Saturday, March 14, 2020

When flames first arise, they are easily extinguished: Ideas Behind Stopping the Corona Virus

My latest project discussed classical Chinese military theory beyond Sunzi. And it has a great deal of impact surrounding the reaction to the Corona virus. At the time of this writing most major sports have suspended their seasons, colleges are going exclusively online, my job teaching chess after school is cancelled until further notice, and both the federal and state governments have declared states of emergency.  But for many people this seems like an overreaction. After all, here in Nevada there have only been a dozen confirmed cases and the deaths in the country still number a small fraction of those that come from the flu.  This leads some to say that government officials are over reacting.  This is where Chinese theory comes in. 

The two relevant ideas come from the third century BC scholar Shizi in a post from 2019. Little is known about him though he seems to be China’s first syncretist and his writings have recently been reconstructed from quotes in other texts. He states that it’s easier to solve a problem before they become big, and there is little thanks in doing so:

Even a tree so big that it shields the sky was, at its beginning, only as thick as the base of a tree sprout: easy to get rid of. But once it has fully manifested itself, a hundred people using hatchets and axes are unable to fell it!  
When flames first arise, they are easily extinguished. But once it has gotten to the point where the Yunmeng and the Mengzhu swamplands are aflame, then even with the help of the whole world ladling out the waters of the Jiang and Han rivers, one will still be unable to save the situation!
[The] beginnings of misfortunes are like flames and tree sprouts: easy to stop. But then they are neglected and become great matters, then even worthies like Kong Zi [Confucius] and Mozi will be unable to save the situation! 
When a house burns and someone saves it, then we know their virtue. But the elderly who daub chimney cracks to guard against fire, thereby living their whole lives without the misfortune of stray flames causing a fire: their virtue remains unknown! 
When they enter a jail or prison to relieve one who has suffered difficulty [by bailing him out], then his relatives are held to be acting virtuously toward him. But those who would teach him with goodness, propriety, parental love, and sibling concern so that his whole life will be without such difficulty: no one considers this to be virtue! 
Misfortunes also have chimneys and if worthies were to travel the world to aid in daubing them, then the world would have no military suffering, yet none would know their virtue. There it is sad: ‘Safely people rectify things when they are yet spirituous [or forming]; stupid people contend with things after they have become obvious.’[1]

It might seem like an overreaction to the virus, but a person could also say that the problem is being addressed while it is yet small.  If the leaders are successful, they will continue to face criticism for over reacting, but it would be those overreactions that keep the problem small. Nobody knows what the future holds but because of Shizi and so much more I would rather ere on the side of action and prevention. 


[1] Shizi: China’s First Syncretist, Paul Fischer trans., (Columbia University Press, 2012) 67-68.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Game of Thrones, History, and Details in the Book of Mormon

Game of Thrones ended on what I thought was a funny and thoughtful note. All the survivors serving under the new king gather to discuss how to rebuild the kingdom. It was so charming in fact I wouldn’t mind seeing a spin off series about these meetings as they combine many of the fan favorites. One of the major complaints from this scene though is when the events of the show get put into a book. It turns out that Tyrion, the dwarf who was part of most of the major events was not even listed. One youtube scholar wrote:

That "Song of Ice and Fire" joke was dumb; Tyrion, not mentioned? His arrest caused the War of Five Kings, he served as hand to three (Joffrey, Dany and Bran) monarchs, he lead part of the vanguard at Green Fork and organized and lead the entire defense at Kings Landing. But sure, hack writers needed a cheap laugh.

But with a knowledge of how historians write, it is possible to conceive of a Game of Thrones history that doesn’t include Tyrion Lannister.

Tyrion is arrested by Catlin Stark:

This event was monumental because it caused Tywin Lannister to order his forces to attack Catlin’s ancestral lands. The king was incapacitated from a hunting accident (really an arranged murder from his wife Circe Lannister), and couldn’t keep the peace between his wife’s family (Lannisters), and the family of his biggest supporters (the Starks).  The average historian has a great deal to cover, and the dwarf was merely the catalyst for larger events and thus could have been summarized as, “Tywin Lannister attacked to avenge his wrongly implicated and arrested relative.” Or if the historian is pro Lannister, since the Ned Stark took advantage of the king’s absence from court to order a punitive expedition and was later executed for treason, the historian would write, “Tywin defended himself against the wrongful arrest of his son and malicious attack ordered by the traitor Ned Stark.” 

Tyrion as Hand of the King: 

The Hand is the Game of Thrones equivalent of palace or prime minister. Throughout history, some are inconsequential, while others like Pepin the Short inaugurate new dynasties.  Chinese legal scholars warned that not every conquest resulted from armies scaling the walls and breaking down the gates. Moreover, Tyrion was sent to Kings Landing to act as Hand in the name of his father. His last stint as Hand was largely ineffectual. He governed the city of Mereen quite well, but that is a distant city in the East that Westeros historians wouldn’t know or care about. By the time the Dragon Queen came to Westeros he was often ignored and eventually he quit and was imprisoned by her. His time as Hand of the king or queen could be described as, “Tywin Lannister, governing through proxies…” or simply, “The Dragon Queen ignored her ineffectual advisors.”

Tyrion leading several key attacks:

The show put a lamp shade on this one. After he led a key counterattack at the Mud Gate during the Battle of Blackwater Bay, he was horribly wounded but the counter attacked succeeded and saved the city at a critical moment. One of his visitors was the spymaster, who thanked him for saving the city, but warned that the people thought he was the imp and Tyrion won’t get credit for it.  

Tyrion’s counterattack was simply one of many twists and turns to the battle. The use of a fictional version of Greek Fire, called wildfire, destroyed much of the opposing fleet. During the Muslim siege of Constantinople in 678, the Greek Fire is often mentioned but not the ministers  or even leaders that employed it. Tyrion was only one player in this event out of many. The historian would write something like, “The king, Joffrey Baratheon oversaw the battle from his central position on the parapets. He would likely have seen the counter attack led by his grandfather, Tywin Lannister. The ladder secretly marched his army away from the usurper Rob Stark to defend the capital and attack Stannis from behind. The ghost of Stannis’ brother attacked from the west. This was Loras Tyrell, in a new alliance with the Lannister’s forming yet another flank attack in the king’s great victory.”  

As you can tell, there was so much going on in this battle and so many important players, a minor counter attack from an unpopular person wouldn’t be missed. Tyrion’s attack at the Green Wood was more conspicuous. (In the budget challenged first season though, Tyrion gets conked on the head and both he and the viewer completely miss it.) In the books he does a good job of commanding the left flank.  But that battle was only a diversion for Rob Stark to fight at Whispering Woods, where they captured the very important Jaime Lannister. Thus, the history could be, “Lannister forces defeated a diversionary force from Rob Stark, while the latter counter-marched and captured Jaime Lannister.” 

Tyrion kills Tywin Lannister:

Tyrion is blamed for the poisoning of King Joffrey and is sentenced to death. The spymaster frees him and before he goes, he killed his father and eventually makes his way to the Dragon Queen. Given that Tywin was shot while he was in the privy with his pants down, and there was a dead prostitute in his bed (also murdered by Tyrion), this could have been glossed over by historians. (Though not forgotten by the bawdy Game of Thrones version of a theater troupe.) 

Historians had several easy scapegoats in contrast to tawdry family drama.  Sansa Stark was the daughter of the traitor and disappeared on the day that Joffrey was killed. The Sand Snakes killed or disfigured (tv or book respectively) the queen’s daughter and could also be blamed for the Tywin’s death around the same time. Religious fanatics quickly overran the city after Tywin’s death. They installed a reign of terror and they eventually arrested Circe and King Tommen’s wife. With plentiful rumors at their disposal, and a dead body on the privy, historians could say it was various traitors fulfilling the wrath of the gods while leaving out the details or focusing on the post Tywin mistakes and subsequent downfall of the kingdom. 

The Book of Mormon:

This clearly shows the limits of being a historian. Ancient historians often had a lack of primary sources to create their narrative. Thucydides, for example relied on a combination of personal knowledge, and contemporary events to craft his narrative. He plainly said that in his speeches he wrote what he “thought the situation demanded.” They had to sift through mountains of rumors. They often had their own biases. Many religious writers such as Gregory of Tours wrote to show God’s hand impacted history. They could change the narrative slightly to enhance that effect.  

The Book of Mormon itself reveals several of these interesting glosses that could be covering up important people or events like Tyrion was left out of Westeros history books. The war chapters describe “some intrigue, which caused dissensions amongst the [the Nephites], [so the Lamanites] gained some ground over the Nephites. (Alma 53:8).” We don’t know if these were factions of cities rebelling against Nephites and installing Lamanite friendly governors. (Which happened in Zarahemla Alma 61:8) We don’t know if it was a dispute between cities as described in Alma 50. We just don’t know much except it happened. We know how Amalickiah gained the throne through treachery and deceit but not Tubaloth or Lachoneous for that matter.

For example, I find it suspicious we have a long line of no name but generally wicked leaders, many of them kill each other to gain power, and we are even told at one point the Gadianton Robbers have “sole management” of the government (Helaman 6:39), but then here comes Lachoneus and tells them to repent (3 Nephi 3:12).  What was his backstory and how did he keep power when so many other rulers were being assassinated?  Perhaps like Helaman (Helaman 2:6), Lachoneus had servants willing to infiltrate factions and kill potential assassins and enemy’s before they carried out their quest. This would be very inconvenient for a story about God saving the Nephites because they prayed.

This is not some radical retelling of the story but simply a careful reading of the text based on what other documents, and the text itself tells us. For example, Mormon selectively edited his narrative in many places. In the most notable instance he wrote that the Lamanites captured some of the people of Noah (Alma 16:3), but when portraying the event as the wrath of God and desolation of Ammonihah, he left it out (Alma 49:3). Presumably the people of Noah were not wicked and didn’t deserve God’s punishment. So Mormon the historian included those details, but Mormon the prophet, pronouncing God’s judgment, did not. This particular detail was first noted by Grant Hardy in a FARMS volume almost 30 years ago.

The Book of Mormon is an excellent spiritual text that has historical value. Mormon as the historian had the same habits of other historians with limited sources and space to advance his objective for the book. We can see some of those methods but using a fictional example from pop culture. I hope we can dive deeper into some of the little noticed details that hint at much larger events or people.