The American “Prestige”

 

In our senior Government class, we spend a good amount of time discussing the question, “What is America?” throughout the year.  The question is deceptively simple, and we have a difficult time answering it.  We discussed Book 1, Ch. 4 from The Prince recently in class, and it spurred some interesting discussion.

The text reads as follows . . .

Why The Kingdom Of Darius, Conquered By Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against The Successors Of Alexander At His Death

CONSIDERING the difficulties which men have had to hold a newly acquired state, some might wonder how, seeing that Alexander the Great became the master of Asia in a few years, and died whilst it was yet scarcely settled (whence it might appear reasonable that the whole empire would have rebelled), nevertheless his successors maintained themselves, and had to meet no other difficulty than that which arose among themselves from their own ambitions.

I answer that the principalities of which one has record are found to be governed in two different ways: either by a prince, with a body of servants, who assist him to govern the kingdom as ministers by his favour and permission; or by a prince and barons, who hold that dignity by antiquity of blood and not by the grace of the prince. Such barons have states and their own subjects, who recognize them as lords and hold them in natural affection. Those states that are governed by a prince and his servants hold their prince in more consideration, because in all the country there is no one who is recognized as superior to him, and if they yield obedience to another they do it as to a minister and official, and they do not bear him any particular affection.

The examples of these two governments in our time are the Turk and the King of France. The entire monarchy of the Turk is governed by one lord, the others are his servants; and, dividing his kingdom into sanjaks, he sends there different administrators, and shifts and changes them as he chooses. But the King of France is placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords, acknowledged by their own subjects, and beloved by them; they have their own prerogatives, nor can the king take these away except at his peril. Therefore, he who considers both of these states will recognize great difficulties in seizing the state of the Turk, but, once it is conquered, great ease in holding it. The causes of the difficulties in seizing the kingdom of the Turk are that the usurper cannot be called in by the princes of the kingdom, nor can he hope to be assisted in his designs by the revolt of those whom the lord has around him. This arises from the reasons given above; for his ministers, being all slaves and bondmen, can only be corrupted with great difficulty, and one can expect little advantage from them when they have been corrupted, as they cannot carry the people with them, for the reasons assigned. Hence, he who attacks the Turk must bear in mind that he will find him united, and he will have to rely more on his own strength than on the revolt of others; but, if once the Turk has been conquered, and routed in the field in such a way that he cannot replace his armies, there is nothing to fear but the family of the prince, and, this being exterminated, there remains no one to fear, the others having no credit with the people; and as the conqueror did not rely on them before his victory, so he ought not to fear them after it.

The contrary happens in kingdoms governed like that of France, because one can easily enter there by gaining over some baron of the kingdom, for one always finds malcontents and such as desire a change. Such men, for the reasons given, can open the way into the state and render the victory easy; but if you wish to hold it afterwards, you meet with infinite difficulties, both from those who have assisted you and from those you have crushed. Nor is it enough for you to have exterminated the family of the prince, because the lords that remain make themselves the heads of fresh movements against you, and as you are unable either to satisfy or exterminate them, that state is lost whenever time brings the opportunity.

Now if you will consider what was the nature of the government of Darius, you will find it similar to the kingdom of the Turk, and therefore it was only necessary for Alexander, first to overthrow him in the field, and then to take the country from him. After which victory, Darius being killed, the state remained secure to Alexander, for the above reasons. And if his successors had been united they would have enjoyed it securely and at their ease, for there were no tumults raised in the kingdom except those they provoked themselves.

But it is impossible to hold with such tranquillity states constituted like that of France. Hence arose those frequent rebellions against the Romans in Spain, France, and Greece, owing to the many principalities there were in these states, of which, as long as the memory of them endured, the Romans always held an insecure possession; but with the power and long continuance of the empire the memory of them passed away, and the Romans then became secure possessors. And when fighting afterwards amongst themselves, each one was able to attach to himself his own parts of the country, according to the authority he had assumed there; and the family of the former lord being exterminated, none other than the Romans were acknowledged.

When these things are remembered no one will marvel at the ease with which Alexander held the Empire of Asia, or at the difficulties which others have had to keep an acquisition, such as Pyrrhus and many more; this is not occasioned by the little or abundance of ability in the conqueror, but by the want of uniformity in the subject state.

Machiavelli’s distinction helps make sense of other historical events.  We can look, for example, at Napoleon and Hitler’s invasion of Russia/Soviet Union.  At first glance, Russia must have seemed akin to Persia in Napoleon’s eyes.  After all, Czar Alexander I certainly looked like most other autocrats in history.  But . . . for most of Russia’s existence it resembled France.  Tales in the old Russian folk-epics reveal a shaky relationship of the people to their ruler, but more importantly, old Russia had several distinct provinces/cities that competed for precedence and had their own history and identity.  Napoleon found Russia easy to enter but hard to hold.  The Nazi’s found the same true even 130 years later.  When force no longer sufficed to hold the Soviet Union together ca. 1989-91, the old identities resurfaced almost immediately.

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” also has some of the same logic behind it.  A country like China has the appearance of resembling Persia, just as Russia did.  But most of China’s history reveals competing provinces, dialects, and an uncertain relationship to the emperor until later in its existence.

So we asked the question, “Which kind of kingdom is America?”  Does it resemble France, or Persia?  In contrast to Russia, China, or France,  Persia did not have a long, zig-zag run-up to the height of its power.  Their civilization had a jump-start, meteoric rise under Cyrus the Great, who immediately set a pattern of charismatic dominance over the whole of his empire.  In future generations the Persians took their cue it seemed almost entirely from future dynamic leaders like Darius.  Their reliance on this pattern shows even in the failed rebellion of Cyrus the Younger, who fit this mold of dynamic leader better than his brother Artaxerxes II.  The fact that he almost succeeded with no other claim to rule besides his personality says a lot about Persia.

Some students thought that America had a beginning akin to that of France or Russia.  We had different colonies in different parts of the Atlantic coast that developed entirely apart from each other.  These colonies came together only to fight against a common enemy, but essentially remained separate kingdoms until sometime after the Civil War — perhaps not even until into the Great Depression.

The majority thought otherwise.  True, the first colonies hardly interacted with one another, but they came to America with similar purposes from similar cultures.  At the core, they were about the same thing, which is why the French-Indian War could so easily unite them and start us thinking about the “people.”  When examining the history of China, Russia, or France one sees a host of regularly occurring rivalries, small conflicts, and so on.  But America we only see one big blowup  — the Civil War.  The Civil War showed that obviously, we differed on much.  But it was the kind of big blowup that occurs in families, when often unity exists. It was the exception that proved the rule.

I acknowledge much merit in the “France” argument, but in this case I sided with the majority.  Tocqueville noticed back in the 1830’s the tendency towards centralization in our democratic experiment, and the already growing power of the majority.  He wrote,

The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority; for there is nothing in democratic states that is capable of resisting it.

We have different political opinions, but in no political election is any fundamental question of identity at stake.  Many rejoice/lament the election of a particular president.  But whoever may win the election, the next day our lives remain unchanged.

In Book Five of his Poliitcs Aristotle speculates that democratic constitutions* remain most safest when threats to said constitution remain either far away or very close.  The first seems obvious.  When nothing threatens us we live at ease, and it’s easy to have peace with others.  A very near threat like an invasion would bind us together quickly.    This kind of threat might also be merely an obvious one, like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which immediately united a divided country in the war effort.

The in-between threats, however, pose a real challenge.  Since the danger is neither obvious or near, we can easily divide not just on how to respond but whether or not to respond.  We might think of the Vietnam War as an example of this, and sure enough, it brought on significant internal changes to our constitution.  The “War on Terror” fits into a similar mold. Should we intervene here or there?  Should we increase surveillance or not, what about privacy rights, and so on.  And, true to Aristotle’s form, we see increased political polarization with this “intermediate” threat.

But our class speculated on exactly what an “invader” — whatever form that might take — would find.  Once Cyrus the Younger died in the Battle of Cunaxa his cause died with him.  Once Darius III died, Alexander had essentially conquered Persia.  But at what would America’s enemies take aim?  Not the president, surely, for at any given time half the country will not like him.  Not the capital, either.  As the British discovered in 1813, burning D.C. did little to aid their war effort.  One could hypothetically detonate a strong EMP in the atmosphere to knock out our electrical system.  But that would take out any first or second world country and so that answer lacks enough specificity to the United States.  This “absolute sovereignty of the majority,” would be hard to pin down.  Where is it?  And how would one attack it?  Get too close, and the unity of the people to defend their “constitution” would quickly emerge.

The “prestige” in magic is the trick’s big reveal, and of course sometimes what is revealed is nothing at all.  This would happen perhaps to an invader, who might never find the rabbit inside the hat.  Rather, as Aristotle suggests, and the experience of Rome certainly plays out, democracies will be far more likely to erode themselves from within as opposed to without.

Dave

 

*By “constitution” he does not mean merely a written document, but our way of relating to one another in general.

 

 

The Idea of an “Empire of Liberty”

How we label things, or how we construct their meaning and place in history, obviously will say a lot about us.

The Constitution serves as a good example.

The Constitution has its flaws, its oversights, and some ungainliness about it.  We understand that it’s obviously not perfect. But it surely has worked on some level, having lasted this long.  Because it has worked (or at least we assume it has — more thoughts on this later), we think of it as a very “modern” and forward-looking document.  This matches how we think of ourselves.  We are a “progressive” people, the documents that define us must also have the same character.

But in his two books Empire of Liberty, and The Idea of America acclaimed historian Gordon Wood makes the point that the Constitution tried in fact to stem the rising tide of “liberty” and change unleashed by the “spirit of ’76.” The Constitution may not have been a completely “reactionary” document but it was a response to a quick erosion in society of what many elite revolutionaries like Adams and Madison held dear.

Through various quotes and citations, Wood lists the changes seen and feared by such men in the 1780’s . . .

  • A loosening of traditional relationships between men and women — parents had much less control over who their children married.
  • Riots and protests against professors at the few (and elite) colleges by many students demanding curriculum changes, attitude changes, and the like
  • A decided turn against the virtues of the ancient Romans and a great movement toward the ideas of tolerance and conviviality as the means to hold society together
  • Democratization of religion, which became much less authority driven and much more ‘touchy-feely.’
  • Extreme partisan politics on local levels, with stories of violent behavior in state legislatures rampant.  The rise of the “party-spirit” in politics bewildered many.
  • Both “free love” and drugs going mainstream into the culture

Ok — the last is not true, but if one looks at the list, it looks quite familiar to us, making us think of the 1920’s or the 1960’s, or today.  Maybe we must face the fact that this is what America was, is, and ever shall be.  As Alfred North Whitehead once said, “The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”

Wood asserts that while the Constitution succeeded in establishing a structure that put up some barriers to change, overall the idea of liberty and “the people” triumphed over the Constitution’s conservative aspirations.  In the end, the idea liberty and the reality of the voice of the people ended up remaking the Constitution in its own image.  The Anti-Federalists, those who opposed the Constitution’s ratification, lost the battle but won the war.  The best the ideals of Washington and Adams can do now is fight rear-guard actions against the overwhelming power of the “people.”

Though initially shocking to our sensibilities, the idea of a reactionary Constitution helps make sense of much of American history down to the present day.  It also partially explains why appeals to the vision of the founders, or the intent of the founders falls on deaf ears.  For one, Madison and others probably believed that the factional “evils” they saw in state governments would not transfer to the national legislature.  Perhaps Madison wanted a stronger national government because he thought that only the “better sort” would get elected to the national legislature and thereby elevate discourse.  This “better sort” would not fall prey to party politics.  He sought then, more power not so much to the national government but to the “better men.”  However strong Madison’s hopes on this score, they quickly proved illusory.  Madison and others like him either misinterpreted or remained ignorant of exactly what their revolution had wrought.**

At a deeper level, two other questions arise.  Can the structures of organizations curtail underlying driving principles that form such organizations?  I tend to side on this one with the Jurassic Park dictum, “Life finds a way.”  The early “conservatives” could not call upon the spirit of self-determination in 1776 and then expect to put the toothpaste back in the tube once the Revolution had accomplished what they wanted it to.  The population at large could rightly retort, “What about us?” Bowing to the “will of the people” became a necessity, and eventually, a foreordained, positive good. Even a Constitutional “literalist” or “minimalist” like Jefferson gladly dispensed with his principles with the Louisiana Purchase, among other instances.  Like a nuclear blast, the concept of “liberty” leveled everything in its path.  What mattered to most was not the past, but the future.  The founders had done their part, but our vehement abhorrence to anything smacking of aristocracy made us quickly resistant to anything resembling the determining “tyranny of the past.”  John Adams, among others, quickly tried to assert that, “Wait!  That’s not what we meant!”  Most responded with some form of “I don’t care!”  Within a generation of the Constitution’s ratification, “egghead” professions like that of lawyer already were viewed as “elitist” by many, especially towards the frontier.  The seeming radical nature of the “Jacksonian Revolution” actually had its roots laid years prior.

Wood deals with the slavery question related to these political questions, but I found his analysis of the relationship between Americans and Native Americans more intriguing.  He writes,

Conceiving itself as a composite of different peoples, the British Empire could somehow accommodate the existence of Indians within its territory.  But the new American Republic was different: it contained only citizens who were presumably equal with one another.  Since the United States could scarcely imagine the Indians as citizens equal to all other American citizens, it had to regard Native Americans as members of foreign nations with which treaties had to be negotiated.  Of course, most of the Indians themselves had no desire to become citizens of the American Republic.

While the 17th century colonists did fight with Indians, little doubt exists that American Independence proved a disaster for Native Americans.  Problems began years before the war itself — one of the driving issues behind the Sugar Act and Stamp Act involved keeping colonists off Native American land.  Wood’s reasoning fits with de Tocqueville’s thoughts on equality, and the problem persists today. We have yet to work out the tension between liberty and equality.  When the “people” speak (however we measure this) we cannot tolerate deviation from the norm.  The example of Bruce/Caitlin Jenner speaks to this.  How many ESPN commentator’s could keep their jobs and declare that Jenner is tragically mistaken in his actions?  To be fair, had ESPN existed 50 years ago, could anyone have then applauded his actions and kept his job?

One unsaid implication of Wood’s book is pride of place between the American and French Revolutions.  Most see the American Revolution as giving birth to the French Revolution, with the French Revolution as the bastardization of all that went well in America, then withering on the vine as Napoleon took over.  But we might instead see the French Revolution as the real victor, with its sense of the power and authority of the “people” in more or less full swing by the early 19th century in America.  He who laughs last laughs loudest.  Or perhaps both of these positions wrongly presume an essential difference between the two events.  Maybe the American Revolution started to resemble the French Revolution because they had the same origins — fraternal if not identical twins.  If we consider this option, then we may need to reevaluate America history as a whole — an exciting if not daunting task.

“A man’s worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes.” — T.H. Huxley

Dave

*We should note that those at the the Constitutional Convention had different ideas, and others whom we might consider “founders” like Patrick Henry, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were not at the Convention at all.

**Wood cites a variety of sources to demonstrate that the traditional understanding of the need for the Constitutional Convention being the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation are false.  Many had perfect awareness of these weaknesses and their fix remained relatively simple.  The real concerns of men like Madison and Washington lie rather in their observations of the petty bickering of state legislatures, and the fact any man Jack seemingly could get elected to state legislatures.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

I have very fond feelings for Will Durant. His multi-volume series The Story of Civilization was an absolute lifeline for me in my early years of teaching, and reading those volumes propelled me to some wonderful primary sources. His insights were not as profound as those of his contemporary AJ Toynbee, but he wrote with a more whimsical touch.

In Durant’s The Lessons of History (co-authored by his wife Ariel) he includes as essay on the question of whether or not progress is real. In grand Thomistic fashion Durant begins by proposing a negative answer. Philosophy will never eclipse Plato, literature will not move beyond Shakespeare. Science heals but also has created new forms of death and accelerated our means to destroy each other.

But Durant then pivots, and affirms that we have progressed–not in happiness (we will always find ways to be unhappy)–but in command over the environment. Famine and other natural disasters no longer decimate millions each year, and Durant asks,

“Are we ready to scuttle the science that has so diminished superstition, obscurantism, and religious intolerance, or the technology that has spread food, home ownership, comfort, education, and leisure beyond any precedent?”

He continues and admires the expansion of education, stating that

“If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing … our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all … we have raised the level and average level of knowledge beyond any age in history.”

It is a fine argument, and as always, wonderfully written.

In 1845 Thomas Macaulay wrote eloquently in favor of the Progress narrative:

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.

We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man

But even Macaulay, amidst his rhapsody, at least gives a quick nod to the counter argument:

And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.

Most ancient historians claim that things have gotten worse, that we progress from golden ages, to silver, to bronze and iron, a descent from heaven to earth. A middle position exists that I want to explore, one that questions the main arguments of the progress and decline narratives–though obviously certain kinds of progress and decline happen–and instead focus on the idea that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and be guided by St. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise, On the Making of Man.*

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Humanity may progress in certain ways, and decline in others, but will always be limited by the circumstances of his creation. We are meant both to reflect God to world and to mediate the world to God. As such we have elements both of movement and stability in our nature. St. Gregory writes,

It may be, by a providential dispensation, so that the property of nature which constitutes its immutability and immobility might not, when viewed in any created object, cause the creature to be accounted as God; for that which may happen to move or change would cease to admit the conception of the Godhead.

Hence the earth is stable without being immutable, while the heavens, on the contrary, as it has no mutability, so has not stability either, that the Divine power, by weaving change in the stable nature and motion with that which is not subject to change, might by the interchange of attributes, at once join them both closely to each other, and make them alien from the conception of Deity.

That is, God makes us in such a way so that we can neither have the presumption to be God, but also see that we are more than the beasts. We have this duality within us, meant to exist in harmony.

St. Gregory makes many such connections between the rhythms and operations of nature and our own flourishing as human beings made by God. He comments that many creatures are larger, stronger, and faster than us, yet we have dominion over them–a seeming puzzle. He answers this disarmingly by stating that if we were to be the largest, fastest, and strongest of the creatures we would surely look rather funny–misshapen and unbalanced, “wild looking.” But as he stresses our dominion over creation, he does so again by establishing our connection with it.

. . . moreover, he would have neglected his rule over the other creatures if he had no need of the co-operation of his subjects.

St. Gregory establishes (so it seems to me) an irrevocable connection between God, man, and nature, writing elsewhere that,

The creation of man is related as coming last, as of one who took up into himself every single form of life, both that of plants and that which is seen in brutes.

So, although we are all always in a state of flux, we also have stable elements, just as creation itself is both stable and fluid. We never step into the same river twice, and yet it is still the same river. And while some may see hints of evolutionary ideas in St. Gregory’s above comment, I think that he would say that creation reflects man more so than man reflects creation.

Given this, we can ask in regards to the question of progress–can creation “progress?” Certainly dirty water can become clean, but we might call this a “return” more than an “advance.”

We should think similarly in terms of human progress.

What I mean is that what we often call progress may be simply a reflection of how we breathe. We inhale, that is:

  • We draw things into ourselves
  • We concentrate our being, we focus, or in other words,
  • We centralize our being

And we exhale, meaning

  • We disperse things from our being
  • We separate the good and bad, the proper and improper
  • We get looser physically and mentally, we de-centralize**

We shouldn’t call inhalation or exhalation progress, but we often do. So, for example, many heralded the changes we made in the area of national intelligence in the wake of 9/11. We centralized our intelligence gathering–we inhaled. Surely this was correct? But in the wake of our intelligence failure after Pearl Harbor we determined that we needed to exhale and de-centralize intelligence agencies so we could have multiple views to consider. Both seemed like exactly the right thing to do given their respective contexts, and maybe both were correct actions to take, but neither can be termed “progress,” though it may feel like it at the time. What we might instead be doing is returning to a proper balance, or recalibrating temporarily.

Of course we usually want avoid dramatic inhalation and exhalation, which we only do as humans exerting ourselves or trying to de-escalate an emotional situation. We cannot continue for long in such a state.

We can take the state of education, so lauded by Durant, among others. Democratic education “inhales” a great deal by taking in everyone it can. But this has led to a kind of hyper-concentration in education, which can only lead to more centralization and standardization. So, naturally we see the rise of importance in standardized tests, which have the effect of getting teachers to “teach to the test.” In what sense has education truly improved in the last 100 years? What we can say for sure is that it has done some things at the expense of others.

As democracies we possibly overvalue the “fluid” elements of our created selves, and trust in the free flow of people, goods, and information. The New York Times recently announced, for example, that it would “open up” its process of how it endorses presidential candidates and make it more transparent. Surely transparency is progress in any democracy? But as Alex Tabbarok pointed out, this will likely make all of the candidates far less candid than they might have otherwise been when talking with the Times. Certain stances they might have explained as a kind of horse-trading off the record they would never reveal in a more public forum. When the scale tips too far in the “fluid” direction, the natural reaction is to revert to solidity. “Progress,” so called, seems impossible in either direction–by design. The very design of creation makes utopias impossible.

Perhaps the most striking form of progress surely is the application of science to food production and the eradication of disease. We live healthier and longer than in the past. Infant mortality has decreased dramatically. Unquestionably, the argument goes, this is progress that all can champion without qualification.

This certainly strongly challenges my argument–and most every argument has its limits. Still, perhaps these significant improvements do have a hidden cost of separation from the very creation that nurtures us and with whom our identity is inextricably linked. Here, I will admit, however, that it is hard to argue against progress of this kind.

Maybe . . . certain kinds of progress are possible.

But I think the larger point still remains, one that we do well to consider as we head towards another election cycle. Some may feel that Trump has lurched us too far in one direction, so that the solution is go hard in the opposite direction. This will exhaust us quickly. Rather, as St. Gregory taught us, we need to be a nation that takes calm and measured breaths.

Dave

*I should state at the outset that I do not find St. Gregory an easy read, and I make no certain claim to interpreting him correctly, though hopefully I have at least applied his words in the right spirit.

**This process of gathering in and pushing out is reflected in almost every icon of Christ, as He blesses with His right hand (drawing in) and separates with his left (in the form of a scroll, the Book of Life, which makes distinctions between people, etc.), further testimony to this pattern at the very Head of Humanity itself.

In the Byzantine icon below, the blessing/”drawing in” motif is more explicit, as His right hand almost seems to draw one towards Him:

A more modern icon, “Christ of the Isles” (Celtic style), that abides by the traditional pattern . . .

12th Grade: Wag the Dog

Greetings,

Last week we looked at Athens’ disaster in Sicily and the subsequent and extensive fallout.

Why did Athens lose in Sicily?

Part of Thucydides’ brilliance lies in that he does not merely look at battles and personalities, but finds ways to link events to a grand narrative.  Athens had many strengths, and one could argue that their passion for excellence helped produce democracy.  But I think that something began to go wrong just prior to the Peloponnesian War with the completion of the Parthenon, one of the great architectural achievements in history.  Ostensibly the building stands as a temple to Athena, the patron goddess of the city.  But a closer look at the carvings on the Parthenon reveal not scenes of gods and goddesses but of events in their own history.  Athens had in fact, made a temple to themselves, and showed that the true god they worshipped was their own community.

What kind of impact would this idolatry have, and what does it have to do with democracy?  Part of answering this question has to do with what we say the essence of democracy is.  If we say that the mere act of voting, of having a voice, is the meaning of democracy, than a naval-gazing, self-worshipping state will not be far behind.  For in this situation the process counts, and not the result.  If democracy (or any other form of government) serves a higher ideal than it has a built in check upon itself.  With no higher ideal than whatever decision we arrive at must by definition be good, because we thought of it.  This kind of attitude, present in ancient Athens, leads to disaster eventually.  If we travel with our heads down we’ll eventually walk off a cliff.  G.K. Chesterton has a great quote about self-worship in his book Orthodoxy,

That Jones shall worship the god within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.  Let Jones worship the sun, the moon, anything rather than the “Inner Light.”  Let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, but not the god within.  Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but outwards. . . . The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner-Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

The problems with Athens’ expedition to Sicily can be traced to their democracy.  Alcibiades wanted the expedition, Nicias opposed it.  Both had wealth, political and military experience, each had their own political power base at home.  They also could not stand each other.  Their personal and political rivalry spilled over into the formation of Athens’ war policy in Sicily.  For example, Nicias’ purely personal political moves against Alcibiades ended up having a dramatic effect on the composition of the numbers and kind of military forces Athens used against Sicily, and perhaps even the goal of the mission.  One wonders if they realized this.  With their heads down, I think not.  In my opinion, they thought that

  • We voted, just as always
  • We picked experienced people
  • We followed the procedures and processes to arrive at a decision

Therefore, everything is fine!

Democracy has to involve more than mere voting, more than mere process.  The Athenians apparently did not see that in voting for the expedition they had approved a massive invasion of another democratic country not directly involved in the war they had been fighting.  The man who ultimately led them (Nicias) argued against any expedition at all.  Self-worship exacted its price in the thousands of dead outside Syracuse.  In his An Historian’s Approach to Religion AJ Toynbee wrote,

The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date.

Athens’ failure in Sicily brought about the collapse of their democratic regime.  Their god had failed to provide for their basic needs, and needed replaced.

The oligarchs that replaced the democracy fared no better, ruling wantonly based on the pent-up sense that now is was “their turn.”  We sometimes see this when one party, shut out of Congress for a time, suddenly gains control.  This “my-turn” attitude usually leads to over-reaching and miscalculation.  The Newt Gingrich led government shut down in the mid-90’s comes to mind.

Democracy came back, but the instability engendered by these power struggles weighed like a mill-stone around the Athenians necks.  They had no anchor beyond their immediate needs.  We saw Athens 1) Win the Battle of Arginusae, then 2) Put the victorious generals to death for impiety, and finally 3) Put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals to death (we never should have listened to him!) all within the span of  several days.  Process trumped justice.  The tail wagged the dog.

Authenticity, Man

Having flamed out on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I was happy to find a more bite-sized chunk of his thought in The Ethics of Authenticity. I admit to approaching the book, like others of a traditional bent, leaning against the very idea of authenticity. “Get over yourself, already.” The search for meaning within the self can never go anywhere and remains something of an illusion. What, after all is there to really “experience?”

The whole concept of “authenticity,” born out of the 1960’s (or so I thought), has given rise to a whole host of modern problems. All of the issues with sex and gender have their roots here, as does a great deal of spiritual innovation with the church, along with the Trump presidency. Many inclined to read this book of Taylor’s might hope for a thorough denunciation from the venerable professor.

Of course, boring conservatives such as myself may not have always been such. We may remember the days of our youth when it seemed we had to break free from our surroundings to see what we were made of. Taylor taps into this, and so, while he criticizes much of what the “Authenticity” stands for, and finds it ultimately self-defeating, he reminds us that a kernel of something like the truth remains within this–in my view– unpleasant husk. Taylor writes,

The picture I am offering is rather than of an ideal that has been degraded . . . So what we need is neither root-and-branch condemnation nor uncritical praise; and not a carefully balanced tradeoff. What we need is a work of retrieval . . .

Taylor demonstrates that of what we term “authenticity” has its roots in Christianity. In the ancient world nearly every person received their identity by what lay wholly outside their control, be it birth, race, family, etc. The triumph of Christianity meant believing that an entirely other world lay outside of our normal lives, the Kingdom of God, in which there existed “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free . . . (Gal. 3:28).” The book of Revelation tells us that God “will also give that person a white stone, with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it (Rev. 2:17). St. Augustine’s magnum opus told us that the City of God lies nestled, in some ways, within the City of Man, to be discovered by anyone willing to walk through wardrobe.

18th century Romantic thinkers, primarily Jean-Jacques Rousseau, picked up this dormant thread, albeit thin sprinting with it in ways that St. Augustine would abhor. I find the 18th century an absolute disaster for the Church, but still, Taylor calls me to at least a degree of balance. There was something quite ridiculous and artificial about the French aristocracy, for example, ca. 1770, accurately portrayed (I think) in this clip from John Adams

Perhaps St. Augustine did see “the road to God as passing through a reflexive awareness of ourselves” (p. 27). Many have pointed out how psychologically oriented was Martin Luther’s view of salvation. John Calvin began his Institutes by asking his readers to heed the Socratic dictum to “know thyself,” for knowledge of God and ourselves have an inextricable link. But Taylor sees Rousseau as the main originator of the modern view of authenticity. For Rousseau, “Our moral salavation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves,” and, “Self determining freedom demands that I break free from external impositions and decide for myself alone” (p. 27).

Well . . . ok. I don’t like the concept of authenticity but perhaps the difference lies in the “time of day.” What I mean is, bacon and eggs smells wonderful on the skillet when you’re hungry before breakfast, but that same smell hits one very differently with a full belly after lunch. The early Romantic movement, just as with the early Enlightenment, had good points to make. Rousseau championed, among other things, mothers actually breast-feeding their own children–something dramatically out of fashion for his time. Connecting with “nature” and the “self” I suppose could lead to more morally responsible living. You cannot blame your birth or other circumstances for who you are. But let it linger too long and you get the ridiculous movie Titanic, riddled through with romantic and “authentic” ideology–the smell of bacon and eggs at 10 am after you have already eaten. Still, Taylor asks the reader to see the premise of the morning before jumping straight to the twilight.

As for today, Taylor points out a variety of ways in which the “authenticity” narrative has gone astray.

Rousseau and his followers helped fuel democratic movements at home and abroad, but having created democracies in part through the dignifying the self, these same democracies would make a mockery of the original golden thread. Liberated from tradition, democratic man seemed to attain authenticity not via stern moral struggle against tradition, but as a birthright. If we are all authentic, then are all special, and thus, we all need recognized and regarded by others.

Taylor’s insights show us why those, for example, like Kaitlyn Jenner can be granted moral weight. The Authenticity narrative tells us that such people have attained a status of “real” humans because of their “courage” to make war even on biology itself–the final frontier–in order to achieve their version of true personhood. And, while I believe that those who alter their sex (if such a thing is truly possible) make terrible and tragic decisions, Taylor hints at why those that make these decisions often find them so empowering. Seeking a “genuine” connection with the self is the modern version of a transcendent experience. We grant large amounts of authority to those that have them, like the mystics of old.

Taylor also points out the endgame in store for “authenticity” lay implicit in its origins. If the self is to be the guide, and self-actualization has the ultimate authority, then we have a contradiction. For–the self can never be absolute, certainly not over others. Telling someone about your “experience” is nearly as bad as telling someone about the dream you had last night. In the end, we require an outside reference.

Alas, logical contradictions will likely not derail the Authenticity movement. But it is possible that time may take of this in ways that logic cannot.

I mentioned above the analogy of the smell of bacon before and after breakfast, and the analogy holds true in other aspects of life. In his War and Civilization compilation Toynbee admits the allure of the “morning” of a military outlook when reading the Iliad. Homer’s battle scenes have a dramatically bracing effect. Then, fast-forward to 19th century, where Prussian militarists like Helmuth von Moltke give one an entirely different impression of essentially the same thing that Homer described:

Perpetual Peace is a dream–and not even a beautiful dream–and War is an integral part of God’s ordering of the Universe. In War, Man’s noblest virtues come into play: courage and renunciation, fidelity to duty and a readiness to sacrifice that does not stop short of offering up Life itself. Without War the World would be swamped in materialism

Toynbee comments that, “there is a note of passion, of anxiety, and of rancor,” here that takes far away from the Greek poets. Moltke continues, perhaps even aware that he sails too close to the wind;

It is when an institution no longer appears necessary that fantastic reasons are sought or invented for satisfying the instinctive prejudice in its favor, which its long persistence has created.

If the modern Liberal order was created in part on the back of Authenticity, then surely we might say that those who still champion the idea copy Moltke and indeed invent “fantastic reasons” for the path they take. Perhaps Authenticity has run its course and can go into hibernation. We will wake it up when the scales have tipped too far in the other direction.

Dave

12th Grade: Only in a Democracy

This week we continued the Peloponnesian War by looking at the Peace of Nicias, and why it failed.

Like most things, not all peace treaties are created equal.  Throughout history some treaties have worked and many others have not.  Can we detect any patterns or similarities to their success or failure?

“Punic Peaces” (which refers to Rome’s complete obliteration of Carthage during the 3rd Punic War) always work because the enemy ceases to exist.  A lesser version of a Punic Peace might be what England did to Napoleon after Waterloo.  France technically could have continued to resist, as the bulk of their army remained intact, but the English put Napoleon in exile on St. Helena, which might as well have been the moon.  His continued resistance was impossible.

But in thinking of peace treaties, most of us would not want conflict to get to that point.  We prefer to avoid to save lives and avoid cataclysmic destruction if we can.  But it is these kinds of treaties, where both sides retain much of their original strength, that are so hard to devise and so hard to have succeed.

Why might this be?  The best treaties reflect reality as it really is, and not merely the whims or circumstances of the moment.  The best treaties factor in the reasons for the war starting, as well as how both sides fought.  They would also account for the current political dynamics in each country, as well as their psychological and emotional state.  Treaties are problematic because reality will not be caught so easily.

After 10 years of fighting both Athens and Sparta signed onto the “Peace of Nicias,” designed to last 50 years.  Alas, it never really took firm root in either society and lasted about six.  Even a cursory glance will tell us why the treaty failed.

  • If we follow the mantra of considering the beginning before deciding on an end, we should ask ourselves why the war started in the first place, and what each side fought for.  Indeed, the war lacked a defining physical cause.  One side did not invade the other.  Instead, the war seemed to be over honor and perception.
  • But the treaty shoved a couple of significant “dishonors” into the face of both sides.  Athens had abandoned Platea earlier in the war, a stain on their honor.  But now they could not get it back — the stain would be permanent.
  • Sparta had “liberated” Amphibolus from Athenian clutches, redeeming their embarrassing “no-show” in Mytilene.  Now, the treaty required them to give Amphibolus back to Athens.
  • Corinth, one of Sparta’s major allies, did not sign onto the treaty.  Naturally they would do much to try and undermine it.

At the core, the Peace of Nicias failed because it reflected temporary moods.  Neither side had expended even half of its strength in the fight so far.  Both sides smarted under the recent death of prominent generals (Cleon for Athens, Brasidas for Sparta).  Athenian failure at Delium helped the political rise to the “dove” Nicias, but democratic politics sways to and fro.  Facing dishonor, with more bullets left in the gun, both Athens and Sparta would likely begin fighting again.

We also began our look at the famous/infamous Alcibiades of Athens.Alcibiades

Only a democracy could produce someone like him.  He was. . .

  • Young
  • Rich
  • Handsome
  • Charismatic
  • Heedless of tradition
  • A man of “action”

In addition, no one could accuse him of being a dandy .  He fought in a few infantry engagements with some distinction.

I say that Alcibiades could exist only in a democracy because most other societies, especially aristocratic ones, value

  • The Elderly
  • Tradition
  • Stability

Political conservatives in the U.S. often talk about “returning to our Constitutional roots,” but have not had much success recently in presidential or senatorial elections.  o arguments like, “That’s the way the founders did it,” have any success?  I would tend to think not, and the reason might not be the willful ignorance or decadence of the electorate, but the pervading forward looking spirit of democratic cultures.

Blessings,

Dave

Democratic Personalities and Democratic Laws

I posted originally some years ago, and repost it now in conjunction with our senior Government class and, obviously, the recent impeachment.

The original post is below . . .

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Barring any unusual excitement at the Democratic and Republican conventions, it appears that many Americans will feel caught between a rock and a hard place regarding their two main choices for president.  Many blanch at the thought of “President Trump,” and I wondered if history might suggest hope for such a possibility.

Our founders may have had Republican Rome as their model, but as the U.S. continues to approach a more immediate democracy perhaps we should look to ancient Athens for a historical parallel. Athenian democracy experienced several points of crisis, with perhaps the most notorious coming after their defeat in the Peloponnesian War when they put Socrates on trial.

Many reasons have been given as to Socrates died at the hands of the Athenians. I am intrigued by the theory Mark Munn expounds in his book The School of History.  Munn argues that by 399 B.C. Athens searched desperately for stability.  Their democracy had transformed significantly under Pericles ca. 450-435 B.C., then switched to a partial oligarchy after the Sicilian disaster in 411 B.C., then back to a democracy by 410, then back to oligarchy in 404-03, then to a restored democracy once more.  But the democracy that ruled Athens ca. 400 B.C. was not the same that Athens experienced a generation earlier.

It seems fair to say that in its heyday, Athenian democracy was driven by great personalities and not by procedures.  Pericles stands as the foremost example of this, but others come to mind.  Herodotus and Thucydides’ histories give us a picture of dynamic men acting on inspiration.  Callimachus votes to attack at Marathon. Themistocles devises his own plan apart from the generals to win the Battle of Salamis.  Even lesser men like Nicias, Alcibiades, and Cleon sparkle on the page.*  Exact fidelity to the law itself did not concern the demos.  At their worst, the Athenians may have just wanted a diversion from their politics out of boredom, but another interpretation might point to the fact that the Athenians in this period of their history trusted in inspirational leadership of the moment, as opposed to fidelity to the expression of the “general will” embodied in law.  One might even call it a humble characteristic of Athenian democracy.  “The People” passed laws but willingly stepped aside at points in the face of “personality.”

But in time the plague, the disaster in Sicily, and their ultimate defeat by Sparta exacted a heavy psychological toll.

With the final restoration of democracy in Athens in 401, Athens moved away from dynamic leadership and towards the exacting nature of the enthronement of law.  Law offered a clear path and if nothing else, stability.  Munn argues that this passion for law and this movement away from “personality” put Socrates afoul of the will of the people.  The orator Aeschines, born in 389 B.C., wrote,

In fact, as I have often heard my own father say, for he lived to be 95 years old and had shared in all the toils of the city, which he often described to me in his leisure hours–well, he said that in the early days of the reestablished democracy , in any indictment for an illegal motion came into court, the matter was no sooner said than done . . .. It frequently happened that they made the clerk str and told him to read to the the laws and the the motion a second time; and they convicted a man of making an illegal proposal not because he had overleaped the laws entirely, but that one syllable only was contravened.

Socrates probably did run afoul of the exacting nature of Athenian religious law after 401 B.C., and he certainly ran directly counter to the spirit behind such laws with his claims to personal, divine inspiration that transcended any earthly authority/law.  He was a throwback to time associated with chaos, and to be frank, military disaster.

Of course democracies traditionally have the “rule of law” as a bedrock principle, and we should prefer exacting rule of law to the whims of a despot.  But few civilizations can match the cultural achievements of Athens in 5th century.  Also, the personality driven democracy of the 5th century certainly outperformed the law driven democracy of the 4th century.**  Perhaps one lesson we might draw from this is that a mixing forms and styles of government might outperform monochromatic governments, much like mutts are generally healthier and less crazy than pure-brads.^

Observers of Trump often comment that, aside from his ideas on immigration, he seems to have no particular policies (others would disagree).  Yet, unquestionably, he is a “personality,” one that the media, for all their antipathy towards him, cannot resist.  Is it possible that such an injection of “personality” might be what could help us from stale rigidity in our political life?  Certainly we have plenty of bureaucracy, plenty of incomprehensible law, as it stands now.

I say, yes, it is . . . possible.

*Cleon’s expedition and victory in Pylos during the Peloponnesian War is evidence of this preference for personality over procedure.  It was technically illegal for Cleon to even lead the expedition in the first place, but the Assembly could not resist enjoying the personal rivalry between Nicias and Cleon, and allowed/shamed Cleon into having his chance, which he then took advantage of.

**The great achievements of the 5th century came to a halt during the Peloponnesian War, a self-inflicted wound if there ever was one.  But the 4th century did no better, succumbing to Macedon after decades of vanilla tapioca laziness (as the traditional interpretation has it, anyway) in 338 B.C.

^Some might argue on behalf of the 4th century by citing that it produced Plato and Aristotle, luminaries 1 and 1a in western philosophy.  This argument should not be pushed too far.  A glance at the history of philosophy shows that most advances in this field occur in times of societal breakdown or even decay.  This is in contrast, I think to other areas of cultural achievement, whose health usually parallels that of the rest of society.  The 4th century had no Parthenon, no Euripides, etc.