Faithful readers who wonder why I have not been posting more recently are advised that it is no easy thing to type English on a Turkish keyboard.
As I was listening to the Janissary Band in the grounds of Topkapi Palace the other day, I realized that military bands and military music are no insignificant thing. The janissaries, the Ottoman Empire’s elite soldiers, are long gone, but this band lingers on, their heart and soul. I could imagine being an Austrian soldier hearing that music approach, then seeing that band in its bright costumes, and finding it hard not to lose all courage. At the same time, I could imagine being a Turkish soldier, and being filled by this sound with confidence in my own invincibility. How could such strong and perfect music be defeated?
Military bands matter, and wise militaries spend some time on them: the Scots with their massed pipers, the Ulstermen with their fifes and drums; the Americans with their marching brass bands. The bugler, the piper, and the drummer boy: show me an army that gives them prominence, and I’ll show you a powerful army. At least before the din of the modern battlefield drowned out all such sound.
Why? Because any battle or war is conceptually a conflict between two competing visions of order—most obviously battle order, the discipline of the two armies, but by implication and extension the social order behind each army, and beyond that again ultimately even of cosmic order. As music is pure order, it is especially emblematic of this.
The Romans were so effective in battle, I am told, because every man was responsible for his fellow, striking not the man attacking him to the front, but the man attacking his neighbour to the side. Roman tactics were thus an impressive feat of military discipline and social solidarity, each man placing his life in the hands of a neighbour.
The Greek phalanx also required a good deal of discipline and coordinated movement. So did the famous British square.
So a state that has a more deeply ingrained sense of social solidarity is going to have a distinct advantage on the battlefield. Over time, this advantage is likely to prove decisive. The interesting result is liable to be that history becomes a progress from less to greater, or weak to stronger, social organization.
One of the great advantages of democracies, for example, is that they tend to be able to face adversity, and not crack. The social order holds. Tyrannies tend to collapse suddenly. So that, over the long run, democracies have tended to win out over tyrannies.
But what holds people together best is a strong ideal. Nowadays, most states are organized on the basis of ethnicity, so that they are essentially equal on this score. But this was perhaps clearer in the days of the great empires, like the Ottomans. For empires are not built on ethnicity, by and large, but on some ideal. Every empire carried in its vision the implicit or explicit assumption that it was the proper government for the entire world.
A competition between empires was therefore a competition between competing cosmologies, different visions of cosmic order. A competition in which, moreover, by the same logic explored above, the more perfect order normally won.
So the best organized band playing the most rousing music was part of the test, and some early indication of who was likely to win. If one side’s soldiery heard for themselves that the other side clearly had the better band, the better music and the more disciplined musicians, they had every reason to fear for their cause and their lives. Indeed, they had reason to believe that their cause was not just.
Now if this much is true, it seems to follow that the progress of history, of the mind, will have been from less to greater order—as Aristotle indeed believed it was. Hypothetically ending eventually in perfect order, the celestial city, the New Jerusalem. Not just a will-o’-the –wisp, but something predictable as the end of history.
Offhand, it seems to be so. As a science article I read recently has pointed out, if the “total wars” of the last century had produced the same casualty rate as the wars of early hunter-gatherer societies, the death toll would not have been, as it was, in the tens of millions, but in the hundreds of millions. Over time, we really are seeing less bloodshed, which is to say, better social order. Much as I may rail at governments today, there is no question they are better than in the days of the Roman Empire, when power fell more or less by chance to the strongest and most ruthless hand, who was then commonly deposed in turn, in the midst of civil war, within a couple of years. And better than in the days of kings like Henry VIII, when each new accession to the throne meant a new bloodbath. There are terrible false steps along the way, but from the view of history as a whole, we seem to be going somewhere.
Democracy, similarly, supplants civil war. The candidate with the best organization still usually wins, but it is all done without blood in the streets or in the palace.
And this is all on top of the more obvious material progress we have made over time: even over my lifetime, from awkward electric typewriters and expensive paper publishing to this word processing software on the Internet.
And I believe there is progress in religion and philosophy too. The great world religions, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and so forth, are clearly intellectual and moral advances on the shamanism that went before. Things are less clear here, and real progress slower, but greater order seems to be emerging.
Partly, indeed, through this competition of cosmologies in war. It was war, after all, the killed the Fascist ideology, and it was war that killed slavery. The Ottoman Empire based its vision of order, and its right to rule the world, on Islam. The Sultan was also Caliph, head of the Muslim religion, and so the representative of God on earth. For the Ottoman Empire to control the world would, presumably, be the fulfillment of God’s great plan, perfect order: everyone around the world, at greater or at lesser distance, forever circumambulating Mecca.
The Byzantine Empire which preceded it in Istanbul, was similar in concept, but based on Christianity. The Byzantine Empire was consciously founded as the Empire of Christendom.
Which seems inherently blasphemous to this Christian—but the world largely bought it for a thousand years.
The decline of the idea of Empire, itself, marks a new plateau in the development of the world social order. It marks the transition from war as a means of demonstrating superior order, to commerce. Just so, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, and French “Empires” were essentially trading establishments. They had no pretensions to rule the world. They were not really empires at all, but ad hoc affairs to make trading safe.
And so since their rise, and the decline of true Empires, we have actually been seeing the slow decline of war. When we have had big wars since, it has generally been because some nation has experienced a throwback to the old idea of empire. The Soviet Empire was an Empire of the old school. It based its claim to world domination on Marxism. But it is gone now, with Nineveh and Tyre.
Hitler’s Reich, similarly, was a true empire—it implicitly intended world domination by the German “race.” Now it is gone. The Japanese Empire also always assumed its right to world domination.
So now the competition between organizations occurs primarily on the economic level, which is itself a great advance in order. Economies and businesses now duke it out, and the results should be to everyone’s long-term benefit. War is a very crude test of order, and order of a very crude sort. The same test of systems is managed more tidily and efficiently in economic rather than military competition—in free trade and in the free market. Here too, the most organized organization will normally win; the most efficient.
But there is a further possible stage already visible, isn’t there? The ultimate vision of order is really an artistic vision, and beyond that a religious and a philosophical vision.
This is already implicit in the military band. A perfected society, a society working in perfect order, would be a great work of art; one big military band, or one vast dance. If and when the New Jerusalem is ever accomplished, all human life will become art. And all art, in turn, is a making order of the world.
This awareness seems to inform the business of flags—national symbols, national designs, images meant to represent the state. Note that many of them are specifically visions of order or cosmos: the British double cross, which is interestingly a design found commonly in Byzantine churches. The Nazi swastika, or spinning cross, also commonly found in Byzantine churches. The Japanese rising sun, the Korean taeguk symbol, the Indian wheel, the Swiss cross, the common crescent moon, the common star motif; and so on.
And so the higher form of competition among cosmologies is in culture wars. These are not something new, but something that seems to be growing in importance. China, for example, with the strength of its culture, or Greece, or Israel, or Ireland, has historically been able to let waves of military conquest roll over it, yet win in the end by convincing the conquerors to adopt their culture, their organization, their vision of the cosmos. This is done by the pure strength of beauty and argumentation, and is the ultimate test of a cosmology. This is in a sense the message of the resurrection.
The Internet is perhaps the medium that makes this finally fully possible. The Internet introduces, for the first time, a truly free and global market in ideas. Now there is no longer the need for any sort of business organization to promote ideas—one no longer needs to worry about owning a printing press, for example, or a university, or an art gallery, and making it pay for itself. It has full worldwide reach already.
That’s what it should be, ultimately: a pure battle of the bands.
Bring on the podcasts of angel trumpets.