World and Soul – Origen

Synopsis:

Origen’s exposition on the material world – and its relation to the human soul – examines the complexion of evil, the genesis of virtue, as well as the internal frictions of the middle-ground vis-à-vis human action. Origen affirms the mono-causality of wisdom, righteousness, and truth in synthesis with God.

Excerpts:

“The never-ending thirst for wisdom must be chosen by souls as their first object. This necessarily means first of all a strong orientation inward involving the closing of one’s eyes to the outer world.

“To ask about the soul means to cast one’s gaze into the abyss of eternal eons and immeasurable waves of fate.

“Just as when our eyes rest upon something made by an artist, our mind burns to know how and in what way and to what purpose it was made, far more and beyond all comparison with such things does our spirit burn with an unspeakable longing to know the why and wherefore of the works of God which we see.

“You must understand that you are another world in miniature, and that there is in you sun and moon and also stars.

“For the body to grow and to become great lies not within our power. For the body takes its material size, whether large or small, from its genetic origin; but our soul has its own causes and its free will to make it large or small.

*All excerpts have been taken from Origen: Spirit & Fire, The Catholic University of America Press.

Maxims – Seneca

54

Synopsis:

In letter #33, Seneca defines the balance between derivative reasoning, and novel thinking. According to Seneca, erudition functions only as a means to an end – rather than an end itself.

Excerpts:

“All those men who never create but lurk as interpreters under the shadow of another are lacking, I believe, in independence of spirit. They never venture to do the thing they have long rehearsed. They exercise their memories on what is not their own. But to remember is one thing, to know another.

“You may recognize unevenness in a work when attention is attracted by what rises above the level. One tree is not noteworthy if the whole forest rises to the same height.

“Don’t expect, then, that you can sample the masterpieces of great minds by way of summaries; you must examine the whole, work over the whole. Their structure is a totality fitted together according to the outlines of their special genius, and if any member is removed the whole may collapse…An admired ankle or arm does not make a woman beautiful; a beautiful woman is one whose total appearance silences praise of her parts.

“If we rest content with solutions offered, the real solution will never be found. Moreover, a man who follows another not only finds nothing, he is not even looking.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

The Points Which the General Must Consider – Maurice Tiberius

Synopsis:

The Byzantines were the strategic culture par excellence of Western civilization for much of their more than thousand year history. The Strategikon was written during the reign of the Emperor Mauricius as a military and diplomatic guidebook for the Byzantine high command. It is a combined arms treatise which synthesizes components of cultural anthropology, psychological operations, tactical dispositions, human intelligence collection, military maxims, reconnaissance techniques, and lessons learned from the era of the Later Roman Empire. The Strategikon – when it was followed – acted as a combat multiplier for the often outnumbered Byzantine military, and even when defeated their opponents usually only won after a close-run contest.

Excerpts:

“For it is not true, as some inexperienced people believe, that wars are decided by courage and numbers of troops, but – along with God’s favor – by tactics and generalship, and our concern should be with these rather than wasting our time in mobilizing large numbers of men. The former provide security and advantage to men who know how to use them well, whereas the other brings trouble and financial ruin.

“Warfare is like hunting. Wild animals are taken by scouting, by nets, by lying in wait, by stalking, by circling around, and by other such stratagems rather than by sheer force. In waging war we should proceed in the same way, whether the enemy be many or few.

“Before any fighting the first and the safest thing to do is to choose a few experienced and lightly armed soldiers and have them very secretly carry out attacks against some detachments of the enemy. If they succeed in killing or capturing some of them, then most of our soldiers will take this as evidence of our own superiority. They will get over their nervousness, their morale will pick up, and they will gradually become used to fighting against them.

“Unless it is absolutely necessary, for a few days after a defeat in battle no attempt should be made to line up again and resume the offensive. It is better to rely on stratagems, deception, carefully timed surprise moves, and the so-called fighting while fleeing, until the troops come to forget their discouragement, and their morale picks up once more.

“There can be no rest until the enemy is completely destroyed. If they seek refuge behind fortifications, apply pressure by direct force or by preventing them from getting more supplies for men and horses until they are annihilated or else agree to a treaty to our advantage. One should not slacken after driving them back just a short distance, nor, after so much hard work and the dangers of war, should one jeopardize the success of the whole campaign because of lack of persistence. In war, as in hunting, a near-miss is still a complete miss.

*All excerpts have been taken from Maurice’s Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy, University of Pennsylvania Press.

The Defense Strategy of the Late Roman Empire – Arther Ferrill

Synopsis:

Defense strategy in the Roman Empire following the Crisis of the Third Century evolved considerably from the earlier preclusive security apparatus of Hadrian – which emphasized a synthesis of passive and active defense along mostly static lines of effort. Arther Ferrill credits the Emperor Constantine with the transition from the preclusive ideal to a novel defense-in-depth approach, which offered weakened frontier defenses in favor of large mobile field armies. This new model Roman army allowed more centralized control for the Emperor – as well as greater personal security – but with a vastly less controlled border region for the Empire.

Excerpts:

“Such obvious advantages, reflecting organization of war-making capacity far beyond that of Rome’s potential opponents, gave the Roman armies a psychological edge, a superiority in morale, often sufficient in itself to deter hostile military action. In the great days of the second century, with an army of about 300,000, the Romans defended an empire of some 50,000,000 people living in the Mediterranean basin.

“More than anything else Roman grand strategy in the High Roman Empire was based on the tactical superiority of the Roman army against all potential foes. To that extent the famous walls and fortresses can be misleading. The army, not the walls or forts, defended the frontiers.

“Roman grand strategy of the second century was predicated on political stability – preclusive security requires the presence of the legions on the frontiers. Civil war and rebellion, especially when they became endemic, diverted legions from the frontiers to the interior, creating marvelous opportunities for enemies across the border. That is what happened in the third century.

“The big change in Roman grand strategy came with Constantine the Great. As Zosimus claimed in the passage quoted above, Constantine organized a large mobile field army (probably 100,000 or more), stationed centrally, by withdrawing units from the frontiers, leaving them in a weakened condition. Zosimus saw this modification of traditional Roman grand strategy as catastrophic, an interpretation endorsed by Gibbon.

“The worst feature of the defense-in-depth is that inevitably the central mobile army will become an elite force and the frontier defenders merely second rate actors in defense policy. Troops that are not expected to defeat the enemy can hardly be blamed for wanting to avoid him altogether.

*All excerpts have been taken from Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, Thames and Hudson Inc.

Lycurgus of Sparta – Plutarch

Synopsis:

The life of Lycurgus the lawgiver of Sparta is mostly legendary in character – and Plutarch admits this much in his biography of him. Accordingly, Plutarch dedicates much of his biography of Lycurgus to the Spartan city-state and the constitution which Lycurgus created. In this way Plutarch keenly balances the mythical context with his own reflections on the enduring institutions which Lycurgus devised.

Excerpts:

“The Egyptians say that he took a voyage into Egypt, and that, being much taken with their way of separating the soldiery from the rest of the nation, he transferred it from them to Sparta, a removal from contact with those employed in low and mechanical occupations giving high refinement and beauty to the state.

“Amongst the many changes and alterations which Lycurgus made, the first and of greatest importance was the establishment of the senate, which having a power equal to the king’s in matters of great consequence, and, as Plato expresses it, allaying and qualifying the fiery genius of the royal office, gave steadiness and safety to the commonwealth.

“A third ordinance of Rhetra was, that they should not make war often, or long, with the same enemy, lest that they should train and instruct them in war, by habituating them to defend themselves.

“The senate, as I said before, consisted of those who were Lycurgus’s chief aiders and assistants in his plans. The vacancies he ordered to be supplied out of the best and most deserving men past sixty years old.

“Aristocrates, the son of Hipparchus, says that he died in Crete, and that his Cretan friends, in accordance with his own request, when they had burned his body, scattered the ashes into the sea; for fear lest, if his relics should be transported to Lacedaemon, the people might pretend to be released from their oaths, and make innovations in the government.

*All excerpts have been taken from Plutarch’s Lives – Vol. I, Modern Library.

Theodosius and the Antibarbarian Reaction – Alessandro Barbero

Synopsis:

The Battle of Adrianople in 378 often signals a key crossroad in the history of the late Roman Empire, but Alessandro Barbero lays out a somewhat different narrative in his book The Day of the Barbarians. Barbero examines the event within a three century context, and chronicles the cultural evolution of Roman civilization leading up to the battle – as well as the civilizational reaction following the final peace agreement with the Goths. As Roman power began to decline in the fifth century the long ignored aristocracy of Rome began to reassert itself by becoming the foremost voice of the anti-barbarian reaction.

Excerpts:

“In the dissatisfaction that the Greek East felt at the political and military hegemony of the Latin West lay the seeds of competition – if not hostility – between the two parts of the Roman Empire; those seeds would not fail to produce fruit, and soon.

“All the rhetoric about the universality of the empire, about its capacity for assimilation, was trotted out to demonstrate that Theodosius had made the right choice. And, to be clear, it wasn’t all empty rhetoric; to a certain degree, that capacity for assimilation genuinely existed.

“The army, which was a community, seemed like the perfect machine for handling this integration process. It absorbed barbarians, ground them down, and transformed them into Roman veterans, into the men whom emperors in their public discourses addressed as ‘comrades in arms’ and who constituted the real pillar of the empire.

“In certain regions of the empire, where the mercenaries had completely replaced the units of the regular army, the change was reflected in the language itself: In Syriac, starting at the end of the fourth century, the word for ‘soldier’ became Goth.

“Most people ultimately shared the assumptions about the empire’s ability to assimilate the barbarians but resisted granting them too much power too quickly and thereby abdicating the civilizing mission of the empire.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire, Walker & Company.

On Living in Accordance with Nature – Cicero

Synopsis:

In Book One of On Duties Cicero examines the vital center of Stoicism – i.e. living in accordance with human nature. According to Cicero, human nature is underpinned by human action, and human action is supported by reason. Likewise, reason is balanced by virtue.

Excerpts:

“A salient characteristic of humankind is our quest for truth. When we are free from necessary care and labor, we long to see, hear, and learn, and we regard knowledge of hidden and marvelous matters as essential to a happy life.

“For whenever it’s impossible for the majority to excel, competition becomes so intense that it’s extremely difficult to maintain the sacred bond of social order.

“For it is appropriate to refer to the basic elements of justice I described at the outset: first, not to harm anyone; second, to be of service to the common good.

“Of the two sources of injury, force and fraud, fraud is fit for foxes, force for lions, and neither is at all suited to human beings.

“The Stoics are thus correct to define courage as virtue struggling on behalf of fairness. This is why a person who acquires a reputation for courage through treachery or foul play does not deserve praise. For nothing is honorable if it is devoid of justice.

*All excerpts have been taken from Cicero: On Living and Dying Well, Penguin Classics.