A Fable of a Snake


… Thus the orb he roamed
With narrow search; and with inspection deep
Considered every creature, which of all
Most opportune might serve his wiles; and found
The Serpent subtlest beast of all the field.
Paradise Lost. Book IX.
The Commons of England assembled in Parliament, [find] by too long experience, that
the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England …
—Parliament of England. “An Act for the Abolishing of the House of Peers.” 19 March 1649.


Imagine,” wrote the literary critic Terry Eagleton some years ago in the first line of his review of the biologist Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, “someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” Eagleton could quite easily have left things there—the rest of the review contains not much more information, though if you have a taste for that kind of thing it does have quite a few more mildly-entertaining slurs. Like a capable prosecutor, Eagleton arraigns Dawkins for exceeding his brief as a biologist: that is, of committing the scholarly heresy of speaking from ignorance. Worse, Eagleton appears to be right: of the two, clearly Eagleton is better read in theology. Yet although it may be that Dawkins the real person is ignorant of the subtleties of the study of God, the rules of logic suggest that it’s entirely possible that someone could be just as educated as Eagleton in the theology—and yet hold arguably views closer to Dawkins’ than to Eagleton’s. As it happens, that person not only once existed, but Eagleton wrote a review of someone else’s biography of him. His name is Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas is, of course, the Roman Catholic saint whose writings stand, even today, as the basis of Church doctrine: according to Aeterni Patris, an encyclical delivered by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, Aquinas stands as “the chief and master of all” the scholastic Doctors of the church. Just as, in other words, the scholar Richard Hofstadter called American Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina “the Marx of the master class,” so too could Aquinas be called the Marx of the Catholic Church: when a good Roman Catholic searches for the answer to a difficult question, Aquinas is usually the first place to look. It might be difficult then to think of Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” as he is sometimes referred to by Catholics, as being on Dawkins’ side in this dispute: both Aquinas and Eagleton lived by means of examining old books and telling people about what they found, whereas Dawkins is, by training at any rate, a zoologist.

Yet, while in that sense it could be argued that the Good Doctor (as another of his Catholic nicknames puts it) is therefore more like Eagleton (who was educated in Catholic schools) than he is like Dawkins, I think it could equally well be argued that it is Dawkins who makes better use of the tools Aquinas made available. Not merely that, however: it’s something that can be demonstrated simply by reference to Eagleton’s own work on Aquinas.

“Whatever other errors believers may commit,” Eagleton for example says about Aquinas’ theology, “not being able to count is not one of them”: in other words, as Eagleton properly says, one of the aims of Aquinas’ work was to assert that “God and the universe do not make two.” That’s a reference to Aquinas’ famous remark, sometimes called the “principle of parsimony,” in his magisterial Summa Contra Gentiles: “If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices.” But what’s strange about Eagleton’s citation of Aquinas’ thought is that it is usually thought of as a standard argument on Richard Dawkins’ side of the ledger.

Aquinas’ statement is after all sometimes held to be one of the foundations of scientific belief. Sometimes called “Occam’s Razor,” Isaac Newton referred to Aquinas’ axiom in the Principia Mathematica when the great Englishman held that his work would “admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” Later still, in a lecture Albert Einstein gave at Oxford University in 1933, Newton’s successor affirmed that “the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Through these lines of argument runs more or less Aquinas’ thought that there is merely a single world—it’s just that the scientists had a rather different idea of what that world is than Aquinas did.

“God for Aquinas is not a thing in or outside the world,” according to Eagleton, “but the ground of possibility of anything whatever”: that is, the world according to Aquinas is a God-infused one. The two great scientists seem to have held, however, a position closer to the view supposed to have been expressed to Napoleon by the eighteenth-century mathematician Pierre-Simon LaPlace: that there is “no need of that hypothesis.” Both in other words think there is a single world; the distinction to be made is simply whether the question of God is important to that world’s description—or not.

One way to understand the point is to say that the scientists have preserved Aquinas’ way of thinking—the axiom sometimes known as the “principle of parsimony”—while discarding (as per the principle itself) that which was unnecessary: that is, God. Viewed in that way, the scientists might be said to be more like Aquinas than Aquinas—or, at least, than Terry Eagleton is like Aquinas. For Eagleton’s disagreement with Aquinas is different: instead of accepting the single-world hypothesis and rejecting whether it is God or not, Eagleton’s contention is with the “principle of parsimony” itself—the contention that there can be merely a single explanation for the world.

Now, getting into that whole subject is worth a library, so we’ll leave it aside here; let me simply ask you to stipulate that there is a lot of discussion about Occam’s Razor and its relation to the sciences, and that Terry Eagleton (a—former?—Marxist) is both aware of it and bases his objection to Aquinas upon it. The real question to my mind is this one: although Eagleton—as befitting a political radical—does what he does on political grounds, is the argumentative move he makes here as legitimate and as righteous as he makes it out to be? The reason I ask this is because the “principle of parsimony” is an essential part of a political case that’s been made for over two centuries—which is to say that, by abandoning Thomas Aquinas’ principle, people adopting Eagleton’s anti-scientific view are essentially conceding that political goal.

That political application concerns the design of legislatures: just as Eagleton and Dawkins argue over whether there is a single world or two, in politics the question of whether legislatures ought to have one house or two has occupied people for centuries. (Leaving aside such cases as Sweden, which once had—in a lovely display of the “diversity” so praised by many of Eagleton’s compatriots—four legislative houses.) The French revolutionary leader, the Abbè Sieyés—author of the manifesto of the French Revolution, What Is the Third Estate?—has likely put the case for a single house most elegantly: the abbè once wrote that legislatures ought to have one house instead of two on the grounds that “if the second chamber agrees with the first, it is useless; if it disagrees it is dangerous.” Many other French revolutionary leaders had similar thoughts: for example, Mirabeau wrote that what are usually termed “second chambers,” like the British House of Lords or the American Senate, are often “the constitutional refuge of the aristocracy and the preservation of the feudal system.” The Marquis de Condorcet thought much the same. But such a thought has not been limited to the eighteenth-century, nor to the right-hand side of the English Channel.

Indeed, there has long been similar-minded people across the Channel—there’s reason in fact to think that the French got the idea from the English in the first place given that Oliver Cromwell’s “Roundhead” regime had abolished the House of Lords in 1649. (Though it was brought back after the return of Charles II.) In 1867’s The English Constitution, the writer and editor-in-chief of The Economist, Walter Bagehot, had asserted that the “evil of two co-equal Houses of distinct natures is obvious.” George Orwell, the English novelist and essayist, thought much the same: in the early part of World War II he fully expected that the need for efficiency produced by the war would result in a government that would “abolish the House of Lords”—and in reality, when the war ended and Clement Atlee’s Labour government took power, one of Orwell’s complaints about it was that it had not made a move “against the House of Lords.” Suffice it to say, in other words, that the British tradition regarding the idea of a single legislative body is at least as strong as that of the French.

Support for the idea of a single legislative house, called unicameralism, is however not limited to European sources. For example, the French revolutionary leader, the Marquis de Condorcet, only began expressing support for the concept after meeting Benjamin Franklin in 1776—the Philadelphian having recently arrived in Paris from an American state, Pennsylvania, best-known for its single-house legislature. (A result of 1701’s Charter of Privileges.) Franklin himself contributed to the literature surrounding this debate by introducing what he called “the famous political Fable of the Snake, with two Heads and one Body,” in which the said thirsty Snake, like Buridan’s Ass, cannot decide which way to proceed towards water—and hence dies of dehydration. Franklin’s concerns were later taken up, a century and half later, by the Nebraskan George Norris—ironically, a member of the U.S. Senate—who criss-crossed his state in the summer of 1934 (famously wearing out two sets of tires in the process) campaigning for the cause of unicameralism. Norris’ side won, and today Nebraska’s laws are passed by a single legislative house.

Lately, however, the action has swung back across the Atlantic: both Britain and Italy have sought to reform, if not abolish, their upper houses. In 1999, the Parliament of Great Britain passed the House of Lords Act, which ended a tradition that had lasted nearly a thousand years: the hereditary right of the aristocracy to sit in that house. More recently, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi called “for eliminating the Italian Senate,” as Alexander Stille put it in The New Yorker, which the Italian leader claimed—much as Norris had claimed—that doing so would “reduc[e] the cost of the political class and mak[e] its system more functional.” That proved, it seems, a bridge too far for many Italians, who forced Renzi out of office in 2016; similarly, despite the withering scorn of Orwell (who could be quite withering), the House of Lords has not been altogether abolished.

Nevertheless, American professor of political science James Garner observed so early as 1910, citing the example of Canadian provincial legislatures, that among “English speaking people the tendency has been away from two chambers of equal rank for nearly two hundred years”—and the latest information indicates the same tendency at work worldwide. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union—a kind of trade organization for legislatures—there are for instance currently 116 unicameral legislatures in the world, compared with 77 bicameral ones. That represents a change even from 2014, when there were 3 less unicameral ones and 2 more bicameral ones, according to a 2015 report by Betty Drexage for the Dutch government. Globally, in other words, bicameralism appears to be on the defensive and unicameralism on the rise—for reasons, I would suggest, that have much to do with widespread adoption of a perspective closer to Dawkins’ than to Eagleton’s.

Within the English-speaking world, however—and in particular within the United States—it is in fact Eagleton’s position that appears ascendent. Eagleton’s dualism is, after all, institutionally a far more useful doctrine for the disciplines known, in the United States, as “the humanities”: as the advertisers know, product differentiation is a requirement for success in any market. Yet as the former director of the American National Humanities Center, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, has remarked, the humanities are “truly native only to the United States”—which implies that the dualist conception of knowledge that depicts the sciences as opposed to something called “the humanities” is one that is merely contingent, not a necessary part of reality. Therefore, Terry Eagleton, and other scholars in those disciplines, may advertise themselves as on the side of “the people,” but the real history of the world may differ—which is to say, I suppose, that somebody’s delusional, all right.

It just may not be Richard Dawkins.


Swings And Roundabouts

In a meeting with German business leaders in 1933, Hitler declared that “democracy” (i.e., actual parliamentary control) was fundamentally incompatible with a free-market capitalist economy …
“The Supermanagerial Reich.”
    Los Angeles Review of Books. 7 November 2016
Josiah Quincy IIIJosiah Quincy III

Prior to the American Civil War the Northern politicians called “doughfaces,” mostly members of the Democratic Party, were essential to the preservation of slavery; for example, as historian Leonard Richards of the University of Massachusetts has pointed out, in 1820 “seventeen or eighteen doughfaces” made the admission of Missouri as a slave state possible, either by voting or abstaining from voting. Hence, by “voting with the South in crucial measures” throughout the pre-Civil War era, Richards says, doughfaces “turned a Southern minority position in the House, and the nation at large, into a majority political position.” Or as Josiah Quincy III—holder of the Boston trifecta as a former congressman, mayor, and president of Harvard College—called them in an 1856 speech: “‘Northern men with Southern principles’ … men who, for the sake of power or pay, were willing to do any work [slaveowners] would set them upon.” So much virtually anyone with a passing familiarity with antebellum American politics might know—but what few Americans today realize is that “doughfaces” are hardly extinct. One of them, for example, is the founder of Vox, Matthew Yglesias—which is perhaps particularly surprising because in one sense Yglesias is Quincy’s intellectual heir.

That isn’t to say that there are not some major differences between the twenty-first century blogger and the nineteenth-century patrician. Unlike the Quincys, for instance—whose founding member arrived in 1628 and bought the site of the city of Boston five years later—the Yglesiases, like so many oppressed immigrant families, began their story with hard labor in New York City sweatshops like The New Yorker and The Nation.

Aside from that vast difference however, both men are noted for their connections to highly privileged educational establishments: while Quincy matriculated at Phillips Academy—according to the school, “the oldest incorporated high school in the United States”—not only is Yglesias an alum of New York City’s exclusive private Dalton School—named by Business Insider as one of the “9 most elite prep schools in New York City” in 2015—he is also, not only like Josiah but so many other Quincys down through the centuries, a Harvard grad. And just as Quincy followed the family business into the law and politics—his father, in a historical moment that might of some interest today, was John Adams’ co-counsel in defense of the armed authorities who shot both a black man and that man’s fellow laborers in the street in March of 1770 (the incident known to history as the Boston Massacre)—so too has Yglesias joined the family business: following in the footsteps of his writer grandfather, grandmother, and father, Yglesias began blogging as an undergraduate before getting work at The American Prospect, The Atlantic, and Slate after college. Yet despite all these differences—and similarities—in their biographies, the significant likeness between the WASP educator and the Jewish-Cuban blogger lies in their arguments, which have essentially the same terms.

Quincy’s speech to his fellow townspeople in 1856 denounced the hypocrisy of “the leaders of the democracy,” by which he meant the Northern Democratic Party politicians who loudly proclaimed their allegiance to the common people against the wealthy on the one hand—a theme of the Democratic Party since at least the time of Andrew Jackson’s demand, “Let the people rule”—but on the other helped to protect the South’s “peculiar institution.” Research into history, Quincy said, would demonstrate both that “when the slaveholders have any particularly odious and obnoxious work to do, they never fail to employ the leaders of the democracy of the Free States,” and how the slaveowners ceaselessly sought “and select[ed] among the leaders of the democracies of the great States” in order to find “the most corrupt and the least scrupulous.” (The implication is, in case it isn’t clear, that at least some of the doughfaces more or less sold their votes for material gain: “To some,” Quincy says, “promises were made, by way of opiates.”) These the slaveowners would recruit for their purposes—and thereby suborn the notion of economic justice in order to protect slavery. Their example demonstrated, Quincy effectively said, just how concern for economic justice does not necessarily mean racial justice.

Quincy’s argument ought to sound familiar: it could be viewed as one side of an argument that has lately largely clustered around the journalist Thomas Frank, founder of The Baffler and author of, most famously, 2006’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. According to the late New York University journalism professor Ellen Willis, for example, Frank’s latter book constituted another episode in an argument she dated back to the 1980 presidential election (but that could be dated, as I hope to have demonstrated, to 1856). Frank’s side argued, Willis said, that “the left must concentrate its energies on promoting a populist economic program, and that the Democrats, if they want to win elections, must stop being identified as the party of ‘upper middle class’ feminists, gays, and secularists”—a theory she, like Josiah Quincy in 1856, vociferously argued against.

Frank has been a popular target: the grounds Willis advanced against Frank in 2006 mirrored Jonathan Liu’s objections to Frank’s 2008 book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. In The Observer that year, Liu said that Frank “insist[ed] on the fundamental reality of economic interests over ‘cultural politics,’” which Liu said is “to throw minorities and gays and women under the bus.” In both 1856 and 2008, one side argues that social justice ought to precede economic justice—the other side the reverse.

As it happens, Yglesias comes down on the same side as Quincy, Willis, and Liu. In 2009, for example, Yglesias criticized “prosperous straight white intellectuals” for seeing “the past forty years” as “a period of relentless defeat for left-wing politics” due to “growing income inequality.” This is, in other words, an updated version of Quincy’s argument: the charge Quincy was leveling at Democratic politicians in 1856 was that by promoting economic populism, they were colluding in a system of racial oppression. If there were, as Leonard Richards says, more than three hundred Northern politicians (mostly Democrats) who fit Quincy’s description of doughfaces, while meanwhile the slaveowners (as Quincy said in 1856) “writhe[d] in agonies of fear at the very mention of human rights as applicable to people of color,” then clearly the doughfaces were promoting economic equality at the expense of the enslaved. Given the oppression faced by those enslaved, Quincy’s obvious disgust is entirely understandable.

Yet, where Quincy’s argument from a century and a half ago has a certain sense given the realities of the United States in 1856, the logic of Yglesias’ 2009 position is not nearly so straightforward. Lighten up, Yglesias advised those “straight white intellectuals” then, with their petty concerns about economic inequality: “these past forty years have also seen enormous advances in the practical opportunities available to women, a major decline in the level of racism … [and] wildly more public and legal acceptance of gays and lesbians.” What you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts.

The problem however is that Yglesias’ advice doesn’t cohere: assuming that Yglesias is right about the “enormous advances,” then why would it make sense to continue to advocate advancing minority rights to the exclusion of addressing economic inequality? That lapse in logic, however, is not nearly as disturbing as Yglesias’ response to a forum conducted in the pages of the Boston Review in 2012, about a paper by Princeton professor Martin Gilens and his Northwestern colleague Benjamin I. Page. Entitled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” the nut of that paper by the two political scientists was “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” In other words, Gilen’s and Page’s work demonstrated what radical critics have long asserted (without the fine-grained detail Gilen and Page provide): that the concerns of the “little guy” (and gal) have more or less zero impact on American policy. It’s a paper that ought to be deeply worrying to most Americans—yet to Yglesias, as we shall see, it’s just jake.

I say this because Yglesias begins his response to Gilens by saying that he “struggled to think of another essay that brings such excellent data and analytical power to bear on an issue while reaching such a fundamentally wrong-headed conclusion,” and ends by berating Gilens for “pining for a world in which policy outputs precisely reflect the views of the public”—which Yglesias thinks “is neither here nor there in terms of obtaining a better political system.” In other words, the input of voters is irrelevant: “policy responsiveness to public opinion,” Yglesias writes, “is not particularly important.” To Yglesias, it seems, the notion that—as some bumpkin once remarked—the United States is, or ought to be, a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” is a ridiculous idea held by rubes and suckers.

The trouble with the “doughfaces,” Josiah Quincy said, was that they espoused (or feigned) a concern for economic equality while secretly colluding with a system of racial discrimination. By that definition, obviously, Yglesias cannot be considered a “doughface”: not only does he not live in the 1850s, he is advocating—as Quincy did—fighting discrimination before fighting inequality, whereas doughfaces backed the opposite plan. But in doing so, Quincy said, the doughfaces “rendered the Constitution of the United States a blank letter”: what was the point of voting in the Free States, after all, if that vote was merely traded away in Washington? Yet while the doughfaces might have, in effect, short-circuited the democratic will of the people in that fashion—without them, it’s possible that slavery might have ended by a simple majority vote—I don’t know of any historical “doughfaces” that actually attacked the very idea of democracy, as Yglesias does. In that sense, I suppose it could be said that Matthew Yglesias is not a doughface—the nineteenth-century friends of slavery, who went so far (as John Calhoun did) to call slavery a “positive good,” never dared to call for the straight-up abolition of democratic government in favor of a state based on identity: even Jefferson Davis never called the act of voting itself into question. So, yep, Matthew Yglesias is not doughface: he just believes that liberal democracy is obsolete and that racial and other identities are more important terms of analysis than any other. You know, like these guys.

How proud the (predominantly Jewish) Yglesiases, and Harvard, must be.