Sunday, February 20, 2011

American Founding: Getting It Right

Do you think you know the birth of our nation? John Adams doesn't think so. "The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other," he railed in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush in 1790. "The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod, and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures and war."

I ask audiences how they would characterize what happened between 1761-1815 in Anglo-British North America. Something obviously changed.

Words matter. Ideas have consequences. Different words are used to characterize the change. Does the grand term "American Revolution" best capture what happened? Or does emphasizing the more defensive nature of the conflict with the term "resistance movement" seem more accurate? Some people highlight the military conflict, the "War for Independence." Others underscore the more positive action encapsulated by the term "American Founding." Still others perceptively insist that the conflict on both sides of the Atlantic was in essence a civil war over the meaning of the British constitution and ancient rights of Englishmen.

Perhaps it takes all five terms to characterize the change in Anglo-British North America between 1761-1815: What began as a constitutional debate turned into a resistance movement; the resistance movement morphed into a kind of civil war for independence; victory on the battlefield enabled Americans to found a new nation; Americans had to reassert that victory on the battlefield and at sea in the War of 1812; in retrospect, some of the changes during the war and founding were intentional and revolutionary. This is, indeed, a precis of what happened in Anglo-British North America between 1761-1815.
The purpose of the following essays is to get behind the convenient label "American Revolution" that we put on the box crammed with founding era stuff. The purpose is to explore the meaning of the changes in Anglo-British North America between 1761-1801. February 24, 1761, is a convenient beginning because that is when one of the chief protagonists of the story, John Adams, listened to a James Otis speech in a courtroom and was later moved to claim, "Then and there, the child independence was born." March 4, 1801, is an important marker because another chief protagonist, Thomas Jefferson, would look back and see the day of his inauguration as a second American Revolution.

You note that I follow some historians who stretch the ending of the period to include the War of 1812, often referred to as the Second War for Independence since the Americans and Brits still had not settled fundamental differences. U.S. territory was invaded and our nation's capital burned.

Other historians measure the end of the era with the presidency of John Quincy Adams or Andrew Jackson, the nation's last commanders in chief to have participated in some capacity in the era of the Revolutionary War. 

Historians vs. Hotheads

In any case, to understand two-and-a-half centuries of debate over the American Revolution, one must grapple with the legacy of the French Revolution (1789-'99). Although the French Revolution occurred in the 18th century, much of the history of the 19th century was a reaction to it. La Révolution française spawned or reinforced a passel of "isms" -- romanticism, liberalism, socialism, Marxism, progressivism, anarchism, social Darwinism, conservatism -- all competing in the marketplace of ideas. These ideologies generated a variety of polemical works not just about the French but also about the American Revolution. They can be fascinating reads, but they are not necessarily good history.

Out of the French Revolution and subsequent "isms" came the modern notion of the ideologue. The first known use of the word "ideologue" was, not surprisingly, in French in 1815. Merriam-Webster defines the ideologue as "an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology." Synonyms include crusader, fanatic, zealot, militant, partisan, red hot, true believer.

Philip Tetlock has humorously opined that partisan-ideologues "across the opinion spectrum are vulnerable to occasional bouts of ideologically induced insanity."

If ideologues are by definition incapable of dispassionate work, can their writing be historically sound? Sure, parts of their writing can provide insights and the stimulus to further research. But the very definition of the word "ideologue" casts doubt on the historical integrity of their writing.

In part to take on the hotheaded "history" of the ideologues, academic history congealed as a profession in the 19th century. The new profession was an extension of the Enlightenment project and highly influenced by the German historian Leopold von Ranke. This father of modern history left a huge footprint on the historical profession. For he stressed the empirical method, gleaned facts from primary sources, constructed narratives that limited speculation, and resisted abstract theories. History should be written wie es eigentlich gewesen -- "as it actually happened." Moreover, professionally trained historians were to keep cool heads. They were to resist being co-opted by hotheads -- ideologues -- who subsumed all else to some religious, political, or social agenda. The antidote to ideology, this.

The trouble with historians is that they can appear to be dispassionate when in fact they are partisan. The trouble with ideologues is that their religious, political, or social agenda trumps the search for historical truth. Conflate the two, and such ideologically motivated historians should be handled with tongs. Their agendas are likely camouflaged by such trappings of objectivity as the use of archives, primary sources, direct quotations, footnotes, bibliographies, refereed literature, and other scientific apparatus. Don't be fooled. These trappings no more guarantee objectivity than makeup guarantees beauty. When a religious, political, or social agenda is considered more important than scrupulous inquiry into the past as it actually happened, then inconvenient evidence is ignored or manipulated. Tensions and paradoxes go unacknowledged. Historical narrative is warped by polemical assertion.

Ideology -- modernity's intellectual alchemy

Another antidote to ideologues and ideology goes farther back than Ranke. It is the scientific journal, an innovation that appeared in the 17th century at the dawn of the Enlightenment. Many honest seekers of knowledge about the natural world -- dubbed "natural philosophers" in early modern Europe -- were frustrated by alchemists who claimed secret knowledge of nature and refused to share that knowledge or submit their secrets to a candid world. To flush the alchemists out, these natural philosophers began publishing scientific journals. The idea behind scientific journals was to propose a more intellectually open and honest model to advance knowledge of the natural world. Pioneeering natural philosophers submitted their hypotheses, methods, data, knowledge, and assessments to a candid world so that anyone could test claims for themselves and evaluate the findings, consistent with the canons of evidence and the laws of thinking. Knowledge became established -- "laws" became paradigmatic -- when corroborated by subsequent experiments that were corroborated by universal reason over time.

We all know the limits of the Enlightenment ideal: (1) Reason is not the only way knowledge is acquired -- think of how important instinct, intuition, and emotional intelligence are to knowing. (2) Even when reason is scrupulously applied to the evidence, radically different interpretations -- each valid -- can result. (3) Believers in the three Abraham faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- believe that there are some things that human beings need to know but cannot know on their own, thus the necessity of God's revelation as a source of knowledge.

Whatever its limits, the Enlightenment model became normative for the historical profession. It proved useful for the acquisition of public knowledge of the past. It is the working assumption of historians trained after Ranke that knowledge of the past is advanced when researchers have open, equal access to the same archives and historical materials. Ideologues are not indifferent or friendly to this ideal. Worse, they do not have the courage, as Stephen Tonsor used to tell his students, to follow the evidence wherever it might lead, no matter how upsetting it may be to the status quo or to conventional wisdom. Ideologues are threatened by the open search for knowledge. They seek to coopt the evidence for their own purposes, often hiding behind jargon-laden theories that are comprehensible only to the gnostic few. They are yesterday's alchemists.

We have all heard about sensational instances of fraudulent science (fluoride, vaccines, aspartame, and both sides of the global warming debate). History is no less prone to fraud. Numerous flawed or fraudulent monographs have been foisted on the scholarly community and book-reading public. Perhaps most famous of all is David Irving's work that denied the reality of the Final Solution. Another notorious example of problematic "scholarship" is Michael Bellesiles's Arming America (2001). Because the author could not produce the evidence he claims to have consulted, the work appears to be more of an attack on the National Rifle Association than an accurate study of early American gun ownership. The History News Network has posted a longish list of authors who have been accused by of sloppy, misleading, or outright dishonest scholarship.

As William Kelleher Storey points out in Writing History, "Real historical writers probe factual uncertainties, but they do not invent convenient facts and they do not ignore inconvenient facts. People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts."

McDonald vs. Beard

The American founding is one of the salients over which historians of various schools and ideologues of various stripes have fought. One of the most famous contests occurred when Forrest McDonald answered -- and corrected -- Charles Beard's highly partisan interpretation of the Constitution's framers. Beard's Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) reevaluated the founders as economic agents. In deliberations over the Constitution, their votes yea or nay supposedly reflected class- and self-interest above all else. It was a questionable assumption but, among progressive historians, the work was well received. Beard's career took a turn for the worse when he asserted that Franklin Roosevelt was more to blame for American involvement in World War II than Japan or Germany.

As a graduate student, Forrest McDonald challenged Beard by revisiting the source material and discovering that the Constitution's framers were motivated not so much by economic interest as by the political ideals and experiences of a people living in the legacy of the Glorious Revolution and a century of self-rule. McDonald's work has stood the test of time. It is honest historical scholarship untainted by ideology. After McDonald published three books demolishing Beard, it was hard ever to read Beard's Economic Interpretation other than as a period piece of the Progressive Era.

One U.S. President's Interpretation of the American Revolution

Not surprisingly, U.S. presidents come to terms with the American Revolution in instructive ways. One president recently wrote of the Founders:
"It's not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of an idea or ideology or theology or "ism," any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single unalterable course, to drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad. The Founders may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them.... They were suspicious of abstraction and liked asking questions, which is why at every turn in our early history theory yielded to fact and necessity."
This passage is from The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (p. 93), by then-Senator Barack Obama. On the face of it, the author properly rejects ideologies and "isms." His interpretation sounds reasonable, but is it entirely plausible?

No doubt, some of the more intellectually radical founders -- Thomas Paine and the very young Thomas Jefferson -- did subscribe to the Enlightenment ideal of the open-ended pursuit of truth in all its manifestations -- theological, philosophical, political, and historical. But to claim that the Founders rejected absolute truth is inaccurate. More precisely, it is to commit the historical fallacy of presentism, which interprets the past not in its context but in ours.

There is evidence aplenty to refute the notion that the Founders were relativists. Even Jefferson by the time he was 33 years old was writing in the Declaration of Independence of self-evident truths established by the laws of nature and nature's God. Doesn't the notion of transcendent laws suggest that he and the 55 other signers of the Declaration subscribed to at least a few absolute truths, especially regarding the rights of human beings? Indeed, quite a number of founders were confident in a good many absolutes. Take John Jay, a devout, orthodox, church-going Christian through the entire founding period. He and other orthodox Christians rejected the more extreme claims of the radical Enlightenment then current in France. It was only because they were confident in "the protection of divine Providence" that the Founders could stake their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the revolution. It would be difficult to imagine such an assertion in the defense of a thoroughgoing relativism.

A later writer, John Courtney Murray, observed in We Hold These Truths -- and I thank Tracy Mehan for reminding me of the passage -- "The sense of the famous phrase ["We hold these truths"] is simply this: There are truths, and we hold them, and we here lay them down as the basis and inspiration of the American project, this constitutional commonwealth." Against the relativists, Murray argued that "the life of man in society under government is founded on truths, on a certain body of objective truth, universal in its import, accessible to the reason of man, definable, defensible.... If this assertion is denied, the American Proposition is, I think, eviscerated at one stroke."

Getting It Right

The American founding deserves to be understood as it actually happened. After all, this is our founding. It realized our inherent rights as human beings. It makes our way of life possible. Not only that, but it is also one of the top 25 threshold events in human history, guided by the most remarkable generation of political thinkers and actors the world has ever seen. We owe it to the rising generation (and of course to ourselves) to get the history right.

In the spirit of getting the history right, the following essays explore big issues of the American founding that have been historiographic and ideological minefields.

To learn more, visit

Thursday, February 17, 2011

American Founding (10): Roman Influence

Americans and the Ancients -- Overview

It is difficult for students to grasp world history because of the vast distances in time and place with which they must grapple. The following fact provides perspective that staggers the imagination. Think of how long ago ancient Rome was: a long time ago indeed. And yet, two-thirds of human beings' civilizational experience had already transpired by the time the Western Roman Empire "fell" in 476 A.D. (This is a period of approximatley 4,000 years stretching from about 3,500 B.C. to about 500 A.D.) No wonder students need help in understanding these very distant ages. When possible, I try to provide pedagogical pegs between the foreign past that students do not know, with the American experience that they may know. Thus to teach about various ancient peoples, I point out:

  1. The Pilgrims were like the ancient Hebrews. Moses led Israel on the Exodus out of Egypt to found a new nation in Canaan. It is roughly analogous to the Pilgrims on their errand into the wilderness* to restore God's people in the "New Canaan."
  2. Many of our early educators -- the founders of colleges and seminaries -- were like the ancient Greeks who launched unfinished philosophical quests.
  3. Our Founders and Framers were like the ancient Romans and even consciously identified with them. For the remainder of this essay, I would like to look in more detail at Americans' fascination with ancient Rome.

Americans and the Romans

Rome was both a city and an empire built on the values of a city, thus unlike anything in the American experience. Yet Americans in the new republic identified with Rome in a number of significant ways.

They identified even with Rome's geography. In Washington, DC, Capitol Hill (formerly called Jenkins Hill) alludes to one of the Seven Hills of Rome.

The Founders' and Framers' noms de plume were Roman -- Publius, Cicero, Cincinnatus, Cato, Brutus. They consciously identified with Roman models of republican virtue. So:

- Washington: Cincinnatus (to others), Fabius the Delayer (to history), Cato the Younger (to himself)
- Adams: Cicero, the greatest attorney of the ancient world.
- Jefferson: Cicero
- Madison: Publius, to our Founders, the first great republican leader in world history, a model republican.
- Hamilton: Caesar originally, according to Donald D'Elia, then Publius
- Jay: Publius

- John Dickinson (conservative, headed up Articles of Confederation): Fabius in Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania

The Founders' political ideas were largely informed by Roman republican and imperial ideas. They sought to create a mixed constitution that balanced monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. (This is why our nation is not technically a democracy.)

The political vocabulary they used -- republic, virtue, president, capitol, constitution, Senate -- was based on Latin words. The legislative processes they utilized -- veto, sine die -- were Latin. Many of their political symbols -- the eagle, the fasces, the image of a leader on a coin -- were Roman in inspiration.

The architecture of the American Founding also showed a predilection for the Roman aesthetic sense. It's not too much of a stretch to assert that the buildings and monuments lining the National Mall in Washington, DC -- with its stately, classical architecture -- might resemble a Roman colony; the new additions constructed in the 1930s continued the Roman theme. The Capitol was inspired by Renaissance models that, in turn, were loosely based on the Roman Pantheon. Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, looks like a Roman temple. The Founders' sculpture and painting were also inspired by Roman precedents. It is not unusual to see George Washington adorned in a toga.

The Founders were fascinated by the fall of the Western Empire and took the lessons from that fall and applied those lessons to the American cause. They were especially concerned that luxury would lead to the undoing of republican virtue.

Moreover, the Romans went through a dramatic passage from a somewhat "foreign" monarchy (the Etruscans) to the republic -- just as Americans did at our Founding, when we separated from an increasingly foreign and tyrannical British monarchy. (The Georges, recall, were Hanoverians.)

The Founders had ideas of what a good empire could be -- e.g., Jefferson's Empire of Liberty -- that borrowed from the universal ideals of the Roman Empire. But our Founders also warned that empires can injure freedom if there are few checks and balances. The dictatorial or absolute rulers who emerged during the Roman civil wars and Roman Empire provided antimodels, examples of the Hell we should never descend into.

Many Southern aristocrats identified with the ancient Romans because of the institution of slavery. Many Northern yankees feared that slavery hurt the development of a middle-class economy, so they took away another lesson from ancient Rome.

Bread and circuses -- today's bridge cards and ESPN -- may also be relevant to our experience as Americans, as they tend to keep civil unrest to a minimum because unemployed and underemployed people are fed and entertained and even have a vicarious outlet for frustration, anger, and violence.

The Roman Eras

Each of the major eras of Roman history was instructive to the Americans of the founding period, well read as they were in the classics.

1. The transition from Etruscan kings to the Republic via an outrage -- a rape -- leads to the emergence of the model republican, Publius.

2. The Republic was destroyed by imperial expansion, even if it was the unintended consequence of security concerns. The Mediterranean narrows significantly between Rome and Carthage, meaning that these two ancient republics would fight to the death for control of transportation and commerce. But long and numerous wars can destroy republics. Republics tend to turn into empires when they have to fight and expand to secure ever bigger defensive and commercial corridors. So the three Punic wars against Carthage slowly turned Rome into an empire.

3. Victories abroad led to unforeseen changes at home, economically, socially, and politically. Slaves imported as the spoils of war drastically altered the economy of the agrarian republic. They undercut the prices of the commodities produced by yeomen farmers. Unable to earn a living off the land, many yeomen farmers migrated to Rome, looking for work. The subsequent unrest led to a century of civil war, culminating in the tyrant Julius Caesar.

The unemployed masses that were driven off the land and into Rome needed food and diversions, so the emperors provided bread and circuses -- our bridge cards and ESPN?

4. Out of the civil wars came strong, able rulers like Caesar Augustus and other emperors who established order and the Pax romana. Augustus kept republican forms while adopting imperial powers.

Through its transportation network, military might, and imperial leadership, the Roman Empire achieved what no nation before or since has: It unified Europe south of the Danube and west of the Rhine. Europe has pursued the dream of unification ever since the Pax romana. The pursuit of this dream explains much of the tragedy and triumph of the European experience.

In Roman times, it was as though Alexander the Great's dream of a united world were finally realized by the caesars: It was politically Roman, but culturally Hellenistic.

5. In its religious history, the Roman Empire went from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism -- the opposite, by the way, of what America's 13 colonies and states went through.

Christianity began on the Palestine frontier -- away from the intellectual elite and beautiful people of the day -- yet prevailed at the right historic moment, combining three key ingredients that would help it become the established religion of the West: (1) Jewish spiritual yearning and moral rigor; (2) Greek ideas and writing; and (3) Roman imperial transportation, communication, and security.

6. The Western Empire "fell" in 476 A.D. The causes of the "fall" were probably many, thus providing numerous paradigms and warnings for all peoples in all ages to come. The Eastern Empire centered at Constantinople did not fall for another 1,000 years.

The "fall" of the Western Empire was not really a "fall." Germanic tribes were coopted to defend otherwise indefensible territory. But 476 would be an epochal event nonetheless. The dissolution of imperial authority in the West created opportunities for Germans to acculturate and achieve an unexpected synthesis that would be foundational for later Western civilization. The synthesis was:
- Judeo-Christian in its moral and spiritual foundation;
- Greco-Roman in its philosophical and legal foundation;
- Germanic in its spirit of freedom in the northern woods, having elective monarchies, assemblies of freemen, and sacred property rights. (The Anglo-Saxon expression of the Germanic spirit would blossom in England, and thus be transmitted to America through the supremacy of its representative institution, Parliament, and the Common Law.)

This tripartite synthesis -- Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Germanic -- informed the civilization called Christendom. By the 15th century it would begin to put its mark on the entire world.


In significant ways, Rome never fell. It certainly never fell in the imagination. Politically Europeans long tried to achieve the "second Rome" and the "third Rome." (Mussolini and Hitler both vied for the distinction.) Artistically, the Roman aesthetic continued to inform Western sensibilities.

Americans' fascination with ancient Rome did not end during the founding or the early days of the new republic. It continued in the schools where Latin was taught. It was expressed after the Second World War in the many "swords and sandals" movies set in ancient Rome. It is even apparent in the Star Wars movies that feature the good republic/bad empire dichotomy. Rome is very much alive in our imaginations today.


Notes and sources:

* The term, "Errand into the Wilderness," was made famous by the great historian of the Puritans, Perry Miller, who used it as the title of one of his books. Miller borrowed the title, in turn, from a 1670 jeremiad delivered from a Massachusetts pulpit on the eve of an election. Like so many Puritan sermons, it warned sinful and unregenerate people of an angry God who had the capacity to destroy.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

American Founding (1): Who Cares?

Why haven't there been more blockbuster movies about the American founding and Revolution? There were heroes, there were villains, and there was war. Yet moviegoers are likely to know more about Troy, the Spartan 300, and Roman gladiators than they do about George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the American Revolution.

One reason the American founding lacks entertainment value is that it was more about what did not happen, than what did. As historian John Willson astutely observes, "most of what is really important about the American Founding lies in how a potentially harmful revolution was contained. It was not entirely averted, but it was contained and directed to the ends of limited government and the practice of liberties that had long existed in most American provinces." (There will be more on the proper interpretation of the American founding in the next essay.)

Perhaps because the American Revolution does not attract much attention in Hollywood or among the makers of video games, most young people are uninformed or misinformed about it. Surveys by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute ( show that few college freshmen grasp the significance of the American founding. Informal surveys that I administer to my own classes confirm this finding. Many college students are not particularly curious about the source of their freedom. They don't fully embrace what the American founding means for themselves or for humankind. It's sort of like gravity: just there.

Most of our youth, I've discovered, cannot say why George Washington was a rare leader worthy of our esteem. They cannot identify the most significant passages of the Declaration of Independence or U.S. Constitution. (For comic relief, see the clip of Barney Fife trying to recite the Preamble of the Constitution here.) There is no way they could explain why Thomas Jefferson called the Federalist Papers "the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written."

Few students have encountered the idea that King George III was arguably more of a rebel than George Washington. Beyond a few vague slogans about freedom and equality, most students are neither conversant with the ideas that animated the Founders, nor the principles by which they sought to govern, nor the succession of events that made independence possible, nor the incredible difficulties involved in founding the new republic, nor the tensions that were left unresolved in 1787 and bequeathed to later generations (e.g., constitutional interpretation, state vs. national sovereignty, and, tragically, the scandal of slavery).

Not only are most American students uninformed about the founding; they are misinformed as well. Most think the Constitution's framers were democrats; they are not aware that the delegates of 1787 loathed or feared direct rule by the many. Most students also fail to understand the founders' view of freedom, especially the notion that it must be ordered so that it does not devolve into licentious behavior or anarchy. Most students don't always appreciate that every right has a corresponding duty. And most are under the mistaken notion that there was everywhere a "wall of separation" between church and state from the get-go.

Do Americans not sufficiently value the founding as it actually happened? Has it been hijacked by ideologues? Does this help explain how uninformed and misinformed students are?

My aim in asking such a question is not to heap scorn on students. I do not blame our youth for what they have not been taught. I cannot hold them accountable for what they do not know when they reach my classroom, only for what they know when they leave it.

Truth is, the students starting my history classes probably know about as much as the leaders who represent them. It is our elected leaders who have no excuse when they are uninspired, uninformed, or misinformed about the founding. How ironic that Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party leader in Congress -- a political movement that consciously identifies with the American Founding -- claimed in a stump speech that New Hampshire was the state famous for Lexington, Concord, and the "shot heard round the world"! It was not her first gaffe regarding basic American history.

As a college professor, my charge is to turn students on to history. It is to help them discover the amazing story of the American founding -- their founding -- and to inspire them to learn about it for the rest of their lives.

Maybe along the way some of our nation's leaders will also be inspired to get our story right.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Entangled Roots of American Order

Democracy of the Dead among the Roots

As metaphors go, Russell Kirk's "roots" goes well with G.K. Chesterton's "democracy of the dead." Both figures of speech draw our attention to the underworld, where roots grow and burials occur. Both seek to convey how something out of sight nevertheless exerts a powerful influence on the living. Both mount a defense for keeping the best traditions alive.

The roots metaphor illustrates how the culturally vital nutrients of a civilization are transmitted from generation to generation. Roots are organic. They do not grow like crystals in a Cartesian grid. Rather, they spread their dendritic empire into the richest content they can. Although out of sight, a plant's roots are vital conduits of water and nutrients. They provide structural support for the organism. If seriously damaged, the organism dies.

So it is with the roots of cultures, nations, and civilizations. Kirk and Chesterton argued that the roots of Western civilization, like those of the United States, are largely out of sight. In their intricate complexity, they stretch down deep, entangled with other roots in a dark, moist underworld -- the place figuratively inhabited by the democracy of the dead. It is important to keep this democracy alive in the minds and hearts of the rising generation. By knowing it and defending it against the erosion of time and neglect, a people can be sustained.

Chesterton's good deed was to challenge modern sensibilities that were prone to exalt democracy but to forget the dead:
"Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father" (Orthodoxy, Chapter 4).
Kirk's good deed was to push the narrative of America back much deeper than 1776 or 1492. He revived
"nineteenth-century accounts of Western civilization [that] understood the West to have four roots. Athens stood emblematically as the source of the West’s philosophical traditions. Jerusalem was the source of the West’s religious traditions. Rome was the source of the West’s legal traditions. And Germany -- the German forests, in which had dwelt the Gothic tribes -- was the source of the peculiarly Western spirit of liberty, contract, and self-government." [See more here.]

The Paradox of Order: It Does Not Come into Being in an Orderly Fashion
Neither Kirk nor Chesterton was saying that there was a straight line from civilization to civilization. Our pilgrims were not the direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews. Our universities are not the direct descendants of Plato's Academy or Athens's agora. Our founders were not the direct descendants of Roman republicans. Our institutions are not directly descended from those of the Gothic tribes. Roots are complex, entangled. The democracy of the dead is a cacophony of very different voices. Take your pick of metaphors: Our deep past, like that of all nations, is an entangled network of roots -- or a cacophony of very different voices.

To play upon the obvious paradox: order does not come into being in an orderly fashion -- not in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, and not in any of the great cities before it. Neither in Jerusalem nor in Athens nor in Rome nor in London was the establishment of order orderly.

Entanglement by Syncretism: Herod's Palestine

There are two ways civilizational roots become entangled. One way occurs when people consciously attempt to harmonize different traditions. A striking example of syncretism can be seen in the work of Herod the Great. Ethnically, Herod was an Idumaean Jew; culturally he possessed Hellenistic sensibilities; politically he was a creature of Rome since it was Caesar Augustus who made him a client king of Judea. So Herod was constantly trying to ingratiate himself to Augustus, while at the same time satisfying the demands of the local population. In this one cosmopolitan ruler, then, you see the convergence of Jewish, Greek, and Roman influences. Herod could travel with ease in Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. (How many of us could say that?)

Herod is famous for two things. He was the king of Judea when Jesus was born, and he was the single greatest builder in the history of the Holy Land. The architecture he commissioned reflected his ambition to merge three different civilizations to please the three different populations in his kingdom: native Jews, Hellenized Gentiles, and Roman administrators and visitors.

One excellent example of Herod's syncretism was his rebuilding of Solomon's Second Temple. While the content inside the temple remained Jewish, the form was Greek. It bore similarities to a Greek temple set in the middle of an agora that was conceived on the scale of a Roman forum. Adding to the classical touches were a basilica and stoas along the perimeter, with inscriptions in Greek and Latin -- Greco-Roman flourishes for the Jews who came up to the Temple Mount.

Another spectacular example of the king's syncretism was his creation of the port city of Caesarea Maritima on the site of an old Persian village. The new city was populated by people who carried three different civilizations into the community -- Hellenized Gentiles, Roman administrators, and a strong Jewish minority. Named in honor of Caesar Augustus, Caesarea Maritima was laid out in the Roman style. It featured a finely engineered harbor (the archaeological ruins of which are still visible from the air) with a Greek lighthouse modeled after the Pharos at Alexandria.*

To make the point about syncretism another way: Caesarea is mentioned several times in the Book of Acts, where the Gentile writer, Luke, writes in Greek about a Hellenized Jewish apostle who claimed Roman citizenship. His name was Paul.

Entangled roots, indeed -- or a cacophony of voices.

Entanglement in the Clash of Traditions
-- in Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London

Roots also become entangled when there are confrontations between the various traditions. Within each of the four cities Russell Kirk writes about, there were struggles for dominance by competing factions. And there were different winners in each. As a result, the civilizations associated with these four cities did not embody identical worldviews and values. Au contraire, each city, even at its core, was the scene of fierce conflicts over worldviews and values. Consider a few examples of the "entangled roots" of our deep past:
  • Ancient Jerusalem was not always monotheistic (belief in the existence of one God). There were periods when the Jewish people practiced monolatry* (belief in the existence of many gods while worshipping only one of them). The practice of monolatry, indeed, divided the ten northern tribes from the two southern ones. Moreover, in the wake of Alexander the Great, many Jewish people were seduced back into polytheism. By the first century A.D. various sects -- Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes -- were battling to define the essence of Judaism. Then Jesus proclaimed he was the Messiah and introduced a radically new sect into Judaism -- the followers of Christ.
  • Jesus presents a stew of syncretism. Although reared in Nazareth in the Jewish tradition, he grew up in a Hellenized region of the world only four miles from the Roman administrative town of Sepphoris.* Even his name is complex. Jesus in Latin is Iesus, from the Greek Iesous. This Hellenization of the Hebrew Jeshua or Joshua comes from two Hebrew words meaning "Yahweh rescues." Christ comes from the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Messiah, meaning "the anointed one." So the name "Jesus, the Christ" derives from Hebrew, Greek, and even Roman sources.
  • The quest for meaning took radically different routes in the different cities. As Francis Ambrosio observes, two of the early cities gave the world contrasting prototypes of how human beings might find meaning even as they stand in awe before the mystery of existence. Looking into the vast impersonal forces of nature, Athens taught us to revere the hero and strive for nobility among men. Gazing into a creation charged with divine presence, Jerusalem taught us to imitate the saint and pray for humility before God.
  • Athens's political history is complex. Our focus tends to be on its direct democracy, but this radically different form of government was slow to coalesce in the late 6th century B.C. and abruptly ended at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C.
  • The worldview of Jerusalem and that of Athens were at odds. The Jews put emphasis on one God (even when they practiced monolatry); the polytheistic Athenians, on many gods.
  • Athens was a direct democracy for less than 200 years; Rome for many centuries was a republic and for many more centuries an altogether different thing, an empire.
  • Rome's religious evolution is maddeningly complex. At the time of Jesus, the city was riotously polytheistic, having added numerous Greek deities to its own. Moreover, a great leader like Julius Caesar or a beloved emperor like Caesar Augustus could undergo a popular apotheosis. In this hodgepodge, it was official Roman policy sometimes to persecute Christians, and sometimes to leave them alone. There were some dozen persecutions in all. In 313 the emperor Constantine officially recognized Christianity as one of the religions that would be tolerated in the empire. Only in 380 did a Roman emperor, Theodosius I, proclaim that Christianity would be the sole religion of the empire. Perhaps ironically for conservative Americans looking back on this history, within a century of adopting Christianity, the Western Roman Empire "fell."
  • At the core of the British experience was London, which after encountering the New World could not decide what it wanted to be: Catholic or Protestant, Lutheran or Calvinist or latitudinarian, an absolute monarchy or a constitutional monarchy with a strong Parliament ... or even a republic. In the span of 150 years, it experimented with everything from regicide to revolution (that of 1688). Ask yourself: How would America be different today had this cacophony of voices turned out differently?

It's a bloody history, most of it. When reading Kirk's Roots, keep in mind the friction points within and among these civilizations. Much violence is involved in transmitting cultural DNA from generation to generation and civilization to civilization. Because cultures vary one from another, there are frequent and ferocious clashes, and who wins these clashes -- and how they win -- greatly influences the eventual formation of worldviews and values. The formation of American worldviews and values is no exception.

We well know the story of how Philadelphia clashed with London from the beginning of the American Revolution in 1761 (in John Adams's opinion, the true starting point) to the end of the War of 1812, when the War for Independence was finally resolved. We less frequently ask how Jerusalem's ideals clashed with those of Athens, how Athens's ideals clashed with those of Rome, and how Rome's ideals clashed with those of London. Yet these civilizational clashes are critical to understanding our roots as Americans. So let us look at a couple of clashes in greater detail.

David vs. Goliath: Jew vs. Greek?

It's not something most of us learned in Sunday school, but the story of David and Goliath may well have foreshadowed future conflicts between Jerusalem and Athens. In the 11th century B.C., both Mycenaean Greeks and Jews wanted to control Palestine. What were Mycenaean Greeks -- called "Philistines" in the Hebrew Scriptures -- doing in Palestine in the 11th century B.C.? It's a good question. One theory is that Mycenaean civilization collapsed suddenly around the time the Greeks returned from the Trojan War. The collapse forced the Greeks to flee their homeland and seek refuge in other parts of the Mediterranean. The Mycenaean Sea Peoples who made the successful voyage to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean would have included Goliath's ancestors in search of a new homeland. But they ran afoul of King Saul, who was establishing a monarchy for the Jewish people in the region.

Given his size and reputation as a warrior, it is not improbable that Goliath was a descendent of one of the Mycenaean Greeks who had besieged Troy.* It's uncanny that another great book of the ancient world -- the Iliad -- features a similar fight in which young Nestor slays the giant Ereuthalion (in Book 7). But in the David and Goliath story, the tables are turned, and it is the Mycenaean warrior who comes out on the losing end. Indeed, when the Bible describes David holding the decapitated head of Goliath up as a trophy (in 1 Samuel 17v51), it is as though the Jews are proclaiming their supremacy over the Mycenaean Greeks, whose exit from history ended the Age of Heroes and bequeathed a dark age to the ancient Mediterranean world.

Hebrew Jews vs. Greek Jews

Another critically important clash occurred in the 2nd century B.C., when Jerusalem -- the City of David -- was the scene of a fierce struggle between champions of Greek culture and freedom fighters for Jewish culture. It is not by accident that I compose this essay on December 1, 2010, at the start of Hanukkah. These Jewish holy days commemorate one of the most famous civilizational clashes in our cultural DNA.

Jerusalem was not a strictly Jewish city in ancient times. The armies of Alexander the Great conquered the Jewish people and imposed Hellenistic culture on them during the Second Temple period. Indeed, one of the kings in the wake of Alexander's conquest, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, reinvented Jerusalem as a Greek polis and renamed the city Antiochia. More, this Seleucid king issued a decree that forbade the Jews from observing the rites and laws of their religion. Instead, Jews had to follow Greek customs. Failure to do so warranted the death penalty. So utterly totalitarian was Antiochus IV that he rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem to the Greek god Zeus. Sacred prostitution was practiced within its precincts.

This is the background to the heroic struggle that the Maccabees waged against those trying to impose a Greek cultural agenda. They sought to reestablish Mosaic law. But the Maccabees did not speak for all Jews, a significant number of whom were eager to embrace Hellenism. The Hellenized Jews were attempting a cultural synthesis that more conservative Jews found threatening. Thus the civil war got nasty -- as civil wars inevitably do -- with the Maccabees seeking out and destroying any fellow Jew who abandoned the law of Moses.

After three years, Antiochus' edict was rescinded, and Jews were once again free to observe Mosaic law. They rededicated the Temple to YHWH in 164 B.C., which is what the modern Jewish holy days of Hanukkah commemorate.*

And yet -- and yet -- what did descendents of the conservative Jewish Maccabees eventually do with their new-found freedom? They accepted Greek names. They adopted Greek customs. They produced Greek literature. They read Old Testament books that had been translated into the Greek left behind by Alexander the Great. Two centuries later, Jewish-raised authors of the New Testament would write in Greek. The apostle Paul would vigorously argue for the inclusion of Hellenized Jews in the Church. And a Hellenized Gentile named Luke would write more of the New Testament than any other individual.* The irony is rich.

Moral of the Story

The point of retelling this story is to remind ourselves that the roots of American order did not grow harmoniously one from another. The past is a cacophony of voices arising from the democracy of the dead. The story of the Maccabees shows how a civil war could arise when Jewish and Greek values clashed within the same culture. In America today, we are faced with some of the same kinds of tensions that erupted in civil war in the 2nd-century B.C.



Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, 4th ed. (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003).

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Moody, 2009).

For a discussion of monolatry, consult Gary Rendsberg, The Book of Genesis (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2006), lecture 8; and Jodi Magness, The Holy Land Revealed (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2010), lecture 6.

For more on Sephorris, consult Jodi Magness, The Holy Land Revealed (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2010), lecture 22.

For Herod the Great's reign, consult Jodi Magness, The Holy Land Revealed (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2010), lectures 18-21.

For David and Goliath, consult Robert L. Dise Jr, Ancient Empires before Alexander (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2009), lectures 16-18.

For the Maccabees, consult Jodi Magness, The Holy Land Revealed (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2010), lecture 11 .

For the observation about St. Luke writing more of the New Testament than any other author, consult

To learn more, visit

Sunday, February 6, 2011

World History (6): Inventing Empire

First Age of Empires

It seems to be a law of human nature: Rulers cannot resist expanding their power. So family heads become chiefs. Chiefs become kings. And kings become emperors. An emperor is a king who rules other kings.

The first empire was invented as a conscious act. This threshold event occurred in the third millennium B.C. -- more than a thousand years after the creation of civilization. Once invented, the idea of empire took hold in man's imagination and spread rapidly.

Who was the first to have thought of this idea of empire anyway? It seems to have been Sargon the Great. A few decades before 2300 B.C., this canny Mesopotamian strongman brought lesser rulers to heel. Sargon forged the Akkadian Empire out of lesser kingdoms throughout the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. You have heard of the Akkadian Empire's greatest work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. It's one of the world's first literary artifacts. While the epic poem was recited in different languages, it is the Akkadian text that is the basis of our modern translations.

Over the next thousand years there arose a succession of other powerful empires in the Fertile Crescent and beyond: the Hatti, Egyptian, Assyrian, Minoan, and Mycenaean, to name a few. Together this succession of imperial dynasties comprise the First Age of Empires. In the West, we glean information about these pioneering empires from the Pentatuch (Torah) in the Hebrew Scriptures, which provides insights into the ancient Egyptian Empire. Many are also familiar with Hammurabi's Code, which around 1750 B.C. opened a remarkable window onto the Babylonian emperor's idea of justice.

Dark Age

For unknown reasons -- about the same time the Mycenaeans ended their seige at Troy and about the time Moses led Israel out of Egypt -- a dark age settled over much of the eastern Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. It lasted from the 12th century B.C. till about the 9th century B.C. It was a time of widespread decline, when civilizations and empires lost their vigor.

Second Age of Empires

Then all of a sudden, for equally mysterious reasons, the second wave of empires came into being and spread from 600 B.C. to 600 A.D. This Second Age of Empires included the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great's empire, the Roman imperium, and China's great Han Empire. This Second Age of Empires seems terribly distant from us in time and space, yet here is a striking thought. Two-thirds of our species's existence with civilization had already passed by the time the Western Roman Empire fell. Two-thirds! The Roman Empire could look back on empires that had flourished some two millennia before it -- in roughly the same relation that we today are to the ancient Romans. So the imperial dynasties of the Second Age of Empires are only relatively ancient.

Here is another thought. These distant empires are more familiar to you than you think. Most Americans have acquaintance with the Second Age of Empires from several sources.

  1. Hollywood. The more notorious imperial dynasties have captured Hollywood's imagination. Swords-and-sandals productions have been made about the Persian ruler Xerxes (The 300), the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (Alexander), various events under the Roman consuls, generals, and emperors (Pompey and Crassus in Spartacus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, I Claudius, Caligula, Nero in Quo Vadis, Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator), and about Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire (Ben Hur, The Passion of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth).
  2. The Bible. The Hebrew scriptures unfold amid numerous ancient empires -- the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman empires are apt examples -- and the New Testament is written in Hellenistic Greek under the Roman occupation.
  3. Herodotus, The Histories, is a perennial favorite and gives great details about the Persians. This classic was featured in Michael Ondaatje's English Patient.
  4. Latin works originating in Roman times continually reacquaint us with this fascinating era -- e.g., Marcus Aurelius' Meditations and St. Augustine's Confessions remain perennial classics.
  5. We also have borrowed many terms characteristic of the Second Age of Empires and Axial Age:
  • karma
  • nirvana
  • yoga
  • mantra
  • ascetic
  • syncretism
  • Hellenizing
  • satrap
  • Zarathustra (used by Nietzsche, after Zoroaster)

This brief survey of words, popular culture, and highbrow literature also shows that the Axial Age and Second Age of Empires overlap and, indeed, are intimately linked. If the Axial Age (800-200 B.C.) saw the spiritual and intellectual foundations of all future civilizations come into being, then the Second Age of Empires (600 B.C. to 600 A.D.) saw wave after wave of imperial dynasties arise on the Afro-Eurasian landmass from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. More specifically:

  1. Persian Empire (550-330 B.C.)
  2. Alexander the Great's Hellenistic empire spread from Egypt to Asia (338-150 B.C.). It ended the Greek polis as an effective means of social and political organization, replacing it with a cosmopolitan one-world vision of civilization.
  3. Han China
  4. Roman Empire
  5. Byzantine Empire
  6. Achaemenids and Sasanids (224-651 A.D.) in Iran
  7. Mauryas (321-185 B.C.) and Guptas (320-550 A.D.) in India
These diverse, far-flung empires shared several characteristics.

(1) They were undergirded by the religious and philosophical traditions of the Axial Age. In turn, the stability and scale of these imperial dynasties enabled Axial Age religions to come of age. Curiously, the religious traditions of the Axial Age sent their deepest roots in empires far from the regions in which they originated. This is notable about Confucianism (which spread well beyond the original river valley civilization in which it arose), Buddhism (which migrated to central Asia, China, and Southeast Asia), Hinduism (which migrated to Southeast Asia), and -- later -- Christianity (which migrated to Rome, Constantinople, and Aksum). Judaism was extended by Hellenism and after the Diaspora sank roots in various places far from the City of David. Zoroastrianism, the exception to the rule, originated in Persia but did not sink deep roots beyond its region of origin and, perhaps for that reason, did not survive long past this Second Age of Empires.

(2) The empires were multicultural, the product of the syncretic blending of numerous ethnic traditions. There are Buddhist sculptures, for example, that reveal Hellenistic influences. The behavior of the missionaries and merchants of these cultural melting pots reveals something paradoxical about human nature. They were at once driven to identify narrowly with their clan, yet also spread globally because of belief in their culture.

(3) Each of these empires developed sophisticated bureaucracies, professional armies, and advanced communication systems to serve rulers, generals, and trade.

(4) The establishment of these centralized empires created new markets for goods and ideas. Thus the empires were linked to each other by trade routes, which made sustained material and cultural contacts among extremely diverse peoples inhabiting the different empires possible. The Second Age of Empires expressed a kind of proto-globalization that's remarkable considering the limited technology of the times. The Silk Road was well traveled in this era. Artifacts from Han China have been found in the Roman Empire, and artifacts from the Roman Empire have been found in Han China. Such goods would have traveled between Rome and China via Hellenistic, Persian, and various Indian empires.

Northwestern Europe?

Northwestern Europe was largely a backwater throughout this time. No one living among these civilizations would have anticipated that one day the northwestern extension of the Eurasian landmass would give rise to a civilization that after 1500 A.D. would dominate all the lands that these empires controlled.

But Europe's time had not yet come. In the meantime, the rise of Islam in 622 A.D. would fundamentally change the Afro-Eurasian landmass.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What's Wrong with the Social Sciences?

Where Was Our Demosthenes?

Since the 19th century, democracies have put increasing faith in the social sciences to help formulate public policy. Leaders and administrators draw from diverse academic fields -- economics, political science, international relations, sociology, anthropology, social history, geography, psychology, legal studies, business administration -- whose methods explain and predict patterns of behavior in human populations.

There is much to commend the social sciences. I value my training in the social sciences. As a historian and commentator, I honor Adolphe Quetelet's stunning discovery that much human behavior can be described by the bell curve. Yet during the last century, when democracies have been bullish on the social sciences, its practitioners have failed to see some of the most dramatic storms on the horizon. Consider how the status quo was suddenly upset by the following events, not one of which was forecast by an appreciable number of social scientists:

  1. The outbreak of the First World War after a century of relative peace in Europe.
  2. The Stock Market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.
  3. Nazi rearmament and the outbreak of World War II in the 1930s.
  4. The achievements of the Civil Rights movement and President Johnson's Great Society were to end the most dire effects of poverty and give hope to citizens in our inner cities. Yet between 1965-68 America's inner cities exploded with rage.
  5. There was the first OPEC embargo in 1973, which sent the West into a panic.
  6. Also in the 1970s, modernization theory told us we lived in an increasingly secular age in which religion would become attenuated as a social force. Yet in 1976 a new voice arose in American politics, that of evangelical Christianity, whose civic engagement helped elect Jimmy Carter in '76 and Ronald Reagan in '80 and '84. (Remember the Moral Majority?) Even as late as 2004, George W. Bush's surge in the last week of the campaign was attributed to evangelicals. Few social scientists saw any of this coming.
  7. The developing world was also supposed to be modernizing and secularizing after World War II. But then in 1979 the Iranian Revolution erupted, and all of a sudden Islam re-emerged as a world-historic force with which to reckon. Few social scientists saw it coming.
  8. It was not just the reassertion of religion in geopolitics that went missing on radar screens. Back during the Reagan years the U.S.S.R. was supposedly here to stay. Our nation was spending $30 billion annually in universities, government intelligence agencies, think tanks, and exchange programs to understand Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yet the rapidity with which the Berlin Wall fell on 11/9 surprised everyone, social scientists included. Prior to the autumn of 1989, hardly anyone predicted that the U.S.S.R. would end up on the ash heap of history (President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn excepted). Why didn't the experts have a clue?
  9. Before December 2007, where were economists to warn us about toxic mortgages and bundling? Why didn't more experts see the Great Recession coming and how severe it would be?
  10. Prior to January 2011, no one seemed aware that Egypt -- our "cornerstone of stability and security in the Middle East," according to Secretary of State Clinton -- was on the verge of exploding. Yet explode it did. Few experts saw it coming.
Besides posing the obvious question -- Where was our Demosthenes when we needed him? -- these ten examples raise a host of philosophical issues. To what degree is scientific knowledge of society possible? In what ways are the social sciences predictive? When it comes to public policy, should the social sciences ever supplant the humanities or ignore the historical record?

Such questions were almost unthinkable when I was an undergrad. Back in the 1970s, I was taught that the social sciences had more cache than narrative histories because they were predictive; human behavior could be plotted on a bell curve. In grad school in the 1980s, most of my profs marched to the same drumbeat, arguing that history was better when informed by the methods of the social sciences than by those of the humanities; cliometrics uncovered patterns that had greater analytical and descriptive power than, say, biography or Thucydides.

I do not doubt the efficacy of bell curves, cliometrics, and compelling social scientific methods that have been developed over the last two centuries. Great analytical and predictive powers can be claimed on their behalf. And yet, very few smart people in the social sciences predicted some of the most defining events of our recent past.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall on 11/9/89, social scientists began seriously debating the limits of social science. Clearly social science did not turn out to be the "social physics" that Auguste Comte hoped. Nor was it the "religion of prediction," as one headline put it. Immanuel Wallerstein aired his personal revaluation in a provocatively titled book, Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms, which is now in its second edition and regarded as the classic treatment of these questions. The classicist W. R. Connor also ruminates wisely on the limits of social science in his article, "Why Were We Surprised?" (American Scholar, 2001).

What's wrong with social science? Nothing -- so long as the experts acknowledge, and the public knows, its limits.

Perhaps the humanities, without gloating, can reinforce the sense of humility. Not that the humanities have been any better than the social sciences at predicting the big surprises of the last 100 years. But the humanities do have a way of making us humble before the mystery of existence.

I'd offer that the humanities should have a place at democracy's table, alongside the social sciences, when leaders and the public are weighing big decisions. Narrative history, literature, philosophy, foreign languages, and myth -- they are as relevant as ever. For the humanities shove us out of our comfort zone into the mystery, variety, and unpredictability of the human condition -- the exact opposite of what social science tries to do in tracing the patterns, consistency, and predictability of human behavior.

Also consider the study of the classics, or the history of distant peoples, or any modern foreign language. These disciplines require students to master much different viewpoints from what is ordinary and familiar. Mastery of a "foreign" viewpoint with a different grammar and different cultural rules is invaluable training for citizen-leaders who must work in a global economy and empire.

Narrative history also offers valuable training. It does not presume to be predictive in the way the social sciences are. It recognizes, as Philip Tetlock has quipped, that "there are no control groups in history." But deep reading in the past helps us appreciate the wild card that can suddenly appear in the course of human events. History conditions us to anticipate storms gathering on the horizon if not predict the hour of their arrival. History's emotionally powerful stories describe the human personality in its mystery, the human will in its inscrutability, and human action in its unfathomable possibilities. Indeed, good history reveals how unpredictable life can be. It makes readers alive to the power of emotion, loyalty, and love (all four kinds) in human affairs. It shows how unforeseen crises develop when historical processes are unexpectedly interrupted or accelerated. History teaches us that crisis arises out of the raw material of human nature, and no bell curve can quite catch it. Herodotus and Thucydides, Plutarch and St. Augustine -- they give us a different way of looking at our world, one that is every bit as compelling as that of the social scientists. Can we recognize ourselves in the mirror and the lamp they raise before us?

If there is any "soft pattern" in the human condition, then the humanities help us recognize at least two of its sources. One "soft pattern" arises from the relative constancy of human nature: People who face similar conditions tend to act in similar ways. It's why historians search out analogies linking different events. The other "soft pattern," ironically, is that there are few soft patterns in history. Big Surprises come when people least expect them. The wild card appears with enough regularity to keep us humble. The social sciences alone are not the answer. Nor are the humanities alone the answer. The best education for leaders and the public is the "both-and," not the "either-or," approach to the study of human beings. Both the social sciences and the humanities help us get a better grasp on our world.

Leaders are probably more effective when they know the social sciences and statistics. For example, baseball team owners and managers who make room for perceptive and creative sabermetricians -- the guys who crunch baseball statistics -- tend to do better than owners and managers who do not. The Tampa Bay Rays swear by sabermetrics, and the results show.

No question: Leaders are hopefully more ethical when they understand the complexity of the human condition, are practiced at comprehending different viewpoints, and have experience finding solutions to problems for which there are no formulas.

By way of concluding, consider the findings of Philip Tetlock who engaged in
"a long-term research project now 18 years old to examine in detail the outcomes of expert political forecasts about international affairs. He studied the aggregate accuracy of 284 experts making 28,000 forecasts, looking for pattern in their comparative success rates. Most of the findings were negative— conservatives did no better or worse than liberals; optimists did no better or worse than pessimists. Only one pattern emerged consistently.

“How you think matters more than what you think.

"It’s a matter of judgment style, first expressed by the ancient Greek warrior poet Archilochus: 'The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.' The idea was later expanded by essayist Isaiah Berlin. In Tetlock’s interpretation, Hedgehogs have one grand theory (Marxist, Libertarian, whatever) which they are happy to extend into many domains, relishing its parsimony, and expressing their views with great confidence. Foxes, on the other hand are skeptical about grand theories, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events....

"Bottom line: The political expert who bores you with an cloud of “howevers” is probably right about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Is America Decadent? (The Road to Avernus)

Gleaves Whitney in the The Freeman (1997)

Russell Kirk’s Conception of Decadence

Kirk Thought the Road to Avernus Captured America's Downward Descent

Mr. Whitney is senior speech writer for Michigan Governor John Engler and the senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.

When the late Dr. Russell Kirk sought a publisher for The Conservative Mind, he approached a young Chicago firm run by Henry Regnery. Regnery seized on the significance of the manuscript and in 1953 published the book that would help launch the postwar conservative movement in the United States.

That same year, just a few blocks away, another publication was about to debut, and it too would launch a major American movement. Hugh Hefner’s controversial magazine would become the vehicle for disseminating the Playboy philosophy in the United States.

There is high irony in the fact that the postwar conservative movement and the Playboy philosophy were launched within months and indeed within blocks of each other. But Kirk would not have been surprised by the juxtaposition. He warned readers: "It appears to me that our culture labors in an advanced state of decadence; that what many people mistake as the triumph of our culture actually consists in forces that are disintegrating our culture; that the vaunted democratic freedom of liberal society in reality is in servitude to appetites and illusions that attack religious belief, that destroy community through excessive centralization and urbanization, and that efface life-giving tradition."

The Road to Avernus

If there was an allusion that Kirk believed best captured America’s downward descent into decadence, it was "the road to Avernus." The allusion, frequently found in Kirk’s later writings, comes from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. Avernus, according to Latin mythology, was the entrance to Hades. It happens to be a real place, a lake located in the crater of an extinct volcano about eight miles west of Naples. The word is derived from the Greek, a-ornis, literally, without a bird, because of the belief that its mephitic vapors would cause any bird that flew over it to fall out of the sky.[1] Dryden’s translation renders it:

Smooth the descent and easy is the way

(The Gates of Hell stand open night and day);

But to return and view the cheerful skies,

In this the task and mighty labour lies.[2]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adjective "avernal" entered our language about 1578 as a synonym for hellish. This is revealing, for it suggests the intent behind Kirk’s repeated allusion to Avernus. Decadence is not so much about Right or Left as about Above and Below; not so much about the choices we make in politics and economics as about the thousands upon thousands of decisions we make in matters of faith and morals. Decadence is not to be confused with sin, of course. They are not the same thing. But in a very real sense decadence is linked to a hellish existence, and in ways that become increasingly apparent as one ponders the many manifestations of cultural crisis. This link, this apprehension that decadence is hellish, is the key or first principle to apprehending whether we as individuals and as a people are in decline.

Symptoms of Decadence

But Kirk was no reductionist. He believed that, while the breakdown of faith and morals takes you down the main road to Avernus, there are many byroads headed in the same direction—byroads paved with the rubble of failed political and economic systems, with the erosion of civil and domestic society, and with the debris of the arts and higher learning.

The political road to Avernus, for example, has been paved with the ruins of countless ancient cities. At their worst, such cities as Babylon, Persepolis, and Rome illustrate the clinical symptoms of decline. They were leviathans of unchecked power, overcentralized government, rampant overspending, crushing taxes, lethargic bureaucracies, and a spoils system that rewarded mediocrity.

These symptoms are hardly unfamiliar to readers of The Freeman. In 1996 the IRS—the agency most Americans would gladly dump into the crater at Avernus—sent out more than eight billion pages of forms and instructions, and Americans collectively devoted more than five billion hours to filling them out.[3] Another statistic that says something about our culture is that, in Washington, D.C., alone, there are three times as many lawyers as are found in the entire nation of Japan. Moreover, if you walk the streets of our nation’s capital, you are twice as likely to pass a law firm as a church.[4] It seems we reward not compromise and consensus, but conflict and concupiscence.

Another important byway to Avernus is paved with the rubble of failed economic systems and policies. The decline of self-reliance and property holding, the shrinkage of opportunity and the middle class, an obsession with luxury and unearned wealth—these are true signs of the decadent. We can see decadence -- literally physical decay and collapse -- in some of America's formerly great cities. Detroit has become a wasteland, an "industrial Stonehenge" in which one can encounter block after block of emptiness and physical ruin.

In the ancient world, symptoms of economic decline appeared when Roman republicans launched a large-scale war to destroy Carthage. As a result of a great influx of slaves, independent farmers and craftsmen could no longer compete in the marketplace with cheap slave labor, and the traditionally sturdy Roman populace became dependent on government welfare. Rome swelled with a proletariat that developed an appetite for violence, narcotics, and the hideous diversions of the Colosseum. One of the most spectacular gladiatorial contests was put on by the Emperor Trajan, who, even accounting for the exaggerations of Suetonius, pitted some 10,000 gladiators against one another over a period of four months. These mass exhibitions of state-sanctioned murder were just one way Trajan kept the mass of impoverished citizens from thinking about more important things—like how to get rid of him.

Kirk saw the signs of decadence along another well-traveled byroad to Avernus—the erosion of civil society and its institutions. Few could match Kirk’s mordant wit when it came to exposing the follies of one terminally decadent institution—the academy. He called Michigan State University, his alma mater, Behemoth U because it regarded students as so many Model T’s on the assembly line. Likewise he was a trenchant critic of our elementary and secondary schools, which have dumbed down curricula to build up self-esteem, apparently under the illusion that ignorance is bliss.

Modernism and Post-Modernism

Kirk frequently cited the work of C. E. M. Joad,[5] a Platonist-turned-Christian who discerned signs of decline in all manner of modern and post-modern philosophy. Avant-garde thought was plagued by metaphysical disorientation, confused logic, a-la-carte morality, and the loss of any higher purpose in human life. This century, these symptoms erupted spectacularly among the so-called Parisian intellocrats. These arbiters of intellectual fashion were in fact rampaging ideologues whose thought was distinguished by the failure to test ideas against reality.

With remarkable casuistry, a Sartre or a Merleau-Ponty could argue away the brutalities of Stalinism. A Derrida could vaporize the very concept of meaning—and philosophy and language departments have yet to recover. The Parisian intellocrats prove that ideas—alas, even bad ideas—have consequences.

Still another byway to Avernus can be seen in the debris of modern/post-modern art and humane letters. Peter Ustinov once remarked that if Botticelli were alive today, he’d be working for Vogue. But it’s not just the trivialization of art that is so disturbing; it’s the nastiness. In one of his finest essays, The Perversity of Recent Fiction, Kirk wrote that contemporary literature had come a great way . . . down the road to Avernus. And as literature sinks into the perverse, so modern civilization falls into ruin. So many books and Hollywood scripts were products of the diabolical imagination, in that they pandered to the lust for violence, destruction, cruelty, and sensational disorder. They were singularly lacking in the moral imagination.

The moral imagination—this term is one of the most frequently encountered in Kirk’s work. It comes from Edmund Burke, and it refers to the human gift to see that we are more than naked apes; indeed, that we are made in the image of God. The moral imagination, wrote Kirk, aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth. Without it, letters and learning are sterile. Worse, our whole life suffers, for we are cast forth, in Burke’s words, from the world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.[6]

Another byroad to Avernus was lined with the victims of the breakdown of society’s most basic institution, the family. Kirk was much impressed by the analysis of the ancient writer Polybius, who attributed the decline of Greece in large measure to the decline of domestic society. Young people were increasingly unwilling to marry; or if they married they were unwilling to have children; or if they had children, they were reluctant to bring them up, preferring instead to let them die of exposure or to give them up for adoption. As a result, a great many city-states lost their vitality and youth; they became easy targets for invasion because there were so few freemen defending the city walls. Again the parallels with contemporary America are ominous.

The Cause of Decadence: Decline of the Cult

All these byroads to Avernus deserve study in their own right. But if we only explore the byroads, we will never find our way to the main road, to the root cause of our predicament. We must go beyond the symptoms in politics, economics, civil society, philosophy, and humane letters. Kirk tells us that the root of our problem is The dismissal of the sacred: that rejection lies at the heart of our difficulty.[7] That is the main road to Avernus.

Kirk held that our beliefs, our faiths, are central to our well-being as individuals and as a commonwealth. As the British historian Christopher Dawson frequently put it, a culture comes from the cult; it comes from what a people worship—be it God or mammon. Cultus is Latin for worship. People come together around the cult to try to apprehend some greater meaning in their individual and collective lives than grubbing for food and sexual release.

As Kirk used to point out, it is of immense practical importance that groups of families join together in a cult, for only then will they share a moral code. And only when they share a moral code can they begin to cooperate on a large enough scale to defend themselves against marauders while advancing against the brute forces of nature.[8]

Kirk tells us the precise moment when he realized that a culture comes from the cult. He was visiting the Chicago Institute of Art sometime back in the early 1950s, and strolled into a half-darkened corridor on both sides of which were miniature models of medieval buildings, making up a town. At the far end of the exhibit, in a case dominating the display, was the model of a great Gothic cathedral. The accompanying placard explained that the exhibition culminated in the church because it was the focus of all human activity, and the core and source of our civilization.

The experience was to have a lasting effect on the man who described himself, at the time, as a thoroughgoing secularist. The encounter in that half-darkened corridor suddenly made him alive to the historic reality of Christian culture. And he became convinced that Civilization, the civilization we have known, is the child of the church.[9]

But suppose, Kirk challenged us, suppose that with the elapse of centuries, faith diminishes and the cult withers. What then of a civilization that has been rooted in the cult?

He concluded: . . . my own study of such concerns has led me to conclude that a civilization, a culture, cannot survive the dying of the belief in the transcendent order that brought it into being. When belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. . . . So it has come to pass, here in the closing years of the twentieth century.[10]

Hence America’s decline on the road to Avernus.

Yet Kirk was not without hope. He used to quote a line from St. Gregory the Great, who lived in the wake of the collapse of the Western Empire. Rome lay about him in ruin. A dark age had descended upon the West. But Gregory, in one of his more famous sermons, said: See how the world now withers in itself; yet still flowers in our heart.[11]

1. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 14th ed., s.v. "Avernus," p. 63.

2. Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI, lines 128-31.

3. John Steele Gordon, "American Taxation," American Heritage, May-June 1996, p. 63.

4. Dick Armey, "How Taxes Corrupt," Wall Street Journal, June 19, 1996.

5. Cf. C. E. M. Joad, Decadence: A Philosophical Enquiry (London, 1948).

6. Russell Kirk, "The Perversity of Recent Fiction," address to the Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., May 21, 1981, p. 3. This essay appears in Redeeming the Time, a collection of Kirk’s writings, edited by Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996).

7. Russell Kirk, "A Culture’s Road to Avernus," in Essays on Our Times, vol. 4 (July 1988), p. 4.

8. Ibid., p. 7.

9. Ibid., p. 8.

10. Ibid., p. 8.

11. St. Gregory the Great, quoted in Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Malibu, Cal.: Pepperdine University Press, 1977), p. 172.


It is one of the biggest ideas in world history -- and one of the most misunderstood. The purpose of this essay is to bring clarity to the idea of democracy.

On the face of it, democracy is an institutional arrangement for rule not by the one or the few, but by the many, and it provides for collective action amid the disagreements that inevitably arise.

Pure democracy -- defined as 50 percent plus 1 -- is not adequate. The majority (or a strong plurality) can be wrong. Consider:

  • Hitler came out of Weimar;
  • Bleeding Kansas came out of popular sovereignty;
  • Hamilton and Madison recognized in the Federalist Papers that the minority needs protection from the majority, which is why there are rights in the body of the Constitution; the 14th Amendment broadened the idea of citizenship and insured that these rights would be respected throughout the United States.

To avoid the pitfalls of pure democracy, this form of government needs boundaries – rules of the game – just as freedom does: these boundaries include the Declaration, Constitution, Bill of Rights, important court cases like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. You can get a majority to implement whatever policies it desires within the agreed upon rules of the game -- especially that the people can fire their present rulers. This is the key to legitimacy.

Originally: "Rule by the Citizens in Assembly"

Today we have lost the sense of how revolutionary democracy is. What the Athenians invented 2,500 years ago was radical then,[1] and it remains radical now where it threatens monarchs, dictators, aristocrats, oligarchs, special interests, or any group of people who have grown comfortable with the status quo.

Democracy comes from the Greek demokratia meaning “rule by the people,” the demos. Note that the Greek words ho demos connote the citizens in assembly, not a mob.[2] The core idea is variously described in terms familiar to American ears: self-determination, popular sovereignty, participation in government, self-rule, power to the people. Classicist J. Rufus Fears adds that democracy is “based on the ideal of the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens”; it comes about when citizens impose on themselves “the awesome responsibility of self-government.”[3] Lincoln’s taut line in the Gettysburg Address summarizes it as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” When he gave the address, Lincoln stressed not the three prepositions “of,” “by,” and “for,” but the thrice-spoken “people.”[4]

Lincoln’s hope that democracy shall not perish from the earth was justified. There were long stretches of time when it was hardly even remembered in the West, much less in the rest of the world. The radical experiment in self-rule did not become a widely adopted European idea until after the French Revolution, nor a widely adopted global idea until after the First and Second world wars. Nowadays we take democracy for granted – so popular it’s worshipped. However, we’d do well to remember Winston Churchill’s backhanded compliment that cuts democracy down to size: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

As Churchill suggests, democracy, for all its merits, has had a checkered history. Most Greco-Roman authors from Plato to Plutarch were skeptical of the quality of the polity it produced. No wonder most of America’s founders, tutored by the ancients, refused to be seduced by its promises.

Ancient Athens

Ancient Athens invented classical democracy on a sun-bleached hillside called the Pynx. The Pynx (pronounced puh-NIX) is where the assembly met under the open sky. It was not the indirect republican form of government of the U.S., in which representatives meet on behalf of the people. Rather, the Athenian constitution required citizens to participate directly in their governance. Athen’s experiment in self-rule evolved over the sixth century B.C. out of remarkable developments under Solon, Peisistratus (ironically a tyrant who nevertheless conditioned Athenians to love the rule of law), and Cleisthenes. By 505 B.C. the Athenians were calling their form of government a democracy. Some five decades later, the statesman Pericles allied himself with radical democrats and urged far-reaching reforms, angering the aristocracy but dramatically broadening the franchise. From that point forward, there would be no property qualifications to take part in the assembly (hence the peevishness of the aristocrats). To attend or run for office, you just had to be a free adult male. Any citizen could attend the assembly and propose a motion. If a quorum of 6,000 citizens was present, policy changes could be openly debated and laws passed by a simple majority. The process was wide open; public office was open to all; the assembly was sovereign; and there were minimal checks and balances in the American sense.[5]

Rufus Fears makes a striking point. He writes that the “characteristic cultural statement” of Athenian democracy was the literary output of the great tragedians. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides submitted their tragedies to the judgment of the Athenian people in a great cycle of civic festivals. Not only was attendance at these dramatic festivals a “civic duty,” but also the tragedies were filled with oblique references to pressing contemporary questions:[6] Why did the plague afflict Athens? Are our rulers wise? Is the war with Sparta taking our city down? Is our empire unjust to allies? Nor was it just tragedies that served a civic function. Comedies by Aristophanes and other playwrights served a similar purpose, prodding citizens to examine critical issues in a new light. Even the great philosopher Plato began his career as a playwright. So the great plays of fifth-century Athens were more than entertainment; they were tutorials in citizenship.

Thucydides argued that the democratic statesman par excellence was Pericles, who inaugurated the era of radical democracy in fifth-century B.C. Athens. So impressive was the statesman’s legacy that Greece’s “Golden Age” is also known as the “Periclean Age.” In Thucydides’ rendition of the “Funeral Oration” on behalf of Athens’ fallen citizen-soldiers, Pericles praised the very democracy he had helped craft:

“Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority, but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the laws; and when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability that the man possesses. No one, so long as he the ability to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty.”[7]

Neither conservative aristocrats nor the city’s best philosophers were happy with Pericles’ reforms. Plato, Aristotle, and an obscure critic known as the Old Oligarch sharply criticized the Athenian constitution. To the rest of Greece, Athens had “an absolutely insane form of government.”[8] To give you a better feel for direct democracy in its heyday in fifth-century B.C. Athens, permit me to quote from Kenneth Harl’s lecture on the subject:

It’s a remarkable system…. [Athenians] had more direct experience in governing themselves than any modern democracy. Men from the age of 18 on regularly attended the Assembly and voted…. It was a very savvy and very, very difficult audience to address, and the Athenians developed oratory to a very high degree. Athenian statesmen such as Pericles and Themistocles were world-class orators. The Athenian love of drama, tragedy, and comedy all centered on the agon, the political debate…. The Athenians were accustomed to hearing debate, two sides of an issue, then voting. And that tradition of debate – point, counterpoint, weighing the issues, and voting – was a hallmark of the Athenian Assembly. And that very often allowed unpopular positions to be advanced….

Let me just close with one aspect of what public life was like in Athens, and that is the ability of the Athenians to indulge political dissent, which is really why it is so endearing to moderns. Aristophanes was a political conservative. He was no friend of Pericles, and he felt that the Peloponnesian War had been concocted by Pericles for private reasons, and he was deliciously wicked in the way he parodied Pericles. His play in 427 B.C., called The Achanians, is a remarkable play in which he calls for the end of the war. He criticizes Pericles. He is dismayed by the ravaging of Attica by the Spartans. And for all the Athenians to witness that play, it was quite an experience, because this was now into the fourth year of the war, and if you stood on the acropolis of Athens you could see the burning of Attica, each year that Peloponnesian army raged over Attica. And Pericles and his successors kept the Athenians from going out and fighting. And here is a man producing this comedy, criticizing Pericles, saying the demos were a bunch of fools to bamboozle, that he bamboozled them into the war. The demos votes Aristophanes first prize for his comedy – and then goes out and votes to continue the war. A remarkable government, indeed.[9]

While Athenian democracy was remarkable in its day, and a legacy for all time, it had a whiff of the unsavory by today's standards. (1) It depended on slavery. (2) It violated such basic rights as freedom of speech, famously fining the politically incorrect playwright Phrynichus. (3) It morphed into a bullying empire. (4) The franchise was small – full political rights were denied to nine of every ten people in Athens. (5) Women were excluded from civic participation. (6) It formally ostracized some of its leaders or sent them into exile, including the estimable Themistocles. (7) It famously executed an innocent man, Socrates, arguably one of the wisest human beings who ever lived. (8) Despite a popular assembly and executive leadership whose duties of government were divided, Athens was prone to control for years at a time by one powerful general (think: Cimon and Pericles).[10]

These blemishes aside (for no regime is utopic), Athenian democracy was undeniably a great achievement requiring great citizens. Aristotle pointed out that each form of government tends to cultivate corresponding virtues in the citizenry. Monarchy, for example, wants subjects to be obedient to the one. Aristocracy requires the excellence of the few. Democracy asks the many to participate in self-governance and in critical moments to subordinate self-interest for the sake of the common good.

Democracy and Peace?

An Absurd Assumption

Today the idea of democracy is closely bound to the idea of peace. It is generally thought that democrats are reluctant warriors. A curious notion, this. Democracy’s beginnings are bound up with war. Aristotle famously remarked on the relationship between a nation’s constitution and the military obligations of its citizens and their fighting style. Monarchs fought with chariots. Aristocrats fought with cavalry (because horses are expensive to keep). Republics fought with landowning, citizen, hoplite soldiers (since oligarchs were wealthy enough to outfit themselves with armor and weapons). And democracies fought with navies (whose trireme warships were manned by many citizen rowers). Since Athens was a great naval power, it needed a large number of citizen rowers, and so developed into a democracy. Fighting for one’s polis was a duty and an honor. And if landowners fought for their polis, then they certainly expected to be able to vote in the assembly.[11] The reason women and children were not full citizens was that they served no direct military function. So the whole impulse behind a democratic constitution is its way of war.

Another curious notion people have nowadays is that democracies do not go to war against one another. Yet some of the most consequential wars in human history were fought not strictly between kings, but between nations whose citizens voted either directly in assembly or indirectly through representatives to go to battle. Among the more famous citizen wars in world history are:[12]

- Athens vs. Sparta in the First and Great Peloponnesian Wars

- Rome vs. Carthage in three Punic Wars

- Britain vs. the Thirteen Colonies in British North America in the War for Independence

- French revolutionaries vs. states with popular assemblies in the 1790s

- Britain vs. the United States in the War of 1812

- And on American soil 150 years ago, the North against the South. Both these constitutional democracies fought each other in a civil war that resulted in more casualties than all other American wars combined.[13]

Little remembered today is how important juries were to the development of democracy. (Pangle, The Great Debate – lecture 4?)

Democracy in America

There is much misunderstanding about democracy in America. First, there is no direct line of descent from Athenian democracy to modern democracy. Athens is technically not the “cradle of American democracy.” For when King Philip II of Macedon snuffed out democracy in ancient Greece, the idea was not rekindled for more than a thousand years. It surprises students to learn that modern representative government owes more to the Middle Ages than to ancient Greece.[14] Over the last thousand years, two institutions evolved that laid the foundation for modern democracies. First there arose the Italian communes that expanded decision-making among the popolo, the people; and next came the English royal courts that increasingly curbed the king’s powers and morphed into Parliament. These two jewels in the crown of feudal times – communes and Parliament – are more direct ancestors of modern democracies than fifth-century Athens.

Second, the United States was not founded as a direct democracy, not at all. Now, the Founders, when it suited their purposes, occasionally used democratic means to attain republican ends. After the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the framers wanted to submit the new Constitution neither to the Confederation Congress nor to the 13 state legislatures, so they opened up the ratification vote to as many property-owning citizens as possible. For the most part, however, the Founding Fathers were skeptical of the “masses.” The so-called Father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, was downright disparaging of direct democracy and did his best at the Constitutional Convention to keep it out of the final document. The Founders’ Greco-Roman tutors had taught them to fear mobocracy. That’s why they wrote the Constitution of 1787 to curb populist impulses. Most of them felt vindicated when the French Revolution turned ugly in the early 1790s.

Another widely held misconception is that, in the American experience, democracy preceded capitalism. Actually just the opposite is true. In the U.S., democracy did not precede but followed the development of capitalism. In the modern world, there has never been a democratic polity that did not [first] have a capitalist economy. Yet there are many instances – China, above all – of capitalist economies that are not democracies.

Spread of Democracy around the World

Since the 1920s, democracy has made remarkable inroads on every inhabited continent. But its record is not flawless. In 1933 a majority or delegates in the Reichstag elected Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. After World War II, communist states in the Soviet Union’s orbit slipped the word “Democratic” into their countries’ names.

Israel on the West Bank, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and until recent times South Africa – all have had significant democratic representation, yet all have denied fundamental rights to whole classes of citizens. If democracy is flawed, it is because human beings are flawed. Despite its checkered history, most people concur with Churchill, that democracy is the worst form of government – until it’s compared to every other form that’s been tried.

[1] According to Thucydides (The Peloponnesian War, Book 1, chap.102), the Spartans kicked Athenian hoplites out of their homeland, the Peloponnese, when they saw how revolutionary, enterprising, and prone to doing new things Athenian citizens were.

[2] Kenneth W. Harl, The Peloponnesian War (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2007), vol. 1, p. 81.

[3] J. Rufus Fears, “Aeschylus, Oresteia,” in Books That Have Made History (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2005), vol. 1, pp. 168-69.

[4] David Zarefsky, Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 1999), audio lecture 23.

[5] Kenneth W. Harl, The Peloponnesian War (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2007), vol. 1, pp. 80-91; Elizabeth Vandiver, Herodotus: The Father of History (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2002), pp. 39-43.

[6] J. Rufus Fears, “Aeschylus, Oresteia,” in Books That Have Made History (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2005), pp. 168-69.

[7] Thucydides, excerpt of the “Funeral Oration,” History of the Peloponnesian War (Landmark edition?)

[8] Kenneth W. Harl, The Peloponnesian War (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2007), vol. 2, pp. 9, 18.

[9] Kenneth W. Harl, The Peloponnesian War (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2007), vol. 1, pp. 90-91.

[10] Regarding the limits of Athenian democracy, consult the course by Elizabeth Vandiver, Herodotus: The Father of History (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2002), lectures 6-7.

[11] Harl, lecture 2

[12] Harl, lecture 1

[13] Rufus Fears

[14] Robert Garland, Greece and Rome: An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2008), p. 38.