Paulus Torchus

Month: April, 2013

The Ancient Greeks: Reflections on a Course-week 6

Socrates saves Alcibiades from certain moral peril!

Socrates saves Alcibiades from certain moral peril!

We know of three things that happened mid-400s BCE. In 451 BCE, the Athenians tightened citizenship requirements. Previously you needed to have an Athenian father. Now you needed an Athenian father and a mother who was the daughter of a citizen. Why? We don’t really know. Possibly there was a massive influx of foreigners. Anyway, the effect is that the number of citizens stays stable and actually drops during the coming war.

In 445 BCE, Athens and Sparta sign a 30 year peace treaty.

In 442/1 BCE, Athens sides with the Ionians when the polis of Miletus gets in a fight with the island of Samos. Athens sends 60 ships and the Samians are defeated. The Samians are hit with a mild penalty (they have to contribute cash instead of ships now).

Thucydides was the historian of this period. He was born around 460 BCE. He caught and survived the plague of Athens (more on that later). He was a general in the North Aegean. His family had gold mines. He was defeated by the Spartan general Brasidas and exiled for 20 years, after which he returned to Athens and died somewhere around 400 BCE. We are going to get a lot of this week’s information from him, so we might do well to take a look at his influences. He was influenced by the Sophists, who were travelling rhetoric teachers who taught students to question received ideas. Protagoras and Gorgias were great influences on him (relativism and “man is the measure of all things”). Also Hippocratic medicine (medicine now featuring science, rationalism, and empirical evidence!) which taught that health depends on balancing forces within. Also, of course, Herodotus.The two historians are so much of a type that someone made this bizarre bust of them:ImageThucydides is writing in a tradition now although he says that his is contemporary and non-mythic, unlike Herodotus. He focused his history tightly on the war and, as a result, you do not have religion, women, culture, or any of the other richness of life that you have with Herodotus. You do, however, have a more concise history of the war. He attempts to make his speeches accurate. On the rare occasions that he appears in the narrative, he writes in the 3rd person.

The fox has many tricks. The hedgehog only has one trick. But it’s a good one. This is how the professor introduced Athens and Sparta in this period. Athens is the fox and Sparta is sort of rolled up in a little ball. Thucydides says that there are 3 causes for the war:

1) There was a conflict between Corinth and Corcyra (one of their colonies). Athens sided with Corcyra (which, oddly enough, is pronounced exactly like the website on which I am taking this class).

2) a Corinthian colony is ordered by Athens to tear down its wall. The colony appealed to Corinth for help.

3) Megara gets involved on the Corinthian side and so Athens hits Megara with “The Megarian Decree,” which is essentially a hefty embargo.

And so Corinth is the catalyst for the breakdown of the 30 years peace. At the congress at Sparta, a Corinthian made a speech of appeal in which he said, “Athens is always on the move. Sparta is tucked in upon itself, but now is the time to act.”

And the king of Sparta replied, “Hey, it’s worked for us for centuries.” Sparta is reluctantly drawn in. And so the Greek world sides off into Spartans or Athenians. In 431 BCE, the war breaks out. This is, by the way since I just noticed I haven’t named it, the Peloponnesian War. Here’s an important map:


Those thick black lines you see are walls. Who was inside those walls? The Athenians. Wasn’t it crowded? You bet! Was there a plague? There certainly was.

Pericles drew everyone into the walls and thought, “As long as we have our fleet out there, we’ll be fine.” People were not happy about having to leave their demes for the inside of the long wall. This marks a new type of war. Gone were the hoplite lines battling against one another. There were now fleets and walls and all sorts of new facets of life during wartime. At the end of the first year of the war, Pericles gave a speech for the fallen. He urges the Athenians to maintain their way of life:

“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger… you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts.”

The plague probably came by ship. It spread like a brush-fire. As was so often the case, people are further disturbed by the seeming randomness of the plague. As I mentioned, Thucydides caught it and was one of the few lucky enough to recover. 1/3rd of the population died. Law collapsed. People stricken with the plague threw themselves into wells. People threw the bodies of their dead onto other people’s funeral pyres (highly disrespectiful). People blamed Pericles. He was not elected general. Then he died of the plague. A rather grim end for such a pivotal figure in our narrative.

Thucydides extolls Pericles’ insight, foresight, and devotion. It’s important to note that this may have a lot to do with how much Thucydides HATES his successor. Cleon was a new kind of politician. He went to the people. He also marks the beginning of a rise of a political class. Aristophanes said that he stunk because his family owned a tannery. Thucydides called him “the most violent and persuasive citizen.” He is remembered for all of history as filthy, low, cowardly, and greedy.

Some dates: 429 BCE= the death of Pericles.

428/7 BCE= a revolt on Mytilene. The Athenians crush the revolt with the ultimate penalty, death to all adult males, all women and children sold into slavery. There is a debate between Cleon and Diodotus (the latter of whom takes the side of maintaining Mytilene). Diodotus wins and fast rowers are dispatched to try to prevent the wholesale slaughter. They arrive with the news of the winner of the debate just in time to save the adult males of Mytilene.

In 425 BCE= Cleon’s victory at Pylos/Sphacteria. Cleon was on a mission in the South in Pylos. They are trapped by a Spartan force. Cleon boasts “I will take care of the Spartans.” He goes. There is an aleatory brush-fire which diminishes Sparta’s capacity to hold the battlefield and Cleon wins the day. But while Cleon is campaigning in the South, the Spartans are campaigning in the North where:

In 424 BCE= Thucydides’ loss to Brasidas. Brasidas was also a new kind of general. He led a force of Spartans, mercenaries, and, if you can believe it, Helots. This does reveal a manpower shortage. He wins against Thucydides. Cleon exiles Thucydides. Cleon goes to meet Brasidas in battle.

In 422 BCE= Cleon dies in battle against Brasidas. Brasidas also dies in the battle.

In 421= The Peace of Nicias. The terms of peace are that it is to last for 50 years. Disputes are to be settled by arbitration. The Athenians are overjoyed with the peace. “Down with my shield! Let it be covered with cobwebs!”


We took a break at this point to discuss comedy. Much like the tragedies, we also have few surviving comedies (about 11 out of 400) and all of the surviving ones were penned by Aristophanes. Unlike tragedies, comic poets made up their own plots. The plots often centered on common people. The formula was that the comic hero gets a great idea, implements it, overcomes opposition, and then enjoys the fruits of his idea. We read The Acharnians in which Dicaeopolis, a common citizen of Athens, decides to make a private peace with Sparta.

Comedy was wildly inventive and lacked some of the constraint of solemn tragedy. There could (and would) be violence on stage as well as unfettered obscenity. They would also break the Fourth Wall. They would, in the course of the show, talk about people who would be in the audience for the performance. To be singled out for ridicule was also sort of a point of honor (you’d “made it” if you were worthy of notice for ridicule).

After the Peace of Nicias, there were factions on both sides who wanted the war to continue. It is said that there were not really two Peloponnesian Wars, but rather one war with a pause in the middle of it. Two Spartan Ephors tried to get Corinth to ally with Thebes against Athens. Alcibiades (another name we’ll hear more about) persuaded Elis and Mantinea to ally against Sparta. The Spartans won and Alcibiades was almost ostracized. Instead, the last ostracism took place. Hyperbolus (his actual name) was ostracized instead. It was said, “Hyperbolus deserved the ostracism, but Ostracism did not deserve Hyperbolus.” Meaning he wasn’t important enough to be ostracized and, as a result, the institution of ostracism crumbled.

In 416 BCE, the Athenians go to Melos and demand that they join their confederacy. Melos, an Athenian settlement, had remained neutral up to this point. Alcibiades was probably responsible for what followed, The Melian Dialogue. This was likely a fiction as the dialogue was in public. The Athenians give Melos as choice: become tribute paying members of our confederacy or be destroyed.

“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

A bleak but true assessment of the human situation I think.

Melos’ continued neutrality was a threat to Athens. As we see in the myth of Pandora, hope might be, in some ways, the worst thing unleashed on humankind. Hope is extravagant and people like Melos cannot afford her. Athens says, “If you were in our position, you would do the same thing.” The Melians resist. Athens brings her fleet and kills almost all of the adult males (a few flee successfully) and sells the women and children into slavery. They resettle Melos with 500 Athenians.


Behold, the strikingly handsome Alcibiades!

Let’s talk about the Symposium. The word means “drinking together” and there is a reason for that. The Symposium was not as we might imagine today. It was not like a modern “Symposium on Economic Development Whatnot.” Citizens (adult males) would recline on couches. There was a mixing bowl called a “krater” in the center of the room filled with a mixture of water and wine (to symbolize the mixture of business and pleasure taking place). There would be food, drinking games, music, conversation, poetry readings, and sex. Some of the images on the vases… I wonder if some museums don’t have parental guidance ratings. My favorite image shown was this vase of a master who has overindulged in the drinking portion and his slave holds his hair back as the master is about to, as we used to say in college, bark at the ants. He’s going to call Uncle Ralph up on the Greek pottery. He’s going to do the Athenian yodel:


From the National Museum of Denmark no less.

There was also the image from a vase of men at the Symposium flirting with one another. This is an aspect of Greek culture that we had not covered yet. Homosexuality was an elite practice. An older man (“the lover”) would be with a younger man (“the beloved”). There were rules of protocol in these relationships. The older would never use force. The beloved would not ask for gifts. (I couldn’t help but think of the trial of Oscar Wilde at this point, especially the part where Wilde invoked this ancient tradition. Lord Alfred Douglas did not adhere to this rule for the beloved.) It is important to note that these men also had wives and families. There was not the hetero/homosexual divide that we have in our culture.

We ended with more about Alcibiades. He was another blue-blood, a nephew of Pericles. He was beautiful, brilliant, and unscrupulous (again, Lord Alfred Douglas came to mind). In 416 BCE, he won the Olympic chariot race. The public had enormous fascination with this man. He was a bit of a superstar. He was a friend of Socrates. At one point he attempted to seduce Socrates, but Socrates declined any form of physical love (as we learn most of what we know of Socrates from Plato, this is where the term “Platonic” comes from). Alcibiades played a central role in the invasion of Sicily which we will cover in next week’s exciting conclusion to this series (the final class being on my personal favorite figure in all of antiquity. Here’s a hint: he is mentioned in this very paragraph!)


Birthday Weekend

I want to write about my birthday weekend before I forget what happened. Last Saturday I turned 36. Laurie had a women’s luncheon in which they wore fancy hats and all brought different types of salads. This freed me up to write about Ancient Greece and mow the lawn. In the evening, Laurie made me a wonderful dinner (which included the remains of her wonderful salad) and a cake. I opened my present from my Mom which was The Vatican and Saint Peter’s Basilica of Rome by Paul Letarouilly.

923482_10151599233912340_998320600_n It is architectural sketches of the places mentioned in the title. The book itself is a work of art.

391041_10151599235007340_1100195016_n And, yes, I wore a Hawaiian shirt on my birthday. Because it was my birthday.

On Sunday afternoon, we went to hear members of the North State Symphony and members of various choral groups perform Vivaldi’s Gloria (as well as other choral pieces in similar veins). It was held at the First Lutheran Church in Chico. I’d never been in the building before and it had the usual Lutheran attention to architecture and pipe organs.


Here is what I saw if I looked directly upward from my seat.



The artists entered and I put my camera phone away. The piece was breathtaking.

On Monday, I received a package of a third present from my mother. Divers and sundry teas from Teavana! Two of Earl Grey Créme, My Morning Maté, something called Golden Monkey, Capital of Heaven Keemun, and Youthberry Wild Orange Blossom Blend with Rock Sugar Sample.


I’ve been drinking My Morning Maté all week.

The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill


It is not that I disliked the book by any means. It is not even that I actively disliked John Stuart Mill. I need to make a distinction between “to dislike” and “to not like.” But I also need to express that one can like and not like a book at the same time. One can agree with an author on some points and strongly disagree with him on others. One can be interested in what an author is saying and in no way be moved by it.

This was roughly my experience with John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography.

Dr. Eliot explained the placement of the book in this series by drawing particular attention to Mill’s philosophy of education. Eliot takes care to establish that this is not a brag book (which, after reading it, I am not sure I buy. For example, Mill says at one point about reading The Wealth of Nations and discovering the logical flaws in Mr. Smith’s ideas. But he doesn’t tell us what they are, which strikes me as being a show-off smarty-pants) but rather a way of using his own superior education as a model for young people. It is, indeed, rigorous and, indeed, enviable. The first third of the book is primarily things that his father made him read or allowed him to read and his reactions to them. This serves as a sort of autobiography of ideas. This was my favorite part of the book.

Mill’s relationship with his father struck me as a bit cold and distant, although Mill seems to be entirely unaware of this. This brings me to the coldness of the book. Any emotional reaction I had to this book I was entirely responsible for. To put it another way, so often I find that I prefer to read the ancient or at least historical voices because I like building the bridge of time and being able to interact with people long gone, to see that they aren’t really dead in that meme sort of way, that the human experience has not really changed from the earliest of writings to the most modern. Mill was a rare instance where I felt as if the author barred that gate for me.

So now we need to talk about Mill’s Utilitarianism and atheism. Mill’s father was close friends with Jeremy Bentham and instrumental, as it were, in the cohesion of Utilitarianism into a philosophical school. Mill’s father was also an atheist. Both seemed to transfer completely to Mill. While Mill and I would feel the same about slavery or women’s suffrage, we would have very different reasons for feeling that way. Mill would feel that way because his philosophy states that the highest good is that which produces pleasure. I would feel that way because my beliefs state that humans are made in the image of God and ought to be treated with dignity and reverence for life.

This, of course, matters. It doesn’t just matter that people agree with you. It matters why they agree with you. Someone can find their way to the same conclusion on a matter by entirely different means, means which are abhorrent. However, I would also state that this is a valuable thought exercise. One thing I did not feel was that reading this was in any way a waste of time. It forced me to think through why I feel the way I do about certain things.

Next up is Mill’s essay on Liberty with I am already creatively disagreeing with. More soon.

The Ancient Greeks: Reflections on a Course-week 5

This week we reached the so-called “Fifty Great Years.” This afforded an opportunity to slow down a bit and flesh out some of the elements of life in Athenian culture.

In 479 BCE, there was euphoria over the Greek victory over the Persians (something I had in mind while hearing about Boston in the past 24 hours.) Two of the major results of the end of the conflict were, naturally, the end of the Persian threat, but also Greek unity for a time. Again, I think this is something we moderns have experienced. There was a column erected at Delphi which read “These fought the war: The Lacedaimonians, The Athenians, The Corinthians, The Tegeans, The Sicyonians…” and so on and so forth. It was later relocated to Turkey and resides in modern-day Istanbul:


This was a time of major ideological shift. There emerged a distinction between “Greek” and “Not Greek” which was covered by the word from which we derive “barbarians” (as you may have heard, so called because foreigners speaking in their native tongues sounded to the Greeks like they went around saying “bar bar bar bar bar.”) The Persians were viewed as “barbarians” par excellence.

It is also worth noting in that list from the Delphic Serpent Column that the two first names are indicative of what were universally known as the two major forces in Greek culture at the time: Sparta and Athens.

Pausanias was a Spartan and the victor in the Battle of Plataea. He was arrogant and went to Byzantium after the war, where he proceeded to “go native” in his dress and habits. He was recalled and punished, sent out again, did it again, and was recalled again. Walking down the street in Sparta, he saw an Ephor coming towards him. He fled to the temple for sanctuary. The Spartans held him inside the temple until he was starving, but took him out just before he died so as to not pollute the temple. He died. This was in 467 BCE, a mere dozen years after his heroic victory.

Themistocles also had a spotty post-Persian War life. The north of the Peloponnese remained unwalled as a sign of Greek unity. Athens thought that this was a bad idea (the Greeks were still unsure if they had total victory at this point). Themistocles went to Sparta to stall and distract the Spartans, then sent instructions back to Athens to rebuild those walls quickly. The Spartans sent an embassy to Athens where they were politely detained until the wall was successfully rebuilt. Needless to say, this was not a promising beginning. Themistocles was ostracized in 471/0 BCE, a scant 9 years after his victory. He went to Argos and riled up Anti-Spartan sentiment, then fled to Persia where he lived out the rest of his life as an adviser.

In 478/7 BCE, the Greeks formed a league at Delos (a sacred place for the worship of Apollo and Artemis as the myth had Delos as their birthplace.) The Delian League was Pan-Hellenic. The League principles were that the assembly from each state had an equal vote, each state was autonomous, and each state would provide annual support for the League either in the form of money or in the form of ships. If they chose ships, the ships would then belong to the state, but would be on loan to the League. Cash would go into a treasury to build ships which would be manned by Athenian sailors. All of this is a prelude to the coming Athenian domination in Greece. This was a huge conceptual change in Greek culture. No longer was it a society of hoplite soldiers. Now warfare was year-round as the navy was on constant patrol. The sailors received state pay. The navy was very costly.

Then we covered the Athenian takeover of the Delian League. Athens was “the first among equals.” Their ability to build and man ships shows a lot of freeman labor. Most of their state was coastlands or islands. Cimon, an Athenian general, led a fleet to the South Coast of Turkey. Between 469 and 466 BCE, he led victory on land and sea. Around 467, Naxos withdrew from the League. Naxos was in a strategic location and a ship contributor rather than a money contributor. So, the Athenians used the League to surround Naxos and force them to abandon their plans to leave the League.

Around 465 BCE, the Athenians quarrelled with Thasos over access to gold mines. The Athenians brought the League troops. Thasos appealed to Sparta for help. Sparta agreed to help and began to invade South Attica. Then, in 464 BCE, there was a large earthquake in Sparta which the Helot slaves used as occasion to (finally!) rebel. The crisis became so severe that the Spartans actually asked Athens for help! Cimon led a pro-Spartan help party in Athens saying “they are our great yoke-mates.” He brought 4,600 hoplite troops to Sparta. When they arrived, Sparta sent them home. We have no idea why. This was a tremendous insult. Cimon was ostracized in 461 BCE.

The Delian tribute list (which was the list of what each state contributed to the League) and the entire treasury was moved to Athens for “safe keeping.” Also, Athenian coin and measures were enforced throughout Greece. In 460 BCE, Athens allied with Megara to dominate the isthmus of Corinth. Corinth was outraged. Tensions were mounting, but we’ll return to all of this later because now we are going to talk about Pericles.

Pericles was born around 490 BCE. He was from an elite family in the clan of the Alcmaeonidae. Pericles was forced to participate in Cimon’s impeachment in 463 BCE which he did half-heartedly. Cimon was acquitted.

Pericles became a great statesman and orator. His power stemmed from his controlling discourse. He was called “The Olympian” because of his aloof, austere, and aristocratic demeanor. He was known to be personally incorruptible (coming from such great wealth, he couldn’t be bribed as he didn’t need bribes). His ambition was for Athens rather than for himself. He associated with leading intellectuals. His mistress was one Aspasia who was also regarded as brilliant. They became sort of a “power couple.”



I should note that he did not rule Athens, but his influence was remarkable.

In 450 BCE came the Peace of Callias between Greece and Persia. This official peace rendered the Delian League obsolete. The Delian League pretty much just transformed into the Athenian Empire at that point.

We took some time to look at theater this week. It is important to note that the theater was not simple amusement as we might be inclined to view it. It was central to cultural and political life. It was always connected to ritual and always connected to Dionysus. Tragedy evolved out of choral competitions. By the 5th century BCE, it involved the entire community. There was a winter comedy festival and a spring tragedy festival. Here’s a diagram of a Greek theater:


The stage was the Skene. The Orchestra was the dance floor where the chorus would be. The seating of the audience on wooden benches was the Theatron, from which we get the name of the medium. These would be built with acoustic genius. You could hear a pin drop onstage from the back row as if it were happening right next to you.

The intended audience was the Athenian citizen. It is unknown if others could attend. The actors were all male and all masked.


This allowed people in the nose-bleed seats to be able to follow who was onstage.

Early in the year, the Archon chose three poets to write and three wealthy patrons to produce. There were ten judges, one from each tribe. There would be a procession in which a statue of Dionysus would be marched in and sat next to the priest and the judges. The procession also had young men whose fathers died in the war in the previous year, generals from the war, and from 454 BCE on, the treasury from the Delian League would be marched in the procession to show off to all of the people.

Only a small fraction of the plays survive. The poets were like public teachers, employed to dramatize the ancient myths. As is so often the case in art, in this turbulent time this also became a means by which to connect current issues with the ancient myths. Antigone, for example, was mentioned as having the themes of how one connects to one’s community and the question of where one’s loyalty lies. A Sophoclean hero was one who takes a position and sticks to it no matter what the cost.


We then looked at women in Athenian culture. The law was that women had to have an adult male guardian at every point in their life (parents to husband, and if he died, then on to some family member). This made them in similar social standing to children throughout their lives. They did not own property. It was said, “Marriage is for the woman what warfare is for the man.” Meaning the rite of passage into adulthood.


 Here is a vase with the image of a wedding procession. The procession terminated in the new husband’s home with the mother-in-law standing at the door prepared to receive them. It really was a transfer from one household (oikonomos, the word from which we get “economics”) to another. The women’s work was household management. A major part of their work was the production of cloth.

One point of contention was a culture that began of women going to the fountain to collect water. They would tarry and talk and socialize.

Women could also be hetaira, which I suppose one might translate as “adult entertainer.”

We have the image in tragedy of Medea who falls in love with Jason, but is about to be jilted by him, so she kills their children. She gives this (excerpt from her) telling speech about the lives of women:

This I know is true.
Of all things with life and understanding,
we women are the most unfortunate.
First, we need a husband, someone we get
for an excessive price. He then becomes
the ruler of our bodies. And this misfortune
adds still more troubles to the grief we have.
Then comes the crucial struggle: this husband
we’ve selected, is he good or bad?
For a divorce loses women all respect,
yet we can’t refuse to take a husband.
Then, when she goes into her husband’s home,
with its new rules and different customs,
she needs a prophet’s skill to sort out the man
whose bed she shares. She can’t learn that at home.
Once we’ve worked hard at this, and with success,
our husband accepts the marriage yoke
and lives in peace—an enviable life.
But if the marriage doesn’t work, then death
is much to be preferred. When the man tires
of the company he keeps at home, he leaves,
seeking relief for his distress elsewhere,
outside the home. He gets his satisfaction
with some male friend or someone his own age.
We women have to look at just one man.
Men tell us we live safe and secure at home,
while they must go to battle with their spears.
How stupid they are! I’d rather stand there
three times in battle holding up my shield
than give birth once.

There is one huge exception to this seemingly bleak life for women in this culture: Religion!


The myths had powerful female figures. Above is a relief of Demeter and Persephone giving the gift of grain to humankind. There were major female religious figures (think: the Oracle at Delphi, one of the most powerful figures in the entire culture). There were women’s only festivals. The professor ended by saying that one must admit that the Greek male attitude towards women was a complex attitude.

In the 450s BCE, the Athenians took 5,000 talents from tributes to be used for city beautification. This occasioned so many of the great architectural masterworks we associate with the city. Pericles enacted the building of the Propylaea, which was a great ceremonial entryway to the Acropolis. This serves as a boundary between the sacred and the worldly:


Visitors would stay in one of two waiting rooms. One of them contained a sacred art gallery.

A visitor’s first destination would be the Parthenon:


Ictinus and Callicrates were the architects. The columns were in the Doric style (sitting right on the flat base with a sort of cushion looking part on top). It was said “There is no such thing as a straight line in the Parthenon.” Curves everywhere! The columns had a slight bulge so that they did not appear hollowed out. The Parthenon was a Christian church at one later point and a mosque at an even later point. It was remarkably well preserved until 1687 when it was blown up to a large extent in the war between the Ottomans and the Venetians. It is remarkably sophisticated and richly ornamented. The east end pediments have a relief of the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus. The west has Athena and Poseidon’s contest. As so much of Greek sculpture, the original is thought to have been brightly painted, likely looking something like this:

painted parthenon

The Parthenon frieze ran around the upper interior featuring battle images:


Fortunately, about 80% of this is preserved today in the British Museum (known as the Elgin marbles for Lord Elgin who took the fragments in 1801). There was a frieze of a Pan-Athenaic procession: people on horses, people leading cattle, baskets of offerings, the end of which was a banquet of the gods. The gods are much larger than the humans in the frieze.

The center of the Parthenon featured a huge statue of Athena (here is a reproduction which is in Nashville, Tennessee of all places):


After Pericles came the Temple of Athena Nike (over on the upper right):


which featured battle scenes of the war with Persia.

Also the Erechtheion, a shrine to the hero Erichthonius, which featured the famous “porch of the maidens”:


Two more weeks to go.

The Ancient Greeks: Reflections on a Course-week 4

ImageWe are past the halfway point and it is beginning to sink in how much I am going to miss this course when it is over. So, Coursera and other online courses may become “a thing I do.”

Wrapping up an end from last week, Aristotle had to create a special category for Peisistratos. He said that tyranny was bad, but he had to say that Peisistratos was half-bad on account of how good he was. The good made him only half-bad.

In 528 BCE, rule passed to his sons Hippias and Hipparchus. They supported the arts and poetry. It is thought that Homer took on its (his?) canonical form in this period. Hipparchus was assassinated by Harmodius and Aristogeiton. They claimed they did it to “free Athens” but the true motivations seem to be a tad more personal. Apparently Hipparchus hit on Harmodius and was rebuffed. Hipparchus then forbade Harmodius’ sister from being a part of the Pan-Athenic celebration. The insult may not immediately translate well. This implied that Harmodius’ sister was not a virgin. In other words, it was like Hipparchus went on national television and said, “Your sister is a whore.”


Harmodius and Aristogeiton

So they stabbed him to death at the Pan-Athenic festivities in 540 BCE. Of course, this did not put an end to the tyranny. Hippias became a harsh, paranoid, and suspicious man after this, as one might imagine.

Then came the Athenian Revolution in which Hippias’ rule sort of imploded (which the professor likened to The Arab Spring in our own time as a spontaneous popular uprising). Isagoras, an Athenian, and Cleomenes, a Spartan, sought to dissolve the Boulê. More on what that was later. The Boulê resisted and Cleomenes and Isagoras occupied the Acropolis. The rest of the Athenians unite (Aristotle said, “The crowd gathered itself together”). They besiege the Spartan occupiers. Cleomenes surrenders on the third day and the Spartans withdraw under truce. Cleisthenes, a leader made popular in the revolt, was called back to the city. He would change the direction of Athens and, arguably, the course of human politics forever.

Cleisthenes was a member of the Alcmaeonidae, a ruling clan cursed due to Megacles a century prior (remember him?). He furnished a new temple in Delphi and bribed the oracle to say “free Athens” whenever a Spartan came to ask her what to do. He divided Attika into 3 regions, the city, the coast, and inland. Each were divided into 10 artificial “trittyes” (3rds). So there were 30 in all. Each trittys includes a variable number of “demes.” A deme was a preexisting neighborhood. There were some 170 in all. Your deme became part of your identity and citizenship, so much so that it became part of your name. So, 10 new tribes, each consisting of 3 trittyes, one from each region. This was the death blow to the old clan power. He also dramatically reformed the Boulê, which was previously a more exclusive and shadowy governmental office from the time of Solon. It consisted of 500 men who served for one year, 50 from each tribe, selected by lot.

The Boulê served as sort of a political education center. There was even a process in which a citizen could oversee the entire process for 24 hours, but they could only do this once in their lifetime (sort of like “President for a day”). The Boulê framed legislation, they sent ambassadors to places where they felt they needed to send ambassadors, they scrutinized magistrates. This was all a massive undertaking!

One major shift was that political power could be achieved by great public speaking. There was an assembly, called the Ekklêsia, which included all citizens and guaranteed freedom of speech. All of this went down around 508-7 BCE. As you can see, we are moving rapidly towards something resembling democracy, a democracy which would last for 200 years.

We took a break from strict Athenian history at this point to examine another important figure, the historian Herodotus. His work was, in fact, the first known use of the word “historía” which meant “making inquiries.” He was from what would be modern day Turkey, born 484 BCE. He lived among survivors of the war with Persia and traveled widely. Some of his influences included Xenophanes, who was a ferocious religious skeptic who stated that the gods were made in our image, Hecateaeus, who, one generation before Herodotus, wrote about a trip “around the world” and the customs of the people observed, and, of course, Homer.

Herodotus said, “I know who first injured the Greeks.” He was speaking of Croesus. But then he jumps back five generations to the bizarre story of Candaules. Candaules tells his servant Gyges, “You’ve gotta see my wife naked.” Gyges declines, but Candaules persists. Finally, they set up a place for Gyges to hide and watch her get ready for bed. She sees him and does nothing to protest. The next day, she goes to Gyges and tells him that he can either kill Candaules and marry her, or he can die. Astute observers of human nature might suspect which he chooses and there is a prophecy that vengeance will come in the fifth generation, which turns out to be Croesus. Herodotus always portrayed cosmic justice which probably ensured his popularity, but may also have something to do with his reputation as “The Father of Lies” (or so posits this cynic and skeptic. That’s not from my class notes).

We revisit Solon’s visit to Croesus. Croesus, who is richer than any further comparison, asks Solon who is happiest in the world, expecting the answer to be “You!” Solon thinks for a minute and says, “Tellus, for he died fighting for his country.”

Croesus says, “Okay, then who is the second happiest?”

“Well, this one’s a tie between Kleobis and Biton, two brothers who drew their mother to a temple by oxcart. When they got there, she went in and prayed for their happiness and they died peacefully in their sleep.”

Croesus’ consternation is answered with the famous line, “Call no man happy until he’s dead.” Which is to say that the seemingly happiest of people can have extreme turns of fortune, an vice versa.


Kleobis and Biton

Croesus, as a karmic (yeah, wrong ancient civilization. I know) punishment for calling himself happiest, watches his son die. Croesus gets a bee in his bonnet to attack Persia. He goes and asks the Oracle at Delphi what will happen if he does. She says, “You will destroy a great empire.” Again, hubris gets in the way of him asking which empire he’ll destroy. Cyrus drives him back. The story goes that Croesus was captured and put in a pyre to be burned alive. Cyrus repents mid-fire, but it’s too late to save Croesus. Croesus prays and rain comes and quenches the fire. Cyrus then makes Croesus an advisor.

We see a recurring pattern in Herodotus: a Ruler in a good position wants more, seeks it foolishly, suffers the consquences, repeat.

Cyrus is killed in battle. The Magi took over for a time, but were kicked out. From 522-486 reigned Darius (right after Cyrus. The ears of students of the book of Daniel might be perking up here.) Today we still have the Behistun inscription in Iran with text underneath about Darius’ conquests:


He had a massive empire spanning from Europe to India as well as massive wealth. In 508 BCE, Cleomenes of Sparta decided that he wanted to reassert himself. Other countries simultaneously had designs on Athens. Sparta turned back from a campaign on Athens due to internal strife and the Athenians were successful in fending off the invaders from points elsewhere. They became proud of their military prowess.

During the threat from outside, ambassadors were sent to Persia for aid. Persia agrees in exchange for “Earth and Water.” Here is where cultural misunderstandings take a major role. The Athenians accepted, assuming that this meant some token or ceremony. To the Persians, “Earth and Water” meant that you essentially become their servants.

Aristagoras was the leader of Miletus in 499 BCE. He went to Sparta for help with the Ionian revolt (a revolt against Persian rule). Sparta refused. He went to Athens. They agreed to help. Hippias was still alive and well in Persia and planning a return. Athens lent a fleet of 24 ships. They went to Sardis and burned it (Croesus’ home was in Sardis.) Naturally, this didn’t sit well with the Persians who had been promised “Earth and Water.” So much so that Darius gave one of his servants the job of saying to him, “Master, remember the Athenians” in order to keep his rage stoked.

In 494 BCE, Miletus was sacked and burned. The Ionian revolt was squelched. Darius then went after the Athenians demanding Earth and Water. Envoys were sent to Sparta and a great sacrilege was committed. Envoys were supposed to be protected, but the Spartans threw them in a well and said, “Get your own earth and water.”

Because they were Spartans.

This broke the code of ambassadors and you can bet Herodotus is going to make a cosmic justice example out of this. In 491 BCE, the Persians invade Eretria and destroy it… I’m going to give you the option here over how closely you want to follow these battles by throwing a map below and then just running ahead with the narrative like a bull:


Click to enlarge

The Greeks are in a stunned panic by the news of this. Hippias is with the invaders and has a dream about making love with his mother. He interprets this to mean that he is going to regain power (clearly because this is about 2200 years before Freud might have suggested a more accurate way to interpret such a dream). Hippias is quite old at this point and, when he lands, he coughs out one of his teeth. He tries to find it, but cannot. He realizes that the only portion he is going to receive of Greece is that which is tooth now possesses.

Miltiades the Younger was a famous general. He mounted a hoplite campaign at Marathon in which he placed his best troops on the sides to attack the flanks of the opposing troops. It worked! 200 some Athenians were killed versus over 6,000 Persians dead. Then came the famous story of the runner who ran to tell the news and dropped dead upon arrival, which, for some reason, is why we choose to call a Marathon a Marathon. For me, that would seem like the last thing you would want to call an event like that if you wanted anyone to participate.


The photo above is of Miletus’ helmet from Marathon which he dedicated to the temple of Zeus at Olympia. As you can see, it still exists and if you look at the upper chin/jawline, you can see some characters which are Miletus’ inscription of his name in his own hand.

Of course, this wasn’t the end of the war.

Miletus took a campaign against Peros and failed. He was charged by one Xanthippus with treason for misleading the people. He received an enormous fine (about as much as a prosperous city would make in a year.) In 488 BCE, the first ostracism took place. You will remember the process in which people could be exiled by popular vote. It now became a way for powerful people to put away their enemies. Their property would be conserved in their absence and returned to them upon restoration. Many powerful men would end up ostracized by their enemies influence. In 486, Xanthippus was even ostracized (cosmic justice again).


We actually still have one of the potsherds used to vote in ostracisms with the name of Xanthippus written on it.

In 487 BCE, Archon selection process was changed from a vote to “by lot.” Their waning political power marked a rise in the political power of generals.

Themistocles was a tricky figure, sort of reminiscent of Odysseus. He was a general at Marathon. Afterwards he struck a major silver lode in mines in the South-East. He convinced the assembly not to use the wealth produced from this lode to build a wall, but rather to build a fleet of ships with three tiers of rowers.


Behold, a modern reproduction of one of the major contributors to the Greek victory in the Persian War!

The three tiers of rowers produced great speed. The “beak” in front of the ship could be used to ram into enemies ships and puncture them. Also, soldiers would be in a compartment in the prow from which they could spring and attack a ship if the ramming didn’t do the trick. The new positions produced by the new Athenian naval power was a boon to the urban poor. This was a “job creating” move as well.

Darius died in the mid-480s BCE. Xerxes succeeded and did not stop the war. He rather escalated it and saw it to its conclusion.

Xerxes asks his advisers what he should do. His uncle says that too much could go wrong and that he should consolidate power in Persia. Xerxes is enraged and his uncle recants. Xerxes has a dream in which a mystical figure tells him “Attack the Greeks.” His uncle doubts it and goes and sleeps in the same bed. He has a dream where the same terrible figure comes and threatens him. Xerxes goes to war with the Greeks.

Xerxes is another figure who exemplifies hubris. He builds a bridge at Hellespont. A storm breaks it. Xerxes gets so mad that he has the water whipped and burnt with hot irons. The bridge is built. They work their way to attack the Greeks across land and sea. Many Persian ships (and lives) are lost in a storm around Euboea.

The Spartans send a force of 300 (I am given to understand that there is a recent film called 300 about this battle. I have not viewed it yet.) Xerxes sends a spy who sees the Spartans playing games and combing out their long hair. He comes back and they laugh about this. Again, this is an instance of cultural misunderstanding. This is what Spartans did when they were preparing to die in battle. At the site of the battle of Thermopylae is a sign:

“Traveller, you who pass by,

Go tell the Spartans that faithful to the end here we lie.”

This battle bought time for the rest of the Greeks. They evacuated Attika. The oracle at Delphi told them “Trust your wooden walls.” Themistocles said, “That means our ships!”

The Persians sack and burn the evacuated Athens (which Herodotus views as cosmic justice for the mistreatment of the envoys from earlier in our story). In 480 BCE, the two fleets confront one another. Themistocles sends a message to Xerxes that the Greeks are going to escape and that he should cut them off at this particular point, which happen to be compact straits. In the Battle of Salamis, the swift, small Greek ships demolished the larger Persian fleet. Xerxes fled over land and Themistocles sends him another message: “Remember, I let you live.”

In 479 BCE was the last battle of the war, led by the Spartans. The Greek victory was total. Sparta and Athens were now equal as the first among polities.

Let’s All Write A Concrete Poem!

The Concrete Poem is a playful form in which the poet arranges words in a visual style as an alternative vehicle of communication. One might play with fonts, arrangement, and shapes to add to what is being communicated in the piece. It is integrating the graphic arts into poetic composition.

“Wait a minute!” I hear you cry. “Isn’t this the same as a Calligram? Haven’t we already done this?”

Well, let’s take a look at what Ron Padgett says.

Uh, as best I can make out, there isn’t all that much of a difference. There might be the suggestion that a Calligram is more like a poem in the shape of the thing (a poem about the Eiffel Tower in the shape of the Eiffel Tower and so forth). There may also be a suggestion that this is simply a more advanced evolution of the form, one that now integrates color and typeface.

Nonetheless, I found this to be fun to play with, even though I felt like it was a form that I was playing with again. I wrote two. You may need to click on the first to enlarge it to be able to read it properly.



The Ancient Greeks: Reflections on a Course-week 3


Even their ruins are Spartan!

I feel that one of the most fascinating portions of this course so far has been the section on Sparta. The professor warns us, “If ancient evidence needs to be handled with caution, the evidence about Sparta needs to come with a warning label.”

Sparta was utterly different from the rest of Ancient Greece and, indeed, the rest of the ancient world. It was apparently not as isolated as we once thought. Their trade network may not have been extensive, but there is evidence of Sparta wear and pottery found in other areas.

Sparta had a sort of “radical equality,” although there seem to have been class distinctions nonetheless. Sparta was in the south. It began as four unwalled villiages, but coalesced and took advantage of their location. They were next to the river Eurotas and between two mountain ranges. They had access to water, they were highly defensible, and they could control access.

In Homer, Sparta is the home of Menelaus and Helen (as in “of Troy.”)

Their archeological evidence is meager and the buildings that we do have are sparse (which is part of why this portion of my notes will read a bit scattershot). There is evidence of social unrest in the late 700s. In about 710 BCE they founded their only colony down in the southern boot of Italy. Their chief poet was Tyrtaeus whose poetry reads like this:

“For no man ever proves himself a good man in war
unless he can endure to face the blood and the slaughter,
go close against the enemy and fight with his hands.

Here is courage, mankind’s finest possession, here is
the noblest prize that a young man can endeavor to win,
and it is a good thing his city and all the people share with him
when a man plants his feet and stands in the foremost spears
relentlessly, all thought of foul flight completely forgotten,
and has well trained his heart to be steadfast and to endure,
and with words encourages the man who is stationed beside him.”

This decidedly non-Hallmark verse is thought to be meant to encourage during the 2nd Messenian War (670-650 BCE. The length may give you some idea over a perceived need for encouragment). We know that the did eventually win. Sparta took over the west, gaining 3,000 square miles of agricultural land and a subject population. These were known as the Helots and became property of the Spartan people. They greatly outnumbered the Spartan people, so the Spartan people needed to figure out a way to subjugate this slave population. And so was born the Spartan culture.

Of course we know that “spartan” has become an adjective for “sparse and austere” and “laconic” (Laconia being the region of Sparta) means “of short, clipped, direct speech.” Sparta is known for its harshness.

Kingship became vestigial in Greece in this period. In Sparta, there was the oddity of a diarchy, which is to say two kings ruling together. They retained the powers of commander-in-chief, commanding executions, and getting preferred seating at banquets. There were other outlets of Spartan rule. The Gerousia were a council of old men (at least 60 years old) who sent forth proposals to the Damos/Apella, a sort assembly who voted on these proposals. There were the Ephors who were 5 elders who maintained discipline in the state. One of their functions was to assess every baby born in Sparta. If the baby showed any sign of weakness or malformation, the Ephors had them killed. The Helots were given dog-skin caps to wear to show their humiliated state. They were forced into agricultural labor. Terrorism from the state kept them in line.

“Agoge” is the system of upbringing into the Spartan way of life. At ages 7 through 13, the children went to school (by the way, it may surprise you to know that Spartan women were quite free, although I don’t think anything aside from that was mentioned about them in in this course). They were taught exercise and dance. At 13, the boys were separated from the girls. The boys were toughened and taught obedience. They were fed on gruel made with pig’s blood in portions barely capable of sustaining life. They would have to steal food in order to survive, but if they were caught they were severely punished. They would, in this state, be brought into a building, the temple of Artemis (their patron goddess, the goddess of hunting and warfare) in fact, with a huge stack of cheese in the middle and men with whips around the perimeter. They would have to make a mad dash to get a bit of cheese and have to endure the whips. There were secret missions assigned to the children called Krypteia in which the elite Spartan youths would sneak into the Helot area and kill the Helots that were viewed as a threat. At 20, Spartan men received Hoplite training. At 30, they applied to admission to the Syssitia, which was an eating club. They were then considered full Spartan citizens.

Judge it as you no doubt will (I sure do!), the system worked. In Plato’s Laws, one of the speakers says to the Spartan,

“…one of the best of them will be the law forbidding any young men to enquire which of them are right or wrong; but with one mouth and one voice they must all agree that the laws are all good, for they came from God; and any one who says the contrary is not to be listened to.”

You can read more about Spartan culture by reading their constitution.

Our midweek lecture began with the poet Archilochus and the first known use of the word tyranny, “I want no pride of tyranny.” In the original sense, a tyrant was simply one who seizes power in a non-constitutional way. In a number of ways, this was a necessary precursor to democracy.

Corinth was centrally located and controlled a key North-South route in which the land separated two major bays:

ImageThere is a canal now, but they Ancients built a sort of stone land-path. Sailors would stop to unload there and reload on the other side rather than sail around, which made Corinth into a major and prosperous port. Corinth was ruled by the Bachiads, a clan which was so exclusive that they only married within their clan. This led to their downfall (perhaps not in the way that you might initially expect). Under the Bachiads, Corinth was highly prosperous. Arts and culture advanced. Corinthian pottery was highly prized throughout Greece. The legend was that there was a Bachiad named Labda who was lame and no one would marry her. Eëtion married her. There was a prophecy that their son would ruin the Bachiads, so when he was born, the Bachiads went to kill him but found him too cute to kill. Cypselus grew up to overthrow the clan. He must have had high public support because he ruled for 30 years (655-625 BCE). On death, rule passed to his son Periander. Periander was a harsh but gifted ruler. He may have built the stone causeway. He was also considered among the Seven Sages of Greece.

The Seven Sages (Solon of Athens, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Aiene, Chilon of Sparta, Cleobulus of Lindos, and Periander of Corinth) were credited with poetry, political activity, performance, and wise sayings. They were Pan-Hellenistic cultural heroes and, in fact, one of the first manifestations of the Pan-Hellenistic.

And now we move to the polis best represented by archeological evidence, Athens. The legend was that Athens started in a contest in which Poseidon struck a rock from which salt water emerged. Meanwhile, Athena, the virginal goddess, captured the attention of one Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths. He chased her around and… um… became so excited that a bit of onanistic produce fell onto her leg and spilled upon the ground. From the ground sprouted the first Athenean. I’m not exactly sure how that was a contest (or who won), but there you go.

There were many resources in Athens including silver, marble, vast areas for growing olives, potter’s clay, and timber. They also had coastline and a harbor. Athenean pottery was valued much like Corinthian pottery.

Athens had a class called the Eupatridae who were the hereditary elite. The word means “those who had good fathers.” The Areopagus was a the council on the hill of Ares. They had the Archon, who were three leading men, a king, a commander-in-chief, and an assembly of citizens.

There was a revolt in the 630s in which Kylon sought to seize the Acropolis. Instead of following him, the populus forced him out. He escaped but his co-conspirators were being starved into submission trapped inside the temple. Megacles promised them safe passage if they would come out. They did and he killed them. This was considered a horrible sacrilege. It was believed that a curse was on them. Megacles was exiled. This shows some serious strains of Athenian society. Enter the law-giver Draco.

The myth is that Draco’s laws prescribed death for every offense (from which we get “Draconian”). This seems to be an overstatement. There is a code on homicide in which unintentional homicide was punishable by exile, a pilgrimage to Delphi for purification, and possible restoration. Upon the return of the transgressor, the family of the manslaughtered could vote to reinstate them. This is significant because it shows an attention to intent in a crime!

The elites kept tight control over resources which occasioned an economic crises (a sentence that sounds much like the early 2000s to me). There was a large class of debt (again…) and poverty. Solon shows up and, in 594 BCE, institutes a reform called the Seisachtheia, which means “shaking off of burdens” much like the Hebrew Jubilee. Debt was cancelled. The reason why the debtors liked this was clear, but the reason the debt-holders liked it was that it staved off an impending revolution. Solon prohibited any Athenian from holding another Athenian as a slave. Foreigners were fair game, of course.

There was also a right of legal intervention, that any citzen could intervene on behalf of any other citizen, which was a highly egalitarian concept. There was a new right to transfer a legal case before the delivery of a verdict from a magistrate to a jury of one’s peers. Solon promoted his ideas through poems and the public performance of them (imagine Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a slam poet). I love this line and I wanted to remember it. Solon described himself as “a wolf surrounded by hounds.”

It’s important to notice that Solon was the first 3 dimensional historical figure we’ve seen so far.

The reforms didn’t eliminate all inequalities though. In 590 BCE, there was the Anarchia, which was the year without an Archon (and from where we get “anarchy”). Athens experimented with a board of governors, which failed. Regional factions developed: Lykourgos, led the merchants of the coastland, Megakles, the landholders of the plains, and Peisistratos, the farmers and the poor in the hills. The latter had great ambitions to rule. He made 3 attempts at tyranny.

First he wounded himself and showed up demanding armed guards, which he received and then attempted to use them to tyrannize. He was driven out. Second, he married Megakles’ daughter and brought her back to Athens with “Athena”, which was a peasant woman whom he dressed up as Athena, driving them in a chariot. The professor notes that the people of Athens were probably not fooled by this so much as it was meant as political theater. He was driven out again to the hills where he struck gold and became wealthy. He rallied a mercinary force and returned to Athens. He established his rule quickly.

He turned out to be an excellent ruler! He placed a small tax on produce which provided public funds. He used those funds for public works projects. He built fountains, gave loans, created a system of circuit judges who would travel to hear cases. He preserved Solon’s constitution. He built the Temple of Zeus Olympus, some of which still stands:

ImageHe also started the Pan-Athenian games. If you won, you got one of these:


One one side would be a drawing of the event that you won. On the other side was a drawing of Athena. Inside would be filled with costly olive oil.

He also began the Dionysus festival, which evolved into theater. He issued the first coinage:

ImageThat’s Athena on one side and her owl on the other. It started as an Athenian coin, but spread to use throughout Greece.

He was very popular and, in fact, died an old man who went around never having a bodyguard.

Reflections on the French Revolution, et al. by Edmund Burke


Banish from your midst that demon Rand.

Dismiss the cultist Mormons out of hand.

And then, perhaps, I’ll willingly dissert

on Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke

and other of your ideas I’d like to lurk.

I wrote the bit of satirical verse above during the last presidential election. I am 35 years old. The “race to the bottom” culture disgusts me to the point where I almost feel the need to shower after being somewhere that isn’t work, home, or church. I am an American Protestant, which means that most of my peers presume Conservatism from their peers. I wear a tie most days of my own free will. I pay more in taxes than I can afford. I own a home right in the middle of a trail between a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, and the many liquor stores which opportunistically exist betwixt the two. In other words, I am fully aware that I am prime material to be a Conservative. But I am still not and, lately, in light of reading Burke and a few other elements, have taken to reflecting on why I am still not.

Much like Ben Franklin’s autobiography, this book has the strange distinction of not dealing with, due to the time of its writing, the details that we might be most inclined to expect on that topic. Madame Guillotine does not make an appearance in this book. Edmund Burke’s arguments deal with ideology and the problematic real-time implications, but never touch on the more gruesome manifestations (likely out of ignorance of those events and, as I said, the composition of the letter taking place while the snowball was still high on the hill). The pleasant side-effect of this ignorance is that the horror and emotions are dialed back a hair. This is helpful on a number of levels. First of all, it helps to dissect the issues underlying the horrors that came. Second, it helps the piece to speak across time and lend opinions to other situations.

As an example, Burke makes the argument for the great contributions to humankind that have come through religion. The French Revolution sought to abolish religion. The French Revolution, along with The Gulag Archipelago, are, in case you didn’t know, the immediate first stops on calling “B.S.” on the neo-atheist argument that religion has caused nothing but evil and that atheism has always been a benign and benevolent force in history. Burke shows the stripping of the country’s religion to be synonymous (and concurrent) with the stripping of the nation’s morality.

However, he also has very harsh words for one Reverend Dr. Richard Price, an English minister who abused the pulpit with a sermon in favor of the revolution. Burke is disgusted with the misuse of the house of God for political purposes. I am continually inclined to agree. Whenever I hear about, oh say, pastors who are planning an act of defiance of the United States government by revealing their political bents from the pulpit, I think of the likely hypothetical vistor in dire need of spiritual renewal or bare salvation who finally mustered the courage to show up in church on Sunday. What a detestable abuse of the office of shepherd!


“Smelling Out A Rat” A caricature of Burke hounding Dr. Price.

Another word that I felt Burke had for today is over those, some of his fellow countrymen included (of whom he says “Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour.”), who wish to rush to revolution with the fervor of a shark catching the scent of blood. This is a phenomenon I have observed in my own time. Revolution, he says, ought to be the very last resort. It was clearly not the last resort as France was not on the brink of failure. Reform is good. Overthrow is like amputating in the final sparse hope of saving the patient.

He also has some thoughts on the Democratic Ideal:

“I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases.”

This put me so much in mind of those who grossly misunderstand democracy in my own time and nation. Democracy is slow, cumbersome, and, at its very best, merely fair, BY DESIGN! It is intended to care for all who fall under its banner. It is not a place where the biggest bully gets his way and everyone else has to go with it.

Which brings me back to my initial comments. One of the reasons I haven’t gone towards the Right is that the party at present seems to have this bullyish attitude which I find reprehensible. It grates against everything I believe in to see an O’Reilly shout someone down or a Michael Savage resort to a lifetime of ad hominem attacks.

I hate bullies, regardless of whose side they are on.

Also, as I’ve said elsewhere, I am a believer in civilization. In fact, I try to vote pro-civilization. This generally means pro-science, pro-arts (and the funding thereof), pro-generous funding for education, pro-civil rights, anti-war… you see where this is going? If the modern American Conservative were Burkean in the level of respect for order, prudence, and custom, I might be convincible. At present, this bastardized hybrid which focuses on self-interest and “every man a whining-baby-king” is, in my mind, about as loathsome as those opportunists who subverted and murdered the old order for their own gain.

After reading this volume, I fully believe that Burke was also, above all, pro-civilization.

And I am reminded of a parallel to some recent conversations I’ve had with friends over the current state of Christianity in the public eye. What happens if someone finds out that you are a Christian and their only previous experience with Christianity is the Westboro Baptist Church or the child abuse scandals of the papists or the transparently avaricious TBN? At best there will be severe cognitive dissonance that they are faced with someone who does not actively hate them. At worst and more likely, all discourse will be squelched beneath the presupposition that, sharing the same title, you do hate them.

In the end it seems the same to me for what Christianity has settled for in the public sphere and what American Conservatism has settled for. They seem to me groups who have foregone the offered and fitting laurels of gold in favor of covering themselves in their own excrement. Which, really, in the words of another great philosopher, is human, all too human.