Monday, April 9, 2018

The Supreme Being and Revolution

In 1794, during the excesses of the French Revolution, the National Convention established by Decree what has since been called The Cult of the Supreme Being.  It seems to have been created entirely by Maximilien Robespierre, called "the incorruptible."

It was one of those cults that last as long as their leader, although it wasn't formally outlawed until Napoleon outlawed it and other cults in 1802, except, it may be said, the cult of Napoleon himself (but note the small "c"; Napoleon never considered himself God, or even a god).  Napoleon had reached an agreement with the Catholic Church, which The Cult of the Supreme Being and presumably other outlawed cults had sought to replace.

The Catholic Church had to be replaced by something, evidently.  Or so thought Robespierre, and it seems other leaders of the Revolution.  For some it was to be replaced by what was called The Cult of Reason.  That cult didn't have much in the way of a divinity, and didn't hold with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, however, and was considered a kind of atheism.  Robespierre thought a divinity and belief in an immortal soul appropriate and even necessary for morality and social order, and it seems he even believed in a Supreme Being, though one consistent with the Enlightenment, not with the Church.

Thus The Cult of the Supreme Being envisioned, unsurprisingly, a Supreme Being; one which created the universe and set it on its way to operate according to natural laws, discernible by the use of reason.  Those natural laws formed the basis for morality, and their application resulted in a virtuous life, virtuous people and a virtuous nation, which would be a republic.

The Cult of the Supreme Being became the declared religion of France, for a brief time.  And so as shown in the image above the French people, or at least the National Convention speaking as the French people, asserted belief in the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.

Having become the national religion it was thought only appropriate, by Robespierre and likely others, that it be celebrated in some fashion.  Therefore, a Festival of the Supreme Being was held in June, 1794.  The artist David was put in charge, and the festival was, according to contemporary accounts, neatly and precisely choreographed.  It featured a statute of Atheism which was duly burned, a mountain constructed of mostly paper-mache, and a pillar on which a statute of Hercules was placed, atop the mountain.

Robespierre and other notables then climbed the mountain, and Robespierre himself gave a speech from its summit.  There was singing, and people marched about the mountain.  Accounts indicate that the festival was popular.  But Robespierre was criticized for making it appear he was the messenger of the Supreme Being, if not a god himself.  I wonder whether the comparison with Moses on Mount Sinai was made.

Like the Enlightenment, The Cult of the Supreme Being looked back to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration, and its principles seem consistent with the pagan philosophies of the ancients, even with Stoicism to a degree.  In itself, this cult seems noble, and certainly harmless.  Just what appeal it would have for most people of the time is unclear, though.

1794 was a busy year for Robespierre.  He created a religion.   Then, contrary to it, he inaugurated the Reign of Terror.  Then he was executed by his opponents, who had by that time had quite enough of Robespierre, the Terror and perhaps the Supreme Being as well.  He had his encounter with the guillotine like so many others, many of them his own victims.  But it was a time of extraordinary violence, if what we read is true, and the guillotine may have presented a merciful manner of death in comparison to those inflicted by the mobs which arose, or were summoned.

It's interesting that lawyers were so involved in the French and American Revolutions.  Robespierre was one, so was Danton, so were many others.  Lawyers made up the majority of the National Assembly and its successor, the National Convention. In the French Revolution I suspect that lawyers played a leading role in part at least because they were orators, and trained in rhetoric.

The lawyers of the French Revolution were very different from those of the American who. together with rich merchants and farmers made up the majority of American revolutionaries.  Compared with the lawyers of the French Revolution, who seemed most successful when whipping up fervor in their fellows and the populace and were themselves often frenzied by what they thought to be the injustices of monarchical France, the lawyers of the American revolution seem at most highly annoyed by the injustices they faced, and their contribution was primarily in creating the founding documents and institutions of a nation.  The lawyers of the American revolution ultimately were, and remained, lawyers.  Those of the French Revolution became something very different.

The French Revolution was the Enlightenment gone mad.  The American Revolution also had its basis in the Enlightenment, but wasn't mad at all.  Was this due to differences in national character or culture, or something else?  It certainly wasn't a result of The Cult of the Supreme Being, or that of Reason.  But the French Revolution serves to remind us that reason may show us that certain things, people, institutions are wrong or undesirable and may even show us what is right, but we're always inclined to dispense with it if we can, especially when outraged.  Or when seeking power.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Phenomenon of Prohibition

I'm overwhelmed with wonder whenever I think of the Eighteenth Amendment to our Constitution, by which the production, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors, and their importation to or exportation from our Great Republic and its territories, was made illegal.  Ratification of the amendment by the "several legislatures" of 36 states was achieved on January 16, 1919 and it became effective, by its terms, one year later.  I anxiously await the 100th anniversary of ratification, next year.

The wonder I experience is in part due to the fact that I find it difficult to believe any nation existing in the 20th century would adopt such a measure, and in part due to astonishment that the Temperance Movement and its allies managed to convince the legislature of 36 states of the Union that such a law should be imposed throughout the country.  It was a remarkable achievement.  It was also, and proved to be, a remarkably bad law.

The Internet gives us the opportunity to review the editorial cartoons and other illustrations supporting Prohibition.  One appears above.  I long to know how it was determined that alcohol causes "Atheists."  Others depict a mother holding a small child, a boy, and asks our help in her efforts to keep him pure; or an army of anthropomorphic beer barrels on the march, carrying standards on which are displayed slogans such as "We Make People Poor" and "We are Against Progress" and "We Cause Poverty and Crime."  Children are pictured, asking for votes against liquor "for our sake."  An American soldier asks if we will back him, or back booze.  Those, it seems, were the choices available.  Soldiers were apparently adverse to alcohol in those days.

In some sense these seem examples of propaganda in its infancy.  But we see the same themes employed by those eager to impose, or at least "sell", their political, social and cultural positions in this age, though the means by which they do so are more varied and sophisticated.

Someone told me recently that Prohibition was the child of the Progressive Movement in American politics.  I'm not so sure, myself.  It seems to have had its origin in the Temperance Movement and in certain Protestant churches and denominations of a puritanical and zealous bent.  I don't see that movement or these churches as "progressive." I think that persons like Carrie Nation and the Reverend Billy Sunday had no progressive bones in their alcohol-free bodies.

H.L. Mencken noted the religious origins of Prohibition, associating them with Puritanism,  and of course strongly opposed it.  The Sage of Baltimore is famous for defining (in the manner of Ambrose Bierce) Puritanism as "[t]he haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."  I think there was something in the push for Prohibition that had its basis in the thought that alcohol was too much enjoyed, and that too much enjoyment is, inherently, a bad thing.

But whatever "ism" was behind Prohibition it shared with other "isms" the staunch belief of its followers that it is what was best for humanity in general and for those in the United States in particular.  It was thought that alcohol ruined lives and was the cause of poverty, crime and most of all sin.  So, it was thought entirely appropriate for it to be prohibited by law.

It's clear, I think, that Prohibition's advocates felt that the ill effects of alcohol were most prevalent in the working class and the underprivileged in general.  They were most inclined to drink it to excess, most inclined to commit crimes, abuse their families and to be irreligious--to be sinners.  It evidently didn't occur to Prohibition's proponents that there may be other reasons for poverty, crime and abuse, and that the consumption of alcohol itself may be their result rather than their cause.  It also seems to have been felt that immigrants brought to the United States a culture or cultures of drinking and so the drinking of alcohol had to be curtailed. 

Prohibition was, I think, a very Protestant phenomenon (imagine a largely Catholic country banning the production and sale of alcohol).  The goal sought by its advocates was, particularly when it came to the poor and working class, a citizenry that was sober, hardworking, church-going, amiable, humble, muted, content, passionless and not too inclined to think.

It failed miserably, of course, though it took thirteen years to repeal.  Thirteen years in which alcohol continued to be produced and sold, illegally, and consumed.  Prohibition is the great example of why it is foolish and dangerous to legislate morality.  We still want to do so, though.  Most of all we'd like to regulate thought.  Our Great Republic is full of those who, for moral and religious reasons, wish to prohibit others from doing things by law.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

In Praise of Pelagius

Pictured above (supposedly) are Pelagius, founder of the Pelagian heresy, and Augustine of Hippo; one a heretic and one a saint.  Sadly, I'm not sure which is Pelagius and which is Augustine.

We don't know much about the life of Pelagius but for the fact that he was a monk, and was considered to be British, or Irish, or Scottish depending on the record on which you rely.  He and Augustine were contemporaries, both born in the 4th century C.E. or A.D., whichever you prefer, both dying in the 5th century.  Augustine, of course, became a bishop.

While we don't know much about the life of Pelagius, we know far too much of the life of Augustine, or so I think.  We know much of Augustine's life because he thoughtfully told us of it, in great detail, in his Confessions.  That work describes his sinful, profligate ways before his fittingly dramatic conversion to Christianity and attendant salvation, but also includes prayers of thanksgiving and speculations on whatever theological or philosophical issues caught his fancy.

Presumably, Augustine's Confessions served as a model for the Confessions of the similarly self-regarding Rousseau, who also carefully cataloged his misdeeds for our benefit though not, it seems, for any religious reasons.  Nevertheless, Rousseau was also saved, but not by God, and his misdeeds were evidently rendered tolerable when he became the Rousseau he thought we should know and admire.

Both Augustine and Rousseau were apparently the kind of men who relished describing their sins.  Perhaps Augustine flaunted his sinfulness in part due to his acceptance and it may be said creation of the doctrine of Original Sin, that peculiar belief that all of humanity is, forever, tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve and so damned unless redeemed by God's grace, which is in God's gift.  This is not a doctrine Pelagius was willing to accept, but which the Church ultimately did accept.  Thus, Pelagius became a heretic and Augustine a saint.

Unfortunately, the writings of Pelagius were lost, or more probably were destroyed after his condemnation.  So we know them only through the writings of those who thought he should be condemned.  It seems though that Pelagius thought human nature to be untouched by the sin of Adam and Eve.  As a consequence, humans had the capacity to be good and to renounce evil, and didn't require the gift of God's grace to do so.  Immorality was a matter of will, or lack of will to do good.  People could do good deeds without the intervention of God.  Human will in itself, as created by God, was sufficient to assure a sinless life.  God may help us, inspire us to do good, but he doesn't cause us to do good by granting us his grace.

For Pelagius and his followers, the notion that human nature is prone to sinfulness from birth excuses immoral conduct.  It serves as an explanation of our evil deeds as the result of something beyond our control; we're naturally bad because Adam and Eve did what they did or failed to do what they failed to do.  How are we to be blamed for doing what we have to do by our nature, i.e. for not being able to do the impossible?

I find it interesting that, for me at least, certain Christian heresies seem so much more sensible, so much more edifying, so much more ennobling than orthodox Christian doctrine.  Pelagianism is one of those heresies, as it teaches that we're responsible for our own conduct and are not damned by the actions of mythological forbears, a damnation which seems extraordinarily vengeful coming from the God of the universe.  The Arian heresy which avoids the problems encountered by insisting Jesus was wholly God and wholly man at the same time, consubstantial with the Father, is to me another of those heresies.

I also find it interesting that Pelagianism seems similar in various ways to the teachings of the pagan philosophers, and to the teachings of the Stoics in particular.  Pelagius thought that as creature of God we cannot be inherently sinful and debased; the Stoics thought us good, not evil, and partakers in the divine.  The Stoics emphasized our ability to act for the good, "in accordance with nature", nature itself being good, and that bad conduct is the result of a failure in our use of reason, resulting from our desires and fears as to things beyond our control.  Pelagius and his followers taught we could be good by the exercise of our own will.  According to the Stoics, no God or gods were needed in order for us to act in accord with nature.  God's grace wasn't necessary to a good life according to Pelagius.

Christianity borrowed freely from the pagan philosophers in various ways.  What was it about Pelagianism that merited its condemnation by the Church, and still merits its condemnation?  It seems that it's felt that Pelagianism doesn't accept that we're ultimately dependent on God's mercy and indulgence to be saved, and incapable of determining what is good by ourselves.  It seems an unworthy basis on which to condemn a doctrine that makes us responsible for our own actions rather than damns us for purported actions taken long, long ago, and credits us with the ability to discern what is good and reject what is evil.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Ex Uno Plures (Out of One, Many)

Perhaps it's in the nature of humanity's constructions to dissolve over time, as we do ourselves.  Perhaps the proud early slogan of our nation, E Pluribus Unum--Out of Many, One--is antiquated, and is to be replaced in practice at least with its opposite,  Ex Uno Plures.

The United States is exceptional in that it is, more than any other nation I can think of, a construction, an artifice created by a group of men.  Not over time as may be the case with any other nation, but in a few years by a concerted effort of certain more or less like minded individuals with relatively similar interests and desires.  The fundamental structure of that nation was borrowed from others in certain respects (the Roman Republic seems to have been an inspiration), but the form of its government was new, and committed to writing.

It may be such a creation can't stand the test of time.  It nearly fell apart, after all, in part because it was understood by those interested in its dissolution to be a human creation rather than the slow work of years in which custom was molded and people with it to form a distinct identity.  As a human creation voluntarily joined in by the former colonies, the Union could be dissolved.  Or so thought the Confederates.

I think that this perspective may arise once more.  But if the nation does dissolve it may be due, in a perverse way, to a desire for a sameness which no longer exists.  A desire for a sameness of a certain kind, which those who prefer it wish to impose, by exclusion and intolerance.

The sameness sought would seem to be a kind of construction itself, the result of a selection of certain characteristics or traits it's thought once abided throughout the land, and may have obtained in portions of it in the past.  Now it seems a sameness which has taken on the quality of myth.  We all watched too many TV series glorifying that 19th century migrant worker known as the cowboy, perhaps.  Or, perhaps we watched too many of the sitcoms popular in the 1950s.  Many of us have a kind of nostalgia for life as it was lived during the Eisenhower administration.  We pride ourselves in being stout individualists, but the individuals we think we are or wish to be are homogenous.

The so-called Melting Pot America was once said to be may never have existed, in fact.  Even the Irish, Chinese, Italians, Greeks, and various Eastern Europeans have not been accepted fully, and are always suspect in one way or another here in God's favorite country. 

Regardless, what we see taking place is an association of groups or tribes.  Like calls to like; like seeks like in times of stress or trouble.  Like fears and hates unlike in those times. 

As a result, there is a reaction against multiculturalism and diversity taking place here, and also in Europe.  One can sympathize with the desire of a group of people to maintain their own customs and culture and to maintain their own institutions.  One can understand that this desire may result in the resentment of immigrants who seek to maintain their own culture and customs although they leave their own countries to live in others for various reasons.  There is an argument to be made that immigrants should not expect the country they seek to be the country they left, and that they should act accordingly.

But there are too many of us on this planet already, and the simple fact is that the population of this nation and others will change, is changing.  That change can't be stopped for more than a short time.  We can't be what we were, and certainly can't be what it seems our current president and his supporters want us to be. So, it may be we'll no longer want to be one out of many.  But that will mean merely that we won't be one nation, and will be a fragmented one instead, if we are any kind of nation at all. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Cui Bono Fuisset?

These Latin words, most famously used by Cicero in two of his speeches in defense of persons accused of crime, are generally translated as, variously, "who benefits?" or "for whose benefit?" or "for whose advantage?".  He credited them to the Roman censor and consul Cassius Longinus Ravilla.  The question is usually shortened to "cui bono?".

It's a question commonly asked, though not necessarily in Latin, during investigations of conduct; notably, criminal conduct.  It inquires into motive.  Why would someone do such and such, which leads necessarily to the inquiry--who would benefit from doing it?

The Latin phrase comes to my mind, like Zardoz, when I hear of another mass killing through use of firearms, especially the semi-automatic known as the AR-15 and other weapons designed to mimic automatic weapons typically used in the military, and it would seem increasingly "militarized" law enforcement agencies.  Specifically, it comes to mind when the leadership of the NRA and others leap to defend the sale of such firearms in the wake of these murders, and also promote arming teachers and others to prevent them from taking place.

The response typically given in reply to calls for banning or limiting firearms like the AR-15 is that they're not really military weapons, not assault rifles, not automatic weapons.  This is somewhat understandable as it's not uncommon for those seeking to restrict them to assume they are such weapons.  This kind of response, however, is a non-response, in my opinion.  Whether their sale should be restricted is not dependent on the fact that far more lethal weapons exist.  Based on what I've read, such a firearm is capable for firing 45-60 rounds a minute, depending on the skill of the shooter.  Of course, it may also be rendered automatic for all practical purposes by a bump stock, as we learned in the Las Vegas massacre.  Regardless, though, what is the argument against restricting sale of such a weapon which may, through use of easily used and well-stocked magazines, be employed in firing 45-60 rounds a minute?

If they're not restricted, cui bono?  Manufacturers and sellers of such weapons do, of course.  They would benefit as well if teachers were armed, or armed guards employed.  Money is the constant in their universe of gun control.  They win everyway if only they can sell more guns.  Fear of guns used by others induces the fearful to buy guns.  What, really, do they care if money is the only consideration?

I would maintain hunters and sport shooters do not.  They're not needed to hunt or to break clay pigeons.  Someone using one to do so would I think seem, well, weird.  And not in a good way.  Should the fact gun manufacturers/seller want to make more money figure in this debate?  Absolutely not, again in my opinion.

Who would use them, who would need them?  Who would benefit from them?  I suppose there are those who find them desirable in what I would call a creepy way.  Firearms which mimic military or automatic weapons may make some people with self-esteem problems, or who are excessively fearful or whose self-regard is conditioned on posing or appearing  as a soldier or mercenary or something, feel better or good if they own them.  Should free sale of such weapons be allowed in order to maintain their enjoyment in possessing if not using them?  The peculiarities of such people shouldn't figure in assessing whether and to what extent such weapons should be regulated.

What about what gun advertisers like to call "home defense"?  How likely is it that, in order to protect my home, I'll require a firearm allowing me to fire 45-60 rounds a minute as opposed to the shotguns I own now (personally, I'm not over concerned with home defense, but let's take into consideration the fact that some people are concerned)?  Not very likely.

Unless, perhaps, one accepts what I think is a rather fantastic view, that such weapons will be needed to prevent the government from harming me or my family.  I cannot.  The thought of indefinitely holding off any reasonably large and well-armed body of government agents from the security of my home, or vehicle, or from anywhere else strikes me as remarkably fanciful, at best; deluded at worst.

Do collectors of weapons benefit?  Well, we must make a judgment between whether we continue to gratify collectors or restrict weapons which have such potential to do harm.  My judgment is that the potential to do harm outweighs the desire of a collector.

What about the benefit derived by the defenders of the Second Amendment?  I've been a lawyer too long, perhaps.  I know that the rights granted by the Bill of Rights and the Constitution are and have always been subject to reasonable restriction.  The right to bear arms doesn't in any case imply a right to bear or have any arms one wants.  The Second Amendment will not disappear if such weapons are restricted.

For me, it's difficult to think of any good reason for acquiring such weapons.  So, I tend to think that most of those who buy them are not doing so for hunting, or sport shooting, or collecting but have other uses or purposes in mind, which likely are unreasonable and may do harm.  I would have no objection to such weapons being banned.