Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I had never bothered watching this film before because it has a reputation as being not particularly good compared to the other Indiana Jones films from the ’80s. That just made it a candidate for my list of films I own but hadn’t seen; but having watched it now, I’d have to agree with the consensus.

In one sense this is a little surprising: individual scenes are well done, Harrison Ford is plenty charismatic, and the kid sidekick thing works quite well. So this review is more a list of reasons it doesn’t quite hold up.

First, the first act busted-deal-into-chase-scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It sort of explains how Indy, “Shorty”, and girl-of-the-film Willy get dumped into the actual crisis, and I suppose the idea of diamonds – lost in the deal at the beginning, given up on with maybe-noble motives at the end – gets introduced.

Second, there’s a little too much indulgence in the gross-out factor. From disgusting food to bugs everywhere to the details shown of the cultists’ ceremonies, there’s a lot in here that seems calculated to scare the audience, more than actually do anything for the plot. Although it’s not just the audience, which brings up the biggest problem.

Willy’s character doesn’t have a very clear role in the film. All the nonsense she goes through ought to get her some recognition or credibility. But actually her reactions throughout are played for comic relief: she’s not part of the group really or clearly outside it. Similarly, despite one scene which evidently used up the film’s entire allowed stock of sexual invitation and innuendo, she’s not a convincing love interest – or even a lust object. The way she’s mostly ignored makes her detestation moments more convincing than her flirtations; on the flip side Indy does mostly ignore her, seems interested only to the extent she is, if that, but also can’t seem to let her go. It’s unsatisfactory story-telling all around. The “fortune and glory” bit might have been used to develop that somewhere, but it really shows up a bit late in the film to build around. It also doesn’t help that Willy and “Shorty” mostly ignore each other completely.

In sum: the introductory act is very good; the fight/chase act starting with Indy’s rescue is quite good; it’s all the middle dramatic bit that really just falls flat. Probably was worth watching once.

Review: Scrooge

Scrooge is a musical version of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. The film from 1970 is a lot of fun although there’s a lot of over-acting and the music is for the most part second-rate. Albert Finney is quite good as Scrooge; the Cratchitts are all very well acted, and are a convincingly happy family. Marley’s Ghost – played by Alec Guinness – is rather a disappointment, though the costuming and effects perhaps are mainly responsible. Kenneth More’s Ghost of Christmas Present is rather better, though his seasonal trinketry, much like the other effects, is cheap and a bit dated. The director was also perhaps a little too enamoured of flying wire effects.

But that’s about it for the negatives. It sells the story – which benefits from the exaggerated tropes of musical theater. Actually my favorite thing about the film might be that the period costumes – although I rather doubt a consistent period is achieved – actually are carried off as clothes being worn and not just costumes. There is, I think, often a little disbelief that people would ever have actually worn such outrageous old fashions; in this film, especially during the party scenes, the effect really is something like, “Oh, those clothes really would be worn by real people.”

About the only memorable tune in the thing is the instantly recognizeable ear-worm “Thank You Very Much”, which gets some startling use the first time it shows up – a bit of black comedy one doesn’t quite expect but which very much works – and sets up the later reprise quite well also.

I’m not sure it’s quite a Christmas classic but it definitely invites a re-watch or several.

Ideas & Stories Part 4 – All Men

Part 0
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

In the previous most recent part of this series, I discussed the groundwork for re-asserting a view that in human fairs family must be the primary consideration and form in which to interpret the legitimacy of human activities and political structures. Yet this seems to conflict with the statement, taken in some form to be dogma by virtually every form of American politics today, “All men are created equal.” But – here we run into the problem that that phrase itself is, to some extent, an equivocation. There were unresolved tensions even as it was written.

While tacitly accepting the theoretical validity of that postulate, almost anyone today finds some shortcomings – at a minimum in its realization, but also in the actions of the men who approved it in the Declaration of Independence, and commonly even in the words it was written in. Without getting too far into the weeds, I am going to list some of the – at times competing – connotations bound up, even at the time of its publishing, with that phrase. This is merely those things that seem evident to my limited knowledge of the period: an expert could no doubt improve the list or even divide it differently.

1. Local Self-Government. The nature of the rest of the Declaration suggests that “all men” should be taken to mean something like “each self-recognizing independent society”. Not in quite those terms Jefferson does write that the colonies desired “to assume… [a] separate and equal station”, that is, the Declaration recognizes a change in status taking place – first claimed, and in the event then proved in war. Government is in the next paragraph claimed to be “the right of the people”, but not individual persons; but “the People” are seen not as all subjects of the British crown but particularly those American people represented by their Congress who authorized the Declaration. The key to this image is the fascination of the Founders with the Mediterranean city-states of antiquity.

2. Each Person. The English tradition of militating for civil rights; the Christian and especially Protestant insistence on individual conversion; the Enlightenment cogito: each of these and likely other influences can be linked to a strong – if often theoretical – insistence on the dignity and independence (ideally) of the individual, not on grounds of family or nation or accomplishment or anything but a common humanity. I think from the modern point of view it is easier to view this as more influential than it in fact appeared at the time but the influence of Locke and others cannot be denied.

3. All Free Men. It is evident historically that the American Founders for the most part would have expected – whether on theoretical, theological, or habitual grounds – some persons to take part in the governing of society and some not to. The ways this division can be represented are numerous, and – I want to emphasize – that it represents injustice inherently is not always clear. The contrast of the free man to a slave is obvious; but I also include in this category property owners compared to renters; recognized citizens compared to non-citizens; and, speaking generally, any rules put in place that state such-and-such a changeable status must be secured to participate in the government.

4. All Males. Because of the natural authority of fathers, monarchies and aristocracies (or if we wish to be less complimentary, oligarches) have generally tended to be male, with women holding a minority of these positions of authority in the historical record. The democratic ideal militates against this: but it is clear enough that few – indeed, hardly clear that any – of the Founders were advocates for pure democracy, however essential it seems to the modern world. In any case – even setting aside active suppressions of female involvment in politics – the mental habits and practical expectation would have been a continuation of a male-dominated, if not male-only political classes Europe would have been most familiar with.

5. All Whites. It is not clear that “race” had developed, at the time of the War for Independence, into the theoretical construct we would recognize today, or which we read defenses of even sixty years later. But the conditions – primarily America’s native tribes or nations being pushed away from land claimed by the colonies, and enslavement and trade mainly in Africans for the benefit of those descended from Europeans – which would harden into the next centuries’ racial theories were already practically in place.

Where the first two categories I outline here seem to me to illustrate the theoretical tensions, the later three cannot be forgotten as habits of thought. I have left out, but not forgotten, the idea of the head of household or head of a family, not because I think it was truly ignored, but because I think it was to some extent an assumption so used to being taken for granted socially that it seems to me to have been overlooked practically – not that I am an expert on the period. To the extent it had separate political import, that seems to me to have been very little, because of the social or legal assumptions that such a head would be male; but I am not actually familiar with the laws of the period themselves.

One could no doubt break down the possible connotations further. My point here is that the Founders had, to varying degrees of detail, considered these claims: but they had not resolved them, historically speaking, and certainly they were not prepared to treat particular conclusions as absolute principles. The Constitution in fact left citizenry to the states, and pushed even the end of the slave trade out to a convenient-seeming deadline which primarily served to further establish a more or less clearly delineated slave population. American political crises have been created mainly as the country seeks to resolve these conflicts.

Review: Paprika English Dub

I decided this year that I would use my Spring Break to, among other things, watch all of the movies I own but have never watched. Since people give me them and I really don’t watch many movies, they stack up a bit.

This is not one of them. Paprika, Satoshi Kon’s animated masterpiece exploring themes of dream, reality, control, and maturity, is one of my favorite films. However, I’d never taken the time to watch the dub, so this is a quick note by way of preface to the actual project. (No plot spoilers ahead: some references to characters is made.)

Overall I thought the dub was fine. My chief complaint is that it provides explicit interpretations here and there where the subtitled form – and, I assume, the original Japanese – leaves implications to be drawn out by the viewer. Sometimes this results from differences in the translations, but there are also additional lines or at least phrases here and there.

Some of the differences seems inexplicable: why “line of action” (subtitle) but “action line” (dub)? (And while the concept makes sense – it’s explained as the imaginary line between camera and subject – neither phrase seems to be, on a quick web search, the term actually used in English.) Other differences seem like there’s a probable explanation, but the choice might not be justified. For example, the (friendly) criticism of a character’s weight is, “It’s not the outside the counts, but there’s a limit to that too,” in the subtitles, which sounds like a proverb. The dub has something like, “…but there’s a lot of your outside,” which makes me suspect the Japanese proverb also has a pun the dubber was trying to capture or replicate. I don’t speak Japanese myself; I admit a preference for the subtitled line, with its possibility of varied applications.

One thing the dub emphasizes in contrast to the subtitles is the maturity theme, simply because of the voices (or accents) chosen for the characters. This I suspect was replicating the original Japanese voice-acting, which hadn’t quite registered the same way. The “childlike” side of Tokita is really brought out more by the dub, as is the insufficiency of the Paprika alter-ego. For instance, her response, “Run?” to a threat near the end came off previous (watching only subtitles) as a sort of humorous only-option-left; the effect in the dub more brings out he out of her depth the situation is.

I don’t know how directly Kon was involved with the dub. I suspect not very closely, because as noted above it does seem to draw with much harder lines where Kon – both stylistically and particularly in this film – tends to leave things blurred, and up to the viewer’s interpretation of his implications and suggestion. I’m also not sure how closely they consulted native English speakers: there are certainly lines here and there which sound odd to my ear, without obviously being attempts to capture cultural connotations, and the approach to nicknames and honorifics feels a little uneven.

I don’t watch many dubbed films – honestly, many foreign films at all – so it’s hard to say how it ranks as a dub. It certainly captures the overall tone of the film: you are watching the same movie, so on that count it’s a success. I’ve listed above virtually every quibble I had with the translation. I don’t know how I’d rank the film if I’d seen only the dub: not likely as a favorite, simply because the occasional auditory oddity takes me out of the story a little – but it’s still quite good.

Review: The Brothers Karamazov

Earlier this year I undertook to re-read Dostoyevkey’s rather long novel. In theory I had gotten through it before, although it took a few tries, so I knew what I was getting into and I took precautions: I made sure I would in fact read it within a month or so, and made sure to get from the library the newer translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, rather than attempt the slog through the older one again. As a matter of fact I had virtually no recollection of the text after the first hundred pages or so.

The book remains a puzzle. The beginning is a terrible bore; the end is a terrible muddle; and the events in the middle are simply terrible. The story is – as the introduction suggests – clearly unfinished at the end of this one volume, which makes it hard to judge where the plot might have gone next, but this is then the only judgment to pass on the novel: incomplete.

The opening third of the book seems to set up a philosophical contrast. The elder Zosima with his advice of love and humility, to – in the more Biblical phrase – carry other people’s burdens, to consider oneself a sinner, the sinner, is contrasted with Ivan’s proud supposal in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor that in organizing society a class of overlords could carry sin, could take away guilt, from the masses. As a protest against God, Ivan’s description of the suffering of children is much more effective; placing his Inquisitor knowingly in the presence of Christ the claims of saving society amount to blasphemy, a claim that men could do what the Christian faith says Jesus has done already.

But it is hard to see how this in any way relates to the actual plot, such as it is; and in contrast to either philosophy’s grand intentions, Zosima’s disciple Alyosha accomplishes nothing of note, while Ivan for all his posturing can only be said to flee impending unpleasantness. One could perhaps wonder from the ending whether Dostoyevsky was preparing or implying something like the parable of the two brothers – the one who claimed obedience and did nothing, while the other who refused his duty actually carried it out.

On this point is rather obscured in the actual plot – by “plot” I mean the things that happen, as opposed to merely being talked about: jealousy, murder, flight, guilt, arrest, trial. Dostoyesky tells it rather well, only this is where things are left unfinished. Alyosha’s side-quests – well, one doesn’t expect all parts of a real life to fit together neatly, but other than the fact that Dostoyevsky’s narrator has decided to tell about a whole family it’s rather unclear what they have to do with anything, and if two brothers get such detailed treatment of their activities why not the third? It’s all rather tangled to contemplate.

In tone, half the book one gets details of thought and conversation but nothing happens – even things that do “happen” are buried under the tide of philosophic reflections; while in the other half – the half, or not quite, in the middle – lots of things happen with virtually no comment at all. The book is not quite the one thing or the other, and leaves the reader confused. None of the main characters are admirable, but their vices are too petty to themselves to pitiable to be really villainous. The philosophy is unclear and in any case lies dead on the page. Other than an account of what we’d mostly like life to really not be like – despite a creeping suspicion it often is – it’s not clear to me what exactly one is supposed to get out of this book.

President Trump, Part 1: The Democrats’ Failure

No observer of President Trump’s habits and character could be surprised to find him the chief architect of his own political undoing in 2020. More perplexing to most observers would the question how he came to be in a position where he was virtually the only person who could have gotten in his own way. Admittedly it is not necessarily accepted that he was in such a position: but I believe such a case can be made, at least about Trump’s position after surviving the first impeachment against him.

The role of the Republican party in strengthening Trump’s position is obvious and not particularly interesting, as it mostly consisted of doing nothing and letting Trump “lead”. In fact the failure of a Republican-controlled Congress for two years – with the Senate majority maintained longer – to do anything of consequence at all is in my opinion a greater practical failure than virtual anything President Trump did or did not do.

By it is also the case that the Democratic party played a role in strengthening Trump’s hand. The strategic errors made in the 2016 election have been much discussed: primarily the appearance that was created of gaming the party process to ensure Clinton won the nomination, and then the Clinton campaign’s decision to, if not outright ignore, at least not take seriously certain surprise battleground states. Trump’s base of support as a candidate was surprising, but intelligent practice of politics must account for the situation that obtains.

The role of the Democratic platform is difficult to criticize directly, as the casual observer can hardly sort intentional party strategy from media coverage largely favorable to its main tenets. The image of the party, due to those twin influences, however, is calculated to create resentment, because it appears to emphasize social disruption and casting blame – legitimate media roles where social faults exist – over actually addressing problems, which a political party must at least pretend to do.

When that agenda majors on abortion, encouragement of sexual perversion, and vocal if admittedly not much practiced calls for stifling regulation of business – all while letting the major corporations that provide platforms for online discourse roam unsupervised – the more traditional America is horrified. A vague worship of northern Europe’s successful form of democratic socialism that would have no legal ground in the United States’ Constitution without significant amendments – on top of a century of vaguely socialistic programs enacted in defiance of said document and combined with a wilful ignorance of, or failure to repudiate, socialism’s and communism’s disaster stories and fanatical excesses – is hardly better. American history, in contrast, appears to be mentioned by Democrats only in the negative – the occasional appeals to vilify Republican actions as unworthy of the Constitution they generally so blithely ignore is calculated to create no reaction but bitter laughter.

The Democratic-friendly media attempt to make a slogan out of “resist”, unaware that overall media political leanings make the Democrats appear nearly ascendant even when they are out of power, was mostly just funny – especially when their choice not to deal really was a choice. President Trump’s agenda was not entirely in line with recent Republican posturing; support, compromise, would have been rewarded had a few Democrats crossed the line. I don’t say President Trump did any better in making his attempts to deal attractive to Democrats than the Democrats have done making their party attractive to Trump’s supporters. But if the mafia don’s deal is refused, nothing is left but, to save face, humiliating the opposition: and it was quickly apparent Democrats would major on opposition to President Trump far more than they would contest any issue on its merits: a sort of negative of the Republican party’s failure.

All of this could be excused. All of this could even, ignoring my own views, be considered a moral stand of sorts. What is most difficult to explain is the ineptness of the Democratic opposition. To highlight that ineptness, consider the impeachments against Trump.

Yes, impeachments, because President Trump was eventually impeached, twice. He was not convicted the first time, and I have significant doubts whether enough senators will prove comfortable with the idea of convicting a person no longer in office for it to happen on the second try. But what were the charges? Well, first of all, here are some of the things Trump was not impeached for:

  • President Trump was not impeached for attempting to create a “Space Force” on his own initiative – which reportedly got the Pentagon to start drafting plans for such a thing. The organization of the military is the responsibility of Congress: this could easily be construed as a usurpation. Perhaps most people were thought unlikely to care, and articles of impeachment would have been thought too transparently motivated; but then, the eventual impeachment hardly scores better on those criteria. It is not entirely clear to me whether Congress eventually giving the thing some sort of formal backing makes the situation better or worse.
  • President Trump was not impeached for abusing a national emergency order to access military funds which were reappropriated to build his pet border wall. There is little doubt that the handling of immigration at the southern border could be considered an emergency, even if President Biden has decided to retract the order rather than take advantage of it to promulgate his own solutions, and even if a swath of judges seemed at times more interested in rulings that would create problems and frustrate Trump than they did in meeting demands of either law or justice, not that President Trump seemed to care that much about the conditions suffered by those enduring his emergency either. The emergency may have been legitimate: the transparent abuse of process, hardly. But then, securing conviction seems impossible: Trump’s defense would certainly – if he could have kept his temper – have been that he was pursuing the means he thought best to address the situation, and a precedent of impeachment for bad judgment seems like it would find little favor.
  • President Trump was not impeached for pardoning convicted and alleged war criminals. This received about two days’ worth of media attention, is indefensible, and is certainly an abuse of authority. But perhaps it broke no laws – beyond making a joke of the military’s own due process, which could hardly endear him to anyone who takes our military virtue seriously – and the case would be too hard to argue.

It’s entirely possible there are other instances I missed, but any of these seems at least of worthy of condemination than what actually happened. The articles of impeachment that were eventually brought against Trump a little over a year ago had, nominally, to do with attempting to pressure a foreign power to investigate a connection of a political opponent; which is disreputable, but – and here is what the Democrats missed – “everybody knows” politics is a load of dirty money and dirty laundry. If there was a misdeed less likely to turn opinion against Trump, I can’t think of it – especially when circumstantial evidence suggests Hunter Biden’s connections wouldn’t stand scrutiny themselves, the Democrat-led process was hardly squeaky-clean, and Trump’s threat to withhold aid was never followed through on.

Now, had President Trump made enough enemies in the Senate that conviction could be secured, the case would have been a good one for the Democrats to pursue: the conviction would publicly throw the “swamp” back in Trump’s face, implicitly secure Biden’s reputation from public derrogation, and, of course, remove President Trump from office. But the combination of Republican stonewalling and Democratic attacks – sometimes verging on slander – had made that impracticable. It’s not that Trump seems likely to actually have been innocent, mind: merely that the case was neither chosen nor handled in such a manner as to create certainty of guilt and stain senators irrevocably should they demur from conviction.

The second impeachment is in some ways more appalling still. President Trump certainly ought to have been impeached after the election, when he was discovered, on a recorded phone call, soliciting for a fraudulent election count. He was even recorded giving a specific number of votes to be found! After all the hyperbolic warnings about possible fraud by others, the public relations gain the Democrats could have made by parading this hypocrisy around dwarfs anything they might have gotten from success last year and a one-year Pence presidency. What, after all, could the Senate say in defence? And what could the Republicans in the Senate do the stonewall on a charge that obvious? And, reputation after standing behind Trump for four years and then having to convict being what it would be, how likely is it the GOP would stand up to really resist any but the most far-fetched Democratic proposals, for quite a while at least?

Instead, the second impeachment depended on taking the most negative view of a couple tweets. A precedent that implies politicians should refrain from encouraging protests of perceived injustice, or that implies politicians who do so will be held personally accountable for any rioting that ensues, is chilling – and would condemn a huge number of politicians over the unrest last year, if the principle were carried out consistently.

It is also telling that the reaction to President Trump’s alleged encouragement of insurrection was first to threaten, not impeachment, but instead abuse of a constitutional amendment meant to provide for conduct of the presidency’s business in case of illness. This impeachment was the results of Democrats being unable to bully others into doing Congress’s work for them. The impeachment process certainly takes longer, but it suggests an agenda more interested in trying to implicate Vice-President Pence in removing President Trump – and thus get Pence out of favor with Trump’s base – than one interested in seeing the law followed or justice done.

The Democrats agenda, while at least openly proclaimed, is not carryingly popular. This calls for a scrupulous honesty to win further support and deflect criticism, or successful villification of opponents: but they failed to put a dent in President Trump’s support by attacking him directly, because their motivations appeared to be those of resentment rather than principle; and their methods seem as venal as his.

In a country plagued by non-participation in elections, Democratic efforts did eventually create enough interest to remove Trump from office by election; but it can hardly be said that the number of those willing to support Trump was diminished in any way. Of the support that did fall away, much of it was surely motivated by Republican inaction, as sketched above – and by Trump’s own failures of character and control, which I will discuss in part two.

Two Notes in Response to Today’s Rioting

America

In my American history textbooks, and I assume still today, it was noted with some pride that John Adams’ inauguration marked a peaceful transition of non-hereditary power in a context which made that – leaving aside the technically inaccurate superlatives these things accumulate – truly remarkable. Although I doubt President Trump quite anticipated the protests today would take the turn they did, his encouragement of the protestors and refusal even now to be more conciliatory than a request to withdraw from the Capitol makes it hard to say that tradition continues – arguably for the first time: even the Southern secessionists, as far as I am aware, let the Union states’ governmental functions continue uninterrupted. That’s an historical event and stain that will attach – whatever the other circumstances – to President Trump and his supporters, not his opponents.

The Church

The Reformed churches – I am speaking here as a Reformed layman – have generally taught the doctrine of the “lesser magistrate”, both in eccelsiastical and civil affairs. Although it’s most often invoked – at least in American circles – to justify defiance of wicked or tyrannical orders, it has its second edge, which is that there is no right of the private person to defy the magistracy as a whole. The layperson is not entitled to form his own church or to fight the civil authorities: the conscientious objector must accept civil penalties imposed or at most flee. No responsible authority appealed to has deigned to object to the election results as counted; no authority I am aware of, even those who supported the right of protestors to continue to appeal for further investigations, supports the attack on the US Capitol building and the Congress’s certification session – including the President who continues to cast doubt on those results. No reporting I am seeing indicates that any civil officials have orchestrated or helped organize – let alone regulate – the incident. Reformed theology is generous to a certain class of rebels, but theologically, today’s proceedings must be considered unlawful.* The exact term can be sorted out by the lawyers.

Ideas & Stories Part 3 – More than Individualism

In previous posts in this series I have commented on the remarkable fact that both “conservatives” and “progressives” prefer their own idealisms to dealing with actual problems. I discussed some of the moral principles I’ve inherited, and how this tended to focus my political attention initially. Now I have reached the real point of this exercise, which is to explain how I came to find those morals and habits not incorrect but to some extent insufficient.

In my junior or senior yeat of college – I no longer remember which – I discovered that my college library had a set of the complete works of G. K. Chesterton: twenty-six volumes in all, if I recall correctly. I decided that I would attempt to read the entire collection, an endeavor in which I came up short, merely getting through six or seven volumes before I was distracted by other things such as friends, activities, my actual coursework, and so on.

Chesterton was for the majority of his literary career some kind of distributist – a vision more humane than communism, but sharing with it a somewhat too-hopeful view of the chances of getting rid of the state apparatus which would have to be constructed first to redistribute current wealth. Thus far my commentary in passing. However, in his goals for society I had been used to finding Chesterton mainly sensible, and Marxism by reputation mainly not. It was thus a surprise to find, in an essay in one of these volumes, Chesterton using language that recalled nothing so much as Marx’s dictum, “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”

Now it is evident on only brief reflection that this statement, whatever its origins or associations, is in fact a succinct summary of the necessary goals of any society which has justice in mind. I remember thinking at the time with some amusement that dorm life had a certain communistic element to it, with the uniformity of accomodations, the relative ease of using or borrowing between rooms and residents, and the student resident advisors. Or perhaps more socialist, because the dorms did have college supervision, and existed only in relation to the college – and like most socialism, the college is not a self-sustaining community but is found to depend on a greater context and is an exercise, to some extent, in piling up debt.

Still, I want to emphasize by finding this passage where Chesterton – an authority acknowledged by my upbringing – seemed to echo Marx, this opened up a new way of considering society and especially government. It is evident the serious socialist errs in trying to micromanage the correct “abilities” and “needs” of all individuals; but it is – when the reflection is allowed – doubtful whether government’s origins can be found only in a need “to secure these rights”.

Two brief comments here: First, I once read a book arguing, as I understood it, that through the early years of the United States the Constitution was held more important, as a statement of principles, than the Declaration of Independence, which was looked at mainly as a piece of legalese. I am not qualified to comment on this thesis and don’t in any case recall the book. Second, in yet another forgotten book, I found the comment that the Greek citizen considered his “freedom” to be not mainly individual liberty, but to be maintained to the extent that his community – the city-state – maintained her independent status.

If society’s only legitimate organizing force, however, is the government, and social concerns are more than just maintenance of negative rights, this falls back more or less into socialism. But the ideals I had absorbed were more or less individualistic – and in a society of individuals, society or individual must take precedence at any given point.

The answer I might have realized I already had found, if I had remembered, in Chesterton. No person exists as an isolated individual – no person ever had, save Adam and him only briefly – but instead in family. A person has a mother, father – likely siblings; eventually most marry (or not) and the family continues to the new generation. In the scheme of things, individuals and nations both pass away, but through families most of all the business of humanity continues. Now, I was forced into this realization through an argument with a friend who would instead maintain the interests of the individual as naturally primary: but I might have seen it before.

Commentary

In my quest to read the books I own that I haven’t read yet, I’ve made my way to Will Durant’s 1939 The Life of Greece, a tome of the history of ancient Greece. I’m unsure how some of his details – nevermind his inclination to give the Greeks’ own classical historians as much creedence as possible – hold up to more modern scholarship, but the outline looks familiar enough. Durant clearly holds to the dictum that historical events are there to learn from: the following selections come from his account of the rise of Athens’ democracy.

Hesiod

“Hesiod, with rough candor, shows us the ugly farmers upon whose toil rested all the splendor and war [and?] sport of the aristocracy and the kings. Homer sang of heroes and princes for lords and ladies; Hesiod knew no princes, but sang his lays of common men, and pitched his tune accordingly. In his verses we hear the rumblings of those peasant revolts that would produce in Attica the reforms of Solon and the dictatorship of Peisistratus.”

Quirks of Language

“In [southern Boeotia] once lived an insignificant tribe, the Graii, who joined the Euboeans in sending a colony to Cumae, near Naples; from them the Romans gave to all the Hellenes… the name Graici, Greeks; and from that circumstance all the world came to know Hellas by a term which its own inhabitants never applied to themselves.”

Tourism Old and New

“The traveler entering Attica from eastern Boeotia would come first to Oropus… a frontier town as terrifying to the tourist as any such today. ‘Oropus,’ says Dicaearchus about 300 B.C., ‘is a nest of hucksters. The greed of the customhouse officials here is unsurpassed… Most of the people are coarse and truculent in their manners, for the have knocked the decent members of the community on the head.'”

Motives

“As in Sparta and Rome, so in Athens the overthrow of the monarchy represented not a victory for the commons, or any intentional advance towards democracy, but a recapture of mastery by a feudal aristocracy…”

Draco

“…[Draco] attached to his laws penalties so drastic that after most of his legislation had been superseded by Solon’s he was remembered for his punishments rather than his laws. Draco’s code congealed the cruel customs of an unregulated feudalism: it did nothing to relieve debtors [sold into] slavery, or to mitigate the exploitation of the weak by the strong; and… it left to the Eupatrid [aristocratic] class full control of the courts, and the power to interpret… all laws…

“The poor, finding their situation worse with each year… began to talk of a violent revolt, and a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth. The rich, unable any longer to collect the debts legally due them… prepared to defend themselves by force against a mob that seemed to threaten not only property but all established… civilization.”

Solon

“[Solon] disappointed the extreme radicals by making no move to redivide the land… But by his famous Seisachtheia, or Removal of Burdens, Solon canceled, says Aristotle, ‘all existing debts…’ …and cleared Attic lands of all mortgages. All persons enslaved or [enserfed] for debt were released…

“Solon [began] with an act of amnesty freeing or restoring all persons who had been jailed or banished for political offenses short of trying to usurp the government. … It was in itself a revolution that the laws of Solon were applied without distinction to all freemen…

“Invited to make himself a permanent dictator he refused, saying that dictatorship was ‘a very fair spot, but the was no way down from it.’ Radicals criticized him for failing to establish equality of possessions and power; conservatives denounced him for admitting the commons to the franchise and the courts… He [had] followed the mean and preserved the state…

“Legally his work marks… the beginning of government [in Greece] by written and permanent law. Asked what made an orderly and well-constituted state, he replied, ‘When the people obey the rulers, and the rulers obey the laws.'” …[T]he establishment of a peasant proprietor class [in] ownership of the soil made the little armies of Athens suffice to preserve her liberties for many generations.”

Aside

Durant, recounting the legend of Solon’s advice to Croesus, translates the Greek hubris – in his transliteration “hybris” – with the remarkable turn of phrase “insolent prosperity”. The phenomenon – whether it properly accounts for the Greek term – is undeniable; conclusions are here left as an exercise for the reader.

Peisistratus

“…[T]he Assembly voted that Peisistratus should be allowed a force of fifty men. Peisistratus collected four hundred men instead of fifty, seized the Acropolis, and declared a dictatorship. Solon [] published to the Athenians his opinion that ‘each man of you, individually, walketh with the tread of a fox, but collectively ye are geese,’ … [and] resign[ed] his interest in politics…

“The wealthy [factions] of the Shore and the Plain… expelled the dictator. But Peisistratus… re-entered Athens under circumstances that seemed to corroborate Solon’s judgment of the collective intelligence. A tall and beautful woman…. costume[d as] Athena… led the forces of Peisistratus into the city, while heralds announced that the patron deity of Athens was herself restoring him to power.”

“…[T]he wisdom of [Peisistratus’] policies almost redeemed the [] unscrupulousness of his means. … He made few reprisals… He improved the army and built up the fleet… but he kept Athens out of war…

“Archons were elected as usual, and the Assembly and the popular courts, the Council of Four Hundred and the Senate of the Areopagus met and functioned as before, except that the suggestions of Peisistratus found a very favorable hearing. … When… the dictatorship was removed, these habits of order and the framework of Solon’s constitution remained as a heritage for democracy. …

“He gave employment to the needy by undertaking extensive public works… To finance these undertakings he laid [a new] tax… The poor were made less poor, the rich not less rich. The concentration of wealth which had nearly torn the city into civil war was brought under control…

“[N]ew buildings of stone and marble reflected the radiance of the day… By establishing the Panathenaic games… Peisistratus brought to his city not honor only, but the stimulus of foreign faces, competition, and ways… A committee appointed by him gave to the Iliad and the Odyssey the form in which we know them.”

In Context

“The ‘tyranny’ of Peisistratus was part of a general movement… to replace [] feudal rule… with the political dominance of the middle class in temporary alliance with the poor. Such dictatorships were brought on by the pathological concentration of wealth, and the inability of the wealthy to agree on a compromise. …[T]he only political freedom capable of enduring is one that is so pruned as to keep the rich from denuding the poor by ability or subtlely and the poor from robbing the rich by violence or votes.”

Cleisthenaic Coda

“The Athenians were not quite pleased to see the leadership of the state pass down without their consent to the young Peisistratids, and began to realize that the dictatorship had give them everything but the stimulus of freedom. …Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who had conspired [against Peisistratus’ son Hippias] for [] passion rather than for democracy, were transformed by popular imagination into the martyrs of liberty. …

“The [banished] Alcmaeonid [aristocrats], led by [] Cleisthenes, entered Athens in triumph… Cleisthenes.. set up a popular dictatorship… [then] proceeded to establish democracy. …

“The democracy was not complete; it applied only to freemen, and still placed a modest property limitation upon eligibility to individual office. But it gave all legislative, executive, and judicial power to an Assembly and a Court composed of the citizens, to magistrat[es] appointed by and responsible to the Assembly, and to a Council for whose members all citizens might vote, and… by the operation of the lot, [in which] at least one third of them actually [participated] for at least a year of their lives.”

On Stating the Obvious

Several years ago, students I was teaching at the time asked that I try not to connect thoughts with words like “obviously” and “of course”. It wasn’t, they said, that they doubted the logical connection of one idea to the next, but that, from their perspective, these were not “obvious” connections but new ones. These students felt that my using these phrases made it hard to ask questions or seek clarification, because they implied these concepts, despite being new, shouldn’t need further explanation and the students were somehow unsatisfactory themeselves as if they did not understand immediately.

Put in these terms, my students’ case made good sense. In fact, I would even say it made obvious good sense – with the understanding, in using the word here, that in this situation I am actually the one learning, and so better able to tell whether a claim is “obvious” or not. I have attempted – with varying success – to avoid these phrases and others with similar implications when possible in the classroom.

In the school, the teacher has an institutional authority, which is not always used wisely. In other contexts, an attempt to provide an explanation or correction by its very nature is a claim to a similar authority. So, in those contexts as well, the goal in assuming such an authority is not to parade your own superiority, but to make those things you already know become obvious to those you address. I have offered an anecdote here to demonstrate how even normally harmless words can hinder such attempts to communicate. It is always our responsibility to watch our words carefully, but this is especially true when attempting to instruct others.