Friday, December 17, 2010

It's Off to Work We Go!

The tension between the way elitists view work and a more moderate view of work runs through history. The nobles of Athens viewed themselves as superior in all ways to their slaves, and saw this superiority confirmed in the fact that the slaves had to work. Work was one of the worst things that could happen to a person in the minds of the Greek aristocracy of the classical era, and it was a badge of shame.

By contrast, the emerging Judeo-Christian tradition saw something respectable in work. The dignity of every human life lent itself to labor, and human effort dignified the task. Yale's Kenneth Latourette describes the attitude toward work among the monks of the early middle ages:

The Benedictine rule and the many derived from it probably helped to give dignity to labour, including manual labour in the fields. This was in striking contrast with the aristocratic conviction of the servile status of manual work which prevailed in much of ancient society and which was also the attitude of the warriors and non‑monastic ecclesiastics who constituted the upper middle classes of the Middle Ages ... To the monasteries ... was obviously due much clearing of land and improvement in methods of agriculture. In the midst of barbarism, the monasteries were centres of orderly and settled life and examples of the skillful management of the soil. Under the Carolingians monks were assigned the duty of road‑building and road repair. Until the rise of the towns in the eleventh century, they were pioneers in industry and commerce. The shops of the monasteries preserved the industries of Roman times ... The earliest use of marl in improving the soil is attributed to them. The great French monastic orders led in the agricultural colonization of Western Europe. Especially did the Cistercians make their houses centres of agriculture and contribute to improvements in that occupation. With their lay brothers and their hired labourers, they became great landed proprietors. In Hungary and on the German frontier the Cistercians were particularly important in reducing the soil to cultivation and in furthering colonization. In Poland, too, the German monasteries set advanced standards in agriculture and introduced artisans and craftsmen.

In addition to being centers of learning, preserving the intellectual treasures of Greek and Roman civilization, the monasteries were also centers of work, and of giving a value and meaning to work. Here we see the emergence of notions which speak indirectly to human equality and human dignity. This might perhaps explain why Europe didn't embrace institutionalized slavery to the extent that other continents did: European culture, and western civilization, could not bring itself to believe that one man was inferior to others merely because he found himself in the role of a manual laborer.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Napoleon's Big Mistake

The crushing defeat which Napoleon's French army experienced in Russia is legendary: Tolstoy wrote a novel about it; films have been made of it. But exactly how did this loss come about? How did an allegedly "great" military leader like Napoleon end up so badly?

To begin, we need to examine two assumptions, as phrased by Joseph C. Goulden (from the University of Texas):

that he was a consistently brilliant military general who ranks as one of the foremost battlefield commanders in history, and that his most calamitous defeat, in his 1812 campaign in Russia, was chiefly a result of "General Winter," the fierce cold and snow that caught his Grande Armee deep inside Russia, hundreds of miles from home.

Perhaps Napoleon wasn't such an excellent commander, strategist, and tactician; and perhaps the Russian victory wasn't merely due to the weather, but rather to the skills of the Russian military.

Napoleon made basic military blunders in the campaign, chiefly by overextending his lines of supply and not providing the logistics necessary to support his army.

In a fight against lesser opponents, those blunders might not be fatal.

But the Russian high command contained intellectual generals who studied military history and knew how to apply the lessons learned to the battlefield. The commander in chief, Mikhail Kutnzov, shrewdly chose to avoid a set battle with Napoleon's superior force. Instead, he relied upon a tactic perfected centuries earlier by the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, who used small unit harassing actions to wear down a larger enemy through attrition. The "Fabian strategy" worked to perfection (and the concept survives today as part of special operations doctrine).

In addition to an intelligent and skillful leadership, the Russian military had another advantage: horses. Dominic Lieven (from the London School of Economics) writes that:

immense herds dwelt on the steppe lands of southern Russia and Siberia,


In many years, the greatest hero of the Russian war effort in 1812-1814 was the horse [which] fulfilled the present day functions of the tank, the lorry, the aeroplane and motorized infantry.

Goulden concludes that

Napoleon could not replace the thousands of horses he lost during the campaign; hence Russian light cavalry relentlessly harassed his retreating columns.

A final Russian advantage was in the field of military intelligence:

Another area in which the Russians enjoyed an overwhelming advantage was espionage. Czarist agents in Paris and elsewhere elicited intelligence from many levels of Napoleon's government.

As the tide turned, and Napoleon's advance became a retreat, the war became one of attrition:

Once Napoleon was put on the run, he desperately fought major rear-guard battles that further depleted his ranks. The Russians, meanwhile, put together a massive logistics operation - 850 carts daily for food and forage, stretching back hundreds of miles. Czar Nicholas and his advisers made an astute political decision: They were not fighting "France" but Napoleon and his insatiable ambitions. His officers strictly enforced an edict to troops to "preserve the strictest discipline and treat the civilian population well." (One cannot resist comparing this conduct with the Red Army's brutality in the waning days of World War II.)

The Russian army of 1812/1814 understood what the Soviet-Russian army of 1945 did not: raping, torturing, and killing the civilian population, along with stealing their goods, burning their houses, and creating famines by annihilating their farms and food supplies are non-productive ways for occupying soldiers to behave. Even as the Russian army of 1814 crushed Napoleon's ego, it won the respect of the lands through which it fought. By contrast, the Soviet army of 1945 earned the contempt of the world by sadistically mistreating civilians.

The legendary proportions of Napoleon's humiliation could, and have, filled books; but

one statistic suffices:Napoleon's Grande Armee numbered 450,000 soldiers when the campaign began. Only 6,000 returned home.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What Did Adam Smith Believe?

The personal religious beliefs - which are to be distinguished from the private religious beliefs, if any - of Adam Smith are interesting for at least two reasons: first, because they shed some light on his influential economic writings, and second, because Smith, aside from economics, is worth studying, given his multi-disciplinary intellect and his engagement in cultural society of some of the most brilliant minds of history. Kevin Williamson writes:

The exact range and character of Smith's religious beliefs is the subject of some controversy, and the path he took in negotiating what seems to have been the poles in his religious universe - the radical skepticism of his friend David Hume and the Christian Stoicism of his mentor, Francis Hutcheson - is unknown to us. It is presumptuous, and perhaps a little dangerous, to lean too heavily upon Smith's religious beliefs to draw conclusions about his economic analysis.

In any event, Smith seems to have been a member of the Presbyterian Church, gave generously during his life, and left large sums of money to charity upon his death.

James Madison and Public Reason - The Basis for the U.S. Constitution

Just as Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, so James Madison has often been called "the Father of the Constitution" - both men were implementing a set of ideas into political realities.

To begin with, they wanted to dispel rumors about what the American Independence movement was really about. A series of misunderstanding clouded then, and in some history classrooms still clouds, the goals of the new nation.

One is that the Founders and the Constitution they created had a peculiarly modern and atomistic view of society. According to this myth, the Founders concerned themselves not with the formation of citizens engaged in a common enterprise, but with institutions that played individuals and interest groups off against one another in order to prevent the dominance of one or another faction.

Such an understanding may well be part of twenty-first century politics, but it was not part of Jefferson's view, when he wrote: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." The understanding of democracy demanded that citizens be educated, not only in the narrow sense of learning texts and facts, but also in the broad sense of developing a moral and practical philosophy. If citizens are to vote, they need a set of intellectual skills which will allow them to analyze complex debates about public virtue, and they need to have developed an ethic and the self-discipline to follow that ethic. Such are the prerequisites for a viable democracy. This also belies another misunderstanding of our constitutional system, which

suggests that the Founders (and Madison in particular) were guilty of anti-democratic elitism,

as Bradley Watson of Claremont Graduate University explains. Although widespread, this notion is undermined by the consistent expansion of suffrage and citizen participation in government, an expansion which began immediately after the ratification of the Constitution and continued steadily. One of the first steps of this expansion of broad-based was the Bill of Rights itself: the ink on the Constitution was barely dry, and already the rights of powers of the citizens over against the government were being expanded. A variation of this slander against Madison

relies on the more positive but still distorting label of aristocracy.

On the contrary, James Madison, was

a man deeply concerned with the ideas of civic virtue, citizen character, and common purpose, albeit in the service of the truly republican principles of the Declaration of Independence,


was well aware that event he cleverest institutional mechanisms are not substitute for the primary check on government: respectable public opinion. The spirit of a regime - that which gives force and direction to its fixed constitutional principle - is manifested and communicated in such opinion. The distinction between sound and unsound opinion runs throughout the founding debates and is evidenced in the structure of the Constitution itself.

At the core of American Independence movement

was the authority of the people and the sovereignty of informed public opinion. And so in Madison we see clearly the extent to which America is based on far more than the pursuit of self- or class-interest.

The "authority of the people" manifests an non-elitist and non-aristocratic outlook; the "informed public opinion" shows how education and ethical reflection forms citizens and is necessary for a sustainable democracy.

The importance of maintaining the cool and deliberate sense of the community as a governing force unites Madison's thoughts and actions into a coherent whole.

In order to carry out the debates and discussions which power a democracy, one needs a sense of community which is strong enough to patriotically bind together citizens who disagree. As citizens are formed, they engage in these debates at a more civilized level. Perfection would not achieved:

Madison rejected the idea of human perfectibility and the inevitability of progress in human knowledge. And yet he was not pessimistic about man's capacity for self-government: If respectable collective opinion were allowed to operate, a free people would be able to control their government and themselves.

The supreme focus of government is not its institutions and procedures, but a community of virtuous citizens.

Madison never doubted the fundamental natural truth revealed to the modern mind - that all men are created equal, and that consent to government is therefore q requirement of justice.

An infrastructure which allows communication is necessary, but only as effective as the level of ethical reflection in its supervisors. The participation of citizens is necessary, but only as salutary as power of the character formation.