Taxidea taxus

And now there are badgers here again.

The Walking Dead (White Men) Part 1

Vague Spoilers Ahead

The best ways to deliver honest-to-God political theory to unsuspecting audiences is to misdirect them with either pungent vulgarity (e.g., Team America: World Police) or equally outrageous fantasy. The Walking Dead, a post-apocalyptic zombie serial on AMC based on a graphic novel of the same name, is no exception. A plague of zombies has wiped out most of the human race and all of the conveniences of civilization.  Scattered humans survive, forced to fend for themselves against unsleeping hordes of shambling dead and against other people competing for the same scarce resources.

The compelling setup, passionate characters, and sword-and-sixgun ultraviolence drew me in. I did expected to see our heroes mow down legions of animated corpses with panache, but I did not expect to see that the show itself would be so animated by fundamental questions from the western canon of political theory. The questions are simple: what does the social world look like with no political authority? do we have moral obligations to other human beings in the absence of this authority? The Walking Dead channels two long-dead philosophers to present competing visions of the situation of humanity without law, order, and civilization. These visions, states of nature, are articulated with stunning clarity in the Two Treatises of Government of John Locke and the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. Locke and Hobbes, who flourished in the 17th century, are two of the most important figures of English political thought. A little sensitivity to how these questions are asked and the competing ideas play out heightens appreciation of the show’s ambition and grandeur. TWD is not the first television fantasy to explore larger philosophical questions self-consciously. It is no accident that an important character from Lost is named Locke.

Locke and Hobbes inspire the conflict between the protagonist, ex-lawman Rick Grimes and his eventual antagonist, former partner Shane Walsh. This conflict, both deeply personal and abstractly political, can only end in violence. The resolution and its aftermath taint Rick forever, and we, the audience, are never really sure what the show thinks the situation of humanity actually is. I’ll explore this conflict in four parts. Stay tuned.

Season 5 Episode 9 (“What Happened and What’s Going On”) takes place long after the conflict between Rick and Shane. But this conflict reverberates. This episode reminds us that not every character has completely worked out what he thinks the reality of the post-zombie social world is or what his place in that world is. Tyreese, the emergent moral hero of TWD, has a brief conversation with Noah, who joined Rick’s battle-hardened itinerants after they had another disastrous encounter with a permanent human settlement whose veneer of order concealed a rotten core. The band made a difficult exchange in a hostage situation that had fatal results. Noah and Tyreese chat about their recent catastrophe to kill some time on a long, dehydrating road trip.


Noah: I’ve been wanting to tell you something.
Tyreese: What’s that?
Noah: The trade. It was the right play. It worked. It did work. Just something else happened after.
Tyreese: It went the way it had to. The way it was always going to.
Noah: I never wanted to kill anybody before.
Tyreese: I’ve wanted that. But it just made it so I didn’t see anything except what I wanted. I wasn’t facing it.
Noah: Facing what?
Tyreese: What happened, what’s going on. My dad always told Sasha and me that it was our duty as citizens of the world to keep up with the news. When I was little and I was in his car, there were always those stories on the radio. Something happens 1,000 miles away or down the block. Some kind of horror I couldn’t even wrap my head around. But he didn’t change the channel. He didn’t turn it off. He just kept listening. To face it. Keeping your eyes open. My dad always called that paying the high cost of living.

While they speak and Tyreese drives the van, Noah idly handles a now-useless compact disc.


At the end of the conversation, Noah crushes the CD in his hands.



Tyreese is the gentle giant of TWD. He defends the weak, loves his family completely, and sacrificed himself (but did not perish) in battle to save the life of a beloved child that wasn’t even his. Not even Rick is more benevolent than Tyreese, who would rather be himself betrayed than betray another human being. Only now does he recognize the remorseless logic of “what is going on,” and that the engagement with another human petty civilization ended in death, “the way it was always going to.” Tyreese perceives the essential tragedy of human relations in a world without order. This is the state of nature. As Thomas Hobbes puts it in the Leviathan:

“…during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man”.

There is no law, there is no morality, and there is no justice. There are no human aims but security, and in order to achieve that security,

“I put for the general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death.”

People don’t even have to seek the immoderate power of the vainglorious or megalomaniac, they need merely the power to ensure their security both at the present time and for as far in the future as they can project. But every person in this “state of war” anticipates that every other person is trying to acquire “power after power,” such that all other people either possess potential resources or are potential threats to their own security. Every person decides for herself what she needs, how much she needs, and by what means she might acquire it. She knows that others are trying to augment their own power to guarantee their future security, so her very existence implies that she will be caught up in an arms race that she never chose and probably doesn’t even want. Interactions with other human beings inevitably devolve into conflict: a person anticipates that it is in the self-interest of others to betray her before she has a chance to betray them, so she preemptively betrays any other person and everyone knows that this outcome is inevitable. Consequently…

“In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Tyreese realizes after the fact that there never was any hope for a successful exchange of hostages. The violent death didn’t occur because things went unpredictably sideways, or as Noah says, “something else happened after.” It happened the way it did because as Tyreese sees it now, violent death is the only possible outcome.

Before Noah is convinced, he considers the nameless CD in his hands. This CD presumably stores music, an art and a “culture of the earth.” To appreciate the fruits of this culture, one must spin the disc in an “instrument of moving” that “requires force”, “knowledge of the face of the earth”, and an “account of time.” As Noah is gradually persuaded by Tyreese, he squeezes the CD sees for himself how easily the fruits of our industry crumple under a modicum of a different kind of force. We haven’t seen such a stark Hobbesian view of the tragedy of humanity without authoritative order since Shane in Season 2. Tyreese’s moral journey is complete, and this anticipates his even more consequential journey to come. At least for awhile, Shane and Hobbes walk again to remind us that, at least if we believe Hobbes, cooperation among people in the state of nature simply delays the inevitable.


Vinton Cerf: The “Digital Dark Ages”

This piece over at The Mary Sue is quite provocative for digital historians, ancient historians, and we band of brothers who care about both. Cerf, a genuine founder of the internet, warns that if we don’t plan for conservation of digital records, we run the risk of a “digital Dark Ages.” He calls for some kind of “digital vellum” to preserve old technological knowledge to recover data stored in antiquated formats. Right now, according to Cerf, “There are not a lot of people working on these kinds of projects. They’re not very commercial questions. And there are not many business incentives for programmers to think about these things.”

We don’t need programmers to think about these things; we need historians to think about them. That’s what we do. So if there exist business incentives to conserve digital records, then businesses would be best served hiring historians and archivists to determine what needs to be preserved and how to maintain and call upon this vast reservoir of knowledge.

But even if we fail to take this project seriously, we Late Antique/Early Medieval historians are quick to point out that the Dark Ages really weren’t so dark. They appeared dark to generations of scholars because they were trained to interpret evidence that the ancients wanted to be preserved. If the only sources you know how to read are Greek or Latin artifacts of high culture, the vast wealth of Dark Ages material is invisible to you. Historians trained to read outside this mold, who are comfortable with non- and sub-literary sources in languages other than the dominant Latin and Greek, and who know how to draw information out of artifacts that the ancients did not intend to leave to posterity understand just how illuminated the Dark Ages really were. Cerf’s call for a “digital vellum” implies that if programmers don’t set down what they want preserved, we will impoverish humanity of the future who might benefit from considering our experience. It’s great that Cerf is thinking historically; it’s not so great that he thinks that without programmers providing the tools and a dominant narrative, we historians will be powerless to figure anything out on our own.

If Cerf is interested in learning more about what we know about the Dark Ages and how we know it, well, I can make some suggestions.

On the lighter side, the author’s final remark, “I personally do get quite the kick out of imagining some future historian combing through my Livejournal or Tumblr, so let’s get on this, humanity,” is one of the best parts about being an historian of the Dark Ages. This is exactly the sort of stuff we do. In my case, that means reading ephemeral documents written on papyrus that the Egyptian desert preserved for two thousand years. One such papyrus comes to mind, a document from the 5th century AD that, mutatis mutandis, could have appeared in an unfortunate woman’s LJ in the 21st century. The document, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 903, is a complaint by a woman about her abusive husband. 

p oxy 903

Concerning all the insults uttered by him against me. He shut up his own slaves and mine with my foster-daughters and his agent and son for seven whole days in his cellars, having insulted his slaves and my slave Zoe and half killed them with blows, and he applied fire to my foster-daughters, having stripped them quite naked, which is contrary to the laws. He also said to the same foster-daughters, *Give up all that is hers,* and they said, *She has nothing with us*; and to the slaves when they were being beaten he said, *What did she take from my house?* and they under torture said, *She has taken nothing of yours, but all your property is safe.* Zoilus went to see him because he had shut up his foster-son, and he said to him, *Have you come on account of your foster-son or of such a woman, to talk about her?* He swore in the presence of the bishops and of his own brothers, *Henceforward I will not hide all my keys from her [he trusted his slaves but would not trust me]; I will stop and not insult her.* Whereupon a marriage deed was made, and after his agreement and his oaths, he again hid the keys from me; and when I had gone out to the church at Sambatho he had the outside doors shut on me, saying *Why did you go to the church?* and using many terms of abuse to my face, and through his nose. There were 100 artabae of corn due to the State on my account of which he paid nothing, not a single artaba. He obtained possession of the books, and shut them up saying, *Pay the price of the hundred artabae,* having himself paid nothing, as I stated before; and he said to his slaves, *Provide helpers, to shut her up also.* Choous his assistant was carried off to prison, and Euthalamus gave security for him which was insufficient, so I took a little more and gave it for the said Choous. When I met him at Antinoopolis having my bathing-bag [?] with my ornaments, he said to me, *I shall take anything you have with you on account of the security which you gave to my assistant Choous for his dues to the State.* To all this his mother will bear witness. He also persisted in vexing my soul about his slave Anilla, both at Antinoopolis and here, saying, *Send away this slave, for she knows how much she has possessed herself of,* probably wanting to get me involved, and on this pretext to take away whatever I have myself. But I refused to send her away, and he kept saying, *A month hence I will take a mistress.* God knows this is true.

Two Thousand Years of #Winning



The Pancatantra (Five Principles) is an ancient Indian collection of animal stories written in Sanskrit for the edication of royal dullards. It has circulated in writing since the 3rd century BC. Its legendary author, Visnu Sarma, has had a spectacular impact on world literature. The Pancatantra has been translated into dozens of languages from Old Norse to Javanese in the past two thousand years. Its extraordinary global transmission through, among other things, the Fables of Aesop, testifies to the popularity and richness of political wisdom literature in general. From the introduction:


Gentlemen, it is known to you that these sons of mine, being hostile to education, are lacking in discernment. So when I behold them, my kingdom brings me no happiness, though all external thorns are drawn. For there is wisdom in the proverb:

Of sons unborn, or dead, or fools,
Unborn or dead will do:
They cause a little grief, no doubt
But fools, a long life through.

And again:
To what good purpose can a cow
That brings no calf nor milk, be bent?
Or why beget a son who proves
A dunce and disobedient?
Some means must therefore be devised to awaken their intelligence.


The text of The Pancatantra migrated west in the Middle Ages via Arabic translations of Persian versions of the original Sanskrit. Some of these translations are literary masterpieces in their own right: the Kalila Wa Dimna of Ibn al Muqtaa (ca. AD 750) is an early exemplar of Arabic prose. John of Capua translated a Hebrew rendition of the Arabic into Latin and printed his Directorium Humanae Vitae (Guide to Human Life) in 1480. The Directorium was one of the earliest secular books printed in Italy after the invention of movable type and was promptly translated into the European vernaculars. Fifty-two years later, The Prince by Machiavelli was hot off the Italian presses and centuries of debate ensued. Modern scholars of The Pancatantra frequently ask whether its characters are Machiavellian but strangely, they never ask how much Machiavelli might have learned from Visnu Sarma via the Directorium.

Nearly five hundred years after Machiavelli, William Riker wrote a theory of heresthetic, the art of “structuring the world so you can win,” in The Art of Political Manipulation. Riker also tries to devise a “means to awaken the intelligence”:


There is no set of scientific laws that can be more or less mechanically applied to generate successful strategies. Instead, the novice heresthetician must learn by practice how to go about  managing and manipulating and maneuvering to get the decisions he or she wants.Practice is, however, difficult to engage in, especially since one must win often enough to be a  political leader before one has much opportunity to practice. There is one partial substitute for practice, however, and that is the vicarious experience of instruction.


Riker argues that heresthetic, a neologism derived from a Greek verb that means “to choose,” is really a shadow liberal art about which the ancients would have theorized had they properly identied it. Instead it existed in the interstices of the traditional liberal arts of logic, rhetoric, and grammar. Riker inserts his modern, mathematical discourse of heresthetic into a grand tradition of didactic political texts stretching back to the de Oratore (The Orator) of Cicero, who says that the best practical and moral education for a statesman is in the liberal arts.

Riker might not have known that even though thinkers of the Mediterranean never theorized heresthetic, ancients elsewhere did. Ryder, a translator of The Pancatantra, observed a gap in western thinking about structuring the world to win. The Pancatantra is a treatise on niti, “the wise conduct of life.” Chanakya, the professor of political economy (artha) who engineered the first Mauryan emperor’s domination of the entire Indian subcontinent in the 4th century BC, writes: “He who is prepared for the future and he who deals cleverly with any situation that may arise are both  happy; but the fatalistic man who wholly depends on luck is ruined.”

Unlike their western counterparts, Indian thinkers theorized extensively about niti in a didactic genre known as nitisastra. Ryder laments in his Translator’s Introduction that

Western civilization must endure a certain shame in realizing that no precise equivalent of the term is found in English, French, Latin, or Greek. Many words are therefore necessary to  explain what niti is, though the idea, once grasped, is clear, important, and satisfying.

Riker recovered a western tradition of strategy, situated it along with the rest of the liberal arts, and even invented a word for it that intentionally sounds like it belongs with logic and rhetoric. Ryder was a gifted scholar with vast talents (sadly, I never met him) who might have read The Pancatantra and might have even been familiar with Ryder’s then-authoritative translation. But it’s much more fun to imagine how Hangballs the Bull and the other glorious and frequently hilarious characters of The Pancatantra crept into Riker’s mathematical mind through Aesop, Cicero, Machiavelli, and others and found their way into heresthetic, the art of…


Ubi est pugnator, et ubi est remunerator?

This is my den. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. I am supposed to use it to promote a coherent image of myself on the internet, a thing that pulls every other slice of self-promotion together into one place. I discovered the internet in 1994 and have been shamelessly promoting myself ever since. So discovering who I really am on the internet requires a stroll down digital memory lane, an excuse for unearned nostalgia.

First, the odious. I will never forget a certain Thomas Chance’s response to some nonsense I wrote about Dudo of St. Quentin in the long-moribund alt.language.latin in 1999.

In the pretentious drivel supra, we are given a clear example of how a
semi-literate student is reduced to absolute slavery through his
grotesque  imitation of his professorial masters. In an obsessive urge
to have his thought conform to the politically correct jargon of
pomoism, MR (short for mentally retarded) has used the buzz word
“intertextuality” three times, demonstrating his childish need to be on
the cutting edge of lit/crit theory, no matter how dull that edge may be.

Thomas Chance was a troll but he was not entirely wrong. I was that Martin Reznick, and the internet proves it. I was also 20. Chance, as I discovered later, had written a book on Plato years before our unpleasant exchange. He should have known better, even if I didn’t. I did not know at the time how bitter he was towards his own profession. It’s not that hard to hamstring an over-enthusiastic undergraduate, and as tempting a target as I surely made, he should have resisted the temptation. Now things stand differently with me. I am quite pleased with my pretentious drivel supra.  Yet what he said had great value and clearly stuck with me for a long, long time. I should have thought of emailing him before APA. I would have bought him a drink. Perhaps he’s dead.

Somehow people think better of my work now. A lovely person who attended my paper last year at Kalamazoo on an arson incident in the archive of Aurelius Isidorus said:

I found Martin’s paper particularly interesting both because I and some other early medievalists have been playing around with game theory…

As well as this specific early medieval connection, Martin’s work was also very interesting for its methodology. The problem with game theory for early medieval history is that you can only guess at the pay-off matrix. What Martin was arguing was that you could nevertheless use game theory to look at the ‘black box’ of self-help and see what strategies are plausible, given the tactics of the other player. In other words, he was rejecting the previous suggestions in the literature that people turn to the law either because they’re desperate or they’re ill-informed about their chances. It’s more likely that there were ways litigants could make the system work in their favour to some extent, and anyone who works on dispute settlement should probably start thinking in more detail about how people might be able to game things to get what they want.

But the best came later:

I’ve heard Sarah talking about excommunication before and in some ways this was a shorter version of some of those themes: the flexibility of the texts (once memorably described by Conrad Leyser as “jazz curses”) and their use in negotiations. But this time she was also making the point that a lot of the formulae look very specific and some seem to refer to particular property disputes. In the light of Martin Reznick’s paper, rather than treating excommunication as just a liturgical ‘black box’ (offence goes in one end, ritual condemnation comes out the other), we probably ought to be thinking more seriously about how the staging and the sequences of the stages might be intended successively to mobilise local support, especially when Sarah showed how much detail we can see about the sentence of excommunication being publicised.

Maybe I should write the author of these kind remarks, too. My MA paper, a torrent of barely readable drivel and formal mathematics, is a game theoretical model of the interdict and excommunication in the Middle Ages.

Let’s just say that these pieces haven’t set the world on fire yet. But somehow a little paper I wrote for the newsletter of the fencing organization I used to be heavily involved with made its way into the bibliography of what looks like a serious book from 2004, Medieval Justice: Cases and Laws in France, England, and Germany: 500-1500 by Hunt Janin. This book doesn’t exactly have the widest readership, but I’ll take what I can get.

Yet I do not despair, for my apotheosis was on June 26, 1996 and no other mark I leave on civilization will ever be so distinctive. On that fateful day I touched greatness and dared to ask it two questions, whose answers have become authoritative in the vast corpus of Wheel of Time fandom. I dared ask Robert Jordan in live Compuserve chat the following:

How was the Dark One created, i.e. is he a fallen angel, an inherent part of the universe, etc.? — Martin Reznick

I envision the Dark One as being the dark counterpart, the dark balance if you will, to the Creator carrying on the theme, the yin yang, light dark, necessity of balance theme that has run through the books. It’s somewhat Manichean I know, but I think it works.

I, not an angel and not a seraph, pinned RJ down on one of the raging debates of the late 90s, whether the WoT-verse is monist or dualist. I will never surpass this achievement, and at the tender age of 18.

As modest as this might be, it leaves me in better stead than the other Martin Reznicks of the internet. I am not (yet) the world renowned comb-over maven Martin Reznick:

Starting your part too high? How about a little lower? Say, your armpit. This is just one of countless techniques of follicle chicanery at the fingertips of world renowned combover maven, Martin Reznick. Reznick has toured the country (on non-windy days) helping hundreds turn male-pattern baldness into male-pattern badness. Seats are limited. Don’t let your hair be stranded! (Course fee $59. Patented 18-tooth styling rake, $10.)

Don’t let your hair be stranded. Words to live by.


This is a test.

So I do this now, too.