The Augurs of the Temple

In my 8th grade ancient history class one of the great questions of the year involves whether or not one believes that Greece or Rome was the superior civilization.  The students usually get into heated discussions on the issue and seem quite excited by the question–until they discover that they have to write a long essay about it for the final exam.  Somehow, this dampens their ardor.

Comparisons between Greece and Rome can always yield fruit.  Each civilization has significant primary source documentation.  Their development overlaps and departs at points like a figure eight.  Both civilizations had similar climates, were right near the Mediterranean, with mountains forming a large part of the topography.  Both civilizations started out a city-states and transitioned from kings/tyrants (in the technical sense of the word) to a republic/democracy at almost exactly the same time.

But despite these similarities, Rome grew into one of the largest global empires of all time and Greece stayed within its narrow confines for the vast majority of its history and never expanded as Rome did.  I thought of this question recently because Michael Rostovtzeff raised it in the early pages of his book on Rome.*  He saw more similarity between Greece and Rome than others, and so had to account for the differences in their historical development in ways that those who see more difference between the two could ignore.

I agree with Rostovtzeff’s rejection of purely mechanical or physical explanations.  Some argue that geography can explain the difference.  Greece’s geography hemmed them in and forced the creation of independent city-states, whereas Italy’s geography allowed for more expansion.  But Rostovtzeff points out that both areas had relatively the same interaction with mountains and the Mediterranean.  Italy’s soil had an advantage, but not a great enough advantage to explain Rome’s expansion.  And while Greece’s topography had more mountains to contend with, occasionally certain city-states built empires, showing that geography itself cannot explain the difference.

He then goes on to assert that we can explain Rome’s expansion, and Greece’s relative lack of territorial expansion, to the following:

  • Rome had a better political structure, which allowed for more effective and consistent mobilization of the population, and
  • Rome’s political changes came slowly, which prevented shocks to the system that would inevitably derail or delay a civilization’s growth.  Such shocks could be compared to long bouts of illness in an individual.

I certainly prefer these explanations to geographical explanations, but I feel one needs to go deeper.  Politics flows downstream from culture, and culture from religion, and it is here that I feel the answer must lie.  To get at religious differences we need to look not at particular beliefs or religious rites, but what those beliefs and rites point to.  To get at that question, we need to examine their mythologies, for if nothing else, it shows us how they perceived themselves and gets at their motivations.

On the surface of things Greece and Rome look much alike, but their myths tell a different story.  The story of Pygmalion and Galatea, for example, reveals the Greek passion for perfection.  Pygmalion eschews women because none he sees truly merit his affection.  He carves his thoughts into a perfect stone sculpture, and Aphrodite rewards him for his devotion by having the statue come to life, and they live happily ever after.  We see this pursuit of perfection in other areas of Greek life, in the Parthenon, in their mathematical idealism, and so on.

When Livy writes of Rome’s early days he recounts how Romulus and the early founders of Rome–all men–needed women. So they come up with an idea of a religious festival and invited young ladies from the Sabines. When they came they abducted and forcibly marry them.

When the hour for the games had come, and their eyes and minds were alike riveted on the spectacle before them, the preconcerted signal was given and the Roman youth dashed in all directions to carry off the maidens who were present. The larger part were carried off indiscriminately, but some particularly beautiful girls who had been marked out for the leading patricians were carried to their houses by plebeians told off for the task. One, conspicuous amongst them all for grace and beauty, is reported to have been carried off by a group led by a certain Talassius, and to the many inquiries as to whom she was intended for, the invariable answer was given, “For Talassius.” Hence the use of this word in the marriage rites. Alarm and consternation broke up the games, and the parents of the maidens fled, distracted with grief, uttering bitter reproaches on the violators of the laws of hospitality and appealing to the god to whose solemn games they had come, only to be the victims of impious perfidy.

The abducted maidens were quite as despondent and indignant. Romulus, however, went round in person, and pointed out to them that it was all owing to the pride of their parents in denying right of intermarriage to their neighbours. They would live in honourable wedlock, and share all their property and civil rights, and – dearest of all to human nature – would be the mothers of freemen. He begged them to lay aside their feelings of resentment and give their affections to those whom fortune had made masters of their persons. An injury had often led to reconciliation and love; they would find their husbands all the more affectionate, because each would do his utmost, so far as in him lay, to make up for the loss of parents and country. These arguments were reinforced by the endearments of their husbands, who excused their conduct by pleading the irresistible force of their passion – a plea effective beyond all others in appealing to a woman’s nature.

The tenor of this story fits well within the framework of the rest of Livy’s work.  The story of Romulus and Remus, for example, has some of the same heroic qualities as in the founding myths of other civilizations.  But the story have Romulus kill his brother Remus in a fit of temper for a minor dispute, and the tale takes little pains to justify the deed.

I think that Livy has more actual history in him than others might, but even I would not say that Livy writes history as Thucydides wrote history.  So we must consider why Rome’s foundational stories have this different feel and emphasis.  Two possibilities present themselves:

  • The key to Rome’s greatness comes from the fact that they did not whitewash things.  They called a spade a spade.  They did not hide the truth about themselves, and so they were much better equipped to deal with reality than those around them
  • The key to Rome’s greatness comes from the fact that, not only did they not hide their warts, they reveled in them.  In fact, stories like the Romulus/Remus story would not have been viewed as a black spot on their past, but rather, a positive good.  Of all the soft civilizations that surrounded them, Rome and Rome only did what needed to be done.  Rome understood, just as Machiavelli understood, that states need founded by one man, and one man only.  Either Romulus or Remus would have to go, twins or not.

I favor the second option.  If we imagine that Rome’s founding myths and folklore follow the general pattern of most every other civilization (the U.S. included), we should imagine that these stories reflect something of an idealized version of themselves.

Some years ago in our 8th grade ancient history class, a student made a striking comment as we discussed exactly what Rome “meant” by their multiple conquests.  What drove them to expand?  Rome’s religion technically forbade offensive war, and yet Rome never lacked a justification for war when they felt they needed one.  The student suggested that the Romans were not unlike the Assyrians.  The Assyrians conquered (in part at least) as an offering to Ashur, their god of war.  The Romans (though certainly not as rapacious or cruel as the Assyrians) conquered as offering to their god as well, except their god was the city of Rome itself.  Greece could occupy itself with abstractions like ideal perfection but Rome remained very physical in their orientation throughout.  Their god was literally made visible all of the time.  Thus, this physical orientation would require very tangible applications.

Perhaps the key to Rome’s expansion vis a vis Greece lies here.

Machiavelli recorded an intriguing anecdote on Roman religion:

Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances, in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.

Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle.

But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.

But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so threw them into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness . . .

Machiavelli surmises that the Romans wisely manipulated their religion to serve their political or cultural needs.  I agree as far his explanation goes, but I think we can go one further.  The Romans had a conscious religion of oracles, auguries, and the like, but a deeper, perhaps even unconscious religion of worship of their city itself.  I’m not so sure that Appius would have received censure had he been victorious.

I remain grateful to this student, who years ago helped me see the history of Rome in a new light.


*Though it has little to do with the post above, I cannot resist commenting on some reviews of Rostovtzeff’s work.  He emigrated from Russia shortly after the Russian Revolution.  His experience of events in Russia certainly impacted his analysis of Rome, where he saw the decline of the Republic in terms of 1) Too much change too quickly, and 2) Given the size of Rome, too much power shifted into the hands of too many (he felt that democracies needed to be small in size to work well).

Some dismiss him out of hand, because, obviously, his experience in Russia strongly colored his analysis of Roman politics.  Well, ok.  But a man is surely more than his influences.  What of the merits of Rostovtzeff’s analysis?  It can be debated, but his interpretations is hardly crazy, or such an obvious byproduct of personal experience that it has nothing to do with the evidence.  These same reviewers, I’m sure, would not want their own work subjected to the tests they used for Rostovtzeff.

Though C.S. Lewis’ original discussion of the “personal heresy” applied directly to poetry, I think it applies also to works of history as well, which are acts of creation somewhat akin to poetry.


11th Grade: Lord Grantham vs. the 49ers


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 was 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).  In our own Gold Rush Game played this week, students probably let the ‘individualism’ of the game go too far, and their hesitancy to form towns led to many of them being ‘killed’ by a rich outlaw.  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

Lost in the Cosmos

(For those interested, check out the Grumpy Old Man podcast on this same topic here.)


We all know the Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times,” and we now fully understand why they regarded it as a curse. But we should look for the silver linings whenever we can. Our normal customs give us the advantage, as Edmund Burke argued, of not having to think about the myriad of everything all the time, freeing us for hopefully finer pursuits. Perhaps the one advantage of strange times is that it allows us to either more deeply understand and affirm basic assumptions (such as our need for meaningful human interaction), or to question them and see how strange they might be. If we are unmoored, maybe we might reach something better than we knew before.


Few would doubt that the two greatest Catholic southern writers of the 20th century were Flannery O’ Connor and Walker Percy. O’Connor took her normal, everyday characters, and confronted them with something strange to jolt them out of complacency. Walker Percy, to my mind, went one better. He took normal people in normal situations showed how how strange the ‘normal’ really was. This was his great accomplishment in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.* It seems that Percy (who had medical training) wanted to administer a kind of shock-therapy for his readers He induced trauma to help us recover equilibrium.

Percy administers this shock of sorts through very simple questions, such as:

  • When yearbooks are handed out, why does everyone look to see how many pictures they are in? Don’t we know what we already look like?Why do we all also not want anyone to know that we are doing this if everyone is indeed doing it?
  • Why do we value antiques? Why do we seem to exhaust the meaning of things? Did past eras value antiques? Would a 17th century gentlemen want something from the 12th century more than his own time?
  • Why do we have so many different versions of selves in the modern world?

Percy also includes this conversation he had with someone recalling the Kennedy assassination:

I remember that I was watching the soap opera As the World Turns. There was a scene between Chris and Grandpa, and I remember that particularly because I saw something scroll on the bottom of the screen that shots had been fired at President Kennedy. I remember thinking how insignificant the soap opera seemed in relation to what was happening in Dallas.

But before you saw that message, the soap opera seemed much more important than Kennedy’s visit to Dallas?


And, afterwards, did you resume watching the soap opera?


Lost in the Cosmos contains a section on semiotics in the middle of the book that I found too difficult, and some short fiction on some of this themes at the end of the book, but for me the heart of the work lies in the first 50-70 pages. Percy may intend to lean us towards particular answers, but mostly he remains content to ask the questions of meaning the self in the modern world (I include more excerpts in the postscript).

Many now recognize that we are disconnected now, but think that it is only the particular circumstances we face in the moment that creates this, i.e., masks, social media, polarization, and so on. I grant that this has a part to play, but I would like to go deeper and suggest that we are alienated from ourselves because the modern world alienates us from reality in general.

First some of the particular and surface elements of our discontent . . .

We like to assume that every technology occupies neutral space. It is neither good or bad, for us or against us. But surely, the way we interact with a technology will change us, and not all change is neutral. Working a hoe or hammer might give you stronger shoulders or forearms. Social media attempts a daring exploit. We know that communication works best when we use our whole being, which involves our bodies. Face to face we catch expressions and subtleties we would miss over the phone. Over the phone, we at least get voice inflections, and presumably speak with someone we know.

Facebook, Twitter, etc. attempts to gather all of our communicative apparatus and squeeze it through the eye a needle. Obviously, this fails–the narrowing of our being in our communication modes always narrows our ability to communicate effectively. Alienation and confusion result–“Why is everyone so angry on Twitter?” is because it is impossible to be a whole self on Twitter. We are unmoored when using this kind of communication and perhaps subconsciously rant against not so much the politics we disagree with but the fact of alienation itself.

Many have commented on this already, and perhaps we are learning this as a society, but alas–we are learning slowly.

We have paid less attention to the deeper nature of the right and the left, which also contributes significantly to the problem.

The “right” and “left” as categories of thought and being go far back into the earliest civilizations. There is a profound Christian tradition linked to this reality, which others have spoken of much better than I ever could. Perhaps its modern political derivations have their roots not in the Christian tradition, but in Greek tragedy, and how one reacts to Fate. The “Left” in such works argues for striving against established order. One need not accept everything just as it is. We can work to better our lot in life and the lives of others–the structure of things can alter. The ‘Right’ talks of acceptance and working within established norms, for to challenge them is to challenge divine order and invite even greater chaos–a kind of “nemesis.”

Both the “Left” and the “Right” have their place. I doubt even the staunchest conservative would object to the invention of glasses, for example, which does better one’s “natural” condition. But those on the left too have to understand at least some limits imposed by Nature, i.e., night cannot become day, winter will never be summer.**

The Greeks sought a mediator between these two poles and perhaps never found it. We too need such mediation. Percy hinted at how we are alienated from ourselves. It goes deeper–we are alienated from creation as well. I won’t make a direct case for the Christian perspective on Creation and the our expulsion from Paradise here. For our purposes we not that most every culture has creation myths that resemble the Christian story in some way. Since the Fall, perhaps a natural tension exists between night and day, earth and sea, and men and women. But we have forgotten that mankind was placed on earth in part to reconcile and mediate these polarities back to God. Men and women are reconciled through marriage.^ Indeed–life itself can bring a kind of trauma. Our broken state can be repaired, but not through ideology, but instead, the recreation of the world and ourselves through liturgy.

What was lost, can be found.


*There is a section in the book about a theory of language/semiotics that Percy admits will not satisfy the scholar and could be too ‘high’ for the layman. I reside in the latter category, and will not comment there.

Perhaps one day . . .

**There is a curious flip on certain issues that only highlight the strangeness of our times. The Left seems, on the one hand, to grant maximum autonomy for individuals to rebel against the ‘fixity’ of human biology. Pregnant? Get an abortion. You’re a man but you think you should be a woman? Take hormones and get surgery. But with non-human nature many are staunch conservatives. Climate change is bad for the modern left at least in part because of the change it brings to nature, which should be protected from alteration. Their attitudes hearken back to pre-modern ideas that sought harmony, not growth.

The Right on the one hand promotes traditional family values. On the other, they advocate for an economic system geared towards maximum individual autonomy and disruption of tradition. Marx, for example, supported capitalism and democracy because he saw them as weapons against traditional values and practices, which would have to go in order for the proletariat revolution to come about.

We don’t want people who are entirely either right or left. At least, our society cannot handle too many on either extreme. Of course we need some kind of harmonization of the two within our own persons as well as in society. What puzzles me is how those on both sides hold oil & water types of beliefs that have no internal coherence that I can discern.

^A hint as to why, if you think of marriage as an image of cosmic reconciliation, marriage requires priestly mediation.

And now . . .

Lost in the Cosmos Excerpts

(What follows is 95% copied from Percy’s book, which I have tweaked in parts for more accessible student use).

Which of the following selves, if any, do you identify with?

The Cosmological Self

The self is unconscious of itself only insofar as it can identify itself with a cosmological myth or classificatory system.  For example, ask an LSU fan at a football game who they are, and they may reply, “I am a tiger.”

The Hindu/Buddhist Self

My self is impaled on the wheel of non-being, obscured by the veil of unreality.  But it can realize itself by plumbing the depths of self until it achieves nirvana, or absorption and destruction into nirvana, or the Atman.

The Authentic Self

A more modern and secular version of this might run, “My self is buried somewhere within me, caked over with customs, habits, etc. that are not truly my own.  I become a true self by my choices which may involve rejecting all traditions, norms, and if necessary, even Nature itself to become who I am truly supposed to be.

The Role Taking Self

We become a ‘self’ by taking on certain roles, as a mother, a lawyer, a mechanic, a macho-man, an ‘independent woman,’ and so on.  When ‘in action’ within these roles, we feel ‘actualized’ and ‘alive.’

The High School Graduation Speech Self

You are created with certain rights and the freedom to pursue happiness and fulfill your potential.  You achieve your potential through participation in society via family, work, political engagement, and so on.  This happiness can be pursued and eventually caught.

The Diverted Self, or the Woody Allen Self

Our “selves” are in fact unbearable.  That is–we cannot make anything of the “self,” either because the idea of the self is  too light and insubstantial, or too heavy, for us to comprehend. The path to happiness is, frankly, diversion, or escape from the self.  Thankfully, we live in a time when endless diversion is easily accessible.

The Free Self in Bondange

The rational pursuit of happiness that Jefferson espoused has become a flaky emptiness in our time.  Every advance of objective understanding  of the Cosmos, and the technologies we invent to gain that understanding, distances the self from the Cosmos precisely as far as we advance in understanding the physical world.  The self, then, roams like a ghost through the Cosmos which it happens to understand very well.  Thus, the self is free in a sense through its understanding of its predicament, but is powerless to do much about that predicament.  

The Abandoned Self

The self only achieves ‘actualization’ by abandoning itself utterly to some goal or task.  Think of the fevered artist, possessed by a sculpture they must finish, or the scientist who must complete the experiment at all costs.  

Would a Christian conception of the self be like any of these?  Which of the above is perhaps the furthest away from a Christian view of the self?



In many soap-operas of the late 20th century, amnesia was a favorite plot tool.  A character would experience a trauma, and suddenly not know who they were.  The world for them became at once hostile and confused, but also, re-enchanted.  With the slate clean, anything was possible–you have a new lease on life and the self.

But this plot device is not confined to old soap-operas.  The James Bond series of movies fits this in some ways.  With each movie, reality is reset–new bad guys, new women, new locations to visit, etc.  In these scenarios, previous excitement, trauma, encounters–none of them really move or shape the character.  

Question: Is “amnesia” a favorite plot-device because 

  • The character in the story is sick of himself and needs a change, a reboot
  • The writers are sick of their characters
  • The writers are sick of themselves and they need a change
  • The viewers long for the same amnesiac-like experience and they want to experience this vicariously through the characters.
  • All of the above?

Things and Their Meaning

Pick up a home decor magazine, or watch one of the home decoration shows that are always playing in dentist’s offices, and you will note that we have a penchant for making simple things out of unusual objects.  What I mean is–a coffee table can usually not be a normal coffee table.  It is has to be 

  • A tree trunk made of cypress wood
  • A vintage Coca-Cola crate
  • An old lobster trap
  • A large, flat rock

In other words, a coffee table can be anything but a board of wood with four legs.  

Why has this happened?

  • Because we are tired of ordinary tables, and we need novelty
  • Because to feel like a self, we must distinguish ourselves from other selves in some way  
  • Because an unusual table is a great conversation piece, a way to break the ice with company
  • Because it is good to recycle older things into newer uses and to repurpose their meaning
  • Because the older thing comes from a time of greater coherence and ‘weight,’ possession of such objects seems to give ourselves more substance and ‘weight.’
  • Because the modern self is voracious and consumes meaning.  We continually need to expand, like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish itself with new objects, but like a vacuole, only in fact empties them.  

Consider to what extent an antique is prized.  Is it because

  • It is  beautiful and wonderfully made


  • Because it is saturated with another time and place, and therefore resistant to absorption by the self?  After all, things resistant to absorption by the self have a higher degree of power to form the self. 

or . . . because the older thing comes from a time of greater coherence and ‘solidity’ unlike our modern plastic age.  Thus, possession of such objects seems to give ourselves more substance and ‘weight.’

Has mankind always been like this?  Would someone of the 14th century prefer something of his own time, or something from 4th century Rome?


The Self Amidst other Selves

Imagine that you are at a dinner party in a beautiful, urbane setting.  You have wonderful food and drink to consume.  You are at the party alone and are standing near another person whom the host “thinks you should meet.”  You oblige your host and go to talk to the eligible young man/young woman, but quite frankly, after about 3 minutes you think the person is boring and you are not that interested.  You are in a room by yourselves, with nothing to interrupt conversation should it occur, but things are going nowhere and getting awkward quickly. You know that the host will make sure you are alone for at least another five minutes (they are really hoping you hit it off) so extracting yourself from the conversation will not be possible without a lot of awkwardness.  


Imagine that you are at that same dinner party, and have just been introduced to the same person.  You have said ‘hello,’ you’ve known them for literally about 5 seconds.  Suddenly, an earthquake strikes and much of the house collapses.  Thankfully you both suffer only minor scrapes, and it seems that everyone else is more or less ok also.  But–you are pinned underneath some rubble about 3 feet away from each other and will have to wait about 30 minutes for help.

Which situation would you prefer?  Under which scenario is a good conversation more likely to occur?  


Imagine that you are a movie star, say Robert Downey, Jr., or Emma Stone, and you have to stop in a small town to buy some food.  Which is the greater fear?

  • That the townspeople will recognize you, that they will detain you for 20 minutes or more, make you take selfies with them, you will have to sign autographs, they will expect you to say something funny or memorable, because they will tell everyone about meeting you, etc.  You will have to be “on” for them.


  • That no one will recognize you at all, and, in fact, you hear someone criticizing one of the movies you were recently in, a movie you thought was actually quite good.


Imagine . . .

You wake up with some dread.  You have to make a big speech today, and you aren’t really prepared. You also have a physics test coming up, and you suppose you will fail that as well. You are nervous, and haven’t slept well recently. Things seem to be slipping in general–there was the argument with your friend last week and you haven’t really ‘made-up’ after that.

As you walk out of the house, a crazy person pulls up in his car and shoots you.  He speeds off, but hits a fire hydrant and is apprehended by the police.  The ambulance comes and helps you.  You are in pain, but your mind is clear.  People gather around and give you encouraging words.  You make a few witty remarks to the EMT’s helping you, and people laugh. Your mom comes out terribly anxious, but you quote President Reagan back to her when he was shot–”Sorry, mom, I forgot to duck.”  You notice the amazement of onlookers at your wit and presence in the moment. They whisk you away to the hospital.  You will survive, the bullet missed everything vital, though of course you will have a long recovery.

As far as school goes, of course the speech and the test are waved, as is a lot of other schoolwork.  Your estranged friend, feeling bad, apologizes to you and your relationship is restored.  People from school come to visit you, and stories are told of how you responded to the terrible incident with bravery and charm.  

Is this

  • Unreservedly bad news.  You have been shot and that is a terrible thing. There will be some minor damage you will carry in your body into old age. Not to mention–the person who shot you will of course suffer, via arrest, institutionalization, etc.  This is also bad for him–physically and spiritually.  You both would be much better off if he did not shoot you.


  • Relatively bad news.  All of the above is true, but the incident seems to have reset your life entirely in your favor.  People view you differently now.  


Anxiety and Depression

Many have remarked that people, and especially younger people, seem more anxious and disaffected than at any other time in recent memory. Why might this be?

Pick one or more

  1. Because modern life is more difficult and anxiety producing than during other times in the past.
  2. The young have always been anxious and whiny.  There is no crisis.  We just have many more ways to measure things now. People did not used to want to know how everyone was feeling, and we had far fewer ways to express our thoughts.  In fact, by talking about it so much, we create the problem.  Back in the old days, the young would be anxious, but just then be told to get over it and get back to work.
  3. Because for men, there has never been a time when your role in the world seemed so unstable.  People talk of ‘toxic masculinity.’  In the media we consume, some men may be good guys but women will almost never be the bad guys.The educational system, so crucial to our success, is firmly oriented towards female achievement, which statistics bear out. Men want to provide but the job market is constantly in flux–there are no guarantees. 
  4. Because things have never been harder for women.  For those that want to stay home with kids, society will not support you, and there will be no community of moms to share life with.  For those that work, there will be the impossible juggling of family in addition to dealing with the “man’s world” at work.
  5. Because our educational institutions have failed to prepare young people for the world, and so no wonder they struggle with coping with the future.
  6. Because the decline of religious belief and church attendance has left youth today completely adrift, and therefore, naturally anxious.
  7. Because the self has in fact experienced a radical loss of sovereignty, as technology has increased.  We have the real sense that we have no place, that we are not really needed. We are like the astronauts in the movie 2001, punching at the air, unable to connect.
  8. Because modern life is insane, and enough to make anyone anxious and depressed.  In fact, anyone who is not depressed and anxious at the nature of modern life are themselves deranged, or living in the land of the Lotus Eaters.



The word ‘boredom’ did enter our vocabulary until the 18th century.  No one knows its etymology.  One guess is that it comes from the French word, ‘to stuff.’

Why was there no such word before the 18th century?  Pick all that apply.

  1. Was it because people were not bored before that time?
  2. Was it because people were bored but did not have a word for it?
  3. Was it because people were too busy trying to stay alive to be bored (but of course, rich dilettantes have always existed).
  4. Is it that we have been encouraged to be so self-aware, to ‘pursue happiness,’ that we inevitably become alienated from ourselves and therefore ‘stuff’ ourselves into oblivion?
  5. Is it because, starting in the 18th century, we have had an increasingly scientific view that disenchants the world,  and thereby renders it meaningless?

Why is it that man is the only species that gets bored?  Under the circumstances in which a person gets bored, a dog happily takes a nap.

Liberty and Coercion

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example . .  .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This changed in stages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Emperor Might Need New Clothes

Some years 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 at the Convention in Philadelphia.  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 America’s cities 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?


For anyone interested in further thoughts on America’s political culture, check out The Grumpy Old Man podcast with Audrey and Emily here.

*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 no horrifying apocalypse.

^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?