and the the darker blue representing wide public spaces.

Many thanks!

Dave M

10th Grade: The Inevitability of Revolutionary Violence?

Greetings,

This week we saw the French Revolution immediately take a dangerous turn, and I wanted us to consider why violence formed such an integral part of the Revolution.  I think we can offer a variety of possible answers to this question.

Historian Simon Schama made an interesting observation regarding the nature of the change that gripped France.  If we go back to the France during the heyday of Versailles, we see the king rigidly controlling events.  The spectacle of Versailles began with the king and sometimes ended with him as well.

Louis XVI had a modernist, progressive bent.  He loved science, and joyfully hosted some of the first ballooning experiments on the grounds of Versailles.  The experiments were a great triumph, but in some ways worked against Louis.  With the balloons up in the air, nature controlled the spectacle.  The wind blows,i.e., nature speaks, and the reaction occurs.  The air was public space.  We see this concept of the Revolution as a “force of nature” in David’s drawing of the Tennis Court Oath (note the rush of wind occupying the top areas of the painting).

The revolution then, was a “force of nature” in the minds of many,  outside the control of the king, or anyone else, for that matter.  One must follow where it led — you had no choice.

Traditionally historians have viewed the Revolution as happening in two phases:

1) The idealistic, peaceful, “good” phase from 1789-1792, and

2) The ugly, destructive phase that began in 1792 and lasted until 1794.

Following Simon Schama and his stellar book Citizens, I disagree with this characterization.  Violence and political action went hand in hand in 1788, for example, a year before the Revolution proper began.  Bastille Day in 1789 saw the mob beat Captain DeLaunay to death and put his head on a pike.  The language of blood had much cache in the rhetoric of the time, with orators often proclaiming their desire to shed their blood for the cause, or the need for blood to “water the soil of the fatherland,” blood as the “cement of the new republic,” and so on.

Part of understanding the violence involves understanding the nature of sin itself.  How often have we thought that if we do this one bad thing, we can quickly then step back, shut the lid on our misdeeds, and return to righteous behavior.  But as Scriptural language makes clear, once sin has room to maneuver it tends to take control.  Once they used violence to achieve small objectives, it began to have a life and logic of its own.  Pandora’s box had opened.

Part of the reason for the violence also involves what the French tried to accomplish with their revolution.  Stop and ponder for a moment how many political questions we take for granted. Who gets rights?  Who is a citizen?  How should we apportion political power?  Americans disagree a lot about politics, but nearly all our arguments deal with what to do within the existing system.

But what if we had to completely rethink all of those things on the fly, for this is what the French faced.  Naturally they had many disagreements about fundamental political questions.  Under pressure from foreign powers, did the French have the space and time to decide these questions?  The lazy way out would mean violence.  One can weary of talking endlessly, especially under pressure.  “Since we cannot agree on who gets the last cookie and I’m tired of talking, I’ll shove you out of the way and grab it myself.”

The art of the period reflected some of this change of mindset.  The artistic style called “Rococo” tended to dominate in the period prior to the Revolution, with this painting as perhaps the pre-eminent example:

The emphasis here was on light, softness, and the pleasures (though its critics used the word “frivolity) of life.  Art presaged the political shift of the Revolution.  The colors got bolder, the subject matter more serious, and the focus shifted from celebrating life to facing death.

Here is Jacques Louis-David’s “The Oath of the Horatii,” from a story in Roman history that celebrated the sacrifice of the three brothers for Rome.

And below, “Brutus and His Sons,” which again uses Rome as the narrative template.  Brutus served as one of Rome’s first consuls, its chief law enforcement officer.  But two of his sons participated in a plot to bring back the monarchy.  The punishment was death, and Brutus had the duty of executing the punishment.  As in the picture above, the men have steely resolve while the women swoon:

The semi-apocalyptic tone of the art no doubt captured the existing mood, but also propelled French society toward violence.

We also cannot underestimate the climate of fear that gripped France.  They knew that their attempts to remake their society would draw the ire of other nations.  Austria and Prussia sent armies to invade their country, and France itself had to deal with an army whose aristocratic officer corp had largely fled or been discredited.  But once the French began the Revolution, they could not turn back.  They had already done enough to face punishment from other nations or a restored Louis XVI.  If, for example, you knew you would be hung for the thefts you committed, would you try and kill the witnesses?  What more could the authorities do to you?  Facing domestic uncertainty and international pressure, success became mandatory for the revolutionaries.  This desperation surely contributed to the violence.  Tragically (and not surprisingly) they eventually turned this fear and desperation on each other.  Saturn would eat his children.

It was in this climate of fear that the French had to decide who constituted the “people” of France.  Usually nations decide this along the lines of birth, but many in France thought this could not work, since not all favored the Revolution.  If those who did not go along with the Revolution were “oppressors” of the people, could oppressors of the people be part of the people?  Why give rights to those who work against the nation? This led to the French defining citizenship along ideological lines, which had a disastrous impact on the Revolution.

Violence played a crucial part in this decision too.  On Bastille Day crowds already began executing people without trial.  If those executed were part of “the people” then their actions were obviously illegal.  But to call those actions illegal would call the whole revolution into question.  So, the natural conclusion would be that those executed were not in fact part of France after all, and not deserving of rights.

Next week we will see where these ideas lead the Revolution.

10th Grade: Romanticism

Greetings,

This week we looked at Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Romantic movement.  Last week in our examination of  the Enlightenment, we said that it both built upon the past (Scientific Revolution) and reacted against it (Louis XIV’s Versailles).  So Romanticism both reacted against the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and built upon its rejection of current society.

We think of the Romantics praising the virtues of emotion, but we should not interpret the word ’emotion’ in a narrow sense.  Rousseau focused more on our ‘gut,’ or our ‘inner man.’  For Romantics society itself was humanity’s enemy.  All of its trappings, like wigs, crevattes, five-fork dinners, etc. put a ridiculous husk over the kernel of our true selves.  Anyone who ever felt uncomfortable among the wine and cheese set, for example, can identify with at least some of what Rousseau preached.  Manners and mores, if taken too far, can be elitist, exclusionary, and anti-human.  When we consider that the picture to the left depicted actual hairstyles as worn by aristocratic ladies, we begin to identify with what the Romantics advocated.  Rousseau wanted to return to what was “natural.”  It makes sense, then, that one of his main causes involved getting mothers to breast feed their own children, rather than handing them over to wet-nurses.

Rousseau and the Romantics wanted to free people from society to live as they were truly meant to live.

For them, mankind need not fear logic and reason, but instead  needed to realize that they do not come first in human development.  We add them later, whereas our emotions arise naturally from within us from the very start.  Reason, on the other hand, must be imposed from without.  So our ‘guts’ are better guides to behavior than our reason.

From a Christian perspective one can say that God gave both emotion and reason, and that both can guide us to truth.  We come back to the idea of truth in tension.  Unfortunately we see the abandonment of this tension in Rousseau, who thought for example, that the tragic Lisbon earthquake was God’s judgment against cities.  C.S. Lewis’ famous essay “Men Without Chests” makes the point that, as valuable as our heads and our guts are, they need the “Chest” to act as a moral mediator.  Separated from right moral guidance, both emotion and reason turn tyrant. Jonah Goldberg has a humorous but insightful take on what happens when men are left to their own devices here.  When the forces of Enlightenment and Romanticism combined and then turned against each other in the French Revolution, the results would be less humorous.

Like the Enlightenment movement, the Romantics were on to at least a part of something.  One example of this is the idea of breastfeeding.  For centuries women in the elite of society considered it “vulgar” to breastfeed their own children and farmed them out to wet-nurses. One of the first goals of the “Romantic” movement was to get women to see that what was “natural” in this case was good.  What could be more “unnatural” than the separation of mother and infant child?  And yet, such practices persisted.

The problem of course lay in how one defined “natural.”  If every “natural” thing has a direct moral imperative, then we must define “natural” very carefully.  Like the Enlightenment then, the Romantics did not see the world or humanity as basically fallen, and this would bring forth terrible consequences in due course.

We looked at the tragic case of Louis XVI.  In him we have a good man who, in turbulent times, lacked the foresight to be a good king.  As a French king, he probably thought that supporting the Americans against the British was just something that French kings do.  But Louis’ aid to the colonies, which involved people trying to overthrow a monarchy, can be compared to bringing the kudzu plant to the U.S.  You are importing your own destruction, though Louis likely did not see this, just as we did not with the infamous plant.  When an idea (like some plants) gets transplanted away from its native soil the results may be much different than we anticipated.

As the official diplomat to Paris, Ben Franklin knew exactly what chord to strike with the French.  He knew that the French idealized the Americans as fulfilling Rousseau’s dream of living close to nature, and milked that as much as possible.  To the left is a famous portrait of Rousseau, and the outfit Franklin donned for his portrait in France while on a diplomatic mission.

Louis attempted to enact many helpful reforms, and this makes his tragedy more poignant.  Many have the mistaken idea that France rebelled against a decrepit regime bent on maintaining the status quo at all costs.  In fact, many philosophes felt that France had the perfect king for the times.  Louis worked hard at fiscal responsibility.  He abandoned much of the waste and foolishness of Versailles. He avidly patronized the sciences, and founded the first known school anywhere for the blind.  France did not rebel against a king who refused to change, they rebelled against a king who tried hard to modernize France.  We shall have to unpack the significance of this later when we look at his trial under the Revolutionary government.

Usually no matter how often we criticize our Presidents we profess admiration for our First Ladies.  Not so in France.  Marie Antoinette, queen of France, was hated almost from the moment she set foot in the country.  Many stood against her from the very start, but her actions, innocent though many may have been did not help her cause.

The bad press began the moment the French found out that Louis’ bride hailed from Austria, a traditional rival of France, a step-child.  Louis, and thus France as a whole, was seen as “marrying down.”

Strike one against Marie.

Marie was desperate to please.  So, if the above picture showed how high-born ladies should wear their hear, she would do one better.   She wore this hairstyle (the picture is accurate, not satirical) to commemorate a French naval victory.   The French, with their vicious eye for taste, could easily detect when someone tries too hard.

So, as the Romantic movement gained acceptance, the pendulum swung the other way.  Marie eagerly dove headfirst into the new style.  She would be “simple.”  She asked Louis to build her a special estate where she and her friends could pretend to be farm girls and feed sheep, milk cows, and so on.  Again, Marie seems to be “trying too hard” to almost ludicrous proportions.

Her friend Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun painted the famous portrait of her to the left.

This new image would surely work, right?  In this portrait she was elegantly simple, just as Rousseau would want her.  Marie very much hopedInstead, once again the French detected desperation, someone who obviously was not “natural.”   “You are queen of France.  Act like one, dress like one!”  the French seemed to say.  Marie did not figure out how to act like a queen to anyone’s liking, perhaps not even her own.

When Marie finally had children, she settled down, and enjoyed her role as a mother.  But much damage had already been done.  Part of this damage stemmed from the personality differences between Louis and Marie.  Introverted Louis never liked parties, and used any excuse to retire early (one source indicates that Marie purposely set Louis’ clocks ahead in hopes of having Louis retire even earlier).  Once Louis left, Marie felt like she could cut loose, and played cards and danced the night away.   Much of this behavior was very likely innocent, but it raised many eyebrows, and rumors flew.  Louis, did what any wealthy, decent, and befuddled husband might do and bought her lots of expensive things.  Marie got the blame for this, not Louis.  In time various epitaphs floated around France, including, “The Austrian Whore,” and “Madame Deficit.”  Marie could never understand the impact of her actions, and how important image was to her success in politics.

Next week we will see Louis lose control of events in the French Revolution, and how France’s abandonment of what Lewis called “the chest” would wreak terrible havoc.

 

 

Dave

10th Grade: Truth Without Tension

Greetings.

This week we returned to Europe in the mid 18th century and began to look at the ideas that shaped the coming French Revolution.  In this “Prelude to the Revolution” unit I hope that students will see that ideas have consequences.  The French pursued truth, or at least what they believed to be truth, with a passion, but this pursuit nearly destroyed them as they attempted to entirely remake their nation from the ground up.

How then, can we recognize truth?

Christians have many answers at their disposal to this question, but we discussed in class that many of our foundational truths are truths in tension.  So we see that God is one God in three persons, Christ is fully God and fully Man, Scripture is the Word of God written by men, and so on.  Sometimes we can know that we are close to Truth when we feel pulled in different directions at once.

Christians also realize that Ultimate Reality (God Himself) is personal, not abstract or propositional.  In inviting us to know Him, God does not want us primarily to know truths about Him (though this too is necessary), but to have a relationship with Him.  So truth must have an incarnational, or personal aspect to it for it to fully achieve the status of “Truth.”

French society needed reform in the mid-18th century.  The dominance Louis XIV bought came at a cost, and one cost was the inherent contradictions that Louis’s France left unresolved, and in fact widened.   When untethered from “truth in tension” we might expect wild swings or “over-corrections” in the ideas and solutions of the time.  The Enlightenment is no exception.  But the Church needs to have judgment begin at home, for it was precisely the Church’s relative weakness in the aftermath of the wars of religion and the Scientific Revolution that opened the door for people to seek truth elsewhere.

The Enlightenment had many noble motives and goals.  Many “philosophes” (as French Enlightenment philosophers were known) saw that society had become a kind of anachronism, guided by long outdated feudal customs.  Certain areas in society operated autonomously, without reason or justice.  Many stories abound for example, of “press-gangs” rounding up derelicts or drunks and forcing them into the navy or infantry.  From the perspective of many, society seemed to be made only for the elite, or for those with connections, or special, secret knowledge (the echoes of Louis’s ridiculous system at Versailles form a good example).  Enlightenment thinkers sought to free society from archaic mystery and make it livable for the common man.  Reason’s clear light revealed the absurdity of class and privilege.  The Philosophes prided themselves as sensible men.  Ben Franklin, for example, records basic advice like, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”  No wild Platonistic musings here, thank you very much.

One sees this spirit animating their music as well.  Haydn, for example, wanted to write for the farmer and tradesman, so his music has a popular danceability to it that one immediately perceives.  Odd meter changes, wild swings in tempo, and so on might have been perceived as “elitist,” or inaccessible.

In the early Enlightenment one also sees a glorification of the everyday.  Those outside the nobility, like Christopher Wren in England, got picked to design St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Enlightenment era paintings depicted women realistically, and showed life as it was really lived by most people.  It elevated simple pleasures of good company and conversation.

For centuries the Church had controlled much of daily life, especially education.  This too needed freed for “the people.”  With people loosed from institutional religion, they would be freed to be their “natural” religious selves.   No more obscure doctrines, no more mystery, just the clear light of reason.  So in the end, society, education, religion, culture — all this seemed to come down from their pedestals on high and into the people’s hands.  The early years of the Enlightenment must have been quite exciting.

But this excitement masked certain key problems.

For all of their realism and so-called common sense, the philosophes tended to be quite unrealistic about human nature.  For them, part of their liberation from mankind meant liberating them from their sense of sin.  “You’re not bad, just ignorant!”  But in severing people from their sense of sin they dehumanized them.  We know we sin, and we know that it is part of being human to sin.  To say that sin doesn’t exist makes us less responsible, and if we are less responsible, we are less human.  Again, Enlightenment thinkers surely thought they were doing mankind a favor by removing the idea of punishment for sin.  I want the students to appreciate the Enlightenment’s strengths, but the tragic irony of the Enlightenment is while they sought to liberate they set us on a path of potential slavery.  We deserve to be held responsible for sin because we are human beings responsible for our actions.  Dogs are not responsible for their actions.  C.S. Lewis elaborates on this in his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.

The Enlightenment frowned on mystery.  We know that many key doctrines of Christianity are mysteries at heart, but what about other areas?  Is not life itself mysterious?  What about love?  Guys, what about women?  Again, to be fully human we must have a sense of mystery about our existence.  In its eagerness to redress an imbalance, the Enlightenment abandoned “truth in tension” and created other kinds of problems, some worse than those it fixed.

The ironic tragedy of the Enlightenment is that while they sought to liberate, they ended up dehumanizing people on a path to slavery, for dehumanization is the first step towards control.  One sees this in subtle ways in the “Smile of Reason”  in many philosophe portrayals:

The constant tight-lipped smile of these reasonable, agreeable people tips the hand of the Enlightenment.  As Clarke notes, the philosophes might smile, but never laugh.  They restricted what it meant to be human.  Life can be enjoyed, but only in moderation.  They prized control above all else.

I don’t want to overreach, but the Enlightenment insistence on control paved the way for some of the tyrannies of the French Revolution and beyond.  The Enlightenment gave us good things to be sure.  No doubt many good Christians made the best of what the Enlightenment had to offer.  But its legacy, like all heresies, continues to haunt us.

Blessings,

Dave

 

10th Grade: Past and Present Imperfect

Greetings,

This week we delved quickly into our unit on the Constitution, where we focused on a few main ideas, and lay the groundwork for what we will discuss next week:

  • We sometimes have the idea that drafting the Constitution was simply a matter of getting on paper what everybody already thought.  In reality, many of those present had strongly divergent ideas of what federal government should look like.  Some wanted no executive at all, while others (like Alexander Hamilton) wanted a very strong executive elected for life.  The federal judiciary seems almost an afterthought as did the Vice-Presidency, and so on.
  • Compromise tended to be how the delegates operated, and many today praise the fact that they forged consensus amidst uncertain times, which usually give rise to fear and rigid dogmatism.  But this process of compromise extended also to slavery with disastrous moral, and long-term political, effects.  For better or worse, they decided that compromise for the sake of union (which they had already done with many other issues) on slavery was worthwhile.  A variety of theories exists as to why this happened.  Some argue that many believed that slavery would die out eventually on its own within a generation, and thus was not worth forcing some of the die-hards from South Carolina out of the nation entirely.  Others state that slavery involved directly only private moral issues that best belonged outside the purview of federal power (some make the same argument regarding abortion today).  Finally, some assert a simple exhaustion among the delegates.  Having performed so many arduous climbs, the thought of ascending Everest proved too much for them.  I enjoyed the students thoughts on the validity of their decision.  This issue we will raise again next year as we move towards the Civil War.
  • Despite their significant differences, delegates did share some basic principles, such as 1) The federal government did need strengthening, and 2) Federal power needed to avoid concentration in the hands of any particular branch, lest our liberties suffer danger, and 3) A fear of the ‘power of the people.’  While the Constitution did create a more democratic government that existed anywhere else in the West, it contains several barriers to translating the people’s desire into government action.  We often complain of gridlock in government, but may not always realize that the Constitution seems tailor made to create it.
  • For all its tremendous success, the Constitution did not foresee the quickly approaching era of a popular, national president that embodied the will of the people.  This almost led to disaster in the election of 1800, as we will discuss in a few weeks.

People did not immediately embrace the Constitution.  Patrick Henry read the first to the three words, “We the people,” and began his vehement objections.  States, in Henry’s view, should be the basis of federal power.  Henry may have been right or wrong about the wisdom of making “the people” the foundation of political power, but he certainly astutely recognize the difference.  The Constitution created a new kind of America, one where national identity would trump local identity in the long run.

Henry also believed that the proposed national capital would in fact become a vast armory, one that would inevitably destroy liberties.  In the strict literal sense, he was wrong about that.  But he was right that the creation of a national, federal army would put a great deal of power in the hands of the national government.  It is an odd and unsettling thought, but we should realize that the only thing preventing the military from taking over the government is that they don’t want to.  Should the army desire to march on the Capitol, for example, the Capitol would fall in about 15 minutes.

We spent the bulk of our week on our 4th Amendment unit.  I wanted to focus in on one particular aspect of the Constitution to help drill the down the implication of some of its core principles.  The 4th Amendment, which reads

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This amendment has tremendous relevance for us today.  Technology has changed the meaning of privacy, and our enemies have no qualms with using our system against us.  The government has extraordinary powers at its disposal.  Should privacy or security concerns take precedence?

9780815722120Scholar and author Jeffrey Rosen has done a lot of thinking in the areas of technology and privacy.  He raises many key questions, such as

  • How private can public space be in the digital age?  Do we have a right to privacy from Google or Facebook cameras if we walk down a public sidewalk?
  • Can Facebook violate the 4th Amendment, which after all, only prohibits government from infringing on our liberties, and not the private sector?
  • Europe has already done a lot to regulate the private sector in regard to digital privacy.  Many civil libertarians, for example, would applaud the upholding of privacy concerns that Europe is pioneering.  But, given the tremendous growth of technology, regulating these companies requires strong government interference.  But — the same people who applaud the privacy are usually ones who do not want government regulation of the private sector.  How should we resolve this paradox?

These are some of the issues we will attempt to tackle with out mock Supreme Court Case this coming week.

Many thanks,

Dave

The Way of the Fox

I can always count on a few “Let’s conquer Canada!” “jokes” a year from my students.  We might be studying the Mexican-American War and someone will say, “No, no, no.  We need to find our ‘true north’ and fight Canada!”  If it’s the Spanish-American War it could be, “Spain?  Why Spain?  We should fight Canada!”  If it’s W.W. II . . . “We fought on the same side?  Phooey.  After the Germans, on to Canada!”

Mild groans or exasperated rebukes (from the girls) usually ensue.

So it comes as a delightful surprise (to the boys) to actually find out that we did try and conquer Canada in 1775.

Because the idea of conquering Canada is such a passe joke, we assume that George Washington was crazy to order such an attempt.  In the minds of many our invasion comes to nothing more than a madcap escapade, a schoolboy’s lark.

Dave R. Palmer argues in his book The Way of the Fox (newer editions have a different title indicated by the cover to the right) that in fact such an invasion not only nearly succeeded, but also made sound strategic sense.  Palmer seeks to rescue Washington from his saccharine and wooden image and recasts him as an effective and in some ways brilliant grand strategist for the American Revolution.  And yes, this includes his invasion of Canada.

Today many think of Washington as either a great man/demi-god or nothing more than a member of elite/exploiting class.  Both views are cardboard cutouts.  Palmer shows us someone who thought carefully and with subtlety, someone who adjusted his thinking on multiple occasions to deal with changing reality.  British generals often referred to Washington as the “old fox,” sometimes with contempt because he would not fight, sometimes with admiration for his cleverness.  The moniker should stick — it brings Washington and the war to life.

First and foremost Washington stood as the perfect symbol for the Revolution. Certain qualities made him the obvious choice for command, such as his experience, his height, his bearing, and the fact that he hailed from the South.  But none of these things would matter if Washington failed to think in broad strategic terms effectively. Palmer divides the Revolution into three stages, and correspondingly sees Washington adjust his strategy each time.  Washington made specific mistakes as he went, but in terms of broad strategic goals Palmer has Washington never miss a beat.

Palmer argues that revolutions possess an offensive character by their very nature.  They seek to effect change and so must act accordingly.  Thus, Washington was entirely right to begin the war with an aggressive strategy that sought to expel the British.

This failed to fully succeed, which allowed the British to send massive reinforcements.  This meant that Washington, now outmanned and outgunned, needed to withdraw and avoid having his army destroyed by a pitched battle he could not win.

France’s entry after 1778 changed the situation yet again.  Now momentum and manpower lay with the Americans. Washington needed to take advantage of the alliance while it lasted.  So during this period Washington should have sought to press his dramatic advantage, which he did with great effect at Yorktown.

I take no issue with either Palmer’s interpretation or Washington’s actions for phases two and three.  But it’s the first phase, which includes the invasion of Canada, where we can push back most easily.  It seems to me that Washington should have been cautious until the final phase where the advantage finally tipped in his favor.  His aggressiveness at the start of the conflict seems out of place to me.

True, at the beginning of the war you have an emotional high that you can capitalize on.  But you will have undisciplined and untested troops. What’s more, they will not yet have developed that cohesion that great armies have of sharing routines, time, space, and danger.  Think of Caesar’s legions — nothing remarkable when they started into Gaul, and unbeatable five years later.  In our Civil War one reason for the South’s early success had to do with the offensive burden the North faced.  When General Irwin McDowell objected to offensive action at Bull Run in 1861 due to the lack of experience of his men, Lincoln replied that “[both sides] are green together.”  Yes, but McDowell knew that a green attacker has a lot more to worry about than a green defender, and so it proved.

Beyond this psychological reason, Palmer asserts another more narrowly strategic goal for invading Canada.  America’s size and her numerous ports put a huge strategic burden on England.  Colonial armies could easily retreat inland and lead British forces on goose chases through the wilderness.  Add to that, the layout of the land presented very few “choke points” at which the British could use their superior manpower to any real effect.  Perhaps the only such point lay at the nexus between England and Canada — the Hudson River.

Flowing from north of Albany down to New York City, British control of the Hudson would have allowed them to control the upper third of the colonies.  Controlling New York and Boston would have meant control of America’s biggest ports.  Cutting off New England would further mean nabbing most of the colonies financial resources and a hefty portion of its intellectual political capital.  Everyone on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that control of the Hudson could determine the war.

So if it makes sense for Washington to defend the Hudson, why not go just a bit further into Canada itself?  To capture Quebec would have given the colonies everything else in Canada.  Success would have prevented England from having a free “back door” entry point into the colonies via the St. Lawrence River.  Shutting down the St. Lawrence would topple another domino by cutting off England from potential Indian allies* out in the west.

Reading Palmer’s lucid and logical defense, I found myself almost persuaded.  Palmer urges us to remember that the failure of Benedict Arnold’s invasion (yes, that Benedict Arnold) — and it nearly succeeded, does not prove that the idea or the goal was faulty.  Had it paid off, the war might have been over within a year or two instead of eight.

Yes, but . . .

Arnold  lost in Quebec and Washington lost in New York City.  Palmer gives a generous interpretation of Washington’s actions in New York and believes that politically speaking, Washington had to defend the city.  Maybe so.  But if he had to defend the city for the sake of politics, then why also invade Canada and divide your forces? Palmer wants it both ways.  He believes that circumstances called for an aggressive campaign in 1775-early ’76, but that politics and not military necessity alone forced Washington’s hand to defend New York.  This seems to admit the fact that Washington should have given ground and played defense in New York alone.

All in all I agree that Washington brilliantly guided the colonies to victory, and Palmer argues this decisively.  He points out also that Washington faced a bungling and confused command structure in England.  But Washington had Congress to deal with, who although more intelligent and capable by far than their British counterparts, had much less experience in running a war.  By any measure, Washington deserves his place as one of the great generals of the modern era.

But I can’t let go of the invasion of Canada.

If we try and evaluate Washington’s gambit in Canada we should try and compare it to similar kinds of military actions across time.  My case remains that the invasion made logical sense in a certain way.  He was not reckless or foolhardy to try.  But I feel that he should have focused more on defense, and perhaps even success might have hurt him in the long run.  The colonies might have had the direct motivation to expel the British, but would they support long-term the occupation of Canada?**

I can think of three campaigns that might be comparable in certain ways . . .

  • Athens’ invasion of Sicily in 415 B.C.
  • Hannibal attacking Rome directly instead of defending Spain
  • Napoleon going on the offensive in Belgium in 1815 instead of rallying the people to “defend France.”
  • Our invasion of Iraq in 2003***

Sometimes foxes can be a bit too clever.  Still, unlike Athens, Hannibal, and Napoleon, Washington committed a relatively small portion of his forces to the plan.  As a general most would not rank Washington with Hannibal, Napoleon, and the like.  But Palmer argues that not only should we put Washington in their company, but given his military and political success, make him the general of the modern era.

Dave

*This no mere fancy.  In 1777 the British did invade via the St. Lawrence and did gather some Indian allies for their “Saratoga” campaign.  That escapade ended in disaster for the British, but Washington’s strategic fears did come true nonetheless.

**Strange as it may sound now, Palmer points out that the motivation to occupy and settle Canada ourselves might have existed not on strategic but religious grounds.  Many in 1775 saw Canadian Catholicism as a mortal threat to our freedoms and would have gladly occupied it in the name of liberty.  Certainly we showed the ability to expand and settle territory in the west. Why not in the north as well?

***Right or wrong, Bush enjoyed overwhelming support to fight in Afghanistan in 2001.  It made sense to us in the way that (again, right or wrong) responding to Pearl Harbor made sense.  But his case in 2003 was much less compelling, at least to the international community.

10th Grade: The World Turned Upside Down

This week we discussed the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.  Certainly the whole document has great importance for us, but whereas the specific grievances have come and gone, we rightly remember the words of the first paragraphs.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

We take this wording for granted today, but Jefferson’s words espoused some revolutionary ideas.  In 1765, the colonists (for the most part) couched their dispute with England in terms of English rights, i.e. “The English government fails to give English liberties to its citizens.”  In the Declaration, however, we see the colonists fighting for human, not British rights.  Their struggle took place specifically against England, but in the broader sense the colonists fought to be more human.

Jefferson professed Deism and not Christianity, but he clearly states that these rights have universality because of the identity and purpose of our Creator.   Jefferson takes the Romans 13 dilemma we discussed a few weeks ago and turns it on its head.  Government’s exist to protect human dignity.  If they fail in this, government becomes the rebel against God, and this means people have a duty to fight them, not merely permission.  Jefferson’s stroke remains brilliant and controversial even today.

Unlike other countries (founded on shared history or shared biology), the United States founded itself on an idea.  The universality of this idea has done much to shape our history.  Critics of our policy often accuse us of “meddling” in affairs that don’t concern us.  Certainly this charge has at least some merit.  But in our defense, we might say that we can’t help it.  The Declaration makes humanity itself our business.  We might further state that we have no wish to make others more like us, rather, we wish to help them become more human.  There may be some self-deception in this line of reasoning, but I think many Americans think this way whether consciously or no.  On the flip-side, this universality has helped us be more open to other peoples emigrating and finding a place in our society.

We also discussed two other controversial aspects of the Declaration:

  • Should we have the right to “pursue happiness?”  What has this meant for us?  I touch on some of these ideas in this post here.

Author/commentator Malcolm Muggeridge thought the inclusion of the “pursuit of happiness in the Declaration a great disaster.  He said,

There is something ridiculous and even quite indecent in an individual claiming to be happy. Still more a people or a nation making such a claim. The pursuit of happiness… is without any question the most fatuous which could possibly be undertaken. This lamentable phrase ”the pursuit of happiness” is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world.

The truth is that a lost empire, lost power and lost wealth provide perfect circumstances for living happily and contentedly in our enchanted island.

I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.

  • Jefferson’s original draft of the Constitution contained a strong anti-slavery section, but in the end he removed it to allow for all colonies to join in signing the document.  This may have helped us fight the war for independence, but it disastrously postponed our nation dealing with the terrible crime of slavery.  Was this worth it?

We then moved on to finish the fighting in the war, and focused on the battles of Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781).  On Friday we played a game in class where the rules gave certain advantages to the “favorite.”  But the “underdog” also had key advantages. .

  • They could afford to play more recklessly as they had less to lose
  • If they got luck or could bluff their way to one big success, they could simply fold (i.e. retreat in orderly fashion) and wait until time ran out in the game.

Many of you may have seen an action movie where the lone hero has to fight his way into a compound, boat, or other structure.  Despite being badly outnumbered, he manages to get the bad guys and escape.  Along with Hollywood convention at work, the hero does have some actual advantages.  He knows that every person he sees is a bad guy, where his opponents must exercise much more caution.  They hesitate and give the hero the advantage, who can shoot first and ask questions later.

This analogy could easily get stretched too far, but British failures at Saratoga and Yorktown show the great difficulty the British faced to win the war.  How could they solve the problems that created the war in the first place through violence?  The deteriorating situation between England and the colonies between 1763-1775 craved a political response that the English proved unable to provide.  Victory through violence therefore demanded an absolutely crushing military victory, and would have to take great risks to achieve it.  Both times they attempted this, it backfired on them.

Americans had more “freedom” in their strategy because their failures mattered little and their successes got magnified greatly in their political effect.  England’s political bungling prior to the war itself paved the way for their defeat.

Here is the march the British played when they surrendered at Yorktown, “The World Turned Upside Down.”

10th Grade: The Rules of War

Greetings,

We began the actual fighting of the Revolutionary War this week, with a focus on the generalship of George Washington.

But we began by looking at the tactics employed by the colonials at the Battle of Concord.

After the British broke through the lines like a knife through hot butter at Lexington, the colonials changed tactics after the British abandoned their search for weapons in Concord.  Rather than meet them out in the open, the hid amidst the treelines, taking potshots and then melting back into the woods.  The British had no effective way of countering this.

This infuriated the British, of course.  This was not how men fought!  What kind of coward fires from safety and then runs away?  Battle was meant as a test of honor, solidarity in the ranks, and courage under fire.  Fighting as the colonials did at Concord might be akin to one team poisoning the water of their opponent.  If they then won the game, would we call that victory?

There is a possibly apocryphal story of the Battle of Fontenoy, between the British and French in 1745.  Tradition says that both sides argued about who which side would strike the first blow. Lord Hay, the British general, supposedly asked, “Gentlemen of France, perhaps you would care to fire first?”

The Battle of Fontenoy

For the Europeans, for battle to be decisive, for it to mean anything, it must be ‘fair.’  Victory without ‘fairness’ solved nothing.

Students wisely countered with the fact that this analogy of a sports team doesn’t quite add up.  First of all, it’s against the law to poison water, where there is no law saying that armies must line up in the middle of field.  Secondly, why should the colonials have to fight on British terms according to British strengths?  The  colonial troops should be free to do what they do best.

These are good arguments.  What happens when we apply them to our current situation in “The War on Terror?”  We would all wish that the terrorist radicals would all line up in a field somewhere.  If this happened, the “War on Terror” would be over in about 15 minutes.  Naturally, they possess enough intelligence not to do this, so they choose other tactics.  Does this make them cowards?  Are they “playing fair?”  Where are the differences?  Some said that the differences lie in the treatment of civilians, and this is an excellent point.  Does the same difference apply to the Ft. Hood shooting a few years ago, where only military personnel were targeted?

To turn this further on ourselves, we should confront the fact that our extensive use of drones inspire a great deal of hatred.  For our enemies (and the innocent civilians in the line of fire), our use of drones is ultimately a cowardly act.  We put others at risk while risking nothing ourselves.  The drones hover in ways not accessible to retaliation, and they strike without giving anyone a chance to escape.  My guess is that if terrorists flew a small drone into a large city remotely and attacked people, we would be tempted to call it a “cowardly act.”

It’s important for us to realize (returning to our original context) that for the British raw military victory did not count in the same way that honor and integrity did in battle.  Wars happened, but wars should take place within the confines of civilization, not outside it.  How one fought was in itself a victory of sorts, and could not get separated from the tangible results on the field.

During our look at Washington, we noted that he won only 3 of his 9 revolutionary war battles.  Previously to the American Revolution, he may have been responsible for the Fort Necessity disaster with the French, and he accompanied Braddock on his ill-fated attempt to capture Fort Duquense.  Does he deserve his high reputation?

Some years ago I came across a book entitled, ‘The 100 Greatest Generals of All-Time’ (or something very close to that).  Lists are always fun for me, so I opened it out of curiosity.  As one might expect the usual suspects of Julius Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Ghengis Khan, etc. could be found in the top 10.  But his number 1 general of all-time?  George Washington.

This shocked me so I had to read his thoughts (was this shock value part of the author’s motivation for listing him at #1, and not say, at #4?).  His points were these:

  • Many of the generals in the list accomplished a great deal militarily but failed politically (i.e. Alexander, Julius Caesar).  Some had short-term political success, but could not make it last (i.e. Napoleon).
  • Some of the generals (again Alexander and Caesar) inherited what was likely the best army in the known world at the time and fought against weaker opponents (this could especially be said about Alexander).
  • By contrast, Washington faced the best with an untrained army with weak political support.  As commander-in-chief, not only did he win the war, he turned that victory into lasting political success for his side.  Not only did he help usher in a new political era, he did so without seizing control himself.
  • Washington had a solid understanding of the fact that the Americans only needed to ‘not lose’ the war to win it. He knew that keeping the army intact and functional was more important than risking the army in unsure scenarios. Orderly retreat could sometimes be the better part of valor.  Most military men can’t do this consistently even when intellectually they know it’s the right thing to do.  Washington did so, and distinguished himself thereby.
  • Former Georgetown Hoya basketball coach John Thompson says on occasion, “I don’t want to know how many points somebody scores in a game.  I want to know when he scores them.  What do his points mean for the team in a given situation?”  In the same vein, Washington knew how to minimize the impact of his defeats and maximize his victories.  When things looked bleak in the winter of 1776, for example, he came through in the battles of Trenton and Princeton.  It would be years before his next victory at Yorktown in 1781, but the British surrender there basically gave America its independence.

As I mentioned previously, it is possible the author listed Washington so high to distinguish his book from others. Still, I feel he has solid arguments to at least rank him highly.  I wanted to use our look at Washington to introduce the concept that in war success can come in many ways.  Since war is ultimately a political act, the battles themselves are simply one extension of the conflict.

When we think about war in broader terms, we see how many of England’s advantages (such as an elite professional army) meant little in the political context of the Revolution.  They had the unenviable task taking someone who didn’t want to be your friend anymore and making them a friend.  Would beating them up do the trick?  Over the previous 10 years (1764-75) the British proved politically inept with the colonies, so a political solution would not come easily for them.  If they went the route of force more or less exclusively they would need to absolutely pulverize the colonies so badly that further resistance would be physically and psychologically impossible.   As long as the Americans kept their heart beating, they could outlast England.  Washington, I think, understood this to his advantage.

Next week we will look at the battles of Saratoga as well as the Declaration of Independence.

Enjoy the weekend, and many thanks,

Dave Mathwin