HistoryBits: Pre-Modern West

HistoryBits: Pre-Modern West

Bits and Pieces of History

Society

Society/Age of Discovery

Long before refrigeration, it was Europe’s discovery that a good dusting of black pepper could disguise the stench of rotting meat that led it off to the four corners of the earth in pursuit of the spice trade. As a concomitant to the spice trade, the discovery that sugar would grow like a weed in the New World soon changed Europe’s relatively innocent dalliance in gold-digging and human trafficking in West Africa into a slaving empire. Sugar required enormous manpower that was no longer available in the New World, thanks to the devastation wrought among indigenous peoples by the white man’s microbes… and Africa’s blacks would be made to fill the gap. The world’s sweet tooth would prove to be a venomous fang indeed for the ten million or so Africans that would soon be enslaved to the harvest of cane–and in time, cotton–in the New World. With much of the world laid low by disease, the way was clear for the Europeans to take its game of power politics onto the world stage. Seeing that power depended upon wealth which in turn depended upon trade, trade, it didn’t take long for Europe’s rising secular states to get onto the game of empire, and once they did, it was only a matter of time before the wolves were at each other’s throats, and as the history of European power politics so often shows, the lead wolf has little defense against the slavering and snapping jaws of the rest of the pack. I suspect that the saving of heathen souls was largely an afterthought, and a sop to the troubled consciences of Europeans whose worldview was informed first of all by its lust for lucre. Rule #1 in your formulating your own understanding of life: Wherever there’s a mystery, look to the bottom line (the one with the dollar sign next to it) for the answer!

Society/Age of Discovery

Portugal’s quest in Africa for a Christian ally against the Moors explained why it got into the business of empire. The profits from the modest slave trade that ensued and the discovery of African gold whetted Portugal’s appetite for the big money that could be had from spices. As Portugal pressed on to India and the Spice Islands, it successfully fought off Arabs, Indians, and Turks for mastery of the spice trade. Not satisfied with half the world, Portugal pressed on into China and Japan with demands for trade and heathen souls. Meanwhile, the discovery that sugar would grow prolifically in the New World changed Portugal’s relatively innocent dalliance in West Africa into a slaving empire. Sugar required enormous manpower that was no longer available in the New World, thanks to the devastation wrought among indigenous peoples by the white man’s microbes… and Africa’s blacks would be made to fill the gap. Need it be said that at this point, in possession of a worldwide empire of sugar, slaving, and spices, little Portugal was over-extended? Seeing that the Portuguese had exceeded their missionary brief and meddled in politics, the shogun threw them out of Japan, and the British bumped them off of the China business at Canton. Smelling blood, the Spanish, British, and Dutch tore away at Portugal’s trade hegemony in India and the Spice Islands. As to how an impoverished, benighted, and backward country like Portugal managed to assert itself so globally… the lion’s share of the spoils so often go to those who get to market first, so to speak. And Portugal was first to market, with guns and seagoing ships, and microbes most of all. But it didn’t take long for the rest of Europe’s rising secular states to get onto the game of empire, and once they did, it was only a matter of time before the wolves were at each other’s throats, and as the history of European power politics so often shows, the lead wolf has little defense against the slavering and snapping jaws of the rest of the pack.

Society/Age of Discovery/New Frontiers

Man needs to believe in something more than life and death by the numbers. Our system of logic and reason (along with our physical senses) are merely tools that enable us to contend with physical reality; logic is not an end unto itself! I find it hard to believe that an intelligent being can look around himself and conclude that a flower is just an angiosperm, that the sun is just an exploding star that we happen to have situated ourselves in precise relation to so that we neither roast nor freeze, that a concert violinist–or even the must mundane of mortals–came from the mud. I can’t help regarding the Big Bang Theory as yet another misguided attempt to hammer the round peg of Life into the square hole of Logic. I believe that we must look at life—and its origins–with a sense of the magical and miraculous, and try to appreciate the profound limitations that our senses and sense of logic impose on our coming to grips with the metaphysical (metaphysics being “ultimate reality”) nature of it all. We need to look beyond what our senses are telling us. I suspect, in other words, that we have been ill served and deluded by science, and that mankind may one day regard the Enlightenment and the spirit of scientific inquiry that attends it today as a necessary but misguided detour in our search for truth.

Society/Family

Love and affection for children is a given these days. The fact that children began to be valued more for their own sake than as economic assets reflected Europe’s rising population, which in turn reflected an improved child mortality rate, a burgeoning middle class that did not require the labor of children, and the more widespread call for the humane treatment and education of children. The fact that children were now worth the expense of educating reflected the increased opportunities available to them in the workforce, apart from tending the family herds and looking after their aging parents. It all sounds like a chicken-or-the-egg sort of debate, as to whether the industrial-urban lifestyle were the result of more people, or whether more people were the result of the new lifestyle.

Society/Jews

Consider how America was rewarded for giving sanctuary to the Jews that other countries cast out: it was in large part because the Jews were forbidden to take up the occupations that were available to everyone else in their host communities that they assumed and specialized in the role of moneylender. In time, this developed into a talent for banking and finance that persecuted Jews brought to America, and which they used to build a prominent role in the Wall Street community. Moral of the story: the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit, and as America became a veritable orchard of distressed trees, our standard of living sweetened immensely.

Society/Racism

Several factors contributed to the Europeans’ perception of Africa as the Heart of Darkness. Regrettably, the arrival of Europeans in Africa coincided with the collapse of the once-splendid sub-Saharan kingdoms of Ghana and Mali. With Africa at ebb tide, the Europeans saw nothing by way of a military establishment or technology of any kind in Africa, and seeing the ready acquiescence of local chieftains in the slave trade (even though slavery was a commonplace in Europe for a thousand years), Europeans were encouraged in their view of Africans as sub-human and merely a source of profit that served their own Euro-centric worldview and predatory behavior. After all, the things that people hate in others are most often those things they most hate about themselves.

Society/Rural Manors

Europe’s recurring propensity for rural manors—from the post-fall of the Empire latifundia of Roman nobility to the chateaux of the pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy to the decaying estates of tattered English aristocrats–provides us with a useful history lesson: in each case, they’ve proven to be monuments to an untenable social order, and symptomatic of a society in the last stages of social decay. Does our present-day preoccupation with building ever-grander gated communities—a concomitant of the ever-widening chasm between social and economic classes in this country—presage the decline and fall of the American Empire?

Power/Slavery/Slave Trade

The discovery that sugar would grow prolifically in the New World changed Portugal’s relatively modest dalliance in human trafficking in West Africa into a slaving empire. Sugar required enormous manpower that was no longer available in the New World, thanks to the devastation wrought among indigenous peoples by the white man’s microbes… and Africa’s blacks would be made to fill the gap. The world’s sweet tooth would prove to be a venomous fang indeed for the 15 million or so Africans that would soon be enslaved to the harvest of cane–and in time, cotton–in the New World.

Society/Social Change

Things tend to happen all at once… once the various pieces of the puzzle come together and give rise to a critical mass that then takes on a life and incredible dynamism of its own (a lot like nuclear fission). The most important piece of the puzzle is always the “stuff in the ground”—crops and coal and water (both for mills and for transport)—that predictably forms the base of any economic pyramid (and always will, no matter how high-tech we get). Then comes the freeing up of the individual to do his own thing that paves the way for farming to become a paying proposition, just like industry. In England’s case, the concept of private property ownership–rather than farming communal village lands–lay at the heart of it, allowing owners to fence off their own land and farm as they saw fit. That meant the freedom to grow new crops that the market wanted and was willing to pay good money for, instead of growing what the village demanded for its subsistence. And the more the farmer thought about making money instead of just subsisting, the more he got interested in better ideas: using manure as fertilizer; rotating between root and seed crops; using hybrid seeds; draining their land properly. Lo and behold, it wasn’t long before farmers were starting to sound just like any other smokestack capitalist, going on about reduced unit costs, increased volume, and such, which ultimately meant more food to support more people and their diversity of trades and industry in the cities. And while England didn’t have cotton (it got that from India), it did have lots of coal, which in turn fueled steam engines, which opened the way to the industrialized production of goods everywhere (no wonder they called steam an “Englishman”—no doubt the highest accolade anything or anyone might earn). With her colonies, their raw materials, and their captive markets worldwide, England then turned then to the stock markets for the capital needed to make it all work. This, then, was the genius and golden key of capitalism: the incentive and opportunity that it offered every man to bring his natural avarice into full bloom and fruition by giving him a piece of the action at an affordable price. And when all this came together, the world changed overnight.

Society/Women/Marie d’Agoult

Marie d’Agoult seems to have continued to tradition of the 18th-century salon hostesses who contributed so much to the advance of the Enlightenment. The cause of women’s rights began to gel with the advance of liberalism in the mid-19th century; like most other ideologies associated with that general awakening of social consciousness, it proved premature. It may not seem that much endured of the accomplishments of enlightened souls like Marie d’Agoult, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and political commitment without social activism is a sterile proposition. On a more subtle level, the power of personal example is at least as compelling as political harangue, and probably contributed more than we’ll know to the gathering tide of gender equality.

Society/Women/Mary Astell

In pre-modern Europe, the career avenues available to women who spurned marriage were generally limited to either the convent or the street. During the American Revolution—with the men off fighting the British and whatnot—women were responsible for educating and raising the kinds of thoughtful and well-informed young citizens needed for a young republic to thrive. Mary Astell surely must have appreciated what we Americans came to learn from that experience–that the management of a family and household is an endeavor that requires no less critical and comprehensive a skill-set than the management of a Fortune 500 enterprise, and I’m surprised that it took as long as it did for women to find their way into the classroom as nurturers of young minds and morals.

Society/Women/Beguins

In case you’ve wondered what the world might be like if it was run by women, consider the Beguines. These women demonstrated a number of things: that women can live effectively without men, marriage, or money; that differing religious beliefs can peaceably coexist; that the rule of law can provide for both individual liberty and a cohesive community; that God has nothing to do with religion; and that women can probably do a better job overall of running the human race than men. Understandably, this proved disconcerting not only to the Catholic Church, who denounced them as whores and heretics, and to men, who saw the whole business as seditious of their manly prerogatives. But who could argue with the results?

Society/Women/Barbara Bodichon

Despite the preponderant view that women were naturally inferior on account of “natural” biological differences (larger pelvis, smaller craniums—go figure), feminism began to make some headway with the efforts of Barbara Bodichon, who argued for equal rights to both property and education. The cause of women’s rights began to gel with the advance of liberalism in the mid-18th century; like most other ideologies associated with that general awakening of social consciousness, it proved premature. But political commitment without social activism is a sterile proposition, and Bodichon’s activism on behalf of women’s education provided the much-needed acid test that separated all the fine theory from results.

Society/Women/Jeanne Deroin

The cause of women’s rights began to gel with the advance of liberalism in the mid-19th century; like most other ideologies associated with that general awakening of social consciousness, it proved premature. But you’ve got to start somewhere, right? It may not seem that much was accomplished by activists like Jeanne Deroin, but political commitment without social activism is a sterile proposition. On a more subtle level, the power of personal example (Florence Nightingale being a superb example) contributed more than we may ever know to the gathering tide of gender equality.

Society/Women/Education and Teaching

In pre-modern Europe, the career avenues available to women who spurned marriage were generally limited to either the convent or the street. Here in America—with the men off fighting the British and whatnot—women were responsible for educating and raising the kinds of thoughtful and well-informed young citizens needed for a young republic to thrive. We have always known that the management of a family and household is an endeavor that requires no less critical and comprehensive a skill-set than the management of a Fortune 500 enterprise, and I’m surprised that it took as long as it did for women to find their way into the classroom as nurturers of young minds and morals.

Social/Women/Charles Fourier

The cause of women’s rights began to gel with the advance of liberalism in the mid-19th century; like most other ideologies associated with that general awakening of social consciousness, it proved premature. But you’ve got to start somewhere, right? It may not seem that much was accomplished by utopians like Charles Fourier, but political commitment without social activism is a sterile proposition. On a more subtle level, the power of personal example (Florence Nightingale being a superb example) contributed more than we may ever know to the gathering tide of gender equality.

Society/Women/Medicine

Nursing, midwifery, and herbal healing were all very well served by women, at least until those practices were largely subsumed by the traditionally male medical preserves of medicine. Of all the diseases that women contended with, those that they were least effective in dealing with were ignorance and bigotry toward women. (In fact, nursing was considered a profession fit only for prostitutes even by Florence Nightingale’s time!) Before there were midwives, there was Mother Nature, with her traditional means—a high birthrate–of compensating for the often-fatal complications of childbirth.

society/Renaissance/Women

Gender equality has only seldom been addressed in pre-modern history—Mesopotamia seems to have been one of the few cultures to have taken a stab at it before giving it up to the long march of history. In the Middle Ages, the clergy offered one avenue for women to achieve a certain measure of status, and marriage relinquished whatever slender prospects for advancement might have come with celibacy. The long night of the Dark Ages had accumulated an enormous wealth of creative energy that very nearly compensated for the previous thousand years of torpor. Against the tempestuous background of the Reformation, the Renaissance offered the sort of wonderfully lawless and chaotic time that the human spirit best thrives in. Complacency dulls the creative edge, while chaos, like Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, is itself a creative masterpiece that brings out both the worst and the best in man… and woman.

Society/Women/Anais Segalas

As poetess-laureate of the feminist movement, Anais Segalas seems to have continued the tradition of the 18th-century salon hostesses who contributed so much to the advance of the Enlightenment. The cause of women’s rights began to gel with the advance of liberalism in the mid-19th century; like most other ideologies associated with that general awakening of social consciousness, it proved premature. It may not seem that much came of the writings and insights of enlightened souls like Ms. Segalas, but the power of personal example is at least as compelling as political harangue, and probably contributed more than we’ll know to the gathering tide of gender equality.

Society/Women/Germaine de Stael

Germaine de Stael seems to have continued to tradition of the 18th-century salon hostesses who contributed so much to the advance of the Enlightenment. The cause of women’s rights began to gel with the advance of liberalism in the mid-19th century; like most other ideologies associated with that general awakening of social consciousness, it proved premature. It may not seem that much endured of the accomplishments of enlightened souls like Germaine de Stael, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and political commitment without social activism is a sterile proposition. At a more subtle level, the power of personal example is at least as compelling as political harangue, and probably contributed more than we’ll know to the gathering tide of gender equality.

Society/Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur boldly defied the certainty of her male contemporaries that women—with their outsized pelvises and undersized craniums—were better suited as subjects of art than as artists. Bonheur’s determination to circumvent the proscriptions against women in art provided a personal example at least as compelling as any political harangue, and probably contributed more than we’ll know to the gathering tide of gender equality and scientific enlightenment.

Social/Women/Suffragettes

Scratch a man and you’ll find a beast: in the process of suffering the abuses of the gentlemanly role models of Victorian manhood who denied them the vote, the suffragette movement accomplished at least as much by puncturing the absurd balloon of male vanity. And if shame is what these “gentlemen” suffered in the bargain, this offers a good example of how shame serves the highest purpose of social activism by causing people to reflect and listen to themselves—the only ones that anyone will ever listen to!

Society/Women/Suffragettes/Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst and many of her companion suffragettes offered personal examples that would eventually shame their male antagonists into recognizing the absurdity of their position. And if shame is what these Victorian “gentlemen” suffered in the bargain, this is how shame serves the highest purpose of social activism: by causing people to reflect and listen to themselves—the only ones that anyone will ever listen to!

Society/Women/Mary Wollstonecraft

Despite the preponderant view that women were naturally inferior on account of “natural” biological differences (larger pelvis, smaller craniums—go figure), feminism began to make some headway with the efforts of Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued for equal rights in education, political life, and business. The cause of women’s rights began to gel with the advance of liberalism in the mid-18th century; like most other ideologies associated with that general awakening of social consciousness, it proved premature. It would require the literary talents of Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, to point up in her novel Frankenstein the irony of fabricating a human being from scratch while most men were as yet reluctant to recognize the other half of the human race as more than scarcely human.

Society/Jews

I would agree that it took an exceptionally enlightened sort to give sanctuary to and nurture that most despised of Europe’s minorities, the Jews. And consider how America was rewarded for doing just that: it was in large part because the Jews were forbidden to take up the occupations that were available to everyone else in their host communities that they assumed and specialized in the role of moneylender. In time, this developed into a talent for banking and finance that persecuted Jews brought to America, and which they used to build a prominent role in the Wall Street community. Moral of the story: the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit, and as America became a veritable orchard of distressed trees, our standard of living sweetened immensely.

Society/Piracy

The age of piracy marked the halfway progression of Europe’s military evolution, from its origins in feudal armies to the hugely expensive standing armies of new nation-states that required enormous bureaucracies to administer them (which became those states themselves). Privateering was a cheap expedient that gratified the sea-dog’s lust for loot and the monarch’s joy in having a jab at the enemy (much as Sir Francis Drake accomplished on behalf of Queen Elizabeth at the expense of the Spanish). This causes me to wonder: are we coming full circle? It disturbs me to see the U.S. government hiring (“security contractors”) to help fight its war in Iraq, since this also reminds me of how Rome let the Republic slip from its grasp when it could no longer afford its wars, and began letting generals like Marius and Sulla form mercenary armies that they rewarded with the spoils of conquest… and which proved a key factor in the disintegration of the empire. Oil, anyone?

Culture


Culture/Science/Women/Emilie du Chatelet

Emilie du Chatelet boldly defied the certainty of her male contemporaries that women—as clearly demonstrated by their outsized pelvises and undersized craniums—were better suited as subjects of science than as its torchbearers. The cause of women’s rights didn’t begin to gel until the general advance of liberalism in the mid-19th century, but the power of du Chatelet’s personal example—in her defiant disdain for convention and robust love of life and love–is at least as compelling as any political harangue, and probably contributed more than we’ll know to the gathering tide of gender equality and scientific enlightenment.

Culture/Science/Women/Mary Kingsley

The arts of Africa—dance, music and song, sculpture, metalwork, oral history and more—speak of a culture that remains vibrant and spirited in spite of the myriad pathologies that the continent has suffered since slavery. Those who are tempted to dismiss Africa as an always-has-been, always-will-be basket case should acquaint themselves with the long record of African civilizations as advanced—in their way–as any in the West. It had been commonly thought that the Sphinx was 5,000 years old, but recent archaeological discoveries now indicate that it’s more on the order of 25,000 years old. What gives here?–that’s back when people were supposedly shaking spears at mastodons! Given the astonishing affluence and sophistication of the Egyptian, Nubian, Kushite, Ghanan, Malian, Songhay, Yoruba, Benin, Nok, and Great Zimbabwean civilizations, I’m given to wonder if time is not the linear event we usually perceive it to be, and whether, if we could reach back into the past far enough, we might not encounter a civilization light years more advanced than our own. In bringing these civilizations to the light of scientific inquiry, Mary Kingsley defied the certainty of her male contemporaries that women—as clearly demonstrated by their outsized pelvises and undersized craniums—were better suited as subjects of science than as its torchbearers.

Culture/Science/Women/Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian boldly defied the certainty of her male contemporaries that women—as clearly demonstrated by their outsized pelvises and undersized craniums—were better suited as subjects of science than as its torchbearers. The cause of women’s rights didn’t begin to gel until the general advance of liberalism in the mid-19th century, and it may not seem that Merien’s butterflies could have counted for much, but you’ve got to start somewhere; the power of personal example is at least as compelling as political harangue, and probably contributed more than we’ll know to the gathering tide of gender equality and scientific enlightenment.

Culture Art/Edward Munch

Edward Munch’s singular portrait of the primal scream gave lasting definition to both the Expressionist school and to the anxieties of the modern age. In fact, the Scream seemed to sum up the response of established opinion to those artists, like Beethoven, who broke ranks with the traditional preoccupation with structure and “art by the numbers” to make way for personal expression and creative fulfillment. Moral of the story: you can’t make progress without offending people.

culture/Art/Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s canvases set the gold standard for the golden age of the Dutch Masters. Unfortunately, Rembrandt also offers a case in point of the all too frequent experience of artists who broke ranks with popular tastes and the demands of the market to make way for personal expression and creative fulfillment. Moral of the story: you can’t make progress without offending people, so don’t quit your day job!

Culture/Philosophy/Founding Fathers

In a sense, the father figures of the Scientific Revolution—Descartes, Bacon, and Newton–were the most destructive three-man wrecking crew in the history of Western philosophy, in terms of their effect on man’s relationship with his environment. Descartes gave us to understand that mind was separate from matter (and by inference, man from his physical realm), while Bacon made us know that science was a tool that lay squarely in the service of man for the purpose of enacting his dominion over the earth. Newton then came along and cobbled all of this into his theory of the universe as a grand Clockwork Mechanism, whose laws could become known (and mastered) by investigation. From that time on, nothing would stand in the way of man’s mastery over nature. To the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the role of philosophy was to change the world, not just discuss it; rationalism was a scientific method that could be applied to everything, including religion and politics. The Enlightenment, with its handmaiden of the Scientific Revolution, formed the Great Divide between the Old World and the New, between East and West, between Faith and Reason, and between mystical societies who revered man’s relationship with nature, and the scientific societies of the West who manipulated it to their material advantage and spiritual detriment. The trick has been to learn from both, as to how to develop our God-given patrimony without destroying ourselves in the bargain.

Culture/Philosophy/Humanism

Humanism and its underlying premise that the world was made for man required not just a leap of faith, but a leap away from faith as well. Our modern creed of human rights and creative fulfillment would not have been possible had not man disowned an unknowable and inaccessible God in favor of the God that lies within.

Culture/Literature/Lord Byron

Lord Byron was a great poet made all the greater by the lurid way in which he lived, and the tragic manner in which he died. Would we have settled for less in an artist of such epic romantic stature? It just wouldn’t do for such a literary lion to work for the post office and die of old age—scandal seems to come with the territory of talent in these things.

Culture/Literature/Christine de Pizan

As one of Western civilization’s “first woman of letters,” Christine de Pizan offers us a good example of the far-reaching effects of a modest and largely untrumpeted personal example. Ever since the serpent ingratiated itself with Eve, women have been tarred as the minions of Satan and detractors from the innately virtuous nature of men. But to me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it.

Culture/Music/Handel

Schopenhauer once wrote that instrumental music serves the purpose of eliciting the inner, metaphysical reality of natural forms. It must be said, then, that the musical architects of the Romantic Movement– Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky–bridged the chasm between the physical and metaphysical in a way that the listener could hardly fail to be transported.

Culture/Philosophy/Peter Abelard

The analytical rigor of Peter Abelard calls to mind the Socratic dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates understood that you can’t tell anybody anything (deeming it easier to just go along with whatever his accusers said and then drink his poison), and his method of questioning and compelling a person to answer arose from his understanding that the only person anyone ever listens to is himself: a most profound insight into human nature. As long as Americans continue to listen to the likes of pop stars instead of their own consciences (however ill informed), we’ll inevitably suffer the same consequences that righteous half-wits have repeatedly led us into in Iraq, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

Culture/Philosophy/Thomas Aquinas

Creatures of reason that they were, philosophers like Aquinas, Aristotle, and Descartes can be forgiven for trying to explain God. But reason and logic–like the senses—are merely tools that enable us to contend with physical reality, and are quite useless in apprehending such matters as can only be understood with the heart.

Culture/Philosophy/Francis Bacon

As a contemporary of Shakespeare and James I—both of whom were gay—it wouldn’t surprise me that Francis Bacon may have flocked to birds of a similar feather, and perhaps even pecked up some of their creative seed-corn, so to speak. I’ve had to conclude that the unorthodox sexuality of many of the most famous artists, writers, and leaders in history was one of the most critical elements in their creativity—after all, it’s the distressed tree that bears the sweetest fruit, wot?

Culture/Philosophy/Charles Darwin

Darwin would have us believe that talented and sensitive souls—whether concert violinists, Olympic gymnasts, neurosurgeons, or scholars such as me and thee—have somehow evolved from the primordial muck. While there are some people who I am fully prepared to believe do hail from apes and such, I submit that there are limits to this argument! People understandably become disillusioned when they come to believe that they’ve figured out where they come from. Having a logical explanation—whether by way of the Big Bang Theory or Darwinism—takes both the mystery and the magic out of life, and reduces things to straightforward and humdrum objectivity. It’s no surprise, then, that Darwinism was part and parcel of the social malaise that characterized the late 19th century. Man needs to believe in something more than life and death by the numbers. Our system of logic and reason (along with our physical senses) are merely tools that enable us to contend with physical reality; logic is not an end unto itself! I find it hard to believe that an intelligent being can look around and conclude that a flower is just an angiosperm, or that the sun is just an exploding star that we happen to have situated ourselves in such precise relation to that we neither roast nor freeze. I can’t help regarding the Big Bang Theory as yet another misguided attempt to hammer the round peg of Life into the square hole of Logic. I believe that we must look at life—and its origins–with a sense of the magical and miraculous, and try to appreciate the profound limitations that our senses and sense of logic impose on our coming to grips with the metaphysical (metaphysics being “ultimate reality”) nature of it all. We need to look beyond what our senses are telling us. I suspect, in other words, that we have been ill served and deluded by science, and that mankind may one day regard the Enlightenment and the spirit of scientific inquiry that attends it today as a necessary but misguided detour in our search for truth.

Culture/Philosophy/Deism

Creatures of reason that they were, Deists could be forgiven for trying to explain God; as such, Deism was an early attempt to hammer the round peg of Life into the square hole of Logic. But reason and logic–like the senses—are merely tools that enable us to contend with physical reality, and are quite useless in apprehending such matters as can only be understood with the heart. Having a logical explanation—whether by way of Deism, the Big Bang Theory, or Darwin’s Theory of Evolution—takes both the mystery and the magic out of life, and reduces things to straightforward and humdrum objectivity. But man needs to believe in something more than life and death by the numbers. I find it hard to believe that an intelligent being can look around and conclude that a flower is just an angiosperm, or that the sun is just an exploding star that we happen to have situated ourselves in such precise relation to that we neither roast nor freeze. I believe that we must look at life—and its origins–with a sense of the magical and miraculous, and try to appreciate the profound limitations that our senses and sense of logic impose on our coming to grips with the metaphysical (metaphysics being “ultimate reality”) nature of it all. We need to look beyond what our senses are telling us. I suspect, in other words, that we have been ill served and deluded by science, and that mankind may one day regard the Enlightenment and the spirit of scientific inquiry that attends it today as a necessary but misguided detour in our search for truth.

Culture/Philosophy/Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon

In a sense, Descartes and Bacon were the most destructive two-man wrecking crew in the history of Western philosophy, in terms of their effect on man’s relationship with his environment. Descartes gave us to understand that mind was separate from matter (and by inference, man from his physical realm), while Bacon made us know that science was a tool that lay squarely in the service of man for the purpose of enacting his dominion over the earth. From that time on, nothing would stand in the way of man’s mastery over nature. This, then, formed the Great Divide between the Old World and the New, between East and West, between Faith and Reason, and between mystical societies who revered man’s relationship with nature, and the scientific societies of the West who manipulated it to their material advantage and spiritual detriment. The trick has been to learn from both, as to how to develop our God-given patrimony without destroying ourselves in the bargain.

Culture/Philosophy/Rene Descartes

I imagine that the whole point of Descartes’ little ditty “I think, therefore I am” is that mind is separate from matter (and by inference, that man is separate from his physical realm). From that time on, nothing would stand in the way of man’s mastery over nature, and this formed the Great Divide between the Old World and the New, between East and West, between Faith and Reason, and between mystical societies who revered man’s relationship with nature, and the scientific societies of the West who manipulated it to their material advantage and spiritual detriment. The trick has been to learn from both, as to how to develop our God-given patrimony without destroying ourselves in the bargain.

Culture/Philosophy/Erasmus

There aren’t many ways to fight the tyranny of institutional dogma and folderol, such as that wielded by the Church in the Middle Ages. You can protest, nail your theses to the door, and launch an insurrection, as Martin Luther did—but that’s a lot of trouble. Or you can accomplish the same result by getting people to laugh at the beast—and it will crumble just as surely, and with fewer bruises and less bloodshed. That’s where Erasmus came in. Humanism and its underlying premise that the world was made for man required not just a leap of faith, but a leap away from faith as well. Our modern creed of human rights and creative fulfillment would not have been possible had not man disowned an unknowable and inaccessible God in favor of the God that lies within—a God that’s friendly and likeable, and perhaps a bit like us. Erasmus helped us make the acquaintance, in ways that proved a bit more palatable than all of Martin Luther’s head-knocking.

Culture/Philosophy/Existentialism

What is more beloved to the artist and philosopher than chaos and alienation? The 20th century—the deadliest in the history of mankind–has offered a Mother Lode of both. Complacency dulls the creative edge, while chaos, like Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, is itself a creative masterpiece that brings out both the worst and the best in man.

Culture/Philosophy/Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud would have us believe that the unconscious—rather than free will and conscious choice–is the most deep-seated driver of our actions. Freud would also have us believe that the sex drive is the engine of the unconscious and the source of our every complaint–the fallout from the eternal struggle between the libido and the consciousness (or did he mean conscience?). In so hypothesizing, Mr. Freud, a notorious substance abuser, may have been shoveling so much cocaine up his snout that it all seemed like a perfectly good explanation for impulses that he himself was so patently unable to restrain.

Culture/Philosophy/Arthur de Gobineau

Darwin’s theories were bound to attract cranks like de Gobineau who manipulate controversy to their own advantage. Some would call it debate, but I think the better word for it is demagoguery. Those who love to hate will find no end of distinctions to draw among people, but the fact remains that all that we have in common far outweighs our differences.

Culture/Philosophy/Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes was justly concerned with the excesses that are incurred in man’s pursuit of self-interest, and with the need for government to regulate those excesses. Democracy doesn’t seem to have improved on that conundrum very much, since people still vote largely in support of their self-interest–rather than the good of the community–and our politicians–bought and owned by big corporate donors as so many of them are–still fall way short of seeing past their self-interest to look after the good of the many.

Philosophy/Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

Most people seem to regard democracy as the embodiment of mankind’s highest political evolution–though not without serious reservations! Churchill remarked that “democracy is absolutely the worst form of government… except for all the others.” I imagine the key will be in arriving at the right balance between state and the men it rules; when men are left to their own devices, we have robber baron capitalism and anarchy, and leaving the political process in the hands of the common man runs the risk of electing some very common and mediocre leaders. Supposedly the reason we have a government is to watch out for the common good so that it is not trampled by self-interest, but will the common man ever vote for leaders who represent the common good… if the objectives of that common good are at variance with the agendas of self-interest? In a sense, both Locke and Hobbes were talking about the same things: a) the extent (and extremes) to which men would go in pursuit of self-interest; and b) the need for a government to regulate the excesses of that pursuit. Democracy doesn’t seem to have improved on that conundrum very much, since people still vote largely in support of their self-interest–rather than the good of the community–and our politicians–bought and owned by big corporate donors as so many of them are–still fall way short of seeing past their self-interest to look after the good of the many.

Culture/Philosophy/Humanism

Humanism and its underlying premise that the world was made for man required not just a leap of faith, but a leap away from faith as well. Our modern creed of human rights and creative fulfillment would not have been possible had not man disowned an unknowable and inaccessible God in favor of the God that lies within—a God that’s friendly and likeable, and perhaps a bit like us. Erasmus helped us make the acquaintance, in ways that proved a bit more palatable than all of Martin Luther’s head-knocking.

Culture/Philosophy/John Locke

Those Enlightenment folks were too clever by half, thinking that people might actually control of their destiny, that progress was reachable and real, and that the lessons of history could light the way toward the future. In writing that the people can be formed by external experience (which can be controlled), and that humans are not condemned to endlessly repeat the mistakes of the past, little did John Locke appreciate the need for people to repeat the mistakes of the past! We come here to learn, and the only way we learn is through personal experience. Until we are made to endure that experience and acquire its lessons, we’re always convinced we’ve got a better way, and the lessons of history are just so much foolishness from fuddy-duddies who weren’t half as smart as we are. And why would we want to deprive anyone of the opportunity for learning and personal growth by causing them to learn from the mistakes of others, anyway? What would be the point, then, of our journey through eternity? It makes more sense for us to continue to wear the albatross of Original Sin—that cornerstone of Western moral philosophy—so that we might have no illusions of our need to repeat the mistakes of history.

Culture/Philosophy/John Locke

Locke’s ideas seem to have not only served as the inspiration for the American Revolution, but also recall the inspiration of the Agricultural Revolution, which would not have been possible without property laws that rewarded with ownership the recurring, seasonal labor that a man needed to invest in bringing his farm to fruition. And with property rights came the ability of man to depend upon others for myriad other aspects of his livelihood while he in turn looked after his own specialized calling. All of this in turn made possible the rise of cities and civilization itself.

Culture/Philosophy/John Locke

Locke’s “social contract” sounds like a great idea until the government–the guys with the guns–disagrees with the popular assessment that it ought to step down. The critical element that was missing was a mechanism for dissolving–without violence–the present regime against its will. In the Old World, power never changed hands without heads rolling; it was for the new United States to develop the truly revolutionary way for power to change hands peaceably.

Culture/Philosophy/John Locke

The one essential thing that Locke made little provision for in his theory was what to do when the government differed with the peoples’ assessment that its time had run out. In the Old World, a change of power almost never occurred without heads rolling, and it was for the Americans to devise a mechanism that would provide for a regular and orderly transfer of power. And that was the most revolutionary thing about George Washington’s revolution–that when it came time for the man whom many had wanted to become King of America to step down, it went off without a hitch.

Culture/Philosophy/Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s good name has long been associated with political cunning and calculation—unfairly so, since all he was trying to do was portray the political world of 15th-century Italy. In fact, I believe he was dead on the money with his prescriptives for the aspiring prince, since politics has never had much to do with leadership, but rather with gaining and wielding power and perks. The politics of Machiavelli’s age have changed little since then, simply because human nature does not change. And that, by the way, is why we study history: by studying the patterns of human behavior in history, we can predict the course and consequences of power as reliably as we can the path of spring floods in what might otherwise seem to be dried-up old streambeds.

Culture/Philosophy/Adam Smith

The mill owners and other moneybags of early 19th-century England borrowed a few pages from Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo to read up on how they might best excuse themselves from any obligation to improve the lot of the poor. Their reading was, of course, highly selective, and in the time-honored tradition of weasel-think, they found no shortage of arguments to support their rigorous defense of material advantage, reasoning that the poor were poor because of their propensity to breed like flies and other moral failings. Why, if they didn’t wall off their wealth from the grasping desperation of the Great Unwashed, who knows how they might squander it… adequate food, roofs that didn’t leak, basic sanitation, education, and other such degenerate indulgences!

Culture/Philosophy/Karl Marx

Poor old Karl Marx probably never intended for his name to become associated with uproar and subversion. After all, he was onto something that was either light-years ahead of his time, or ages behind it, in his understanding of something that the ancient Hawaiians knew all along, that the earth can no more be divided and owned than can the sky and the sea. However, predation—whether of one class upon another, individuals upon each other, or amongst wild animals—is an essential part of the elegant scheme of life. Yes, it’s vicious, it’s bloody, it’s unjust, and a few other things. But is human development even possible without it? After all, we grow through struggle, and in overcoming life’s myriad obstacles. At one end of the spectrum of struggle lies reward… and at the other, you’re someone else’s lunch. Marx’s vision of a communist utopia in which each gives according to his ability, and is given according to his needs, precludes the operation of incentive… and the whole dynamic of risk and reward that animates human progress.

Culture/Philosophy/Montesquieu

It’s hard to say whether we Americans drew more inspiration from Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu than the Enlightenment drew from the American Revolution; many of the ideals of the French Revolution seem closely patterned on the republican ideals that guided our own revolution, though the one thing that the French didn’t pick up on from the Americans was the most revolutionary thing of all: that power could be made to change hands without bloodshed. The imprint of Montesquieu in our Constitution is found not so much in what the document itself says, but in many checks and balances that were articulated in the Bill of Rights and which were built into design of the government itself. If any one document were left to stand by itself, it would not stand the test of time. The Truth is forever in flux, and changes with the times; hence the provision for a Judiciary that is independent from the Executive and Legislative branches allows the Supreme Court to interpret the statutory Truth in light of the times. All of this accords with the particular genius that we Americans have of making abstraction conform to the practical exigencies of life as we live it.

Culture/Philosophy/Friedrich Nietzsche

The ubermensch credo that underpinned much of Nietzsche’s writings was bound to attract demagogues like Hitler who thrived on manipulating controversy and popular angst to their own advantage. Those who love to hate will find no end of distinctions to draw among people, but the fact remains that all that we have in common far outweighs our differences.

Culture/Philosophy/Robert Owen

Robert Owen would have recognized the abuses and excesses of the modern-day corporation as being little different from those that led him to found his utopian socialist community of New Lanark. The essential problem lies in the nature of the corporation, whose sworn and chartered responsibility is to maximize returns for its shareholders (and certainly it’s in the best pecuniary interests of management—especially these days!—to do so). There are two ways to maximize returns: a) increase revenues and b) decrease costs. It’s with the latter half of this equation that corporations spit in the face of moral justice. A corporation will typically make every effort to put as many of those costs on the community and the environment: the consequences of laying off workers when business slows down a bit or when it offshores jobs to China; of dumping pollutants instead of paying to clean them up; of plundering non-renewable resources; of fraud and executive monkey-business; of failing to support constructive community endeavors, assist its less fortunate members, and to address its concerns… and much, much, more. Problem is, there is a fundamental law of moral balance–a law that is no less ironbound than statutory law or the law of gravity for being a moral law—that is violated when corporations that take from a community fail to give in return. Simply stated, what goes around comes around, and when a corporation—through layoffs, offshoring, polluting, plundering, piracy, or general indifference—saps and sunders the vitality of a community, the Day of Reckoning inevitably comes when it discovers that its community of customers no longer has the kinds of jobs that provide the income that enables them to buy its goods and services, or that its community has abandoned the social, natural, and economic environment that once sustained them but which can no longer do so. It’s all about sustainability; everything must be done in balance, with the understanding that giving back is absolutely essential to taking. Otherwise, it just ain’t sustainable.

Culture/Philosophy/Blasé Pascal

Talk about predictability (and Pascal’s obsession with it): it’s just so predictable that the man who invented the calculating machine would come up with a scientific wager on the existence of God. It really goes to show how pathetic is reason in dealing with matters of faith. As with logic and the five senses, reason is just a tool that we use in contending with physical reality, and it only goes so far.

Culture/Philosophy/Physiocrats

Some things just don’t change… and the timelessness of agriculture is one of them. The farm is the foundation of any diversified economy, no matter how sophisticated and wealthy. It forms the base of the economic pyramid that sustains each other level, on up to the most sophisticated and highly remunerated apex of that pyramid: the knowledge economy. As humble and dumb-as-dirt as farming might seem, it has nonetheless proved to be as reliable a leading indicator of economic health as the most sensitive and ingenious economic model. History has shown that when the nation’s farmbelt is in trouble, the rest of the economy will inevitably follow. What better example of that than the fact that, even when the rest of the nation was reveling in the Roaring Twenties, the farms were in a world of hurt. And once the base of our economic pyramid had eroded away into dust, the economy lay there in the dirt with it. The Physiocrats understood that the economic pyramid of civilization rests on the base of agriculture which, in the final analysis, is a creature of the same incentives and market forces that govern those industries that occupy the highest echelons of that pyramid. It was freeing up the individual to do his own thing that paved the way for farming to become a paying proposition, just like industry. The concept of private property ownership–rather than farming communal village lands–lay at the heart of it, allowing owners to fence off their own land and farm as they saw fit. That meant the freedom to grow new crops that the market wanted and was willing to pay good money for, instead of growing what the village demanded for its subsistence. And the more the farmer thought about making money instead of just subsisting, the more he got interested in better ideas: using manure as fertilizer; rotating between root and seed crops; using hybrid seeds; draining their land properly. And lo and behold, it wasn’t long before farmers were going on about reduced unit costs, increased volume, and such, which ultimately meant more food to support cities and their diversity of trades and industry, sounding just like any other smokestack capitalist.

Culture/Philosophy/Precursors to the Enlightenment

In truth, you could probably go back to the Dark Ages (whose darkness helped hone an appetite for enlightenment) and even to Classical Greece (with its emphasis on reason and the scientific method) to find the precursors of Europe’s Enlightenment. The ideals of the American Revolution helped a lot, too, and provided the French with the inspiration for their own revolution. History has a very long fuse, as well as a few short ones.

Culture/Philosophy/Romanticism

We are given to understand that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; such was the reaction of Romanticism to the strictures of the Scientific Revolution and dogma of the Enlightenment—it was bound to happen, and you could see it coming from a country mile. But rather than bouncing from one extreme to another, what modern man needs in his ever more complicated and precarious existence is a sense of balance–between seeing life through the senses and the lens of logic on the one hand (since these are the tools that enable us to contend with physical reality), and apprehending it with the heart. Both the scientist and the romantic have something to learn from each other: rationalism gives man the tools to fulfill his creative potential, while mysticism and the sense of the sacred would teach us that man must make his way in the world without wrecking his environment and riding roughshod over his fellow human being; either approach by itself leaves something to be desired. Western man is clearly in need of the metaphysical perspective that romanticism affords, since for all of our worldliness, affluence, and technological prowess, we still don’t seem to understand that the true measure of gratification in life is meant to be more than who dies with the most toys.

Culture/Philosophy/Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau was a bundle of contradictions. How does one square the Social Contract–which calls for the exercise of the will of the majority through a mutually-agreed upon government—with the “natural man”, whose innocence was corrupted by social and political institutions? His self-acknowledged addiction to self-abuse and abandonment of his family notwithstanding, Rousseau lives on in the popular esteem as the champion of man’s return to a societal Eden undefiled by the perversions of the modern day.

Culture/Philosophy/Adam Smith

The downside of Adam Smith is that the mill owners and other moneybags of early 19th-century England borrowed a few pages from him (as well as from Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo) to read up on how they might best excuse themselves from any obligation to improve the lot of the poor (let the Invisible Hand of the Free Market do the job for them!). Their reading was, of course, highly selective, and in the time-honored tradition of weasel-think, they found no shortage of arguments to support their rigorous defense of material advantage, reasoning that the poor were poor because of their propensity to breed like flies and other moral failings. Why, if they didn’t wall off their wealth from the grasping desperation of the Great Unwashed, who knows how they might squander it… adequate food, roofs that didn’t leak, basic sanitation, education, and other such degenerate indulgences!

Culture/Philosophy/Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza’s doctrine of self-interest would hardly seem to square with the excesses that are incurred in man’s pursuit of self-interest, and with the need for government to regulate those excesses. Democracy doesn’t seem to have improved on that conundrum very much, since people still vote largely in support of their self-interest–rather than the good of the community–and our politicians–bought and owned by big corporate donors as so many of them are–still fall way short of seeing past their self-interest to look after the good of the many. Then again, if self-interest doesn’t motivate us to get out of bed in the morning and do something for the benefit of our fellow man—and reward us in the bargain for our trouble—what would?

Culture/Philosophy/Voltaire

Voltaire helped wield the fulcrum that pried open one of history’s Great Divides—that which separated the Age of Reason from the Age of Faith. It’s a shame, really, that Voltaire and Europe’s other such intellectual lights ever concluded that the divorce of reason from faith was necessary, but by then the Church needed a healthy dose of humbling anyway. Religion had long been in retreat in advance of Voltaire’s aggressive secularism, with many Christians having adopted the posture that their religion must change with the times like everything else, and that the Bible might be just as flexibly interpreted. Still, I find it hard to believe that an intelligent being can look around and conclude that a flower is just an angiosperm, that the sun is just an exploding star that we happen to have situated ourselves in precise relation to so that we neither roast nor freeze, that a concert violinist–or even the most mundane of mortals–came up from the mud. It seems to me that we must look at life—and its origins–with a sense of the magical and miraculous, and try to appreciate the profound limitations that our senses and sense of logic impose on our coming to grips with the ultimate, metaphysical reality of it all. We need to look beyond what our senses are telling us. I suspect, in other words, that we have been ill served and deluded by science, and that mankind may one day regard the Enlightenment and the spirit of scientific and philosophical inquiry that attended it as a necessary but misguided detour in our search for truth.

Culture/Popular Culture

Media shapes the form and character of culture by inspiring the imagination that serves as the skeletal matrix that desire and determination lend flesh and physical reality to. It works both forward into the future and backward into the past as well. The reason we study history is to learn the lessons of history from the experiences of others. In my view, it is impossible to understand anything unless one personally experiences it; experience is what makes the difference between knowledge and understanding. While we obviously cannot (in this lifetime, at least) experience the things that other generations in history have, we can come close in some cases with movies, since good acting can go a long ways toward imparting the emotional texture of the experience; emotional empathy adds an essential dimension to understanding. Film, television, and radio propagate norms of cultural behavior; we invest Hollywood darlings with our hopes and dreams, and they show us how to make them happen.


Religion


Religion/Catherine of Siena

Ever since the serpent ingratiated itself with Eve, women have been tarred as the minions of Satan and detractors from the innately virtuous nature of men. But there were few who performed so commendable a role in both the spiritual and political canon as Catherine of Siena. Catherine’s story offers an excellent case in point of how statecraft was conducted back in those days. In addition to sustaining all the usual indignities, women were made to facilitate the dark cabals of diplomacy by anchoring both political alliances and marriages between dynasties… and were made to suffer the consequences when the anchor chain broke, as it often did in the treacherous crosscurrents of court intrigues.

Religion/Hildegard

Hildegard helped Christianity rise above the gutter to accord women a prominent role in propagating the faith. To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it… and what better example of the contributions of women to civilization than Hildegard and the power of her good works and intellectual accomplishment?

Religion/Catharism

“Catharsis”—the purging and unburdening of one’s fears, troubles, anxieties, and assorted agonies owes its etymology to the Catharist movement of the twelfth century. Its adherents sought to attain spiritual purity by disavowing the trappings of the material world that was the handiwork of Satan in the guise of God, and his evil prime minister Jesus Christ. Naturally, any movement that took the focus of the faithful away from the ritual, hierarchy, and pecuniary blandishments of the Church and redirected it toward a more stripped-down spirituality was not something that could be countenanced, and the Catholic faithful responded with murderous wrath. One could be forgiven for wondering how Christianity became such a jealous and mean-spirited affair once it got into the hands of organized religion, but as Western civilization matured politically, religion itself became less a matter of spirituality and goodwill among men… and more of a naked political force.

Religion/Corruption

Relic-mongering and the hawking of indulgences were of a piece with the corruption that, by the mid-16th century, had remade the Church of Rome into a Temple of Mammon and Shrine of Venus. Predictably, when the rot became this advanced, someone—in this case, Martin Luther–was sure to come along to put the beast out of its misery. In the wake of the Reformation and the religious wars that wracked Europe, the Counter-Reformation emerged to put the church back on the straight and narrow—a tight-wire that it has always found precarious to tread.

Religion/Inquisition

One could be forgiven for wondering how Christianity became such a jealous and mean-spirited affair—with those most dreaded of practices: torture, burning at the stake, and exile—once it got into the hands of organized religion and the Inquisition. But as Western civilization matured politically, religion itself became less a matter of spirituality and goodwill among men… and more of a naked political force.

Religion/Jesuits

The Jesuits were the Church’s most ardent soldiers of the Counter-Reformation, determined to set the True Faith right by most any means short of slaughtering the infidel—a method of proselytizing that had become passé. Realizing that the light might best be made to dawn through learning, the Jesuits built schools and universities that remade the image of the Church into one of enlightenment, and—in spite of their own excesses–helped it to ultimately shed the darkness of occult superstition and intolerance that had aroused such revulsion amongst the Protestants.

Religion/Nuns

Ever since the serpent ingratiated itself with Eve, women have been tarred as the minions of Satan and detractors from the innately virtuous nature of men. Europe’s nuns helped Christianity rise above the gutter to accord women a prominent role in propagating the faith. To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it… and what better example of the contributions of women to civilization than many of these women and the power of their good works and intellectual accomplishment?

Religion/Prester John

The Lost Kingdom of Prester John is but one entry in the catalog of mutual misapprehensions that recounts the whole business of the West’s early encounters with the East–fraught as it was with legend, wild-eyed rumors, fantastic beasts, and the lore of untold riches. How odd that it’s very nearly as much so today, a thousand years on! Well and truly, I’m astonished at how little net progress we’ve made over the generations with Westerners and Asians and Muslims or anyone else coming to understand each other. It almost seems pointless, and right in line with Kipling’s ditty that “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” But we need to keep in mind, too, that everything—race and ethnicity most of all, perhaps—means something. And the whole story of America (and globalization) is our struggle to embrace our differences, and become enriched in so doing—with the alternative being that we are overwhelmed by our differences, and become impoverished in the bargain. Globalization will present enormous challenges in the years ahead, as entire industries and millions of jobs are shipped offshore to China and other low-wage economies, and as the war of terrorism widens into a war between the Haves and the Have-Nots. We’ll need all the help we can get from folks like you who will have had sufficient exposure to multiculturalism to proclaim our profound differences with the rest of the world as opportunities to grow richer, not poorer.

Society/Class Expectations

Revolution and radical socialism never had much appeal amongst the Great Unwashed of England—most would have been too busy scrambling to make ends meet in the ugly urban warrens they subsisted in to organize themselves politically. That job fell to the renegades of the middle class who became the radical democrats and helped the working class find its political voice… but only in the fullness of time. As the business interests of the bourgeoisie and upper classes grew, in time the demands voiced by the radical democrats would embrace the gospel of free enterprise and the right to make money without the usual hindrances of government. The moral of the story is that as people become wealthier, they become politically more sophisticated, demanding less interference from government and more say-so themselves in running the government, knowing that government and free enterprise are for the most part antithetical.

Power


Power/Absolutism

The practitioners of 18th-century liberalism regarded absolute democracy with the same horror that absolute monarchy held for them: the excesses of mob rule were as abhorrent to them as the excesses of the tyrant. On the other hand, they did not regard democracy and monarchy as mutually exclusive propositions; the best government would arrive, in the English fashion, at a balance between the powers of Parliament to guide domestic affairs, and the monarch who embodied the prestige of the state in the international arena. Democracy, for all its virtues, commands little respect in the steely-eyed estimation of less principled nation-states whose sole calculation in the international balance of power is how to achieve that power at the expense of others. In answering to the aspirations of such wolves, who better than a king whose caprice knows not the restraint of the committee!

Power/Anarchism

I think that any understanding of anarchism has to proceed from the premise that violence is the last resort of the truly helpless. What is it about the late 19th century, then, that gave rise to not only anarchism, but to the tectonic forces that would unleash the Great War and its sequel, World War II? The late 19th and early 20th century witnessed the zenith of those forces of monarchical state authority and the jostling for Great Power status that caused Europe to burst from its boundaries in the Great Land Grab that gave rise to colonial empires. Anarchism would have appealed to individuals who felt helpless to assert themselves against national and imperial forces of such stature, and it wouldn’t be until the end of the Second World War that democracy would offer any palliative. Meanwhile, those tectonic forces collided along the fault lines that opened up amongst the empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottomans, and when the dust finally settled, democracy flourished: only six nations were democracies at the end of the war; today, some 120 are. But is that the end of anarchism? Keep in mind that one out of four people in the world today lives on less than a dollar a day, and for many such people who occupy that most helpless of estates in life, terrorism holds an irresistible appeal.

Power/Vera Brittain

Clearly, women in history have been not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they at least had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its many complications (war and much more), and exert their influence in more subtle ways. Women often occupy a badly underestimated role in history, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exert on men who lend a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft may just as easily be found behind the throne as upon it. Sometimes, though, they need to come out of the woodwork—as Vera Brittain did–and kick ass, take names, and otherwise assert themselves on behalf of peace and civilization. To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it.

Power/Clara Zetkin

Clearly, women in history have been not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they at least had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its many complications (war and much more), and exert their influence in more subtle ways. Women often occupy a badly underestimated role in history, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exert on men who lend a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft may just as easily be found behind the throne as upon it. Sometimes, though, they need to come out of the woodwork—as Clara Zetkin did–and kick ass, take names, and otherwise assert themselves on behalf of peace and civilization. To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it.

Power/Imperial Philosophies

Having enslaved more than 10 million Africans and exhausted the continent’s human wealth over the previous 300 years, the Great Powers reconsidered Africa—as well as Asia and the Pacific–in the 19th century in light of its possibilities for the great colonial land-grab. Imperialism made the case for the right of the West to judge and instruct other peoples, seeing the objects of its civilizing mission as either half-breed brutes or as infantile. There was the conviction that a Great Power must either expand or shrink—there was no standing still on some happy middle ground when the race was on for international prestige. The sudden ascendancy of the steamship and the rapid expansion of world trade that it brought in its wake made it imperative to secure—by military means, most often–ports for refueling. And industry had gathered such a head of steam that domestic markets were no longer big enough to soak up its production; if new markets weren’t found, overproduction would lead to lower prices, deflation, and depression. Most of all, the quest for empire would be enacted on a world stage—where the sky was the limit–rather than revising one’s borders at the expense of one’s neighbors in an increasingly cramped Europe.

Power/Communist Manifesto

Predation—whether of one class upon another, individuals upon each other, or amongst wild animals—is an essential part of the elegant scheme of life. Yes, it’s vicious, it’s bloody, it’s unjust, and a few other things. But is human development even possible without it? After all, we grow through struggle, and in overcoming life’s myriad obstacles. At one end of the spectrum of struggle lies reward… and at the other, you’re someone else’s lunch. Marx’s vision of a communist utopia in which each gives according to his ability, and is given according to his needs, precludes the operation of incentive… and the whole dynamic of risk and reward that animates human progress.

Power/Conservatism

The ideology of the French Revolution, when hijacked and perverted by the bloodthirstiness of Jacobin radicalism and the unbridled arrogance of Napoleon, served to sour much of Europe on the idea of change. Those groups whose oxen had been gored by all of this—the aristocracy and clergy, most of all—devoted their talents to fending off further incursions of change into their domains. Aristocracy grew deeply distressed over the prospect that speculation, commerce, and manufacturing might replace inherited land—and themselves as custodians of it—as society’s primary source of big money. Much as the aristocracy was unable to conceive of democracy as other than the rule of the rabble–or how those without vested interests could possibly take the responsibilities of government seriously–the clergy were unable to imagine a state separated from church. Believing that throwing a bone to the revolutionary wolves might forestall their ravening clamor, the more enlightened conservatives pondered how the progressive thinking of the day might be manipulated and placed in service of traditional institutions such as monarchy, the church, and class. Others–the forces of reaction that reigned supreme in the command and feudal societies of Prussia, Russia, and Austria–were not quite so nice about it. Any of this foolishness over constitution government, or any challenges to church orthodoxy or the established order of class distinction in matters of justice, taxation, and voting rights, would not be brooked, and nothing less than total rejection of the ideas of American and French Revolutions could serve to turn the clock back to the Golden Age.

Power/EU

As the Thirty Years’ War and World War I demonstrate, Europe has been chronically unable to contain localized conflicts without everyone else jumping into the act–and that makes a very compelling case for a federal government such as what the EU is trying to accomplish. But how do you enable so many vastly different cultures to retain their distinctive traditions and values in the bargain? Here in America, we were at least pretty much on the same page culturally when we formed a federal government (too much so nowadays, I think), but the EU’s a very different story.

Power/EU/Legacy of Conflict

The Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, Napoleon, the revolutions of 1848, World Wars I and II: consider how often Europe has gone through the process of rearranging its borders! How is it that the states of America can live in close quarters with each other without being constantly embroiled in conflict, and the states of Europe cannot? Cultural homogeneity versus cultural contrast; we focus on what we have in common; they focus on how they differ. But is that changing with the EU? Can there ever be a United States of Europe? Should there be?

Power/EU/Relations with the US

The Europeans are forever snapping at their successful progeny, the Americans. They denounce our crass materialism, our racial strife, our belligerent foreign policy, while overlooking their own legacy of rigid social stratification, the abuses of royalty, and unending warfare amongst themselves. If the Europeans are serious about distancing themselves from America, they may have at last found the opportunity to put some real mileage between us and them; the dispute over Iraq may spell the end of multilateralism and trans-Atlantic alliance. This may actually be for the better, since the world needs a second superpower and pole of opinion. By no means is the United States immune to the foibles of imperial overstretch and overweening hubris that have been the doom of every other empire in history, and having in the Europeans both a strong countervailing voice in world opinion and a strong competitor in global markets may help us to moderate our own excesses.

Power/EU/United States of Europe

Europe has tried before to integrate itself, without any lasting success. How is it that the states of America can live in close quarters with each other without being constantly embroiled in conflict, and the states of Europe cannot? Cultural homogeneity versus cultural contrast; we focus on what we have in common (the dollar); they focus on how they differ. But is that changing with the EU? Can there ever be a United States of Europe? You’re quite right: where military and political force has failed in the past, economic incentive might produce a very different outcome now.

Power/Habsburgs

The Habsburg strategy of political marriages set the standard of romance (such as it was) amongst the High and Mighty in the Middle Ages. In most cases, love counted for little, and when a young man asked about his upcoming marriage, he was frequently reprimanded by his father and told to mind his own business! Courtship was but a curiosity, and marriage was purely a tool of alliance with another family, and was negotiated with all the flinty-eyed obsession with the bottom line that the barter of a camel for a herd of goats commanded. But that’s how statecraft was conducted back in those days. In addition to sustaining all the usual indignities, women were made to facilitate the dark cabals of diplomacy by anchoring marriages between dynasties… and were made to suffer the consequences when the anchor chain broke, as it often did in the treacherous crosscurrents of court intrigues.

Power/Adolf Hitler/Childhood

The myriad perversions and pathologies that formed Adolf Hitler’s upbringing predictably fostered a personality and worldview that thrived on hatred. Is there a better example of the critical importance of the role of love, family, and education in childhood… and of the grim consequences of failing to invest their benefits in people from an early age?

Power/Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun

Hitler was truly one twisted sister. The myriad perversions and pathologies that formed his upbringing predictably fostered a taste for kinky relationships. Geli Raubal’s suicide speaks volumes for the quality of Hitler’s love, much as Hitler would ultimately reward Eva Braun’s faithfulness with a death-pact marriage and mutual suicide. Hitler would prove no less a demon to those who, incredibly, found something to love in this monster.

Power/Adolf Hitler/Suicide

It’s tragic and terribly unfair that the monstrous crimes of Adolf Hitler evaded justice at the hands of his victims; that he may have taken his own life speaks eloquently of the cowardice of such tyrants. But irrespective of his executioner, history–and its students—must forevermore serve as his jury.

Power/Joan of Arc

The story of Joan of Arc and her dogged struggle against the English offers an excellent case in point as to why women are clearly the stronger of the sexes. Whether in love, war, or anything in between, a woman’s will will not be denied. The English stood never have stood a chance.

Power/Rosa Luxemburg

The story of Rosa Luxemburg and her struggle on behalf of socialism offers an excellent case in point as to why women are clearly the stronger of the sexes. Whether in love, war, or politics, a woman’s will will not be denied, and knowing this, someone evidently concluded that the only way to forestall Rosa’s agenda was to dump her in the canal. They may have had a point, since experience shows that those who so doggedly persist in propagating their own version of the True Faith tend to become the worst kinds of tyrants, given half a chance.

Power/Monarchs and Landlords

In turning over the peasants to the burgeoning landlord class, the monarchs of Europe benefited from the loyalties thus created… but only up to a point. The problem is that landlords, as we all know, can generally be depended upon to squeeze every last drop of blood they can from their tenant turnips. But the time comes when the turnips start to think to themselves, “why rent if I can own?” In this case, the failure of rural incomes to keep up with the rising tide of urban affluence caused farmers to migrate to the cities in search of the opportunity to establish businesses and become owners in their own right (sorry, I don’t mean to be cute). That left agricultural lands in fewer and fewer hands and created huge estates that attracted the attentions of the tax man, and left the landlords with tax bills that eventually proved ruinous. Moral of the story: money is the acid test of human relations, and when the tax man can better serve the purposes of state, old loyalties go out the window.

Power/Nationalism

In the early going, nationalism was an innocent pursuit: there was a time when it was okay to be French (!), and Germans and Englishmen weren’t half-bad either. There was room enough for everyone to be what they wanted to be. But the uproar of the 1840s seems to have soured Europeans on their neighbors, and suddenly there wasn’t room for the exercise of everyone’s national hubris. It was we versus thee (and you can well imagine on which side right and wrong reposed), and one nation’s loss became another’s gain, and the whole business became a fine excuse for war in the name of imposing one’s own enlightened point of view on one’s less fortunate neighbors. The number of nation-states continues to proliferate, especially in the wake of the Cold War. The same thing happened after World War I, when the British and the French drew their lines in the sand to create a host of new Arab nations whose borders bear no resemblance to the prevailing patterns of ethnic distribution in the Middle East. World War II created another league of new nations with the downfall of colonialism in South and Southeast Asia and Africa. What is it about war that does this? And what can we look forward to in the wake of the war in Iraq? Yet history also shows that when nationalism goes too far, some strongman will always arise as unifier, and hammer all of these tribes-with-flags into yet a new nation. And so we go, back and forth, forever re-defining ourselves geo-politically, depending on whatever political or some other sentiment holds sway. In the end, we don’t seem to make much net progress, but perhaps that isn’t what our purpose on earth is all about. Some say that we come here to grow, and pick and choose whichever stage in history best suits the story that we wish to enact for our own purposes of personal growth. Just a thought.

Power/Revolts of 1848

I’m not sure that a revolution will always fly purely on the strength of such high-minded notions as the demand for constitutional government. It may be that a revolution won’t catch fire until the ideology of the comfy liberals who dreamed up its platform is pre-empted and subsumed by more visceral interests: better pay, better living conditions, better working conditions. That, after all, is what the masses truly get worked up about, and if the ideologues are able to keep their agenda at the forefront of the momentum of the masses, they may well carry the day for all concerned. But if, as happened in case after case of the 1848 revolts, the reactionaries were able to divide the “brains” of the revolution from the “brawn” and set one against the other; the former wound up with some sop to their political sensitivities, while the latter wound up on the business end of the bayonets of the Old Order.

Power/Socialism/Origins

Radical politics has always been associated with the lunatic fringe of dreamers and rabble-rousers, and it must be admitted that the early agitators on behalf of a better way to organize industrial society didn’t help that perception. The idea of a planned, state-owned economy that restrained the excesses of capitalism in favor of providing equitably for society’s less fortunate was well-intentioned. Henri de Saint-Simon said, reasonably enough, that the state had a duty to look put for those who could not look out for themselves; and when Robert Owen, convinced that industry and human decency were not incompatible, funded the establishment of his own utopian community at New Lanark in Scotland and actually made a go of it (though later efforts in America foundered), it seemed that it might even be made to work. But when the likes of Pierre Proudhon began, in the name of socialism, to denounce private property as organized theft, it began to look like the whole ideology was destined for the rubber room. Liberals grew appalled at the prospect of hordes of wage-slaves granted equality in government, and conservatives believed the socialism misunderstood the self-centered preoccupation of human nature. In any event, poor old Karl Marx probably never intended for his name to become associated with uproar and subversion. After all, he was onto something that was either light-years ahead of his time, or ages behind it, in his understanding of something that the ancient Hawaiians knew all along, that the earth can no more be divided and owned than can the sky and the sea.

Power/Sustained Dual Revolution

The political revolutions in the United States and France paved the way for democracy and the legal equality of its citizens, and extinguished the old order of privilege and class distinctions in favor of a level field of play for any and all who had the talent and ambition to participate. It may have seemed impossible, or unlikely at best, that revolution could reconcile the rights of the working man with property rights. Typically, revolution arises against the guardians of the established order (those with property) from those who are without vested interests. The Industrial Revolution may have accomplished a revolution on behalf of both classes. On the one hand, technology empowered the factory system and brought great improvements to the organization of capital, production, and distribution. On the other hand, technology brought into being an economy of scale that made its products more affordable and accessible to the working class and facilitated a better standard of living at a lower cost. The process wasn’t necessarily even-handed or consistent, as the abuses of the factory system made clear, but in the fullness of time, a rising tide floats all boats.

Power/Triple Alliance

As the story of the Triple Alliance demonstrates, the period of decline of aging empires such as Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans, and Russia is the most dangerous time of all, for this is when an empire’s decrepitude starts to reek and attract sharks. As empires begin to come undone, fault lines open along its old borders and younger, more vigorous players contend for the pieces, which they rearrange into new alliances and empires. In fact, the Triple Alliance involved more than just three, and given the multiplicity of empires, kingdoms, nation-states, principalities, dukedoms, tribes, and ethnicities at large in Europe, the possibilities for alliances are as mind-boggling as they are toxic. How do you keep up with it without engendering endless distrust, boundless paranoia, and eternal hatreds? Such is Europe.

Power/Vienna Settlement

Try as they might, Metternich and the good old boys of Europe’s Old Order could not put Humpty-Dumpty back together again after Napoleon had pushed Europe off the wall. Too much had changed: borders had changed, kings had been removed, and constitutions promulgated. It had taken the incredible disruption caused by Napoleon to cause them to understand that this sort of calamity could only be prevented by pruning the old deadwood of absolute monarchy and unilateralism. Europe’s future borders must be framed along the outlines of certain guiding principles: governments must be sanctioned by the people; Europe’s powers must cooperate to keep the peace; nationalism and liberalism were inflammatory, and must be constrained; power must be balanced, and future Napoleons nipped in the bud. But all this was not as progressive as it seems—these dicta that were crafted by the Old Guard were intended to serve their interests, most of all. Metternich, Czar Alexander, and the Prussian king Frederick William III wasted no time in coming down like a ton of bricks on the forces of liberalism and constitutionalism in their own countries. The British, in having established a balance of power on the Continent, gained the assurance they needed to then retreat into splendid isolation, and thereafter only re-engaged Europe’s affairs when they had no other choice. In the end, all the old Humpties were put back on their thrones, and the forces of popular democracy, nationalism, liberalism, and social reform were sacrificed to an enduring peace bulwarked by the old conservatism.

Power/War/Balkans

he decline of the Ottoman Empire held forth the promise of new nationhood for the myriad seething tribes of the Balkans: Bosnia had been recently handed off from the Turks to the Austrians—which understandably irritated the Serbs, who had longed to embrace Bosnia in its own burgeoning empire. If you’ve got all that straight, then the stage is set; with the powder-keg thus primed with fuse, calamity awaited only the spark, which was struck with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the hands of a Serb nationalist. Europe rejoiced, that it might at last cast off the frustrations of a hundred years of peace, and reinvigorate the ancient animosities that had animated its aspirations from time immemorial! World War I was one of those earthquakes of history that occurs along the fault lines of fading empires—in this case, the Ottoman, British, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires. Europe’s boundaries were ripe for the re-shuffling, but more so, colonialism itself was destined for the dustbin. In the wake of World War I, Britain and France drew those infamous “lines in the sand” that created the modern nation-states of the Middle East from what had been an inchoate mass of Bedouins with Flags under the fading leadership of the Ottomans. And after a 20-year interregnum, the Great War continued (now under the rubric of World War II) with its final shakedown of colonial empires throughout Africa and South and Southeast Asia. It was a rotten state of affairs that required only the actions of a lone assassin in Sarajevo to put out of its misery. This long fuse of history continued to bind Russia to its interests in Eastern Europe, ultimately setting off the powder keg of Serbia that exploded in the conflagration of the Great War, and the echoes from that explosion continued to rankle throughout the Cold War and the recent spasm of conflict in the Balkans.

Power/War/World War I/Aircraft

Man is at his most clever and ingenious when it comes to devising ways to slaughter his fellow human creature, and the Great War witnessed the blossoming of his most sublime talent to date in this respect. Machine guns, flamethrowers, mortars, grenades, tanks, barbed wire, and poison gas made for an unprecedented dimension of misery, and the evolution of airplanes as offensive weapons took all that to a higher level (pun intended… sorry). Yet, with germs, chemicals, and plutonium now added to the mix, we have attained a new threshold of lethality that promises vastly more profound horrors to come. Is it any wonder that men have such a boundless hatred for each other? At the same time, don’t we just love it? (Lest you think I’m being facetious, consider the hew and cry for blood in the days leading up to the war: governments and citizens alike had determined that Western civilization had grown soft, and that nothing would reinvigorate things like a proper dust-up!) War: we can’t live with it, and we won’t live without it.

Power/War/Cold War/Co-Existence

The containment of the Soviet Union and its avowed determination to spread the doctrine of revolution spoke straight to the heart of America’s mortal dread of revolution. That may seem odd, given America’s own revolutionary legacy, but America has never been able to accept the fact that other societies must attain political maturity in their own ways. Democracy is inevitable in any event; while only six nations were democracies by the end of World War II, now more than 120 are, and as the world becomes ever more interconnected and its people more wealthy, better educated, and more sophisticated, they will demand nothing less than the right to self-determination and fulfillment. Containment was the byword of the Cold War, and America bottled up its own civil liberties and civic culture in much the same way that we did the Soviets. McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia contained America’s conscience and voice of protest as effectively as any tyrant. The containment ethic of the Cold War applied as well to containing women in the home. Kids grow up, and the prospect of living out the rest of their lives in the sterile context of suburbia must have caused countless women to despair. The absurd preoccupation of America’s foreign policy with the specter of a monolithic international communist conspiracy led us into the lethal quagmire of Vietnam and into myriad Third World intrigues and entanglements that we reap the consequences of even today. It all begs the question of whether the Cold War, as glacial as it was, wasn’t a pyrrhic victory after all.

Power/War/Cold War/Détente

Containment was the byword of the Cold War, and America bottled up its own civil liberties and civic culture in much the same way that we did the Soviets. McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia contained America’s conscience and voice of protest as effectively as any tyrant. The containment ethic of the Cold War applied as well to containing women in the home. Kids grow up, and the prospect of living out the rest of their lives in the sterile context of suburbia must have caused countless women to despair. The absurd preoccupation of America’s foreign policy with the specter of a monolithic international communist conspiracy led us into the lethal quagmire of Vietnam and into myriad Third World intrigues and entanglements that we reap the consequences of even today. It all begs the question of whether the Cold War, as glacial as it was, wasn’t a pyrrhic victory after all. The absurd preoccupation of America’s foreign policy with the specter of a monolithic international communist conspiracy led us into the lethal quagmire of Vietnam and into myriad Third World intrigues and entanglements that we reap the consequences of even today. It all begs the question of whether the Cold War, as glacial as it was, wasn’t a pyrrhic victory after all.

Power/War/Crimean War

The Crimean War stemmed from Russia’s long-standing need to secure warm-water ports for an otherwise hopelessly frozen and landlocked nation that desperately wanted to participate in and be regarded as a ranking power in the Western community. Peter the Great waged a bitter war to secure his toehold on the Baltic where he built St. Petersburg, Russia’s “Window on the West.” The Russian push across Siberia was largely motivated by the prospect of ice-free ports on the Pacific. And the dust-up over Crimea devolved in large part from the Ottomans’ stranglehold on the Black Sea and its outlet to the Mediterranean. This long fuse of history continued to bind Russia to its interests in Eastern Europe, ultimately setting off the powder keg of Serbia that exploded in the conflagration of the Great War, and the echoes from that explosion continued to rankle throughout the Cold War and the recent spasm of conflict in the Balkans.

Power/War/Hundred Years’ War

The Hundred Years’ War helped engender certain of Western civilization’s most enduring institutions: the rise of nation-states and the standing armies that are needed to sustain them, for example. But God willing, nation-states may someday give way to a global community, and their armies retired in favor of a global police force. But will the enmity between the British and the French ever change? One might as well expect lions to lie down with lambs, and cats to cavort with rats!

Power/Women

In politics, talent seems to count for nothing against character… and that’s especially true for women in power. With women like Maria Theresa, Christina of Sweden, and Elizabeth, it was most of all their strength of character that enabled them to contend with (and ultimately rise above) the constant court intrigues that were hatched by men of little character who resented a woman being in power.

Economy


Economy/Agricultural Revolution

Once again, it was freeing up the individual to do his own thing that paved the way for farming to become a paying proposition, just like industry. The concept of private property ownership–rather than farming communal village lands–lay at the heart of it, allowing owners to fence off their own land and farm as they saw fit. That meant the freedom to grow new crops that the market wanted and was willing to pay good money for, instead of growing what the village demanded for its subsistence. And the more the farmer thought about making money instead of just subsisting, the more he got interested in better ideas: using manure as fertilizer; rotating between root and seed crops; using hybrid seeds; draining their land properly. Lo and behold, it wasn’t long before farmers were starting to sound just like any other smokestack capitalist, going on about reduced unit costs, increased volume, and such, which ultimately meant more food to support cities and their diversity of trades and industry. The economic pyramid of civilization rests on the base of agriculture which, in the final analysis, is a creature of the same incentives and market forces that govern those industries that occupy the highest echelons of that pyramid.

Economy/Agricultural Revolution/Crop Rotation

The Roman innovation of crop rotation was one of the first big steps that would take farming from a subsistence proposition to a paying one. Ultimately, it came down to freeing up the individual to do his own thing in farming that would enable that to happen, just as it had in industry. The enormous investment of labor in clearing, caring for, and cultivating the land would make private property ownership–rather than farming communal village lands–imperative, allowing owners to fence off their own land and farm as they saw fit. That meant the freedom to grow new crops that the market wanted and was willing to pay good money for, instead of growing what the village demanded for its subsistence. And the more the farmer thought about making money instead of just subsisting, the more he got interested in better ideas: using manure as fertilizer; rotating between root and seed crops; using hybrid seeds; draining their land properly. Lo and behold, it wasn’t long before farmers were starting to sound just like any other smokestack capitalist, going on about reduced unit costs, increased volume, and such, which ultimately meant more food to support cities and their diversity of trades and industry. The economic pyramid of civilization rests on the base of agriculture which, in the final analysis, is a creature of the same incentives and market forces that govern those industries that occupy the highest echelons of that pyramid.

Economy/Employment and Lifestyle Choices

As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the rich will always be different from me and thee, although it’s true that money, rather than noble birth, became the common denominator among the aristocracy. In fact, now that the money-making culture of free trade and laissez-faire economics took hold, money offered more and more ordinary folks a path of upward social mobility: bourgeoisie pined to become capitalists, shopkeepers pined to become bourgeoisie, and rank-and-file workers may have pined to have their own shop to keep. As for lifestyle? For most folks, employment and lifestyle were—and still are—pretty much one and the same.

Economy/Keynesianism

Keynesian economics put paid to the notion that that government which governs least governs best. While capitalism has proved to be remarkably fertile ground for economic growth, it does little to cushion society against the inevitable bumps and busts of the business cycle. When the going gets tough, the government must serve as pump primer of last resort, proving that there are indeed some problems that will go away if you throw money at them!

Economy/Post-World War II Recovery

How quickly they forget! The Europeans are forever snapping at their successful progeny, the Americans. They denounce our crass materialism, our racial strife, our belligerent foreign policy, while overlooking their own legacy of rigid social stratification, the abuses of royalty, and unending warfare amongst themselves. If the Europeans are serious about distancing themselves from America, they may have at last found the opportunity to put some real mileage between us and them; the dispute over Iraq may spell the end of multilateralism and trans-Atlantic alliance. This may actually be for the better, since the world needs a second superpower and pole of opinion. By no means is the United States immune to the foibles of imperial overstretch and overweening hubris that have been the doom of every other empire in history, and having in the Europeans both a strong countervailing voice in world opinion and a strong competitor in global markets may help us to moderate our own excesses.


Austria

Power/Anne of Austria

Women often occupy a badly underestimated role in history, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exert on men who lend a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were. Whether with respect to Anne of Austria’s relationship with Cardinal Mazarin, or Nancy’s with Ronald Reagan, there are countless such cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft may just as easily be found behind the throne as upon it.

Power/Joseph II

In his attempts to mitigate the worst excesses of feudalism, religious pigheadedness, and man’s inhumanity to man, Joseph was a man way ahead of his time, and it’s no surprise that most of his reforms didn’t stick to the wall. Poor fellow, he just didn’t get it: Planet Earth is supposed to be this way. We come here to grow, and in overcoming the innumerable obstacles and challenges that are placed in our way, we grow best of all.

Power/Maria Theresa

Maria Theresa also provides us with a good example of the kind of moxie that women need in order to fend off the constant court intrigues that arise from men who resent a woman being in power. Look at Elizabeth, Indira Gandhi, Catherine the Great, Maggie Thatcher, and others–same story. One wonder, would Hillary also find it necessary to expend so much of her energy on dealing with complications of the male ego?

Power/Balkans

The fractious politics of the Balkans have required a constant demonstration of epic cruelty in order to keep what passes for government from disintegrating into hopeless anarchy. The same observation can be made of Saddam Hussein, who fashioned himself after the legendary (and legendarily cruel) Assyrian kings whose heartless oppression must have seemed the only way to keep Mesopotamia’s many fractious minorities from upending the ever-perilous political order.

England


Culture/Golden Age of Theatre

Much as Rome had in its imperial heyday and Italy had during the Renaissance, England under Elizabeth became a Mecca for the arts. There’s a certain critical mass that kicks in as society brings forth its highest and best talents to lend further glory to a state that’s already wallowing in the stuff. The health of the arts is one of the most telling of indicators of a society’s strength, since the creative liberties that probe the limits of artistic license are possible only in a society that is strong enough to regard them as healthy, rather than as a threat to an insecure and imperiled social order.

Culture/Beowulf

Beowulf surely inhabited a kinder and gentler era when such monsters as Grendel were conspicuous for their bad behavior. These days, though, that sort of thing would hardly raise an eyebrow in the rum company of England’s lager louts; in fact, they’d probably have old Grendel belly up to the bar and pull him a pint!

Culture/Shakespeare

The work of William Shakespeare provides an excellent example of the maxim that “the medium is the message”, since much of its enduring appeal lies in the craft and structure of its language. What’s more, it portrays the nuances and pathos of human psychology in ways that cause us to understand that the most consistent thing thro0ughout time human nature—a history lesson of the first order in and of itself.

Power/Poor Law

The treatment of the poor in pre-modern times provides us with useful insight into the predatory nature of unbridled capitalism. The free market economy, if left completely unregulated, will stop at nothing to ensure that the bottom line is well populated with profits. After all, it’s a life-or-death proposition: profit is the lifeblood of a business, and without it, it dies, and with it dies both the means of modern human existence and human dignity itself. If people fall through the cracks in the bargain and cannot fend for themselves, then it must be left to the state to provide. Capitalism must be leavened with regulation, for while it’s true that we cannot survive without business, it’s also true that we wouldn’t want to live the kind of life which an economy that is guided strictly by the profit motive would leave us with.

Economy/Sheffield Steel

The invention of steel was surely a revolution in and of itself, but I’m convinced that the greatest value added comes with incremental improvements—what Huntsman did for artisan steelmaking; what the Bessemer process did for industrial steelmaking; what Henry Ford did for the factory; what the Japanese did for consumer electronics and the automobile; what the next breakthrough in broadband will do for virtuality. It seems that the revolution just begins with the first generation.

Power/World War II

England’s victory in the Second World War left it bled white, prostrate, and gasping for air. Unable to pay for its empire, and barely able to feed and shelter its own citizens, the British lion had lost its teeth, and could do little more than whimper as the torch of world leadership was passed to the United States. It’s worthwhile keeping in mind that but thirty years before, there was a time when the sun had never set up the British Empire–fabulously rich and the all-powerful master of its dominions far and wide. Will war be the undoing of the United States as it was with Great Britain? Unlikely, I think. But with the United States in debt to the tune of $38 trillion (that’s $125,000 for every man, woman, and child) and spending money like a junkie paying for his habit with checks that he knows will never be cashed, the dollar that made us strong may prove to be a double-edged sword, and the tattered condition of England’s economy in the wake of the Second World War should give us pause for thought.

Power/Comparison with France

As a theory, absolutism seemed a grand notion indeed: God Himself had blessed the ruler with his right to rule, along with the authority to make laws, levy taxes, administer the heavy hand of justice, lord it over the bureaucracy, and make or break foreign policy. And would God Himself have not smilingly approved of how the Sun King exercised this mandate in spreading French culture and civilization throughout the courts and upper crust of Europe, and wielding order through war and French diplomacy (often one and the same). As you might imagine, however, the reality was somewhat at odds with the theory. Not even the Sun King could penetrate France’s bewildering system of overlapping authority: its regional courts, and local Estates, whereupon the nobles continued to be a law unto themselves. Only by engaging the nobility in the glittering whirl of Versailles—and its petty intrigues and poisonous jealousies in pursuit of the king’s favor–could Louis induce the nobility to tow the line. And only by bribing his ministers could he gain control over foreign policy, war and peace, the assertion of secular power against religious authority, and the ability to levy taxes. Louis’ lust for glory led mostly to war, and the costs of war-making outstripped the revenues of the state and debt spiraled out of control. Much as night follows day (and the King whose glory illuminated it), the demise of the Sun King left France impoverished and surrounded by enemies, and her people disillusioned. In England, The Glorious Revolution was a good beginning towards democracy as we understand it today, even if it didn’t perfect that process by extending civil liberties to the individual. With one of its keystones being the restraint of the right of the ruler to make war without the consent of parliament, one wonders how it is that we Americans, who supposedly perfected democracy, arrived at the point where the ruler can make war without the consent of the governed; after all, the majority of Americans feel that they have not been given a satisfactory explanation of why we needed to go to war against Iraq.

Power/Anglo-French Entente

The very notion that England’s timeless animosity with France might be put paid to with an accord such as the Anglo-French Entente was grounds, I’m sure, for some to question whether the sun might be made to rise in the west, or lambs to lie down with lions, or cats to make up with dogs! We in the modern day should derive some comfort from the realization that if that much can be accomplished, what’s to prevent the West from making up with the Muslim world some day… even after all the ugliness that’s transpired?

Religion/Tomas Becket

Tomas Becket set a precedent for the independence of the church from the crown that Sir Thomas More would have reflected on in his decision to defy the demands of Henry VIII for churchly sanction of his divorce. In both cases, heads rolled, but the whole business eventually led to the Puritans taking flight for the New World and founding a society that would consecrate itself to the tradition of questioning authority–a most ironic outcome of an issue that (in Henry VIII’s case) originally devolved around the perpetuation of authority!

Power/Bloody Mary

In its origins, Christianity drew no lines of distinction–everyone was welcome, and amidst the general gloom and hopelessness that besieged the ordinary mortal, it held out the promise of a better life to come. Here on earth, meanwhile, to be a Christian was to be part of a community of kindred souls to assist and be assisted by, and its appeal to idealism rose above the usual mundane clamor for wealth and power. One could be forgiven for wondering, then, how Christianity became such a jealous and mean-spirited affair—punishing those who differed with the utmost cruelty by burning them at the stake—once it got into the hands of self-annointed guardians of the faith like Henry VIII and “Bloody Mary.” But as Western civilization matured politically, religion itself became less a matter of spirituality and goodwill among men… and more of a naked political force.

Power/Winston Churchill

The story of Winston Churchill sums up those indispensable elements of leadership that defines the role of the individual in history: vision, inspiration, genius, and charisma. Most of all, his political career and his defiance of the dire Nazi threat embodied the truism that those who will not be defeated cannot be defeated. In part because of the countless compromises—large and small–that are implicit in group-think, leadership can never be a product of a committee—any more than a committee can paint, sculpt, compose, or write a masterpiece.

Power/Edward I

Those stalwart souls who spread the English creed far and wide throughout its global domain would have been cut from the same jib as old Edward I—slashing on the one hand at fractious Scots and other such barbarians… while paving the way for parliamentary law, property rights, trade, high finance, and even the odd castle. It’s that odd mix of English hubris and passion for civilization that has carried the day for the English from medieval times on through the heyday of empire.

Power/Elizabeth I

I suppose that, with respect to the many court intrigues that attended the suit for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, one moral of story might be that if you’re going to jilt your lover, let it not be the Queen of England; the repose of the Spanish Armada–and the glory of his Catholic Majesty King Philip II of Spain–at the bottom of the Bay of Biscayne offers mute but compelling testament to that. Knowing what we do of Elizabeth’s dismal dental hygiene, her suppurating ulcer, her disdain for bathing, and her partiality for lead-and-vinegar face paint, is it any wonder that she went out as England’s Virgin Queen?

Power/Geopolitical Dominance

With the passing of its empire after World War II, England had become a toothless old lion—the object of ridicule for the senility of its paramount political institution: the Royal Family. The consequences of royal in-breeding are patently obvious with the British monarchy, and I suspect they could go a ways toward explaining the progressive “cognitive diminishment” of the Bush political dynasty as well. 🙂

Power/William Gladstone

What has happened to the Western tradition of liberalism and compassion, so eloquently exemplified by the reforms spearheaded by Prime Minister Gladstone to abolish slavery and ameliorate the oppression and misery in Ireland? History has a long fuse, and indifference to human suffering has a nasty habit of blowing up in our faces (consider the U.S. Civil War and the Troubles in Northern Ireland—consequences of social ills that Mr. Gladstone had tried to resolve). But having forgotten all that, what will we be ultimately made to learn from our ill-advised policies in the Middle East, and from our indifference to the victims of Katrina?

Power/Glorious Revolution

The Glorious Revolution was a good beginning towards democracy as we understand it today, even if it didn’t perfect that process by extending civil liberties to the individual. With one of its keystones being the restraint of the right of the ruler to make war without the consent of parliament, one wonders how it is that we Americans, who supposedly perfected democracy, arrived at the point where the ruler can make war without the consent of the governed.

Power/Henry II

Who would have imagined that there was once a time when the English and French could have co-existed under one political roof? As the man who brought it off, Henry II might well have crowned himself Miracle-Worker as well as monarch!

Power/Henry III

It wasn’t enough for Henry III to have set the precedent for England’s timeless animosity with France; having sold out to France by relinquishing his claims to all French territories previously held by the English monarchy and declaring himself a vassal of the French king, Henry paved the way for the Hundred Years War and much more. Not content with that, Henry went on to establish the long tradition of conflict between king and Parliament that would not be resolved until the Glorious Revolution some 400 years later. That’s a fair-sized hornet’s nest that old Henry stirred up… and I doubt whether even George W. Bush, whom some would say is the most prodigious one-man wrecking crew that this nation has ever installed in the White House, could hope to accomplish nearly as much.

Power/Henry VIII

Henry VIII is an excellent case in point of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Imagine: as a result of Henry’s frustrated imperative to produce a male heir, England renounced the Church, which gave rise to a new orthodoxy that produced the usual predictable excesses, which in turn led to the Puritans taking flight for the New World and founding a society that would consecrate itself to the tradition of questioning authority–a most ironic outcome of an issue that originally devolved around the perpetuation of authority. He was also a good example of the perils and caprices of monarchy–an absolutely absurd form of government. But I must say, I have my doubts about a government such as ours that’s comprised to a very great extent of politicians that are bought and owned outright by big corporate donors. The present-day political process in America cannot proceed without being lubricated by huge sums of money; if this be representative government, whom do our leaders represent? Might we, for example, improve upon democracy by requiring that voters demonstrate an understanding of current affairs and the lessons and implications of history?

Power/Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn would have been proud of what she gave her head for. Henry VIII is an excellent case in point of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Imagine: as a result of Henry’s frustrated imperative to produce a male heir, England renounced the Church, which gave rise to a new orthodoxy that produced the usual predictable excesses, which in turn led to the Puritans taking flight for the New World and founding a society that would consecrate itself to the tradition of questioning authority–a most ironic outcome of an issue that originally devolved around the perpetuation of authority!

Power/James I

The seed of greed sown by James I germinated and developed into a vile growth whose fruit ultimately dropped in the form of Charles I’s head. But the outcome wasn’t all bad, since without all the bad blood with Parliament, England would never have had its own Glorious Revolution, which effectively put the king out of the business of government.

Power/Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas would have been proud of what he gave his head for. Henry VIII is an excellent case in point of the Law of Unintended Consequences: as a result of Henry’s frustrated imperative to produce a male heir (and of Sir Thomas’ refusal to condone his divorce), England renounced the Church, which gave rise to an new orthodoxy that produced the usual predictable excesses, which in turn led to the Puritans taking flight for the New World and founding a society that would consecrate itself to the tradition of questioning authority–a most ironic outcome of an issue that originally devolved around the perpetuation of authority!

Power/Levelers

It often takes war (whether civil or conventional) to jar society out of its complacency and let flow the creative juices that produce needed reforms or other breakthroughs in social consciousness. As with the Levelers and the English Civil War, consider how the Vietnam War served as the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement and social turmoil of the 60s and early 70s here in America.

Power/King Alfred the Great

Scratch a man and you’ll find a beast. Given his prepossession with kicking ass and taking names, King Alfred could have role-modeled for Hagar the Horrible. But such were the times, and Alfred’s career reminds us that civilization is a luxury and but a fragile veneer on the brutish bedrock of human nature.

Power/Magna Carta

The flexibility that was built into the Magna Carta reminds me of the genius of the Constitution–being not so much in what the document itself says, but in many checks and balances that were articulated in the Bill of Rights and which were built into design of the government itself. If any one document were left to stand by itself, it would not stand the test of time. The Truth is forever in flux, and changes with the times; hence the provision for a Judiciary that is independent from the Executive and Legislative branches allows the Supreme Court to interpret the statutory Truth in light of the times. All of this accords with the particular genius that we Americans (and our early British forebears) had of making abstraction conform to the practical exigencies of life as we live it.

Power/Mary, Queen of Scots

In its origins, Christianity drew no lines of distinction–everyone was welcome, and amidst the general gloom and hopelessness that besieged the ordinary mortal, it held out the promise of a better life to come. Here on earth, meanwhile, to be a Christian was to be part of a community of kindred souls to assist and be assisted by, and its appeal to idealism rose above the usual mundane clamor for wealth and power. One could be forgiven for wondering, then, how Christianity became such a jealous and mean-spirited affair—punishing those who differed with the utmost cruelty by burning them at the stake—once it got into the hands of self-annointed guardians of the faith like “Bloody Mary.” As you might expect, though, it was the benign (and politically naive) head of her niece Mary, Queen of Scots that rolled beneath the executioner’s axe, while evil Aunt Bloody passed away peacefully in bed. Well, nothing’s fair in love or war (or politics, which is war in a three-piece suit rather than a uniform), and as Western civilization matured politically, religion itself became less a matter of spirituality and goodwill among men… and more of a naked political force.

Power/Norman Conquest

Much of the groundwork for modern constitutional government was laid long, long ago by the Norman Conquest. The flexibility that was built into the Magna Carta, as well as the constraints on royal whimsy that were enacted with the Ordinances of 1311, remind me of the genius of the Constitution–being not so much in what the document itself says, but in many checks and balances that were articulated in the Bill of Rights and which were built into design of the government itself. If any one document were left to stand by itself, it would not stand the test of time. The Truth is forever in flux, and changes with the times; hence the provision for a Judiciary that is independent from the Executive and Legislative branches allows the Supreme Court to interpret the statutory Truth in light of the times. All of this accords with the particular genius that we Americans (and our early British forebears) had of making abstraction conform to the practical exigencies of life as we live it.

Power/Ordinances of 1311

Much of the groundwork for modern constitutional government was laid long, long ago. The flexibility that was built into the Magna Carta, as well as the constraints on royal whimsy that were enacted with the Ordinances of 1311, remind me of the genius of the Constitution–being not so much in what the document itself says, but in many checks and balances that were articulated in the Bill of Rights and which were built into design of the government itself. If any one document were left to stand by itself, it would not stand the test of time. The Truth is forever in flux, and changes with the times; hence the provision for a Judiciary that is independent from the Executive and Legislative branches allows the Supreme Court to interpret the statutory Truth in light of the times. All of this accords with the particular genius that we Americans (and our early British forebears) had of making abstraction conform to the practical exigencies of life as we live it.

Power/Parliament/Origins

Much of the groundwork for modern English (and American) constitutional government was laid long, long ago. The concepts that formed the framework of representative government and common law–as well as the constraints on royal whimsy that were enacted–remind me of the genius of the Constitution–being not so much in what the document itself says, but in many checks and balances that were articulated in the Bill of Rights and which were built into design of the government itself. If any one document were left to stand by itself, it would not stand the test of time. The Truth is forever in flux, and changes with the times; hence the provision for a Judiciary that is independent from the Executive and Legislative branches allows the Supreme Court to interpret the statutory Truth in light of the times. All of this accords with the particular genius that we Americans (and our early British forebears) had of making abstraction conform to the practical exigencies of life as we live it.

Power/Parliament and Monarchy

The era that led up to the Glorious Revolution left England in a halfway house that prevented absolutism without launching a constitutional monarchy. The King chose his ministers, and took advantage the squabbling among the upper crust by strategically dispensing his royal favor, and of the inconsistencies of representation that poked holes in the House of Commons. But as Enlightenment thinking spread, the common man clamored for reform of these abuses. The struggle between king and Parliament grew ugly as religious animosity reared its ugly head, the assumption of the even uglier Oliver Cromwell to power, and the subsequent loss of the king’s own unlovely head. What came out in the wash? Cromwell’s harsh repression of the Irish ensured their eternal hatred, England’s threatened relapse into Catholicism caused William and Mary to ride from across the Channel to the rescue of Parliament and the Anglican Church, and their Bill of Rights settled the hash over Parliament’s say-so over what… paving the way for constitutional monarchy by the end of 17th century. The Glorious Revolution was a good beginning towards democracy as we understand it today, even if it didn’t perfect that process by extending civil liberties to the individual. With one of its keystones being the restraint of the right of the ruler to make war without the consent of parliament, one wonders how it is that we Americans, who supposedly perfected democracy, arrived at the point where the ruler can make war without the consent of the governed; after all, the majority of Americans felt that they had not been given a satisfactory explanation of why we needed to go to war against Iraq.

Power/Queen Victoria

The funeral of Queen Victoria and–a hundred years later–that of Princess Diana served as bookends of an era that began with the apex of a British Empire whose sun never set on its far-flung dominions… and the greatly reduced circumstances occupied by not-so-Great Britain at the end of the 20th century. Rome endured for two thousand years, Britannia for two hundred. With everything on the fast track these days, even empires that seem unassailable can be here today and gone tomorrow.

Power/Royal Family

England’s Royal Family survives as a quaint anachronism that, with all their follies and foibles, should remind us of the virtues of modern representative government in an era when we badly need reminding. Dynastic government ensures that the passions and sins of the father will be visited upon the son, as have those of George Herbert Walker Bush upon Bush the Younger. (In fact, it could be credibly argued that our entire misadventure in Iraq is an outgrowth of W’s determination to avenge Saddam Hussein’s failed attempt to assassinate Bush Senior.) This sort of thing might be fine for mob vendettas, but it’s supremely ill suited to modern democratic government. Fooled once, shame on you; fooled twice, shame on me. In a democracy, people deserve the government they get.

Power/Scotland

It amazes me that England has avoided descending into political schizophrenia and anarchy—what with James VI proclaiming himself King of Great Britain, France and Ireland; the Hundred Years’ War over English dominion in France; her installation of the Dutch nobleman William of Orange that sealed the Glorious Revolution; and a steady parade of stuffed shirts from Germany brought in to preside over the monarchy. England’s Royal Family survives as a quaint anachronism that, with all their follies and foibles, should remind us of the virtues of modern representative government in an era when we badly need reminding. Dynastic government ensures that the passions and sins of the father will be visited upon the son, as have those of George Herbert Walker Bush upon Bush the Younger. (In fact, it could be credibly argued that our entire misadventure in Iraq is an outgrowth of W’s determination to avenge Saddam Hussein’s failed attempt to assassinate Bush Senior.) This sort of thing might be fine for mob vendettas, but it’s supremely ill suited to modern democratic government. Fooled once, shame on you; fooled twice, shame on me. In a democracy, people deserve the government they get.

Power/Abolition of Slavery

Thomas Buxton’s experience in bumping up against England’s vested interests in trying to abolish his country’s participation in the slave trade provided a pretty good case in point as to why the economy requires a balance between the profit motive and social responsibility. The discovery that sugar would grow prolifically in the New World changed England’s relatively modest dalliance in human trafficking in West Africa into a slaving empire, with English ships carrying some 60% of slave traffic at the peak of the whole sordid business. The world’s sweet tooth would prove to be a venomous fang indeed for the fatcats whose profits grew bloated on the blood, sweat, and tears of the 15 million or so Africans that were enslaved to their interests.

Power/War of Jenkins’ Ear

There is a fundamental moral law in the universe that has to do with balance (and perhaps it’s the same law that governs the rise and fall of empires): which is to say, what goes around comes around, and in this case, the bullion that the Spanish plundered from the New World and sent ‘round to Mother Spain sparked an inflationary spiral that contributed greatly to the eventual demise of Spain’s empire and exacerbated other factors of decay: archaic technology; corruption and government inefficiency, a weak commercial class; an oppressed peasantry; a decadent nobility; and an oversupply of priests. The British and the French would meet with the same consequences of imperial overstretch in the New World–and the same come-uppance–and while periodic dust-ups along the way (whether with the War of Jenkins’ Ear or the American and Latin American Revolutions) served to either hasten or hinder the demise of the empire, the end result was no less inevitable.

Power/War of the Roses

The War of the Roses anticipated the modern-day Hatfields and McCoys… and every other inter-generational brouhaha in the meantime. Dynastic government ensures that the passions and sins of the father will be visited upon the son, as have those of George Herbert Walker Bush upon Bush the Younger. (In fact, it could be credibly argued that our entire misadventure in Iraq is an outgrowth of W’s determination to avenge Saddam Hussein’s failed attempt to assassinate Bush Senior.) This sort of thing might be fine for mob vendettas, but it’s supremely ill suited to modern democratic government. Fooled once, shame on you; fooled twice, shame on me. People deserve the government they get.

Power/William of Orange

I find it altogether absurd that the English got themselves into the habit of importing monarchs from elsewhere in Europe to run their affairs. William and Mary no paragons of virtue either–they set a wonderful precedent for their rule by requiring the expenditure of the modern-day equivalent of some $15 million to ferry their royal persons from Holland. But perhaps this was all for the best, since their profligacy seems to have prompted Parliament to seize the reigns of fiscal prerogative.

Power/William the Conqueror

If only the fatcats of England hadn’t resisted, William the Conqueror might not have had an excuse to take their lands and parcel them out to his own camp followers. Then again, he probably would have done it anyway—it’s just that politicians are forever looking for a fig leaf, however flimsy, to cover up their tumescent designs on other people’s stuff.

Religion/John Wesley

John Wesley’s vision of Methodism facilitated his flock’s liberation from the clutches of organized religion and their awakening to the sweet spirituality of an intimate personal relationship with God. It was a vision meant for the humblest of folks, recognizing that their immortal souls were worth no less than those of the Anglican upper crust, and it offered an emotional and mystical dimension to worship that transcended the class barriers that the Anglican Church had interposed in man’s relationship with his Maker. In so doing, Wesleyanism sought to return to the founding spirit and universality of Christianity, where everyone was welcome. To be a Christian—and a Wesleyan–was to be part of a community of kindred souls to assist and be assisted by, and its appeal to idealism rose above the usual mundane clamor for wealth and power. One could be forgiven for wondering how values such as these came to serve the purposes of statecraft, but altogether too often, the name and blessings of God are invoked to lend sanction to the most base, cynically political, and ungodly of causes.

Power/Annie Besant

The late 19th century offered fertile ground for reformers like Annie Besant, as the late Industrial Revolution would awaken women to the opportunities to participate in the wage economy as well as appall them with its abuses. The Match Girls surprised everyone: to think that a group of helpless and harmless women–happy to have whatever scraps their masters tossed their way–might empower themselves to resist such abuses must have turned more than a few hirsute heads. There’s something about the human animal that loves to add insult to injury: it’s bad enough that those who occupy the lowest rung on the economic ladder are the worst paid, but ain’t it so that they’re also the worst treated? If it’s true that diminished expectations invite diminished rewards, then the moral of the story is clear: learn more and become more aware of the possibilities, so that you will expect more… and get it.

Power/Bobbies

The idea of a constable armed only with a nightstick would strike most Americans as both quaint and absurd. I saw Michael Moore’s film “Bowling for Columbine”, and it occurs to me that crime is largely a matter of what society expects. Canada has a far greater rate of gun ownership than America, and its people partake of the same diet of Hollywood violence that we do. Yet nobody locks their doors in Toronto, and the city of Windsor (a stone’s throw across the river from Detroit) had all of one murder in the last ten years. If you get what you expect, then we Americans, who have cut our teeth on a steady diet of mayhem from the annihilation of the American Indian through the horrors of Vietnam and Iraq, have especially good reason to expect that what goes around comes around.

Culture/Domesday Book

What better way to gain an understanding of a society than to take stock of its stuff? The Domesday Book offers a treasure trove of insight to cultural anthropologists, much as would the ash pits of Stone Age man and the landfills of modern man.

Culture/Oxford University

The Oxford Way stands for so much that we hyper-kinetic Americans miss out on. A university education should provide the learner with more than knowledge; it should immerse the learner in the timeless wisdom, tradition, and culture that gives life its moorings and bearings. Without that, we’re little better than pinballs, bouncing off the bumpers as we jolt along, chiming a few gongs and lighting up a few flashes as we go. Without the perspective of wisdom, where is there any permanence, anything to hang your hat on in life? Slow down… there’s no such thing as time, as a centuries-old institution such as Oxford can well attest.

Power/Match Girls’ Strike

The Match Girls surprised everyone, didn’t they? To think that a group of women whom everyone perceived as helpless, ignorant, and happy to have whatever scraps their masters tossed their way might empower themselves to resist their maltreatment must have turned more than a few hirsute heads. There’s something about the human animal that loves to add insult to injury: it’s bad enough that they’re the worst paid, but ain’t it so that those who occupy the lowest rung on the economic ladder are also the worst treated? If it’s true that diminished expectations invite diminished rewards, then the moral of the story is clear: learn more and become more aware of the possibilities, so that you will expect more… and get it.

Society/Victorian Middle Class

While Britain’s empire did not endure, the legacy of the middle class that came of age under Queen Victoria did. Revolution and radical socialism never had much appeal amongst the Great Unwashed of England—most would have been too busy scrambling to make ends meet in the ugly urban warrens they subsisted in to organize themselves politically. That job fell to the middle class who became the radical democrats and helped the working class find its political voice… but only in the fullness of time. As the business interests of the bourgeoisie and upper classes grew, in time the demands voiced by the radical democrats would embrace the gospel of free enterprise and the right to make money without the usual hindrances of government. The moral of the story is that as people become wealthier, they become politically more sophisticated, demanding less interference from government and more say-so themselves in running the government, knowing that government and free enterprise are for the most part antithetical.

Society/Public Sanitation

In his crusade for public sanitation, Edwin Chadwick understood that government would have to foot the bill. The moneybags of the Industrial Revolution would offer no shortage of arguments to support their rigorous defense of material advantage, reasoning that the poor were poor because of their propensity to breed like flies and other moral failings. Why, if they didn’t wall off their wealth from the grasping desperation of the Great Unwashed, who knows how they might squander it… adequate food, roofs that didn’t leak, basic sanitation, education, and other such degenerate indulgences! This offers us a pretty good case in point as to why the economy requires a balance between the profit motive and social responsibility–ultimately, those who profit from the underpaid exertions of the lower class must be made to pay for the social safety net that underpins it.

Prussia


Power/Armies as Nations

Nations that become armies unto themselves (like France under Louis XIV, Prussia under Frederick the Great of Prussia, and the former Soviet Union–among many other examples) have entirely the wrong set of priorities. The military doesn’t produce anything–it only consumes, and its real purpose of course is to protect the productive and creative sectors of society. Once government gets that backwards, the inevitable result is national bankruptcy–both fiscally and morally, as Germany’s tradition of blind obedience to authority that was hatched under the Prussians and which ripened horrifically under Hitler shows.

Power/Army Without a Country

It does seem that Frederick William I developed a country in service of an army. An army such as he envisaged—Europe’s fourth largest, after France, Russia, and Austria–required a correspondingly bloated bureaucracy to administer it… along with the police, and the economic and financial affairs of the state. Prussian society, under the heavy hand of the Junker landed aristocracy, was admirably well suited to serve such an apparatus (not the other way around, mind you). After all, what did such folks as the Junkers have to do all day (besides count their coppers), if not play at war games and whatnot? Their use as officers ensured absolute loyalty to the monarchy, and the highest and best virtues of the Prussian gentleman (such as they were) were military virtues: guns and glory in the service of God and the Good King Frederick (not necessarily in that order).

Poland


Power/Partition

The King of Poland never was much of a king, beholden as he was to the nobility. They made sure that he never had enough power to threaten their position in things. With the king on a short leash and tight budget, and with but a nominal army, Poland presented a virtual invitation to invasion and dismemberment. But the table manners of the wolves proved impeccable: Austria, Russia, and Prussia restrained themselves from going to war over the Polish piece de resistance, and what’s more, they rewarded their own restraint by agreeing to peacefully dismember Poland. In the First Partition of 1772, Poland lost a third of her land and half her population; the Second Partition awarded much of the remains to Russia, and the Third Partition of 1795 threw what was left to the same three wolves. Poland has occupied that most unfortunate position in geo-politics of being situated in between several empires: Russia and Germany; it’s the same story with Korea, stuck as it is between China, Russia, and Japan, and the Balkans, at the locus of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Holy Roman, and Russian empires. Such countries themselves are relatively insignificant players on the world stage, but they have repeatedly triggered the most horrible wars. It’s these “buffer states” on the lips of empires that time and again get caught in the gnashing of teeth. Is it possible for such a country to lead an independent existence without being a client state of one of the nearby empires? Possibly… Switzerland has done pretty well at it, but remember, too, empires come and go.

Portugal


Power/Rise and Fall

Portugal’s quest in Africa for a Christian ally against the Moors explained why it got into the business of empire. The profits from the modest slave trade that ensued and the discovery of African gold whetted Portugal’s appetite for the big money that could be had from spices. As Portugal pressed on to India and the Spice Islands, it successfully fought off Arabs, Indians, and Turks for mastery of the spice trade. Not satisfied with half the world, Portugal pressed on into China and Japan with demands for trade and heathen souls. Meanwhile, the discovery that sugar would grow prolifically in the New World changed Portugal’s relatively innocent dalliance in West Africa into a slaving empire. Sugar required enormous manpower that was no longer available in the New World, thanks to the devastation wrought among indigenous peoples by the white man’s microbes… and Africa’s blacks would be made to fill the gap. Need it be said that at this point, in possession of a worldwide empire of sugar, slaving, and spices, little Portugal was over-extended? Seeing that the Portuguese had exceeded their missionary brief and meddled in politics, the shogun threw them out of Japan, and the British bumped them off of the China business at Canton. Smelling blood, the Spanish, British, and Dutch tore away at Portugal’s trade hegemony in India and the Spice Islands. As to how an impoverished, benighted, and backward country like Portugal managed to assert itself so globally… the lion’s share of the spoils so often go to those who get to market first, so to speak. And Portugal was first to market, with guns and seagoing ships, and microbes most of all. But it didn’t take long for the rest of Europe’s rising secular states to get onto the game of empire, and once they did, it was only a matter of time before the wolves were at each other’s throats, and as the history of European power politics so often shows, the lead wolf has little defense against the slavering and snapping jaws of the rest of the pack.

Culture/Science/Explorers/Dias and da Gama

Portugal’s quest in Africa for a Christian ally against the Moors explained why it got into the business of empire. The profits from the modest slave trade that ensued and the discovery of African gold whetted Portugal’s appetite for the big money that could be had from spices. The lust for the legendary lucre of the East impelled Bartholomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama to voyage into the Great Imponderable beyond the Cape of Good Hope. As Portugal pressed on to India and the Spice Islands, it successfully fought off Arabs, Indians, and Turks for mastery of the spice trade. Not satisfied with half the world, Portugal pressed on into China and Japan with demands for trade and heathen souls. Meanwhile, the discovery that sugar would grow prolifically in the New World changed Portugal’s relatively innocent dalliance in West Africa into a slaving empire. Sugar required enormous manpower that was no longer available in the New World, thanks to the devastation wrought among indigenous peoples by the white man’s microbes… and Africa’s blacks would be made to fill the gap. Need it be said that at this point, in possession of a worldwide empire of sugar, slaving, and spices, little Portugal was over-extended? Seeing that the Portuguese had exceeded their missionary brief and meddled in politics, the shogun threw them out of Japan, and the British bumped them off of the China business at Canton. Smelling blood, the Spanish, British, and Dutch tore away at Portugal’s trade hegemony in India and the Spice Islands. As to how an impoverished, benighted, and backward country like Portugal managed to assert itself so globally… the lion’s share of the spoils so often go to those who get to market first, so to speak. And Portugal was first to market, with guns and seagoing ships, and microbes most of all. But it didn’t take long for the rest of Europe’s rising secular states to get onto the game of empire, and once they did, it was only a matter of time before the wolves were at each other’s throats, and as the history of European power politics so often shows, the lead wolf has little defense against the slavering and snapping jaws of the rest of the pack.

Romania


Culture/Dracula

Vampire lore aside, Vlad the Impaler seems to have set the mold for and anticipated that of Romania’s modern-day archfiend, Nicolae Ceausescu. The fractious politics of the Balkans have required a constant demonstration of epic cruelty in order to keep what passes for government from disintegrating into hopeless anarchy. The same observation can be made of Saddam Hussein, who fashioned himself after the legendary (and legendarily cruel) Assyrian kings whose heartless oppression must have seemed the only way to keep Mesopotamia’s many fractious minorities from upending the ever-perilous political order.

Spain


Culture/Art/Francisco De Goya

While both art and photography capture the spirit of war, they do so differently. De Goya’s paintings of the Spanish uprising against the French commemorate the spirit of war and elicit its values of courage, endurance, and commitment as they do its horror and passion, and they enable the viewer to experience those most keenly felt sentiments that shaped the mindset of their era. For this, words don’t always suffice–there being things that, if explained to us, we cannot truly understand. Photography, on the other hand, grabs hold of the viewer with its realism, immediacy, and intimacy and galvanizes a reaction that might be more visceral than philosophical. With the Vietnam War, for example, it was easy to put the war out of one’s mind as long as it was relegated to the sanitized realm of armchair strategy or the evening news, as so many of American public (and the people who ran this war from Washington) were in the comfy habit of having the war served up to them. The fierce combat of the Tet Offensive, as played out on prime-time newscasts nation-wide—along with the myriad other photos and footage that made Vietnam America’s Television War–brought its ugly reality home to Americans who were at last made to understand that a war that was so far out of sight could no longer remain out of mind. The determination that was evident in the eyes of our enemy—and the indifference and futility that was to be seen in the faces of our soldiers and allies–had a way of taking hold of the viewer and shaking his conscience by its collar: their stark immediacy was such that they offered no sanctuary from our administration’s ignorant rationalizations and its word-processed, stage-managed public relations campaigns. Ultimately, the truth won out: the supreme irony of Tet was that its military victory for the United States proved to be the turning point that—in large part because of its extensive news coverage–soured American opinion on the ultimate prospects for victory in Vietnam, and broke the spine of public support for the war. With all this in mind, it seems that while both painting and photography are art, they serve their masters of politics and philosophy in very different ways.

Power/Decline

While Columbus made his voyages to the New World with financing by the throne, Spanish conquistadors like Cortes and Pizarro were privately financed. As such, there can be little doubt as to which of the Holy Trinity of “gold, God, and glory” motivated them. Entire Amerindian civilizations—whether Inca, Aztec, or North America—were felled by the Pandora’s Box of disease they brought with them. With much of the world laid low by disease, the way was clear for the Europeans to take its game of power politics onto the world stage. Seeing that power depended upon wealth which in turn depended upon trade, trade, it didn’t take long for Europe’s rising secular states—the French, the Dutch, the English–to get onto the game of empire, and once they did, it was only a matter of time before the wolves were at each other’s throats, and as the history of European power politics so often shows, the lead wolf has little defense against the slavering and snapping jaws of the rest of the pack. I suspect that the saving of heathen souls was largely an afterthought, and a sop to the troubled consciences of Europeans whose worldview was informed first of all by its lust for lucre. Rule #1 in your formulating your own understanding of life: Wherever there’s a mystery, look to the bottom line (the one with the dollar sign next to it) for the answer!

Power/Events and Individual Motives

While Columbus made his voyages to the New World with financing by the throne, Spanish conquistadors like Cortes and Pizarro were privately financed. As such, there can be little doubt as to which of the Holy Trinity of “gold, God, and glory” motivated them. Entire Amerindian civilizations—whether Inca, Aztec, or North America—were felled by the Pandora’s Box of disease they brought with them. With much of the world laid low by disease, the way was clear for the Europeans to take its game of power politics onto the world stage.

Power/Mad Monarchy

The consequences of royal in-breeding are patently obvious with the Spanish monarchy, and I suspect they could go a ways toward explaining both the antics of the British Royal Family and the progressive “cognitive diminishment” of the Bush political dynasty. 🙂

Power/Modern Parallels

Old habits—particularly those that flourished during the reign of Philip II–die hard. Many of the problems that brought Philip’s Empire down–choking on the inflationary surfeit of New World bullion; archaic technology; corruption and government inefficiency, a weak commercial class; an oppressed peasantry; a decadent nobility; and an oversupply of priests–persist into the present day. You know what they say: history is, not history was.

Power/El Cid

El Cid set the gold standard for loyalty, while at the same time rising above sectarian blood feuds to bring both Christians and Muslims together in his campaign of conquest. Both political loyalty and religious unity seem such improbably concepts these days, it’s no wonder that exploits of El Cid are the stuff of legend.

Power/War/Spanish Civil War

Many of the skeletons rattling around in the graveyard of the old Spanish Empire–corruption and government inefficiency, an oppressed peasantry and decadent nobility, and an oversupply of priests—were given a new lease on life in the Spanish Civil War. In a cauldron that seethed with both Nationalist sentiments in support of monarchy and the church and the more progressive passions of republicanism, anarchism, and Marxism–the Spanish Civil War would prove to be only the beginning of a protracted agony under Franco of Spain’s emergence into the modern world.

Power/War/World War I

Spain must have taken a cue from the United States, which realized a tremendous windfall from its neutrality (at least during the early years) and from provisioning the allies with arms, munitions, and everything else that their war-hobbled economies could no longer produce. War provides a hothouse environment for growth of all kinds, especially industry—and much as World War II awoke the United States from the torpor of the Great Depression, the First World War dragged Spain from a pastoral backwater to the threshold of industrialization.

Sweden


Power/Christina

I would agree that Christina provides us with a good example of the kind of moxie that women need in order to fend off the constant court intrigues that arise from men who resent a woman being in power. Look at Maria Theresa, Queen Elizabeth, Indira Gandhi, Catherine the Great, Maggie Thatcher, and others–same story. If elected president someday, would Hillary Clinton–like Christina– find it necessary to squander her energies on contending with complications of the male ego… including innuendo as to her sexual orientation?

Power/Christina and Elizabeth

As with Christina, Queen Elizabeth also was forced onto the throne at a tender age, and left to contend with the endless treachery of court intrigues hatched by men who resented a woman occupying a position of power. Look at Maria Theresa, Indira Gandhi, Catherine the Great, Maggie Thatcher, and others–same story. If elected president someday, would Hillary Clinton–like Christina– find it necessary to squander her energies on contending with complications of the male ego… including innuendo as to her sexual orientation?


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