From Tacitus to Tebow

Posted by Barry Strauss under on July 30, 2012

The philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) drew a distinction between the spirit of geometry and the spirit of finesse. With apologies to Pascal’s own infinite finesse, I will reduce the distinction to this: mathematical rigor versus good judgment. Mathematical rigor marshals the facts, subjects them to analysis, and comes up with the answer. Good judgment simply knows.

Pascal tends to come down on the side of good judgment, yet he understands that the greatest spirits combine it with mathematical rigor. Only the rarest of grace, he says, allows that to happen. So, let us be rigorous and intuitive, let us be balanced, and, above all, let us have the gift of grace.

Pascal, of all people, came to mind during a week in which I spent far from philosophy. My schedule started with a Roman gladiatorial reenactment in France and ended with a performance by American gladiators of the gridiron. And interlaced were thoughts of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Roman soldiers, which took place 1942 years ago Saturday.

On Tuesday I stood in the hot sun near Dijon, France – hot enough for a woman to faint, hot enough for (sorry) Dijon Mustard. The site was the splendid new MuséoParc Alésia, a combination of museum, reconstruction, and reenactment of the epic siege in 52 B.C. through which Julius Caesar sealed his conquest of Gaul. I was there with my graduate student, Jake Nabel, and my friend and Turkish superguide Serhan Gungor, to do research on Caesar. I recommend Alesia heartily, especially combined with a visit to the nearby Museum of Celtic Civilization at Bibracte, which includes a stunning archaeological excavation of one of the towns that Caesar took.

Anyhow, standing in the heat, I watched a small group of re-enactors go through a parade-ground display of a Roman legion’s battle maneuvers. Then they donned gladiatorial helmets and put on a vigorous contest between two heavy-armed gladiators. Legionaries, as the director explained, received training in sword use from doctores, that is, gladiatorial trainers. The re-enactors did a beautiful job of keeping things moving and of using their heavy shields as well as their (wooden) swords as weapons. It all unfolded clearly before the audience. “Gallic logic,” I couldn’t help but think, if the cliché can be forgiven.

A few days and a continent later, I am back home in Upstate New York. Sunday, my son Mike and I drove to nearby Cortland to watch the NY Jets practice in their annual pre-season training camp on the campus of SUNY-Cortland. It was another hot, sunny day, just as in Alesia. There was plenty of logic on show today as well, but it was of the American kind, of course.

Linemen hit the sleds with choreographed precision. Defensive backs practiced tackles in well-timed sequences. The placekicker arced the ball gracefully over half the field. Quarterbacks ran plays.

Oh, yes, the quarterbacks. Mark Sanchez, the first-string quarterback, was off his game. Third-string quarterback Greg McElroy threw better. And as for the backup quarterback, he didn’t have much to show when it comes to passing but, boy, could he run! The crowd cheered at his running, which surprised no one. He is a phenomenon, after all. He is Tim Tebow.

Depending on your point of view, Tebow represents either the humbug of showmanship or the triumph of faith. Evangelist, philanthropist, home-schooled Christian, and abstinent, Tebow kneels on the field in gratitude for a winning game. At 6’2” and 250 lbs, he gives new meaning to the phrase “muscular Christianity.” And if you don’t like his religiosity, then there’s humble personality and his rugged good looks.

But what about football? Tebow took the Denver Broncos to the NFL playoffs last season but he performed very unevenly. He brought the drama of come-from-behind victories and he sure can rush. But what’s the good of a quarterback who can’t pass? Denver’s front office was dubious enough to trade him.

As a Jet, Tebow brings buzz and a kind of glamour. His real contribution might be the ability to run the wildcat formation, which can really put a defense off balance. And maybe his throwing will improve. Or maybe it’s all hype and his football career will turn to ashes.

As a man, Tebow reminds us of the limits of the spirit of geometry. As a matter of statistics, he should be done for. With his wobbly arm, Tim Tebow might not be the best man to stand for finesse. Yet he shows that the sum is often greater than the whole of its parts. There’s that word “grace” again.

And that might permit us a detour to Jerusalem long ago. The Roman soldiers who burned the Temple had every reason to think that, as far as Judaism was concerned, that was that. They had logic and rigor on their side. And yet, the spiritual odyssey of Judaism has continued for another two millennia.

Why? How? Why didn’t the gladiator-like onslaught put an end to its opponent? Why didn’t the stronger team prevail?

It all comes back to Pascal. Think of another statement of his – his best-known quotation. “The heart,” said the Frenchman, “has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

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