The Emperor Julian the Apostate’s brief reign from 361-363 CE is widely viewed as an abortive attempt to restore the status quo before the adoption of Christianity as the de facto state religion of the Roman Empire. While nominally a revival of the old cults, the renaissance envisioned by Julian reflected a new interpretation of Greco-Roman religious culture through the lens of his Neoplatonic philosophy and Mithraic religion. Reflecting a metaphysics of plurality out of unity, Julian endeavored to impose upon the diversity of civic, martial and mystery cults throughout his empire a uniform, ecclesiastical framework, atop which sat Julian as philosopher-priest and -king. Below him operated a priestly hierarchy in descending degrees of provincial jurisdiction, all of them initiates of a single esoteric philosophy and preachers of the ancient myths as their gospel. As natural mediators between humanity and divinity, their practice of philanthropia competed with Christian charity in taking credit for the blessings that heaven showers upon the world.
Julian’s Pagan Church was organized not merely as a reflection of the Roman political infrastructure to uphold the “sacred laws of the gods,” but rather one side of the same coin. A revival of civic cults and public worship he saw as the key to reinvigorating political life in the many cities of the empire, not only to restore their prominence by decentralizing the post-Diocletian bureaucracy, but also to contrast the apolitical, Christian ethos that he claimed drove people to “seek out deserts instead of cities.” Julian’s reconnection of civic ritual to political authority was also a means to concentrate power in the hands of pagans aristocrats, while his law against Christian pedagogy channeled the path to office through exclusively pagan educators. His ideal of Hellenic paideia, as at once a literary, philosophic and religious education coevolutionary with the political virtues and destiny of the Roman res publica, was essentially a closed system that needed no outsider religion to bring it salvation. The piety that inspired the heroes, poets, orators and philosophers of a halcyon past was sufficient to secure prosperity for the sensible world he ruled below from the providence of the intellectual gods above.
As Plato’s politeia analogizes the constitution of one’s soul to that of the state, and as it was the creed of Neoplatonism to make one’s soul “likened to God,” so Julian saw his idiosyncratic catechism fundamental to constructing a Pagan City of God, built on the cardinal virtues of an idealized classical Athens and republican Rome, and not the vices of Christian Antioch and the Flavian court. A pagan clergy would be the vehicle of Julian’s quixotic quest to bring the fourth century after Christ back to the fourth century before.
XENOPHON – OWNING A HORSE – TRANSLATED BY J. SWIST
I. Buying an Unbroken Horse
Thanks to my many years of service as a cavalryman, I fancy I’ve gotten to know a thing or two about horsemanship. I wish to present to my young friends what I take to be the most proper instructions on how you too can manage a horse. Now it’s true that Simon had already written a horseman’s manual, the same man who had set up a bronze equestrian statue at the Eleusinium in Athens, carving a record of his exploits on the pedestal. I will not leave out any of Simon’s ideas that match my own. Quite the contrary! He was such an expert horseman that any advice we both happen to agree on would be all the more trustworthy, and I am overjoyed to pass it on to my friends. Beyond that, I will try to fill in any of the details he left out.
But first, my instructions on how not to get cheated when buying a horse:
Now an untamed colt will show no clear signs of its personality, not before it’s been mounted. So it’s obvious that you must assess its body.
I recommend that first and foremost you take a good look at its feet. For a horse is like a house. Even if its upper parts are pretty as can be, it’s useless without a solid foundation beneath it. Thus a horse may boast a panoply of good qualities, but if it has bad feet, the horse can serve no practical function, since none of those good parts could be of use.
You can test out the feet by first inspecting the hooves. Having thick hooves rather than thin ones makes a big difference in the quality of the feet. Next, don’t overlook whether the hooves are high-up or low to the ground both in front and behind. This is because high hooves have farther from the ground what is called the frog. Flat hooves, on the other hand, tread with similar pressure on both the hardest and softest parts of the foot, as does a flat-footed person. Simon was quite right when he said that good feet can be indicated by the sound they make when they strike the ground. A good hoof (i.e. a cupped hoof) will resonate like a cymbal.
Since we began at the bottom, let’s work our way up toward the other parts of the body. The bones located between the hooves and the fetlocks (i.e. the pastern) should not be too upright, like those of a goat. Such legs are too rigid and more liable to inflammation, and will make the rider absorb too much of the shock. The pastern should not be too low, either, or the horse risks dragging its fetlocks when ridden over rocky terrain or loose soil, and making them raw.
The cannon bones are the body’s pillars, so they should be thick. However, the surrounding tissues should not show any signs of swelling, or else a ride over rough terrain would often cause such legs to swell even more. This in turn would cause the skin to become distended and it may pop a splint bone, and at that point you will have a lame horse on your hands.
When the colt goes and its knees are flexible, you may assume that its legs will be supple when riding, too, since horses bend their knees more fluidly as time goes by. Supple legs are highly valued, and rightly so, since a horse with this quality is less apt to stumble and tire out than one with stiff legs.
A horse’s forearms beneath the shoulders are stronger and look more attractive if they are thick, just like a man’s. Likewise, a broader chest is stronger, handsomer, and more naturally suited to place the legs far enough apart to prevent them from interfering.
The shape of the horse’s neck from the chest up to the top of its head should not droop forwards, like a boar’s, but stand straight up, like a rooster’s, yet should still be flexible at the poll joint. The bones of the head should be prominent, but the mandibles should be small. Thus the neck will be like a shield in front of the rider, while its eyes will see whatever is in front of its feet. Also, horses of this posture, no matter how hotheaded they are, are least able to overpower the rider, because whenever any horse tries to bolt it stretches out its head and neck instead of bending them inward.
Now inspect the jaws. See whether both jaws are soft or hard, or just one, since horses with unequal jaws for the most part develop an unequal sensitivity to the bit.
Prominent eyes make the horse appear more alert than sunken eyes, and they see farther, too. Open nostrils are better than closed ones in that they afford a horse easier breathing, while at the same time giving it a more formidable appearance, since whenever a horse gets angry with either another horse or its rider, its nostrils flare.
Other ideal characteristics of a horse’s head include a large mane and small ears. Higher withers provide the rider a more secure seat and a stronger grip on the shoulders, while a double-ridged back is not only better looking than a simple spine, but it also gives the rider a cushier seat.
Horses with deeper barrels that are more rounded toward the belly are stronger, easier to sit upon, and, of course, well-fed. The wider and shorter the horse’s loins, the easier it can lift its forequarters and bring up its rear. This also makes the belly appear smallest, since if it were large the horse would appear rather unattractive, and it would make the horse weak and clumsy.
The rump should be broad and well-rounded, in accordance with a rounded and deep chest. If all of these parts are solid, the horse should have greater agility and speed at the gallop.
If the thighs are well separated beneath the tail by a wide gap, then the horse can plant its legs farther apart. This makes the horse more powerful and intimidating not only when it steps under itself, but also under the saddle, and it will be better all-around. You see the same action in people, for when they want to pick something up off the ground, nearly everybody does so with legs spread apart rather than close together.
A stallion’s testicles, in fact, should not be very big, though you cannot see this in a mere colt. What I have said about the parts in the forelegs — the hocks, shin bones, fetlocks and hooves — also applies to the hind legs.
And now I wish to instruct you how not to misjudge size. A newly foaled colt with the longest legs will naturally mature into the largest horse. This is the case in all quadrupeds, that the legs increase very little in size over time, and instead the rest of the body grows until it is in correct proportion to the legs.
It is my confident opinion that whoever assesses a colt’s physical characteristics by these means will acquire an animal with good feet, a strong, muscular body, good conformation, and a proper size. But even if some colts change as they mature, don’t worry about that when making your assessment. It is far more often the case that ugly colts grow up to be serviceable horses than the other way around.
II. Basic Handling of the Unbroken Horse
Horse-training is a subject I won’t bother discussing, since in my society a typical candidate for the cavalry service is too busy with politics and is rich enough to hire a horse-trainer. And rather than learning to be trainers, young riders should focus on getting themselves in shape and, after studying all there is to know about horsemanship, to get out there and ride. Older riders also have better things to do than waste time training horses: family and friends to care for, affairs of state to attend to, and wars to fight.
Yet anyone who knows a thing or two about horse-training like I do certainly knows that the colt should be sent to a horse-trainer. And just as when sending your kids to trade school, make sure to have a written contract with the horse- trainer concerning everything the horse will have to have learned when it “graduates.” So any trainer who values her paycheck should follow these instructions to the letter.
But even before your colt is sent off to the trainer, take steps to ensure it’s a gentle, amenable and people-friendly creature. For the most part that is the groom’s job, especially one who can condition the horse to associate hunger, thirst and flies with being alone and thus associate food, drink and freedom from pests with being around people. Once these things happen, not only will the colt start loving you, but will even miss you when you’re away.
Also be sure to stroke the parts of the horse that it likes stroked the most, especially the shaggy bits and wherever there might be an itch that the horse itself can’t scratch.
Make the groom responsible for leading the horse through crowds and letting it get used to being around all sorts sights and sounds. If it spooks at any of these things, teach it calmly and patiently that such things are nothing to be afraid of.
I think that’s enough on the subject, at least as much as an amateur needs to know about horse-training.
III. Buying a Used Horse
Now if you’re in the market for a used horse, i.e. one already ridden, follow these instructions very carefully lest you be fooled by advertisers. The first question you must not forget to ask is how old the horse is. If it’s so old that you cannot age it by its teeth then it won’t aspire to much and will likely become a dead weight with no resale value.
But if it’s clearly a young horse you’re dealing with, bear in mind how the horse takes the bit into its mouth, and how well it accepts the bridle around the ears. You’ll notice this best by watching someone else at the market putting these things on and taking them off again.
Then pay attention to how it well it lets the rider mount, since many horses are reluctant to get involved with anything that they know beforehand means they will be put to work.
Once mounted, note whether it’s willing to part with its fellow horses, and whether it bolts toward idle horses when passing them by. Some will even run away from the training grounds to find a way home, this as the result of bad training.
To determine whether the horse’s jaws are unequally sensitive you can try an exercise called “the ring,” and especially by changing direction. Many horses will only try to run away from this if they have a bad jaw and an opportunity to find their way home. Just as important is to see whether the horse can be brought to a quick stop after giving free rein at top speed, and how willingly it can be turned.
It’s also good if the horse similarly accepts a little extra encouragement from the riding crop. Employees are useless, and entire armies are useless, if they won’t do as you say. Disobedient horses are not only useless, but often an enemy in all but name.
In my day it was assumed that people bought horses for military purposes, thus a trial run had to involve all the maneuvers characteristic of a combat environment. These include leaping over trenches and walls, and rushing up and bounding down hilly terrain. Test these skills by riding it up, down and across sloping ground. The results of all these tests should indicate the horse’s resilience of both body and mind.
Now if the horse falls short of perfection in these maneuvers, that’s no reason to turn it down. For many horses a poor performance comes more from lack of experience than ability. With some basic instruction and time to get used to it, then practice makes perfect, so long as they’re otherwise healthy and in good shape.
That said, you should still avoid horses that are naturally shy. The last thing you want is a timid horse that will not only deny its usefulness on the battlefield, but may even throw you off and thus put you in grave danger.
Also, you must ascertain whether the horse has any problems with either people or other horses, and whether it’s touchy. All these qualities are bad news for any owner.
A horse might not react well to bridling and mounting and exhibit other such indignant behaviors. The best way to deal with these is after the horse exercises to try repeating whatever you were doing before you started riding. If a horse can
repeat the same tasks willingly, then that’s good enough evidence it’s got the right attitude.
The best horse, in sum, has solid feet, mild manners, adequate speed, a good work ethic, and most importantly, a sense of duty. This type of horse should be without a doubt not only the safest ride, but could even save your life in hostile situations. But some horses lack riding experience because they’re lazy, or demand too much coaxing and attention because they’re overspirited. These traits give no rest to the rider’s hands and no confidence when the going gets tough.
Once you have purchased your dream horse, it’s best you bring it home to a stable set up close to the house, so you can keep an eye on it. That said, it’s also good to build the stable in such a way that vermin can’t steal either the horse’s feed from the trough or the owner’s food from the storeroom. I say this in the belief that to be careless about these things is to be careless about oneself, since it should be obvious that when in danger the rider may depend on the horse to save her skin.
Setting up the horse’s stable in a secure fashion is not only good for preventing theft of the feed, but it also makes it easy to see whether the horse refuses its feed. Upon noticing this you may conclude that either it needs treatment for a fever, it’s just overworked and needs more rest, or that colic or some other disease is afflicting it. And just as with people, so with horses any ailment is most effectively treated sooner than later, when the disease may become chronic and receive improper treatment.
Just as important as keeping the horse healthy with food and exercise is caring for its feet. To this end, know that wet and slippery floors spell disaster for even well-formed hooves. Provide adequate drainage to keep it dry and to make it rough embed stones in it that are roughly the same size as the horse’s hooves. Floors like this are good for hardening the hooves of any horse that stands on them.
Whoever is tasked to groom the horse should untie it from the stall and take it outside, and do so after the horse’s breakfast, so that it returns at suppertime with more appetite. The paddock should also be paved in such a way as to strengthen the horse’s feet, by throwing down four to five wagonloads of round stones weighing about a pound and roughly the size of your hand. Then edge the paddock with iron to keep the stones from scattering. This creates the effect for the horse of it daily passing its time on a rocky road.
While it is being groomed or teased with flies the horse is bound to stamp its feet as if it were walking. This type of pavement also helps solidify the horse’s frogs. The same care should be taken to make the horse’s mouth tender as to make its hooves hard. This is performed the same way humans tenderize their own flesh.
Every horseperson, I think, should also learn to be a responsible groomer.
Understand first and foremost that you must never knot the halter at the feed trough in the same place where one fits on the bridle. For unless the halter is fitted comfortably around the ears, the horse in response may give itself sores by scraping its head on the trough. And a horse with such head-sores will undoubtedly have qualms about being bridled and groomed.
It’s also a good habit to dispose of the horse’s manure and bedding on a daily basis, putting it all in one spot. Not only does this benefit the horse but it also makes it easier for you to remove.
You should also know how to muzzle the horse when taking it out for grooming or a roll. Always keep the horse muzzled wherever you take it without a bridle, since it prevents the horse from biting but not from breathing. That and it discourages it from misbehaving.
When tethering the horse, remember to do so somewhere above its head, since horses naturally react to any facial irritations by tossing their heads upward. So when a horse tied up this way tosses its head, the tether should slacken rather than break.
When grooming, begin at the head and mane then work your way down. It makes no sense to clean the lower parts while those above are still dirty. Next, use grooming tools to make the hair stand up then brush the dust out in the same direction the hair naturally grows. Use your hands instead of anything artificial to rub down the hair along the spine the same way it grows, lest you damage the rider’s seat.
Clean its head by drenching it with water. Horses’ heads are too bony to clean with any metal or wooden tool without annoying the horse. Bathe the forelock, too, since even long forelocks tend not to obscure the horse’s vision, while at the same time they keep pests away from the eyes. Keep in mind that horses are blessed with long hair, rather than the big ears of donkeys or mules, as protection for their eyes.
Wash the tail and mane, too, to encourage healthy hair growth. Hair on the tail should be as long as possible to reach and beat away pests, while longer hair on the neck provides plenty for the rider to get a grip on.
Horses are also endowed with manes, forelocks and tail hair as a mark of elegance. For herds of mares with long hair are not so eager to mate with mere donkeys, which explains why all donkey breeders trim the manes of any mares needed for their purposes.
Bathing the legs is a bad idea. Daily washing doesn’t do any good and even damages the hooves. Be careful not to groom the horse’s belly too much, since horses do not like this at all, and in fact the cleaner this area gets, the more will pests cluster under the belly.
And despite all the work put into cleaning these parts, no sooner is the horse led outside than it can’t be distinguished from unwashed horses. So don’t even bother with this. A simple rubbing down of the legs with your hands should be good enough.
VI. Getting Ready to Ride
Now I’ll demonstrate how to groom a horse most effectively and with the least risk of injuring yourself. Now cleaning the forelegs while facing the same direction as the horse poses the danger of getting kicked in the face by a hoof or knee.
But if for cleaning the legs you face the opposite direction of the horse and stand by the shoulder blade and out of range of the legs, nothing bad should happen to you, and this should allow you to clean the horse’s frog by lifting up and flipping up the hoof. This same method of cleaning also applies to the hind legs.
And anyone who spends time around a horse must remember, in performing these and all other tasks required of her, to avoid if at all possible approaching the horse head-on from in front or behind. For at these points horses have humans outmatched in potential to do harm, if it should come to that. But if you approach the horse from an angle, you have the best chance of getting it to cooperate and the least chance of getting hurt.
When required to lead the horse, I do not recommend leading it behind you, and here’s why: leading it this way affords you the least protection and the horse the most opportunity to do whatever it likes.
I also frown upon training the horse to be led far ahead of you on a long line for these reasons: it allows the horse to mess around in whatever direction it pleases, even to the point where it can swing completely around and face its supposed leader.
Now think of a bunch of horses led in this way. How could they possibly keep clear of one another? But a horse trained to be led from the side will be the least trouble to both other horses and their human companions, and at the same time most ready for the rider to mount in a hurry if need be.
To bridle the horse, first approach it from the near side, then throw the reins over its head onto the withers. Then lift the bridle with your right hand and offer the bit with your left.
If it accepts the bit right away, of course fit on the rest of the bridle. But if it won’t open its mouth, hold the bit to its teeth and poke its jaw with your left thumb. Most horses should open up when this happens. But if after this it still refuses the bit, gives its lip a good squeeze by its canine tooth. Rare are the horses who undergo this and still won’t accept it.
The next two instructions are imperative. First, never lead the horse by the rein, since this will make the horse’s jaws unequally sensitive. Second, know how far the bit should sit from the jaws. It it’s too tight, the jaws will become insensitive, resulting in a lack of response to directions. But if it’s too loose, then the horse will be able to chomp down on it and disobey.
Pay close attention to how readily the horse accepts the bit once it realizes that it has to work. How willingly a horse accepts the bit is of no small importance, since any horse without a bit in its mouth is virtually useless.
If the horse is used to being bridled during all the activities of taking it out to ride, to a meal or back to its stable after exercise, then it should come as no surprise if it accepts the bit automatically whenever it’s offered.
It helps to know how to give a leg-up, the way they do in Iran, in order to help elderly riders or those with disabilities mount more easily if you wish to ingratiate yourself with them.
Now make this your habit, the single best lesson in horsemanship: never get angry at a horse. Anger is a short-sighted emotion that makes people do things they are bound to regret.
So if a horse shies at something and has no intention of going near it, teach it that there is nothing to be afraid of. The surest way to accomplish this is by means of another, braver horse, but if that fails then touch the seemingly scary object yourself and lead the horse up to it slowly.
But anyone who wants to solve this problem by striking it will only make the horse more timid. For it will cause the horse to reckon the object in question to be the cause of such punishment.
When handing the horse over to another rider, I see no issue with training the horse to lower itself to make mounting less difficult. But I still think it wise that every horseperson be capable of mounting without the horse’s assistance. For sometimes you might get a different kind of horse, and sometimes even the same horse might act differently.
VII. Your First Ride
Once you have the horse ready to go, follow these instructions on how to mount and ride in a way most advantageous for both horse and rider.
First, take a ready hold with the your left hand of the lead rope that is attached either to the chinstrap or the curb, holding it loosely so as not to jerk the horse when mounting either by grabbing the mane near the ears or by jumping up with the help of a spear. Meanwhile with your right hand grab the reins and the mane by the withers simultaneously. This method of mounting keeps you from jerking the horse’s mouth by the bit in any direction.
When hoisting yourself up to mount, pull your body up with your left hand, while at the same time stretching out your right hand to help yourself up. Mounting this way prevents you from bending your leg, a gesture that looks unsightly from behind. Also, do not set your knee on the horse’s back, rather swing your lower leg clear over till it rests by the horse’s right flank. Only when this has been done should you place yourself upon the horse.
But in cases when you are leading the horse with your left hand while holding a spear in your right, I think it a good idea to practice mounting from the right side. This task is as simple as learning to do with the left part of your body what you originally did with the right, and so also right with left.
This is also good advice because knowing how to mount from both sides makes you ready in all cases to quickly mount if there is a need to engage with an enemy.
Whether riding bareback or in the saddle, it is generally frowned upon to sit as if in a chariot seat. Instead, sit upright as if standing with your legs spread apart. That way you can use your legs, and not the horse, to keep yourself steady. This upright position is also better suited, if necessary, for throwing or wielding any sort of weapon on horseback.
Let your legs hang loose from your knees down to your feet. If you keep your legs rigid and something collides into one of them, it has a greater chance of breaking. But if a more flexible leg sustains an impact, it can simply bend back without shifting your thigh.
You should also train yourself to keep your body very flexible above your hips. That way if some force should push or pull you, you will be less likely to fall off.
Once you are seated, be sure the horse is trained to keep still until you have taken care of any adjustments to your seat, if needed, and have evened up the reins in your hands and have grasped your spear in a manner most convenient. Then keep your left arm by your side, as this is the best form and provides you the strongest hold.
I recommend reins that are of equal length, not weak or slippery or thick. That way either hand can trade rein for spear if need be.
When you ask the horse to go forward, let it begin at the walk, as this is the least jolting. If the horse carries its head too low, hold the reins higher. If too high, hold them lower. This practice displays the best form.
After this, when it breaks into its natural trot its body should relax and it should more readily respond to the riding crop. Since it’s more fashionable to begin from the left side, you’d best begin from this side by asking the horse to canter right when it’s stepping with the right foot.
When it is then about to raise the left, it will start from this side, and as soon as it turns to the left, then it will begin the canter, since horses naturally lead with the right when turned to the right, and vice versa.
I recommend an exercise called the ring, since it trains the horse to turn on both jaws. It’s a good idea to switch directions during this exercise, so that both jaws get equal practice going in either direction.
I favor a riding-ring with right angles over one that’s circular. That way the horse will turn more willingly after going a long distance in a straight line, and you can practice going straight and turning simultaneously.
Gather the horse when making turns, as sharp turns at high speed are neither easy nor safe for the horse, least of all if the ground is uneven or muddy.
When checking the horse refrain from twisting both yourself and the horse with the bit as best you can. Be forewarned that otherwise even the slightest excuse could be enough to bring both you and the horse down.
Once the horse is looking straight ahead out of the turn, then you should pick up the pace right away. In a military context, it is quite obvious that turns are made for both pursuit and retreat. So it’s good to train your horse to speed back up right after turning.
When it looks like the horse has had enough exercise, let it rest a bit and then practice breaking into a full gallop (of course away from and not towards other horses!), then bring it back to as sudden a stop as possible, then turn around and break into a gallop again from a dead stop. For clearly there may come a time when any of these maneuvers might be handy.
When it’s time to dismount, never do so near other horses or people or outside the exercise ground, rather assign the same location where the horse is both forced to work and where it gets it respite.
VIII. More Advanced Riding
There will often be times when the horse must gallop both uphill and downhill and along angled terrain, as well as times it must leap over, leap out, and even leap down. Therefore you must teach and train both yourself and the horse in all of these maneuvers. This should all result in a mutually safer and altogether more efficient collaboration between horse and rider.
Now if you think I am repeating myself because I’m dealing with the same matters now as I did before, this is not the case. Earlier I advised testing the horse’s ability to perform these things before purchasing it. But now I’m talking about how you should teach your own horse, so here’s how.
If the horse has no experience whatsoever of vaulting over ditches, it must first walk across on its own as you hold it loosely by the lead rope. Then give the lead rope a tug to make it jump over.
If it refuses, give it a sharp prod with the riding crop or other such instrument. The horse should respond to this by leaping not only the necessary distance but a good deal beyond it. That way in future you won’t have to use the crop, since it will respond to anyone it sees approaching from behind by leaping.
Once the horse has grown accustomed to vaulting like this, try it mounted, first over narrow ditches, and then over wider ones. When it is about to jump, prod it with your spurs. Teach it to respond to spurring for leaping both up and down. This will cause the horse to perform these actions with its body more collected and thus it will do so in a manner safer for both itself and its rider, safer than if it lets its hindquarters lag either while vaulting over or leaping up or jumping down.
Teach it to canter downhill first on soft ground. When it gets used to accomplishing this, it should be much more eager to canter downhill than uphill. Now some people worry that riding a horse downhill runs the risk of breaking its front legs. But they’ll be relieved to learn that in Iran and Bulgaria they run races downhill all the time, yet they keep their horses no less sound than those of us Greeks.
I won’t fail to mention how you the rider should lend a hand in all these maneuvers. If the horse makes a sudden sprint, lean forwards. That way the horse is less likely to shoot out from under you and throw you off. When pulling it up short, lean backwards. That should jolt you less.
When vaulting over a ditch or riding uphill it’s best you take hold of the mane, lest the horse be hampered by both its bridle and the terrain. But when going downhill, throw back your body and hold the horse by the bit, lest you or the horse fall over headlong down the hill.
It is also proper to exercise the horse in various locations and for varying intervals of time. Exercising in one place for the same amount of time gets tedious for the horse.
Since the rider should have a firm seat when at full gallop through all kinds of terrain, and should be able to make proper use of any weapons while on horseback, the best way to practice horsemanship is by hunting, and in suitable country with game. But when these conditions do not exist, a good exercise is for two riders to team up, so that one rider flees on her horse over all types of terrain, turning her spear backwards in retreat. Meanwhile the other rider gives chase with blunted javelins with her own spear held in the same manner, and when she gets within range, fires away at the fleeing horse with the dummy weapons. As soon as she overtakes her quarry and gets close enough to use her spear, she should strike.
In the event the two riders collide, a good thing to practice is to pull your opponent toward you then suddenly push her away in an attempt to unhorse her. For the rider being pulled, the right response is to drive her horse forward, thus potentially unhorsing the puller rather than the pull-ee!
Consider a scenario in which two enemies are encamped at the two extremes of a battlefield, and during a cavalry skirmish the one side charges in pursuit all the way up to the enemy’s line of infantry, but then withdraws to its own line. You best understand at this point that so long as you keep by your comrades, it’s actually safer and in more proper form to be among the first to turn and head for the enemy at the gallop. But once you get close to the enemy, make sure you have firm command of your horse. This affords you the best odds of harming the enemy over them harming you.
Now whereas humans are graced with language to give instructions to one another, it’s obvious that you cannot teach a horse by reasoning with it. But by rewarding it for doing what you want, and punishing it for disobeying, the horse will most likely figure out what it’s supposed to do.
As stated, this is a rather simple precept, but it applies to every aspect of horsemanship. For example, the horse should accept the bit more readily if something good happens to it when it takes it. And it would willingly vault over and jump out of anything, and perform any other task if it expects some relief will come upon completion of those tasks.
IX. Problem Horses
So far I have discussed the following: how to avoid getting swindled when buying a horse, colt or filly; how to manage a horse without spoiling it; how best to transmit to the horse the skills necessary for a cavalryman to have in war. So it is perhaps time I discuss how to best make do with horses that are either too spirited or too lazy, should you ever have one on your hands.
The first thing to be conscious of is that ‘spirit’ in a horse is analogous to anger in a person. So just as you should avoid upsetting a person with abusive words or deeds, so also should you avoid antagonizing a spirited horse or else it may get really mad.
So it follows that you should take extra care when mounting not to upset it. And once you are mounted, take more time than usual before asking it to go forward, and then do so with the gentlest of aids. Then begin at a slow walk and in the same gentle manner pick up the pace, so that the horse may barely notice that it has accelerated.
Sharp aids tend to startle a spirited horse, just as a person may be disturbed by a sudden sight or sound or sting. So be aware that anything sudden will disquiet a spirited horse.
If a spirited horse is galloping too fast and you want to slow it down, do not pull the reins abruptly, rather gently check it with the bit to calm it down by coaxing rather than forcing it.
Also, long rides are more effective than frequent turns at calming horses, while peaceful rides of long intervals tend to temper and soothe spirited horses instead of rousing them.
And if anyone supposes that wearing out a horse by fast and frequent rides will calm the creature, his view is quite contrary to reality. For in that situation a spirited horse would overzealously try to force its way out of control and, while in such a frenzy, just like an angry person, often risk many a permanent injury to both itself and its rider.
You must prevent a spirited horse from charging at its top speed, nor should you ever allow it to race another horse under any circumstances. For in almost every case, the most spirited horses turn out to be the most competitive.
Now a word on bits: smooth bits are more appropriate than rough ones. But if you must put in a rough one, make it feel like a smooth one by handling it with more slack. A good habit to adopt, especially on a spirited horse, is to keep still and avoid hanging onto the horse with any other body part than what is necessary to maintain a secure seat.
You should also know that you can teach the horse to calm down by whistling and to be roused by a cluck of the tongue. But if when starting off it happens to associate easy things with clucking and difficult things with whistling, the horse will be conditioned to be calmed by clucking and roused by whistling.
By the same logic, you must not let your horse see you alarmed by any sudden shout or trumpet blare, nor do anything alarming to the horse. Instead let it rest in such situations as much as possible, and bring it breakfast or dinner, if possible. But the best advice is just to avoid purchasing any overly-spirited horse for military purposes.
As for a lazy horse, I think it enough to simply recommend taking all my advice on managing spirited horses and doing the opposite.
X. Basic Dressage
If you wish to manage your trusty warhorse with more class and to ride it in a more crowd-pleasing manner, then refrain from pulling at its mouth or using the spur or riding crop. Despite what most people think, this means of display produces ends quite contrary to what’s intended.
For one thing, dragging the mouth upwards instead of letting it see ahead makes the horse effectively blind, while excessive whipping and spurring tends to aggravate the animal to the point of distraction and dangerous behaviors typical of horses that take exception to exercise and that perform in an obnoxious and unpleasant manner.
But if you teach the horse to ride with a slackened bridle and to lift up its neck and arch it towards its head, then it should succeed in the very tasks that give it the most pride and pleasure.
The evidence is this: whenever a stallion itself wishes to show off in front of other horses, mares especially, then it will raise its neck the highest and arch its head the most to appear quite fierce. It will also lift its legs off the ground, flexing them, while tossing up its tail.
So it follows that when you command a horse to execute the very gestures it assumes on its own when it wants to show off, you will make it seem that the horse truly enjoys being ridden, while at the same time appearing dignified, imposing and all-around attractive. I will now attempt to describe in full how I think these effects may be achieved.
First off, make sure you own at least two bridles. One should be smooth with good-sized disks; the other should have disks that are heavy and low, with sharp points, so that when the horse takes it it may drop it in protest of its roughness. That way when you exchange it for a smooth one, the horse will take all the more joy in its smoothness and in performing the same tasks with the smooth bit that it learned to do with the rough one.
But if it keeps taking no account of the bit because of its smoothness and bears up against it, for this very reason we add large disks to smooth bits so that it forces the horse to open its mouth and drop the mouthpiece. It’s also possible to make a rough bit adaptable by wrapping it up and drawing it tight.
No matter what type of bridles you’re dealing with, they must all be flexible. When a horse takes a stiff bit, it grips the whole of it with its jaws, just as when you grab a skewer at one end, you end up lifting the whole thing.
But a smooth bit works more like a chain: if you grab any part of it, only that part stays rigid, while the rest of it dangles loose. As the horse keeps hunting after the elusive part of it in its mouth, the bit will drop from its jaws. This explains why there are rings hung in the middle of the axles, so that the horse will fixate upon these with its teeth and tongue and pay no mind to taking the bit up toward its jaws.
1In case it’s not clear to you what defines ‘flexible’ and ‘stiff’ with respect to bits, I will explain this too. Flexible means that the axles have broad and smooth junctures, so that they bend easily, and insofar as everything that fits around the axles has large openings and aren’t too tight, it is all the more flexible.
But if any part of the bit has significant friction in running over the axles and working together smoothly, then you have a stiff bit on your hands. But whichever kind the bit may be, the same method of using it must be applied in all the following instructions, that is, if you want to display your horse in the manner I just related.
Do not pull on the horse’s mouth so hard that it jerks its head upward, but not so soft that it doesn’t feel it. Once it lifts its neck when you pull, give it the bit right away. As with all other matters, I cannot stop repeating myself in stressing that you should reward the horse whenever it does a good job.
And when you notice that your horse is quite enjoying the slackness of your hand and its ability to carry its neck high, be sure not push it any harder as though forcing the horse to work, rather coax it as though you wish to ride it. That way the horse should have the most confidence when breaking into a gallop.
That horses enjoy running at top speed is clearly evident, as no horse ever proceeds at a walk when it breaks loose, but rather at the gallop. And it’s natural to enjoy doing this, so long as nobody’s forcing it to go faster than is natural to it. Neither horses nor people enjoy any activity that pushes their natural limit.
Once your horse has advanced to the point where it takes pride in being ridden, it has by then, of course, from early on in its training gotten used to accelerating out of the turn. Now if the horse has learned this and you check it with the bit and at the same time give it an aid to charge forward, its being simultaneously restrained by the bit yet roused by the aid will cause it to throw out its chest and lift its legs in frustration, and not at all in a fluid motion, since horses rarely make graceful gestures with their legs when they are irritated.
But if while the horse is thus vexed you give it the bit, it will at this point interpret the slackening of the mouthpiece as a liberation of sorts, and taking delight in this fact it will bear itself with pride and dignity, prancing with legs flexing accordingly, in perfect imitation of its natural display in front of other horses.
Any spectator of a horse thus trained is bound to attribute to it a noble pedigree, good work ethic, pleasure to ride, a high spirit, a proud bearing, and an appearance that is pleasing yet fierce.
So much for my discussion for those who want to pursue riding at this level.
But if you want a horse for the purpose of pomp and circumstance, one with a lofty and flashy bearing, be well aware that not every horse possesses such qualities. Most importantly, it requires a noble temperament and a strong body.
There are some who have the idea that all a horse needs to be able to lift its body are supple legs, but this is not so. Rather, it should have supple, short and strong loins. And by ‘loins’ I don’t mean the area beneath the tail, rather that situated between the flanks and the hips by the belly. This type of horse should best be able to place its hindquarters further beneath its forequarters.
Now if when the horse performs this motion you pull up with the bit, it will bend its hind-legs on its hocks and thereby rear up its forequarters, so that it will display to any onlookers both its belly and genitalia. When it executes this action you must give it the bit, that way it will give spectators the impression that it is performing deliberately the most impressive things a horse can do.
There are some folks, however, who teach these things as responses to beating them on the hocks with a staff or by getting another person to run alongside the horse and strike it under the gaskins with a rod.
But as I have been saying constantly, I think the most effective teaching method is to reward the horse with a release every time it performs the desired action.
And just as Simon maintains, anything a horse does under compulsion it does neither gracefully nor with as much understanding of what it’s doing, no more so than if you whipped and flogged a ballerina. It is common to both horses and humans that such suffering often results in botched and ugly executions. Although a horse requires some aids, it can only display grace and magnificence when acting of its own free will.
Also, if, while riding your horse it works to the point that it’s sweating profusely and it prances in proper style, you dismount right away and unbridle it, you may rest assured how willingly it will prance in future.
These are the kind of horses represented in art as the mounts of both gods and heroes. But even mere mortals like you can pull off this splendid appearance with proper management of your horse.
Yet it’s no myth that a prancing horse is so dazzling a spectacle that it captivates the eyes of all who behold it, both young and old. At any rate, nobody will walk away or get tired of looking at a horse so long as it’s making a magnificent display.
If you have this sort of horse in your possession to take to the field as a cavalry commander or mounted general, focus less on making yourself the lone ornament, and much more on making the whole of your company a worthy spectacle.
Now if a horse is leading in the way most approved of for horses of that type, namely, prancing high and keeping its body collected as it advances with short steps, then obviously the other horses would follow it at a walk. But what’s so marvelous about a sight like this?
But if you incite your horse and lead it neither too fast nor too slow, but at a speed at which very spirited horses appear most fierce and magnificent–if you lead your troop in this way, you will be accompanied by such continuous stamping, neighing and snorting that not only you yourself but the whole accompaniment will be worth looking at.
If you do well in buying the right horse, condition it so it can cope with hard work, and manage it in the best way for military training, exhibition rides and battlefield maneuvers, what’s to prevent you (short of divine intervention) from increasing the value of your horses from when you first acquired them, and earning your own reputation for owning famous horses and becoming yourself a celebrity of horsemanship?
Now I would like to talk about proper armament for those going to face danger on horseback.
First off, your breastplate should be made custom fit to your body, since the weight of only a well-fitting breastplate is distributed equally by your whole body. If it’s too loose, only your shoulders will support it. But if it’s too tight, it works more as a personal prison than as armor.
And since your neck is a vital organ, I think it necessary to provide a covering for this, too, made as a continuation of the breastplate and custom fit to the neck. If made properly, this piece of armor provides not only decoration but also protection for your face up to your nose, when so desired.
I consider the Boeotian style of helmet to be optimal, since it does the most to protect all the parts sticking above the breastplate while at the same time not obstructing your vision. The breastplate itself should be crafted so as not to prevent you from sitting down or ducking.
There should be placed about your belly, waist and that general region a skirt of mail of such size and material so as to defend it from projectiles.
An injury to the left hand renders any horseperson useless, so I recommend a shield invented with this fact in mind, a shield conveniently called “the hand,” which covers your shoulder, arm and elbow as well, of course, as your fingers that hold the reins. It can also be extended forth and folded back, and in addition covers the gap left by the breastplate beneath the armpit.
But remember that your right hand must be raised high to hurl projectiles or to strike directly. Therefore you should remove whatever part of the breastplate that gets in the way of doing this. Replace it with detachable flaps at the joints, so that when you raise your arm, they may open, and close when you lower your arm.
The forearm, in my opinion, is better covered by something like a greave, separated from, rather than fused to, the breastplate. The part that’s exposed when you raise your right arm should have a covering made of hide or metal, lest this vital area have no protection.
It’s a plain fact that any injury to your horse puts you yourself at serious risk, so it should wear some armor as well: a frontlet for the head, an analogous breastplate, and coverings for the ribs. Plus, these all serve simultaneously as thigh-armor for the rider. But most important of all is to protect the horse’s belly, as this is not only the most vital part, but also the most vulnerable.
The saddle-cloth might help cover it, so long as it’s manufactured in such a way that it affords the rider a secure seat and doesn’t chafe the horse’s back.
As for the other parts, both horse and rider should be armed as well. Of course, the rider’s shins and feet should be outside of the thigh-armor. You can protect these parts by wearing leather boots, the kind made of army-grade material. That way there will be both armor for the shins and coverings for the feet at the same time.
Armed in this way you should (God willing) be free from harm. As for doing harm to your opponents, I recommend a sabre rather than a straight sword, since on horseback you are higher up, thus making the slash of a sabre more effective than the stab of a straight sword.
Big, long spears are both weak and cumbersome, so I recommend two short spears instead. That way, if you’re skilled enough, you can throw one while thrusting the other in front, to the side, or behind you. Also, they are made of stronger material and are much easier to handle than a long spear.
I recommend hurling spears the longest possible distance. That way you have more time to retreat and get hold of another spear. Here are some brief instructions on how to throw spears most effectively. If you put your left side forward and draw your right side back (assuming you are right-handed), raise yourself up by your thighs and let it fly with the spearpoint raised slightly upwards, the spear will travel the greatest distance with the greatest momentum. It will be most accurate, however, if you keep it always lined up with the target at the moment of discharge.
I have written these instructions, lessons and techniques for the private citizen’s use. As for what a cavalry commander should know and do, I have that written in a separate treatise.
I read recently of a theory called “panpsychism,” which attempts to forge some Aristotelian middle path between materialism and theism. I saw Aristotelian in that it seems puzzlingly teleological in affirming that the matter that makes up the cosmos is the building blocks of consciousness. This accounts for the intelligibility of reality, that it can be mathematically and logically apprehended (in theory) by a reasoning consciousness. Notice the reciprocality. Reality is intelligible because it is composed of mind, meaning that the act of thinking by any rational entity is in fact the cosmos thinking itself (a Neoplatonized Aristotelian notion as I see it). But the other implication is hard to accept, since it relies on this intelligible matter as potentially evolving into a rational mind of an organism. Purpose and intelligibility are confounded. Given the size of the universe the evolution of biological consciousness may be highly probable, but is it necessary?
I will leave it at that, and may probe it at another time. For now, let us consider the nature of this substrate and how the soul, the psyche in panpsychism, arises from what is so far apparent to be Democritean atoms and void. It is an attempt to bridge the gap between the Material and the Idea that for so long fight for supremacy over one another but as I see it are mutually reinforcing (Marx, by the very act of proposing his theory, invalidated it, especially when the theory began to be applied by Lenin et al.).
All ideas subsist materially as neural networks. The more faith is put into an idea, the stronger the neural network (in the sense of a muscle) and the more control that idea exerts upon all other neural networks in that it is more interconnected with more of the other neural networks. The more dogmatic a philosophy or article of faith, the more all other ideas either entertained or accepted are held in relation to those dogmas. Religion is a collective of minds that mutually reinforce a pattern of neurons.
The soul is an idea, materially subsisting like any other, but it is a special idea in that it is the abstraction of total consciousness from its material substrate into the metaphysical realm. Soul, the power of discursive reasoning within us, is our divine element that allows us to connect with the intelligible gods (the Forms) via Logos (dialectical argumentation) and sets all material reality below us as objects of control. Material reality can either control us as prisons of flesh and passion (and it is the passion for material derivatives of Form that divide our consciousness/soul and inhibit unio mystica) or we can control the material by subjecting ourselves to Reason, which orders our tripartite souls (rational, spirited, appetitive) in hierarchical proportion (Logos).
Plato’s “Republic” is that government of Reason over the irrational elements of soul that are more materially involved. As it is the ideal of government within the human microcosm, so it is in the human macrocosm, the constitution of a state (and of the cosmos as a whole). It follows materialistic and anthropological sequences. Government arises from the material substrate to the point where it becomes the soul and ruling principle that in turn influences the material by imposing and maintaining Form, like a sculptor onto clay to allow irrational substance to participate in Beauty.
Even after Copernicus resurrected Aristarchus’ heliocentric model and displaced us from the center of the cosmos, human philosophy and language maintained for the most part and for a much longer time a Ptolemaic understanding of our relation to Truth. Our dependance on language fetters us to an understanding of Reality only in relation to ourselves and what is more familiar, and symbolizing it as objects to be manipulated in exercise of power, be they religious idols or ideas, or simple words. Truth is accessed through Reason (an exclusively human possession that Aristotle took to be the distinguishing mark of our superiority to all other life), and if Truth is not taken in an Absolute or Transcendant sense, then it retreats into an Existentialism whereby meaning and values are self-generated and buttressed by one’s own moral integrity.
What it boils down to is that Truth and Being (and thus the predication of anything as having properties or instantiation into existence) exist in an intermediary realm between a Rational Subject and the Object of Contemplation. Even the Object’s existence and essence is fixed simply by that observation (as Berkeley concluded, esse est percipi). Quantum physics functions the same way, with the implications that determinism, just like any other theory, is a function of the Subject. Once a particle is observed, its position is fixed. I wish to argue that Human Destiny as a Tragic concept functions in a similar way, and that quantum determinism has its roots on the Sophoclean stage.
To help demonstrate, let us consider the science fiction drama “Doctor Who,” in particular the Weeping Angels who send their victims back in time. In the most recent episode of the series, the character Amy discovers her husband Rory aged by 60 years and on his deathbed, the apparent victim of a Weeping Angel. Yet the young Rory is himself in the other room. The Doctor warns Rory not to see his future self, because by doing so his Future is fixed. Rory’s destiny was determined by the observation of his fate. The infinity of possible timelines was reduced to a single 4-dimensional line segment with a fixed endpoint. It happened because he saw Himself.
It is self-knowledge that one seeks to attain by consulting the oracle at Delphi, where above the entrance to Apollo’s temple was reputed to have been written “Know Thyself” (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) or simply, “Thou Art” (εἶ). The very act of consulting the oracle is what fixes one’s fate. It is how the receiver interprets the oracle that can demonstrate the tragic condition. Oedipus, for example, understood the prophecy of parricide and incest as an sequence of events determined by cosmic forces existing independently of the human self. His tragic flaw was his atomistic conception of reality, in which Subject and Object are independent causes that exert force by means of collision. Because of this he hubristically endeavored to extricate himself from this cosmic pool table by relocating from Corinth to Thebes (unknowing that Thebes was his actual birthplace where his real father and mother were).
Yet the words of the oracle were only words, and not the knowledge itself. It would only be through suffering (πάθος) that knowledge (μάθος) of the self could be attained, at the moment of realization and clarity in which the aphorism of Heraclitus rings true: character (ἦθος) is destiny (μοῖρα). The cosmos that Oedipus thought was independent of his Subjectivity was in truth an extension of himself, and the unfolding of its history was contingent upon the eternal and unchanging thing that makes a tragic hero heroic, his character.
Oedipus streamlined his quantum timeline by going to Delphi, the navel of the earth, returning to the womb of his mother, out of which, by the tragic annihilation of the Apostate Self, he was reborn with true sight into the realm of truth, now blind to that of appearances and false distinctions.
Apollo is the force within us that organizes reality into rational proportions, of sounds into music, of clay into shapes, and of reality into a plurality of words. He is the quantum Subject that determines the purpose of a thing and the character of a person by fixing it in language. That is his oracular function. Μοῖρα is the setting of boundaries.
Dionysus is the breaker of boundaries, the dying-and-reborn god whose eternal recurrence of annihilation into new forms of self-knowledge represents the tragic condition of humankind. Dionysus is Life, and so long as life persists as an irrational force of unlimited potential and creativity from the depths of darkness unplumbed by Apollo’s light, it will continue to be worth living. Don’t blink. You might miss it.
This statement is none other than the acknowledgment that music is a revelation of divinity channeled through the human instrument, instantiating itself in the world of sense perception. The ideas of theme, mathematical proportions of harmony and rhythm, and lyrical accompaniments are translated from the pure substance of Intellect into the symbols of notation, the magnetic polarities of binary digits, and vibrations of air whose dialogue with the mechanisms of the audience’s ears orients their souls toward the divinity made manifest.
Bach’s statement as regards the purpose of music is too often understood from the perspective of a modernity that circumscribes perception to what is purely logical ex post facto, what rational patterns can be observed, and repeated in a laboratory, in nature as a purely material entity. Not only “God” and “the soul,” but also “final end” (Aristotle’s final cause – telos) are metaphysical and spiritual constructs extraneous to this mechanistic universe and irrelevant to explaining its functions.
The blame for this misunderstanding is upon the English language whose development was coeval with that of the scientific worldview, a linguistic system that reduces so many complex concepts (such as Love) to single worlds in order to compensate for its inability to understand them. Love is a concept that comprises a host of manifestations: sexual love, familial love, friendship, hospitality. The Greeks had individual words for all of these (eros, storge, philia, xenia). God as a concept functions the same way, best understood as consisting of a plurality-in-unity of particular aspects of that divinity: Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite, Apollo, Dionysus (more on the final two later).
Music, too, has its pantheon. There are nine Muses, each a different means of expression. The art of music in its classical sense, therefore, is a glorification of the Muses by submitting the self to their possession. Music understood today is merely the nonlinguistic sound of a work of art, but to the Greeks that sonic aspect was the substratum that gave form and substance, by means of meter and harmony, to the words, actions, and visual components of a holistic production, be it the inspired recitations of a Homeric bard or the production of an Attic tragedy. The Greeks felt a much closer connection between music and speech. Even the spoken-word dialogue of a play conformed to an iambic trimeter very natural to Hellenic speech. A linguistics based on quantity, i.e. the length of syllables rather than stress accents, contributed to a more mathematical understanding of language that made the metrical conventions of poetry seem much less confining than the libertarian free verse of today’s vulgarian lyricism.
I now move on to using Bach’s theology as a qualitative assessment of music. Musical is beautiful, just as anything else, to the degree that it participates in divinity. Its purpose to glorify God, as said above, is the acknowledgment of divinity as the source of inspiration, creativity, and production. But it is also an acknowledgment of the nature of that divinity. I will argue that that nature is a dialectical engine fueled by the duality of Apollo and Dionysus. True musical genius depends equally on both.
The dialectic is simple. It is the balanced harmonic tension of opposites between order and chaos, rational and irrational, convention and nature. Apollo represents the former in these dualities, that is, the conventions of music as institutionally established. To be a good composer and musician, you must learn and understand the rules (before you can break them). You must study the classics: Bach, Mozart, Wagner. You must learn scales, modes, harmonics, notation. You must acquire the forms that organize sound into rational proportions. That is the spirit of Apollo.
Yet Apollo is not enough. To rehash the forms and compositions of prior composers is to impose a layer of abstraction between yourself and the divine. It is to make a copy of a copy (for the original composition is merely the translation of an idea from Intellect into a debased medium apprehensible by the five senses). That is where Dionysus comes in, the dark, subconscious, irrational chaos that is the wellspring of life, of the erotic desire to create by means of conquest. Yet that energy, like a hammer, must be channeled into Apollonian forms and conventions so that it can be used to create rather than destroy. We are neither beasts nor gods. We are a combination of both.
Musical genius, creativity, and innovation is a dialectical process upon which the creation of art is contingent upon a knowledge of the works of Bach and Hesiod, and a similar reverence for the divinity that inspired those oracles of Apollo and Dionysus, whether on the slopes of Helicon or on the organ benches of Leipzig.
A key to understanding metaphysics, i.e. the grammatical structures with which we order the cosmos, is that it is fundamentally negative. Every concept, whether it be the tree under which I am sitting, each word I am writing, and even the life I am living are meaningful only by a recognition of their limits. Geometric shapes are defined spatially, and given form, by the boundaries beyond which lies all the rest of reality not contained within those shapes. A person’s life is defined temporally by the limits of birth and death, beyond which only a Nachleben, an afterlife, could transport the person who lived that life into a pure transcendence in the memory of others.
Thus the key to meaning is negation, to pare away all the colorful foliage of subtlety, mystery, and ambiguity to uncover a pure essence. An analysis à la David Hume would completely annihilate every object and concept by a complete unpacking of the properties that make it up. This was the logical conclusion, or rather the logical suicide, of Western metaphysics. It demonstrated that there is no final answer once you satisfy all the questions of which that final answer is composed.
Yet this philosophical dead end could not destroy language, but the negation that it lighted upon became the value that would drive subsequent history forward into a nihilistic void. It was inevitable, and what is more, it started long before. It started with the birth of philosophy, which like an oil refinery that produces more efficient fuels, refines the mythic and poetic constructions of Truth into a streamlined and uniform discourse.
Yet efficiency in all things, whether a physical or metaphysical process, is the value of negation, an argument that disguises what it truly is: entropy. Efficiency is entropy, a thermodynamic decay that transmutes the race of gold into silver, then into bronze, and then iron through the alchemy of Father Time. It exhausts the spirit by erecting an ever more byzantine edifice of answers that land increasingly short of the mark.
Entropy is a linguistic phenomenon as much as any other. The trend that languages simplify over time is the process by which a linguistic system fools itself into thinking it understands reality by expressing it in more absolute, dogmatic terms. Every language is a church with an unwritten creed, a ritual protocol of syntax, and a revelatory text, a bible we anglophones call a dictionary. The simpler a language is, the more dogmatic it is. English grammar is a cult of Gnostic dualism between the active and passive voice. Ancient Greek, an older and thus more complex language, is a trinitarian theology in which a third voice, the middle voice, is the spirit that resolves the dualism between active Subject and passive Object into a divine Unity. English is a syntactical orthodoxy of subject-verb-object. Greek is a pagan pluralism in which a colorful spectrum of mystery cults travel by myriad paths toward a single goal.
But even the orthodoxy of English is giving way to a puritanical tyranny that reduces complexity to a mathematical, robotic poverty of spiritual sensation. These are the computer languages.
To translate experience into language is to create a symbolic abstraction. It is a mystification of Truth by masking it behind an elaborate wall of icons. That is our mode of worship whenever we write, speak, read or listen to words. It is the helicopter or auto-road that uses soulless machines (with bumper stickers that say “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington”) to get us to the top of the mountain, depriving us of the journey, of the odyssey that makes the return to Ithaca not just meaningful, but merited.
Yet Truth is not an answer, nor even an end. It is an experience, a process, a way. Justice, wisdom, courage and temperance are virtues not to obtain, but to practice. The laws and written constitutions of states are ossifications of experience into the pipes of a grand façade that masks the inner workings of the pneumatic instrument within. Words and laws are the counterfeit currency of Truth and Justice, assigning arbitrary values based on pure faith. It is a capitalism whose logical conclusion is the pure efficiency that renders life itself obsolete. When Thoth-Hermes gave the written word to humankind, his war on Dionysus commenced. Yet we may rest assured that the Theban god in the end will always prevail.
An analysis of Western history must take into account not merely past actions, but also how human art as a variegated medium of communication demonstrates a culture’s relation to not only nature, but to Truth itself. I wish to argue that the course of human history is not a progression that asymptotically approaches Truth, but a regression away from Truth by means of illusory objectification, abstraction, and a continual narrowing of not only interpretation, but a stifling circumscription of interpretational method.
Thankfully, the necessity of narrative, as the idea preceding the material, will never reduce us utterly. For just as Diotima in the Symposium (202a) places the human condition as halfway between absolute knowledge and absolute ignorance (τι μεταξὺ σοφίας καὶ ἀμαθίας), so we have always had an asymptotic relationship just as much to Truth as to its utter lack. Even Satan in the pit of Dante’s Hell is not completely deprived of Being, though he be furthest from God.
Picture this analysis as an isosceles triangle, whose base is along a vertical, y axis. The two other, equal sides of this triangle represent the limits of interpretation. We may label the y axis “Range of Interpretation.” The x axis may be labelled “Time.” Thus, as we move from left to right along the x axis we see the triangle, and thus the range of interpretation, narrowing as it converges and collapses upon a single point. I will select various points along the x axis of Time and discuss that point in time’s relation to the interpretational range of Western culture. It truly demonstrates a law of diminishing returns and of thermodynamic entropy.
I begin in a time before the written word, perhaps even before language was widely used or diverse. Language is only necessary insofar as behavior needs guidance in relation to how a culture identifies itself in nature. When a people is fully integrated into nature, words need not express that integration. However, as it is the nature of all biological life to adapt to environment, the development of human reason and language (logos) allowed us to manipulate that environment to suit our needs. But by doing so, we began the course of abstraction from nature. Thus language was first used chiefly to make cohere a framework of cultural maintenance, to maintain that connection and identity of humanity, nature and divinity.
This framework that binds people back to Truth, to nature, to culture, is the true meaning of religion (re “back” + ligere “to bind”). Aristotle’s theory of the polis as the most natural political system is merely an understanding of this concept in dryer terms. The classical polis was the natural extension of a civic religion existing far before the division between Church and State made any sense.
In pre-literate culture, the raw material of Truth was found in the eternal experience of nature, and in the myths that evolved from that experience as passed on through the centuries of oral tradition. The myths illustrateed the archetypes of this collective unconscious, a Vishnu’s dream of infinite possibilities emanating from a single Truth, a plurality from unity, ex uno plures rather than e pluribus unum.
Because myths were raw material and not written, each instance of their transcription to the page, whether in a lyric hymn, an epic poem, or a tragic or comic play, was a unique interpretation of that myth. The plot threads of the myth of Orestes and Electra, for instance, were spun from the same wool, but woven into very different textual tapestries by Aeschylus (Oresteia), Sophocles (Electra) and Euripides (Orestes). A common mistake for modern readers is to take certain interpretations of myth, e.g. Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, as not only the authoritative and orthodox, but even original source of the myth itself (in this case the Oedipus myth). But nobody in the ancient world would have thought this way. They reveled in the ambiguity of an unwritten mythological and religious tradition, acknowledging that Truth is incomplete and inauthentic without the participation of the Subject, the poet who presented his or her realities as puppets before the fire of Plato’s Cave.
Yet the very act of translating any myth into the written word restricts its meaning within not only the literacy of a certain (let’s say, Greek) culture, but within the cosmological bounds of that language, the limits of its grammar and vocabulary. This is why translation of Greek literature into English is a gross injustice, in that so many concepts and grammatical subtleties in Greek (words such as logos and kosmos, or the aorist tense and middle voice) find no acceptable English equivalent. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the general linguistic rule, that languages simplify over time, is in direct proportion to the historical, hermeneutical constriction argued in this post.
This was an age bursting with creative expression, not only in literature, but in every profession that interpreted reality. The original philosophers wrote in poetic verse the syntheses of their imaginative, rational and empirical experience of reality, often drawing no line between the realm of the mind within and the workings of nature without. Thus Aristotle, arguably the grandfather of the scientific method, could at the same time argue the precedence of poetry over history as the more authentic expression of Truth.
3. Late Antiquity
Greco-Roman antiquity spans too broad a stretch of time to be assigned a single esprit d’époque. At one point the well of creative interpretation ran dry. This parallels well the narrowing of political interpretation as the Roman Empire became the only way of political life anyone knew, while the chaos of its decline fostered a spiritual anxiety desperate for certainty of salvation. The spirit of orthodoxy was quickly gaining steam, which expressed itself in a reverence for older texts. Though he explicitly stated that it was the duty of posterity to build upon and, if evidence and reasoning require it, refute any of his facts and claims, this is the age in which his writings began to acquire a truly dogmatic appreciation. This is partly due to the work of the Neoplatonists, who aimed to reconcile Aristotle with the infallible canon of the Platonic dialogues.
Thus, the shift to the mediaeval way of thinking was characterized by the interpretation of set texts (thus narrowing the scope of interpretations), and to narrow it even further, texts that corroborated religious sensibilities. Thus Plato’s philosophy, replete with Pythagorean mysticism and monotheistic hierarchy, came to represent the establishment of Hellenic paideia as a whole, while the antagonistic schools of Cynicism, Stoicism, Skepticism and Epicureanism either faded into obscurity or were subsumed into the Neoplatonic framework. Figures such as Plato and Pythagoras were even treated as prophets and saints, whose souls closest approached the perfect divine nature.
The attitude of a text being divinely written is familiar enough, and of course the Christian Church was born of this worldview. On the premise that the Bible was the Divine Word itself, Christian theologians such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine and the other Church Fathers used the vocabulary and argumentative tools of Greek philosophy as means of interpreting this text and drawing out of it a rational and systematic theological and metaphysical framework. Philosophy had become the handmaiden of religion.
4. The Middle Ages
The end of the ancient world saw the scope of interpretation narrowing so much that it had become government policy. In 381 CE the Roman emperor Theodosius declared that the Trinitarian interpretation of Christian theology, which boasted to be the original interpretation borne out at Nicea in 325, was the only interpretation that was truly Christian. All other interpretations, before the positions of free and open debate, became heresies to be persecuted. By the end of the fourth century, and of Theodosius’ reign, the practice of all other religions were outlawed. Philosophers and academics who were non-Christian were assumed (and often rightly) to be pagans, but it was not until 529 when the emperor Justinian shut down the Academy at Athens and exiled its scholars to Persia.
Let us skip ahead to the High Middle Ages and the return of some classical texts, mainly those of Aristotle, to the West. The twelfth-century renaissance hailed the return of rationalism, though practiced by those, such as Thomas Aquinas, who had unshakable convictions in their Catholic faith. Scholasticism was the grand attempt to rationally square the theological circle. Yet by the end of the Middle Ages, it had ultimately proved a failure, as scholars such as William of Ockham began to draw a metaphysical divide between the spiritual world and the material world, and that rationalism could only apply to the latter. Slowly but surely, a nascent science began to wriggle free from womb of cathedral schools.
Now we shift from one interpretational method of a single text to no text at all. Call it Locke’s tabula rasa, the Western mind’s table of truths was completely cleared and now only a single method of interpretation, scientific method, remained to strip nature naked of all her mystery and subdue her as an object of lust, to objectify her as something independent of the human self.
The scientific method works under the assumption that all nature, even the operations of the mind and culture, can be reduced to calculable, material quantities. It thereby narrows the scope of interpretation by assuming a purely materialistic view of reality.
The infinity of infinite possibilities that we started with has now been made finite, limited first by a finite number of languages, then a smaller number of written languages, then by an even smaller number of revered texts. Now all narrative is questioned, as science strives to make the narratives it needs to express itself as clinically precise as possible.
It is the institutions of humanism, which asserts the subject as the engine of meaning, that foster human creativity, possibility, and fulfillment. It does not oppose science, much as Aristotle’s favoring of poetry over history as the best portal to truth did not contradict within his own conscience the data of his empirical observations. Humanism is the art of interpretation, the philosophic mediator between textual (ideal) and scientific (material) truths. It is the solution to the poverty of interpretation that plagues our age, an age increasingly seeing in terms of black versus white. As a result, politics is no longer about doing what’s best for a people, rather it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator as a means to achieving and maintaining power. Plato would call that tyranny.