Posts Tagged ‘History’

Treasures of heaven

June 13, 2017

I recently watched this interesting BBC documentary on sacred relics and reliquaries. Like many such productions, it has the whiff of anthropology about it, as though this, our own still-living tradition, was that of an alien people (which, I know, is how it would seem to some significant section of the audience), but it’s worth persevering in order to see the wonderful relics they examine, including one of St Edmund Campion and another of Blessed Edward Oldcorne, both English martyrs. The reliquaries, especially a tiny one built to house one of the thorns of Christ’s crown, are breathtaking in their intricate beauty. I found it all both interesting and edifying. The duration is about 1 hour.

The Song of Roland

June 11, 2017

The Song of Roland
Translated from the Old French by Dorothy Sayers
(Penguin Classics, 1957) [c.1100]
206 p.

The army of Charlemagne, having successfully laid siege to Saragossa, was returning home to France, its rear guarded by Roland and his companions, when, in a narrow mountain pass, they were treacherously set upon by the Islamic forces that had just surrendered to them. The Christians fought valiantly against greatly superior numbers, and went down to a glorious defeat. Their heroic stand became renowned, with the name of their leader unfurled like a banner over the long reconquest of Spain in succeeding centuries. The story was told many times, with many variations, but the present poem, written by an anonymous but accomplished poet, achieved, I gather, something like authoritative status.

We are in the realm of epic poetry. Our poet sings of the bravery and strength of his heroes, of their superhuman powers of endurance and supreme fighting skills. When we see treachery, it is a grand treachery; when we see loyalty, it is a stirring loyalty. We see nothing by half measures. Still, the poet leaves room for some defects of character in his principals. Roland, especially, is portrayed as brave, but confident to a fault, bordering on hubris, and his self-assurance in the face of overwhelming odds leads to his downfall.

Half-measures apply least of all to the violence of the poem, which is plentiful and plain:

Wondrous the battle, and it grows faster yet;
The French fight on with rage and fury fell,
They lop off wrists, hew ribs and spines to shreds,
They cleave the harness through to the living flesh;
On the green ground the blood runs clear and red. (126)

Even the Archbishop, Turpin, is a fighting man, who rides to battle with sword and spear in hand. Here he confronts one of the lesser Islamic leaders, Corsablis:

His golden spurs he strikes into his steed,
And rides against him right valiant for the deed.
He breaks the buckler, he’s split the hauberk’s steel,
Into his breast driven the lance-head deep,
He spits him through, on high his body heaves,
And hurls him dead a spear’s length o’er the lea.
Earthward he looks and sees him at his feet,
But yet to chide him he none the less proceeds:
“Vile infidel, you lied between your teeth!
Charles my good lord to help us will not cease,
Nor have our French the least desire to flee.
These friends of yours stock-still we’re like to leave;
Here’s news for you — you’ll die, and there you’ll be.” (95)

As the Archbishop’s presence testifies, this conflict is explicitly a clash of religions. When the Christians achieve their final victory (as they do), they proceed to smash the mosques (and, for good measure, the synagogues) and force their captives to be baptized — all except the Islamic queen, whom Charlemagne wishes to convert by persuasion. The poem evinces no doubts about the propriety of this course, and certainly no irony. At the same time, the poet seems startlingly ill-informed about the nature of Islam; on numerous occasions he refers to the Muslims as polytheists who worship “Mahound, Apollyon, and Termagant”. Who Termagant might be, I’ve no idea.

Regardless, it is clear that God fights on the side of the Christians. When Roland is beset with troubles, the whole of France is troubled by storms and earthquakes. Charlemagne is granted illuminating dreams that reveal the schemes of his enemies, and the angel Gabriel visits him.

The form of the poem is flexible: it consists of several hundred short sections, or laisses, each of which contains an indefinite number of lines, with the only requirement being that the lines be metrical and that the line endings in each laisse be consonant, having the same dominant vowel (rather than a strict rhyme). This works extremely well, and I found myself greatly enjoying the sound of the poem. Consider, for instance, this culminating passage about the death of Roland:

The County Roland lay down beneath a pine;
To land of Spain he’s turned him as he lies,
And many things begins to call to mind:
All the broad lands he conquered in his time,
And fairest France, and the men of his line,
And Charles his lord, who bred him from a child;
He cannot help but weep for them and sigh.
Yet of himself he is mindful betimes;
He beats his breast and on God’s mercy cries:
“Father most true, in whom there is no lie,
Who didst from death St Lazarus make to rise,
And bring out Daniel safe from the lions’ might,
Save Thou my soul from danger and despite
Of all the sins I did in all my life.”
His right-hand glove he’s tendered unto Christ,
And from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign.
Straightway his head upon his arm declines;
With folded hands he makes an end and dies.
God sent to him His Angle Cherubine,
And great St Michael of Peril-by-the-Tide;
St Gabriel too was with them at his side;
The County’s soul they bear to Paradise. (176)

It is true that I’m not enamoured of some of Sayers’ choices here — in particular her hokey-sounding metrical crutches, like “County” for “Count”, and her penchant for archaisms in a pinch — but basically I like the way the consonant end-stoppings pile up, giving the poem momentum and a certain musicality.

You’ll note from this most recent passage that Roland dies in comparative peace, rather than in battle. Here the poet solves a tricky problem, for his hero has to die, but, as a hero, he can’t simply be killed in combat. In fact, Roland’s death is due to his own over-exertion, he having exploded his veins by blowing too vigorously on his horn.

The blowing of that horn has summoned Charlemagne’s army to return, and, though they arrive too late to save Roland and his companions, they do pursue, overtake, and defeat the retreating Islamic army. In the final act of the poem, the French return to home and the traitor, Ganelon, who betrayed them to the Muslims out of spite toward Roland, stands trial. Thus the poem covers the full arc of Roland’s story.

And we have to put the emphasis on “story”, because the poem apparently bears little resemblance to actual history, even in its broad outlines. It is true that Charlemagne’s army besieged Saragossa in the year 778, but unsuccessfully, and in collaboration with one Islamic faction against another, and it is true that during their return to France, on 15 August of that year, their rear-guard was ambushed and slaughtered, but by Basques, not Muslims, during which ambush Roland, a duke of Brittany, was among the dead. How that rather minor episode in military history grew in the course of time to flower in the legendary battle of Roland against the Saracens is a mystery, though a happy one. The poem teaches us about the relationship of Christians and Muslims a millennium ago, but not much about real historical events of the eighth century.

I greatly enjoyed reading the poem. In my mind, it compares favourably with El Cid, being better structured, and more exciting, and having better characters. I have the feeling that I’d like a tougher, somewhat less mellifluous translation, but I’m not aware of any such.

Just praise of the past

May 31, 2017

“Men do always, but not always with reason, commend the past and condemn the present, and are so much the partisans of what has been, as not merely to cry up those times which are known to them only from the records left by historians, but also, when they grow old, to extol the days in which they remember their youth to have been spent. And although this preference of theirs be in most instances a mistaken one, I can see that there are many causes to account for it; chief of which I take to be that in respect of things long gone by we perceive not the whole truth, those circumstances that would detract from the credit of the past being for the most part hidden from us, while all that gives it lustre is magnified and embellished. For the generality of writers render this tribute to the good fortune of conquerors, that to make their achievements seem more splendid, they not merely exaggerate the great things they have done, but also lend such a colour to the actions of their enemies, that any one born afterwards, whether in the conquering or in the conquered country, has cause to marvel at these men and these times, and is constrained to praise and love them beyond all others.

Again, men being moved to hatred either by fear or envy, these two most powerful causes of dislike are cancelled in respect of things which are past, because what is past can neither do us hurt, nor afford occasion for envy. The contrary, however, is the case with the things we see, and in which we take part; for in these, from our complete acquaintance with them, no part of them being hidden from us, we recognize, along with much that is good, much that displeases us, and so are forced to pronounce them far inferior to the old, although in truth they deserve far greater praise and admiration. I speak not, here, of what relates to the arts, which have such distinction inherent in them, that time can give or take from them but little of the glory which they merit of themselves. I speak of the lives and manners of men, touching which the grounds for judging are not so clear.

I repeat, then, that it is true that this habit of blaming and praising obtains, but not always true that it is wrongly applied. For sometimes it will happen that this judgment is just; because, as human affairs are in constant movement, it must be that they either rise or fall. Wherefore, we may see a city or province furnished with free institutions by some great and wise founder, flourish for a while through his merits, and advance steadily on the path of improvement. Any one born therein at that time would be in the wrong to praise the past more than the present, and his error would be occasioned by the causes already noticed. But any one born afterwards in that city or province when the time has come for it to fall away from its former felicity, would not be mistaken in praising the past.”

— Niccolò Machiavelli,
Discourses on Livy.

Livy I: The Rise of Rome

May 14, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri I-V
The Rise of Rome
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by T.J. Luce
(Oxford, 2008) [c.25 BC]
xxxiii + 372 p.

The Ab Urbe Condita (From the Foundations of the City) is one of the epic authorial feats in world history. This history of Rome occupied Livy throughout his life and in the end consisted of 142 books covering the period from Rome’s legendary founding (traditionally dated to 753 BC) down to Livy’s own time (9 BC). Although only 35 of these books have survived, they alone require about 2500 pages of text in a modern edition. Pliny the Younger tells us of a young man from Spain “who was so impressed by the name and reputation of Titus Livius that he journeyed from the end of the inhabited world just to see him, looked, turned about and went back home”, and it’s little wonder.

These first five books of Livy’s history cover the mythical foundation of Rome, the history of the seven kings, and then the course of republican Rome down to 390 BC, when the city suffered its first major military defeat, at the hands of a Gallic army. How much of this is real history and how much legendary embellishment is hard to say. Livy, who did not pretend to be an original historian and who is open about his reliance on pre-existing sources, notes that few written records survived from this period owing to the calamitous burning of the city that accompanied this same military defeat. Probably we are dealing with an admixture of legend and history, with the proportion of legend greater the more distant the past, roughly speaking.

Livy’s is an annalistic history: he narrates events year by year, rather than following story arcs one at a time and back-tracking. This has its advantages and disadvantages, of course, but I appreciated that I always knew where I was on the timeline.

Everyone knows the two founding stories of Rome — that Aeneas founded the city after fleeing Troy in the aftermath of the Trojan War, and that the twin brothers Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf and somehow founded the city too — but not everyone, I think, knows how the two stories are related. Aeneas was indeed taken to be the remote founder of Rome for having established what was to become Roman stock on Italian soil, but it was many generations before the city itself was formed, and Romulus and Remus were the proximate founders of the city. They argued over which of the seven hills of Rome should be the initial foundation — Palatine or Aventine, respectively — and Romulus (or one of his followers) killed Remus, and went on to become the city’s first king. The Romans dated these events to (what we now call) 753 BC.

Romulus was credited with establishing the basic political structure of Rome, dividing the people into patricians and plebs, and founding the senate. He formed an army and led it into battle against Rome’s neighbours. (One of these outings was the famous rape of the Sabine women.) The subsequent king, Numa Pompilius, was said to have founded the principal religious rites of the Romans. In later centuries Romans looked back at the actions of these first two kings as having established the Roman character as that of a fighting people who honour the gods (as opposed, say, to seeing themselves as a pious people who fight when necessary — an important difference of emphasis).

As time went on, succession of the kingship became gradually more contested, and with the seventh king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who took the throne by murdering his predecessor and those who stood to receive the crown before him, Rome had a genuine tyrant on its hands. He was eventually overthrown and, in 509 BC, the Romans re-founded their government as a republic, maintaining a horror of kingship thereafter.

(It is interesting that the date assigned to the founding of republican Rome might be an instance of the Romans trying to upstage the Athenians, who established their democracy in 508 BC.)

In place of a king, the Romans established the office of consul. Consuls were elected by the senate, two at a time, and governed for a period of one year. The plebs, however, protesting that the consuls, drawn from the patrician class, governed with only their own class’ interests in mind, pressured their leaders to establish a second office, that of tribune, to be elected by the plebs and granted certain powers.

From this point, with the principal pieces of Roman government in place, there are two main threads to the history. On one hand, there are the military and political conflicts with regional powers, and, on the other, persistent internal conflict between the patricians and plebs.

The principal regional powers with whom Rome came into conflict in this period were the Veii, Volsci, and Aequi. It is worth emphasizing just how small Rome’s reach was at this time: their most threatening neighbour was Veii, located just a dozen miles from Rome; so these “wars” are really local skirmishes. Many wonderful stories are woven into this military history — Horatius at the bridge, the courage of Mucius, the vengeful fury of Coriolanus, the reckless lust of Appius Claudius, and the splendid civic virtue of Cincinnatus. It was farmer-general Cincinnatus who led the Romans to one of their first great military victories, against the Volsci and Aequi, around the year 450 BC.

As for Rome’s internal politics, it was a slow-boiling conflict that occasionally spilled over into violence. Around the middle of the 5th century the plebs began to push for the introduction of written law, so as to be less vulnerable to the whim of the consuls. Rome sent a delegation to Athens to study Solon’s reforms, and finally committed to the production of ten (later twelve) large, public tablets outlining Roman law. To produce these Twelve Tables, the Romans temporarily replaced the two consuls with a new form of government by a group of ten men called (sensibly enough) decemvirs, but the power of this office was so badly abused that it lasted only a few years, reverting to the trusted consulship. The Romans also created the office of dictator, a temporary position to be granted to one man in times of emergency, and the office of censor, originally intended to be responsible for taking a periodic census but later destined to become one of the most powerful positions in Roman government.

In Book V Livy narrates two episodes of great importance. The first is the war with Veii. The Romans and the Veii had long been in conflict with one another over land and access to precious resources (like salt). Veii was a strongly fortified city, and a formidable opponent. As matters came to a head, the patrician Camillus, one of the most honoured figures in Roman history, was named dictator and took charge of the army. He directed that a great tunnel be secretly made that burrowed under the walls of Veii and into its sewer system. This was successfully done, and, in an echo of the story of the Trojan Horse, a group of Roman soldiers was able to surprise the citizens of Veii by appearing inside their walls, throwing open the gates and allowing the whole army to enter. The victory was decisive, and the survivors were sold as slaves, leaving the city empty.

It was, to that point, Rome’s greatest victory, but the celebrations were short-lived, for a new enemy appeared on the scene: the Gauls. Livy doesn’t go into great detail about where they came from, but I understand that they were a tribe from north of the Alps who descended into Italy and proved too strong for most to resist. Exactly how they came into conflict with Rome is unclear — Livy gives a few different versions of how and why — but somehow the Romans found them approaching the city walls. Although they mustered an army, the Gallic forces were intimidating and the Roman defenders buckled and fled. The gates were not even secured, and the Gauls entered the city to loot and burn it. Only the Capitol remained defended, and the Gauls began a siege. As the Roman summer wore on, however, the Gauls fell ill as the Romans starved, and eventually the two sides agreed to terms: the Romans would pay and the Gauls would depart. Yet, so the story goes, as the payment was being prepared the contempt of the Gauls so angered the Romans that Camillus, rallying his weakened troops, ordered a sudden attack, and the Gauls were driven out.

Rome was so thoroughly devastated that the people made plans to relocate to the now-empty city of Veii, abandoning Rome for good, but Camillus, in a stirring speech re-imagined by Livy, convinced them to stay and rebuild. For this reason, he was later honoured as the “second founder” of Rome. But though they did rebuild, the memory of this first sack of Rome remained in the Roman imagination as a great horror, and they resolved that it should never happen again. (And, indeed, their resolve was strong, for it would be 850 years before another enemy force breached the walls.)


So ends this first volume in Livy’s history. My knowledge of Roman history is middling to weak, so most of this has been new to me, and all of it has been enjoyable to read. I am looking forward to the next volume.


“Whatever activity is rewarded in a state invariably thrives the most.” (Book IV, ii)

Lecture night: Pope vs. Hitler

November 16, 2016

The Pius Wars, contesting the role that Pope Pius XII played in World War II, seem to have waned in recent years, but a new book on the subject, by Mark Reibling, has been getting a fair bit of attention. Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler is based in part on newly available documents which reveal not only that Pius XII was aware of numerous plots to assassinate Hitler, but that he actively aided the conspirators and acted as an emissary between them and the Allies.

Though legitimate questions remain, I think, about whether Pius’ strategy of subterfuge and oblique criticism of Nazism (as opposed to open and vociferous opposition) was the wisest course, the evidence marshalled by Reibling should lay to final rest the old accusations that he was secretly on Hitler’s side, as was once claimed.

Here is an extended interview about the book that Reibling gave to NPR:

There is also a television documentary, based on the book, that is quite good.

Cobbett: The Protestant Reformation

October 17, 2016

220px-william_cobbettA History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland
William Cobbett
(TAN Books, 1988) [c.1825]
432 p.

I do not know much about William Cobbett, but based on this book he seems the sort who had a habit of placing his index finger on the sternum of his conversation partners, who made honest but uncomfortable remarks at dinner parties, and who was a nasty thorn in the side of the establishment. He burned with zeal for justice. In this book he sallies out to slay a giant — the historiography of the English Reformation, which he calls “a mass of the most base falsehoods and misrepresentations” promulgated by “crafty and selfish revilers of the religion of our fathers” who are full of “presumption, impudence, inconsistency, and insincerity”.

Cobbett was himself a Protestant, but he despised the way the history of English religion since Henry VIII had been white-washed. Curiously, in this book he evinces little interest in “rites and ceremonies and articles of faith and rules of discipline”; he has no theological purpose. His wants simply to set the historical record straight, and then to argue that, quite apart from doctrinal matters, the Reformation was a social disaster for England.

His general view can be summarized, as gently and succinctly as possible, in the following way:

Now, my friends, a fair and honest inquiry will teach us, that this was an alteration greatly for the worse; that the “REFORMATION,” as it is called, was engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood; and that, as to its more remote consequences, they are, some of them, now before as in that misery, that beggary, that nakedness, that hunger, that everlasting wrangling and spite, which now stare us in the face and stun our ears at every turn, and which the “Reformation” has given us in exchange for the ease and happiness and harmony and Christian charity, enjoyed so abundantly, and for so many ages, by our Catholic forefathers.

In other words, to counter the prevailing history in which Protestants did no wrong and Catholics did no right, Cobbett threw his weight heavily in the opposite direction, arguing not only that the motives and methods of the Protestants were evil, but that England before the Reformation was a kind of terrestrial paradise, untroubled by the problems besetting the sceptered isle in his own time. The lopsidedness of this view makes it vulnerable for many of the same reasons that the standard history was vulnerable, but, at the same time, it is rather thrilling to follow his take-no-prisoners approach.

A word-mincer he is not. He cites with evident relish Martin Luther’s description of Henry VIII as “a pig, an ass, a dunghill, the spawn of an adder, a basilisk, a lying buffoon dressed in a king’s robes, a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face”, and then piles on by calling the king a “savage monster” and “the most unjust, hard-hearted, meanest and most sanguinary tyrant that the world had ever beheld”. Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, is “a name which deserves to be held in everlasting execration; a name which we could not pronounce without almost doubting of the justice of God, were it not for our knowledge of the fact, that the cold-blooded, most perfidious, most impious, most blasphemous caitiff expired, at last, amidst those flames which he himself had been the chief cause of kindling.” Cromwell is “slavish and base”, “the most insolent and cruel of ruffians”. Elizabeth, lauded by Protestant historians as “good Queen Bess”, Cobbett dubs “ripping-up Betsy”, “inexorable apostate”, “horrible lynx-like she-tyrant”, “terrible she-tyrant”, “termagant tyrant”, and “the worst woman that ever existed in England, or in the whole world, Jezebel herself not excepted.” Reformers in general he calls “ruffian devastators” for whom “plunder, sacrilege, adultery, polygamy, incest, perjury, and murder were almost as habitual as sleeping and waking”. By contrast, the Catholic queen Mary — “Bloody Mary” by convention — he cites as an “example of fidelity, sincerity, patience, resignation, generosity, gratitude, and purity in thought, word and deed”. The standard history he assaults from every side.


Though Cobbett, as I said, does not try to argue specific doctrinal points of contention between Catholics and Protestants, and indeed seems to think them almost matters of indifference, he does not forbear to prosecute the case of inconsistency against the Protestant reformers. He wryly notes that the Protestant polemic against Catholicism — the “Scarlet Whore” — risks proving too much: so great was the Established Church’s debt to Catholicism that each polemical assault on the latter could not but weaken the former as well. The Protestant devotion to the Bible, for instance, could only survive in the company of anti-Catholicism so long as the Catholic origins of the Bible were ignored:

To a pretty state do we come, when we, if we still listen to these calumniators, proclaim to the world, that our only hope of salvation rests on promises contained in a book, which we have received from the Scarlet Whore and of the authenticity of which we have no voucher other than that Scarlet Whore and that Church, whose worship is “idolatrous” and whose doctrines are “damnable.”

Similarly he lampoons the notion that there could be any legitimate national head of the Church who promulgates teachings in contradiction of the Pope’s, and yet somehow not have the unity of that national Church with the Church universal be impaired:

It is perfectly monstrous to suppose that there can be TWO true faiths. It cannot be: one of the two must be false. … How is the faith of all nations to continue to be ONE, it there be, in every nation, a head of the Church, who is to be appealed to, in the last resort, as to all questions, as to all points of dispute, which may arise? How, if this be the case, is there to be “one fold and one shepherd”? How is there to be “one faith and one baptism”? how are the “unity of the spirit and the bond of peace” to be preserved? We shall presently see what unity and what peace there were in England, the moment that the King became the head of the Church.

This is not a theological problem, as such, but simply a logical one: the Church of England cannot both be and not be part of the Catholic Church.


But inconsistencies of this sort don’t matter greatly to Cobbett because he believes they didn’t really matter greatly to the Reformers themselves. Instead, to his mind the intellectual case against Catholicism, cobbled and threadbare as it was, was simply cover for the real motive: plunder. There was “plunder at the bottom”; plunder was “the mainspring” from which the rest flowed.

I won’t pretend to adjudicate the motives of the Reformers, but I will agree with Cobbett that it would be foolish to consider those motives without taking plunder into account. There was immense wealth at stake: Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, with the confiscation of their lands and goods, and then appropriation of Church valuables, and his decision to give that wealth to the co-operative noble families of the realm meant that the nobility had powerful incentives to let Henry have his way in religious matters. Cobbett argues that the treatment of Catholics was harsher than that meted out to other religious groups at odds with the king, such as Quakers and Jews, and he attributes this to the simple fact that the Catholics had the wealth that the king wanted.

Whatever their motives, the dissolution of the monasteries was, for Cobbett, the chief calamity of the English reformation, for it did immeasurable harm to rural England. The monasteries had been more than simply houses of prayer: they were the chief landowners, and landlords, in the nation. Each monastery was a central hub for agriculture and commerce, on which ordinary people depended for their livelihoods, and monasteries were, by and large, good for those who depended on them:

…The Monastery was a proprietor that never died; its tenantry had to do with a deathless landlord; its lands and houses never changed owners; its tenants were liable to none of many uncertainties that other tenants were; its oaks had never to tremble at the axe of the squandering heir; its manors had not to dread a change of lords; its villagers had all been born and bred up under its eye and care; their character was of necessity a thing of great value, and, as such, would naturally be an object of great attention. A Monastery was the centre of a circle in the country, naturally drawing to it all that were in need of relief, advice, and protection, and containing a body of men, or of women, having no cares of their own, and having wisdom to guide the inexperienced, and wealth to relieve the distressed.

And was it a good thing, then, to plunder and devastate these establishments; was it a reformation to squander estates, thus employed, upon lay persons, who would not, who could not, and did not, do any part or particle of those benevolent acts, and acts of public utility, which naturally arose out of the monastic institutions?

When the monasteries were seized and the monks and nuns evicted, all those who depended upon them suffered, for the nobles who received the properties did not, by and large, live on those estates, but governed them from afar, and without the personal investment and sense of responsibility that had previously prevailed. Cobbett argues that in time this sea change in English economic and social life gave rise to a new English type: the pauper, the truly destitute citizen who had nowhere to turn for help. It harmed everyone except the most powerful:

To turn the possessors of so large a part of the estates out of those estates, to destroy establishments venerated by the people from their childhood, to set all law, divine as well as human, at defiance, to violate every principle on which property rested, to rob the poor and helpless of the means of sustenance, to deface the beauty of the country, and make it literally a heap of ruins…

[The dissolution of the monasteries was] “a breach of Magna Charta in the first place; a robbery of the monks and nuns in the next place; and, in the third place, a robbery of the indigents, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.”

This line of argument is, for me, among the most interesting and, assuming that the facts are straight, compelling that Cobbett offers. I’d not really considered the Reformation from an economic point of view before, my own interests tending in other directions, but I can certainly see that the “transfer of ownership” (forgive the euphemism) of all those abbeys — and there were hundreds at the time of the Reformation, dotting the landscape across the whole of England –churches, and lands must have had a significant effect on the tenant farmers of those lands. Cobbett follows this thread right down to his own time, arguing that, one thing leading to another, the rise of Protestantism in England was a cause of much of the economic devastation he saw around him, and even led to the national debt (by way of funding wars against Catholics)!


It is fair to say that Cobbett sees no redeeming features in the reign of Henry VIII, and his successor Edward VI doesn’t fare much better. He cites David Hume’s History of England — the “lying book, which the Scotch call our history” — which says that

“All English historians dwell with pleasure on the excellences of this young king, whom the flattering promises of hope, joined to many real virtues, had made an object of the most tender affections of the public. He possessed mildness of disposition, a capacity to learn and to judge, and attachment to equity and justice.”

To which Cobbett offers the acerbic rejoinder:

Of his mildness we have, I suppose, a proof in his assenting to the burning of several Protestants, who did not protest in his way; in his signing of the death warrants of his two uncles; and in his wish to bring his sister Mary to trial for not conforming to what she deemed blasphemy, and from doing which he was deterred only by the menaces of the Emperor her cousin. So much for his mildness. As for his justice, who can doubt of that, who thinks of his will to disinherit his two sisters, even after the judges had unanimously declared to him, that it was contrary to law? The “tender affection” that the people had for him was, doubtless, evinced, by their rising in insurrection against his ordinances from one end of the kingdom to the other, and by their demanding the restoration of that religion, which all his acts tended wholly to extirpate.

So much for Edward VI.


As I mentioned above, Cobbett’s general strategy of switching the labels on those traditionally designated unimpeachably-good or irredeemably-bad leads him to say kind things about Mary I. Now, the tradition had dubbed her “Bloody Mary”, which is, to say the least, rather one-sided, so Cobbett’s defence of her has merit simply as a corrective. In fact, he’s more nuanced in his defence of her than is typical for him: he defends her not as being above criticism, but as being no worse than Henry VIII or Elizabeth, and in some respects better.

He argues, for instance, that she was, at least, not a hypocrite: she persecuted those who held a faith contrary to her own, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who held a faith that she herself had previously professed and defended. Moreover, she persecuted those who departed from the faith of their parents, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who adhered to it; she defended the virtue of filial piety. Also, he argues that she acted as she did to contain and correct a situation created by her predecessors, not one of her own creation; she was a defender rather than an aggressor.

These and other arguments can be legitimately made in Mary’s defence (and other historians have expanded on the case). Though the lengths to which we will go to defend a woman who killed 283 (Cobbett thinks 277) of her religious opponents is necessarily limited. About these executions, Cobbett’s treatment is a mixture of fair and foul. Among his praiseworthy contributions is to point out that, although it is true that Mary re-instated statutes permitting the burning of heretics, statutes that had been previously repealed by Edward VI, it is not often noted that the reason Edward had repealed them was not from a surfeit of tender-heartedness, but because the statutes in question specifically authorized the burning of those who taught “contrary to the Catholic faith”, an awkward fact for Edward since it authorized the burning of his own party rather than his opponents. And although Cobbett correctly notes that Elizabeth executed more of her religious opponents than Mary did, he fails to note that Mary achieved her total in just a few years, as opposed to Elizabeth’s few decades.


Cobbett’s treatment of Elizabeth I is also fairly nuanced. It is true that he peppers his prose with a litany of devastating sobriquets, some of which I cited earlier. Here he sums up his case against her:

Elizabeth was as great a tyrant as ever lived; she was the most cruel of women; her disgusting amours were notorious; yet, she was the most popular sovereign that had ever reigned since the days of Alfred; and we have thousands of proofs, that her people, of all ranks and degrees, felt a most anxious interest in everything affecting her life or her health. Effects like this do not come from ordinary causes. Her treatment of great masses of her people, her almost unparalleled cruelties, her flagrant falsehoods, her haughtiness, her insolence and her lewd life, were naturally calculated to make her detested, and to make her people pray for any thing that might rid them of her.

We seem to have a puzzle before us: Elizabeth was cruel and detestable, but her people nonetheless rallied to her and were anxious for her well-being. The reason is not far to seek: the alternative to her was, by and large, considered worse. The alternative was subjection of England to foreign powers:

According to the decision of the head of the Catholic Church, Elizabeth was an usurper; if she were an usurper, she ought to be set aside; if she were set aside, Mary Stuart and the King of France became Queen and King of England; if they became Queen and King of England, England became a mere province, ruled by Scotchmen and Frenchmen, the bare idea of which was quite sufficient to put every drop of English blood in motion. All men, therefore, of all ranks in life, whether Protestants or Catholics, were for Elizabeth.

The “decision” alluded to was Pope Pius V’s Regnans in Excelsis, a papal bull which condemned Elizabeth’s birth as illegitimate and her claim to the throne as empty. Both charges were true, but if there were ever a case study to illustrate the value of a prudent silence, this is it, for the Pope’s bull put Elizabeth herself in an impossible position, provoked an intense persecution of English Catholics, and, in the end, nearly erased Catholicism from English life. Elizabeth acted from self-preservation:

In short, she saw clearly, that, if her people remained Catholics, she could never reign in perfect safety. She knew that she had no hereditary right; she knew that the law ascribed her birth to adultery. She never could think of reigning quietly over a people the head of whose Church refused to acknowledge her right to the crown. And resolving to wear that crown, she resolved, cost what ruin or blood it might, to compel her people to abandon that very religion, her belief in which she had, a few months before, declared, by praying to “God that the earth might open and swallow her alive, if she were not a true Roman Catholic.”

And so she prosecuted a policy of sustained and quite aggressive persecution of Catholics in her realm, a campaign that has been well-studied and about which I have written before (here). Cobbett also reviews the main features of this policy, and is quite good at conveying the experience of Catholics under what was, in effect, an early police state:

The Catholic gentleman’s own house afforded him no security; the indiscretion of children or friends, the malice of enemies, the dishonesty or revenge of tenants or servants, the hasty conclusions of false suspicion, the deadly wickedness of those ready to commit perjury for gain’s sake, the rapacity and corruption of constables, sheriffs, and magistrates, the virulent prejudice of fanaticism; to every passion hostile to justice, happiness, and peace; to every evil against which it is the object of just laws to protect a man, the conscientious Catholic gentleman lived continually exposed; and that, too, in that land which had become renowned throughout the world by those deeds of valour and those laws of freedom which had been performed and framed by his Catholic ancestors.

In the end, Elizabeth is portrayed as a ruthless and unprincipled monarch, but one whose hand was forced by papal imprudence and who acted to defend England.


With the accession of James I, Cobbett’s history begins to move more rapidly, and he returns to an emphasis on the social and economic consequences of the English Reformation. He argues, for instance, that the decision of the English monarchs to fight “no popery” wars on the continent led to the establishment of the English national debt, a millstone around the necks of all Englishman that continued to be borne in his day (and ours). (Yet I note that he does not consider the possibility that a Catholic England might have similarly fought “no popery” wars on the continent, but fought on the other side.) He describes the Penal Laws against Catholics that continued for generations after the Reformation, barring them from universities, civil or military service, and imposing other disabilities. He argues that James II was overthrown precisely because he suspended these laws and granted liberty of conscience; I don’t know this history well enough to know how plausible that claim is.

Although the French Revolution is not exactly part of English history, Cobbett can’t resist comparing the typical response of the English establishment to militant French atheism with the facts of England’s own history:

Now, in the first place, they saw about forty sorts of Protestant religion; they knew that thirty-nine of them must be false; they had seen our rulers make a church by law, just such an one as they pleased; they had seen them alter it by law; and, if there were no standard of faith; no generally acknowledged authority; if English law-makers were to change the sort of religion at their pleasure; why, pray, were not French law-makers to do the same? If English law-makers could take the spiritual supremacy from the successor of Saint Peter, and give it to HENRY THE-WIFE-KILLER, why might not the French give theirs to LEPEAU? Besides, as to the sort of religion, though ATHEISM is bad enough, could it be WORSE than what you tell us is “idolatrous and damnable”? It might cause people to be damned; but could it cause them to be more than damned? Alas!

And so it goes, as he brings his history up to the events of his own time.


The title of the book indicates that it is about the Reformation in England “and Ireland”. I haven’t said much about Ireland in these notes, and that because while Cobbett does occasionally refer to events in Ireland, he doesn’t give it a sustained treatment, and I don’t know enough to fill in the gaps. The Irish Penal Laws are his chief interest.


This is a highly enjoyable book. Yes, it is cranky, and surely a comparably-toned book written today would rub me the wrong way, but we make allowances for dear English eccentrics, and Cobbett is certainly one, in the best sense.

At the close of his book, he sums up his admirable motives in writing it, and it seems fitting to quote them in conclusion:

I have now performed my task. I have made good the positions with which I began. Born and bred a Protestant of the Church of England, having a wife and numerous family professing the same faith, having the mains of most dearly beloved parents lying in a Protestant church-yard, and trusting to conjugal or filial piety to place mine by their side, I have, in this undertaking, had no motive, I can have had no motive, but a sincere and disinterested love of truth and justice. It is not for the rich and the powerful of my countrymen that I have spoken; but for the poor, the persecuted, the proscribed. I have not been unmindful of the unpopularity and the prejudice that would attend the enterprise; but, when I considered the long, long triumph of calumny over the religion of those, to whom we owe all that we possess that is great and renowned; when I was convinced that I could do much towards the counteracting of that calumny; when duty so sacred bade me speak, it would have been baseness to hold my tongue, and baseness superlative would it have been, if, having the will as well as the power, I had been restrained by fear of the shafts of falsehood and of folly. To be clear of self-reproach is amongst the greatest of human consolations; and now, amidst all the dreadful perils, with which the event that I have treated of has, at last, surrounded my country, I can, while I pray God to save her from still further devastation and misery, safely say, that, neither expressly nor tacitly, am I guilty of any part of the cause of her ruin.

Weaver: Ideas Have Consequences

January 14, 2016

weaver-consequencesIdeas Have Consequences
Richard M. Weaver
(University of Chicago, 1948)
175 p.

“This is another book about the dissolution of the West.”

Such is the desultory opening sentence of a book that has, I think it is fair to say, achieved the status of a minor classic of contemporary conservatism. It is a curious book in some respects, rather uneven, but at its best it’s very good indeed. The title serves as an apt reference point for the book as a whole: ideas do have consequences, and Weaver takes us on a tour of the generally bad consequences that have followed from the generally bad ideas that animate the contemporary West.

The structure of the book is fairly loose. The chapters are arranged thematically: one about the modern aversion to hierarchy, another about the fragmentation of culture, one about modern media, another about political entitlements, and so forth. To the extent that there is an over-arching argument, it proceeds roughly as follows: key intellectual developments in late medieval Europe gave birth to a set of ideas that have animated the West for the past half-millenium, and those same ideas are progressively destroying the culture to which they gave rise. At the end, he speculates on what we ought to do about it.

The book is better on the small scale than on the large. Weaver must have been a world-class grouch, and he has a deliciously acerbic wit. His writing is often pungent, and cries out to be quoted. I’ll append a string of my favourite quotations to the bottom of this post.

Weaver famously identified the canker at the heart of Western culture with the nominalism of William of Ockham in the 14th century. Nominalism denied that things have real natures apart from the human mind, or at least denied that we can know them. This made possible the belief, at the heart of modernity from the beginning, that “man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals”. Weaver sees following in its train a host of distinctly modern ideas: a new theory of nature as a self-operating mechanism, the rise of empiricism, materialism, dialectical materialism in economics and politics, behaviorism, and on down the line.

Weaver is particularly good when he plucks at our culture’s aversion to social hierarchy and the making of distinctions: “The most portentous general event of our time is the steady obliteration of those distinctions which create society.” The problem has only gotten worse since he wrote, so this is prescient. Conservatives have long argued that when equality is taken as the highest good, the result, intended or not, is likely to be strife and conflict, for expectations of equality give rise to envy in the face of even natural and spontaneous degrees of distinction. Moreover, if all desires are held as equally worthy then the clash of conflicting desires can only be understood as a contest of wills, a struggle for power, rather than something judicable by a higher authority or standard. Weaver cites Shakespeare to this effect:

O, when degree is shak’d
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!…
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. [Troilus and Cressida, I.III.]

And he is himself quite good on the relative value of equality and fraternity as social ideals:

The comity of peoples in groups large or small rests not upon this chimerical notion of equality, but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it (equality) in history because it (fraternity) goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing. It calls for respect and protection, for brotherhood is status in family, and family is by nature hierarchical. It demands patience with little brother, and it may sternly exact duty of big brother. It places people in a network of sentiment, not of rights — that hortus siccus of modern vainglory.

In any case, the emancipators attack social hierarchy but tend to then replace it with bureaucratic hierarchy. This we have in abundance.

Some of Weaver’s other points, such as his observation that specialization cuts against the ideal of the well-integrated mind and contributes to the fragmentation of a common culture, or that we lose perspective when immersed in a clamouring media environment, are quite obvious and have by now become commonplace. There are times when his disdain for modernity gets the better of him, as when he describes jazz as “the clearest of all signs of our age’s deep-seated predilection for barbarism.” Far be it from me to give a positive defence of jazz, but this does seem excessively grouchy. But even this comment takes place in the context of an overview of the trajectory of serious music since 1900 which is, on the whole, astute and defensible.

Toward the end of the book he considers resources for renewal. He stresses the importance of private property rights, which he, rather surprisingly to me, describes as “the last metaphysical right”. He explains: “We say the right of private property is metaphysical because it does not depend on any test of social usefulness.” It is interesting that he sees private property in this light, rather than simply as a buttress against governmental power.

But even more than this Weaver recommends a revival of piety, which he defines as “a discipline of the will through respect”, arguing that piety is necessary on three fronts: toward nature, toward others, and toward the past. Modernity, conceived of from the beginning as a means to power through knowledge and of emancipation from the past, has always had intrinsic difficulty with the first and third. Piety toward nature would include a sincere concern for the integrity and health of our natural environment (and thus a corrective to the political right, broadly speaking) as well as, for instance, respect for the human body and the legitimate differences between the sexes (and thus a corrective to the political left, broadly speaking). Hostility toward the past is practically a defining feature of modernity: “I would maintain that modern man is a parricide. He has taken up arms against, and he has effectually slain, what former men have regarded with filial veneration. He has not been conscious of crime but has, on the contrary… regarded his actions as a proof of virtue.” This pride that modernity feels in its destructive actions is a real phenomenon, and it makes the case for recovery seem hopeless. But for those of us who must live our lives in this particular time and place, we must salvage the fragments we have shored against our ruin, and Weaver’s counsel, though limited, does seem very much on point.


Now let me gather up some of the juicier quotations that I gleaned while reading:

“The final degradation of the Baconian philosophy is that knowledge becomes power in the service of appetite.”

“Comfort becomes a goal when distinctions of rank are abolished and privileges destroyed.” (De Tocqueville)

“The very notion of eternal verities is repugnant to the modern temper.”

“Fanaticism has been properly described as redoubling one’s effort after one’s aim has been forgotten.”

[Lost perspective]
Our most serious obstacle is that people traveling this downward path develop an insensibility which increases with their degradation. Loss is perceived most clearly at the beginning; after habit becomes implanted, one beholds the anomalous situation of apathy mounting as the moral crisis deepens. It is when the first faint warnings come that one has the best chance to save himself; and this, I suspect, explains why medieval thinkers were extremely agitated over questions which seem to us today without point or relevance… We approach a condition in which we shall be amoral without the capacity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure our descent.

[Importance of sentiment to reason]
When we affirm that philosophy begins with wonder, we are affirming in effect that sentiment is anterior to reason. We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by an affective interest. In the cultural life of man, therefore, the fact of paramount importance about anyone is his attitude toward the world. How frequently it is brought to our attention that nothing good can be done if the will is wrong! Reason alone fails to justify itself. Not without cause has the devil been called the prince of lawyers, and not by accident are Shakespeare’s villains good reasoners. If the disposition is wrong, reason increases maleficence; if it is right, reason orders and furthers the good.

[Conservatism as respect for existing forms]
We invariably find in the man of true culture a deep respect for forms. He approaches even those he does not understand with awareness that a deep thought lies in an old observance. Such respect distinguishes him from the barbarian, on the one hand, and the degenerate, on the other. The truth can be expressed in another way by saying that the man of culture has a sense of style. Style requires measure, whether in space or time, for measure imparts structure, and it is structure which is essential to intellectual apprehension.

[Psychology of progressivism]
Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will now strip away. Imagination and indirection it identifies with obscurantism; the mediate is an enemy to freedom.

[Majority rule]
The Federalist authors especially were aware that simple majority rule cannot suffice because it does everything without reference; it expression of feeling about the moment at the moment, restrained neither by abstract idea nor by precedent.

[Metaphysics and sentimentality]
our conception of metaphysical reality finally governs our conception of everything else, and, if we feel that creation does not express purpose, it is impossible to find an authorization for purpose in our lives. Indeed, the assertion of purpose in a world we felt to be purposeless would be a form of sentimentality.

It is just as if Plato’s philosopher had left the city to look at the trees and then had abandoned speculative wisdom for dendrology. The people who would urge just this course are legion among us today. The facts on the periphery, they feel, are somehow more certain.

[A man of understanding]
The man who understands has reason to be sure of himself; he has the repose of mastery. He is the sane man, who carries his center of gravity in himself; he has not succumbed to obsession which binds him to a fragment of reality. People tend to trust the judgments of an integrated personality and will prefer them even to the official opinions of experts. They rightly suspect that expertise conceals some abnormality of viewpoint.

[Modern provincials]
Many modern people to whom the word “provincial” is anathema are themselves provincials in time to an extreme degree. Indeed, modernism is in essence a provincialism, since it declines to look beyond the horizon of the moment, just as a countryman may view with suspicion whatever lies beyond his country.

[Rights and obligations]
Since under conditions of modern freedom the individual thinks only of his rights, he does not refer his actions to the external frame of obligation. His wish is enough. He cannot be disciplined on the theoretical level, and on the practical level he is disciplined only by some hypostatized social whole whose methods become brutal as its authority turns out to be, on investigation, merely human.

[Medieval ego]
Under the world view possessed by medieval scholars, the path of learning was a path of self-deprecation, and the philosophiae doctor was one who had at length seen a rational ground for humilitas. Study and meditation led him to a proper perspective on self, which then, instead of caricaturing the world with the urgency of its existence and the vehemence of its desires, found a place in the hierarchy of reality. Dante’s “In la sua voluntade e nostra pace” is the final discovery. Thus knowledge for the medieval idealist prepared the way for self-effacement.

[Modern media]
In our listening, voluntary or not, we are made to grow accustomed to the weirdest of juxtapositions: the serious and the trivial, the comic and the tragic, follow one another in mechanical sequence without real transition… Here, it would seem, is the apothesis; here is the final collapsing of values, a fantasia of effects, suggesting in its wild disorder the debris left by a storm. Here is the daily mechanical wrecking of hierarchy.

[A mental habit]
The habit of judging all things by their departure from the things of yesterday is reflected in most journalistic interpretation… The touchstone of progress simply schools the millions in shallow evaluation.

[Reflection and judgement]
The absence of reflection keeps the individual from being aware of his former selves, and it is highly questionable whether anyone can be a member of a metaphysical community who does not preserve such memory. Upon the presence of the past in the present depends all conduct directed by knowledge.

[Mind and religion]
The Greeks identified God with mind, and it will be found that every attack upon religion, or upon characteristic ideas inherited from religion, when its assumptions are laid bare, turns out to be an attack upon mind. Moral certitude gives the prior assurance of right sentiment. Intellectual integrity gives clarity to practice. There is some ultimate identification of goodness and truth, so that he who ignores or loses faith in the former can by no possible means save the latter.


Childs: God’s Traitors

November 7, 2015

childs-traitorsGod’s Traitors
Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England
Jessie Childs
(Bodley Head, 2014)
463 p.

I have discussed books about the history of Catholicism in England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I before. Jessie Childs has written a very interesting and well-researched volume covering the same period. What distinguishes hers from others, and what gives it considerable appeal, is its focus on several generations of one prominent recusant Catholic family: the Vaux family. They figure in any competent account of the Jesuit mission to England, for they were key players in protecting the priests and sustaining the mission, but putting them at the center of the story has the advantage of letting us see more clearly how the swirling religious and political controversies of the period affected real people.

In the case of the Vaux family, the most important figures were women: Anne and Eleanor, especially. They harboured priests, allowed Catholics to meet in their homes, had hides built into the walls and staircases of their manors, and provided whatever support the Jesuits needed. There is a certain irony in the fact that the prominence of women in this story is largely a result of the social and legal position of women in Elizabethan society. Because they could not own property, they could not have their property confiscated. Because they did not have careers in public life, they were not subject to the variety of impediments facing Catholics in public life. Their private social roles allowed them to act with a freedom that was simply not possible for men.

Childs brings her story up to the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. She is rather critical of the actions of Henry Garnet, SJ, who was the Jesuit Superior in England during most of the period she covers. Garnet learned of the Plot — or at least knew that something was afoot, even if the details were hidden from him — under the seal of the confessional. While acknowledging the inviolability of the seal (and, generally speaking, it should be said that Childs is even-handed but sympathetic in her treatment of Catholicism), and acknowledging that Garnet did take some action to avert the disaster, she ultimately judges him to have done too little. It’s a difficult point, with reasonable arguments on both sides.

Needless to say, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot was a calamity for Catholics throughout England. Whatever lackadaisical tolerance they might have enjoyed disappeared overnight. Numerous Catholics, priests and lay-people, including Henry Garnet himself, were captured and executed. Those tenacious Brits still burn Guy Fawkes in effigy every November 5. When it comes to the burdens English society placed on Catholics, on the other hand, and to the lives of the roughly 200 Catholics who were executed under Elizabeth in the years preceding the Plot, it is fair to say that they do not remember. Books like this one do the good service of reminding them, and us.

Farney: Social Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States

August 7, 2013

farneySocial Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States
James Farney
(University of Toronto Press, 2012)
208 p.

This book (written by a dear friend) examines the history and changing fortunes of social conservatism in North America since the Second World War. Generally speaking, social conservatives have had better success in the United States than in Canada, and the author argues that this has been only partly due to relative differences in opinion among the electorate; he stresses, in particular, differing views among the political classes about appropriate borders between the political and the personal (with the Canadians, influenced by British models, placing stricter limits on the scope of politics) as well as differences in party structure and discipline (with the Canadian parties subject to stricter discipline from party leaders).

These basic claims are illustrated through a thoughtful rehearsal of the history of social conservatism on both sides of the border. I found this tremendously informative, and valuable too for the perspective it brings to an appraisal of the current role of social conservatives in North American politics. For instance, social conservatives sometimes express disappointment with Stephen Harper (the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada) for his aloofness from matters of concern to them, especially abortion policy. Reading about the history of the conservative wing in Canadian politics, however, made me realize that Harper’s behavior is actually quite consistent with the mainstream of conservative politics in this country. That may not make social conservatives less disappointed, but it may make them less disappointed with him.

Another surprise was the generally positive appraisal of the efforts and accomplishments of Canadian social conservatives. I have generally considered the political wing of social conservatism in Canada to be weak and sickly, especially in comparison with its American counterpart. Though there is some reason in that assessment, this book helped me to see that, given their respective histories and differing political cultures, the Canadians have actually used fairly intelligent political tactics and achieved some notable successes — even if those successes have not extended to actual policy victories.

The book closes with a brief prediction about the future course of social conservatism. Although social conservatives have succeeded in influencing party platforms and political rhetoric, they have mostly failed to achieve their political objectives. This, together with the observation that public opinion is trending away from the social conservative positions on several issues which most interest them, leads to the prediction that the influence of social conservatism is likely to wane in the coming decades. This may well be true, but I am not wholly convinced: abortion, in particular, is an issue that seems to refuse to go away, and survey data indicate that public opinion lies somewhere on the social conservative side of the status quo; as such, there seems little reason for them to abandon the fight. Furthermore, the social conservative movement is reactionary — and I use the word in a descriptive, not a pejorative sense: it mobilizes around particular issues only because those at the other end of the political spectrum have raised the issues in the first place. Considering that the left seems in no mood to rest on its laurels, it may well serve as a source of continual rejuvenation for social conservatism.

The book is based on the author’s doctoral thesis, but it is written in an engaging and accessible style devoid of jargon. A reader like myself, with little background knowledge of the subject, has no difficulty following the argument. Many of the details in the book’s historical sections are based on the author’s interviews with the people involved, making it a particularly valuable resource for understanding a political movement so often misunderstood. Perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of the book is its even temper: one could hardly imagine a more fair-minded and disinterested account. I can heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand North American social conservatism in historical context.

Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War

July 8, 2012

The Peloponnesian War
(Free Press, 2008) [c.400 BC]
Edited by Robert B. Strassler
Translated from the Greek by Richard Crawley
752 p.

Thucydides’ history of the decades-long war between Athens and Sparta is generally considered to be the first great masterpiece of historical writing in the Western tradition. He wrote only a few decades after Herodotus, but his conception of what constituted specifically historical writing had sharpened up considerably in the meantime. Thucydides gives us very little in the way of anecdote or local colour; he is focused, detailed, and concise. His attention is focused on military affairs and politics, principally. Thucydides was himself an Athenian naval general, and he appears at several points in the narrative.

The Peloponnesian War was a messy affair. The principal opponents were Athens and Sparta, but over its 27 years the war drew the entire Greek-speaking world, and more, into its orbit. The history of the war turned on a long and complicated series of shifting allegiances between the principal powers and the lesser: Corinth, Argos, and the various island peoples scattered throughout the Aegean. Thucydides attributes the cause of the war to Spartan concern over the rising power of Athens, who had, in the wake of the defeat of the Persian invasion (recounted by Herodotus) built an extensive empire around the rim of the Aegean Sea. These far-flung holdings became a major problem for Athens as the war progressed, for subject peoples saw the war as an occasion for revolt, sometimes with Spartan support, against a weakened authority.

Thucydides made use of a novel technique to effectively present the factors and arguments that, in his judgement, most affected the progress of the war. At crucial junctures, he had important figures deliver speeches. By his own admission, these speeches were not “historical”; there was no transcript from which he could draw. Instead, his speeches were imaginative reconstructions of what he thought the figure “should have said” in his specific circumstances. Obviously, this is a respect in which Thucydides’ conventions of historical writing are not identical to ours, but, in his defence, the speeches make terrific reading.

One gains much from reading Thucydides: first of all, exposure to certain great men — Pericles, who counselled the Athenian assembly against war in the first place; the bold and tenacious Athenian general Nicias; the enterprising and scheming Alcibiades; the conquering Spartan Brasidas, to name a few; an appreciation for the uncontainable consequences of war, for who could have foreseen the tortured path this conflict would take?; many portraits, presented especially through the speeches, of the human side of war; a certain sad awareness of the plight of mankind, subject to so many forces and prone to make poor decisions (something that also, and perhaps especially, afflicts democracies); and a lively sense of the art of military strategy. It really is one of the great books.

As is well known, Thucydides did not finish his history, for the book covers only 21 of the 27 years of the conflict. I suppose I don’t give anything away by saying that eventually it was the Athenians who were defeated, largely because the Spartans were able to forge an alliance with the Persians. What happened after the war, with the March of the Ten Thousand, and the gradual decline of Greek power, and then the rise, some seventy years later, of a Macedonian power that would rival even the Persians in ambition and achievement — well, that is a story for another time.

I read The Landmark Thucydides edition of The Peloponnesian War, edited by Robert Strassler. It has all of the virtues that I enumerated when I wrote about The Landmark Herodotus some time ago: many maps to keep the reader oriented geographically, marginal summaries, parallel timelines for the various theatres of operation, a thorough glossary, a detailed index, and numerous appendices to fill out the historical background. It is a beautiful piece of work. Were it not available one would obviously struggle through anyhow, but since it is available I cannot imagine reading Thucydides without it.


Related reading: Steven Pressfield — The Tides of War