“A Land of Great Sinners, a Land of Great Saints”

If you can imagine a young, somewhat effete French aristocrat taking a trip to Russia to observe and perhaps even be instructed by their ways, then you can probably imagine the reaction of a colleague of mine who saw me reading the book.  He commented, “A French aristocrat observing Russians?  The poor man will be bound to say something like,’Oh, I can’t even!'”

Indeed, the Marquis von Custine found himself most unimpressed with the Russians and made that absolutely clear in his memoir of 1839, Empire of the Czar.

I feel for the Marquis.  His father perished in the French Revolution.  His mother survived only through good fortune.  He saw the rise of Napoleon and the attendant uncertainty following his fall.  Scarred by democracy and revolution, he came to Russia in hopes of finding an elixir to the political ills of the west.  Expecting so much, and indeed, too much, the crushing disappointment and disillusionment he expressed should not surprise us.

Obviously one can find much to critique about Russia.  The fact that Custine doesn’t like Russia should not bother the historian.  But Custine’s dislike is visceral and almost hysterical in nature.  Nearly everything disgusts him.  The lay of the land fills his soul with ennui, the architecture of the cities leave him cold.  The expressions of the people leave him perplexed and alienated.   It is not so much that he observes a kind of brutality, but that even the brutality seems lifeless.  He searches for explanations and finds none.  Those he encounters defend the situation by saying something like, “The soul of Russia is not veiled over or explained by any sort of doctrines,” which only enrage him all the more.  Inevitably he returns to his main theme, that Russia has no spontaneity, that all everywhere has a military bearing all the time, that no one ever laughs except on cue, and so on.  He lets himself go a bit and admits for a paragraph or two to admiring the Peterhof palace (pictured below), for example.  But then he inevitably returns to his theme–i.e., “yes it is grand and magnificent, but no one is happy here, one must force every gesture,” and so on.  His main lesson for all French parents boils down to, “If your children complain about France, send them to Russia.  They will return full of love for their native land.”

At roughly the same time as the Marquis went to Russia, Alexis de Tocqueville (another French aristocrat) came to America to observe democracy in action.  Tocqueville created an acknowledged masterpiece, in turn praising, critiquing, and giving deadpan analysis of nascent democratic practice.  Custine’s work strays nowhere near this.  Granted, sometimes he entertains his readers more than Tocqueville did.  His fits of astonishment and disgust provide a kind of comedy.

Though the book has obvious flaws, the Marquis provides something different than most historians.  He offers not analysis but a kind of poetry.  He offers to capture Russia in a painting rather than in prose.  He seeks to provide an interpretation even above seeking an understanding.

I don’t entirely fault him for this.  In fact I think we need more writers like him.  At least Custine dares greatly.

If one is an Orthodox Christian, as I am, one need not absolutely love Russia, but, one must at least come to know the Russians and appreciate them in some way. Their history bears witness to a great wisdom born from a great suffering.  The list of “new martyrs” under Communism is immeasurably long.  Their novelists write with an unmatched power to move the soul, as do their filmmakers.  I think it no coincidence that many of the greatest spiritual witnesses of the last century have been Russians.


Icon of the “New Martyrs” under Soviet rule.

And yet the blunt brutality witnessed by Custine (not so much in specific acts but in demeanor and habits) shows up often in Russia’s history. The horrors of Stalin had much to do with ideology and the particular leaders in place.  But we must admit too that the gulags, murders, and martyrs could not have happened just anywhere.  I once heard an American Orthodox priest sigh and say, “Ah, Russia, a land of great sinners, a land of great saints,” and he said this with a mixture of admiration, frustration, and bewilderment.  Though he has visited Russia on a few occasions spanning multiple years, he too did not understand.

But, though he did not understand, still, he saw the different sides.  So while I don’t blame Custine for his poetic attempt at understanding, it fails–not because he is negative–but because he blinds himself to Russia’s virtues.  If everyone really existed at the level of misery he describes their civilization would have collapsed some time ago.  And yet, they not only keep going, they have found a way to maintain their identity in the face of several disasters dating back centuries, from the Mongol invasions, to the “Time of Troubles,” through Napoleon, World War II, and the like.  Clearly Russia has something that Custine failed to see.

But–I heartily approve of the nature of his project and the way he attempted to understand Russia.  Historians do their job well when they can hone in on something specific and use it to explain the whole.  They need the flair of an artist.  As one historian comments,

My answer is an hypothesis, and it can take form both simple and complex. Most simply: history was—and still is— becoming elusive as well as ever more uncomfortable. Poets and novelists are people whose vocation it is to see and say as much as possible the whole of things rather than their division into categories; they are sensitive to a wholeness they believe to be really there and really prepotent over appearances even if it can be grasped only by synoptic and symbolic vision attending to minute particulars.

When one tries to specify a little more this elusiveness of history, the same hypothesis takes a more complicated, more problematic, maybe even a more dubious form. This form has to do with the amazing growth of the scientific way of viewing the world, and with the corresponding growth of the technological way of changing the world that went along with it. Most plainly, the poets have never been happy under the reign of Newtonian mechanics and Kantian criticism. Their distrust of, their protests against, the consequences entailed upon life and thought by this physics and this philosophy form a major strand in the movement known as Romanticism, which indeed may not be over yet. For it was the effect of Newton to remove mind from the cosmos except as a passive recording instrument, and the effect of the dominance of Kant’s philosophy to remove from remaining mind any access whatever to ultimate reality. Whereas poetic thought can proceed beyond the minimal affirmation of parlor verse only upon the supposition that the world is equally and simultaneously perceivable as real and as transpicuous, or sacramental, and that no percept is ever divorced entirely from concept.

The best historians will not necessarily need gobs of data.  For some writers, data and not conclusions or interpretation form their main concern.  While obviously saying nothing against facts, historians should know how to find the right part that illumines the whole.

I’ll make my own attempt to sum up all things Russian–the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their religious revival, Putin swimming in icy lakes, and the like, via a story from the Russian Book of the Year for 2012 entitled Everyday Saints, which mainly tells stories about the monks in the one monastery the Soviets could not close.  The author relates an encounter between a group of monks and some drunken hooligans, which I paraphrase here.

The monks walked along a country road and came upon a few louts.  The foolish and loud youths threw mud and insults at them, calling them idlers, fools, black beetles, and other such names.

Still, the monks walked with heads bowed.

Then, “Getting no response, the idiots then took to blaspheming the Son of God and His Most Holy Mother in the foulest and most unnatural of ways.”

They stopped walking.  Their heads came up.

The priest at the head of the line stated, “I am a priest, and so may not answer.  Father Vassily is infirm, and Father Tikhon will look after him.  But Brother Alexander . . . he may answer.”

It turns out that Brother Alexander studied martial for years before entering the monastery.  He let out a ferocious yell and proceed to do some serious damage, easily taking all on at once, and leaving each man bloodied and a few with broken teeth behind him.

After checking to see that no one needed to go the hospital, the monks then continued on their way.







10th Grade: The Puritans in Power


This week we looked at the aftermath of the trial and execution of Charles I in England, and the ascension of the Puritans, represented by Oliver Cromwell, to power.

It’s hard to get more controversial than Oliver Cromwell.  Some see him as a champion of republican liberty, while some go so far as to label him a proto-fascist.    The facts are that the army dominated Parliament, and so Cromwell dominated Parliament.  He used this power to clear Parliament out of many of his opponents. He then went on campaigns in Ireland and Scotland to put down Stuart inspired resistance known for their brutality, and attempted to resign upon his return.  When this seemed impossible, he continued in power and became ‘Lord Protector’ of England and practically a king in all but name.

If you are a fan of Oliver Cromwell, you look at the events this way:

  • He did not have the luxury of waiting for Parliament to decide on a proper course.  Society will not stop to wait while the Revolution makes its decisions.  Cromwell felt that if Parliament would not act, society might descend into anarchy.
  • His campaigns were brutal, but you could argue that they were traitors and needed to be killed.
  • His attempt to resign shows that he was not interested in power as such, and wanted broader based democratic government.

Those against could just as well argue that

  • His lack of patience with Parliament may have had much more to due with the fact that he viewed Parliament as ineffectual not because they couldn’t function, so much as they would not agree with him.
  • His brutality during the Irish campaign became notorious, as he executed even those who surrendered voluntarily.  This poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for centuries to come.
  • His assuming essential monarchical powers does not help those who argue that Cromwell was not interested in power for the sake of power alone.

The English Civil War gives witness to a key principle of revolutions in general.  For an existing power to get overthrown, one usually needs significant power to oppose it.  For the existing power to in danger of getting overthrown usually (not always) means some kind of misrule and perhaps abuse of power which would affect many people.  However, this abuse of power would not affect everyone in the same way.  So, while the government falls because many opposed it, they did not oppose it for the same reasons.  After the revolution, the victorious discover that they could agree on what was wrong, but not what to do in its place.

Who gets the power in these circumstances?  Usually whoever exerts the most direct control over the army.  The dynamic that played out in England may resemble what happened in Egypt, for example, after they overthrew Mubarak.

Cromwell’s attempt to found a republic also raises uncomfortable questions about the line between morality and practicality in politics.  In his Discourses on Livy Machiavelli argues that any major shift in power, especially to a more democratic form of government, must be the work of one man (I include the full text at the end of the post).  In the end, the changes in government must have a point of unity, a point of control.  One might think that the American Revolution defeats this argument, but I think it unlikely the colonies would have successfully transitioned without George Washington, who “had” to serve as our first president.  One need not agree with Machiavelli’s moral implications (he excuses Romulus’ murder of his brother) to see the practical side of his ideas.

What did the Revolution Accomplish?

At first glance it seems the revolution accomplished little.  After Cromwell’s death Parliament recalled Charles I son Charles from exile and asked him to be King Charles II.  Charles did not rule without Parliament as his father had, but the powers of Parliament had clearly declined.  People rejoiced in Charles’s return from exile in France.  On the surface, since Charles II would have succeeded his father had their been no civil war, it seems like nothing changed.

But the proof would be felt in the long term.  Parliament had set a precedent.  Even in recalling Charles, they showed that it was they who could make kings as well as unmake them.  This would be felt most clearly after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Parliament kicked out James II and brought in William and Mary to be king in 1689.  Of course, William and Mary could reign, but on Parliament’s terms, not their own.

Still the aftermath of the Revolution does show the power of embedded habits and tradition.  We should expect that in uncertain times we fall back upon what we know — hence — Charles II.

The “Restoration” under Charles II had many strengths.  After the tumult of the previous 15-20 years people desperately wanted to relax and live their normal lives.  Charles II proved to be a very different man than his father, both in governing style and in temperament, as this portrait reveals.

Pulling off those shoes would require, if nothing else, a sense of humor, something Charles I lacked.  He also had more political sense regarding Parliament, and though he had little strong religious feeling himself (until the very end of his life, apparently) this at least meant that the religious furor that had wracked England for the past few decades could subside.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527):
Founding a Republic,
Excerpt from Discourses I, 9

To found a new republic, or to reform entirely the old institutions of an existing one, must be the work of one man only

It may perhaps appear to some that I have gone too far into the details of Roman history before having made any mention of the founders of that republic, or of her institutions, her religion and her military establishment. Not wishing, therefore, to keep any longer in suspense the desires of those who wish to understand these matters, I say that many will perhaps consider it an evil example that the founder of a civil society, as Romulus was, should first have killed his brother, and then have consented to the death of Titus Tatius, who had been elected to share the royal authority with him; from which it might be concluded that the citizens, according to the example of their prince, might, from ambition and the desire to rule, destroy those who attempt to oppose their authority. This opinion would be correct, if we do not take into consideration the object which Romulus had in view in committing that homicide. But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic. It is well that, when the act accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when the result is good, as in the case of Romulus, it will always absolve him from blame. For he is to be reprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficent purposes. The lawgiver should, however, be sufficiently wise and virtuous not to leave this authority which he has assumed either to his heirs or to any one else; for mankind being more prone to evil than to good, his successor might employ for evil purposes the power which he had used only for good ends. Besides, although one man alone should organise a government, yet it will not endure long if the administration of it remains on the shoulders of a single individual; it is well, then, to confide this to the charge of many, for thus it will be sustained by the many. Therefore, as the organisation of anything cannot be made by many, because the divergence of their opinions hinders them from agreeing as to what is best, yet, when once they do understand it, they will not readily agree to abandon it. That Romulus deserves to be excused for the death of his brother and that of his associate, and that what he had done was for the general good, and not for the gratification of his own ambition, is proved by the fact that he immediately instituted a senate with which to consult, and according to the opinions of which he might form his resolutions. And on carefully considering the authority which Romulus reserved for himself, we see that all he kept was the command of the army in case of war, and the power of convoking the senate. This was seen when Rome became free, after the expulsion of the Tarquins, when there was no other innovation made upon the existing order of things than the substitution of two consuls, appointed annually, in place of an hereditary king; which proves clearly that all the original institutions of that city were more in conformity with the requirements of a free and civil society than with an absolute and tyrannical government.

The above views might be corroborated by any number of examples, such as those of Moses, Lycurgus, Solon, and other founders of monarchies and republics, who were enabled to establish laws suitable for the general good only by keeping for themselves an exclusive authority; but all these are so well known that I will not further refer to them. I will adduce only one instance, not so celebrated, but which merits the consideration of those who aim to become good legislators: it is this. Agis, king of Sparta, desired to bring back the Spartans to the strict observance of the laws of Lycurgus, being convinced that, by deviating from them, their city had lost much of her ancient virtue, and consequently her power and dominion; but the Spartan ephors had him promptly killed, as one who attempted to make himself a tyrant. His successor, Cleomenes, had conceived the same desire, from studying the records and writings of Agis, which he had found, and which explained his aims and intentions. Cleomenes was convinced that he would be unable to render this service to his country unless he possessed sole authority; for he judged that, owing to the ambitious nature of men, he could not promote the interests of the many against the will of the few; and therefore he availed himself of a convenient opportunity to have all the ephors slain, as well as all such others as might oppose his project, after which he restored the laws of Lycurgus entirely. This course was calculated to resuscitate the greatness of Sparta, and to give Cleomenes a reputation equal to that of Lycurgus, had it not been for the power of the Macedonians and the weakness of the other Greek republics. For being soon after attacked by the Macedonians, and Sparta by herself being inferior in strength, and there being no one whom he could call to his aid, he was defeated; and thus his project, so just and laudable, was never put into execution. Considering, then, all these things, I conclude that, to found a republic, one must be alone; and that Romulus deserves to be absolved from, and not blamed for, the death of Remus and of Tatius.

8th Grade: The Definition of Collapse


This week we very nearly wrapped up Assyrian civilization.

Last week I mentioned our look at Assyria’s religion and the concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch’ as factors in Assyria’s decline.  This week we considered Assyria in light of Christ’s words to Peter and the Apostles, ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword.’

In a fallen world, force can have a legitimate place in government.  But both from a historical, moral, and political perspective, force can never be the foundation for order.  Force can gain acceptance, or have legitimacy, if people see it as an extension of justice.  But when a power uses force detached from justice, people sense that they use violence merely to serve their own selfish ends.  This inspires them to seek justice/revenge, and this is why violence apart from justice is a wasting asset.

All of the problems Assyria faced they brought upon themselves.  They treated subject populations brutally out of a combination of a) religious belief, and b) policy that sought the quickest route towards “getting everyone in line” with their conquests.  But as their power grew, the attention they could give to subject territories lessened, which reduced their chances of stopping rebellions.

Eventually too, their obsession with violence and conquest would be bound to turn back on themselves.  After Ashurbanipal II completed the conquest of the fertile crescent, (which left nothing for the next guy) Assyria descended into civil war (having no one left to fight but themselves).  Simultaneously, they faced rebellions from a few major provinces, which mean that they faced a dire crisis from within as well as without.  They had nothing left on which to stand, and collapsed completely within a few short years.  Regarding their incessant militarism and addiction to violence, Toynbee comments,

The loss and misery which Assyria inflicted on her neighbors is beyond calculation, and yet the legendary remark of the schoolmaster to the boy he is whipping–‘It hurts you less than it hurts me,’–would be a pertinent critique of Assyrian military activities. . . .  The full and bombastic Assyrian record of victories abroad is significantly supplemented by rarer and briefer notices of troubles at home that give us an inkling of the price at which Assyrian victories were purchased.

An increasing military strain revenged itself with increasing frequency of palace revolutions and peasant revolts.  As early as the close of the second bout of aggression in the ninth century B.C. we find Shalmaneser III dying in 827 B.C. with his son on the war-path against him, and Ninevah, Asshur, and Arbela in rebellion. . .

Toynbee goes on then to cite rebellions in 763, 760, and 746, and ca. 730 B.C., and then he continues,

After this the two streams of domestic stasis and foreign warfare merge into one; after Ashurbanipal’s death this swells into a mighty river whose rushing waters bear Assyria away to her now inevitable doom.  During the last years of Assyrian history the domestic and foreign aspect of Assyria’s disintegration are hardly distinguishable.

Can a civilization be rooted entirely in a frontier mentality and lifestyle?  Assyria was located on the ‘frontier’ of Mesopotamian civilization.  Like many frontier people, they could be inventive and self-reliant.  But their beliefs, their foreign policy led them to conquest ‘a outrance’ as the French say.   Assyria’s attacks against Babylon come with an animosity that a farmer in West Virginia might feel for Manhattan investment bankers.  But frontiers need a home base, and with this attack, Assyria was cutting off its face to spite its nose.  The arm which held the sword stabbed the heart.  Without Babylon, Assyria suffered much in the same way that the West Virginia farmer would suffer.   Without the banks, where would be the corporations to buy the food they grew?  If they always looked outward, could they build a solid cultural foundation on which to rest?  While some aspects of Assyria’s cultural heritage can be disputed, no one would doubt that in comparison to Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, Assyria’s cultural output was quite low.  Their architecture, art, and literature all were inferior to their neighbors.

In the end, Assyria contributed heartily to its own demise.  I quote now from Ashurbanipal II, the last great king of Assyria, who wrote as he saw things crumbling around him:

‘The rules for making offerings to the dead. . . which had not been practiced, I reintroduced.  I did well unto god and man, to dead and living.  Why have sickness and misery descended upon me?  I cannot away with strife and dissension.  Misery of flesh and mind oppress me.   Death is seizing hold of me. With lamentation and mourning I wail day and night.  O God wilt thou deal thus with me?  Even as one who has not feared God and Goddess I am reckoned.’

Historian Arnold Toynbee comments,

‘This confession is  . . . moving in its sincerity and in its bewilderment, but above all illuminating in its blindness. When this mood overtook him, did the last of the Assyrian war-lords never find himself reciting that terrible catalogue of cities sacked and people’s wiped out by Assyrian arms — a list which concluded with his own sack of Susa and annihilation of Elam?’

One sees a complete lack of self-awareness on Assyria’s part.  It’s as if they erased their conscience through centuries of systematic cruelty.  They reveled in their conquests and never questioned their actions, celebrating them in their meager artistic achievements.

Next week I will update you on our investigation of Babylon.

Enlightenment Liberty and its Children

The website Aeon recently posted a solid article from historian Josiah Ober.  In the article Ober makes the point that democracy and liberal government — that is, rule of law, free speech, protection of minority rights, etc. — do not always go hand in hand.  Indeed, we have seen many good marriages between the two concepts over time.  But at times democracy has not produced liberal government, and historical examples exist of other forms of government ruling in a liberal way.

Ober states that liberal ideas that limited the power of government and enthroned the autonomy of the individual came from the Enlightenment, ca. 1650-1750.  I have no qualms with this, and I applaud Ober pointing out the tension that sometimes exists between democracy and liberalism.  But we should pause for a moment to consider the implications for the minority protections the Enlightenment sought to enthrone.

I’ll start by saying that rule of law brings a huge amount of good to a society.  But a quick scan of the heritage of the Enlightenment will confuse us.  For as we saw the rise of political and individual liberty enshrined in democratic regimes we also see a rise in slavery — at least in America.*  Surely many reasons exist for the rise of slavery ca. 1700-1860 — too many for me to explore or fully understand.  But we cannot deny the confluence of political liberalism and oppression of the natives and African Americans.  Does a link exist between freedom and slavery?

We often hear arguments such as, “Of course pornography is bad for society.  But the remedy for the evil (i.e., making it illegal) would be worse than the disease.”  We hear these kinds of statements all the time, they roll off the tongue without thinking.  But not long ago people used similar arguments to justify slavery.  “Yes slavery is bad, but in order to have freedom we cannot give government the power to curtail it.”  I don’t want to over-spiritualize the issue, but the fact remains that pornography enslaves the passions and the basic humanity of hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of men and women.  The abortion issue has similar rhetoric. I had a college professor argue that, “Yes, abortion is a terrible thing, but what you pro-life people don’t understand is that without abortion, women would not have the rights and opportunities they have today.”  All over the Enlightenment view of individual autonomy we see this ghastly trade-off between “liberty” and death — be it physical or spiritual — again and again.  We may have to entertain the notion that slavery often comes on the coattails of this kind of freedom.

In our history, at certain times at least, we definitely lacked the will to restrain ourselves.  Historian Pauline Maier notes that at the Constitutional Convention George Mason wanted to include a provision to have all trade laws pass by a super majority.  He foresaw that northern commercial interests, combined with its more numerous population, would alienate southern agricultural interests. In exchange, he willingly hoped to grant Congress the power to abolish slavery.  He lost on this issue, according to him, because Georgia and South Carolina would not agree.  In exchange for precluding even the possibility of the banning of slavery until 1808, trade laws would pass with simple majorities.

Sure enough, in 1860 such states complained of laws that favored northern manufacturing interests as one motive for secession (the issue also came up in the Nullification Crisis during Jackson’s presidency).  Of course, they complained as well about Republican plans with regards to slavery.

In a recent interview the Archimandrite Tikhon said that,

Today . . . we talk not of the possible limitations of the freedom of speech, but of the real everyday criminal abuses of this freedom. Who are those that shout of the threat of ‘limitations’ most of all? Those, who have monopolized information and turned the media into real weapons, which are meant not only for manipulating the public conscience, but also aiming at ruining personality and society.   . . . Of course, I’m for limiting speech that ruins freedom, as well for limitation of drugs and alcohol, for limitation of abortions – and everything which causes loss of health, degradation and ruin of nation. And the opportunity to watch vileness on TV, the right to be duped, the ability to develop a brutal cruelty and the lowest instincts in oneself – this is not freedom. Plainly, it is an absolute slavery.

In spite of any prohibitions man will have the right and possibility to choose evil anyway, nobody will take away this right, don’t worry. But the state must protect its citizens from aggressive foisting this evil upon them.

The man interviewing him got quite nervous at such a response, as would many in the United States today.  Who should make the decisions, and to what degree, remains a very thorny question.  One might even successfully argue that no good method of making that decision exists today, at least in America. But the fact that, at least in theory, we should certainly limit liberty in certain respects, appears obvious.  To say otherwise is to bring pure selfishness and greed into the fabric of our lives  Many would say that this has already happened.

Once we realize this we must re-evaluate the whole heritage of the Enlightenment view of liberty and the individual.  The rule of law seems a nearly unqualified good.  But I don’t think it need go hand-in-glove with a view of liberty that inevitably leads to slavery in some form.  Law after all, by its very nature, asks us to give up some form of liberty for the good of others.

Aristotle’s Politics adds another perspective.  He discusses the concept of proportionality in the state and teases out how imbalances even of virtues can cause harm.  The concept of “the golden mean” drips throughout his writings.  When even certain particular virtues assume too much of a place in the life of the state, it will cause harm.  In this situation, the inevitable counter-reaction will cause harm, because it too will lack balance and proportion.  One might posit that the whole “snowflake,” “safe space,” and trigger-warning phenomena present on some college campuses is just such a misshapen and destructive reaction to the abuse of freedom.

Tocqueville made the boring but true statement that, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”  Aristotle would add that such liberty must exist in proportion to other necessary virtues of the state.


*I know that of course slavery existed before the Enlightenment.  But slavery had generally disappeared during the Middle Ages, and revived again only during the Renaissance, when certain Roman concepts of law, property, and a classical idea of liberty made its way back into the stream of European civilization.  The Enlightenment built off this Renaissance heritage in many respects, and so it is no surprise that its heirs practiced a revival of slavery — something worse even than Roman slavery.

10th Grade: The Death of a King

Greetings to all,

This week we looked at the building tension between Parliament and Charles I.  The civil war that eventually came would, in the long term, change the way the western world thought of political power.

As I mentioned last week, Charles inherited the ideas of absolute monarchy from his father James.  As some commentators, have suggested, however, there was a difference.  For James absolutism was an intellectual question, and thus a conviction he could dispense with, or at least minimize, when the time called for it.  For Charles, absolutism was a emotional issue, and one associated with his religious convictions.  It ran deeper for him, he believed in it with his heart instead of his head.

It would be wrong to say that Charles coveted power for the sake of power.  His conception of England was a realm that needed a shepherd.  He viewed England in personal terms.  His “High Church” Anglicanism serves as an example of this.  Yes, Charles liked ceremony, but also believed ceremony and pageantry appealed to masses, many of whom could not read.  He saw himself as their protector from the more “intellectual” Puritans.  His parliamentarian opponents saw England I think, in terms of institutions, and these institutions for them were the guarantee of the people’s liberties.  Both sides saw the same picture from different perspectives, and different aspects of the picture had different meanings for them.

Among the issues at stake:

Should something be considered legal if it is within the letter but not necessarily the spirit of the law?  Is the letter or the spirit of the law a better guarantee of liberty?

To understand this question, the issue at hand was Charles’s refusal to rule with Parliament, and his collection of the ‘Ship’s Tax.’  Being an introvert and socially awkward, I think Charles hated Parliament.  He did not hate every MP, but he did hate the crowd, the glad-handing, the politicking of it all.  Charles lacked people skills. It was just so much easier, on a number of levels, for him to rule alone without Parliament’s help.  As king, he was not required to call Parliament at all, except when he wanted new taxes.
Charles tried to keep expenses down but every government needs money at some point.  The ‘Ship’s Tax’ was a law still on the books from a few generations prior, but it had fallen into disuse.  It was used as a war-time measure to raise money when under the threat of invasion.   The last time it had been collected was back in the days when Elizabeth used it as a special measure to help prepare defense against the Spanish Armada.  Charles resurrected the tax.  Technically it was not a ‘new’ tax, for it had been collected before.  But Charles was using the tax as a means of general, not special revenue, and he did so to avoid calling for Parliament’s approval for any new taxes.  Charles was within the letter, but not the spirit of the law.  The tax was not “new” in the sense that it had once been collected, albeit with a different purpose in mind.  But Charles revived the tax not under threat of invasion, but as a loophole to avoid Parliament altogether.
By definition, can the king be a traitor?  If so, what would he have to do to merit that approbation?  If one conceives of the king personally embodying England itself then the answer is no.  But if one sees the king as a steward over something outside of himself, then it becomes a possibility.  Charles obviously viewed himself in the former sense, and Parliament the latter.  But at the time, no consensus existed on this question.

Should a bad, or ineffective king, be given complete loyalty?  Does the power of the king depend on how he rules, or on his office?

In the end, Parliament put Charles on trial for treason.  He had, they claimed, made war on his own people and trampled on the Constitution.  Furthermore, he had lied to them and negotiated with the Scots to invade on his behalf, while negotiating in supposed good faith with Parliament.  But the Parliament that tried Charles was not the full Parliament.  The army booted out those whom they suspected that Charles bought off, including the whole House of Lords.  Parliament may have the power to try the king, but was this Parliament?  Charles, at the trial, refused to enter a plea for this reason.  He argued that while “a power” faced him, law did not, which the following clip illustrates. . .

Charles never actually had a trial.  When he refused to enter a plea Parliament found him guilty “in abstentia” (though of course it did not take 2:30 as in the movie clip!).  Though I personally think that Parliament had a good case against Charles, they forced the issue and gave Charles back some dignity and legitimacy when they did not use the full Parliament to put him on trial.

At the end of this week we assigned lawyers to prosecute and defend Charles, as well as witnesses for the defense and prosecution.  I hope the students will have fun with our own mini ‘mock-trial’ and come away with a greater understanding of England during the mid-1600’s.  But as we will discuss next week, the past is not wholly “past.”  Our own ‘War on Terror’ has raised many of the same questions that faced the English.  Should torture ever be used, as Charles did, in time of war?  How far does the power of the president extend in war time?  Bush, for example, defended his extensive wire-tapping as a necessary war-time measure even if it was in a distinctly grey constitutional area, as this article notes.
These are many of the same dilemmas, in an obviously different context, that the English dealt with in 1650.  I hope students will make the connections.
Dave Mathwin
*Observe, for example, how in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” the kings of France and England call each other “Brother France,” and “Brother England.”

8th Grade: He Who Lives by the Sword. . .


This week we looked at Assyrian civilization.  Their meteoric rise was surpassed only by their complete and total destruction at the hands of several enemies.  What made them who they were?

We first looked at their geography. . .

1. Assyria began in the north of the Fertile Crescent, in one of its less fertile areas, nestled in the Zagreb mountains.  We discussed how people who live in mountainous regions tend to display similar characteristics.  Necessity might force them to rely on hunting.  They grow to be tough and adaptive, and generally warlike, with built in mistrust of foreigners due to their relative isolation (think Afghanistan).  Assyrians had similar characteristics.

2. Their geography may have lent impetus to their expansionist desires.  These tough, warlike people were generally surrounded by more wealthy civilizations that might have been a bit ‘softer’ than the Assyrians.   Nomadic civilizations (those that have to/choose to follow ‘the herd’) can never be as wealthy as more agrarian civilizations, for they can never stay in one place long enough to produce anything.  Perhaps they could not resist all they saw around them.  Perhaps after a while, jealousy and envy took hold.

Then we looked at their army . . .

1. Mountainous regions generally are not as populous as other places, but the Assyrians managed to create a brilliant militia force.  Without the mass of other armies (nomadic hunting oriented civilizations inevitably have smaller populations) they had to rely on speed and movement.  But their citizens, used to hunting, would have been used to moving, tracking, and outwitting their prey.

In class I compared their army to the new ‘Blur Offense’ in football popularized by the University of Oregon.

2. The Assyrian army was a lightning fast ‘light infantry’ force, overwhelming their opponents by swift and brutal assaults.  Of course the makeup of the army impacted their foreign policy, which

  • Usually did not emphasize diplomacy.  They could not integrate their conquered foes into their army (think about how the effectiveness of a Navy Seal platoon would be diminished by adding army regulars into their ranks).
  • So – how do you hold onto your territory?  The Assyrian army was not generally interested in occupation. They wanted movement.  If ‘you are what you worship,’ we would expect the Assyrians to use terror as a weapon, and so they did.  My guess is that the students will remember the various forms of torture and death the Assyrians inflicted if you are curious enough to ask them.
  • With the conquered cowed into submission the Assyrians could move on.  We looked at Paul Kennedy’s concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch,’ when size becomes a disadvantage as opposed to an advantage.  Clearly the Assyrians suffered from this, for as we discussed, fear is a wasting asset.  It tends to be a very effective short term, but disastrous long term policy.

Some of you may remember the boxer Mike Tyson, and I think he is a good representation of the Assyrian army.  Tyson was almost always the smaller man in the ring, outweighed and outreached by his opponent.  But his lightning speed confused his opponent, and he hit with such devastating force that he surely “ruled by fear” over his foes.

The students had fun with excerpts from these clips in class.

Then we looked at their religion. . .

The Assyrians were polytheistic, but tended to emphasize the worship of their war god Ashur.  Ashur demanded blood, as the Assyrians obliged, presenting large amounts of the severed heads of their enemies at worship services.  Interestingly, apparently the most common way of representing Ashur was on his winged disc, which hearkens back to the dominance of “movement” in Assyrian civilization.

Friday we looked at some texts of Assyrian king records.  Most of these from the ancient Near East  look similar, but there are noticeable differences.  For the Assyrians, death and slaughter get top billing.  There is almost nothing about building, peace, harvests, temples, etc.  Their lives were consumed with inflicting destruction on others.  I include a long text of just this below if you are interested to skim it.  On Friday we will have a contest to see who can find the nastiest bits.  Students should note the repetition, the blandness, the obsession with violence and conquest.  For the Assyrians, as for all of us, you are what you worship.
Thanks so much,

the cities of Khatu, Khalaru, Nistun, Irbidi,

[1.60] Mitkie, Arzanie, Zila, Khalue, cities of Gilhi situated in the environs of Uzie and Arue

[1.61] and Arardi powerful lands, I occupied: their soldiers in numbers I slew; their spoil, their riches I carried off;

[1.62] their soldiers were discouraged; the summits projecting over against the city of Nistun which were menacing like the storms of heaven, I captured;

[1.63] into which no one among the Princes my sires had ever penetrated; my soldiers like birds (of prey) rushed upon them;

[1.64] 260 of their warriors by the sword I smote down; their heads cut off in heaps I arranged; the rest of them like birds

[1.65] in a nest, in the rocks of the mountains nestled; their spoil, their riches from the midst of the mountains I brought down; cities which were in the midst

[1.66] of vast forests situated I overthrew, destroyed, burned in fire; the rebellious soldiers fled from before my arms; they came down; my yoke

[1.67] they received; impost tribute and a Viceroy I set over them. Bubu son of Bubua son of the Prefect of Nistun

[1.68] in the city of Arbela I flayed; his skin I stretched in contempt upon the wall. At that time an image of my person I made; a history of my supremacy

[1.69] upon it I wrote, and (on) a mountain of the land of Ikin(?) in the city of Assur-nasir-pal at the foot I erected (it). In my own eponym in the month of July and the 24th day (probably B.C. 882).

[1.70] in honor of Assur and Istar the great gods my Lords, I quitted the city of Nineveh: to cities situated below Nipur and Pazate powerful countries

1.71] I proceeded; Atkun, Nithu, Pilazi and 20 other cities in their environs I captured; many of their soldiers I slew;

[1.72] their spoil, their riches I carried off; the cities I burned with fire; the rebel soldiers fled from before my arms, submitted,

[1.73] and took my yoke; I left them in possession of their land. From the cities below Nipur and Pazate I withdrew; the Tigris I passed;

[1.74] to the land of Commagene I approached; the tribute of Commagene and of the Moschi in kams of copper, sheep and goats I received; while in Commagene

[1.75] I was stationed, they brought me intelligence that the city Suri in Bit-Khalupe had revolted. The people of Hamath had slain their governor

[1.76] Ahiyababa the son of Lamamana they brought from Bit-Adini and made him their King. By help of Assur and Yav

[1.77] the great gods who aggrandize my royalty, chariots, (and) an army, I collected: the banks of the Chaboras I occupied; in my passage tribute

[1.78] in abundance from Salman-haman-ilin of the city of Sadikannai and of Il-yav of the city of Sunai, silver, gold,

[1.79] tin, kam of copper, vestments of wool, vestments of linen I received. To Suri which is in Bit-Halupe I drew near;

[1.80] the fear of the approach of Assur my Lord overwhelmed them; the great men and the multitudes of the city, for the saving of their lives, coming up after me,

[1.81] submitted to my yoke; some slain, some living, some tongue-less I made: Ahiyababa son of Lamamana

[1.82] whom from Bit-Adini they had fetched, I captured; in the valor of my heart and the steadfastness of my soldiers I besieged the city; the soldiers, rebels all,

[1.83] were taken prisoners; the nobles to the principal palace of his land I caused to send; his silver, his gold, his treasure, his riches, copper

[1.84] (?)tin, kams, tabhani, hariati of copper, choice copper in abundance, alabaster and iron-stone of large size

[1.85] the treasures of his harem, his daughters and the wives of the rebels with their treasures, and the gods with their treasures,

[1.86] precious stones of the land of . . . , his swift chariot, his horses, the harness, his chariot-yoke, trappings for horses, coverings for men,

[1.87] vestments of wool, vestments of linen, handsome altars of cedar, handsome . . . , bowls of cedar-wood

[1.88] beautiful black coverings, beautiful purple coverings, carpets, his oxen, his sheep, his abundant spoil, which like the stars of heaven could not be reckoned,

[1.89] I carried off; Aziel as my lieutenant over them I placed; a trophy along the length of the great gate I erected: the rebellious nobles

[1.90] who had revolted against me and whose skins I had stripped off, I made into a trophy: some in the middle of the pile I left to decay; some on the top

[1.91] of the pile on stakes I impaled; some by the side of the pile I placed in order on stakes; many within view of my land

[1.92] I flayed; their skins on the walls I arranged; of the officers of the King’s officer, rebels, the limbs I cut off;

[1.93] I brought Ahiyababa to Nineveh; I flayed, him and fastened his skin to the wall; laws and edicts

[1.94] over Lakie I established. While I was staying in Suri the tribute of the Princes of Lakie throughout the whole of them,

[1.95] silver, gold, tin, copper, kam of copper, oxen, sheep, vestments of wool and linen, as tribute

[1.96] and gift, I defined and imposed upon them. In those days, the tribute of Khayani of the city of Hindanai, silver,

[1.97] gold, tin, copper, amu-stone, alabaster blocks, beautiful black (and) lustrous coverings I received as tribute from him. In those days an enlarged image

[1.98] of my Royalty I made; edicts and decrees upon it I wrote; in the midst of his palace I put it up; of stone my tablets I made;

[1.99] the decrees of my throne upon it I wrote; in the great gate I fixed them, in the date of this year which takes its name from me, in honor of Assur my Lord and Ninip who uplifts my feet.

[1.100] Whereas in the times of the Kings my fathers no man of Suhi to Assyria had ever come, Il-bani Prince of Suhi together with his soldiers

[1.101] (and) his son, silver, gold as his tribute to Nineveh in abundance brought: in my own eponym at the city of Nineveh I stayed: news

[1.102] they brought me that men of the land of Assyria, (and) Hulai the governor of their city which Shalmaneser King of Assyria my predecessor

[1.103] to the city of Hasiluha had united, had revolted: Dandamusa a city of my dominion marched out to subdue (them );

[1.104] in honor of Assur, the Sun-god and Yav, the gods in whom I trust, my chariots and army I collected at the head of the river Zupnat, the place of an image

[1.105] which Tiglath-Pileser and Tiglath-Adar, Kings of Assyria my fathers had raised; an image of My Majesty I constructed and put up with theirs.

[1.106] In those days I renewed the tribute of the land of Izala, oxen, sheep, goats: to the land of Kasyari I proceeded, and to Kinabu

[1.107] the fortified city of the province of Hulai. I drew near; with the impetuosity of my formidable attack I besieged and took the town; 600 of their fighting men

[1.108] with (my) arms I destroyed; 3,000 of their captives I consigned to the flames; as hostages I left not one of them alive; Hulai

[1.109] the governor of their town I captured by (my) hand alive; their corpses into piles I built; their boys and maidens I dishonored;

[1.110] Hulai the governor of their city I flayed: his skin on the walls of Damdamusa I placed in contempt; the city I overthrew demolished, burned with fire;

[1.111] the city of Mariru within their territory I took; 50 warrior fighting men by ( my ) weapons I destroyed; 200 of their captives in the flame I burned;

[1.112] the soldiers of the land of Nirbi I slew in fight in the desert; their spoil, their oxen, their sheep, I brought away; Nirbu which is at the foot of mount Ukhira

[1.113] I boldly took; I then passed over to Tila their fortified city; from Kinabu I withdrew; to Tila I drew near;

[1.114] a strong city with three forts facing each other: the soldiers to their strong forts and numerous army trusted and would not submit;

[1.115] my yoke they would not accept; (then,) with onset and attack I besieged the city; their fighting men with my weapons I destroyed; of their spoil,

[1.116] their riches, oxen and sheep, I made plunder; much booty I burned with fire; many soldiers I captured alive;

[1.117] of some I chopped off the hands and feet; of others the noses and ears I cut off; of many soldiers I destroyed the eyes;

[1.118] one pile of bodies while yet alive, and one of heads I reared up on the heights within their town; their heads in the midst I hoisted; their boys (Continued on Column 2)

Column 2 – Covered in pages 175 – 186

[2.1] and their maidens I dishonored, the city I overthrew, razed and burned with fire, In those days the cities of the land of Nirbi

[2.2] (and) their strong fortresses, I overthrew, demolished, burned with fire: from Nirbi I withdrew and to the city Tuskha

[2.3] I approached; the city of Tuskha I again occupied; its old fort I threw down: its place I prepared, its dimensions I took; a new castle

[2.4] from its foundation to its roof I built, I completed, I reared: a palace for the residence of My Royalty with doors of iki wood I made;

[2.5] a palace of brick from its foundations to its roof I made, I completed: a complete image of my person of polished stone I made; the history

[2.6] of my surpassing nation and an account of my conquests which in the country of Nairi I had accomplished I wrote upon it; in the city of Tuskha

[2.7] I raised it; on suitable stone I wrote and upon the wall I fixed it; (then) the men of Assyria, those who from the privation of food to various countries

“We have a great king, who loves ham.”

I recently came across an interesting article about a man who commands fees of $4000 for slicing a leg of ham.

If one reads the article, the startling headline begins to make a bit of sense.  Many consider Florencio Sanchez the pre-eminent international voice for Iberian ham, a traditional Spanish cuisine/delicacy.  Apparently Iberian ham means to Spain what barbecue might mean for Texan.  The pig must be raised in a certain way, cut in a certain way, and so on.  Clearly as well, Sanchez styles himself as an “artiste.”  For Iberian ham to truly be Iberian ham it must be presented in a certain way, with certain instruments that . . .  only he may ever touch. Among other things, Sanchez believes that no true slicer of ham would ever speak English.

One comment in the video below particularly stuck with me, however:

Sanchez clearly takes the most pride in having cut ham for the King of Spain, which should not surprise us.  But he added that, “We have a great king, who loves ham.”

It seemed to me that he could have almost said, “We have a great king because he loves ham.”

Of course, Sanchez has honed and practices a very traditional skill, and monarchy is a traditional form of government that relies on tradition to succeed.  And if the king appreciates Sanchez’s life’s work, we should not blame Sanchez if he feels flattered and even vindicated.  But with this comment, I think Sanchez has an insight into political leadership, and why many in the west–not just in the U.S.– feel less confidence about our democracies at the moment.

A successful monarch need not necessarily have the right policies.  He/she will generally be loved if their actions in some measure reflect well on their country.  So Richard I, the “Lionhearted,” can be revered in English memory although he actually spent very little time in England.  Saint Louis IX lost on two crusades and emptied the treasury in payments to Moslems for his own ransom, but his noble character and sanctity earned him the love of France.  Louis XIV had an enormous appetite (apparently due to his abnormally huge stomach), eating multiple courses for dinner, making a huge show of it in the process, and Frenchmen took pride in that.  “Look what our king can do!”   So too, “Our king loves ham.”  He acts in ways that embody something of Spain, just as Richard did for England.  Such kings overshadow more “successful” monarchs like Henry II, if we think of success in modern terms.*

Our founders recognized the need for this on some level.  I think they wanted the president to always be George Washington–that is–someone above reproach who used his powers sparingly but with forbearance and wisdom, someone who had no political skin in the game. They utterly failed to anticipate the almost immediate rise of the presidency as a popular/populist office and the impact that would have on our democracy.

Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and others point out the radical nature of the American Revolution and its clean break with tradition and the past.  This bold move helped make the Revolution successful and gave it its influence worldwide.  But, this recent election might make us wish that we had a king, “who loves ham,” or in our case, perhaps cheeseburgers.


*Before we think that, “Hey, I’ll gladly love ham if you make me king of Spain,” kingship has some very tricky elements.  By the end of his reign the people hated Louis XIV.  Louis might say, “Sure, I lost two big wars, but after all, so did St. Louis IX!  And . . . I can still eat more than most mortal men, right?”

But it wouldn’t have helped him.

People cheered Louis XVI at the opening of the Estates General in 1789.  They executed him a few years later. Kingship works when a quasi-mystical, perhaps sacred connection exists between him and his people–when he rightly acts as the “pater-familias.”

Wikipedia tells us that Felipe VI of Spain has the favor of the Spanish people, and that many want him to intervene a bit more to reconcile party differences.  He seems to have popularity and good-will at the moment. But if Wikipedia accurately reports, he will need great caution, because some of his popularity seems rooted in his abandonment of certain long-standing traditions, such as the practice of elected officials taking their oaths of office upon a Bible or crucifix.

A king’s power rests in large measure upon tradition, and he tampers with that as his peril.  Many assume France’s Louis XVI was reactionary and inflexible.  In fact, as Simon Schama points out in his Citizens, Louis attempted many progressive reforms.  Some of the Enlightenment philosophes initially praised him as just the sort of king France needed (Louis probably did not want their praise, but still . . . ).  Events show that this stance almost certainly hurt rather than helped.