Saturday, November 15, 2008

An Ancient Approach to Political Warfare - Part II

Continued from Part I.

Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, contends that “since the objective of rhetoric is judgment… we must have regard not only to the speech’s being demonstrative and persuasive, but also to… bringing the giver of judgment [i.e. the audience] into a certain condition” (2.1). This requires an understanding of the audience and the sorts of things to which they are attentive; thus, Aristotle spends all of Section 7 discussing the possible characters of men who may hear a speech. The rhetors of the Old Testament understood that their audience valued history and historical continuity; thus, they made a point of framing their message in these terms, often invoking the prophecies of old.

This approach to appropriating tradition for propagandistic purposes was not unique to the Greeks or Hebrews, but can be found all over the ancient world. Philip M. Taylor contends that “Rome lacked the rich mythological sources available to Greek propagandists, so it created a mythology of its own” (35) This is, in fact, a sloppy simplification of a far more interesting process: Virgil’s Aeneid did not so much create a mythology as weave together several pre-existing stories of Rome’s founding – one by Aeneas and the Trojan survivors, another by the twins Romulus and Remus – in a way that supported the imperial government. Put another way, he appropriated a tradition, drawing upon its elements and then going beyond it to cover new ground.

Kautilya, an ancient Indian thinker, was a contemporary of Aristotle’s, though 3,000 miles away. He too understood the importance of appropriating tradition and discussed it in his Arthashastra, a handbook of statecraft. He explains that a king who has recently conquered new territory should “adopt the way of life, dress, language and customs of the people, show the same devotion to the gods of the territory [as to his own gods] and participate in the people’s festivals” (13.5.8; Rangarajan’s 741). Note that Kautilya is not interested in any particular quality of local customs, except that they are local and most likely beloved by the people. Though it is highly unlikely that Kautilya ever heard of Aristotle or his work, both demonstrated the same finesse for understanding an audience and the things that will favorably dispose it.

Modern-day practitioners of propaganda and political warfare would do well to learn from the ancients this lesson of appropriation. Americans, in particular, living in a relatively young nation that is more oriented toward the future than the past, tend to undertake their efforts without first asking themselves if there is already a pre-existing tradition whose terms and concepts they might adopt in order to lend their arguments new credibility. This, of course, requires the effort of first learning about foreign traditions and schools of thought, but the price is well worth it.

One of the uncomfortable qualities of Mason’s work is that it raises a difficult problem: what are we to make of an Old Testament that often bears a striking resemblance to propaganda, but which is claimed to in fact be the Word of God? An understanding of the appropriation of tradition helps us resolve some of this dilemma. A God Who acts in human history, Who stoops to make Himself known to mankind, can be expected to reveal Himself in a way that is conducive to the human mind. This is not so much God acting like a man, as it is God speaking to men; the Divine Rhetor understands His audience quite well and tailors His message accordingly. The point may be illustrated in regards to the earlier example of the lands promised to Abraham. God, in drawing a spiritual parallel between Abraham and Solomon, also draws a geographic one, not because the geography is or is not historically correct, but because the human mind appreciates and naturally grasps this sort of physical parallelism. Aristotle and Kautilya would understand the technique; there is no reason we should not.

This post first appeared on The Guild Review earlier this month.

Friday, November 14, 2008

An Ancient Approach to Political Warfare - Part I

In his work Propaganda and Subversion in the Old Testament, Rex Mason makes regular reference to ‘prophecies after the event,’ (vaticinia ex eventu). Mason’s reading of these accounts is rather straightforward: such prophecies were written after the events they predicted and function as legitimizing propaganda, either for a status quo power or for forces of change.* While this may be the case with some prophecies, particularly those whose level of detail cannot otherwise be explained (at least by human factors), there are a variety of other prophetic occasions which allow for a far more nuanced understanding of political warfare as waged in the Old Testament. The appropriation of a pre-existing tradition, rather than the creation of one out of whole cloth, not only provides valuable insights for modern-day political warfare practitioners, but also begins to resolve some of the tension between the human and divine elements of the Old Testament narrative.

In Genesis 15, Abraham is promised the “land from the river of Egypt as far as the great river Euphrates,” including the land of the “Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites and Canaanites.” Mason points out that “these are the very borders ascribed to Solomon’s rule at the height of his fortunes: ‘Solomon exercised rule over all the kingdoms from the River [i.e. the Euphrates], to the land of the Philistines, that is, as far as the border of Egypt’” (33-4; internal quotation from 1 Kings 4:21). Mason comments that “the parallel between the ideal boundary claimed in royal propaganda for Solomon and the extent of land promised to Abraham in the ‘prophecy’ cannot be coincidental,” and concludes that “the stories of Abraham have an element of royal ideology in them” (34). However, an alternative reading of this parallelism is plausible.

It is quite possible that the story of the land promised to Abraham predated the Davidic monarchy; even if some editing has occurred between the Davidic-era version and the one that has come down to us, the essential details – including the borders of the lands promised to Abraham – may have already been set down. In such a case, Solomon would not have created the account of earlier events to match his kingdom, but shaped the perception of his kingdom to imply continuity with the past. Without realizing, Mason himself seems to have considered this possibility when he notes that the boundaries claimed by Solomon were “very largely fancy, for Solomon’s ‘empire’ (if such it may be called) certainly did not extend as far nor did he receive tribute from as many nations,” as named in the Abrahamic prophecy (34).**

A host of similar cases can be found in Mason’s work. He contends, for example, that the accounts of the Israelite tabernacle are “clearly influenced by the later Jerusalem temple,” in an attempt by priestly editors to write the central role of the temple into earlier history (57). While this interpretation is possible, Mason’s chronological gymnastics are hardly necessary to understand the parallelism between the tabernacle and the temple. Just as likely, priestly or royal personnel involved in the construction of the temple reached into Israelite history and consciously drew upon the example of the tabernacle, in order to imply continuity with the past, even if the temple in fact marked a shift in Israelite spirituality, as Mason argues.

Coming soon: Part II.

* I employ the term ‘propaganda’ throughout in the same way Mason does, to indicate ‘the presentation of material so as to express a particular belief or set of beliefs in such a way as to command assent to it from those to whom it is addressed’ (170). Thus, ‘propaganda’ is a neutral term referring to a method, not to the truth or falsehood, justice or injustice of the cause being promoted.

** To be fair, Mason does not explicitly advocate the position that these prophecies were completely fabricated after the fact; rather, he leaves the issue of their original material largely untouched, and appears not to have thought about this question in a systematic way. Thus, we find him at one point claiming that “the priests were creating a social order” (63) and then turning around and writing that the priests “skillfully preserved continuity with what had gone before” (64, emphasis added).

This post first appeared on The Guild Review earlier this month.