Beowulf Founders etc.

Beowulf & the Founders, Cont.:

Joel's response makes me think that we may be approaching a resolution; several of the disputes he raises are actually things I agree with entirely, which suggests that we may not be communicating perfectly. In addition to discussing our remaining points of disagreement, I'd like to clarify areas where I think we really agree.

Joel begins by asserting that he believes "an individual's rights exist aside and apart from the moral responsibilities associated with those rights," including the defense of the society that makes those rights practically possible. I agree with this position. Since Eric also expressed a dispute on these grounds, I'll pull up that section of the comments. The italicized texts is from Eric's comment:

"The rights that the critic enjoys do not belong to him. They are earned by those who defend the society that allows them to exist."

This simply isn't so. The rights may be defended or guaranteed by some subset of the citizery, but rights are expressable by all the citizens.

Let me try to express that point differently, since the distinction I made between "belongs" and "earned by" may be confusing. I passed over it quickly, and it may need to be more fully articulated.

I don't mean to suggest that the critic has no rights. I do mean to suggest that the rights aren't earned by him. Because they exist practically only because of the work of others, the hypothetical critic is living off the work of others.

That doesn't mean that society doesn't guarantee his rights just the same. It only means he doesn't really contribute to the upkeep of that society, and should be seen as a freeloader.

An imperfect analogy would be to a seventeen year old who will neither work nor go to school. Society nevertheless protects his right to be fed and clothed by his parents. He has an actual right to those things, and can appeal to the law if they are denied to him. The larger society grants him those rights, and the smaller society of his family provides him with the practical expression of those rights.

However, he is doing nothing to earn them. The clothes and the food don't really belong to him -- he just has a right to them.
This is why I used the term "freeloader" rather than "traitor" or something similar. The Founders had a clear idea of what they wanted to consider treason. I don't propose to broaden the definition.

There is a class of people who are educated at society's expense, enjoy the prosperity the society allows, and then -- instead of assuming positions that further that prosperity or defend the society -- attempt to undermine the foundations of our Republic. They are a problem for society, in the way that freeloaders are always a problem for any social or economic model. They still enjoy full rights, because the provision of rights is the basic design of our society. It is what society is for.

Unlike those who work for the benefit of our society, however, they are not paying their way. There are goods that some people are earning -- rights, prosperity -- and they are entitled by membership in the society to a share. Instead of trying to contribute, however, they try to tear down the project.

Of course they still have rights; America couldn't be America without provisioning them with rights. Citizens also have duties. While we might not punish those who do not perform those duties, we can recognize socially that performing your duty is praiseworthy, and not performing it is not. I suspect Joel and I agree about this point.

I conceed Joel's point re: natural-born Presidents. I had misremembered the terms, but his formula seems correct. I also think he has an excellent point in his dispute about the term "state of nature," as the best evidence suggests that the real "state of nature" for men is a tribe, not a lone survivor. The evidence regarding the state of small tribes in early America is actually not that different from Hobbes' viewpoint about what the life of a solitary man in 'a state of nature' would be, however.

Joel and I do not really disagree at this point re: northern Kingship. Yes, potential kings were from a certain class. So, of course, were potential Presidents at the time of the Founding.

Finally, Joel notes that the Founders "did not establish a form of government that based the origin of the rights of citizens on their utility to the state." On this we agree entirely. You do not have to be useful to have rights, as above. However, if any rights are to be made real in the world, someone has to do the work.

Now, to the remaining points of disagreement:

First and most important, Joel and Eric both point to the overwhelming preponderance of Roman symbols among the Founder's writings. I spoke to this briefly in the comments, by pointing to the fact that Alfred the Great himself had done the same thing, and had in fact translated Boethius in order to bring the Latin learning to his people. That is not a sufficient reply, however.

The fact that the symbols are mostly Roman, and some Greek ("Christian Sparta") is due to the education of the day, which was heavy on Latin. The class of educated men almost had to speak in Roman symbols, no matter what position they were advocating. Shakespeare, in plays designed to speak well of the Queen of the Tudors, also regularly drew on Rome. Everyone in that age did, for any purpose.

Symbols are important for telling you where people's imagination is, but you have to look to the real things to see their genetic heritage. We sell horses to foxhunters regularly around here, and they want English or Irish names. I can take a horse and name him O'Neill, and sell him for a good price to a foxhunter with Irish dreams. It is still a very non-Irish horse, however, like the one I ride in the icon by my comments, an American Paint named "Tobais." If you go by his name, he is Gaelic; but if you look at his genes, he is nothing of the kind.

The genetic heritage of our Republic is the one Jefferson described -- he was almost alone among the Founders in remarking on it because he was almost the only one well enough read to understand it. After the burning of the Library of Congress in 1814, Jefferson's personal library was the largest in America. It was, and remains, a national treasure.

That genetic heritage of our nation is far more closely related to the models of England itself than of Rome, and not just any moment in English history. Jefferson wrote, "It has ever appeared to me, that the difference between the whig and the tory of England is, that the whig deduces his rights from the Anglo-Saxon source, and the tory from the Norman." The relation of those parties to the American question is well known here.

We inherited of a system of trial by jury, which was developed from the Vikings. The accused is represented by a lawyer, as he was by a "law-sayer" among the Vikings. We have a thing we call a "Senate," but it is little like the Roman Senate. For one thing, it was not popularly elected at the Founding -- many of the Founders detested the concept. It is far more like the House of Lords, except that the Founders replaced the concept of nobility with the concept of being appointed by the leadership of the states. The Congress is bicameral, like Parliament, having a House of Commons of the form that the common (that is, Saxon) people of England forced upon the Normans. The Romans were content to divide themselves into The Senate and The People, but the English were not -- and we are not. Though Congress' procedures are its own, the idea of a strict division of executive and legislative authority does not arise from Roman sources: Senators, for example, had the right of capital punishment. The division of powers is an English import.

Most importantly, the key to the American founding is the idea of rights, as we have been discussing. That is an English idea, the thing that Jefferson rightly pointed to in the Saxons in the Norman era, the thing that the Founders noted in the Declaration of Arbroath among the Scots, and that I have attempted to trace to older sources.

The basic machinery of society is likewise inherited. We have sheriffs and summons to appear before courts; our older cities have aldermen. Our states are divided into counties, with broad local autonomy. Eric says that the Romans were the idea behind the militia, but the militia was also a distinctly English concept, with every freeman required by law to own and practice with appointed weapons. This was precisely the form that the Founders adopted.

Whatever names they used for things, the great bulk of our society was inherited. It was not inherited unchanged, but the weight of the ancient traditions, and the ancient ideas of what rights are and what they entail, greatly outweigh the symbols laid on the top of the thing.

Some other, lesser points of disagreement:

Joel posits that the Creator intended human rights, and attempts to prove it with this analogy: "While you will not find any element called 'human rights' in the genetic makeup of human beings that does not mean that human rights do not exist. You will not find elements called love or sense of humor in the genetic makeup of human beings either but I think we will all agree that love and humor exist."

In fact, there do seem to be strong biological impulses at work in both love and humor. Without going into the weeds on the neuroscience, both questions are hotly researched at universities worldwide. Linking the genetics to the higher biology has yet to be done, but there is really no reason to doubt that basic human biology does include mechanisms for both of these things. Indeed, there is this strong reason to support the hypothesis: love and humor are universal among humans.

A theory of human rights, however, is rare. There is nothing in most of the great civilizations of the world that suggests it was a driving force. Certainly the imperial Chinese, or Persians, had nothing like it. That suggests that it is not biological, but cultural -- something that arises not from nature, in other words, but from men.

Especially when we consider the particular rights we feel are important -- freedom of conscience, of speech, the right to bear arms -- we see a very specific cultural heritage. This is not something the Creator gave to all men. If the Creator had a hand in it, and I certainly do not discount the possibility, he gave it to us.

It may become universal among men, but if it does, it will be because of what we do with it. It must be taught, and made real. If it is in fact God's will that all men should know such rights, then he has given America a very special mandate indeed. Regardless, however, this concept is our own -- we are the ones who bear it to the world. We are the ones who care about it. We are the ones who must defend it.

1 comment:

Joel Leggett said...

I have recently read a couple of books that have changed my opinion regarding the Germanic warrior society influence on the development of Anglo-American political institutions and customs. The first book is From Plato to NATO by David Gress and the second book is Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World by Daniel Hannan. Allow me to say that you were right and I was wrong. I maybe eight years late, but never let it be said I can’t admit when I am wrong.