Ritual, Politics, and Power

This post was originally written in 2017 . . .

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President Reagan garnered political popularity and power in part by his skillful use of political theater and imagery.

But in 1985 even this great master of ritual and belief stumbled a bit with the infamous “Bitburg” affair.  A New York Times article read,

It was a day Ronald Reagan had dreaded, even though it was a rite he felt bound to endure.  Walking beside Chancellor Kohl amidst the German military graves of the Bitburg cemetery, he looked stiff and uncomfortable, in awkward contrast to his usual ease.  While Kohl brushed aside tears, Reagan looked straight ahead, careful not to glance down at the graves less he spy the SS symbols sprinkled across the cemetery lawn.  In spite of the West German’s desire to clasp hands over the graves of the war dead, the President’s arms remained resolutely at his side.  Earlier in the day, at a hastily arranged ceremony at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Reagan laid a wreath inscribed, “From the People of the United States.”  At the cemetery, in a ceremony that he was able to limit to just eight minutes, the wreath bore a somewhat different message: “From the President of the United States.”

Reagan got himself into this mess through a series of awkward political circumstances.  First, West Germany had emerged as a crucial ally in the Cold War and Reagan wanted to put a new kind of missile on West German soil.  Second, Chancellor Kohl had engaged in a long campaign of rehabilitation for Germany, and argued that the German people were also the victims of the Nazi regime–a statement most found (and I find) partially true but mostly false.  Still, things in West Germany had obviously changed since the 1940’s.  Still, rehabilitating the Nazi regime . . . ?

Most world leaders balked at any ceremonial recognition.  Reagan felt that he needed to acknowledge West Germany’s emerging role and commitment to freedom.  Plus, the missiles . . . he needed enough political capital with the West Germans to install them on their soil.

So, he decided to go.  He asked that the ceremony be limited in time, pomp, and circumstance.  He asked his aides to pick a spot that would incur the least amount of political damage.  Somehow, in a gaffe of gaffes, his aides picked a spot that included graves of SS officers!  One might understand mourning the ordinary German soldier, but not even Reagan could pull this off.  Still, Reagan had pledged–but he then insisted on another visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in last-ditch attempt to balance things out.  Hence, his stiff posture at the Bitburg cemetery, and the different messages on the wreaths.

The amount of controversy these simple and subtle gestures caused shows us that such gestures are not that simple.  Rituals reflect deeply held beliefs.  More than that, rituals create beliefs that stick in the minds of men.

David Kertzer’s Ritual, Politics, and Power discusses this topic brilliantly.  He writes about weighty topics like ritual, psychology, and sociology with a spring in his step, and shares numerous revealing examples across time and space.  By far, his is the best book I have seen on the subject.

Some of us of a more rationalistic bent might say that rituals have no meaning in themselves.  Perhaps they give outward expression to inward meaning, but certainly cannot create meaning.  Meaning and ritual can easily part ways.

But how far could one take the separation of meaning and ritual?  Imagine we felt respect for someone but failed to shake their hand.  Would we really have this respect?  Some might say, “We love each other and we don’t need the state or the church to tell us that we’re married.” But I doubt that such people would refuse the “act of marriage” that creates intimacy in the first place.  “That’s ok, it’s the thought that counts” would not work as a defense.  Without a physical embodiment of the thought, no evidence of the thought exists.  More than that, our thoughts cannot be said to conform to reality without a physical manifestation of them.  We know a tree by its fruits.

In the Socratic dialogue Phaedo, Socrates argues about the nature of reality.  He comments,

Is their true nature contemplated by means of the body? Is it not rather the case that he who prepares himself most carefully to understand the true essence of each thing that he examines would come nearest to the knowledge of it?”  “Would not that man do this most perfectly who approaches each thing, so far as possible, with the reason alone, not introducing sight into his reasoning nor dragging in any of the other senses along with his thinking, but who employs pure, absolute reason in his attempt to search out the pure, absolute essence of things, and who removes himself, so far as possible, from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from his whole body, because he feels that its companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom? Is not this the man, Simmias, if anyone, to attain to the knowledge of reality?”

In On the Celestial Hierarchy, St. Dionysius the Areopagite acknowledges that human beings cannot immediately or directly attain to spiritual contemplation.  Being flesh and blood, we require visible symbols and embodiments to know truth.  Kertzer in turn acknowledges that the president mainly functions as, “the chief symbol maker of the land,” so the minute analysis of Reagan’s gestures should not surprise us.*  Kertzer quotes another scholar who similarly wrote, “Most political controversy centers around which myth to apply to a particular problem.”

Kertzer generally ignores religion in his book, but the thin line between religion and politics makes itself perfectly obvious throughout his work–a huge strength in my view.  It illumines the fact that our political commitments come very near, or equivalent to, our religious beliefs, consciously or otherwise.  One immediately thinks of the vesting of clergy to perform religious rites.  We should not be gnostics.  You cannot just “think” yourself into being married.  Even today we still understand that you need a rite, you need “the act of marriage” to create marriage.  We know of the crown, robes, and mitres of kings.  But even in our much more casual modern American democracy, we have fixed expectations of how to look presidential.  To take one example, presidents give the pens they use to sign laws and treaties to favored confidantes or privileged citizens as “sacred” tokens of leadership.

Some may recall how Jimmy Carter’s popularity fell at least in part due to his failure to manage the symbolic nature of his leadership, either in his dress, relationship with Congress, or his tone of voice when speaking.  To take an opposite case, Kertzer shows how Rajiv Ghandi skillfully managed the symbolism of his mother Indira’s funeral to make a political career from nothing to India’s youngest Prime Minister in a matter of months.

We will know that our country’s religion is changing when we see its basic rituals come under fire.  Personally I find the singing of our national anthem at sporting events laborious and excessive.  But once the toothpaste gets out of the tube . . . things get complicated.  Though I find the ritual onerous and misplaced, I acknowledge the power of the rite.  Objectors to singing the anthem wisely engage in a symbolic action of their own.  The fact that they kneel has much more power than holding a press conference to voice their objections.

The more our country moves away from religion and its overt religious rite and symbolism, the more we will seek it elsewhere, the more important our political symbols will likely become, and the more power their proper execution will confer.  Ritual, Politics, and Power makes it clear that we need symbols to make sense of reality, and will have them one way or another.

Dave

*What do our modern presidential elections decide?  Given entitlement and defense spending, our federal budget has very little room to maneuver.  Our system of government and regular elections keep the president more or less in check.  Many believed the world would soon end after Trump’s election, but little of real substance has changed.  I think Kertzer would argue that what is most often really at stake is who gets to craft our symbols.  Neither candidate proposed any radical policy measure, and when Trump talked about a wall few thought it would actually happen.  But . . . it symbolically meant something to talk about it.  The election was bitter and contentious because of the symbolic nature of the candidates.  They may not have actually done radically different things in office but they represent very different symbols of what America is or should be.

The Tactics of Religious Revolution

J.E. Lendon’s Song of Wrath helped me see the early phases of the Peloponnesian War differently. From a modern perspective a stalemate between Athens and Sparta ca. 431-427 B.C. Sparta could not touch Athens’ navy, Athens could not deal with Sparta’s infantry, and so they danced. Lendon pointed out, however, that the culture of honor that permeated Greece allowed each side to declare victory–not victory over their opponents physical ability to wage war, but victory as a kind of pride of place. Confusion about what exactly constituted victory led to an expansion of the conflict.

This confusion, however, would never have happened had Athens not developed a navy, and broadened their source of strength. The growth of the navy and the growth of Athenian democracy went hand in hand. The growth of the navy meant expanding contact with others, and expanding one’s access to the material wealth of others. The growth of democracy meant more participation and involvement from more people in the daily operations of the state. Both involve movements “down the mountain” toward greater potential, but also towards more instability. This greater “diversity” in sense, would naturally bring about more confusion regarding the application of core values.

History does not always proceed in one direction, but the same patterns and connections emerge over time. “Politics flows downstream from culture,” and culture likewise with religion. This would mean, then, that Greece experienced a theological shift before its political shift. Though I believe in the theory, I am on very shaky ground in my knowledge of the history of Greek religion. But, I venture the theory that the beginnings of Athenian drama hearkened to a more “expansive” Greek religion rooted in the ecstatic reveries of Dionysius. Before, I think, they confined such “madness” to oracles located towards the periphery, and not easily accessed by the general population. Now, with the arrival of Dionysius and the dramatic arts, everyone (in theory) could taste something of such states. Significant democratic reform followed shortly thereafter.

Such is my theory, tenuous at best.

But as we move forward in time, towards epochs more easily observed, I think the connections between religion and ultimately, war itself, have more clarity. Gunther Rothenberg’s The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon makes no connections to religion and culture per se, but his thorough detail and clear analysis give one a good foundation to speculate a bit here and there.

Rothenberg starts with the armies that directly preceded the French Revolution. He focuses on the particular facts “on the ground” that influenced how armies functioned. What appears strange to us about the early-mid 18th century armies is how they often sought to avoid battle, and how quickly and easily generals broke off battles when the outcome appeared even slightly in doubt. We see this with in commanders like Prussia’s Duke of Brunswick, who refused to give battle to French Revolutionary forces at Valmy. No one thought this amiss–he retained the trust of Prussia’s king, changed little, and stayed in command until 1806, when Napoleon destroyed his forces at Jena. He was hardly alone.

A variety of factors helped bring about this template:

  • Muskets of the time had very low accuracy, so inflicting serious harm required massing of men to fire. Of course, one’s opponent would also have to mass men to do likewise. Battles where both sides actually fought hard meant very high casualties, such Torgau (1760, 30% casualties) and Zorndorf (1758, 50% casualties).
  • Artillery pieces existed, but they were much heavier in 1750 than in 1800. Thus, artillery was much less mobile, meaning that battle had to happen in pre-arranged spots for them to be used, or battle would not happen.
  • Enlisted men had a difficult life–desertion was common. To limit this, armies moved slowly, in large formations, supported by supply lines. Foraging, after all, could lead to desertion.
  • We talk of bloated military budgets today, but the dawn of professional armies paired with a pre-modern state apparatus meant that the military routinely took up to 25% of annual revenue, or sometimes as much as 50%.

All this meant that many kings and commanders naturally found decisive battle elusive, and casualties enormously expensive.

These factors come from “below,” so to speak. I mean by this that the particulars of strategy and tactics seemingly get created from particular physical details, such as the accuracy of muskets. We should absolutely look at history from this perspective, but we need more. We should speculate what cultural and religious underpinnings helped create these conditions from “above.” Beliefs or ideas helped bring about such conditions, just as you need rain (from above, of course) and soil to make anything grow.

Kenneth Clark pointed out that the Enlightenment defined itself by the “Smile of Reason”–a dignified, reasonable happiness, undergirded by control. Bernard Bouvier, the long-lived French Enlightenment philosophe, remarked that he had never run, and never lost his temper. When asked if he had ever laughed, he replied, “No, I have never made Ha Ha.” The thread throughout–he maintains control over his mind and body. An era devoted to such things would never value glory, which is fundamentally irrational. Also, we cannot measure glory. In a sense, glory requires an abandonment of control. This has in its religious origins “Deism”–a God who has power to create, but a God who “controls himself,” content with the benign “smile of reason.” Deism cannot brook an upsetting of the apple cart.

The French Revolution, from a political and cultural perspective, smashed all of this to pieces, and later, Napoleon finished the job. The roots of this come not from the politics of the French Revolution, but from its antecedent theological revolution.

When Louis XVI called together the Estates General, he wanted them to deal with a specific problem of taxation and tax law. Very briefly, the Estates General was comprised of three “estates,” the Church, nobility, and the “everybody else.” Each block voted as an estate, and 2 out of 3 wins. The clergy and nobility represented perhaps 5% of the population, so the third estate naturally (on this side of the American Revolution) did not want shut out by a vast minority. They insisted that Louis disband the three estates and create a new National Assembly, which would eliminate the “Estates” and obviously give the masses much more say.

This demand makes perfect sense to us, and likely we can only interpret Louis’ initial objections to this as stick-in-the-mud obscurantism. But this request contained the kernels of much more than a political revolution. We see this by looking at the medieval view of God and political power.

We know that we exist, we know that things around us exist. But in a truer sense, only God exists. That is, only God exists in a completely self-sufficient way. We need water, food, etc., to keep our existence, among other things. More importantly, we exist only because God exists–“in Him we live and move and have our being.”

God certainly has no need of us to do anything He wants done. But He creates out of fulness, out of love, to share. God shares something of His existence as well as His power. But we cannot fully participate in God’s essence–“No one has seen God at any time.” We can however, participate in His “energies,” or–in “parts” of God doled out to us (though of course God has no “parts”). Genesis 1 shows us that we cannot take everything into ourselves “in full.”

The same holds for power. In the truest sense, only God has power to accomplish His will and purpose. But, he shares, and just as He shares with us existence, so too He grants us agency and will. But we cannot have power concentrated all together. Reality, and power, must be separated and made distinct for us to have dominion over it. The works of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, hugely influential in the medieval era, make a similar point. Heaven has a distinct hierarchy, present most particularly in the angelic hosts, that we should mimic on earth, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer–“thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”

So, a governments separation of powers has particular theological roots, with a definite social and cultural purpose. If we think of the three “estates” in France, certainly the Church should not blend/meld with the world around it, lest it be captured by the world. An aristocracy in part provides guides for culture and taste. In theory, they elevate culture through their patronage and example. To blend them in with everyone else would eliminate their distinctiveness, and culture would descend to the lower level of pork rinds and Youtube fails.*

This religious shift away from traditional understanding gave way to a very different kind of army and different kinds of wars. For starters, the jumbling up of everything and the resulting political chaos meant that the French army under the Revolution had much fewer supplies. This in turn meant that the French armies had to forage for their food. But having no supply lines also made the army more mobile. It in turn made the army more offensively oriented. If you want to eat, win the next battle and take what you can from the enemy. Napoleon said as much to his army in Italy in 1796.

Tocqueville noted the immense potential power of democratic armies which comes from the concentration of resources. To reference the mountain pattern I mentioned earlier, the base has the most mass. This increase of power would not easily be contained. With the full embrace of the descent down the mountain in Romantic ideology came a dramatic increase in the ferocity of how the French fought. Rothenburg cites a variety of examples of this. St. Just (Robespierre’s lieutenant) declared that the army should emphasize “shock tactics.” Carnot, the premier military engineer of the Revolution told his generals that,

The general instructions are always to maneuver in mass and offensively; to maintain strict, but not overly meticulous discipline . . . and to use the bayonet on every occasion.

Both Carnot and St. Just both intuited the meaning of the religious and political changes for the tactics of the French army, and perhaps this synchronization made the army so effective. Gone were the days of elegant and precise movements of armies, enter the ferocity of the massed charge. Rothenberg also shows that the French revolutionary government proved much more effective at supplying bullets than food to its army, which fits the pattern above.

Napoleon inherited rather instigated these changes, but his keen intuitive sense and knack for precise detail gave the French army a direction and impetus it previously lacked. The religion of Romanticism had its apotheosis here. The political concentration that began with the Three Estates merging into the National Assembly eventually finds Napoleon to finish the job.

We need not debate Napoleon’s great strengths as a leader, but they came at a.price. Most militaries have different armies within their Army, i.e., First Army Group, Second Army Group, etc. But Napoleon had just one army, the “Grand Army.” Just as France was One, so too would the army function as One, with one in command of all. This extreme unity of command came from Napoleon’s large ego, but also from the Revolution’s hatred of “Federalism.” Being a “federalist,” which meant wanting a separation of powers within the state, could easily get one executed between 1792-94. Such a strong reaction to a political concept demonstrates the religious roots of the change. Desire for something other than extreme unity meant something akin to an existential threat. Rothenberg notes that when Napoleon had command of the field the French did very well. But when he could not be present, and had to delegate command, as in Spain, the French army collapsed.

This concentration of power influenced everything about Napoleon’s governance, strategy, and tactics.

  • Napoleon naturally wanted to screen the path of the army’s advance, so he controlled borders, controlled information, prevented foreigners from staying in the country, and so on. Such control was unheard of in his day.
  • Because Napoleon needed total control to accomplish his strategic design of one decisive blow, he valued commanders with physical bravery as their main (and only?) virtue. Certainly commanders need courage, but Napoleon cared very little for intelligence, creativity, initiative, etc. He wanted generals that served mainly as instruments of his will.
  • Napoleon’s goal to win via one decisive blow required all that has already been said, but in addition, he needed a certain type of geography, as at Friedland, for example. He needed a space where he could force, or perhaps lure, his opponents in an all or nothing contest. When his opponents could easily withdraw with depth (as in Russia, most obviously) he had real problems.

Napoleon mastered the tactics of the crushing, decisive blow, but perhaps he inherited the strategy. Robespierre wrote in 1794 that,

The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world’s destinies, and France is the scene of this fearful combat. Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny’s friends conspire; they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.

 If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic.

Napoleon’s own words after his participation in the siege of Toulon in 1793 differ little from Robespierre:

Among so many conflicting ideas and so many different perspectives, the honest man is confused and distressed and the skeptic becomes wicked . . .  Since one must take sides, one might as well choose the side that is victorious, the side that devastates, loots, and burns.  Considering the alternative, it is better to eat than be eaten.

My point here is not to equate Robespierre with Napoleon–I would rather have neither, but would much prefer Napoleon to Robespierre–nor even to morally condemn him. Politics is a dirty but necessary business. Instead, I think we should see a connection between the religious changes brought about by Rousseau, and see how it filters down into why Napoleon’s armies smashed through Europe. At the Congress of Vienna, we can see how the extremes of unity would inevitably swing back to making borders preeminent, and then, to nationalism in the latter 19th century.

With the rise of China, crypto, the war in Ukraine, twitter, and so on, most everyone has the sense that the world is changing, and most everyone disagrees on the meaning or direction of the change. We might get more clarity if we looked at how religion has changed over the last 30 years or so, which might equip us to head some things off at the pass.

Dave

*I don’t mean to be a high-brow curmudgeon. “Low” culture can and should exist. My point here is that most of the time that we want to partake of “high” culture we have to go back to pre-democratic ages, a Michelangelo statue, a Bach cantata, etc. Democratic cultures can produce “high” culture, but I would submit that they cannot create as much and not the same enduring quality. I also acknowledge, however, that not enough time has elapsed for democratic culture to be fairly judged.

Same Story, Different Day

Once upon a time a man lived in a good land.  His family prospered, and in time, his children and his children’s children filled this good land.  They had their own customs, faith, and rhythms of daily life.

But these good times did not last.  Eventually many others sought to rob these good people of their land.  Various kings and principalities invaded, one after the other.

The people resisted.  They fought bravely, but often these foreign invaders divided to conquer.  At times these good people found themselves at odds with one another.  Eventually the invaders persecuted them. Their very existence as a people seemed threatened.  But they had faith, and this faith will be rewarded.  Their perseverance led them to outlast the forces of history, and so their history in the modern era begins right where it left off many generations ago.

In a post about the failure of the Treaty of Versailles I discuss my view of the importance of narrative in the field of history, whether we study the past or make “history” in the present.  Analytical data or “rational” analysis about costs/benefits in the abstract will lead to wrong perceptions of reality.  A narrative view gives us a more full understanding, and when faced with a problem, a much better chance at solutions.

It sounds odd to say that I really enjoyed Padraig O’ Malley’s * The Two State Delusion: Israel and Palestine — A Tale of Two Narratives.  O’ Malley has little hope for peace if the “peace process” continues as before, and this gives the book a somber tone.  But I enjoyed it because I felt that O’Malley must be onto something by focusing not on particular events, or even security for one side or the other, but on the idea of the narratives both sides bring to the table.  One problem the two sides face is the distinct similarity in their narratives.  The structure of the story remains relatively same for them both, with different characters.

The story I told above fits both sides of the conflict, and to some extent both sides use the above narrative.

For Israel

  • They gained possession of a good land, grew and prospered, reaching their ancient peak during the reign of Solomon.
  • But soon after that, their kingdom fell prey to multiple invasions from the outside, be it Assyrians, Babylonians, or Romans.  They had to scatter throughout neighboring lands, but maintained their identity and culture.
  • They faced persecution from outsiders, culminating in the almost unimaginable horror of the Holocaust.
  • But — their persistence and faith paid off.  They returned, forged by suffering, and established themselves securely back in the land of their forefathers.

For the Palestinians . . .

  • They dwelt peacefully in the land in small communities for many generations
  • But — they fell prey to imperial forces, throughout time.  We can date their unjust subjugation in the modern era with their occupation by the Ottoman Turks from the 16th century to W.W. I.
  • At the turn of the 20th century they had independence promised them from another imperial power (the British).
  • But when it seemed like they might have their land back once again, they were betrayed and occupied  (by the British, who sponsored the return of Israeli’s).
  • Eventually, a host of foreign powers (the U.N.) imposed another conquering people upon them (the establishment of Israel — whose military might is financed from the west).  This new occupier fought a series of wars , scattering them from their homes in a host of illegal land grabs (Israel has routinely violated a varietyU.N. resolution and established settlements in occupied land).
  • But — they have faith.  Forged by suffering, their common bond to one another remains stronger than ever before.  They believe that one day, the land will be theirs once again.

Their narratives remain starkly similar, with the main problem being that:

  • For Israel, Palestinians are not often identified as average people, but as the next in a long line of foreign persecutors of Jews (i.e. PLO, Hamas, etc.)
  • For Palestinians, Israel is identified as an imperial power along the lines of the Ottomans and the British.

O’Malley rightly hones in on the common thread of the suffering of both sides.

The suffering of the Jewish people hardly needs an explanation.  Of course we have the Holocaust, but a lot of lower-level persecution existed before that for centuries throughout Europe.

What may be less obvious to us, and certainly seems less obvious to Israel, is the suffering of the Palestinians.  O’Malley asserts, and I agree, that if we could find any kernel to the disastrous relationship between the two, it lays here.

The Palestinian population has suffered greatly indirectly or directly from the presence of Israeli’s.  We could measure this in land lost to Israel, or in civilian deaths of Palestinians, which greatly outweigh those of Israeli’s due to terrorist attacks.  There also exists what one cannot measure–the wholesale breakup of communities and families due to Israeli occupation and settlements, and the wholesale dismemberment of the Palestinian Church–something Christian supporters of Israel sometimes forget.

The reason why I think it forms the core of the problem is that Israel cannot seem to admit that they have caused these problems.  Some of them one could plausibly ascribe to the “fortunes of war” or the “march of time,” but others, like the direct violation of U.N. resolutions to establish settlements, fall directly into their laps.  But it appears that the Jews in Israel, who has suffered so much at the hands of others, cannot admit that they themselves cause so much suffering to others.

The Palestinians, for their part, want more than grants of certain territory or water rights, they insist on a repentant, contrite Israel.  Having felt impotent and humiliated for so long themselves, they insist that Israel feel the same way.  The Palestinians cannot accept half-measures in this regard.  For example, Ariel Sharon released a statement along the lines of, “Israel regrets the suffering of the Palestinian people,” that the Palestinians found not just unacceptable, but insulting.  They don’t want Israel’s sympathy, they want Israel to admit fault without equivocation.  Nor can they see the above statement as a beginning of a process.  Rather, for them it represents a slap in the face.  “Ha!  This is all you get!”

Formal peace negotiations put Israel in a bit of bind, and we must sympathize with their position. Who speaks for Palestinians as a whole?  Who can negotiate for them?  If none can truly speak for them, then what good is any particular deal?  Why bother?

Israel complains that the Palestinians have not been able to absorb refugees and form stable, coherent political organizations.  After all, they themselves (that is, the Jewish settler in Israel) started with nothing and have formed a modern first-world state.  They absorbed thousands of newcomers and refugees from different countries.  They speak truth in this claim.  But, as O’Malley points out, why should the Palestinians have to form modern western political organizations?  Things moved along nicely for them without such things before Israel arrived, and can continue to do. But it appears that history may overwhelm the Palestinians and force them into an uncomfortable mold, one which will put them at a disadvantage vis a vis Israel.

The relationship between the two has calcified to such an extent that O’Malley recommends that they cease the formal peace process itself, and instead focus on healing their own psychological scars.  The peace process has also been initiated not by each other but by various American presidents looking to make their mark.  Whatever the cause, O’Malley suggests that now “negotiations” serve as a platform for each side to vent grievances or talk to their respective political bases, and not each other.  The peace process serves now to simply enable and confirm their already deeply held beliefs.

In one section of Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis talked about his impatience for how many make moral judgments.  “War is a terrible evil!” some cried.  “Yes,” Lewis agreed, but times exist when war is more morally justifiable than the current “peace.”  Sometimes issues must be considered on a relative scale.  He even mentioned dueling.  Yes, dueling often involved murder, but he admitted that there might be some instances when even a duel to the death might be preferable to indulging in a lifetime of hatred and bitterness, and passing on that hatred, that would in time destroy one’s soul.

I thought of this section when reading this book.  In this scenario both sides have their share of the blame.  As purely personal opinion I give a slight majority of blame to the Israeli side.  They are the stronger (though they don’t realize this), and they–as a formal nation with coherent leadership–have violated international law on numerous occasions.  I distinguish this from Palestinian acts of terror, which I do not believe represent–or at least always represent–the whole of the Palestinian people.  So I root for a Palestinian homeland, and feel that surely this cause has justice on its side.

And yet, the current situation destroys both sides, and there appears no end in sight.  All O’ Malley can see in is a continuation of deep fear and deep hatred growing — hence the title of his book.  A two-state solution simply will not work in the current psychological climate.

So would a “duel” of sorts be a preferable solution?  What would that even look like?  Should Israel just “get on with it” and exile the Palestinians?  This would be cruel, but it would hopefully have the ancillary effect of forcing Palestinians to start over.

On the other hand . . .

Many Palestinians believe they are close to winning.  This victory would not be physical in nature, but moral and psychological.  Some feel that if Israel goes much further they will completely delegitimize themselves internationally, and rot themselves from within morally.  They will then, as an act of atonement, give Palestinians a homeland at least to the 1967 borders.

I do not share this view, but see no other solution that will work in the current environment.  The two sides share the same space and tell the same story, but with different characters playing different roles.  I would guess that nothing will change until both sides tell themselves a different story.

Dave

*It sounds odd for an Irishman to write a definitive book on this subject, but his previous books dealt with Irish/English history and apartheid in South Africa.

“The Sword and the Olive”

The modern history of Israel poses many questions, their 65 years lived at breakneck speed have given us many lessons.  But the questions about their state, the Palestinians, their neighbors, and so on are enormously complex.  Some historians seek to tackle all aspects of the problem but books of that nature can often be too long, heavy on details, weak on conclusions, leaving readers with no clear answers and no path to discover them on their own.

With problems of this sort, I tend to think that books that focus on one particular aspect of the issues often serve readers better than all-encompassing tomes.  The narrowness of focus makes no pretense to answer every question, but it can provide a clear narrative arc, and thus give definite shape to at least some of the puzzle pieces. Martin van Creveld’s The Sword and the Olive fulfills this purpose, much like Byron Farwell’s The Armies of the Raj.  Creveld does not tackle the broader “should” questions (i.e. should Israel have been given ‘x’ land, should they occupy the West Bank, etc.), but traces the effects of various decisions nicely in this history of the Israeli army.

While various militarized Zionist groups long predated W.W. II, the Israeli army takes as its main starting point the formation of the state.  Early on Creveld introduces one of his main themes, that the trauma of the Holocaust created a moral weight to the Jewish cause.  This in turn formed a social cohesion that enabled an army to achieve near mythical status within a few short years.  Creveld lives in Israel and I assume is Jewish himself, but he attempts no sugarcoating of either Jews, Palestinians, or Arabs.   His seeks to show, however, that whatever the strength of Palestinian claims, the Jews simply had stronger ones in the immediate context of the post-war years.  When Palestine lingered under lame-duck British authority thousands of Jewish immigrants poured illegally into Palestine and settled beyond established boundaries.  These illegal settlements received protection from Jewish militias.  The British discovered that sometimes the strong must suffer the actions of the weak.  How could the British enforce their authority and detain/fire upon people with numbered tattoos on their arms from Auschwitz in 1947?   Every British “victory” over Jewish militias only made their position more and more untenable.

The story of the “War for Independence” in 1948 had a similar theme.  Palestinians outnumbered Jews but tended to spread out in rural areas, whereas Jews settled in mostly urban areas and therefore had a more formal political structure.  The countries that attacked Israel shared few common goals and even had some conflicting ones.  The psychological sense of mission and purpose gave Israel a great army.  As Napoleon remarked, “In war the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”

Israel was a democracy in many ways, but their initial victory helped lead to some generally non-democratic ideas.

  • Democracies at least like to think of themselves as defensive in nature, and so did Israel.  But the nature of their geography led to a sense of being continually under siege.  In war, they developed a “strike-first” mentality — war must always be fought on the enemies territory.  They would have ironically agreed with the Prussian Frederick the Great’s motto of “Audacity, audacity, and still more audacity!”  Even more ironically, this led Israel to develop tactics that strongly resembled the blitzkrieg of 1939-41.
  • As Tocqueville noted, most democracies have a generally ambivalent attitude toward the army, but not Israel.  After 1948, and especially after 1967, the army had near god-like status within the state.  This led to a political structure where the army had very little official civilian oversight, and even less in practical terms.
  • The sense of unity had to do with their circumstances, but also perhaps due to the settling of Israel by many eastern-European Jews with socialist leanings.  In any case, Israel quickly developed strong censorship laws with anything to do with security.  They deemed this necessary given that they felt alone not only where they stood geographically, but also in the international arena.  The Holocaust showed that the world would abandon Jews if it suited them.  The media helped develop these laws.  But democracies are also open societies, so usually censors had the job of keeping Israeli’s ignorant of what everyone else around the world knew.

Some of these contradictions would have to work themselves out at some point.

The psychological and moral factors of the post-war years created a juggernaut military with sky high morale.  But Israel’s very success would help to change this dynamic.  Occupying more territory meant the need to increase the size of the army.  This in turn meant more recruits, and the social cohesion that once characterized the army — an army where everyone knew everyone else — began to erode.  An army with a civilian-militia ethos turned professional.  Israel condensed about 200 years of Roman history (ca. 202-27 B.C.) into about 20 of their own.

Israel soon developed a much stronger military than their neighbors, but they kept their siege mentality.  This meant that when they engaged the PLO in the 1970’s, and especially in Lebanon in the early 1980’s, that the strong/weak dynamic that had served them so well psychologically had now flipped against them.  They were now strong and secure, their enemies had “weakness” on their side.  The “us against the world” attitude that served them so well now fought against them.  Now Israel faced an identity crisis.  What would they do with success?  Bold, aggressive, and occasional “outside the lines” actions could be tolerated and even expected when “fighting for one’s life.”  But they did not get the same pass under these new circumstances.  No one thought that PLO hideouts within Lebanon posed anything more than a nuisance to the state.  As Creveld commented, the strong should never fight the weak for very long.  Lao-Tsu noted similarly that a sword thrust into sea-water turns to rust.

The unquestioning public support that the military enjoyed for so many years now eroded, and this led to erosion within the army itself.  Their war in Lebanon had far fewer casualties and far less real fighting than their previous wars, but the number of psychological maladies effecting soldiers skyrocketed, as did the number of civilians who refused to serve, or found medical exemptions for their service.  The power of the government to investigate the military increased, albeit only slightly.  Certainly soldiers no longer wore their uniforms off-duty, as once was common.

The Israeli army today still maintains a high level of professional competence and tactical superiority over its neighbors, but they unquestionably lost something of the “soul” of their army.  And because Israel made the army such a integral part of their identity, something in Israel itself has no doubt been lost as well.  What Vietnam was for us, Lebanon was for them.  If our experience proves any kind of mirror, they can recover some of what they lost, but Israel will not be able to go home again.  The golden age of the Israeli military has come and gone.

Mankind, Armies, and Strategy

I have always had great sympathy for Louis XVI. As far as moral character goes, he far outstripped his two predecessors. He had a genuine Christian faith and a genuine love for his family. The first several years of his reign show a movement towards humanitarian and scientific improvements throughout the country, and he sought to limit spending and the Versailles fluffery that characterized Louis XIV-XV. It seems ironic and almost non-sensical that the French Revolution should have come for him. It makes sense, however, when one realizes that for all his virtues, Louis could not play the role of King when it counted most. He had the very common foibles of indecisiveness, and wanting to be liked a bit too much. One can easily pass over such flaws in a common person, but at the wrong place and time, those in power with such flaws receive no mercy from history.

One can see this crucial difference between the three monarchs in their portraits. First, Louis XIV, then Louis XV:

Louis XV would have washed out as anybody but a king. His flaws would have overborne him as a blacksmith, lawyer, or baker. But . . . he could fill the royal robes. Whatever one can say about him, he cared little what others thought.*

Louis XVI in the same pose

comes up short. He shows the required leg, with none of the confidence. While Louis XIV and XV seem to leap out of the frame, Louis XVI wants us to go away so he can go back to fixing his clocks. Alas that 1789 came for such a decent, normal person. Pressed in trying times to puff out his chest and stand firm, he could not. Let us not say that he lacked the courage for this, for he proved at his trial and death to have plenty of it. Rather, we might say that leopards cannot change their spots. Faced with situations entirely unsuited to his temperament, he blundered into bad move after bad move, vacillating here and there in the process.

Some years ago I came across Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, a title that, at the time, struck me as bizarre yet intriguing on its face. I thought, like many, that the Byzantines blundered around willy-nilly for some centuries, with their hesitations and diplomatic ploys betraying a complete lack of strategy. But Luttwak masterfully pointed out that

  • Most wars of any people are unnecessary, and should be avoided if possible. Investing in diplomacy as the Byzantines did costs far less in cash and in human lives.
  • The Byzantines faced enormous problems of different kinds on. multiple fronts for centuries that called for flexible and careful thought.
  • Like anyone, they made mistakes, but their survival for 1000 years as essentially 1/2 of the Roman Empire shows that they had great success overall in managing their resources with accuracy and effectiveness.

Luttwak performs a similar turn with his The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. Emperors of varied quality came and went over the centuries. But, the Romans had a method to how they comprised and used their army. Again, having a strategy won’t always mean that one stays faithful to it, or even that they have a good strategy. But a method, unconscious or no, existed for the Roman Empire, independent of good generals and emperors.

His introduction lays out his basic approach regarding the use of force:

The superiority of the empire, and it was vast, . . . derived from the whole complex of ideas and traditions that informed the organization of Roman military force and it harnessed the power of the empire to a political purpose. The firm subordination of tactical priorities, martial ideals, and warlike instincts to political priorities was the essential condition of success. . . . In the imperial period at least, force was recognized for what it is, an essentially limited instrument of power, costly and brittle. Much better to conserve force, and use military power indirectly.

As an example . . . Romans considered the loss of a military standard something akin to a national tragedy. The Parthians captured a few such standards at Crassus’ disaster at Carrhae. Luttwak writes,

Augustus did not try and avenge the great defeat inflicted by the Parthians . . . in 53 B.C. Instead, in 20 B.C. he reached a compromise settlement under which Armenia was to be ruled by a king of the Arascid family, who would receive his investiture from Rome. Behind the neatly balanced formula there was strategy, for Parthian troops would thereby be kept out of a neutralized Armenia and far from undefended Anatolia and valuable Syria. There was also politics. The standards lost at Carrhae would be returned to Rome and received with great ceremony. Augustus issued coins falsely proclaiming the “capture” of Armenia.

Not very dramatic or inspiring, but Sun Tzu proclaimed that the best generals win without fighting.**

Luttwak organizes the book into a few different eras, i.e., the Julio-Claudians, the Flavians to the Severi, and so on. He examines the military composition at the time, what that should mean for how they used those forces, and to what degree the tactical situation on the ground matched policy in Rome. Certain eras interested me more than others, so what follows reflects that.

During the heyday of the Republic era, Rome’s legions had some variety and flexibility built within them, with light infantry (effective) and cavalry (not as much) attached to the standard Roman heavy infantry. As Rome underwent political changes, so too its army changed. During the early years of the principate they coalesced their forces to make them “heavier”–gone more or less were the javelin throwers and the horses. Exactly why this happened is hard to say, but interestingly, the centralization of political power mirrored itself in the centralization of the army.

However true this may be, it cannot explain everything–a diplomatic method existed behind it. Rome used client states to aid in their security, and used the militaries of the client states to supplement their own. So–Rome provided the main course, so to speak, and their clients the rest. Luttwak writes,

It is the absence of a perimeter defense that is the key to the entire system of Roman security during this period. There were neither border defenses nor local forces to guard against the “low intensity” threats of petty infiltration, transborder incursions, or localized attack. . . . such protection was provided, by indirect and non-military means. By virtually eliminating the burden of maintaining continuous frontier defenses, the net “disposable” military power generated by the imperial forces was maximized. . . . Thus, the empire’s potential military power could be converted into actual political control at a high rate of exchange.

Luttwak adds the following visual, which helps explain the idea of what he calls the “Hegemonic Empire.”

The weakness of such a system lies in that it requires someone with deft political skills to manage it, but Augustus possessed these in abundance. Some of his successors entirely lacked anything like it, but they ruled for a short time–i.e., Caligula. Others, like Tiberius, had sufficient ability, even if they lacked brilliance. Rome all in all prospered under this system because they had “good enough” emperors rule long enough to cover over the disasters. Rome tended to trust its clients and spent few resources watching over them. In turn, this meant that Rome made itself vulnerable to collapse if multiple clients rebelled at once. But again, the strength of the system and the overall competence of leadership made such a result quite unlikely.

In turn, the structure of the army and the attending political realities mean that,

the Roman army was clearly best equipped to serve an an instrument of warfare against enemies with fixed assets to protect–primarily cities, but also such things as arable lands or even irrigation systems. Conversely, Roman capabilities [declined] when enemies assets were not fixed, or at any rate, not concentrated.

This makes Roman disasters like Teutoburg Forest more understandable. You had Varus in command, one who lacked sufficient political ability in Germany. Perhaps more importantly, you had the Roman army far from any help from client states to supplement their ranks, and thus, able to fight well only against fixed assets. When the Germans under Arminius made his own army less “fixed” by “retreating” into the forest, the Romans got mauled. Rome won battles in subsequent years against certain German tribes, but the lack of fixed assets explains why they never could really conquer Germany, nor Parthia and the Sassanids. Grand strategic nuggets like this make Luttwak’s book a real gem.

Luttwak adds that at times the army could prevail in battle even against those lacking a majority of fixed assets. But such situations called forth the dark side of Roman power, writing that

the Romans could [not] apply their strength effectively against the widely dispersed rural base of warrior nations whose strength did not depend on the survival of city-based economic and social structure. Consequently, if the Romans persisted in their efforts, their only real alternative meant attacking the population base itself, in a war of extermination. . . . Thus at the conclusion of Domitian’s campaign against the Nasamones of North Africa, he reported to the Senate that the war had been won, and that the Nasamones has ceased to exist.

Though Luttwak’s analyzes almost everything dispassionately, one can see an example of the truth of St. Maximos’ dictum that man is a macrocosm of the universe, and that we should therefore interpret history through the lens of the human person. For example, I remember years ago when I tried my hand at fixing a plumbing problem in our house. I have no plumbing skills, but the problem seemed simple enough for me to try. Three trips to Home Depot and various tirades worthy of the dad in A Christmas Story later, I called a plumber, who humored me when he arrived by saying that he had seen worse.

My point here is that it would have been much better for me had the plumbing issue been bad enough that I never would have tried to fix it at all. Instead, it hovered in a tempting in-between space. Having waded in, I lost perspective and my cool. The same thing happened more or less to Roman armies in Parthia. And I can remember feeling akin to the Romans against the Nassamones–that if I bashed the pipes to oblivion, I could tell my wife that we had no more problem with the sink. Louis XVI had courage, and humility as well. In the case of serious invasion of France by a foreign enemy, I can imagine him deferring entirely generals while standing firm in an appropriately kingly way. In that case, the situation would have had clarity for him. When he tried to wade into managing internal social and political dynamics, he stumbled badly and tens of thousands died.

In time, Rome switched from a “Hegemonic Empire” to a “Territorial Empire,” to use Luttwak’s term. They switched from a “defense in depth” to having all the eggs in the “border security” basket. This mean that Rome either annexed, absorbed, or abandoned client states. Luttwak masterfully helps us not attach moral categories to this choice, or even to judge immediately the effectiveness of the switch. Rather, this choice involved different risks and problems.

The most common fallacy of analyses is the tendency to evaluate defensive systems in absolute terms. . . . Defensive systems should instead be evaluated in relative terms: their cost in resources should be compared to their military “output.”

Luttwak, p. 61

One can surmise that the “Territorial Empire” had the advantage of simplifying certain problems. More unity meant more control over various factors of defense. Rome need not have emperors equipped with cunning and subtlety to manage the empire effectively. A bulldog would do just fine. But–any penetration of the line brought a significant crises, and if the armies got either lazy or turned on each other–as (the latter) happened frequently in the 3rd century A.D., disaster would follow.

In my view, we should see the “Hegemonic” model of empire as a holdover from the Republic era. It’s flexible fringe with its solid core mirrors that of the structure of the Republic itself. We can see with hindsight that he principate system inaugurated by Augustus fell in between the stools of Republic and Empire, for which the Territorial model makes more sense.

For our own time . . . the NATO alliance in theory projects maximum deterrence and maximum fragility, akin to the Territorial model above. If someone does anything to any member of NATO, all in theory will respond. Possibly, the penetration of one of its members (by Russia) would rally everyone in the ranks for a defense. Possibly as well, an attack at any point might actually reveal the fragility of the system. NATO might abandon one of its own to prevent a general war, which would effectively end NATO as a viable entity.

A third possibility exists . . . one that shows that NATO in facts functions hegemonically. Perhaps the U.S, acting as NATO’s hegemon, might instead delegate defense based on complex diplomatic relationships. Such a move offers us a way out of the either/or of our current situation, and prevent a general war. But it also requires better political leadership than either or current or previous president could provide. If no one more deft arrives on the scene in 2024, we are stuck with the pro’s . . . and con’s of having all of our eggs in the “Territorial” basket.

Dave

*Incidentally, Charles II of England, a distracted (though certainly intelligent) debauchee much like Louis XV, also could transform himself. He knew how to be a king when it really counted, as this brief clip perfectly captures. If Louis XVI could have acted similarly in 1789 with the Estates General, perhaps things would have been different.

**I have nothing to add to the Russia-Ukraine situation except to say that hopefully, Ukraine can find something akin to a military standard to offer to Russia. It would have be something of little value to them, enormous value to Russia. I don’t know if anything like that exists between them.

The Bottom of the Mountain

“Whatever we may think of Alexander–whether Great or only lucky, a civilizer or a sociopath–most people do not regard him as a religious leader. And yet religion permeated all aspects of his career.”

This opening line of the book blurb for F.S. Naiden’s Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great, sucked me right in. I too had viewed Alexander nearly solely through a narrow political and moral lens, and had never really considered his religious views and acts as central to his successes and failures. The book was too long for me. I would have preferred if he assumed reader knowledge of the standard elements of the Alexander narrative. But what Naiden draws out from his expertise in ancient religious rituals helps us see Alexander afresh in certain ways.

Historians tend to think about Alexander along three standard deviations:

  • Great visionary and magnificent strategist, one of the truly “Great Men” that, naturally, and tragically, few could truly follow
  • Fantastic military leader with flawed political skills. After Gaugemela in 331 B.C., his political skills become more necessary than his military skills, and so his fortune waned and his decisions got worse
  • A thug and barbarian who lived for the chase and the kill. He never really changed, or “declined,”–he always was a killer and remained so until his death.

Soldier, Priest, and God tries to bypass all of these paradigms, though touches on each in turn. Naiden’s Alexander is a man who mastered much of the trappings and theater of Greek religion, which included

  • The hunt
  • Prowess in battle
  • A religious bond with his “Companions,”–most of whom were in the elite cavalry units.
  • Responding properly to suppliants

As he entered into the western part of the Persian empire, i.e., Asia Minor, he encountered many similar kinds of religious rituals and expectations. The common bonds and expectations between he and his men could hold in Asia Minor. But the religious terrain changed as Alexander left Babylon (his experience in Egypt had already put some strain between he and his men, but it could be viewed as a “one-off” on the margins), and he had to adopt entirely new religious forms and rituals to extend his conquest.

Here, Naiden tacitly argues, we have the central reason for Alexander’s failures after the death of Darius. Some examples of Naiden’s new insights . . .

Alexander’s men did not want to follow him into India-they wanted to go home. Some view this in “great man” terms–his men could not share Alexander’s vision. Some view this in political/managerial terms–his army signed on to punish Persia for invading Greece. Having accomplished this, their desire to return was entirely natural and “contractual.” Naiden splits the horns of this dilemma, focusing on the religious aspects of their travels east.

Following Alexander into the Hindu Kush meant far fewer spoils for the men. Some see the army as purely selfish here–hadn’t Alexander already made them rich? But sharing in the spoils formed a crucial part of the bonds of the “Companions.” The Companions were not just friends, as Philip had created a religious cult of sorts of the companions. It wasn’t just that going further east would mean more glory for Alexander and no stuff for his men. It meant a breaking of fellowship and religious ritual. This, perhaps more so than the army being homesick, or tired, led to Alexander having to turn back to Babylon.

Alexander killed Philotas for allegedly taking part in a conspiracy against him. Others see this as either Alexander’s crass political calculus, or a sign of megalomania, or paranoia. Naiden sees this action in religious terms.

  • Philotas was a Companion. To execute him on the flimsy grounds Alexander possessed could amount to oath-breaking by Alexander, a dangerous religious precedent. “Companionship” bound the two together religiously, not just fraternally.
  • Philotas did not admit his guilt but presented himself as a suppliant to Alexander and asked for mercy. True–not every suppliant had their request granted, but Philotas fit the bill of one who should normally have his request met.

Killing Philotas, and subsequently Philotas’ father Parmenio (likely one of the original Companions under Philip), should be seen through a religious lens and not primarily psychologically (Alexander is going crazy) or politically (politics is a dirty business, no getting around it, etc.).

We also get additional perspective on the death of Cleitus the Black. We know that he was killed largely because of the heavy drinking engaged by all during a party. We know too that Cleitus had in some ways just received a promotion. Alexander wanted him to leave the army, stay behind and serve as a governor/satrap of some territory. Why then was Cleitus so upset? Naiden points out that Alexander had not so much promoted Cleitus, but made him a subject of himself, as well as exiling him from the other Companions. The Companions shared in the spoils equally, and addressed each other as equals. As satrap, Cleitus would have to address Alexander as king and treat him as other satraps treated the King of Persia. Hence, the taunt of Cleitus (who had saved Alexander’s life at the battle of Granicus), “this is the hand that saved you on that day!” came not just from wounded pride, but as an accusation against Alexander’s religious conversion of sorts. Alexander had abandoned the “Equality” tenet of faith central to the Companions.

We can imagine this tension if we put in modern religious terms (though the parallels do fall short):

  • Imagine Alexander and his men are Baptists of a particular stripe. They grew up in Sunday school, reciting the “Baptist Faith and Message.” They join Alexander to punish Moslems who had tried to hurt other Baptists.
  • As they conquer, they link up with other Baptists. There are Southern Baptists, Regular Baptists, Primitive Baptists, and so on. They go to worship with these people, and while it might be a bit different, it is still familiar. All is good.
  • Flush with success, the go further. Now they meet more varieties of Protestants–some non-denominational churches, some Assemblies of God, etc. Ok, it’s getting a little weird, but we are still more or less on familiar ground.
  • Now we go to Egypt and–what!–Alexander seems to be joining in on a Catholic service. Ok, this is bad, but at least very few in the army saw this, and we don’t have to spread the news.
  • Now as we get into Bactria and India Alexander seems to be converting to something unrecognizable. He seems to be breaking with the Baptist Faith and Message and repudiating his past. Or is he? He might be converting to Catholicism or Islam, or what else, I have no idea. We can no longer worship with him. In hindsight, his killing of Philotas was a decisive move in this “conversion.”

Naiden points out that Alexander never officially becomes king of Persia, and attributes this largely to the religious ideology behind the Persian monarchy that Alexander could not quite share or, perhaps understand. As he went into Bactria and beyond, not only had he grown religiously distant from his men, but he could no longer understand or adapt to the religions he encountered. He found himself constantly torn between acting as a king to those he conquered, and as a Companion to his army. In the end he could not reconcile the two competing claims, and perhaps no one could.

Alexander stands as perhaps the most universal figure from the ancient world. Obviously the Greeks wrote about him, as did the Romans, but stories cropped up about him in India, Egypt, Israel, Byzantium, and within Islam as well. Naiden mentions this but fails to explore its meaning. Naiden has a remarkable ability to find facts and present a different perspective. But he never explores how and why most every ancient and pre-modern culture found in Alexander something universal. Though it will strike many as strange he most common image of Alexander has him not riding into battle on his famous horse, but ascending into the heavens, holding out meat so that large birds will carry him up into the sky.

This image comes from a medieval Russian cathedral:

The story comes from the famous Alexander Romance, and runs like so:

Then I [Alexander] began to ask myself if this place was really the end of the world, where the sky touched the earth.   I wanted to discover the truth, and so I gave orders to capture the two birds that we saw nearby.  They were very large, white birds, very strong but tame.  They did not fly away when they saw us.  Some soldiers climbed on their backs, hung on, and flew off with them.  The birds fed on carrion, so that they were attracted to our camp by our many dead horses.  

 I ordered that the birds be captured, and given no food for three days.  I had for myself a yoke constructed from wood and tied this to their throats.  Then I had an ox-skin made into a large bag, fixed it to the yoke, and climbed in.  I held two spears, each about 10 feet long, with horse meat on their tips.  At once the birds soared up to seize the meat, and I rose up with them into the air, until I thought I must be close to the sky.  I shivered all over due to the extreme cold.  

Soon a creature in the form of a man approached me and said, “O Alexander, you have not yet secured the whole earth, and are you now exploring the heavens?  Return to earth quickly, or you will become food for these birds.   Look down on earth, Alexander!”  I looked down, somewhat afraid, and I saw a great snake, curled up, and in the middle of the snake a tiny circle like a threshing-floor.  

Then my companion said to me, “Point your spear at the threshing-floor, for that is the world.  The snake is the sea that surrounds the world.”

Admonished by Providence above, I returned to earth, landing about seven days journey from my army.  I was now frozen and half-dead.  Where I landed I found one of my satraps under my command; borrowing 300 horses, I returned to my camp.  Now I have decided to make no more attempts at the impossible.  Farewell.  

Here we have the key to understanding the meaning of Alexander, not merely information about why he did or why he did it.

The person of a king becomes the focal point of “bodies.” For example, a single, jobless, man living alone in his parent’s basement has only himself as a “body.” His identity includes only himself–his identity includes nothing outside of himself. Thus, he grows stale. This unnatural condition perhaps explains why such men are usually overweight–if they cannot add “body” to themselves naturally they do so unnaturally.* Now imagine said man gets a job. He adds the identity of others to his own. If he gets married, now he has bound his identity to another person. This is why marriage has always been viewed as a religious rite and act–only God/the gods can effect this change in a person. Then the couple has children, and the man has added more “body” to himself. Then one day he has grandchildren and ascends to the level of “paterfamilias.” His “body” includes multiple families.**

A king of Macedon has more “body” than the average Macedonian. As we have seen, Macedonian kingship didn’t function like kingship elsewhere, either politically or religiously. Still, kingship has roots in every culture. But everyone knew that this kind of adding of body involved something of a risky and religious transformation–something akin to marriage. If one goes too far you risk losing everything. We can think of Alexander as holding folded laundry in his hand. He bends down to pick up a book, and can do that, then a plate, and it works, then a cup, etc.–but eventually one reaches a limit as to what you can add to oneself, and everything falls to the floor.

I have written before about the biblical image of the mountain in Genesis. Adam and Eve seek to add something to themselves that they should not. As a result they must descend down the paradisal mountain, where more multiplicity exists, and less unity. This leads to a fracturing of their being, and ultimately violence. This is King Solomon’s story as well. He receives great wisdom–the ability to take in knowledge from multiple sources and achieve penetrating insights (many scholars have noted that the biblical books traditionally ascribed to him contain tropes and fragments from cultures outside of Israel). But he goes too far–he strives for too much multiplicity, too much “adding of body,” as is evidenced by his hundreds of marriages to “foreign women.” This brings about the dissolution of his kingdom, the same result Alexander experienced after his own death. But before Alexander lost his kingdom, many would say he lost himself, with executions, massacres, and other erratic behavior. Like Solomon, he lost his own personal center in his attempt to add body to himself ad infinitum.

The story of the Ascension of Alexander hits on these same themes. He tries to ascend to a unity of the multiplicity through the multiplicity itself (note the use of body in the form of the meat to accomplish this). But it can never work this way. When you attempt to ascend via a Tower of Babel, you get sent back down.

The universality of this problem manifests itself today in these two kinds of people:

  • Conservatives who say that “all is lost” because some form of legislation slightly deviates from the interpretation given to Article III.3 of Constitution by John Adams in 1790. Here we have an excess of purity–which inevitably grows sterile. After all, most of the time you can pick up that extra sock.
  • Liberals who want to stretch anything and everything to fit anything and everything. No exception ever endangers the rule–everything can always be included. Here you have the flood–undifferentiated chaos with nothing holding anything together. Eventually you reach points of absurd contradiction, and then, conflict.^

Alexander’s life fits this tension between purity/unity and multiplicity:

  • He could take in Greece
  • He could take in Asia Minor
  • Perhaps he could just barely take in Egypt
  • But beyond that–though he could “eat” other kingdoms further east, they certainly didn’t agree with him.

Indeed, why invoke a blessing from God on food before we eat? We ask, in fact, for a kind of miracle–that things dead might be made life-giving. We too ask for help on the potentially treacherous path of making that which is “not us” a beneficial part of our being. We cannot have real unity without multiplicity, and vice-versa. But no blessing will save us from every deliberate choice to drink from the firehose and ingest foreign gods.

Dave

*Ok–so lots of married/”successful in life” might be overweight. But if you think of the “type” of the guy living in his parents’ basement, his “Platonic form,” you likely envision someone overweight.

**There are obvious connections between food/eating, sexuality, and ultimately, the eucharistic feast, that I cannot explore here due to my own shortcomings. Fortunately, the topic has been wonderfully mined by others. These connections may also explain why so many ancient kings were polygamous with marriage, and had concubines. It is an illegitimate expression of their legitimate function of being the focal point of “body” in the kingdom.

^As many have pointed out, such conflict seems inevitable between those who advocate for trans athletes, and those who advocate for women athletes. Their claims eventually reach a point of mutual exclusivity.

Tribal Bureaucracy

This was originally posted in 2015–you will see some dated references.

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The phrase “All is fair in love and war,” has various attributions, but it certainly has a direct hold on the popular imagination.  But I wonder if those that cite it truly believe in it.  What I think we tend to mean when we say this is, “If the side I’m rooting for does something that helps them win, I generally approve.”  But if the other side does it . . .

War also tends to come with a relentless osmosis.  So the English and French cried “foul” when the Germans started using chemical weapons in W.W. I, and then used them themselves.  The same happened in W.W. II.  First the Nazi’s bombed London and then the Allies retaliated in more than kind.  It is this spiritual cost of war that often gets ignored amidst the loss of life.

These things flitted through my mind as I read the painful and at times darkly comic Guantanamo_diaryGuantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Slahi.  The scars and trauma of 9/11 come through on almost every page of this book, and if his narrative speaks even half-truths, we have much to mourn and much to fear about who we are as a people.

Briefly, Slahi received an excellent education growing up in Mauritania, gaining fluency in French and German along with Arabic (in prison he learned English well enough to write his diary in English).  He traveled a lot as well throughout Europe and also visited Canada.  During the 1990’s he traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Russians (so he claims) where he certainly met others in the Taliban and Al Queda.  He returned to his native Mauritania.  While there he was arrested and questioned in relationship to the Millennium plot, and then released.  His government, at the request/likely insistence of the United States  then asked him to come in for questioning again after 9/11.  He agreed to come in voluntarily to “clear the air,” so to speak, and from that moment on, disappeared into the bureaucratic abyss.  He has yet to be charged with anything, and yet remains in detention.

Shahi comes off as a very sympathetic figure in his narrative.  Perhaps we should expect this.  We naturally sympathize and accept the point of view of the main character of almost any story.  But surely we might just as naturally wonder to what degree we can trust his account of events.

In a recent podcast interview, Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman discuss Klosterman’s recent GQ article on Tom Brady.  In their remarks both agreed that our culture has a serious problem.  Whatever narrative emerges first (in this case they were discussing the ridiculous nature of “Deflate-gate”) embeds itself deeply in the American consciousness.  Whatever narrative emerges next not only has to fight for space in the national narrative, it has the unfair burden of having to also disprove the first narrative, even though its only “crime” was to be known second and not first.  Perhaps this is not only a modern American problem — perhaps this has always been the case with humanity in general.  But if so the problem seems accentuated in our day by the fact that we have a very short national attention span and will quickly to move from one issue to the next.

Quite possibly, this same problem exists when reading Slahi’s diary.  We should not hold his account to a higher standard than accounts from our own government who initially branded him as a mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, just because this comes from “our side” and it was the story we heard first.  We should treat his account as truthful unless otherwise contradicted by some other source.  Admittedly, this is difficult as contradicting him might reveal classified information.  Such is the dilemma of democracy in the 21st century.*

Briefly the “case” against him:

  • He had been in Afghanistan and fought with Al-Qaida against the Russians.  His own words on this subject — “I fought with Al Qaida, but then we did not wage jihad against America.  They told us to fight against the Communists.  In the mid-90’s they wanted to wage jihad against America, but . . . I didn’t join them in that idea; that’s their problem. . . . I am completely independent of this problem.”
  • His brother-in-law, Abu Safs, was a high-ranking member of Al-Queda.  Alhough interestingly, we have documented transcripts of Safs urging AQ leadership not to proceed with the 9/11 attacks.  In turn, might this have meant that Slahi knew of the impending attacks?
  • He knew different languages and had traveled abroad a great deal.
  • The United States accepted that he had no knowledge of/participation in the Millennium plot.  But it became apparent that Slahi had not told the whole truth about other matters during this questioning, which even Slahi himself admits.  Apparently he denied knowing a man whom he did meet at one point for a short time (although we know nothing about the nature of their relationship). Might then he know other things about terrorists that he has not revealed?
  • In any case, a federal judge reviewed his case and found no basis to detain him any further.  After some outrage from some New York newspapers, the Obama administration appealed the decision, which has yet to come to trial again.  He remains in a bottomless, meaningless detention.

There appears to be very little else against him, and ten plus years of detention have yet to produce a single criminal charge.  It appears we have, as Marine prosecutor Col. Morris Davis commented, a case of, “a lot of smoke and no fire.”  Another interesting testimony comes from Lt. Col. Stuart Crouch, a former prosecutor on the case.  He had left the military, but a good friend died in one of the planes on 9/11.  He decided to reenlist to, in his words, “get a crack at the guys who attacked the United States.”  Eventually he had a total change of heart and withdrew from the case.  He recounted in an interview his realization.

Right in the middle of this time . . . I was in church and we had a baptism.  We got to the part of the liturgy where the congregation repeats–I’m paraphrasing here–but the essence is that we respect the dignity of every human being and seek peace and justice on earth.  And when we spoke those words . . . I could have been the only one there.  You can’t come in here on Sunday and as a Christian ascribe to the dignity of every human being and . . . continue with the prosecution using that kind of evidence.

Some may argue that while we do not have enough evidence to charge him with a crime, a very slim chance remains that Slahi is smart enough to pull a huge snow-job on us.  A chance remains that he may possibly know of some person we don’t know about yet that may seek to do us or others harm (though honestly, since he has been detained for so long, it seems he could know nothing about any possible plans).

Are we willing to take that chance?  To me it seems a really safe bet.

Ironically, it appears that his intellect worked against him in a Catch-22 fashion.  Interrogators admitted that they had nothing concrete to pin on him, but “smart people leave no traces.”  If he wasn’t smart, he would obviously be guilty . . .  because he would have left traces.  Being smart, he naturally left no traces of his guilt.

Such bizarre moments pockmarked his narrative.

For example, interrogators revisited one particular conversation he had with his brother in which Slahi urged him to “concentrate on school,” with an extended conversation about “tea and sugar.”  Since this came up in more than one interrogation, U.S. intel must have thought that such statements involved a code of some kind.  Shahi could not convince them otherwise.

Of course some detainees no doubt bear some measure of guilt.  One prisoner sought a plea-bargain with prosectors.  But this detainee wanted to be generous to Slahi, who resided in the cell next to his.  He would only accept a plea-bargain if they gave one to him as well.  Prosecutors would have loved to offer Slahi a deal, but do to so they would have to charge him with something, and despite repeated efforts, they could not come up with anything.

So the end result was no charge and no plea bargain, but instead a renewed insistence that he must be guilty of something, and so renewed interrogations.  After all, Slahi’s next door neighbor thought he was guilty.

A few final reflections . . .

I absolutely hate and abhor attempts to change meaning of words based on the “letter of the law.”  Interrogators subjected him to sexual molestation, sleep deprivation, forced continuous water drinking (to bring about constant urination and sleep deprivation), and the like.  They did not physically pummel him, but no matter.  He was tortured.  I beg us to call a spade a spade.

Shahi does not paint himself a brave resistance hero or a martyr for truth.  He routinely complains of his back pain.  He admits freely that he lied at points during torture and finally even implicated others, something he earlier vowed not to do, simply to make the torture stop.  He hated certain guards, but liked others and even sympathized with their plight.  He mentioned several times that war brings out the best and worst on both sides.

Surprisingly, when he vented his anger — which was not often — he did so not at the United States but at his home country of Mauritania.  He saw the Mauritanian government as utter cowards for handing him over the U.S. with no specific charges, in direct violation of their constitution and his rights as a Mauritanian citizen.

Eventually he gained the privilege to see movies and watched Black Hawk Down with his interrogators and guards.  He did not enjoy the movie much, but the reaction of the Americans troubled him greatly.  Some soldiers cried bitterly for the Americans that died, no doubt justly.  But Slahi wondered why they shed no tears for the hundreds of Somalis who died, some of them no doubt forced to fight by a warlord dictatorship, some of them civilians.  Americans, Slahi mused, are essentially tribal and care for their own kind not just in preference to others, but to the exclusion of others.  In this we are not exceptional, but just like most anyone else. Ultimately, however, Shahi’s continued detention shows us entirely sacrificing his dignity and freedom on the slim chance that perhaps he knows (or once knew) something or someone.

I will pass over his experiences with guards who knew very little about Christianity trying to evangelize him amidst torture and illegal detention. Shahi, for his part, seemed to enjoy picking apart their arguments. But a few other comments on his opinions about Americans are amusing if not instructive:

Americans are just big babies.  In my country it’s not appropriate for somebody my age to sit in front of a console and waste his time.  And Americans worship their bodies.  They eat well.  [Name redacted] was like anyone else.  He bought more food than he needed, worked out even during duty, talked constantly [about sex], played computer games, and was very confused when it came to his religion.

And,

Many young men and women join the U.S. forces under the misleading propaganda . . . which makes people believe that the Armed Forces are nothing but a big Battle of Honor.   . . . But the reality is a little bit different.  To go directly to the bottom line, the rest of the world thinks of Americans as revengeful barbarians.  That may be harsh, and I don’t believe the dead average American is a revengeful barbarian.  But the U.S. government bets its last penny on violence as the magic solution for every problem.

A few brief comments on the blurbs on the jacket cover and other such comments made about the book.  Those that read it, like myself, emerge fairly convinced of at least Shahi’s legal innocence as well as liking him.  I believe that we have done a grave injustice to Slahi and his family that nothing can erase.  But some commentators fall into the tribalism that Slahi denounced, that Slahi himself avoids.  For some, the U.S. gets no sympathy at all.  They make no attempt to understand the serious intel dilemmas after the trauma of 9/11 we faced, no attempt to understand the gravity of our situation.  For them, the U.S. is a kind of “evil empire.”**

I think rather that we acted, and do still act, the way many frightened and confused people act when they have very little to comfort them.  I agree that we sometimes act foolishly and wrongly, but probably no more so than most other major powers.  We had a few strands of intel that might mean something . . . and we felt forced to act because not acting might possibly result in catastrophe.  It is a terrible situation, and it appears that we have done terrible things in its midst.

But I do not mean to let ourselves off the hook.  We no doubt  felt forced.  But in reality, we are simply selfish*** and will remain so as long as Slahi stays in the legal Neverland of Guantanamo.

Dave

*There is the added question of whether or not the various tortures he underwent may have altered his perception of the past.

**John le Carre must have been only too delighted to write a blurb for this book, as he been roasting the west in general, and the U.S. in particular, for years.  Alas for the bygone days of his great spy fiction from the 1960’s and 70’s.

***Via Marginal Revolution came this quote related to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Even 4-year-old Syrian orphans are too dangerous to welcome to the United States, says New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. What sort of man turns away desperate orphans out of fear? Christie’s words and actions are shameful and unbecoming of a great nation—as are those of 25 other governors who said they will work to keep Syrian refugees from moving to their state. Is America no longer the home of the brave?

11th/12th Grade: The Battleground of Democratic Ideas

Greetings,

This year we have examined how democracies function across time and space.  What do they do well?  What challenges put great stress upon them?  Are their paths that democracies generally take that they should always avoid?  Under the umbrella of these big picture questions, we begin the year looking at the French-Algerian War from 1954-62.

I chose this conflict to study for a variety of reasons:

  • The conflict is a recent example of a western democratic power fighting both against and amongst Moslems
  • The conflict is far enough removed from us to allow objective analysis, and to allow us to see its ripple effects
  • The French dealt with many similar issues as we currently do in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Iraq (such as the use of torture, attempts to win over local populations, etc.)
  • The excellent movie  (based largely in actual events) The Battle of Algiers is a great tie-in to our study

We introduced a few key background concepts before delving into the main events.

1. Why did France feel the absolute need to win in Algeria?

From the time of Charlemagne (or perhaps even dating back to the pre-Romanized Gauls) France was regarded as having the world’s pre-eminent military, from the Charlemagne, the Crusades, to Joan of Arc, to Napoleon.  In W.W. I they fought heroically and with great determination.  In 1940, however, they suffered a humiliating and shockingly quick defeat to the Nazi’s.  Desperately seeking to regain their pre-war glory, they did not give up their colonies (unlike their friendly rival England).  They lost again in humiliating fashion in 1954 in Southeast Asia — but they would not lose in Algeria.  This was where they would prove to the world that France was still France after all.

The French began colonizing Algeria as far back as 1830, and over time millions of French had come to live there.  As France’s reputation declined in the post-W.W. II years, Algeria became the place where they staked their reputation as a nation “good for the world.”  France was still France after all, a bastion of liberty and democratic, western ideals.  Algeria would be their proving ground.  They would bring the blessings of their civilization to North Africa.  They would show how Moslems could prosper in a western context.  Many other European powers shed their colonial empires after W.W. II.  France left S.E. Asia with their tails between their legs.  They granted independence to a few other colonies.  But not Algeria.  Algeria would be different.  Algeria would prove the validity of western ideals across cultures and the globe.

We shall see how this psychological and cultural attitude influenced how they fought

2. What is the battleground in an insurgent campaign?

As a modern “First-World” country, the French could easily outspend and outmuscle the Algerians who opposed them.  The Algerians naturally quickly turned to guerilla tactics.  It seems clear that the French thought that the battle was against the insurgents primarily, and so put their military foot forward almost exclusively.

Why did this fail?  What is the primary battleground in an insurgent campaign?  Is it the people, or is it an idea?  If so, what role can the military play?  What role does the government and people play?  In our discussion, one student suggested that the only way France could have saved its position in Algeria was through lots of apologies for their poor treatment of them, and lots of financial and social programs to rectify the situation.   In other words, was the problem a military one at all?

Well, it certainly might have been.  But there is a difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics.’  In large measure,* France’s problem was that their use of the military was their strategy.  It was not used as a ‘tactic’ in a broader campaign.

How does an army battle an idea?  As one student suggested last year, the only way to do defeat an idea is to have a better one. Did the French, in fact, have a better idea?  If they did, how did they present it?

3. What happens when an army fights in disconnected way from its country’s values?

There is a great deal of evidence that French troops tortured and killed some prisoners as a matter of policy.  This was done with the tacit approval of French politicians, but not the French people.  As revelations of the torture emerged, the French public began to turn against the war, feeling betrayed by the army.  The army in turn felt betrayed by the people.  This tension between identity and actions needed resolution in some way — and the result was one successful military coup that put De Gaulle in as president, and another coup attempt that failed to get De Gaulle out of power a few years later.

Why are cultural and political values an important ‘weapon’ in a war?  Under what circumstances can we depart from those values?  How is a country’s identity a part of its strategy in conflict?

4. Related to #3, what should the role of the press be in a free society?

Next week we will discuss a few different options related to this question.  Opinions differ. . .

  • Some say the press should be an entirely objective entity, focused on presenting ‘just the facts.’  But, however much of an ideal this is, it is rarely, if ever attained.
  • Others argue that the press should be an implicit supporter of the government, or the majority.  This does not mean ignoring obvious truths, but it would mean using the press as a means to ‘rally the people.’
  • Still others assert that the press should be oriented ‘against’ the government.  That is, the press’ main function is to provide an alternate viewpoint apart from the government’s message.  The government gets its chance, the press provides the people with ‘the other side of the story.’

This week we watched and discussed The Battle of Algiers.  Our discussion and analysis of it will help form the basis of our own insurgency game coming up in a couple of weeks.

Here is the preview for the movie, which is also available (I believe) to watch in full on You Tube.

Sincerely,

Dave Mathwin

*France did attempt some small scale political reforms, but almost everyone viewed it as ‘too little, too late.’

Tradition under Control

To combine high and low is a rare thing. Historians usually write either “high” with an overarching idea or theme but weak support, or they write “low” with lots of details and specific observations but little overall goal or point. The best historians know how to unite “Heaven” and “Earth,” for only in this union can one glean wisdom. A few years ago I read Carlin Barton’s book on the gladiatorial games and immediately decreed it the best book ever on the subject, case closed. Barton knows how to write in both directions, and she has bold ideas.

In the Sorrows of the Ancient Romans Barton successfully sought to see the gladiator contests not in light of the “bread and circuses” lens of Roman politics, but in the cultural and religious meaning of “suffering” for the Romans. In Imagine No Religion, cowritten with Daniel Boyarin, Barton remakes our understanding of Roman religion. She suggests in her introduction that the problem many scholars have in translating ancient texts comes from their natural love for abstraction.

Intellectuals and academics in the contemporary world are cosmopolites . . . . They are like the relativist Xenophanes who boasted of traveling the “world” for 67 years. They are pressed hard to find ways of ordering the variety of human experience. We scholars, like all cosmopolites, cope . . . by creating abstractions.

Barton argues that many translators see the world “religio” in Latin, and fail to see the nuance inherent in the word. I would add that academics might also tend to see the Roman concept of “religio” much in the way that those they connect with in the ancient world might see it. Hence, academics have tended to see Roman religion too much through the lens of Cicero. Cicero–a brilliant man who could see different sides of issues, alternating between retreat and involvement–seems a perfect doppelgänger for the modern don.

But when we look at Cicero in the 1st century B.C., we are not looking at the traditional reality of Roman religion, but at a reaction to political tumult, which likely sprang from the cultural and social upheaval of the Roman Republic at that time.

Some of Cicero’s more famous pronouncements on religion reveal something of a hierarchical and ordered system. He writes,

So from the very beginning we must persuade our citizens that the gods are the masters and regulators of all things, . . . that the race of humans are greatly indebted to them. They observe the character of every individual . . . with what intentions and with what pietas he fulfills his religiones . . .

In De Natura Deorum Cicero writes again in a similar vein,

. . . I ought to uphold the opinions about the immortal gods that we have received from the mayors, the caerimoniae, and the religiones. Indeed, I will always defend them, and always have. When it is a matter of religio I am guided by the pontifex maximus Titus . . .

Barton sees the concept of “religio” working much differently than as a means of social control, and cites the work of other scholars who translate the word as “care for the gods,” “hesitation,” “anxiety,” and the like. Clearly, some kind of cultural “attitude” is at work, a balancing of emotional attitudes and actions, and this forms the heart of Barton’s project with the book.

Earliest preserved appearances show that religio meant not so much a system of thought, but something akin to “what gave men pause.” In the Mercator of Plautus (184 B.C.) Charinus wants to leave home, his friend Eutyches tries to change his mind. Charinus responds, “That man causes me to have second thoughts–he makes me pause and wonder. I”ll turn round and go over to him” (Religionem mi obiecit: recipiam me illuc). In other sections of Plautus “religio” indicates the thought/emotion of holding back, thinking twice. A century later Cicero uses the word in a like manner when he recounts that Publius was greatly angry at Valerius, “Yet he kept hesitating and religio repeatedly resisted, holding back his anger.” In turn, acting against such a feeling caused one to feel pudor, whose symtoms gave one high anxiety more than shame. Barton suggests a parallel–“A modern man might approach a lapdog casually, but might hesitate before a Doberman or a pit bull. . . .Just so, ‘religio’ was evoked in dealing with the risky ventures of life, causing the Romans to behave with awe or circumspection.

Livy recounts the interactions between the consuls Paulus and Varro as they approached Cannae:

Paulus himself wished to delay . . . . Varro was greatly vexed at this hindrance, but the recent disaster of Flaminius and the memorable defeat of the consul Claudius in the First Punic struck his animus with religio.

Seneca writes similarly,

If a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not made with hands but hollowed out by natural causes, it will strike your spirit with a certain religio.

Barton again comments, “‘Religio‘ was especially evoked by highly charged boundaries, and the fear of transgressing taboos, such as we might approach the edge of an electric fence. No fear of magisterial authority or divine judgment was necessary.”

But religio had negative connotations as well. One could hem and haw too much, and in the wrong times and places. Cicero criticizes a rhetor named Calvus, who spoke with excessive precision and balancing, so that “his language was weakened with too much religio.” So too, superstition had a close alliance with religio, which should be seen, as Barton states, as “not the antithesis but the excess of religio.” One needed a steady balance of the right religio to act rightly in the world. Failure to have a proper balance would later result in unhelpful wild swings. Livy writes of Tullus Hostilius, “[a] man who had so far thought nothing of . . . sacred rites, [who then] suddenly fell prey all sorts of superstitions, and filled even the minds of the people with religiones.” Livy also recounts the impact of the 2nd Punic War warping the people’s sense of religio:

The longer the war dragged on and success or failure altered the spirits of men no less than their fortunes, such a great religio invaded the republic, for the most part from the outside, so that gods or men suddenly seemed changed. Now that the disorder appeared too strong, the senate assigned . . . the city praetor the task of freeing people from these religiones.

An intriguing “chicken or the egg” question arises when one looks at the collapse of the Roman Republic. Most look at the political disorder beginning with the Graachi and then see the concomitant centralization of power that culminated with Caesar as a solution to the breakdown. Another option–could the centralization of power in fact have indirectly caused the disorder? An alteration of the traditional political give and take would send shock waves through the psyches of the populace. Of course, most chicken-egg questions have no possibility of resolution, but thinking of the relationship between power and disorder will help us understand the fabric of reality.

We can apply this to Roman religion, and we see the possibility that too much control may have come before religio got out of balance. Toynbee and others document how the 2nd Punic War (218-202) particularly challenged traditional religion by exposing Romans to new ideas, cults, and (as we saw above), an excess of religio as superstition. As the Republic collapsed in the late 1st century BC, Lucretius expounds the notion of the gods keeping everyone in perpetual fear–through excessive control. “Religio” had gotten out of control:

Human life lay for all to see foully groveling on the ground, crushed beneath the weight of religio which displayed her head in the regions of heaven, threatening mortals on high with horrible aspect . . .

I must show in what ways fear of the gods crept into the heart which our earth keeps holy their shrines and pools and groves, their altars and images.

De reruns natura, 1.62ff., 5.73ff.

Statius in the mid 1st century A.D. wrote that, “It was fear that first made gods in the world.” I’m not sure we would have seen such language 200 years prior.

Lucretius did not likely represent the majority opinion, but the authors look at what they call the “Ciceronian Turn,” where Cicero at least, and perhaps Rome as a whole, begins to look at religion as a tool for countering chaos. With the proper balance of religio gone, now things needed more hierarchy, more top-down structure. This in turn created the need for more “noble falsehoods” from the elite and a greater separation from patricians and the plebs.

It appears at first glance that the religious expansion/innovation happened first, and then we have the tightening afterwards. This view appeals to me as someone who views that religion, whether that religion have a direct conscious expression or no, forms the heart of any civilization. But the connection between excessive control and freedom will always be a close one. We can perhaps see Rome’s politics and culture tightening during the Punic Wars, the devastation of Italy due to Hannibal, etc., and then–religio starts to get out of alignment, showing more extremes.

However we see this relationship, the west will always play with fire when we focus alternately on the rights of individuals and the limits of government power, for that puts the focus on the edge rather than the center. Then, just as when we breathe heavily, we get unbalanced. A civilization cannot breathe heavily in and out for very long. A civilization cannot exist as a negotiation between extremes. It functions instead optimally when the tension between different elements is intuitive and thus, healthy. In Rome, for whatever reason this tension got out of alignment, with a resulting political and cultural decline from which they never quite recovered.

This relationship between extremes manifesting themselves simultaneously runs rampant throughout our world:

  • The internet allows us to have more options than ever and to be surveilled as never before.
  • Social media platforms give us essentially no limits on whom we reach with our thoughts, but online speech is also the most heavily regulated/punished.
  • Technology gives us the possibilities of travel even into the uninhabitable regions of space, but even slight damage to the craft in the wrong place would kill everyone onboard.
  • Nuclear power on the one hand could give the world abundant clean energy, and on the other hand, could destroy civilization entirely.

And so on. To take another example, Russia may have done wrong by invading Ukraine, but observe . . . even Russians who protest the war are being “canceled”, presumably because they are Russian. This absolutist way of acting in the world will hurt far more than it helps.

Imagine No Religion gives us great insight into the relationship between culture, religion and power. It is an open question as to whether or not America ever was a “Christian nation,” but certainly we are not that now, and have not been for some time. Many debate the nature of the “real” religion of America. Whatever that might actually be, the cultural and political tightening we have witnessed recently, however, either has come on the heels of a religious shift, or presages one. As man is, as St. Maximos put it, a macrocosm, individuals and civilizations need to breathe in and out calmly, intuiting the boundaries of our conduct. Healthy people and healthy civilizations result.

Dave

The Best Reason for Democracy is . . . Democracy?

Several years ago I read an article where the man interviewed had positive things to say about some developments in Italian democracy.  “The people are now ready to criticize and poke fun of their leaders,” he commented.  “We’ll know we have arrived as a democracy when the people can criticize themselves.”  At the time I read this, I thought, “Good for you, Italy.  One day you may join us.  We’ve got something better here.”  But upon reflection, I’m not so sure this is true.  How many politicians, for example, could get away with criticizing the American people?  How many political documentaries create a divide between us and them, whether they come from Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore?  It always appears to be “their” fault, never “our” fault.

Judgments about one’s own society, however, are tricky.  To see the nose on one’s face you need a mirror.  Without significant experience of democracies on a historical scale, the example of Athens from 508-338 B.C. will always prove important for us to get our bearings.

Writing critical assessments of things or events can be more fun than offering praise. Critical people can sometimes come from a distant and cynical spiritual place, and we shouldn’t give much weight to their comments.  Sometimes, however, criticism arises out of love, and this should grab our attention.  Loren J. Samons’ What’s Wrong with Democracy does this.  He seeks to get past our modern adulation of democracy, and thus, our adulation with classical Athens.  When we examine them afresh, he argues, we won’t always like what we see.  In his criticism Simons sometimes overreaches and sometimes seems to contradict himself.  But his book is, as historian J.E. Lendon stated, “cleansing.”

Amidst the various topics Samons discusses, I think the essence boils down to the following issues:

What is democracy really about after all?

Christopher Ferrara tackled this question head-on in his book Liberty: The God the Failed.  Samons takes a more indirect approach, but still feels that democracy, standing by itself, may lead to little more than a means to perpetuate whatever we happen to desire.  The only reason we will have for democracy is . . . democracy.

He looks at Athens’ financial history and its relationship to democracy.  He traces a few distinct stages:

  • An early phase where the ‘tyrants’ got overthrown and the franchise expanded.
  • The heralded Periclean phase, often seen as the high-point of democracy.  But Samons points out that this phase of democracy was made possible only by 1) Their silver mines, and 2) The imperial tribute they received from their client states.  The practices we tend to admire about them, such as paying people to attend the Assembly, and large cash payments for their very large juries (101-501) people, could happen only because of their predatory practices abroad.
  • The era after the Peloponnesian War, where they lacked the cash reserves of earlier times, but refused to modify their practices.  This led to serious financial problems and hard choices for the Athenians.  Yet, when faced with the task of defending themselves against Macedon or continuing to vote themselves cash payments, they consistently chose the latter.

Perhaps the Athenians didn’t just simply make bad choices, perhaps the kind of democracy they practiced would naturally encourage them to make bad choices.  If democracy is all about “serving the people” or “giving the people what they want,” then democracies will inevitably choose to short-term gains and quick fixes.  Salmons wrote his book before our own failure to arrive at a budget, or to either 1) Decrease spending, or 2) Raise taxes made itself manifest. Is our own system of government equipped to make hard choices?  Given how we consume energy, we may also have to conclude that our democratic lifestyles have a predatory aspect.

Samons’ next points out that in Athens, their more aristocratic past provided a healthy check on democracy.  Having a different past gave them a compass from which to orient their democratic practice.  It could also serve as a reminder that democracy need not serve as the be all and end all of political life.  In America we have no such check, which leads us to nearly worship democracy as a vital part of our existence.  This in turn, has led to a confused and misguided foreign policy.  On a couple of occasions Athens even voted to switch to a more aristocratic oriented governance, which Samons views as healthy.  In time, Athens banned any alternative to their democracy, and this choice contributed to their eventual conquest by Macedon.  They refused to allow any other method of making decisions, even when they methods they employed to make choices had no real hope of facilitating good outcomes.

On this issue Samons has weaker arguments.  True, I very much wish that we would appreciate democracy because it is ours, instead of investing it with angelic qualities. But the political instability in Athens from 411-400 B.C. was not always as smooth as Samons lets on.  Political exiles and political murders came with such transitions. Having the alternative to democracy came at a price.

However, if a democracy has no reference point outside itself, we should consider whether it may be worth the risk to have such an alternative.  Currently we have no particular ‘North Star’ of religion or virtue to guide our own political practice, and this will lead to everyone scrambling for whatever they can get. We may be in a position now where we could really benefit from a distinct alternative to borrow from, to get some separation from democracy that we might understand its strengths and weaknesses more clearly.  If we have no firm moral guidelines derived from a common faith, the check on democracy may have to come from other viable political ideologies and practices.  Of course such an alternative is entirely unthinkable in our modern context. This may bode ill for us.

This lack of an outside reference point for many modern historians  impacts how they view ancient critics of Athens.  Invariably, whether the ancient chronicler be Thucydides, Xenophon, Socrates, or the “Old Oligarch,” they get discounted due to their “aristocratic bias.”  Now, naturally all historians have bias — even democratic ones. But we cannot dismiss them for this bias alone, however uncomfortable their conclusions may be.  Perhaps the the extreme form of democratic bias comes in the form of the book by I.F. Stone on the trial of Socrates. I applaud Stone for his enjoyable and Herculean efforts to at least partially exonerate Athenian democracy while writing about one of its great crimes.  His book rises to the level of a  great counter-factual history.  But in the text Stone spills a lot more ink discussing Socrates’ “aristocratic bias” then in blaming the governmental system that executed him unjustly.

Critics of Salmons conclusions have two good points.

Salmons offers some good criticisms of Athens in particular and democracy in general. But he proposes no alternatives.  What does he want?  Would he prefer a monarchy or a dictatorship?  I grant this makes the book somewhat unsatisfying, but I can’t fault him for it.  To develop a viable alternative with historical and philosophical backing would require another book.

More problematic is Salmons’ seemingly simplistic take on the problems Athens faced. Surely he realizes that other forms of government have their problems too?  Yes, Athens had issues, but exactly how much blame can we put for their problems on democracy?  Would their problems have been less with a monarchy?  He can say that Athenian democracy made bad decisions, but kings make bad decisions, oligarchies make bad decisions, and so on.  For his book to really work he would have to show that democracies will make more bade decisions, or more catastrophic decisions, then other forms of government.  He fails to do so.

Even still, these flaws don’t bother me that much.  Salmons modestly set out to 1) Give a more balanced picture of Athenian democracy, and 2) Pour some cold water over our ardent devotion to democracy.  He succeeds, and this makes his book worthwhile.

Machiavelli is at various turns a cold man, a dangerous man, and a wise one.  Below I include a section from his Discourses on Livy where he discusses the merits of Rome’s Republic building into its foundation an alternative to the Republic when necessary. This, I think, was Machiavelli in one of his wiser moments.

Dave

Book XXIV

Those citizens who first devised a dictatorship for Rome have been
blamed by certain writers, as though this had been the cause of the
tyranny afterwards established there. For these authors allege that the
first tyrant of Rome governed it with the title of Dictator, and that,
but for the existence of the office, Cæsar could never have cloaked
his usurpation under a constitutional name. He who first took up this
opinion had not well considered the matter, and his conclusion has been
accepted without good ground. For it was not the name nor office of
Dictator which brought Rome to servitude, but the influence which
certain of her citizens were able to assume from the prolongation of
their term of power; so that even had the name of Dictator been wanting
in Rome, some other had been found to serve their ends, since power may
readily give titles, but not titles power. We find, accordingly,
that while the dictatorship was conferred in conformity with public
ordinances, and not through personal influence, it was constantly
beneficial to the city. For it is the magistracies created and the
powers usurped in unconstitutional ways that hurt a republic, not those
which conform to ordinary rule; so that in Rome, through the whole
period of her history, we never find a dictator who acted otherwise than
well for the republic. For which there were the plainest reasons. In
the first place, to enable a citizen to work harm and to acquire undue
authority, many circumstances must be present which never can be
present in a State which is not corrupted. For such a citizen must be
exceedingly rich, and must have many retainers and partisans, whom he
cannot have where the laws are strictly observed, and who, if he had
them, would occasion so much alarm, that the free suffrage of the people
would seldom be in his favour. In the second place, the dictator was not
created for life, but for a fixed term, and only to meet the emergency
for which he was appointed. Power was indeed given him to determine by
himself what measures the exigency demanded; to do what he had to do
without consultation; and to punish without appeal. But he had no
authority to do anything to the prejudice of the State, as it would have
been to deprive the senate or the people of their privileges, to subvert
the ancient institutions of the city, or introduce new. So that taking
into account the brief time for which his office lasted, its limited
authority, and the circumstance that the Roman people were still
uncorrupted, it was impossible for him to overstep the just limits of
his power so as to injure the city; and in fact we find that he was
always useful to it.

And, in truth, among the institutions of Rome, this of the dictatorship
deserves our special admiration, and to be linked with the chief causes
of her greatness; for without some such safeguard a city can hardly
pass unharmed through extraordinary dangers. Because as the ordinary
institutions of a commonwealth work but slowly, no council and no
magistrate having authority to act in everything alone, but in most
matters one standing in need of the other, and time being required to
reconcile their differences, the remedies which they provide are most
dangerous when they have to be applied in cases which do not brook
delay. For which reason, every republic ought to have some resource of
this nature provided by its constitution; as we find that the Republic
of Venice, one of the best of those now existing, has in cases of urgent
danger reserved authority to a few of her citizens, if agreed among
themselves, to determine without further consultation what course is to
be followed. When a republic is not provided with some safeguard such
as this, either it must be ruined by observing constitutional forms,
or else, to save it, these must be broken through. But in a republic
nothing should be left to be effected by irregular methods, because,
although for the time the irregularity may be useful, the example will
nevertheless be pernicious, as giving rise to a practice of violating
the laws for good ends, under colour of which they may afterwards be
violated for ends which are not good. For which reason, that can never
become a perfect republic wherein every contingency has not been
foreseen and provided for by the laws, and the method of dealing with it
defined. To sum up, therefore, I say that those republics which cannot
in sudden emergencies resort either to a dictator or to some similar
authority, will, when the danger is serious, always be undone.

We may note, moreover, how prudently the Romans, in introducing this new
office, contrived the conditions under which it was to be exercised.
For perceiving that the appointment of a dictator involved something of
humiliation for the consuls, who, from being the heads of the State,
were reduced to render obedience like every one else, and anticipating
that this might give offence, they determined that the power to appoint
should rest with the consuls, thinking that when the occasion came when
Rome should have need of this regal authority, they would have the
consuls acting willingly and feeling the less aggrieved from the
appointment being in their own hands. For those wounds or other injuries
which a man inflicts upon himself by choice, and of his own free will,
pain him far less than those inflicted by another. Nevertheless, in the
later days of the republic the Romans were wont to entrust this power to
a consul instead of to a dictator, using the formula, _Videat_ CONSUL
_ne quid respublica detrimenti capiat_.

But to return to the matter in hand, I say briefly, that when the
neighbours of Rome sought to crush her, they led her to take measures
not merely for her readier defence, but such as enabled her to attack
them with a stronger force, with better skill, and with an undivided
command.

 

Words in Play

Lots of pendulum swings happen in the history of thought, but these pendulum swings sometimes resemble more the bending of a line towards the form of a circle instead of opposite points on a line horizontally. In other words, when certain positions get to their extremes, they start to resemble what they claim to oppose. Reality, when warped, curves back on itself.

For example, one could argue that the age of imperialism in Europe came from the conviction that a) We are better than you, and b) We are different than you. This is a caricature, but we can let it stand for our purposes. In turn, this attitude called forth the work of Joseph Cambell, who argued in his religious analysis that actually, nothing has any difference from anything else. Narcissus, Christ, Osiris, and so on all participate in the same reality and are basically the same god. On the surface this looks like the opposite end of the imperialist impulse, but as imperialism grew, the mingling of cultures grew, and the differences between the cultures start to blur. For example, we have Rudyard Kipling as one of imperialism’s strongest advocates, but much of his writing shows a fascination not with English culture, but with that of India and Afghanistan.

So . . . McBain was entirely correct to conflate the Commies and the Nazi’s.

Plato and Aristotle give us the foundation to western philosophy. Many first notice their differences, and certainly they parted ways in key areas. Plato emphasized the unity of things via the world of the forms. He sought to draw everything up into the eternal, i.e., when we come to know and understand something, we are in fact remembering something we used to know.* Aristotle differed from his teacher and focused on particulars. We know him best through his extensive categorizations. He separates that we might see things more clearly. It seems they occupy opposite points on a line, with opposite strengths and weaknesses. But in certain ways they share the same strengths and faults. Aristotle critiqued Plato’s overgeneralizing of concepts, but he himself seemed to overgeneralize everything in the mythical/spiritual realm, consigning it all to irrelevancy. Like Plato, he criticized aspects of Athenian religion but could not see the particular threads of truth within it. In turn, Plato’s focus on finding the eternal kernel of truth led him to define concepts so finely that in the Laches a general does not know what courage is due to his faulty definition. They both over-generalized at times, they both hyper-categorized other times.

Avoiding this warping effect might involve taking Aristotle’s “advice:” If you drill a hole all the way through the earth and fall down from the North Pole, stop and hover at the halfway point. The key to healthy societies as well as healthy thought comes from fusing “Heaven” and “Earth,” and not by camping out at either locale.

I never knew that Plato’s dialogue Cratylus even existed until a few weeks ago. Rather than the usual meandering conversation in most of his work, here he focuses entirely on the role of language, and names in particular. The issue has relevance especially in times of societal breakdown. Without a common cultural framework, language loses its power as a conveyor of meaning and a means of discourse, i.e., we no longer have an agreed upon meaning for important words such as “male and female,” “racism,” “love,” and so on.

The dialogue begins with one extreme tentatively suggested by Hermogenes, who argues that, “whatever anyone agrees to call a particular thing is its name.” Socrates teases out the implication of such a position, which means that something can have infinite names, “And however many names someone says there are for each thing, it will really have that number at whatever time he says it?” Hermogenes reluctantly agrees.

Of course this won’t do, and Socrates leads Hermogenes out of this thicket. The problem of meaning has a link to the problem of virtue. If we can give names to anything we wish and have that in fact be its name, then we in effect, become the arbiters of reality itself. For, “some statements are true, while others are false,” and “it is possible to say things that are and that are not in a statement.” We are not God and cannot make reality come into being by merely declaring it so. Otherwise good and evil have no real existence outside of our own minds, and so we can call nothing truly good or evil at all. Meaning and coherence break down. The question of language is much more than academic.

So words and their meaning cannot come into being from below. The “bottom of the mountain,” so to speak, has too much individuation and division to provide a platform for societies. As our examples above show (i.e., Kipling, etc.), this extreme individuation shakes hands with extreme unity, for it cannot properly divide anything at all according to its nature. So in the end, with this view, everything mashes up together.

Socrates and Hermogenes then seek to go up to the “top of the mountain” to attempt to find the origin of names. Names function as a means of instruction, as a means of “divid[ing] things according to their natures. As Socrates comments,

So just as a shuttle is a tool for dividing warp and woof, a name is a tool for giving instruction, that is to say, for dividing being.**

Just as not all can use the loom, so Socrates asks, “Do you think every man is a rule-setter, or only those who possess the craft?” Hermogenes concedes that one must have the craft. Control of language cannot belong to the individual alone, but nor to “every man.” One must have “the craft.”

So Cratylus is right in saying that things have natural names, and that not everyone is a craftsman of names, but only someone who looks the natural name of a thing and is able to put its form into letters and symbols.

Undoubtedly language shapes our perception of reality, and possibly more than that, for in Genesis God’s speech creates reality as we know it. The names He gives fixes the distinctions between things, and Adam’s naming of animals gives humanity a cooperative role in the creative process.

The theological dilemma of, “Is something good because God declares it to be good, or does God declare something good because it is good already,” has a mirror in the dilemma about language.^ No one person can simply declare a word to be a word and have it fixed for all time. Socrates struggles with finding the absolute in each word. He had penetrating insights regarding the essence of truth, but stumbled in its application. The same hold true in Cratylus. The dialogue continues on a long excursion where Socrates seeks the unity of the principle embodied in names, and their particular Greek phonetics. Some of these endeavors succeed more than others. But in the end, Socrates must face reality–other cultures have different phonetical constructions for words embodying the same principles.

Socrates: Here is what I suspect. I think that the Greeks, especially those who live abroad, have adopted many names from foreign tongues.

Hermogenes: What of it?

Socrates: Well, if someone were trying to discover whether the names had been reasonably given, and he treated them as belonging to the Greek language rather than the one they were really from, then he would be in a quandary.

Hermogenes: He very probably would.

Socrates: . . . Consequently, though one might say something about these names, one mustn’t push them too far.

This realization leads Socrates nearer the truth, that language, like truth itself, involves a union of the masculine principle of declaration from those “who know,” from above, and the fluidity of things on earth. Socrates comments,

Perhaps you didn’t that [the names] are given on the assumption that the they name are moving, flowing, and coming into being. . . . Wisdom (phronesis) is the understanding of motion (phoras noesis) and flow. Or it might be interpreted as taking delight in motion. . . . Wisdom signifies the grasping of this motion.

For the rest of the dialogue Socrates struggles to find a way to unite the masculine and feminine aspects of language, but can’t quite get there. Still, he makes the crucial realization of the need for the seed from above, the plant from below, or the pattern and its manifestation must go together. For Adam in the Garden (Genesis 2) his names correctly manifested this, for at that time he had perfect communion with the Father above and the (Mother) Earth below. But since the sin entered the world, we essentially fail in proper manifestation of language, which furthers confusion of meaning.

But though we fall short, we still have the image of God within us, and can use Socrates’ insight to evaluate how we use words and their relationship to truth. There exists, for example, a certain method of Bible study among Christians that involves

  • Finding out the Hebrew/Greek meaning of a particular word
  • Grabbing a concordance to see where that word gets used in different parts of the Bible, and then
  • Using the meaning in one context to determine its meaning everywhere in Scripture.

This ignores the fluid aspects of language, and the central importance of context over strict phonetics. We all know that the word “radical” can be a math term in one context, an outdated term from the 80’s in another, an adjective for a political ideology, and so on.

Many of our current cultural debates, however, center around ignoring the fixed aspects of language. We can all acknowledge that the meaning of “male” and “female,” for example, have certain contextual fluidities determined in part by culture. Some men may be more effeminate, some women more masculine, than others of the same sex. But surely being either male or female cannot mean anything we wish it to mean. Biology certainly gives us constraints on the meaning of sex. The very fact that we call some men more masculine than other men shows that we have a defined concept of masculinity we cannot escape even if we wanted to. Indeed, some of those who wish to introduce more fluidity to the concept of sex/gender also decry “toxic masculinity” more than others.

It seems that we must see language, along with the reality language describes/creates, existing in a hierarchy. At the top we have God, who in Christian theology can only be defined as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. Then at the bottom we have words like “green,” a collection of phonetic sounds that can refer to a color, a newbie on the job, a person with sea-sickness, and so on. Yet while these phonetic sounds can take on meanings essentially unrelated to each other, they each manifest connections to a particular idea. More fluidity in language exists at the bottom of the mountain, but . . . not chaos. Then somewhere in the middle of reality, we have words such as “male and female,” which have more defined limits, along with a degree of contextual meaning.

Though the Cratylus fails to stick the landing on a unified theory of language, Socrates rightly intuits that correct naming is a “beautiful work.” We recognize beauty when we recognize a pattern, a pattern of the marriage of heaven and earth, of unity and diversity.^^ When this reality gets warped both the language absolutist and the language relativist both destroy the beauty of language and its meaning. Contrary to some, language is not a tool of power, but of meaning. When weaponized we lose beauty, wisdom, and also power. For in reality, power cannot truly exist without its connection to Heaven.

Dave

*I should state now that I am a rank amateur in my knowledge of Plato and Aristotle. My critique is not meant to deny their rightful place in the history of philosophy.

**Here we see more evidence of Andrew Kern’s suggestion that weaving and wisdom are interrelated in the ancient world, thus, the Luddites rebellion against mechanical looms had little to do with economics and much more to do with maintaining meaning and coherence in society.

^This dilemma is really no dilemma at all to those who understand Christian theology. The Church has always said that the answer to the above dilemma involves splitting the horns–things are “good” because God made them, and are stamped with God’s being and character.

^^I will attempt an explanation of my meaning by thinking about a spectacular sunset. We look up, and see light from above-that’s purity/Heaven. The light then transforms, becomes more fluid/diverse as it interacts with matter, the stuff of Earth. This combination produces the beauty we are drawn to.

While only God is eternal and infinite, this union of Heaven and Earth will continue into eternity. In His resurrection Christ continues to have a physical body. And when He returns, He will descend, and we will rise to “meet Him in the air.”

Growth Measures

This post is from 2016 originally, and you will note some dated references.  I repost it in conjunction with discussions this week in our Government class.

The original post follows . . .

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

In his account of the Athenian debate over their proposed expedition to Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides has Alicibiades close with a famous analogy on the fate of states and nations that remain inert.

And as for security, whether for remaining there, in case of any success, or for returning, our fleet will provide us with it; for by sea we shall be superior to all the Siceliots put together. And let not the non-interfering policy which Nicias recommends in his speeches, nor his setting the young against the old, divert you from your purpose; but acting in your usual order, just as our fathers, by consulting young with old, raised the state to its present height, do ye now too, in the same manner, endeavor to advance it; being convinced that youth and old age can do nothing without each other; but that the period of levity, and of mid-age, and of extreme preciseness, will have most power when joined together; and that the state, if it remain quiet, will be worn out on itself, like anything else, and its skill in everything grow dull; while by entering into contest it will continually gain fresh experience, and will find self-defense habitual to it, not in word, but rather in deed. My decided opinion then is, that I think a state of no inactive character would most quickly be ruined by a change to inactivity; and that those men live most securely, who regulate their affairs in accordance with their existing habits and institutions, even though they may be of an inferior character, with the least variation.

The Athenian adventure into Sicily ended in disaster, but the idea that states and people must essentially “keep swimming or die” entered into our consciousness.  Progress must involve motion, the conquering of challenges.  So J.S. Huxley comments that,

Life can never be about equilibrium.  Given the well established facts that change . . . multiplies in an expanding geometric ratio, then change in the status quo is inevitable.  A status quo may exist for a time, but with one organism bumping against another means a rearrangement of them all.   

And J.R. Smuts adds,

A peculiar feature about the change in equilibrium in a physico-chemical structure is that it is never such as to produce a perfect new equilibrium; the new is merely approximate, just as the old was.  We may say the change was from too little to too much.

The instance of a super-saturated solution is a case in point, where the crystallization lags behind the conditions which bring it about.  When the change comes it swings beyond the necessities of the case.  Again there is the condition of instability which has to be righted by a swing back in due course.  Thence arises the character of natural change.  Complete equilibrium is never attained and would be fatal if attained, because it would mean stagnation, atrophy, and death.

Once let a large, favorable variation take place . . . others must keep up or perish.  So it comes to pass that history moves in successive phases of momentary equilibrium, with extended periods of “conflict” and readjustment, each one a higher plane of independence than the one before, and each giving place to the other.

So it seems nearly an axiom (at least for post-Enlightenment western societies) that change=growth, growth=progress, progress= something good (?).

But Thucydides had no love for Alicibades, and whether or not he reports fairly, clearly the scope of his narrative means to show the disastrous nature of Alcibiades’ logic.  Earlier in the war his hero Pericles urged the Athenians to accept war with Sparta, but only if they resolved firmly not to add any new territory to their empire.

But Pericles may not have been entirely consistent.  In his famous “Funeral Oration” he celebrated the dynamic, maritime nature of Athenian life in his famous funeral oration.

If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates; while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbour, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes. Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because we have at once to attend to our marine and to dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different services; so that, wherever they engage with some such fraction of our strength, a success against a detachment is magnified into a victory over the nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.

“In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves.

Pericles’ words have resonated strongly with western societies for at least the last two centuries.  Democracies have long wanted to be thought of as progressive, diverse, open to new experiences and new people, etc.  But this vision had its critics, most notably Plato, who wrote in his Laws,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ath: I know that is the general view . . . But in [my] belief, it was the land battles of Marathon and Platea that were the day-spring of the salvation of Greece and its crowning mercy.

Arnold Toynbee took up the question of how civilizations grow in volume 3 of his A Study of History.  He first considers civilizations in an “arrested” state.  The nomads and the Eskimos perform near heroic feats of adaptation to survive in their environment.  However, the environment requires too much adaptation, leaving those in them stuck at a particular point in its development.  Ultimately the social organization can never transcend their environment.*

Toynbee has a lot in common with Spengler, but ultimately rejects Spengler’s “biological life span” template for civilizations.  Toynbee believes that civilization transcends individuals so in theory, civilizations can extend themselves ad-infinitum if they play their cards right.  So to find the clue Toynbee uses scientific analogies about crystallization and so forth.  Civilizations have to keep moving to avoid stagnation.  But what kind of movement?  Toynbee is too smart to focus on mere territorial enlargement.  Measuring growth by technological advancement also fails as rubric for many reasons, one of them being the question, “Which is more impressive, the ‘invention’ and original mastery of fire, or the steam engine?”

Ultimately knows that spiritual/psychological growth should occupy pride of place along with other factors.  But how to measure this?  How would it manifest itself?  This is not so easy, as Toynbee knows (though credit him for trying).

Recently I wrote about the “noon-day” devil of acedia.  Essentially acedia involves the temptation to distraction out of a sense of listlessness and no purpose.  The key to fighting this temptation involved drilling down into the recesses of the self, and ultimately to train oneself not to bored with the things of God.  So one monk tells his confessor, “Father, I have been troubled by acedia, but praise be, the temptation vanishes whenever I go visit Abba Paul.” “On the contrary,” his confessor replies, “you have entirely given into the temptation and will soon be in its power.”

Hence the dictum–“stay in your cell.”

St. John Cassian writes,

When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. It will not suffer us to stay in our cell, or to attend to our reading: we lament that in all this while, living in the same spot, we have made no progress, we sigh and complain that bereft of sympathetic fellowship we have no spiritual fruit; and bewail ourselves as empty of all spiritual profit, abiding vacant and useless in this place; and we that could guide others and be of value to multitudes have edified no man, enriched no man with our precept and example. We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. We paint the fellowship of the brethren there, its suavity, its richness in spiritual conversation, contrasting it with the harshness of all that is at hand, where not only is there no edification to be had from any of the brethren who dwell here, but where one cannot even procure one’s victuals without enormous toil. Finally we conclude that there is not health for us so long as we stay in this place, short of abandoning the cell wherein to tarry further will be only to perish with it, and betaking ourselves elsewhere as quickly as possible.

Towards eleven o’clock or midday it induces such lassitude of body and craving for food, as one might feel after the exhaustion of a long journey and hard toil, or the postponing of a meal throughout a two or three days fast. Finally one gazes anxiously here and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen approaching: one is for ever in and out of one’s cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting: one’s mind is in an irrational confusion, like the earth befogged in a mist, one is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some brother, or the solace of sleep. Finally our malady suggests that in common courtesy one should salute the brethren, and visit the sick, near or far. It dictates such offices of duty and piety as to seek out this relative or that, and make haste to visit them; or there is that religious and devout lady, destitute of any support from her family, whom it is a pious act to visit now and then and supply in holy wise with necessary comforts, neglected and despised as she is by her own relations: far better to bestow one’s pious labour upon these than sit without benefit or profit in one’s cell. . . .

The wisdom and achievement (both spiritual and social) of the desert fathers has few historical parallels.  This points us in a new and more profitable direction than standard measures of growth, such as the health of the economy or advancement in technology.

Certainly, for example, the western world has achieved tremendous technological leaps over the past 150 years, but we should not necessarily call this “growth.”  These technological advances have largely served to help us to the things democratic nations tend to do, such as move and consume, except now we can do this more quickly.  I don’t mean this to sound harsh or cynical.  Democracies tend to be forward looking and anti-tradition.  This has its place.  Democracies seek to empower choice, and this has its most obvious reflection in choosing where we go and what we buy.  Technology has changed nothing in the spiritual and social plane for us.  We remain on the go, we remain distracted, with the facilities for spinning our wheels vastly improved over time.

De Tocqueville, as usual, predicted something like this, writing

The first thing which strikes a traveler in the United States is the innumerable multitude of those who seek to emerge from their original condition; and the second is the rarity of lofty ambition to be observed in the universally ambitious stir of society.  No Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise; but hardly any appear to entertain hopes of a great magnitude, or to pursue lofty aims.  All constantly to acquire property, power, and reputation; few contemplate these things on a great scale.

Without this great ambition (if he is correct) we will tend to spin our wheels in the same direction.  Again–we should not call this growth automatically.**

We assume that the desert monks had no social impact.  Sure, we assume, they helped their own souls, or perhaps those of their brotherhood, but not society at large.  But a careful reading of the biographies of such fathers shows the opposite.  People came to them all the time for healing and advice.  Many stories exist of their charity to others.  Some lived as solitary hermits, but many others lived in monasteries close to towns where a fair amount of interaction between them took place.

Perhaps the secret of real growth lies here.  No tree can bear fruit if constantly uprooted.

Dave

*This can be contrasted to civilizations that seem “petrified” or “frozen,” such as a certain time period of ancient Egypt.  Nothing about their physical circumstances forces a frozen civilization to stay at a particular level of development, but they choose to do so for a variety of reasons.

**I realize that what follows puts me squarely within the company of other grumpy old men.  But I’ll take the plunge . . . .  The fact that The Force Awakens was so popular reveals this very fact about our culture.  The movie had nothing original about it, with no memorable dialogue, acting, or even memorable scenes.  With its casting it was calculated precisely to hit squarely within the middle of our cultural mindset.  People praised it for “being the movie fans wanted to see.” It hit all its marks, giving us all the old characters plus an even bigger Death Star.  But this is precisely the reason why the movie failed to challenge or move us in any way.

To plunge even further . . . one might almost say that an “acedic” listlessness pervades the whole movie.  What happened to the Republic?  Nobody knows, nobody cares–it’s not important.  What is the “First Order” and what do they want?  How did they get here?  Nobody knows, nobody cares.  In A New Hope Alderann is destroyed cruelly but for a “reason.”  Now whole systems are destroyed for no apparent reason.  Obi-Wan’s death had some meaning or purpose within the Star Wars universe, but not Han’s death–it just happened.  Han himself as a character appears stuck in an endless loop of meaningless activity.  The heroine receives Jedi powers and can fly the spaceships with no context, no training, again for no apparent reason.  Why?  Nobody knows, nobody cares.  What is important is that we saw what we desired.  The movie fulfilled our list of demands.

11th/12th Grade: Only in a Democracy

This week we continued the Peloponnesian War by looking at the Peace of Nicias, and why it failed.

Like most things, not all peace treaties are created equal.  Throughout history some treaties have worked and many others have not.  Can we detect any patterns or similarities to their success or failure?

“Punic Peaces” (which refers to Rome’s complete obliteration of Carthage during the 3rd Punic War) always work because the enemy ceases to exist.  A lesser version of a Punic Peace might be what England did to Napoleon after Waterloo.  France technically could have continued to resist, as the bulk of their army remained intact, but the English put Napoleon in exile on St. Helena, which might as well have been the moon.  His continued resistance was impossible.

But in thinking of peace treaties, most of us would not want conflict to get to that point.  We prefer to avoid to save lives and avoid cataclysmic destruction if we can.  But it is these kinds of treaties, where both sides retain much of their original strength, that are so hard to devise and so hard to have succeed.

Why might this be?  The best treaties reflect reality as it really is, and not merely the whims or circumstances of the moment.  The best treaties factor in the reasons for the war starting, as well as how both sides fought.  They would also account for the current political dynamics in each country, as well as their psychological and emotional state.  Treaties are problematic because reality will not be caught so easily.

After 10 years of fighting both Athens and Sparta signed onto the “Peace of Nicias,” designed to last 50 years.  Alas, it never really took firm root in either society and lasted about six.  Even a cursory glance will tell us why the treaty failed.

  • If we follow the mantra of considering the beginning before deciding on an end, we should ask ourselves why the war started in the first place, and what each side fought for.  Indeed, the war lacked a defining physical cause.  One side did not invade the other.  Instead, the war seemed to be over honor and perception.
  • But the treaty shoved a couple of significant “dishonors” into the face of both sides.  Athens had abandoned Platea earlier in the war, a stain on their honor.  But now they could not get it back — the stain would be permanent.
  • Sparta had “liberated” Amphibolus from Athenian clutches, redeeming their embarrassing “no-show” in Mytilene.  Now, the treaty required them to give Amphibolus back to Athens.
  • Corinth, one of Sparta’s major allies, did not sign onto the treaty.  Naturally they would do much to try and undermine it.

At the core, the Peace of Nicias failed because it reflected temporary moods.  Neither side had expended even half of its strength in the fight so far.  Both sides smarted under the recent death of prominent generals (Cleon for Athens, Brasidas for Sparta).  Athenian failure at Delium helped the political rise to the “dove” Nicias, but democratic politics sways to and fro.  Facing dishonor, with more bullets left in the gun, both Athens and Sparta would likely begin fighting again.

We also began our look at the famous/infamous Alcibiades of Athens.Alcibiades

Only a democracy could produce someone like him.  He was. . .

  • Young
  • Rich
  • Handsome
  • Charismatic
  • Heedless of tradition
  • A man of “action”

In addition, no one could accuse him of being a dandy .  He fought in a few infantry engagements with some distinction.

I say that Alcibiades could exist only in a democracy because most other societies, especially aristocratic ones, value

  • The Elderly
  • Tradition
  • Stability

Political conservatives in the U.S. often talk about “returning to our Constitutional roots,” but have not had much success recently in presidential or senatorial elections.  o arguments like, “That’s the way the founders did it,” have any success?  I would tend to think not, and the reason might not be the willful ignorance or decadence of the electorate, but the pervading forward looking spirit of democratic cultures.

Blessings,

Dave

Ascetic Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

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

Democratic Personalities and Democratic Laws

I posted originally some years ago–you will see the dated references–and repost it now in conjunction with our Government class discussions this week.

The original post is follows . . .

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

Barring any unusual excitement at the Democratic and Republican conventions, it appears that many Americans will feel caught between a rock and a hard place regarding their two main choices for president.  Many blanch at the thought of “President Trump,” and I wondered if history might suggest hope for such a possibility.

Our founders may have had Republican Rome as their model, but as the U.S. continues to approach a more immediate democracy perhaps we should look to ancient Athens for a historical parallel. Athenian democracy experienced several points of crisis, with perhaps the most notorious coming after their defeat in the Peloponnesian War when they put Socrates on trial.

Many reasons have been given as to Socrates died at the hands of the Athenians. I am intrigued by the theory Mark Munn expounds in his book The School of History.  Munn argues that by 399 B.C. Athens searched desperately for stability.  Their democracy had transformed significantly under Pericles ca. 450-435 B.C., then switched to a partial oligarchy after the Sicilian disaster in 411 B.C., then back to a democracy by 410, then back to oligarchy in 404-03, then to a restored democracy once more.  But the democracy that ruled Athens ca. 400 B.C. was not the same that Athens experienced a generation earlier.

It seems a reasonable conclusion its heyday, Athenian democracy was driven by great personalities and not by procedures.  Pericles stands as the foremost example of this, but others come to mind.  Herodotus and Thucydides’ histories give us a picture of dynamic men acting on inspiration.  Callimachus votes to attack at Marathon. Themistocles devises his own plan apart from the generals to win the Battle of Salamis.  Even lesser men like Nicias, Alcibiades, and Cleon sparkle on the page.*  Exact fidelity to the law itself did not concern the demos.  At their worst, the Athenians may have just wanted a diversion from their politics out of boredom, but another interpretation might point to the fact that the Athenians in this period of their history trusted in inspirational leadership of the moment, as opposed to fidelity to the expression of the “general will” embodied in law.  One might even call it a humble characteristic of Athenian democracy.  “The People” passed laws but willingly stepped aside at points in the face of “personality.”

But in time the plague, the disaster in Sicily, and their ultimate defeat by Sparta exacted a heavy psychological toll.

With the final restoration of democracy in Athens in 401, Athens moved away from dynamic leadership and towards the exacting nature of the enthronement of law.  Law offered a clear path and if nothing else, stability.  Munn argues that this passion for law and this movement away from “personality” put Socrates afoul of the will of the people.  The orator Aeschines, born in 389 B.C., wrote,

In fact, as I have often heard my own father say, for he lived to be 95 years old and had shared in all the toils of the city, which he often described to me in his leisure hours–well, he said that in the early days of the reestablished democracy , in any indictment for an illegal motion came into court, the matter was no sooner said than done . . .. It frequently happened that they made the clerk str and told him to read to the the laws and the the motion a second time; and they convicted a man of making an illegal proposal not because he had overleaped the laws entirely, but that one syllable only was contravened.

Socrates probably did run afoul of the exacting nature of Athenian religious law after 401 B.C., and he certainly ran directly counter to the spirit behind such laws with his claims to personal, divine inspiration that transcended any earthly authority/law.  He was a throwback to time associated with chaos, and to be frank, military disaster.

Of course democracies traditionally have the “rule of law” as a bedrock principle, and we should prefer exacting rule of law to the whims of a despot.  But few civilizations can match the cultural achievements of Athens in 5th century.  Also, the personality driven democracy of the 5th century certainly outperformed the law driven democracy of the 4th century.**  Perhaps one lesson we might draw from this is that a mixing forms and styles of government might outperform monochromatic governments, much like mutts are generally healthier and less crazy than pure-brads.^

Observers of Trump often comment that, aside from his ideas on immigration, he seems to have no particular policies (others would disagree).  Yet, unquestionably, he is a “personality,” one that the media, for all their antipathy towards him, cannot resist.  Is it possible that such an injection of “personality” might be what could help us from stale rigidity in our political life?  Certainly we have plenty of bureaucracy, plenty of incomprehensible law, as it stands now.

I say, yes, it is . . . possible.

*Cleon’s expedition and victory in Pylos during the Peloponnesian War is evidence of this preference for personality over procedure.  It was technically illegal for Cleon to even lead the expedition in the first place, but the Assembly could not resist enjoying the personal rivalry between Nicias and Cleon, and allowed/shamed Cleon into having his chance, which he then took advantage of.

**The great achievements of the 5th century came to a halt during the Peloponnesian War, a self-inflicted wound if there ever was one.  But the 4th century did no better, succumbing to Macedon after decades of vanilla tapioca laziness (as the traditional interpretation has it, anyway) in 338 B.C.

^Some might argue on behalf of the 4th century by citing that it produced Plato and Aristotle, luminaries 1 and 1a in western philosophy.  This argument should not be pushed too far.  A glance at the history of philosophy shows that most advances in this field occur in times of societal breakdown or even decay.  This is in contrast, I think to other areas of cultural achievement, whose health usually parallels that of the rest of society.  The 4th century had no Parthenon, no Euripides, etc.