Bull Logic, Bear Result

I recently heard an interesting interview with author Paul Kingsnorth. Some years ago Kingsnorth was a prominent advocate for the environment.. He ceased his activism, though has kept most of his beliefs about the environmental and sociological issues western civilization faces. Kingsnorth also recently converted to Orthodox Christianity, which–while not the same as moving to Texas and becoming a Baptist–still puts him at odds with aspects of many environmental movements (for a few at least, Christianity is the cause of our environmental degradation with its teaching about man’s dominion over creation).

Again–Kingsnorth agrees that many problems exist. But he has come to believe that

  • Some of the solutions many advocate are in fact part of the problem. Technological advances will not save us–be those advances in carbon reduction, green energy, etc. To look to “Science” and “Progress” for help is to look to what got us in this mess in the first place. For example, electric cars are no doubt better for the environment than gasoline engines, but one still has to do a lot mining to get the materials for the batteries of those cars.
  • Activism spends too much time telling people what to do (which naturally provokes resistance) and not enough showing them how to do it.

More importantly, he added that

  • People may want to change, but our choices actually have very little “choice” in them. The whole concept of the “market” has helped create many of our environmental problems. But–all of our “stories” we tell ourselves involve the market. We market ourselves, and our causes, on social media and elsewhere. We seek to maximize ourselves just as we seek to get the best deal on a mattress.
  • So, in the end–change seems impossible within current framework.*

Kingsnorth has now dedicated himself to trying to create a different framework for himself and others through rediscovering old stories and crafting new ones, something he has done with his novels, The Wake, Beast, and Alexandria. Of course, I hope I have represented his views fairly–I encourage you to listen to him yourself.

Hearing Kingsnorth made me curious to try and explore the question of the market, and this led me to Harvey Cox’s The Market as God. I tend toward conservatism (whatever that means), so I thought it important to check out a more liberal voice on the question. A few aspects of Cox’s analysis raised my ire. He critiques aspects of the Christian tradition, which I’m fine with as far as it goes. Certain aspects of Christian tradition should come in for critique.** But heaven forbid that Cox put other religions under the same lens. For many on the left, what is “other” always stands superior to what is one’s own. But Cox showed nuance and thoughtfulness in other areas that helped me read on (such as his correct refusal to name Adam Smith as the patron of self-interest and unbridled capitalism). He picks some low-hanging fruit, but also explores deeper questions about where we find ourselves.

Most analyses of capitalism focus too much on surface questions, i.e., how much utility does the market have for society? Cox moves through this territory quickly. First, people will inevitably create markets. And, markets obviously accomplish many functions that benefit society. Cox acknowledges the persuasive power of arguments within the Christian tradition on behalf of the Market. Michael Novak, a conservative Catholic, argues that

  • God made man in His image, which gives mankind the capacity to create things of value
  • Societies should be constructed so that this God-given aspect of man can flourish
  • Thus, whatever impedes this creative faculty in man, be it burdensome regulation, crony capitalism, and so forth, should be removed.

Novak understands the problems of unbridled capitalism combined with a competitive spirit. He also traces the effects of markets on those in poverty. Increasing opportunities for all means increasing them for the poor. Novak need not say that capitalism works perfectly to rightly argue that, while it likely will increase economic inequality, it will also raise the standard of living for all. Capitalism will not raise everyone out of poverty, but it will raise some, which is always better than none. Critics of capitalism have to acknowledge the benefits it brings.

But what I like about Cox’s book is that he is not concerned to argue about the relative pro’s and con’s of capitalism. This debate has gone on ad nauseam in many other places. He wonders not what good the Market brings (it obviously brings many benefits) but what kind of a person a Market society creates.

To start, if the Market served as a deity it would need holy days, or “feasts.” And so we have Black Friday, Prime Day, the Christmas buying season, and so on. A religion needs precepts, articles of faith. Cox mentions the idea of “trickle-down” theories, and given his background, could have leaned on this hard. But I give him credit that he went deeper to foundational ideas, not just politically divisive ones on the surface. Cox sees that every religion needs a topography, a uniform landscape where people can enter at any place. A Baptist should be able to walk into more or less any Baptist church and feel comfortable to an extent at least. The Market seeks efficiency and maximizes opportunity. For Cox, Market “faith” means much more than trickle-down theories. The Market teaches us fundamentally that we must choose, but within a set of defined parameters. Cox writes,

The Market calls not just for a monochrome outer topography. It needs an internal predictability as well. It needs people open to conversion. The Market mentality within us must match the Market that surrounds us or else the vital connection will misfire. . . . because profit derives from the mass production of countless blouses, cars, and wristwatches, a certain uniformity of taste must be generated. The problem is that human beings are not the same . . . So the Market God needs to transform people what what they once were into people prepared to receive and act on its message. . . . They have to be reconfigured to want the same thing, with manageable variations in packaging, color, and flavor.

Perhaps this explains why the Market tends to take over territory that in its inception at least, had nothing to do with Market incentives. One immediately thinks of the Super Bowl, which many now watch for the commercials. The game itself is practically secondary for many viewers. Cox briefly traces the path of Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and of course, even Christmas itself, and how the Market inexorably wormed its way into how we “observe” such days. President’s Day, Memorial Day, and so on, have at least been partially transformed simply into long weekends with inevitable sales and opportunities to buy. This presence of the Market, akin to “omnipresence,” shows the deep power of Market ideology.

In light of this, liberals and progressives might face temptation to chortle on the moral high ground. But hold the phone . . . progressives gladly support the idea of corporations and organizations supporting their causes. In fact, I would argue that liberals/progressives do a much better job branding and yes, “marketing” their ideas to the culture. How else did they win the culture wars? Those on the left believe firmly that their choices define them. Their bodies are buyers in the domain of sexuality much more than conservatives. They would cry “foul” just as much as a free-market capitalist if government or culture at large restricted their freedom of choice, their freedom to “create” themselves in the market of ideas, and causes.

This is Kingsnorth’s insight. Nearly all of our discourse on the right and the left takes place within the framework of choice, opportunity and allowing us to maximize our ability to choose.

Cox holds back from saying that the Market rules all, but admits it comes close. He floats the possibility that faith in the Market god may have peaked around 2015-16. He cites data showing that Black Friday shopping has declined in recent years. This he attributes not to people shopping less, but to stores following the lead of market rationale of providing more opportunities to shoppers, thus the new trend of stores opening on Thanksgiving evening. The logic here works, of course–the Market loves more opportunities and openings–but that same logic also works against itself. Cox cites interviews with Black Friday pre-dawn shoppers. Many told reporters that they were not there for the deals so much as the spectacle, or the ritual, of Black Friday. If they got a cheap tv, great, but they came for the Black Friday experience. Without that experience, why come?

Cox wrote his book before peak Amazon and advent of Prime Day, which, following the logic of the Market, has expanded into multiple days. Nothing testifies to the Market in all its glory like Amazon. One can buy almost anything from almost anywhere, all without “wasting time” driving too and from different stories (full disclosure–I bought The Market as God used on Amazon for the amazing low price of $3.49, I think). But the problem is the same as the ones retailers face with Black Friday. The Market seeks to expand choice and possibility. Amazon, the current apotheosis of Market ideology, has followed this creed better than anyone else. But spread the butter too thin and you won’t notice it at all. Amazon has no embodied communal rituals, and religions cannot survive without them.

In the medieval period most markets existed within the vicinity of the great cathedrals. Some see in this a co-opting of religion, or an unholy partnership between religion and the market. Some foolish folk even go so far as to see profit as the driving force behind the building of cathedrals themselves. Cox pleasantly surprised me by seeing it differently. The point of the medievals locating markets near churches only partially had anything to do with the fact that churches existed in the center of towns. Rather, markets only really work when they know their place in a proper hierarchy, which is under the shadow of the Cross.

DM

*Kingsnorth has no issue with markets per se, but their omnipotence. I would not say that Kingsnorth is a pessimist outright, yet it seems that the main thrust of his recent writing focuses on preparing us for death, and hopefully, new life afterwards. No civilization lasts forever, and most succumb to their own internal logic reaching the end of the line. For example . . . most emissions and environmental problems come from China, and perhaps India. How can we stop this? Europe, Russia, and the U.S. went through the same process of industrialization and urban centralization in the late 19th-early 20th century. Doesn’t “fairness” indicate that they should get their turn as well? If not–would we fight a war to stop them? Aside from the monumental human cost, war would involve much more destruction to the environment than the current situation. We are stuck. If we stop, we will lose to China and others, and if we continue, we will all lose together. At least, this is one possible outcome.

**Cox has read Max Weber much more closely than I, and, unwittingly or no, he indirectly confirms some of Weber’s key ideas. It is eerily remarkable how many ‘founding fathers’ of the Market came from some kind of Calvinistic background. A connection must exist that I have yet to fully grasp.

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.

The Year 0

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

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

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

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

Regarding the second point, Robert Cargill writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethics of Time, p. 90

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

Ascetic Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

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

Trade Off

One of the great strengths of one of my former bosses involved his ability to see that the pie never extended unto forever. Everything one did in the classroom came with costs and benefits. Whenever trying something new, consider what that meant one would conversely not do, and judge the consequences. We see little of this thinking on either side of the political aisle today. When looking at issues, one should consider not just the benefits it would bring, but also consider which costs and drawbacks one can live with most reasonably.

The words “free trade” are a major coup for laissez-faire capitalists. Even those against such practices have to stand against something “free.” One can understand what the term means in one sense–that no barriers should exist between those who want to exchange something. But, the term obscures the fact that no trade is “free.” In every trade, one gives up something, and the term “free-trade” might not clue us into this fact.

In his book, Global Squeeze author Richard Longworth argues that the global “free trading” market which opened up in the post-Cold War era hurt us much more than it helped. We have exchanged much more than we thought in the bargain. This in itself is nothing remarkable–many books have argued likewise. What drew me to the book initially was that

  • He predicted many of our economic and resulting political concerns today (such as the rise of ethno-nationalism, populism, etc.) way back in 1998, when virtually everyone else saw only one side of the new globalism. At the same time,
  • I felt that this was not just a lucky guess, because he clearly understood the nature of trade-off’s even in “free trade,” and most of all,
  • He asked questions that no other economics book I’ve read asked, such as, “What is an economy for?”

That question we rarely ask. We want a “good” economy, but we have no clear idea what a “good” economy means. While I have no impression that Longworth has a conscious understanding of the patterns and symbolic structure of reality, his book helped me see economics within this frame. So, with apologies to all who find where I begin a bit odd . . .

Theologian Dumitru Staniloae wrote concerning St. Maximos the Confessor

Some of the Fathers of the Church have said that man is a microcosm, a world which sums up in itself the larger world. Saint Maximus the Confessor remarked that the more correct way would be to consider man as a macrocosm because he is called to comprehend the whole world within himself, as one capable of comprehending it without losing himself, for he is distinct from the world. Therefore man effects a unity greater than the world exterior to himself whereas, on the contrary, the world as cosmos, as nature, cannot contain man fully within itself without losing him, that is, without losing in this way the most important reality, that part which more than all others gives reality its meaning. The idea that man is called to become ‘the world writ large’ has a more precise expression, however, in the term macroanthropos. 

The term conveys the fact that in the strict sense the world is called to be humanised entirely, that is, to bear the entire stamp of the human, to become panhuman, making real through that stamp a need that is implicit in the world’s own meaning, to become in its entirety a humanised cosmos in a way that the human being is not called to become nor can ever fully become, even at the farthest limit of his attachment to the world where he is completely identified with it, a cosmosised man. The destiny of the cosmos is found in man not man’s destiny in the cosmos. This is shown, not only by the fact that the cosmos is the object of human consciousness and knowledge and not the reverse, but also by the fact that the entire cosmos serves human existence in a practical way.

Taking this view of man and the cosmos as my premise, I argue that we should interpret our experience of the world and derive meaning through the lens of what it means to be human, a composite being of body, soul, and spirit. This does not mean that all truth is relative or subjective–far from it. Rather, it is a perspective that recognizes that, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). God creates the world through the Logos, who is Christ (John 1). Ultimately then, Christ is not the image of Adam so much as Adam is the image of Christ, mysteriously “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

So for things to have intelligibility and proper functionality, they should scale to human experience (I realize that I am about to take a massive leap from this premise which I have not done a lot to prove, but . . . :)*

We have to trade things to live, in a sense, both in our bodies individually and in the body social. We have to take in food, water, and so on. We are not autonomous or self-sufficient. Longworth agrees, giving us examples of cultures that have no trade that end up drab, and lifeless. One might think of the ancient Spartans, and the more contemporary Soviet Union. But we can’t just take in anything from anywhere, for any reason–“trade” is not an inherent good, but a contingent one. If we trade too much, even of a good thing, it will be bad for us. One can drown even by drinking excessive amounts of water–too much water brings a flood. In addition, for reality to make sense to us, ideally at least, we should have some connection to those we trade with. Personal contact and personal relationships help let us know if we have a fair trade or not, one that pleases both sides.**

In sum, for an economy to work as it should, it should benefit all sides involved, and benefit them in a way that preserves meaning and coherence. Nations should trade, just as people should trade oxygen for carbon dioxide.

While Longworth does not engage in these kinds of symbolic connections, they do form the unspoken background to his foundational question of, “Whom is an economy meant to serve?”

We come into the world and into a family, if not sociologically, at least biologically. A family economy, then, primarily should serve the family. But it gets tricky, because no family should only concern itself with itself. When this happens, one gets The Godfather saga. Christian teaching pushes outwards towards those on the fringe socially and economically, but we need balance. A mom or dad who devoted too much of their energies to those outside the family would erode the very foundation of their well intentioned actions. Here, C.S. Lewis’ great principle of “First and Second Things” directly applies, which runs something like,

Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things. We never get, say, even the sensual pleasure of food at its best when we are being greedy.^

Many have discussed the lack of connection we have to what we purchase. We have divorced the thing we buy from who made it, where it was made, and so on. Many have spoken of a “meaning crisis” in our culture and surely the fact that what we trade for and consume has no “context” for us contributes to this dislocation. However, Longworth doesn’t address this, and altering this societal condition remains impossible for almost everyone. We can focus then, on what we can fix, at least on a national level.

Longworth points out in multiple ways how our globalized economy violates the “First and Second Things,” principle. The “nature” of capital seeks out the most efficient way of doing business, so naturally labor would migrate out of the country. We anticipated this in part economically, but not at all sociologically. Longworth mentions that many African-American families (to take one example) rose to the middle class in part through blue-collar jobs in inner-cities. These jobs offered stability and helped build distinct local neighborhoods. As these jobs left, these communities eroded (something seen by Jane Jacobs way back in the 1960’s–this is not NAFTA’s fault alone). Just as we can see the distortions of Marxism as a reaction to the distortions of industrialism, so too we can see racial identity politics as the current distortion to try and correct for the distortions of the market. We can bring it back to the family concept. If your plumber brother really needed work, but you had a 20% discount coupon for some other guy you didn’t know, and hired him instead of your brother, you could expect family difficulties.

As Longworth points out, the medieval peasant always had work, but rarely had prospects for growth. Now, we have the opposite problem of the possibility of growth for all, but no promise of work.

Many today fear the presence of national populism, but here too Longworth had prescience. When we exhale deeply we will inhale in a like manner. One can look at the Hapsburg dominions of the mid 16th century . . .

and compare it with modern European global trading connections

The discontinuities lack coherence on both examples. The Hapsburg holdings don’t make sense, and most students recognize this immediately at some level. They then rarely root for them in any of their various wars. Starting around the mid 17th century, we saw the beginnings of concentration of identity into national states, partly as a reaction to the wars involving the Habsburg dominions. The trade map above concerns Europe primarily, but the principle applies to other regions. Start neglecting meaning and coherence in the family, and look for the kids to try and recover that meaning in ways the parents might not like–look no further than the relationship between the EU and Hungary.

Our modern free trade policies evolved for various reasons in the wake of W.W. II. Free-trade could legitimately serve (perhaps) as a means to combat communism in part because the vast majority of major players shared many in things in common:

  • Common cultures and religions
  • Similar pools of labor and technological access
  • A common political goal

Japan participated in this as well, which posed problems for the U.S. in particular. Japan had different cultural and political goals, which led to more protection of its labor force and different economic practices. However, Japan’s labor pool was small enough not to erode and distort the system. With the entrance of China and India, however, things changed dramatically. Economist Richard Koo commented in the early 1990’s

The free trade system has lasted this long only because China and India are not in it. The U.S started this system after the war and other countries joined in. Japan is not a full member even yet–Japan is certainly not a free-trader. But if the problem is just Japan, it’s tolerable. But if China plays the game as Japan has done, the system will not last without safeguards. With the 3rd world entering–there is no end to the potential problem.

Trade in finance may prove an even bigger problem than trade of goods, and again, Longworth showed remarkable foresight here. Bartering goods has a direct coherence to it. You give me your apples, I give you my wheat. But bartering is cumbersome, so we go to money. But in the early stages at least, one could exert a degree of control over money and give it a degree of coherence in a local context–i.e., the money that “works” in a given place is the money with the king’s head on it. That too, limits us, so we went to a more universal, though still concrete, “gold standard” to determine the value of money and limit its movement at least partially. Then Nixon abandoned the Bretton-Woods arrangement and broke from the gold standard, which pushed money into an even further abstraction. Non-national currencies in the cloud are the inevitable conclusion to this process, a process which–however many it benefits materially–pushes us further away from meaning and coherence in our exchanges with each other. I am not one to often quote Keynes approvingly, but he understood–perhaps subconsciously–the necessary symbolic balance of trade, stating,

I sympathize therefore, with those who would minimize, rather than maximize economic entanglement between nations. Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel–these are things which of their nature should be international. But let goods be homespun whenever reasonably possible. Above all, let finance be primarily national.

But nations cannot control the flow of money because they cannot control trade. Merely trying to control currency movement by the elite, therefore will not work and only hurt the “everybody else” in the economy.

The bigger question, however, of “Can we stop this?” relates strongly to the question, “Do we want to stop it?” Here it gets difficult for all of us. Longworth rightly says that technology is not the problem. The internet obviously has the ability to “actualize” many of the trends Longworth saw developing, but the shift had begun decades before the internet entered society. For Longworth, the root lies in trade, but I say, let’s go one deeper–what in our cultural leads us to practice trade as we do?

Democracies foster a sense of individualism, which maximizes opportunities for the self vis a vis the group. Democracies tend towards dynamism, which bodes ill for stability. For example, a recent study shows that

…democratic rule and high state capacity combined produce higher levels of income inequality over time. This relationship operates through the positive effect of high-capacity democratic context on foreign direct investment and financial development. By making use of a novel measure of state capacity based on cumulative census administration, we find empirical support for these claims using fixed-effects panel regressions with the data from 126 industrial and developing countries between 1970 and 2013.

Aye, there’s the rub. To change how trade works, we may have to change more than just trade.^^

Dave

*Suggesting any kind of absolute relativism is the last thing I mean to do, but unfortunately I fear I may not be explaining it well. By ‘human experience’ I don’t mean anything at all that humans might experience. We experience many things that are obviously wrong and bad for us. I mean then, something akin to a union of Heaven and Earth that is supremely Christ Himself, then the Virgin Mary, the saints, and so on down the line. Of course man himself was meant to function as a union of Heaven and Earth originally in creation. One can see this in the very structure of our bodies. Some animals soar above the earth, some slither under it (fish). Most every animal has all of its appendages on the ground, whereas we have two on the ground, with our intellect–our ‘heavenly’ aspect on the commanding heights above us. Our heart unites the two.

**For those that used to trade baseball cards, think of those times when you might see when you drove too hard a bargain for the “Mutton Chop Yaz” in the face of your friend. Unless you were Comic Book Guy, hopefully you adjusted the cost so that you prioritized your relationship and avoided taking advantage of him.

^In seminary many years ago I heard several cautionary tales along the lines of:

  • Young, energetic pastor and young family come to the church
  • Young pastor becomes popular and receives lots of affirmation from church. He throws himself into his work at church–glory and acclaim can be like a drug.
  • But because of this, he spends less time at home, where things are inevitably more mundane. His wife eventually grows resentful and distant.
  • Wife leaves husband, which makes it impossible for him to keep his job at church. Thus, he loses both the “first thing” (family, in this case), and the “second thing” (job) all at once.

^^Supposing the accuracy of the study, one can react in the following ways:

  • Inequalities in wealth are such a bad thing that if democracy contributes to it we should overthrow it.
  • Inequalities in wealth are not good, but perhaps it is one of the costs we must endure to have the greater good of democracy.
  • Inequalities in wealth are not always bad–and in fact can sometimes become a positive good. The wealthy (individuals or companies) can dramatically advance society in important ways, etc. We cannot avoid hierarchy.

As to #1–I would wonder what we would replace it with. Certainly most modern replacement ideas involve a revival of Marxism which we should reject out of hand. The other two make more sense to me, but I am still not satisfied. I feel that if a solution to the problem exists, it exists outside the system itself, and this would mean letting go of some aspects of our modern world as it relates to culture, politics, etc.

Standardization is Decline, Easy as ABC

A few years ago I wrote another post under this same theme about restaurant regulation in the EU, based off a particular quote from Arnold Toynbee, which reads,

In a previous part of this study we have seen that in the process of growth the several growing civilizations become differentiated from one another.  We shall now find that, conversely, the qualitative effect of the standardization process is decline.

This idea that “standardization is decline” is exactly the sort of pithy phrase that drew the ire of many of Toynbee’s critics.  In his work Toynbee attempted to create universal general laws of history based on his premise of the uniformity of human nature.  Toynbee’s writing could sometimes degenerate into ideas that seem so general as to be almost meaningless.*  On the subject of standardization, we easily see that surely not every instance of standardization brings decline and limits freedom.  Standard traffic laws, for example, make driving much easier and much safer.  Toynbee’s critics have a point.

But some of Toynbee’s critics seem afraid to say anything without caveating it a million different ways, and this too is another form of saying nothing at all.  Toynbee’s assertion about standardization is of course is not true in every respect, but is it generally true?

I like historians like Toynbee who try and say things, and no one I’ve come across tries to “say things” like Ivan Illich.  Toynbee threw down a magnificent challenge to the prevailing view of history (in his day) that more machines, more territory, more democracy, more everything meant progress for civilization.

But he did not know Ivan Illich, who allows almost no assumption of the modern world to go unexamined.  Toynbee poked at some of our pretty important cows.  Illich often aims for the most sacred.  In Medical Nemesis he challenges the assumption that people today are healthier than they were in the pre-industrial era.  In ABC, he (with co-author Barry Sanders) attacks the idea that universal literacy brings unquestioned benefits to civilization.  In fact, he argues the quest for rote literacy will end with meaninglessness and possibly, tyranny.

Illich begins the book by referencing a quote of the historian Herodotus, who wrote 1000 years after the death of Polycrates. He commented that the tyrant of Samos,

was the first to set out to control the sea, apart from Minos of Knossos and others who might have done so as well.  Certainly Polycrates was the first of those whom we call the human race.

Illich comments that,

Herodotus did not deny the existence of Minos, but for him Minos was not a human being in the literal sense.  . . . [Herodotus] believed in gods and myths, but excluded him from the domain of events that could be described historically.  He did not see it as his job to decipher a core of objective historical fact.  He cheerfully [placed] historical truth alongside different kinds of truth.

This may seem an odd place to begin a book about language.

Later Greek and Roman historians attempted to explain the minotaur and Minos not as myth but as exaggerated historical reality.  So, the sacrifice to the minotaur must really have been a sacrifice of perhaps money or troops to some cruel despot.  Herodotus will have none of this, and neither will Illich.  Those that seek to explain away myths attempt a kind of standardization of truth.  This standardization inevitably involves a reduction, a narrowing, of the meaning of truth, language, and human experience.  I think this explains why he begins with this quote from Herodotus.

Historians misread prehistory when they assume, Illich contends, that language is spoken in a wordless world.  Of course words can exist without exactly defined meanings that last beyond the context in which they were spoken.  But many often assume that this means we have barbarism because without an established language, we cannot have “education” in the sense that we mean it.  Speech remains different from language.  Lest we think that Illich is nuts, we should consider the impact of early forms of standardization:

  • In ancient Egypt, scribes with a unified written language could keep records, and could thus hold people accountable to pay taxes, work on the pyramids, etc.
  • In ancient China, too, the power of scribes over language gave them enormous power within the halls of power.
  • Illich argues that medieval oaths used to be distinctly personal.  Those that swore would clasp their shoulder, their hands, their thigh, and so on.  Towards the end of the Middle Ages, with the rise of Roman, classical concepts of law came the fact that one’s signature stood as the seal of an oath.  By “clear” we should think, opaque, or lacking substance because it lacks context.  This impersonality can give way to tyranny.
  • Henry II attempt at reforming English law (and thus, it would inevitably seem, unifying language as well) was done to increase his power by making it easier to govern and control the population.  Does not much of modern law do the same thing?
  • Isidore of Seville once wrote (ca. 1180) that letters “indicate figures speaking with sounds,” and admitted that until a herald spoke the words, they had no authority, because they had no meaning.  The modern age allows those in power to multiply their authority merely through the distribution of lifeless pieces of paper.
  • One of the first advocates for a universal language and literacy, Elio Nebrija, made his argument just after Columbus set sail.  He bases his argument on hopes of creating a “unified and sovereign body of such shape and inner cohesion that centuries would not serve to undo it.”  He frankly admits that the diversity of tongues presents a real problem for the crown.

Regarding Nebrija, Illich makes the thunderous point that he sought a universal language not to increase people’s reading but to limit it.  “They waste their time on fancy novels and stories full of lies,” he writes to the king.  A universal tongue promulgated from on high would put a stop to that.

We might be surprised to note that Queen Isabella (who does not always get good treatment in the history books) rejected Nebrija’s proposal, believing that, “every subject of her many kingdoms was so made by nature that he would reach dominion over his own tongue on his own.”  Royal power, by the design of the cosmos, should not reach into local speech.  Leave grammar to the scribes.

We live in a world of disembodied texts.  The text can be analyzed, pored over, dissected in such a way as to kill it.  As the texts lack a body, the text remains dead and inert.

But just as we assume that meaning comes when a text is analyzed rather than heard, so too we have created the idea of the self merely to analyze the self.  Ancient people, up through the medieval period, do not possess a “self” in the modern sense.  We see this in their literature.  No stratified layers exist in an Odysseus, Aeneas, or Roland.  No “self” exists apart from their actions.  So too in the modern era the self lacks meaning unless the self is examined.  So we turn ourselves inside out just as turn over the texts that transmit meaning.   But who is more alive, Roland, Aeneas, and Alexander Nevsky, or the man on the psychologists couch?

We might think, maybe the drive for universal literacy back then meant squelching freedom but now surely it is a path to freedom.  After all, we tout education as the pathway to independence, options in life, and so on.  Illich will not let us off the hook.  Education according to whom?  Universal literacy, again, can only be achieved through universal language.  And universal language implies a standardized education.  So to prove we are educated we need the right piece of paper, paper only the government can grant.**

Back to square one again.

So the passion for universal literacy ends in the death of meaning, and the death of the self.  In his final chapter Illich examines the newspeak of 1984 and sees it as the logical conclusion of universal literacy.  Words will mean what the standard-bearers of words say they mean, and this in turn will define the nature of truth and experience itself.

ABC is a short book and easy to read.  But in another way, reading Illich can be very demanding.  He asks you not just to rethink everything, but to actually give up most everything you thought you knew.  Agree or not, this makes him an important writer for our standardized and bureaucratic age.

 

Dave

*Obviously this post is not about Toynbee, but as much as I admire him and as much as I have learned from him, Toynbee’s latent and terribly damaging gnosticism (which comes from his failure to understand the Incarnation and the Resurrection) did at times lead him into a kind of a airy vagueness that greatly limits his persuasive power.

**I suppose to get Illich’s full argument on this score we would need to read his Deschooling Society.

The Internet of Things

Nature is not always “natural.” We “naturally” recognize a standard above nature. For example, nuclear weapons are made from the very stuff of nature (atoms, etc.) but strike as distinctly unnatural in their effect. We understand that technology in warfare has progressed over time. We can process at least some of these changes as a kind of natural progression of what has always been. So, a rifle is akin to a bow and arrow, artillery has its origins in the catapult, and so on. But nuclear weapons turns nature itself against us. Watching nuclear weapons detonate can transfix us with a kind of horrifying beauty. We know that we have encountered something on a different plane . . .

Historians and others have many explanations for our current cultural moment, and I will try my hand in what follows.

I recently heard a priest online state that, “We are still fighting World War I.” Obviously he wasn’t referring to the physical fighting, or the geopolitical situation. Germany, England and France are friends now, more or less. I suspect that he meant that we still fight the war in cultural or religious sense, that we have not understood or solved the central question of the war, which I think runs like so:

How is it that a culture brimming with confidence and optimism (in general), possessing an overwhelming share of global GDP, and controlling in a direct or indirect way perhaps as much as 50% of the globe, throw it all away in a mind-numbingly horrific 30 stretch (1914-45)? Again, while western civilization ca. 1900 had real flaws, we can envy their confident, secure identity and purpose. We have never as a culture come to terms with why western civilization tumbled down the hill, and we still have not learned the basic lessons that period can teach us.

In the biblical narrative, mankind begins by living in Eden, a garden on a mountain. After their exile from Eden, they come down from the mountain, closer, in a sense, to Earth, farther from communion with God. Immediately, Cain’s descendents go further into the earth, using what dig up to build cities and other implements of iron (Gen. 4:22). With this knowledge they tame animals. They gain the power to manipulate nature. But this power makes them uneasy and thin-skinned. It brings them no security–in fact, one could argue that Lamech’s speech (Gen. 4:23-24) comes either from fear, hubris, or both. The Scriptural pattern then is*

Increase of Power=Increase of Vulnerability=Violence, Destabilization, and Dislocation

This sense of “dislocation” struck Cain with full force just after demonstrating his possession of power over the life of his brother (Gen. 4:14).

Of course western civilization has significantly increased its power by using raw materials of the earth in the Industrial Revolution. Our physical power increased exponentially, but not via new machines only. We should also see the preceding political movements towards more democracy as a movement “down the mountain.” Monarchy is a “top of the mountain” form of governance. It concentrates identity into a single point. This concentration, however, limits possibility and potential, which in turn limits power. Moving “down the mountain” gives more possibilities, more “weight,” to political actions (the bottom of the mountain is obviously heavier than the top). Thus, we can see our Constitution as a kind of technological development, one that increased our power vis a vis the rest of the world. If the pattern holds, it should have also made us more “touchy” and prone to violence.

Most shake their heads in disbelief when they see what triggered W.W. I. The various chains of causation–the German navy, Russian interest in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary’s weakness, etc. have a logic to them. But I wouldn’t buy any argument that said that all this was worth war. It seems to me that we see every major power an with advanced case of touchiness and paranoia, a grave sense of insecurity. World War I has a parallel in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. By 431 B.C. Athens had grown wealthy and extended its territorial reach throughout the Aegean Sea. But rather than have all of this make them more secure, it seemed to open them up to great fear about it being taken away. As with Lamech and Germany, Athens went to war in the end over the Sparta’s reaction to the Megaran decree–an insult only in the barest sense of the word. To those that say, “If it wasn’t the Megaran decree it would have been something else,” I agree. But this proves my point. Touchy people will get mad at just about anything.

If the Industrial Revolution represented a movement down the mountain to what lies underneath it, so nuclear weapons means traveling even further down into the physical structure of matter itself. What could be more “natural?” This of course granted us enormous destructive power. But surely, it is not natural that handful of people scattered throughout the world should have the ability wipe out billions of people in under 30 minutes. Wielding a knife gives one power, but it is very difficult to accidentally hurt or kill someone else with a knife. A gun gives more power, and hence, it is easier to accidentally–or intentionally–kill someone with a gun.

With nuclear weapons, a small accident, malfunction, or misunderstanding–let alone an actual act of malice–could kill millions.

We need not restrict our purview to weapons only. Cars, for example, give us great power to move quickly. But to enable this, we had to construct roads, a massive traffic apparatus, etc. that leaves us vulnerable to serious injury and death. We could drive well, and our car could work perfectly. But many things are outside of our control. If someone else makes a mistake, or if someone’s else truck blows a tire, it could endanger us easily.

Other digital technology, such as the internet, continues our journey down the mountain. We can manipulate atoms now to vastly increase our communicative ability. We can gain information from anywhere, know anything from any time, and so on. We all know the satisfaction that comes from shopping online, watching a funny youtube, and so on. But virtually every commentator on our current cultural situation acknowledges that internet often hurts more than it helps. With Twitter perhaps especially, we experience the destabilization that comes with chaos. Twitter gives us a sea of information with no editing, structure, or system to guide us. We talk of the “Internet of Things” as it relates to connecting our appliances and other tools to the worldwide web. The moniker is ironic–what the internet gives us is a plethora of “things” with no coherence.

If we mistrust each other it is not because of our weakness but because of the outsized power we possess. At the top of the mountain we can orient ourselves, we can locate ourselves vis a vis our surroundings. At the bottom, however, we have only multiplicity and no unity. This in turn has led to an acute sense of dislocation, which in turn feeds a tendency towards all the wrong kinds of identity, as we have seen recently.**

Fixing western civilization–we all want to see the day, in theory at least. But coming to a solution will mean lightening our load to climb back up the mountain.

Dave

*We see this not just in Genesis 4. The Tower of Babel could be another example of Increase of Power=Dislocation–quite literally in that case. In 1 Samuel 24, King David takes a census, something for which he is punished. It seems incomprehensible to us that taking a census should be a sin. Yet, in the narrative even the amoral Abner warns David against taking this action. If we see the pattern, a census increases ones knowledge of “particulars” dramatically. It is a journey “down the mountain” that makes David quite vulnerable. Abner’s reaction should clue us into the innate understanding they had of this pattern, the danger of David “trying to throw his arms around the world.”

It should not surprise us, then, to see a repeat of this pattern as the New Testament begins. It is not a coincidence that the birth of Christ, the King who would in time destroy the Roman Empire, is preceded by a census (Luke 2).

**In terms of sexual identity, we no longer seek even to mine the minutiae of nature. Instead we wish to transcend it all together. We have accumulated such power over nature that we feel we can discard it at our leisure. Obviously there is a link here between our current sexual identities and our environmental issues. Here exists a possible link-up between social conservatives and environmentalists.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

I have very fond feelings for Will Durant. His multi-volume series The Story of Civilization was an absolute lifeline for me in my early years of teaching, and reading those volumes propelled me to some wonderful primary sources. His insights were not as profound as those of his contemporary AJ Toynbee, but he wrote with a more whimsical touch.

In Durant’s The Lessons of History (co-authored by his wife Ariel) he includes as essay on the question of whether or not progress is real. In grand Thomistic fashion Durant begins by proposing a negative answer. Philosophy will never eclipse Plato, literature will not move beyond Shakespeare. Science heals but also has created new forms of death and accelerated our means to destroy each other.

But Durant then pivots, and affirms that we have progressed–not in happiness (we will always find ways to be unhappy)–but in command over the environment. Famine and other natural disasters no longer decimate millions each year, and Durant asks,

“Are we ready to scuttle the science that has so diminished superstition, obscurantism, and religious intolerance, or the technology that has spread food, home ownership, comfort, education, and leisure beyond any precedent?”

He continues and admires the expansion of education, stating that

“If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing … our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all … we have raised the level and average level of knowledge beyond any age in history.”

It is a fine argument, and as always, wonderfully written.

In 1845 Thomas Macaulay wrote eloquently in favor of the Progress narrative:

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.

We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man

But even Macaulay, amidst his rhapsody, at least gives a quick nod to the counter argument:

And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.

Most ancient historians claim that things have gotten worse, that we progress from golden ages, to silver, to bronze and iron, a descent from heaven to earth. A middle position exists that I want to explore, one that questions the main arguments of the progress and decline narratives–though obviously certain kinds of progress and decline happen–and instead focus on the idea that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and be guided by St. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise, On the Making of Man.*

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Humanity may progress in certain ways, and decline in others, but will always be limited by the circumstances of his creation. We are meant both to reflect God to world and to mediate the world to God. As such we have elements both of movement and stability in our nature. St. Gregory writes,

It may be, by a providential dispensation, so that the property of nature which constitutes its immutability and immobility might not, when viewed in any created object, cause the creature to be accounted as God; for that which may happen to move or change would cease to admit the conception of the Godhead.

Hence the earth is stable without being immutable, while the heavens, on the contrary, as it has no mutability, so has not stability either, that the Divine power, by weaving change in the stable nature and motion with that which is not subject to change, might by the interchange of attributes, at once join them both closely to each other, and make them alien from the conception of Deity.

That is, God makes us in such a way so that we can neither have the presumption to be God, but also see that we are more than the beasts. We have this duality within us, meant to exist in harmony.

St. Gregory makes many such connections between the rhythms and operations of nature and our own flourishing as human beings made by God. He comments that many creatures are larger, stronger, and faster than us, yet we have dominion over them–a seeming puzzle. He answers this disarmingly by stating that if we were to be the largest, fastest, and strongest of the creatures we would surely look rather funny–misshapen and unbalanced, “wild looking.” But as he stresses our dominion over creation, he does so again by establishing our connection with it.

. . . moreover, he would have neglected his rule over the other creatures if he had no need of the co-operation of his subjects.

St. Gregory establishes (so it seems to me) an irrevocable connection between God, man, and nature, writing elsewhere that,

The creation of man is related as coming last, as of one who took up into himself every single form of life, both that of plants and that which is seen in brutes.

So, although we are all always in a state of flux, we also have stable elements, just as creation itself is both stable and fluid. We never step into the same river twice, and yet it is still the same river. And while some may see hints of evolutionary ideas in St. Gregory’s above comment, I think that he would say that creation reflects man more so than man reflects creation.

Given this, we can ask in regards to the question of progress–can creation “progress?” Certainly dirty water can become clean, but we might call this a “return” more than an “advance.”

We should think similarly in terms of human progress.

What I mean is that what we often call progress may be simply a reflection of how we breathe. We inhale, that is:

  • We draw things into ourselves
  • We concentrate our being, we focus, or in other words,
  • We centralize our being

And we exhale, meaning

  • We disperse things from our being
  • We separate the good and bad, the proper and improper
  • We get looser physically and mentally, we de-centralize**

We shouldn’t call inhalation or exhalation progress, but we often do. So, for example, many heralded the changes we made in the area of national intelligence in the wake of 9/11. We centralized our intelligence gathering–we inhaled. Surely this was correct? But in the wake of our intelligence failure after Pearl Harbor we determined that we needed to exhale and de-centralize intelligence agencies so we could have multiple views to consider. Both seemed like exactly the right thing to do given their respective contexts, and maybe both were correct actions to take, but neither can be termed “progress,” though it may feel like it at the time. What we might instead be doing is returning to a proper balance, or recalibrating temporarily.

Of course we usually want avoid dramatic inhalation and exhalation, which we only do as humans exerting ourselves or trying to de-escalate an emotional situation. We cannot continue for long in such a state.

We can take the state of education, so lauded by Durant, among others. Democratic education “inhales” a great deal by taking in everyone it can. But this has led to a kind of hyper-concentration in education, which can only lead to more centralization and standardization. So, naturally we see the rise of importance in standardized tests, which have the effect of getting teachers to “teach to the test.” In what sense has education truly improved in the last 100 years? What we can say for sure is that it has done some things at the expense of others.

As democracies we possibly overvalue the “fluid” elements of our created selves, and trust in the free flow of people, goods, and information. The New York Times recently announced, for example, that it would “open up” its process of how it endorses presidential candidates and make it more transparent. Surely transparency is progress in any democracy? But as Alex Tabbarok pointed out, this will likely make all of the candidates far less candid than they might have otherwise been when talking with the Times. Certain stances they might have explained as a kind of horse-trading off the record they would never reveal in a more public forum. When the scale tips too far in the “fluid” direction, the natural reaction is to revert to solidity. “Progress,” so called, seems impossible in either direction–by design. The very design of creation makes utopias impossible.

Perhaps the most striking form of progress surely is the application of science to food production and the eradication of disease. We live healthier and longer than in the past. Infant mortality has decreased dramatically. Unquestionably, the argument goes, this is progress that all can champion without qualification.

This certainly strongly challenges my argument–and most every argument has its limits. Still, perhaps these significant improvements do have a hidden cost of separation from the very creation that nurtures us and with whom our identity is inextricably linked. Here, I will admit, however, that it is hard to argue against progress of this kind.

Maybe . . . certain kinds of progress are possible.

But I think the larger point still remains, one that we do well to consider as we head towards another election cycle. Some may feel that Trump has lurched us too far in one direction, so that the solution is go hard in the opposite direction. This will exhaust us quickly. Rather, as St. Gregory taught us, we need to be a nation that takes calm and measured breaths.

Dave

*I should state at the outset that I do not find St. Gregory an easy read, and I make no certain claim to interpreting him correctly, though hopefully I have at least applied his words in the right spirit.

**This process of gathering in and pushing out is reflected in almost every icon of Christ, as He blesses with His right hand (drawing in) and separates with his left (in the form of a scroll, the Book of Life, which makes distinctions between people, etc.), further testimony to this pattern at the very Head of Humanity itself.

In the Byzantine icon below, the blessing/”drawing in” motif is more explicit, as His right hand almost seems to draw one towards Him:

A more modern icon, “Christ of the Isles” (Celtic style), that abides by the traditional pattern . . .

Democracies and their Special Forces

Field Marshal Viscount Slim memoir Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India is generally regarded as one the finest, if not the finest military memoir.  Having read it (and not having read many others) I won’t dispute the claim.  I often have a hard time with books written by ex-officers, who I find usually bog down in details.  I also, to be fair, have a hard time with spatial relations and without solid maps right in front of me I often get lost.

Slim’s writing bears some marks of what usually gives me trouble with books like this.  What distinguishes this book is his sense of style and humor.  He shares many anecdotes that paint himself a bit poorly.  He shares honest introspection about his actions without getting too much inside his own head.  When he asserts opinions of people he likes or dislikes he admits that others have different opinions.  Finally, he seemed interested in the campaign as a whole, more so than his role in it.

One of his slightly controversial opinions involved Orde Wingate.  Wingate was just the sort of commander that would appeal to Churchill.  Like Churchill he loved the knight-errant approach to war, and so the Chindits, or special forces, of the Burma campaign, gave Wingate a chance to sally forth boldly behind enemy lines.  The direct military effectiveness of his operations seemed limited, though even Slim admits that he boosted morale through the exploits of his men in the aftermath of a complete defeat inflicted by Japan.

Slim’s concluding comments interested me most about this aspect of the Burma campaign.  He thought that England’s reliance on special forces, and the mythology surrounding special forces, did not serve an overall good purpose.  He mentions the variety of special forces the British used (i.e. mountain divisions, amphibious divisions, long-range penetration divisions, and so on).  He acknowledged that some showed great examples of courage but writes,

Yet I came firmly to the conclusion that such [special forces] . . . were wasteful.  They did not give, militarily, a worth-while return the resources in men, material, and time they absorbed.

To begin with, they were usually formed by attracting the best men from the normal units by better conditions, promises of excitement, and not a little propaganda.   . . . The result of these methods was to undoubtedly to lower the quality of the rest of the army, not only by drawing off the cream from it, but by encouraging the idea that certain of the normal operations of war were so difficult that only specially equipped elite corp could undertake them.  Anything, whatever short-cuts to victory it may promise, which thus weakens the army spirit is dangerous.

. . . The level of initiative, training, and weapon skill required in a commando is admirable; what is not admirable is that it should be confined to a few small units.  Any well-trained infantry battalion should be able to do what any commando can do . . .   This cult of special forces is as sensible as to form a Royal Corp of Tree Climbers and say that no soldier who does not wear its green hat with a bunch of oak leaves stuck in it should be allowed to climb a tree.

Slim retracts a wee bit of this statement when he acknowledges that certain special units devoted to intelligence and sabotage, which fall outside the duties of standard training for  a soldier, but reiterates his main point when he stresses that the multiplication of special forces in Burma made unified command difficult to attain.

Our current war on terrorism presents many political and military challenges.  We have responded in part by significantly increasing the prominence of our special forces, both in budgets, deployments, and perhaps also in a surrounding “mythos” about them.  Like Slim, I am grateful for their courage and dedication.  Perhaps unlike him, I am not willing to apply his thoughts wholesale to our current situation just yet.  We face different sorts of military challenges now as opposed to W.W. II.  But we should not assume that we can do whatever we like militarily without it  having consequences on our values and political practices.   We should at least ask whether or not the increase of special forces may distance the military from the general public, or whether or not the military will be for “the common man” in the near future.

Special Forces demand, among other things, a great deal more secrecy, something else Slim abhorred.  Along with drones, they can be used with less public notice and oversight.  Democracies do not thrive with a populace disconnected from its government.  Is there a parallel between the increase of special forces use and the recent NSA scandals?  In other words, a military disconnected from a general democratic population may work (even unconsciously) to undermine the political application of democratic values.

Other wars have brought about shifts in our country’s values, sometimes for the better.  Maybe this current war will lead us into a better place as well.  Whatever the case, we cannot escape some kind of social and political change if we continue to fight in almost exclusively in a clandestine manner, and these changes will likely alter how we practice democracy at home.

Carnival Time

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

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

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

medieval carnivals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Resistance is futile.”

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

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

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

Imagined Communities

Today there is much talk surrounding the idea of the lack of communal identification in America.  We have red states, and blue states, and we bowl alone.  Our kids don’t go outside to play with other neighborhood kids.  We have much to lament.

On the other hand, this social/cultural shift (for our purposes here we’ll assume it’s true) has given us some distance from the whole concept of a “nation.”  Paul Graham has a marvelous post entitled “The Re-fragmentation” in which he discusses the darker side of everyone huddled together around the center.  One could argue that the prime era of nationalism produced an eerie cultural conformity on a scale perhaps not seen since ancient times.

It is this spirit that Benedict Anderson writes Imagined Communities.  The book attempts to tackle how it is that communities71hPv-gXglL called “nations” formed.  At times I thought he drifted into a bit of esotericism, but I found other insights of his incisive and quite helpful.  The first of these insights is in the title itself.  Nations require imagination.  We can understand that those within an immediate geographic proximity could be a community.  We can surmise that those of like-minded belief could find a way to become a community.  But how might I be connected with someone in Oregon with whom I may not share either belief, geography, experience, or culture?  It requires a certain leap of the imagination.

Anderson cites two texts from the fathers of Filipino nationalism to demonstrate how this idea of a national community could be formed.  The first is from Jose Rizal:

Towards the end of October, Don Santiago de los Santos, popularly known as Capitan Tiago, was giving a dinner party.  Although, contrary to his usual practice, he announced it only that afternoon, it was already the subject of every conversation in Binondo, in other quarters of the city, and even in the city of Intramuros.  In those days Capitan Tiago had the reputation of a lavish host.  It was known that his house, like his country, closed his doors to nothing — except to commerce or any new or daring idea.

So the news coursed like an electric shock through the community of parasites, spongers, and gatecrashers, whom God, in His infinite goodness, created, and so tenderly multiplies in Manila.  Some hunted polish for their boots, others looked for collar buttons and cravats.  But one and all were occupied with the problem of how to greet their host with the familiarity required to create the appearance of long-standing friendship, or if need be, to excuse themselves for not having arrived earlier .
The dinner was being given on a house on Anloague Street.  Since we cannot recall the street number, we shall describe it such a way that it may be recognized — that is, if earthquakes have not yet destroyed it.  We do not believe that its owner will have had it torn down, since such work is usually left to God or Nature, which besides, holds many contracts with our Government.  

The second from Marko Kartikromo

It was 7 o’clock Saturday evening; young people in Semarang never at home Saturday night.  On this night, however, no one was about.  Because the heavy day-long rain had made the roads wet and very slippery, all had stayed at home.  

For the workers in shops and offices Saturday morning was a time of anticipation–anticipating their leisure and the fun of walking around the city in the evening, but on this night they were to be disappointed–because of the lethargy created by the bad weather.  The main roads usually crammed with all sorts of traffic, the footpaths usually teeming with people, all were deserted.  Now and then the crack of horse cab’s whip could be heard spurring a horse on its way.

Samerang was deserted.  The light from the gas lamps shone on the shining asphalt road.

A young man was seated on a long rattan lounge reading a newspaper.  He was totally engrossed.  His occasional anger and smiles showed his deep interest in the stories.  He turned the pages of the newspaper, thinking that he might find something to make him feel less miserable.  Suddenly he came upon an article entitled:

PROSPERITY

A destitute vagrant became ill on the side of the road and died of exposure

The report moved the young man.  He could just conjure up the the suffering of the poor soul as he lay dying on the side of the road.  One moment he felt an explosive anger well-up inside.  Another moment he felt pity, and yet again he felt anger at the social system which made some men poor and others rich.

If we contrast these texts with two other famous opening passages (The Iliad, and Pride and Prejudice) we may begin to see why the above texts could be described as “nationalistic.”

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto; for he was angry with the king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people, because the son of Atreus had dishonoured Chryses his priest. Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand the sceptre of Apollo wreathed with a suppliant’s wreath and he besought the Achaeans, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs.

“Sons of Atreus,” he cried, “and all other Achaeans, may the gods who dwell in Olympus grant you to sack the city of Priam, and to reach your homes in safety; but free my daughter, and accept a ransom for her, in reverence to Apollo, son of Jove.”

On this the rest of the Achaeans with one voice were for respecting the priest and taking the ransom that he offered; but not so Agamemnon, who spoke fiercely to him and sent him roughly away. “Old man,” said he, “let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your sceptre of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you.”

The old man feared him and obeyed. Not a word he spoke, but went by the shore of the sounding sea and prayed apart to King Apollo whom lovely Leto had borne. “Hear me,” he cried, “O god of the silver bow, that protects Chryse and holy Cilla and rulest Tenedos with thy might, hear me oh thou of Sminthe. If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge these my tears upon the Danaans.”

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

******

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

If we consider the idea that nations are primarily imagined communities we can examine the texts.

The first two texts . . .

  • Conjure up a sense of belonging to a particular place.  The reader may not know the locations described in experience but can imagine being there.
  • Establish a connection between the large groups of people in the story, despite the fact that these people do not know each other — note that in the second text the man feels a connection to the vagrant though they had never met.
  • Presuppose an almost jocular familiarity with the the concept of a “nation.”

But neither The Illiad or Pride and Prejudice do any of these things.  The reader gets dropped into a world that is not theirs, and neither author shows much concern to make it so.  The reader observes the story, but does not participate in the story.  If we consider Austen one of the primary literary voices of her day, we can surmise that the transition to considering “nations” as communities is quite recent.  C.S. Lewis commented that the world of Austen and Homer had much more in common with each other, despite their 2500 year separation, than his world and Austen’s, despite the mere 150 year time difference.^

Too many causes exist for this momentous shift to consider them here.  Anderson focuses on a couple, however, worth considering.

As mentioned above, one can have a sense of community based on physical proximity.  Anderson’s brilliance is to focus on the idea of “imagination” creating this sense of community.  We must always realize, then, in the essential unreality of nationhood, a subject to which we will return.  But Anderson also shows the concrete foundation for the myth of nationality.

Ideologically the idea of equality had to arise before the idea of nationality had a chance.  But the idea of equality needed fertile soil, and Anderson names “print-capitalism” as one primary ingredient.  With the Enlightenment came the idea of rational standardization of measurement (of distance, time, weight, etc.) and language.

The printed book, kept a permanent form, capable of infinite reproduction, temporally and spatially.  It was no longer subject to the ‘unconsciously modernizing’ habits of monastic scribes.  Thus, while 12th century French differed markedly from that written by Villon in the 15th, the rate of change slowed markedly by the in the 16th.  ‘By the end of the 17th century languages in Europe had generally assumed their modern forms.’

Capitalism too played its part.  “In the Middle Ages,” commented Umberto Eco, “one did not ‘make money.’  You either had money or you didn’t.”  Today we hear a great deal about the inequalities of capitalism.  But capitalism helped produced a society in which the vast majority of people can share in common experiences though common consumption.*  The mass production made possible by political unification helped create mass consumption, and so one hand washes the other.  Capitalism and print media together created the newspaper, which formed the ‘daily liturgy’ of the national community.

So to what extent can we say that “nations” have value?  One student of mine refused to take the bait and argued bluntly (but effectively) that “they seem to be doing pretty well so far.”  Ross Douthat writes,

The nation-state is real, and (thus far) irreplaceable. Yes, the world of nations is full of arbitrary borders, invented traditions, and convenient mythologies layered atop histories of plunder and pillage. And yes, not every government or polity constitutes a nation (see Iraq, or Belgium, or half of Africa). But as guarantors of public order and personal liberty, as sources of meaning and memory and solidarity, as engines of common purpose in the service of the common good, successful nation-states offer something that few of the transnational institutions or organizations bestriding our globalized world have been able to supply. (The arguable exception of Roman Catholicism is, I fear, only arguable these days.) So amid trends that tend to weaken, balkanize or dissolve nation-states, it should not be assumed that a glorious alternative awaits us if we hurry that dissolution to its end.

I agree that the effectiveness of nations vis a vis other forms of organization is at least arguable.**  I agree with Douthat that the premature burial of  “nations” before their time, with nothing ready to replace it, would be silly at best.  But . . . Anderson’s work reminds us that we live in purely imagined communities.  They exist not in reality, but for expediency, a product of contingent historical circumstances.

The question remains — will their imaginary existence, like that of the zero, prove so valuable that they will last far into the future?  We can see the challenge posed to them already by the internet, globalization, and political polarization.  We shall see how strong our imaginations can be in the next generation or two.

Dave

*I do not suggest that defining ourselves through consumption is a good thing in itself, merely that consumerism has had this particular impact.

**In brief, we might say that the birth of nations was bloody (ca. 1800-1871), with the next generation settling into a relative peace.  But the first half of the 20th century was catastrophically destructive, with a moderately peaceful era to follow.  For whatever it’s worth, the possibly waning age of “nations” — ca. 1970’s – present, has been a period of steadily decreasing world violence.

^M.I. Finley makes an interesting connection between the two eras in his classic, The World of Odysseus.  Finley looks at Achilles’ comment in Hades and draws an unexpected conclusion.  Achilles seems to state that he would rather be a “thes” on earth than king in Hades.  Most translations assume that “thes” means “slave,” but Finley argues that the best translation would mean something like, “unattached free small landholder.”  This, and not slavery, was the worst fate Achilles could imagine.

This reminds me of a part in the Gwyenth Paltrow Emma movie where Emma disdains the independent farmer.  “He has no society, no information.”  We get another confirmation of the role capitalism and the concept of “equality” played in the creation of nations.

The Family and Civilization

Recently in Government class we briefly discussed Francis Fukuyama’s famous/infamous The End of History and the Last Man, a book often cited but perhaps much less read these days.

I have not read it myself.

Some years ago a student asked in class, “Might monarchy return to western civilization?” Even 30 years ago such a question would be absurd.  But, Plato, Machiavelli, and other thinkers tacitly assume a cycle of governments that repeat themselves over time.  Fukuyama, as best as I understand, challenges this assumption by stating that democracy has proven itself and will now always remain in the conversation.  It will always be “in play” in the world and some type of democracy would become the dominant form of government from here on out.  The cycle of “History” has ended.  Now all that we have left are “events.”

When we discussed this question in class I remained skeptical about monarchy’s return.  But a colleague pointed out that of course it could happen.  The cycle of monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, monarchy (in all but name) played out in Rome.  Rome began as a monarchy, but expanded as a Republic.  If the Republic stood against anything, it was monarchy.  Yet, while monarchs did not return to Rome, Emperors made an appearance for nearly 500 years, a revision to monarchy in all but name.  Furthermore, after Rome’s fall monarchies reappeared even in areas formerly controlled by Rome.

Perhaps, then, monarchies could return even to the West, given several generations.  We tend to believe that history progresses or declines, more or less in a continuous line.  Maybe we should give more credence to a more cyclically influenced theory of events.

I thought of this conversation reading Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization.  He wrote just after W.W. II and foresaw our modern family crisis.  But because he roots his observations in historical observation over many centuries, the book has a timeless quality.  Fundamentally, Zimmerman argues that we should abandon linear evolutionary concepts of the family, not just because he may not agree with evolutionary scientific theory, but primarily because the history of western civilization shows a circle rather than a straight line.

Zimmerman identifies three different basic family models throughout history:

  • The ‘Trustee Family’ resembles something akin to our idea of Scottish clans. Trustee families are so called because each family member acts as a mere caretaker of the bloodline, property, customs, and traditions of the extended family.  Powerful families are a law unto themselves–a kind of miniature state–and stand in active solidarity with other family members in terms of rewards and punishments.
  • The “Domestic Family” has more of a nuclear composition and mentality.  The father heads the family, but they can own property outright.  The domestic family shares corporate blame for minor offenses, but the trend leans toward individual responsibility.  Neither the clan nor the state makes a domestic family or governs it, but the Church (or other religious affiliation).
  • The “Atomistic Family” describes our own age.  In the absence of the state, the Trustee Family assumes significant control over “horizontal” relationships.  The Domestic Family has a sacramental sacredness ordered primarily though religion.  The Atomistic Family is based on the idea of functionality and convenience.  It’s horizontal nature extends only to individual members.  It has no horizontal sacred dimension.  Personal choice determines the shape of individual families.

Few disagree with Zimmerman’s descriptions, but most modern sociologists assume an evolutionary line of change that will eventually dissolve the family as we know it.  Zimmerman shows that each type existed before in Greece and Rome, and that after Rome’s fall, the cycle began again.  He traces all three models this way:

Trustee Family Era’s

  • Homeric Greece–ca. 800 B.C.
  • Early Roman tribal era–12 Tables of Law (ca. 450 B.C.)
  • The post-Roman barbarian Age (ca. 500 A.D.-12th Century)

Domestic Family Era’s

  • 8th-5th century Greece, from Hesiod-Pericles
  • 12 Tables of Roman Law–Dissolution of the Republic
  • 13th Century-18th Century (Aquinas-Enlightenment)

Atomistic Era’s

  • Sophists-End of classical Greece ca. 150 B.C.
  • Augustus-Barbarian Age of Europe
  • Enlightenment Rationalism-Present Day

The main part of the book concerns itself with showing the family transitions from the fall of Rome until today.

The church stood against much of accepted family mores in Rome’s decline.  From an early point the Church declared marriage a sacrament, and worked against the atomistic view of marriage and family in late Rome.  This makes sense.  After Rome’s fall, we they had two polar opposite views of the family to contend with, as the atomistic model lingered alongside of the trustee model brought by barbarian tribes.

The church found itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.  They abhorred the individualism of the atomistic Roman family, but the trustee model led to uncontrolled violence and lack of individual moral responsibility.  Caught between these two, the Church leaned towards working with the trustee model.  Part of this may have had to do with the fact that the collapse of the Roman state made the trustee model almost inevitable.  It also shows, I think, that the values of the early Church do not match our own.  Needing to choose, they preferred unchecked violence to rampant individualism.*

However, the Church quickly worked to transform ideas of the family in small but concrete ways.  They allowed for marriages even in the absence of familial consent.  They insisted that, as marriage was a sacrament, the Church and not the family made a marriage.  Under most barbarian trusteeships, the groom had to provide a financial gift to his father-in-law, as he “took” someone from his family.  The Church transformed this practice into the groom giving a gift of property/cash to his wife.  The practice of writing wills also allowed for a widow to inherit property independent of her husband’s family.

All of these things helped bring about the Domestic Family, though the slow and steady rise of the state also aided in this as well.

Zimmerman sees the Domestic model as the ideal.  Marriage has a sacramental purpose and reality, but the family is not absolute, as many Scriptures attest.  Because the Church creates a new family, the family has a degree of independence from the state.  Civilizations were healthier with these kinds of families.  Greece experienced its explosion of cultural and political growth largely under the Domestic Family.  In Rome the Republic never had healthier days than during the prevalence of the Domestic Family.  In Europe we see the 12th century golden age that experienced innovations in architecture, philosophy, music, etc. etc.

Several things happened over two centuries that eroded the domestic family.

  • Erasmus (Zimmerman calls him a “sophistic playboy”) and other Renaissance humanists began to enamored with classical culture and its attendant individualism.
  • Building on this, the Reformation 1) Removed marriage as a sacrament, giving the Church less power over marriage and giving more to the state, and 2) Marriage had a higher place than celibacy, which lessened marriage’s spiritually symbolic purpose and paved the way for the “contract view of marriage.**
  • Social contract theory put the emphasis of marriage on fulfilling mutual needs of each “party,” and opened the door to different kinds of marriages–all legitimate in theory provided only that both parties freely consented.

Many in the west today see the rise of the atomistic model concomitant with the rise of political and social freedom.  This view has some merit.  The Reformation and Enlightenment democracies broke down nearly all traditions, which led to a focus on the individual.  The individual rights we enjoy likely would not have come without a breakdown in the “Domestic Family.”

But Zimmerman has an apt word of caution–society cannot exist without some method of organization and accountability.  The family has long served as the repository for moral training, education, preparation for life, and so on.  If the family can no longer perform these functions, the state will have to step in, making the state itself our de-facto family.  This happened in Rome.  When social order decayed, the state had to take up the mantle, and they proved in their laws and actions much more stern than the typical pater-familias.  The history of the west, at least, shows us no more than three mechanisms of control: the clan, religion, and the state.  We must choose.  But the state, due to the variable nature of law, and with no particular method or goal, has shown itself the most unpredictable of the three.

We should not assume that the family has disappeared.  It may have gone underground for now but remains the key element of society.  It will return.^  Zimmermann is not a historical determinist or a pessimist.  In his reflections on the history of the family Zimmermann believes that had a few things happened here and there at the top of each society, the history of the family could have gone much differently and better.  He believes that societal elites have been largely responsible for inculcating anti-family policies into society.  If they can be converted we might turn the tide.

I wish it would be so simple.  Today it seems that much of the flow of modern life in its labor, technology, habits, etc. exert great pressure on the family.  Our recent election suggests that our cultural elites have less influence than ever before.  Then again, I believe in the witness of history, and believe that no one period of time is so starkly different from another.  This era then, might have more in common with Imperial Rome than otherwise.  That might sound like bad news, but from the perspective of the family, it isn’t.  It would mean that turning the heads of a few elites could dramatically improve our situation.  This would be vastly easier than a total societal breakdown that occurred during the last major family crisis.

Dave

*We see this in other areas as well.  The medievals viewed Saturn (which makes melancholy isolationists) as the Infortuna Major, while Mars, (which brought war–but war at least brings some groups together) as the Infortuna Minor.

**In an interesting aside, Zimmerman points out how the influence of the primacy of the text over tradition in the Reformation helped aid this transition.  Nothing in the history of the Church supported this shift to de-sacralize marriage, but a) Reformers had a hard time finding a text in the NT saying exactly that marriage was a sacrament (although Ephesians 5 certainly fits)–what text is supposed to say exactly that anything is a sacrament?  The undue influence of the bare text quickly gave Protestant denominations doctrinal confusion with the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other areas–and b) They found a couple of OT texts that they used to support this lessened view of marriage.

However, Zimmerman also argues that most of the Reformers were strongly traditional pro-family in many other ways.  It was not so much the Protestant preacher in the pulpit that eroded the family, but instead the humanist scholars who influenced the Reformation.  The influence of the Reformation on the family, then, is mixed.

^Zimmerman sees the rise of divorce, homosexuality, youth crime, etc. as the symptom of family breakdown, not its cause.

A National Man of Mystery

Anyone who knows anything about the first half of the 20th century knows that the concept of “nation” has a lot to answer for. We have such familiarity with it that we need not rehash the sins of “nationality” here. Slightly less obvious might be the impact, or pendulum swing we experienced in the second half of the 20th century towards the individual related to the state, or the community. This manifested itself in a variety of ways:

  • The proliferation of international bodies like the EU, G-8, World Bank, IMF, etc.
  • Expansion of global markets, facilitated by the internet and the removal of boundaries on communication and information
  • Significant expansion of media technologies that allow us to radically personalize our world everywhere we go, like Facebook, iTunes, Netflix, etc.
  • Removal of barriers to self-expression, encapsulated in the hey-day of free speech in the 1960’s, and now, with the end of traditional beliefs and social norms about gender and sexuality.*

But, if the pendulum swung too far in one direction from 1900-1960, many think that it has gone too far in the other direction (i.e., Bowling Alone, Why Liberalism Failed, etc.). Some form of such swings might be inevitable from a historical perspective, and might even be healthy when mild, as it might prevent stagnation. But dramatic swings destabilize societies and make it harder to get our bearings. At such times, terrible mistakes can occur.

Over the past 5-10 years we have witnessed the reemergence of national populism. In America, the phenomena manifested itself with Trump’s election, but almost every democracy in the western world has dealt with this, both in old and established democracies (Brexit, Marie le Pen), and relatively new ones (Poland, Hungary, etc.). Some see in national populism the dreaded extreme pendulum swing, but authors Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin disagree. In their book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, they seek not to praise or bury the phenomena, but to understand its reasons for being and the nuances of the movement. Some critics of the book see it as a sympathetic defense of right-leaning populism, a Marc Antony style bait and switch. Instead, I view the book as a careful delineation of the nuances of the movement. Above all, we must resist the urge to cast the label “Fascist,” to all or even most manifestations of national populism. Yes, the authors believe that certain populist leaders have dangerous leanings, but others simply seek to stand against real/perceived excesses of progressive ideology. We must exercise caution in our examination.

The authors first remind readers that populist movements have always existed within democratic governments. Greece had so much direct participation that it scared off our own founders. Rome’s Republic often existed in uneasy tension with more populist strains. More recently, America has seen populist presidents like Andrew Jackson, and to some extent, Teddy Roosevelt, in addition to various populist governors like Huey Long. Some may dislike all of these leaders on balance, but even if one did, democracy survived, and the country stayed far away from “fascism” or even overt nationalism. Of course, we could arguethat, given the horrors of how national populism operated in Germany from 1933-45, we should avoid even minute drops of it.

Eatwell and Goodwin think that this both unfair and unrealistic. They distinguish between fascism and populism in a variety of ways. Fascist regimes have a strong racial ideology, they often wish to expand territorially, and they often have apocalyptic goals. But even if the similarities were more acute, we simply cannot avoid populism if we wish to remain democratic–we cannot ignore the “voice of the people” in a democracy.

I have sympathy for Eatwell and Goodwin’s presentation of their ideas, though I have written before that I think that democratic societies need “elites.” The question comes to, “What kind of elites?” It seems too easy to say that we need elites with connections to the “common man,” “on the ground,” but so it goes. The “elite” culture of Periclean Athens was a very public culture, accessible to the people (recall the free theater performances of plays). Their leaders often competed with one another as to who served in office, who led armies, and so on. Roman elites were likewise quite civically minded, and for much of the Republic’s history patricians did not greatly exceed the wealth of the plebs–and when this gap widened tremendously after the 3rd Punic War so began the breakdown of the Republic (one factor among many, to be sure). Medieval elites lived in castles, but defended the realm, and were obliged to host a variety of festivals and parties for their tenants. They socially mixed frequently with peasants. Our own founding fathers took great risks and served in the army. Some of them had farms or worked as ordinary town lawyers, again, with strong connections to the “common man.”

Perhaps the chicken of the Republican right in the 1990’s, starting perhaps with Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, pushed the left farther from the center. Or perhaps the egg of the radical progressive ideologies about immigration, abortion, sexuality, etc. have made it hard to maintain something of a traditional conservatism. Or possibly grander historical forces play upon us, or maybe still, we are now experiencing something cyclical akin to the changing of seasons. Whatever the cause, we now have elites at universities, in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, and in certain segments of the media (a short list that I know does not apply equally everyehere) that drive the agenda of much of the left throughout the democratic world, and I think this is the main cause for the rise of populism.

For example . . .

  • We “know” that “Empire” is a bad word
  • “Nation” is increasingly becoming a bad word in certain circles
  • In the U.S. at least, we don’t want to give much autonomy to states or local communities to decide things, to have any variance on issues that divide us like abortion, gender, sexuality, immigration, etc.

So, all that certain segments of the political spectrum will leave us with is a stateless individualism with no unifying theme, culture, or nod to tradition. Very few can live in such a way or have ever lived in such a way. Older, more personal and familial conceptions of political realities, such as the “realms” of medieval kings, will not return any time soon.

So it appears that, unless we want civil wars across the western world**, we are stuck with the political entity of nations.

I concede, with Benedict Anderson, that there is something mysterious and imaginary about nations, but they undeniably exist, and people want some sense of identity within them. For that to happen, they need to take their bearings and locate themselves within the culture. The ancients often equated the formless and boundless ocean with chaos. We moderns usually associate the sea with freedom, and this might hint at the differences in how we interpret the meaning of our communities then and now. Nations may have less of a concrete reality than a particular individual, but for people to be truly human we need connections with others. These connections can only come with the presence of trust and familiarity. Dramatic change in law, demographics, and ideology make this hard to come by.

One reviewer rightly pointed out that whereas Eatwell and Goodwin take pains to point out the complexity and nuances of populist movements, populist movements themselves reject complexity–the problems we face have self-evident solutions. Maybe so, but I think that, as academic “elites,” Eatwell and Goodwin do one good turn towards rectifying the gap between elites and the common man. They have at least written a serious book about the “average Joe.”

For those who fear this movement on the right and the left, I would suggest them giving us something for us to feel tangible pride in as a nation. The right too often resorts to our expanded freedom to consume, but this comes from the nameless, faceless market–a stark contrast to what “going to market” meant in bygone eras. Many on the left constantly undermine our cultural inheritance and see the past and present as nothing but evil. They would offer instead foolish fantasies of a future that will always reside outside of our grasp. Neither approach will help us build a reasonable national identity and pride, and so neither approach will prevent the global rise of national populism.

Dave

*Free speech today is under attack on campus’ especially, which is ironic considering the modern free speech movement had its birth at the university. Perhaps this means that free speech is at its most vibrant when a) People wish to challenge the existing order, and b) The existing order is at least partially out of alignment with the rest of the culture, and thus ripe for a “fall” of sorts. Free speech in those contexts might just look like “saying what everyone is thinking (or at least the “right” “everyone”). Today there are plenty of people who fit into the first category, but perhaps the prevailing orthodoxy is not yet ready to fall, backed as it is not just by cultural elites but also most businesses. In the 60’s, the main forms of national culture sided with those challenging the existing moral and political order.

Also, free speech can never be an absolute value even in the context of academic freedom. For example, one might imagine a hypothetical Professor Smith, who advocates with extended argument an absurd defense of Jim Crow laws. Whether public or private, no college should allow his continued employment. The problems today are that 1) Such standards are very unevenly applied, with very slippery standards used to decide what is racist and what is not, and 2) Standards get formed very quickly that alienate, at minimum, very large numbers of people with different opinions that until quite recently were quite acceptable–one recalls President Obama’s support for traditional marriage in 2008, and 3) One can get “mobbed” for things far less than careful, systematically expressed thoughts.

**I dread the possibility, but could the U.S. separate into “Red” and “Blue” nations peacefully? One thinks of the famous dictum from the Chinese epic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which states, “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.” Maybe, possibly, we should not view the political union of the states as an absolutely fixed good. New York and Texas could easily go their separate ways, but what about the swing states, like Ohio and Florida? Like Kansas in 1854, one can imagine the frightful spectacle of their destiny decided by a few thousand votes one way or the other.

The lack of geographic contiguity would make the prospect difficult even with no violence, and so we would have the problem of 4-5 separate nations, new constitutions, etc. While nodding to the hypothetical possibly, we should do all we can to avoid it.

Meandering Thoughts on Equality

For the past several years now we have seen a fair amount of thought on the idea of economic inequality. Some see it as a serious problem, others perhaps as a temporary byproduct of the switch from a production economy to one rooted in service.  I suppose a very few might celebrate the possibilities free market economies in the fact of inequality.

I had a chance to think about this a bit recently, and attempt to bring some historical perspective.

It is hard to imagine this issue being resolved more successfully than the Athenians under Solon, ca. 590-570 B.C.  There were the aristocrats and the commoners, with law and wealth heavily sided in favor of the aristocratic class (the ‘Code of Draco’).  Debt spiraled out of control, society was coming apart.

Enter Solon.  He was given full powers to resolve this crisis. He did not need to curry votes or constituents. He was not an aristocrat, but he was rich.  He could appeal to both sides and be trusted by both sides.  He believed that Athens needed its rich citizens, as we might expect.  More crucially, he knew how to motivate reform by appealing to the aristocratic ‘need’ for glory, or arete.  One can’t just dismiss this, as it was part of the Greek mindset for centuries.

He made paying high taxes a sign of arete. You could pay your high taxes not in terms of a fixed percentage, but in terms of

  • Pay for this religious festival, and we’ll say loud and long that you paid for it
  • Build a trireme and pay the crew, but you get to command the ship
  • Build this bridge and we’ll name it after you
  • Etc.  You get the idea.

By some accounts aristocrats paid a percentage 12x higher than the poor, but they got ‘arete’ for those taxes, and they had a direct hand in how they were spent.  

He did other things, like expanding the merchant fleet and encouraging trade, which put a lot of people to work.  This sounds easy but must have been politically difficult, given the role of farming in almost every ancient civilization.

He canceled all debts, but he refused to redistribute property.  

In the end

  • Athens had a stronger middle class
  • Athens had relative social stability
  • Many believe that this helped lead to the cultural/political explosion in their ‘golden age’ a century later.  They  create modern science, literature, democracy, etc.)

Alas, many things about Solon are not replicable for us.  For one thing, change did not come from a democratic process.  He was a ‘tyrant’ (a technical description and not a bad word).  C.S. Lewis commented a few times that to get good results for democracies often you have to achieve them in non-democratic ways.  We are locked into our one democratic tradition, and have not nearly the flexibility the Athenians had.

I love his taxes idea, but we just too big and bureaucratic to copy it.  Could we do something like it–give the rich the privilege of naming how they contribute if they willingly contribute more, and giving them public recognition for this (i.e. naming a bridge after them, getting their name on a fighter jet’s wings, I don’t know)?

The idea of a ‘bridge-builder’ politician we can do, and have done successfully before.  But we lack the civic-mindedness of the Athenians.  For better or worse we are more individualistic.  The ancient world would find our attitude towards the state unfathomable.  

Unfathomable, yes, but their conception of rule, society, etc. was far more personal, far more uniform, and far more religious than ours.  Ancient Persia could be an exception.  The Roman Republic could also serve as an exception.  They did integration and pluralism quite well until they ventured beyond Italy and the Alps and into the Mediterranean.  It proved too much for them to swallow. Most Italians had similar cultures.  But in North Africa, Spain, etc., . . . they were different, and no one wanted to try integrating them into the Republic, and no one thought of not ruling over them in some way.  This is another factor, I’m sure, in the collapse of the Republic.  It may be that societies with higher ethnic diversity have a harder time with equality.  If so, this makes America’s relative equality all the more impressive.*

The trade-offs are huge.  You can get more civic buy-in, in theory, in America, but you would probably have to sacrifice some sense of personal rights, and you would definitely have to ditch pluralism and relatively open immigration.  The first is highly unlikely, the second probably impossible.  Even if we could do those things, it is debatable that we should.

Anyway, we can’t dismiss the rugged individualism out of our national DNA, nor should we want to. Solon could not dismiss arete.  But . . . he found a way to work with it.  

Can we create low-skilled jobs from the digital revolution and keep them in America?  If we did so, would it make things worse for workers in Asia?  Would we want the flag-waving and possible economic confrontations that would come from a more nationalistic America?  Would the world be safer?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.

We are such a big nation (like almost every other one) that our problems become abstract and impersonal.  In Athens more or less everyone knew everyone in some way.  Dealing with inequality has much more meaning when we have a personal connection to the problem.

Rome faced a similar problem ca. 150 B.C. that Athens faced in 600 B.C.  They never found a way out, and the Republic collapsed.  All agree this period has many complexities, and historians hotly debate why the collapse happened, but I think most agree that

  • Both sides used violence to settle issues
  • Both sides tended to view politics as a zero-sum game, very much an ‘us vs. them.’  They destroyed each other with a century of intermittent civil war.

The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the revolutions in China, SE Asia, Cuba, and even arguably the American Revolution created far worse tyrannies than those they replaced (this is a stretch in the U.S.– the British weren’t tyrants, and neither were the victors, but the victors did exile many loyalists, slavery expanded, Indians fared far worse than under the British, etc.).  The Roman civil wars over the political questions of the day gave them the emperors.  

We need a political genius of sorts, who can find a synthesis between liberty and equality, between civic responsibility and rugged individualism. He/she would need to be trusted by the common man in Iowa and in Silicon Valley.  He/she would have to, perhaps, give huge tax breaks to corporations who did not outsource jobs–a pro-nationalist low taxes weird hybrid.  If we find him (and I don’t see him/her around), he would not have nearly the power Solon had, at least by the letter of the law.  

None of these mostly unoriginal thoughts get to the unspoken root issue.  Why is inequality a problem in the first place?  By “problem” I don’t mean whether or not inequality exists, but whether or not people perceive it as an issue worthy of much attention.

We might think that inequality is problem in every society but, not so.  For example, monastics renounce property and have all things in common.  We say that communism has never worked, but it works in monastic societies, though of course on a small scale and with everyone present strongly and voluntarily committed to that idea.

Other societies experience inequality, but seem not to think much of it. Neither Homer, Plato, Augustine, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Austen ever made it a burning issue.  But we do see the issue move right to the front of political thinking just after Austen in the mid-19th century.**  We see it in Marx as well as Dickens, and thereafter inequality could be a rallying cry for political revolution.

Surely the Industrial Revolution has something to do with this, for it created a society where, having mastered the elements of nature, one could quickly have great material success.  The first two generations of factory workers at least likely lived at lower standard of living than previously.  Vast gaps between classes opened up.

Vast gaps existed in ancient Egypt as well between the pharaoh and the peasants, for example, but these gaps made sense to their society historically and theologically.  In a society where “all men are created equal” inequality hits with much greater force.

Marx thought that in the first 50 years or so of Industrialism some of these “non-sensical” gaps would certainly destroy the capitalistic state.  Marx had many things wrong.  But on this, I can’t blame him for his guess.  Why did the capitalist state survive?  Marx, the great materialist, had ironically underestimated our materialism as a society.  Its reasonable to assume that the social gaps created by the industrial revolution, coupled with our ideology of equality, would end the industrial-capitalist society.

The “cause” of the problem of inequality perhaps lies in solving this riddle.  It seems that the poor want what the rich have. Both rich and poor want the same thing, and the values of western society tell them they should have the same thing.  I don’t mean to say that inequality is not a problem or no such problem of economic injustice exists, or that the poor should rest content with the rich as mortal gods on earth.  I am not advocating a revival of ancient Egypt.  I merely point out that our society as a whole has surrendered to the materialist impulse which makes easing the problem that much harder.

Of course this parallels the rise of the issue in the mid-19th century just as social Darwinism, textual biblical criticism, and other de-mythologizers of life gained pride of place.  All that we left ourselves had to do with the here and now, i.e. applied science to increase our standard of living, and our various abstractions to make these things real.

All this to say, dealing with crippling inequality in society will involve a spiritual solution.  The monastics show us that it is possible.

Dave

*If this is true, we are faced with choosing between the competing goods of liberty and equality.  Would we prefer economic peace between our citizens or freedom of movement for all?

**Others I’m sure would disagree, but I don’t see the French Revolution being driven primarily by inequality.

A Pattern Language

Many years ago I witnessed a debate between the Christian William Lane Craig, an atheist, and a Buddhist. Naturally I “rooted” for Craig, but also hoped for an interesting discussion. The atheist cut a poor figure. Craig possesses an enormous intellect and made quick and brutal work of the scientific materialist. In so doing, however, he neglected the Buddhist, who had a much more interesting argument, Though I disagreed with the Buddhist, I wished Craig had stopped shooting fish in the barrel and paid more attention to him. The Buddhist basically argued that values certainly exist in the world, contra the strict materialist. But he thought Christians too interested in the explanation for the values in the world–why not simply live in light of them? Craig never dealt with this enigmatic assertion.

Everyone should read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, or at least glance through it as I did. 🙂 On its surface the book is about architecture, and he provides much directly for the professional builder. What makes the book remarkable, however, is how easily Alexander connects architecture to everyday life, and orients it not around outsized auteur individual creation, but making spaces for people to live communally and “normally.” To do so, one must tap into the “patterns” in everyday living. Though I know very, very little about Asian religious philosophy, I sensed something of the Buddhist or Taoist in Alexander. He felt no need to justify these patterns or explain their meaning. As far as I could tell he called mainly upon the intuition of our experience in presenting his ideas. Many have written about the increasing privatization of our culture, and no doubt this reflects itself in the buildings we create. Alexander injects a comforting warmth into our sterile sense of the meaning of a building, something quite needed given the state of modern architecture.

I agree that values present themselves in the world as real entities. I disagree that the origin of these values is a red herring–I think that it matters very much. But I agree again that the experience of such values matters much more than debating or discussing them. To understand the reality of symbols we have to enact them, to incarnate them, in our daily lives. The argument over when we started living in our modern linear, factual. and personalized way has a different contenders–some say the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food for Medieval Women work hints that this process began in the late Middle Ages-early Renaissance, though answering this question was not the intent of her work.

Bynum won me over immediately in her introduction. She makes it clear that we have to understand medievals on their own terms. She quotes John Tauler of the 14th century, who writes,

St. Bernard compared this Sacrament [the eucharist] with the human processes of eating when he used the similes of chewing, swallowing, assimilation, and digestion. To some this will seem crude, but let such refined persons be aware of pride, which comes from the devil; a humble spirit will not take offense at simple things.

The words form an introduction to the subject of her book, and indeed–unlike Henry Charles Lea–Bynum knows that to understand medieval ideas of food (or almost anything) means understanding the eucharist first and foremost. The words also bracket ones whole approach to any part of the past–humility usually triumphs over judgment.*

The humble everyday nature of food is a great place to start understanding the nature of things.

The remarkable Alexander Schemmen began his classic For the Life of the World with these words:

“Man is what he eats.”  With this statement the German materialistic philosopher Feurbach thought he had put to an end all “idealistic” speculations about human nature.  In fact, he was expressing, without knowing it, the most religious idea of man.  For long before the same definition of man was given in Genesis.  The biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.  . . . Man must eat in order to live; he must take into the world his body and transform into himself.  He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one banquet table for man.  It is the image of life at its creation and at its fulfillment at the end of time . . . “that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom” (Lk. 22:30).

We remember too, that just as, “the whole world is one banquet table” so too, the first sin involved breaking the fast. How and when we eat matters as to how we understand the world.**

Individually, food involves taking the life of something else and making it part of ones own life. Even a stalk of wheat or an apple must be plucked from its source of life and ‘die’ so that we may live. So eating mirrors Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I talked in a recent post about adopting a theopomorphic view of our experience with the concept of bodies, and we should understanding eating as part of our joining our life to Christ’s life. He offered himself as food for us (John 6:56).

In addition, eating joins us to creation’s pattern. The earth receives water and bears fruit. The earth receives death and decay–think compost or manure–and turns it into life. The church in the early west established “ember” days of fasting to mirror changes in seasons, and the longest fasts of the church year (Advent and Lent) occur during times of year when the ground lies essentially inactive.

Establishing this pattern, Bynum then leads into understanding medieval women and their relationship to food. Creation has always been associated with the feminine, i.e., “Mother Earth.” We know too the trope of the mother who “sacrifices herself,” who will eat less, eat last, or . . . not eat at all. She “dies” so that she can provide.

Bynum frames the context of medieval female religious experience through this lens. Bynum looks at the fasting and eucharistic devotion of certain medieval women, including a long discourse on the whether or not such women suffered from anorexia that is tedious in a scholarly way, but fair and sympathetic nonetheless.

But this intense personal piety as it related to food has a problematic endgame. Connecting fasting and feasting to the patterns in creation meant that communities could experience it together in the same way, with the same meaning. The physicality of things makes itself obvious to all, from the saint, to the scholar, to the ploughman. By separating the practice from “normal” rhythms, the experience became intensely personal, and less communal. This is not to say absolutely that no variance can exist in a community, and the late medievals never normalized the experience of these unusual women. But a decisive shift happened. Fasting meant no longer primarily a communal experience linked with the pattern of the life of Christ and creation, but a vehicle for personal, and possibly idiosyncratic, devotion.

From here dominos start to fall. Without the connection to creation, the common language of food might disappear. In time, one could fast from Netflix or shopping instead of certain foods. Maybe such things have their place for individuals, but the reduction of fasting to individual experience and individual authority robs us of meaning and identity (something Mary Douglas pointed out in her excellent work).

This same radical personalization and consequent loss of meaning have done similar work in the realm of sexuality. In ye olden days marriages happened not primarily because people were “in love,” but rather as a vehicle whereby people could participate in what it means to be human and the drama of salvation. If we think of our humanity and the humanity of Christ as one–before the foundation of the world–we see this clearly especially as it relates to women who get married:

  • The woman is led to the altar by her father
  • She “dies” at the altar–Miss Jane Smith is no more
  • She is “reborn”–meet Mrs. Jane Johnson
  • After marriage comes the “fruit” of the marriage, say hello to little baby Jack Johnson

The meaning of sexuality comes from this mirroring of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. And here we see why we need “Heaven,” and “Earth,” man, and woman, for our sexuality to make any sense at all. We have divorced this aspect of our being from all such patterns, and made it purely personal inside the chaotic variability of our minds. It appears the end of this rope has come, when some experts tell us that not only is the created order not a model for sexuality, but our very bodies should be discarded to achieve our purely personal goals.

Many today focus on our political confusion, and we should lament this. But these political issues have far deeper roots which we cannot see. Not only do we not see a pattern, we don’t expect to see a pattern. We won’t be able to solve these problems until we start looking.

Dave

*Another aspect of her writing that I appreciated . . . She delineated in the introduction chapters geared more towards layman like myself, and those written more with the professional scholar in mind. I personally have no taste for the hemming and hawing of scholar-speak, but I understand it has its place. It was kind of her to let me know what to avoid and where to focus my attention.

**This may seem a crazy assertion, but if we think of our lived experience we begin to understand. Let’s take drinking alcohol as an example. We instinctively recognize that someone who drinks scotch at 10 am has a problem, but if they did so at 10 pm, no problem. But why? What is the difference between drinking in the morning or at night?

Life is full of “inhaling” and “exhaling.” At night we begin to “exhale,” we reach the “fringe” of our being for the day. As we move through the “fringe” of the day we begin to approach the “chaos” of the unconscious. It intuitively makes sense, then, for us to match drinking something that relaxes us, that moves us toward the “fringe” of our being, at night rather than during the day. If we move towards the “fringe” in the morning when we should be “inhaling”–focusing and getting active–we create personal and societal dissonance. Our distinctions are not arbitrary.

Likewise, we understand that drinking socially is better than drinking alone. A person who drinks too much socially we might perceive as having a minor problem. A person who drinks too much alone we perceive as being in grave danger. But why? The pattern tells us, and again, we understand not so much logically but in our lived experience. Social groups exist for people to blend and mix together. Alcohol can bring us to the fringe of our being, we can “extend” the self in some respects through alcohol. Hence, “Can I buy you a drink?” can be a means of introduction in ways that, “Can I buy you some carrots?” would not. Someone who drank too much alone would extend themselves and connect with no one–it would be an intentionally fruitless action, in which we rightly recognize despair and nihilism.