Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Historical Comparisons

Those of us who take a long view of philosophy, art, politics, etc., sometimes argue that one historical period was better than the contemporary world in some respect. It is depressingly common, though, to hear someone try to refute such an argument by saying, or, as is more often the case, shouting, "The past wasn't perfect!"

What a stupid objection! Of course, the past wasn't perfect. Perhaps there are some people out there who really think the past was perfect, but no reasonable person does, and this objection generally just obfuscates more than it illuminates.

Unfortunately, this objection, as stupid as it is, seems to be convincing to a lot of people, probably because in history it is so easy to find a counter-example to every general statement. This game of objecting to every general statement about the past on the basis of a single counter-example can be carried to absurd lengths:
If some historians one day decided to discredit maternal love, they would be able to produce a long enumeration of cruelties exercised by heartless mothers upon their young children. [1]

Given how difficult it is to generalize about the past, why do we bother making comparisons to the past at all? What are we trying to achieve?

All I can do, of course, is state my own position. When I base my argument on a comparison of the past and the present, I am usually trying to compare ideals and types. The gist of the argument is that while the past wasn't perfect, at least the past had the right ideals. It may not always have lived up to these ideals, but at least it did try to live up to them, and even produced a number of outstanding individuals.

One way of looking at this question is to ask: What was the "representative type" of an historical period? What type of man did it try to produce, and what type of man did it actually produce? Every epoch will have its fair share of sinners, criminals, mountebanks, scoundrels, wastrels, and good-for-nothings. What matters in this kind of historical analysis, though, is what kind of good that culture in a given historical period was aiming at. What was its idea of a good person? That part is empirical. Then, the questions become more philosophical: Was a medieval monk or king better than, say, the modern financier or industrialist? Was an ancient Greek philosopher better than all of these men? Or, was a Roman citizen-farmer superior? What about a Chinese mandarin?

Another way of looking at the question is to compare not just individual types but also "systems," or broader social arrangements in which the individuals lived and acted. How did oligarchy function in ancient Greece or in Carthage? How did the Senate rule in Rome, and how did the emperors change that? How does feudalism compare to capitalism? Why was China so stable for so long?

The broad, interdisciplinary sweep of these questions does not mean that empirical research is unnecessary, or that an historian can approach history with his conclusions already made. On the contrary, it is only from detailed study of the interaction between individual persons and social structures, between ideals and actual lives, that an historian can gain a clearer picture of the age and individuals he is studying. Only careful historical research can give contour to these ideals, and put the individual in his context. But while a true historian is always respectful of the diversity of history, he is not unduly afraid to make judgments, and it is by virtue of these judgments that he can make comparisons between historical epochs.

[1]Frédéric Le Play, Social Reform in France, in Christopher Olaf Blum (ed. and trans.), Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2003), p. 220

Sunday, April 24, 2011

You, O Death, Are Annihilated!

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

You cannot mean to forget us for ever?
You cannot mean to abandon us for good?

Make us come back to you, Yahweh, and we will come back.
Renew our days as in times past,

unless you have utterly rejected us,
in an anger that knows no limit.

Lm. 5:20-22

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Favorite British Regiments

Having recently been in Britain for a spell, studying military history, I have decided that it is high time to choose some favorite regiments.

If this strikes you as something completely foreign to your own experience, let me suggest an analogy: it is as though I have been a huge fan of college football for several years, but have no school I call my own, no team I really pull for.

Before I continue, let me anticipate an objection. "Why favorite regiments (plural!)?" you ask. A fair question, but one easily answered. How many favorite college football teams do I have? Several. Nebraska (my father's home state) and Texas A&M (my current school) top the list, but my wife's family are affiliated with Mississippi State and I have various connections to Arizona State and Kansas as well. Can they all be favorites? There might need to be a hierarchy, but college football is big enough that these teams rarely play one another (except within the Big 12, especially the North, but Nebraska's departure changes that). So, yes, one may have several favorite football teams. Considering that there were scores and scores of regiments - 100, perhaps? - during the Great War, I think a couple favorites is allowed. Even today there are 17 infantry regiments, plus 12 cavalry regiments and Territorial and support units, in the British Army.

As previously discussed on this blog, my family's Scottish heritage is a bit of a mystery. Are we from the western Isles or from the border, near Dumfries? Rather than choosing between them, I embrace both. Now, these two regions correspond to two regiments: from the Isles we get the Seaforth Highlanders (pictured left, advancing across France in 1944), and from the border we of course get the King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB - cap badge pictured right). The former was formed in 1881 (though by amalgamating two similar regiments raised in 1778 and 1793 to fight the French), while the latter was raised in 1689 to fight against James II on behalf of William & Mary. However, both have now been amalgamated into the new Royal Regiment of Scotland, with the Seaforths (amalgamated with two other regiments) becoming the 4th Battalion and the KOSB (amalgamated with the Royal Scots), the 1st Battalion.

My family's Irish heritage is no less confusing than the Scottish. Again, we have two options. Why? Because there are two bunches of Kennedys running around Ireland. In the south there are Kennedys centered around the ancient Kingdom of Ormond (later a peerage), in the region of Munster. But a second group of Kennedys can be found in the north, in Ulster. These are Scotch-Irish decedents of plantation settlers, related to the Clan Kennedy of Scotland. If I had to pick between them, I'd guess our family is from the Ulster bunch (since the Kennedys are found in a Protestant branch of the family, though I know nothing of their own religion). But that's a bit of a problem, since a fair number of regiments have come out of Ulster. One approach would be to look to Clan Kennedy's Scottish roots; where do they come from? Ayrshire. Which is undoubtedly the traditional recruiting ground for the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Not surprisingly, the Royal Scots Fusiliers have been amalgamated with the Highland Light Infantry and now form the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. But there is more than one way to skin a cat. While Ulster is cluttered with a history of regiments, southern Ireland has comparatively few. The area that was once the ancient Kingdom of Ormond was the recruiting ground for the Royal Irish Regiment, raised in 1684. Sadly, in 1922 the regiment was disbanded. Not amalgamated, but disbanded outright. Had I been the British, I would have pressed hard for its amalgamation with an Ulster regiment, thereby preserving its legacy (and also continuing to exercise a symbolic hegemony over the south). But the Irish were wise to such possibilities and the Anglo-Irish Treaty stipulated the disbandment of all regiments with traditional recruiting grounds in the south. (Today the 1st Southern Brigade is heir to the Royal Irish Regiment's traditional territory, but not its legacy. The modern Irish Army has no infantry regiments.) Finally, it is worth noting that the modern Royal Irish Regiment (pictured above left), an air assault unit created in 1992, amalgamated a whole bunch of historic Ulster regiments. So why choose between them, when they've all been merged now anyway?

Two other veins of thought deserve mention. Being of German extraction, I have a special fondness for the King's German Legion, an outfit formed by German expatriates to fight against Napoleon. That the unit was a "legion", a mixed force of infantry (including two battalions of light infantry), cavalry (both hussars and dragoons), artillery and engineers, only makes them that much more nifty, as does their presence at both the Peninsular Campaign and Waterloo. (Pictured right, you can see a regular infantryman in red, a light infantryman in green, and a hussar in blue.) Alas, the unit was disbanded in 1816 and has no real heirs (though a few bits and pieces apparently found their way into the Imperial German Army).

The other unit that captures my attention is the King's Royal Rifle Corps. Originally raised in the American colonies in 1756 as the Royal Americans, the unit's first officers were mostly German and Swiss. Its purpose was to lend some forest fighting skills to the British forces then fighting the French in North America. The unit came into its own as the King's Royal Rifle Corps during the Napoleonic war, when it followed the Rifle Brigade and adopted the more accurate Baker rifles and the famous "Rifle green" uniforms. After the Napoleonic Wars they fought pretty much everywhere in the Empire and in both World Wars. After World War II a series of mergers began which culminated in the 2007 creation of a single regiment of light infantry, The Rifles. You've got to admit, the Rifles have some neat uniforms, with the Croix de Guerre worn as an arm badge (inherited from the Devonshire Regiment) and a badge on the back of their cap (inherited from the Gloucestershire Regiment), symbolic of fierce fighting at the Battle of Alexandria where the front and rear ranks of one regiment were simultaneously engaged. The Rifles (pictured above left, laying one of their own to rest), like the Royal Regiment of Scotland and the Royal Irish Regiment, continue to serve to the present day.

If this extended discussion has lefty you dizzy, allow me to recap.

Traditional favorites:
King's Own Scottish Borderers
Seaforth Highlanders
King's Royal Rifle Corps

Modern favorites:
Royal Regiment of Scotland
Royal Irish Regiment
The Rifles

Historical favorites (without modern heirs):
Royal Irish Regiment (pre 1922)
King's German Legion

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jan Dismas Zelenka: Officium Defunctorum

An hour-long live recording of Jan Dismas Zelenka's setting of the Office of the Dead:

Those who would like to hear the different parts of the Officium Defunctorum on separate videos can go here.

I have nothing to add, except that as much as I enjoy sacred music from the Baroque, I have a hard time listening to it in an actual liturgical setting.

H/T: The Western Confucian