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.’

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, 2020), 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.

Time vs. Space

This post was originally written in 2019 . . . .

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

In an essay he wrote a few years ago called “The Four America’s” conservative columnist David Brooks pointed to the need for a new unifying narrative for America. What he called the “Exodus” paradigm held from our founding as a nation until recently. We told ourselves that America was essentially replaying the story of the Israelites, who fled religious oppression in Egypt, and came to the promised land to be a light unto the nations. Americans too fled oppression in the old world and came to a new one, establishing a special and unique nation that could broadcast freedom to the rest of the world. We existed to inspire others to follow in our footsteps.

Obviously this national myth no longer holds the imagination of our culture. In some ways we can lament the loss of this sense of mission and purpose, but I also think that the story never quite fit to begin with. Granted, every myth compresses and synthesizes, but our treatment of Native Americans and slavery stand as massive exceptions that the myth simply cannot hold within it. Our relative ignorance of these “anomalies” in our story* for centuries then naturally led people to focus almost exclusively upon the “exception” to the story, and so the pendulum swung entirely in the other direction. I am no friend of the modern progressive left, but reluctantly, I understand why they exist. We will have to endure them at least a little longer, it seems, perhaps as penance for our sins.

In addition, the Exodus story works wonderfully for a pioneer people, but less well for a major superpower. And, finally, even a cursory look suggests the possibility that the Enlightenment had just as much, if not more, influence on our founding than Christianity.

Brooks then suggests four other off-shoots from this myth, though admits that neither of them work even as well as the Exodus narrative.

  • The Libertarian myth sees us as “a land of free individuals responsible for our own fate.” It celebrates choice and the free market. It borrows from the freedom element of the Exodus story, but economic choice isn’t as powerful as religious choice. And–simply focusing on personal choice and responsibility cannot sufficiently unify us.
  • The “Globalized America” narrative celebrates a sliver of the “America as beacon for the world” from the Exodus story, as well as the dismantling of old hierarchies celebrated by our founders. But this story fails to provide an America distinctive enough to give us an identity.
  • “Multicultural America” borrows from the “Exodus” story with its narrative of oppression and the idea of a melting pot nation. But in always focusing on the exceptions and purely personal identity, no common core can be built to rally around.
  • The “America First” story gives us a common core and reinforces American distinctives, unlike the above three options. It has a brashness that can be bracing, especially compared to the other options. But it leaves out the inclusive aspect of the American story. It can tend to produce a “patriotism for the sake of patriotism” whirlpool. It gives America no transcendent reason to exist beyond its mere existence.

I agree with Brooks that neither of these four approaches are even as good as our discarded “Exodus” story. I agree that we need another narrative, but am not sure how we’re going to get one in our polarized culture. But as to what polarizes us a country–we don’t agree on this either. This is not only America’s problem–most everywhere else at least in the developed world seems to have the “first world problem” of no unifying narrative.** But we do not look deep enough for the cause of this rift, and blame different sides for the wrong reasons.

Though democracies have done much to alter traditions, they cannot change the basic ways in which the world works and the ways we perceive the world, at least on a subconscious level. Ancient creation stories agree in many ways, perhaps most fundamentally in that they conceived of creation as a harmony of contrasting forces. “Salvation” in a Christian sense is about the marriage of Heaven and Earth, and of course, the Incarnation is Christ the God-Man uniting Heaven and Earth in one Person. I do not intend this post to be an explicit argument for the truth of the Christian story, but I do believe it contains the most coherent and best “version” of all the ancient cosmologies. Biblical cosmology overlaps with many other ancient cosmologies, and this only serves as a point in its favor. Acknowledging these huge questions, from here on I will proceed by discussing ancient cosmologies in general.

The modern age measures time in what I would consider to be rather an insane way:

The second (abbreviation, s or sec) is the Standard International ( SI ) unit of time. One second is the time that elapses during 9,192,631,770 (9.192631770 x 10 9 ) cycles of the radiation produced by the transition between two levels of the cesium 133 atom . . .

This has advantages, as it allows to universalize and quantify precisely, but it happens completely outside of our experience, and thus, time can have little real meaning for us. The way we parse out units of time remains essentially arbitrary. For the ancient world, time had a manifest reality because it brought observable change. Day turns to night, and then night turns to day. Seasons change, and death and new life come with these changes. Thus the ancients conceived time as something moving, fluid, in flux–like water, but also solid and experientially verifiable.

Space gives us stability. Time allows us to become, but we need to “be” something to “become” anything (apologies to Brad Goodman). Time needs space to act upon. The relationship between time and space can only work well when we have a strong concept of the unity of heaven and earth. Possibly, we could have an acceptable range of this relationship. Some parents are more strict and some more permissive, but as long as one avoids the red line on either side, families can be stable and healthy.

For example, ancient Egypt leaned heavily on the side of space. They lived within a narrow strip of land, with the “chaos” of desert and death right next to them. Even their greatest architectural achievements mainly had the psychological effect of weights pressing on the ground. The Nile flooding formed in integral part of Egyptian life, but they put all their energy into controlling the Nile flood. Theirs was a “masculine” civilization all in all, and some historians criticize them for being too rigid and not sufficiently adaptable to change.

Babylon favored the fluidity of time (too much so, I would say, but we’ll let it pass for now–they had a long and storied history, after all). The Euphrates bisected their city, and they sought not to control the river–they had no great need to do so anyway–but to utilize it for their benefit. One of their main deities, Ishtar, was goddess of love, war, marriage, and prostitution, and sometimes was pictured with a beard. Aristocratic males were known to cross-dress and temple prostitution was the norm. Babylon was the quintessential cosmopolitan city–home of every philosophy and religious idea in existence in their known world. Theirs was a “feminine” civilization, in the sense that they had little devotion to the concept of a stable, unified form.

We can debate the merits of both civilizations, but should acknowledge that although they had different answers as to the balance between time and space, both at least were conscious of the realities of both. Our problem is twofold: 1) We lack even basic awareness of these concepts on a metaphysical level, and 2) We have abandoned the “marriage” of Heaven and Earth (a mirror also for “Time, and “Space” respectively) in Christ, and so have lost any hope of holding them in tension. With both freed from each other, Time makes war on Space, and vice-versa.^

Some argue that Time reigns supreme. In favor of the victory of Time, we see the rapid expansion of “time saving” technologies. Cars and planes compress space, but nothing compresses space quite like the internet. We erode boundaries of privacy, and we live in a “hot-take” world of moving information. Very few media outlets can afford patient reflection. Time’s triumph–thinking in terms of the “fluid” aspect of time–seems most evident in our culture’s support for people changing genders.

But, not so fast . . . “Space” does not take this lying down. If Democrats propose open borders, Trump will build a wall. In countries such as Poland and Hungary we see a resurgence of a strong nationalistic mindset. As we do more to celebrate exceptions and fluidity in the west, at the same time we have more absolute boundaries enforced by the culture as to what we can and cannot say. College students demand rigid “safe spaces” on the one hand while simultaneously affirming the legitimacy of every possible identity–a perfect incarnation of the intense stalemate between time and space. And–every spot on earth is mapped out, which means that space has complete definition. No country would possibly consider negotiating space with another country to resolve a dispute. Lest our modern avoidance of this seem perfectly natural, it stands in sharp contrast to politics before perhaps 1789, where king’s would routinely trade provinces here and there as diplomatic chips.

So today we have both “Time” and “Space” making a strong play for dominance, and just like the whole family suffers when dad and mom fight, so too we suffer in the midst of this contest. But children have little hope of solving their parent’s problems. We have more control of ours. We need the King to return to end the vicious squabbling of princes. When the dust settles, then we may see clearly enough to tell ourselves the story we all need to hear.

Dave

*I suppose there are those that would not call slavery and our treatment of Native Americans as anomalies to the story. Israel did have slaves–and some might draw a parallel to our treatment of Native Americans with what Israel did at Jericho. I disagree with this interpretation, but I want to acknowledge its existence.

**I know some do not want a unifying narrative because they fear the unity that this provides, and the concentration of power it gives. We saw the destructive potential of this in the early 20th century. But you can shove this basic human need under the carpet for only so long, and the longer we wait, the more chances for a destructive “pendulum swing” identity to emerge.

^Those familiar with Jonathan Pageau’s Symbolic World podcast will note my debt in what follows to episode 62, along with Matthew Pageau’s The Language of Creation.

Comparing civilizations on the Time/Space axis can be fun and illuminating. Clearly America, along with Babylon, heavily leans in the direction of “Time.” We have pioneered many so-called “time saving” technologies. The great Tyler Cowen proclaimed that our decline in physical mobility is a worrisome problem. We love our cars, and some argue that we lost our mojo as a civilization the moment the frontier closed. Bob Dylan mythologized the rolling stone, and who can possibly forget Journey telling us that the wheel in the sky keeps on turning, and that he doesn’t know where he’ll be tomorrow?

We have countless writers and other aspects of our culture that celebrate movement, the open road, etc. I can think only of Wendell Berry as perhaps our only cultural contributor of note who writes in celebration of Space.

Janus

Machiavelli inspires polarizing reactions. I find that often that initially I immediate reject his idea, largely because there is something I don’t quite trust about him. But, just as often, I end up rethinking my initial reaction and revising my thoughts.

One such instance happened for me reading Machiavelli’s assertion that republics must have their foundation with one man, writing in the Discourses (I.9),

But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic. It is well that, when the act accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when the result is good, as in the case of Romulus, it will always absolve him from blame. For he is to apprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficial purposes.

Machiavelli often engages in this kind of paradoxical thinking, i.e., “if you want peace the ruler must sometimes be cruel,” and so forth. As his logic applies to republics, he argues that concentration of power in the hands of one initially will allow for the spreading out of power later.

America’s history seems to contradict this–don’t we have founding fathers, and anyone who knows anything about them sees a multitude of disagreements about various important ideas about what they wanted. And yet, America has managed reasonable success as a republic for 250 years. But before rendering a judgment here, I realized that two of history’s most famous republics, Athens, and Rome, had foundations in one man–Theseus and Romulus.

The stories of two men, as told by Plutarch and other sources, agree in certain general particulars, especially in regards to their uncertain parentage. Both functioned as kings in their respective realms, but neither ruled as king’s in the sense that we might assume in our modern context. It seems that both functioned primarily as religious leaders and as military commanders primarily. Later, both Athens and Rome underwent significant political changes contemporaneously in the years 509/508 BC. But Rome and Athens had many differences, reflected in the lives of Theseus and Romulus.

We can chart the differences between Athens and Rome

Athens

  • Attached to water–their key lie in their navy
  • As they had roots with water, they were active in trade
  • We see this physical movement linked with significant intellectual exploration–they basically invent modern concepts of science, philosophy, literature, etc.

Rome

  • Attached to land–their key lie in their infantry
  • Ringed round with their famous seven hills, Rome remained devoted to land and agriculture. They disdained trade.
  • This rootedness to place has its echoes in Rome’s intellectual conservatism, espoused most fully in writing by Cato the Elder. Rome’s main contribution to future civilizations would be in law, i.e., how people in the same community relate to one another.

When one looks at the lives of their “mythical” founders, we see striking parallels. Theseus hardly could keep his feet still, roaming from one place to another, never truly even settling in Athens. He had a variety of women that he “married”/grew familiar with. We moderns would diagnose him with wanderlust. Athens’ narrative seems to me to always involve something beyond Athens, the next colony, the next discovery, the next idea or theory.

Romulus founded the city of Rome and stayed there. Plutarch has much good to say of him, but with no sugarcoating–many found him a “hard” man. He gained glory through military exploits on land against Rome’s neighbors. Rome always made the narrative about Rome itself.

Though an Athenian by birth, Plato thought little of Athens’ legacy. In The Republic Socrates continually affirms conclusions that limit movement–we shouldn’t move jobs, we shouldn’t trade, we should limit too the “movement” of our souls by restricting the kind of music we listen to. In The Laws Plato writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ath: I know that is the general view . . . But in [my] belief, it was the land battles of Marathon and Platea that were the day-spring of the salvation of Greece and its crowning mercy.  . . . My good friend, I am afraid that the course of my speculations is leading me to say something depreciatory of legislators; but if the word be to the purpose, there can be no harm. And yet, why am I disquieted, for I believe that the same principle applies equally to all human things? 

Cle. To what are you referring? 

Ath. I was going to say that man never legislates, but accidents of all sorts, which legislate for us in all sorts of ways. The violence of war and the hard necessity of poverty are constantly overturning governments and changing laws. And the power of disease has often caused innovations in the state, when there have been pestilences, or when there has been a succession of bad seasons continuing during many years. Any one who sees all this, naturally rushes to the conclusion of which I was speaking, that no mortal legislates in anything, but that in human affairs chance is almost everything. And this may be said of the arts of the sailor, and the pilot, and the physician, and the general, and may seem to be well said; and yet there is another thing which may be said with equal truth of all of them. 

Cle. What is it? 

Ath. That God governs all things, and that chance and opportunity co-operate with him in the government of human affairs. There is, however, a third and less extreme view, that art should be there also; for I should say that in a storm there must surely be a great advantage in having the aid of the pilot’s art. You would agree?

Plato willingly gives a nod to the need for the “pilot’s art.” but concedes to it almost as a result of the Fall, so to speak.

Aristotle saw things differently. One of the quietly “subversive” sections in his Politics comes when he favorably compares the constitutions of Sparta and Carthage. I think some exaggerate the attraction some Greek theorists–including Plato–had for Sparta. But certainly with its minimal trade, almost no navy, and fearsome infantry, Sparta resembled the kind of society Plato wanted in certain respects. Carthage had more in common with Athens–an almost exclusively maritime power that relied on mercenaries for infantry. He writes

The constitution of Carthage is general accounted a good constitution, one that is peculiar in many respects, but the chief thing about it is the likeness . . . to the Spartan. . . . Many of the institutions at Carthage are certainly good. It is a proof of a well-ordered constitution that Carthage, with her large populace, should steadily keep to the same political system: she has had no civil dissensions worth mentioning, nor any attempt at tyranny.

[He then goes on at length to discuss the oligarchic and democratic elements in the constitution, and how it sometimes deviates in both directions. The oligarchic leaning comes based on the election of those by wealth–acquired from trade more often than not].

Carthage has a constitution which is in practice oligarchical; but they avoid the dangers of oligarchy by encouraging the diffusion of wealth [made possible by the constant shifting of goods and money through trade].

I think Aristotle saw that being open like Carthage or closed like Sparta was not the problem. The problems for both soceities would come when they could not maintain that equilibrium. If Sparta started to “move,” as they chose after the Peloponnesian War, it exposed contradictions and tensions within their own culture. They never recovered from their defeat at Leuctra, at the hands of Thebes, of all places. Aristotle wrote around 350 B.C., knowing the fate of Sparta. But Carthage’s problems started about 150 years later. Once Carthage lost the ability to trade and roam at leisure after the 1st Punic War, their days were similarly numbered. They had their first insurrection when, partly due to the changing terms of the Roman treaty, and partly due to the destruction of much of their fleet, they could no longer trade. Without the free flow of money, they could not pay their mercenaries, and one thing leads to another.

It seems that Machiavelli might have been onto something after all. The influence of the founders made a definite imprint on both civilizations. And this draws us back to America. We have a few options:

  • George Washington is our actual founder. He was the point of unity during and after the Revolution, without which–we never would have made it as a country.

On the one hand, we can say that

  • His two terms in office set a clear precedent
  • He embodied a spirit of political compromise, such as using Jefferson and Hamilton in prominent ways in his administration, and
  • We have to admit, his owning of slaves, but then also his freeing of his slaves, may have influenced us in both directions.

But I have doubts. Washington’s life and demeanor seem to have no real influence on the culture of the United States.

We can argue, then, that we have no founder. America is a bumpy ride, carried along by change, and so on. We should stop looking for a center and embrace change for its own sake. But this view to me holds no water. America did succeed in various ways, we grew, we built things, and so on. One can’t do all of this on quicksand.

Or we can assert that we are founded on an idea, or a set of principles, and not on a particular person. This explains or messy founding. And–it explains why the ideas, not limited by time and space, could travel so far so fast, just as we ourselves did across the country. It explains why we disagree so much seemingly about the same thing–the incarnation of the ideas might take different form in different places.

Theseus and Romulus overlap, as do Aristotle and Plato. But in the end we must choose a point of emphasis.

Aristotle, for his part, would have approved of our attempt at a mean between ideas, of commerce and agriculture, of conservative and liberal, and so on. But he surely he too would disapprove of how far the idea of democracy has traveled–the franchise for he saw as mob rule.Plato might approve of our founding in the “purity” of an ideal, but I am convinced he as not as gnostic as some make him out. I think that he would see that ideas rooted only in the mind would cause too much “movement” in our culture. In The Republic, Plato only looked at the state as a means of understanding the souls of real men.

The exact nature of the historical reality of Theseus and Romulus even Plutarch wondered at, and so we in America, built more on myth than history, can extrapolate a bit to find our founder. Perhaps we should name Janus, he who looked in opposite directions. This would explain our ability to move, our ability to always find something accommodating and infuriating all at once in America. Yet in the end, Janus still was one person, and perhaps the good ol’ U.S. of A can remain one as well.

Dave

*Hannibal without question was a brilliant battlefield commander and leader of men. But . . . military men write all of his biographies and hence see things from his point of view. What is needed (if it exists I haven’t seen it) is a biography of Hannibal written by a career politician. Most criticize Carthage’s Senate for not backing Hannibal and going for Rome’s jugular after Cannae. They lament the Senate’s focus on keeping trade open and the money flowing from Spain. But, armed with Aristotle’s thoughts, perhaps the Senators were onto something, consciously or no. Without access to trade, Carthage could not be Carthage, and so would surely collapse, as happened in the 3rd Punic War.

11th/12th Grade: The Origins of the Peloponnesian War

Greetings,

This week we started our unit on the Peloponnesian War.  This conflict took place between 431- 404 BC, and was chronicled by one of the founders of History itself, Thucydides.  Thucydides’s genius lay far beyond his dispassionate recording of events.  He concerned himself not only with battles, but also the deeper political, economic, and psychological contexts.  He was a commentator on democracy and human nature itself.  We will attempt to follow his lead, ranging back and forth between ancient and modern times.

We will also shortly begin our own Peloponnesian War game, in which the class is divided up into 5 different teams, each of whom participated in the actual Peloponnesian War.  The game is designed to give each side certain strengths and weaknesses, and different means of winning.  Generally speaking, the teams that have won in the past have focused not merely on eliminating enemy soldiers, but instead on forging a synergy between their economics, politics, and diplomacy, with their military action arising from that context.  This usually means that things start slow, but tend to pick up as weeks go by.

Most of us are used to thinking of democracy as a permanent fixture in our lives, but the Athenians lost, regained, lost, and finally regained democracy during and after the conflict.  Why did this happen?  Does war put more pressure on democracies than other forms of government?  On another note, are democracies naturally inclined toward expansion, or are those democracies that have expanded a product of historical coincidence?

Our study of this conflict should always have the idea of democracy behind it, for the war as a whole, and Athens’ role in it particularly, can teach us a lot about democracies.  Fundamentally, we should consider what makes a country “democratic.”  I offered the students the following choices:

  • In country ‘X’ the people are ruled by a king, but the laws of the realm allow for free speech, equal treatment under the law, freedoms of assembly, religion, etc.  In short, all the trappings we usually associate with democracy, except the people did not elect their leaders.
  • In country ‘Y’ the people have a representative democracy where they elect all their leaders.  But the elected government (which won 60% of the vote) uses their power to restrict the rights those that opposed them.

Which country is more democratic?  Does democracy have more to do with the process than the result?

As we look at the origins of the conflict, we will consider criteria for a ‘just’ war.  What kind of strategy should Athens have pursued, and does it teach us how democracies tend to, or should act, in war?

First, some of the background to the war.

Prior to ca. 500 B.C., Athens was not one of the major city-states of Greece.  They were not nobodies, but they could not be called a New York, LA, or Chicago.  Perhaps a Philadelphia. Their moment came during the Persian Wars, where their staunch resistance and military success propelled them into a potential leadership role.  How did they handle it?

They helped from what was known as The Delian League, a mutual defense alliance with other city-states that rimmed the Aegean against Persia.  Member states could contribute money or ships. As one might expect, nearly all chose the ‘money’ option. It was easier, for starters. But it also made sense.  Since Persia might return any time it made sense to fund the best navy and get more of the best ships out into the Aegean, and Athens had that navy.

But what if Persia did not look like it was coming back?  Can you leave the Delian League? Athens said no. They had some good arguments:

  • Persia was still a major power and could decide to come back at any time.
  • If a city-state left they could potentially make an alliance with Persia, which would threaten all of their neighbors.
  • Even if a city-state did not make an alliance with Persia, they would still get security.  Athens could not let Persia establish a beach-head anywhere in Greece.  Therefore they would get free security, which was unfair.

We can still imagine that the other city-states failed to be impressed with these arguments.  Athens, the one-time champion of the ‘little guy’ had become the block bully in the minds of many.  How should we view Athens? Who was right? Here is a map of the Greek world at the time the war began:

I think we have to appreciate Athens’ dilemma, but if we look elsewhere for clues, it appears Athens had fallen into what Toynbee called “The Idolization of the Parochial Community.’  That is, once Athens stood for something, something outside itself. Now, despite the progressive nature of Athenian democracy, drama, philosophy, and so on, Athens seemed to justify its actions based on how it related to themselves and themselves alone.  This can be seen in their siding against certain democracies when it looked like doing so might advantage them in some way. One can see the comparisons with pre-World War I Europe, with democracy at home, and imperialism and a form of subjugation abroad.  By 431 B.C. the Greeks had made their society into a fireworks stand where anything might upset the apple cart. Athens’s power, their rivalry with Sparta and Corinth, created a potential disaster. If you are interested, I include below an excerpt from Toynbee’s ‘An Historian’s Approach to Religion’ on the idea of parochial communities.  When war breaks out next week we will consider a few different issues.

  • To what extent is a country’s reputation part of its power and security?  Can threat’s to your reputation be considered a threat to your security?  Should war’s be fought if no physical danger is immediately present?  How much importance did reputation have in the Greek world?  Does that make the actions of Athenians and Spartans more or less defensible?
  • Traditionally, just war theory within the framework of Christian thought has focused on 1) The cause, 2) The goal, and 3) Proportionality of response.  One may fight defensively, but not start wars.  One can fight to defend the innocent, but not merely to extend one’s power.   If a rival invades with 1000 troops, you cannot counter with 100,000 and destroy him utterly.  Did Sparta or Athens begin the war?  Can either side lay claim to fighting a just war?
  • Corinth was a city-state covered in faded glory, anxious to reclaim it, and one that burned with indignation at Athens for wearing the mantle of ‘top dog.’  Does Corinth share any similarities with China and Russia today?  How should Athens have dealt with the overly touchy Corinth?How do the ideas of just war fit into the context of the Peloponnesian War?  How do they fit into the modern period? What constitutes an ‘attack’ upon us?  Would a cyber-attack be an act of war that would allow us to kill others? What does the possibility of weapons of mass destruction do to the concept of pre-emption in war?  Are the old guidelines relevant today, or do they need rethought?
Dave Mathwin
Toynbee, “The Idolization of the Parochial Community”
Unhappily, Polytheism begins to produce new and pernicious social effects when its domain is extended from the realm of Nature-worship to a province of the realm of Man-worship in which the object of worship is parochial collective human power. Local worships of deified parochial communities inevitably drive their respective devotees into war with one another. Whereas Demeter our common Mother Earth is the same goddess in Attica and in Laconia, the Athene Polias of Athens and the Athana Chalcioecus of Sparta, who are the respective deifications of these two parochial communities, are bound to be rival goddesses in spite of their bearing the same name. The worship of Nature tends to unite the members of different communities because it is not self-centred; it is the worship of a power in whose presence all human beings have the identical experience of being made aware of their own human weakness. On the other hand the worship of parochial communities tends to set their respective members at variance because this religion is an expression of self-centredness; because self-centredness is the source of all strife; and because the collective ego is a more dangerous object of worship than the individual ego is.
The collective ego is more dangerous because it is more powerful, more demonic, and less patently unworthy of devotion. The collective ego combines the puny individual power of each of its devotees into the collective power of Leviathan. This collective power is at the mercy of subconscious passions because it escapes the control of the Intellect and Will that put some restraint on the individual ego. And bad behaviour that would be condemned unhesitatingly by the conscience in an individual culprit is apt to be condoned when it is perpetrated by Leviathan, under the illusion that the first person is absolved from self-centredness by being transposed from the singular number into the plural. This is, however, just the opposite of the truth; for, when an individual projects his self-centredness on to a community, he is able, with less sense of sin, to carry his egotism to greater lengths of enormity. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’;5 and the callousness of committees testifies still more eloquently than the fury of mobs that, in collective action, the ego is capable of descending to depths to which it does not fall when it is acting on its individual responsibility.
The warfare to which parochial-community-worship leads is apt to rankle, sooner or later, into war to the death; and this self-inflicted doom is insidious, because the ultimately fatal effects of this religion are slow to reveal themselves and do not become unmistakably clear till the mischief has become mortally grave.
In its first phase the warfare between deified parochial states is usually waged in a temperate spirit and is confined within moderate limits. In this first phase the worshippers of each parochial god recognize in some degree that each neighbour parochial god is the legitimate sovereign in his own territory. Each local god will be deemed to have both the right and the power to punish alien human trespassers on his domain who commit a grievous wrong against him by committing it against his people; and this consideration counsels caution and restraint in waging war on foreign soil. It tends to prevent war from becoming total. The bashful invader will refrain, not only from desecrating the enemy’s temples, but from poisoning his wells and from cutting down his fruit trees. The Romans, when they had made up their minds to go to all lengths in warring down an enemy community, used to take the preliminary precautions of inviting the enemy gods to evacuate the doomed city and of tempting them to change sides by offering them, in exchange, honourable places in the Roman pantheon. When a local community has been exterminated or deported in defiance of the local divinity and without regard to his sovereign prerogatives, the outraged parochial god may bring the usurpers of his domain and scorners of his majesty to heel by making the place too hot to hold them except on his terms. The colonists planted by the Assyrian Government on territory that had been cleared of its previous human occupants by the deportation of the Children of Israel soon found, to their cost, that Israel’s undeported god Yahweh had lost none of his local potency; and they had no peace till they took to worshipping this very present local god instead of the gods that they had brought with them from their homelands.
Thus the conduct of war between parochial states is kept within bounds, at the start, by a common belief in the equality of sovereign parochial gods, each within his own domain. But this belief is apt to break down, and, with it, the restraint that is imposed by it. They break down because the self-worship of a parochial community is essentially incompatible with the moderation commended in such maxims as ‘Live and let live’ and ‘Do as you would be done by’. Every form of Man-worship is a religious expression of self-centredness, and is consequently infected with the intellectual mistake and the moral sin of treating a part of the Universe as if it were the whole—of trying to wrest the Universe round into centring on something in it that is not and ought not to be anything more than a subordinate part of it. Since self-centredness is innate in every living creature, it wins allegiance for any religion that ministers to it. It also inhibits any living creature that fails to break away from it from loving its neighbour as itself, and a total failure to achieve this arduous moral feat has a disastrous effect on social relations.
A further reason why it is difficult to keep the warfare between parochial states at a low psychological temperature is because parochial-community-worship wins devotion not onlyby ministering disastrously to self-centredness. It wins it also by giving a beneficent stimulus to Man’s nobler activities in the first chapter of the story. In the histories of most civilizations in their first chapters, parochial states have done more to enrich their members’ lives by fostering the arts than they have done to impoverish them by taking a toll of blood and treasure. For example, the rise of the Athenian city-state made life richer for its citizens by creating the Attic drama out of a primitive fertility-ritual before life was made intolerable for them by a series of ever more devastating wars between Athens and her rivals. The earlier Athens that had been ‘the education of Hellas’ won and held the allegiance of Athenian men and women, over whom she had cast her spell, for the benefit of the later Athens that was ‘a tyrant power’; and, though these two arrogant phrases were coined to describe Athens’ effect on the lives of the citizens of other Hellenic city-states, they describe her effect on the lives of her own citizens no less aptly. This is the tragic theme of Thucydides’ history of the Great Atheno-Peloponnesian War, and there have been many other performances of the same tragedy that have not found their Thucydides.
The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date. The decline and fall of the First Mayan Civilization is perhaps the only doubtful case.
The devotion to the worship of Moloch is apt to persist until it is too late to save the life of the civilization that is being destroyed by it. It does break down at last, but not until a stage of social disintegration has been reached at which the blood-tax exacted by the waging of ever more intensive, ferocious, and devastating warfare has come palpably to outweigh any cultural and spiritual benefits that the contending parochial states may once have conferred on their citizens. . . 

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,” and they, like Plato, often set their events outside of Athens.

**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–both meanings are in play). 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.

11th/12th Grade: Bad Music Begets Bad Government

This week we continued in our reading of Plato’s Republic.  In class we have simply been reading and discussing excerpts from this great philosophical treatise, and I have enjoyed seeing the students react and respond to this text, strange as it will seem to our modern eyes.

The Republic has political implications, but the dialog begins with a discussion about justice.  The participants realize that to see justice more clearly, they had to talk about something larger than justice in individuals.  “If we look at justice in the state we will see justice more clearly,” they suppose, “for the state has a much greater size than any one individual.”  But justice itself becomes a vehicle for larger questions of truth.  Thus, the dialog always has immediate application for individual lives even as we consider their political implications.  Plato writes The Republic, I think, not so much to create a better state but to hopefully make better people, who will then make a better state.

The dialog starts early on discussing the origins of the state.  No matter their talents, everybody at one point realizes that they need others even to meet basic needs.  We then divide up tasks to accomplish them more efficiently.  Providing for our basic needs is relatively natural and easy, but then we begin to want “luxuries,” which Plato terms anything more than what we need for a decent, ordinary life.  This desire for luxury corrupts the soul and creates problems in the state itself, because now the state will have to provide for something beyond the “natural,” and at times the only way to do this involves taking from others.  Hence, war and the attendant expansion of the state come into being.

How to avoid this?  Some see the state as a mere conduit of whatever the people desire.  The government’s job, in this view, is to actualize our choices.  Plato feels differently, and like many Greeks believed that the state should help us live the good life, which might sometimes mean giving us what we might even dislike–just like parents helping their kids healthy by feeding them vegetables.  In Plato’s famous analogy of the cave he imagines humanity bound in chains underground.  All they can see are their shadows cast on the cave walls made by the fire behind them.  They believe the shadows are reality, and the fire true light.  But eventually some break free and walk out of the cave to see true light and true reality.  Their discovery brings pain — we shrink from the sun’s light, and the reality we discover will be so much different than what we imagined.  When these people go back to the cave, few if any believe them, and nearly all prefer to live in the shadows.

Plato asks us to understand that just because we fail to immediately appreciate the truth might even point to the truth of what he argues.

Plato may surprise his modern readers at least with going from war as a result of greed to a discussion of music and the arts.  But political problems for Plato begin with disordered souls, and Plato believes that little has more power to shape the soul than music.  Plato relates a common anecdote of the time of Sparta banning certain kinds of music altogether.  Perhaps even Plato thought the Spartans too severe, but he agrees with the fundamental idea that musical change brings  political changes.

Many moderns think of music as a matter of personal taste and personal enjoyment.  We listen to the music we like, and imagine ourselves having control over the music.  Plato asks us to think more carefully about the music we hear, and wants us to admit that “gets under our skin” in ways we might not even notice.  Upon reflection some of us might testify to the power of music.  It can move us even when we might not want to be moved.

Understanding Plato’s doctrine of the soul helps explain his views here.  Some think of the soul as encompassing the merely moral part of us.  Plato went further.  For him the soul was the “heart” of man in the Hebraic sense, encompassing everything about someone.  Our moral acts do define, mold, and shape us, but we are more than our moral acts.  So for Plato, a beautiful soul would be one that not only loved truth, but also had it itself shaped by beautiful things.  Separating truth from beauty never occurred to Plato.

So if we want to concern ourselves with “doing right” we need first to provide the necessary surroundings, the necessary training, for our souls.  Plato admits that this means certain music can stay, and other forms must go in the ideal state.  The state has a vested interest in the arts because the arts shape the soul.  Badly formed souls will create badly formed governments.  He writes,

Philosophy, [said Socrates], tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, . . . is the only saviour of his virtue throughout life.

Justice for Plato means having all things in their proper place, or giving each thing its proper due.  This leads to Plato’s prescription that only music that emphasizes balance and proportion should be allowed.  If we want harmony in the state we must have proper training of the soul, and that means the right harmonies in our music.  The rhythm must not over-excite, nor should it be too “soft.”  Curiously for the students, Plato seemed to link rhythm with the idea of grace.  He writes,

But there is no difficulty in seeing that grace or the absence of grace is an effect of good or bad rhythm.

and,

Then beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity, — I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character, not that other simplicity which is only an euphemism for folly?

What can Plato mean here?

When we see the word “grace” we immediately put it in a distinctly Christian context.  The Greek word for grace is “charis,” which had different connotations.  The basic meaning had roots in something like “power” or “movement” — hence a “charismatic” man has the ability to “move” people.  The Greeks also used the word in the context of the social graces, which can have the sense of proper “movement” in society.  But Plato, I think, has something more in mind besides mere politeness.  If we think of a gracious hostess, for example, we think of how she controls, or “moves” a social event.  She will possess a certain rhythm of movement and speech.  She’ll have impeccable timing, she’ll neither be overbearing nor invisible, akin to a symphony conductor.  Thus, for Plato, if we immerse ourselves in proper rhythm and harmony, we will train our souls towards “graciousness.”^

Plato has another motive for his seeming harshness about music.  Problems in the state arise from the people’s desire for luxury.  This desire is almost inevitable given human nature, but Plato believes the state can curb it (thereby saving everyone lots of trouble) by proper training of the souls of the young.  If we purge the person of luxurious taste in music, or the desire for too much variety in music, we can form the soul to desire less.* This can get into a “chicken or the egg” argument.  Does music reflect or shape the culture?  Well, we can say  perhaps that it performs both functions, but which primarily?  Here, I at least agree with Plato (and Francis Schaeffer, Kenneth Clark, and others) who feel that in general, artists work ahead of culture and do more to shape it than reflect it.

If all this seems hopelessly idealistic, I think Plato would respond by saying that,

  • You have to aim for something to hit anything, and
  • My point here is not to create the perfect state so much as it is to use the state to better see Justice and apply that understanding to how we live our lives.

Next week we will look at Plato’s ideas of how different souls create different forms of government.

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

*Many in the modern world make the argument that classical music makes one smarter.  Plato did not focus so much on classical music (it didn’t exist) or increased intelligence.  Rather, the right music would help form the right kind of soul, not the right kind of brain.

^Since the New Testament writes use “charis” to denote grace in the Christian sense, we may wonder whether or not a certain “rhythm” exists in God’s grace — a certain pattern, timing, or tempo, perhaps?

Trade Off

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

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

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

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

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

Theologian Dumitru Staniloae wrote concerning St. Maximos the Confessor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and compare it with modern European global trading connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, traditionally 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 the Christian faith. 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.

^The importance of mountains becomes obvious in Scripture once we get clued into this pattern, i.e., Mt. Sinai, Mt. Zion, Mt. Carmel, Mt. Tabor, the Sermon on the Mount, Christ crucified on the ‘Hill of the Skull,’ and so on.

“I See Satan Fall like Lightning”

This was originally published in 2014, then again in 2015 after Girard’s death.  I post it again in light of some discussions this past week in government class.

And now, the post . . .

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I’ve said before that for the most part, I can’t stand the modern British historian, or at least, a certain kind of British historian. This is the type that Toynbee rebelled against and patiently denounced for years.  This model calls for exacting discipline to attempt to focus only on the “what” and never the “why.”  They see their jobs as using a microscope to discover the most amount of facts possible, but never think to lift up their heads. Leave that to the metaphysicians.  Historians should tell you what happened and keep their noses clean of any other venture.

This approach has flaws from top to bottom.  First of all, it’s dreadfully boring, and second, it’s a lie. We simply can’t avoid metaphysics — we will always worship and point to something, though they seek to drive ourselves and others away from such a fate.

The Abbot Suger of the Abbey St. Denis once declared, “The English are destined by moral and natural law to be subjected to the French, and not contrariwise.”  Leave it to the French to say crazy things!  And with historians anyway, I agree.  French historians to the rescue!   They have their share of great ones, from Einhard to Tocqueville, Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch,  Regine Pernoud, and so on.  Historians should not forget that they too are made in the image of God, and that history has no meaning or purpose without us seeking to “sub-create” and give meaning and purpose to the world around us.*

Rene Girard fits into this mold with his great I See Satan Fall like Lightning, a brief, but dense and thought provoking book that challenges how we read the gospels, mythology, and all of human history.  A magnificent premise, and he delivers (mostly) — all in 200 pages.

To understand Girard’s argument, we first need to understand two main lines of thought regarding civilization.  The first and overwhelmingly dominant view sees civilization as a great blessing in human affairs. Civilization allows for creativity and cooperation.  It fosters a rule of law that prevents a cycle of violence from overwhelming all.  Civilizations give the stability that, paradoxically, gives us space and time to challenge existing ideas and move forward.

The distinct minority believes that civilization can do no better than aspire to a lesser evil than barbarism.  It at times descends below barbarism because it enacts great cruelties under the comforting cloak of “civilization.” At least the abject barbarian harbors no such illusions.  The very organizing principle of civilization concentrates the worst human impulses to impose their will on others and count themselves innocent in the process.  Before we dismiss this uncomfortable thought, we should note that in Genesis 4 the “arts of civilization” are attributed to Cain and his lineage, with violence as the hallmark of their work.  God confuses language at the Tower of Babel because collectivized human potential is simply too dangerous.  In his The City of God Augustine seems at least sympathetic to this view, as his memorable anecdote regarding Alexander the Great makes clear:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.

I used to associate this negative view of civilization exclusively with French post-modernists like Foucoult (not that I’ve actually read them 🙂 and therefore dismissed it.  But, there it is, in Genesis 4, in St. Augustine, and likely other places I’m not aware of.  So, when Girard asks us to accept this view, he does so with connection to the Biblical tradition and some aspects of historical theology (Girard accepts the necessity of government and order of some kind but never fleshes out just how he wants it to function).

With this groundwork we can proceed to his argument.

Scripture tells us that Satan is “the Prince of this world,” but in what sense is this case, and how does he maintain his power?  Where he wields influence, he sows discord internally in the hearts and minds of individuals and in society in general.  Hence, the more influence he has, the more dissension, and thus, two things might happen:

  • He risks losing control of his kingdom, as no kingdom can withstand such division for very long.
  • The chaos might incline people to seek something beyond this world for comfort, which might mean that people meet God.

How to maintain control in such a situation?  Girard believes that mythology and Scripture both point to the same answer: Satan rules via a ritual murder rooted in what he calls “mimetic desire.”  The war of “all against all” fostered by Satanic selfishness must be stopped or he risks losing all.  Mimetic desire heightens and gets transformed into the war of “all against one.”  The people’s twin desires for violence and harmony merge in an unjust sacrifice.  This restores order because we have find the enemy collectively, and find that the enemy is not us — it’s he, or she, or possibly they — but never “us.”  Satan’s triumph consists of

  • His control restored
  • His control rooted in violence
  • A moral blindness on our parts
  • A reaffirmation of our faith in the ruling authorities to bring about order

“Mimetic desire” has a simple meaning: we seek to imitate the desires of others, and by doing so take them into ourselves, into the community.  Girard speaks at some length about the 10th commandment which prohibits coveting. While this prohibition is not unique to the Old Testament, it places greater emphasis on the problem of desire than other cultures. Desire in itself is good, but Satan, the “ape of God” gives us his desires, desires for power, for more.  Once these desires spread they turn into a contagion, or a plague that infects people everywhere (Girard believes that many ancient stories that talk of a “plague” may not refer to something strictly biological).  Once begun, resistance is nearly futile.

To understand this we might think of two armies opposing one another.  Neither wants to fight, but both fear that the other might want to fight, so both show up armed.  Once the first shot is fired, be it accidental or otherwise, all “must” participate. All will fire their weapons, and you would not necessarily blame a soldier for doing so.  It just “happened,” and with no one to blame, there can be no justice — another victory for Satan.

He references Peter’s denial of Jesus just before his trial.  Often our interpretations focus on the psychological aspects of Peter’s personality — his impulsiveness, and so on.  Girard won’t let us off the hook so easily.  Such psychological interpretations distance ourselves too comfortably.  In reality, Peter fell prey to the desires of the crowd in ways that ensnare most everyone.  Peter is everyman, in this case, and perhaps its more telling that he extracts himself from that situation.

Pilate too succumbs, in a way typical of politicians everywhere.  Pilate needs order — his cannot afford that Justice be his primary concern.  To maintain order he has no other choice but to give in.  Girard would argue, I think, that this is nothing less than the bargain all rulers must make from time to time.  Politics, then, get revealed as more than a “dirty business,” but one with indelible roots in the City of Man.

Many ancient stories show forth the nature of mimetic violence, but the Cross itself stands as the example par excellence. The people in general have no hostility to Jesus, but once they become aware that the religious authorities are divided, and the Romans start to weigh in, the plague of mimetic desire settles in.  They turn on Jesus, and believe that His death will solve their problems.  It looks like a repeat of other events and another victory for Satan.  But this victim not only possessed legal innocence, He actually had true and complete innocence.  Now Satan’s methodology gets fully exposed, for “truly this was the Son of God.”  His resurrection and ascension vindicate Jesus and establishes His lordship and His reign over a kingdom of innocent victims.**  This “exposure” has its hints in the Old Testament at least in the Book of Job.  His troubles must be deserved in some way, so say Job’s friends.  If he follows his wife’s advice to “curse God and die,” he will bring peace to the community by vindicating their perception of the world.  He resists, and God vindicates him in the end.

Girard argues that Jesus does not give commands so much as introduce a new principle, that of imitation.  He counters our mimetic desires not by squashing them, but by redirection.  Jesus asks that we imitate Him, as He imitates the Father.  The epistles carry this forward.  Paul tells us to imitate him, as he imitates Christ, who imitates the Father.  Well, Jesus did give commands, but his commands about love in John, at least, invoke this pattern of imitation.  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).  What makes this commandment new is not the injunction to love each other, but perhaps the principle on which it is based.

So far I buy Girard entirely.  His link of mimetic desire with the crucifixion, and his analysis of the nature and extent of Satan’s influence I find profound.  He started to lose me a bit when talking about how so many myths follow this pattern of mass confusion, scapegoat, death, and then, deification of the victim — or barring deification of the person killed, then of the process itself.  I.e., because it restored order, it must be from God/the gods.  I could think of a few myths, but I’m not sure how many follow this pattern (though I have a weak knowledge of mythology and could easily simply be ignorant).

When speaking of the founding of certain civilizations, however, he seems once again right on target.  In Egypt and Babylon the violence occurs between the gods.  Girard suggests that some stories may have actually occurred, and then the victims like Osiris and Tiamat became gods.  But in Rome at least, the violence takes place between the twins Romulus and Remus, an instructive case study for Girard’s thesis.  The twins set out to found a kingdom but cannot agree on which spot the gods blessed.  But the brothers cannot co-exist peacefully.  Their rivalry heightens until Romulus kills Remus and assumes kingship of Rome.  Livy, at least, passes no judgment on any party.  This is the way it “had to be.” No state could have two heads at the helm–one had to be sacrificed for order to commence. The Aeneid also has a similar perspective on the founding of Aeneas’ line. Violence just “happened.”  Such was the founding of Rome, and in later stories Romulus is deified as a personification of the Roman people.  Not that everything about Rome would be evil, but the foundational principle of “sacred violence” to establish civic order has no business with the gospel.

This story is instructive for Girard, but not entirely.  The deification of the aggressor fits squarely within Girard’s framework. But what of those that deify or exalt the victim?  Many myths fall into this category, Persephone, Psyche, Hercules, and so on.  These myths seem to prepare the way for Christ, who fulfills the stories in the flesh made real before our eyes.  Girard sees mythology in general rooted entirely in “City of Man,” but I cannot share this view.

At the end of it all, however, we have a great and thought-provoking book.  We should have more like them even if it means more French influence in our lives.  Below is a brief interview excerpt with him.

Dave

POPE BENDICT IS RIGHT: CHRISTIANITY IS SUPERIOR

Rene Girard, a prominent Roman Catholic conservative and author of the seminal book “Violence and the Sacred,” is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Stanford University. His more recent books include “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” and “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.” This interview was conducted by Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels earlier this year. It is particularly relevant in shining some light on the controversial comments by Pope Benedict on violence and Islam in Germany last week.

By Rene Girard

Global Viewpoint: When Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) said a few years ago that Christianity was a superior religion, he caused controversy. In 1990, in the encyclical “Redemptoris Missio,” Pope John Paul II said the same thing.

It should not be surprising that believers would affirm their faith as the true one. Perhaps it is a mark of the very relativist dominance Pope Benedict condemns that this is somehow controversial?

Girard: Why would you be a Christian if you didn’t believe in Christ? Paradoxically, we have become so ethnocentric in our relativism that we feel it is only OK for others — not us — to think their religion is superior! We are the only ones with no centrism.

GV: Is Christianity superior to other religions?

Girard: Yes. All of my work has been an effort to show that Christianity is superior and not just another mythology. In mythology, a furious mob mobilizes against scapegoats held responsible for some huge crisis. The sacrifice of the guilty victim through collective violence ends the crisis and founds a new order ordained by the divine. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.

It is true that the structure of the Gospels is similar to that of mythology, in which a crisis is resolved through a single victim who unites everybody against him, thus reconciling the community. As the Greeks thought, the shock of death of the victim brings about a catharsis that reconciles. It extinguishes the appetite for violence. For the Greeks, the tragic death of the hero enabled ordinary people to go back to their peaceful lives.

However, in this case, the victim is innocent and the victimizers are guilty. Collective violence against the scapegoat as a sacred, founding act is revealed as a lie. Christ redeems the victimizers through enduring his suffering, imploring God to “forgive them for they know not what they do.” He refuses to plead to God to avenge his victimhood with reciprocal violence. Rather, he turns the other cheek.

The victory of the Cross is a victory of love against the scapegoating cycle of violence. It punctures the idea that hatred is a sacred duty.

The Gospels do everything that the (Old Testament) Bible had done before, rehabilitating a victimized prophet, a wrongly accused victim. But they also universalize this rehabilitation. They show that, since the foundation of the world, the victims of all Passion-like murders have been victims of the same mob contagion as Jesus. The Gospels make this revelation complete because they give to the biblical denunciation of idolatry a concrete demonstration of how false gods and their violent cultural systems are generated.

This is the truth missing from mythology, the truth that subverts the violent system of this world. This revelation of collective violence as a lie is the earmark of Christianity. This is what is unique about Christianity. And this uniqueness is true.

*Ok, I overstated the case.  The British have many great historians, Henry of Huntington, Toynbee, and recently Niall Ferguson (British Isles), and countless others who all attempt to have the humility stick out their neck, say something intelligible, and make people think.

**In an intriguing aside, Girard points out that Christianity helped establish concern for victims for the first time in history, a great victory for Justice and the human heart.  But Satan has learned to pervert this as well.  Now our “victimization” culture has left off concern for justice, and instead has become a quest for power over others.  I.e., “because ‘x’ happened to me, now you must do ‘y.'”  We see this happen in the ancient world also, perhaps most notably with Julius Caesar’s murder and its relationship to the founding of the Roman Empire with Octavian/Augustus.  Girard writes,

The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance Christianity promised but failed to deliver.  Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victomology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games without the victims, etc.

Democracy and the Feminine

This was originally written in March 2019 . . .

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Any observer of our political and media cycles knows that we have a problem. Unfortunately, for as much as we talk about various problems, we seem no closer to solving them. We do not understand the roots of the problem, or what the problem even is. We have no common platform on which to stand to start to discuss it meaningfully. Here I do not wish to discuss red-state/blue-state divides, inequality, immigration, or any such thing. They all have importance. But we must go deeper into basic symbolic language to see what these issues mean in our context. Without this, we will continue to spin our wheels

Many who care not for President Trump seem mystified that he can violate a variety of established presidential norms and have more or less the same approval rating. Those with other political perspectives felt similarly about President Obama. To their great frustration, neither a terrible Iran deal, or the labryinth of the financially unsustainable health care bill–his two main initiatives–had any effect on his supporters. Neither president inspires(d) middle-ground opinions, and I believe that we can explain this only by understanding that neither one of them functions(ed) as traditional politicians, but rather as heavily symbolic figures. People identify with them primarily not through their policies or even their personal actions, but by what they represent.

If true, this may forebode difficult times ahead, for it shows that we disagree on fundamental things, and that whatever we say about the marginal tax-rate may only serve as a smokescreen for what we really mean beneath our words. We will fight hard for our narratives. This should impel us not just to understand the symbolic nature of our politicians, but also the “location” of democracy within traditional symbolic archetypes.* I will primarily reference biblical models and explanations, but I readily acknowledge that other civilizations use many of the same understandings.

Much confusion exists as to the meaning of masculinity today. We can start correcting this by understanding that all of us, men and women, are “feminine” in relation to God. That is, the masculine is the originator, the beginning and the end, the initiator. The “masculine” is steady, solid, not in flux. We might expect the feminine to have a merely passive role, and true, we see the feminine as “becoming,” rather than “being.” It is God who seeks us out, hunts us down (think of Francis Thompson’s great “The Hound of Heaven”). But, the feminine plays a strong supporting role.

We can see this even in the modern penchant for guys to call cars and boats “she.” The feminine gives the masculine a context for action, a space to develop. Cars and boats both create a womb of sorts, and (most) every mythological male hero needs a ship. Indeed, we are all born from water, just as God drew creation itself out of water in Genesis 1. And because water involves flux, so too the feminine can give flexibility to the straight and “narrow” nature of the masculine.

I confess that I find it rather silly that some feminists find the modern west toxically patriarchal. If we understand male and female archetypes, one immediately sees that modern democracy may be the most Feminine form of government in human history. We embrace change, possibility, and the new. We allow for individual expression and variation–all archetypal feminine strengths. While the west’s history with immigration has been somewhat erratic, overall we have welcomed far more foreign people’s than other cultures. We should expect this in democracies, for women are usually the best and most gracious hosts. They are generally better at managing social dynamics than men.

In human history, myth, and folklore the masculine tyrannizes much more often than the feminine. St. Francis’ marvelous Canticle of the Sun praises “Brother Fire” for being bright and strong, but fire so easily gets out of hand, flaring up at any time and place. Heat burns, but we quickly can remove ourselves from it (hopefully). So too, St. Francis honors “Sister Water” as being humble, clear, and pure. But Scripture, myth, and folklore all attest that, when feminine tyrants do happen to arise–though they are rare–they are the most dangerous.

One might see this in Medusa, Medea, and Jezebel. In Babylonian myth, the goddess of the sea, Tiamat, oversteps her bounds and inspires the other gods to rebel against her, with Marduk gaining the victory. Not surprisingly, the feminine aspects of Babylonian thought lingered on in their culture ever after, with the goddesss Ishtar reigning over most aspects of everyday life.** True to their feminine nature, Babylon was probably the most cosmopolitan and open city in the ancient world, but so open, however, that Scripture refers to the city in the book of Revelation as the archetypal harlot to the world.

In his magisterial Democracy in America, Tocqueville says much in praise of what he observed. But he devotes some time to discussing “What Sort of Tyranny Democracies Have to Fear.” Though he does not use Male/Female categories of thought explicitly, one can see them when he contrasts two types of abuse of power. “Masculine” forms of government such as monarchy or aristocracy go wrong in obvious ways. They rage, they lash out. But such tyrants usually care nothing for what you think. They are too direct for such subtlety. Tocqueville points out that the more masculine forms of tyranny may imprison the body, but they leave the mind free.

In contrast, democratic/feminine tyranny may be more rare, but will have greater power over individuals indirectly. They care not so much for the body but the soul. They don’t want you to empty the dishwasher, so much as they want you to want to empty the dishwasher. They want love, not obedience.^ They come for your soul and care little for the body, weakening one from the inside out.

Still, those that lament the feminization or infantilization of our culture have to acknowledge that, as already stated, democracy itself borrows much more heavily from feminine archetypes. It has no hierarchy for us to consult.^^ But, even if one wanted to establish a more “masculine” form of government like monarchy to counteract this, such an endeavor would be foolish and impossible. It seems, then, that we have an impasse between masculine and feminine visions.

I suggest, however, that the Church gives us a path forward, showing us how the feminine plays a crucial role in establishing, or reestablishing, a new sense of order. I will take just a few examples, but many more exist.

Postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida talk of the need for “radical hospitality,” a radical openness to the “other,” a dramatic extension of the feminine archetype. Such openness obviously invites chaos and self-obliteration. But, look again . . . perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that when Joshua sends spies to the Promised Land it is a woman (Rahab), and a prostitute who practices “radical hospitality,” that shelters them (my thanks, once again, to Jonathan Pageau for this example). So too Mary Magdalene, another loose woman, devotes herself completely to Christ before His disciples. Rahab’s openness to the new allows her to see that her civilization must be destroyed–by men of war. She becomes a hero of the faith (Heb. 11:31). But we must not also forget that she joins with Israel, and has her head shaved as a sign of her submission to the new order, and her devotion to God the Father.

The Virgin Mary gives us an even more constructive example. Tradition tells us that she was raised as a servant in the Temple, the very center of life for the people of God. Germanos of Constantinople marveled in the 8th century that

Do [we] not see a girl born as a result of a promise, and she at the age of three, being taken within the inner veil as an umblemished gift to live there without interruption, also being carried in procession by the wealthy among the people? . . . What then will this child become (Lk. 1:66). But as for us, the peculiar people of God . . . let us approach the [Virgin Mary] and approach the divine mysteries! . . . Let us see how the prophet admits her by his own hand and brings her into inaccessible places, having been in no way displeased, and without having said to her parents, “I am not undertaking this most novel practice and leading a girl into the holy of holies to dwell there without interruption, where I have been instructed to enter only once a year.” The prophet uttered no such thing; instead he knew in advance what would come to pass, since he was a prophet.

Mary Cunningham, translator for the above text, notes that

The high priest was only allowed to enter the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the building, shielded by a veil, representing the boundary of the created order and the realm of divinity. The preacher emphasizes here the extraordinary exception that was made in admitting the Virgin Mary to this sacred space and allowing her to live there throughout her childhood.

We might say that Rahab serves as a precursor to Mary–both women expressed an openness to God that made salvation–entering the Promised Land–possible. We might say that it is convenient that God could only become Man through a woman, but it makes “sense” mythically and archetypally just as it does biologically. And in her Magnificat, Mary alludes that this “openness” will not destroy order but in fact reaffirm it. Her “radical hospitality” becomes not a tyranny of chaos, but instead, wondrous devotion to the new kingdom ruled by her Son.

When “I AM” is both Alpha and Omega (Rev. 21:6) the hierarchy can be inverted and reaffirmed at the same time. This forms the solution to our current political and social difficulty. On the one hand, the “Masculine” must acknowledge that the possibilities inherent in the “Feminine” might bring about our “salvation” (using that term in an earthly and limited sense). But even in a democracy, the “Feminine” must acknowledge that the openness they bring best serves the reaffirmation of order, and not its destruction.

Dave

*All of what comes after this point assumes the following:

  • That gender/sex differences are real, rooted in creation, and not mere social constructs (though some degree of variation may occur over time and space as to how these differences manifest themselves).
  • That certain mythological constructs/ideas are also not mere human constructs–however universal they may be–but go deeper, and express “real reality.”

**True to the potential of excessive openness in the feminine, Ishtar reigned over love, marriage, war, and . . . prostitution.

^We see this in some of the worst democratic tyrannies, such as the French Revolution. In a near parody of the “impossible female,” one could get imprisoned in Paris ca. 1793-94 for either being too excessive in one’s love of liberty, or conversely, not excited enough about liberty. So too in Stalinist Russia (for communism is a western form of government), you could be shot for not keeping up with the intricacies of party dogma.

Today the idea of safe spaces, of the regulation of language so no one gets feelings hurt, etc., conjures up the image of a smothering mother–in contrast to the typical bad dad who is absent or physically abusive.

^^Perhaps not surprisingly, the first great western democracy had Athena, goddess of wisdom, for their patron deity. Scripture also calls Wisdom “she,” for wisdom is often subtle and contextual, not always straightforward and direct.


Renaissance and Reformation, Act 2 (?)

I published this originally in 2016 a few weeks after Trump’s election.  In re-reading it, I would change very little of my original thoughts.  I am still not sure of what to make of Trump’s presidency and what it might mean for our future, and I still am not sure what criteria to use to evaluate his presidency.

Without further comment, the original post . . .

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Like many I awoke Wednesday, November 9 to a big surprise.  Like many I wonder in what sense business as usual (more or less) will be the order of the day as Trump begins to actually govern, or whether or not we will see a significant pivot in our national life.  Time will tell (full disclosure, I supported neither candidate and hoped for a 3rd party revolution that never materialized).

I confess there is much I fail to understand about the election.  I have no strong opinions as to why Trump won.   I will attempt to focus on a broader historical perspective and will not deal with issues specific to the campaign, whatever their importance might have been.  I will not seek to take sides so much as to explain.

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Like many I search for historical parallels to our situation.  Many months ago I suggested Andrew Jackson, or perhaps Rome’s Marius, as a historical counterpart to Trump.  A few months ago Tyler Cowen suggested that, based on a book he had read, our world might resemble that of the Reformation.  I filed that away and thought little of it–until November 9.  All six of Cowen’s observations have merit, but two immediately jumped out at me:

1. Many of the structures in places are perceived as failing, even though in absolute terms they are not obviously doing worse than previous times.

2. There is a rise in nationalist sentiment and a semi-cosmopolitan ethic is starting to lose influence.

In his Civilisation series Kenneth Clark displayed an obvious affection for Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).  Who can blame him?  Erasmus had a great intellect and a good sense of humor, especially about himself.  Erasmus had no particular attachments anywhere and so he cultivated friends all over Europe.  He represented what some might see as the apotheosis of the medieval vision–a cosmopolitan, universal man of Christendom.

Such status did not prevent Erasmus from engaging in polemical criticism.  From what I hear, his Praise of Folly (I have not read it) mercilessly lambasts much of society at that time, in and out of the Church.  And yet, Clark points out that Erasmus could not accept challenges to authority from the common man.  In a personal letter he wrote with horror at the fact that hardly anyone in a town he visited doffed their caps to him–to him–a respectable pillar of Society.  We can almost hear him say, “I’m the one who gets to criticize society.  Not you!  You don’t know what you’re doing, whereas I (obviously) do!”*

Erasmus could criticize aspects of society but would never think of criticizing Society itself and the conventions that held it together.  He lived in an urbane, intelligent, tolerant world of reason, progress, proportion, and the like.  But the temper of times overwhelmed him.  Europe’s darling in 1511 found himself playing the role of “Mr. Irrelevant” soon after the Reformation began in 1517.

Even Clarke, I think, sees the problem with Erasmus.  No one doubted his character, but they questioned his conviction. Erasmus wore too much on his sleeve and not enough (at least to observers) in his heart.  His glib dance throughout Europe made many wonder what he actually believed.

Many assume the that the medieval period practiced more than its fair share of intolerance.  Scholar and historian Regine Pernoud points out, however, that the latter Renaissance had many more persecutions of heretics and witches than any period in the Middle Ages.  She offers no direct reasons for this, but we can speculate.  By 1200 A.D. Europe had attained a significant measure of stability, but not yet a great deal of movement.  The elite of society had “real” jobs and connections to the common man.  The “people” did not live as well as the aristocracy, but they lived with the elite in the same communities and moved in the same circles.  The sea had yet to tempt medieval society, which limited physical mobility and perhaps added to the stability.

By the mid 13th century Thomas Aquinas begins to dabble in the powers of reason and Aristotle.  The Black Plague disrupted the settled social arrangements (among other things).  The 15th century saw plenty of change with the beginnings of exploration and the printing press.  The papal court practiced pagan Greek city-state thinking more so than the service of God.  Now too, elites like Erasmus moved in entirely different circles than “the people.”  With the revival of classical culture came the revival of classical pagan religion, and the rise of occult practices.  It adds up to too much change too quickly.  The Reformation happened not just because of Luther, but in part because Europe had several different people rise up simultaneously willing to challenge an out of touch status quo many no longer cared anything for.  Rightly or wrongly, many felt that elite Renaissance culture had gone too far.**  As Pernoud points out, the reaction against this outwardly benign march of “progress” began before the Reformation in the late Renaissance.

In another post, again from a few months ago, Cowen suggests the possibility that too much immigration may result in a backlash against immigration (we should note that Cowen favors increased immigration as a matter of ideology, but might be pragmatic as a matter of policy–I don’t know). If the pace of change moves too fast, people react against it even if the change itself benefits them overall (most data shows the increased benefits of increased immigration). Rapid change often creates psychological problems of dislocation.

Others with different ideological perspectives seem to agree with him.  Slavoj Zizek argues (warning to those who follow the link: Zizek uses profanity rather “liberally” in places:) that on European immigration issue, allowing for more democracy would significantly restrict immigration policies in multiple countries.  Right now more inclusive policies must come from the state and not from the people.^  Ezra Klein had an interesting exchange with Tyler Cowen recently where they discussed the subject of diversity.

COWEN: …Now Putman, let me ask you about Putnam, and how Putnam relates to Donald Trump. As you know, Robert Putnam at Harvard, he has some work showing that when ethnic diversity goes up that there’s less trust, less cooperation, less social capital.

If you think of yourself in the role of an editor, so you have an American society, diversity has gone up, and a lot of people have reacted to this I would say rather badly — and I think you would agree with me they’ve reacted rather badly — but there’s still a way in which the issue could be framed that while diversity is actually a problem, we can’t handle diversity.

Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?

KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”

Might Trump have a doppelgänger of sorts (not religiously, not even close!) in Martin Luther?  In Luther, we see, among other things, someone with an authoritarian nationalist streak, one who could not stand the polite pagan-infused niceness of elite Europe, one who had no trouble calling fire and brimstone down upon a variety of people, and one who dabbled in opportunism from time to time.

One possible explanation for Trump might lie in the reaction against some of the sweeping changes that have come into the consciousness of America, such as

  • The “trigger warning” and “snowflake” phenomena across many college campuses
  • The Supreme Court case legalizing homosexual marriage across the land (overturning a variety of state laws in the process).
  • The extreme pressure directed against those who refuse to cater, provide flowers, etc. for homosexual weddings
  • The debate over transgender bathrooms, the reaction against the NC law, etc.

None of these changes directly effect the well-being of very many at all, but they do impact how one sees the their place in the world.  Without considering who is right or wrong in these actions, might the western cosmopolitan set across the U.S. and Europe have flown too close to the sun too quickly?

I listen to classical music on a very low level, when I actually listen to it. I can usually tell if it’s Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart, but that’s about it.   One day I decided to get cultured and tried to listen to a Mahler symphony.  My reaction?

In Absolutely on Music, Japanese author Haruki Murakami recorded a series of interviews with the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa.  In one interview Murakami asks,

Just listening to the third movement of [Mahler’s] First Symphony, it seems clear to me that his music is filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without logical connection, and sometimes in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldview–a huge variety of stuff, no single one at the center of things . . . .  Isn’t there something particularly universal or cosmopolitan about Mahler’s music?

To my admittedly very limited experience of attempting to listen to Mahler, Murakami could have just as easily asked, “Isn’t there something meaningless and incomprehensible about Mahler’s music?  After 1/2 hour of attempting to “elevate” my cultural understanding, I would have begged someone to play me a Sousa march to at least bring my brain back into focus.

Cowen’s final thought on how this world might resemble that of the Reformation . . .

The world may nonetheless end up much better off, but the ride to get there will be rocky indeed.

Dave

*A possible parallel to this exists today.  A variety of high-profile fashion designers have said that they will not provide gowns for Melania Trump.  Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in North Carolina over his objections to their transgender laws.  The great jazz pianist Ethan Iverson called for a boycott of Steinway pianos because the owner of Steinway supported Trump in some vague fashion (in 2012 Iverson urged a boycott of a particular jazz musician for his support of Romney.  Were Iverson a politician, this would be extremely dangerous territory, i.e., punishing someone not for their actions but for their particular beliefs). All of them were perfectly within their rights to do so.  Many applauded them putting moral convictions over profit or convenience.

Can progressives not extend the same rights to those who wish not to cater homosexual weddings?  It appears that some do not wish to extend the same right of protest.  Stephanie Slade at Reason magazine wrote,

The problem is not that Theallet was willing to dress Michelle Obama and isn’t willing to dress Melania Trump (which is, like it or not, a form of discrimination). The problem is just how many people don’t seem to think that same freedom should be extended to bakery owners, photographers, and other wedding vendors who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

As Theallet put it, “we consider our voice an expression of our artistic and philosophical ideals.” I suspect Barronelle Stutzman, the white-haired grandmother who owns Arlene’s Flowers, feels the same way about her craft. But instead of assuming a live-and-let-live attitude on the matter, Washington state has systematically worked to destroy Stutzman’s business unless she agrees to take part in a celebration to which she is morally opposed.

**Whatever authoritarian streak the Middle Ages might have had, the Renaissance had it too, but it came not from the people, but from the elite makers of taste.  In many cathedrals the colorful stained glass (made by a variety of local artisans) got smashed out and replaced with clear glass to better fit wth their ideas of classical purity and decorum.

Pernoud argued with some force that the culture of the Middle Ages was “populist,” which the culture of the Renaissance was “elitist.”

^We can see the Brexit vote as a symptom of this same phenomena.  Europe’s pundits all seemingly declared that Britain would vote to stay in the European Union.  Part of me wonders whether or not the vote to leave had more to do with “sticking it to the cosmopolitan man” (which certainly includes most pundits) than any particular economic or social issue.

Bull Logic, Bear Result

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

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

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

More importantly, he added that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DM

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

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

The Bottom of the Mountain

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

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

Historians tend to think about Alexander along three standard deviations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This image comes from a medieval Russian cathedral:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

The Year 0

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

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

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

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

Regarding the second point, Robert Cargill writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethics of Time, p. 90

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

Ascetic Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

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