With the publication of La Volonté du Roi Krogold (The Will of Krogold the King), Gallimard has brought Céline’s unpublished works to a close, putting an end to almost ninety years of uncertainty about the adventures of this legendary ruler. This will satisfy Céline aficionados first and foremost, while the uninitiated will find it a little-used gateway. If it is not easy to squeeze through, it nevertheless opens up new and unexpected reading perspectives.
Ecce Krogold! The famous Nordic king that Céline fans have been dreaming of since May 1936, when he made his appearance in Mort à crédit (Death on Credit), the second high point of a prolific body of work that is far more eclectic than the hasty reduction to the author’s regrettable (and condemnable!) ideological blunders generally suggests. Far from being part of the contemporary realist fictions that continue to make Céline so successful, King Krogold is an original figure with a doubly mythical aura, firstly, because the story of which he is the central character draws on a number of legends, episodes and memories, including the Arthurian cycle, the biography of François Villon, the writings of Rabelais and that mythical medieval figure from Breton legend, the Bard with the gouged-out eyes, imprisoned for standing up to Christianization.
The mythical brilliance of Krogold the king, then, manifests itself in the improbability, long persistent, of seizing concretely and in a palpable, “haptic” way an epic which has become, over the decades, as legendary as the collection of a few scraps of narratives that, in spite of everything, have come down to us.
Krogold vs. Gwendor
A reminder: From the moment Céline left his Montmartre apartment for Copenhagen, for fear of paying the price for the political upheaval in France in the wake of Operation Neptune, he never ceased to deplore, with the vehemence often characteristic of his writings since Mea culpa (1936), the theft (or incineration, as the case may be) of what he himself, in a letter to his faithful secretary, Marie Canavaggia, described as “a legend from the operatic Middle Ages.” We need only reread his two great post-war texts, Féerie pour une autre fois (Enchatment for Another Time) and D’un Château l’autre (From one Castle to Another), to be convinced.
The literary merit of Krogold seemed rather light, however: “I was disappointed to read it again. My romance hadn’t stood the test of time,” says the Ferdinand of Mort à credit, and judging by the rejection Céline received from his publisher Robert Denoël in 1933. Yet Denoël had not hesitated to publish L’Église (The Church), a five-act comedy of equally fragile merit, the first version of which had been rejected by Gallimard in 1927, just eleven months after the release of Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night). Literary choice or commercial calculation? In any case, important fragments of the legend were incorporated into the narrative of Mort à crédit, in whose pages King Krogold now runs like a weak, if stubborn, thread. It is as if Céline had sought to tacitly thumb his nose at his publisher.
Despite Ferdinand’s repeated efforts to provide a detailed account, the legend’s developing plot remains rather opaque. However, this has not prevented Celinian scholars, such as the American Erika Ostrovsky, from seeking to unravel the mystery behind it. In 1972, in her contribution to Cahiers de L’Herne, devoted to Céline, Ostrovsky noted that while the legend’s known beginning, the deadly confrontation between King Krogold, “mighty and damned monarch of all the marches of Tierlande” and the felon Gwendor, “grand margrave of the Scythians, Prince of Christiania” (and very secret fiancé of Wanda, Krogold’s only daughter) is “nothing out of the ordinary;” so much so that it “could almost pass for a pastiche of epic novels,” but it is special in that, on a more abstract level, it puts into perspective the defeat of the poetic (of which Gwendor is the embodiment) in the face of the degradation of everyday life, embodied by Krogold; the latter presented by Ostrovsky as an “executioner.”
Royal Magnanimity, Poetic Vagabondage
Although the idea of an antagonism between poetry and daily life is resistant to over-hasty expeditions, the development proposed by Ostrovsky half a century ago now requires nuance and even revision, particularly in the contortionist reading she gives King Krogold. This reassessment is all the more necessary given that, thanks to the recent publication by Gallimard of rediscovered pages, Céline enthusiasts and others can now look at a whole series of scenes and tableaux, differently elaborated, The common theme is the equipment of the legendary King Krogold (there is no need to go back over the incredible circumstances which, in the summer of 2021, saw the reappearance of the famous Céline manuscripts, stolen during the Liberation and thought to be lost forever, as well as the medico-judicial soap opera which has been making keyboards clack ever since).
First observation: the material of Le Roi Krogold gave birth to two distinct texts under Céline’s pen, La Volonté du Roi Krogold (a manuscript found in 1939/40) and La Légende du Roi René (an earlier version based on a typescript dated 1933/34). The former is presented by the collection’s editor, Véronique [Robert-] Chovin, as a rewrite of the latter. The numerous thematic parallels that emerge from one plot to the next support this assertion.
Second observation: the elements on which these two versions are based take off from very different starting points. One is based on the defeat of Prince Gwendor’s army by the victorious troops of King Krogold. Impaled by an enemy spear, Gwendor faces death from which, in a classic dialogue, he vainly seeks to obtain “one day… two days…” of reprieve. When the inhabitants of Christianie learn of the defeat of their protector Gwendor and the imminent arrival of King Krogold, they decide, in order to appease the latter’s a priori devastating grudges, not to prostrate themselves before the victor and offer him the city’s treasures, as might be expected, but instead to meet him by—dancing. This unusual stratagem had once saved the city from the advancing regiments of the Great Turk. Given the historical context of the writing, it is obviously tempting to read the advance of these armed troops as an allusion to the invasions (sometimes camouflaged as annexation) carried out by the Wehrmacht.
Alas! King Krogold is no connoisseur of dance. Indeed, he puts the harmless “dancers of the rigodon” to the sword. And yet, once he has entered the city, he heads straight for the cathedral and, while keeping his foot in the stirrup, throws his sword over a huge, panic-stricken crowd that has taken refuge under the nave’s vaults, “right up to the altar step.” This gesture of almost cinematic royal indulgence is greeted by jubilant singing, thanksgiving and even the appearance of an angel expressly sent down from heaven. Thus closes this first narrative, with its chivalric, popular and Christian overtones.
It is joined by another; this time centered on the wanderings of a trouvère, named Thibaut in René but Tébaut in Krogold. This vagabond poet with not-so-Catholic impulses seeks to join the victorious king (Krogold or René, respectively) in the North, to accompany him on his crusade. His itinerary takes him from Charente to Brittany, and in particular to Rennes, where—depending on the version of the legend—he is either about to be thrown into prison after narrowly escaping lynching by an excited mob (Krogold), or to stop off at the brothel where he casually abuses a prostitute (René). In both versions of the legend, however, he becomes the murderer of Prosecutor Morvan, president of the parliament of Brittany and father of Joad, Thibaut/Tébaut’s traveling companion secretly in love with Wanda, the king’s daughter. It is good to set up these triangles of conflict from the outset.
The Underpinnings of a Work
Make no mistake, however: Krogold, far from being an entertaining fabliau, is probably Céline’s most complicated text; René is a sort of first draft written in a French that is, if not academic, at least linguistically more accessible. In fact, these are pages not finalized by the author, with all that this implies of doubles, repetitions, unfinished business, which all very quickly causes a feeling of saturation, but also fatigue. At the same time, these pages are undoubtedly the most interesting and richest among the bundles of manuscripts found.
On the one hand, because together with the snippets of the legend inserted in Guerre (War) and Londres (London), (Gallimard, 2022), the other two recently exhumed unpublished works, they allow us to measure the important weight that throughout the 1930s, Céline gave to the possibility of giving birth to a medieval fantasy legend. That Krogold the King cannot be reduced to a unifying element of Mort à crédit, that he is much more than a mere vanishing point for Céline’s post-war rantings, constantly raising the specter of spoliation, which we now know were not completely aberrant, The major merit of this collection, published by Gallimard under the full title of La Volonté du Roi Krogold, followed by La Légende du Roi René, is that it does indeed create a coherent whole, the hitherto unexploited underbelly of a work that has been widely commented on for almost ninety years.
One of the things we need to look at is how this legend relates to Céline’s polemical writings. After all, the date chosen for the recovered manuscript is 1939/40. In the chronology of Céline’s publications, this corresponds to the period between the publication of L’École des cadavres (School for Corpses), (November 1938) and the release of Les Beaux Draps (The Fine Sheets), (February 1941). But Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre), published in December 1937, already invokes the Middle Ages, presenting ballet librettos populated by legendary characters and deliberately drawing on medieval imaginary.
We should also take a closer look at the legend’s many references to Christianity and its key concepts of blasphemy, sin, repentance, mercy and forgiveness, practices whose density is just as unusual here, as the invocation of a united Christianity is absent from the rest of the work—apart from Mea culpa.
“I am Celt”
On the other hand, it is undoubtedly in the linguistic contributions that the primary interest of the recovered pages lies. The few journalistic accounts published to date have made this clear. In the April 27 issue of La Croix, Fabienne Lemahieu writes of a “medieval Nordic tale with accents of Old French;” Alexis Brocas in the May issue of Lire/Magazine littéraire points to a “cousinly relationship between Céline’s language and that of the medieval Rabelais and Villon;” and David Fontaine in the May 10 issue of Le Canard enchaîné describes the Céline of Krogold as an “alchemist of style, [who] intends to resurrect medieval French.”
A single passage illustrates these observations: “The Queen in her finest attire, followed by her ladies and pages, slowly approached and descended the long marble steps. ‘Sir Knight, what would you have us give you?’ ‘Victory! Victory!’ he shouted ever louder, raising his hand to his chest to show his pure heart. ‘Victory? Victory? That it shall be [quickly]! But is not the King wounded? I had a sad dream… a fearful reverie yester night…’ ‘Nothing betides the King, my lady! Nothing betides the King! Apart from a mere wheal, a niggling scuff that his majesty little heeds.’ ‘You tell me so much, Sir Knight!’…’Excelras has won my wager!’”
While work on language is obviously one of the major constants in Céline’s work, his interest in pre-classical turns of phrase in this excerpt is not only in keeping with his well-known abomination of so-called academic French, but also reflects a more assertive approach to a linguistic (and hence literary) genealogy that emphasizes the Celtic heritage of the French language. At the expense of the Greek and Latin legacies advocated by the codifiers of classical French. It would probably be instructive to reread André Thérive’s Libre histoire de la langue française (Stock, 1954) to grasp the full ideological dimension behind this artistic approach.
“The intoxication of this existence must one day cease…”
Last but not least, Céline devotees will find it hard to pass up this collection which, in addition to the two versions of the legend, includes a rich appendix of all the passages in the work that can be associated, in one way or another, with the legend of Krogold the King: from Mort à crédit to D’un Château l’autre, via Guerre, Londres and Féerie pour une autre fois. A contextualizing essay by archivist and historian Alban Cerisier provides a more concrete account of the forces expressed in these two medievalist narratives. Although we are unaware of the legend’s “incompleteness,” “each scene offers, with the author’s ironic finesse and great humor, a variation on man’s relationship with his finitude.”
The aforementioned mythical dimension of the Krogold legend is further enhanced by the fact that it has remained incomplete and fragmentary, and that its material has somehow resisted literary form. But is not this a guarantee of its “legitimacy?” After all, how many medieval legends have come down to us without gaps?
Maxim Görke teaches in the German Department, at the University of Strasbourg.
Featured: King William I, folio 33 of Liber legum antiquorum regum, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D. II, 14th century. [This article appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.]
A collection of interviews with Valery Korovin, one of the most prominent representatives of the International Eurasian Movement, entitled, Imperskiy razgovor o Karabakhe: geopolitika i etnosotsiologiya konflikta (Imperial Conversation about Karabakh: Geopolitics and Ethnosociology of the Conflict) was published at the exact moment of a sharp escalation of tension in the Transcaucasus, primarily around Karabakh. The authorities of both Azerbaijan and Armenia have taken a number of steps in recent months and weeks that have worsened their relations with Russia in unprecedented ways. The leaders of the Eurasian Movement in Azerbaijan and a number of pro-Russian journalists in Armenia were arrested. Openly anti-Russian statements and steps by both Nikol Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev followed one after another. The old alliance agreements between Moscow and Yerevan and Baku began to be cynically and demonstratively trampled upon. The Russian Foreign Ministry moved from usual restraint to verbal notes of protest and much harsher statements than usual. Finally, Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov spoke about the aggravation of the situation.
At such a tense moment, when the threat of a new major war in the Transcaucasus could materialize in a matter of weeks, and only the titanic efforts of Russian and Iranian diplomacy to convince hotheads and Western agents in Yerevan and Baku to come to their senses and stop, the appearance of Valery Korovin’s theoretically rich, profound and at the same time practical analysis of the situation in the region is extremely timely.
His small, new book, in addition to a fresh preface, includes 19 interviews given to various media on Armenian and Azerbaijani topics. Five of them were given during the color revolution in Armenia in the spring of 2018; four, during the Karabakh War in the fall of 2020; the remaining ten relate to 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2021, June 2022 and May 2023. The common feature of most of the interviews is rather aggressive questions of journalists obsessed with nationalism and chauvinism, and Valery Korovin’s convincing objections, which reveal step-by-step, the Eurasian vision of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the ways of resolving it. In relation to each specific new event in the region, Korovin lays out the recipe for a resolution by way of a Eurasian solution, which rejects the very concept of unitary nation-states, and the disastrousness of the Atlanticist baits of the United States and Europe, dangling the fanciful carrot of membership in the EU and NATO in front the face of Yerevan and Baku.
Valery Korovin’s thesis runs through the book: inter-ethnic conflicts throughout post-Soviet space have no solutions in the format of “nation-states.” Attempts to follow this path inevitably lead post-Soviet republics to collapse, impoverishment, destruction of infrastructure, rupture of traditional economic and cultural ties, complete subjugation of their politics to the dictates of the West, and, finally, wars, genocides, and ethnic cleansing. Genuine self-determination of peoples does not require their separation into different states, but presupposes the preservation of their own ethnic identity within the framework of what N.S. Trubetskoy called “pan-Eurasian nationalism” almost a century ago. In the face of this integration program of uniting the whole of internal Eurasia around Moscow, around Russia, all kinds of private nationalisms and chauvinisms that hinder integration, be it Russian, Azerbaijani, Armenian or Georgian, should be resolutely denied. At the same time, on the external contour, Valery Korovin’s Eurasian program allows for the inclusion of both Iran and Turkey in the integration processes, if its authorities are ready to break with the West and take such a turn. In reality, this has not happened so far.
The answer to the question of who benefits from the disruption of Eurasian integration, the incitement of wars and ethnic conflicts, the manic desire to conquer territory against the will of the ethnic self-determination of its people, is simple: firstly, the globalist West, especially Britain and the USA; secondly, those local post-Soviet elites for whom, after 1991, “independence” became an intrinsic value for personal enrichment through the socio-economic degradation of the republics under their control, which was achieved at the cost of orientation towards the West and hostility towards Russia, Iran, and China. This is a recipe for disaster. Valery Korovin is trying to stop Armenia and Azerbaijan on this path, warning them that Russia will not tolerate the collapse of its geopolitical program in the Transcaucasus. His convictions to restore a single strategic and civilizational space of the peoples of Transcaucasia with each other and with Russia will undoubtedly be heard by all reasonable people who care about the survival of their peoples, and will be furiously rejected by pro-Western Atlanticists. Time will soon show whether the pattern of all major wars of the 18th-20th centuries between Russia and Europe (Northern, Patriotic, Crimean, World War I, Civil War, Great Patriotic War), in which the second, southern, Transcaucasian front was invariably open, will be repeated.
Maxim Medovarov is a historian, philosopher and journalist. This article appears through the kind courtesy of Geopolitica.
This big fat book (571 pages), Rational Responses to Skepticism, is an anthology of Dennis Bonnette’s later writings. It contains more than forty essays on a variety of philosophical topics.
But who (you may ask) is Dennis Bonnette? For one, he’s a philosopher. More precisely, he’s a Catholic philosopher. More precisely still, he’s a Catholic philosopher of the Thomistic (hence Aristotelian) persuasion.
He is the author of two previous books, Origin of the Human Species (three editions so far) and Aquinas’ Proofs for God’s Existence.
Among Bonnette’s other achievement are these, that he is the father of seven adult children and the grandfather of twenty-five children.
Bonnette was a college professor of philosophy for forty years. Upon retirement, he found that he could not renounce his teacherly addiction to explaining difficult philosophical ideas. And so, no longer able to explain them orally to undergraduates, he took to explaining them in writing to broader and more well-educated audiences. It should be noted that, because these audiences included critics who issued critiques that were far more challenging than a teacher would find in a college classroom, Bonnette was compelled, in his written explanations, to work at a more precise and more sophisticated intellectual level. This book is made up of many of these later explanations, all of which first appeared in online journals.
Not the least merit of this volume is that it is written with clarity. My guess is that Bonnette’s ability to explain things clearly is the result of his old job requirement—he had to explain some rather difficult philosophical ideas to college students for whom philosophy was not at the top of the list of their worldly concerns. This is like Lincoln’s talent for plain writing, a talent very probably developed by his professional need to explain things to juries made up of prairie farmers and shopkeepers. Bonnette knows how to write a plain English sentence. He knows how to write economically; for instance, he will illustrate a point with one example instead of five or ten. And although his subject matter often compels him to use a technical vocabulary, he doesn’t revel in technicalities as many academics do.
In short, Bonnette writes for an audience of educated laypersons who happen to have an amateur interest in following philosophical arguments. He never forgets who makes up his intended audience.
It should come as a surprise to no one that Bonnette discusses a number of topics that have long been near and dear to the hearts of Thomists and Aristotelians. For instance:
The existence of God
The nature of God
The spirituality of the human soul
The immortality of the human soul
The distinction between sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge
The first principles of reason
The principle of non-contradiction
The principle of sufficient reason
The principle of causality
The impossibility of infinite regress
The existential contingency of everything that is not God
That an infinity being (God) alone can create being out of non-being
The distinction between time and eternity
That everything moved is moved by another
The problem of evil
But Bonnette also deals with some post-13th-century questions, questions that have emerged since the modern scientific revolution. For instance:
Modern naturalism and materialism
Modern skepticism and agnosticism
The compatibility of Thomism and modern physics
The idea of “existential inertia”
He even deals with some “current affairs” issues. For instance:
And he touches on a few specifically Catholic issues. For instance:
The heavenly knowledge of the Virgin Mary
Can the reality of Hell be reconciled with the goodness of God?
The apparitions at Fatima
Adam and Eve
Why Catholics are prone to believe in miracles
At first glance this book is a hodge-podge collection of articles dealing with this and that; a mere miscellany. But look closer and you’ll see that there is a unifying theme running through its nearly-600 pages. Bonnette sees that modern atheism or naturalism is the great contemporary danger faced by Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, and he further sees that skepticism—the belief that it is impossible for human beings (i.e., rational animals) to know anything with certainty—underlies atheism/naturalism. What’s more, he is convinced that Thomism is the philosophy best able to refute skepticism and naturalism.
I recommend this book for well-educated lay Catholics who are looking for an intellectual challenge. Professional philosophers and theologians will also profit from it. And it should be considered for advanced undergraduates taking courses in Thomism.
It is not a book that must be read starting at page one. You can start in the middle. You can begin with the book’s final essay. You can skip around. In fact you’ll be better off if you skip around (as I myself did). This is a book for grazing, the way cows in a field graze. They never try to eat everything all at once.
David R. Carlin is a former Democratic Majority Leader of the Rhode Island Senate, a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the recent author of Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.
Featured: The Calmness of the Philosopher Pyrrho in the Storm, perhaps by the Master of Petrarch, ca. early 16th century.
An invitation to reflect on the love for the Humanities.
The meritorious writer, Eduardo Aguirre Romero, who is an on humor in Cervantes and is very much a humorist in his own right, has written a remarkable book. humor Eduardo Aguirre Romero, himself very much a humorist, author of the remarkable books, Vivan las Humanidades, siempre vivas (Long live the Humanities, Ever Living). Previously, he has written, Cervantes, enigma del humor (Cervantes, Enigma of Humor), Cine para caminar (Cinema to Walk With), Blues de Cervantes (Cervantes Blues), and Entrevista a Cervantes (Interview with Cervantes). His latest book was brought to the stage as a “dramatized conference,” at the Aula Magna of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, at the University of León, during the institute’s joyful patron saint festivities for San Isidoro on April 18, 2023. The book includes a foreword by Professor José Montero Reguera, Dean of the Faculty of Philology and Translation at the University of Vigo.
The leading parts at the “dramatized conference” were played by:
Juan Matas Caballero, Professor and Corresponding Academician of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Fine Arts and Noble Arts of Córdoba, who has recently edited the magnum opus, Sonetos de Luis de Góngora (Sonnets of Luis de Góngora);
Marta Roa , the former Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, University of León, (who is actually the wife of Eduardo Aguirre Romero; this fact actually serves as a gag within a gag in the dramatized lecture);
Ángeles Rodríguez the renowned Mexican actress;
Juan Álvarez Iglesias, student at the Faculty and Letters;
Siro López Lorenzo, the essayist (such as, “Epilogue;” “Letter to Krzysztof Sliwa”), who is one of the most important Spanish graphic humorists and caricaturists;
Marcelo Tettamanti and Pedro Fergar, poets both of photography.
In his Prologue, the renowned Cervantes scholar Montero Reguera correctly observes that the role of a Dean of Humanities “is a very laborious job, not given to leisure, in which very curious and sometimes unthinkable things are dealt with… since it is up to us—philologists, philosophers, historians—to make our society capable of looking to the future with an open, expectant, curious, responsible vision.”
Reguera rightly suggests that the “theatrical” Eduardo Aguirre Romero explains very well the role of a Dean of the Humanities in our very difficult times and alludes to his teacher the philologist Alonso Zamora Vicente (1916-2006)—who was also the teacher of the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa (1936-) who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (2010), and from whom Reguera quotes these words:
The young Spaniard must always be in the flesh, before Cervantes’ criticism of the society in which he lives, and learn from him the position that an intellectual must maintain in the face of the ever-changing socio-political structures; he must be in the vanguard of them, in permanent constructive opposition, marking an ethic and an inextinguishable desire for improvement” (Vivan, pp. 14-15).
Reguera agrees with Aguirre, and states that
The humanities are fundamental for being human, enriching to the highest degree, but also fun, a lot of fun: the stuff composed by Matas and Aguirre that ended up becoming a gangarilla, with the intervention of a certain de Saavedra [Cervantes], in the guise of Ángeles Rodríguez proves it. Come in, come in and read Aguirre, you will have a good time, and yes, you will end up shouting, with conviction, ‘Long Live the Humanities!’ (Vivan, p. 15).
Moving forward in time, let us now focus on the “dramatized conference,” which is the heart of the play, and in whose theatrical representation the members participate. They are Juan Mata Caballero, Eduardo Aguirre Romero, the Lady (Marta Roa), Miguel de Cervantes (Ángela Rodríguez), and Pancracio de Roncesvalles (Juan Álvarez Iglesias). They profess the challenges of the Humanities in this way:
Aguirre: “They say that bad winds are blowing for our beloved Humanities… but when have good times ever blown for it? “Tell me, which times have been good for the Humanities? And for the human? “Finally, ask your parents or your grandparents about difficult times. Difficulty is part of the test, in studies and in professions, even in love and in life. This is what this minstrel of columns tells you. “Who has seen many towers fall that I never imagined I would see fall. But I also see others rise. Raise your own towers, be builders of your reality and not mere passive objects of what they want to impose on you. It is not easy. But it never was. “And yes, how can you deny it: an economic crisis that does not end… the conflict in Ukraine that puts it at risk. “New totalitarian fascinations, right and left… a crisis of the Spanish educational system—not caused by teachers—that links with the previous one and the previous one and the previous one… the majority’s disaffection towards culture; “All this is true, but it is not the only truth. Participate in the combat of values in which we have put you… and win it in our name” (Vivan, pp. 19-23).
Indeed, Aguirre emphasizes that “Humanities studies are the master pillar on which civilization has built the best of itself” (Vivan, p. 24). However, despite the crisis of the Humanities, Aguirre writes with elegance and appeals to students, teachers and amateur enthusiasts: “Yearn for excellence, as a first step to achieve that solid formation which must be the shield;” and “overcome the threats with the weapons of our values, but also of your academic formation” (Vivan, p. 26), because “a society without Humanities taught in public education would mean that the only criteria would be economic ones, in the name of what they call professional opportunities. Of course, and when there are not, create them. Let’s say it now, today Culture as we know it, which is not one but the sum of many, is also in danger. We cannot deny the obvious” (Vivan, p. 29).
Alongside this, in defense of the Humanities, Aguirre, who is a columnist for the Diario de León, resurrects Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, King of Spanish Literature, mentions some notorious examples throughout his work, and appeals to students in this way:
In this good fight, it is not enough to be enrolled, or to have tiptoed through it. Nor is it enough to save yourself by the skin of your teeth. Allow me to insist… yearn for excellence, yearn for it with joy and passion. Have a voracity for knowledge…. You are in a wonderful stage in which your main obligation is to train yourselves. You will never have so much time for it again. These years are your foundation for the future” (Vivan, pp. 29-31).
To further reinforce his opinion of the Humanities, despite the challenges, Aguirre (himself a member of the Cervantistas Association) teaches the reader the power of the Humanities, which are valuable not only valuable for men of letters, but constitute pearls of wisdom from the genius of universal literature. Thus, Aguirre deduces that “Cervantes and his most universal masterpiece have an enormous formative power, without the need to take it to nineteenth-century distortions or to mutate it into a lackey of May ’68” (Vivan, p. 49). Aguirre, with his deep curiosity, emphasizes a great honesty:
Aguirre: The Humanities are not only what you know, but also—or above all—what you do” (Vivan, p. 33);
and then he rightly recommends this course of action:
Cervantes- “TRAIN yourselves… CREATE yourselves… BUILD yourselves… WRITE yourselves… READ… LISTEN… In short, FIGHT… for what is yours, which belongs to everyone. And also, of course… LAUGH… LOVE… SING…” (Vivan, p. 38).
It is also important to state that it is a great honor and privilege for me to give you my sincere thanks for defending the Humanities through theater, and to congratulate the playwright Eduardo Aguirre Romero, sincere believer, effective observer of reality and versatile writer, for his magnificent theatrical work, a scenic landmark of the Humanities, which illustrates the fundamental values of sincere love and true sacrifice, won with love, pain and humor, oriented to all humanity. My congratulations I also extend to all the theatrical characters, and to the exemplary editorial achievement, in a work designed to be distributed free of charge among teachers and students, as it is already being done. My warmest congratulations to all!
It should be emphasized that the gag that closes the book, that the Quixote delivered by Aguirre to Cervantes for his signature is by mistakenly the apocryphal one (1614), so by Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda, at least in the edition of the Royal Spanish Academy, and is a tribute to the meritorious professor Luis Gomez Canseco, of the University of Huelva. At the same time, I emphasize that it is only right to be grateful for the dedication that the author makes to me and for the letter he sends me at the end of the book.
Without the slightest shadow of a doubt, Eduardo Aguirre proclaims unconditional love and aesthetic, human, personal, social and universal values through his unwavering pen for the Humanities, which contribute decisively to the more humane formation of the global citizen, but which gradually tend to be conspicuous by their absence in university classrooms.
Aguirre, who loves humanity, reflects the current situation of the humanities around the world through his characters and themes. He relies on wise and healthy humor, because weise Wörter sind gesund—thus he captures the reader’s soul, and invites us to defend the Humanities and make us better human beings.
In conclusion, the masterpiece, Vivan las Humanidades, siempre vivas, illuminates the path of our heart; it beautifies us spiritually, and proves that it is beneficial and indispensable to serve by leading and loving the Humanities and all Humanity. Congratulations to all!
Krzysztof Sliwa is a professor, writer for Galatea, a journal of the Sociedad Cervantina de Esquivias, Spain, and a specialist in the life and works of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and the Spanish Golden Age Literature, all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles and reviews in English, German, Spanish and Polish, and is the Corresponding Member of the Royal Academy of Cordoba and Toledo.
Featured: Cervantes writes the dedication of Don Quixote to the Count of Lemos, by Eugenio Oliva Rodrigo; painted in 1883.
“I study the course of events in India very closely; and what do I see? Why, that you are doing everything you possibly can to teach the inhabitants their own strength. You establish schools; you educate the people; they read your language, many of them even your newspapers; and the leading men know what is going on in Europe just as well as you yourselves. But the day will come when some agitators will set these thinking masses in motion; and then what force have you to oppose to them? If ever here was a nation determined to commit suicide it is England. She holds India, as she herself allows, by the force of arms, and yet she is doing everything in her power to induce the conquered country to throw off the yoke.”
There was a great deal of reason undoubtedly in what he had urged. However, there is one argument in favour of further education in India, which is, that the better educated the natives of India become, the greater probability of their seeing that their own interests are far more likely to be cared for under a British than a Russian rule. But this still leaves open the question of whether they might not prefer to govern themselves, which undoubtedly will some day be the case.
(Fred Burnaby, A Ride to Khiva, 1877)
We live in an age in which assumptions determine much of what we do. These assumptions need not be based on any desire for truth, but simply for expedience (which is commonly known as “ideology”). For example, there is the easy assumption that genders cannot exist, and this has become a “truth” in western society, a truth given vehemence by the weight of authority and the law.
And when our society casts an eye backwards, history is to be understood through the lens of so many assumptions that it is often difficult to stay abreast. To make things easier, to be on the safe side, just assume that anything that Europeans ever did in the past was not only wrong, but morally reprehensible and outright cruel, because “whiteness” is inherently violent. Our present age is much given to empty moralizing in order to fabricate caricatures—but that’s another topic entirely.
And no topic is more morally fraught than colonialism, which as any worthy denizen of the university scene knows is to be roundly condemned. To say anything that might be deemed a defense thereof is instantly called out as “racism” or “white supremacism.” Having a past carefully construed a certain way is crucial to the powerbrokers of our world, and this fabrication can never have flaws, errors, or lies. To say otherwise is a betrayal of humanity itself, ergo akin to Nazism.
Nigel Biggar’s latest book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, therefore, goes straight for the jugular—it addresses the question of morality and colonialism: “What I have written is not a history of the British Empire but a moral assessment of it.” In other words, the British Empire was not an evil cancer let loose upon the world, nor was it organized banditry, robbing the hapless of their wealth—but a great force for good, which heaved much of what has now descended into being the “third world” into modernity. In effect, when the British left their colonies, they left them quite a lot better than they found them. This fact cannot be denied, though objections be raised by pointing to this or that injustice. Why is India, for example, today the largest democracy? In fact, who created what is today known as “India?” But let’s not get waylaid by the famous Monty Python skit, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
Because Mr. Biggar is giving us a “moral reckoning” rather than a historical summary of colonialism, what he ends up doing is to return impartiality to the study of history, which is in much need of rescue, having entirely dashed itself on the rocks, so intent has it been listening to the Siren-song of “political activism”: “What is wrong, however, is when moral and political motives refuse to allow themselves to be tempered or corrected by data and reason. For then, the motives distort and mislead; and when they distort and mislead repeatedly and wilfully, they lie.” Perhaps, the whole idea is to use history for political ends—where entire populations can be given permanent “victim,” ergo morally superior, status, while relegating another population to the role of “oppressor,” who can then be held up for cathartic abuse by the victim-class. Thus, we slouch our way to virtue, for the past is filled with all the sins that we have repented from—they were slavers, we are givers of reparations to populations we have labeled the eternal victims of history.
Because the book is a moral assessment of the British Empire, Mr. Biggar wisely avoids a chronological structure of the beginning, middle and end. Instead, each chapter unpacks a moral question to which historical data is adduced. This method directly addresses the “moral” habit of mind that is now commonplace when dealing with the past, in that we are continually asked to judge the past, usually in order to reify our own moral superiority to it. But more sinisterly—in order to govern how we must behave, think and live.
Each chapter also deals with the various arguments that anti-colonialist thought uses in order to deny the achievements of the British Empire. Thus, the first chapter deals with motivation, in which the idea of “conquest” is mapped out, in a reasoned and balanced manner. Just as with the growth of the Roman Empire, the British one also became what it did as a “consequence of international rivalry and war, and the associated need to gain a competitive advantage.” It wasn’t so much conquest as cooperation. For example, the majority of India was not British, for there were a total 461 princely states that were independent (most of them later regretted that they joined the “India” or “Pakistan” that came afterwards—and many of the problems now besetting both these post-colonial countries are products of this misunderstanding of cooperation: for example, Gilgit, Baltistan, Kashmir). In effect, Indian and Pakistani hegemony was exerted upon these once-independent princely states, with the result that now there is much resentment, strife, and rivalry, which is far from having been resolved. Most princely states did not want to join India or Pakistan, but were forced to.
All this means that the building of nationhood is not some fairy-dust that comes ready at hand the moment the blinkers of colonialism are removed. Rather, the nations that emerged from the British Empire, for example, could never truly get their act together. Why is that? Could it be that the greater project of Empire was stymied by the consequences of the Second World War?
But such a question is never honestly, let alone fully, answered; and the usual strategy is deflection by anti-colonialists. The funny thing about these anti-colonialists… they often tend to be people who have benefitted the most from colonialism. But let’s just put that down to the many ironies of history, shall we?
Another favorite topic is slavery, which existed in the world long before the British and is flourishing today, with little or no objection from anyone in power, especially from people who have strong opinions about slavery in the past. This is a very curious abuse of history, where crimes of today are ignored, while much breast-beating is done for crimes, real or imagined, of the past. Be that as it may, it is always emphatically stated that the slave-trade and the use of slaves was a cash-cow for the British Empire, a monolith entirely demolished by serious history, as Mr. Biggar explains. But then it was also the British who actively worked to destroy this ancient institution of captive labor, with men like Adam Smith, but mostly because of Christian charity: “The vicious racism of slavers and planters was not essential to the British Empire, and whatever racism exists in Britain today is not its fruit… The British Empire cannot be equated with slavery, since, during the second half of the empire’s life, imperial policy was consistently committed to abolishing it.”
Racism, of course, is a staple in any anti-colonialist argument. But there is much confusion, given that the stress today is on skin color and not on race as such. This is not surprising, given how difficult it is to pin-down what “race” ultimately means; whereas skin-color is a no-brainer. Thus, today the concern is with “shadism” rather than racism. But the attitude of the British Empire is best summed up by Sir Cecil Rhodes, a man anti-colonialist love to hate: “I do not believe that they are different from ourselves… a man, white or black who has sufficient education to write his name, has some property, or works. In fact, is not a loafer.” Rhodes was interested in the qualities and conditions of civilization, available to all of humanity, and which had nothing to do with shadism. Instead, the greater accumulation of data leads to a more disturbing conclusion—that it is our present age which is obsessed with skin-color, wherein the greater the melanin, the greater the innate virtue; the lesser the melanin, the greater the innate evil. Such is the new “Natural Law” of Western officialdom, which has entirely replaced the original, Christian understanding of Natural Law, grounded in dignity: that mankind is made in the image of God. Now, skin color determines the man. Melanin, yet another progressive pixy-dust, dissipates evil.
Mr. Biggar proceeds assiduously examining the various objections of the anti-colonialists and undoing them by patient laying out of data. Thus, the old stand-by arguments in which the grand themes of genocide, exploitation, greed, conquest, violence are delivered as “evidence” for the “crimes” of the British Empire are all weighed in the scale of reason and found either wanting, or to be exaggerated or simple fabrications: “To describe British colonial government as simply or generally oppressive and exploitative, as is commonly done, may satisfy certain ideological prejudices but it obscures the complicated historical truth. Colonial rule would not have been possible at all without the widespread acquiescence, participation and cooperation of native peoples.”
The examples that Mr. Biggar provides are essential to his method of tackling anti-colonialist themes—but this method also does something that is crucial, given the posture that the West has now assumed, of equating anything “white” with everything evil, especially “white” males. The strength of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning therefore is its fearless honesty. Like all true human endeavors, the British Empire was not a concerted effort to build a utopia for “white.” Rather, it was a system of deep cooperation between British and native interests and aspiration, chief among them being the pursuit of peace: “…peaceful politics usually requires compromise, and some compromises are morally justified, even obligatory.”
This pursuit peace flies in the face of what is now being attempted in the West, where through sheer political will a shadist utopia is indeed being constructed, which is gradually, but relentlessly, yielding a dystopia, marked by fear and loathing of humanity which does not bear the government-approved shade of skin, and in which humanity is assigend labels of either oppressor or victim. And never the twain shall meet. Such is the world that anti-colonialists seek to build as an answer to colonialism?
Mr. Biggar’s book is also a wake-up call to those of that live in the West, where violence can be justified by convenient references to the past; one in which humanity lives in a never-ending agon of one shade of people against another. Long forgotten is the idea that history provides each one of us a moral responsibility to be our brothers’ keeper. Not in some mealy-mouthed way, but in a genuine care for one another in the context of community. Finally, it was the necessity of this care that marked the British Empire, however loudly the anti-colonialists may decry this conclusion.
The book ends with very crucial question: “And yet exaggeration of colonialism’s sins is often not at all reluctant, but wilful, even gleeful. Far from being resisted, it is embraced. The anti-colonialists want the worst to be true, and so they meet any suggestion to the contrary not with the eyes of curiosity, but the fist of aggression. But why? What is going on here, psychologically, even spiritually?”
Although Mr. Biggar proceeds to provide an answer, it is necessarily an incomplete one—and it is as it should be, because it is a question that more and more needs to be asked again and again—why this gleeful hatred? Why hatred as morality?
Mr. Biggar has written a fascinating, spirited and triumphant book. His data and arguments cannot easily be put aside. If honesty is the true quest of doing history, then anti-colonialist arguments have been rather deftly gutted by this book and can no longer be taken seriously. That is, if truth still matters.
C.B. Forde is a full-time farmer and part-time reader, yes, even of books recommeneded to him by his wife.
Featured: John Eardley Wilmot, by Benjamin West; painted in 1812.
In his book, Sur l’Islam [On Islam], Rémi Brague gently mocks Pope Francis’ 2013 statement that “true Islam and a proper interpretation of the Koran are opposed to all violence.” “True Islam?” In this fascinating book tinged with caustic humor, striking by its erudition and its clarity, Rémi Brague puts things in their right place: by seeking to apprehend Islam under its different facets, without any positive or negative a priori, he shows that there is no “true Islam” and that it cannot exist because it does not recognize an authoritative magisterium, as it is the case in the Catholic Church. The Islamic terrorist who kills “unbelievers” can claim to be a “true Islam” just as much as the Sufi who is immersed in his meditations.
In order to understand what Islam is, therefore, what the Islamic vision of God and the world is, Brague explores its “fundamentals,” and in particular the Koran, which, since the Mu’tazilite crisis of the ninth century, has been fixed as the uncreated word of God dictated to Muhammad. This essential aspect explains an important part of the Muslim reality. The Koran contains a number of legal provisions, often extremely precise and dealing with daily life in some of its smallest details, making Islam more than a simple religion, “a legislation,” writes Brague—a “religion of the Law.” “In this way,” he continues, “when Islam, as a religion, enters Europe, it does not do so only as a religion…. It enters as a civilization that forms an organic whole and proposes well-defined rules of life.”
In Islam, reason can in no way be the source of the obligation of law, the law comes directly from God, via the Koran itself, the uncreated word of God. And when contradictions arise, they are resolved by the theory of “abrogation” which gives primacy to the most recent Koranic verse, which is always more severe than the previous one—thereby relativizing the more tolerant passages towards Jews and Christians that are usually put forward.
Thus, since there is only God’s law, the concept of natural law is meaningless and there can be, in theory, no common rules for Muslims and “unbelievers.” The consequences of this approach to law, a discipline that dominates all others in Islam, are important, notably through its repercussions on morality and the relativization of principles that we consider universal: what God wants is good; therefore what the Koran requires can only be good, including what Muhammad did, who is the “beautiful example” that God recommends to follow (Koran XXXIII, 21). Thus, murdering, torturing, conquering by the sword, lying (taqiyya), multiplying wives (including very young ones, since Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha when she was only 9 years old)—none of these actions are bad since they were done by the “Prophet”. Of course, no Muslim is obliged to do the same, but at least he can do so without betraying his religion.
Islam and Europe
Another theme on which Brague sets the record straight: the contribution of Islamic civilization (in which Christians, Jews, Sabians and Zoroastrians played a significant role) to Europe in the Middle Ages. Admittedly, the Arab sciences, at that time, were more developed in the Islamic than Christian sphere, but, tempers Brague, “Islam as a religion did not bring much to Europe, and only did so late,” while Western Christianity never completely ceased intellectual exchange with Byzantium, which enabled contact with Greek culture to be maintained, and which Islam in no way sought to assimilate.
For about five centuries, Islam, as it were, interrupted its cultural development and gradually allowed itself to be overtaken and dominated by Europe, causing intense humiliation among many Muslims—this is what Brague calls the “ankylosis” of Islam. Today, if it were not for the manna of oil, the Muslim countries, scientifically and militarily weak, would have no bearing at the international level. Their asset is nevertheless their strong demography, coupled with massive immigration to Europe, which has allowed the installation of vast Muslim communities, financed by the money of black gold. This is another, more patient but undoubtedly more effective way to win and thus take revenge on the past. When will we realize it?
Christophe Geffroy publishes the journal La Nef, through whose kind courtesy we are publishing this article.
In his most recent book, Common Good Constitutionalism, Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule presents two big ideas. The first idea is a very good one. Unfortunately, this good idea depends entirely upon the success of idea number two. Idea number two is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard. Taken together, the good idea crashes and burns because of the bad idea.
Professor Vermeule calls his two-idea combo “common good constitutionalism.” But common good constitutionalism, as Professor Vermeule explicates it, will bring about uncommonly bad constitutionalism. And a lot worse besides. Although of course Vermeule doesn’t say so, and surely would be repulsed by the idea, what he is asking for is the Führerprinzip, a leader strong enough to steamroll all opposition. Vermeule doesn’t like liberalism. Fair enough. But he would have the state overcome liberalism’s various contradictions. This is not constitutionalism, but its opposite.
First, however, Vermeule’s good idea. That idea is the title of the book. Professor Vermeule argues that the United States should return to the pursuit of the common good in the life of the law, and that this pursuit will help us all leave behind the fruitless debate between progressivists and originalists over the interpretation of the United States Constitution. (Vermeule was once a clerk for the original originalist, the late Antonin Scalia (1936-2016).) The classical legal tradition in the West, the ius commune, Vermeule writes—“the classical European synthesis of Roman law, canon law, and local civil law”—can help Americans recover the distinction between lex and ius. This distinction, and the moral jurisprudence that can flow from properly making it, can be, Vermeule hopes, common good constitutionalism. In other words, let’s stop fighting over what the laws do and don’t really say, and let’s start pursuing justice for all, a better America freed from the stale constitutional battles of the previous century. This is, indeed, a good idea.
Lex and ius may not be familiar terms, however, so let us clarify. Lex is not the villain from Superman, but, Vermeule writes, “enacted positive law,” that is, the law on the books, the law which legislators and (to foreshadow the bad idea) administrators promulgate and which judges interpret and executives enforce. Ius is “the overall body of law generally, including and subsuming lex but transcending it, and containing general principles of jurisprudence and legal justice.” If you use ius to guide lex, and if ius is morally sound, then, Vermeule is saying, you may get something much better than the originalist-progressivist muddle we have now. You may get a legal dynamic that effects real social good in the land.
The recovery of ius, Vermeule argues, will entail a return, in part, to the natural law. Vermeule also wants to “draw… upon the classical [law] tradition,” as well as, “in limited ways… the parts of [Ronald] Dworkin’s [(1931—2013)] jurisprudence that are consistent with the classical view of law and that explain and illuminate the latter’s commitments.” Why Dworkin? Vermeule wants to use him “in the negative, invoking him as the unsurpassed modern critic of positivism and originalism in Anglophone legal theory.” In many ways, Vermeule’s common good constitutionalism is a creative extension of Dworkin’s “law as integrity” insights. Vermeule takes Dworkin’s arguments about the centrality of legal principles and buttresses those arguments with a deep history of law in the West as moral touchstone.
So far so good. I agree completely with Vermeule that the rediscovery of the natural law, of ius both more generally and more narrowly, will pave a royal road between originalism and progressivism, that is, between obsessing over the lex of the United States Constitution from, respectively, the political right and left. It would be a fine thing were the United States to return—and Vermeule says it is not really so long, approximately the middle of the twentieth century, since we left it—to the sincere pursuit of the common good.
But there’s a catch. Vermeule thinks the way to do this is by reclaiming the “ragion di stato” tradition in early modern Europe, which articulates the central goods at which constitutionalism should aim.” “Ragion di stato” is a Continental idea from the 1500s and after which calls for a strong monarch (Vermeule translates this into a strong chief executive/administrative state for the American milieu) to act decisively for moral ends. I understand Vermeule to be explicating ragion di stato as the police power with a social justice teleology. Uh oh. It is on this very point, right at the pivot of the argument, that Vermeule’s good idea swings around and smashes headlong into his bad one. At the moment of Vermeule’s triumph, on my reading, he fails.
Let us look closer to see what’s gone wrong. What are the “central goods” of the ragion di stato tradition? Classically, Vermeule writes, they are three: “peace, justice, and abundance.” (Emphases here and elsewhere in the original.) Very nice. Let us certainly have as much of all three as we can get.
But wait. Vermeule does something remarkable—one is almost tempted to say foolhardy—to the three central goods of yesteryear. After listing peace, justice, and abundance, Vermeule adds: “which I extrapolate to modern conditions to include various forms of health, safety, and economic security. I also elicit from the tradition the key principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.”
I thought I was reading a book about the recovery of ius, of the natural law, of a regard for the common good. But Vermeule, in seeming to argue for a return to the classical legal tradition, in fact dismantles that tradition, putting in its place a triad of justifications for the modern administrative state. “Health, safety, and economic security”: in one sentence, perhaps the most important one in his book, Vermeule leaps from the classical legal tradition to the New Deal. The rest of Common Good Constitutionalism is an attempt to make that leap seem like a smooth transition, and to justify the enormous federal apparatus necessary to effect a permanent social transformation.
This is where the second idea, the bad one, comes in. It’s like a Mack truck plowing at breakneck speed into a tulip garden. All the good stuff scatters and all that’s left is pure aggression, with no concern for the consequences. Vermeule wants peace, justice, and abundance, as do I. But he wants the administrative state to ram those through, and to top it all off with health (shall I read here “forced vaccinations at the pleasure of a health bureaucracy in the pockets of Big Pharma”?), safety (“so long, Second Amendment, and First”?), and economic security (“central planning”?). Elsewhere in Common Good Constitutionalism, Vermeule adds other items to his revision of the ragion di stato. For example, we later get “health, safety, and a right relationship to the natural environment.” The Incorruptibles at the EPA, too, apparently, are to lord it over us. This is all very, very concerning. Common decency would suggest that Vermeule’s vision of common good constitutionalism be shunned.
A clear-eyed understanding of the nature of the state might have led Vermeule to suggest that the good things in human life come in direct and inverse proportion to the size of the government. What Vermeule presents instead is what others have termed, rightly I think, Vermeule’s “baptism of the state” and “Deep State constitutionalism.” Vermeule counters that “abusus non tollit usum.” Yes, but “abusus” here implies a Dworkinian discernment, does it not? Grace completes nature, but how much grace does it take before any state will act humanely? This is to say that there are limits to how much a thing may be said to have been merely misused before one is forced to admit that the thing itself is harmful.
Ignoring his own calls for ius to trump lex, Vermeule twists the arm of sound logic to make it seem to support statism. Vermeule writes:
In a globalized world that relates to the natural and biological environment in a deeply disordered way, a just state is a state that has ample authority to protect the vulnerable from the ravages of pandemics, natural disasters, and climate change, and from the underlying structures of corporate power that contribute to these events.
Vermeule then rejects the notion that the “main aim of common good constitutionalism” is “the liberal goal of maximizing individual autonomy or minimizing the abuse of power.” Instead, the main aim of common good constitutionalism “is to ensure that the ruler has the authority and the duty to rule well.” Abusus non tollit usum be damned.
Once this logic is in place, and digested, readers should not be surprised to find Vermeule patiently building up to an homage to “a central statute, indeed a super-statute, that bears out Dworkin’s view [on ‘the growing importance of “general statements of principle”’] by embodying general statements of high principle: the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).” The APA was passed in 1946 to accommodate the federal bloat which Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s statism had brought about. It is not even the elected statists who are to rule over us, Vermeule posits, but the unelected legion who answer to no one but themselves. If this is common good constitutionalism, I want no part of it at all, and I pray that no mortal ever suffer what Vermeule would unleash.
Now for something completely different. I should clarify here that, while I am adamantly against what Vermeule is expounding in Common Good Constitutionalism, I nevertheless highly recommend his book. Vermeule writes beautifully, and he knows much. The history of the APA, the legal wrangling among those who fought against the ballooning of the administrative and those who fought for it (including, as Vermeule mentions, former Harvard jurist Roscoe Pound (1870-1964), who variously found himself on both sides), which Vermeule lays out is fascinating. It is well worth the price of Common Good Constitutionalism to witness a Harvard Law professor sort through the threads of intellectual influence which now make up the huge and sprawling patchwork of administrative law. As legal history, Common Good Constitutionalism is grand.
However, I am afraid I cannot join Vermeule in his view that the bureaucratic maneuvering and fiat rule-making—this is my caricature, of course, and not Vermeule’s—in which the administrative state has indulged these past hundred and more years have been done in the spirit of “a jurisprudence of principles.” Nor can I follow Vermeule even further afield when he says that “such principles are ius, in all but name.”
On Vermeule’s own terms the administrative state seems not to clear the bar which Vermeule sets for it. Recall that Vermeule threw subsidiarity and solidarity into his de novo interpretation of the ragion di stato. Solidarity and ragion di stato would appear to be prima facie contradictory, so I leave the solidarity business at that. A good definition for subsidiarity, in the Catholic context from which it emerged as a social principle, comes from The Acton Institute’s David A. Bosnich, who writes:
One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.
For good measure, Bosnich adds:
This is why Pope John Paul II took the “social assistance state” to task in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. The Pontiff wrote that the Welfare State was contradicting the principle of subsidiarity by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility. This “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”
This would all seem to be bad news for Vermeule’s vision for common good constitutionalism. Here we have a pope from Vermeule’s lifetime, in an encyclical no less, dropping the hammer on statism. How does Vermeule deal with this contradiction? How does he justify a strong administrative state, on subsidiarity grounds, when subsidiarity would seem to necessitate a devolution of power away from the center and toward the lowest rungs on the social ladder?
Vermeule is not at all insensitive to the difficulty. He gets around it by inverting the definition of subsidiarity. “The core original meaning of subsidium is the military reserve that stands ready to enter battle if the front line faces a crisis,” Vermeule writes, citing a Latin dictionary from 1879. Very well, but the above definition of subsidiarity above comes from 2010, and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical is of course from 1991. Furthermore, “centisimus annus” refers to the hundredth anniversary of John Paul’s inspiration for the document, Pope Leo XIII’s (1810-1903) Rerum Novarum. To be fair, Rerum Novarum does not contain the word “subsidiarity” (although it does crack down hard on socialism, another stumbling block for Vermeule). The encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which as the title suggests was issued in 1931 on the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, does have a nice discussion of subsidiarity, however. Vermeule is aware of all of this of course, and cites research highlighting “the neglected positive aspect of subsidiarity” in the Catholic tradition. I would counter that a plain reading of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on subsidiarity (which draws on some of the documents mentioned above) frustrates virtually all of what Vermeule calls for in Common Good Constitutionalism.
Rebuffed by Rome (with the notable exception of Vermeule’s favorite encyclical, the 2015 ecostatist Laudato Si’), Vermeule seeks refuge with Catholic jurist Carl Schmitt’s (1888-1985) ‘state of exception’ idea to buttress his argument that the subsidium, the reserve power of the administrative state, should intervene whenever lower-down orders of hierarchy come up against limits to their power. It would be unfair to bring up the Führerprinzip right after mentioning Schmitt and Vermeule in the same sentence, so I will leave that be. Note, however, that Vermeule (like your humble correspondent) is also a Catholic, a fairly recent convert. On this note, it is worth mentioning that Vermeule’s book inadvertently calls into question something which passes for almost a natural truth in Catholic political philosophy, and one which Vermeule appears to endorse in Common Good Constitutionalism (see Vermeule’s discussion of epikeia, e.g.), namely that the state is an organic outgrowth of the family and the polis. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225—1274) argued this, we are told, as did his philosophical model, Aristotle (384—322 BC). Only, St. Thomas didn’t do so blindly. Aristotle, for his part, never met Jeremy Bentham. And Catholics ought to remember their St. Augustine (354-430), whose understanding of government was basically Rothbardian.
Vermeule nevertheless rejects what he calls “the libertarian sense of ‘subsidiarity’” (he might just as easily have called it “Augustinian”), connoting
a negative limitation, according to which the public authority should not intervene if a given function is more appropriately carried out at a lower level. This view is not invalid; it is a corollary of the positive sense, a statement of the limitations inherent in the positive grant of power for certain purposes and under certain conditions.
“But the corollary should not be mistaken for the main theorem,” Vermeule closes, accusing libertarians of doing precisely what he has just done.
Even more worrisome is that there are echoes of Plato’s Republic in Vermeule’s upending of subsidiarity and glorification of the state. Plato’s ghost clings closest when Vermeule waves aside scruples about philosopher kings by appealing to the degrees on the wall of the person arguing in favor of them (or as one). For example, Vermeule quotes Catholic social philosopher and theologian Johannes Messner (1891—1984), who opined that:
Where the will to moral responsibility in a society shrinks, the range of validity of the subsidiarity principle contracts and the common good function [of the state] expands to the extent that the moral will to responsibility in society fails. In such cases, even dictatorship may be compatible with the principle of subsidiarity.
“This sounds alarming, of course” Vermeule allows, in a way that, for me at least, serves only to compound my alarm,
but we should understand that Messner with his massive classical erudition is certainly best understood as speaking not at all of the modern strongman or junta, but rather within the tradition of the carefully cabined Roman model of dictatorship—a fundamentally legal and constitutional authority, limited by term, granted for a certain purpose, and authorized by the Senate.
I certainly do not have Johannes Messner’s, or Adrian Vermeule’s, massive classical erudition. But I remember, hazily, somewhere between learning that Hannibal crossed the Alps and that Gaul is divided into three parts, that the Roman Senate was a one-stop-shop for bribery, warmongering, intrigue, and assassination. It was also more often than not cowed into silence, even fake adulation, by abuses of imperial power which shock the modern conscience even across a score of centuries. I hope I will be forgiven a rube’s clarification, but, that Senate?
I will also mention, for what it’s worth, that Anthony Fauci was also presented, by our own spotless political assembly, as having a massive erudition. Not in the classics (although Fauci’s education was Jesuitical), but in the language of the administrative state. Adrian Vermeule wants that administrative state to force you to take the coronavirus “vaccine,” the one which the massively erudite Anthony Fauci pushed (at great personal financial gain) upon a populace which had long been waiting in Lochnerian darkness for just such an administrator as he to save them. To be fair, however, and at the risk of getting sucked into another subsidiarity-like whirlpool of definitions, I am not sure whether Professor Vermeule still holds these views now that the data would seem to confirm, in spades, the skepticism on the part of the hoi polloi about those fabulous serums. Or maybe ragion di stato means never having to say you’re sorry.
At any rate, Vermeule, along with his colleague (and Obama-and-Biden-era Richelieu) Cass Sunstein, has a good answer to this kind of nay-saying. He would categorize such talk as above as “conspiracy theorizing” and have the federal government put the kibosh on it.
Finally, there is abortion, an area where Vermeule and I largely agree. I am very much with him in celebrating the 2022 Dobbs decision ending the federal government’s involvement in nearly fifty years of inhumanity. But that’s just where Vermeule and I disagree, too, and doubly so. First, the administrative state has been a champion this past half century of the practice which it now, second, remands to the oversight of the several states. Dobbs did not end abortion in America. It simply shifted the onus for it from one capital to fifty-odd. The common good appears to have been lost somewhere among the bureaucratic hedgerows. I don’t know how to square with “common good constitutionalism” Roe, Dobbs, and administrative state superstar Kathleen Sebelius. Perhaps Vermeule can enlighten me.
These are details, however. As for the overall thrust of Vermeule’s argument, which in nuce is that the administrative state can and should wring ius from lex and return us all to the straight and narrow of the natural law, I would like to refer readers to Ludwig von Mises Institute powerhouse David Gordon’s review of an earlier Vermeule book, one with a very similar theme. Speaking of The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic, which Vermeule co-authored with Eric A. Posner, Gordon writes:
“The authors’ defense of the Führerprinzip is repellent; but the book has at least the value of showing how the world looks to a cast of mind enamored with power.”
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.
Featured: Zwervers in de duinen (Vagrants in the Dunes), by Jan Toorop; painted in 1891.
The Crusades have long been a contentious topic, and over the years scholarship has largely fallen into two camps: those that view this enterprise as European aggression (Ur-colonialism) and those that view it as a response to relentless Muslim aggression. The former view tends to predominate, especially in popular culture, where films, television shows and novels favor the trendy explanation of the Levant falling victim to “European violence.” Given the wide reach of media, such simplistic views have become “settled history.” Various efforts are made to counter this ideological reading of the Crusades (and the Middle Ages in general), but with little effect. The mainstream narrative yet holds sway, and in the popular mind the Crusades are evidence of innate European belligerence unleashed upon the world. One of the major problems with this narrative approach is Presentism, which then poses the “East” and the “West” as two irreconcilable monoliths that can only but continually clash. Saner scholarship recognizes the silliness of such an approach and has slowly been trying to make a difference by showing that the medieval world was neither ignorant nor parochial, and in which violence was more controlled than in our own day. The most recent example of such scholarship is Helena P. Schrader’s latest book, The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilization, 1100-1300.
This eloquent book is a comprehensive narrative history of a unique Christian civilization in Palestine—the Crusader States. It is also a noble and honest effort to “set the record straight,” by presenting the entirety of the crusading effort as one of interaction, in which the East and the West met and fashioned a unique civilization. In the words of Schrader:
“While historians of past centuries portrayed the Latin Christians living in these states as a tiny, urban elite afraid to venture into the countryside out of fear of their subjects, there is a growing consensus among the scholars of the twenty-first century that the majority of the population was Christian, not Muslim, and that the degree of intermingling and tolerance between Latin and Orthodox Christians was much higher than had been assumed” (xxxiv).
Towards this end, the book seeks to be as meticulous and well-researched as possible, in which it aptly succeeds. It begins with a 24-page chronology that details the history of the Levant within the context of Christianity (which brought Catholics, commonly known as the “Franks” or “Latins,” into the region, who then established various principalities, or “Crusader States,” which were politically linked with each other and with Europe) and Islam (which eventually gave the Turks enduring dominance in the Holy Land).
The book is divided into two parts, wherewith the analysis moves from the larger to the particular. Thus, Part I, “A Short History of the Crusader States,” describes the process through which the Franks came to the Levant and set up religious, political, cultural and military structures which would ensure that the Holy Land would remain territory essential and important to the Christian faith. This meant the establishment of permanent settlements, or what later became known as the “Crusader States,” or “Outremer” (“Overseas”), as the people of that time called this settlement. Schrader carefully traces the course that needed to be followed to ensure success in this undertaking, and as such follows the rise and fall of the Crusader States, from 1099 (when Jerusalem came under Frankish rule) to 1291 when Acre fell and Frankish influence contracted and eventually disappeared from the region.
The importance of Part I is that it gives the reader a thorough understanding of the complexity of the Crusades in their entirety, while never neglecting the dynamics at play in the Muslim world, where Mongol, Turk and Egyptian rivalries held sway. It is truly commendable that Schrader offers an all-inclusive review of the forces in contention in the Levant over a two-hundred-year period. What emerges is the real picture of the Crusades—that they were a massive investment of effort, talent, money and most of all of faith which allowed for a unique civilization to emerge and flourish, becoming an envy of the world in so many ways.
It is the quality and quantity of this “Crusader” or “Frankish” civilization that Schrader turns to in Part II of her book, which is sub-titled, “A Description of the Crusader States.” Here, Schrader really comes into her own as she takes the reader on a captivating “journey” into the world of Outremer. Each chapter presents facts and analysis, so that a lot of the popular myths about the Crusades are laid to rest. For example, we learn that the population of the Levant was predominantly Christian and not Muslim, as widely and mistakenly assumed. Indeed, the Christian population of what is now known as the Middle East and even Central Asia was heavily Christian. It was only in the fourteenth century that the Christians of the East were methodically annihilated, and the area became what it is today—the final chapter of this annihilation was the Armenian Genocide (which occurred in two parts: 1890-1909 and 1915-1917). Of course, this topic lies outside the scope of Schrader’s book.
Next, Schrader examines the complex polity that emerged in Outremer, the concept of the “nation-state,” which of course had a direct influence on the life of the West in the centuries ahead, down to our own time, where the nation-state is the prime form of civilization. In other words, Outremer was a two-hundred-year long success story—it was hardly colonial “occupation.” The reason for this success, as Schrader shows, is the stability of the institutions that were rather quickly established, such as the very effective judiciary, in which the Muslim peasantry prospered (unlike Muslim peasantry in Islamic-run jurisdictions), as well as the establishment of churches and monasteries which allowed culture, learning and the Christian faith to flourish, especially the ease of pilgrimage (which led to the rise of Holy Land “tourism,” and all of the support industries that tourists need).
Diplomacy was another key component of the success of Outremer, whereby a balance of power was effectively achieved and maintained between the various rivals, namely, Mamluk Egypt, the debilitated Byzantine rule, the many fiefdoms of the Turks, and the Mongol Empire. It was the Crusader States who “micro-managed” this balancing act, so that trade between the East and the West flourished, despite the ambitions of particular rulers: “The willingness… to treat with the religious and strategic enemy on a short-term tactical basis meant that de facto peace reigned in the crusader states far more frequently than war” (193) , because “the Franks maintained sophisticated and largely effective diplomatic relations with all the major players in the Eastern Mediterranean” (196).
As Schrader also points out, the Levant was a backwater before the Crusaders came—but because the land was holy to Christianity, it saw a massive input that transformed the region into a going concern: “Investment into infrastructure revitalised the rural economy and enabled the expansion of trading networks. Existing cities grew, and ancient cities such as Caesarea and Ramla, which had gone to ruin, were revived. Indeed, entire new settlements and villages were built. The larger cities, such as Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Tripoli and Antioch, became booming urban centres with larger populations than the capitals of the West. Not until the mid-thirteenth century did Western European cities start to compete in size with the cities of the Latin East” (197).
As well, this investment returned strategic importance: “Most importantly, the Franks connected the traditional oriental trade routes with the growing, increasingly prosperous and luxury-hungry markets of Western Europe” (198). The reason for this flourishing trade was the building of infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and water management. Trade agreements were struck and banking practices introduced, which then led to manufacturing. Sugar, textiles (especially silk, samite and siqlatin), soap, wine, olive oil, leather goods, glass were all manufactured in the Crusader States.
Given this revitalization program, agriculture returned to this land long considered barren, so that cities began to flourish, and a distinct Outremer culture emerged, such as icon painting, book production, shrines and holy places where the faithful came in droves to receive blessing in the land trodden by God Himself, as the famous 13th century Palestinalied (Song of Palestine) relates: “Ich bin komen an die stat,/ dâ got menischlîchen trat (I am come to the city where God trod as a man).” This spiritual “currency” lay at the heart of this region, a “currency” that could never be depleted. And here the work of charity was paramount, which saw the building of hospitals, caravanserais, inns, as well as monasteries, churches and many chapels by confraternities and monastic orders.
The cities themselves were well-planned, with effective sewage systems, baths and even flushing toilets. Trade supplied the many open-air and enclosed markets. There were orchards and gardens surrounding each city, with aqueducts, pools and fountains to supply water. It is important to note that many of these cities were not fortified—that is, they did not lie inside protective walls—cities such as Nazareth, Hebron, Nablus and Ramla. This detail is important—for it points to the fact that life was, in fact, very peaceful, which flies in the face of the usual and popular trope of Crusader brutality.
But this not to say that the military aspect was not important, for defense was necessary, given the endless ambitions of the rulers of the time (Mongol, Mamluk and Turk). Thus, Frankish Levant saw the emergence of unique castle styles, chief and most impressive of which was the concentric castle, the best examples of which is Krak de Chevaliers and Belvoir which overlooks the Jordan valley (“Belvoir” in Old French means, “Good view”).
Frankish architecture was unique also because it did not destroy what originally existed: “Beyond their sheer scale and number, one of the most striking features of these various projects was the degree to which the Franks sensitively and respectfully incorporated the remains of earlier buildings into their renovation projects. In sharp contrast to the prevailing view of crusaders as bigoted barbarians, when it came to architecture, the crusaders sought to preserve rather than destroy. This was true of Muslim structures as well as Christian ones” (233).
One of the greatest achievements of Outremer was its art and its literature, both little known and studied. There survives, for example, the exquisite Melisende Psalter, with its illustrations that perfectly combine Byzantine, Armenian, Syriac, Coptic and Latin elements to produce a style that is original to Outremer. And then there are the frescoes of the 12th century Church of St. Jeremiah at Abu-Ghosh (the biblical Emmaus), which are the finest expression of Crusader art (despite their Byzantine “look”), although they now survive in a much damaged condition.
This comprehensive book ends with the history of the Ibelin family who typify the kinds of people that came to Outremer and made it the splendorous civilization that it was: “…while the Ibelins were undoubtedly exceptionally successful, they were also in many ways typical. They embodied the overall experience, characteristics and ethos of the Franks in the Holy Land. They came from obscure, probably non-noble origins, and the dynasty’s founder can be classed as an ‘adventurer’ and ‘crusader’. They rapidly put down roots in the Near East, intermarrying with native Christian and Byzantine elites. They were hardened and cunning fighting men able to deploy arms and tactics unknown to the West and intellectuals who could win wars with words in the courts. They were multilingual, cosmopolitan and luxury-loving, as comfortable in baths as in battles” (267).
But why did this great civilization in the Holy Land end, after two hundred years of great success? The answers are as varied as the scholars who seek to give a response to this question. Schrader is accurate in her own conclusion—that Outremer was a victim of its own success. Because it was such a “shining city on the hill,” others fought to possess it. But more tragically, the bane of Frankish rule was the incessant in-fighting, where factions vied for power and where loyalty was circumscribed by personal ambition. As well, the latter rulers had divided loyalty—they were more interested in maintaining their holdings and influence in Europe than looking after what previous generations had built in the Holy Land. It is that old cycle of civilization—the generations that inherent wealth effectively waste it and lose it.
And the legacy of Outremer? This is how Schrader summarizes it: “… the crusader states in the Levant were the home to a rare flourishing of international trade, intellectual and technological exchange, innovation, hybrid art forms and unique architecture, advances in health care and evolution of the constitutional principles of the rule-of-law” (305).
For its scope, its depth and its variety of subject matter, this book truly succeeds as a work of exceptional narrative history. By glancing at the past, we may well learn something about the narrowness of our own age.
C.B. Forde confesses to being a closet history buff, that is whenever he can tear himself away from the demands of the little bit of land that he cultivates.
Featured: The Last Judgment, a fresco in the Church of St. Jeremiah (Emmaus), in Abu-Ghosh, Israel; painted in the latter parts of the 12th century.
The accomplished humorist, Eduardo Aguirre Romero, author of the magnificent books, inter alia, Cine para caminar (Walking Cinema), Blues de Cervantes(Cervantes Blues); Cervantes, enigma del humor (Cervantes, The Enigma of Humor) prologued by the writer Víctor Fuentes, has just published his masterpiece, Entrevista a Cervantes(Interview with Cervantes), which is dedicated “with gratitude and affection to the memory of the architect Jesús Martínez del Cerro (1948—2022), builder of the two prototypes of the machine to detect false readers of Don Quixote.”
“Don Quixote opened the way to a more humanitarian comicality”
In this context, it should be emphasized that Eduardo Aguirre Romero, journalist at the Diario de León, offered a reading workshop in the León City Hall, entitled, “Don Quixote for the elderly,” and he promotes the language of sweet Spain, by way of his first-rate works, in which, to better understand the life and works of the “King of Spanish Literature, he gives special emphasis to the humor of Cervantes, a subject of capital importance but very little studied by scholars.
But, before continuing, it is important to add a word about Cervantes, enigma del humor (2017), in which Aguirre Romero (who is originally from Madrid and now based in León since 1985) clearly deduces that in Don Quixote, humor rhymes with both love and pain and states that Cervantes’ humor is a multifaceted one, as “it does not evade your reality; it helps you to interpret it” (Cervantes, enigma del humor).
The insightful wit of Aguirre Romero accurately detects that “in these uncertain times, Miguel de Cervantes still has a lot of light to offer us.” As well, he meditates on the origin of humor and comes to the conclusion that “the best thing would be to ask Cervantes himself” (Cervantes, enigma del humor).
Consequently, in his Entrevista a Cervantes, “a work in progress,” the Cervantes-enthusiast from León converses with the genius of Spanish literature, not only because the immortal Miguel is still alive but also because the interviewer wishes to give the biography of the glorious man of La Mancha, in order to learn about the trajectory of his enigmatic life. Therefore, Aguirre Romero brings Cervantes to life, in flesh and blood, gives him a voice with all the freedom of expression and opinion; and without disguising the truth, even if it is unpleasant, he gives a biographical sketch of the famous Alcalá native.
Regarding his economic situation, Miguel maintains that “I had good times… but in my last years, if it wasn’t for the Count of Lemos and the Archbishop of Toledo, I would end up in a corner with a monkey and a goat. Isn’t that poverty? I had it tattooed on me since childhood” (Cervantes, enigma del humor, 48).
“All that can be forgiven, and more. When the time comes”
When asked about the words of the Spanish writer, Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), who belonged to the “Generation of ’98″—”’Don Quixote is immensely superior to Cervantes,’ what do you think?” The peerless novelist answers that “He is worth more than me… and more than almost all of us, because he does not condense. And Sancho also condenses us. But read, read, for sure there is more material to cut” (Cervantes, enigma del humor, 50).
Referring to Avellaneda, Aguirre Romero asks, “Can that also be forgiven, that in addition to murdering the book, he defamed you in the prologue? He even bragged about wanting to take away your profit, besides making certain allusions to… your horns.” Miguel replies that “all that can be forgiven, and more. When the time comes” (Cervantes, enigma del humor, 57).
“Thank you, O Lord, for you have revealed these things to the simple and you have hidden them from the wise.”
Similarly, the journalist sheds light on the doubts surrounding the character of Cervantes, who does not mince words and confesses that “I was wounded in my self-love, many times. Battered, too. I was even tempted to give up… but I was never rancorous. Nor vindictive, except for a few blows in this prologue or in that sonnet, because we are not of the same mind” (Entrevista, 58); and further on he declares that “one can be very intelligent and not understand anything. In fact, it is often those who understand the least. There is a very beautiful phrase of Jesus: ‘Thank you, Lord, for you have revealed these things to the simple and hidden them from the wise'” (Entrevista, 64-65).
The humorist Aguirre Romero notes that “Cervantes was the first to combine with genius the dramatic and the comic; that laughter was more than laughter… and no one before had so united comedy with depth and compassionate tenderness, though Cervantes himself often ignores such potential… and to perceive it, he had to fall in love with his characters, to feel responsible for them… There is not a comic Quixote and a serious Quixote. It is a single book. That is the marvelous multifaceted condition of Cervantes’ humor. A single humor, with numerous registers” (Entrevista, 34-35).
However, the key question that the author poses to Cervantes is:
Aguirre: “Where does Cervantes’ humor come from? You were poor in fits and spurts, you were crippled in a battle, you were imprisoned for five years, you were jailed several times for alleged embezzlement, you got along badly with your daughter… in old age you had to ask for help to survive… With that biographical background, where did you get the vital forces to write the universal masterpiece of humor?”
Cervantes: “Precisely from there… from pain.”
Aguirre: “Does his humor come from pain?”
Cervantes: “From pain and love. When he had the worst time… he laughed. And not only that, he was capable of making others laugh… Only fools need to smile when things go well for them. [If they steal your humor, they will have defeated you (Entrevista, 65).
“My humor comes from pain and love”
In all honesty, Entrevista a Cervantes is a well of wisdom, where humor and truth emerge, which characterize the writing of Aguirre Romero, who always follows the proverb of Cebantes, that brilliant soldier of the Elite Special Forces of the Spanish Tercios Viejos: “Be brief in your reasoning, because no one is pleased if it is long;” and he hides “an ace up his sleeve: there is also pain and love hidden behind what—a priori—only seemed funny” (Entrevista, 34).
Before concluding, it is my great honor to congratulate not only Eduardo for his excellent work that carries much of him within it, but also for his proclamation of vital joy—and that of the believer—in a period of great economic concerns due to the crisis, from which he has not been spared, but also to Professor María Fernández Ferreiro, the editor of Entrevista a Cervantes, for her excellent series of books that she has gathered, and the extraordinary Grupo de Estudios Cervantinos (GREC) at the University of Vigo.
Without the slightest shadow of a doubt, this masterpiece of our admirable Eduardo Aguirre Romero, “dedicated to society hit by a long economic crisis and a crisis of values” (Entrevista, 37), which fills the heart with greater joy, has managed to combine the funny with the serious. The characters and themes are identified with those of Cervantes’ works, while the entire work stems from a healthy and wise humor, which captures the soul of the reader, and makes us better people.
All this proves that Entrevista a Cervantes is a flagship and this book belongs to the whole world. Congratulations!
Laus in excelsis Deo.
Krzysztof Sliwa is a professor, writer for Galatea, a journal of the Sociedad Cervantina de Esquivias, Spain, and a specialist in the life and works of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and the Spanish Golden Age Literature, all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles and reviews in English, German, Spanish and Polish, and is the Corresponding Member of the Royal Academy of Cordoba and Toledo.
Featured: Miguel de Cervantes, Gustave Doré; published in 1863.
Would you like to be a dictator? It isn’t very hard. You needn’t be particularly clever. Ruthlessness helps. Sociopathy is better. But these are optional. All you really have to do is be willing to act as a stand-in for the frustrated ambitions of a group of people. Friends are verboten; intimacy of any kind is out of the question. Simply go along with an unhinged political drama (one already unfolding, or create your own if none exists to work with) and let waves and waves of sycophants fall at your feet in craven, self-abasing adoration.
If the above sounds like something you can manage, then you might just have what it takes to be a dictator.
The above is the greatly foreshortened takeaway from historian Frank Dikötter’s remarkable 2019 volume How To Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century. Dikötter, native of Holland, is Chair Professor of the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a prolific author of scholarly and popular-press works on modern China. His “People’s Trilogy,” a richly-researched record of how communism burns holes through the fabric of ordinary lives, includes the 2011 Mao’s Great Famine, a book on the Communist-made catastrophe of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Dikötter estimates that as many as forty-five million people died early deaths during approximately four years of famine and state violence. Other researchers put the number even higher. At any rate, Mao Zedong was a dictator’s dictator, and Dikötter knows the ins and outs of the Mao years like the back of his hand. Suffice it to say that when it comes to writing about dictators, Dikötter knows whereof he speaks.
In a bold departure from his Asia-focused work, in How To Be a Dictator Dikötter puts his remarkable archival and analytic skills to use examining the lives of eight figures from the disastrous twentieth century, only two of whom (Mao and Kim Il-sung) are Asian. The rest—Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Ceaușescu, and Mengistu Haile Mariam—hail from other hellholes which the twentieth-century cult of personality created.
Aha, here we get to the rub. As How To Be a Dictator’s subtitle suggests, the cult of personality is Dikötter’s theme. In eight very different case studies, Dikötter tracks how a cult of personality was built up around psychologically damaged political demigods, a hivelike polity formed around a living image of statism personified. In retrospect, all eight of Dikötter’s subjects appear unworthy of not only a personality cult, but a second glance in a crowded train station. All eight are singular only in their mediocrity. All eight were, in short, pitiful losers. The political center was built around mere mortals, and not very impressive mortals at that.
And yet, twentieth-century politics raised each up into the statist pantheon. It is a puzzle with no solution. At the end of How To Be a Dictator, I was left wondering, as I believe other readers will be, how in the world anybody could have been cowed into hero-worshipping any of the eight rogues in Dikötter’s gallery. As Dikötter qualifies, not all dictators have personality cults. “For two years after [Pol Pot] took power [in Cambodia],” Dikötter explains, “even his exact identity was in dispute” (xvi). But Dikötter also agrees with “historian Henri Locard,” who finds that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge suffered badly for not having apotheosized their mercurial leader. “Failing to induce adulation and submissiveness,” Dikötter quotes Locard as writing, “the Angkar [‘Organization,’ shadowy ruling junta of Cambodia] could only generate hatred” (xvi). Cambodia is the exception that proves the rule, then. Dictatorships seem to require personality cults to outlast whatever political frenzy initially ushers a dictator into power. But no dictator, no human being, is equal to the political god-making required to keep dictatorships in business. But still dictatorships perdured.
Perhaps the puzzle needn’t trouble us any longer. Dikötter ends his book on a faintly hopeful note, remarking that:
Dictators today, with the exception of Kim Jong-un, are a long way from instilling the fear their predecessors inflicted on their populations at the height of the twentieth century.… Even a modicum of historical perspective indicates that today dictatorship is on the decline when compared to the twentieth century. Most of all, dictators who surround themselves with a cult of personality tend to drift off into a world of their own, confirmed in their delusions by the followers who surround them.… As hubris and paranoia take over, they seek more power to protect the power they already have. But since so much hinges on the judgements they make, even a minor miscalculation can cause the regime to falter, with devastating consequences. In the end, the biggest threat to dictators comes not just from the people, but from themselves (206).
To an extent, yes. But that somehow doesn’t feel like the real end of the dictatorship story. Dikötter, to my mind, fails to see how much the state has metastasized since the dictatorial heyday wrapped up in the 1980s with the shudder and fall of the Soviet Union and its equally evil satellite states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Dr. Anthony Fauci had a personality cult of his own as recently as a year or so ago, for instance. There was, apparently, a Tony Fauci fan club at the former propaganda clearinghouse known as Twitter. Fauci was not standing on a parapet firing rifles into the air and crying out to the masses to go out and defend the motherland. His press conferences were, nonetheless, political theater, and Fauci has equated himself with “the science” in a way that dictators used to equate themselves with the regime or with the nation as a whole. The old style of dictatorship—think fatigues and Mao suits, towering statues and frenetic military parades—is definitely passe. But has the cult of personality really gone the way of the six-hour May Day speech? I don’t think so.
But I digress. Let us return to the wretched twentieth century, and to eight of the worst people who darkened it.
Dikötter’s first subject is Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), who “in 1919… launched a movement that would become the Fascist Party” (3). When Fascism failed to catch on, Mussolini grew dejected. But then, in September of 1919,
the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio [sic: should be D’Annunzio] [(1863-1938)] led 186 mutineers in a raid of Fiume, a city to which Italy had made a claim in the wake of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy a year earlier. Mussolini realised that the power he had failed to obtain through free elections could be seized through brute force. But d’Annunzio also inspired Mussolini in other ways. In Fiume the flamboyant poet pronounced himself Duce, a term derived from the Latin word dux, meaning leader (3).
Here we glimpse what I believe to be a trait common to many twentieth-century dictators, namely a flair for the melodramatic. In this Mussolini was unrivaled, making him, to my way of thinking, the twentieth-century dictator par excellence. Here’s more of Mussolini’s antics:
Mussolini… wanted to develop the myth of a March on Rome, one in which he entered the capital on horseback, leading his legions across the Rubicon to impose his will on a feeble parliament (4).
This is of course silly, but it is almost everything one needs to know about Mussolini, and, writ large, most of what one needs to know about twentieth-century dictating. Mussolini, like the dictators who followed him, was basically an actor in a historical recreation skit. In Mussolini’s case his role had him imagining himself a new Caesar and his gaggle of Blackshirt goons a new Roman army. (The press, Dikötter says, “acclaimed” Mussolini as “the Cromwell of Italy, the Italian Napoleon, the new Garibaldi in a black shirt” ). To state the thing so baldly is to show Mussolini to be a deluded, pitiable mummer, which indeed he was. He was the saddest clown, a failed actor who used, as a last resort, the heady atmosphere of unhinged post-WWI politics as his stage.
Consider this paragraph:
While Mussolini occasionally professed to dislike the cult around his person, he was actually its main architect. He was a master of the art of projecting his own image, carefully studying certain gestures and poses. He rehearsed in Villa Torlonia, a vast, neoclassical villa on a sprawling estate which became his residence in 1925. In the evenings he would sit in a comfortable chair in a projection room to study every detail of his public performance. Mussolini considered himself to be Italy’s greatest actor. Years later, when Greta Garbo visited Rome, his face clouded over: he did not want anyone to overshadow him (9).
What is truly disheartening for us in 2023 is not that Mussolini took himself so seriously, but that nearly everyone else did, too. What does it say about human nature that such a man was lauded as an Olympian deigning to live in the plains below? Dikötter samples some of the effusive words of praise which those who should have known better reserved for Il Duce. René Benjamin (1885-1948), for instance, a French literary sensation, was “won over” by Mussolini’s “broad grin.” Another French man of letters, Maurice Bedel (1883-1954), wrote a whole chapter about Mussolini’s smile: “Does he ever stop, even for a few brief moments, being a demi-God carried by a violent destiny?” So, rhetorically, asked Bedel. “The poet Ada Negri thought [Mussolini’s eyes] were ‘magnetic’,” and that his “beautiful hands” were “psychic, like wings when they unfold” (13). This is a lot of stuff, but it gets worse. “Mohandas Gandhi, who visited [Mussolini] twice, pronounced him ‘one of the greatest statesmen of the time’, while Winston Churchill in 1933 described ‘the Roman genius’ as ‘the greatest law-giver among living men’” (13). Mussolini, apparently, was not the only one daydreaming that the glorious past had snapped back to life again in the person of a former schoolteacher. “Thomas Edison,” Dikötter writes, “called [Mussolini] the ‘greatest genius of modern times” after a short meeting” (13).
One winces now to read these encomia, but in a sense perhaps Edison was right. Mussolini was, in his own way, a very modern genius, with a real skill at getting others to clothe him in their unrealized ambitions. That seems to be what at least half of the cult of personality is all about. The past is gone, obliterated by modern times. But we can have the past again, we can touch the old Roman emperors right in the here and now, if only we make believe that Benito Mussolini is Vespasian or Augustus. It was suspension of disbelief that made the whole thing go. (“The [Mussolini] regime’s motto,” Dikötter recalls for us, was “‘Mussolini is Always Right’”).
What’s more, Mussolini appeared to believe the now ridiculous-sounding comparisons of himself to Napoleon and Garibaldi, and the elevation of his mortician-faced “Il Duce” schtick to the level of genius. This is all precisely, Dikötter I think is telling us, how dictators get to be dictators. If there is someone so lost, I would put it, or so divorced from reality, as to believe what flatterers and hangers-on say in even the giddiest flights of political hyperbole, then more and yet more flattery and sycophancy will flow to him. If someone says, with a straight face, that I am a world-conquering genius, and if I, with a straight face, give him to believe that he has not gone nearly far enough in his estimation of me, then we have all the makings of a personality cult. You think I am Charles Martel and Genghis Khan all rolled into one. I tell you that you had better throw in Ramesses II and then put me higher than all three. Now, give me a radio and a Stasi and I will give you a dictatorship like you have never seen. Voila, the cult of personality, where delusion and delusion merge.
In Mussolini’s case, Dikötter opines, his personality cult
was also tinged with superstition and magic. In a country steeped in religion, people projected onto Mussolini feelings of devotion and worship characteristic of Christian piety. There were holy sites, holy pictures, pilgrimages, even the hope of a healing touch from the leader. His photograph was sometimes used as a talisman, carried around to bring good luck (27).
Such fanaticism is jet fuel for a would-be dictator’s handlers. But popular fanaticism is much fickler than one might imagine, and at any rate no dictator banks on being loved over being feared. “As Emilio Lussiu, a committed anti-fascist, noted in 1936,” Dikötter continues,
the regime demanded expressions of popular consent, and the blackshirts pursued these, bludgeon in hand. When the Duce gave speeches, people turned up on orders from the police and cheered on command, “like extras in a cast of thousands, so that papers could publish photographs of public sites full to the brim with exulting people” (27).
A cult of personality will thus acquire a gravity field (more like a sucking black hole) of its own, helped along by raw and thuggish violence as needed, and farce will then follow ruinous farce until it all comes crashing down around everyone. This happened for Mussolini and his fascist Italy in 1945. And it happened for Dikötter’s next subject, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).
There has been so much written about the half-mustachioed Austrian who helmed the third German Reich that I did not expect there to be much new in How To Be a Dictator about Hitler. And yet, Dikötter delivers, focusing not only on the platoons of Sieg-Heil-ers which eventually bristled around their Führer, but on Hitler’s powers of public address. Hitler was a failed artist, that is well known. And it explains much of how Hitler saw politics, namely as an aesthetic testament to the collective will of the German people, a Volk which had also failed, but which nevertheless longed to be recognized for its inherent greatness. But Hitler was, in that sense, not a failed artist at all, but an unmistakably successful one. He curated his own image as such, but couched the self-praise in terms of German destiny and political revenge such that those who heard Hitler and read his words in print agreed with his auto-caricaturing in Mein Kampf. Hitler and the Germans were, in other words, in a very unhealthy co-dependent relationship. As Dikötter puts it, readers of Mein Kampf found Hitler described as
A genius child, a voracious reader, a born orator, an unrecognised artist driven by destiny to change the fate of a people. A man overcome by a passion like no other, one that allowed him to recognise the words that would ‘open the gates to a people’s heart like the blows of a hammer’. A man chosen by heaven as a messenger of its will. As a close follower put it, Hitler was an oracle, a Traumlaller, one who speaks prophetically in his dreams (37).
And the readers, by and large, ate up every word. That it was all hoo-hah was beside the point. Germans needed to believe something again. Hitler needed them to believe it through him. The result was Stalingrad. The result was also Auschwitz.
The way this all hung together was through performance, the state acted out in the person of the spittle-flecked corporal. Hitler was an actor, as was Mussolini, and a devoted student of the possibilities of the new mass media of image and sound. Dikötter notes that it was Mussolini who inspired Hitler to up his game after “the Duce upstaged him” in Venice in June of 1934 (23). “A pale, insecure Hitler,” Dikötter writes, “in a baggy yellow coat and patent-leather shoes, had watched [Mussolini] from a balcony in a neighbouring palace, mesmerised by a man so adored by his people” (23). Hitler would not make the same thespian mistake twice. Hitler’s, and his National Socialist Party’s, mass rallies in Nuremberg under the stage production of architect Albert Speer (1905-1981) are, let us admit, masterpieces in the genre of political theater. (45) But long before that, Hitler had relied on a man named Heinrich Hoffmann (1885-1957), a photographer who ran a shop in Berlin, to record his heroic figure for the masses and for posterity (37). What Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) did for the Nazis’ image, not least through her 1935 Triumph of the Will film of Nuremberg, Hoffmann did for Hitler’s, and in a much bigger way.
Hoffmann’s photos of Hitler were everywhere. They were officially endorsed by the Führer himself. Hoffmann’s photographs overcame whatever negative press was thrown against Hitler, rescuing him from scandal and rehabilitating him when party politics did not bend to his iron will (38-41). Hoffmann’s photographs made of Hitler both a soaring political deity, and an approachable, right-living human being. And Hoffmann made a fortune off of the arrangement. “Since the Führer’s image was protected by law,” Dikötter explains, “the court photographer [i.e., Heinrich Hoffmann] had a virtual monopoly over the market” (49). Sales of Hitler’s mug printed on “portraits, postcards, posters and calendars” as well as in book form sold hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of copies (49). Dikötter’s foregrounding of Hoffmann in his chapter on Hitler is a very welcome departure from the usual dreary rounds of the Hitler biography (although, to be sure, the Hoffmann angle is if anything even drearier). A cult of personality requires an endless supply of images (recall that Anthony Fauci spent many of his waking hours on TV for a couple of years), and Hoffmann gave Hitler exactly what he needed to keep the cult in motion.
But every false god will fail. No photograph can paper over the stark political reality of bread lines and disappeared neighbors. Dikötter therefore also does readers a service by focusing on the climate of skepticism vis-à-vis Hitler which spread over Germany as the consequences of the Führer’s political maneuvers began to bite at home. American philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), in Germany during 1936, observed that “‘Germany is silent, nervous, suppressed; it speaks in whispers; there is no public opinion, no opposition, no discussion of anything’” (53-54).
Skepticism at home is easily checked by secret police. All that Hitler needed by the late 1930s was for foreigners to buy his performances. Which, in at least one notorious case, one did. In September of 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) “travelled to the Obersalzberg, where his host,” that is, Adolf Hitler,
received him on the Berghof’s front steps. Halfway through a three-hour conversation, Hitler suddenly switched roles, transforming himself from an unpredictable megalomaniac who threatened war into a perfectly reasonable negotiating partner. Hitler pledged not to use force against Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain agreed to the cessation of the Sudetenland, signing the Munich Agreement two weeks later. ‘He looks entirely undistinguished’, the prime minister admitted to his sister, but Hitler was ‘a man of his word’. Hitler clapped his hands in sheer delight the moment Chamberlain left the Berghof. The Sudetenland was occupied without a shot being fired (55-56).
The cult of personality can catch even the most levelheaded of statesmen unawares.
Dikötter’s next subject, Josef Stalin (1878-1953), is often presented as Hitler’s dictatorial counterpart (see, e.g., 83), but the way that Dikötter frames things it is Mussolini and Hitler who should be seen as a pair of theatrical rivals. I agree. Stalin, as Dikötter makes clear, was much more concerned with inheriting the shade of Lenin than with competing with Hitler and Stalin for best performance in a political play, and Stalin made full use of his own obvious inferiority to Lenin as the very mechanism by which he stole Lenin’s mantle and then used it to bring post-revolutionary Russia under his dominion (see p. 67). False humility was Stalin’s Venus flytrap, drawing in those who dared challenge what he saw as his non-negotiable title to be Lenin’s heir. And as Stalin stepped deeper and deeper into Lenin’s shadow, as it were, he was able to be bolder and bolder in reshaping Lenin’s revolution into a personality cult redounding to Stalin’s power.
Much of that power Stalin used to effect revenge on his enemies. He built a propagandistic case against Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), Grigory Zinoviev (1883-1936), Lev Kamenev (1883-1936), and others against whom Stalin had developed, or long nursed, a grudge. (69-70) By 1929, Dikötter writes, “The party [i.e., the Communist Party of the Soviet Union], under Stalin’s leadership, was now sacrosanct, the party line presented as a mystical will that was beyond debate. Stalin became the personification of that sanctity, the vozhd, or great leader, a term previously reserved for Lenin” (72). Anyone who dared cross Stalin effectively tread on Lenin’s own grave. Stalin wasted no mercy on those who could be crushed under the weight of Stalin’s wrath and Lenin’s borrowed ghost.
In this atmosphere, in which Stalin’s mood was life or death, fear became the baseline of human existence. Rafts of breathless and completely over-the-top praise for Stalin reverberated into a kind of standing wave of surreal man-worship.
The usual dupes from abroad made their obeisance, too. In 1931, “the socialist author George Bernard Shaw received a military guard of honour in Moscow and a banquet to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday,” Dikötter writes.
He toured the country, visiting model schools, prisons and farms, with villagers and workers carefully drilled to praise the party and their leader. After a two-hour private audience, masterfully staged by Stalin, the Irish playwright found the dictator a ‘charmingly good-humoured fellow’ and proclaimed: ‘There was no malice in him, but also no credulity’. Shaw never tired of promoting the despot, and died in 1950 in his bed with a portrait of his idol on the mantelpiece (75).
That a professional playwright, most of all, could not see through the masquerade is perhaps the most damning confirmation of Dikötter’s cult-of-personality thesis in the whole book. Remember also that Walter Duranty (1884-1957), once a darling of the perennial fake news outlet the New York Times, won a Pulitzer for pretending that Stalin had not induced famine in Ukraine—a famine the victims of which Duranty had seen with his own eyes. Like Hitler, and like many other dictators since, Stalin had the strange power to inspire in foreigners the sincere love and even worship which his countrymen begrudged him. As if to confirm that it had all been a tragically empty vaudeville act, the cult of Stalin, and the show trials and Great Terror and bloodbath Great Patriotic War that followed in its train, was over in almost an instant when, in 1953, Stalin mercifully died. “One month after his funeral Stalin’s name vanished from the newspapers” (92). No one wants to remember how cowardly he has been or how little he respects himself, even to the point of pretending that a Georgian hooligan is a man of steel. A cult of personality is, in many ways, a survival technique, discarded as soon as it is no longer needed.
(And Duranty got to keep his Pulitzer Prize.)
Dikötter writes next of Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Hitler once felt upstaged beside Mussolini, and Mao, standing on one of Stalin’s flanks “when Stalin appeared at the Bolshoi Theatre to show himself to the cameras for his seventieth birthday gala,” had, it seems, a similarly uncomfortable experience. “Mao looked dour, awed by his counterpart in the Kremlin but resentful at the way he was being treated. He had expected to be welcomed as the leader of a great revolution that had brought a quarter of humanity into the communist orbit, but had been met at Yaroslavsky Station by two of Stalin’s underlings who did not even accompany him to his residence” (93). (The person on Stalin’s other flank, by the way, was Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), the man who would lead the ”de-Stalinization” campaign later on, a sort of smelling-salts gambit to get the Communist Party to quit swooning over personalities.)
Mao was made to feel insignificant standing beside Stalin, but he might have seen such a slight coming. “For the previous twenty-eight years,” Dikötter points out, “the Chinese Communist Party had depended on Moscow for financial support” (93). Mao’s rival, Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), had been on the communist dole, too. And the Comintern was deep in the politics of China this side and that, making decisions about small things and big. Between Stalin and Mao, few, if any, in Moscow had any illusions as to who was boss and who was supplicant.
But as Dikötter shows, Mao was, for all his dependency, a formidable cultivator of personality cult in his own right. Of the eight people featured in How To Be a Dictator, Mao deserves, I think, most credit for keeping and grooming his cult by himself. Mao was not one to be pandered to or flattered into distraction. Although he had his ghostwriters (Dikötter mentions Chen Boda (1904-1989) ), Mao was also, as the legend goes, a poet, wooden and bombastic by turns but an impassioned versifier all the same (see 105). And, to be sure, Mao wrapped even the worst and most devious elements of society around his little finger as he built his power base and policed the thoughts of the masses. Kang Sheng (1898-1975), for example, was surely one of the most dastardly men in all of twentieth-century China—a real achievement considering the competition (99). But all the while Mao was writing out a kind of political epic, his verse the fluttering rows of students waving the Little Red Book in the air, his ink their blood and the blood of those whom he sent them out to murder. Mao did all that. Not his handlers. Mao.
Mao had his Hoffmann, too, a “handpicked… photographer named Hou Bo. She had joined the party as the age of fourteen, and her pictures where soon printed in the millions” (104). The famous 1955 image of “Mao Zedong Swimming Across the Yangzi” was from Hou’s lens. Many other shots were, too. Her photos, Dikötter reveals, “were among the most widely distributed images of the twentieth century” (104).
But as garish as Mao’s political tastes ran—he was a foul-mouthed yokel at heart who interspersed half-masticated Marxist-Leninist claptrap with earthy slogans rich in the vocabulary of the barnyard latrine—he wisely avoided having roads and buildings and whole cities named after him (104). He was to be, Dikötter says, a “philosopher king of the East,” which I think captures Mao’s ambitions to a T (104). He was good at dissembling, convincing even the rope-hearted Richard Nixon (1913-1994) to come and pay him homage in his Forbidden City (120). And he was good at getting others to take the fall for his own bad ideas, even when those ideas—the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution being two of the worst ideas in, I think, human history—left whole fields of corpses in their wake. Mao’s cult of personality built and built, as it consumed one lieutenant after the other—Lin Biao (1907-1971), Peng Dehuai (1898-1974), Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969). Those who know the history of “philosopher kings of the East” will know that Mao was every inch their equal.
What Mao did best of all was to involve everyone in his cult of personality in a full-contact way. Mao encouraged all of China to get into the business of fighting for the purity of the revolution (which was exactly the same as fighting for the primacy of Mao). Old scores were settled under the convenient and universally-available pretext of revolutionary zeal. The Red Guards, street punks, who in a saner society would have been in reform school, fought openly in the cities and the countryside. Other factions in other places went for each other’s jugulars, too (117). Once the violence had turned almost all-consuming, Mao stepped in and reminded the country that he was the arbiter of all force, for example overseeing a half-million-man army as it paraded through Tiananmen Square in 1967 with, out front of the goose-steppers, “an enormous silver-coloured, plastic figure of Mao pointing the way forward” (117-118). Either you were on Mao’s side, or you were a counter-revolutionary and thus marked for death. It was probably the most murderous and heavily populated personality cult of the twentieth century.
And it goes on today. As Dikötter notes, Mao’s “portrait still hangs high in Beijing, while his face beams from every banknote in the People’s Republic” (122). Not every cult of personality has a built-in stop-date with the leader’s death. Xi Jinping, many say, is the new Mao. In graduate school, I had professors who were proud to call themselves Maoists. (The professors fancied themselves philosophers—Mao wins again). So maybe cults of personality are also fungible when the circumstances are right and ambition burns brightly enough to outstrip restraint.
Kim Il-sung (1912-1994), the North Korean tyrant, was very different from Mao. Mao was sui generis, a man who had a Patton-like sense of his having been coughed up by Hegelian Geist and put on Earth to do the will of capital-H History. Kim was a Soviet puppet in the beginning, and then, when he and his clique ginned up a cult of personality in the 1950s, Kim became in many ways a plaything of the very political religion of which he was the putative apex. Mao inspired the Chinese people to police one another, to lacerate one another’s deepest thoughts so as to maintain a high-pitched devotion to the poet-philosopher in Beijing. Kim ruled with a secret police and labor camps (although Mao had plenty of both of his own), and was constantly, unlike Mao, going among his people to present the smiling face above the iron fist which kept everyone fearful and in line (131).
Kim also emulated Mao in some ways, to be sure, such as the 1958 “Chollima Campaign, named after a mythical winged horse that could gallop a thousand miles in a day… designed to propel North Korea into the future… without economic assistance from the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic” (133). This was, obviously, a Great Leap Forward with Chosen characteristics (133). And, like Mao, Kim was indifferent to the suffering of everyone but himself, for example doubling down on the “Juche Thought” campaign of self-reliance, even as North Koreans starved (135-136). The usual cycle of sycophancy followed, increasing in direct and inverse proportion to the failures of the dictator, and before long Kim was, like others of his profession, hailed as a “genius,” as this or that heavenly body, as a liberator and a force of history in his own right (136). Again, Mao redux.
But Kim could see that Mao was reckless, that the Cultural Revolution, for example, was “chaos” (136). Mao fought the Americans in North Korea, but Kim knew when to pull back from the brink. Kim skirted war with South Korea and with the United States in 1968, with his generals sending commandos to assassinate South Korean president Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) and seizing the USS Pueblo in the same year (137). But Kim was far too smart to push his luck any farther, and he settled for the fortress-socialism in one country of which his grandson is sole proprietor today. Mao left no dynasty. Kim did. Pro tip for those who would be dictators: as Celine Dion might have crooned, your cult can go on and on.
Dikötter doesn’t say so, but I cannot help but think that the cult of the Kims, which its inflationary rhetoric of loyalty-signaling and its gargantuan statues and other monuments to the three incarnations of the Kim dynasty thus far, is a kind of compensation for the failure of the Kimist revolution, despite its supporters’ bluster and bad behavior, to export communism anywhere, even to the other half of the Korean Peninsula. Communism was supposed to take over the world. In North Korea, it barely keeps a grip on the fifth-rate capital Pyongyang. Hence the huge statues, huge in the way that some older men buy red Ferraris. Also scarring is the fact that the Kims relied heavily on forced donations and forced repatriated labor from Japan (139). Perhaps this explains the Kims’ terrorist campaign of kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.
In any event, like Stalin, few truly grieved when Kim Il-sung died. “One five-year-old spat in her hand to wet her face with saliva, making it look as if she was crying,” Dikötter writes of average Koreans during the “ten-day mourning period” after Kim’s 1994 demise (144).
If Hitler and Mussolini are counterparts, political actors in the most literal sense, in Dikötter’s book, then so are his next two subjects. François Duvalier (1907-1971), dictator of Haiti, and Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-1989), sad-sack tyrant of Romania, seem equally out to sea in Dikötter’s telling, equally unaware of the political realities enveloping them and equally unable to control the flow of events as they unfolded.
Duvalier is by far the more fascinating psychological portrait of the two. On Dikötter’s reading, Duvalier saw himself as a kind of Voodoo paragon of blackness, a second act of the career of Dumarsais Estimé (1900-1953), under whom Duvalier had once served as “director general of the National Public Health Service” (147-148). Estimé was deposed by an upper-crust, army-backed military man named Paul Magliore (1907-2001) in 1950, but when Magliore met his inevitable fate in the turnstile of Haitian politics Duvalier was able to seize power and avenge his former mentor (147-149). Duvalier had his Hoffmann as well—American journalist Herbert Morrison (1905-1989), whom Duvalier appointed “director of public relations” (149). He also had his secret police, the fearsome “tonton macoutes, a Creole term for bogeymen” (151).
Duvalier also had something that perhaps no one else in How To Be a Dictator had, namely, a sincere, if clearly pathological, belief that he was, in all actuality, a living god, even God Himself. Duvalier disported himself in black like “Baron Samedi, the spirit of the dead and guardian of cemeteries” (151). He saw himself as a “houngan,” a Voodoo priest (151). But he didn’t stop there. “On radio,” Dikötter writes, “where his voice was heard regularly, Duvalier portrayed himself as the personification of God, exclaiming ‘and the word was made flesh’” (156). Later, “a poster appeared, showing Christ with his hands on the shoulder of a seated Duvalier: ‘I have chosen him’” (157). Duvalier idol-worshiped the former Haitian freedom fighter Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806), “who had declared himself emperor in 1804” (158). but he also seemed to think that he was a metaphysical force as well as a human or even world-historical one, “the spiritual leader of the black world” (159). He proclaimed that he was unafraid of weapons, because “bullets and machine guns capable of frightening Duvalier [(he had taken to referring to himself in the third person)] do not exist.… I am already an immaterial being” (156). Newsweek stated the obvious when it wrote that Duvalier was “utterly, irretrievably mad” (156).
Duvalier made the usual rounds of executions and terror-campaigns (161-162), but of all the dictators in Dikötter’s book, I am guessing that Duvalier’s body count was lowest. He executed his enemies and had others shot for good measure and to keep the people in line, of course. And the macoutes were a terror and a scourge to the average impoverished Haitian. But still, Duvalierism was, violence-wise, mild compared with the hecatombs offered up to, say, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. And yet, the terminology used to describe Duvalier, some of it virtually verbatim from Catholic teaching and liturgy only with Duvalier’s name transposed with that of the Deity, is surely the most outlandish of all. That Duvalier had outlawed the Catholic Church might explain, in part, his felt need, as perhaps it was, to act as understudy for the God he had exiled (151, 154).
Duvalier tried the dynasty thing, too. Like Kim Jong-Il, Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc,” turned out to be even more unsavory than his insane father. When Jean-Claude died in 2014, the Duvalier dynasty died with him.
In comparison with Duvalier, Nicolae Ceaușescu was a regular stick in the mud. Although he sat like a knob atop a nightmarish killing machine, Ceaușescu was as nondescript as surely any dictator in the twentieth century. His wife, Elena (1916-1989), was, it seems, the real hate behind the throne. Not that Nicolae was innocent, though. He was certainly party to, and in part author of, the horrors carried out in his name. But still Ceaușescu seemed too dense to understand what was going on around him. He sat by rather stupidly, acquiescing, for example, acquiescing as the most preposterous lines of obsequiousness were printed and read out loud about him. The communist paper Scinteia said of Ceaușescu, for example, that he was “Julius Caesar, Alexander of Macedonia, Pericles, Cromwell, Napoleon, Peter the Great and Lincoln… our lay God, the heart of the party and the nation” (174). On his sixtieth birthday, in 1978, Romanians fell over themselves to laud him: “He was ‘the measure of all beings and things in this blessed country called Romania’. He was the Christ-like incarnation of the people, ‘a body from the people’s body, a soul from the people’s soul’” (175). He was compared, in addition to the historical figures just listed, to “Mircea the Elder, Stephen the Great, Michael the Brave, all rulers of medieval Wallachia” (178). Ceaușescu was not floridly insane, like Duvalier, but he still went along with the political psalmody about him, smiling lamely and appearing only moderately discomfited by the idiocy surrounding him.
But even if Ceaușescu was all that the people and his government lackeys said he was, and more, the Romania over which he lorded it was in ruins, and getting worse. There was not enough food, not enough anything. As the economy collapsed and people went hungry and cold in the dark, the cult of personality surrounding Ceaușescu became ever more frantic (179). This is another very strong feature of cults of personality. “The greater the misery,” Dikötter pithily sums up the dynamic, “the louder the propaganda” (179). It was, ironically, Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-2022) who helped bring Ceaușescu down (183). Ceaușescu had always postured as a communist purist over and against the various heresies of the Soviet Union. Ceaușescu amped up this rhetorical line when Gorbachev came to power, with the latter’s talk of perestroika and his “la[ying] out a vision of democratisation in January 1987” (183). But by setting himself, and with himself the political destiny of Romania, against the historical tide, now turning in favor of democratic revolution instead of communist, Ceaușescu sealed his own fate (184). And that of Elena. In late 1989, Christmas Day to be exact, the husband and wife were shot. One day before that, during a disastrous speech, it had become apparent that the Ceaușescus had lost their psychological grip on Romania (185). Yet another cult of personality evaporated in a moment. Yet another living god had failed.
With Mengistu (1937- ) Dikötter comes to the last float in his sad dictator parade. I find the Mengistu float to be the least interesting, to be honest, even duller than that of Ceaușescu. Not that it was all bland. Mengistu—who may have had Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975) killed—later “had the emperor’s remains buried underneath his office, placing his desk right above the corpse (189). As should be apparent from this macabre revelation, Mengistu should be seen as a kind of Stalin, an unworthy slipping into an exalted shade. But there is something even more past-ripe about Mengistu than even Ceaușescu, the latter a diehard true-believing communist who, according to Dikötter, apparently sang the “Internationale” as the firing squad prepared to dispatch him and his wife. (Elena, we are told, remained in character to the end as well, shouting at the firing squad, “Fuck you!” ). Mengistu was railing against “feudalism,” unleashing the already-cliched “Red Terror” on Ethiopians, “modell[ing] himself on Fidel Castro,” and interpolating his revolutionary portrait among those of Engels, Lenin, and Marx (189, 191, 193, 195). It was all old hat before Mengistu even got started. By Mengistu’s day, a Marxist revolution was just hopelessly outdated.
But what was new was, I think, the global response to the horrific famine which Mengistu, his disastrous communist policies, and his obsessive persecution of war with Eritrea and with internal foes had caused (200-201). As the Eritrean forces reached within striking distance of Addis Ababa and Mengistu, revolutionary manque, fled to the protection of a much more interesting dictator, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (1924-2019), in 1991, the old Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist brand was already staler than week-old toast. What was increasingly in vogue was the kind of soft-pedaled globalism of the 1985 “We Are the World” celebrity charity campaign for all of Africa, a campaign held in large part to help the Ethiopian people survive the famine which their dictator had helped cause. The charity initiative countering Mengistu-ism was a new kind of internationalism, one driven by business, fashion, and PR. Personality cult was the essence of the Western schmaltz. Michael Jackson, himself a moonwalking demi-god, was in his hair-sprayed pantheon, and Mengistu was entirely outclassed. There is more than one kind of Marxism, and more than one kind of ready-made idiom of global control. Perhaps the revolution was televised after all.
And there is, as the King of Pop reminds us, more than one kind of personality cult. What I mean is that not all personality cults center on dictators. When we look back now and wonder how anybody could have been so slavish toward Ceaușescu or Stalin, perhaps we ought also to ask how anyone ever took seriously Kim Kardashian. Not that the latter is a dictator. But cult of personality is a funny thing, and hardly confined only to the hyperventilating world of theatrical politics. You buy toothpaste and automobiles because famous people tell you to. Don’t you?
Frank Dikötter’s How To Be a Dictator is, of course, not a how-to guide for the aspiring despot. But it is a reminder that human beings are the bearers of a pretty weird psychological makeup, and we are never really inured against becoming enablers of dictators in our own time. When a ruler rules through fear, many people will get by by flattering the ruler to save their own skins, or at a minimum keeping their heads down and playing along. That phenomenon became especially pronounced in the twentieth century, when mass media and concomitant advances in the organization of mass groups quickly gained in power. A dictator could, through his image and voice, be everywhere at once. His spies and informers, and jailers, could do the rest.
Dikötter thinks that dictators are on the wane. Is this true? To his great credit, Dikötter skirts the Trump question so handily that I was left wondering if the book was not a very subtle jab at those who spent the four years of the Trump Administration breathlessly insisting that we were on the verge of another Reichstag fire. Or perhaps Trump is to be made conspicuous by his absence.
Notice one more absence from Dikötter’s book: Vladimir Putin. Putin is a strong leader, that is unquestionable. But is he a dictator? He has no cult of personality, which would seem to go far, on Dikötter’s rubric, toward disqualifying Putin from dictator status. To argue in 2023 that Putin is not the Slavic Hitler, however, is to invite those who cultivate personality cults along the Potomac River to level charges of “disinformation,” “working for a foreign power,” and “undermining our sacred democracy.”
You can see, then, why I am not so sure I agree with Dikötter that dictatorship is on the way out. Communication technology is a couple orders of magnitude beyond what was available to opinion manipulators in, say, the 1930s. And as the Twitter Files have made clear, the conglomerates which throttle our communication are perfectly willing—eager—to cooperate with naked political power. Naked political power returns the favor. Want to know what’s really going on behind the media-Democrat-academic curtains? Try mentioning “Ukraine,” “vaccines,” or “FBI” in public and see what happens.
Also, one of Dikötter’s sub-themes in How To Be a Dictator is that dictators are often messiahs for people who have stopped believing in revealed religion. Unless the world recovers faith in God, we are all sitting ducks if anyone comes along promising this-worldly salvation. Anyone can be a dictator in a Godless country. Ask Joe Biden, kingpin of a crime family and occupier of a stolen office. But all is well, dear reader, in Washington. So saith the anchors of the evening news.
To my mind, How To Be a Dictator is much more than work of history. It is also a word of warning.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.
Featured: “Long Live! Long, Long Live Chairman Mao, the Reddest and Reddest Sun in Our Hearts!” Poster, ca. 1967.