What freedom entails: facing the good and the bad consequences of our decisions

For men and women to be free from paternalistic domination from others and free to make our own choices necessarily means that we are in turn subjected to the vicissitudes and the consequences, for better or for worse, of those decisions. It is a fundamental concept that for us to remain free, we must not in turn be “protected” by government from the downside risk of flawed choices or bad luck. It was in fact this form of “protection” that for centuries kept peasants under the feudal domination of their class superiors – the knights, earls, and dukes under which they served and whom they paid exorbitant rents to. Predictably, famine only ever struck the peasants when harvests failed, while nobles and priests always maintained a relatively bountiful diet. Ostensibly, this was the price to be paid for protection by the lords of the castle and his soldiers and mercenaries. The reality was that for most peasants throughout the ages, the only real danger to their lives was in fact the deprivations of the lords supposedly protecting them.

Alas, for centuries and the better part of human history, this system kept a stable class of hereditary beneficiaries in control of a never growing and largely agrarian-based economic pie. People lived consistently on the modern equivalent of $3 a day and under a Malthusian system in which population growth led to a decrease in individual agrarian and artisanal wages, wages which only rose again the next time a plague wiped out swaths of the population and the supply of labor.  On that note, this never growing economic pie also led to no real advancements in science and medicine, and those frequent plagues (thought for centuries to arise out of miasmas in the sky that needed to be avoided by clustering indoors and blood that needed to be let out of the body – an ignorantly fatal combination) killed noble and peasant alike. In the words of Thomas Hobbes, life for the vast majority of our ancestors’ histories was lived in “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Shakespeare poetically wrote of death as, “the arbitrator of despairs, just death, kind umpire of men’s miseries…” Let me pause for a moment and express my extreme gratitude to have been born into the relative bounty and ease of modern-day American life. Whatever our problems, they pale in comparison to the way humanity lived for thousands of years; well into the 1800s most people lived in these Hobbesian conditions. Many millions of people on earth still reside in dark removes of similar medieval conditions in places such as Somalia and Afghanistan.

Deirdre McCloskey, in her remarkable book, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, makes the above points eloquently and with her unique ability to draw upon an impressive panoply of analogies, anecdotes, and historic intellectual luminaries’ thoughts and writings to buttress her points. I highly recommend the book and credit it with much of my facts (i.e. the $3 a day factoid, Malthus’ theories). In direct contrast to the idea that we as individuals need protection and on the topic of the reality and essential connection between freedom and potential loss, she observes:

“The ideas of equality led to other social and political movements not uniformly adorable. Hannah Arendt remarked in 1951 that ‘equality of condition…is among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind.’ Alexis de Tocqueville had said much the same a century earlier. And Scottish equality has a harsh, even tragic side. It entails equal reward for equal merit in a marketplace in which others, by freedom of contract, can also compete. As John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty, ‘Society admits no right, either legal or moral, in the disappointed competitors to immunity from this kind of suffering; and feels called on to interfere only when means of success have been employed which it is contrary to the general interest to permit – namely, fraud or treachery, or force.’ Yet in the real world, unhappily, if the poor are to be raised up, there is no magic alternative to such competition. An ill-advised and undercapitalized pet store, into which the owner pours his soul, goes under. In the same neighborhood a little independent office for immediate health care opens half a block from a branch of the largest hospital chain in Chicago, and seems doomed to fail the test of voluntary trade. Although the testing of business ideas in voluntary trade is obviously necessary for betterment of the economy (as it is too by non-monetary tests for betterment in art and sport and science and scholarship), such failures are deeply sad if you have the slightest sympathy for human projects, or for humans. But at least the pet store, the clinic, the Edsel, Woolworth’s, Polaroid, and Pan American Airlines face the same democratic test by trade: Do customers keep coming forward voluntarily? Does real income rise?
We could all by state compulsion backed by the monopoly of violence remain in the same jobs as our ancestors, perpetually “protected,” though at $3 a day. Or, with taxes taken by additional state compulsion, we could subsidize new activities without regard to a test by voluntary trade, “creating jobs” as the anti-economic rhetoric has it. Aside even from their immediate effect of making national income lower than it could have been, perpetually, such ever-popular plans – never mind the objectionable character of the violent compulsion they require – seldom work in the long run for the welfare of the poor, or the rest of us. In view of the way a government of imperfect people actually behaves in practice, job “protection” and job “creation” often fail to achieve their gentle, generous purposes. The protections and the creations get diverted to favorites. Laws requiring minority or female businesses to be hired, for example, tend to yield phony businesses run in fact by male whites. In a society run by male whites or inherited lords or clan members or Communist Party officials, or even by voters not restricted by inconvenient voting times and picture IDs, the unequal and involuntary rewards generated by sidestepping the test of trade are seized by the privileged. The privileged are good at that.”

 The implicit conclusion is that while there are unfortunate consequences of freedom and a free market, the alternative is worse. The plea, as McCloskey states in her book’s foreword, is this:  “Perhaps you yourself still believe in nationalism or socialism or proliferating regulation. And perhaps you are in the grip of pessimism about growth or consumerism or the environment or inequality. Please, for the good of the wretched of the earth, reconsider.”

In defense of liberty and deliberative self-government


A Republic madam, if you can keep it

– Benjamin Franklin

Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?

Where is the standard of perfection to be found? Who will undertake to unite the discordant opinions of a whole community, in the same judgment of it; and to prevail upon one conceited projector to renounce his infallible criterion for the fallible criterion of his more conceited neighbor?

I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man. The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom, of the individuals of whom they are composed… [A] common bond of amity and union, must as necessarily be a compromise of as many dissimilar interests and inclinations. How can perfection spring from such materials?

– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper Number 6

The defining ideals of the American Republic, as expressed in the Federalist Papers through the pseudonym Publius, which was comprised of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, was fundamentally an unprecedented quest to demonstrate the power and durability of a self-governing Republic built on a Constitution that above all valued deliberative process and based upon a moral foundation and virtuous society. These ideals were in marked contrast to other contemporary democratic philosophies then taking shape, notably in France, which favored the immediate supremacy and wisdom of the collective man through elections and plebiscite-based majority rule. In contrast, the American experiment was intimately crafted to be by design incrementalist and deliberative through the separation of powers and checks and balances inherent in the Constitution, as well as the diffusion of various powers across federal and state governments. This uniquely designed separation and diffusion is why Benjamin Franklin, during the closing days of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, gave the response in the first quote above to the question asked by a woman out in the street, “Doctor, what will it be, a monarchy or a republic?”

This methodical and deliberative process was above all meant to protect the rights of the governed and uphold individual liberties. If anything unified the Founding Fathers as a guiding principle, it was a fear and skepticism of immediate majority rule and mob mentality, a risk of democracy that French philosopher and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville would later coin as “the tyranny of the majority.” This ideology is markedly different that the origins of progressive ideology based on humanist rationalism and an idealistic belief that majority rule and decisions should reign supreme and democracy in action should be rapid and responsive, all in the efficient pursuit of achieving egalitarian equality.  It is this vain quest for individual equality in outcomes, this naive notion of human Utopia, and the endless government usurpation of individual rights that stem from it, that the Founding Fathers were greatly fearful of and undergird both the Hamilton and Franklin quotes above. Greater elaboration on these political and philosophical points are wonderfully discussed in a recent Imaginative Conservative article from which I was inspired to lift the Hamilton quote. One quick point to make is that the Founding Fathers preferred deliberation over even elections themselves. The author of the article contends that incessant focus on elections and score settling between sides leads to a breakdown in unity and social cohesion in ways that discussion and deliberation do not. I believe we have completely lost sight of the art of deliberation and consensus in American politics of today. We are constantly myopically focused on what election cycle we happen to be in and the scores that we are trying to settle and tearing down those who stand in our way. Meantime, government power and tramping of rights of the individual continue to grow apace.

My own personal observation and grievance is that the one deliberative and long-term focused institution that we had at the outset of the American Republic, the U.S. Senate, which was originally populated by individuals appointed by state legislatures, became much more captive to short-term whims of the majority when the 17th Amendment created direct election to the Senate. In other words, the indirect election method to the Senate enumerated in Constitution by the great sagacity of our Founding Fathers was replaced with direct election by the population. This in essence made the Senate really nothing more than a smaller extension of the House of Representatives. I believe the model in which there was both a relatively insulated deliberative body coupled with a directly elected body more responsive to the population served America quite well. Unfortunately, I don’t think repealing the 17th Amendment is going to become a rallying cry anytime soon.

Foundations for Lasting Friendships

These types of friendships (based on pure love of the other person for their lovable character) are likely to be rare, since such people are few. Further, they need time as well, to grow accustomed to each other before they have shared their salt as often as it says, and they cannot accept each other or be friends until each appears lovable to the other and gains the other’s confidence. Those who are quick to treat each other in friendly ways wish to be friends, but are not friends, unless they are also lovable, and know this. For though the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not. – Aristotle 

Aristotle outlines three types of relationships that people might consider friendship – those that are based on usefulness, pleasure, or those based purely on virtue. Friendships based on utility/usefulness are prone to decay rapidly once the utility of the relationship no longer exists. Friendships based on pleasure (for example, someone who makes you laugh or that you have a good time with) are also prone to decay, since human emotions and whims and what entertains us is often changing, and much like friends based on utility, once the pleasure is gone, we may find that we actually have little in common with the other person.

In contrast, friendships based on mutual respect and admiration are the most enduring. Consequently, they may take much longer to form, but once they are formed, they do not so easily decay.  These observations from antiquity are still easily applicable today, with the lesson being that we should endeavor to form bonds of like-minded people whom we trust and whom we love by sheer nature of who they are and their character. These friendships will stand the test of time. It also means that introspectively we should work to be lovable and to develop a character that is worthy of others’ love, admiration, and respect. Surface level affections based upon humor, attractiveness, and what we can do for others, is much more fleeting.


Government dysfunction so blatant even a progressive calls it out

I’m a progressive, but it seems plausible to wonder if  government can build a nation abroad, fight social decay, run schools, mandate the design of cars, run health insurance exchanges, or set proper sexual harassment policies on college campuses, if it can’t even fix a 232-foot bridge competently. Waiting in traffic over the Anderson Bridge, I’ve empathized with the two-thirds of Americans who distrust government. – Larry Summers

In one of my favorite blogs, Grumpy Economist, economist John Cochrane rather gleefully points to a recent frank admission by Larry Summers in his awakening to the validity of points made by conservatives and libertarians of their distrust of big government takeovers of massive swaths of the economy. This soft mea culpa was induced by his front-row seat to the dysfunction and multi-year long ineptitude and inability to repair a dilapidated bridge.

It isn’t that all of us of the limited government bent are reflexively loathing of government involvement in its properly limited spheres, of which infrastructure would presumably be one. I was in the Army after all, and I hardly advocate for privately paid and financed militias ala Hezbollah. It is just that there is rightfully a great amount of skepticism that funds taken and crowded out from the private sphere will be invested wisely or effectively in the public sphere given all that we have witnessed in America in the last few decades.

Presidential Politics and the Tendency Towards Mediocrity, Savagery, and Ultimately to Tyranny

A recent Wall Street Journal oped by Joseph Epstein asked the question on the minds of most Americans viewing this tragicomic circus going on that we call the Presidential race: “These five are the best that we can do?”

Readers of this blog and my close friends recognize that over the last few years I have turned Greek and Roman history and philosophy and finding the modern equivalents into an interest and hobby. In this vein, Epstein quotes the ancient Roman general and politician Sulla when he opens with, ““There are some systems which naturally take control out of the hands of good men. There are even some which necessarily put it in the hands of bad ones.”  So it seems with the American two-party system of primary selection  and election process of the leader of the free world. What was historically an expectation of leadership, experience, character, substance, and virtue holding preeminent roles in the winning of votes has devolved into a vulgar race to the bottom based on celebrity and style for the job. Anyone who cynically doubts my previous point about winning the office based on substance needs to go back and read George Washington’s musings and writings on the office of the Presidency as well as the Lincoln Douglas debates and compare and contrast these grand idealistic visions to Trump talking about the size of his genitals to recognize the depth of the abyss we have sunken into.

Epstein takes aim at our media culture as a primary culprit of this devolution. The main thesis of his oped is as follows:

The media and Internet are the major instruments of contemporary political degradation. The media were once more restrained, operating under a largely self-imposed control. During the Kennedy administration, journalists agreed not to photograph the president smoking or playing golf; as for his high jinks above stairs in the White House, that was never up for public discussion. In earlier years, no reporters brought up the lady friends of Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower, and focusing on FDR’s physical incapacity during wartime was unthinkable.

Things changed under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. His position on the Vietnam War went contrary to that of most members of the media, who decided that opening the president to attack was not only feasible but honorable. The media’s adversarial role intensified under Richard Nixon. After Watergate, “investigative journalism” became one of the heroic professions. What investigative journalists chiefly investigated was malfeasance and above all scandal.

The advent of the Internet made this all the worse. The Internet is without an ethical standard. On it anyone can say anything—and usually does. Donald Trump has added to the demeaning quality of the proceedings by using the Internet—those endless insulting tweets—and attracting press and television with his steady stream of attacks on the personal lives of his opponents.

While I tend to agree that the media is a perfectly culpable standard bearer and complicit in vulgarity and sophomoric coverage and analysis, I believe that they are a mere reflection of the overall culture that we have become, which is a culture at large that is fueling the demand for “bread and circuses” to fill our appetites, as the Roman satirist Juvenal would quip. The media is simply following reader and viewer demand, rather than a media conspiracy to dumb down our preferences. We can’t let ourselves off of the hook and blame the media for our own vulgarity and mediocrity.

Furthermore, I don’t believe the American appetite for savagery is unique in the historic perspective. We can look to ancient Greece for the same lessons. In Plato’s Republic, much of the effort of his philosophical writing is towards defining the ideal city that is led by people of great virtue and character. When asked why such people of character so rarely choose to enter politics, Plato, using Socrates as the speaker,  offers up the poignant observation that, “Now, the members of this small group (people of great character and virtue – philosophers in a word) have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and at the same time they’ve also seen the madness of the majority and realized, in a word, that hardly anyone acts sanely in public affairs and that there is no ally with whom they might go to the aid of justice and survive, that instead they’d perish before they could profit either their city or their friends and be useless both to themselves and to others, just like a man who has fallen among wild animals and is neither willing to join them in doing injustice nor sufficiently strong to oppose the general savagery alone.”  The implication is clear that for time immemorial, people of great character stay away from political leadership out of fear of being torn to pieces by the wolves involved in it or perhaps worse, becoming a wolf themselves. Epstein uses Mitch Daniels as an example of a man of great character who stayed away from politics for the reason that Plato outlines above.

More chillingly, Plato uses his writings in Republic  to give voice to Socrates’ opinion that of all forms of government,  democracies are most prone to giving way to tyrants, as that form of government is most likely to succumb to the majority elevating a tyrant. The tyrant in turn promotes members of this class to bodyguards and sycophants who allow them to create and hold on to more powers that are subsequently used to confiscate and redistribute wealth back to the majority, further entrenching this majority party in power. In Socrates’ estimation, the careful balance of a democracy that gives way to tyranny is when those that would protect freedom cease to have virtue and give themselves over to excessive vice and hedonism. A class of people (Socrates derisively calls them idlers) gains power due to their forcefulness and loudness (seeing the parallels here to current politics?) who unite behind a leader willing to advocate their views. Socrates likens such a leader to a wolf who is willing to spill kindred blood and justify it as necessary to get power in order to address wrongs done historically. Thus, acts of evil and vulgarity have their excuses. The tyrant eventually suppresses dissent and any form opposition is not tolerated. Eventually the wolf likely even turns on those he purported to be helping originally on the path to power. Once the blood spills, it can’t be stopped.

While I am not jumping to a dramatic conclusion that current Presidential candidates are the personification of the tyrant wolf so described in the discourse above, I do think Plato’s Republic has some tremendously useful and relevant warnings for American society and the path to devolving into such tyrannies. I don’t believe that America has some preternatural destiny to keep our grand experiment in self-governance going perpetually absent the will and the requisite virtues of the people to keep it going. While our institutions are more durable than countries in Eastern Europe or Latin America, I don’t believe they are absolutely unassailable, especially if the majority of the population are not inclined to defend them. I do believe that if we continue to elevate political leaders that are of weak virtue and character that under the right conditions we could devolve into the dystopian tyranny that Plato describes. As Plato writes, the tyrant comes to power because in every society there are a subset of people that perpetuate evil and wish to do evil to others and wish to extract wealth and natural power from others through the force of government. In well-governed societies, these evil and mindless people become petty people of little repute, perhaps even criminals. They may become successful money-makers, but Plato is careful to point out that making money is not to be confused with virtue. In a place where there is no regard for virtue and poorly governed societies, tyrants are elevated to the leadership by force of will of the majority.

Astonishingly and with incredible prescience and similarity to today’s politics, in describing the nature of a would-be tyrant, Socrates explains that they are,  “those whose nature is filled with fears and erotic love of all kinds… isn’t this harvest of evils a measure of the difference between a tyrannical man who is badly governed on the inside – whom you judged to be most wretched just now, and one who doesn’t love a private life but is compelled by some chance to be a tyrant, who tries to rule others when he can’t even control himself. He’s just like an exhausted body without any self-control, which instead of living privately, is compelled to compete and fight with other bodies all its life…In truth, and whatever some people may think, a real tyrant is really a slave, compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery, and pandering to the worst kind of people. He’s far from satisfying his desires in any way that is clear – if one happens to know that one must study his whole soul – that he’s in the greatest need of most things and truly poor. And if indeed his state is like that of the city he rules, then he’s full of fear, convulsions, and pains throughout his life… And we’ll also attribute to the man what we mentioned before, namely, that he is inevitably envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless impious, host and nurse to every kind of vice, and that his ruling makes him even more so. And because of all of these, he is extremely unfortunate and goes on to make those near him like himself.”

These are powerful words of warning to the citizens of democracy and predict our turning to savagery and mediocrity in our political leaders and why we lack in the truly gifted of great moral character.

Quote of the Week – cherishing causes but hating the consequences


“God laughs at men who complain of the consequences while cherishing the causes.” – Jacques-Benigne Bossuet

With the ongoing American Presidential election drama proceeding apace, I can’t help but connect to the quote uttered by a 17th Century French theologian to those that support Donald Trump. Their mistaken views that this self-declared outsider (that really is just the ultimate insider masquerading as an outsider, as Kim Strassel puts so well in a recent WSJ op-ed) will buck the establishment will end in a certain epic let-down.

Trump supporters naively support this outsider campaign as some form of, “sticking it to the man.” This is their cause celebre, their “cherishing of the causes.” There is no doubt a certain amount of glee in watching the party “establishment” watch helplessly as Trump continues to go from victory to victory. Meanwhile, their support is of someone who has no scruples in the way that he conducts his life, business, language, treatment of others, or marital affairs, nor does he have any specific guiding philosophy other than doing whatever it takes to serve his own interests. Thus, there are millions of well-meaning people being duped out of some mistaken sense that somebody needs to go in there and clean house in the henhouse. What they fail to see is that they are not sending in a fox to do the job, they are sending in a strutting rooster that will do nothing more than add more fights, feces, and more chickens into the coop. They are enjoying the ride and the vicarious voicing of their fears through the adult version of a bully while thinking very little of the ultimate consequences. If Trump happens to make it all the way to the White House, it seems to me to be an easy prediction that his followers will fall into one of two future camps. Either they finally see Trump for what he is: a grubby and self-serving cult of personality-inducing fraud that has absolutely zero concern for their needs, or they will continue to bury their heads into blind support of someone who clearly does whatever serves his own ego and ambitions and nothing more. What is certain is the consequences of their support will not be vindication and support of their own causes. What is certain is that the consequences will be the certain loss of any civic probity or decency in our affairs of state.

What the Ancient Greeks can teach us about democracy and freedom


The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the 400s BC, has lasted the test of time due to the remarkable clarity in which he reported the historical facts as well as the philosophy that is woven into the account of the internecine war between Sparta and Athens. This philosophy is most gripping when it comes in the form of a recorded speech from one of the statesmen involved in the war. I wrote about one such account from the Spartan  King Archidamus II  in a previous blog post. Today, I turn my attention to a speech from a leading man of Athens, the General Pericles.

The setting for the speech of Pericles is a funeral oration at the conclusion of the end of the first battles of the war. It was a ritual in Athens for a leading citizen to deliver an encomium in honor of the dead. What I am struck by when reading this particular speech is the relatability to today when Pericles praises the Athenian way of government, individual life, and draws the connection that it is all worth fighting for. The society of Athens outline by Pericles has important parallels for the modern Western society member to consider. Aside from that, the speech is full of tremendous quotes. One of my favorites is when Pericles indicates that it is impossible for the audience to truly venerate the dead appropriately given that, “Praise of other people is tolerable up to a certain point, the point where one still believes that one could do oneself some of the things one is hearing about. Once you get beyond this point, you will find people becoming jealous and incredulous.”

Pericles description of the Athenian government and society should be strikingly familiar to Americans, or at least, it should be what we strive for but seem to fail to achieve these days:

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”

I think there is much that we have lost in America that I wish we could get back – merit based public service, laws that demand respect because they are wisely crafted by wise people and were thus respected in turn by citizens, the ability to live our own lives as we see fit without interference by the long arm of the government, etc.

Pericles lauds the openness of Athenian society as well with the statement that:

“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.”

Pericles describes an open society that benefitted from eager foreigners that wanted to come in and contribute to Athenian society and a state willingness to let them do so, even if sometimes it caused Athens harm. On the whole, Athenian life benefited from immigrants and the whole of Athens would not cower in fear over the relative few that harmed society. I think the current fear-mongering environment in American politics could learn from this ancient approach.

Pericles is careful to carve out the importance of individual responsibilities and individual ethics, balance, and well-roundedness as critical in preserving such a democratic and open society:

“Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.”

Wealth is properly an instrument for good, not a tool for hedonism or boasting. Poverty is not something to be ashamed of or judged, but also not to be something that one hopelessly stays mired in.

A free society is undergirded by courageous people willing to preserve it. The courage of man is not defined by rashness, but careful considerations of the consequences and still choosing to act:

“The worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated…. But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”

As a corollary to this, Pericles indicates throughout the speech that only those who have stake in society should make its most important decisions, even admonishing citizens to have more children since, “it is impossible for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not, like everyone else, children whose lives may be at stake.” . This gets at the heart of the Pericles speech and the importance of individual responsibilities in upholding a democratic society. I personally view some of these quotes as a bit of a classical liberal/libertarian manifesto:

“Each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility… Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”

And finally, Pericles includes an honor to the fallen that theirs was a sacrifice not entirely in vain, for one’s honor is preserved for time immemorial:

“One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one’s fellow men.”


Quote of the Week – Suicide Note of a Soviet Citizen

Show trial

“I know that if there’s a desire, one can accuse the innocent, such are the times. I do not want defamation, I do not want to suffer while innocent and have to justify myself, I prefer death to defamation and suffering.”

– Russian coal worker suicide note, Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power – Stephen Kotkin

The context of the suicide note is one that showcases the tyranny that can befall man once a government exists for its own sake and the rule of law becomes what that government arbitrarily decides the law is in order to increase and keep power. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, there was a typical cycle of increasing power grabs and more movements to a totalitarian and collectivist society that went something along these lines: Stalin, who was a true Communist ideologue and not simply a pragmatic totalitarian that he is often portrayed by historians to be, would have a grand design of moving the Soviet Union closer to the utopian dream of a collectivist “worker’s paradise.” In order to get the political capital required to move millions of people into this utopia, he would need to foment a pretext of class war in order to generate support of the “have nots” against the increasingly vanishing “haves.” Stalin had a firm grip on the secret police through his own self-appointments of men who depended on his patronage. During these times the secret police carried the name of OGPU, and Stalin could count on the complicity of the OGPU henchmen to drum up confessions whenever he needed them to. Then what would follow would be a show trial against class enemies that had the benefits of creating terror amongst and outside of the Communist Party, providing the cover Stalin needed to enact sweeping social and political change.

Such is the macabre script that induced the suicide note that serves as the quote of the week. Kotkin chronicles one such case in which Stalin’s overarching goal was to enact his biggest gamble yet as ruler – the mass removal of peasants from individual farms and communes into state-owned large scale collectivist farms. In the events leading up to the forced confiscation of farms, mass repression of so-called “kulaks” (wealthy peasants), and forced movement of peasants onto these large scale farms, Stalin needed a pretext of class warfare. He received such a pretext in gift from his North Caucasus OGPU leader, Yefim Yevdokimov, who presented fabricated evidence to Stalin of foreign agents and Soviet citizen collusion to sabotage production amongst industrial facilities and mines in Shakhty. What ensued was ever more repression and forced confessions through torture that culminated in a globally publicized show trial. The show trial set in motion a series of dual events that further entrenched Stalin’s power and provided the means necessary to reshape Soviet society. Firstly, Stalin was able to maneuver around his internal rivals and initiate the Great Purge. It is clear from Kotkin’s account that Stalin could tolerate no dissent and was a particularly vindictive person. Secondly, Staling was able to launch a broader Class War, in which anyone that stood in the way of forced collectivization of farms and industrial settings would be labeled various forms of epithets such as bourgeois, petit bourgeois, kulak, enemy of the state, or foreign agent. Stalin’s ultimate goal was collectivization of the farms, and the Shakhty trial gave him the pretext to neutralize, repress, and outflank members of the Politburo who were opposed to the forced collectivization of the farms as well as liquidate kulaks and force the migration of peasants to collective farms. The outcome was a tremendous famine in which millions perished due to predictable ensuing drastic decrease in agricultural production. That is a topic for which Kotkin indicates he will turn to once he publishes Volume II, which is currently in draft form.

The horrific stories one reads out of books, like Kotkins, that chronicle life in the Soviet Union (others that I have appreciated reading in the past include Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago  and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands) always give me a sense of great gratitude for having a tremendously comfortable life in the United States. More unnerving, I always question myself on how I would act in the face of interrogation and a show trial, in which I am being asked upon pain of torture and death to denounce and turn on family and friends. It is a sobering thought experiment.


Quote of the Week


“Acting well or badly requires both thought and character.” – Aristotle, from Nicomachean Ethics

For Aristotle, the essence of happiness comes from a life of virtue, which is defined as man having command over his thoughts and actions in pursuit of command over the rational and passionate functions of the soul and body. Virtue from Aristotle’s vantage point is the intermediate state between some defined excessive of deficient states with boundaries amongst these that can depend on the situation. An example of an intermediate state would be that within the virtue of courage, bravery is the mean virtuous state, cowardice is the deficient state, and rashness is the excessive state. An example of boundary flexibility is that one could be justified in getting greatly angry if someone strikes them or strikes a loved one, while one would present the excessive state of irascibility that gets greatly angry at a child spilling her water.

One suspects a modern day Aristotle would have much to say about the tenor of the current Presidential race regarding brashness, vulgarity, and dishonesty and how our would be statesmen fail to measure up to these intermediate virtues of bravery, prudence, moderation, justice, and many others.



Quote of the Week


There is no need to suppose that human beings differ very much from one another: but it is true that the ones who come out on top are the ones who have been trained in the hardest school.

                                                             -Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides is quoting from a speech attributed to Spartan King Archidamus II during deliberations amongst Sparta and her allies on whether to break a treaty and go to war against their rival Athens. Archidamus was a lone voice presenting the case for not immediately going to war and rather dedicate efforts to repair the relationship and amend Athenian behavior through diplomatic efforts. The first part of his statement meant that the Athenians were not all that different than Spartans and that he could understand their motivations and that Sparta should endeavor to make peace with them on common understandings of both of their growing power, interests, and needs of their allies. The second part of his statement is critical for understanding his nuanced balance between peace and war, namely that amongst nations the prospect of the latter prosecuted with vigor assures the former. His statesmanlike balance to diplomatic overtures was that he understood quite well that diplomacy does not always resolve issues amicably and that a polity must always prepare diligently for war in order to effectively safeguard peace. Archidamus would go on to argue that war preparedness is its own form of ensuring that diplomacy can function and that adversaries can be dragged to the negotiation table. I think of this as the ancient predecessor of Teddy Roosevelt’s, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” version of foreign policy.

This quote also serves as an example of how much we can learn from ancient history as well as an example of the remarkable feat achieved by Thucydides in creating a historical narrative that lasted the test of time. The reader of Thucydides comes away fascinated with the similarities in human nature between then and now, a space covered by the passage of almost 3,000 years of time. The technology and fashions may change, but oh how mankind remains ever the same in our passions and lusts for power and notions of security and our penchant for “us versus them” tribalism. Thucydides supplements historical narrative with a fair amount of speeches given by political and military leaders on both sides of the war. Within these speeches are some of the finest forms of philosophy on offer from ancient times, that once again seem remarkable in their modern applicability. Thucydides’ ancient account has lasted the test of time due to his genius in weaving a tapestry of historical military facts about set-piece events and battles together with political science and speeches replete with powerful philosophy. If the reader of this blog post still has little desire to read hundreds of pages of history related to an internecine war that happened thousands of years ago in Greece, I would submit to you to at least read the funeral oration delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles. It is a fine example of the types of dialogue that occurs throughout the account.