One can truly never understand any time period beyond the ones he has experienced first hand. We might hear of earlier eras from our elders, but these stories will always be secondhand experiences to us. These time periods were experienced by another. Their perspective changes the particulars, filters out some and making others more potent. Furthermore, knowledge of the past gained this way is limited to only those that are alive. Any time period beyond the that has no living witnesses.

All historical knowledge beyond that comes from cultural artifacts. Some societies leave behind writings we can republish and read, art we can put up and view in galleries, and plays that can be recast and reproduced in modern theaters. In some ways, this is superior to having an actual witness relate the past to you. One can experience these works of art, assuming they are well preserved, in precisely the same way the people of past did. The universal methods and motifs great works of art utilize are just as effective on us now as they were then. How they are used tells us what values and ideals were important to the author and society that produced them.

In the same way that traveling to a foreign country can teach you of their culture, consuming art can be just as effective. One might not be able to travel to the past, but one can still read an ancient novel. Comparing and contrasting the societies of the past with the current is valuable, even if the work of art is from a culture that you are familiar with in the present. It allows you to get a sense of what has survived from the past as well as what has been lost. The bits of ourselves that we see in bygone eras can help us identify what is important in our own.

One of the most overlooked connections to the past is through architecture. Just as these ancient works of art can portray the people who created them, buildings can act as this sort of cultural mirror as well. Architecture has always lived in half in the realm of the practical and half in the realm of the expressive. Each building stands as both a testament to the designer who made it and the person he was designing it for. In this way, architecture can actually tell us just as much, if not more, about the societies of the past as any art form or archeology.

Architecture is one of the most enduring and present forms of the past. Every city in the world has buildings that are centuries, if not millenia, old. Many of them have been in use during all that time. People continue to live and work in buildings designed and made by a society long gone in their everyday lives. The use of these buildings is hard to misinterpret. A castle is clearly designed with defense in mind and an opera house is unmistakably for performers and audiences. In many cases, these buildings are the only tangible mark of their society still in use. The concrete, wood, marble, and stone was all harvested and cut by their hands. The technology, craftsmanship, and methodology required to erect it was all possessed by the society that produced the building.

However, there are some very strong limitations one should keep in mind when viewing architecture from a historical perspective. Not all buildings are equal. Some are built to last while others, by their very nature, are only temporary. Some buildings are made to be seen and are kept at the center of public life. Others are solely meant to fulfill a singular purpose and thereby abandoned. The most famous and longest lasting examples we have of architecture are the former type of buildings. We only see the buildings that were made to last from periods long ago. As such, our opinion on these cultures has an inherent bias to them if when we base it on these buildings. While we might stand in awe of buildings such as the pyramids in Egypt, The Parthenon in Athens, or Stonehenge in England today, these all had a very distinct and important use in their own time. They were not built for us to view them as tourist attractions now. Their original meaning can only be fully understood within the historical context of the societies that used them.

These buildings have survived due to their significance to the society in which they were built. They were built in important and sacred places. There was no expense spared in building them. They used the best and most durable materials available. They provide a timeless sense of style through their grandeur and impracticality for daily use. If they were co-opted for use by later societies, they would have been worn out or changed beyond recognition. What we get instead is a sort of time capsule and window into the societies that made them.

Perhaps, this is where their true value lies. Even though they were built them to last and as a testament to their religions, they were only used for this purpose for a short part of their life time. Their “second life” as a cultural artifact affects far more people than their original purpose.

When one considers this, an interesting question emerges: what modern buildings would survive into the future in our own society? Many of the buildings considered architecturally significant today were built for practical reasons. Skyscrapers, government buildings, and bridges all require an immense amount of upkeep to keep them in a durable state. They are made from glass that is easily broken and must be washed every few months. Reinforced concrete provides a stable base but it is nothing more than the skeleton of the building. Strip away all of the aesthetic materials from modern constructions and you would see it as plain, austere, and ugly. This has been the case in architecture ever since the late 19th century.

There have been a few interesting exceptions to this trends since then. Most notable were the architecture of the fascist movements in Europe in the 20th century. The head architect of the Third Reich, Albert Speer, explicitly made this one of the goals of his work. In a paper titled “Die Ruinenwerttheorie”, he describes the value he sees in designing buildings in such a way that they would “age gracefully”. Originating in Late-Romantic ideals, Speer notes that buildings are eventually, not matter what precautions are taken, are doomed to disrepair. The society they were built for is not permanent. Once the people are gone that used it, the building will fall into ruin. It is an eventuality that entropy will take is course. The only way that the architect can combat this, in his view, was to design buildings in such a way that limits this decay.

The most famous application of this theory can be found in his design of the 1936 Berlin Olympiastadion. It is replete with Traditional German and Classical Greek motifs. The primary support came from stone pillars quarried in Germany. Steel and modern materials were used but they were unessential to the support of building. The building would stand even if every scrap of steel rusted and every bit of glass shattered. The building was open and clear, allowing for natural lighting to penetrate to deep within the inner part of the structure. It was built in such a way that it supported all of the events the 1936 Olympics required but still retained a “monumental” style.

The stadium, unlike so much of the architecture in Germany from this period, remained relatively untouched by war. Away from the city center, it was protected from the bombing that ravaged most of Berlin. It was neither important enough strategically or symbolically for it to be a major target for destruction. While many other buildings of this nature were completely transformed by the war effort, the German government was able to repurpose it into a bunker, an arms factory, and a radio station without touching many of its distinctive qualities. Its durability made it one of the most important buildings in the post-war era Berlin. It was quickly reopened to be used for recreation and sports and remains so to this day. Despite some major renovations throughout the years, it retains much of the original design and grandeur it had when it first opened.

The fact that the Olympiastadion survived some of the harshest times in the 20th century is a testament to its design and the philosophy behind its construction. Despite the billions of dollars thrown at new construction projects at cities all around the world, very few of them are resilient or notable enough to survive the ravages of time. Buildings like this provide an invaluable link to the past in ways that no other form can. It goes to show that no matter the era something is made in, diligence and dedication to higher values can survive and be remembered. As cities crumble and time changes all, the very few that live up to this high standard will be passed on to future generations of admirers.

Socratic subversion

To understand the importance of Socratic thought in European civilization, one must first understand how it arose. First and foremost, one should keep in mind the Athens that he lived in. The most well known parts of Socrates’ life are the events leading up to his trial and death. He was an old man of approximately 70 years at the time of Plato’s dialogues. He was born around 470 B.C., just as the Athenian empire was rising to prominence as a true power in the Mediterranean. He was not born into a noble family. His parents would probably be best described as “working class” today.

In the early years of his life, he was stonecutter by trade, working on all sorts of projects to build the ever expanding city of Athens. He was even to have said to have made statues that stood near the Parthenon. He also was a soldier, fighting in several battles that lead up to the Peloponnesian war.

His was life intimately entwined with the rise and fall of ancient Athens. By the time of the dialogues, Athens, who had once been the most powerful of all city-states, had been reduced to the puppet of Sparta. The hubris and arrogance of the Athenian government had lead it from a golden age to rubble. No city in Greece had ever been so high or fallen so low. His characteristic irony and sarcasm are known for having a general sense of disappointment of humanity in them. The fall of Athens and the flaws in its democratic government played a formative role in such attitudes.

The ideological and scholastic developments that Athens displayed during Socrates’ life are just as important as the political. In his elder years, Athenian academics was thoroughly sophist. Many of the wealthy and powerful in Athens were taught by Sophist tutors. As a school of thought, its core teachings espoused the superiority of rhetoric in all things. The tools of argument, if properly wielded, could be used to sway any audience to any conclusion. It did not matter the truth of what was ultimately being said. Sophist thought is a prime example of “form over function”.

From what the dialogues tell us, Socrates was consistently and vehemently an anti-Sophist. He saw their use of rhetoric as a nihilist abomination, an affront to the gods. He held that the underlying truth of the universe was unchanging and could be reasoned with. Disaster was the only outcome for those who would seek to subvert this fact.

Socrates actions in the dialogues, when viewed through this light, take on a new significance. He is no longer just a wise man, exposing the folly of the citizens of Athens, but a critic of his society. One cannot help but see Socrates’ Athens as a civilization in decay, rotting from the inside out. Whatever ethics they had that brought them glory in the past had fled.

Socrates fought against this pervasive attitude by using the own tools of the Sophists against them. Rhetorical flourish depends on exploiting uncertainty caused by the inexactness of language. One can say something vague enough so that it has an effect on any listener. The Socratic method thrives on absurdity. His method of overcoming this vagueness was by raising questions that demanded exact answers. It immediately put his subjects on the defensive. This easily put himself in control of the debate, from beginning to end.

Most of the people Socrates conversed with in the dialogues were much younger and higher born than him. They had lived their lives in a world dominated by Sophist thought. Things they saw as completely reasonable, Socrates saw as foolish. However, it is important to see that he was not arguing with these people for any personal reason, as they were often strangers to him. He argued for the sake of Athens. Ultimately, he was put to death for this very reason, “corrupting the youth” of Athens. The case brought against him was not for any individual offense. His accusers saw the danger he represented against their society as a whole.  The worst punishment comes when the heretic speaks the truth.

There are many parallels between the Athens of Socrates and the modern world. Both are societies who quickly rose to prominence but now are in constant existential doubt. Deep down, both are aware of their tenuous right to authority. They lost the will to create greatness because most realize that the logical conclusion to their way of life creates nothing. It only brings about destruction, yet both societies are too cowardly to change course. As a consequence, they try to stamp out any that might challenge this order as quickly as possible.

Socrates found an effective method for exposing the absurdity of the time he lived in through irony and logic. By questioning everything, including the beliefs held common by most Athenians, he could get people to consider ideas that would otherwise be alien to them.

So much of the opposition to modernity today is pointless. It takes the path of most resistance when it comes to argument. Persuading people against deeply ingrained held beliefs by arguing directly against them is, for the most part, impossible. Trying to save the environment by stopping loggers or picketing an abortion clinic only serves to create contention. Those sort of methods don’t help anybody because they don’t attack the root cause, the insane beliefs brought us here in the first place. One only has to expose the absurdity of the modern world for what it is. Lies collapse in on themselves when the slightest amount of truth is introduced in an understandable way. The Modern worldview is its own worst enemy, but only if people see it for what it truly is.

Favored by misfortune

Our society is obsessed with status.  Thousands of movies, documentaries, and TV programs are dedicated to the billionaires, movie stars, and politicians we deem important.  They strive to answer what makes them great, how they reached such heights and places of power.

Some of them ascribe to to luck.  “Bill Gates was just in the right place at the right time.”  Some attribute it to innate ability.  “Marlon Brando was just born a great actor.”  A select few of these narratives choose to focus on hard work.  They emphasize the thousands of hours of diligence poured into their work.  They set them up as examples for the viewer to aspire to.  You too could be great, if you just work hard enough.

These narratives are always less than satisfying.  The audience is captivated by the idea of vast amounts of power, but they must continue on after it is over.  Everyone must go back to their average paying jobs and their unaccomplished friends when the weekend is done.  Greatness is too complex of a topic to be boiled down into a catch phrase.  All attempts to do so are doomed to fail before they even start.

One of the most noteworthy attempts in history to understand greatness comes from Renaissance Italy.  The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli was written as a study into what makes a leader gain and keep power. Its lessons have since been widely applied, to everything from business to warfare.

Born into 16th century Florence, he lived his entire life in an Italy dominated by political strife.  He begins off the treatise by directly addressing the ruler of Florence, calling for him to rise to an unmatched greatness.  Only then could he unite the warring states of Italy and bring peace to the land.  In the ensuing chapters, he describes, at great detail, how great rulers are made.  He cites both contemporary and ancient sources as role models and cautionary examples.

He deviates little from this formula throughout the entire book.  A notable exception comes towards the end.  There is a chapter that concerns itself with the good and bad luck princes must account for ruling.  Instead of citing history, he speaks in generalities and metaphors.

In this chapter, Machiavelli speaks of a force he calls fortuna.  Most English translation render it as the word “fortune”, but it has a much more profound meaning.  She is a force to be reckoned with.  She is one that brings both blessings and curses. No one is outside of her grasp. She happens to everyone, from peasant to king, though not all at once.  It is impossible when to predict when she will smile upon you or bring misery to your life.

Despite the fickle nature of fortune, he still finds meaning in it:

I compare fortune to one of those torrential rivers which, when enraged, inundates the lowlands, tears down trees and building, and washes out the land on one bank to deposit it on the other. Everyone flees before it; everyone yields to its assaults without being able to offer it any resistance. Even though it behaves this way, however, it does not mean that men cannot make provision during periods of calm by erecting levees and dikes to channel the rising waters when the come, or at least restrain their fury and reduce the danger.
The same may be said about fortune, which tends to show her strength where no resources are employed to check her. She turns her course toward those points where she knows there are no levees or dikes to restrain her.

Misfortune casts it shadow on all men at one point or another. It does not effect everyone the same though.  Those wise enough to prepare for hardship will be the ones affected least. The true virtue of a man is tested in these moments.  The ability to deal with adversity ultimately determines his position in life.  In times of plenty, there is enough for all to live on.  The strong only show their worth in the worst of times.

Modernity is a time of untold prosperity.  We see it in every obese person on welfare, every professor who raids the state’s funds with tenure, and every time an apology is demanded for hurting someone’s feelings.  These people have never known starvation, never experienced war, or put their life on the line.  It takes only a modicum of effort to provide for the basics of life today.  The further we proceed into modernity, the more this weakness shall rule.

Machiavelli offers this chapter as a warning. Anyone who depends on the great fortune of today will be the first to fall when misfortune hits.  All glory is fleeting.  A decadent society that does not prepare for the future is no different.  It too will crumble at the first sign of true crisis.

Modernity kills freedom

“If you could go back in time to any period in history, which would you live in?”  It is a common fantasy to imagine how one life would be different in a another time and place. Everyone has answered this question at one point or another.  Occasionally, someone will try to be smart with his answer.  He will object to the premise itself.  Why would anyone would want to go back? Living any time but now would be terrible.  Modernity is the only sensible time period to live in.  Progress has made all of our lives so much easier.

The core of the argument is that modernity offers all sorts of comforts and securities. The people of the past could only dream of what we have now.  Modern people lead longer and safer lives, just look at how much longer we live now.  Humans used to live short, harsh lives, struggling against the elements.

It was a matter of life and death for our ancestors just to find food, shelter, and clean water.  They had no rifles to defend themselves when dangerous predators attacked.  They had no restaurants to gorge themselves when on they were hungry.  There was no doctors to prescribe antibiotics to them when they got sick.  They must have been miserable.  It is no wonder that our ancestors only lived to middle age.

To any one with a cursory understanding of history, it is obvious this is an extremely narrow-minded perspective.  Even if one accepts his assumptions, the argument itself is flawed. It assumes that our ancestors lived shallow and unhappy lives.  It assumes that physical security and longevity are sole determinants in living a  fulfilling and meaningful life.  They are not.

This is plainly observable by noticing the amount of unhappiness still present in modern society. Progress has never brought about a utopia.  It has only brought security to the individual.  It has prevented much of the pain and suffering caused by hunger, pestilence, and the climate.  Instead, modern man must worry about problems on a global level.  He worries about pathogens and pesticides polluting his food and drink.  He worries about power mad politicians sparking a global thermo-nuclear holocaust.  He worries about overpopulation and pollution destroying the environment.

Modern man has just as much to fret about as his ancestors did.  The difference between the two is the scale of the issues.  Modernity has brought problems that are much harder to address.  No one person, tribe, or even nation can solve them any more.  For example, not even the richest billionaires on the planet have the power to solve world hunger.

As a consequence, the modern man has an overwhelming and deep rooted sense of powerlessness.  Compared to his ancestors, he can do little to influence the environment around him.  Where once a man could defend his family against raiders and thieves with his own weapons, modern man must rely on the police to protect them.  When a man grows his own food, he need not worry about what chemicals he was feeding to his family.  Whatever sense of pride and security man once got through self-reliance has disappeared with the introduction of modernity.

Any sane individual would want to live in a society where they can make a difference.  Powerlessness breeds depression and despair in everyone. Man gets a sense of purpose and contentment from setting attainable goals and solving them.  Modernity is the systematic concentration of the power of life and death to the hands of an increasingly smaller amount of people.  True freedom is known to less people today than any time in history.  The past wasn’t a horrible place to live and die, modernity is.

The shallow revolution

Bread has been a staple of the human diet ever since the first societies formed in the neolithic. With the cultivation of wheat, people needed an easy way to process and consume it. Many different forms of bread were developed to meet this task. Its basic function has always remained the same.

Go to any store in North America and you will see an aisle devoted to bread. In it, you will see it in dozens of different brands and packaging. It will appear in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. The medium of baking has had a long time to develop its product. You will see some bread from local companies that cater to the customs of the region. You will also see bread from foreign lands. Bread that was unheard of in the general population only a few generations ago. Ask an American what roti or pita is back in the 1950s, and you would get an odd stare or two.

There will be one kind of bread that stands apart from all the others. Without doubt, it will be the most widespread, advertised, and prevalent bread in the aisle. It is simply known to many Americans by the characteristically generic term ‘white bread‘. While bread itself might be as ancient as agriculture, this incarnation is relatively modern. The first forms of white bread can only be traced back to less than a century ago.

Before the 1920s, most bread in North America was cooked either at home or at a bakery. When white bread hit the scene, it became an instant hit. The appeal was in how it was made. It was mass produced in a factory. Every loaf was the same- no matter when or where it was bought. It was cheap, easily made, and instantly recognizable. The bread was the ultimate product. Unlike bread before it, it was pure, uniform, and tasteless.

Needless to say, Americans ate it up. Soon it became synonymous with bread itself. Until the counter-culture of the mid-century, one would be hard pressed to find any negative attitudes about it at all. With the advent of hippies, suddenly eating whole-grain artisan bread became an easy act of rebellion against the corporate system.

Like all revolutions, it eventually died out due to the sheer impracticality of the change it advocates. Corporations can easily adapt when their bottom line is starting to be affected. Within a few short years, a multitude of new brands with old-world names started popping up on supermarket shelves. If you looked close enough to the label, you can still see the same huge, publicly traded, multinational corporation is making it. It tasted slightly different, came in more eco-friendly packaging, and cost a few dollars more.

This is the nature of change in modern society. It is only skin deep. The new bread that hippies gobbled up was essentially the same. It is still made in the same factory along side plain, old white bread. It still uses the same chemically bleached flour. It is still is about as nutritious as paper.

Unless the modern system of production becomes vastly different, this is about as much change as one can expect. Without understanding the past, future generations will be doomed to make the same futile mistakes. Modern rebellion is about as tame as it comes. It is only about appearing to be rebellious rather than actually making any sort of real change. Modernity offers any lifestyle you might want to live- so long as it is the same as everyone else.

Honor the unknown

Ulysses was pleased at being made thus welcome, and said “May Jove, sir, and the rest of the gods grant you your heart’s desire in return for the kind way in which you have received me.”

To this you answered, O swineherd Eumaeus, “Stranger, though a still poorer man should come here, it would not be right for me to insult him, for all strangers and beggars are from Jove.”
-The Odyssey, Book XIV

Imagine being stranded in any modern city. There is a chill in the air and nightfall is approaching fast. It is a city foreign to you. You have no acquaintances to call upon and no money to rent a room with. People are quickly emptying the streets and heading homewards. You can try to stop people to ask for their help or advice but most will simply move on and ignore you. What other option is there available to you but to find a sturdy park bench and hope you do not freeze to death in your sleep?

Every city is filled with thousands upon thousands of well heated rooms. Many of those are unoccupied, yet they are closed to you. You might as well be asking them to jump off a bridge with you. Most denizens of the modern city know what kind of person is not able to get shelter for himself. He is sure to be dangerous and insane if no one else will put up with him. The gated communities, doormen, and complex electronic security systems can be found at almost every well-to-do residence in the city; they exist simply to keep you, and others like you, out.

Hospitality seems to be a foreign concept in modernity. It was once one of the highest virtues. It stood side by side in the minds of the ancients with high morals such as truth, justice, and courage. Paganism in every corner of the world valued hospitality as a cardinal virtue. They are central themes in they’re most important and enduring art. Many parts of Homer’s epics, the sagas of the Norse, and the song of the Bhagavan make little sense without first understanding how they viewed the importance of hospitality.

At the core of the virtue is respect. It is readily apparent that the guest should be thankful and respect the host. He is providing the guest with shelter and warmth. Without his kindness, the guest would be deprived of basic comforts. He is imposing on another for the sake of himself.

Hospitality has another side to it. It also includes the respect the host shows the guest. The ancients knew this and saw it as equally as important. They often thought of this concept through the lense of paganism. In the terms of the gods, the hospitality of mortals often played a central part in myth. Odin and Zeus are the perpetual wanderers and traveled in disguise in many myths. The ancient perspective saw travelers as a possible an incarnation of one of their deities. If they turned them away, they could be risking the wrath of the gods. A wanderer could still be a dangerous mortal. He could still be maniac that could harm you, but the ancients understood that he could bring great fortune.

Modernity has no such respect for guests. It sees no use for anything out of the ordinary. No one, modern or ancient, can truly tell the character of a guest. The stranger always brings with him the unknown. A guest, especially the foreign, is often an inconvenience and unwanted. It is not easy to provide for another, even for a short while.

The difference between modern and ancient society lies in how they each address the unknown. Ancient societies rose to the occasion. They met the inconvenience with good nature and optimism. Most of modern society simply lacks the courage and endurance to deal with hospitality properly. Any time modernity is confronted with responsibility of any kind, it deals with it in the same way- an annoyed sigh and a vacant shrug.

People often bemoan modern society as being too distant and impersonal. Modernity increasingly deals with people from behind a computer screen or speaker phone. Barriers against the outside world are put up in the form locked doors and gated communities. Real connections between people are few and far between. Perhaps the first step to making the modern world a more livable place is to relearn the ancient value of hospitality.

No man’s land

The current turmoil in Ukraine seems to be a popular topic for discussion. Almost everyone has an opinion on it.  The spectacle of a country on the brink of descending into complete chaos is simply too much for people to avoid.  It doesn’t matter if it is Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, Libya, or some other far flung corner of the world.

As long as it isn’t in their backyard, most people will not try to gleam meaning from it.  It is nothing more than something they’ll hear on the news once a day for five minutes and then regurgitate it for small talk later.  The depth of their interest stops at tired platitudes about freedom, democracy, and the pointlessness of violence.

The central issue here is buried under a constant need to re-brand it.  These conflicts all share a common thread. They are simply fighting over who has the right to control a land.  It is a theme that has been repeated ever since history began.  It is the most basic question any nation can ask itself.  There are those who might try to shift the discussion away by discussing its implictions and effects.  They will do anything and everything to try to frame it as something more than a basic struggle for power.  They are simply trying to subvert others from getting any real meaning out of it.

Crimea is only the latest development in this.  Both Ukraine and Russia claim it as their own, and both have legitimate historical claims to the land.  Crimea has been peopled mostly by Russians throughout the majority of modern history.  It has also been politically part of Ukraine for the last 60-odd years, and Ukrainians have always been a sizable minority.

What is happening in Crimea today is something that happens to every borderland at some point in their history.  There are two valid claims by two distinct nations. There is only one land.  When tensions rise, land becomes a precious thing.  It can only belong to one people.  For this reason, no two people can ever inhabit the same land without eventually coming into conflict.  Sooner or later, it becomes a zero sum game. Either they win or you do, there can be no compromise.

What is most troubling about modern attitudes towards this sort of conflict is the selective memory everyone seems to have about it.  A casual stroll along the halls of history turns up example after example of these zero sum games.  Why does Tibet represent a great injustice done by China but the name Konigsberg evokes nothing?  Why does Israel belong to the Jews after thousands of years but Asia Minor belongs to the Turks after pushing out the Greeks only a few hundred years ago? Why are Kosovo and South Sudan propped up as independent nations where as Taiwan is left in national limbo?

The answer lies in knowing the power of a narrative.  It can determine the destiny of entire nations and billions of people in the present and future. Those that control  history of a land also control its future.  Look at who controls the narrative, and you will find who is in power.  Look at how the narrative is being told, and it becomes all to easy to see why it is being told that way.

When you look at these conflicts with this in mind, the question of who rightfully owns the land becomes trivial.  It belongs to the strong.  The land has no inherent owners.  Nature could care less about what flag is raised over any square inch of the earth.  Boundaries between countries are only lines on maps until we make them something more.  They can be shaped by anyone who has the will to do so and the power to back it up. As soon as a people lose reason to fight for a land, it is only a matter of time until it is no longer theirs.

Narratives and platitudes about justice and rightful ownership only exist as a tool for this purpose.  Most will blindly accept the official story pushed by those in power without any question.  It’s only further proof of powerlessness modernity produces.