Born Free?

Have you seen the Amistad? I can think of few more heart rending movies. It tells the story of a group of Africans captured and sold into slavery who break free on board ship and kill almost all of the crew. They are captured and taken to Massachusetts, where they stand trial for murdering the crew.

Their case makes it all the way to the supreme court, where John Quincy Adams helps defend them with a stirring speech. In it, he raises the point that we think about too little.

He argues that the case hinges on the fundamental question, What is man? More specifically, he asks, are men by nature free or are they by nature slaves?

This story is deeply disturbing but among the very few important movies. Watch it.


Magic, Science, and Man

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.

CS Lewis
The Abolition of Man

Job Review

I’ve always made a point of knowing what my boss wants me to do when he hires me. This video shows a boss reminding his “employee” of the terms of his job description.

I regret the ending because the point was so effectively made and was weakened by the speakers failure to sit down once it was made. But the point is so incredibly important.

There is a document that constitutes the parameters of the job of some of the most powerful people on earth. This video underscores it:

Treating Cancer With Sugar, Or Mortification Without Representation

I have been avoiding commenting too much on the so-called health care plan for two reasons: first, I don’t want this blog to be seen as political, and second, I haven’t felt confident that I know well enough what is involved in the law. Besides, I have no doubt that what follows is a paranoid overreaction.

I was emoldened to write when I read President Obama acknowledging that he doesn’t know what is in it either.

I fear that there can be no good outcome from today’s vote to pass health care. If the health care plan continues and is passed, our nation will be fundamentally altered.

  1. It represents the establishment of federal bureaucracies that will oversee how health insurance is paid for.
  2. It has removed decision making power still further from the people who have the knowledge and the interest to make sound decisions. If you have read any of my political ravings on this blog earlier, you know that this is my bugaboo, my hobby-horse, even my hobgoblin. Our country has utterly and completely lost its way by seeking abstract solutions to concrete, particular, personal problems. Where does this law direct the energy of the decision makers? To whom does it give the power to make decisions? If these questions are not answered soundly, then nearly all of us will suffer because we will find our own energies misdirected and our own decisions made something like anemic and mostly irrelevent.
  3. It puts still more power in the hands of people who have no direct interest in the well-being of the people affected by their decisions.
  4. It compels decision makers to make their decisions on ever increasingly irrelevent information to the specific decision being made. As a result we are entering even further into this dark cave we have been lost in, one in which unelected authorities make executive decisions that affect the well-being of thousands who are not even represented in the decision. Because we elected our congress, we have lost the right to complain about this point. We cannot speak of mortification without representation. And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that our congress has betrayed us into the hands of those before whom we will have no representation. We have freely chosen to become a slave state.
  5. Nobody knows what is in the law. How can we hand something that so fundamentally affects everything we do, from eating, to playing, to reading, to thinking, without demanding to know what is involved? Do congress and the President believe that we owe our government that level of trust? What will the Democrats and democrats do when another party or vision takes authority over this Leviathon and directs it in ways they don’t like? What will any of us do when Leviathon breaks its chains? You cannot give power to a government and take it back again.
  6. This law represents only the planting of a seed. Here is what you will hear over the coming months, especially leading to the elections:
    1. Raving by the Progressives about how disappointing this law was. They will genuinely and sincerely wonder how classical liberals could be so upset by such an anoemic law.
    2. Celebration of the practical benefits to be derived from this law.
    3. Glorification of the “president-who-could,” and because he could, he did.
    4. Extreme disappointment at how little this law does.
  7. And here is what you will see over the next decade:
    1. Removal of the cute little joke called an executive order (as permanent as water on the road) that prevents the plan from paying for abortions
    2. Preceded by clever workarounds and moving money from one part of the budget to another by abortion providers (I’ve often wondered how people can take this sort of thing seriously)
    3. Extreme growth of interest groups pressuring congress and the White House to send benefits from the plan their way.
    4. Gradual establishment of more agencies and regulations, some to prevent the massive abuse the system invites and even begs for, and most as favors and payments. When the Republicans make those payments and curry those favors, they will simply serve as the sort of parasite this dog hosts.
    5. Fantastically subtle and less subtle controls over everything we do, because remember, now the federal government has a formal interest in everything that affects the cost of health care. Can you think of anything that doesn’t?
    6. Loss of moral energy and innovation in the American entrpreneur. Already people who want to build a business are crippled by the regulations. Nobody can see what isn’t there; nobody can measure what doesn’t happen. Therefore, the lethargy and discouragement of American business will never be recognized by the government or the “mainstream media.” But we will all live under its weight.
    7. Unimaginable government corruption, some of which we might even hear about.
    8. Kafkaesque arbitrariness.

It cannot be undone. The Republicans will probably win many seats in the congress this fall, but that won’t matter for three reasons.

  1. The Republicans have proven beyond any doubt that it is for those seats that they pretend to support defined, constitutional government
  2. Once the plan is in place, it will root into too many parts of the national life. Nobody will be able to figure out how to remove it.
  3. It might well lead to riots.

After a century of failed central planning I can hardly believe what we have freely chosen to do as a people. A part of me feels like a great light has gone out in the world.

It hasn’t.

I know that.

Nevertheless, here is the single, decisive, fundamental reality: A seed of death was planted today. No matter how well-intentioned this law, it has put in the hands of unelected, unrepresentative powers, powers that are uninterested in, because unaffected by, the well-being of those who are affected by their decisions, powers that cannot know what is needed in given situations and will make decisions based, at first, on strict economics, and next, on what is best for them, and third, on political favors and debts (which, after all, is what this law is made up of), it has put into the hands of those powers a degree of authority that borders on madness.

This law may well perfectly encapsulate the values and philosophy of the American people. It is practical. It is efficient. It centralizes. It makes some people feel really, really good. It is based on political gamesmanship. It makes us feel secure while taking away our freedoms – in this case, the most fundamental freedoms a human being can have. It is rooted in fear. It is an illusion.

After eight years of the betrayal of all things conservative through George Bush’s novitiate, I conclude that no power exists in the United States of America that is able to restore our freedoms. After all, we elected, freely, our masters.

From Teddy and Woodrow, to FDR, to LBJ, to Bush Major and Lesser, and now to the current congress and President, we have consistently demonstrated that FDR was right: “We have [had] nothing to fear but fear itself,” and it has owned us for over a century.

Freedom frightens us. We seek a paternal state to take care of us. We don’t trust our neighbors. We have not accepted that we are all going to die, and many of us are going to die because of stupid things we or somebody else does. Now we have made sure even more of those stupid things will happen. Only these will take place where we are less likely to see them.

The other day I was helping a young friend work on his senior thesis. His issue is the eternally fundamental question of whether the colonies should have rebelled against Great Britain. He had a fairly reflective position, which was encouraging, but when the discussion of taxation without representation arose, he didn’t seem eager to show it much respect.

After all, the British were taxing us for a war they fought on our behalf, and even more shockingly, they hardly taxed us at all. We are taxed far more than they ever were.

Yes, I explained, but the issue is not taxation. It is taxation without representation. If a government that we never elected determined to tax us would we be willing to pay that tax? Well, based on post World War II actions, the answer is an obvious yes.

When the parliament taxed without giving the colonies a voice in the discussion, they showed that they would tax without listening to the colonists. When they sent troops over and demanded that the colonists quarter them at their own expense, they showed that they regarded their subjects as mere objects – slaves.

The colonists did the most impractical thing imaginable. They said no. And they paid for it with their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Unlike us, however, they had their children in mind. And also unlike us, the freedom of an English citizen was something they were not willing to give up, not even for health care, not even for life itself.

So very many of them died. Over a stamp tax.

No, over self-respect and love for freedom.

The American idea bore the cancer of slavery at its birth. Its attempt at radical surgery helped, but left traces through the whole system. The 20th century revealed a compulsion to ingest everything that spread the disease, usually under the delusions of well-meaning prescriptions. Denying the disease, we redefined the cure into the disease itself. 

The dream simply cannot cure itself of that cancer. It is not dead yet, but I’m not convinced the prognosis has any hope left. You can’t cure cancer with a massive infusion of sugar.

I congratulate you, Ms. Pelosi. You have fulfilled your wish and will be in the history books. Look around: I hope you like the company.

Learning to Eat with Addison

When CiRCE attains that state in which we can patronize young and up-and-coming or old-with-unwrit-wisdom writers, I will commision somebody to write a book on the following theme: Addison To Waugh: Manners Aristocratic and Bourgeois from the Spectator to the Death of Brideshead.

In my research into freedom and the ideas that sustain it, I came across an article by Peter Gay on Joseph Addison, that master stylist of the 17th century. Gay argues convincingly that Addison was teaching an unruly age how to behave and think in the new world they were growing into.

 One idea that impressed me was Addison’s “romantic” view of the stock market and how it brings people of every stripe together in one peaceful setting. I thought, “Well, that idea has been around the block  a few times since then, but it’s still an impressive thing.”

Voltaire came to England in 1720 and read Addison’s Spectator and used the same imagery about the stock market in his philosophical letters, which were widely read and influential texts in the France of the 18th century.

Benjamin Franklin, who I have no doubt read Voltaire and was contemporary with Samuel Johnson, turned to Addison and Steele when he determined to learn how to write. Franklin seems to have appreciated the outlook of Addison and Steele as much as their style, and it is likely that both outlook and style helped him when it came time to defend and negotiate terms for American Independence.

His aforementioned contemporary, Samuel Johnson, either encouraged Franklin’s action or followed it himself. In his Life of Addison, Johnson wrote, “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”

But he isn’t much read today and isn’t much liked by many who read him. CS Lewis said that “Everything the moderns detest, all that they call smugness, complacency, and bourgeios ideology is brought together in his work and given its most perfect expression.

And yet, says Gay, Johnson admired Addison without embarrassment and without reservations, admired him for his delicacy, his authentic elegance, his wit, admired him above all for his willingness to use his abundant talent in a cause as important as it was just. ” He includes an extensive quotation from Johnson about Addison:

He not only made the proper use of wit himself, but taught it to others; and from his time it has been generally subservient to the cause of reason and of truth. He has dissipated the prejudice that had long connected gaiety with vice, and easiness of manners with laxity of principles. He has restored virtue to its dignity, and taught innocence not to be ashamed. This is an elevation of literary charcer above all Greek, above all Roman fame. No greater felicity can genius attain than that of having purified intellectual pleasure, separated mirth from indecency, and wit from licentiousness; of having taught a succession of writers to bring elegance and gaiety to the aid of goodness; and if I may use expressions yet more awful, of having turned many to righteousness.

Lives of the English Poet

If we could have an Addison today! We are all convinced that the stakes have grown so great in our politics and social life that we cannot afford to be civilized and gracious. But if we are not civilized and gracious, why would we want to live in the world we would create by fighting for our policies?

How different Addison’s genteel grace sounds to the brutish duty-mongering of Kantian philosophy and its spawn (a sentence, I would add, that Addison would never have written). Was it Addison that saved Coleridge from the Prussian excesses?

There is a line from Addison through Franklin to our Declaration of Independence and even our Constitution. Another lines runs from Addison through Johnson to a century of British literary theory.

I want to find the ends of those threads, to rebind them, and to strive to write with civility of manner, graciousness of tone, and humility of expression, all while laughing at the ridiculous and never failing to perceive that the image of God can never be, though it can express, the ridiculous.

I have the feeling our liberties are bound to our civilities. The thing is, we all learn to speak by listening to what people say to us and how they say it. Reading the really great stylists can help us rise above ourselves and the limits of our surroundings. We ought not dismiss such a fact with reckless (think: reck, less) alacrity.

Junkers, Hitler, Efficiency, and Leisure

In my research into Hitler’s rise to power, I came across this in Shirer’s locus classicus on the matter, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

For centuries [Prussia] had lain outside the main stream of German historical development and culture. It seemed almost as if it were a freak of history….

By [1701] Prussia had pulled itself up by its own bootstraps to be one of the ranking military powers of Europe. It had none of the resources of the others…. Even the nobility was poor, and the landless peasants lived like cattle. Yet by a supreme act of will and a genius for organizaton the Hohenzollerns managed to create a Spartan military state whose well-drilled Army won one victory after another and whose Machiavellian diplomacy of temporary alliances with whatever power seemed the strongest brought constant additions to its territory.

There thus arose quite artifically a state born of no popular force nor even of an idea except that of conquest, and held together by the absolute power of the ruler, by a narrow-minded bureaucracy which did his bidding and by a ruthlessly disciplined army…. “Prussia,” remarked Mirabeau, “is not a state with an army, but an army with a state.” And the state, which was run with the efficiency and soullessness of a factory, became all; the people were little more than cogs in the machinery. Individuals were tuaght not only by the kings and the drill sergeants but by the philosophers that their role in life was one of obedience, work, sacrifice and duty. Even Kant preached that duty demands the suppression of human feeling, and the Prussian poet Willibald Alexis gloried in the enslavement of the people under the Hohnzollerns. To Lessing, who did not like it, “Prussia was the most slavish country of Europe.”

All of that is pregnant with signficance, but allow me to draw your attention especially to this next paragraph sequence, which compares the agrarian system of Prussia with that of Western Germany. Something vital is hiding on the surface:

The Junkers, who were to play such a vital role in modern Germany, were also a unique product of Prussia. They were, as they said, a master race. It was they who occupied the land conquered by the Slavs and who farmed it on large estates worked by these Slavs, who became landless serfs quite different from those in the West. There was an essential difference between the agrarian system in Prussia and that of Western Germany and Western Europe. In the latter, the nobles, who owned most of the land, received rents or feudal dues from the peasants, who though often kept in a state of serfdom had certain rights and privileges and could, and did, gradually acquire their own land and civic freedom. In the West, the peasants formed a solid part of the community; the landlords for all their drawbacks, developed in their leisure a cultivation which led to, among other things, a civilized quality of life that could be seen in the refinement of manners, of thought and of the arts.

The Prussian Junker was not a man of leisure. He worked hard at managing his large estate, much as a factory manager does today. His landless laborers were treated as virtual slaves. On his large properties, he was the absolute lord. There were no large towns nor any substantial middle class, as there were in the West, whose civilizing influence might rub against him. In contrast to the cultivated grand seigneur in the West, the Junker developed into a rude, domineering, arrogant type of man, without cultivation or culture, aggressive, conceited, ruthless, narrow-minded and given to a petty profit-seeking that some German historians noted in the private life of Otto von Bismarck, the most successful of the Junkers.

William Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 137, 138 (emphasis mine)

The United States are certainly not Spartan and we do not seem much inclined toward that vice, but two or three other disturbing trends can be found here that will enslave us if we are not vigilant. Here let me simply highlight the necessity for leisure for a people who wishes to remain free. The civilizing influence of leisure leads to the spread of civilization (please not that civlization is not a matter of power but of form – it is not technology that makes us civilized but, at least, a love of beauty).

The efficiency of the Prussian Junkers stood as a barrier between them and civilization. As a result, they worshipped power and thought of themselves as a “master race.”

The slavs were their opposites. They seem to have had a passivity and an emotionalism that better reflects American society. Even that, however, raises a too simplistic question: do we run the risk of finding a vast portion of our population seduced by the promise of security and pleasure into a state of serfdom to those who are diligent and arrogant?

I have no idea. I cannot see the future. The past only gives clues, not knowledge.


Susan Wise Bauer on Medieval History

Every class at school is dominated by either a skill set (the arts, liberal and fine) or ideas (history, theology, etc.). In either case, the content learned will serve the idea or the skill. To avoid confusion, ideas classses also develop skills and skills classes also think about ideas. They cannot be laid into air tight chambers.

The classes that are dominated by ideas were called sciences under the classical curriculum. The classes dominated by skills were called arts.

The arts were seen as foundational to the sciences because before you could contemplate ideas you had to learn how to think.

This changed in the nineteenth century when German philosophers like Kant, Fichte, Hegel and others (following the French revolutionaries) determined that either there were no ideas (classically understood) to know or that any ideas there were to know had no connection to the actual world around us.

Ideas set free from reality were what gave us the revolutions and radicalisms of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century.

They are also what unhinged the classical tradition and the focus on the seven liberal arts as  prerequisites to an educated mind.

In that context, knowing what to teach in a history class, for example, becomes problematic. The conventional school is lost, being dominated by text book publishers who take their cues from arguments at school board meetings in Texas. They don’t have a philosophy of history and if they did they would be shot down by the establishment for imposing it on their students.

Susan Wise Bauer has been writing history books into that context for the last decade or so, and on February 22 she will be releasing a new volume: A History of the Medieval World.

Over the next couple weeks I’ll be posting comments on this work from a number of different angles. For example, I’ll point out that I appreciate that she at least occasionally uses complex sentences, without which a child can never learn to read and think complex thoughts. I’ll also reflect on the question of what one ought to include in such a study; whether it is fitting, give what she includes, to call it medieval history; how to make use of the text in your school or home; and a few other things.

I’ll begin by giving the book a qualified thumbs up, while acknowledging that Susan Wise Bauer has produced a very useful artifact. If you are a teacher or parent seeking knowledge of the medieval era as a source of wisdom, you’ll want this book nearby.

For reasons we’ll explore later, I’m not sure if I would make it my primary text to teach the middle ages in a classical school. However, I would absolutely want my students to have it nearby as a resource.  

Over the next few days I’ll be with the apprentices close to 24/7 so I’m not likely to post much – maybe a great quotation here or there. But I’ll be back at it on Monday, reflecting on medieval history, the rise of Hitler in Germany, and whether there is a necessary relationship between education and freedom.

Let me remind you again that our conference on Liberty will be held in Dallas on July 14-17 and the early bird registration fee is available, though the conference is filling at a surprisingly rapid pace. You can register for 245 (225 in groups of three or more) and I’d love to see you there. We need to think hard about liberty if we expect to keep it.