Roman Government

Reviewing the book “Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations of the Late Republic” for the LRB, Denis Feeney describes the Roman government:

Without anything like a professional bureaucracy, and with no elected official holding office for more than a year, an empire of 50 million people was overseen by the personal relations of about a hundred men and their hangers-on; the constant exchange of letters, with their reaffirmations of devotion and loyalty, their imparting of information and their maneuvering for position, were an indispensable element in keeping the show, such as it was, on the road. When one considers in addition the lack of any official postal service and the resulting uncertainties of delivery – all lucidly evoked by White – the fact that the Roman Republic succeeded in running the known world for as long as it did comes to seem almost miraculous.

Is Everything Getting Worse?

Premillenialism thrives on the idea that things are going to hell in a handbasket and getting worse all the time. This article from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal has a lot of flawed theology (e.g. spanking is bad) and is coming from a very different place, but it points out the decline in violence over the years. For example:

Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.

For centuries, social theorists like Hobbes and Rousseau speculated from their armchairs about what life was like in a “state of nature.” Nowadays we can do better. Forensic archeology—a kind of “CSI: Paleolithic”—can estimate rates of violence from the proportion of skeletons in ancient sites with bashed-in skulls, decapitations or arrowheads embedded in bones. And ethnographers can tally the causes of death in tribal peoples that have recently lived outside of state control.

Investigations show that, on average, about 15% of people in prestate eras died violently, compared to about 3% of the citizens of the earliest states. Tribal violence commonly subsides when a state or empire imposes control over a territory, leading to the various “paxes” (Romana, Islamica, Brittanica and so on) that are familiar to readers of history.

The second decline of violence was a civilizing process that is best documented in Europe. Historical records show that between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a 10- to 50-fold decline in their rates of homicide.
The numbers are consistent with narrative histories of the brutality of life in the Middle Ages, when highwaymen made travel a risk to life and limb and dinners were commonly enlivened by dagger attacks. So many people had their noses cut off that medieval medical textbooks speculated about techniques for growing them back.

Historians attribute this decline to the consolidation of a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms with centralized authority and an infrastructure of commerce. Criminal justice was nationalized, and zero-sum plunder gave way to positive-sum trade. People increasingly controlled their impulses and sought to cooperate with their neighbors.

It’s not that the first kings had a benevolent interest in the welfare of their citizens. Just as a farmer tries to prevent his livestock from killing one another, so a ruler will try to keep his subjects from cycles of raiding and feuding. From his point of view, such squabbling is a dead loss—forgone opportunities to extract taxes, tributes, soldiers and slaves.

Note this chart as well:

A Theology of Space Travel 1.8

On the third day, God created the Earth. The stars, planets and indeed the universe was made on the fourth day. Thus, the earth is the centerpiece of creation, it is, in some sense, the most important place in the Universe although our modern cosmology teaches us that it is an insignificant speck in the cosmos. Just as life radiated out from the Garden of Eden into the wider world and covenant life radiated out from Israel to the Nations, we can expect life to radiate out from our garden home to other planets.


The other planets might conceivably contain plant life. Although earthen plants were created on the third day, when God spread out the expanse of the heavens on day four, he might have included edible plants on the other planets as a preparation for our arrival there in the future. Animals were created on days five and six, not in tandem with or before the other planets, and I doubt that they were created or could be self-sustaining on off-earth worlds. We do have a picture of how to get animals to these future homes however, and it is in the person of Noah.

Just as Noah delivered the animals to a renewed earth by traveling through a watery expanse, future colonizers can carry animals of all kinds through space to a new world. While the technological challenges to this seem insurmountable in our time, the passage of time coupled with technological progress guided by the Holy Spirit may provide avenues to this possibility in the future. Theologian James Jordan often refers to the biologist Rupert Sheldrake and his theory of morphic fields related to humanity and the cosmos. As Jordan puts it:

Sheldrake argues that while there is no inheritance of acquired characteristics in the genetic sense, there is such an inheritance in a field” sense. Each animal, crystal, human society, etc. has a “type,” and that “type” changes in time in response to changed conditions and as a result of habitual reinforcement. Changes in “type” of affect entire populations of a given kind of creature, and usually happen in response to catastrophic changes in environment. Such patterns or habits of existence exist at various hierarchical levels, so that as regards human life, certain sub-groups within a nation may become loosely patterned toward certain occupations, while the nation itself may become loosely patterned toward certain orientations, and the human race as a whole is being patterned by God’s hand toward her fulfillment and destiny.

Jordan cites Sheldrakian morphic changes as a reason for humans breaking into different colors, sizes and so on after the Flood. He speculates that humans and animals would undergo further catastrophic changes once removed to other planets.

Postmillenial Christians should rejoice in these possibilities. God has provided for expansion, dominion and worship of Christ to take hold across the Universe. Learning how to tend the waste places of Earth should teach us how to colonize and bring life to other planets. The Church will in the future be confronted with how to bring the sacramental life and the Scripture to these places, it cannot be left to a secular sphere. A society capable of reaching the planets would potentially be the Second or Fifth Christendom, and so the configuration of the Church might be very different at that time.

Scholasticism

Leithart describes scholasticism as follows:

On the surface, scholasticism was a systematic way of organizing theology and a method for resolving apparent contradictions in the tradition. Medieval theologians inherited a rich and varied tradition but one that was not always internally consistent. When Augustine says X, and Ambrose says Y, and the Bible says Z, what are we to do? Is this a contradiction, or are they speaking of different things or of the same thing in different ways? Add Aristotle into the mix, and you have most of the sources for scholastic theology. Scholasticism was also an attempt to harmonize faith and reason, an effort to demonstrate that the truths of Christian faith did not contradict logic and reason.

Ishmael the Archer

Hagar leaves Ishmael in the desert to die and goes “about a bowshot away.” When Ishmael grows up, “the lad…became an archer.” Genesis 21.16, 20. In Hebrew the terms are something like “shooting-of-bow” (Qesheth) and “one being grand (with) bow” (Qashshath).

As an old magazine I found says, this might be an archer’s description of the scene, possibly given by Ishmael himself.

Leisure

Thomas Fleming’s commentary is fantastic:

Only a maniac would have devised the Protestant Work Ethic, and only a fool would try to live his life according to it.

The ancients knew better. If they had any money, they had slaves to do all the heavy lifting, including going over the accounts and taking dictation and reading books aloud. For the Romans, otium—leisure was the desired state, while the opposite word, negotium—non-leisure—is the word we routinely translate as business. (The Italians know the score, and negotium has become negozio, shop or store, a place where people have to a work that is necessary but undesirable. The late Josef Pieper understood the ancient and the Christian mind, and his little essay, Leisure the Basis of Culture is a wholesome antidote to the great American obsession with the supposed virtues of work. What other country could have created such preposterous humbugs as Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, or—the ultimate in humbuggery—Rick Warren, whose very title (The Purpose-Driven Life) gives me the jim-jams. Imagine a country that could produce such a book and, worse, produce enough readers to make Warren a success. My people, my people.

We have demonized the sense of otium, which survives in English as the adjective otiose, used sometimes to mean “indolent” but more typically in the sense of “serving no practical purpose.” When we do celebrate leisure, it is usually in the form of “leisure-time activities,” expensive and time-consuming sports and hobbies that we pursue with the same grim determination we apply to our jobs. A bass fisherman without tens of thousands of dollars of equipment cannot be taken seriously, and golfers—just listen to them talk about their handicaps, the length of their drives, the 78 they shot on the back nine. It’s all a matter of keeping score.

If a golfer did not continue to buy the latest technology or keep score of his accomplishments, he would be simply having a good time that serves “no practical purpose.” It’s not the competition, even in sports and hobbies is not healthy and, for normal men at least, inevitable, but we Americans seem to care less and less about the game itself and more and more about the statistics. Just try watching a game on television some time, as the game-changing triple or strike-out interrupts the play-by-play announcer’s recitation of irrelevant facts about other players in other games.

How do you know you are winning if you are not keeping score? Forty years ago, as I recall, a man in business was supposed to make, at a minimum, as many thousands as he had years. Now, I suppose, it is double that. We have blood pressure scores, weight loss scores, and men know how much weight they can press (Don’t ask, because my answer is sure to embarrass someone.) When we are born, we are assigned an Apgar score; later we are given a Personal Vitality Score. Fortunately, I have never learned what they call the mortality score they assign to dying people.

There is nothing too trivial or too important not to receive a number. We grade women in a bar on a scale of one to ten, and we use the same scale to evaluate decisions. “On a scale of one to ten, how highly do you value access to a beach in your retirement community?” Part of this obsession can be blamed on teachers who think test numbers actually correspond to some reality. But a lot of it is related to our need to be important.

Americans who are anybody are determined to be a somebody, whether it is on Wall Street or the Country Club. St. Paul has that nice phrase about people who say they are something. He was warning his readers about taking themselves too seriously as objects of importance. I do not know what he could have said to modern Americans, who are positively convinced that it is their duty to be somebody.

Most of us fail to become the Donald Trump or Barry Bonds or Michael Jackson we are in our dreams, and when we do we are not content to settle down with the girl next door and lead the normal human life we were made for. Some of us waste our time on schemes to make ourselves rich and famous—Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Cramden is a more tragic and pathetic character than Willy Loman. Or we spend our lives wailing over what might have been. “I coulda had class, I couda been a contender, I couda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

Most of Martin Scorsese’s best characters are driven mad by the desire to be somebody among the hundreds of millions of nobodies that fill up these United States. The Taxi Driver takes on the burden of avenging the sufferings of child prostitutes, and the King of Comedy dreams of being the next Johnny Carson. (Johnny who? That guy before Letterman and Leno?)

Back in my misspent middle age, when I used to read (and occasionally write for) The National Review, I was forever seeing ads for Mr. Buckley’s personal accounts of his own life. In books like Cruising Speed and Overdrive, as I recall from brief extracts, poor Bill never had a moment to himself. It was breakfast with Henry Kissinger, meetings with the secretaries of this and that, rehearsals for a harpsichord concert at Carnegie Hall, a spy thriller chapter banged out, more meetings with more secretaries, and an evening out with some of the Beautiful People. Lord, how I pitied the poor fellow.

George Harrison’s Approach to God

     I think it is worthwhile to examine George Harrison’s thoughts about God, ethics and the afterlife. This might seem like a trivial investigation into pop culture, but I think it illustrates much of what passes for religious thought in the populace of our day. Whether or not the Beatles and Harrison are responsible for the ‘theology’ of our day, or whether they were just riding the wave (as John Lennon said) I will leave for others to decide. I do think that Harrison’s theologizing stands in sharp contrast to what God has revealed to us in Scripture and also that Harrison’s version of Hare Krishna is much more amenable to our way of life.


Harrison as a Born-Again Krishna Devotee

     Harrison was born into a Roman Catholic household. His portrayal of Christianity seems to be stiff and stereotypical, not corresponding to what he might have discovered if he had studied the riches of the faith. Harrison’s advocacy for chanting in a Hare Krishna temple contrasted the experience with his Christian background in the Catholic Church. He said:

But part of Krishna consciousness is trying to tune in all the senses of all the people: to experience God through all the senses, not just by experiencing Him on Sunday, through your knees by kneeling on some hard wooden kneeler in the church. But if you visit a temple, you can see pictures of God, you can see the Deity form of the Lord, and you can just hear Him by listening to yourself and others say the mantra. It’s just a way of realizing that all the senses can be applied toward perceiving God, and it makes it that much more appealing, seeing the pictures, hearing the mantra,smelling the incense, flowers, and so on. That’s the nice thing about your movement. It incorporates everything–chanting, dancing, philosophy, and prasadam.

Let’s consider Harrison’s thoughts: first, he contrasts experiencing God through all the senses vs. just experiencing him on Sunday on your knees on a kneeler. Coming from a former Catholic, this strikes me as particularly puzzling. Catholic churches use incense, statues, pictures, rosaries and the ritual action of the liturgy as means to experience God. Harrison goes on to mention pictures, incense and movement as part of the appeal of Hare Krishna! You would think he was coming from some sort of harsh background that forbid pictures in worship, but he wasn’t. The only conclusion I draw is that he was very poorly catechized in the faith of his birth.
The only practice he mentions that I can see being absent from Catholicism is dancing (in worship). And I’m sure that there was a sense in the 60’s that Christianity was dead and formal whereas the new religions were full of life and light. That is the sense I get from reading anyway. 1950’s Protestantism and Catholicism don’t strike me as particularly exciting. They seem to have lost the excitement of the Christian story in the fervor of the modern Atomic Age. This is a generalization of course. Currently, on the other side of the massive revolution that occurred in church music and experience it is hard to imagine the contrast in formality and dress that the Krishna movement (or the Jesus People for that matter) presented to someone in 1968. So maybe the more uninhibited nature of Krishna worship impressed people like Harrison, but his characterizations of the Church are not accurate.
[To be continued]