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. . . .
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.
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. . .
But a century later, after more democracy (while still having an oligarchy) and we see a different scene:
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.
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. . .
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.
In October 1867 various Indians tribes gathered with U.S. army officers in an attempt to reach a formal peace in what became known as the Medicine Lodge Peace Commission. Most of the Cheyennes arrived fashionably late. One Cheyenne chief named Black Kettle assured General Harney that the Cheyennes had a traditional greeting that differed from other tribes, and he should not worry.
When they arrived, they put their horses into four columns on the other side of a creek. A bugle sounded, and the Cheyennes charged across the creek one column after another, roding hard straight towards General Harney, shooting in the air and hollering.
Harney received assurances. Stand still. Everything is fine.
Still, they galloped on towards him. Harney clearly had his doubts but remained unmoved. Other Comanche Indians already present clearly had misgivings and grabbed their own weapons.
Just a few feet in front of the general and the Comanche’s, the Cheyenne horses roared to a halt and bent low in one fluid motion as the Cheyenne warriors dismounted. They broke out laughing and started shaking hands with all present.
Among the hundreds of anecdotes from Peter Cozzen’s excellent The Earth is Weeping, this one stands out for me as most emblematic. When different cultures came together–and not just white and Indian cultures but differing Indian cultures–conflict can seem almost inevitable. The slightest error would mean violence and further mistrust, even if neither side necessarily wanted violence. Here, some patience and personal risk on the side of General Harney and the Comanche’s paid off, but we should not kid ourselves and say that such an outcome was easily obtained or even likely to occur.
Alas, after this auspicious beginning, the conference itself completely failed to produce anything like peace.
For much of our nation’s past we believed in our history. That is, our textbooks taught us that, while we were not perfect as a nation, we were on the right side of history. Older westerns may have shown “good” Indians, but consistently sided with the whites. But with the publication of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and the movie Little Big Man, the narrative pivoted almost entirely. Now, just as in Dances with Wolves, the army was the bad guys and the Indians were the good guys. The story we once told about our past no longer convinced us.
Cozzens attempts to redress the imbalance and provide a much more complex view. When one’s work receives positive reviews from National Review and The New York Times, you have probably hit upon something we need for our understanding of this period, if not for our whole culture. One reviewer labeled his work “quietly subversive,” which I think apt. Cozzens will not let us rest with easy categories. I would not call him as attempting to reverse the narrative by saying, “All those bad things you’ve heard that whites did to Indians? Not true!” While he mentions a variety of Indian atrocities against whites and each other, for the most part he blames Americans for the failure to achieve peace.
He takes care to show a murky tapestry and blurred lines. He shows us generals and Indians who respected each other and sought friendship, and those on both sides who hated each other and wanted war. And–we have to find a place for the African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” in the narrative. Some tribes turned against other tribes and showed no mercy, and Cozzens admits that the Indians’ version of total war against each other had much more brutality than ours did against them. Some Indian agents had great ideas as well as good intent, others tried to implement grand visions that made no sense and would surely only lead to violence through unrealistic expectations–as some generals took pains to explain. Instead of race vs. race, The Earth is Weeping shows us a web of confusing and shifting alliances. In the end, the main problem seemed to rest not in our official policy, but in that we had no coherent peace policy or any means of enforcing one, which left events at the mercy of violence on both sides.
Thus, Cozzens’ account takes on elements of Shakespearean tragedy, where certain key individuals take action that creates terrible situations. But aspects of Greek tragedy present themselves as well, where it seems almost inevitable that gigantic, unseen forces would certainly frustrate those with goodwill on both sides.
Surely the Indian wars of the West shared in some ways with wars that others have fought across time, but we should seek for what made this conflict unique to our context. Many of the tribes Cozzens writes about had a warrior culture. To earn status in the tribe, a young man had to show bravery and fight. No other path to status existed. Younger braves would surely resent their elders who told them not to fight–easy for them to say, who already had status and power. Of course, various tribes never sought peace at all. Many Indians knew that they had little chance against the army, but . . . better to go down remaining true to your identity.
But, as Tocqueville pointed out, America lacks a warrior elite mentality. Democracies he believed, naturally seek to avoid war, though they become quite formidable if united to actually fight. In time a united democratic force, he believed, would destroy an aristocratic warrior-elite society. But America had no unity on this issue, with political divisions on Indian questions as deep as exist today on other matters, and this begs the question–how then was our victory over the Indians so decisive?
Our political divisions can be separated broadly into “conservatives,” and “liberals.”
Conservatives tend to believe in a limited government that allows its citizens the broadest possible latitude. Self-government means that culture should have pride of place, not law–which comes in only at the margins. Liberals can look at the Indian wars and say, “This is the fault of conservatives. With a bigger and more powerful government we could have had a more coherent policy that we could enforce. If only we had the power to curtail our liberty of movement and actually enforce various laws (with the attendant higher taxes to increase revenue) and treaties, we could have averted the tragedy of the Indian wars.” Gary Gerstle makes this very argument in his Liberty and Coercion.
Liberals tend to believe in bigger government, but what purpose does this bigger government serve? For those on the left, the government exists to protect the right of individuals to do what they want. So conservatives can level a charge akin to, “You liberals care nothing for Law. If you want abortion, you override all law and custom to get it. If you want gay marriage, you will have it. You care little for the boundaries of code or culture–you simply want the government big enough so that no one can stop you from doing what you want to do.” Liberals tend to have a special focus on aiding those perceived to occupy the margins of society. Well, those who moved west certainly were not wealthy, elite, industrialists, the “one percenters.”
What Americans “wanted” in the latter half of the 19th century was the unencumbered ability to move west. No prominent leader of either side questioned this basic premise.
Tentatively, I suggest that herein lies the root of U.S. unity in the Indian wars, and perhaps our unity as a culture at large. We believe that we should have what we want. With this unity, our democratic society would surely defeat the more “aristocratic” Indian tribes.* Perhaps unity was subconscious then, and perhaps it is subconscious now, but both liberals and conservatives seem to want the same thing–doing what we want–via different means. Thus, neither a large government or a small one, neither a conservative or liberal policy, would have made much difference. If Americans wanted to move west, and if they believed that they should have the freedom to move west, it was bound to happen.
Perhaps this is the Greek element of this part of our history.
For the Shakespearean, I offer a variety of quotes below from The Earth is Weeping.
*We tend to think of the Indian tribes monolithically, but Cozzens shows that no real unified sense of “Indianness” existed among the tribes until the very end of the conflict–when it was far too late. This lack of unity among the tribes (perhaps common among other warrior-elite societies, like ancient Greece?), must also be a factor in this war.
We have heard much talk of the treachery of the Indian. In treachery, broken pledges on the part of high officials, lies, thievery, slaughter of defenseless women and children . . . the Indian was a mere amatuer in comparison to the “noble white man.”
Lt. Britton Davis, US Army
I knew that the white man was coming to fight us and take away our land, and I thought it was not right. We are humans too and God created us all alike, and I was going to do the best I could to defend our nation. So I started on the warpath when I was 16 years old.
Fire Thunder, Cheyenne Warrior
If the lands of the white man are taken, civilization justifies him in resisting the invader. Civilization does more than this: it brands him a coward and a slave if he submits to the wrong. If the savage resists civilization, with the 10 Commandments in one hand and the sword in the other, demands his immediate extermination.
Report of the Indian Peace Commission, 1868
You have asked for my advice . . . I can say that I can see no way in which your race can become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except if you live by the cultivation of the soil [instead of roaming and hunting]. It is the object of this government to be at peace with all our red brethren, and if our children should sometimes behave badly and violate treaties, it is against our wish. You know, it is not always possible for a father to have his children behave precisely as he might wish.
Abraham Lincoln, 1863
I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when the Indians see their game driven away and their people starve, their source of supplies cut off . . . that they go to war. They are surrounded on all sides, and they can only fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.
General George Crook
An army officer once asked a Cheyenne chief why his tribe made war on the neighboring Crow tribe. He responded, “We stole land from the Crow because they had the best hunting ground. We wanted more room for ourselves.”
The savage requires a greater extent of territory to sustain themselves than is compatible with progress and the just claims of civilized life, and must yield to those claims.
President James Monroe, 1817
I feel pity for the poor devil who naturally wriggles against his doom, and I have seen whites who would kill Indians just as they would bears, all for gold, and care nothing for it. Such men have no regard for treaties. But the savage is slothful, and is in need of discipline.
Gen. Wiiliam T. Sherman, 1866
The Great White Father sends us presents and wants us to sell him the road. But the White Chief goes with soldiers on the road before we say Yes or No.
Red Cloud, 1868
Disease, drink, intertribal warfare, the aggression of lawless whites, and the steady and restless emigration into Indian hunting lands–all of these factors endanger the very existence of the Plains Indians.
The Senate’s “Doolittle Commission,” 1867
The Indian is the best rough rider, the best soldier, and certainly the best natural horseman in the world [white scalps counted for little in Indian villages, as little honor was to be had from killing whites, viewed as inferior opponents].
Col. Richard Dodge, 1869
When Congress offered to build homes for the Indians upon reasonably good land where they would stay, Cheyenne warrior Satanta replied,
“This building of homes for us is nonsense. We don’t want you to build homes for us. We would all die. My country is small enough already. If you build us houses, I know that our land would be smaller. Why do you insist on this?
Medicine Lodge Peace Commission (MLPC) talks
I was born on the prairies, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. i live like my fathers before me, and like them, I live happy.
Comanche Chief Ten Bears, MLPC — this speech did not please those from other tribes, however, as they accused Ten Bears for his “womanly manner” of “talking of everything to death.”
You think you are doing a great deal for us by giving us these presents, yet if you gave all the goods you could give, still we would prefer our own life. You give us presents, then take our lands. That produces war. I have said all there is to say.
Cheyenne Chief Buffalo Chip
********** At the conclusion of the MLPC meeting, there was this exchange between General Sheridan and a Congressional Indian Agent:
Agent:When the guns arrive [guns were promised to the Indians as part of the peace negotiations] may i distribute them to the Indians?
Sheridan: Yes, give them arms, and if they go to war with us, the soldiers will kill them honorably.
Buffalo Chip: Let your soldiers grow long hair, so that we may have some honor in killing them.
The more I see of these Indians, the more I become convinced that they all have to be killed or maintained as a species of paupers. Their attempts at civilization are simply ridiculous.
General Sherman, said after continuing incursions by Arapaho and Cheyenne on the “Smoky Hill” region left 79 dead civilians, 13 women raped, and thousands of livestock destroyed or scattered
The white man never lived who truly loved the Indian, and no true Indian ever lived that did not hate the white man.
Lakota chief Sitting Bull
When Cheyenne “Dog Soldiers” raided white settlements (including kidnapping and execution of white women), Sheridan used Pawnee warriors to help track them down. They caught them at a place called Seven Springs, and the Pawnee killed the Cheyenne indiscriminately without mercy. One Cheyenne survivor of the raid said, “I do not blame the Pawnee for killing our women and children. As far back as I remember the Cheyenne and Sioux slaughtered every male, female, and child we found of the Pawnee. Each hated the other with savage hearts that know only total war.
Modoc Indian raiders were captured. Some Modocs went on the “warpath” after some Oregonian settlers had killed defenseless Modoc villagers. When arrested, the leader of the band, “Captain Jack,” said, “If the white men that killed our villagers had been tried and punished, I would submit to you much more willingly. Do we Indians stand any show for justice with you white people, with your own laws? I say no. I know it. You people can shoot any Indian any time you want whether we are at war or peace. I charge the white people with wholesale murder.
This week we started on what is known as ‘The Progressive Era’ in America (dated ca. 1880-1920), or the Victorian Era in England (ca. 1860-1900).
We first looked at how Teddy Roosevelt embodied this period in American history. Born a bit sickly and weak, he transformed himself into a ‘healthy’ and physically vigorous man. He believed that nothing good in life came easily. Struggle was essential to growth and achievement, so he rarely backed down from either a personal or political challenge. His relentless energy and enthusiasm reflected America’s ‘can do’ spirit of the time. This is certainly revealed in some famous photos of him:
Teddy Roosevelt is known as the first ‘modern’ president for a variety of reasons. He made the presidency the focus instead of Congress. His energy and drive made him a national figure. A keen and perceptive man, he also understand the power of the modern press to craft and publicize an image. Of course with Roosevelt there was a strong connection between these images and reality, but he used them nevertheless. These famous photos of him with his family garnered national attention, for example:
I handed out a sheet of quotes from Roosevelt that I hope accurately reflect his beliefs and personality. While he was a Republican, you can see that he would probably not fit into the Republican party of today in some crucial ways. These quotes are at the bottom of this update. We also looked at the phenomena of expansion and imperialism. While Europeans had been colonizing on some level since the age of exploration, we see a significant expansion throughout Europe and the United States at this time. Clearly, something was in the air. What made this period so focused on imperialistic pursuits? We can postulate a few possible answers:
Industrialization allowed for bigger and more powerful things to be built, which made sea travel over longer distances possible
Rapid industrialization would create the need for raw materials to be imported
England had always had an empire. Industrialization meant that others could try and catch up. England, wanting to keep its lead, would expand to do so.
Missionary efforts, while probably not the motive for imperialism, was certainly a by-product of it.
These are good answers, but they do not quite touch on what expansion reveals about the heart of western civilization at this time.There are two main schools of thought:
The traditional view states that expansion is the sign of health. By 1900 western civilization controlled perhaps as much as half the globe. Expansion requires energy and drive, and this in turn, requires health. In this line of reasoning, western civilization peaks as its territorial and ideological expansion peaks. Niall Ferguson adheres to this, arguing that western culture peaked around the turn of the 20th century.
The minority view states the opposite. The first historian I am aware of to advance this theory was Oswald Spengler, a quirky German recluse who first published his ‘Decline of the West’ in 1926. Spengler interpreted the life of civilizations much in the way we might view the life of an individual. For Spengler, a civilization is healthy when it possesses a vibrant ‘inner-life’ and is at peace with their place in the world. When a civilization exhausts its inner life, the only thing left is to extend the possibilities of the self outwardly. So — expansion is sign of boredom, of weakness, of an actual lack of vitality. Just as we would think that a person who needed constant variety would be bored, so too civilizations.
Spengler’s analysis was not greeted with wild enthusiasm at the time, as you might imagine. His work generated a lot of controversy due to the variety of atypical opinions he espoused. He also wrote sentences like, “So we see that historical investigation can be reduced to interpretation of morphological symbolisms” — sentences that might make you wonder if you’ve been had. Still, his thesis would be picked up and reinterpreted later by AJ Toynbee, and to some degree by Kenneth Clark. It deserves consideration.
Teddy Roosevelt Quotes:
Preparation for war is the best guarantee of peace.
I killed a Spaniard with my own hand, like a Jackrabbit!
When I took my gun to Cuba, I made a vow to kill at least one Spaniard with it, and I did!
The most absolutely righteous foreign war of the century! – Opinion on the Spanish American War
I deserve the Congressional Medal of Honor, and I want it.
Business and Government
The greatest corporations should be responsible to popular wish and government command.
. . .in no other country was such power held by the men who had gained these fortunes. the government was impotent. Of all forms of tyranny, the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of plutocracy.
As a people we cannot let any citizen live or labor under conditions which are injurious to the common welfare. Industry, therefore, must submit to the public regulation as will make it a means of life and health.
We stand for a living wage. Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide for those in industrial occupations. A living wage must include . . . enough money to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during sickness, and to permit reasonable savings for old age.
Nationalism and Imperialism
Of course our whole national history has been one of expansion. . . . That the barbarians recede or are conquered. . . . is due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace in the red wastes where the barbarians held sway.
We shall never be successful over the dangers that confront us; we shall never achieve true greatness, unless we are Americans in heart and soul, in spirit and purpose, keenly alive to the possibility implied in the very name American, and proud beyond measure of the glorious pleasure of hearing it.
It is, I’m sure, the desire of every American that the people of each island, as rapidly as they show themselves ready for self-government, shall be endowed with self-government. But it would be criminal folly to sacrifice the real welfare of the islands . . . under the plea of some doctrine which, if it had been lived up to, would have made the entire continent of North America the happy hunting ground of savages. — TR urging that America put down the rebellion in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.
America’s duty to the people living in barbarism is to see that they are freed from their chains, and we can free them only by destroying barbarism itself.
TR the Conservationist
The lesson of deforestation in China is a lesson mankind should have learned already. Denudation leaves naked soil, they gullying down to the bare rock. When the soil is gone men must go, and the process does not take long. What happened in other parts of the world will surely happen in our own country if we do not exercise that wise foresight which should be one of the chief marks of any people calling itself civilized.
Forests do not exist for the present generation alone. They are for the people, [which] always must include the people unborn as the people now alive, or the democratic ideal is not realized.
As a people, we have the right and duty . . . to protect ourselves and our children against the wasteful development of our natural resources.
512 — The number of animals Roosevelt and Kermit killed while on safari in Africa, including 17 lions, 11 elephants, 2 rhinos, 9 giraffes, 47 gazelles, and other creatures including the kudo, aardwolf, and klipspringer.
My view was that the executive officer was a steward of the people bound actively and affirmatively to do all he could for the people, and not content himself with . . . keeping his talents undamaged in a napkin. I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the nation could not be done by the president unless he found some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything the needs of the nation demanded unless it was forbidden expressly by the Constitution.
I do not believe any president has had as much fun as I have.
‘Why, that’s bully!’ — One of his favorite expressions
Why couldn’t they call them ‘Theodore Bears?’ — He hated the name ‘Teddy.’
I will make this speech or die. — Said after an assassins bullet had passed through his lung while campaigning for president in 1912.
Father wants to be the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral — Remark attributed to one of Roosevelt’s sons.
David F. Noble’s The Religion of Technology starts with an intriguing premise. Many, he argues, assume that religion and technology have a long standing enmity with each other. This narrative, bolstered by the urban legend of the church’s opposition to Columbus, and a misunderstanding of what happened with Galileo, runs deep in our cultural mindset. The triumph of Enlightenment thinking for some seals the deal in religion’s ultimate defeat by the march of progress and reason. Noble’s book sets out to show the opposite, that the creation of technology has always stemmed from a religious impulse, and that many of the world’s great technological pioneers created with a distinctly religious aim in mind.
Noble makes a few interesting claims. On the one hand, he points out that the church sponsored, or helped create certain technologies, such as the heavy plow in the Frankish empire, and a variety of other things. He also attempts to show such sponsorship meant a departure from established Orthodoxy, assuming that such ‘orthodoxy’ stood against technical development, and then traces this religious impulse down to the modern day. I can appreciate any attempt to help understand and heal the divide between religion and science, and Noble’s work accomplishes this to a slight degree. His problems stem from his lack of understanding of the meaning of technology, and the Scriptural tradition related to the topic. He misses crucial nuance and context.*
For starters, how anti-technology can Christian orthodoxy be if
The Old Testament has a variety of sections in which craftsmen are praised, especially those who build the temple.
Adam was told to tend and develop the garden. One might suppose that he would do so with more than just his hands.
Jesus was the (earthly) son of a carpenter
But Noble rightly points out ambiguity in the text and tradition, for we also see
That Cain’s line was the first to develop technology
That the early chapters of Genesis show that those that develop technology use it first for bad ends
That cities get a bad rap in OT at least, with Cain, Babel, Sodom, Egypt, and the like.
Noble makes no attempt to resolve these seeming contradictions and place technology in its proper context.
First we need to understand the meaning of mankind in creation, and why Cain developed tools and cities.
One can read Genesis 1 in a variety of ways. I think it best read as, at its core, an explication of the meaning of creation. Mankind comes last, but throughout the process of creation we see continual duality, first cosmically between light and dark, and then later between sea and dry land, fishes and birds, plants and animals, and so on. This dualities get closer together until we get the creation of man and woman. Mankind has the role of mediating between heaven and earth, of being the center point of the ladder of meaning that travels between what lies above and below.
The picture deepens when we see the Garden in Genesis residing on a mountain. The idea of a mountain bursting with life–this kind of paradox permeates the Christian faith, a paradox that we need to understand to interpret technologies role correctly. When Adam and Eve leave the garden, they descend down the mountain, a descent away from heaven toward earth, from meaning to fact. This “fall” downwards also gives one more earthly power, which makes sense as a kind of parody of heavenly wisdom.
In the Old Testament, as well as in other mythic traditions, the problem with technology comes not with the thing itself, but mankind receiving or grasping it before the proper time. We see this in the myth of Prometheus, for example. In the Garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was declared “good” along with the rest of creation. To help destroy man the snake tempts them to take it before the proper time.** Cain’s subsequent wandering takes him down under the mountain, in fact. He begins to look not up to heaven but under the earth. He and his descendants build cities, tools, and even musical instruments. All of this has its roots in death–even the earliest instruments came from the horns or skins of dead animals. Naturally, actual physical death comes right on the heels of these technologies (Gen. 4:23-24).
Alienated from God, mankind no longer can properly unite heaven and earth. Many have speculated on the proper interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. The early church saw these verses as the Book of Enoch interprets them. Fallen angels have, likely through demonic possession of some sort, join with women and their offspring become the Nephilim, a race of giants. Others see it in simpler terms, with the godly line of Seth intermarrying with the ungodly line of Cain. I prefer the former option, but either way, we see again the same problem, that of improper mixing, and mankind failing to properly mediate between heaven and earth. Once again, this results in violence and the flood. The flood represents chaos and a return to a formless void, but it only mirror the chaos already introduced by mankind who fell to the temptations of technology.
Science participates in the same pattern of uniting heaven and earth as other areas of life. No contradiction should exist between science and religion. Scientists take an idea, a hypothesis, and try and coherently unite that idea (what is ‘above’) to observable phenomena (what is ‘below’). One might argue that the power Science grants has a kinship with the power of words properly structured in a great speech. But, science seems to operate on a different scale. We many not initially see that the increase of power granted by technology serves in turn to make us more vulnerable. This shows itself in any number of ways in our experience. For example, if in traveling from New York to California we
walked, it would take us a long time, but the worst that could happen more or less is that we would sprain our ankle, or
ran, we could go a bit faster, but in falling, with the extra momentum, we could do more damage to our legs and feet, or
drove, we would get there faster still, but if something went wrong with the car we could get badly hurt in an accident, or
flew in a plane, we would go fastest of all, but if even a small thing goes wrong with the craft, death would be the likely outcome.
This quick sketch no doubt leaves many unanswered questions, but hopefully this shows that reticence the Church expresses about technology has nothing to do with fear of change, or control, but in something far deeper and more important. However, the biblical narrative develops another parallel track regarding the use of technology that begins just as the detrimental effects of the Fall take root. With Adam and Eve now naked and ashamed, God makes them a “garment of skin,” a covering, that allows them to encounter the world and each other. Such garments come from the death of animals, and we can see them as the first “technology.” This technology allows mankind to interact with the world. The garments come from death and are a concession to death, but serve a good purpose.
This turning of death into life also forms part of the pattern of creation, for “Christ was slain from the foundation of the world.” For, while the OT shows us the problem of cities within the patterns, the NT shows us that even the idea of the city becomes part of the glorification of all things (Rev. 20-21). We see hints of this in the OT as well, with the construction of the Tabernacle, which can be seen as a “covering,” a means for us to encounter God, since seeing Him directly would destroy us. The Temple later serves something of the the same purpose, but interestingly, many of the materials and craftsmen for the Temple came from foreign nations. such as Tyre and Lebanon, which allows to see two things simultaneously:
A foreshadowing of the gathering in of all nations to under the coming Messiah, of God reconciling all things to Himself in Christ, and
That these coverings come from Outside, they are not quite part of the “core” of kingdom culture, that the Temple is “tainted” in some way.
Noble makes the great point that our technological impulse is essentially religious. Done rightly, it can manifest our calling to unite Heaven and Earth properly. But a wrong application leads toward a potentially demonic path, where our worst impulses to make ourselves into one of the old gods. Noble fails to see this pattern and so he cannot coherently organize his thoughts to make a point beyond mere observations of particulars. To say that technological development cuts against “religious orthodoxy” is too strong a claim. To say that Church tradition has usually expressed a wariness with new inventions puts us nearer the truth. We need such caution on today’s rapidly expanding digital technology to give us a chance to navigate it rightly, and give us the best chance avoiding violence and destabilization.
In War and Civilization, a short work compiling Arnold Toynbee’s thoughts on the relationship between war and society, Arnold Toynbee quotes from a prominent biologist that,
One seductive and ultimately fatal path [of Evolution] has been the development of protective armor. An organism can protect itself by concealment, by swiftness in flight, by counter-attack, by uniting for counter-attack by others of his species and also by encasing itself within bony plates and spines. The last course was adopted by ganoid fishes of the Devonian with their shining armor. Some of the great lizards of the later Mesozoic were elaborately encased. Always the experiment of armor failed. Creatures adopting it tended to become unwieldy. They had to move relatively slowly. Hence they were forced to live on vegetative matter compared to living on more “profitable” animal food. The repeated failure of armor shows that, even a somewhat low evolutionary level, mind triumphed over mere matter. It is this sort of triumph which has been supremely exemplified in Man.
Toynbee used this analogy of armor as a reference point to the David and Goliath story. David’s rejection of armor gave him more than a potential tactical advantage over Goliath. We can see David refusing armor as a putting off of the Garments of Skin, as a return to something like the Garden. Jesus cursing the fig tree accomplishes much the same thing, which we can see as Christ reversing the fall–fig leaves formed the first covering for man (Gen. 3:7). And, when Jesus tells us that “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” He refers directly to the humility of His poverty. But he also hearkens back to the fact that He has no covering, that He shed his garments, so to speak.
With his commitment to seeing history through a spiritual lens, Toynbee arrived, perhaps unwittingly, had some of these same hesitations regarding power–another “covering” akin to the Garments in Genesis. He writes about the Roman Empire:
In the downward course of a civilization there is truth in the saying of the philosopher Heraclitus: “War is the father of all things.” The sinister concentration of the resources of a civilization upon the business of fratricidal warfare may generate a military prowess that will place their neighbors at their mercy, may create a military technique that may grant them a far reaching technical mastery over the merely “Material World.”
Since it is common to reckon success primarily by power and wealth, the opening chapters in the decline of a civilization will be hailed as times of blessing and growth, and this misconception can persist even for centuries. Sooner or later, however, disillusionment is bound to follow, for a society that is hopelessly divided against itself is almost certain to try and double down on military might, for that is what seemed to work initially.
For example, we see the money-power and man-power won for Greek society by Alexander the Great, and these same vast resources used to intensify the civil wars between Alexander’s successors. This same power swept into Roman hands through the meteoric rise in Rome’s land and wealth ca. 241-146 B.C. was just as quickly spent in the various civil wars that wracked Rome before the rise of Augustus and the Pax Romana. For Spain, the treasure gained in the new world and the free labor of the essentially enslaved native populations was the food for their wars in Europe during the late 16th and early 17th centuries–the same wars that brought them into second-rate power status in Europe.
Thus the increasing command over the environment gained is apt to bestow upon a society a disintegration that puts a greater driving power into the suicidally demented society’s chosen work of self-destruction; and that story turns out to be a simple illustration of the theme that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). And again, the empires of industrialized Europe in the late 19th century gained the material resources to nearly destroy European civilization in our great Western civil war of 1914-18.
War and Civilization centers around Toynbee’s examination of Assyrian civilization. Assyria stands as the poster child of how a quick, massive expansion of power actually can bring about a swift ruin and complete dissipation of that power. Such near instant bursts of physical growth bring with them commensurate problems, hence Toynbee’s chapter entitled, “The Burden of Nineveh.” With this in mind, we have a possible lens through which we can know whether or not we choose our garments well or poorly. We can begin by realizing that whatever coverings we put on will not actually solve our psychological, spiritual, or physical longings, though they can deceive us not thinking so. Sometimes these coverings hinder and obscure the best parts of us. But at times they are a necessary expedient to cope with challenges we face. Different people, and different civilizations might need to choose differently depending on circumstance. We should walk these paths with caution. The only way to avoid the deception of our garments of skin is to wear them with humility.
*Noble annoyed me early on by quoting with approval Max Weber’s idea that Christianity revived Roman polytheism. I can appreciate that Christianity is not strictly monistic as is Islam and perhaps Judaism, but Noble should know better. I suppose he left it in for supposed shock value, since it adds nothing to his thesis.
**We can see this same element in human sexuality. It is good, created by God. Only when we are properly prepared, in the right context (marriage between a man and a woman) can this “power” be wielded in a good and proper manner.
(The Grumpy Old Man podcast that touches on some of these themes can be found here.).
A few years ago at the Circe Instituteconference Andrew Kern made a startling statement. In the midst of his opening speech he mentioned the Luddites. I have always assumed (like most of us I suppose) that the Luddites attacked the mechanical looms for economic reasons. But Kern suggested that perhaps the Luddites acted unknowingly for more fundamental reasons.
All throughout ancient literature (which people in the early 19th century would be familiar with) weaving relates strongly to wisdom. So Penelope’s weaving, for example, is not merely a clever device to stall the suitors. She represents wisdom and faithfulness in contrast to the suitors who grasp for power and wealth. They will not confirm Odysseus’ death, rather they will take what they want in defiance of the pattern of creation and marriage. The idea of the “fabric of society” closely relates to weaving, and so on.
So, Kern surmised, the Luddites didn’t just act to try and preserve their jobs. They may have acted to preserve the idea of wisdom itself, though almost certainly not overtly but in a sub-conscious, Jungian sense.
I thought the idea intriguing at the time, but perhaps a bit of a stretch. But I started to look for weaving in ancient literature. To my surprise Plato uses weaving in “The Statesmen” as an analogy for good government. With Jason and his Argonauts we see Medea the sorceress contrasted with Queen Arete, who is weaving when we first meet her. In Homer’s The Odyssey we see a couple of references to the span of life compared to a thread (7.197-198, 24.38-29). Melville uses similar imagery in chapter 47 of Moby Dick, and we also see it in the Upanishads. Isaiah 38:12 reads, “My life was with me as cloth on a loom, when she that weaves draws near to cut off the thread.”
The philosopher Porphyry uses very similar imagery in his On the Cave of the Nymphs, another reference to the Odyssey (13.102-112). Here Homer refers to a murky cave which contains, among other things, “looms, likewise of stone, on which the nymphs wear weave sea-purple garments.” Porphyry writes (and we should remember that he–unfortunately–believed in the pre-existence of the soul),
What symbol could be more appropriate than “looms” for souls descending to birth and the creation of the body? , . . For flesh is formed in and around the bones, which in living beings resemble stones.
We should not miss the connections to the fundamental facts of weaving, birth, death, blood, and the like.
So perhaps Kern, and the Luddites themselves, were on to something.
I finally went in search of a book on the Luddites and came across Rebels Against the Future by Kirkpatrick Sale. Sale gives a good overview of the Luddites but does little else. He gives us some important perspective, showing us that the Luddites had nothing against technology per se, but only against, to quote from a Luddite letter, “Machinery hurtful to commonality.” He clearly favors the Luddite cause and shows many examples of their courage. Sale’s explanation for the Luddites ultimate failure, however, leaves out to my mind the most basic reason. In resorting to violence, they at times fired upon common men like themselves, and thus abandoned their moral high ground. Furthermore, their use of violence played directly into the hands of their adversaries. Once they broke the law, the state naturally would defend the men behind the machines. And the state had much more force to use than the Luddites.* Had the Luddites exercised more patience and used a non-violent, grass-roots approach, history might have been different. As to how different, Sale offers no thoughts. Did industrial looms pose more of a threat than factories that performed other tasks? Would it be possible to industrialize in some areas and not others? If other countries industrialized their economy, and thus, their armies, what would the consequences be for a non-industrial country? The age of imperialism might offer some hints on this, and questions about community balanced with security (among other questions) should be asked.
Sale just scratches the surface. Maybe not much else exists to see. Maybe the Luddites had no higher purpose than saving their jobs. But I think the Luddites continual references to “commonality” hints that Kern had more insight than I first supposed. I will hope to find other books that can take the issue deeper.
My favorite part of Toynbee’s sixth volume of his A Study of History deals with his examination of what he calls archaism. “Archaics” in his context seek to recover their civilization in a time of crisis by using a time-machine to travel back to some imagined golden age. We should much prefer archaism to “futurism.” The past has the advantage of having an actual reality and thus restrains action somewhat. The futurist has no such limitations, and the evil they work in their earnest desperation will likely be much more terrible. Toynbee points out that archaists would usually rather be archaeologists than politicians. Alas, political realities set in and something must give. The impossibility of drawing back the masses to the past with you means that archaists often choose violence in the end. And this ends up dooming their movement.**
I think the Luddites use of violence contributed heavily to their defeat, but I would not call them “archaists.” They sat on the knife-edge of change and saw a darkness on the horizon. The “past” they tried to preserve was in fact the present. Given that they did not reject all technology they had no wish to futilely put the brakes on all aspects of societal change. They saw clearly what the Industrial Revolution would do to their communities and their sense of self. If they did not submit to “archaism” they had more psychological flexibility at their disposal, which makes their use of violence more troubling to me. Perhaps in the end they simply lacked the very rare traits necessary to translate those ideas politically.
Or perhaps their concerns went far away from politics. Perhaps they saw themselves as doomed crusaders, but bound, like crusaders, to something deeper and older than politics.
According to the Tradition of the Church, at the Annunciation the Virgin Mary was found by Gabriel in the Temple . . . weaving a veil for the Temple where she resided, and some icons of the Annunciation (such as the one below from the 14th century in Serbia) show this as well.
In Hebrews 10:20 we see the identification with Christ’s body with the veil of the sanctuary (10:20), and we know that both the Temple curtain and the Body of Christ were broken for the life of the world. Father Maximos Constas writes, “With the strictest visual economy, then, Mary’s thread gives consummate expression the . . . continuum of conception and crucifixion.”^
From St. Epiphianos:
About Eve and Mary it was said, “Who gave women the wisdom of weaving, and the knowledge of embroidering? (Job 38:36). For the first wise woman, Eve, wove material garments for Adam, whom she had stripped naked. This labor was given to her, for it was through her that the knowledge of nakedness was acquired, and thus to her was given the task of clothing the perceptible body.
To Mary, on the other hand, it was granted by God to give birth to the Lamb and the Shepherd [cf. John 1:29, 10:11], so that from his glory we might be clothed in a garment of incorruptibility (1 Cor. 15:53-54).
And from St. Nelios the Ascetic:
The Theotokos [that is, Mary, the “Mother of God”] displayed such “wisdom and manifold knowledge” (Job 38:36) that, from the wool of the Lamb who was born from her, she was able to clothe all the faithful with garments of incorruptibility. For all true Christians stand at the right hand of the King, in golden-fringed garments, embroidered in myriad forms of the virtues.
So it may be that the liturgy of the loom points us toward the wisdom of knowing salvation itself. I’d like to believe that the Luddites thought likewise, and would love for someone to prove or at least suggest this in another book about them.
*Gene Sharp makes brilliant points about the benefits of non-violent struggle against states or state-sponsored entities in “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” available online.
**I.e, Tiberius Graachi, who committed himself almost entirely to non-violence. But he did violate the Roman constitution and so became a law-breaker. This may have cost his movement the fence-sitters they needed, and it also opened the door for the Senate to respond with force.
^The entirety of this paragraph owes everything to The Art of Seeing by Father Maximos Constans, pp. 108-109, as do the quotes below, found on p. 129
The evaluations of the historically minded often move like a pendulum. I see this throughout my own life. Initially, like everyone, I thought Napoleon a great genius. But then you think again . . . after all, he lost. And what about what happened in Egypt, to say nothing of Russia? And what of all those armies he beat from 1799-1809–nothing more than decrepit, out-dated Enlightenment entities destined for the trash-heap anyway.
After a while, however, I thought again and gave credit where due. Sure, his armies were the perfect foil for the Austrians and Prussians, but he helped create the French army that formed that perfect foil. Like any great leader he imprinted himself all over his army. And we say that the armies he faced were bound for trash-heap only with the benefit of hindsight. Napoleon put them there, after all.
But . . . he lost.
Writing about The Civil War comes with similar pitfalls. As the states began to come together in the Progressive Era (ca. 1880-1920) we looked for unity and healing from our past, and we lionized Lee as a romantically doomed warrior, who nevertheless, performed heroic feats. Lee’s generalship for that era stood second to none. Beginning in the 1960’s historians swung the narrative. They focused on Lee’s irascible temper, his huge losses, his weak opponents, his strategic failures at Antietam, Gettysburg, and so on.
Joseph Glatthar’s excellent General Lee’s Army brings balance back to this narrative. He studies the army of Northern Virginia in depth and concludes that of course, Lee was a great commander. He helped forge a great army with a great record in the field. He deserves much of the credit he receives.
But . . . he lost, and we do well to remember this.
Glathaar shows us how the strengths and weaknesses of Lee and his army come from the same place by looking at culture, demographics, the life of the common solider, and those directly under Lee’s command.
We do have to take into account Lee’s frequent opponent, the Union’s Army of the Potomac. From a pure match-up standpoint, it would have been interesting to have Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson oppose Grant, Sherman, and Thomas for the duration of the conflict. As it happened Lee only faced Grant towards the end of the war, and then Grant had to work with the Army of the Potomac, where he inherited a completely different, and vastly inferior, operational and command culture than he worked with out west.
In A Savage War, the authors point out that the Army of the Potomac inherited a disproportionate number of soldiers recently graduated from West Point. A West Point education tended at that time to over-emphasize math, engineering, and organization (something that U.S. Grant lamented in his memoirs). Such skills have their place, but should not have pride of place in officer training. Those that drank from the firehose of this approach would inevitably give way to excessive caution. Meticulous organization takes a lot of time. In addition, once you have built something so “pure” and pretty, one might not wish to do anything that might get it dirty. This helps explain why McClellan (tops in his class at West Point) could think himself a great general even though he couldn’t actually win a battle. He was excellent in doing what his education, at least in the narrow sense, trained him to do.
The plodding, rigidly organized Army of the Potomac gave Lee and his men a perfect target given their particular strengths.
Glaathar points out that the men in Lee’s army fully believed in their cause and came with the strongest of motivations. Ante-bellum southern society had the duel influences of the aristocratic planter and the Appalachian border-settlers. Both of these cultures emphasized honor and courage. Both of these cultures preached a vision of manliness that gave way to no one. Letters home from top officers on down the ranks show a constant desire for combat and to prove themselves.
Lee both understood and embodied this himself. Many other accounts of his generalship focus on his ability to psychologically assess his opposite number on the Union side and devise the proper approach accordingly. Glaathar adds to this, showing how Lee knew how to use his men expertly. They proved superlative in the counter-attack, and could march quickly and fight hard back-to-back. We see this at Bull Run, in Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign, and at Chancellorsville, as at other times.
But both the aristocratic planter and border settler culture had its weaknesses, and these too had a significant impact on the war.
Appalachian border culture emphasized freedom of initiative and eschewed “systems” like tight and itchy collars. Lack of formal structure gives one great freedom. But an army of tens of thousands needs tight organization to act as a unit. Without this organization, large scale offensives could never be undertaken.
Many in the south seceded because they did not want to be told what to do by anyone they did not like or respect. They tended to run hot and cold alternatively. Sure enough, Lee had a hard time enforcing discipline. We hear a lot about Union armies looting in the South, but Lee’s army at times looted the Virginia countryside for supplies, stole from the bodies of dead Union soldiers,** and had a hard time maintaining equipment. Many went AWOL unexpectedly not necessarily out of cowardice but because “they felt like it.”
Honor and Ego:
The aristocratic nature of the army came through in the upper echelon of the officers. The bickered for position and rank. At times they disobeyed directly if they felt insulted. Some at times seemed to prefer maintaining their honor to winning a battle.
All of these weaknesses would make coordinated action over a large distance difficult. Perhaps this is why Lee spread out his armies in his invasion of the north in 1863. It gave each commander more independence. But . . . when the time came for coordinated action, invariably Lee’s forces could not pull it off.
Shelby Foote wrote that, “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Lee command their army.” I’m guessing that he meant at least that no one is perfect. But I surmise that he meant more. The weaknesses of Lee’s army, and of much of southern culture, outed themselves at that battle. There the Confederacy fought a weaker opponent, but in ways that favored Union’s strengths. The good ground and interior lines of the Union forces at Gettysburg played right into the laps of the North’s slower, plodding, yet more bull-headed nature.^
Lee’s 1863 invasion may have been a mistake, but he intuited correctly that the South could not win a long and protracted war. He emphasized the Confederacy’s logistical shortcomings, but the army had cultural shortcomings as well. Perhaps Lee had read and recalled Tocqueville’s commentary on aristocratic and democratic societies at war. Tocqueville comments that,
In aristocracies the military profession, being a privileged career, is held in honor even in time of peace. Men of great talents, great attainments, and great ambition embrace it; the army is in all respects on a level with the nation, and frequently above it.
We have seen, on the contrary, that among a democratic people the choicer minds of the nation are gradually drawn away from the military profession, to seek by other paths distinction, power, and especially wealth. After a long peace, and in democratic times the periods of peace are long, the army is always inferior to the country itself. In this state it is called into active service, and until war has altered it, there is danger for the country as well as for the army.
It may be remarked with surprise that in a democratic army after a long peace all the soldiers are mere boys, and all the superior officers in declining years, so that the former are wanting in experience, the latter in vigor. This is a leading cause of defeat, for the first condition of successful generalship is youth. I should not have ventured to say so if the greatest captain of modern times had not made the observation.
A long war produces upon a democratic army the same effects that a revolution produces upon a people; it breaks through regulations and allows extraordinary men to rise above the common level. Those officers whose bodies and minds have grown old in peace are removed or superannuated, or they die. In their stead a host of young men is pressing on, whose frames are already hardened, whose desires are extended and inflamed by active service. They are bent on advancement at all hazards, and perpetual advancement; they are followed by others with the same passions and desires, and after these are others, yet unlimited by aught but the size of the army. The principle of equality opens the door of ambition to all, and death provides chances for ambition. Death is constantly thinning the ranks, making vacancies, closing and opening the career of arms.
. . . An aristocratic nation that in a contest with a democratic people does not succeed in ruining the latter at the outset of the war always runs a great risk of being conquered by it.
*Interesting parallels exist between Lee and Napoleon’s armies. Both faced stiff, rigidly organized opponents. Both emphasized movement, speed, and capitalized on the energy and spirit of their men. Both had great success early, but both also suffered significant setbacks as their respective wars dragged on. Each faced manpower issues, but also, their opponents got better over time and neither Napoleon or Lee made the necessary adjustments based on the improvement in their opponents.
In fairness to the Army of the Potomac, the soldiers displayed extreme courage at Fredericksburg, and were stalwart in the defense at Gettysburg.
**Many southerners decry the actions of Sherman. Glaathar demonstrates that Lee’s army did many of the same things, albeit on a smaller, less organized scale, as Sherman’s army. And . . . they did this not just in Pennsylvania but in Virginia as well.
^Fredericksburg might serve as a good example of these qualities, with a negative outcome.
I very much appreciate Peter Thiel’s contributions to public discourse. I likely lean away from his overall optimism about technology–I wish we could think of a way to grow economically without needing to radically altering the labor market and public discourse with the latest invention every few years. That said, those who can combine business acumen, incisive cultural commentary, and theological insight deserve a listen.
The subject of Constantine came up in his recent interview on the Meeting of Mindspodcast with Jerry Bowyer. Thiel alluded to the problems of governance in accordance with truth and goodness. Politics is inevitably icky, and linking Christianity with such ickiness has always proved problematic. Thiel made the intriguing comment that given the chaotic nature of the times, perhaps Constantine had it right in postponing his baptism and official conversion until near his death.
I had never thought this way before about Constantine, and while I wished Thiel had continued his thoughts on this point, the fact that he left it at that leaves me room to speculate with abandon.
To understand politics, and to try and have some sympathy with Constantine’s decision, we need to see the difference between Authority and Power. Hopefully both have a strong relation to each other. But in strange times, they tend to move further apart.
“Authority” contains the core, and the origin, of a particular action. The core must be solid, and stable. For Authority to work, it has to embody this reality. Authority gives legitimacy, or impetus, or perhaps even permission, to Power.
“Power” applies Authority, and so must have more fluidity and movement. It is this movement which gives Power, well, its power. This motion will have an effect, however, regardless of its association to Authority. That is why we hope that Power will always stay connected to legitimate Authority.
Some examples of this Authority-Power dynamic at work . . .
An army waits to go right or left. The general, back at HQ, gives the order. The corporals and privates eventually start to move and they begin the attack. The general has authority, but has no power by himself. What can one man do? But, the general actuates Power, and gives Power its purpose. The army starts to move. Authority (hopefully) tames and directs Power.
In chess the King/Authority moves little, and hence has little Power. Power belongs to the Queen, and so she has the most freedom of movement. But everything depends on the existence of the King/Authority.
People often stated about Queen Elizabeth that she had no real power. Very true. But she was beloved nearly the world over because we instinctively realized that she embodied Authority to near perfection. Her bearing, countenance, and behavior all spoke of Authority. It was crucial, in fact, that she rarely sought to have Power–this allowed her to maintain Authority.
We see these patterns on Earth because it is the foundation of all things in the life of the Trinity. God the Father does not “move.”** He is, in a way, the Origin. God the Son moves more, but His movement is somewhat “restricted” to going down and then up again in a specific place. It is the Holy Spirit, the “power of God,” which “blows where it wishes” (John 3:8) going to a fro throughout the Earth.
When Authority and Power have no clear connection, then things get a little weird, and actually have to get a little weird, to set the times right again. Think of King Saul pursuing David. God’s anointed king (Saul) betrayed his calling, making authority in the realm more or less of no effect. Note, for example, the story of Jonathan and the honey, or the fact that Saul cannot catch David. David must then resort to weirdness to come to a place where things get right again, even to the extent of
Feigning insanity to ingratiate himself with the Philistines, and
Leading a portion of the Philistine army
Centuries later, with the Romans occupying Palestine and the Jewish religious leaders failing the people, no true Authority existed among the people of God. It took a man dressed in camel skins who ate bugs to bring hope and point to the one who “taught with authority” (Lk. 4:32).
Many legends and folklore point to this same dynamic. When King Richard languished in prison and King John took the throne, the only honest men were the thieves in the forest with Robin Hood. When we remember that the forest for medievals meant a dark, dangerous, unpredictable place, this dynamic looks even stranger. Once King Richard returned, the merry band disbanded.
Understanding this dynamic gives us a good lens to understand controversial political actions. For example, some criticize Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation, usually on two fronts:
Lincoln had no Constitutional authority to issue the edict, and
The edict actually accomplished nothing, serving as a mere empty symbol
Though I am no Lincoln expert, I suspect that he thought that Authority (i.e., the Constitution) had fled the scene by 1860. The Constitution already suffered mightily “de facto” by the very fact of the secession of several states. The Constitution was designed to bind the states together. More importantly, “Authority” failed to solve slavery, our most pressing moral, cultural, and political problem. Not only could operating under the Constitution not solve the slavery problem, slavery got much worse from 1788-1860.
This meant that Lincoln might have to lean into the weird, and use Power to knock Authority back into place. The Emancipation Proclamation was weird, no question. One can argue that it actually freed no slaves at all. But if one looks at a bit of a slant, we might see that it set in motion events that led to Authority set back in place with the 13th Amendment banning slavery. Lincoln rightly intuited that the U.S. could not exist on any other basis, because otherwise the Constitution could not serve the role of Authority for the nation.
All of this brings us to Constantine.
Constantine remains an ambiguous and problematic figure for many westerners for a few different reasons.
Some see him as corrupting the church by linking it with the state
Some see him as using the church to further his own power
Some see him as a hypocrite, using Christianity as a cover to accomplish certain political ends.
Of course, Christians at the time saw him much differently.
He ended Diocletian’s persecution of Christians
He commissioned the building of numerous churches, including the Church of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem
He restored property taken by Diocletian to Christians/Churches
He used the Church as the main arm of charity for the state
He made Sunday, the “Lord’s Day,” a holy day with no work mandated, allowing space for everyone to attend church
He exempted clergy from civic duties, significantly contributing to the church’s freedom
Perhaps most importantly, by “neutering” pagan religion and removing the foundation of the state from pagan sacrifices, he made it possible to found civilizations on an entirely new basis.
But for sure, many of his other actions raise eyebrows, such as the possible execution of his son, his turning on Licinius, Crispus, and the like. And then, if he was such a Christian, why postpone baptism until the end of his life?
Certainly, Constantine presents us with many conundrums. But we might get more clarity if we think of him as exercising Power in an attempt to create a new Authority. His behavior will look odd and wrong looking straight on, but if we look from angle, we might see different things.
Rome experienced an almost absurd amount of political instability in the 3rd century AD, as the following list shows:
Macrinus 217–218 A.D.
Diadumenianus 218 A.D.
Elagabalus 218–222 A.D.
Alexander Severus 222-235
The Soldier Emperors
Maximinus I 235–238
Gordian 238 A.D.
Balbinus and 238
Pupienus (in Italy)238
Gordian III 238–244 A.D.
Philip the Arab 244–249 A.D.
Trajan Decius 249–251 A.D.
(with Volusian) 251–253 A.D.
Aemilianus 253 A.D.
with Valerian 253–260 A.D.
Gallic Empire (West)
following the death of Valerian
Postumus 260–269 A.D.
Laelian 268 A.D.
Marius 268 A.D.
Victorinus 268–270 A.D.
Domitianus 271 A.D.
Tetricus I and II 270–274 A.D.
Odenathus c. 250–267 A.D.
(with Zenobia) 267–272 A.D.
The Soldier Emperors(continued)
Claudius II Gothicus 268–270 A.D.
Quintillus 270 A.D.
Aurelian 270–275 A.D.
Tacitus 275–276 A.D.
Florianus 276 A.D.
Probus 276–282 A.D.
Carus 282–283 A.D.
Carinus 283–284 A.D.
Numerianus 283–284 A.D.
Obviously, any reality of Authority had flown the coop in Rome, and only Power remained. After winning the battle at Milvan Bridge, Constantine entered Rome as someone not yet a Christian, but sympathetic to Christianity, where Christianity remained a distinct minority faith. The life of any Roman general at this time meant dancing on the edge of a knife. Those too ambitious too soon would likely get noticed in a bad way by those in power. But armies wanted their generals ambitious. The success of the general inevitably meant good things for them. Generals–and Emperors as well–not ambitious enough might have their army turn on them and kill them.
In interpreting Constantine, we must take into account that he tried simultaneously to a) End a century of civil wars, and b) Not just re-establish an old Authority but install a new one. His situation was more precarious, and more weird, than that of Lincoln. In this light, establishing New Rome (what would later be Constantinople) went far beyond politics or military policy. In New Rome he could lay the foundation of a new Authority, from whence could flow a moderated, tamed Power. Those who simultaneously blame him for hypocrisy and for postponing his baptism should look again. In delaying joining the Church officially, Constantine perhaps tried to avoid the very things he gets blamed for. Maybe what he did had to be done. To do them as a Christian would have sullied the Church.
Neither Lincoln or Constantine stand without blemish.^ Neither of them had the chance to play entirely fair, but both used Power rightly. The proof lies with the Authority they established.
*These next few paragraphs have a deep debt to Jonathan Pageau’s thoughts found here.
**I lack the knowledge to know if Thomas Aquinas meant something like this Authority/Power distinction in his “Unmoved Mover” argument for the existence of God. If so, I find that argument more convincing.
This week we put a special focus on the Emancipation Proclamation, in its context and meaning for its time and beyond.
Critics of Lincoln then and now point out that when the war began slavery, or ending slavery, was not seen as a motivating factor in the conflict. In an immediate and particular context in 1860-61, this was undoubtedly true. Before Lincoln even took office several Southern states seceded, but many (VA, NC, AR, TN, KN, MD) had not. Lincoln believed he needed to stop the bleeding as quickly as possible. To make the war about slavery might have driven every slave state out of the Union and made reunification impossible.
But very soon after the war started events began to take over and push policy in a different direction. Slaves ran away and took shelter with Union forces. England might recognize the Confederacy if the war had nothing to do with slavery. If it did, Lincoln knew that England could never go against a country trying to end slavery when they themselves had already abolished the slave trade. By 1862, Lincoln thought the time had come to make slavery an official issue of the war.
Historians have their fashions just as any other discipline, and opinion has swayed back and forth on Lincoln’s actions and motivations surrounding his famous Proclamation.
Most of us grew up with the idea of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” who freed the slaves with the Emancipation. In this view, Lincoln gets the lions share of credit for ending a great stain upon our democracy, culture, and so on.
More recently, however, scholarship has shifted. Many critics, both from the “Long live the South” community and African-American scholars have pointed out that:
Technically, the Emancipation freed no slaves, since the only slaves that Lincoln freed were slaves in areas in rebellion — areas he did not control. Slavery in the border states loyal to the Union remained untouched.
Some African-American scholars have argued that slaves had begun to liberate themselves by leaving plantations, finding Union armies, etc. long before the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, Lincoln only added window dressing to an already existing reality. He jumped on the band-wagon and got credit he did not deserve.
Some constitutional scholars argue that Lincoln had no authority to end slavery by executive fiat. The Constitution did not forbid slavery, therefore at the very least Congress would have to make a law regarding slavery, or more likely, a Constitutional amendment would be needed.
With these two extreme points on the pendulum, others have come down somewhere in the middle. The Emancipation Proclamation, they argue, had no technical legal authority, and in this sense made no difference. But the Emancipation did accomplish other things, i.e.
It freed no slaves but did transform the war into a war of liberation, giving extra moral impetus to Union armies.
It sent a clear message to England (who had at times seriously considered recognizing the Confederacy) that the war would now be about slavery, and England (having banned slavery and the slave trade themselves) could not now easily side against a country trying to end slavery in their own territory.
It did not start slaves freeing themselves, but it gave active encouragement to other slaves who may not have considered it otherwise. Not only that, the Emancipation guaranteed slaves legal protection from Union armies.
While slaves in the border states could keep their slavery, Lincoln’s message surely implied slavery’s eventual demise across the nation.
But this “middle ground” position still leaves open the question of Lincoln and the Constitution.
Lincoln believed that he had a right and a duty to defend Constitutional democracy. History told him that wars and democracies do not always mix well. Athenian democracy destroyed itself in the Peloponnesian War. Many believe that Rome’s many wars brought down its Republic. Machiavelli praised Rome for at least making the possibility of a temporary dictatorship a provision of its constitution, as it seemed better to do something drastic by law than otherwise. But even this did not save them from the Emperors. French Revolutionary democracy quickly turned into Napoleonic dictatorship. Lincoln himself knew that some of his generals, like George McClellan, contemplated the possibility of military dictatorship. Today we think of Lincoln as a strong war leader but many at the time saw him as weak, bumbling, inexperienced. We can’t sit back comfortably this side of history and tell Lincoln, “There, there, it will be alright.”
Lincoln’s perception of the danger of dictatorship led him to embrace occasionally aggressive measures, and a “generous” reading of the Constitution. The Constitution does allow for the suspension of habeus corpus, for example. Article I, Section 9 reads,
The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.
This seems straightforward, but this clause is part of the section on the legislative branch of government, not the executive. Of course, the Constitution does not explicitly forbid presidents from suspending the right themselves, but it could be said to imply it. In fairness, Confederate president Jefferson Davis also suspended habeas corpus, but the fact that he receives less criticism than Lincoln is probably fair. We did not, after all, build a hagiographic memorial to Jefferson Davis.
Subsequent presidents have also suspended the writ, perhaps FDR most famously during W.W. II. Lincoln felt that this expansive use of power helped him seize firm control of the government, which in turn he felt would prevent the far worse evil of military dictatorship. Lincoln’s critics argue that in order to achieve this, he assumed semi-dictatorial powers. How one evaluates Lincoln depends on. . .
How grave you feel the threat was to the Constitution
How flexible your view of the Constitution is
To what extent you feel that strange times call for unusual measures, or if it is during those times that absolute discipline must be maintained even if it a worse evil results. As many have said, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” But of course, we established a Constitution specifically to protect liberty and put restraints on the powers of government.
The extent to which you feel that “America” means a certain process of separation of powers, or a more nebulous idea of freedom.
Other issues exist besides the problem of Habeus Corpus, such as his establishment of martial law in Missouri. In some ways, Lincoln felt that the Constitution established by the founders had not been sufficient to deal with the crisis. It proved insufficient to deal with slavery. Thus, he felt he had the right and the duty to act outside the system. On this view, Lincoln did well to preserve so much of the original founders vision for America while facing an unprecedented crisis that no other president has faced.
Lincoln also believed that the American people would quickly revert back to normal after the war. A sick man will take necessary medicine, but once cured he stops. The overall result proves Lincoln correct in his assessment, but events in Missouri (where governors and state officials refused to give up martial law in spite of Lincoln’s orders to do so), for example, showed that granting extreme powers and giving them up are two different things. Sometimes, people get addicted to prescription drugs.
I recently moved to a more rural area, but for most of my life lived in suburbia. Suburbia has many charms, but everyone knows that community almost never happens in such areas. Of my 40 years of suburban living, I surmise that I had only a semblance of a relationship with perhaps 6-7 families. I guess this is fairly typical.
I remember some years ago voicing an idea to my wife: What if on a corner house, someone was allowed to set up a small bar or cafe? Maybe even one for each street? My mind raced to the possibilities of front yards set up as family friendly areas with a few games and such. I thought that this could work, and communal bonds form. People generally want to get to know others, but nothing in the suburbs helps foster this in any way. In fact, everything more or less works against it.
Of course even if my idea would work in principle, it would fall afoul of zoning laws. As Jane Jacobs points out in her Dark Age Ahead, “purity” formed one of the key principles of zoning laws in the 20th century. Thou shalt not mix commercial and residential areas. One of Jacobs’ tasks in this, her final book, was to question this and other sacred cows.
In his A History of Needs (1978) Ivan Illich heavily criticized various aspects of the modern world on both the right and the left. Broadly speaking, we could group his attacks under the banner of his intolerance for what he termed “hygienic industrial ‘progess.'” Basically, whatever “made sense” in terms of measurement, neatness, and uniformity we counted as “good.” Illich thought most often the opposite would result.
Jacobs has a few main lines of attack, though she wished that readers would take Dark Age Ahead as a hopeful book in the end. I see her as essentially an heir of Illich, one who urges us to abandon our fixation with “purity” and stratification in order to achieve something more real.*
Zoning laws come under particular fire from Jacobs, though she is hardly a free-market libertarian. She writes,
Only in 1916 did zoning take appreciable hold in North American culture. The three ideas that shaped zoning were these:
High ground coverages are bad.
High densities are bad
The mingling of commercial or other work uses with residences is bad.
All three assumptions are rejections of cities and city life, devised by utopians and reformers who tried to overcome public health problems and “disorder” with these abstract, dysfunctional solutions.
Jacobs continues to argue that people object not to these particular things, but poor versions of their implementation. In theory at least, we should have the ability to legislate proper boundaries for all of the above. Jacobs hints at the real issue governments shy away from fruitful messiness–the lack of ability for them to effectively control outcomes. Organic “messiness” resists the neatness governments require, for governments these days govern mainly through data, which requires order to collect.
Jacobs sees that our “Dark Age” cometh because we rely on abstractions and theories, and refuse to properly observe. We might say that proper observation means noticing proper mixing. One of her touchstone examples involved the Chicago heat wave in the summer of 1995, where hundreds of elderly people died. One could easily observe the cascading effects, as overloaded power grids shut down, children opened hydrants, which meant no AC and no water for some poorer neighborhoods.
The CDC came in to study the problem, and Jacobs spares them not a whit. The study, conducted by nearly 100 intelligent people, found that people died because they remained in their rooms and faced heat stroke and dehydration. The study discovered what any 3rd rate medical examiner might–the medical cause of death. Congratulations.
Thankfully, another researcher named Eric Klinenberg came in and performed a far more useful task. He noticed that in some neighborhoods, the death rate was 10x that of other locales. The difference lay not in the temperature or even the direct access to AC and water, but in neighborhoods. In some boroughs, the at-risk elderly had people to check on them and give direct aid. This happened because different groups of people knew each other, and the elderly trusted those that came to check because they had seen them around. The CDC study pointed out that many who died did not follow the well publicized advice to leave apartments and go walk in the neighborhoods, go to a store with AC, etc. Klinenberg pointed out that neighborhoods with exorbitant fatalities had no place for people to walk to, no businesses to enjoy AC in, etc., because of zoning laws that do not mix the residential and commercial.
For Jacobs, such limited thinking by one of our top scientific institutions, combined with neighborhoods that do not allow for real life to take place, risks conjuring up a new Dark Age. The “high” of our institutions cannot properly assess the “low” of everyday life and appreciate what actually makes civilization possible.**
As Jane Jacobs wrote Dark Age Ahead (2005) we experienced the erosion of the situation in Iraq, and some might say, the end of American hegemony. In 2019 the Rand Corporation published a study entitled The Battle for Baghdad: Lessons Learned–and Still to be Learned. I feared that the book would have a know-it-all tone and paint everyone as idiots who should have known better. I found it fair and sympathetic to most everyone, while at the same time avoiding explaining everything away.
More than enough blame exists between civilians and the military to go around. The authors point out that some things went right–food and water distribution went according to plan. Few Iraqi’s died of starvation, malnutrition, or improper medical care. Huzzah for us, but aside from that . . . well. . .
The long list of what went wrong begins with:
The U.S. has a good record with humanitarian relief. It is one of our strengths. We spent tons of time and resources planning for such aid, but never had a chance to implement it effectively, because the war continued long past the conventional stage. We prepped for something that we never could implement.
Conversely, time and money spend prepping for humanitarian aid was not spent on preparing for the political, cultural, and asymmetrical military mess we had after we took Baghdad.
We expected that the Iraqi government would continue to function after top-level ministers and advisors (i.e. Saddam’s cronies) left office. Since Saddam’s regime depended on highly centralized decisions, we assumed that those ministries operated as effective state structures. If so, then the top leadership could be replaced without much fallout, and no large-scale reconstruction would be needed. Instead, we badly misread the nature of Saddam’s governance and Iraqi society.
The military won a brilliantly clean conventional campaign. As for what came next, as one commentator put it, “The military wanted to put a civilian face on it, while the civilians [State Department] wanted to put an Iraqi face on it, and meanwhile we had 150,000 troops on the ground, and a UN order saying that what we were doing wasn’t what we thought we were doing, which was an occupation.”
The question of looting confused many people on the ground at the time. One general talked of how he saw the looting as non-violent wealth redistribution. They expressed no hostility towards the army or each other. He saw the looting as a natural response to Saddam’s oppression, as a communally peaceful way to solve a problem, so why stop it? In hindsight of course, this “wealth redistribution” set the stage for lawlessness later.
We need to seek a path through such confusing events and attempt to find a central cause or problem.
I tentatively venture that the core problem involved just what Jacobs diagnosed stateside, a failure to embrace or even recognize beneficial messiness/appropriate mixing between agencies, peoples, and so forth. We can see this through a couple of different issues.
To start, a lack of cooperation between the Departments of Defense and State led to an elimination State’s meaningful role, for all intents and purposes. We always need unity of command, but not unity of perspective. This lack of cooperation hurt our available intellectual resources.
This lack of good internal mixing led to external problems. In a variety of instances, the authors cite the problems of our preference to tear down existing structures and build from scratch, rather than use what we found already in existence. This preference was surely easier on paper, but its application in a society with complex social dynamics proved most difficult.
Another example that fit this failure to mix pattern might be the “De-Ba’athification” of top level Ba’ath party officials close to Saddam. The authors acknowledge the deep complexity of the problem. Saddam governed Iraq as a mostly secular Sunni Moslem in a state where Shia’s and Kurds formed 80% of the population. Indeed, the removal of these generally corrupt party officials met with strong approval from this broad 80%. However, this move scarred and humiliated Sunni’s publicly. The authors strongly suggest that perhaps these officials needed removed, but not removed as a matter of public policy, which would bring public shame. Sunni insurgent groups very likely arose from this action. They felt threatened by the new order, and responded in kind.
The U.S. also usually sought to tear down existing structures of government and rebuild from scratch. Iraq had so much unexpected complexity, it made sense to seek more simplicity and clarity. However, this move also backfired. We failed to build an infrastructure for effective governance.
The theme I see often involves a strong avoidance of “mess.” Our democratic, Enlightenment inspired, science driven culture loves clarity, transparency, and simplicity. These values serve us well, up to a point. They fail us in situations akin to Iraq, where we need to ditch many of the qualities that form our society, and hence, our military as well. Among other things, our values lead us towards greater standardization and speed. These qualities will not promote the wisdom to recognize a good “mess” when we need to.
Jane Jacobs began her diagnosis of this problem with her groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The pristine clarity sought by developers, the separation of residential and commercial, would prevent real communities from developing like those that saved the lives of many of Chicago’s elderly in 1995. Jacobs thinks that “the people” often get betrayed, in.a sense, from on-high. Perhaps. I tend to think that democracies get the kind of culture they want, and thus, the kind they deserve. Our current cultural polarization, i.e., our failure to mix well, may not be the byproduct of the debacle in Iraq but its cause.
*For the sake of clarity, purity is not a morally bad or good thing–it is a descriptive term of something that can sometimes be good, sometimes be bad, depending.
**One can see significant similarities between the CDC’s handling of this limited incident, and their handling of COVID 25 years later.
I am no fan of the “Woke” but a few years ago Ross Douthat wrote a piece entitled “A Crisis our Universities Deserve,” which showed me that at the core of this movement lay something admirable. At some point in the 20th century, college lost its emphasis on ennobling the soul, the great virtues, ideas, etc., and became a means to make more money in life. Certainly in the early 90’s, most of the encouragement from society to go to college came in this form. Students today rightly rebel from this, want more from their education than this, and more from life in general. Many “woke” students seek something moral, something transcendent. Douthat commends them for this, at least.
My public school education left me with the impression that the arc of American History bent towards the good, but of course we had x,y,z, and 1, 2,3, things wrong with us. The list of wrong things had grown since my dad’s day, but still stopped just short of overthrowing the basic arc. Subsequent generations have had the scales tipped. Manifest Destiny, the idea that History/God/Fate/Benign Providence wanted/needed America to span the continent, stood very near the core of our things wrong with us, and seemingly impossible to redeem in any way. After reading Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth I had the realization that the Woke and the various champions of Manifest Destiny have a great deal in common, including a highly idealistic goal and rebellion against the complacent stuffed shirts of status quo.
This comparison may surprise some, but makes at least temperamental sense to me. My first reaction to the Woke and Manifest Destiny comes from the gut: “Ick . . . it’s just too much work, too much angst and yearning, too much of everything. Enough, already.” I feel Jerry Seinfeld should have a bit on this–he would agree with me, I’m sure. But one needs more of a foundation to denigrate these two major epochs of our country’s past and present, and one has to admire the energy and drive in both movements.
Smith shows that Manifest Destiny had no direct racial motivations. When race entered into the discussion from some, it usually involved spreading “free labor” across the continent to help limit and eventually squeeze out slavery. Manifest Destiny’s sharpest critics in fact often came from pro-slavery camps, who poured cold water on all of the messianic expectations of free labor across the continent. I found it curious as well that the native Indians got little mention. It strikes me not that they were discounted, but rather not counted from the start. Maybe promoters of expansion automatically assumed that the natives would go along with it. More likely, thoughts of overland Asian trade routes, the fusion of independence, wealth, and power, the sweep of empires throughout time–left no room to see particular people such as the natives. Certainly one could critique the impact of the idea on native peoples, but harming them seems absent from the original intent.
At its core, then Manifest Destiny
Believed firmly in America’s unique role in world history
Allied with many of the progressive causes of the day–causes that today would certainly look progressive–grants of free government things (not $, but land), the belief that the hand of government should engineer certain social and political ends.
Believed strongly in unity–national unity, but also a more expansive international unity, for which the United States could hold the standard. Walt Whitman wrote in his A Passage to India that
The people [are] to become brothers and sisters,
Their races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands welded together.
Whitman being Whitman, he waxes rhapsodically about how Man and Nature shall once again fuse together under the “true Son of God”–not sure whom this was supposed to be. We conclude, then, that Manifest Destiny involved not just our national greatness, but
A grand union of all humanity, abolishing all national differences and dismantling the hierarchies of the old, worn out traditional world.
All of these are strongly progressive causes.
The progressive Woke have their virtues, but their virtues lean so far in one direction that they have to overcompensate, consciously or no, towards the other pole. So while they talk of abolishing all forms of difference in some grand human unity on the one hand, with the other they proclaim a certain kind of radical individuality. We see this in their insistence that anyone can do anything they like with their body, sexuality, etc. On the one hand, the Woke can be fiercely anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional, but on the other, as Patrick Deneen has pointed out, they need Government writ-large to protect them from local, more traditionally minded majorities. And, while the Woke encourage a general sort of mixing, they have a hard time mixing in a fruitful manner, i.e., with relationships, marriages, and families.
With the heroes of expansion west, real or fictional, we see the same motifs. Civilization requires cooperation, but Cooper’s Leatherstocking, Whitman’s rhapsodies, and the real Daniel Boone can never settle and build. The unbounded horizon calls more strongly to them than any particular place. They decide things for themselves on the fly. Their freedom from the shackles of civilization gives them a newfound moral clarity and moral authority, for they are freed from all bigotry of place. They see with universal eyes. In his novel Old Hicks the then-famous Charles W. Webber (a product of Princeton), declares of the Texas Ranger that,
With them the primitive virtues of a heroic manhood are all-sufficient, and they care nothing for reverences, forms, and duties, as civilization has them, but respect each others rights and recognize the awful presence of a benign God in the grandeur of the mountain, forest, plain, valley, and river. . . . Such men do not look to society except with disgust . . .
Interestingly, as part of the plot, Webber has the head mountain man romantically pursue the wife of the villain, and marry her despite she actually being the wife of the evil Count. The “Laws of Nature” here easily become the Laws of God, which trumps the laws of man. Similar arguments today justify ditching traditional sexual ethics. For example, those that transition, or “come out,” are granted a carte blanche in their decisions regardless of its impact on those around them, for their very distance from society with these decisions grants them supposed insight and authority.
Webber wrote fictional characters, but life imitated art in some respects with the foremost advocates for the frontier. Francis Parkman, another ivy-league grad (Harvard) traveled west in the summer of 1842 following his sophomore year. In his journal Parkman showed disdain for most of the actual people he met, especially the livestock farmer, a foreshadowing of sorts of the frayed relationship between coastal elites and flyover country. After passing beyond civilization further into the forest, Smith notes that “[Parkman’s] tone changes completely.” The independent woodsman garners immense respect: “He is a remarkably intelligent fellow . . . resolute and independent as the wind.” Smith writes,
Parkman’s antithetical attitudes towards farmers and the hunters of the wilderness illustrate the fact that . . . two distinct “West’s” existed in the minds of many [advocates of the frontier from the east]. The agricultural west was tedious. Its inhabitants belonged to a despised social class. The Wild West was by contrast an exhilarating region of adventure in the open air. Its heroes . . . were in reality not members of society at all, but noble anarchs owning no master, free denizens of a limitless wilderness.
Advocates for Manifest Destiny could, like the Woke, see civilization in sweeping terms, and they could see the heroic individual. They both have a harder time with groups in between these categories, the basic societal building blocks of villages, farms, towns, etc.
A competing mythos, that of the west as paradisal garden, also informed America’s westward push. This motif had more to say for it, as it usually involved families, but still had its rose-colored glasses. Timothy Flint wrote against attitudes like Parkman’s, and gloried in farm life, writing in 1827:
Thousands of independent and happy yeoman reside [in the west], with their numerous, healthy, and happy families about them, with the ample abundance that fills their granaries, with their young orchards, whose branches must be propped to sustain the weight of their fruit, beside their beautiful rivers and beech woods, in which the squirrels skip, the deer browse, and the sweet red-bird sings, and with the prospect of settling their children on any of the dozens of farms that surround them.
James Lanman echoed such ideas in the 1830’s . . .
If, as has been remarked by distinguished statesman, cities are the sores of the political body where the bad matter of the state concentrates what healthful attitudes of mind and body are afforded by agricultural enterprise. The exhilarating atmosphere of rural life, the invigorating exercise afforded by its various occupations, the pure water, the necessities supplied for daily existence, leading to early and virtuous marriages, all point to this pursuit as best adapted to the comfort of the individual man.
I do not like to agree with the anti Free-soil crowd (often, though not always, secessionists and pro-slavery) on much of anything, but the “Messenger” was on to something in 1856, when it opined that
Farming is hardly a pleasant occupation, and the idea that it is comes from dreamers and poets. The actual, manual operations of farming are irksome and repulsive to the great mass of mankind.
Alas, reality set in for the devotees of the garden myth shortly after the Civil War. Smith writes,
The yawning gap between agrarian theory and post-war reality . . . comes out in the farmer’s crusades of the last 25 years of the 19th century. The western farmer had been told that he was not a peasant but a peer of the realm; that his contribution to society was basic, and all others peripheral or parasitic, in comparison cities were sores on the body politic. . . . He had been told that he was compensated for any austerity in his mode of life by receiving shelter from the temptations of luxury and vice, and against the ups and downs of the market. His outstanding characteristic was his independence of character and condition.
But after the Civil War Republican policy obviously favored the city against the country, the merchant against the farmer. And the western farmer found that instead of being independent, he was at the mercy not only of the Chicago and New York and Liverpool grain pits, but also of the railways and steamships lines that he must rely on to get his crop to market
I have read most of the volumes of Toynbee’s unabridged A Study of History. I think him a great master and I owe him a great debt, but I found the central theme of Volume III, which describes the growth of civilizations after their infancies, so annoying I stopped reading about halfway through some years ago. I have yet to pick it up again. Toynbee rightly reacted against material measures of progress. A civilization surely must be able to advance in more ways that territory and GDP. Toynbee developed a different approach, which meant a good start. But he ended with what he called “etherealization.” The idea seems to run along the lines of
A civilization develops an idea or technique that works for them, but that idea/process, has a limited growth potential because it is anchored to its locality
The civilization then extracts the core of the idea, removing it from its trappings, thus making it more transferrable across space.
This allows for more sharing of ideas, etc. which aids growth. The process is essentially cooperative and other oriented.
He takes, as an example, the alphabet as an etherealization of language, as opposed to ideograms. Alphabets transfer across cultures relatively easily, but China’s writing, among other things, will not allow for this, keeping them isolated.
Toynbee often nods via anecdote and analysis to “the old ways are best.” He wasn’t always consistent in his ideas, but this is not a fault. He usually explored possibilities as opposed to asserting things absolutely. But etherealization shows Toynbee’s weakness for too much generality, too much “Platonism” (but only in the worst sense of that word). Lifting something too far off the ground tends to make it dangerous and destabilizing to society, like a steroid. Supporters of Woke politics, and mid-19th century supporters of Manifest Destiny, have this same problem. What masks itself as “progress” in fact only abstracts what in embodied form might actually be good, though less dramatic, ideas.
American history mashes together so many competing concepts. Sometimes this results in great creative tension. We get into trouble when succumb to the lure of the unbounded everything America has always foolishly promised.
We should note that the Old Testament takes a dim view of cities. Cain builds the first one, from which evil and violence come, and then you have Sodom, the cities built by Hebrew slaves for Pharaoh, Babylon, Ninevah, and the like. But the end of the New Testament shows the final restoration taking place with a garden within a city–even cities get redeemed in God’s providence over history. So, the frontier, the farm, the city–every civilization that actually functions needs all three.
The Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon pointed out with some ridicule that in the Arian controversy, Christianity got into a kerfuffle over the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet — the iota. At the Council of Nicea Arians wanted the word “homoiousios,” meaning “similar substance” inserted into the creed concerning the nature of Christ. They were comfortable thinking of Jesus in divine terms, but not as an equal to the Father in His essence. Led by Athanasius, the orthodox contingent objected, insisting on the word “homoousious,” meaning “same substance.”
For Gibbon and other Enlightenment oriented thinkers, this all seemed too much. Such minutiae, such trifling, would upset things so unnecessarily. Given that Gibbon liked nothing better than a well-oiled worldly machine, he saw the controversy as so many wrenches in the works. Of course Gibbon missed the point entirely. The difference between viewing Christ as fully God as opposed to merely “God-like” changes one’s conception of the entire universe, creation, and history itself. When it comes to our theological understanding, what we worship will have dramatic consequences.
I’ve always believed that understanding religious belief formed the key to understanding any event in history, be it great or small. Often this is more easily seen in the ancient world, where religion showed on the sleeves much more so than today. But men are men, and as a man thinks, so he is (Prov. 23:7). Mark Noll points out the religious roots and the religious mistakes of both North and South in his excellent The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Noll’s analysis gets to the heart of the real differences between North and South, and shows how these religious differences formed the roots of the political disagreements that led to war. Both sides professed belief in the authority of the Bible, and both sides reached different conclusions. That’s obvious to anyone, but Noll’s approach shows these different interpretations came from the same source American/Enlightenment source, and that makes this brief work a real treasure.
By 1850 America experienced a deep political crisis, but astute observers of the day saw that the roots went deeper. A Protestant ethos merged nicely with Democratic principles in America quite easily. The individual should be able to read, reason, and think for himself. Both Protestantism and Democratic government rest on the idea that truth always has a “plain” and obvious character. It could be argued that an agreed upon “atmosphere” of sorts existed between Protestant denominations despite their differences (Noll takes this for granted and does not argue the point). But in 1844 both Methodist and Baptist churches (the largest in the U.S. at that time) experienced deep schisms. A broken Church will lead to a broken nation, and leaders from the North and South predicted this. Henry Clay opined that, “this sundering of religious ties . . . I consider the greatest source of danger to our country. In 1850 John Calhoun of South Carolina warned that if the great Protestant denominations finally broke, “nothing would be left to hold the States together except force.”* Noll writes,
If we keep in mind that it was never only a matter of interpreting individual biblical texts, but always a question of putting actively to use the authoritative Book on which the national culture of the United States had been built, then we are in a position to understand why in 1860 battles over the Bible were so important, why divergent views of providence cut so deeply, and . . . why the Civil War illuminated much about the general character of religion in America.
First, the South.
Southern arguments in defense of slavery had the advantage of simplicity and (the apparent) strict fidelity to the Biblical text. They pointed out that . . .
God allowed Israel to have slavery
Abraham and other luminaries owned slaves
Jesus never condemned the institution of slavery
Nowhere in the epistles is slavery ever condemned. In fact, slaves are repeatedly told to obey their masters. Paul, after finding Onesimus, an escaped slave, has him return to Philemon.
Thus, to argue (as abolitionists often did) that anyone who practiced slavery could have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity flies in the face of the entire and obvious biblical teaching on slavery. The case was open and shut.
Northern arguments also strove for stark clarity and simplicity.
The most common arguments usually had the following characteristics:
Slavery had inextricable links to tyranny and moral abuses that the ethic of the Gospel strenuously opposed
Slavery contradicted principles of justice, love, and mercy found throughout the Bible
Slavery went against the general spirit of the “brotherhood of mankind” propounded by certain texts, like Galatians 3:28.
In other words, anti-slavery arguments inevitably used first principles but tended to avoid textual rigor and so failed to deal head-on with what pro-slavery advocates said. Furthermore, many anti-slavery arguments wedded themselves to “natural reason,” “self-evident truths,” and “republican practices” and at times relied on these ideas more than Scripture itself. Thus, as Noll comments, “The primary reason the biblical defense of slavery remained so strong was that biblical attacks on slavery were so weak.” Again, Noll doesn’t dispute that slavery was wrong. His point is one rarely made, that Northern arguments against slavery had some of the same flaws as pro-slavery arguments. Thus, the two ships were likely to pass in the night.
Much better arguments against American slavery existed from some Protestants, and interestingly, some Catholics as well. Such arguments pointed out that . . .
Using Israel as an example for American slavery made the mistake of conflating Israel with America, a mistake Americans had been making for generations.
If the South could used ancient Israel for support, they should be informed by their practices. For one, slaves had rights in Israel, and they did not in the South. For another, Mosaic law prescribed years of Jubilee every 7th year and again at the 50th year in which all slaves were freed and all debts canceled. The South never practiced this. And again, slavery in Israel was not racial, perpetual, or hereditary. The South condemned themselves by asking to be judged by the law.
Certain biblical principles of justice, mercy, and love certainly applied to arguments against slavery. But these more careful Protestant and Catholic voices applied them differently than most abolitionists. For starters, they kept such principles clear of democratic ideology — on which Scripture remains silent at least directly (and pro-slavery arguments pointed this out). The goal for the Christian, according to these arguments, was not so much to live in light of specific texts, but in light of the flow of history itself. If God’s Kingdom is not just coming but is already here in Christ, we have to live in light of the “now” reality of God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom we will not/do not enslave one another. Evidence exists for this not just in Scripture, but in the early history of the Church. Christians worked to liberate slaves and medieval civilization stood as the first major civilization in history to essentially eliminate slavery. It got reintroduced only in the Renaissance, when pagan, Roman concepts of property and ownership tragically got transported back into Europe’s bloodstream.
The Roman example of slavery also condemned southerners, at least to an extent. For one, Roman slavery lacked the racial character of Southern slavery. In one of the best chapters in the book, Noll pulls from numerous sources that show that the real problem for the South was not slavery but race.
So whatever one might say about slavery in a general vacuum, no good arguments existed for slavery as practiced by the ante-bellum South.
Unfortunately such arguments never made it into the mainstream of American cultural life. As to why, we might assume something along the lines of a “short attention span,” but this fits modern times more readily. In fact, audiences flocked to hear discourses and debates of all kinds in the mid 19th century. Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 spoke for many hours at a time to packed audiences. One debate on slavery lasted for multiple hours over multiple days to an audience of several hundred. Rather, the reason lies in the common roots shared by mainstream arguments about slavery on both sides.
The mainstream arguments for and against slavery before the Civil War had the following characteristics:
They involve no more than a 1-2 step reasoning process
They insist on the “plain” character of truth. Neither side could be described as anti-intellectual, but arguers for both sides seemed to show an exasperation with the need to develop arguments at all. The truth was so obvious!
Anti-slavery arguments relied on “simple” principle, pro-slavery arguments on isolated small texts. Both arguments only functioned along one track, one line of thought.
Whichever side won the argument (i.e., the war), the future for having the Church influence culture looked bleak. The Enlightenment had done its dirty work.
Subconsciously perhaps, we reject oversimplifications because reality and our experience have more complexity and mystery than the Enlightenment can fathom. Rejecting this truth condemned us to search aimlessly for generations hence to fill the void with politics, “The American Dream,” sex, and the like.** Obviously western theologians could and did make nuanced and complex arguments, but western culture as a whole failed to notice or heed them.
As a buttress to his observations about slavery arguments, Noll includes a section on the idea of God’s providence as debated before and after the war. True to form, both sides found obvious answers to the results of the conflict. For the Southerners, even their defeat showed the rightness of their cause, for “God disciplines those He loves” — i.e. — “We are experiencing discipline, showing God’s love for us, showing the rightness of our cause. For it is often true that the godly rarely prosper in this world.” For the North, their arguments had a simpler character, though no doubt the South would have made them had they won the war. “We won. God was and is on our side. Therefore we were/are right.” Lincoln understood better, and pushed back on this simple approach. We may always know that God has events in His hand, he agreed, but the particular application of His providence often remains a mystery to us. Not even someone of Lincoln’s stature could get others to embrace this more nuanced view.
Noll’s work has great value for his illumination of the state of religion in 19th century America. What makes it even more intriguing is how he reveals what may be the central problem of American political and educational life. Our problem really resides not in short attention spans, not in one political party or the other, not the sexual revolution, or other such movement. Rather, Americans need to grapple with how our democratic ideology meshes with the nature of truth itself.
*Noll includes some interesting statistics showing the decline of religion and growth of government. This should not surprise us, as Calhoun (not someone I’d like to agree with very often) foretold.
In 1860 about 4.7 million people voted in the presidential election, but in that same year between 3-4 times that many regularly attended church on Sundays. In 2004, about 115 million went to the polls, which equaled the number of regular church attendees in 1860 (Noll should take into account, however, the fact that women and many minorities did not vote in 1860).
In 1860 the number of Methodist clergy alone equaled the number of postal workers. Today the ratio of postal workers to Methodist clergy approximates 9-1.
Before mobilization in 1860 the number of active duty military was about 1/2 the number of clergy in the country. In the early 21st century, before mobilization for the war in Iraq, the ratio of military to clergy was about 3-1.
In 1860 the total income of the churches and religious organizations nearly equaled the federal budget. Today the ratio of federal income to annual religion-related giving is about 25-1.
In 1860 about 400 institutions of higher-learning existed, with nearly all of them run by religious groups.
In 1860 there were 35 churches for each bank. Today there are four churches for each bank.
**In an interesting digression, Noll points out that warfare and dramatic social change have often produced great works of lasting theological depth. One thinks immediately of Augustine’s The City of God, but numerous other examples exist (St. Bernard during the Crusades, and St. Francis experienced a dramatic shift after fighting in a small war. In the modern era, Bonhoeffer comes most clearly to mind). By that model, the Civil War should have, but failed, to produce any significant theological insight, and this reveals a thin theology throughout North and South at that time.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the great storytellers of the 20th century, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy — all came from liturgical and historical traditions. Lewis and Tolkien both fought in W.W. I, and O’Connor and Percy both suffered from lifelong illnesses.
As I mentioned at Orientation, the class this years is entitled, “American History” even though we will not spend the entirety of our time studying America particularly. Still, 19th and 20th century America will receive special focus. In light of this, I introduced a few key questions that will form the backdrop of our study this year:
What does it mean to be an American?
Is America unique? If so, in what way? Our founders indeed believed that America did represent something unique in its time, but our way of life has influenced others over time. If we are no longer unique, how has that impacted our sense of identity?
Many have commented that America gets birthed from an idea, rather than “within history.” What advantages and disadvantages does this bring, and how has this impacted us?
Hopefully students will enjoy grappling with these difficult questions.
We began the year looking quickly at the early American presidents during the years 1788-1800. The founders did much to lay down on paper a workable outline of government in the Constitution. But the Constitution could not answer every question or foresee every circumstance that would arise. How would the principles laid down in the Constitution work themselves out in real life? Nowhere does the Consitution explicitly guarantee the right to privacy, for example, but does that mean we don’t have that right? Does the Constitution forbid what it does not explicitly allow, or does it allow what it does not explicitly forbid? The founders themselves did not agree on this question, and the Constitution does not say one way or the other.
We looked at the transformation of American democracy under Andrew Jackson, and this ultimately led to discussions on the following topics:
1. Do we elect our representatives because of their wisdom, experience, etc. (the attitude of George Washington), or to simply be ‘the voice of the people (more of Andrew Jackson’s idea)? Do we want our representatives to follow their own ideas and convictions, or to follow the opinion polls?
2. In some ways, Jackson was our first “American” president. Washington, Jefferson, Monroe — all of them had an essentially European style upbringing and education. Jackson grew up on the frontier without the formal training. Previously, government was for the “best” men to rule on the people’s behalf. Jackson believed that if he could be president, certainly anyone could be Secretary of State. He began the so-called “Spoils System” by rewarding his political friends with government posts. However distasteful this might be, it had its roots in a passionate belief in equality, that no one should be thought of as “elite.” His inaugural celebration had a much more loose and informal feel than that of his predecessors.
3. Just at the end of class Friday I introduced political philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s formulation of ‘Negative’ and ‘Positive’ liberty. Does liberty mean freedom from outside constraint, or are we not truly free unless directed toward a greater good, as the Puritans might have argued? Do restaurants rob smokers of their liberty by banning them, or does that ban in fact enhance the freedom of non-smokers not to inhale second-hand smoke? Non-smokers are certainly in the majority, but every democracy must protect minority rights to be considered a democracy at all. How much, and what kind, of protection should minorities receive? This becomes all the more problematic when extending rights to the minority means the minority inconveniences the majority.
The interesting and problematic part of this debate is that both sides believe they are enhancing liberty. The restaurant that allows smoking everywhere believes that they are simply letting people do what they choose to do, even if the choice is a bad one. What business is it of theirs what people do with their lives? Who are they to make choices for others? On the other side, some would say that such ‘liberty’ is in fact liberty only for the minority to do as they please. The ‘liberty’ of some is ‘oppression’ for others forced to breathe in the smoke. With everyone smoking in restaurants, the freedom of non-smokers to eat where they please has significant limits.
Many of our political debates, I feel, may have something to do with these different definitions of liberty.
Of course this discussion of liberty cannot divorced in our context from a discussion of slavery, and may help us understand why many came to defend slavery in the name of liberty. To help us understand slavery in America we will look briefly at the history of slavery at some point next week. Why did it disappear in the Middle Ages? Why did it start to return in the Renaissance? Was indentured servitude slavery? Why did slavery linger in the South? Why did we not ‘solve’ the slavery question with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution? Below I include the brief reading selections I gave the students on the issue of “Negative” and “Positive” liberty if you would like to read yourself.
Next week we will look at the expansion of America to the west and south in the 1840’s, and what impact this had on the political climate of the period. I look forward to a wonderful year.
Negative and Positive Conceptions of Liberty
Philosophers such as Locke or Adam Smith or, in some moods, Mill, believed that social harmony and progress were compatible with reserving a large area for private life over which neither the State nor any other authority must be allowed to trespass. Hobbes, and those who agreed with him, especially conservative or reactionary thinkers, argued that if men were to be prevented from destroying one another and making social life a jungle or a wilderness, greater safeguards must be instituted to keep them in their places; he wished correspondingly to increase the area of centralised control and decrease that of the individual. But both sides agreed that some portion of human existence must remain independent of the sphere of social control. To invade that preserve, however small, would be despotism. The most eloquent of all defenders of freedom and privacy, Benjamin Constant, who had not forgotten the Jacobin dictatorship, declared that at the very least the liberty of religion, opinion, expression, property must be guaranteed against arbitrary invasion. Jefferson, Burke, Paine, Mill compiled different catalogues of individual liberties, but the argument for keeping authority at bay is always substantially the same. We must preserve a minimum area of personal freedom if we are not to ‘degrade or deny our nature’. We cannot remain absolutely free, and must give up some of our liberty to preserve the rest. But total self-surrender is self-defeating.
What then must the minimum be? That which a man cannot give up without offending against the essence of his human nature. What is this essence? What are the standards which it entails? This has been, and perhaps always will be, a matter of infinite debate. But whatever the principle in terms of which the area of non-interference is to be drawn, whether it is that of natural law or natural rights, or of utility, or the pronouncements of a categorical imperative, or the sanctity of the social contract, or any other concept with which men have sought to clarify and justify their ‘convictions, liberty in this sense means liberty from, absence of interference beyond the shifting, but always recognisable, frontier. ‘The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way’, said the most celebrated of its champions.If this is so, is compulsion ever justified? Mill had no doubt that it was. Since justice demands that all individuals be entitled to a minimum of freedom, all other individuals were of necessity to be restrained, if need be by force, from depriving anyone of it. Indeed, the whole function of law was the prevention I of just such collisions: the State was reduced to what Lassalle contemptuously described as the functions of a night-watchman or traffic policeman. What made the protection of individual liberty so sacred to Mill? In his famous essay he declares that, unless the individual is left to live as he wishes in ‘the part [of his conduct] which merely concerns himself’, civilisation cannot advance; the truth will not, for lack of a free market in ideas, come to light; there will be no scope for spontaneity, originality, genius, for mental energy, for moral courage. Society will be crushed by the weight of ‘collective mediocrity’.
Whatever is rich and diversified will be crushed by the weight of custom, by men’s constant tendency to conformity, which breeds only ‘withered’ capacities, ‘pinched and hidebound’, ‘cramped and dwarfed’ human beings. ‘Pagan self-assertion’ is as worthy as ‘Christian self-denial’. ‘All errors which [a man] is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.’The defence of liberty consists in the ‘negative’ goal of warding off interference. To threaten a man with persecution unless he submits to a life in which he exercises no choices of his goals; to block before him every door but one, no matter how noble the prospect upon which it opens, or how benevolent the motives of those who arrange this, is to sin against the truth that he is a man, a being with a life of his own to live. This is liberty as it has been conceived by liberals in the modern world from the days of Erasmus (some would say of Occam) to our own. Every plea for civil liberties and individual rights, every protest against exploitation and humiliation, against the encroachment of public authority, or the mass hypnosis of custom or organised propaganda, springs from this individualistic, and much disputed, conception of man.
One way of making this clear is in terms of the independent momentum which the, initially perhaps quite harmless, metaphor of self-mastery acquired. ‘I am my own master’; ‘I am slave to no man’; but may I not (as Platonists or Hegelians tend to say) be a slave to nature? Or to my own ‘unbridled’ passions? Are these not so many species of the identical genus ‘slave’ – some political or legal, others moral or spiritual? Have not men had the experience of liberating themselves from spiritual slavery, or slavery to nature, and do they not in the course of it become aware, on the one hand, of a self which dominates, and, on the other, of something in them which is brought to heel? This dominant self is then variously identified with reason, with my ‘higher nature’, with the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run, with my ‘real’, or ‘ideal’, or with my self at its best.
Dominion and rationality necessarily presuppose freedom. Moreover,freedom is a necessary condition of morality and love, love cannot be coerced. Man’s freedom and will is at the very heart of man made in God’s image. But as we will see man’s freedom is complex. Freedom has two stages, the first stage of freedom is an imperfect freedom which if used properly leads to perfect freedom. The first stage of freedom is the condition man is in at his creation, it is freedom to choose, I will have the pear and not the banana, I will not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, I will obey God, I will ignore God.This kind of simple choice is not perfect and true freedom but only the means by which we achieve true freedom. Perfect freedom in the fullest sense is not about choice. This is the lie of the Devil, we believe that freedom means being free to do what one wants, free to choose for oneself. But true freedom is achieved when man simply becomes, when he comes to the place in his being thathe is free from the possibility of choosing the bad.St. Augustine distinguishes between “the first freedom of the will, the ability not to sin” and “the final freedom… the inability to sin.”St. Augustine writes in The City of God,
Nay rather, it will be more truly free, when set free from the delight of sinning to enjoy the steadfast delight of not sinning.. . . This new freedom will be the more powerful just because it will not have the power to sin; and this, not by its unaided natural ability, but by the gift of God has received from him the inability to sin . . . It surely cannot be said that God Himself has not freedom, because he is unable to sin?
Our era eschews compromise–it seems almost a dirty word to some. We prefer purity. Of course, neither compromise or purity describes a something morally good or bad. Too much purity and you have the desert. Life cannot exist without proper mixing. But . . . too much improper mixing and coherence breaks down and chaos follows soon after. Life cannot exist amidst the flood.
Purity seems simpler than compromise, but purity too has its twists and turns. With COVID, for example, you have the ‘anti-vax’ group, who refuse to ‘contaminate’ themselves (either medically, religiously, or politically) by taking the vaccine. This seems the very definition of purity. But then, this group mixes with much greater ease with the general population. Then you have the incongruous practice of requiring the “purity” of having the vaccine/boosters to “mix” (or compromise, in a sense) with others. Usually, purity involves the absence of something rather than the addition of something. But, this same group shows much more hesitancy actually mixing with others. So, which group should have the higher rank on the purity scale?
The ascendancy of purity signals that for reasons good or otherwise, for many mixing even of a moderate kind (socially, politically, etc.) means “the flood.” We can take the recent Supreme Court abortion decision as an example. In the Clinton era, “safe, legal, and rare,” were the watchwords. But as opposition to Roe v. Wade continued, the position hardened. Now, many encourage pro-choice proponents to Shout Your Abortion. They require affirmation–tolerance will not suffice any longer. Purity (which again, may be good or bad, depending) requires absolutes. The recent decision overturning Roe did not ban abortion, but rather, put the question to the states, requiring pro-choice and pro-life states to mix with each other, which many on the pro-choice side lament.
Something similar happened with the slavery issue in America. I realize the two issues have differences, but their trajectory in American political life looks quite alike up to a point. With the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the country had a chance to deal with the slavery issue with one blow. We failed, partly for good reasons, such as the need for unity, and partly for bad ones, such as the usual human problems of power, greed, and fear. But part of this failure lay in the near universal consensus that
Slavery was foisted on us by the British, and with them gone, slavery would fade away.
Slavery was an evil, though for a time a necessary evil. Straight out emancipation immediately could be dangerous.
Slavery would certainly fade away within a generation or so–no need to stir up a dying hornet’s nest.
When slavery in fact started to grow rather than fade, slave states changed their tune. Slavery grew from a necessary evil, to an entrenched political right inherent in our system, and finally to a positive blessing for one in all. Robert Forbes’ excellent The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath picks up the national dialogue at the “entrenched political right” stage. Forbes sees 1820 as the year that the nation shifted the dialogue on slavery, where the fragile unspoken consensus which allowed for political cooperation between slave and free states started eroding. The new narrative that emerged would put the country on a potential collision course.
Forbes has a a difficult task. Writing about the political machinations surrounding slavery requires a degree of detachment, which can come across as cold. Secondly, slavery is one of the few moral questions where we have more clarity now than in the past, and this brings a temptation of judging people in the past only according to their vices and not their virtues. Despite the fact that Forbes writes nearly entirely about the politicians and not the actual slaves, he steadfastly avoids the first pitfall. The second task is harder, and he mostly succeeds there as well.
Before diving in, a few preliminaries . . .
Many who claimed anti-slavery beliefs compromised with others to keep slavery around. Some pro-slavery advocates talked of the issue more in terms of state’s rights vis a vis federal power, and not in terms of race, humans as property, and so forth. What should an historian make of this?
The first question involves sources–do we believe what people say? Barring something unusual, an historian has to trust what people say, and avoid playing armchair psychologist to those who lived 100 or 1000 years ago. This might change when confronted with a difference in personal v. public actions, or a comparison of public and private statements. In other words, we should need solid evidence not to take what people say at face value. Possibly, this means that when people say that they are against slavery in principle, but believe that we have to tolerate it for a time, that we in turn believe them.
The second relates to the first–should we have an optimistic outlook on our country’s history and give it the benefit of the doubt? Evidence exists for both the narrative that a) slavery was essentially an aberration on the American project, and b) that, while slavery may not have been the raison d’ etre of America (a la 1619 Project, a framework which I believe has no real support in evidence), nevertheless, it was inextricably woven into the American fabric and our concept of liberty from the start.
Starting by thinking of a country involves too much abstraction. We can start instead with a family. I think it important, for example, for parents to give their kids the benefit of the doubt with their actions and choices (kids should do the same for parents–a novel concept!). It should take a lot for you to have the a priori assumption that your child is lying and up to no good–though possibly you need to get there.
The state is not your family, but . . . it bears some resemblance. We owe the state less than we owe our family (or friends), perhaps much less, but we do owe it something. Do we owe it the benefit of the doubt? I will put my cards out there and say, “Very slightly,” and this colors my interpretation of the events as follows. Though certainly, this tenuous “benefit of the doubt” for American history should get strongly challenged by the persistence of slavery.
Forbes begins sketching national attitudes towards slavery at the turn of the 19th century. In the late 18th century, America had two chances to decisively deal with slavery, first with the Declaration, then with the Constitution. In both cases, one could argue that the need for unity trumped the consequence of the “United States” never coming into existence. Politically, this unity was made possible in large measure because of an alliance between slave states and some northern farmers, many of them in Pennsylvania. This may surprise us, for PA had a high concentration of Quakers, who had strong anti-slavery sentiments. Quakers, and others, however, made the following calculation:
Slavery (as everyone agreed at the time) will disappear within a generation. So, while it is odious, it is not a threat to Republican liberty
Northeastern merchants back the expansion of Federal power, through the ‘Federalist’ party. As everyone knows, power, once granted, only tends to grow. In other words, slavery will go away, but checking federal power requires constant vigilance.
Federalists strongly opposed America’s war with England in 1812. Had the war ended differently, their political fortunes might have waxed, but Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans (which took place after the war was technically over) gave the Americans a sense of overall triumph. This finished the Federalists, which in turn, ended the alliance between northern farmers and southern states. Suddenly, the growth of federal power seemed much less of a threat, and, oh by the way, slavery seemed not to be going away any time soon. Now without direct political allies, and the slavery issue under more exposure, southern states banded together. Now too, cross-sectional political alliances dissipated, opening the door for more direct north-south tension.
Much of the north already distrusted the south. The north saw no possibility of pleasing them. Seven of the first eight presidents came from the south, yet they remained cantankerous and loved to play the victim. For their part, much of the south had for some time distrusted the north. Most every great political thinker associated liberty with agriculture and warned of the dangers of excess commerce. The north’s love of trade would inevitably bring in a greater Federal presence. Manufacturing interests would demand tariffs and other protections for their goods, and this meant a growth of national power.
Many supporters of the south today claim that support for slavery involved not supporting slavery as such, but a certain idea of freedom and belief in limited government that inevitably had consequences others might not like. Still, one must safeguard this freedom. So, we can draw a comparison between, say, the presence of pornography and the presence of slavery. No one should question the evils of pornography and its negative effects on women and men both. But, we might tolerate that evil to get the greater good of government not deciding what “speech” to restrict . . . or so the argument goes. I think this argument might have merit for a period of time. It reminds me of a professor of mine in college who told all of us pro-life advocates that
She and many others like had no love for abortion as such, but
We needed to appreciate the attendant opportunities that came for women in the aftermath of Roe, a point hard to deny historically.*
In her mind and those of others, then, abortion served as a kind of symbolic stand-in for something much larger, i.e., equality and the rights of women.
Again, however, the abortion dialogue, like the slavery issue, morphed into abortion for its own sake. And now with the internet, pornography can have a ubiquitous presence in people’s lives.
President James Monroe took office amidst the collapsing consensus around slavery and its future, but had the “good feelings” of the aftermath of the war of 1812. Churchill famously commented of Monroe that, “He was a humble man, with much to be humble about,” but Forbes sees Monroe as a man of clear vision, even if attaining it involved a difficult tightrope walk. Monroe came from the Virginia school of thought, which stressed limited government. But Forbes sees him leaning anti-slavery in ways that blended with a soft nationalism. Monroe saw slavery as a divisive factional wedge that would split the country. Connecting states through commerce, he believed, would help smooth the rough edges and induce dependency and cooperation. He shied away from tackling the slave issue directly as this would inflame sectional tensions. One problem with this . . . does increased trade in one’s property mean increased trade in slaves? Monroe hoped not, but the logic of slavery eventually worked against him. Slavery proved something of black hole for our politics.
Many southerners stood against even Monroe’s plans, foreseeing that an expanding national economy meant expanding federal power. And if federal power expanded, the government could claim the right to eliminate slavery all together. If Monroe sought to thread the needle, many pro-slavery advocates sought to go through its eye. They wanted to expand commerce in slaves, but have no attendant increase of federal power. They wanted to block construction of the Erie Canal on the one handand allow more freedom of movement in the slave trade.
Around this time we see the first serious growth of the movement to send slaves back to Africa–the colonization movement. However distasteful such an idea seems to us, and however distasteful it became in later decades, Forbes shows great fairness to the idea’s early advocates, a mark of a good historian. He points out that the movement initially came from those most anti-slavery, those who made real sacrifices to try and aid the cause of slaves.
To understand this, we need familiarity with classical political theory on democracies, which ran thusly:
Democracies need to be small in size to allow for everyone to know each other. With our size, we had already blown this criteria.
One reason for the small size was the need for trust, and shared religious and cultural heritage.
In other words, since democracies are built on the premise of disagreement and conflict, they need a firm, wide base of agreement to make sure our disagreements center on the color of paint on the walls, and not on ultimate questions.
Colonization advocates saw such great cultural differences between Africans and Europeans that they surmised that neither group could exercise self-government amongst the other. Returning slaves to Africa allowed them as well as us to pursue our own political destinies.**
All of this brings us to 1820 and the Missouri Compromise. Forbes gives us a high volume of precise detail about the how the deal went down. To get a compromise, one must brand the outliers on both sides as extremists. From our vantage point, we can easily do this to the ‘anti-restrictionists,’ who wanted to take the twisted logic of slavery to its conclusion, i.e., the national government has no power to restrict slavery anywhere.^
Looking back, we can see the Missouri Compromise as fatally flawed, not only because of the evil of slavery itself, but also because it opened to the door to the expansion of slavery. At the time, however, many of those against slavery felt content. A look at the map showed a legislative future that looked to bend in the right direction.
My reason for slight optimism regarding our history referenced above . . . even with 9/10 of future territory destined to exclude slavery, many Americans (as opposed to the politicians) hated that the compromise meant any expansion for slavery at all. Many politicians in free states that voted for the compromise saw their political careers finished.
And yet, we know that slavery continued, and in fact grew over the next few decades. One could argue that this is what you deserve if you compromise with slavery. One could also reasonably assume that the slavery question would have peacefully resolved itself if it had not been for the Mexican-American war, which opened up vast swaths of land eligible for slavery under the 1820 agreement.
I have great sympathy for those that voted for the compromise. As an overall optimist for America, I can see myself believing that north and south could eventually get along, because eventually what kept us apart would no longer be around. But had I lived long enough after, that vote would have haunted me.
Thomas Jefferson lived to see the Compromise vote. He saw abolitionists, and even strong restrictionists, (those that wanted to restrict slavery to where it currently existed and have it go no further) on the wrong side. In a letter to a friend he wrote that
The Missouri controversy, is a question of having just enough of the semblance of morality to throw dust into the eyes of people, and to fanaticize them; while with the knowing ones it is simply a question of power. . .. Real morality is on the [anti-restrictionist] side. The spreading of slaves over a larger surface adds to their happiness and renders their future emancipation more practicable.
Jefferson had a brilliant and incisive mind, but here he is not just dead wrong morally, but his great learning has made him insane. To honestly think that spreading slavery further throughout the country would more speedily bring emancipation boggles my mind. It would, however, make it harder for slaves to revolt.
Perhaps Jefferson’s quote illumines the tragedy of slavery. His belief here seems genuine to me. The only conclusion to draw is that his sins regarding slavery, and the sins of the nation, have warped his sense of reality. When that happens, we cannot expect to have the wisdom to seek the right kind of compromises.
*The question then might be–was this worth the cost?
**I have very limited knowledge, but I think it fair to say that later advocates of colonization likely based their reasons more on the “inferiority” of blacks, and not merely their cultural differences, though some early advocates no doubt shared this conviction.
^Such a demand comes across as morally repugnant, of course. Forbes shows, however, that this claim also made hash of the Constitution and of our history. We established the Northwest Territories explicitly as free states at the time of the Constitution’s ratification. To deny the government this power was tantamount to denying almost any power to government.
The Bill of Rights occupies a cherished place within American life and jurisprudence, so it comes as a surprise to many (as it did to me back in high school) that the founders added the Bill of Rights only reluctantly to get the Constitution ratified by enough states. It seems that the framers found such cherished guarantees as essentially unnecessary, and so adding them could only create confusion.
But they did add them, likely thinking that, “We think such things are not needed. Obviously, the federal government has no power to regulate speech, assembly, etc. But if you would like it made crystal-clear to alleviate anxiety, fine–here you go.”
The idea of “freedom of religion” in America comes in part from our history and our ideology. In a legal sense, it arises from the 1st Amendment, which reads,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
What once seemed solid now melts into the ether, as many today question proper limits for freedom of speech and religion. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed through Congress in near unanimous fashion back in 1993 (97-3 in the Senate) but might not pass through Congress today. No one has yet made a direct attack against freedom of religion, but recent controversies about sexuality have led to many now sniping at the edges.
As a conservative of some kind, part of me feels the obligation to defend religious liberty and our past traditions. But Steven K. Smith’s book, Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Principle of Religious Freedom made me rethink everything. His 2018 book Pagans and Christians in the Cityis bar-none the best book on the legal problem of religion and sexual ethics. This work details how legally and logically, the idea of everyone having complete “freedom of religion” was never attainable and should not be attempted. What I find most impressive is that Smith saw our modern problem coming back in 1993 when he wrote Foreordained Failure, a time when it seemed when America had re-enshrined religious liberty for all time with RFRA. Reading Smith is akin to cold water on your face in the morning–startling, but in the end, you draw a breath and see more clearly.
Onto Smith’s argument . . .
First, we should not see the Establishment Clause as an attempt to formulate a grand principle that could be used to adjudicate the future of the United States. Great differences existed among the states that ratified the Constitution, for example:
Relatively liberal Pennsylvania had blasphemy laws on the books well into the 19th century.
In New York, though they had no explicit laws, we find prosecutions for blasphemy into the 19th century as well.
Many states had Sabbath observance laws, the range of which differed widely. Virginia’s law (proposed by Madison the same day he proposed a religious freedom bill) prohibited disruption of services and unnecessary labor on Sundays. Many New England states went much further.
Many objected to these laws–John Adams thought blasphemy proscriptions inappropriate, for example. Still, while some questioned the laws’ morality or efficacy, none challenged the state’s legal right to have such laws.
The Establishment Clause could never have proclaimed a tight-knit principle about religion for the country because no national consensus existed. Rather, it proclaimed what everyone more or less agreed with–that the federal government could not make laws respecting religion, however much the states could do so.
Even the intellectual founders of the Liberal Order cannot accurately guide us. Smith looks at John Locke, whose A Letter Concerning Toleration outlines much of the modern ideology concerning religious freedom. Locke writes,
The care of souls cannot belong to a civil magistrate, because his power consists in outward force: but true and saving religion consists in inward persuasion of mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by force.
In this sense, Locke’s influence shines clearly–the government cannot regulate religion because it has no power to do so, and whatever power it hopes to exercise will have no real effect anyway. Church and commonwealth are “perfectly distinct, infinitely different from one another.”
To some this could seem like the absolute principle we need for modern times, but Locke also seemingly contradicts himself. For one, he admits that morality comes under the purview of the state, and that morality and religion share beds. Thus, Locke will not tolerate atheists, because their denial of the existence of God undermines public faith and morality, and he denies toleration to Moslems, whose potential loyalty to foreign sultans make them suspect.
The second dilemma . . . Locke’s theory of toleration depends on a view of religion not shared by many religious people (Smith impresses me again and again in this book by catching what many often miss). Locke assumes that:
Saving faith is a purely voluntary act
The church’s only business is that of ‘saving souls.’
He has no concept of the importance of ritual or outward observance or “show.”
For Locke, truth is where we arrive through independent and careful consideration of evidence, not through our communities, our rituals, etc. These inner beliefs can resist any outside coercion.
Even many secular Americans today would question at least one of these premises–probably #2. Most would criticize a church that sought to have no broader impact on the community. In America’s history we have numerous examples of churches seeking political and social goals that many would approve of, such as the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century, and the support given to the Civil Rights movement by many churches in the 1960’s. Smith writes,
The object of this discussion is not to determine whether either Locke’s premises or conclusion are sound or not. The point is that Locke’s account of toleration is dependent upon background beliefs about religion, government, society, and human psychology [that many will not agree with].
Whatever practices and precedents we set, we will have to favor a particular set of assumptions. We will have to discriminate, in a sense, as every law discriminates by declaring some things ok and some things not. The problem is that we
Believe that we are not discriminating, and that we can arrive a place of “neutrality” where all can agree, and we
Believe that we can find a universal principle to guide us in all circumstances
Smith thinks otherwise. At least in the 18th-19th centuries we left religion to the particular variances of the states, and so avoided our modern problem.
“Religious freedom,” then, will inevitably contain high levels of relativity.
Smith gives an example of a community with four hypothetically different perspectives:
Religious Voluntarists (traditional Baptists, non-denominationalists, etc.)
Religious Behaviorists (Catholics, Orthodox, some Lutherans and Presbyterians, perhaps Jews and Moslems as well)
Secular Optimists–those in favor of the idea of public good and collective action (progressives?)
Secular Pessimists–those opposed to collective action and the concept of public goods (libertarians).
Imagine a man named John wants to marry 3 wives, believing sincerely that this will aid in the salvation of his soul, and that of his family.
The religious voluntarist would grudgingly support his claim. Nothing should stand between a man and his conscience. The religious behaviorist would deny it–we cannot allow people to willfully harm their souls in such an overtly blatant fashion. The secular optimist might also deny it, based on a belief that polygamy hurts women, but the secular pessimist would likely allow it out of fear of too much state power.
Whatever the decision about John’s desire, some kind of religious belief must be preferred, and others discriminated against. We cannot avoid it, as it is the very essence of law itself to “discriminate.”
As an example, Smith takes the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, which overturned a law which forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools. The court understood that the law had at its root religious objections to evolution, but “the state may not adopt programs which aid or oppose any religion. This prohibition is absolute.” Smith finds the Court’s (basically unanimous) line of reasoning faulty.
First, it creates a syllogistic reasoning that could favor either side. If we cannot aid or oppose any religion, then the law in place aids some religious believers and opposes others. But the same happens if you strike down the law. Either way we must “aid” or “oppose” certain beliefs.
Second, those that favored banning evolution from schools did so not because six day creation was a religious idea, but because they thought six day creation true and evolution false. Many other religious ideas lend support to evolutionary theory. The plaintiffs had no interest in generically “religious” teaching, but in “true” teaching.
Smith pushes against this false idea of neutrality with a quick examination of Grove v. Mead School District, in which the plaintiff objected to the book The Learning Tree in her daughter’s public school curriculum along religious grounds. Judge Canby sided with Mead. He admitted that The Learning Tree challenges certain religious dogmas. But he took pains to point out that a variety of Christian thinkers, among them Paul Tillich, Hans Kung, and Karl Barth, all argue that “honest, and even agonizing doubt, is not incompatible with Christian theism.”
Whatever one thinks of the above quote, those who object to The Learning Tree on religious grounds would likely not respect Tillich and Kung as authorities on the question. Again, the issue is truth, not religion. Grove felt that the inclusion of the book was wrong, not anti-religious. Grove might not have minded a book her daughter had to read that criticized Buddhism or Greek paganism. Judge Canby favored one religion over another–and would have done so no matter how he ruled.
Smith also dismantles the idea of a “common denominator,” a frequent and comfortable refuge for the centrist American. The argument runs, “Some favor religion ‘X,’ some religion ‘Y,’ some favor no religion at all. But we can base jurisprudence on what all sides have “in common.” Smith writes,
In more familiar contexts we would immediately spot the common denominator strategy as fraudulent. Suppose Dad and his daughter have a disagreement about dinner. Daughter proposes: “Let’s just have desert.” Dad suggests it would be better to have a full meal . . . then desert. Daughter reponds: “Dad, we have some disagreements. But there is something we both agree on; we both want desert. Clearly . . . the “neutral” solution is to accept what we agree on. So serve up the desert.”
Dad is not likely to be taken in by this ploy.
Again, as in other examples cited here, for both daughter and Dad, the issue is not desert itself, but the meaning of desert. For the daughter, desert is dinner. For Dad, desert has no meaning without dinner. Smith quotes Michael McConnell, who writes,
If the public school day and all its teaching is strictly secular, the child is likely to learn the lesson that religion is irrelevant to the significant things of this world, or at least that the spiritual realm is radically distinct and separate from the temporal. However intended, that is a lesson about religion. [That curriculum] is not “neutral.”
Smith asks his readers to dismantle false ideas about freedom and neutrality. Much like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, he has a magnificent diagnosis of the problem. Like Deneen as well, he has no particular path forward. Liberalism–love it or not–we can’t really leave it. We have to make the best of it.
In 1993 those that disagreed with Smith could look around and see the ground holding in a general sense. Now, our religious divisions seem much more obvious. “Secularism,” as Smith points out, will not fix the problem, but probably just deepen the religious divide because it too picks a side. It appears, however, that we have gone through different dominant religions, and need to accept that at certain times, different religions take center stage and receive preference.
We might see it this way:
1776-1846 — a frontier, democratized, individualistic Protestantism
1846-1918 — a more universalized/nationalized Protestantism
1918-68 — A civic faith in work, nation, and gain
1968-2008 — Democracy as faith in self-discovery and self-expression
2008-? — Something else that has yet to be decided. Who can say, but also –who can deny we are in the midst of another religious upheaval and redefinition?
This is a rather lame attempt to trace our religious history, but I might prefer open recognition of our particular religious faith over continual confusion. As always, religious dissenters will have protections and freedom of conscience and worship. This is a great thing about America. The “losers” need not lose everything. But they will lose something, and we should be prepared.
*Writing as someone who is Orthodox, reading Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, it now makes perfect sense to me why early America had a great suspicion of Catholics as detrimental to democracy. They–and the Orthodox–both believe that we know truth not primarily though independent and abstract investigation, but through community, tradition, participation, and ritual–in addition to some notion of “faith,” of course. As Mark Noll wrote, American democratic practice seeks to reduce truth to simple abstract propositions. Our beliefs about liberty eschew tradition and hierarchy, both crucial to Catholic & Orthodox practice.
Catholics, Orthodox, and others like them can “shoehorn” their beliefs and practice into democratic society, but they may not find it naturally compatible with their worldview.
You will notice the dated references from 2019 to the Covington kids caught on film at pro-life protest. I repost this in conjunction with the start of our American History class.
I did not grow up watching a lot of TV, as my parents were (thankfully) on the stricter side of things in that regard. Yet, like most everyone else, I watched what I could when they were not around. Almost anything would do when these opportunities struck, and I distinctly remember even watching a few scattered episodes of Fantasy Island. Some of you will remember this show, in which Ricardo Montalban presided over an island resort of sorts, where people would come for vacations. But inevitably, guests would have some kind of unreal and usually traumatic experience, whereby certain unknown issues in their lives would attain resolution. The guests would leave happy, Montalban smiling benignly as they left.
Again, I watched this show even though I never particularly enjoyed it (it was on tv, and that was enough). What’s more, I could never grasp its basic premise or understand what was happening. Were the experiences of the guests real or not? They seemed unreal, but then if unreal, why did people feel so satisfied at the end? How could the island produce just what was needed for each guest (The Lost series, after an intriguing start, definitely borrowed way too much from Fantasy Island in its later seasons)? I remember no explanation, just that, “it had all worked out” somehow in a package that always seemed too neat and tidy
Again, the aggravations I had with the show didn’t prevent me from watching. In my defense, how can one look away from Ricardo Montalblan (still the best Star Trek villain to date)?
Much has been said about the dust-up over the brief video clips from the Pro-Life March involving the “clash” between Catholic high-school students and other protestors. I will say little here, except that
I was glad to see some who made ridiculous and ill-founded statements retract their comments when new, extended video evidence came to light. I wish I saw far more laments that thousands of people rushed to extreme judgment of a 17-year-old after seeing 1 minute of video–in other words, the very exercise of commenting on Twitter “in the moment” is desperately fraught with peril. It wasn’t just that people got it wrong, but that no one should have commented in the first place.*
I basically agree with David Brooks, who argued that 1) this scary and tribal rush to judgment happens on both sides** (this time the left was at fault) , and 2) the problem we have is also a byproduct a new technology (phones and social media) that we must understand more fully and use more wisely.
But as much as I appreciated Brooks’ wisdom, I think he misses something deeper and more fundamental. No one questions the impact of smart phones on how we interact with each other and the world. We should remember, however, that inventions do not simply randomly drop from the sky. They emerge within specific cultural contexts. While the phone was certainly not fated to arise in America, it makes perfect sense that it did. Apple marketed its products with the letter “i” in front, itunes, the ipod, the iMac, and of course, the iphone. Apple wanted one to think of these tools as a way to radically personalize our worlds, which fits within our cultural and political notions of individualism. It’s no surprise that their products made them billions of dollars. They did not create the need for radical personalization of our lives, they tapped into what already existed and helped us expand the horizons of our collective felt need.
I agree that we need to work as a society to understand the technologies we create, but that is just another way of saying we need to understand ourselves.
Harold Bloom’s The American Religion attempts to do just this. He argues that, as diverse as we are religiously, every culture must have some unifying belief, even if this belief remains below the level of consciousness. Bloom states that America is in fact a gnostic nation and not a Christian one, and he defines gnosticism as:
A belief that the physical world is essentially evil, and the “spiritual” is good.
That all people have a “divine spark” within them covered over by experience, culture, history, and materiality (the “all people” part of this is our particular democratization of what was an elitist religion in the ancient world).
We must find a way to liberate our true selves, this “divine spark,” from its constraints. Culture, tradition, history, etc. often stand as enemies in this effort.
Bloom postulates that this faith lies underneath other professed faiths, be they agnostic, Baptist, Jewish, or Mormon. It has invaded and colonized our institutional religions and our overall mindset. He finds it particular present in Southern Baptists of his era, but today he would likely look to the various mega-churches, which operate on the idea that Sundays should be friendly, relatable, accessible, and above all, not “boring.” Ralph Waldo Emerson no doubt helped found our particular version of gnostic faith, writing in 1838 that,
Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it . . . . Alone in history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. . . . He spoke of miracles, for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this miracle shines as the character ascends.
1838 Divinity School Address
So too William James wrote that
Religion, as I ask you take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. . . . as I have already said, the immediate personal experiences the immediate personal experiences will amply fill our time, and we shall hardly consider theology or ecclesiasticism at all.
“The Variety of Religious Experience, 1902
We could easily sandwich Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in between these two thinkers for the trifecta of the prophets of non-contextualized, disembodied, American hyper-individualism. This kind of individualism has as its mission liberation from other groups other entities that would seek to mold, shape, and define. And, as we look at the crumbling of institutional churches, our lack of respect for governmental instiutions, the crisis at many universities, etc. we must declare that the individualism of Emerson and Whitman has triumphed almost completely.^
I can think of few things more compatible with this faith than combining Twitter and iphones. We can both memorialize our lives (which are of course special and worthy of documentation) and express our inmost thoughts to the world at any time. Conventions of privacy, or politeness, you say? Sorry, the god of individualism is a jealous god and will brook no rivals for his throne. Do we contradict oursevles and treat others as we would rather not be treated? Well, we are large, to paraphrase Whitman, and contain multitudes. We believe firmly that our souls should have the right to break free at all times.
Thus, if Bloom is correct, if we want to avoid such miscarriages of justice in the future, we may need to do much more than get a better understanding of technology. Brooks is wrong. No quick and mysterious sitcom-like fix is in sight. We need a new religion to avoid such disasters in the future. Our nation, relatively isolated as it is, is still not an island. And, double alas, Ricardo Montalblan is not here to save us.
*I know that we need journalism, public records of public events, etc., but I will go one step farther. I don’t know why anyone was filming the students in the first place. I know this happens all the time, but it seems to me that you should go to a protest march to protest, not film others protesting. If you want to counter-protest, do so, but don’t go to film others counter-protesting. I agree with Jonathan Pageau, who argued that our incessant desire to mediate our experience through screens fits into the kind of gnosticism Bloom describes. The screen inevitably creates an abstraction, a disconnect between ourselves and reality. He writes,
It is only in the 17th century that men framed their vision with metal and glass, projecting their mind out into an artificially augmented space. Men always had artificial spaces, painting, sculpture, maps, but the telescope and microscope are self-effacing artifices, they attempt to replace the eye, to convince us that they are not artificial but are more real than the eye. It is not only the physical gesture of looking at the world through a machine that demonstrates the radical change, though this is symbolic enough, but it is the very fact that people would do that and come to the conclusion that what they saw through these machines was truer than how they experienced the world without them.
from his “Most of the Time the World is Flat,” a post for the Orthodox Arts Journal
**I am basically conservative and run mostly in conservative circles. So, while I feel that it is mostly the left that mobs people for now for breathing too loudly through their nose, I should say that the right engages in it as well. I remember some years ago glumly sitting through a presentation where a commentator dissected and destroyed the whole personality of Bill Clinton based on 6 seconds of a video clip played in slow-motion.
^Patrick Deneen has related that when he taught at Princeton, an important study came out that on the Amish that showed that more than 90% of all those who experience “rumspringa” (when as later teens they leave the community to experience the world) return back to their communities. Deneen was taken aback by how much this bothered his colleagues, who could not conceive of living a life bound by tradition and communal standards. For many of our elite Princteton dons, such a life could only be termed as oppression, and some went so far as to suggest that they should be liberated from this oppression.
This, I’m sure, backs up Bloom’s thesis all the more.