28 July 2006 - Friday


In a few hours, I will be heading toward my new grad-student life. I'll have some Internet access along the way, but I probably won't be able to post anything here for many days. In the meantime, please remember to check out the thirty-sixth History Carnival, which Laura James will host at Clews The Historic True Crime Blog on 1 August.

Until next time!

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

-- a certain hobbit

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26 July 2006 - Wednesday

Strange searches

Borrowing an idea from Parableman ....

spem whale
According to Google, only 476 spem whales still exist on the Web. I'm happy to do my part to raise awareness.

"italians are the most"
I've always said so.

modern literature ha
Well, I suppose you are entitled to your opinion.

"needs of the many" -"star trek"
I imagine you are thinking of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, or perhaps III: The Search for Spock. But I've said too much already.

euphemisms of dumbbell
Muscle capability enhancer, maybe?

funny metaphors to explain organizational behavior
Lemmings. Drinking the Kool-Aid. Chattel slavery. Congress.

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25 July 2006 - Tuesday

Reading list

The American Bar Association presents the strange history of the presidential signing statement. The current chief executive has issued more than all of his predecessors combined.

Umberto Eco, reviewing a book by Paul Collins, recounts some "outlandish theories that were taken seriously for a long time" -- especially various hollow earth theories -- which, he says, remind him to "distrust many ideas that are accorded full credence in the media, and even in some scientific circles." I wonder what he has in mind. (HT: A&LD)

Christianity Today is watching the war in Israel and Lebanon, running a series of articles from a range of perspectives. Botrus Mansour, for example, is an Arab Christian living in Nazareth.

In the third installment of his series on academic history, Jason Kuznicki explains why you shouldn't go to grad school.

On a more cheerful note, if you haven't visited Today in Alternate History yet, you really should.

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23 July 2006 - Sunday


So far, I have packed four boxes of books, each box weighing 20 to 50 pounds. I anticipate filling another three or four boxes. That represents only a fraction of my library, but I am being picky. Complete Works of X takes priority over Selected Works; anthologies beat individual compositions; primary literature trumps secondary literature; and scholarly writing sweeps all else from the field. I want no dead weight on the shelves of my new home.

Oddly enough, leaving behind so many books is cathartic. It serves as yet another visible and reassuring sign of growing up; I can trace all of the volumes left on my bedroom shelves to specific earlier phases of my life. Many of these abandoned books will be useful to me again someday, but for now, most of them are barely even interesting as a distraction. I did not expect to find the separation so pleasing -- like losing baby teeth, getting a new backpack, or outgrowing a favorite shirt.

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21 July 2006 - Friday

A permanent state of mutual self-defense

"I don't approve of mixing ideologies," Ivanov continued. "There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, and declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community -- which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality.

"Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible. Whoever is burdened with power and responsibility finds out on the first occasion that he has to choose; and he is fatally driven to the second alternative. Do you know, since the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, a single example of a state which really followed a Christian policy? You can't point out one. In times of need -- and politics are chronically in a time of need -- the rulers were always able to evoke 'exceptional circumstances,' which demanded exceptional measures of defence. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defence, which forces them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism. ..."

-- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940, trans. Daphne Hardy)

The novel is based on the Moscow Trials, in which leading original Bolsheviks were purged by Stalin's regime. In this scene, Ivanov is a cynical interrogator trying to persuade a prisoner (the "sacrificial lamb") to confess for the good of the state.

I find this scene intriguing because in the irony of Ivanov's soliloquy, the author may be trying to do one of two different things. Perhaps the author agrees with his character that a mixture is impossible, and therefore is arguing for absolutely deontological and individualistic ethics; or perhaps he agrees with his character that deontological ethics cannot be implemented consistently, and so is arguing that there must be a mixture of ethical principles in government.

In the former case, the passage would be thoroughly moralistic, libertarian, and pacifistic. In the latter case, the passage would be an argument not as much for individual rights as against inflexible ideology. (Either way, of course, the author rejects Ivanov's absolute consequentialism and statism.)

Given what I know of Koestler's life, and given the paradoxical title of the novel (it was Zero and Infinity in France), I am inclined toward the latter interpretation.

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20 July 2006 - Thursday

Reading list

Brandon Watson summarizes the case presented by George Campbell, a Scottish minister, against the rebellion of the American colonies.

At Ship of Fools, Stephen Tomkins writes a series of amusing biographical (and occasionally apocryphal) articles called "Loose Canons: Golden Moments from the Pages of Church History."

Dr. History has some useful-looking advice for first-year history graduate students.

Matthew Yglesias likens American adventurists to the Green Lantern Corps -- "capable of achieving anything if only we have sufficient will." (HT: VI)

Etgar Keret explains why the current conflict has some Israelis feeling relieved: "'It's a real war, eh?' And after taking a long breath, he added nostalgically, 'Just like in the old days.'" (HT: TAS)

And Hiram Hover has prepared the seventh Carnival of Bad History. Loads of fun!

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Dusting off the pundit hat

Are Israel's recent actions just?

I have mixed opinions. After a few days of consideration, I believe that attacking targets in Gaza and Lebanon is justifiable; that is, a case can be made that it meets the minimal requirements of just war theory. Both Hamas and Hezbollah were committing acts of war against Israel, and both represent continuing threats to Israeli citizens. The only way to accept the validity of either's struggle against Israel is to deny Israel's right to exist -- which denial would be a legal and moral as well as a factual fantasy. Therefore, Hamas and Hezbollah are waging a war for unjust ends -- and furthermore, they are using manifestly unjust means; both groups are guilty of deliberately and consistently targeting civilians for death. (I sympathize with Derek Catsam and Jason Kuznicki. It is clear which side has chosen war and theocracy over peace and liberalism.) While Israel is killing civilians as well, I have seen no evidence that it is targeting them, though Hezbollah and Hamas often blend in with the noncombatant population and use its infrastructure. And I think there is a "reasonable chance" of Israeli success, in the sense that one can imagine retaliation saving many lives that would be endangered by total Hamas and Hezbollah impunity.

But a just war is not about killing guilty people. It's about protecting innocent people. So even if going to war is otherwise justifiable, it may not be wise in the long run. That distinction is lost on our hawks and adventurists, who may appeal to just war criteria but who seem to have little respect for unintended consequences.

I am not convinced that the Israeli attacks, as they are being conducted now, are wise, especially in Gaza. Hamas was an exceptionally weak government, but now the Israeli assault seems to be increasing Hamas' popularity and strength among Palestinians. I am afraid that Israel has interrupted and discredited the efforts of non-Hamas moderates like Abbas. Furthermore, the fact that Israel has responded to the capture of its soldier by killing civilians (even if in a "collateral" way) tends to blur the distinction between legitimate military operations and the terroristic targeting of noncombatants -- a distinction that I believe must be kept as clear as possible if there is to be any hope for the region. ... I say this despite recognizing that the unintented deaths of innocents do not automatically render a war unjust. I insist, however, that the political consequences of such deaths must be weighed.

I think Israel actually has a better case in Lebanon. Hezbollah is a more distinct military threat; that is, it is possible to imagine Hezbollah fighters and weaponry being isolated and neutralized, which seems unlikely to happen to the many terror groups in Palestine. The endgame in Lebanon is easier to visualize. (I think the rescue of the captured Israeli soldiers is unlikely though not impossible in either location.) On the other hand, the campaign may be increasing Lebanese public support for Hezbollah, and it may threaten the fragile Lebanese government, both of which could actually turn southern Lebanon into a worse threat to Israel.

Many Americans believe that any failure to respond to terrorism (or perhaps even the possibility of terrorism) with force amounts to appeasement. What we tend to forget is that terrorists often seem to want their victims to respond with force. Military retaliation tends to bring more attention to the terrorists, reinforce the state of fear, and create public resentment of the stronger power in other countries. When innocent Palestinians and Lebanese die as "collateral damage," their friends and neighbors often rally against those who killed them. Nothing boosts support for Hamas more than the funeral of a child killed by an Israeli missile.

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19 July 2006 - Wednesday

Movies galore

This one was sort of started by Jared.

1. A movie that made you cry

Schindler's List.

2. A movie that scared you

Secret Window.

3. A movie that made you laugh


4. A movie that disgusted you

I got tricked into watching The Great McGonagall late one night. It's disgusting in the "95-minutes-of-my-life-I'll-never-get-back" sort of way.

5. A movie you loved in elementary school

Swiss Family Robinson.

6. A movie you loved in middle school

That Darn Cat!

7. A movie you loved in high school

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

8. A movie you loved in college

Fiddler on the Roof.

9. A movie that challenged your identity or your faith

Wild Strawberries.

10. A series that you love

The Godfather, parts I and II.

11. Your favorite horror

I don't really watch horror; the nearest match is probably something by Hitchcock.

12. Your favorite science-fiction

Dr. Strangelove. I say it counts, especially if Star Wars does (I insist that the latter is fantasy, not sci-fi).

13. Your favorite fantasy

The Lord of the Rings.

14. Your favorite mystery

The Third Man would be a good choice.

15. Your favorite biography

Lawrence of Arabia.

16. Your favorite coming-of-age

Such a depressing genre. Would you balk at Hamlet?

17. Your favorite not on this list

Casablanca? Citizen Kane? Apocalypse Now? Chicken Run? There are too many. Go away.

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15 July 2006 - Saturday

History Carnival 35

The thirty-fifth History Carnival is up at Air Pollution. But I'm too tired to link any specific entries tonight.

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14 July 2006 - Friday

Back in East Texas

I'm back one more time in the vicinity of my alma mater, spending the weekend with friends for old times' sake and in order to watch some plays at the Texas Shakespeare Festival. We saw Coriolanus tonight; I think it lived up to its reputation as one of the apocryphal (read "campy") plays. With Pericles, School for Husbands, and Harvey to go, everything should be much more cheerful from now on.

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13 July 2006 - Thursday

Communist jokes

The family dog and I are both a bit under the weather right now, but seeing this -- "Hammer & tickle" by Ben Lewis -- cheered us up. It's an article about (mostly, but not exclusively dissident) humor behind the Iron Curtain.

As the system became harsher, a distinctive communist sense of humour emerged -- pithy, dark and surreal -- but so did the legal machinery for repressing it. Historian Roy Medvedev looked through the files of Stalin's political prisoners and concluded that 200,000 people were imprisoned for telling jokes, such as this: Three prisoners in the gulag get to talking about why they are there. "I am here because I always got to work five minutes late, and they charged me with sabotage," says the first. "I am here because I kept getting to work five minutes early, and they charged me with spying," says the second. "I am here because I got to work on time every day," says the third, "and they charged me with owning a western watch."
(Via MeFi)

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11 July 2006 - Tuesday

Bulwer-Lytton 2006

The results of this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced! The contest honors the memory of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the writer famous for this opening salvo:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
The winners of the contest are those who submit the most impressive "opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels."

Jim Guigli won the grand prize this year:

Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you've had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.
(HT: UD)

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Ah, those celebrated French writers

Today, reading America's Appeal to the Impartial World, a 1775 sermon-pamphlet attributed to Moses Mather, I came across a line that struck me as strangely familiar:

Most justly then did a celebrated French writer, treating of the English, and the excellence of their constitution, say, that England could never lose its freedom, until parliament lost its virtue.
I'm not totally sure who Mather had in mind, but I hazard a guess that it was Montesquieu. But that sentence reminded me of that infamous Tocqueville "quotation":
America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
I doubt that there is any direct connection between the two. In fact, in context, the two epigrams have almost opposite meanings. Mather's parliamentary "virtue" is a long way from Pseudo-Tocqueville's popular "goodness." And while Mather is emphasizing the importance of political institutions, Pseudo-Tocqueville is actually denigrating it.


The English constitution, like other imitations of nature, was a system of consummate wisdom, and policy, the balance of power, being so judiciously placed, as to connect the force, and to preserve the rights of all; [...] and no laws could be made, or taxes imposed, but such as were necessary, and in the judgment of the three estates in parliament, for the common good, and interest of the realm. Most justly then did a celebrated French writer, treating of the English, and the excellence of their constitution, say, that England could never lose its freedom, until parliament lost its virtue.
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers -- and it was not there ... in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there ... in her rich mines and her vast world commerce -- and it was not there ... in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution -- and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
The sentiments expressed in the latter are quite different from the analysis presented by Mather (who I think, again, was borrowing from Montesquieu).

But I wonder if the similarity is due to a deeper connection. Perhaps we can view both passages simply as the cognitive stepchildren of the old classical and humanist doctrine that personal "virtue" (however defined) is the key to political success. In that case, we could easily assume that the Tocqueville quotation gained so much acceptance not because it is unusually perceptive, but rather because it is so ordinary.

Or maybe the American collective unconscious just likes attributing that sort of thing to the French.

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Reading list

Miland hosts the fifth Asian History Carnival.

My friend Wheeler kindly sent me this: From the Ball-Room to Hell, a highly informative tract from 1892. That settles it -- I'm learning to dance!

In the second entry of a series that started with this, Jason Kuznicki argues that academic historians should try to capture the fact that "generally speaking, historical actors do not act for 'a' reason -- they act with many reasons."

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10 July 2006 - Monday

Dun dun dun!

An article from USA Today:

As a waypoint on the ancient Silk Road, the metropolis of Palmyra had it all, broad towers, impressive temples and enviable trade. Water from local wells even contained fluoride, limiting that scourge of the ancients -- tooth decay.

But just as the wealth of Palmyra vanished, leaving behind ruins in the Syrian desert, a new study suggests its waters may also have been ruinous in the end for the city's inhabitants. [...] the Palmyrans' symptoms, along with discolored teeth, point to "fluorosis," a skeletal and enamel-damaging syndrome caused by ingesting too much fluoride over a long time, the researchers note.

No doubt certain sorts of people will find this story highly significant. Partly for that reason, I wish the opening paragraphs were not so melodramatic; readers could easily get the impression that fluoride caused the city's fall.

Via Mirabilis.

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9 July 2006 - Sunday


This morning, I had a brief exchange with an odd person. Having spoken with this person before, I knew I could expect odd things. In this case, our conversation took an unexpected historiographical turn.

He asked about my school situation. I explained that I'm now out of college and will pursue a doctorate in history. He nodded. Then he developed a facial expression suggestive of indigestion.

"History's good," he said, very seriously. "Just don't try to rewrite it."

I could not recall expressing any particular desire to do such a terrifying thing. But he continued, "History is what it is." That seemed to end the conversation, as far as he was concerned. He headed for the door.

I could hardly have argued with that last comment. History is, indeed, what it is. So are poetry and the moon and bunny rabbits and paint swatches.

Thinking things over after he left, I came up with how the conversation should have gone. "Just to clear things up, sir, which history do you forbid me to rewrite?" I would have asked. The one where the Confederate states seceded to protect slavery, or the one where they were lodging a protest over tariffs? The one where John Kerry was decorated for valor, or the one where he was practically a draft dodger? The one where thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans were imprisoned wrongfully, or the one where that measure was justified by American national security?

I have a strong hunch about which position he would take on each of those questions. And in each case, his hypothetical version of history is the newer one, the one written as a partisan backlash against the dominant interpretation.

Who started this "revisionist history" meme, anyway? And why do so many electricians and accountants think they can tell me how to be a proper history student?

Just to set things straight as well as I can: The past does not change except by piling up. History, however, is a flawed human attempt to imagine what the past was like (in terms we can understand today), and to explain how it got that way. Until our historians reach omniscience, history will remain open to revision.

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7 July 2006 - Friday

Martin Luther on liberty

After looking at Thomas Aquinas' reading of Romans 13:1-7 yesterday, I wanted to examine a competing interpretation today. So I picked up my copy of Martin Luther's Commentary on Romans and turned to the appropriate chapter.

(Unfortunately, my copy is not a great text. I am using a translation by J. Theodore Mueller [1959] that was prepared primarily for devotional reading. It will have to serve for now.)

Whereas Thomas, in his Commentary on the Sentences, interprets Romans 13 as requiring obedience only to the legitimate commands of legitimate authorities, Luther here allows no such room to maneuver. He dismisses the idea that the passage applies only to certain kinds of rulers, or applies only under certain conditions. Instead, he takes the opening verse as a seal of divine recognition on all earthly authorities:

The powers that be are ordained of God (13:1). [...] for there is no government that is not instituted [by God]. Governments are only usurped and managed in ways not ordained. So also other blessings are misused, and yet do not lose their value. Money, for example, does not become evil through theft. Hence we must explain the words thus: Wherever there is governmental power, there it is instituted by God. That is, wherever governments exist, they are ordained solely by God. The meaning is the same as: "There is no power, but of God." Therefore, where powers exist and flourish, they exist and flourish because God has ordained them.
I find the monetary analogy interesting because I am not sure it supports Luther's case at all. That is, we do not have to recognize a bearer's claim to stolen money; so why should we recognize a bearer's claim to usurped power? (Also, Luther's remark that money is inherently a blessing seems suspect, given such New Testament passages as Matthew 6:24 and 1 Timothy 6:10.)

Yet while Thomas, in his Commentary on the Sentences, is determined to reconcile Scripture with the community's right to earthly liberty, Luther is determined to demonstrate that Christianity provides a superior type of freedom altogether. He interprets Romans 13 according to his conviction that political liberty is not a proper concern for Christians. The faithful already have a spiritual freedom that liberates them, as it were, from the need for civil freedom. The paragraph quoted above follows this:

By faith the Christian makes all things subject to himself; for he is neither ruled by them, nor does he put his trust in them. He compels them to serve his glory and salvation. That is what it means to serve God and rule as kings. That is the spiritual rule, of which we read in Revelation 5:10: "Thou hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth."

The world is conquered and subdued in no better way than by despising it. The spirit of the believer therefore is subject to no one, nor can it be subject to anyone. It is exalted with Christ, and all things lie subdued at his feet. The "soul" is the same as the "spirit" of man, but inasmuch as it lives and works, and serves the visible world and earthly things, it must be subject "to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake" (1 Peter 2:13). By this subjection it obeys God and desires the same as God. By this subjection it overcomes the temporal world even now.

So the command of Romans 13 should not be feared as a potential source of slavery but instead embraced as a source of liberation from worldly concerns.

To understand why Luther defends the prerogatives of temporal government so strongly, however, I think we must move a little further on in the commentary. It appears that Luther is not concerned with the behavior of individual Christians, nor with the potential for popular rebellions, as much as with the behavior of the Catholic Church. In his discussion of 13:4, Luther begins a direct assault on worldly churchmen:

One is amazed at the impenetrable gross darkness that prevails today. There is nothing that angers the clerics, these widely opened mouths avariciously coveting temporal things, more than when the freedom of the churches, with their rights, their possessions and their powers is attacked. Against such transgressors they hurl their anathemas. They declare them to be heretics and publicly and with an alarming arrogance condemn them as enemies of God, of the Church, and of Peter and Paul. [...] One's transgressions may even cry to high heaven; nevertheless, he is a most pious Christian, as long as he protects the rights and liberties of the Church. But if anyone should ignore them, then he is no longer a faithful son and friend of the Church.

This practical application to present-day circumstances is very profitable for the understanding of the text.

Indeed. It seems that the "rights and liberties of the Church" are an important reason for Luther's insistence that Christians must submit completely to civil rulers. He is not thinking about the loss of the republics in Greece or Rome. He is thinking about the corruption of the Church, and the secular authorities' loss of sovereignty, in his own day. The result is his defense of sovereign secular power as a divinely ordained institution.

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6 July 2006 - Thursday

Thomas Aquinas on the right to resist

I think the one New Testament passage that has caused the most trouble for Christian political philosophers -- especially those who spend much time on the dangers of tyranny -- over the centuries, is Romans 13:1-7. These verses, addressed to a persecuted Christian minority in the first century, seem to command absolute submission to earthly rulers:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (ESV)
Many theologians have interpreted this as requiring Christians to submit to every governing official in every particular, refusing to obey only when commanded to commit a sin. Of course, this interpretation prohibits any form of organized resistance or revolution. This view is still influential; I have occasionally heard evangelical Christians discuss anxiously whether the American War for Independence was a violation of Romans 13. (I hasten to add that the War for Independence is nevertheless very popular among American evangelicals.)

Thomas Aquinas also addressed the questions raised by this passage. I think we can see how a medieval analysis like his, reconciling classical political theory with the New Testament, could be important to later Christian revolutionaries. In the 1500s, in fact, some of the more radical Protestants resorted to arguments the scholastics had been using for centuries, as an alternative to the original and highly inconvenient Lutheran condemnation of popular resistance. I am not even slightly qualified to analyze scholastic thought, but I'm going to try anyway.

In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (book 2, dist. 44, quest. 2, art. 2), Thomas takes due note of the command in Romans 13. But he writes that this biblical injunction applies not to just anyone with coercive power, but only to authorities that meet certain conditions and thus actually derive their power from God. (That is, he defines Paul's "authorities" so that Romans 13:2a is a tautology.) He helpfully offers an explanation of factors that may render an earthly ruler illegitimate:

But, as we have already said, authority may fail to derive from God for two reasons: either because of the way in which authority has been obtained, or in consequence of the use which is made of it.

There are two ways in which the first case may occur. Either because of a defect in the person, if he is unworthy; or because of some defect in the way itself by which power was acquired, if, for example, through violence, or simony or some other illegal method. The first defect is not such as to impede the acquisition of legitimate authority; and since authority derives always, from a formal point of view, from God (and it is this which produces the duty of obedience), their subjects are always obliged to obey such superiors, however unworthy they may be. But the second defect prevents the establishment of any just authority: for whoever possesses himself of power by violence does not truly become lord or master. Therefore it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority; except in the case that it subsequently became legitimate, either through public consent or through the intervention of higher authority.

With regard to the abuse of authority, this also may come about in two ways. First, when what is ordered by an authority is opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted (if, for example, some sinful action is commanded or one which is contrary to virtue, when it is precisely for the protection and fostering of virtue that authority is instituted). In such a case, not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants. Secondly, when those who bear such authority command things which exceed the competence of such authority; as, for example, when a master demands payment from a servant which the latter is not bound to make, and other similar cases. In this instance the subject is free to obey or disobey.

To clarify Thomas' discussion, I have prepared a simple flowchart. In my chart, the various questions and their answers lead, eventually, to a determination either that disobedience is permissible or that it is sinful. (One of the questions, the one asking whether disobedience would cause more problems than it would solve, technically comes from several other places in Thomas Aquinas' works. However, I believe the qualification is consistent with the passage quoted above.)

Anyway, I find it interesting that this passage does not make any clear distinction between the right to disobey passively and the right to resist actively. This stands out to me, of course, because that distinction has been vitally important to some other Christian theorists. On the contrary, Thomas here conflates disobedience and revolution. He asserts that rulership obtained through violence is illegitimate: "it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority," and furthermore (citing the story of Julius Caesar a few sentences after the passage quoted above), "in such a case, one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant is to be praised and rewarded." Thomas certainly does not go out of his way to differentiate between tyrannicide and less drastic forms of disobedience.

This is because the key question for him is simply whether a particular ruler is legitimate -- that is, whether the ruler is actually a ruler under the meaning of Romans 13. If a ruler is legitimate, then Christians must obey (to the extent that the ruler's commands are also legitimate); if not, they may disobey without violating Scripture. Because Thomas reads classical theory into the text, furthermore, illegitimacy and tyranny are closely related ideas in his system. His central concern is not to detail exceptions to God's command, but rather to justify the belief that tyranny is not covered by Romans 13 at all. He does this in part to reconcile Romans 13 with other New Testament passages that seem to him to guarantee liberty to baptized Christians (such as Matthew 17:26).

Taken together with other writings by Thomas, this passage implies that only rulers who actually protect the good of the people are legitimate in God's eyes. Thomas later wrote elsewhere that "the welfare of the community" is the reason for a ruler's authority (Summa Theologica quest. 42, art. 2; cf. De Regimine Principum book 1, ch. 15). A reader might be forgiven for inferring, therefore, that to make commands contrary to the public welfare is to make commands contrary to "the object for which that authority was constituted" -- which, according to the text at hand, nullifies such commands' legitimacy. So rule harmful to the community is not rule at all. In such cases, disobedience may even be a moral obligation.

Also interesting is the implication that, at least in some cases, popular consent is the means by which divine authority is conferred upon a temporal ruler. In the event of usurpation, Thomas writes, the usurper need not be obeyed as God's representative -- unless a higher temporal ruler or public approval later establishes that authority as legitimate. So while the express consent of the governed may not be necessary to establish a proper (God-given) government, it is not an entirely irrelevant concept, either.

My quotations come from the translation of J.G. Dawson, in Aquinas: Selected Political Writings (edited by A.P. D'Entrèves, 1959). I have added paragraph breaks.

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5 July 2006 - Wednesday

Reading list

Timothy Burke posts some "scattered thoughts" on the war on terror, reflecting on (among other things) what makes America a truly worthy adversary.

Jason Kuznicki presents a manifesto on theory and primary literature.

The new edition of Common-place is up.

From the shadows of Internet prehistory comes "You May Be a Graduate Student If ..." Uh-oh. (Via Ralph Luker)

Andrew S. Finstuen traces the path of the sometimes-friendly, often-hostile "public conversation" between Billy Graham and Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1950s.

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4 July 2006 - Tuesday

Hymn in Honor of Our Ancestors

Sirach 44:1-15 (NRSV)

Let us now sing the praises of famous men,
our ancestors in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and made a name for themselves by their valor;
those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;
those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
those who led the people by their counsels
and by their knowledge of the people's lore;
they were wise in their words of instruction;
those who composed musical tunes,
or put verses in writing;
rich men endowed with resources,
living peacefully in their homes --
all these were honored in their generations,
and were the pride of their times.
Some of them have left behind a name,
so that others declare their praise.
But of others there is no memory;
they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born,
they and their children after them.
But these also were godly men,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
their wealth will remain with their descendants,
and their inheritance with their children's children.
Their descendants stand by the covenants;
their children also, for their sake.
Their offspring will continue for ever,
and their glory will never be blotted out.
Their bodies are buried in peace,
but their name lives on generation after generation.
The assembly declares their wisdom,
and the congregation proclaims their praise.

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3 July 2006 - Monday

Christians at the movies

"Novels and movies were once generally suspect in evangelical eyes," according to a Marvin Olasky article in this week's World, "but now the emphasis is on discernment." To celebrate such cultural involvement, Olasky asked 30 influential evangelicals to list their favorite contemporary films and books.

The results might be surprising. As much as conservative Christian publications like World tend to complain about the prevalence of the R rating in Hollywood, it seems many of the people they admire actually enjoy that sort of fare.

The respondents -- including preachers, screenwriters, and journalists -- named a total of 97 different film titles. Of these movies, according to my tally, the largest number have R ratings. In fact, the less family-friendly a film's classification, the more likely the title is to be on the list at least once. Here is the breakdown:

G -- 4

PG -- 24

PG-13 -- 29

R -- 34

No US rating -- 6

I bet World is going to get some nasty letters from families who go out and rent Magnolia or Eternal Sunshine after reading that article.

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2 July 2006 - Sunday

How to write tendentious history

Bias and spin in historical writing are very big topics in the blogosphere, so I have decided to write down some helpful tips for anyone trying to get started as a Partisan Historical Hack. I'm not sure anyone could follow all of these suggestions ... but I'm sure someone has tried.

* First, make no effort to develop historical research and interpretation sensibilities apart from your particular ideological project. Jump right in.

* Evaluate the reliability of any source according to whether it corroborates your opinions.

* Make no distinction between facts and interpretation. In any case, remember that the truth of the latter determines the truth of the former.

* Assume that ulterior motives lie behind the work of any scholars who disagree with you.

* Project today's political battles onto your ancestors' lives.

* Use nice round numbers. Then round them again. With enough rounding, any number will support your position.

* Either adopt a position of total relativism or ignore context altogether. Switch sides as appropriate.

* Blame historical figures for failing to take into account what you know but they did not.

* Remember that a lack of acceptance or publicity is always evidence of a conspiracy.

* When characterizing your opponents' work, employ the term "revisionist" a lot. At the same time, obsess over how wrong the conventional understanding is.

* Remember that "left," "right," and other sweeping political labels always provide accurate insight into individual opinions. Everyone within the Left or the Right thinks and acts alike, for all practical historical purposes.

* Always think of yourself as politically incorrect. At the same time, always think of your detractors as fringe radicals.

* If you must read the things your opponents write, read only the stuff that uses the most pejorative language. This will provide inspiration and spice up your prose, as well.

* Never, ever consider the remote possibility that your detractors are intelligent people speaking in good faith.

Anybody have other suggestions?

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1 July 2006 - Saturday

History Carnival 34

I believe the thirty-fourth History Carnival, up now at Chapati Mystery, has the distinction of being the only edition to have been delayed for World Cup play. It was worth the wait, I think, with a set of photographic entries as well as contributions like these:

Rob MacDougall looks into real and fictional history in various Superman stories. >>

Zalman Paktorowicz explains the connections among Henry Ford, altered names of Eastern European immigrants, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. >>

Amardeep Singh weighs in on a debate over the effects of British imperialism in India. >>

Brian Ulrich describes the career of Abd al-Malik, an Umayyad caliph who played a decisive role in the political history and perhaps even theology of Islam. >>

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