Oligarchies, Expansion, and a “Time of Troubles”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the original post . . .

Reading Explorers of the Nile spurred on a thought experiment.

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

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

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

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

Mediterranean, 264 BC

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

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

Roman Growth Timeline

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

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

Colonisation, 1800

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

British Empire, 1920

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

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

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

America, 1800:

America, 1800

America, 1900:

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

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

Map, Athenian Empire 431 B.C.

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

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

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

Blessings,

Dave

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The Emperor Might Need New Clothes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theory 1

Since early colonization America has gone through several iterations:

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

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

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

Theory 2 . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later,

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

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

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

Dave

 

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

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

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

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

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. Remaining women-children survivors from the seige of Carthage (perhaps 50,000?) enslaved.
  • 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

Things in a Museum

Some time ago I accompanied some students to a museum on a field trip when I encountered a harried-looking adult wearing a “Chaperone” sticker for another school.  Evidently he had gotten separated from his pack, but he didn’t seem to mind too terribly.  He had the thousand-yard stare of a man utterly defeated.  When I asked if he was supervising another group he chuckled, “You think so?  I have no idea what we’re doing or why we brought them here.”

I am proud of my students.  I have had 8th graders show far more interest on trips to museums than seniors from other high-schools I have witnessed, and yet even they have well-set limits.  The Walters Gallery in Baltimore is a wonderful museum.  Alas, at some point the students inevitably conk out and don’t care how old or rare a particular painting or artifact may be.  Any pleading or begging I might have attempted would only be met with the same thousand-yard stare I saw from the hapless chaperone.

And yet, these same students had endless energy on the bus ride for variously animated discussions on the merits of Panera or the next Avengers movie.

Now, this is not to say that I blame them at all.  I stand firmly by my appreciation for them.  But this experience of mine surely has a universality to it, experienced not just by every teacher that takes students to a museum, but anyone who has visited museums like this.  Why does “museum fatigue” set in so quickly not just for students, but for all of us?

The most obvious answer that comes to mind is that no one argues that museums are the ideal setting for such things.  To take a small thing and remove it from its context, putting it in a hushed room with lots of other things removed from their original context, surely limits their power.

I doubt that even museum curators would disagree with this, but I’m convinced this only begins to answer the question.

What makes the Walters a great place is that it packs a great deal into a small space.  Even if you wanted to linger, in about 3 hours you could go from ancient Egypt through the 1800’s in Europe and see the sweep of human culture.  And this led me to some thoughts as to why we have such a hard time engaging with the past. When you move through the Walters you can see a dramatic shift in the art and culture of different periods.  Almost everything from ancient Egypt has a direct religious purpose and is crafted with direct religious symbolism. Babylon is similar, though Assyria less so. You don’t always see the same direct ‘religiosity’ in Greece and Rome but it’s still there more often than we might think.  In the medieval world nearly everything had a distinct religious meaning, and a rich symbolic world lay behind most of what we saw with our eyes. The art from Egypt through the medieval world generally had this same quality–layers within layers of meaning that would have been intuitively obvious to those who lived in those times.  Of course the forms that they expressed this richness of symbolic meaning changed, but they all shared (more or less) in having this tapestry.

But beginning in the Renaissance (with more realistic depictions?, more overt interest in the natural world?) and sharply accelerating in the 17th century, we begin to see a dramatic shift. We could argue about why this happened (the Reformation was often iconoclastic, the Scientific Revolution happened, etc.) but that it happened is perfectly obvious.  In the 17th century and beyond we see a focus on the natural world. The ‘layers’ of meaning so obvious in centuries prior seem absent. The tree is just a tree, the man is just a man. If the layers are there they are no longer part of a general cultural understanding, but have to be supplied via individual interpretation.  

If one thinks students incapable of finding layers of meaning within images, simply observe the world of memes.  Here one witnesses students discovering whole worlds within stock cultural images.  Alas that these meanings and references remain almost entirely self-referential within a shallow cultural context.  Still, the staying power of memes surely has something to do with the joy and satisfaction they take in discovering and creating these endless loops of meaning.  So, while in my snooty and grumpy way I generally look down upon meme culture, I suppose I should see glimmers of hope that students not only can see such layers, but also enjoy finding them.

This led to some other thoughts and possible realizations.

Many have noted and lamented the decline of the influence of the text in our society, and we can point to a variety of causes for this.  No one questions that this will create a different kind of culture and eventually a new way of understanding.  The shift may be painful, but will we end up worse off?  In the “Phaedrus” Socrates recalls the Egyptian myth of Thamus and Theuth, in which the merits of writing are contested by Thamus.

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, “This,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. “

Thamus replied: “O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Of course Egypt had writing, but even that writing was highly symbolic.  They had an overwhelmingly visual culture but achieved a very high level of civilization for millennia.  The Gothic age also had writing, but one suspects that this writing was not fashioned primarily to be read:

Though it may not be quite as obvious to some, their highly visual and religiously oriented society achieved quite a high-level of civilization.*  Their perception was more immediate.

As an example of our poverty of perception surrounding images and meaning, I refer to the famous “ichthus” symbol for Christianity.  One sees this symbol many places, and who can miss the scintillating war of fish magnets/Darwin fish magnets/anti-Darwin fish magnets on the bumpers of cars?  Though the symbol has been around in modern perception since the 1970’s, I never heard anything about the symbol except that the Greek letters for “fish” resemble the letters for “Christ.”  Of course one might also think of the direct reference to the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, or the fact that some of the apostles were fisherman before they met Jesus.

But the indirect symbolic meaning has much greater depth and wholeness.  To quote Leonid Ouspensky,

The first and most essential meaning of the fish is therefore Jesus Christ Himself.  Some ancient writers occasionally call our Lord, “the Heavenly fish.  We find the image of a boat, symbol of the Church, carried by a fish: the Church rests on Christ its founder.  To represent Christ in the midst of Christians united in baptism, little fishes surrounded by a large fish were often portrayed [in early Christian art].  “We are little fish,” Tertullian writes [ca. A.D. 200], “we are born in water like our fish Jesus Christ, and can only be saved by staying in the water.”**  Thus, the symbolism of fish leads back to that of water, that is, to baptism.”

Here we see a whole history, a whole theological understanding, a whole world to explore.  We must recover this sense of the “things” we see if we wish to re-enchant ourselves.

Dave

 

*The great Kenneth Clark ranks 12th century Europe as one of the great ages of the history of civilization.  John Anthony West, a devoted reinterpreter of Egyptian civilization, makes an interesting comparison between Gothic cathedrals and Egyptian temples.  While he is not a Christian, and seems perhaps slightly tilted against it in general, he admitted that the Gothic cathedrals communicate something directly to the soul.

**Hence the practice of annointing oneself with holy water as one enters and leaves some churches, not so much as a reminder of this, but as a way of connecting to these truths.

 

 

 

 

The Augurs of the Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Machiavelli recorded an intriguing anecdote on Roman religion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

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

 

The Logic of a Lack of Conviction

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

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

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

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

Cowen added that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immigration and American Identity

The machinery of modern states sometimes makes things harder, not easier.

Coming to a proper solution for the immigration question is one example of this.  A variety of sources and polls indicate that most Americans favor allowing more legal immigration and have for years.  Back in simpler times one could enter a land, ask the king to stay, usually he said “yes,” with not much fuss. Perhaps one took an oath of fealty to his person.  Now, we have a whole mess of courts, paperwork, etc., etc. that make coming legally quite difficult.  The good intentions of most Americans gets lost in the morass of modern civilization.

Incremental reform of the system seems unlikely to lead to dramatically different results, so I have great sympathy for the argument made by Prof. Bryan Caplan.  As a libertarian Caplan believes in limiting government as much as possible, but his stance on immigration comes from a strongly moral place.  He would like to essentially eliminate the morass but eliminating almost every test that could prevent someone from working and living in the U.S.  He argues that

  • No one chooses to be born in a particular place, and almost always the best way to get out of poverty in a poor country is to move to a rich country, where your labor has a much greater value.
  • Those in the rich country benefit from their birthplace, which they also did not choose.  They have no moral right to deny someone something they did not earn or choose themselves.
  • As long as 1) An employer consents to have someone work for them, and 2) A worker consents to work for that same person, then no good moral reason exists for denying both people the right to hire/work.

Caplan breaks his argument down into even simpler terms:

  • Someone wants to come in my house, but I do not want them to.  Ok, then, they cannot come in.
  • Someone invites someone in, but they don’t want to come.  Ok, they can certainly refuse to come.
  • Someone invites someone into their house, and they accept, but a 3rd party–i.e., the Government–tells them that this cannot happen.  This, Caplan argues, makes no moral sense and yet this perfectly encapsulates our current immigration policy.

He made these points quite well in this debate below:

As well as Caplan argued (and we can note the contrast between the more intense, east coast, suit-wearing Caplan, and the laid-back Californian Wellman), I found myself siding with his opponent.  Their debate has the added bonus of illuminating much about our identity as a nation and our past.

The title of the debate, “Is Immigration a Human Right” might slip past us but the very idea of human rights as opposed to “A Right of Americans” represents a fairly radical shift in thinking.  We see this same shift in the years leading up to the American Revolution.  When colonists protested the Stamp Act in 1765 they talked of their rights as British subjects.  By the time we get to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson argues that King George III has violated their human rights, that “all men are created equal.”  On the one hand, because we believe that God has created all mankind in His image, the clarity of Jefferson’s Enlightenment inspired prose makes perfect sense.  But it also makes things muddier—for incarnating this idea politically means different things to different people.  Treating all people equally from different political communities makes the whole concept of political communities irrelevant, aside from posing many other questions.

Even within a family, parents will love all their children equally but treat them differently as their circumstances require.  And when Joey argues that Billy’s parents let him stay up late, every parent knows the classic retort, “Well, you are not in Billy’s family.”

Interestingly, both Caplan and Wellman agree that societies do not exist via consent and that governments do not therefore derive their legitimacy from the “consent of the governed” per se.  This slips by without much discussion but I find it a crucial point.  The fact that the colonists failed to consent to certain British measures inspired many to revolt.  But even a moment’s thought about the concept of consent regarding the whole of society renders it a bit silly.  We “consent” to very little that shapes our lives.  We do not choose to be born, we do not choose our families, our gender, our personalities, or our looks.  We receive them, just as we do not consent to where we are born.  Nor did any of us in America today “consent” to our system of government. Imagine the chaos if everyone had to consent to their governments in some kind of purely rational vacuum.  Even the most die-hard supporters of consent would likely not want continual plebiscites to determine whether or not we should be governed by our Constitution, or a king, or an oligarchy.

The question then remains as to whether or not the fact that we do not really consent to our society supports Caplan or Wellman’s position.  For Caplan, the fact no one chooses where they are born and how they are governed means that everyone should have the freedom to go where they please and pick a place where they actually do consent to a particular society.

But Wellman has a powerful counter to Caplan’s “house” analogy mentioned above.  He poses a scenario of him leaving for a week and returning home to ask his wife what happened during his absence.  “Well, let’s see,” Wellman imagines his wife replying, “On Wednesday, I went to yoga class. On Thursday I met Carol for lunch.  And on Friday, I adopted a young man named Bob into our family.  Here he is, meet your new son.”  Wellman goes on to ask rhetorically whether or not she and Bob, as consenting individuals have the right to do this.  Caplan’s house analogy, he argues, needs more nuance.  Caplan’s argument above has a fair amount of moral force, but it would also overthrow our entire conception of the state as a community.  Unwittingly or not, Wellman’s analogy hearkens to the older Aristotelian idea of the state-as-family analogy, hence the notion that the king served as a “father” to his people.  One cannot simply alter the composition of the family at will, nor make unilateral decisions as “sovereign,” consenting individuals apart from the family at large.

Here we see how truly radical the American Revolution was and glimpse why it had such an impact on the world.  The notion that the state in fact was not a family perhaps finished off Aristotle’s formal influence in the modern world, a process begun in the Scientific Revolution.

And here we see something else–why the immigration issue poses such a difficulty for us.  If any nation could apply Caplan’s form of the “house” analogy, it is the United States.  As a “nation of immigrants” our belief in universal rights is woven into our DNA, however poorly we have applied it at times.  But pushed as Caplan wishes to push it, the idea becomes non-sensical. His vision of the state primarily as a conglomeration of free-floating individuals renders the idea of “society” almost meaningless.

The same Enlightenment ideas that inspired the idea of “human rights” also led to the creation of modern democracies.  The irony, perhaps even the tragic irony, with this issue, is that cutting red tape and making legal immigration much simpler could be achieved much more easily with a monarch than our federated democracy, with its attendant slowness, interest groups, and the like.  We might even reflect that minorities and outsiders (i.e. African-Americans and Native Americans) fared somewhat worse in the aftermath of our victory in the American Revolution.

 

Dave