Oligarchies, Expansion, and a “Time of Troubles”

I posted this originally back in 2012.  While I could have added some new thoughts to the post I wrote directly on Eric Voegelin’s Science Politics, and Gnosticism (found here), I thought it better to include in this post as a sub-set on the idea of territorial expansion.

It may very well be that to read Eric Voegelin is to be confused.  I have had my struggles with his book Order and History: The Ecumenic Age.  But, remembering that he made a special study of gnostic ideas and philosophy, I found his thoughts on the origins of Gnosticism and its relation to territorial expansion very intriguing.

Gnosticism has many permutations, but at its core it propounds an opposition of matter and spirit, the soul and the body, and so on.  Some biblical scholars believe that the Apostle John may be attempting to counter Gnosticism in his epistles. Those who have read St. Augustine’s Confessions know that he involved himself in the gnostic ideas of Manicheism before converting to Christianity.  But gnosticism as a general philosophy pre-dates the coming of Christ by many centuries. Voegelin writes on its origins,

The genetic context to which I refer is the interaction between expansion of empire and differentiation of consciousness.  In pragmatic history, Gnosticism arises from six centuries of imperial expansion and civilizational destruction (p. 21).

Thus, we may assume that gnostic ideas had their roots in the first great ecumenic empire of the Persians, and this fits with the Zoroastrianism and its adoption by Darius I as the semi-official religion of his court.

As to the “why” behind the link between expansion and Gnosticism, I am less able to penetrate Voegelin’s thoughts.  But I believe that we can surmise the following:

  • Significant expansion destroys our sense of proportion.  If the empire is everywhere, it is nowhere.
  • Lacking perspective, we lack attachment to place.  Without attachment to place, we lose our attachment to creation itself.  As an old Irish proverb states (I’m not quoting exactly), “Those who travel much lose their faith.”
  • The power that comes with empire inflates one’s sense of self and distances us from others.  As Chesterton stated, one should pray in valleys, not mountaintops.

Related to the original post below, the disconnect from creation might form the spiritual basis of the problems faced by expansion.

Having recently glanced over The Goebbels Diaries I wondered —  did Hitler’s refusal to allow Rommel to withdraw at El Alamein, and his “fight to the last bullet” order to Von Paulus at Stalingrad arise not from hope of victory but desire for the extinguishing of matter?  As Germany’s territory increased, Hitler seemed more focused on a “refining” cataclysm for creation than in actual victory.  Once separated from creation, we come to hate it, with death as the (perceived) only escape.

And now, the original post . . .

Reading Explorers of the Nile spurred on a thought experiment.

While I have not been overly compelled by the story, there have been several interesting tidbits.  Regardless of one’s feelings toward the Victorian age in general, or the Brits in particular, one can’t help but admire the sheer will and energy of the second great wave of western exploration (the first being in the 15th-early 16th centuries via the Atlantic).  Many hundreds of men risked everything for the sheer thrill of discovery, and yes, for the glory of it as well.  In the early phases from ca. 1840-1860’s, most of this exploration seemed to me to have a generally innocent tinge to it.  The more acquisitive imperialism came later.

This energy and striving for glory reminded me of late Republic Rome, and the quote from Sallust in The Jurgurthine War, which reads,

I have often heard that Quintus Maximus Publius Scipio, and other distinguished men of our country were accustomed to declare that, whenever they looked on the masks of their ancestors, their hearts were set aflame in the pursuit of virtue [i.e. worthy deeds].  Of course they did not mean that the wax or the effigy had any power over them, but it is the memory of great achievements that kindles a flame in the breasts of eminent men that cannot be extinguished until their own excellence has come to rival the reputation and glory of their forefathers.

It struck me that it was during the later phase of the Republic that Rome grew the most in size.  If we look at a map of the Mediterranean at the beginning of the first Punic War in 264 B.C. . . .

Mediterranean, 264 BC

we see that Rome, though decent in size, does not dominate.  They have their sphere, along with Carthage, Egypt, Macedon, etc.

If we fast-forward 100 years we get a different picture, and as the map below indicates, Rome continues to grow almost geometrically down to the death of Caesar in 44 B.C.

Roman Growth Timeline

While Rome had a Republic at this time, I agree with Toynbee that while the government had democratic elements, it was for all intents and purposes an oligarchy.  The aristocratic senate dominated policy, however much voting by the masses took place.

Is there a connection then, between oligarchic democracies and expansion?  As time marched on from Charles I, England did by fits and starts become more democratic.  But 19th century England surely was not democracy in our sense of the word, and instead like the Republic showed strong oligarchic tinges.  As a monarchy, England’s overseas holdings were modest compared with the rest of the world, ca. 1800. . .

Colonisation, 1800

But a century later, after more democracy (while still having an oligarchy) and we see a different scene:

British Empire, 1920

As in late Republic in Rome, we have a near doubling in size.  Of course, something similar could be said of the other major European powers during the same time, many of them become more democratic after 1848, though again, like England, not fully so until after W.W. I.

Two examples do not really suffice to prove the connection.  But three will!

America gets accused of being an imperial power, but I think the charge false in our current, strongly democratic time.  It might have had more merit in the more oligarchic 19th century, however.

America, 1800:

America, 1800

America, 1900:

When America became more democratic in the 20th century, our expansion rapidly slowed.  Now, to be fair, we acquired Louisiana “fairly” from France by buying it, and Alaska fair and square from Russia.  But the same cannot be said for the Philippines, or the vast territory taken from Indians, including territory in Louisiana.  Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant thought that our war with Mexico in 1846 to be manifestly unjust.

If we believe Thucydides, and call Athenian democracy in its golden age really a Pericles-led oligarchy of the best (a claim, to be fair, disputed by the great classicist Donald Kagan), we again see this principle of growth.  In 490 B.C. Athens stood as one city-state among many.  Not so 50 years later. . .

Map, Athenian Empire 431 B.C.

As to why oligarchic democracies have such expansionistic tendencies, I cannot say.  Perhaps it can be the subject of another post filled with wild theories.  But it does seem clear that this period of expansion leads to a “Time of Troubles,” for all parties involved.

For England and the rest of Europe, expansion gave way to the two World Wars.  America had its Civil War, caused largely by the exacerbation of the slavery issue.  The inflaming of the slavery question in its turn had its roots in the Mexican-American war in 1846.  Athens and the Greek world faced the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.).  Though the proximate causes and results of these conflicts differ, they each have an age of expansion to precede it.

Any thoughts from anyone else, with more examples, or a connection between oligarchic democracies and expansion, are heartily welcome.

Blessings,

Dave

9th Grade: Fiddling with Flames

Greetings,

This week we looked at Emperors Claudius and Nero and the problems he caused Rome.

Claudius had his good points.  He was intelligent and hard working.  Some of his legislative and judicial reforms improved things in Rome.  His bust tells us that he was a “normal” guy, and he did not demonstrate any of the insanely cruel tendencies of Caligula.

But generally he is known for three things:

1. The conquest of Britain

What Julius Caesar began in the most tentative way, Claudius finished.  Ostensibly, Rome did this because Gaul may have been receiving aid from across the channel.  To me at least, however, this conquest served no real purpose for Rome accept to continue to delude itself that it was still strong as ever.  Some conquests could potentially make geographical sense even if based on shaky moral grounds.  It’s hard to see how the conquest of Britain fits into any category except that of  Claudius’s ego.  But it may simply been a way to solidify his legitimacy as emperor.  In other words, Claudius (a scholar, a man with a speech impediment and slightly deformed shoulder — not things Romans would have valued) may have thought that some kind of conquest was necessary to prove himself as a Roman leader.

Claudius may have further justified the action as ‘for the good of Rome,’ because if his regime faltered civil war might result, and Rome as a whole would suffer.  If we accept this line of reasoning we see how Rome’s system of government may have worked against the chances of Rome’s success.

We talked of how empire expansion can in some ways, resemble acquisitions done by companies.  I I listened months ago to an interview with the CEO of Ebay, who mentioned that the company’s mission was to “connect buyers and sellers.”  Previously Ebay bought Skype, and then under his tenure, sold it off again.  I asked the students if they had ever used Skype to call a business or seller, or if they had ever received a business call on Skype.  No one had, and this was Ebay’s CEO main point.  However neat Skype may be, it did not fit within their company mission.  Dumping even a “neat” product made their company healthier.

So too, territorial acquisitions have to make some sense, have to fit within the “mission” of the conqueror for it to have any hope of benefitting them (I realize that for the moment, I am not directly considering the moral issue of conquest).  I can’t see how Britain’s conquest could possibly fit within Rome’ s interests, though one student suggested that it fit perfectly well — Rome only cared about being bigger than before.

2. The expansion of the civil service

Claudius can be admired for having a soft spot for recently freed slaves who showed intelligence.  But, being clever, he used them to expand his own power.  The civil service was in many ways necessary, but it was also a tool to bypass whatever vestiges remained of Republican government in the Senate and other elected officers.  The Senate did little to object.  Some have commented that our own predilection for appointing ‘Czars’ (“Education Czar,” “Drug Czar,” over the last 20-25 years for the war on drugs, the economy, trade, etc. does the same thing, putting more and more in the hands of the executive branch.

3. His taste in women

For all his intelligence, Claudius had a blind spot when it came to women.  His first wife was named Urganulilla (enough said there), who may have murdered his sister.  Some suggest he divorced his second wife for emotional abuse.  His third wife had numerous affairs and probably involved herself in a plot to overthrow him.  Grudgingly, he executed her for treason.  His fourth wife probably instigated his death via poisoned mushrooms.  Well, no one’s perfect!

Claudius seemed to have a thing for women stronger in personality than him, and maybe was a glutton for punishment.  Perhaps a connection exists between his taste in women and his love for the gladitorial games, which he frequented.

Nero’s reign, like that of Caligula and other bad emperors, raises a question: Can anyone be, in historian Will Durant’s words, “both omnipotent and sane?”  Nero was not on the scale of say, Caligula, but clearly he distanced himself from reality.

He had a passion for the arts.  He spent much of his time devoted to singing.  He held concerts, where attendance was unofficially mandatory for Rome’s political class.  The Roman historian Seutonius writes that some  feigned death or heart attack in hopes of being carried out of these concerts early.  No doubt many volunteers rushed to the scene to “help” if they could.  Nero appears not to have noticed.

Nero’s passion surely must have struck the Romans as bizarre.  Imagine a campaign ad for a president that showed him, not shaking hands or looking smart at a desk, but taking lessons in how to sing an opera aria.

Nero attended the Greek Olympics in AD 68, giving many concerts to “wild applause.”  Nero also entered the chariot race, but alas, his chariot broke during the competition and he did not finish.  Nevertheless the Greeks awarded Nero first prize, and gave him their most distinguished award for excellence in competition.  Any normal person should have seen right through this, but Nero appears to have missed what the Greeks were trying to accomplish.  He proclaimed that the Greeks recognized “true greatness” and in appreciation removed Greece from the list of provinces that paid annual tributes to Rome.

Whatever their faults, no one ever said the Greeks were idiots.

I find something almost childlike about Nero’s utter lack of self-awareness.  But as we have said in previous updates, distancing oneself from reality to such a degree, combined with great power, would inevitably lead to disaster.  Nero’s self-delusion manifested itself in other ways.  He may have murdered his mother to obtain the divorce and remarriage he sought.  He may have had a hand in the great fire of 64 AD that burned much of Rome.  Nero had always talked of redesigning Rome on more aesthetic lines, and now with much of the city destroyed he could (Christians became a convenient scapegoat).  He almost certainly did not really “fiddle while Rome burned,” but the story points to a truth about his character.

When he died by suicide, he is reported to have lamented, “What a great artist dies with me!” delusional to the bitter end.  Few of us will always like the limits imposed on us by law, custom, circumstance, and conscience, but maybe these are some of the things God uses to keep us from being enslaved to our own self, and trapped in our own view of reality.

The aftermath of Nero’s death removed all traces of what remained of the Republic.  While under Augustus, the Senate at least served as a rubber stamp, now the position of emperor simply went to the general who could control Rome.

The Romans were glad enough to get rid of Nero, but eliminating him meant the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and a power vacuum that needed filled.  Rome burned in A.D. 64, but Rome itself played with fire with a political system bound to rupture at some point.

Blessings,

Dave

11th Grade: Civil War Voices

Greetings,

This week, I include without comment a handout I gave the students which includes thoughts on both sides about slavery and secession.  Many thanks,

Dave

Thoughts on Secession

Pro-Secession Quotes

 No one can now be deluded that the Black Republican party is a moderate party.  It is in fact a revolutionary party.  – the ‘New Orleans Delta’ newspaper

[Secession] is a revolution of the most intense character, and can no more be checked by human effort than a prairie fire by a gardeners water pot. – Sen. Benjamin, Louisiana

Secession is an act of revolution, a mighty political revolution which will result in putting the Confederate states among the independent nations of the earth.’ – Vicksburg mayor

I never believed the Constitution recognized the right of secession.  I took up arms upon a broader ground–the right of revolution.  We were wronged.   Our properties and liberties were about to be taken from us. – Confederate Officer

Were not the men of 1776 secessionists?  – Alabama delegate

If we remain in the union, we will be deprived of that which our forefathers fought for in the revolution. – Florida delegate

Will you be slaves or independent?  Will you consent to being robbed of your property, or will you strike bravely for liberty, property, honor and life? – J. Davis

We left the union to save ourselves from a revolution–a revolution to make property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless. – J. Davis

[Our founders were wrong] if they meant to include Negroes in the phrase ‘all men.’   Our government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery is his natural and normal condition. ‘ Alexander Stephens, VP of the Confederacy

I am fighting for the rights of mankind–fighting for all we in the South hold dear. – Confederate soldier

We cannot wait for a ‘overt act’ by Lincoln.  If I find a coiled rattlesnake in my path, do I wait for his ‘overt act’ or do I smite him in his coil?’ – Alabama editor

If you are tame enough to submit, abolitionist preachers will descend to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.  Will you submit to have our wives and daughters choose between death and gratifying the hellish lust of the negro?  Better ten thousand deaths than submission to Black Republicanism. – Rev. J. Furman

Democratic liberty exists because we have black slaves, [whose presence] promotes the equality of the free.  Freedom is not possible without slavery.  – Richmond Enquirer, editorial

When secession is inaugurated in the South, we mean to do a little of the same business here and cut loose from the fanatics of New England and the North generally, including most of our own state. – New York lawyer, speaking in support of Mayor Fernando Wood, who wanted New York City to become independent.

An Interesting Quote that falls into Neither Camp Directly

Secession is nothing but revolution.  The framers of our constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by any member of the Confederacy at will.  Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. If the Union is dissolved, the government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people.  Save in her defense, I will draw my sword no more. — Robert E. Lee

Anti-Secession Quotes

 The great revolution has actually taken place.   The country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the slaveholders. – Charles Francis Adams

The founders fought to establish the rights of man and principles of general humanity.  The South rebels not in the interest of general humanity, but of domestic despotism.  Their motto is not liberty but slavery.  – W. Cullen Bryant

The framers never intended to implant in its bosom the seeds of its own destruction, nor were the guilty of providing for its own dissolution.  [If secession stands] our 33 states may resolve themselves into as many petty, jarring, and hostile republics.  By such dread catastrophe the hopes of freedom throughout the world would be destroyed. – James Buchannan

I would hang every man higher than Haman who would attempt to break up the Union by resistance to its laws.  – Stephen Douglas

I hold that the election of any man on earth by the American people, according to the Constitution, is no justification for breaking up the government. – Stephen Douglas, commenting on the states that seceded after Lincoln’s election, but before he took office.

State sovereignty is a sophism.  The Union is older than any of the states, and in fact created them as states.  Having never been states, either in substance or name, outside the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of State rights, asserting a claim of power to destroy the Union itself? – A. Lincoln

Revolution is a moral right, when exercised for a morally just cause.  When exercised without such cause revolution is no right, but a wicked exercise of physical power.  The event that precipitated secession was the election of a president by a constitutional majority.  We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.  – A. Lincoln

Disunion by armed force is treason, and treason must be put down at all hazard.  The laws of the United States must be executed–the President has no discretionary power of the subject–his duty is emphatically pronounced in the Constitution. – Illinois State Journal.

Other Thoughts

Slavery is the divinely appointed condition for the highest good of the slave – ‘Richmond Whig’

The free labor system educates all alike, and by opening all fields of employment to all classes of men.  It brings the highest possible activity all the physical and mental energies of man. — William Seward, Governor of New York

Free society!  We sicken at the name.  What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, and moon struck theorists?  They are hardly fit for association with any Southern gentlemen’s body servant.  – ‘Muscogee Messenger’

Slavery is the natural and normal condition of society.  The situation in the North is abnormal.   To give equality of rights is but giving the strong license to protect the weak, for capital exercises a more perfect compulsion than human masters over slaves, for free laborers must work or starve, and slaves are fed whether they work or not. – G. Fitzhugh, Virginia politician

Slavery is destined, as it began in blood, so to end. – Abolitionist Thomas Higginson

Slavery lies at the root of all the shame, poverty, ignorance, and imbecility of the South.  Slavery is against education.  – Hinton Helper, North Carolina author

Invictus Diplomacy

Historians are people too, and they need jobs just like everyone else.  One way some seek to perpetuate their role in society is by coming up with new and different perspectives on the past.  I am all for reexamining things and keeping them fresh, but . . .  recently I have noticed a few attempts to redeem Rome’s most notorious Emperors, Nero and Caligula, and I wonder if this carries things a bit too far.*  Still, despite my concerns that this represents something “weird for the sake of being weird,” we must contend, for example, with the fact that Nero had a great deal of popularity with the masses in general.  We need not assume that Tacitus and Suetonius deliberately lied and distorted things to wonder if they failed to give us the full picture.

Aloys Winterling recently published a well-received biography of Caligula.  Some reviews got my ire up with the word “rehabilitation,” but upon further examination, Winterling seeks to condemn Caligula in a different way, and not “rehabilitate” him.  Winterling allows us to understand Rome and his reign in a different light.  Traditionally most assume that Caligula’s actions had their roots in some type of madness, and this allows for us to excuse them in some ways, obscuring Caligula’s true motives.**

The Augustan synthesis fixed the bleeding in Rome after a century of intermittent civil war, but at a price of the straightforward approach Rome prided itself on.  Augustus may have “pretended” not to want power and the Senate likely “pretended” to rule.  But in the end, Augustus had the power and the senate didn’t. Augustus performed an intricate kibuki dance of sorts that allowed everyone to assume, if they wished, that Rome was still Rome, after all.

Caligula wanted to end this charade, Winterling argues, by carrying its logic as far it went.  He deliberately sought to expose the hypocrisy involved amongst Roman elite.  So, he made his horse a senator and consul as a deliberate insult, as a joke, not because he was “crazy.”  Nero had a thing for the stage and part of me wonders if we might not see Caligula’s time in power as something akin to Andy Kauffman as Emperor, where all masks come off because all masks are on, and things are funny because they are . . . not really that funny.  His goal seemed to be make people feel uncomfortable, something slightly akin to an act of social ‘violence,’^ which of course would presage the very real violence that characterized Caligula’s reign.

In attempting to strip off masks by putting on masks–such as “pretending” to be a god (though he might really have believed it?  Anything is possible). Many other examples exist of this.  When Caligula fell ill one Senator prayed for his recovery and, in an act of great ‘devotion,’ pledged his life for the health of the emperor.  When he recovered, Caligula made him go through with his pledge and end his life. No more masks, no more empty words. Caligula sought to break everything down and rule by himself with no need for social niceties.  One might think of Caligula’s reign as a 3 1/2 year stage act of a much more evil version of Andy Kauffman.

Diplomacy (and most aspects ofpolitics, I suppose) involves masks, and wearing such things must get tiresome.  One has to say things indirectly, if at all.  One says things with posture, and what one eats.  The job grants one high status and honor, yet it often requires a self-effacing temperment that often will not mesh with such requirements.  To say what one wants, to be an authentic man, such is the dream of every romantic.  It is this same romantic who no doubt envisions that his bracing personality is just what the world has been waiting for.

Liuprand of Cremona came from northern Italy as an ambassador for Emperor Otto in the middle of the 10th century A.D.  Otto sent him to Constantinople in hopes of arranging a royal marriage.  Liuprand’s life as a churchman gave him an excellent education, and he had a reputation as a fine speaker.  He seemed the best possible candidate to navigate the highly developed and occasionally strange world of Byzantium.

Liuprand wrote Otto an account of all of his exploits, and what makes his work so enjoyable is that he thinks he’s doing a great job.  He’s “telling it like it is,” not giving the Byzantines an inch!  He fights a valiant war of words on behalf of his emperor, of whom he seems to forget . . . wants a marriage into the Byzantine royal family.

One exchange, involving precedence and the tension between eastern and western churches, got a bit testy.  The Byzantines speak first (Liuprand writes in the first person) . . .

“But he will do that,” said Basil, the head of the imperial bedchamber, “when he makes Rome and the Roman church obedient to his nod.”

Then I said, “A certain fellow, having suffered much harm from another, approached God and said, “Lord, avenge me of my enemy!” God answered him, “I will do it, on the day on which I will give each according to his deeds.”

But to this Basil relpied, “How late!” [this exchange weaves together quotes from Ps. 61:13, Lk 18:3].

Then they all left the disputation shaking with laughter . . .

Liuprand walks away angry, but doesn’t seem to recognize the light-hearted touch from the Byzantines throughout this conversation, obvious in their laughter over his theological “zinger.”

In another instance, Liuprand grows incensed at the “masks” of the Byzantines, as they honored the emperor’s father, with the traditional song, “God grant you many years,” often sung in Orthodox churches even today.  We enter his narrative moments after he has been chastised by the emperor for finding their food too dainty and smelly.

[The Emperor] did not permit me a reply to his words, but instead ordered me back to the table.  Then his father entered and sat down, a man, it seemed, born 150 years before.  In their praises, or rather, their venting, the Greeks sang out, asking God  to multiply his years.

From this we can discern just how ignorant and greedy the Greeks are, and how enamored they are of their own glory.  They wish upon an old man, indeed–a walking corpse–what they certainly know nature will not allow, and the walking corpse wishes that which he knows will never happen, which he knows God will not do, and would not even be good for him if He did do it, but bad.

Liuprand is just the man to set them straight, if only they would listen!  How greedy the Greeks are, indeed!

As one might surmise, Liuprand failed to secure a royal bride for Otto. He has no capability to see his role in this disaster, or perhaps thinks it just as well.  How awful, he must have thought, to think of his leige Otto allying himself with these fish-eating onion lovers. Early during his visit he had been allowed to purchase some costly robes (though LIuprand seemed to despise all he saw and met, he did like their robes), but now the Emperor asked for them back.

When this was done, they took from me five very precious purple robes, judging that you [that is, Otto] and all the Italians, Saxons, Franks, Bavarians, Swabians, indeed all the nations, are unworthy to go about decked in cloth of that quality.  But how unsuitable and how insulting it is that soft, effeminate, long-sleeved, tiara wearing, hooded, lying, unsexed, idle people strut about in purple, while heroes, that is, strong men, who know war, full of faith and charity, in submission to God, full of virtues, do not!  What an insult, if that is not!” [he does add, we should note, that they reimbursed him for the price of the robes].

Thus ended his hilariously inept diplomatic career.

I know that many noble and worthy souls love the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernst Henley, but I have never liked a thing about it. The bald pagan statements in the poem always seemed to me a bit ridiculous and silly coming from the pen of a Victorian Brit.  I won’t argue the point too strongly, but I think we can at least say this, that when diplomats and politicians in sticky situations attempt to be “captains of their souls” and give nothing to no man, they become at best failures, at worst, a horrible wreck of humanity.  The final irony may be that such scrupulously confident people often end up the butt of jokes.

Dave

*Most academics, especially in the humanities, tend to lean left politically.  I wonder then, if we should be encouraged or worried that a variety of them seem to be trying to redeem, or perhaps lean towards “explaining away,” autocratic emperors.

**We should not call Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., “mad” unless we do wish to excuse them in some way.

^For any who might not know, Tony Clifton is Andy Kaufmann.  I am one of those who (his Might Mouse routine aside), do not find him all that funny.  In my defense, reading the entire Great Gatsby on stage as his ‘act’ might be audacious (he actually did this at least once), but is it funny?  You might laugh at hearing about it, but would you pay to see it?

 

“The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”

The Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon pointed out with some ridicule that in the Arian controversy, Christianity got into a kerfuffle over the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet — the iota.  At the Council of Nicea Arians wanted the word “homoiousios,” meaning “similar substance” inserted into the creed concerning the nature of Christ.  They were comfortable thinking of Jesus in divine terms, but not as an equal to the Father in His essence.  Led by Athanasius, the orthodox contingent objected, insisting on the word “homoousious,” meaning “same substance.”

For Gibbon and other Enlightenment oriented thinkers, this all seemed too much.  Such minutiae, such trifling, would upset things so unnecessarily.  Given that Gibbon liked nothing better than a well-oiled worldly machine, he saw the controversy as so many wrenches in the works.  Of course Gibbon missed the point entirely.  The difference between viewing Christ as fully God as opposed to merely “God-like” changes one’s conception of the entire universe, creation, and history itself.  When it comes to our theological understanding, what we worship will have dramatic consequences.

I’ve always believed that understanding religious belief formed the key to understanding any event in history, be it great or small.  Often this is more easily seen in the ancient world, where religion showed on the sleeves much more so than today. But men are men, and as a man thinks, so he is (Prov. 23:7).   Mark Noll  points out the religious roots and the religious mistakes of both North and South in his excellent The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.  Noll’s analysis gets to the heart of the real differences between North and South, and shows how these religious differences formed the roots of the political disagreements that led to war.  Both sides professed belief in the authority of the Bible, and both sides reached different conclusions.  That’s obvious to anyone, but Noll’s approach shows these different interpretations came from the same source American/Enlightenment source, and that makes this brief work a real treasure.

By 1850 America experienced a deep political crisis, but astute observers of the day saw that the roots went deeper. A Protestant ethos merged nicely with Democratic principles in America quite easily.  The individual should be able to read, reason, and think for himself.  Both Protestantism and Democratic government rest on the idea that truth always has a “plain” and obvious character.  It could be argued that an agreed upon “atmosphere” of sorts existed between Protestant denominations despite their differences (Noll takes this for granted and does not argue the point).  But in 1844 both Methodist and Baptist churches (the largest in the U.S. at that time) experienced deep schisms.  A broken Church will lead to a broken nation, and leaders from the North and South predicted this. Henry Clay opined that, “this sundering of religious ties . . . I consider the greatest source of danger to our country. In 1850 John Calhoun of South Carolina warned that if the great Protestant denominations finally broke, “nothing would be left to hold the States together except force.”*  Noll writes,

If we keep in mind that it was never only a matter of interpreting individual biblical texts, but always a question of putting actively to use the authoritative Book on which the national culture of the United States had been built, then we are in a position to understand why in 1860 battles over the Bible were so important, why divergent views of providence cut so deeply, and . . . why the Civil War illuminated much about the general character of religion in America.

First, the South.

Southern arguments in defense of slavery had the advantage of simplicity and (the apparent) strict fidelity to the Biblical text.  They pointed out that . . .

  • God allowed Israel to have slavery
  • Abraham and other luminaries owned slaves
  • Jesus never condemned the institution of slavery
  • Nowhere in the epistles is slavery ever condemned.  In fact, slaves are repeatedly told to obey their masters.  Paul, after finding Onesimus, an escaped slave, has him return to Philemon.

Thus, to argue (as abolitionists often did) that anyone who practiced slavery could have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity flies in the face of the entire and obvious biblical teaching on slavery.  The case was open and shut.

Northern arguments also strove for stark clarity and simplicity.

The most common arguments usually had the following characteristics:

  • Slavery had inextricable links to tyranny and moral abuses that the ethic of the Gospel strenuously opposed
  • Slavery contradicted principles of justice, love, and mercy found throughout the Bible
  • Slavery went against the general spirit of the “brotherhood of mankind” propounded by certain texts, like Galatians 3:28.

In other words, anti-slavery arguments inevitably used first principles but tended to avoid textual rigor and so failed to deal head-on with what pro-slavery advocates said.  Furthermore, many anti-slavery arguments wedded themselves to “natural reason,” “self-evident truths,” and “republican practices” and at times relied on these ideas more than Scripture itself.  Thus, as Noll comments, “The primary reason the biblical defense of slavery remained so strong was that biblical attacks on slavery were so weak.”

Much better arguments against American slavery existed from some Protestants, and interestingly, some Catholics as well. Such arguments pointed out that . . .

  • Using Israel as an example for American slavery made the mistake of conflating Israel with America, a mistake Americans had been making for generations.
  • If the South could used ancient Israel for support, they should be informed by their practices.  For one, slaves had rights in Israel, and they did not in the South.  For another, Mosaic law prescribed years of Jubilee every 7th year and again at the 50th year in which all slaves were freed and all debts canceled.  The South never practiced this.  And again, slavery in Israel was not racial, perpetual, or hereditary. The South condemned themselves by asking to be judged by the law.
  • Certain biblical principles of justice, mercy, and love certainly applied to arguments against slavery.  But these more careful Protestant and Catholic voices applied them differently than most abolitionists.  For starters, they kept such principles clear of democratic ideology — on which Scripture remains silent at least directly (and pro-slavery arguments pointed this out).  The goal for the Christian, according to these arguments, was not so much to live in light of specific texts, but in light of the flow of history itself.  If God’s Kingdom is not just coming but is already here in Christ, we have to live in light of the “now” reality of God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom we will not/do not enslave one another.  Evidence exists for this not just in Scripture, but in the early history of the Church.  Christians worked to liberate slaves and medieval civilization stood as the first major civilization in history to essentially eliminate slavery.  It got reintroduced only in the Renaissance, when pagan, Roman concepts of property and ownership tragically got transported back into Europe’s bloodstream.
  • The Roman example of slavery also condemned southerners, at least to an extent.   For one, Roman slavery lacked the racial character of Southern slavery.  In one of the best chapters in the book, Noll pulls from numerous sources that show that the real problem for the South was not slavery but race.

So whatever one might say about slavery in a general vacuum, no good arguments existed for slavery as practiced by the ante-bellum South.

Unfortunately such arguments never made it into the mainstream of American cultural life.  As to why, we might assume something along the lines of a “short attention span,” but this fits modern times more readily.  In fact, audiences flocked to hear discourses and debates of all kinds in the mid 19th century. Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 spoke for many hours at a time to packed audiences.  One debate on slavery lasted for multiple hours over multiple days to an audience of several hundred.  Rather, the reason lies in the common roots shared by mainstream arguments about slavery on both sides.

The mainstream arguments for and against slavery before the Civil War had the following characteristics:

  • They involve no more than a 1-2 step reasoning process
  • They insist on the “plain” character of truth.  Neither side could be described as anti-intellectual, but arguers for both sides seemed to show an exasperation with the need to develop arguments at all.  The truth was so obvious!
  • Anti-slavery arguments relied on “simple” principle, pro-slavery arguments on isolated small texts.  Both arguments only functioned along one track, one line of thought.

Whichever side won the argument (i.e., the war), the future for having the Church influence culture looked bleak.  The Enlightenment had done its dirty work.

Subconsciously perhaps, we reject oversimplifications because reality and our experience have more complexity and mystery than the Enlightenment can fathom.  Rejecting this truth condemned us to search aimlessly for generations hence to fill the void with politics, “The American Dream,” sex, and the like.**  Obviously western theologians could and did make nuanced and complex arguments, but western culture as a whole failed to notice or heed them.

As a buttress to his observations about slavery arguments, Noll includes a section on the idea of God’s providence as debated before and after the war.  True to form, both sides found obvious answers to the results of the conflict.  For the Southerners, even their defeat showed the rightness of their cause, for “God disciplines those He loves” — i.e. — “We are experiencing discipline, showing God’s love for us, showing the rightness of our cause.  For it is often true that the godly rarely prosper in this world.”  For the North, their arguments had a simpler character, though no doubt the South would have made them had they won the war.  “We won.  God was and is on our side.   Therefore we were/are right.”  Lincoln understood better, and pushed back on this simple approach.  We may always know that God has events in His hand, he agreed, but the particular application of His providence often remains a mystery to us.  Not even someone of Lincoln’s stature could get others to embrace this more nuanced view.

Noll’s work has great value for his illumination of the state of religion in 19th century America.  What makes it even more intriguing is how he reveals what may be the central problem of American political and educational life.  Our problem really resides not in short attention spans, not in one political party or the other, not the sexual revolution, or other such movement. Rather, Americans need to grapple with how our democratic ideology meshes with the nature of truth itself.

Dave

*Noll includes some interesting statistics showing the decline of religion and growth of government.  This should not surprise us, as Calhoun (not someone I’d like to agree with very often) foretold.

  • In 1860 about 4.7 million people voted in the presidential election, but in that same year between 3-4 times that many regularly attended church  on Sundays.  In 2004, about 115 million went to the polls, which equaled the number of regular church attendees in 1860 (Noll should take into account, however, the fact that women and many minorities did not vote in 1860).
  • In 1860 the number of Methodist clergy equaled the number of postal workers.  Today the ratio of postal workers to Methodist clergy approximates 9-1.
  • Before mobilization in 1860 the number of active duty military was about 1/2 the number of clergy in the country.  In the early 21st century, before mobilization for the war in Iraq, the ratio of military to clergy was about 3-1.
  • In 1860 the total income of the churches and religious organizations nearly equaled the federal budget.  Today the ratio of federal income to annual religion-related giving is about 25-1.
  • In 1860 about 400 institutions of higher-learning existed, with nearly all of them run by religious groups.
  • In 1860 there were 35 churches for each bank.  Today there are four churches for each bank.

**In an interesting digression, Noll points out that warfare and dramatic social change have often produced great works of lasting theological depth.  One thinks immediately of Augustine’s The City of God, but numerous other examples exist (St. Bernard during the Crusades, and St. Francis experienced a dramatic shift after fighting in a small war.  In the modern era, Bonhoeffer comes most clearly to mind).  By that model, the Civil War should have, but failed, to produce any significant theological insight, and this reveals a thin theology throughout North and South at that time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the great storytellers of the 20th century, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy — all came from liturgical and historical traditions.  Lewis and Tolkien both fought in W.W. I, and O’Connor and Percy both suffered from lifelong illnesses.

11th Grade: Who Owns the Past?

Greetings,

This week we brought some of the  events leading up to the Civil War to a close, and examined a few different issues.  Studying the Civil War usually brings strong political passions to the fore, and this class has been no exception.  I wanted to try and cut to core of what divided the country, and reduce the argument to its essentials.

The past formed a key battleground between the North and South.  Both sides claimed sonship from what it meant to be an “American,” and both had different ideas on the meaning of liberty.

The South claimed to be the “heirs of the American Revolution” because

  • Our founders feared strong central authority, and set up a government designed to give primacy to the states.  Lincoln’s Republican administration would (in their view) upset this balance by restricting slavery and inserting themselves into their private lives.  The federal government had no right to arbitrate moral questions like slavery for the states.  For them to do so amounted to tyranny.  “Don’t tread on me,” might have been their motto.
  • The founders had a vision that was primarily political in nature.  They spent a great deal of time discussing the structure of government, and much less on its purpose.  If the structure of government changed, what it meant to be an American changed.

The North countered with

  • The founders vision obviously had political overtones, but primarily had a moral character.  The phrase, “All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” gives birth to our nation.  The founders did not fully follow through on that vision.  Therefore, a political system that seeks the perpetuation and extension of slavery can have nothing to do with what our country should be about.
  • The American Revolution did not fully finish until we found a stable government in the Constitution.  The Constitution, ratified by all southern states, sought to form “a more perfect union,” and increased the power of the federal government.
  • While many founders owned slaves, most of them believed (erroneously) that slavery would die out on its own.  The Northwest Ordinance of 1789 banned slavery in the newly created mid-western states, showing that the Federal Government did have jurisdiction over slavery in new territories, and showing that even slave states understood that slavery would not expand into new territory.

These differences have their resonance in many hot-button issues of the day.  Should the federal government make you wear a helmet on a motorcycle?  Should the federal government have the right to ban gay marriage or abortion?  What role do we want to give them in our private lives?  How much power should they have to stop evil?

Classical theorists on government like Aristotle drew rationale for the state based on the family, so an analogy of the family might help us.  We can imagine the parents as the originators of the family and those most interested in preserving family unity and harmony between siblings (i.e., the federal government).  We can put states in the role of grown children.  Some children seem to be leading wayward lives.  But what control should parents still have?  They might urge a child to stop doing ‘x’ behavior, but what if the child did not listen?  What power should the parents have?  Should they have access to a means of force to compel their 30 year old children to come to a family reunion or face punishment?  What kind of punishments can a parent of a 30 year-old mete out anyway?

Obviously the analogy breaks down at points.  But for the federal government to assert that slave-owning states must not own slaves sounded to southern states, “You do not have the ability to govern yourselves.  You are not equal to us, who have that ability.  You are lesser, and therefore we can dictate to you.”

Those against slavery might have used a different analogy.  Perhaps here the children are teens, not independent adults.  Independent adults are akin to separate nations with their own families, but the U.S. is still a family of 50 states.  Parents grant their teens a certain measure of independence.  But parents would grant their teen so much freedom that the integrity of the family unit gets jeopardized.

In the excerpts from Democracy in America that we discussed this week, De Tocqueville talked about how the ideals of liberty and equality ultimately compete against each other.  We cannot have equal amounts of liberty and equality, so we must choose where the balance lies.  Different people would give different priorities to either liberty or equality.

Scholars have debated for years the cause of the war.  Some say that war was about slavery, others say that slavery had nothing to do with it, and instead the war centered on the rights of the states.  I prefer to split the horns of the dilemma.  In 1861 the issue boiled down to Union v. Secession, but slavery formed the vast majority of the subtext related to this question.  It lurked underneath most every significant political debate from at least 1846 on, and in some ways, dominated discussions decades before that.  Economic issues did play a part, but they too had a lot to do with slavery.  The map below shows the concentration of slaves in the various states.  The darker the color, the higher the concentration.

We see how slavery concentrated near water, or in low lying tidewater areas (i.e. Southeastern VA and MD).  This in turn led to the predominance of labor intensive cash crops like cotton or tobacco.  Below is a map of how various southern counties voted on the secession question.  Obviously, not all wanted secession.  The South was not monolithic.  But there is a striking link between the counties who voted for secession and the presence of slavery.  Clearly, the moral question of slavery and the political issue of slavery went hand-in-hand in 1860-61.

Slavery was an issue in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, in 1820, 1848, 1850, 1854, 1856, it was the main topic of discussion in the Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858 — why did the various compromises on the issue fail?  In fact, could they be said to have made things worse? As time went by and slavery became more prevalent, their attitude went from ‘necessary evil’ to ‘positive good.’  What can explain this shift?

I think we can say the following:
  • Industrialization in England and the north gobbled up cotton produced in the deep south and helped solidify the power of large plantation farms.  The North implicated themselves to a degree in this and did not mind getting cheap cotton from the South.
  • I don’t think we should miss the psychological/moral component.  Shakespeare’s line of “Methinks he doth protest too much,” applies here.  Those of you have (or remember having) smaller children know that when you say, “It’s time for bed,” and they immediately whine and shout, “I’m not tired! I’m not tired!” are in fact showing how tired they really are.

This hardening of their views on slavery covered over many contradictions.  Masters supposedly civilized their slaves, but they constantly feared slave insurrections.  Masters claimed to “enlighten” their slaves but often actually educating them was forbidden by law.

As I mentioned earlier a “North=Good, South=Bad” paradigm will not help us understand the period or the war itself.  Many northerners differed little in their view of blacks from the South.  Had the North treated blacks better, some of the evils of slavery might have been exposed sooner.  Of course, there were those in the south who respected blacks and treated them with dignity.  But it is still true to say that the North had an anti-slavery bent even if many had ambiguous feelings about abolishing it.  And it is still true to say that many in the South wanted not only to preserve, but extend an institution that broke up families and and allowed masters to use other humans as they saw fit.

These differences over slavery also had links to broader cultural differences rooted in the typical differences between urban and rural societies.  Generally speaking. . .

Urban areas

  • View change as a positive
  • Believe that we “should not stand still”
  • Look more to the future than the past

and Rural areas

  • Seek to avoid change whenever possible
  • Like to be guided by tradition
  • Look more to past than the future

These different values form different priorities, and this may also help explain the conflict.

9th Grade: Pride and Insanity

Greetings,

This week we continued our look at the early Roman emperors.  After the death of Augustus came the reign of Emperor Tiberius.

There is  good evidence that suggests that Tiberius never wanted to be emperor at all.  Duty bound, he did not shrink from service.  In many key ways, Tiberius was a good emperor (generally just, sound money manager, no foolish military adventures), but his introverted personality distanced him from the population and the ruling elite.  His bust shows him at least at a young age to be a decent, unassuming man.  As time went on, he grew more bitter, more distant.

His time in power raises a few questions:

As the Republic faded and Augustus’s system took over, was it possible for the emperor to be a simple civil servant?  Did the principate system of Augustus require a more dynamic kind of leadership than Tiberius could muster?   I recently heard an interview with an actor who had senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein guest-star on the sitcom he is a part of.  He mentioned how naturally acting came to the politicians.  It initially surprised him at first, but then he thought that in fact, politicians play a role all the time.

Some decry this situation, while others accept it passively.  But we should wonder if our system of government and our society do not almost require our leaders to be at least part image.  They need to represent something abstract beyond themselves in order to appeal to a broad enough cross-section of people to get elected.

Tiberius’s reaction to his unpopularity exacerbated the problem.   Tiberius took his unpopularity personally.  He grew distant and sullen.  The distance eventually became physical as well as social, as he withdrew from Rome and ruled from the island of Capri.  His isolation forced him to trust a select few.  When one of them named Sejanus betrayed him, Tiberius went off the rails.  Now no one was trustworthy, and many were arrested on flimsy treason charges.  Once he could take refuge in the good work he did for Rome, but now he spent much of his time trying to find “traitors.”  Whereas before people may have grudgingly respected him without liking him, now he had the hatred of most of the political class in Rome.

So strong was their dislike of Tiberius, the Romans rejoiced at his murder in favor of Emperor Gaius, known to us and his contemporaries as Caligula.  With Caligula, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Here was a man of some charm, but almost no real care for the actual demands of office.

Unlike Tiberius, he actually had a sense of humor — but this often had a cruel edge to it even when expressed in its most benign forms.  Growing as the mascot of the army in Germany, the son of the beloved but murdered General Germanicus, Caligula never had any check on his whims.  In normal society he would have been an annoying brat.  Unfortunately for Rome, his birth and connections made him emperor of the most powerful empire in the western world.

As his reign progressed, he grew more and proud and insane with power.

Caligula may never have been “normal,” but he wasn’t always insane (however unnerving this most famous bust of him might be, with that smirk and those distant eyes).  We call those insane who cannot cope with reality, and pride and delusions of omnipotence certainly distance us from reality.  This distance can lead to paranoia and erratic behavior, perhaps out of fear.  A paranoid and erratic emperor would spell disaster for Rome’s political class.

Can a person make oneself insane through their actions?  We can consider Daniel 4 and the story of Nebuchadnezzar, where his pride led to his insanity.  The same might be said of Caligula.

Next week, we examine the reign of Claudius and Nero.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

Old Virginia

I have read very few books on the topic of American slavery, but Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 is the best book I’ve read on the subject.  It has gotten national attention, and deservedly so.  Taylor reveals alternate angles and puts a human faces on a great national disaster.  He avoids getting preachy, and he doesn’t need to be, for his writing, and the story he tells, does it for him.

As to why one should focus on Virginia. . . .  Well, first, it’s his area of expertise.  But Virginia arguably had more influence on the founding of this nation than any other state, and so the focus has justification in any sense.  Virginia has more than slavery in its history of course, but slavery had an enormous impact on us as a whole, and so in some ways Virginia’s story is America’s as well.

Two things make this book a great success.

Taylor puts special focus on the lives of struggling plantation owners.  Some of them believe, or at least almost believe, in the injustice of slavery.  But they also felt trapped.  Many had debts from living the required “Virginia Gentlemen” lifestyle that needed paid off.  Many farms started failing due to bad weather and failing soil.  Many also worried that freeing slaves might create a de facto army of those who would eagerly do them in.  In their minds at least (Taylor’s book has copious original source footnotes) they had inherited tiger riding from their fathers and could not get off.  Many at least wanted no more slaves in Virginia than they already had, for fear of tipping the ethnic balance against them even more.  But again, they trapped themselves by their view of slaves as property.  The whole practice of slavery built itself on a certain idea of property, and the liberty of property. Within this framework ownership of slaves could never be restricted. Countless idealistic 20 year olds become weary and defeated 40 year old inheritors of failing estates.  The web of of sin ensnared just about everyone, including many who  initially wanted nothing to do with it.

Of course this sense of feeling trapped had a way out, but it would involve not just tinkering with the existing social system, but destroying it root and branch.  Most simply did not have either the vision or the courage to do this (as an aside — if we judge a man by his contemporaries George Washington shines brightly while Jefferson flows along with the mass.  Washington not only freed his slaves but provided land for them and a fund for their medical care.  This may have been easier for him because he had no children, but still, he who sought so much to be a Virginia gentlemen for much of his life willingly let that go at the end.  Of course this does not excuse everything, but should be noted).

This web involved not only personal contradictions but political ones as well.  Virginia state politics routinely pitted county vs. county, so certainly they had no love for the federal government.  But when war with the British came many demanded federal troops to protect their plantations and prevent slaves from running away, and many demanded federal restitution for runaway slaves.  At least in Taylor’s book, few if any saw the hypocrisy in this, a willful blindness that sin often creates.

Another fascinating plot in the book deals with the impact of the American Revolution on slavery in Virginia.  Many founders believed that slavery would die out hopefully on its own within a generation of the American victory.  Many perhaps followed Jefferson’s assertion (in his original draft of the Declaration) that slavery had a lot more to do with the British than the Americans, and once they left, the condition of slaves would inevitably improve.

The laws of primogeniture seek to keep estates intact by preventing them from suffering division among multiple heirs.  As long as slaves counted as part of an estates’ property, freeing them brought many difficulties under primogeniture law and custom.  In abolishing primogeniture laws, many may have thought that their absence would indirectly help slavery disappear.  But in increasing social and political freedom, they increased their economic freedom as well.  In a cruel twist of unintended consequence, slave owners now found many more ways to profit from their slaves, including selling and even renting them at much greater rates.  And this meant, first, that slave families got broken up much more frequently than before.  Secondly, it meant that the possibility of some cordiality and respect for slaves by masters (Taylor shows how this did happen on occasion) due to familiarity and stability eroded quickly.  In other words slaves became much more like disposable assets rather than valuable family heirlooms.  Finally, the extra profits from slavery made a political solution to the problem much more difficult.  Too many hands got dirty.

Matters complicated themselves further during the War of 1812, when invading British armies sought to liberate slaves whenever possible.  Many slaves “switched sides” and served with British regiments as scouts and guides in what was unfamiliar territory for the British.  Who does one root for in these circumstances?

Today we cannot safely distance ourselves from this and claim it has nothing to do with us.  Maybe your entire family grew up in Maine.  But Virginia’s story is part of all Americans, and the state certainly played an unusually significant rol in the founding of the United States. We have to face this, and should not spare anyone in any era.  Marginal Revolution recently posted the following blurb on George Washington (full article can be found here)

During the president’s two terms in office, the Washingtons relocated first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Although slavery had steadily declined in the North, the Washingtons decided that they could not live without it. Once settled in Philadelphia, Washington encountered his first roadblock to slave ownership in the region — Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780.

The act began dismantling slavery, eventually releasing people from bondage after their 28th birthdays. Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This presented a problem for the new president.

Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president’s slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. The president was secretive when writing to his personal secretary Tobias Lear in 1791: “I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.”

Ugh.

Kenneth Clark made the astute observation in his Civilisation series that a society really depends on confidence — confidence in institutions, in laws, in “what we’re about,” and in each other.  Without this belief, civilization will collapse quickly, for the foundation upon which our laws, economy, etc. stand will cease to exist.   With it, a society can withstand even great disasters (i.e. Rome in the 2nd Punic War).  And this raises the problem of how we teach our past.  What will happen to us if we can have no “confidence” in the sense Clark meant it?

Someone recently asked me the great question, “Is it the duty of a Christian teacher to promote patriotism, love of country, and devotion to the American way of life?”

To me this question should receive a strong and resounding “No,” in the main, but with a smaller, qualifying, parenthetical “Sort of,” attached to the epilogue of the “No.”

As C.S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity Christians easily fall into the trap of what he called “Christianity and. . . ”  We should apply our Christianity to all areas of life certainly, but “Christianity and Pacifism,” or “Christianity and Low Taxes,” easily morphs into “Pacifism and Christianity,” which then leaves you with just “Pacifism.”  The Truth stands above all civilizations and must remain so in order that civilizations might learn, repent, and change.  Whenever the Truth gets co-opted into an agenda for creating citizens, Truth is the first casualty, but down the line the civilization gets harmed by the collateral damage.  The City of God must never get confused with the City of Man, for the good of both.

But. . . Christians are also called to love particular places, and invest in those around them.  We don’t live disembodied lives, we live as unique people in unique contexts.  To hate and denounce the history of one’s country, or merely to live apart from it in a disembodied state to me seems akin to hating one’s own body.  I don’t appreciate the whitewasher of our country’s sins, but his fault is almost always childlike, like the 8 year old who believes that the sports team he roots for always wears the white hat.  I have much less stomach for the cynical debunker of everything, of the professor who only seeks to get the student not to believe in anything, in order that the poor student might believe only in the professor.

A third type exists, seen in what I suspect may be the trend in high school history textbooks today.  This path seeks to uncritically praise other cultures (especially non-western cultures) while giving hefty criticism to one’s own (I have seen this with my oldest son’s textbook).   This has the appearance of humility, i.e. “think of others as better than yourselves.”  But I think it falls short of that, for it’s not rooted in an actual love of one’s own place.  The “virtue” comes at far too cheap a price. This approach reminds me of the teenager who thinks that his parents are hopelessly stupid — if only we could be like this family, or that family, or any other family but their own.  In other words, this view falls fails as an intellectually mature perspective.

Christian teachers do not have a duty to “see the best side of everything,” but they should encourage a healthy sense of appreciating where they are, for it is where God has placed them.  We must come to terms with our country just as we must come to terms with ourselves.  But hating oneself is not Christian.  St. Francis used the term “Brother Ass” for his body/himself.  Chesterton made the great point that, like a donkey, our bodies can be stubborn, stupid, foolish, and even willfully spiteful at times.  But how could one really hate a donkey?  Just look at that face!

The term, and the attitude seem appropriate to have towards one’s country.  “No one hates his own body” (Eph. 5:29).  I am guessing that just about every nation could qualify for the moniker, “Brother Ass.” I confess I don’t know exactly what this means in light of our past with slavery, Native Americans, and so on.  I also couldn’t say how African-Americans, for example, might react to my proposed metaphor.  But for now . . . it will serve as a place to start.

11th Grade: Lord Grantham vs. the 49ers

Greetings,

This week we looked briefly at the California Gold Rush of 1848-49, where I want to touch on a few different issues:

1. The link with land and opportunity

Americans since early colonization often associated this country with opportunity – be it economic or religious in nature.  The Gold Rush did not present the lure of an easy life with easy riches.  Travel was long and dangerous, finding gold was not guaranteed, nor could you be sure to protect your claim.  Still, the possibility of changing your circumstance, of making something for yourself, proved irresistible to thousands.  The idea of opportunity has always been powerful for Americans. Often this idea of opportunity was linked with land.  We talked last year about how absurd the Americans must have seemed to the British with our near obsession for land.  After all, even before the Louisiana Purchase we far exceeded England in terms of size.  Today we still link home ownership, for example, with independence.

We can trace part of the difference in our approach to land in the different cultures.  In England many lived and worked due to the patronage of a benefactor, usually someone in the aristocracy.  In America the idea of patronage ran counter to our “do it yourself” mindset of personal independence.  There is a lot to say for our attitudes.

But we should not view this European mindset as mere laziness.  Many felt that if one had the means to hire a maid and a gardener, you had a duty to hire them and provide jobs.  It could be considered part of the duties of one’s “station in life.”  At its best, this mindset produced a sense of community and mutual responsibility. Mrs. Mathwin is a big fan of Downton Abbey, and I saw one scene where Matthew (who feels that all the servants are waste of time and money) is upbraided by Lord Grantham, who asks Matthew to think about where the butler will go if he had no job at Downton.  The best aristocratic tradition saw having servants as a means to provide for others.  But without a “benefactor class” in America, individuals had to make their own way, and land always played a key role in making that happen.

It is this belief in independence and opportunity that led many to oppose slavery who were not necessarily generous in their attitude to blacks.  This attitude can be just as puzzling to us today as those who favored slavery in the name of liberty.  But many Californians opposed slavery because slavery represented being rich enough to hire someone else to do your dirty work.  In this line of thinking, slavery stood against the “do it yourself” ethic inherent in the 49ers, and so stood against the idea of independence and liberty.  But we should be careful of thinking too highly of their motives.  Again, many of them had no love for blacks per se, however much they opposed slavery.  Others in the North shared this same attitude.  Unfortunately, strict abolitionists were a distinct minority.

2. Institutions Travel

It is probable that many of the 49er’s simply thought of themselves as seeking their fortune.  But institutions and economies would inevitably travel with them.  With money came the need to protect it, and for that you ultimately need political institutions (unless you would prefer lawlessness and spoils going to the strongest).  On Friday the students played a ‘Gold Rush Game.’  I hope they had fun, but I also hope they saw how 8 separate fortune hunters would inevitably want to create institutions.  This was not always, however, a squeaky clean process, as violence became part of the picture — not unlike the real life of the old west.  In fact, for at least one team, crime did pay!   On the whole, this class strongly resisted forming any institutions that might limit their mobility on the board.  The game will have to be tweaked a bit more next year to give more incentive to the formation of banks and towns.

3. Cultures Linger

As a curious side note, the names of the towns created by the Gold Rush reveals a lot about the people there.  In contrast to much of the rest of the county that named towns with European associations (i.e. New York), Biblical references (i.e. Providence, Rhode Island), virtues (Philadelphia) or a virtuous past (i.e. Cincinatti for the Roman Cincinattus, and Columbus, Ohio).  Gold Rush towns had very different names like Devil’s Thumb, Rough and Ready, Hangtown, etc.  Clearly, many came to California with entirely different goals and outlook than those that settled North America initially in the 17th and early 18th centuries.  There are those that say that California today marches to a different drummer than other parts of the country, and clearly this has its roots dating to the Gold Rush. The culture of a particular place will often have deeper roots than we think, and our actions have longer ripple effects than we usually imagine.

I will look forward to updating you next week, when we delve deeper in the slavery question and other issues that began to split the country in the 1850’s.

Dave Mathwin

9th Grade: Rome’s Final Frontier

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our look at the formation of the Empire under Augustus Caesar.  His leadership gave Rome peace and stability, but this came at a price.  Augustus solved some of the decayed Republic, but his solution created other problems.

Decades of civil war faced Rome with the need for change.  Rome’s society, however, was built on tradition. Augustus carried himself as a leader in the old tradition, but in reality eroded all of the old checks and balances of the Republic.  He was much more careful than his uncle Julius, who made no secret of his power.  In reality, however, Augustus had just as much, if not more power than Julius ever did.  He certainly understood the power inherent in manipulating his image. . .

The problem may not have been the power itself, but the fact that it was done more or less secretly, and so did not encourage Rome to face reality.  We talked of how Rome was in a sense, ‘pretending’ — living in a fantasy land that told them that Rome was still Rome, after all.  This pretending, however, can be dangerous for a civilization, because the tension between your imagination and reality can grow over time.

In their “Res Getae” assignment the students got an idea of the subtlety with which Augustus worked.  He saw what happened to his uncle Julius, and modified his actions accordingly.  He never (or hardly ever) took power, he waited to receive it from others.  He rejected the title of Dictator which would have brought odium upon himself, but he took bits and pieces of other offices that added up to total control in the end, a kind of “majority ownership” of Rome.

Next week we will see that one problem Augustus faced was the German frontier along the Rhine and Danube river.  He was right to recognize its weaknesses.  This map shows the wedge into Roman territory created by the meeting of the Rhine and Danube river.

Do rivers make for good frontiers?  We might think so, for rivers are not easy for armies to cross.  But when compared with mountains or deserts we see that rivers can be quite porous. Neither side, after all, has a barrier to using the river on their side of territory.  Furthermore, most people use rivers for fishing, travel, and commerce.  Thus, rivers often act to bring people together rather than separate them.  The MD/D.C./No. VA area is a good example of this.  Augustus needed a new frontier, a more secure border.

Prudence might dictate falling back to something more secure.  But Augustus built his power in part on the fantasy that Rome had not changed.  Rome never falls back!  He tried to push forward further into Germany to the more advantageous Elbe/Danube frontier, seen here below. . .

and picked the arrogant Varus to command.  Varus fell for Arminius’s trap and led his army to disaster at the Battle of Tuetonburg Forest.  We will discuss how Augustus was right about his frontier being vulnerable, but was he right in his solution?

We shall see that their are limits to what the military can accomplish when the situation requires a  political solution While Rome would win battles against Germans in the future, they could never end their power of resistance.

Next week we will do an activity where I want the students to rethink the Roman frontier.  In the ideal world Rome could have pulled back a great deal.  But of course that would completely ignore political realities.  If he withdrew in one place, would he have to advance in another?  If so, where?  I hope the students enjoyed this change of pace and the chance to view the problem in a different way.

Here is a map of the Empire from a topographical perspective:

Where could Rome get an ‘easy’ victory to allow them to withdraw on the German border?  Where should troops be concentrated?

When we wrap up Augustus we will discuss various aspects of his reign.  He ended a century of civil war and brought peace throughout the Roman empire.  Under his leadership the economy and culture of Rome revived.  The system he established did give Rome stability long after he departed, and as far as masterful politicians go, I would rank Augustus as one of the all-time greats.  On the other hand, while Augustus was very effective, he had to curtail civil liberties to achieve his goals.  He never sought to make Rome face reality, to take them from their current perception of reality at point ‘A’ and bring them to the necessary point ‘B.’  In this way, Augustus lacked true leadership greatness.

After Augustus we will see how the system he established fared under different emperors.  Tiberius and Caligula will get our attention next week.

Many thanks,

Dave

Ma’at on Balance

Historians do not know much about Pharaoh Userkaf of Egypt’s 5th Dynasty.  Only fragmentary records survive fromUserkaf the far past, so one must be careful about generalizing from such incomplete information.  But Userkaf did document his reign, which includes this thrilling account. . .

To the spirits of Heliopolis: 20 offerings of bread and beer everyday. . .

To the gods of the Sun temple at Sepre, a stat of land in the domain of Userkaf

[also] 2 oxen and 2 geese everyday,

To Re: 44 stat of land in the home of the Northland

For Hathor: 44 stat of land in the nomes of the Northland

For the House of Horus — 54 stats of land; building of the shrine of his temple in Bute in the nome of Xois

For Sepa: 2 stats of land for the building of his temple

For Nekhhet in the sanctuary of the South: 10 offering of bread and beer every day.

For Butte in Pernu: 10 offerings of bread and beer everyday

The gods of the sanctuary of the South: 48 offerings of bread and beer every day

Year of the third  occurrence of a large amount of cattle: 4 cubits of 2/2 fingers [??]

Etc., etc.

Of course, he may have recorded other things, but from we know, the emphasis of his writing dealt with his offerings to the gods.

Had we written his history it would have looked different.  But people record what they believe to be important, and Userkaf is no different.

No doubt the Egyptian concept of Ma’at directly influences the shape of Userkaf’s narrative.  For the Egyptian’s, Ma’at represented their ideal of peace, harmony, and order.  Some also see Ma’at’s influence in Egypt’s desire to return society to its former days of perfection.  As a god, or at least as a godlike being, a Pharaoh’s first and foremost had to maintain “Ma’at” in his domain.  Very consciously, Userkaf tells his readers, “I have done my utmost to maintain harmony between gods and man.  I have done my job, fulfilled my role.”

As many historians note, Egypt’s focus on Ma’at led to them trying to restore a lost golden age.  It involved looking backwards with a strong focus on maintaining the current order.  This contributed to the static nature of Egyptian society, especially after the completion of the Great Pyramid ca. 2500 B.C.  As we learned more about Egypt in the 20th century, most historians criticized Egypt for the rigid timelessness of their civilization.  But recently others countered along the lines of, “What’s wrong with a devotion to order?  Who can say that change has the upper hand?  We in the West favor dynamic civilization.  Who are we to make that judgment for the ancient Near East?”

These revisionists have a point.  All societies need predictability to function.  Many examples exist of when rapid change led to disaster, like the French Revolution.  One might wonder if our own civilization needs to slow down (I discovered today that Apple officially classifies my 5 year old computer as “Vintage”).  So, yes, stability has its place.  Change can also mean going further from the truth, not closer.

One should always question our beliefs and check to see where lies our preferences and where lies the truth, but implicit in the line of questioning above is that we can never make judgments.  We stand forever bound by our culture.  I disagree with that premise, but that is not the question I wish to address now.

Can we say, in any absolute sense, that “petrifying” one’s civilization is a bad thing, or will we ascribe it to taste?

If each person is made in the image of God, then each person ideally, through grace, will reflect something unique about God in their lives.  Civilizations are not made in God’s image, but the people in them are.  As a collective consciousness, civilizations should reveal something distinct about God.  Growth in Christ requires something akin to risk on our parts.  We should not “bury our talents.”  Well, I think the same holds true for civilizations.

Egypt of course had many, many things wrong with it, but their civilization developed in many unique ways.  They made enormous leaps forward in geometry, astronomy, and masonry.  They developed paper, a calendar, and many other wonderful inventions far ahead of their time.  We can only guess what might have come from Egypt had they continued to push themselves.  Egypt also had keen perspectives on certain spiritual truths, but after a time they stopped, and these partial-truths turned into their snares, enslaving them.  After 1000+ years, not even the 10 plagues and the Exodus could shake them loose.

To the Victor go Some of the Spoils

Many often declare that since, “To the victor go the spoils,” so too, that, “Victors write the history books.”  This pithy phrase assumes that historical narratives boil down to power, a concession to postmodern theory that I am loathe to make.  Aside from the debate over the theory, however, history itself will not confirm the statement.  Several examples exist to prove this point:

  • The Athenians exiled Thucydides but we read of the war that helped bring about his exile almost exclusively through him.
  • Athenian Democracy “won” by executing Socrates, but subsequent generations of readers learned Athenian democracy primarily through Plato’s eyes.
  • The triumph of the “imperial” system over the Republic in Rome became a fact of life after Augustus, but we think of that triumph foremost through the writings of Tacitus, a significant critic of most of the emperors.
  • The North won the American Civil War, but the Confederacy had a variety of champions shortly after the war and a variety of sympathizers today,

and so on.

As Tocqueville noted, mere physical force can control the body but often has the opposite impact on the soul.  The examples above demonstrate also that, contra the mundane postmodernist, shaping how we see the world has much more to do with our imagination that rote political force.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Excellent Empire disappointed me overall.  He is likely one of the few who could have possibly made a history of Christian doctrine an exciting read, and he did just that in his four volume work The Christian Tradition.  In The Excellent Empire he flashes his ability to deftly dance from text to text, but seems to get trapped into the detached tone of his main subject, Edward Gibbon, whose The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire forms the backdrop of this book.

I give Gibbon much credit for his labors, his erudition, and for having a defined point of view.  Alas, he writes like a know-it-all, and I cannot buy into how he frames his narrative.  Pelikan seems to accept Gibbon’s perspective (or–is just playing a scholarly game, or am I too dense to notice something else?), and discusses how GIbbon’s perspective relates to Christian thoughts at the time from Sts. Jerome and Augustine, as well as a touch of Salvian and Orosius.

Gibbon’s work is an interesting examination of who gets the last laugh.

Roman contemporary critics of Christians viewed them as a drain on the Roman state, and in many ways enemies of the Roman state.  Jerome saw the collapse of Rome in the most starkly apocalyptic terms, and in the most anguished.  He compared Rome’s end to various passages from Revelation.  He saw Rome as ripe for judgement.  Yet, he grieved over their fall, seeing their end as the end of all things as he knew them.  Augustine took a more cerebral approach, which gained him some more penetrating insights.  He conceived of a Rome built upon shaky foundations from the start.  In one brilliant passage from Book 3 of The City of God he writes,

First, then, why was Troy or Ilium, the cradle of the Roman people (for I must not overlook nor disguise what I touched upon in the first book(2)), conquered, taken and destroyed by the Greeks, though it esteemed and worshipped the same gods as they? Priam, some answer, paid the penalty of the perjury of his father Laomedon.(3) Then it is true that Laomedon hired Apollo and Neptune as his workmen. For the story goes that he promised them wages, and then broke his bargain. I wonder that famous diviner Apollo toiled at so huge a work, and never suspected Laomedon was going to cheat him of his pay. And Neptune too, his uncle, brother of Jupiter, king of the sea, it really was not seemly that he should be ignorant of what was to happen. For he is introduced by Homer(4) (who lived and wrote before the building of Rome) as predicting something great of the posterity of AEneas, who in fact founded Rome. And as Homer says, Neptune also rescued AEneas in a cloud from the wrath of Achilles, though (according to Virgil (1))

“All his will was to destroy
His own creation, perjured Troy.”

Gods, then, so great as Apollo and Neptune, in ignorance of the cheat that was to defraud them of their wages, built the walls of Troy for nothing but thanks and thankless people.(2) There may be some doubt whether it is not a worse crime to believe such persons to be gods, than to cheat such gods. Even Homer himself did not give full credence to the story for while he represents Neptune, indeed, as hostile to the Trojans, he introduces Apollo as their champion, though the story implies that both were offended by that fraud. If, therefore, they believe their fables, let them blush to worship such gods; if they discredit the fables, let no more be said of the “Trojan perjury;” or let them explain how the gods hated Trojan, but loved Roman perjury. For how did the conspiracy of Catiline, even in so large and corrupt a city, find so abundant a supply of men whose hands and tongues found them a living by perjury and civic broils? What else but perjury corrupted the judgments pronounced by so many of the senators? What else corrupted the people’s votes and decisions of all causes tried before them? For it seems that the ancient practice of taking oaths has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of perjury.

Such analysis gave medieval Europe a whole new foundation of political and religious ideology on which to proceed.

Rome attacked Christians for not giving themselves fully to the well-being of the state.  For the Romans, this might have taken the form of not giving due sacrifices to the emperor, or not joining the army.  Gibbon pointed out as well that the best men in the Church gave themselves to the Church, and not Rome.  Imagine a Rome where Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, etc.–with all of their energy and intelligence–served as provincial governors instead of bishops.

Jerome and Augustine responded variously with how Rome had doomed itself to destruction via its sins, or how Christians were in fact the best citizens of Rome.  Their analysis won the day.  Monastics, for example, appear on the surface at least, to not contribute anything to the well-being of civilization.  But monastics would be honored in the west for the next 1000 years.  Their presence made no sense to either the Romans or to Gibbon.  The “social triumph of the church,” as Pelikan calls it, gave the Church the power of interpreting Rome’s history.  But I gathered that Pelikan thought Augustine and Jerome thieves, to a certain extent.*  Perhaps for Pelikan, Gibbon restored Rome’s vision of itself back to the stream of history.

Augustine and Jerome appeared to be the victors in the 5th century A.D. and beyond, as the Church had a strong hand on shaping the next millennium.  But historical spoils can be slippery things.  In an irony that perhaps not even Gibbon might have foreseen, today’s Christians, having abandoned much of the otherworldliness of the Church of the 5th century, may find more congeniality with Gibbon’s interpretation as opposed to Augustine’s.  What modern mega-church leader, for example, would tell anyone to become a monk?  We have our eyes set on this world and have no concept of how to patttern ourselves after the heavenly realms.  Some may applaud this.  But without the worldview of Augustine and Jerome we may find ourselves wishing, along with Gibbon, that St. Augustine had served as proconsul of Alexandria.

DM

*I could be totally wrong here.  Part of the difficulty I had with this book was I felt that I was reading a different Pelikan than the one I encountered in The Christian Tradition.  I had assumed that The Excellent Empire was written before this series, because its tone seemed more distant to me, less committed to the idea of truth than The Christian Tradition.  I knew that Pelikan had converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1998.  But I had somehow thought (how I thought this I’m not sure) that The Christian Tradition was written during/after his conversion, when in reality the early volumes stretch back to 1973, and the last volume predates his official reception into the Church by eight years.

This could mean that

  • I have misread Pelikan entirely in The Excellent Empire
  • Pelikan is deft at hiding his particular point of view from the reader and is simply examining certain points of view in a more detached way.
  • He does admire Gibbon (which is understandable) and agrees with Gibbon that Christians really did bring down Rome from the inside out.  This stance is not Augustine’s or Jerome’s, but it is certainly not an anti-Christian idea in itself.  Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream may hint at this (Daniel 2).  Perhaps I am too ingrained in my distaste for Gibbon’s pompous Enlightenment attitude to see that, despite this weakness, he may have been right after all about the Church’s relationship to Rome.

 

 

 

The Emperor Might Need New Clothes

Some months ago my students and I came across a remarkable passage in Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention.  The delegates debated some issue about term limits or representation, when one of the lesser known men commented that, in effect, “this constitution will last us about 75 years, after which we will have to make a new one.”*

This comment passed apparently without much notice or fuss.  Perhaps it was a generally assumed idea, or perhaps they simply had enough trouble in the moment to worry about arguing whether or not their document would last past their grandchildren.

This shocked everyone in class because we think of America like any other country, a more or less solid oak in the earth.  Of course, we have also been brought up with political rhetoric from both parties that venerates the constitution (though perhaps different parts of it).   Because Americans share little besides some form of faith in the constitution, if that shakes, we all fall down.

Because American history has many unique aspects, I find getting an interpretive handle on our past very difficult.  I have taught American History for about 15 years and have only some educated and less than educated guesses.  Clearly, however, politically and culturally we are currently shifting in some direction or another at the moment.  How should we make sense of it?

One of the more remarkable periods of positive dynamic change occurred in Greece between the years ca. 800-500 B.C.  We know about the Bronze Age, but sometime after the Trojan War Greece descended into a dark age about which we know very little.  Perhaps Homer was the beginning of the rebirth.  Early on in his The Economic and Social Growth of Early Greece: 800-500 B.C. Chester Starr makes an interesting point.  Definite ideas or concepts like “equality” or “rights” did not guide the Greeks ca. 800 B.C.  Rather, the concept of eunomia, or “traditional right” formed the basis of Greek social and political interaction.  Sometimes they invoked eunomia against abuse of power by tyrants or aristocrats, at other times aristocrats invoked it rightly against the “mob.”  This flexibility surely gave them good ground on which to innovate.

This stands in contrast to our history.  We founded America on ideas, whether because we thought that the best way to go, or because we had no other choice.  We often agreed on the results we wanted, but rarely on the “why” of that result.  Even early colonial America had a great deal of cultural diversity, at least by 17th century measurements.  We have never really had a shared culture to build upon, except perhaps for a vague sense of Protestantism.

Starr goes to demonstrate that the creation of the much admired political unit of the city-state had at least part of its origins in the desire of the aristocracy to concentrate its power.  Later, asPericles of Athens we know, democracy arose in many Greek city-states, a tribute to the aforementioned flexibility.  But many Greek democracies still had their aristocratic imprint.  The outstanding reformer Pericles made Athens more democratic while definitely living and fashioning himself as an aristocrat, and not as a “man of the people.” His bust makes this clear.

All good things come to end, and the Greek system had played itself out by the time of Alexander, who had little trouble putting it to rest.  Still, all in all, a good run by any measure, one too that makes sense in some clearly defined stages.

In light of Greek history and our own, I offer some some highly speculative thoughts . . .

Theory 1

Since early colonization America has gone through several iterations:

  • Colonial America – 1600-1756
  • Revolutionary America – 1756-1828
  • Jacksonian America – 1828-1860
  • Progressive America – 1860-1929
  • New Deal America – 1929-1965
  • Global Power America – 1965-2001
  • ???

Obviously some of these dates can be disputed and overlap.  Basically, Theory 1 asserts that because America has been rooted in ideas and not culture/tradition, we subject ourselves to significant shifts every 2-3 generations (the first phase doesn’t really count, as we had no concept of an American “nation” until the mid 1700’s).  We can reinterpret our common language on the fly and create “new Americas” every so often–though of course each era has some connections to past eras.  This ability has its strengths and weaknesses.

This theory, if true, may comfort us now because the the shifting ground beneath our feet will settle again as it has for previous generations.  We’ve done this before, we can do it again.

Theory 2 . . .

proposes more unity for the majority of American history.  Yes, some cultural and political shifts happened over time.  But we consistently maintained faith in the democratic process, and in our reason for being.  Even in the Civil War, the Confederacy broke away not out of a rejection of the American ideal, but out of a belief that they represented the true America.  We had “confidence,” that crucial element of any civilization, even in the midst of our most profound domestic crisis.

But something significant happened in 1965.**  In this year we passed the Voting Rights Act, which could be viewed as the apotheosis of what America was supposed to be.  In this year also we dramatically increased our involvement in Vietnam, again, in some ways I think, out of a belief that this was what we were “supposed” to do.  We increased our troop presence initially at least with the general backing of Congress and the population at large.

However, almost immediately after we passed the Voting Rights Act the riots in Watts began.  Rioting continued sporadically in many major cities for the next few years.  Perhaps this was pure coincidence, but I think not, though I would not claim to really understand the reasons for the violence.  But I think that part of the reason might be an intuition that we had “done all we could do,” but that it wasn’t enough.  The supreme confidence we had in our democratic way of life taught us that things would always improve, but now we knew better.  Shortly after our troop surge in Vietnam waves of self-doubt began surging through the country.

The two phenomena are likely connected, though I’m not sure how.

Along with this, the counter-culture “hippie” movement went mainstream into popular culture and eventually most of academia.  Western icons like the Beatles went to India to learn see the world in a non-western way.  We lost confidence in our own culture, and we have not regained it.    We had never agreed fully on the why we did what we did, but we had agreed on what we did.  After this era we could no longer claim this for ourselves, and this makes the modern shift much different than others in our history.  The lack of political flexibility may have hastened the at least seeming collapse of the principles that guided us.  Some of the “vomiting up” of our past in some areas of our culture seems willfully self-induced.^

Recently The Guardian ran a great article about Tory MP Rory Stewart.  Stewart got a great education and attempted on two occasions to serve in difficult postings in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His comments say much about the state of the western world:

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. “They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying: ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done.”

And later,

In some sense I’m a romantic. I like the idea of organic history and tradition. But I think Britain is such a different place now, and changing so quickly, that I’m coming slowly, painfully, to accept that we need to start again.

I emphasize that these comments come not from a reactionary revisionist Liberal, but a member of England’s conservative party.

If we agree that we need to “start again,” in some way, will we agree on where to start from, and where we wish to go?

Dave

 

*My apologies, I have looked back and forth for this comment and cannot find it again to save my life.

**A possible counter-date might be the end of W.W. II.  As Arnold Toynbee regretfully admitted, democracies are not well-equipped to handle something like nuclear weapons, though, so far so good on that score.

^Trump gets rightly accused for excessive negativity, but why does no one focus on the obvious negativity from the Left?  Here is Clive Crook, via Marginal Revolution . . . 

Trump’s critics complain about his relentless invoking of crisis — despite agreeing with him that the system is collapsing. Conservatives keep telling us that the American project is in mortal danger, that liberty itself is at stake. Liberals keep telling us that global capitalism is wrecking everything that’s decent in society, that the U.S. is institutionally racist, and America’s traditional values are so much hypocrisy. I think back to the rapturous reception accorded by the left in 2014 to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital,” which argued, you may recall, that capitalism is an engine of injustice, headed for self-destruction; progressives everywhere nodded wisely in agreement. Here’s what puzzles many of them today: Why does Trump have to be so negative?

Relic

The Introduction to Relic opens this way:

American government is dysfunctional . . . .  As a decision-maker Congress is inexcusably bad . . . utterly incapable of taking responsible, effective action . . .

So why is this happening?  The common view is that Congress’ problems are due to the polarization of the [political] parties over the last few decades.  By this rendering, if the nation could move towards a more moderate brand of politics–say by reforming primary elections or campaign finance–Congress could get back to the way it functioned in the good old days when it (allegedly) did a fine job of making public policy.

But this isn’t so.  . . . The brute reality is that the good old days were not good. . . . Congress’ fundamental inadequacies are not due to polarization.  Nor are they of recent vintage.  Congress is irresponsible largely because it is wired to be that way–and it’s wiring is due to Constitutional design.

[Congress’] pathologies are not really of it’s own making.  They are rooted in the Constitution, and it is the Constitution that is the fundamental problem.

I have concerns over the growth of presidential power in the last few generations, but . . . I love it 41XKcNSIeQLwhen writers undertake such magnificent and almost dashing glove-slaps to our received wisdom.  Authors William Howell and Terry Moe teach at the University of Chicago and Stanford respectively, so this is not a talk-show rant.  They write with an apolitical bent for the most part and take a broad view.  They focus on clarity and concision and don’t try and dazzle us with their erudition.

I don’t think I agree with them, but I admire their efforts.  We need more books with these strengths.

Their basic argument runs as follows:

Before the Revolutionary War each colony acted almost entirely independently of one another.  No one had any idea of a “United States of America.”  During the war we created the Articles of Confederation, which, while it created a national government, made it exceedingly weak.

This then, is their first main point.  Yes, the Constitution created a stronger national government–but not that strong.  We have to understand the Constitution’s grant of executive power not in a vacuum but in relation to the Articles of Confederation.  The Constitution still allowed for states to have the pre-eminent place in people’s hearts.*

The design of our federal government reflects this by giving nearly all the most important powers to Congress.  This in turn makes it very difficult to enact national policy.  This was not a mistake.  This is the exact intention of most of the founders (though not all, such as Alexander Hamilton, who argued for a much stronger executive at the Constitutional Convention).

When we manage to create a national policy, such policies get diluted, confusing, and sometimes absurd because of the fact that all laws have to come through Congress.  Everyone wants their piece of pork, everyone needs something to crow about.   The confusion of many laws, and the expense needed to enforce them, weakens government, expands bureaucracy, and lowers quality of life.  Again, the authors don’t blame Congress for this.  Our representatives have job of representing their districts, not the national interest.

The authors argue that Congress has never solved a national problem.  It has either taken either national emergencies (like war, disasters, etc.) or unusually shrewd or charismatic presidents to get Congress to move.  They concede that perhaps our form of government worked in the pre-industrial era when towns remained largely isolated from one another (though Congress certainly could not solve the slavery issue, the biggest contributor to the Civil War). But the Industrial Revolution created a new country that drew the states much closer together.  We now think of ourselves as “Americans” and need national policies on a consistent basis.  Again, we should not say that Congress will not solve them. Congress cannot solve them, just as pigs can’t fly.  We have, in fact, many problems on the horizon that have existed for decades that Congress will never solve, such as Social Security reform, the tax code, the national debt, and so on.  And while the American Revolution inspired a variety of democratic movements across the globe, no one has copied our system of government.**  This should tell us something.

Their solution mirrors the simplicity of their writing.  They know that rewriting the Constitution is impossible, and officially amending it very difficult.  Instead they seek “fast-track” authority for certain kinds of legislation.

Lest we deride their analysis as overblown, the authors point out that we already recognize the foolishness of our constitutional design with international treaties and trade agreements.  We give the president power to negotiate such agreements without congressional interference.  Presidents then can present them to Congress for a simple “yes”/”no” vote.

The authors propose that we simply allow presidents to submit legislation to Congress involving national policy for this kind of yes/no vote.  No pork, no earmarks, no preferments, no deals. Congress needs to keep its diseased hands away from issues like the national debt, health-care, and national defense. If such laws passed they would have the clarity and unity needed for effective policy.

That’s it.  No fuss, no muss.  It preserves the Constitutional role for Congress and merely expands slightly the powers of the executive.

The authors write with great force, but part of me wonders, has it really been so bad?  Sure, the separation of powers brings problems, but America has a top notch military, technological innovation, a leading economy, a high standard of living, and so on.  Yes, we have difficult social issues, but we also have much greater challenges in this regard than most other nations.  Ok, we have rocky outcroppings in many parts of our history, but so too do other modern democracies.

It’s hard to disagree, however, that Congress annoys us like no other branch of government.

As much as I enjoyed the book, the authors missed the root question.  Of course their suggestion would make government more efficient and policy more workable.  The authors argue that their proposed alteration involves no real philosophical issue.  We simply need something that works.  Wanting a dishwasher that works, for example, need not involve politics, philosophy, or theology.

Part of my hesitation to jump in with the authors, however, lies with just these concerns.  We should concern ourselves with more than whether or not something works.  We should consider the implications of increased executive power.  Many of the founders were philosophers as well as practical politicians.  We owe it to our past to at least consider such things before going far beyond what they intended.

Dave

*I wonder if the authors would have agreed with Napoleon’s assessment of America while in exile on St. Helena in 1816.  Napoleon foresaw the Civil War, among other things.  He commented,

What is needed for national defense? Unity and permanence in government. America remains united for now due to their common interest of their emancipation from the English crown. But their existence as a great nation was impeded by their federal constitution. A dissonance exists between northern and southern states which reflects on the weakness of the federal principle. Either the national government will be strengthened by conquest, or else national unity will be broken by local interests and commercial rivalries.

**This is a good point, but America also had a unique historical situation that preceded their revolution.

11th Grade: Negative and Positive Liberty

Greetings to all,

As I mentioned at Orientation, the class this years is entitled, “American History” even though we will not spend the entirety of our time studying America particularly.  Still, 19th and 20th century America will receive special focus.  In light of this, I introduced a few key questions that will form the backdrop of our study this year:

  • What does it mean to be an American?
  • Is America unique?  If so, in what way?  Our founders indeed believed that America did represent something unique in its time, but our way of life has influenced others over time.  If we are no longer unique, how has that impacted our sense of identity?
  • Many have commented that America gets birthed from an idea, rather than “within history.”  What advantages and disadvantages does this bring, and how has this impacted us?

Hopefully students will enjoy grappling with these difficult questions.

We began the year looking quickly at the early American presidents during the years 1788-1800.  The founders did much to lay down on paper a workable outline of government in the Constitution.  But the Constitution could not answer every question or foresee every circumstance that would arise.  How would the principles laid down in the Constitution work themselves out in real life?  Nowhere does the Consitution explicitly guarantee the right to privacy, for example, but does that mean we don’t have that right?  Does the Constitution forbid what it does not explicitly allow, or does it allow what it does not explicitly forbid?  The founders themselves did not agree on this question, and the Constitution does not say one way or the other.

We looked at the transformation of American democracy under Andrew Jackson, and this ultimately led to discussions on the following topics:

1. Do we elect our representatives because of their wisdom, experience, etc. (the attitude of George Washington), or to simply be ‘the voice of the people (more of Andrew Jackson’s idea)?  Do we want our representatives to follow their own ideas and convictions, or to follow the opinion polls?

2. In some ways, Jackson was our first “American” president.  Washington, Jefferson, Monroe — all of them had an essentially European style upbringing and education.  Jackson grew up on the frontier without the formal training.  Previously, government was for the “best” men to rule on the people’s behalf.  Jackson believed that if he could be president, certainly anyone could be Secretary of State.  He began the so-called “Spoils System” by rewarding his political friends with government posts.  However distasteful this might be, it had its roots in a passionate belief in equality, that no one should be thought of as “elite.”  His inaugural celebration had a much more loose and informal feel than that of his predecessors.

3. Just at the end of class Friday I introduced  political philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s formulation of ‘Negative’ and ‘Positive’ liberty.  Does liberty mean freedom from outside constraint, or are we not truly free unless directed toward a greater good, as the Puritans might have argued?  Do restaurants rob smokers of their liberty by banning them, or does that ban in fact enhance the freedom of non-smokers not to inhale second-hand smoke?  Non-smokers are certainly in the majority, but every democracy must protect minority rights to be considered a democracy at all.  How much, and what kind, of protection should minorities receive?  This becomes all the more problematic when extending rights to the minority means the minority inconveniences the majority.

The interesting and problematic part of this debate is that both sides believe they are enhancing liberty.  The restaurant that allows smoking everywhere believes that they are simply letting people do what they choose to do, even if the choice is a bad one.  What business is it of theirs what people do with their lives?  Who are they to make choices for others?  On the other side, some would say that such ‘liberty’ is in fact liberty only for the minority to do as they please.  The ‘liberty’ of some is ‘oppression’ for others forced to breathe in the smoke.  With everyone smoking in restaurants, the freedom of non-smokers to eat where they please has significant limits.

Many of our political debates, I feel, may have something to do with these different definitions of liberty.

Of course this discussion of liberty cannot divorced in our context from a discussion of slavery, and may help us understand why many came to defend slavery in the name of liberty.  To help us understand slavery in America we will look briefly at the history of slavery at some point next week.  Why did it disappear in the Middle Ages?  Why did it start to return in the Renaissance?  Was indentured servitude slavery?  Why did slavery linger in the South?  Why did we not ‘solve’ the slavery question with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution?  Below I include the brief reading selections I gave the students on the issue of “Negative” and “Positive” liberty if you would like to read yourself.

Next week we will look at the expansion of America to the west and south in the 1840’s, and what impact this had on the political climate of the period.  I look forward to a wonderful year.

Dave Mathwin

 

Negative and Positive Conceptions of Liberty

Negative Liberty

Philosophers such as Locke or Adam Smith or, in some moods, Mill, believed that social harmony and progress were compatible with reserving a large area for private life over which neither the State nor any other authority must be allowed to trespass. Hobbes, and those who agreed with him, especially conservative or reactionary thinkers, argued that if men were to be prevented from destroying one another and making social life a jungle or a wilderness, greater safeguards must be instituted to keep them in their places; he wished correspondingly to increase the area of centralised control and decrease that of the individual. But both sides agreed that some portion of human existence must remain independent of the sphere of social control. To invade that preserve, however small, would be despotism. The most eloquent of all defenders of freedom and privacy, Benjamin Constant, who had not forgotten the Jacobin dictatorship, declared that at the very least the liberty of religion, opinion, expression, property must be guaranteed against arbitrary invasion. Jefferson, Burke, Paine, Mill compiled different catalogues of individual liberties, but the argument for keeping authority at bay is always substantially the same. We must preserve a minimum area of personal freedom if we are not to ‘degrade or deny our nature’. We cannot remain absolutely free, and must give up some of our liberty to preserve the rest. But total self-surrender is self-defeating.

What then must the minimum be? That which a man cannot give up without offending against the essence of his human nature. What is this essence? What are the standards which it entails? This has been, and perhaps always will be, a matter of infinite debate. But whatever the principle in terms of which the area of non-interference is to be drawn, whether it is that of natural law or natural rights, or of utility, or the pronouncements of a categorical imperative, or the sanctity of the social contract, or any other concept with which men have sought to clarify and justify their ‘convictions, liberty in this sense means liberty from, absence of interference beyond the shifting, but always recognisable, frontier. ‘The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way’, said the most celebrated of its champions.  If this is so, is compulsion ever justified? Mill had no doubt that it was. Since justice demands that all individuals be entitled to a minimum of freedom, all other individuals were of necessity to be restrained, if need be by force, from depriving anyone of it. Indeed, the whole function of law was the prevention I of just such collisions: the State was reduced to what Lassalle contemptuously described as the functions of a night-watchman or traffic policeman. What made the protection of individual liberty so sacred to Mill? In his famous essay he declares that, unless the individual is left to live as he wishes in ‘the part [of his conduct] which merely concerns himself’, civilisation cannot advance; the truth will not, for lack of a free market in ideas, come to light; there will be no scope for spontaneity, originality, genius, for mental energy, for moral courage. Society will be crushed by the weight of ‘collective mediocrity’.

Whatever is rich and diversified will be crushed by the weight of custom, by men’s constant tendency to conformity, which breeds only ‘withered’ capacities, ‘pinched and hidebound’, ‘cramped and dwarfed’ human beings. ‘Pagan self-assertion’ is as worthy as ‘Christian self-denial’. ‘All errors which [a man] is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.’  The defence of liberty consists in the ‘negative’ goal of warding off interference. To threaten a man with persecution unless he submits to a life in which he exercises no choices of his goals; to block before him every door but one, no matter how noble the prospect upon which it opens, or how benevolent the motives of those who arrange this, is to sin against the truth that he is a man, a being with a life of his own to live. This is liberty as it has been conceived by liberals in the modern world from the days of Erasmus (some would say of Occam) to our own. Every plea for civil liberties and individual rights, every protest against exploitation and humiliation, against the encroachment of public authority, or the mass hypnosis of custom or organised propaganda, springs from this individualistic, and much disputed, conception of man.

Positive Liberty

One way of making this clear is in terms of the independent momentum which the, initially perhaps quite harmless, metaphor of self-mastery acquired. ‘I am my own master’; ‘I am slave to no man’; but may I not (as Platonists or Hegelians tend to say) be a slave to nature? Or to my own ‘unbridled’ passions? Are these not so many species of the identical genus ‘slave’ – some political or legal, others moral or spiritual? Have not men had the experience of liberating themselves from spiritual slavery, or slavery to nature, and do they not in the course of it become aware, on the one hand, of a self which dominates, and, on the other, of something in them which is brought to heel? This dominant self is then variously identified with reason, with my ‘higher nature’, with the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run, with my ‘real’, or ‘ideal’, or with my self at its best.

Dominion and rationality necessarily presuppose freedom. Moreover,  freedom is a necessary condition of morality and love, love cannot be coerced. Man’s freedom and will is at the very heart of man made in God’s image. But as we will see man’s freedom is complex. Freedom has two stages, the first stage of freedom is an imperfect freedom which if used properly leads to perfect freedom. The first stage of freedom is the condition man is in at his creation, it is freedom to choose, I will have the pear and not the banana, I will not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, I will obey God, I will ignore God.  This kind of simple choice is not perfect and true freedom but only the means by which we achieve true freedom. Perfect freedom in the fullest sense is not about choice. This is the lie of the Devil, we believe that freedom means being free to do what one wants, free to choose for oneself. But true freedom is achieved when man simply becomes, when he comes to the place in his being that  he is free from the possibility of choosing the bad.  St. Augustine distinguishes between “the first freedom of the will, the ability not to sin” and “the final freedom… the inability to sin.”  St. Augustine writes in The City of God

Nay rather, it will be more truly free, when set free from the delight of sinning to enjoy the steadfast delight of not sinning.  . . . This new freedom will be the more powerful just because it will not have the power to sin; and this, not by its unaided natural ability, but by the gift of God has received from him the inability to sin . . .   It surely cannot be said that God Himself has not freedom, because he is unable to sin?