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.

The Metal Mountain

I am guessing that many of you have seen this video from Boston Dynamics:

Most of the comments either say that this is the greatest or worst thing ever. I asked a science teacher friend of mine for his reaction. He said, “Really cool and impressive, but . . . also terrifying.” I had a similar, but flipped, reaction. I find the video viscerally horrible, and I had the strong urge to reach through the screen and smash the robots with baseball bats. But I have to admit–it is pretty cool.

“Both-And” trumps “Either-Or” in this instance, and so far my friend and I agree. But we can’t both be right in our emphasis.

In the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch*, an apocalyptic text associated with Second Temple Judaism, we read of a “metal mountain” in chapter 52.

And after those days, in that place where I had seen all the visions of that which is secret, for I had been carried off by a whirlwind, and they had brought me to the west. There my eyes saw the secrets of Heaven; everything that will occur on Earth: a mountain of iron, and a mountain of copper, and a mountain of silver, and a mountain of gold, and a mountain of soft metal, and a mountain of lead.

And I asked the Angel who went with me, saying: “What are these things which I have seen in secret?”

And he said to me: “All these things which you have seen serve the authority of His Messiah, so that he may be strong and powerful on the Earth.” And that Angel of Peace answered me, saying: “Wait a little and you will see, and everything which is secret, which the Lord of Spirits has established, will be revealed to you.

And these mountains, that you have seen; the mountain of iron, and the mountain of copper, and the mountain of silver, and the mountain of gold, and the mountain of soft metal, and the mountain of lead. All these in front of the Chosen One will be like wax before fire, and like the water that comes down from above onto these mountains they will be weak under his feet. And it will come to pass in those days, that neither by gold, nor by silver, will men save themselves; they will be unable to save themselves, or to flee.

And there will be neither iron for war nor material for a breastplate; bronze will be no use, and tin will be of no use and will count for nothing, and lead will not be wanted. All these will be wiped out and destroyed from the face of the earth when the Chosen One appears in front of the Lord of Spirits.”

I am no scholar of such literature, but I believe a connection exists with the meaning of robots for us now and our current political situation–why both are full of wonder and terror all at once.

I begin my case in what seem will think a strange place . . .

We all remember the excitement of dating our spouse, or even dating in general. At the root of this excitement lies the mystery of possibility. A dating relationship has a great deal of “potential energy,” to use a scientific term. But we must convert this potential into actual energy, or the “potential” is dead and meaningless. We see the same relationship with money. If I receive an Amazon gift card, it is always fun browsing and imagining what I might purchase. Sometimes the actual purchase fails to live up to the fun of ‘window shopping.’ But if I never actually converted potential reality (the gift card) into lived reality (the book I would read), then the gift card is “dead,” lacking any purpose or telos.**

It is no coincidence that money–which represents a multiplicity of possible reality, comes from the earth in the form of precious metals. We can see the “mountain of metal” in Enoch symbolically as a mass of possibility attempting to reach up to heaven, akin to the Tower of Babel.

Whatever status we accord the Book of Enoch, this interpretation should not surprise anyone reading the early chapters of Genesis. Here we see that it is Cain and his descendants that cultivate the earth for its potential. They develop the earth for tools, cities, and weapons. This technological development leads to violence and disaster, the unleashed chaos of the Flood. When we understand that the paradise was located on a mountain (cf. Ez. 28), we understand the Fall as a coming down from “heaven” to “earth,” a physical as well as spiritual descent.^ After murdering his brother, Cain descends further into the earth in the development of various technologies. He becomes enamored with potentiality, and his descendants develop it for violent ends. We usually see new technologies creating disruption. While it might be a chicken-egg situation, I think the pattern in Genesis points to

  • First, chaos, then
  • Technological development

Might the 1960’s show forth this pattern? We had large scale social upheaval starting around 1959, then the space-race/moon landing.

The metal mountain–a mountain full of “dead” metal, can also be contrasted with the paradisal mountain bursting with life in Gen. 1-2. No one expects to see a mountain lush with life, but this is the kind of paradox that suffuses Christian truth. Perhaps the metal mountain can be seen as a kind of anti-paradise. Most every culture has some kind of sacred mountain, as mountains represent a union of heaven and earth. The metal mountain, then, would represent a bastardization of this reality, an “earth only” mountain.

This is not to say that all cities, shovels, trumpets, and swords are evil in themselves, any more than the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was evil. But Adam and Eve were not ready for such a gift, not ready for the power such knowledge would convey. Acquiring this knowledge before its appointed time severed them from God, each other, and themselves. The theme of dangerous and thus forbidden knowledge has a reflection in other mythologies, most familiarly for us in the story of Prometheus who brought the tools of civilization to humanity.

So, yes, I fear the robots, not because they are evil but because I don’t think we can possibly handle such things rightly in our current moment. But I must acknowledge the romance of the “potential” the robots convey, just as I love to receive Amazon gift cards.

We can understand our current political situation with the same symbolic framework.

There are those on both the right and the left that want nothing to do with the mundane realities of “married” political life. Some on the left looted Portland for weeks, and others occupied Seattle. Some on the right did something similar with the Capitol. Both sides have elements within them that want to transcend politics, that want a divorce from the constitutional order. They are enamored with the possibilities of a brand-new trophy wife. Those on the left envision a utopia of equality from below. Those on the right envision a strong Caesar from above to lead them to glory and defend them from all evil. Both imagine a perfect marriage to Brad Pitt or Emma Stone is theirs for the taking. Again–we cannot deny the intoxicating nature of “potential.” Gold has always exercised this spell.

Many have remarked how social media, which exponentially increases the potential power of language, has exacerbated this problem. This makes perfect sense when we see language as the manifestation of potential from the earth, much like gold or silver coins.

In his The Language of Creation Matthieu Pageau develops this idea convincingly, and what follows here merely seeks to condense his description. If we think of letters as random marks condensed into form, we can see that this process of incarnating ideas in language essentially boils down to turning potential into reality, the same as turning a hunk of iron into a sword. First, the basic union of Heaven and Earth pattern illustrated by Pageau as developed in Scripture:

We should note well that “symbol” here means not an ephemeral representation of something real, but instead an embodiment of meaning, something more real than a mere fact.

Forgive the crude nature of the drawing below which attempts to illustrate the principle as it applies to language (also stolen from Pageau):

The internet adds even more potential to the reach of the human mind, and it is both terrifying and glorious.

The current political climate mostly reflects this terrifying aspect of the internet. Imagine our body politic as the guy in a marriage who constantly gets different women paraded before him, an endless array of options and perspectives. He might eventually grow tired of his wife, with so much intriguing “potential” before his eyes. Many elites and institutions have lost trust, and this accelerates the problem. But these untested political realities are the elusive fantasy girlfriend that you never have to live real life with.

Exposing ourselves to robots during such a chaotic time (in fact such things are more likely to appear during chaotic times–just like Cain’s tool-making was directly preceded by his wandering) may greatly exacerbate the “meaning crisis.” We should not storm the Capitol, ransack Portland, or mess around with dancing robots.

But . . . as much as we should hedge and protect our current political symbols and institutions, our political life is akin to, but not the same as, our sacramental married life. The unformed potential is not evil, but how we use it might be. No good can come to a husband witnessing a parade of super-models, but our political life needs more “give” than a marriage to stay fresh and alert. A political system needs to occasionally integrate new ideas. But the only thing one can do during a flood is batten down the hatches. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube–who can doubt they bring a “flood” of “biblical proportions?”

As usual, Genesis gives us the pattern from which to operate. We have the paradisal mountain with four rivers flowing through it. The mountain encases the dynamism of the rivers–“change” safely residing within solidity. Without this solidity, even small challenges to existing order will pose an existential threat. Maybe conservatives will have to tone down market dynamism. Maybe liberals will have de-escalate the speed of social change. Maybe that works, but we’ll need to turn our keys at the same time.

Dave

*The Book of Enoch is not regarded as canonical Scripture for any Christian group except the Ethiopian Orthodox. But, it was a book held in great respect by the early Church. The Apostle Jude quotes it in his epistle. We may say that it was part of the vernacular, perhaps, of the early Christians.

**It is in translating the “potential” into reality that determines a good or bad marriage. The husband/wife run the risk of things growing “dead” through the lack of potential. This can lead to affairs, or more benignly to the buying of sports cars. This is one reason (among others) why couples should have children–to have new “potential” come into reality. After a couple completes the child-rearing stage, which for many can last into their 50’s, they enter a new transformative phase of “death to glory.” The couple can no longer generate new “potential life,” and their hair grows gray. But even their gray hair manifests glory–“white light” streaming from their heads.

Oligarchies, Expansion, and a “Time of Troubles”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the original post . . .

Reading Explorers of the Nile spurred on a thought experiment.

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

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

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

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

Mediterranean, 264 BC

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

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

Roman Growth Timeline

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

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

Colonisation, 1800

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

British Empire, 1920

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

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

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

America, 1800:

America, 1800

America, 1900:

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

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

Map, Athenian Empire 431 B.C.

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

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

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

Blessings,

Dave

“. . . And in the End”

My dad has a large record collection, and growing up I heard a lot of different music. One of my earliest memories involves me asking him to, “Put the Apple record on,” by which I meant, “Put on Abbey Road by the Beatles, side two, “The End.” There I would hear the vastly underrated (by the general public) Ringo Starr play his one and only drum solo. I grabbed Tinker Toys, made two mallets, and attempted to play along with the music on the sofa.

Years later when I started playing the drums myself, I sometimes tried to replicate the sound Starr got out of his kit on that album, with no success. Reading And in the End: The Last Days of the Beatles, I discovered the secret–a new way of mic’ing the drums was employed, but the real trick may have been his switch to calfskin drum heads on his tom-toms. Ringo loved the new sound and feel, and credited the heads for giving him some newfound excitement on the kit. With the drum heads sounding so good, it inspired him to integrate his toms more than he had on previous albums–the result can be heard especially on “Come Together,” and “Something,” to say nothing of his famous aforementioned solo.

This little nugget may not be of much interest to anyone but myself, but And in the End gives everyone lots to chew on about the decline and final fall of the Beatles. I have skimmed through biographies of Lennon and McCartney and seen a few documentaries about them, which prepped me for this book. Author Ken McNab gives little background information, which suited me just fine. For anyone with an interest in The Beatles and a passing familiarity with their dynamics, this book will do nicely in filling out some unexplored corners of Beatles lore.

Most of us know about Lennon and McCartney’s personality feuds, the presence of Yoko Ono, and Harrison’s rise in prominence. And in the End mentions this but knows that we have heard about it before. Instead McNab spends a lot of time talking about the business side of The Beatles and how that, perhaps even more than personality differences, contributed heavily to their demise as a group.

The Beatles faced in formidable challenges to their cohesion in 1969:

  • John married Yoko, and Paul married Linda. Again, we are aware of the challenges Yoko brought to the table. Many have well documented the unnerving effects of her awkward presence during rehearsals. But McNab puts a different focus on Paul’s marriage to Linda Eastman as a major contributor to the widening John-Paul divide. Eastman came from New York high society money. Paul’s marriage, then, confirmed and deepened every suspicion John had about Paul–his social striving, his “bourgeoise” aspirations, etc.
  • At the same time, George Harrison began to assert himself much more aggressively in the group. John and Paul had previously worked out truces and trades in sharing the spotlight and wrote “together” at least officially. Now they would have share even more than they had before at a time of much higher tension.
  • At the same time, the “Apple” company they founded floundered badly, obviously bleeding cash. Their image and their pocketbooks would take a big wallop.
  • At the same time, The Beatles attempted to rework their financial arrangements, with John, George, and Ringo favoring one company, and Paul favoring another company–which happened to be run by his new brother-in-law (this did not go over well with the other three. John especially tore into the fact that the Eastman’s had changed their name from Epstein to Eastman, a sign of “inauthenticity”).
  • At the same time, Lennon–who had smoked plenty of weed and experimented with psychedelics in the past, now began a much more problematic heroin habit.

In other words, to paraphrase Fletch in his visit to Dr. Dolan, the Beatles may have been dying for years, but the end was very sudden.

A few bands have lasted more than a few decades, and fewer still have stayed productive during their span instead of merely rehashing older hits on tour. So on the one hand, the demise of The Beatles should not surprise anyone. But McNab’s treatment of the band’s final year made me realize that the main failure of the Beatles involved their failure to “institutionalize” themselves in some respect–a failure to scale up their issues to a point where the issues were “solved” by the institution known as “The Beatles.”

I can think of only two other bands that managed to last long and stay reasonably productive: Kiss and Rush (who actually toured together in 1975). In the case of Rush, they perhaps solved their problem by always having two guys write the songs and one guy write the lyrics. Harmony could be maintained as long as they stuck with this formula, and they did so right until the end. This very stark division of labor will be exceedingly rare in any collaborative group.

The more typical path is that of KISS, who had two strong frontmen with strong personalities. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons certainly feuded over the years. But the outfits–Starman, Catman, Spaceman, etc.–gave them an identity outside themselves. This allowed them to replace particular musicians when needed (such as Peter Criss, Ace Frehly) while still maintaining their individual identity. They could do a solo album or a solo project as “Paul Stanley”–who is not KISS, then put on the makeup and become KISS again.

Not having Rush’s division of labor, the Beatles needed something of the KISS formula to work, but they could not create it in time. Given the challenges they faced along with their particular personalities, this was not likely to happen, but perhaps the possibility existed.

As I finished the book it appeared that Trump will not have a second term, and this spurred some reflection on the purpose of institutions, and their role in our culture at the moment.

In the Democratic primaries many lamented that anti-establishment figures like Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang got the freeze-out from mainstream media and the party establishment. In the end, the Democratic base chose the most “establishment” figure possible in Biden. On the one hand, Trump vs. Biden at first glance appears to boil down to “Anti-Establishment v. Establishment. That is short-sighted view of the situation–just as seeing the Beatles conflict as purely Lennon v. McCartney–Anti-Establishment v. Establishment–also interprets a lot of the signal as noise.

First we can see Trump akin to John Lennon. Both despised or could not work within institutions. Both always had/have the most gravity in the room. Those freed from an institutional ‘gloss’ or ‘crust’ can shine forth with a particularly concentrated vitality. Lennon would at times impress everyone with his clarity and intelligence, and at other times embarrass everyone with his rash anger and insane narcissism. His partnership with McCartney worked so well because he needed someone to ground him, someone to “land” his ideas, which Paul did with some of John’s best songs*

The Trump-Lennon connection is easy . . . making McCartney into Biden stretches things a bit. Well–it works in some ways. Lennon always hated the “grandma” tunes that McCartney loved, the sweetly melodic semi-vaudeville stuff that Paul dipped into now and then. Paul always believed that the Beatles had to be a “band,” which meant recording and then touring. “Back to basics,” and so on. So we can see the election of Biden as a vindication of our institutions, and at least the perception of “normalcy.”

Certainly Trump is “anti-establishment”–but particularly in his personal behavior. He cared nothing for the niceties, decorum, and customs of acting “presidential.” Some of his political agenda, however, had roots in old Pat Buchanan Republicanism. He had broad support for his judicial nominees and support for pro-life policies, all of which would fit within the Reagan heyday.

Biden on the one hand is quintessential “Establishment,” having served in the Senate for who knows how long. He is nothing if not boring in his personal behavior–which at times can be a strength. He will uphold presidential cultural and political norms.

But he also brings with him a long trail of supporters who also wish to dismantle certain aspects of the Establishment and its norms. It wasn’t too long ago that we heard chants of “Defund the Police.” Biden’s supporters have already created an “enemies list” of Trump staffers and “enablers” that may be used to exclude them from various aspects of public life. No such acts have ever been perpetrated so openly before, at least that I am aware of.** We shall see to what degree Biden takes the Democratic party into more anti-institutional waters. Note that some Democratic supporters have called for the abolition of the Electoral College, a dismantling of certain powers of the Senate, and so on. To alter the Constitution is to dismantle the American institution.

But just as Biden may have a slightly jaded take on institutions, so perhaps did McCartney.

As mentioned above, the problems faced by The Beatles were legion–too much to handle all at once. But–had it boiled down to Lennon’s ‘anti-establishment’ and Paul’s ‘establishment’ they could have compromised here and there, just as they did with their songwriting. In reality, they represented two different mixes of both ‘establishment’ and ‘anti-establishment,’ the combinations of which could not compromise.

John as “Anti-Establishment” (this is rather obvious)

  • The drugs, the weird behavior, founding “Bagism,” the marriage to an avant-garde artist who would lay down inside a bag and scream during performances
  • Etc.

Paul as “Anti-Establishment”

  • Paul was a rock star who did not fit a conventional rock star mold. He was much more fruitfully experimental than John
  • Paul utilized orchestras, audio experimenting, etc.
  • He did the India thing just as the others did

John as “Establishment”

  • The counter-culture is admittedly not the Culture, but the counterculture had enormous power in the late 60’s and John was at the crest of that wave.
  • John wanted to be seen as a rock star who played rock music, and who at times loathed Paul’s “sissified” experimentation.

Paul as “Establishment”

  • He marries into wealthy NYC society
  • He appeals to a much broader cross section of the population than John. He is “the cute one”–certainly much “safer” than John.

A big part of the problem for the Beatles lay here–two different blends of establishment/anti-establishment that allowed both to call the other “squares” on the one hand and feel good personally about stretching boundaries on the other. This dynamic makes compromise a lot harder, because you see the other side as lacking everything while you already “have it all.” When at their best, for example, Paul saw that he needed John to get him to take more risks, and John saw that he needed Paul to “ground him” and give his ideas shape. But as they both grew, Paul found a way to experiment without John, and John found a “grounding” in the counter-culture. Then–they perceived no need for each other.

The right and the left in the U.S. have good and bad things about them and always have. When both sides can even just occasionally see how they need each other, our democracy will be healthy. But now that both sides have both Anti-Institutional and Institutional impulses within them, they will feel this need for each other much less. This, perhaps more than any particular policy change, may be our most significant political challenge.

Dave

*If anyone argues that “Imagine” or “Instant Karma” is as good as “In My Life,” or even “Come Together,” they are just being plain silly or purely ideological. Neither Lennon or McCartney ever topped solo what they did with each other.

**Trump said dangerous things like, “Lock her up,” but never acted on anything. Again–he had a hard time acting on his various statements (look at how little he accomplished when Republicans controlled House and Senate from 2016-18) which we can be thankful for in part.

The ideological left, on the other hand, is much more connected to institutions in media, academia, and increasingly, in the corporate world as well. We shall see whether or not this threat of a “list” becomes reality.

Healing Hierarchies

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

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

No scholarly consensus exists that I am aware of on the identity of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, except that he was not the Dionysius encountered by St. Paul in Athens. Perhaps “St. Dionysius” wrote in the tradition developed by this same Dionysius. Whoever he was, his writings had enormous influence over the medieval world, as C.S. Lewis points out in his great work The Discarded Image, and perhaps none had the influence of his On the Celestial Hierarchy. In one section he writes,

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

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

Author Andrew Louth comments on this passage that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Care of Souls

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onto Smith’s argument . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We might see it this way:

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

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

Dave

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

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

Symbolic Matters

I am republishing this in light of a more recent post on another book by Steven D. Smith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the original post . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

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


Animalia Agonistes

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

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

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

I will make a meager attempt to do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One is from page 68, where she writes,

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

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

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

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

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

Can we put these curiosities together?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberty and Coercion

Almost every political philosopher I am aware of from Aristotle down through Montesquieu believed that a democracy/republic had to be small in size.  Self-government required, among other things:

  • A population where people know each other enough to trust each other to some degree.
  • A population where people can have enough land to support themselves, but a geography that does not allow any one particular faction to have too much land, thus gaining too much of an advantage over their fellows.
  • A relatively culturally homogeneous population that shares core values

The American experiment is unique in many ways, one of which being that Jefferson and Madison attempted to turn this reasoning on its head.  They argued that

  • Democracies/Republics floundered because of too much population concentration, not too little.
  • These population concentrations gave way to passions and factionalism that could easily destroy liberty by trampling on the minority (cf. Madison’s brilliant Federalist #10).
  • Hence, what Democracies/Republics need is not a small geography, but a large one.  People need to spread out so that 1) All will be sure to have land, and 2) No one particular faction could concentrate its power enough to override the rights of minorities (hence, Jefferson’s impetus for his semi-Constitutional Louisiana Purchase).

Maybe necessity helped them invent these ideas, maybe it sprung direct out of their heads.  Either way, with this reasoning Madison and Jefferson show their genius, confidence, and perhaps, their arrogance.  I have wondered if one might not view the whole of American history through the lens of this question: Were Jefferson and Madison right or wrong?*

I expected Gary Gerstle’s Liberty and Coercion to take on the grand question of the thorny question of the interaction between liberty and power, and how sometimes “liberty” for oneself means power over others.  Instead, he narrowed his focus and proceeded in a methodical way to show how over time the “police power” of the federal government grew.  Gerstle disappointed me by never exploring the relationship of our founding ideals to this question.  But at times his narrower focus allows him to make some incisive observations.

For example . .  .

Many presidents and perhaps many Americans had a desire to act in some measure of good faith with Native Americans, but things never went right.  Some might explain this via a grand clash of civilizations.  Gerstle looks instead at the inherent dilemmas posed by our philosophic commitments.  Our commitment to self-government limited the scope of federal government.  No one, whether a Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Democratic/Republican or the like, believed that a large professional army went well with liberty.  But with no money and no political will to even create agencies to establish firm borders and grant land titles, let alone enforce such borders militarily, various presidents found themselves giving in to the settlers “squatters rights.”  We wanted to prevent the national government from having too much power to coerce, but without this power, settlers had the liberty and the power to coerce others.

Time and time again, our sheer size made the relationship between governmental power and self-government difficult.

A similar line of reasoning happened with non-WASP immigrants, be they Catholics from Ireland/southern Europe or Asians settling in the west.  They did not have the same rights as others, but how could they?  For communal self-government relied on shared religious and cultural beliefs and habits.  If these immigrants did have these same values, they could possibly participate in the democracy.  Gerstle shared Teddy Roosevelt’s fury and frustration with the treatment of Japanese migrants in the U.S. just as he was negotiating sensitive deals with Japan.  But he had no ability to force local governments to do as he wished.

Here Gerstle misses an opportunity to connect our dilemmas with our founding ideology.  American colonization began with the idea of transplanting certain distinct communities intact.  But by the later 18th century Enlightenment ideas led to the bold “All men are created equal” mindset of the Declaration.  Simultaneously, America had no real justification to exclude anyone from its shores, but neither could they practice local, autonomous, self-government if they did.

The history of political philosophy has its revenge–or at least makes itself known.

Of course slavery is the preeminent manifestation of this dilemma.  On the one hand, I think most of the founders knew that slavery ran against their moral principles as a nation.  But their political principle of limiting the power of national government meant granting a lot of autonomy to the states.  The clash of these two propositions embedded the possibility of civil war into the fabric of our origins.

Gerstle cites one illuminating aspect of this problem that I had not heard of before.  After Nat Turner’s rebellion many abolitionist presses mailed anti-slavery publications “free of charge” to the South.  This infuriated President Jackson, who believed that such publications only sought to stir up more trouble.  He asked for Congress to ban their mailing.

But southerner John C. Calhoun recognized that such a ban would not serve southern interests.  They would gain in the short term but give away one of their core principles–the right of states to decide such questions.  He advocated against the ban.  But many states arrived at a solution by instructing local postal workers to simply not deliver this mail.  This at best awkward compromise could only last so long, however much it tried to resolve federal and state issues.**

States were seen early on as the means by which well-ordered communities could be established.  Thus, they had broad ranging police power.  The constitution reflects this by enumerating the powers of the federal government and giving everything else to the states.  Today the power of states is much weaker relative to even just a few generations ago.

This changed in stages.

The Industrial Revolution may have done more damage to the vision of the founders than any president or political party.  It broke down local rural life and lumped most people together in the cities as one amorphous mass.  Such conditions created a national state. Without any direct power to act, the government outsourced, deputizing local civic groups to undertake tasks related to civil order.

Whatever the successes such organizations had, they were destined for embarrassing failures.  They discriminated against blacks and immigrants.  They imprisoned without fair trials, and so on, all in the name of the Justice Department.  They needed stopped, but the only way to do so involved finding a way to increase the power of the national government.

Over time the national government used various legal strategies mostly related to the 14th amendment and the commerce clause to achieve their aims.  Perhaps the Industrial Revolution destroyed the possibility of self-government that our constitution depends on.  Rather than create a new constitution, we sought to stretch certain enumerated powers far beyond their original purpose.  Much hay has been made of the commerce clause, for example, which many conservatives lament.  However, our military and national defense (an issue dear to many conservatives) has also assumed a shape utterly unrecognizable to anyone who lived before W.W. II.  The size and cost of our military has in turn stretched the power of the presidency far beyond the vision of the constitution.  Gerstle cites many examples of how our military ballooned in size and then rapidly decreased when conflicts ceased.  Of course we can cite the strategic dilemmas faced by the U.S. after W.W. II as a justification for maintaining a large military.  In a very real sense, W.W. II did not end until 1989.

Strategic considerations aside, we should speculate if any other forces influenced this shift.

Eighteenth-century theorists drew upon the “citizen-soldiers” of times past.  Greece and Rome both provided examples of this.  On the one hand, we cannot have a militarized state, which would jeopardize our liberty.  On the other hand, we need national defense.  A nation of property owners motivated by legitimate self-interest would certainly rally to defend their land, their communities, if need be.  The first 175 years (give or take) of our history demonstrated this.  Right up through the end of W.W. I we demonstrated the ability to dramatically expand and contract the size of our military.

Perhaps our strategic situation changed so dramatically in 1945 that it necessitated the rise of a “military-industrial complex.” Or perhaps it was we ourselves that changed.  Gerstle does not speculate.

Embedded in this question is the relationship between liberty and order.  We have always recognized the need for someone to have the final say, and the need for people to “pursue happiness” in the way they see fit.  This has always meant tolerating things one may disagree with.  Should we ban pornography or not?  Do we grant the freedom of some to own slaves?  Do we grant the freedom of some to oppose same-sex marriages?  Who gets to decide?

Gerstle’s book rather prosaically shows how this power to decide has transferred over time from the states to the federal government.  This happened mainly under Democratic leadership.  But conservatives also played a role at crucial times with their traditional issues of national defense/military.  By “prosaically” I don’t mean that it was easy or unconvincing.  He has extensive research and uses a methodical style that makes him quite convincing.  But he leaves us with some unexplored questions and neglects to swing for the fences.

He makes clear the fact that ideas of liberty and coercion have always existed.  All we have done over time is basically transferred the power of coercion from the state to the national government.  As to whether representative government can exist in the post-industrial era, as to whether or not Jefferson was right or wrong, these grand questions go largely untouched.  I for one can’t help but admire the brilliance and confident boldness of Jefferson’s vision–though I think I disagree.  I wish Gerstle had done a bit more to inspire me one way or another, and done a bit more to help answer the perplexing question of the nature of America’s idea of liberty.

Dave

*Another possible historical lens would be the “wheel of fortune”–the idea that every civilization (and every ruler?) will experience a kind of boom/bust cycle.  The medievals would argue, I think, that this cycle was meant to teach us about redemption.  This lens would argue that some choices could delay the progress of the cycle perhaps even for a long time, but that “nothing lasts forever” and that some kind of decline remains inevitable.

Again, this idea had a historically long run, from the ancients down through Machiavelli at least.  Our founders, many of them heirs to the Enlightenment, would not have accepted this idea.

**The same held true for the Fugitive Slave Act.  Most pro-slavery advocates rejoiced at the new provisions of the law, but others saw that to achieve this they abandoned a key principle of keeping the federal government away from the slavery issue.

Without question slavery is a terrible moral evil.  We must realize that the issue had other dimensions to understand the colonial and ante-bellum period.  We may deplore the actions of another country or culture.  When should we use force to change them?  By what authority?

The Emperor Might Need New Clothes

Some years ago my students and I came across a remarkable passage in Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention.  The delegates debated some issue about term limits or representation, when one of the lesser known men commented that, in effect, “this constitution will last us about 75 years, after which we will have to make a new one.”*

This comment passed apparently without much notice or fuss at the Convention in Philadelphia.  Perhaps it was a generally assumed idea, or perhaps they simply had enough trouble in the moment to worry about arguing whether or not their document would last past their grandchildren.

This shocked everyone in class because we think of America like any other country, a more or less solid oak in the earth.  Of course, we have also been brought up with political rhetoric from both parties that venerates the constitution (though perhaps different parts of it).   Because Americans share little besides some form of faith in the Constitution, if that shakes, we all fall down.

Because American history has many unique aspects, I find getting an interpretive handle on our past very difficult.  I have taught American History for about 15 years and have only some educated and less than educated guesses.  Clearly, however, politically and culturally we are currently shifting in some direction or another at the moment.  How should we make sense of it?

One of the more remarkable periods of positive dynamic change occurred in Greece between the years ca. 800-500 B.C.  We know about the Bronze Age, but sometime after the Trojan War Greece descended into a dark age about which we know very little.  Perhaps Homer was the beginning of the rebirth.  Early on in his The Economic and Social Growth of Early Greece: 800-500 B.C. Chester Starr makes an interesting point.  Definite ideas or concepts like “equality” or “rights” did not guide the Greeks ca. 800 B.C.  Rather, the concept of eunomia, or “traditional right” formed the basis of Greek social and political interaction.  Sometimes they invoked eunomia against abuse of power by tyrants or aristocrats, at other times aristocrats invoked it rightly against the “mob.”  This flexibility surely gave them good ground on which to innovate.

This stands in contrast to our history.  We founded America on ideas, whether because we thought that the best way to go, or because we had no other choice.  We often agreed on the results we wanted, but rarely on the “why” of that result.  Even early colonial America had a great deal of cultural diversity, at least by 17th century measurements.  We have never really had a shared culture to build upon, except perhaps for a vague sense of Protestantism.

Starr goes to demonstrate that the creation of the much admired political unit of the city-state had at least part of its origins in the desire of the aristocracy to concentrate its power.  Later, asPericles of Athens we know, democracy arose in many Greek city-states, a tribute to the aforementioned flexibility.  But many Greek democracies still had their aristocratic imprint.  The outstanding reformer Pericles made Athens more democratic while definitely living and fashioning himself as an aristocrat, and not as a “man of the people.” His bust makes this clear.

All good things come to end, and the Greek system had played itself out by the time of Alexander, who had little trouble putting it to rest.  Still, all in all, a good run by any measure, one too that makes sense in some clearly defined stages.

In light of Greek history and our own, I offer some some highly speculative thoughts . . .

Theory 1

Since early colonization America has gone through several iterations:

  • Colonial America – 1600-1756
  • Revolutionary America – 1756-1828
  • Jacksonian America – 1828-1860
  • Progressive America – 1860-1929
  • New Deal America – 1929-1965
  • Global Power America – 1965-2001
  • ???

Obviously some of these dates can be disputed and overlap.  Basically, Theory 1 asserts that because America has been rooted in ideas and not culture/tradition, we subject ourselves to significant shifts every 2-3 generations (the first phase doesn’t really count, as we had no concept of an American “nation” until the mid 1700’s).  We can reinterpret our common language on the fly and create “new Americas” every so often–though of course each era has some connections to past eras.  This ability has its strengths and weaknesses.

This theory, if true, may comfort us now because the the shifting ground beneath our feet will settle again as it has for previous generations.  We’ve done this before, we can do it again.

Theory 2 . . .

proposes more unity for the majority of American history.  Yes, some cultural and political shifts happened over time.  But we consistently maintained faith in the democratic process, and in our reason for being.  Even in the Civil War, the Confederacy broke away not out of a rejection of the American ideal, but out of a belief that they represented the true America.  We had “confidence,” that crucial element of any civilization, even in the midst of our most profound domestic crisis.

But something significant happened in 1965.**  In this year we passed the Voting Rights Act, which could be viewed as the apotheosis of what America was supposed to be.  In this year also we dramatically increased our involvement in Vietnam, again, in some ways I think, out of a belief that this was what we were “supposed” to do.  We increased our troop presence initially at least with the general backing of Congress and the population at large.

However, almost immediately after we passed the Voting Rights Act the riots in America’s cities began.  Rioting continued sporadically in many major cities for the next few years.  Perhaps this was pure coincidence, but I think not, though I would not claim to really understand the reasons for the violence.  But I think that part of the reason might be an intuition that we had “done all we could do,” but that it wasn’t enough.  The supreme confidence we had in our democratic way of life taught us that things would always improve, but now we knew better.  Shortly after our troop surge in Vietnam waves of self-doubt began surging through the country.

The two phenomena are likely connected, though I’m not sure how.

Along with this, the counter-culture “hippie” movement went mainstream into popular culture and eventually most of academia.  Western icons like the Beatles went to India to learn see the world in a non-western way.  We lost confidence in our own culture, and we have not regained it.    We had never agreed fully on the why we did what we did, but we had agreed on what we did.  After this era we could no longer claim this for ourselves, and this makes the modern shift much different than others in our history.  The lack of political flexibility may have hastened the at least seeming collapse of the principles that guided us.  Some of the “vomiting up” of our past in some areas of our culture seems willfully self-induced.^

Recently The Guardian ran a great article about Tory MP Rory Stewart.  Stewart got a great education and attempted on two occasions to serve in difficult postings in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His comments say much about the state of the western world:

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. “They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying: ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done.”

And later,

In some sense I’m a romantic. I like the idea of organic history and tradition. But I think Britain is such a different place now, and changing so quickly, that I’m coming slowly, painfully, to accept that we need to start again.

I emphasize that these comments come not from a reactionary revisionist Liberal, but a member of England’s conservative party.

If we agree that we need to “start again,” in some way, will we agree on where to start from, and where we wish to go?

Dave

For anyone interested in further thoughts on America’s political culture, check out The Grumpy Old Man podcast with Audrey and Emily here.

*My apologies, I have looked back and forth for this comment and cannot find it again to save my life.

**A possible counter-date might be the end of W.W. II.  As Arnold Toynbee regretfully admitted, democracies are not well-equipped to handle something like nuclear weapons, though, so far no horrifying apocalypse.

^Trump gets rightly accused for excessive negativity, but why does no one focus on the obvious negativity from the Left?  Here is Clive Crook, via Marginal Revolution . . . 

Trump’s critics complain about his relentless invoking of crisis — despite agreeing with him that the system is collapsing. Conservatives keep telling us that the American project is in mortal danger, that liberty itself is at stake. Liberals keep telling us that global capitalism is wrecking everything that’s decent in society, that the U.S. is institutionally racist, and America’s traditional values are so much hypocrisy. I think back to the rapturous reception accorded by the left in 2014 to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital,” which argued, you may recall, that capitalism is an engine of injustice, headed for self-destruction; progressives everywhere nodded wisely in agreement. Here’s what puzzles many of them today: Why does Trump have to be so negative?

Chaos Theory

In the wake of 9/11 Patrick Deneen wrote an essay entitled “Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World made Strange,” in which he lamented the dichotomy he saw in public opinion. On the one hand, you had an entirely uncritical belief among many of the righteousness of the United States. Politicians needed to wear a small flag on their jacket lapels, (couldn’t happen now), and waved through sweeping legislation (the “Patriot Act”) that dramatically increased the surveillance powers of the government. On the other . . . you had many in academia, perhaps especially among our elite institutions, that could barely contain their smugness with pronouncements that America had gotten what it deserved for its overbearing foreign policy. Deneen published this essay in early 2002, and this split would only grow in run-up to the Iraq War. Remember “America Fries?”

Two seems to be a natural number for democracies to fall into, and perhaps somewhat natural in general for any society. We have night and day, sun and moon, major and minor keys, and so on. But “two” has always been something of a dangerous number symbolically speaking. The either/or paths “2” creates bring inevitable division among extremes. Still, if we think of myths and creation accounts as, among other things, poetic interpretations of the world, we note that “2,” while obviously prevalent in creation, does not have the final say.

Between day and night, and night and day, lies twilight and dawn, the grey area linking them both. We have Adam and Eve, but they are supposed to “be fruitful and multiply,” i.e., not stay just the two of them. We have six days of creation and the seventh day–a breathing space of sorts within the normal cycle of the week. In Revelation the Apostle John is told to measure the inner court of the temple of God, but to leave the outer court unmeasured (Rev. 11:1-2), i.e., we need to loosen our intellectual hold on at least parts of reality. St. John’s gives us grand cosmic visions, but the Old Testament has this need for an unmeasured, in-between space, displayed even in the most prosaic of ways. The Israelites had to leave the fringe of their fields unharvested, and to leave the edges of their garments loose (Duet. 24, Num. 15).

It is on this fringe, the in-between spaces, where fruitful interaction and new creation can happen.

Certainly Deneen’s essay has resonance with us today. But he did not seek merely to lament the situation that existed in 2002, nor do I seek only to bemoan 2020. Rather, Deneen pointed to the classical world for a possible solution to the dilemma of “2”–the Greek vocation of the “theorist.”

One form of education seeks to construct by rote a particular view of the world. In regard to our own history some proclaim that the founders were all wise and good men–and only wise and good–our wars are always just, etc. Without cultivating any possibility of error, no repentance can happen and growth a forlorn hope. Such infants can never eat meat. As Aristotle noted, the perfect citizen would rarely be a good man. He could never grow into virtue.

The other education aims only at deconstruction–our founders were all misogynists, slave owners, etc. Of course this deconstruction supposes the need to construct something else in its place. Nothing can exist based on a universal negative. But often, having despised their birthright, deconstructionists have no idea what or where to build, and can feed only on dreams, or worse–themselves, and thereby “starve for feeding”(Coriolanus, Act 4.2). We need another approach.

Enter “one who sees,” which is a translation from the Greek word “theorist.” Certain elected officials within most classical Greek city-states had the title of “theoroi.” To quote Deneen,

To “theorize” was to take part in a sacred journey to visit the “other,” to “see” events such as religious or athletic festivals, and to return to their home city to give an account . . . the theorist would then attempt to comprehend, assess, compare, and then, in the idiom of his own city, explain what he had seen. The encounter would inevitably raise questions about the customs and practices of the theorists own city. . . . Might their be a best way of organizing the city that is not our way?

. . . The activity of “seeing” other ways of foreign life comprised half of the theorist’s duty. The other half . . . was the “giving an account” of what the theorist had seen. A “theorist” would betray his office if he were, so to speak, “go native” while abroad. . . . Even if a theorist were persuaded that that foreign practices were superior to those of his own city, the primacy of the theorist’s allegiance to his own city demanded careful and prudent explanation . . .

The “theorist” then, was not chosen only for his ability to “see” and apprehend with sensitivity the new and unusual but equally for the abiding customs of his own way of life. . . . it was by means of deep familiarity and love for that cultural inheritance that the theorist was able to move fellow citizens to renewed devotion to those practices . . . or to subtle questioning of dubious customs . . .

Conserving America: Essays on Present Discontents, pp. 18-20

It is through this lens that Deneen suggests we should see Socrates. He self-consciously went on a “sacred journey” of philosophy and saw himself as a “gadfly” to Athens, but also someone who would never consider disobedience to the laws of his city.*

Deneen examines Rene Descartes as possibly the first example of a modern “theorist.” As a French Catholic fighting other Catholics in the brutal 30 Years War, Descartes had a unique opportunity for serious soul-searching. As Deneen points out, however, he operated purely with his mind and imagination, and not with his heart. He “begins with radical suspicion of all that preceded him in act or thought, and especially all that is the result of the common endeavors of a community or people” (23). Descartes prefers to think by himself in a foreign land, but cares not even for the foreign locale. Time and place matter not to him. “A thinker like Descartes would be content to think anywhere on earth” (24). Descartes loved to sit in bed and think–all well and good. But what person, or place, or custom, did he love?

The abstract method Descartes employed led him to question everything . . . except himself (“I think, therefore, I am”). The mind, powered by egotism and unfettered from the body, became a weapon to remake nations and nature itself for civilizations that followed his wake. But to be free from one’s time and place is also to be estranged from it. We tend to lash out at strangers, even if the stranger is our very selves.

Those younger than me may groan at this assertion–but a line runs straight from Descartes’ abstractions to the internet and social media-the “cloud.” The internet has perfected the art of taking you away from where you reside and placing you nowhere in particular. I suppose with very simple and direct messages, social media works well, i.e., “Look, my son graduated from high school,” or, “I love my new haircut.” But anything involving complexity requires context, and context requires “full body” communication–not just the mind. Misunderstandings become almost the norm if we ignore this, which brings chaos. Our connections to one another disappear. To compensate for the interpersonal gap (which we perhaps feel but may not be fully aware of), we use manipulation as a method to bridge the chasm. Christians are guilty of this just as others are, i.e., “Jesus is the Light of the World–If you love God you will share with all your Friends!” Marshall McLuhan was right–the medium often dictates the message.

In difficult times we face two temptations. One is to bury our vision into the dark and tangled soil. There we meet the demons of blood and earth. The early 20th century saw this nightmare made real. The other involves a flight into escapist utopian fantasy with our heads in the sky. Devils lay there as well (i.e. the “prince of the powers of the air”–Eph. 2:2**). Both soil and clouds exist for a reason, however. Both have their place. We need to see what lies below and above at the same time, with Christ in the center, holding all things together.

*We can note that in The Republic he places his ideal, or perhaps, imaginary, city outside of Athens (I tend to think of The Republic as a thought experiment and not a description of Plato’s “real” beliefs–others disagree). Deneen also notes that the great Athenian dramatists played the role of “theorists.”

**Perhaps we should think of Paul’s words in a strictly spatial manner, but I am fairly sure that we should interpret his words metaphorically (the two are not mutually exclusive). That is, the “air” shifts to and fro–it has no boundaries, no direction–its shiftiness resembles the snake, who speaks with a forked tongue, etc.

A Donut Shaped Universe

If anyone every feels a tinge of excitement opening Plato’s Republic for the first time, many find the text quickly snuffs it out. This foundational philosophical work starts off with a rather mundane conversation. Then, when Plato starts to talk about how the state should be built, one of the first points he makes is that no one should more than one job, one task. Stay in your lane, and do not deviate. Otherwise, “great evil” would result.

Such pronouncements strike moderns as absurd and non-sensical. I myself like Plato and think The Republic deserves its place in the canon, but I too never really liked the explanation given by various commentators about this section of the work.

Ah . . . but Jane Jacobs may have discovered the answer–one I had never heard or considered before.

All readers know the pleasure of discovering a new author, with the prospect not only of the current book in front of you, but of all of their other works. Well, historians get the same thrill as seekers of fiction, and I have to say . . . Jane Jacobs has been too long absent from my life. I am not sure if I agree with her, but that is not the point. The best teachers you have had may not have agreed with you, but pushed you to think, explore, and wonder.

But I have another qualification for a good historian–one cannot be simply a “one thing after another” type of historian. I would not say that such people are in fact not historians–however good their research skills–for historians must create meaning. This means that historians must consciously synthesize even they do not wish to overtly systematize, Jacobs showed in her most famous work (which I have not read) The Life and Death of American Cities that she can pick order out of the seemingly scattered flotsam of different neighborhoods.

One wants to agree with such people, and I find it annoying for the moment that I cannot decide quite what I think about one of her perhaps lesser-known works, Systems of Survival, a book that attempts to unify the entirety of history into two moral systems, or two ways in which civilizations, organizations, or movements, can order themselves. I admire the audacity of the attempt, and I love too that she organizes her thoughts in the form of hypothetical conversations–more more books should take this accessible approach.*

Jacobs broadly identifies two “casts of mind” throughout history that derive from these two moral modes of being. The first, the “Guardian,” and the second, the “Commercial.” I think that “Cosmopolitan” fits better (my first minor disagreement with Jacobs), but I will stick with her terms. She has two of her characters demonstrate this with the following conversation:

Guardian: The love of money is the root of all evil.

Commercial: The love of power is the root of all evil.

G: History tells of the dynasties and the fates of nations and empires.

C: History tells us of how social, material, and economic conditions have changed.

G: The most valuable archeological findings are of art, religious artifacts, tombs, of kings, etc.

C: The most valuable artifacts are clues to how people lived everyday life, how they made their living, their tools and materials.

G: War and preparations for war are normal and peace a hiatus from war.

C: No–peace is normal, war is the aberration.

G: Man is a territorial animal.

C: People are city-building animals.

G: Knowledge is a weapon or possibly an adornment

C: Knowledge is a tool.

G: Intelligence gives us insight into others’ way of thinking–we should focus on what divides us.

C: Intelligence means primarily the ability to pick up new skills and good reasoning.  We should focus on what unites us.

G: China is prosperous at our expense.

C: China’s prosperity raises everyone’s standard of living.  Economic gain is not zero-sum.

G: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

Guardian: The love of money is the root of all evil.

Cosmopolitan: The love of power is the root of all evil

G: History tells of the dynasties and the fates of nations and empires.

C: History tells us of how social, material, and economic conditions have changed.

G: The most valuable archeological findings are of art, religious artifacts, tombs, of kings, etc.

C: The most valuable artifacts are clues to how people lived everyday life, how they made their living, their tools and materials.

G: War and preparations for war are normal and peace a hiatus from war.

C: No–peace is normal, war is the aberration.

G: Man is a territorial animal.

C: People are city-building animals.

G: Knowledge is a weapon or an adornment

C: Knowledge is a tool.

G: Intelligence gives us insight into others’ way of thinking–we should focus on what divides us.

C: Intelligence means primarily the ability to pick up new skills and good reasoning.  We should focus on what unites us.

G: China is prosperous at our expense.

C: China’s prosperity raises everyone’s standard of living.  Economic gain is not zero-sum.

G: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

C: The state exists for the sake of the people–that’s Locke, Rousseau, Madison–the social contract.

These casts of mind come from what Jacobs describes as two “moral syndromes.” By “syndrome” she simply means that the various parts of the moral system necessarily run together. She calls these the “Commercial” and “Guardian” moralities, and part of the vim and dash of the book is that she commits to the idea that these two “syndromes” are all that have ever existed. The values of each system are . . .

The “Commercial” Syndrome

Shun Force–Come to voluntary agreements

Be honest–collaborate easily with strangers

Compete–but respect contracts and other voluntary agreements

Use initiative and creativity

Be open to new things–change should be embraced

Be thrifty and efficient

Promote comfort and convenience

Dissent is valuable for the sake of the task

Invest for productive and practical results

Be optimistic

The Guardian Moral Syndrome

Shun trading, and exert prowess

Be disciplined and obedient

Value tradition and the ‘old ways’

Respect hierarchy–strive for loyalty

Make rich use of leisure–be ostentatious

Dispense largesse

Group exclusivity strengthens internal identity

Treasure honor

Jacobs has much to say about both, and of course both go right and wrong in different ways. In general, must of the world used to subscribe to a Guardian morality and now certainly the first world at least has shifted to the Commercial syndrome. But the shift has not been absolute, as ancient Babylon and classical Athens strike me as mainly “Commercial” in nature, and even “Guardian” civilizations had Commercial aspects. Cities, and any civilization with a port, generally needs to adopt a commercial mentality.

I found myself much taken with her analysis, as it explains a lot of the success and frustrations we have with our predicament. The benefits of the Commercial syndrome seem almost second-nature. Our religious and political freedoms arise from it. The material comforts we enjoy come from the speed of innovation (and its accompanying trampling of tradition) over the last 250 years.** Many of our “freedoms” have also resulted from a variety of moral innovations, especially in the area of sexual morality. To point out the obvious, if we like democracy we have to value collaborating with strangers.^

But a second look reveals its weaknesses. A “Commercial” society will never build pyramids or cathedrals–hence the constant critique of the vanilla tapioca nature democratic culture. The promotion of comfort will make it hard for us to sacrifice without an extreme need. The combination of valuing comfort and dissent make it hard to act as one with common purpose.

The Guardian Syndrome obviously has its associations with aristocracy and its attendant abuses–be they spiritual (such as pride), moral, (indolence) or otherwise–we see right away. But the Guardian syndrome can also give more civic-mindedness & “noblesse oblige.” Those in a Guardian society know their place and need not fight for it. Most every kind of environmental advocate, for example, uses aspects of the Guardian syndrome, i.e., hedging in and protecting defined spaces, and knows the futility of their approach to a Commercial syndrome society. Though it is anathema to the Guardian mentality of the movement, we will have to use Commercial moral values to solve the problem.

But back to Plato . . .

Jacobs surmises that what Plato might have meant by his condemnation of having more than one job or “calling” strongly correlates to these moral syndromes. When we “mix” these syndromes together we have the possibility of dangerous moral hybrids. A few examples . . .

  • In the 1980’s NYC sought to help fix crime on their subways by injecting the Transit Police (police have a natural Guardian morality) with certain Commercial incentives. The cops got rewards for things like efficiency, i.e., numbers of arrests, and competition (promotions for higher numbers). The result–Transit Police began falsely arresting people least able to fight the charges–the poor–who were mostly minorities.
  • The Nazi’s took certain aspects of the Guardian morality (such as defense of the homeland) and combined them with Commercial science, whose ‘innovation’ had spawned new racial theories, military ideas, and industrial capacity.
  • Marx hated bourgeois Commercial morality. But all of his theories lay rooted in western political categories of thought. One result–A generally Guardian mentality in terms of communal unity, but applied on a scale of universal Commercial ideology. Guardians tend towards being apolitical, but the Soviet Union also united the Guardian aspect of loyalty with Commercial ideological innovation. So–to be on the wrong side of the prevailing ideology=disloyalty to the state.
  • I think that SJW’s make the same moral monster, but start from the other end–the Commercial values of openness, inclusion, and moral innovation combined with the Guardian mentality of rigid loyalty and protection of its own–i.e. “safe spaces.”

Yes, Jacobs also discusses positive moral hybrids, but seems to lean towards Plato’s conclusion that mixing them brings problems more often than solutions.

So far, so good. I found Jacobs’ thoughts stimulating and illuminating. Where I part ways with her comes with her theory of how these two moral syndromes developed. She postulates a material cause for each, with the guardian mentality arising from war, and the commercial from trade. But it is mind that generates matter, so to speak. It is mind that shapes matter. I won’t defend this proposition here, suffice to say, as a Christian I reject a strictly materialist argument for the origins of civilization. But, still think that Jacobs has a point. These moral syndromes have ancient roots–more ancient than she supposes.

For civilizations to work, they must take into account both unity and diversity. Something must bring them together for a society to form at all, yet if this “something” binds them too tightly it will neglect their individuality. This has its roots in Being Itself. God is both Unity (1 God) and Diversity (3 Persons).

Christ, being both God and Man incarnated this duality/tension. He revealed to us both what I will “Open” and “Closed” ways of being. The Open way shows how God shows Himself in Nature (Ps. 19:1) or our fellow man (Mt. 25). Marriage is an icon of Christ and His Church. (Eph. 5). In other words, the Open way encourages us seek Truth in our experience of the world.

But just as often, we are encouraged to take the Closed way. We must gouge out our eye if it causes us to sin (Mt. 5). St. Paul often posits enmity between the world, the flesh, and the Spirit. Christ tells us that we must “hate” even our mother and father for the sake of the Kingdom. The Closed approach urges us to seek the Truth by narrowing, not broadening, our focus and shunning the trappings of this mortal coil that we might see God and God alone.

So–is the Open or Closed way superior? The answer, of course, is ‘Yes.”

I love that the world Jacob’s presents has coherence–two halves, coming together to make a whole. The problem is that, like a donut, it lacks a center. Without this center, Jacobs’ outstanding observations lack any real meaning. But with it . . . well, we have the possibility of real coherence.

And who would complain about having another bite of a donut?

Update . . . if only Jane Jacobs were here to comment on the Blue Angels flyover that happened Saturday (May 2), she might argue that one’s reaction to the event would pefectly pigenhole a person into one of the two aforementioned moral syndromes–if we keep in mind that heavily symbolic and “ostentatious” nature of the event:

Commercial:

  • This display wasted money that could have been used to so much better practical good
  • This display wasted time and effort.
  • This display foolishly misdirected our attention–encouraging the American public to look at the shiny object, rather than a) the problem itself, or b) the politicians and agency heads responsible for gross mismanagement of the whole pandemic.

Guardian:

  • We live by symbols, and having our most famous and powerful planes flyover gave the nation a powerful symbol of American pride and resolve.
  • These “unnecessary” displays are in fact, absolutely necessary. We are not materialists–we need such acts to lift us out of the mundane of our lives. We need ‘elevated’ out of our current circumstances. We need inspiration as a people if we are to win the “war” against the virus.
  • Leaders act responsibly when they provide these symbols for the people–something to inspire awe and help unify them.

*Another notable fact about Jacobs–she had no college degree and can be therefore classified as an amateur. Toynbee would have rejoiced.

**Though–different writers from different perspectives, such as Tyler Cowen, Ross Douthat, Peter Thiel, and even Jane Jacobs herself (in her last book Dark Age Ahead) have declared that innovation has essentially ceased in western economies.

^This kind of collaboration also seems on the decline, in Congress, in marriages (Republicans don’t marry Democrats, and vice-versa), etc.–and this may herald a decline in democratic practice.

The Best Reason for Democracy is . . . Democracy?

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

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

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

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

What is democracy really about after all?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critics of Salmons conclusions have two good points.

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

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

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

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

Dave

Book XXIV

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

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

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

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

 

“The Sword and the Olive”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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