Story: 3
Saturday, 15 July 2017

Cervantes’ Abstraction

What happens when warfare ceases to be violent? When the bravest confrontation of fate takes place in a coffee meeting? When the noblest sacrifice for civilization is to keep showing up to work?

At the turn of the 17th century, Cervantes recognized when he was. He was at that moment in history in which force yields to abstraction. That moment in which medieval knights are replaced by modern armies. In which those who professed arms gave way to professionals who bore arms.

Don Quixote was the last knight. To be a knight was a vocation, a profession, a way of life. To become a member of that institution was at once to join the elite and to join a priesthood; to realize the aspirations of manhood and to champion society’s highest ideals.

To profess to be a knight was not only to claim mastery at arms, but to declare allegiance to a code of conduct, to be received into a sacred community, to affirm a noble calling, to commit to serve a higher order.

Professionals, in the modern sense, have a different identity. A professional is trained to execute a function. A professional is part of a machine. A professional is paid to follow orders, not to uphold an order.

Sting’s Englishman In New York was a tribute to what little of the spirit of chivalry had survived into the 20th century. Even less survives today.

Takes more than combat gear to make a man
Takes more than a license for a gun

To bear arms is not the same as to profess arms. 
To wield a sword is not the same as to live by the sword. 
Professional armies replaced professing knights.

Feudalism was a power structure. As power consolidated, feudalism gave way to nation states. And knights gave way to armies.

For over a millennia, since the fall of Rome, knights had been the guardians of Medieval Christendom. Gradually they had become less important, while keeping up appearances. Then suddenly they faded from view, their time was over. And they were gone.

Don Quixote is the story of stubborn hold-out. The out-of-place one. The one who continues to follow the calling long after not only his brothers-in-arms, but all of society, has abandoned him; indeed, has forgotten not only him, but what he stands for. The living relic. The no-longer-recognized.

When were the knights?

Knighthood emerged in the Dark Ages. Organic feudal relationships filled the vacuum of power. The church blessed the order and gave it a moral imperative. The bards sang tales to romanticize their aspirations and responsibilities.

But before knights gave way to armies, armies gave way to knights. Rome had armies, not knights: legions and cavalry, generals and soldiers — not lords and knights. To understand when were the knights, one must understand when was Rome, for Rome came before the knights.

Rome had professional armies. Nor is that merely an incidental fact. That was the secret. That is what Rome had that her enemies did not. Rome had superior organization. Rome had the ability to marshal forces even after Hannibal had vanquished army after army. Rome had the ability to recruit, to equip, to feed, to transport, to train, to coordinate, to manage, to hold accountable, to incentivize and to align incentives. Scholars write that Rome’s legions were disciplined. The general gave a command, the centurions echoed it, the legionaries carried it out, in unison. But that is only an aspect of the organizational feat.

Rome’s armies were modeled on the Greek, and specifically, the Macedonian, armies. Alexander’s successes were enabled by his father Philip’s organizational foundation. Philip invented, among other things, the phalanx. These basic units enabled modular formations, expanded the range of tactical possibilities, and ultimately allowed for generalship. Strategy is not possible without tactics, and tactics is not possible without mastery of the atomic unit.

Cervantes recognized the moment before Napoleon, the moment that made way for Napoleon, and his total war. Napoleon was an organizational genius, even more so than he was a strategic genius, and a strategic genius even more so than a tactical genius. To master tactics, abstraction to strategy is required. To master strategy, abstraction to organization is required. Napoleon didn’t just re-organize the French army into Le Grande Armée, he re-organized France.

Abstraction. There is a progression towards abstraction. Abstraction of individuals into armies. Abstraction of warfare into total warfare. Abstraction of total warfare into warfare by other means.

Abstraction is a function of intelligence. Abstraction sees one tree, two trees, three trees — and develops an idea of tree. Abstraction sees one tree, two trees, three trees — and develops an idea of numbers.

Abstraction is a function of economic development. Abstraction moves from agriculture to manufacturing. From manufacturing to mass-production. From mass-production to information technology. From hardware to software. From operating systems to apps. From apps to networks.

What did Cervantes see? In Don Quixote he didn’t just see the end of an era. The knights symbolized something greater, a greater force at work.

Cervantes saw abstraction. Abstraction is a secular trend. It has been operative for millennia, but it has come into relief. In Cervantes time, it was less visible than it is today, but more remarkable. Today it is so clearly visible that it is unremarkable.

The lumberjack chops wood. In chopping wood, the lumberjack sees his value. The wood is chopped. It was chopped by his hands. He did it expertly.

Today there are fewer lumberjacks. They operate machines. The machines chop wood. The lumberjacks know they are replaceable, but the machines are not.

Soon there will be no lumberjacks, only machines. Human intelligence is called away from work, towards digital work, and away from digital work, towards real work — towards creative, strategic, problem-solving functions. Away from the concrete, towards the abstract.

When were the knights? 
When was Rome?

The knights came after Rome. 
But the knights also came before Rome.

In the history of force, Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon represent the progress of abstraction. Force consolidates, moves towards absolutes, towards total war, towards singularity.

Three hundred years separate Alexander’s Greece and Caesar’s Rome. But one thousand eight hundred years separate Caesar’s Rome and Napoleon’s France.

In that long Medieval stretch, the knights emerge. They are an order, so they are somewhat organized, but really their defining trait is disorganization. They are not absolutely organized. They are individuals. They are individuals operating in a hierarchy, but they are not numbers. They profess arms, but they are not a professional army.

For this reason, the knights came after Rome, but they also came before Rome. Feudalism is an organic power structure. It is not that much more abstract than tribalism. But imperial armies do not emerge. They are designed. They are built. They require a high degree of organization and abstraction. The professional armies of imperial Greece and Rome were an exception, an island in time — surrounded on either side by an oceans of feudalism.

Don Quixote is as much a tragedy as it is a comedy. Don Quixote has less to do with knights than it has to do with abstraction. Don Quixote is the tragedy of abstraction that we all face in the modern era.

Even with his professional army, Napoleon could inspire his men, could fill them with a sense of purpose. They were men, they were alive, they were given strength for this moment, they had the agency to accomplish this thing — they could do it with their hands and see it with their eyes. They could change the course of history.

Such a promise would ring hollow today. Military force has been abstracted. Armies are not given agency. They are tools of the state.

What is a man to do? A man desires to take a stand in life. A man desires some purpose. A man desires to give some meaning to what he does. A man desires to work not just with his whole mind but with his whole body, and see the results.

As Bastiat’s peace has overtaken us, warfare has moved into non-violent dimensions. Warfare still takes place, it just takes place in less and less visible ways.

Instead of aspiring to become a soldier, or a captain, or a general, or a king, or king of the world… a young man today must get excited about the stock market. That young man may dedicate himself to dominating the stock market. If he succeeds, there will be a day when numbers on a screen tell him that he has won, that he is rich.

If he succeeds, he will soon realize that his success is short-lived. That smarter humans and smarter computers will ultimately dominate him, and steal the crown.

So perhaps that young man becomes an artist. But in being an artist, he realizes that he cannot compete with Monet in being Monet, or Sargent in being Sargent. So he must invent a new form or style, make it his own and dominate that. Maybe then he can rest.

Or perhaps the young man starts a company. In the same way, he realizes that he cannot compete with incumbents, indeed, that competition is unprofitable. So he must invent a new form of value, a new currency, a new market, a new service, make it his own and dominate that. Maybe then he can rest.

In an age of warfare, genius is called to the battlefield. 
In an age of abstraction, genius is called to the canvas.

Don Quixote is not just a comedy and a tragedy, it is an epic. Don Quixote represents a triumph of the imagination. For in an age of abstraction, imagination reigns supreme.

To see the canvas as a battlefield requires imagination. 
To see a windmill as a dragon requires imagination.

This is what happens when warfare ceases to be violent. The bravest confrontation of fate takes place in a coffee meeting. The noblest sacrifice for civilization is to keep showing up to work.

Imagination is not merely creative, but romantic. Don Quixote must imagine the work he is doing to be meaningful, to be sacred. Imagination invents nobility, elevates mundane work to sacred contribution.

Medieval romanticism was replaced by Enlightenment skepticism. Cervantes saw this. The triumph of Don Quixote is the survival of romanticism in a world of transaction.

Transaction is about the exchange of value. Values are philosophical, values are romantic. Everything is a commodity, everything is a research subject, everything is economic, everything is scientific. And Don Quixote says no. No — this windmill is a dragon.

Skepticism and abstraction go hand in hand. There is something to this. It is not a coincidence. In an age of abstraction, it is easy to reduce value to money and power. It is easy to be skeptical of any other narrative as a distraction from realpolitik.

Don Quixote seems like a reactionary, and a fool. He refuses to change. But what of a Don Quixote who adapts on the outside, but who stays loyal on the inside? Who operates in a pragmatic and skeptical world, but retains romantic vision?

As warfare moves into abstract dimensions of art and commerce, there is more, not less, opportunity for chivalry. The artist inventing a new form, the undertaker starting a new venture — these are not members of professional armies. They are individuals. And their challenge is of the imagination — will I create a new dimension? — and romantic — will that new dimension be worthy of pursuit? These are not grand campaigns, but individual quests. The knight enters the dragon’s cave.

From a modern point of view, Don Quixote is obsessed. Don Quixote can be diagnosed with an unhealthy fixation. Don Quixote is a man of one idea —un idée fixe. What is his idea? It is the idea of civilization. The knight carries in his breast the essence of it. Chivalry, nobility — might in service of right — these are the ideas. They lead somewhere. The knight may not know where they lead, but the knight follows them anyways. The knight has faith in these ideas. These ideas call to him. They possess him. He incarnates them.

In the Dark Age, a light shines. Halfway between Caesar and Napoleon, there is Charlemagne. It was Charlemagne whom established knighthood. It was Charlemagne who defended Rome and united Europe. It was Charlemagne who harmonized the political and religious and cultural and intellectual forces of his day into a common project — into a civilization. Don Quixote’s idée fixe is Charlemagne’s Camelot. It was a vision, once glimpsed, however briefly, that captivated Europe for an age.

In The Last Samurai, the Meiji Restoration brings an end to the age of chivalry in Japan. The Samurai are Don Quixotes, stubborn hold-outs, hopelessly out-of-place in a modernizing world. They refuse to change their ways, to integrate. An army is sent to subjugate them. Still, they refuse, not because they will not, but because they cannot: they are knights. Chivalry is in their very soul, a way of being. This conflict is not a mis-understanding; it is essential. Who they are and what is coming are at odds.

Alex Kerr, an American who grew up in Japan after the Second World War, and later returned, to spend his lifetime there, restoring its lost culture and art, preserving its memory, writes in his moving memoir Lost Japan:

One gets the impression that the ancient Japanese had little in common with the cautious bureaucrats and obedient company employees one so often meets today.

The Samurai and The Bureaucrat. The Knight and The Soldier. They exist on different dimensions.

In the face of Howitzer cannons, 
In the face of rank upon rank of infantry riles,
The Samurai charge headlong into certain death.

What is accomplished by this reactionary mass suicide? This is a version of Don Quixote, but it is not a joke. A stand is taken. Louder than words. It is written in blood and carries all the seriousness of death.

They lose. In the traditional sense, in the dimension of force, they lose. But in death, they triumph. In what dimension do they triumph? Their victory is a spiritual victory.

A century later, a young American named Alex Kerr journeys deep into the mountains of Shikoku, looking for something. He discovers Iya Valley. The village, the houses, the artifacts, the culture — dying, but intact. This is it.

He lives among them. Gives his life to their study. Slowly understands what he was looking for, what he found — what it means. What did he find? History afforded Alex a “last glimpse of beautiful Japan”, a twilight moment — when a sense of the place is gathered that cannot be found in books, and will soon be erased by the same modernizing forces that won the battle a century ago.

Alex recognizes the moment. Alex understands when he is. Even as the moment passes before his eyes, he records it. In the twilight, he captures the essence of light. And in his memory, something of that essence is preserved for all time.

In so doing, Alex becomes the last samurai. Alex bears witness to the stand that was taken. Alex hears the unspoken words. They speak to him of what was lost, of what was gained, of what was valued.

In one thousand years, there may come another. Another born of the spirit, another who professes arms. Another who reads Alex’s words, and who hears the unspoken voice.

Organization is not the end of knighthood. 
It is a new beginning.