The Ancien Régime and the Revolution

With all the hubbub about China as of late, I thought it might be worth reading Alexis De Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the Revolution (Penguin: 2008). A number of China Hands say the Party has used this book to inform their approach to domestic stability and harmony.1 I have no idea whether these assertions are true,2 but if one were a leader seeking to understand the drivers of mass movements and revolutions, The Ancien Régime would be a logical item for the reading list. (more…)

Opinions

‘Intelligence differs from one man to the next,
And yet each is happy with his own insight—
Each thinks himself much brighter than the rest,
Each values and praises himself to the height.
All think their own understanding the best—
Forever lauding their superior intellect,
Forever denigrating all the rest.

‘Men who make common cause share common thoughts—thinking
Much of and ever praising one another.
But when reverses mount, those selfsame men
Find intellectual differences intervene.
Thanks to the unfathomable nature of their thoughts,
There is a difference between man and man—
Each is bewildered in a different way.
For just as a skilled doctor, having diagnosed
A disease according to the book, in practice
Prescribes a medicine to effect a cure
Specific to each case,
So men use their intellect, harnessed to insight,
To put their intended actions into practice—
And other men revile them because of that.1

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Note:

1 Saṃjaya, as quoted in W.J. Johnson (trans.), The Sauptikaparvan of the Mahābhārata – The Massacre at Night (Oxford World’s Classics: 1998), pg. 14.

Politics and Culture in International History

Politics and Culture in International History

The concept of order that has underpinned the modern era is in crisis. The search for world order has long been defined almost exclusively by the concepts of Western societies … But vast regions of the world have never shared and only acquiesced in the Western concept of order … [The United States must think] on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security.1

Henry Kissinger is not enthused.  The extant world order is fraying, and the United States has neither a coherent strategy for coiling it back together, nor the bearing for promulgating a new one.  This blog’s exploration of entropy as the defining characteristic of international affairs covers some similar territory as Kissinger’s essay, so it shall be shamelessly plugged in this paragraph.

But the richness of Kissinger’s essay lies beyond the exigencies capturing headlines today, for it raises the idea that the cacophony of crises is not amenable to tactical policy prescriptions.  Rather, the perturbations may be symptomatic of a larger, more intractable issue: the imposition of rules and norms on cultures and societies that—by dint of their own historical experience—don’t necessarily share the West’s values.2 (more…)

David Bromwich and the Vanishing Art of Independent Thinking

The intelligence is defeated as soon as the expression of one’s thoughts is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word “we.”1

Recently, in The London Review of Books, David Bromwich penned an excoriating piece on Barack Obama and the political class that had me chuckling in my chair (see “The World’s Most Important Spectator”). The writing is absolutely poetic; Bromwich delivers so many zingers that to quote the essay piecemeal would risk deriving you of one of the great reading pleasures of 2014. So I shall refrain. (more…)

Meditations (at ~ 3,000 feet)

Call to mind, say, the time of Vespasian, and you will see the same old things: people marrying, bringing up children, falling sick, dying, fighting wars, feasting, trading, working the land, flattering, putting on airs, suspecting their fellows, hatching plots, praying for the death of others, grumbling at their present lot, falling in love, piling up fortunes, lusting for high office or a crown; and now that life of theirs is utterly dead and nowhere to be seen. And then pass on to the time of Trajan. Once again the same old things; and that life too is dead. Consider likewise the annals of other ages and of entire nations, and see how many people, after their brief exertions, soon fell prey to death and were resolved into their elements. But above all, you should run over in your mind those whom you yourself have known, who, distracted by vain pursuits, have neglected to do what their own constitution demanded, and to hold firm to this and rest content. And here it is essential to remember that the care bestowed on each action should be proportionate to its worth; for then you will not lose heart and give up, if you are not busying yourself with lesser matters to a greater extent than they deserve.1

Think of substance in its entirety, of which you have the smallest of shares; and of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you; and of the works of destiny, and how very small is your part in them.2

Leaving DC (May 2014)
Leaving DC (May 2014)

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Notes:

1 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.32 (Oxford World’s Classics, 2011), pgs. 29-30.

2 Op. cit., 5.24 (Oxford World’s Classics, 2011), pg. 42.