July 8, 2014

1. The Fourth of July

Three U.S. Presidents have died on July 4 — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe. What are the odds that just one President would die on July 4? 39 (the number of Presidents who have died) out of 365, or slightly greater than 10%, or .107

What are the odds that two Presidents would die on July 4? About 1% (.107 squared). Three Presidents? About .1% (.107 cubed).

It could be just chance that three Presidents have died on July 4, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s not chance, as I argued in an earlier issue.

Is it significant that all three of the Presidents who died on July 4 were Founding Fathers — were involved in creating the nation? Is a Founding Father more emotionally connected to July 4 than a President who isn’t a Founder? Adams was the second President, Jefferson the third, Monroe the fifth. What are the odds that three of the first five Presidents would die on July 4? About 1 in 390,000. But never fear, the skeptic will say “it’s just chance”!

2. Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural

The local GreatBooks group recently discussed Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural. We tend to think of the Civil War as inevitable, but Lincoln reminds us that it was shocking, unexpected, “astounding” for those who lived through it: “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.... Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” Many historic events have this unexpected, shocking character — World War I, for example, or the 9/11 attacks. Such events might be called Black Swans; Nassim Taleb discussed such events in his popular book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

Lincoln seems unsure whether to blame the South for the war, or heed the Biblical injunction to “judge not.” He says that the South “would make war rather than let the nation survive,” and he says that the South dared “to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” But Lincoln knows how easy it is to blame the other side: “let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

So Lincoln’s position on judgment/blame is contradictory. Likewise, his position on divine justice is contradictory. He says, “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come...” But why let slavery arise at all? If God is just, why does he allow slavery even for a short time? “Having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove.” Why didn’t he remove it sooner? It probably lasted for at least 10,000 years, it existed all over the world. Why did God allow this? “If God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword...” But if God’s judgments are “true and righteous,” why is the North suffering together with the South? If God’s judgments are “true and righteous,” why are Confederate armies so often victorious?

Lincoln can’t make sense of this, but his speech is eloquent, concise, and moving. The feeling of the speech is on target, even if the logic is questionable. The speech shows how difficult it is to reconcile the facts of history with Biblical Christianity, with monotheistic religion. As I argued elsewhere, there’s intelligence in the universe, but it’s not in a creator-God, an architect-God, a judging-God, it’s in the universe itself, in everything, in matter. We shouldn’t expect justice in history.

3. Four Lectures

A. Grandin on “Benito Cereno”

I heard a lively lecture by an NYU professor, Greg Grandin. His specialty is Latin American history, and his best-known book is Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, which is about Henry Ford’s attempt to build a rubber factory in the Amazon jungle. Grandin has also written several books about the modern history of Latin America. Grandin’s latest book is The Empire of Necessity, which deals with Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno.”

In his lecture, Grandin spoke of West Africans who were brought as slaves into ports on South America’s east coast, such as Buenos Aires or Montevideo. Then they were marched west, across the pampas and over the Andes, to the west coast of South America (usually Valparaiso).1 Some of them were Muslims, and Muslim slaves seemed to have a proclivity for revolt (slave traders apparently stopped buying Muslim slaves because of their proclivity for revolt). “Benito Cereno” deals with an 1805 slave revolt by Muslim slaves; it’s based on a true story, which Melville found in the memoirs of a New England sea captain, Amasa Delano.

B. Blanding on Map Theft

I also heard a talk by Michael Blanding, author of The Map Thief. Blanding’s book discusses the thefts of E. Forbes Smiley III, and it discusses the old maps that Smiley stole, especially old maps of North America.

Smiley was arrested in 2006. Blanding says that Smiley could have been stopped earlier, but when a librarian reported her suspicions to her supervisor, the supervisor said, “What do you want me to do, arrest him?” We found the same thing when we discussed the crimes of Bernie Madoff and Robert Hanssen: long before Madoff and Hanssen were arrested, several people suspected them, but couldn’t persuade others to take action. Crime violates the normal flow of social interaction. When confronted with crime, people often find it easier to let the normal flow continue.

C. Kulikowski on Late Antiquity

I also attended a talk by Michael Kulikowski, a young historian who specializes in Late Antiquity. He spoke about two writers from the Late Empire, Ammianus Marcellinus and Sidonius. I tried to interest him in Steven Sage’s theory about Hitler and Julian the Apostate.

I noticed that Kulikowski often mentioned Heidegger and “postmodern” thinking; this seems to be a widespread approach in many branches of the humanities. According to Wikipedia, “Postmodernism includes skeptical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosophy, history, economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism. It is often associated with deconstruction and post-structuralism.”

One critic of postmodernism is Daniel Dennett, who said,

Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.

D. Lesser on Shakespeare Texts

I also heard a Penn professor, Zachary Lesser, discuss Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be.” You might view this soliloquy as a deeply-felt cri de coeur, but Lesser and other scholars say that it may be, at least in part, an academic exercise. In Shakespeare’s time, rhetoric professors would pose questions, including questions about the value of life, and ask students to argue both sides, as Hamlet does.

This view of the soliloquy dovetails with the Oxford Theory, since the Earl of Oxford was university-educated. But how would the Stratford Man have learned about academic exercises?

Lesser compares the famous soliloquy to another version of the same soliloquy, the version found in a volume called “Hamlet Q1”. The version in Q1 sees death in a Christian way, sees death as a gateway to heaven or hell; the dead are “borne before an everlasting Judge.” But the final version is un-Christian, and doesn’t refer to heaven and hell; the dead don’t face judgment, they have nothing to fear but bad dreams. Perhaps Shakespeare moved away from Christianity as he grew older (Q1 was published in 1603, but may have been written much earlier). Or perhaps Q1 was a pirated version, and doesn’t represent Shakespeare’s views.

The term “Hamlet Q1” means “first quarto edition of Hamlet.” Q2 would be the second quarto edition. F1 would be the First Folio, published in 1623, F2 the Second Folio, published in 1632, etc. (there were also third and fourth folio editions, published in 1663 and 1685).1B Octavo editions are numbered O1, O2, etc. Folios are twice as big as quartos (and four times as big as octavos), so folios are suitable for collections of works, rather than individual works (the First Folio is a collection of 36 plays).

Click here for an amusing 90-minute talk on the First Folio. The talk is by Eric Rasmussen, a professor in Nevada and the author of The Shakespeare Thefts.

E. Crabtree on William Rotch

I heard a lecture about a whaling tycoon named William Rotch, who died in 1828 at age 94. The lecture was by a young historian named Sarah Crabtree. Crabtree said that many Nantucketers were Quakers, and Quakers were pacifists, so Nantucket didn’t join in the fight against the British (the American Revolution). This roused the ire of the new American government, which embargoed trade with Nantucket, driving the island to the point of starvation.

To make matters worse, Nantucket’s relations with the British were also tense; during the American Revolution, Nantucket whale-ships were liable to seizure by British warships. After the Revolution, Britain taxed American goods, making things difficult for merchants like Rotch. During the War of 1812, whale-ships were again liable to seizure by the British. Because of these problems, whalemen like Rotch tried to operate out of England or France.

I asked Sarah, “When Nantucketers were suffering from the embargo, could they appeal to Ben Franklin? Since Franklin’s mother was from Nantucket, he might have been sympathetic to the island’s plight.” She said that they did appeal to Franklin, but he wasn’t able to help them.

Crabtree said that Quakers were cosmopolitan and opposed to nations.

F. David Bell on Charisma

March 20, 2017
David Bell is a Princeton professor, the son of sociologist Daniel Bell, and the nephew of literary critic Alfred Kazin. His lecture dealt with two charismatic Corsicans, Paoli and Napoleon. Bell compared the charisma and celebrity of these Corsicans to the charisma and celebrity of George Washington. Bell is working on a book about charisma in the 18th century. He began by noting that the modern concept of charisma was developed by Max Weber. One might ask, How does Weber’s concept of charisma differ from Jung’s concept of the mana personality?

The historian Gordon Wood, now 83, was in the audience, and asked Bell a shrewd question: Can we distinguish between a king’s charisma and Washington’s charisma?

I heard somewhere that Goethe often appears in the dreams of Germans, that Goethe represents The Great Man, The Hero, in the German unconscious. Does Washington play a similar role in the dreams of Americans? Did Americans like Lincoln and Robert E. Lee dream of Washington? Did other Americans dream of Lincoln and Robert E. Lee? The figure of the king once loomed large in the unconscious. In the modern unconscious, has the king been replaced by historical figures like Goethe and Washington?

There’s a close resemblance between Washington and Robert E. Lee. Both were known for their dignity, their erect posture, etc. Both were widely respected, respected even by their foes, respected to the point of idolatry. Did Lee consciously emulate Washington? Or was there something in the Virginia aristocracy that produced such characters?

Bell specializes in French history. In his earlier books, Bell argued that France was the source of two modern trends, nationalism and total war. He might have added a third trend, genocide. The Reign of Terror (during the French Revolution) was a JuniorVarsity version of TwentiethCentury genocide.1C

4. Rostovtzeff on Roman History

I’m reading Rostovtzeff’s Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire. It’s too dull to enjoy, but too good to abandon. I’m stuck. The book is written for professional scholars, not for laymen. When Rostovtzeff comes to an interesting topic, he often says, “there’s no need to discuss this because it has already been discussed by so-and-so.” Rostovtzeff prides himself on his numerous illustrations and his extensive footnotes, but neither the illustrations nor the footnotes enrich the reading experience, they only bolster the author’s scholarly reputation. Wikipedia says, “Rostovtzeff was known as a proud and slightly overpowering man who did not fit in easily. In later life, he suffered from depression.” Doubtless many of his readers have also suffered from depression.

When you read about Roman history (or any subject, for that matter), it makes you want to read more about the subject, you feel that you’ve become an insider, you feel that you can understand other books on the subject. So now I’m thinking of carrying my Roman studies further, perhaps by reading Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, or John Williams’ Augustus. (Graves translated Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. He said that, after reading Suetonius’ life of Claudius, Claudius appeared to him in a dream, and “demanded that his real story be told.”2 So I, Claudius was inspired by a dream.)

Rostovtzeff says that, in the Roman Empire, “slave labor kept the wages of the free workmen very low, hardly above the minimum required for bare subsistence.”3 But the free workmen sometimes had a union, which was called collegia tenuiorum. Their union didn’t help them with pay or working conditions. Its only function was to pay their funeral expenses.

I always assumed that socialism was a modern phenomenon. I now realize, though, that many ancient societies were socialist. In Egypt, for example, the state ran the economy, and this was also true in some Hellenistic states. On the other hand, the Roman emperors, at least in the first two centuries of the Empire, pursued a policy of laissez-faire.4

There are some obvious parallels between Roman history and modern history. After decades of civil war, Augustus brought peace, hence he was hailed as a savior. Likewise, Woodrow Wilson was hailed as a savior when he visited war-weary Europe in 1918.

Augustus joined with Antony to defeat Caesar’s assassins, but once the assassins were defeated, Augustus fell out with Antony and went to war against him. Likewise, the U.S. joined with the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis, but once the Nazis were defeated, the U.S. fell out with the Soviets, and the Cold War commenced.

In an earlier issue, I discussed Bush’s 2nd Inaugural Speech, and said that it was influenced by Leo Strauss — particularly by Strauss’s concept of tyranny. Strauss believed that tyranny could be objectively defined, like cancer. Deposing a tyrant — Saddam, for example — was a good idea. Strauss’s views on tyranny were influenced by Xenophon.

Rostovtzeff says that, in the Roman Empire, one of the topics that philosophers often discussed was the difference between a king and a tyrant. This topic was addressed by Dio Chrysostom, who has been called an imitator of Xenophon (Xenophontis imitator fidelissimus). This topic was also discussed by the Cynic and Stoic schools of philosophy. Emperors didn’t take kindly to being judged by philosophers, and resented being called tyrants; Dio was exiled by Domitian in 82 AD. Vespasian expelled the Cynics from Rome. The Cynics are sometimes called “street philosophers” because they loitered on street-corners, mocking the conventions of society and advocating a return to nature.

The Cynics and Stoics believed that “the king receives his power from God, that he is chosen by God as the best man, and that this power cannot therefore be hereditary.”5 A king should choose the best man as his successor; succession should be by adoption and merit, not by birth. But some emperors had sons, and wanted their sons to inherit the throne; an angry Vespasian told the Senate, “either my sons will succeed me, or no one.”6 In fact, adoption seemed to work well; Machiavelli said,

All the emperors who succeeded to the throne by birth, except Titus, were bad, all were good who succeeded by adoption, as in the case of the five from Nerva to Marcus. But as soon as the empire fell once more to the heirs by birth, its ruin recommenced.7

The Cynics and Stoics argued that

  • the emperor is selected by divine providence and acts in full agreement with the supreme god
  • during life he is not himself a god
  • he regards his power, not as a personal privilege, but as a duty; his life is toil, not pleasure
  • he is the father and the benefactor of his subjects, not their master
  • his subjects are free men, not slaves
  • he must be surrounded by friends (an allusion to the senate) who ought to have a share in the management of all the affairs of the state, being free and noble men8

One might suppose that these lofty principles are suited only for philosophical discussion, not for actual government. But these principles were widely discussed, became part of public opinion, and had an impact on actual government. Domitian was assassinated, perhaps because he violated these principles, flaunted public opinion. Rostovtzeff says of the emperors, “Their line of conduct was imposed on them by public opinion.” Nerva ended Dio’s exile, and Trajan listened to Dio’s speeches on kingship (Dio’s eloquence earned him the name “Chrysostom,” golden-mouthed). When Marcus Aurelius was leading troops in Germany, he marched like a common soldier, to show that he was a servant of the people, that he followed the path of duty. Rostovtzeff says that the administration of the Empire was never “so fair, so humane, so efficient as under the strong rule of the Antonines.”

During the rule of the Antonines, there was a serious tone in society as a whole. Rostovtzeff says, “The mood of the population of the Empire had changed... a reaction had taken place against the frivolity and materialism of the first century.”9 Perhaps the philosophers had an impact on society as a whole, as well as on the emperors.

As often happens, it’s difficult to say what’s cause, and what’s effect. Did the philosophers cause the serious tone in society? Or was the mood of society serious, was the mood of society reacting against the earlier frivolity, and were the philosophers shaped by this mood?

The theory of kingship/tyranny was set forth by Dio Chrysostom (and others) and practiced by Marcus Aurelius (and others). As long as this theory was widely accepted, the emperor’s power was not unlimited, and there was some freedom in the Roman Empire. But when this theory was replaced by a new, simpler theory of hereditary monarchy, freedom was extinguished. The new theory was established by Septimius Severus around 200 AD; Rostovtzeff describes the new theory as “the dynastic principle of hereditary succession, founded upon the oriental conception of the divine nature of imperial power, and therefore upon the apotheosis of the living emperor.” Rostovtzeff says that this new theory “implied the complete negation of the idea of liberty.”

© L. James Hammond 2014
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1B. There was also a “False Folio,” containing ten plays, published in 1619. back
1C. Bell’s lecture was at the John Carter Brown Library (the “JCB”), a rare-book library at Brown University, specializing in books about the Americas. The JCB is having a symposium about the French historian Gilbert Chinard, author of
  1. George Washington: As the French Knew Him
  2. Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism
  3. Honest John Adams, and other books.
1. South America is relatively narrow at that point — it’s about 750 miles from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso — and traveling overland allows you to avoid the long and dangerous sail around the southern tip of South America. back
2. Wikipedia back
3. Ch. 5 back
4. “Neither as a republic nor under the guidance of Augustus and his successors did Rome adopt the policy pursued by some Hellenistic states, particularly Egypt, of nationalizing trade and industry, of making them more or less a monopoly of the state as represented by the king. Everything was left to private management.” (Ch. 2) There were special reasons for Egypt’s socialist bent: Egyptian agriculture depended on using the Nile for irrigation, and taming the Nile’s floods. These were large-scale projects, and couldn’t be carried out by individuals, government action was required. back
5. Ch. 4 back
6. Ch. 4 back
7. Wikipedia back
8. Rostovtzeff, Ch. 4 back
9. Ch. 4 back