Preparing the way for Hitler (part III of a series)

In my previous post in this series, I said I would discuss why Germany was so ready for Hitler and why they supported him so enthusiastically.

To understand this, you must understand that Hitler came to power in a Germany that had been preparing for him for a long time. An evil on the scale of Nazism, or Communism for that matter, does not come about without a long gestation. It requires enormous technological power, ideas about reality and human nature, a certain national spirit, political systems and assumptions, and probably a good dose of demonic involvement.

The same is true of a good on the scale of our constitution and liberties.

Life is the interchange of ideas and applications. It is not possible to determine which comes first for the simple reason that neither exists apart from the other. An idea  not embodied is an idea not thought.

Practically, therefore, our lives are a dialectic between our ideas and our circumstances. We dream big and try to make it happen. We find that we can’t perfect it, so we have to make a choice.

We can love the dream enough to accomplish as muc of it as possible. Or we can replace the dream with a fantasy and chase the hobgoblin of our dream. Or we can abandon the dream altogether.

We do this with our schools. A private school comes to be when a person or a few people share a vision for what education can accomplish. Then it gets hard. What will the leadership do?

Whatever they decide at this point will determine the actual life of the school.

We do it with our marriages and love affairs too. In this hyper-Romantic age people put the weight of the cosmos on their love-affairs. When you listen to the love songs of the 50’s and 60’s, it’s cute how they commit themselves to dying for each other to sappy music, how they look to their partners to be their soul-satisfying gods and goddesses. In the late 70’s, that childish impulse remains in the uber-pop music that people find so embarrassing after they turn 20 (or at least should), but disco, heavy¬†metal,¬†and punk inject a cynicism into popular music that has pretty much taken over.

It might seem quite a reach to write about popular love songs in the context of the rise of the Nazi’s, but I think you’ll see the point as we go on.

Music embodies ideas, sometimes in lyrics, sometimes in melodies, harmonies, and rhythms –¬†and in the relation of these elements. Music is the metrical and sonic¬†imitation of the movements of the soul.

Everything we do, think, and feel, is the embodiment of an idea.

Therefore, if we are going to understand how Germany was prepared for Hitler (and Russia for Lenin and China for Mao etc.), we have to understand the ideas that Hitler embodied in his rule of Germany.

We can study that question directly by asking, “What were the ideas that dominated German thought?” And we can study it indirectly by asking, “What forms did those ideas take?” In other words, what changes took place leading up to Hitler? What remained the same but was used by Hitler for his purposes?

Examples of the less direct approach would include, for example, the rise of Bismarck and his establishment of a “United Germany.” Bismarck had prepared the political/industrial soil.

No study of Nazism would be complete that did not take a close look at Bismarck’s effect on the German character, social structure, political activities, etc.

But as much as I love history, I find it easier to look at the world through the eyes of philosophy. A study of philosophy reveals a few things to us. For one, philosophy never arises in a vacuum. So what Randall called “the career of philosophy” will reveal something of the character of the people among whom a philosophy develops.

Second, philosophers (I use the term loosely here to include everybody who claims to be a philosopher and is studied in some philsophy class somewhere¬† – even though most contempory philsophers are sophists and anti-philosophers) have, historically, been the Dutch Uncles or the Uncle Tom’s of a culture.

What¬†I¬†mean by that is that philosophers come up with complicated rationalizations for all sorts of¬†behaviors. ¬†The reason for this is that ethics are rooted in a view of reality and philsophers at least pretend to try to explain reality. We’ll see shortly that they have, by and large, given up on that quest, but the point remains important.

College professors and government officials tend to look to philosophers to tell them what is right and wrong.¬† Then they tell their students. Then their students go home and inflict their new morality on their families. And if their students are studying in the teacher’s college, then they go into the classroom and teach it to the nation’s children.

This has happened over and over again over the past 800 years, so by now it should not need much defense. It is happening again in our country, and it happened in Hitler’s Germany.

So the study of philosophy as a human activity (as opposed to the study of Philosophy itself Рi.e. the quest for wisdom) embodied in philosophical writings and societies can tell us a great deal about the society in which it grows and it will show us why a people thinks they ought to do some things and not do others.

In my next post, I will describe as simply as I possibly can the primary philosopher who prepared Germany for Hitler (and whose influence in 20th century American education has been infernally profound).

Let me end with a somewhat lengthy quotation from Owen Barfield’s unbearably brilliant book Poetic Diction that will highlight the¬†war I¬†am describing and underscore at least one of the main battlegrounds of that war. Everything that follows in this discussion, everything that happens in your life, is influenced in some way by what Barfield says:

The conflicting theories of knowledge of which the following pages take cognizance show every sign of diverging more and more widely, leaving a deeper and deeper gulf of incomprehension between them. Between those for whom ‘knowledge’ means ignorant but effective power [ed. note: please remember this phrase], and those for whom the individual imagination is the medium of all knowledge from perception upward, a truce will not readily be struck. Nor can we safely assume that the conflict will be confined to the intellectual arena. In the nineteenth century, belief in imagination proved itself to be clearly allied with belief in individual freedom; necessarily so, because the act of imagination is the indivdual mind exercising its sovereign unity. [ed. note, please remember that phrase as well]¬† In the twentieth century we are gradually learning that the converse is equally true. There is a curiously aggressive note, often degenerating into a sneer, in the style of those who expound the principles of linguistic analysis. Before he even begins to write, the Logical Positivist has taken the step from ‘I prefer not to interest myself¬† in propositions which cannot be empirically verified’ to ‘all propositions which cannot be empirically verified are meaningless’. The next step to ‘I shall legislate to prevent anyone else wasting his time on meaningless propositions’ is unlikely to appear either illogical or negative to his successor in title. Those who mistake efficiency for meaning inevitably end by loving compulsion, even if it takes them, like Bernard Shaw, the best part of a lifetime to get there.

Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction, 1973, Page 22 (emphasis added)

If that quotation or any of the foregoing is incomprehensible to you, don’t worry. It was to me too at first. I’ve had to read it a few times, reflect on it, now write it, and read other things that helped me grasp it. There is no shame in not understanding a difficult passage. I will try to explain why I included it in the following posts.

By the way, these posts have arisen from my reflections for the summer conference on liberty. I hope you’ll be able to come as we are, as our government told us over 25 years ago, a nation at risk, and they rightly located that risk in our school system. I do not know how much longer we will be a free country. I do know that we cannot remain free without educated citizens.

Germany, Austria, and the Beginnings of Hitler (Part II of a series)

I mentioned in my previous post that my great-grandfather came from southeastern Austria (actually, as my brother Nate reminded me, the Austro-Hungarian empire) in 1910, 100 years ago this year, and that my mother came from Germany a couple generations later.

Austria and Germany are both Germanic people’s, but their history and their characters are very different indeed. I was born in Germany in 1963 and we lived in a very small town in the foothills¬†of Austria until 1966 or 67. I remember nothing of it except perhaps a sound from an air conditioning unit over some nearby building, but I’ve never been clear on that.

In the summer of 2005 I finally went back to that little town, called Hague am Ausruck. It was the epitome of quaint. One street runs up the hill on which the town is located, and on that street are all the shops that fed the town and, I suspect, the hill dwellers nearby. Each was painted a clean pastel, giving the street the characteristically Austrian cleanliness and harmony. Everything about the country seemed musical to me.

Running to and from that main street are three or four tributaries that take you to the houses, none of which were particularly large, but as I recall they were all affectionately tended.

This was 2006. In 1964 it was not so. In 1964 Austria was still recovering from the dual catastrophes of WWI and the ensuing Anschluss and WWII. The once great Empire of Charlemagne had ended in 1918. The rump endured the primal insult of Nazi aggression in the 1930’s.

This National Socialist¬†Germany was the cradle of my mother’s childhood. She lived in Pottsdam, near Berlin, almost an epicenter for the Nazi juggernaut.

For all these reasons, I can’t help but take the story of Hitler’s rise to power personally. I confess that I still love the movie A Sound of Music, if only for the scene in which Max says to Captain Von Trapp that they should be grateful that the Anschluss happened peacefully. Von Trapp¬†jumps at Max with a searing ¬†accusation: “Grateful! Max, I don’t believe I know you.”

Clearly it gave him no sense of gratitude at all that his people made no effort to defend themselves against the invasion. He would rather have died himself.

When Max tells Maria that she should talk to the Captain, Maria’s answer is priceless: “I can’t ask him to be less than he is.”

How Von Trapp would have scoffed at the empty sentiment of a “global citizen!” What do we do, he would have asked, when the Globe determines to oppress us? What do we do when it won’t let us worship at our family altar and won’t let us sing Edelweiss?

The great question of the 20th century has to be, “How did regimes as cruel as the Nazi’s in Germany, the Fascists in Italy, the Communists¬†in Russia and China, find acceptance among the people’s they ruled?”

To be honest, though, the Nazi question is more important for two reasons. First, the Chinese and Russians came to power through a ruthless cruelty that involved a great deal less acceptance by the people they dominated. Second, we are much closer to the mindset of pre-Nazi Germany than we are to the mindset of pre-Bolshevik Russia or pre-Maoist China.

The disturbing thing about Nazi Germany is that Hitler was not only elected democractically (in a parliamentary system), but that he was elected under circumstances that allowed plenty of time for reflection.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how it came about that Hitler was able to lead the German people with so little opposition.

Coming to a Republic, But Can You Keep It?

The late 19th century and early 20th century saw a dramatic acceleration of immigration into the United States from Europe. In 1910, my great-grandfather came from what was then Austria and settled in Milwaukee, WI.

He was one of a multitude.

I don’t know if I possess the creative capacity to exagerrate the signficance of what that wave of immigration meant to American society and politics.

At one level, that is an obvious point. Of course, it will lead to changes if Italians, Germans, French, Spanish, Scandinavian, and other diverse European peoples are all thrown together into a single pot.

So you could say that this is an exercise in stating the obvious. But I’m OK with that. I really like obvious things.

Here’s a particular obvious fact. Not one single immigrant from any country I listed above came to America from an established republic.

Try to absorb that fact.

Remember when Benjamin Franklin left the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, and someone asked him, “What have you given us?” His answer: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

What a very interesting statement. Why would he put it like that? Nobody would say, “A monarchy, if you can keep it.” But Franklin knew, and his confederates knew, that a Republic is a precarious form of government, for human nature always tends toward some sort of collectivism.

Either people turn toward populism, which always leans on the monarch or the Fuhrer or the Messiah or the dictator to protect it from the ravages of the plutocrats.

Or they turn straight to the One to be protected from the uncertainty of life and the market.

But few people want to be free for the simple reason that freedom requires hard work, wisdom, and risk.

So Franklin knew that the republic bequeathed to the American people led a tenuous life that would require hard work, wisdom, and risk. Fortunately, most Americans accepted those terms and determind to preserve the republic as long as they could.

As a result, when my great-grandfather, Jan Polak, joined this Republic in 1910 he came at the tail end of a vast attempt to ensure that the immigrants would understand what it meant to live in a Republic.

Think about this. When he came from Austria, he was leaving the formerly Holy Roman Empire ruled by an Emperor and gathering within its boundaries a whole series of smaller kingdoms and dukedoms. I doubt very much that the idea of voting for any ruler beyond, perhaps, his local church, ever entered his mind.

Now he was called upon every four years to elect his own president, every two years to elect representatives, and constantly to elect aldermen, mayors, governors, etc. etc.

It must have made him dizzy, and while not everybody was an almdudler from the mountains of Slovenia, far from society and culture, many, many immigrants needed these new responsibilities explained to them.

This was the impulse behind the growth of the public schools in the late 19th century. The American people had a Republic and they wanted to keep it.

It didn’t require racism or white supremacism or ethnicism or even political snobbery to realize that unless these people were taught about our system of government they wouldn’t know how to function within it. They simply weren’t accustomed to it.

The locals strove to teach my ancestors the contents of the constitution as well resources allowed. They were taught how to vote. They were taught what a republic is and how it differs from a monarchy or empire. They were taught the basic story behind our revolution. They were taught the constitution.

Having left old, decaying systems behind, mostly tyrannical, you can imagine what a breath of life this was to so many of them. It’s no wonder to me that my grandfather and my father¬†regarded this country with awe.

Back in those days, when they spoke of the American way of life, they didn’t mean a conspicuously consumptive and wasteful desperation, they meant a place where the people chose their servants and they had a job description that described their servants’ roles. That job description was called the Constitution of the United States of America. And each state had one of their own as well.

I mentioned earlier that my great-grandfather came from Austria. Three generations later, my mother fled Russian controlled Germany and landed in Milwaukee too, having married my father.

People still came to America seeking freedom in those days, but things had already changed a great deal.

I’m going to explore some of those changes in my next post.

High School Attainments

I was just over at the Well-Trained-Mind board where I posted this bit about what a high school student should have attained by graduation. Perhaps you’ll find it valuable too:

As a father with three children in college and one a senior in high school who is also home schooling his ninth graders I’ve thought a lot about this. If you don’t mind, I’ll think about it some more right now…0

The first thought is about college. Not much creates more anxiety, but not much is more toothless.

What I do and what I encourage schools and home scholars to do is to determine 10 or 12 colleges you would like your children to attend and then call the admissions officer at those colleges.

Tell them what you are doing and ask them if they want that sort of student. Don’t let them dictate what you are teaching the eternal soul you are raising.

Then you can start to develop your “profile of a graduate” with a clear head and this vague thing called “college” won’t matter to you anymore. Instead, you’ll have concrete, specific colleges for which to prepare.

When I think about what I want my children to achieve by the time they graduate, I try to throw out the assumptions of the age.

For example, Andrew Pudewa has taught me not to think high school matters. Therefore, with my ninth grade son, I have told him I have two goals for him: 1. to be running a profitable business of his own by the time he is 19 and 2. to receive his college undergraduate degree by the time he is 19.

Maybe it’s a boy thing, but that seems to have motivated him.0

With those goals in mind, I then think in terms of three columns that Mortimer Adler developed:

1. Skills to master

2. content to know

3. ideas to understand and appreciate

For example, under 1, it is imperative that a human being in any age master language and reasoning skills to a high degree. Everything else follows, especially in the professions and management.

So I emphasize Latin, Greek, and the language arts of listening, speaking, reading, and writing (more Pudewa influence), along with the reasoning arts of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

Under 2, I want my children to vote, so I’d hate to think anybody would ever do that without knowing the contents of our consitution and the job description of those to whom we delegate our authority. I also want them to know our history as a people so they can understand why we are the way we are and what is possible.

Under 3, I want my children to understand freedom, justice, and order; truth, goodness, and beauty; glory, honor, and immortality; being, mode, and change; wisdom, virtue, and personhood – because these 15 ideas contain everything.

If I were bold enough to make a suggestion, then, I would recommend:

  1. that you contact the colleges you are interested in
  2. that you would not be cowed by the way things are done in our failing culture (after all, you home school!)
  3. that you identify the knowledge, skills, and ideas that YOU want your children to master before completing high school
  4. that you not fall into despair when you only make it part way there! One step on the path of life is better than a thousand miles on any other.

I hope this has some value for you. It has helped me clarify my own thoughts, so thank you for asking such a great question!

Plutarch on Mark Antony

…he left Italy and travelled into Greece, where he spent his time in military exercises and in the study of eloquence. He took most to what was called the Asiatic taste in speaking, which was then at its height, and was, in many ways, suitable to his ostentatious, vaunting temper, full of empty flourishes and unsteady efforts for glory.

Nice summary of both a character and the moral side of rhetoric.

This is from the Dryden Translation, The Modern Library Classics, volume 2, the chapter on Antony.

Asterix turns 50

Anybody with even the slightest lunacy has to love the follies of Asterix and Obelix. On October 29 (today), they turn 50 and who can believe it?

Happy half-century, my heroes.

Hey, somebody else I know is about to turn a half-century old soon too!

Why I’m so much better than you

About 15 years ago, I paid 50 cents at a used book store for a book called Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy. It earned its pay this morning when I pulled it down and read this passage while my wife was trying to talk to me:

A CHINESE SAGE of the distant past was once asked by his diciples what he would do if he were given power to set right the affairs of the country. He answered: “I should certainly see to it that language is used correctly.” The disciples looked perplexed. “Surely,” they said, “this is a trivial matter. Why should you deem it so important?” And the Master replied: “If language is not used correctly, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will be corrupted; if morals and art are corrupted, justice will go astray; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion.”

There is in Wittgenstein’s philosophical concern with language a moral elan which puts him closer in spirit to that sage than to the mere technicians of linguistic analysis.

Erich Heller
A Symposium: Assessments of the Man and the Philosopher

And yet, our age is dominated by the wreckage of the work of “the mere technicians of linguistic analysis,” for language is a human activitiy and all human activity necessarily exists in the moral and ethical realm.

one of those linguistic technicians wrote chapter 2 in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Languages. There he says,

It comes near to stating the obvious that all languages have developed to express the needs of their users, and that in a sense all languages are equal.

Hiding within this statement is a set of qualifications that makes it come near to lacking meaning at all. “It comes near,” but it doesn’t “state” the obvious. “In a sense” all languages are equal, which is nearly obvious.

Well then, it what sense are they nearly obviously equal?

He doesn’t immediately say. Instead, he points out that this nearly obvious equality in a sense is a “tenet of modern linguistics” that “has often been denied, and still needs to be defended.”

I suppose with all those qualifications it would need to be! He continues:

Part of the problem is that the word ‘equal’ needs to be used very carefully. We do not know how to quantify language, so as to be able to say whether all languages have the same ‘amounts’ of grammar, phonology, or semantic structure. There may indeed by important differences in the structural complexity of language, and this possibility needs to be investigated.

This seems to be wisely stated and it certainly continues the humble tack of¬†the opening sentence.¬†He tells us we need to use the word equal carefully, but doesn’t tell us exactly how. Instead he applies it in a very limited manner, completely literal. In other words, he allows for the obvious use of the word “equal” as a term of quantity. But he doesn’t seem to allow for it as a term of quality, or at least he doesn’t use it that way, and since he is telling us to use the word carefully his action would seem to imply that he intends us to use it the same way.

Of equal importance, he excludes any metaphorical use of the word “equal.”

So we are going to look at the equality of languages in quantitative terms: first, amounts of grammar, phonology, and syntactical structure; then, structural¬†complexity, which would seem to be an extension of syntactical structure. In other words, in this matter of sntactical structure, which we don’t know how to quantify, there may be inequalities of language. We have to study it.

Very good. In the realm of quantitative linguistic analysis, then, all languages would seem to be equal except in their structure, which needs to be studied, and in their grammar and phonology, which we don’t know how to quantify.

Therefore, quantitatively, it would seem that language may be equal or may not be. We just don’t know.

But, he continues, and you must read this closely, for he tells us at the end that, “This view is the foundation on which the whole of the present book is based”:

all languages are arguably equal in the sense that tere is nothing intrinsically limiting, demeaning, or handicapping about any of them. All languages meet the social and psychological needs of their speakers, are equally deserving of scientific study, and can provide us with valuable information about human nature and society. This view is the foundation on which the whole of the present book is based.

I am very grateful to them for their honesty.  Now I can take this statement in and assess it precisely. Then I can go through the book and 1. check its arguments for consistency with this foundation, and 2. examine its statements against the reality of language.

What I appreciate about the statement is that they have clearly acknowledged that a quantitative analysis of language is impossible. We must beware, then, of any conclusions they draw based on quantitive assumptions about language.

Instead of a quantitative analysis, they shift to a moral judgment. No language is “intrinsically¬†limiting, demeaning, or handicapping.”

This sentence is a really hard one to unravel.

How are they using language here? As something actually used or as some abstract entity. I am utterly incapable of conceiving of language as an unused abstract entity. Language is a tool of communication and thought. It is an instrument we use to negotiate our relationships with ourselves and the world around and within us. It is an organon, not an idea.

So how can a language be intrinsically anything apart from its potential as an instrument for thought and communication? And are we to believe that any language used by humans is of equal value in the actual task of knowing, understanding, interpreting, communicating, and living in the cosmos?

Doesn’t that depend an awful lot on the people who use the language?

I have been heard to say my core belief that the quality of one’s life is determined by the quality of the questions one asks. If a community of people are driven by¬†questions like, “How can I most effectively kill my neighbor?” or “How can I make lots and lots of money?” or “How can I experience the most physical pleasure?” then their language will reflect those inquiries because that is what language does.

So is there something intrinsic in the language that is “limiting, demeaning, or handicapping”? I wouldn’t think so. As one who believes that language is a gift from God, I find it hard to believe that He would give some people a language that is intrinsically any of those things.

But I’m not sure that matters in the practical question of whether, in the world in which we actually live, one language can be better than another. Let us suppose that a group of people is driven by those questions I outlined above. Words that have to do with justice, holiness, philosophical essences, will stop being used. They’ll wither on the vine. Not only that, but if a people isn’t particularly interested in an issue like, say, theology, then they won’t refine and develop words used for that purpose.

So whether one language can be better than another is not a linguistic question. It’s a moral question and a natural question.

What I mean by that is, I hope, relatively simple.

If my use of language helps me become more fully human, then it is, to the degree that it provides the resources that help me answer the questions I need answered to become more fully human, a better language. Practically. Morally.

If my language enables me to know things the way they are, then it is a better language than one that doesn’t.

Now here’s the crucial practical point: language adapts. It is of the nature of language to change over time. Even strictly controlled languages like Latin or French change. And they change based on circumstances and priorities.

For example, Latin changed dramatically when the Romans encountered the Greeks and attempted to formalize their language and to add vocabulary to make it the equal of the Greek language that they sensed was superior to their own.

And why did they sense that? Because when they tried to think thoughts and answer questions that the Greeks thought and answered, they continually found that they had to resort to Greek words to do so. So the Latin language was enriched by its contact with the Greek.

Here’s another example:¬†After the Normans invaded England in the 11th century, the Angles and Saxons found that their language simply lacked the legal resources to keep up with their Norman conquerors. And what were the Normans speaking? A dialect of Latin called French.

To this day, we still use Greek and Latin words when we want to talk about theology, law, ethics, and philosophy (e.g. justify, legislate, virtue, and epistemology – I won’t bother pointing out that three of those four words are Greek transliterations).

If we were still speaking Anglo-Saxon English, I can assure you there would be no global appreciation for equal rights, democracy, constitutional freedoms, or any of the other noble ideas spread through the world by an English language that was enriched by Latin, Greek, French, German, Native American, etc. etc.

So while I agree that there is nothing intrinsically limiting, demeaning, or handicapping about a language, I am completely convinced by the evidence of my senses and my interactions with real human beings that some languages are less helpful in actual practice than others in learning about and living in reality.

The best actual languages (as opposed to intrinsic languages) are those that enable our souls to fly the highest, dig the deepest, run the farthest, think the most precisely, communicate the most effectively, live the most fully, and love the most wisely.

Over time, some languages have, by the providential hand of history, become better than others at these things. But no language is adequate to them all. So we all need to learn as many languages as time allows, beginning with the languages that give us the most access to the best ideas and the most other languages: Greek and Latin.

Everything turns on the questions asked by the speakers of the language.

I might come back to this if I have time because I’ve left some threads loose. But for now I have to stop. Lest anyone be worried, the title is a joke. I don’t know enough language to be able to make the claim.