Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,The past is always appealing. Earlier ages seem to have more grace, elegance, innocence, and simplicity than today; and of course they did. The Victorians were severe but polite, cultured, and tasteful. The Twenties was a decade of beautiful excess. The Fifties one of propriety, faith, and morals.
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.
Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.
Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam’s neighbors.
Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant (Miniver Cheevy, Edward Arlington Robinson)
Why is the past so appealing? When the trappings are removed, life was no better and in many ways far worse than today. Life expectancy at the end of the 19th century was barely 40 years. The first decades of the 20th saw laissez-faire capitalism, the exploitation of labor, and Dickensian conditions in immigrant neighborhoods.
The Sun King, Louis XIV, presiding over France in the 17th century, is remembered for the efflorescence of art, literature and music and for the elegance of Versailles. Yet his reign was not all sweetness and light.
In the late 1680s, responding to yet another spate of expansionist campaigns by Louis’ armies, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and other smaller countries formed a coalition known as the Grand Alliance. The ensuing war, fought on both hemispheres, lasted from 1688 to 1697; France emerged with most of its territory intact but its resources severely strained. More disastrous for Louis XIV was the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), in which the aging king defended his grandson Philip V’s inheritance of Spain and its empire. The long conflict plunged a famine-ridden France into massive debt, turning public opinion against the crown (History.com)Chinese philosophy developed, its initial stages beginning in the 6th century BC.
The greatest Chinese philosophers, those who made the greatest impact on later generations of Chinese, were Confucius, founder of Confucianism, and Laozi, founder of Taoism. Other philosophers, theorists, and schools of thought in this era were Mozi, founder of Mohism; Mencius, a famous Confucian who expanded upon Confucius' legacy (Wikipedia)During the Warring States Period (441-226 BC) eight states were at constant war, and the feudal system, also established during the Zhou Dynasty, provided the resources, labor, and military personnel for these continual conflicts.
It is no news that every epoch in history has its memorable and its forgettable sides; nor is it surprising that one tends to remember Versailles and the Sun King while conveniently forgetting the nasty bits.
Yet our remembrance of the past may not be so romantically idealistic; and perhaps a recollection of the best of history is an expression of the best of human nature. Of course wars, exploitation, torture, territorialism, and summary executions happened. They will always happen because human nature, the powerful driver of individual and collective actions is permanent. Man is by nature territorial, self-protective, and aggressive. There is nothing new in war.
On the other hand, the expression of human genius is unique; and when conditions are right, cultures may show exceptional philosophical insight, mathematical brilliance, or particularly elegant art, music, and dance; and it is through no misty lens that we admire them and the past, but through a sharp, clear one.
The era of the Founding Fathers was one of modern history’s most unique. To a man they were serious thinkers, men of character and principle, all dedicated to forming a more perfect union. Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Jay, Franklin, and Monroe formed a ‘genius cluster', a poorly-explained phenomenon of history.
Churchill, De Gaulle, and Roosevelt were another such cluster. Roosevelt brought America out of the Great Depression and presided over the the Allied victory in Europe. Without Churchill’s resolve, will, courage, and absolute conviction of moral right, the Battle of Britain would never have been won. De Gaulle in exile was a heroic figure to whom occupied France turned for moral and political support.
Genius clusters are not exclusively modern. The Golden Age of Ancient Greece produced Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Augustus founded the Roman Empire and presided over the long Pax Romana. While other Romans like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony are better known, Augustus was the most powerful and influential leader of Rome.
Jefferson and his colleagues were members of an exclusive club – an, elite, members-only club whose members understood their obligations, their duty, and the moral imperatives which guided their families for generations. Some, like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams were from wealthy patrician families; but others like Franklin, the son of a candle-maker, had more humble origins. The club was not socially exclusive but admitted those who shared the same intellectual abilities, character, and commitment. The same club existed in the courts of the Moghul, Mauryan, Persian, Mesopotamian, and Roman Empires.
‘Genius clusters’ occur because of serendipity – genius is fickle and rare – but because civilizations have recognized, honored, and rewarded those with particular ambition and will who would increase their status, influence, and value.
Populist democracy has ended noblesse oblige and genius cultures forever in the United States. The more electoral democracy devolves to the level of the common man, the more it becomes ruled by parochial interests, unformed or ignorant opinions, emotion instead of intellect, and image instead of character.
Because of the ‘democratization’ of the political process according to which the popular vote begins at the level of rural caucuses, old, traditional, universally-respected models of leadership are gone. Interests have become local, venal, self-serving, and anti-communitarian. Both voters and candidates exist within this same context. It is remarkable that even one legitimate leader emerges out of the street-fight, let alone a cluster.
Although the question of genius clusters is a good one, and defining genius let alone speculating on the reasons for its emergence in one person or many at the same time is difficult indeed, the one common denominator of society after the age of institutionalized noblesse oblige (prior to WWII) is the existence of populist democracies and pluralistic societies each of whose factions increasingly demand their rights.
It is not so much that popular democracy is a bad thing or even the threat to the Republic that Alexander Hamilton envisaged. It is that it guarantees mediocrity.
We Americans, then, can be forgiven for a little nostalgia. The country now more than ever seems leaderless, socially chaotic, morally adrift, and culturally spare. Living in an era of mediocre politicians, identity politics, and a social, cultural, and political divisiveness fueled by rights-based agendas, one can be excused for looking to the past for encouragement if not solace.
Because America has always been a process-based nation; i.e., our exports are procedural (liberal democracy, civil rights, justice, equality), we have little to fall back on in the way of cultural pride. Our achievement in the arts, literature, dance, music, and philosophy have not been insignificant, and yet they are secondary to our obsession with social progress, individual rights, and practical achievement.
We could have put Faulkner, Ella Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, Jimmy Hendrix, or Tennessee Williams on the redesigned $20 bill; but we chose a minor historical figure, Harriet Tubman, whose selection is far less a celebration of greatness than it is of the current progressive agenda of race, gender, and ethnicity. Any one individual achievement must be seen within this context.
Jefferson may have been the intellectual genius behind the Bill of Rights, but he was a miscegenating slave-owner and a patrician landlord which may not be enough to neuter his achievements but certainly enough to tarnish his image.
Such myopic vision does not only diminish the importance of individual actions, but erodes the very concept of genius.