The Logic of a Lack of Conviction

One of Arnold Toynbee’s missions involved reacting against the Enlightenment-inspired Whig historian that saw progress as inevitable and assured.  For this school the advance of science and the decline of religion–the influence of priests or the Church over the state–served as ‘Exhibit A’ of this march towards continual progress.  Toynbee developed an overall pattern of history that worked against this notion.  In his critique he warned against the pollyanna idea of equating the decline of religious belief with improvements in civilization.  Rather, he cautioned, failure to believe in the God of the “higher religions” would not lead to a pleasant garden of pure reason, but rather encourage attachment to the “darker gods” of tribalism and paganism.

On Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen linked to an article by Shadi Hamid, in which he wrote that,

In polarized times, political competition comes to resemble tribal warfare. Everyone is under pressure to close ranks and boost morale. Lacking an animating vision beyond expert-led incrementalism, center-left politicians and pundits have few options to rally the Democratic base other than by attacking adversaries and heightening partisan divides. The other option—laying out an alternative that differs from what Hillary Clinton or even President Obama offered—requires ideological conviction.

That would explain why Rep. Adam Schiff —previously “known as a milquetoast moderate,” according to the New Yorker—has emerged as one of the most outspoken figures in the Russian collusion investigation. Before being appointed to succeed Mrs. Clinton in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand was an upstate New York representative who belonged to the Blue Dog Coalition. Her 2013 New Yorker profile was titled “Strong Vanilla”—and she now boasts the upper chamber’s most anti- Trump voting record.

Cowen added that,

When people don’t believe in so much with conviction, the logic of the crowd will sometimes dominate, because actual belief is no longer such a constraining force.  This is one reason why a totally secular “Enlightenment” society is not in every way to be welcomed — we humans are not worthy of it in every regard.

Hamid comments later in the article that, “Lack of real belief,” and lack of genuine religious communities, is often more of a problem behind terrorism than is “excessively fanatical belief.”

Both President Obama and President Trump inspired strong reactions from their political opposition.  Republicans seemed for the most part to simply oppose whatever policy Obama supported, and Democrats now seem to be following suit.  However effectively this rallies their political base, it leads to a steep decline in democratic practice, a rise of tribal mentalities, and a resurgence of the “darker gods” mentioned by Toynbee.  In 2018 we can easily see that neither religion, nor social institutions, nor even a common social class unites us now.  Toynbee wrote in his An Historian’s Approach to Religion that,

The erosion of the west’s traditional institutions and common outlook . . . has been progressive.  The unity of the clergy in western Christendom was broken by the Reformation.  The unity of the Western “Republic of Letters” as it had existed down to the generation of Erasmus and St. Thomas More, was broken when Latin was ousted by the local vernaculars, and it was re-established only very imperfectly when Latin was partially replaced by French in the 17th century.  The unity of the West European aristocracy–a polygot social circle knit together by intermarriage–was broken by the French Revolution, by the smothering of the aristocracy in Britain in the 19th century in the embrace of the prolific middle class, and by the rise of the United States, where the West European aristocracy had never taken root.

He penned those words in 1956, and we  might follow this up by adding that post-modernism has contributed further to this erosion.  We no longer have a common belief in progress, and even our faith in democracy itself has declined.

Machiavelli wrote during a time of political upheaval in Italy, and understood the temptation to lash out and “fight fire with fire.”  But in his Discourses on Livy he advocated a different course in a chapter he titled “Temporize with Evil.”

In connection with this league against Rome we have first to note, that when a mischief which springs up either in or against a republic, and whether occasioned by internal or external causes, has grown to such proportions that it begins to fill the whole community with alarm, it is a far safer course to temporize with it than to attempt to quell it by violence. For commonly those who make this attempt only add fuel to the flame, and hasten the impending ruin. Such disorders arise in a republic more often from internal causes than external, either through some citizen being suffered to acquire undue influence, or from the corruption of some institution of that republic, which had once been the life and sinew of its freedom; and from this corruption being allowed to gain such head that the attempt to check it is more dangerous than to let it be. And it is all the harder to recognize these disorders in their beginning, because it seems natural to men to look with favour on the beginnings of things. Favour of this sort, more than by anything else, is attracted by those actions which seem to have in them a quality of greatness, or which are performed by the young. For when in a republic some young man is seen to come forward endowed with rare excellence, the eyes of all the citizens are at once turned upon him, and all, without distinction, concur to do him honour; so that if he have one spark of ambition, the advantages which he has from nature, together with those he takes from this favourable disposition of men’s minds, raise him to such a pitch of power, that when the citizens at last see their mistake it is almost impossible for them to correct it; and when they do what they can to oppose his influence the only result is to extend it. Of this I might cite numerous examples, but shall content myself with one relating to our own city.

Cosimo de’ Medici, to whom the house of the Medici in Florence owes the origin of its fortunes, acquired so great a name from the favour wherewith his own prudence and the blindness of others invested him, that coming to be held in awe by the government, his fellow-citizens deemed it dangerous to offend him, but still more dangerous to let him alone. Nicolò da Uzzano, his cotemporary, who was accounted well versed in all civil affairs, but who had made a first mistake in not discerning the dangers which might grow from the rising influence of Cosimo, would never while he lived, permit a second mistake to be made in attempting to crush him; judging that such an attempt would be the ruin of the State, as in truth it proved after his death. For some who survived him, disregarding his counsels, combined against Cosimo and banished him from Florence. And so it came about that the partisans of Cosimo, angry at the wrong done him, soon afterwards recalled him and made him prince of the republic, a dignity he never would have reached but for this open opposition. The very same thing happened in Rome in the case of Cæsar. For his services having gained him the good-will of Pompey and other citizens, their favour was presently turned to fear, as Cicero testifies where he says that “it was late that Pompey began to fear Cæsar.” This fear led men to think of remedies, and the remedies to which they resorted accelerated the destruction of the republic.

His advice is sound, but it requires conviction to heed.  We can’t “temporize” unless we know equally well what we want to happen as well as what we wish to prevent.

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10th Grade: The World Turned Upside Down

This week we discussed the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.  Certainly the whole document has great importance for us, but whereas the specific grievances have come and gone, we rightly remember the words of the first paragraphs.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

We take this wording for granted today, but Jefferson’s words espoused some revolutionary ideas.  In 1765, the colonists (for the most part) couched their dispute with England in terms of English rights, i.e. “The English government fails to give English liberties to its citizens.”  In the Declaration, however, we see the colonists fighting for human, not British rights.  Their struggle took place specifically against England, but in the broader sense the colonists fought to be more human.

Jefferson professed Deism and not Christianity, but he clearly states that these rights have universality because of the identity and purpose of our Creator.   Jefferson takes the Romans 13 dilemma we discussed a few weeks ago and turns it on its head.  Government’s exist to protect human dignity.  If they fail in this, government becomes the rebel against God, and this means people have a duty to fight them, not merely permission.  Jefferson’s stroke remains brilliant and controversial even today.

Unlike other countries (founded on shared history or shared biology), the United States founded itself on an idea.  The universality of this idea has done much to shape our history.  Critics of our policy often accuse us of “meddling” in affairs that don’t concern us.  Certainly this charge has at least some merit.  But in our defense, we might say that we can’t help it.  The Declaration makes humanity itself our business.  We might further state that we have no wish to make others more like us, rather, we wish to help them become more human.  There may be some self-deception in this line of reasoning, but I think many Americans think this way whether consciously or no.  On the flip-side, this universality has helped us be more open to other peoples emigrating and finding a place in our society.

We also discussed two other controversial aspects of the Declaration:

  • Should we have the right to “pursue happiness?”  What has this meant for us?  I touch on some of these ideas in this post here.

Author/commentator Malcolm Muggeridge thought the inclusion of the “pursuit of happiness in the Declaration a great disaster.  He said,

There is something ridiculous and even quite indecent in an individual claiming to be happy. Still more a people or a nation making such a claim. The pursuit of happiness… is without any question the most fatuous which could possibly be undertaken. This lamentable phrase ”the pursuit of happiness” is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world.

The truth is that a lost empire, lost power and lost wealth provide perfect circumstances for living happily and contentedly in our enchanted island.

I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.

  • Jefferson’s original draft of the Constitution contained a strong anti-slavery section, but in the end he removed it to allow for all colonies to join in signing the document.  This may have helped us fight the war for independence, but it disastrously postponed our nation dealing with the terrible crime of slavery.  Was this worth it?

We then moved on to finish the fighting in the war, and focused on the battles of Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781).  On Friday we played a game in class where the rules gave certain advantages to the “favorite.”  But the “underdog” also had key advantages. .

  • They could afford to play more recklessly as they had less to lose
  • If they got luck or could bluff their way to one big success, they could simply fold (i.e. retreat in orderly fashion) and wait until time ran out in the game.

Many of you may have seen an action movie where the lone hero has to fight his way into a compound, boat, or other structure.  Despite being badly outnumbered, he manages to get the bad guys and escape.  Along with Hollywood convention at work, the hero does have some actual advantages.  He knows that every person he sees is a bad guy, where his opponents must exercise much more caution.  They hesitate and give the hero the advantage, who can shoot first and ask questions later.

This analogy could easily get stretched too far, but British failures at Saratoga and Yorktown show the great difficulty the British faced to win the war.  How could they solve the problems that created the war in the first place through violence?  The deteriorating situation between England and the colonies between 1763-1775 craved a political response that the English proved unable to provide.  Victory through violence therefore demanded an absolutely crushing military victory, and would have to take great risks to achieve it.  Both times they attempted this, it backfired on them.

Americans had more “freedom” in their strategy because their failures mattered little and their successes got magnified greatly in their political effect.  England’s political bungling prior to the war itself paved the way for their defeat.

Here is the march the British played when they surrendered at Yorktown, “The World Turned Upside Down.”

8th Grade: The Military Revolution of Macedon

Greetings,

This week we began looking at Macedonian civilization, and as usual we began with geography.

The map shows Macedon as a land-locked and mountainous area, and we would expect this kind of terrain to have a particular emphasis on its people. . .

Map

  • Mountainous areas are always difficult to control, leading to weak central governments
  • Usually an aristocratic warrior elite seeps into the culture, which usually divides the people into warring clans (for this and the above point, think of Afghanistan, which has a similar geography to Macedon).
  • With this environment, we usually see a low level of cultural output, due to their relative isolation and internal divisions (this is not the case with Scotland, but Scotland is not land-locked as Macedon is).

I was glad to see the students start to make connections between Macedon, Assyria, and Sparta.  All three share a similar geography, and all three share a similar geographic position — on the periphery of their respective societies.  Sparta and Assyria had stronger central governments than Macedon, but their similarities should make us realize of the power of geography to shape the course of a civilization.

As I mentioned, Macedon had little role in Greek civilization for many centuries.  But as luck would have it, Macedon saw the rise of the charismatic and ruthless Phillip II just at the very moment of Phillip of Macedongrave political weakness for Athens, Thebes, and Sparta.  Opportunity knocked for Macedon.   Phillip looked every inch the tough customer he portrayed, wearing an eye patch over his wounded eye for necessity, and probably, for effect as well.  But Phillip combined his personality and appearance with a keen understanding of how to maximize the qualities of his society into a formidable military machine.

One key to the effectiveness of his military was that he matched the personality of his culture with his army.  Infantrymen in other Greek city-states often came from the middle-upper classes.  He owned land and had a stake in the politics and way of life of his city-state.  The Athenian hoplite, for example, therefore oriented himself toward defense of what he had.  He wore heavy armor and carried a large shield.  This was not a mobile force, but one geared to “make a stand” to defend home turf.  A standard Greek military formation might look like this:

Greek Phalanx

In contrast to other city-states, Macedon had virtually no middle class.  Anyone recruited for the infantry would be either poor or a mercenary.  This type of man would not fight to defend anything in particular.  He has no stake in the society for which he fights.  Such a man might be motivated to take from others, however, and this would require shifting the balance toward an offensively minded and equipped infantry, which you see below:

Macedonian PhalanxIn addition to the long spears you see above, their soldiers also carried a long dagger, another offensive weapon.   While the image above does show the Macedonians with shields, I agree with Victor Davis Hanson (and others) that argue that Macedonian shields had no real function in battle.  They were worn apparently mostly around the neck and draped to the side (as both arms would be needed to wield their spears).  Some argue that the shields were used in battle, but mainly as a prop for their spears.  If this is so, we see that even their shield served as a offensive weapon of sorts.

Phillip’s infantry gave them much more firepower at the point of attack.  Not only did they have longer spears, but because they had to stand sideways to hold the spears, they could fit more men in each row.  Some students wisely pointed out that the Macedonians would be vulnerable to a quick flanking movement, but the Greek infantry Phillip faced was “heavier” infantry, and not equipped for fast movement.  They could not exploit this weakness of Phillip’s force (though a century later, the Romans would do so).

I hope that the students understood that militaries don’t, or at least should not, be created in a vacuum. They function best when they are a direct product of the civilization from which they arise.  Next week we will continue by looking at the most famous Macedonian of all, Phillip’s son Alexander.

Many thanks,

Dave

 

8th Grade: All Good Things Must Come to an End

Greetings,

This week we saw the great golden age of Periclean Athens collapse into the abyss of the Peloponnesian War.  We began the week by asking why “Golden Ages” tend to last not much longer than a generation.

  • Some suggest that the success and power a golden age brings would bring about the envy of others, and this envy could turn into a threat.
  • Another might suggest that the generation that grew up with the ‘golden age’ in place would likely have a much different experience than their parents.  I found this comment especially perceptive.  As we saw last week, golden ages usually arise from a creative response to a particular challenge.  Those that grow up without the challenge won’t have the experience or ‘training’ to continue what their parents started.
  • Last week we also noted how golden ages require a variety of factors coming together at once, some physical and others psychological.  No one can reasonably keep all the plates spinning for long.  Eventually nature dictates that something will begin to spin off the axis sooner or later, and this will drag other things down with it.

Some of their comments did in fact apply directly to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, especially#1.  Athens went from plucky underdog in 490 B.C. to the then equivalent of the New York Yankees or New England Patriots by 431 B.C.  Many city-states lined up against them with Sparta. We did not spend a great deal of time on the war itself, as during their senior year we devote a few weeks entirely to this conflict and the issues it raises, but we did touch on a few key points

1. How in war the unexpected and unforeseen can occur

Of course the unforeseen can always occur, in war or at any other point.  But since war requires a great deal of planning, many assume that the conflict will go as we wish.  The making of the plans itself creates that expectation.  Yet, in war as in life, things rarely go according to our preconceived version of events.

2. Peace treaties may not be what they seem

After 10 years of intermittent conflict, both Athens and Sparta signed a treaty called the Peace of Nicias.  But treaties in name may not be in fact.  Some treaties bring real peace, some only reflect a desire to call a ‘time out’ in the fighting.  Unfortunately for Athens, this treaty turned out to be one of the latter.

3. War Stresses Democracy

War will put stress on any form of government and any society.  Some wars brought down monarchies — like W.W. I.  We assume that democracies are more stable, but the Peloponnesian War brought out many weaknesses within Athenian democracy and for a time ended it within Athens.  We looked at how desperation and panic act on a democratic people in the battle of Arginusae.  The Athenians won this battle, but the generals failed to pick up the dead and give them proper burial, something that could be considered sacrilege, and sacrilege could be punished by death.  Grief stricken, the city put the generals on trial, found them guilty, and executed them.  A few days later they regretted their actions. They put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals on trial for murder, found him guilty, and executed him also.

Ostensibly, Sparta won the Peloponnesian War.  But in truth the war had no real winners in Southern Greece.  All exhausted themselves in the conflict.  Thebes, involved in the conflict but slightly to the north, emerged as the strongest party in the more immediate aftermath of the war.  But it would be Macedon, further still to the north, and never involved in the fighting at all, that would eventually assert absolute supremacy over Greece in the person of Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander.  We’ll look at them next week.

You can see the geography of it below here, with everything pink or yellow caught up in the fighting (with even blue areas involved sporadically), and Macedon waiting patiently above in brown.

Peloponnesian War

For those of you who have seen From Russia with Love, the scene where “Number 1” talks about the Siamese Fighting Fish is a good parallel, if we think of Macedon as the fish who stays out of the fight.

The Mirror Crack’d

Some years ago I saw a video about the emergence of Greek culture and the talking heads discussed the magnificent achievements of Greek drama.  Before talking about the drama itself, they mentioned the origins of drama, though only very briefly.  After all, Greek drama began in the worship of Dionysius, a confusing and strange subject for modern ears. I found it fascinating to watch the speakers deal with this aspect of Greek civilization.  They hated being on unfamiliar territory — unfamiliar not so much intellectually, that is, but emotionally and experientially.

Briefly,

  • Dionysian worship started with women sneaking off illegally or at least shamefully, for their rites. Dionysius himself occupied, at minimum, the barest fringe of Greek religion.  Some of the commentators latched onto this, for it promised a narrative we could identify with.  “Aha!  A sisterhood of oppressed women!  And observe the vital contribution they made to their society and the world at large, etc.”  But Dionysian rites also involved men, too, so they couldn’t press that narrative too far.
  • The Dionysian rites for women also seemed to involve ecstatic experiences invoking bulls, snakes, wine, and so on. This too got the barest mention, for the “oppressed sisterhood” narrative didn’t really match the fact that Dionysius was a fertility god, and so the women may have been praying and dancing furiously for the chance to have children, a very traditional “role” (ha!) for women to play.
  • To add insult to injury, male Dionysian worship may have invoked blessings to “survive ordeals.”  This got no mention at all.  It appears that these “rebels” danced around madly and got drunk to attempt to fulfill the most prosaic of traditional gender roles of “tough guy,” and “nurturing mother.”  This square peg had no place in their round hole interpretations.

So, after passing over all this in the quickest fashion, finally smiles came to their faces as they talked about the drama itself. Here they felt far more comfortable.  Greek drama “allows for the community to come together and deal with issues of importance,” or something like that.  Ah, yes, the “humanism” of the Greeks.  This we understand, so this they talked about at length.  Gone were any of the religious associations involving Dionysius.  The important thing to us is the emergence of drama, for without the emergence of drama, how could we watch Dumb and Dumber today instantly on Netflix?*  And we very naturally assume that what is important to us must have been of prime importance to the Greeks.  Dionysian worship, then, got relegated to a mere carrying device for what we understand and what we feel is important.  As a friend of mine stated, whenever we use a word to describe an ancient people that they themselves did not use (in this case, the word “humanism”), we will likely reach false conclusions. The talking heads are not unusual. Most of us unfortunately avoid confrontations with the “other.”

I don’t like anything Tennyson wrote (to be fair I’ve read very few of his works), but his poem “The Lady of Shallot” intrigues me in one way.  The Lady in question deals with a curse, and can only look at reflections in a mirror to ascertain reality.  The mirror of course serves as a poor substitute of reality, and later cracks upon her sad and untimely death.

Out flew the web and floated wide-

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.

Tennyson’s work came from the same spiritual place as the dreaded pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings reveal an intense desire to recover something of antiquity.  And yet the grossly over-dramatized version of the past in their eyes reveals far more about themselves, with their aspirations fit perhaps for the teenage soul more than an adult world (hence L.M. Montgomery has her young Anne of Green Gables grow fascinated with the “Lady of Shallot”).

All of us tend to distort reality to fit our own images of it, but the way the Parthenon has been interpreted over time stands as one of the more curious episodes of this typical human folly.  Joan Breton Connelly chronicles this and gives her own interpretation of the architectural masterpiece in her recent book, The Parthenon Enigma.  The building occupies pride of place in the history of western civilization.  Its marble facade inspired those who saw it to grand notions of ideal beauty.  The building’s perfect proportions inspired noble visions of clarity and a sense of true humanity.  Certain technical achievements of the building are practically unparalleled.

But we made the building in our own image, and Connelly writes to set the record straight.  Ever since the Enlightenment we have seen the Parthenon as reflecting the “humanism” of the Athenians.  We have some justification for this.  If you trace the religion of the Athenians one sees a clear descent from Aeschylus (who takes religion seriously) to Thucydides (who didn’t).  The Athenians elected Pericles to multiple terms of their highest office, and he certainly fits the humanist mold. Observers therefore assumed, as the Parthenon was Pericles’ project that it would reflect his values.  Then again, maybe not.

She has two main arguments, with the first drawn from the he Parthenon friezes, long thought to depict contemporary Athenians mingling with the gods.  Connelly has an ironclad argument that Athens instead hearkens to not to its present but its mythological past.  At Athens’ founding it had a king named Erechtheus, who had three daughters that sacrificed themselves that Athens might survive (images below on a Parthenon frieze).  Athens makes an explicit statement, and explicit prayer of hope, that death might come from life with the Parthenon.

Amidst our wondering at the architectural genius of the building and the democratic (and therefore mostly familiar) practices of the Athenians, we forget that the Parthenon was a temple to Athena.  Excavations show that they built the Parthenon on top of an older temple, so clearly the Parthenon was sacred space, and not merely civic space with a civic purpose.

Corinthian_Column_Head_JerashModern eyes miss many such death-life associations in Greece.  For example, look up any article on Corinthian columns and you will likely see something about their fancy, or perhaps excessive, ornamentation.  Certainly Corinthian columns do not fit with Enlightenment sensibilities about classical decorum and proportion — such people always prefer the Ionic column (I prefer the Ionic — to the right — as well so I don’t mean to cast stones).  But Connelly points out that the plants in Corinthian columns hearken back to ancient myths about death and rebirth in their city.  Articles may describe Corinthian columns as “one example of a Greek votive column” (as one site does) without paying any attention at all to the fact that “votive” columns, like votive candles, have a distinctly religious purpose.  It’s almost as if they use the big words to obscure the meaning.  We will have the Greeks be “humanists” by hook or crook.

A fascinating sub-plot is the length Victorian society went to deny that the Parthenon originally was painted.  Evidence after evidence turned up, mostly brushed aside and denied with too much protest.  A painted Parthenon would overturn all of their ideas of classical beauty and classical purity.  Whole artistic theories got erected on an unpainted Parthenon, and they could not let it go.  This in turn clouded their vision in other areas, and allowed false ideas about the Parthenon to persist well into the 20th century.

725-1422641769E21CEBE6B

Did the Parthenon have no contemporary political meaning?  Perhaps . . . perhaps Pericles wanted to heal the fractious wounds of a prosperous democracy.  Success has never sat well with democracies, and it would make sense that Athens would want to go back to its founding and a story of sacrifice for the common good.  All this rings partially true, but the bulk of the evidence makes the Parthenon an overtly religious shrine — one that seeks life from death.  Plenty of evidence exists that Athenians saw it this way themselves.  For example, during the plague that struck during the Peloponnesian War, sick Athenians came to the Parthenon for refuge, as well as for healing, and possibly, to die.  It would be hard to imagine them doing so if the Parthenon was their equivalent of our Capitol or Washington Monument.

But this interpretation also challenges my own thoughts regarding the Parthenon.  The “humanist” interpretation fit how I tended to see the late 5th century Athenians as essentially worshippers of themselves.  This view gets lots of support from seeing contemporary Athenians mixed with gods on the Parthenon friezes.  With the Parthenon cast in this new light, I think that interpretation gets challenged but not overthrown.  I think other evidence exists for seeing the Athenians as self-worshippers, and perhaps the Parthenon itself still supports that view.  But this will need rethinking on my part.

The lesson of this book is the peril of using history rather than receiving and letting it change you. Self-idolatry is alas, not only confined only to the Greeks, or the Enlightenment and Victorian eras.

Dave

 

*To be fair, this is actually a pretty good movie . . .

The Way of the Fox

I can always count on a few “Let’s conquer Canada!” “jokes” a year from my students.  We might be studying the Mexican-American War and someone will say, “No, no, no.  We need to find our ‘true north’ and fight Canada!”  If it’s the Spanish-American War it could be, “Spain?  Why Spain?  We should fight Canada!”  If it’s W.W. II . . . “We fought on the same side?  Phooey.  After the Germans, on to Canada!”

Mild groans or exasperated rebukes (from the girls) usually ensue.

So it comes as a delightful surprise (to the boys) to actually find out that we did try and conquer Canada in 1775.

Because the idea of conquering Canada is such a passe joke, we assume that George Washington was crazy to order such an attempt.  In the minds of many our invasion comes to nothing more than a madcap escapade, a schoolboy’s lark.

Dave R. Palmer argues in his book The Way of the Fox (newer editions have a different title indicated by the cover to the right) that in fact such an invasion not only nearly succeeded, but also made sound strategic sense.  Palmer seeks to rescue Washington from his saccharine and wooden image and recasts him as an effective and in some ways brilliant grand strategist for the American Revolution.  And yes, this includes his invasion of Canada.

Today many think of Washington as either a great man/demi-god or nothing more than a member of elite/exploiting class.  Both views are cardboard cutouts.  Palmer shows us someone who thought carefully and with subtlety, someone who adjusted his thinking on multiple occasions to deal with changing reality.  British generals often referred to Washington as the “old fox,” sometimes with contempt because he would not fight, sometimes with admiration for his cleverness.  The moniker should stick — it brings Washington and the war to life.

First and foremost Washington stood as the perfect symbol for the Revolution. Certain qualities made him the obvious choice for command, such as his experience, his height, his bearing, and the fact that he hailed from the South.  But none of these things would matter if Washington failed to think in broad strategic terms effectively. Palmer divides the Revolution into three stages, and correspondingly sees Washington adjust his strategy each time.  Washington made specific mistakes as he went, but in terms of broad strategic goals Palmer has Washington never miss a beat.

Palmer argues that revolutions possess an offensive character by their very nature.  They seek to effect change and so must act accordingly.  Thus, Washington was entirely right to begin the war with an aggressive strategy that sought to expel the British.

This failed to fully succeed, which allowed the British to send massive reinforcements.  This meant that Washington, now outmanned and outgunned, needed to withdraw and avoid having his army destroyed by a pitched battle he could not win.

France’s entry after 1778 changed the situation yet again.  Now momentum and manpower lay with the Americans. Washington needed to take advantage of the alliance while it lasted.  So during this period Washington should have sought to press his dramatic advantage, which he did with great effect at Yorktown.

I take no issue with either Palmer’s interpretation or Washington’s actions for phases two and three.  But it’s the first phase, which includes the invasion of Canada, where we can push back most easily.  It seems to me that Washington should have been cautious until the final phase where the advantage finally tipped in his favor.  His aggressiveness at the start of the conflict seems out of place to me.

True, at the beginning of the war you have an emotional high that you can capitalize on.  But you will have undisciplined and untested troops. What’s more, they will not yet have developed that cohesion that great armies have of sharing routines, time, space, and danger.  Think of Caesar’s legions — nothing remarkable when they started into Gaul, and unbeatable five years later.  In our Civil War one reason for the South’s early success had to do with the offensive burden the North faced.  When General Irwin McDowell objected to offensive action at Bull Run in 1861 due to the lack of experience of his men, Lincoln replied that “[both sides] are green together.”  Yes, but McDowell knew that a green attacker has a lot more to worry about than a green defender, and so it proved.

Beyond this psychological reason, Palmer asserts another more narrowly strategic goal for invading Canada.  America’s size and her numerous ports put a huge strategic burden on England.  Colonial armies could easily retreat inland and lead British forces on goose chases through the wilderness.  Add to that, the layout of the land presented very few “choke points” at which the British could use their superior manpower to any real effect.  Perhaps the only such point lay at the nexus between England and Canada — the Hudson River.

Flowing from north of Albany down to New York City, British control of the Hudson would have allowed them to control the upper third of the colonies.  Controlling New York and Boston would have meant control of America’s biggest ports.  Cutting off New England would further mean nabbing most of the colonies financial resources and a hefty portion of its intellectual political capital.  Everyone on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that control of the Hudson could determine the war.

So if it makes sense for Washington to defend the Hudson, why not go just a bit further into Canada itself?  To capture Quebec would have given the colonies everything else in Canada.  Success would have prevented England from having a free “back door” entry point into the colonies via the St. Lawrence River.  Shutting down the St. Lawrence would topple another domino by cutting off England from potential Indian allies* out in the west.

Reading Palmer’s lucid and logical defense, I found myself almost persuaded.  Palmer urges us to remember that the failure of Benedict Arnold’s invasion (yes, that Benedict Arnold) — and it nearly succeeded, does not prove that the idea or the goal was faulty.  Had it paid off, the war might have been over within a year or two instead of eight.

Yes, but . . .

Arnold  lost in Quebec and Washington lost in New York City.  Palmer gives a generous interpretation of Washington’s actions in New York and believes that politically speaking, Washington had to defend the city.  Maybe so.  But if he had to defend the city for the sake of politics, then why also invade Canada and divide your forces? Palmer wants it both ways.  He believes that circumstances called for an aggressive campaign in 1775-early ’76, but that politics and not military necessity alone forced Washington’s hand to defend New York.  This seems to admit the fact that Washington should have given ground and played defense in New York alone.

All in all I agree that Washington brilliantly guided the colonies to victory, and Palmer argues this decisively.  He points out also that Washington faced a bungling and confused command structure in England.  But Washington had Congress to deal with, who although more intelligent and capable by far than their British counterparts, had much less experience in running a war.  By any measure, Washington deserves his place as one of the great generals of the modern era.

But I can’t let go of the invasion of Canada.

If we try and evaluate Washington’s gambit in Canada we should try and compare it to similar kinds of military actions across time.  My case remains that the invasion made logical sense in a certain way.  He was not reckless or foolhardy to try.  But I feel that he should have focused more on defense, and perhaps even success might have hurt him in the long run.  The colonies might have had the direct motivation to expel the British, but would they support long-term the occupation of Canada?**

I can think of three campaigns that might be comparable in certain ways . . .

  • Athens’ invasion of Sicily in 415 B.C.
  • Hannibal attacking Rome directly instead of defending Spain
  • Napoleon going on the offensive in Belgium in 1815 instead of rallying the people to “defend France.”
  • Our invasion of Iraq in 2003***

Sometimes foxes can be a bit too clever.  Still, unlike Athens, Hannibal, and Napoleon, Washington committed a relatively small portion of his forces to the plan.  As a general most would not rank Washington with Hannibal, Napoleon, and the like.  But Palmer argues that not only should we put Washington in their company, but given his military and political success, make him the general of the modern era.

Dave

 

*This no mere fancy.  In 1777 the British did invade via the St. Lawrence and did gather some Indian allies for their “Saratoga” campaign.  That escapade ended in disaster for the British, but Washington’s strategic fears did come true nonetheless.

**Strange as it may sound now, Palmer points out that the motivation to occupy and settle Canada ourselves might have existed not on strategic but religious grounds.  Many in 1775 saw Canadian Catholicism as a mortal threat to our freedoms and would have gladly occupied it in the name of liberty.  Certainly we showed the ability to expand and settle territory in the west. Why not in the north as well?

***Right or wrong, Bush enjoyed overwhelming support to fight in Afghanistan in 2001.  It made sense to us in the way that (again, right or wrong) responding to Pearl Harbor made sense.  But his case in 2003 was much less compelling.

Liberty and Coercion

Almost every political philosopher I am aware of from Aristotle down through Montesquieu believed that a democracy/republic had to be small in size.  Self-government required, among other things:

  • A population where people know each other enough to trust each other to some degree.
  • A population where people can have enough land to support themselves, but a geography that does not allow any one particular faction to have too much land, thus gaining too much of an advantage over their fellows.
  • A relatively culturally homogeneous population that shares core values

The American experiment is unique in many ways, one of which being that Jefferson and Madison attempted to turn this reasoning on its head.  They argued that

  • Democracies/Republics floundered because of too much population concentration, not too little.
  • These population concentrations gave way to passions and factionalism that could easily destroy liberty by trampling on the minority (cf. Madison’s brilliant Federalist #10).
  • Hence, what Democracies/Republics need is not a small geography, but a large one.  People need to spread out so that 1) All will be sure to have land, and 2) No one particular faction could concentrate its power enough to override the rights of minorities (hence, Jefferson’s impetus for his semi-Constitutional Louisiana Purchase).

Maybe necessity helped them invent these ideas, maybe it sprung direct out of their heads.  Either way, with this reasoning Madison and Jefferson show their genius, confidence, and perhaps, their arrogance.  I have wondered if one might not view the whole of American history through the lens of this question: Were Jefferson and Madison right or wrong?*

I expected Gary Gerstle’s Liberty and Coercion to take on the grand question of the thorny question of the interaction between liberty and power, and how sometimes “liberty” for oneself means power over others.  Instead, he narrowed his focus and proceeded in a methodical way to show how over time the “police power” of the federal government grew.  Gerstle disappointed me by never exploring the relationship of our founding ideals to this question.  But at times his narrower focus allows him to make some incisive observations.

For example . .  .

Many presidents and perhaps many Americans had a desire to act in some measure of good faith with Native Americans, but things never went right.  Some might explain this via a grand clash of civilizations.  Gerstle looks instead at the inherent dilemmas posed by our philosophic commitments.  Our commitment to self-government limited the scope of federal government.  No one, whether a Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Democratic/Republican or the like, believed that a large professional army went well with liberty.  But with no money and no political will to even create agencies to establish firm borders and grant land titles, let alone enforce such borders militarily, various presidents found themselves giving in to the settlers “squatters rights.”  We wanted to prevent the national government from having too much power to coerce, but without this power, settlers had the liberty and the power to coerce others.

Time and time again, our sheer size made the relationship between governmental power and self-government difficult.

A similar line of reasoning happened with non-WASP immigrants, be they Catholics from Ireland/southern Europe or Asians settling in the west.  They did not have the same rights as others, but how could they?  For communal self-government relied on shared religious and cultural beliefs and habits.  If these immigrants did have these same values, they could possibly participate in the democracy.  Gerstle shared Teddy Roosevelt’s fury and frustration with the treatment of Japanese migrants in the U.S. just as he was negotiating sensitive deals with Japan.  But he had no ability to force local governments to do as he wished.

Here Gerstle misses an opportunity to connect our dilemmas with our founding ideology.  American colonization began with the idea of transplanting certain distinct communities intact.  But by the later 18th century Enlightenment ideas led to the bold “All men are created equal” mindset of the Declaration.  Simultaneously, America had no real justification to exclude anyone from its shores, but neither could they practice local, autonomous, self-government if they did.

The history of political philosophy has its revenge–or at least makes itself known.

Of course slavery is the preeminent manifestation of this dilemma.  On the one hand, I think most of the founders knew that slavery ran against their moral principles as a nation.  But their political principle of limiting the power of national government meant granting a lot of autonomy to the states.  The clash of these two propositions embedded the possibility of civil war into the fabric of our origins.

Gerstle cites one illuminating aspect of this problem that I had not heard of before.  After Nat Turner’s rebellion many abolitionist presses mailed anti-slavery publications “free of charge” to the South.  This infuriated President Jackson, who believed that such publications only sought to stir up more trouble.  He asked for Congress to ban their mailing.

But southerner John C. Calhoun recognized that such a ban would not serve southern interests.  They would gain in the short term but give away one of their core principles–the right of states to decide such questions.  He advocated against the ban.  But many states arrived at a solution by instructing local postal workers to simply not deliver this mail.  This at best awkward compromise could only last so long, however much it tried to resolve federal and state issues.**

States were seen early on as the means by which well-ordered communities could be established.  Thus, they had broad ranging police power.  The constitution reflects this by enumerating the powers of the federal government and giving everything else to the states.  Today the power of states is much weaker relative to even just a few generations ago.

This changed in stages.

The Industrial Revolution may have done more damage to the vision of the founders than any president or political party.  It broke down local rural life and lumped most people together in the cities as one amorphous mass.  Such conditions created a national state. Without any direct power to act, the government outsourced, deputizing local civic groups to undertake tasks related to civil order.

Whatever the successes such organizations had, they were destined for embarrassing failures.  They discriminated against blacks and immigrants.  They imprisoned without fair trials, and so on, all in the name of the Justice Department.  They needed stopped, but the only way to do so involved finding a way to increase the power of the national government.

Over time the national government used various legal strategies mostly related to the 14th amendment and the commerce clause to achieve their aims.  Perhaps the Industrial Revolution destroyed the possibility of self-government that our constitution depends on.  Rather than create a new constitution, we sought to stretch certain enumerated powers far beyond their original purpose.  Much hay has been made of the commerce clause, for example, which many conservatives lament.  However, our military and national defense (an issue dear to many conservatives) has also assumed a shape utterly unrecognizable to anyone who lived before W.W. II.  The size and cost of our military has in turn stretched the power of the presidency far beyond the vision of the constitution.  Gerstle cites many examples of how our military ballooned in size and then rapidly decreased when conflicts ceased.  Of course we can cite the strategic dilemmas faced by the U.S. after W.W. II as a justification for maintaining a large military.  In a very real sense, W.W. II did not end until 1989.

Strategic considerations aside, we should speculate if any other forces influenced this shift.

Eighteenth-century theorists drew upon the “citizen-soldiers” of times past.  Greece and Rome both provided examples of this.  On the one hand, we cannot have a militarized state, which would jeopardize our liberty.  On the other hand, we need national defense.  A nation of property owners motivated by legitimate self-interest would certainly rally to defend their land, their communities, if need be.  The first 175 years (give or take) of our history demonstrated this.  Right up through the end of W.W. I we demonstrated the ability to dramatically expand and contract the size of our military.

Perhaps our strategic situation changed so dramatically in 1945 that it necessitated the rise of a “military-industrial complex.” Or perhaps it was we ourselves that changed.  Gerstle does not speculate.

Embedded in this question is the relationship between liberty and order.  We have always recognized the need for someone to have the final say, and the need for people to “pursue happiness” in the way they see fit.  This has always meant tolerating things one may disagree with.  Should we ban pornography or not?  Do we grant the freedom of some to own slaves?  Do we grant the freedom of some to oppose same-sex marriages?  Who gets to decide?

Gerstle’s book rather prosaically shows how this power to decide has transferred over time from the states to the federal government.  This happened mainly under Democratic leadership.  But conservatives also played a role at crucial times with their traditional issues of national defense/military.  By “prosaically” I don’t mean that it was easy or unconvincing.  He has extensive research and uses a methodical style that makes him quite convincing.  But he leaves us with some unexplored questions and neglects to swing for the fences.

He makes clear the fact that ideas of liberty and coercion have always existed.  All we have done over time is basically transferred the power of coercion from the state to the national government.  As to whether representative government can exist in the post-industrial era, as to whether or not Jefferson was right or wrong, these grand questions go largely untouched.  I for one can’t help but admire the brilliance and confident boldness of Jefferson’s vision–though I think I disagree.  I wish Gerstle had done a bit more to inspire me one way or another, and done a bit more to help answer the perplexing question of the nature of America’s idea of liberty.

Dave

 

*Another possible historical lens would be the “wheel of fortune”–the idea that every civilization (and every ruler?) will experience a kind of boom/bust cycle.  The medievals would argue, I think, that this cycle was meant to teach us about redemption.  This lens would argue that some choices could delay the progress of the cycle perhaps even for a long time, but that “nothing lasts forever” and that some kind of decline remains inevitable.

Again, this idea had a historically long run, from the ancients down through Machiavelli at least.  Our founders, many of them heirs to the Enlightenment, would not have accepted this idea.

**The same held true for the Fugitive Slave Act.  Most pro-slavery advocates rejoiced at the new provisions of the law, but others saw that to achieve this they abandoned a key principle of keeping the federal government away from the slavery issue.

Without question slavery is a terrible moral evil.  We must realize that the issue had other dimensions to understand the colonial and ante-bellum period.  We may deplore the actions of another country or culture.  When should we use force to change them?  By what authority?