Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Of Sagas and Not-Sagas

saga. sa·ga – /ˈsɑgə/ [sah-guh]

noun. a medieval Icelandic or Norse prose narrative of achievements and events in the history of a personage, family, et cetera.

e.g. Saga:
A man named Thorarin lived in Langadal. He held a godord, but was a man of no influence. His son Audgisl was a man quick to act. Thorgils Holluson had dispossessed them of their godord and they considered this a grievous insult. Audgisl approached Snorri, told him of the ill-treatment which they had suffered and asked for his support. From: The Saga of the People of Laxardal

e.g. Not-Saga:
Edward helped me into his car, being very careful of the wisps of silk and chiffon, the flowers he'd just pinned into my elaborately styled curls, and my bulky walking cast. He ignored the angry set of my mouth.

When he had me settled, he got in the driver's seat and headed back out the long, narrow drive. From Twilight "The Twilight Saga" by Stephenie Meyer

Also not a saga:

Monty Python - Njorl's Saga

On Television

In a recent episode of the web program "Poliwood" screenwriters and Hollywood veterans Roger L. Simon and Lionel Chetwynd both concluded television programming is of a high quality today. Broadly speaking, anyway. I really could not fairly comment on such a statement because I watch practically no television shows. Yet I do not quite share their enthusiasm and this is mostly because I find television as a medium is really not well understood. There seems to be very little understanding of what the television medium is good for and what material is appropriate to it. Let us take a systematic look at television programming, aka TV.

First, what is the distinguishing characteristic of TV? Foremost is that TV is episodic in nature, consisting of many short episodes either 25 or 45 minutes in length. Second is that these shows are broken then into smaller bits of 7-11 minutes. This is the basic unit of TV and while some might criticize it simply for being, I will not. All art forms have their conventions, scenes, lines, stanzas, meters, et cetera. This is television's. Yet it does bear two faults. First is the persistence of the commercial interruptions and whirligigs on the lower third of the screen are so distracting and deleterious to enjoying the show it is surprising to me they are tolerated. Such tolerance, I believe, we owe mostly to habituation. Would anyone tolerate commercials in the middle of a movie, or between movements of a symphony? Since people time-shift their programming and skip commercials we will not belabor this point as we want to consider what TV might be at its best. Second is that this highly predictable unit creates highly predictable patterns of climax within the drama. This is both highly limiting for the writer and dull for the audience.

Let us return back to the length of the whole show, though, i.e. TV's episodic nature. Episodic content has been derided since Aristotle, who called episodic plots "the worst" for their lack of probability and necessity in the sequence of the episodes and their tendency stretch out a plot beyond its capabilities. (see Poetics, ix.) "Types of plots" and their hierarchy is the subject of its own and substantial essay. We may consider it at a later date. Let us instead focus on Aristotle's point that a given story, speaking generally, will have an ideal form. For as the musician has at first a highly abstract musical idea and then chooses the best structure and instrumentation to express it, so the author must choose the best form for his story. On the other hand we may observe that every given work of art has an essence and this essence may be expressed in different mediums, with the effect of generating variations on the main theme. This perspective is summed up by the [perhaps apocryphal] quote from director Stanley Kubrick, that "If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed."

Adopting this perspective we may then ask "Is there an idea, or at least an unacceptable form or artistic expression for a given work?"  This is impossible to assess without creating a taxonomy of plot types, though we may make a few general remarks: that abstract "stories" are suitable toward musical expression, less abstract but still general and concise concepts and personal statements for poetry,
plots that take place over the course of one day suitable for the stage, spectacle for film. . . and what for television?

Let us consider some existing, common TV genres. Two common TV species are the "Wagon Train" (i.e. a journey through a strange place) and "the [wacky] adventures of. . ." These genres have had countless TV incarnations and are perhaps the most appropriate for episodic expression as the drama of the episode is self-contained. As such they are a good form for morality plays and fables. The only commonalities from show-to-show are the characters, who never undergo any changes in this genre. This genre is commonly called the sitcom. The same is true for the similar genres of the police procedural or courtroom drama. The main problem with this particular style is that it is essentially the same plot over and over again. This fact coupled with the fact that the characters to not undergo any change makes the show dull and repetitive after a point.

Yet there are many TV shows and many in which the characters do change. These shows have several factors to balance: 1) crafting a sensible plot for a single episode (i.e. creating a self-contained drama), 2) crafting a dramatic arc over several episodes (i.e. creating one large drama, since as Aristotle says a proper drama consists not simply of a variety of things one person did, but a variety of significant actions and events, i.e. significant to the theme/moral/point of the story), and 3) working within the time limitations of a) the 7-11 minute blocks of individual episodes, and b) how many episodes they can/must make. As you might imagine successfully balancing these variables is quite a feat. The fact that episodes are written one at a time, often if not usually without a plan for larger story arcs bodes ill for achieving goal No. 2. The fact that the length of the season is not determined by the writer, with the show either being canceled too soon or extended beyond the limits of the material bodes ill for achieving goal No. 3. That TV shows are often canceled early in their run is no surprise, but also unfortunate is when popular shows often continue beyond what they ought to.

The last great challenge of episodic content was voiced by Edgar Allen Poe, who stated episodic content inherently produces no sense of unity for the sum of the episodes. Since they are spread out they cannot achieve the impact that a single event, like a short story or poem, can. Poe also says that certain classes of prose require no unity and uses Robinson Crusoe as an example. The parallel between Crusoe and episodic TV content is fortunate. Such is true and brings us to what I believe is the heart of television's appeal: the passage of time. Poe did not think any benefit could counterbalance the loss of unity attendant spreading out a story into multiple sittings.

Yet the ability of television to reach the viewer weekly, potentially for years on end, is exceptional. Because of this, people, consciously or not, essentially perceive TV as real at some level. Listen to people talk about television characters and how frequently they bring their favorite characters up. This is possible first because of the temporal aspect of TV we already mentioned and second because of the commonplace element of TV. No matter how much one is attached to certain historical or traditional dramatic figures, their remoteness limits how often we relate to them. What TV inherently loses in unity its structure then it inherently provides in apparent veracity. The obvious but extreme case of "soap operas" is the clearest example of this phenomenon. These lives go on and on, paralleling ours for years. (Such shows also have the most banal plots and the plots are stretched out immeasurably beyond their proper duration.)

TV being a young medium we essentially have no barrier in relating to it: it exists in our world. We are not distanced by differences of dress, language, or culture. It progresses with us in our lives unlike a single, self-contained event like a Greek drama. Aside from fantasy and science fiction shows, TV programs are also usually plausible, or more specifically they depict events and places more or less common to us. People know what court rooms, hospitals, and sitcom locales look like and we relate to the quotidian situations most readily. In contrast even "plausible" dramas in the forms of plays and films usually depict scenes and situations we have not been in.

As an aside, one might make a similar point about video games. While being able to make certain moral choices in a game increases identification with the character and situations, having to solve puzzles and perform mundane tasks like walking around diminishes the overall impact of the story.

Above we observed: "a series of events that befall one person do not necessarily make a dramatic plot." TV writers observe this insofar as some of the episodes are self-contained and others have permanent effects on the character and plots which will be developed over time. This blending can be dramatically effective but it also adds to the element of veracity we perceive because in our own lives some days are normal and others (and other events) more broadly significant. Is this mixed style to be praised? Let us perform a little test. Consider your favorite story, a movie or novel or anything. Now consider the main character. Would that movie or novel be enhanced by adding dozens of incidents that do not, or barely, affect the plot? Sure you might feel like you know the character better because you remember when he argued with his wife, was in a car accident, and so on? Of course not. On the other had a series of relevant episodes depicting character-forming struggles might. Veracity then is by itself not a virtue, but an element of TV, potentially useful to great effect. Thus what the plot loses in unity by expansion it does not automatically gain in significance by its veracity. Rather it must use its episodes toward a larger dramatic plot, otherwise it is no better than the "adventures of. . ." species of television.

As we have said some plots then may support interspersed episodes while others may not, likewise a short-form treatment and a long-form treatment have different effects. Yet what stories require dozens and dozens of hours to be told? Miniseries and even films have achieved tremendous breadth of time with the durations of 2-12 hours. Films like Wild Strawberries, 2001: A Space Odyssey and TV miniseries like The Six Wives of Henry VIII, I, Claudius, and John Adams all have tremendous scopes of time. A film need only suggest the passage of time for the viewer to feel it. A filmed version of events that take many years need not in fact take many years. No plot needs so many hours as TV can provide, but rather may optionally be expanded and potentially with good effect.

Briefly we may discuss "reality TV" which may appear ideal insofar as it is indeed "real" and proceeds at a "real" pace. In fact it is the worst of both worlds, providing neither the accurate depictions of particulars (the function of history/documentary) nor the philosophic axioms of art.

TV then is not a poor or inferior medium but it simply tends toward vulgarity, banality, and repetition, yet probably not at a greater rate than any other form. Perhaps the quotidian element of TV is prone toward such things. TV is unique also regarding our expectations of it: we expect a great deal of constant programming content. This puts unnecessary pressure on writers. Good TV, and by that I mean a good TV show from the first episode to the last, is exceedingly difficult to do, consider again the challenges outlined in paragraphs four and five above, without such added limitations. Even if they are met, other than the purpose of achieving a quasi-reality the common "TV Show" structure has no purpose as no plot could require it. That which is not required, is extraneous, and that which is extraneous detracts. Dramatic long-form programming would  better served by the form of the miniseries, which balances concise drama with some and relevant episodic content.

While the miniseries seems to be less popular today, TV programming, especially on cable TV, seems to follow the same pattern, with short 10-12episode seasons. This is not a guarantee for success but it may help remove some of the bloat.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Vacationing

Summer has arrived in the Norther Hemisphere and thus in the land of your humble blogger. School is out and many look forward to their vacations. There is something I do not quite understand about what we broadly consider vacationing. I dispute neither the importance nor pleasure of leisure time. Likewise even amusement is a sort of relaxation and is thus necessary. Yet vacationing seems to many to be something of special importance, but what and why?

The chief characteristic of the vacation seems to be a longer-than-usual freedom from one's duties. Most basically, then, a vacation is a lack, but a lack cannot provide a positive good but merely relief. This leisure, though, does allow people to pursue something for its own sake rather than out of necessity. People naturally have expectations about what such pursuits should be and do for them but a common response might be they hope to "enjoy" their vacation or something similar. We might divide the vague concept of "enjoy" into "pleasure" and "happiness." Considering the former first, all people aim at pleasure and all take delight in pleasing sights, sounds, and so on. We do seek it for its own sake and not to achieve something else. Yet pleasure is simply a favorable response to some stimulus to our senses. It is also temporary and fades as we grow habituated to the stimulus. If such is the essence of the vacation we should not be surprised to find most people wanting for something more soon after the vacation has ended. Indeed such is most common. Of happiness let us consider Aristotle's thoughts:
. . . everything that we choose we choose for the sake of something else–except happiness, which is an end. Now to exert oneself and work for the sake of amusement seems silly and utterly childish. But to amuse oneself in order that one may exert oneself, as Anacharsis puts it, seems right; for amusement is a sort of relaxation, and we need relaxation because we cannot work continuously. Relaxation, then, is not an end; for it is taken for the sake of activity. (Ethics, 1176b)
Happiness then does not consist in amusement, relaxation, or idleness. Aristotle argued it consisted in virtuous activity and most chiefly in a contemplative life. He also added, "in a complete life" since "one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy." (Ethics, I.vii. 1098a) Also happiness depends part on past acts, part on present ones, and part of the expectation of doing in the future. Happiness thus requires work and work over a period of time. More precisely then we might say it requires cultivation.

In his collection of writings commonly referred to today as his "Meditations," which we would understand better if we thought of them as "writings or exhortations to himself," Marcus Aurelius stated a similar position:
Everyone dreams of the perfect vacation–in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You too long to get away and find that idyllic spot, yet how foolish. . . when at any time you are capable of finding that perfect vacation in yourself. Nowhere is there a more idyllic spot, a vacation home more private and peaceful, than in one's own mind, especially when it is furnished in such a way that the merest inward glance induces ease (and by ease I mean the effects of an orderly and well-appointed mind, neither lavish or crude.) Take this vacation as often as you like, and so charge your spirit. But do not prolong these meditative moments beyond what is necessary to send you back to your work free of anxiety and full of vigor and good cheer. (Translation, C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks.) (Meditations, Book IV. iii.)
Whether it be toward pleasure or happiness, one ought to have an idea what one is intending to gain from a vacation, lest one be disappointed.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Movie Review: Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Directed by Jacques Tati. 1953.

Mr. Hulot's Holiday, or Mr. Hulot's Holidays, is crafted with such subtlety and affection one cannot help falling in love with it. I say falling because while it worked its charm on me during my first viewing it grows on you more and more over time. My fondness for this movie is part nostalgia for the curious patrons of the Hotel de la Plage and part excitement to see Mr. Hulot and his antics, perennial in their freshness, grace, and charm. What exactly is this movie though? In his introduction to the 2001 edition Criterion DVD, director Terry Jones summed it best this way, that Mr. Hulot's Holidays is sort of a series of postcards from a vacation.

Postcards indeed, and you could pause this movie at any moment and find a little gem of a postcard from Mr. Hulot's seaside vacation. The gags and scenes are impossible to summarize and we would do violence to the film to dissect them. We can say though that each one takes delight in life's little incongruities. Mr. Hulot looks at everything with a pure curiosity, neither cynical or skeptical. He simply looks on and says, "Hmm. Funny that this is so. But how did. . . Did I. . . hmm."

Mr. Hulot is often the cause of the curious incidents he so quizzically looks upon. These "little holidays" are attended by the movie's musical score, a short, lilting, jazzy little theme. Sometimes the music is dubbed over and sometimes it is diegetic, started by one of the patrons. The effect of this, sometimes showing the source of the music and sometimes not, is that we feel the music is always going on. Someone is always starting some little adventure somewhere, someone is always getting the ball rolling. Sometimes we start it rolling, sometimes we keep it rolling, but don't let it stop! Likewise the theme varies in instrumentation. Sometimes it is orchestrated, sometimes it is on a piano, once someone whistles it. The effect is that of theme and variation: all of these little diversions, digressions, and variations on the main theme, i.e. Mr. Hulot's joyful outlook.

Of course they are only variations on a theme, little treasures, if we adopt Mr. Hulot's outlook. Otherwise they are inconveniences and trifles.

The hotel patrons are almost as colorful as Mr. Hulot: the commodore recounting his exploits from the war to whoever will listen, the touring couple who seem to be inspecting everything as they walk through, the perpetually exercising fellow with his goofy squats, the pretty girl and the host of youths courting her attention. The old generation of guests at the hotel cling to their habits, their cards and radio and regular meals. They show up to eat when the lunch bell rings and they go to bed when the radio signs off. Hulot shows up and literally blows them out of their habits.

Terry Jones also aptly said Mr. Hulot's Holiday was Tati's most forward-looking movie. I agree, and Hulot's jazzy version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" sets the tone. Mr. Hulot does not bring chaos and modernity. He just adds a little pizazz and an appreciation for the beauty that is already there. In Mr. Hulot's Holiday the patrons realize what Hulot brings, though they might outwardly be annoyed with the inconveniences of his antics. The people of Mon Oncle (except for the children) and Playtime (except for the party scene) do not see what Hulot brings. He is lost on them and among them.

Yet here Mr. Hulot is not lost, this is his world and we are glad, grateful, to accompany him on his holidays. For all of their complaining, the patrons all make plans to return. They tell Mr. Hulot, "Glad to have met you" and "same time next year." Absolutely.

In the spirit of Terry Jones' observation about the film. . .

Postcards from Mr. Hulot's Holidays.
click to enlarge

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage

Conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner discusses his "Bach Cantata Pilgrimage" with his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra. In 1999 Gardiner set out to perform all of the Master's extant church cantatas on the appointed feast day and all within a single year.

Bach is probably the only composer whose musical output is so rich, so challenging to the performers and so spiritually uplifting to both performer and listener alike, that one would gladly spend a year in his exclusive company.
–Sir John Eliot Gardiner

The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI
Total Time: about 60 minutes.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Choice Curmudgeonry

With a hat tip to Gerard Van der Leun of American Digest. . .

John Derbyshire, author most recently of "We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism," had in the WSJ a few weeks ago a short list of books for the curmudgeon.

It is a fine list and includes H. L. Mencken and Gulliver's Travels. As such I was reminded of some of my favorite curmudgeonly passages from Mencken and Swift.

Gulliver's Travels. Part III, Chapter VIII.
A further Account of Glubbdubdrib. Antient and Modern History Corrected.
Having a desire to see those antients who were most renowned for Wit and Learning, I set apart one Day on purpose. I proposed that Homer and Aristotle might appear at the Head of all their Commentators; but these were so numerous, that some Hundreds were forced to attend in the Court, and outward Rooms of the Palace. I knew, and could distinguish those two Heroes, at first Sight, not only from the Croud, but from each other. Homer was the taller and comelier Person of the two, walked very erect for one of his Age, and his Eyes were the most quick and piercing I ever beheld. Aristotle stooped much, and made use of a Staff. His Visage was meagre, his Hair lank and thin, and his Voice hollow. I soon discovered that both of them were perfect Strangers to the rest of the Company, and had never seen or heard of them before; and I had a Whisper from a Ghost who shall be  nameless, "that these Commentators always kept in the most distant Quarters from their Principals, in the lower World, through a Consciousness of Shame and Guilt, because they had so horribly misrepresented the Meaning of those Authors to Posterity." I introduced Didymus and Eustathius to Homer, and prevailed on him to treat them better than perhaps they deserved, for he soon found they wanted a Genius to enter into the Spirit of a Poet. But Aristotle was out of all Patience with the Account I gave him of Scotus and Ramus, as I presented them to him; and he asked them, "whether the rest of the Tribe were as great Dunces as themselves?"

A Mencken Chrestomathy. XVIII. Pedagogy. The Education Process

If I had my way I should expose all candidates for berths in the grade-schools to the Binet-Simon test, and reject all those who revealed a mentality of more than fifteen years. Plenty would still pass. Moreover, they would be secure against contamination by the new technic of pedagogy. Its vast wave of pseudo-psychology would curl and break against the hard barrier of their innocent and passionate intellects– as it probably does, in fact, even now. They would know nothing of learning situations, integration, challenges, emphases, orthogenics, mind-sets, differentia, and all other fabulous fowl of the Teachers College aviary. But they would see in reading, writing and arithmetic the gaudy charms of profound knowledge, and they would teach these ancient branches, now so abominable in decay with passionate gusto, and irresistible effectiveness, and a gigantic success.
A Mencken Chrestomathy. XVIII. Pedagogy. Bearers of the Torch

This central aim of the teacher is often obscured by pedagogical pretension and bombast. The pedagogue, discussing himself, tries to make it appear that he is a sort of scientist. He is actually a sort of barber, and just as responsive to changing fashions. That this is his actually character is now, indeed, a part of the official doctrine that he must inculcate. On all hands, he is told plainly by his masters that his fundamental function in America is to manufacture an endless corps of sound Americans. A sound American is simply one who has put out of his mind all doubts and questionings, and who accepts instantly, and as incontrovertible gospel, the whole body of official doctrine of his day, whatever it may be and no no matter how often it may change. The instant he challenges it, no matter how timorously and academically, he ceases by that much to be a loyal and creditable citizen of the Republic.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wagner and The Lord of the Rings

The music of Richard Wagner and the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien are both considerable interests of mine so you can expect substantial writing on both topics in the future. For now, I was recently watching Peter Jackson's spectacular film adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and came upon two rather striking similarities. The first is of set design and the second of music.

 Leif Roar as Klingsor in Parsifal, about to set Kundry against Parsifal.
Stage design and artistic supervision by Wolfgang Wagner. 1981

 Christopher Lee as Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring,
invoking the spirit of the mountain against the Fellowship.
Artwork and conceptual drawing by Alan Lee and John Howe, 2001.

Parsifal, Act I.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,
The Great River

The scene (using the word loosely since Wagner did not divide the acts into smaller scenes) in Parsifal is quite complex, with multiple choruses, the Knights marching up Montsalvat to the bells, and many themes including those of the Grail, the Eucharist, and the Lance. Shore's scene is considerably simpler but they function in not dissimilar manners. In Fellowship Aragorn catches sight of enormous statues of kings of old, his ancestors. This is simultaneously a reminder of their grandeur and weakness, and also his, that he is the rightful heir but turned from the path since he shares his ancestors' weakness to be tempted by the Ring of Power. Likewise the themes demonstrate Amfortas' mixed feelings, his sacred duty, his suffering, and his sin.

Likewise the figures of Klingsor and Saruman more than superficial relations. Generally, neither managed his tendency to sin and each turned to dark arts. In his classic work on Wagner, Albert Lavignac describes Klingsor:
[he] has vainly sought to root out of his heart the tendencies to sin; and, not succeeding, he has destroyed his animal instincts by laying violent hands on himself. . . he has listened to the Evil Spirit, and received from him unhallowed instructions in the art of magic. . . [Lavignac, 212]
That Saruman succumbed to a natural weakness and was not simply corrupted by studying "too deeply the arts of the enemy" requires some explication, handily provided by Tolkien himself in a letter c. 1956:
In the view of this tale and mythology Power–when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)–is evil, these "wizards" were incarnated in the life forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains of both mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of "fall," of sin, if you will. [Tolkien, 237]
Likewise where Klingsor "Layed violent hands on himself" Gandalf rebukes Saruman for his unnatural machinations, saying, "he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of reason." [The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond."]

Yet we ought not to read too much into these similarities and we should avoid trying to craft analogies and allegories here. The characters are themselves different and function differently in the plots of their respective stories. I do not suggest one was a model for the other but rather point out the noteworthy similarities of style and fundamental themes of two artists exploring man's nature in these particular scenes.



Lavignac, Albert. The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner and his Festival Theatre in Bayreuth. Dood, Mead, and Company. New York. 1901.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Letter No. 181, an unfinished letter to Michael Straight. c. 1956. p.237. Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York. 2000.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mozart: Rhapsody and Reverie

I. Rhapsody

Musicologist Arthur Hutchings on the Mozartian rhapsody:
. . . the form is "a becoming." In it we may be aware of phrases, of sequences which show metabolism. . . but the main principle of its form is the approach to and decline from climax. . . we imagine ourselves to be the performer; if we do not live along its line, we are not fulfilling the composer's demands of us. [Hutchings, 139.]

Piano Concerto No. 21, KV.467 - Andante

II. Reverie

Musicologist Cuthbert Girdlestone on the Mozartian "Dream Reverie:"
The true "dream" does not imply any strong emotion; it does not exude passion, but the exquisite fancy of a fresh and rich nature is its character. When melancholy speaks it is not with a tragic voice. They are inspired by a spirit of fairyland, too far removed from reality to know sorrow. Their form is that of a long, winding melody which cannot be broken up into phrases and follows on almost uninterruptedly from one end to the other, and Mozart's rhythms are found here at their freest. [Girdlestone, 39.]

Piano Concerto No. 6, KV.238 - Andante

Violin Concerto No. 3, KV.216 - Adagio
Gidon Kremer, violin. Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker

String Quartet in E-flat, KV.428 - Andante con moto
Salomon Quartet


Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Oxford University Press. New York. 1948.

Girdlestone, Cuthbert. Mozart and his Piano Concertos. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY. 1964.

Around the Web

For Saturday, June 12 through Friday, June 18 2010.

1) Robert Weissberg at the Pope Center on how universities breed dependency.

2) At Mises Daily, Robert P. Murphy weighs in on the fractional-reserve banking question.

3) In the WSJ, Dale Buss on the potential end of the 45-year project of the Dictionary of American Regional English.

4) At the Well-Tempered Ear, Jacob Stockinger asks "How did Vladimir Horowitz play octaves so fast?"

5) Thomas Sowell vs the Intellectuals.  (For City Journal, Daniel J. Mahoney reviews "Intellectuals and Society" by Thomas Sowell.)

6) The "Tea Party" vs. the Intellectuals. (from Lee Harris at the Hoover Institution.)

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Taxonomy of Sports

Permit me to open with a few caveats and general statements. First, I do not regularly watch or follow sports. Second, I know people take the sports they follow and the teams the follow very seriously. Consider me then an impartial observer. My intent is to distinguish the appeal of various sports and to determine the significance or virtues of each. I will confine myself to the most popular sports. Also, I will not be quite as comprehensive as usual, my goal being more simply to encourage some deeper thinking about popular activities.

First we must begin with definitions. What is a sport? Sporting is a particularly vague word and today practically anything is considered a sport. I propose a finer distinction. I will start by saying what a sport is not. A sport is not simply a feat. A feat is simply a performance of something that is difficult to do, for example mountain-climbing, marksmanship, and weight-lifting are feats. Likewise a sport is more than simply a contest. The essence of a contest is what its name suggests, a mano-a-mano challenge like wrestling or fencing.

In contrast to a feat, which has no rules other than the natural limits that make the feat difficult, sports have man-made rules. These rules, though, should be sensible, complementary, and not arbitrary. They should not include deliberate handicaps or artificial constraints of time. While the feat has the harshness of necessity intrinsic to its nature the sport does not. Sports need not be as violent as natural contests are or seemingly impossible as feats. The rules ought to be appropriate to the central goal of the game, which ought to be simple in principle but difficult to master. They should not make the goal any harder than it is by nature. Whereas a feat has only the challenge imposed by nature and the contest has only the challenge imposed by the other player the sport ought to combine both in moderation, balancing the extremes. The player ought to be playing against an opponent to achieve the goal, not playing against the rules to achieve the goal. The rules create structure for the competition.

In contrast to the contest the sport is inherently social. It involves free men coming together of their own will to associate in sporting. The camaraderie of the team is integral to sporting, fostering both competition amongst the players as well as competition. As in life individuals use their unique skills to accomplish the task none of their teammates can, thus allowing a victory otherwise impossible.

Let us not forget an aspect of sporting integral to it though not unique: that of leisure. This can be inferred from the word itself, which derives from the word disport, which roughly means to carry away oneself from more serious matters. One takes up a sport in one's leisure time for the simple pleasure of it. It is an end in itself and the individual takes delight in it for that reason only. The object of sport is not like discovering or inventing something, or earning for practical remuneration, but a special and curious thing, desirable because it is pleasurable to do.

With these ideas in mind, let us consider a few sports of the major sports that seem to qualify (as many have been ruled out already.)

Basketball seems promising as it revolves around a simple concept difficult to master: get the ball in the opponent's net. There is likewise a team and it is not excessive in violence or challenge. But why must you effectively keep yourself and the ball in constant motion? And why is there a time limit? These are arbitrary rules that make the game proceed at an unnecessarily frenetic pace and for a duration of an arbitrary length. "But!" you may say, "if he can just run around with the ball you would have American football!" Indeed, but it is only by the distinction of this arbitrary rule then that the sport is to be unique?

Regarding American football, it seems promising too. It revolves around a simple concept difficult to master, requires much planning in the form of tactics and teamwork, and is challenging. Yet it is violent and most ungentlemanly. It also has arbitrary time constraints and rules about the passage of "game time." Also, the central challenge is practically non-existent. As with soccer/football, you essentially only play against the other team since the central challenge is so easy (anyone can, if he is unopposed, run across the field with a ball or kick a ball into a net.)

The issue that the game-play itself keeps stopping is of some but not great concern. While the carrying out of a play resembles a military maneuver the fact that the plays typically are so brief diminishes the similarity by resetting the situation. Yet while it adds excessive length, as we said earlier a sport ought to balance the extremes brought on by the necessities of feats. In battle, scoring is achieved through violence. (Here there is brutishness and mostly imitation-violence.) In American football, though, it is solved by getting to stop and start the situation anew. This is necessary as we said but the effect is that with the central feat being so easy, the players are mostly just running at each other and then stopping. The downs system remedies this in part by creating continuity from play to play. If American football is imperfect it is largely because its model is hard to adapt to civilized sporting.

Hockey is an unusual sport, essentially a modification of American football with the added challenge of being on ice, which also has implications for all of the equipment. None of these adjustments are virtues. They add challenge without any observable effect. It is likewise excessively violent and arbitrarily limited in duration.

Football/Soccer is perhaps the most curious of the major sports. It too is a modification of American football. Why can't you use your hands?! Likewise, why can you use your head? These are absurdly arbitrary rules and exist only to create a distinction between it and American football.

We see so far, though, that all of our sports are modifications of American football but that none are successful copies. We might add that both the football/soccer and hockey goalies add an additional and desirable mano-a-mano dynamic to the game, yet the constant interference of the other players diminishes this.

Baseball, however, is an altogether different sport. It revolves around teamwork and a simple concept difficult to master: throwing the ball past the batter or hitting the ball. In describing the central concept we immediately notice its uniqueness. The prime place of the pitcher and his unique role creates a completely different dynamic for the game. Baseball, in dividing the game between the contest between pitcher and batter and then batter and fielders balances both the need for teamwork and the classic mano-a-mano challenge. Unlike in football/soccer and hockey this one-on-one contest is free from interference because of a deliberate and not arbitrary rule.

It is the only sport we have looked at without an artificial time limit. It proceeds as long as the contest between the pitcher and batter takes. This may be long or short. Additionally to its credit, the central concept (throwing/hitting a ball) is difficult in itself but complicated by the skills of the other players. It also has unique and balancing elements of both stability and randomness: on the one hand players take the same positions on the field when fielding, but the positions of which players end up on base when trying to score are always random, since you cannot predict who will strike out or score.

It is competitive but not aggressively violent or confrontational, being non-contact. It requires health and stamina. It requires the player always keeps his mind in the game but does not require what other sports absurdly do, that the player be in constant motion. It does not require complicated equipment, the essences of the equipment being a stick and a ball. (A stick and a ball that fits in your hand are far more natural than the shapes of the equipment for other sports.) The glove/mitt is an essentially optional accessory. Early baseball was in fact played without gloves.

Baseball may seem more complicated than other sports, the pitcher-batter dynamic and the existence of having to run the bases being more complex than "get the ball in the net/goal." Yet unlike the adaptations of other sports these are for particular purposes. They enhance the dynamism of the game. By dynamism I mean both the range of potential outcomes and the motivating energy. Having men on base and outs and innings work with each other cumulatively to create a crescendo and decrescendo of dynamism. (Football comes closest to this with its system of "downs.") This is enhanced by the randomness of who ends up on which base when. In other sports it is simply, "X is winning, now Y is winning, now X is winning." Likewise regarding scoring, in some sports it is simply "x is about to score" over and over again at frenetic pace. These games appeal to individuals who cannot remain focused for a long time. Baseball achieves balance, (as does football to a good measure.) The tension builds slowly while at any moment a home run can shatter the status quo.

We see then that baseball and American football by far outshine their competitors and imitations by having rational and complementary rules, though baseball succeeds by a wider margin. Baseball's dynamism makes it the most entertaining to watch and the manner in which it achieves said dynamism makes it more gentlemanly to play.

Friday, June 11, 2010

War, with Sebastian Junger

Peter Robinson, host of the Hoover Institution's Uncommon Knowledge, interviews author Sebastian Junger to discuss Junger's latest book, War, which focuses on the fighting in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.

War, with Sebastian Junger

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, June 5 through Friday, June 11.

1) The National Endowment for the Humanities' 2010 Jefferson Lecture: Jonathan Spence on "When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century."

2) Lee Lawrence in the WSJ on "In the Realm of the Buddha" at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of The Smithsonian Institution through July 18,

3-5) Will "higher education" go boom?
  1. Glenn Reynolds thinks so.
  2. So does Mark J. Perry.
  3. . . .and so do the folks at
6) In an interview with, Joel Kotkin thinks America will still lead the world in 2050.

7-9) Of Economics:
  1. In the WSJ, and with polling data in hand, Daniel B. Klein says that "Self-identified liberals and Democrats do badly on questions of basic economics." (Indeed and ahem.)
  2. At Mises Daily, Credit Expansion vs. Simple Inflation.
  3. At Mises Daily, A Primer on Austrian Economics.
10) In City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple on "sympathy deformed."

11) Jefferson Grey for History Net on The Order of Assassins. (For almost two centuries, from 1090 until 1273, the Order of Assassins played a singular and sinister role in the Middle East.)

12) In The American Scholar, Joel E. Cohen on what poetry and applied mathematics have in common.

13) In the WSJ, Stuart Isacoff on Beethoven's piano sonatas.

14) In the WSJ, an interview with "people's diva" Renée Fleming, who makes a foray into rock with "Dark Hope," an album comprised of covers of Death Cab for Cutie, Peter Gabriel and other pop acts.

15) Remembering the great baritone Giuseppe Taddei, 1916-2010.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Response to "Morals & the Servile Mind"

A Response to 
"'Morals & the Servile Mind' by Kenneth Minogue"

Kenneth Minogue has an excellent essay in the June 2010 New Criterion I have the pleasure of commenting on. Putting the author's obvious erudition toward fine use Minogue considers some of our societal woes in an uncharacteristically systematic and philosophical manner. To his additional credit it is imminently readable, so go read it here. I add a few observations:

Aristotle's notions of "slavery" are certainly off-putting to anyone today yet it is good to see Minogue unafraid to look into and learn from them. In Politics I.v the philosopher discusses how the soul rules the body with despotic rule and the intellect the appetites with constitutional rule, thus he "who participates in the rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, . . . is a slave by nature." This is not so very dissimilar from the modern notion of being a "slave of passions." This one might call, in Minogue's framework, an "internal compulsion." Thus one may be a slave to passion or a slave under an external force: one is still a slave. In our [classical]-liberal tradition we do not consider slavery innate but rather the rational principle innate. Framed as such Aristotle seems less foolish, still quite wrong, but not outlandish.

Consider now Plato's observation in Republic XXXI, that the many "constitutions" available to the "democratic man" creates a sort of anarchy of passions in him. Continuing this thread, Minogue's opening remarks echo Aristotle's ideas in Politics III.iii, which can be reduced to: sameness of state consists in sameness of constitution which consists in the virtues of the citizen. For both philospohers the problem is similar: the part [here, negatively] affects the whole. This begs the question: how can a man be virtuous when society contains bad people?

Yet where Plato seeks homogeneity Aristotle defends plurality, saying not sameness but what he variously calls proportionate requital/equity/justice binds a state together. With a wonderful metaphor Aristotle defends plurality and criticizes Plato for designing a system in which the "harmony passes into unison." Returning to our own liberal republican tradition, we may consider one of its virtues to be its inherent distinction between society and government, and that morality resides in the former and proportionate requital/equity/justice in the latter. 

Minogue makes an excellent point about morality (i.e. a specific morality) being achieved the only one with the force of law. Minogue writes:
Such an attitude dramatically moralizes politics, and politicizes the moral life. It feeds on our instinctive support for good causes. Yet it also suggests that the most important sign of moral integrity, of decency and goodness, is not found in facing up to one’s responsibilities, but in holding the right opinions, generally about grand abstractions such as poverty and war. This illusion might well be fingered as the ultimate servility.
Indeed. I was reminded of something I read just recently, James Fenimore Cooper in "The American Democrat" saying:
Party is the cause of many corrupt and incompetent men being preferred to power, as the elector, who, in his own per- son, is disposed to resist a bad nomination, yields to the influence and a dread of factions. . .

Party, by feeding the passions and exciting personal interests, overshadows truth, justice, patriotism, and every other public virtue, completely reversing the order of a democracy, by putting unworthy motives in the place of reason.
Thus we see that a particular morality today becomes a "cause" which once it achieves a certain mass gains a leader, which becomes a party, which seeks to impose the cause as law. This has two detrimental effects on both freedom and virtue. The first is is that it substitutes an external compulsion for an internal choice. By externalizing freedom you make freedom dependent on the virtue of others, bring us back to Plato and Aristotle's problem. Second, it substitutes the Aristotelian notion of virtue and happiness consisting in action for the same being simply holding the idea. For example, in the politically correct world it does not matter what you do so long as you carry the proper PC totems and assent to the "cause" of the day. Thus it actually diminishes the cause it proposes by eliminating the need for it to be fulfilled.

I would quibble with his definitions around freedom, myself thinking what Minogue states are subsets or inherent consequences of freedom but not the essence of freedom. One might say his points about freedom are the inherently political aspects of freedom. Overall though, this is a fine piece.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Thoughts on the American President

An Introductory Inquiry Into
the Nature of the Office of the American President

Update: 2/17/13. I can't say I'm persuaded by this today. I leave it up for whatever instruction it may provide by its errors and whatever merits it possesses.

Preface to the Preface

I usually begin writing only after a great deal of reading. Regarding this essay, though, I consulted more or less only biographical and primary sources. As such I only came to a book that covers much the same ground as this essay when I turned to Google to verify a quote. As such I only came upon Gene Healy's 2008 book, "The Cult of the Presidency, Updated: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power" after completing the overwhelming majority of this essay. Actually I discovered I had in fact bookmarked the link in my browser and that it had gotten overlooked amidst the other 500+ books in the "books to read" folder. Anyway, I have not read Healy's book though I will soon. Any similarities between his book and my essay are coincidental.

Update: In another coincidence, today [June 2, 2010] the Mises Daily blog published Thomas E. Woods Jr.'s essay, "Theodore Roosevelt and the Modern Presidency" from the volume, "Reassessing the Presidency:The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom," edited by John V. Denson. I was as unfamiliar with this volume as with Healey's when writing the essay posted yesterday [June 1, 2010], but I thought I would mention it here both to say so and because the work is relevant.


Below is the fruit of your humble blogger's 2010 Memorial Day. It is a brief and cursory look, relative to the magnitude of the topic, at presidential authority. As I note in the introduction, it was spurred most immediately by the recent pan-punditry opinion that President Obama "fix" the oil mess in the Gulf of Mexico. More broadly, I had in mind in writing this essay how often people like to have it both ways with the president, wanting "Camelot" without the dangers of absolute authority. They want him to have agency, but only to bring about what they want. Likewise presidents seem to prefer authority without responsibility. This issue has of late been the subject of much popular attention but with surprisingly and frustratingly little substance. Such is most unfortunate. My hope is that this modest essay will promote some more scholarly and insightful yet still popular debate (i.e. debate not limited to academia) and that its cursory nature will be outweighed by the importance of the subjects brought out.


In recent weeks the great and terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has rightly caused much anxiety in people everywhere. Of late, though, many Americans of various political persuasions have sought the solution from President Obama. Ought we to look to the Commander In Chief to solve this problem? Why or why not? Many look to him also expecting him to "fix" the economy. Is this a responsibility of the president? As the last president with his "I'm the decider" rhetoric, President Obama has since fostering the cult of personality that grew during his campaign, encouraged people looking specifically to him as the solution. His statement from his nomination victory speech in St. Paul in June 2008 epitomizes the manner in which the success was attached specifically to him. His election was the time, "when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

While we must not get bogged down in the words of politicians stumping for office, considering they may say what they do simply to get elected, we should not disregard them outright on the grounds that  they say what they expect will get them elected. If then-senator Obama thought such an approach would fail he doubtlessly would have proceeded with another. Thus the politician's approach  says something about the politician's expectations of the people and the success of the approach confirms or denies the expectation. While this factor, the "popular factor" let us call it,  is important, it is subject to variables that may cause people to act differently. To choose examples of late consider the wars in the Middle East and the economic crisis of 2008. Thus of the "popular" factor we have two subsets: the aspect of how citizens generally choose their leader and now they may whilst with extenuating circumstances.

A contrasting pair may illustrate the problem more clearly: the "return to normalcy" and the appeal of a laissez-faire leader after the tumultuous years of the First World War in the Harding campaign of 1920 versus the fact that Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for and successfully won an unprecedented fourth term as president during the crisis years of WWII and the Great Depression. The phrase "Inter arma enim silent leges" (attributed to Cicero's Pro Milone) epitomizes this tendency and many examples of its playing out are notable in American history. Examining them would no doubt be fruitful, considering the concepts of habeas corpus, martial law, and specific instances like the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, the 1861 Ex parte Merryman case, and various issues of detainment in the 20th and 21st centuries. But such is beyond the scope of our present inquiry. It will suffice us to say that people tend toward allowing whoever is entrusted to solve a problem more extra-ordinary latitude when the problem is perceived to be of crisis proportion. [1]

Part I
What Is the President?

Aside from instances of extremes, then, we may ask a simple question: what should the authority of an executive official be? This question naturally begs another, "what is an executive official?" While we are foremost concerned with the American tradition we ought to inquire about the fundamental characteristic of the "executive official." In making this inquiry we stumble onto something unusual, there is something very natural and obvious about the notion of "someone being in charge." Why is this so natural? Why ought not a body of magistrates be sufficient? Whatever the characteristic of the leader is, excelling in virtue, wisdom, intelligence, wealth, power (i.e. agency, or "the ability to get things done") et cetera, there is something normal about the individual embodying what a given society holds most dear being its natural leader. Consider Aristotle's statement in the Nichomachean Ethics, Book VIII: Ch. 9. (1160b) "For a man is not a king unless he is sufficient to himself and excels his subjects in all things." This explains the historic and seemingly natural tendency to look toward the leader to solve problems. The authority of the best has also in many times and places been considered divinely authorized. These concepts are both epitomized in the famous speech of Nestor, King of sandy Pylos, in Book II of Homer's Iliad:
But when he came across any common man who was making a noise, he
struck him with his staff and rebuked him, saying, "Sirrah, hold
your peace, and listen to better men than yourself. You are a
coward and no soldier; you are nobody either in fight or council;
we cannot all be kings; it is not well that there should be many
masters; one man must be supreme--one king to whom the son of
scheming Saturn has given the sceptre of sovereignty over you
all." [Trans. Butler, Samuel.]
It would be fruitful to consider at length more conceptions of absolute monarchy and authority. Yet such an inquiry would indefinitely delay release of this essay which I hope to be timely and of imminent use. As such we must admit that our present investigation in part stands atop, however firmly, certain axioms of liberalism and republicanism, namely that individual freedom is innate and designing a state around freedom as a first principle is both possible and good. We may thus cautiously pass over the absolutist theories that stand wholly outside the American liberal tradition. (fortunately the fundamentals of these notions are familiar to most.) Yet it would be unwise fully to abandon them as the absolute monarch rose to fill a need in a society and the proponents of such a system of government sought to achieve some end by their plan. As such it might be fruitful to consider their ideas so the veritable need, if there is one, may be fulfilled by another means more amicable to our system, and that false needs, i.e. interests of select individuals or groups, might be guarded against. Since the ordering of society is not our present inquiry thus we must pass over it for now.

Remember when we are looking into traditions essentially autocratic or monarchical in nature and not republican, we are only investigating the question of why someone thinks monarchy is necessary so we can discover those reasons, evaluate them, and then either disregard them or discover how to fulfill them in as democratic-republican a manner as possible. For example, Aristotle concludes that tyranny is the worst form of government thus the opposite of the worst is the best, thus monarchy is the best form of government. For our purposes, we may say that the characteristic of despotism by one man is the essence of tyranny, thus we ask "how do we avoid despotism?" (of both mobs and tyrants) without necessarily adopting monarchy.

Revisiting the concept of the leader embodying the values of the people we may revisit the section of the Ethics starting "For a man is not a king unless he is sufficient to himself and excels his subjects in all things" and continue the thought:
For a man is not a king unless he is sufficient to himself and excels his subjects in all things and such a man needs nothing further; therefore he will not look to his own interests but to those of his subjects.
Continuing, let us look at Book III, Chapter VI of the Politics:
. . . governments which have a regard to the common interest are constituted in accordance with  strict principles of justice, and are therefore true forms; but those which a regard only the interest of the rulers are all defective and perverted forms, for they are despotic, whereas a state is a community of freemen.
Thus the leader must possess all in excellence and safeguard the interests of the people. Aristotle has of course in mind particular interests for the people, as he is concerned with the good for the individual. We may consider that various constitutions necessitate various "interests."

We see Aristotle's point developed in the thoughts of Thomas Hobbes from his Leviathan. Hobbes advocated a strong central government to avoid the "bellum omnium contra omnes" and an absolute monarch on the practical grounds that:
. . . that where the public and private interest are most closely united, there is the public most advanced. Now in Monarchy, the private interest is the same with the public. The riches, power, and honour of a Monarch arise onely from the riches, strength and reputation of his Subjects. For no King can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure; whose Subjects are either poore, or contemptible, or too weak through want, or dissention, to maintain a war against their enemies. . . [Hobbes, XIX. emphasis mine]

Now we said we would permit this excursion into thinkers and principles outside the American liberal tradition to learn what they thought only a strong monarch could accomplish. We have learned that the monarch must 1) fulfill the needs of the people and 2) that as a protection against corruption it is best for the monarch's needs to be the same as those of that public, that in seeking the former he achieves the latter anyway. Only such an individual, a king, we are told, can pursue the "common interest" without fear of corruption. Finding as best we can the positive aspects of monarchy being accomplished, we may now consider the negatives. This is a simple task and we need not dwell on the numerous flaws of monarchy, chiefly its degeneration into despotism with the pursuing of interests deleterious to the constitution of the people. But can the benefits of an executive be attained without the detriments? Who may govern free people?

Part II
The American Tradition

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain  and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [Preamble to the Constitution of The United States of America]
Thus we see what the government of The United States has been instituted for. How might an executive work towards this end?
Because it would be foolish to consider the role of the political leader without any consideration as to the nature of the state he is leading, we should make a few observations.

First, we must note the importance of the phrase "we the people." It contrasts the notion that sovereignty descends from the leader (i.e. the monarchial "sovereign") but rests in individuals. This cannot be stressed enough both for its legal implications and its social ones. In the latter case we must recall the degree to which the monarchical sovereign and his court was the center of life, wherein even private citizens related to each other by their relationship to the king. This is a system long-departed in America, with personal associations dominated by regional, social, familial, ideological, commercial, et cetera affiliations. Whatever the tendency of people is to gravitate toward a strong character, especially one who is perceived to embody certain values, be the figure political or not, this tendency must be seen as diminished today relative to its expression in the era of absolutism. It is not at all gone, though, and we see politicians ever and always hoping and trying to accrue and consolidate influence to compensate for their relatively weak formal authority. This fervor is usually confined to the office of the president and reaches its highest pitch around his election and inauguration, during which those disposed toward exuberance (irrational or otherwise) can rarely be persuaded the president is anything other than excellent. It is in fact a small subset who remain so enthralled outside this period.

Second, we may consider that despotism, both of a majority or minority (i.e. a tyrant or a mob) is incompatible with the notion of a republic, i.e. a res publicae, meaning the state is the property of the people and the law common to all. This is the contention of Cicero in his dialogue On the State which is a clear exploration of this issue. While he differs somewhat, Aristotle also states (1268a) that in the ideal state everyone will have some part in the state, some reason for wanting it to endure. We will not consider here the legitimacy of the state itself, it being too large a subject. For further reading see Cicero in On the State, and Aristotle in his Politics (Politics I.ii (1253a)) who considered it natural, and Thomas Jefferson who in one of his personal letters, wrote that delegating one's authority was justifiable. [2]

In the introduction to his The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon S. Wood encapsulates these two points:
The revolution did not just eliminate monarchy and create republics; it actually reconstituted what Americans meant by public or state power and brought about an entirely new kind of popular politics and ad new kind of democratic officeholder. [Wood, 8]
We are then looking at a leader of fundamentally different character and role, and with authority different in kind and degree. We will not make the claim that the American President is just a variation on the theme of the monarch.

Having only just thrown off the shackles of tyranny, the authors of the constitution tread proceeded carefully in designing an "Executive." Yet one indeed, however weak, was deemed to be needed. The result of our inquiry into Aristotle and Hobbes taught us that "fulfilling the needs of the people" was one of the monarch's tasks. This of course implies authority and means. As we have said, the executive office will be limited. What should it's power be then? What individual sovereignty should the people delegate to the "Executive Branch?"

Lawyer and delegate from Connecticut, Roger Sherman, who in fact sat in the Congresses that produced The Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederation, and The Constitution, said of the office of the Executive at the Constitutional Convention that it was, "nothing more than an institution for carrying the will of the legislature into effect. . ." and that it should be "absolutely dependent on [the legislature]", an independent executive being "the very essence of tyranny. [Madison's entry for Friday June 1.]

In John Adams' Thoughts on Government, Adams states "the executive power is properly the government; the laws are a dead letter until an administration begins to carry them into execution." [McCullough, 378]

We see that the task of providing for the people is taken from the monarch and given to the government as a whole. The "monarchical" branch is therefore now called "executive" in contrast to the "deliberative" branch of the legislative congress. The congress deliberates as to what ought to be done and legislates that it should be done and the executive branch carries it out, or executes the legislation. The branch is no longer the "rule of one" but the "carrying out."

The next greatest issue regarding the executive office was this: what exactly is the president's authority to "carry things out?" The first manifestation of this questions is the President's veto (called "negative" by the delegates of the Convention) power. It was immediately contentions and none other than the esteemed James Wilson, legal scholar, signatory to the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution, and one of the first group of six Supreme Court Justices appointed by George Washington, along with Alexander Hamilton suggested that the executive should have an absolute veto, such being necessary to defend itself against the legislature and citing that the British monarch himself had seldom used it. This was roundly contested by three men on three grounds. First,  Eldbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (one of only three delegates who in the end did not sign the final draft of this Constitution), thought no great control would be needed over the legislature which would naturally be comprised of the best men. Second, lawyer, Connecticut delegate ( and signatory to the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution) Roger Sherman said no one man ought to be able "stop the will of the whole." Lastly, James Madison most practically suggested that "a proper proportion of each branch should be required to overrule the objection of the executive."

Benjamin Franklin, drawing on his experiences from his considerable time in England, noted the English monarch only seldom exercised his veto power because he bribed Parliament. Franklin feared the same would happen in America and after a short passionate speech by Col. George Mason criticizing the current draft of the Constitution for potentially creating an "elected monarchy," concluded:
. . . The first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards. The executive will be always increasing in size here, as elsewhere, till it ends in monarchy.
Hamilton, in a speech on June 18, was more sanguine about "monarchy." It is worth quoting in its entirety.
 As to the executive, it seemed to be admitted that no good one could be established on republican principles. Was not this giving up the merits of the question, for can there be a good government without a good executive? The English model was the only good one on this subject. The hereditary interest of the king was so interwoven with that of the nation, and his personal emoluments so great, that he was both sufficiently independent and sufficiently controlled to answer the purpose of the institution at home. One of the weak sides of republics was their being liable to foreign influence and corruption. Men of little character acquiring great power become easily the tools of intermeddling neighbors. . .

What is the inference from all these observations? That we ought to go as far in order to attain stability and permanency as republican principles will admit. [Let one body of the legislature be constituted during good behavior for life. Let one executive be appointed [for life] who dares execute his powers. It may be asked, Is this a republican system? It is strictly so, as long as they remain elective. And let me observe that an executive is less dangerous to the liberties of the people when in office during life than for seven years. It may be said this constitutes an elective monarchy! Pray, what is a monarchy? May not the governors of the respective states be considered in that light? But by making the executive subject to impeachment, the term "monarchy" cannot apply.  [Madison's entry for June 18]
[N.B. In Federalist Papers 69-77 Hamilton will later make a defense of the Executive branch of the final draft of the Constitution. See below.]

First we see that the concept of a monarch or monarchial power exists to some extent within the American political tradition. This faith of the Federalists in the rule of the few or the one contrasts the Democratic-Republican faith in self-government. This famous split became personified in the clash between Hamilton and Jefferson during the 1790s, the latter accusing the Federalists of "monarchism" and designing to lessen the dependence of the Executive and of one branch of the Legislature on the people. . . so as to reduce the elective franchise to its minimum." [3] In Jefferson's thinking, such a hierarchy would inherently gain power (an observation akin to Franklin's) and as such Hamilton and the Federalists' setup was inherently anti-republican and illiberal. (Not that he thought the executive should be powerless, certainly not after his tenure as Governor of Virginia, an executive office which had no veto authority.) Let us examine the specifics of Hamilton's suggestion that we may perhaps what he hopes to achieve through monarchy by means more amenable to liberal republicanism.

Hamilton introduces two key features allegedly only the monarch can bring to government: insulation from foreign influence and stability. (Let us pass over his suggestion that one body of the legislature also be constituted for life.) Again we see as in Aristotle and Hobbes that the king ought to share in the interests of the people, and like Hobbes, Hamilton seems to think the monarch, at least the English one of not all monarchs inherently, shares most in the interests of the people.

First let us examine the issue of whether the president might be more fit to conduct foreign policy matters .Now Hamilton was under the impression term limits would limit the president's ability to grow rich and thus make him susceptible to foreign bribes. Now this is reducible to a simpler one which is harder to answer: who is more likely to seek riches, who is already rich or who is poor? Can anyone definitively answer such a question without offering a subjective answer about the nature of man and a prognostication about what he is likely to do? There are examples of both the poor who seek riches and the rich who seek riches. We cannot even conclude with certainty that those who have riches sought riches. We may only conclude, with little use, that those who seek riches seek riches. Perhaps a compromise would be a post-service stipend for the president for the duration of his life.

Is it the case that a monarch is less corruptible, by foreign or otherwise specialized interests, than a congressional body? This is contrary to Aristotle's claim that "the man are more incorruptible than the few as they are like the greater quantity of water which is less easily corrupted than a little." [Nichomachean Ethics, III.xv] Likewise we have Aristotle's claim that the individual may succumb to passions whereas the odds of a deliberative body of good men succumbing so are less. On the other hand surely we may see how certain members of a deliberative body could be bribed and their influence either corrupt others or generally stymie the efficient passing of good legislation. How is an executive less susceptible to foreign influence? First, he is under far greater scrutiny as the head of his branch. The whole nation scrutinizes him whereas congressional members tend only subject to the scrutiny of their constituents. (Even though sometimes they draw the attention they ought to, since they sit on committees with specific, national interests.) Second, the head of any institution by his excellence or at least his very singularity becomes most intimately associated with the most dear notions of the institution. Third, the prestige and remuneration of the post (during and after service) should outweigh any other potential attractions. As such the executive is indeed more suited toward conducting certain duties which should thus be delegated to him.

Now in what manner would the interests of a republican "monarch" be tied to the will of the people? Absent autocratic authority, how would he? Perhaps again it is the feeling of the people that the leader embodies certain ideas. Perhaps it is the fact he is elected by the people, though the college of electors in fact makes the choice. If that is the case, making him leader for life would reduce his ties by eliminating his need to gain popular support and get re-elected. The system of term limits works well here, forcing the president both to gain popularity to get reelected but rendering him eventually ineligible.

Now we may ask if the executive is inherently more stable. This virtue would again be diminished by term limits. With them, the executive is only more stable insofar as the legislature is constantly considering new legislation and the executive creates no legislation and only continues to carry out existing law. Also, less tangibly, the symbolic nature of the office is tied to unchangeable ideas.

[Now you might also say, "Look how frequently members of Congress get reelected, and reelected with great ease at that. We have achieved stability by doing what Hamilton suggested." Yet this is a stability generated not by a deliberate feature of the system, but by accident (albeit one shared by all democratic and republican government) which is that the government relies on the people to feel they ought themselves directly take part in it. This accident might be positive if it is because the people are desirous of increased stability but dangerous if it springs from a disinclination toward self-government. If this disinclination is broad amongst those who might be good representative-delegates, one can easily imagine the dangers in the adage, "If good men do not take up the burden of office, others will." coming to pass.]

In Federalist 70 Hamilton systematically explicates the virtues of the current executive system. He notes that energy (we might call it more clearly expediency) is the advantage of the executive and expediency is achieved by:
  1. unity
  2. duration
  3. support
  4. power
He argues then that these features would by compatible with and not at all detrimental to the essences of safety in "the republican sense:" due dependence on the people and due responsibility. To the first point he adds that a plurality of persons in the executive will A) impede expedience in emergencies, and B) obscure the truth in assigning blame to the executive (since if there are more than one they will blame each other.) This is a fine observation. The remaining three points are accurate in terms of kind, but one must examine them in the context of degree, i.e. how much of a duration, how much power, et cetera, which we have done elsewhere.

He also adds, concurring with Jean-Louis de Lolme (1741-1804. Swiss political theorist, scholar, and proponent of British, constitutional, balanced government) that "the executive power is more easily confined when it is one." Is this so? This matter seems of a sort akin to ours about what sort of person seeks riches. We may only note the classic cycle of the changing of governments, that tyranny begets anarcho-democracy, which begets oligarchy, which begets tyranny. With these seemingly irreconcilable and cyclical forces we see the wisdom of the system as it came to be, its maxim being that: any vacuum of power will be filled and then overfilled, and thus it is best the one branch should balance the other, supplementing what the other lacks, and checking what it might have too much of.

From what the executive branch ought to do we may also infer what it ought to refrain from. Most obviously it should refrain from interfering in the deliberations of the legislative body, which would give the executive power of both crafting and executing legislation. This must be avoided, though the executive must understand the legislation to know why or why not he ought to veto it.
Cicero puts this well:
. . . because he has to act as both the factor and the steward of the state. . . he needs to have a complete understanding of the highest principles of justice. because, without such understanding it is not within anyone's power to be just at all. And he must not be ignorant of the law of the land. But his awareness of it should be analogous to the knowledge of the stars that a ship's pilot possesses, or a doctor's knowledge of medicine. For both these professionals use their knowledge for their own practical purposes, without letting it divert or distract them from fulfilling their purposes.  [On the State, V.]
I would draw emphasis on the aspect of use in the context of our executive "carrying out" laws. Thus the president's knowledge helps the executive decide on how and if he should implement legislation (i.e. if he wants to veto it, though he can be overridden in which case he would have no choice.) While we have observed the president ought not have influence over the deliberations of the legislature, what influence is proper to him within his department? John Quincy Adams demonstrated the model:
Efforts had been made by some of the Senators to obtain different nominations, and to introduce a principle of change or ration in office at the expiration of these commissions; which would make the Government a perpetual and unintermitting scramble for office. A more pernicious expedient could scarcely have been devised. [Adams, JQ. 520-21]
Such an upheaval would occur at every presidential election and thus the president should avoid this, encouraging continuity, whenever possible, in his department. Speaking of upheaval, we must consider term limits, which are in fact upsetting and not beneficial for stability. They prevent, though, the post of the executive, and its associated symbolism and prestige, from becoming tied to the person and not the ideas themselves. Also, limited term prevents power arrogating to him from throughout the executive branch. But, with term limits for the president and a congressional body that can also change have we not enough stability?

By its nature, it reviewing law only for legality and not desirability (like the executive), it is the most stable branch and the one most conducive to a long tenure for its members. It is powerful yet limited by being highly focused. It achieves the stability the executive might and has under other constitutions, but without the dangers of degenerating into despotism by being of 1) focused and not broad power, 2) impartial, 3) with power diffused amongst several members, 4) slow moving, being primarily an appellate court which must inherently review errors of law or procedure, with such necessitating much scholarship, and 5) by being varied in composition "sometimes but not too frequently" as justices retire.

In Thoughts on Government Adams stressed the importance of this body:
The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of society depend so much upon an upright and skilful administration of justice, that the judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that. . . Their minds should not be distracted with jarring interests; they should not be dependent upon any man, or body of men. To these ends, they should hold estates for life in their offices

Thus does the judiciary prove to be perhaps the most integral provider of stability and a most profound check on power.

Returning to considerations of the executive, we see that an "Adamsonian" disposition towards his own branch creates continuity of the means of carrying out legislative policy, especially continuing stable foreign relations. The veto power allows him to slow legislation suddenly pushed through Congress that is at odds with the long-term goals of the government, that has been rushed through the body in haste, or that has been rushed through the body because of popular fervor and not because of its merits. The congressional power to override the executive veto permits the voice of the people from being squelched by the will of one man and allows an emergency measure to be passed. [4]

The president's ability to appoint Supreme Court Justices who themselves have lifelong tenure creates continuity as well. Also, the executive is more similar to the judicial than the legislative branch, thus the executive is better equipped to evaluate candidates. (This is because it is the job of the judicial and executive branches to perceive the unintended consequences of legislation whereas the legislative body often sees only the results they expect their legislation to produce.) Additionally, the judicial candidate's position standing in need of  senatorial approval  not only checks executive authority but ensures the legislature will be satisfied that the laws they themselves authored will be comprehended by the court justice. The fact that both the judiciary and executive may review laws but that their reviews essentially differ in kind and not degree (along with the other inherent differences in the respective bodies) is an ingenious "split 'double-negative'" on the power of the legislature. [5]

Thus we have inquired into some of the fundamental principles of a monarch and an executive administrator in a liberal republic. We have reviewed what the American executive was hoped to be and not be, and we have concluded as finitely as possible what it should be as a branch of a liberal constitutional republic. In the future we may discuss what when, how, and why it has differed.


[1] In a letter to Isaac H. Tiffany (August 26, 1816, M.E., XV, 65-66) Jefferson wrote of the tendency of the pure democracy, when it encounters difficulties, to revert to despotism, the people in "an abandonment of themselves to an aristocracy, or a tyranny independent of the people."

[2] Letter to Dupont de Nemours, Poplar Forest, April 24, 1816, M.E., XIV, 487-88.

[3] Letter to John F. Mercer, Esq., Washington, October 9, 1804, M.E., XI, 54.

[4] Madison evidently did not think this power and this participation in the making of laws to be an amalgamating of departments or inconsistent "with the theory of free constitution." See the notes on the constitutional convention for July 17, 19.

[5] It would be fruitful to review the debate on this issue, which can also be found in the constitutional convention notes for July 17, 19.


Adams, John Quincy. Memoirs. VI.

McCullough, David. John Adams. Simon and Schuster. New York. 2001.

Madison, James. [Record of] The Constitutional Convention.

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the Virginian. Little, Brown and Company. Boston. 1948.

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and the Rights of Man. Little, Brown and Company. Boston. 1951.

Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Alfred A. Knopf. NY. 1991


Ablavsky, Gregory. Republican or Royalist: A Lesson Plan on Hamilton's Alleged Monarchism and the Partisan Politics of the 1790s. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. New York, N.Y. 2009.