January 24, 2009

The Giroux Affair

Philippe Giroux, a judge in the highest court in Burgundy in the 1630s, was in 1640 accused of murdering his own cousin Pierre Baillet and Baillet's valet, Philibert Neugot. He was furthermore accused of manufacturing evidence that a rival was a paedophile and rapist and suspicions hung over him that he had murdered his own wife in 1636, attempted to murder his mother in law and had had an adulterous affair with Baillet's wife, Marie Fyot. The trial took three years to come to a conclusion about Giroux, but the affair dragged on for several years with others like Fyot coming and going to court in Dijon and Paris. By the late 1650s, it was all over. Professor James Farr has written an excellent book about the whole process- which brings out several points I feel will be of interest.

Farr's research is extensive and relies heavily on the archival records of the trial- which are themselves profuse. In relying so, what he is able to do is to chart the process whereby Giroux was tried and imprisoned and later a verdict was found. His researches reveal the sources of power in 17th Century France. Giroux sat at the apex of Burgundian society in the 1630s, a client of the Prince de Conde, and a high official in a court that was presided over by his brother in law: his sources of official power were extensive. Thanks to his father Benoit's efforts he had also acquired substantial land holdings in Burgundy, a title and an impressive marriage into the local jurisprudential aristocracy. Giroux was able to use this power to acquire more: fees from his cases at the court for example allowed him to extend his land ownings. But also he was committed to serving his patrons, the Prince de Conde and those who stood beyond and above the Prince, the King of France and his Prime Minister, Richelieu.

The official lines of authority were one thing- but what Farr's extensive research makes clear is that here we see a combat between kin groups, client-groups which dominated the town of Dijon. These groups were based on family, patronage and employment patterns. Men like Giroux had patrons like Conde with whom they rose and fell and on whose support they depended: but Giroux too had a network of servants and friends within Burgundy who depended on his continuous success. When Giroux was imprisoned many of his servants were horrendously tortured- at least one died on the wheel (the most agonising death available to a seventeenth century man). You might fall when your patron fell- but equally you might fall if your patron lost interest in you. Giroux's fall is connected to the fact that by 1639-40 the Prince de Conde was beggining to lose interest in his protege: when Benoit went to attempt to save his son to see the Prince he was rejected and turned away. Giroux's enemies could strike as soon as the powerful shield of the Prince's influence was removed.

Politics was about the conjunction of official legal authority and that granted by patrons and client networks. The game of political intrigue though had two other characteristics. What people were battling for was money and land: a successful career meant a political career and could arouse envy, leading to the increase in numbers of enemies. For Giroux political abstention was not an option, rather for him and his family political and legal advance were dependent on each other. The converse to that is that political failure meant imprisonment or disgrace and death. The second issue that Farr highlights is the creation of a new political class: secular politics was shared now between noblemen like Conde and classically educated magistrates like Giroux. The rise of this class of individuals brought a change in morality- towards a neo-stoic idea of human behaviour which prioritised resistance to human passion and adherence to proffessional reason. Lastly this new class came to office at a time when France and Europe was reeling, from the effects of the disastrous wars of the century between 1550 and 1650 (the French Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War). Contemporary philosophy stressed the need for peace and the arts to maintain it: one might characterise Hobbes, Bodin and Grotius as major thinkers who dwelt on this subject and for them it meant the creation of an 'absolutist' state- the state that the likes of Giroux were to become the civil servants, lawyers and judges for.

Where does this leave us? What Farr's research cannot tell us is whether Giroux committed a murder- but what he does tell us is a more universal and in a sense more interesting point. He informs us about the way that Early Modern France and her legal system worked. Farr's work is an example of the way that crime can be useful for historians: a sensational case like the Giroux affair acts like a scalple, a society records its transactions and the reasons for them when prosecuting a member of the elite for a horrifying crime. It then reveals itself to the eager historian: and in a sense at the distance of several centuries what those revelations show is as interesting as the crime itself. Professor Farr's work is definitely interesting and well worth reading- he takes you through the case in a disciplined fashion and also explains what he feels are some of its trends. The case is interesting, the trends are fascinating and the research is impressive.

January 23, 2009

Henry Wallace's Chickens

Apologies for not posting much this week- a combination of illness, tiredness and being back at work led me to neglect the blog a little and tonight's article will not be a model of intellectual rigour. As I surfed the internet this evening, I found a rather interesting article on American Vice-Presidents- the job, turned down by many of the most notable citizens of the Republic, has been occupied sometimes by men whose conduct has excited disgust rather than respect. Most famously of all Aaron Burr left the Vice Presidency, fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton and was eventually prosecuted for treason. But there are ways of doing better after the Vice Presidency, succeeding more than Burr: one such success post Vice Presidency was Henry Wallace. Wallace was Roosevelt's second Vice President (1940-4) and a socialist: having failed to gain the Presidency for himself in 1948 and served a term as Secretary of Commerce, Wallace retired from politics and became an agricultural expert. He eventually bred a new type of chicken- a type that eventually became dominant in the agricultural chicken market.

Wallace's success in this new career prompts two thoughts. One is that Wallace was a uniquely American type of politician- he was the son of a former Cabinet member but before his first appointment to Roosevelt's cabinet (as Secretary of Agriculture in 1932) he was an innovative and successful farmer. Like Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Steven Chu or Alexander Haig, Wallace was a success outside as well as inside politics. As for example one would expect Rice to return to Stanford and continue her academic career, as Haig returned to command NATO and Chu will return to science, Wallace returned to agriculture. Perhaps as well though what Wallace's career demonstrates is that though Enoch Powell was right- that every political career ends in failure (and one might add that every career ends in retirement!)- that is not the end of people's productive and important lives. Wallace's subsequent career suggests to me the fallacy of assuming that anyone has one vocation or one career: that image is a falsehood. Wallace went through several transitions- he may have ended a socialist but he began a liberal Republican. We often assume consistency about people's lives by looking backwards through their lives- if we look forwards I think we see in Wallace an able man from outside politics coming into it for fifteen years and then leaving it and continuing to use his other talents, furthermore we see a person whose career was not exactly predictable- liberal Republican turns to Democrat and becomes too leftwing for Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman.

Wallace's career reminds one of how unpredictable careers are and how unpredictable history is. Henry Wallace deserves remembering in history not merely for his fairly successful political career- but for his amazing career as a chicken breeder.

January 22, 2009

Great Books

The thesis that Great Books are the source of education is one that has a long historical pedigree: one particular facet of that debate is explored in a book reviewed in the city journal recently. But regardless of that article, it is a debate which is worth having. I have a problem with a great books approach- not because I think great books should not be read (the thesis that Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Hobbes, Smith, Rousseau, Kant, Marx, Mill, Nozick and the rest are wiser than the average citizen, average student, academic or dare I say it blogger is one that I do not object to at all) but because you cannot understand great books appropriately without reading them in context.

The arguments that I will make here are more fully developed by Quentin Skinner. Essentially you can view every book or argument as existing on its own- and also as existing within a context. Every book has a long context and a short context. Take Hobbes- his Leviathan is definitely based on a reading of Thucydides (he translated the Greek historian after all) and Aristotle, mentioned in the text. But Hobbes's Leviathan is also based, as Professor Skinner has discussed, on arguments going on at the same time between theorists like Francis Rous the younger and Anthony Ascham about the nature of political promises. You cannot understand Hobbes without understanding that he was deliberately responding to both kinds of debate. Even better take a text like Locke or one of Plato's dialogues, both of these are not merely implicitly aimed at contemporary debates, but explicitly. Locke's Treatises are directed against Sir Robert Filmer. Plato's characters in his dialogues are often contemporary philosophical figures: it would be stupid not to realise that Plato was in dialogue with those philosophers.

Context is important- both for understanding what a text was written for and to understand what the words within a text actually mean (even if a text is doing something with those words which attack the contemporary definitions- Hobbes and natural law is a great example). On the other hand, there is another principle we should not forget: we should not fence in great texts behind walls of obscurity. I have no problem with the term middle brow- and indeed the more people read these texts the better. That is because the texts often do something to the people who read them: Livy for instance is a text who I only know in isolation (I have read a smattering of other Roman sources) but it is one that is enriching my mind at the moment, provoking my historical instincts and giving me food for thought. Learning is hard- but we only stop the process by suggesting that there are two alternatives absolute knowledge (for which context is indispensible) and absolute ignorance: actually learning is a process as well as a destination and the process is personally important. If we recognise that then we can see that a great books approach is a good didactic tool- go out and read Cicero and Plato and Locke and Rousseau- but as well go deeper and read around, read the historians who have studied the context and the sources which are the context ultimately of the great books you read.

January 19, 2009

Plunder and War

After repeated Volscian provocations, the Romans eventually invaded and despoiled Volscian territory: Livy describes the differences between what the Romans and Volscians did in this way,

The Roman devastation of the land was consequently quite unlie the sporadic forays made by the Volscians who, like bandits, relied on disagreements between their enemies, but feared their courage, and acted in nervous haste; it was carried out by a regular army in lawful retaliation and did more damage because it was not pressed for time. The Volscians had in fact limited their incursions to frontier regions, for fear that any minute an army might march out from Rome. The Romans on the other hand had a further reason for lingering in enemy territory; they hoped to provoke the Volscians to give battle. And so they burnt down all the farm buildings everywhere and even some of the villages, left not a single fruit tree nor an ear of corn standing to give hope of a harvest, took off as booty all the men and cattle outside the town walls, and then brought both armies back to Rome. (VI 31)

The Romans were obviously, if we believe Livy's account, more vicious than their Volscian enemies: the impact of a Roman raid was deeper than the impact of a Volscian incursion. The real issue is why. Livy offers us an answer- which is that the Volscians feared a Roman army more than the Romans feared a Volscian. He bases this argument upon the fact that Rome was a civic society whereas the Volscians were an agrarian one. This suggestion deserves our attention- however even if we accept Livy's social division I think we can go further than the Roman historian in attributing reasons behind his observed distinction.

Two things instantly come to mind. The first is that the purpose of the Volscian invasion was not neccessarily the same as the purpose of the Roman invasion. Livy may, reading his sources, be confusing Volscian invasions with Volscian cattle raids: raids across the border which sought plunder and had no political purpose. It seems to me pretty obvious that this would be the basis for much interraction between Roman and barbarian across whichever frontier that they lived upon. On the other hand, the action that Livy describes is the civic response to those raids- a punitive expedition which is designed to punish and not merely to plunder. The first kind of invasion is a quick attack for the purpose of gathering booty- as soon as you have your goods, your interest is to get back to enjoy the proceeds of your raid. The second expedition is designed to punish the raiders- and so you go as deep as you can and punish as much as you can. The second thing, tied to the first, is that the Romans may have been much more coordinated than the Volscians- they had an army as opposed to a raiding band and so their damage could have been organised, instead of a matter of whim. With a more methodical approach, more devastation could be achieved: organised violence can be more focussed and hence more damaging than disorganised violence.

The basis for Livy's point is his division between civic and barbarian societies: he may not at this point in Roman history be right- indeed I would suggest that Livy is still writing without evidence particularly without the Volscian side of the story. More often than not, I would suggest, he bases these ideas upon his own knowledge, gathered through conversations with Augustan commanders about their relations with Germans on the frontier. Be wary though of the dichotomies that Livy invokes: it may be that really what we are looking at is not so much the dichotomy of ability to commit violence between these two types of society as a dichotomy of intention. As I have suggested if you intend to gather wealth, then devastation is an incidental byproduct, if you intend to punish then devastation is your first principle and hence you are going to devastate more. There may be organisational differences as well- but this point explains the cowardice of the Volscians better than any story of Roman bravery: Volscians retreated before an army because their purpose was to get plunder, not to fight, the Romans sought to fight because they wished to destroy the raiding capacity of the Volscians.

In this sense, I think, if we unpick Livy's narrative, we can both see his assumptions (the virtues of civic society) and also the reasons that lie behind some of what he observed (of the Volscian-Germans) : it may not always be that societies differ in courage or moral intention, but it may be that their activities have different consequences because they have different purposes. The Volscians sought to gather goods, the Romans sought to punish them for gathering goods and that explains the difference in their actions when on enemy territory and also the different impact of their raiding.

January 18, 2009

Marcus Manlius Rex

Tyranny and Kingship in Livy's view are not so distinct from democracy. Rome's constitution included a democratic element though it was a republic- and as we have seen the people within Rome were incredibly important to the proper functioning of that republic. This though establishes a problem within Livy's thought. If tyranny and democracy are related, then how can the Roman Republic which is partly a democracy hope to survive. Livy in my view was aware of this issue- obviously as a historian he does not need to provide a complete answer- indeed he could have argued that the events of his father's generation (Clodius, Catilina and Caesar) demonstrated the real danger of the demos overthrowing the constitution- but what he did need to show was how the Republic might survive a democratic and tyrannical challenge. The tale of the rise and fall of Marcus Manlius- whose importance within the history of money we have dealt with already- gives us an interesting indication of what Livy thought: both because the tale contains the most explicit appeal yet to the democratic power of the tyrant and just as importantly because it contains the most important answer- from the Roman tribunes- to the arguments of the tyrant.

Marcus Manlius makes his appeal to the citizens of Rome based upon their own circumstances- they have been enslaved by debt collectors and usurers. The substance of his allegations need not concern us for the minute- it is his solution to the problems that I think is more interesting. Livy gives him a speech (as it was delivered within the house of a secret conspiracy, I think we can be pretty sure that Livy had no way of knowing what this speech contained) and that speech gives us Manlius's political doctrine. Manlius calls on the people to create for him a 'more striking title of authority and honour' than dictatorship or the consulship, he can only be thinking in the context of the royal title. (VI 19) He calls for them to do this because he suggests that 'it is easier to establish rule over the patricians than it was to establish resistance to their rule' (VI 19). His argument is that the patricians will always win, despite the parchment barriers they have erected to abuses, in any contest between the classes because they control the instruments of state. Manlius, with Livy as his temporary ventriloquist, is suggesting that the democratic cause can only be protected by dictatorship- because only then can class differences be levelled- only through tyranny can the plebeians attain liberty.

The argument against him is most powerfully stated by Quinctius Publilius. Speaking to the Senate, again with ventriloquist Livy at his service, Publilius says,

Why are we turning into a conflict between the senate and the people what should be no more than the action of the state against a single obnoxious individual? Why involve the people in our attack on him, when it is safer to attack him by means of the people, so that he will collapse under the weight of his own strength?

The point that Publilius is making is important because ultimately it is the argument which carries force with Livy. It is that the actions of Manlius are in reality about himself- they are the actions of a proud man who uses the people, who gives them a temporary respite in order to create a party and a tyranny and then will like Tarquin before him desert them. Of course on this occasion, the Roman people see through Manlius's disguise- Livy judges that the charges must have been 'convincing' and that the people judged Manlius to have been a traitor (VI 19). The real sorrow over Manlius's death, Livy tells us, was not because anyone was not converted by the senate's arguments but because of the military courage of the accused, his courage in aiding the defeat of the Gauls made the Commons blanche before they passed the sentence of death, but after a pause, they did pass that sentence. What he shows in this episode is that Manlius's arguments, his blandishments are defeated because it is proven that he seeks for tyranny and not the popular good: he voices the popular good but the people were in the end convinced that he only does that for his own aggrandisment.

We see here Livy develop two themes of his history. The story of Manlius with his rise, and eventual and quite literal fall (he was pushed off the Tarpeian rock to his doom) serves as a means to explain something that Livy wants us to understand. He wants us to appreciate three points: firstly that tyranny has an appeal, particularly to the democratic elements in Rome. Secondly he wants us to appreciate that despite that, on this occasion, the constitutional establishment were able to trump that appeal with the revelation that the tyrant sought only his own good and not that of Rome. Lastly Livy wants us to see the value of this myth of Rome within Roman society: it promoted stability and constitutionalism against threats from those who would seek civil war. The issue that Livy was never able to answer- though I reckon he pondered through the form of his history- was why the argument that he thought had succeeded against Manlius failed later.