Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Past and Present
Though in retirement I have left behind many of the professional activities of my old professional life, I have been surprised to find that one feature of that life—invitations to give lectures, informal talks, or after dinner speeches—has not gone away. And since I enjoy talking to people, I accept whenever possible. Thus it was that I found myself last Friday evening offering informal remarks to the annual dinner of something called the New Jersey Society of the Cincinnati. My supposed topic was “The Uses of History” or some such, but it was I who received tuition on that topic.
Like many Americans, I have become rather casual, if not actually cynical, concerning the greatness of our nation’s founders, beginning with George Washington. Yet to examine almost any aspect of Washington is to reveal greatness of a kind sadly unimaginable in our current political leaders and aspirants. His role as first General President of the Societies of the Cincinnati is but one small feather in a lavishly plumed cap.
The eighteenth-century squirearchy loved reading classical literature, and imitated classical history whenever possible. Thomas Jefferson for a time tried to use Virgil’s Georgics as a practical handbook of animal husbandry. The great seal of the State of Virginia bears the motto Sic semper tyrannis—words supposedly uttered by Brutus as he stabbed Julius Cæsar and actually uttered by John Wilkes Booth as he shot Lincoln. (Instances of the bad uses of history greatly outnumber the good.)
Among the heroes of legendary Roman history was the farmer Cincinnatus. He was plowing a field when a delegation of importunate citizens arrived to beg him to assume the dictatorship of the infant city, then threatened by hostile neighbors. Though he much preferred his agrarian life, he submitted to duty’s demands, left his farm, assumed the leadership of the city, organized its defense, and defeated its enemies. But the biographical punch line is what he did next—resigned the dictatorship, went back to his farm, and continued plowing.
For the American revolutionaries Cincinnatus was the perfect historical model for so much of the officer corps of the Continental Army, and most obviously for its supreme general officer, Washington. For modern Washington—the city as metonymy for the congressional body and its whirling satellites—Cincinnatus is an historical indictment of career politicians. The Society of the Cincinnati, founded in 1783, was a group of former army officers committed to the “immutable principles” of the fellowship that had given the Society birth. Needless to say these do not include the one immutable principle of our contemporary political class—the acquisition and retention of political office by any means possible.
There are actually fourteen affiliated societies—one for each of the original states, and one for France. These were the allies who had prevailed against a great—perhaps the greatest—European military power. New Jersey was not then a ganglion of superhighways, but the battlefield of such decisive action as that at Trenton, Princeton, and Monmouth. The founding of the Society was contemporaneous with the establishment of a promising settlement on the Ohio River, which was given its name by a proud veteran. Membership now is by lineal descent, and is parsimoniously granted.
I knew none of this when I agreed to give my little talk. On the same day I gave it, a squabble broke out in our capital city concerning bragging rights for assassinating Osama bin Laden. This episode began in unseemliness, and has not become more salubrious as days have passed. I expect soon to hear from one of the candidates not only that he did or certainly would have done it, but that it would have been a good idea to attach Osama’s body to a Chevy Volt and drag it seven times around CIA headquarters.
They built in marble; we continue in cinder block. Everybody knows that. For that first crucial decade of our Republic we survived not only without an FCC or a Securities and Exchange Commission, we survived without an army or a police force! What protected us in our extraordinary vulnerabilities were certain ideas about citizenship, not yet turned to irony, inhabiting the hearts and minds of certain idealists.
As we enter a presidential campaign likely to excite discouragement and perhaps even revulsion in the minds of thoughtful citizens, we can perhaps turn again to antique history and classical myth in hopes of finding at least aesthetic comfort. Various ancient authorities report the existence of a monstrous race called the Pygmaei, a tribe of very little people who lived—and here the authorities vary—either in little subterranean burrows or in houses made of eggshells. The Pygmies lived in the back of beyond, on the edge of nowhere. Periodically they did battle with their ancestral enemies, a race of birds of approximately their own stature, usually identified as storks. The dubious battle betwixt Pygmies and Storks is a not infrequent subject in classical art. The grotesquerie of it all must have been considered diverting. Indeed it does seems a more amusing pairing than donkeys and elephants.