28 Sept 2020
I hear in the news absurdly false claims: that it is not “legitimate” for Trump to nominate someone now to the Supreme Court.
Note: win or lose in the November election, and presuming he remains alive for a few more months, D J Trump remains our President at least until 20 January 2021—win or lose the election, he holds the office and all of its powers, prerogatives, and duties under law at least until 20 January 2021, and longer if he wins the election.
That no few members of the Supreme Court were nominated and place on the Court right at the end of a President’s term seems to escape folks in the media and other partisans.
Consider just one case. In November 1800, V-P Thomas Jefferson defeated then President John Adams for President. Adams was a Federalist; Jefferson the founder of the “Republican Party” (which became the “Democratic-Republican party,” and then the “Democratic Party,” as it is known today.
Adams was defeated, but his coup promoted Federalist interests for about 35 years. Just before leaving office, Adams appointed his Secretary of State, John Marshall, to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. That appointment was made on 20 Jan 1801, and Marshall was confirmed and began serving as Chief Justice a week later, 27 Jan 1801. He remained Secretary of State as well, until Adams’ term as President ended, and Jefferson was inaugurated as our 3rd President on March 4, 1801.
So Marshall was nominated for Chief Justice and confirmed under a defeated President, at the end of his term. Never read that Jefferson claimed it was “illegitimate,” because Adams remained President until the day Jefferson was inaugurated.
The consequences were enormous for our history. Chief Justice Marshall wrote the opinion for Marbury v Madison in Feb 1803. In that decision, Marshall did what was NOT explicit in the Constitution: he used the Supreme Court to declare an act of Congress illegal under the Constitution. There is no such power given to the Supreme Court in the Constitution; this was a major political coup in our history: the Supreme Court made itself supreme over acts of Congress.
Such is the legacy of Adams post-defeat appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice. I think that he served about 35 years—the longest serving Chief Justice in our history, and probably the most consequential. He was succeeded in that office by Roger Tawney of Maryland, who wrote the dreadful Dred Scott decision of 1857—the case that drew Lincoln back into politics: blacks can be property, but they are not and cannot be “persons” under the law. Quoting Lincoln’s great Second Inaugural of 1865, “And the war came.”
14 Sept 2020
Ours has been described as “an age of anxiety” (first used just after WWII, I believe). Many feel it, many express it in various ways: A sense of upheaval, unsettling change, loss, unhappiness, anxiety, depression, despair, rage, forebodings of doom, “future shock,” and so on.
One finds similar states in the Hellenistic age in the west, c 300 BC to about 400 AD. Literature such as the “Book of Revelation” included with misgivings at the end of the New Testament is a classic text of emotional-spiritual mess, and yet also has tales of hope and fulfillment. In the middle ages, these overwhelming social anxieties settled down, but increased in about the 1400’s into the present. If one reads Luther, for example (1483-1546), one clearly sees the emotional-spiritual-intellectual upheaval of an age; one sees it in the Puritan revolution of the 1600’s, in the French Enlightenment thinkers and then the eruption of the French Revolution at the end of the 1700’s. We all know that our society is rife with anxious tensions, unhappiness, etc, affecting individuals and groups to varying degrees.
One thing that abides in my mind as I reflect on Homer (8th century BC): although there is violence and evils operate in his world (mainly unregulated human passions), the actors are generally more peaceful, settled, with feet on the ground. An exception is Akhilleus, filled with wrath—the issue that is central to the Iliad. He upsets the balance in the human condition—acts outside the bounds, as embodied most in his treatment of his opponent, Hektor. Odysseus, on the other hand, is not wrathful, restless, or irrational, but “resourceful,” clever, up to any challenge fate throws at him; he lives within the ordered boundaries. Homer’s world was orderly and settled, but not dead or static. Hence, I would say that reading Homer is like entering a realm of youthful spirit, buoyancy, modest hopes for better things to come—not fatalistic pessimism, nor naive utopian dreaming. The cosmos is stable, a friendly home—a good home to those who obey its laws and limits.
This is astounding to me: within about 250-300 years of Homer, the Greek-speaking world undergoes a major outbreak in the discovery of reason—first philosophy, then science (and the tragedians and historians). The human being is capable of using intellect and making sound choices, achieving much good; or having “twisted reasoning” (Cicero’s term) and making bad choices, and doing great harm to himself and others. Human being emerges as the locus of rational discourse, reason, good—not on Olympos, but within the human psyche. In reading Plato and Aristotle, one sees how much the human mind, governed by reason, is capable of achieving. It truly is an astounding development and a cultural high point in human history—to which we remain beneficiaries. Looking back, I see the potential as present in Homer and his world—perhaps especially in the importance of right action within the bounds set by the gods, or what we might call “nature” (Greek: physis). In reading the earliest recorded philosophers—such as Parmenides (born c 515 BC), one sees reason emerging from myth, story, and becoming a tool for discovering the nature of reality (Parmenides’ main discovery: being, Is!, the grounding insight of philosophy; he also discovered and named “nous,” intellect, as the divine power operative in human being to know what is).
Ah, the youthful, life-affirming, life-giving world of the ancient Greeks. Such a flourishing of what Hegel calls “Spirit” (Geist) in humankind—making possible what we call “history,” the realm of human being (Hegel, “the realm of the Geist’s unfolding”). Homer may be called a “mytho-poet,” but looking back from the philosophy that soon emerges among Greek speakers, I see the potential for such a magnificent life of the mind as philosophy and science essentially are. Homer embodies the fertile soil from which the plant of rational thought will grow; Homer’s world is rich with possibilities, as is youth; and some of these possibilities grow within several centuries of astounding breakthroughs.
If there is a practical lesson here, it would seem to be this: Avoid yielding to anxieties, fears, restless passions, and develop and maintain a youthful spirit, open to possibilities.
Just a few reflections as I keep reading Homer.
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