• Michael Martin

Maybe it was last year. I was in the middle of a class discussion about—well, I forget exactly what, maybe it was Ivan Illich, maybe it was Václav Havel—and the conversation turned to the topic of war. Most college students, in my recent experience, don’t think much about war—or about current events to be honest—but I have been reminding them for over twenty years that the horrors of the past, of genocide, the Holocaust, chemical and biological warfare, could happen at anytime. If Germany, home of the most sophisticated and educated European culture of the early twentieth century could cave to something like Nazism, it could happen to anybody. Seeing recent disconcerting events unfolding over the Western Democracies™, I guess I was right.

I have thought long and hard about the problem of war, though I have never served in the military. Perhaps this stems from my earliest memories of waiting for cartoons to start on television in the morning and having to wait through the news reports of the dead and missing in Vietnam. I’m sure those experiences, administered in homeopathic doses over the course of my early childhood, served as something of an anti-war vaccine.

The thing is, as I was discussing with my students, I can’t believe war is still a thing. You’d think the human race would have figured this out by now, right? Watching recent geopolitical developments—not only in Ukraine, but also in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, Italy, and elsewhere—I find myself somewhat astonished that people go along with this theme and variation on totalitarianism and “soft totalitarianism” (“it’s for your safety”). And I don’t just mean the general populations, but also those enlisted in the military and police forces. Why do the men and women in uniform go along with the ruse? Why do they victimize the proletariat at the command of their masters? And I have also watched—and I’m sure you have, too—as people of relatively comfortable means in a kind of mimesis of the elite classes cheer on the prospect of war—even nuclear war. This is insane.

Over the course of my life struggling to understand the phenomena of war and human cruelty, I have turned to two sources of, if not comfort, then at least of consolation: the Iliad and the writings of my tutelary spirit, Simone Weil, whom Albert Camus called “the only great spirit of our time.”

The Iliad tells the story of the absurdity of war. The Greeks have been fighting in Troy for a decade—just to get Helen back from Paris and restored to Menelaos. Hardly a prize worth all the lives lost. But this is how the powerful roll. To add irony to the tale, Homer opens The Iliad with Achilles sulking in his tent because Agamemnon took away his war trophy, the slave girl Briseis, for his own. The story’s absurdity is extended further in Achilles’s slaying of Hector, the most noble figure in the epic, and dragging his body behind his chariot in shame for weeks afterward. Integrity doesn’t matter in a world characterized by absurdity. As Weil writes in her essay, “The Iliad or the Poem of Force,”

The wantonness of the conqueror that knows no respect for any creature or thing that is at its mercy or is imagined to be so, the despair of the soldier that drives him on to destruction, the obliteration of the slave or the conquered man, the wholesale slaughter—all these elements combine in the Iliad to make a picture of uniform horror, of which force is the sole hero.” [1]

I think this an apt description of our own moment—and of much of the chatter on social media (from people who will never pick up a weapon) for that matter. Force is the sole hero.

Weil expands on this notion in “Human Personality,” concerning the usually unspoken utterance, “Why am I being hurt?”:

Those people who inflict the blows which provide this cry are prompted by different motives according to temperament or occasion. There are some people who get a positive pleasure from the cry, and many others simply do not hear it. For it is a silent cry, which sounds only in the silent heart.

These two states of mind are closer than they appear to be. The second is only a weaker mode of the first; its deafness is complacently cultivated because it is agreeable and it offers a positive satisfaction on its own. There are no other restraints upon our will than material necessity and the existence of other human beings around us. Any imaginary extension of these limits is seductive, so there is a seduction in whatever helps us to forget the reality of the obstacles. That is why upheavals like war and civil war are so intoxicating; they empty human lives of their reality and seem to turn people into puppets. That is also why slavery is so pleasant to the masters.” [2]

The question is: how intoxicated are we at this point?

Weil’s contemporary Pierre Teilhard de Chardin served in World War I and saw the horrors of armed conflict up close. He recalls his state of mind in the face of this in his essay “The Promised Land”:

“—And was peace, then, no more than this?

“—The peace that all through these long years was the brilliant mirage always before our eyes.

The peace that gave us courage to hold fast and to go into the attack because we thought we were fighting for a new world.

The peace that we hardly dared to hope might be ours, so lovely it seemed…

And this is all that peace had in store for us!” [3]

Thus “The War to End All Wars.” Thus geopolitics. Thus “The Great Reset.”

In a kind of scatological free-association, this all reminded me of a song I wrote with my friend Graham when we were in our early twenties. We’d been writing songs together since we were fifteen and we were just getting good at it. We were exploring a variety of genres and styles, incorporating mandolin, harmonica, fiddle and other instruments into our arsenal of available textures. It was really an exciting time. The world opened up. Everything seemed possible.

One Sunday night we were driving around in my jalopy drinking whiskey and Coke (don’t judge me) listening to a documentary or something about Bob Dylan. I remember something about Dylan hitchhiking around Minnesota, something about the Bible, something about trying to find himself as a young man—something Graham and I were doing ourselves.

The next day or so I came up with a very folky and clever chord progression and showed it to Graham. He immediately got to work and the Dylan story transfigured through his imagination. I can’t recall all of the verses, but snatches come back:

Looking out into the blazing sun

With my Bible and my thumb

No inclination as to where we’d go

No inclination at all

But I remember the chorus:

Thanks be to Jesus and to everyone

I thank the Lord I am alive

Thanks be to you, my trusted friend

All together: We’re alive.

Now Graham wasn’t then a religious person, nor is he now that I know (haven’t seen him for a few years). But something beautiful spoke through him then. We called the song “The Promised Land.” What I loved about his lyric was that it didn’t offer any answers. Rather, it rested in the knowledge that the Promised Land is a reality we can enter at any time, that it is always present. Even in times of war.

One of the great anti-war poems.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine. There are also a few spots open in the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening as Christian Path course being offered at the end of April. See more here.

1. Simone Weil, An Anthology (Grove Press, 1986), 186.

2. Ibid., 52.

3. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Writings in Time of War, trans. René Hague (Harper & Row, 1965), 278.

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a flyer I made 30 (!) years ago

I am happy to announce that I will be giving a weekend course, Biodynamic Farming and Gardening as Christian Path, this spring. Although I originally toyed with the idea of doing such a course online, on second thought I have decided it would be best to do this the old fashioned way: in person and on my own land, Stella Matutina Farm in Grass Lake, Michigan.

Biodynamics, while it has a solid theoretical framework underpinning it, is more than anything a hands on enterprise, so I intend to combine theoretical, practical, and, yes, artistic and festive aspects into the course. The idea is to have a lived experience of the sophiological implications of biodynamic farming and gardening and how such a way of being connects to the traditional Christian year and the astronomical and mystical elements that inform it.

The course will take place from Friday evening, April 29th, to late Saturday afternoon on the 30th. The next day, of course, is May Day and participants are invited to attend our farm’s yearly May Day Festival on Sunday the 1st of May at 3:00 p.m.

The fee for the course is $120 per family (assuming some people would like to bring spouses or children) and a lunch will be provided on Saturday. The farm is situated in the middle of Michigan’s Waterloo State Recreation Area which has plenty of camping spaces available as well as cabins to rent (though of more limited availability) and there are also other B&B accommodations in the area. Grass Lake is approximately 30 miles west of Ann Arbor and 15 miles east of Jackson, Michigan.

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and send it in via snailmail with a check or money order or email director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com and pay via Venmo @Michael-Martin-295

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  • Michael Martin

Still from the film 'Winstanley,' 2016

As it so happens, for the past few months I have been researching into the history of enclosure laws as part of a book project, tentatively entitled The Land, about our/my relationship to land, both wild and cultivated. It’s a subject that has long interested me, and I write about it at some length in my book Transfiguration.

For those who may not know, enclosure laws were laws passed by governments from the late-medieval period through the early nineteenth century that chipped away at the common lands, “enclosing” them in hedges, fences, and walls; and thereby prohibiting the peasantry’s access to them and the subsistence they could derive from it. In Utopia, Thomas More bewails the cruelties of enclosure laws passed to increase profits from the English wool trade:

Now they are becoming so greedy and wild that they devour men themselves, I hear. They devastate and pillage fields, houses, and towns. For in whatever parts of the land the sheep yield the softest and most expensive wool, there the nobility and gentry, yes, and even some abbots though otherwise holy men, are not content with the old rents that the land yielded to their predecessors. Living in idleness and luxury, without doing any good to society, no longer satisfies them; they have to do positive evil. For they leave no land free for the plow: they enclose every acre for pasture.”[1]

Nevertheless, it was all legal. But legality, as the great Marxist historian E.P. Thompson writes, is not equivalent to morality, calling enclosure, “a plain enough case of highway robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a Parliament of property-owners and lawyers.” [2] And in the nineteenth century, the poet John Clare, himself a rural farm laborer, observed, “Inclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain, / It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill / And hung the moles for traitors.” [3]

Enclosure hardly ended in the nineteenth century. Though Marxists like to claim peasants like Jack Cade, Robert Kett, and Gerrard Winstanely as proto-Marxists (they should more accurately be called “proto-distributists”), Marxism in practice has never been very warmly attached to the peasantry (the proletariat, to you and me). As Lynne Viola writes, “Russian Marxists were implicitly antipeasant. In glorifying a god of progress which, it was thought, doomed the peasantry to social and economic extinction, they rejected the very idea of the peasantry as a separate culture.” [4] Anyone who has spent even five minutes with contemporary university Marxist poseurs knows with what utter contempt they hold the working classes.

Many times through the history of enclosure, the peasants have rebelled. When everything was taken away from them, what did they have to lose? The power, money, and military were never on their side, so they usually lost. Many of them were likewise uneducated and illiterate, making them easy prey for the casuistry of the elite classes who pillaged them and who spread lies about them through their rhetorical and argumentative wiles. As Lord Edward Somerset, Protector during the minority of Edward VI, wrote concerning Kett’s Rebellion, “In most parts lewd men have attempted to assemble and, seeking redress of enclosures, have in some places, by seditious priests and other evil people, sought restitution of the old bloody laws, and some have fallen to spoil.” [5] Such slander.

In addition, John Taylor Gatto has argued that current real estate practices in the United States which divide and conquer rural lands to optimize capital through gentrification—often raising taxes 600 percent or more over time—also squeeze people off of their land and send them off to the “workhouses” of factory and retail “employment.” I drive by such “developments” all the time in rural Michigan, as McMansions and shoddy housing of Styrofoam and particle board go up in ghastly subdivisions. It’s a racket, played by politicians and real estate speculators. Talk about “lewd men.”

Those fighting enclosure, throughout all of history, have ever been up against a group of right bastards.

The synchronicity between my research project and the Canadian Truckers Convoy may have come to your attention by this point—it certainly came to mine over the last week. For what is this protest, but a postmodern iteration of a peasant protest?

Of course, I’ve seen some commentators try to dodge such a comparison. “Some of the truckers are owner/operators. They’re not working class.” Please. I have a 10-acre farm; that doesn’t make me BigAg. I would further argue that these truck drivers and their very working class supporters, in fact, are precisely rebelling against enclosure: the last frontier of enclosure, their own (and our own) bodies. Though many of them are vaccinated, they are protesting vaccine mandates and the inevitable social credit systems that will come in their poisonous wake. Our bodies, that is, will no longer be ours, if the powerful get to dictate what we do with them.

As with earlier peasant rebellions, this one is also countered from the side of the ruling class with slurs, epithets, and other forms of vitriolic propaganda, not least from the Canadian Prime Minister, who apparently has done more blackface than Al Jolson.

During Gerrard Winstanley’s protests against enclosure during the seventeenth century, local lords like Sir Francis Drake organized gangs to attack his compatriot, called “The Diggers,” much like agitators who disrupt peaceful protests in our own day. Winstanley’s Diggers were accused with trespassing and they were arrested on specious charges—and local courts, easily compromised by the wealthy and powerful, habitually sided with the oppressors. Not much has changed.

Most of the peasant revolts ended in flames of ruin, the power of governments, their comparably inexhaustible wealth and military might too overwhelming to resist for long, especially when the rebels simply wanted the powers to leave them alone. But not all failed. One exception would be the African and Indian farmers telling Monsanto and Bill Gates to take their GMO seed and get bent in the last decade. And a notable one is the Solidarity Movement in Poland, which turned the tradesman Lech Walesa into a household name as his movement eventually led to the downfall of the Communist Party in his country (and elsewhere). He was arrested several times for his illegal (but completely moral) activities and was eventually Poland’s first democratically-elected President. So the peasants don’t always lose. Sometimes the bad guys go down. But there are always people who support the bad guys, just so we’re clear. Just don’t be one of them.

John Clare’s poem “Badger” is one of the most subtle commentaries on the relationship of the peasant to power. It is also a brilliant cautionary tale. Badger

The badger grunting on his woodland track With shaggy hide and sharp nose scrowed with black Roots in the bushes and the woods, and makes A great high burrow in the ferns and brakes. With nose on ground he runs an awkward pace, And anything will beat him in the race. The shepherd’s dog will run him to his den Followed and hooted by the dogs and men. The woodman when the hunting comes about Goes round at night to stop the foxes out And hurrying through the bushes to the chin Breaks the old holes, and tumbles headlong in. When midnight comes a host of dogs and men Go out and track the badger to his den, And put a sack within the hole, and lie Till the old grunting badger passes bye. He comes and hears—they let the strongest loose. The old fox hears the noise and drops the goose. The poacher shoots and hurries from the cry, And the old hare half wounded buzzes bye. They get a forked stick to bear him down And clap the dogs and take him to the town, And bait him all the day with many dogs, And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs. He runs along and bites at all he meets: They shout and hollo down the noisy streets. He turns about to face the loud uproar And drives the rebels to their very door. The frequent stone is hurled where e’er they go; When badgers fight, then every one’s a foe. The dogs are clapt and urged to join the fray; The badger turns and drives them all away. Though scarcely half as big, demure and small, He fights with dogs for bones and beats them all. The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray, Lies down and licks his feet and turns away. The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold, The badger grins and never leaves his hold. He drives the crowd and follows at their heels And bites them through—the drunkard swears and reels. The frighted women take the boys away, The blackguard laughs and hurries on the fray. He tries to reach the woods, an awkward race, But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chase. He turns again and drives the noisy crowd And beats the many dogs in noises loud. He drives away and beats them every one, And then they loose them all and set them on. He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men, Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again; Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies And leaves his hold and cackles, groans, and dies. Some keep a baited badger tame as hog And tame him till he follows like the dog. They urge him on like dogs and show fair play. He beats and scarcely wounded goes away. Lapt up as if asleep, he scorns to fly And seizes any dog that ventures nigh. Clapt like a dog, he never bites the men But worries dogs and hurries to his den. They let him out and turn a harrow down And there he fights the host of all the town. He licks the patting hand, and tries to play And never tries to bite or run away, And runs away from the noise in hollow trees Burnt by the boys to get a swarm of bees.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. Sir Thomas More, Utopia, trans. and ed. Robert M. Adams (W. W. Norton, 1992), 12.

2. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Vintage Books, 1966), 218.

3. “By Langley Bush,” lines 7–9. Quoted in Jonathan Bate, John Clare: A Biography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 50.

4. Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels under Stalin (Oxford, 1999), 14.

5. Quoted in Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Palgrave, 2002), 62-63.

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