Classical Greece

…the Athens of Aristotle was likely richer on a per capita basis than the France of Molière or the England of Shakespeare. While Athens was an extraordinarily rich polis, the rest of classical Greece shared in the prosperity. Ober constructs an index of per capita consumption based on wheat wages for “core Greece” from 1300 BC to AD 1900. He finds that per capita consumption peaked between 400 and 300 BC, fell slightly with the Macedonian conquest, and only fell back to pre-modern norms after a century of Roman rule. By AD 1900, in a world of railroads, the telephone, and transatlantic steamers, per capita consumption in core Greece was still at least 30 percent below the prosperity attained when Plato taught at the Academy.

What accounts for this remarkable prosperity? Athens’ institutional innovations have already been mentioned. Another important element of Ober’s account is the political decentralization of the Greek world. For the Greeks, the polis was the fundamental political unit. There were over 1,000 independent poleis during the classical period. Some smaller poleis lost their political independence from time to time, but there was a natural tendency for the polis to reconstitute itself when political conditions were favorable. …

Wealth often allowed more inclusive poleis to dominate tyrannies and extractive orders. Over time, the Greek world became more democratic.

In the end, however, the poleis could not withstand Macedon and Rome, both of which enthusiastically adopted Greek technologies, made their own improvements, and focused on military discipline and conquest. The Greek polis culture was inherently counter-imperial…

This comes from Jason Sorens’s review of Josiah Ober’s The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. I shared something in September about Greece’s “sound economic policy.” I think a great strength of America is the tug-of-war between its imperialists and its counter-imperialists. The Constitution is a tremendous counter-imperial document, and I’m happy to be in the counter-imperial camp, but to some degree I wonder whether we benefit from the competition between these two visions for the country.


I wrote last July about joining the Sons of the American Revolution a few years ago. The Sons of the American Revolution, headquartered in Louisville, are peers of the more recognized Daughters of the American Revolution, headquartered in Washington, DC.

One of the things that has strengthened my commitment to the SAR has been learning about both the layers of meaning within the organization, and the earnest efforts of so many as fellows in an patriotic, historical, and educational fraternity. Sharing a bit of the historical meaning of the SAR’s insignia:

image002.pngThe SAR insignia consists of a Maltese cross surrounded by a garland, with a relief of George Washington in a center circle.

The cross’s vertical bar represents the commandment “You Shall Love Your God”; the horizontal bar represents the commandment “You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.” The four limbs are a reminder of the four cardinal virtues (Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage); its eight points represent eight spiritual injunctions:

  1. To have spiritual contentment
  2. To live without malice
  3. To weep over your sins
  4. To humble yourself at insults
  5. To love justice
  6. To be merciful
  7. To be sincere and open-hearted
  8. To suffer persecution

Surrounding the relief of Washington in the center are the words “Libertas et Patria,” (Liberty and Country) a reminder of the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Duane L. C. M. Galles has written more extensively on the SAR insignia’s creation, noting the significant influence of French revolutionary assistance.

Distinctive Catholic character

When people say they’re different, it’s usually obvious in some way. What they wear, how they act, the things they do, etc.

Catholics say they’re Catholics, which means they’re saying they’re not non-Catholics, which means they’re saying they’re different. Do we really act like it, though?

The Church says its four marks are “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” These are four ways the Church knows itself and distinguishes itself as distinct. I think we Catholics need the same distinctiveness in our lives. I’m thinking practically about how we can recognize members of our tribe in daily life. Recognizing other members of the tribe is necessary if the tribe expects to win its battles, and we all like to win our battles.

Even the basic language we’ve used for so long has been wiped out—things like “Anno Domini” replaced with the academically acrobatic “Common Era” signifier. In researching this stuff I came across this neat once-upon-a-time language:

[In] Article VII of the U.S. Constitution: “Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth.”

“Anno Domini” just means “Year of our Lord”, but I wonder what effect it might have after a few years (or even months) if Catholics renewed the practice of thinking and speaking about the Creator in thinking about time.

Imagine Catholics suddenly signing their names with some signifier of living in the “Year of our Lord” or if people used some similar language in greeting or leaving one another. Small things like this can seem silly, and they are small things. But more often than we admit it’s the small things that have the greatest impact.

We live in an inclusive era, and the point is that inclusiveness is necessary because distinct and different attitudes, lifestyles, politics, beliefs, etc. exist. If we’re going to be a part of an inclusive time, we’ve got to do our part by keeping or renewing our the things that make us different and distinct.

Thinking out loud.

Solitude, foundation of conversation

If mastery matters in our lives, it follows that reasoned and moderated use of our technologies and devices matters, too. Prudence (often meaning “moderation”, but more expansive than this) is one of the cardinal virtues, and it’s a virtue I know doesn’t typically describe my own relationship with my devices. These things empower us as much as they drain us. Micah Harris writes:

Turkle organizes the book by an epigraph from Thoreau’s Walden: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Her argument: good conversation springs from solitude while solitude is, in turn, enriched by conversation. And technology disrupts both. Unless we choose to be its master.

Smartphones promise that we will never be alone and never be bored. We reach for them to fill the unscheduled spaces in our lives. But it is when we are unoccupied and alone that our minds play. We ponder who we are and negotiate terms with the griefs and joys in our lives. According to research (a phrase used many times in this book) our minds are most creative when we are alone. In solitude we understand who we are to the people in our lives and, indeed, to ourselves. Thus solitude is the foundation of conversation.

When we’re stuck on long commutes, when we’re cooped up in homes in our disconnected suburbs, when the serendipity of community life is diminished because of the design of our cities and towns, what else is there to do but to turn from the world of living people to the devices that moderate and control our interaction with people?

I think the aesthetics of our daily lives impacts our ability to moderate our relationship with devices. This means that intentionally choosing where we will live, where we will work, and what we want our daily life to look are really the central questions.

Complete streets

Holly Otterbein at Citified reports that Philadelphia is getting its first “Complete Streets Commissioner” courtesy of Mayor Jim Kenney. The context:

“The National Complete Streets Coalition was founded more than a decade ago to ensure that roadways are not only designed for automobiles, but also for cyclists, pedestrians and transit users.”

Where does the idea of “complete streets” come from? I think it grew out of so many efforts of bicyclists particularly, but also pedestrians, to emphasize human scale development. What does this mean in practice? It means the difference between New York’s fantastic Hudson River Park:


Versus Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing:


Where Complete Streets gets us is the sort of Penn’s Landing that some Philadelphian’s want to build, which is park land over highway connected with subways and the waterfront:


And a closer look at what we hope will cover Penn’s Landing’s barren wastes:


It’s not about bikes, in other words. But bike infrastructure has been a great way to broach the issue of whether cities are going to be built for and around cars that travel through them, or for the people who live in them.

Culture shapes politics

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles spoke recently on the Culture of Life, something I’ve written about before:

Abortion and euthanasia raise basic questions of human rights and social justice in our society. Questions of what kind of society we are and what kind of people we want to be.”

The archbishop recognized many problems in society.

“Never before has there been so much talk about human freedom and dignity and self-realization. And yet we find ourselves more and more indifferent to the cruelty and injustice that we see all around us,” he lamented.

These injustices include “grave crimes against human life” like widespread abortion, human embryo experimentation, and “the ‘quiet’ euthanasia of the old and sick.”

These also include racial discrimination, unemployment and homelessness, and environmental pollution. The archbishop noted the problems of violence, drugs, “scandalous” prison conditions, the death penalty, and deportations and injustices in the immigration system.

“I am not trying to say that all of these issues are ‘equal.’ They are not. And we always need to be clear about that,” he said.

However, while not all equal, the issues are all important, he continued. “In the face of the suffering and human need in the world, we cannot compartmentalize our compassion or draw lines between those we will care about and those we will not.”

The archbishop said the pro-life movement’s vision is “spiritual, not political.” This means it does not make sense for pro-life efforts to be separate from social justice efforts.

“The cause of life is greater than the limitations of our political categories. We want a new culture, not a new political coalition.”

I think it’s probably true that every social and cultural issue corresponds with a political issue. But the opposite is rarely true; most of our politics deals with issues that don’t meaningfully touch the lives of most people.

The subject of the Culture of Life is different, because it touches upon the most fundamental questions: “What does it mean to be human?” and “Where does our dignity come from?”

Answers always begin in the heart, which is reflected visibly in our relationships with each other—in our social and cultural relationships.

If we’re humane in our culture, eventually that humanity will be reflected in our politics.


When I wrote the introduction to Conserving Mount Nittany, I wrote about a woods without a name near where I grew up:

“Ours was a typical suburban neighborhood, but there was a woods across the street from our home. As far as I know it had no name. I spent countless hours over late mornings, afternoons, and evenings in the final moments before the era of continuous communication alone under the trees. The light casting shadows at odd angles and the creative mind of my childhood-self supplying adventures that in spirit carried me far from the physical scene.”

Another little place with a woods existed nearby, maybe a ten minute walk. I think it used to be called the Hart School, but by the time I came onto the scene it had become the WREC—Warminster Recreation & Education Center. It was one of those places where dozens of neighborhood kids went to hang out on summer afternoons. Playing basketball, maybe. Attending a summer camp of some kind. Playing or riding bikes or loitering. A barely managed and unstructured place where a childhood took shape. It worked, and my own childhood would’ve been poorer without it. Like a release valve in bad times, and a Central Park in miniature for kids who’ve never been.

The WREC has been torn down, and in its place will go dozens of new homes that will be out of character with the wider neighborhood, which is one of those with its roads and trails connecting to other places, rather than merely a self-contained contemporary plot that connects to nothing. It was much more than a building to me, and I wish the town had thought more creatively about how that space could have been redeveloped while serving the same purpose of providing a common place for neighbors of all ages. Before it was destroyed in October I went for a final visit, walking from the WREC’s entrance down past the woods and across Little Neshaminy Creek:

It was a great, if increasingly decrepit, place. It was a part of the neighborhoods around it, and connected them in the way good public spaces do. What the township offers in its place is a managed park, a former Army base, miles away. It will require kids to be driven, which means it will be a scheduled event, which means it offers nothing of the character of the WREC that’s been replaced, which is a tragedy in miniature for the generations to come in the place I grew up.

Step back

Tim Urban’s Wait But Why is so good. Each post takes an hour to really digest, and they’re entirely worth it. Here’s one on Elon Musk, SpaceX, and the future of humanity:

Not only might we be on the cusp of the great leap of life becoming multi-planetary, we may be on the cusp of a bunch of other great leaps as well.

There are other signs pointing to this being an extraordinarily unusual time to be alive:

For 99.8% of human history, the world population was under 1 billion people. In the last .2% of that history, it has crossed the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 billion marks.

Up until 25 years ago, there had never been such a thing as a global brain of godlike information access and connectivity on this planet. Today we have the internet.

After barely using any energy for the first 99,800 years of human history, in the last 200 we’ve suddenly thrust ourselves into the Fossil Fuels Era, blowing through a huge chunk of stored underground carbon energy, without fully understanding the implications of doing so.

Humans walked around or rode horses for 999 of the last 1,000 centuries. In this century, we drive cars, fly planes, and land on the moon.

If extra-terrestrial life were looking for other life in the universe, it would be dramatically easier to find us this century than in any century before, as we project millions of signals out into space.

With an average of one mass extinction event every 100 million years since animals have been around, we may be currently engineering a sixth one by accident.

If we take a step back and just look at the situation, it should be clear that nothing that’s happening right now is normal.

Stupidity, but not oblivion

Clare Coffey writes on the death of her grandmother:

… one by one all the privileges of self-possession and agency failed her, and sickness stripped away in layers the persona known to the world. …

What I do know is that the soft and helpless smiler of her children’s middle-age was as much my grandmother as the hard-edged diamond of their youths. Neither woman is more real. You can say, if you like, that the true Roseanita was the one who existed before debility made her strange to you, but that premature rupture is a choice: the safety of a familiar story over memory still alive, still capable of being shaped and reshaped by new truths that grow on each other without break or differentiation. …

We end and die a little with each of our fellows, and death is both the universal point of human solidarity and the challenge to its ties. Everyone dies alone, and no one dies alone.

I was crying for my grandmother but also for myself, and for my father: not merely in the sense that death waited for us too, but because a part of ourselves had already now succumbed to its call.

Still, only a part—I learned new things about my father, and his memories, and my memories of him, as we each in different ways participated in his mother’s long death. Our relationship is complicated in the way that only those between parents and children can be. I hope—I believe—it will change and be changed as we slowly die together.

Michael asks, “Who is like God?

In considering an answer, we’re confronted by the stupidity of our first response.

I think this is partly why death stings, because we come face to face with the frailty of our judgment—of the choice to reshape human life. We face the fact that we were meant for more; were meant for life without end; but instead, by our choosing, this mask of death is something we each will have to wear. And the pain is real, because death “opens a chasm which swallows the past as well as the future.” In encountering death we encounter our stupidity, but not oblivion.

Every one of us who loses our place in the present, slipping into our ancestral past, is a shock. Rightly raged against. Rightly celebrated as one whom we loved; love still, and who all but the nihilist know is worth suffering, worth humility, worth mercy, worth virtue, to meet again.

Jidoo, my paternal grandfather, is dead.