Friday, November 18, 2016

Halloween: Not Really

In 21st century America, the celebration of Halloween has become a large commercial industry. Parties, costumes, and candy provide sales for many businesses.

The roots of the celebration, however, are far removed from its modern incarnation.

A dual holiday, All Saints Day is customarily on November 1st, and is followed by All Souls Day on November 2nd. The pairing, over a thousand years old, reveals a deep principle within Western Civilization.

On the one hand, All Saints Day is an acknowledgement of those who have died. The 'Saints' in 'All Saints Day' doesn't have the narrow meaning of the word, but rather the broad meaning: it refers not merely to the exceptional few who've been canonized by the institutional church, but rather casts a broad net.

All Souls Day, by contrast, celebrates those who've not yet arrived in the afterlife.

The original meanings of both days are often lost to modern observants, even those who would celebrate them most piously.

Taken together, they manifest a balance: this life and the next life.

They also issue a warning: don't forget. Don't forget this life and become obsessed with the life to come. Don't forget the future eternal life and think only of the present life.

By celebrating, back to back, those who've gone on to the next life and those who've not yet arrived there, the Judeo-Christian tradition embodies a moderate view of this world and the next world.

The dual celebrations seem to date back to 609 A.D., but were originally observed in the springtime. They were moved to the autumn in the eighth century.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Medieval European Feudalism: Mutuality and Reciprocity

Between the years of absolute rule by Roman emperors and the years of absolute monarchy fostered by the Renaissance is the time of feudalism.

This medieval system, along with its economic analogue called ‘manorialism,’ provided a respite from a strictly top-down authority model. Feudal relationships were built on mutual obligation: the lord’s obligation to provide for the serf was as binding as the serf’s obligation to do agricultural work for the lord.

Manorialism is also called ‘seigneurialism.’

Legally, a serf had a claim on his lord. By contrast, a slave in the Roman Empire had no claim on the emperor, and subject in a Renaissance absolutist monarchy had no claim on the king.

It’s difficult, or impossible, to give an exact starting time for feudalism. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., it gradually emerged as Germanic tribal patterns were applied to the remnants of Romans estates in northwestern Europe, e.g., in Gaul.

One Germanic tribe, the Franks, took leadership roles in Gaul. The collapse of Roman authority left a ‘power vacuum’ and threatened to leave the region in chaos. The Franks stepped in and began to organize.

Feudalism, along with Frankish political influence, spread through much of Europe.

The variations and historical stages of feudalism are many and complex. But at its core are a few simple ideas. One of them was localized control instead of centralized government. As the details of feudal agreements responded to local conditions, many slightly different forms of feudalism emerged, as historian Irma Simonton Black writes:

Indeed, in the Middle Ages, as in most of history, it is a serious mistake to try to separate opposing forces into the all good and the all bad. Historical developments are rarely that simple. The relationship of nobles and serfs had grown up over a period of centuries.

Given the serf’s legal claim on his lord, and given the flexibility to adjust feudal contracts and oaths to local conditions, feudalism represents a historical moment of legal recognition for the individual, located historically between Roman imperialism and Renaissance absolutism.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Banned Books Week

Since 1982, the last week of September has been designated as ‘Banned Books Week,’ celebrating the freedom of the press. The unlimited right to print ideas and opinions, no matter how radical or controversial, is a foundational liberty in Western-style democracies.

It’s worth thinking about a definition: what do we mean when we say a book is “banned”? Generally, the word is defined this way -

A book is banned if it is illegal, and punishable by law, to write, print, publish, distribute, sell, buy, own, or read it.

Put simply, that means that the police will arrest you, and a court will sentence you, if you do any of those things.

Significantly, a decision to omit a book from a particular library or school is not the same as “banning” it.

Today, in the United States, there are no banned books. In fact, there are more books available than ever before, thanks to the Internet.

Many of them are even available for free, if you’re content to have an electronic copy and not a physical copy.

The police do NOT go to booksellers like Amazon, or to bookstores like Barnes and Noble, to inspect which books they sell. Those businesses are free to sell whichever books they choose.

We celebrate Banned Books Week because the United States is one of only a few countries in the world which has this great liberty. Frankly, you can print almost anything you want on paper.

It’s important that we appreciate this freedom, because we want to preserve it for future generations.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Absolutized Government: a Recipe for Death - The French Revolution

The ten years of the French Revolution, from 1789 to 1799, saw the morphing of that movement from one which sought liberty to one which inflicted atrocities on a previously unimagined scale.

Instead of finding freedom, thousands of innocent civilians died in public executions by means of the guillotine.

The murderous violence of the French Revolution arose from its effort to create, not a good government, but rather a perfect society.

Correcting the flaws of a government in order to create political liberty is, as the American Revolution shows, an achievable goal. The French Revolution attempted, however, to create a utopia.

The founding of a perfect society is such a high ideal that it justified, for the revolutionaries, the use of ‘any means necessary’ - including mass killings of men, women, and children.

The revolutionaries sought to impose a social plan. Because they believed that they could find the ideal pattern for society, they tolerated no individual dissent, skepticism, or variation from their blueprint.

The leaders of the French Revolution absolutized government. Ironically, they had started by overthrowing an absolute monarch. They saw no room for individual political liberty. As historian Jonah Goldberg writes:

But what truly makes the French Revolution the first fascist revolution was its effort to turn politics into a religion. (In this the revolutionaries were inspired by Rousseau, whose concept of the general will divinized the people while rendering the person an afterthought.) Accordingly, they declared war on Christianity, attempting to purge it from society and replace it with a “secular” faith whose tenets were synonymous with the Jacobin agenda. Hundreds of pagan-themed festivals were launched across the country celebrating Nation, Reason, Brotherhood, Liberty, and other abstractions in order to bathe the state and the general will in an aura of sanctity. As we shall see, the Nazis emulated the Jacobins in minute detail.

In terms of values, the French Revolution imposed the government as the highest value. Citizens were expected to do whatever the state might ask.

In such a system, there was no room for personal values: no loyalty to family or friends; no concept of duty or honor; no room for God.

The concepts of duty and honor were twisted into mere demands for unquestioning obedience to the government. By contrast, individual political liberty allows for the possibility of a conflict between duty and government, or a conflict between honor and government.

The French Revolution allowed for no limits on government and allowed for no questioning of the government’s decisions. When the government began to eliminate the very liberties it claimed to defend, there was no stopping it.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Greek History – The Archaic Era

In the eighth century B.C., the first great literary works of Europe, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were created. They told about the struggle of Troy, and about the mistaken journey of Odysseus. We call their author Homer. In the eighth century B.C., too, the Olympic games were celebrated for the first time. And finally, in the eighth century B.C., a new script was invented, an alphabet, which was much simpler than all the earlier methods of writing in Greek; it consists of only a few letters.

The Greeks got the idea of an alphabetic writing system, instead of pictographic or cuneiform writing, from Semitic tribes. Our script today is of the same type that the Greeks developed out of the Semitic alphabets. The Greeks created the necessary preconditions so that we today can read and write, and don’t need professional scribes, as they existed in ancient Egypt. The Greeks formed the bridge between us and the original Semitic inventors of alphabetic writing.

We have also taken on many words from the Greeks, e.g., “political”. It meant in Greece “having to do with the Polis” or “belonging to the Polis”. “Polis” literally means “city” and means literally the city with its streets, temples, and walls, as well as - and above all - the city as a community of citizens.

Whoever behaved “politically” had, according to the Greek understanding, not only his own interests in mind, but rather those of all the citizens of a city. And, just as all the citizens learned to read and write, so also all the citizens codetermined about the fate of a city, occupied offices, and were judges. That is amazing. But remember, only a minority of those who lived in the cities were considered “citizens”! In Egypt, a civilized culture indeed arose, in which there was division of labor, but nowhere was there before the concept of a city as the political community of all citizens. How did the Greek polis arise?

Between 1000 and 700 B.C., we find tribes in the various regions of Greece, originally ruled by kings. The land was tended by farmers who were not serfs of the king, as in Egypt, but rather who had their own piece of land.

By the eighth century B.C., at the latest, large differences in property arose: whoever had much property was admired and didn’t need to work in order to survive. The wealthy people had free time, therefore, and filled it, by competing with each other in all activities, e.g., sports, public speaking, wealth. Much of what the Greeks achieved is related to competition. What consequences did competition have for the communal life of the Greeks?

Until the end of the sixth century, Greece was not threatened by any external power. Kings, therefore, were not needed as military leaders. And so the rich - we call them the nobility - pushed the kings out, called themselves “kings”, and oppressed the farmers by means of their “crooked verdicts”. The farmers often had to turn their land over to the nobles because of debts. Since the second half of the seventh century, the farmers demanded a redistribution of the land: “land reform”. The competition between the nobles now went so far, that some of them were prepared to side with the farmers, in order to get ahead of their fellow nobles.

This is the situation in which it was first attempted, in Greece, to introduce effective social structures and constitutions. This ordering was supposed to ensure that the farmers could work their land freely and independently of the power of the nobles. And, aside from that, it was now intended, that the nobles should be integrated into the polis, to seek an equilibrium between the claims of individuals and the claims of the community. The Athenian lawgiver Solon, around 600 B.C., still gave more to the nobles than to the simple farmers.

But in the fifth century, the Athenians then wanted that all citizens of the Polis should have the same political rights. Every citizen should take on almost any political office, the collection of all citizens should be able to decide about all important questions. According to the constitution of the Athenians, the freedom, too, of all citizens could only be realized by means of such political equality. Again, only a minority of the inhabitants of the city were “citizens”. We will see how this constitution effected also other areas of human life, e.g., the family and art.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Puzzlingly Undemocratic French Revolution

The French Revolution was begun, allegedly, in the name of the people and in the name of freedom. Yet it was an authoritarian and dictatorial imposition on the people, not a freeing of them.

Why did this Revolution feature no meaningful election process? The few elections which took place were designed to give the appearance of voting, while shielding the Revolutionary government from any accountability to the voters.

A revolution might be a time and a place in which great freedom in speech arises, especially political speech. But the French Revolution imposed some of the harshest political censorship.

Freedom of religion, likewise a stated goal of the revolution, disappeared, and the leaders of the French Revolution executed people merely because they were followers of Jesus.

What went wrong? The leaders of the French Revolution tried to change, not only the political system, but society itself. The problems which triggered the revolution were political and economic, not social.

Maximilien Robespierre was perhaps one of the most influential figures in the Revolution. The names of the phases through which the Revolution progressed are telling: “The Great Fear,” “The Reign of Terror,” and “The White Fear.”

This escalating violence was the result of the effort, by Robespierre and others, to make people fit into their idea of a good system. The revolutionary leaders claimed to know what was best for the people, and did not give the people a chance to choose their own way.

On this logic, then, there was no need for elections. A few “show elections” gave the appearance of political engagement, but did not give the voters any meaningful input. As historian Jonah Goldberg writes:

Robespierre’s ideas were derived from his close study of Rousseau, whose theory of the general will formed the intellectual basis for all modern totalitarianisms. According to Rousseau, individuals who live in accordance with the general will are “free” and “virtuous” while those who defy it are criminals, fools, or heretics. These enemies of the common good must be forced to bend to the general will. This state-sanctioned coercion he described in Orwellian terms as the act of “forcing men to be free.” It was Rousseau who originally sanctified the sovereign will of the masses while dismissing the mechanisms of democracy as corrupting and profane. Such mechanics — voting in elections, representative bodies, and so forth — are “hardly ever necessary where the government is well-intentioned,” wrote Rousseau in a revealing turn of phrase. “For the rulers well know that the general will is always on the side which is most favorable to the public interest, that is to say, the most equitable; so that it is needful only to act justly to be certain of following the general will.”

Thus the revolution, begun in the name of the people, failed to actually establish a republic with freely-elected representatives. It was a dictatorship, one that changed its form several times during the course of the revolution, from 1789 to 1799.

The deaths inflicted, as the government sought to force people to conform to its system, were many. Public executions killed between 20,000 and 75,000 civilians, mainly by guillotine. The war started by the French Revolutionary government in April 1792 against Austria killed thousands more.

When the French Revolution imposed price controls on all food in September 1793, agricultural production collapsed, and thousands died in a famine.

The French Revolution was never an expression of individual political liberty. It was a violent attempt to make the population of a nation fit into an abstract governmental paradigm.

Instead of confining itself to changes in government and economics, the leaders of the Revolution sought to change human society, culture, and civilization. This doomed their efforts not only to failure, but to self-destruction.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Finding Babylon and Its Ishtar Gates

Like Schliemann’s vision of Troy, archeologists considered Babylon to be as much myth and legend as physical reality. Attestations occur mainly in the Hebrew Tanakh. Classical sources include Herodotus, but his data is not very helpful.

Some scholars in the mid nineteenth century began to doubt the existence of numerous ancient locations. Troy and Babylon were among them.

Even among those who did not deny the existence of these cities, some argued either than these sites couldn’t be nearly as grand as the textual sources reported, or that there would be little to nothing left of them after more than twenty or thirty centuries.

The rise of archeology at that time was in part a response to that skepticism. Thankfully, many archeologists were more cautious and rigorous than the flamboyant Schliemann, who nonetheless served a useful role by drawing attention and support to such enterprises.

Today in the city of Berlin one can see the amazing gates of ancient Babylon. These structures feature a glaze on the surface of their tiles. Historians Joachim Marzahn and Klaudia Englund write:

The exploration of Babylon began relatively late in time, probably because the remains of the city were by no means imposing. Mere heaps of debris and mounds of sand, only one of which still bore the name “Babil”, gave account of the location and size of the town. The remnants of colored glazed bricks suggesting that splendid buildings must have existed in the city, however, facilitated the decision to begin exploration there. What the excavators, digging on behalf of the Berlin Museums and the German Oriental Society, unearthed during 18 years of continuous work from 1899 to 1917, elevated Babylon to the first rank of important cities of Antiquity.

The famous Ishtar Gates, which formed the ceremonial entryway in Babylon, use primarily blue and gold in their composition, and are decorated primarily with images of lions. King Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to be built around the year 575 BC.

These gates would have been standing, then, when the Israelite captives entered the city between around 597 BC and 581 BC.

The excavations of Babylon and Troy showed the reliability of ancient textual sources.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Emergence of Postmodernism?

The word ‘postmodernism’ has been so misused, overused, and abused that one hesitates to use it all.

Various circumlocutions which can substitute for that word may be more accurate, less misleading, and less charged. ‘Postmodernism’ has been used both as a term of condemnation and as a term of praise.

The word, or any of its grammatical variants, does not appear even once in Carl Schorske’s book, Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, even though segments of the book are arguably about appearance of postmodernism.

Schorske captures one aspect of postmodernism - its privileging of emotion over reason - by contrasting two constructs, the rational man and the psychological man. Schorske’s “rational man” is a placeholder for Lockean and Cartesian understandings of human nature, and how such nature shapes culture, ethics, and social and political structures

Troubling is the hypersubjective and foundationless meanings attached to volatile political vocabulary like ‘justice’ or ‘oppression,’ which in the working’s of Schorske’s “psychological man” become synonyms for ‘comfort’ or ‘discomfort.’ Schorske writes:

Traditional liberal culture had centered upon rational man, whose scientific domination of nature and whose moral control of himself were expected to create the good society. In our century, rational man has had to give place to that richer but more dangerous and mercurial creature, psychological man. This new man is not merely a rational animal, but a creature of feeling and instinct. We tend to make him the measure of all things in our culture. Our intrasubjectivist artists paint him. Our existential philosophers try to make him meaningful. Our social scientists, politicians, and advertising men manipulate him. Even our advanced social critics use him, rather than the criterion of rational right, to judge the worth of a social order. Political and economic oppression itself we assess in terms of psychological frustration.

This postmodern understanding - if Schorske may be here understood as speaking of postmodernism - entails that there can be no case in which justice, in which the morally right thing to do, is painful.

Any apparent counterexamples - voluntarily embraced suffering for a cause - melt under the scrutiny of a Freudian ‘pleasure principle,’ which sees such suffering as overridden by a greater satisfaction from the fulfillment of the purpose for which the suffering was embraced.

Admittedly, there is an insight in noting that the pangs of hunger are gladly endured if one has forgone food in order to give that food to one’s child, or in order to lose a few pounds and thereby be healthier or better-looking.

But to judge a political or economic system based on whether those within the system experience frustration - and here Schorske has rightly described much of postmodern political pandering - is to ignore the reality that frustration and pain are necessarily part of human existence, and to forget that greater purposes are not always fully comprehended or known by those enduring hardship for their sake.

Frugality for the sake of frugality is not pleasant, and one cannot always see the purpose for which one exercises thrift. Yet it will ultimately serve a valuable purpose, and enduring it is a good thing - if not a pleasant thing.

The same is true of diligence.

The dismissiveness with which Schorske’s “psychological man” treats reason will cast both the individual and the collective adrift. Rational discourse about culture, society, or politics becomes impossible.

In the absence of reason, people merely emote, and do so in alternating and competing patterns, which then pass for ‘debate’ among a public which has forgotten what rational argumentation is.

Schorske seems to have accurately captured postmodernism, without even once having used the word!