“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.

e42ffcb52cedfde1d492e00694456e00

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.

 

Dave

 

 

 

Advertisements

10th Grade: The Puritans in Power

Greetings,

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.

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.

Dave

*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.”

“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.

Dave

*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.

12th Grade: Aristotle and the Modern Political Landscape

Greetings,

This week we examined the philosophy of Aristotle, specifically his theory of truth and how it related to his ideas about government.

Creation

Aristotle saw the created order not as a negative (like Plato), but as a friend or guide to truth.  Truth Aristotleresided here among us, not “up there” among the gods.  For Aristotle, God/the gods may or may not exist, but whether they did or not they had nothing to teach us.  As far as Zeus and Apollo are concerned, the power and immortality of the Greek gods make it so they never pay for any of their decisions.  They stand immune from consequences, and hence, immune to gathering wisdom.  If God existed, Aristotle thought he stood too far removed from human life to be of much use to us.  We experience truth in the created order, not by looking beyond the stars.*

This does not make Aristotle a moral relativist, at least in the meaning that we normally give the word.  However much truth depended on context, what worked could be said to be fundamentally true.  If someone, for example, argued that his heroin addiction benefitted him, because it, “transfers me to a different spiritual plane,” where, “I see myself and the world in radically new way,” Aristotle would respond by saying:

  • You cannot be a heroin addict and function in creation
  • Who you are cannot be separated from your physical body.  Thus, you will not learn anything about yourself by seeking to destroy yourself.

Aristotle did not deny that mankind had a soul, but he thought that the physical and spiritual aspects of who we are cannot be separated, which made his view of creation and the body much more Christian than Plato’s.

balloon-glassI like to think of Aristotle’s view of truth like one of those air-blown figurines.  Some things always remain constants, i.e. human nature and creation.  But, the application of those constants might change depending on the circumstances.  The figure may flap around but always remain rooted to the ground.  A law, for example, can only be considered a good law if it will actually work in the applied context.

Aristotle had a profound influence on the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, who gives a striking example of this principle.  Suppose you were made king of a country that thought murder was a good thing, and had practiced murder for centuries prior to your arrival.  One might think that your first order of business would be to make murder illegal.  Indeed, murder is obviously wrong, but Aristotle would argue that such an action would be foolish, and would not help make your people more virtuous.  Why?

  • The people would not obey this law, and would find it ridiculous.  This would lead to them flaunting the law, adding to their sin.
  • The people would also lose respect for you as king, and refuse to follow your authority.

If you wanted to make the people more virtuous, they must have respect for law in order to change.  This change will come about slowly.  People, like battleships, can’t be turned so quickly.  We discussed in class how Aristotle would face such a situation, and got some interesting responses from the students.  Maybe start, some suggested, by arming everyone to make murder more risky.  Or maybe make a law restricting murder to certain days.  In any event, virtue comes by the practice of it, not from a mere intellectual recognition of what virtue might be.  Abstracting a law from its context is not the way to judge it.  Rather, a law can only be judged properly when we see its application, its result.

Plato spilled a lot of ink thinking about how to form a government without making it too much of a government in the standard sense.  Plato sought for a society knitted together not by law but a community of harmonious souls.  Aristotle seems to have not given such a prospect much thought, as it probably seemed to him pointlessly unrealistic.  He had no doubt that the best form of government would be the absolute rule of one good man.  But just as easily, the rule of one bad individual would create a disaster.  The rule of a ‘few good men’ via an oligarchy of birth can minimize the possibility of autocracy and provide the state with wisdom.  But this oligarchy can easily degenerate into rule by an elitist and wealthy cabal.  Democracy provides more stability, but less brilliance.  It has the advantage of building on the broadest foundation, but can descend into mob rule.  The government that might work best for a given area would depend on what they valued most, and what their current political context might be.

The differences between Plato and Aristotle are not merely academic.  Few of us might always agree with either one, but our leanings to one side or the other will influence our decisions.  Generally those on either the far left or right might have more in common with Plato.  The goal is to move people to the absolute standard of the founders vision (Tea Party?), or create a better society on Earth regardless of the messy context of law and custom (Liberal Progressives?).  Centrists and moderates tend to be more comfortable with moving slowly, tweaking things with the times around the edges, and being ‘realistic.’

We can relate this idea to our views about democracy.  Supposing that one believes that democracy is the best form of government (and that is a big ‘suppose’). Should the U.S. attempt to spread democracy abroad?  Of course this involves some speculation, but we might consider that. . .

Plato

Plato would answer ‘yes,’ if he believed that democracy was the ideal form of government (he did not in actuality). Though not all have an immediate cultural context for democracy, he would argue that democracy appeals to all humanity on a ‘spiritual’ level.  Just as most of us can guess that that Caribbean vacation would be nice even if we’ve only experienced a cold and crowded New Jersey beach, so too things like equality, control of your destiny, participation, and rights, have an immediate gut level connection with us.  We should spread it because it would take root in people’s hearts, even if it might take a bit longer in some places than others to come to fruition.

Aristotle

Likely Aristotle would answer ‘no,’ or at least ‘no’ most of the time.  He would have wanted to see certain key structures in place before even considering spreading democracy, like a strong middle class, an educated populace, a stable economy, and a general trust across class, race, and religion.  Without these things democracy would have no place to take root, like a bird trying to make a nest in the air.

If I had to make a personal wild guess, Aristotle might think that democracy in Iraq has about 33-50% chance of succeeding.  In Afghanistan, with its mountainous terrain, strong tribal affinities, little education, and divided population, I’m guessing his estimation of success would be much lower.

Plato would counter that since true knowledge is ‘remembering,’ the truth is bound to take root once they have a chance to truly experience democracy.  Democracy would not be a narrowly western system in this view, but truly universal, applicable regardless of context.  Again, this is mostly speculation, but hopefully profitable nonetheless.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

*The Incarnation provides the bridge between Aristotle and Plato’s ideas.  It fits within neither one of their philosophies, but their systems stand in sore need of a proper unity between the eternal and the temporal.

10th Grade: Authority and the Stuart Kings

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our story in England.  With the death of Elizabeth, the male Tudor line ended, but the line could continue through Henry’s niece Mary, known as Mary Queen of Scots.  She had been executed for treason by Elizabeth, but now ironically, it was her son James that was called upon to take the reigns of power in England.

James I defense of absolute monarchy raises a dilemma occasioned by  the Reformation.  Protestants often accused Catholics of being ‘authoritarian.’  “Look,” they might say, “you have to obey bishops, popes, councils, and the like. Man has no chance to have an individual, personal relationship to God.”  Thus, according to this argument, Catholicism and democratic government could never go hand in hand.  Catholicism is inherently authoritarian.

Catholics would likely respond that Protestantism has the “authoritarian” problem.  By reducing everything to “Scripture alone” and forgoing reason, tradition, etc. we put ourselves at the mercy of whoever has the authority to give the “right” interpretation of Scripture.  With no buffer between man and the state in an independent church, the state would naturally grab up all the power.

As for Catholicism and democracy, what about the local village elections in the Middle Ages, or the Italian city-state republics of the 15th century?  Democracy has its roots in Catholicism, not Protestantism.

Both sides of this debate are a bit of a caricature, but absolute monarchy arose first within Protestantism, beginning with Henry VIII and extending down to James I.  In class we discussed when absolutism can gain acceptance by the people.  It takes certain historical circumstances, generally, for that sort of thing to fly.  One needs a time of great transition or crisis for people to accept this kind of authority.  In the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VIII had the license to reign autocratically.  In the aftermath of “Bloody” Mary and the Spanish Armada, perhaps his daughter Elizabeth did as well.  By the time of James I, however, this license may have expired.  But James exercised his absolute rule generally to bring moderation.  His portraits reveal an ease with himself and his surroundings,  He is comfortable in power, and makes others comfortable thereby.

James_I_of_England_404446 James_I_of_England_by_Daniel_Mytens

His son Charles, however, inherited his father’s ideas about absolute rule, but without the political sense  and personality of his father.  One look at his most famous portrait shows a man of unease and intensity, someone who might “upset the apple cart.”

His actions and those of others would bring about a clash that would shape the question of power and rights in England and perhaps western Europe, for decades to come.

From our vantage point monarchy seems quaint and outdated.  But we must realize that democratic movements are the relative newcomer on the historical stage.  It behooves us then, to consider the arguments for monarchical government.

Most such arguments that I encountered focus on some the technical aspects of kingly rule.  Monarchy is faster, more efficient,  and more unifying than democracies, and so on.   I think these arguments, whatever their merits, miss the major point of monarchies from a Christian perspective.  We should consider whether or not certain forms of government, and not just how they function, can aid or detract from our spiritual lives.

We begin by recognizing that the physical world is inextricably bound up with our spiritual lives.  Of course creation itself reflects God, but it goes beyond that.  Certain physical states may be more “spiritual” than others at certain times.  Thus, kneeling to pray put our bodies in a submissive posture, which can aid our prayers.  Or we stand to praise God, rather than recline on a couch during worship.   God gave humanity the special privilege of being created in His image, and we in turn should “image” God to the rest of creation as well as to each other.

In this line of thought, our form of government should image God’s governance of His creation.  Having a king, then, (regardless of whether the king acts well or poorly) gives us a physical reminder that we serve a heavenly king.  Serving a king (whether or not we agree with him) trains and prepares us to serve the King of Kings.

Thus, king’s should at times be dressed regally to reflect the splendor and majesty of kingly rule.  Also, a king should lead in service, modeling himself after how Jesus exercised His kingship (St. Louis IX of France and Emperor Michael II of Byzantium are notable examples of this).  Either way, it is the office of kingship that teaches us about God’s Kingship over creation. It has nothing to do with the person itself, who got the job merely by accident of birth.  And that’s the point (in part): some have the job of lawyer, or shoemaker, and some have the job of pantomiming the kingship of God.  Democracy, in contrast, gives us not just a poor but even detrimental spiritual example (the argument goes), because it essentially states, “What you want, you get.”  Democracy then, can encourage the worst of our spiritual impulses.

When we get to the democratic movements that sweep America and France we will make the case for a different form of government.  For now, I want students to understand the logic and motivation behind the actions and attitudes like James and Charles.

As some of you may know, the title of this site is drawn from the historian Kenneth Clarke, one of my favorites.  Last week we looked at parts of the ‘Protest and Communication” episode of his epic “Civilisation” series.  I include the entire episode below if you are interested, but even if you had time to see just the first few minutes, that alone reveals how much insight art can give into an era.