Friday, November 11, 2016

Armistice Day, 2016

England First

Today we remember how, a hundred years ago, the blustering aggression of European empires led to the wholesale destruction of an entire generation, and brought that civilization to the brink of collapse.

This has never been intended to be a particularly political blog.  Nevertheless, I find it impossible to simply pass over the recent election in silence, especially on a day when we are called to remember those who died because their leaders cheered them on into the abyss.

Those few who follow this blog will not be too surprised, I hope, to learn that I did not support Mr. Trump's bid for the presidency.  Like many others I entirely blew my credibility with repeated assurances to anxious friends and family that he could not possibly secure the Republican nomination, and, thereafter, that the American people could not conceivably put such a man at the helm of the republic.

Today he is poised to head the American government and be commander-in-chief of the most powerful armed force in history.  His party will control both houses of Congress and, in short order, Republican control of the Supreme Court, which has continued practically unbroken from the early seventies to the death of Justice Scalia, will be restored.

As an older white man I have little to fear personally from Mr. Trump's oft-expressed hatreds.  But I am already aware of local instances in our public schools of white bullies chanting "white power" and sneering over the deportation of their classmates (this being New Mexico, some of those being sneered at come from families that have been here since the 1600's).  I frankly don't see how the promised mass deportation program can be accomplished by anything but a police state, and I'm sure that great numbers of the perfectly legal poor won't have their papers sufficiently in order to avoid getting caught up in the dragnet.

I am hardly what anyone would call a radical feminist, but I can't help but be appalled at the message that this election has sent to young women.  I am, if anything, ever more alarmed at what this teaches young men about "success."  Predatory behavior that would get a working stiff fired is rewarded with the highest office in the land.  And though it is certainly not news "that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought,"
I can think of no instance in recent American history where such a host of proudly-acknowledged vices have been so unashamedly acclaimed.

No one can of course say what the future will hold.  My greatest hope is that Mr. Trump has deceived us about his true convictions, that his more terrible pronouncements and judgments were made as pure demagoguery, only to attain the prize he coveted.   It is a slender reed.

So there is great cause for concern, especially when even the wisest might involve us in a general conflagration (I assume that Iran will resume its nuclear program once we renege on our prior commitments).  But I don't think there's ever cause to despair.

So I'll end here with a few verses from Chesterton that seem apt, from an old hymn I loved as a child:

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry.
Our earthly rulers falter.
Our people drift and die.
The walls of gold entomb us.
The swords of scorn divide.
Take not our thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
of honor and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Pericles' Funeral Oration, paragraph 6

 'Φιλοκαλοῦμέν τε γὰρ μετ' εὐτελείας καὶ φιλοσοφοῦμεν ἄνευ μαλακίας· πλούτῳ τε ἔργου μᾶλλον καιρῷ ἢ λόγου κόμπῳ χρώμεθα, καὶ τὸ πένεσθαι οὐχ ὁμολογεῖν τινὶ αἰσχρόν, ἀλλὰ μὴ διαφεύγειν ἔργῳ αἴσχιον. ἔνι τε τοῖς αὐτοῖς οἰκείων ἅμα καὶ πολιτικῶν ἐπιμέλεια, καὶ ἑτέροις πρὸς ἔργα τετραμμένοις τὰ πολιτικὰ μὴ ἐνδεῶς γνῶναι· μόνοι γὰρ τόν τε μηδὲν τῶνδε μετέχοντα οὐκ ἀπράγμονα, ἀλλ' ἀχρεῖον νομίζομεν, καὶ οἱ αὐτοὶ ἤτοι κρίνομέν γε ἢ ἐνθυμούμεθα ὀρθῶς τὰ πράγματα, οὐ τοὺς λόγους τοῖς ἔργοις βλάβην ἡγούμενοι, ἀλλὰ μὴ προδιδαχθῆναι μᾶλλον λόγῳ πρότερον ἢ ἐπὶ ἃ δεῖ ἔργῳ ἐλθεῖν. διαφερόντως γὰρ δὴ καὶ τόδε ἔχομεν ὥστε τολμᾶν τε οἱ αὐτοὶ μάλιστα καὶ περὶ ὧν ἐπιχειρήσομεν ἐκλογίζεσθαι· ὃ τοῖς ἄλλοις ἀμαθία μὲν θράσος, λογισμὸς δὲ ὄκνον φέρει. κράτιστοι δ' ἂν τὴν ψυχὴν δικαίως κριθεῖεν οἱ τά τε δεινὰ καὶ ἡδέα σαφέστατα γιγνώσκοντες καὶ διὰ ταῦτα μὴ ἀποτρεπόμενοι ἐκ τῶν κινδύνων. καὶ τὰ ἐς ἀρετὴν ἐνηντιώμεθα τοῖς πολλοῖς· οὐ γὰρ πάσχοντες εὖ, ἀλλὰ δρῶντες κτώμεθα τοὺς φίλους. βεβαιότερος δὲ ὁ δράσας τὴν χάριν ὥστε ὀφειλομένην δι' εὐνοίας ᾧ δέδωκε σῴζειν· ὁ δὲ ἀντοφείλων ἀμβλύτερος, εἰδὼς οὐκ ἐς χάριν, ἀλλ' ἐς ὀφείλημα τὴν ἀρετὴν ἀποδώσων. καὶ μόνοι οὐ τοῦ ξυμφέροντος μᾶλλον λογισμῷ ἢ τῆς ἐλευθερίας τῷ πιστῷ ἀδεῶς τινὰ ὠφελοῦμεν.

We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger. In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring, not by receiving, favours. Yet, of course, the doer of the favour is the firmer friend of the two, in order by continued kindness to keep the recipient in his debt; while the debtor feels less keenly from the very consciousness that the return he makes will be a payment, not a free gift. And it is only the Athenians, who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.

This, to me, is the heart of the oration, at least for those of us who hear it, not as vindication for fallen loved ones, but as an epitome of the Greek spirit.

Implied here are the repudiation of conventional attitudes.  "Φιλοκαλοῦμέν τε γὰρ μετ' εὐτελείας...."  We are lovers of beauty in a right proportion.  "...φιλοσοφοῦμεν ἄνευ μαλακίας."  We are lovers of wisdom ("philosophoumen") apart fromt softness.   The Ancients were not alone in the assumption that there's something unbalanced about loving beauty, something not quite manly about philosophy.   Pericles is meeting those assertions head-on.

That poverty is no disgrace, and keeping to oneself is...this is the spirit of Athens, a collective spirit, but a collective that values, indeed demands, individual talent (when not taken too far outside the norm).

 In again praising "daring, "τολμᾶν," Pericles is drawing a contrast with the Spartans, whose counsels, detailed time and again in the History, value carefulness above all else.

Finally there is the boast about the Athenians' superior use of friendship, based on a calculating usefulness to others.

The whole paragraph breathes an air of confidence born of a self-assured superiority, a surface disclaiming of expediency that can't help but appear hiddenly and rather hypocritically manipulative.

This, then, is the fruit of daring and deliberation, a source of our endlessly-talking, ceaselessly innovating civilization. It is a commitment to restless improvement, not conservation of the way we live now.  Untouched as yet by the Christian concepts of faith, hope and love, it can't help but suggest a dangerous hybris, a pride that indeed is going before a fall in very short order.

And again I ask the question I still can't answer:  Is Thucydides celebrating it, or relishing the last gasp of a splendid illusion?

Different equalities

Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, Egalitarian

A month or two ago I finally finished Robert Kann's History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918.  One of the reasons I say I "finally" finished it is that, frankly, it was kind of a dull read.

But this post isn't so much about German history as a train of thought begun by the following from Kann's history:

"To him [the Emperor Joseph II] the measures taken against discrimination meant the first step toward complete equality.  For that reason he wanted minorities to be protected, whether he respected them as he did the Protestants or disdained them as he did the Jews.  Nevertheless, he wanted to raise their standards after his fashion by legislation similar to the Tolerance Edict.  To him, equality under the law to decreed and enforced by an absolute government was not a matter of sentiment but of utilitarian rationalism.  To the extent that this rationalism ran in many respects counter to the feelings of the majority of his subjects, the absolute character of government had to be strengthened....Egalitarianism and absolutism may have been a strange mixture even in the eighteenth century; in the nineteenth century in the era of constitutional government, it appeared paradox.  Just the same, it is the decisive factor, which differentiates the idea of Josephinism from that of mere adherence to the German-directed, centralized bureaucratic state."

The idea of equality is undoubtedly the most potent in American political and legal rhetoric, from "All men are created equal" to "the equal protection of the laws."  But its application can be hightly problematic.

Equality is, to begin with, a metaphor.  Literally, equality is a mathematical relationship between two quantities.  And to the extent that any characteristic of human beings may be quantified--height, weight, age, I.Q. (questionable, I know)--there is certainly no empirical, measurable equality between all human beings in the literal sense.

And of course that's not really what we mean by the term.  On a first pass we might say that we mean that all people should be treated alike.  That's good as far as it goes, but of course a moment's thought shows we don't really believe that.  I treat my own children differently from others' children, and no one thinks that that's an offense against equality.  I am not treated in the same way, I don't have the same authority as the President of the United States.  That is one example from a whole extensive system of hierarchy and authority that is universally and largely-unthinkingly accepted, rightly, as just, even though in fact it's hardly consistent with the notion that all people should be treated alike.  Likewise, we treat convicted thieves differently from those who are not thieves.

Does this sound trivial or ridiculous?  Maybe.  But it seems important to occasionally acknowledge that our entire social, legal and political worlds consist of detailed guidelines for to how to treat people differently (or how to, using a loaded word, discriminate). The criminal law tells us which people must be punished.  The law of torts tells us which harms people will be held responsible for (and which harms are overlooked).  The law of property tells us who may or may not cross that sacred boundary between meum and tuum.  We cherish equality above all else in our rhetoric, but we swim in an ocean of distinctions and privileges that we hardly acknowledge.

An example:  the recent political conflict over whether relationships between people of the same sex should be considered marriage--at least before it was removed from the ordinary democratic process--was largely waged in terms of whether the law should embrace "marriage equality"--except that, of course, marriage in the law is a personal status which carries distinctive rights and duties.  The law of marriage in a fundamental sense has as its purpose the maintaining of a distinction between the married and the unmarried.  And in fact no one really wanted to end that fundamental discriminatory division, only move one relatively small group over the line, from one side to the other.

So, the more I think about it, the notion of equality seems, if not empty, at least arbitrarily malleable.  Yes, of course, persons similarly situated should be treated the same.  That principle of equity is about as old as the law itself.  The norm that legislation should be of general application, that courts publish opinions and follow precedent, are results of that same principle. But the substantive question of whether two persons, two actions, two relationships are in fact similarly situated is the real heart of the matter.  The demand for equality merely frames the question; it doesn't provide an answer to whether two things are so similar that it would be unjust to treat them differently (or so dissimilar that it would be unjust to treat them identically).

Josephine equality was, in essence, the dilution of manorial jurisdiction in favor of Hapsburg absolutism.  It brings to mind the old saw about the Ottoman Empire, that all men were equal, because all were equally slaves of the Sultan.    I do not say, of course, that equality, in the old sense of equity, is not fundamental.  But it can obscure if appealed to with an unspoken implication that any differentiation whatsoever is necessarily unjust.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Rursus facere Romam magnam

Hoc ut facilius diiudicetur, non uanescamus inani uentositate iactati atque obtundamus intentionis aciem altisonis uocabulis rerum, cum audimus populos regna prouincias; sed duos constituamus homines (nam singulus quisque homo, ut in sermone una littera, ita quasi elementum est ciuitatis et regni, quantalibet terrarum occupatione latissimi), quorum duorum hominum unum pauperem uel potius mediocrem, alium praediuitem cogitemus; sed diuitem timoribus anxium, maeroribus tabescentem, cupiditate flagrantem, numquam securum, semper inquietum, perpetuis inimicitiarum contentionibus anhelantem, augentem sane his miseriis patrimonium suum in inmensum modum atque illis augmentis curas quoque amarissimas aggerantem; mediocrem uero illum re familiari parua atque succincta sibi sufficientem, carissimum suis, cum cognatis uicinis amicis dulcissima pace gaudentem, pietate religiosum, benignum mente, sanum corpore, uita parcum, moribus castum, conscientia securum. Nescio utrum quisquam ita desipiat, ut audeat dubitare quem praeferat. Vt ergo in his duobus hominibus, ita in duabus familiis, ita in duobus populis, ita in duobus regnis regula sequitur aequitatis, qua uigilanter adhibita si nostra intentio corrigatur, facillime uidebimus ubi habitet uanitas et ubi felicitas.

That this may be more easily discerned, let us not come to nought by being carried away with empty boasting, or blunt the edge of our attention by loud-sounding names of things, when we hear of peoples, kingdoms, provinces. But let us suppose a case of two men; for each individual man, like one letter in a language, is as it were the element of a city or kingdom, however far-spreading in its occupation of the earth. Of these two men let us suppose that one is poor, or rather of middling circumstances; the other very rich. But the rich man is anxious with fears, pining with discontent, burning with covetousness, never secure, always uneasy, panting from the perpetual strife of his enemies, adding to his patrimony indeed by these miseries to an immense degree, and by these additions also heaping up most bitter cares. But that other man of moderate wealth is contented with a small and compact estate, most dear to his own family, enjoying the sweetest peace with his kindred neighbors and friends, in piety religious, benignant in mind, healthy in body, in life frugal, in manners chaste, in conscience secure. I know not whether any one can be such a fool, that he dare hesitate which to prefer. As, therefore, in the case of these two men, so in two families, in two nations, in two kingdoms, this test of tranquility holds good; and if we apply it vigilantly and without prejudice, we shall quite easily see where the mere show of happiness dwells, and where real felicity.

from St. Augustine, The City of God, Book IV, Chapter III

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Two Cities

Dum haec aguntur in Iebus, terribilis de occidente rumor adfertur osbsideri Romam....Capitur urbs, quae totum cepit orbem, immo fame perit ante quam gladio et vix pauci, qui caperentur, inventi sunt.

Thus St. Jerome, writing a few years later, about the news of the siege of Rome by the Goths, of its fall in 410  through hunger and the sword, and of the few survivors taken in the city that had once taken the world.

It is probably impossible to sufficiently realize how profoundly this sack of Rome demoralized those who heard the news.  Granted, Constantine had, almost a century before, moved the Empire's capital from Rome to Byzantium, surely, in part, because it was a more defensible location. Nevertheless, in the year 1163 ab urbe condita, it had been some seven centuries since Rome had been sacked by a foreign enemy.

Now I recognize that almost any particular time, from its own vantage point, seems extraordinarily fraught with danger and anxiety.  Our particular current problems with senseless mass murder, frequent ordinary murder (private and official), deadly retaliation,  endless unresolvable wars and coups--all in the context of a growing disfunction of those institutions meant to translate the people's will into policy (i.e., democracy)--undoubtedly are feeding a kind of unease.  And perhaps for that reason I have myself been returning to St. Augustine's de civitate Dei--The City of God.

I have a lengthy history with it. While in high school a friend worked in a small local bookstore where  a single copy of the old Modern Library edition seemed always on the shelf, perennially unbought, and seemingly there only so that we might occasionally marvel at its length and apparent impenetrability. 

I was actually introduced to Augustine in college, in a course on Medieval Philosophy.  In such a survey course there was no time to read anything but short extracts, with those focusing on more strictly philosophical topics like the nature of time, the concept of evil as privatio boni, and the tripartite faculties of the soul.   My third year in law school I thought I'd like to audit some course at the nearby divinity school, but my first choice, a survey of Augustine, conflicted with my required classes.  Nevertheless, my second choice, a survey of John Calvin, necessarily included an emphasis on how central certain aspects of Augustine's thought were to the Protestant Reformation, and I did manage at that time to read the Confessions for the first time.

So, I never actually read the City of God till the early eighties, in a volume of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series.  I was newly married, a Catholic catechumen,  and just starting to practice law at a large firm.  Another new lawyer,  starting a second career after some years as a clergyman,  discovered I had started it and advised against continuing  He didn't see much point to it.  But I persevered, and what I found in it was a kind of serial historical review, first of Roman history, then of biblical history.  Roman history I basically knew nothing about until a third year course in Roman Law, where at least some rudiments of republican and imperial history were needed (and I should note that it was about the same time that "I, Claudius" was first broadcast on PBS, followed closely every week on the dorm TV).  The Roman review was the more narrowly focused section, answering the charge that Christianity was responsible for the catastrophe, but by means of a rather sporatic survey of Roman politics, conquest, religion, and philosophy.

The second section was a sort of chronological biblical review, from creation to apocalypse, material I was quite familiar with, shot through with much speculation (some of it verging on the bizarre), considerable allegorical reading of the scripture (plainly not the historical-critical approach I was most used to), and all under the general schemata of "The Two Cities," the City of God and the City of Man, conceptually distinct, but inextricably intermingled.

I didn't much come back to it, and eventually gave it away.  Around the turn of the millenium Cambridge University Press published a new translation, which I acquired, but by that time I thought of City of God as kind of a miscellany, great fun to open randomly, but I never gave it the serious perusal I had originally intended, and in some ways I thought that that was right, that perhaps Augustine's august reputation too much hid his tentative side, the sense that he was engaged in meditation rather than pontification.

I sense that this is getting to be too much, but it's really the first time I've thought about this odd read/dispose/return cycle.  Eventually I got rid of the Dyson translation, but a decade later thought that perhaps I should try to tackle the thing in Latin--enter a used, slightly battered set published as part of the  Biblioteca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana  series.  I read through the first three books in my usual halting, hit-and-miss fashion, and then naturally the Folio Society published a very handsome two-volume edition, using the 19th century Marcus Dods translation--the one used, of course, in that old Modern Library edition of my high school days, and I thought, well, I suppose it's meant to be, and I will do my best to stay with the Latin but check with the English.

So what does any of this have to do with the City of God or contemporary anxiety?  Just the sense that there's something there, something not necessarily unsuspected all along, but articulated in a certain time and place that gives it a kind of weight, a re-assurance that, however often it is felt that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, it never seems to go.  The model of the two cities supports a double acceptance of both hope and realism.  The universality of primal sin doesn't so much explain anything as set bounds for expectation, without enabling or providing a foundation for despair.

It is often remarked that Augustine's conception of the secular city as organized banditry, distinguished from ordinary crime only by size and the degree to which some measure of justice is realized, is fundamentally anti-utopian, radically skeptical about the extent to which any existing government can aspire to Christian values.  It reminds me of the question of Thomas More's irony in proposing his Utopia, especially in light of the fact that, as a young man, More was invited, and did in fact give a series of lectures at St. Lawrence Jewry on Augustine's City of God.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Lepanto for Cervantes and Braudel

In an earlier post on arms and letters I think I mentioned that Cervantes participated in the battle of Lepanto, the 1571 sea battle that decisively ended Ottoman naval supremecy in the Mediterranean.

In my agonizingly slow meandering through Don Quijote I have now come to Chapter XXXIX of the First Part, "Donde el cautivo cuenta su vida y sucesos," ("The Captive's  Tale").  What is interesting is how this particular tale gives the novel an autobiographical turn:

Súpose cierto que venía por general desta liga el serenísimo don Juan de Austria, hermano natural de nuestro buen rey don Felipe. Divulgóse el grandísimo aparato de guerra que se hacía. Todo lo cual me incitó y conmovió el ánimo y el deseo de verme en la jornada que se esperaba; y, aunque tenía barruntos, y casi promesas ciertas, de que en la primera ocasión que se ofreciese sería promovido a capitán, lo quise dejar todo y venirme, como me vine, a Italia. Y quiso mi buena suerte que el señor don Juan de Austria acababa de llegar a Génova, que pasaba a Nápoles a juntarse con la armada de Venecia, como después lo hizo en Mecina.
»Digo, en fin, que yo me hallé en aquella felicísima jornada, ya hecho capitán de infantería, a cuyo honroso cargo me subió mi buena suerte, más que mis merecimientos. Y aquel día, que fue para la cristiandad tan dichoso, porque en él se desengañó el mundo y todas las naciones del error en que estaban, creyendo que los turcos eran invencibles por la mar: en aquel día, digo, donde quedó el orgullo y soberbia otomana quebrantada, entre tantos venturosos como allí hubo (porque más ventura tuvieron los cristianos que allí murieron que los que vivos y vencedores quedaron), yo solo fui el desdichado, pues, en cambio de que pudiera esperar, si fuera en los romanos siglos, alguna naval corona, me vi aquella noche que siguió a tan famoso día con cadenas a los pies y esposas a las manos.

 »Y fue desta suerte: que, habiendo el Uchalí, rey de Argel, atrevido y venturoso cosario, embestido y rendido la capitana de Malta, que solos tres caballeros quedaron vivos en ella, y éstos malheridos, acudió la capitana de Juan Andrea a socorrella, en la cual yo iba con mi compañía; y, haciendo lo que debía en ocasión semejante, salté en la galera contraria, la cual, desviándose de la que la había embestido, estorbó que mis soldados me siguiesen, y así, me hallé solo entre mis enemigos, a quien no pude resistir, por ser tantos; en fin, me rindieron lleno de heridas. Y, como ya habréis, señores, oído decir que el Uchalí se salvó con toda su escuadra, vine yo a quedar cautivo en su poder, y solo fui el triste entre tantos alegres y el cautivo entre tantos libres; porque fueron quince mil cristianos los que aquel día alcanzaron la deseada libertad, que todos venían al remo en la turquesca armada.

The parallel isn't exact.  Cervantes was not captured at the battle of Lepanto but four years later off the Catalonian coast, seized by Ottoman pirates and sold in Algiers.  He was five years a slave before ransomed and returned to Spain.

Now to me one of the curious facets of Don Quijote is the conceit, first alluded to at the beginning of Chapter IX of the first part, that Cervantes, far from composing this narrative, is merely translating it from an Arabic manuscipt by "Cide Hamete Benengeli, historiador arabigo."  Many a commentator has noted how the "book within a book" spawns metalayers of meaning.  But I've always wondered why a soldier of Christendom, a late crusader, and a slave in Moslem North Africa, should attribute his magnum opus to an Arab at a time of fairly strenuous and continuous warfare between the two civilizations.

Fast-forward now to the middle of the twentieth century.  A young French historian is working on his first major project, a history of the battle of Lepanto.  But the year is 1939, and he enters the French Army and becomes a prisoner of war.  Unexpectedly, in the years of his captivity, he composes the first draft for what is later recognized as one of the great histories of his generation, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.  By the time it's completed it is still focused, allegedly, on Lepanto.  But he feels that some context is needed.  So, in the three-volume edition/translation I own, the entire first volume is dedicated to geography--the mountains, the coasts, the islands, the cross-roads, the great plain of the sea itself--all the physical constraints within which the merely human history that plays itself out.  The second volume addresses long term human structures and fault lines--economies and civilizations which, though lacking the permanance of geography, nevertheless change little over the centuries.  Only in the last volume do we come to people and politics, and they by this time seem rather insignificant.

Cervantes' life could have been a great novel in itself, but he subordinated it to the great work of the Quijote, and then wrote himself in as a digression.  Braudel began with a conventional aim to tell the story of a great battle.  Did his own battle, and captivity, drive him to drawing back, more and more, to subordinating his subject to the greater world, and under that aspect become newly perceived as a mere episode?

Two writers, two soldiers, two captives, one battle.  A distancing absurdity and a diminution worked by geological time.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Journalist as Economist

My recent post on Chesterton, "The Journalist as Theologian," was "topical," in the sense that there was a contemporary dust-up about a journalist writing about theology.  But the reason that Chesterton was on my mind was a recent perusal of a book almost entirely directed to economics, The Outline of Sanity.

The practical tendency of all trade and business to-day is towards big commercial combinations, often more imperial, more impersonal, more international than many a communist commonwealth--things that are at least collective if not collectivist. It is all very well to repeat distractedly, "What are we coming to, with all this Bolshevism?" It is equally relevant to add, "What are we coming to, even without Bolshevism?" The obvious answer is--Monopoly. It is certainly not private enterprise. The American Trust is not private enterprise. It would be truer to call the Spanish Inquisition private judgment. Monopoly is neither private nor enterprising. It exists to prevent private enterprise. And that system of trust or monopoly, that complete destruction of property, would still be the present goal of all our progress, if there were not a Bolshevist in the world.

Now I am one of those who believe that the cure for centralization is decentralization. It has been described as a paradox. There is apparently something elvish and fantastic about saying that when capital has come to be too much in the hands of the few, the right thing is to restore it into the hands of the many.

I'm not sure that "economist" is quite the right word.  What we call economics aspires to the status of a science.  We call it a "social science" in partial recognition of its failure to attain it.  I certainly hesitate to claim any detailed knowledge of it.  I took freshman economics some four decades ago and learned the basics, both classical and Keynesian, and have occasionally dipped into Marx and his successors (increasingly a subject for antiquaries).

But economics can also be understood as a branch of moral philosophy--not, "what must an individual or nation do to obtain wealth?", but "what should an individual or nation do to best meet the material needs of a good life?"

What Chesterton came to call "distributism" is typically characterized today as a romantic, reactionary and unrealistic call to return to medieval guilds. But I think that dismissiveness comes largely from an almost universal presupposition of economic determinism. Can the "clock be turned back?" The question itself has come to mean, "Can one do the impossible?" But Chesterton's advocacy of peasant proprietorship, small shops and limits on wealth differences was not so much advocacy of returning to some past golden age, but an assertion, very much in the face of the spirit of the age, that the monstrous collectivism of multinational corporations and of banks "too large to fail" resulted, not from any invisible hand, or necessary dialectic development of world history, but from human choices. And if an inhuman, soul-crushing system of production arose out of human choice, it can be reformed by human choice as well.

Many of Chesterton's most important social and economic works can be found in volumes four and five of the Ignatius Press edition of Chesterton's collected works, but I should say a word about some of the introductory material. This series was inaugurated in the late eighties, and was encouraged, and to some extent associated, with some who came to be known as the "theo-cons." The parallel, secular neoconservative movement of the eighties has lost a considerable amount of its credibility due to later association with some of the foreign policy excesses of the administrations of Bush fils

But I mention the Ignatius editions because, in volume five, there is considerable introductory and following material trying to assure the reader that what Chesterton calls "capitalism" is not what they promoted as "capitalism," and that Chesterton's vision of a distributist society was largely realized in contemporary America. This "framing" of Chesterton's work, which today looks embarrassingly clueless, helpfully suggests that Chesterton is rather more radical, and more critical of the status quo than his greatest promoters cared to admit. It's not that I say, "Avoid the Ignatius editions"--I think we owe Ignatius a considerable debt of gratitude for bringing back into circulation practically the only editions of many of these works still in print. But read the introductory material in the light of Chesterton, and not vice versa.

I conclude with Two French Postscripts:

(1)  A year or two there was an economics book that made quite a splash, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Its message was one of a stubborn and growing gap between the rich and the poor, and its universally-derided-as-unrealistic remedy was a wealth tax to start closing that gap. Somehow, much, much later, it occurred to me that that was not too distant from: "when capital has come to be too much in the hands of the few, the right thing is to restore it into the hand of the many."

(2) This last Christmas my wife gave me a copy of the recently-published English translation of Michel Houellebecq's Submission. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, a tale of the triumph of Islam in France in the near future. It's less, I think, about Islam than the collapsing convictions of the French intelligentsia, a phenomenon I'm not exactly up on. I only mention it because, toward the end, one character mentions that the new Muslim president, Ben Abbas, is promoting "distributism." Apparently it's not entirely unknown among the French, even if associated with the novelty (and fear) of a different civilization arguably having in common with traditional Christendom a distrust of an autonomous optimization of overall wealth without a concomitant interest in distribution and the largely ignored question of general human happiness.