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26 January, 2018

Vengeance As Justice: Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of "Eye for an Eye"

William Ian Miller's Eye for an Eye did not make it into my "top ten books I read this year" list for 2017, but it was one of the more thought-provoking things I read last year. Miller is an unusual creature: part law professor, part medievalist, Miller is equally comfortable discussing ancient Hittite legal decrees, the etymology of old Norse runes, the tropes of Elizabethan Drama, and modern tort law. I suppose if you were to take J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Schelling, a good dose of dead-pan humor, and a pinch of the morbid, and then shook them up together in a bottle, Mr. Miller is the man who would emerge.

Miller's earliest books were on medieval Iceland's law and literature. If you are at all familiar with the sagas, it is easy to detect their influence on in the titles of his later works. His obsessions are by and large theirs: Disgust, Courage, Humiliation, Faking Itand so forth. The thread that weaves through each of these (and indeed the sagas as a whole) is the politics of social life. When one man (or one women) meets another calculations begin: how should I treat this person? Are we equals, or is he my social inferior? Or perhaps he is my social superior? How do I let him know what my social status is, and how should I respond if he does not take the hint? Is this person worth an insult? A fight? What are the consequences of letting things slide? What are the consequences of refusing to do so?

These type of questions naturally lead to the topic of this book: lex talionis, the law of the talion, the principle of an eye for an eye, of justice through vengeance, retaliation sanctioned by culture and law. This understanding of justice is what propels the Icelandic sagas. But it wasn't just a Viking tick. "Eye for an eye" was standard practice just about everywhere a few thousand years ago, from the shores of Germainia and the fields of the Greek polis to the warring tribes of Canaan and the even more distant lands of the Kurus and the Zhou.  We view this understanding of justice as backward and crude. We say things like "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." Miller aims to convince us otherwise. We have a lot to learn from these talionic cultures, he argues, and our world could be made a more just place if we could humble ourselves enough to learn from them.

I am not going to provide a precis of Miller's argument here. Like past editions of "Passages I Highlighted" (see here) I will reserve myself to quoting the passages of this book I found most interesting. But to really give you a sense for Miller's argument, I think the best thing I can do is quote first from another one of his books, one that focuses specifically on Icelandic society. He begins that book by quoting a passage from an obscure saga. In only a paragraph, the saga lays out what lex talionis looked like in real life:
Some Norwegian merchants chopped off Skæring’s hand. Gudmund was given self-judgment in the injury case. Haf Brandsson [Gudmund’s second cousin] and Gudmund together adjudged compensation in the amount of thirty hundreds, which was to be paid over immediately. Gudmund then rode away from the ship. But the Norwegians confronted Haf, who had remained behind; they thought the judgment had been too steep and they asked him to do one of two things: either reduce the award or swear an oath. Haf refused to do either. 
Some people rode after Gudmund and told him what had happened. He turned back immediately and asked Haf what was going on. Haf told him where matters stood. Gudmund said, “Swear the oath, Haf, or else I will do it, but then they will have to pay sixty hundreds. The oath of either one of us will have the same price as Skæring’s hand.”  
The Norwegians refused the offer. “Then I shall make you another proposal,” said Gudmund. “I will pay Skæring the thirty hundreds that you were judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from amongst you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skæring and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that man’s hand as cheaply as you wish." 
This did not appeal to the Norwegians and they decided to pay the original award immediately. Gudmund took Skæring with him when they left the ship. (G.dýri 26:212) [1]
Iceland was a country without a state. They had laws but no government to enforce them. If you were wronged, the responsibility to right the wrong rested with you and your kin. To prevent retaliatory feuds the Icelanders would often give the wronged party a chance to stand in judgement and mete out a punishment to pay for their mistakes and restore balance  between the two groups. The saga passage you've just read is an excellent example of how the system worked. Miller's comments on it are worth pondering:
By the time the saga writer focuses attention on this incident it is not the hand that is the subject of the dispute but the legitimacy and justice of Gudmund’s judgment. The Norwegians think the award excessive, and not without reason. More than a few men’s lives at this time were compensated for with thirty hundreds or less. Gudmund, however, is able to justify astutely his over-reaching by giving these men of the market a lesson on the contingency of value and values. To the Norwegians the award should reflect the price of a middling Icelandic hand. Gudmund forces them to conceive of the award in a different way: it is not the price of buying Skæring’s hand, but the price of preserving a Norwegian hand. By introducing the prospect of one of their hands to balance against Skæring’s, he is able to remind the Norwegians that the thirty hundreds they must pay purchases more than Skæring’s hand; it also buys off vengeance in kind. He is also able to force them to take into account the costs of personalizing the injury. Most people, he bets, are willing to pay more to save their own hands than they would be willing to pay to take someone else’s. The justice of Gudmund’s award thus depends on a redefinition of its significance. Rather than buying Skæring’s hand, the Norwegians are preserving their own, and the price, they now feel, is well worth paying. Fellow feeling thus comes not in the form of imagining Skæring’s anguish and pain as Skæring’s, but in imagining the pain as their own. [2]
This is the logic of lex talionis. This is why "an eye for an eye" did not in fact make the whole world go blind. The principle of an eye for an eye, as Miller sees it, is "the more ancient and deeper notion that justice is a matter of restoring balance, achieving equity, determining equivalence, making reparations... getting back to zero, to even." [3] Trading eyes for eyes is not so much about indiscriminate, unthinking violence as it is carefully calculated attempts to match punishment to crime. Talionic justice is a system built on deterrence--not only deterring criminals from committing crimes, but deterring vengeance seekers from exacting too heavy a price in retaliation for crimes committed against them. This is empathy enforced by blood. You think carefully about the pain you inflict on others knowing, that measure for measure, the pain you give others will be given back to you.

We have a sorry habit thinking about revenge as "as going postal and blasting away," but as Miller notes, "revenge cultures did not think of it that way." [4] This is obvious if you read the stories revenge cultures created. Characters in the Icelandic sagas approach murder with the meticulousness of a father inspecting his daughter's suitor. They conducted their feuds not in the heat of rage, but through cold calculation. Heroes from revenge plays like The Oresteia cycle or The Orphan of Zhao plan their vengeance months or even years in advance, and when the moment comes often have to be goaded into taking revenge. One gets the sense that these people believed that feuding was utterly necessary but not entirely natural. As Miller says:
The core belief at the heart of most revenge cultures is that man is more naturally a chicken than a wolf. Thus revenge cultures are invariably shame cultures and have to devote enormous cultural machinery to getting people to remember past wrongs. They develop elaborate means of goading, shaming, and humiliating to recall people to their dangerous duty they would as soon forget. [5]
And there are, after all, lots of reasons not to feud in the first place:
A person obliged to take revenge must resist all kinds of temptations to forgive and forget. His cowardice, his reasoning mobilize arguments of the sort that forgiveness is a virtue, or that revenge is best left to God or the gods, or that it is an irrational obsession with sunk costs. Excuses. Excuses. As I have argued elsewhere, conventional wisdom conceives of vengeance cultures as barely cultured at all, as all id and no superego: big dumb hot-tempered brutes looking for excuses to kill. But we are no less naturally homo pullus than homo lupus, as much man the chicken as man the wolf. [6]
Ties of kinship and friendship were the easiest way to make the chicken a wolf. Deterrence only works if you can be sure that there is someone who will strike back for you if you are struck down. The pressure to retaliate for wrongs done by your kin were thus immense. But so too was the pressure your kin might put on you to keep you from acting stupid enough to get killed in the first place. They are both responsible for avenging you and stopping you from doing anything vengeance-worthy. In the world of lex talionis, to be a brother is to be his keeper.

An interesting side effect of all this is the impact these obligations had on one's sense of identity. No man was truly alone. To state your name was to state all of the ties to other human beings one has, and with that, all of the obligations that follow from them. [7]  Therefore, one common way vengeance seekers ginned themselves up for revenge by was declaring who they were. Miller calls an act of public "remembering:"
Yet remembering, even still, is a richly obligational notion, which is perhaps why we opt for forgetfulness; remembering is intimately involved with paying, paying back, with reward and punishment. We thus remember people in our wills, or remember someone with a tip, though tellingly "remember" in such settings now sounds a little old-fashioned fashioned if not quite obsolete. But for Hamlet there was no doubt that to remember meant to he mindful of duty, to he mindful of one's proper role; remembering involved reminding oneself or recalling oneself to one's proper place. 
To remember, in the sense of to he recalled to one's proper role, means above all not to forget oneself: "Comfort, my liege; remember who you are. K. Richard. I had forgot myself: am I not king?" (3.z,.8z- 83 ). To fail to remember oneself, to forget oneself, is to fail in one's duty or one's dignity. It is a signature trope of characters in the Jacobean drama to remind themselves of who they are amidst the general collapse of their worlds by invoking their own names to shore up the fragments of their being, claiming still to be the very person they feel is being annihilated by hostile forces: "I am the Duchess of Malfi still," "I am Anthony yet," and thus the chilling force of the failed attempt at the same trope: "Who is it that can tell me who I am? Fool: Lear's shadow. "' [8]
But revenge was more than a simple matter of remembering who one was and acting on it.  Revenge in a talionic regime was actually quite complicated:
Getting the measure right so that both parties can sense the rightness of the measure gives rise to remarkably subtle ways of evaluating ing and compensating for harms. The worry about how hard it is to come up with equivalences is at the core of primitive systems of justice, and it is hardly something we have adequately resolved today. [9]

One of the easiest ways to do this was to attach monetary value directly to the lives involved. We still do this today, of course (that is what tort law is all about), but both the process and purpose of the way we assign monetary value to injury and death has changed. Miller illustrates the difference by comparing modern tort disputes to their Biblical variant:
It is a different world when a biblical tort creditor faces his injuror under the law of the talion. Observe two people bargaining over an eye one knocked out of the other in a talionic society. Let us Call our two actors V for victim and W for wrongdoer." 
V says to W, "I want you to pay me for my eye you gouged out at the party last night." 
W answers, pulling out his worker's compensation schedule, "OK, here's 2.5,000 shekels." 
V: "No way. I would never have agreed to give up my eye, to sell it to you, a perfectly good and useful eye, for a measly 25,000 had you tried to buy it from me before you just up and took it. You are trying to get away with paying me what it is worth after it has been blinded, with a little sop for my pain and suffering and my loss of value as a possible slave or soldier. To hell with that. I do not deem my eye priceless; but no way you would have coaxed me out of it for less than a few million shekels." 
W. "Nope, 2.5,000 is what the insurance company says it is worth." 
V: "But the law in this jurisdiction, I have just been informed, stipulates that I can take your eye as recompense, and this is what I am going to do." 
W: "Oops, well how about 5,000,000 then? I really was only joking when I offered 2.5,000. [10]
Compare this with the modern principle of liability-rule protection:
 Suppose I lose my eye in a car accident for which you were at fault. In our legal order you must pay me for the loss of my eye. But you get it at a bargain. I can get only what the court, or the worker's comp schedules, or the insurance company says is the going rate for an involuntarily transferred eye as long as it still leaves me with one good one. You do not have to pay me what I would have demanded had you bargained with me ahead of time for the right to take it (assuming for the sake of the hypothetical that I could legally agree to have my eye gouged out). But that is the problem with accidents.  One does not usually set about to do them on purpose, and so all the bargaining must he done after the transfer has been effected and the damage is done. My eye in such a regime is cheap for the taking.  
Compare, though, how much improved my bargaining position is in a talionic regime, and thus how much pricier my eye will be. The talion structures the bargaining situation to simulate the hypothetical bargain that would have been struck had I been able to set the price of my eye before you took it. It does this by a neat trick of substitution. Instead of receiving a price for the taking of my eye, I get to demand the price you will be willing to pay to keep yours. It is not so much that I think your eye substitutable for mine. It is that you do. You will in fact play the role of me valuing my eye before it was taken out, and the talion assumes that you will value yours as I would have valued mine. The talion works some quick magic: as soon as you take my eye, in that instant your eye becomes mine; I now possess the entitlement to it. And that entitlement is protected by a property rule. I get to set the price, and you will have to accede to my terms to keep me from extracting. [11]
An interesting comparison here (that Miller does not make) is with compensation packages awarded to families whose children died due to industrial malfeasance. In the early days awards might be as low as $10 per child, representing the amount of money the child would have made for his family had he not died as a child-worker. [12] The Victorians and their predecessors talked about how they were more civilized than their Saxon forbearers, but in many ways the life of a barbarian was valued far higher than a modern man's:
We are wont to sneer at talionic societies and say that life is cheap, nasty, and brutish among such violent souls. But cheap is exactly what life is not among talionic peoples. The reason such societies may often be so poor is not because life is cheap, but because life is so expensive that it is hard for them to free up capital to build roads and factories. Imagine if the costs of replacing horses with automobiles meant that every road fatality gave the victim's kin a right to kill or to extract a ransom measured at the value the person at fault placed on keeping his life! It is that life is cheap among us, despite all our piety about dignity and the pricelessness of human life. We put prices on it all the time, and not very high ones either. I buy life insurance at pretty good rates. I judge that my family thinks me only slightly undervalued at the $2,500 per year that I pay out in premiums to buy them the right to about $1,000,000 when I die. Don't be too harsh in blaming me for attributing to them such a low estimation of my own worth: I want to make sure they miss me too. [13]
But not all lives were valued equally in a talionic society. The real cost being haggled over was not the price of a man's life, but the price of his honor: 
To speak more precisely: it is not life itself that is expensive in talionic honor cultures, but honorable life that is expensive. And honorable life need not mean a short life either. It was not always death before dishonor. It was also live to fight another day so that you could get even with the person who dishonored you. But you had to fight on another day. Honor did not allow for refusing to redeem lost honor. [14]
These notions of honor did not just determine wergelds. They distorted ancient price systems in all sorts of ways:
A perfect example cones from Hainmurabi's laws, which provided that a commoner had to pay less for being cured by a physician than a high-status awilu had to pay, so as to reflect the different social value of curing one rather than the other.' [15]
In Bloodtaking and Pacemaking, which I quoted earlier, Miller describes how competitions for honor made functional markets almost impossible in medieval Iceland:
Some of the social complexity that attended exchanges and the uniqueness of some of the saga evidence can be discerned in the cases that follow. In them the parties were forced to deal with each other outside the regularized convivial channels and outside the boundaries of a place clearly designated as a marketplace. The context, in other words, didn’t normalize the appropriate mode of exchange and it was up to the parties to define the nature of their transaction. At times the pressing need of famine and hay shortage brought them together, at times the desire for a specific prestige good, like fine horses or fine swords, and at times the demands of liability in law and feud. The cases are remarkable in their detail, and they reveal how difficult it might be, in the absence of a market economy and its accompanying mercantile assumptions, to transact without ill- feeling. In the jargon of economists, the transaction costs were high. We find that the completion of a transaction did not depend on the determination of a mutually acceptable price, but rather on the determination of the mode in which the transfer, if there was to be one, would take place. We also see that there was a resistance to transfers by sale between members of the same social rank. [16]
In particular, men would respond angrily and often violently when other men of equal social status (read: honor) attempted to buy or sell something to them directly. Every interaction between Icelanders was a chance for one to put the other into his place. Echoes of this idea can be found in 21st century sagas: when Tony Soprano gifts a golf-club to a doctor in return for better medical service for his uncle, he is not just exchanging one good for another:



 Likewise, one Viking could not buy or sell to another without fear that bigger games were afoot:
Accounts are uniform in showing parties who have been approached to sell goods to be defensive about what they perceive as aggressive acts. And would-be buyers are only too ready to confirm their fears.28 In Sturlu saga (25 :98–99) a request to buy food is made specifically for the purpose of harassing the other party. The refusal is not only anticipated but wished for so as to provide the pretext for even more aggressive action (see also Íslend. 32:261–62). An earlier phase of the same case reveals that a completed purchase need not spell the end of tensions. A bóndi who sold Sturla’s son some wormy meal was given the choice of being summoned or of fostering another of Sturla’s sons (Sturla 25 :98). The bóndi chose the latter. Forced fostering as a means of reprisal evidences a keen sense of the symbolic and ironic possibilities inherent in the transfer of food: calories could be “purchased” just as well by transporting gaping maws to the food as by bringing the food to the maw. These cases illustrate that the ominous significances of attempts to buy were available to disputants to be consciously manipulated in the strategies of the disputing process.... 
The cases give a strong sense that buying and selling was hostile; it was something one did with those from a distance, either spatial distance, as with Norwegians, or social distance, as with peddlers and hawkers of marginal social status. [17]

Because "bargaining was never quite free of duress and intimidation" true markets as we understand them today have difficulty operating in honor cultures. In economic terms, these markets are "subject to the inefficiencies imposed by the pre-market mentalities of the people operating in them." [18]

If buying and selling were dragged down by honor contests, talonic justice itself could be distorted in odd ways by fine graduations in honor:
Such cultures had no qualms about measuring human value in money units. The dishonor was not in being priced, as some among us believe, but in being low-priced. But I imagine there were a slew of anxieties that might plague a zero-shilling man of middling sensibility. Here are just some of the problems. It is one thing to legislate that a man is worth 1500 shillings; it is another to collect that much if your 1500-shilling brother meets his end by having his skull split by a person he quarreled with. Wergeld is likely to be forthcoming only if the kin of the corpse constitute a genuine threat to take revenge. This is yet another reason it is misguided to think that compensation signals a softening of the hard principle of talionic justice. Compensation is a possibility only if revenge is a very likely probability. Who is going to pay you enough to assuage your honor if he does not fear your ability to reclaim your honor by killing him if he does not pay up? [19]

Vengeance and honor are thus linked tightly together. However, vengeance does not necessarily mean constant violence:
In my writings on the Icelandic sagas I have sought to hammer home the point that the wise bloodfeuder did not need to respond aggressively to every wrong done him; in fact, he was stupid and had a very short life if he did so. He just needed to make sure people thought him perfectly capable of avenging in blood the next offense done him. [20]
But what about those who don't have the capacity to pursue vengeance themselves? Miller speculates:
One question to ask, though ultimately not answerable given the evidence, is whether victims on average actually got more compensation then than now. My suspicion is that in high-stakes feudlike situations, the ancients were committed to steep compensation because that was the only way peace had a chance (and the parties were likely to he rich enough to buy peace); but for injuries that cross status lines liberal democracies do a better job of leveling some of the disparity in treatment between the weak and the powerful. If in the Psalms and Prophets God had to be the Redeemer - that is, the avenger of the blood - for the poor, for widows and orphans, that is because they were not getting much help from human avengers. [21]
This also helps explain why (despite what James C. Scott's new book might tell you), society's weakest members sometimes loved their kings:
To be the protector of the poor and weak was a moral demand recognized by the earliest statelike authority, and a king considered it to reflect well on himself that he could offer justice to the weak. This from the prologue to the laws of Ur-Namma, Sumer, c. z i oo B.C.: "I did not deliver the orphan to the rich. I did not deliver the widow to the mighty. I did not deliver the man with but one shekel to the man with one mina. I did not deliver the man with but one sheep to the man with one ox ... I eliminated enmity, violence, and cries for justice. I established justice in the land." Powerful stuff, by anyone's criteria. [22]
But getting kings involved in providing justice creates other, more novel problems. Justice without the state follows a fairly simple principle: justice is the price of keeping the other side from seeking recompense through vengeance. But when the state tries to monopolize the role of vengeance seeker, kings are left with the difficult task of creating uniform standards that can be applied impartially from one case to another. Miller gives a fascinating example from the 7the century law-codes of Athelberht:

Lurking in Athelberht's schedule of payments is a gold mine of information. Consider the  [cost of injuring another's] hand, which unlike the foot in §69 is not dealt with as a whole, but as the sum of the thumb and fingers: 
§ 54. If one strikes off a thumb, 20 shillings.
  1.          If a thumb nail is off, compensate with 3 shillings.
  2.          If a person strikes off the shooting-finger, compensate with 9 shillings. 
  3.      If a person strikes off the middle finger, compensate with 4 shillings.
  4.     If a person strikes off the gold-finger, compensate with 6 shillings.
  5.   If a person strikes off the little finger, compensate with 11 shillings. [23]
A Saxon pinky was worth three times a Saxon middle finger, probably because, Miller guesses, the pinky is an important part of a strong grip, while the middle finger's main uses (even in the Middle Ages) were obscene!

Miller believes that thinking through these cases can help us better understand decisions of justice that we must make today:
Meting and measuring, law and justice, depend - still today, but more starkly then - on balancing what at first sight appear to he apples against oranges, such as you against me, my eye against your hand, my honor against your cow, your daughter against my beached whale, even your faith against mine. [24]
But what of modern honor cultures? If lex talionis is so wonderful, how does Miller feel about its most prominent avatars here in the 21st century? Says he:
I sing the virtues of honor cultures long since dead that left literary remains to die for: the Hebrew Bible, the Iliad, Beowulf, the Icelandic sagas. When closer to home in space or time I see not much to admire in urban ghettos or in the Islamicist Middle East, which are sometimes declared to be honor societies in the same breath as they are declared models of dysfunction, as if it were honor and the talion that made them so. But these are not dysfunctional because of their views of honor and justice, but because they deviate in some important ways from the model of the well-functioning talionic society one sees in the sagas, in other heroic literature, or in the ethnographic accounts, say, of the Bedouin.
[25]
He first critiques how the honor and vengeance driven "Code of the Streets" differs from older models:
 The inner city has no old men with property, who have the means therewith to threaten, bribe, and control the aggressive young males who hold their communities captive. These communities are bereft of the class of elders who have the power to keep the violence of the young within responsible, because compensable, limits. In a well-functioning honor society the young men were not allowed to run the show; they did the bidding, within some fairly broad limits, of their elders. And the community was in complete agreement that "unevenmen" were not to he tolerated; either they learned to live by the rule of "even" or else. The pastors and the grandmothers in the inner cities, try heroically as they do, are simply outgunned and lack the resources. [26]
He sees a different problem with the modern Middle East:
The Islamicist Middle East introduces a religious ideology that comes close in some of its more extreme versions to devaluing life on earth to the zero point, thereby undoing much of the compensatory force of the talion, whose thrust, recall, was to make life on earth expensive. The problem is not just young men, who are a problem for the structures of social control in any society. The problem is the old men, the clerics and political leaders, who welcome the resource that the young men provide them. The young are thus used not only as human bombs against the enemy but also to gun down the young men of other factions with whom they are competing to blow up the enemy. This can be seen as a way of controlling their young men, too, for at the end of the day they will have gotten rid of quite a few of them. The problem need not be intrinsic to Islam as a general matter. Contrast the Bedouin, whose commitment to Islam was once such that it blended very nicely with the assumptions of their classic honor culture. Will the culture of jihad disrupt their internal equilibrium too? [27]

Miller does admit, however, that a world of lex talionis comes at a cost:
Honor societies tended to he small and poor, and the cost of the tough virtue I so admire was in part their poverty; they seldom generated enough surplus to support lordship, let alone expensive governmental institutions. And they made sure that no one did too well for too long because that way lay serious inequality. Remember: they clipped the wings of those who were getting too big for their breeches. And prudent people might keep their talents and ambitions within limits that would prevent eliciting murderous envy from their jealous neighbors. This tough policing of the conditions of rough equality comes at enormous social cost - to innovation, to experimentation, to certain forms of productive ambition. [28]
This last point, I think, is the central problem with applying the logic of lex talionis to the modern world. Iceland's stateless commonwealth  disappeared in the 13th century as wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few families. Once individual families could raise entire armies to support their claims, retaliation for wrongs committed became impossible, and talk of balance impractical. [29] The bigger the scale of the offense, the more difficult it is to find a proper response. What is the measured response to the sack of a city? Your army gets to sack one of mine? And who is at fault for the city wrongly sacked--the soldiers, their general, their king, or their kingdom?

Talionic systems will hold all relatives of a criminal responsible for his crime under the theory that kin-networks are responsible for policing their family members' behavior. But how can that possibly scale? To what extent are citizens culpable for their crime of their leaders--and to what extent are their leaders culpable for the crimes of their voters? If a corporation accidentally laces the food it sells with deadly bacteria and an infant dies, then who does the victim's family turn to for reparation? In the ideal talionic regime they should be able to give the exact same choice that Gudmund provides the Norwegians: you took our child's life, and now you will pay up as much as you can to prevent us from taking yours. But corporations do not have children. They do not have hands, or feet, or eyes. In a world where corporations are people, "eye for an eye" doesn't seem possible.

I'll end on a lighter note, with one of my favorite passages in the book:

Amidst this carnage let me add an uplifting tale of hacking and hewing: one saga tells of a Viking named Onund. His skill in a battle against King Harald unfortunately drew the attention of Harald's men. "They said, `Let's give that man in the prow who is doing so well something to remember us by, to show he has been in battle."' These warriors were on the same page with Nietzsche. Memorialization, memory creation, is intimately linked to severed flesh and spilled blood. Onund loses his leg just below the knee. He is dragged to safety, but thereafter "he walked with a trefdt, a tree-leg. The wooden leg not only gave him support, it gave him a new identity, for he was now known as Onund Treefoot. Onund's missing limb does not deter him from more Viking activity, and he acquires quite a name for himself. Eventually he settles in Iceland, where it was said that "few could stand up to him even though they were whole." And when he died he was considered "the bravest and most agile of all the one-legged men in Iceland. [30]

--------------------------------------------------------------

[1] William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 1-2. 

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Kindle Location 143.

[4]  Ibid., 412-415.

[5] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1381-1383.

[6] Ibid., Kindle Locations 1373-1376.

[7] Many readers will be familiar with this idea through their reading of the Iliad, where warriors often greet each other with their lineage, and whose deaths are almost always marked with renditions of their ancestry. The most famous of these is Glaukos's meeting with Diomedes:
Then Glaukos the son of Hippolochos and the son of Tydeus
came together in the space between both armies, straining to fight.​
And when they had advanced almost upon each other,
Diomedes of the war cry first addressed the other:
“Who are you, brave friend, of men consigned to death?
For I have never seen you in battle where men win glory before this time,
 but now striding far in front of all men in your bold courage,
you stand to wait my long-shadowed spear—
and they are sons of brokenhearted men, who face my might.
To which he is answered:
And in turn the glorious son of Hippolochos addressed him:
“Great-hearted son of Tydeus, why do you ask my lineage?
As a generation of leaves, so is the generation of men.
The wind scatters some leaves to the ground,
but the forest grows others that flourish and in the time of spring come to succeed them;
so a generation of men either grows, or it dies.
But if you indeed wish to learn these things, so as to know well​
 my family’s lineage, many men know of it.
There is a city, Ephyre, in a corner of horse-pasturing Argos,
 where Sisyphus ruled, who was born most cunning of men,
 Sisyphus the son of Aeolus; he fathered a son, Glaukos;
 then Glaukos fathered blameless Bellerophon....
The scene ends with Glaukos and Diomedes ceasing their fighting, acknowledging that their ancestors' relations puts them under an obligation of friendship today. 

See Iliad 4.199-160. Caroline Alexander, trans. The Iliad: A New Translation (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), 123-124. 

[8] Miller, Eye for an Eye, Kindle Locations 1397-1402.

[9] Ibid., Kindle Locations 356-358.

[10] Ibid., Kindle Locations 734-742.

[11] Ibid.

[12]  For the situation in America, see Viviana Zelezier, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 147-148.

[13] Miller, Eye for an Eye, Kindle Locations 832-839.

[14]  Ibid., Kindle Locations 869-871.

[15] Ibid., Kindle Locations 1566-1568.

[16] Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, 84.

[17] Ibid., 88, 105.

[18] Ibid., 126

[19] Miller, Eye for an Eye, Kindle Locations 1488-1494. 

[20] Ibid., Kindle Locations 801-803. This matches something Millar stated well in Bloodtaking and Peacemaking :"It could be said that honor is the ability to make others believe that you will indeed be tough the next time, in spite of present discomfitures" (Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking,303). 

[21] Miller, Eye for an Eye., Kindle Locations 852-856.

[22] Ibid., Kindle Locations 857-862).

Laws did not always work out in favor of the poor, however. Here is what Millar has to say about Numbers 35:31-32:  
For now suffice it to say that the rule does less to bring the rich within the ambit of the law (they always were within its ambit, for they have assets that make it worthwhile to sue them) than to get the poor into it. For what the talion does is to give the poor assets to satisfy claims. The rule does much to help solve the social problem of the insolvent wrongdoer whose poverty makes him judgment-proof (Kindle Locations 389-391). 
[23] Ibid., Kindle Locations 1724-1728.

[24] Ibid., Kindle Locations 2227-2229.

[25]  Ibid., Kindle Locations 2716-2724.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., Kindle Locations 2724-2731

[28] Ibid., Kindle Locations 2740-2744

[29] For more on this, see Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland (New York: Penguin, 2001),  341-355.

[30] Miller, Eye for an Eye, Kindle Locations 1795-1801.

14 January, 2018

Modern Universities Are An Exercise in Insanity






Chronicle Review Illustration by Scott Seymour (Source)



Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, wrote a true but trollish column for the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month. He titled the piece "Higher Education is Drowning in BS."

His list of collegiate "BS" is correct. It's also predictable. One does not need to read the article to know exactly what it will argue. This is i2018. We have not only seen dozens of articles and journalistic accounts of the crisis Smith describes; entire books have been published to chronicle the sins of modern university life. The university system still has its defenders, but they are few and far between. Most folks who look at the state of American universities recognize that the system is broken. Few offer ideas on how to fix it. This conversation would improve greatly if less folks wrote long lists of their complaints about universities and more folks wrote long lists of ideas on how to improve them.

Smith says that  reform will require "visionary traditionalism and organizational radicalism." I agree with the sentiment. In that vein, let me offer a truly radical solution: take universities out of the liberal arts business all together. 

Let me be clear here:  I believe the humanities are essential. Essential to our civilization, even. No objections from me: the liberal arts are important. But not important enough to sell yourself into debt-slavery for. The liberal arts cannot be "saved,"  this "crisis of the humanities" cannot be resolved, as long as the cost of studying them requires mortgaging your future away. This is the issue all the other problems with humanities education revolves around. For most students, the gains of a liberal education cannot justify their costs. 

The cruel thing is these costs are not even necessary. 

Let's run the numbers so you can see what I mean. 

My alma mater was Brigham Young University-Hawaii. If you are a member of the LDS church attending the school, then in 2017 your tuition was $3,000 a semester. If you are not a member, it was $5,000 for one semester. The school has a special program where you can graduate in three years by taking three semesters each year, and that costs $8,000 and $16,000 a year for LDS and non-member students respectively.

You can see why I chose it.

To compare to another small private religious university, here is what tuition cost for students at St. Aquinas College for the two semesters they studied there in 2017: $29,000.

St. Aquinas brags that their students "obtain a private college education at an affordable price." Their costs are comparable to the evangelical Patrick Henry College, where tuition comes in at $28,000 for two semesters. This is much cheaper than religiously named, but no longer spiritually visioned, Trinity College. Tuition there is $53,000 a year.

Do the math here:

48,000 dollars are needed for non-members to graduate from BYU Hawaii ($24,000 for a member), $114,000 are needed to graduate from the cost-conscious religious schools, and $212,000 dollars are necessary to attend four years at the non-religious liberal arts school.

This is without including rent, food, or other charges of that sort.

There are a few questions that come to me as I review these numbers.

First, how is this possible? How can you possibly justify a $200,000+ college expense? How can you justify a $100,000+ college expense?

This is not necessary.


The average tenure hopeful adjunct makes $40 an hour. If you were to employ her as a private tutor at the cost of $60 an hour, and had four hours with her a week, and did that for 14 weeks (that's the length of an average college course folks) that is about $3,400.

Were you to employ three such professor-tutors, that would be about $10,200, or a bit over $20,000 a year. In four years you would have racked up $80,000 in costs. But this is still $30,000 less than the total for the 'cost conscious' universities. It is a quarter of what you would pay for Trinity.

Remember: this $80,000 is for private tutoring, where individual attention would give you far and away a better and more thorough education than the 300-kids-in-a-lecture-hall style of classes that dominate undergraduate education today.

But it can get even cheaper. Let's say you take the general principle of group classes from the university. Say you can find four other people to take all of these other classes with you. Just four. Well that equals out to $680 per class, or $16,000 a person for four years of classes.

To be fair, add in $1,000-$2,000 for textbooks and a subscription to JSTOR, for a total of about 17,000 to 18,000 for four years.

Modern universities are insane.

For the vast majority of human history universities as we conceive of them did not exist. The modern university system did not produce the Mahabharata, The Aneaid, or The Tale of Genji. The modern university system did not produce Ibn Khaldun, Thomas Aquineas, or Alexis de Tocqueville. The universities John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison attended looked or functioned very little like Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton do today. Men like Abraham Lincoln are evidence that a deep reading and appreciation for the liberal arts do not require formal education at all. 

Let's not kid ourselves: the humanities existed before the modern university department was conceived; they will exist long after the modern university department has been destroyed. 

I would like to see something along the lines of a "liberal education" preserved. But do the math. The important elements—the students, the books, the teachers—can be provided for at under $20,000 a year, and that is with paying the teachers $20 more an hour than they are currently earning. Any attempt to reform the current university system must take this fact as its foundation. 

I know where the objections to this logic will come. University education is really about signaling; universities provide lots of other goods you cannot get from being privately tutored, and so on and so forth. Fine. Those objections are all correct. But are any of those goods worth $180,000 more than the $18,000 education I have outline above? 

A liberal education could be affordable, if we wanted it to be.  But we don't much care, and are now reaping the consequences.


[EDIT 15 January 2018: Fixed a few grammar mistakes and a minor mathematical error].


01 January, 2018

Every Book I Read in 2017


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It is New Year's Day, and thus time for my annual list of every book I read in the preceding year. By listing a book as "read" it means I finished the last page of the book sometime in 2017, though some of these books I actually began before the year startedin the case of one book (the Menon "modern rendering" of the Mahabharata) I started all the way back in 2015!

As in past lists, I have bolded and provided a link to the Amazon page of the top ten books of the year. As before, only books that I have never read before can qualify for this distinction.

 I usually aim to read three or four books on a theme or topic at one time, and you can see that in the titles below (which reads more or less chronologically, listing books by the date I finish, not first start them). Early in the year there is a cluster of American history books that corresponded with a class in American history I was teaching. Then followed a series of books about midcentury totalitarianism, a cluster focused on the Icelandic sagas, then the Iliad, the Roman republic, English poetry, Chinese poetry, and a return to American history at the end of the year. If you compare this year's readings with past years' (here are the lists for 201320142015, and 2016), this last one stands out for being far more literary and America-focused. The return to American history is a happy one. Studying so closely the origins of America's democracy while living in authoritarian China has had a decisive effect on my world-view. The extensive readings in poetry and 'classic' literature is an experiment of a different sort. Back in 2013 I was accused of not having enough fiction on my lists. I do not think the same accusation could be made today.

On the other hand, the old mainstays of Chinese history, strategic theory, and economic history have had almost no coverage this year. I will have to change thisespecially in that last category. So many interesting things have been published in the field of economic history in just the last three years, and I have fallen badly behind the literature.


I cannot pick one book out as the best of the year, but if I had to pick out one book I think most important for others to read, it would be William Freehling's two volume Road to Disunion. I highlighted the first volume of this book back in 2013 as one of the top-ten reads of that year; the second volume is not quite as good, but would probably make it into the top-fifteen cut for this year. Together they provide an immensely satisfying social and political history of the American south from revolution to secession.

Why this book? The national fracas over the cause of the U.S. Civil War revealed just how ill-informed we are about why that war happened. "Slavery" is the easy, obvious answer. It is also utterly inadequate: slavery and disunionism had existed since the birth of the American republic, and slavers willing to sacrifice the Union for sake of slavery had been around just as long. So why did they succeed in only in 1860not 1789, or 1800, or 1820, or 1855? Some might answer that the South was more 'radical' in 1860 than decades earlier, but all that reflexive answer does is give you another question: just how did the South get that way? Radicalism does not just happen. In the South radicalism emerged because it was planned. Freehling's first volume tells the story of the plans that failed: of attempts to get southerners of different stripes and interests to identity with "the South," convince these converts that this magical "South" was under attack, and that the only defense of "Southern" institutions was secession. In a wonderful mix of cultural, social, and political history Freehling shows why each of these attempts fell apart. But the last group of secessionists were by far the most self-aware of the bunch. In the second book, Freehling charts the rise of a conniving group of tyrants who consciously used the history past defeats to craft a stronger, more sinister political strategy. This strategy was intended to radicalize the South and drive the Union into a crisis intentionally designed to make compromise impossible.

It is a remarkable book.  It is masterfully written. It is topical. But most important of all, its concepts can be generalized. No other book has helped me to better understand the mechanics of radicalization. All Americans should be aware of these mechanics. There are eerie parallels between the principles and strategies employed by the secessionists of antebellum days and certain political groups in America today. This book will help you see them.

I suppose a more detailed exposition on that theme deserves its own post. I will not say anything more on this one. But consider buying and reading both volumes.

BOOKS READ IN 2017

Kate Arney, Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).

John C Wathley, The Illusion of God’s Presence: Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2016).

Paul H. Godwin & Alice L. Mille, China’s Forbearance Has Limits: Chinese Threat and Retaliation Signaling and Its Implications for a Sino-American Military Confrontation (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 2013).

Ian Easton, Able Archers: Taiwan Defense Strategy in the Age of Precision Strike (Washington DC: 2049 Institute, 2014).

William Freehling, Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Bernard Bailynn, The Peopling of British North America (New York: Vintage Books: 1988).

Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settlement of North America to 1800 (New York: Penguin, 2002).

Shi Ji, Graded Chinese Reader 1500 Words (Beijing: Singolingua, 2013).

Ramesh Menon, The Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling (New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2009).

Henrik Ibsen, Enemy of the People in Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen (x:x).

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Penguin Books, 1954).

Gordon S. Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969).

Richard Carwadine, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (New York: Vintage, 2007).

Juan Williams and Julian Bond, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).

Hermann Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor (New York, Penguin, 1995).

Yuval Levin, Fractured Republic: Rethinking America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years, trans.  (New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 200x)

Vaughan Lowe, International Law: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Louis Lowery, The Giver (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

Anthony Esolen, Out of Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Washington, DC: Regenery Publishing, 2017).

Bruce Bennet. Preparing North Korea for Unification. (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2017).

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, reprint (New York: Penguin, 2006).

Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. The Diary of Anne Frank. (Dramatist Play Service, Inc, 1986).

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism: (New York: Hartoughn Mifflin, 1974).

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Stalin and Hitler (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: 20 Lessons From the 20th Century (Tim Dungan Books, 2017).

Robert Cook, trans.  Njal's Saga, (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Penguin Books, 1954).

William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland (New York: Penguin, 2001).

Michael Sandel, Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).

William Ian Miller, Eye For an Eye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Jackson Crawford, The Poetic Eda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2015).

Frank Herbert, Dune (New York: Ace Books, 2017).

Andrew Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasia Defense Strategy (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017).

Aeschylus, The Oresteia, trans Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 1984).

Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: War Trauma and the Undoing of Character. (New York City: Atheneum, 1994).

Homer, The Iliad: A New Prose Translation, trans. Robert Fagles, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin, 1999).

J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, 2nd ed. (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Press, 1999).

Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why (New York: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (October 2003)

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (New York: Penguin Books, 2011).

Tim Holland, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (New York: Random House, 2007).

David Gwynn, The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Laurence Perrine, Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, 7th ed. (New York: Harcourt Publishers, 1991).

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar in Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works Annotated (New York: Greenwhich House Publishing, 1984).
John Williams, Augustus, reissue ed. (New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 2014).

Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Amberson (New York: Tor, 2001).

Egil’s Saga, trans. Bernard Scudder, in The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection, Jane Smiley, ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).

Christopher Ricks, ed., The Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Frances Cornford, Poems (London: W.H. Smith & Sons, 1910).

Frances Cornford, Spring Morning (London: Poetry Bookshop, 1923).

Frances Cornford, Autumn Midnight (London: Poetry Bookshop, 1923).

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist, trans. Alan Clarke (New York: Harper, 1993).

Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Mareike Ohlberg, Simon Lang, Bertram Lang, Ideas and ideologies competing for China’s future. How online pluralism challenges official orthodoxy (ERICS Paper on China No. 5. October 2017).

Kunz Kavena, trans. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, in The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection, Jane Smiley, ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear, new ed. (Amazon Publishing services, 2010).

John Milton, Paradise Lost in Paradise Lost and Regained (New York: Penguin, 2001).

Leland Ryken, Milton's Paradise Lost (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

Steven Peck, A Short Stay in Hell (Washington DC: Strange Violins Editions, 2009).

Steven Peck, Science: They Key to Theology (By Common Consent Press, 2017).

John Dryden, Fables Ancient and Modern in Delphi Complete Works of John Dryden (Illustrated) (Delphi Poets Series Book 29) (Delphi Classics, 2013).

Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (Washington DC: Project 2049 Institute, 2017).

Office of the USN Secretary, 2017 Strategic Readiness Review (Washington DC: USN, 2017).

Francis Bremer, The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards (Hanover: University of New England Press, 1995).

Bernard Baiylnn, The Barbarous Years: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (New York: Alfred A Knopft).

Leslie Stephens Hours in a Library, vol I (London: C.D. Warner, 1873)

Arnold Bennet, Literary Taste and How to Form it (London: Hodger and Stoughton, 1907).

John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic, 1750-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Uighur Human Rights Project, Fifth Poison: The Harassment of Uyghurs Overseas (Washington DC: UHHP, 2017).

Lynne Cheney, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered (New York: Penguin, 2015).

Merril Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (Oxford University Press, 1988).

Samantha Hoffman, Programming China: The Communist Party’s Autonomic Approach to Managing State Security, Phd. thesis, University of Nottingham (2017).


Books that I read large portions of, but did not finish cover-to-cover:

Vassily Grossman, Life and Fate; David Young, Du Fu: A Life in Poetry; Keith Halyoake, Facing the Moon: Poems of Du Fu and Li Bai; He Mazi, ed. and commentator, 唐诗四百首[300 Tang Poems];  Wang Fuyin, 唐诗三百首详注,英译,浅析 [300 Tang Poems, With Annotations, English Translation, and Brief Analysis]; David Hawkes, A Primer in Du Fu; Tang Yueying and Li Xioming, eds.,  唐诗鉴赏辞典 (A Compendium of Treasured Tang Poems);  Archie Barnes, Chinese Through Poetry: An Introduction to the Language and Imagery of Traditional VersePaul Rouzer, A Primer in Literary Chinese; Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848; Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints: History of a Puritan Idea; The American Pageant, 12th ed; Miriam Joseph, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic; Terrly and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life's Great Questions; Michael Green, Not By Providence Alone: Grand Strategy in American Power in the Asia-Pacific ; Eri Hotta, Japan 1941; SCM Paine The Wars for Asia; Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War; Kevin Horsely, Unlimited Memory; 50 Classic American Short Stories.