Don’t be one of the self-absorbed fools who take the protection and plenty of life in the American bubble for granted. It is neither the natural order of things, nor your birthright; it comes at a cost that requires continued broad support of every generation.
Other than our military, there seems to be a rapidly evaporating portion of the citizenry who understand the origins of our country and our Constitution, and feel a duty to be disciplined in upholding its principles. To appreciate America, we need to know some basics of western civilization, but when it comes to study of human history, apathy is a stark reminder that you can’t push a string.
How can you know the shoulders of antiquity we stand on if you don’t eagerly read about western civilization starting with the Greeks, who leveraged the Romans and Europeans, our American forebears? How can you know the accumulation of ideas expressed in the world’s great literature, or how philosophy progressed in our great thinkers? How can you appreciate the endless stream of triumphs and tragedies from humanity’s most-practiced pastime – killing each other in gruesome ways in great numbers on bloody battlefields to satisfy the power-hungry among us?
Will you be one of the majority, living a life of blissful ignorance of civilization’s history? Or will you inform yourself to appreciate the blessings of America, and your responsibility to revive and preserve the structure of self-government given to us by our founders?
Public education is by its nature constrained in what it can teach, with limited budgets, too many students of varying abilities to squeeze through the bottleneck of required minimums, and constraints requiring political correctness that often obscures the truth.
That means if you don’t take responsibility for educating yourself, and very few do, then you doom yourself to a life of ignorance. What you have been taught, assuming you remember some of it, barely scratched the surface of human history.
Following are some of my thoughts on America’s background, admittedly also scratching the surface but intended to give you breadcrumbs that could lead to your own digging if you want to know more. Every American should want to know more.
The Greeks planted and nurtured for us the roots of western civilization starting circa 800 BC. Our first western deep thinkers and philosophers came from this early period, like Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and others.
A Biblical idea from Ecclesiastes 1:9 is that everything has been thought of before, and will be “rediscovered” again and again, that there is “. . . nothing new under the sun.” To illustrate, Aristotle is suspected to be the source of a comment circa 410 BC, “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room.” And we thought the decadence of youth was a recent development!
The Greeks gave us science, reason, philosophy, art, architecture, trial by jury and the germinating seeds of democracy. They seemed to seek a higher purpose for citizens in a world that had always presumed royalty had life and death power over commoners.
What the Greeks built was nearly lost when a massive army of Persians invaded Greece in 480 BC. At a narrow pass named Thermopylae, a small band of 300 Spartans and a number of other Greeks died in the most notable last stand in western history, sacrificing themselves to hold off the Persian horde for a few days, enough time for Greeks to evacuate Athens with the safeguarded written history of their civilization. Their gift to us was preserved.
That story is told in a spellbinding book titled Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, historical fiction about extraordinary warriors in the Greek city-state of Sparta.
As time passed the Romans created a Republic, in which their Senate debated and made decisions for the country. Then Rome made the mistake of becoming an enormous empire, with all-powerful emperors. They swallowed Greece and much of its culture. Roman philosophers like Seneca, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius stood on the shoulders of their Greek forebears. Marcus Aurelius was the last great Roman Emperor before the decline and fall of the empire, an accomplished thinker and writer whose work in stoic philosophy is found in his Meditations. An unfairly brief description of stoicism is deep reflection on self-control and taming our emotional impulses.
I recently discovered what I consider to be a treasure of philosophy for amateurs, like me, titled “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living” by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. For each day of the month there is a one-page item including a translated observation by one of Greek or Roman stoic philosophers, followed by contemporary comments. Each month is a different subject category:
February: Passions & Emotions
April: Unbiased Thought
May: Right Action
June: Problem Solving
September: Fortitude & Resilience
October: Virtue & Kindness
December: Meditation on Mortality
By my measure, this book is gourmet feeding for an open and hungry mind, in bite-size pieces, a daily stride toward knowing and controlling yourself. At the end of February, reading the extra page for leap year is like a bonus, and starting over the following January is very useful repetition until all the content is mastered, which will be approximately never. Thank you, stoics.
Before the Roman Empire fell, they had already added much to the Greek contribution and ultimately spread throughout Europe things like language, religion, writing script, literature, education systems, calendars, units of measure, hours of the day, numerals and units, architecture, science, philosophy, law, politics, inventions like aqueducts, roads, baths, agriculture, concrete, military tactics and many others. Through the Europeans we inherited these and many other accomplishments and ideas from Greeks and Romans.
When Rome declined over a long period, and finally fell in 476 AD by internal weakness and invasion of the Visigoths, civilization’s structure collapsed. There was no more security by the power of the Roman Army; it no longer existed. There was no law, no government, no money, no markets.
As the chaos of Dark Ages descended on the European continent, the Catholic church eagerly filled the void of power, doing a lot of good providing the stability of discipline and rules for people to live by, doing a lot of harm by violent intolerance of any deviation; these are my personal opinions.
During these Dark Ages, the power vacuum of a collapsed Rome invited invasions everywhere as the ubiquitous human practice of war and conquest continued with vigor. European monarchs, lacking the vast armies needed to protect the populace, used the feudal system of granting to Lords a fief of land with peasants to work it, and the Lords’ duty was to build a manor (castle) with hired knights to fight off invaders and protect the people in their fiefdom.
The spread of plague during this period killed off maybe one-third of the population.
From my pedestrian viewpoint, this period in Europe solidified the system of the privileged few with the perceived right and duty to rule, and the lower classes who had a duty to serve their lords and kings with little hope of a better life. For some time the struggle to survive smothered any notions of investing in arts and entertainment.
When life stabilized into relative peace, some of the privileged wealthy, starting in Florence, Italy it seems, began to fund the daily lives of talented artists, writers and philosophers. A period of revival of arts and literature was born, now called the Renaissance, circa 1300-1600 AD.
Leonardo Da Vinci painted, and he drew images of his dreams of many mechanical inventions. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling and worked his marble sculpting magic in masterpieces like David. Philosophers of the period looked back to Greeks and Romans to rediscover the roots of western thought and began to raise questions about rights of monarchs to rule in luxury versus rights of the suffering people. The light of western humanity began to glow again.
Columbus blunders into the Americas
In roughly this same time period, Columbus discovered the Americas accidentally, mistakenly, as he sailed west to find a route to eastern countries of Japan and India. But his mistake opened untold wealth of natural resources to an increasingly crowded Europe hungry for land, wealth, conquest and converts to their religion.
Spaniards did what humans have always done. They conquered with the sword and spear for power, wealth and to spread their brand of religion. European settlement of North America would come slowly over a long period.
Today the dummies among us measure this past period by today’s more sensitive standards and conclude we must discredit and denounce old accomplishments because people like Columbus were not nice to the natives. Columbus is a fine example of how we fool ourselves.
The turning points in history become known in simplified and Disney-fied terms, because we tend to like simple answers. But the truth is complex, and however virtuous an historical event may be, you can be sure there are warts and wrinkles if you bother to look a little more closely.
When activists clamor to revise history by tearing down monuments or erasing names of past notables, I hope you will remember the blunt word, “stupid.”
I also hope you remember this little appreciated but obvious truth. History is often perceived to be a series of inevitable events, but it is not that way at all. History is chock full of turning points which could easily have gone the other way, heavily influenced by a tiny few passionate people, forcing change with possibly epic consequence while the vast majority milked the cows and stirred the soup.
Many who have brought enormous change were deeply flawed scoundrels by today’s standards, and erasing their contribution to history is, in my opinion, breathtakingly stupid retribution. Use your head and reach your own conclusion.
What made America great?
We hear some declare America is the greatest country in the world. Others say America was never great because of its many flaws. I’ll tell you why both are wrong.
In Europe, countries, kingdoms and fiefdoms were in fairly close proximity. Raising armies to fight neighbors was a daily concern and wars never stopped. Unclaimed land had become a thing of the past. Commoners, with the boots of Lords and Kings on their necks had little hope of becoming landowners. But America offered that hope, and so they came.
Very hearty people came to America, hacked a life out of wilderness, and most did ultimately turn out to be land-owners. In North American colonies they were British subjects but fiercely independent and identified their colony as their country.
When conflict with Britain reached a crisis level, the only way the colonies could agree to band together to fight Britain was to set aside the north-south argument over slavery. Agricultural southern colonies depended entirely on slaves to work the fields and would permit no debate on the subject. So the colonies set slavery aside to be resolved later in order to band together to fight the Revolutionary War.
Four years after the highly improbable victory over Britain, the now independent colonies-turned-states sent representatives to Philadelphia for four summer months in 1787, called a Constitutional Convention, where they argued, debated, maneuvered and yelled at each other until they finally agreed on a result.
The American Constitution that resulted from those meetings was a milestone in western civilization. It had a bi-cameral federal legislature with the House representatives elected based on state population head-count, while the Senate had two representatives from each state, thereby balancing the concerns of large vs small states. The judiciary was independent, and the executive had limited powers.
There were checks and balances among the three branches. The 10th Amendment, last of the 10 Amendments comprising the Bill of Rights included in the original ratified Constitution, clearly says the federal government has ONLY the powers enumerated in the Constitution, with all other powers retained by the states or the people.
The Constitution’s design intentionally avoided the direct vote of a democracy, since the founders feared mob rule exercising the passions of the moment. Rather, they designed a republic, wherein we elect representatives to be the cooler heads to make decisions on our behalf, including the Electoral College.
The rule of law was paramount, with no provision at all for privileged people. Private property was sacrosanct. The pursuit of self-interest to gain wealth, within the law, was presumed.
There were many imperfections and flaws. Half the states and their representatives were still slaveholders since the slavery argument had been deferred to form a united fight for independence. Women did not have a vote. Men who didn’t own land didn’t have a vote. Some of the representatives were surely well-disguised rogues, but what they accomplished with this Constitution was a stunning departure from the patterns of privilege and oppression set in European western life.
Our founders designed a system that denied a royal class, and instead they built a way for us to govern ourselves.
Despite the founders’ imperfections, despite how Washington, D.C., has violated our own Constitution in so many ways over the last century, the achievement of this Constitution paved the way for ordinary, common Americans to govern themselves while they pursued their own self-interest. By competing with each other to make new and better inventions, they stoked the fire of an economic powerhouse and turned on the lights of the world. Some became wealthy, some failed, but all were free to try.
All over the world, common people with the boots of their betters on their necks noticed what happened here, and people in one country after another shook off their shackles and designed their own method to govern themselves. It hasn’t happened everywhere yet, and we here in America have work to do to return to the principles of our own Constitution.
Nevertheless, turning on the beacon of self-government in the late eighteenth century, inspiring other people in their own countries to do likewise, and demonstrating how capitalism harnesses self-interest to create wealth and economic success, that is what made America great.
I don’t want to hear America denigrated with endless grievances. I don’t want to hear mindless boasting of America’s greatness from the shallow assumption we are somehow superior to those in every other country. But was there good reason to hold up America as one of humanity’s great accomplishments? Damn right there was, and it is high time that is taught in our schools again.
Is America in decline?
Few Americans know or value the history outlined above even though it is a shallow scratch on the surface. Many wouldn’t care if they did know.
The mob rule of democracy our founders feared is now entrenched in our daily life through TV news. Most, especially the young, have never known commitment and sacrifice for something more important than themselves. They have never experienced pulling the wagon, just permanently along for the ride.
We are raising generations consumed by the entertainment culture, with nose glued to electronics and rarely a moment’s thought to serious matters. On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, they have always been safe and loved with an abundance of self-esteem, and have wallowed their entire existence in the warm comfort of the highest level called self-actualization. Instead of studying and upholding the Constitution, they are cross-eyed from staring at their own bellybutton and dreaming up new gripes against America.
The virtues of our Constitution’s structure have been supplanted, it seems, by the fleeting popularity of what feels good at the time, spread by TV news. There is a key word not mentioned in the Constitution, restraint, clearly a matter of self-control.
Our founders gave us a system to govern ourselves, but it depended on people being serious, informed, and when an election did not turn out the way we hoped, it is our duty to exercise restraint, support the result and keep the Constitutional process intact.
It seems a spreading pattern of behavior in America ignores the Constitution and is instead not just self-indulgent, but pushing an unrestrained radical agenda with violence toward anarchy.
It is up to you, serious young people, to push back, make your voices heard. Tell the one-dimensional morons there are vital principles far more important than our selfish comforts. Knowing the history of how we arrived at this point is important.
Just because Christopher Columbus was ego-maniacal and equally as cruel in seeking his own self-interest as other men of his time, that does not diminish the magnitude of his contribution to western history. Just because Thomas Jefferson kept his slaves and took romantic advantages with some of them, just because he was a dishonorable schemer as a politician, that does not diminish his deep intellectual contribution to the founding of America or his legacy as founder of the University of Virginia.
Don’t let the dummies make you think like a child. Don’t lose sight that simple people like simple one-dimensional answers, but life, each of us and the characters who made turning points in history, are not simple and one dimensional. We are all complex, baskets of shades of grey.
Do your part to wake up the dummies in America to be serious citizens before too many of them are permanently lost. Become a leader of other young, serious thinkers, see the Constitution’s beauty as an outstanding human achievement, be an advocate for preserving and protecting that Constitution to keep faith with America’s founders. Warts and all. It is too valuable, too extraordinary, to lose it, especially to a gaggle of pampered, self-absorbed damn fools.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinion column above ©2019 by Terry Garlock.]