Why I Read History

I mainly read history because it is fun. I do, however, occasionally have other reasons. For example, I think that reading history can be an important part of our moral education. Aristotle argues in his Ethics that one ought not to expect a greater level of certainty from a field than the field can deliver. In context, he was making the point that abstract ethical precepts and concepts will only get one so far when it comes to leading a good life. At some point or another, judgment is inevitable. Judgment is not a matter of deducing conclusions from abstract premises. Rather, it is a matter of making good decisions based on wisdom accumulated by experience. History is useful, I think, because it can be a surrogate for experience. We can only live so much, but by reading about the past we can accumulate a vast fund of particulars from the lives of others that can yield a kind of wisdom.

One might also read history to understand the way that human societies work. One has to be careful with this, however. It seems to me that at its best history is a kind of constrained story telling. One constructs a narrative where the sorts of statements one can make are limited by one’s sources. This is no small task, and those who can do it well have mastered a very difficult skill. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to me that the tools that one must become proficient with to do this sort of thing — the collection and interpretation of primary sources — are all that good for making broad generalizations about human societies. To be sure, historians from time to time say good and profound things about human society, but there is a sense in which their insights are serendipitous rather than the yield of a disciplined methodology. In this sense, historical insight into human society is very much like Aristotle’s judgment. It is less a matter of constructing and defending abstract theories than it is about wisdom that emerges from the piling on of particulars.

Of late, I have found another reason for reading history. It helps me to find a sense of place. For the last ten years or so, I have been a fine example of modern American mobility, moving almost annually sometimes within a city or state but often across much larger distances. This kind of mobility can have a corrosive effect on one’s sense of belonging and connection with place. Despite over a decade away from it, I still feel in some sense as though Salt Lake City is home. In large part this is because that’s where my family (or at least a large chunk of it) lives, and it is where I grew up. But it is also because I know the history of Salt Lake. My knowledge of the city is not merely geographic but also temporal and this two-dimensionality binds me to it.

It looks as though we are finally settling down. I don’t anticipate the nearly annual ritual of moving that has characterized my married life thus far. We are now where we are going to live, at least for some time. As fate would have it, we have been cast upon the shores of the James River in the Virginia tidewater. My own roots in America are almost entirely New England and Canadian. I am not descended from Virginians. Hence, I can claim no genetic relationship to my new community. Yet just as history can be a surrogate for experience, it can also be a surrogate for lineage. And so I am reading books about the history of Jamestowne and colonial Virginia, trying to trace out the geography of past events onto my surroundings: I’m two miles from the first English settlement, just down the road from Green Spring, the 17th century plantation of the colonial governor. If I take route 31 into town, I find myself crossing the line that Nathaniel Bacon’s rebels occupied when they besieged the colonial capital in the 17th century. I am learning about Powhatan and Pocahontas, both of whom left their names for creeks that bisect my surroundings. I am not looking for a grand theory of the Virginia tidewater, just a thicker set of particulars in which to live my life.

Ultimately it is the particulars that are the great virtue of history.

48 comments for “Why I Read History

  1. Kimball L. Hunt
    June 11, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    Yes, Nate — but you already exhibit the genteel manners, as barely cloak a great personal sense of prestige/ place in society/ the mark of high education and even the sense of great intellectual ability — in short, an aristocratic bearing that will serve you well as an adopted Virginian . . . (gestures with my upheld palm/ bows head slightly) suh, lol.

  2. June 11, 2006 at 6:50 pm

    Nate, I love the way you keep trying to pretend you’re not really and/or constantly attempt to complicate your standing as and/or reluctantly apologize for longing to be, in the end, a communitarian. It’s one of the most endearing things about you. I fully expect you to find you, decades and decades hence, slowly passing through the veil, resting under homemade blankets on a couch in your study, the fire in the grate throwing shadows across your rows and rows of books and fine oak desk, the air filled with the scent of the mint tea brewed from herbs from your own garden, the autumn leaves blowing past your window with the Christopher Wren Building just barely visible through the barren branches, and you surrounded by friends and family and generations of students and people brought into the church by your testimony, suddenly shouting out as the closeness of the moment overcomes you, “No, wait–I’m a liberal!!”

    Hope we can visit you in Virginia sometime. I really wanted to take my family back to the South, but I guess it’ll have to be prairie populism for us.

  3. Mark Butler
    June 11, 2006 at 7:23 pm

    Liberalism is the practical antithesis of communitarianism, indeed communitarianisms greatest modern enemies. What is a family, or a culture, or a church except a little community? And the whole point of contemporary liberalism is that one has no obligation to any of them. A religion without a soul – empowerment without meaning – a law unto oneself – the death of morality, duty, honor, and obligation.

  4. MikeInWeHo
    June 11, 2006 at 7:42 pm

    “And the whole point of contemporary liberalism is that one has no obligation to any of them.” Been enjoying a little Ann Coulter lately, Mark?

  5. Mark Butler
    June 11, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    No – I generally despise the work of Ms. Coulter. If you want to make an argument make one. What positions does contemporary liberalism advocate that are pro-community instead of corrosive of all communities.

    Contemporary liberals are hostile to patriotism, nationalism, sectionalism, filial piety, duty to remain married in non-ideal situations, normative religion in any form, and so on. One can practically reverse engineer the Democrat(ic) party line from this principle alone.

  6. Kimball L. Hunt
    June 11, 2006 at 8:37 pm

    I’m lost! Guess I’ve got to find me a set of illustrated playing cards — like they handed out in Iraq — to help me identify who’s of which political pole.

    Uh OK: Those anarchist shopwindows bashers who decry international corporations, um free trade, and the uh specter of a coming, supra-national New World Order; um they’re . . . What? Anti-communitarian?

    But wait a minute. Free trade is — anti-communitarianism! Which means the anarchists are then — communitarians!

    Social Security is what? Communitarianism? So the old Republican guard that had to be forced by that pinko Roosevelt to accept it were . . . what? Anti-communitarian! So anarchist communitarians are opposed by laissez faire anti-communitarians!

    Huh? Help!

  7. aletheia
    June 11, 2006 at 8:43 pm

    Liberalism is hardly an arch-nemesis (or the solvent that dissolves community). For me, at least, it’s better than those sappy, yellowish agglutinators meant to bring us together into communities that never really existed.

  8. Mark Butler
    June 11, 2006 at 9:01 pm

    Contemporary liberalism does indeed advocate a community – the one True Church of divine nothingness – no rules, no principles except don’t step on others toes, and forced servitude so that everyone has to subsidize everyone elses dreams no matter how abhorrent they find them.

    There is a dark side to the liberalism of capitalism of course, but that is the amoral liberalism of the multi-national conglomerate, hardly a community of any kind, rather more an Orwellian corporatism not so very different from the contemporary liberal ideal of government – completely value free except for the one true value of value free empowerment to do anything and anything – to escape the bonds that hold us down and to become a law unto ourselves, Kings in our own right, with no obligation to anyone, just our own lusts.

    Conservative communitarianism is not like that. We have no feeling for the insensibility of mega-corporations. That is a perversion of liberalism, not a genuine conservatism at all.

  9. Kimball L. Hunt
    June 11, 2006 at 9:26 pm

    Thanks Mark! Smiles.

    (Still need to know what color to color in Mitt in my deck, though!)

  10. June 11, 2006 at 10:10 pm

    I suppose it really was rather improper for me to have used such a reflective, innocuous little post to somewhat snarkily bring up a philosophical and political dispute between Nate and I that goes back years. My apologies, Nate. I love to read history too–though, when it comes to accumulating details, as you say, Melissa’s and my taste tends to run towards journalistic travel and “place” writing: Bill Bryson, Francis Mayes, Tony Horwitz, etc.

    Turning to what I stirred up…Mark, while we probably agree on a fair amount insofar as fundamental political theory goes, I think you need to seriously rethink your claim that about the Democratic Party. Or at least, the implications of your claim….because if you honestly believe that same sort of opposition-to-community reverse engineering could not be performed just as adequately upon the Republican party–the party that has been in hock to apostles of free trade and has undermined union power for decades, the party that has pushed deregulation and every other tax break that has made it easy for employers to abandon neighborhoods and the promise of a living wage, the party that has been a consistent roadblock to maintainence of social insurance, welfare, and employment programs that make solidarity possible in the first place–then you really need to do some more reading. Your concluding comment about how conservative communitarians “have no feeling for the insensibility of mega-corporations” is right on target; now, just don’t forget to follow through on the partisan implications of that statement.

    Kimball, a lot of anarchists really are communitarians; they want to break down the state and the corporate model because they believe that, in the resulting vaccum, more humane forms of organic community will flourish. Then again, a lot of other anarchists are just libertarians who, I don’t know, like to dress like Goths. It’s not always easy to tell them apart. And yes, Social Security is communitarian. Perhaps not the best form of such, and perhaps it (and other policies like it) undermine yet other forms of such, but still: it was, and still is, an attempt to embody in economic policy a collective, egalitarian, social commitment. Oh, and for what it’s worth, I think “anarchist communitarians are opposed by laissez faire anti-communitarians” is a great way to describe the encounter between the New Left and the mainstream liberal establishment in the late 1960s. (I’ve been reading Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night lately; great stuff.)

  11. Kimball L. Hunt
    June 11, 2006 at 10:56 pm

    Wow — Thanks Russell!

    Jos. Smith & co: definately communiatarian. But once the full extent of its own models faltered, the Church pretty much bought into mainstream conservatisms? ((That is, at first pretty much anti-labor? And then maybe not the first ones on the block to want to join in common cause with the godless Reds against the fascists?))

  12. aletheia
    June 11, 2006 at 11:37 pm

    Mark, I think you’re making a few mistakes, rhetorically and conceptually. Firstly, you are identifying a whole political subset – this target of “liberalism” against which you are railing but which you’re not really describing – and a large group of people (those “liberals” (who actually do have differences of opinion amongst themselves)) of being arreligious/irreligious and of simultaneously advocating a politics religiously. Besides the fact that you – nor your presumed companions in conservative communitarianism – have a monopoly on the Godhead and are being presumptuous in pointing out where he is and where he isn’t, it’s just a bad description of what liberalism is and what politics does.

    Secondly, the rant about subsidizing the abhorrent dreams of others just doesn’t hold. How are you subsidizing them? Are you subsidizing them actively like I have to subsidize my neighbor’s extensive (and Mormon) family through my property taxes and through my contributions to welfare (they are on the take from the govt. in food stamps because his wife doesn’t work)? Are you subsidizing them by, say, paying federal income taxes that go towards a war that you don’t approve of? Is your state a “liberal” one that’s a populous gross tax contributor, sending taxes that just don’t manage to make it back (and go to less populous, more conservative states who turn around and talk about self-reliance and state rights)? How exactly are you subsidizing the abhorrent practices of others? Or, are we just talking about a community – our nation – that contains people you find abhorrent and you’d rather not have to be a citizen and fellow in community with them? I don’t understand and don’t sympathize with those conservative currents that want the right to withhold their taxes based on a dislike of this or that program or those that complain about how they are carrying the whole Godless society on their back. Pick up your share like the rest of the quiet laborers and vote in your off-time.

  13. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 1:20 am

    A few comments. First has anyone ever heard me accuse the Republican Party of intellectual consistency? In order to gain a governing majority the Republicans invariably sell out to the lowest bidder, which has long been extremes of economic liberalism, the captains of industry who are driven rightward on the enemy of my enemy is my friend principle. Much of the stuff that the contemporary left loves to hate about the right is its knee jerk defense of laissez faire liberalism. The late and utter cluelessness of the right on matters of telecom regulation is a case in point. There are many others.

    The problem with the Republicans is they do not yet have any guiding set of principles except defense of the status quo. In other words, they are still the stupid party. Agricultural and dairy subsidies, corporate welfare of various types, drug entitlements, spending money like there is no tommorrow, etc. The current administration is a disaster in the domestic arena, feeding the federal leviathan with the best of them.

    Real conservatives know that the government that governs the closest to the people governs the best. That means family, church, school, private association, city, county, state, in that order. In order for liberalism not to be reduced into anarchy, we gradually strip political and economic power and influence away from those local institutions and place it as remote as possible. Left and right are equally guilty of this – the left in social and welfare regulation and the right largely in economic regulation. In America both parties are corrupted by excessive liberalism, just in different ways. True conservatives do not carry water for the centralizing and harmonizing interests of business. The ones on the right that do have gone over to the dark side, the dark side of economic liberalism. The only good thing that can be said about the dark side of laissez faire is that at least public money (read: coercive servitude) is not usually used to promote it. If and where it is, that is much worse.

  14. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 1:52 am

    Political government as we know it is essentially coercive in nature. It is a fundamental principle of classical liberalism that coercion should be minimized. It is a fundamental principle of communitarianism that personal, voluntary, and private social organization should be maximized.

    So whenever the government (as we know it today) gets unnecessarily involved in matters long left to private initative, including business, welfare, and education, that is a net loss of liberty that is harmful to the development of free and vibrant communities.

    The contemporary “liberal” solution to this is to promote a value free involuntary religion of the state as the solution to all social ills. Religion at the point of a gun via the tax power. The government consumes ~30% of the GDP at all levels, spending that no matter how well intentioned is largely directed by some exceedingly small and increasingly unrepresentative (since the 17th amendment at any rate) minority is Washington. The states are largely reduced to adminstrative agencies of the federal government.

    That is a very perverse sense of community. Monies are collected and distributed by increasingly elitist and bureaucratic institutions that have an agenda often diametrically opposed to those from whom the money is collected by force. The tyranny of the enlightened. NEA (both of them), NAS, NSF, FCC, the “education” establishment, the welfare industrial state, and on and on –

    Congress increasingly takes discretion away from the people with the taxing power and places it in the hands of unelected elites – elites who have no interest in serving the expressed interest of the people, but rather imposing their will upon the unwashed masses by mandatory deductions from their paychecks. No voluntary offering here – no credit to the giver either, just socialist tyranny. Sometimes socialism of the right more often socialism of the left. No benign voluntary socialism, but coercion writ large. That is what is wrong with big government of either stripe – it is the end of agency.

    Note I said agency (read stewardship) not free will. Free will or freedom is the cult of liberalism. People need to give of themselves voluntarily, mandatory paycheck deductions will not save anyone. Not only that but unconditional welfare, i.e. welfare without the proper sort of “strings” attached is equally corrosive.

    God dispenses his grace conditionally to uplift and improve. Government dispenses welfare so that man can stay comfortably in the gutter. There is a difference.

  15. Adam Greenwood
    June 12, 2006 at 7:43 am

    “In order to gain a governing majority the Republicans invariably sell out to the lowest bidder, which has long been extremes of economic liberalism, the captains of industry who are driven rightward on the enemy of my enemy is my friend principle.”

    I think you’re right about the selling out, and to whom, but that the result is the extremes of economic liberalism is just not so. Captains of industry are only interested in economic liberalism to a point; witness, for example, the enormous support of the business lobby for the President’s prescription drug plan. Friend, you ain’t seen economic liberalism yet.

    Correction: ‘selling out’ is probably not the right term, as it suggests the motives are consciously cynical and corrupt.

  16. Ronan
    June 12, 2006 at 8:47 am

    If you haven’t already, be sure to watch Malick’s The New World. Do so in a contemplative mood. Open the windows and be cooled by the breeze from the James, and enjoy the sights and sounds of English-Powhatan Virginia. It’s as close as you’ll ever get to winding the clock back 400 years.

    Were I to settle in America, it would be in Maryland or Virginia, but away from Baltimore-DC. Somewhere on the Eastern Shore maybe. It must be the colonist in me.

  17. June 12, 2006 at 8:57 am

    Ronan, in the six years we lived in the D.C. area, we never visited anywhere we thought more beautiful than the Eastern Shore. I have an old friend who owns a home right along the Chesapeake; I envy him daily.

  18. Ronan
    June 12, 2006 at 9:53 am

    Russell: the feeling of freedom as you drive over the Bay Bridge; the old Chesapeake towns like St. Michael’s; the gentle farmland of the interior; the Assateague ponies; the rickety boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach out of season. Ah! Sometimes I am heartsick to be leaving such a place. I am so at home there.

  19. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 10:45 am

    I agree that much of the business interest isn’t economic liberalism at all, but corporate socialism of various varieties. The economic liberalism I am thinking of is most apparent in telecommunications regulation, in particular the FCC’s recent perversion of the whole tenor of the 1934 Communications Act with regard to what is and isn’t a common carrier and information vs. telecommunications service. Antitrust in general is another example. Not that monopolies or quasi-monopolies are evil, but that they legitimately have greater obligations and operate under stricter constraints than a tiny operation.

    A third example is the relatively recent perversion of intellectual ‘property’ law in this country both by Congress and the Courts. Infinite copyright on the installment plan, and more particularly property-like patent rights on anything under the sun, no matter how obvious or precedented in other than minor details. A perversion that Congress stands mute upon while the patent office and courts raze legislative intent to the ground, in a way that mostly benefits patent trolls, and not commerce at large, let alone the public interest.

  20. June 12, 2006 at 11:15 am

    I was asked once what Los Alamos, New Mexico is like, and my answer began “Well, a little over a million years ago …� After a couple minutes, my wife interrupted to clarify that the questioner would probably be more interested in the period since human habitation. A couple years ago, in an attempt to make Maryland more significant to me, I read a short high school text on its geology. The attempt was successful.

  21. Brad Kramer
    June 12, 2006 at 11:35 am


    The two best books I’ve read on the region are Ed Morgan’s ‘Slave Counterpoint’ and Kathleen Brown’s ‘Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs.’ Woody Holton’s ‘Forced Founders’ is also worth a look.

    On the relationship between communitarianism and liberalism, I agree that, in principle, the two have very little in common. Mark’s comments here are, in my opinion, pretty close to spot on, and I find Sandel’s or Bellah’s critiques of Rawlsian liberalism much more convincing and compelling than Novick’s. Having said that, my experience is that communitarians still tend to find American liberalism more appealing than conservatism. The most committed communitarian I ever knew was Hugh Nibley. He was a hopeless idealist, but also a real pragmatist. He never voted for Ralph Nader, even though Nader always reflected his political views more than, say, Al Gore or John Kerry. He was also an uncompromised pacifist, which, in my mind, creates a quandary for liberals since liberalism is so dependent upon violence (or a state monolopy on the legitimate use of it) for its survival and enforcability. I’m not sure about the relationship between pacifism and modern liberalism, except, as Mark pointed out, liberalism is, at its core, essentially anti-nationalistic. Nibley’s problem was that, as basically an unreconstructed McGovernite (on the spectrum of American politics), he had way too much faith in the Democratic Party’s commitment to the principles McGovern stood for.

    I’m also not sure about the relationship between communitarianism and pacifism. For me, the link between the two is Nibley.

    Oh, and Nate, RAF’s right. You should really stop fighting it.

  22. Brad Kramer
    June 12, 2006 at 11:40 am

    Actually, Nate, you’d probably like Holton best of the three.

  23. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    My take on Hugh Nibley is that he was impossibly naive about the value and necessity of commerce in society, saying things so extreme about the world of business that it is hard to take him seriously. He gives the impression that his ideal world would be a return to living in huts – to the world of pre-history, where philosophy is largely oral rather than written – a matter of discussion around the fire pit while chewing on whatever meager scraps we have dug up or hunted down during the day.

  24. June 12, 2006 at 12:23 pm

    Brad, I’m not entirely surprised Nibley never voted for Nader; I mean, Nader only first ran for office for the first time in 1996, by which time Nibley was 86 and not exactly at an age to go looking for new political alternatives. (Though when Student Review interviewed him in the early 90s, he was apparently keeping up with–and was contemptuous of–recent Supreme Court opinions.) More generally, the Democratic party that he had known most of his life–like the one Ronald Reagan had known–was, while hardly a bastian of deep communitarian feeling, at least far more sympathetic to classical republican, religious, and populist policies than the alternative. Plus, after the Vietnam War anyway, they were the less militaristic party. So, I figure he stuck with them, like a lot of increasingly unhappy Democrats stuck with them, at least through the 70s and into the 80s. (Remember that as late as Jimmy Carter and Sargent Shriver, many nationally prominent Democrats were opposed to abortion rights.)

  25. June 12, 2006 at 12:30 pm

    “[Nibley] gives the impression that his ideal world would be a return to living in huts….”

    Not true. (But still, it’s a worthy old calumny. Voltaire said the same (false) thing about Rousseau.)

    Regarding Nibley’s “realism,” consider this:

    “I certainly pray that we may fill our hearts with the desire to fulfill the Lord’s purposes on the earth. Some of us are good at administrating the things of the earth. ‘Some of us’–I use that very flatteringly, because there never was a worse one than myself for bungling with thinkgs like that, so I can very well talk sour grapes. But notice the spirit in which it’s to be done. Brigham Young, the greatest and certainly the most able economist and administrator and businessman this nation has ever seen, didn’t give a hoot for earthly things: ‘I have never walked across the streets to make a trade.’ He didn’t mean that literally. You always do have to handle things. But in what spirit do we do it? Not in the Krishna way, by renunciation….If you refuse to be concerned with these things at all, and say ‘I’m above all that,’ that’s a great fault. The things of the world have got to be administered; they must be taken care of, they are to be considered. We have to keep things clean, and in order. That’s required of us. This is a test by which we are being proven. This is the way by which we prepare, always showing that these things will never captivate our hearts, that they will never become our principal concern. That takes a bit of doing, and that is why we have the formula ‘with an eye single to his glory’ (Mormon 8:15). Keep first your eye on the star, then on all the other considerations of the ship. You will have all sorts of problems on the ship, but unless you steer by the star, forget the ship. Sink it. You won’t go anywhere.� (�Three Degrees of Righteousness,� Approaching Zion, 336)

    More here.

  26. Adam Greenwood
    June 12, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    Grey Fox,

    I’m not interested in calumniating Nibley at all. I respect and love the man. So does it give you pause at all that I also think he’s hopelessly unrealistic? He does mostly sound like a man who thinks we should all live in huts, but sometimes says things that are either hopelessly muddled or externally contradictory (I’m still trying to decide which category the passage you cite falls into) as an alternative to facing up to the implications of what he says he believe.

  27. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    The problem with Hugh Nibley’s commentary on business is that any critique of modern society should start with a critique of our ideals, not the means we use to achieve them. Business is certainly corrupted by those ideals, but that is not a problem with business as such, it is a problem with the purposes we put business in service of.

    Nibley’s disdain for the business department as a perversion of the ideal of scholarship is telling. Are we to suppose that Brigham Young’s temporal administrative abilities just rested upon him like the dews from heaven? Or more to the point that they will rest upon the remainder of us if only we excise economics from our vocabulary?

    The ultimate problem with Nibley’s social commentary is that it is all negative. He tells us about what is wrong with society as it is, but offers little in the way of advice as to how it should be. Like the celestial kingdom? Yes. But what is the celestial kingdom like, and why? And in particular what path lies between society as it is, and society as it should be?

    Brigham Young had much to say about that – in regard to the gospel of work – something that Nibley had a barely disguised contempt for.

  28. June 12, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    “So does it give you pause at all that I also think he’s hopelessly unrealistic?”

    In the thread I link to, there was a bit of an exchange between Frank, Nate, myself and a couple of commenters over how one can, or if one can, actually use Nibley’s ideas. (Or, for that matter, the ideas of any separatist or idealist or prophet or radical consumer advocate….) I acknowledge in that thread that, strictly speaking, Nibley’s political and economic ideas were “useless”–they betrayed no concern for how they were to be implemented or what their costs would be, etc. However, I disagree that Nibley was therefore utterly “unrealistic”; on the contrary, I think he had a strong grasp of reality. He saw what he thought the prophets approved of our currently reality, saw what he thought they didn’t like, and told us so. I think it is important to maintain the distinction between a call that may lack specific implementation instructions, and one that doesn’t seem to acknowledge human reality whatsoever. We rob ourselves of great insights, and convince ourselves that too much of the status quo is natural or logical or inevitable, if we always lump the former in with the latter.

  29. June 12, 2006 at 1:07 pm

    “Brigham Young had much to say about that–in regard to the gospel of work–something that Nibley had a barely disguised contempt for.”

    Uh, sure. I suppose that’s why Nibley titled his most famous, and most radical, sermon “Work We Must, But The Lunch is Free.” Or perhaps you think that first clause was a typo.

  30. Adam Greenwood
    June 12, 2006 at 1:15 pm


    “I acknowledge in that thread that, strictly speaking, Nibley’s political and economic ideas were “uselessâ€?–they betrayed no concern for how they were to be implemented or what their costs would be, etc.”

    I’d respond this way. I’d say that not only did Nibley not show any interest in implementation, but that his ideas were unimplementable. and indeed, wrong even from a gospel perspective.

    The only way I can understand and respond to his economic and political ideas positively is if I see them as a kind of poetry in which the specifics of what he advocated matter less than the taste of them, which I can then turn around and try to fit into a worldview that can actually work. Or else I can see them as a sort of millennial or Zion pre-figuring. I don’t think he had much to say that was relevant to working *towards* Zion or the millennium, but he certainly had a grasp of what they would be like.

  31. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    Or rather that someone else’s lunch is free.

  32. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 1:39 pm

    You see Nibley among many other Christians argue from an untenable conception of divine power to a unbelievable conception of the metaphysics of grace. Christ had to suffer, we have to suffer, precisely because there is no free lunch. There are exponential returns to social cooperation of course, but grace is not free, not even to God. Grace is founded in suffering, creative suffering for the betterment of others.

  33. Jed
    June 12, 2006 at 1:54 pm

    “The two best books I’ve read on the region are Ed Morgan’s ‘Slave Counterpoint’”

    Actually “Slave Counterpoint” was written by Philip Morgan.

    The classic work on the old Virginia plantation economy, which put slavery at the center of the American narrative, rather than the periphery where it had been for centuries, is by another Morgan, Edmund: _American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia_ (1975). That is a book worth reading.

    Morgan has written many, many books, but his oft-overlooked little pamphlet _Virginians at Home: Family Life in the Eighteenth Century” (1952) is still an interesting work.

  34. Brad Kramer
    June 12, 2006 at 3:18 pm


    I think I hurriedly conflated both the books and the authors. Thanks for the correction.

  35. Brad Kramer
    June 12, 2006 at 3:30 pm

    “So does it give you pause at all that I also think he’s hopelessly unrealistic?”

    Isn’t the Gospel itself hopelessly unrealistic, “Be ye perfect,” and what have you?

    “The problem with Hugh Nibley’s commentary on business is that any critique of modern society should start with a critique of our ideals, not the means we use to achieve them.”

    Nibley’s biggest critique of the business-centric modern world was that it conflated the means with the ideals, idealized the qualities and even person of the businessman, confused goods of first intent with goods of second intent, etc. He might have been critical of business, but his critique was, ultimately of the ideals that drive business: competition, self-interest, materialism, consumption, the commodification of work, and, ultimately, the subordination of all values to economic values that grows so inexoribly out of a sociopolitical superstructure based on economic models — whether capitalism, socialism, communism, whatever.

    I have a hard time seeing how even a casual reading of Approaching Zion or Brother Brigham would lead one to believe that his social criticisms were all negative. His prescriptions were radical, and antithetical to the values that undergird our society, but, again, no less so than repentance, charity, consecration, etc.

  36. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 3:36 pm

    I agree with the problems of business, but I disgree with the causality – I think the dark side of commercialism is driven by the dark side of radical individualism. Change people’s ideals and business will heal itself. Ideas drive society much more than society drives ideas.

  37. Brad Kramer
    June 12, 2006 at 3:40 pm

    I should add, in defense of Nibley’s proposed alternatives to the current state of affairs, that none of them are meant to be operable or even thinkable independent of the Gospel itself, they could not be strung together into a secular sociopolitical ideology or program. For him, complete and constant repentance, living the law of consecration to its fullest on the individual and collective levels, eschewing all forms of militarism and violence, and dedicating the majority of our efforts to the acquisition and cultivation of knowledge as an end in itself were all inextricably bound up with living the Gospel, building the Kingdom, establishing Zion, filling the measure of our creation, exaltation and salvation.

    He was an idealist, but not a utopian.

  38. Brad Kramer
    June 12, 2006 at 3:45 pm

    Mark (#36):

    I agree with you. And I think Nibley absolutely would have as well. The university business school was not the problem, but a symptom of the problem — a problem he, ultimately locates at civilizations very origins (Moses 5:31-33).

  39. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    Well, there is no question that the ethics of contemporary corporate capitalism are seriously lacking. We need a bring back a cult of fairness, of treating others as they would want to be treated, both in price, contract, and service. Too much of modern business is the doctrine of the balanced swindle.

  40. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    In other words, I see the doctrine of capitalism as strategic exploitation of others vulnerabilities instead of creative provision of goods and services that people genuinely need, as corrupt to the core. This is nowhere more apparent than in the fine print of “service” contracts.

  41. June 12, 2006 at 5:04 pm

    Jed and Brad: Thanks for the suggestions. Edmund Morgan’s Virginia stuff is on my to-read list. I really enjoyed his biography of John Winthrop. Right now I am reading:

    _The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company_, a great bit of economic history.

    I also just finished _Love and Hate in Jamestown_, which was a wonderful book.

  42. Brad Kramer
    June 12, 2006 at 6:50 pm

    “This is nowhere more apparent than in the fine print of “serviceâ€? contracts.”

    Or, in the writing of Hugh W. Nibley :)

  43. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 7:46 pm

    Is anyone here really going to defend the idea that unilateral disarmament is the way of the Lord? That Chamberlain was right and Churchill wrong? That the way of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis is a model for us all, and not just those who feared they were already guilty of murder in the service of selfish ends?

    Wayne Owens and Eugene England both believed something like this from what I understand, but I have never seen a persuasive defense of the idea, short of the idea that if we were all angels, God would send other angels to do his dirty work, or do it himself. In other words if defense of his Saints is legitimate for God – why isn’t it self defense legitimate for us? An echo of the doctrine of total depravity?

  44. Brad Kramer
    June 12, 2006 at 8:25 pm

    Mark (#23),

    Though I’m not sure where this is coming from, my recent post at BCC is a simplified version of what I think you’re asking for. It’s a complicated question, one that Owens only addressed superficially and England only slightly more thoroughly. I think it is a multi-volume length discussion, which I’d love to have since, at some point, I’d also like to write about it.


  45. Mark Butler
    June 12, 2006 at 8:52 pm

    Brad, I completely agree that war should never be used to serve utilitarian aims. I also agree that we should preach the gospel to our enemies. What I disagree is with is burying our swords when our enemies have sworn to destroy us, suffering unto death before lifting a finger in self defense.

  46. Brad Kramer
    June 12, 2006 at 9:35 pm


    I’m not arguing that the principles I come away with from a careful reading of the BoM text re. the use of violence are the most appealing or best fit my own sensibilities. But I think you, as well as or better than anyone, would be the most strident critic of a religious philosophy that subordinates the validity of a scriptural principle to personal opinion, even when it’s based on serious, logical thought processes. My argument in that post is not about violence, but about what I believe to be the message of the BoM regarding violence. If you thing the BoM’s message is different, if you take specific issue with the argument I made, then by all means, bring it to the table. But saying I don’t like this or that line of thinking so I’ll dismiss it is not that far from my angry uncle leaving the church because he could never believe in a God that sanctioned polygamy. You might find the actions and attitude of the anti-Nephi-Lehis contemptible, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that Ammon or Moroni or Mormon or Moroni share your view. Their story is in there for a reason, and I suspect that reason is something other than convincing modern readers of the folly of refusing to take up the sword.

    Your position makes sense on a number of different levels, and is certainly viscerally satisfying for someone, like myself, with a wife and three kids. But scripturally tenuous to say the very least.

    “…I speak unto you, ye remnant of the house of Israel….Know that you must come unto repentance, or you cannot be saved. Know that ye must lay down your weapons of war, and delight no more in the shedding of blood, and take them not again, save it be that God shall command you.”
    –Mormon 7:1-4

    “For the Lord worketh not in secret combinations, neither doth he will that man should shed blood, but in all things hath forbidden it, from the beginning of man.”
    –Either 8:19

  47. Mark Butler
    June 13, 2006 at 12:06 pm

    Brad, I generally agree with regard to personal opinion. However, the reason why opinion is arbitrary is because the premises are. If one starts with scriptural premises, the process is much more reliable. As is well known, unfortunately, the scriptures contradict or appear to contradict themselves in numerous places, and so any serious thought on the subject requires discernment as to which principles are primary and fundamental and which are secondary and derived. In other words, not all scriptures are created equal, and assuming that they are is the road to the most creative perversions of theology imaginable, as the Apostasy abundantly demonstrates, both the Jewish and the Christian apostasy. The Old Testament is full of questionable theological propositions, notably including the doctrine of total depravity and a proto-Calvinism.

    Now this kind of theological goulash that results in endless appeals to mystery gives me indigestion. It is foreign to the spirit of classical Mormonism. In fact it is practically a twentieth century invention, so far as LDS thought is concerned – A witting or unwitting attempt to turn back the clock to the prevailing doctrine prior to the Restoration, the result is that many people believe in propositions that are contradictions in terms – a hybrid of analysis at nearly *opposite* ends of the theological spectrum.

    The reason why LDS theology appears incoherent is that there is more than one. Two extremes (classical Arminianism and classical Mormonism) and no end of strange hybrids in between. Someday we are going to have to decide that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were right after all, or turn into Protestants with a temple, manque neo-proto-Calvinist Jews.

  48. Mark Butler
    June 13, 2006 at 12:10 pm

    Not that there is anything wrong with being Jewish of course, just that some of the doctrines – the same ones reflected in Augustinianism – are a little imbalanced.

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