Thursday, June 3, 2010

Around the Web

For the week of Friday, May 28 through Friday, June 4, 2010.

1) George Will on "the limits of the welfare state." (This is a fine summary critique of progressive neo-liberalism.)

2) In the WSJ, Heidi Waleson on Prosperpina, Flora, and Philemon and Baucis at Spoleto Festival USA.

3) In the WSJ, John Jurgensen on André Rieu, a "maestro for the masses."

4) Larua Barton for the Economist on Mark Twain.

5) In the WSJ, Barbara Jepson on Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

6) At Chicago Boyz, James McCormick reviews "Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist" by Thomas Levenson.

7) In The New Criterion, Kenneth Minogue on "Morals & the Servile Mind." (A fine essay to which I added my thoughts on the matter here.)

8) In The American Scholar, Christian Wiman on anxiety, spiritual life, and transcendence.

André  Rieu conducting the Johann Strauss Orchestra.

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.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

"It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived."
- General George S. Patton, Jr

Friday, May 28, 2010

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, May 22 through Friday, May 28.

1) David Mermelstein in the WSJ: Placido Domingo is the Last Superstar Tenor.

2) In Prospect, Peter Popham on the restoration effort at Pompeii.

3) At the New Liturgical Movement, Matthew Alderman on German Gothic: a new model for church construction?

4-5) Two documentaries on Stanley Kubrick:
  1. Stanley Kubrick's Boxes [Youtube Video]
  2. On Kubrick's Unmade Napoleon [Youtube Video]
6-7 ) Remembering science author Martin Gardner, 1914 – 2010:
  1. from Roger Kimball
  2. from Stefan Kanfer in City Journal 
8) In the WSJ, Peter Berkowitz on "Why Liberal Education Matters":
How can one think independently about what kind of life to live without acquiring familiarity with the ideas about happiness and misery, exaltation and despair, nobility and baseness that study of literature, philosophy and religion bring to life? How can one pass reasoned judgment on public policy if one is ignorant of the principles of constitutional government, the operation of the market, the impact of society on perception and belief and, not least, the competing opinions about justice to which democracy in America is heir?

How can one properly evaluate America's place in the international order without an appreciation of the history of the rise and fall of nations, and that familiarity with allies and adversaries that comes from serious study of their languages, cultures and beliefs?

A proper education, culminating in a liberal education, gives science an honored place. It teaches students, among other things, the fundamentals of the scientific method and the contribution that science has made to human security, freedom and prosperity; it exposes all students to the basic achievements of biology, chemistry and physics; and it encourages those with aptitude to specialize. At the same time, a liberal education brings into focus the limits of science, beginning with the impossibility of explaining the value of science and math in scientific and mathematical terms—to say nothing of science's incapacity to account for the worth and dignity of the individual.
9) In Spiked Online, Tim Black interviews scientist Mike Hulme:
‘Even in a secular setting, people have very different attitudes that inform their relationship to climate change. For instance, some see nature, and therefore the planet, as something that is fragile and easily dislocated. Others see that nature is actually quite robust and resilient. And then there are different attitudes – secular or religious – to technology. People have very different views on the ability of technology to mitigate against risk and danger. Some people see technology as inherently loaded with further problems and complications and unintended side effects.’

Why isn’t the battle, the argument and the public debate about the Good Life, about how we should organise society, being had in its own terms? Why is it being had through the prism of climate science?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Around the Web

For Saturday, May 1 through Friday, May 21.

1) In City Journal, Benjamin A. Plotinsky thinks "The Left’s political zealotry increasingly resembles religious experience."

2) In the WSJ, Stuart Isacoff on Musical Instruments From Every Single Nation.

3) In the WSJ, Heidi Waleson reviews the opera "Amelia," recently given its world premiere by the Seattle Opera on May. 8.

4) In The American Scholar, "A young psycholinguist confesses her strong attraction to pronouns."

5) In City Journal, Claire Berlinksi asks, "Why doesn’t anyone care about the unread Soviet archives?"

6) David Mamet's Top Ten American plays.

7) In Standpoint, Edward Norman reviews "Newman's Unquiet Grave: Portrait of a Reluctant Saint" by John Cornwell.

8) In Philosophy Now, Roger Caldwell is happy to introduce Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

9-10)Two great lectures on capitalism:
  1. Art Carden speaking at the "In Defense of Capitalism" Conference addresses "common objections to capitalism."
  2. Larry J. Sechrest on "Anti-capitalists: The Barbarians at the Gates."
    11) In Cato-At-Liberty, Ilya Shapiro with an update on the legal challenges to "Obamacare."

    12) I also missed Jessica Duchen's tips for page turners in Standpoint from back in April. (Extra points for linking to Victor Borge's classic and hysterical "Page Turner" routine.)

    Scholarship and Crooked Things

    Several months ago in The New Criterion author Anthony Daniels reviewed "Any Rand and the World She Made" by Anne C. Heller. His review was provocatively titled "Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls" [1] and received a torrent of furious replies in the message board. Some were thoughtful, even insightful. Many were foolish, childish, and absurd. As readers may know I am rather familiar with both Rand's fiction and non-fiction. Yet I did not weigh in on the conversation here or on the New Criterion comments section. Frankly I saw little point in doing so. Once situations become so seriously inflamed, in my experience most people are no longer considering the arguments and ideas but rather simply looking for allies. Also, I rather enjoyed the article. I did not agree with portions of it, which is not unusual. My only issue with the essay remains that it was unclear where he had actually read Rand's work or was simply reviewing Rand and her ideas via Heller's book. As anyone who remembers being told in high school about  "primary sources" can tell you, this not an insubstantial claim. You would not trust the scholar who wrote an essay on a Beethoven string quartet, but had only read other books about it and had not actually heard the piece or looked at the scores. Similarly, if you really wanted to know Aristotle or Homer, say, would you first turn to books about them or to their actual work?

    Now do not mistake me, I am not comparing Rand to Homer or Aristotle, though doubtlessly she would have welcomed comparison to the latter. My point is about the difference between scholarship and criticism. The reviewer looks at a piece of work, of any kind, and says I like A, B, and C and I don't like X, Y, and Z about it. They write this down, often with great wit and verve, and submit it for publication. As I understand it they are often well-compensated for the endeavor. This is not the scholarly approach. The scholar is first and foremost concerned with his own body of knowledge. All of the critical work that will come shortly is subject to the following two concepts. The first is sentimentally stated by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in his Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy.

    It is far easier to point out the faults and errors in the work of a great mind than to give a clear and full exposition of its value. [2]
    I suggest this idea not because Rand is or is not a "great mind" but as a starting principle for any scholar of any subject. We may thus re-state this axiom more briefly and precisely for our purposes: what is this author or artist correct about? Truth being the ultimate goal of the scholar, anything that contributes to it helps him. The second principle is stated by by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Book I of his "Meditations" where he thanks Rusticus, Stoic philosopher and the emperor's teacher and mentor of sorts, for

    . . . teaching me to read books for detailed understanding and not to settle for general summaries or accept uncritically the opinions of reviewers. [3]
    The scholar does not read summaries of Aristotle, he reads Aristotle. (In Greek.) The scholar does not skip Suetonius when he studies Augustus just because Suetonius includes odd anecdotes and leaves much out.  He does not leave out Apollonius of Rhodes when studying Vergil or Mozart when studying Beethoven. We may thus re-state this second axiom more briefly and precisely for our purposes also: the scholar does not study simply one work but the tradition from which it sprung.

    Now I do not mean to be so hard on Daniels. I have read his books and enjoyed them. I always look forward to his new work and I agree with him often. He conveys such a gentlemanly disposition in his writing the vitriolic outburst against him was particularly distressing. Daniels in fact followed Schopenhauer's advice, finding some truth. (He may have followed Marcus' too, but it did not show.) He simply did not like some aspects of her ideas and style. He didn't get the "big deal" about her. Fair enough.

    In fact it was not even Daniels' essay in the New Criterion that brought me to write this afternoon. It was Corey Robin's piece in The Nation. [4] For its misapprehensions and wrongheadedness it warrants correction. For its sterling incompetence it deserves a modicum of awe and much ridicule. Yet for its lack of scholarship and lack of a systematic approach it deserves to be ignored. Robin's piece by way of contrast  reminded of Dr. Daniels' essay, which I do not now praise because he was easier on Rand than Robins. (Daniels was not easier on her.) Yet because the topic was the same I remembered Dr. Daniels and his essay and the world of difference between the two minds struck me. Such is why I have opted not to deconstruct Robins' piece, with Socrates' statement in mind:

    "Do you want to look at shameful, blind, and crooked things, then, when you might hear fine, illuminating ones from other people? [5]


    Perhaps a natural complaint about my little essay above is this: both Daniels' and Robins' essays were not "scholarship" they were "criticism." Well what is criticism? "Scholarship Lite?" Obviously we cannot thoroughly research everything we encounter. Naturally we will research what we like most. So what of criticism then? Is it half-scholarship of things we are half-interested in? Is it very laudable or useful then?

    [1] Daniels, Anthony. Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls. The New Criterion. February, 2010.
    [2] Magee, Bryan. The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Oxford University Press. New York. 1983.
    [3] Hicks, Scot and Hicks, David V. (trans.) The Emperor's Handbook. Marcus Aurelius. Scribner. NY, NY. 2002.
    [4] Robins, Corey. Garbage and Gravitas. The Nation. May, 2010.
    [5] Reeve, C. D. C. (trans.) Plato: Republic. Hackett Publishing Company. Indianapolis, IN. 2004. Book, VI. (506a)

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Movie Review: Iron Man & Iron Man 2

    Iron Man (2008)
    Directed by Jon Favreau.

    Spoilers of both Iron Man movies throughout.

    In 2008 Iron Man burst into theaters seemingly from nowhere to substantial critical and popular success. It became surprisingly popular within the conservative and libertarian community, but with good reason? Let's take a look.

    Undoubtedly what stands out most in Iron Man is Tony Stark himself: a former child prodigy, a genius, a billionaire playboy, and an unapologetic designer and seller of high tech weaponry for the United States military. He is charming, confident, and aggressive. When confronted by a reporter and accused of being a "merchant of death" he does not  recoil and mutter, "Gee, maybe you're right." He does not apologize for profiting from making weapons that defend Americans. He replies without pause that his father helped defeat the Nazis and his company's profits go into medical research.

    Stark has no qualms about killing terrorists and making weapons used to advance America's interests. His only qualm is with his weapons being used against Americans and innocent parties. When he finds out they are being used so, he does not storm into the board room of Stark Industries. . . he flies across the globe and blows them up himself. This talent and agency is what endears Tony Stark and Iron Man to the individualist in the audience. He does not buy the suit, he does not even work with a team on it. He builds it. Moreover he builds it in his basement, a situation all but symbolic of the enthusiast and entrepreneurial spirit.

    In specific contrast to Stark is Obadiah Stane, partner of Tony's late father (who founded the company after working on the Manhattan Project) and more or less the manager of Stark Industries since Tony is more interested in inventing and. . . other pursuits. Yet Obadiah is double-dealing, selling weapons to terrorists. Aside from attempting to have Tony killed and seize the Stark Industries fully for himself, he wants the Iron Man suit. Yet even with a prototype of the power source and a team of engineers Stane cannot reproduce the suit. In a great line late in the movie, Stane Says: "Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave. . . with a box of scraps!" and the hapless engineer replies, "Well I'm sorry. I'm not Tony Stark." The clarity of the sentiment is refreshing: Tony Stark is a genius. He invented this device and no one else can figure it out. That this is expressed as a positive and without ambiguity or apology is what struck individualists everywhere. Shortly later, when he finally resorts to stealing the source (and killing Tony) he tells the dying Stark, "You think all because you have an idea it belongs to you?" This was an even more surprising line. You mean Tony has a right to profit by his own effort and be secure in the property he uses to support himself? That this is expressed as a positive and without ambiguity or apology is what struck the libertarian crowd.

    These contrasting pairs are the highlight of the movie. Other elements are ancillary and while competently handled, not terribly significant. Their careful balance is in part what makes Iron Man " the film equivalent of a Rorschach test" as Sonny Bunch noted in his review in 2008. On the one hand Rhodey (Colonel Rhodes, Tony's friend, head of military weapons development, and the apparent liaison between Stark Enterprises and the military) is a capable and responsible member of the military. On the other hand he does not even care to hear about Tony's "non-military" project. Similarly, while Stark Industries is the company responsible for making these weapons, when Tony wants to change the company's direction it is not the board who objects, only Stane.

    Last we should note what is missing: any commentary on the wars in the Middle East at all. There are none, pro or con, overt or backhand. We do not know what Tony thought about going in the first place, but we can safely guess he supports winning.

    Overall Bunch was right to call Iron Man "not a conservative movie per se." [1] It is not, but it lacks all of the usual backtracking, ham-fisted moralizing, finger-wagging, apologizing, and sucker punches that drive many conservative and libertarian movie-goers nuts. It is not brilliantly structured but the performances are strong, it is unapologetic about what is right and wrong, and the whole project has such a gusto you cannot help but get swept up. In short, Iron Man is blast.

    Iron Man 2 (2010)

    Iron Man 2 does not quite succeed as its predecessor. This is for a number of reasons and as such, I begin this review with a little list.

    1) The writers were in a position to explore the dynamic of Tony Stark being known to be Iron Man. Sure, we see him as his usual playboy self having fun as Iron Man. Yet this does not really generate any conflict.

    2) The character of Rhodey doesn't really come into any focus. He doesn't want to steal the suit from Tony, but he does. He doesn't want to let the military weaponize it, but he does.

    3) The addition of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury and Black Widow adds next-to-nothing to the movie. They're just more characters walking around. In fact, Tony Stark's driver Happy Hogan (played by director Jon Favreau) is actually more fun to watch.

    4) The fact that Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. literally drop a crate in front of Tony with all of the answers he needs and that key to perfecting his technology lies in a miniature-scale mock-up of the World's Fair his father designed when Tony was a child is simply too silly.

    5) Similarly, Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. simply drop in and tell us the story of Ivan Vanko's and Tony's fathers. This would be more tolerable if the story were more satisfying. The rift between Howard Stark and Anton Vanko was caused by Vanko wanting to sell the technology, presumably to disreputable people. That's not bad, per se, but the story is delivered so quickly and with such sterility it fails to feel significant. Since it is so similar to other conflicts (between Tony and Stane, and Hammer and Stane) his scene needed to draw a sense of parallel and continuity among the situations. The similarity feels more like staleness than symmetry. This is particularly a shame because all of Tony's detractors could have been more significant in why they are his enemies, being symbolic of something specific: Stane of greed, Hammer of vanity, the government of collectivism, and Vanko of envy. All of this can sort of be read into the film to its advantage, but it clearly was not structured in.

    Lastly, the film does not have any new conflicts of any kind. Tony's wannabe rival Justin Hammer is essentially Stane from the first film: he wants the technology but cannot make it himself, so he steals it. Yet he is such a weakling and a loser that he is less villain and more simply pest. His sub-par suits Tony and Rhodey will battle at the climax are just fodder for a more elaborate final action sequence.

    Ivan Vanko feels like a suitable villain because he is strong and brilliant and he too makes a device based on the "arc-reactor technology" but his quick defeat and simplistic motivation are not compelling. He feels just like one of the many other characters trailing after Tony, which is unfortunate because Rourke is terrific. He is so good, in fact, one has more interest in Vanko than one ought too given the limits of the writing.

    Yet Iron Man 2 has two saving graces. First is the repercussions from Tony believing he is dying because he cannot find a suitable non-poisonous metal for his hear-replacement. At first he decides to go out in a blaze of glory, throwing a big party for his birthday and wearing the Iron Man suit throughout. Nick Fury shows up, puts him under house arrest and tells him to figure it out. (Which he does.) This was a potentially interesting situation but it was not handled well in the writing. It could have explored, or at least mentioned or alluded to somehow, Tony's need to understand himself and his father. As it happens, Tony just watches some old movies, spots the map of the fair, and figures out what to do. The fact that his father left this puzzle for him to figure out is a good premise but what follows does not live up to it. We do not feel as if Tony is finally understanding something or taking up and fulfilling his true inheritance.

    The second saving element is the clamor around the Iron Man suit. Everyone is scrambling for it. What Stane said to the terrorist Raza in the first movie, "Technology was always your weakness in this part of the world" is now true for everyone. The arms race here could have had a great symmetry between the arms race that followed his father's completion of the first nuclear bomb. Howard Stark's invention helped end a war and protect America, but a potentially catastrophic arms race ensued. Tony does something not dissimilar, but the similarities do not resonate strongly enough. This is particularly unfortunate and inexplicable given the significance of the contrasting pairs of the Starks and Vankos.

    These two "saving graces" demonstrate that Iron Man 2 was indeed a more ambitious script than its predecessor. There are many good, or excellent, ideas and elements not sufficiently brought out in the final product. The finale could have been a glorious showdown between determined and brilliant men of different character and ideology struggling at their limits to live up to their fathers' legacies. It was, in a very limited sense and perhaps because we can sense how great the movie could have been we are especially disappointed.

    Yet we are still left with an entertaining picture. The bits of the "inheritance" and "arms race" threads remain, however imperfect. Playboy "I'm tired of the liberal agenda" Tony Stark is back in full force and he is still a genius hounded by lesser men. Oh, and we have that great courtroom scene defense of property rights and nose-thumbing at big government bureaucrats.

    You want my property? You can't have it. But I did you a favor:
    I successfully privatized world peace.

    [1] Bunch, Sonny. Iron Man 1, Terrorists 0. The Weekly Standard. May, 2008. 

    Wednesday, May 12, 2010

    On Mozart's Overtures: Final Thoughts

    Mozart Overtures

    Final Thoughts

    As I reflect on the preceding series on Mozart's overtures inevitably the deficiencies present themselves first. Foremost perhaps is that we have not looked at all of the overtures. Of the composer's twenty-two or so operas we have excluded the first twelve (including Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, a sacred drama), composed from 1767 through 1780. Likewise we have excluded the overtures to the unfinished Lo sposo deluso (1784) and the short singspiel-farce Der Schauspieldirektor (1786.) Thus we can more properly be said to have looked at the overtures to the last seven, complete, full-scale Mozart operas.

    My overall approach was to avoid both the abstruse and the banal and as clearly as possible explain how the music achieved its effect.  Sometimes I may have curtailed detail for clarity or stated details without explication. In the latter case my hope is that the listener, with the feature pointed out, can discover the effect.

    Regarding scholarship I am indebted to the scholars of the past 200 years that have produced the wealth of insight available today. Invariably all Mozart scholarship looks like "footnotes to Abert." Invariable also is the struggle to restate a basic observation in a non-identical way: how many ways can one describe a particular chord, scale, or figure? I hope I have not stepped on the toes of any scholars. All mistakes and defects are my own.

    In addition to the great quantity of scholarship I had to draw on I also had the tremendous reference that is the Neue Mozart Ausgabe, the complete scores of Mozart's music available for free online. While I have quoted portions of the scores liberally it was with critical intent. No infringement was intended.

    Perhaps we may take up one more issue, though, one that required looking at all of the overtures. What precisely is the relationship of the overture to the subsequent drama? We know the overtures except for Die Entführung) were all the last music of the operas completed. This was at least partly for the practical reason that it could be left for last since it only required, if it receive this much at all, a run-through with the orchestra, and not weeks of choreography and accommodation to the singers. Yet while it was the last music practiced and written down, we cannot know when it was finished in terms of conception (either in terms of specifics or its general plan.)

    The notion Mozart wrote down perfect scores with no revisions is indeed an exaggeration. From letters it seems likely he did compose at the keyboard, which was standard practice. Likewise some sketches are preserved, though not on the scale of the sketches in Beethoven's books. In fact, Mozart even struck out short portions of the overtures to Figaro and Die Zauberflöte. While we have a general knowledge of his habits of writing down his music we cannot speak with certainty of what Arthur Hutchings aptly called the "procedures of the mind." We cannot say Mozart wrote the opera and then chose parts or aspects of it to assemble into, or from which to create, the overture. Nor can we say they were conceived of more or less at the same time.

    Unable to discern their function from Mozart's compositional practices let us look at how the overtures work in relation to the operas. There is clearly a strong connection between each overture and its corresponding opera. No one could possibly suggest swapping the overtures for Don Giovanni and Figaro, or even the more-similar operas like Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte.

    Yet the overture does not in every skip and jump mirror a particular aspect of the opera proper. Generally we may say if composer uses a particular theme or progression in more than one place such  invites inquiry, by virtue of either the similarity or difference of their functions. Thus in Mozart's overtures, where the overture bears thematic and harmonic relationship to the subsequent music of the opera, we assume significance. What is the significance though? Are these similarities the heart of the overture's fulfillment of the need to be a "dramatic argument" for the opera? Do they have a subsidiary function to the same end?

    What might we make, say, of Daniel Heartz's observation that the overture "emerge[s] from the material of the opera" [Heartz, 319] Likewise what do we make of his findings of many harmonic connections between the overture and the following music [in the case of the overture to Titus?] (Regrettably I am unable to familiarize myself with Constantin Floros' studies[1] on the connections between the overtures and operas.) Let us look at a few quotations and see the state of the question:

    [The overtures] presented at once, and with the greatest concentration of emotional and intellectual content, the crux of the drama. [Heartz, 319.]
    Like its predecessors, it was the last number to be written and in consequence is a kind of general lyrical admission of Mozart's feelings about the works as a whole. Once more he relives the artistic experience that produced the opera, but instead of the work in its concrete form, it is the mood that inspired Die Zauberflöte that he now intends to instil in the listener before the following drama can make its impression – but it is, of course, the mood of the work as he, its creator, felt it. [Abert, 1258]
    Thomas Bauman quoting Walter Wiora:
    Walter Wiora, in his classic essay "Between Absolute and Program Music," has observed that "an opera overture partakes of the basic mood, the atmosphere, the overall qualities. . . of the opera, and possesses corresponding functional and characteristic traits." [2]
    All three scholars make the sensible case that the overtures are neither purely programmatic nor purely abstract. Of course if divorced from the opera and played as a concert piece, the overture is purely abstract. Attached to the opera, once you have heard both you cannot avoid drawing connections.
    Yet these similar moments do not point to analogous parts of the opera. Their significance lies in that they are assembled in such a way in the overture to state the opera's case as purely as possible.  This follows for the mature operas with the exception to the overture to Figaro which is frankly a sinfonia. The overture to Idomeneo is the distillation of the tragic ethos. The overture to Die Entführung is of exotic adventure and a lost lover, to Don Giovanni of being and non-being, to Così the endless chatters that make us all wonder, "Do they all?" and to Titus exalting a noble and besieged character. Die Zauberflöte contains multiple dimensions.

    The overtures contain both specific and general relationships to their respective operas. The generalities are what make the overtures "dramatic arguments." It is important not to get too sidetracked by the similarities of parts of the overture to parts of the opera. These are the results of a compositional process we do not fully know. They are not why the overtures are dramatic arguments since the overture could have have been a potpourri of themes in the manner of the later Romantic-French style. They are instead part of the how the overtures are dramatic arguments. They exist because the overture and opera speak the same language to express the same ideas. The Mozartian overture qua dramatic argument is demonstrated not in the similarities to Vitellia's aria, the threefold chord, or the "Don Giovanni/Commendatore" chord but rather in the statements of the overtures in toto. Though the overtures were composed last the effect is reversed: coming to the opera-goer first, the overture sets up the dramatic argument and the opera proper is "merely" the playing out.

    [1] Constantin Floros, "Das 'Programm' in Mozarts Meisterouvertüren," Studien zur Musikwissenschaft 26 (1964): 140-86.

    [2] Walter Wiora, "Zwischen absoluter und Programmusik," in Fetschrift Friedrich Blume zum 70 Geburtstag, ed. Anna Amalie Abert and Wilhelm Pfannkuch (Kassel, 1963), p.383.


    Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

    Heartz, Daniel. Mozart's Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1990.

    Hutchings, Arthur. Mozart: The Man, The Musician. Thames and Hudson. London. 1976.

    Wednesday, May 5, 2010

    On the Overture to Die Zauberflöte

    Overture to Die Zauberflöte
    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (KV.620)

    Die Zauberflöte was the product of collaboration between Mozart and actor, librettist, singer, and impresario Emanuel Schikaneder. Die Zauberflöte premiered at the latter's Theater an der Wien
    on September 30, 1791.

    Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 clarin trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings (2 violins, 2 violas, cello, bass.)

    The score is available via the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe.

    (click to enlarge)

    James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

    It was his bequest to mankind, his appeal to the ideals of humanity. His last work is not Tito or the Requiem; it is Die Zauberflöte. Into the Overture, which is anything but a Singspiel overture, he compressed the struggle and victory of mankind, using the symbolic means of polyphony; working out, laborious working out in the development section; struggle and triumph. [Einstein, 467]

    In each of Mozart's overtures the composer transports us in the very first bars. We were whisked off in Die Entführung, swept up in the floodtide of Figaro, and thrust into the struggle of Don Giovanni. The overture to Die Zauberflöte brings about our transport by enveloping us in an extra ordinary aura of majesty and solemnity. Rising each measure and with the hint of heraldry from the three trombones, it is as if the the now-famous "threefold" chord of the opening Adagio calls us not just to hear but to partake. The key too, E-flat, contributes to the solemnity of the occasion, but this is not the E-flat of sterile galanterie or carefree baubles, or even of the heroic and dignified Sinfonia Concertante KV.365 and Piano Concerto KV.482. Girdlestone captured the spirit in calling it the "play of Botticelli's Graces" [Girdlestone, 366.] We feel this awareness of the transcendent in other E-flat works of Mozart, most of all in the Symphony KV.543, the Divertimento KV.563 and the final String Quintet KV.614.

    In the next 12 bars Mozart crafts an unbroken line of sublimest beauty and deepest reverence. The arch-shaped figures and sforzandi of m.4-7 create a loftiness that bears us along before the basses, hovering around the leading tone and dominant, create a thin stability. To the same end the second violins waver on the leading seventh and tonic until it narrows to just E, on which it remains piano. The wandering of the violins on the third and fourth degrees and the syncopated crescendos and piano bursts from the trumpets at m.8 and 11 continue to heighten the mystery until at m.12 the bassoons modulate from C to C-flat and the violins from A-flat to A. We then finally arrive firmly at the dominant (m.13) and at m.14 the long-silent oboe rings out on the tonic, holding all of the tension of the preceding bars and preparing the way for the release in the following Allegro passage starting at m.16.


    Thomas Bauman astutely notes, contra Abert, the inherent bifurcation of the theme of m.16-17 above caused by (1) the leading tone-to tonic modulation in the last two notes of the measure before the dominant of m.17, (2) the contrasting and closely-placed dynamic markings. It is even proper to say more, as Bauman does, that "these two primal degrees sound at the beginning of the subject as two distinct tonal poles." [Bauman, 288.] Bauman notes the other critical feature of this phrase, the G–C–F–B-flat figure in m.18. Similar to how the swerve to A in m. 7 of the sinfonia to Figaro prevented a full resolution at the outset, here this figure, clearly wanting to resolve to the tonic in its circle-of-fifths progression, does not.

    The first violins respond with the second part of the theme (from m.16) in a higher register against a tonic sforzando figure before they switch parts and conclude in a descending scalar figure as the main theme is taken up by the basses. The violins then present a figure which will become the counter-melody/counter-subject:


    The fugal treatment that now begins throws the built in I-V contrariety of our main theme into starker contrast. The interplay of the main theme, the rising fourths, and the second subject in the dominant build to the glorious and liberated forte restatement of the main theme at m.39. It is critical to note, though, as Bauman does:
    This restatement of the themes is not literal. The subject has shed its third and fourth bars–the ones with the anxious rising fourths–as well as its weak-beat sforzandi; this confident, triadic, metrically stable new version of the subject is now wedded to the countersubject at the octave in invertible counterpoint.
    It is not necessary to link this melding of forms to the following drama in order to sense the impact of joining these two themes which are far more brilliant together than separate. The statement here is also more intense: forte, with the flute finally partaking in the main theme, sforzandos in the basses, and tremolo in the violins. At m.49 a brief descending scalar passage in the flute ends on two half-notes, making a rather dramatic stroke before a flurry of E quavers doubled in octaves and in a higher register finally descend staccato for another dramatic flourish. At m.57 the second violins pass off the main theme to the firsts and the violas who are answered by a rising scale up in the flutes. The two parts playfully engage in their repartee before the bassoon bumbles in and steals the main theme from the viola while the oboe joins in with a figure centered on F before finally the clarinet joins the exchange. (Abert perceptively called this charming little passage in which the winds seem to "bucolicize" amongst themselves an idyll. [Abert, 1259.])

    The main theme returns in slight variation and with great vigor at m.68 before more wind play and a repeat of the main theme. At m.84 there is a remarkable increase in tension with violins tremolo alternating on B and C, the second violins pounding on F and the basses repeating a figure alternating G and B all with a crescendo swelling up at m.87. The section and crescendo close at m.96 and in the following six measures we return to the "threefold chord" of the opening of the overture. (It is here too marked Adagio.)

    After the B-flat major triads of the "threefold chord" the main theme is restated the development section begins (at m.103) in the same key. We will see that the harmonic progression of this section is arch-like (parabolic in Bauman's terminology), in shape, beginning as we said in B-flat minor, rising, and concluding in B-flat major. At the peak of this arch (m.117) are two features, the first of which is a tempestuous canon beginning with the familiar G–C–F–B-flat pitches from the figure in m.18. The second is the bar of rest following the canon. Abert and Bauman take apparently opposite views of this pause, the former connecting it to the silence of the trials of Tamino and Pamina (the most difficult part of their tests) and Abert suggesting it points the way out of the crisis. These two seemingly divergent positions can be reconciled by considering that the moment of greatest strife is itself the opportunity for betterment. In the overture, though, it is only necessary to understand it as a brief withdrawal that heightens the struggle, as a poignant moment of detachment but without repose.

    Here the main subject and a version of the second wander before the long-awaited arrival of E-flat and the recapitulation. Gaining strength in contrapuntal treatment the main theme finally bursts forth forte at m.153, running into the crescendo beginning at m.205. The finale rises higher and higher gaining momentum and building in intensity until concluding in a brilliant outburst. (It was already [too] common in Abert's time, and apparently' Jahn's, to refer to this finale in terms of brightness, brilliance, and so forth.)

    While a profound sense of balance is the skill perhaps most frequently (and not without good reason) accorded Mozart for all of his work, such a sense is at work perhaps no more clearly than in this overture. There is solemnity but not severity, grandeur but not lavishness, earnestness without bombast or aggression, and tempest without terror. It is likewise common to speak of the later Mozart's achievement or tendency of combining fugal structure and sonata-form, and this feat too presents itself in this overture, where the canons are rather subtly grafted into the larger sonata structure. It appears that for the most fancied of his operas Mozart crafted an overture of most "formal perfection," [Bauman, 287.] Aside from its technical brilliance The Magic Flute has also been popular since its debut nearly 220 years ago, calling generation after generation to take part in the eternal opera that is parts philosophical, moral, fantastical and mystical.


    Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

    Bauman, Thomas. At the North Gate: Instrumental Music in Die Zauberflöte. Essay No. 16 in Mozart's Operas. (ed.) Heartz, Daniel. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1990.

    Einstein, Alfred. Mozart: His Character, His Work. Oxford University Press, New York. 1945.

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


    Buch, David J. Die Zauberflöte, Masonic Opera, and Other Fairy Tales. Acta Musicologica, [Vol.] 76, [Fasc.] 2, pp. 193-219. 2004.

    Harutunian, John. Haydn and Mozart: Tonic, Dominant Polarity in Mature Sonata-Style Works. Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, T. 31, Fasc. 1/4, pp. 217- 240. 1989.

    Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis. (Six Volumes.) Volume IV: Illustrative Music: Overture to Die Zauberflöte. Oxford University Press. London. 1935.