Friday, September 30, 2011

An Unexpected Value From Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations"

I mentioned quite a while back my intentions on getting through the unabridged version of Adam Smith's famous The Wealth of Nations before the year was out. I have been steadily chipping away at the book over the last several months and have finally made it to the halfway point (603 pages!). It's truly been a love/hate affair. Because of this I've only been able to dabble in the book from time to time; sustained readings of this book are, for me at any rate, quite difficult to maintain. Now there have been many parts of the book that I've found stimulating and quite refreshing, especially Smith's chapters detailing the origins of commerce and the development of specie as the preferred instrument of commerce. But there have been others, particularly a plethora of chapters detailing certain elements of an 18th century economy that simply don't apply to the 21st century (a lengthy discussion about ship insurance comes to mind as one example).

But Smith's loquacious discussion concerning entails (kind of like inheritances but to a much more legal complex degree) was one of the harder sections to endure. However, entails were a major part of English society for several centuries and so I knew I would later be burdened by a major defeciency in my understanding if I skipped that discussion (which I certainly was tempted to do) so I bravely carried on.

And I'm definitely glad I did because the value of that section recently came to light from an unexpected source: TV, specifically, a Masterpiece Theatre TV series called Downton Abbey that I've come to enjoy very much. It was created and written by Julian Fellowes who won best original screenplay for the likewise enjoyable Gosford Park. The show is basically a replica of that movie except a couple of decades removed from that film's time period. Like Gosford Park, Downton Abbey deals with the upstairs lives of the British upper class with the downstairs lives of their various assorted servants and the occassional overlaps between the two groups, minus the mystery murder subplot. The show is very well done but I don't want to say too much about it because I want to give it a proper review at some point on this blog.

But the chief story arc in the show pivots around the problems of an entail. The great thing is that because of my perseverance in sticking with Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations I have been able to understand fully the problems surrounding the entail in the TV show. In short, that lengthy section in Smith's work on entails has enhanced my understanding of this pivotal plot point in the show which in turn has enriched my experience of Downton Abbey as a whole. This unexpected value from laboring through Smith's book has made all the hard work of reading the unabridged version thus far worth it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Conan the Disappointment

(Sorry for the white boxes; blogger is acting up and I wasn't able to fix it.)

Yesterday I finally got a chance to go see the remake of Conan the Barbarian. I had been anticipating seeing the movie for quite some time knowing full well that it would probably be a disappointment partly because probability dictates that the majority of remakes will suck and partly because I read many of the reviews before seeing the film. (Yes, I'm one of
those people who look over critic reviews of movies before going to see them.) While the movie has some highlights, notably Jason Momoa performing remarkably well as the titular character, overall it is fairly insipid and banal; related in name only to the original Conan the Cimmerian as created and developed by Robert E. Howard. (To be fair, though, the original movie was mostly related to the Howard Conan in name only as well.)

Recently, I began reading the original Conan stories which has been an absolutely delightful experience. And one thing that I've come to realize about the Conan character created by Howard is the lack of motivation that Conan has for doing the things he does. Well, that's not quite correct. He does have a reason for what he does but it's fairly base. Basically, Conan acts in the manner he does (i.e., like a barbarian) in the stories simply because he likes it, simply because he's a Cimmerian, simply because he's a barbarian. And that's what barbarians do; act like barbarians! Consider the following discussion Conan has with the Pirate Queen in the story Queen of the Black Coast. The context has to do with a discussion about the larger purpose of living and, especially, the afterlife:

I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

Now any other time I would probably complain about the lack of depth in a character but in this case it makes sense for Conan to be the way he is. He does not need any further motivation to act in a barbarian manner. Yet, one of the things that this film gets wrong, as well as the original Schwarzenegger film, is to ascribe an unnecessary layer to the motivation of Conan’s character, namely, revenge. Why can’t it be enough to read a story in which a barbarian does barbarian things principally because he is a barbarian! I hope subsequent adaptations of the original Howard concept eventually get this but that's doubtful. Oddly enough, the film Conan the Destroyer which most lambaste as a terrible film actually comes closer to capturing the true essence of Conan the Cimmerian as created by Robert E. Howard. So, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, if you don’t have time to read the original short stories then watch Conan the Destroyer for a more accurate portrayl of the Conan character. On the other hand if you want to see a better film that involves Arnold Schwarzenegger beating up people then watch the original Conan the Barbarian and stay clear from this film which should have been titled Conan the Disappointment.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Just How Transformative was 9/11 of US Foreign Policy?

Several days ago the nation commemorated the ten year "anniversary" of the 9/11 attacks. On that day I was stuck in Orlando International Airport awaiting my flight back after having finished my third, and thankfully last, Army Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program. And as I do from time to time I purchased the New York Times Sunday weekender chiefly for the NTY Bookreview and magazine but this edition also included a lengthy special insert assessing the impact of 9/11 after ten years. Not surprisingly the bulk of this section concentrated on the Iraq war. In fact out of the twelve sections or so more than half dealt with the Iraq war and its consequences. By comparison only a few sections reflected on the conflict in Afghanistan. Again, this isn't all that baffling since when most consider the impact that 9/11 has had on the world they think specifically in terms of the misguided and bungled invasion of Iraq.

But a partial result of this narrow reflection on the consequences of 9/11 has been the development of the fashionable claim among historians of American foreign policy, IR theorists, political scientists, foreign journalists, et al that 9/11 caused a fundamental shift in how the United States now conducts its foreign policy by turning from the astute and calculating realism of the 80's and 90's to the heavy handed, highly ideological and unilateralist foreign policy of the Bush administration and its, mostly, neoconservative policy advisers. As I've briefly touched on before this kind of thinking is typical of those who study American foreign policy in one degree or another, i.e., it's illustrative of a broader attempt by that establishment to isolate specific "hinge" moments in American history that changed and/or altered the direction of then US foreign relations.( Even Henry Kissinger, a former diplomat I admire, is guilty of this in his otherwise excellent monograph Diplomacy).

I think this is a deeply flawed analysis of the history of American foreign policy. For my own part I'm inclined to allot a lot more continuity in the how the US has conducted foreign policy since its inception. Additionally, I would argue that Bush's so called "preemptive" war against Saddam Hussain makes much more sense within this paradigm of thinking or rather fits squarely with how the US has acted against "perceived" national security threats before. In this sense then I don't think that 9/11 was all that transformative in regards to American foreign policy. Thankfully, I'm not alone in this belief as I discovered when I read Melvyn Leffler's excellent essay in the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs where he asserts the same idea. Since he argues his position much better than I feel I can at the moment it's worth quoting from at length to close out this post:

"Preemptive and preventive actions were not invented by Bush; his vice president, Dick Cheney; and Rumsfeld; they have a long history in the annals of US foreign policy. A century earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt's "corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine was a policy of preventive intervention in the Americas, as were the subsequent US military occupations of countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Later, President Franklin Roosevelt justified his resort to anticipatory self-defense against German ships in the Atlantic prior to the United States' entry in World War II by saying, 'When you see a ratlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.' Some 20 years on, President John F. Kennedy determined that he could not allow a Soviet deployment of offensive weapons about 90 miles from US shores, and he unilaterally imposed a quarantine-essentially a blockade and an act of belligerency-around Cuba during the missle crisis...Responding to the threat of terrorism in the mid-1990's, President Bill Clinton signed a national security directive declaring that 'the United States shall pursue vigorously efforts to deter and preempt, apprehend and prosecute...individuals who perpetrate or plan to perpetrate such attacks'...The long term significance of 9/11 for US foreign policy should not be overestimated." (pp. 40, 42)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Jesus of History, Christ of Faith

(I've been away for an Army thing so I haven't had time to compose anything this week so I'm going to post something I wrote a few years ago.)

Who do men say that I am?

There are two images of the figure of Jesus which I have chosen that exhibit the distinction between traditional conceptions of Jesus as the Christ of faith and the more modern notions concerning the historical Jesus or Jesus of history.

The first is a painting done by Coppo di Marcavaldo around 1261 titled simply “Crucifix” which presents Jesus in the more traditional vein. His body is contorted in a slightly unrealistic manner in that his arms are too long and his torso is stretched too far. The face lacks any kind of definite emotion and behind his head appears the typical halo-like piece that can be seen in many of the representations of Jesus during this time period. Moreover, the crucifix is surrounded by well known images from the narratives of the four Gospels and the cross itself is “topped off” with a picture representing the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. In short this is a portrayal of Jesus that bears many of the hallmarks of traditional Christian thinking about Jesus at this time in history.

The second image is radically different and is the work of forensic scientist Richard Nieve. In 2001 the BBC ran a documentary on the historical Jesus and asked Nieve, via the appropriation of forensic tools, to form a hypothetical reconstruction of what the historical Jesus might have looked like. The result is strikingly non-fantastic. Nieve’s Jesus appears as a rather common looking Middle Eastern. His face is bearded, round-shaped, dark eyed, and olive-skinned. Also, Nieve’s reconstruction has none of the accompanying traditional material of the Maravaldo piece such as the Gospel narratives. Indeed, Nieve’s Jesus is amazingly plain. But this is precisely the point for Nieve was asked to reconstruct a portrait of the historical Jesus and not a traditional conception of the Christ of faith the assumption being that the two are in some manner distinct.

And it is precisely this (perceived) dichotomy between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith and its assumption that the two are not completely one and the same that is the point at issue with which we have been dealing with in this class. As we have learned, prior to the Enlightenment no distinction within the Church between a Jesus of history and a Christ of faith existed since the two were believed (and assumed) to be one and the same, i.e., the Jesus of history was/is the Christ of faith. But the Enlightenment and its emphasis on empirical rationalism caused a shift in thinking which emphasized to various levels of degree that the two could, indeed should, be separated. And the task that has essentially been assigned to us is to ask whether or not the separation is truly possible or, for that matter, even desirable.

Now there can be no doubt that the figure of Jesus has exerted a powerful influence in the world since Late Antiquity. And regardless of whether one is a believer or not our culture (i.e., Western culture) is permeated with this figure and the culture that was established in his name, namely, Christendom. Thus, I am appreciative of Dr. Pacini’s point that even our discourse about Jesus has become grammatically saturated by notions of the Christ of faith such that a separation of the two might not be possible.

My concern, though, is that this notion might be used as means of declaring the entire scholarly pursuit of the historical Jesus as a non-legitimate task precisely because the Christ of faith cannot be separated from the Jesus of history. My reflex as a historian and as someone who has spent the last several years engaged in such a task is to shout from the top of my lungs that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith can be separated and that it is incumbent upon the historian and scholar to force that separation. Thus, my own bias in favor of historical research may be preventing me from seeing the impossibility of separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

Nevertheless, I believe that there are a few “reasoned” observations that can be made in favor of separating these two conceptions of the figure of Jesus. First, it appears that this unique problem only has the force it potentially has in that it serves more of a difficulty for those who are committed to some sort of “confessional” stance vis a vis the figure of Jesus. Now by confessional I do not necessarily mean “denominational”, rather, my usage of “confessional” here denotes anyone who believes that the figure of Jesus is somehow determinatively significant or important for their lives. In other words, those who have some sort of investment in a particular construction of the identity of Jesus as they believe it bears on their spiritual lives will inevitably reconstruct an historical Jesus which conforms to their conception of the Christ of faith. Therefore, the “confessional” individual will find it immensely difficult, and, in agreement with Dr. Pacini, probably impossible to separate the two conceptions of Jesus.[1]

It is then the individual who does not believe that Jesus has any significance for them in a “confessional” sense as defined above that I believe stands in a better position to separate the two. However, one could riposte with the assertion that anyone who deals with the figure of Jesus, whether a believer or not, does so with some sort of self-interest or stake in their particular conception or reconstruction of Jesus so that the non-confessional pursuer of a historical Jesus stands in no better relation in regards to the problem of separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.[2] Furthermore, one could also retort that no individual who engages in attempting to reconstruct the Jesus of history does so from a dispassionate or disinterested perspective (otherwise why would they be attempting the task in the first place?) and thus can never achieve true objectivity with their subject matter.

I admit that these arguments have a certain powerful force to them. But they are problems that occur not just in regards to the question of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith but are problems that take place within the larger philosophical discourse/debate concerning epistemology and its relation to history. It has become fashionable these days to take up the mantle of post-modernism with its emphasis on relativism, deconstructionism, structuralism, “new historicism”, and all the other “isms”, to conclude that there really is no “truth” out there or if there is it cannot be known in and of itself and that when one engages in an attempt to write history all they truly are doing is writing “fiction”. For my own part I am a bit old-fashioned in that I still adhere to a form of 18th century positive historicism which believes there is a “truth” out there and that even though one can never completely ascertain it the historian can at the least come damn close. Therefore, granting that the believer and the non-believer both have problems when it comes to objectively studying the Jesus of history it is still my judgment that the latter has a better shot at separating the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith.

Secondly, even granting that separating the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history is an impossible task or at least extremely difficult I would still argue that attempting to do so is not only viable but a noble goal as well. In fact, the spirit of scholarship, which is ultimately concerned with the advancement of knowledge, demands it. To engage in history is to level the playing field in that whatever the subject matter is that is under scrutiny has to be treated in equal manner to every other subject matter that comes under investigation, no matter its significance or importance in the course of history.[3]

Therefore, just because the figure of Jesus cannot be easily separated from the Christ of faith (due to the massive permeation of Christendom in Western culture) does not give the Jesus of history a “get out of jail free” card. In other words, objective history (or at least the attempt at objective history) must attempt to “get at” the Jesus of history with little regard for the way he has been conceptualized by subsequent Christians. And perhaps in light of the very fact that this figure has exerted such a powerful influence over Western culture the task of separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith becomes all the more urgent. Indeed, history and the spirit of scholarship demand no less.

Lastly, I have been writing chiefly from the perspective of a historian and not that of a theologian and so my assessment of this question is admittedly prejudiced. My beginning point or axiom is “reason”. I am truly a (proud) child of the Enlightenment. And this gets to what I think is the heart of the matter in discussions about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Essentially, the sticking point is epistemological. In attempting to assess the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith one has to have a beginning point: either revelation or reason. If one takes revelation as axiomatic then the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history will be impossible to separate and probably not even desired. Yet, if reason is one’s foundation then necessarily an attempt will be made to separate the two because, I would argue, reason has to assume at least the possibility that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are distinct.

To sum up, though I believe that Dr. Pacini is correct to say that the Jesus of history can never be completely separated from the Christ of faith this should not be construed as a theological mandate that would prohibit any attempt to engage in the reconstruction of the historical Jesus. Just because the two are so intertwined within our culture (and our way of thinking and discoursing) does not take Jesus off the hook, so to speak, when it comes to critical, historical investigation. Therefore, speaking as a historian, I believe it is both possible and desirable to at the very least make an attempt to separate the two even if, in the end, one can never force a complete separation of the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

[1] There are to my knowledge at least three possible exceptions to this observation: John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991, 1994, 2001) series who is a Catholic priest; E.P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism 1985), and his more popular work The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993); Dale Allison’s Jesus the Millenarian Prophet (1997). The latter two describe themselves as liberal Protestants. However, I would probably hesitate in labeling E.P. Sanders a “Christian”. For example, see his intellectual autobiography at

[2] The Jesus seminar could be adduced as a supporting example. However, most of the members of the Jesus seminar still believe themselves to be “Christian” in some sense and therefore, in my judgment, still engage in their scholarship from a particular “confessional” perspective.

[3] This of course forms part of Ernst Troeltsch’s famous tripartite method of historical reasoning.