Monday, February 24, 2014

Truce in our Time

The Olympic Games, it seems to me, illustrate the difficulties of seeing very large social events with any kind of precision, whether it is from up close or from of 5,521 miles away by television—that being the distance, using great circle navigation, between Detroit and Sochi in Russia. At the same time, what with modern media coverage, one can also get a more or less trustworthy general feeling about these games. In our case we have access, this year, to both U.S. and Canadian coverage, and we made good use of both. Our mutual conclusion this year was that the Sochi winter games came very close realizing the ideals of the Olympics. The games were peaceful; the contentious aspects, so jarring in many past games we’ve actually watched closely, were almost absent this time around.

A feature of the Ancient Olympics was the Olympic Truce. The Modern Olympics feature the same truce, officially put in place by the United Nations in 1993. The Ancient Olympics were, of course, a miniature. The games were international, but the regions interacting were all Greek. The games did not move about in those days. They were all held in the region called Ellis, in Arcadia, the southern portion of Greece, Ellis itself its north-western edge. The games were held at the city of Olympia within that region, hence the name of the games. The truce made sense, given the location of Olympia. Athletes had to travel very long distances to get there. The distance between Olympia and Athens, to take a horizontal route separating two edges of Greece, is 163 miles—hence speaking of the Ancient Olympiad as a miniature of the modern makes sense.  Localizing that distance of 163 miles? Well, the distance from Detroit to Chicago is 282 miles; see also the concluding note.

This comparison—between the little and the Big—struck us yesterday as the closing ceremonies ended. A good thing that we have a global Olympics now. Those interlocking Olympic rings? Brigitte thought they stood for continents; I had no idea, but she went and looked it up; and she had been right all along. Each ring stands for one of five regions of the world. Until 1951, the official handbook identified blue as Europe, yellow as Asia, black as Africa, green as Australia and Oceania, and red as the Americas. But since the originator of this symbol, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French educator and co-founder of the Modern Olympics, made no such association (he chose the colors from uniforms of different countries competing in his time, 1912), the IOC removed any linkage of color to actual regions.

The meaning of “truce,” when unwrapped a little, is rather odd. The very possibility speaks to human power to transcend one level of experience and to establish, if only temporarily, another and superior level above it: to rise above violent hostilities to the level of perhaps grim but actual peace. It would at least seem logical to think that once truce has been achieved, just a small additional effort would also yield lasting harmony. If it can hold for three months—which was the duration of the Olympic Truce in ancient times—it could last four, five, six, and more, until we’ve lost all count.

Truce is a good first step. We’ve gotten that far. As far as world peace is concerned, the Bronze still seems out of reach. But who knows what the future will hold.

The root of that word, in English, incidentally, is centered on the proto-Germanic for “faith,” still almost literally present in the current German word Treue. It takes faith on both sides to make a treaty. Treaties now, faith tomorrow. God speed the day.

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On horses, ships, and volors. In ancient Greece the means of transportation were by foot, on horse, or by ship—the really large ones largely rowed. To achieve global utopia, we need volors. That word comes from a pair of novels by Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1908) and The Dawn of All (1911). The first is a dis-, the other a utopia. First flight took place on earth on December 17, 1903, courtesy of Orville and Wilbur Wright. In Benson’s projections, the art had been perfected to resemble, and in many ways surpass, the age of the jet in which we make our home. As for The Dawn of All, it is a world where truce has turned to peace—through faith.

The map is from Wikipedia (link).

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