The Cult of the Individual

“In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up or else all go down as one people.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

The world economy has shifted significantly over the last few hundred years, particularly in the West. As feudalism gave way to various forms of capitalism, where the means of production is privately owned and operated for profit, the way we viewed our roles as individuals also experienced a dramatic and fundamental shift. In the former model of governance, we belonged to the state, while in our present model the state belongs to us.

The rise of capitalism was both propelled by and defined through the rise of the cult of the individual. In no other era of recorded history have we seen individualism as highly prized, protected and in many ways, worshipped than in our own. Albert Einstein once noted that: “All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development of the individual” and it is difficult to argue with the results of this new paradigm. The progress we’ve witnessed over the last few centuries is mind-boggling!

Moral rectitude and civic responsibility temper the more dangerous facets of economic systems that place so much emphasis on the individual as do unfettered free-market and other varieties of capitalism. Absent these moderating qualities, things get really interesting as individuals driven primarily by the concern to serve their own interests enter society.

If those in society are incapable of governing themselves, laws, regulations and the like provide artificial and often inefficient constraints on their behavior and function. Whenever a society becomes overly reliant on this bandaid approach, trying to control the symptoms rather than addressing the deeper causes, its members unwittingly donate the bricks used by a future tyrant to build his fortress.

Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

The Value of Apprenticeship

Lexi (winning the staring competition)

It is my great pleasure to announce that my brother-in-law and I completed our two year falconry apprenticeship yesterday! We couldn’t have done it without the guidance and support of our sponsor, Buster Brown, the patience and stoicism of our trusty Red-tailed Hawks, Lexi and Heath, and the words of advice from many others in the Georgia Falconry Association and the falconry community at-large.

Falconry is an ancient sport. It has remained largely unchanged over the centuries apart from the fact that many more people practice it now than in previous eras due to the expansion of leisure time and the relaxation of the class structure that once prevented commoners from participating in the sport. It is in my view the most delightful and fascinating forms of hunting available to us today.

My focus today is not on the sport itself, rather, I would like to enumerate a few of the many benefits of apprenticeship. The idea of apprenticeship is not a new idea, in fact it has been around for millennia. The Code of Hammurabi, a complete extant of Babylonian laws dating from the 18th century BCE, required artisans to teach their crafts to the next generation. The same practice continued much later in the European craft guilds, which governed the transition from apprentice to craftsman, journeyman, master and eventually grandmaster.

Falconry licensure marks three stages: apprentice, general and master. As you move through the levels your experience affords you new privileges and expanded rights. In the case of falconry, you gain access to more birds, more types of birds and to the privilege of sponsoring other apprentices. In an era where formality and structure appear to be on the wane, such a construct is refreshing as it is exigent.

I had the good fortune of completing two internships (a lesser form of apprenticeship) during my college career and I must say that those experiences went a long way to ground the theory that I learned in the classroom. When theory is grounded in practice, it becomes meaningful. Further, the opportunity to practice in a safe and contained environment – with the oversight of an expert – is invaluable.

I would love to hear your experience with either internships or apprenticeships as I imagine that there are both pluses and negatives to such an arrangement.

Dress Smartly

“It is only the modern that ever becomes old-fashioned.” ~ Oscar Wilde

I had the rare and exciting opportunity to attend a “black tie” birthday party for a friend of mine last evening. Rarely do I give much thought to tuxedos, but wearing mine last evening caused me to look up the history of the tuxedo. Here is one interesting summary of its history I found on The Black Tie Guide, a gentleman’s guide to evening dress:

While white tie has remained essentially frozen in time since its inception, the history of black tie has been one of continual evolution. So how do we establish which phase in the tuxedo’s timeline can best be described as quintessential? By determining the period when black tie’s purpose converged most effectively with its attire.

As elucidated in the History section, the original purpose of black tie was to create a comfortable alternative to the tailcoat while retaining its level of stature and class. Prior to the late 1920s the heavy wool fabric and stiff shirts that accompanied the dinner jacket did not provide much relief from the discomfort of traditional full dress. Conversely, while black-tie attire did become considerably more comfortable in the following decades, by the 1950s subsequent stylistic innovations began to erode the tuxedo’s inherent formality.

This places the apex of the dinner jacket’s evolution squarely in the 1930s and ’40s. A look at the expert definition of proper black tie confirms this fact: the contemporary descriptions provided by fashion and etiquette authorities all draw from the protocols established during this specific period. “No other era could have produced such a sartorial success,” is how esteemed haberdasher Alan Flusser describes this sublime confluence of the practical and the aesthetic. “Since the culmination of the dinner jacket’s design in the late 1930s, men’s fashion has yet to improve upon the genius of its original design or the unimpeachable refinement of its accoutrements.”

So, for those who lived in the early part of the last century, “black tie” was a relief from the more formal requirements of daily dress! Can you imagine? We now live in an era where casual attire is taken to new heights. In fact, unless you choose a morning flight primarily filled with businessmen and women on their way to morning meetings at their destination, you will have to look hard to find a suit on a man or a dress on a woman. Instead, you typically find yourself adrift in a sea of jeans, t-shirts and sweats.

My own preference is for clothing that is both functional and fashionable. One of the articles in “Elegance: A Quality Guide to Menswear” notes that: “The interesting irony of formal attire is that almost without exception, every aspect of the masculine evening costume derives from the sport of horseback riding.” An interesting thought given the ubiquitous and unavoidable dirt, sweat and dust that accompany every ride!

Your clothing choices should enhance your figure, your color and your personality, not detract or camouflage it. Whether dressing casually or formally or somewhere in between, don’t curse your figure or dread getting dressed, look instead to maximize your assets. Don’t be fooled or tricked into despair. Every single person has aesthetic attributes worth highlighting. They may be physical or simply an “air about you” but you do have starting points available to you. The trick is discovering what those are and being creative in complementing them while downplaying your less noteworthy assets.

When it comes to clothing I am of the opinion that you are better off owning a few nice things that really suit you than a closetful of things you bought just because they were on sale or kind of fit. It is generally a more economical approach and it saves a ton of heartache. Moreover, it saves a lot of agony when it comes time to decide what you are going to wear.

Make sure that you learn about and stock up on a few classics. The simple yet elegant black dress for women. A dark navy suit for men. The latest fads are fun and modern is great, but if you do not have a core of classics you’ll forever be subject to the cruel and shifting winds of trendy fashion.

There is much more to say on this topic, but I’ll spare you the details for now… Wouldn’t it be nice if this topic was touched on in school? It would save so much trouble!

The Purpose of Mankind

What would you say is the purpose of mankind?

I had a fascinating conversation yesterday with a friend of mine about classical education, 18th and 19th century American history, the great pendulum upon which humanity seems to swing and finally, what we both do for a living and why.

My friend, a classically trained equestrian and trainer, lives a life different from my own. His daily responsibilities, privileges and challenges bear no resemblance to mine, yet we discovered today that we share a fundamental and twofold concern to bring: (1) order out of chaos and (2) balance where there is imbalance.

The tools we use to achieve those goals are also unique, yet we both recognize the value of establishing a foundational understanding in both principle and application of the fundamentals. The challenge with foundation-building is that most people underestimate the importance of the phase and it is quite often difficult to perceive holes in the foundation when it is being laid.

Most holes show up later, when the pressure increases. In riding, for instance, slight imperfections in the rider’s seat are not likely to appear as problematic when walking around the ring, but raise the stakes and canter and the imperfections are likely to be magnified, revealing the need to go back a few steps to repair the faulty foundation.

Academic education is no exception to this rule. Classical educators understood the need for a mastery of the basics, the building blocks for all learning. Hence the rigorous focus on Latin and Greek grammar in the early years of schooling. Grammar was followed by logic and logic by rhetoric. The ability to reason was assembled meticulously, piece by piece, and the goal was to create students capable of tackling any question, any issue, any challenge.

Specialization coupled with a narrow focus on the scientific perspective (as opposed to the humanities) completely changed the way we are taught and the way we approach life, which in turn affected how we view life itself. Based on your education up until now, what would you say is your purpose in life? If you’re not sure, do you feels you were given the tools to discover the answer or do you still have a lot to learn?

If your education was anything like mine, that question was probably left unanswered if it was ever even raised. Classical education, on the other hand, had as its central aim the cultivation of a sense of meaning and purpose, coupled with the critical thinking skills necessary to put theory squarely into practice.

Americans in the 18th and 19th century were educated within the framework of classical education. As such, the thread of continuity placed in their hands led back through antiquity, with a particular emphasis on the great leaders and thinkers of both recent and distant history. That thread of continuity, woven into the fabric of their lives, provided a gateway through which resolve, original thinking and the impressive ability to “git’r done” manifested with grace and aplomb in ways that are marvelous to us even now, in our supposedly evolved and advanced state.

Consider the men in the First Continental Congress, for example. They represented the rabble of civilized humanity at the time and yet the delegates found a way to galvanize those for whom they were responsible in an almost unthinkable fashion through the establishment of a new nation. They forged this new nation on the anvil of time, using principles, systems and foundational underpinnings that were utterly foreign to the dominant governing systems of their era (most were monarchies), yet commonly understood and frequently employed by Romans and Greeks who lived thousands of years earlier.

Classical horseback riding follows this pattern. Despite the many fads and popular trends that sweep through the art and science of the equestrian art, the fundamentals remain eerily consistent with those articulated and perfected not just decades or centuries, but ages ago! You cannot gloss over the basics and expect to succeed in the advanced stages of any undertaking.

A strong grasp of the fundamentals greatly decreases the likelihood of veering off course. Humanity, at times, seems to lose sight of the basics and the result is catastrophic. Fanatical regimes rise to power, crazy ideas gain prominence and bickering and feuding take the place of harmonious, complementary and collaborative function.

The challenge throughout history has been to inspire men and women to recognize, dwell in and contribute to the advancement of the sweet spot, the balanced life that sits betwixt the extremes. No matter what you job or role may be at any given time, you as a member of the body of humanity, can help bring order out of chaos, and restore balance where there is imbalance.

Your value, your meaning and the fulfillment of your purpose hang in the balance!

Uncorrupted Reason

I came across a remarkable collection of works produced by Thomas Cole, the English-born American artist who is credited with founding the Hudson River School. Cole possessed an uncommon ability to capture broad strokes of history in his landscapes. Cole aimed to produce a “higher style of landscape” imbued with romanticism and naturalism unparalleled in his time.

One particular series of paintings, “The Course of Empire,” stood out to me in light of our recent considerations. This series of five paintings tells the tale of the rise and fall of a great civilization and are titled: The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, Consummation, Destruction and Desolation and are shown in order below:

These paintings remind me of a quote from Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long.

Doesn’t this sound all too familiar?

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am inclined to disagree with the notion that eternal progress is untenable. I hold out hope for humanity as a whole and for the individual life in this regard, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary.

Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer once said “Progress is man’s ability to complicate simplicity.” Must it always be so? Was it always so? The Greeks and Roman told of an antediluvian Golden Age, a time perhaps best described by Ovid in his Latin narrative poem, Metamorphoses:

The Golden Age was first; when Man, yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted Reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear.
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast.

What would it take to return to a world governed by uncorrupted reason?

Dead Symbols

I am reading a book recommended by a friend called “The Culture of Classicism”, written by history professor Caroline Winterer. The author notes that the book “charts how Americans over the course of the 19th century fundamentally changed their relationship with classical antiquity, seeking in the remote past new guides for modern life.”

The late 18th and early 19th centuries were a time of momentous ideological change in America. The rise of industrialization, materialism, democracy and specialization changed the lives of every American and put enormous pressure on the classical educational tradition.

The classical tradition was transformed during the mid to late 1800s and what was once a narrowly language-based focus (on Latin and Greek) quickly took on a broader study of the humanities, fueled by a revolution in classical scholarship which began in the late 18th century. The focus of American scholars and educators shifted from an intense love affair with Republican Rome to a greater emphasis on the earlier Greek system, from which the Roman tradition evolved.

Professor Winterer goes on to note that America’s link to classical antiquity was further refashioned because “[c]entral to Germany’s New Humanism was an infatuation with the art, literature and other achievements of the ancient Greeks.” The educational reformers ushered in an “alternative locus for aesthetic and literary cultivation…”

Americans were steeped in antiquity not too long ago. I was surprised to hear in a podcast by Stanford University professor Robert Harrison that James A. Garfield, who served as our 20th President during my great-grandparents’ time, amused friends by taking up pens in his left and right hands to translate a given phrase simultaneously into Latin and Greek. Knowledge of these languages provided an important link to antiquity, and as such, an important context for understanding the foundation of our country.

If you’ve looked at a one dollar bill lately, you probably noticed the rich variety of symbols chosen by our forefathers. The Roman (not our presently esteemed Bald Eagle) eagle, the pyramid, the “Eye of Providence” hovering in the capstone above the base of the pyramid and even the text derived from book IX of Virgil’s Aeneid “ANNUIT COEPTIS” (“He approves of our undertakings”) can and should serve as potent reminders of the Greek and Roman antiquity from whence they were borrowed.

The formation of our great nation was undertaken at great risk to its architects. Not only did they take great pains to think through a new system of government free of the perils of the monarchies that dominated the political landscape of the time, but they set in it living symbols that can serve as points of connection to the patterns of thought that inspired them so deeply.

What do these living symbols mean to you? Do you have a context for understanding them or are they dead to you? While it is certainly possible to “pledge allegiance to the Republic for which it stands” with only a cursory understanding of the classical ideas that form its foundation, it seems to me that we would be much stronger as a nation and much less likely to succumb as individuals to the more troubling influences of modern life if we were to cultivate a deep appreciation for and understanding of the lines of force that trace back to Carthage, Greece and Rome.

As a final note, I wonder if obsessive compulsive materialism and the over-consumptive malnutrition that accompanies it prevents (both figuratively and literally) an overwhelming majority of our citizens from realizing their full potential in much the same way that commoners were kept in the dark during the Middle Ages by not reading or writing Latin? Such a diversion of attention would not be the first in history, but certainly could be the last if left unchecked.

The Almost Right Word

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” ~ Mark Twain, Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888

So the reading of the Constitution was interesting, as much for what they left out as for the fact that they read it at all. If you didn’t have a chance to hear the proceedings, the House GOP read the Constitution-as-amended, instead of the Constitution and the Amendments, in toto.

The Constitution is a remarkable document, as much for its specificity as for its vagueness. It is an inspirational and organic piece of literature that provides a template for charting the future of our Great Nation while serving as a link to our past. While the dreams of the future are often sweeter than the history of the past, my view is that the Constitution, as well as other pieces of classical literature, are a national treasure not to be edited.

The Constitution, of course, can and must be amended with the march of time. Things change. Consciousness evolves. And so, too, must the framework of governance. That said, we amend it, we don’t edit it.

“The United States Constitution has proved itself the most marvelously elastic compilation of rules of government ever written.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt