Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Virtues of Rutherford B. Hayes

I looked forward to Ari Hoogenboom’s Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President for several years. Sometimes long anticipation diminishes the enjoyment of the prize, especially if the imagination exaggerates its goodness. But this book hasn’t disappointed me at all. I had heard a little about this late-nineteenth-century President with a vision of racial equality in American education, and the biography has shown me a man with many admirable qualities. Where I once knew him only as one of several indistinguishable bearded Chief Executives, he’s now a three-dimensional personality to me.

The first thing that struck me about Hayes as portrayed by Hoogenboom is that he was a man of principle whose principles could be changed by a good argument. A friend has been telling me recently about studies that show that an argument against a held belief usually tends only to make a person defensive. Perhaps Hayes showed flexibility because he understood the difference between ideals and practicality and between means and ends. Concerning the first distinction, he once told supporters disappointed in his slowness to address their favorite issue that a politician can only fight one or at the most two battles at one time. This insight may have come from his experience as a colonel and then general in the Civil War as much as it came from his political experience. As an indication of the second distinction, Hayes disapproved of the Mexican War in the 1840s, even though he favored expansion of U. S. territory.

Hayes’s goals for his term in the White House included a return to a gold standard to pay off the paper-money debt from the Civil War. How weird it was to read about a time when pieces of paper currency were seen as little IOU’s from the federal government! After meeting this goal, Hayes saw the value of the paper dollar rise from seventy-something cents worth of gold to ninety-something cents worth. And by the way, he saw this economic reform through even though he owed a lot of money himself and would have benefitted personally from being able to pay off his debts with lower-value paper dollars.

Hayes also wanted to assure that national elections could be protected from fraud, not only because of his concern for the rights of southern Blacks and Republicans (who were pretty much the same people), but also because he had won his office in the most controversial presidential election in U. S. history. I’m sorry to say that recounts in Florida played a part in the story, but South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon were also involved, and two of those states ended up with two election boards apiece, each sending its own slate of electors to Washington for the electoral college. Hayes was declared President just two days before the inauguration, which took place in March in those days. Clearly protection of the integrity of elections was needed, and Hayes provided some means toward that end. When, near the end of his term, Democrats tried to repeal his election reforms by including their countermeasures as riders on appropriations bills, Hayes saw it as an attack on the constitutional rights of the President. Hayes, having never seen the twentieth- and twenty-first-century art of Congressional riders, saw the Democrats in essence taking away his veto power by making him choose between approving their changes in election policy or (by vetoing the bills) watching the federal government and army go out of business from lack of funds to pay the employees. But Hayes, who continued to fight in the Civil War despite receiving wounds on four separate occasions, called the their bluff and vetoed the bills anyway. His brave stance unified the squabbling Republicans and garnered enough national support to make the Democrats back down. 

His most heartfelt goal for his Presidency, though, was civil-service reform. Believing that postmasters and customs collectors should be appointed and retained on the basis of competence rather than political affiliation, he sent new rules to supervisors across the country detailing the kind of competitive exams they should give to prospective workers. He wanted the best people to get the jobs and, when the party in power changed, to retain the jobs. In another forward-thinking move, he appointed at least eighteen women to Postmistress General positions in cities as large as Louisville, Kentucky. Just as he didn’t want the party affiliation of the President to determine the holder of civil-service offices, he didn’t want the holders of civil-service offices to determine the outcome of Presidential elections. In order to promote that end, he prohibited anyone working for a post office or customs house from organizing conventions or running campaigns. And to assure that end at least once, he vowed that he would serve only one term.

After many struggles over the last sixty years – some famous and multitudes not so famous – of young African Americans trying to gain access to American education, we’ve come a long way. But we still haven’t achieved total racial equality, and, what disturbs me as much if not more, the education that we’re offering young Americans of all ethnicities continues to decline in quality rapidly. If Hayes were miraculously alive today (he would be 189!), would he be happy to see his vision for the most part realized? Would he be disappointed to see how long it has taken, how far we still have to go, and how low educational standards have fallen? Would the long anticipation have diminished the enjoyment of the prize?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Rutherford B. Hayes and Education

Ari Hoogenboom’s Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President is a nice, fat book, perfect for long plane flights. In fact, I’ve read the bulk of it in just three long travel days over the last six weeks. I became interested in Hayes while listening to a book on tape called The Presidents. (I don’t remember the author; it may have been a History Channel special.) Hayes stood out among nineteenth-century First Executives as a man with a cause who used the presidency and the ex-presidency to pursue his cause, where others tended to see the office as an end in itself. Even more remarkably, his cause was providing education for black children.

I love the book so far, but I’m beginning to question Hayes’s faith in education. Seeing the denial of education to some Americans as unjust is one thing; believing that it would solve all of America’s problems is another altogether. Hayes, elected in 1876, believed that educating southern blacks would put them into independent, stable, skilled jobs, and that educating southern whites would rid them of racial prejudice – in his lifetime. Perhaps Hayes erred partly in taking the content of education for granted. A prejudicial system can deepen the unjust prejudice of a culture. A system of practical, vocational education can only train to a certain number of jobs and can only provide a certain amount of dignity.

But even in a culture that includes higher mathematics, ancient languages, morality, philosophy, and religion in its educational system, students are free to ignore the lessons of their teachers. I read allusions to Dr. Johnson’s dictionary in both the Hayes book and in The Thirteen-Gun Salute. I wish I had learned about Samuel Johnson when I was sixteen. I wouldn’t be writing this blog today (or it would be very, very different) if I had learned about Samuel Johnson in public school. But I also have to admit that in nineteenth-century America and Britain, where students did learn about the great lexicographer, that lofty knowledge didn’t preclude terrible social problems.

In any case, the books I’ve been reading lately have me dreaming of the possibilities. Imagine a navy in which the officers regularly discuss philosophy and play Handel. Imagine a peaceful city where wild animals show no aggression toward humans. Imagine an America in which the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments are respected, and have been since their adoption. Imagine a free people who understand that education for a democracy doesn’t mean the same education for everyone, but rather the same opportunities for everyone at first and eventually the highest opportunities for the best students, without regard to any demographic line not mentioned in Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Common Knowledge

Patrick O’Brian’s The Thirteen-Gun Salute has me thinking about common knowledge and esoteric knowledge. What does everyone know these days? What does virtually nobody know? Most Americans my age sang the song “The Streets of Laredo” in school; few young people today know it. On the other hand, I’m guessing that only a few kids in the 60s knew what character sat at the top-left corner of a standard typewriter keyboard; every kid knows that now.

Pop culture homogenized American’s knowledge for a while. Whether they loved them or hated them, all of my firends in school recognized all forty of the top songs for any given week. With only three networks and no VCR, everyone I knew in the early 70s knew what night Bob Newhart was on and could name all the products advertised during the half hour just from their slogans or jingles. This dubious unity of consciousness seems to have disappeared to a great extent today. Pandora and iTunes make niche fandom feasible, and no one watches commercials anymore. On the other hand, every teenager today knows viral videos like “Friday” and “Charlie bit my finger.”

Whether in the sixties, seventies, or teenies, though, common knowledge in my lifetime has not included much in the way of poetry or philosophy. But aboard the fictional Diane, O’Brian’s Dr. Maturin says that man is a thinking reed, and Captain Jack Aubrey is familiar with the reference. I recognized the phrase from one of my very favorite books: Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. But I was surprised to find the bluff seaman taking its mention in stride. But then the English sea captain of 1810 had and needed a lot of education. Jack has to teach his young midshipmen astronomy and spherical trigonometry, and recitations of poetry take place frequently at the captain’s table. I don’t know if Jack’s knowledge of music was typical of the time, but he and Stephen play classical pieces regularly; near the end of this volume, they play Handel’s setting of Dryden’s "St. Cecilia’s Day."

In spite of my thoughts about common knowledge, the Aubrey-Maturin series is much more about the excitement of discovering new lands and new species unknown to any other westerners. The Napoleonic War was actually the first World War, with fighting on five continents and all four oceans. (There was probably action on Australia that I don’t know about, making it six continents.) And all the travel done by the crews of the warships brought them in contact with new (to them) languages, religions, customs, and dress, as well as new islands, new plants, and new animals. In one of the most spectacular passages, as Stephen climbs a tall mountain at Kumai (in present-day Indonesia, I think), he sees mosques give way to Hindu temples whose relief sculptures have been defaced by iconoclastic Muslims. At higher altitudes, the Hindu structures stop, and he finds no other signs of human existence until he reaches a Buddhist enclave on the peak. Here the gentle monks enjoy peace and share living space with several large species of animal who have known no human aggression for generations.

Sometimes the crew finds things well known to the rest of the world, but glimpse them in situations that the likes of me will not experience outside the imagination. Describing a rough sea, O’Brian already had me interested by waves taller than the ship, and thrilled me with the images of sails sagging when the wind is entirely blocked by these massive undulations. But he did something a lot like magic when he described a sight that had all the sailors staring: a mother whale and her calf swimming near the surface and suspended alongside the ship in one of the towering waves as if held behind a glass.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

One-and-a-half Caesars

I don’t know why, but I still assume that every book from the classical age will be boring. And yet almost every time they pleasantly surprise me. (There’s always an exception: Ovid’s Metamorphoses struck me just the way I thought all ancient books would. We’ll see what I think the next time I read it, near the end of the ten-year plan.) So far, the Twelve Caesars of Suetonius has surprised me immensely.

I’ve only read one-and-a-half Caesars at this point, but I’ve already encountered a lot of interesting material, some familiar and some new to me. Here’s Julius Caesar’s Veni, vidi, vici (along with Suetonius’ helpful observation that the phrase expresses not so much the order of events as their speed) and “The die is cast” and “You, too?” And here’s Augustus in all his hypocritical glory, alternately exhibiting mercy and cruelty, and making marriage laws for the good of society while he divorces twice and continues to have adulterous affairs after finding a wife he can stick with (Livia, whom he stole away from her husband). I have trouble keeping the braided genealogies straight and remembering the difference between a quaestor and an aedile, but the characters and the atmosphere are palpable.

Suetonius seems to try to stay fair about his subjects. Julius has his strengths, to be sure; but the biographer likes to explore his weaknesses and vices just as much, if not more. The Dictator comes out looking purely ambitious; his occasional displays of virtue all seem to spring from convenience or squeamishness. Augustus, by comparison, has no squeamish compunctions to keep him from sometimes torturing a political enemy with his own hands. He forgives people sometimes, but apparently at random. And yet his foresight and energy expanded the empire by both conquest and alliance and famously transformed Rome from a town of bricks to a city of marble.

I’m trying to figure out just what this fellow was like. Suetonius says Augustus bothered little with his clothing or hair, and preferred simple, cheap furniture, as if he took no thought of the privilege his station brought him. Yet he collected giant fossil bones and other curiosities, treasures that he surely gained only because he had unlimited power. He made sure to engage the shiest dinner guests in conversation, indicating a sensitivity to others’ feelings. And yet the presents he gave friends and associates sometimes consisted of gold and other treasures and sometimes of a poker or tongs for the fireplace, as if he took no thought at all for what the recipient might think. He liked to be by himself, usually with a good book, and he usually slept on a simple, low bed. But he expected a slave to fan him all night long. Was he particular about comfort or not? Did he consider himself alone when a slave stood nearby? As I quoted a couple of days ago, there’s no frigate like a book to take us lands away. And so far my latest excursion to imperial Rome is quite vivid.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

No Frigate Like a Book

“There is no frigate like a book,” said Emily Dickinson, “to take us lands away.” I’m not sure how Dickinson really knew this; since she barely left her room except through her imagination, she didn’t have the experience to make the comparison. I’ve traveled a lot both by physical conveyance and by the printed page, and I have to say that nothing beats the real thing. But the best books do bring us very close to the real experience, and especially when they take us to a land away that we have no chance of visiting in person, we all sense the exhilarating voyage of discovery that Dickinson had in mind.

But then, how did Patrick O’Brian know how to write such vivid depictions of life aboard a sailing ship? As far as nineteenth-century naval experience goes, O’Brian was as homebound as Dickinson. And yet he pulled it off, time after time. This morning I read a chapter from The Thirteen-Gun Salute, the thirteenth offering in the Aubrey-Maturin series, in which nothing seemed to happen. Jack Aubrey’s Surprise spotted a prize ship, chased her, and lost her, accomplishing nothing by this distraction from the actual mission. When I finished the chapter, I wondered for a moment why O’Brian had led me through the episode. Would the prize ship come back into the story? Would the delay cause other problems for the heroes? My next thought, though, reminded me that no matter what the answers to those questions would prove to be, O’Brian had taken me on an adventure I would never have the opportunity to experience first-hand.

I was there in the Irish Sea. I saw the dim, blue expanse of first light, when the eyes unable to distinguish sky from sea perceive only undifferentiated distance. I felt the frustration of a crew regretting the lack of wind and felt the sweeping oars in my hands, their handles smoothed by thousands of rotations in sailors’ calloused palms. I tasted the salt water splashing over the rail and the fresh rainwater that poured down during a gale. During the fastest part of the chase, I heard the hum of the lines and the gentle whipping of the edges of the sails, the shouts of information from the lookout on the masthead, and the work songs of the Sethians. And I smelled the coffee, the fish, even Dr. Maturin’s surgical instruments.

There is no frigate like a book. So what can surpass a good frigate of a book about frigates?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Short Course on Emerson

Having something as geeky as a ten-year reading plan (much less two) makes a guy look like a walking encyclopedia to some people. From time to time, I’ve had friends ask me about New England transcendentalism, assuming that I know stuff, and then of course I’ve had to let them down. Part of the problem has to do with the generic nature of its name. One friend asked me, “Is it like Kant? Kant was interested in the transcendental, right?” Well, yeah, but just because Kant and Emerson both think something transcends something else doesn’t mean they’re thinking of the same somethings.

A bigger part of the problem, though, has come from my not having read Emerson. It always amazes me how much clearer an author’s ideas become when I read them from the horse’s pen, no matter how many times I’ve read about them in a reference work. So in year 3, I read a bunch of Emerson’s essays, and suddenly the picture came into focus. For Emerson, what at first seems transcendent is right in our own backyard. God, the powers of nature, and the structure of the universe all lie in every particle. So forget tradition and social norms, and search your own soul for your answers. Any thought anyone has ever had, even the greatest ideas, can be had by anyone; reading history should be like reading autobiography.

Since everything connects to everything else, Emerson says, we should all set out on an upward journey of discovery. Falling in love with someone is a good way to begin; when your attraction to your love’s physical beauties eventually blows away like autumn leaves, you’ll learn to love the person, then the soul, then humanity, and finally the All. Don’t go to Italy to see Michelangelo, he says, if you can’t see Beauty all around you and within you. (This passage in my notes really jumped out at me considering my recent trip to Italy and my frequent encounters there with the Renaissance master.)

It would do me good to review all this great advice periodically and learn to see the world as a stained-glass window, a beautiful picture in itself that one can nevertheless look through to see an even greater beauty. The wisdom works even though he and I disagree on the nature of the ultimate reality we glimpse through the window. But I eventually have to  part ways with the philosopher of Concord; I stop short of denying any clear separating point between God and Man and of denying the personality of God (or “the All”). And the conclusion implied by those two premises (that humans aren’t persons and have no individuality) concerns me deeply.

If you’re like me (and I respect your individuality enough to entertain the possibility that you’re not), you might still have no very clear idea of Emerson’s transcendentalism after my few, brief observations. If you want a short introduction, I’d recommend reading four items from his first collection of essays: “History,” “Heroism,” and “The Over-Soul,” and “The Poet.”

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Same Old Thing

Every time I read Aquinas, it seems I say the same old thing in my blog posts. Aquinas is really smart. The elegant organization always amazes me. Aquinas uses reason, authority, and observation to make his points. The same old thing.

Sure enough, in his Treatise on Law, Aquinas organizes his material and draws on a variety of sources to establish his points. The main points in the portion I’ve read so far include these:

• Law is “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” It makes a man good by habituating him to good acts.

• Several kinds of law exist: eternal, natural, human, and divine. All but the first spring from the first: the eternal, supreme wisdom of God.

• The natural law results from our created participation in Divine wisdom. Its most general principles – do good and not harm, for instance – cannot be blotted out from the human heart, but the corrosion of human reason resulting from the Fall has eroded some of the more specific tenets. We need human law to provide incentive to those not well disposed to virtue and Divine Law to give us details inaccessible to our reason and to address the intentions of the heart.

I admit that Aquinas still surprises me when he explains what seems to me standard Christian doctrine. I keep expecting him to launch into three-hundred pages of something that looks specifically “Catholic” (whatever that might mean in my Protestant-trained mind) and not what C. S. Lewis would call “merely Christian.” But so far, after about eight-hundred dense pages from the Britannica set (equivalent to around 2400 standard pages), he hasn’t. In his section on the Old Testament Law, the Angelic Doctor teaches that the Law was good, but not perfect, and that only grace can fit us for eternal happiness. Concerning the seemingly contradictory usage of the word “justification” in the Scripture, Aquinas teaches that following the Law confers its own acquired justification, but that justification before God can only come from the Holy Spirit by grace. His teaching echoes the doctrine of Paul (whom he quotes extensively here) and prefigures the sola gratia of the Reformation, suggesting that a stable core of Christian doctrine truly exists. If I keep saying the same old thing, maybe it’s because I’m happy to see Aquinas saying the Same Old Thing.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Did Voltaire Know What He Was Saying?

Yesterday I said that I liked Candide better for not knowing what it meant. But did Voltaire even know what it meant? I took some of the stories as indictments against Enlightenment philosophy. For instance, the character Cacambo says cannibalism is in line with the laws of nature; we refrain only because we have other means of finding food. Enlightenment philosophy usually tells us that reason, accessible to all people of at least normal intelligence, will lead us all to the same conclusions, one of which is that all men are created equal. Well, cannibalism hardly seems compatible with the Equality of Man. Either I read stories like this one incorrectly (always a strong possibility), or Voltaire meant them to dismantle his own views (not very likely, I’d think), or he just didn’t see the latent, ironic meaning (to me, the most interesting of the possibilities).

I’m also not sure if the book means to blame all the world’s evils on God as the Creator. The suffering in Candide often results from human action. Yes, the story has its devastating earthquakes and storms, but human choices cause most of the suffering. An attempt by one character to discuss Free Will is cut off before it begins. If using the doctrine of Free Will as an explanation for evil isn’t even worth a couple of pages of satirical treatment, then I suppose we’re just to assume that a God creating the best of all possible worlds would make people good, and that all the torture and kidnapping and murder in Candide are the Creator’s fault. The character Martin says, based on his observations of the evil in the world, God must have abandoned it to a mischievous power. I wonder if Voltaire knew how biblical Martin’s view is.

In any case, Martin suggests evil isn’t God’s fault or his choice. And I agree. We choose evil. In what is surely history’s most powerful statement of the argument from pain, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov complains to his brother Alyosha about God’s choice to have a world where even one little girl suffers unspeakable torture. “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny,” Ivan says, “with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” “No, I wouldn’t consent,” Alyosha replies. How could anyone say he would? And yet we do. People choose to torture children. I certainly don’t know the solution to the world’s greatest philosophical conundrum, but I know the solution can’t involve a facile passing of the buck.

But these same humans who choose to do evil things also choose life, even a life of suffering. With great sympathy for all who think about committing suicide, I have to note that very few people actually do it. And people must have a reason, even an ineffable reason, for choosing to live. While Candide repeatedly shows the difference between what people do and what reason says, Voltaire’s characters always seem on the surface to come down on the side of reason. An old woman who has lived a life of great suffering says, “I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our more stupid melancholy propensities, for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one's very being and yet to hold it fast, to fondle the snake that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?" But is it stupid? If we feel this way, then maybe the goodness of even a hard life really weighs more than all the suffering. Perhaps when reason and custom come into conflict, custom sometimes represents a deeper, sounder reasoning.

In the Doctor Who episode called “The Age of Steel,” the cyberman leader, Lumic, argues that his best of all possible worlds must have peace, which demands uniformity, which in turn only comes when emotion and pain have been eradicated.
Lumic: Tell me, Doctor, have you known grief and rage and pain?
The Doctor: Yes, I have.
Lumic: And they hurt?
The Doctor: Oh, yes!
The Doctor answers that last question with such relish, it’s clear that he finds his centuries of suffering an acceptable cost for the joys of his life. No Enlightenment reasoning, whether it leads to “upgrading” as a cyberman or to cannibalism or to the guillotine of revolutionary France, can convince him otherwise.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What Is Voltaire Saying?

What is Voltaire trying to say in Candide? I really don’t know. But let me say up front that I like the book all that much better for not knowing what it means. If the Enlightenment philosopher had made his little satirical tale a tract for some obvious point, it probably would have died with most Enlightnment tracts.

OK, I know that the book pokes fun at Leibniz and his (or at least Voltaire’s version of his) theory that ours is the best of all possible worlds. According to Candide’s tutor, Pangloss, the theory says that any evil or suffering in this world results from a greater good. Now he doesn’t mean the trade-offs we all make for ourselves every day. My muscles ache today because I wanted to fix my own toilet and save the cost of a plumber’s visit. I chose the pain as an acceptable cost for the benefit. According to Pangloss, the cost, benefit, and choice don’t always belong to the same person. In one of his funniest moments, he explains that the loss of his nose due to venereal disease is an acceptable evil, since Columbus brought VD to Europe along with chocolate. If the theory of the best of all possible worlds says that a world without syphilis wouldn’t be better because it would also lack chocolate, then by all means make fun of it. I’ll laugh.

But in spite of the ridiculous details of the book’s version of the theory, does Voltaire think this is the best of all possible worlds? Does he think people can make the best of all possible worlds? Does he think we want the best of all possible worlds? Does he think a best of all possible worlds is possible? I don’t know.

In one episode, Candide, visiting South America, discovers an isolated society of people who get along. They don’t fight. They don’t argue about theology. No one kills anyone else for disagreeing. Candide calls the place the best of all possible worlds once, but does he really believe it? Whatever other pleasures this Andean paradise might have, it doesn’t have the girl Candide is trying to find, so he leaves South America. And surely Voltaire, the author of so many philosophical works, couldn’t have thought an earthly Utopia would have no place for argument.

The story ends with Candide determined to work in his garden in order to defeat “those three great evils, boredom, vice, and poverty.” Does Voltaire think these are the three greatest evils? Does he think honest labor totally eradicates these problems? Does he accept the sufferings of a life of labor as acceptable costs? Did he mean to poke fun at the story of Eden with this reference to working in the garden, or to honor it? I don’t know what he meant. But I know that I agree on the importance of the issues and that reading Candide forced me to think about them in new ways. And I know that I liked thinking about them.