The Adventures of Dog Man

David Gordon White’s Myths of the Dog-Man examines how cultures interact with the concept of the “other” in three major civilizational traditions: Christendom, India, and China. White has a number of keen insights and makes impressive connections across cultures. But a key aspect of his work bothered me greatly, and so first, a rant.

Before warming up, I acknowledge that the job of the academic involves risk. They should not just affirm the immediate cultural norms in a rote manner. The scholar who functions as they ought will always walk a tight-rope, which can feel lonely. Like anyone, they search for community, but perhaps have a harder time of it because of their partial distance cultural from many of those around them.

Perhaps that is why many academics feel their job involves the opposite–that of praising the “other” while critiquing one’s own culture. That, at least, puts them on the other side of the suspended rope. We can see this as a personal attempt to connect with something. Having started by crafting a respectful, and perhaps even appropriate, distance with one’s surrounding culture, perhaps even unconsciously, the academic seeks something new to connect with.

But at least the narrow-minded idiot disdained by the academic has built a thing that people can live in, however narrowly they live. The academic always in love with the “other” can offer critique of their home base aplenty, for sure. But could they navigate a monster-truck rally?*

White seems to treat the “other” in his work as an inherent moral good, which is extremely flat thinking. The “other” we encounter could be bad or good. It would depend. I elaborated at length about this dynamic, found in Christ and patterned throughout the world, in this post here, so I will not elaborate at length now. White seemingly has no cognizance that navigating the other brings great peril to one’s soul and one’s civilization. Union with the “foreign other” brought down Solomon, the wisest of kings, and his failure brought down Israel. Abraham made his servant swear to find a wife for Isaac only among his own people, and God showed him Rebecca by the well. It took Wisdom Himself to navigate to “marry” the “other” at another well with success many centuries later (John 4).

Of course the Old Testament takes care to avoid the sclerosis that possibly infected ancient Egypt and China. The Israelites were to take care to “leave” a day at the end of the week, to leave their garments and their fields with a fringe (Lev. 23:22), so that the edges of society could come right to your door. And of course, we see Ruth, and especially Rahab, who prefigures Photine.**. What White fails to see is that the “foreign” does not just change the core. The foreign “other” also must change–the change goes both ways.

So yes, I–perhaps unjustly–detected some know-it-all smarminess from White, who looks a fool for telling us that a quarter has a picture of an eagle on one side.

But I still absolutely liked this book. White teaches us a great deal about the symbolic role of the “other.”

First, regarding the title of this post, apologies and thanks to the wondrous Dav Pilkey, whose books about a half-man, half-dog crime fighter had great truck in the Mathwin household some years ago Pilkey’s books usually have the the core as boring, stuffy, adult authority figures. His heroes come from the fringe to bring justice and order. Pilkey may not be pleased to hear it, but this pattern fits many biblical heroes, such as Ehud (left-handed), Samson, and the like. But his use specifically of a “dog-man” certainly qualifies as a “symbolism happens” moment.^

For as White shows, different cultures across time and space have viewed the dog as an outsider, and “unclean.” At the same time, dogs guard boundaries, and they help protect the center. This paradox, this interplay between good and bad, outside and inside, shows in our experience in a number of ways:

  • Dogs form the boundary between the human and the animal world. No other pet does this in quite the same way. Think of how having a dog will lead you to interact more with nature when you take them for walks, and how the dog will protect you from nature. Think too of how dogs, much more than cats, for example, function as a social lubricant between humans who might otherwise stand awkwardly beside each other.
  • The Romans conceived of the “Lares,” the ancestral divinities who wandered borders protecting home and hearth, as dogs or men clad in the skins of dogs.
Two Lares flank a dog
Lares as Dog-Men
While we do not see the dog motif here directly with the Lares above, note how they guard against the snakes below
  • Note how many many military veterans suffering from trauma work with dogs to help integrate them back into “normal” human society.
  • Think of Cerebus, who guarded the passage of death, or Anubis in Egyptian civilization. Here again, dogs stand in the gap. For the Egyptians, Anubis had close association to the “Dog-Star,” Sirius. The rise of Sirius heralded the “dog-days” of summer, the terrible heat linked with death. But–the rise of Sirius also meant the Nile would soon flood, bringing life back to Egypt. Once again, we see the dog associated with boundary and transition, the bringer of death and life.
  • In the Alexander Romance, of which versions exist across multiple different cultures, Alexander meets the “Cynocephalae,” men with faces of dogs, at the edge of his travels in the east.
  • In Hindu tradition, there is the example of the great sage Visimitra. He shows up in story about “how to rule when time has arrived at a low-point, when all things have become slave-like.” In the story, a terrible drought has beset the land at the end of the Treta age for 12 years. Visimitra, known for his strict purity and asceticism, goes into the forest and eats the hind leg of a dog, over and against strong objections from those around him, for the dog was most unclean, “the vilest of all game.” After he eats, Indra sends rain and the earth revives. “Thus one who is expert and high-souled, and a knower of solutions,” the story concludes, ” . . . ought to maintain a firm conviction of dharma and adharma in this world.”
  • Chinese culture generally closed itself off from the outside, yet they too have stories involving dog-men. But in an indirect way (no dog-men directly in the story) the following Taoist acecdote I find most illustrative:

The Emperor of the South was called Shu. The Emperor of the North was called Hu. And the Emperor of the center was called Hun-tun. Shu and Hu at times came together and in Hun-tun’s territory. Hun-Tun treated them very generously. Shu and Hu discussed how they could emulate Hun-tun’s virtue, saying: “Men all have seven openings in order to see, hear, eat, and breathe. He alone has none. Let’s try boring him some.” Each day, they bored one hole, and on the seventh day, Hun-Tun died.

White notes that the Taoists saw the greatest good in optimal potential, i.e., uncut stone, uncut cloth, etc., with the Tao preceding the regimentation of creation itself. This parable then, spoke against the Confucian school, the “meddling busybodies” who wanted all things ordered, classified, managed, and understood. One has to leave some room for the fringe.

But . . . the tradition that seems most open to the dog man comes from White’s very own backyard, that of Christendom. In your face, White! It seems as if the cat has been caught . . . by the very person trying to catch him

For sure, White spends plenty of time looking at the The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, a medieval text that emphasizes the role of the Church in keeping out the “other” from infecting the world. “Methodius” may have borrowed from stories about Alexander the Great building a wall to keep out the barbarians. Again, if we turn to the paradigm outlined above, we can say that the emphasis on the dangerous aspects of the other absolutely has its place. Another example of this emphasis comes from the Estonian Kynocephalae Daemon, similar in theme to the Apocalypse noted above:

The Dog Snouts live at the edge of the world, where the earth ends and heaven begins.  They must stand guard at this edge, so that no one may enter heaven there. . . . They dwell behind a great mountain.  The mountain forms a border between the land of men and that of the Dog Snouts.  By general consensus, a company of Russian soldiers stands guard here, lest the Dog Snouts come over the mountain.  Were they to come, they would tear every man limb from limb.  They have great strength so that none can resist.

The Dog Snouts threaten the world with destruction.  One need not fear, however, so long as the troops stand guard.  Those soldiers refuse to be trifled with, and victory always stands with them.  

In some regions it is believed that each town contributes a portion of the guard of this mountain, because all share in the burden of not wanting the end of the world.  Even so, one time the Dog Snouts did break through into the world of men.  They came to lay waste our land, but a violent hailstorm drove them back across the mountain, which we guard now more strongly than ever.

Though this idea of the other bringing destruction certainly has its role in the Christian tradition, a variety of Christian saints have strong associations with dogs. The birth of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order, took place after his mother dreamt she carried a dog with a torch in its mouth in her womb. His feast day in the west also took place in summer’s “dog days,” observed in the first week of August. Compostello in Spain still is one of the most traveled of Christian pilgrimages, and has very early roots. This has significance, for the Compostello site resides right at the western edge of medieval Christendom, the place where the sun sets, towards the land of the dead. One tradition states that on July 25, the rise of the Sirius star, St. James of Compostello opened the gates of heaven to the souls of the dead.

But the story of St. Christopher the Cynocephalae has pride of place. Different versions of the story exist, with some overlap. The first, from an Ethiopian text called “The Acts of the Apostles Andrew and Bartholomew . . .

Then did our Lord Jesus Christ appear unto Andrew and Bartholomew and say, “Now depart into the desert, and I will be with you; and be not afraid, for I will send unto you a man whose face is like unto a dog, and you shall take him into the city.”

And the apostles went forth with sorrow, for the people of the city had not believed.  They walked for a time and came to rest and fell asleep.  When they slept, the Angel of God lifted them up and brought them to the City of Cannibals.  Now there came from that city a man looking for another man to eat.  And the Angel of God said unto him, “O thou man whose face is that of a dog, behold–you shall find two men sitting under a rock, and when you arrive there, let no evil thing happen to them through you, for they are servants of God.

And the dog-man trembled and asked the Angel, “Who art Thou?  I know neither thee nor thy God, but tell me of whom you speak.”  

[Here follows a long discourse of the angel to the man about God, the gospel, etc.]

Then the man said, “I wish to see some sign so that I may believe in all His miraculous powers.”  Then at the same hour fire came down from heaven and surrounded that man with the face of a dog, and he was unable to withdraw himself.  He cried out, “O God whom I know not, have compassion upon me and I will believe.”  The angel answered and said, “You must go with the Apostles every place they go, and follow all of their commands.”  

“O my Lord, I am not like other men, and I have no knowledge of their speech.  And if I be hungry, where will I find men to eat?  I should certainly then fall upon them and devour them.”  The angel replied, “God will give unto thee the nature of the children of men, and will restrain thy nature.”  The angel stretched out his hands and brought the dog man out of the fire and cried out to him in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Then the dog-faced man became as gentle as a lamb.

The dog-faced man rose up and went to find the Apostles.  Now–his appearance was terrible.  He stood 4 cubits in height, with teeth like that of a wild boar, and the nails of his hands were like great hooks, and his hair came down over his arms to resemble the mane of a lion.  When he came upon the Apostles, they became as dead men through fear of this man.  Then he laid hold upon them and said, “Be not afraid, O my spiritual fathers,” and God took the fear from Andrew and Bartholomew.

Then Andew said, “May God bless thee, my son.  But tell me thy name.”   “My name is Hasum [meaning ‘Abominable’ in Parthian].  And Andrew said, “You speak rightly, for a name is oneself.  But here is a hidden mystery, for from now on, your name shall be ‘Christian.’”  Then they journeyed back to the city.

Now Satan had gone ahead of them into the city.  Andrew prayed as they approached, “Let all the city gates open quickly.”  And as Andrew spoke, the gates of the city fell down, and the Apostles and ‘Christian’ (he who had the face of a dog) entered.

Then the Governor commanded the town to bring hungry and savage beasts to attack the men.  Then the man with the dog-face prayed, “O Lord Christ, who did take my former nature away from me, restore it now and strengthen me with thy power, so they may know there is no other God but thee.”

And then he became as he had been, and grew quickly in wrath and might.  He looked at all in great fury, and slew all of the beasts set against them, and tore out their bowels and ate their flesh.  When the men of the city saw this, they feared exceedingly, and set upon the men and each.  More than 700 of them died.  And God sent a fire to surround the city, and none of them could escape.  Then the people cried, “We believe that there is no other God but your God, and no other savior other than Christ the Lord.  Have compassion upon us!”  And so the Apostles prayed to God for them . . . 

And the Apostles came unto the dog-man, and prayed that his bestial nature would flee from him, and that the nature of the children of men would be restored, and Christian became as gentle as a lamb once more.  When the people and the governor saw this, they took olive branches in their hand and bowed before the Apostles, who told them of the grace of God.

The western version of the story . . .

Christopher was of the lineage of the Canaanites, and he was of a right great stature, and had a terrible and fearful cheer and countenance, and he was twelve cubits  of length.

And as it is read in some histories that, when he served and dwelled with the king of Canaan, it came in his mind that he would seek the greatest prince that was in the world, and him would he serve and obey. And so far he went that he came to a right great king, of whom the renown generally was that he was the greatest of the world. And when the king saw him, he received him into his service, and made him to dwell in his court. 

Upon a time a minstrel sang tofore him a song in which he named the devil, and the king, who was a Christian man, when he heard him name the devil, made anon the sign of the cross in his visage.  And when Christopher saw that, he had great marvel at what sign it was, and wherefore the king made it, and he demanded of him. And because the king would not say, he said: If thou tell me not, I shall no longer dwell with thee. 

And then the king told to him, saying: Alway when I hear the devil named, I fear that he should have power over me, and I garnish me with this sign that I have protection from him.

Then Christopher said to him: Can  the devil hurt you? Then is the devil more mighty and greater than you. I am then deceived of my hope and purpose, for I had supposed I had found the most mighty and the most greatest Lord of the world, but I commend thee to the Devil, for I will go seek him to be my Lord, and I his servant.

And then [Christopher] departed from this king, and hastened him to seek the devil. And as he went by a great desert, he saw a great company of knights, of which a knight cruel and horrible came to him and demanded where he was going. Christopher answered him and said: I go seek the devil for to be my master. And he said: I am he that thou seekest. And then Christopher was glad, and took him for his master and Lord. 

And as they went together by a common way, they found there a cross, erect and standing. 

When the devil saw the cross he fled, and brought Christopher about by a sharp turn. And after, when they were past the cross, he brought him to the highway that they had left. And when Christopher saw that, he marvelled, and demanded why he feared that sign.  And the devil would not tell him.  So Christopher started to take his leave.

So the devil told him: There was a man called Christ which was hanged on the cross, and when I see his sign I flee from it. 

Christopher said: Then he is greater, and more mightier than thou, when thou art afraid of his sign, and I see that I have chosen you in vain, when I have not found the greatest Lord of the world. And I will serve thee no longer, go thy way then, for I will go seek Christ.

And when he had long sought and demanded where he should find Christ, at last he came into a great desert, to an hermit that dwelt there, and this hermit preached to him of Jesu Christ and informed him in the faith diligently, and said to him: This king whom thou desirest to serve, requireth the service that you fast often. 

And Christopher said to him: Require of me some other thing, and I shall do it, for how can I fast?  I know nothing of this. And the hermit said: Thou must then wake and make many prayers. And Christopher said to him: What are prayers?  I can do no such thing. And then the hermit said to him: Knowest thou such a river, in which many be perished and lost? Christopher said he knew it well.

Then said the hermit, “Because you are strong and tall, reside by that river, and take them on your shoulders to the other side.  Do this and I pray our Lord will show Himself to you.”  Christopher agreed and went to the river.

Christopher took a staff to help him traverse the river, and he stayed there many days.  One night he heard a voice in his sleep.  He awoke and went out, but he found no man. And when he was again in his house, he heard the same voice and he ran out and found nobody. The third time he was called and came thither, and found a child beside the river, who asked Christopher to bear him across the river.

And then Christopher put  the child on his shoulders, and took his staff, and entered into the river. And the water of the river arose and swelled more and more: and the child was heavy as lead, and as he went farther the water increased and grew more, and the child got heavier, so that Christopher struggled mightily and thought himself and the child lost.  Finally he made it to the other side and dropped to the ground.  “Child, what is this, seeing that I almost died in carrying someone so little.”

And the child answered: Christopher, you have not only borne all the world upon thee, but also borne Him that created and made all the world, upon your shoulders. I am Jesus Christ the King, whom you serve at this river. And because you know that I say the truth, set your staff in the earth by thy house, and tomorrow it shall bear flowers and fruit, and then he vanished from his eyes. And then Christopher set his staff in the earth, and when he arose on the morn, he found his staff bearing flowers, leaves and dates.

And then Christopher went into the city of Lycia, and understood not their language. Then he prayed our Lord that he might understand them, and so he did. And as he was in this prayer, the judges supposed that he had been a fool, and left him there. And then when Christopher understood the language, he covered his face and went to the place where they martyred Christian men, and comforted them in our Lord. 

And then the judges smote him in the face, and Christopher said to them: If I were not Christian I should avenge mine injury. Christopher pitched his rod in the earth, and prayed to our Lord that to convert the people it might bear flowers and fruit, and it did so. And then he converted eight thousand men.

And then the king sent two knights to fetch him to the king. They found him praying. The king sent many more, and they set them down to pray with him. And when Christopher arose, he said to them: What do you seek? 

And when they saw him in the visage they said to him: The king hath sent us, that we should lead thee bound unto him.  And Christopher said to them: If I would, you should not lead me to him bound.  And they said to him: If you put it that way, we’ll say that we could not find you.

It shall not be so, but I shall go with you. 

And then he converted them in the faith, and commanded them that they should bind his hands behind his back, and lead him so bound to the king. And when the king saw him he fell down off the seat, and his servants lifted him up and revived him. And then the king inquired his name and his country; and Christopher said to him: Before I was baptized I was named Reprobus, and after, I am Christopher; before baptism, a Canaanite, now, a Christian man. 

The king said: You have the foolish name of Christ crucified.  He could not help himself–he cannot help you. So, cursed Canaanite, why not sacrifice to our gods?  Christopher said: Thou art rightfully called Dagnus, for thou art the death of the world, and fellow of the devil, and thy gods be made with the hands of men. 

And the king said to him: You nourished among wild beasts, your words are wild language, unknown to men. If you now sacrifice to the gods I shall give to you great gifts and great honors. If not,  I shall destroy you by great torments. Christopher refused.  The king killed the knights with him, and threw Christopher in prison.

And after this he sent into the prison to St. Christopher two fair women, of whom one was named Nicæa and that other Aquilina.  The king promised them many great gifts if they could draw Christopher to sin with them. 

And when Christopher saw that, he set him down in prayer, and when he was constrained by them that embraced him to move, he arose and said: What do you seek?And they were afraid of his cheer and clearness of his face, said: Holy saint of God, have pity on us so that we may believe in God.

And when the king heard that, he commanded that they should be let out and brought to him. “You women are deceived, but I swear to you by my gods that, if you do no sacrifice to my gods, you shall perish by an evil death.” they said to him: “We will sacrifice.  Command that people come to the temple to witness.”And when this was done they entered in to the temple, and took their girdles, and put them about the necks of their gods, and drew them to the earth, and brake them all in pieces, and said to them that were there: “Go and call the doctors to heal your gods!”

And then, by the commandment of the king, Aquilina was hanged, and a right great and heavy stone was hanged at her feet, so that her body broke severely. And when she was dead, and passed to our Lord, her sister Nicæa was cast into a great fire, but she issued out without harm all whole, and then he made to smite off her head, and so suffered death.

After this Christopher was brought to the king, and the king commanded that he should be beaten with rods of iron, and that there should be set upon his head a cross of iron red hot and burning, and then after, he sat Christopher on a stool of iron, and set fire under it, and cast therein pitch. But Christopher took no harm.

And when the king saw that, he commanded that he should be bound to a strong stake, and that forty archers pierce him with arrows. But try as they would, the arrows always missed. Then by the commandment of the king he was led  to be beheaded, and then, there made he his death. His head was smitten off, and so suffered martyrdom. 

Now the king had suffered a wound in his eye. And the king then took a little of Christopher’s blood and laid it on his eye, and said: “In the name of God and of Christopher!” and he was healed. Then the king believed in God, and gave commandment that if any person blamed God or St. Christopher, he should be slain with the sword.

Many icons of St. Christopher depict him with a dog’s head:

For many years, St. Christopher’s feast day occurred on July 25, which coincided with the rise of the Sirius star, so important to the ancient Egyptians.

My favorite St. Christopher icon comes from the East and shows him with St. Stephen the proto-martyr. The image reveals something crucial that White misses. Yes, Church acknowledges the importance of the other, that Christ reaches the outer-limits, and even that the beast in us can be used against evil if tamed and transformed. But it also shows St. Christopher on the left, and St. Stephen on the right, the place of honor, vis a vis the unseen Christ. Furthermore, it also shows that how what lies outside pays honor to the inside. Christopher shows deference to Stephen here. The fringe has legitimacy, but contra White, the center, not the fringe, gets pride of place. An addiction to the “other,” so common in so many today, will serve no one, and does no honor to the greatest hero of the Dog-Men. That’s not how St. Christopher would want it.

Your physique was overwhelming and your face horrifying. You willingly suffered trauma from your own people. Men and women tried to arouse consuming fires of passion in you, but instead they followed you to your martyrdom. You are our strong protector, o great martyr Christopher!

Prayer for the feast day of St. Christopher

Dave

*Perhaps this is unfair. I would have a hard time with this as well.

**St. Photine is the name of given by Catholics and Orthodox to the woman in John 4.

^I suppose I should say that it would be a mistake for the reader to get caught up in whether or not people with actual dog’s heads really ever had a physically observable existence. To ask the question in itself means that one fails to perceive in the manner of traditional cultures. Whether or not such creatures had a “physically observable existence” was not the point for them–it should not be for us. Rather, we can begin by thinking of the meaning of Dog-Men–they are bestial, they have lost something crucial of their humanity, they have become unclean and must be made whole once more.

I find it intriguing that American culture seems to value dogs more highly than almost any other culture. Why might this be–many theories no doubt exist. I am convinced, however, that a large part of the answer involves the fact that America itself lies at the “edge,” the farthest reaches of Western civilization. In a traditional concept of the world, America, the un-tapped “pure potential” functioned as the ultimate symbolic fringe. No surprise, then, that we would associate ourselves with the animal traditionally relegated to the fringe.

Kevin Kelly’s Mind, and . . . Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

As he writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections of Leopold Infeld, who worked with Einstein at Princeton

And now, St. Thomas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carruthers comments,

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

Guenon and the Monsters

A recent local article mentioned that one Fairfax County School (Herndon HS) will cease allowing students to use their phones in class. Anyone familiar with reality knows that listening to one’s phone in class, or texting, or scrolling through Instagram, will hinder the learning process. Of course, the rule has loopholes that some will exploit. Perhaps more embarrassing for our civilization than the actual presence of phones in class–teachers may give students a 5 minute “phone break” during instruction if necessary. Most interesting to me from a cultural perspective, however, was the stated rationale for the policy: the phones need removed, for they may distract from other students learning. I applaud the school’s principal move to ban phones. The rationale for the decision, however, will not allow any real progress in education.

When we cannot state the obvious–i.e., students with phones out distract themselves far more than others–we have discovered a sacred cow of our times. But this fits in with other aspects of our culture. So strong runs our belief even in the power of a 15 year-old to define their lives ad nauseam, that parents, teachers, our society, will not attempt to define reality for them. We will not tell them that phones hurt themselves, for we likely would have response for, “It might hurt others, but not me,” and no idea what kind of general embodiment we would ask from our children.

If this reads so far like a cranky reactionary, well, that can be me at times. But I have far to go to reach the crankiness of Rene Guenon. He appreciated essentially nothing of modern life. But we should not dismiss him. The Crisis of the Modern World shows real prescience (he wrote this in 1927). His symbolic framing of the topics he examines make his work intuitive to understand and important for our times.

First, what failed to impress me about the book:

  • Guenon has some brilliant insights in his critique of the modern west, but he ascribes nothing good at all to the West and finds salvation only in the East. I understand taking a big swing for effect, but in this case, the book made me want to think of ways to defend the west. His overreach has the opposite effect on me.
  • I cannot tell quite where Guenon stands religiously, which I think important in a work like this. On the one hand, he has much to praise about Hinduism. On the other, we know he converted to Islam a bit after writing this work. He also argued that the West’s only hope lay in the faint possibility of revival of true Catholicism. Perhaps he dabbled in the idea of Perennialism, which seems to run counter to his main point of commitment to a tradition. Or–perhaps Guenon at the time of this writing lacked internal clarity himself, and if so it shows a bit in this book.

Now, on to the good stuff. . .

Guenon begins by critiquing the modern west’s view of linear progress. We see time functioning as a line, and our technological and political progress demonstrating that this line moves upwards. We no longer have the same attachment to the idea of inevitable progress as 100 years ago, but we still measure progress in material terms, i.e., how the economy functions, what new technology we invent, etc. But the core of our problem lies here. How we measure time and progress put us in continuously impossible situations that we cannot comprehend, due to the angle of our vision, akin to someone who scratches their irritation and wonders why it still itches.

Ancient and traditional societies put their focus on retaining meaning within their culture, not in increasing power or wealth. Our focus on power over our environment has led us “down the mountain” towards disunity of mind and society in general. The ancient world also tended to see time as cyclical, which Guenon thinks key to his thesis about time. I disagree, but it influences his view of how our culture has moved from “higher” to “lower” things. He writes,

It will doubtless be asked why cyclic development must proceed in this manner, in a downward direction, from higher to lower, a course that will at once be perceived as a complete antithesis to progress as the moderns understand it. The reason is . . . it implies a gradual increasing of distance fro the principle from which it proceeds; starting from the highest point, it tends downward, and as with heavy bodies, the speed of its motion increases continuously until finally it reaches a point at which it is stopped. This fall could be described as “progressive materialization.”

The project of the western world for the last 500 years or so has generally involved deconstruction of the world through a focus on gaining power over our environment. Rather than a circle, I prefer the image of a mountain to explain this process, something that I will not rehash in full here (I have written about this in other posts linked above). Of course mountains have a prominent role in almost every traditional culture, including ancient Israel (Mt. Sinai, Mt. Zion, etc.). The top of the mountain allows one a unity of vision, though it entails a necessary blending of various particularities. Descending down the mountain comes naturally. It’s easier than going up. This downward movement also gives you increased ability to see particular things with greater distinction and contrast to other things around it. But to accomplish this, one must sacrifice a unity of perspective. The methods western society employs lead us to chaos and disunity, which will manifest itself in our souls and our societies.

For example, we can take the idea prevalent in modern parlance that trade will unify countries and draw them together. The more trade, the more unity. Guenon argues that, in fact, increased trade between peoples will likely lead to more conflict, not less. Perhaps we see the pattern. Trade in goods means focusing on materiality, and focusing on matter means dividing reality–and we divide to conquer. Guenon wrote just shortly after the horror of W.W. I. But in the years leading up to that conflict, Germany and England were primary trading partners.

Thirty years ago many argued that the U.S. should increase trade with China to cement good relations between us, which would help China improve its record on human rights. In fact, what has happened is just as Guenon would predict–China and the U.S. like each other less, and trade in material goods has only served to increase China’s power. A more immediate example–Europe’s use of Russian oil and gas has done nothing to make them like each other more. Perhaps trade may make disparate cultures a bit more alike, but history shows that we tend to fight more with those who look a bit skewed to us, rather than those who are completely different. For example, lots of historians pour vitriol on the Middle Ages, which has similarities and differences to the modern world, but no one “hates” ancient Egypt, which maintains a proper, non-threatening distance from us. In any case, when we act against the pattern of reality, we suffer for it.

The political schisms the western world experiences now have their origin in our souls. Many marvel at why, despite unprecedented material opportunities and prosperity, we see such a spike in suicide, escapist drugs, depression, and other mental illnesses. Guenon sees an obvious connection. A focus on “materiality” inevitably means a focus on particularity, which means division. Two years ago many believed that the presence of COVID might at least have the silver lining effect of bringing us together and helping heal our political divisions. Of course, nearly two years of focus on the particularity of tiny molecules and the various means of treating said molecules have driven us even farther apart, which again Guenon could have predicted.*

But because Guenon has a primarily cyclical view of reality, a degree of hope exists, for this is not the first time civilization has experienced this descent into “progressive materialization.” In the history of the world, he sees in the 6th century B.C. a period when unity descended into division. He writes,

In the sixth century [B.C.] changes took place for one reason or another amongst almost all peoples . . . for example, in China, where doctrine previously established as a unified whole divided clearly into two distinct parts: Taoism, reserved for the elite and comprising pure metaphysics . . ., and Confuscianism, . . . whose domain was that of practical and social applications. In India . . . this period saw the rise of Buddhism, that is to say, a revolt against the traditional spirit . . . Moving westward we see that for the Jews this was the time of the Babylonian captivity and perhaps one of the most astonishing of all these happenings is that a short period of 70 years should have sufficed for the Jews to forget even their alphabet . . .

. . . for Rome it was the beginning of the ‘historical’ period, which followed on the ‘legendary’ period of the kings. [In Greece also], the 6th century was the start of so-called ‘classical’ civilization, which alone is entitled–according to the moderns–to be considered ‘historical.’**

This moment in Greece inaugurated the discipline of philosophy, so dear to the western intellectual tradition. What began more or less in innocence devolved into an exaltation of the rational, and hence, the analytical side of man over and above all things.

The tendencies that found expression among the Greeks had to be pushed to the extreme . . . before we could arrive at “rationalism,” a specifically modern attitude that consists in not merely ignoring, but expressly denying, everything of a supra-rational order.

Christianity arose via the collapse of western civilization in the 5th century A.D., and reasserted more traditional ways of knowing. We can see this in how history got written, with the examples of Ammianus Marcellinus, writing at the time of Rome’s decline. His precise factual accuracy has high value in today’s world. But even Gibbon found him unreadably dull and shortsighted, commenting that, “The coarse and undistinguishing pencil of Ammianus has delineated his bloody figures with tedious and disgusting accuracy.” We can compare him with the author/s? of the roughly contemporaneous Alexander Romance, which had universal appeal, with eventual versions written in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Ethiopian, to name a few. Many dismiss the work as “fantastical” (it has Alexander encountering mythical beasts such centaurs) but it had broad appeal for a reason. The work seeks to interpret the life of Alexander, and thus communicate meaning, not facts. Traditional cultures understand this difference in ways that elude us, making much of the “legendary” histories written in the past unintelligible to us.

With medieval culture Guenon believes that we see the turn of history’s wheel back towards the apex of the cycle. They focused on wisdom through inhabiting meaning over analysis. But the wheel keeps turning, which brings us to the Renaissance. For Guenon, moderns get it backwards. The “Middle Ages” was not merely a bridge between “civilization” (which the term “Middle Ages” implies), but a time of actual civilization in between decayed epochs. As for the Renaissance,

As we have said . . . . the Renaissance was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things; on the pretext of being a return to Greco-Latin civilization, it merely took over the outward part of it, since this was the only part that could be expressed clearly in written texts; and in any case, this incomplete restoration was bound to have very artificial character, as it meant a re-establishment of forms whose real life had gone out of them centuries before. . . . Henceforth there was only ‘profane’ philosophy and ‘profane’ science, in other words, the negation of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, namely the empirical and analytical study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion of an indefinite multitude of insignificant details . . .^

All of this ends with the ‘Individual’ as the only form of reality left that we recognize, hence the problem one encounters in a public school when you want to ban cellphones. Our individuality has generated the chaos of defining one’s own reality through social media, or through simple assertions of will, as Neo lamely articulated in the third Matrix installment. Some try and plug the holes in the ship by earnestly urging us to focus on the “facts.” Alas, like those that focus on trade, or “the science,” to bring us together fail to see that the “facts” can never accomplish that task. Focusing on meaning by examining things outside of their context separates things from other things, and so it will divide selves from other selves.^^.

The distortions of the modern have created a reality that Guenon calls “monstrous.” A “monster,” by definition, is something that exists internally and externally out of proper proportion. We may think that we have traded unity for diversity, and since both have their place, we will at least have one even if we lack the other. Guenon disagrees, “since unity is the principle out of which all multiplicity arises.” So–we will be left only with a naked assertion of will whereby we seek to subsume all things into ourselves. This brings the flood, and a restarting of the cycle.

As powerfully as Guenon writes, I push back in one particular. Guenon, influenced by his possible Perennialism, hovers perhaps a bit too far above the mountaintop. He seemingly fails to see that the reality he wants to inhabit has irregularities. The orbiting of the planets, like our own bodies, lack perfect symmetry. Parts of reality are “weird,” and we occasionally see creatures and situations that defy categories. Exceptions to rules exist. Where Guenon is right, however, is that those exceptions don’t destroy the form, but merely give it room to breathe.

Dave

*Many social conservatives like myself who want to rein in society’s affirmation of school-children wanting gender reassignment surgery put the focus on biology–“there are only two genders,” and so on. I have seen Ben Shapiro, for example, consistently go to this well. But focusing on “the science” perpetuates confusion, for the same reasons discussed above. A focus on deconstructing physical matter will never answer this question, because one can always find exceptions when looking to deconstruct. Those that push back against him are wrong in their conclusion but at least partially right in their method. “Why should I submit to matter?” they seem to be saying. “Shouldn’t the lower serve the higher?”

**Curiously, Guenon fails to note that at around exactly the same time in Greece and in Rome, we see a movement towards more democracy. I would not call the Roman Republic ‘democratic,’ but certainly it was more democratic than their previous era. I find it curious that he passes on a chance to point out another move away from unity towards diversity/particularity.

^Guenon later writes that philosophy, following this form, has grown obsessed with abstractions and “problems,” and multiplying difficulties rather than expounding “wisdom.”

^^COVID did indeed present us with an opportunity, but one that we missed. Rather than exclusively focusing on how to combat the disease, and whether or not this or that measure helped prevent it and by how much, we should have focused on how to preserve meaning and coherence amidst the disease. Instead, we were basically told to stay at home and watch Netflix.

Mankind, Armies, and Strategy

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

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

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

Louis XVI in the same pose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luttwak, p. 61

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

Tradition under Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seneca writes similarly,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De reruns natura, 1.62ff., 5.73ff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

The Garments of Court and Palace

Despite ourselves, Machiavelli fascinates us. He writes with an enviable brevity and clarity, and then supplies a pertinent historical example to back up his point. Had he been a worse writer, we would care much less about him. There exists as well an easy transference of his thought–he fires the imagination of the global strategist and everyone who has played Risk.

The Garments of Court and Palace has a grand air about it. The title comes from a phrase of Machiavelli, describing his perception of how one had to don a different persona, in a sense, to enter into the political realm. One can write rather easily how Machiavelli advocated for a dangerous amoralism in statecraft. One could also write about how a conflicted Machiavelli seemed a chameleon of sorts depending on time and place. Again–such books would be easy to write and have no reason to exist. But Philip Bobbitt has an entirely different approach, arguing that

  • Not only was Machiavelli not a amoral thinker, and
  • Not only was he not a chameleon, but
  • He was a consistent thinker with a distinct aim of promoting virtue, whose teachings fit easily within a Christian worldview

Now there’s an argument for you. This is a book worth writing.

I have great respect for Bobbitt. I found his Shield of Achilles revelatory and prophetic in certain ways. He takes big swings and at his best writes with the clarity of Machiavelli. I found Bobbitt’s argument ultimately a bridge too far. To go along with him fully, one would have to agree that essentially all of Machiavelli’s contemporaries, and nearly every political philosopher since then, had him wrong. For me, there exists too many areas of Machiavelli’s thought one can’t quite stuff into Bobbitt’s construction, leaving Bobbitt’s only option to impersonate Michael Palin’s befuddled George Bernard Shaw, i.e., “What Machiavelli merely meant . . . “

Still, Bobbitt succeeds in getting one to see Machiavelli more clearly within his time. And while I do not agree with the totality of Bobbitt’s argument, the book reveals the problems of the modern state in fresh ways. Bobbitt rightly argues that Machiavelli had prophetic insight far ahead of his time, and we must grapple honestly with him.

Machiavelli’s world faced great changes, changes that, as usual, were not immediately obvious to nearly everyone living through them. The Black Plague and the breakdown of the Church meant that the personal connections that guided law and culture in the feudal era no longer applied–however much some still wished to make it so. Bobbitt sees Machiavelli clearly perceiving this shift, and attempting to orient Italy and all of Europe towards a new constitutional order. But periods of transition bring great uncertainty, and the need for attendant flexibility. Bobbitt writes,

Imagine you wish to train yourself to be a professional poker player. Part of that training must involve learning all the tricks of the trade, marking cards, palming a card, dealing from the bottom, and so on. But must you practice these tricks yourself? I suppose it depends on how good your game is, and whether the persons with whom you are playing will enforce the rules once you have exposed the cheat. To the question, “Must it be this way? Can’t we do better?” the answers do not lie entirely within your power.

In sum, Bobbitt sees Machiavelli playing a slippery game of poker, both in his personal life and in his writings–yet, with an ultimately just and moral goal in mind. “Republics must be founded by one man,” as Machiavelli wrote in his Discourses. So,

  • First, the chaos must end, and existing structures cannot end it. It takes someone operating outside those structures to bring order, and then
  • A republic can emerge, one that governs communally and perhaps abstractly, rather than personally

Of Machiavelli’s two major works, one can very broadly say that The Prince attempted to accomplish the first goal, and The Discourses the latter. Machiavelli must sometimes, then, assume the appearance of Janus, the Roman god who faced in opposite directions.

We can consider the idea of deception. On the face of it, people should never lie or deceive. But few people would actually make this an absolute claim. You might not like your wife’s dress, but if she loves it, you’ll say you think it looks great. In the Bible, men of faith use deception. King David pretended insanity amongst the Philistines. Ehud manipulated King Eglon so that he might kill him. Rahab protects the spies by lying. We praise them for such actions. But we know the difference between “good” lies and true lies. While David rightly deceives the Philistines, he wrongly deceives Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, and suffers for it. Bobbitt places Machiavelli within a traditional moral structure because virtuous people know how and when to deceive for the common good. Machiavellian morality is “good” morality, because he flexibly orients it towards the formation of a virtuous state. Bobbitt makes other such arguments throughout with different aspects of Machiavelli’s thought, and it has merit up to a point.

At root, Bobbitt believes that states evolve and that wise and “good” rulers adapt to changing circumstances to maintain the supremacy of “good” states over bad ones. The state will be formed via “strategy, law, and history,” to use Bobbitt’s terms, and one must use Machiavellian wisdom to appropriately ride the crest of the wave. Republics have a much better chance of adaptation because of their composite nature. Machiavelli cites the Roman example of Fabius and Cicero. Fabius was right in 218 BC to adopt his cautious approach to Hannibal, but a few years later, the situation had changed. Yet–Fabius had not changed with the changing situation. Indeed, few can do so. But because Rome was a Republic, they had the more aggressive Scipio at their disposal. And, because of the Republic’s ability to pool wisdom from a large group, they chose correctly with Scipio. A monarchy or principality had more limitations, and indeed, Hannibal, for all his greatness, could not quite adopt changes in his own strategy when his fortunes started to ebb.

Again, so far so good. But we should go deeper into the nature of the new state Machiavelli heralded and why we should remain uncomfortable with a full embrace of his ideas. I think the final answer lies in the fact that the state Machiavelli saw coming and wanted to bring about would not allow one to safely and wisely live out his advice. So, in what follows below, I make my own grand, foolhardy attempt to solve the Machiavelli conundrum.

The feudal kingdoms that Machiavelli saw retreating from the scene had a few things in common:

  • Relationships, more so than laws, determined the way of life in a particular region
  • Particular land was not so much owned, but held in a trust, of sorts with the surrounding culture and people
  • While various leaders had certain boundaries of church, custom, etc., power resided in people, not principles, ideas, or even laws.

Machiavelli hoped for, and foresaw, a state that would

  • Be governed more by laws than specific people
  • Be governed more by procedures of representative bodies than by people directly
  • Have a more Roman/absolute/legal concept of ownership of land

The modern state, therefore, would be more fixed and abstract in nature.

Though in many ways a modern, Machiavelli still had some roots in the traditional pre-modern world. He understood that sometimes the hero has to go the margins of behavior–like King David. He understood that when facing the evil of disintegration one sometimes has to fight fire with fire. Sometimes society’s solid moral core cannot defeat the monster. You need Godzilla to battle Ghidorah. The law can do nothing to Terry Benedict, so we cheer when “Ocean’s Eleven” take him down. But we should still remember that the guys of “Ocean’s Eleven” are not really good guys. You cannot build a society on Danny, Rusty, and the Mormon twins.

If one sees Machiavelli’s advice within this traditional pattern of reality–a Core, Fringe, and the Chaos beyond, a lot of his advice in The Prince makes sense. People can make difficult moral judgments. People can experience different levels of reality and process them accordingly. Hence–for all of its “radical” nature, The Prince can actually make sense within a traditional society, where governing relationships remain distinctly personal and not abstract.

Machiavelli reacted strongly against the medieval approach, but the irony might be that The Prince is actually a treatise that might find a place in the pre-modern world under certain circumstances.

Machiavelli’s problem . . . modern states cannot experience life this way. We remain too distant from reality with the multitude of hedges of laws and institutions. People can make judgment calls–laws cannot. Bobbitt himself declares that states get their formation through the intersection of “strategy, law, and history.” But he leaves out, “personal relationships.” Modern states have very little to do with personal connections and much more to do with contract, procedure, and so on.*

What about Machiavelli’s Discourses, which many, Bobbitt included, see as a great treatise for modern democratic-republics? The Discourses has many insightful things to say, but we must remember that Rome is the subject. The “imminence” of pagan religion shines through in Livy’s work. The Roman self, Roman religion, and Roman politics all seem intertwined. One could say that Rome worshipped Rome (I include an excerpt from the Discouses below which I think illustrates this). Thus, when the Roman state “moved” the Romans “moved” with it. Of course, if the identity of the state lies in the King/Prince, then when he “moves” we can move with him, because we have a personal tie to him, and he physically embodies the principality/realm where we live.

Not so in the modern age, which still have some tension between the state and that which resides outside the state. It can take various forms across the spectrum, including:

  • A strong sense of the Kingdom of God residing within and without the state
  • A strong sense of the autonomous individual
  • No coherent cultural “north” on the compass
  • A sense of the “destiny” or purpose of the nation, which lies at least somewhat outside the actions of the nation–this has different manifestations on the right and the left.

I believe this explains our frustration and puzzlement with Machiavelli. We recognize his wisdom. We feel that we should apply at least some of it, but our detachment from our institutions won’t allow us to access it.

Dave

*Hence–suburbia and why we do not know our neighbors, disembodied forms of exchange, and so on.

Machiavelli on Roman Religion

Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances, in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.

Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle. 

But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.

But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so threw them into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness . . . 

Tradition and Technology

Those who regularly read this blog know that I tend to favor traditional values and traditional societies. Those like me need to realize that things change inevitably, making the challenge knowing how to change and stay the same all at once. Those on the opposite side need to realize that “change” is not a good word, any more than “tradition” is a dirty one.

Traditionalists must face the question of the role of technology. Certainly one could have a society that held tightly to tradition with little-no technological development. Is it possible for tradition to captain the ship while innovating technologically, and maintaining a robust economy? The question has immediate cultural and political relevance for those like me, Charles Haywood, and others. Much of our economic growth appears dependent on new technology. If a new cultural and political version of America is on the horizon, can it combine an anchor of tradition and still give us Amazon (which I do not regard as a dirty word necessarily)? Or, perhaps we need to choose one or the other, and accept the consequences. I have no clarity on this, though I suspect we may have to choose.

This question has interest in the abstract, but possibly we gain more clarity if we have a specific example, maybe even one out of left field . . . such as the development of handwriting from the classical era until today.

Ancient Writing and its Influence by B.L. Ullman lives up to its title but in a narrow sense. Ullman wrote originally in 1932–thankfully. I think if he wrote today it would be impossibly technical with much poorer writing. Even so, many parts of the book I read with semi or fully glazed eyes. As a sample, I open randomly to page 74, which reads,

The term half-uncial is sometimes used for mixed uncials of the type described, but in a narrower sense it applied to a very definite script that became a rival of uncial as a book script from the fifth to eight centuries. Again the name is unfortunate in its suggestion that it was derived from uncial. Rather it is the younger brother of that script, making us of an almost complete minuscule alphabet. It does not use the shapes of ‘a’, ‘d’, ‘e’, ‘m’ characteristic of uncial script but rather those of modern minuscule type, except that the ‘a’ is in the form used in italics, not roman. The only letter which maintains its capital form is ‘N’, and this letter readily enables one to distinguish this script from later minuscule. The reason for the preservation of this kind of ‘N’ was to avoid confusion with the minuscule ‘r,’ which in some half-uncials is very much like ‘n.’ The desire to avoid ambiguity is seen also in the ‘b,’ which is the form familiar to . . .

So, what Ullman means mostly about influence is how one form of writing influenced another kind of writing in a nearly purely technical sense. I wanted more on how changes in writing either propelled or reflected changes in the culture at large. Ullman gives us some hints of this, and his extensive, precise knowledge gives some space to the reader for guessing on our own.

We can start by recognizing that the phonetic alphabet itself ranks as one of the more propulsive and destructive (creatively or otherwise) of human technologies. Marshall McCluhan noted this with keen historical insight, in a famous interview (the ‘M’ is McCluhan, the ‘Q’ for the interviewer):

M: Oral cultures act and react simultaneously, whereas the capacity to act without reacting, without involvement, is the special gift of literate man.  Another basic characteristic of [pre-modern] man is that he lived in a world of acoustic space, which gave him a radically different concept of space-time relationships.

Q: Was phonetic literacy alone responsible for this shift in values from tribal ‘involvement’ to civilized detachment?

As knowledge is extended in alphabetic form, it is localized and fragmented into specialities, creating divisions of function, classes, nations.   The rich interplay of the senses is sacrificed.

Q: But aren’t their corresponding gains in insight to compensate for the loss of tribal values?

M: Literacy . . . creates people who are less complex and diverse.  . . . But he is also given a tremendous advantage over non-literate man, who is hamstrung by cultural pluralism–values that make the African as easy a prey for the European colonialist as the barbarian was for the Greeks and Romans.  Only alphabetic cultures ever succeeded in mastering connected linear sequences as a means of social organization. 

Q: Isn’t the thrust of your argument then, that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet was not progress, but a psychic and social disaster?

M: It was both.  . . . the old Greek myth has Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to man, sowing dragon’s teeth that sprang up from the earth as armed men.

My meager knowledge of pre-historic man (so called) will not prevent me from thinking that McCluhan exaggerates to a degree–the written word need totalize all of our being. Still, we must acknowledge that we cannot expand our abilities infinitely, and if we go “deep” in one area we will certainly see shallow waters in other aspects of our being. We can also acknowledge that we how we present the world to others will reflect and shape our beliefs about the world. It need be the chicken or the egg as to whether it reflects or shapes–we can say that both happen.

Ullman makes a few opening technical remarks perhaps designed to quell those who want to make large conclusions from changes in writing over the years. Sometimes changes in writing come from changes in the medium of the writing. Writing primarily on stone lends itself much more to straight lines and hard angles, as opposed to paper or even papyrus. Very true, but this also begs the question as to why a people use stone or scrolls in the first place. Eventually certain choices become second nature, but not at the beginning of the switch, which involves more conscious choice. I remain convinced that switches in the medium for writing, and how they write, surely mean something. Few aspects of our being rank higher in importance in our desire to connect with others, to achieve understanding from person-person, not just of content but of the meaning of that content. We accomplish this best face-to-face, where we express the full panoply of the message with our bodies as well as words. This means that when apart, the written words we choose, and how we present those words, seek in some way to make up for the absence of the body.

For this reason, and others, I say we can deduce much from the script of a civilization.

My theory runs like so: the more a civilization develops, the more refined its writing. This, I admit, means hardly saying anything more important than 2+2=4. But I hope to venture a step further, and suggest that perhaps we can wonder whether that development/refinement will preserve its civilizational ethos, or propel it away from its center. Not all growth is good.

We can start by examining the development of Roman script, with the first example from perhaps the 6th century B.C.

And now, moving forward in time to ca. AD 70

The latter examples show refinement and a development into a clear style that everyone recognizes as “Roman.” But with the codification has come “Empire.”

As the empire declined and we move into late antiquity, their writing changed as well, showing perhaps more of a Greek influence, with these first examples from likely the 400’s AD (apologies for intrusion of my fingers).

and these from 1-2 centuries later.

I suggest the changes could come from from more cultural blending, and less control over the empire, as the differences between “barbarian” and “Roman” blurred.

And now, for the development of Greek script. First, from 700 B.C.

Within just a few centuries, we see quick development of a more elegant but also more “rigid” script style, from the 5th century BC in Athens, with the second example a few decades later than the first.

As Greek power wanes in the 4th century BC, their script becomes a bit more fluid, just as in Rome:

With the establishment of more Roman presence in the Greek east after Constantine, Greek script grows a bit more fluid over time, with the examples below showing a progression of about a century.

Then, as the western part of the empire collapses, the writing gets more fluid and stylized, with the dating as the 9th century, 12th century, and the 15th century, respectively, just before Moslem conquest of Constantinople.

In the west, the collapse of Rome led to the development of a new civilization. First, for some context, Roman writing in the 5th/6th centuries, AD:

and Visigothic writing from north Italy, ca. 9th century AD:

Other European cultures had a bit more development than the Visigoths, however, and we see this reflected somewhat in their script, with the first two being Anglo-Saxon from the 8th century, and the last Carolingian from the 9th century, as the “Carolingian Renaissance” had gotten underway by then:

By the 12th century, we see more elegance and uniformity, as in previous civilizations over time.

In parts of France, we have a parallel development of sorts, with each example progressing from the early to late 9th century near Tours.

As the Middle Ages develop, you get more refinement, but less overall readability, with these examples from the 12th century,

and then into the 13th and 14th centuries,

which seems to almost beg for a correction with the coming of the Italian Renaissance in the mid-15th century.

Ullman’s excellent visuals make his text intelligible for novice’s like myself, and allow us to speculate on some broader conclusions.

It seems that the scripts go through three phases that seem to circle back on one another.

  • First, you have early script, which has less uniformity, is “sloppier,” and more free, in a way.
  • Second, as the civilization develops and gets on its feet and flexes a bit, the script gets more uniform, and certainly in the case of Greece and Rome, “blockier.”
  • Then, as the civilization wanes, either physically, intellectually, or both, the script gets more fluid. In Rome, you see the blending of Greek and Roman influences towards late antiquity. In the Middle Ages, you see ornamentation increase nearly beyond the pale, which brings back the Carolingian, more Roman, unified style.

One might suggest that we get a an interesting comparison between the Roman Empire of the Augustan age, the Byzantines, and the Latin west at the “peak” of their powers. Roman script screams empire and control (see “Plate 2” above), whereas the other two have more breath in their writing, with more feminine qualities. I think the comparison helps, but we must take the scholar’s caution, for Ullman reminds us that writing on parchment allows for a lot more fluid motion than writing on stone.

We can apply all of this to our original question: can a civilization maintain a firm anchor in tradition and still innovate?

As Rome’s republic fell into disarray, many contemporary historians lamented the decline of the old ways. Historians always lament the decline of the old ways. But Rome’s unwritten constitution relied on tradition to work, and the letter of the law could not save the republic. We know too that Augustus sought to promote a return of traditional values even as he consolidated power in a non-traditional way, an indication that the perception that “times had change” involved more than grumpy historians. We can confidently say that Rome’s gives us one significant data point that points to tradition eroding as innovation in their writing increased.

Greece has a slightly different story. They standardize their writing more quickly than Rome, and then change it a bit more quickly again after that. Their more fluid and script has a warmer, more human feel, and suggests that perhaps they maintained traditions more effectively than Rome. However, no one argues that Greece in the 4th-3rd centuries BC were at the top of their game.

As for the Byzantines, a variety of historians from the Enlightenment onwards critiqued what they saw as their slippery, devious methodology in international relations. Edward Luttwak’s brilliant book on the Byzantine’s grand strategy shows that their foreign policy choices were methodical and moral, consistent with a power facing multiple enemies over a wide front. Surprisingly or no, their handwriting seems to mimic the fluidity of their geopolitics. My knowledge of Byzantine history has gaping holes, but based on my perusal of The Glory of Byzantium they maintained a clear and consistent artistic style while innovating and changing their technique. Marcus Plested has shown that many theologians interacted positively with the early medieval philosophical tradition. They seemed to manage a balance of some kinds of innovation without sacrificing tradition and identity. However, they fell to the Moslems, albeit after a 1000 year run. If innovation forms the kernel of success and power (a big “if), they failed to innovate fast enough to protect themselves fully.

With the medievals we see something similar. They created an original style that peaked perhaps in the 11th-12th century, the same century that saw an explosion of cathedral construction in the Gothic style. In both writing and architecture, one sees innovation that reinforced rather than altered their traditions. But Ullman argues–and the visual evidence seems indisputable–that as their script continued to “innovate” its functionality markedly decreased. They then snapped back to the tradition of writing extant centuries prior. But the Renaissance had no intention of reaffirming tradition per se. Instead, Renaissance humanists led an artistic, architectural, and philosophic movement that dramatically changed society, abandoning a host of traditions (though in fairness the Black Death had something to do with this as well).

Our look at four civilizations fails to provide a decisive answer. In Rome and classical Greece, innovation seemed to stifle tradition and presaged decline. In Byzantium and medieval Europe, innovation initially accompanied “measurable” growth in their civilizations, to say nothing of what we cannot measure, but it seemed also to run its course. People imagine Nothing lasts forever, and one wonders whether or not civilizations can possibly extend their lives ad infinitum regardless of their choices to rapidly change or resist it at all costs.

It seems we must table the discussion, but we have hints. We don’t often think of tradition and fluidity existing in tandem, but it works at least when both sides get the balance right. After all, men and women have been marrying each other since the dawn of time. Perhaps what we see in Gothic Europe and Byzantium should not therefore surprise us. Perhaps the desire to lock things in place too severely effectively takes the air out of tradition, killing the best of what makes a civilization tick, i.e., Athens killed Socrates just as they rigidified their script. Perhaps we can conclude these things if handwriting reliably guides us.

Perhaps . . . to be continued . . .

Dave

“Therefore,” and “Nevertheless”

Towards the end of the Benedictine office of Lauds there exists a prayer which uses the old King James English which seems like a shock of cold water amidst the pleasant praises of God’s majesty–“and blessed are the paps which gave suck to Christ the Lord.” Such language could put off different people for different reasons, but mostly I think it boils down to a “disturbing” physicality and particularity. High-flown theological language suits us better. A Christian must confess that the second Person of the Trinity became a male human being in all fulness. The Benedicitine office, as other prayers of the Church, puts the focus on “higher” things of majesty and praise, but rightly will not conclude without bringing us back to earth and ourselves, reminding us of this stark truth. Clearly, Christ did nurse at the breasts of the Virgin Mary, and we must decide whether we celebrate this or feel embarrassed and horrified by it.

Many react with such embarrassment to time. Temporality flows inexorably, which makes those moments of glory, grandeur, and insight we experience at once so powerful and frustrating. We long for their return, but they will not come even for the asking. Our society in general seems embarrassed and frustrated by Time (manifested in some respects with bands like Kiss, Judas Priest, and even the Rolling Stones apparently still touring). Some may accept Time in the sense of merely resigning oneself to its power, but while this may be a superior attitude over ignoring or “rebelling” against Time, it too seems to see the physicality of time not as a blessing but as part of what we must endure in our going hence.

William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo: Dimensions of the Literary Imagination examines the question of physicality and particularity in theology and literature. I lack the depth and breadth of reading needed to truly benefit from this book, but the applications of his insights go beyond the literary and into life and redemption itself. Lynch keeps focus on his crucial question: Does God accomplish His purposes through the finite, or in spite of it? Authors, “regular people,” and civilizations face the temptation to either ignore or despise creation, thereby failing to see through it and discern the patterns of grace. Lynch diagrams this basic idea like so,

with the diagram on the left as the proper path. Heraclitus may have had the same intuition, stating that, “the way up and the way down are one in the same.” Tension has always existed in Christian thought between 1) Moving down “the mountain” as moving away from God (a pattern present from the Garden of Eden, Mt. Sinai, Mt. Tabor, etc.), and seeing that movement as a kind of death, and 2) Recognition that we have no other option other than to take this passage down into death to return to God whole, i.e., “He who wishes to save his life must lose it,” and “unless a seed falleth into the earth and die, it bears no fruit.”* Escape from this tension provides only an illusion of freedom, and in fact produces a kind of slavery to a fear of things, and even of ourselves. Our glimpse into the infinite comes only through the finite.** Dante’s grand cosmological vision would not have been complete without tethering it to 14th century Florence. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky knows that Aloysha’s great mystical visions can only come through his engagement with his wretchedly dysfunctional family.

But many modern authors cannot embrace this paradoxical pattern. Lynch examines a few different metaphysical categories to demonstrate the paradox. For Proust, time is man’s greatest enemy. The cubist painter can not accept the finite image–instead they must represent all of the possible angles of vision of the minding a futile attempt to see only the abstract. Lynch writes,

Perhaps the most ambitious, most brilliant, and most sophisticated vendetta launched against time was that of Descartes, who first put forward the notion of a pure intelligence within us not subject to time. . . . when that ambition takes the form of a desire to wipe out the succession and the partial quantities of time, and to live in an isolated area of the personality where the temporal has no meaning or power, then a grave folly has been committed. . . . The “man in the street” knows what the intellectual does not: that true reality is contained within the dramatic temporal life of the body. The peasant knows he will be healed not only by doctors but also by time. [He knows that time] is as much a part of him as his own skin, out of which he cannot leap.

Christ and Apollo, p. 50, 53

Christ exemplifies this true approach to time as a positive good: He refuses to cling to childhood (Lk 2:41-52), He refuses the easy path to glory (Mt. 4), and allows His death to come to Him “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4).

Different literary genres can make the same mistake of rejecting creation. In tragedy, Lynch cites the modern tendency that “exaltation must come from exaltation, and that infinites must come out of infinites.” This path leads to two consequences:

  1. The idea that the achievement of great tragedy has its roots in the mystical conquest of the “human spirit” against pain–the tragic figure as exalted conqueror, which
  2. In fact makes the writing of tragedy more difficult, not easier, because it seems that tragedy, like death, doesn’t really exist.

Comedies too can make the same error. Comedy (in the modern sense of “what makes us laugh”) often deals with the breakdown of order and expectations–all well and good. But if we ask ourselves why A Midsummer Night’s Dream still gets staged four centuries after its debut, we need look no further than that “the play, [even] in its wildest fantasy [in Act 5], is only dealing with Snug the joiner and Bottom the weaver.” T.S. Eliot commented that, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” “I am not so sure of that,” Lynch writes, “The bigger truth is that they cannot stand very much unreality.”

Perhaps part of the problem lies in that great literary minds can see their idea so clearly that the idea burns away all around it if they fail to take care. Here then, lies Lynch’s “Univocal Man:”

He is, emotionally, full of extraordinary energies–in fact, a kind of energy seems to mark the whole of his character. He has a genius for a unilateral passion, and is, and therefore always has been–a passionate center of good and bad in civilization. . . . Superficially, then, he resembles the religious genius. . . . It is only by exercising great caution that we will avoid this profound mistake and will refrain from giving this character the veneration that is not his due. . . . The univocal man has no respect for reality; he is contemptuous of it, or distorts it, or flattens it–or he refuses to take responsibility in the face of it. . . . The univocal man is not free. He is rigid, unbending, fixed. One can understand the fixity of the idea of logic and essences, but his fixed ideas are born of a fixity of all the forces of his personality and a refusal to remain open to existence. . . . To put the matter simply, these would reject all the unities and relations projected by any sentence, for example, “The horse is white,” for a horse is a horse, and white is white, and that is the end of the discussion.

pp. 141, 144, 147

We might say that the Univocal man has too much “purity” in him. He cannot or will not mix his idea with the stuff of reality. That this should happen to a literary type is no surprise. In general they write because they are gripped by an idea or image.^ The one who mixes things up too much would likely never have the clarity or organization to get anything down on paper to begin with. Lynch shows us Eugene O’Neil, who wants us to be sad, and so gives us Sadness in Mourning Becomes Electra, with her mansion as her prison. Or, even more absurdly, he gives us Laughter in Lazarus Laughed, with this ridiculous passage where Lazarus speaks to Caligula,

You are proud of being evil! What if there is no evil? Believe in the Healthy God called Man within you! . . . Believe! What if you are a man and man is despicable? Men are also unimportant! Men pass! Like rain into the sea! The sea remains! Man remains! . . . For Man death is not! Man, Son of God’s laughter, is! . . . Believe in the laughing God within you!

Alas, too many exclamation points. O’Neill wants rapture but he attempts to achieve it by rebounding off of creation and denying it altogether. Only a fool would say that “death is not.”

With a denial of creation will come an absence of transcendence, purchased at the price of avoiding all mess. George Bernard Shaw claimed a sort of spiritualism but could not stand religion actually practiced, writing,

In Italy, for instance, churches are used in such a way that priceless pictures become smeared with filthy tallow-soot, and have to be rescued by the temporal power and placed in national galleries. But worse than this are the innumerable daily services which disturb the truly religious visitor. If these were decently and intelligently conducted by genuine mystics to whom the mass were no mere rite or miracle, but genuine communion, the celebrants might reasonably claim a place in the church as their share of the common right to its use. But the average Italian priest, personally unclean and with a chronic catarrh in his nose from living in frowsy, ill-ventilated rooms, punctuating his gabbled Latin only by expectorate hawking . . . this unseemly wretch should be seized and put out . . . until he learns to behave himself.

Whatever communion Shaw desires, it would have to include rite, miracle, and perhaps even the dirty priest, for it to happen at all. But for Shaw, such things are too messy and not “spiritual” enough. We should not suppose that he would enter in absent the dirty priest, either–something physical would always bar his way. It is much easier to comment online, or even to read books.

We in our day have the bigger and smaller problem of not even being able to enter into politics. The problem is smaller in that religion is more important than politics, but bigger in that we cannot hope to solve big questions if we cannot solve smaller ones. Too many on the right and left want nothing to do with mixing their ideas in the mess of politics. Some want a Caesar from above to wave a magic wand, some want the “innocent” people to rise up from below to abolish the Bill of Rights. Neither will achieve anything like an ordered communion, for neither wants to find the path to grace through creation. They do have their dreams. These dreams will have to content them, for they can know nothing of sorrow or joy.

Dave

*Perhaps this might explain in part Christ’s sometime reluctance to work miracles. Miracles, could, hypothetically, interrupt the U-shaped pattern and hinder us on our journey back to God.

**If we learn to see this pattern and interpret the Scriptures more analogically and less in a directly moral fashion, many things make themselves more clear. For example, we should honor the elderly not simply because of their wisdom–for some have none of it–but because they are closer to death, and thus also closer to glory. So too, this explains why the Church has always warned less against the “earthly,” “physical” sins of gluttony, too many women, etc., than the “spiritual” sins of pride. Many have gone down the path of fleshly indulgence and found the place where it turns upwards to God. But no path to God exists through pride. Of course, it is best still not to dabble in either.

**The literary, educated types–one always has to watch out for them . . .

Beauty in the Eyes of the Beholders

When a crazy theory comes around, some reject it out of hand, or desperately hope that it is not true. I understand this–I myself very much hope, for example that intelligent alien life does not exist–and theories that they do in fact exist are not wildly crazy. Their presence would destabilize our view of the cosmos and our place in it far too much. When it comes to history, some reject any different theory as inherently destabilizing. Some adopt the Bill Hader approach, and seem to only want to make others squirm. For me–new theories generally appeal because I find them fun. In a world where every traditional narrative now has a target on its back, even flat-earth theories have made a comeback. Alas, it seems quite certain that we inhabit a spherical world, but wouldn’t it be fun if it was indeed flat? What a hilarious and tremendous flip of the script that would be.*

In 1946, at the tail end of the crisis that in hindsight dramatically weakened western civilization, William Ivins wrote Art and Geometry: A Study in Space Intuitions. This admittedly boring title concealed a powerful punch in the form of a sustained attack on the veneration of Greek sculpture so prevalent in the west at that time, or at least prevalent until 1914. Ivins admits the foolish impossibility of judging some art as superior to other art, but then proceeds to do just that (this was the right call–obviously we have the faculty to judge such things–we do it all the time–but should do so carefully). Greek sculpture, in fact, had little real vitality, little real understanding of geometry and its relationship to the body. Here we have what seems like a crazy idea, and what’s more, Ivins enjoys himself, writing with confidence and panache.

As his book involves geometry along with sculpture, one of his main criticisms involves the Greek’s apparent lack of spatial relatedness, of their inability to put their figures in relation to other people or things. He writes:

I have happened on no evidence to show that any Greek ever sat down and drew a view, or a group of figures, or a congeries of objects, such as his tables and chairs, as they appeared relatively to each other in their shapes and sizes, and positions from a single point of view.

And,

The celebrated battle friezes from the temple at Bassae or Phigaleia . . . were removed and sold before any record was made of their respective positions. They were taken to London, where for 100 years intelligent men of all nations labored to discover the order in which they had been originally set up. . . . Then at last, a brilliant young American solved the problem . . . Reasoning that the slabs must have been held to the wall by dowels, he went to the still standing temple and compared the dowel holes in the slabs to that of the temple walls. He solved the problem, in the most literal sense of the word, without ever having to look at the faces of the sculptures themselves [which gave no clue to the solution].

Ivins also lays into the Greeks for their persistent abstraction and the resulting aloofness of nearly all their subjects.

The extremely small number of Greek portrait heads is significant. . . . They are what we call “idealized” or “ennobled” portraits, i.e., abstractions with only the faintest personal character and psychological value–really no more than “composite group photographs.”

Compare any Greek figure to the quietly seated Pythagoras of the Cathedral at Chartes. He is only making an erasure in his manuscript, but his personality and the intentness and tensions of his mind and body probably cannot be equaled in all of Greek sculpture. It is as perfect a demonstration of the nonsense of the Aristotelian definition of fine art as an be imagined.

To illustrate his point, first the Pythagoras from Chartes**

And Greek sculpture

He continues his argument by linking the limitations of Greek art to their geometric theory. Whatever the greatness of Euclid and his successors, they had significant limitations. Ivins writes,

Basically the Greeks thought about their geometry in terms of an unexpressed chalk line or yard stick which they held in their two hands. . . . The way Euclid proved his basic theorem (I.4) that two triangles, having two sides and the angle between them equal, are equal to each other–was by picking one triangle up and superimposing it upon the other. . . . Euclid’s geometry was based on the tactile-muscular intuitions . . . neither Euclid or his successors had any notion of infinity.

And,

The story of Peithon and Serenus, two geometers of the 4th century AD, affords a striking example of how the Greeks missed out. [It goes] as follows:

“In the propositions (29-33) from this point to the end of the book Serenus deals with what is really an optical problem. Peithon, not being satisfied with Euclid’s treatment of parallels, thought to define them by means of an illustration, observing that parallels are such lines as are shown on a wall or roof by the shadow of a pillar with light behind it. This definition was generally ridiculed; and his friend Serenus seeks to rehabilitate Peithon by showing his statement as mathematically sound. He proves with regard to the cylinder that if any number of rays outside the cylinder are drawn touching it on all sides, all the rays pass through the parallelogram–Prop. 29–and if they are produced farther to meet any other plane parallel to that of the parallelogram the point in which they meet will lie on two parallel lines. He adds that the lines will not seem parallel.

Ivins then charts the problems with not challenging assumptions, and so on, until the era of the Renaissance. The Renaissance obviously borrowed from the classical world and the classical ideal of beauty and proportion. But in Ivins’ judgment improvements in geometric theory beginning in the early 15th century greatly improved the art of the time. This book stretched my very weak mathematical knowledge throughout, especially so as geometric theory got more complex. For Ivins, the key leap came from the renowned Alberti:

It has been said that Alberti’s greatest discovery was that the picture plane was a section of the cone of vision, but really it was something in addition to that. Up to his time the problem had been thought of as a simple two-term beholder-object relation that was really insoluble. His great contribution, though doubtless he was not aware of it, was that in fact he discarded the simple two term relation and discovered other relations sufficient to permit a solution–in other words he discovered that form and position were functions of each other, and thus were relative and not absolute . . .

Alberti’s Linear Perspective Model

Advances in geometric theory set the stage for a dramatic shift in art, with several Renaissance painters making full use of perspective.

Ivins comments,

Looked at in retrospect it seems almost incredible that the Greeks should not have discovered these things, which today seem intuitive in their simplicity and obviousness. The probable reason for this failure is that they were so obsessed by measuring and working out the relations between measurments in each of the separate conics that they were never able to see the descriptive qualities that ran through a whole series of conics.

I confess that I could not understand much of what Ivins said related to geometry, but I found his applications of geometry to art clear, and made obvious by any number of examples.

Ivins continues in his conclusion,

There is much talk of how much we owe the ancient Greek ideas, but most of this talk seems to be based on some vestigial legend of a “Golden Age,” which in this case extended for several hundred years, in a definite historical time with its origin in a definite historical place [i.e. Athens]. In general people who talk this way show little acquaintance to what we owe other peoples, and to what we owe ourselves.

Indeed the end of W.W. II ended in many respects the dream of a unified and confident western culture. Ivins’ reevaluation of the greek inheritance in geometry presaged an entire rethinking of western civilization itself. Seventy-odd years after Ivins, the west has yet to fully deal with its identity crisis.

I admire Ivins for his pluck, and I agree that there is something “off” about Greek art. Their sculptures invariably do reveal a problematic detachment, and possibly, even a kind of brutality in their subjects. But a common theme running through many of a scientific bent is that pauses in scientific knowledge, or moments when the world seems “stuck” in a particular mode of thinking, can invariably get reduced to some cruel twist of fate, or some power structure holding things back, or some basic lack of imagination due to a historical accident, or some other such “linear” explanation solved by restarting the stuck timeline.

In this area I depart with Ivins. If an idea persists, I say we should look for the reason for its persistence. We should assume that people are smart, and not hoodwinked or trapped for centuries on end.^ Judging the superiority of one kind of art over another quickly gets problematic. Still, I believe that the persistence of certain styles/ideas is evidence not of some trick of fate or conspiracy, but instead points to the idea having legs–it must have a point of connection with reality that people intuitively recognize.

Whatever we might think of the classical style, it dominated the ancient Mediterranean world for 800 years, give or take. I agree with Ivins that its revival ca. 1700-1900 AD was problematic and unfortunate in certain ways. But still–we should not attribute the dominance of this style merely to the power of the Greeks and Romans, and its revival merely to the power of England and France. They, and those around them, must have found something intuitively “right” about the classical approach.

In certain ways the Renaissance artists had more skill and worked with more developed geometric ideas. We can commend them for this. But . . . the Renaissance artistic style lasted perhaps 100 years at most, and failed to spread much beyond southern Europe. If we use the criteria of “long-term reception by ‘the people'” then we have to conclude that using advanced ideas of perspective did not make for “better” art. Ivins may overrate the place of perspective in important cultural creations.

There exists another example of an artistic style that consciously abandons certain principles of perspective that has lasted longer than the classical model–around 1500+ years–and still continues today, that being . . . Christian iconography.

We cannot attribute the persistence of this style to power (sometimes the Church had “power” and sometimes not), nor the limitations of geometric knowledge (the style began before Alberti and others revolutionized geometry, but continued long after). Though different cultures developed their own iconographic style, and though certain changes have taken place within iconography over time, no one has ever fully integrated perspective into icons. At times icons seem to deliberately reject perspective.

I am no student of iconography and will say little about the theology behind these choices, except that the power of art may reside in its ability not to accurately reflect the world as we see it, but to show us the spiritual tension we feel between we what we see, and what we “know.” We feel, not in our gut, but in our bones, that we live between two worlds, between the physical and the spiritual, between heaven and earth. Nearly all of human history testifies to our desire to somehow unite these two elements of our knowledge and experience. History shows us that most of the time we fail badly in our attempts.

Icons reveal part of the reason why we misfire so often. Our nearly exclusive focus on how people and objects relate to one another in space has made us look only at linear explanations for reality that cannot satisfy. Certainly advances in geometric knowledge did not cause this problem, but our exclusive focus on this aspect of reality (the linear/spatial) has brought about a new view of reality. Our perception is warped. We also need a way to see how we relate to each other in time, as well as space, and this, icons seek to display.

I love Ivins’ panache and willingness to go a little crazy. But maybe the truth doesn’t always extend forward, maybe sometimes it bends back around in a circle.

Dave

*Yes, some crazy ideas are really crazy . . . but perhaps there is a part of you that would want to have a conversation with this guy . . . ?

**His choice of Pythagoras to make his point is interesting–obviously this sculpture would have been regarded as a minor part of the whole edifice–and yet still something definite of his personality shines through.

^Though Ivins rightly points out the west’s immoderate attachment to the Greeks (something not really present, btw, during the Middle Ages), especially in the Victorian era, he failed to reckon what might happen when we gave up the idea of any kind of cultural center at all.

Seeing what you Mean

This was originally written in 2018 . . . .

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

It seems that we occupy a strange place in our national life.  We have more political divisions even though we have much less actual discretionary spending in the federal budget than in the past.  President’s Trump and Obama function/ed largely as symbols for their supporters and detractors.  Many do not care much to look at their particular actions, rather, an action becomes bad or good because of who did it.  We have a hard time seeing past the ad hominem.

But this should not surprise us.  Perhaps it is our very lack of flexibility in the budget that heightens the symbolic role of the president.  I suspect also that especially since the end of the Cold War, and probably since Vietnam, America has searched for a new identity, and forming an identity requires strong symbols.  And, while I think that we would struggle in our political life currently in any case because of this, as (bad) luck would have it, our last two presidents have been near opposites in terms of their personalities and style.  Some argue that Obama was the far more “rational” president, but even if that were true, Obama’s supporters had a strong emotional, gut-level attachment to him, akin to Trump’s current supporters.  In any case, we will miss what is really happening if we focus only on the policies, or the outward appearance of things (though to be sure, we could use some dispassionate focus on what presidents are actually doing in addition to their symbolic perception).

What is a president, exactly?

Childish interpretations of kingship in earlier eras tend to argue along the lines of, “Kings dressed up in all their finery because they were greedy, cruel, and didn’t care about the people.”  Much better interpretations see monarchs as an extension of the people themselves in some way.  The people would not want them to dress in a dowdy fashion, for that would reflect poorly on them too.  So, for example, many Frenchman took great pride in the fact that Louis XIV could eat 2-3x more than a normal man with no apparent ill effects.  But I have struggled with even some of these more sympathetic approaches.  I still feel that they leave something out.

Alice Hunt’s The Drama of Coronation brings out many nuances and subtleties of English coronation rites.  She demonstrates a great ability to let the texts breathe and speak for themselves.  Her analysis strikes me as fair and careful, and her comments attempt to illumine what for 21st-century moderns is a great mystery.  She traces the coronations of five English monarchs in attempt to answer the question:

What is a king (or queen), exactly?

We will miss the mark widely if we think only in terms of having an executive function in government.  One problem that faces historians with this question is that we have very few records of medieval coronation rites.  This in itself gives us a clue that coronation ceremonies had a primarily religious function.  In the older Byzantine rite, we see that the public, and even catechumens, had to leave the service during the canon of the mass.  In the western rite of St. Gregory the Great, the confession of sin has communicants proclaim, “I will not speak of thy mysteries to thine enemies.”  Hunt suggests that at least beginning with Pepin the Short, coronations took place in a sacramental and liturgical sphere, which would have meant “private” in at least some ways.

But we have many records or eyewitnesses of England’s 16th-century coronations.  The crowning of Henry VIII would not have been unusual, but each subsequent coronation had its own unique elements that perhaps called for a more public justification, aside from the turbulent historical circumstances:

  • Anne Boleyn was crowned.  The fact that a new queen would be publicly crowned while the king still reigned was entirely novel.
  • The coronations of Mary and Elizabeth as “queens regnant” had not happened before
  • Edward VI coronation involved that of a boy king amidst stark religious changes

As mentioned, Hunt handles the sources marvelously.  My only quibble is one that I have with many (it seems) English historians, which involves their failure to raise their eyes above the various perspectives and declare something definite.  I am all for intellectual humility, but sometimes it takes more humility to take a risk of being wrong than to say nothing at all.

The first issue Hunt tackles involves historians who try and argue for something along the lines of “exploitation of ceremonies” to achieve power.  She cites some historians of the Wars of the Roses that accuse the Yorkist faction of attempting just this to achieve power.  Hunt dismisses this perspective quickly.  Along with David Kertzer and others, she argues that ceremonies don’t exploit as much as they create legitimate rule.  This may sound silly to some modern ears if they think only of ancient robes and mitres.  But if we imagine a disputed presidential election in the U.S., and one candidate had the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administer the oath of office, we would not say that he “exploited ceremony.”  Rather, the ceremony–at least in part–made him president.  He could not be president without the ceremony, nor would we say the ceremony meant nothing more than empty ritual.

Henry VIII gives us a good place to begin as the last great coronation before the Reformation.  Here we reside in the realm, so we imagine, of absolute divine right before the advent of more popular Reformation polities.  But just as the Roman emperors opposed themselves to the aristocratic senate and ruled in the name of the people, so too did Henry and other European kings.  Kingship had an element of “popularity” about it, in the strict sense of the Latin meaning of “populares.”  Hunt quotes from the Liber Regalis:

Here followers a device for the manner and order of Coronation of the most excellent and Christian prince Henry VIII, rightful and undoubted inheritor of the Crown of England and of France with all appurtenances, which is only by the whole assed and consent of every of the three estates of his realm.

Henry’s legitimacy is real, rooted not just in Heaven but on Earth.  Thus, the “physicality” of his rule has a reflection in his person, and required the physical objects of rulers past, especially the chalice of St. Edward, among other things.  These various objects had a hierarchy of value, and who carried them and where people processed gave rather than reflected status.  Contra the modern assumption of the homogenization of space and time, the king stood somewhere between heaven and earth.  Heaven of course was not earth, but the two met in various times and places in the medieval view.  Church buildings themselves were a touchstone, and the designs of the buildings manifested this.*  Clergy were consecrated, set apart, so they could receive the ultimate intersection between heaven and earth–the holy eucharist.  The City of God was not the City of Man, but they sought to model earthly order on heavenly order, or reality itself.  Thus, officiating clergy elevated the king at a certain point in the coronation, just as they would elevate the bread and wine.  The ceremony made the connection of “consecration” immediately obvious to all.

Many assume that Henry’s Reformation might make such “catholic” ceremonies obsolete, but in fact Henry seems to have gone “all out” in Anne’s coronation ceremony.  To start, he held a separate coronation service for her, which may have had no precedent.  Second, the ceremony took place on Whitsunday (Pentecost), the second most holy day in the church calendar.  Third, Henry absented himself from being seen directly during the ceremony itself, which gave him more “god-like” status, the unseen yet present “earthly god” bidding Anne receive the crown.  Finally, Henry wanted for Anne to wear Katherine’s crown during the ceremony. Yet here even Henry met a roadblock he could not overcome, as the man in charge of the crown would not give it up.  The ambassador of Venice relates,

Accordingly, the king wrathfully sent to the one who has charge  of the queen’s [i.e. Katherine] crown, Master Sadocho by name, a great man in that island, requiring the crown for the coronation.  Master Sadocho replied he could not give it up because of the oath he had taken to the said queen, that he would guard that crown faithfully. The king then went to see him and expressed his desire.  At this, Master Sadocho, who is a man of ripe age, took off his cap and flung it to the ground without saying a word.  When the king saw this he asked what moved him to do such a thing as this, to which Master Sadocho replied that rather than give him the crown he would suffer his head to lie where his cap did.  . . . As he is a  great personage who also has a son also of great worth and numerous followers, the king took no further steps, but had another crown made for the coronation of the new queen, who has been pregnant for five months.

Obviously, symbols had real meaning for those outside of the king and clergy.

In all these things Henry to me seems to overreach, realizing the precarious nature of his enterprise.  He had founded a new church, divorced/annulled his marriage with Katherine, and married someone already pregnant.  He gave Anne all the symbolism he could.  Prayers said during the coronation directly assumed that the child Anne carried was a boy.  Alas for Anne, perhaps the connection between symbolism and reality could only go so far.

The real shift took place with Edward VI.  Here we had a combination of 1) No Henry to go all out to get his way, 2) More evangelical reformers in charge in the Church of England, 3) A boy king who had no real say in what went on.  The crucial distinction came when Bishop Cranmer stated that, “the oil [for consecration], if added, is but a ceremony,” and not strictly necessary.  Nothing really happens at the coronation that could not happen elsewhere.  Heredity, the system, and his oath made Edward king, and nothing more.  Certainly the ceremony had to have the Church presiding–or so it seemed obvious at the time–but the Church no longer had to “do” anything important.

One might argue that this shifted politics wholly into the realm of the secular, and so made kingship defendant on the right exercise of power.  This made kings potentially just as politically vulnerable as any president, but in a more precarious position, as Charles I and Louis XVI discovered.

As a culture, we clearly crave symbolic archetypes more than in the past.  We see this in the consistent popularity of super-hero movies, and the somewhat polarizing popularity of Jordan Peterson.  We see it in recent political commentary, as a handful of mostly normal people believed that Obama was the anti-Christ in 2008, or that Bush and Trump were/are Nazis. We see it in our woeful neglect of Congress–perhaps there are just too many of them to affix any meaningful archetypes.  It may be that we are forced into this symbolic realm by the incomprehensibility of our laws. However we got here, this unsettling political moment gives our culture some interesting opportunities to understand our symbols and to recover an older view of reality.

Today we tend to assume that if something is a symbol it is not really real, but only a signifier for the real.  Hence, we know what a male sign for the bathroom means, even though of course no one in the bathroom looks like the symbol.  Symbol and reality live in different worlds, in different planes of meaning.  But the older meaning of “symbol” meant the bringing together of reality to create “real” meaning.  St. Maximos the Confessor writes,

…for he who starting from the spiritual world sees appear the visible world or else who sees appear symbolically the contour of spiritual things freeing themselves from visible things… that one does not consider anything of what is visible as impure, because he does not find any irreconcilable contradiction with the ideas of things.

To quote Jonathan Pageau, “a symbol is a meeting place of two worlds, the meeting of the will of God with His creation.”  Pageau goes on to say that the most real things are that way because precisely because they are symbols.  Reality “really happens” when heaven and earth unite, when they “symbol together.”^

I can’t say for sure if this older view of reality will help us understand exactly what a president is, but I think it will help.  The more self-aware we can be of what we are doing, the more hope we have.   Then, maybe we can go back to the lemonade on the porch days of debating the finer points of Social Security reform.

Dave

*Pageau talks mostly of church designs in the eastern Roman empire, though his point applies in the west, though with different applications.

**I am indebted to Pageau’s article here: https://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/the-recovery-of-symbolism/

^This is exactly what St. Luke tells us the Virgin Mary did in Lk. 2:19 when she “gathered” or (as the Greek states) “symballoussa” all of what had happened to her.

Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France

Like many of you I have spent some time wondering where we are as a civilization and how we got here.

It might seem like a book about French historians of the 16th century might have very little to do with this question.  But bear with me!–George Huppert’s book The Idea of Perfect History: Historical Erudition and Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France might indeed have something to do with where we find ourselves.

Though perhaps getting there via this informative but slightly dry tome may require more patience from readers than usual!

Huppert makes that point that the writing of history changed dramatically during the period he examines, but to understand this we need to briefly glimpse the history of “History,” for the study of history as we know it came into being comparatively recently.

In the ancient world various kings had their escapades recorded for posterity.  A text of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III, for example, has him slaying 1000 lions with a single arrow and other such things.  We can wonder, did Thutmose expect others to believe him?  Did he believe it himself?  More likely, he had no wish to record exactly what happened but inhabited another way of thinking and another form of writing.  Herodotus records a combination of personal observations, investigations, and poetic constructions.  He saw no need to differentiate.  Apparently, he didn’t think it mattered.  He saw no need to concern himself exclusively with what “actually happened.”  Even Thucydides–who had a much more scientific bent and witnessed many of the events he records–surely invents certain speeches to craft an artful narrative.

The medieval period formed the immediate context for many of Huppert’s subjects.  Many wrote first-hand accounts of kings or crusades during this period.  What they knew and saw they described.  But when going beyond this, they no problem filling in gaps with some educated guesswork, and like the ancients, saw no need to be clear about the difference.  Others went further.  In his History of the Kings of Britain Geoffrey of Monmouth includes a lengthy section on King Arthur.  Here Geoffrey is on at least semi-historical footing.  King Arthur, or someone like him, may have existed.  But Geoffrey includes a section detailing Arthur’s denunciation by the senate of Rome, and his combat against a rag-tag army which included “Kings from the Orient,” which certainly never happened.  Moreover, Geoffrey and his readers must have known this never happened.

We also see in many medieval histories the desire to connect one’s own particular history with a grander narrative.  One can do this with myth directly, but others did this “mythically.”  Vergil has the origins of Rome come from Troy, and Geoffrey has the English, in turn, come from Rome/Troy.  French historians have the Franks come from Troy as well.*  Again, the desire to connect poetically/narratively with the grand story of civilization trumps that of what “actually happened.”  They did this quite self-consciously.

Nicole Gilles’ Annals of France (ca. 1525) gives us a late example of this.  He begins with Creation itself and then recounts some aspects of Biblical history.  He moves quickly to the history of France’s kings, but here he includes many legends and miracles.  The giants he describes, as well as the kings, have an ancestry. It just so happens in the Annals that the Franks were founded by a man named Francio, . . . also from Troy. Even the giant Feragut, slain by Roland, descends from Goliath.  Perhaps Roland and Francio did not exist, but certainly Charlemagne did.  But he has Charlemagne do things that few would really think actually happened, such as undertake a crusade to Jerusalem.  His book was a wild success, which surely frustrated many of the France’s emerging humanist scholars.  Those scholars might have taken solace had they known that the Annals were the last of its kind.

We see the shift evidenced by the comments of two humanist scholars in the mid 16th century.  Claude Fauchet wrote that medieval historians had, “failed in the chief responsibility of the historian, that is, to tell the truth.” And Lancelot Popeliniere declared that “no man of honor ever practiced [history in France], since the profession had always been in the hands of clerics,” whose limitations and biases prevented them from giving an objective appraisal of events.

These statements contain within them a revolution of thought, but they both beg questions: What does it mean for a historian to tell the truth?  And who is objective?

Their passion for “what really happened” involved the following:

  • Making history a science that concerned itself with the affairs of men, not so much the intervention of God, which cannot be measured or predicted.
  • Broadening the scope of history beyond national or religious concerns, and focusing on the history of all, and
  • Getting the best texts, and staying faithful to the best texts, would get us to the truth.  Truth comes from texts, not so much from tradition.

The astute observer no doubt notices a strong correlation between this last goal and the emerging Protestant Reformation.  Indeed, some of this new breed of historians had much sympathy with the French Protestants, and we can say more on this later.  But regardless of religious affiliation, all three goals also added up to a rejection of the idea that history involved a kind of devolution, a falling away from grace.  Rather, for these French humanists, just as we could improve the study of history and cleanse from the muck of the errors of the past, so too could our whole society move forward and progress.**

Huppert details the writing of several French historians of the 16th century who followed these axioms.  The details here ran a bit dry for me, but the overall effect was the same.  When one combines the work of these scholars in the 16th century with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, the work of history changed dramatically, and we should evaluate the fallout for good or ill.

The passion for precision and the value of the text have done a great deal to improve history in a variety of ways that seem axiomatic to mention.  We have more access to more information, we have more texts in translation, and almost certainly, a better idea for “what really happened,” than previously.  The late Renaissance humanists foreshadowed the Enlightenment, which gave us a variety of other secondary blessings, especially related to advancements in science that comes with breaking things down into component parts.

But we have lost a great deal in the exchange, and the exchange may not have worth it.

First, I stress that while we have a “better idea” for what really happened in the past, we still don’t really know.  We still have to guess and be comfortable with guessing.  Having more texts will not solve the problem of interpreting the texts.  But all this says is that the French humanists had a bit too much optimism, hardly a dreadful fault.  But this optimism has had certain consequences.

Their methods assert that we can get outside traditions and into a place of pure perspective and rationality.  We know that we cannot do this.  Their reliance on texts exacerbates this.  A text, divorced from tradition, can have an almost infinite amount of interpretations.  Note how the reliance on “sola Scriptura” has doomed Protestants into constant splintering and thousands of factions, each claiming to base their ideas on the “text” of the Bible.  In the end, different traditions of interpretation do in fact form, with Reformed Study Bibles, Scofield Reference Bibles, and so on.

We must also deal with Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nicole Gilles and ask if they write history. We may say that the discipline of History involves many things, but we must first ask what it involves primarily.  Is it primarily an art or science?  If we had to choose would we rather have eyewitness testimonies to tell us what happened in Guernica, or Picasso’s painting?

If we side with Picasso we will begin to understand medieval historians.

For History to have any real significance, it must have meaning.  Meaning requires interpretation, and interpretation requires poetry, something beyond mere facts.  We might surmise that in having Arthur deal with Rome, Geoffrey sought to display his view of Arthur as the inheritor of the mantle of Christendom after the fall of Rome–the literary equivalent to an interpretative painting of him, or perhaps an “icon” of Arthur (a great example of how truth can be communicated in image can be found here). The same could be said of Gilles’ “depiction” of Charlemagne.

We do not critique paintings by saying things such as, “He didn’t look exactly like that, so that’s not painting.”  But humanistic rationalism treated the text as having more truth than the image.  This is why they treated medieval historians unfairly.  They failed to see how truth claims could be communicated in the text artistically (and entertainingly as well, as anyone who has read Geoffrey of Monmouth can attest).^  I have no problem calling Geoffrey and Gilles historians, albeit historians of a different type.  They told the “truth,” (if their interpretations were accurate), but in a different way.  They had their biases, but so do you and I.

One can point to many reasons why we experience our current political situation.  Some of them do indeed have a connection to the historians of Renaissance France.  The founders (not the early colonists) drank deeply from the same Enlightenment-oriented spirit of our aforementioned historians.  They too focused heavily on texts, and indeed, we base our life together not on shared traditions, but the texts of the Declaration and Constitution, and this has certain consequences.

The postmoderns rightly tell us that texts can have an almost uncountable number of interpretations.  The search for the “absolute” interpretation of the text will get us nowhere.  So, both those who drive pickups with big American flags, and those who drink latte’s and protest the national anthem can claim to live out what it means to be an American (i.e., “protest is the most American thing one can do,” and so on).  On the one hand, Trump takes an ax to many traditions of how a president should act.  But on the other hand, he “connects with the common man,” and isn’t America all about the common man and freedom from tradition?

Hence, we see our dilemma.

But postmoderns fail us because not every interpretation has the same validity.  We have to have a way of distinguishing and separating the good from the bad.  With only texts and no traditions at our disposal, however, we will have a hard time reigning in the various interpretations.  Other ways of seeing and apprehending the “truths” of history can provide checks, balances, and possibly, a return to sanity.  In his introduction to Fr. Maximos Constas’ The Art of Seeing Bishop Maxim asks

For example, if you have a photograph of Christ and an icon painting of Christ, which is more truthful?  Certainly, if you have a naturalistic approach, you would say, “the photograph.”  But if you say [the icon] you point to unconventional and eschatological truth.  . . . .Therefore, there is truth in art that does not correspond to the mind of reality.

Dave

*I find it interesting that everyone wanted to come from Troy and not Greece.  Troy lost.  Many say that the Europeans wanted to come from Troy to connect themselves with Rome.  I can’t deny this might have something to do with it, but I think it goes beyond that.  Hector, for example, became a Christian name, while Odysseus and Achilles did not.  I’m sure there is more here to explore.

**The idea that history means speaking of such devolution is hardly the property of medievals alone.  Most every ancient society had myths of golden ages in the past we should attempt to emulate, whether these ages be mythical, quasi-mythical, or presented as historical (as perhaps Livy does in his work).  What looks benign to us in the French scholars really represented a radical shift from the past.

I consider the idea of devolution in history here.

^I think this attitude towards texts and the reduction of the idea of truth to “what actually happened” contributed greatly to the Galileo controversy and the subsequent tension between science and religion. In my limited reading of the situation, no such tension existed before this time.

 

 

The Marriage of Handwriting and Architecture

It did not take me long to get miffed by Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve.  Almost right away  he commits two cardinal sins in my book when discussing the Medieval period.
  • He brings up all the worst aspects of the Medieval period without any of its virtues, and
  • He asserts that the discovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is one of the main causes for the “swerve” from the Medieval to the Modern world.  He does not assert this absolutely, but hedging all on one manuscript still seemed too reductionistic to me.

But Greenblat’s charm and narrative style kept me going.  In the end, I didn’t read the whole thing and skimmed some sections, but one thing in particular struck me forcefully — how handwriting can be a reflection of the personality of a society.

‘Gothic’ script dominated the ‘Gothic’ era, and it can be contrasted with the Carolingian script revived by many Renaissance scribes:

Petrarch complained that Gothic script, “had been designed for something other than reading,” and he was not whining, but speaking the truth.

Gothic Script

The height and cramped fashion of letters makes it difficult to read, and may subconsciously have been designed to be “seen and not heard.”  When we remember that very few could read, and that books were meant to educate visually just as much as textually, the Gothic “font” makes more sense.

Gothic Manuscript

Here are examples of the Carolingian script fashionable during the Renaissance:

Perhaps pro-Renaissance scholars do not exaggerate the real shift that took place as far as education is concerned.  Perhaps this shift in handwriting style helped pave the way for the printing press itself.

If the “font’s” a society uses reflect something of its larger worldview, we would expect to see this expressed in other aspects of their culture.  Gothic architecture mirrors gothic script in uncanny script in uncanny ways, with the “bunched up” nature of its space.

Flying Buttresses

True, the high ceilings of these cathedrals did give a sense of space, but it was space that meant to overpower you, a weight and bulk of a different kind.  The stained glass windows again reveal the same thing as the buttresses — the “cramming” full of space with color.

In the Renaissance we see something else entirely, a more “human” scale in architecture, and a greater sense of space.

The Pazzi Chapel

Michelangelo, the Medici Chapel

So apparently, handwriting can be an expression of a culture’s personality just as architecture can, which should not have surprised me.

When I realized that the Renaissance basically just revived Carolingian script, this gave new significance to the Carolingian Renaissance itself under Charlemagne six centuries earlier.  Those that invented the style and not merely copied it should get greater credit.  Some scholars dismiss the “Carolingian Renaissance,” as small potatoes, but the script they used showed an interest in reading, which sheds new light on the work of Nottker and Einhard.  So, what about architecture under Charlemagne — will it show that same sense of space?  Naturally we must consider Aachen Cathedral, the central building of Charlemagne’s realm:

Aachen Cathedral, Exterior

Aachener_dom_oktagon

Well, it appears that we have a mixed verdict.  It is part Gothic, part Byzantine, and part something all its own.  Will I allow this to overthrow my theory of seeing links between handwriting and architecture? Perish the thought!  I can always say that Charlemagne’s time had so much going on that they had no time to be particularly self-aware of these choices, in contrast to both the Gothic and Renaissance periods.

Does America’s utter lack of defining architectural identity have anything to do with our confusion about teaching handwriting?

Blessings,

Dave

9th/10th Grade: Maps as Worldview

Greetings,

This week we spent time with two maps, each respective of their time, each revealing much about the societies that created it.

First, the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Map of the World), from the late 13th century :

We noted that, among other things

  • The map has very little water
  • The map is filled with animals, real or fanciful
  • Jerusalem is at the map’s center
  • The map has no actual geographical accuracy to speak of, almost on purpose

Basically the Hereford Mappa Mundi does not attempt to a map in any modern sense of the world.  It tells you nothing about physical geography.  But it does mean to orient one spiritually.  Christ sits enthroned above, the word “MORS” (Latin for death) forms a ring around the sphere, reminding us that death encompasses the globe.  Jerusalem stands at the center to remind us of the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Did they know nothing of physical geography.  Well, they may not have known much, but they knew more than this map indicates.  I think they just did not particularly care about it, it had no real importance in their society, and other Mappa Mundi’s of the era reflect the same values.

About 150 years later, we see this map:

Obviously many differences exist between the two.

  • The geography approaches reasonably accuracy
  • If you look closely you might see that upon the water there are many ships, obviously reflecting the explosion of exploration.
  • The spiritual symbolism is nowhere to be seen

The map is intended to represent physical reality, to perhaps guide one (at least marginally) while physically traveling.

Of course the map could have had spiritual symbolism if it wanted to.  But it had other purposes and goals in mind, and reflected the different values of the period, and this brings us to one of the crucial differences between the feudal period and the Renaissance.

For the Medievals, what counted most was not the actual, physical person/place/thing as it existed in reality, but the meaning behind the physical, or the symbolism inherent in the object.  So when they want to make a map of the world they did not really make a map of the world, but a spiritual map, a gospel tract.  When Dante uses Beatrice in his Divine Comedy, his treatment of her is not as a particular historical person, but as a type of how the feminine can lead one to salvation.

During the Renaissance we begin to see a shift in the other direction.  The physical world in itself has value, and is worth investigating and depicting.  I think both perspectives have value, and neither one has much value apart from the other.  Neither a peanut-butter sandwich, or a jelly sandwich, satisfies, but combined it works beautifully.  The Renaissance began by offering a helpful balance or corrective to some weak spots of the medieval order.  Whether it finishes there or not, we shall see.

If you have interest, last week we watched a brief portion of a video on the development of perspective in art which I include below.   Medieval art did not use perspective, partly because they did not know of the technique.  But I think that part of the reason why they did not discover perspective is that they never looked to develop an artistic technique that would allow them to represent the physical world accurately.  The reasons why for this are complicated.  If you want an atypical medieval ‘apologetic’ for their style contra the ‘modern’ ideas of the Renaissance, you can check out this article.

Have a great weekend!

Blessings,

Dave

9th/10th Grade: The Social Revolution of the Longbow

Greetings,

This week we looked at the beginning of the 100 Years War (1337-1453), and especially the Battle of Crecy in 1346. The battle, though a major victory for England, did not prove decisive in the long run.  However, it is perhaps the most famous battle of the war because it foreshadowed the beginning of the end of chivalry, and with it, the feudal system as a whole.

As we noted a few weeks ago, the Church in particular, and the feudal system in general, tried to limit the possibility of conflict.  So, only a certain group of people should fight, and then, fight in a certain way with certain weapons.  Riding on horseback with lance and sword required a great deal of training, which in itself restricted who could possibly fight.

This is part of the reason why the Church tried to prevent the widespread use of the crossbow.  The simplicity of the design meant that anyone could use this weapon, a kind of medieval version of point and click.  And, at close enough range, a powerful crossbow could pierce a knight’s armor.  Some suggest that the Church sought only to protect the privileges of the nobility in their attempt to ban the crossbow, but I believe it’s more than that.  The crossbow posed a threat to limited warfare, restricted to a narrow class.  With a crossbow almost anyone could join the fight.

The English had a tradition of using the longbow.  Though simpler in design, longbows had much more power than crossbows, and could be fired more quickly.

Another difference between them, however, is that longbows require much more developed skill than a crossbow.  Like riding and swordsmanship, it required time and practice to attain proficiency.  Hence, longbowmen, though peasants, became a kind of privileged nobility.

At Crecy the English had longbows, but the French did not, and this proved decisive in the battle.  Muddy ground, combined with French disorganization gave the English bowmen plenty of shots at the French forces.  The French suffered untold thousands of casualties and had to flee the field.  We might be tempted to chalk this up to the ‘fortunes of war, but if we peel back layers, we see that it was no coincidence that the English had longbows and the French did not.  Armies that take the field are a byproduct of specific political cultures, and the battle at Crecy was no exception to this.

Longbows posed an even greater threat to the knightly nobility than crossbows, and the longbow could be expected to meet with the resistance of the nobility.  It would take a strong central government to allow for the longbows development.  The king would need a great deal of authority over local nobility to make this happen.

Since the Norman conquest, England had in fact this tradition of strong kingship, starting with William the Conqueror himself, but also Henry II, Edward I, and Edward III, who many believe started the 100 Years War.  These kings created special laws to further ensure the longbow’s use, including

  • Protecting forests with yew trees
  • Giving peasants with longbows time off from certain feudal duties to practice their skill
  • Giving longbow hunters the right to hunt in some normally protected forests
  • Finally, those who accidentally killed or injured others with the longbow were exempt from legal punishments.

Clearly, the longbow was not just a technological innovation, it was an innovation of a particular political environment.  To raise the longbow to the status of the sword meant elevating the status of peasants, or at least some peasants.  The longbow was not just a weapon, it foreshadowed a social revolution.

The Church found out that stemming innovation is a fruitless endeavor, but they correctly judged the consequences of the introduction of these weapons.  The feudal system could approach fairness if each group in society served legitimate needs of other groups.  The nobility had certain privileges, but also difficult military duties that endangered their lives, took them away from home frequently, and so on.  But if the peasants did not really need them for protection anymore, what was the reason for the existence of the nobility and their privileges?

Next week we will look at how Crecy may have spurred on peasant revolts in France, and the devastation of the Black Plague.

Thanks so much,

Dave

“Social Theories of the Middle Ages”

There is the idea touted by some that “a thing can be known only by its opposite.” Perhaps this idea has more cache in today’s parlance due to the rise of eastern philosophies in the west. However attractive the idea sounds on the most important questions it doesn’t hold up.  The Devil does indeed need God, but God has no need of the Devil.  Adam and Eve had every chance of knowing God perfectly before the presence of sin — of course sin prevents us from knowing God as we ought.

Still, on lesser questions the aphorism has its usefulness, including in History.  We rarely can see the nose on our face, and so it’s hard to understand one’s own society just by looking at one’s own society.  Instead we need perspective, and history can provide this.  Of course we should not look at history merely as a vehicle for understanding our own time.  Rather we can say that good history both opens up new worlds to us and sheds light on our own.  Such is the accomplishment of Bede Jarrett’s Social Theories of the Middle Ages.  His chosen title fails to inspire, and at times his writing follows his title and gets bogged down and technical.  But all in all Jarrett succeeds in his stated aim of fairly portraying a world strangely familiar to us and yet not so familiar.

Jarrett divides his examination by category, and so we have chapters on Law, Education, Women, and son on.  Right away in his first chapter on “Law” we see differences between us and them. Before thinking about particular laws the medievals thought in terms of their proper “ends” or to use the Greek term, the “telos” of a particular law.  No law made sense unless put in a larger theological context.  In order to know this context we need to know not just our ends as human beings in general, but also our origins.  So any medieval theory of law must first start by talking about creation, natural law, sin, and so on.  Then they move on to questions about salvation, and the role of law as an aid to that process.  Having done this, now we can move on to actual laws.  So while the medievals often focused on the big picture, they had a rigid categorical exactness about their thinking.

This had two seemingly different kinds of consequences.  One is that specific laws might matter much less than the theory behind the laws, and so law itself disappears in the shuffle.  We see this in one medieval Welsh code of “law” where a woman could be remitted for a particular offense if she paid a fine of “a penny as wide as her behind.”  In other words, we need not worry about law at all.  On the other hand, medieval thinkers consistently mentioned that law “must adhere to the bones of the people” — it had to fit a time and context (again we see the medieval exactitude at work) to have real validity.

I said these attitudes presented only a seeming difference.  What held them together, I think, is that for them laws had validity only because of our temporal earthly existence.  When “History” serves its purpose we shall have no need of law at all.  To understand the place of law one must first understand the temporary nature of the state itself.  One then, can play with law, either to fit a particular occasion, or in the case of the Welsh, for our particular amusement.  It is this sense of distance from law the medievals had that differentiates our society and theirs.  Anyone who has been ticketed in a “Mandatory Headlight Use Area” though the sun shines brightly, or been caught in a speed trap on a road with a speed limit well below the road’s design, has felt the absolute nature of law in the modern west.  We treat the law thusly because we do not do as the medievals did — we have no “higher end ” in view, only the power of the consent of governed at our disposal.

But I should not give the impression that Jarrett romanticizes the Middle Ages, though I think he certainly is fond of them.  He wades into the controversy surrounding how to translate the Latin word “servus,” and has no qualms about rendering it as a “slave.”  He denies that slavery disappeared during the middle ages (though it did decrease significantly from Roman times) because a certain class of people had no legal freedoms.  In this he departs from the fiery Regine Pernoud, who called it the height of ignominious irresponsibility to render “servus,” as “slave.”*  The strict categorical methodology they used spilled over into their society at large at times to an unhealthy degree.

The modern perspective on such a social arrangement might incline towards tolerance — some might excuse it as a necessary stage to better things down the road (much as some might excuse the condition of the urban lower-class at the beginning of the industrial era).  They might be less willing to excuse the medieval view of women, at least at first glance.  Here Jarrett urges caution, for most often those that wrote were monks, because they had the best educations.  And monastic writing about women would have its own particular concerns apart from the larger community.  One gets a more robust picture of medieval women in the Canterbury Tales, for example.  Jarrett points out that,

  • Women who entered convents could receive a very similar kind of education as men.  That the education of men and women would be equal in any sense might have been a historical first.
  • “Their intelligence is more keen and more quick than that of a man.”  So said Franco Sanchetti, with general agreement from others.
  • Women had some opportunity to make a vital contribution to Christian culture at large, witness Christiana de Pisan.
  • Women had an honored place as nuturers and civilizers of men.
  • No era that gave such veneration to the Blessed Virgin Mary could be said to truly denigrate women.

But Jarrett also points out that women often got blamed for the Fall of mankind in general.  And many saw women as quicker to do evil than men — Sanchetti, quoted above, admired feminine intelligence but thought they used this intelligence to work more evil than men.

As Jarrett often does, he turns to Aquinas to help provide balance between these two seeming poles.  “The image of God in man in its principal signification — namely, the intellectual nature — is found both in man and in woman . . . .  But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman, as God is the beginning and end of all things.  So when the Apostle had said that man is the image and glory of God but woman is the glory of man (I Cor. 11:7), he adds this reason, ‘for man is not of woman, but woman of man; and man was not created for women, but women for men.'”  Again in Aquinas, as we see so often, the “telos” of things guided their thinking.

We moderns cringe at this, but the best medievals would not have seen secondary status (if we wish to call it that) as denigrating.  We tend to measure worth in accomplishments or opportunities to live as we wish.  The medievals found glory in living out one’s assigned role in the grand cosmic dance that led to salvation.  So St. Francis (a man who understood chivalry perfectly) in his glorious “Canticle of the Sun” (see below) exults in the feminine aspects of creation because the feminine exults in meekness, which leads to humility.  And without humility no one can receive salvation.  From the medieval perspective (here I speculate) Jesus does not say, “The poor will always be with you,” because of the inevitability of sin, or the intractable problems of just political and economic systems.  Rather, some must play the role of “poverty” so that others will have the chance of exercising charity, and thereby become more like God.

This leads to what might most interest our economically minded/obsessed age, the medieval attitude towards money and property (there is an extended chapter on the medieval attitude towards war as well, but that gets covered in large measure here for any who have interest).  We experience confusion in the modern world about such things because we have no proper sense of the “telos” of money.  Jesus gives us many warnings about money’s destructive power, and yet we need money to live.  Money therefore has a proper place in the scheme of things, but money must be subordinated to its proper “end.”  So we should have enough to provide for our family.  We should seek also to have enough to practice charity.  Such is the proper, though temporary “end” of money.  Some would probably argue that a few might have a lot more money than this, but why?  To better reflect the image of God to creation, in this case, that of munificence or “kingly joy.”  By custom, though not law, the wealthy were expected to royally “fete” the poor under their charge on the most prominent of feast days (indeed, the mingling of rich and poor would have been much more common then than now).^

Property ownership as well came with this same tension.  Since God truly owned all things, in what sense could we own anything?  Medieval concepts of ownership absented themselves from our modern absolute legal concepts.  Rather, medievals “had use” of certain things, and then only on a contingent basis.  So the king had power provided he upheld his oath.  Nobles could receive grants of land from the king provided they served him faithfully.  None owned anything absolutely. The right to use something depended on whether or not you used it faithfully, according to the telos of the thing used.  Jarrett points out that absolute concepts of ownership came to the modern west with a revival of classical ideas in the Renaissance.  For the Romans, Rome was the telos of all things, so Roman ownership of property or people could be absolute. They had nothing beyond themselves from which they could take their pulse.  Aesthetically too, the contingent complexities of the medievals created stained glass.  The clear simplicities of the Renaissance smashed many of these windows and replaced them with clear panes just as the clear, classical concepts of Roman law began to replace the complex labyrinth that was the medieval synthesis.

In the early 20th century a group of thinkers led by men like G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc attempted to revive medieval economic concepts for the modern world.  They failed to make much headway, and most of their admirers attribute this failure to a lack of a defined system or program adapted for the modern world.  I have a different idea as to their lack of success.

Many might admire medieval views on property and wealth, but they arose within a defined context.  Specifically, the medieval focus on contextualizing everything in light of its place in the scheme of salvation gave them a framework in which to place wealth and property.  We have rejected the context of medieval views on things, and without that context, we have no agreed upon telos for money and property as the medievals had.  Our society values maximizing freedom and opportunity for the individual, and so the more wealth, the more opportunities to extend the self into places yet unknown.  Again, the medievals valued stability much more than change, innovation, and the need for “forward momentum.”  Without the medieval theological and psychological context, medieval ideas about economics would be dead on arrival.  We often wish to have our cake and eat it as well, but societies can not be put together in such a hodge-podge fashion.  We must choose the telos we pursue.

Dave

*Solving this riddle depends largely on how one defines “slave.”  Medieval peasants at the very bottom of the social ladder were slaves in the sense that they had very very few freedoms they could exercise on their own.  Unlike the slaves of most other cultures, however, even those at the very bottom had certain engrained legal protections in law and from the Church.  Also medieval “slaves” were almost entirely bound to the soil, which meant certain periods of long hours, and certain extended periods of relative inactivity.  And they also would have been exempt from work on numerous medieval feast and saint days in the Church calendar.

^In his The Court Society, Norbert Elias mentions a few aristocratic Spanish families who bankrupted themselves by projects, gifts, and feasts for those in their charge, and gained glory thereby.  Their family had in a sense, fulfilled its place in society by demonstrating such largesse.

— Regarding the “Canticle of the Sun” . . .

I partially agree with those that regard St. Thomas and St. Francis as the best fulfillment of medieval society.  St. Thomas’ massive Summa Theologica stands as perhaps the greatest extended theological treatise in the history of the Church.  But St. Francis possibly had a greater degree of sanctity.  And in one fell swoop of poetic insight, St. Francis both perfectly expressed the medieval vision and revealed timeless truths.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.