Federalist Number Six

John Jay had contributed several papers in which he described how small disunited nations may fall prey to the great powers of Europe. All thirteen colonies together were puny compared with the great states across the Atlantic and the danger was very real. As his colleague had written of the menace from foreign powers, Hamilton will argue that the states by themselves, or small nations composed of only a few states will be a danger to each other.

He assumes that the government of these small nations will be democratic. If most of the North American continent is broken up into small republics, some will argue that democratic states are less warlike than monarchies or oligarchies, and that these republics will live side by side peaceably if not amicably.

Hamilton does not think so, and he appeals first to reason and then to experience. The causes for hostility among nations are general and perpetual. The lust for power, the thirst for preeminence and supremacy, the envy of those richer or more prominent, fear of an ancient enemy or possible aggressor, the desire of commercial nations to hold markets exclusively or not to be shut out of markets already held by a competitor, religious strife, unfortunate yet binding alliances, and the list goes on. These are all passions that may move a king, but they may equally move a first or foreign minister, and they may move the common body of the citizenry. Because of its greater mass and deeper passions, a leviathan may be swifter and more implacable in its anger than any solitary individual.

In the midst of enumerating the reasons democratic states may go to war, Hamilton goes into a digression in which several women figure prominently. He declares that, in compliance with the resentments of a prostitute, Pericles attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the Samnians. This sent me to my Plutarch, and in his life of Pericles, Plutarch reports, several centuries later, that there was a rumor current in Athens that Pericles had proposed the war against the Samnians upon the entreaty of Aspasia.

Mesdames Maintenon and Pompadour also make his list of war-mongering women, and as for them I have nothing to say at present but I may research the matter. The Duchess of Marlborough is also mentioned. Queen Anne had loved her as a sister and perhaps more, and that favor was invaluable to the commander of her armies and the first minister of her government in waging the war against France. However, the Duchess always argued when she might have cajoled. She ceaselessly and stridently advanced the interests of a Whig party Anne abhorred. Her endless declamations and disputations cooled the royal favor, and when her place was taken by a rival whom she herself had raised up, her jealous denunciations turned Anne’s love to hatred. Her fall and the influence of the new favorite allowed certain politicians to betray the Allies and make a dishonorable peace which enriched them but disgraced their country. I’ll say no more of that but refer the reader to Churchill’s magisterial biography and conclude by observing that a female influence usually tempers rather than inflames male pugnacity.

Returning from these digressions, some will still maintain that the spirit of commerce, and the habit of peaceful transactions that accompanies it, will make men gentler, more reasonable, and less belligerent. Hamilton answers that commerce has done nothing to banish war or even make it less frequent but merely changes its motives and objects. Men will fight for wealth as readily and perhaps less creditably as for honor and glory. Citing experience as the least fallible guide to human opinions, Hamilton now turns from reason to experience.

Sparta, Rome, Athens, and Carthage were all republics, the last two commercial republics as well, and they were almost always at war. Venice was a commercial republic that continually fought not only the Turks but the other city-states of Italy. Both Holland and Great Britain became great maritime trading countries, and they fought one another and other rivals for dominion over the oceans. Merchants will clamor for war if victory will secure their shipping routes and open new markets to their goods. The sanguinary adventures of the East India Company came after Hamilton’s time but had they fallen under his eye, they would certainly be presented as further evidence.

It may be objected that the modern democracies of Europe have lived in peace for generations and that while all of this may have been true in the past; everything has changed. Such optimism must be dampened by recalling that the period, nearly a century long, between Waterloo and the guns of August was one of the most peaceful and prosperous in the entire history of that small yet turbulent continent. Unless some good reason can be furnished why these democracies are so much tamer than their predecessors, the current peace may be nothing more than a run of luck. In flipping a coin, heads may come up thirty times in a row, and induction may leap to believe that tails is no longer within the realm of possibility and that heads will turn up forever. The human mind tends to distrust and disbelieve in runs that go counter to probability but they do occur. Unless some reason can be given why the effect is necessary, the cause can be nothing but a series of accidents.

Toward the end of the paper, Hamilton remarks:

that it is from long observation of the progress of society become a sort of axiom in politics, that vicinity or nearness of situation, constitutes nations natural enemies.

Maybe it isn’t necessary that nations who share a border become enemies. The United States and Canada have shared peacefully shared a very long border for over two centuries without fighting. Yet it is possible, and if two neighboring countries grow to dislike one another, their friction will be continual and inescapable.

I will end with a quote not from one of the framers of the Constitution but from its greatest interpreter:

Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face; and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory, after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make law? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends?

Bells, Runways, Stark Reunions, and Love Scenes

Nearly all of us, whether in television or in a movie, have watched a situation in which two actresses are running lines from a love scene, and after uttering professions of passion, devotion, and everlasting fidelity, one or both of them will collapse into laughter. Shaking her head, and finally catching her breath after her fit of giggling, she wonders what sort of imbecile can write such nonsense and how they can possibly recite such drivel in front of an audience without ruining their careers. I remember one scene just like this from one of the later seasons of Mad Men in which Don Draper’s second wife, an aspiring actress, mocks the pages she’s been sent and despairs of ever performing anything so ridiculous?

Going through these derided scenes, word by word, line by line, what exactly is so terrible? Show, don’t tell is one of the few really useful maxims applied to writing, so are these passages are full of adjectives like: steely, piercing, ravishing, or irresistible. No, in the instance just mentioned and most others, the prose is quite lean. Furthermore, there are no obvious solecisms or mistakes in usage. Then what is it that is so mediocre or contemptible in these scenes that the actresses shudder to perform them? In every case, the scene is read all by itself, and it consists of two names, names without faces, names of complete strangers, names that don’t bear the weight of any regret, pain, loss, or confusion. These two phantoms sigh out their passion, swear to be true forever, weep to be parted, and every word of it is dreary.

Tender love scenes, sweet reunions, and anguished partings don’t twist and tear our hearts because of the beauty and precision of the language. There are no insights into the human condition, no observations on love, no profound wisdom in what the characters are saying. Nothing needs to be said. When Jon Snow walks out and sees Sansa Stark standing in the courtyard, he rushes down the stairs and she runs to him, throwing herself in his arms. As Jon picks up his sister and holds her, grown men and their less stoic wives and girlfriends alike weep together. We are so deeply moved by what is happening only because what has already happened. We have seen these two mocked, held captive, manipulated, beaten, stabbed, fleeing from certain death. We have seen them suffer so much that if they somehow live, they may survive but they can never again find happiness. That hug lasts for only a few seconds. It takes fifty some hours of superb storytelling to buy those few seconds.

A story needs to build up an enormous emotional charge to allow such a huge, and yet brief release. That flash of joy is the result of hours of despair, fatigue, pain, grief, loss, regret, and every other shadow that has ever darkened the human soul. Has anything ever been more silly and mawkish than the ending to It’s a Wonderful Life? It should be laughable but instead it’s devastating. That ending exhilarates us because of the dark story that’s just unfolded. The film has its lighter moments, high school seniors jump into a swimming pool, Donna Reed huddles naked in a bush, Sam Wainwright can’t refrain from incessantly blatting ‘hee-haw’.

Yet there is far more darkness than light, and the most frivolous and light-hearted moments are haunted by death. One moment, George is holding an empty bathrobe, relishing a very interesting situation, the next he’s rushing to his father’s deathbed. One moment, children are sledding on a hill, the next one of them nearly drowns in an icy pond. We sometimes forget that a grief-stricken pharmacist nearly poisons innocent children. We forget George Bailey shaking his uncle by the collar, berating him, shrieking about prison and ruin and scandal. We forget George’s smoldering resentment, his dreams relinquished for the sake of a town remarkable only for its ingratitude, a town that George both loves and hates. Frank Capra’s shading is impeccable. He can’t make Bedford Falls into a Gomorrah but he makes sure that there are almost no profusions of gratitude to take away from the ending. George gives up college to run the Building and Loan and the sacrifice is mentioned only right before he’s called upon to make a second terrible sacrifice. He gives away the money for his honeymoon to once again save the Building and Loan, and the depositors seem quite pleased by the deliverance, but they don’t bother to thank their deliverer. Capra doesn’t want to make his characters monsters of ingratitude, and Martini and Gower are sincerely grateful and loyal to George, but he’s sparing with the appreciation holding nearly everything back for the ending. Because It’s a Wonderful Life is a story about poverty and loss, dreams deferred and then destroyed, that beautiful ending is overwhelming.

Think back to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman standing on the runway as the propellers that will carry her away forever splutter to life behind them. The words he speaks, by themselves are quite ordinary, and if read aloud by someone who’d knew nothing about the movie, they’d seem unremarkable.

Rick: I’m saying it because it’s true.  Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor.  You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.  If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with it you’ll regret it.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Ilsa: What about us?

Rick: We’ll always have Paris.  We didn’t have-we lost it-we lost it until you came to Casablanca.  We got it back last night.

Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you…

Rick: And you never will.  I’ve got a job to do too.  Where I’m going, you can’t follow.  What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of.   I’m no good at being noble but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.  Someday you’ll understand that.  Not now.  Here’s looking at you kid.    

These words are meaningful because of the themes of duty, sacrifice, and the clash of good and evil so masterfully evoked in what has come before. Their idyllic yet perhaps selfish tryst in Paris, the figure of Victor Laslow, the Marsellaise out-throating Die Wacht am Rhein in the cafe. Every line, every image, every scene has led up to this goodbye. Two people who love one another, and whom we love, must give up their lives together and their happiness to do the right thing.

As a fan of Joss Whedon, I can’t help but close with Buffy and Angel. We have seen Buffy and Angel fight together and fight one another. We have seen her run a sword through him and hurl him into hell to save the world. Every great joke, every brilliant line, every superb scene from the first episode to this, has brought them closer and closer together, and bonded us to them as well. That narrative momentum makes the simplest declarations of love heart-rending.

Angel: No matter what, I’ll always be with you.

Buffy: How am I supposed to go on with my life, knowing what we had, what we could have had?

Buffy: I felt your heart beat.

Angel: I love you.

Buffy: I love you.

Angel: Nothing will ever change that.  Not even death.

The words themselves are short, often used, and unremarkable. The sentences are simple, with none of the mirroring, balancing or antitheses of the rhetorical arts. But these words are now imbued with an immense force, and all Joss Whedon must do is not to ruin the effect he’s labored season after season to create. It may seem a thankless chore that it costs him thousands and thousands of words carefully chosen and perfectly arranged to make a few dozen resound, but these fleeting outpourings of grief or joy are earned only by hard work, sweat, and pages and pages of stupendous story-telling. Joss Whedon’s a writer and that’s the price every writer must pay, but I’m sure he feels such moments are worth that price.

Of Pedantry

Pedant is a term of opprobrium but the pedant is more a figure of ridicule than of menace. Yet what is a pedant? A phony is a person who appears to respect or care for someone else only for their own advantage, and a sadist is a person who takes sensual pleasure in the pain of another. These faults seem clear and are generally agreed upon but what exactly is the fault of a pedant? By most accounts, the failing somehow pertains to knowledge.

Perhaps the pedant is someone who has acquired great knowledge and has become proud and overbearing in his erudition. There are some who are very beautiful and are supercilious and disdainful to those not as beautiful as themselves. There are also some who are very rich and they are arrogant and domineering because of that wealth. Such individuals are rightly the objects of general reprehension. The beautiful may take some pains to maintain that beauty, but its possession is an accident of birth, a drawing in the genetic lottery, and we take it very ill if those who’ve been so lucky are inconsiderate to those not so fortunate. The rich are often born already wealthy, and while some become wealthy through great talent, ingenuity, or industry, some others become wealthy through luck or nefarious dealings. Nobody is born into great erudition, and while some learn more quickly than others, the attainment of great knowledge comes only with intense and prolonged effort. We can imagine some scholar who believes that those not as learned are dolts and sluggards and while we should find such a man very disagreeable, he is haughty and scornful rather than pedantic. Furthermore, the amassing of great knowledge is usually considered ennobling and productive of humility and even wisdom.

The word pedant carries a suggestion that the knowledge is somehow flawed. Flawed doesn’t mean entirely erroneous and none of the many pedants portrayed in fiction have ever been wrong about every single fact. Their knowledge is somehow flawed but it isn’t simply mistaken on every point. Instead of being false, the stock of erudition is somehow vain or silly. A great store of information can be quite useless if it’s merely a great jumble of trivial facts. Lists of dates, genealogies, statistics, and other heaps of data compiled on a page can be useless if they don’t bear on anything and if they hold no organic unity. Yet these great assemblages of facts with no connection are daunting to memorize. Why will anyone take on such a monumental mnemonic feat with nothing to gain from it? Nevertheless, we are drawing closer. Pedantry isn’t the storing up of useless knowledge but the misuse of knowledge.

Kant enjoined that in our actions we must treat another person not only as a means but also as an end in himself. We must similarly treat our knowledge not only as an end but also as a means. People often confuse ends and means. The pedant makes knowledge an end in itself, when it should be both a means and an end, much like the miser makes money, which should be only a means to an end, into an end in itself. The purpose of money is to provide us against hunger, sickness, and discomfort. Yet the miser will starve himself to add to his treasure. He will endure any privation or indignity if he can heap up more money. He will eat bad food and live in squalor, making himself sick, and he will worsen and die before spending some of his precious wealth on medicine. The money that was the means to his health, comfort, and happiness becomes his master and destroyer.

We seek to know so we may better cope with the world around us. Great learning is a treasure, but we shouldn’t hide it away, guard it, and slumber upon it, like some avaricious dragon. Knowledge is a means as well as an end, and it is only valuable if it also useful. Grammar furnishes many notable instances of pedantry. The purpose of grammar is not to make ourselves understood but to make it impossible for us to be misunderstood. As Wittgenstein observed, the laws of language are very much like the rules of a game. Yet in a game like chess, the number and the roles of the pieces are fixed. In a living language, words sometimes die away but more frequently they are born. A language will need to contend with entirely new words and come up with rules for them.

What if new pieces emerged in the game of chess? What will be done with these new pieces? Will the board be enlarged or will the pieces be assembled in three rows rather than just two? Let’s take one of these new pieces and call it the raven. How will the raven move, straight or diagonally? Can it move many spaces until impeded? Can it overleap its own fellows like the knight? No. The raven will be limited to move one space diagonally and it will also capture in the same manner. Can it move two spaces on its very first move? Yes. If it advances to the very last row, can it become any other piece like the pawn? That will soon lead to a proliferation of queens. From now on, the raven can become a queen, and the pawns can become only a rook when reaching the last row. The introduction of the raven has changed the pawn, because some of the functions of the pawn are now redundant.

Like this example from chess, languages must adapt to use new elements. When a new word arises it sometimes reduplicates the work of an existing word, and that existing word is shifted to meet another purpose. The rules of grammar serve to use these elements to the utmost advantage. Grammar serves communication, but pedantry makes communication serve grammar. The word ‘hopefully’ is frequently used to modify a situation. The rules of grammar insist that the adverb ‘hopefully’ should pertain only to the actions of an agent who is hopeful. In English prose, the occasions when such a usage are needed are very few. The occasions when a situation needs to be characterized in this way are many, yet a strict adherence to the established rules of grammar will force the writer to resort to something like, “It is to be hoped that…”. Forbidden one useful adverb, the sentence begins with a flotsam of pointless, forgettable little words. To avoid such periphrastic nightmares, writers should break these laws and the grammar police may issue a warrant for their arrest.

Taking one more example from grammar, it is a famous, or rather infamous, rule that one should never end a sentence with a preposition. In writing prose or poetry, there is good reason for doing so whenever possible. The second most important word in a sentence is the first, and the most important is the last. Much of the immense power of Milton’s blank verse lies in the forceful and vivid words he uses to begin and end a line. Ideally, the first and last word of a sentence should be strong and memorable. Yet this is not always possible, and if obeying means dislocating the phrasing so that the meaning is unintelligible, the rule should be broken. Moreover, the injunction is given without any explanation. There is a good reason but it isn’t given, and the rule is set down as if were an arbitrary statute set down merely to be vexatious.


Not merely rules of grammar, but whole bodies of thought may become pedantic. When the scholars of the late Middle Age in Christendom and the Caliphate, rediscovered the writings of Aristotle, they were dazzled by the new vistas displayed before them. These works, the Prior and Posterior Analytics, the History of Animals, the Mechanics, even the Physiognomics posed questions they had not thought to ask. They were stimulated by his example to ask these very questions for themselves and the manner in which the Stagirite had attacked them suggested fruitful lines of inquiry. But eventually, the difficulty of these problems and the scanty progress made in their solution in comparison with their classical predecessors began to discourage them. They still followed Aristotle in his investigations but they came more and more to accept his conclusions. The thinker who had been an inspiration ultimately became an authority.

Once Aristotle was generally accepted, Thomas Aquinas made it his life’s work to combine his philosophy with the truths of Scripture. He found Aristotle to be right on a great number of matters but never took him to be inerrant. Yet this immense body of secular wisdom should be a complement to the revealed truth of religion. This critical combining was later taken, in its entirety to be the official doctrine of the Church and Thomas Aquinas was canonized as the Angelic Doctor.

Many profound thinkers have been dreamy and abstracted in their meditations, and this has led them into accidents and embarrassments. Adam Smith was sometimes lost in his musings as he walked, and on one occasion he walked a great distance as he meditated, and when coming back to himself he found that he was come to a remote area and could only get back home by another long and wearying march. Thales was another dreamy rambler and he once became so lost in contemplation that he walked himself into a large hole. A pretty serving girl happened by and rescued him, but as his rescuer felt entitled to reprove him as she pulled him back up, asking how he can know what is passing in the firmament above if he’s ignorant of what lies at his feet. The great sophist almost certainly felt somewhat sheepish about this incident and this may have lead to another of the legends told about him. Thales was a meteorologist of some skill, and it is recounted that one year his observations led him to be quite sure that the next season’s olive harvest would be stupendous. He bought up every olive press he could acquire, and his prediction turned out to be accurate. The harvest was the greatest within living memory and he made an enormous profit. This venture into agriculture was meant to show that his search for knowledge wasn’t some harmless yet also useless eccentricity. He was seeking the governing principles of the universe, and these secrets were great truths valuable in themselves, but they were also immensely powerful and could yield tremendous benefits.

Thales, and those who later took up the same quest like Leibniz, took pains to show that their recondite researches allowed them to pursue the more practical and lucrative callings of statecraft, finance, and commerce with greater success than their more experienced and worldly practitioners. They needed to show that their thought wasn’t a pointless caviling over terms and definitions with no bearing on the real world. They needed to show they weren’t pedants because pedantry isn’t the failing of a bygone age or an alien and eccentric civilization but a recurring and dangerous tendency in our species. Texts that have revealed great discoveries are rightly revered, but we must always remember that they are a conduit to truth and not its apotheosis.

The French as Allies

The French have been making war with varying fortunes for over fourteen centuries. Over that span, they have won stunning victories and suffered spectacular defeats. The names Agincourt and Waterloo are household words to the English-speaking peoples; the names Castillon and Fort Dusquesne less so. Jena and Rossbach, Rocroi and Vitoria, Tours and Crecy, the Marne and Blitzkrieg, the list of triumphs and disasters rolls on and on. While success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, the paternities of Charles Martel, Turenne, Conde, Vauban, Davout, and de Gaulle are incontestable.

Military leaders do their utmost to learn from history, but these lessons are often more than simply unhelpful, they can be deceiving. The past is our only measure of the future, and it should be consulted, but with the greatest caution, and never taken for a reliable guide. Those who fail to learn from history often overcome those who cleave to it. Technology changes. The soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars were gorgeously appareled because they blasted away at one another at close range with wildly inaccurate muskets. The splendor of their uniforms fortified them in these appalling encounters and these peacocks were less likely to break than their dowdier foes. A weapon with a rifled barrel that can be loaded quickly (by the standards of the nineteenth century musket) meant the appearance of the sharpshooter and the disappearance of these dazzling hussars, cuirassiers, and grenadiers. Fortified and entrenched positions were inexpugnable during the First World War and the Somme, Passchendaele, and Ludendorff’s final desperate offensives tore apart generations to gain only a few miles of blasted moonscape. In the next war, Eben-Emael has fallen and Panzers are roaring across these same battlefields.

Such wildly unequal results are not exclusive to French arms. The descendants of Gaius Marius and Scipio Africanus surrendered in the thousand to bemused Tommies in North Africa. In War and Peace, Prince Bolkonsky, unwilling to concede the greatness of Napoleon as a general or the might of his Grand Armee, sniffs that he won all his great victories over mere Germans. Cortes and less than seven hundred Spaniards overthrew the Aztec Empire. The Soviet juggernaut hurled itself against tiny Finland and shattered. Hitler reviewed this miserable performance and learning the lessons of the past, was confirmed in his contempt for the fighting qualities of the Russian peasant, and this gave him the confidence he needed to gamble on conquering the Soviet Union within a few months.

It can be puzzling to understand how the few can overcome the many, or how one army can slaughter another with almost no losses. The most obvious and tempting explanations are cowardice and ineptitude. Yet the members of our species are nearly identical in genotype, phenotype, neurology physiology, psychology, and temperament. For an entire nation to collapse is the result of special circumstances and wherever these pertain, in whatever age and to whatever nation, defeat is certain. To face something strange, baffling, and frightening can break a people’s will to resist. Whether it’s iron men mounted on monsters, or Heinz Guderian’s panzer divisions, shock, terror, and confusion will drive all before them.

The other main reason a people don’t fight is that they don’t want to. Soldiers who have no wish to leave their own country and plunge into a strange land will falter in the attack. These same troops may fight to the death in defense of their own soil. Subjects who feel that they are fighting for rulers who don’t care about them, and for reasons that have nothing to do with them, will flee or surrender at the first opportunity. The Czechs, Hungarians, Italians, Serbians, and Romanians conscripted into the armies of the Austrian Empire were no match for patriots fighting for their own motherland. There is a reason the Austrian Hapsburgs compiled such a dismal military record and why they gained their ends through diplomacy and marriage rather than force of arms. The poor, unheard, neglected, and disenfranchised will never be fervid to fight for oil, sugar, or empire.

The causes of crushing, humiliating defeat are baffling, and they are also fleeting. Most Americans are aware of the French collapse before Hitler’s legions in 1940. They had tanks as good as those of the Germans but didn’t group them together into strike forces. They didn’t trust their impregnable Maginot Line sufficiently to let the fortifications fend for themselves. They discounted the possibility of a German onslaught through the Ardennes forest. When the enemy was racing toward their capital, they neglected the most basic measure of blowing up their gas stations. Their mistakes were many and these led to their own conquest and occupation. France fell and moated England was left to ponder the magnitude of the disaster and the reasons for it. They, and their American allies returned to liberate France. Americans never seem to tire of reminding the French of this deliverance or sneering at their humiliation. There is no profit in this but there is great peril. You can hardly call a man a coward and then be surprised when he hates you.

From the American Revolution to the entry of the United States into the First World War, the bitterest animosity prevailed between the US and Great Britain. The English were a feared and hated enemy. They are now a trusted and treasured ally. Perhaps no such conciliation is possible between the United States and France. Perhaps the two nations are too dissimilar for there to be any real understanding or friendship between them. The two countries may never be friends, but in this world, they must be allies. They share too many enemies. The United States and France are two of the important, most powerful, and most regarded examples of modern republics. Tolerant of dissent, suffering all faiths, orientations, and beliefs, upholding the rights of all their citizens, they are a beacon in the darkness and a vision of what is possible. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not only rivals but inveterate and violent enemies. For now, the most obvious and dangerous are a backward, belligerent, and nuclear Russia, and the theocratic and savage Islamic State. Should these be tamed or succumb, there will be others to take their place. It is regrettable but the world is a dangerous place, and it will probably always be a dangerous place. The taunting of the French should be stopped, not only because it’s petty and ungracious, but because no nation, no matter how powerful, can afford to spurn an ally.