Bastille Day – Almost Forgot!

Let us take this day as a vigorous reminder of what insane partisanship and unscrupulous ideological fanaticism can do with historical facts. To sum up: A mob killed a few retirees and cripples who were guarding a prison holding a few upper-crust criminals and crazy people, and set them free in the name of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Vive la révolution! I guess.  And this has become the great event that marks France’s joining the ranks of countries that have slaughtered tens of thousands of their own unarmed citizens because they failed to get with the Enlightenment program. Or something.

As Tonio-K put it: but just because we’re hypnotized, that don’t mean we can’t dance!

On the reality side of things, there are the Vendee Martyrs.  As reported in the Telegraph: 

In early 1794 – at the height of the Reign of Terror – French soldiers marched to the Atlantic Vendée, where peasants had risen up against the Revolutionary government in Paris. (They had risen up because of the slaughter already being visited upon their sons, pressed into war for the Revolution and killed if they resisted, and their priests and sisters – ed.)

Twelve “infernal columns” commanded by General Louis-Marie Turreau were ordered to kill everyone and everything they saw. Thousands of people – including women and children – were massacred in cold blood, and farms and villages torched.

In the city of Nantes, the Revolutionary commander Jean-Baptiste Carrier disposed of Vendéean prisoners-of-war in a horrifically efficient form of mass execution. In the so-called “noyades” –mass drownings – naked men, women, and children were tied together in specially constructed boats, towed out to the middle of the river Loire and then sunk.

Now Vendée, a coastal department in western France, is calling for the incident to be remembered as the first genocide in modern history.

Residents claim the massacre has been downplayed so as not to sully the story of the French Revolution.

Historians believe that around 170,000 Vendéeans were killed in the peasant war and the subsequent massacres – and around 5,000 in the noyades.

But to call it genocide might taint (!) the glorious memory of the French Revolution. Can’t have that. Sort of like acknowledging that Che was a sociopathic murderer of defenseless men, women and children whose talents happen to find perfect opportunity for expression in another branch of the revolution – best not to think about it.

And this is just the most egregious slaughter carried out by the Enlightened. Many hundreds more died by the guillotine, by being left to starve or rot in ships or prisons, are just more prosaically murdered as the situation allowed. The French Revolution is the archetype and model for all future efforts to implement Progressive ideals once power has been seized.

This picture is titled ‘A Mass Under  Terror.’ Here’s all I could find out about it: “ an engraving that I find magnificent and which adorns the walls of our humble refuge! 
See the expression of the faces of these Catholics of the 18th, attending the Holy Mass and hunted down like beasts for “superstition” …” 

Bastille Day is an ideal way to get your feet wet in actual history, and to see how willingly some people lie and how effortlessly many more people believe them. Ignorance is usually best, or at least the least trouble, but if people know anything about the French Revolution, it’s probably something to do with having killed mean old Marie Antoinette and gotten rid of a crazy monarchy. That the French then proceeded to cycle through military dictatorship, monarchy, and an emperor or two between periods of anarchy, all the will leaving piles of bodies along the way – that seems less well known or, worse, irrelevant.

You have to ask the question: why do the lies seem to almost always go one way and not the other? Or, better, why is something like gruesome and sadistic slaughter of unarmed men women and children given a pass if not ignored completely? Or how do actual acts of murder get presented as equivalent to largely theoretical evils, such as the victims of capitalism? Oh, sure, people have been and are still being oppressed, and some have even been murdered. But 170,000 in a year? When did Pullman or United Fruit or the mining companies round up 170,000 men, women and children and sadistically murder them? And if you’ve got something, And if you’ve got something, I’ll raise you 20 million Ukrainian Kulaks and 60 million Chinese peasants.

All evil is evil, but there are degrees. That spirit that drove the French Revolution is far more evil than the simple greed of men, and lives and wrecks havoc even today.

The Everlasting Man: Bay Area Chesterton Society Reading Group

My beloved and I have been driving to San Jose or thereabouts to attend these monthly meeting for the last few years whenever we can – good people, and, hey! Chesterton! I thought my regular readers, who, to my surprise, are well into double digits these days, might find our current reading interesting.

Reading groups of the local instantiations of the American Chesterton Society have often, I’m told, focused on shorter works, as they are trying to have a discussion over dinner involving people of quite varied ages and backgrounds. So Fr. Brown Mysteries and selections from this awesome and highly recommended collection of essays and similar shorter readings have most often been the works under discussion.

However, enough of us wanted to read Everlasting Man, and the indomitable John Rose had a reading plan already in hand that broke it into suitable segments, that we were able to jump right in! Thanks, John! We’ll be taking it a dozen or 2 pages at a crack.

July, first meeting: Prefatory Note & Introduction, about 14 pages. You can find it online free here or here.  In this short 14 page introductory section, Chesterton calls out H. G. Well’s Outline of History, which can be found here (I have not read it yet).

As I have more than once differed from Mr. H. G. Wells in his view of history, it is the more right that I should here congratulate him on the courage and constructive imagination which carried through his vast and varied and intensely interesting work; but still more on having asserted the reasonable right of the amateur to do what he can with the facts which the specialists provide.

Amusing side story: when Well’s work was first published, Belloc, who is the bad cop to GKC’s good cop as far as smacking down nonsense goes, reviewed it rather harshly, Wells responded with a piece titled “Mr. Belloc Objects to “The Outline of History.” Belloc then responded to the response with “Mr. Belloc Still Objects.”  Apparently the exchange got rather heated, various partisan publications wouldn’t print the responses, names got called. Belloc was an actual historian, and took umbrage at Well’s playing fast and loose with the evidence. Belloc’s Europe and the Faith. which takes a view very much opposed to Wells’, was first published in 1920, the same year as Outline.

So Chesterton starts by praising Wells for being an amateur – in other words, highlighting Belloc’s central claim. He’s charmingly paradoxical about it, as is his style, but there’s little doubt whose side he’s on.

Some Historical Context: This dispute about how history is to be understood is just a tip of a particularly large iceberg, one still very much afloat today. For the century leading up to 1920, popes and other leaders had been descrying the threat of Modernism, the relevant aspect of which is stated in bold below:

Wells published his Outline in 1920 as a universal history – one that deals with more than “reigns and pedigrees and campaigns”.[1] Wells had embarked upon his Outline as a result of his work with the League of Nations[2] and a desire to aid world peace by providing the world “common historical ideas”.[3] The Outline proved to be an expansive, all-encompassing work. Wells had a panel of specialists at his disposal to review and check his work. Although the panel revealed many inevitable “gaps, misjudgments and misproportions”,[4] Wells reserved the right to “maintain his own judgments”.[5] As a result, The Outline contained what were alleged by Belloc to be a number of biased statements, intolerant statements and false assumptions. Materialistic determinism was viewed as a central philosophy underlying the Outline, with Wells portraying human progress to be both a blind and inevitable rise from the darkness of religious superstition to the light of scientific utopia. (my emphasis) Unfortunately, Wells’ judgments and perceived bias left his work open to heavy criticism.

Wells was a Fabian Socialist for a while, at least, right around the time he wrote this book. The Fabian’s coat of arms:

Wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Fabians, like Gramsci and Alinsky and all their spawn, believe in doing whatever it takes to promote the agenda. Truth be damned in the name of Progress.

To Wells and his besties, the League of Nations was an obvious means to promoting Communism, if only as a tool to bring about destruction of the status quo. If you believe that materialistic determinism is true, and human progress is a blind and inevitable rise resulting therefrom, you will feel (I daren’t say ‘think’) that any steps may be taken to destroy the current system – because something better will *inevitably* result! There is no going back, it’s forward all the way! The magic fairies of materialistic determinism say so! The larger truth of inevitable progress forgives in advance all the little lies perpetrated in its honor. And also forgive the murder of many tens of millions by the Communists, history’s sterling example of blind faith in Progress, for the sake of a glorious future.

In 1920, the battle between the Hegelian/Marxist faith in Progress (differing chiefly in what, if any, role one gives religion) and sanity (the understanding that progress is a highly contingent and often intermittent result of individual human actions) had been raging for almost a century. Pope St. Pius IX had issued his Syllabus of Errors in 1864, containing a number of anathemas against modernist ideas. Pope St. Pius X had issued Pascendi Domini gregis and Lamentabili sane exitu in 1907, and his Oath in 1910.

This is the environment in which Chesterton published Everlasting Man in 1925. Similarly, his essays collected in  In Defense of Sanity are defending, under the name ‘sanity’ the notion that ideas and the free choices of men matter, that the understanding of what is true, beautiful and good by a common man is to be valued, and that preposterous preening and self-importance of the Progressives are empty, futile yet dangerous.

The chief characteristic of progressive thought is that it doesn’t have to make sense. This is the fruit of Hegel, who in turn is best understood in this context as a Lutheran theologian more so than a philosopher. Certainly, he tries to describe an intellectual universe where discontinuity and contradiction are not signs of intellectual failings, but rather clear indications of intellectual progress. The Spirit (Hegel found ‘God’ too loaded a term) unfolds itself through History. Being is too limiting.  A real philosopher must consider Becoming.  What the Spirit is Becoming can be seen in the world in His actions – History. It will make sense when and to the extent that the Spirit has unfolded itself, but not before, and only to the enlightened. Inconsistencies and contradictions are just par for the course.

Hegel could not – no one can – hold the field against the Thomists when the game is reason and logic.(1) Therefore, Hegel begins by attempting to discredit ‘propositional reasoning’ (in Phenomenology of Spirit) and logic as understood since the ancient Greeks (in Logic). He substitutes for reasoning and logic insight and enlightenment.  He dismisses the Law of Non-Contradiction, and replaces it with the notion of contradictory ideas being suspended in a fruitful opposition within a synthesis. (As with most of Hegel, that last statement makes as much sense as it sounds like it does. Which is, after all, the point.)

In the hands of lesser(?) intelligences such as Marx and Freud, the idea was quickly shed that there’s a Spirit revealing itself in History, and instead it was just assumed History is moving itself forward – making Progress. We also lose Hegel’s charming humility in disavowing any knowledge of the future, since such foreknowledge would require guessing how the Spirit was going to unfold next – which is as close to sacrilege and heresy as an Hegelian can get.  Marxists and Progressives in general know where we’re going: some flavor of a worker’s paradise. That’s why it’s so important to ‘be on the right side of History’ and not to ‘turn back the clock’.

Marx is the poster boy for that materialistic determinist Wells was getting on about. He knows what he knows not through reasoning, but rather through Enlightenment. He is woke. Any attempts to reason with him are in themselves conclusive proof that you don’t get it, are laboring under false consciousness, and need to be educated.

Wells knows there is no God. Yet he also knows there has been progress. Therefore, to provide a mechanism by which this observable progress has been made, he has to make a god out of Progress itself.

Chesterton’s goal:

There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place; and I tried to trace such a journey in a story I once wrote [Manalive]. It is, however, a relief to turn from that topic to another story that I never wrote. Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I have ever written. It is only too probable that I shall never write it, so I will use it symbolically here; for it was a symbol of the same truth. I conceived it as a romance of those vast valleys with sloping sides, like those along which the ancient White Horses of Wessex are scrawled along the flanks of the hills. It concerned some boy whose farm or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own farm and kitchen-garden, shining flat on the hill-side like the colours and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some such gigantic figure, on which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be seen. That, I think, is a true picture of the progress of any really independent intelligence today; and that is the point of this book.

The point of this book, in other words, is that the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it.

Hegel and especially Marx are in some real sense heretics. They are not pagans, but people who have left aside some parts of Christianity while still clinging to its central claims of redemption from a fallen state through the intervention of the Divine. They are too close to see how much their beliefs are still Christian, no matter how twisted, like how a human form can still be recognized in the rubble of a ruined statue. But they are too close, and do not want to see.

Next month: 2. the first half of The Man in the Cave up to “Art is the signature of man.”

  1. What about scientists and mathematicians? They make progress, insofar as they do, by deploying exactly the musty old reasoning and logic familiar to and beloved by the Thomists. Hegel consigns them to the philosophical outer darkness: their work is OK, as far as it goes, but not exalted like what real philosophers do!  Irony alert: the very fields that give Wells the most ammo for his claims of self-propelled Progress are those Hegel had to toss out in order to make his claims that enlightenment trumps reason. Ouroboros.

Book Review: Belloc’s Europe and the Faith

Short and sweet: Read this book. It is available free through Project Gutenberg. It’s only a little over 100 pages – a long essay, really – in which the conventional presentations and meanings of many central European historical events as understood by those educated in the second half of the 20th century – me, for example – are convincingly challenged. Think you understand the Fall of Rome, the Dark Ages, the Saxon and Norman conquests of England and the Protestant Reformation? Even if you disagree with Belloc’s take, you’ll never think of them the same way again.(1)

Image result for Europe and the Faith by Hilaire BellocHis main premise: Europe is the Faith, the Faith is Europe. What he means – and here’s where conventionally educated Americans of the 21st century are likely to recoil –  is that all those things, those institutions, habits of thought, habits, indeed, of soul, that make Christendom special and – hope you’re sitting down – superior to all other civilizations are features of the Church, of the Faith. What positives we see in Protestant and decayed nominally Catholic Europe are the embers of that fire that welded the lands of the Roman Empire into a Civilization, the greatest the world has ever known.(2)  Belloc, being Catholic, understands greatness to necessarily include the welfare of the weak.  He argues that the fracturing of the Faith and Europe lead to the peasants getting a much more raw deal.

Hillaire Belloc might be remembered today more for his friendship with Chesterton than any of his writings. Based on the small sample of his works I’ve read, there is a lot more of fire and less of that pervasive good cheer that characterizes Chesterton’s works. He sees and cries doom, and is ready to take up the sword to die defending the good, the beautiful and the true. It’s not that Chesterton is any less willing to defend the Truth that is a Person, it’s just that in his mind he sees banners, knights, and glory even in defeat – and that cheers him, and comes through in almost everything he writes.

Published in 1920 immediately after the first World War,  Hillaire Belloc’s short Europe and the Faith is, most simply, a defense of Europe’s fundamental Catholicism. Such a defense necessarily must often take the form of  a counterargument to the way history has been told or mis-told for the last 4 centuries.  The long essay covers the period from Rome to the fall of England to Protestantism, with a concluding chapter describing how this history has shaped the choices faced in Belloc’s day.

While Belloc makes no effort to hide or soft-pedal his Catholicism, his most pointed criticisms are most often launched from his position as a scholar. One recurring theme is how it is always wrong to read history as if what happened next, and especially what is happening now, is inevitable, and that the past is to be understood as merely a preface without much meaning independent of those modern inevitabilities. Thus, the great Reformers must have intended to fragment the Faith (and thus fragment Europe) because that is what happened. Belloc points out that there is no contemporary evidence they thought anything of the kind. Rather, the Reformers imagined the uniform and united world in which they found themselves to be a sort of permanent state, not something made by men as the very broad and universal philosophy of the Catholic Church informed their lives.

He denies that Rome fell in the sense of being overrun and replaced by barbarians, and makes the point that the transition from central Imperial rule to decentralized rule under kings was a gradual and to a surprising extent superficial change. The procedures, organization, political assumptions, and most important the Catholic spirit remained Roman even as small numbers of already Romanized peoples – the barbarians of history – fought over who got to be the local king.

He goes into no detail here, but Lafferty’s description of Alaric comes to mind: he was a Roman general of largely Romanized Gothic troops, who, when he was crowned king of the Goths, became the first Catholic king ever so crowned.  He followed in the footsteps of Stilicho, in many ways his model and teacher, another Romanized Catholic ‘barbarian’ general whose life was dedicated and spent to preserve the Catholic Roman Empire. Even as far back as the sacking of Rome in 410, the ideal of a Catholic Empire given the divine duty to preserve and promote the Faith had taken hold – and nothing that happened in the next few centuries changed that. Rome gradually became the feudal society ruled by kings, governed through a complex hierarchy of personal relationships and obligations, and animated by the Catholic faith.

He denies that England was invaded and conquered by Germanic tribes – Angles and Saxons – pointing to the complete lack of historical evidence that such a thing ever happened. Instead, he notes that historian, backfilling from their own biases about what they’d like to have happened, fill in a 150 year gap in the written record with an invasion that never took place. Belloc instead appeals to what we know about what was happening in the neighboring areas, what the people wrote before and after the gap, and how things proceeded after St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived and the writing of history resumed.  He asserts that, just as in all of the rest of the Empire, auxiliary troops made up of barbarian recruits were settled in England prior to 410 AD, and remained behind after the Legions left. Then, constant piratical raids along the coasts and navigable rivers of England’s east coast drove the native populations westward, cutting them off from commerce and communication with the mainland and allowing for some settlements of the pirate peoples. But in no sense did these ‘invaders’ conquer – when St. Augustine arrived, he found Germanic pagan peoples in tiny kingdoms along the coasts and rivers, and more Celtic Catholic peoples inland. In one of those historical quirks, St. Augustine and his missionaries worked with the Germanic peoples they converted to re-evangelize the rest of Britain, leading to the oddity of Germanic languages coming to dominate, instead of Celtic or Latin.

And so on, through a number of other critical events. Belloc wants us to understand what Rome was, how it became Catholic, how it fought off would-be invaders throughout the Dark Ages, how it flowered in the Middle Ages, how it has persisted to this day, and what price we pay for rejecting it. He aims to provide a framework within which to understand the history of Europe and the world.  There can hardly be a more noble and needed goal for a historian.

It also helps that Belloc includes philosophy in this discussion, both from an historical perspective, and by including basic metaphysical and epistemological considerations in the discussion:

There are three forms in which the human mind can hold the truth: The form of Science, which means that we accept a thing through demonstration, and therefore cannot admit the possibility of its opposite. The form of Opinion, which means that we accept a thing through probability, that is through a partial, but not complete demonstration, and therefore we do not deny the possibility of the opposite. The form of Faith, where we accept the thing without demonstration and yet deny the possibility of its opposite, as for instance, the faith of all men, not mad, in the existence of the universe about them, and of other human minds.

When acknowledged and defined Faith departs, it is clear that of the remaining two rivals, Opinion has no ground against Science. That which can be demonstrated holds all the field. Indeed, it is the mark of modern insufficiency that it can conceive of no other form of certitude save certitude through demonstration, and therefore does not, as a rule, appreciate even its own unproved first principles.

Well, this function of the isolated soul, inquiry and the necessity for demonstration for individual conviction through measurement and physical fixed knowledge, has occupied, as we all know, the three modern centuries. We all are equally familiar with its prodigious results. Not one of them has, as yet, added to human happiness: not one but has been increasingly misused to the misery of man. There is in the tragedy something comic also, which is the perpetual puzzlement of these the very authors of discovery, to find that, somehow or other, discovery alone does not create joy, and that, somehow or other, a great knowledge can be used ill, as anything else can be used ill. Also in their bewilderment, many turn to a yet further extension of physical science as promising, in some illogical way, relief.

There is much more worth discussing in this book, and resistance to the temptation to write a comparision of it to Lafferty’s Fall of Rome is only possible due to crushing time constraints at the moment. But do go read this if you wish for more knowledge of European history and a much needed antidote to modern critical theory style ‘history’.

  1. I am reminded of the aha! moment I had when discovering that Sir Francis Drake, never discussed without the ‘Sir’ here, is considered a bloodthirsty pirate in Latin America – because he was. Don’t remember where I finally read about his raids on coastal towns, a la Pirates of the Caribbean, but it wasn’t in any mandatory California History class.  Here, if any mention of Drake’s piracy comes through, what we hear is how he spared the civilians. Very comforting for the soldiers charged with protecting the ships he plundered, I’m sure.
  2. After reading this, it’s hard not to see the EU as feeble dream inspired by the half-remembered unity of the 15th century. Feeble, because that primitive unity was won by the sword against foes external and internal, forged in fire and loved with passion. The EU, attempting to rise from the ashes of twice-burned Protestant Europe, is built more on fear than fire, and is as feeble as fear in the face of fire. A Europe which held Islam at bay for a thousand years and more with the sword has now convinced itself that no slaughter of the innocents is too great an offering to make for ‘peace’, which only means to the weakened European mind the avoidance of war at any cost.

Book Review: R. A. Lafferty’s The Fall of Rome

First off, thanks go out to Mike Flynn for recommending The Fall of Rome. Rarely have I enjoyed a book more, and suspect the stories and personalities in it will linger for years to come. Vivid hardly describes it.

Short & sweet: Stop what you’re doing, and read this book. Lafferty mentions in passing that the machinations of Olympius in the court of the Eastern Empire were far too complex for a modern mind to grasp. That passage pokes fun at the larger issue, that we are enslaved by our age unless we make the effort to learn about other ages. There are few more enlightening ages to learn about than that of the Roman Empire. It is a small, enslaved mind indeed that is not fired, humbled and saddened at the story of the Fall of Rome and the epics and, ultimately, tragedies of Alaric, Stilicho, Stairnon, Sarus, Singerich, Theodosius and the Empire itself.

IMG_3834Lafferty I knew of only from his unclassifiable SFF-ish short stories. Are they myth? Legend? Parody? They’ve been called tall tales, which seems about right, but hardly does them justice. The casual brilliance of stories such as the Narrow Valley make it clear we’re dealing with a really smart guy.

In the Fall of Rome, Lafferty applies his brilliant story telling talents to Roman history, which he clearly knows and loves deeply. Instead of a dry list of kings being born, fighting battles and dying only to hand power over to other kings who do the same ad infinitum, Lafferty starts with chapters dedicated to helping us learn who the Goths were and how they were ripe to produce so many tragic heroes. He disabuses us (well, me) from any lingering thoughts that the Goths were barbarians in the sense of uncivilized. True, there were more wild elements on the northern fringes largely outside the influence of Rome, but huge swaths of Goths, Vandals and Huns were members of highly sophisticated cultures with ancient traditions and technology as good or better than that of the Romans. (1) These ‘border peoples’ had been trading with and working in and for the Empire for centuries – and enriching it. The ideals of the Empire, especially in its post-Constantine form that embraced of Christianity, held a strong grip on their imaginations. Lafferty’s book is about the consequences of a lapse in that grip among a few key people, and how that brought about the End of the World.

Laferty also makes the point that we of European descent have inherited our foundational emotional relationship to the world from these border people, and not from the Romans. (2) He emphasizes the point in his telling of Alaric’s first invasion of Italy. While a battle raged, Stilicho – wiley doesn’t begin to describe him – sent a team to round up the women and families of the Gothic leadership who were, according to Gothic practice, accompanying the men at arms. Stilicho treated his hostages well – Alaric’s wife Stairnon was sent to live with Stilicho’s own family – but made it clear that the fighting needed to end and the Goths withdraw from Italy if the Gothic leaders ever wanted to see them again.

A true Roman would expect his wife and children to die noble deaths rather than be used as bargaining chips against the Res Romana, and carry on the fight. Stories, generally horrifying, of the sacrifices Romans were willing to make for the Republic and Empire make this assertion about their families easy to accept. But a Goth could not imagine a Gothic Thing that was fundamentally different from his family, making the very idea that you’d willingly sacrifice your family for an Empire, however conceived, incomprehensible. Thus, the Gothic leaders quickly retreated to Illyricum, and within a few months were reunited with their families. Alaric held out for a year, but even he eventually retreated and Stilicho sent his wife to him.

We understand Alaric and the Gothic leaders in a way we will never understand the Romans.

Aside: Before reading this, I would have argued that our emotional foundations were laid by Greek-flavored Hebrews via the New Testament and subsequent interpretation of the Old in light of the New. Much of the emotional landscape of the Pentateuch is very foreign, so that to get the emotional impact of many of the stories requires some effort, an effort we don’t generally have to make with, say, a Grimm’s fairytale. But once Greeks culture was sown by Alexander across the Levant, and once the Greek-speaking followers of Jesus converted the Greek-speaking world, the emotional landscape changed – gradually, imperfectly. The Romans – and the pre-Christian Greeks and nearly everybody else down to this day – would have expected the beggar Lazarus to crawl off and die, and would not have thought any less of Dives for having not cared for him. But the Jews got it. The Christians got it. And so now the world gets it, or pretends to. Likewise, Christians are troubled by Joshua putting conquered peoples under the ban – a notion that would have bothered no one previous, the only question being prudence.

Thus, 2000 years later, we are nearly as horrified by the cruel heroism of the Romans as by the treachery and casual bloodthirstiness sometimes evident among the border peoples. But now that Lafferty raises the issue, it clears up something I’ve often wondered about: the border peoples and other ‘barbarians’ were unable to set up anything like a Res Romana, but instead invented feudalism, which extends family obligations formally to what might be called the state. The problem is that the state is hardly distinguishable from the family, at least formally, so that lords are now fathers. A Roman could have fierce, self-sacrificing loyalty to a state he might not have any direct family interests in – he’s not related to any of the people in charge who might order him to his death. A feudal citizen? Subject? Family member?  is sworn into a ‘family’ so that his lord is his ‘father’ – his ‘Sire’.

The Patriarchal structure of the Romans might appear to contradict this, but it seems more of an along-side rather than an in-place-of arrangement: the local patriarch might be the ‘Big Daddy’ locally, but a Roman would see his obligations to the Res Romana as something only accidentally effected by his local patriarch. I think, I’m a good bit in over my head here. End Aside.

But some just wanted to see the World burn. Olympius, a master at manipulation and court intrigue, finally managed to bring down Stilicho. Then, in an event that makes Olympius into a Joker-like madman, at the peak of his power, having defeated Stilicho and seized the reigns of the greatest Empire on earth, he orders, or encourages, or allows the slaughter of the families of the tens of thousands of Gothic soldiers in Italy, by a Roman is for Romans faction. 30,000 Gothic troops defect to Alaric and Athaulf – soldiers who would have died under Stilicho or Alaric to defend Rome are now hell-bent on sacking it. And when Rome the unifying, civilizing idea was no more, and the dust settled, the new Emperor Constantius had Olympius clubbed to death.

I can hardly recommend this book enough if you have any interest in history at all.

Final aside: while much of what I learned from this book fit passing well into what I thought I already knew, I think I either accepted much less flattering descriptions of Alaric (who, BTW, I’ve admired for years) or, perhaps, confounded his story with parts of Atilla’s. Either way, Lafferty’s portrayal of the Great King of the Goths as an ultimately tragic hero is dazzling and convincing.

  1. From years ago, I had the impression that Rome came to be technologically backward, at least comparatively, by the time of the Empire. They seemed uninterested in technology as a culture. But I had not realized they were surrounded by peoples who were not uninterested, and had largely passed them by.
  2. A glance at a map of the migrations and invasions of these border peoples shows that we also almost certainly ARE Goths, Vandals, etc. in large part. Europeans were the muttiest of mutts even before they got to America.

Interlude of Updateitude

A. Man, Lafferty’s Fall of Rome is just so awesome and fun.  A few pages left, just – wow. Will review in a day or two. When I get back to writing The Novel That Shall Not Be Named (let’s go TNTSNBN, shall we?), I am so going to throw this book up on blocks and strip it down to the frame for parts – everything from names, relationships, character motivation are just so dramatic and involved, and the stakes are so high – Stilicho & Co are trying to Save the World!

So far, I’d modeled the relationships and motivations in TNTSNBN on the Medici, the Fords,  and other historical families, because just as all politics is local, all history is family.  But man, Stilicho is now just about my favorite historical character of all time. In an Empire of 75,000,000 people, Lafferty compellingly contends that the decisions of a handful of men and women determined the course of history, pushing the virile, civilized world of Rome over the edge when it could have been otherwise. You are left to speculate on what kind of a world – a better world, Lafferty leaves little doubt – would have ensued had only Rome persisted for another couple of centuries and further civilized and assimilated the peoples on the borders.

I’ve long suspected that, had Islam arisen and pursued its campaign of conquest against an even semi-coherent Rome instead of riding out of the desert to loot the wreckage of an empire, history would have been very different. Stilicho, one imagines, would have put a stop to that nonsense in short order. But we’ll never know.

Image result for orkney islandsB. Younger daughter just spent a week in on a farm in Orkney, on her way home from her semester in Rome. She’s caught Lourdes, Paris, Ireland (Limerick, I think) on her way to Orkney, and is now in London for a couple weeks with her aunt, uncle and a half-dozen cousins. From there, she and some friends are planning day trips to Oxford and goodness knows what else. I’d tell her my preferences – York, Salisbury, a day or two walking London – but I think she’s got plenty of people to advise her.

Image result for harrison clocks
Harrison 1. C’mon, it doesn’t get any cooler than this!

Wait – Uncle Paul’s house is within walking distance of the Prime Meridian, the Royal Observatory, and the Harrison clocks! Text message going out.

Then, from London back to New Hampshire to attend graduation at her college (she has friends among the seniors) and then, finally, home.

When I was 19, my entire experience with planes was taking a roughly 2 hour flight from Albuquerque to LA once, coming home from school. At the same age, my daughter has got to be pushing 100,000 miles of air travel, between cross country back and forth to school flights, a couple trips to Europe, and a few up and down the coast visits to family and friends.

She lives in a different world than me.

C. 93 drafts for this blog. It’s not getting better. 2 short stories *this* close to being done. One NTSNBN on temporary hold. One book on education history I’m going to feel guilty about neglecting for the last couple years any day now.

Maybe I have some issues with, I don’t know, letting go? Discipline? Success?

On the plus side, got a million words easy on this blog, and, after years of not even starting stories, I’ve got some that I really, truly could finish in a few hours if I can a) find the hours; and b) make myself do it. This week – 2 stories wrapped up. You heard it here.

D. Home Improvement Project proceed at their own very slow pace. After middle son tore out the concrete path to the front door, I’ve been sloooowly cleaning up and prepping for a small concrete pour to create the stable slab onto which I’ll set bricks to make a fancy-dan brick walk with a gentle slope up to the porch to make it easier on old people.

Got the frame and rebar in. Had to drill some holes and epoxy in some bars to make sure the porch slab, existing slab under already laid bricks and the new soon to be poured slab act as one as much as possible, and don’t settle unevenly, which would be a disaster. We’ll see.

Did you know that running a hammer drill at awkward angles to put in some rebar connectors is really tiring and hard on your arms? Who’da thunk it?

E. I’m just not a very good consumer of pop culture. I watch a piece of gorgeously pure pop nonsense, and am I taken out of the mood by preposterous fantasy fights and explosions? By tech that hardly even rises to handwavium status? By people routinely surviving falls, punches and explosions that are fatal times 10? Nope, that’s what you sign up for, as long as it’s cool. But Guardians of the Galaxy II, (review here) hardly alone in this, assumes people’s psyches are a hundred times more resilient as their bodies, so that no amount of abuse delivered over any amount of time does any really serious damage – well, you lost me.

It’s like arguing that things would have been all right if only someone had given Pol Pot a hug; that Che was just misunderstood; that Mao had a few issues a little family therapy could have solved.

The backstories of Nebula and Gamora are that, as little girls, they watched their parents murdered by Thanos, who then modified and trained them to be killing machines and set them to fighting each other every day. So they don’t get along. Now, after spending years as killing machines – after having killed many people, one presumes – Gamora just wakes up one day and turns on her fake father Thanos and becomes almost normal, while Nebula still has a few anger issues. But, when the time comes, these two hug each other and make up, and it’s all good.

See? Parenting, a stable home, consistent love – none of these are needed to be a good person! You just are! And no amount of neglect, abuse bordering on torture, or use as a tool by those who should love you can change that! Or, in the case of Thanos and the hundreds of Ravagers Yondu killed during his escape, you’re not a good person, and are therefore acceptable cannon fodder one needn’t trouble one’s conscience over murdering. No reason, just the way it is.

I’d love to believe that the writers were trying to emphasize the sacred primacy of human free will and just kind of over did it. But I can’t – in this world, today, the wreckage of families, the human debris of unrepentant and frankly unconscious egomania  has created hordes of Gamoras and Nebulas – and Peter Quills, Yondus, Rockets, and Mantises – who dream of saving the galaxy of their own families, or harden themselves to believe that they don’t need them.

It’s also telling that Drax the Destroyer is the one character who, in his digressions, mentions a father and a mother fondly, a wife and daughter with affection – and he’s the comic relief, and a bloodthirsty madman.

In general, however, GG II is scary. Psychologically, its target audience are people who, in their suffering, would really like to blow things up and kill people. I say this not from some lofty perch – I, too, sometimes think of things in my life that make me want to just beat the hell out of people, and I take vicarious thrill in watching comic book characters act that fantasy out. But at least I know that’s wrong.

Link & Roundup: Um, Yea.

A. Wesley Smith at First Things is hammering on the point I’m trying to make here about Science! in its capitalized and exclamatory expression.  I got into philosophy and the Great Books second – science was my first love. After a few years spent thumbing through every science book (we’re counting the Time-Life rah-rah Science! series as science for the purposes of this discussion – hey, I was in 4th grade) in St. Mary’s Whittier’s tiny library, I’d already more or less dimly reached the conclusion that science just can’t tell us the answers to most of the really interesting questions. (This also explains the brevity of my fling with Plato – the ‘I only know that I don’t know’ schtick gets old fast.) By the time I’d reached college, I’d honed my eye to a fine gimlet, science-claims wise.

Under the Science! category here are numerous examples of science either done or used wrongly, and most egregiously, claims made in the name of science that are not possible to make on scientific grounds even in theory – moral claims, for example. Smith’s fine essay provides the general context.

Janez Vajkard Valvasor - Bitka med Teodozijem in Evgenijem.jpg
Battle of the Fridgius River, By Johann Weikhard von Valvasor –, Public Domain,

B. Stilicho was not only more Roman than the Emperor and more Catholic than the Pope – he was evidently Klingon. Making my happy way through Lafferty’s Fall of Rome, came across a scene where Alaric, age 17, commanding about 14,000 crack Gothic troops in defence of the Emperor Theodosius from the usurper Eugenius, has spent a day fighting his bloody way through a narrow valley. He has lost 10,000 men, and reached the plains near sundown only to see a huge army in front of him. He sends a message to Stilicho, Master General of the Empire and his commander, asking if he should proceed into almost certain death, or retreat and rendezvous with the other forces.

It takes time for messengers to ride.  Alaric – 17 years old, remember – decides that in lieu of countermanding orders, he will lead his men into the fight and die. Just then, the messenger returns with Stilicho’s orders: Where Alaric stood “is as good a graveyard as any.”

Perhaps it is a good day to die.  These were manly men. Gik’tal!

(Grandfather: She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.

Grandson: What?

Grandfather: The eel doesn’t get her. Now, I’m explaining to you
because you look nervous.

Grandson: I wasn’t nervous. Well, maybe I was a little bit
concerned, but that’s not the same thing.)

3. As requested by absolutely no one, I’ll be doing a final California Weather 2016-2017: That was the Rain Year that Was post as soon as I’m really sure we’re done. They’re predicting more rain in a week, so – not yet. The rule, as I understand it, is that over 3 days out, the forecast strongly converges with the almanac – if you bet season average, you’d be as close as any prediction. Exceptions include the conditions we had this year, where those atmospheric rivers could be spotted a week in advance out over the Pacific, and had nowhere to go but the West Coast. With those things, the only variable seems to be timing: when, not if.

In addition to being very wet, it’s also been cooler in general. The atmospheric river thing  does draw in tropical moisture and therefore lingering tropical warmth.  But that tends more toward mitigating lows than actually pushing highs much higher, it seems – I’ll look over the data to confirm. It’s only in the last few days that temperatures reached the 80F for the first time this calendar year – we sometimes get 80 degree days even in late February and certainly in March and April, but not this year until the last days of April. Now the forecast says 90s for the next couple days – not at all unheard of for May, but high. Then, it’s back down into the 80s and 70s. 85F is the average high for summers here, with 105F and 75F not being unusual highs.

Boooooring! The only point of interest is just how variable weather really is. From year to year, California weather can be dramatically different. The climate – weather over time – is perhaps generally dry and warm, but within that generalization there’s very dry, very warm, very wet and so on. ‘Normal’ is a fairly broad range.

4. Back to the Fall of Rome: Lafferty’s asides are both edifying and hilarious. At one point, he mentions that the political and palace intrigue conducted upon Theodosius’s death was too complicated to be understood in these simpler times. He mentions that, while we have assurances that the Church will endure, that doesn’t mean all its worldly furniture can’t be made to disappear.  And so on – laugh a minute, with the fate of the world in the balance and men killing each other left and right. Read an historian once who quipped that, by modern standards, all ancient peoples were sociopathic – slaughtering each other just didn’t seem to bug them as much as one would hope.

I worry that rising above that baseline human behavior is quite anti-entropic, and as people enthusiastically kick away the cultural props from under our modern restraint, social gravity, as it were, will bring us right back down to ambient. The experiences of the 20th century, even and especially in supposedly civilized Europe, are not encouraging.


Fall of Rome & Schooling

One may ask: is there nothing this dude cannot link to schooling?

No, there is not.

Reading the totally excellent and highly recommended Fall of Rome by R. A. Lafferty – maybe 25% through. Gripping as any novel and elegantly and wittily written, it’s how history should be written if historians want regular people to care about history. Just reached the part where Alaric, at age 17, is called from his schooling under the Emperor Theodosius in order to raise and provision 10,000 men and rendezvous with other troops in defence of the Empire – to a location over 1,000 miles away. He is given 6 weeks.

He pulls it off. (He had help, but still – 17 year old kid? Impressive.)

Alaric, leader of the Visigoths
Big Al. Not sure how historically accurate this is – probably not very.

But today let’s take a brief look at the school he was attending. Theodosius wanted to ensure the future of the Empire, and knew such a thing would take strong skilled leadership. So, he recruited boys from among the leaders of the barbarian tribes, and brought them together to learn, among other things, half a dozen languages, civil engineering, military strategy, and all the requisite martial arts – use of the various weapons and horses – as well as instilling in them the idea that the Empire was a good and holy thing worthy of a man’s life and efforts. These boys were told that any one of them might be called upon to lead the Empire, and so must be prepared for war, peace, diplomacy and intrigue.

Alaric was 12. He spent 5 years traveling from place to place to see first hand how all this worked in practice. He and the other boys were instructed by a number of experts, including the Emperor himself, and well as Stilicho, the great Master General of the Empire. They were introduced to and made a part of the Imperial court and family.

It worked, at least to the extend of creating a cohort of extremely competent leaders. Alaric was himself the most outstanding of the group, but the others were no slouches.

I’ll do a review of the book when I get done with it. What I want to do now is point out that what Theodosius did in setting up his school is both amazing and obvious. His foresight and thoroughness is amazing. Once he had a goal in mind, he chose the obvious way to educate those boys, indeed, the only way to truly educate people for a particular role: immerse them among the experts in that role. This is how we today teach such things as musical instruments and car repair: learn to play or to repair by actually playing and repairing in the presence of experts.

Alaric was by all accounts a very intelligent and driven boy. By 17, he had achieved a level of mastery of languages, engineering, diplomacy, warfare, and so on very probably out of reach of most of us – but we’ll rarely find out, since teaching such mastery is almost never tried.

A modern exception did spring to mind: the Russian School of Mathematics

Rifkin trains her teachers to expect challenging questions from students at every level, even from pupils as young as 5, so lessons toggle back and forth between the obvious and the mind-bendingly abstract. “The youngest ones, very naturally, their minds see math differently,” she told me. “It is common that they can ask simple questions and then, in the next minute, a very complicated one. But if the teacher doesn’t know enough mathematics, she will answer the simple question and shut down the other, more difficult one. We want children to ask difficult questions, to engage so it is not boring, to be able to do algebra at an early age, sure, but also to see it for what it is: a tool for critical thinking. If their teachers can’t help them do this, well—” Rifkin searched for the word that expressed her level of dismay. “It is a betrayal.”

Rifkin doesn’t have an Empire to preserve, so I’d imagine there’s less pressure in her schools. Yet notice the key feature: students are having direct personal contact and even relationships with stone experts in what they are supposed to be learning.

Imagine that.

These kids, and others educated in similar ways, then go on to dominate the world Math Olympiads for their age groups. Recap: math is awful, horrible, and hard, and we’re WAY behind the rest of the world – except for those taught it in a manner that is related to how people actually learn, who seem to both enjoy it and do it exceedingly well.

While math talent varies greatly among individuals, our school’s failure to produce many graduates competent in even basic math is not, I think, due to the nature of math itself. Rather, to see how it is taught in the standard schools, one would imagine the goal is to turn off as many students as possible to math. That’s how it works, at any rate.

Plato taught that true education can only take place between friends. We today lack not only the most basic understanding about how children and all people truly learn, the sort of intense, even passionate, friendship that has characterized great men and women through the ages is rare, denigrated when it does appear, and mocked as somehow unclean.  Thus, it seems, even the more restrained friendships that should be characteristic of the relationships between teachers and students is rendered almost unimaginable.

Aside: another great thing about St. John’s Great Books program: a whole bunch of kids with widely varying degrees of math training and talent are all thrown together to study Euclid. In small classes (12-15 people) lead by a ‘tutor’ (professor) everybody has to grapple with math from an angle almost certainly completely foreign to how they’ve ever been taught math before. (Among people who have the hardest time are often those good in analytic geometry – the beauty of the non-numeric, non-algebraic proofs is hard for them to see.)

Even the least mathematically gifted student will have that ‘a ha!’ moment, when it all clicks. They discover that it’s not math they hate, but the way they’ve been taught.