What Happens when Germans Go Nuts?

They make a rational, thoroughly scientific, argument for the existence of Atlantis, located in the Atlantic (right where Plato said it was) destroyed cataclysmically somewhere around 9000 B.C. (apologies to one of my favorite ad campaigns).

I have written before about the likelihood of advanced civilizations that existed long before their so-called beginning around 4000 B.C.  But it is so much easier to propound vague ideas then to make a concrete case for a specific civilization, let alone one for which we (seemingly) have no evidence for except Plato’s account in one of his dialogues.  And then you realize that one of the more credible arguments for the existence of Atlantis was written by Otto Muck . . . who invented the U-boat schnorkel for the Germans in W.W. II.  Yes, he came over to the U.S. like many other former German scientists after the war, but still,it does not help the case that he worked for the Nazis.

But first, Muck reminds us that Plato discussed Atlantis in two dialogues, not one, the Timaeus and Critias.  Plato has Socrates relate many myths throughout his work, but he speaks of Atlantis in strictly factual terms.  Like many others, I suppose, I had never actually read the full account of Atlantis in the dialogues and Muck makes a good point.  Plato, at least, seems to believe in the historicity of Atlantis, or certainly, Critias does, and he gives a lengthy description filling at least 15 pages of its size, location, topography, plants, and the like.  Critias talked about how the Greeks first learned of Atlantis from the Egyptians, still considered quite wise by the Greeks even in Plato’s day, via the great legislator Solon–America’s George Washington.  Plato invests a lot of heavy-hitters in his account of Atlantis.

It makes perfect sense to me to believe in a cataclysmic flood, as it is spoken of in every major religion of the ancient world.  I expect to find, along with Graham Hancock and others, the existence of civilizations that long predate the fertile crescent of 4000 B.C.  I delight in Jon Anthony West’s interpretation of Egypt’s history, for example, and find it persuasive.  But I cracked the cover of Muck’s book skeptically.  I don’t approach questions like this even primarily scientifically, let alone entirely so.  Still, with Atlantis, even I needed something to hold onto besides stories.  With other sites, you have megalithic architecture, for example.  For Atlantis, I need more than Plato’s account.

I give Muck credit.  He understands skepticism as a scientist and confronts head-on, piece by piece, in methodical fashion.  Some of what Muck wrote I found very intriguing, and others, not so much.

To begin, Muck asks where the Atlantic ocean got its name.  Well, obviously from the Atlantis story, but this means very, very little.  Slightly more intriguing is Muck’s examination of the very similar phonetics between the god Atlas (apparently spelled out ‘Atlants’), who stood at the middle of the world upholding it, and the name “Atlantis” and its topography, which Plato tells us had a large mountain.  Well . . . ok, but . . . ?

He moves on.

If we look closely at Plato’s description of the topography he tells of a huge variety of plants and food that one could find there.  It seems almost fantastical. We assume the variety couldn’t really exist, given the size and location Plato mentions.  But if we consider the gulf stream moving across the Atlantic, then match it with the mountains described by Plato as well as the location, it matches.  You would have warm air from the south-east, with a large mountain in the center impacting the Arctic air, and the variety described by Plato is possible.  What makes this more intriguing is that Plato probably did not have the biological and topographical knowledge to make this up.

More interesting is the Gulf Stream itself.  If you compare latitudes for northwestern Europe and its overseas counterpart, you know that Europe is a lot warmer than the upper reaches of North America.  The Gulf Stream makes this possible.  But we also know that thousands of years ago Europe was much colder.  Then, around the time of Atlantis’ supposed destruction, it started to warm up.  What if the Gulf Stream did not always flow across to Europe, but instead was diverted by a continent in the middle of the ocean?  That could account for the temperature difference at first, and the shift after.

Perhaps the most bizarre, yet intriguing, argument Muck makes involves the habits of eels.

Apparently, a breed of eels exists that spawns in the Sargasso Sea (located just to the east of Atlantis on the map above).  For the longest time scientists could never understand why these eels undertook a long and dangerous migration across the Atlantic.  The females find European rivers, the males sit and wait in the ocean while the female eels fix their hair.  Ok, ok . . . observers discovered that the females can only come to sexual maturity in fresh water, hence their need for rivers.  But why travel east across the Atlantic.  It makes much more sense, from an evolutionary perspective and every other perspective, to go west from the Sargasoo.  The existence of Atlantis, however, would explain this.  For who knows how long the eels would go east for only a short distance from the Sargasso to the rivers of Atlantis.  The destruction of Atlantis did not alter their genetic memory.  They still swim east, and no doubt suppose that when they hit the coast of Europe they are back in Atlantis, more or less.

Plato considered Atlantis a bridge of sorts between land on either side of the ocean, and Muck explores some of the connections between the Americas and the world of Plato’s day.  He considers possible racial connections, considering that the typical look of the Basque people would fit well for a possible Atlantean type, since that “look” could fit in the western parts of Europe, north Africa, and Meso-America–the old sphere of Atlantean influence.  Muck makes you think hard throughout his work, but I think this the most ridiculous of Muck’s arguments.  Maybe I am just squeamish when an ex-Nazi helper-guy talks about race, but it seems that if the Atlantis story is true, 10,000 years of post-Atlantis destruction intermarriage would dilute the racial stock.

Perhaps more interesting are the ancient pyramids built by the Egyptians and Meso-Americans.  Muck seems to argue that both cultures acted as preservers of some kind of Atlantean legacy even thousands later in the post-apocalyptic reboot of civilization.  Perhaps the pyramid shape was meant to recall Atlas and Atlantis’ great mountain. This is more convincing than the racial argument, but I still think it fairly weak.  Both cultures built their structures thousands of years apart, and it seems they had different purposes in mind.  Muck’s earlier arguments about climate, topography, and the gulf stream stand on much more solid footing.  His analysis about the mapping of the ocean floor of the Atlantic indicates the possibility of an Atlantean like form still lying on the ocean floor.

As for the cataclysmic end, Muck has an answer for that as well.  Plato’s description has Atlantis lying right around the mid-Atlantic ridge, a potentially volcanic region.  The diagram below right shows the ridge shows the newest ocean floor crust in red:

Muck believes that a very large asteroid struck earth right around 9000 B.C., which matches remarkably with the chronology offered by Plato’s account.  Here is one of a variety of articles on the subject, with impact dates ranging between 10,000 to 13,000 years ago.  Some argue that this asteroid or comet struck the polar ice caps.  Muck argues that it struck somewhere around the mid-Atlantic ridge.  If Atlantis existed, and if a very large asteroid struck near the mid-atlantic ridge, you could easily have had a gigantically massive subterranean volcanic eruption that literally could have had Atlantis sink into the sea in a single night.

 

Muck doesn’t need the asteroid to hit the mid-Atlantic ridge necessarily.  If it did strike the polar ice-caps, it would have caused the destruction of Atlantis in a global deluge not overnight, but within a week or so at the most.

I have left out a great deal of technical information Muck includes, and must content myself with a general summary.

Muck knows he cannot absolutely prove his case one way or another.

I am a big fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work with Heterodox Academy, which encourages more ideological diversity on campus.  Haidt readily acknowledges his liberal beliefs–he has never voted Republican–but even he agrees that the situation has gotten dangerously imbalanced in many departments across many campuses.  He has discovered some interesting links, not surprisingly, between religious belief, psychological temperament, and political affiliations.  You can take various fun tests at his link here.

Just as political leanings often come from moral and religious beliefs, I think what one thinks of Muck’s book will depend on a variety of factors that go a bit deeper than the evidence itself.

If you look to disagree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a committed ‘gradualist’ in all things geological
  • You are strictly scientific in deciding about the past and would hardly value Plato’s account as evidence of any kind.
  • You probably hesitate in part because you don’t want to be associated with various new age crazy people who believe in the existence of Atlantis for all the wrong reasons.
  • You need “hard” evidence like clay tablets, pots with markings, the stuff that archaeologists would find, before you would acquiesece to Muck

If you look to agree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a contrarian by temperment
  • You weigh lots of different kinds of evidence much more equally than those committed to a particular field
  • You think it would be “cool” if Atlantis once existed (an attitude most abhorred by the strict scientific type, who would see this feeling as meaning absolutely nothing.  I think they are right, but only about 90% right in their approbation of this attitude).
  • You admit the possibility of great catastrophe’s altering the fabric of human history as well as geology.

I fall in the latter category, but hope that I have been fair to the former.  Again,some parts of Muck’s book I found nearly persuasive, and others not so much.

To illustrate some of the above differences, we can examine Jon Anthony West’s work in Egyptology.  He got famous/infamous for suggesting that erosion patterns on the Sphinx suggested that it was much older than was commonly believed, and was likely built by a civilization that predated Egypt perhaps by a thousands of years.  Dr. Robert Schoch, who earned his Ph.D in geology at Yale, analyzed the Sphinx and agreed with him.  You can see the video–narrated by Charlton Heston!:)–here.

When Schoch presented his findings at a conference, Egyptologists present could say little about the actual data he presented.  But one retorted, “Well, you say that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before, but if another civilization built it, where is the evidence?  Where are their tools?  Where is their writing?”  Schoch could only stare back rather dumbfounded. Hadn’t he just presented evidence in the form of the Sphinx?  Perhaps they did not accept the fact of the Sphinx itself as evidence because it did not fit into their preconceived notions of what constitutes evidence, which has to be in the form of writing, pottery, etc.  Of course, if a highly developed civilization did exist somewhere around 10,000 B.C., it would have suffered catastrophic collapse as a result of the asteroids that struck Earth around that time.  If they did have a written language and if they made pottery, it would have been washed away almost immediately.

We see how these different areas of belief work together.

So I say, let the Germans go nuts.  Let them make far-fetched claims.  It beats some other avenues they have taken in the past . . .

 

 

Advertisements

Death in the Days of Louis the Fat

Consider some of what follows a thought experiment rather than a settled conclusion . . .

For some time now I have contemplated Charles Taylor’s idea that a significant impetus in creating the modern world is that we homogenize space and time.  This belief/practice has shaped us for at least 350 years, and it has led us to try and combine many different elements of nature and the subsequent explosion of technological invention.  Many of these creations have greatly improved human life, at least in the physical sense.  But of course, it has also brought about the destruction of any corporate sense of meaning, and an immense decline in the idea of sanctity.

To homogenize something makes it ubiquitous.  Recently Marginal Revolution linked to an article about how technology has made music unimportant in our culture, largely through its constant availability.  The author’s conclusion in the linked article is not original, as many have declared something similar, but it serves as another reminder of the cost of the homogenization of space and time.

By contrast, the medieval world presents itself as one of careful delineation of all things.  We need not say here whether their world or ours is better or worse to appreciate the difference.  Reading primary sources from a particular era gives one such an appreciation, and Abbot Suger’s crackling style makes The Deeds of Louis the Fat an enjoyable, if still slightly monotonous read.*  He centers his writing on how Louis enhanced the power of the monarchy by bringing several dastardly nobles back in line.  His people loved him, if for no other reason that he kept the peace and stood up for those oppressed.  Suger clearly admires his subject, though he recognizes that he had his moniker for a reason, writing that,

By now his body was quite heavy, weighed down as it was by burdensome flesh; no one else, not even a beggar, would have wanted to–or even been able–to ride a horse when hampered by such a dangerously large body.

And later . . .

Thus [Louis] spoke, and–despite his corpulence– he set off with astonishing enthusiasm.

I confess to reading the text with an eye to what would most engage the boys in my 9th grade Medieval History class, and that meant primarily looking for stories of gruesome deaths.**  Suger delivers the goods!  For example:

There can be no doubt that the hand of God exacted this swift vengeance upon William of Laroche Guyon [who had murdered a husband and wife in cold blood to gain possession of their castle].  His accomplices were thrown out of the windows dead or alive, bristling with innumerable arrows like hedgehogs. They waved about in the air on the points of the lances, as if the very earth had rejected them. For the unparalleled deed of William they discovered a rare vengeance; for he who in life had been heartless had his heart cut out of his dead body. When they had taken it from his entrails, all swollen with fraud and iniquity, they put it on a stake and set it up for many days in a fixed place to demonstrate the punishment for crime.  

His body and those of some of his companions, were placed on hurdles tied with cords and ropes, and sent sailing down the Seine so that, if nothing stopped them floating down to Rouen, the Normans should see the punishment incurred by his crime, and also so that those who had briefly fouled France with their stink should in death continue to foul Normandy, their native soil.

Suger later discusses the murder of  Charles the Good, killed while praying prostrate in church along with his cohorts.  He spares no details and seems to relish them. First, the execution of the plotters:

Now [the criminals] despaired of life, and their lyre was turned to mourning and their organ into the voice of them that weep (Job XXX, 31); the most wicked Bourchard left with the agreement of his companions, hoping to flee the land but found himself unable to do so, though only his own iniquity prevented him. On his return to the castle of one of his intimate friends he was seized by the king’s command and suffered exquisite torture in death. Tied to the upper part of a high wheel, exposed naked to the rapacity of crows and other birds of prey, his eyes torn out and his whole face lacerated, pierced by a thousand blows from arrows, lances and spears, he perished miserably and his body was thrown into a sewer.  

Bertold, the brains behind the plot, also decided to flee; but when he found he was able to wander around without restriction, he returned through sheer pride; for he asked himself, ‘Who am I and what have I done?’ So he was captured by his own men, handed over to the king’s judgement and condemned to a well-merited and wretched death. They hanged him from a gibbet with a dog and as the dog was struck it took its anger out on Bertold, chewed his whole face and, horrible to relate, covered him with excrement; so, more miserable than the most miserable of men, he ended his wretched life in perpetual death.  

The men the king had besieged in the tower were forced by many hardships to surrender. In front of their relations Louis had them thrown our one by one from the top of the tower to crush their skulls. One of them called Isaac had been tonsured in a monastery to avoid death; Louis ordered him to be defrocked and hanged on a gibbet. Thus victorious at Bruges, the king rapidly led his army to Ypres, an excellent castle, to take vengeance on William the Bastard, who had fomented the treason. He sent messengers to the people of Bruges and brought them around to his side by threats and flattery. Then as William barred his way with three hundred knights, half the royal army rushed against him and the other half went off at an angle and boldly occupied the castle by way of its other gate. The king kept it, William lost all claim to Flanders, and was banished. Because he had aspired to gain Flanders through treachery, it was right that he should gain nothing whatever in Flanders.  

Suger closes this narrative commenting that,

Flanders was washed clean and almost re-baptized by these various forms of revenge and the great outpouring of blood. So having installed William the Norman as count, the king returned to France, victorious by God’s help.  

At first glance the means of their death, and Suger’s possible delight in such details, surely strikes us as barbaric and unChristian.  We tell ourselves that we have come much farther since those “dark days.”  But I want to suggest–or at least explore–the possibility, that Suger and the medievals may have been on to something.

I tread lightly, for I am aware that this may be one of the craziest of my crazy ideas.

To begin, we can reflect on John Wilkes Booth.  He killed Lincoln, and no one denied that he should face the death penalty.  Everyone wanted him captured alive . . . so that he could be tried and then executed.  He died while pursued by troops either by his own hand or that of a trigger-happy soldier, and people were upset.  But why bother?  Dead is dead, right?  He saved us the expense of a trial. Why all the fuss?  But, everyone recognized at the time that while his death was important, the manner of his death was also important.  To be tried and publicly executed would have a different meaning than if he took his own life, a collective, and cathartic, justice, vs. the “triumphant” and defiant individual.

If we accept this reasoning we begin to see that not every death is alike.  Different kinds of death carry with them different meanings.

If different kinds of death carry with them different meanings, then we may feel inclined to accept that our bodies have meaning, and bodily actions have certain meanings.  Some of this is obvious–certain facial expressions and gestures have a universal meaning across cultures, time, and space.  Other implications follow.  If the body has meaning then gender has an inherent meaning, and so on.  We simply cannot invent ourselves from thin air.

So far, so good, but from here it gets trickier.  Before considering the manner of their deaths we should consider the crimes committed.

  • The crimes were done in cold blood, against defenseless victims.  One of the victims was killed in church alone while praying.  The other was ambushed in his castle after he welcomed them inside, and then his wife was also brutally stabbed to death as threw herself on the body of her dying husband.
  • The crimes had many witnesses to them and no doubt existed as to their guilt.
  • Those that murdered the lord in his castle did so with the express purpose of rebelling against the king.  Those that murdered Charles the Good seemed intent on seizing his land and title.
  • Aside from the cold-blooded nature of the murders, the crimes violated a) the sacrosanct nature of the Church as a safe place of devotion to God, and b) the direct violation of hospitality.

Would an ordinary punishment suffice, that is, an ordinary death sentence, a simple, dignified, beheading?

I have not seen the movie Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won a Best Actor Oscar.  I did hear an interview with Washington, however, in which he discussed how he agreed to the movie only if they changed the script.  He felt that the original ending left the possibility that his character survived, which meant the possibility of a sequel.  Instead, he said that, (my memory is close but not exact) “My character lived like a dog, so he should die like a dog.  Anything else would not be right, or fair to the story.”

Again, we see the manner of death as having significance to the story.  Perhaps the same could be true of the events Suger relates.  We cannot see the meaning of their actions without seeing the consequences those actions have.  The public nature of the punishments inflicted rub us wrongly as well.  But we must also wonder whether or not we have swung too far in the direction of privacy in last century or so.  We no longer vote in public, we no longer need to speak in public (we can comment anonymously on line).  Perhaps this has contributed to the cultural divide and polarization we now face.

Our modern homogenization of life and death has not made unjust deaths any less frequent.  If anything, one might suggest that, at certain times at least, it has positively increased it.  The beginning of this phenomena may have been the French Revolution, where the guillotine treated all alike.  But this industrialization of death led to its mass production, and numbed much of France for years.  The class and racial identity politics of Hitler and Lenin led to further industrialized butchery.  Equality in death led to piles of statistics, an undecipherable mass.  The vast majority of these deaths were hidden far from the people at large.

I truncated the above accounts from Suger, but even still, it seems that the deaths inflicted give the stories a “satisfying” ending (the effect increases by reading the whole story). We can call this a latent string of barbarism in our psyche or . . . it may be that the medievals acted rightly, provided of course that such punishments truly fit the crimes and that no one could dispute their guilt.  Suger, an Abbott and scholar,  has no doubt of this, for he mentions specifically that the violent end of the malefactors “washed clean” Flanders, for example.

Perhaps our executions should be more public. Perhaps this could be a means for us to process important truths of life and death. I hesitate to say that the method of execution should vary depending on the crime, for in the accounts above things seemed to happen at least in part “in the heat of the moment.”  To inflict such punishments in cold blood presents a host of problems.  But I feel a certain amount of tension.  If we treat every death alike, the body may lose its inherent meaning, and then death will lose its meaning. If death loses its meaning, so too will life.  All we will have left, then, will be a monotonous march to oblivion.

 

*The Carolingians win for having the best names for their kings, i.e., Pepin the Short, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Louis the Pious, Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple (i.e, Charles the Stupid), and of course, Louis the Fat.

**I know of no better way to get 15 year old boys interested in learning about feudal hierarchy and symbolism, a classic bait and switch. The girls, who are usually far more agreeable but often far less interested in the gory details, “must endure their going hence.”

 

 

The Three Languages of Politics

Like many of you, I feel frustrated at the polarization of politics today.  Some of this polarization comes with the territory of democracy, but some of it I feel results from failures in technique and imagination.

Classical rhetoricians used the term “stasis” to refer to the situation in an argument where both sides argue about the same thing.  If an issue did not achieve “stasis” the argument would get nowhere because the rhetorical ships would pass in the night.

For example, you may have observed this lack of stasis in the abortion debate, where the sides argue in circles similar to this example:

  • Pro-Life – Governments should protect those who cannot protect themselves.  They should give a voice to those without a voice.   Governments must stand for the defense of innocent lives if we want to call ourselves civilized.
  • Pro-Choice – Decisions about our families and our futures are some of the most private and personal decisions one can make.  If we wish to avoid any tendency towards a totalitarian regime, we must keep government out of our most private decisions.

Both sides of the abortion debate could hypothetically agree with both statements in different contexts, thus, an argument with these two premises would spin its wheels.  Ironically, most on the “Pro-Life” side are conservatives, but the argument used above has a distinctly Progressive tinge.  Most “Pro-Choice” advocates might usually reside in the Progressive wing of politics, but when they use arguments like the one above they sound just like Libertarians.

I would suggest a Pro-Life argument that went something like. . .

In general, governments have no business making decisions about our bodies.  What we wear, what we eat, whether or not to get a tattoo–no one who values a free society would want government involved in such things.

However, we do give governments the power to make decisions about our bodies when our actions pose a threat to others.  We ban drinking and driving.  We ban the use of various drugs.  These kinds of laws have a good purpose because they protect innocent lives.  If we protect citizens against drunk drivers, how much more should we protect the unborn?

This is just one possible example of stasis on this issue, though no doubt many better ones exist.  Please feel free to share whatever examples you might have.

In his book The Three Languages of Politics author Arnold Kling addresses the problem of a lack of stasis in our political debate and points to one reason for this.  He argues that we speak three different kinds of political language currently, each with its own vocabulary and coded language.  One goal for the book is to expose others to these three different languages and and make us aware of the various worldviews these languages represent.

I mentioned earlier that a failure of stasis in debate can be traced in part to a failure of imagination, and this leads to Kilng’s second main goal.  To achieve stasis we have to learn to use the languages of those we disagree with, and have to enter into their worlds in order to do so.  This does not mean that we abandon our convictions, but it will mean that we reframe in different modes of thought with different emphasis.  This requires a willingness at times to fall down a rabbit hole, but you will actually have a chance of talking to people rather than at them.  Granted, this won’t bring the NRA and NOW to the hallowed halls of Shambala, but it might start something.

Kling starts his book with a quiz designed to help one to discover their own political language, something like a political personality test.  Some of the questions are Kling’s, some are mine.  Of course you may not like either of the three options offered, or may want to combine answers to create a hybrid.  For the purposes of the exercise, however, circle just one letter for each question.

To score the quiz, make three sections on a piece of paper, labeled “P,” “C,” and “L” and follow the guidelines below when you are done.

Gun violence at schools primarily reveals

A. The need for teachers to be armed to fight back.

B. The need for society to have more control over the mentally ill.

C. The need to curtail the power of the gun lobby.

2. If I were honest about myself, the kind of political ad that would appeal to me most would include

A. Pictures of farms, flags, and hallowed documents like the Constitution.

B. Scenes of ordinary Americans from all walks of life working together.

C. A statement about our financial status and clear plan to help reduce spending.

3. During the 1940’s many ordinary Germans committed atrocities against Jews.  This shows us

A. The dangers of a totalitarian system of government

B. The dangers of a collapse of moral values when a country’s institutions have been corrupted and compromised

C. The dangers of anti-Semitism

4. When the issue of tax law comes up, what question is most important?

A. How will the laws impact and reward people get for hard work and thrift?

B. Does government spend money more or less wisely than individuals?

C. How will changes in law impact the growing gap of inequality?

5. What is notable about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is that

A. Israelis share many of the same values as Americans

B. The Palestinians are an oppressed people

C. Israel, the Palestinians, other Arab and western governments, all share blame for this tragedy.

6. The wave of mortgage defaults known as the “sub-prime crisis” was caused by mortgage loans that were

A. Given to unqualified and undeserving borrowers

B. Government induced

C. Predatory

7. The large number of unwed mothers with low income reflects that

A. Lack of economic opportunities and education

B. Cultural decay, which overvalues sexual gratification and undervalues marital responsibility

C. Incentives built into our tax and welfare system that can reward bad behavior

8. Since 9/11, Presidents have used controversial powers, such as warrantless surveillance and targeted killings.  What do you think of the use of these powers?

A. Because Islamic terrorism is such a difficult and dangerous problem, I support the use of these powers to protect Americans.

B. I am against the use of these powers on principle.

C. I am not sure about these powers, but I am willing to trust the Obama administration more than the Bush administration on the exercise of them.

9. When teaching the history of the United States, the most important goal should be

A. To have the student develop an appreciation for all that makes America great, especially by focusing on the leadership of people like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

B. To have the student realize that our country is far from perfect, and has abused the rights of minorities in numerous ways.  We show our greatness as nation most clearly by reforming ourselves and remedying our past mistakes.

C. To have the student appreciate the vital role of American individualism and self-reliance in making our country free and prosperous.

10. If I was visiting the Mall downtown, the most important place to go would be

A. The Capitol, where the representatives of ordinary citizens sit and debate.

B. The Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials

C. I wouldn’t want to visit at all.  With its hallowed halls and marble monuments, the Mall downtown encourages a dangerous reverence for government.

11. Which most accurately describes your view of the Press?

A. The Press often functions as an enemy of our civilization, as it artificially makes the margins of society “mainstream” with a distinct liberal bias.

B. The Press works best when it serves as a tool to keep government in check by exposing corruption and abuse of power.

C. The Press works best when it finds societies problems and puts them into public view, thereby giving the organs of representative government a chance to fix the problem.

12.  Of the following, who was the best president?

A. Theodore Roosevelt

B. Calvin Coolidge

C. Ronald Reagan

13. Which most accurately describes your feelings about free markets?

A. Government intervention in the market is counter-productive every time.  The market, unregulated, is one of the best tools of freedom we have.

B. Some form of free market must exist, but government should intervene to minimize the aspects of the market that exploit the poor and create vast gaps in equality.

C. The free market is in general a great tool for a free society, but government should strongly regulate/ban certain items from being sold, like drugs, pornography, and other socially/morally disruptive products.

14. Which most accurately describe your feelings about the War on Drugs?

A. The War on Drugs has failed most notably in that most of those in jail are the poor and underprivileged of society.  Whatever our original aims may have been, the War on Drugs has done little besides incarcerating poor minorities for a host of minor offenses.

B. The War on Drugs has been in some instances a war on what should be personal freedom, and at times it has also been a misguided attempt to enforce purely cultural mores.  It has also costs billions of dollars with little to show for it.

C. The War on Drugs has not had the success we hoped for, but it remains a noble fight with a noble cause.  Drugs ravage lives and communities everywhere, and government rightly acts to try and stop their scourge.

15. Which Most Accurately Describes You?

A. My heroes are people who have stood up for underprivileged and oppressed people.  The people I cannot stand are those who seem to care nothing for the rights of average citizens as opposed to the privileged few, or ethnic and religious minorities.

B. My heroes are people who have stood up for Western values and the beneficial civilizations these values  help create. The people I cannot stand are those who don’t mind, or even encourage, the wanton assault on the traditional values that have made this country great.

C. My heroes are those who have stood up for the right of individuals to make their own choices.  The people I cannot stand are those who want the government to impose their value system on others.

  1. The best thing about a Trump presidency (whether you like him or not, or think he is a good president or not) is likely to be

A. His presidency will shift power away from coastal elites and towards the values and practices of mainstream Americans.

B. He will shine light on the “forgotten” blue collar worker, many of whom have lost jobs due to a globalization process that has moved way too fast.

C. He will “get things done” and help make our government more efficient and lean by getting around the “red tape” of bureaucracy.

The worst thing about a Trump presidency (whether you like him or not, or think he is a good president or not) is likely to be

A. His inflammatory rhetoric and possible racist leanings will hurt immigrants and other minorities, endangering decades of social progress.

B. He will erode the governmental institutions we rely on for a peaceful society, and become a “one man show,” extending the power of the executive branch and growing the reach of government.

C. He is a New York real-estate and tv personality–he focuses only on the bottom line and cares nothing for the values that have made America great.

Question 1

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 2

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 3

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 4

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 5

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ”L” column

Question 6

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 7

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 8

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 9

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 10

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 11

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 12

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 13

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 14

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 15

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 16

  • If you checked A put a mark in the “C” column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the “P” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the “L” column

Question 17

  • If you checked A put a mark in the “P” column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the “L” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the “C” column

“P” stands in this case for “Progressives,” who tend to see the world along an axis of oppressor/oppressed.  “Progressives” here put strong emphasis on “no one left behind,” and equality.

“C” stands for “Conservatives,” or “Civilizers” who put primary focus on good vs. evil, or civilization vs. barbarism.  They tend to see a role for government in upholding certain values and traditions.

“L” stands for “Libertarian” who emphasize individual rights and freedoms apart from group/government coercion.  They fear actions that threaten individual autonomy.

In the interest of full disclosure, I score out this way:

Progressive/2, Conservative/10, Libertarian/5

Chances are that your score mixes the three categories in some fashion, and this in itself will help us recognize the limitations of our own particular perspective.  The Progressive, Conservative, and Libertarian axises are all finite and cannot be our main guide on every question.  Kling cites a few examples to this effect.  Libertarians like Goldwater opposed Civil Rights legislation on the grounds that it would give more power to the federal government and upset the balance of federalism.  They were not wrong about this per se, but wrong in their priorities.  The Libertarian axis (Kling’s own personal bias, as he tells us) did not have the proper framework to deal with that issue.  Some Southern “Conservatives” (be they Republican or otherwise) rejected integration for terribly misguided fears about what would happen to their “civilization.” For the sake of fairness, Kling rejects the Progressive explanation for the sub-prime crisis.  The oppressor/oppressed axis has its own limitations.  The strong “Conservatism” of Churchill served him just as poorly in dealing with India as it served him well in dealing with Hitler.

It is this concept of the finite nature of our political vision that is the most valuable takeaway for me.  Every Christian I know would admit to some degree of mystery and incompleteness about their knowledge of God and the Faith.  Yet we do not always apply that same sense of humility to our political ideologies, and we usually get no help from the media with this.  It may be humility, more than anything, that can salvage our broken political discourse.

Dave

10th Grade: You Can’t Go Home Again

Greetings,

This week we put our main focus on the Congress of Vienna, where the nations of England, Russia, Prussia, Austria and France gathered to try and redraw the map of Europe in Napoleon’s wake.

Historians have debated many issues about this peace conference from the moment it met.

France

What do to with France?  Napoleon’s conquests discombobulated every nation in Europe, and perhaps as many as 3 million died in what we call the Napoleonic Wars.  Should France be punished?

Most give the Congress credit for realizing that taking revenge on France would not serve peace in Europe.  France weakened would wave the red flag at every other strong nation in Europe.  Soon nations might fight over French spoils.  Besides, during the Napoleonic Wars the other nations made it clear that they made war on Napoleon, not France.  France was not the problem in their minds during the war, they could not very well make France the issue during the peace.

The French too made the point that if other nations wanted to avoid another Napoleon, they needed to hand the recently re-installed Louis XVIII the keys to a nice car.   If he inherited weakness, the Bourbon dynasty would crumble once again, and Europe would revisit all the issues  brought on by events in 1789.  For example, one of the problems of the Weimar Republic in Germany in 1919 was that the new democratic regime came into being only because of Germany’s defeat in World War I.  That government lacked the psychological or cultural legitimacy to have a solid chance at success.  Louis XVIII was a nice guy, but didn’t impress like Napoleon.  He would need some help.

Louis XVIII

Napoleon on Horseback at the St Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David

The Congress of Vienna explicitly rejected the “Romantic” notion of expansive ideals transforming states and creating new national boundaries, and returned to the 18th century Enlightenment policies of security through interlocking and more or less equal parts.  Those familiar with Madison’s “Federalist #10” and his theory on democracy and political factions will see the same concept writ large on the European stage in Vienna.  In reacting against the French Revolution ideologically, they also returned to the pre-French Revolution methods of foreign policy.  The genie needed stuffed back into the bottle.

For the most part the countries involved agreed on these principles, but the practical outworking of meant a great deal of jockeying for position.  The map had changed so much so quickly, a lot seemed up for grabs.

Here is Europe in 1789, just prior to the French Revolution

Now Europe in 1800, just after Napoleon took power

Europe in 1807, after Napoleon’s victorious Peace of Tilsit

Europe in 1812, at the peak of Napoleon’s power

Europe in 1813, after his first exile

Napoleon’s success and the subsequent rise of Russia made the fate of Poland crucial to the peace process.  Their turbulent history get reflected in the many ways the map below reflects how their country got sliced and diced over the years.

Napoleon made it a point of policy to resurrect Poland to check the power of Russia, and also to limit the expansion of Austria and Prussia.  England, however, also waned a strong Poland to check the very same countries.  Napoleon’s conquests also demolished the tottering Holy Roman Empire, making a complete mish-mash of central Europe, sure to draw the attention of Prussia and Austria.

For a class activity I wanted the students to deal with the issues divided the class into five different groups, each representing the interests of their assigned country.  The winning group would be the one that got the best deal relative to their interests.

England

Wants:

  • To maintain its absolute dominance of the sea
  • To prevent anyone else from having the dominance on land that they enjoy currently at sea
  • The independence of the “Low Countries” (Belgium, Holland, Netherlands) to prevent any other major power from obtaining the coastal ports there.

Fears:

  • The rising land power of Russia – England likes the idea of Poland as a buffer to Russian power.
  • The possible westward expansion ideas of Prussia

Russia

Wants:

  • What it considers to be its rightful place in the sun given the fact that their repulse of Napoleon in 1812 opened the floodgates for all of Europe to overthrow him
  • The elimination of Poland, which Napoleon recreated to reduce Russian power
  • A weak Austria

Fears:

  • England using its economic whip to get its way on the continent
  • A strong Austria
  • A strong Prussia

Prussia

Wants:

  • Its rightful place in the sun considering their efforts in 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig, and at Waterloo in 1815.
  • The possibility of westward expansion if Austria were strengthened.  They would rather see Austria strengthened rather than Russia

Fears:

  • A strong Russia
  • French Expansion

France

Wants:

  • An extension of their borders to their “natural” borders near the Rhine River
  • Territory in the Low Countries, who speak French after all
  • A curbing of English naval power

Fears:

  • English dominance
  • Reduction to 2nd rate status

Austria

Wants:

  • To restore national honor, for no one got beat more often than Austria during Napoleon’s reign.
  • To prevent instability in central Europe, which would likely lead to a war they would lose

Fears:

  • The joint rise of Prussia and Russia.  Should those two ever fight, they would inevitably be drawn in as a second-banana ally.  No matter who won that war, they would lose

The actual Congress of Vienna decided on this. . .

Did the Congress of Vienna work?  Can we call it a successful peace conference?

By most measures we can answer “yes.”  The system started to break down after 35 years in 1848, and had broken completely by 1871.  Still, while so-called “small wars” popped up intermittently, Europe did not see another general war until World War I in 1914.

Critics of the Congress call it reactionary.  Those that thought they could truly put the French Revolutionary genie away deluded themselves, for it had roamed throughout Europe for 25 years.  They felt that they could smother the liberal democratic impulse to death, when really it turned out that they had created a pressure cooker instead.  When it finally burst in 1914, nationalistic impulses that had been held in check unleashed a conflict that essentially destroyed Europe.

I personally have a lot of sympathy with this latter view, but feel it may be too harsh on the participants.  Their immediate experience of French romantic nationalism saw France overthrowing religion, traditional values, and killing one’s fellow man over shades of political difference.  It would be quite natural for them to throw the baby out with the bath water, and they did not have the benefit of hindsight.   Maybe we can say the countries represented had high levels of competence and lower amounts of imaginative foresight.  Even so, on some level they wanted to pretend that the French Revolution never happened, that everything could go back to normal after 25 years of philosophical, cultural, and political upheaval.  The saying, “You can’t go home again,” proved itself true in this case.

Next week we begin to review for the final exam.  Many thanks for a great year,

Dave

8th Grade: A “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”

Greetings,

This week we looked at one of Rome’s most controversial figures, Julius Caesar.

Caesar stands as one larger than life, and inspires many different reactions.  Many view him quite differently, and he begs the question, “Who was he?”

1. Some see him as a rare combination of political and military genius, not seen again until perhaps Napoleon.  But some counter that he got carried away, went too far, and ended up assassinated.  How much of genius could he have been?  One could say the same about Napoleon, by the way.

2. Others see a man of the people, dedicated to helping Rome’s less fortunate and ending the reign of an elite’s aristocracy’s hold on Rome.  But why then, did he himself amass a massive personal fortune?

3. Still others see a man bent purely on personal gain, dedicated to destroying whatever stood in his way.  His killers did not commit murder, but performed a judicial execution on behalf of the state on a criminal.  Those that disagree point out that no real Republic existed for Caesar to betray anymore.  The patricians sought power just as Caesar did and cloaked that under the auspices of “preserving the Republic.”

4. Finally, some see Caesar as a man dedicated to preserving order in Rome after nearly a century of political strife.  The Republic failed to prevent multiple small level civil wars, and so a “strong-man” needed to arise to bring stability to Rome.  And yet others counter that Caesar went out of his way to antagonize the patricians, who (like them or not) surely were needed to ensure Rome’s stability.

Truth may reside in all these theories, but one struggles to make sense of them all, to find a coherent center.  I believe that one way we can do this is to see Caesar as a gambler at heart.  He had the ability to quickly seize the initiative and take great risks with great rewards that accompany them.  He read people superbly, and at times could conceal his intentions.  He had high levels of self-confidence.  He would have identified with the Bob Seger song I referenced for this posts title. But like many gamblers, he did not know when to stop.  The compulsive gambler must eventually lose.

We see different examples of this principle at work throughout his life.  He married the niece of Marius, who lost a civil war with the dictator Sulla.  Sulla had Caesar on a list for execution, but decided to spare him on account of Caesar’s mother — on one condition.  Caesar had to divorce his wife, a relative of Sulla’s greatest enemy.

Caesar refused.  No doubt his refusal stemmed in part from his love for his wife.  But clearly another part had to do with the fact that Caesar would not back down to anyone.  No one would tell him what to do.  Or did he just want to see how far he could push the mighty Sulla?

Later on at his mother’s funeral he unveiled statues of his uncle (by marriage) Marius, whose likeness had been forbidden since Sulla’s time.  It’s hard to know if he genuinely sympathized with the cause or just loved tweaking authority.  His rejection of his patrician ancestry puzzles some.  The patricians could have guaranteed Caesar wealth and status.  But of course, it would have been wealth and status on their terms, not his.  Siding with “the people” gave a him a blank slate upon which he would stand or fall by himself.

Other such “all or nothing” instances exist in his life.  He went into massive debt to run for Pontiff, and had he failed he would have gone to jail disgraced.  Naturally, he succeeds, and uses the power of that office to amass a new fortune.  We get the phrase, “Crossing the Rubicon” from his life as well.  He had no qualms about going “all in” even without the strongest of hands.

I’m a believer in the power of images/faces to reveal a lot about the past.  What does Caesar’s face tell us?

Of course this is not the only bust of Caesar in existence.  The one below, in fact, may be the only surviving bust from his actual lifetime, and perhaps it tells a different story:

One of the few that Caesar could not overwhelm with either his charm, force of personality, or force of arms was Cato the Younger.  Cato opposed all that Caesar did, and not always because Caesar went outside the system.  For a long time Caesar worked carefully within the Republic, but Cato still opposed every idea he had.  Cato feared that Caesar had an insatiable attitude for recognition and control, so he must oppose even lawful and possibly good ideas lest they work and enhance Caesar’s reputation.

Even historians who do not like Caesar debate the merits of Cato’s stance.  Did it antagonize and push Caesar further than he would otherwise have gone?  Did it make him despair of the Republic as a whole?  Could the Republic still function, as Cato thought, or had it died long ago, as Caesar believed?  I hope the students enjoyed thinking through these questions.

After Caesar assumed power in Rome, he acted in a number of highly provocative ways:

  • He wore red boots.  A bold fashion statement, yes, but also a political statement, since red boots were associated with the exiled and despised Tarquin kings from centuries earlier.
  • He allowed himself to be named “Dictator for Life.”
  • Some sources say that while presiding over the Senate, he sat on a throne of sorts overlaid with gold.
  • He packed the Senate with his friends and supporters, making that institution politically useless.
  • He had a fling with Cleopatra.  This might cause eyebrow raising and gossip left to itself.  But then Caesar put a statue of Cleopatra up amongst other heroes of Rome.

The question of whether or not Caesar plotted to assume kingship had deep implications.  Rome’s Republic built itself primarily on the rejection of monarchy.  Rome made a law stating that anyone who sought kingship could be killed.  The conspirators believed, or at least said that they believed, that Caesar planned to do just that.

Others counter that Caesar already had all the power kingship could bring.  Before his assassination he planned on a large-scale military expedition against Parthia that would have taken him out of Rome for perhaps a couple of years.  Some argue that it made no sense for him to seek monarchy.

Perhaps the way to see through this dilemma is to see Caesar, for the sheer thrill of it, seeing just how far he could push things.  Like most gamblers, he eventually went too far.

Many thanks for a great year,

Dave

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier

History comes to us in many forms.  Most historians try and make sense of their time directly, or perhaps try and 6314understand their time through understanding the past. In his diary, Jakob Walter only seeks to relate his own experience.  He doesn’t even really attempt to understand  his experience in context.  He has no comments on Napoleon and his policies, wars, and treaties.  His field of vision concerned himself only.

This certainly does not make Walter a selfish man, or even a narrow one automatically.  Walter came from Germany, an area conquered by Napoleon probably around 1807.  When his army got pressed into Napoleon’s service, his main concern became hoping that he and his brother (also a soldier for Napoleon) would stay alive.  He likely cared nothing for Napoleon himself or any grand moral or political scheme Napoleon may have had.  It was not his war.

So his narrow focus has no moral overtones necessarily, but this narrow vision of Walter’s writing has occasional parallels in his actions.  We know the invasion of Russia made for a hellish retreat for Napoleon’s army.  Walter lets us know that even in the initial months of advance into Russia supplies were scanty, at least for the “allied troops” like Walter.  This meant foraging, which the Russians made difficult by hiding and burning their own supplies.  Walter writes,

If they had voluntarily removed the simple covers [of their storage areas] much of their household furniture would have remained unspoiled.  For it was necessary to raise the floors and the beams in order to find anything, and to turn upside down anything that was covered.

Walter may have cared somewhat for Russians, but his argument boils down to, “If only they wouldn’t hide their food we wouldn’t have to destroy their homes to find it.”  He doesn’t concern himself at all about the larger picture, only the practical aspects of staying alive.  Limiting oneself to purely “practical” concerns will likely have moral consequences.

Most anyone with a vague familiarity of the Russian campaign will know of the terrible retreat. Walter’s details of Napoelon’s withdraw bring out the ghastly nature of his experience.  All semblance of unity and order broke down in the quest to stay alive.  I remember years ago reading Elie Weisel’s Night, a great book that should be read, but one I never wish to read again.  What made Weisel’s experience so tragic and terrible for me was not just the inhumanity of the Nazi’s.  Instead, Weisel’s descriptions of how the prisoners often turned on each other for bread or “good” jobs really devastated me.  Perhaps, I thought, had the prisoners united against the Nazi’s they could have redeemed the situation to some degree, but in Weisel’s account they rarely, if ever, did this.  Obviously the retreat from Russia is not the same thing, yet I was reminded of Night when reading how Napoleon’s army turned on each other, stealing food and horses from their comrades in arms with no hesitations.  Hobbes might say that this is what happens to human nature when the veneer of civilization gets stripped away.

Napoleon's Retreat

While Walter had a narrow vision some larger aspects of Napoleon’s empire reveal themselves.  The FrenchRevolution proclaimed “The Rights of Man,” at least in theory.  In practice it tended to mean rights for those who agreed with the Revolution’s shifting meaning of what it meant to be French particularly, not human generally.  After Robespierre’s execution much of this petered out, and Napoleon helped end it.  But though Napoleon was in some ways an ambassador of the French Revolution’s ideals of universal equality, the “French” emphasis made itself evident.  Whatever supplies Napoleon could muster from headquarters went first to French troops (especially his Imperial Guard), then to the “Allied” troops.  In the Russian campaign, supplies were scarce enough that there was never a “then” at all.  The sham flimsiness of Napoleon’s alliance gets indirectly exposed in Walter’s account.  That many of the “allies” Napoleon fought with in Russia in 1812 would turn on him in 1813 makes perfect sense.

So perhaps sometimes narrow keyholes can open up a vision of broader vistas.

 

 

Napoleon on Napoleon

Those who find themselves ill-disposed towards Napoleon (as I am on balance) should avoid reading the 25 page introduction of his abridged autobiography.  With crackling prose Napoleon gives us

  • An explanation of the success of his siege of Toulon
  • A concise theory of his rules of war
  • A demonstration of how Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great, . . . and he himself . . .  all followed these rules (he also makes sure to say how he fought in more campaigns and battles than many of those he lists).
  • An outline of recent French campaigns that failed to adhere to these rules and failed . . . neither of which directly involved him in any way (other generals made the mistakes).
  • An explanation of Charles XII failed invasion of Russia, told with no irony or self-awareness whatsoever.
  • A comparison of his wars and the wars of Louis XIV, in which he shows that the Sun-King’s wars did far more damage to France, and had far less legality, than his own campaigns (some estimates place French casualties in the Napoleonic Wars at around 1 million).

Such audacity and restless energy is hard to comprehend and one can’t help but admire it at least on some level.  He is the consummate NYC cab driver.  If this is the imagesman in exile at the end of his life (when he wrote his memoirs, ca. 1816-17), imagine how many secretaries he drove insane in 1805. His meteoric rise to power makes perfect sense in those first 25 pages. But for those who wish to dislike Napoleon, fear not!  Simply read a bit further and one grows weary of such energy, audacity, and his utter and complete moral blindness.  You begin to understand not just his ascension to power, but why he alienated almost everyone close to him and why those characteristics would inevitably carry him too far.

Napoleon shows his best side when discussing practical matters of policy.  In the beginning of his career at least he showed a keen political sense.  He criticism of the Assembly in the days preceding the Terror ring true:

[The Assembly] committed two errors, which might have produced the total ruin of the nation.  The first was to establish a Constitution at odds with the experience of all ages, whose mechanism contrived to restrict public power [during a time of uncertainty].  Great as this error was, it was less fragrant and had less deplorable consequences than the second — that or persisting in re-establishing Louis XVI on the throne after his flight to Varennes.  It ought to have sent commissioners to Varennes not to bring the king back to Paris, but to clear the way for him to abdicate; to have proclaimed Louis XVII king, and to have created a regency, to a princess of the House of Conde and a regency council composed of principal members of the Assembly.

Later he shows the same clarity in his analysis of the controversy between the Jacobins and Girondins (though also a touch of ruthless practicality):

The factions of the Girondins and the Mountain [Jacobins] were too violent in their mutual animosity.  Had they both continued to exist, impediments to the administration of government would have multiplied and France would not have been able to maintain her territory in the face of all Europe.  The good of the country required the triumph of one of those parties.  . . . Would the result have been the same had it been the Girondin party that gained the day and the Mountain sacrificed?  I think not.  The mountain party, although checked, would always have possessed great influence, in the popular societies and armies.  There was undoubtedly more talented and better men in the Girondin, but the Girondins had more speculative men, less resolute and less decisive.

Though this kind of analysis has its darker side (many worthy Girondins lost their lives unjustly in the Terror), Napoleon at least writes convincingly in these sections.  In his campaigns he insisted on a strict unity of command and clear lines of communication at all times.  His armies marched with great speed and yet avoided confusion in the ranks.  So too, his political analysis and his prose have the same distinguishing marks.  He maintains fidelity to his emphasis on practical results and his love of the simplicity of power.  He never leaves any doubt as to what he means to say.  This is a man soldiers would instinctively respect, a man easy to follow.  All such a man would need is an opening, and the French Revolution provided many such openings for Napoleon.

Napoleon has his charms, to be sure, and should not be regarded as a vicious monster.  But his ego led him to make almost absurd claims about his career.  Even a massively abridged version of his autobiography (in this case, 275 pages as compared to about 1200), even a very sympathetic editor, cannot hide this.  Nothing is his fault, and everything has an explanation.  The fall of Cairo goes on Kleber’s shoulders, the murder of the Duke of Engheim was England’s fault, and so on, and so on.  “I never committed crimes,” he writes.

I reached the summit of greatness by direct paths, without ever having committed an act that morality could reproach.  In that respect my rise is unparalleled in history — in order to reign, David destroyed the house of Saul, his benefactor;* Caesar kindled a civil war and overthrew the government of his country; Cromwell caused his master to perish on the scaffold.  I was a stranger to the crimes of the Revolution.

We may assume that by “morality” he means “political morality,” and not personal morality, for which he seemingly cared nothing.  But even so, what of the death of the Duke of Engheim?  His murder irrevocably turned Europe’s aristocracy against him.  It turned Tolstoy against him, years later.  Even Napoleon’s exceedingly practical Chief of Police, Joseph Fouche, said of the Duke’s execution, “It was worse than a crime.  It was a mistake.”**

Explaining away the Russian disaster no doubt called upon all of Napoleon’s skills. He first argues that, “If Moscow had not been burnt [most all agree the French army did not do this], Alexander would have been compelled to make peace.”  But he offers no argument as to why, and I at least can’t see why the czar would make peace.  Whatever the case, Moscow burned, and a practical man like Napoleon should cease wondering why.

The cold of the Russian winter was “premature,” leading Napoleon to admit that, ok, I “remained in Moscow four days too long.”  I believe that this is the only place where Napoleon admits to a mistake.  It seems unlikely that the disintegration of an army 1/2 million men strong could rest entirely on this mistake alone.  And indeed,

When the army was within two days march of Vilna, and no further dangers threatened it, I conceived that the urgency of affairs required my presence in Paris — only there could I dictate to Prussia and Austria.  Had I delayed the passage might have been closed against me.  . . . The [Imperial] Guard was then entire and the army contained more than 80,000 combatants . . .   The Russian army did not now exceed 50,000 men.  [Supplies] abounded at Vilna.  Considerable stores of clothing and ammunition had likewise been established.  Had I remained with the army . . . it would never have retreated beyond Vilna.  . . . It is from this period in particular that the great losses of the campaign may be dated.  Nothing was, or could have been more totally unforeseen by me than the senseless conduct adopted at Vilna.

Again, just as in Egypt, he, being a good father, left his children with every opportunity of success.  Leave it to his prodigal subordinates to ruin everything.

But still, Napoleon had and has his devotees.  You can see the blinding effect of Napoleon’s ego even on the editor of this abridged version of his memoirs, Somerset de Chair.  Chair writes regarding Napoleon’s recounting of the Moscow campaign,

Almost all historians have treated the Russian campaign as a unmitigated disaster.  Here Napoleon sets the record straight.  After defeating Russia at Borodin . . . Napoleon withdrew.  He experienced devastating weather conditions, but this does not alter Napoleon’s claim to have achieved what he set out to do.  [He sought] to teach Russia a lesson not to interfere in French affairs in the future when his son should become Emperor and to punish the Tsar for opening his ports to Britain.  [Napoleon’s] view that he left a defeated and humiliated Russia in his wake is hard to ignore.  It was, admittedly, a harassed return . . . it was not as if the French had intended to occupy Russia indefinitely.  If Hitler had succeeded [in Russia], where Napoleon did not ever intend to remain, it would have been a very different story.

I think we can agree with Chair that yes, Napoleon was not as bad as Hitler.  Score a point for hero-worship if you wish.  But to suggest that Napoleon achieved his aims in Russia by preventing Russia from challenging his son and heir is a gross absurdity.  His failure in Russia directly led to his first abdication and the impossibility of his son ever succeeding him, and led also to the rise (not humiliation) of Russia an an expansive, imperial power in the 19th century.

Napoleon’s life can be viewed as tragic even if we don’t call him a tragic hero.  Many of Napoleon’s top generals abandoned him and defected to the Bourbons.  This must have been a bewildering and devastating blow.  But I think that such men simply learned from their master that when a situation warrants it, find a way to survive.  For Napoleon, even on St. Helena, his memoirs stand as his final battle, his last attempt to conquer.  For me at least, his autobiography has a minor appeal as a kind of grand, doomed adventure — like that of Waterloo.  And they must fail, that Napoleon might possibly learn humility.***

Dave

*Certainly not true from any glance at 1 Samuel – 1 Kings.

**Some believe that Talleyrand said this instead.  Whoever said it, the difference is the same.  Both men devoted themselves to Napoleon’s practical morality and they saw the consequences of such an “ill-considered” action.

***Towards the end of the memoirs he blames the allies for violating the Treaty of Fontanblieu and sending him to St. Helena.  Again, he is either joking or willfully blind.  He tore up that treaty when he escaped from Elba.

Still, there is some evidence at the very end of his life he may have had a genuine religious awakening.