The second city

There is, of course, much more to be learned by reading about times prior to Athens, but I will leave that to you. I have given you two excellent places to start: Russle Kirk, the main author I am reading, and Thomas Cahill’s excellent ‘hinges of history’ series.

Now to move on to the second of the cities in our journey: ancient Athens. Often the term Greece is used in discussing the foundations of American liberty, but there is actually very little of the American founding that can be traced to Greece, or more properly, Athens, since the Greece of our imaginations was mostly that, imagination. It was not a fantastic place of freedom and democracy, but, as Kirk says in his book and history verifies, one of “class conflict, disunity, internecine violence, private and public arrogance and selfishness, imperial vainglory, and civic collapse.” What is known as the “golden age of Athens” lasted little more than 50 years. While Athens conquered many city-states, they could not work together to sustain the greatness that flowered only briefly. They have the perfect word for their own demise: hubris.

This is not to say the Greeks are not important, they are, and that will be the next discussion.


Ancient Jerusalem, continued

The idea of ordered liberty is something that people take for granted. We think it always was thus. But the world outside of the Jewish covenant was one of capriciousness and injustice. When we read of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, we recoil in horror. However, since human sacrifice was a common occurrance in the region it was not that sacrifice that caused his conflicted feelings, it was that the sacrifice contradicted the covenant between God and Abraham. This event forever excluded human sacrifice from . This set the apart from all other tribes in the area.

We look also at the commandments of God passed down to the Hebrews through Moses. (There are more than ten by the way, there are over 600 commandments in the Old Testament.) Reading them they seem unbelievably harsh to our modern sensibilities. But the laws were actually far more just than what went on around them. From Kirk:

before the people of Israel experienced thier “leap in being”, by which they learned of the just God and His laws, no confidence prevailed anywhere that an abiding order governed the universe. Everything that happened might be chance, accident; the gods were ferocious or whimsical; those gods laid down no clear principles for the conduct of human life.

In Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews, we find the same concept:

But if we make use of what hints remain in the prehistorical and protohistorical “record,” we must come to the unexpected conclusion that their inventions and discoveries, made in aid of their survival and prosperity—tools and fire, then agriculture and beasts of burden, then irrigation and the wheel—did not seem to them innovations. These were gifts from beyond the world, somehow part of the Eternal. All evidence points to there having been, in the earliest religious thought, a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical. The assumptions that early man made about the world were, in all their essentials, little different from the assumptions that later and more sophisticated societies, like Greece and India, would make in a more elaborate manner. As Henri-Charles Puech says of Greek thought in his seminal Man and Time: “No event is unique, nothing is enacted but once …; every event has been enacted, is enacted, and will be enacted perpetually; the same individuals have appeared, appear, and will appear at every turn of the circle.” The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had. But their worldview has become so much a part of us that at this point it might as well have been written into our cells as a genetic code. We find it so impossible to shed—even for a brief experiment—that it is now the cosmic vision of all other peoples that appears to us exotic and strange.

Cahill, Thomas (2010). The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (Hinges of History) (Kindle Locations 94-106). Anchor. Kindle Edition.

Without the idea of a world of reason, order, and justice, there would be no liberty.

The first city

Jerusalem, capital city of ancient Israel, though thousands of years in the past, is with us still. Not just in the modern state, but in the moral foundation upon which the American experiment rests. Russell Kirk says, “We cannot well understand order and disorder in America today, or elsewhere in the world, unless we know something of the beliefs and the experiences of the Hebrew people in a remote land and a remote time.” He further says that while our political history owes only a little to the Israelites, “Nevertheless, the American moral order cold not have come into existence at all, had it not been for the legacy left by Israel.”

John Adams wrote similar sentiments in a letter to F. A Vanderkemp in February of 1809:

The two most powerful, active, and enterprising nations that ever existed are now contending with us. The two nations, to whom mankind are under more obligations for the progress of science and civilization than to any others, except the Hebrews. This consideration affects me more than the danger from either or both. I excepted the Hebrews, for in spite of Bolingbroke and Voltaire, I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.

Kirk tells us that the in the realm of politics, the idea of a check on civil authority is present in the Jewish political order: the prophets were the restraint on the the kings of Israel. The covenant, the social conpact if you will, is between Jehova and the Hebrews. The human authority, whether judges, kings, or priests, were judged against their fidelity to that covenant. That idea survived numerous oppressions and the diaspora and was incorporated into our own social compact.

Many people today try to say that the founders were not religious men. This can only be done by ignoring the written record we have of the founding generation. Anyone can read the letters and speeches of men like George Washington, Sam Adams, John Adams and even Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to find the falsness of that claim. The reason the mistake is made is that we think of religiosity in modern terms such as “born again” evangelicalism. But the religion of the colonies was actaually more Old Testament than New. “In Adam’s fall we sinned all” is the first line colonial children learned to read. John Winthrop’s City Upon a Hill sermon of 1630 and Johnathon Edward’s Sinners in the hands of an angry God of 1741two of the most famous examples of this Old Testament worldview. The fall, God’s justice, and God’s grace are all important to the development of the American notion of liberty. We are familiar with some of the ideas of ancient Greece and Rome. But America’s beginnings reach much further into the past, all the way back to God’s chosen people.

Whence came liberty?

The men who started this great experiment called the United States of America were men of ideals and ideas. There genius was not to create something from scratch, but to combine ideas that had peroclated throughout history. Seeds planted in the past flowered under their hands. One of the best books to read about the source of these ideas is Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order, where the history of liberty is laid out in what I call the “tale of 5 cities”. The tale travels through ancient Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, revisits Jerusalem of the first century, heads to the London of the middle ages, and then on to Philadelphia in the 18th century. I hope this journey, not just through this work but also other works that illuminate the ideas presented, will be interesting and enlightening.

Looking-glass world

‘I should see the garden far better,’ said Alice to herself, ‘if I could get to the top of that hill: and here’s a path that leads straight to it—at least, no, it doesn’t do that—’ (after going a few yards along the path, and turning several sharp corners), ‘but I suppose it will at last. But how curiously it twists! It’s more like a corkscrew than a path! Well, THIS turn goes to the hill, I suppose—no, it doesn’t! This goes straight back to the house! Well then, I’ll try it the other way.’ And so she did: wandering up and down, and trying turn after turn, but always coming back to the house, do what she would. Indeed, once, when she turned a corner rather more quickly than usual, she ran against it before she could stop herself.” –Chapter 2, Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

This is where we find ourselves today. The federal government keeps trying to get to the top of the hill using a path that never works. There is little original thinking in D.C., because there are few who really want to change the status quo.

The only way move forward is to look at the history of freedom and take our cues from there. It is appropriate to begin this weekend, celebrating the great experiment in freedom known as The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.