Some more from Oxford, and viris et moris Castellioni

All Souls College

All Souls College

Today was not quite as productive as I had hoped. The washing machine with my laundry that I started at 9 PM last night did not finish till almost 10 this morning (“Oh yeah, those dry cycles can go on for hour!”), a nice 12 hour cycle. And of course I now have to iron all my shirts (I only had one pair of pants in that load). I finally got to the library at 11, but then had lunch with my hosts, which lasted 3 hours. Since it was then 3:30, and I had not gotten much sleep last night, I decided to come back to my apartment, only to find that something was amiss with the load of wash from this morning, and thus my clothes are hanging on the air dryer.  I think I now have it figured out, after having taken the front of the machine off and having pulled the water filter, it seems to work. We shall see. I got some reading done, and thought I would type this up (as none of my Skyping partners are available at the moment).

I have been giving several things some thought, and one of them is the whole question of what is sometimes termed “American exceptionalism.” Is there something that sets the United States apart from the rest of the world? Or is this just a term now to be used to beat up other nations who by some sort of cosmic dicta should be democracies, a modern take on manifest destiny?

We were exceptional, at one time, in that we had fully implemented, and were the only ones at the time, Montesquieu’s doctrine of the separation of powers. In our founder’s minds, the most powerful branch was the legislative; and the one that held the purse strings, the House, should also be the one most answerable to the bill payers. However conceived, this arrangement really no longer exists. For one, most congressional districts are now the size demographically of a quarter of the nation at its founding, and thus the nearness of our representatives is lost. For another matter, apart from the recent face-saving “ask the congress” move by our current chief executive, our presidents have since Truman danced around the constitution on such things as war, approaching it only like that date you went out with as a favor to your brother.

We were also exceptional in that at the founding, in that while there were stiff disagreements about how the government was to function, all were in agreement that the foundation of any republic was the virtue of its citizens. They rejected a common notion among the French republicans that enlightened self-interest would lubricate society, and that a republic could be built merely on negative rights (this does not mean that they were constructing positive ones, however). For most classical republicans, this negative reality (the law kept my knife from your throat, my hand from your back pocket) was only an aspect of law as statute, and they did not see it as merely the list of proscriptions enacted by the legislature. Law instead was something that ordered the universe, and which should also order us, our affections, appetites, desires, and aspirations. For this molding of the soul, its ordering, could not be something proscribed by statute, and any republic could not exist merely on the basis of mutual fear of reprisal. Fear is how despotisms worked. A people in fear of their government were slaves and serfs. The first republic, therefore, could not be the commonwealth, but must be the home, for this is where virtue was taught; and the preservation of the family was seen as an absolute necessity by all republican thinkers, along with the preservation of property. If someone else had a claim on my property, the fruits of my labor, than in whatever way or to whatever extent this person had a claim on it, I was that person’s slave. This is part of the terror now about the proliferation of positive rights, for in that a person has a right to something (healthcare? marriage?) I am a slave to them to make sure they get it. This is why rights as negative were always thought of as the safeguard against tyranny, whether you were of a liberal mind (liberal in the eighteenth century use of the term, and not its modern use which is largely identical with progressive), or leftist mind. This was agreed upon by people as distinct as Isaiah Berlin and Roger Scruton.

Which brings me to what I have really been mulling over for the last several days, and that is the order of the decalogue, the ten commandments. One of the subjects I am reading, Sebastian Castellio, believed that the ten words were given in the order of importance in our carrying them out. It doesn’t mean that coveting is a peccadillo, as any sin puts us in violation of the whole law, but that the duty we owe God is greater than the duty we owe our parents which is greater, until such time as we start our own family, than the duty we owe to others; and the duty to spouse is greater than the duty to the republic, even though the preservation of life is just above the preservation of marriage. There is a keen interplay here of the hierarchy: family, life, obligation to the seal of marriage. We then come to property, contractual agreements and oaths, and finally, the ordering of ourselves to the above hierarchy: you shall not only love God, your family, your fellow man, keep undefiled your marriage, preserve your neighbors’ property and keep your oaths, you shall not even as amusement entertain the possibility of breaching these. Castellio was not a lawyer, but a humanist, a lover of language. Knowing both Hebrew and Greek he translated the whole Bible into both French and Latin. He drew up dialogues that were made to teach children Latin through the use of conversations drawn from the Bible. The earliest conversations, e.g., that between Eve and the serpent, were simple, and had French translations accompanying them for the children’s instruction. The later ones were harder, and without French. More about this later (as in a few days).

The question Castellio addressed in another book, Moses Latinus, was the relationship of the Decalogue to the natural law, the obligations recognized by even the pagans (here, meaning Cicero), and whether, as the New Testament seemed to imply, the Decalogue was superseded by the Gospel. Castellio (and I myself) would tentatively respond no, for while the Decalogue was revelation and proscriptive, and certainly, as St. Paul notes, he would not have known it was a sin to covet had the law not said, “Thou shalt not covet,” there is also a sense in which the new law supercedes it. The law, of course, can be fulfilled in one word, love; and to love one’s neighbor as yourself was found in the Old Testament. Thus, it is not purely negative, it is not merely the limitations put on us in regard to our neighbor, but an enjoining of us to act toward our neighbor as we would to our own affairs. And to love our neighbors as ourselves was known among even the pagans, though hardly in a consistent manner. Cicero knew to love his relatives and his friends, and even his patria, but to give due respect to others that he would give his own ends was unknown. Further, love is now something more than loving our neighbors as ourselves, but is instead brought into the world of the self-giving love of God: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” How did our Lord love? Without regard to Himself, or His status. This was unknown to Moses, and even an old deist like Voltaire could see that this higher form of love was not taught by nature, nor could it be found in the ius gentium (the law of nations).

There is no law (no statute law) that can either teach or impose this upon us, it comes only with the life in Christ, that is, the life in God. For some years I havered between libertarianism and monarchianism. But in fact, the supreme Monarch does not force us to do anything, unlike almost every earthly monarch (or whomever holds the baton), for He gives to us all freedom, but a freedom that can only be realized among all the good things which he has also given us to enjoy. This is why law is also freedom, for it sets us free to do what we should. Law, that is law understood as love, orders our souls to be able to see and know the good, and both the formal and material power to execute it. In this sense, while I have great sympathies for Libertarians, and find myself mentally in league with them far more than not, the libertarian vision won’t save our nation from the ruin it approaches, fiscally, morally, intellectually (we’re pretty much there), and most of all spiritually. In a conversation with an FB friend over this, and he a very libertarian soul (but a virtuous and pious one, to say the least – – he’s not a libertine, an whole other animal) I made the case, but one which was made before, that without virtue, there can be no republic. Montesquieu, mentioned above, wrote about the Troglodytes, and how after the republic had prospered for years, grew tired of being virtuous, and so they asked their oldest living member to be their king. He was appalled: “How shall I go to your ancestors and tell them you no longer sought to be virtuous on your own?” Montesquieu had a point, but it should be noted that the modern notion that republics could not have kings dated from him. The main point is, that without virtue, without the chief virtue, love, any endeavor, be it a republic, a home, even a business, will not survive. More thoughts on love and republics later. To some more reading, the office, and to bed.

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About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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2 Responses to Some more from Oxford, and viris et moris Castellioni

  1. Susan Peterson says:

    Forgive me for getting stuck on the practical, but how can a washing machine take 12 or 13 hours? All the washing machines I know take about 30 minutes to an hour.
    Also, usually if you put the shirts in the dryer and take them out and hang them up as soon as they are done, they don’t need ironing. That is why we have cotton/polyester blends and even no-iron cotton. You sound as if you have much better things to do with your time. In fact, almost everyone has better things to do with his or her time than iron shirts!
    Susan Peterson

  2. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Alas, Susan, I have known all of this from my youth up. I think I overloaded the 2-in-1 machine, and as it works by a sensor, the clothes took forever to dry. If you look at the manual, they tell you to expect 7 hours for one cycle. So yes, I have taken steps so that I don’t have to endure this again. Thanks.

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