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Is Shakespeare’s Coriolanus a key for our crises?

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 30, 2017

Shakespeare’s unknown Roman play and what it bodes for us

With its popularity trailing far behind Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus is perplexing on a number of levels.  Not lacking in ether violence or passion, the bard’s not-so-secret formulae for success, Coriolanus seems saturated with the wrong sort of passion, and by comparison to that  other dark horse, Titus Andronicus, not nearly violent enough to make an Elizabethan B-grade movie worthwhile.  Coriolanus features a Rome without romance.  Women, yes, men, yes…but in the form of a nagging mother, and a wife long past the honeymoon stage, these against a background of uncountable war widows.  In other words, it focuses on the reality of relationships, not their rosy initiation.  Today people might, out of a sense of guilt, be willing to pay to see that kind of fare, but the Elizabethans were far too sensible to put up with it.   Yet they put up with Coriolanus, and so should we, for in that play Shakespeare is telling us a story which is political in a way that is far different from his other productions. It is closer to instruction than entertainment, although, for those with an eye for the nuances of history, far more interesting than simple entertainment.   Furthermore I maintain that Coriolanus speaks to us today in a prophetic voice that few past generations could have decoded.  After a few preliminaries, I will attempt a decoding…with what success, you may be the judge.

There is a difference between narratives where politics is embedded in human (especially sexual) relationships and those stories where relationships are embedded in politics.   Yes, and I know that “embedded” will be taken as a bad pun!  None the less, we don’t go to see Anthony and Cleopatra because we want to understand how the Second Triumvirate unraveled.  For the Elizabethan, sex and circuses were still an intermission within the normal life of the body politic.  Above sex, circuses, work, and all the other activities of civil society was the dreadful, and indeed numenous, question of sovereignty.  I say numenous since sovereignty entailed not just power over life and death, but, keeping in mind that the Reformation was still playing itself out, possibly power over eternal life and eternal death.  Thus, the dark shadow of the Tower of London fell across the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, at least mentally, if not quite physically.  For frequenters of the Globe, politics was close, perhaps closer than for all the intervening generations between them and us, we whom are beset by social media, and for whom politics is becoming all-in-all.  Against this dreadful background, theatergoers were torn between the drive to escapism and the drive to understand.  Arguably, Coriolanus satisfies the latter urge.

Not only that, but in addition to being political rather than erotic, Coriolanus is political in a way which is uncharacteristic of Shakespeare, and shows a surprising grasp of issues which one might have surmised were far beyond his scope of knowledge and interests.  Arguably, Coriolanus is the only Shakespearean play in which the dramatic action takes place in the context of a still-vigorous constitutional republic.  Normally, we expect a Shakespearean narrative to take place against a feudal background.  Even where the background is nominally republican, it is likely to be a Venetian facad or a Rome in transition to empire.  After all, Shakespeare was a subject of the Tudor, and briefly, Stuart, dynasties.  Yet Coriolanus reveals that Shakespeare was fully capable of appreciating the problems of electoral politics in a state where sovereignty was divided among different authorities.  A deeper look as Shakespeare’s life and times will soon show that he had a good knowledge of 16th century Italy, where republican institutions, though mostly usurped, were still a living memory.  Furthermore, he lived at a time of emerging republican sentiment in northern Europe, stimulated by the Reformation, and various constitutional experiments, conducted by the armed prophets of the more radical (Calvinistic, Zwiglian, Anabaptist etc.) branches of the Reformation.  But whether due to his sources, contemporary events or the universal solvent of his imagination, the bard could write with conviction and with empathy about life in a republican context.

Now, allow me to briefly spoil the play for you.  Apart from eccentrics (e.g., myself) and undergraduates under harsh curricular discipline, few will ever pick up the written play, and even fewer are likely to see a stage enactment, so spoiling is eminently justified.  If you know the ways of the bard you won’t be surprised to learn that he lifted the plot from Plutarch.  Plutarch in turn based his narrative on events which allegedly happened around 493BC in Rome.  This wasn’t our Hollywood Rome of the glittering marble temples, rather, it was a village, or perhaps a federation of villages, built of mud and straw and unified by a surrounding fortification, a wall or a ditch, allegedly built by Romulus, founder of the city.  None the less, this early Rome was already showing signs of its future destiny, encroaching on the surrounding tribes and subjecting them to its sovereignty.  Most importantly, for understanding Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the Roman state was already divided among distinct socioeconomic classes, notably the plebian class and the senatorial class.  Furthermore, the fundamentals of the state’s constitutional order had recently been consolidated, with a republic being declared one generation prior with the expulsion of the last monarch, King Tarquin.

Going by the standard sources, mainly Plutarch, the most successful Roman military leader (a.k.a. “general”) around the year 493BC was a certain Caius Martius .  As per already established Roman custom, he acquired the cognomin “Coriolanus” when he conquered Coriolus, a city of the hostile Volciian federation.  Of course, there are recent critics who claim that Coriolanus is entirely mythical.  I don’t know on what grounds this is maintained, but I do know that making these claims is a great way to gain notoriety and possibly promotion in the academic world.  Indeed, I would wager that Coriolanus was not only an actual historical person, but that about 80% of Shakespeare’s dialogue gives us, while certainly not a verbatum transcript  of what transpired in 493BC, at least the gist of the historically salient events.  The contemporary reader of Shakespeare has to be tolerant of his occasional anachronisms, and keep in mind that the historical Coriolanus was speaking proto-Latin (significantly, intelligible to nearby Italian tribes) not Elizabethan English…and of course wearing neither a ruff collar nor buckled shoes.

Even so, if anyone wants to doubt the historical existence of Coriolanus (the person) it need have no bearing on the value of Coriolanus (Shakespeare’s narrative) as useful matrix for political thought.  To that end, all we need is a capsule summary of the the story’s highlights.  The play begins as Coriolanus, a Roman senator, returns victorious from beating the Volcii, and capturing one of their cities Coriolus.  He is promoted by his friends as candidate for counsel, the supreme magistrate of the Roman republic.  However Coriolanus refuses to make the obligatory and traditional appeal to the masses (the plebs) by showing his war wounds publicly.  The representatives of the pleb class, the tribunes, distrust Coriolanus from the start, knowing that he despises the common people as cowards and moochers on the public purse.  The inability of Coriolanus to change his public image by pandering to the masses gives the tribunes an excuse to revoke the election of Coriolanus to the consulate.  This causes a row with Coriolanus counter-claiming that the tribunal authority has been abused and that the office of tribune should be abolished.  Through all these altercations both the friends, i.e., senatorial class peers, and family (mother and wife) of Coriolanus urge their stubborn leader to tone down his rhetoric and appease the common people with flattery, or at least tolerance.  These attempts fail to make any headway with the proud and stubborn Coriolanus.  The issue is decided in favor of exiling Coriolanus, on the grounds that he was plotting to unilaterally change the constitution (abolishing the institution of the plebs’ tribunes) albeit exile is a milder sentence in lieu of capital punishment.  Bitter and seeking revenge, the exiled Coriolanus shows up at the doorstep of his, and Rome’s, arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius, leader of Antium, chief city of the Volcian federation.  Coriolanus offers to join his invincible military skills with that of Aufidius in a war against Rome.  Aufidius agrees and together they conduct a successful military campaign all the way up to the gates of Rome.  The terrified Romans send out emissaries to Coriolanus asking him to have mercy on his own people.  Coriolanus, in character, refuses all attempts at compromise and threatens to sack the city.  At last his mother and wife come out of the gates to beg mercy from their son and husband.  Moved to pity by this maternal and conjugal appeal, Coriolanus at last relents.  Hence the Roman General of the Volcii, having liberated the lands that Rome had taken from her enemies, even though sparing Rome itself, returns to Antium, expecting to be hailed as a hero.  However Aufidius, jealous of being overshadowed by his Roman ally, gathers together conspirators from those who’s families were harmed by Coriolanus during his earlier, anti-Volcian, campaigns.  They assassinate Coriolanus in the public square of Antium.  As soon as they are satisfied by the death of Coriolanus, their mood instantly changes and they decide to grant full honors in burial to him as a military genius and ally.  Thus ends the play.

Pondering this old story from the perspective of the here and now, situations and personalities jump out which are disturbingly familiar.  The old saw about history repeating itself tempts us to judgement.  And yet…not quite so fast, for as soon as we think we have recognized a familiar face, the image dissolves into a kaleidoscope of incoherent fragments.  Therefore it will behoove us, before we join in the chorus of moral indignation, to familiarize ourselves with some classical political concepts.  Don’t worry, I will soon lead you to where we all want to go…an encounter with the clear and present dangers, here in America, now in the 21st century.  But if we want Coriolanus to serve us faithfully as a tool of political analogy to our own times, we will have to take a leisurely stroll through the forum of political conflict.  Then, perhaps, we will be able to separate ideas from innuendo.

The Fourfold Root of Classical Political Analysis

Why is Coriolanus important?  Not, as Freudian critics might wish, because it yields novel insights on the mother-child relation.  Indeed, not due to the depth of any of  its corporal characters or their mutual esteem or lack thereof.   Rather, the republic itself, is a kind of intangible lead character in its own right. Coriolanus is important because it deals exhaustively with the problem of sovereignty.  Our contemporaries have lost sight of the ultimate significance of sovereignty, and would rather avoid its correlative truth, which divides the ethical world into four parts, two pertaining to the sovereign, and two to the subject.  If the fundamental concept of politics is sovereignty then all permutations on politics will pertain to valuations of either the sovereign or the subject, which may be expressed as positive and negative couplets.  The classical term for wicked sovereignty is tyranny, while the classical term for the condition of being a wicked subject is treason.  Conversely, the good subject is the loyal subject.   The only terminological issue is how to characterize the antithesis of tyranny.  Coming at the end, not of history, but of Whig history, libertarians and conservatives are apt to characterize the couplet as liberty vs. tyranny.  However this opposition, however dear to us it might be, is not as robust a characterization as the classical usage which simply contrasted tyranny with justice.  So our classical couplets are justice/tyranny and loyalty/treason.  Obviously we can schematize this as a four cell diagram and use it as a general framework for any political situation involving sovereignty. This might refer to this as a political quadrilateral, namely, tyranny:justice::loyalty:treason.

I have outlined what seems to me the common sense framework for understanding politics.  However, there are numerous others,such as the Marxist interpretations. There are infinite variations on modern positivist and quantitative political analysis, some of which, and I am thinking particularly of the Public Choice school, have considerable merit.  Then there is Leo Strauss and his school, which sees misdirection, obscurity and esoteric meaning behind every political movement and manifesto.  While all these claim to be schools of politics, for none of them is sovereignty paradigmatic, rather, they embrace a bevy of other notions such as class struggle, human choice, literary deception, or simple “force.”  Any of these might be, for all I know, the key to the kingdom, but they differ from the classical consensus about the state and sovereignty.  The latter was a useful tool in the days of Aristotle and also those of Cicero, and it was also the mental window through which Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed and understood his political works, plays such as Coriolanus.  Even today, it still lies at the bottom of libertarian and conservative political theory, but usually in tacit form.

Armed with this classical framework, we should be able to read Coriolanus as something other than a simple morality play.  To be sure, our purpose should be to extract some moral conclusions from the work, however it will not be a “morality play” in the sense of positing a war between predetermined “children of light” and “children of darkness” from the outset.  We shall be called upon to judge, but our judgement should strive to be Christian, not Manichean.

First I will show how one could treat Coriolanus using a populist-leftist formula, and subsequently show how the same material could be used as the apology for a dictator.  Neither of these completely faithful to Shakespeare’s narrative, and both are unedifying for contemporary political discourse.  They both stop short of recognizing that  the dramatic action in the play consists of an exchange of places between the tribunes and Coriolanus who are each in turn tyrannical and just, loyal and treasonous to the Roman state and its constitution.  In other words, if we go beyond persons to principles we will see that there is no one character or group of characters who personifies either justice or tyranny.  Rather, in unpleasant reflection of both past and  current politics, the protagonists exhibit, by turns, integrity or corruption of character depending on their ever-changing relationship to the political order.

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, Personality over Principle, the Left-Wing variation, “The tyrant exposed.”

Unfortunately, Marxism (defined as including those schools which are derived from it) seems to be the main highway of contemporary literary interpretation, preeminent on account of popularity, ease of understanding, and safe passage through the labyrinth of academic acceptability.  Honestly, I don’t have any particular critic in mind, but the method is so obvious that you or I can quickly whip up a dissertation with all the aplomb of a literary short order cook.  For starters, we can take it as axiomatic that Coriolanus is a simple tale of conflict between good and evil, between the masses of humanity and fascism.   It is an edifying and cautionary bit of ancient lore, featuring a particularly obnoxious villain as its protagonist.  The moral?  Stick on the right side of history and “the People”…or risk an unpleasant end.

Because the theme of Coriolanus is perennial, the left-wing critic need never fear obsolescence or  lack of employment, since in every generation the nuances of politics will easily reduce themselves to the same common denominator.  All that needs to be done is to find your man, your Coriolanus, your aristocratic bully, and voala! therein lies the contemporary political analogy.  But today, circa 2017, there is no need to search around for a scapegoat since ubiquitous Trump-hatred makes the choice obvious.  We all know that Donald J. Trump is bad, and with just the right reading of Coriolanus we might actually discover, if not precisely why he is bad, certainly just how bad he truly is.

While, obviously, I am being sarcastic toward the left-wing method, I am not saying that it is completely inaccurate.  Since left-wing literary criticism is always a species of propaganda, it behooves us to remember that effective propaganda must invoke a sufficient array of sound facts and verities to convince the target audience.  There is something incontestably sound in the identification of Donald Trump with Martius Caius Coriolanus.  We easily see the blowhard egoist in both, and frequent resonances of an all too familiar and obstinate pride in Shakespeare’s prose.  Coriolanus, like Trump, is not willing to stick to anyone’s script, however well intended or lovingly suggested.

A very little I have yielded to.  Fresh embassies and suits,  Nor from the state nor private friends, hereafter will I lend an ear to.  Coriolanus Act. 5, scene 3

But there is more to both Donald Trump, and even Coriolanus himself, than pure villainy.  The problem for the left-wing method is that it dare not go beyond this initial purview, lest the power of moral condemnation be dissipated within the complexities of the play.  It is only a safe method as long as the critic is restricted, either freely or under duress, to the stereotypes of class conflict.  It doesn’t particularly matter how these classes are defined, whether as a classical proletariat or the numerous victim classes of contemporary cultural Marxism.  What is important is that everything be seen from the point of view of distributive justice, that is, an unequal distribution of “stuff” among concrete persons and groups of people.

Now as the left-wing critic would surmise, Coriolanus has lots of “stuff” which the plebs lack.  Naturally, a significant part of this rests on an economic foundation, and an important conflict within both the play, and the early Rome which it portrays, was the bread dole for the non-landed citizens.  Whether to provide or withdraw this entitlement serves as an initial ground for the conflict between Coriolanus and the tribunes of the people.  However the most prominent “stuff” which Coriolanus flaunts, and the tribunes envy, are the intangibles of life such as dignity, reputation, virtue (especially courage) and power.  It is the attacks on these intangible disparities which drives Coriolanus to fits of self-justification, therefore confirming his status as a “hater” according to the nomenclature of modern leftism. Thus Shakespeare portrays him as cursing the common man, and under the only condition that Coriolanus would stand a chance to respect: man-at-arms.

You souls of geese, that bear the shapes of men, how have you run from slaves that apes would beat!  Pluto and hell!  All hurt behind.  Backs red, and faces pale with flight and augued fear!  Mend, and charge home, or by the fires of heaven I’ll leave my foe and make my wars on you.  ibid, Act 1., scene 4.

Vitrolic words, but prophetic ones as well!  For we observe General Coriolanus progressing from “international” conflict to internecine class conflict and finally waging war on Rome itself as a kind of one-man government in exile.

The list of putative villains, especially of the “fascist” ilk, could be extended almost indefinitely.  But Donald J. Trump?  Really?  Yes, really, albeit in a reality which is dictated by the rules of left-wing interpretation.  You see, the secret of left-wing interpretation is that it isn’t interpretation at all, rather, it is what more properly is called imputation.  The difference between interpretation and imputation is that interpretation uses observation and induction to guess the nature of external things, while imputation determines unilaterally the nature of external things based on its own unchallenged and supreme judgement.  A good example of imputation, and the one most germane to our inquiry, is the indisputable (within the sphere of political correctness) fact that Donald Trump is a fascist.  True, Donald Trump might be mentally and emotionally opposed to fascism, and his actions might also be inimical to fascism, but none of these factors count from the point of view of left-wing criticism.  The criteria of left-wing criticism regarding whether a person is a fascist or not, lies in whether fascism has been imputed to the person in question by the left-wing critic.  Of course the critic does not exercise any autonomous authority, but rather exercises a mandate, within the bounds of a specialized field, derived from the collective will of society.  The collective will of society, in turn, derived its authority over reality by displacing the sovereignty which had once been the prerogative of God.

 

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, pt. 2 Personality over Principle, Right-wing version, “The strong man pushed out” or “The scapegoat.”

 

Coriolanus starts off his career as a harsh but just military taskmaster.  That he is a hero of the republic is admitted not only by his peers in the senatorial class but even the common people, although the tribunes are uncomfortable with this admiration and seek to subvert it.  However Coriolanus gets into the danger zone when he, at the behest of his friends, begins to seek high civil office.  Although the masses of the people recognize his merits, they are offended by the aristocratic pride which is inseparable from the career of a roman warrior during the early republic.

The symbolic gesture, or rather non-gesture, which brings this antagonism to a crisis, is the ritual showing of the warrior’s wounds, an acceptable “political advertisement” in early Rome which is all but guaranteed to secure office for a qualified (i.e., wounded) candidate.  Coriolanus is over-qualified, with more than a score of war-wounds to his credit, but he refuses to show them in public, on the grounds that this would be pandering to the sentiments of the masses.  The refusal of Coriolanus to remove his robe might be  mischaracterized as  “a failure of disclosure.”  This, however, is one instance where a concrete action reverses the psychological reality behind the symbol.  If Coriolanus had divested himself of his robe and shown his wounds, he would have joined the ranks of candidates who were willing to purger themselves behind a mask of false humility.  However in failing to remove his clothes Coriolanus actually exposes his psychological nudity, revealing to the masses his proud contempt for their opinions.  A possible modern misinterpretation, though far closer to the spirit of the events than any anachronistic  notion of bodily modesty, would be that Coriolanus was “refusing to play the victim card.”  On the contrary, these ancient wounds were a source of pride, like the “fruit salad” ribbons worn on modern uniforms.  Remember that this (5thc.BC Italy) was still a primitive era and military decorations for the Roman army were far in the future.  In the mind of Coriolanus, the wounds were not too cruel, but too honorable, to be exhibited in public.  The non-landed classes had not earned the right to view them.

Although this is a major turning point early on in the drama, it does not manifest a clear division in the body politic over legitimacy or sovereignty.  There are as yet no clear tyrants or traitors.  The refusal of Coriolanus to reveal his wounds is a breach of custom, not the constitution.  It hurts his electoral chances, but not so badly that he doesn’t squeak by to victory at the polls.  The common people, or at least the politically aware among them, are deeply offended by the attitude of Coriolanus.  However offense is a psychological state, not an institutional reality.  Shakespeare shows himself wiser than our Postmodernist philosophers, and never conflates public action and objective states of affairs with the psychological reactions of his characters.  His masterful art in portraying the latter shows that this is not the result of an inability to portray mental states, but a respect for the independence of public institutions from subjective consciousness.  Significantly, in the play which bears his name, Coriolanus never engages in soliloquy, which further encourages us in the belief that this drama is fundamentally about political actions and institutions rather than psychology or human nature in general.

Actual constitutional problems start to arise in Coriolanus when the tribunes, further appraised of Coriolanus’ intended austerity and disciplinary program, threaten to revoke their election of him as councilor magistrate, Rome’s highest civil office.  Arguably, the tribunes have, through violation of due process, put themselves in a potentially seditious posture.  They are understandably incensed at what they consider a threat to the interests of the class which they represent, but this does not justify voiding the election.  One of the tribunes warns of Coriolanus,

Did you perceive he did solicit you in free contempt when he did need your loves, and do you not think that his contempt will not be bruising to you when he has power to crush. ibid, Act. 2, scene 3

The senatorial class rallies around Coriolanus and, for a while he is saved from the crowd, albeit his office is in jeopardy.  Due to the the impetuous and possibly unconstitutional stance of the tribunes, the impeached consular magistrate is in a position of relative strength which his friends and family urge him to capitalize on through a judicious and moderate appeal to the public.

Instead of moderating his tone, the irascible Coriolanus ups the ante by calling for the abolition of the people’s tribunes.  Now it is Coriolanus himself who seems to be threatening the constitutional order, hindering his friends from saving his career and possibly his life.  A decree of exile is passed, and Coriolanus leaves Rome, a putative tyrant but still not a traitor.  The final step is taken when he arrives at Antium and offers his services to Aufidius, the premier military leader within the Volcian federation.  As Coriolanus himself explains the situation,

Farewell, O world, thy slippery turns!  Friends now fast sworn, who’s double bosoms seem to wear one heart, whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise are still together, who twin as ’twere in love unseparable, shall within this hour, on the dissension of a doit break out to bitterest enmity; so fellest foes, whose passions and who’s plots have broke their sleep to take the one the other, by some chance, some trick not worth an egg, shall grow dear friends and interjoin their issues.  So with me, my birthplace hate I, and my love’s upon this enemy town.  I’ll enter.  If he slays me, he does fair justice; if he give me way, I’ll do his country service. ibid, Act 4, scene 4

This is the penultimate turn, with Coriolanus cast as traitor against just Rome.  Unfortunately for Coriolanus, the potentially ultimate turn of events, which would have featured the sack of Rome as the epitome of a tyrannical city, and the apotheosis of its conqueror as the incarnation of justice, is averted by the timely supplication of his wife and mother.  Failing to nip Rome in the bud, the reputation of Coriolanus is hence fixed in amber as not so much a tragic as a pathetic figure.

However one must question whether, even if Coriolanus had sacked Rome, whether his action would have been rendered just simply on account of his success.  Indeed, Shakespeare’s play is a testament against the “might makes right” philosophy which the left has inherited from Machiavelli.  In the end Coriolanus recognizes that triumph over his native city would have been an empty victory, and there are higher principles of justice than military success and avenged pride.  The tendency of modern criticism, influenced by Freud and feminism, is to highlight the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother, and indeed much can, and has been, said in that regard.  However the general’s abdication of final victory can also be seen as a surrender to higher principles of political morality, albeit the sanctioning power of this Platonic ideal is conveyed through the very tangible force of maternal and conjugal affection.

This principle of justice restrains both collectives as well as individuals.  The minions of Coriolanus refer to him as an “engine” which in Shakespeare’s English means a siege mechanism such as a battering ram or a siege tower.  When the “engine” comes to a halt before appeals to pity, we have a good example of a “right wing dictator” being stopped in his tracks.  However we have also observed that tyranny and justice are categories which can be occupied by the same people or groups of people successively.  Significantly “democracy” is a word which never drops from the lips of the tribunes, although it would have been totally within their character to use the term.  Rather, Shakespeare shares with most pre-Enlightenment thinkers a wary suspicion of what has, since Rousseau, been called the general will.  Although the late modern terms “democracy” and “general will” were not current in Renaissance times, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were well aware of the general formula.  Thus a tribune declares,

What is a city but its people.   ibid, Act 3, scene 1

The events which transpire throughout the drama show that Shakespeare, though recognizing the populist formula as a truism, was keenly aware of the mischief which results when raising it to a supreme political principle.  The rejoinder of Coriolanus, though he speaks as an antagonist, and no doubt a villain in the eyes of the tribunes, utters verity when he cynically observes,

That is the way to lay the city flat, to bring the roof to the foundation and bury all which yet distinctly ranges in heaps and piles of ruins.    ibid.

Principles above Personalities: The Constitutional Reading

Both the action of the tribunes and the action of Coriolanus, taken to their extremes, threaten to ruin the city.  The injured pride of the general, unchecked, will burn the city to the ground in vengeance, while the envy of the tribunes, in promoting a forced equality, threatens to reduce the order of society to chaos.  In spite of their atavistic tendencies, neither the tribunes, nor Coriolanus, nor any of the other characters can escape the equilibrium of the political quadrilateral, namely, justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason.  Loyalty to justice is treason to tyranny, while treason to tyranny is loyalty to justice.  The principles involved are transparent, however the placement of particular individuals and groups within the quadrilateral are, at least in real life, opaque.  One virtue of the stage is that heroes and villains can reveal their status with impunity to the audience.  Shakespeare is notoriously complicated, and instead of heroes and villains we often get synthetic hero/villains.  So in a psychological play like Hamlet these compound characters lend themselves to a kind of psycho-analysis, with fragments of the protagonist’s mind in constant motion.  However Coriolanus is a political play, and the various dramatis personae, while retaining their unity of character, move about within the space of the political quadrilateral, being treasonous villains in one instance, and loyal heroes the next.  Now, if you don’t see something very contemporary about this, I suggest you may be living on a desert island.

There is no better support for this assertion than to note how Coriolanus would have been a tragedy even if, or especially if, the treasonous general had been unconvinced by the supplications of his wife and mother.  If Coriolanus had sacked Rome he probably would have emerged as a king, the first king of a new dynasty.  Ironically, we are told that at the age of sixteen he was one of the heroes of the fledgling Roman republic, and had fought to expel the last Roman king, King Tarquin.  Unquestionably, Coriolanus sincerely believed in the principles of the republic, and that King Tarquin had been a tyrant.  If he had set himself up as a king at the end of his life, he would have effectively canceled his actions on behalf of the republic during his youth.  In effect, he would have annihilated the meaning of his own life.  As it was, listening to the plea of his family, he simply vanished from history, a tragic character perhaps, but not a true villain.

So yes, we may call Coriolanus a tragedy by common consent.  However when we resort to that label, without reflection, we are in fact highlighting the fate of personalities rather than the application of principles.  From an institutional point of view, Coriolanus is actually a comedy, in the sense of a drama with a fortunate ending.  After all, the republic is saved.  It is saved primarily from the revenge of Coriolanus, but in such a way as preserves the prestige and influence of the senate over the tribunes.

So what is the moral of this story?  And does it profit us in the least?

 Coriolanus is a play in which the  dramatis personae exhibit a chameleon-like shift of moral meanings, where a man’s virtues in war may be vices in peacetime.  It is Shakespeare’s gift to us, showing us, on the one hand, that politics has made a hell out of the blessings of creation, and on the other that personalities in the political world are not so much good or evil, as droughts on a checkerboard who take on their meaning from their position.  None the less, it is not an illusory or relativistic world.  The positions, the quadrilateral of justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason, are timeless principles.  Rather, the personalities and factions which occupy them are subject to maturation and degeneration, from time to time exchanging position, which creates the illusion that the categories themselves have undergone a metamorphosis.

Once we recognize the difference between personalities and principles, it will be safe for us to handle the knowledge which Coriolanus imparts.  The main principle which Coriolanus can teach us is that the problem of sovereignty is fundamental, however that sovereignty works itself out differently in a republic than in a monarchy.  If sovereignty is real, then each of the terms of the political quadrilateral is also real, and there can be no escape from coming to terms with justice, tyranny, loyalty and treason.  The sanctions which underpin sovereignty may be terrifyingly present, like the axe and bound rods carried in front of magistrates of the Roman republic, which give us the root of our word “fascism.”  Or the sanctions may be conveyed through some subtle nemesis, like the persuasive, maternal, embrace of a treasonous son.  However the sanctions are just symbolic of a higher reality, which is sovereignty itself.

However in a republic the political quadrilateral is not fated to to go through the endless cycles of musical chairs characteristic of a monarchy.  If “republic” and “justice” are synonymous, then the fatal symmetry of the political quadrilateral can be broken by bracketing out “tyranny.”  Hence in the schema of a republic may be represented as  Justice:[tyranny]::loyalty:treason.  The constitution provides a touchstone which prevents the formula from endless iteration among favored personalities, a relativistic cycle which leads ultimately to nihilism.  In a republic loyalty is absolute loyalty and treason is absolute treason, for which reason probity and forbearance is more important in a republic than any other form of government.  Thus Coriolanus and the tribunes are on alternative occasions absolute traitors and absolute loyalists, because the system is asymmetrical and unchanging.  How radically this differs from Shakespearean dramas which take place in monarchical contexts, plays such as Romeo and Juliet with their factional cries of “Montague! Montague!” or “Capulet! Capulet!”  In these factional states, it is hard to feel any strong dramatic appeal to justice, rather pathos is the predominating sentiment.  However Coriolanus, while personally pathetic, is just one personality in a drama with broader implications for justice.  If Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most republican play, then it is the one which comes closest to an adequate treatment of the relationship between sovereignty and justice, a relationship which can only be resolved (at the human level at least) by a republic.

It is characteristic of our present, globalized world, that  people have lost their belief in sovereignty.  It is a corollary of modern atheism, especially prominent in the peculiar atheism of people who profess to be religious, and who may even profess to be Christians.  We moderns, in our desire to be both enlightened and spiritual, find it most convenient to worship a god who has been emptied of the primary characteristic of God.  This theology is not without ramifications on the mundane level, and has led to a hollowing out of the social order.  It is leading to the abandonment of the nation state, to what one commentator has called the abolition of “borders, language, and culture.”

However if the question of sovereignty is inescapable, then it behooves our contemporaries to consider which kind of sovereignty is more palatable, monarchy or republic.  A republic is characterized by division of powers and geographical limitation.  Rome was a republic because there was a division of powers between the senate, the tribunes, and various other institutions.  Even more fundamentally it was a republic because it was limited by boundaries.  Originally this boundary was the ditch plowed by Romulus, but ultimately the boundaries became the limits of the known world.  In the process of boundary expansion and effacement, freedom was lost.  Coriolanus represents an early, unsuccessful, attempt to breach to the wall.  Much later, Caesar would successfully breach the Rubicon, a kind of symbolic wall.  The former action was, both dramatically and politically, comic, the latter tragic.  Today the citizens of sovereign nation-states should consider whether, as bad as the tin-horn dictators of yore might have been, whether our masked globalist elite (remembering that Greek for mask is “hypocrite”) is playing their role of the vengeful spoiler today, and with far greater sophistication.

 

 

 

 

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In the aftermath of Irma, these volunteers won in Florida

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 19, 2017

We were still surrounded by the debris of Hurricane Irma when the Volunteers showed up

Actually, it was a football game, one of those compulsive rituals which neither “the powers that be” nor the hoi poloi can ever say no to.  After all, who could deny the local fans their bread and circuses in the aftermath of a disaster?  Well, everything depended on who won…whether the spectacle would go down in the record books as a morale booster or moral misdemeanor.  As providence (do I hear someone say luck? Nah!) would have it, Florida won in the last seconds of a crazy game who’s merits on either side will be endlessly debated.  The Tennessee Volunteers returned home, perplexed and saddened.  Florida had, once again, been saved from itself.

But there were other volunteers in town that day.  Linemen of a different sort, hailing from Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, and even parts of the state which were nursing their own hurts.  They weren’t watching football, although sometimes they worked within earshot of cheers and jeers from the high-tension game.  And yes, they were volunteers, even though they had been sent down by mammoth utility firms and could expect to draw overtime.  This is still America and nobody is forced to do any job they can walk off from.  But instead of “You can take this job and  shove it!” they arrived in large numbers, willing to work 24/7 in the humidity, often in the dark, and among the local fauna (think “gators” of the non-football ilk) which were spreading out into newly flooded zones.

In our neighborhood we had transformers down.  On the night of the storm, people had heard the  blast and seen the blinding blue ark light as the lofty cylinders seemed to turn into electric grenades.  Then darkness.  Days later there was still no electricity, and the Florida jungle was beginning to reclaim its own.  No heat, no cool, no refrigeration, no communication, and living off of canned and dry goods.  It could have been far worse as the water mains had kept their integrity.  Still, we were starting to wonder…

Then we saw the trucks.  We noticed (by we I refer to those who could read a map) a seal with the outline of the state of Indiana on its sides.  They had come a thousand miles, but the hardest part of their journey were the days of street by street, block by block progress until the worst hit part of town was rewired and on line.  They weren’t all from Indiana.  The man who went up in the bucket to replace our utility pole was from Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Bowling Green, Bowling Green

I wish I was in Bowling Green

Good old Bowling Green

And I bet he did!  But he had heeded the call to do a job which required a critical mix of physical endurance and intelligence.  The dead transformer was dangling in a virtual cats-cradle of wires and woods. When I murmured, “I can’t see how you will ever get that pole up.”  The Kentuckian answered, “Stick around and you may see more than you wager for.”  By literal hook and crook, mechanized to be sure, it all got up, poles, wires, transformers, until we heard the go ahead signal and the power returned.

I couldn’t help thinking that these men, who had come down from the regions around the Ohio river, were lineal descendants of the “volunteers” of yore, legendary men like Boon and Crockett, and the countless others who never became legends.  Historians can argue ad infinitum whether or not these were the men who “made America great,” or as per cultural Marxism, they were just land-pirates building a sand-castle civilization called the United States.  What is not arguable is that on short notice, their descendants had been mobilized and formed into an effective army to see that the swamp (here literally!) didn’t reclaim that network of urban humanity which calls itself modern Florida.

My general impression was that the whole operation, as befits volunteers, looked more like a “spontaneous order” than a command structure.  This was not to say that there was no planning, of which there was much evidence, but that the planning was horizontal rather than vertical, with the local agency and the out-of-state personnel cooperating on a case by case basis, combining local knowledge with volunteer can-do.  The federal government was invisible, although you could say that Floridians were the beneficiaries of a “national” effort by localities which had sent their people and resources across state lines to get the job done.  In military lingo you couldn’t say they weren’t regulars…just regular folks.

And that, my friends, is what makes America great.

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The Gentile Origins of Communism: A serendipitous case of faith and freedom against anti-Semitism

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 8, 2017

 Things that go bump in the night of civilization

So the most valuable…Communist strategy was the revival, nourishment, and magnification of the dislike, distrust, and bitterness now associated with the term Anti-Semitism.  The Communists are always sharpening and using both edges of this sword.  In their efforts to weaken and destroy the John Birch Society, just for an illustration, they have dupes and agents clamoring incessantly that the Society is anti-Semetic; and at the very same time they have agents provocateurs everywhere trying to persuade members of the Society that the whole Communist movement is simply a Jewish conspiracy, and that these members are wasting their time in The John Birch Society because its leaders do not  have the courage to name the enemy.  And by this typical Communist method, they have made anti-Semitism into one of the most powerful weapons in their whole arsenal of destruction.–Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, The Truth in Time.

A specter is haunting Western Civilization, and unfortunately it isn’t Communism.  If the average citizen spent more time worrying about Communism, even if Communism were only a secondary factor among the world’s ills, at least we would be, in the words of Immanuel Kant “on the road to a true science”…that is, our tenor of mind would be serious enough to get to the bottom of whatever the ultimate problem really was.  Instead we see that Communism, like the devil, has convinced most people that it no longer exists, if indeed it ever did.

It isn’t as if there was not enough fear in the world already.  Our minds are haunted by numerous specters, ghostly apparitions which often have little semblance of reality, ranging from the quasi-real, to the foolish, to the vicious.  Among the quasi-real are those derivative problems like “inflation” which is an illusion produced by monopoly banking and credit.  Another quasi-real is war itself, which is deadly in its effects but universally misunderstood as to its cause and nature. Among the foolish specters would be things like “peak oil” and rising sea levels, which are simply the result of observational error and cupidity.  Yet there are also specters which are properly called vicious, since they are the fabrications of malice as well as fear, and not only harm those who fall their victims but also corrupt the souls of those who adhere to their tenets.  Notable among such vicious specters are all forms of xenophobia, unreasoning fear and hatred of people for, as it would seem, simply being ethnically different from the xenophobe him or herself.

I interjected the qualifier “as it would seem” since, there is always some rationalization attached to the prejudice against one or another group.  Now it seems to me that of all the groups which have suffered xenophobic persecution, only the Jews have been so abused that xenophobic prejudice against them merits a basic item of English vocabulary.  “Anti-Semitism” although not particularly accurate as an ethnological term, is popularly understood as hatred, fear, and prejudice against the Jews in particular.  That all the members of one ethnic group, Jews or anyone else, would be evil without exception, is a proposition which no rational person would want to entertain without compelling arguments produced in its support.  Predictably, anti-Semites are willing to brandish arguments exposing what they deem to be a uniquely  Jewish propensity towards evil, but such poor rationalizations as ancient and early modern Anti-Semites could muster are even less convincing today than they were originally.  Indeed, most of their so-called reasons are so inane, claiming that Jews are ritual cannibals or whatnot, that only children or mentally challenged individuals would give them a instant of credibility.  Indeed, most of these traditional canards are such obvious slanders that they have fallen out of circulation even among hard core anti-Semites.  None the less, these slanders could on occasion be deadly to Jews, since most people who compose society are not reasoners, but potential hysterics.  Thus many Jews welcomed the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, a promised “Age of Reason” which would  restore the control by the rational human mind over the emotions of the crowd.  Unfortunately, this was a tragic misreading of the  so-called Enlightenment’s inner meaning.

Ironically, post-Enlightenment modernity gave birth to new arguments for Anti-Semitism, most of them as ridiculous as their ancient predecessors.  However there is a kind of argument, in two variations, a weaker and a stronger one, added in modern times to the usual libels of Anti-Semetism, which is somewhat more plausible than previous claims.  The question is posed whether it was Jews, perhaps not all Jews but disproportionately people of Jewish background, who foisted the Communist system upon the world.   While this argument is defective, for reasons which will be illustrated below, it is far more plausible than the crude slanders of pre-modern anti-Semites.  Jews, as a population, cannot be evil.  However an idea, unlike a population, can be evil.  Hence if we link a population (neither good nor evil) to an idea (good or evil) one might think that this renders the population good or evil according to our evaluation of the idea.  Think about that a moment.  Well, if you are not buying this idea of transitivity between a concrete (a population) and an abstract (idea) then good for you, because transitivity doesn’t actually hold in this case.

However as rhetoric arguments such as “the Jews gave us Communism” or “Most of the Communists I know of were Jews” might do in a pinch for a desperate Anti-Semite.  To demonstrate its effectiveness let’s turn the second proposition on its head.  Let’s suppose that Communism were a wonderful thing.  In that case the statement, “Most of Communists that I know of were Jews” would be rightfully be taken as a compliment to Jews.  Here I am working on the opposite assumption, that Communism is definitely not a good thing.  In fact, it should be fairly obvious that under a system of universal Communism everyone, including Jews, would be reduced to slavery.  Due to the negative nature of Communism the statement “Most of the Communists I know of were Jews” is morally problematic because it seem to gives aid and comfort to anti-Semites.  Of course, the Communists have their own solution to this moral dilemma, one that they would like everyone to embrace.  They want, as per the above, everyone to trans-value Communism from something evil to something good.  This, they would urge, would rob the anti-Semite of his or her best argument.  Expect to see this message pushed in the left-wing media.

Actually the statement “Most of the Communists I know of were Jews” could never have much bearing on the moral quality of Jews in general.  It rests on a subjective sample drawn from someone’s arbitrary experience, and even if it illustrated some general truth, it would still fall afoul of the intransitive relation between ideas and people, since these putative Jews, whomever they might be, might  have caught “Communism” as a kind of contagion, a kind of hysteria, as is often the case in the adoption of bad ideas, with the consequent increase in quantity by epidemic proportions.  So even in the abstract, the proposition “Most of the Communists I know of were Jews” is pure rhetoric with no possible imputation to Jews in general.  Finally, putting these logical clarifications to one side, anyone with any historical sense knows that the vast majority of Jews throughout history were either 1) blissfully unaware of Communism in its modern form, or 2) indifferent or hostile to Communism.  The Jews among the revolutionary elite were a minority within a minority.

Unfortunately we have yet to dispose of the stronger of the two Anti-Semitic arguments linking the Jewish people to Communism.  Note that “The Jews gave us Communism” and “Most of the Communists I know of were Jews” are two very different propositions.  The second was quantitative and abstract, while the first is qualitative, originary,  and historical.  The first is much stronger since it deals with the phylogeny of ideas, and originary thinkers share a relationship to their thoughts which is indeed transitive.  Rather than the accidental relationship to ideas which is characteristic of a general population, an originary thinker bears an essential relation to his or her own idea.

If it could be shown that “Communism” was invented by a Jew, might one not assume that there was some intrinsic relationship between Jews and Communism?  And was not Marx a Jew?  Not so fast!  Just as one must determine who is and is not a Jew, it is equally necessary to understand what Communism is and when it originated.   But we all know that don’t we?  On the contrary, the conventional understanding of Communism is both shallow and misleading.  One group which has sought with extreme diligence and precision to both define and understand the nature of Communism is the John Birch Society, founded by Robert Welch in 1958.  Once surprising consequence of the research uncovered and disseminated by the John Birch Society has been to deprive Anti-Semites of a major support for their ideology.  As it turns out, Communism was birthed, not by Jews but by Gentiles!

How enlightening research and education sponsored by the John Birch Society has discredited one of Anti-Semitism’s flawed assumptions

The standard textbook treatment of Communism states that it was an ideological movement born in Germany in the years surrounding the revolutions of 1848.  Furthermore, it is widely conceded that Karl Marx, while not exactly the “inventor” of Communism as an idea, was the person most responsible for fleshing out the theory of Communism and urging that this theory be applied to the practice of revolution.  Furthermore, most people are at least vaguely aware that Marx was born into a Christianized Jewish family, that he became a radical follower of Hegel’s philosophy in his university days, and that he subsequently developed his own materialistic twist on Hegel, which today we call “Marxism” and that he published an outline of this philosophy together with his collaborator Fredrick Engles (who, incidentally, was a gentile, a gentleman, and an Englishman, albeit not necessarily in that order or by conviction.)

There is nothing necessarily wrong with most of that story, except that it is woefully incomplete.  Perhaps the most damning hole in the narrative is Marx’s own disclaimer as to being the actual founder of Communism.  Marx only claimed to have sharpened Communism’s edge by making it “scientific.”  Marx was well acquainted with, and drew upon the ideas of, various schools of Communism from the early 19th century, however he criticized those schools as “utopian.”  Actually, the utopian/scientific narrative drawn by Marx has less to do with hard science and more with the jealousy of a left wing journalist who wanted to draw both the ire and admiration of the world to his work.  The “science” gambit worked because Marx claimed to discover Communism in the philosophy of G. F. W. Hegel (1770-1831) at the time the “cutting edge” of philosophical speculation in Germany, but hardly what most people would call science today.  Marx subsequently dumped Hegel’s system in favor of Darwin’s materialism in the 1860s, when materialism was in vogue. Whatever one might think about Darwin, the salient point is that Marx was willing to tack any sort of prestigious metaphysics on the front of his socialist system as long as he could justify it in the name of science.

In short, for Marx science was anything which was useful in promoting his ideas about the decline of capitalism and the rise of the proletariat.  Hence, there is really no meaningful difference between “utopian” and “scientific” communism.  Chronologically, this means that what we call Communism has a much earlier origin that its conventional dating around the 1840s.  Indeed, as both an idea and a movement, Communism goes back to the 18th century Enlightenment.  The essence of communism is its anti-Christian bias and revolt against all religious restraint, which was likewise  a major theme of the Enlightenment.  Attempts by secular apologists to claim that Communism was primarily an economic theory which, perhaps due to the religious preoccupations of Karl Marx, became allied to atheism, overlook the way in which the ideas of the Enlightenment were already spilling over into radical social movements by the late 18th century.

This would be important in and of itself, but it has a correlative import which is pertinent to how one confronts the problem of Anti-Semitism.  If Communism originated in the 18th century rather than the 19th century, its originators could only have been gentiles, not Jews.  Fundamentally, this is because the Enlightenment was a movement of Western thinkers who were rebelling against Christianity.  They started off as Christians and then became something else, i.e., they were not Jews but gentiles.  Granted, there were some Jews, such as Baruch Spinoza and Moses Mendelson, who attained stature in the pantheon of the Enlightenment, but these were exceptions who prove the rule.  They were honored guests, as it were, in the house of gentile infidelity.

One might object, “If the essence of the Enlightenment was anti-Christianity, would that not have included all Jews as well?”  However the term “anti-Christianity” in this proposition actually refers to two distinct things.  Judaism, in the form of Talmudic orthodoxy, was and is “anti-Christianity” in the sense that it rejects the person whom Christians hail as the “Christ” i.e., the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  However “anti-Christianity” in its Enlightenment sense, rejects not a particular Messiah, but religion in general.  Indeed, although there were certainly “fifty shades of anti-Chritianity” among the Europeans of the 18th century, ranging from Unitarianism through skepticism…the tendency was always in the direction of unadulterated atheism.  Without undue exaggeration, one can say that the Enlightenment was essentially atheistic.

Granted the above, one might still legitimately wonder what the Enlightenment, atheistic though it might have been, had to do with Communism.  After all, Communism is a social doctrine, and atheism is a metaphysical view.  None the less, their origins are intertwined, since the common denominator of both is a quest for power, power over human beings and autonomous power over the universe, unconstrained by any Divine supervision.  The 18th century was a power quest by rebellious men, and while Jews, like all men, are rebellious, the men in question were not Jews, although they shared with unconverted Jews a rejection of Jesus as Messiah.  But more important than what or who they rejected, was what they sought.  They sought power.

This is the seldom told story which needs to be understood if we are to grasp the essential relationship between the Enlightenment and Communism.  The story which traces the main line of descent towards modern Communism concerns neither the proclamation of the pulpit nor the chat of the philosopher’s salon, but the hidden world of power…replete with secrecy, espionage, sabotage, and sundry skullduggery… a story seldom told to be sure, but seldom isn’t never.  Fortunately the secret movers and shakers of European society immediately prior to the French revolution were revealed at end-century by John Robison’s  Proofs of a Conspiracy (1798), an expose of the influence of secret societies on the French Revoluion.  This is a tome, composed in the minute style of an early modern treatise, which would have been difficult to procure had it had not been for the John Birch Society, which has kept it circulating and in print.

According to Robison, the radical wing of the Enlightenment, the Illuminati, was not just an ideology, but a conspiratorial organization.  Today, the word “Illuminati” congers up all sorts of occult and arcane images.  However Robison makes no supernatural speculations, but rather, his narrative falls well within what secular historiography would recognize as normal chains of cause and effect, albeit of a secretive and revolutionary nature.  It is this secretive and revolutionary quality which is the defining nature of Communism, and not something as academic as, say “the labor theory of value.”  If we are to recognize the data which Robison so amply references, we must recognize that a proto-Communism existed as early as the 1770s.  One symbolic indication that this backdating of communism is valid is the institution of May Day, widely recognized as Communist festival.   May Day actually commemorates the foundation of the Illuminati on May 1, 1776, shadowing the simultaneous war for the restoration of natural rights in British America, which was climaxed by the Declaration of Independence on July 4 of the same year.

From the vantage point of standard historiography, any talk of “Communism” even during the 1790s (think, French Revolution!) let alone the 1770s, seems like a gross anachronism.  However if we consider the quest for power, secrecy, and a desire to fundamentally transform society according to the whims of a revolutionary elite as the salient characteristics of Communism, then we can safely push the horizon of Communism’s advent back to the 1770s rather than the 1840s.   We can confidently refer to Robison’s description of the Illuminati as a account of early Communism because he demonstrates a seamless continuity between the secret societies of that period and the outbreak of the French Revolution.  As Robison explains, the groundwork for the revolution was laid decades in advance.  This is the hallmark of what we would call Communist propaganda and agitation.  Since the Jews of that period were still marginalized and ghettoized, the primary agitators within the movement were apostate Christians, a.k.a., “gentiles”…and only later with an enfranchised Jewry did Jews get recruited into European radical movements in significant numbers.

So yes, Communism is a conspiracy, but it is not a Jewish conspiracy.  In fact, originally it was an exclusively Gentile conspiracy.  Even in the 20th century Communism was neither exclusively nor even mainly a Jewish movement, in the sense that Hertzel’s Zionism was exclusively Jewish.  However the truncation of Communism’s history gives the impression that the movement was more Jewish than it generally has been, and moreover obscures the fact that the movement was not a Jewish movement in its origin.

It is notable that the John Birch Society, which has rejected the truncated chronology of “scientific Communism” in favor of a historiography based of Robison and like authors, has struck a blow at anti-Semitism.  The original motivation for embracing this historiography was, however, a disquisition into the facts of early European and American radicalism, not necessarily an exoneration of the Jewish people.  This is a sterling example of how the love of truth, animating research in some specialized field, can have an benign effect on a cognate area of human relations and understanding.

 

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