Category Archives: History

On prosperity and the pursuit of happiness

The real question is whether a religion or culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than “happiness.” Our difficulty as a nation is that we must now learn that prosperity is not simply coordinated to virtue, that virtue is not simply coordinated to historic destiny and that happiness is no simple possibility of human existence.

This passage appears in Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952), in a chapter where he meditates on the problem of Americans’ exceptional moral self-regard, which depends on confusing the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of prosperity and consequently measuring the virtue of our nation on its achievements in the latter. His conclusion — which ought not to surprise any Christian — is that material prosperity is not a measure of virtue, whether collective or individual.

In the context of the early Cold War, the danger Niebuhr senses is that, like the communists, Americans believe that their political philosophy is uniquely virtuous, but the proof of our superiority lay in our capacity both to generate more wealth collectively, as a society, and to distribute it more effectively (if less equally) to individuals than our ideological rivals. Niebuhr acknowledges the fact of the U.S.A.’s prosperity, but cautions his American readers against adopting it as a measure of moral self-worth. Doing so would mean creating an ideological illusion of perfect consistency in ideal and practice, one that leads inevitably to bellicosity and self-deception.

The more that Americans consider our individual rights to pursue happiness to be coterminous with our good fortune in creating and maintaining a high standard living, the more we confuse accidents of history with historical destiny. Thus delusions of historical destiny enable us to paper over our own failures, mistakes, and peculiar moral blindnesses. And the root of it is a simple categorical error, which is that happiness is material comfort. All manner of political evil derives from this error, and Niebuhr takes great pains to illustrate that both communists and apologists for capitalism are guilty of it. Striving for material gain is not a moral virtue, but Niebuhr views it as both the means and end of modern politics. That’s why, he argues, we need a religious perspective on this endless–and endlessly unfulfilling–pursuit of worldly happiness.

Over these exertions we discern by faith the ironical laughter of the divine source and end of all things… The scripture assures us that God’s laughter is derisive, having the sting of judgment upon our vanities in it. But if the laughter is truly ironic it must symbolize mercy as well as judgment. For whenever judgment defines the limits of human striving it creates the possibility of an humble acceptance of those limits. Within that humility mercy and peace find a lodging place.

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The analogical reservoir

Thus Hitler became a hegemonic historical analogy. He did not so much join the ranks of earlier historical symbols of evil as render them unusable. Indeed, perhaps because Western observers became convinced that wartime analogies had underestimated the Nazi dictator’s radicalism, they began to employ Hitler as the baseline for evaluating all new threats. This tendency is captured—in caricature—by Godwin’s Law: the notion that the longer an internet debate drags on, the more likely participants are to invoke Hitler.

[…]

Our present moment is a tricky one: Some commentators feel more justified than ever in invoking Hitler, yet many feel a bit numb to the comparison. The solution, it seems to me, is not to ban comparisons to the Nazis—as if such a thing were possible—but to grant that analogies have always been a tendentious business, and that only the future can tell which ones were valid. Commentators should proceed with a little more humility, a little more circumspection, and, perhaps, a little more creativity.

Before 1945, the analogical reservoir was more abundantly stocked. Even in the most obscure local papers, there were constant references to an extremely diverse array of historical figures from the classical era to the 20th century: Pharaoh Thutmose III, Alexander the Great, King Herod, Emperor Caligula, Attila the Hun, Richard III, Henry VIII, Guy Fawkes, Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Boulanger, and Benito Mussolini.

If commentators restore comparative diversity, they may not prevent a “new Hitler”—diversity did not prevent the original Hitler either—but they might better hold their audiences’ attention and point them in the direction of more germane historical episodes.

—Gavriel Rosenfeld, “How Americans Described Evil Before Hitler”


“Know whence you came.”

Take no one’s word for anything, including mine—but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept hem and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.

—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963), Modern Library [1995], pp. 7-8


Nothing to lose but your chains.

Born on the eve of the Civil War to a slaveholder in Maryland, Gantt’s father, Virgil Gantt, owned more than sixty men, women, and children. As Gantt wrote, “The term ‘task master’ is an old one in our language; it symbolizes the time, now happily passing away, when men were compelled to work, not for their own interests, but for those of some one else.” Gantt’s goal was not to abolish this old system but to adapt it to modern needs. As he explained, “The general policy of the past has been to drive, but the era of force must give way to that of knowledge, and the policy of the future will be to teach and to lead, to the advantage of all concerned.”

In a sense, scientific management replicated slavery’s extractive techniques while jettisoning the institution itself. Gantt’s rhetoric was not necessarily of distance but of progress; he purportedly liked to say that “scientific management marked a great step forward from slave labor.” James Mapes Dodge, a Philadelphia manufacturer and early supporter of Taylor, explained in 1913 that “we cannot tell who first liberated the germ idea of Scientific Management, as it was born to the world in the first cry of anguish that escaped the lips of the lashed slave.” Dodge’s reference was metaphorical, to a vague and distant past where slavery prevailed, not to the slave South. But he understood that “the present generation” had inherited “from the past the relationship of master and slave” and saw it as the job of scientific management to move beyond it.

[…]

In some cases, the evidence for slavery can be literally read between the lines. Take the example of Gantt, whose task and bonus system so closely paralleled the one used by some slaveholders. Gantt is still sometimes profiled in modern management textbooks and web guides. In a phrase copied between them so frequently that it is hard to be sure of its original author, Gantt is said to have been born to a family of prosperous farmers in Maryland, but that “his early years were marked by some deprivation as the Civil War brought about changes to the family fortunes.” Those “changes,” so easily elided, were wrought by the more than sixty enslaved people who escaped from the plantation and took their freedom. The legacy of slavery is simultaneously acknowledged and erased.

–Caitlin Rosenthal, “How Slavery Inspired Modern Business Management,” adapted from Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (2018)


“We value the ancient, the antique, the quaint, and the outmoded.”

Why should teaching the past matter? It matters because teaching any pre-modern culture exposes students to ways of being that may be alien to them, a form of ontological diversity just as important as the more familiar kinds we hear so much about today. Many years ago, in a lecture at my college, the classicist Danielle Allen argued that education is fundamentally about knowing the foreign. Like Allen, I share that conviction and, in my own courses, daily ask students to explore the foreign battlefields of Homeric Troy or to inhabit the psychological terrain of Augustine. Both the Iliad and the Confessions offer examples of imaginative mindscapes as foreign to many students as any far-flung land they might visit on a study-abroad trip. And such foreign intellectual encounters, so familiar in early literature and history courses, help students cultivate virtues such as empathy and tolerance. […]

History also teaches us that the pursuit of knowledge is often a digressive process. Unlike the natural sciences where knowledge and learning are generally linear, experimentation and research leading to new insights and replacing previous conclusions, humanistic knowledge proceeds haltingly. In the natural sciences, one often draws the conclusion that new knowledge is better than old knowledge. In the humanities, we value the ancient, the antique, the quaint, and the outmoded all in the interest of thickening and enriching our understanding of human life.

While much of that life has involved regrettable episodes, history reminds us of what it means to be questing and creative and to transcend the limits of our human predicament, as Julian of Norwich or Galileo or Mary Rowlandson once did. Studying the past has been shown to remove feelings of isolation that many young people in contemporary America report as their greatest fear. Further, today’s younger generation may learn resilience, courage, and fortitude through an imaginative engagement of the people of the past.

–Carla Arnell, All for the Now–or the World Well Lost?


“The real truth is we don’t know.”

Initially, Mr. Burns included skeptics on the show. But, he said, “we found that they had nothing to say, other than, ‘There’s no proof, there’s no proof.’ If we were going to do a show about the birth of Jesus, would we have people who say, ‘This is ridiculous?’ No.”

The invocation of religion is deliberate. In Mr. Burns’s view, “Ancient Aliens” succeeds because it explores spirituality and the mystery of life in an increasingly secular, data-driven culture. Like religion, it offers seekers an origin story.

“It’s not about little green men in outer space. That’s the three-headed snake lady that gets you into the tent,” Mr. Burns said. “It’s really a show about looking for God. Science would have you believe we are the result of nothing more than a chance assemblage of matter. The real truth is we don’t know.”

The questions posed by the ancient astronaut theorists, however far-fetched, serve a rare purpose, according to Mr. Burns: “It allows the audience to wonder. And very few things on television do that.”

–Steven Kurutz, “Suspicious Minds” (NYT)


A childlike indifference to fact and fiction

Legend says the diver drowned retrieving the pearl. Trapped in a giant Tridacna clam, his body was brought to the surface by his fellow tribesmen in Palawan, a province of the Philippines, in May 1934. When the clam was pried open, and the meat scraped out, the local chief beheld something marvelous: a massive pearl, its sheen like satin. In its surface, the chief discerned the face of the Prophet Muhammad. He named it the Pearl of Allah. At 14 pounds, one ounce, it was the largest pearl ever discovered.

A Filipino American, Wilburn Dowell Cobb, was visiting the island at the time and offered to buy the jewel. In a 1939 article that appeared in Natural Historymagazine, he recounted the chief’s refusal to sell: “A pearl with the image of Mohammed, the Prophet of Allah, is earned by devotion, by sacrifice, not bought with money.” But when the chief’s son fell ill with malaria, Cobb used atabrine, a modern medicine, to heal him. “You have earned your reward,” the chief proclaimed. “Here, my friend, claim this, your pearl.”

In 1939, Cobb brought the pearl to New York City, and exhibited it at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, on Broadway. There, a new legend emerged, eclipsing the first. Upon seeing the pearl, Cobb said, an elderly Chinese gentleman “of highest culture and significant wealth” named Mr. Lee “burst into an hysteria of trembling and weeping.” This wasn’t the Pearl of Allah; this was the long-lost Pearl of Lao Tzu.

[…]

Wilburn Cobb was born in 1903 on Cuyo, an island in the western Philippines. His father was an American mining engineer, and Cobb grew up affluent, with a penchant for adventure. Ruth described him as a brilliant swimmer who would go diving in Palawan’s underwater caves and race with schools of sharks. As he traveled from island to island, he grew enamored of indigenous cultures, and began writing romantic stories about the people he encountered.

“The storytelling part of him was always, always there,” Ruth told me. “He wanted to be a writer.” Cobb studied his pearl, sketched it from different angles, and finally saw the turbaned face, like a figure in a cloud. He called it the Pearl of Allah in heretical, if well-meaning, deference to the chief, who was Muslim—and then put the words in the chief’s mouth, in the pages of Natural History. With a childlike indifference to distinctions of fact and fiction, Cobb seemed to perceive the pleasure of a story as proof of its validity.

–Michael Lapointe, “Chasing the Pearl of Lao Tzu”