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Letters to Margaret Fisher

Since so far you are the only person in sight who might read my meandering writings, I thought it might be useful to outline where I might go if I live long enough to go there.

In the beginning, anthropologists tell us, the human species came from Africa. That seems to pre-date any written records, so we may never know how homo sapiens emerged triumphant from the Neanderthals and other competitive homos. So, what we call civilization seems to have emerged from the African migrants to that corner of three continents coming together, called the Middle East. There were Hittites and Assyrians and all manner of other tribes, and it sounds as though the Phoenicians invented commerce, the Lydians invented money, and various other claims and counterclaims. But the Athenian and the Hebrew traditions seemed to have survived in some larger form to the present time, so they pose the main claim to having invented civilization. I gather there were lots of tribes roaming Asia, and maybe there were tribes roaming the two American continents, so we resort to saying Athens invented Western Civilization, but of course it was more complicated than that. The Old Testament may contribute something to this discussion, but I am simply not sufficiently learned to know.

It has been conventional to say the Athenians and the Spartans fought the Peleponnesian War against each other after they defeated the Persians. The Spartans were good at war and the Athenians were good at writing plays, so the Spartans won and somehow became the Romans. Or something like that. The Romans conquered eastward but became slack and slovenly, until Martin Luther started the Protestant revolution and fought along the Rhine for a number of generations while Rome declined further, but the Eastern Orthodox Roman Empire survived longer in its fortress city of Constantinople, eventually declining in the face of Saracen invasion. Meanwhile, what was left of Roman civilization pulled itself together in Venice, Genoa and Florence, creating the Renaissance which was spread more widely by the Crusaders roaming up and down from the Thames, the Rhine, the Po, and eventually getting civilized in the process.

Again I must apologize for never having taken any courses, and therefore repeating some childish summaries about what I really don't know much about. This brings us roughly to the 16th Century, whose weather was unusually cold, promoting plagues and famines, and other forms of civil uproar. The Quakers in Switzerland didn't like being burned at the stake, came down the Rhine where William Penn was waiting, to take a few thousand of them to New Jersey to some real estate he inherited, later including Pennsylvania and Delaware. Apparently Penn was immensely rich, and the Pennsylvania Quakers couldn't see why he didn't make himself king, and make them the ruling class of Quaker America, but Penn didn't see things that way. Unfortunately he had to go back to England because of the Glorious Revolution, and his steward forged some papers which put him in debtor's prison. His children, as rich children often do, saw no reason to sweat it, became Episcopalians and essentially lived the high life. Both the French and Indian War and the Revolution made it clear that Quakers would not defend their people, and therefore were not fit to govern in a naughty world. In time, the American Revolution took Penn's land away from the family, paying them fifteen cents an acre, and our state legislature has been corrupt, pretty much ever since. The rest of the American Quakers sort of hunkered down while the Scotch-Irish won the Revolution. The rich Quaker merchant class of Philadelphia filled the power vacuum, and were the source of the Constitution and the Federalist period, although they too mainly became Episcopalians and lived the high life.

The rest of the country went wild with the idea they were the owners of this continent, exterminated the Indians, had strange fads like drinking gin to excess, starting wild religions, but were mostly saved from themselves by the two oceans. From 1800 to 1900 it was pretty unattractive to be an American, but we got a continent of farmland free, or subject to the nuisance of defeating the Mexicans, and we kept discovering gold and other mineral resources.

Whether it was a group of roommates at Harvard who vacationed together in Wyoming, or whether it was the Viennese of the Austrian school, or somebody else -- the progressive movement of Teddy Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson got started, with notions of self-determination bouncing around in conflict with Manifest Destiny, and the rest. My Uncle Al was a follower of Lafollette, the Roosevelts got the idea they should be in charge of everything, two world wars and a depression ensued. The country shifted to the Right with Ronald Reagan and then back to populism with Obama, and probably back to the Right in the next year or two. More recent immigrants seem to think populism is the normal American state of affairs.

All the while, Philadelphia has been some sort of tattered Athens, and I love it. It has had its share of malefactors and laziness, but a broad streak of good heartedness seems to persist. In my retirement, I am left to ponder what it means to be right or left, a producer or a consumer, a populist or an aristocrat, a Republican or a Democrat, a Progressive or a Conservative. Since I am still working through the history of it, I harbor the suspicion that the best system is a dynamic tension between two groups with ideas that force each other toward doing the right thing. By that analysis, it is most important of all for neither side to be a total victor. If there's time, I may even change my mind about that.

 

 

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