Monday, December 27, 2010

Judge righteously between a man and his fellow countryman

I like Livy's approach to history. Provided with materials about early Rome that he knows are shot through with myth and borrowings from the history of Greece, he admits that no one can know these things for certain and simply presents them leavened with his best judgment. I like also that, without denigrating religion in general, he doesn't mind telling us that Romulus was said to have been taken up to heaven in a cloud (but may in fact have been torn apart by jealous senators) or that a prominent Roman pretended to have a vision of the dead Romulus to reassure the people.

For Livy, history is the study of events driven by human character, and his portraits are striking. Numa Pompilius, an early Roman king, is noted for his piety and his emphasis on building Rome's moral fibre through attention to religious rites (though Livy notes that Numa constantly pretended to commune in private with the goddess Egeria to support his program). Tullus Hostilius, his successor, respects religion but lives for the glory of conquest in war. Discovering the treachery of Mettius, a confederate king, Tullus has him tied to two chariots that are driven in opposite directions, tearing the traitor apart before the eyes of the horrified crowd. Tullus later comes to grief over religion: attempting a complicated rite in a temple of Jupiter, Tullus gets the formula wrong, whereupon the angry god destroys the building with fire, consuming Tullus in the conflagration.

His successor, Ancus Marcius, is called by Livy one of the greatest Roman kings who ever lived, equally respectful of religion and alert to the need for a powerful stance toward Rome's dissatisfied and sometimes marauding neighbors. Refusing to hold the entire warmaking power in his own hands, he inaugurates a principle that war is to be formally declared by envoys acting on behalf of the entire Roman city state—a lesson that American Presidents of the last 50 years would have done well to heed.

I was reminded of character when reading of George Monck, first Duke of Albemarle, who variously served both the Royalists and later the Parliamentary cause in the English Civil War and finally, alarmed and exasperated by Britain's near-anarchy, contrived the Restoration of the Monarchy in the person of Charles II. So balanced in his perceptions of the merits of each side and calm in his temper that he was regularly suspected of disaffection by extremists in whichever side he fought for, Monck was above the rancor of party wrangling, firm in his convictions, prudent in command, blessed with the confidence of the men who served under him, and firm to the point of severity when required. His own brother, a clergyman, was sent by the Royalists to sound Monck out on his plans to restore the Monarchy, and as Hume relates:
"When [Monck's brother] arrived, he found that [General Monck] was then holding a council of officers, and was not to be seen for some hours. In the mean time, he was received and entertained by Price, the general's chaplain, a man of probity, as well as a partisan of the king's. The [brother], having an entire confidence in the chaplain, talked very freely to him about the object of his journey, and engaged him, if there should be occasion, to second his applications. At last, the general arrives; the brothers embrace; and after some preliminary conversation, the doctor opens his business. Monck interrupted him, to know whether he had ever before to any body mentioned the subject. 'To nobody,' replied his brother, 'but to Price, whom I know to be entirely in your confidence.' The general, altering his countenance, turned the discourse; and would enter into no further confidence with him, but sent him away with the first opportunity. He would not trust his own brother the moment he knew that he had disclosed the secret, though to a man whom he himself could have trusted.

"His conduct in all other particulars was full of the same reserve and prudence; and no less was requisite for effecting the difficult work which he had undertaken."

As Franklin observed, "Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead."

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"Damn'd be him that first cries 'Hold! Enough!'"

Lev Grossman's cover story on Mark Zuckerberg as Time's person of the year for 2010 pays due regard to Zuckerberg's intelligence and drive, both of which are considerable (though I wouldn't be too thrilled, if I were he, to have to admit that I had never heard of E.M. Forster) and even extends the wunderkind the benefit of a doubt: he's not opposed to privacy, you see; he simply doesn't get it, similarly, one supposes, to his reported colorblindness to red and green. Well perhaps, but if that be true, no matter how big his achievement and his personal fortune, it's a flaw in his makeup.

Grossman is sharp and perceptive. I think this paragraph nailed it:
"[Facebook] herds everybody — friends, co-workers, romantic partners, that guy who lived on your block but moved away after fifth grade — into the same big room. It smooshes together your work self and your home self, your past self and your present self, into a single generic extruded product. It suspends the natural process by which old friends fall away over time, allowing them to build up endlessly, producing the social equivalent of liver failure."

"Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius," as Gibbon wrote. I'll never claim to have achieved the latter state but greatly enjoy the solitude of a lengthy walk along the Shelby Farms Greenline, something I have done for some weeks now, to the benefit of both my health and peace of mind. In fact, I do occasionally meet people I know, including, at various times, fellow trivia buffs Jennifer Larkin and Saravan Chaturvedi, and if I happened to have company and good conversation on a walk, I would welcome it, but I also like the way the setting erects a corridor so apart from the rest of life that it seems almost strange when you happen to cross a street traveled by cars. The interstate, with its frequent whooshing noise of cars, is literally only yards away for much of the route and sometimes visible, but often, the trees mask the sight and to some extent, the sound.

It would hardly have satisfied C.S. Lewis, who wrote, describing his ideal day:
" two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one (such as I found, during the holidays, in Arthur) who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared."

I thought today that whereas I welcome the very proximity to the interstate because the foliage defiantly filters it, as the foliage and the rushing fountain do in the lovely Meditation Garden on the grounds of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the whole experience would have been destroyed for poor Lewis, who would have found the constant noise of traffic, even filtered, pretty well intolerable. How much our experiences and expectations change in just a few generations.

Once you've made yourself feel virtuous with a 10-mile walk on a winter day, you don't mind treating yourself to the perfect winter evening: a bowl of hot soup with a glass of wine, then a fire in the fireplace, a good book, and cognac. I'm finishing Peter Biskind's Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America (and no, it's not only about one thing!) and starting Livy's Early History of Rome, and I suppose two more different books could hardly be imagined, except that Beatty, like the legendary Romulus, is relentless in his purposes.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.