Bradley Birzer

Hope on a Rose

(Credit: Laura Smith)

Had things worked or happened differently, I would be celebrating the eleventh birthday of my daughter, Cecilia Rose Birzer, today. I can visualize exactly what it might be like. A cake, eleven candles, hats, cheers, goofiness, photos, and, of course, ice cream. I imagine that she would love chocolate cake–maybe a brownie cake—and strawberry ice cream. Her many, many siblings cheer here, celebrating the innumerable smiles she has brought the family. As I see her at the table now, I see instantly that her deep blue eyes are mischievous to be sure, but hilarious and joyous as well. Her eyes are gateways to her soul, equally mischievous, hilarious, and joyous. She’s tall and thin, a Birzer. She also has an over abundance of dark brown curls, that match her darker skin just perfectly. She loves archery, and we just bought her first serious bow and arrow. No matter how wonderful the cake, the ice cream, and the company, she’s eager to shoot at a real target.

She’s at that perfect age, still a little girl with little girl wants and happinesses, but on the verge of discovering the larger mysteries of the teenage and adult world. She cares what her friends think of her, but not to the exclusion of what her family thinks of her. She loves to dance to the family’s favorite music, and she knows every Rush, Marillion, and Big Big Train lyric by heart. She’s just discovering the joys of Glass Hammer. As an eleven-year old, she loves princesses, too, and her favorite is Merida, especially given the Scot’s talents and hair and confidence. She has just read The Fellowship of the Ring, and she’s anguished over the fate of Boromir. Aragorn, though—there’s something about him that seems right to her.

If any of this is actually happening, it’s not happening here. At least not in this time and not on this earth. Here and now? Only in my dreams, my hopes, and my broken aspirations.

Eleven years ago today, my daughter, Cecilia Rose Birzer, strangled on her own umbilical cord. That which had nourished her for nine months killed her just two days past her due date.

On August 6, 2007, she came to term. Very early on August 8, my wife felt a terrible jolt in her belly and then nothing. Surely this, we hoped, was Cecilia telling us she was ready. We threw Dedra’s hospital bag into the car as we had done four times before, and we drove the 1.5 miles to the hospital. We knew something was wrong minutes after we checked in, though we weren’t sure what was happening. Nurses, doctors, and technicians were coming in and out of the room. The medical personnel were whispering, looking confused, and offering each other dark looks. Finally, after what seemed an hour or more, our beloved doctor told us that our child—a girl, it turned out—was dead and that my wife would have to deliver a dead child.

We had waited to know the sex of the baby, but we had picked out names for either possibility.  We had chosen Cecilia Rose for a girl, naming her after my great aunt Cecelia as well as St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and Rose because of St. Rose of Lima being the preferred saint for the women in my family and because Sam Gamgee’s wife was named Rosie.

I had never met my Aunt Cecelia as she had died at age 21, way back in 1927.  But, she had always been a presence in my family, the oldest sister of my maternal grandfather.  She had contracted tetanus, and the entire town of Pfeifer, Kansas, had raised the $200 and sent someone to Kansas City to retrieve the medicine.  The medicine returned safely to Pfeifer and was administered to my great aunt, but it was too late, and she died an hour or two later. Her grave rests rather beautifully, just to the west of Holy Cross Church in Pfeifer valley, and a ceramic picture of her sits on her tombstone. Her face as well as her story have intrigued me as far back as I can remember. Like my Cecilia Rose, she too had brown curly hair and, I suspect, blue eyes. She’s truly beautiful, and her death convinced her boyfriend to become a priest.

The day of Cecilia Rose’s death was nothing but an emotional roller coaster. A favorite priest, Father Brian Stanley, immediately drove to Hillsdale to be with us, and my closest friends in town spent the day, huddled around Dedra.  We cried, we laughed, and we cried some more–every emotion was just at the surface. I’m more than certain the nurses thought we were insane. Who were these Catholics who could say a “Hail Mary” one moment, cry the next, and laugh uproariously a few minutes later? Of course, the nurses also saw just how incredibly tight and meaningful the Catholic community at Hillsdale is. And, not just the Catholics—one of the most faithful with us that day was a very tall Lutheran.

Late that night, Dedra revealed her true self.  She is—spiritually and intellectually—the strongest person I know. She gave birth with the strength of a Norse goddess. Or maybe it was just the grace of Mary working through her. Whatever it was, she was brilliant. Any man who believes males superior to females has never seen a woman give birth.  And, most certainly, has never seen his wife give birth to a dead child. Cecilia Rose was long gone by the time she emerged in the world, but we held her and held her and held her for as long as we could. With the birth of our other six children, I have seen in each of them that unique spark of grace, given to them alone. Cecilia Rose was a beautiful baby, but that spark, of course, was absent, having already departed to be with her Heavenly Father.

For a variety of reasons, we were not able to bury her until August 14.  For those of you reading this who are Catholic, these dates are pretty important. August 8 is the Feast of St. Dominic, and August 14 is the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe.

Regardless, those days between August 8 and August 14 were wretched. We were in despair and depression. I have never been as angry and confused as I was during those days. Every hour seemed a week, and the week itself, seemed a year. I had nothing but love for my family, but I have never been that angry with God as I was then and, really, for the following year, and, frankly, for the next nine after that. We had Cecilia Rose buried in the 19th-century park-like cemetery directly across the street from our house. For the first three years after her death, I walked to her grave daily. Even to this day, I visit her grave at least once a week when in Hillsdale.  In the first year after her death, I was on sabbatical, writing a biography of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Every early afternoon, I would walk over to her grave, lay down across it, and listen to Marillion’s Afraid of Sunlight.  Sometime in the hour or so visit, I would just raise my fist to the sky and scream at God.  “You gave me one job, God, to be a father to this little girl, and you took it all away.” In my fury, I called Him the greatest murderer in history, a bastard, an abortionist, and other horrible things. I never doubted His existence, but I very much questioned His love for us.

Several things got me through that first year: most especially my wife and my children as well as my friends.  There’s nothing like tragedy to reveal the true faces of those you know. Thank God, those I knew were as true in their honor and goodness as I had hoped they would be. A few others things helped me as well. I reread Tolkien, and I read, almost nonstop, Eliot’s collected poetry, but especially “The Hollow Men,” “Ash Wednesday,” and the “Four Quartets.” I also, as noted above, listened to Marillion. As strange as it might seem, my family, my friends, Tolkien, Eliot, and Marillion saved my life that year. I have no doubt about that. And, nothing gave me as much hope as Sam Gamgee in Mordor.  “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” As unorthodox as this might be, we included Tolkien’s quote in the funeral Mass.

A year ago, my oldest daughter—the single nicest person I have ever met—and I were hiking in central Colorado. We were remembering Cecilia Rose and her death. Being both kind and wise, my daughter finally said to me, “You know, dad, it’s okay that you’ve been mad at God. But, don’t you think that 10 years is long enough?” For whatever reason—and for a million reasons—my daughter’s words hit me at a profound level, and I’m more at peace over the last year than I’ve been since Cecilia Rose died. I miss my little one like mad, and tears still spring almost immediately to my eyes when I think of her. I don’t think any parent will ever get over the loss of a child, and I don’t think we’re meant to. But, I do know this: my Cecilia Rose is safely with her Heavenly Father, and, her Heavenly Mother, and almost certainly celebrating her birthday in ways beyond our imagination and even our hope. I have no doubt that my maternal grandmother and grandfather look after her, and that maybe even Tolkien and Eliot look in on her from time to time. And, maybe even St. Cecilia herself has taught my Cecilia Rose all about the music of the spheres. Indeed, maybe she sees the White Star. Let me re-write that: I know that Cecilia Rose sees the White Star. She is the White Star.

Happy birthday, Cecilia Rose.  Your daddy misses you like crazy, but he does everything he can to make sure that he makes it to Heaven–if for no other reason than to hug you and hug you and hug you.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.


What is Classical Liberal History?

“Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates,” by Marcello Bacciarelli (1776-77) (public domain)

What is Classical Liberal History? Edited by Michael J. Douma and Phillip W. Magness,Lexington Books, 2018, 268 pages.

Ever since choosing history as a profession, I’ve been as fascinated with the actual philosophy of history (if one should exist) as I have been with the actual history of a thing, person, or event itself. After a quarter of a century of wrestling with the role of human agency, I have come to the conclusion that Friedrich Hayek was right all along in his own understanding of the “knowledge problem” and “methodological individualism”—that each person is simply too complex, in and of himself, to be studied at any meaningful level.

Free will renders so much null and void. Amen. That is, as the brilliant philosopher and economist James Otteson has noted repeatedly, if you believe in human liberty, you have to accept that you simply cannot predict with any meaningfulness the events of tomorrow. Yes, there are trends, to be sure, but free will means that almost anything—from the good to the ill—is possible.

Yet, the trajectory of academia has gone the other way since, roughly the 1890s, toward determinism.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of having coffee with a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. In fact, the prize had been announced just a few hours earlier on the day of our coffee date. When we began talking about human agency and history, she declared–thoughtfully but firmly—that no such thing as free will could or ever would exist. Instead, every aspect of our nature was predetermined in some way or another by material factors. And, it must be noted, this is a very creative person. Raised on “race, class, and gender,” to be sure, but no academic automaton. She is, to be sure, very much her own person. Yet, even she was negating her own by free will and creativity by declaring such things as mere mechanisms. Given the most important and distinguished thought of the 19th century—especially from Darwin, Marx, and Freud—it is no surprise that the 20th and, thus far, the 21st centuries have been dominated by materialist thought. It explains much about the current and shabby state of civilization—from the loss of liberal education to the triumph of power. One need only give a cursory examination to the media, to the average classroom, or to Facebook to see that the outrage culture has been fueled by the failure to understand individual dignity and creativity. There seem to be no free agents anymore, only those that haven’t quite caught up with “the program.”

For better or worse, my response as a professional historian to this was to turn to thinkers I did trust: to Cicero; to Augustine; to Burke; to Smith; and to Hayek. Each of these greats had noted time and again that no system could exist to explain all. To varying degrees, each believed in an eternal order and ordering, but each recognized that, in the here and now, no system could be known or understood or propagated by any one person, one group of persons, or humanity as a whole. Each person is simply incapable of knowing everything. Thus, as I saw it, this inability to understand history and humanity effectively—that is, to reject quantification (and, consequently, the reduction and dismissal) of the human person, to be an anti-ideologist, and to reject the idea of a system—has been to become a biographer, to study the most fundamental aspect of existence, the individual human person. As such, I have, for the most part, seen race, class, and gender as mere parts of human existence, not as the whole or even determining parts of order and society. As such, each person is unique, born in a certain time and a certain place, but never of his own choosing. Yet, when coming of age, he or she chooses almost every moment of everyday. Some of these choices are limited by things such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, neighborhood norms, education, etc., but none of these things need, necessarily, be determinants. As the grand J.R.R. Tolkien explained in a letter to W.H. Auden, each person is an allegory of a universal principle, robed in the garments of time and place.

While I certainly do not believe that biography is the only form of legitimate history, I am more than a little partial to it. With biography, the biographer gets to “know” the subject, intimately. Never will the biographer be totally objective, unless he or she is a mere antiquarian. Instead, the truly good biographer uses his own soul, experience, and reason to understand the choices of his subject. Thus, the best biography is always one in which the biographer is as apparent as the subject. Thus, when we read Arnn on Churchill, McCulloch on Adams, or Pearce on Tolkien, we are learning as much about Arnn, McCulloch, and Pearce as we are about Churchill, McCulloch, and Adams.

In an extraordinarily thoughtful and well-edited and conceived book, What is Classical Liberal History? (Lexington Books, 2018), editors Michael J. Douma and Phillip W. Magness bring together 13 scholars (including themselves) to answer the most important questions about the historian’s craft. Not surprisingly, Hayek is frequently invoked in the book.

Some of our finest historical thinkers—from Sarah Skwire and Jonathan Bean to David Beito and Han Eicholz—ask vital questions about the role of liberalism, properly understood, in human society. Penetratingly, these authors look at industrialism, feminism, scientism, civil liberties, historicism, progressivism. What is most appealing about this wonderful collection is that each author takes seriously the radical tendencies of modern and post-modern academics, finding the good within the questions asked and raised in mainstream academia, even if believing the answers provided by most academics, as insufficient.

In the perceptive and rather fetching introduction, Douma notes that his goal is to counter the tendencies of conservatism and progressivism in historical thought, each of which improperly consider the past as a way to understand morality, often focusing on colossal entities, such as nations or great men. In other words, by Douma’s definition, classical liberals would not be too thrilled with the biographers mentioned above. Yet, Douma insists, unlike all other historical schools, “classical liberal historiography is based upon the principle of methodological individualism central to the classical liberal tradition.” Further, he notes, classical liberal historiography is the “study of individual action in the past.” As much as I appreciate what Douma is doing—and he is an excellent writer, thinker, and scholar with a great future ahead of him—I remain unconvinced that any of these things are specific to classical liberalism. I would be happy to be persuaded otherwise.

If one takes What is Classical Liberal History as a negative statement on what exists in the world of mainstream thought and academia, this book is brilliant. Indeed, the writings of Skwire, Eicholz, Beito, Magness, and Bean are so good as to be a bit intimidating. These are each scholars at the height of their abilities, and their abilities would make any scholar—of whatever political and cultural persuasion—blush.

If one sees it as a fundamental and comprehensive take on history, though, it will become as ideological as those it complains about. My criticism is minor, but I think it is just. For example, the editors (and, admittedly, this is just the nature of editing) might be perceived as forming a clique. Frequently, the scholars chosen cite only a few common authorities and sources and, then, usually refer to each other. No where in the book do some of our most important historians and thinkers of our day–such as Mark David Hall, Rob McDonald, Richard Gamble, Mark Kalthoff, Paul Rahe, Richard Samuelson, Adam Schwartz, Greg Schneider, Gerald Russello, Patrick Deneen, or Bruce Frohnen—even make an appearance. Others, such as Kevin Gutzman and Otteson, get only the briefest mention. Even Burt Folsom, arguably the best-selling libertarian historian alive today, only merits a single mention. Indeed, only Paul Moreno of the Hillsdale College department of history even gets a mention. Given that this department is, by far, the single largest collection of conservative and libertarian historians anywhere in the world, this seems a huge omission. Similar comments might be made about Ashland, Grove City, University of Dallas, and the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).

As much as I enjoyed reading What is Classical Liberal History? I can only hope it is meant as a beginning, not an end. Further I hope that readers take it as an invitation, not as an exclusion.

If the radical plainness and sameness of current academia and the conformity of collectivist and consumerist culture is to be combatted and the dignity of the human person to be understood, it will do no good merely for the classical liberals and the conservatives to form sides and distinguish themselves from one another. Douma notes in the introduction that “classical liberal history begins with the recognition of the inherent worth of the individual.” I have no doubt that this is a central feature of classical liberal historiography. But Russell Kirk—the father of all post-war conservatism—would have said (and did) exactly the same thing. And, Pope John Paul II noted in his 1996 address on Christian humanism that the beginning of all goodness resides in recognizing the human person as an unrepeatable center of dignity and will. Perhaps one could charitably state that Kirk and John Paul were bound to get at least something correct, but, again, I remain unconvinced that classical liberal historiography is the best way to promote human liberty and dignity. The question of human dignity is as old as philosophy itself, beginning with Heraclitus and Socrates.

From my own perspective, the best history is still biography, and, for what it’s worth, biography seems to me the best Hayekian (and Ciceronian and Augustinian and Burkean and Smithian and Ottesonian) manner in which to approach history, a way to recognize the universal and the particular, a way to understand how free will allows the individual human person to navigate through difficulties and challenges—material and otherwise—in his whirligig of existence. To quote one of my favorite thinkers of the post-modern world, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”  If this is classical liberal, so be it. If this is conservative, so be it. If this is progressive, so. . . well, no, even I can’t go there. I have never considered myself a classical liberal, but I have always considered myself libertarian. In the end, though, I hope that what we write as historians is just good history and scholarship, whatever label is given it. “I will choose a path that’s clear. I will choose free will.”

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.


What Does Classical Education Have to Do With Revolution?

Juan Antonio Ribera’s “Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough to Dictate Laws to Rome” (circa 1806) (public domain).

As I read about the political insanity this weekend and the ridiculous blame game for the looming government shutdown—will it be remembered as Trump’s fault or as Schumer’s fault?—I can’t help but think about what no one is talking about: how to solve our $21 trillion national debt. This number breaks down to a little over $170,000 per U.S. taxpayer.

It’s infuriating that the politicos attempt (and, more often than not, succeed) to distract us from this real issue. There’s an Orwellian element to all of this, whether intentional or not. That is, the most important issue is so critical that it is overwhelming in what it demands of our faculties to understand: that Washington, D.C., and our federal government are, at this point, simply insolvent. Whether this has been caused mainly by social issues or military ones, we’re insolvent. As some point, everyone will see the federal government for what it is, and, at that point, the collapse will be not just swift but horrific. Yet, there seems to be no reform coming. At least no serious reform.

Even the most pro-interventionist of the American founders, Alexander Hamilton, could never have imagined or desired the kind of federal government we have now. When he wrote of “energy” in government, he meant it as a means of restraint. To give “energy” to government meant, at least to Hamilton, giving the federal government the means to execute the powers expected of it by its Constitution. Rather brilliantly, he argued that a government charged with a duty but not empowered by the specific rules of that government to accomplish its duty would merely make up its own rules, thus taking government away from restraint and toward leviathan. Though many libertarians think of Hamilton as the touchstone for all future expansive government, they’re wrong. Even Alexander Hamilton desired ways to limit the expansion of government, and whether he wanted a strong executive or not, he envisioned a small, commercial republic as the proper outcome of the American revolution.

Over the previous three pieces in this series, “The Origins of the Rise of the Modern Nation State,” I’ve focused almost exclusively on the classical understanding of government. There is, I must confess, a method to my madness. One need only look at the actual classical words and symbols used by the founders to see how immensely indebted they were to the ancients. The U.S. Senate, for example, is modeled on the Maryland Senate, which is modeled on the Roman Senate. “Senate” comes from the Latin for “old wise men.”  If only!  

Two Roman fasces grace either side of the Speaker’s chair in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Or, even more blatantly, look at our capitol building. While we might expect our founders to have designed it as something grand and spectacular, such as the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal, or, even, English Parliament, they chose an architectural style from the height of the Roman Republic. Which, of course, is also why a Washington with thousands of armed guards, black SUVs, road blocks, and rooftop surface to air missiles looks so ominous. Nothing is worse when regarding the symbols of authority than the militarization of republican architecture. The fasces of Congress quickly look like the fasces of Mussolini. Even if we don’t recognize it immediately, something in us reminds us of how readily Rome succumbed to the temptations of power as we drive around the D.C. of 2018.

The hold of the classical world on the founding mind, however, is much deeper than architecture or names. To enter college in one of the nine schools available in the American colonies in, say, 1750, one had to prove fluency in Greek and Latin. The grand historian of the period, Forrest McDonald and his wife, Ellen, explained:

Just to enter college during the eighteenth century—which students normally did at the age of fourteen or fifteen—it was necessary, among other things, to be able to read and translate from the original Latin into English (I quote from the requirements at King’s College—now Columbia—which were typical) “the first three of Tully Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid: and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be a ”expert in arithmetic’ and to have a ‘blameless moral character.’

To be prepared for a college education, pupils began studying Greek and Latin around the age of six or seven. Indeed, one thing we in the world of schooling for democratic citizenship often forget is that all education in the 18th Century was classical education (even the term, “classical education,” would be redundant to the 18th Century mind). One was supposed to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic at home. Schools taught only Greek, Latin, and classical literature. Even farm children, with only a year or two of schooling in their lives, spent their school days drilling Greek and Latin.

For the truly enterprising student, he would also study Italian, if for no other reason than to read Dante in the original.

This is a world 300 years and 1 million miles apart from ours. It is no wonder, though, that George Washington (one of the few founders not liberally educated, interestingly enough) chose the mythic Republican Cincinnatus and the Republican rebel Cato the Younger as his exemplars or that the founders as a whole wanted a republic. This understanding of the classical world pervaded all of America, even the America that had not received much classical education, if any. Names such as George (Latin for agriculture), Narcissa, and Romulus were not uncommon proper names. Towns and counties took the names Homer, Athens, Remus, etc. Though not every American had read Virgil’s Aeneid, every American knew something about Aeneas, Troy, and Dido. Tellingly, the McDonalds reminded us, when American officers and French officers spoke on the field of battle during the Revolutionary War, they spoke in Latin, the only common language they shared. The index to the Federalist Papers quickly reveals as much, with 56 references to the classical and medieval world of the West and no references to John Locke.

Among the Romans, the American founders most appreciated and idealized the stoic Cato the Elder, the martyr Cicero, the poet Virgil, the historian Livy, and the theorist Tacitus. While the founders knew and studied the Greeks, it was the Roman Republicans that inspired them and the Roman imperials that terrified them.

“The Revolutionary leaders were men of substance—propertied, educated. They read. And what they read made it easier for them to become rebels because they did not see rebels when they looked in the mirror,” historian Trevor Colbourn has written. “They saw transplanted Englishmen with the rights of expatriated men. They were determined to fight for inherited historic rights and liberties.”  

When writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson explained that he drew on ancient sources:  

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.

John Adams, the first American to argue for independence, as early as 1765, said the same as Jefferson in 1774:

These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason.

Unlike the French or Russian revolutionaries, attempting to create, in the words of Shakespeare, a “brave new world,” the American patriots turned the world right-side up. They desired a republic rooted in right reason, first principles, and the Natural Law. God had written the republican principles of the American Revolution into nature herself. “We do not by declarations change the nature of things, or create new truths, but we give existence, or at least establish in the minds of the people truths and principles which they might never have thought of, or soon forgot. If a nation means its systems, religious or political, shall have duration, it ought to recognize the leading principles of them in the front page of every family book,” a leading Anti-Federalist wrote in the aftermath of the war for Independence.

For this reason, the modern American conservative has a duty to know not just the origins of the American republic, but its origins in the Roman republic. After all, if we’re not conserving these things, what is it worth to be a conservative?  

When the founders of the United States created her, they wanted a republic, not an empire; a government, not a state; and a commonwealth not a democracy.

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

 Tagged , , , . 10 comments

Bring on the Conservative Debate for Immigration

In recent years, probably no matter has split nationalist and populist conservatives from libertarian and anti-statist conservatives more than that of immigration.  Yet, very few conservatives are actually taking the time to debate or discuss this issue, so fundamental to understanding the very essence of who we are as an American people.  Too many suppositions and assumptions have taken on the air of truth, and, as such, and, if for no other reason, the topic itself demands good discussion and vigorous debate.  In particular, the modern American conservative should praise Gerald Russello and The University Bookman for its on-going symposium dealing the whole swirling mess.  We need much more of this.  It’s too important to leave to emotion or passion alone.

As Christians around the world celebrated the arrival of the Three Kings—the Magi of the Orient—on Epiphany, the president of the United States called for $33 billion to shore up America’s borders with $18 billion for the wall.  

Would the Magi have been admitted in 2018? “Excuse me, Balthasar, but I need to see that your papers are in order.  Oh, I’m sorry, but your gift of myrrh exceeds our 3.2 ounces of liquid allowed.”  

Perhaps, President Trump simply chose his timing poorly, but it would be impossible for the Christian to miss the irony.

As a professor of the western canon, the Great Ideas of the West, and the western tradition, I find it nearly impossible to claim that there is a long tradition of excluding those who “aren’t us.” Even the most cursory examination of the issue reveals that the best of western thinkers have considered political borders a form of selfish insanity and a violation of the dignity of the human person.  The free movement of peoples has not only been seen as a natural right throughout much of the western tradition, but it has also been seen as a sacred one.

In the gloriously pagan Odyssey,Odysseus survives, again and again, because the highest commandment of Zeus is to welcome the stranger and protect him with all that one has. To this day, one finds remnants of this tradition throughout the Mediterranean as the stranger is greeted with olive oil, bread, and, depending on the predominant religion of the region, wine. As staple crops of the ancient world, these signified not just acceptance but actual joy at the arrival of the stranger.  The god of the hearth stood as patron of the sojourner.

The Athenians, during the tumultuous fifth century before Christ, prided themselves on allowing not just the stranger into their communities, but also their very enemies in.  After all, what did the Athenians have to hide?  Why not expose the ignorant to truth?  Let the oppressed see how a free people live.

During the vast, long expanse of the Middle Ages, the Germanic peoples not only thought of themselves as residents of their own little piece of Middle-earth (Midgard), but they also thought of themselves as citizens of what King Alfred the Great labeled Christendom, the Christiana res publica, as well as believing themselves sojourners en route to the City of God. What Christian could allow—in good conscience—the accidents of birth such as gender or skin tone in this Veil of Tears to trump the possibilities of eternal salvation in the next?  Neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female. . . .

Nothing in Christendom better represented the ideals of the free movement of peoples than did the Great Charter of 1215, forced upon King John at Runnymede.  Though points 1 and 63 of the Magna Carta demanded freedom of the Church from political interference, points 41 and 42 reveal how fundamental the movement of peoples is to the sanctity of the common law.

  1. All merchants shall have safe and secure exit from England, and entry to England, with the right to tarry there and to move about as well by land as by water, for buying and selling by the ancient and right customs, quit from all evil tolls, except (in time of war) such merchants as are of the land at war with us. And if such are found in our land at the beginning of the war, they shall be detained, without injury to their bodies or goods, until information be received by us, or by our chief justiciar, how the merchants of our land found in the land at war with us are treated; and if our men are safe there, the others shall be safe in our land.
  2. It shall be lawful in future for anyone (excepting always those imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the kingdom, and natives of any country at war with us, and merchants, who shall be treated as if above provided) to leave our kingdom and to return, safe and secure by land and water, except for a short period in time of war, on grounds of public policy- reserving always the allegiance due to us.

If we accept the Magna Carta as one of the most important documents in the history of western civilization, we Americans cannot afford to ignore it, its intent, or its specifics.  Common law demanded that a people—and the person—move freely, border or not. Even in time of war, the enemy must be treated with dignity.  

Equally important, can we American afford to ignore that the pagans, such as Odysseus, as well as the Christians, such as King Alfred, stood alike for the free movement of peoples and the welcoming of the stranger? To this day, the Roman Catholic Church, following the Hebraic Decalogue, teaches: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.” To be sure, the immigrant must fulfill his or her duty as a citizen as well.

As an American conservative, I am not suggesting that we should surrender our own free will to the dictates of the past or even to any one religion, but I do think we would be foolish beyond measure to ignore the advice of our ancestors. And, for what it’s worth, the best of our ancestors believed in the free movement of peoples.

When it comes to the specifically American tradition of immigration and the free movements of peoples, the issue becomes more complicated.  

Imagine for a moment that the great waves of immigration never came to America.  In the colonial period, among those who freely chose to cross the Atlantic, you would have to dismiss the Anglicans to Virginia, the Puritans to New England, the Quakers to Pennsylvania, and the Scotch-Irish. Of the unfree peoples, you would have to take out all of those of African origin. In the 1840s, remove the Germans, the Scandinavians, and the Irish.  In the 1880s through the 1910s, remove all Greeks, Poles, Jews, Italians. . . .  

Yes, the native American Indian population would be justly celebrating, but, overall, and, from any relatively objective view, there would be no America.

Between 1801 and 1924—with the critical exception of the Chinese and the Japanese—no peoples were barred from entry into the United States.  Congress forbade further Chinese immigration in 1882, and a gentleman’s agreement ended Japanese immigration in 1905. Otherwise, until 1921 and 1924, any person of any continent, of any religion, of either gender, of any skin color, or any other accident of birth could enter the United States and take up residency the very day of arrival.  Only those with known criminal records or those suffering from tuberculosis were turned away.  

Unless you are a full-blooded American Indian (less than one percent of the present United States population), you, American reader, would not be here without some ancestor having immigrated—freely or by force—to the United States. And possibly from what one might crassly dismiss as a “sh-hole country.”

Thus, our ancestors not only expressed their favor of the freedom of movement among peoples in their writings and laws, but when,] push came to shove, they also voted with their feet.

Since the tragedies of September 11, 2001, we Americans have surrendered not just our liberties but our very souls to the false notion and false comfort of governmentally-provided security.  Tellingly, we have even closed off what was once the freest and longest border in the history of the world, our border with our extremely kind and polite neighbor to the north, Canada.

Again, I am not suggesting we must be slaves to the past, nor am I suggesting that we should dismiss the legitimate security concerns of a sovereign people.  But, as an America people, we came into being because of the free movement of peoples.  We rebelled against the designs of the 18th-century British, and we mocked the 19th-century Europeans and their passports and border guards.  

Now, we seem to have become them.  

If we continue to build walls around our country, really, then, just who are we?  Only in the last generation or so have so many American conservatives become convinced of the necessity of the vast array of restrictions on those who wish to become a part of the United States.  Perhaps they are right, but, regardless, there is much to discuss.

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.


A Mighty Symbol of Free People Over a Millennia

Remains of the sanctuary of Zeus Dodonaios in Dodona. Credit: Fingalo/Creative Commons

One of the best—but, sadly, least known—political scientists of the past century, Don Lutz, recognized exactly how important symbols can be to a free and ordered people. Communities across time share “symbols and myths that provide meaning in their existence as a people and link them to some transcendent order,” Lutz argued in the preface to a Liberty Fund collection of American colonial documents. In his argumentation, Lutz followed a number of critical thinkers, ranging from Eric Voegelin to Russell Kirk to Robert Nisbet. Unfortunately, a people, a person, a government, a bureaucracy, or a corporation can readily pervert such symbols, stripping them of their original meaning while allowing them to raise the consciousness of a society in ways directly contrary to what the symbols originally meant. Such is the power of symbols.

One of the most fascinating symbols of a republic in the western tradition, from the Romans through the Germanic Barbarians to the American founders to the American founders of the Republican Party, is the mighty oak. As noted in the previous essay on the history on the rise of the modern nation state, all republics must exist—by their very nature—as reflections of nature herself. They are, at essence, organic, necessarily experiencing birth, middle age, and death. How easily one might transfer this to the oak, thinking of its own stages, from acorn to prevailing gian, to corrupted and hollowed-out shell. Once, a thing of nearly infinite possibilities, but, ultimately, food for termites.

Yet, as a symbol, the oak itself has remained alive and well for a free and ordered people not just over generations, but over millennia. How much healthier for us and those of us who crave ordered liberty to see our representation in a majestic thing of nature rather than in a person, too often transformed into a god or demigod in our fallen humanity.

To see the importance of the oak, we must turn back to the Romans at the end of the Republic, nostalgically clinging to and idealizing what was.

When her father unjustly declared neutrality in the matter of the Trojans, Venus intervened on behalf of her son, Aeneas, bestowing upon him divine weaponry.

But the goddess Venus,

lustrous among the cloudbanks, bearing her gifts,

approached and when she spotted her son alone,

off in a glade’s recess by the frigid stream,

she hailed him, suddenly there fore him: “Look,

just forged to perfection by all my husband’s kill:

the gifts I promised!  There’s no need now, my son,

to flinch from fighting swaggering Latin ranks

or challenging savage Turnus to a duel!”

With that, Venus reached to embrace her son

And set the brilliant armor down before him

under a nearby oak.

Aeneas takes delight in the goddess’ gifts and the honor of it all

as he runs his eyes across them piece by piece.

He cannot get enough of them, filled with wonder,

turning them over, now with his hands, now his arms,

the terrible crested helmet plumed and shooting fire,

the sword-blade honed to kill, the breastplate, solid bronze,

blood-red and immense, like a dark blue cloud enflamed

by the sun’s rays and gleaming through the heavens the burnished greaves of electrum, smelted gold,

the spear and the shield, the workmanship of the shield,

no words can tell its power . . .

There is the story of Italy,

Rome in all her triumphs. There the fire-god forged them,

well aware of the seers and schooled in the times to come.

When the greatest of Roman republicans, Marcus Tullius Cicero, offered the world the first treatise on the natural law, On the Laws, began with the image of an oak, deeply rooted not just in the soil, but in the poetic imagination itself. “I recognize that grove and the oak tree of the people of Arpinum: I have read about them often in the Marius. If that oak tree survives, this is surely it; it’s certainly old enough,” Atticus begins. To which Quintus famously answers, “It survives, Atticus, and it will always survive: its roots are in the imagination. No farmer’s cultivation can preserve a tree as long as one sown in a poet’s verse.”  Indeed, Quintus continues, this very oak might have been planted by the one god. Certainly, the name of the oak will remain, tied to the sacred spot, long after nature has ravaged it.

In his History of Early Rome, Livy informs us that a consecrated oak sheltered the praetorium, a seat of waiting and contemplation for foreign guests and ambassadors from the Senate. Likewise, Suetonius reminds us that Mars, especially, favored the oak as a tree symbolizing the divine authority.

The Mediterraneans, though, held no monopoly over a mythic understanding of the oak, as the Germanic tribes far to the north considered the tree the symbol of their god of justice, Thor. When the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians met to decide the fate of inherited and common law–which laws to pass on, which laws to end, and which laws to reform–they met as a Witan or AllThing under the oaks.

Christians, knowing the oak to be so utterly rooted in the pagan tradition, knew not whether to love or to hate the tree. According to St. Bede, when St. Augustine of Canterbury called a conference of church leaders in 603, he did so at an oak, knowing the Anglo-Saxon fondness for the tree. There, at what became known as Augustine’s oak or Augustine’s Ak, the evangelist called for unity in proclaiming the gospel. Two generations earlier, Bede records, St. Columba had done something similar, building a monastery among the Celts known as Dearmach, “Field of Oaks.”  Even at the most famous of medieval monasteries, Lindisfarne, Finan built the church altar there not out of traditional stone, but, rather according to the custom of the peoples in that region, an altar “of hewn oak, thatched with reeds.”

When St. Boniface, a century later, encountered a group of Friesians still worshipping the oak of Thor, he—with nothing short of awesome bravado–attacked the tree with his axe. According to the hagiographic legends surrounding Boniface, the oak exploded into four parts moments before the blade touched its bark. So astounded were the pagans at his daring, that St. Boniface seized the moment to begin proclaiming the gospel. Where the ruined oak stood, according to hagiographic myth, an evergreen grew in its place. As it was getting dark and Boniface continued to preach, his followers placed candles all around and upon the evergreen, thus creating the first Christmas tree.

St. Boniface, it turns out, tried this trick one too many times, the last in 754, when some Thor worshippers decided to stick with Thor, beheading the poor Catholic evangelist.

If Boniface undid the oak as a direct representation of a god, he could not undo its importance to justice, as it remained a symbol of the law and of a free people. When the grand Christian King Alfred the Great met with his men in the late 800s to judge the inheritance of the common laws of the Anglo-Saxon people, they, too, met under an oak. Critically, Alfred and his Witan judged the laws. They did not create them, believing such actions illegal. A ruling body can only judge what it has inherited, not create laws out of nothing. Such a power belongs only to God and through his people only across time.

Perhaps, then, St. Boniface’s actions merely rendered under God what was God’s, and unto the community what was the community’s.

The symbol of the oak remained a powerful one in colonial America, especially as the various communities on the eastern seaboard continued their own observance of the traditional common laws and, especially, in their Declaration of Independence. Though not exclusively oak, oaks made fine Liberty Poles and Liberty Trees in the 1760s through 1780s, and newly-freed American communities regularly planted oaks to celebrate their independence from Britain. Pamphleteers, not surprisingly, used the symbol of the acorn and the oak as representative of America’s independence and hardihood.

When Congress rashly passed the democratic Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854—a law that claimed that the enslavement of an entire people could be decided by mere majority vote—angry republican citizens of Michigan formed a third party, the Republican Party, in Jackson, Michigan, under, not surprisingly, a grove of oaks.

Whatever one in the early twenty-first century might think of Jupiter or Thor, the oak remains a mighty symbol of a free people, a people ready to remember and reclaim what is rightfully theirs by the grace of the Creator and the created order. The oak reminds us of strength in the face of nasty and bitter times, returning us to the nourishment of what makes us strong and free, the duty to govern ourselves in a fashion becoming to God and nature and, equally important, to the dignity of the human person. Unlike oppressive governments who rely on cults of personality, the republic relies on the nature of nature and the nature (good and bad) of the human person.

Origins of the Modern State Part I

Origins of the Modern State Part II

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.


 Tagged , , , , , , . 2 comments

The Republic Was Never Supposed to Be Forever

“Romans in the Decadence of the Empire” By Thomas Couture, 1847 (public domain).

As I write this second part of the series, the origins of the rise of the modern nation state, our own nation state looks—financially—nothing short of pathetic. At the end of 2017, the federal government’s official estimate for deficit spending is $666 billion. For all kinds of reasons, this is a really scary number, and not just because it causes one to think of the mark of St. John’s envisioned beast. Rrroawr!  $666 billion is a number so terribly large that it is difficult for any of us—even those of us not suffering from innumeracy or apocalyptic dread—to comprehend. And, of course, this is just the recorded and admitted deficit spending for one year. That is, it accounts for those things the government admits to, on the books and on budget.

According to the U.S. Debt Clock, we’re at nearly $21 trillion in debt, and the number increases so quickly that seizures might very well result. As the number made my stomach turn, I thought, perhaps the site should come with a warning akin to those found on PS4 and Xbox games. That’s all we need, right?  Another law and another regulation.

As Tom Woods and all sensible economists have recently claimed, the United States of America is simply insolvent. The only shocking thing is that no one in the mainstream media or financial institutions seems to care.

Whither the American republic? It is worth remembering that no one founds a republic believing the republic will last forever. To believe such a thing automatically negates one’s conservatism. Like all living things, a republic must experience a birth, a middle age, and a death. The question is never if a republic will die, but when. The stronger its soul, the healthier its body. Conversely, the less a people have a purpose, the faster will they decline. A republic, American or not, is a res publica—a common good, a good thing, a public thing. Whether our government still resembles the republic of the American founders is yet another question, and one for another post.

It is also worth remembering that in the long history of western civilization, no political arrangement—with only the rarest exceptions—has lasted more than a few centuries. Political bodies come and go. The two longest lived institutions in the West are not political, but, ethnic and religious. The oldest sustained cohesive people in the world are the Jews, and the oldest institution in the West is the Latin church. We can conservatively date the first at 4,000 years old and, the second, at roughly 2,000 years old. Not a single political body that existed during the time of the Pentecost still exists today. Indeed, even the very form of government that so predominates in the world—the roughly 200 nation states of the world—did not exist until the fifteenth century.

In the previous post, I mentioned what a libertarian skeptic God seems to be, as understood in the Books of Samuel and in Jesus’ handling of the coin of the Roman Empire. This skepticism about what would be called caesaro-papism arrived not just with the Jews, but also with the ancient Greeks and Romans as well.

The classical Greeks believed in community rule, that is, rule localized to each polis, its citizens deciding over and across time what rules, norms, and laws should prevail. At the height of ancient Greece, roughly 150 poleis existed, each with its own form of government. The Athenians were relatively democratic, the Spartans monarchical and militaristic, and the Corinthians free traders. What they held in common was a despising of the Oriental (Persian) belief in a godking. Equally, the Persian “godkings,” Darius and Xerxes, also despised the Greeks and what they perceived as anarchic and archaic liberty. When the Persians warred against the Greek poleis in the early fifth century, their war was far more about pride than logic. As the eminent twentieth-century historian, Christopher Dawson argued, the Persian War was, at its essence, a spiritual struggle.

The Greek patriot Herodotus described one Persian invasion gloriously, the defense of the Gates of Fire (Thermopylae) by Leonidas and 300 Spartans.

But Xerxes was not persuaded any the more. Four whole days he suffered to go by, expecting that the Greeks would run away. When, however, he found on the fifth that they were not gone, thinking that their firm stand was mere impudence and recklessness, he grew wroth, and sent against them the Medes and Cissians, with orders to take them alive and bring them into this presence. Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others now took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few men. (Herodotus, The History, Book VII).

Real men, Herodotus implied rather strongly, fought because they chose to fight, not because they were forced to. Only “free societies” allow the flourishing of real manhood. However brave a Persian might be, no real man could fight for Xerxes. Such warriors were, simply put, slaves, playthings of a false godking. “It was as ‘free men,’ as members of a self-governing community, that the Greeks felt themselves to be different from other men,” Dawson argued.

It would not be absurd to argue that when the last Spartan died at Thermopylae, the Occident was born. Though the Greeks (under the hubris of the Athenians) ultimately squandered their inheritance, falling into empire, civil war, and ruin by the end of the fifth century, the successes of the first few decades of that century are not lessened. The Greek achievement against the Persians proved a glorious watershed in the history of liberty, in the history of dignity, and in the history of civilization.

A full three decades before the Spartans and Persians battled at the Gates of Fire, the farmers of Rome overthrew their Etruscan overlords, proclaiming within a year of their rebellion, a republic. True to their own fears of godkings, the Romans insisted that their republic was not created—implying a man or group of men had the divine ability to declare such a thing out of nothing—but, rather, grew. Our republic, Cicero writes in his dialogue, On the Republic, “in contrast, was not shaped by one man’s talent but by that of the many; and not in one person’s life time, but over many generations” (Cicero, On the Republic, Book II). Though far from perfect, the Roman republic grew, adapted, and evolved over centuries of time, lasting 400 years before succumbing to the dread and fate of outright empire.

Again, one must remember that no republicans believe their republic can last forever. A republic, by its very essence, must rely on its organic nature, a living thing that is born, flourishes, decays, and dies. It is, by nature, trapped in the cycles of life, bounded by the walls of time. While a cosmic republic might exist—as understood by Cicero’s “Cosmopolis” and Augustine’s “City of God”—it existed in eternity and, therefore, aloof of time.

For better or worse, the Roman Republic reflected not just nature, but the Edenic fall of nature as well. We can, the Roman republican Livy recorded, “trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice.” The virtues of the commonwealth—the duties of labor, fate, and piety—gave way to the avaricious desires for private wealth. When young, the Romans rejoiced in the little they had, knowing that their liberty from the Etruscans meant more than all the wealth of the material world. “Poverty, with us, went hand in hand with contentment.” As the republic evolved and wealth became the focus of the community, not sacrifice, so the soul decayed. “Of late years,” Livy continued, “wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective.” (All Livy quotes from The History of Early Rome, Book I)

Not long before his own martyrdom at the hands of a would-be Caesar, Mark Antony, Cicero lamented:

Thus, before our own time, the customs of our ancestors produced excellent men, and eminent men preserved our ancient customs and the institutions of their forefathers. But though the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colours, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak its general outlines. For what is now left of the ‘ancient customs’ on which he said ‘the commonwealth of Rome’ was ‘founded firm’? They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but are already unknown. And what shall I say of the men? For the loss of our customs is due to our lack of men, and for this great evil we must not only give an account, but must even defend ourselves in every way possible, as if we were accused of capital crime. For it is through our own faults, not by any accident, that we retain only the form of the commonwealth, but have long since lost its substance. (Cicero, On the Republic, Book IV)

As we consider our own nation state with its immense debt and bloated empire, we might wonder if Cicero’s words written during the reign of first caesar might not equally apply to 2017.

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishesTAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

 Tagged , , , , , . 15 comments

The Origins of the Modern State: A Conservative View

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Jusepe de Ribera, 1616. (Public domain)

Part I

Over the last several years, amidst the swirls of overt corruption, immigrant “hordes,” rising “national security” concerns, police militarization, bloated empire, and the so-called deepening of the “deep state,” conservatives and libertarians of all stripes have pondered the meaning of the modern state. Most recently, Paul Moreno has brilliantly considered the rise of The Bureaucratic Kings, Alex Salter has wisely questioned the relationship of anarchy (the Bohemian, Nockian variety) to conservatism, and, though I have yet to read what the always thoughtful Jason Kuznicki of Cato recommends, there is also James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Believe me, I am intrigued.  Each of these authors and recommenders, of course, owes an immense debt to the pioneering work of Robert Higgs’s magnum opus, Crisis and Leviathan (1987), and Higgs, in turn, had followed in the footsteps of such 20th century greats as Christopher Dawson, Robert Nisbet, Friedrich Hayek, and Joseph Schumpeter.  

Some conservatives will immediately balk at such analyses. Students of Leo Strauss want to remind us that politics, properly understood in the Aristotelian sense, is high, not sordid. Students of Russell Kirk want to remind us that order is the first concern of any society and that to look too deeply at the origins of a state is a form of pornographic leering and peeping. And, Christians of every variety, consider the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s letters to the Church in Roman as having closed the matter before it ever needs discussion. God, according to a literal reading of St. Paul’s letter, commanded us each to “submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution.”

While modern Christians might claim this answers every question about the legitimacy of state action, they are not necessarily mainstream in the history of Christianity.  The Prophet Samuel, feeling outcast by the ill favor of his people, of course, had a fierce argument with them, after consulting with God about the necessity of centralizing the government under a monarch.  God assured him that this would be foolish:

He will take your sons and make them serve in his chariots and with his cavalry, and will make them run before his chariot.  Some he will appoint officers over units of a thousand and units of fifty.  Others will plough his fields and reap his harvest; others again will make weapons of war and equipment for mounted troops.  He will make your daughters for perfumers, cooks, and confectionaries, and will seize the best of your cornfields, vineyards, and olive-yards, and them to his lackeys.  He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage to give to his eunuchs and lackeys.  Your slaves, both men and women, and the best of your cattle and your asses he will seize and put to his own use.  He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

God seems to have been the first hard-core decentralist anti-statist, but Samuel’s people refused to listen, and God granted them, against His better judgement, a monarchy.

Jesus, holding a coin of his day, stamped with Ruler of Things Temporal on one side and Ruler of Things Spiritual on the other, told His followers that they must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. For better or worse, He did not elaborate, but it is rather clear that the body politic has no right to interfere with the body spiritual.

Even St. Paul, when he wrote the thirteenth chapter of Romans, wrote his chapter in the context of a much larger letter that dealt entirely with the nature of the human person as citizen. Not surprisingly, he wrote this letter to the Christians who lived at the very center of the empire. The letter itself is deeply complex, full of nuances, and, one would wish, resistant to proof texting. In order, St. Paul addresses citizenship to and within the Natural Law, to Judaism, to and within the Gospel of Jesus, to and within Creation itself, a return to the topic of Judaism, to and with God’s will for each person within history, in the Body of Christ, and, finally, in chapter 13, to and within the secular authorities of the world. To suggest that one could readily take any one of these discussions and commands apart for any other is as wrong as it is absurd. While I would never proclaim to know exactly what St. Paul wants of us, I can state with certainty that no easy answer suffices. St. Paul was as individual in his personality as he was in his thought.

Three centuries after St. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans and after horrific massacres, huntings, and martyrdoms at the hands of the Roman Imperials, Christians found themselves, if not quite legal, no longer illegal after the Edict of Milan of 313.  Not until 380, did the Roman government declare Christianity fully legal, and, twelve years later, in 392, it offered Christianity a monopoly. For eighteen years, though many Romans grumbled about the privilege given exclusively to Christianity, none openly challenged it until the barbarian hordes invaded the city of Rome on August 24, 410.  Then, all hell broke loose, and the grumbling pagans became outraged pagans, demanding the recognition that the forsaking of the gods for the Christian God had resulted in the fall of the Eternal City.

In those years prior to the invasion, St. Ambrose of Milan had forbidden the Roman Emperor from receiving communion after the emperor had sanctioned the massacre of rebellious civilians.  This Ambrosian doctrine established that while the powers spiritual did not possess force of arms, they did have the right to deny those who wielded political and military power from enjoying the sacraments of the Holy Church when they were in grave sin.  Ambrose’s excommunication worked, and the emperor accepted and endured an extended penance before being received back into the arms of the church.  Such power remains to this day, as seen most recently and most powerfully in the modern age in a Polish Pope’s shaming of an Evil Empire.

Ambrose’s close friend, St. Augustine, elaborated this Catholic distrust of state power most effectively and most persuasively in his magisterial, The City of God (412-428).  Though long, it is worth quoting at length.

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor. [St. Augustine, City of God, Book IV]

Whatever one might personally think of St. Augustine in the early 21st-century, it matters little.  Outside of Holy Scripture, nothing in the western middle ages mattered as much as his City of God. For all intents and purposes, it was the handbook for the next thousand years of the West. As such, we moderns and post-moderns almost never turn to the medieval period to understand political theory. For the medieval greats, what mattered most was not what form government took, but how moral it was, how ethical it was, and how protective of the powers spiritual it was.  As much as the Medievals studied Paul, they did so through the lens of Augustine.  Paul’s Letter to the Romans, especially chapter 13, was anything but simple.

For those of us living in the last six-hundred years of history, attuned as we are to the doings of the nation-states, at home and abroad, the Medieval is as far from us as is Ray Bradbury’s imaginary civilizations on Mars.

Yet, as good and true conservatives, we in this present whirligig we call civilization, must return to first principles and right reason.  If we are to understand the modern state, we must understand its origins.

Part II, coming to an American Conservative website near you.

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

 Tagged , , , . 11 comments

Promoting Human Dignity Since 1844: Hillsdale College

Hillsdale College. Credit: CreativeCommons/Flickr/Kingpin1000

For all the wrong reasons (and none actually correct), Hillsdale College served as an important part of the debates in the Senate this weekend regarding tax reform.  Taking it upon himself to become the crusader for everything “progressive,” Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon proudly proclaimed on Twitter and Facebook: Hillsdale College wants “to have permission to discriminate in selecting students.”  Of course, Senator Merkley did not mean that the college discriminated in its selection process, as any real university would, to seek and recruit the best and the brightest, but, rather, that  the college discriminates to make sure the college stays racially white. Or, as he not so delicately put it, Hillsdale College “specializes in discrimination.”

I have no ability to judge whether the Senator spoke out of ignorance of  maliciousness, but I can state this definitively: He knows absolutely nothing about Hillsdale College, and, frankly, if he possesses even an ounce of decency, he will formally apologize for his claims.

A group of abolitionist Free-will Baptists founded Hillsdale College in 1844, though they stipulated that the college could not be denominational. Instead, true to their abolitionist beliefs, the founders of the college forbade any discrimination based on the accidents of birth. In other words, Hillsdale—from day one of its existence, as defined by its charter—allowed a person of either sex and of any racial, ethnic, or religious background to study there. The college became, understandably, a hotbed for abolitionist sentiment, and it was the rare prominent abolitionist of the ante-bellum period who did not grace Hillsdale with a visit and a speech. Perhaps, most prominently, Frederick Douglass spoke here. True to our heritage, President Larry Arnn dedicated a statue to the great anti-slavery orator just this past spring. That statue, along with a statue of a Civil War soldier and Abraham Lincoln greet the visitor to Hillsdale’s beautiful campus in southern Michigan.

As noted above, though, Hillsdale was not just color-blind from day one, it was also the first college or university in the United States to allow women the right to earn a liberal arts degree. Others allowed women to study for home economics, but, at Hillsdale, they were treated just as well as men, studying the Great Ideas, the Great Minds, and the Great Books of western civilization.

When Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the Confederate rebellion in the spring of 1861, almost every single male at the college answered that call, making it unique among all northern colleges. Indeed, outside of the military academies, not a single institution of higher learning offered anywhere near the level of participation that Hillsdale offered. Hillsdale men (and, of course, women, though in non-combat positions) served the Union stunningly, especially in the 2nd, 4th, and 24th Michigan regiments. The 24th, the fifth of five regiments to make up the justly famous Iron Brigade, sacrificed themselves in one of the most horrific moments of the Civil War, the first day at the Battle of Gettysburg. Positioning themselves at a bottle neck on the eastern side of the little Lutheran Pennsylvania town, the 24th Michigan, outnumbered nearly 10 to 1, fought so fiercely that the Confederate invaders held back, despite having the superiority in numbers.  When Lee found out about the timidity of his own troops, he was furious. Had his troops broken the 24th Michigan, they could have readily taken the high ground of Little Roundtop and surrounding areas. The Hillsdale men who gave their lives that day in what must have seemed a hopeless cause very well changed the course of American and western civilization. Today, the fourth floor of Delp Hall, which houses the history department, is dedicated to their sacrifice, a seminar room displaying paintings of that hot, humid afternoon in Pennsylvania as one Hillsdale man after another succumbed to enemy fire.

During the 1950s, at the height of the struggle for black civil rights, Hillsdale’s football team, led by the intrepid Muddy Waters, refused to play in the Tangerine Bowl because black players were not allowed on the field. Hillsdale’s team would’ve have gone into the 1955 Bowl game with a 9-0 record. 

Your author—yours truly—has had the privilege of teaching at this college for over eighteen years.  To this very day, I am more than proud to note, Hillsdale remains 100% blind when it comes to the color, race, ethnicity, and religion of its students. Not only do we not ask a student to identify any race or ethnicity on his or her application form to the college, but we keep absolutely no data about such things. We believe in character, not skin color. We love intelligence, not appearance. We love the individual, not the group.

Though I can only speak for myself and not for the college (for I have no such authority to do so) as a whole, I can state that far from “specializing in discrimination,” we might be the single best institution in western civilization that adamantly refuses at every level to “specialize in discrimination.”

Though I do not have the privilege of knowing or even understanding Senator Merkley, I can state with certainty that while he makes a show of calling for “equality,” he really means a drab uniformity and collectivized tapioca. As Dr. Arnn, the single best college president in the world, has reminded us many times, we were anti-discrimination long before the Federal Government was. In fact, he notes, the Federal Government finally adopted OUR position on the issue of race and ethnicity, not the other way around. Hillsdale had to remind the United States over and over again of the Founding intent as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Rather than speaking about that of which he knows nothing, perhaps Senator Merkley would consent to visit our campus. I would happily show him our statues that so beautifully reveal our devotion to liberal education as well as to the dignity and beauty of each human person, each a unique expression of a majestic Creator. I would happily introduce him to my extraordinary colleagues and to my ever-curious students. I would also take him to Oak Grove Cemetery, a sacred site on the northern most part of town that inters over 300 Civil War veterans as well as the first historian of Hillsdale College, Ransom Dunn. In 1854, he became so disgusted with Washington politics and especially the Democratic Party under Stephen Douglas, that he helped form an independent movement that sought to prevent the extension of slavery in the American West. After much deliberation under a grove of oak trees in Jackson, Michigan, they finally decided on the name, the Republican Party.

As a historian at one of the finest institutions of higher learning in existence, I only ask that the Senate neither helps nor hinders us.  Hillsdale College does not take one single penny from the federal government, and our students take not one single penny in loans. Just please leave us alone, and we’ll be fine. Indeed, leave us alone, and we’ll continue to show the world how best to educate and how best to promote the dignity of every single human person regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, etc. 

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

 Tagged , . 24 comments

Stranger Things 2: A Little Mind Flaying

Stranger Things 2 (Netflix)

(Warning: Some spoilers regarding Season 2)

If there is something better that has been made for the screen (large or small) than Stranger Things–at least since the final movie of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy came out in 2012—I have certainly missed it. And yet, it’s not as if Stranger Things is second best in some weird contest of mediocrity. It is, from start to finish, extraordinary. It’s extraordinary in its imagination, in its plot, in its making the unreal real, in its embrace of nostalgia, but, most of all, in its full acceptance of the human condition–at once mysterious and full of awe, comprised of beautiful individuals, each deeply flawed. While Stranger Things Season 2, is at once better and weaker than Season 1 in its constituent parts, it remains a thing of glory and beauty.

When thinking about the excellence of the show, one might very well wonder, just who are the Duffer Brothers, and where on God’s Green Earth did they come from? Twin brother creators, writers, and directors, they brought Stranger Things to life. Crazily, they did not even enter this whirligig of existence until after Season 1 took place. They were in utero!  Somehow, though, they absorbed the culture and deeper meaning of the decade, grasping the nuances of the early Reagan Era–full of tax cuts, unmatched economic growth, acid rain, middle-class pride, the death of Spock, The Thing, Blade Runner, Sixteen Candles, Rush, Yes, Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, the eminent if unseen collapse of the Soviet empire, entrepreneurial genius, California ascendency, Commodore 64s and Macintosh 128s, John Paul II, Stephen King, Steven Jobs, Milton Friedman, and, of course, that greatest of all nerddom games, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

Just as important, the Duffer Brothers could only have emerged at the moment that internet had almost fully decentralized the music and the television industries. Try as they might, the Duffer Brothers found little success with the mainstream channels. In their unrelenting drive for success—never tempered by any desire to compromise their art—they turned to Netflix. Netflix, thank the good Lord, took a chance with the Duffers. The rest, of course, is history. A match made in eternity, but manifested in time.

Being exactly the same age as the female protagonist of Stranger Things, Nancy, last year’s Season 1 re-immersed me into my life in Hutchinson High School in ways I never could have expected. Yes, I listened to the pensive early New Order, I played Dungeons and Dragons, I loved Reagan, Jobs, and Friedman, and I never stopped reading science fiction or Batman comic books. As with the younger male protagonists of Stranger Things, I had but a few very close best friends, and my mom let me ride my bike—free-range parenting in those days—from one side of Hutchinson, Kansas, to the other, from dawn to dusk. As long as I was home by dinner time, no inquiries about my day were made. Was I mischievous? Oh yes. Did I head to the library as often as I caused trouble? Equally, yes.  I might very well have been the local king of trouble-making nerds, amazed, to this day, that I didn’t kill myself or cause more property damage than I actually did.

While Season 1 of Stranger Things brilliantly introduced us to the wildly imaginative and yet comfortably familiar bright and dark worlds of that decaying autumn of 1983, with the government’s unleashing of hell upon an unsuspecting Indiana town the day after Guy Fawkes’ Day, Season 2 begins on October 28, 1984, a little less than a year later.  Critically, the second season begins on the eve of the 1984 presidential election, the election that solidified the Reagan Revolution, clearing out the political control of technology, industry, and community, and positioning the free world to destroy the tyrannical one.  Reagan/Bush signs appear prominently throughout the first several episodes, offering surety and hope.

In Season 1, the heroes were outcast kids, confused teenagers, and broken adults. The enemies were societal conformity, peer pressure, and the U.S. government, especially the Department of Energy. For Season 2, the Duffer Brothers brought the heroes together, still separated by age, but much more aligned in purpose. The new government bureaucrats are not quite heroes, but—lead by Paul Reiser—they are on the side of right. Reaganism has replaced Johnson-Nixon-Carter era corruption, if not the incompetence.

Though the Duffer Brothers might have taken the easy route with the new season, offering us into all-new adventures their X-Files-like Hoosier funhouse of horrors, the twin brothers wisely tackle the far more difficult issues of post-traumatic stress syndrome.  The show is never merely about monsters, it’s about nightmares, all too real and all too cumbersome for the human condition. In the first season, the adults—and especially Police Chief Hopper, having served in Vietnam and endured the taunts of the New Left, lost children, and seen his marriage destroyed, now surviving only by crusading against injustice and popping anti-anxiety medication—suffer from their pasts.  In this season, we see the boy, Will, abducted by the monster experiencing not only depression but also possession, and the girl, Eleven (Jane), wondering if her new father is holding her back as oppressively as the government once had engineered her. Depressed and confused, neither can find happiness, though each is surrounded by love. These two must enter into the unknown on their own, only coming to realize, penultimately, just how vital they are, not just as individuals, but as friends.

Indeed, if there is one thing that ties together the best of what’s humane in the second season on Stranger Things, it is the necessity of friendship and community to overcome adversity, no matter how demonic or depraved or bureaucratic. At one critical moment, as a new student named Max arrives from California and living with an abusive older brother asks Michael why he opposes her entrance into their intimate friendship, he loses his temper. 

Taken as a whole, Season 2 is every bit as great as Season 1. Yet, despite its many successes, its weaknesses make it slightly uneven and even a bit troubling. In the first season, we were treated to something done exceedingly well that is usually done very poorly in the various dramatic arts of the last hundred years. Very few artists can capably create good characters who actually strive to be good and still remain interesting.  Most artists—especially in fiction, movies, and television—bander to the easy, bad decisions or they make the good characters one dimensional and cheesy, usually armed not just with powerful weapons but with cringe-worthy one-liners.

Season 1 of Stranger Things introduced deeply flawed heroes, but those heroes struggled mightily against those flaws, always hoping to do what’s right, even when hindered by their own individual sins, flaws, and failings. As such, even the most troubled of the heroes earned our profound love by remaining, at some fundamental level, innocent. Of course, there was no better character for the viewer than Eleven, the little girl stolen by the U.S. government from her parents, tattooed in the manner of the Jews in the Holocaust, and used brutally as an experiment to further national interests. She killed when necessary, but she strove to find her humanity, despite never having had a good example in her life.  We cheered and cheered for Eleven to succeed because she wanted to succeed, but only by doing the right thing and by wanting to love and be loved. Season 1 ended, correctly, with Eleven seemingly sacrificing herself for her friends, the first persons who had ever treated her with respect.

In Season 2, Eleven is understandably angry at the way she’s been raised, and she now wants, again understandably, to be with those she loves and to find out why she was abandoned by (stolen from) her parents. Her quest, though, goes all wrong, as she becomes involved with a bombastic, nasty gang of scuzzy misfits. Though she walks away from this gang, she had changed, becoming sleek and cool, rather than innocent and loving.  Frankly, I hated to see this change in her, and it made me less sympathetic to the second season. The same thing happens, though, with far less screen time, to Mike and Nancy’s mother, who has gone from a powerfully concerned mom to a bored, sex-craved kitten.  It’s neither funny nor helpful to the story.

These, however, are minor points in the big scheme of things, and, whatever its faults, Season 2 is still the best thing on any screen at the moment. Those characters we loved in Season 1 are every bit as interesting in the second season, if not more so. Joyce is still the best mom in the world, Hopper is still the best cop in the world, the four boys are the best nerds in the world, and even Steve, so sleazy in Season 1, has become the “good guy,” a true leader in the best sense of the word.

And, for those of us who actually grew up in the early 1980s, we get to enjoy all the nostalgia, yet again, of the decade that so shaped us. The demogorgons, the mind flayers, the new wave music, the arcades, the free-range parenting, the best president of the twentieth century that so shaped our childhood are now manifest for all to see and enjoy.

Ave, the Duffer Brothers!  Yes, Ave.  Pure and simple, Ave.

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

 Tagged , , . 7 comments