Oligarchies, Expansion, and a “Time of Troubles”

I posted this originally back in 2012.  While I could have added some new thoughts to the post I wrote directly on Eric Voegelin’s Science Politics, and Gnosticism (found here), I thought it better to include in this post as a sub-set on the idea of territorial expansion.

It may very well be that to read Eric Voegelin is to be confused.  I have had my struggles with his book Order and History: The Ecumenic Age.  But, remembering that he made a special study of gnostic ideas and philosophy, I found his thoughts on the origins of Gnosticism and its relation to territorial expansion very intriguing.

Gnosticism has many permutations, but at its core it propounds an opposition of matter and spirit, the soul and the body, and so on.  Some biblical scholars believe that the Apostle John may be attempting to counter Gnosticism in his epistles. Those who have read St. Augustine’s Confessions know that he involved himself in the gnostic ideas of Manicheism before converting to Christianity.  But gnosticism as a general philosophy pre-dates the coming of Christ by many centuries. Voegelin writes on its origins,

The genetic context to which I refer is the interaction between expansion of empire and differentiation of consciousness.  In pragmatic history, Gnosticism arises from six centuries of imperial expansion and civilizational destruction (p. 21).

Thus, we may assume that gnostic ideas had their roots in the first great ecumenic empire of the Persians, and this fits with the Zoroastrianism and its adoption by Darius I as the semi-official religion of his court.

As to the “why” behind the link between expansion and Gnosticism, I am less able to penetrate Voegelin’s thoughts.  But I believe that we can surmise the following:

  • Significant expansion destroys our sense of proportion.  If the empire is everywhere, it is nowhere.
  • Lacking perspective, we lack attachment to place.  Without attachment to place, we lose our attachment to creation itself.  As an old Irish proverb states (I’m not quoting exactly), “Those who travel much lose their faith.”
  • The power that comes with empire inflates one’s sense of self and distances us from others.  As Chesterton stated, one should pray in valleys, not mountaintops.

Related to the original post below, the disconnect from creation might form the spiritual basis of the problems faced by expansion.

Having recently glanced over The Goebbels Diaries I wondered —  did Hitler’s refusal to allow Rommel to withdraw at El Alamein, and his “fight to the last bullet” order to Von Paulus at Stalingrad arise not from hope of victory but desire for the extinguishing of matter?  As Germany’s territory increased, Hitler seemed more focused on a “refining” cataclysm for creation than in actual victory.  Once separated from creation, we come to hate it, with death as the (perceived) only escape.

And now, the original post . . .

Reading Explorers of the Nile spurred on a thought experiment.

While I have not been overly compelled by the story, there have been several interesting tidbits.  Regardless of one’s feelings toward the Victorian age in general, or the Brits in particular, one can’t help but admire the sheer will and energy of the second great wave of western exploration (the first being in the 15th-early 16th centuries via the Atlantic).  Many hundreds of men risked everything for the sheer thrill of discovery, and yes, for the glory of it as well.  In the early phases from ca. 1840-1860’s, most of this exploration seemed to me to have a generally innocent tinge to it.  The more acquisitive imperialism came later.

This energy and striving for glory reminded me of late Republic Rome, and the quote from Sallust in The Jurgurthine War, which reads,

I have often heard that Quintus Maximus Publius Scipio, and other distinguished men of our country were accustomed to declare that, whenever they looked on the masks of their ancestors, their hearts were set aflame in the pursuit of virtue [i.e. worthy deeds].  Of course they did not mean that the wax or the effigy had any power over them, but it is the memory of great achievements that kindles a flame in the breasts of eminent men that cannot be extinguished until their own excellence has come to rival the reputation and glory of their forefathers.

It struck me that it was during the later phase of the Republic that Rome grew the most in size.  If we look at a map of the Mediterranean at the beginning of the first Punic War in 264 B.C. . . .

Mediterranean, 264 BC

we see that Rome, though decent in size, does not dominate.  They have their sphere, along with Carthage, Egypt, Macedon, etc.

If we fast-forward 100 years we get a different picture, and as the map below indicates, Rome continues to grow almost geometrically down to the death of Caesar in 44 B.C.

Roman Growth Timeline

While Rome had a Republic at this time, I agree with Toynbee that while the government had democratic elements, it was for all intents and purposes an oligarchy.  The aristocratic senate dominated policy, however much voting by the masses took place.

Is there a connection then, between oligarchic democracies and expansion?  As time marched on from Charles I, England did by fits and starts become more democratic.  But 19th century England surely was not democracy in our sense of the word, and instead like the Republic showed strong oligarchic tinges.  As a monarchy, England’s overseas holdings were modest compared with the rest of the world, ca. 1800. . .

Colonisation, 1800

But a century later, after more democracy (while still having an oligarchy) and we see a different scene:

British Empire, 1920

As in late Republic in Rome, we have a near doubling in size.  Of course, something similar could be said of the other major European powers during the same time, many of them become more democratic after 1848, though again, like England, not fully so until after W.W. I.

Two examples do not really suffice to prove the connection.  But three will!

America gets accused of being an imperial power, but I think the charge false in our current, strongly democratic time.  It might have had more merit in the more oligarchic 19th century, however.

America, 1800:

America, 1800

America, 1900:

When America became more democratic in the 20th century, our expansion rapidly slowed.  Now, to be fair, we acquired Louisiana “fairly” from France by buying it, and Alaska fair and square from Russia.  But the same cannot be said for the Philippines, or the vast territory taken from Indians, including territory in Louisiana.  Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant thought that our war with Mexico in 1846 to be manifestly unjust.

If we believe Thucydides, and call Athenian democracy in its golden age really a Pericles-led oligarchy of the best (a claim, to be fair, disputed by the great classicist Donald Kagan), we again see this principle of growth.  In 490 B.C. Athens stood as one city-state among many.  Not so 50 years later. . .

Map, Athenian Empire 431 B.C.

As to why oligarchic democracies have such expansionistic tendencies, I cannot say.  Perhaps it can be the subject of another post filled with wild theories.  But it does seem clear that this period of expansion leads to a “Time of Troubles,” for all parties involved.

For England and the rest of Europe, expansion gave way to the two World Wars.  America had its Civil War, caused largely by the exacerbation of the slavery issue.  The inflaming of the slavery question in its turn had its roots in the Mexican-American war in 1846.  Athens and the Greek world faced the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.).  Though the proximate causes and results of these conflicts differ, they each have an age of expansion to precede it.

Any thoughts from anyone else, with more examples, or a connection between oligarchic democracies and expansion, are heartily welcome.

Blessings,

Dave

Healing Hierarchies

A good education should expose people to “otherness,” but our current discourse gives far too narrow a definition of “otherness.” We tend to focus on ethnicity or gender differences, and not necessarily other ways of perceiving the world. I believe the best form of “otherness” comes through exposure to other worldviews, other ways of thinking, and this can come in the most unlikely of places.

Many generally assume that we share much in common with medieval Europeans, and perhaps this accounts for our striking reaction when we find profound differences. We can judge them quite harshly when they do not match our expectations. But if we started from a different mindset we might see them more clearly as fundamentally different from us. This, in turn, would help us actually learn more from them.

No scholarly consensus exists that I am aware of on the identity of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, except that he was not the Dionysius encountered by St. Paul in Athens. Perhaps “St. Dionysius” wrote in the tradition developed by this same Dionysius. Whoever he was, his writings had enormous influence over the medieval world, as C.S. Lewis points out in his great work The Discarded Image. In one section he writes,

In my opinion a hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding, and an activity approximating, as closely as possible to the divine . . .  The goal of hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like unto God as possible and to be at one with Him. Hierarchy causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors  of reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God Himself. It ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God’s will to those members further down the scale.

We might expect St. Dionysius to praise hierarchy as a form of divine order on earth, and indeed he does just this. What might surprise us, however, is how he uses the term “generous” in regards to hierarchy, and how communally oriented his hierarchical vision is.

Author Andrew Louth comments on this passage that,

What St. Denys means, is that hierarchy is a radiant display that reaches out from God throughout the whole created order and draws it back into union with Him.  Whereas hierarchies to modern ears evoke separation, exclusion, [and perhaps exploitation], for St. Denys it connotes inclusion and union.

How far back in time should our concept of “western civilization” go? Lots of possible answers exist, but most would probably include the Middle Ages. Yet, St. Dionysius had a significant impact on the life and culture of the medievals, and in this passage he entirely runs against the grain of one of our major assumptions today regarding hierarchies. For St. Dionysius, it seems that hierarchies include rather than exclude because it ensures that everyone has a place, and that everyone has responsibility for someone else. The coherence of the world inhabited by St. Dionysius also allowed for everyone to know their place and, in theory, navigate it successfully.

St. Dionysius’ passage calls to mind an observation by Tocqueville, who warned at the potential downsides of democratic individualism. In a a guest post on the U.S. Intellectual History blog Jordan Heykoop commented that,

Americans are lonely. “Americanization”–understood by European intellectuals and political leaders in the twentieth century as an export of American products and values, an investment strategy to control the economies of other countries, an attempt to educate foreigners in the superiority of American institutions, or a process of modernization, all in the name of the free market–was in some sense an export of glorified loneliness.

A democratic and capitalist spirit cultivated this loneliness in America. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that aristocracy made “of all citizens a long chain that went up from the peasant to the king. Democracy, on the other hand, “breaks the chain and sets each link apart” as it constantly draws each individual “back towards himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly to the solitude of his own heart.” People in a democratic era are no longer bound through loyalty and obligation, values which are far-reaching and stable, but through common interest, which is malleable and subjective. Individuals gather to negotiate and calculate their interests, then disband. This sense of equality breaks social and communal links and leaves the individual looking inward for identity, place, and meaning.[

For Max Weber, a Protestant society, free from the structure and liturgy of the Catholic [or Orthodox] Church, cultivated a deep inner loneliness in which individuals worked desperately to discern signs of God’s favor. This discipline and sense of calling in a worldly vocation created the foundation for a capitalist spirit–the conditions under which a free market economy could thrive. America is the paragon of these processes. Late capitalism had become a “monstrous cosmos,” a world where the values of hard work and the sense of inner loneliness remained entrenched, but was completely unhinged from any religious foundation or teleological connection.

Even supposing that you agree with Haykoop, we cannot snap our fingers, import the distant past, and make everyone feel comfortable again.* We are a democracy and cannot invent or import a hierarchy wholesale from nothing.

Perhaps the greatest expounder of St. Dionysius’ ideas was St. Maximus the Confessor. The back cover of Andrew Louth’s book on St. Maximus encourages us with the statement that St. Maximus is the theologian for a world in crisis. Indeed, St. Maximus shows us how practical theology can be.

Monistic religions leave no room to breathe, no room for distinctions, and thus create tyrannies. For example, though officially an atheistic state, the “party” represented a monistic tyranny in Soviet Russia. By definition, the “Party” was always correct, and all outside it cannot belong to the body politic. Such outsiders needed dealt with. Polytheistic religions might give more freedom in theory, but lack any point of unity. So these societies tend to succumb to (in Toynbee’s phrase) “the idolization of the parochial community.” Wars of all against all arise, like the Peloponnesian War in Greece at the end of the 5th century B.C.

By the 7th century A.D., the Church had worked out the doctrine of the Trinity (more or less), but had yet to fully develop the doctrine of Christ and the relationship between His deity and humanity. One key issue involved whether or not Christ had one divine will, or two wills in one person, a human and divine will. Maximus asserted that Christ had to have a human will to be fully human. In addition, it is the submission of Christ’s human will to His divine will that makes a pathway for us to become more like Christ and thereby “participate in the divine nature.”

Perhaps St. Maximus is best known for his development of the cosmic nature of redemption, and Christ’s fulfillment of various patterns within redemptive history.As one example of this, we can examine the Christ’s entering into the pattern of the right and left hand, and simultaneously affirming and transforming that pattern.

The idea of a “righteous” right hand and sinister “left-hand” go far back into history–at least the to Egyptians–but other ancient cultures used it as well. Even so-called “rational” cultures like the Greeks used such categories frequently. Indeed, while many today will mock such as ideas as superstitious, unless we want to fully embrace chronological snobbery, we must assume a universal truth to this pattern and category even if we fail to understand it.

Christ used such imagery when speaking of the last judgment in Matthew 25, and icons of this event depict this consistently.

Perhaps the most famous icon of Christ is the “Pantocrater” image, with Christ blessing all with his right hand, and holding the Scriptures (which also represents separation, categorization, and therefore some sense of judgment), with his left.

But we should hold back if we assume that Christ categorizes His creation merely terms of right and left imagery. Two of the greatest saints of the Church are of course Mary His Mother and St. John the Baptist. Mary bears God within her womb, and spent her formative years in the temple in Jersusalem–right at the very center of God’s presence. John the Baptist, on other hand (a phrase that indicates that we too still use something of the right/left imagery) wears odd clothing, eats odd food, and resides in the wilderness outside the city, in the realm of chaos. So, the Church depicts Mary on the right of Christ, and St. John on the left to indicate a hierarchical difference between them

Yet obviously the “left-handedness” of St. John does nothing to diminish his status per se in the kingdom. Christ calls him “the greatest among men.”

We see the same treatment of the two great apostles of the Church, Saints Peter and Paul. St. Paul comes later, he’s younger, and he actively persecuted the church. He comes as one “unnaturally born,” to use his own words. St. Peter was one of the original twelve, the “rock,” a witness to the resurrection, and the preacher at Pentecost. Peter will therefore be shown on the right of Christ, Paul on the left.

Yet we remember too Peter also denied Christ, and Paul rebuked him for embracing the teaching of the Judaizers in the book of Galatians. The right hand has its faults just as the left hand. The hierarchy can be both affirmed and transcended at the same time.

We need a St. Maximus’ today, or at least we need to heed his wisdom. On the right of the political spectrum we have those that affirm the values of order and unity at the “center.” They are wary of the fringe’s of society, and this can make for rigid authoritarianism. The far left exalts the fringe above the center, idealizing the exception rather than the rule.** But if the falcon’s widening gyre leaves no center at all, we will have chaos. Or rather, we will have a hierarchy, but one that will invert basic reality and create a purposeless and powerless structure, with the “oppression olympics” and the race not towards strength, purpose, and so on, but towards impotent victimhood as one example of this.

Christ shows us that submission of the human to the divine does not debase the human, but exalts it. Rather than set the right hand against the left He affirms both without denying the place of either. In fact, for the right and left to work properly, they need each other. His hierarchy includes rather than excludes. This, our only viable political path forward, gives witness to deep theological truths. Of course, St. Maximus suffered for these truths and for this way of life,^ and perhaps we may need to as well.

St. Peter on the right (of Christ that is, imagining Him at the center), St. Paul on the left

*The medieval period had its share of rebellions, violence, etc. I am not trying to glorify the past so much as point out the difference in how they saw their place in the world, and to attempt to put a finger on our current malaise.

**We should ask the question whether or not we have a genuine “right hand” in America. The left is socially liberal but wants more government control over the market. The right tends towards more social conservatism but wants the market to operate without restrictions to maximize efficiency, not seeing how the market easily disrupts traditional communities and economies (for example, when Wal-Mart comes to a small town, say goodbye to Main Street). In the end, libertarians embrace both “left-handed” sides of things.

As Patrick Deneen has commented, we have solid anti-authoritarian safeguards built into our national DNA, but it appears that we lack an antidote for excessive individualism. Of course, both sides have elements of the excessive fringe and the excessive center embedded within them. For the right, the excessive center manifests itself in dangerous forms of nationalism, but their fringe enters with its exaltation of individual rights. The left praises every form of fringe behavior as liberation from group consensus, but their “center” manifestation that all must adhere to proper speech guidelines, for example (note the various numbers of people banned from Twitter, for example, who do not conform to proper speech as defined by the socially powerful).

What we witness now, in fact, is what happens when we lose sight of Christ, the Son of Man, and the Son of God.

^As an old man the theological and political tide turned against St. Maximus, and he had his tongue and right hand cut off. He died without seeing any earthly vindication of his theological vision.

Symbolic Matters

In Ezra Klein’s podcast with Rod Dreher, the subject of media and culture was front and center. They conversed at length with each person making important points, and I commend them both. Klein brought up what is a fairly standard critique of conservative Christians, that is (in sum), “Why so much focus on gay and transgender issues when there are many poor and suffering people in the world? Surely the Bible says at least as much about the poor as it does about sexuality?”

Dreher had a fine response, and no doubt the format might have limited his remarks. But I think Klein, and possibly Dreher to a lesser extent, fail to take into account the strong symbolic role sexuality has played in most every culture, and the role of the body as one of the primary means of communication.

Dreher linked to a post of Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex who speculates that the Pride/LGBT etc. movement may become the new civil religion in America. Alexander–who I believe writes as a supporter of his proposed theory, comments,

Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?

Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.

There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:

What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.

Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.

What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.

Again, based on Smith’s book discussed below, if it happens it should not surprise us, given the strong symbolic role that body has in our existence.

In the letters of the Roman magistrate Pliny to the emperor Trajan, Pliny asks him about the official policy towards Christians. Christians have been brought before him, and he has condemned them to execution, but such matters are not trivial, and he wanted to make sure he followed the letter and spirit of the law.

Trajan wrote back and declared that, yes, if Christians appear before him, who will not recant, then such people should be executed. Trajan agreed with Pliny that Christians generally had nothing else against them other than that they professed the Christian faith, so, no need to seek them out. But Pliny should continue to follow the law. Christians continued to face death for being Christians.

But Trajan never addressed Pliny’s second question, which was (in sum), “Why, if Christians are generally good citizens who do not disturb the peace, do we need to punish them in the first place?” Many rank Trajan as one of Rome’s best emperors, but Rome loved practicality and viewed the Greeks as sissified for all of their reflective philosophizing. My guess–Trajan probably regarded the question with slight derision and, being a nice guy, politely ignored it. The law is law, end of story.

Steven D. Smith begins his insightful work Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac with this historical nugget, for he wants to attempt to answer Pliny’s unanswered question of “why?” Christian luminaries such as Tertullian, Athenagoras, and St. Augustine all pointed out the utter folly and injustice of Rome’s actions. In persecuting Christians, they argued, Rome removed its best citizens. Without discounting the truth of Rome’s cruelty, Smith considers if the Romans may actually been right in their instinct (without articulating it coherently) that Christianity truly posed a threat to their way of life. Gibbon, Pelikan, and many others point out that the Church did triumph over Rome, and that the Church, while able to reside peacefully within Rome, truly meant to end Rome’s way of life.

Recently we have witnessed a variety of almost entirely symbolic prosecutions and attacks of bakers, florists, and pizza joints who do not join in with the prevailing sexual orthodoxy. In a series of articles, Libertarian UVA Law professor Douglas Laycock bemoans the attitudes of those on the left. Plenty of options exist for gay couples for all marriage-related services. Why ferret out those who do nothing to stop you but simply disagree with your choices? Such people do nothing to impinge the freedom of homosexuals. In the same vein, why do conservatives attempt to stop people from engaging in sexual practices they object to, but have no impact on the lives of those who object? Both sides strive for the same symbolic but essentially “meaningless” victory, and it ruins our political discourse.

Laycock sounds quite reasonable, but Smith points out that these “victories” for which different sides strive have a great deal of symbolic value attached to them. Though symbols may not fit into a strictly rational worldview, Smith concludes that, “we live by symbols” and can derive meaning only from symbols.* Furthermore, religious belief always demands communal expression, and symbols shape and embody that expression. From this point, Smith’s book explores what the modern culture wars are all about through the lens of Christianity’s first conflict with imperial Rome.

Many today will likely admire the Romans for their tolerance, and wonder why Christians could not accommodate themselves to Rome. Rome, after all, found a way to accommodate a great many different religions into their empire. But no society can tolerate everything. And we, too, have “zero-tolerance” policies for what we truly deem important, such as drugs or sexual harassment, and so on. With the example of offering incense to the emperor, which many Christians refused to do, we can invent the following conversation:

Roman: You Christians are impossible. We let you hold your bizarre religious gatherings–albeit outside the city–but we let you hold them. We let you believe whatever you want to believe. We give you the benefits of the greatest empire the world has ever known, and you enjoy those benefits. We do so much for you, and we ask but very little, that you acknowledge the blessings of the authority under which you live. If you live among us we must know that you will follow our laws, and this is how you pledge yourself to that. You are disobedient. You are uncharitable–you take from us and give nothing back. And so . . . we cannot trust you, and how could we do so, after giving so much and receiving back so little?

Christian: We should be grateful for all that Rome does for us, and indeed, we pray for those in authority during every liturgy. In our sojourn here on Earth we can partake of much the world has to offer, and justice demands that we give honor where it is rightly due. But your policy asks us to accommodate our monotheism to your polytheism. You suppose that sacrifices to the emperor are a small accommodation, but you ask us to abandon monotheism and accept polytheism. You ask us to change our religious beliefs, which is surely the most significant accommodation you could possibly ask.

Striking parallels exist between imperial Rome and our own day, and the conflicts engendered between Christians and pagans. One such area involved creation and the natural world. For the Romans, the gods infused the world around them with their presence, and every city had its sacred sites. Christians rejected this direct immanence by emphasizing the transcendent nature of God that had little to no overlap with pagan belief.

But the complexity of Christianity greatly mitigated these differences regarding creation. While God is transcendent, He is also imminent. Many scriptural passages talk of creation praising God, and God calls humanity to steward creation. Christians too had/have their sacred sites involving saints, relics, pilgrimages, and the like. So too today, while many viewed as “anti-science” come from certain segments of the evangelical community, Christians and “pagans” find much common ground with moderate environmentalists, though will eventually part ways over certain particulars.

A much more significant divide came with sexuality, where the Roman approach to sexual ethics looks strikingly modern (what follows applied almost entirely to men in the ancient world, not women):

  • Sexual behavior was entirely natural, and few restrictions should be placed upon it.
  • Sex was “healthy,” and self-denial in regard to sex was considered mildly dangerous and “anti-human.”
  • Sex brings us closer to the divine, for all the stories of the gods (goddesses, not as much) have them cavorting with various women.
  • Use of the male sexual organ had a halo of sacredness surrounding it, but how one used it had very few restrictions. One could “sleep with” slaves, prostitutes, or even other men or boys, provided that one was never the “female” in such a relationship.

I am not the person and this is not the format to give a full treatment of the traditional Christian view of sexuality. But in brief:

  • The Fathers of the church quickly realized the Scriptural hints about the sacred nature of sexual behavior, and its connections to our life in God. But . . . sex serves at most as a pointer to a more fuller, transcendent reality that will be present only when the Kingdom of God is fully present. It is not an end in itself.
  • Many Christians believed in the sanctity of sexuality in some way, but the sanctity of sex is the reason for the various restrictions Christians placed on sexual behavior. To protect its meaning and purpose, sex needs strong fences, such as limiting it within marriage between a man and woman
  • Living fully as human beings meant taming and restricting our “appetites,” for the ability to do separates us from the beasts. So, while the Romans thought that the more or less indiscriminate indulgence in sex made us more human, Christians believed it made us sub-human–just as over indulgence in eating would do the same, i.e., a dogs will eat anything put before them, as much as they are given.

How deep these differences really go, Smith asserts, comes down not to logic and private self-interest, but the more nebulous (but simultaneously more real) world of symbol. Symbols cannot be fully explained, but have to be experienced–one knows it when we live it. I lament the effect the culture wars have had on eroding our social fabric and institutions. But though Smith never quite explicitly states it (that I found), he strongly hints that such wars will inevitably be fought. For our culture to have cohesion it must have meaning, and this meaning can only come from a common communal understanding. Symbols work only in this way.

Clearly, for us today as the Romans then, sexual behavior occupies a crucial space within our culture. We may not believe sex to have the sacredness that it did for the Romans, at least in an overtly conscious sense. We likely relate sex in America to our deep beliefs about personal expression and the self. What unifies modern and ancients on both sides, Smith suggests, is the divide between the transcendent and the imminent.

For example, Smith states, no one really questions the motto, “In God we Trust” on our money, but “one nation, under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance has received significant constitutional scrutiny. Smith finds the difference in the word “under,” which assumes a transcendent deity in ways that “In God we Trust” does not (this “God” need not be above us but exclusively “among us” for us to define and control).

If Smith is right about this in particular, so much the better, for it gives us clarity in a confusing debate. But his other assertion holds more weight. Our disagreements about sex** may very well be an unconscious proxy for our ideas about meaning and community. Perhaps Smith doesn’t excuse the culture wars, but suggests they will continue. It also suggests that our diseased political culture has not caused this divide. Rather, we might flip our normal way of discussing the culture wars on its head. Perhaps our divergent ideas about sexuality (dating back at least to Roe v. Wade and the Sexual Revolution) have fractured our idea of meaning and community, and this fracture manifests itself in various ways.^

Our founders put priority on minimizing centralized power. They knew that humans can get contentious, but sought to make lemonade out of lemons. Our propensity to conflict would create different interest groups, but in the end they would all cancel each other out, preserving liberty. Thus, the Constitution was not meant to create a tight-knit political community, but essentially sought to prevent its formation.Obviously, this experiment has worked on a number of levels. But now that most churches and other community defining organizations have declined in numbers and importance, we have lost our ability to determine meaning in any kind of public sphere. Tocqueville warned us that this might happen if our more private and local communal connections eroded. And so, here we are, seeking meaning from the only viable institutions most of us have any familiarity with–the federal government. This may be what distinguishes our current cultural problems from those we previously experienced, and why we invest so much emotional and moral weight into our politics.^^

Following Smith’s largely unspoken line of thought brings us to a sober realization. Our seemingly silly fights might actually have great importance. If we can focus on the real issue at hand, perhaps we could make progress in solving them.

Dave

*This comment may seem confusing or silly if you think of symbols as images only. If we take the older meaning of symbol and apply the term to ways of understanding beyond the literal and physical, it makes more sense. Parents of teens will surely have encountered this before. Your child asks for “reasons” and “explanations” for your various edicts, but you can’t always provide to the degree they wish. No amount of explanation suffices, for you want them how to live “into” a world, one that can’t be entirely shown them from the outside.

**This includes abortion as well. Some hard cases exist on the fringe of the issue, but at its root is the issue of human autonomy and sexual freedom. I believe it likely that most of the debate about “when life begins” for the pro-choice side is a smokescreen for the right to create a “safe space” for us to adopt a more pagan attitude towards sexual behavior.

^The rapid changes in accepted sexual morality recently may be extra evidence for Smith’s claim. He points out that Seinfeld may have been a turning point. Most every character led sexual lives that would not have fit into any previous sitcom. But to balance this, the show did not promote the main characters as morally serious in any way. From there, we had Friends, and then The Office which were still comedies but the moral seriousness of the characters increased as their sexual ethics remained much the same as in Seinfeld.

^^Perhaps the one place where people can find some semblance of community and belonging is college campuses, and perhaps this is why many students and professors have sought to make their campus into a kind of temple and dramatically infuse it with doctrinaire ideologies, sacred spaces, and taboo speech. Like Ross Douthat, I deplore a great deal about the campus protests, but I understand the impulse. While I admire efforts from a quite ideologically diverse group of people like Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Camille Paglia, and Candace Owens to further free-speech and open debate, we need to realize that such things in themselves will not save us.


Animalia Agonistes

Given that I was 17 when Nirvana released Nevermind, the album obviously completely blew me away. For some time the subversive nature of the lyrics eluded me, lost as I was in the joy of our culture granting new-found permission to wear flannel shirts untucked. But then, one notices their audience mockery, such as in “In Bloom”–“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, but he knows not what it means.”

I confess to feeling a bit guilty for thinking of this song in reference to the monumental achievement of J.M.C Toynbee and her book Animals in Roman Life and Art (yes, she was the sister of that Toynbee). I have no wish to mock as did Kurt Cobain, but I confess frustration with the traditional British historian. The British, like all cultures, should own and even celebrate their quirks. And perhaps nothing quite says “British” like the charming codger who has spent his entire life curating a particular old building, and can tell you everything that has ever happened to every plank of wood. This same trait gets passed on to many of their historians, our esteemed author included. In her day she stood as a substantial authority on Roman art in general, and perhaps the authority for the Romans and animals–no small achievement.

But she takes all of that knowledge and . . . writes a reference book. She fails to make her facts into a poem, to make her knowledge sing. Knowing everything, she “knows not what it means.”

I will make a meager attempt to do so.

But first, some of the fascinating facts about Romans and their relationship to animals.

Some years ago I saw a documentary on gladiators, and the video mentioned the “ecological disaster” inflicted upon wildlife. Surely, I thought this must be overdramatized. Apparently not! The numbers are numbing:

  • Some 9000 animals were killed at the inaugeration of the Colosseum, many of them “ordinary” animals which were not ferocious, such as foxes. Women killed some of these animals.
  • Trajan killed 11,000 to celebrate his Dacian Triumph
  • In one show, Nero’s bodyguard brought down 400 lions and 300 bears
  • Having beasts fight each other formed part of the spectacle as well.
  • From the late Republic on, having thousands of animals killed (most of them threatening) for a particular “celebration” was rather ordinary–the examples are too numerous to list to here, though Toynbee lays them out nicely.
  • All in all, some estimate that as many as 1,000,000 animals died in the arena (not to mention 400,000 humans), and it does indeed appear that certain species disappeared from certain regions of the globe due to this.

Some other more “tame”(zing!) factoids:

  • Elephants may have become a symbol of divinization for the Romans by the time of Emperor Tiberius. In addition, the Romans appear to have been able to train elephants to do unusual tricks, including walk a tightrope.
  • Aelian noted that he had seen a monkey trained to drive a chariot.
  • Lions were frequently featured on tombs by the age of Augustus, and dogs also were symbols of death.
  • On rare occasions, they kept bears as private pets.
  • In contrast to Judeo-Christian civilizations (and most others), the Romans regarded snakes as beneficial creatures.
  • The Romans had little regard for the tortoise, but the term they used for their interlocking shields was “testudo,” obviously borrowed from turtles. Turtle shells were also prized as baths for infants.

And so on. The book has hundreds of observations akin to these. So far, so good–she brings forward a variety of interesting facts. She helpfully reminds us that in a civilization that Rome’s relationship to its animals would have been much closer than ours. They relied on animals for farming, transport, and the like far more than we, and perhaps more than other contemporary civilizations (given their size, road structure, mobility of their army, etc.). But the data points never take us anywhere. Some might find this a humble attitude. I do not. Certainly there are plenty of times when one should keep their mouth shut, but I think Chesterton’s quote applies here:

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition and settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table

If you are the world’s foremost authority on animals in Roman art, surely you can risk some of your accumulated capital and venture some highly educated guesses. Alas that she does not.

Two points in particular raised eyebrows with me that might shed a more general light on Roman civilization.

One is from page 68, where she writes,

[Here] two mosaic panels show a well-maned lion devouring a dark grey fawn. . . . The lions are arena beasts . . . [Another example] shows a lion holding in its maw the head of an antlered stag, which drips abundantly with blood. Lively amphitheater scenes are indeed, not uncommon on the floors of well-mannered houses.

Later, on page 83, she writes about leopards and describes another mosaic:

Above the three are dying leopards, each transfixed murderously by a barbed spear, writhing in agony, one rolled over on its back. Below, two venatores, one labeled MELITTO, are each driving a spear into the leopard’s chest, from which gush streams of blood. A dying leopard, also speared, lies in the background. . . . the realism with which they are portrayed is excruciating; and this picture raises in a most acute form the problem of how householders could wish to perpetuate such scenes of carnage on the floors of their home.

Though the problem be “acute,” she says not one word about it!

In a few other instances, usually involving lions or elephants, Toynbee tells of written texts that speak of people starting to sympathize with animals in the arena, even coming to root for them against their human counterparts, with thousands in the crowd weeping as they were killed. One might expect that such instances would serve as a spark for moral revolution, but this never came close to happening. Objections to the practice in any written record can be listed easily on one hand over a period that spans many centuries.

Can we put these curiosities together?

On one hand we have the “modern” answer to the problem which would run like so:

  • The Romans were a calloused, bored, and violent people. Such people would go to the games, cheer the games, and celebrate the games. The fact that they decorate their floors with scenes from the games is not much different than us putting up posters of our sports heroes in action.
  • Yes, they did lament the cruelty of the games at times. But again, when a player gets badly injured we too get quiet. If the injury is particularly bad players and fans might cry. But though the injury may cause us pause, this will not stop us from watching the next game or even the next play.

This explanation might be true, but I doubt it is. It seems too neat, too comfortable to the modern mind, to fit an ancient civilization.

We can start an alternate inquiry by asking what purpose the games served in Rome. Based on Carlin Barton’s wonderful insights, we can say that the games did not serve strictly as entertainment, but rather as an extension of their religious belief. Moderns like to separate religion from other aspects of life, the ancients would not have understood this distinction.

Most know that the Romans saw themselves as “tough” and “hard,” so we naturally assume that their drunken revels were a departure from that, a sign of decadence. But the Romans saw these seemingly disparate aspects as part of the same cloth. We are hard on ourselves in the army–we are hard on ourselves at parties too. We will eat until we cannot eat, then vomit, and eat some more–and still strive to enjoy it all. We push ourselves to endure both pain and pleasure in its maximum degree. Moderation?–not a thing in Rome.

My guess, then, with the animals and the arena, is that they could weep for them not so much because they felt sorry for them, but because they saw them as partners in the struggle of life. They weep for them falling as they would lament the deaths of their soldiers. Toynbee points out the close and varied relationship Rome had with animals, so this might fit with her work. So too, they have mosaics of dying animals in their homes not to revel in their destruction, but to honor them as fellow participants in the “Roman way,” just as we have posters of our sports heroes to honor their achievements.

So too, seeing lions and elephants as symbols of death and divinization might explain why they participated in the arena. Just as a Roman could be “divinized” by transcending normal human attributes such as fear of death, so too the animals could achieve this same level, in a sense. The title of this post recalls Milton’s poem, “Samson Agonistes.” Milton portrays Samson as a great champion,, but one imprisoned also by his “inner struggle” (a rough translation of “agonistes”)–and perhaps glorified by this same struggle? The Romans may have thought they were being generous in sharing their glory by sharing their struggle with the animals.

I may be wrong, but I do feel that ancient civilizations are generally “weirder” than we usually expect, and taking this approach will eventually lead to the right answer. Given how many unusual observations Toynbee made, it grieves me that she failed to use her enormous gifts to attempt a synthesis.

The Care of Souls

The Bill of Rights occupies a cherished place within American life and jurisprudence, so it comes as a surprise to many (as it did to me back in high school) that the founders added the Bill of Rights only reluctantly to get the Constitution ratified by enough states. It seems that the framers found such cherished guarantees as essentially unnecessary, and so adding them could only create confusion.

But they did add them, likely thinking that, “We think such things are not needed. Obviously, the federal government has no power to regulate speech, assembly, etc. But if you would like it made crystal-clear to alleviate anxiety, fine–here you go.”

The idea of “freedom of religion” in America comes in part from our history and our ideology. In a legal sense, it arises from the 1st Amendment, which reads,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

What once seemed solid now melts into the ether, as many today question proper limits for freedom of speech and religion. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed through Congress in near unanimous fashion back in 1993 (97-3 in the Senate) but might not pass through Congress today. No one has yet made a direct attack against freedom of religion, but recent controversies about sexuality have led to many now sniping at the edges.

As a conservative of some kind, part of me feels the obligation to defend religious liberty and our past traditions. But Steven K. Smith’s book, Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Principle of Religious Freedom made me rethink everything. His 2018 book Pagans and Christians in the City is bar-none the best book on the legal problem of religion and sexual ethics. This work details how legally and logically, the idea of everyone having complete “freedom of religion” was never attainable and should not be attempted. What I find most impressive is that Smith saw our modern problem coming back in 1993 when he wrote Foreordained Failure, a time when it seemed when America had re-enshrined religious liberty for all time with RFRA. Reading Smith is akin to cold water on your face in the morning–startling, but in the end, you draw a breath and see more clearly.

Onto Smith’s argument . . .

First, we should not see the Establishment Clause as an attempt to formulate a grand principle that could be used to adjudicate the future of the United States. Great differences existed among the states that ratified the Constitution, for example:

  • Relatively liberal Pennsylvania had blasphemy laws on the books well into the 19th century.
  • In New York, though they had no explicit laws, we find prosecutions for blasphemy into the 19th century as well.
  • Many states had Sabbath observance laws, the range of which differed widely. Virginia’s law (proposed by Madison the same day he proposed a religious freedom bill) prohibited disruption of services and unnecessary labor on Sundays. Many New England states went much further.

Many objected to these laws–John Adams thought blasphemy proscriptions inappropriate, for example. Still, while some questioned the laws’ morality or efficacy, none challenged the state’s legal right to have such laws.

The Establishment Clause could never have proclaimed a tight-knit principle about religion for the country because no national consensus existed. Rather, it proclaimed what everyone more or less agreed with–that the federal government could not make laws respecting religion, however much the states could do so.

Even the intellectual founders of the Liberal Order cannot accurately guide us. Smith looks at John Locke, whose A Letter Concerning Toleration outlines much of the modern ideology concerning religious freedom. Locke writes,

The care of souls cannot belong to a civil magistrate, because his power consists in outward force: but true and saving religion consists in inward persuasion of mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by force.

In this sense, Locke’s influence shines clearly–the government cannot regulate religion because it has no power to do so, and whatever power it hopes to exercise will have no real effect anyway. Church and commonwealth are “perfectly distinct, infinitely different from one another.”

To some this could seem like the absolute principle we need for modern times, but Locke also seemingly contradicts himself. For one, he admits that morality comes under the purview of the state, and that morality and religion share beds. Thus, Locke will not tolerate atheists, because their denial of the existence of God undermines public faith and morality, and he denies toleration to Moslems, whose potential loyalty to foreign sultans make them suspect.

The second dilemma . . . Locke’s theory of toleration depends on a view of religion not shared by many religious people (Smith impresses me again and again in this book by catching what many often miss). Locke assumes that:

  • Saving faith is a purely voluntary act
  • The church’s only business is that of ‘saving souls.’
  • He has no concept of the importance of ritual or outward observance or “show.”
  • For Locke, truth is where we arrive through independent and careful consideration of evidence, not through our communities, our rituals, etc. These inner beliefs can resist any outside coercion.

Even many secular Americans today would question at least one of these premises–probably #2. Most would criticize a church that sought to have no broader impact on the community. In America’s history we have numerous examples of churches seeking political and social goals that many would approve of, such as the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century, and the support given to the Civil Rights movement by many churches in the 1960’s. Smith writes,

The object of this discussion is not to determine whether either Locke’s premises or conclusion are sound or not. The point is that Locke’s account of toleration is dependent upon background beliefs about religion, government, society, and human psychology [that many will not agree with].

Whatever practices and precedents we set, we will have to favor a particular set of assumptions. We will have to discriminate, in a sense, as every law discriminates by declaring some things ok and some things not. The problem is that we

  • Believe that we are not discriminating, and that we can arrive a place of “neutrality” where all can agree, and we
  • Believe that we can find a universal principle to guide us in all circumstances

Smith thinks otherwise. At least in the 18th-19th centuries we left religion to the particular variances of the states, and so avoided our modern problem.

“Religious freedom,” then, will inevitably contain high levels of relativity.

Smith gives an example of a community with four hypothetically different perspectives:

  • Religious Voluntarists (traditional Baptists, non-denominationalists, etc.)
  • Religious Behaviorists (Catholics, Orthodox, some Lutherans and Presbyterians, perhaps Jews and Moslems as well)
  • Secular Optimists–those in favor of the idea of public good and collective action (progressives?)
  • Secular Pessimists–those opposed to collective action and the concept of public goods (libertarians).

Imagine a man named John wants to marry 3 wives, believing sincerely that this will aid in the salvation of his soul, and that of his family.

The religious voluntarist would grudgingly support his claim. Nothing should stand between a man and his conscience. The religious behaviorist would deny it–we cannot allow people to willfully harm their souls in such an overtly blatant fashion. The secular optimist might also deny it, based on a belief that polygamy hurts women, but the secular pessimist would likely allow it out of fear of too much state power.

Whatever the decision about John’s desire, some kind of religious belief must be preferred, and others discriminated against. We cannot avoid it, as it is the very essence of law itself to “discriminate.”

As an example, Smith takes the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, which overturned a law which forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools. The court understood that the law had at its root religious objections to evolution, but “the state may not adopt programs which aid or oppose any religion. This prohibition is absolute.” Smith finds the Court’s (basically unanimous) line of reasoning faulty.

First, it creates a syllogistic reasoning that could favor either side. If we cannot aid or oppose any religion, then the law in place aids some religious believers and opposes others. But the same happens if you strike down the law. Either way we must “aid” or “oppose” certain beliefs.

Second, those that favored banning evolution from schools did so not because six day creation was a religious idea, but because they thought six day creation true and evolution false. Many other religious ideas lend support to evolutionary theory. The plaintiffs had no interest in generically “religious” teaching, but in “true” teaching.

Smith pushes against this false idea of neutrality with a quick examination of Grove v. Mead School District, in which the plaintiff objected to the book The Learning Tree in her daughter’s public school curriculum along religious grounds. Judge Canby sided with Mead. He admitted that The Learning Tree challenges certain religious dogmas. But he took pains to point out that a variety of Christian thinkers, among them Paul Tillich, Hans Kung, and Karl Barth, all argue that “honest, and even agonizing doubt, is not incompatible with Christian theism.”

Whatever one thinks of the above quote, those who object to The Learning Tree on religious grounds would likely not respect Tillich and Kung as authorities on the question. Again, the issue is truth, not religion. Grove felt that the inclusion of the book was wrong, not anti-religious. Grove might not have minded a book her daughter had to read that criticized Buddhism or Greek paganism. Judge Canby favored one religion over another–and would have done so no matter how he ruled.

Smith also dismantles the idea of a “common denominator,” a frequent and comfortable refuge for the centrist American. The argument runs, “Some favor religion ‘X,’ some religion ‘Y,’ some favor no religion at all. But we can base jurisprudence on what all sides have “in common.” Smith writes,

In more familiar contexts we would immediately spot the common denominator strategy as fraudulent. Suppose Dad and his daughter have a disagreement about dinner. Daughter proposes: “Let’s just have desert.” Dad suggests it would be better to have a full meal . . . then desert. Daughter reponds: “Dad, we have some disagreements. But there is something we both agree on; we both want desert. Clearly . . . the “neutral” solution is to accept what we agree on. So serve up the desert.”

Dad is not likely to be taken in by this ploy.

Again, as in other examples cited here, for both daughter and Dad, the issue is not desert itself, but the meaning of desert. For the daughter, desert is dinner. For Dad, desert has no meaning without dinner. Smith quotes Michael McConnell, who writes,

If the public school day and all its teaching is strictly secular, the child is likely to learn the lesson that religion is irrelevant to the significant things of this world, or at least that the spiritual realm is radically distinct and separate from the temporal. However intended, that is a lesson about religion. [That curriculum] is not “neutral.”

Smith asks his readers to dismantle false ideas about freedom and neutrality. Much like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, he has a magnificent diagnosis of the problem. Like Deneen as well, he has no particular path forward. Liberalism–love it or not–we can’t really leave it. We have to make the best of it.

In 1993 those that disagreed with Smith could look around and see the ground holding in a general sense. Now, our religious divisions seem much more obvious. “Secularism,” as Smith points out, will not fix the problem, but probably just deepen the religious divide because it too picks a side. It appears, however, that we have gone through different dominant religions, and need to accept that at certain times, different religions take center stage and receive preference.

We might see it this way:

  • 1776-1846 — a frontier, democratized, individualistic Protestantism
  • 1846-1918 — a more universalized/nationalized Protestantism
  • 1918-68 — A civic faith in work, nation, and gain
  • 1968-2008 — Democracy as faith in self-discovery and self-expression
  • 2008-? — Something else that has yet to be decided. Who can say, but also –who can deny we are in the midst of another religious upheaval and redefinition?

This is a rather lame attempt to trace our religious history, but I might prefer open recognition of our particular religious faith over continual confusion. As always, religious dissenters will have protections and freedom of conscience and worship. This is a great thing about America. The “losers” need not lose everything. But they will lose something, and we should be prepared.

Dave

*Writing as someone who is Orthodox, reading Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, it now makes perfect sense to me why early America had a great suspicion of Catholics as detrimental to democracy. They–and the Orthodox–both believe that we know truth not primarily though independent and abstract investigation, but through community, tradition, participation, and ritual–in addition to some notion of “faith,” of course. As Mark Noll wrote, American democratic practice seeks to reduce truth to simple abstract propositions. Our beliefs about liberty eschew tradition and hierarchy, both crucial to Catholic & Orthodox practice.

Catholics, Orthodox, and others like them can “shoehorn” their beliefs and practice into democratic society, but they may not find it naturally compatible with their worldview.

Fantasy Island

You will notice the dated references from 2019 to the Covington kids caught on film at pro-life protest. I repost this in conjunction with the start of our American History class.

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

I did not grow up watching a lot of TV, as my parents were (thankfully) on the stricter side of things in that regard. Yet, like most everyone else, I watched what I could when they were not around. Almost anything would do when these opportunities struck, and I distinctly remember even watching a few scattered episodes of Fantasy Island. Some of you will remember this show, in which Ricardo Montalban presided over an island resort of sorts, where people would come for vacations. But inevitably, guests would have some kind of unreal and usually traumatic experience, whereby certain unknown issues in their lives would attain resolution. The guests would leave happy, Montalban smiling benignly as they left.

Again, I watched this show even though I never particularly enjoyed it (it was on tv, and that was enough). What’s more, I could never grasp its basic premise or understand what was happening. Were the experiences of the guests real or not? They seemed unreal, but then if unreal, why did people feel so satisfied at the end? How could the island produce just what was needed for each guest (The Lost series, after an intriguing start, definitely borrowed way too much from Fantasy Island in its later seasons)? I remember no explanation, just that, “it had all worked out” somehow in a package that always seemed too neat and tidy

Again, the aggravations I had with the show didn’t prevent me from watching. In my defense, how can one look away from Ricardo Montalblan (still the best Star Trek villain to date)?

Much has been said about the dust-up over the brief video clips from the Pro-Life March involving the “clash” between Catholic high-school students and other protestors. I will say little here, except that

  • I was glad to see some who made ridiculous and ill-founded statements retract their comments when new, extended video evidence came to light. I wish I saw far more laments that thousands of people rushed to extreme judgment of a 17-year-old after seeing 1 minute of video–in other words, the very exercise of commenting on Twitter “in the moment” is desperately fraught with peril. It wasn’t just that people got it wrong, but that no one should have commented in the first place.*
  • I basically agree with David Brooks, who argued that 1) this scary and tribal rush to judgment happens on both sides** (this time the left was at fault) , and 2) the problem we have is also a byproduct a new technology (phones and social media) that we must understand more fully and use more wisely.

But as much as I appreciated Brooks’ wisdom, I think he misses something deeper and more fundamental. No one questions the impact of smart phones on how we interact with each other and the world. We should remember, however, that inventions do not simply randomly drop from the sky. They emerge within specific cultural contexts. While the phone was certainly not fated to arise in America, it makes perfect sense that it did. Apple marketed its products with the letter “i” in front, itunes, the ipod, the iMac, and of course, the iphone. Apple wanted one to think of these tools as a way to radically personalize our worlds, which fits within our cultural and political notions of individualism. It’s no surprise that their products made them billions of dollars. They did not create the need for radical personalization of our lives, they tapped into what already existed and helped us expand the horizons of our collective felt need.

I agree that we need to work as a society to understand the technologies we create, but that is just another way of saying we need to understand ourselves.

Harold Bloom’s The American Religion attempts to do just this. He argues that, as diverse as we are religiously, every culture must have some unifying belief, even if this belief remains below the level of consciousness. Bloom states that America is in fact a gnostic nation and not a Christian one, and he defines gnosticism as:

  • A belief that the physical world is essentially evil, and the “spiritual” is good.
  • That all people have a “divine spark” within them covered over by experience, culture, history, and materiality (the “all people” part of this is our particular democratization of what was an elitist religion in the ancient world).
  • We must find a way to liberate our true selves, this “divine spark,” from its constraints. Culture, tradition, history, etc. often stand as enemies in this effort.

Bloom postulates that this faith lies underneath other professed faiths, be they agnostic, Baptist, Jewish, or Mormon. It has invaded and colonized our institutional religions and our overall mindset. He finds it particular present in Southern Baptists of his era, but today he would likely look to the various mega-churches, which operate on the idea that Sundays should be friendly, relatable, accessible, and above all, not “boring.” Ralph Waldo Emerson no doubt helped found our particular version of gnostic faith, writing in 1838 that,

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it . . . . Alone in history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. . . . He spoke of miracles, for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this miracle shines as the character ascends.

1838 Divinity School Address

So too William James wrote that

Religion, as I ask you take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. . . . as I have already said, the immediate personal experiences the immediate personal experiences will amply fill our time, and we shall hardly consider theology or ecclesiasticism at all.

“The Variety of Religious Experience, 1902

We could easily sandwich Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in between these two thinkers for the trifecta of the prophets of non-contextualized, disembodied, American hyper-individualism. This kind of individualism has as its mission liberation from other groups other entities that would seek to mold, shape, and define. And, as we look at the crumbling of institutional churches, our lack of respect for governmental instiutions, the crisis at many universities, etc. we must declare that the individualism of Emerson and Whitman has triumphed almost completely.^

I can think of few things more compatible with this faith than combining Twitter and iphones. We can both memorialize our lives (which are of course special and worthy of documentation) and express our inmost thoughts to the world at any time. Conventions of privacy, or politeness, you say? Sorry, the god of individualism is a jealous god and will brook no rivals for his throne. Do we contradict oursevles and treat others as we would rather not be treated? Well, we are large, to paraphrase Whitman, and contain multitudes. We believe firmly that our souls should have the right to break free at all times.

Thus, if Bloom is correct, if we want to avoid such miscarriages of justice in the future, we may need to do much more than get a better understanding of technology. Brooks is wrong. No quick and mysterious sitcom-like fix is in sight. We need a new religion to avoid such disasters in the future. Our nation, relatively isolated as it is, is still not an island. And, double alas, Ricardo Montalblan is not here to save us.

Dave

*I know that we need journalism, public records of public events, etc., but I will go one step farther. I don’t know why anyone was filming the students in the first place. I know this happens all the time, but it seems to me that you should go to a protest march to protest, not film others protesting. If you want to counter-protest, do so, but don’t go to film others counter-protesting. I agree with Jonathan Pageau, who argued that our incessant desire to mediate our experience through screens fits into the kind of gnosticism Bloom describes. The screen inevitably creates an abstraction, a disconnect between ourselves and reality. He writes,

It is only in the 17th century that men framed their vision with metal and glass, projecting their mind out into an artificially augmented space. Men always had artificial spaces, painting, sculpture, maps, but the telescope and microscope are self-effacing artifices, they attempt to replace the eye, to convince us that they are not artificial but are more real than the eye. It is not only the physical gesture of looking at the world through a machine that demonstrates the radical change, though this is symbolic enough, but it is the very fact that people would do that and come to the conclusion that what they saw through these machines was truer than how they experienced the world without them.

from his “Most of the Time the World is Flat,” a post for the Orthodox Arts Journal

**I am basically conservative and run mostly in conservative circles. So, while I feel that it is mostly the left that mobs people for now for breathing too loudly through their nose, I should say that the right engages in it as well. I remember some years ago glumly sitting through a presentation where a commentator dissected and destroyed the whole personality of Bill Clinton based on 6 seconds of a video clip played in slow-motion.

^Patrick Deneen has related that when he taught at Princeton, an important study came out that on the Amish that showed that more than 90% of all those who experience “rumspringa” (when as later teens they leave the community to experience the world) return back to their communities. Deneen was taken aback by how much this bothered his colleagues, who could not conceive of living a life bound by tradition and communal standards. For many of our elite Princteton dons, such a life could only be termed as oppression, and some went so far as to suggest that they should be liberated from this oppression.

This, I’m sure, backs up Bloom’s thesis all the more.

Kevin Kelly’s Mind, and . . . Matter

I vaguely remember sometime in high school discovering the idea that “technology is neither good or bad in itself, but one can use technology for good or bad ends.” As a young American teen whose greatest life-changing event might have been the switch from cassettes (the sound muddied and faded so quickly!) to CD’s, that idea served as an important corrective.

But years later I distinctly remember coming across Lewis Mumford, who made the striking point that the design and use of the technology shapes us as much as we shape it. We may create a tool, but then immediately afterwards, the relationship turns symbiotic. Using a shovel all day will shape certain muscles more than others. A civilization, for example, that comes to rely on computers will inevitably prioritize certain skills and values over others.

The developed world’s response to COVID made me wonder whether or not Mumford could have gone even further. As many have noted (Paul Kingsnorth, Mary Harrington, etc.), the existence of the internet and other digital technology seemed to drive our policy, i.e., “We can work online and have food delivered, so we should do so.” The tail wagged the dog.

Some intellectual spaces, such as perhaps The World Economic Forum, believe that technology will fix all of our GDP’s everywhere, have yet to learn what I learned at 16. I have few worries about such people, because they seem fundamentally naive and out of touch. Much more interesting, and so potentially much more impactful for good or ill, is the work of someone like Kevin Kelly, as demonstrated by his two books, What Technology Wants, and The Inevitable. Kelly helped cofound Wired magazine and has a wealth of practical experience with technology and the tech world. He spent much of his youth trekking around the world technology free. He has worked extensively with conservation efforts. Kelly has his foot in many worlds, and possesses much more experience and intellect than most anyone who talks about technology. As his recent Wikipedia page picture indicates, this man has the look of a true believer–a prophet or a madman, but certainly no fool.

At the core of Kelly’s thoughts lay a few key principals:

  • Certain technological advances and changes are ‘inevitable’ precisely because we do not choose them. Rather, technology, which he names in corporately personal terms, “The Technetium,” functions as a living part of our environment.*
  • Just as we have the task of cooperating with our natural environment, so too we have the task of cooperating with the “technical” environment. But because both Nature and the Technium are alive in like ways, the process of adaptation to technology is not artificial, or anti-human, but natural and organic to human existence over time.

As he writes,

Our concern should not be about whether to embrace [the Technium]. We are beyond embrace; we are already symbiotic with it. At a macro-scale, the technium follows an inevitable progression. Yet at the microscope, volition rules. Our choice is to align ourselves with this direction, to expand choice and possibilities for everyone and everything.

Technology, he argues, wants what all life wants, which means increasing flexibility, opportunity, emergence, complexity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, beauty, diversity, and yes, sentience. He writes elsewhere that,

Living organisms and ecosystems are characterized by a high degree of indirect collaboration, transparency of function, decentralization, flexibility, redundancy of roles, and natural efficiency; these are all traits that make biology useful to us and reasons why life can sustain its own evolution indefinitely. So the more lifelike we train our technology to be, the more convivial it becomes for us . . .

The fact that the pace of societal adaptation of new technology has dramatically increased over the last century shows us that this process of conviviality and symbiosis has also increased. Kelly want us to know that life works this way, and always has. We can try and invent better technologies as opposed to worse ones. But we cannot avoid a partnership with technology, just as we cannot avoid a partnership with Nature.

Kelly has a variety of observations to demonstrate that the development of new ideas and technology acts independently from material linear causation. Something operates outside of purely singular human volition. Among other things, he notes that successful authors/screenwriters get sued all the time for supposedly stealing ideas from other authors. Investigation then shows that such authors never came across the work of those that sue them.** We see the simultaneous development of blowgun techniques from tribes in the Amazon and in Borneo with no contact whatsoever. We see Luther and Zwingli coming up with very similar theology at the same time without ever interacting with each other. We see similar technological progression across cultures that have no contact. Some of the processes have an explanation in material causation, but others not, such as why rock art precedes sewing development almost uniformly.

Such propositions get at something transcendent, and Kelly quotes Carver Mead on this, who writes,

Moore’s Law is really about belief systems, it’s not a law of physics. After long enough, people talk about it in retrospect, and in retrospect it looks like a curve, a physical law, and people talk about it that way. But if you actually live it, as I am now, then it doesn’t feel like a physical law. It’s really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe.

Kelly obviously recognizes variability. Not everything, or even most developments, end up fully entering the Technium. The question revolves more around the “wanting” of technology. He writes, “The poppy seed wants to become a plant, even though a fair amount of them end up on bagels.”

Kelly writes persuasively and uses a variety of examples and techniques to drive his points home. He avoids claiming that every technology has value. He spent a lot of time among the Amish, and praises them for how they interact with technology. Contrary to typical belief, the Amish have nothing against technology per se. But they put a tremendous amount of energy into monitoring how technology impacts their community. They make distinctions, but they base these distinctions (such as riding in cars, but not owning cars) on careful observation over long periods of time. They are not arbitrary, nor hypocritical. The point he wishes to make I think is–even with the Amish, human interaction with technology will happen, as it has always happened. Let’s work together, like the Amish, to maximize our understanding of technology and how it shapes us, while understanding that it will certainly shape us.

All of this sounds reasonable. I remember railing against email in the late 90’s, but I use it all the time now. I resisted getting a smart phone for many years, but now have one. Kelly would tell me, “There, there, it’s ok. You’re not a bad person, you haven’t betrayed any crucial moral principle. You simply are doing what humanity has always done.”

But I can’t quite accept this. Perhaps email and smart phones have a reasonable place in the world. In the end, however, the totality of Kelly’s book left me cold, though I could not put my finger on why for a few weeks . . . until I read portions of a book on medieval views of memory.

Mary Carruthers’ The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture is alas, not one that I could read cover-to-cover. Long stretches of the work delve into very technical matters that I lack the patience or interest to digest. But she makes some of her more general points with great clarity, and charitably illumines a world with different values than our own. In her introduction she cites the reflections of the contemporaries of two acknowledged great geniuses–first Einstein from our time, and then, St. Thomas Aquinas.

The greatness of Einstein lies in his tremendous imagination, in the unbelievable obstinacy with which he pursues problems.  Originality is the most important factor in any scientific work.  Intuition leads to unexplored regions of thought, though intuition is difficult to explain rationally.

No great scientific achievement happens without wandering in the darkness of error.  The more imagination is restricted, the more work moves only along a definite track, which limits new ideas. The ground is safer here, and that means fewer mistakes.  No great man is always correct.  Einstein’s recent paper might be wrong, and Einstein would still be the greatest of scientists today.

The most amazing aspect of Einstein is that he directs his whole vital force to one object–original thinking.  Slowly I came to realize that here his greatness lies.  Nothing has the importance of physics.  No personal life can match the comprehension of how God created the world.  One feels that behind his external calm his brain works without interruption–nothing can stop it.  

The clue to Einstein’s role in science lies in his loneliness and aloofness.  In this respect he differs from other scientists.  He never studied at a famous university–he worked at a patent office.  The isolation served as a blessing, since it prevented his thought from wandering into already established channels.  This ‘loneliness,’ this refusal to march with the crowds but looking instead to his own path, is the most essential feature of his creations.

Reflections of Leopold Infeld, who worked with Einstein at Princeton

And now, St. Thomas:

Of the brilliance of his intellect and his soundness of judgment, sufficient proof lies in his vast literary output.  His memory was extremely rich and retentive: whatever he once read and grasped he never forgot; it was as if knowledge were added to his soul as one might add pages to a book.  

Consider, for example, that admirable compilation of patristic commentaries on the four gospels he made for Pope Urban, and for the most part, he dictated from texts that he already had read and committed to memory while staying in various monasteries.  Still stronger is the testimony of Reginald [his secretary] and of others who took dictation for him.  All declare that he used to dictate to three separate secretaries at once, and occasionally four, on different subjects at the same time, completely from memory.  No one could do such a thing without a special grace.  Nor did he seem to search for things yet unknown to him.  Rather, he simply let his memory pour out its treasures.

He never set himself to study or argue a point, without first having recourse to prayer mingled with tears.  When perplexed, he would pause and pray at length, and when returning, he found his thought so clear that it seemed to show him, as in a book, the pages that he needed.

Reflections of Thomas of Celano, friend of Reginald, one of St. Thomas’ principal secretaries

On can glean a great deal from these short few paragraphs. We can start by noticing that the modern world view of genius means breaking from the past, and the older view meant connecting more firmly with it. Moreover, we see that the development of a strong memory for the medievals involved something akin to moral virtue, a “special grace.”

Memory involved reading, among other things. Carruthers shows that for the medievals, reading and memory were not for their own sakes. Rather, like the bee (the medievals viewed bees very highly for a number of reasons), they were to take the raw material of the text and turn into something “sweet,” like honey. This sounds unremarkable, but the medievals put a particularly earthy twist on how they discussed the process of reading. She writes,

The writer [of the Regula Monachorum] speaks of various stomach rumblings, belchings, and fartings that accompany the nightly gathering of monks.  But, he continues, as a famous pastor has said, just as smoke drives out bees, so belching caused by indigestion drives away the Holy Spirit [i.e., improper eating, or the taking of things into the body, caused improper means of expelling things from the body].”  

But this does not mean that all belches and farts were viewed negatively, per se, as it would be possible to have proper bodily “ex-takes” as you would proper bodily intake.  The Regula Monachorum declares,

Wherefore, as the belch bursts forth from the stomach according to the quality of food, and the index of a fart is according to the sweetness and stench of its odor, so the cogitations of the inner man brings forth words, and “from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).  The just man, eating, fills his soul.  And when he is replete with sacred doctrine, from the good treasury of his memory he brings forth those things which are good.

Carruthers comments,

The notion of Spirit as breath or wind is biblical; modern scholars, accustomed to thinking of this trope as a mere figure of speech, would never make the connection with a belch or fart that the medieval writer did.  Modern scholars who think they have observed class rivalries, or a “medieval unconscious” at odds with its piety in the texts that deal with memory work, would do well to consider the pervasive image of monks at prayer as spiritual flatulence.  This trope was often intended to provoke laughter and humility, and we should not assume it to be impious.

Just as we might say that our Constitution, for example, functions as a kind of decision-making technology, so also medieval memory techniques functioned as a technology. But what differentiates Kelly from the older understanding is this mixing of the heavenly and the earthly, talked of so starkly by the medievals. Kelly only seems to care for what comes next, and concerns himself more or less only with how we will adapt to the Technium. As to why the medievals thought of memory as a moral quality, I assume that one must gather the past to live rightly in the present. As for the future, well, it has no reality because it has no existence. But the past, while not equal in “reality” to the present, functions differently for us. We can, and must, have a connection to it.

Kelly sees a continuing “loss of body” as humanity’s only possible future. It is “inevitable” that we fly upwards and join with all of the etherealizing tendencies of modern digital technology. Thankfully such a vision can certainly never completely come to pass. Those that want the Metaverse will still need workers to lay cable. The heavens, after all, cannot exist without Atlas holding them up.

Dave

*This post is not the place to discuss the reality of corporate identities and personalities. But John Vervake and Jonathan Pageau do a good job of trying to explain the idea here and here.

**Some of the examples he cites are weird and uncanny, like JK Rowling getting sued for stealing the idea of an author who developed a story about a wizard school, whose hero is named Larry Potter, who has a scar, etc.

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.’