Sunday


How often does Palm Sunday fall on April Fools’ Day? It must happen with a certain (predictable) regularity, I would guess, since April Fools’ Day falls within what we might call the parameters of Easter. No doubt someone, somewhere, has made the calculation and can give a definite answer to the question. Since Easter is a moveable feast, and it carries all of Passiontide with it, including Palm Sunday and Good Friday, all these days move around the Gregorian calender like wanderers seeking a place to rest.

Easter must be calculated, since it falls on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere. And Easter is the still point in the turning world of moveable feasts in the Christian calendar, because all the other moveable feasts are calculated in number of days before or after Easter. The calculation of the date of Easter is an astronomical task that requires some expertise. Copernicus was among the few in early modern Europe who possessed the expertise to arrive at a better calculation.

The accumulating errors of the Julian calendar had, over the centuries, contributed to confusion and unnecessary complexity in the calculation of dates. It was possible to continue with the old system, but the whole process could be streamlined by a root-and-branch rethinking. This is what Copernicus provided. He did not limit himself to local and parochial concerns, but attempted to get the cosmology right so that it agreed with astronomical observations, and this in turn could bring the calendar into accord with both cosmology and astronomy.

Copernicus, like Darwin, long delayed the publication of his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium not least because he was, like Darwin, concerned about the reaction it would cause. The story is that Copernicus received a copy of the first printed edition of his book on his death bed, roused himself from a stroke-induced torpor long enough to recognize this life work, and then passed away. The fears of both men were justified.

Copernicus’ calendar reform had some unintended consequences. This is perhaps the ultimate April Fools’ joke. While it is true that Copernicus himself completed only the first step from geocentric cosmology to heliocentric cosmology, and that we have since gone far beyond heliocentric cosmology even to the point that today any center of the world at all is questionable, it is probably also true that Copernicus’ reform extended as far as cosmological knowledge extended in his time. In its context, the Copernican revolution was radical and complete.

Now we know that neither earth nor sun nor galaxy nor galactic cluster nor super cluster nor the universe itself is the center of anything. There is no center — or, rather, everywhere is the center, which amounts to the same thing, and this coincides with the perennial insights of mysticism and mythology.

The Copernican revolution is still unfolding. The slow, gradual, cumulative process of attaining Copernican conceptions continues today. It is worth noting that the revolution began at the rarefied intellectual level of cosmology, so that a Copernican conception of cosmology itself preceded a Copernican conception of any of the special sciences. Indeed, in Eo-, Exo-, Astro- I recently argued that we are only now able to formulate Copernican conceptions of the sciences, which have, to date, received mostly geocentric formulations.

The calculation of the date of Easter turned out to be one of the truly deconstructive episodes in Western history, when the unraveling of what had seemed to be a single intellectual thread eventually meant the unraveling of a world entire. Copernicus was the first deconstructionist.

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Sunday


A rare early color photograph of WWI: the machine gun was one of the transformative technologies of the First World War.

A rare early color photograph of WWI: the machine gun was one of the transformative technologies of the First World War.

The First World War is one of the great catastrophes of Western history. This is insufficiently appreciated today. The Second World War appears to be the pivot of the twentieth century, occurring near the center of the century, a war fought on a larger scale and with more advanced technology and over a greater swath of the world. And while all of this is true, and the Second World War was the pivot of the twentieth century, the First World War was the pivot of something even larger than the twentieth century.

Along with the machine gun, barbed wire shaped the combat of the First World War.

Along with the machine gun, barbed wire shaped the combat of the First World War.

The First World War was contemplated as a brief war, planned as a brief war, and started (or triggered, if you prefer) with the intention of being a brief war. Instead, it lasted years and consumed the lives the millions. Unlike the Second World War, the dead and wounded were overwhelmingly soldiers, and the war was primarily fought in the countryside of Europe, not in its cities. Thus the First World War was, in a particular sense, less destructive than the Second World War. But that particular sense is a material sense; in a moral or social sense, it could be maintained that the Frist World War was the more destructive.

The tank was another transformative technology, but it had to wait for the Second World War for its successful exploitation.

The tank was another transformative technology, but it had to wait for the Second World War for its successful exploitation.

We all know that with the outbreak of the First World War, weapons and technology had changed while tactics had not yet caught up. And we have all heard that these innovations in warfare favored the defense and thus resulted in the static trench warfare for which the First World War is notorious.

Industrialization came late to war as compared to other aspects of life in Western civilization. It transformed the technology of war with machine guns and barbed wire, and it took several decades for the social technology of war to fully exploit the hardware technologies of war. The exploitation of the social technology of modern war was to be felt with the onset of the Second World War and the use of Blitzkrieg. (I have written briefly of this in The Dialectic of Stalemate.)

In my Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that the Industrial Revolution forced society to change in response, and that the Western world had responded twice with social arrangements attempting to accommodate the changes forced by industrialization and was still groping toward a third paradigm of social organization following the collapse of the earlier attempts. The social technologies of war — what military thinkers call “doctrine,” as in “armor doctrine” — exhibit a similar pattern of groping for an effective way to utilize hardware technologies. The trench warfare and mass assaults on fixed positions of the First World War represents the first attempt to incorporate novel military technologies. Blitzkrieg represents the second attempt. The challenge posed by unconventional, asymmetrical, and guerrilla warfare, and the responses to these threats on the part of conventional military forces, represents yet a third attempt to converge upon a military doctrine adequate to contemporary hardware technology.

One aspect of social technology and organization that made the First World War such a catastrophe was an ethos of industrialized society that found its expression in universal conscription and mobilization. In the pre-modern and early modern world, war was a business for professional soldiers. There was a nearly absolute social division between the mass of the population and professional soldiers. This division was effaced by the emergence of popular sovereignty as the sole form of political legitimacy after the American and French revolutions.

With industrialization, urbanization, and democratization, all men were asserted to be equal, and in some rare cases were actually treated as such. If all men were equal before the law, all men were equally obligated to fight for “their” country, for the masses now had a stake in the political outcome that they had never had in the pre-modern era. Thus emerged the idea of every man a soldier.

There is a sense in which this is truly ludicrous: not every man is suitable to be a soldier; not every man is fit for killing. But the newly industrialized armies were like an enormous machine constructed to consume vast numbers of men, as the newly established factory system drew vast numbers of men from the countryside into the city and consumed them in factories and machine works and workshops.

Mass man emerged in a terribly real sense during the First World War. With urbanization and concentration of vast populations rapidly mobilized by industrialized social infrastructure, the generals had literally millions of men at their disposal. Not knowing any better, they launched mass attacks that achieved little except mass casualties.

The idea of every man a soldier is as unrealistic as the idea — once advanced as the inevitable result of industrialization’s increasing living standards and decreasing work hours — of every man a man of leisure or every man an artist, or, for that matter, every man a wage earner (the present paradigm of industrial society), every man a yeoman farmer (Jeffersonian democracy), or every man a peasant (the reality of pre-modern, pre-industrialized civilization).

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