The Arian Heresy and the Fall of Rome

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Before talking about the Arian [10] heresy and the fall of Rome, I should probably explain why it’s important to fiction.

The hardest problem in understanding what makes a story good or bad is figuring out what aspects of stories are important because of human nature, and what aspects are important to specific cultures. I approach this by looking for patterns in Western art across history. (I include literature, but it’s usually easier & quicker to see trends in visual art.) No properties of stories or of visual art have remained constant, but some recur continually, some usually appear together, and some never appear together.

The patterns in stories correspond to patterns in the priorities, beliefs, and hegemonic powers of the civilizations that made the stories [13]. Usually, people wrote about why they made art the way they did, and this is a good entry point into decoding the patterns. We can also form and test theories about these correspondences by looking at times when religion, art, politics, and technology had strong effects on each other. A rough summary of my conclusion is that there is an art of order and an art of chaos, and major artistic clashes represent political differences over whether society needs more order, unity, and stasis, or more freedom, diversity, and change.

This post is about one such time: the Arian controversy in the Christian church. I don’t care about the controversy itself; I’m interested in its political consequences. So I’ll spend little time on the theological disputes of the 4th century, and more on the wars of the 5th and 6th centuries.

Here I’m looking not at art, but at religion. The controversy is relevant to art because it used religion the same way art is sometimes used: it sublimated a political dispute into a dispute that was reputedly more high-minded and noble, and which, by virtue of being thought of as more noble, was ironically more able to incite people to kill.

The episode is interesting because the participants openly admitted how religion motivated their violence. Art may help inspire people to violence, as we’ll see in my posts on WW1 and WW2, but those people seldom admit it afterwards. Here we have, if anything, the opposite problem–the suspicion that people may have overstated the degree to which their violence was inspired by religion.

A cheap way of summarizing it would be to say that the Arian challenge was a bid for freedom of thought, and the Catholic response proved that they would rather destroy civilization than allow that. That overstates the degree to which it was a conscious choice, though. I still blame the Church for being unreasonable, but I don’t think the church elders meant to start a war. But when secular leaders needed (or wanted) to take military action, the links between church and state made most conflicts line up along the same axis across Europe.

By itself, this post may not seem relevant to understanding art. But with a series of similar posts, we can begin connecting the dots of art, religion, and politics. I’ve already written one giving an overview across history, one on the Iliad, one on medieval art which I need to rewrite, one on modernism and World War 1, and one on the Nazis and art. I also want to write one about the role of real numbers in the Renaissance, one on the similarities and differences between Stalinist, fascist, modern, medieval Catholic, and primitive art, and one tracing the cultures at war in America’s current political disputes back to the different cultures that colonized the United States. [12]

I’ve studied this history for a few weeks, and some people have studied it their entire lives, so this may be bollocks. But all of these posts are going to be like that.

That said, let’s look at one of the most literally epic fails in history, the story of how the Roman civilization tore itself to shreds and brought on the Dark Age thanks to a 500-year theological dispute over whether Jesus and God the Father were con-substantial, or merely of like essence.

If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry. None of the people who fought over it did, either.


[10] “Arian” and “Aryan” have nothing to do with each other, except that “Aryan” is sometimes misspelled “Arian”, and Google will often “helpfully” change “Arian” to “Aryan” in searches.

[12] I’d like to learn and write about the relationships between Romanticism and Marxism, and between the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and neo-classicism, though I’m afraid that may be prohibitively complex and time-consuming. In case I never post the one on the colonial US, I’d mostly be repeating stuff from Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. It’s like a cross between The Nine Nations of North America and Albion’s Seed.

[13] I have already concluded that the variability in literatures is greater than the variability in human nature, and that this is because hegemonic powers allow people to tell only the kinds of stories which the powers think are advantageous to them.

(The rest of the footnotes are at the end of the post.)


Rome and the Barbarians

One traditional date for the fall of Rome, that used by Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), is 476 A.D., when Flavius Odoacer deposed the Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus.

A problem with this date is that “Emperor” Romulus had been appointed Emperor by a rebel general, and was not recognized by the Roman Senate. Odoacer was not a Roman citizen, but was an officer in the Roman army, and had the support of the Roman Senate, and ruled Italy for many years afterwards in the name of Rome, in theory subordinate to the Senate and/or Emperor (when one existed), following Roman laws and maintaining Roman institutions. Saying Rome fell in 476 because Odoacer took over is a little like saying America fell in 1960 because an Irish-Catholic American became President.

Many history books say that the Germanic tribes became more and more important militarily in late Rome because Romans didn’t want to serve in the military anymore. This is an absurd claim which is either false, or is covering up the reason why Romans wouldn’t serve in the military. There must have been some reason–the Roman Senate couldn’t pay them, the Church said they shouldn’t, something. Possibly there were too few Romans to run an empire, or the Romans came to trust the Germans more as they became more Roman.

Anyway, the Western Roman Empire kept on Roming for many years after 476, but its people were increasingly of Germanic descent. They weren’t barbarians who burned Roman cities and destroyed their art. Often they built better buildings and made better art.

I included this famous mosaic of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian in a post I haven’t posted yet, as an example of how much better Roman and Dark Age art was than Christian representational art of the High Middle Ages.

It turns out this mosaic is as much barbarian as it is Roman. There’s a very similar mosaic in a nearby Arian basilica, made at the same time, likely by the same person, which is probably of the Ostrogoth emperor Theodoric. Both emperors are wearing not Roman crowns, but Lombard crowns, like this one:

Golden crown of the Langobardian queen Teodelinda, circa 590 [7]

The Justinian mosaic is in this basilica in Ravenna, Italy:

Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The Romans had moved their capital to Ravenna by the time the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. Odoacer, the barbarian of unknown ethnicity who overthrew the emperor in 476, did so in Ravenna. The Ostrogoths captured it in 493. The basilica was built during the rule of the Ostrogoths, for a Roman Catholic bishop, and paid for by a Roman citizen. It was started in 527 A.D. and finished in 547, 7 years after the Byzantine (Eastern) Romans conquered the city.

Is it Roman, or Ostrogothic? The distinction is meaningless. Ravenna was culturally Roman the whole time. The Ostrogoths were Arian instead of Catholic, but they didn’t interfere with Catholic worship.

The Ostrogoths have a more-secure claim to be the sole builders of this originally-Arian basilica:

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

… and of Theodoric’s tomb:

The Visigoths weren’t shabby, either:

[1]

Oh, and the barbarians wrote books.

Codex Argenteus, circa 520 A.D., one of the three surviving books in Gothic

Books which have nearly all vanished today, because nobody copied them, because nobody could read them. [6] Because the people who made those buildings were replaced by the people who made… this one.

Baptistery of St. John, Poitiers, France

This was built by the Franks, the people who conquered Western Europe (except for Spain and Britain) from the other Germanic tribes in the name of defeating Arianism. It’s one of their most-impressive remaining pieces of architecture from that time.


The Arian Heresy

The early Catholic Church did not have a doctrine of the Trinity. They said that Jesus was definitely God, and God the Father was definitely God, but Jesus was definitely not God the Father. Also, Jesus was definitely God the Father’s son, but God the Father definitely did not exist before Jesus. The Arian heresy was the first of many attempts to make sense of that, all of which were declared heretical by today’s Catholic Church. It begins by saying Jesus was God’s begotten (biologically-ish fathered) son, since that was what the Bible appeared to say in several places.

The opponents of the Arians are sometimes called Athanasian, Trinitarian, Catholic, or Orthodox. Athanasian is too specific, the doctrine of the Trinity was not developed until the late 4th century, and Catholic and Orthodox effectively just mean “the winners.” I’ll use the term Nicene, because the first formulation in reaction against Arianism was the Nicene Creed. It says you have to believe the aforementioned contradictory things, and it’s a Mystery. The Nicenes say the Arians deny Jesus divinity, but that’s only if you use the Nicene definition of divinity.

Other ways of making sense of the Trinity include Monophysitism, which says that whatever Jesus is, he’s one kind of thing, can we agree on that? No; the official position is that Jesus has two natures at the same time, and it’s a Mystery. So a third position, Miaphysitism, tries to compromise between these positions…

… look, you really don’t want to know [2]. The point is that people killed each other and countries had wars and civil wars over “Christology”, the study of the ontology of Jesus, a thing not one person in Europe understood, because at base it made no sense. The Arian Wars were one part of an even larger, longer battle between people who wanted to make sense of the Trinity, and a Church which had taken a stand and would not tolerate dissent nor legitimize this dangerous “making sense” idea. A partial account is in Philip Jenkins’ The Jesus Wars, which I haven’t read, but which sounds like the most fun book ever written on 5th-century Christian theology. [8]

Fighting over it isn’t as stupid as it sounds, because one real issue at stake was freedom of thought [3]. The Arian Wars were the first conclusive test of the question, “Can Christians disagree with official Church doctrine on points that the Bible gives no remotely clear answer to, which have no effect on behavior or salvation, and that nobody understands anyway?” The Church’s determined answer [5] was, “No.” It was the principle of the thing. Arianism stood for free thought, and it had to be stamped out.


The Arian Wars

There are lots of theories over what caused “Rome’s” fall. If we restate this slightly and ask, “Why did Roman culture fall?” or “What caused the Dark Ages?”, the most-obvious answer is, “The Christology Wars.”

Googling “Arian Wars” turns up mostly pages about an online Star Wars roleplaying game. Here’s a quote from the first non-Star-Wars-related Google hit:

Gregory Nazianzen, who lived in Constantinople in the midst of the Arian wars, describes the division and hostility which this polemic spirit introduced between parents and children, husbands and wives, old and young, masters and slaves, priests and people. “It has gone so far that the whole market resounds with the discourses of heretics, every banquet is corrupted by this babbling even to nausea, every merrymaking is transformed into a mourning, and every funeral solemnity is almost alleviated by this brawling as a still greater evil; even the chambers of women, the nurseries of simplicity, are disturbed thereby, and the flowers of modesty are crushed by this precocious practice of dispute.”
–Philip Schaff, 1910, The Christian Church from the 1st to the 20th Century, vol 3, chapter 9, sections 117-119 (no page numbers)

Some more chosen at random:

The church was no fooner delivered from external opprefion, but unhappy differences were fomented within itſelf, and its concord broken by internal diffentions. Amongſt thefe, few were more fatal than the controverfies between Arius, a preſbyter of the church of Alexandria, and Alexander, a biſhop of the fame city, concerning the divinity of Jefus Chrift. This difpute confuſed, and deſtroyed, the peace of the church in almoſt every corner.
–Joseph Strutt, 1779, The Chronicle of England, part III, p. 206

The father of Constantius, Constantine the Great, is undoubtedly responsible for having communicated to Christianity that secular character, which, during succeeding centuries, gave the Church so much sway over the temporal affairs of the world, as totally for a time to submerge the spiritual simplicity of its original… The peace of the empire was disturbed by the conflicts between Arius and Athanasius. Constantius was an Arian, and, though our ecclesiastical writers were too courtly to charge on the emperor all the evils which his Arian bias occasioned, yet they spare no abuse in describing the pestilential nature of the doctrines. “The holy union,” continues Gildas, “between Christ the Head and the members of His Church, was interrupted by the Arian treason, which, fatal as a serpent, and vomiting its poison from beyond the sea, caused deadly dissension between brothers inhabiting the same house, and thus, as if a road were made across the sea, like wild beasts of all descriptions, and darting the poison of every heresy from their jaws,they inflicted dreadful wounds upon their country, which is ever desirous to hear something new, and remains constant long to nothing.”
–J. A . Giles, 1847, History of the Ancient Britons, chpt. 19, p. 313-314

Gildas was plagiarizing Bede:

The churches of Britain remained at peace until the time of the Arian madness, which corrupted the whole world and even infected this island, sundered so far from the rest of its mankind, with the poison of its error. This quickly opened up the way for every foul heresy from across the Ocean to pour into an island which always delights in hearing something new and holds firmly to no sure belief.
–Bede, 731, quoted in Rowley p. 79

The Lombard invasion [in 553] brought into the church’s territory a large number of refugees, and the Roman population recovered some of its old energy in the double hatred for barbarians and Arians.
–Williams, p. 531

Those quotes testify to a furor over Arianism in Rome and in three corners of the Roman Empire–Britain, Constantinople, and Alexandria. The city of Rome was ruled by Arian emperors from 335-378 [11] and 476-538, and had four waves of imperial persecution–three persecuting Arians, and one persecuting Niceans. Church and State were not separate; the Emperor ruled the Church and used it as a political tool–which meant schisms over doctrine were a form of rebellion against the Emperor. (The Empire during most of this time period had two emperors at the same time, which made this especially awkward when they disagreed.)

How important was Arianism and the Arian Wars?

Let’s look at a map of Europe in 500 A.D.:

Here’s a map of Europe in 500 A.D. [14], with diagonal white stripes across the Nicene territories and horizontal black stripes across the Arian territories:

europead500.jpg

Here’s another map, with diagonal white stripes across the territories of cultures that survived into the 9th century, and horizontal black stripes across the cultures that were conquered, enslaved, dispersed, or exterminated:

europead500.jpg

Notice it’s the same map.

The Arian Wars extended beyond this map. All of North Africa, and most of Syria and Armenia, were Arian or something like it–they all rejected the 451 A.D. Definition of Chalcedon, which was supposed to lay Arianism to rest. The parts of those areas that broke free of Rome were all reconquered by Justinian in the 6th century, then soon after overrun by Persians and/or Muslims.

All these people would have fought wars anyway. But it was the injection of a two-sided religious controversy into the political area that wrecked western Europe. Everyone had to line up on one side or the other of the religious controversy, and that polarization turned what had been an assortment of independent conflicts into one Great War of extermination. Ordinary conflicts would have resulted in treaties and shifting alliances, but the Arian Wars weren’t stopped until one side–the Arians–was eliminated. Some by the Franks, and the rest hung out to dry when the Muslim invasions came.

We call the Dark Age (~400-800 A.D.) “dark” because we don’t know what happened, because we have few books. History books say that classical writings fell out of use in the desperate Dark Age, only to be recovered in the 8th-9th centuries from Ireland, Spain, and Rome (Wolff), and in 12th-13th centuries from Constantinople (see e.g. Recovery of Aristotle). In other words, mostly from those areas of Europe which had not been Arian, and remained loyal to the Latin Church, and so kept copying books in Latin or Greek.

Well, maybe. But the Arians built cathedrals and monasteries. They had monks. Maybe they wrote books, and the Catholics burned the books because they were Arian, or let them rot because they couldn’t read them. Maybe the multiple cultural genocides of the Arian Wars, which saw the settled, sophisticated, Romanized, Arian “barbarian” cultures wiped out by the less-sophisticated Franks by 800 A.D., turned the centuries before them into a Dark Age retrospectively, and lost everything that had been set down in Gothic and other writing.

A civilization might make no books, or a civilization might make a lot of books–but three books? That’s like finding a civilization that made three automobiles.

“Guys, let’s make an alphabet. Then we’ll build a monastery and teach a bunch of monks how to read. Then we can train them in calligraphy, and develop parchment and inks and staining and bookbinding. Then we’ll learn how to inlay gold and silver leaf on the lettering. Then we can make a book.”

“No way, man. If we go to all that work, we ought to make, like, three books.”

It might seem unlikely that they could have written many books, and left only three–but how many Roman manuscripts are left? The Roman composition of which we have the most ancient copies, and which was by far its most-popular and most-quoted work–it’s said we could reconstruct the entire text from quotations of it–is the Aeneid, written in the first century B.C.. We have only four nearly-complete copies from the 4th and 5th centuries (Frieze & Dennison p. 24). All of our many other copies, are copies of copies of copies of copies of copies. Julius Caesar’s accounts of the Gallic Wars are perhaps the next most-famous and popular Roman writings, but there are no Roman copies of it–the oldest manuscripts are three partial copies made in the 9th century.

And how many of the writings of Arius do we have–the writings that began the Great Arian War, that were followed by all Western Europe at one time or another? Nothing but a few letters–because the Catholics burned everything else. The emperors Constantine and Honorius prescribed death for anyone who did not hand over any writings of Arius to be burnt (Penny Cyclopedia, “Office, Holy”, p. 406; many other sources as well). Emperor Theodosius also burned his writings. (I’m not sure he condemned people who hid his books to death, though that was standard Roman practice regarding books you didn’t want people to read.)

What would a good Catholic conqueror have done, confronted with a Gothic codex he could not read? Trust a Goth that it didn’t say anything Arian, and maybe risk death? Or burn it?


Emperor Constantine burning Arian books. Manuscript CLXV, Biblioteca Capitolare, Vercelli, Italy, 825.


The Importance of Pretending to be Earnest

Did any of these rulers, or their subjects, really care about doctrine?

As far as I can tell, some of them cared quite a lot about doctrine. The large fraction of emperors in the 4th and 5th centuries who adopted a position contrary to most of their subjects in this and other controversies, and so caused themselves great difficulties, suggests sincerity.

They certainly cared about what people said they cared about. Religious beliefs about things no one understood weren’t beliefs in any meaningful sense; they were political claims about who had religious authority. Why did the Byzantines ally in the Great War with the Franks, a still culturally-pagan people, against the Romanized Goths and Vandals? The only answer I’ve found in history books is, Because Clovis was Catholic. A Catholic whose subjects still sometimes made pagan sacrifices, but, hey, at least he wasn’t Arian. That was, as shown above, a Big Deal. The Byzantines couldn’t and wouldn’t ally themselves with Arians.

Let’s look at a little bit of the timeline–mostly the war parts–to see how much Arianism mattered.

 

325 A.D., Council of Nicea

This was the council emperor Constantine called to resolve the dispute between Arius and Athanasius. It produced the Nicene Creed and anathematized Arianism.

 

439 A.D., Vandal occupation of Carthage

I watched a BBC video on the fall of Carthage–the second fall, when the Vandals took it in 439–which said that the Vandals just walked into the city on a day with a really important set of Hippodrome races, and the Romans thought it was more important to finish the races than to fight them off.

This seems highly unlikely, but Wikipedia backs it up. And Wikipedia can’t be wrong!

I still thought that sounded fishy, so I looked to see if there were a religious aspect. There was. Carthage was the stronghold of Donatism, a Catholic heresy which began with “we don’t want to take communion from priests who cooperated with the persecution of Christians,” then progressed to “we won’t take communion from priests ordained by those priests,” and so on. It was persecuted severely by the Romans for over a hundred years (thanks largely to Augustine, patron saint of kicking the shit out of other Christians for obscure theological differences [9]) before the “fall” of Carthage. The Vandals were Arians, so they freed Carthage from the Roman church, which is what Carthage had been struggling for since about 313 AD. That’s probably why the Carthaginians let the Vandals walk in.

(Then the Vandals persecuted them for being Nicene.)

 

451 A.D., Council of Chalcedon, near Constantinople

This council met to try to resolve the Arian controversy. The result was a permanent estrangement between European Christianity, which accepted the council’s creed, and the Church in the Middle East and Africa, which did not. This critically weakened Byzantium and helped the Muslims conquer those regions which had split from the Roman church.

 

sometime by the 490s A.D., Franks conquer Western Roman Empire

Once Clovis had conquered all the Franks and Western Romans left to conquer, he wanted to keep on conquering his neighbors. To do that, he needed an alliance with somebody who wasn’t his neighbor, and the best candidate was the Eastern Romans (the Byzantines). This would be kind of awkward, as he’d just conquered what remained of independent Western Rome. How could he make peace with them?

 

variously reported as 493, 496, 497, or 498 A.D., Frankish king Clovis I converts to Catholicism

The pagan king Clovis suddenly converted to Catholicism, and all his people (according to Bishop Gregory of Tours) welcomed this change. So did the Byzantines. Now they had one potential Catholic ally in Europe.

 

507 A.D., defeat of the Visigoths by Clovis I of the Franks

Clovis said that he made war against the Visigoths to rescue his Germanic brethren from the Arian heresy. I have read a quote by him to this effect, but I can’t find it now, darn it. In any case, the Franks allied themselves permanently with the Roman Catholic church.

The Frankish monarchy became the ardent supporter of the papacy during the early Middle Ages. Frankish kings crossed the Alps many times to save the Roman bishop from his [Arian] enemies in Italy.
–Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 123

It is evident, from the language of Gregory of Tours, that this conflict between the Franks and the Visigoths was regarded by the orthodox party of his own and preceding ages as a religious war, on which, humanly speaking, the prevalence of the Catholic or the Arian creed in western Europe depended.
–Walter Copland Perry, The Franks, from their first appearance in history to the death of King Pepin, p. 85.
This quote and many more from http://www.patmospapers.com/daniel/in508.htm

Among all the Germanic nations, the Franks alone had become Catholic from their first rise in the provinces of the Roman Empire. This acknowledgment of the Roman see had secured important advantages to the Frankish nation. In the Catholic subjects of their Arian enemies, the western Goths and Burgundians, the Franks found natural allies. We read so much of the miracles by which Clovis was favoured — how St. Martin showed him the ford over the Vienne by means of a hind, how St. Hilary preceded his armies
in a column of fire — that we shall not greatly err if we conclude these legends to shadow forth the material succours afforded by the [Nicene] natives to those who shared their creed, and for whom, according to Gregory of Tours, they desired victory “with eager inclination.”
–Williams, p. 525

The Great Arian War began in earnest at this point, as an alliance between the Franks, the Catholic Church, and the Byzantines, against all the rest of Western Europe and North Africa, and sometimes even the Persians, who synchronized their invasion of the Byzantine Empire with the Ostrogoths.

 

533-554 A.D., Justinian’s reconquista

This was the other major action in the Great Arian War. Justinian’s armies reconquered much of the Western Roman Empire from Arians in just 20 years, but the effort left his empire so weakened that it was torn apart from all sides almost immediately after he died in 565, leading directly to the Dark Age.

Justinian seems to have been genuinely interested in theology, but is usually said to have waged war motivated by the desire to recreate the Roman Empire. This was, however, in the wake of hostility between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths created by the Arian controversy. All the monarchs in this conflict probably just wanted to fight and expand their land, but the interweaving of church and state made it impractical for anyone to ally with someone on the other side of the Arian controversy.

With the ascension of Justin I in 518, a more harmonious relationship seemed to be restored. Eutharic, Theoderic’s son-in-law and designated successor, was appointed consul for the year 519, while in 522, to celebrate the healing of the Acacian schism, Justin allowed both consuls to be appointed by Theoderic [the Arian Goth]. Soon, however, renewed tension would result from Justin’s anti-Arian legislation, and tensions grew between the Goths and the [Roman] Senate, whose members, as Chalcedonians [non-Arians], now shifted their support to the [Byzantine] Emperor.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostrogothic_Kingdom

774 A.D., Charlemagne conquers the Lombards

Charlemagne conquered the Lombards, the last free Arians. Charlemagne was a fanatical Catholic, although his grasp of theology is questionable, as it was his practice to offer conquered people a choice between Catholicism, or death.

The Carolingian Emperor Charlemagne led a series of campaigns against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe, in order to pressure them to convert to Christianity. This included the destruction of the Saxons’ holy site at Irminsul and the massacre of 4500 Saxon captives at Verden in 782. Three years later the Saxon leadership and peoples surrendered and accepted baptism.
How Christianity came to Europe

Charlemagne called his empire the Holy Roman Empire, a name which was ridiculed in the 20th century. It is accurate, however, in that the Franks’ two main allies in the 300-year battle to create this empire were the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.


In summary, it’s a reasonable hypothesis that Western Europe’s “Dark Age” of 400-800 A.D. appears dark mainly because Western Europe was ruled entirely by people who were wiped out, and their writings destroyed or simply not copied, in a 300-year-long war to wipe out Arianism and re-establish the Roman (Catholic) Empire.

Even if that’s not true, it seems that the Arian controversy increased the cultural destructiveness of the wars. Perhaps just as many battles would have been fought without the Arian controversy, but it does not seem likely that the large alliance needed to wipe out all six Arian kingdoms could have been maintained for 300 years if a two-sided religious dispute had not made alternative alliances impossible. What probably would have happened is that the different kingdoms would have fought each other sporadically, power-balancing politics would have favored the weak, and cultural transfer would have had more time to preserve knowledge of the period.

You might wonder whether or not people intended for their argument about religion to have these effects. If we’re asking about the “purpose” of religion, though, then this might not matter. If you think that religion is a product of rationality and proceeds rationally, then that would be a reasonable question. If you think religion evolved to serve a social function, then whether or not something was the intent of the human agents that caused it is irrelevant to whether that is its function.


[1] Lombards and Vandal architecture is, unfortunately, un-googlable, the Vandals because “vandal architecture” returns lists of vandalized architecture, and the Lombards because the region of Italy where they lived is called Lombardy and “Lombard architecture” is used for much-later Carolingian architecture built in Lombardy.

[2] If you really do want to know, start by word-searching your Bible for the phrase “only begotten”. You’ll find several verses calling Jesus God’s only begotten son, including the famous John 3:16. Here’s where that word came from:

Greek monogenes → Latin unigenitus → English “only-begotten”

Christians are still fighting over this translation. Orthodox Nicenes say that monogenes refers to something that is “the chosen one,” something in a special relationship. (The Wikipedia page on monogenes was written by such anti-Arian propagandists.) Evil heretics point out that ancient Greeks only used the word to refer to sons or daughters or metaphorical fatherings, so “genesis”, a kind of creation, is still part of the meaning in any case, so the word still imples that Jesus was a creation and the focus on “the special one” (the “mono” part) is a smokescreen. St. Jerome, who chose the word “unigenitus”, did so in the middle of a fierce Arian war in Rome itself in 383 A.D., and may have chosen that word to be anti-Arian, though I see it as pro-Arian. On the other hand, it’s the obvious literal translation of monogenes. It has been dropped from many modern translations–according to some Christians, for being pro-Arian, and according to others, for being anti-Arian.

The Arians have been dead for over a thousand years, so this continued vigilance against them might surprise you if you aren’t familiar with the Catholic Church. A better discussion of the issues re. the translations is here, and a reasonable defense of the orthodox view is here, and you can find many others, though honestly I don’t advise reading any of them. The discussion itself is ultimately nonsense–a twisting of words trying to find some way of resolving Bible passages that are either contradictory, or so metaphorical that they shouldn’t be interpreted in such corporeal ways. What’s important is its consequences.

[3] It may also have been a political power-play. Some contemporary historians think that the “Arian heresy” was the majority view of the original Church, and that the now-“orthodox” view was a doctrine that a radical group used to take over. Citation needed, but I’ve got to finish this and you can look it up yourself if you care. Personally, I think that the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were Arian, while the book of John and the writings of Paul were Nicene. I have a very high opinion of the authority of Mark; I think it’s the only book in the New Testament which might have information about the historical Jesus. I have a low opinion of the book of John and the writings of Paul; I consider them to be full of fanciful, invented theology, apparently written in ignorance of the events and the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, and they contain most of the objectionable parts of the New Testament. Together with Revelations, they are the parts of the New Testament which should not have been included. So perhaps I would be Arian if I were Christian.

[5] It’s only fair to note that the people who turned the Arian controversy hot and dangerous were a series of Roman emperors–Constantine (mostly Nicene), Valentius (Arian), and Theodosius (Nicene).

[6] There are still some northern Italians who call themselves Lombards today, but AFAIK no Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, or Huns since the 7th century. What happened to them?

The Romans dispersed the Vandals. The Ostrogoths joined up with the Lombards. The Merovingian and Carolingian (Frankish) kings constantly raided their neighboring kingdoms for slaves (Wolff 1968), so it’s a good guess that the Franks enslaved the other tribes they conquered, which was all of Western Europe except Britain, Spain, and the heel of Italy. That may have been how serfdom originated. Procopius of Caesarea, a historian who travelled with the Roman general Belisarius, wrote that the Franks

began to sacrifice the women and children of the Goths whom they had found at hand and to throw their bodies into the river as the first fruits of war. For these barbarians , though they had become Christians, preserve the greater part of their ancient religion; for they still make human sacrifices and other sacrifices of an unholy nature, and it is in connection with these that they make their prophecies.
–(De Bello Gothico, 6.25.1-18)

However, he also wrote that Justinian was a demon whose head sometimes vanished, so take that with a grain of salt.

[7] This is weird, since neither the Romans nor the Ostrogoths were Lombards. Possibly Odoacer was. If anybody can clear this up for me, please do.

[8] In between the time when the Western Roman Empire tore itself apart over Christology, and the time when the Western and Eastern Church ruptured over Christology, the Eastern Roman Empire nearly destroyed itself over whether drawing pictures of saints was evil.

[9] Also patron saint of kicking your common-law wife and son out into the street in order to be ordained as a bishop.

[11] I’m counting Constantine I’s last 2 years as pro-Arian, because he recalled Arius from exile and exiled Athanaius.

[14] Based on one from timemaps.com.


References

The Venerable Bede 731. Ecclesiastical History. (Latin; Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum)

Earle E. Cairns 1954. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church.

Henry Frieze & Walter Dennison, editors, 1902. Virgil’s Aeneid, Books 1-12. New York City: American Book Company.

J.A. Giles 1847. History of the Ancient Britons, from the Earliest Period to the Invasion of the Saxons. London: George Bell, 186 Fleet Street.

The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1840. Penny Cyclopaedia, vol. 16: Murillo–Organ. London: Charles Knight & Co., 22 Ludgate St.

Walter Copland Perry 1857. The Franks, from their first appearance in history to the death of King Pepin. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts.

Sharon M. Rowley 2011. The Old English Version of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. D. S. Brewer.

Philip Schaff 1910. The Christian Church from the 1st to the 20th Century.

Joseph Strutt 1779. The Chronicle of England; or, A compleat history, civil, military and ecclesiastical, of the ancient Britons and Saxons, from the landing of Julius Caesar in Britain, to the Norman conquest. London: Printed by Joseph Cooper for T. Evans in Pater Noster Row and Robert Faulder No. 42 New Bond Street.

Henry Smith Williams 1907. The Historians’ History of the World, vol 8: Parthians, Sassanids, and Arabs; the crusades and the Papacy. London & NYC: Hooper & Jackson.

Philippe Wolff 1968. The Cultural Awakening. New York: Pantheon. (A book on several key figures of the early middle ages.)

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Writing: Plotters and pantsers in other walks of life, and Commedia dell’Arte

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To plot, or not to plot?

You know about the eternal feud friendly debates between plotters and pantsers, right?  Plotters make a plot outline or at least know how a story will end before they write it.  (Seat-of-the)-pantsers don’t, saying they need the spontaneity to make characters come to life.

I have a book on management called Maestro: A surprising story about leading by listening.  It’s a story of an executive learning how to manage from a great orchestra conductor.  Partly, it’s about how the leader communicates a grand vision without micro-managing and in a way that allows the input of the players to influence the vision.

I just saw the title of another book, Organizational Jazz: Extraordinary performance through extraordinary leadership.  Presumably this is about an executive learning how to manage from a jazz band.  Presumably, this executive will not learn how to communicate a grand vision to his team, but how to train his team to work improvisationally.

It struck me that symphony orchestras are plotters, and jazz bands are pantsers.  (And, apparently, executives can be plotters or pantsers, too.)

This is a significant clue–that an entire genre of music may lend itself to either plotting or pantsing.

Computer programmers can also be plotters or pantsers.  A plotter makes a complete requirements specification, then does a top-down design.  Now, a coding pantser doesn’t just sit down and start writing code at the beginning, stop when she reaches the end, and try to compile it.  (Well, I started out writing code that way, and now I’ve written enough code that sometimes I can do it that way, but only to show off.)  A code pantser might not write down a list of requirements, but might instead start coding up little object classes that he’s pretty sure he’s going to need, in a bottom-up approach.  A code-pantser will probably use an incremental design, first developing the simplest version of the program that can run, maybe with lots of functionality dummied or stubbed.

People in other occupations can also probably be plotters or pantsers.  Parents, military leaders, and pickup artists can all plan what they’re going to do in detail, or wing it.  I don’t know, but I’m going to guess that not only are different people more inclined toward one approach or the other, but also one approach or the other is better for different kinds of kids, battles, and women.

 

Commedia dell’Arte

For an example closer to writing, consider live theater.  A performance can rely on plotting or pantsing actors.  Shakespeare wrote down every word for every actor.  At the same time, the most-popular performances on the continent were Italian Commedia dell’Arte. These were improvisational plays (usually comedies) in which the actors would, without the aide of a writer, construct by mere permutation one variation on a standard plot structure using a standard cast of characters, maybe rehearse it once, then jump on stage and improvise.

In a basic commedia scenario, there is an initial conflict between the older generation and the younger generation about the choice of a marital partner.  Through machinations of the old and the young, carried out by their servants, the conflict is eliminated, predominantly through the actions of the servants.  Additional complications occur through the middle of the plot, but all is eventually settled, ends happily, and the young people get married.

–Dina Ternullo,  Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’Arte (2016, The Compleat Anachronist #172), p. 33

Typically, the story would involve two noble houses, and at least one young man and young woman from opposite houses who fall in love over the objections of both houses’ patriarchs (C&SoECdA p. 38).  (The story would not involve love between people of the same gender or of different social classes.)

CdA operated in a time when the Italian Church and state were simultaneously weak and at odds with each other, and could be played off each other to avoid censorship and control.  The Church still forbade women to perform on stage, but the commedians just did it anyway, and this–having beautiful women perform in public–was one of their main appeals.  The improvisation was partly to evade censorship. The authorities couldn’t censor a script that didn’t exist.

The character of these two types of plays are radically different.  A Shakespeare play is tightly controlled; the actors, even in a farce, walk naturally and act somewhat like real people.  CdA, on the other hand, resembles a Keystone Kops show: rapid, out-of-control farce.  The pace is faster.  The actors exaggerate every line and every action wildly, stomping about on stage, shouting and being as emotional as possible.  The stomping and shouting of Commedia actors was one of the regular background noises at Pennsic.

The reason Shakespeare comedies are so bad is that Shakespeare was trying to adapt the Commedia for the English stage, as shown by the fact that many (most?) of his comedies are commedia scenarios using commedia characters, often set in an Italian city-state.  Commedia troupes were very popular, but weren’t allowed to perform in England because they used female actors.

According to Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’ArteTwelfth Night, which I think I’ve mentioned two or five times is a terrible play, was based on a 1532 commedia erudita (early Commedia dell’Arte) named Gli inganniti.  But the plot of a Commedia is farcical, and only goes over right with a farcical, pantser performance, not with naturalistic acting and Shakespearian elevated speech.  Shakespeare was possibly the worst possible playwright to try to adapt the Commedia.

On the other hand, changing a Commedia plot into a tragedy gave him Romeo and Juliet.

So a big part of the answer to “Plot or pants?” is probably, “Depends what you want to write.” I mean, obviously you want to plot a mystery novel. But some styles of story probably benefit from coming off the cuff. Say, a wacky absurdist comedy like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which Douglas Adams wrote like a fanfiction, writing each episode after broadcasting the previous one.

(Okay, that’s a lame and obvious conclusion. Mostly I wanted to tell you about Commedia dell’Arte.)

Review of the Iliad

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Western civilization began with the ancient Greeks, and the ancient Greeks agreed unanimously that their religion, ethics, and poetry began with The Iliad. So that’s where my review of Western literature will begin.

The Greeks would have said “Homer”, and they would have meant the person who wrote at least The Iliad and The Odyssey. I haven’t done any stylometrics on ancient Greek, but even supposing it were meaningful to talk about the “person” who wrote either, I don’t think it’s useful to group the Iliad and the Odyssey together. The Iliad is a civilization-founding work of philosophy. The Odyssey is a boy’s adventure tale, not meriting special attention. It is more fun to read, though.

I remembered the Iliad as a surprisingly gutsy story for one so old, that took a tough look at the morality of war, duty, honor, and love. Then I read a plot summary of it, and realized I was remembering Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida instead.

When I read the thing itself, I initially hated it. All I saw was a badly-written story with revolting values praised to the heavens so old people who’d gone to Oxbridge could pretend to be the arbiters of taste. But over time, I saw its importance in Western history, and some of the genius behind it. The analysis I’ll present here is unique; nobody’s come to these conclusions before. But I don’t think they’re difficult. People are just stupid when they elevate something to the level of a scripture. It makes it impossible to see it for itself anymore.

Rating the Iliad as a 21st century American is a little silly. The Iliad is the exemplar of the values and aesthetics of its time. By reading it, we can learn how much humanity has changed in 2800 years, and how much it’s stayed the same. We can ask whether great literature is timeless or transient. So the Iliad is important.

What it isn’t, though, is a good read for a modern person. It turns out great literature isn’t timeless after all.

Did I read the whole thing? Absolutely not. I got halfway through before turning to condensed versions and the Cliffs Notes.

There are spoilers here. But come on. You’ve had 2,800 years to read it.

Which Iliad?

I tried Alexander Pope’s 1720 translation, which reads like a ghastly nursery rhyme:

The Greeks in shouts their joint assent declare,
The priest to reverence, and release the fair.
Not so Atrides; he, with kingly pride,
Repulsed the sacred sire, and thus replied:

Chapman’s 1598 translation is longer (230,000 words!), and only marginally better:

Achilles’ baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that imposed
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls losed

Los-ed? Seriously?

I plunged ahead with Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation. It doesn’t try to versify; it renders it as prose. The words seemed stronger and easier to read. All three translations changed the names of the Greek gods into their Roman equivalents, which I found irritating and, frankly, disrespectful. Supposedly the Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Martin Hammond, and Rodney Merrill translations are much better, but they cost money. Oddly, for the most renowned story in Western literature, I had a hard time finding a pirated copy. There are free online versions by Ian Johnston and Anthony Kline (2009).

(Pirates are probably all reading the Odyssey.)

I eventually found Robert Fagles’ 1990 translation, which is free verse. It has a poetic feel like Butler’s, with meter and consonance, without grasping at weak words to fill in the meter, or falling into sing-song whine as Chapman and Pope do.

If you really want to try reading the thing, try the abridged Ian Johnston (pdf here.) It’s only 50,000 words, and this sucker is at least 150,000 words otherwise.

Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Aesthetics

Reading the Iliad in 2018 demands an answer to the question of whether there is a timeless, objective “good” for literature. This story was valued far above all others throughout ancient Greece–it was heresy to say otherwise–and was the most-popular candidate for greatest work of fiction of all time at least until the 19th century, and maybe until James Joyce’s Ulysses. [1] Since that claim has been made, I’ll evaluate The Iliad aesthetically first.

It’s easy to point out that the Iliad is formulaic, unstructured, and about 5 times as long as it ought to be, but this is a feature, not a bug. The text we see may be more like the source code to the Iliad than like what most ancient Greeks heard. A bard would memorize the whole thing, then tell each audience just the parts he thought they’d be most-interested in, or that they had time for. That’s why it’s so formulaic and unstructured. It’s modular: you can skip paragraphs or whole chapters without missing much. This makes the Iliad a bad model for written fiction. Oral poetry can be tailored by a good bard to a specific audience, but in return it gives up the power of a complex, dramatic, thematically-unified structure.

The Good

There are many poetic lines. But I can’t tell how much is the poetry of Homer, and how much that of the translator. I like this translation by Fagle:

Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.

But Butler’s translation is trite and obvious:

Men come and go as leaves year by year upon the trees. Those of autumn the wind sheds upon the ground, but when spring returns the forest buds forth with fresh vines. Even so is it with the generations of mankind, the new spring up as the old are passing away.

Which was Homer?

Here Stanley Lombardo’s translation has poetry:

“Who could blame either the Trojans or the Greeks
For suffering so long for a woman like this.
Her eyes are not human.
Whatever she is, let her go back with the ships.” (III, 164-167)

where Fagles’ translation has none:

Who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder
the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered
years of agony all for her. for such a woman.
Beauty, terrible beauty!
A deathless goddess–so she strikes our eyes!
But still,
ravishing as she is, let her go home in the long ships.

Homer uses powerful, clean language, full of quick metaphors, similes, and bits of physical detail. He maintains a heroic style but seldom falls into purple prose. This comes across best in the prose translations:

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

Now and then he adds little details that make me think, yeah, this guy might have fought in a war.

With these words she put heart and soul into them all, while Minerva sprang to the side of the son of Tydeus, whom she found near his chariot and horses, cooling the wound that Pandarus had given him. For the sweat caused by the hand that bore the weight of his shield irritated the hurt: his arm was weary with pain, and he was lifting up the strap to wipe away the blood.

But there are few instances like this–so few that, I know from experience, he could have gotten all of them by talking to a few guys in a bar. And there are other instances where those little details are clearly fabricated:

Antilochus rushed towards him and struck him on the temples with his sword, whereon he fell head first from the chariot to the ground. There he stood for a while with his head and shoulders buried deep in the dust–for he had fallen on sandy soil–till his horses kicked him and laid him flat on the ground, as Antilochus lashed them and drove them off to the host of the Achaeans.

The work from later times which it resembles most in style (AFAIK) is Beowulf, but it’s surprisingly similar, even in 18th and 19th-century translations, to American fiction post-Hemingway: strong verbs, few adverbs, and a nearly-neutral external viewpoint that, more than most literature after it, shows instead of telling. The bard comments on the courage and strength of the characters, but reviewers don’t notice that he’s usually silent on the larger moral questions. Is Achilles’ rage justified? When does pride become a vice? This is a key question everywhere, but Homer doesn’t answer it. Men and gods argue, and don’t agree. Western writers failed to learn “show, don’t tell” from Homer for 2,700 years, despite chanting all the while that writers must only imitate Homer. People are stupid.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in a 1766 essay, “Laokoon”, explains why (in his opinion) paintings of Homer’s scenes are boring: Homer describes things with actions and histories, not images. When he wants to describe Agamemnon’s armor, he doesn’t pause the action to describe it; he has Agamemnon put it on, piece by piece. When he wants to describe the bow of Pandarus, he describes how it was made. He would rather describe the history than the appearance of people and things. All those swords whose histories Tolkien describes so lovingly–that’s straight from Homer. And the histories tell you more important things about them than a description would.

He renders few authorial opinions other than whether a man was courageous, wise, generous, or of noble or divine descent. He doesn’t say whether the war, or Achilles’ pride, or Zeus’ lies, are moral or immoral. He has other characters comment on these things, but when one god accuses Achilles of pride, another speaks in his defense, and Homer doesn’t say which is right. Most interpreters don’t seem to notice this, reading their own prejudices into Homer. My reading is that Homer was saying that even the gods can’t agree what’s wrong and what’s right, so forget about it and do whatever brings you personal honor.

The poetry in the original Greek is supposedly really special. Here’s a New Yorker article describing how Homer supposedly used stress patterns to imitate the sounds of a raging sea.

 

The Bad

The Iliad is often praised for the distinctness of its characters. I don’t see it. The major characters differ in wisdom, restraint, cleverness, and bravery, but all have the same values and the same tiresome heroic cast, and all but Hector are narcissistic and brutal.

Homer repeats sentences and entire paragraphs frequently. I imagined at first he was going for some hypnotic effect, like the chorus of a song. But I can’t see it, given the great differences in repetition length, spacing, and similarity of context. It seems to me the bard was just being lazy. Some of this repetition just needs a pass from an editor:

The earth groaned beneath them as when the lord of thunder is angry and lashes the land about Typhoeus among the Arimi, where they say Typhoeus lies. Even so did the earth groan beneath them as they sped over the plain.

The dramatic structure is also repetitive. A well-constructed story has a dramatic arc, driven by the decisions of the key characters, with rising action, a climax, and a reversal hinging on some realization related to the theme. There is an identifiable climax in the Iliad, when Achilles finally decides to fight, but before it are 100,000 words of formulaic repetition: One side is about to win the war. Some god interferes and turns the tide. Repeat. I can’t even count how many times this happened. The characters wash up and down the battlefield with the regularity of tides, at the whims of the gods.

It’s formulaic on a fine scale as well. Each battle is merely a string of individual fights, and each fight gives a name, a city of origin, a parentage, a brief history, and an entrance wound for the loser. Piling up hundreds of deaths of walk-ons adds horror, but not weight. It’s like the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan”: numbing, but not grieving. Here’s a typical passage:

First, Ajax son of Telamon, tower of strength to the Achaeans, broke a phalanx of the Trojans, and came to the assistance of his comrades by killing Acamas son of Eussorus, the best man among the Thracians, being both brave and of great stature. The spear struck the projecting peak of his helmet: its bronze point then went through his forehead into the brain, and darkness veiled his eyes.

Then Diomed killed Axylus son of Teuthranus, a rich man who lived in the strong city of Arisbe, and was beloved by all men; for he had a house by the roadside, and entertained every one who passed; howbeit not one of his guests stood before him to save his life, and Diomed killed both him and his squire Calesius, who was then his charioteer–so the pair passed beneath the earth.

Euryalus killed Dresus and Opheltius, and then went in pursuit of Aesepus and Pedasus, whom the naiad nymph Abarbarea had borne to noble Bucolion. Bucolion was eldest son to Laomedon, but he was a bastard. While tending his sheep he had converse with the nymph, and she conceived twin sons; these the son of Mecisteus now slew, and he stripped the armour from their shoulders. Polypoetes then killed Astyalus, Ulysses Pidytes of Percote, and Teucer Aretaon. Ablerus fell by the spear of Nestor’s son Antilochus, and Agamemnon, king of men, killed Elatus who dwelt in Pedasus by the banks of the river Satnioeis. Leitus killed Phylacus as he was flying, and Eurypylus slew Melanthus.

Butler’s translation is 153,000 words long. About 40,000 of those words are variations of the above. (I estimated using random samples.) Pick a hero; make up a name for a victim, a few facts about his history, and an entry and exit wound. Repeat. This is the inventiveness that Alexander Pope calls “the greatest invention of any writer whatever” by “the greatest writer that ever touched the hearts of men by the power of song.”

Heroes spout great monologues in the middle of heated battle, digressing like Tristram Shandy:

When they were close up to one another Diomed of the loud war-cry was the first to speak. “Who, my good sir,” said he, “who are you among men? I have never seen you in battle until now, but you are daring beyond all others if you abide my onset. Woe to those fathers whose sons face my might. If, however, you are one of the immortals and have come down from heaven, I will not fight you; for even valiant Lycurgus, son of Dryas, did not live long when he took to fighting with the gods. He it was that drove the nursing women who were in charge of frenzied Bacchus through the land of Nysa, and they flung their thyrsi on the ground as murderous Lycurgus beat them with his oxgoad. Bacchus himself plunged terror-stricken into the sea, and Thetis took him to her bosom to comfort him, for he was scared by the fury with which the man reviled him. Thereon the gods who live at ease were angry with Lycurgus and the son of Saturn struck him blind, nor did he live much longer after he had become hateful to the immortals. Therefore I will not fight with the blessed gods; but if you are of them that eat the fruit of the ground, draw near and meet your doom.”

(Glaucus’ reply is three times as long.)

And here’s where the Iliad really falls down: Even after we recognize that Homer’s themes are repugnant to us, his characters unsympathetic, his plot unbelievable, what still draws people to the Iliad is the action. But the action is not that good.

Homer’s description through actions and histories rather than images may have been a virtue made of necessity: he’s a wiz at describing the sound and the feel of things, but seems unable to visualize anything. Maybe he really was blind. We have no idea what Troy looks like, how big it is, how high its walls are, or how close to the sea it is. About halfway into the Iliad we learn it’s near a bay with a sandy beach, and that’s it for description. We have no idea what the land they’re fighting on looks like or how large it is. In battle, we seldom have any idea where anyone is standing. Each duel seems to take place in its own separate misty no-man’s land, with endless room around it for chases on foot and in chariots [2]. So there is no larger tension about the ebb and flow of the battle. It is a grinding recital of who killed whom, and what their lineages were.

A battle, like a story, has structure. It changes over time. The changing tides of battle can be managed as a dramatic arc, to provide suspense. Homer can’t do that, because he hasn’t visualized any of the fights, and so can’t say how they come together to make a battle. There are no causal relations between the elements. There are no tactics, no logistics, no terrain, no real planning, no cavalry charges or infantry maneuvers, no successful use of phalanxes [3], no shifting front lines, no confusion. So there is no dramatic structure to the battles or to the war. We simply watch people being killed until some random events changes the tide at the last moment.

So the bulk of the Iliad is a series of formulaic events, strung together without causal connection, interspersed with irrelevant monologues, which progress in one direction until some random event turns things around and moves them in the other direction. This is not the structure of a good book; it’s the structure of a daytime soap opera.

 

Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Ethics

You wanna talk about oppression? This is a world in which murder, rape, and theft aren’t just good, they’re the greatest good. A man is esteemed according to how many men he’s murdered, how many beautiful women he’s raped, and how much stuff he’s stolen.

The Iliad is about a bunch of guys fighting over who gets to rape whom. The Greeks have come to Troy to stop Paris raping Helen. Apollo fights the Greeks because Agamemnon won’t stop raping his priest’s daughter Chryses. Agamemnon has to give up Chryses, so he takes Briseis instead, whom Achilles had wanted to rape, and Achilles stomps off in a huff and prays to his mother Thetis to help the Trojans kill his fellow Greeks. Women are literally trophies; they give them away as awards at sports competitions. Whenever I find some 19th-century Victorian scholar who would have been shocked to see a woman’s ankle in public go on about the Iliad containing all of the ethics needed for civilization, I consider it a vindication of Freud. Throughout history, the more sexually repressed England was, the more its men loved the Iliad.

Homer doesn’t angst over the cycle of violence, either. One of the few places where the narrator expresses a moral opinion is in upholding the obligation for revenge:

Then Menelaus of the loud war-cry took Adrestus alive, for his horses ran into a tamarisk bush, as they were flying wildly over the plain, and broke the pole from the car; they went on towards the city along with the others in full flight, but Adrestus rolled out, and fell in the dust flat on his face by the wheel of his chariot; Menelaus came up to him spear in hand, but Adrestus caught him by the knees begging for his life. “Take me alive,” he cried, “son of Atreus, and you shall have a full ransom for me: my father is rich and has much treasure of gold, bronze, and wrought iron laid by in his house. From this store he will give you a large ransom should he hear of my being alive and at the ships of the Achaeans.”

Thus did he plead, and Menelaus was for yielding and giving him to a squire to take to the ships of the Achaeans, but Agamemnon came running up to him and rebuked him. “My good Menelaus,” said he, “this is no time for giving quarter. Has, then, your house fared so well at the hands of the Trojans? Let us not spare a single one of them–not even the child unborn and in its mother’s womb; let not a man of them be left alive, but let all in Ilius perish, unheeded and forgotten.”

Thus did he speak, and his brother was persuaded by him, for his words were just. Menelaus, therefore, thrust Adrestus from him, whereon King Agamemnon struck him in the flank, and he fell: then the son of Atreus planted his foot upon his breast to draw his spear from the body.

The Iliad’s ethics are grotesque by our standards, but were appropriate for Homer’s times (the Greek Dark Ages), and for the centuries after when Greece fought Persia. They needed a reputation for ruthlessness against their enemies, and they needed brave fighting men at any cost, even that of reducing half of their population to commodities. This is why great literature is not timeless.

Actually, this is an interesting point: Who needed brave fighting men at any cost? Answer: The men did. If we look at tribal societies, conflicts between neighbors were usually over territory or over women. “Territory”, however, really meant “the territory of a group of males”, in the same way that it does for birds. Females were always welcome. You could argue that tribes, cities, and civilizations were things men built to keep other men from stealing their women. That is, in fact, what the Iliad is about: the Greeks trying and repeatedly failing to achieve civilization-level cooperation in order to stop the Trojans from stealing their women (Helen).

The result, though, was to value fighting men so highly that civilization wasn’t a very good deal for women. Maybe they would have been better off without it if it weren’t for the tendency of men to kill the babies of the women they captured.

In fact, the main ethical take-away I get from the Iliad is that there are way too many of these damn men. They’re pests, like swarms of flies. They are just getting in the way, building walls around cities, standing outside of cities, preventing people from farming, making other men lay down their hoes and pick up swords, and eventually killing or raping everybody. And then they write non-ironic literature glorifying doing all that stuff.

If the birth ratio were, say, 4 women to 1 man, things would be just about perfect [4]. We have the technology to make this happen today. I say, go for it. Kickstarter, anyone?

The historical position of the Iliad, right at the beginning of Greek civilization, and its focus on the construction of a civilization as a method to maintain access to women, highlights the importance of sex to civilization. Society is, at root, how we decide who gets to have sex with whom. Men deny that society tries to control women. Women deny their sexual power over men. Hence we argue and argue and ignore the fundamental issues.

 

Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Philosophy

Okay. Now that I’ve got that out of my system: the Iliad is important as philosophy, not as … fiction. I was going to say “literature”, but the Iliad literally defined what literature was: a triad of fiction, philosophy, and ethics.

There are several really interesting things about the Iliad. The first is that it’s the Greek national story, but the Greeks are all assholes. The only admirable, likable character is Hector, son of King Priam and the leader of the Trojan warriors. He even gets a cute scene playing with his baby son. (By contrast, the leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, sacrificed his daughter to Artemis so the fleet could have winds to sail to Troy.)

The second is that the Iliad is usually interpreted as a condemnation of the pride (“hubris”) of Achilles, but the text doesn’t support that. I looked for it, and it isn’t there, except in the first line in Chapman’s translation, which I suspect is Chapman’s own interpretation [5]. Achilles is very, very proud, but he is also very, very great, and the text explicitly says that great men should act proud, demand respect and submission from their inferiors, and not tolerate insults.

The plot resembles 20th-century absurdist theater. The characters are all nearly helpless. Agamemnon is a shitty “king” [6] who no one likes. He’s greedy, ungrateful, disliked, impetuous, murderous, deceptive, foolish, and has kept the Greeks here to fight a pointless war that isn’t worth the trouble even if they win. The smart thing to do would either be to go home, or to work out a deal or compromise with the Trojans, and the Greeks try to do both. Nothing ever works. The Greeks should be able to walk right over the Trojans, but they cause themselves more problems than the Trojans do, and if some stupid Greek doesn’t mess things up, some god does. They are stuck on Troy’s shores like Estragon and Vladimir are stuck waiting for Godot, and the first half of the plot, for all its deaths, is about as consequential as the first half of Waiting for Godot. Neither side wants to fight, and neither side wants Helen–most of the Greeks don’t care, and most of the Trojans would like to throw either Paris or her over the walls–yet they keep fighting and fighting.

And Homer is weirdly okay with that. He’s like, That’s just how the world is. That guy over there is just like you, and he doesn’t want to fight, and you don’t want to fight, but you gotta fight, and one of you has to die.

The most-important odd thing about the Iliad is that its heroes have no morality. When I say “morality”, I mean “a code of behavior which demands actions from a person which do not benefit that person sufficiently to be worth her while.” We’re so used to morality that we see it everywhere, but it isn’t in the Iliad. If a hero does something brave, or shows mercy to an enemy, it’s because he expects to get something from it. He isn’t doing it for the sake of his nation (he doesn’t have one) or even his tribe, and certainly not for his god (unless he hopes to get something from his god). (Maybe for his brother, but loyalty doesn’t feature prominently in the Iliad.) The things that appear to be exceptions to this amorality, I’ll argue, are what the Iliad is about.

The Iliad is the foundational story of Greek civilization because its question is how to build a civilization. It posits a world in which men are selfish, war is inevitable, reason and kindness are helpless, and morality–what’s that? The Greeks and the Trojans must fight, and one side must die. To live, a side needs many great warriors to work together.

And there’s the rub. The Greeks have come together for this great collective deed, the siege of Troy, and they’ve got the manpower and the talent, but not the organizational skills. To be a great warrior, a man must be proud, violent, and high-spirited, but when you bring hundreds of proud, violent, high-spirited men together, they fight each other. To defeat the Trojans, many Greeks must die, but the treasures to be won aren’t rationally worth the risk to the individuals fighting. The puzzle the Iliad poses in the persons of Achilles and Hector is, How do we train selfish men to be violent killers, and then convince them not to fight each other, but to die for their nation?

The answer is clever. You might call it evil, but let’s remember that it worked. Remember the Greeks were not Christians. They weren’t trying to convince men to win treasures in heaven, or to fight because it was the Right Thing to Do. The Greeks had gods who were assholes. They had no transcendental realm or God governing right and wrong. They were basically Nietzschians.

This is a hard thing for Christians to grasp. They think morality has to be dictated or revealed by some transcendent being. The Greeks did not believe that. They had what Christians would consider an unspiritual worldview. Their gods were not transcendent beings. They were just big frat boys. Zeus said how things would go down, and you’d be foolish to oppose him, but that didn’t make him right or just. Humans had to choose what to do on their own. Prometheus was a hero for defying the gods.

So the Iliad invented self-interested, libertarian, civic virtue.

Achilles is sitting in his tent, and warriors come and try to persuade him to join the fight. He knows [7] that if he fights, he will die but win everlasting glory, while if he does not fight, he will return home and live to old age [8]. So why should he fight?

Hector is behind the walls of Troy, and faced with growing discontent from the Trojans, who want him to hand over Helen to the Greeks. He wants to hand over Helen to the Greeks instead of fighting. If he fights, he and his family will die. Homer devoted scenes to showing how much Hector loves his family. So why should he fight?

They should fight, the Iliad argues (though not directly), because life is overrated. Life is an endless cycle of flailing about helplessly in a universe that doesn’t care. Life is being the plaything of the gods. The best thing for you, personally, is to win glory for yourself; that’s more valuable than more of this life stuff. It doesn’t last anyway.

This was a very interesting pivot point in the history of the West. This was a point where the West could have veered left like everybody else, but veered right instead. The obvious choice was for Homer to say that a man should fight for his people because he loves them and he loves his family and wants to defend them. The obvious choice would be to say civilization should be based on morality.

Homer didn’t do that. He said civilization should be based on selfishness.

And that’s when Western civilization was created.

On that hypothesis, the Greeks built a civilization of nation-states, each defended by amoral, basically irreligious warriors, who were willing to give their lives for their state for selfish reasons. And then it was this small civilization, in which men were encouraged and expected to do great deeds to seek their own glory, that almost immediately had the greatest, most intense burst of artistic and intellectual creativity and inventiveness in the world’s history.

Selfish civic virtue was eventually diluted by morality, but the West still honors selfishness and individuality more than other civilizations. This is a large part of why the West has been so successful.


[1] Joyce meant for his book to bring in a new era of literature. Its quick victory over public opinion was the result of a careful propaganda campaign which Ezra Pound had been laying the groundwork of for years. Joyce chose for this purpose to retell a story of Homer’s, not to honor Homer but to bury him, to turn Homer on his head and declare that everything had changed, that what had been good was now bad and what had been bad was now good.

(Joyce chose an easy target; Homer had been turned on his head, one way or another, many times before: by Euripides, by the Christian church, by Shakespeare, by the Enlightenment, by the 19th-century naturalists.)

[2] The word “phalanx”, the key component of Greek warfare, appears only four times. One of them describes a march to the battle; the other three describe a lone hero easily smashing through a phalanx.

[3] There is support for this view of Dark Ages Greek war in The Warrior State: How Military Organization Structures Politics by Everett C. Dolman, page 51-55:

Battles [in 1000-800 BCE, at least 200 years after the alleged Trojan War, but during the accepted time of Homer] were exclusively characterized by groups of high-born champions facing each other in single combat, and were “fluid, free-for-all encounters in which the great aristocrats of one state dueled with those of another.” … Military rank was bestowed as a birthright, and promotion was based on noble association…. about 900 BCE the individual had almost no rights, being absorbed into a totalitarian kinship group, in a system of such groups with no state and no real idea of public authority…. The phalanx formation probably developed between 750 and 650 BCE…. The Homeric Kings, who went out before their people to challenge their equals in single combat, had no place in the phalanx… A dominant leader was, in the age of the phalanx, not a heroic warrior, but a master tactician and organizer.

This would explain why Homer doesn’t use the phalanx correctly, though not how he mentions it at all, if it hadn’t been invented when he wrote, let alone when the events took place hundreds of years before. But that could easily be a later interpolation; the earliest full manuscript of the Iliad is from the 9th century A.D.

[4] So why is the birth ratio 1:1? Very good question! It’s not like fixing that would be too complicated for evolution. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s group selection, more specifically the evolution of traits that enable evolution. Most selection in mammals is probably not the result of animals dying, but of males failing to breed. Producing too many males and then forcing them to fight it out over females is the most-important selection mechanism. Western monogamous societies circumvent this. This slows most evolution, but increases the force of kin selection, because a person growing up in a monogamous culture shares half her genes with her siblings, as opposed to between 1/4 and 1/2 in a polygamous culture. This means monogamous societies should, over time, produce people who are stupid and weak, but very nice to each other and cooperative. Quite a conundrum for those trying to decide which is “better”.

[5] Tip: If you’re going to translate something, don’t start at the beginning and translate as you go. Read it first. I remember the Reader’s Digest condensed edition of the Bible. The last paragraph of the Bible says, “If anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city.” They decided to leave that out.

[6] Agamemnon isn’t the king of the Greeks. He’s the warlord with the most men.

[7] We think Achilles knows! This is Homer’s most-critical screw-up. We really need to know whether Achilles knows this or not, but Achilles gives several reasons for not fighting, and it isn’t clear which is his real reason, and it isn’t clear whether he was really told this prophecy, or is making it up for his own purposes.

[8] There is a great irony in interpreting Achilles’ dilemma in light of the further history of the Greeks. It was the philosophers of Athens, not the warriors of Sparta, who brought ancient Greece the most undying fame and glory. Yet the philosophical Greece did not survive long–only about a hundred years from Euripides to Alexander the Great. The decision that faced Greece at the dawn of its golden age, had they known it, may have been the obverse of that faced by Achilles: continue to honor valor in combat above all, and survive, or dare a hundred years of free thought, and die, but with everlasting glory.

Pretentiousness comes from modern art comes from Plato

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Ross James just posted a great essay, Annihilation — on Pretentiousness in Media. I feel like he’s saved me a blog post; I would’ve had to have written something similar eventually.

It’s on his Patreon site, but if I’m reading the tags right, it’s free to read. Some excerpts:

… if being entertaining was the primary objective of media, The Room would be a fantastic movie. We can say that The Room is a terrible movie while also being entertained by it, so we need to understand what other criteria we are thinking about when we call a movie ‘good’ or ‘bad’. … The danger is that when your meaning isn’t clear, when your story isn’t well delivered, the criticism doesn’t get directed at the work. …

A symptom of this is, strangely, a certain style of debate about the analysis of your movie. In a well-constructed movie, ideas about what something means are tied back to elements of the movie as evidence. [Analyzing?] Movies that fall into the pitfall of pretension — or the kind I have roughly laid out in my mind — are more about explaining what a scene had to mean by tying ideas to it. Think about the debate about the spinning top in Inception; they focus on trying to debate what scenes were actually trying to say first before they can work out what they actually meant.

In other words: If you’re spending more effort trying to figure out what the story said than you are re-evaluating your beliefs in light of what the story said, the story may be pretentious. If the story is difficult because the subject matter is difficult, that’s legit, but if it’s difficult because the author didn’t try to make it clear, or deliberately made it unclear, that’s pretentious.

(I’m okay with the spinning top in Inception, because the question left unanswered, as to whether the final world is real or not, is a question the characters are themselves asking. It’s not something you have to answer to interpret the story; it’s part of the story.)

James’ essay elaborates on this. He doesn’t, however, explain where this trend over the past century for “great” art to be pretentious came from. It’s actually deliberate.

Persian Flaws

There’s supposedly an old Persian tradition that every carpet made must have a deliberate flaw in it, because “only Allah makes things perfectly, and therefore to weave a perfect rug or carpet would be an offence to Allah.”

Hopefully you see the flaw in the reasoning: If only Allah makes things perfectly, you don’t have to worry about creating something perfect. This alleged tradition has always struck me as tremendously arrogant–an artist supposing she or he could create a perfect work.

Modern (20th-century) art and literature suffers the same arrogance. We see this first in the great stress that modern artists and modernist writers placed on reminding the viewer or reader that their art was not reality, but just a picture of reality.

Caption: “This is not a pipe”

The most-common justification for this obsession was the idea that art was a tool of the bourgoisie, used to suppress the proletariat by showing them false images of reality. Creating revolutionary consciousness required first making people aware that the paintings they looked at weren’t actually real things, and that the novels they read weren’t true life stories. You can find examples of this argument in Bertolt Brecht’s director’s notes for The Threepenny Opera (1928), in Lennard Davis’ 1987 book Resisting Novels, and an especially paranoid lunatic version of it in Theodor Adorno’s 1944 “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”.

So many modernist writers add deliberate “flaws” to their works, disruptive elements to break the reader’s immersion and keep the reader detached and at a distance.  In The Threepenny Opera, Brecht broke up the play’s continuity and immersiveness by having actors intersperse narration with raised billboards, of the type that separated scenes in silent films, by using these billboards to break dramatic tension by telling the spectator what was going to happen, and by directing the actors to act in a manner meant to break the fourth wall. “In drama, too, we should introduce footnotes and the practice of thumbing through and checking up… Thinking about the flow of the play is more important than thinking from within the flow of the play,” he wrote. “The spectator must not be misled along the path of empathy.”

In other modernist literature, breaking the reader’s immersion is done by breaking up and re-arranging the story in ways that confuse the reader and destroy rather than heighten drama, such as the tedious circling about the actual story, bouncing back and forth between past and future, in Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things, or the way David Mitchell split all his stories in two and inserted the pieces inside each other in his critically-acclaimed Cloud Atlas (2004).  You would be hard-pressed to find a critically-acclaimed novel from the past 20 years that told a straightforward story using a traditional structure that was meant to heighten rather than dispel drama. Chapter 1 of Annie Dillard’s 1982 Living By Fiction, “Fiction in Bits”, is about this phenomenon, as is much of “A Reader’s Manifesto” (2001).

One modernist technique for breaking immersion and creating distance is ambiguity.

Ambiguity

I’m not complaining about the kind of ambiguity where you can’t decide whether an artwork’s message is right or wrong, or the kind where the subject is difficult, or the kind where the subject is ambiguity itself. I mean ambiguity that is added to the story to obstruct your attempts to figure it out. That’s the kind of ambiguity Ross James is calling pretentious: ambiguity that makes you argue over what a work of art is trying to say, rather than about the thing it’s saying. The claim that this sort of ambiguity is good comes from modernist philosophy.

The informational content of a work of art, like the information in a sentence, comes more from how its parts are combined than from the meanings of the individual parts, e.g., “the dog bit the man” doesn’t mean the same thing as “the man bit the dog”.

But Modernism is based on ancient Platonist metaphysics, which claims that meaning exists only in the essences of individual things, not in how those things are combined. So modernists have difficulty conceiving of the information content of a representational work of art as being significant. They tend to think the significance of a representation is just the sum of the significances of the things represented. A representational work of art only shows you a collection of things you’ve seen before; therefore, it contains no new essences, and (they would argue) you can learn nothing from it.

This is why modernists imagine they could produce perfect art if they wanted to; they’re blind to the art part of a work of art, and see only the technique. They’re reverting to the medieval and ancient Greek conception of “art”, which meant about the same as our “craft” or “technical skill”. (You can read a post-modernist whining about how the Enlightenment led people to invent the artificial concept of “Art” in Larry Shiner’s 2001 The Invention of Art.)

To make a work challenging or interesting, dedicated modernists believe it must do one of these things:

– It must give us new views of essences.  This means either giving direct access to transcendental essences never perceived before, or depicting essences more truly than they have been depicted before.  Either option requires not using a realistic style. This is the primary purpose of modern art. You can find this spelled out in, for instance, various writings by Cubist painters circa ~1920, e.g. (Gleizes & Metzinger 1912 p. 195).  The description of cubism in ancient and primitive art in (Boas 1927 p. 351) gives the same explanation.

– It must use a new style or technique.

– The challenge can’t lie in the meaning of a work of art, but it can lie in the challenge of discovering that meaning. That is, art can’t lie in the interpretation of a work of art–an interpretation merely spells out what is being represented–but it can lie in the difficulty of discovering an interpretation. Nothing the artist has to say can be very interesting, but figuring out what the artist is saying–or producing your own meaning from a Rorschach-blot-like work of art–can be fun and interesting.

The Alleged Insufficiency of Language

Another theme of modern literature and philosophy is that language is incapable of communicating meaning, and actually serves to mislead people more than to enlighten them. You find this, for example, in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, in which he said that “Language disguises […] thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.” You also find it in Derrida’s “infinite chain of deferral of meaning” (Derrida 1967). This belief comes not from any actual failure of language, but, again, from Platonist metaphysics, which says that meaning resides in a transcendent realm which words can never reach.

In modernist literature, this sometimes results in authors trying to prove that language can’t communicate meaning by writing stories which fail to communicate clearly.

William Faulkner is a good example. Just today I heard a lecturer (David Thorburn, Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature, lecture 21, “Faulkner’s World–Our Frantic Steeplechase”) say that one of Faulkner’s themes was “the treacherous limitations of language as an instrument for describing and understanding experience.”

But Faulkner never demonstrated this legitimately, by showing a failure of language. He deliberately obscured his meaning, for instance, by using phony stream-of-consciousness in which he imagines that the interior thoughts of a mentally subnormal person, or of a child, are simply the things that person or child might say out loud if asked about his thoughts. Or, in many instances in As I Lay Dying, by again using stream-of-consciousness dishonestly, having a character’s interior monologue not say things that the character already knew–always the most crucial elements in figuring out what that character was thinking about–to give the impression that true inner experience was incommunicable.

A survey of modernist literature would turn up more instances of stories written in a deliberately obscure style specifically to prove that language is incapable of communicating meaning. I’ve given at least one example in a previous blog post, but I don’t remember what it was right now.

Conclusion: Blame Plato

So ambiguity of interpretation–what Ross James calls “pretentiousness”–came to be seen as inherently good, because people can argue over the meaning of an ambiguous work of art, and because ambiguity “proves” that language can’t communicate meaning and that we need to find a transcendent source of meaning. It’s deliberately cultivated by modernists, as a consequence of their belief that representational content is unimportant and the real (physical) world is unimportant, as a consequence of their Platonist metaphysics.


Franz Boas, 1927. Primitive Art. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co. Page numbers reported from Dover 1955 reprint.

Bertold Brecht, 1928, transl. Eric Bentley 1949, exigesis Eric Bentley. The Threepenny Opera. First performed in Berlin. New York: Grove Press.

Lennard Davis, 1987. Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction. Methuen, Inc., NYC NY.

Jacques Derrida, 1967, transl. 1976. Of Grammatology. Extracts in Leitch 2010 p. 1688-1697.

Annie Dillard, 1982. Living By Fiction. NYC: Harper & Row.

Albert Gleizes & Jean Metzinger, 1912. “Cubism.” In Harrison & Wood 1992, p. 187-196.

Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, eds., 1992. Art in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno 1944, transl. 2002. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Stanford U. Press, 2002.

Vincent Leitch et al., eds. 2nd ed. 2010, The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. New York: Norton.

B. R. Meyers, 2001. “A Reader’s Manifesto”. The Atlantic, July/Aug 2001.

Larry Shiner, 1990. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. U. of Chicago Press.

Near and Far–Construal and Psychological Distance

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Near and Far

A current area of research in psychology called “construal-level theory” (CLT) is—I promise—relevant to literature.  It talks about a very general phenomenon called “psychological distance”.  In popular accounts, it’s called the “near / far” distinction.  Robin Hanson summarized it on Overcoming Bias.  The more-detailed review (Trope & Liberman 2010) calls these things Near and Far:

Abstraction and idealism appear to make up the dominant dimension:  Far things are more abstract and more idealized.  Distance seems to me peripheral; only near / far in space and in time relate to distance [1].

CLT claims that:

  1. Every object of thought has many different attributes (rows of the table) which distance can be a metaphor for.  Distance itself, of course; and distance in time is similar.  More metaphorical distances include level of familiarity (familiar = near, strange = far) and abstraction (detailed = near, abstract = far).  The distance metaphor has even been stretched to include color (red = near, blue = far) and transactional direction (buy = near, sell = far), though I’m not convinced.
  2. In all [2] experiments reported in (Trope & Liberman 2010), being shown anything from the Near column of the Near / Far table makes people think in Near terms for every other row of the table. Similarly for things from the Far column. For example, subjects asked to mark points far away from each other on a graph, and then asked how close they were to their family, reported being “farther away” socially from their families than subjects who were asked to mark points that were close together on the graph (Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 443).  Many experiments used a Stroop-effect task to show interference (longer reaction time) when the priming attribute was near (far) and the tested attribute was far (near).
  3. Therefore, near / far is, or can be regarded as, a single mode of human thought.  Perceptions of nearness of one attribute are not merely correlated with perceptions of nearness of other object attributes; they cause other attributes to be perceived as near, or to be approached or thought about (construed) in the manner one would if they were near.  Near / far is thus a mode of human thought, and while a person can be in a mode between near and far, a person cannot perceive some attributes of a mental object in far mode, while simultaneously perceiving other attributes or other mental objects in near mode.

Near and Far in Art & Culture

I claim, additionally, that Near and Far characterize not just how individuals think at a given moment, but characterize artistic movements, literary genres, and entire cultures.  These works, artists, genres, and cultures can be classed as usually endorsing or displaying either Near or Far values:

Far: The AeneidBeowulf, Chaucer’s Troilus and CriseydePilgrim’s Progress; John Milton; heroic fantasy, superhero comics; Christianity, Nazism

Near: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; Robert Frost, Raymond Chandler; realist and naturalist novels, hard-boiled detective fiction; empirical science

The history of European art, science, and culture from 1300 up until 1900 was, excepting the 18th century, one of moving gradually from Far to Near mode.  The first-person POV in fictional narrative was (I think) an invention of the 18th century, and the 20th-century dictums “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” are both commands to write in near rather than far mode.

The novel that began Modernist literature, James Joyce’s Ulysses, is all about confusing the Near and the Far.  It takes a narrative that is very, very Far—an Archaic Greek epic poem about an idealized, overconfident, noble hero—and superimposes it on a protagonist who is very Near—an irreligious Irish Jew whose mundane, pathetic, and comical inner thoughts and bodily functions are described in more detail than anyone had ever described any character’s before.

Near and Far will be important concepts in understanding the history of art and culture.  They are so important that they were discovered independently several times before.

Using Near and Far in Writing

Ursula LeGuin wrote an essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which I think is pretty awful.  She tried to pin down what made something fantasy rather than ordinary fiction with dragons and swords, and she started out right—

Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion.

The phrase “get in touch with reality“, used to talk about something that is definitively unreal, is instantly diagnostic of philosophical realism, also called Idealism.  That’s the belief that reality isn’t real, but instead some fantasy world of yours, an imagined ideal world such as Plato’s cave, is real.  Plato, Jesus, Hegel, and Heidegger are probably the most-famous Idealists.

Idealism is indeed the basis of classic heroic fantasy, although now, in the age of democracy, we’ve got hobbits as heroes.  Idealism seems to mean nearly the same thing as Far mode.

However, she goes on to say…

What is it, then, that I believe has gone wrong in the book and the passage quoted from it? I think it is the style.

Not heroism, idealistic principles, or karma in the world, as Tolkien would have said.  No; LeGuin says true fantasy is anything written in a genuine phony archaic style.

I think style is certainly not the causative or definitive feature we want to find, but it is not as useless a conclusion as it first appeared to me. For a style specifies how one approaches the objects one writes about.  Does one describe them concretely or abstractly? Does one focus on the physical details, or on purposes and meanings? Does the wording create distance or intimacy?  All the choices presented in the “Near / Far” table could be called stylistic.  A style, then, positions a text on the Near / Far continuum.

Knowing what is Near and what is Far will therefore help you keep your style more psychologically plausible, by not mixing Near and Far stylistic elements.

(Trope & Liberman 2010) mentioned some research on Near vs. Far style.  Here “dispositional” means saying someone did something because of their character, versus “situational”, which means saying someone did something because of the situation they were in.

It has been shown, for example, that personal memories of behaviors that were recalled from a third-person perspective (e.g., “try to remember your first day at school, as if you are now watching the kid you were”) rather than from a first-person perspective (“try to remember your first day at school, as if you are a kid again”) tended to use dispositional (as opposed to situational) terms (Frank & Gilovich, 1989; Nigro & Neisser, 1983). In a similar vein, Libby and Eibach (2002, Study 4) found that imagining performing an activity (e.g., rock climbing, playing drums) from a third-person perspective produced less vivid and rich reports of the activity than imagining the same activity from a first-person perspective. In terms of CLT, this means that a third-person perspective, which imposes more distance than a first-person perspective, induces a higher level of construal. Indeed, Pronin and Ross (2006) showed that taking a third person perspective rather a first-person perspective on one’s own behavior promoted attribution of the behavior to personality traits rather than to specific situational factors.  — Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 447-8

All this means that your choice of first or third person point of view should take into account the construal mode you want to invoke in your reader.  If you want to work in high fantasy, and have your reader concerned with romantic ideals and to see codes of ethics as absolute and inviolable, you should write in third person.  If you want to confront your reader with unpleasant or messy truths and shake them out of dogmatic complacency, or bring them into close empathy with a unique individual, first-person would do better. This is why Tolkien and LeGuin’s fantasies are in third person, while Glen Cook’s Black Company and Roger Zelazney’s Chronicles of Amber, both subversions of heroic fantasy, are in first person. It’s also why Raymond Chandler’s gritty, cynical detective novels are in first person.

These are not absolutes. Third person is extremely flexible.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is in a third person that is so close-in to the protagonist that it might as well be first-person. Hemingway’s third person is so objective and concrete, and carefully stripped of Far-mode subjective judgments and abstractions, that it probably puts the reader in Near mode rather than Far.


[1] Even many of the experiments that attempted to measure distance also measured familiarity and abstraction, as they contrasted  a nearby, well known place with a distant, unknown place which the subjects could only envision abstractly.  So we should really call this the concrete / abstract dimension.  But near / far is a more concrete way of describing it.

[2] Trope & Liberman report on about 100 experiments, and in every case the results agreed with the predictions. This is literally too good to be true.  Either the authors, the journals, or the reviewers consistently filtered out all adverse results.  One important study has been retracted for being fraudulent.


References

Yaacov Trope & Nira Liberman, 2010. Construal-Level Theory of Psychological DistancePsychological Review117(2): 440 – 463.

On Writing Comedy

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I recently wrote a short story for a writer’s workshop I’m in that was meant to be funny, and that I’m told was, in fact, funny.  The thing is, it didn’t make me laugh.  I don’t think I smiled while writing it.  What was in my head while writing it was a series of calculations along the lines of “HUMANS WILL LAUGH AT THIS WITH PROBABILITY 0.57.”

Partly I felt the story didn’t have enough funny lines–look at a page from Pratchett or Douglas Adams, and you’ll see nearly every paragraph is funny.  Partly I didn’t like the flow / pacing / transitions between topics / lack of story structure.

There are some lines I think I would have laughed at if someone else had written them, but plenty that I don’t know if I would have ever found funny.  I was definitely not consciously writing for myself.

It was a rushed job.  I still find myself not knowing whether it’s not funny, funny but not my thing, funny and my thing but I can’t laugh at it because I wrote it, or funny and my thing but I’m suppressing that knowledge.

But that’s usually how I feel when writing comedy.  Even if something is funny at first, it stops being funny after I’ve read it 10 times.  A stand-up comedian isn’t laughing at his own material; he’s laughing at the game he’s playing with the audience.  Writing comedy is like taping a stand-up comedy routine with no audience.

I felt a little better about this when one of the speakers at the 3 Rivers Screenwriting Conference said that writing comedy was so hard because, unlike all other kinds of writing, you can’t tell from your feelings whether your comedy is any good.  Comedy shows are written in a “writer’s room,” a big room with a round table and several comedy writers throwing lines and ideas at each other.  This speaker said he had never been in a writer’s room for a comedy show where the writers were laughing.

If you write something sad, you know it’s sad if it makes you cry [1].  If you write something uplifting, it makes you feel good.  But comedy relies on surprise, and you’re not surprised after the first moment a joke occurs to you, and the joke isn’t quite right the first moment it occurs to you.  The wording is wrong, the context is wrong, and you have to fiddle with it until it can sound funny, and by then it doesn’t surprise you anymore.

Postscript:

Maybe dividing our feelings into neat categories–comedy, tragedy, romance–is a modern thing.  The separation of reason into the rational and the emotional is a thing that happened at least twice in history, first in Plato, then again in the 18th century.  The Elizabethans, like Shakespeare and the “metaphysical poets” like John Donne, united rationality and feeling in their writing.  The phrase “metaphysical poet” almost means “a poet who uses a precise, scientific metaphor to convey passionate feelings”, as in Donne’s Valediction.

This includes comedy.  Shakespeare wrote a bunch of “problem plays” which people don’t know how to deal with now, because they aren’t strictly comedy or drama.  A few years ago I wrote on this blog that Shakespeare used cheap alternations between the comic and tragic, but that’s not always right.  The gravedigger/Yorick scene in Hamlet, or maybe some scenes with Shylock in Merchant of Venice, are funny, but in an almost cruel or ironic way that we don’t write humor anymore, a way that you might need to be less “Enlightened” to appreciate.


[1]  Not me, of course.  Super villains never cry.  That’s just eye-venom leaking out.

The Principal Dimensions of English

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I want to talk about the principal dimensions of theories of art, but to do that, I must explain what I mean by “principal dimensions”. Besides, you should learn this stuff anyway.

How to Recommend Stories if you’re a computer

Suppose you want to decide, after reading the first thousand words of a story on your kindle, whether to recommend that Bob read it. Also suppose you’re a computer, so you must summarize the story in numbers. You can list some numbers for each story: its number of words, if it’s a series whether it’s complete (1) or incomplete (0), whether it listed in the romance genre, the action/adventure genre, etc., how good the style is on a scale from 0 to 10, and how often the words “kiss”, “snuggle”, “sesquipedalian”, and “bloody” appear.

You end up with tens of thousands of numbers about the story. What do you do with them?

First, you make up terminology. Let N  be the number of numbers (say, 23724). Call each of the things being counted a “dimension”, and the whole set of N numbers a “point” in “N-dimensional space”. (Don’t worry that you can’t picture N-dimensional space. Nobody can.)

Next, you need to get similar sets of N numbers for a bunch of other stories. Then, you need to know which of those stories Bob likes. Then, you recommend Bob read the story if its values for those numbers are similar to those for the stories Bob likes.

But you might only know 100 stories that Bob likes. Hardly enough to determine exactly how he feels about the word “sesquipedalian”.

What you could do is look at the other stories, and group counted things together that seem to go together most of the time. So, you might notice stories that use the word “snuggle” a lot also use “kiss” more than the others, but use “wart” and “angst” less often. So you make a single new, fake dimension, which for the benefit of any humans reading this I will call Kissiness, like this:

Kissiness = 30*Romance – 10*Dark + 3*count(kiss) + 3*count(cuddle) + count(close) + count(smooth) … – count(angst) – 2*count(wart)

You make some other fake dimensions that group together words that seem more or less likely to be found together:

Sexiness = 30*Sex + 10*Mature – 300*Everyone + count(grope) + count(hard) + count(soft) + 3*count(erect) + …

Violence = 10*Gore + 5*Mature + 3*count(bloody) + 5*count(battle) + count(hard) – count(soft) – count(fuzzy)

Second_Person = 10*count(you) + 5*count(your) – 10*count(I)

Superheroics = 5*count(power) + 2*count(mighty) + 3*count(evil) + count(cape) + 3*count(costume) + 2*count(mask)

Obscenity = count(@$!) + 5*count(@#$@#$) – count(fudge) – count(hay)

Bigwordiness = count(assiduous) + count(voracious) + count(punctilious) + …

(I’ve listed several words each, but more realistically there would be hundreds making up each fake dimension.)

Then you can build categories using just the fake dimensions.  In fact, I think this is very similar to what your brain does for you.

Principle Component Analysis (PCA)

There’s a signal processing technique called Principle Component Analysis (PCA) which is one of the Deep Insights into Everything that philosophy students should study instead of Plato’s forms. It does all this for you automatically, optimally, for any category of things described by points in an N-dimensional space. It looks at a whole bunch of such things, then figures out the one single best fake dimension that gives the data the widest spread [0]. Then it removes that dimension from the data, and does the same thing again, figuring out the second-best summary dimension. Do that 10 times, and you get 10 summary dimensions. Compute the values along those 10 dimensions for all the points in your N-dimensional space, throw away the original points, and you’ll still have most of the information that was in the original N dimensions. [1]

Then, predict that the probability that Bob will like a story is the probability that he likes other stories near it in 10-space.

This is the technique that won over all other approaches in the $1,000,000 Netflix contest, which was probably the biggest experiment in predicting ratings ever. The key innovation in the contest was using a fast way to approximate PCA [2]–a way which, incidentally, can be done by neurons.

Plus, once you’ve got the things you’re dealing with down to 10 dimensions or so, you can use logic or computation on them. You can have complex rules like, “If each line of the story has a similar repeated pattern of stresses, it’s probably poetry” if your analysis has discovered dimensions corresponding to “trochee” and “spondee” [3]. (Which it might, if your training stories had a lot of poetry in them.)

A lot of what cultures do, and what your brain does, is basically PCA followed by categorization and then thinking with those categories. All this crazy high-dimensional stuff happens, and people try to come up with concepts to simplify and explain it. The intermediate-level concepts produced, like “pretty”, “harmonious”, and “cruel”, are not real things. They are fake summary dimensions, each a sum (or function) of lots of real dimensions, that capture a lot of the differences between real things.

Then people build more concepts out of that smaller number of intermediate concepts. Because there are fewer of them, they can use more-powerful ways to combine them, like logical rules or lambda functions, to say whether something is “just”, “virtuous”, “beautiful”, or “sublime”. [4]]

Finding Data Points in the Real World

If you don’t have the N-dimensional data for all your objects, don’t worry. You don’t need it. If you can take any 2 objects and say how similar or different they are, or even just whether they’re similar or different, you can jump straight to the lower-dimensional space that PCA would produce. Call it M-dimensional space, M << N. Here’s how:

Compare a bunch of object pairs.  Say for instance difference(kind, compassionate) = 1, difference(kind, hurtful) = 6. Then use the differences between them as distances in a low-dimensional space. Start each of the objects at a random point in M-dimensional space (a popular choice is to distribute them on the surface of an M-1 dimensional sphere around the origin), then repeatedly push pairs apart if they’re too close, and pull them nearer each other if they’re too far (keeping them on the surface of that sphere if you’re doing it that way), until most pairs are about as far apart in your M-dimensional space as the distance says they should be.

(How do you choose M? You make it up. Everything left over gets mashed together in the Mth dimension, so if you want 10 meaningful dimensions, set M = 11.)

The principal dimensions of English

In fact, we can just do this with the English language, using lists of synonyms and antonyms, and see what our M summary dimensions are. In fact, somebody already did. Given some reasonable assumptions and one particular thesaurus, the 10 most-important dimensions of the English language are, roughly:

1. Good/increase vs. bad/diminish

2. Easy vs. hard

3. Start/open/free vs. finish/close/constrain

4.  Peripheral vs. central

5.  Essential vs. extra

6. Pull vs. push (sort of)

7. Above vs. below

8. Old vs. young

9. Normal vs. strange

10. Specific vs. general

I call these the principal dimensions. If we were doing PCA, we’d call them the principal components. Same thing. [5]

By contrast, if you do the same thing for French with a French thesaurus, these are the first 3 dimensions:

1. Good/increase vs. bad/diminish

2. Easy vs. hard

3. Start/open vs. finish/close

Whoops! Did I say by contrast? They’re the same. Because the dimensions that fall out of this analysis aren’t accidents of language. Languages develop to express how humans think. And that’s how humans think, at least Western Europeans. [6, 7, 8]

…but you said this had something to do with art

Here’s how all this is relevant to art: I want to claim I’ve discovered the first principal dimension of theories of art. I’m going to show (hopefully) that the position of different cultures on this dimension predicts something important about what type of art they value. But you need to understand what I mean by their position on this dimension, and what I mean by a type of art.

A type of art is like a mental disease. You diagnose it by noting that it contains, say, any 5 out of a list of 12 symptoms. The art type, or disease type, is a category. Its “symptoms” are measurements on summary (principal) dimensions. The actual data for a culture are going to be things like the degree to which power and wealth are centralized, the level of external threats, the heterogeneity of social roles, and the education level. [9] The principal dimension I’m going to talk about is not a real thing-in-the-world, though it is real. It’s determined by a statistical correlation between actual things in the world.


[0] Technically, the largest variance.

[1] There are many ways of doing PCA, and many related dimension-reduction techniques like “non-linear PCA” and factor analysis. Backpropagation neural networks are doing non-orthogonal PCA, though this wasn’t realized for many years after their invention.

[2] Except that they didn’t technically do PCA because they didn’t have the N-dimensional points. They assumed that each movie was described by an N-dimensional point, and that each user had an N-dimensional preference vector saying how much he liked high values on each dimension, and that their ratings were the dot products of these two vectors. Then they used singular value decomposition (SVD) to construct low-dimensional approximations to both kinds of vectors. So they ended up with the low-dimensional points without ever knowing the “real” original N-dimensional points. If anyone understands how to do this with PCA, please tell me.

[3] If all you want to do is recommend stories to Bob, it turns out it isn’t helpful for a computer program to construct the final genre categories.  It’s already got the point in N-space for a story; saying which genre that point lies within just throws away information. Just do your PCA and predict whether Bob likes that point in N-space. (Reference: The Netflix contest winners and losers.) But if you want to use logic to reason about genres (say, what themes are common in which genres), then you’ll have to categorize them.

[4] Many of the supposed proofs that meaning cannot be compositional (compositional: a term can be defined without reference to the entire dictionary) stem from the fact that philosophers don’t understand that first-order logic is strictly weaker than a Turing machine (lambda functions). “Logic” is a weak form of reason compared to computation.

[5] The fact that you can reconstruct these dimensions, and will get the same answer every time even with significant changes in the data, refutes the cornerstone of post-modern philosophy, which is that scientific theories, social structures, and especially language, are underdetermined by the world. That is, they claim that any one of an approximately infinite number of other ways of doing things, or categorizing things, or thinking about things, would work equally well, and the real world underlying the things we say can never be known. But in fact, casual experimentation proves that language is astronomically overdetermined. (The number of constraints we get from how linguistic terms relate to each other and to sense data is much larger than the number of degrees of freedom in the system.)

[6] Contrary to what Ferdinand de Saussure said, and post-modern philosophers after him assented to, thought came first, language, second. We can excuse him for making this mistake, because he was writing before Darwin’s theories were well-known, except oops no he wasn’t.

[7] Some “synonyms” are words that are opposite on one dimension, and the same on all the others, allowing people to invert a particular dimension. Examples: challenge / obstacle, abundant / gratuitous (differ on good/bad), tug / yank (on easy/hard, funny / peculiar (on normal/strange).

[8] If you feed the algorithm radically different data, you’ll come up with different dimensions after the first few dimensions, as I suppose they did for French in that study.

So what happens if two people had different life experiences, and their brains came up with different principal dimensions?

It turns out we have a word for this, an old word that predates the math needed to understand it this way: we say they have different paradigms. They classify things in the world using a different set of dimensions. When they think about things, they come up with different answers. When they talk to each other, they each think the other is stupid. This is why political debates rarely change anyone’s mind; the people on opposite sites literally cannot understand each other. Their brains automatically compress their opponents’ statements into dimensions in which the distinctions they’re making are lost.

This is, I think, the correct interpretation of Thomas Kuhn’s observation that scientists using different paradigms can’t seem to communicate with each other.  It doesn’t mean that the choice of paradigm is arbitrary. Different paradigms are better at making distinctions in different data sets. Someone who’s grown up with one data set can’t easily switch to a different one; she would have to re-learn everything. But, given agreement on what the data to explain is, paradigms can be compared objectively.

[9] Yes, it turns out I’m a literary Marxist. Sorry.