Sunday, December 27, 2009

Diplomatic Complexities at Vienna

The months of negotiations between scores of diplomats representing dozens of nations at the Congress of Vienna are among the most intricate international conferences ever. Trying to form a new working relationship among the countries of Europe in the wake of the twenty-five years of chaos and bloodshed caused first by the French Revolution, and then by Napoleon, was a very challenging task. Many different issues were involved, from taxes to water rights, from agriculture to military strength. Metternich had the idea of holding this congress once peace was very probable:

Napoleon had finally been defeated and forced to abdicate on April 11, 1814, by the combined might of a Quadruple Alliance of Russia, Prussia, Britain, and Austria, with the help, finally, of most of the lesser European powers. His empire, which had at one time encompassed most of Europe, had collapsed in a rush that left physical destruction and enormous political turmoil in its wake. The political disarray was a matter not only of order among states but also of internal order within states. The French were without a ruler, until the coalition of powers who had brought down Napoleon restored the brother of Louis XVI to the French throne: Louis XVIII.


Not only France needed to re-constitute its internal government, but also a number of other nations, which had been overrun by Napoleon, and had lost their internal structure. Historian Charles Mee continues:

The aristocrats - the monarchs, the princes, and the plenipotentiaries who still held their positions after the defeat of Napoleon, or resumed them - were frightened of what the revolution had loosed. They were intent upon restoring not only order among nations but among classes. They mean to restore a concerted and collaborative aristocracy to the rule of Europe.

The treaty that ended the war included Article 22 that called for a congress to be held in Vienna, beginning October 1, 1814, to engage in a general settlement of European affairs.


These negotiations would be delicate and complex:

Since none of the powers was strong enough to impose its will on the others, the situation was ideal for the practice of diplomacy - in which the success of each negotiator would be contingent upon, among other things, the position, strength, will, perceptiveness, persuasiveness, dexterity, and deviousness of all. This was the ground for personal diplomacy that diplomats relish.


These discussions would not be a matter of straightforward simple logic and calculation, but neither would they be inflamed by passion and emotion. The formative idea for much of the congress would be the concept of balancing power among the countries of Europe. Even this would not be a simple mathematical exercise, because Metternich saw that the

idea of equilibrium was too mechanical, too focused on a balance of the external relations among nations. Metternich believed a balance of power must exist not only externally among nations but also internally among factions and classes. The external and internal equilibria buttressed each other; they could not be separated without threatening the survival of the whole society.

He believed, too, that the only acceptable outcome for the congress would be a "legitimate" settlement. By legitimate, however, Metternich meant ... a settlement in which all the powers felt they had a vested interest, and so would commit themselves to maintain the settlement out of conviction, not force. Legitimacy was what the powers would agree was legitimate.


The complexity of these situations meant that sometimes, a diplomat would need to conceal his own intentions and goals, and make it seem as if others were forcing him to do what he secretly wanted to do. The future of the kingdom of Saxony was on the table: should it remain independent, or be absorbed into other nations?

The complexities involved in these calculations can only barely be suggested. The diplomats worked with hundreds of dependent variables that changed from day to day, all of them contingent upon all the others.

At the same time, the delegates had to struggle, as Metternich understood so well, with the calculations of domestic politics. While Metternich might be prepared to sacrifice Saxony, he would have to do it with extreme care, and without anyone crying out, since his biggest political antagonists in Austria were opposed to sacrificing Saxony and might defeat his entire policy if he were to expose this one element of it prematurely.


With patience (the talks went on for months), it worked:

Finally, on October 22, Metternich allowed himself to be persuaded to agree to Prussia's possession of Saxony, but only in the event that the united front against Russia was successful.


Metternich thereby obtained Prussia's help in putting pressure on Russia. The frustratingly slow pace of the negotiations quickened, when it was learned that Napoleon was attempting to make a comeback.

Despite Napoleon's best efforts to insinuate his representatives into the negotiations at Vienna, and to divide and confuse the powers there, in fact his reappearance caused the diplomats in Vienna to unite. And just two weeks after Napoleon arrived in Paris, the duke of Wellington was in Brussels to take command of a new allied army there.


The nations were rallied to the cause of defeating Napoleon, and quickly agreed to combine their military forces. Napoleon's attempted comeback ended quickly. Re-energized and encouraged, the congress resolved many diplomatic debates quickly.

Even the tertiary issues were now promptly settled. A Swiss confederation of twenty-two cantons was formed; its neutrality, and the inviolability of its territory, was guaranteed.


The arrangements formulated in Vienna would shape Europe for the next century. Until World War One, these treaties would keep Europe largely peaceful.

What had been achieved? The Congress of Vienna confirmed the leaders of Europe in the belief that no one power could be allowed to dominate the Continent and that all powers, certainly all the major powers, must work together to preserve the peace and the status quo - seeing themselves as contingent parts of a larger balance of powers on the continent.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Hun and the Pope

In the late 440's and early 450's, Attila expanded his empire into Europe, taking over regions as far north as Denmark, as far south as Italy and Greece, and as far east as portions of Gaul. The western Roman empire, now politically distinct from the eastern, was already in decline, and ill-equipped to defend itself. Christianity had been legal for over a century, but large segments of the population clung to old polytheistic religions. Some of them blamed Christianity for weakening the empire, claiming that the presence of Christians angered the old Roman gods, and that these gods would no longer keep the empire strong. As Attila and his army progressed southward along the Italian peninsula, most of Europe wondered whether the city of Rome itself would be destroyed. In this atmosphere, a leading Christian was bold enough to schedule a meeting with the Hun king. Historian Charles L. Mee gives us the details:

When Leo the Great, the bishop of Rome, rode out of the Eternal City in the year A.D. 452 to meet Attila the Hun, Leo had no arms, no army, no armor, no bodyguards, no great retinue of ambassadors and advisers, advance men and area specialists, no makeup men and publicists, no claque of courtiers, flatterers, or other hangers-on. He went out with only a few fellow churchmen riding alongside him and a couple of lesser officials of the enfeebled and fading Roman Empire.

Attila, the man Leo went to meet, came to the encounter at the head of a large, well-armed, infamously rapacious, battle-hardened army of Huns on horseback: more than three hundred thousand of them according to some sources, men who had a reputation - at the time, if not among recent, more skeptical scholars, who regard him at a comfortable distance - for roasting pregnant women, cutting out the fetus, putting it in a dish, pour water over it, dipping their weapons into the potion, eating the flesh of children, and drinking the blood of women. They supported themselves, as they rode through the countryside, with pillage and extortion. They ate horse-meat and drank vast amounts of wine. Even the Goths were terrified, according to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, when the Hunnish cavalry swept into battle, with dazzling speed, howling and yelling, and dashing in all directions at once.


While some modern historians doubt the reports of this savage behavior, others are inclined to accept it, given similar atrocities committed in wars of the 1600's, or even by revolutionaries in the twentieth century.

The Huns, said Ammianus, were "almost glued to their horses," which was part of the secret of their success in war. And if Attila followed his usual custom, he did not dismount when he met the pope, but instead stayed on his horse, one leg thrown casually over the horse's neck, surrounded by mounted companions, ready to turn and scatter at any moment.

The two men met because Attila and his followers, having plundered the northern Italian peninsula, were on their way south, with the apparent intention of sacking the city of Rome. Leo's task was to persuade Attila not to move on down the peninsula and plunder and burn the center of Western civilization.


Sadly, we have no exact records of the discussion between Leo and Attila. Leo, speaking from a position of very little power, had to think of something to say to Attila to make the Hun king hesitate. What would make the Huns turn away from attacking Rome?

What seems most likely, astonishing as it may be, is that Leo told Attila the truth. The truth was that there was a plague raging in Rome, and that if Attila brought his soldiers there by might die of the plague. Such a warning would have struck Attila with considerable force: Alaric had died of the plague after he sacked Rome.


Alaric, king of the Visigoths, had pillaged Rome in 410 A.D., alarming Roman society. Augustine had written his famous book in response to those who said that the Roman gods had caused the Visigoths to attack Rome; the gods were allegedly angry that the Romans were allowing Christians to exist in the city, and pagans were demanding a return to the mass execution of Christians. Augustine had argued that the Visigoths would have attacked Rome regardless of the religion of the city's inhabitants. In any case, Alaric had indeed been killed by the disease shortly after conquering the city, a fact which was well-known to Attila.

To be sure, it may be that Attila had already heard of the plague from others, of as some historians have said, that his army had already been struck by the plague, and his forces were growing weaker moment by moment - and that all Leo did was to add the finishing touch.


Riding with Leo were Avienus and Trigetius, two Roman officials. Why didn't they carry out this diplomatic errand? Why bring along the leader of a religious group, a religious group viewed somewhat suspiciously by many Romans? Why not only bring him along, but why put him in charge of this task? Why not let Roman officials speak for the Roman government? Leo wasn't part of the Roman government, but he was known for his integrity. Leo was honest, and when all of Rome was terrified, concerned about whether the entire city might be destroyed, they trusted Leo. Even those who wanted the Christians executed were willing to put the fate of their nation in the hands of a Christian, because they knew that Leo's reputation for honesty would cause Attila to listen.

But why was it necessary for Leo to make this long trip just to tell Attila what Attila might already have heard from others, or Avienus or Trigetius could quite as easily have said? Perhaps because Leo was the only credible voice in the empire, the only Attila, having been lied to repeatedly by emissaries of the empire, could be counted on to believe. This is why diplomats so often insist, odd as it may seem, that truthfulness is the first among the virtues of a successful ambassador. Delivered at precisely the right moment, it can alter the course of history.

Attila turned back from Rome. He took his army and withdrew from Italy.


There are many unanswered questions about this encounter: what would have happened had Leo not gone to see Attila? How much did Attila know about the plague?

What difference did this meeting between Leo and Attila finally make? In the years that followed, not even Leo could keep the Roman Empire from final dissolution. By the end of the century, all the remnants of the empire in the west had been incorporated into Germanic kingdoms, and the great empire of antiquity was gone forever.


Leo's feat, then, was no so much about adding a few more years to life of the Roman empire, but rather about creating a foundation for a new phase of world history. Yes, he did save Rome for a while longer, but Rome was inevitably falling, and it had started falling before Leo took a leadership position among Rome's Christians. Leo created a safe zone for a new European culture, shaped by Frankish-Germanic culture and Christian spirituality, to take root, and he created this incubator by means of honest diplomacy, not by means of deception. Attila knew that, even if Leo was in some sense an enemy, Leo could be trusted.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Quick Trip from Freedom to Slavery

How can societies quickly and easily become subject to ruthless fascism and totalitarianism? How can leaders, who begin their political careers seeking to bring freedom, wind up imposing harsh absolutism on their nations? We find this over and over again: Robespierre in France, Stalin in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Mao in China, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

There is a seductive process which turns liberty into tyranny, and which even makes people think that they're doing a good thing as they gradually remove freedom from their society. How does this happen? Perhaps an example will show us: let us take toothpaste for our pattern.

We all know that we should brush our teeth several times a day. It's healthy for us, and we will benefit from this habit over the years. In a free society, however, each person will choose whether or not he will brush his teeth, how often, and when. Nobody will force him to do it, and nobody will be forced to do it.

Personal liberty means that we are free to make bad choices (not brush our teeth), and that we will be exposed to the consequences of those choices (we will then have rotten teeth). But there exists the political temptation to save people from the consequences of their bad choices, and to try to prevent them from making those bad choices in the first place. This political temptation is so seductive because it seems that we're doing something good: we're helping people. But in fact, we are harming people, because we are taking away their individual liberty.

Imagine, then, that someone makes a law, that everybody must brush his teeth three times a day: morning, noon, and night. That's a good thing, right? Because this way we are, after all, making sure that everyone has healthy habits, right? Wrong! We are limiting personal freedom, and it gets worse: because a law is useless unless we have a way to verify that people are complying with it. We must then allow the police to enter anyone's house, with no warning or notice, to inspect that person's teeth and toothbrush. Still worse: we must then have legal actions, because a law is no good unless there are measurable consequences for violating it. We will then start fining or imprisoning people who have failed to brush their teeth in the prescribed manner.

Yes, our example is silly, but observe the principle: motivated by a desire to benefit society, we have followed the slippery slope into totalitarianism, giving rights to the government instead of to the individual.

The difficult thing about freedom is this: we must allow people to make bad choices, and to suffer under the consequences of those choices. We all know it's bad to smoke cigarettes, to borrow too much money, to drink too much alcohol, or to fail to do one's homework. It would be good if everyone avoided these mistakes. But if the government forces people to avoid these mistakes, we've removed their liberty - which is ultimately worse than the consequence of those mistakes.

On the other hand, if the government tries to rescue them from the consequences of their mistakes, we again violate the principle of freedom: true liberty includes faces the all the risks of life, and occasionally falling prey to them.

Living in a truly free society isn't always pleasant: we will watch as people misuse their liberty to do unwise, unhealthy and dangerous things, and we will see them suffer the logical effects of those decisions. But if we interfere, even with good intentions, we will find that we have made the worst decision: we will have chosen to give away our freedom.

Ancient Wisdom in Tomorrow's Newspaper

The history of the world does indeed repeat itself over and over again - the same principles and questions come into play, but always in different situations, places, and times - involving different people. This "same only different" quality of history jumps out of the daily news about our world to the reader who is familiar with past civilizations. A recent article by David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, points out four fictions in the minds of voters about their elected leaders. Brooks probably doesn't realize that he has simply re-discovered political notions which would have been familiar to Zeno of Citium and Thales, to Cicero and Edmund Burke:

The first fiction was the government is a contest between truth and error. In reality, government is usually a contest between competing, unequal


schemes and plans. The concept is here that government isn't a chance to implement some ideal plan in the real world; rather government is about practical compromises. Which leads to realize that

The second fiction was that to support a policy is to make it happen. In fact, in government power is exercised through other people. It is only by coaxing, prodding, and compromise that presidents actually get anything done.


Moses and Abraham couldn't abolish the barbaric practice of human sacrifice in a single, revolutionary stroke of the pen. It took generations and decades to persuade, first their own culture, and then other civilizations, to see human life as extremely valuable. Likewise, men like William Wilberforce, Chancellor Metternich, and Abraham Lincoln worked through complex webs of politics to abolish slavery. We can't make things happen in straightforward sweeping revolution, because

The third fiction was that we can begin the world anew. In fact, all problems and policies have already been worked by a thousand hands and the clay is mostly dry. Presidents are compelled to work with the material they have before them.


We don't get a blank slate or a clean table in civil government. We are simply the latest tweak or revision on many layers of precedent and decision. We can make meaningful change, but it must be envisioned within the context of the existing culture. Any attempt to wipe the slate clean and start over with a new world leads only to chaos and bloodshed, as in the French Revolution, and simply opens the door to exploitation and dictatorship, as in the case of Napoleon.

The fourth fiction was that leaders know the path ahead. In fact, they have general goals, but the way ahead is pathless and everything is shrouded by uncertainty.


Even the most brilliant leader doesn't know the future. Humans make plans, but plans are ever subject to revision in the light of new developments or unexpected circumstances. The quality we hope to see in our leaders is not some prophetic ability to see the future, but the skill and wisdom to deal with whichever unknown and unforeseeable events and conditions are in the future. Such wisdom is not an idealistic projection, but rather the practical ability to deal with what actually is. As distasteful as it is, the truth remains that compromise is an essential ingredient in successful governing.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Politics and Human Nature

From at least the time of Aristotle, if not earlier, until the present day, political theories are built upon an understanding of human nature. Different understandings of human nature yield different ideologies. In the words of William Voegeli at Claremont McKenna College,

human nature is something we can understand and a basis on which we can found a political order


Thus, Aristotle saw human nature as essentially social, designed for the basic relationships of marriage, parenthood, and workplace; his political theory saw society as unfolding organically from the basic facts of human nature. Hobbes, on the other hand, saw humans as essentially selfish and violent; his view requires a government which strictly controls society to preserve peace and safety (Hobbes will later revise this view, which appears in the first half of his book, the Leviathan).

Before we develop any political theory, then, we must first answer this question: what are the unchanging and essential features shared by all human beings? What is it that makes us human? Across different races, religions, languages, cultures, and locations, we all have certain basic characteristics. This is why it is possible for people to understand each other, and this is the basis for any understanding of society on the one side, government on the other, and the relationship between the two. What is human nature?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

JFK Quotes Thucydides

In 1963, President Kennedy toured Germany, giving several speeches. He hoped to strengthen the working of NATO against the communists who were threatening to take over Europe. Pointing out that the western nations needed to set aside their individual interests in order to protect their common freedom, he offers the following comment about the Pelopponesian war:

Our partnership depends on common political purpose. Against the hazards of division and lassitude, no lesser force will serve. History tells us that disunity and relaxation are the great internal dangers of an alliance. Thucydides reported that the Peloponnesians and their allies were mighty in battle but handicapped by their policy-making body - in which, he related “each presses its own ends... which generally results in no action at all... they devote more time to the prosecution of their own purposes than to the consideration of the general welfare - each supposes that no harm will come of his own neglect, that it is the business of another to do this or that-and so, as each separately entertains the same illusion, the common cause imperceptibly decays.”


Thucydides brings to our attention the political problems which seem to occur over and over again through the centuries.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Will Obama Meet with the Dalai Lama?

The Dalai (often spelled "Dali") Lama is the leader of most, if not all, of the world's Buddhists. By millions of non-Buddhists, he is viewed as a source of wisdom and moral insight. He was warmly welcomed in Washington by President George H.W. Bush, and later, President George H.W. Bush awarded him the medal of honor. Why, then, has President Obama said, at first, that he would not meet with the Dali Lama? And only after pressure from conservative Republicans stated that he will reconsider his decision, but has not yet actually said that he would meet with him?

Obama hesitancy to meet with the world's foremost Buddhist leader, whether or not he ever actually does, is motivate by his fear of angering the mainland Chinese communist government, and its supporters among American left-wingers. Although Obama seeks to pose as a figure of religious tolerance, Buddhism is not politically correct among the leaders of communist China.

Conversely, the two presidents Bush, known as publicly Christian, embrace the Dali Lama as a symbol of religious freedom, understanding that the intolerance of the Maoist Chinese government toward the Tibetan Buddhists is essentially the same as the anti-Christian leaning which pervades certain branches of the American media, bureaucracy, and educational institutions.

Politics makes odd bedfellows; religion does, too: President George W. Bush warmly embraced the Dali Lama, yet President Obama is hesitant to decide if he will even speak with him, much less support him.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The BBC Discovers "Grim secrets of Pharaoh's city"

A recent BBC television documentary tells us that "Evidence of the brutal lives endured by some ancient Egyptians to build the monuments of the Pharaohs has been uncovered by archaeologists. Skeletal remains from a lost city in the middle of Egypt suggest many ordinary people died in their teenage years and lived a punishing lifestyle. Many suffered from spinal injuries, poor nutrition and stunted growth. The remains were found at Amarna, a new capital built on the orders of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, 3,500 years ago."

Little had been known about the daily life of those who built the city, or lived in it during the relatively brief time it was inhabited: "Archaeologists from a British-based team made a breakthrough when they found human bones in the desert, which had been washed out by floods. These were the first bones clearly identifiable as the workers who lived in the city; and they reveal the terrible price they paid to fulfill the Pharaoh's dream," writes BBC reporter John Hayes-Fisher.

"The bones reveal a darker side to life, a striking reversal of the image that Akhenaten promoted, of an escape to sunlight and nature" says Professor Barry Kemp who is leading the excavations. Painted murals found in the tombs of high officials from the time show offering-tables piled high with food. But the bones of the ordinary people who lived in the city reveal a different picture. We have here an example of a political leader whose carefully-crafted public image and message hid a harsh reality.

"The skeletons that we see are certainly not participating in that form of life," says Professor Jerry Rose, of the University of Arkansas, US, whose anthropological team has been analyzing the Amarna bones. "Food is not abundant and certainly food is not of high nutritional quality. This is not the city of being-taken-care-of." The population of Amarna had the shortest stature ever recorded from Egypt's past, but they would also have been worked hard on the Pharaoh's ambitious plans for his new capital. The less-than-average height of the workers indicates poor nutrition. The temples and palaces required thousands of large stone blocks. Working in summer temperatures of 40C (104F), the workers would have had to chisel these out of the rock and transport them 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from the quarries to the city. The bone remains show many workers suffered spinal and other injuries. "These people were working very hard at very young ages, carrying heavy loads," says Professor Rose. "The incidence of youthful death amongst the Amarna population was shockingly high by any standard." Not many lived beyond 35. Two-thirds were dead by 20.

But even this backbreaking schedule may not be enough to explain the extreme death pattern at Amarna.

Even Akhanaten's son, Tutankhamen, died aged just 20; and archaeologists are now beginning to believe that there might also have been an epidemic here.

This corroborates the historical records of Egypt's principal enemy, the Hittites, which tell of the devastation of an epidemic caught from Egyptians captured in battle around the time of Tutankhamen's reign. It appears this epidemic may also have been the final blow to the people of Amarna.

Whether or not some type of plague was responsible for a percentage of these deaths, it remains clear that most of the deaths were caused by the harsh conditions of forced labor. This type of slavery also meant that the short lives lived prior to those deaths was one of pain and suffering.

All of which serves to remind us that, despite the sunny propaganda of the Pharaoh's government, this was essentially a pagan society which placed very little value on human life. Three or four thousand years after the fact, we can still be misled by the images of a Pharaoh interested in a more enlightened culture; in reality, this was still a society which saw cruelty as perfectly acceptable.

Hieroglyphs written at the time record that the Pharaoh, who was father of Tutankhamun, was driven to create a new city in honour of his favoured god, the Aten, with elaborate temples, palaces and tombs. Along with his wife Nefertiti, he abandoned the capital Thebes, leaving the old gods and their priests behind and marched his people 200 miles (320km) north to an inhospitable desert plain beside the River Nile. The city, housing up to 50,000 people, was built in 15 years; but within a few years of the Pharaoh's death, the city was abandoned, left to the wind and the sand. For more than a century archaeologists looked in vain for any trace of Amarna's dead.

Having finally found the builders and inhabitants of Amarna, they have found also evidence of the heathen harshness which caused Moses, who led the rebellion and escape of Hebrew slaves from Egypt, to legislate the moderation and eventual end of slavery. The laws of Moses, which require humane treatment for slaves, which mete out legal consequences for owners and overseers who beat or strike slaves harshly, and which finally emancipate slaves after six or seven years of service (thereby eliminating lifelong servitude), are in part a reaction exploitation and cruelty which the Egyptian leaders saw as reasonable methods to achieve their building goals. One of several ironies is that the construction of Amarna was carried out under the rhetoric of promises about returning to a sunny and more natural way of life. The promises of a cheerful community hid the reality of cruelty. Sadly, this level of cruelty was more the norm than the exception in the early phases of the Ancient Near East. Only after the ideologies of Moses became widespread would humane treatment of servants be seen as a desirable goal.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dating Hammurabi?

As historians and archaeologists sift through the piles of cuneiform tablets (some clay, some stone) from the Ancient Near East, establishing dates for various events is a priority. Some events can be fixed very precisely: we know that Sennacherib was murdered in January of 681 BC, for example.

We likewise have clear information about the years of kings like Cyrus, Darius, David, Saul, Solomon, and Xerxes. We have only approximate information concerning the years of Abraham and Moses.

Other events have so far eluded exact dating: there is no doubt the Hammurabi was politically active in the 1700's, but we lack a clear consensus about the years his reign began and ended. Some scholars place his coronation prior to 1750 BC, others after.

Given that these data have been both translated and transliterated, alternate spellings should not surprise us: Hammurabi can also be Hammurapi. An interesting, but unproven, hypothesis identifies Hammurabi with Amraphel in Genesis 14:1; Amraphel is there identified as the ruler of Babylonia. If this were true, Abraham would thus have come into personal contact (or conflict!) with Hammurabi.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

On Being Human

The deceptively simple question, "what is a human being?", has occupied the time and attention of many thinkers over the centuries. Although we are aware of the dangers of materialism, and careful to avoid viewing humans as merely structures of flesh operating under the control of instincts and various biological processes, it is equally important to avoid the opposite extreme, and deny any importance to the material aspects of human life. The philosopher Mark Levin writes that an essential part of being human is a person's

ability to adapt his behavior to overcome his weaknesses and better master his circumstances. One of the fundamental ways man adapts is to acquire and possess property. It is how he makes his home, finds or grows food, makes clothing, and generally improves his life. Private property is not an artificial construct. It is endemic to human nature and survival.


Levin is telling us that the right to own private property is more than a political luxury. It is a necessary ingredient to a truly human civilization.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Play-By-Play at the Congress

The Congress of Vienna lasted from October 1, 1814 until June 9, 1815. There was much negotiating and talking; progress was sometimes very slow. Despite the starting date, nothing really got done until well into November. There was a several-month delay while Prussia, Russia, and several other countries debated how they would share the territories of Poland and Saxony, two countries which were effectively dismantled at the Congress. There were hundreds of kings, princes, chancellors, secretaries, ministers, and other diplomats at the event. Dorothy Gies McGuigan, at the University of Michigan, gives us an account:

No international gathering of such scope as the Congress of Vienna had ever been held in the history of Europe. No precedent existed for handling the intricate questions of procedure, of organization, of decisions on agenda and credentials.


This event was unique in the history of the world: the first large multiparty summit.

The design of the Congress was Metternich's. It had taken shape in his mind as early as the spring of 1813, when he had proposed peace to France, Russia and England and had won Napoleon's tentative assent to such a congress ... It had been Metternich who had proposed Vienna as a meeting place for the sovereigns as soon as the Battle of Leipzig was won, and it had been he who had written into the Peace of Paris the invitation to "all powers engaged on either side in the present war" to send delegates to Vienna.


Metternich, chancellor for Austria and the Habsburg Empire, had been present when the Peace of Paris, the treaty which ended the Napoleonic wars, was drafted.

From the beginning, Metternich had envisioned the Congress of Vienna not merely as a concert of powers meeting to put back together a Europe splintered by war and conquest but as a glittering Peace Festival to mark the beginning of a new era.


The preceding twenty-five years (ten years of French Revolution and fifteen years of Napoleonic dictatorship) had been so brutal and bloody that Metternich envisioned the Congress of Vienna as ushering in an era of peace: peace maintained by the diplomatic balance of legitimate powers. In fact, the Congress of Vienna succeeded in creating one of the most peaceful epochs in world history.

Certainly neither Metternich nor anyone else had imagined the size of the throng that would gather in Vienna in the sunny days of autumn to be participants or onlookers at the Congress. The idea of an international meeting to shape a new world on principles of moderation justice had captured the imagination of Europe. In the intoxicating air of victory and of peace - the first real peace Europe had known in twenty-five years - everyone was ready for a holiday.


As the discussions dragged on for months, autumn changed into winter. Progress was slow, but agreements were being reached: new boundary lines were drawn on the map of Europe, and new alliances were being formed.

Snow fell all night on the last night of the year, and in the morning the baroque angels on the roofs of palaces and churches stood knee-deep in snow. It seemed a double good omen that New Year's Day of 1815 fell on a Sunday, and that fresh snow covered the world, as if all the scars and shabbiness, the quarrels and violence of an old world and an old year were effectively buried from sight.

Early that morning a courier's carriage, mud-splattered, ice-covered, pulled up to the door of Castlereigh's house in Minoritenplatz. Had had been on the roads since Christmas Eve, carrying to Vienna from Ghent the good news that England had ended the war with America and peace had been signed.


This information boosted spirits in Vienna. Not only could a peace plan for Europe be developed, but it would now include large parts of the rest of the world.

For the first time in many years no war was being fought anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.


One of the most important issues to be settled was whether or not there would be a single country known as Germany. In the centuries prior to the Congress of Vienna, that space on the map of Europe, which we now know as Germany, was filled with dozens of small and large kingdoms, principalities, and free cities; they were united by a common German language and culture, but not by a common political structure - each of them was an independent state. Many German-speaking people had the desire to unite these regions (Saxony, Bavaria, Alsace, Lorraine, etc.) into a single country to be known as Germany. Would this happen at the Congress of Vienna? There were also leaders who opposed this move, who did not want a united Germany - these leaders were mainly the rulers of smaller Germanic kingdoms, who would lose power when their territories were united into a larger country.

The last Congress issue to be hammered out was the future of Germany. The original plan for a federation of German states, drafted in the early weeks of the Congress, foundered on the Saxony-Poland quarrel and the resulting division between Austria and Prussia. In the end Metternich and Wessenberg produced a plan joining the thirty-eight German states in a loose confederation under a Diet at which Austria was to preside. The Diet would draft a set of laws; under one of the articles of the proposal each of the sovereigns was to grant his subjects a constitution.

The solution was a deep disappointment to German nationalists such as Stein and Humboldt, as well as to Austrian imperialists, among them Stadion and Schwarzenberg, who had hoped for the revival of an empire under Habsburg leadership.


In the end, it was a compromise, in which nobody got everything he wanted, and everyone got a little of what he wanted: a typical example of balanced diplomacy in action.

Yet it is doubtful whether a more powerful union could have been forged among the German-speaking countries in 1815. The German kings created by Napoleon and the small princes fought fiercely for their sovereignty. Feelings of particularism were still stronger than those of nationalism: people felt themselves to be Bavarians and Prussians and Saxons before they felt themselves to be Germans. The mutiny of Saxon troops against the Prussian army command in May was but one evidence of the strong bond of loyalty that still existed between subject and King. Metternich's loose German confederation was a beginning.


Finally, the Congress of Vienna created not only a lasting political peace, but began the abolition of slavery, and the extension of civil rights.

More important, crucial questions of human rights appeared on the Congress agenda, and if none was forthrightly resolved, two did appear as recommendations in the final act. The traffic in slaves was condemned rather than abolished. Civil rights for Jewish men in German cities was confirmed where they already obtained and a recommendation was included that they be extended. Both Metternich and Hardenberg had favored the extension of full civil rights to Jews, but other delegates on the German Committee - notably the Hanoverian - had resisted.

The fact that questions of human rights were debated at an international gathering was an important first in history.

And though the voices of the Congress had often been angry, passionate, vituperative, and the hands more than once had been dangerously close to swords, in the end the voice of persuasion and of reason had won out. The most important accomplishment of the Vienna Congress was just that: a powerful demonstration that grave international problems could be resolved through diplomacy rather than through arms.


This was the triumph of Metternich's conservative approach; for this accomplishment, he known, together with Burke, as one of the founders of modern political conservatism. Other conservatives, William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln, would finish the task of abolishing slavery.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Legitimacy and Balance

The diplomat and statesman Metternich is known mainly as the organizer of the Congress of Vienna, but that event was the product of Metternich's diplomat work in the preceding years, and would unfold in his work over the following years - and that work was guiding by the two principles of Metternich's foreign policy: legitimacy and balance. Oxford University's Alan Palmer describes how the Congress of Vienna began:

The people of Vienna had been surprised to learn in June that Emperor Francis was to be host to the peacemakers. Perhaps they had even been a little disconcerted; for this was a new role for the Habsburgs and a new experience for their city.


The emperor Franz (as it is more commonly spelled) had, at Metternich's prompting, organized a peace conference to provide a stable future for Europe in the wake of twenty-five years of violent bloodshed: the ten years of the French Revolution and the fifteen years of Napoleon's dictatorship.

Now in 1814 a cavalcade of of sovereigns and statesmen was about to descend on the city, and it was by no means clear how they were to be accommodated, how their business was to be conducted, or how their retinues were to be fed and foddered through the winter months. There was no formal invitation, merely an announcement that the Congress would open on 1 October. The heads of the five reigning dynasties and of 216 princely families flocked to Vienna.


Europe's power politics were dominated by five superpowers: England, France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Here Metternich's diplomatic principles would be put into play: to balance the powers, the boundary lines of European maps, and the political alliances between Europe's sovereign states, would be reorganized so that no one nation could assert itself over the others. This would keep the peace. Those sovereign states were to be ruled by legitimate governments - as opposed to illegitimate governments, like those of the French Revolution, which had neither legal nor moral right to rule. Legitimate governments had the obligation to help each other against attempted overthrow by illegitimate powers; thus peace would be kept as the government helped each other, instead of opposed each other.

Metternich was opposed to that political movement known as "nationalism":

He rejected the idea that community of language, sentiment or race provided a basis for political unity ... nationalism and liberalism remained equally abhorrent doctrines to him, the product of that French Revolution against which he saw himself in conflict throughout his life. In their place ... he offered a threefold creed: a belief in an essential community of interests which bound together the European States; a belief in the need for vigilance against political excess; and a belief the virtues of a balanced order, both between governments and between classes within society.


At the university, Metternich studied both political science, and the career of his own father, who was likewise a diplomat, and who had made a successful career

seeking in 1791 to play off against each other the rival Belgian patriot factions.


Younger Metternich learned the secret of his father's success in the university's political science lectures:

good government depends for survival upon a balance between extremes ... the concept of a stable equilibrium appealed [to Metternich].


Later in life, Metternich would put these principles into action. Representing Austria and the Holy Roman Empire,

he insisted that Austria's central position on the continent made it essential for her to think, not so much of territorial compensation, as of 'laying the foundations of a European political system' ... only Vienna could establish the equilibrium which Europe needed for her convalescence.


A balance of power, carefully negotiated and administered by Metternich, would heal Europe after twenty-five years of warfare. He saw his employment in the Holy Roman Empire, and later in the Habsburg Empire, as an opportunity to create peace for all of Europe. (The Holy Roman Empire would end in 1806, to be partially replaced by the Habsburg Empire.)

This carefully established balance, enacted in 1815 as the Congress of Vienna finalized its negotiated outcomes, would soon be tested by military actions as the Greeks defended themselves against Islamic occupational troops in the 1820's. European powers were agreed that the Greeks could resist the invaders, but the manner in which the European powers allied themselves to support Greece could lead to unintended effects. The English diplomat George Canning, whose views sometimes were the same as Metternich's,

was pledged to Greek autonomy while he remained convinced that any re-drawing of the map in Eastern Europe, however small in the first instance, would disturb the whole balance of the continent.


The Battle of Navarino (November 1827) would help the Greeks regain their freedom, but struggle would be long and complex.

The Revolutionary Mr. Burke

Edmond Burke is known for his opposition to the French Revolution; in a series of shockingly accurate predictions, he pointed out that it was designed to end in massive bloodshed, political chaos, and social ruin. But Burke wasn't opposed to all revolutions: he specifically applauded the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the American Revolution of 1776. Connor O'Brien, professor at the University of Dublin, describes Burke's reasoning:

The second English revolution, of 1688, known to its heirs as the Glorious Revolution, was not Utopian at all, but deliberately limited, pragmatic, and pluralist. The double objective was to end the arbitrary and Romanist rule of James II, without reviving the [anti-Romanist trends of Cromwell's first English revolution].


Burke approved of the Glorious Revolution because it was pragmatic: it did not seek to overthrow or change society, but merely the government. It was limited, because it did not seek to change all aspects of government, but merely some of them. And it was pluralist, because in encouraged the Christian concept of religious tolerance.

The American Revolution began out of quite limited grievances and objectives, and certainly without any Utopian agenda. As soon as definite revolutionary purpose emerged, the model was England's Glorious Revolution, with George III cast in the role of James II.


In Burke's mind, the American Revolution was a replay of the Glorious Revolution. The key was limited change to a few aspects of government, rather than smashing both government and society entirely.

The Glorious Revolution was essentially a dynastic and sectarian adjustment. The American Revolution was essentially the secession of colonists from an empire. The first real full-blooded secular revolution, the first large and determined attempt to construct a secular Utopia, after a wholesale destruction of existing arrangements - together with the people who were seen to represent and defend these arrangements, was the French Revolution.


Burke's view could be summarized as: fix it, reform it, don't destroy it. But the French Revolution was an attempt to destroy one civilization and create another in its place. Some historians see the French Revolution as the birth of Fascism.

Because Burke had supported the American Revolution, some people expected him to also support the French Revolution.

In Burke's view, however, the colonists had deserved support, not because they had asserted abstract rights ... but for resisting the withdrawal of liberties which they had long enjoyed as British subjects.


In this understanding of the American Revolution, George Washington and the other Founding Fathers were defending an established social order, while George III of England was attempting to introduce something new and different. The Founding Fathers were defending their traditional rights under the Magna Charta, but King George III was trying to institute a new system in which those rights would be taken away.

By contrast, the French Revolution was attacking a long-standing society; Burke saw this in its reliance on the writings of Rousseau. Burke wrote:

Their great problem is to find a substitute for all the principles which hitherto have been employed to regulate the human will and action ... True humility, the basis of the Christian system, is the low, but deep and firm foundation of all real virtue. But this, as very painful in the practice, and little imposing in the appearance, they have totally discarded.


Burke goes on to examine Rousseau's life: fathering many illegitimate children, and refusing to support them or their mothers in any way, he sent these infants to squalid orphanages, where they would soon die of childhood diseases. Burke equates Rousseau's personal failings with the institutional failure of the French Revolutionary government, which would execute thousands of unarmed innocent citizens.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Metternich Changes Things!

At Drew University, Prof. John von der Heide wrote a book assessing Metternich's influence on world history. In the late 1790's and early 1800's,

Metternich rose to fame in a prolonged contest with Napoleon and prevailed. He went on to create a stable international arrangement on the European continent that would last for more than thirty years.


Other historians would assert that Metternich's arrangement would last for almost a century, not merely thirty years. In either case, a decisive moment happened in the 1790's, when Metternich visited England, and met Edmund Burke; although the two men differed greatly in their political theories, they would both become known as leaders of the conservative movement in their time. Burke

upheld monarchy and denounced natural right ... Burke attacked the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen


Burke had supported the American Revolution, and its Declaration of Independence; he saw them as fundamentally different: seeing the American colonies as basing their quest for independence on the clear historical rights of citizens as set forth in the Magna Carta, but the French Revolution as being based, not on the overthrow of a government, but on the overthrow of a society:

To Burke historical precedent, custom, and tradition were the practical foundation for law and government. Metternich admired what he saw of Great Britain's government, and Burke's defense of the established order. Burke also wrote on "the similitude throughout Europe of religion, laws and manners." Metternich's subsequent defense of a state system was reinforced by Burke's thinking. Metternich would share the conservative thinker's view that the power of France should be contained.


Oddly, Metternich would approve of England's parliamentary system, a prototype of democratic republicanism as it would take root in America, while rejecting the same system for his own native country. In the wake of twenty-five years of violence (between ten years of French Revolution, and fifteen years of Napoleon's dictatorship, millions would die), Metternich was interested in a political peace which would ensure safety for all of Europe. He

was sure that no power by itself could maintain the peace. A harmonious coalition had defeated Napoleon, and harmony would be vital to protecting the fruits of victory. A balance of power in central Europe was necessary for Austria above all, it seemed to Metternich.


In post-Revolutionary, post-Napoleonic Europe, to protect innocent lives, legitimate governments were necessary. Revolutionary France, and Napoleonic France, had been only too willing to sacrifice lives for political gain. Metternich wished to value human life above national power politics: he was firmly against nationalism:

Restoring the House of Bourbon in France was more in step with Metternich's regard for, and understanding of, legitimacy.


Metternich, of course, is most widely known for organizing the Congress of Vienna. This international gathering would preserve peace in Europe for decades into the future.

The Final Act, singed on June 9, 1815, had concluded the Congress of Vienna and redistributed the territory in accordance withe Big Four's wishes and transformed "compensation" and "legitimacy" into practical policy.


In the century after the twenty-five years of bloodshed, as in the century before, the major powers in Europe would be England, Prussia, Russia, Austria, and France. France's temporary humiliation (hence the reference to the "Big Four") would be reversed by the skills of Talleyrand, France's representative at the Congress of Vienna. But Spain, Poland, Sweden, and Holland were relegated to a second-string status.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Do Historians Make Good Politicians?

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., was a professor of history at Harvard University. When Kennedy won the 1960 election, one of his first moves was to invite Schlesinger to be part of his administration. Schlesinger would have great influence on Kennedy's decisions, somewhat in domestic policy, but mainly in foreign policy. Contemplating how different psychological views of human nature can lead to different governmental forms, Schlesinger wrote:

The very concept of leadership implies the proposition that individuals can make a difference. This proposition has never been universally accepted. From classical times to the present day, eminent thinkers have regarded individuals as no more than the agents and pawns of larger forces, whether the gods and goddesses of the ancient world or, in the modern era, race, class, nation, the dialectic, the will of the people, the spirit of the times, history itself. Against such forces, the individual dwindles into insignificance.


Schlesinger is here comparing two views of history: some see history as the inevitable unfolding of social and historical trends; others see history as a series of significant choices made by individual people. The view that humans never make significant decisions is often called "determinism": if history is an inevitable unfolding of social forces, then we are all merely pawns in the grand game. Schlesinger continues:

Determinism takes many forms. Marxism is the determinism of class. Nazism the determinism of race. But the idea of men and women as the slaves of history runs athwart the deepest human instincts. Rigid determinism abolishes the idea of human freedom - the assumption of free choice that underlies every move we make, every word we speak, every thought we think. It abolishes the idea of human responsibility, since it is manifestly unfair to reward or punish people for actions that are by definition beyond their control. No one can live inconsistently by any deterministic creed. The Marxist states prove this themselves by their extreme susceptibility to the cult of leadership.


Here we must remember that Schlesinger served in the Kennedy administration, when Marxist governments, or at least governments which called themselves Marxist, were a serious threat to world peace. Additionally, there were still a few people who still took seriously the idea of trying to organize a nation around Marxist principles. Although Marx, and his version of communism, have been largely discredited now, we can still learn from these reflections on politics and psychology. Applying the principle further, Schlesinger notes:

More than that, history refutes the idea that individuals make no difference. In December 1931 a British politician crossing Park Avenue in New York between 76th and 77th Streets around 10:30 PM looked in the wrong direction and was knocked down by an automobile - a moment, he later recalled, of a man aghast, a world aglare: "I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry." Fourteen months later an American politician, sitting in an open car in Miami, Florida, was fired on by an assassin; the man beside him was hit. Those who believe that individuals make no difference to history might well ponder whether the next two decades would have been the same had Mario Constansino's car killed Winston Churchill in 1931 and Giuseppe Zangara's bullet killed Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. Suppose, in addition, that Adolf Hitler had been killed in the street fighting during the Munich Putsch of 1923 and that Lenin had died of typhus during World War I. What would the 20th century be like now?


Human beings make significant choices, and those choices have consequences, for good or for evil. This is the lesson of history which Schlesinger attempted to translate (successfully or unsuccessfully) into American policy during the Kennedy administration.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Random Reformation Thoughts

Luther posted his 95 theses in the year 1517, but his views weren't completely finalized on many topics. The theses of 1517 were actually rather mild toward the papacy. By 1532, Luther had crystallized his more mature views, which were different than those in the 95 theses. The theses marked the beginning of Luther's critique of ecclesiastical practices, but only a beginning. Luther intended his 95 theses more as a starting point for discussions, and not as a statement of his views. His hope was to inspire an academic discussion among the university's professors and students; he got that, and much more! Luther was surprised by the explosive reaction to his theses.

The rise of "humanism" (not to be confused with "secular humanism") was instrumental in the Reformation. The notion was that logical, rational investigation of the texts was the path to objective truth. This lead to research in the original languages of the texts, Hebrew and Greek. Human beings, as rational and independent creatures, could each examine these texts, and discover for himself or herself the truth. Scientific reflection upon the nature of language dictated that it was better to read the languages in the original than in a translation, thus the Latin translation was regarded as "inferior" to the original Hebrew text. Yet at the same time, the desire to allow each person to independently discover the truth drove the Reformers to offer translations, not in Latin, but in the common languages of the people (German, English, etc.). Translations were available before the Reformation, notably the Gothic language edition of the fourth century, and Wycliffe's English translation of 1382. But the Reformation popularized such translations.

Between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism experienced a type of "return to the source". The task was to strip away fifteen centuries of mere tradition, and see what the texts actually said. The institutions and practices of either group may be judged as good, bad, or otherwise, but each had to justify itself with reference to a Mediterranean Jewish peasant who preached 1500 years earlier.

The popularizing of the translations meant that people had to confront difficult passages in the text. The particular statement that "not one person is righteous - all have sinned" caused consternation. Luther's Reformation argument asserted that human failure dictated that entry into the afterlife was a divine gift - an unearned ticket into paradise. The Roman Catholic side countered that a person would have to work very hard to earn admission into heaven. The debate continues to this day.

Because humanism and the Reformation pointed the individual toward the text, and asked the individual to examine and discover for himself or herself, a new sense of "the force of intellectual conviction" arose. Luther stated his views, not because these views were handed down by his parents and grandparents, but because he had studied the texts and the languages himself. Luther claimed that his views were dictated by logic: no other conclusion could logically be drawn from the evidence in the text, he said. This process of analyzing evidence until one is "convinced" of an answer is the foundation of scientific revolution. "Intellectual conviction" was, in the eyes of the humanists, not a choice, but the inescapable result of study. One does not choose to believe that the earth is a sphere: one is presented with so much evidence that one can't believe otherwise.

After Luther's death, the German principalities negotiated a religious tolerance treaty in 1555, which continued for centuries, broken only by the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648). This allowed Lutherans and Roman Catholics (and later Calvinists and Zwinglians) to live together without armed conflict. A by-product of this was also more tolerance shown toward the Jews. In the years after 1555, Jews migrated to Germany from France, Italy, Spain, England, Poland, and Russia. It is an irony of history that between 1555 and 1938, the safest place in Europe for a Jew to be was Germany. What made the Holocaust such a monstrosity was that many of the Jews who were murdered by the Nazis were the descendants of Jews who had moved to Germany to escape persecution in England and France. The Reformation and the treaty of 1555 paved the way for tolerance in the following centuries.

Some historians include a debate called "the Averroist dispute" in the history of the Reformation; this debate, triggered by an Arabic philosopher whose books were studied among the European philosophers, was interesting, but not actually part of the Reformation. The Averroist dispute can be summarized as a dispute about whether God was simply a "force" or whether God had a "personality" (i.e., emotions, desires, plans, etc.). The Averroist dispute was not directly involved in the Reformation, but was a symptom of a growing engagement of humanist reflection on theological issues.

Economics, Religion, and Nationalism

The decline of religious belief opened the door to nationalism. If people do not have an allegiance to God, then the state becomes the ultimate value, and there is no limit on the right of the state to control and manipulate the individual. On the European Continent, active participation in spiritual life began a downward trend in the mid-1700's; this tendency continued until the mid-1900's. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, synagogue and church attendance was at an all-time low. (Of course, mere attendance itself means almost nothing; it can, however, be an indirect indicator of true spiritual activity.) So the decline in religion allowed the nationalistic state to take the rights from the individual; "might makes right" - when religious belief has declined, the state can do whatever it deems appropriate, and there is no recourse.

When there is no sense of higher values, then a nationalistic claim that the government should reign supreme and unchallenged over society faces no resistance.

Nationalism as such tends to blend with socialism; the state's right to demand ultimate loyalty and the state's ownership of property and control of markets go hand-in-hand. Thus high taxation and governmental intervention in societal affairs (education, health care, etc.) are marks of nationalism.

"Free market" capitalism tends to oppose nationalism, both because it will allow for the possibility that at some point, imports and exports become more desirable than domestic commerce, and also because it exerts a downward pressure on taxation.

Monday, May 18, 2009

J.M. Keynes and Your Wallet

The British economist John Maynard Keynes had a tremendous influence during the first half of the twentieth century, and even today his ideas are embraced by some leaders, in the U.S.A. and elsewhere. Keynes made the bold assertion that in was not only acceptable, but even good, for a government to intervene in an otherwise free market. He thus worked against the "classical liberalism" of Adam Smith and John Locke, who emphasized an individual's right to make decisions. A government can set prices for buying and selling, and decide how much you will earn at your job. Keynes wrote that it was more important for a government to control the entire economy (in order to ensure that it was running smoothly) than it was for each person to have choice; stated differently, Keynes felt that collective economic security was more important than individual human freedom.

Keynes himself did not enthusiastically embrace the idea of deficit spending, accumulating into governmental debt, but many of his followers interpreted his theories in a way which did exactly that. Most notably, President Franklin Roosevelt understood (or misunderstood) Keynesian economics to give permission for the massive debt and deficits of the New Deal programs. Roosevelt's justification was encapsulated in the slogan "we owe it to ourselves." It may be trouble if one individual gets into massive debt (say, by buying a large house or a fancy car), but if a nation signs itself into debt, that's fine, because we borrow the money "from ourselves" (from banks, or from individuals who purchase government bonds), and we owe it "to ourselves", and so, Roosevelt argued, we could continue borrowing huge amounts indefinitely, and never even really intend to pay it all back, as long we made small regular payments. This is the advent of "structural debt": debt as a standing part of the budget, rather than a one-time debt which one plans to pay off.

Whether or not FDR's massive debts helped the American economy remains a matter of dispute: many economists write that it was the large-scale factory activity of WWII which actually re-started the economic and nudged it toward prosperity.

The Roosevelt version of Keynesian economics governed much economic thought until the difficulties of the mid 1970's, when various economists and politicians questioned the wisdom of amassing a huge national debt. Since that time, there has been much discussion about how to reduce both annual deficits and the larger accumulated debt.

One of several objections to such standing debts is summarized in the phrase "generational theft": if a group of national leaders, the youngest of whom is perhaps in her or his late 40's, and the majority of whom are in their 50's or 60's, create, for example, a fifty-trillion-dollar national debt, it is clear that they will, given their life expectancies, have no part in paying this debt. It will be left to the next several generations of Americans, people who are now fifteen or twenty years old, to pay the bill. Hence, one generation is literally robbing another.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Crime and Punishment - and Nietzsche?

Many different readers - who disagree with each other on nearly everything else - will agree that Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment seems designed as a response to several ideas proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche. Raskolnikov, the main character in Crime and Punishment, embraces an amoral viewpoint and something like the Superman concept; both are central to Nietzsche's thought. Raskolnikov attempts to live out these philosophies, is tortured and frustrated in so doing, and finally finds clarity and peace of mind by rejecting them; seemingly, Dostoevsky's repudiation of Nietzsche's thought.

There is, however, a problem: we lack evidence that Dostoevsky had heard of, or read any of, Nietzsche's writings or ideas. In fact, by the time Crime and Punishment was printed in 1866, Nietzsche had not yet published or written any of his major books. He had published a few smaller and less significant works; it is technically possible that Dostoevsky could have seen them, but they don't contain clear and developed expression of Nietzsche's thought.

So how can Dostoevsky apparently reply to thoughts which hadn't yet been written?

Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky had access to the same works of earlier authors; both were exposed to intellectual trends of their day. Both had access, for example, to Darwin, Marx, and Kierkegaard. We can see both as responding to them. Nietzsche embracing the deterministic nihilism of Marx and Darwin, rejected Kierkegaard's proposal that humans can engage in a social ethic which acknowledges the value of human life and the possibility of humans making significant and meaningful choices. Dostoevsky, rejecting Darwin and Marx, agreed with Kierkegaard that only by embracing an existential view of human life, crystallized in the act of confession, which simultaneously acknowledges the possibility of responsibility and the hope of redemption, will a human being reach clarity and peace of mind.

So, without having read Nietzsche, Dostoevsky effectively replies to him, because both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were responding to the same stimuli: Dostoevsky not only gives his response to the stimuli of Darwin, Marx, and Kierkegaard, but peremptorily offers counter-arguments to alternative responses.

February 12, 1809

In an interesting juxtaposition, two very different men were born on the same date: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Both men would exert influence on their societies, and ultimately the world; both exemplified questions which are relevant to the very core of human existence. Yet they represent opposites.

Lincoln would stress the value of every human life, and therefore the law's obligation to treat all humans equally; he saw principles of justice as arising from the rational design of the universe.

Darwin, assuming that irrational chance governed the universe, stressed that life spontaneously arose from a random mix of inanimate chemicals; determined by the physical patterns of molecular reactions, humans make no significant choices, and have no deeper meaning in life.

Lincoln faced the terrifying weight of existential choices which a human can authentically make, including the responsibility for the outcomes; but he opened the door for a sense of hope that freedom and meaning are possible.

Darwin envisioned a world in which humans were free from the terrifying thought of having to take responsibility for their choices and actions; but in the process, he lost the possibility of an authentic existential freedom, of any principled rationality in the structure of the universe, and of transcendental meaning in human life.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

No Time for Shakespeare?

Reflecting on the giddiness of rallies in the 1980's, in which students chanted, "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ has got to go!", Professor Mark Woodhouse (at Georgia State University), a little calmer, wrote in 1996:

An objective evaluation of competing points of view is impossible since all points of view are to some extent biased by race, gender, and culture. All that's left to do is to describe different perspectives, including those formerly considered inconsequential, and attempt to balance past biases - which might entail leaving Plato and Shakespeare out of the curriculum altogether.

Apparently, because we've read too much Shakespeare and Plato for the last hundred years, we should stop reading them now, in an attempt to "balance" perspectives. (The quote comes from his book, Paradigm wars: Worldviews for a New Age). He seems to have an underlying assumption that all texts are of equal value; he seems also to assume that the definitive measure of a text is the race, gender, and culture of its author.

An African woman would presumably want her readers to appreciate her book because it's well-written, and grapples with timeless human questions; she presumably would not want her audience to value her text merely because of her gender, race, and culture.

Yet, analyzing Woodhouse's willingness to toss Shakespeare into the recyclers, Prof. Michael Zimmermann (at Tulane), calls Woodhouse's book "insightful, engaging, and comprehensive," and says that it "is an indispensable guide to new conceptual pathways that may lead to the radical and constructive alterations needed to guide humankind in the 21st century."

We can be thankful that these viewpoints represent a small minority of university-level educators, and that the vast majority are still willing to tolerate Shakespeare and Plato.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Study That Language!

It's amazing how many of history's geniuses have studied Hebrew: Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and William Blake, to name but a few. They did more than take a couple of classes - these men devoted years to researching the grammar and vocabulary of this ancient language and its texts. What ultimate influence did this have on their other famous endeavors?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Islamic Armies Attack Italy

Many of us would be startled if we are told that in the ninth century, a Muslim fleet based in Sicily sailed up the Tiber and occupied and sacked Rome for days, until it was defeated and expelled by the the armies of the Holy Roman Empire and other Frankish contingents. This attack took place on August 28, in the year 846 A.D., when the Islamic military arrived at the mouth of the river Tiber and sailed into Rome.

The Muslim invasion of Italy is often overlooked in history books, because the massive Islamic attacks on Spain and Yugoslavia get more attention. Although the attack on Italy was smaller than the other Muslim assaults, it is worth studying, because it is part of the larger historical trend which characterized these centuries.

Logically enough, the Islamic advance on Italy was made possible after Muslim armies had occupied and subjugated, in stepping-stone fashion, the islands of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia.

Despite the fact that the military action in Italy was smaller than the massive incursions into Spain and Yugoslavia, its historical importance lies in the fact that the Islamic military succeeded in opening a third front; this forced the Europeans to spread their defensive forces more thinly, to the strategic and tactical advantage of the Muslims.

Further south of Rome down along the Italian peninsula, Islamic forces staged both temporary raids, as well as occupying various provinces on a longer-term basis, sometimes holding a region for several years.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Delacroix's Paintings


Delacroix's painting of the Massacre at Chios, shows sick, dying Greek civilians about to be slaughtered by the Muslims. One of several paintings he made of this contemporary event, it expresses sympathy for the Greek cause in their war of independence against the Islamic empire, a popular sentiment at the time for the French people. Delacroix was quickly recognized as a leading painter in the new Romantic style, and the picture was bought by the state. His depiction of suffering was controversial however, as there was no glorious event taking place, no patriots raising their swords in valour, only a disaster. Many critics deplored the painting's despairing tone, calling it "a massacre of art". The pathos in the depiction of an infant clutching its dead mother's breast had an especially powerful effect, although this detail was condemned as unfit for art by Delacroix's critics. A viewing of the paintings of John Constable prompted Delacroix to make extensive, freely painted changes to the sky and distant landscape.

Delacroix produced a second painting in support of the Greeks in their war for independence, this time referring to the capture of Missolonghi by Muslim forces in 1825. With a restraint of palette appropriate to the allegory, Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi displays a woman in Greek costume with her breast bared, arms half-raised in an imploring gesture before the horrible scene: the suicide of the Greeks, who chose to kill themselves and destroy their city rather than surrender to the Islamic army. A hand is seen at the bottom, the body having being crushed by rubble. The whole picture serves as a monument to the people of Missolonghi and to the idea of freedom against tyrannical rule. This event interested Delacroix not only for his sympathies with the Greeks, but also because the poet Byron, whom Delacroix greatly admired, had died there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Father Copernicus, the Roman Catholic Priest

Nicholas Copernicus was a Polish priest, who first advanced the doctrine that the sun and not the earth is the center of our system, round which our planet revolves, rotating on its own axis. His great work, De Revolutionibus orblure coelestium, was published at the earnest solicitation of Cardinal Schömberg and the Bishop of Culm. It was dedicated to Pope Paul III, with his permission. No objections or difficulties were raised against Copernicus by any official of the Roman Catholic church. Neither Paul III, nor any of the nine popes who followed him, nor the Roman Congregations raised any alarm.

On the contrary, Copernicus was rewarded with honors by the Pope, and became an influential individual within the Roman Catholic church. In sum, the heliocentric solar system was warmly received by the established church of the day.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Complex Mr. Newton

Isaac Newton was, beyond question, one of the most brilliant scientists and mathematicians who ever lived.

He invented calculus and the reflecting telescope; he discovered the gravity equation, the gravity constant, and the laws of motion. He correctly analyzed the refraction of light. He did most of his work at Cambridge University in England.

But most of his time and effort were directed to spiritual questions. He excelled in his ability to read Hebrew and Greek, and wrote extensive commentaries on the Tanakh and the New Testament. His commentaries are so detailed that he began to calculate astronomical observations using the Hebrew calendar, in which months have names like “Nisan,” rather than the standard English calendar. In fact, he wrote and published more books about religion than he wrote about mathematics and science put together.

As modern scholars study Newton in great detail, two different interpretations emerge, hinging on this question: was Newton a Christian?

Those scholars who believe that Newton was a Christian cite the following facts as evidence: Newton clearly regards the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible as authoritative and historical; Newton refers to Jesus as the Savior of all mankind; Newton understands that the Resurrection is a physical, bodily event, and not a mere metaphor.

Those who write that Newton was not a Christian point to the facts that Newton practiced a form of alchemy which was more like magic than science, and traditional Christianity frowns on the practice of magic, and that Newton called Jesus "the Son of God" but rejected the usual understanding of the Trinity, writing that Jesus is only partially, and not fully, divine, and therefore Newton declined write that Jesus is God.

One of Newton's most famous books is titled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and in it he wrote that “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” The title is Latin for the “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” and the book was published in 1687.

So was Newton a Christian? You decide.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

No Hating Allowed!

Our society sees hate as an undesirable thing. As early as Kindergarten and preschool, we are taught not to hate; some legislators even want to pass laws prohibiting what they call "hate speech" in public settings.

But how did our culture obtain this dislike for hate? Why do we have this aversion to hatred?

Our civilization has been greatly influenced by the New Testament, one of the most widely-read documents on the plant. A little analysis of this text is illuminating: the Greek words which underlie the English translation into words like hate, hated, hating, and hates occur between 11 and 38 times in the entire text. If we classify these occurrences, we find situations of people hating each other, people hating God, people hating things, people accusing others of hating them, and a few other circumstances. The one case which we do not find is God hating any person. According to the New Testament, God hates some things, but He never hates a human being.

God hates, for example, violence, stealing, lying, and other such things; but He doesn't hate any man, woman, or child. Although He hates violence, He doesn't even hate the person who commits it.

This extreme tendency to avoid hatred is the source for our culture's antipathy to hatred.

It also sets our community, whether you call it Western Civilization or European Culture, apart from other nations, in which hatred is allowed, encouraged, and even required of its population. Given our society's efforts to get rid of hatred, it is difficult to understand that in other parts of the world, leaders teach and encourage hatred.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Rousseau's Religion

Hobbes, Bossuet, and Locke all embraced some form of the Christian belief system (either Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism). While Rousseau affirmed the necessity of religion, he repudiated the doctrine of original sen, which plays so large a part in all different versions of Christianity (in Émile, Rousseau writes "there is no original perversity in the human hear"). His endorsement of religious toleration would be ironic, had he not meant it seriously: he claims to be tolerant, but in the same chapter of the Social Contract demands that anyone who doesn't agree with his idea of a "civil religion" be put to death! His assertion that true followers of Jesus would not make good citizens was based on his claim that Christian soldiers wouldn't fight as savagely as pagan soldiers.

Rousseau's political critique of Christianity was twofold: first, that it divided religion from the government; second, that Christianity asserts that no ordinary human is perfect. Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that religion had to be united and intertwined with the government, and that human beings are born perfect: and that human beings and human society can be perfected and kept perfect if only we will follow his guidelines!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Population and Economy

A nation's population can be either static, growing, or shrinking. Most of the earth's nations have growing populations. A territory with a static or shrinking population may experience short-term growth, but cannot experience long-term growth. It will suffer an inevitable decline.

But not every nation with a growing population will experience a growing economy. A population can grow slowly, moderately, or rapidly. The most favorable economic conditions are found in a moderately growing population.

A rapidly-growing population may outrun the economy's ability to provide basic services. A slowly growing population will not have enough workers to support its children and retirees: this is the source of the America's current problems - not enough workers. A moderately growing population also provides new jobs at precise rate for young adults entering the workforce, unemployment is thereby reduced.

So go get married and have babies!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Invasion of Spain

Tarek ibn Ziyad was the Muslim general who led the Islamic conquest of Spain in 711 A.D. The Muslims forged an empire in Spain that was not defeated until 1492.

When Ziyad's forces landed at Gibraltar (Gibr Tariq, "rock of Tarek") on the Spanish coast, he famously burned the fleet to the waterline as a warning to his men that they must conquer or die in the cause of jihad. He also offered other incentives, among them mass looting of property and the rape and sexual enslavement of women. Islamic historian Al Maggari gives part of Ziyad's speech as follows: "You have heard that in this country there are a large number of ravishingly beautiful Greek maidens, their graceful forms are draped in sumptuous gowns on which gleam pearls, coral, and purest gold, and they live in the palaces of royal kings."

Why did Ziyad refer to the Spanish women as Greek? The main Christian targets for the Muslim armies up to that point were the Greek Byzantines, hence the reference to "Greek maidens." Turks often still use the word "Rûm" (meaning Roman) to refer to Christians or Europeans in general, as the Byzantines were the Eastern Romans. The common Arab word "Ferengi" for Europeans means "Franks," and came much later when they encountered the Western Christian Crusaders. This same word was borrowed by science fiction writers for one of the "Star Trek" spinoffs.

He conquered and enslaved peaceful people and instituted an imperial occupation that lasted for seven centuries, and his view of "violence against women" was anything but progressive. Remember, the attack on Spain in 711 A.D. was unprovoked. Not content with military victory, the Islamic army plundered both the material wealth and the human lives of the territory.

In Islam, the women and children of infidels defeated in jihad became the property of Muslims, and this sick fate befell countless millions of people over the course of the centuries during which Muslims attacked Europe.

Islamic historians have preserved the speech which Ziyad gave after his troops landed on the Spanish shore, and he burned their ships:

Oh my warriors, to where would you flee? Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy. You have heard that in this country there are a large number of ravishingly beautiful Greek maidens, their graceful forms are draped in sumptuous gowns on which gleam pearls, coral, and purest gold, and they live in the palaces of royal kings: the spoils will belong to yourselves.

Despite the fact that the attack on Spain was unprovoked, and the Spanish taken by surprise, they did have some defensive operations. The Gothic king Rodrigo (also called Roderick) kept a defense for about a year after the invasion.

Roderick, immediately upon securing his throne, gathered a force to oppose the Arabs and Berbers (Mauri) who were raiding in the south of the Iberian peninsula and had destroyed many towns under Tariq ibn Ziyad and other Muslim generals. While later Arabic sources make the conquest of Hispania a singular event undertaken at the orders of the governor Musa ibn Nosseyr of Ifriqiya, it seems that the Arabs began disorganised raids and only undertook to conquer the peninsula with the fortuitous death of Roderick and the collapse of the Visigothic nobility. The Saracens invaded "all Hispania" from Septem (Ceuta).

Roderic made several expeditions against the invaders before he was killed in battle in 712. The location of the battle is debatable. It probably occurred near the mouth of the Guadalete river, hence its name, the Battle of Guadalete.

The Arabs took Toledo in 711-712 and executed many nobles still in the city on the pretense that they had assisted in the flight of Oppa, a son of Egica.

When Roderick was killed in action, the defense quickly collapsed, and the Muslims captured the entire country, carrying out the plans. Village after village suffered the same fate: the men were killed, the women raped and made into concubines, the children taken as slaves; after taking whatever grain and livestock they wanted for their army's provisions, the Islamic military burned the fields, slaughtered the remaining animals, and left the elderly to starve. Spain was quickly reduced to a wasteland.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

What Puzzled Pliny

Pliny the Younger was a governor, who monitored a territory for his boss, the emperor Trajan. Pliny is famous for his letters, which give us an insider's view of the political workings of the Roman Empire.

One set of letters between Pliny and Trajan concerns the Christians. Pliny confesses that this new religious group is growing in number, and that he doesn't really understand what they believe; he reports that they aren't committing crimes or creating civil disturbances. Yet Pliny and Trajan develop a plan to imprison, torture, and execute Christians, seemingly because they refuse to acknowledge the emperor as divine. Under Pliny's leadership, thousands of Christians were executed.

But Pliny continued to ponder this new religion. What bothered him most, as we see in his letters to Trajan, is that a free Roman man would willingly join an organization which turned the social order upside down. Pliny reports that the leaders of the local Christian group were two female slaves - two women who were at the bottom of the hierarchy for three reasons: they were women, they were slaves, and they were not Roman citizens. Yet these two women were leading a group which included male free Roman citizens. Pliny couldn't understand why these men would acknowledge these women as leaders. It was this feature of the early Christian church which puzzled him; even as he executed them in large numbers, he kept trying to understand them. We don't know if he ever did.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Outsider Looks at Westen Civilization

[We can learn to look at our European society in a fresh way when we read the observations of someone who comes from a different culture. Dinesh D'Souza was born in Bombay, India, and has spent much of his life studying the western tradition. His observations:]

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” he called the proposition “self-evident.” But he did not mean that it is immediately evident. It requires a certain kind of learning. And indeed most cultures throughout history, and even today, reject the proposition. At first glance, there is admittedly something absurd about the claim of human equality, when all around us we see dramatic evidence of inequality. People are unequal in height, in weight, in strength, in stamina, in intelligence, in perseverance, in truthfulness, and in about every other quality. But of course Jefferson knew this. He was asserting human equality of a special kind. Human beings, he was saying, are moral equals, each of whom possesses certain equal rights. They differ in many respects, but each of their lives has a moral worth no greater and no less than that of any other. According to this doctrine, the rights of a Philadelphia street sweeper are the same as those of Jefferson himself.

This idea of the preciousness and equal worth of every human being is largely rooted in Christianity. Christians believe that God places infinite value on every human life. Christian salvation does not attach itself to a person’s family or tribe or city. It is an individual matter. And not only are Christians judged at the end of their lives as individuals, but throughout their lives they relate to God on that basis. This aspect of Christianity had momentous consequences. Christianity is largely responsible for many of the principles and institutions that even secular people cherish—chief among them equality and liberty.

Though the American founders were interested in the examples of Greece and Rome, they also saw limitations in those examples. Alexander Hamilton wrote that it would be “as ridiculous to seek for [political] models in the simple ages of Greece and Rome as it would be to go in quest of them among the Hottentots and Laplanders.” In The Federalist Papers, we read at one point that the classical idea of liberty decreed “to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next….” And elsewhere: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” While the ancients had direct democracy that was susceptible to the unjust passions of the mob and supported by large-scale slavery, we today have representative democracy, with full citizenship and the franchise extended in principle to all. Let us try to understand how this great change came about.

In ancient Greece and Rome, individual human life had no particular value in and of itself. The Spartans left weak children to die on the hillside. Infanticide was common, as it is common even today in many parts of the world. Fathers who wanted sons had few qualms about drowning their newborn daughters. Human beings were routinely bludgeoned to death or mauled by wild animals in the Roman gladiatorial arena. Many of the great classical thinkers saw nothing wrong with these practices. Christianity, on the other hand, contributed to their demise by fostering moral outrage at the mistreatment of innocent human life.

Likewise, women had a very low status in ancient Greece and Rome, as they do today in many cultures, notably in the Muslim world. Such views are common in patriarchal cultures. And they were prevalent as well in the Jewish society in which Jesus lived. But Jesus broke the traditional taboos of his time when he scandalously permitted women of low social status to travel with him and be part of his circle of friends and confidantes.

Christianity did not immediately and directly contest patriarchy, but it helped to elevate the status of women in society. The Christian prohibition of adultery, a sin it viewed as equally serious for men and women, and rules concerning divorce that (unlike in Judaism and Islam) treated men and women equally, helped to improve the social status of women. Indeed so dignified was the position of the woman in Christian marriage that women predominated in the early Christian church, and the pagan Romans scorned Christianity as a religion for women.

Then there is slavery, a favorite topic for the new atheist writers. “Consult the Bible,” Sam Harris writes in Letter to a Christian Nation, “and you will discover that the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves.” Steven Weinberg notes that “Christianity…lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries.” Nor are they the first to fault Christianity for its alleged approval of slavery. But we must remember that slavery pre-dated Christianity by centuries and even millennia. It was widely practiced in the ancient world, from China and India to Greece and Rome. Most cultures regarded it as an indispensable institution, like the family. Sociologist Orlando Patterson has noted that for centuries, slavery needed no defenders because it had no critics.

But Christianity, from its very beginning, discouraged the enslavement of fellow Christians. We read in one of Paul’s letters that Paul himself interceded with a master named Philemon on behalf of his runaway slave, and encouraged Philemon to think of his slave as a brother instead. Confronted with the question of how a slave can also be a brother, Christians began to regard slavery as indefensible. As a result, slavery withered throughout medieval Christendom and was eventually replaced by serfdom. While slaves were “human tools,” serfs had rights of marriage, contract, and property ownership that were legally enforceable. And of course serfdom itself would eventually collapse under the weight of the argument for human dignity

Moreover, politically active Christians were at the forefront of the modern anti-slavery movement. In England, William Wilberforce spearheaded a campaign that began with almost no support and was driven entirely by his Christian convictions—a story powerfully told in the recent film Amazing Grace. Eventually Wilberforce triumphed, and in 1833 slavery was outlawed in Britain. Pressed by religious groups at home, England then took the lead in repressing the slave trade abroad.

The debate over slavery in America, too, had a distinctively religious flavor. Free blacks who agitated for emancipation invoked the narrative of liberation in the Book of Exodus: “Go down Moses, way down to Egypt land and tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.” But of course throughout history people have opposed slavery for themselves while being happy to enslave others. Indeed there were many black slave owners in the American South. What is remarkable in this historical period in the Western world is the rise of opposition to slavery in principle. Among the first to embrace abolitionism were the Quakers, and other Christians soon followed in applying politically the biblical notion that human beings are equal in the eyes of God. Understanding equality in this ingrained way, they adopted the view that no man has the right to rule another man without his consent. This latter idea (contained most famously in the Declaration of Independence) is the moral root both of abolitionism and of democracy.

For those who think of American history only or mostly in secular terms, it may come as news that some of its greatest events were preceded by massive Christian revivals. What historians call the First Great Awakening swept the country in the mid-eighteenth century, and helped lay the moral foundation of the American Revolution. Historian Paul Johnson describes the War for Independence as “inconceivable…without this religious background.” By this he means that the revival provided essential support for the ideas that fueled the Revolution. Jefferson, let us recall, proclaimed that human equality is a gift from God: we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. Indeed there is no other possible source for them. And Jefferson later wrote that he was not expressing new ideas or principles when he wrote the Declaration, but was rather giving expression to something that had become settled in the American mind.

Likewise John Adams wrote: “What do we mean by the American Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people…a change in their religious sentiments.” Those religious sentiments were forged in the spiritual inclinations of Americans.

That same spirituality continued into the early nineteenth century, leaving in its wake the temperance movement, the movement for women’s suffrage, and most importantly the abolitionist movement. It was the religious fervor that animated the abolitionist cause and contributed so much to the chain of events that brought about America’s “new birth of freedom."

And finally, fast forwarding to the twentieth century, the Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech referred famously to a promissory note and demanded that it be cashed. This was an appeal to the idea of equality in the Declaration of 1776. Remarkably, King was resting his case on a proclamation issued 200 years earlier by a Southern slave owner. Yet in doing so, he was appealing to a principle that he and Jefferson shared. Both men, the twentieth-century pastor and the eighteenth-century planter, reflected the influence of Christianity in American politics.

Christianity has also lent force to the modern concept of individual freedom. There are hints of this concept both in the classical world and in the world of the ancient Hebrews. One finds, in such figures as Socrates and the Hebrew prophets, notable individuals who have the courage to stand up and question even the highest expressions of power. But while these cultures produced great individuals, as other cultures often do today, none of them cultivated an appreciation for individuality. And it is significant that Socrates and the Hebrew prophets came to bad ends. They were anomalies in their societies, and those societies—lacking respect for individual freedom—got rid of them.

As Benjamin Constant pointed out, freedom in the ancient world was the right to participate in the making of laws. Greek democracy was direct democracy in which every citizen could show up in the agora, debate issues of taxes and war, and vote on what action the polis should take. The Greeks exercised their freedom solely through active involvement in the political life of the city. There was no other kind of freedom and certainly no freedom of thought or of religion of the kind that we hold dear. The modern idea of freedom, by contrast, is rooted in a respect for the individual. It means the right to express our opinion, the right to choose a career, the right to buy and sell property, the right to travel where we want, the right to our own personal space, and the right to live our own life. In return, we are responsible only to respect the rights of others. This is the freedom we are ready to fight for, and we become indignant when it is challenged or taken away.

Christianity has played a vital role in the development of this new concept of freedom through its doctrine that all human beings are moral agents, created in God’s image, with the ability to be the architects of their own lives. The Enlightenment certainly contributed to this understanding of human freedom, though it drew from ideas about the worth of the individual that had been promulgated above all by the teachings of Christianity.

Let me conclude with a warning first issued by one of Western civilization’s greatest atheists, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The ideas that define Western civilization, Nietzsche said, are based on Christianity. Because some of these ideas seem to have taken on a life of their own, we might have the illusion that we can abandon Christianity while retaining them. This illusion, Nietzsche warns us, is just that. Remove Christianity and the ideas fall too.

Consider the example of Europe, where secularization has been occurring for well over a century. For a while it seemed that secularization would have no effect on European morality or social institutions. Yet increasingly today there is evidence of the decline of the nuclear family. Overall birthrates have plummeted, while rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births are up.

Nietzsche also warned that, with the decline of Christianity, new and opposing ideas would arise. We see these today in demands for the radical redefinition of the family, the revival of eugenic theories, and even arguments for infanticide.

In sum, the eradication of Christianity—and of organized religion in general—would also mean the gradual extinction of the principles of human dignity. Consider human equality. Why do we hold to it? The Christian idea of equality in God’s eyes is undeniably largely responsible. The attempt to ground respect for equality on a purely secular basis ignores the vital contribution by Christianity to its spread. It is folly to believe that it could survive without the continuing aid of religious belief.

If we cherish what is distinctive about Western civilization, then—whatever our religious convictions—we should respect rather than denigrate its Christian roots.