The Ribbon of War

On Memorializing Warfare’s Fallen Warriors

Many people have died in fulfillment of the oath they took according to the Constitution of the United States, which remained unchanged from 1789 to 1950, when it underwent a slight revision, but has remained materially the same for 227 years: namely to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the orders of the President of the United States. Thus many would rather die than swear falsely this oath.

Glancing through the history of the United States, World War II serves as the emblem of that loyalty, wherein hundreds of thousands perished defending the Constitution from what was perceived to be an existential threat on two fronts: from Asia and from Europe. I equivocate because I sit in the luxury of being removed two generations from that perceived threat; moreover, the question is before us today, given the intricacies of international relations: can there even be such an existential threat?

Well, was there ever such an existential threat to the Constitution of the United States? Let’s say yes there was, and World War II is it. I hearken to the opening dialogue of the wonderful HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which is a dramatization of interviews conducted first by historian Stephen Ambrose, drawing from a few of his books, and supplemented by interviews conducted by the producers of the TV series.

“Get your uniforms,” someone shouts in a marketplace.


“America is in a war with Japan.”

And so it began. I am struck by this introduction: America’s population was largely surprised by the onset of war. Studying the decade leading up to Pearl Harbor, it seems obvious to me that the United States was basically inviting itself into a historic conflagration just by sheer policy moves made by a cynical government overseen by the architect of the New Deal and the packer of the Supreme Court, FDR, who, despite his pernicious ways, remained popular enough that he was in his third term as president, inviting, as I say, foreign attack. How could those who were living in that time be surprised?

Well, some were, and some weren’t. Roosevelt wasn’t that popular, and his critics were quick to point out, especially as the Pacific theater quickly turned hopeless, that this was Roosevelt’s War, that he needed it to hide his nefarious, anti-American, pro-Socialism, domestic policies, among which critics was ensconced the hero George S. Patton, named by Carlo d’Este as A Genius For War, to whom we will return momentarily.

In the meantime, our national identity given by WWII pours from the bloody victories earned at Iwo Jima, and, in particular, in the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, which was won by the Battered Bastards of Bastogne, bloodied but unbowed. In oft-depicted scenes, we find our heroes throwing back the fierce German Wehrmacht without proper food, clothes, shoes, ammunition, weapons, or even winter coats, withstanding one of the coldest Decembers on record without the luxury of a mere campfire.

When we celebrate these heroes, for surely they were, we see them fighting against all hope, victorious by sheer American grit and fortitude, as Ambrose puts it, pitting the ideals of American freedom against the tyranny of fascism, and we won.

But why were our heroes essentially naked? Couldn’t we have won more easily with our vast resources producing fully, protected by two gigantic oceans? Why did they have to suffer, and why for so long?

Let me introduce to you one Major General John C. H. Lee, the commander of the supply army for the European Theater, disdainfully called “Jesus Christ Himself,” a man notorious for seeking the pleasures of conquest and aggrandizing all things earthly unto himself. In September of 1944, when he should have been supplying the combat armies with winter materiel, he was instead shipping tons of prefabricated housing for his officers and men, whose job it was to acquire for themselves, kicking up a share through the officers to their commander.

In other words, there was an entire army of thieves, scoundrels, and crooks given solely to creating a black market, siphoning off anything of value for their own enrichment, and at the expense of 1) the American laborer and 2) their comrades-at-arms holding the line. I repeat: an entire army of American soldiers were happy denizens of a rear-echelon empire of thievery.

Why were the 101st and the 82nd divisions rushed to Bastogne in the first place? Another army of American soldiers was in panicked retreat, wild-eyed with fear, throwing down their arms and ammunition in a bid to escape the horrors of warfare as quickly as possible. I repeat: an entire army of American soldiers was in retreat.

Patton’s rescue of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne (which has never been acknowledged as necessary by those battered bastards) is another tale of heroism. The genius for war saw that his superiors were far too complacent with the progress of war, and that their bungling of the battlefield, for political reasons, was percolating toward a sudden reversal of fortune; indeed, fortune had allowed the Allies to progress in spite of many terrible decisions, not the least of which was removing Patton from command.

The German Army never believed for one second that Eisenhower had removed Patton, the greatest general of the entire war, for the misdemeanor of slapping a soldier, considering the entire media storm to have been manufactured as a deceptive ploy. In fact, the political sensitivities of the Allies had prevailed against Patton, and the Allied advance stalled, festered, and nearly broke under the German counteroffensive.

Nevertheless, Patton, singular among the entire European command, had foreseen the counteroffensive, almost to the day and place; not only that, but he had prepared his army for it, from the top brass all the way to the common foot soldier. This “pivot,” as it is called, disengaging from the enemy on one front, marching without ceasing for forty-eight hours, and re-engaging the enemy on another front, is a marvel of warfare.

It was a few men, then, under the duress of a fanatical enemy and also in defiance of their own bureaucracy, who won the war. I’m sure there are many veterans of that war, and many fallen comrades, who fought ably and heroically, sandwiched between General J. C. H. Lee and the Battered Bastards of Bastogne who welcomed George S. Patton’s 3rd Army to the party, but without the few, the many would have foundered and failed.

Let’s say we are surprised by the perception of an existential threat in the near future. Looking around at our culture, which seems dangerously preoccupied with its genitalia and the free stuff from the government to stimulate the same, it might be difficult to believe that we would even stop gazing at our crotches long enough to raise an army for the battle. Ah, it is not the many who prevail, but the few, who carry the many, and the many thank them for preserving them in spite of thievery and onanism and cowardice.

You’ve met my friend Rafe in previous posts. He’s a real person, and he really is my friend, whom I consider to be a thoughtful eccentric, of no particular philosophy or commonly held worldview. He’s the youngest of four brothers, and he’s my age, so he won’t be one of the few of those thoughtful warriors, but a decade or two ago he would have been. He has three sons of his own, chips off the old block (with normal names), but with the same ideals, and, I think, a willingness to spearhead an assault to preserve the ideals of freedom for us who might not be so willing, and, if willing, less able.

Ever vigilant, Rafe calls them in. #turkeyhunting

I mentioned to Adam Gurri recently that Rafe has no air-conditioning in his home, and he heats his home with a wood-burning stove. And look: while Western New York might seem rural to many of you, it’s not rural. His house is situated in the country between Rochester and Buffalo, and he has five neighbors within a literal stone’s throw of his front door. Every year he has an argument with his one neighbor about whether he can track a wounded deer onto his fields, which his neighbor refuses to grant, illegally harvesting, then, the deer which Rafe shot. I digress. But it’s so un-neighborly…And in God’s America!

Anyway, I mentioned to Adam Gurri that Rafe has no AC and heats his home with a wood-burning stove, and we both thought it was hilarious that anyone would want to live like that, what with affordable thermostat-controlled environments and all.


Rafe heats his home with a wood-burning stove because he likes it, not because he’s some backwater oaf. The house, nevertheless, is unevenly heated, but such actuality creates a pattern of living in which his family thrives. And he’s not entirely brutish: he recently bought an air-conditioner, one of those interior wall-mounted doohickeys, under which we sat all day this past Sunday while Western New York roasted in temperatures rising to almost 90° (the agony!). Later on, we went outside and did some firearm target practice.

We will look to such people, in the case of a surprise existential crisis, people who are intelligent, well-read, thoughtful, morally stable, and violent. People like Rafe are like me in that they are both pessimistic about the ability of society to preserve itself and aware of the caprice of the ribbon of war. They are more than me in that they will prefer to die in spite of its caprice, hoping.

Of Subjects and Object

If you’ll forgive me for subjecting you to another lengthy post, I’ve got a subject I’d like to explore a bit: the subject-object distinction. Before you object, let me say that my primary objection is how few people even see it as a distinction, rather than revealed truth. In an argument a few weeks ago, I was accused of magical thinking simply for asserting the existence of what Deirdre McCloskey calls “conjective,” Searle’s “institutional facts,” or Habermas’ “intersubjective.”

The idea of something not purely subject or object seems impossible in our post-Enlightenment world. Even the religious largely argue for the existence of an objective world that is affirmed by God.

So I’d like to subject the subject-object distinction to some much merited scrutiny.

Continue reading “Of Subjects and Object”

Absence of War Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

A lovely piece, over at The Illustrated Guide to Law, recommended once upon a time by our dear Spivonomist, is missing something. Heraclitus fans picked up on it almost immediately.

“Guilt Without Fault” is a fascinating learning piece concerning mens rea and the criminalization of procedural and civil violations, e.g., going to jail for innocently collecting off the ground the feather of a bird arbitrarily placed on an endangered species list, i.e., instead of a monetary judgment. Within the piece is a thorough and beautifully illustrated guide to the context of over-criminalization, including a few historical morsels.

In those morsels, Nathan Burney, the author (who does a fabulous job; I can’t gush enough over the helpfulness of his site to the likes of me), notes the build-up of certain historical anxieties, then the denouement, all of which instruct us as to our present predicament.

As we interpret the meaning of our own current events, we find ourselves talking about innocent people trying to navigate through an overly-complex social code which is enforced by armed agents of the government. You, dear reader, may recall some recent and newsworthy episodes of social and civil law being enforced by armed agents who were subsequently met with a response most criminal in nature. Burney clearly demonstrates that today’s society is not the first society to find itself mired in such a predicament, and he also gives us hope that there is a happy release from our present predicament. Nevertheless, I wonder if he has glossed over a peculiarity about those examples of happy release from over-criminalization.

For example, Burney calls to mind the dyspepsia of William Blackstone, whose thorough outcry against over-criminalization became a textbook for the founders of the United States (illustrated history of said begins here). In other words, Blackstone experienced limited success in his home England, but his ideas were influential in the newly formed United States. Unfortunately, he died in 1780, unable to witness the fruits of his labors.

Perhaps he died thinking that he actually had seen the fruits of his labors. The eradication of over-criminalization in America came by means of “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” followed by a volley of shots, then cannon fire, then cavalry charges, and finally, naval bombardment. After the British Army and the Continental Army took their turns scouring the settled regions of America, the United States was born, her people released happily from over-criminalization.


It is a running joke amongst us Sweet Talkers that some fuel, a match, and some rope will get our society where it needs to be, not to be perfect, as the utopians speak, but to be more perfect, as Abraham Lincoln taught. I don’t know that I want to see the eradication of over-criminalization. Compliance isn’t that hard, after all, especially since my refrigerator and freezer are full of food, and sports are being played without ceasing on screens throughout my house. Panem et circensibus sound ominous at first, indicating loss of something valuable, but bureaucracy creep inside my home is a welcome alternative to ashes.

Rehabilitating Neville Chamberlain

After Neville Chamberlain died of bowel cancer in November of 1940, Winston Churchill mourned him privately, “Whatever shall I do without poor Neville? I was relying on him to look after the Home Front for me.”

I think it is oft-assumed that Churchill and Chamberlain were vituperative in their antipathy toward each other. Indeed, nothing can be further from the truth. They saw the Nazi threat differently and understood history differently to the extent that one or the other of them would eventually prevail, but neither of them saw the other as a political foe, not in the sense that one should have power and the other should not. It was the magnanimity of Chamberlain that gave us Churchill to lead the Allies against Hitler; Chamberlain, when he went to King George VI to tender his resignation, stepped over the more senior politician, the more popular and more obvious candidate for Prime Minister, Lord Halifax (who was not pressing his claim to the ministry), suggesting Winston Churchill instead.


We also have the picture and the quote: “Peace in our time,” a signed document, assurances from Hitler that England and Germany would never wage war against each other. On the night of the British declaration of war against Germany, of course, Hitler sent a well-planned and well-rehearsed air raid against London. We, the beneficiaries of almost 80 years of hindsight, shake our heads with the epithet on our lips, “You idiot, how could you have ever trusted Hitler?”

The photograph, however, was taken with too narrow a field of focus to capture the enormous British zeitgeist. Chamberlain was received by England from the Munich meeting with near-universal acclaim. Note: this was after Hitler had taken the Rhineland, had absorbed Austria, had taken the Sudetenland, and had massed on the Polish border. The people cheered in the streets, a veritable sea of people, so that a nine mile journey took Chamberlain an hour and a half. The press lauded him as a hero. King George VI even wrote him a letter congratulating him on the preservation of the Empire.

A few individuals dared act contrarily, most notably Duff Cooper, who resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty, and, of course, Churchill.

Whence this national fantasy? How does history judge so harshly and so easily while those who were present almost unanimously praised him? Even the most friendly historical treatments of Chamberlain note that his reckoning of Hitler was utterly fatuous. All those cheers for so fatuous a gesture.

Any rehabilitation attempt must not seek to defend Chamberlain in an empty context, that of a leader with a set of beliefs, principles, and assumptions about the world with all the evidence laid out before him as so many archaeological artifacts. Instead, his own people, those who approved so tumultuously of his beliefs, principles, and assumptions, must be acknowledged as the sea driving him inevitably into the shoal water of history.

Who knows the ship of state is driven so by the imaginations of her own people?

Heraclitus on the Economics of Just War

“We have a hero in our military tradition by the name of Patton,” I said. It was the evening of our detoxifying day in his garden, after a light supper, and neither of us felt much like wine, so we were drinking some medicinal tea for the last of the aches and pains. I asked for more honey. “Patton said that compared to war, all human endeavors shrink into insignificance.”

“Sounds like my kind of fellow,” said the old man. In the light of the fire I could see his visage glowering over his tea.

“Yeah, Patton was a genius for war.”

He grunted, sipping.

“We were lucky that he was on our side.”

“Lucky?” he said excitedly. “I suppose next you’ll be telling me that you sacrifice to those Athenian gods of the myth instead of hearkening to the Logos, and that you’ve discovered a rationale for enslaving your fellowman.” Gosh, he was an irascible sort.

“I’m just saying that if he hadn’t been on our side, injustice would have prevailed the world over,” I replied.

“I did not know there was such a thing as a ‘side’ in warfare.”

“Well, sure there is,” I said. “The good guys are on one side, and the bad guys are on the other. Now, I know what you’re gonna say–it depends on whose side you’re on–but history has a way of sifting through the data to teach us who was bad and who was good.”

“I have no doubt you are correct,” he said. “I had never considered that minor detail of the thing.” I was hooked, and he tugged on the line. “You have obviously not considered that there is no such thing as a ‘side’ in warfare. Is that the normal terminology for combatants? ‘You’re on that side; I’m on this side’?”

“Well, no. We call it a front.”

“That’s right: the front lines. And the lines move. When the lines move, the sides change. Whoever was on ‘that side’ is now on ‘this side.’ Once upon the side of justice, now upon the side of injustice. Such foolishness, war, if there is such a thing as ‘sides.'”

“I thought you were for war,” I inquired.

“Who is for war? Why do you keep saying that? Do I appear to you as some sort of warmonger, a broker of power among the nations? Drawing lines upon which to do battle? I am not for war, but war is for me.”


“If you listen very carefully,” he continued, “you may actually catch wind of the Persian machine for war even now. These rapscallion youths protesting my brother’s wise conscription policies will set all of Ionia aflame, and the Persian King will feel the need to put it out. I desire to understand the nature of the flame, as it is an element which dries out the soul, and war rides the flame as a locust horde rides the wind. Taxes, you know.”

“Yeah,” I said, but I felt a protest forming in my gullet. “Is there no case for a defensive war?”

“Ah, defensive war,” he chuckled. “Otherwise known as the slaughter of your own innocents. War is not like, upon seeing the storm upon the horizon, battening down the hatches and waiting it out, looking for luck to bail the water from your holds; war must be participated in, or you will certainly be consumed. You must slash and burn, drive, thrust, parry, or the child cannot be born.”

Dammit all, a child?

“Grow up,” he said, and he said it like it was a curse. “The infantryman tells himself he is following orders to defend his king, his farm, his wife, his children, but he is not: he is thrusting another man through. He knows it is so, and his children know it is so, and his wife even more so, as he writhes in his bed beside her, trying to kill them all all over again, night by night, from the time he is young until he is very old. He knows he has killed, and he knows the lust for blood that rose into his mind, that it came from him. Perhaps he finds someone to forgive him.”

“But–” I started to say, but he was warming to the task.

“Perhaps he prefers to throw missiles from afar–a bowman or a catapult man. Who is on the other side of those walls? Women and children? No? They should have been evacuated; the blood is on the head of the city fathers. And when fire comes from the city toward the attacking catapult, does the same blood lust not rise? But it rises in defense of justice, no?”

I sat silently, feeling my tea cool. It was for the better; the tea was awful.

“You participate in war, you participate in injustice. Justice is the thing that springs up after the front lines have moved and scattered, like seedlings of the springtime after the rains.”

“But,” I protested, “we do not all participate in war.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Tonawanda,” I said.

“Is Tonawanda such a gracious and magical land that you do not pay taxes?” he asked. “And those taxes are not apportioned for the training of the machines of war?”

“No,” I said. “But perhaps I should move to the land adjacent, the land of Canada, where they do not have a military, and all their taxes are apportioned for the welfare of their subjects.”

Even in the dim firelight I could see the twinkle spark from within his eyes. He said, “Indeed. And how does this paradise Canada-land compare to your fair Tonawanda-land?”

“Well, it’s about a tenth of the size.”

“Mhm,” he said, mockingly.

“What’s more…” I said.

“What’s more?” he mocked further.

“Yes,” I said. “What’s more, their beer is taxed such that they sneak into Tonawanda on a regular basis to buy all of ours to spirit it back into their paradise.”

“They are a virtuous people, indeed,” he said, leaning back in his chair, retiring for the night.


Heading East

One of the great delights of reacquainting with Heraclitus has been rediscovering the East, the cradle of Western Civilization. The Ancient world centered on Babylon of the Sumerians, pre-semitic peoples who sprung up, it seems, from the mud flats of Mesopotamia, creating a civilization that endured for a gazillion years, a civilization that bears no small resemblance to the one we inhabit in Europe and North America today, at least socially speaking. Technologically, of course, that’s another story.

They wrote stuff down, the Sumerians did, and we’ve only recently re-deciphered some of what they wrote. One of the more fascinating artifacts of their writing is the Sumerian King List, which lists historically verifiable personages and dynasties, but then, randomly, veers into the fantastic, listing mythical personages who endured on the throne for tens of thousands of years. University nerds work themselves into a tizzy with respect to overall reliability and verifiability of the list, both of the unimaginably long lifespans of these antediluvian rulers, but also the historically verifiable personages and dynasties. After all, if they were prone to believing the nonsense of myth (being more primitive than us progressed Anglo-Saxons), then how can we put confidence in their historiography? Their methods are surely suspect!

Other thinkers, non-nerds, thankfully, have pondered the more important subject of the artifact, namely its effect. What is the effect of the Sumerian King List? What is it trying to do? Preserve history? No, that is no reason to create a fantastic archive coupled with a “real” one.

Here the opinions diverge, which is fun. Some would argue that the Sumerian King List was created in order to legitimize the culture, to root it in a culture that was antediluvian, and, therefore, pristine. Or something like that (I’m not being entirely fair in my generalizations, but that’s not the point I’m driving toward; have patience, gentle reader). In other words, the Sumerians had doubts about their own identity, even after several hundred years of uninterrupted prosperity. Fun, right? I hereby argue that the Sumerian King List may be doing that, but also, if not entirely intentionally, the Sumerian King List is teaching insignificance.

The Ancient Near East, in general, preserves for us a sensibility of vastness, that the cosmos works in great big sweeps, rocking back and forth in swaths of ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand-year patterns. One reads Sumerian literature, and Akkadian literature (the first Semites), and Hittite literature, and Egyptian literature, and Assyrian literature (that’s Babylon again, come round full circle), and last, but not least, Hebrew literature, observing a cosmos that is enormous in size and scope, stretching backward into time primordial and messy, boundary-free, but moving, oscillating, renewing. There is a detente, see, and it’s hard to ascertain, but it’s there, and if you work at it, you can acquire some sort of harmony with the universe, coming into resonance with its patterns. You are thereby absorbed into it and given significance in spite of your insignificance. If you resist the patterns of the cosmos, grasping for immortality, you will be swept aside. Thus, the ancients observed that the virtuous endured humility, were brought low by pain and suffering; at the same time the powerful (assuming that the powerful came into power by the usual non-virtuous means) enjoyed prosperity for a little while (generations, even), but the broom of the cosmos was already making its corrective sweep. What is man, therefore?

Markets opened and closed, trade routes flourished and were disrupted, order was susceptible to entropy. Nothing endures because virtue does not endure, but virtue re-emerges, and the thing begins anew, renewed. The Bronze Age, for example, wasn’t nothing; it was progress, representing a human triumph over the cosmos, which is merciless in its movements. Nevertheless, the Iron Age brought the Bronze Agers to naught. Where was progress? Over the horizon, threatening the 6-row barley harvest–and the wine (the Disney treatment Fantasia captures this very well, I think, in its exposition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). You can see why the Sumerians were suffering an identity crisis. When is it our turn to be returned to detente?


Moving west, however, one finds a smaller cosmos, beginning with the Unmoved Mover, from which (whom?) emanates the material of the known world, which creates a cosmos of the mind, for the sake of taxonomy–and control. Moving further west and north and closer in time, the cosmos is no longer a cosmos at all, but a town about the size of Königsberg, with no real history, only a future into which history inexorably marches, easily ascertainable, observable, and obvious. Can you not see the Emperor’s new clothes?

Is it fair to evaluate, saying that as we have made the world smaller and more malleable, the individual has been swallowed up by history, insignificant?

The Ebola, poor governance, impending revolutions, terrorist threats, and even asteroid strikes are threatening to those who believe that history is driven along by those who understand its progress and its direction. Somehow, and irrationally, this progress is entirely dependent upon collectively-minded people who acquire power. If the collectively-minded people are not in power, then the oceans will surely rise to punish us for our redirecting of history; progress will go off the rails.

But to those of us who sigh humbled under the yoke of the cosmos, we know that our virtue is valuable in the grand scheme of things, whatever that may be. The asteroid strikes from outer space, ebola strikes within, and damnable taxes steal yet more of my labor, but this, too, shall be swept away so that virtue may resurrect, this time a little more pure, a little wiser, and less proud. What is progress?

The Way Things Are

Ah! The objectivists’ wet dream: to know what is. If we know what is, then we also know the way things ought to be. Bringing society into compliance is a mere task of rhetoric and control. Elaborate scaffolding is erected to construct the ideal society, at least on paper, and either on paper, on the blackboard, on twitter, or in real life, the scaffold and the idol come tumbling down. This is true.

In a recent fit of fundamentalism, I posited the way things ought to be:

Let’s take up the case of this poor woman, who has four children and is receiving government aid per capita. Why is the relationship I have with her a simple triangle, with her at one vertex, me at the other vertex, and the state at the top, taking from me and giving to her? Where is her family? Do they have no influence on this person? Failing that, is there no extension of the family, say, a local congregation of religious people whose purpose in life is to please their transcendental reality by helping the poor? Or a YWCA? Even in the absence of those basic institutions, we have still more buffers between the individual and the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-compassionate state.

Where are her buffers?

Adam Gurri correctly pointed out the way things are:

It also seems to me that a problem with David’s critique might be that modern poverty of a more persistent sort often arises precisely because the institutions of a particular community have become hollowed out, and there’s very little community left to speak of. One may shake their fists at modernity for bringing this about, but I suspect it is not unique to modernity; we’ve simply reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal, though not exactly pleasant either. Nevertheless, the question remains of whether those of us who have found ourselves in more fortunate circumstances have any responsibility to those who do not.

[emphasis added]

Well, now. Shaking my fist at modernity, am I? Like a crotchety old man, indeed, I concede that I do, and it is insufficient. Adam will not allow for insufficiency, so he offers a succinct point for debate, which I propose as: “We have reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal.” There, I think, is the no man’s land of the way things are (to stretch the metaphor), where the boundaries are in constant flux, to the extent that anyone who desires to dwell there will become inimical to all who do not; nevertheless, it is contested land for some who desire to dwell in peace and safety, secured by cheerful submission of taxes to the current overlords who themselves expended perfectly good blood to acquire no man’s land.

Now that I’ve stretched that metaphor too far, another metaphor will suffice to develop my argument. A priceless marble statue of a human figure is adorned with a waxen nose. It is, thus, malleable to the whim of each succeeding generation, especially those elements of the generation which possesses the marble statue. Therefore, the nose can be made into any shape whatsoever. Even so, consumers of the marble statue will object if the waxen nose is no longer nose-shaped. In other words, we may not know the way things ought to be to the extent that we can ever build the perfect society, i.e., no objective reality is sucking us to the light of final and pure societal enlightenment, but we can object when structures have become so misshapen as to not resemble practicability.

This is called Wisdom. Not phronesis, which is good judgment driven by arete and virtue and euvoluntary exchange, et. al., but Wisdom, the extrapolation from observation of the universe of certain sculptured marble tenets which have, so far, transcended cultural boundaries and technological advances through the ages. Wisdom does not guarantee anything, especially the “shape of the nose,” but it does make a claim to intuitive and time-tested deductive practicability. A defense of Wisdom as such can be summarized like this: there are some universals which, when ignored, emerge. It is the negative to societal evolution. Thus, “A wise man does this and lives; a fool does this other thing and dies.”

Societal evolution, on the other hand, is susceptible to something called philosophy, which says, “the love of wisdom,” but isn’t; it is the love of reasoning. Much of philosophy is produced in that crucible of bad-faith one-upmanship which might yield refined theory for practical application within cultural boundaries and technological advances in a given epoch. Usually it yields insufferable personalities and unreadable tomes, a handful of which survive long enough to be studied in graduate school, as Heraclitus says, “They would not know the name of justice if it were not for these things” (Fragment LX), and also, “Every animal is driven by blows” (Fragment LV).

Wisdom observes the condition under which we become animals. Taking Adam Gurri’s point for debate, for example, the changeable condition which becomes intolerable in the ebb and flow of life, regardless of culture or technology, is affluence. Affluence is the given which is currently true, and as it stands now, it is most certainly the way things are. Affluence, unfortunately, is not immutable, which evokes some universals being ignored, to wit: affluence cannot replace certain kinds of relationships, blood and contractual (marriage). Moreover, affluence is the lynchpin which sustains the naked triangle, to wit: the state forcibly, inefficiently and haphazardly, removes affluence from those who have acquired it and gives it to someone who has not acquired it. Morals and ethics? Whatever.

The result is a stasis which is unwise, not founded on the way things ought to be. The Wise are captured by a conundrum requiring a great deal of Wisdom to navigate. The thing about Wisdom and those who seek to employ it is that it is personal, not, as philosophy must be, dispassionate. Somewhere along the line, the Wise enter no man’s land to be killed because entering no man’s land is the compassionate thing to do. In other words, Wisdom acknowledges that the thing is out of balance: affluence will wither away, dissolving this triangle, sounding the trumpet call to restore blood and contractual interpersonal relationships as the building blocks of a society which produces the most individual arete. In the meantime, the Wise accept the way things are, be they ever so impermanent. Furthering the example of the naked triangle: affluence has created a penalty-free interpersonal and soul-sucking void where there should be layer upon layer of relationships. Perhaps the Wise acquiesce to the reality of the thing; perhaps not, preferring instead to clothe the naked triangle, as it were, with policies which might encourage the reestablishing of the blood and contractual interpersonal relationships.

In the former case, the Wise shrug their shoulders, turn their pockets inside out, and bid a hearty Godspeed to the money in the hope that it will, indeed, mitigate suffering. In the latter case, the Wise run for public office or commence the re-creation of those lost institutions using privately and additionally acquired money in some hope that this artificial edifice will endure at least for a little while to the benefit of the needy. Both will probably hasten the painful end of the naked triangle. People will experience agony and injustice while the universe corrects the imbalance brought about by the way things are.

The Wise, however, constantly warn that the way things are is quite unstable, that the scaffolding and the structures are always about to come tumbling down, whence reconstruction begins, the great re-testing of the universals which emerge when they are ignored. And so, being Wise, they die as fools to rebirth Wisdom.

Old Man River

Really, dear reader, not a single one of you pointed this out or reminded me of it? I’ve been doing my riff on Heraclitus (you know, the river guy?) for months, now. You should be ashamed. One of the greatest songs in the American repertoire, the perfect theme for Heraclitus…

Seriously, even after my “Heraclitus hates Athens because he’s under the influence of Zoroastrian teachings which strongly eschew slavery, and Athens is a corrupt, slavery-based economic, self-indulgent city-state” post?

Philistines, every one of you.

I can’t look any one of you in the eye, ever again.

In the Garden of Heraclitus

On the Innateness of Fundamentalism

We took a break from gladdening our hearts, as the ancients call drinking too much wine, to cure our hangovers by sweating them out in the garden. A gust from the sea blew a bean from my hand just as I was tightening my fingers upon it to pick it.  I sighed, stood up to stretch my back, and marveled at my headache.

“In March,” Heraclitus said, “if you do not march to war, you turn over your garden plot. They are the same thing.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” I said. “OK, yes, but no. Stop doing that!”

“My brother was overjoyed when I abdicated the throne in his favor–the throne: a footstool for Cyrus, I must say–until he discovered that conscription was his responsibility.”

“Do what now?” I asked.

“The ‘King of Ionia’ is responsible for conscripting soldiers for the Great King of Persia,” he replied. “That’s what all the hullabaloo is about, the democratic mob. The Great Tyrant is the Great Freedom, just so long as you mouth a few obsequiousnesses his direction, sending some gold along with a few girls and boys, you know, to linger behind his chariot and to run ahead of his chariot, to eat a few spears.” He stretched his back, looking toward the sea with that ever-disgusted look on his face.

“You’re making that up!” I exclaimed.

“Which part?” he asked. Which part? The whole thing! My head hurt too much to make my mouth do the argument. He continued, saying, “My brother is a fool, not just for being so eager for the throne–and I’m grateful he was fool enough to do so–but also because he kept picking poor boys and girls to carry the gold to ‘The Ones Having a Friend’s Mind.'”

“Because they kept skimming from the gold on the way there?”

“Are you daft?” he snapped. “Do you think at all before you flap your big dumb gums? No! Because the rich kids stay home to learn nothing of war and sex, spending their time onanistically, conceiving nothing except the notion to throw off the yoke of the Great Freedom.”

“The poor probably have less stable home lives,” I said.

“Indeed,” he retorted. “Divorce is rampant, death is prevalent, and unhappiness spreads like fertilizer. Those boys and girls serve now in the presence of the Great King in utter peace and tranquility.”

“Except for the forced warfare.”

“Small price.”

“But,” I said, “your brother has preserved stability, not just of the families of the nobility, but also of your fair city; he did so by preserving the stability of your most valuable citizens.”

“Did he?”

“I’m here now, aren’t I? And watching the sea, and drinking wine, and picking beans in your garden. That ain’t exactly servitude to no stinkin’ king, now is it?”

“Stick around,” he said. He suddenly looked old. “Stick around and see what foolishness the notion of ‘stability’ is become.” He practically spat the word. “The Friend’s Mind has changed, and he is already gathering his captains, and they are gathering their myriads, and they will soon march. At that time, we will not turn over a single stone in our gardens, despite our great desire to do so. They will drink our wine and throw every pot of ours into the sea, leaving our bodies to be scoured by the poor and the sun.”

giant jenga

“That’s not quite fair to your brother,” I said. “The rich kids did this. Wouldn’t they have rebelled one way or the other?”

“Oh,” he sighed. “I suppose so. Don’t you think, however, that his fixation on stability brought about utter destruction where there may have been hope for mere unrest? But you’re right: among a thousand men there might be one who is wise.”

“So,” I said, “we are rich and we are poor.”


“We are at peace and we are at war.”

“Your hangover is not doing your contemplating any favors,” he said. “Leave the conundrums to the wise.”

“At-peace-those-being are indeed warring.”

“Better,” he said, “but please stop.”

“A garden flourishes after letting the soil lie fallow for a year,” I said.

“Why won’t you stop?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I’m serious. Haven’t you seen a garden plot the year after letting it lie fallow? Everything grows as if under some sort of magical growth spell, not the least of which are the weeds, but also the herbs, vegetables, and flowers.”

He stood staring at me, bemused, pressing his lips together, then looking into the clouds. “True enough,” he said. “But I don’t want to let my garden lie fallow.”


Tell Us, O Tell Us of Your Telos

See, this is just the kind of thing to get Heraclitus foaming at the mouth so that we think of him as irascible, melancholy, misanthropic and altogether grumpy, along with being a warmonger, this thing from Adam Gurri. How, just how do you think that you would ever in a million years have any confidence in knowing the telos of the sum of your short number of breaths in this mortal coil? That really is the nub of the thing: one simply does not have enough time to contemplate the day ahead before its sun sets, and you expire, going to rest in the dust. There’s yer telos, right there.

This, I submit in behalf of Heraclitus, is the great genius of the Declaration of Independence (despite its revolutionary fomentation, pace Adam Blackstone): the Americans stood astride the Enlightenment, shouting “Stop!”, inscribing their property, their lives, and their John Hancocks on those three concepts, the most debatable of which is the last, that is, and the pursuit of happiness. I do believe that this revolutionary idea, coupled with life and liberty, was a fundamental moment, a convergence of history, perhaps the telos of history, in the sense that they rejected the common notion of telos (qualified here as knowable, and therefore pliable) and set the world free to pursue happiness.

You would take up arms to pursue happiness?

Come to think of it, this most ethereal (ephemeral?) of concepts is the least abstract of the three. We can’t concretize life nor liberty to the same extent nor with the same categories as we can the pursuit of happiness. “The pursuing of happiness.” It is the story of a mother running after her toddler while grandma and grandpa gander at the image of their own tender youth, when they were pursuing. It is the story of a driven businessman raising up corporation after corporation for sale to the public. It is the story of [you fill in this space].

This is why the American experiment is mostly a story, a collection of stories, of episodes, whereas other experiments are epochs, eras, and dynasties. Heraclitus would approve. Even our wars (until the middle of the 20th Century) were Heraclitian in their character, the American people demurring on things such as revolution, slavery, European misery, fascism and Communism, until they couldn’t stand no more (again, pace Adam Blackstone), and then a wrath unleashing, which, among all its debatable effects, brought a fire upon the earth, which, in and of itself, is the telos of war, of existence.*

Being caught up in war, of course gives one a sense of personal telos, but not without the lingering doubt that the battle, even for the victorious soldier, is for nothing, considering the grand sweep of history, that great abstraction. Many WWII veterans died in their old age bitter towards their own children for a betrayal of all the things they fought and were wounded for and their closest comrades died for. “Of course it’s for nothing!” Heraclitus the Wise exclaims.

Other wise people nod their heads in agreement. It is enough, they say, to have at the end of the day someone to talk to and the knowledge that at least you had something to do while the sun traversed the sky from horizon to horizon.

*I contend that Heraclitus would have approved most heartily of the practical American doctrine of Manifest Destiny. I agree with some of his reasoning, but not entirely with his moral outlook.