Sunday, November 9, 2014

Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow

The most unlikely, and one of the most forgotten Founding Fathers, Ron Chernow seeks to rectify some of the historical forgetting which has been so cruel to the legacy of Alexander Hamilton. A scholar of high finance, having previously published biographies on John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, in addition to detailing Hamilton's life, Chernow recounts how this first Treasury Secretary would both anticipate many of the country's economic transformations, and create the foundation for its banking and market success - in effect laying the fiduciary cornerstone which would come to exist between the country, its people, and its financial institutions.

Hamilton's rise to prominence could never have been forecast. A twice orphaned child in the West Indies, Hamilton's ascension to de facto aide de camp to George Washington was as unlikely as it was meteoric. Yet by the retreat following the Battle of Brooklyn, Hamilton was there, at the enigmatic Washington's side. While he was not lacking in courage, it was rather Hamilton's management acumen which won him a prominent place in Washington's inner circle. As Washington's star became increasingly luminous, so too did Hamilton reflect some of the General's light. Gifted with this narrow entry to American high society, the aspiring, young, recently trained lawyer, was not to be denied. Shortly, Hamilton would become a renowned New York lawyer and legal thinker. When debates over the ratification of the Constitution were at their apex, Hamilton wrote some 51 of the Federalist Papers. If he did nothing else, this would indelibly put the Hamiltonian stamp on the American republic. While his years as Treasury Secretary, and his young death, have gained much greater remembrance, his crucial role before the Republic was inaugurated bears recognition. Yet, Chernow also masterfully gives life to Hamilton's years as the first Treasury Secretary. By providing details as to how Hamilton's power coalesced, and how the size of his department grew, Chernow suggests that Hamilton, more so than any other figure knit together the federal branch of the American government in those early years.

Yet, Hamilton's meteoric rise would not be matched by a longevity of influence. By the end of his service to Washington the Secretary was a divisive public figure with little constituency to call his own. Chernow tries to make Hamilton's unpopularity a virtue, yet Hamilton often comes off as an alienating public figure. As Washington's star set, so too did Hamilton's, and with the President's retirement Hamilton was largely relegated to the sidelines of history. It is worth wondering whether the declining influence of Hamilton's latter years were as simply political as Chernow suggests. One is given the impression of an exhausted, and increasingly out-of-touch, mind. Hamilton seems perfectly suited for the fomentation of rebellion and the formation of government, but signally unequipped for the rigors of political life.

As Robert Caro's work on the life of President Lyndon Johnson has demonstrated, biographers continue to play a central role in the contemporary formation of historical memory. Such works are both products of and creative factors in our own social and political moment. As a product this is true of Chernow's work more than Caro's. How we feel about Alexander Hamilton as Chernow presents him, will be tied to our feelings about the American economic system. Time and again, Chernow reiterates the solid foundation which Hamilton helped create which would assist in ushering America into its modernized economic strength. This celebration is founded largely on the imperative of finance as a driver of economic logic. While the economic system may have been well tailored to address the vagaries of a changing world, perhaps Hamilton also helped drive the country towards that system in which wealth could accumulate not among the ancient aristocratic, but among the newly minted captains of industry. Certainly Chernow has been successful in providing a work which brings the life of Hamilton into the modern American moment. We are reminded that the life and efforts of Hamilton are with us still.

The Closing of the American Mind - Allan Bloom

Like it or not, Allan Bloom's work shook, at least momentarily, American higher education when it was released in 1987. Bloom takes to task American universities for a litany of sins - some perhaps a little more real than imagined. It must be stated that at times he feels like little more than a cantankerous, out of step, conservative, clinging to some idealized past. Bloom's critical perspective on the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s surely continue to earn this work many well-deserved aspersions. "How," we might ask, "is the view through that brilliant mind, from that most comfortable of positions in the most ivory of towers?" It is striking to reflect that in specifically calling higher education to task for failing to play a necessary role in the further development of the hoped-for perfectability of the social sphere, Bloom dismisses out of hand the efforts of so many people who might believe that they are working to embody and create exactly the type of examined morality he sees as so lacking.

That being said, the arguments of the book cannot be ignored. Bloom is a careful reader of many of the works which serve as the foundation of western culture. His knowledge was never in question (perhaps this is what caused so many to focus on his tone). It must be noted that many of the currents Bloom traced persist in higher education. While his approach may be reactionary and relatively intolerant (if such a thing is possible) he is right to recognize that much of the foundations of the American academy have been dismissed as no longer relevant to our contemporary context. Bloom recognizes that efforts in the pursuit of wisdom are all-too-frequently subsumed by a type of creeping relativism and unexamined pragmatism. At its core Bloom's work orbits around the questions, "what is the role of the University in democratic society? What ought it to be?" Bloom defends his conservative proclivities in charging the University to be specifically outside of the mainstream of society; to provide a balance to the tyranny of the social majority - whatever form that may take. In essence the university intellectual is meant to be a thoughtful and careful iconoclast. Better yet, the university should strive to help students explore their questions and desires to make sense of themselves and the world. For Bloom, this mission must be informed by a type of rigor and wisdom of experience which has been painstakingly developed through the ages. It is on this ground which the University's mission is supposedly founded.

Aspects of Bloom's critique remain timely - while his tone, dismissal of others, and inability to recognize different reservoirs of value, remain striking. The type of question Bloom is asking - are our universities properly serving their students and pushing them to develop themselves towards the ever-receding horizon of the good - is one that a healthy society will always ask of itself. Who is to educate the young? Who is to be responsible for their development? These should be issues at the forefront of public concern. Perhaps it is something which we could lend greater care to.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Beyond the University - Michael S. Roth

The retreat of higher education is, somewhat paradoxically, evident. The rhetoric which has come to ensconce American higher education centers on the ability of institutions to prepare young people for their place in the economy. (There is, it should be noted, inherently an aspect of class to this argument - if you are headed for the Ivy League your appropriate place in the economy is understood to be of a different kind than if you're headed to community college.) Such rhetoric is paradoxical - perhaps absurd - for it simultaneously draws the training received in higher education closer to economic concerns, while marginalizing the unique place of such institutions within both the social and economic sphere. If a college education is reduced to yet another form of job training, the mission of the University is obscured and its necessity is in question. On this account Universities have done themselves few favors. Inasmuch as the colleges are "servants of the market" the arena of higher education appears increasingly unwilling to question the logic which would marginalize it.

Into this gap steps President of Wesleyan College, Michael S. Roth. Roth's slim volume makes a passionate plea for that education which is specifically uneconomical: a liberal education. The preparation of the young for working is one thing; preparing them for living is something else entirely. It is the latter which Roth is concerned with, and which he finds increasingly lacking in American higher education. It is not only what students learn that is important; nor how they learn. Rather it is how their learning is integrated into their living - this is the foundation of a liberal education. Inasmuch as each of us participates in society, what is good for ourselves in our relation to others and the world is a question always worthy of our exploration. When Universities focus upon the narrowly conceived training of individuals they threaten the very fabric of the social contract. Roth calls for a renewed emphasis on the development of the whole individual.

The debates surrounding America's higher learning trace at least back to Jefferson and Franklin. There is little cause to suppose that this generation will provide a definitive answer to the questions who should teach the young, and how ought they to do it? However, the potential nonexistence of a simple, conclusive answer to such a question neither means that exploratory efforts are doomed, nor that we should abandon the quest. Asking tough questions is also what education is about. Roth suggests that the narrowing of American education risks breeding the narrowing of the American mind. To abandon the hope that our improvement as people and as a society rests beyond the increase of our material goods is to both ignore the past and do a disservice to the future.

Angels and Demons - Dan Brown

Once again, Robert Langdon is on the run. Personally this is my favorite of Brown's books and, admittedly, the second time I have read it. The timing was especially poignant as I was lucky enough to visit Rome this past summer. Remembering the West Ponente in St. Peters square, the Castel Sant'Angelo, the Pantheon dome and the Fountain of the Four Rivers is a joy and their striking beauty and effect come rushing back.

The issue with all of Brown's works are two types of pivotal moments. First are those in which an already occurred, and surely controllable event, would have to break for the villain's plans to come to fruition. Second, are those in which you can feel the story departing from the necessity of art/architecture/history to make leaps which hold the foundation of the plot together. I should state that there is absolutely zero wrong with this, as his works are fiction and, to my thinking, both fun and informative. However, you begin to see where these gaps occur when you've read a few of Brown's works.

The book is a nice homage to certain aspects of Rome, and it is a far cry from Ron Howard's movie, which is real bad. Reading this did make me excited for Brown's latest offering.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Bunker Hill - Nathaniel Philbrick

Before there was ever a Revolution, the conflict between Great Britain and her American colonies was a series of uncertain skirmishes. Though rebels - Philbrick's so-called "patriots" - cast aspersions, snowballs, and occasionally stones at British rule and, sometimes, British soldiers, there was hardly any formal rebellion to speak of, much less revolution. Nathaniel Philbrick looks at the political and social affairs in Boston, of the Massachusetts colony, during the late 1760s into the 1770s. To label these as 'pre-revolutionary' times would be a mistake - it was never fated that the colonies would rebel. This point is crucial to Philbrick's work: the struggles and negotiations, conflicts and missteps by both the rebels and the British could have ended with capitulations, retreats, or treaties. The British could have abandoned the colonies, or the young Americans could have abandoned their rebellion. War was never assured.

In mustering the collective will to fight an uncertain struggle, Philbrick shows the evolving negotiation of what would become an American identity. Here it seems true that history is not only written by the winners, it is simply written by the survivors. The names Washington and Hamilton, Franklin and Adams, have come down to us not simply for the role they played in a successful rebellion, but by dint of their having survived it to grow their legacy. Philbrick introduces us to Dr. Joseph Warren, one of mid-18th century Boston's most well-regarded citizens. As president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Warren led the likes of Paul Revere and John Hancock towards a cause which would become revolution. As they struggled to define an identity that was neither simply British nor rebel, Warren published work deriding British authority, led meetings to assess how community leaders would represent themselves, both to loyalists and the British government, and eventually resigned his leadership to fight alongside his fellow rebels in the militia. It would cost him his life. If we are looking for a moment when Massachusetts truly turned towards revolutionary aims, we could do worse than Warren's forsaking political measures for arms.

Of particular interest is General George Washington. Philbrick recounts Washington's less-than-stellar early career (never gaining the British army commission he hoped for), moving towards his emergence as a mature, cautious, unifying presence for the rebels. Coming from the southern, and in many ways dominant, colony of Virginia, Washington was a much needed regional balance to what was seen as a largely northern rebellion. Navigating both the Continental Congress and differing and disperse state militias, Washington had to create both a military and political consensus where none had emerged before. Indeed, he had to do so within a military and political sphere that was being born as he was navigating it.

Clearly, during the nascent years of rebellion, much was uncertain. Philbrick turns this uncertainty into a careful and lively study about what would become the seeds of a new nation. Rather than rely upon the wisdom of distance, he digs into the moment and finds a story that remains fresh, whose legacies remain uncertain.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - T.E. Lawrence

Lawrence's sense of the dramatic, and the tragic, in his own life and in the "revolt in the desert" must of course be difficult to either corroborate or discard. His work, and indeed his own myth, has become so intertwined with the conflict between the Arabs and the Turks that any dissenting view must address his weighty recounting. Yet perhaps the work's greatest strength is its thorough subjectivity. Lawrence makes no attempt to see the conflict and the issues which underpin it disinterestedly. It is because he cared so much for the Arab revolt, and similarly because he was so critical of both his own effectiveness and the appropriateness of his role, that this very personal recounting succeeds so admirably in conveying not only what the conflict was, but what it meant.

A sense of both the dramatic and the tragic in human affairs requires an accounting for the humane element. When a story - whether real, fictive, or somewhere in between - cannot arouse a reader's passions, then it can never transport a reader beyond his or her own confines. Yet when the personal element is felt, when the battle is joined not simply in some by-gone time, but in our own minds, then history steps out of the shadow of memory and is present in all its immediacy. Lawrence tells us that there is both right and wrong in the world, and that both the best and the worst of us transcend each and it is hardly certain which is which. The confusion of the modern predicament seems to be the awareness of that good, and yet the simultaneous awareness that, even on our best days, we fail to measure up to our own standards. Our common humanity with Lawrence's Arab compatriots, whom he alternately paints as wise and foolish, robust and fragile, faint-hearted and exceedingly bold, is in striving with and against the recognition that we are shadows on a vast landscape. But whereas the Howeitat and the Beni Salem may have been buttressed by faith and the certain absolutes of an unforgiving desert, Lawrence is thoroughly modern: riven and divided against himself.

Throughout, Lawrence is shadowed by himself and his own doubts, in the end we wonder if he was satisfied with his role in the Arab Revolt. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is sweeping, thorough, and at times seems as barren as the Nefud. Lawrence's gift to his time was bringing the Arab Revolt to the front of western consciousness. His continued gift is reminding us that beauty and tragedy are little more than shades of one another. We hold each of these in our hearts and attempt to make sense of them every day.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968

The final years of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were years of almost, of in-between. Take what the mass of America knows about Dr. King, about the timeline of his life, and it likely reads from the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56), to varying civil rights protests across the South, perhaps in Selma, Alabama, St. Augustine, Florida, and Albany, Georgia, and then on to 1963 with his Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the March on Washington. History in the American consciousness tends to marginalize King after his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Rather, the assassination of President Kennedy, followed by President Johnson's Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation, and then the slow unfurling of the Vietnam War, often overshadow King's final years of witness to the transformative power of nonviolence. In a society so riven by, and focused upon violence, both at home and abroad, King's steadfast devotion to nonviolence struck many as antiquated, adequate for the initial stages of protest for rights, but unable to secure the true place of equal citizenship for black Americans. While white America might imagine that legislation in the 1960s put an end to the Civil Rights Movement, that the fierce urgency of the moment became subsumed to the clear advancement of blacks and other minority groups, this gloss ignores the continued, illegal, segregation in the North and South, and efforts and yearnings of Dr. King and other civil rights advocates well into the late 1960s (and beyond).

For it was after the early successes of civil rights that the issues and messages of the time become more difficult to understand. To most modern Americans, denying people the right to public services and accommodations, to the right to vote, to sit where they want to on buses,  to swim in the local swimming pool, seem like the absurdities of a bygone day. These are tangible, measurable, visible disparities between two Americas that can be pointed to and commented upon through the most cursory of glances; inequalities fit for a grade school lesson. Yet the Civil Rights Movement did not end with the Voting Rights Act, nor with the death of Dr. King and the slow undoing of Resurrection City in the Washington D.C. summer rains of 1968. Taylor Branch's final installment of his three part history of the Civil Rights Movement traces the last years of Kings life, after the limited success of voting rights and first official steps in Washington, the South, and some northern cities. Kings final years - when he maintained a firm commitment to equal rights, while broadening that concept to encompass not just the ballot and the bus, but the right of each person for self-determination, freedom from economic fear, and violent repression - these are years less easy to recount. King propounded a broader critique of American society, not only as unchristian, but as unworthy of the country's founding principles. These principles, he believed, must encompass not simply the positive freedoms of property and suffrage, but also include freedoms from the unexplored, darker side of the public sphere. Freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from violence. These freedoms are at once more illusory and, for so many Americans, more embedded in the root of living an American life. King sought out these roots, to grab them where they were most deeply nurtured and rip out the foundations of injustice that so many of us take for granted.

Taylor Branch's final volume is surely the most difficult to absorb and appreciate for its contemporary relevance. The birth of the Civil Rights Movement and its early victories are, in a sense, an easier story to tell. Such stories relate a history of an awakened consciousness, of battles won and lost, of people who stood for and stood against the overlooked among us. Between peaceful protests and violent actions, freedom and oppression contested, hopes and fears - from both sides of the fence - faced-off and a narrative emerges. The final years of Dr. King's life are more difficult to grasp because the very contradictions he faced are many of the contradictions and shortcomings present still. The Civil Rights Movement as recounted in grade school history has a tidy narrative arc, with certain lessons about the past. More difficult by far are the latter years of the movement, or the beginnings of another phase and struggle, a battle which is still being joined today. Those latter years remain embodied in the American present. Though King's life was cut short by an assassin's bullet, we cannot forget that the lessons of his final years are of vast importance for us all. King sought to address the foundations of inequality in America, and bring to light the struggle which characterizes the lives of so many. This is a more difficult story to tell because it remains a story still enacted. King's struggle remains our own.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Thucydides and the Science of History - Charles Norris Cochrane

The notion that there could be a scientific study of any phenomena rests upon two primary underlying assumptions: that a relationship of unity and diversity occurs within existence, and that this relationship can, at diverse times, be understood by the human interpretive element. The Greeks of Classical Athens began the first comprehensive attempt to understand the relationship between unity and diversity in a manner that we might recognize, at the very least, as proto-scientific. While this is most popularly understood as early philosophy and mathematics, many of what we would recognize as the core academic disciplines can be traced to the teachers of Classical Greece, and their animated pursuit of differing pathways of knowledge.

Among these varying disciplinary developments, History, as we would recognize it - being an arena of study which goes beyond chronicling, accounting, or mythology - is usually traced to the writings of Herodotus, the so called "Father of History." Though his recounting of the Greco-Persian War bears the seeds of what has become modern-day history, it would take another generation, and another war, for Thucydides to create what Charles Norris Cochrane calls a truly materialist history. While Herodotus often related the fantastic, amazing, and surely fanciful in his histories of the Greek Mediterranean, he who goes looking for those beasts and gods, divine causes and mythical actors in Thucydides will be truly disappointed. Hoping that his history of the Peloponnesian War could be a "possession for all time" Thucydides sought to relate the causes, and fighting of, the war as he understood it to be, so that he could contribute not only to the memory of it, but provide a service to the future. In attempting to develop a kind of political science within his history, Thucydides turned to experience as the only guide for us to understand what has been and what will be. Inasmuch as men and the world contain similarities across time and space, Thucydides' work serves as one of the earliest explorations of human action as the sole evidence for a better understanding of people as people. Not relying upon some first principle, or illusory other realm of explanation makes his work, as Cochrane argues, an attempt at developing a scientific approach to history.

While great historians like Gibbon and Herodotus (or lesser ones like Marx) relied upon principles of recursion, cycles, or recurrent dialectics, to explain historical patterns, Thucydides (and later historians such as Machiavelli) sought the development of theoretics solely in the world of the sensible. That this approach to history requires explicit differentiation may strike many as surprising. Certainly Toynbee ("history is just one damned thing after another") might contest that any other approach constitutes history proper, yet such philosophic or social scientific-inspired history plays a not inconsequential role in the contemporary academic field. This is not to argue that Thucydides, Toynbee, or Machiavelli are value-neutral, far from it. Rather, an explicit acquaintance with the presuppositions which color our histories are as inescapable as those which color all other sciences. While we may not be able to predict and replicate in history as, say, a physicist or mathematician can, post-Darwinian science has broadened our horizon of the sciences. Rather than prediction, explanation becomes more the guiding principle of scientific investigation. Here we are on Thucydides' home-ground, and commonalities across arenas of knowledge can be fruitfully pursued. As conceptions of the sciences broaden, enfolding numerous scales of human experience and expression, the lessons of history and the sciences crosspollinate, to form, in concert, a more complete accounting of the world and the human element within it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

The interweaving of the Joad family's move to California with the transformative agrarian revolution across rural America gives the trials of one, albeit fictional, family a sense of weight and impact. Even created details can convey human experience and the human condition; sometimes little else can. The thrust and impact of Steinbeck's work is deepened as we recognize that his story is simply one among countless others. The toll that the Dust Bowl and industrialization would wreck on the American farmer can, to this day, still only be guessed at. The human cost in lives uprooted, compromised, marginalized, and lost, can never be fully reconciled. It was not so long ago that the prospects of the Joad family were the prospect for hundreds of thousands of Americans - such prospects pervade our world more than we might care to admit.

In creating such a stark and unforgiving portrait of American dispossession, migration, and conflict, the Joads and Preacher Casey have come to transcend the pages to enter a part of the vast American consciousness. Along with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Captain Ahab, Jay Gatsby, Atticus Finch, Sal Paradise, and Hester Prynne, these people invade our thoughts and ourselves. Perhaps they are more accurately termed specters: dogging our foot-steps and receding around the unexplored roadway ahead. More than many captains of industry, politicians, war heroes, or social movements, to some extent these created lives shape the very form of our consciousness. Without mass, without tangible reality themselves, they are at once everywhere and nowhere. Perhaps this is what Casey and Tom meant when they wondered if everybody is just one big soul. How else can we explain the passage, the connection, between the lives of others and ourselves? That these people have been read about and cared for, and that they are still with us today, may prove the greatest evidence yet devised for the existence of common threads across the human experience. This commonality folds time; acquainting us not only with our neighbors, but with our predecessors and descendants. The Dust Bowl and the migration have not ended. Surely they have been transformed into something else, but they persist. Both a possession and foundation for each of us.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Theodore Parker: Yankee Crusader - Henry Steele Commager

The generation of Unitarian ministers and intellectuals who inhabited New England and the eastern United States during the antebellum 19th century did more to set the tone for the careful thought of American Unitarianism than any other generation or group of thinkers. Some of the more familiar names of the American Renaissance - names like Emerson and Thoreau (arguably) - or the less famous, but influential nonetheless - Channing, Howell, or Parker - found their intellectual home-ground not only in the liberal, reason-oriented faith of Unitarianism, but in each other. While Ralph Waldo Emerson was the spiritual - almost other-worldly - figurehead of this free-thinking movement, none brought so catholic a series of interests, such a broad base in learning, as Theodore Parker. If Emerson was the renowned and removed philosopher, Parker translated all his learning into a religion of the social, and brought the energy of his faith squarely to Earth.

Most famous for his work opposing slavery, Parker believed that faith and spirituality must be embodied. Perhaps it was little surprise that this man who spent so much of his formative days at labor, working until his hands were rough-hewn and callous, saw the practicable side of religion as his faith's true calling. Not only would Parker denounce slavery from the pulpit, he personally helped to move escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad, north to Canada. Standing against slavery, Parker would cajole, beseech, and even threaten men who disagreed with his theology of freedom - both privately and publicly. No peacenik was he: Parker's faith gave him the conviction that some evils must be opposed, first by reason and intellect, but if need be, by force.

It was remarked of Thomas Henry Huxley that he was "Darwin's Bulldog:" a tireless advocate for the theory of evolution while Darwin remained in retreat at Down House. We might similarly cast Parker as Emerson's, or Unitarianism's Bulldog - crusading for the right of reason and consciousness to govern men's social and spiritual lives. It might be fairly leveled at contemporary Unitarians that they are too intellectual and theoretic, too removed from the everyday articulations and actions of the spirit. Perhaps modern-day Unitarianism has inherited too much of Emerson's mind and not enough of Parker's energy.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Clouds - Aristophanes

On trial before his fellow citizens, Socrates asserted that rather than simply answer the set of accusations placed before the court, he must respond to an assault from an older set of accusations. In addition to the official charges, Socrates believed that many of his judges would have been prejudiced against him from claims long part of the Athenian social climate. So ingrained were these older aspersions that Socrates believed they were possibly more dangerous than the official charges. These first set of accusations cast Socrates as a kind-of intellectual charlatan, divorced from the true concerns of society; always engaged in the duplicitous act of making the weaker argument the stronger and misleading his pupils. At a time of great upheaval and uncertainty in Athenian society, Socrates was seen to be a social revolutionary, turning accepted truths on their heads and urging Athenians to break with tradition and dramatically reorient their lives.

Though we cannot be sure from whence such accusations initially sprang, there is a general scholarly agreement that these 'older accusations' were given a full-throated treatment by the comic playwright, Aristophanes. In The Clouds, most likely performed around 423 bce, Aristophanes portrays Socrates as an irreligious, some might say atheistic, teacher who instructs young men to disregard their parents, break with tradition, and disassociate themselves from their community. At a time when Athens must have keenly felt the world to be in dramatic upheaval, along came Socrates and the sophists, instructing young people in strange new doctrines and seeming to threaten the very foundations of all that Athens was defending in the great Peloponnesian War. It was hardly a comfortable time to be an Athenian.

While the outlandish Socrates of The Clouds must have been appreciated as a characterization, the context which gave rise to such a portrayal surely lent the play a note of relevance and reality. Here we see Socrates aloft, investigating all the things of the air and seemingly disconnected from earthly concerns. Yet rather than being a harmless and isolated intellectual, this Socrates has opened a school, what Aristophanes called the "Thinkery" or "Thinketeria." Instructing students, Socrates and the other resident sophists turn the gaze of the young towards all areas of knowledge and cleverness, except those which the typical 5th century Athenian would have prized. As the play reaches its finale we see that what is really at issue here are the concerns about how respect for the city and its important traditions will be balanced against the uncertainty of a changing world. Aristophanes' Socrates is engaged in nothing less than the creation of a new Athens.

At this remove we do well to remember that the Greeks had different conceptions of the proper life than our own. To be removed and disconnected from society, to willingly choose a life of isolation from one's fellow citizens, would have been barbaric; borderline unthinkable to many Greeks. When Aristotle wrote that man is by his nature the political animal, what he is saying in context is that man was meant to inhabit the polis. The socio-political sphere was the very foundation of the truly human life. This belief rendered the instruction of the young a concern of great consequence. If Socrates was truly engaged in corrupting his students, and turning them away from so much that was central to Athenian life, then he threatened not only the well-being of his pupils, but the very threads which bound together society: its citizens. To what extent Aristophanes' play was taken entirely seriously, we cannot know. However, with every brick that constructed an edifice of Socrates the revolutionary figure, so much higher was the wall of opinion opposing him. Aristophanes' work was to be remembered for the claims it made against Socrates. Claims that would, in 399 bce, help lead Socrates to his doom.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Socrates on Trial - Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith

For as many years as have elapsed since the trial of Socrates in Athens (399 bce), likely even more perspectives on the messages and the vagaries, the ins and the outs, of that most famous confrontation have been forwarded. First, and most famously, was Plato, followed thereafter by Xenophon (the first commentator we know of who was not actually present). It is chiefly the oldest of accounts, Plato's, which resounds through the ages as the definitive text coloring our impressions of the father of political philosophy - we might say philosophy itself. Plato's account has fathered great debates ever since. What did Socrates really mean on that fateful day? What is the extent of Platonic revision? More so than any of Plato's other writings the Apology and the Crito are believed to bear the unmistakable stamp of the living Socrates. If, at our distant remove, we can uncover what Socrates thought and cared for, these two 'dialogues' will be our best hope. Yet, as is often the case, layers of scholarship have served to obscure more than clarify; generations have had their own Socrates and extracting any grain of truth across the ages will be a contested task. Such can be both the great curse, and the surpassing blessing, of the humanities.

To this vast bibliography Brickhouse and Smith add their perspective. Of central importance to the debate surrounding Socrates' life, and death, is the extent to which we believe the philosopher provided an honest defense of himself before his Athenian judges. Brickhouse and Smith provide a thorough and nuanced analysis which concludes that, as much as he deemed possible, Socrates sought to give a compelling and truthful defense of his life and actions. No willing martyr to latter-day philosophic interests, Socrates was earnestly trying to escape his last earthly judgment. While holding true to his belief that the virtuous life is our primary concern, Socrates refutes the claims of his accusers and attempts to persuade his judges that, not only would conviction be a miscarriage of justice, but that Athens herself would suffer from his departure.

The honesty of Socrates' attempt at a defense crucially informs how we interpret the philosophical and moral entreaties of Plato's Apology. If, as some commentators have written, Socrates is a haughty and condescending anti-democrat, then his speeches are rife with arrogant intellectualism - as though some delusional, authoritarian father-figure were addressing the unwashed masses from on high. It is difficult to shake the notion that Socrates, and Plato, have been the recipients of a bad rap during the global democratic movement of recent history. In contrast, if we adopt Brickhouse and Smith's interpretation, Socrates strikes us as an incredibly straight-forward, plain-spoken, and earnest advocate of our better angels. A sort-of Athenian moral reformer. Though he may seem obstinate, not to mention a trifle tone-deaf, in refusing to compromise his principles, does he not embody what so many of us in free society claim to prize most highly in the individual? If we agree that each person must be the driving force behind his or her own destiny then surely we can similarly agree that each should embody the Socratic creed prizing the examined life.

Readers of Plato who picture Socrates as an arrogant condescender in the Apology must answer for the Crito in which Socrates speaks to civic duty and the good of the social sphere. Viewed in contrast to one another, these two express the necessary tension of the citizen, that legal code and moral right may come into conflict. Socrates' life and death suggest that we cannot simply retreat to the easy moralist position whereby the individual has the right to govern himself or herself irrespective of society. Rather, being a moral person may require a certain disregard for the civic code, but this does not render such a code unjust. Being a good citizen demands adherence to the existing social contract. Living a virtuous life requires carrying this tension of personal morality and legal obligation. Conflict between the two does not imply that the law is simply deficient. For Socrates, a truly virtuous life meant living, and dying, with this paradox. To abstract the demands of the Apology from the obligation of the Crito is to either build grand facades of labyrinthine textual interpretation, or to label Plato a fool. Perhaps it is time for a Platonic, and Socratic, revival.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Capital in the 21st Century - Thomas Piketty

"An apparently small gap between the return on capital and the rate of growth can in the long run have powerful and destabilizing effects." So does Thomas Piketty depart into an examination of the relationship between capital and labor over the past two hundred-plus years. Focused primarily upon Western Europe and the US, Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century draws some frankly stunning conclusions (at least for me) about the past and possible future of Western economic growth. At the work's conclusion we are left with the sense that much we have assumed about the structure of capitalism has been based upon scant historical information. Indeed, twentieth century economy, inextricably linked to the two World Wars, appears to be best understood as a sort of interregnum in an otherwise one-sided story of wealth accumulation. Our inability to properly contextualize the relative brevity of this period has led us down an economic and political road that those with an eye for history may find familiar.

The two World Wars, as Piketty puts it, reset the economic counters for Europe. During the period of "reconstruction capitalism" Europe was operating from a low capital base. To encourage growth, capital taxation became increasingly progressive. For years economic growth mirrored, or even surpassed, the rate of return on capital. This led to a leveling effect whereby income hierarchies became more egalitarian. To a certain extent similar events were taking place in the US - though with less drastic results. By the end of the 1970s the capital stock had been largely replenished and growth began to slow. This was bound to occur as Europe was no longer in the postwar, rebuilding, decades. Simultaneously, demographic growth in the Western world began to fall off, further impacting economic growth. As slowing growth became associated with higher levels of public capital - particularly in the US and Britain - a wave of privatization and an increased emphasis on boosting economic growth through the extension of capital seemed to support a new narrative of privatization and supply-side economics. This narrative aside, Piketty conclusively shows that the rate of economic growth has lessened since 1980. Because of the refortification of capital as an economic driver, what growth there has been is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few (those who own large amounts of capital and are able to reinvest higher rates of their capital stock).

What is crucial in Piketty's analysis is that this history is not predicated upon illusory laws of economics. At turns he takes on the claims of the Kuznet's Curve, infinite accumulation, the Pareto effect, marginal productivity, and the Cobb-Douglas hypothesis. In each case he demonstrates how an inadequate appreciation for history in the long-run gave rise to these 'laws' of economics. No fire-brand, throughout the work Piketty is measured and circumspect in his conclusions, simply wishing the same from his fellows. In looking across the last two hundred years, Piketty makes the convincing claim that economics and politics are inextricably linked together. It is because of the politics and actions of political actors (war too is a political action) that the twentieth century became a period defined by a certain type of economic growth. Similarly, there is nothing immutable about how the returns of capital will be distributed. We have begun, so Piketty argues, to reenter a period in which the concentration of wealth more closely resembles the robber baron era of the late 19th century. This will have, indeed, already has, far-reaching implications for society.

Piketty raises the question: what type of society do we wish to live in? His historical review of capital makes it clear that our history will be of our own making. To continually remake society as we see fit requires both an appreciation for where we want to go and for where we have been. Piketty speaks to both the past and the future, and his work serves as a resource for those of us interested in both.

Monday, June 2, 2014

On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace - Donald Kagan

Peace does not simply preserve itself. If Donald Kagan is right, and the secret of the human species is our ability to learn from our experience, look forward to assess likely futures, and apply the lessons we have learned, then surely there can be few lessons greater than how we might keep the peace between nations. As Thucydides remarked, and Kagan agrees, there is a very thin line which separates the civilized from the uncivilized, and that line requires careful attention if we are not to slip into folly.

Kagan's work looks at five crisis throughout western history, the Peloponnesian War, World War I, the Second Punic War, World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, to investigate the common factors which brought about the first four and what was different about the fifth - as a sort of "control." Providing an analysis of the major events and players that led to the outbreak of hostilities he draws lessons from the past that we might apply in the future. Primarily he echoes the tripartite reasoning employed by Thucydides, that states engage in conflict primarily out of honor, fear, and interest. This assessment is crucial because it holds that wars often occur for reasons that transcend the simply rational. This is not to suggest that all war is specifically irrational, but rather that someone looking for a reason-based account of why different states have acted as they have will be left wanting.

Sometimes for better, but mostly for worse, war has been an almost continuous part of the human experience. Kagan's work strives to remind us that simply because the West inhabits a relatively peaceful present this is no assurance that our lives will be free of conflict. He warns against the kind of naivete that characterized 1930s Britain: that recognizing that war was horrible and earnestly desiring to never engage in another does not preclude being drawn into a defense of one's country. To blithely assume that humans have somehow progressed beyond war is to run the risk of a certain ignorance of that which we have in common with our forebears. Learning from the past need not mean celebrating it. We pay the greatest respect to the horrors of war by studying it closely. To earnestly say, "never again" we must appreciate exactly what we mean by "again." When the specter of war disappears entirely, when we ignore the lessons of the past, that is when we are in the greatest peril.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Civil War - Lucan

The end of the world, and what a waste. Lucan's Civil War recounts what is little short of Armageddon for the Roman Republic. After giving the courtesy nod to his contemporary regime, as though this were all somehow worth it, the poet launches into his epic recounting in which all manners of death are enumerated in great detail. We are led to believe that there can be neither winners nor conquerors in civil war - only the dead, the guilty, and the scarred. Assuming that he intended a similar conclusion, we can assert that no deeds, be they good or bad, go unpunished. Events and actions are largely driven forward by the contingency of the past, and when you enter a terrible situation, only terrible outcomes are possible. Even seemingly heroic acts end in death - by suicide or grisly dismemberment. Indeed, the measure of one's death seems to be the only possible virtuous act remaining. The message is in the very act of the telling: there can be no moral lessons in civil war.

In certain ways Civil War feels like a very modern story/history. If there is a protagonist surely it is Julius Caesar, but he also appears as the arch-villain, and the author of so much mayhem. Rather than focus on the exploits of Caesar, the dignity of Pompey, or the rectitude of Cato, Lucan allows each his turn to step forward, and to say and enact his vision for the world. All three move in and out of the spotlight as events dictate; each sharing in the destiny of the others, but none solely responsible for creating the future. Less are they subject to some impersonal forces and more do we recognize that men's actions shape the doom of their time. Rather than Fortune spurring Caesar on, it is the General's nature and his actions which have entreated Fortune to follow him. Lucan seems to anticipate the lines which Shakespeare who would put in none other than Julius Caesar's mouth: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Lucan's message resounds through the ages, and his Civil War remains to remind us, among other things, of the depths to which men can sink, and, in so doing, drag their fellows along with them.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Complexity - M. Mitchell Waldrop

The spontaneity of matter. The uncertainty of the universe. The emergence of novelty. The balance between consistency and change. These physicists and computer scientists, economists and programmers seem to resemble new age gurus and mountaintop philosophers. Yet such claims hardly come from Zarathustra's cave, Lao Tzu's way, or the river of Heraclitus: these men (and they are almost entirely men) insist that such illuminations are grounded upon only the most rigorous science. They should know, some of the great minds of the past fifty years are making these claims.

Waldrop's is a history which recounts the very emergence of the science of complexity. Primarily tracing the birth and development of the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico, Waldrop investigates not only the ideas, but also the personalities that forged what may be the cutting edge in refashioning how western society conceives of the world and our place within it. Complexity theory has many subtly different formal and informal definitions, but most theorists would likely agree that anyone who studies complex systems is interested in how the multiplicity of relationships between numerous entities occurring within a system yields novel and unforeseen consequences which transcend a simple agglomeration of the system's parts. Complex systems are unpredictable and Waldrop himself relates the science of complexity as essentially the science of understanding emergence.

Waldrop has succeeded in providing a lucid, readable, and engaging account of what might otherwise seem a rather dry topic. He communicates the type of excitement which can characterize any burgeoning field's development. However, though this approach may broaden the audience, it does not convey the character of debate and discussion, nor the discourse and uncertainty which is still present in the science of complexity. One might be forgiven for assuming the field is well-set to convey unified conclusions. There is little attempt to ground the science in concerns beyond those of the history's participants, nor a reflexive or critical look at the development of the theory itself. That complexity theory may surprise the so-called 'experts' more than the layperson or thinkers coming from other arenas of knowledge remains an unconquered issue for understanding the importance of complexity research. As a primer the work is strong, yet we may be left feeling as though Waldrop orbits the issue without directly confronting some of its more wicked problems or potential implications. Why complexity theory is worthy of a recounting in the first place remains unclear.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Livingstone - Tim Jeal

"In analysing the life of a great man - and Livingstone was undoubtedly great - there is always a basic problem: to be great is to be different, so the ordinary criteria of judgment fall short...Very often his best qualities were also his worst."

How we feel about David Livingstone at the end of Tim Jeal's biography will be bound up with the extent to which we allow for a type of license to such a "great" man. Unquestionably David Livingstone was not a good man. Therefore, do we forgive him for a lack of humanity given all that he was able to accomplish? Clearly this will depend on how we regard Livingstone's accomplishments and these, as Jeal highlights, have become inextricably bound up in the myth of Livingstone. At turns regarded as a dedicated missionary, an intrepid voyager, a peerless explorer, a national hero, a failure, and finely, a living legend, how Livingstone's accomplishments were understood by his contemporaries bear little resemblance to our current recognition of them. At the time of his death it was believed that Livingstone had discovered the headwaters of the Nile. We know now that he was mistaken. It was believed that he "discovered" Lake Nyassa (Lake Malawi), but of course Arab and Portuguese slave traders had long since navigated the lakes shores (not to mention countless Africans). Livingstone's crossing of southern African from Angola to Mozambique we now know had been previously accomplished, and finally, his geographic readings have been shown to be in significant error. Beyond his own time his accomplishments seem greatly diminished.

Yet we must recognize that this modern reality bears little impact on the life Livingstone led. He was undoubtedly, by the time of his death, an inspiration to his countrymen and countless missionaries. Without his exploits the history of Africa and the colonization would have looked drastically different - whether for better or worse we can never know. His impact on geopolitics and his legacy may have grown much greater after his lonely death in the African wilderness, but rarely has one man been so absent from the same society that would come to revere his accomplishments so greatly.

Judgment of the dead by our own standards of morality is a tricky proposition. While Livingstone was surely a difficult and thankless individual, he also lived a difficult and largely thankless life. Though surely made of sterner stuff, he was also a man who grew up in, and spent his life inhabiting, stern places. He pushed himself beyond the bounds of what one man should reasonably be expected to endure, and failed to understand how others could not meet his lofty standards. Yet all of this cannot entirely save us from the feeling that Livingstone was simultaneously dismissive of whites and paternalistic to Africans. Can we divorce our sense that he was distasteful personally from the idea that we has a "great" man? As the magnitude of his accomplishments seem to fade with time, and his morals seem even more distant, this will become more difficult. He was a complex man, deserving of a complex understanding.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Republic - Plato

Education, freedom, and happiness, are, among lesser issues, the preeminent themes of Plato’s Republic. I suppose no one ever accused the philosopher of thinking small. As is the case (though the contrast is less stark) with Shakespeare, or The Beatles, a modern reader (or viewer, or listener, respectively) might be struck by the seemingly pedestrian nature of Plato’s work. What, perhaps, strikes the modern reader the most, is the philosophical dialogue Plato, through Socrates, seems to be responding to. Here we find one clue to the riddle of Plato’s novelty. What makes Republic so seminal – along with other Platonic dialogues – is its very novelty, or, more precisely, the widespread impact this type of novel thinking would have on the Western world.
                While the works of Homer, Sophocles’ Aias, perhaps even The Symposium (my history may be confused here) represent a certain type of relationship between the good and ourselves, between society and the individual, Republic conceives of a person’s relation to the world differently. While those works judge action and right as concerns measured relative to social context, Republic judges our actions as internal affairs. That which is best is that which assures the greatest happiness, to be recognized by the proper balance felt within the individual. Though Plato is ostensibly speaking of how to ensure the proper stability of society he is, so he says, primarily concerned with understanding and fostering the best persons. Perhaps his seeming focus upon the best state was Plato’s subtle transition towards a more individualized ethics.

                Unquestionably Republic casts a long shadow, perhaps the longest in Western literature. By turning our focus inwards, by transforming glory into the pursuit of knowledge and the pre-eminence of individual consciousness, Plato helped to inaugurate the modern world.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Paris, Capital of Modernity - David Harvey

David Harvey contests the notion that modernity was a discrete and absolute break with the past. Rather, in examining Paris’ political and social perturbations across the 19th century, Harvey shows how the city, through fits and bursts, was reimagined to become a modernized space. We might assert this title of modernization if we, as Harvey does, recognize that modernity is less something new under the sun, and more an emergent conceptual shift. When does a place or a people cross the threshold into the modern? How could we recognize this transition and what does it mean to say so? Leaving these questions open to negotiation, Harvey examines what remains a seminal transition.

Given Harvey’s Marxist bonafides, it is hardly surprising that his story of Paris pits the proletariat and bourgeois against one another. At times his work seems little more or less than a straight application of Marx’s thoughts to the Parisian situation. This should not be read as a denigration of his application. Rather, we cannot help but wonder to what extent a hammer sees only nails. Perhaps, when it is all said and done, historians will agree that the transformative powers of capital truly rendered the 19th century most recognizable through a Marxist lens. If this is the case Harvey convincingly posits Paris as the ideal urban space to bring the dialogues of capital and labour, urban and rural, and nature and production together.

The impacts of changing Parisian economics create a patchwork quilt of evolving modernity across the city. While Haussmann and his planners remade the city on the broad-scale rationality of straight lines and organized services (for which we should at least be partially thankful), they simultaneously necessitated movements and informal livelihoods of the working classes. Perhaps this call-and-response across the social sphere is endemic to ‘modern’ ways of being: as society becomes more rational informal space takes on new meaning. Even though it may be the official sphere which recognizes the designation of formal versus informal, this does not imply that the formal will dictate the informal. Along the parkways and over the barricades which delineated political identities, new identities and societies would be formed. Along each side both the formal and informal, the modern and the traditional, would play a role, respond to one another, and drive change. The modern inhabits and invents a space that is at once new and nested. Rather than simply break with the past, we consciously recreate and redefine it, as we recreate and redefine ourselves.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

1493 - Charles Mann

The coming of Columbus to the Americas would inaugurate a series of biological, economic, and ecological transformations unlike any previously experienced in human history. Much has been written about the social, cultural, and political transformations which cannot be imagined without the bridging of the new and old worlds. Yet what Charles Mann argues in 1493, the companion piece to his 1491, is that the previously underappreciated aspects of what Alfred Crosby termed “the Columbian Exchange” had further reaching consequences in altering the social-ecological world co-inhabited by humans and nonhumans. What we would term “globalization” first took flight in the transportation of different biological entities across the oceans.

Because we are linked together with the ecology of our world, human actions must also be viewed ecologically. Such is what Michel Serres termed the basis for our potential natural contract. Mann examines the implications of changing social and ecological relationships as they were transformed by the linking together of the old and the new world. This is a mighty task to address comprehensively – perhaps more than can be reasonably expected from one volume. The book is wide-ranging, to say the least, and Mann introduces some novel and necessary concepts for how we envision both our past and present. Most incisively the question arises: can we justifiably say that Europe, Europeans, or European culture dominated one side of the Columbian Exchange? Would it mean to suggest such a judgment? Too often, it seems, we assume that Europe expanded to fill the world. What if our assessments are misguided and the meaning of the West was irrevocably altered through contact? What would the implications then be? Mann’s book is too discursive to properly treat any certain aspect of such wide-ranging transformations. Nevertheless, it synthesizes a great deal of information and provides much food for thought.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The American College and University: A History - Frederick Rudolph

The development of American higher education demonstrates an interesting reimagination of both the English college and German university. A marriage between these two approaches, wed within a sort-of Jacksonian democratic ideal  accounts for a large part of the strengths, and difficulties which have come to characterize colleges and universities, both public and private, across the United States.

Tracing the growth and movements of higher education, from the birth of Harvard University, to the debates which typified Robert Hutchins' tenure at the University of Chicago, Rudolph situates his own history along the dominant streams of American cultural and social history. In so doing he has captured the notion and the feeling that the history of higher education, particularly those elite institutions which comprise the thrust of his work, stands at once separate from, and responds deeply to, changes throughout American history. Though schools like Yale, Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, and Cornell continue to play such a formative role in creating many of the country's preeminent leaders and thinkers, Rudolph succinctly illustrates how these institutions are responsive, albeit sometimes slowly, to the exhibited needs of the world around them. To the extent that this influences the type of experiences the next generation of leaders and thinkers will have, the arena of higher education cannot help but feel like a slightly conservative force within American society (there are, of course, exceptions to this).

Rather than moralize over the extent to which colleges and universities manifest democratic ideals - a critique so readily leveled in contemporary discussions of higher education - Rudolph traces the very growth of the democratic spirit, and how this has helped to expand colleges and universities, while often compromising the very mission they often pursue. The tension between trying to create an education which is deep, rigorous, and broad, and the possibility of providing for the learning of the many, may forever remain unresolved in American higher education. Perhaps this reflects a tension within society. Though it need not necessarily be the case, the demands of a practical education always seem to oppose the dreams of a scholarly and introspective one. While we may regard this as a failure of educational theorists and developers, we might conversely wonder if our social world forecloses the prospect of living a thoughtful and introspective life which is also social? If we agree that this tension exists in education, can we similarly assert that the same tension exists in society, and within ourselves?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Age of Jackson - Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

The battle between the differing ideals of Thomas Jefferson's small-government notions, with freedom and energy based in the hands of the decentralized electorate, and Alexander Hamiliton's Federalism, which recognized the needs for a strong centralized government around which the states would have to orbit, would only begin to be settled by the generation which succeeded the Founding Fathers. As the young nation battled over the less revolutionary issues of governance and domestic tranquility, the form and function of American government and society would begin to take lasting shape. Such becomings, Schlesinger argues, could not be understood isolated from the rise of industrialism, and the awakening of class consciousness which attended it. Debates centering upon issues such as the Bank of the United States, the Free Soil difficulties (and eventual violence), the annexation of Texas, the American System, and the Tariff of Abominations (to name just a few) are best understood as a young nation not only trying to negotiate the civil relation to government, but also between the classes. Would power be vested in manhood, or in property? While we may know the country's answer to this question (how certain are we really that the people won-out?) the years of Jacksonian America were a time when these contestations were far from settled.

To historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr's way of telling it, Andrew Jackson's founding of a vigorous and powerful executive branch upon the will of a democratically empowered electorate, was to set the standard for how America would come to expect the relationships between democratic and republican principles to be negotiated. More than any other single time period, it was the Age of Jackson, and the years which followed it, which set the course for American government as part of American society.

While it may be tempting to see these largely democratic principles as the spawn of Jeffersonianism, Schlesinger reconciles Jefferson's calls for limited government with the strong unifying power of the federal system which the country felt in 1944, and which we feel still today. The rise of industrialism and the centralization of populations, coupled with the coming storm of civil war, meant that Jefferson's ideal (over-emphasized by many) of a country composed of yeoman farmers would prove largely impossible. As wealth became divorced from the land, and was refounded in the cities, it was no longer enough to say "that government is best which governs least." Were the government to continue to retreat from the civic sphere, it would only ensure the rampant growth of industrial wealth, further vesting power in the upper class. Such would sound the death-knell of Jefferson's democratic principles.

Though the author of the Declaration of Independence could not have foreseen such eventualities, during the Age of Jackson Jeffersonian democracy would become unified with a vigorous and powerful executive branch. Were either capital or labor, during these crucial years when their relationship seemed still in its birthing pangs, to fully gain the upper hand over the other, the history of the United States would look very different. The changing arenas of presidential and congressional politics throughout this age simultaneously responded to and altered social and business spheres. Yet the age was governed largely by democratic principles responsive to Washington as the seat of power. As the electorate struggled to reorient itself to a changing world, so too would the political sphere be transformed. Much was uncertain during these formative years, yet they can be properly termed the Age of Jackson because the tenor of American class and political contests cannot be understood without reference to the role the Jackson played in founding the power of a strong central government directly upon the will of the people. This centralized American democracy still exists today.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Great Triumvirate - Merrill D. Peterson

The American Revolution may have been a fundamental break – one setting not only the infant nation, but indeed the entire global dialogue concerning democracy along a new path. The founding fathers were a generation which hewed and built a government unlike any of its age. Their works and deeds resound through the ages, as do their names. Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Franklin; for most Americans these require no introduction. Through the years of that first generation the country’s laws and government would take shape. Before the court of Marshall, in the doctrine of Monroe, along the journey of Lewis and Clark, the country as a land and an idea would emerge. Yet it was only with the passing-away of this first generation that the first few staggering steps of the country could be transformed into the assured pace of a certain nation. If America was to be a grand republic, and not simply the bright flash of a single generation, then it would be the free-born sons of the revolution who would make it so. The country could only be truly forged once it dealt with the business, less of creation, and more of persistence.

From the presidency of John Quincy Adams, to the years of the Fillmore administration, three men would do more to shape and define the country’s ideals, values, and extent than any others. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina represented not only the three regions composing the young states (New England, the West, and the South, respectively) but also three ideals of the republic which would be contested in front of the courts and underneath the Capitol dome. While Webster embodied the Federalists’ call for a stronger union, Calhoun’s states’ rights southerners fought for the preservation of their own way of life. In-between was the star of the West, the voice of union and compromise, Henry Clay. Each, in his own way, would take up his own banner, and the banner of diverse causes; each with one foot planted firmly in the foundations of the past, while simultaneously striving towards what they believed was both a proper and necessary future. Both the originality and the difficulty of the American Constitution can be understood through the differing interpretations these three gave to it. While their conclusions and moralities may occasionally seem outmoded – perhaps even quaint to the modern ear – we cannot disagree that each latched upon a crucial strain of thought in the nation’s founding documents. Their status as great minds is assured. That the words and ideas which founded the republic can be so diversely meaningful and open to interpretation may do more to support the continuation of the American republic than the work of any person, or the protection of any force. Through their struggles, Webster, Clay, and Calhoun not only helped to forge the nation, they served as exemplars for how the country might be continually renewed.

While the evolving political climates of their time would variously place each at odds with the other, these climates would also create strange bedfellows and unlikely alliances. The capriciousness of changing parties, and the turbulence of the era, may have led the country to select more belligerent or politically-minded executives. It was, through no small fault of the mansion’s tenants, the era of a diminished White House. While each of the triumvirate would repeatedly try for the country’s top post, and variously be humbled, humiliated, debased, and denied in their attempts, this was not the era of the powerful presidency. It was within the Capitol that the great debates would take place; from which the edicts shaping the coming generation would issue. At no other time has America more closely embodied a true republic. At the height of congressional influence three men stood head-and-shoulders above the rest. Webster, Clay, and Calhoun: each is celebrated and lauded, denigrated and excoriated. Each similarly provides a multitude of interpretations down through the ages. Thus we may say that they have truly joined the American pantheon. Together they support our own continual re-founding of the nation.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Conflict in Education in a Democratic Society - Robert Maynard Hutchins

"What belongs in education is what helps the student to learn for himself, to form an independent judgment, and to make his part as a responsible citizen."

Throughout the twentieth century (and, now, into the twenty-first) the mission of the university in America has been uncertain. Are young people to be educated with an eye towards adapting them to their environment, towards what is immediately practical, towards social reform, or with some other purpose in mind? Echoing Montesquieu's assertion that the principle of a republic is its education, former University of Chicago President, and noted educational theorist, Robert Maynard Hutchins, places these concerns at the center of societal formation and function. If a society is to be best, if it is to nurture independent thought and freedom of the spirit, then a liberal education must provide citizens with the capacities to be life-long learners and critical thinkers. Ours must become a society of the logos; of the dialogue, and questioning. It must continue to foster what Hutchins calls the Great Conversation.

Information is nothing without the understanding and judgment necessary to apply it. Supporting the highest human endeavors means that we must be given the tools to think for ourselves. Educational difficulties mount upon the foundational difficulty of our simultaneously shared humanity and individual difference. People are similar; people are different: this dynamic tension binds us together and casts us apart. Education shares this common difficulty with each of us every day - how are we to make sense of, and make peace with, the similarities and differences of others? Rather than serving as a further divisive force, our education can be the common ground which binds people together. By engaging citizens in the age-old discussions of our culture, by nurturing independent thought and the ability of each to explore his or her own physical and intellectual world, Hutchins argues that we can build a better society. By providing the foundation for a lifetime of rigorous, independent inquiry into our lives and the world we inhabit, a better educational system both brings us together and celebrates our differences.

Hutchins notes that "what is honored in a country will be cultivated there." We might add that what is cultivated there will be the seeds for the country of tomorrow. We might wonder if our educational systems and priorities reflect our values.? If not, whose values are they? Each of us as individuals, and together as a community, will reap what we sow.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Making of the Atomic Bomb - Richard Rhodes

The minds which made up the international physics community became, in the early half of the twentieth century, a seemingly rootless and stateless society. Moving across international, political, and ideological boundaries, this group of transformative and revolutionary thinkers created what Niels Bohr conceived as a transnational community of science. Seemingly organized around a common pursuit of truth, the only hierarchies here, so we might be lead to believe, were meritocratic. Powerful idealists, as well as great thinkers, scientists like Oppneheimer, Bohr, Fermi, Szilard, and Rutherford would come to impact the world of politics, social and human justice, and war and peace, more than any one person would dare to imagine. While it was through the political and military application of their discoveries that the atomic bomb came to wreck previously unimaginable swift destruction upon two cities of Japanese men, women, and children, Rhodes looks into the moral wrestling of these deep thinkers, and finds them not unaware of the havoc they were unleashing upon the world. Though the international physics community could not be said to have begun the Pacific War, the efforts of men and women physicists spanning back to the beginning of the century would conspire to end it, and thrust international politics and the prospect of world order into an entirely new arena.

Throughout Rhodes rich work, the international and collaborative nature of the scientific community is juxtaposed to the national, and therefore seemingly narrow, politics and conflicts between states. With the chaos of two world wars behind him, Rhodes looks to this same community as a potential paragon of hope for a world in which mutually assured destruction is replaced by the open exchange of our most important resource: ideas and knowledge. While he goes to great lengths to trace the political, material, and contextual intricacies of scientific discovery and application, Rhodes remains convinced that our deepening knowledge of reality, and the possible leveling effects of information diffusion, will be our saving grace. He is able to do this, while telling the story of the most terrible of human contrivances, specifically because he believes in the possible future the bomb has helped to create. Extending the logic of state-sponsored violence to the nth degree, atomic weapons demand a recalculation of human morality in light of international conflict. When no amount of armaments, wealth, or man-power can entirely protect a society from the threat of nuclear annihilation, the world must be thrust into a new paradigm of cooperation. Or so the argument goes. It the over-arching terror, the complete destruction, which these weapons assure, that forces us into a post-war world.

History would seem to suggest that Rhodes, and Bohr before him, are on to something. There has never been an atomic bomb dropped in anger since those fateful days in August, 1945. The Cold War shrank to an end, and the prospect of another world war seems remote indeed. Along the way the world has become more overtly interconnected, and seemingly smaller - perhaps we are moving closer to a truly international community. That the full realization of the depths of our man-made horrors might ensure a world in which such devastation is in retreat is certainly an inversion of the obvious lines of thought. In the balance, I wonder if we are truly saved by the development and application of human knowledge? Does such exploration necessarily breed the wisdom to use it? Must we have known our most terrible demons before we become acquainted with our better angels?