Renaissance and Reformation, Act 2 (?)

Like many I awoke Wednesday, November 9 to a big surprise.  Like many I wonder in what sense business as usual (more or less) will be the order of the day as Trump begins to actually govern, or whether or not we will see a significant pivot in our national life.  Time will tell (full disclosure, I supported neither candidate and hoped for a 3rd party revolution that never materialized).

I confess there is much I fail to understand about the election.  I have no strong opinions as to why Trump won.   I will attempt to focus on a broader historical perspective and will not deal with issues specific to the campaign, whatever their importance might have been.  I will not seek to take sides so much as to explain.

Consider what follows speculative . . .


Like many I search for historical parallels to our situation.  Many months ago I suggested Andrew Jackson, or perhaps Rome’s Marius, as a historical counterpart to Trump.  A few months ago Tyler Cowen suggested that, based on a book he had read, our world might resemble that of the Reformation.  I filed that away and thought little of it–until November 9.  All six of Cowen’s observations have merit, but two immediately jumped out at me:

1. Many of the structures in places are perceived as failing, even though in absolute terms they are not obviously doing worse than previous times.

2. There is a rise in nationalist sentiment and a semi-cosmopolitan ethic is starting to lose influence.

In his Civilisation series Kenneth Clark displayed an obvious affection Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).  Who can blame him?  Erasmus had a great intellect and a good sense of humor, especially about himself.  Erasmus had no particular attachments anywhere and so he cultivated friends all over Europe.  He represented what some might see as the apotheosis of the medieval vision–a cosmopolitan, universal man of Christendom.

Such status did not prevent Erasmus from engaging in polemical criticism.  From what I hear, his Praise of Folly (I have not read it) mercilessly lambasts much of society at that time, in and out of the Church.  And yet, Clark points out that Erasmus could not accept challenges to authority from the common man.  In a personal letter he wrote with horror at the fact that hardly anyone in a town he visited doffed their caps to him–to him–a respectable pillar of Society.  We can almost hear him say, “I’m the one who gets to criticize society.  Not you!  You don’t know what you’re doing, whereas I (obviously) do!”*

Erasmus could criticize aspects of society but would never think of criticizing Society itself and the conventions that held it together.  He lived in an urbane, intelligent, tolerant world of reason, progress, proportion, and the like.  But the temper of times overwhelmed him.  Europe’s darling in 1511 found himself playing the role of “Mr. Irrelevant” soon after the Reformation began in 1517.

Even Clarke, I think, sees the problem with Erasmus.  No one doubted his character, but they questioned his conviction. Erasmus wore too much on his sleeve and not enough (at least to observers) in his heart.  His glib dance throughout Europe made many wonder what he actually believed.

Many assume the that the medieval period practiced more than its fair share of intolerance.  Scholar and historian Regine Pernoud points out, however, that the latter Renaissance had many more persecutions of heretics and witches than any period in the Middle Ages.  She offers no direct reasons for this, but we can speculate.  By 1200 A.D. Europe had attained a significant measure of stability, but not yet a great deal of movement.  The elite of society had “real” jobs and connections to the common man.  The “people” did not live as well as the aristocracy, but they lived with the elite in the same communities and moved in the same circles.  The sea had yet to tempt medieval society, which limited physical mobility and perhaps added to the stability.

By the mid 13th century Thomas Aquinas begins to dabble in the powers of reason and Aristotle.  The Black Plague disrupted the settled social arrangements (among other things).  The 15th century saw plenty of change with the beginnings of exploration and the printing press.  The papal court practiced pagan Greek city-state thinking more so than the service of God.  Now too, elites like Erasmus moved in entirely different circles than “the people.”  With the revival of classical culture came the revival of classical pagan religion, and the rise of occult practices.  It adds up to too much change too quickly.  The Reformation happened not just because of Luther, but in part because Europe had several different people rise up simultaneously willing to challenge an out of touch status quo many no longer cared anything for.  Rightly or wrongly, many felt that elite Renaissance culture had gone too far.**  As Pernoud points out, the reaction against this outwardly benign march of “progress” began before the Reformation in the late Renaissance.

In another post, again from a few months ago, Cowen suggests the possibility that too much immigration may result in a backlash against immigration (we should note that Cowen favors increased immigration as a matter of ideology, but might be pragmatic as a matter of policy–I don’t know). If the pace of change moves too fast, people react against it even if the change itself benefits them overall (most data shows the increased benefits of increased immigration). Rapid change often creates psychological problems of dislocation.

Others with different ideological perspectives seem to agree with him.  Slavoj Zizek argues (warning to those who follow the link: Zizek uses profanity rather “liberally” in places:) that on European immigration issue, allowing for more democracy would significantly restrict immigration policies in multiple countries.  Right now more inclusive policies must come from the state and not from the people.^  Ezra Klein had an interesting exchange with Tyler Cowen recently where they discussed the subject of diversity.

COWEN: …Now Putman, let me ask you about Putnam, and how Putnam relates to Donald Trump. As you know, Robert Putnam at Harvard, he has some work showing that when ethnic diversity goes up that there’s less trust, less cooperation, less social capital.

If you think of yourself in the role of an editor, so you have an American society, diversity has gone up, and a lot of people have reacted to this I would say rather badly — and I think you would agree with me they’ve reacted rather badly — but there’s still a way in which the issue could be framed that while diversity is actually a problem, we can’t handle diversity.

Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?

KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”

Might Trump have a doppelgänger of sorts (not religiously, not even close!) in Martin Luther?  In Luther, we see, among other things, someone with an authoritarian nationalist streak, one who could not stand the polite pagan-infused niceness of elite Europe, one who had no trouble calling fire and brimstone down upon a variety of people, and one who dabbled in opportunism from time to time.

One possible explanation for Trump might lie in the reaction against some of the sweeping changes that have come into the consciousness of America, such as

  • The “trigger warning” and “snowflake” phenomena across many college campuses
  • The Supreme Court case legalizing homosexual marriage across the land (overturning a variety of state laws in the process).
  • The extreme pressure directed against those who refuse to cater, provide flowers, etc. for homosexual weddings
  • The debate over transgender bathrooms, the reaction against the NC law, etc.

None of these changes directly effect the well-being of very many at all, but they do impact how one sees the their place in the world.  Without considering who is right or wrong in these actions, might the western cosmopolitan set across the U.S. and Europe have flown too close to the sun too quickly?

I listen to classical music on a very low level, when I actually listen to it. I can usually tell if it’s Beethoven, or Bach, but that’s about it.   One day I decided to get cultured and tried to listen to a Mahler symphony.  My reaction?

In Absolutely on Music, Japanese author Haruki Murakami recorded a series of interviews with the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa.  In one interview Murakami asks,

Just listening to the third movement of [Mahler’s] First Symphony, it seems clear to me that his music is filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without logical connection, and sometimes in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldview–a huge variety of stuff, no single one at the center of things . . . .  Isn’t there something particularly universal or cosmopolitan about Mahler’s music?

To my admittedly very limited experience of attempting to listen to Mahler, Murakami could have just as easily asked, “Isn’t there something meaningless and incomprehensible about Mahler’s music?  After 1/2 hour of attempting to elevate my cultural understanding, I would have begged someone to play me a Sousa march.

Cowen’s final thought on how this world might resemble that of the Reformation . . .

The world may nonetheless end up much better off, but the ride to get there will be rocky indeed.


*A possible parallel to this exists today.  A variety of high-profile fashion designers have said that they will not provide gowns for Melania Trump.  Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in North Carolina over his objections to their transgender laws.  The great jazz pianist Ethan Iverson called for a boycott of Steinway pianos because the owner of Steinway supported Trump in some vague fashion (in 2012 Iverson urged a boycott of a particular jazz musician for his support of Romney.  Were Iverson a politician, this would be extremely dangerous territory–punishing someone not for their actions but for their particular beliefs). All of them were perfectly within their rights to do so.  Many applauded them putting moral convictions over profit or convenience.

Can progressives not extend the same rights to those who wish not to cater homosexual weddings?  It appears that some do not wish to extend the same right of protest.  Stephanie Slade at Reason magazine wrote,

The problem is not that Theallet was willing to dress Michelle Obama and isn’t willing to dress Melania Trump (which is, like it or not, a form of discrimination). The problem is just how many people don’t seem to think that same freedom should be extended to bakery owners, photographers, and other wedding vendors who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

As Theallet put it, “we consider our voice an expression of our artistic and philosophical ideals.” I suspect Barronelle Stutzman, the white-haired grandmother who owns Arlene’s Flowers, feels the same way about her craft. But instead of assuming a live-and-let-live attitude on the matter, Washington state has systematically worked to destroy Stutzman’s business unless she agrees to take part in a celebration to which she is morally opposed.

**Whatever authoritarian streak the Middle Ages might have had, the Renaissance had it too, but it came not from the people, but from the elite makers of taste.  In many cathedrals the colorful stained glass (made by a variety of local artisans) got smashed out and replaced with clear glass to better fit wth their ideas of classical purity and decorum.

Pernoud argued with some force that the culture of the Middle Ages was “populist,” which the culture of the Renaissance was “elitist.”

^We can see the Brexit vote as a symptom of this same phenomena.  Europe’s pundits all seemingly declared that Britain would vote to stay in the European Union.  Part of me wonders whether or not the vote to leave had more to do with “sticking it to the cosmopolitan man” (which certainly includes most pundits) than any particular economic or social issue.

Democratic Personalities and Democratic Laws

I posted originally some months ago, and repost it now in conjunction with our senior Government class and, obviously, the recent election.

The original post is below . . .


Barring any unusual excitement at the Democratic and Republican conventions, it appears that many Americans will feel caught between a rock and a hard place regarding their two main choices for president.  Many blanch at the thought of “President Trump,” and I wondered if history might suggest hope for such a possibility.

Our founders may have had Republican Rome as their model, but as the U.S. continues to approach a more immediate democracy perhaps we should look to ancient Athens for a historical parallel. Athenian democracy experienced several points of crisis, with perhaps the most notorious coming after their defeat in the Peloponnesian War when they put Socrates on trial.

Many reasons have been given as to Socrates died at the hands of the Athenians. I am intrigued by the theory Mark Munn expounds in his book The School of History.  Munn argues that by 399 B.C. Athens searched desperately for stability.  Their democracy had transformed significantly under Pericles ca. 450-435 B.C., then switched to a partial oligarchy after the Sicilian disaster in 411 B.C., then back to a democracy by 410, then back to oligarchy in 404-03, then to a restored democracy once more.  But the democracy that ruled Athens ca. 400 B.C. was not the same that Athens experienced a generation earlier.

It seems fair to say that in its heyday, Athenian democracy was driven by great personalities and not by procedures.  Pericles stands as the foremost example of this, but others come to mind.  Herodotus and Thucydides’ histories give us a picture of dynamic men acting on inspiration.  Callimachus votes to attack at Marathon. Themistocles devises his own plan apart from the generals to win the Battle of Salamis.  Even lesser men like Nicias, Alcibiades, and Cleon sparkle on the page.*  Exact fidelity to the law itself did not concern the demos.  At their worst, the Athenians may have just wanted a diversion from their politics out of boredom, but another interpretation might point to the fact that the Athenians in this period of their history trusted in inspirational leadership of the moment, as opposed to fidelity to the expression of the “general will” embodied in law.  One might even call it a humble characteristic of Athenian democracy.  “The People” passed laws but willingly stepped aside at points in the face of “personality.”

But in time the plague, the disaster in Sicily, and their ultimate defeat by Sparta exacted a heavy psychological toll.

With the final restoration of democracy in Athens in 401, Athens moved away from dynamic leadership and towards the exacting nature of the enthronement of law.  Law offered a clear path and if nothing else, stability.  Munn argues that this passion for law and this movement away from “personality” put Socrates afoul of the will of the people.  The orator Aeschines, born in 389 B.C., wrote,

In fact, as I have often heard my own father say, for he lived to be 95 years old and had shared in all the toils of the city, which he often described to me in his leisure hours–well, he said that in the early days of the reestablished democracy , in any indictment for an illegal motion came into court, the matter was no sooner said than done . . .. It frequently happened that they made the clerk str and told him to read to the the laws and the the motion a second time; and they convicted a man of making an illegal proposal not because he had overleaped the laws entirely, but that one syllable only was contravened.

Socrates probably did run afoul of the exacting nature of Athenian religious law after 401 B.C., and he certainly ran directly counter to the spirit behind such laws with his claims to personal, divine inspiration that transcended any earthly authority/law.  He was a throwback to time associated with chaos, and to be frank, military disaster.

Of course democracies traditionally have the “rule of law” as a bedrock principle, and we should prefer exacting rule of law to the whims of a despot.  But few civilizations can match the cultural achievements of Athens in 5th century.  Also, the personality driven democracy of the 5th century certainly outperformed the law driven democracy of the 4th century.**  Perhaps one lesson we might draw from this is that a mixing forms and styles of government might outperform monochromatic governments, much like mutts are generally healthier and less crazy than pure-brads.^

Observers of Trump often comment that, aside from his ideas on immigration, he seems to have no particular policies (others would disagree).  Yet, unquestionably, he is a “personality,” one that the media, for all their antipathy towards him, cannot resist.  Is it possible that such an injection of “personality” might be what could help us from stale rigidity in our political life?  Certainly we have plenty of bureaucracy, plenty of incomprehensible law, as it stands now.

I say, yes, it is . . . possible.

*Cleon’s expedition and victory in Pylos during the Peloponnesian War is evidence of this preference for personality over procedure.  It was technically illegal for Cleon to even lead the expedition in the first place, but the Assembly could not resist enjoying the personal rivalry between Nicias and Cleon, and allowed/shamed Cleon into having his chance, which he then took advantage of.

**The great achievements of the 5th century came to a halt during the Peloponnesian War, a self-inflicted wound if there ever was one.  But the 4th century did no better, succumbing to Macedon after decades of vanilla tapioca laziness (as the traditional interpretation has it, anyway) in 338 B.C.

^Some might argue on behalf of the 4th century by citing that it produced Plato and Aristotle, luminaries 1 and 1a in western philosophy.  This argument should not be pushed too far.  A glance at the history of philosophy shows that most advances in this field occur in times of societal breakdown or even decay.  This is in contrast, I think to other areas of cultural achievement, whose health usually parallels that of the rest of society.  The 4th century had no Parthenon, no Euripides, etc.


11th Grade: Industrialization

Greetings all,

C.S. Lewis once commented that the world of Jane Austen had more in common with Homer than our world has in common with Austen.  If Lewis’ speaks truly, we have the Industrial Revolution to thank.  The Industrial Revolution remade society almost from top to bottom, and in so doing changed not just how we live but also how we think.

What did Lewis mean by his observation?

Obviously a great deal changed from Homer to the time of Jane Austen.  But Lewis refers not to political and ideological changes, but the basic way people lived and interacted.  Among the similarities across time include . . .

  • Both eras had a predominantly rural population where most people farmed
  • Both eras measured wealth almost exclusively in terms of land ownership
  • Both eras centered their identity often around the extended family
  • Both eras had to regulate their lives with the rhythm of creation
  • “Manufacturing” would have been done by individual skilled craftsmen rather than masses of specialized workers or assembly lines.

All of this and more changed from the early 19th-early 20th centuries.

The Industrial Revolution (IR) first and most obviously changed demographics.  For all of previously recorded human history people lived predominantly in rural areas.  Rural areas have a slower pace of life.  They tend towards social conservatism and the maintenance of tradition.  The IR began displacing small farmers and forcing people to move to the cities for work. As the graph below indicates, a trend began that has only continued up to the present day.


The resulting mass production of goods and, perhaps especially, of food, led eventually to increased life-expectancy and and a population explosion that has continued until today (though some predict a regression in population soon).

In changing where we lived, the IR changed how we live.  On farms the family forms the obvious central social unity.  Before mass transportation, very few children would move far from parents once they reached adulthood.  But now with many starting to leave home to work, life no longer centered around the family farm.  Now at least one parent left the house for 12 hours a day, and often both parents had to work in factories.  Individuals within families found other planets around which to orbit.

If both parents worked, what about children?  The IR inadvertently began the push towards mass public education.  Previously, only those with money and leisure received an education.  Spreading education to the masses had many benefits.  But in time how we educated and what we taught changed drastically.  Mass education mean the inevitable watering down of what schools taught.  The IR brought about changes to the curriculum, which now sought to prepare students for the workforce.  No longer did education have its focus on enriching the soul.  Now the classroom needed to prepare one to “get a job.”  One only has to read of C.S. Lewis’ experiences with his tutor “The Great Knock” (William Kirkpatrick) in his autobiography and compare it to many of our “cattle-car” approach in modern education to begin to see the difference.

Mass production changed the very nature of how people identified themselves with their communities.  For centuries most people lived life within the same 10-15 miles radius they had always known.  I recall reading a medieval primary source and noted that they used the word “foreigner” for someone from another village 7-8 miles away.  With this mindset no real possibility of a national identity or consciousness would be possible.

People need to have an identity outside of themselves.  With local communities broken down and people thrown together en masse in unfamiliar environments, a sense of national identity emerged.  Mass production supported and perhaps helped create this national mindset.  Now across the country, people had the same goods and the same experiences.  We can eat in the same restaurants and sleep in the same hotels across the country.  One could speculate that had the IR arrived sooner in America, we may not have had the Civil War.

Cultural expressions of this newfound identity changed.  In the Romantic period music expressed abstract ideals, but around the mid-19th century music started to express more ethnic or national ideas.  Liszt’s “Hugarian Rhapsodies” still did have the high-flown Romantic flourishes, but the title reveals a shift in emphasis.

In time the wild Romantic musings disappeared, and as music geared more toward the centralized mass, it grew more contained in expression.  Suddenly the military march made its way into the popular consciousness.

Interestingly, as industrialization created a global economy, it helped create a globalized culture.  German marches sound very similar to American marches (though perhaps one might detect subtle darker undertones).

We may wonder, however, that if military songs become popular culture, than whole nations go to war, and not just armies.  This would mean that war would become vastly more deadly and destructive than previously, which is just part of the mixed legacy of the Industrial Revolution.

10th Grade: Richelieu and the New World Order

Greetings to all,

This week we looked at the 30 Years War and previewed the coming change towards the ‘Scientific Revolution.’

The 30 Years War was a devastating conflict in terms of loss of life.  But it was also devastating in a psychological, moral sense.  For decades Catholics and Protestants killed each other, burned towns, committed atrocities, all in the name of the Christian faith.  The map below shows the casualties in various parts of Germany alone.

Part of the reason the war became so destructive is that various nations, like Sweden, Spain, and France found reasons to get involved at various times during the war and extended it artificially. But part of the reason that religious conflicts  persist in general is that:

  • It is difficult to compromise or negotiate with religious belief
  • Victory in a religious war is hard to define

One can only come to terms in a religious war when either

  • Both sides are completely exhausted, or
  • You change what the war is about, making it something that you can compromise on, such as possession of territory.

This is in fact what happened, and this second reason is a clue to the coming transformation in the worldview of Europe.  Since the start of the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants had both lead with religion in the political and philosophical realm.  Now, their focus shifted towards the more tangible and measurable.  If you have the time, this clip from Kenneth Clarke’s ‘Civilisation’ series makes the transition in art and thought clear:

Essentially, Clark argues that the shift was from theory, which would include intellectual ideas as well as the unproven realm of ‘faith,’ to experience, observation, and the natural world.  It is the Dutch school of the 17th century that  exemplified this change.  One can see it in the work of Van Hals:

Here are practical, reasonable men.  They are a long way from the emotionally and spiritually moved men from, say, Carravaggio’s work just a few decades earlier.  This passion for representing reality apart from meaning reached it’s peak with this work of Paulus Potter:

I agree with Clark when he argues that here the passion for representing measurable reality has gone about as far as it can go.  The technical skill is remarkable, but for me at least, there is no ‘heart’ or ‘meaning’ in the work. As we shall see, the problem with this painting was the same lurking problem faced by the Scientific Revolution.

Probably the artist who married the best of the observational school with meaning had to be Rembrandt.   He depicted people “realistically,” but he managed to depict them as morally imaginative as well.  We think of him as a painter, but he was best known in his day for his etchings.  Here is one example:

If the Dutch exemplified the change in art, the French did so in the political realm.  Cardinal Richelieu is known for many things, but this quote exemplifies his philosophy:

‘People are immortal, and thus subject to the law of God.  States are mortal [that is, ‘unnatural,’ artificial, man-made creations], and are thus subject to the law of what works.’

Richelieu believed that nations did not interact with each other in the way that individuals did.  After all, people cannot kill each other, but nations can have armies that kill each other without necessarily sinning.  People can’t lie, but nations can send spies to other places where they ‘lawfully’ engage in deception.  It might be similar to people bluffing in poker.  They are trying to deceive, but are they sinning?  Most would say not, because when we play poker we enter into a world that has its own set of rules set apart from normal life.  Frenchmen will be judged by God.  But the geographical entity we call ‘France’ will pass away, it will not be judged.  Thus, ‘France’ could play by different rules than Frenchmen.

This famous painting of him shows his famously lean, intelligent frame:

With this perspective, Richelieu astounded and infuriated his contemporaries.  As France’s chief minister, he sought to serve the entity ‘France.’  This meant that:

  • France would intervene on behalf of Protestants in the 30 Years War, despite the fact that they were a Catholic nation.  Except that Richelieu didn’t see ‘Catholic France,’ but ‘France, where most people are Catholic.’  Richelieu fought not to protect Catholics, but the entity France, which he did not want surrounded by Catholic Spain.  Spain fought in the 30 Years War in part to recover the Netherlands, territory they had lost in the early 1600’s.  This new perspective shocked many, but it would be the way of the future
  • He believed that strengthening France would have to mean strengthening the king.  This in turn meant weakening the nobles.  We will see this European turn  away from the feudal era, and toward more centralized authority.  It would be another Frenchmen, Louis XIV, that would push these ideas even further later in the 17th century.

Have a great Thanksgiving break!

Dave Mathwin

Democracies and their Aristocracies, pt. 2

This serves as a companion piece to this post of some time ago . . .

Hat tip to Martin Gurri, who makes an excellent point in his new book.  The information revolution may very well serve mass democratic movements, and that may not be a good thing . . .


Many events leading up to the Peloponnesian War helped increase tensions between Athens and Sparta.  I never ascribe to theories that make certain events “inevitable,” but given the history between two of Greece’s pre-eminent powers, war was probably a better than 50-50 bet as tensions between them increased in the mid-5th century B.C.  Athens’ decision to build walls around the interior of the city and its harbor clearly added to these tensions.

I had always interpreted Athens’ decision in almost entirely military terms.  The Persians sacked their city in 480 B.C., and the Athenians recovered it only after a last stand naval battle in Salamis.  The psychological and physical scars of that event would naturally lead to a desire for more defense.

Naturally such an action strained things between Athens and Sparta.  Athens had a great navy, Sparta had its infantry.  Each could hurt the other in its own way, a kind of ancient application of “M.A.D.”  Now, Athens could hypothetically hurt Sparta or its allies without worrying too much about the consequences.  As great as Sparta fought in open battle, they had limited abilities in siege warfare.  Athens could remain safely behind the walls of Athens.  You could see the walls of Athens as a first strike weapon, one that allowed them to sally forth with Sparta not able to retaliate in kind.  So too, when President Reagan proposed his SDI “Star Wars” defense, many believed the invention would create a more dangerous world, not a safer one.

Peter J. Fleiss’ book Thucydides and the Politics of Bipolarity showed me a side of this issue I had not realized before.  Athens’ walls would never have been built without a decisive shift towards democracy in mid-5th century Athens.

Like almost any other place in the ancient world, Athens’ identity came from its landowning farmers.  However, around 600 B.C. the wealthier oligarchs gained an unstable amount of power via the Code of Draco.  At this point, Athens chose a tyrant named Solon to take control of Athens for 20 years, beginning in 590 B.C.  The choice revealed a lot about the Athenians.  Solon had wealth, which earned him the trust of the aristocracy, but . . . he was not an aristocrat, which earned him the respect of the people at large.

Solon embarked on a program to bring social stability back to Athens.  He had to walk a tightrope between competing factions and earned high praise from the ancient world for his reforms. For our purposes here, we note that

  • He refused to redivide land and let the wealthier aristocrats keep what they had acquired from the newly poor.
  • At the same time, he taxed the wealthy at a much higher rate
  • He helped grow a middle class by encouraging the growth of a merchant fleet

The growth of merchants provided a valve to let off social steam.  In addition, many of the city’s poor got jobs rowing the ships.  Solon attempted balance in his reforms, but hindsight shows us that the power of traditional elites was on the clock.

The economic story of Athens ca. 590-450 B.C. mirrors what happened to Rome when she started to shift to a more merchant oriented economy from 200-60 B.C.  Rome’s shift helped to destroy the very elites who profited most from this shift.  The power of elites rests on tradition.  Tradition comes from continuity, and continuity comes from land.  This has been the way of things from the days of yore.  Once cash money, and not land, formed the primary currency, the land-owning elites lost much of their power.

As Athens naval might grew the population shifted to more urban areas.  Of course poorer farmers resided outside the 350px-pelopennesian_war_walls_protecting_the_city_431_b-ccity walls, but we can be sure that the older, established families had most of their land outside the city limits.  This land would be the first target of any invading army.  Building the wall would allow for more protection, but any defensive structure sends a double message.  The Germans, for example, could invade Poland with confidence in 1939 because the Maginot line signaled a purely defensive posture for France along the frontier.  Building the walls around the city signaled that in the event of war Athens would willingly let the majority of its exterior farms fall into Spartan hands–until the war was won, of course.

Popular democracy would be the only plausible political vehicle to accomplish this.  Land of the elites outside the walls would suffer before the merchant class within the city.  In the event of a Spartan invasion, the navy, and the poor who rowed the ships, would rise even more in importance.  Only the navy could then procure food for the city under siege.  When the time came, Pericles proposed this exact strategy.*  At the start of the Peloponnesian War Athens retreated inside its walls and let Sparta have the run of the countryside, while their navy shouldered the military load.

Athens’ walls signaled a cultural shift as well.  Some of the established elites outside the walls were obviously more conservative, and might have had more in common with the average Spartan than the average Athenian inside the city.  The walls repudiated the statesmanship of leaders like Cimon who sought rapprochement with Sparta.**

To me Pericles’ strategy could have the hallmarks of the “tyranny of the majority” problem discussed by so many political philosophers.  Older, elite families lost land, but more importantly, they lost the possibility of gaining status in the war.  In the Greek world, status gave power, not vice-versa.  Pericles’ proposed strategy greatly limited the chances of the landed gentry gaining honor and status via battle, while greatly increasing the chances of the “demos” to gain in both departments.^

The failure of Pericles’ strategy, partly caused by the unforeseen plague that hit Athens, does not prove that democracies need elites.  But their failure in the overall war effort might suggest it.  Solon gained fame, honor, and success by pursuing a political agenda that both rewarded and burdened both the people and the elites.  In the 100 years after Solon left power, Athens went from an also-ran to a major power in the Greek world.  As democracy grew, so too did the people’s opportunities to strike back at their own elite.  They should have resisted the temptation.  As Tocqueville wrote, democracies usually win their wars, but that’s only when they unite against a common enemy.  In Athens’ day the political infighting that began the war lasted only until their situation got desperate.  We can’t measure the effect, but it surely hampered their efforts.  We might wonder if things would have been different if Pericles pursued a military strategy that allowed for participation and honor for both the people and the gentry.

Our recent election saw much ink spilled on the question of “elites.”  Some argued that Clinton is “elite” because of her connections and long political career.  Others argue that Trump is elite because of his wealth.  Whatever your definition, “elite” has become a dirty word.  That’s a shame, because history tells us that healthy democracies need, and perhaps even embrace, their “elites.”


*Thucydides argues that such a strategy would have worked had the Athenians had the discipline to stick with it.  This comment has always perplexed me for three main reasons: 1) At some point the Athenians would have had to deal with the Spartan infantry, and a policy of withdrawing behind walls would only embolden the Spartans, 2) The Athenians did have patience.  They tried this strategy for about 4 years, with no real success.  Initially the Spartans came, burned what they could, and left.  But eventually they realized they could come and stay for much of the year with impunity, because the Athenians never challenged them, and 3) Thucydides shows some disdain for the popular democracy throughout his narrative, and this policy only strengthened the hold of the demos on affairs of state.

**The mood shifted decisively with Cimon’s ostracism.  He father fought and won the Battle of Marathon.  Cimon himself had many noteworthy victories against the Persians.  Everything about “traditional values” pointed to a long and respected career for Cimon.

^This is one reason why I disagree with Thucydides’ assertion that Pericles’ time in power created an aristocratically leaning government with some democratic underpinnings.  Here I agree with Donald Kagan that Periclean democracy was really fully democratic.




Democracies and their Aristocracies

This post has had a few different lives (originally written during the party primaries) . . .

Our most recent election raises many questions for many people.  One thing appears clear . . . we knew that the Republican party was in trouble before this election.  Otherwise, Trump never would have received the nomination.  The fact that Clinton lost, however, shows the weakness of the Democratic party as well.  The whole party system will likely need a reboot in the coming years.

Below is the first re-posting note . . .


I published this about a year ago (you will note the dated references), but republish it to coincide with our look at Aristotle in our senior level Government class.  The original post is below.


Democracies have always had at best an uneasy relationship with aristocracies, for obvious reasons. The very presence of an aristocracy either seems like an obstacle or a reminder of the inadequacy of democracy.  But first and foremost, I suppose, democracies would interest themselves in self-preservation.  In turn it might mean, to paraphrase Aristotle, that democracies should adopt not the political practices that democracies want, but those designed instead to preserve democracies.

I thought of Aristotle’s dictum while reading Jonathan Rauch’s provocatively titled Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back Room Deals can Strengthen American Democracy.   I love the title.  Its (seeming) incongruity demands further examination.  But I admit I initially dismissedpoliticalrealism_990x450 the idea as a farce — until I thought about Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.  Democrats should be careful of cheering Trump on in the almost certain hope that he will fall on his face in due course.  We need good candidates on both sides to spur one another on and stabilize the electorate.  I found myself thinking, “Trump has had his fun and served his purpose.  Why hasn’t someone taken care of this?”  Then I realized that what in fact I wanted was a smoke-filled back room where “decisions” got made about these sorts of things.

No one suggests that such a solution resembles democracy.  But Rauch argues that these practices in fact preserve middle-ground, the key to a stable democracy. We fret about the increased polarization of the country and the lack of compromise. Look no further, Rauch argues, then to the decline of the power of parties — in our day particularly, the decline of the Republican party.  He contends that political machines in fact serve two key purposes:

  • They traffic in interests not ideas.  Ideas have no limits, no boundaries.  The “system” of politics is more easily quantified, thus more easily measured and controlled.
  • The candidates of a ‘machine’ stand accountable to a conglomeration of interests.  Ideological candidates have much less direct accountability.  This lack of accountability makes ideological candidates more free, and thus more oppositional.  As Rauch writes, “Show me a political system without machine-politics, and I’ll show you confusion, fragmentation, and a drift towards ungovernable extremism.”  Moderation, he argues comes not from moderates, but from machines that by design moderate everyone’s extremism.

Machine politics reminds us of Tammany Hall and other kinds of organizations filled with what even its ardent defenders might call “honest graft.”  Rauch argues that politics always involves making a lot of sausage.  But he argues that political machines also accomplished a great deal.  Tammany Hall dramatically boosted voter turnout and passed a great deal of progressive legislation.  Lyndon Johnson made who knows how many deals to pass the Civil Rights Act.  Progressives, Libertarians, and Tea-Partiers, Rauch argues, get so caught up in the purity of the idea, the purity of the process, that nothing ever gets done.  For him they are the modern-day lotus eaters.

But however good sausages taste, watching them get made never sits well.  Machine politics face the hurdles of ideologues. The modern media microscope surely offers no help either.  I can see Americans get fed up with polarization and return to a more centrist mindset.  I can’t see the media going away or turning a blind eye any time soon to back-room deals.  This poses the biggest challenge to a return to the bygone days of political machines.

Rauch makes an eloquent plea for his idea.  He effectively demonstrates the moderating effect of machines.  I wish he had talked more about the inevitable nature of ideology in democracies, or the inevitable nature of ideology in human experience.  For Rauch, ideology is almost a four-letter word. He recognizes its power, but not its place.  So, ok, machines can moderate ideologies.  But I wonder if Rauch the pragmatic realist is asking us to accept the fantasy that (to reference Thucydides) interest will trump honor and/or fear.

Also we need more than a modern comparison to evaluate it. We need greater perspective outside of our own sphere. Basically what he asks for is a democracy managed by a semi-official oligarchy.  In many ways we had this in  post-Napoleonic Europe in the 19th century.  How does this period stack up?

Some features of this era:

  • A significant increase in democracy through expanded voting rights, and in some places, limitations on the ‘elite’ legislative bodies (like the House of Lords in England).
  • Relative peace — at least internally in Europe.  Wars happened but they tended to be limited in scope and duration.
  • An aristocracy that had less power than the previous century but still lots of influence.  What’s more — this aristocracy had more mobility than perhaps at any other time in history.  Traveling around Europe formed an integral part of the growing up experience for many aristocratic youth.  Thus, the aristocracy formed a real “boys club” throughout central and western Europe (most of the monarchies also had some familial relationship to one another as well).
  • As an extension of this, lots and lots of international conferences to settle disputes and award prizes to the participants.

Of course no era is perfect.  Some would point out that the “relative peace” I mention came at the expense of significant overseas expansion. I argue elsewhere that such expansion created domestic internal issues.  Others might say that the catastrophe of W.W. I emerged from the ultimate failure of this system. We should consider their record in context, however. The system they established must have the backdrop of the chaos of the highly ideological French Revolution and the resultant Napoleonic Wars that killed millions.

We will see whether or not this next election shows the need for the return of political machines.  If Hilary Clinton runs against Jeb Bush for the presidency, we might even argue that such machines never left.  But another question that Rauch fails to ask is, can they return to prominence?  It may be more than a matter of political will.  The decline of political machines has its roots beyond politics.  For example, after itunes, Youtube, etc., record companies exist, but not in the same way.  The power they had in the 1990’s to release greatest hits albums of their artists but put one new song on the album to try and make die-hard fans buy entire albums to get that one song — may never return (not that I’m bitter or anything).  We can observe this de-centralization most everywhere in our culture.  And surely this de-centralization comes at a price, but also gives some benefits?  Rauch sees no real benefits to political de-centralization and cannot weigh the merits of both.

But this is still a good book.  It makes one think.  Fundamentally, it asks us to consider whether or not democracies, left to themselves, will preserve themselves from their own folly.

Rebels Against the Future

A few years ago at the Circe Institute conference Andrew Kern made a startling statement.  In the midst of his opening speech he mentioned the Luddites.  I have always assumed (like most of us I suppose) that the Luddites attacked the mechanical looms for economic reasons.  But Kern suggested that perhaps the Luddites acted, even subconsciously, for more fundamental reasons.

All throughout ancient literature (which people in the early 19th century would be familiar with) weaving relates strongly to wisdom.  So Penelope’s weaving, for example, is not merely a clever device to stall the suitors.  She represents wisdom and faithfulness in contrast to the suitors who grasp for power and wealth.  They will not confirm Odysseus’ death, rather they will take what they want in defiance of the pattern of creation and marriage.  The idea of the “fabric of society” closely relates to weaving, and so on.

So, Kern surmised, the Luddites didn’t just act to try and preserve their jobs.  They may have acted to preserve the idea of wisdom itself.

I thought the idea intriguing at the time, but perhaps a bit of a stretch.  But I started to look for weaving in ancient literature.  To my surprise Plato uses weaving in “The Statesmen” as an analogy for good government.  In Jason and the Argonauts, I saw Medea the sorceress contrasted with Queen Arete, who is weaving when we first meet her.  I’m starting to think Kern may have been on to something.

I finally went in search of a book on the Luddites and came across Rebels Against the Future Kirkpatrick Sale.  Sale gives a good overview of the Luddites but does little else.  He gives us some important perspective, showing us that the Luddites had nothing against technology per se, but only against, to quote from a Luddite letter, “Machinery hurtful to commonality.”   He clearly favors the Luddite cause and shows many examples of their courage.  Sale’s explanation for the Luddites ultimate failure, however, leaves out to my mind the most basic reason.  In resorting to violence, they at times fired upon common men like themselves, and thus abandoned their moral high ground.  Furthermore, their use of violence played directly into the hands of their adversaries.  Once they broke the law, the state naturally would defend the men behind the machines.  And the state had much more force to use than the Luddites.*  Had the Luddites exercised more patience and used a non-violent, grass-roots approach, history might have been different.  As to how different, Sale offers no thoughts.  Did industrial looms pose more of a threat than factories that performed other tasks?  Would it be possible to industrialize in some areas and not others?  If other countries industrialized their economy, and thus, their armies, what would the consequences be for a non-industrial country?  The age of imperialism might offer some hints on this, and questions about community balanced with security (among other questions) should be asked.

Sale just scratches the surface.  Maybe not much else exists to see.  Maybe the Luddites had no higher purpose than saving their jobs.  But I think the Luddites reference to “commonality” hints that Kern had more insight than I first supposed.  I will hope to find other books that can take the issue deeper.

My favorite part of Toynbee’s sixth volume of his A Study of History deals with his examination of what he calls archaism.  “Archaics” in his context seek to recover their civilization in a time of crisis by using a time-machine to travel back to some imagined golden age.  We should much prefer archaism to “futurism.”  The past has the advantage of having an actual reality and thus restrains action somewhat.  The futurist has no such limitations, and the evil they work in their earnest desperation will likely be much more terrible.  Toynbee points out that archaists would usually rather be archaeologists than politicians.  Alas, political realities set in and something must give.  The impossibility of drawing back the masses to the past with you means that archaists often choose violence in the end.  And this ends up dooming their movement.^

I think the Luddites use of violence contributed heavily to their defeat, but I would not call them “archaists.”  They sat on the knife-edge of change and saw a darkness on the horizon.  The “past” they tried to preserve was in fact the present.  Given that they did not reject all technology they had no wish to futilely put the brakes on all aspects of societal change.  They saw clearly what the Industrial Revolution would do to their communities and their sense of self.  If they did not submit to “archaism” they had more psychological flexibility at their disposal, which makes their use of violence more troubling to me.  Perhaps in the end they simply lacked the very rare traits necessary to translate those ideas politically.

*Gene Sharp makes brilliant points about the benefits of non-violent struggle against states or state-sponsored entities in “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” available online.

^I.e, Tiberius Graachi, who committed himself almost entirely to non-violence.  But he did violate the Roman constitution and so became a law-breaker.  This may have cost his movement the fence-sitters they needed, and it also opened the door for the Senate to respond with force.