This week we looked at the English Reformation, beginning with Henry VIII, and culminating with Elizabeth I. Wherever the Reformation took root, it did so for slightly different reasons and took different forms. Some say that the English Reformation was driven more by personality and nationality than theology, and there may be truth to this. In time, Anglicanism would develop a distinct theological voice, but in the beginning the marriages of the monarch determined much of the course of events.
When we think of Henry VIII we often think of a domineering and abusive man, perhaps too much in love with his own power. This may capture much of the truth of who Henry was, but he did not necessarily begin that way. He had great intelligence. He spoke fluently in perhaps three different languages. He was an accomplished musician and dancer. He wrote a legitimate and scholarly work on the sacraments. He had a love for crowds and spectacle, and England adored him in the early years.
When we see him as a young man . . .
we may wonder how eventually he became this man. . .
But I think both pictures share something in common. We often think of Henry as all confidence and show, like this. . .
But I wonder if this last picture shows Henry “protesting too much.” The first two pictures to me show a lurking insecurity. The man in the first two pictures is not at ease with himself or his place in the world. Perhaps I go too far in psychological speculation, but the image above with him jutting out his chest seems to reinforce this idea of insecurity. If we see Henry this way, his near obsession for a son begins to make sense to us. Strong as Henry wanted to appear, his theological views depended greatly on those who he surrounded himself at a given moment in time. Perhaps this is why many assert that Henry’s last wife, the evangelical Catherine Parr (here below giving her best “Excuse me, will you please keep your children quiet — this is a library!” look) may have been his most important. She tutored Henry’s son Edward, and had the strength of will to get her vision of Anglicanism imprinted on England. To outlive Henry (the only of his wives to do so) she must have been a strong woman!
Six years after his death, his oldest daughter Mary assumed the throne. History knows her as “Bloody Mary,” because of her persecution of Protestants. In many ways she deserved this epithet, but we must try and sympathize with her. Henry unjustly divorced and banished her mother Catherine of Aragon. She had little contact with Protestants, and plenty of time to nurse a grudge, to plan to right the wrongs of the past. We might understand better if we we realize that she thought that Henry had “ruined the country,” and God placed her in authority to bring England back to a godly foundation. We can imagine becoming president where your predecessor had done everything against your most deepest convictions. You would want to set things aright.
To this psychological motivation we should add that neither Henry or Mary’s mother lived very long. What if she felt that she had precious little time to accomplish her goals before her death? As the saying goes, “Beware of an old man (or woman) in a hurry.” In this image to the right we see the same gnawing insecurity her father could not hide. Like Henry she knew she needed a son if her attempt at reform would last, but as an older woman nearly past childbearing years, she had little hope of a suitor actually appearing. We can lament the tragic nature of her life without condoning her actions.
After Mary’s death the stage was set for her half-sister Elizabeth to have a glorious reign. Yet she too had reason to fear. The pope had declared Henry’s marriage to Anne illegitimate, which meant that Elizabeth herself had no right to rule. After Elizabeth, the closest to the throne was her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, niece of Henry VIII. She stayed Catholic, and so remained the focus of Catholic plots to unseat Elizabeth.
Matters got more complicated when Mary fled to England for refuge after some accused her of murder. Personal letter between the two reveal a long friendship between them, but almost immediately after her arrival in England, Elizabeth imprisoned her. Eventually one of Elizabeth’s spies uncovers evidence of Mary implicating herself in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth. The trial is a foregone conclusion — she’s guilty of treason.
We know that Elizabeth agonized over the options about what to do with her friend and cousin. Many believed that England and Elizabeth could never be safe as long as Mary lived. Now that Mary had committed treason, Elizabeth had every right to deal with the problem once and for all. Elizabeth had a few options:
She could execute her
She could keep Mary imprisoned, knowing that plots could still arise
She could exile Mary, but in exile she could still raise an army and return
She could ignore it altogether and hope it would not happen again. But what head of state can ignore treason?
Neither option appealed to Elizabeth. Sometimes we don’t have good choices, only a series of bad ones.
Some students wondered astutely if Elizabeth could escape all these choices by marrying herself. If she had kids, her place on the throne, and the future of Protestantism, would be much more secure. As to why she never did marry, my theory is the Tudor love of power. If she married, she would still be queen, but someone else would be king. This image below shows Elizabeth, like her father, perfectly comfortable in the role of outsized, grand monarch.
It seems that we occupy a strange place in our national life. We have more political divisions even though we have much less actual discretionary spending in the federal budget than in the past. President’s Trump and Obama function/ed largely as symbols for their supporters and detractors. Many do not care much to look at their particular actions, rather, an action becomes bad or good because of who did it. We have a hard time seeing past the ad hominem.
But this should not surprise us. Perhaps it is our very lack of flexibility in the budget that heightens the symbolic role of the president. I suspect also that especially since the end of the Cold War, and probably since Vietnam, America has searched for a new identity, and forming an identity requires strong symbols. And, while I think that we would struggle in our political life currently in any case because of this, as (bad) luck would have it, our last two presidents have been near opposites in terms of their personalities and style. Some argue that Obama was the far more “rational” president, but even if that were true, Obama’s supporters had a strong emotional, gut-level attachment to him, akin to Trump’s current supporters. In any case, we will miss what is really happening if we focus only on the policies, or the outward appearance of things (though to be sure, we could use some dispassionate focus on what presidents are actually doing in addition to their symbolic perception).
What is a president, exactly?
Childish interpretations of kingship in earlier eras tend to argue along the lines of, “Kings dressed up in all their finery because they were greedy, cruel, and didn’t care about the people.” Much better interpretations see monarchs as an extension of the people themselves in some way. The people would not want them to dress in a dowdy fashion, for that would reflect poorly on them too. So, for example, many Frenchman took great pride in the fact that Louis XIV could eat 2-3x more than a normal man with no apparent ill effects. But I have struggled with even some of these more sympathetic approaches. I still feel that they leave something out.
Alice Hunt’s The Drama of Coronation brings out many nuances and subtleties of English coronation rites. She demonstrates a great ability to let the texts breathe and speak for themselves. Her analysis strikes me as fair and careful, and her comments attempt to illumine what for 21st-century moderns is a great mystery. She traces the coronations of five English monarchs in attempt to answer the question:
What is a king (or queen), exactly?
We will miss the mark widely if we think only in terms of having an executive function in government. One problem that faces historians with this question is that we have very few records of medieval coronation rites. This in itself gives us a clue that coronation ceremonies had a primarily religious function. In the older Byzantine rite, we see that the public, and even catechumens, had to leave the service during the canon of the mass. In the western rite of St. Gregory the Great, the confession of sin has communicants proclaim, “I will not speak of thy mysteries to thine enemies.” Hunt suggests that at least beginning with Pepin the Short, coronations took place in a sacramental and liturgical sphere, which would have meant “private” in at least some ways.
But we have many records or eyewitnesses of England’s 16th-century coronations. The crowning of Henry VIII would not have been unusual, but each subsequent coronation had its own unique elements that perhaps called for a more public justification, aside from the turbulent historical circumstances:
Anne Boleyn was crowned. The fact that a new queen would be publicly crowned while the king still reigned was entirely novel.
The coronations of Mary and Elizabeth as “queens regnant” had not happened before
Edward VI coronation involved that of a boy king amidst stark religious changes
As mentioned, Hunt handles the sources marvelously. My only quibble is one that I have with many (it seems) English historians, which involves their failure to raise their eyes above the various perspectives and declare something definite. I am all for intellectual humility, but sometimes it takes more humility to take a risk of being wrong than to say nothing at all.
The first issue Hunt tackles involves historians who try and argue for something along the lines of “exploitation of ceremonies” to achieve power. She cites some historians of the Wars of the Roses that accuse the Yorkist faction of attempting just this to achieve power. Hunt dismisses this perspective quickly. Along with David Kertzer and others, she argues that ceremonies don’t exploit as much as they create legitimate rule. This may sound silly to some modern ears if they think only of ancient robes and mitres. But if we imagine a disputed presidential election in the U.S., and one candidate had the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administer the oath of office, we would not say that he “exploited ceremony.” Rather, the ceremony–at least in part–made him president. He could not be president without the ceremony, nor would we say the ceremony meant nothing more than empty ritual.
Henry VIII gives us a good place to begin as the last great coronation before the Reformation. Here we reside in the realm, so we imagine, of absolute divine right before the advent of more popular Reformation polities. But just as the Roman emperors opposed themselves to the aristocratic senate and ruled in the name of the people, so too did Henry and other European kings. Kingship had an element of “popularity” about it, in the strict sense of the Latin meaning of “populares.” Hunt quotes from the Liber Regalis:
Here followers a device for the manner and order of Coronation of the most excellent and Christian prince Henry VIII, rightful and undoubted inheritor of the Crown of England and of France with all appurtenances, which is only by the whole assed and consent of every of the three estates of his realm.
Henry’s legitimacy is real, rooted not just in Heaven but on Earth. Thus, the “physicality” of his rule has a reflection in his person, and required the physical objects of rulers past, especially the chalice of St. Edward, among other things. These various objects had a hierarchy of value, and who carried them and where people processed gave rather than reflected status. Contra the modern assumption of the homogenization of space and time, the king stood somewhere between heaven and earth. Heaven of course was not earth, but the two met in various times and places in the medieval view. Church buildings themselves were a touchstone, and the designs of the buildings manifested this.* Clergy were consecrated, set apart, so they could receive the ultimate intersection between heaven and earth–the holy eucharist. The City of God was not the City of Man, but they sought to model earthly order on heavenly order, or reality itself. Thus, officiating clergy elevated the king at a certain point in the coronation, just as they would elevate the bread and wine. The ceremony made the connection of “consecration” immediately obvious to all.
Many assume that Henry’s Reformation might make such “catholic” ceremonies obsolete, but in fact Henry seems to have gone “all out” in Anne’s coronation ceremony. To start, he held a separate coronation service for her, which may have had no precedent. Second, the ceremony took place on Whitsunday (Pentecost), the second most holy day in the church calendar. Third, Henry absented himself from being seen directly during the ceremony itself, which gave him more “god-like” status, the unseen yet present “earthly god” bidding Anne receive the crown. Finally, Henry wanted for Anne to wear Katherine’s crown during the ceremony. Yet here even Henry met a roadblock he could not overcome, as the man in charge of the crown would not give it up. The ambassador of Venice relates,
Accordingly, the king wrathfully sent to the one who has charge of the queen’s [i.e. Katherine] crown, Master Sadocho by name, a great man in that island, requiring the crown for the coronation. Master Sadocho replied he could not give it up because of the oath he had taken to the said queen, that he would guard that crown faithfully. The king then went to see him and expressed his desire. At this, Master Sadocho, who is a man of ripe age, took off his cap and flung it to the ground without saying a word. When the king saw this he asked what moved him to do such a thing as this, to which Master Sadocho replied that rather than give him the crown he would suffer his head to lie where his cap did. . . . As he is a great personage who also has a son also of great worth and numerous followers, the king took no further steps, but had another crown made for the coronation of the new queen, who has been pregnant for five months.
Obviously, symbols had real meaning for those outside of the king and clergy.
In all these things Henry to me seems to overreach, realizing the precarious nature of his enterprise. He had founded a new church, divorced/annulled his marriage with Katherine, and married someone already pregnant. He gave Anne all the symbolism he could. Prayers said during the coronation directly assumed that the child Anne carried was a boy. Alas for Anne, perhaps the connection between symbolism and reality could only go so far.
The real shift took place with Edward VI. Here we had a combination of 1) No Henry to go all out to get his way, 2) More evangelical reformers in charge in the Church of England, 3) A boy king who had no real say in what went on. The crucial distinction came when Bishop Cranmer stated that, “the oil [for consecration], if added, is but a ceremony,” and not strictly necessary. Nothing really happens at the coronation that could not happen elsewhere. Heredity, the system, and his oath made Edward king, and nothing more. Certainly the ceremony had to have the Church presiding–or so it seemed obvious at the time–but the Church no longer had to “do” anything important.
One might argue that this shifted politics wholly into the realm of the secular, and so made kingship defendant on the right exercise of power. This made kings potentially just as politically vulnerable as any president, but in a more precarious position, as Charles I and Louis XVI discovered.
As a culture, we clearly crave symbolic archetypes more than in the past. We see this in the consistent popularity of super-hero movies, and the somewhat polarizing popularity of Jordan Peterson. We see it in recent political commentary, as a handful of mostly normal people believed that Obama was the anti-Christ in 2008, or that Bush and Trump were/are Nazis. We see it in our woeful neglect of Congress–perhaps there are just too many of them to affix any meaningful archetypes. It may be that we are forced into this symbolic realm by the incomprehensibility of our laws. However we got here, this unsettling political moment gives our culture some interesting opportunities to understand our symbols and to recover an older view of reality.
Today we tend to assume that if something is a symbol it is not really real, but only a signifier for the real. Hence, we know what a male sign for the bathroom means, even though of course no one in the bathroom looks like the symbol. Symbol and reality live in different worlds, in different planes of meaning. But the older meaning of “symbol” meant the bringing together of reality to create “real” meaning. St. Maximos the Confessor writes,
…for he who starting from the spiritual world sees appear the visible world or else who sees appear symbolically the contour of spiritual things freeing themselves from visible things… that one does not consider anything of what is visible as impure, because he does not find any irreconcilable contradiction with the ideas of things.
To quote Jonathan Pageau, “a symbol is a meeting place of two worlds, the meeting of the will of God with His creation.” Pageau goes on to say that the most real things are that way because precisely because they are symbols. Reality “really happens” when heaven and earth unite, when they “symbol together.”^
I can’t say for sure if this older view of reality will help us understand exactly what a president is, but I think it will help. The more self-aware we can be of what we are doing, the more hope we have. Then, maybe we can go back to the lemonade on the porch days of debating the finer points of Social Security reform.
*Pageau talks mostly of church designs in the eastern Roman empire, though his point applies in the west, though with different applications.
**I am indebted to Pageau’s article here: https://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/the-recovery-of-symbolism/
^This is exactly what St. Luke tells us the Virgin Mary did in Lk. 2:19 when she “gathered” or (as the Greek states) “symballoussa” all of what had happened to her.
Like many of you I have spent some time wondering where we are as a civilization and how we got here.
It might seem like a book about French historians of the 16th century might have very little to do with this question. But bear with me!–George Huppert’s book The Idea of Perfect History: Historical Erudition and Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France might indeed have something to do with where we find ourselves.
Though perhaps getting there via this informative but slightly dry tome may require more patience from readers than usual!
Huppert makes that point that the writing of history changed dramatically during the period he examines, but to understand this we need to briefly glimpse the history of “History,” for the study of history as we know it came into being comparatively recently.
In the ancient world various kings had their escapades recorded for posterity. A text of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III, for example, has him slaying 1000 lions with a single arrow and other such things. We can wonder, did Thutmose expect others to believe him? Did he believe it himself? More likely, he had no wish to record exactly what happened but inhabited another way of thinking and another form of writing. Herodotus records a combination of personal observations, investigations, and poetic constructions. He saw no need to differentiate. Apparently, he didn’t think it mattered. He saw no need to concern himself exclusively with what “actually happened.” Even Thucydides–who had a much more scientific bent and witnessed many of the events he records–surely invents certain speeches to craft an artful narrative.
The medieval period formed the immediate context for many of Huppert’s subjects. Many wrote first-hand accounts of kings or crusades during this period. What they knew and saw they described. But when going beyond this, they no problem filling in gaps with some educated guesswork, and like the ancients, saw no need to be clear about the difference. Others went further. In his History of the Kings of Britain Geoffrey of Monmouth includes a lengthy section on King Arthur. Here Geoffrey is on at least semi-historical footing. King Arthur, or someone like him, may have existed. But Geoffrey includes a section detailing Arthur’s denunciation by the senate of Rome, and his combat against a rag-tag army which included “Kings from the Orient,” which certainly never happened. Moreover, Geoffrey and his readers must have known this never happened.
We also see in many medieval histories the desire to connect one’s own particular history with a grander narrative. One can do this with myth directly, but others did this “mythically.” Vergil has the origins of Rome come from Troy, and Geoffrey has the English, in turn, come from Rome/Troy. French historians have the Franks come from Troy as well.* Again, the desire to connect poetically/narratively with the grand story of civilization trumps that of what “actually happened.” They did this quite self-consciously.
Nicole Gilles’ Annals of France (ca. 1525) gives us a late example of this. He begins with Creation itself and then recounts some aspects of Biblical history. He moves quickly to the history of France’s kings, but here he includes many legends and miracles. The giants he describes, as well as the kings, have an ancestry. It just so happens in the Annals that the Franks were founded by a man named Francio, . . . also from Troy. Even the giant Feragut, slain by Roland, descends from Goliath. Perhaps Roland and Francio did not exist, but certainly Charlemagne did. But he has Charlemagne do things that few would really think actually happened, such as undertake a crusade to Jerusalem. His book was a wild success, which surely frustrated many of the France’s emerging humanist scholars. Those scholars might have taken solace had they known that the Annals were the last of its kind.
We see the shift evidenced by the comments of two humanist scholars in the mid 16th century. Claude Fauchet wrote that medieval historians had, “failed in the chief responsibility of the historian, that is, to tell the truth.” And Lancelot Popeliniere declared that “no man of honor ever practiced [history in France], since the profession had always been in the hands of clerics,” whose limitations and biases prevented them from giving an objective appraisal of events.
These statements contain within them a revolution of thought, but they both beg questions: What does it mean for a historian to tell the truth? And who is objective?
Their passion for “what really happened” involved the following:
Making history a science that concerned itself with the affairs of men, not so much the intervention of God, which cannot be measured or predicted.
Broadening the scope of history beyond national or religious concerns, and focusing on the history of all, and
Getting the best texts, and staying faithful to the best texts, would get us to the truth. Truth comes from texts, not so much from tradition.
The astute observer no doubt notices a strong correlation between this last goal and the emerging Protestant Reformation. Indeed, some of this new breed of historians had much sympathy with the French Protestants, and we can say more on this later. But regardless of religious affiliation, all three goals also added up to a rejection of the idea that history involved a kind of devolution, a falling away from grace. Rather, for these French humanists, just as we could improve the study of history and cleanse from the muck of the errors of the past, so too could our whole society move forward and progress.**
Huppert details the writing of several French historians of the 16th century who followed these axioms. The details here ran a bit dry for me, but the overall effect was the same. When one combines the work of these scholars in the 16th century with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, the work of history changed dramatically, and we should evaluate the fallout for good or ill.
The passion for precision and the value of the text have done a great deal to improve history in a variety of ways that seem axiomatic to mention. We have more access to more information, we have more texts in translation, and almost certainly, a better idea for “what really happened,” than previously. The late Renaissance humanists foreshadowed the Enlightenment, which gave us a variety of other secondary blessings, especially related to advancements in science that comes with breaking things down into component parts.
But we have lost a great deal in the exchange, and the exchange may not have worth it.
First, I stress that while we have a “better idea” for what really happened in the past, we still don’t really know. We still have to guess and be comfortable with guessing. Having more texts will not solve the problem of interpreting the texts. But all this says is that the French humanists had a bit too much optimism, hardly a dreadful fault. But this optimism has had certain consequences.
Their methods assert that we can get outside traditions and into a place of pure perspective and rationality. We know that we cannot do this. Their reliance on texts exacerbates this. A text, divorced from tradition, can have an almost infinite amount of interpretations. Note how the reliance on “sola Scriptura” has doomed Protestants into constant splintering and thousands of factions, each claiming to base their ideas on the “text” of the Bible. In the end, different traditions of interpretation do in fact form, with Reformed Study Bibles, Scofield Reference Bibles, and so on.
We must also deal with Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nicole Gilles and ask if they write history. We may say that the discipline of History involves many things, but we must first ask what it involves primarily. Is it primarily an art or science? If we had to choose would we rather have eyewitness testimonies to tell us what happened in Guernica, or Picasso’s painting?
If we side with Picasso we will begin to understand medieval historians.
For History to have any real significance, it must have meaning. Meaning requires interpretation, and interpretation requires poetry, something beyond mere facts. We might surmise that in having Arthur deal with Rome, Geoffrey sought to display his view of Arthur as the inheritor of the mantle of Christendom after the fall of Rome–the literary equivalent to an interpretative painting of him, or perhaps an “icon” of Arthur (a great example of how truth can be communicated in image can be found here). The same could be said of Gilles’ “depiction” of Charlemagne.
We do not critique paintings by saying things such as, “He didn’t look exactly like that, so that’s not painting.” But humanistic rationalism treated the text as having more truth than the image. This is why they treated medieval historians unfairly. They failed to see how truth claims could be communicated in the text artistically (and entertainingly as well, as anyone who has read Geoffrey of Monmouth can attest).^ I have no problem calling Geoffrey and Gilles historians, albeit historians of a different type. They told the “truth,” (if their interpretations were accurate), but in a different way. They had their biases, but so do you and I.
One can point to many reasons why we experience our current political situation. Some of them do indeed have a connection to the historians of Renaissance France. The founders (not the early colonists) drank deeply from the same Enlightenment-oriented spirit of our aforementioned historians. They too focused heavily on texts, and indeed, we base our life together not on shared traditions, but the texts of the Declaration and Constitution, and this has certain consequences.
The postmoderns rightly tell us that texts can have an almost uncountable number of interpretations. The search for the “absolute” interpretation of the text will get us nowhere. So, both those who drive pickups with big American flags, and those who drink latte’s and protest the national anthem can claim to live out what it means to be an American (i.e., “protest is the most American thing one can do,” and so on). On the one hand, Trump takes an ax to many traditions of how a president should act. But on the other hand, he “connects with the common man,” and isn’t America all about the common man and freedom from tradition?
Hence, we see our dilemma.
But postmoderns fail us because not every interpretation has the same validity. We have to have a way of distinguishing and separating the good from the bad. With only texts and no traditions at our disposal, however, we will have a hard time reigning in the various interpretations. Other ways of seeing and apprehending the “truths” of history can provide checks, balances, and possibly, a return to sanity. In his introduction to Fr. Maximos Constas’ The Art of Seeing Bishop Maxim asks
For example, if you have a photograph of Christ and an icon painting of Christ, which is more truthful? Certainly, if you have a naturalistic approach, you would say, “the photograph.” But if you say [the icon] you point to unconventional and eschatological truth. . . . .Therefore, there is truth in art that does not correspond to the mind of reality.
*I find it interesting that everyone wanted to come from Troy and not Greece. Troy lost. Many say that the Europeans wanted to come from Troy to connect themselves with Rome. I can’t deny this might have something to do with it, but I think it goes beyond that. Hector, for example, became a Christian name, while Odysseus and Achilles did not. I’m sure there is more here to explore.
**The idea that history means speaking of such devolution is hardly the property of medievals alone. Most every ancient society had myths of golden ages in the past we should attempt to emulate, whether these ages be mythical, quasi-mythical, or presented as historical (as perhaps Livy does in his work). What looks benign to us in the French scholars really represented a radical shift from the past.
I consider the idea of devolution in history here.
^I think this attitude towards texts and the reduction of the idea of truth to “what actually happened” contributed greatly to the Galileo controversy and the subsequent tension between science and religion. In my limited reading of the situation, no such tension existed before this time.
I published this originally in 2016 a few weeks after Trump’s election. In re-reading it, I would change very little of my original thoughts. I am still not sure of what to make of Trump’s presidency and what it might mean for our future, and I still am not sure what criteria to use to evaluate his presidency.
Without further comment, the original post . . .
Like many I awoke Wednesday, November 9 to a big surprise. Like many I wonder in what sense business as usual (more or less) will be the order of the day as Trump begins to actually govern, or whether or not we will see a significant pivot in our national life. Time will tell (full disclosure, I supported neither candidate and hoped for a 3rd party revolution that never materialized).
I confess there is much I fail to understand about the election. I have no strong opinions as to why Trump won. I will attempt to focus on a broader historical perspective and will not deal with issues specific to the campaign, whatever their importance might have been. I will not seek to take sides so much as to explain.
1. Many of the structures in places are perceived as failing, even though in absolute terms they are not obviously doing worse than previous times.
2. There is a rise in nationalist sentiment and a semi-cosmopolitan ethic is starting to lose influence.
In his Civilisation series Kenneth Clark displayed an obvious affection for Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536). Who can blame him? Erasmus had a great intellect and a good sense of humor, especially about himself. Erasmus had no particular attachments anywhere and so he cultivated friends all over Europe. He represented what some might see as the apotheosis of the medieval vision–a cosmopolitan, universal man of Christendom.
Such status did not prevent Erasmus from engaging in polemical criticism. From what I hear, his Praise of Folly (I have not read it) mercilessly lambasts much of society at that time, in and out of the Church. And yet, Clark points out that Erasmus could not accept challenges to authority from the common man. In a personal letter he wrote with horror at the fact that hardly anyone in a town he visited doffed their caps to him–to him–a respectable pillar of Society. We can almost hear him say, “I’m the one who gets to criticize society. Not you! You don’t know what you’re doing, whereas I (obviously) do!”*
Erasmus could criticize aspects of society but would never think of criticizing Society itself and the conventions that held it together. He lived in an urbane, intelligent, tolerant world of reason, progress, proportion, and the like. But the temper of times overwhelmed him. Europe’s darling in 1511 found himself playing the role of “Mr. Irrelevant” soon after the Reformation began in 1517.
Even Clarke, I think, sees the problem with Erasmus. No one doubted his character, but they questioned his conviction. Erasmus wore too much on his sleeve and not enough (at least to observers) in his heart. His glib dance throughout Europe made many wonder what he actually believed.
Many assume the that the medieval period practiced more than its fair share of intolerance. Scholar and historian Regine Pernoud points out, however, that the latter Renaissance had many more persecutions of heretics and witches than any period in the Middle Ages. She offers no direct reasons for this, but we can speculate. By 1200 A.D. Europe had attained a significant measure of stability, but not yet a great deal of movement. The elite of society had “real” jobs and connections to the common man. The “people” did not live as well as the aristocracy, but they lived with the elite in the same communities and moved in the same circles. The sea had yet to tempt medieval society, which limited physical mobility and perhaps added to the stability.
By the mid 13th century Thomas Aquinas begins to dabble in the powers of reason and Aristotle. The Black Plague disrupted the settled social arrangements (among other things). The 15th century saw plenty of change with the beginnings of exploration and the printing press. The papal court practiced pagan Greek city-state thinking more so than the service of God. Now too, elites like Erasmus moved in entirely different circles than “the people.” With the revival of classical culture came the revival of classical pagan religion, and the rise of occult practices. It adds up to too much change too quickly. The Reformation happened not just because of Luther, but in part because Europe had several different people rise up simultaneously willing to challenge an out of touch status quo many no longer cared anything for. Rightly or wrongly, many felt that elite Renaissance culture had gone too far.** As Pernoud points out, the reaction against this outwardly benign march of “progress” began before the Reformation in the late Renaissance.
In another post, again from a few months ago, Cowen suggests the possibility that too much immigration may result in a backlash against immigration (we should note that Cowen favors increased immigration as a matter of ideology, but might be pragmatic as a matter of policy–I don’t know). If the pace of change moves too fast, people react against it even if the change itself benefits them overall (most data shows the increased benefits of increased immigration). Rapid change often creates psychological problems of dislocation.
Others with different ideological perspectives seem to agree with him. Slavoj Zizek argues (warning to those who follow the link: Zizek uses profanity rather “liberally” in places:) that on European immigration issue, allowing for more democracy would significantly restrict immigration policies in multiple countries. Right now more inclusive policies must come from the state and not from the people.^ Ezra Klein had an interesting exchange with Tyler Cowen recently where they discussed the subject of diversity.
COWEN: …Now Putman, let me ask you about Putnam, and how Putnam relates to Donald Trump. As you know, Robert Putnam at Harvard, he has some work showing that when ethnic diversity goes up that there’s less trust, less cooperation, less social capital.
If you think of yourself in the role of an editor, so you have an American society, diversity has gone up, and a lot of people have reacted to this I would say rather badly — and I think you would agree with me they’ve reacted rather badly — but there’s still a way in which the issue could be framed that while diversity is actually a problem, we can’t handle diversity.
Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?
KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”
Might Trump have a doppelgänger of sorts (not religiously, not even close!) in Martin Luther? In Luther, we see, among other things, someone with an authoritarian nationalist streak, one who could not stand the polite pagan-infused niceness of elite Europe, one who had no trouble calling fire and brimstone down upon a variety of people, and one who dabbled in opportunism from time to time.
One possible explanation for Trump might lie in the reaction against some of the sweeping changes that have come into the consciousness of America, such as
The “trigger warning” and “snowflake” phenomena across many college campuses
The Supreme Court case legalizing homosexual marriage across the land (overturning a variety of state laws in the process).
The extreme pressure directed against those who refuse to cater, provide flowers, etc. for homosexual weddings
The debate over transgender bathrooms, the reaction against the NC law, etc.
None of these changes directly effect the well-being of very many at all, but they do impact how one sees the their place in the world. Without considering who is right or wrong in these actions, might the western cosmopolitan set across the U.S. and Europe have flown too close to the sun too quickly?
I listen to classical music on a very low level, when I actually listen to it. I can usually tell if it’s Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart, but that’s about it. One day I decided to get cultured and tried to listen to a Mahler symphony. My reaction?
In Absolutely on Music, Japanese author Haruki Murakami recorded a series of interviews with the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa. In one interview Murakami asks,
Just listening to the third movement of [Mahler’s] First Symphony, it seems clear to me that his music is filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without logical connection, and sometimes in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldview–a huge variety of stuff, no single one at the center of things . . . . Isn’t there something particularly universal or cosmopolitan about Mahler’s music?
To my admittedly very limited experience of attempting to listen to Mahler, Murakami could have just as easily asked, “Isn’t there something meaningless and incomprehensible about Mahler’s music? After 1/2 hour of attempting to “elevate” my cultural understanding, I would have begged someone to play me a Sousa march to at least bring my brain back into focus.
Cowen’s final thought on how this world might resemble that of the Reformation . . .
The world may nonetheless end up much better off, but the ride to get there will be rocky indeed.
*A possible parallel to this exists today. A variety of high-profile fashion designers have said that they will not provide gowns for Melania Trump. Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in North Carolina over his objections to their transgender laws. The great jazz pianist Ethan Iverson called for a boycott of Steinway pianos because the owner of Steinway supported Trump in some vague fashion (in 2012 Iverson urged a boycott of a particular jazz musician for his support of Romney. Were Iverson a politician, this would be extremely dangerous territory, i.e., punishing someone not for their actions but for their particular beliefs). All of them were perfectly within their rights to do so. Many applauded them putting moral convictions over profit or convenience.
Can progressives not extend the same rights to those who wish not to cater homosexual weddings? It appears that some do not wish to extend the same right of protest. Stephanie Slade at Reason magazine wrote,
The problem is not that Theallet was willing to dress Michelle Obama and isn’t willing to dress Melania Trump (which is, like it or not, a form of discrimination). The problem is just how many people don’t seem to think that same freedom should be extended to bakery owners, photographers, and other wedding vendors who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.
As Theallet put it, “we consider our voice an expression of our artistic and philosophical ideals.” I suspect Barronelle Stutzman, the white-haired grandmother who owns Arlene’s Flowers, feels the same way about her craft. But instead of assuming a live-and-let-live attitude on the matter, Washington state has systematically worked to destroy Stutzman’s business unless she agrees to take part in a celebration to which she is morally opposed.
**Whatever authoritarian streak the Middle Ages might have had, the Renaissance had it too, but it came not from the people, but from the elite makers of taste. In many cathedrals the colorful stained glass (made by a variety of local artisans) got smashed out and replaced with clear glass to better fit wth their ideas of classical purity and decorum.
Pernoud argued with some force that the culture of the Middle Ages was “populist,” which the culture of the Renaissance was “elitist.”
^We can see the Brexit vote as a symptom of this same phenomena. Europe’s pundits all seemingly declared that Britain would vote to stay in the European Union. Part of me wonders whether or not the vote to leave had more to do with “sticking it to the cosmopolitan man” (which certainly includes most pundits) than any particular economic or social issue.
This week we looked at how the Reformation began to spread beyond Luther and his theology. We looked at a couple of key ideas and themes:
1. Erasmus was a notable scholar. He wrote many powerful critiques of the Catholic hierarchy. He believed in going “back to the sources,” and translated the New Testament into Greek. He initially admired Luther, but felt that a) Luther went too far, and b) Breaking with the Church would cause more harm than good. Erasmus’ life should make us consider whether or not the cost of the Reformation outweighed its benefits.
2. Mainstream reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli believed that while the Church needed reform, society as it stood should be preserved. Others of a more radical bent believed that both Church and society needed drastic overhauls. They borrowed heavily from Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” theology and established their own views of faith, revelation, and the culture around them. They went much further than Luther ever intended. The logic of their ideas ran something like. . .
All believers have equal access to God, and have an equal chance of understanding His Word
Therefore, we have no need of any kind of hierarchical leadership in the Church
Those with the Spirit of God have more wisdom than those who do not. Therefore, we have no real need of local governments.
To achieve real holiness of life, and real holiness in society, the godly must separate themselves from the ungodly.
Luther and others were aghast when they saw how others interpreted their ideas. When Luther wrote pamphlets urging the nobility to crush the radicals without mercy, some felt that Luther had become a ‘Protestant Pope.’
Our look at the ‘Radical Reformation’ forced us to consider the Church’s relationship to society. Calvin’s followers wanted to blend civic and religious duties almost until there was no distinction. In other words, Church and Society in their view should blend seamlessly together. Radical Reformers wanted the kept entirely separate. I hope the students understood that our ideas of how the Church should function impact how we think Christians should interact with society.
Of course, Luther never envisioned that he was starting “The Reformation.” He believed that the Church needed reformed, and that under his guidance, the Church had more or less done so. In his mind, after the reforms he helped initiate, it was time to stop “The Reformation.” But Luther had unwittingly opened the floodgates. The genie was out of the lamp, roaming free across Europe.
We discussed that while Protestantism solved many problems, it created others:
1. There are thousands and thousands of Protestant denominations worldwide. What did this mean for society in the 16th century? What does this mean for us today? Is this a problem? If so, can Protestantism solve it, or is it part of its very nature?
2. In the 16th century, Catholics persecuted Protestants (and vice versa), but Protestants also persecuted each other, largely over disagreements over what is ‘essential’ to the faith. How do we know what an essential of the faith is? Can Protestants reach unity on this question today? Why could they not do so in the 16th century? As we discussed in class, few disagree about what Scripture says. We disagree about what it means. Why did the social, political, and religious climate of this time lead to so much violence?
The peasant revolts, the political shifts, and the multitude of opinions that emerged from this period should make us ask — “What was the Reformation exactly?” For our first formal discussion of the year we got different perspectives on this question. Whatever our answer, we must see that the Reformation involved much more than a change of church doctrine. In fact, the Reformation shows us that changes in the Church will get reflected in society at large.
We continued to examine the Reformation in England, and its consequences for the rest of Europe. On Thursday we looked at Henry VIII early life and reign. I include here four pictures of him at various points in his life. No matter the period — I don’t trust those eyes!
Last Thursday I had the students look at a variety of maps in an effort to look at the Reformation from a purely geographical perspective. In other words, did geography do anything to shape the course of the Reformation? Are there any patterns for us to observe? The maps are here, which include the topography that the students had to match up with the religious divisions.
Some of them noted how mountains walled off certain religious groups. Some theorized that different countries of like religious beliefs usually were close enough to be trading partners. Religious groups in more rugged terrain (Spanish Catholics, French and Scottish Protestants) tended to have a bit more militancy to them than others did. The possible link with rugged terrain and more intense religious expression may go beyond Europe. Most of radical Islam, for example, does not come from Indonesia (the most populous Moslem country) but from the deserts of the Mid-East. Looking at events from different angles hopefully can give us a more full complete picture of an era.
This will be the first of what should be weekly updates about what we are doing in class. My goal is to have these updates to you no later than Sunday afternoon, so if you do not receive one by Monday, do let me know. My purpose is to let you have a glimpse of the classroom so you can keep abreast of what we are learning and discussing. I hope you will join in the conversation with us as we move through the year.
We spent part of the first week reviewing and setting the context for the Reformation. For the new students, this meant entering a story somewhere in the middle, which can always be difficult. For some of the returning students, summer has understandably flushed some of their brains. Any student who feels shaky on the medieval and Renaissance period may want to look here and here, or perhaps other places in the “9th Grade” category in the archives here at astickinthemud.
As I mentioned at orientation, this class primarily involves understanding what it means to transition from the pre-modern to the modern world. We tend to use “modern” as a synonym for “good,” and indeed, students may feel that the changes from 1500-1850 represent a substantial improvement for mankind. However, others may just as legitimately feel that we lost a great deal of our Christian heritage as a result of this transition. Understanding both sides of this debate is one of the key goals of this class, regardless of where students stand on this transition.
The transition can be best understood I think in the following ways:
The pre-modern world believed that time and space had a meaning of its own apart from our own actions, whereas the modern world, in the words of scholar Charles Taylor, believes in the homogeneity of time and space.
For example, some churches today have spaces that they use for basketball on one day, picnics on another day, and worship on Sundays. The meaning of the space depends on the meaning the people give it. The space has no “meaning” in itself.
The pre-modern world believed in sacred time (Lent, Paschaltide, Advent, etc.) and sacred space. No one would every think of playing basketball inside Chartes Cathedral. The space has a meaning apart from us, inherent in the nature of the space itself.
The modern world puts a lot more emphasis on the individual than the pre-modern world, which had a more communal and historically oriented approach to meaning.
For example, many in the modern world feel comfortable with the idea than anyone can interpret the scriptures, which empowers the laity to read for themselves. On the flip side, however, the modern world has a harder time deciding which interpretation is correct. The pre-modern world had little concept of the individual and derived meaning and understanding from the past more so than the present.
No Church historian, whether Protestant or Catholic, believes that things in the Church in 1500 A.D. were fine. Many wanted reform in the Church and believed it was desperately needed. Among scholars and contemporaries, disagreements come in the following areas:
1. When did the problems in the Church begin? Some say that it began with the popes of the 15th century. Some say it began with the Great Schism of 1378. Some argue that it can be traced to the Avignon Papacy, or to the papal decree ‘Unam Sanctum.’ Some go as far back as the Investiture Controversy of 1077. Some reformers would want to go back further still, and argued that the problems began with Constantine in the 4th century A.D. How people answered this question influenced what they believe was the root problem the church faced.
2. What indeed was the root problem the Church faced? Was it a question of the ethics of the Church hierarchy? Was the issue mainly theological? Or was it the Church’s long involvement with politics? Or perhaps, all three? Each choice represented a new fork in the road, one that would involve different choices and divergent paths. For example, if you believed the Church’s problems to be recent, you likely would focus on the Church’s moral lapses. The further back one found the so-called “root” of the problem, the more theological and institutional the criticisms, the more radical the operation required to correct the abuses.
Another issue was not only how far reform should go, but, cut free from Church hierarchy, what criteria should they use to make theological decisions? What authority should tradition be granted? Is it just “What the Bible means to me?” If it is more than that, what is it? Reformers at the time did not always agree on this question, and the results of their disagreement would do much to shape events throughout Europe.
Despite its fairly innocuous beginning when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, the Reformation would snowball into a revolution. Martin Luther had all of the necessary qualities that revolutionaries need. He possessed great courage and great belief in his convictions. He had charisma and keen intelligence. The same qualities that make for good revolutionaries, however, do not make for good diplomats. This type needs patience, flexibility, and the ability to see many points of view. Historically speaking, very, very few have been good at both.* This too will have a significant impact on Protestantism in particular, and the history of Europe in general. Below I include some quotes from Martin Luther (and others) that illustrate Luther’s keen insights, sense of humor, temper, and stubbornness.
Next week we will see how the Reformation spreads throughout northern Europe, and the different guises reform takes. If we believe that religion forms the heart of any civilization, the religious upheaval in Europe in 16th century will have significant ripple effects into all areas of life. We shall examine some of these things next week.
*The only two I can think of are Nelson Mandela and George Washington. Can anyone else think of others?
I think his [95 Theses] will please all, except a few regarding Purgatory who make their money thereby. I perceive that the monarchy of the Roman high priest is the plague of Christendom, yet I hardly know if it is expedient to touch this open sore. — Erasmus in 1518
Most blessed Father, I offer myself prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I am and have. . . .I will acknowledge your voice as the voice of Christ, residing and speaking in you. — Martin Luther to Pope Leo, 1518
Dearest brother in Christ, your epistle, showing the keeness of your mind and breathing a Christian spirit, was most pleasant to me. Christ gave you his spirit, for His glory and the world’s good. [My advice] is that quiet argument may do more than wholesale condemnation. Keep cool. Do not get angry. — Erasmus 1519, in a letter to Luther
Luther’s books are everywhere and in every language. No one would believe the influence he now has on men. — Erasmus, 1521
Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason . . . I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. — Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521
If we strike thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, heretics with fire, why do we not much more attack these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and this sink of Roman Sodom . . . and wash our hands in their blood? — Martin Luther, 1520
It would be better if every bishop were murdered, every foundation of every cloister rooted out, then one soul destroyed, let alone that all souls should be lost due to their trumpery and idolatry. – Martin Luther, 1521
Begone, unclean swine! Touch not the altars with your desecrated hands! The cup is full. See ye not that the breath of liberty is stirring? – John Hutten, German priest speaking to the Roman bishops
The common man is learning to think, and contempt of princes is gathering among the multitude. Men will not suffer your tyranny much longer. — Luther to the German princes
You lords, let down your stubborness and oppression, and give the poor air to breathe. The peasants, for their part, should let themselves be instructed, and [withdraw some of their demands]. – Luther to German Nobility
Forward! Forward while the fire is hot! Let your swords be ever warm with blood. . . . The godless have no right to live except as they are permitted to do so by the elect. – Thomas Munster, to his peasant army, 1524
In my former book, I did not venture to judge the peasants, since they had offered to be set right and instructed, [but they did not listen]. Any man against whom sedition can be proved is outside the law of God, so that the first who can slay him does right and well. Therefore let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab. There is nothing more devilish than a rebel. – Luther, ‘Against the Robbing and Murderous Horde Of Peasants.’ – 1525
He who will not hear God’s Word when it is spoken with kindness must hear the headsman when he comes with his axe. . . . Of mercy I will give no heed but to God’s will in His word. If He will have wrath and not mercy, what are you to do with mercy? Did not Saul sin by showing mercy upon Malek? — Luther, ‘An Open Letter concerning the Hard Book Against the Peasants.
Why should we pity men more than God does? – Philip Melancthon on the destruction of the Anabaptists
Anyone who is aware of [Anabaptist] teaching and preaching must give names to the magistrate, in order that the offender may be taken and punished. Those aware of such breeches of this order and do not give information, shall be punished by loss of life or property. – Edict of Saxony, 1528
Quotes from Luther on Various Topics:
All the articles of our Christian faith are in the presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd and false. Reason is the greatest enemy faith has. She is the Devil’s greatest whore.
The Bible teaches us to feel, hope, grasp, and comprehend faith, hope, and charity far otherwise than mere human reason can.
The human will is a beast of burden. If God mounts it, it goes where He wills, and if Satan, it goes where he wills. Nor can it choose the rider.
Christianity is nothing but a continual exercise in feeling that though you sin, you have no sin. It is enough to know that the Lamb bears the sins of the world, whether we commit a thousand fornications a day or as many murders.
Man is as unfree as a block of wood, a lump of clay, a pillar of salt.
I do not admit that my doctrine can be judged by anyone. He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.
Seek out the society of your boon companions, drink, play talk bawdy, amuse yourself. One must sometimes commit a great sin out of hate for the Devil, so as not to give you the chance to feel scrupulous over mere nothings.
Sin powerfully. God can only forgive a hearty sinner.
I eat like a Bohemian and drink like a German. Thanks be to God.
I seek and accept joy where I can find it. We now know, thank God, that we can be happy with a good conscience.
Our loving God wills that we eat, drink, and be merry.
Dances are instituted that courtesy may contracted between young men and girls. I myself would attend them sometimes, but the youth would whirl less giddily if I did.
I would not give up my humble musical gift for anything, however great. Next to theology, there is no art that can be compared to music, for it alone, after theology, gives us rest and joy of heart.
Christians need not altogether shun plays because there is sometimes coarseness and adulteries therein; for such reasons they would have to give up the Bible too.
If God can forgive me for having crucified Him . . . He can also bear with me for occasionally taking a good drink to honor Him.
My enemies examine all that I do. If I break wind in Wittenberg they smell it in Rome.
Punish if you must, but let the sugar plum go with the rod.
Take women from their housewifery and they are good for nothing. But there she can do more with the children with one finger than a man with two fists.
My Lord Katie (his pet name for his wife Katharine).
I wish you peace and grace in Christ, and send you my infirm love. Dear Katie, I was weak on the road to Eisleben, but that was my own fault. . . . now, thank God I am so well that I am sore tempted by fair women and care not how gallant I am. God bless you.
I never work better than when I am inspired by anger.
Luther the Anti-Semite?
I would not have the Gospel defended by violence or murder. Since belief and unbelief is a matter of everyone’s conscience . . . the secular power should be content to attend to its own affairs and constrain no one by force.
Since our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists and monks, those donkeys have dealt poorly with the Jews. Indeed, had I been a Jew and seen such idiots, I would rather be a hog than a Christian. I would advise everybody to deal kindly with the Jews.
And let whosoever can throw brimstone and pitch upon [the Jews]; if one could hurl hellfire so much the better. . . .And this must be done, so that our Lord will see that we are indeed Christians. Let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land.
Opinions of Luther
Luther is the ‘Morning Star’ of Wittenberg. – Mutantius, contemporary of Luther
Luther has all the fury of a maniac. – Mutantius, spoken about a year after the previous comment
If we judge greatness by influence – which is the least subjective test we can use – we may rank Luther with Copernicus, Voltaire, and Darwin as the most powerful personalities in the modern world. – Will Durant
A friend of mine and I sometimes argue about A.I. He contends that it is literally impossible for the Singularity to happen. I agree with Jonathan Pageau, who stated that whether or not the Singularity “actually” happens won’t matter if people believe that it has happened. Our perception of reality trumps “reality” all the time, and then calls that reality into being. If you believe that you have an imaginary friend you act on that belief and shape your life around it. Those choices count much more than the fact that Billy the Rabbit has no actual physical existence.*
Perception obviously shapes historical analysis as well and can easily trump “facts on the ground.”
Sean McMeekin has written The Russian Revolution: A New History that challenges the version of events that I (and many others) learned in high school. Because of newly declassified documents available, McMeekin has solid footing for his conclusions. Textbooks told us that,
Russia was hopelessly backward and corrupt
The people were starving
The army wouldn’t fight in WW I, but the Czar made them anyway
That the people rose up spontaneously with the Bolsheviks, etc.
Naturally, the Left in Europe and America eagerly accepted this narrative–it was a narrative they very much wanted to be true.
We now know that
Bolsheviks paid the modern equivalent of hundreds of dollars per person per protest, which came direct from German financing
The Red Army in the Civil War (1918-1919) had lots of help from Sweden, it was not a purely popular movement
The Russian army in WW I actually fought well most of the time and had high morale until the Provisional Government made catastrophic errors after Czar Nicholas abdicated
Czarist Russia actually had a milder justice/police system than most any other comparable westernized country.
McMeekin points out perfectly well that a) Communism is bad, and b) Communists lied and manipulated to get into power, and then promptly dreadfully abused said power. But what this doesn’t tell us is why Lenin and Trotsky won and could maintain power, if they didn’t necessarily represent the people.
Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 attempts something similar. The standard narrative of the English Reformation generally assumes, that, yes–Henry VIII was a bit of wild boar, but Catholicism had reached a decrepit state and the laity, on the whole, wanted change. In some ways, then, the Reformation proved a blessing in disguise for Catholicism, as it spurred on their own revival. Duffy’s extensive research seeks to change our perception of the Catholic church in England leading up to the momentous decade of the 1530’s. Duffy combines copious research with an intimate and engaged style. One can see why this book won awards for historical writing in England. Duffy avoids any direct comments on the theological controversies that surround the book, but stays engaged as a writer through the ebb and flow of events he describes.
Duffy uses a few different lenses to make his points. Many assume that the laity must not have understood services in Latin (however much Latin was known in AD 1000, it was the language of scholars and clergy by the mid-15th century), and therefore disengaged themselves from liturgical life. With multiple types of sources, one in fact sees almost the opposite. Participation in church life on Sundays and other important feasts formed a crucial part of the lives of nearly everyone. Many laity gave gifts to churches not just of money, but of items for liturgical use. Indeed, in the English church at least, the clergy had responsibility for the adornment of the altar, but the laity for the nave of the church. Different sources indicate that the laity saw this not as imposition or burden imposed from the clergy, but as a privilege and a chance to take responsibility for the “their” church. We do not see a distant, “authoritarian” clergy in England in the century leading up to Henry VIII. We instead see partnership between clerical authority and the people.
Ah, but perhaps the laity blindly followed along to a service and a faith of which they had no understanding? Certain treatises or plays from the time do make a boorish cleric or layman the butt of fun for his lack of knowledge. Duffy cites a few examples of such things, but urges us not to make too much of such texts. We should not assume that such characters reflected standard fare. Such literary characters had comic effect precisely because they defied typical expectations. No one laughs at a man walking down the stairs, but if he tumbled down, that would be different.
Another standard narrative has the printing press prepping the ground for the Reformation by giving voices to those outside the theological and cultural mainstream. Once people read such material, they jumped on board with change. Again, Duffy pulls the reins. Indeed many printers had a good business selling books . . . with Catholic theological primers and prayer books topping the list. The “Book of Hours” (a compendium of prayers for different times of day based on the prayers recited by monastics) topped lists, selling thousands of copies and going through several editions for decades. More surprisingly, most of these books were written in Latin, not English. The people bought them either in spite of, or perhaps even because of, this fact.
Duffy speculates at length what this might mean. He points out that having the books themselves served as a mark of devotion. The books contained many pious illustrations as well. But good evidence exists that people knew the content and meaning of at least some of the psalms and prayers through repeption, participation in church life, and so on. In the post-printing press world we assume reading the only path to knowledge, but it ain’t necessarily so.
Having started the freight train of revisionist thought, Duffy (who keeps his own religious opinions unstated throughout the book) keeps going . . .
Many Reformation scholars assume that restriction of lay participation in religious life created a great need that reformers could exploit. Thus, the Reformation succeeds not so much through doctrinal change but by giving the laity new roles and responsibilities in their worship. Perhaps a grain of truth exists in this, but overall Duffy disagrees, citing numerous examples of popular devotions and practices that if anything, the laity foisted on the clergy. From Duffy’s perspective a healthy lay input of practice and devotion existed across England during Henry’s reign, which combined easily with the universal liturgical worship.
Ok, but surely the Catholicism of the time with all of its “smells and bells” must have emphasized a remote, distant, God, one we can access only through Mary and the saints, and so on. Wrong again. Duffy devotes significant space to the place of saints in late medieval religion, prevalent as it was. But this devotion to saints took nothing away from their sense of closeness to Christ. Both in formal liturgical worship and prayer, and in popular religious expressions (often in the form of “mystery plays”) the consistent emphasis came down on the side of Jesus as our brother, sharing in our humanity and sufferings, and so forth.
Duffy adds little new to our understanding of Henry VIII. We suspect that Henry broke from Catholicism for political reasons overwhelmingly, and Duffy’s research backs this view. Henry concerned himself exclusively with stability. He wanted to keep people quiet and so keep “traditional” religion. His problem lay in that to break with Rome, divorce Katherine, and marry Anne, he needed the support of religious leaders who wanted much more than to simply replace Henry with the Pope. Henry occupied an island by himself. Most wanted to stay Catholic. Others wanted more evangelical Protestantism. No one besides Henry’s wanted his solution–he fell “in between two stools.” And so, while he constantly had to reign in more zealous Protestants who stirred up trouble by changing too much too fast, he could not get rid of them and have his various marriages legitimated.
Some Catholics resisted openly, but I think that–whether Henry consciously intended this or no (I think not)–Henry’s regular reigning in of people like Cranmer and Cromwell gave Catholics hope that he would return to Catholicism. They might legitimately think that time favored them. Perhaps Henry’s ministers caused all the problems, and he might dismiss them any day now. In other words, “rocking the boat” might easily appear against their interests. In actuality, this movement of two steps forward, one step back, brought them further away from shore over time. This can explain the relative lack of resistance to Henry’s changes.
Edward VI reigned but a few years, though certainly all in a Protestant direction. Then, a truly Catholic Queen Mary followed, and it looked as if the temporizing strategy of most Catholics during Henry’s reign might pay off. As Duffy indicates, a truly fair picture of Mary Tudor’s (“Bloody Mary”) reign has yet to emerge.** Duffy shows that Mary tried temporizing to a degree herself. She did not immediately try and revert to the full Catholic liturgical rites, but instead first pushed things back to the state of things during her father’s reign. Again, Catholics could see things moving their way. But Mary’s short reign threw things decisively in favor of Protestantism, as Elizabeth came next.
Duffy shows us convincingly that the movement towards Protestantism never had majority support until Elizabeth’s reign. So we then must wonder why the English Reformation happened at all. A few theories exist:
Catholicism had grown corrupt, the laity desiring change, but kept in the dark by dumb, corrupt, obscurantist clerics. If one only wants to accept half of what Duffy claims, this view makes no sense of the actual evidence.
The people wanted more things that were distinctively English, as a form of rebellion against the cosmopolitan elitism of the late Renaissance. Thus, the English Reformation had more to do with native/national feeling than religious belief. But this won’t fly either–Duffy points out countless examples of English Catholic churches “localizing” certain practices and celebrations of saints–often ahead of the church hierarchy. Their practice of Catholicism had distinctive English elements. Besides, while the liturgy continued in Latin, numerous other religious works existed in English approved by the Church.
Catholicism remained strong, but societal elites, from the gentry on up, had grown distant from popular piety through the distribution of private prayer books and private family chapels. The English Reformation worked because Henry VIII appealed to the aristocrats of little piety with gifts of land, and to other sincerely religious elites who disdained the “vulgar” and distinctly physical practices of English Catholicism ca. 1500.
I have strong sympathy with this view, but Duffy disagrees with it for a few important reasons:
Many aristocrats made it a point to furnish churches with liturgical decorations and stayed involved with church life
Many aristocrats made a point to continue to fund the printing and distribution of Catholic materials.
Many aristocrats became central pillars of Catholic resistance, especially during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I.
At least we can say that the English Reformation, while supported by some aristocracy, did not primarily involve class divisions.
Duffy never offers a direct answer to the question of how exactly the marginalization of Catholicism happended, but he leaves some bread crumbs for us to follow. Part of the success of Protestantism involved time. The slow, steady move away from religious practice of 1530 sometimes changed course, but the overall direction favored Protestant innovations or simplifications. By the 1580’s only a minority of closet Catholics and the very old would remember “the way things were.” From a Catholic perspective, Protestants eventually cooked the frog in the pot.
Another subtle attack made deep inroads, one that piggy-backed with prevailing Renaissance humanist methodology. Catholics believe/d that holy water actually contains spiritual power and grace from God. It is not only or even primarily a mental reminder of one’s baptism. Holy images actually serve as a way to enter into the real presence of the saints, not just as a mental reminder that they once existed and led holy lives. Because Henry wanted to change and also not change things, many of his lieutenants attacked not the images themselves, or the use of holy water in itself, but their meaning and interpretation. For Henry’s reformers, such things served only to remind us of this or that. Their continued use provided continuity, but this new interpretation laid the foundations for their eventual removal. As the saying goes, if to appreciate the music you have to listen to the notes they are not playing, well, you can do that at home. To change the reason or the meaning of the action will effectively change the thing itself.^ The proof lies with the pudding . . . what Anglican church today uses holy water, incense, or venerates images as part of their worship?
I say that this piggy-backed on humanist methods because with the Reformation one saw a contemporaneous change in other areas. Renaissance humanists wanted things clean and tidy. They removed multi-colored stained glass in many cathedrals and replaced it with clear panes. They significantly curtailed the so-called “mystery plays” done by the laity, so prevalent in medieval times. Previous historians wrote with an eye towards myth and meaning, but starting around 1500 historians switched towards embracing exacting accuracy, and “fact.” The general trend for these scholars involved moving away from a “messy” physical/spiritual interaction towards the clean, unfettered world of the mind. Henry’s use of this trend put him squarely on the crest of the wave of deconstructing meaning that has only started to reverse itself within the last four or five years.
Duffy’s justly praised work leaves us with some uncomfortable questions.
Though this is a minor point, those committed to a view of “temporizing” with change have to face up to the fact that this strategy failed miserably for Catholics. Maybe it would have worked had a few things been different, but we know that temporizing failed. I have a natural sympathy with the dictum of Don Fabrizio Cabrera in The Leopard who states that, “we must change so that things stay the same.” Maybe sometimes this would work. But just as obviously, sometimes it fails, and one needs to hold the line at all costs. We should acknowledge that our preference for either prudent compromise or steely resolve comes from temperament, and examples of the prudence of both approaches litter the pages of history. Hopefully we can cultivate wisdom to know when we need one or the other. In the case of the English Reformation, even if Henry kept everything the same minus the Pope, well–it turns out you can’t have Catholicism without the Pope.
More substantively, The Stripping of the Altars may challenge one’s view of history, as it has mine. I would say that up until about 7-8 years ago, I leaned heavily on the side of history proceeding mainly from the bottom up. That is, I saw things happening because for better or worse, “the people,” or “the culture” brought it into being. Unless someone decisively challenges Duffy, this emphatically was not the case with the English Reformation. Rather, a few people close to power at the top managed within a generation to end centuries of belief and practice. This picture fits with emerging work on the Russian Revolution, and possibly the American Revolution as well. It fits with the aftermath of the Obergefell decision has had on our culture. It fits too with how people have responded to COVID, and how quickly the world fell in line. History may very well proceed from the top-down even in our more democratic age. For as much as Catholics here and there found bold or wily ways to resist change in pockets, they lacked cohesive national leadership.
Perhaps one should lean towards compromise most of the time. But, regardless of one’s convictions, every man, culture, and faith needs a solid center that will not budge when it encounters the world.
*For example, if we make a progressive algorithm and feed it to a computer, and tell the computer to make decisions based on the algorithm–or–if we made decisions based on the computer algorithim–who has agency and volition in this scenario? I say that in the above scenario we act as is the computer has volition, for we follow its commands. This matters much more than the technical origins of the algorithm.
**If we look at strictly the numbers, Elizabeth persecuted Catholics far more than Mary did Protestants, though of course she reigned for a much longer time. As a further aside, the image we have of Mary owes much to John Foxe’s Foxe’s Christian Martyrs, an indication of how a particular image/book at the right time can sway centuries of opinion.
^I.e., if you change the meaning of marriage from a sacramental union showing forth salvation to something instituted primarily for human happiness, you end up with marriage subordinated to human happiness–and there are plenty of ways to be happy as a couple without marriage.
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.*
*Evidence that birthday party celebrations may be what we truly have in common:
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 inLivy’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.
*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 . . .
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 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.
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
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.
*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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.