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Friday, November 6, 2015

Why my Enthusiasm for Star Wars has Waned

There's a new Star Wars movie coming soon to a movie theater near you and me.  Episode VII.  The Force Awakens in a personified fashion.  I'm sure I'll go see it.  Probably even opening weekend. And, hopefully, I'll really, really, enjoy it.  There's no way my inner 10 year old would ever let me miss it. I was, after all, utterly devoted to the Star Wars movies and the Star Wars universe from the time the first movie came out, in the summer of 77, right before 5th grade, until the day Eddie Brascia and I ditched the rest of our classes after Mrs. Holmes Sophomore English honors class to go watch Return of the Jedi at the Cinedome Theaters, one fine day in May 1983. 

I still remember seeing the first movie for the first time, at the movie theater in the University Mall in Provo Utah, while visiting one of my older siblings at BYU.  When I got back to Vegas, I immediately told all my friends that it was the greatest thing that ever happened, and we all needed to go see it together.  In those pre-multiplex days, it was only playing on one screen in town, at the Maryland Parkway Theater on Maryland Parkway and Flamingo, on the largest of its three screens.

After that, it became the mission of our lives to go see that movie as often as we could over the course of that summer.  This was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, before the existence of VHS, let alone DVD or Netflix.  If you loved a movie and wanted to see it more than once, you needed to see it while it was still in theaters. Otherwise, the assumption was you might never see it again unless you happened to be free the night it was shown, a few years later, on network TV, once. "It'll be out on pristine blu ray video in a few months and you can watch it in surround sound on your wide screen at home?"  No, not our world.

Nevertheless, none of our parents understood the concept of wanting to go back and see a movie again.  "You already know what happens and how it ends." They didn't get it.  This wasn't about how it ends.  It was the ride!  You don't only get on a rollercoaster once because you already know how it ends.  This was a movie that was just fun to experience.  Also, the Maryland Parkway was considered to be "way across town" and not an easy place to convince our moms they should drive us to. So we had to be sneaky.  If any other movie was playing at the Maryland Parkway theater's other two screens, which any of us might have the slightest credible interest in going to see (a Charlie Brown movie maybe?  Um, sure.), we'd get one of our parents to take us, and then we'd all go see Star Wars instead. And if our own parent didn't realize what we'd done yesterday afternoon, and thought we'd been at someone else's house swimming, so we could pull that same stunt again a few days later with a different mom, so much the better.  (We were a diverse group affiliated primarily by neighborhood proximity, whereas our parents had their own friends from outside the neighborhood, and didn't talk to each other much).  Also, if a relative hadn't seen it yet, that was good for another viewing. Grandma wants to do something with me for my birthday?  I know just the thing.  Yes, I even got Ella Carruth, probably approaching 80 at the time, to go see Star Wars, which just might be one of my proudest achievements.  She even brought a friend.  I think I managed to see it more than 12 times that Summer.

And then there was the ancillary merchandise.  We all had the Star Wars double LP (records weren't vintage yet so we didn't know we were supposed to call it vinyl), with the great photos from the movies inside the foldout, and we all became John Williams fans, even before we knew he had done the music to Jaws, let alone that he would be the Meister of soundtracks for every pop culture EVENT movie to be released over the course of the rest of our lives, from Superman through Indy and all the way to Harry Potter.  

We all read the paperback novel, listing George Lucas as the author, but ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, with its mysterious byline ("from the adventures of Luke Skywalker") which suggested more to come, and then, a year or so after that, the sequel novel "Splinter of the Minds Eye."  There was some kind of read-along story one of us bought because it had photographs of a deleted scene, with Biggs on Tatooine.  And the sketch-book, which included Tie Fighter designs not seen in the movie. Then there was the Marvel Comic Book version of the film, which we used as a script to create our own audioplay with a cassette recorder.  It was a great summer.  

And then?  Empire Strikes Back.  Even cooler, in many ways, than the first movie (the opening scrawl, with its "Episode V" title, taught us to start calling the movies episodes, and hinted intriguingly at prequels and sequels galore).  So yes, I'll be going to see Star Wars Episode VII, and hoping for the best.

But my enthusiasm will be tempered.  My hope for a great evening at the movies more cautious than convinced.  A lot has happened since Empire Strikes Back hit the Silver Screen, and much of it has dampened my enthusiasm for the series.  Maybe if Lucas had died, like Robert Jordan, so somebody else had to finish his oeuvre, things would have worked out better.  But alas, he lived to make more movies.  And as he did so, over the years, this, that, or the other, has weakened my love for the series. These quibbles include the following, in no particular order: 

Seven Problems with Star Wars after the Empire Strikes Back.

1.  The Ewoks.  I mostly loved Return of the Jedi, when it first came out, and the chemistry between Luke and Leia and Han was as great as ever.  But then, for the first time in three movies, there were parts of this movie that I really, really didn't like.  Among those parts: the Ewoks.  What a stupid move.  George Lucas's biggest fans were 8 to 12 years old when the first Star Wars movie came out.  We were 14 to 18 now.  This was going to be the last installment for, what, . . . decades? So there was no need to recruit new young fans.  The established fans were teenagers now and we didn't want Teddy Bears in our most beloved sci-fi franchise. And why such fake looking Teddy Bears?  They weren't wearing any loinclothes, yet they didn't seem to need any. Gee, either these creatures have no ability to digest their food, and they reproduce asexually, or they are really just little kids in dumb-looking costumes. And how do they see when they so clearly have fake  taxidermist glass eyes?  The only thing worse was the styro-foamy elephant at the beginning of the movie in Jabba the Hutt's palace.  But only barely.  

2.  Darth Vader's cheap redemption.  I can't remember where I first came across the following analogy, but I'm fairly certain it was in something written by Orson Scott Card: Hitler is about to kill Himmler's son.  To stop him, Himmler kills Hitler.  Now, despite participating in mass genocide, Himmler gets to go to heaven?  For saving his son's life?  Wouldn't pretty much anyone save their own son's life, such that doing so doesn't really make you particularly special?  What is this, warmed-over Calvinism?  Some people are just better than others and will be saved in the end no matter what? If Darth Vader is to be redeemed, surely it could have been done with some plotting that made more logical sense than, just, . . . this.  Giving his life to help the rebels destroy the empire maybe?  I dunno.  I mean, it's nice that he saves his son's life and all, but, really? In interviews Lucas gave when he was prepping the Prequels, he went back on his earlier promise to create 9 Star Wars, and said that there would only be 6, and that, ultimately, these weren't really movies about Luke and Leia et al. This was Darth Vader's story, the tale of his fall and redemption. Well, then, that makes it even worse: These six movies have all been about Darth Vader's fall and redemption, AND THIS HIMMLER SAVES HIS SON FROM HITLER moment is the ending and ultimate climax of THAT overarching story?  Really?  Wow.  That just makes the entire series so much . . . less than it could have been.  And learning in Episode III that Anakin was a child-killer didn't help.  Pretty sure you don't get a free pass to heaven for saving your own child's life, if you have previously murdered other people's innocent children in cold blood.   

3.  George Lucas's Anti-Americanism.  As if the Ewoks weren't bad enough, on their own and in and of themselves, I had the misfortune to come across a documentary about the making of the original trilogy in which Lucas explained that the Ewoks' use of primitive technology, via guerilla attacks, to overcome the greater military capability of the Empire, was meant as an analogy for the Vietcong's defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam.  Lucas admired the Northern Vietnamese, and wanted to highlight that admiration in the third film.  So, there's that.  Basically, Episode 6 wasn't a movie for people like me. It was a movie for people like Jane Fonda.  Sigh.

4. The CGI heavy reissues.  Full kudos to George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic for introducing CGI to film and remaining a pioneer in special effects technology decades after the first movie came out.  Compared to say, the Last Starfighter, the CGI in the special editions of the original trilogy was really impressive at the time they were made.  But it was still an emerging technology, and it wouldn't really be put to amazingly effective use until we were introduced to Peter Jackson's Gollum.  So, now, ironically, the parts of the original trilogy which have aged the worst are the new CGI scenes. And it's pretty clear why some of the reinserted scenes were cut the first time around. Han Solo was allowed to leave by Jabba?  Well that doesn't build much tension.  Even when the CGI looked good and not dated, the only film that really benefited was Empire Strikes Back (and the final scene in Return, which reduced the amount of Ewoks). Yet Lucas won't bring back the originals, and apparently Disney is sticking to that position.  Maybe when George is dead . . . .  

5.  The problem with Prequels.  I don't actually hate the prequels, and actually enjoyed them all when I first saw them.  Although they are not nearly as rewatchable as the original films.  And Jar Jar?  Well, Lucas was a risk-taker. People might have hated Chewbacca, but he turned out fine. And Yoda the muppet Jedi Master, on paper, had to have sounded like an incredibly misguided idea, which might have gone very, very, badly, instead of becoming perhaps the coolest movie character of all time.  Lucas was bound to get it wrong eventually.  So cut him a break.  The main issue I have with the prequels is the same issue that affects all prequels generally.  When you are reading a well-done fantasy or science fiction novel, and the author helps you understand that you are being told a story which exists within the context of a much larger universe, including lots of places on the map you never actually get to see, and a backstory you only hear about second hand, the effect is intriguing and powerful and mysterious.  But when you actually go into the backstory, and see it first hand, you can lose the magic, like learning about Santa Claus.  It just can't be as cool as you had hoped it would be.  I think that's one of the reasons Back to the Future worked so well.  All of us, at one time or another, have wanted to know what our parents were like at our age, and, when they are at the right age, children love to hear the story of how their parents met: it's the ultimate backstory, how I came to exist.  And Back to the Story helped us understand why maybe it's for the best that we never actually get to learn more about that.  I loved the scene in the first prequel when Obi Wan tells Anakin he'll be training him as a Jedi.  But it was still cooler in my imagination. Ditto the final fiery battle between the same two characters at the end of Episode 3.  A good prequel, that works well, will be set in the same universe, but involve ancillary characters, keeping the original story's own back story steeped in mystery and intrigue.     

6.  The Problem with Lucas's Prequels.  Lucas's prequels made this inherent and intrinsic problem even worse. One of the many things that J.K. Rowling got right in the Harry Potter novels was creating a lengthy story that was almost seamlessly integrated. As you read later books in the series, the earlier books made more sense, and what happened in those earlier books added to the enjoyment of the later volumes, as when the full meaning of Tom Riddle's diary in book 2 is revealed in book 6, and its destruction becomes a key plot point in book 7.  Lucas tried to create a similar sense of his story's integration, but it was so forced and awkward that it not only didn't work, it undercut the whole narrative.  Plot points that were meant to be big reveals of what we had never realized before just demonstrated that Lucas hadn't really thought his story through before. One example will suffice: Anyone who ever saw the original Star Wars (except George Lucas apparently) knows that a person living in "an environment such as" Tatooine would have "no use of a protocol droid." Why, then, does a young Tatooine slave boy create one?  Why would any young boy create a "protocol droid" when they could create a robot that does something cool?  No possible reason whatsoever except a lame attempt to try to shoehorn some artificial relationship between the two movie that we are apparently supposed to find cool.  "Ooooh, Vader created C-3PO. Wow." This makes the original Star Wars worse. Now, instead of finding it clever when C-3P0 says "Thank the maker" because Robots would thank their manufacturer in the way humans thank their divine creator, we are reminded that C-3P0's maker was supposedly someone who had no reason whatsoever to make him. Lame.    

7.  The worst movie line of all time.  No one expects a Star Wars movie to have deep, clever, or meaningful dialogue.  Still, does it have to include lines of dialogue so awful they ought to be in Guinness?  Here it is:  

Anakin: "If you are not with me, you're my enemy."  

Obi-wan: "Only a Sith speaks in absolutes." 

For my money, absolutely the stupidest lines of dialogue in the history of cinema.  Probably in the history of English.  What makes this snippet of dialogue so horrendously awful?  How much time do you have? First of all, it was intended as a political rebuke against a contemporary politician. But making contemporary political points is not the purpose of Star Wars.  These stories are supposed to be timeless fables.  And contemporary political points jar you away from all that, whether you agree or disagree with them. As Tolkien once said, a good story will be full of applicability, which the reader can choose, not analogy, which forces the reader into a specific meaning. Give us applicability, not analogy, let us choose our applications as we will, don't force them upon us, like a Sith.  Secondly, the statement "if you are not with me you are against me" was first spoken by Christ, not a modern politician. Matthew 12:30. So Obi-wan's criticism of Anakin's statement is not ultimately a criticism of George Bush, as was intended, but is a criticism of Christ, characterizing Christ as a Sith. And that's just evil.  Third: "Only a Sith speaks in absolutes" is of course in and of itself an absolute statement, meaning that Obi-wan makes himself a Sith for saying it, and that Lucas flunks basic kindergarten logic for writing it.  Finally, the critique Obi-wan is making is just incredibly stupid in context. It's like criticizing Hitler because he lacked nuance. Anakin is not engaged in some righteous crusade, which he has taken too far by being overly zealous towards anyone who disagrees with his means or his methods. The proper response to Anakin's statement isn't to instruct him that he needs to be a little more inclusive in his thinking, and be more open to ambiguity and other points of view. The proper response is to say: "Of course I'm you're enemy. Any decent person in the universe should be your enemy. You are evil." 

                                                                        * * * * * * * *

So there you have it. How I learned to stop loving Star Wars as much as I once did, in the years after the Empire struck back.  But wait, there's more. What about the new movie? The latest international trailer really did get me excited, and awaken my inner nerdy child.  But nevertheless, there's a few things that keep me from being as excited to go see this as I once was to go see Episode 1 (probably a good thing, considering how that turned out).   Here they are, in no particular order:

Three Reasons to Temper the Hype over the New Movie: 

8. It's basically fan fiction.  Ironically, one of the driving forces behind fan enthusiasm for the upcoming movie is that it's not a George Lucas film.  I get that, really I do.  See points 1 through 7 above. Still, for good or ill, Star Wars is George Lucas's baby, and a Star Wars movie not based on his ideas or story or outline, is a little bit like those James Bond novels that were written after Ian Fleming had died, or someone other than J.K. Rowling penning a new Harry Potter book.  That's not to say that it won't be great.  Most of the recent Marvel movies have been excellent, even though the original creators of those characters and story-lines had nothing to do with them.  But still, we are in new territory now.  The Star Wars of George Lucas, who created it, is over now.  Other than a possible Stan Lee-esque cameo or two, he has nothing to do with it. Hopefully it gets back on course and stays there.  But even if it does, it's not really canon.  

9. J.J. Abrams Wrote and Directed It.  This means that it will almost certainly include the set-up for some deep and intriguing mystery, or mysteries, which we will learn, in Episode 9, no one knew how to resolve beforehand. "OH, the stormtroopers of Alderaan were all in Limbo!!! Well, that's just stupid."  The Mystery Writers Guild of America really needs to take JJ Abrams to the woodshed and explain some things to him about the basic rules of storytelling.  Before you write a mystery, you determine the truth.  Then you arbitrarily withhold the truth while dropping hints of it all along the way, amidst various red herrings.  Then you reward your reader's patient impatience by finally giving him the truth at the end, causing him to see everything that came before in a new light.  This moment of resolution is deeply satisfying, like the turn that comes in the last two lines of every good sonnet. If it doesn't happen, someone has been robbed. If you are just pretending to be withholding the truth, when in fact there is no truth and you have no idea where you are going with anything in your story, but you are just really good at the set up and the spooky music, you are committing a fraud. If this happens in the new Star Wars trilogy, they could be even worse than the prequels. 

10.  "Chewie, we're home."  I have a bad feeling about this line, from one of the first teaser trailers, spoken by Han, apparently when he revisits the interior of the Millenium Falcon after some period of vacancy. It's not the kind of thing that human beings say in real life.  It's not the kind of thing that characters in good movies say in good movies.  It's the kind of thing someone from the marketing department wants someone to say in a movie, so it can be put in the trailer for the movie, even when it's completely out of character for the person saying it (Han Sole, sentimental nostalgic?) The first new Star Wars movie hasn't even opened yet, but Disney is already working on the new Star Wars portion of Disneyland, so marketing matters. That's all fine and good if it doesn't affect the product being marketed. But if it does affect the product, then it will infect it as well. There was no valid artistic reason to stretch the Hobbit movies into three overly bloated movies, where two tightly plotted movies with narrative thrust and dispatch would have been just the thing.  But I'm sure it made sense to the Warner Brothers Marketing Department.  

Nevertheless, I'll see you on opening night, holding my popcorn and hoping for the best. And despite all of the above, I'll be as excited as it's possible for a middle aged person trying to recapture their childhood to be. That's the power of the original trilogy, and especially the first two movies, pure and perfect entertainment that they were.    

Friday, October 9, 2015

Things I Know to Be True

The modern world can try to tell me what to believe as much as it likes, but where they are wrong I will continue to reject their assertions, in favor of personal experience and common sense.  If I have learned anything at all in my life, I have learned the following:

1.  Never do business with a company that has the word "honest" in its name.

2.  Nothing is free.

3.  Everything is authentic.

4.  If you are using the word "Whereas" at its beginning, you are about to write a sentence which is too long and will need to be split into two sentences.  See also: "While."

5.  Mechanics make most of their money from people who try to repair their own cars.  Lawyers make most of their money from people too cheap to hire a lawyer at the beginning of the transaction. Physicians make most of their money from patients too busy to exercise and eat right.

6.  It is false to say you cannot predict the future.  In fact, the future is the only thing you can predict. The same principle applies to those who claim one cannot legislate morality.

7.  The charge will always be more than the cost.  Where there is no competition, the gap between the cost and the charge will be larger.  Where the government provides, the gap will be largest.

8.  This too shall pass.

9.  When a potential new client says "It's not about the money, it's about the principle" get a big retainer, what he means is, "I'm not planning on paying your bills."

10.  Nature abhors a vacuum.

11.  Correlation does not always equal causation.

12.  Even when correlation does not equal causation, it can be valuable in determining potential causation, or leading to other insights.

13.  When the judge agrees with you, sit down and shut up.

14.  Some say we can never fully know the truth about anything, being limited and constrained by our senses and other factors in the tools we can bring to the task of ascertaining truth.  It's an accurate enough observation.  But we can know enough to build a bridge, put a man on the moon, and make rational choices.  For the most important purposes, that which we can know suffices.

15.  Balance, finding the proper median between excess and deficiency, is the key to everything.

16.  Every virtue, if taken to an extreme, becomes a vice.

17.  There is really only one thing the modern left is wrong about: human nature.  All of their other errors are merely extensions and applications deriving from that core.

18. Inequality is the price of liberty.  Totalitarianism is the price of equality.

19. Human beings come in two sexes.  Not one.  Not twenty-seven.  Two.

20. There is an inverse relationship between how creatively a child's name is spelled and the likelihood that the child will graduate from High School.

21.  No one gets fat from eating too many fruits and vegetables.

22.  Four things lead to happiness: Be devout and observant in your creed; faithful in your marriage and loving to your children; competent, hardworking, and honest in your profession; and engaged in your community.  If you are looking for happiness anywhere else, good luck.

23.  The scientific method is an incredibly powerful tool for unlocking certain kinds of truth.  It does not and cannot however answer the questions of ultimate meaning and purpose.  Those who reject revealed truth, prayer, scripture, and faith, as though supplanted and superseded by that which is knowable by the five senses as enhanced by machinery, will live a life far inferior to that which they might otherwise have known.

Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325 (The Story of Civilization Volume III) by Will Durant (1944)

"We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us . . . but what if we're only an after-glow of them."  J.G. Farrell, as quoted by Robert Harris as an introduction to his historical novel, Conspirita.

The Black Holes in my Knowledge, or, Why I Read this Book.    

"Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance."  Will Durant

In recent years, my readings on various historical subjects of personal interest have, again and again, led me back to Rome.  I have come to realize that, in the West, the men and women who peopled most historical eras since 300 AD were, themselves, studiously interested in the classical world, and so, to understand the viewpoints of prior generations it is imperative to know at least some of the basics of Greek philosophy and Roman history, together with Biblical religion, which influenced so much of the worldview of all those who came after.  The medieval Christians, for example, in addition to their reliance on the Biblical revelations of Jerusalem, plumbed (albeit selectively) the philosophy of Athens and the literature of Rome for their moral, ethical, and legal precepts.  The nation builders of the same era constantly sought to revive the dream of a new, but holier, Roman Empire. Later, the architects of the Renaissance saw their chief mission as bringing a "new birth" of Hellenized Rome's scientific and artistic achievements to a benighted world.

In the 18th Century, the English-speaking world was intensely interested in Roman history, knowledge of which was considered by our nation's founders to be essential as a guide to informed self-government.  A young John Adams practiced for future rhetorical glory by reciting Cicero's Catalinian Orations in front of a mirror and Thomas Jefferson used Cicero's "The Case Against Verres" as a model and template for his own case against King George in the Declaration of Independence.  It is impossible to understand the founders or the Revolution without understanding, among other things, the history of Rome and the lessons the founders derived for the future, right or wrong, from that history. Jefferson's life-long distrust of standing armies was grounded in the many examples afforded by Roman history of such armies, from Julius Caesar to the Praetorian Guard, seizing control of the civil government. And Adam's lifelong belief that an aristocracy would inevitably develop in America, whose interests would need to be checked and balanced, was similarly based on his knowledge of Rome, and of what came after.  [Endnote 1]

As historian Bernard Bailyn has pointed out, "Knowledge of classical authors was universal among colonists with any degree of education, and references to them and their works abound in the literature" of the revolution. [2]   The founders of our Nation were especially enthralled by that period of classical history in which the Roman Republic made its last valiant stand before falling into libertine anarchy and civil war, which ended via the imperial dictatorships of the Roman Empire [3] established by Julius and then Octavius Caesar, fulfilling one of the Platonian patterns of history. The revolutionary colonists saw their own struggle against British tyranny as akin to that of the Roman generation which had unsuccessfully attempted to forestall the overthrow of the Republic and its replacement with a military dictatorship.  [4]  Thus, when a beleaguered Washington wanted to improve the morale of the troops at Valley Forge, he arranged for a showing of his favorite play, Joseph Addison's popular drama, Cato, about the Roman Senator's principled stand against the tyranny of Julius Caesar.  (It had been from this play, earlier in the war, that captured colonial spy Nathan Hale had drawn his famous last words, before being hung by the British: "My only regret is that I have but one life to lose for my country").  And when a victorious Washington, at the end of the war, returned his commission to the Continental Congress, both he and the world were keenly aware that he was acting in the role of an American Cincinnatus, the General of Republican Rome who had taken up the sword and the mantle of leadership to save his people from peril, and then relinquished that power and returned to his farm. [5]

But in our own time, any description of the fall of a republic and the rise of an empire is far more likely to be understood as an allusion to Star Wars, than as a reference to Rome. After decades of relentlessly and ruthlessly utilitarian educational "reforms," of which the common core is only the most recent example, most Americans no longer know anything about Rome.  Why this came to be, and how modern Americans were cut off from vast swathes of a historical heritage which earlier generations considered their intellectual commons, is a story for another day. For present purposes, it suffices to say that I count myself one of the victims of this imposed ignorance and deliberate policy of abetting historical illiteracy.  My religious upbringing has given me some grounding in one leg of what has been called the three legged stool of Western Civilization: the biblical theology of Jerusalem.  But as for the other two legs of the stool, the philosophy, art, and science of Athens; and the legal principles of Rome and the lessons of Roman history, I must learn of those on my own, having been exposed, instead, to hours of mindless fluff in the formal education of my youth.  Hence my interest in this book. [6]

The Third Book in the Durants' Series.

Caesar and Christ, subtitled, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325, is the third volume in Will (and eventually Ariel) Durant's famous 11-volume series, The Story of Civilization, written between 1935  and 1975, and introduced into thousands of middle class American homes as the bonus for joining the Book of the Month Club.  This volume, published in 1944, is the first and only book in the series I have ever read cover to cover.

Will Durant's Wisdom

The author, Will Durant, is as congenial a guide through this history as anyone is likely to find, and he knows just where to pause for asides and personal commentary and observation that overcome the dustiness one usually finds in chronological summaries of history.  Indeed, it is his authorial asides which make the book most worth reading, raising its value as a storehouse of not just knowledge, but also of wisdom, and demonstrating why bland, committee-written, textbook history, has done so much to kill off historical interest in our public schools.  A few examples of Durant's asides, which are what really make the book worth reading:

-On the inherent conflict between security and freedom:

"The principle of democracy is freedom, the principle of war is discipline; each requires the absence of the other."

"Caesar returned to the task of persuading the Gauls that peace is sweeter than freedom."

"We must reconcile ourselves to the probability that whatever power establishes security and order will send taxgatherers to collect something more than the cost."

-On Cicero:

"Not since Plato has wisdom worn such prose."

"Next to Cicero, [Seneca] was the most lovable hypocrite in history."

-On human nature:

"The constitution of man always rewrites the constitutions of states."

"[I]t is as difficult to forgive forgiveness as it is to forgive those whom we have injured."

"Sanity, like government, needs checks and balances; no mortal can be omnipotent and sane."

"[O]nly youth knows better than twenty centuries."

- On the patterns of history:

"Democracy had fallen by Plato's formula: liberty had become license, and chaos begged an end to liberty.  . . .  Dictatorship was unavoidable."

"The very peace that Augustus had organized, and the security that he had won for Rome, had loosened the fibre of the people.  No one wanted to enlist in the army, or recognize the inexorable periodicity of war.  Luxury had taken the place of simplicity, sexual license was replacing parentage; by its own exhausted will the great race was beginning to die."

"When great men stoop to sentiment, the world grows fonder of them; but when sentiment governs policy, empires totter."

"In every epoch something is decaying and something is growing."

"History, like the press, misrepresents life because it loves the exceptional and shuns the newsless career of an honest man or the quiet routine of a normal day."

"Nothing reaches maturity except through the fulfillment of its own nature."


Durant's writing reveals him to be a man of great Aristotelian medians.  Balance seems to be the governing principle of his writing, which goes to some length to avoid extremist positions.  Even in describing the worst and most notorious of Rome's post Augustan despots, for example, Durant gives them credit, where it is due, for their administrative achievements:  "There was something good in the worst of these rulers -- devoted statemanship in Tiberius, a charming gaiety in Caligula, a plodding wisdom in Claudius, an exuberant aestheticism in Nero, a stern competence in Domitian.  Behind the adulteries and the murders an administrative organization had formed which provided, through all this period, a high order of provincial government."  Durant suggests that the the most salacious details from accounts of the more tyrannical leaders' lives, as written by ancient Roman historians with political axes to grind, should be taken with some grains of salt; and argues that the circumstances of the despots' lives, explains their behavior as almost rational:  "The emperors themselves were the chief victims of their power. . . . Seven of these ten men met a violent end; nearly all of them were unhappy, surrounded by conspiracy, dishonesty, and intrigue, trying to govern a world from the anarchy of a home.  They indulged their appetites because they knew how brief was their omnipotence; they lived in the daily horror of men condemned to an early and sudden death.  They went under because they were above the law; they became less than men because power had made them gods."  Still, he rejoices when a sensible emperor now and again comes along, in the middle of a series of arbitrary and capricious despots, beginning his account of Vespasian's reign with the remark: "What a relief to meet a man of sense, ability, and honor!"

The book's final chapters are a description of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and the founding of Christianity, in a Hellenized world which was bound to influence its doctrine.  (Tad R. Callister's The Inevitable Apostasy,  quotes frequently from this volume, in support of the Mormon sense that Christianity soon became unmoored from revelation and too influenced by the philosophies of men. Durant takes that idea even further than most Latter-day Saints would be willing to do, arguing for example that the Gospel of John is an essentially Platonic, rather then Hebraic, document, suggesting that the influence of Greece arose even while the canonical scriptures of Christianity were being transcribed.)  When writing on the life of Christ, the missions of Paul, and the founding of the Christian faith, Durant writes as a non-believing scholar, but not as a scoffing skeptic.  He offers, for example, a psychosomatic explanation for Jesus's miracles.  However, he rejects the claim of Higher Criticism that Jesus never even lived, noting that this theory would require the early Christians to have created the Jesus personality in one generation, which he finds absurd; and agreeing with another historian's suggestion that, if the tests against Christ's historicity were applied with equal fervor to other historical figures, they would erase from the record many of history's most prominent persons.  He accepts the likely accuracy of most of the Gospels on the grounds that writers of inspirational fiction would have kept out the squabbling among Christ's apostles, and Christ's agonized query from the Cross as to why he had been forsaken. The religious reader, like myself, will not be strengthened in their testimony by this book.  But they will also not be weakened, nor offended. Indeed, I came away from my reading grateful for the much deeper understanding the book provided me of the historical context of Paul's epistles, and the rift between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians which was occurring while they were written, which I find helpful to understanding the doctrinal points Paul was asserting.

The Fall of Rome

Political observers have, for centuries, looked to Rome's fall as a source for prescient observations about their own society's shortcomings.  Durant makes no such attempts at modern political application, but he does describe various causes of Roman decline, leaving the future reader of some declining world to draw his own parallels.  Rome actually went through two falls: the fall of the Roman Republic into class strife and civil war, leading to the restoration of stability and order via the establishment of an Empire led by autocratic military dictators; and the subsequent fall of that Empire itself, a fall which Durant notes lasted three centuries, longer than many nations' entire history, from their rise to their decline.

Here are some passages on the decline of the Roman Republic, implicating all of the usual suspects: easy money, luxury, immorality, corruption.  Certainly glad nothing like this is happening anywhere near me:

"As currency multiplied . . . the owners of realty in the capital tripled their fortunes without stirring a muscle . . . .  Industry lagged while commerce flourished. . . .  Rome was becoming not the industrial or commercial, but the financial and political, center of the white man's world. . . .
[T]he Roman patriciate and upper middle class passed with impressive speed from stoic simplicity to reckless luxury; . . . .   Houses became larger as families became smaller; . . . .  [T]he old simple diet gave way to long and heavy meals . . . .  Exotic foods were indispensable to social position or pretense. . . . Drinking increased; goblets had to be large and preferably of gold; wine was less diluted, sometimes not at all.  . . . .

The individual became rebelliously conscious of himself as against the state, the son as against the father, the woman as against the man. . . .  Prostitution flourished.  Homosexualism was stimulated by contact with Greece and Asia;  . . . .  Women . . . divorced their husbands or occasionally poisoned them . . . .  Cato and Polybius . . . noted a decline of population and the inability of the state to raise such armies as had risen to meet Hannibal.  The new generation, having inherited world mastery, had no time or inclination to defend it. . . . [T]he Roman landowner disappeared now that ownership was being concentrated in a few families and a proletariat without stake in the country filled the slums of Rome. Men became brave by proxy; they crowded the amphitheater to see bloody games.  . . .

In the upper classes manners became more refined as morals were relaxed. . . .  Everyone longed for money, everyone judged or was judged in terms of money.  Contractors cheated on such a scale that many government properties . . . had to be abandoned because the lessees exploited the workers and mulcted the state . . . .  [The] aristocracy . . . accepted presents and liberal bribes for bestowing its favor upon men or states, . . . .  It became a common thing for magistrates to embezzle public funds and an uncommon thing to see them prosecuted.
Marriage, which had once been a lifelong economic union, was now among a hundred thousand Romans a passing adventure of no great spiritual significance, a loose contract for the mutual provision of physiological conveniences or political aid."

And here are some passages on the decline of the Empire.  Once again, any similarities to times being lived in by the reader are likely purely coincidental:

"A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.  The essential causes of Rome's decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars.

A serious decline of population appears in the West after Hadrian. . . .  The holocausts of war and revolution, and . . . the operation of contraception, abortion, and infanticide had [their] effect. . . . The dole weakened the poor, luxury weakened the rich; . . . .  [Immigration occurred too quickly to allow] time [for] a leisurely assimilation [in which the immigrants] might have reinvigorated the classic culture . . . .  [Instead], the rapidly breeding [immigrants] could not understand the classic culture, did not accept it, did not transmit it; . . . were mostly of a mind to destroy that culture; the Romans, possessing it, sacrificed it to the comforts of sterility.  Rome was conquered not by barbarian invasion from without, but by barbarian multiplication within.  Moral and esthetic standards were lowered by the magnetism of the mass; and sex ran riot in freedom while political liberty decayed.

The political causes of decay were rooted in one fact--that increasing despotism destroyed the citizen's civic sense and dried up statesmanship at its source. Powerless [politically] the Roman lost interest in government and became absorbed in his business, his amusements, his legion, or his individual salvation.  Patriotism and . . . religion had been bound together, and now together decayed."

Surely none of that sounds familiar to modern ears.

Still, there is room for hope in Durant's writing, even on Rome's decline and fall, perhaps explaining why that fall took so long: "Around the immoral hub of any society is a spreading wheel of wholesome life, in which the threads of tradition, the moral imperatives of religion, the economic compulsions of the family, the instinctive love and care of children, the watchfulness of women and policemen, suffice to keep us publicly decent and moderately sane."

And perhaps, in any event, it is not the fall of Rome that we should fear most.  But, rather, its new rise.  The fact of the matter is that, for all of their contributions to science, art, literature, and the theory of law and jurisprudence, and for all of the graceful prose, poetry, and philosophy offered up by their most noble citizens, from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, and for all of the best traits which marked the best of Roman society, as outlined in the final pages of this book, the Romans were a brutal and in many ways a despicable people.  Maybe everyone else was back then as well, and maybe the order they imposed upon their time allowed the growth of a stable society which would shun their excesses, and embrace the beauties of Christianity. But even still, their excesses were notably horrifying.  The Romans were politically corrupt; practiced the horrors of slavery and infanticide and pederasty without any apparent moral qualm; entertained themselves with bloodthirsty spectacles which were even worse than our most violent horror films, because they were real; and engaged in war with a relish and callousness difficult for us to fathom. This rottenness in the Roman soul was true even in the days of the Republic, or the years in which they were ruled by benevolent monarchs (Durant quotes Gibbon on the pinnacle of society reached before the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius: "If a man were called upon to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva to the death of Aurelius.  Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.").  The story of the Roman Republic's dealings with Carthage immediately before and during the utter destruction of that City by Roman troops is, simply, horrifying.  And in the most prosperous and peaceful years of the Empire, the Colosseum continued to be a place of vileness and violence.  Thus, as much as I loved this book, and consider it one of the most intriguing and fascinating volumes I will ever read, I must disagree with the author's final, elegiac statement, in which he wishes that Rome may rise again.

I certainly hope it will not.  Indeed, if the book taught me anything, it is to treasure and be grateful for our current relatively stable and free society, in the knowledge that such societies are the exception not the rule, and that while our society is in obvious decline, there is still some chance its ultimate fall may at least be postponed. Historically, this book caused me to reflect, slavery is more to be expected than freedom; poverty more to be expected than prosperity; greed and stupidity in political leaders more to be expected than wisdom and beneficence; corruption in government and commerce more to be expected than honesty; vice more to be expected than virtue; and war more to be expected than peace.  It would be wonderful if the best of Rome could rise again, and her worst stay in the past. But I'm not holding my breath.  


1. Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different  Chapter 6 "The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams" (The Penguin Press 2006)

2. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution p. 23 (Harvard University Press 1967, 1992).

3. Id. pp. 24-26.

4. Gordon S. Wood, The Idea of America  Chapter 2 "The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution" (Penguin Books 2011)

5.   Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different  Chapter 1 "The Greatness of George Washington" (The Penguin Press 2006)

6. An attempt to learn more about the classical world could start chronologically, with Greece.  But trying to understand that era by slogging through Greek history, drama, and literature, is a bit like trying to get into Tolkien via the Silmarillion.  There are elements of the Greek mind that are simply . . . alien.  Try for example to read some Greek play, like The Libation Bearers, which might as well have been written by Martians, and you'll see what I mean.  Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, or Plutarch's Lives, by contrast, are remarkably accessible to a modern reader.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A. Lincoln, by Ronald C. White, Jr.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals remains my favorite Lincoln book.  But the comparison is hardly fair, since Goodwin gave us four biographies for the price of one.   This book, A. Lincoln is my favorite single volume biography of President Lincoln to focus solely on him.  What sets it apart from other works is the author's interest in Lincoln's development over time, and the analysis of Lincoln's skilled use of the English language, in his writings and oratory, to rally political support for policies that saved the Union and freed the slaves.

Lincoln's Journey of Faith

We do weird things with the dead.  We say that a particular founder "was a Deist" or that a particular 20th Century thinker "was a Communist" based on a particular piece of writing at a particular point in their life, as if their entire lives were static, from beginning to end, with no ebb, flow, or development of their opinions, including during those portions of their lives which make them most historically interesting. In Lincoln's regard, some modern historians will claim that he was a non-believer, and not a man of faith. Those who make this claim typically intend it as a compliment (reflecting their own values). However, if true, it would make Lincoln, whose speeches and writings in his final years were infused with Biblical language and theological suppositions, a rank cynic: using the language of faith in his masterfully powerful Second Inaugural to satisfy the common rubes, while holding himself aloof from such nonsense. This would hardly be a complimentary way to view Lincoln's character, whatever one's own personal beliefs. Nor would it be justified.  Lincoln was a shrewd politician, who knew how to balance competing interests.  But nothing in his life suggests he was full of such guile.

Here, we get a narrative that is supported by the evidence and rings much more true.   Like all Americans of his era, Lincoln knew the Bible extremely well.  (Once, upon learning by telegraph of a convention at which 400 Republicans had gathered together to select a new candidate to replace Lincoln on the ballot after his first term, Lincoln asked the telegraph operator to hand him a Bible, and quickly located an obscure passage about a meeting of 400 "discontented" Israelites who gathered together under David's leadership to unseat King Saul. 1 Samuel 22:2)   Nevertheless, a young Lincoln rejected the emotional displays of his parents' Baptist faith, and never joined a church.  What is more, early in his life, fresh from imbibing large quantities of Constantin Volney and Thomas Paine, he gave a speech offering his own similar critiques of revealed religion, which a friend, out of either offense, or to protect the young man, threw in the fire before he could finish reading it.  

Subsequently, however, as we learn from White, Lincoln became interested in the more rational and less emotional approach to religion offered by Springfield Presbyterian minister James Smith, in his book, The Christian Defense. Smith ministered to the Lincolns after the death of their son Eddie, and the Lincolns began attending his congregation, though Lincoln, riding the circuit, did not become a member and attended less frequently than his wife.  When his father's death was imminent, Lincoln wrote to his stepbrother, asking him to convey to his father that he should remember to call upon his merciful Maker, Who would not forget the dying man who puts his trust in Him.  In the final years of his Presidency, Lincoln would increasingly invoke the comforts of God to parents of fallen soldiers in letters of consolation, and the designs of God in official pronouncements, such as the Emancipation Proclamation.  At Gettysburg, Lincoln added the words "under God" to his prepared text, speaking the words extemporaneously during the speech's delivery (as all of the contemporaneous newspaper accounts of the address, based on stenographer's notes of the speech as delivered, confirm), and Lincoln included that phrase in all three versions he would write out at later dates. 

In the latter months of his Presidency, Lincoln, as was his custom when trying to work through a logical or philosophical issue, wrote himself a short memorandum, not meant for public view.  These personal notes were kept by Lincoln in his hat, or desk drawer, and, White argues, are the closest thing we have to his intellectual autobiography. This particular personal memo, found some time after Lincoln's death, began with the words, "The will of God prevails."  The memo discussed the phenomenon of both sides in the Civil War claiming that God was on their side, the logical impossibility that they were both right, as God could not be both for and against the same thing at the same time, and the likelihood that neither side was wholly right, but that God had his own purposes, and was using and adapting the will and actions of men to achieve the same. As it was not intended for the public, this writing is the best evidence we have of Lincoln's personal religious beliefs in the final years of his life, as he led the nation through the war.  The writing is theologically sophisticated, addressing one of the core paradoxes of Christianity, the conflict between free will and God's omniscience, as it contemplates a God who manages to work in and influence history, yet does so without impinging on human beings' personal will and choice, which are adapted to God's purposes.  White traces some of the influences which might have led to Lincoln's thoughts in the memorandum, which would later resonate in certain passages of the Second Inaugural.  The man who gave that speech apparently believed in the theological and biblical language which it used, in the God which it invoked, and in the Christian principles of mercy, reconciliation, and service to the widowed and orphaned victims of the war for which it called.

Lincoln's Political Journey

Similarly, with respect to slavery, one will sometimes come across a particular type of libertarian revisionist crank, almost always from the South, who insists that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War, which was fought over tariffs or something, and who will support their revisionist history by citing various statements of Lincoln that the war was being fought to save the Union, and any decision to free slaves would be based on whether or not it furthered that cause.  The crank inevitably forgets that the South started the Civil War and did so very much because of its desire to not only retain slavery, but to extend it to new territories, which desire became the chief political conflict of the decade before the war.  (The Confederacy was formed, and Jefferson Davis chosen to lead it, before Lincoln was even inaugurated, and the South fired the first shots of the war, upon federal vessels bringing aid and non-military supplies to Fort Sumter, all of which events occurred on the basis of Southern outrage over the election of an anti-Kansas Nebraska Republican to office.) If we want to know why the Civil War was fought, it is the South's reasons for secession which must be examined, not Lincoln's response.   Moreover, the crank's simplistic analysis also forgets that historical figures are not static, and that political figures are constrained by that which is politically possible.

White does an excellent job of tracking Lincoln's willingness to apply his own personal beliefs against slavery into more proactive political action, over time. From early in his political career, Lincoln was opposed to slavery, which he felt was a moral evil ("If slavery isn't wrong, nothing is wrong.") But he was not elected, or even nominated as the candidate of his own party, as a radical abolitionist.  The Republicans chose him, instead of Seward, because the latter was too radical. Lincoln did not believe the Government had the ability under the Constitution to end slavery. His debates with Douglas, and his Presidential campaign, were based on the principle that slavery must not be extended into the territories, but restricted to where it already existed, where he promised it would not be interfered with (a promise he likely would have kept, had the South taken him at his word and not seceded).  He firmly believed the Federal Government had the right to restrict any extension of slavery, but he did not call for its abolition where it already existed, while running for President.  When that position proved insufficiently moderate to a South which instead launched a Civil War over his election, Lincoln sufficiently politically astute to know that, in order to retain support for the war among Northern Democrats, and border states, he needed to emphasize that the war was being fought to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves, much to the chagrin of those who filled the more radical abolitionist wing of the Republican party. But White tracks how, over time, Lincoln came to understand the hollowness of any victory which did not end slavery, and his willingness to therefore become more overt about that purpose of the war, over time.  His developing thinking led Lincoln to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation (freeing the slaves as a military measure, only in locations where the Proclamation could have no practical effect unless the war were to be won). This was followed, upon further developments in Lincoln's thinking, by his orders for the recruitment of black Union soldiers. In turn, this decision, upon its successful implementation, was followed by Lincoln's September 3, 1863 speech, written for James Conkling to read and deliver at a Springfield Illinois pro-Union rally (the largest held during the war), praising the valor of those black soldiers as against their confederate enemies who, "with malignant heart, and deceitful speech" strove to hinder an important historical "consummation" namely the end of slavery.  This passage made clear that ending slavery was indeed now one explicitly hoped for effect of the war, although Lincoln still emphasized that the war remained primarily a war to save the Union, and no soldier was yet being asked to fight solely to end slavery, which would only be true if Lincoln asked them to keep fighting solely for that cause after the Union had been preserved.  The consummation of Lincoln's thinking on these points led to his advocacy for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Lincoln the Writer and Orator

The author also relishes Lincoln's skills as a writer, a thinker, and an orator.  The passages in which White analyzes Lincoln's more important writings and speeches, and examines the rhetorical tools he utilized, are among the book's best.  And the description of how Lincoln, again and again, rallied political support for his policies when they came under fire, via a well-timed speech, or widely published letter to a newspaper editor or a political caucus, tell an important part of his story which no film (the primary medium through which most Americans have formed an image of Lincoln today) could ever capture. Lincoln's effective employment and deployment of the English language as a political tool reflected the founders, and is one of the reasons I like to think of him as the final founder.  Like Lincoln, almost all of the founders, save Washington, came to prominence and fame, and directed the course of history, on the basis of their way with the written word.

In our own era, screens have replaced newspapers, soundbites have replaced well reasoned writing, and political ideas too complex for an internet meme or a bumper sticker don't get very far.  This, as much as anything, explains why we are unlikely to ever see another Lincoln (or Adams or Jefferson or Hamilton or Madison) in our lifetimes. Whether we can find leaders fit for our times and its challenges, on the basis of whether those politicians come across as well on the screen, as Lincoln and his predecessors did in well-reasoned and passionate writing, remains to be seen.  But the evidence so far is not encouraging.

A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White, Jr.  (Random House 2010) Trade Paperback.  4 Stars out of 4.