Revelation 6 and the Great War

From Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, pp. 1203f:

The Four Horsemen

One by one the seals of the book are broken and with each of the first four, a horse and rider appear:

Revelation 6:1.… when the Lamb opened one of the seals…

Revelation 6:2. behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown…: and he went forth conquering…

Revelation 6:3. And when he had opened the second seal…

Revelation 6:4. there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth…

Revelation 6:5. And when he had opened the third seal, … lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.

Revelation 6:6. And I heard a voice … say, A measure of wheat for a penny…

Revelation 6:7. And when he had opened the fourth seal, …

Revelation 6:8.…behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death…

These are the "four horsemen of the apocalypse" representing the variety of evils that were to descend upon the world (specifically upon the Roman Empire, which was viewed by its populace as synonymous with "the world") to mark the beginning of its dissolution and the coming of the Messianic era.

DoreStJohnPatmosThe white horse and its rider seems to represent foreign invasion. At least the bow is the virtual symbol of the Parthian raiders, who since the time of Julius Caesar had been the terror of the east. In the days of Herod the Great, they had occupied Jerusalem, and at no time thereafter were their forces very far to the east.

The red horse and its rider also seem to signify a form of war. It may well represent the bloody disorders of civil war and insurrection.

The black horse and its rider represent famine, for the price offered for a measure of wheat ("a penny") is far higher than normal and is so high in fact that the ordinary populace could not buy enough to live.

The pale horse and its rider are named as "Death," but this is not the kind of death in general that would follow war or famine. That is taken care of by the first three horses. Rather Death represents death by disease, as when we refer to the "Black Death," for instance.

In short, the four horsemen can be most briefly describe as War, Revolution, Famine, and Pestilence.

There are many who seek the meaning of the symbolism of Revelation in the events that have happened in the centuries since the book was written. To those, never did the four horsemen ride with such effect as in the days of World War I. Not only was there the bloodiest and most stupidly savage slaughter ever seen, on both western and eastern fronts, but there was a revolution in Russia that affects us even today, a famine in both Germany and Russia immediately after the war, and a world-wide influenza pandemic in 1918 that killed more people than the war did.

Never had War, Revolution, Famine, and Pestilence stalked ghastly over the world as in the years rom 1914 to 1920.

revolutionary vanguard of the Apocrypha

"The Revolt of Mattathias" (1 Macc. 2:24)
by Gustave Doré

From Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, pp. 717–8, on the Maccabees*:

The spark that initiated the Jewish rebellion against the Seleucids was set off by an officer of Antiochus who came to Modin to enforce the new laws. He asked Mattathias, as a prominent Jewish leader, to set a good example and to carry through a sacrifice in the manner required by law. To Mattathias, this was idolatry and he refused.

However, there were other Jews who were not so insistent on the old ways. The Seleucid officer, in asking Mattathias to perform the sacrifice, pointed out that it was being done by the Jews generally:

1 Maccabees 2:18. …fulfil the king’s commandment, like … the men of Juda … and such as remain at Jerusalem…

In this, he was probably telling the truth. In aftertimes, a successful revolution is looked back upon as the rising of a united nation or group, but most of that is the patriotic gilding of memory, and it is not so. In all revolutions, those who ardently pursue the fight to the death are in the minority and there are usually at least as many who are ardently anti-revolutionary, plus an actual majority that is apathetic and will go where they are led (in either direction), if necessary, but who best prefer to be left alone.

Our own Revolutionary War was conducted by a minority of Rebels who faced not only the British, but Tories who were at least equal in numbers to themselves. And most colonists did not incline strongly to either side. And today the Civil Rights movement among Negroes has, as one of its problems, the apathy of most Negroes.

So it must have been that the Jews in the time of Antiochus were by no means all bitterly anti-Seleucid. Many were willing to conform; perhaps even eager, in their pro-Greek views, to do so. Thus, when Mattathias refused the sacrifice, someone else quickly stepped up to perform it, either out of conviction or, perhaps, out of the thought that unless someone did, the entire town would be massacred.

1 Maccabees 2:23. …there came one of the Jews in the sight of all to sacrifice on the altar … according to the king’s commandment.

At seeing this, Mattathias flew into a rage, slew the Jew and the Seleucid officer. That was the Lexington-and-Concord of the Jewish rebellion. Mattathias and his sons had to flee to the hills, and around them they began to collect other rebels.

* These books are "deuterocanonical," meaning that they are part of the Old Testament for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but not for Jews or Protestants. The King James Bible lists these books in the Apocrypha.


While I have not been consistently antiwar all my life, I’m certainly there now. (Thanks to Murray Rothbard via Wendy McElroy, several years ago.) And yet, as I strive to remedy the holes in my historical literacy, I find myself drawn into ancient and medieval engineering, which, of course, leads to military history. I don’t love the culture of that niche, but I sure do see the appeal of the niche itself.

If you’d like to see an example of what I’m talking about, I recommend this episode of Nova, which you can buy on DVD:

I enjoyed it so much, that I built my own trebuchet out of paperclips:

Yes, it can hurl mini marshmallows across the room, although this first trebuchet has terrible aim. Paperclip trebuchet #2 will be better.

You can build a trebuchet with a static counterweight, instead of a swinging counterweight like these suspended batteries, but the swinging counterweight turns out to be better. I suspect, however, that a counterweight that swings in two dimensions (e.g., a padlock) rather than in three would be better still. We’ll see. Another way to improve the effectiveness of a trebuchet is to put it on wheels. To understand the math and physics, watch the Nova episode.

Or, if you’re smarter and more educated than I am, you can explore all the web pages out there, such as “The Algorithmic Beauty of the Trebuchet” (

(I suspect this will eventually be a big part of Benjamin’s homeschooling.)

clash of civilizations

In my recent reading (and listening), whether the topic is Gilgamesh, the Trojan War, or the Crusades (or surveys such as Worlds at War), I keep coming across the clash-of-civilizations thesis of Samuel Huntington.

I haven’t read Huntington’s own account of his thesis, neither in his Foreign Affairs article nor in his (in)famous book, but I believe I get the gist: whereas Fukuyama and others contend that the end of the Cold War marked the "end of history" in a Hegelian sense (no more thesis or antithesis, just the synthesis of Western neoliberalism and social democracy),

Huntington believed that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had only reverted to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflict. In his thesis, he argued that the primary axis of conflict in the future would be along cultural and religious lines. (Wikipedia)

The clash everyone is focused on, of course, is East versus West, where "East" means what we now call the Middle East, what we used to call the Near East, what the ancients called "Asia" back when Asia meant the eastern coast of the Mediterranean — although much of North Africa also counts as the East when we’re focused, as Samuel Huntington apparently is, on the Islamic world.

What I find interesting in both the Huntington thesis and the Fukuyama thesis is the agreement that the "age of ideology" is over. They would apparently agree with the definition that Ludwig von Mises gives for ideology in chapter 9 of Human Action, “The Role of Ideas”:

The concept of an ideology is narrower than that of a worldview. In speaking of ideology, we have in view only human action and social cooperation and disregard the problems of metaphysics, religious dogma, the natural sciences, and the technologies derived from them. Ideology is the totality of our doctrines concerning individual conduct and social relations. Both worldview and ideology go beyond the limits imposed upon a purely neutral and academic study of things as they are. They are not only scientific theories, but also doctrines about the ought, i.e., about the ultimate ends which man should aim at in his earthly concerns.

And at first glance, it looks like Mises might agree with Huntington:

Linguistic terms are unable to communicate what is said about the transcendent; one can never establish whether the hearer conceives them in the same way as the speaker. With regard to things beyond there can be no agreement. Religious wars are the most terrible wars because they are waged without any prospect of conciliation. (Human Action, c9 s2)

Or, as Robert Murphy puts it in his study guide to Human Action,

In contrast to truly religious wars, when it comes to secular (i.e., ideological) conflict there is hope for cooperation, because human society is the great means by which all people can better achieve their differing objectives.

But the clash-of-civilizations thesis (at least in its popular form) seems to be a case of enormous question begging: if you contend that the current conflict between Islam and the West (a) is real, i.e., is more than just a (neo)conservative contrivance, and (b) is a religious war, rather than a political conflict, then the conclusion does seem to follow almost inexorably: there is a fundamental and irreconcilable clash of civilizations to be “waged without any prospect of conciliation”; long-term peace is impossible because the conflict is in “regard to things beyond” and therefore “there can be no agreement.”

Yes, but are the premises correct? Do the terms "the West" and "Islam" describe anything useful in the world of foreign affairs? If they do, and if they are in conflict, is that conflict a religious war or is it over the more temporal, mundane issues of invasion, oppression, exploitation, and the cycle of resentment and vengeance that results from the belief in collective guilt?

Those who want to claim that the clash is religious can point to what the Islamists themselves say about the clash. But so can those who want to claim that US foreign policy is to blame. The whole question is complicated by the fact that the distinction between religion and ideology is one that Islamists (and Christian theonomists and many Orthodox Jews) would reject. The distinction itself is a largely secular one.

(Some Christians think they can find it in the famous "Render unto Caesar" passage in the New Testament (Matthew 22:21), while others contend that that’s a gross misreading. I can’t really address that, but I take seriously Ralph Raico’s point that Matthew 22:21 wasn’t enough to separate Church and State in the Byzantine Empire. Classical liberalism isn’t Christian in its origins so much as it’s Western Christian.)

I accept the Western distinction between ideology and religion, and I find Mises’s presentation of it especially helpful. But the distinction itself isn’t enough to answer the question as to whether or not there is a fundamental clash of civilizations more akin to ancient religious wars than to modern ideological conflicts. The claim that we’re in the middle of a new type of religious war would have to mean (it seems to me) either that Islam is hell bent on destroying the West, or vice versa. The Islam-as-aggressor thesis is probably easier for most Westerners to swallow. But the mission to spread freedom and democracy — if it’s more than a neocon cover for a naked power grab — is an attack on Islam, as many Muslims perceive it. Let’s not lose track, however, of a different distinction: between Wilsonian foreign policy and Western civilization. Some of us would argue, in fact, that aggressive foreign policy, no matter what the stated goals or intentions, is utterly decivilizing.

What about the idea that Islam is out to destroy the West? I don’t deny that it’s possible, but it seems to be the old Cold War thesis dressed up in head scarves. Yes, Communist theory demanded worldwide revolution. Yes, Islamic scripture demands the equivalent. But so does Catholicism, and yet the Church has settled into an antiwar position after all these centuries. Why not Islam? And just as the Soviet political class paid lip service to the universalist rhetoric of Marxism while pursuing its own self-interest (and just as the American political class does the same with talk of liberty and the public welfare), so, I’m guessing, must the Muslims in power (or those seeking power) speak to one standard while pursuing a different one. A quick perusal of the Islamic empires of history would seem to confirm this suspicion.

I’m not trying to argue for a vulgar-materialist analysis of history and foreign policy. I do understand, as Mises emphasized, that ideas drive history.

So how do we reconcile a belief in power politics with a belief in the historical and political importance of religion and ideology?

One answer lies in classical-liberal class-conflict theory. It’s not workers versus capitalists; it’s not East versus West; it’s always a question of us against our masters, the productive class versus the political class. War is not a conflict between nations or religions; it is a conflict between the people and their governments, with nationalism and religion used by the political class to cover its tracks. The relevance of ideas is precisely in the role they play in either obscuring or revealing this orthogonal clash between the powers of civilization and the powers of decivilization.

worlds at war

I recommend Anthony Pagden’s Worlds at War, not necessarily for Pagden’s pro-Western antireligious thesis (at least, not in any particulars) but as an excellent historical and cultural review of what the book’s subtitle calls "the 2500-Year Struggle Between East and West" — where "East" is used in the ancient sense of western Asia (Troy, Phoenicia, Persia) and northeastern Africa (Egypt, Phoenician Carthage), and in the modern sense of Islam.

In a recent personal correspondence with my favorite conservative Rothbardian about Robert Spencer’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), my comrade wrote, "The fact that U.S. foreign policy is stupid and evil doesn’t make Islam any less illiberal."

I think that’s right, and I think that it’s a point that’s missed by many modern liberals, for whom all cultures and religions are equal and compatible a priori. If you don’t treat this supposed equality as axiomatic, its falseness is quickly evident.

Pagden does not, however, find Christianity superior to Islam in any intrinsic sense. His thesis in Worlds at War seems to be that Christianity was too weak and contained too many inner contradictions to provide the basis for a lasting theocracy, and that Christianity’s weakness was the basis of the West’s great strength. Our individualism, our traditions of tolerance, and our less-hampered markets (and therefore our industrial and technological superiority) are all the result of our secularism, Pagden contends. Three cheers for atheism. I’m a pro-Western atheist myself (as Murray Rothbard is reported to have said to Father Robert Sirico, "I don’t believe in God, but I believe that Mary was His mother."), and I agree with Pagden that the essential ingredient in the history of Western civilization was the separation of Church and State, but Pagden somehow manages to lay all the blame for illiberalism at the feet of monotheism. Not only does that implicitly let the State itself off the hook, but it fails to account for the importance of the checks and balances provided by the ongoing struggle between the two. In the Western contest between Church and State, the State has won, and the ever-weakening power of the Church has been accompanied by ever-growing power of the illiberal State.

Achilles in the Trench

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was an Oxford scholar who died in WWI. He wrote this during 3 days of R&R as he waited to be sent to fight at Gallipoli, which is across the Dardenelles (formerly known as the Hellespont) from the site of ancient Troy:

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
I ask, and cannot answer,
if otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Upon the Dardanelles:
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and high explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh Hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest, and I know not;
So much the happier am I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros o’er the sea.
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

M I C – k e y – M i s e s

This paragraph from Human Action forces me to check my vulgar antimilitary reflexes and seek a subtler understanding of the nature of demand and the fallacy of manufactured demand:

The moralists’ and sermonizers’ critique of profits misses the point. It is not the fault of the entrepreneurs that the consumers — the people, the common man — prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books, and that governments prefer guns to butter. The entrepreneur does not make greater profits in selling "bad" things than in selling "good" things. His profits are the greater the better he succeeds in providing the consumers with those things they ask for most intensely. People do not drink intoxicating beverages in order to make the "alcohol capital" happy, and they do not go to war in order to increase the profits of the "merchants of death." The existence of the armaments industries is a consequence of the warlike spirit, not its cause. (c15, s9)

What did Mises make of President Eisenhower’s warning of a growing “military-industrial complex”? Did he dismiss the MIC as a left-wing bogey man? And what did Rothbard make of the statement, “The existence of the armaments industries is a consequence of the warlike spirit, not its cause”?

We Rothbardians tend to reject the standard left-wing claims about “manufactured demand” when they are hurled at private enterprise; do we fall into a similar fallacy when we imply a manufactured demand for military spending?

In one sense, no, it’s not parallel: you can get people to “support” all sorts of things when they’re not free to volunteer or withhold payment. Political polls on spending priorities falsely imply that how people choose to spend their dollars and how they want the government to spend “its” dollars is somehow the same thing.

Of course it’s not. My real-life expressed preferences, complete with internalized opportunity costs and the direct benefit of my spending decisions, are very concrete. They reveal my values based on what trade-offs I’ve actually made. My vocalized “preferences” for how tax dollars are spent is always abstract, and produces very little practical consequence for me either way.

So when the voting public howls for Osama’s head or Saddam’s head or for the head of whoever is the current bad guy, there’s definitely something manufactured about this “demand” — something orchestrated. People tend to lose their enthusiasm for war when they start to see the bill, so to speak. This suggests that their initial support for war would be similarly muted if they had to make the immediate choice of reaching into their wallets and paying for war or using that same money instead to buy beer or books, faster DSL or a bigger HDTV.

But there’s another sense in which I think I’ve been sloppy in attributing power to the malevolent MIC. I sometimes unthinkingly blame the arms dealers for the knee-jerk hawks themselves. When, in fact, the hawks are just knee jerks.

I think there’s a lot to be said for the political power of hiding the costs of policy. But this externalization of costs is really different from the manufacturing of demand. A more pacific people would not have fallen for the great neo-Con, no matter how much the books were cooked.

It is not the business of the entrepreneurs to make people substitute sound ideologies for unsound. It rests with the philosophers to change people’s ideas and ideals. The entrepreneur serves the consumers as they are today, however wicked and ignorant. (Ibid.)