Meandering Thoughts on Equality

For the past several years now we have seen a fair amount of thought on the idea of economic inequality. Some see it as a serious problem, others perhaps as a temporary byproduct of the switch from a production economy to one rooted in service.  I suppose a very few might celebrate the possibilities free market economies in the fact of inequality.

I had a chance to think about this a bit recently, and attempt to bring some historical perspective.

It is hard to imagine this issue being resolved more successfully than the Athenians under Solon, ca. 590-570 B.C.  There were the aristocrats and the commoners, with law and wealth heavily sided in favor of the aristocratic class (the ‘Code of Draco’).  Debt spiraled out of control, society was coming apart.

Enter Solon.  He was given full powers to resolve this crisis. He did not need to curry votes or constituents. He was not an aristocrat, but he was rich.  He could appeal to both sides and be trusted by both sides.  He believed that Athens needed its rich citizens, as we might expect.  More crucially, he knew how to motivate reform by appealing to the aristocratic ‘need’ for glory, or arete.  One can’t just dismiss this, as it was part of the Greek mindset for centuries.

He made paying high taxes a sign of arete. You could pay your high taxes not in terms of a fixed percentage, but in terms of

  • Pay for this religious festival, and we’ll say loud and long that you paid for it
  • Build a trireme and pay the crew, but you get to command the ship
  • Build this bridge and we’ll name it after you
  • Etc.  You get the idea.

By some accounts aristocrats paid a % 12x higher than the poor, but they got ‘arete’ for those taxes, and they had a direct hand in how they were spent.  

He did other things, like expanding the merchant fleet and encouraging trade, which put a lot of people to work.  This sounds easy but must have been politically difficult, given the role of farming in almost every ancient civilization.

He canceled all debts, but he refused to redistribute property.  

In the end

  • Athens had a stronger middle class
  • Athens had relative social stability
  • Many believe that this helped lead to the cultural/political explosion in their ‘golden age’ a century later.  They  create modern science, literature, democracy, etc.)

Alas, many things about Solon are not replicable for us.  For one thing, change did not come from a democratic process.  He was a ‘tyrant’ (a technical description and not a bad word).  C.S. Lewis commented a few times that to get good results for democracies often you have to achieve them in non-democratic ways.  We are locked into our one democratic tradition, and have not nearly the flexibility the Athenians had.

I love his taxes idea, but we just too big and bureaucratic to copy it.  Could we do something like it–give the rich the privilege of naming how they contribute if they willingly contribute more, and giving them public recognition for this, i.e. naming a bridge after them, getting their name on a fighter jet’s wings, I don’t know).

The idea of a ‘bridge-builder’ politician we can do, and have done successfully before.  But we lack the civic-mindedness of the Athenians.  For better or worse we are more individualistic.  The ancient world would find our attitude towards the state unfathomable.  

Unfathomable, yes, but their conception of rule, society, etc. was far more personal, far more uniform, and far more religious than ours.  Ancient Persia could be an exception.  The Roman Republic could also serve as an exception.  They did integration and pluralism quite well until they ventured beyond Italy and the Alps and into the Mediterranean.  It proved too much for them to swallow. Most Italians had similar cultures.  But in North Africa, Spain, etc., . . . they were different.  This is another factor, I’m sure, in the collapse of the Republic.  It may be that societies with higher ethnic diversity have a harder time with equality.  If so, this makes America’s relative equality all the more impressive.*

The trade-offs are huge.  You can get more civic buy-in, in theory, in America, but you would probably have to sacrifice some sense of personal rights, and you would definitely have to ditch pluralism and open immigration.  The first is highly unlikely, the second probably impossible, the third, from my point of view, would be immoral.  Would you want to make these trades even if it was possible?

Anyway, we can’t dismiss the rugged individualism out of our national DNA, nor should we want to. Solon could not dismiss arete.  But . . . he found a way to work with it.  

Can we create low-skilled jobs from the digital revolution and keep them in America?  If we did so, would it make things worse for workers in Asia?  Would we want the flag-waving and possible economic confrontations that would come from a more nationalistic America?  Would the world be safer?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.

We are such a big nation (like almost every other one) that our problems become abstract and impersonal.  In Athens more or less everyone knew everyone in some way.  Dealing with inequality has much more meaning when we have a personal connection to the problem.

Rome faced a similar problem ca. 150 B.C. that Athens faced in 600 B.C.  They never found a way out, and the Republic collapsed.  All agree this period has many complexities, and historians hotly debate why the collapse happened, but I think most agree that

  • Both sides used violence to settle issues
  • Both sides tended to view politics as a zero-sum game, very much an ‘us vs. them.’  They destroyed each other with a century of intermittent civil war.

The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the revolutions in China, SE Asia, Cuba, and even arguably the American Revolution created far worse tyrannies than those they replaced (this is a stretch in the U.S.– the British weren’t tyrants, and neither were the victors, but the victors did exile many loyalists, slavery expanded, Indians fared far worse than under the British, etc.).  The Roman civil wars gave us the emperors.  

We need a political genius of sorts, who can find a synthesis between liberty and equality, between civic responsibility and rugged individualism. He/she would need to be trusted by the common man in Iowa and in Silicon Valley.  He/she would have to, perhaps, give huge tax breaks to corporations who did not outsource jobs–a pro-nationalist low taxes weird hybrid.  If we find him (and I don’t see him/her around), he would not have nearly the power Solon had, at least by the letter of the law.  

None of these mostly unoriginal thoughts get to the unspoken root issue.  Why is inequality a problem in the first place?  By “problem” I don’t mean whether or not inequality exists, but whether or not people perceive it as an issue worthy of much attention.

We might think that inequality is problem in every society but, not so.  For example, monastics renounce property and have all things in common.  We say that communism has never worked, but it works in monastic societies, though of course on a small scale and with everyone present strongly and voluntarily committed to that idea.

Other societies experience inequality or have experienced it without thinking much about it.  Neither Homer, Plato, Augustine, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Austen ever made it a burning issue.  But we do see the issue move right to the front of political thinking just after Austen in the mid-19th century.**  We see it in Marx as well as Dickens, and thereafter inequality could be a rallying cry for political revolution.

Surely the Industrial Revolution has something to do with this, for it created a society where, having mastered the elements of nature, one could quickly have great material success.  The first two generations of factory workers at least likely lived at lower standard of living than previously.  Vast gaps between classes opened up.

Vast gaps existed in ancient Egypt as well between the pharaoh and the peasants, for example, but these gaps made sense to their society historically and theologically.  In a society where “all men are created equal” inequality hits with much greater force.

Marx thought that in the first 50 years or so of Industrialism some of these “non-sensical” gaps would certainly destroy the capitalistic state.  Marx had many things wrong.  But on this, I can’t blame him for his guess.  Why did the capitalist state survive?  Marx, the great materialist, had ironically underestimated our materialism as a society.  Its reasonable to assume that the social gaps created by the industrial revolution, coupled with our ideology of equality, would end the industrial-capitalist society.

The “cause” of the problem of inequality perhaps lies in solving this riddle.  It seems that the poor want what the rich have. Both rich and poor want the same thing, and the values of western society tell them they should have the same thing.  I don’t mean to say that inequality is not a problem or no such problem of economic injustice exists, or that the poor should rest content with the rich as mortal gods on earth.  I am not advocating a revival of ancient Egypt.  I merely point out that our society as a whole has surrendered to the materialist impulse which makes easing the problem that much harder.

Of course this parallels the rise of the issue in the mid-19th century just as social Darwinism, textual biblical criticism, and other de-mythologizers of life gained pride of place.  All that we left ourselves had to do with the here and now, i.e. applied science to increase our standard of living, and our various abstractions to make these things real.

All this to say, dealing with crippling inequality in society will involve a spiritual solution.  The monastics show us that it is possible.


*If this is true, we are faced with choosing between the competing goods of liberty and equality.  Would we prefer economic peace between our citizens or freedom of movement for all?

**Others I’m sure would disagree, but I don’t see the French Revolution being driven primarily by inequality.


The Ties that Bind

In his Jurguthine War the Roman historian Sallust detours from his main narrative to discuss the rivalry between Carthage and Cyrene (an ancient Greek colony near modern day Libya).  In one instance the two powers thought of a novel way to settle the problem between their civilizations without the continuance of war.*  Sallust relates,

Since the affairs of the people of Lepcis have brought us to this region, it seems fitting to relate the noble and memorable act of two Carthaginians; the place calls the event to mind. At the time when the Carthaginians ruled in the greater part of Africa, the people of Cyrene were also strong and prosperous. Between that city and Carthage lay a sandy plain of monotonous aspect. There was neither river nor hill to mark the frontiers, a circumstance which involved the two peoples in bitter and lasting strife.

After many armies and fleets had been beaten and put to flight on both sides, and the long struggle had somewhat wearied them both, they began to fear that presently a third party might attack victors and vanquished in their weak state. They therefore called a truce and agreed that on a given day envoys should set out from each city and that the place where they met should be regarded as the common frontier of the two peoples. Accordingly, two brothers were sent from Carthage, called Philaeni, and these made haste to complete their journey. Those from Cyrene went more deliberately. Whether this was due to sloth or chance I cannot say, but in those lands a storm often causes no less delay than on the sea; for when the wind rises on those level and barren plains, it sweeps up the sand from the ground and drives it with such violence as to fill the mouth and eyes. Thus one is halted because one cannot see.  Now when the men of Cyrene realized that they were somewhat belated and feared punishment for their failure when they returned, they accused the Carthaginians of having left home ahead of time and refused to abide by the agreement; in fact they were willing to do anything rather than go home defeated. But when the Carthaginians demanded other terms, provided they were fair, the Greeks gave them the choice, either of being buried alive in the place which they claimed as the boundary of their country, or of allowing the Greeks on the same condition to advance as far as they wished. The Philaeni accepted the terms and gave up their lives for their country; so they were buried alive. The Carthaginians consecrated altars on that spot to the Philaeni brothers, and other honours were established for them at home. I now return to my subject . . . 

The matter-of-fact method in which Sallust relates this story should give us pause.  He obviously accepted this line of thinking — these were “fair” terms.  This was justice, this was life in the ancient pagan world.  The Philaeni brothers had no other choice.  The above passage brings to mind a more famous section of Sallust from his introduction:

I have often heard that Quintus Maximus, Publius Scipio, and other eminent men of our country, were in the habit of declaring that their hearts were set mightily aflame for the pursuit of virtue whenever they gazed upon the masks of their ancestors. Of course they did not mean to imply that the wax or the effigy had any such power over them, but rather that it is the memory of great deeds that kindles in the breasts of noble men this flame that cannot be quelled until they by their own prowess have equalled the fame and glory of their forefathers.

One can’t help but chuckle a bit at the comment that “of course” the masks did not have “any such power over them.”  They simply dedicated their lives to all the masks represented, that’s all.

The western world will likely to continue to experience something of a pagan revival, and elsewhere I commented that bringing out into the open what lies subtly buried in our unconscious has something to recommend it.  But we should have no illusions.  Evidence abounds that if we revive paganism we will build for ourselves cattle-shoots from which we have no escape.  We will exchange the freedom we claim to hold dear for chains.

Indeed, Chesterton spoke rightly when he declared that whereas Christianity has elements of anguish and pain at the periphery, joy occupies the core.  Pagan religions, however, have joyous elements in them only at the periphery, but at their center stands defeat and despair.  Any surface familiarity with the ancient world bears this out.  Hector must fight Achilles and lose, just as Troy must face destruction. Not even Zeus himself can stop it.  Oedipus cannot avoid his fate, though he take every counter-measure possible. Even the “realist” historian Thucydides sees events in cyclical form — what happened before will happen again. For the Norse as well, in the end the good guys lose.  It is this magnificent sense of the tragic that gives such tales their grandeur and power, but who wants to get inside such stories?

As the excerpts from Sallust indicates, shame seems to bind the ancients more than anything else.  The Philaeni brothers accepted a brutal death rather than accept what must have been a worse fate awaiting them back home — the shame of failure.  Republican Romans took their obsession with reputation and drove their civilization straight over a cliff in the 2nd century B.C.  The ancients had no escape from shame because ultimately paganism puts all the focus on the self.  Judas, for example, could only see his sin, but Peter runs to the empty tomb — he had bigger and better things on his mind than his Friday morning betrayal.  Peter had an “out” from his past.  As Paul writes in Ephesians 4, “When [Jesus] ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men” (emphasis mine). Neither ones society nor ones past should be denied or destroyed.  Both are part of God’s creation and God’s plan. But both can be transcended and transformed, and with this hope we approach something akin to true freedom.


*The story reminds me of the “Oath of the Horatii” narrated by Livy.  Whether or not that lends credence to the historicity of Sallust’s tale I suppose depends on what one thinks of Livy’s narrative.




A.J. Toynbee: “Hannibal’s Legacy” in 2 vols.

I have republished this because of the partial similarities in theme with Hillaire Belloc’s Waterloo, reviewed here.

And now, the original review. . .

This is a great work, probably a labor of love to write and certainly at times to read. It bogs down in parts, at times too technical and obscure. But if you let it wash over you and absorb the full effects, one sees the book’s great value. It’s theme of how war pressures a society, and how victory can be turned into a defeat of sorts, is entirely relevant for us today.

First, the weaknesses:

  • Toynbee’s subject fits an epic scope, but the book becomes very technical at times. He loads the writing with untranslated Latin phrases. I realize he may have had the specialist in mind with because he does not do this in his other writings. But it’s still aggravating and pointless.
  • The book is too long. I admire his desire to touch on everything related to the subject (such as animal husbandry habits), I often lost focus and momentum reading it.

But don’t let this stop you. Look at me for example. I skipped big chunks of it and here I am, confidently reviewing it!

Toynbee believed that studying the classical world had importance not so much because of its influence on western civilization, however true that may be, but because we have with the Hellenic world a complete story fairly well documented. Given the uniformity of human nature, their story can be instructive for all us.

His argument runs like this:

1. One key to understanding the Hellenic world is the city-state model. Time and again, this model proved its superiority over other political organizations in the Mediterranean and beyond. The Greeks beat Persia for example. Organized along these lines, the Romans were poised to better their less well organized neighbors.

2. Conflict is part of life, and Rome eventually and continually got into conflicts with provinces around them. Their inward structure and at least moderately progressive alliance structure gave them a final advantage in these various conflicts.

Toynbee does not exalt Rome as the paragons of ancient virtue. But neither does he dismiss the good parts of what made them great. It’s ok to discover good things about western civilization!

Their victories solved some problems but created others. By the mid 4th century B.C. Rome’s expansion had done two things

  • It brought them up to the Mediterranean which likely would have inevitably involved them in conflict with Mediterranean naval powers. Should this conflict come the impact on Rome would be far reaching, win or lose. But this particular law of unintended consequence is faced by every civilization.
  • More importantly, Rome’s territorial expansion put great stress on the concept of the city-state. City-state’s work well when their is enough familiarity with one another to share rights, privileges, and responsibilities equally. When done, the resulting social cohesion can be personally fulfilling and politically dynamic.

Now such cohesion would be impossible. They were too big. Rome had a choice to make. They could either a) Transition into a more bureaucratic state with more central authority, b) Expand the base of their rights and go to a broad-based representative democracy, or c) Forget social cohesion and extend the power of their ruling class to these other areas as well.

Given their aversion to monarchy, ‘a’ was not likely, but ‘b’ was possible. Alas, they chose ‘c.’

Toynbee elsewhere makes the somewhat dubious assertion that the Hellenic world (which included Rome in his view) began to collapse in 431 BC with the Peloponnesian War. As it applies to Greece, it works, but not Rome. His argument here though, that Rome began to lose itself somewhere around 350 BC makes more sense. This is when Rome makes the transition from some kind of admirable democracy to a less admirable oligarchy.

3. It is the nature of oligarchies (like most regimes) to maintain control. Rome was still progressive in some ways, but in moral/political matters going half-way is worse than nothing. For example, most would rather not be invited to a party at all, instead of being invited and then told, “You can’t eat that. These rooms are off limits, etc.” They could be benevolent at times, but insisted on control. This dynamic often led to a unity of prominent families over and against the masses. They condescended to give allies some rights, but never equality.  This made them vulnerable.  Pride often does.

4. This was the climate that Hannibal hoped to exploit when he invaded. The traditional narrative is that Rome, pressed to the brink by a military genius, rallied itself and  gained the victory. They add lots of territory in Africa and Spain. It’s a triumph for western civilization.  Rome’s victory over Hannibal saved them from coming under the thumb of an an elitist merchant class oligarchy that would never have let them exercise their political wings.  That was the best case scenario, with the worst case being utter destruction.  Hurray — western civilization is saved!

Not so fast, says Toynbee.  He dedicates the vast majority of vol. 2 to showing the unintended negative ripple effects of Rome’s victory. Some of them were inevitable, but most Rome had a direct or indirect hand in.  They could have avoided their fate.

The Effects:

  • Rome had treated allies generally well before the 2nd Punic War, and often imposed extra burdens on themselves, sparing allied troops certain duties. After the war (during which some key allied states left for Hannibal) this was no longer the case. Rome now often gave the extra/harder duties to their allies. This is just part of the psychological scars the war left on Rome.
  • Much of the SE Italian population and land had been devastated by the war. Many peasants fled to the cities, which caused a manpower shortage in terms of raising troops from the provincial areas. But Rome, being less trusting, would not let their allies short them in any way on troop requirements any longer. But the extra burden came at a time when they were much less able to meet it.

  • New territory had to be manned, but this meant that troops would be away from farms for long extended periods, making their farms unprofitable. The people who get stationed in Spain can’t come back to vote. If they can’t vote they have no power. Legions in Spain would end up serving for 5-10 years at a time. Out of sight out of mind — until you can’t possibly ignore it any longer.  They do not return as happy campers.
  • In general, the war destroyed the average independent peasant farmer. Wealthy oligarchs could easily buy up lots of cheap property and turn them into plantation farms. But who could work these farms? A free peasantry might get called off to war. Slaves made more sense, and of course, were readily available from the conquests. Thus, slavery expands in Rome during and after the 2nd Punic War, which would rot away the core of Rome’s traditional republican values.
  • As the army grew more disconnected from the social and political life of Rome, their habits became more self-serving. Hence, their abuse and looting of the provinces, of seeking conflict for the sake of loot, and of their increased loyalty to the commander instead of Rome itself.
  • Religion changed in Rome as they became exposed to the more emotive Mediterranean faiths. Traditional Roman religion could not provide for the new needs of the people to deal with the trauma of the war. Of course for the most part, the ruling oligarchy responded as they usually did, with force to suppress. But as you might imagine, this did not work very well.
  • The Romans lost perspective in many foreign crisis. ‘Hannibal’ was everywhere, and so what should have been perceived as a minor threat became a major one, which led to the more frequent drafting of larger armies. This put even more stress on an already stressed peasantry.

The main theme of the post-war years is the oligarchy attempting to maintain their hold on power, but shooting themselves in the foot with most every attempt. For example,

  • Vast new flocks and herds required shepherds to watch them. Shepherds need to be armed against theft and animal predators. But shepherds were often also slaves.  So. . . we see a sharp increase in slave rebellions against the oligarchy.  The Romans armed their potential destroyers.
  • The oligarchy maintained their power through accumulation of land, which led to wealth. Their wealth, along with Rome’s Mediterranean expansion, allowed them to acquire more exotic goods from all over. But this created a new class of wealthy merchants who inevitably challenged the oligarchy for control, and the resulting political tension spilled over into violence.

In the end Rome’s response to their victory led to the destruction of the oligarchy, first in their alienation of the peasantry, then in their fratricidal civil wars, and finally, in their death at the hands of the Principate with Augustus.

What lessons can be learned?

Rome made many mistakes, but many of these were not unusual mistakes. When people win the lottery they take the money and don’t consider the consequences. Most civilizations would take the territory gained in war in the same way.

The fact that Rome ‘lashed out’ and became more controlling and paranoid is also not unusual given the horrific shock and destruction Hannibal inflicted. In their minds it must have been ‘prudence.’ ‘Fool me once,’ and all that.

But Rome was not doomed to follow this path. Though Toynbee does not mention this specifically, I believe that his thesis fits with his overall belief that civilization routinely destroy themselves through acts of pride, fear, and envy. Only sacrificial love can allow a civilization to maintain itself long-term. This is not mere sentimentality. In fact, he takes 800 pages with gobs of footnotes from obscure German historians who wrote books with very long titles to prove his point. If we cast our bread upon the waters, we’ll get it back eventually.

For us today, in light of 9/11, the lessons are similar.

We cannot compare the shock of 9/11 to what Rome endured in the 2nd Punic War. The two events are not even close in magnitude, so the fact that our reaction has not been as extreme as Rome’s is nothing to write home about. We should be thankful.

However, in some areas, such as the extension of our military, the possible ‘tightening’ of our society, the easy way which our civilization can give way to fear, should be a warning to us. Through acts we could and perhaps could not help, we find ourselves stretched economically and more divided culturally than before. We would be silly to suppose that are automatically immune from Rome’s fate.

To close the review (too long!) in the true style of Toynbee’s book (also too long!), I need to include a large appendix. So, below is ‘Exhibit A’ for the change of Rome’s character: the expansion of slavery beginning with the first Punic War (264 B.C.) and ending with the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C.

Expansion of Roman Slavery During Punic Wars: 264-146 B.C.

  • 262 B.C. 25,000 Agrigentines sold into slavery
  • 258 B.C. Myttisstraton massacred by Romans, survivors sold into slavery
  • 258 B.C. Camarinans population into slavery
  • 254 B.C. 13,000 Panormitans, into slavery
  • 241 B.C. 10,000 Carthaginian POW’s into slavery
  • 230 B.C. Romans buy large batch of slaves from Boii
  • 214 B.C. 25,000 killed or enslaved by Fabius Maximus
  • 210 B.C. 2,000 artisans from New Carthage enslaved
  • 210 B.C. Akragas population into slavery by Valerius, leaders executed
  • 210 B.C. Anticyrans sold into slavery, though they had previously made a good faith pledge with Rome
  • 209 B.C. African POW’s in Hasdrubal’s camp enslaved by Scipio
  • 207 B.C. Dymaeans enslaved by Galba
  • 204 B.C. 8,000 African civilians sold into slavery
  • 202 B.C. Wholesale African populations enslaved by Scipio
  • 189 B.C. Samean population enslaved by Fulvius
  • 177 B.C. 5700 from Istrian towns enslaved
  • 177 B.C. 80,000 killed or captured by Sempronius Graachus
  • 171 B.C. Haliatus population massacred, 2500 survivors enslaved
  • 171 B.C. Anti-Roman party at Thisbe enslaved with families
  • 167 B.C. 150,000 from 70 Molossian towns enslaved by direct Senatorial order
  • 155 B.C. Delminium population enslaved by Scipio Nascia
  • 146 B.C. Captured Corinthians massacred, women and children enslaved, liberated Greek slaves re-enslaved by Romans
  • 133 B.C. Numantines enslaved by Scipio Aemilianus


Every year at the beginning of Government class I ask the question, “If 80% of the people voted to put the entire tax burden only on people with red hair, would this be ‘democratic?'”

I am always surprised and a bit dismayed at how many answer ‘yes.’

Of course our discussion then moves toward defining “democracy,” which, for as much we use the word, proves more difficult than we might expect.

“Democracy” is a “good” word, and “empire’ is one of those words you cannot say on TV.  But empires had many things that proponents of democracy value, such as religious tolerance and ethnic mixing.

So how, exactly, should we define “democracy?”

Democracy in the modern era grew out of Enlightenment universalism.  Jefferson said that, “all men are created equal,” and France produced the “Declaration of the Rights of Man.”  Spengler may have been a nut, but he might have been on to something when he commented that “the rights of Englishman,” made a lot more sense to him than, “the rights of man.”  The ancient Greeks, for example, considered by many as the progenitors of democracy, knew nothing of “universal rights.”

This universality gave early democratic movements  their enormous power and enabled them to move speedily through Europe.  But this is not the whole story, for coupled with this universality came the rise of nationalism.

How do we reconcile these different forces?  The French had a hard time of it, rallying to defense of the “patrie” against Austria and Prussia and then expanding under Napoleon both to spread their universal ideals and rule others in the name of France.  The recent presidential election showed this tension.  It has been with us for a while.

On the one hand, democracy thrives on the idea of self-determination.  Democracy grants people the right to determine our lives because we share common interests, cultures, goals, etc.  Modern democratic movements have their genesis in rebelling against rulers who do not share our culture our goals, those that do not speak for us.

On the other hand . . . democracy believes in equality for individuals as well as groups, and this equality, applied in a heterogeneous culture, must in turn limit some aspects of self-determination for the state to hold together.

This has led some to speculate that increased diversity can contribute to more autocracy.

Germany’s Jeroen Zandberg (a proponent of democracy) put it this way:

Of course nationalism can also be used to exclude and eliminate others, but this is rare. These rare occasions are however often used to discredit nationalism. An elite who doesn’t have the best interest of the people at heart, but which does want all the benefits of a high social position often tries to promote patriotism instead, and at the same time downgrades nationalism. Patriotism is simply to owe allegiance to the state even if that state is not legitimized by the people. The state is in that perspective merely an organisation like any other. If that were true it would be like asking soldiers to die for the telephone company. Without identification and an emotional bond between people and state we would have no alternative then to live under a police state. If we don’t want a police state then we need some degree of nationalism.

If you have multiple cultures present in the same location who each have different rules on how to order the world then there needs to be another ethical system to mediate between them. For example, Muslims have Sharia law which describes how a good Islamic society should be organised. These laws are not accepted by non-Muslims for if they would accept them they would be Muslim as well. In a truly multicultural society the Sharia law would govern the lives of Muslims and each of the other cultures would have their own laws as well.

Now Germany, as with other European nations, has a culture based on Christianity and the Enlightenment, which values ideas like freedom, equality and self-determination. If you implement multiculturalism then the values of the Enlightenment are degraded to the level of only being appropriate to the ethnic German population. You would get a Germany where each (ethnic) community has its own rules. Of course such a system could never work in a modern society because people are not isolated in small communities.

Multiculturalism can however also be used to invalidate all of the cultures present, because if all cultures are equal, which multiculturalism implicitly states, than none may rule over the other. This means that, in the case of Germany, the mere presence of another culture is already reason enough to replace German culture with something else. This ‘new’ culture is by definition anti-democratic, because it is one of a small elite who appoints itself as mediator between the various cultural groups. In this way an elite rules over a set of distinct peoples. In that sense multiculturalism is a leap backward in time when there were large empires ruled by a small nobility and people’s positions in society were fixed by birth. Characteristics of such empires are that they are fiercely anti-democratic, oppressive and unable to compete economically in a globalised world.

As much as we might wish, we cannot work out either ideas of liberty and equality in a vacuum.  Something somewhere has to give.

It appears that those who lean towards the multi-ethnic, tolerant, and globalized side of democracy must tolerate some degree of nationalism for the support structure of multi-ethnic tolerant societies to exist.  The balance will be hard to find.

On what side should the Church fall?  Here we must take great care to avoid identifying too much with either camp.  The first half of the 20th century gave us the disasters of nationalism, and more recently, we see the problems created by multiculturalism.  All the more reason for the Church to create its own culture . . .




The “Pursuit of Happiness”

I remember an interview long ago that William Buckley did with journalist and social critic Malcolm Muggeridge.  The interview touched on the idea of happiness, and Muggeridge commented that the words, “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence had done terrible harm to America and the west in general.  Whatever the original meaning and purpose of the phrase, Muggeridge believed that the Declaration teaches its readers that happiness can be effectively hunted down, caught, and then enjoyed.  He stated,

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

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

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

In reality, Muggeridge argued the very act of pursuing happiness will in fact ensure that we will never achieve happiness at all.  Instead, happiness comes unbidden.  It is a gift.  We immerse ourselves in particular person, thought, book, or what have you, and suddenly we realize, “I’m happy.”  Adherence to the Declaration’s view of happiness would lead us down a path of restlessness, materialism, cynicism, or flight into fanciful and frightful utopia’s.

I could not find the original clip of this on Youtube.  The clip below deals with an entirely different question, but it’s still worth watching.   Whether  your agree with Muggeridge or not (and he makes another controversial assertion), we must all agree that Muggeridge possessed the greatest English accent of all time.

I thought of Muggeridge on happiness when reading a brief post from David Derrick about individuals or nations that seek to “leave their mark upon history.”  In it he quotes Toynbee, who mentions that since Austria and Bavaria parted company centuries ago, the two have pursued different paths.  Austria looked to do “great things,” and they did achieve a kind of greatness with the city of Vienna.  But they also involved themselves in numerous wars that they often lost.  They got crushed by Napoleon in the 19th century, then by Russia and the allies in W.W. I.  Toynbee’s thoughts in the post above date from 1934.  In the few years that followed Austria continued to try and “leave its mark” by joining up with Nazi Germany, and of course that too ended very badly.  I have some friends who visited Austria years ago, and they saw this same attitude of “we’re special” at work in those they met (though in the modern context it had the manifestation of strong hostility to foreigners and immigration).  This approach has not helped them find their place in the world.  It appears that pursuing a place in “History” might be as futile as pursuing happiness.

What of Bavaria?  How did they do in the great trial of German history between 1933-45?  I know nothing about the history of Bavaria, but after a little research (read: I looked on a Wikipedia page), I note the following;

  • During the tumultuous period of the Weimar Republic, Bavaria avoided radicalism and voted for the mainstream conservative “Bavarian People’s Party.”
  • Hitler was fond of Bavaria, and the Nazi’s held many of their rallies in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg.
  • The White Rose, the heroic student resistance movement to Nazism, had its origins in Bavaria.

Before examining these points, we should note that no country, just as no person, should be judged only by their sins, no matter how bad those sins may be.  Still, defenders of Bavaria’s relaxed approach to their own history need to examine this period.  Points two and three stand out most sharply.  As to Nuremberg, Hitler may have held rallies there simply because he was known to be fond of Bavaria.  On the other hand, Bavaria may have been a stronghold of Nazi power.  The White Rose may have originated in part due to a strong underground of resistance in Bavaria, or it may have arose for entirely other reasons.  Without further knowledge (and I have none), we might say these two factors cancel each other out.

I think the first category may hold the most weight.  In the Weimar years Germany swayed to a fro between extreme ideas and stark resistance to the Versailles Settlement.  Both Nazi’s and Communists, for example, sought to “leave their mark” upon history.  The fact that the German people went with the Nazi’s shows their general bent towards radicalism.  The “Bavarian People’s Party” in contrast, wanted to bypass all of the immediate debates and return to traditional concepts of governance.  They contemplated separation from the rest of Germany to achieve this, not unlike the “Bloodless Revolution” in England in 1688.  Perhaps they understood the secret that Muggeridge knew, that seeking “History” can hold just as much danger as seeking happiness.

World War II, Japan’s Peloponnesian War

Any student of classical history must admire the incredible flourishing of 5th century Periclean Athens.   From the years 480-430 B.C. we see the birth/enormous growth of drama, architecture, sculpture, politics, etc., etc. Kenneth Clark called this period one of the four or five great eras in human history, and few would dispute this.

Historians also always point out how the unexpected victory of the Greeks in the Persian Wars between 490-479 B.C. propelled them into this golden age.  The victory gave them an unexpected burst of confidence and a validation of their identity.  I have not read anyone who has not made this connection, for it seems obvious.  More than this, we can see that golden ages in other civilizations have origins in similar bouts of resistance against an apparently stronger foe.  So, the Florentines resist the French in the early 15th century, and the English defeat Spain’s Armada in 1588 (not long after we get Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, etc.), and the Dutch defeat the Spanish in the early 17th century, after which we get Rembrandt.

The epilogue to this glory comes with the Peloponnesian War, where Athens flushes away this incredible storehouse of achievement in a messy and long conflict with its rival Sparta.  Athens loses and the golden age ends, but . . . all good things must end, the wheel of fortune spins, and no one doubts the salutary effect of their victory in the Persian Wars.

Recently I have read a slight amount of Japanese history and I wondered about certain possible parallels.  The Russo-Japanese War had all the makings of an equivalent to Greece’s triumph against Persia.  With Japan, we see a ‘rising star’ defeat a much larger power in Russia that everyone expected to win.  Like Greece, the Dutch, the English, etc. the Japanese also were a rising naval power.  Like the Greeks, the Japanese experienced a surge of confidence which led them into a disastrous conflict between 1937-45.  Yet I have yet to read anyone who makes this connection.

Add to this, certain historical conditions for the emergence of a golden age in Japan existed in addition to their underdog victory over Russia.

  • Their naval power gave them a chance to come in contact with other civilization to experience a cultural fusion, (like the Dutch and the English), and
  • A cultural fusion of sorts already existed in their country, with a revival of traditional Japanese culture combined with the western industrial influence.

In response to this at least partial connection, a few thoughts arise:

  1. Though the classic conditions for a golden age in Japan existed, they did not experience a golden age for various possible reasons (most seem to think that Japan’s golden age existed in the Edo Era (1605-1868).
  2. Maybe they did experience a golden age, or at least a silver age, of cultural achievement but we in the west don’t recognize it as easily.
  3. Perhaps neither the Japanese or the Greeks experienced a golden age after their unexpected victories! Perhaps the appearance of a golden age in Greece in the 5th century B.C. is simply a sham propagated by generations of uncritical historians!
  4. Perhaps unexpected military victories are in fact not the necessary spark that ignites a golden age.  Perhaps instead they serve as impediments.

Numbers 1-2 both could be possible, but both lie beyond my abilities to discern.  Alas, though I love the exhilarating death or glory dash of number 3, we must conclude that yes, at least Athens experienced a golden age in 5th century B.C.   We shall have no slaying of dragons today.


But I am intrigued by #4.

Let us revisit the “Golden Ages” I listed above with a fresh eye.

After Dutch independence from Spain we did get Rembrandt and certain pleasant, if unremarkable architectural style.  But the other byproducts of this victory appear more prosaic, such as the first corporation and the first stock exchange.  Of course Shakespeare has few if any equals, but might we see a more sustained English cultural flowering from the late 18th-mid 19th century with Turner, Dickens, etc.?*

Furthermore, we see that some of the greatest and most profound cultural landmarks have come in the midst of defeat or decline.  St. Augustine writes The City of God after the fall of Rome.  Plato and Aristotle pen their penetrating insights after the Peloponnesian War.  Homer’s tales come to us in the midst of the Greek Dark Ages.  The Byzantines may have done their best art just decades before their fall to the Turks.  The golden age of Russian literature came in the final years of the Romanov’s.**

We should also surmise, did civilizations experience a golden age without the assumed prerequisite of unexpected military victory?

Florence’s true golden age may have had nothing to do with the French in the 15th century and more to do with double-entry bookkeeping developed far earlier for medieval fairs.  This skill put them in demand throughout Europe.  The increased revenue and attention led to a burst of innovative construction way back in the 11th century.  This lacks the pizazz of defeating the Persians, but may have been more effective.

Northern Europe experienced one of the great golden ages in history during the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  Here we had a revival of individual scholarship but also the invention of Gothic architecture.  One could argue that this had something to do with the Crusades, but not necessarily a direct military victory that impacted local communities.  I agree with Kenneth Clark, who argues that this particular cultural boom had more to do with movement in general (even for double-entry bookkeeping) than the Crusades which took place so far away, and from which no news would be had for years at a time.

Maybe a military victory such as Athens and Japan experienced might serve as a dangerous stimulant.  Both victories did not contribute to golden ages, but both contributed certainly to overconfidence and expansion.  In the case of Athens they turned the Delian League and the Aegean Sea into an Empire, which certainly contributed to their demise as a result of the Peloponnesian War.  As for Japan, their triumph over Russia may have spurred on efforts to turn much of Asia into their backyard.^  Historian Niall Ferguson I believe argues that Japanese expansion had more to do with the origins of W.W. II than Germany’s expansion.

The Russo-Japanese War may have been akin for Japan to the Persian Wars for Greece.  But if so, perhaps World War II served as their own version of Greece’s disastrous Peloponnesian War.


*One could argue that this happened after England’s triumph in the Napoleonic Wars, however.

**A possible answer to this might be the civilizations do their best work amidst heady and confident days–things like great architectural works, whereas individuals have their most penetrating insights only in the midst of suffering.

^We think of W.W. II as a global war, but we can see Japan mainly trying to establish dominance over other Asians.  The Greek city-states had a relatively common religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage (with certain distinct differences), just as perhaps did Japan, Korea, China, Manchuria, etc.


Enlightenment Liberty and its Children

The website Aeon recently posted a solid article from historian Josiah Ober.  In the article Ober makes the point that democracy and liberal government — that is, rule of law, free speech, protection of minority rights, etc. — do not always go hand in hand.  Indeed, we have seen many good marriages between the two concepts over time.  But at times democracy has not produced liberal government, and historical examples exist of other forms of government ruling in a liberal way.

Ober states that liberal ideas that limited the power of government and enthroned the autonomy of the individual came from the Enlightenment, ca. 1650-1750.  I have no qualms with this, and I applaud Ober pointing out the tension that sometimes exists between democracy and liberalism.  But we should pause for a moment to consider the implications for the minority protections the Enlightenment sought to enthrone.

I’ll start by saying that rule of law brings a huge amount of good to a society.  But a quick scan of the heritage of the Enlightenment will confuse us.  For as we saw the rise of political and individual liberty enshrined in democratic regimes we also see a rise in slavery — at least in America.*  Surely many reasons exist for the rise of slavery ca. 1700-1860 — too many for me to explore or fully understand.  But we cannot deny the confluence of political liberalism and oppression of the natives and African Americans.  Does a link exist between freedom and slavery?

We often hear arguments such as, “Of course pornography is bad for society.  But the remedy for the evil would be worse than the disease.”  We hear these kinds of statements all the time, they roll off the tongue without thinking.  But not long ago people used similar arguments to justify slavery.  “Yes slavery is bad, but in order to have freedom we cannot give government the power to curtail it.”  I don’t want to “spiritualize” the issue, but the fact remains that pornography enslaves the passions and the basic humanity of hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of men and women.  The abortion issue has similar rhetoric. I had a college professor argue that, “Yes, abortion is a terrible thing, but what you pro-life people don’t understand is that without abortion, women would not have the rights and opportunities they have today.”  All over the Enlightenment view of individual autonomy we see this ghastly trade-off between “liberty” and death — be it physical or spiritual — again and again.  We may have to entertain the notion that slavery often comes on the coattails of this kind of freedom.

In our history, at certain times at least, we definitely lacked the will to restrain ourselves.  Historian Pauline Maier notes that at the Constitutional Convention George Mason wanted to include a provision to have all trade laws pass by a super majority.  He foresaw that northern commercial interests, combined with its more numerous population, would alienate southern agricultural interests. In exchange, he willingly hoped to grant Congress the power to abolish slavery.  He lost on this issue, according to him, because Georgia and South Carolina would not agree.  In exchange for precluding even the possibility of the banning of slavery until 1808, trade laws would pass with simple majorities.

Sure enough, in 1860 such states complained of laws that favored northern manufacturing interests as one motive for secession (the issue also came in the Nullification Crisis during Jackson’s presidency).  Of course, they complained as well about Republican plans with regards to slavery.

In a recent interview the Archimandrite Tikhon said that,

Today . . . we talk not of the possible limitations of the freedom of speech, but of the real everyday criminal abuses of this freedom. Who are those that shout of the threat of ‘limitations’ most of all? Those, who have monopolized information and turned the media into real weapons, which are meant not only for manipulating the public conscience, but also aiming at ruining personality and society.   . . . Of course, I’m for limitation of abusing speech of freedom, as well for limitation of drugs and alcohol turnover, for limitation of abortions – and everything which causes loss of health, degradation and ruin of nation. And the opportunity to watch vileness on TV, the right to be duped, the ability to develop a brutal cruelty and the lowest instincts in oneself – this is not freedom. Plainly, it is an absolute slavery.

In spite of any prohibitions man will have the right and possibility to choose evil anyway, nobody will take away this right, don’t worry. But the state must protect its citizens from aggressive foisting this evil upon them.

The man interviewing him got quite nervous at such a response, as would many in the United States today.  Who should make the decisions, and to what degree, remains a very thorny question.  One might even successfully argue that no good method of making that decision exists today, at least in America. But the fact that, at least in theory, we should certainly limit liberty in certain respects, appears obvious.  To say otherwise is to bring pure selfishness and greed into the fabric of our lives  Many would say that this has already happened.

Once we realize this we must re-evaluate the whole heritage of the Enlightenment view of liberty and the individual.  The rule of law seems a nearly unqualified good.  But I don’t think it need go hand-in-glove with a view of liberty that inevitably leads to slavery in some form.  Law after all, by its very nature, asks us to give up some form of liberty for the good of others.


*I know that of course slavery existed before the Enlightenment.  But slavery had generally disappeared during the Middle Ages, and revived again only during the Renaissance, when certain Roman concepts of law, property, and a classical idea of liberty made its way back into the stream of European civilization.  The Enlightenment built off this Renaissance heritage in many respects, and so it is no surprise that its heirs practiced a revival of slavery — something worse even than Roman slavery.