Of the Mayflower Compact


Upon dropping anchor off Cape Cod in 1620, the men on board the Mayflower convened to draft a compact that would be bound by law and create a government. The immediate cause of the compact was the fear of non Separatists (called Strangers) on board the ship. These individuals were financial backers of the new colonial experiment, and it was feared that they would defy the Separatists if they landed in an area other than what had been given to them by the London Company. The Mayflower Compact is more vital than some may wish to admit. Unlike their Puritan neighbors in Boston Harbor, the Pilgrims were separatists. The Pilgrims wanted a complete separate between the English Church and the Roman Church; the Church of England still held very many vestiges of the Roman Church until well after the separation took place. And because the Church of England was lead by the King, the Pilgrims not only viewed the Church to be utterly corrupt but also the state.   Upon examining the Mayflower Compact, we may better understand the American Revolution a century later.

It should be pointed out that the first words of the compact are “In the name of God”, as Willmoore Kendall suggests, “The one God is called to witness the compact that is about to be made. And we may safely assume that none of the signers of this oath is taking the matter lightly. Any subsequent violation of this oath will be no mere breaking a promise but an offense against God…” The Pilgrims acknowledge God first and never exclaim the name of the King for who they make this compact. The Pilgrims have acknowledge that their right to compact is granted to them by God by their pronouncement of “In the Name of God” with the Hebrew word “Amen” meaning “Let it be done” following. This is an important step because they are acknowledging that their authority does not come from the King, but rather it comes from God. As Willmoore Kendall once more explains, “In Western Civilization basic symbolizations tend to be variants of the original symbolization of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition: variants, this is to say, of the tale according to which a founder, Moses, leads the people out of the realm of darkness, Egypt, into the desert…” And as we can see from this, the Pilgrims are fleeing their own Egypt for the safety of Plymouth. Like the Israelites, the Pilgrims are not acknowledging the authority to constitute government stemming not from the King, but from God.

The primary purpose of the mission is laid out in the first sentence of the compact, “Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia.” This is not uncommon, all colonies whether English, French or Spanish at this point were founded for, at least in name, the Glory of God and the Faith as well as for monarch and country. The French were less shy about also seeking riches in the Americas. So it is not unusual that the Separatists, who still viewed themselves as Englishmen, to acknowledge that their colony was founded to help God, the Church, King and Country. As such, the main purposes of this document are to demonstrate that the colony wants to promote God, religion, King, and country. It is interesting to point out that the Pilgrims list Faith and Church in front of Politics and State. By omitting the King’s name at the front of the document, and now here placing him subordinate to God and the Church, have inadvertedly stripped him of his power over them. The Mayflower Compact is forced to still recognize King James as their sovereign due to the large number of Strangers on board the ship. However, it is still significant that the King is subordinated under God. Like the Declaration will do a century later, they are displacing the King’s authority by acknowledge God’s authority as their means of receiving government. Like Moses and the other ancients before them, this society and body politic will simply be a divinely ordained society. As such, because its purposes are firstly divine, the citizens cannot revolt. Like the ancient regimes who were thought to be formed in the likeness of the gods, so too is the Plymouth society.

While the Pilgrims acknowledge the sovereignty of the King they still believed him unable to fulfill their perceived end of society: salvation. The Pilgrims maintained some hope that King James, a Presbyterian, would affect the changes they believed necessary in the Church of England. However, they were prepared for a total separation if James proved to be incapable of doing what they hoped. In addition to this explanation, it cannot be forgotten that the Pilgrims were far more willing to admit a strict alliance between Church and State. The English Monarchs for some time up to that point had declared their legitimacy was a by product of Divine Right and the Pilgrims whole hardheartedly supported that belief. Therefore, the King was subordinated beneath God as a way of rebellion against the still very Catholic monarchy. There cannot be too much emphasis placed on the desired separation from England by the Pilgrims, though the Compact is clear that the Pilgrims had by some right to govern themselves.

The next sentence of the Mayflower Compact is what might be of more use for our purposes.  The passengers “covenant and combine” themselves into a “body politic.” For those less aware, a body politic is a government strictly speaking. There are some who will argue that the passengers were hoping to only erect a temporary government for themselves, but this cannot be assumed just looking at the Compact. The colonists were erecting for themselves a government and it is rarely for a short time that people do such things. These words and what follows are almost entirely the same as the words which end the Declaration of Independence. This alone helps draw the connection between the purpose of the Declaration of Independence and the Mayflower Compact. Because the Pilgrims were persecuted by their own king in their home country, they were forced to flee to a distant and alien land to erect a new government more suited for their ends. As a result, by erecting this government, they were acknowledge not only had the King’s government infringed on their rights, but that the King was no longer able to provide them with the essential needs government is instituted for the begin with. As was pointed out with Aristotle and John Locke, these reasons alone are cause for a revolution in the government.

Yet, if this is not enough to sway you in this favor then the next sentence should be enough, “And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.” The Pilgrims were no fools, they recognized that the government of England would not be able to properly govern the colony three thousand miles away. As a result, this new government established by the Pilgrims was given the power to legislate. If nothing else, the simple power of legislation is itself the power of government. And further, had the Pilgrims not entered into a body politic they would have properly been living in a state of nature with no impartial judge to settle their quarrels. As such, the Pilgrims not only enter into a civil government, but they also give it power to erect laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and officers of the colony. Under English law only the King has the authority to appoint officers, and only the parliament by virtue of its power from the King has the authority to erect laws, ordinances and acts. But the Pilgrims go yet still one step further by pledging their submission and obedience to this newly established regime.

The final nail in the coffin is that after signing this document, the Pilgrim men elected John Carver the first governor of the colony of Plymouth. His authority does not stem from good King James, but rather from the authority of the citizens of the colony. Had they merely been given their government, as had Jamestown, this would not been an issue. However, the Mayflower Compact was designed and instituted by the Pilgrims themselves, not by the London Company or the King. The Pilgrims, whether purposely or not, had erected a rival government to the authority of the King. They had no right to establish for themselves a government, or to elect a governor. They had given themselves authority equal to that of the British Parliament back in London. Ultimately, the Mayflower Compact can be seen as the first movement of the American Revolution. The Pilgrims had be confronted by an unjust government and fled to establish a new government. The tradition of self government in the Massachusetts colony began at Plymouth with the signing of the Mayflower Compact. By the end of the French and Indian War when the British government began taking a better look at her colonies in America, the people of Massachusetts and other colonies had a long history of self government. While the people of Plymouth may have called themselves British subjects, they had unconsciously recognized that they were no longer subjects of the crown of Great Britain by erecting their own government in its place.

Between Two Worlds: Charles Eastman


The life of Charles Eastman is, in many respects, no different than that of any other great American. Men like Andrew Carnegie and Benjamin Franklin, like Eastman, brought themselves up from modest means through education and hard work. Eastman’s story in particular is similar to that of Olaudah Equiano or Frederick Douglass in that despite their status as minorities (and even as sub-human) they were able to achieve greatness.  Charles Eastman was born a Sioux Indian living in Canada in opposition to the white government of the United States. By the end of his life, Eastman was a well respected man among both Indians and whites while always teetering between two very different worlds and belonging barely to either.

At many points in his narrative Charles Eastman references times when he turned his back to his Indian ways and turned toward the ways of the white man. He credits his father for allowing that change to happen when he suddenly reemerged after a number of years to take his son back to his homestead across the American-Canadian border.  Eastman’s father was much changed from the man he remembered in his youth.  In particular Eastman references his father’s acceptance of Christianity as the largest change in his father.  Eastman said of his father’s religion, “It was his Christian faith and devotion which was perhaps the strongest influence toward my change of heart and complete change of my purpose in life.”[1] But throughout his life Eastman would see both the good and the bad of the white man’s religion.  Eastman’s father had incredible influence over his son, and one may say that as a proper Indian Eastman had no choice but to follow the will of his father. In many ways it was a result of his father that Eastman would continuously straddle the fence between Indian and white man without ever clearly stepping fully into either world. Through is father’s insistence and his grandmother’s disapproval Eastman attends his first school near his father’s homestead in Minnesota.  As Eastman described his first day in school one cannot help but think that his first day might seem similar to anyone’s first day of school. His resistance to the ways of the white man is quickly changed and upon returning to school he has cut his hair and devoted himself to following the path his father has laid out for him.  However, in his first day of school Eastman recounts the story years later and seems distant to the events.  By the time he wrote his story he was no longer the Indian boy who walked into the small prairie school house and the events seem like a distant event that he was only a spectator to. In particular Eastman wrote, “He rose silently…did not dare to do or say anything….”[2] his retelling is entirely in the third person as though a piece of fiction rather than a historical event.  The first time in which Eastman tells his reader that his heart was moved toward “civilization” was with his father and in those first days of school. But the first acceptance of this new life came not from the heart, but “were logical enough on the whole, although almost entirely from the outside….”[3]

The second instance in which Eastman tells of his decision to abandon his early ways for the ways of the white man come when he his travelling to his first boarding school. The Santee Agency in Nebraska was where Eastman first began to live up to his potential intellectually. While on the way to Santee he and a travel companion stopped to hunt and trap for food. The companion decided that he will stay there and continue living as their ancestors had once before. Eastman decided to obey his father’s wishes, still to this point they decision was not wholly his own but rather what his father willed, and continue on for the Santee Agency.  He was sixteen at the time and left to travel from his father’s home to Nebraska on his own. It is in the recounting of a story of his first experience in dealing with white men that Eastman tells of a second conversion to accept the ways of the white man. Tired and hungry from the road the young Eastman approached a farm house and begged to be fed. The farmer and his family accepted his plea and offered him food and a place to stay. In return Eastman, unfamiliar with money, offered the farmer money his father had given him. The farmer rejected the offer and it is with this gesture that Eastman wrote, “Then and there I loved civilization and renounced my wild life.”[4] The school at the agency was a struggle for Eastman.  At one point while in class a professor pulled out a globe and showed the Indian boys the world and Eastman remarked years later, “I felt that my foot hold was deserting me. All my savage training and philosophy was in the air, if these things were true.”[5] While at Santee Eastman continued his transformation into the world of the white man, but still held on to the world of the Indian.

At the same time period while he was at Santee his Sioux brethren were waging a war against the United States Government.  He indicates that it was during his time at Santee that the Battle of Little Big Horn took place. [6] The struggle Eastman had in living as an Indian in the world of the white man was made harder by the actions of his tribesmen. As Eastman wrote, he saw his own blood as “hostile” but Custer and his men as “gallant”. Yet at the same time, while at Beloit College he “was followed on the streets by gangs of little white savages…”[7] His struggle for self identity was not something unfamiliar in a time of such great change in America.

And it was while at Beloit College, during summer vacation that Eastman enjoyed yet another conversion experience to the ways of the white man, and his religion. While working for a farmer he had his eyes, “opened intelligently to the greatness of Christian civilization…” but he was still not converted in his heart to the ways of the white man.  While still working for the farmer Eastman “renounced finally [his] bow and arrows for the spade and the pen….” This was yet another time that he was able to have a conversion to the ways of the white man. He recommitted himself to the trail his father had laid out for him years before in Minnesota. And it was also here that Eastman, “gained [his] first conception of the home life and domestic ideals of the white man” through interactions with American college girls. Years later he would once again make a step toward transforming into a white man by marrying a white woman. But as was a common theme in Eastman’s life, he did not stay at Beloit very long. Instead he moved on to Dartmouth College. Dartmouth was originally established for the education of Indians, a fact for which Eastman was proud.  It was at Dartmouth that the final conversion seems to have taken place, for he believed, “it was here that I had the most of my savage gentleness and native refinement knocked out of me.”[8] From this point forward Eastman had the knowledge of two worlds to judge both according to their merits. His experiences with the white man through his days of education were generally good, but while a doctor at the Pine Ridge Reservation and thereafter he began to see the bad nature of the white man.

While Eastman was the doctor at the Pine Ridge Reservation he had the opportunity to engage in a number of aspects of the management of the reservation. He was a well respected man among both the whites and Indians and that gave him great influence over both at various points. His view on the Ghost Dance can be summed up as “watch and wait”, which the white leaders of the Reservation did not agree with.  The massacre at Wounded Knee served as an example of the white man’s malice for Eastman, who had not seen it up close as he had avoided such circumstances in the past.  All the while at the reservation Eastman defended the white man to his Indian brethren. That is, until he was asked to witness the issuing of allowances to Indians on the reservation. When it became clear that government officials were short changing those Indians too naïve to know any better, Eastman was steadfast in his refusal to remain silent on the issue. He was ultimately forced out of his job as a doctor to the Indians on behalf of the United States government. While he returned to his father’s homeland in Minnesota he opened a shop and realized that the white man was all too willing to cut corners and skirt the law. An opportunity with the Y.M.C.A presented itself to Eastman who agreed to go to the Indians and establish Y.M.C.A chapters. He successfully was able to preach the Protestant Christian belief system to the Indians he encountered and established numerous chapters of the Y.M.C.A. From this he began speaking to groups of white men about the place of Native Americans in American History.

Charles Eastman’s legacy deserves to be given two places, one with the world of the white man as a great ambassador to his own people on the white man’s behalf. The other is with the Indian world as their great ambassador of the Indian to the white man. But ultimately this only goes to demonstrate that Charles Eastman was continuously caught between two worlds while never really in either. He routinely underwent conversions to the ways of the white man, only to be disillusioned by the actions of the white man years later. He rejected the ways of the Indian numerous times, only to be an ambassador for the importance of the Indian in American History.

 


[1] Eastman, Charles A. From the Deep Woods to Civilization. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977. pg. 10

 

[2] Ibid. 23

[3] Ibid. 29

[4] Ibid. 39

[5] Ibid. 47

[6] “It must be remembered that this was September, 1876, less than three month’s after Custer’s gallant command was annihilated by the hostile Sioux.” Ibid 53.

[7]Ibid 53

[8] Ibid. 67

Here this you kings! Listen, you rulers!: Thomas Aquinas and his Regimes


An important part of any political philosophy seems to be the question of Constitution. Plato and Aristotle both spend time in their seminal works on politics to understand the forms of government. For Plato those regimes are Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny.[1] Aristotle expands on those regimes by excluding Timocracy and adding Kingship, and Polity.[2] The Neo Platonic and Aristotelian thinkers of the Middle Ages took a similar view on the forms of government. St. Thomas Aquinas is no different than his fellow Middle Age thinkers and devotes time to understanding the various forms of government. In the First Part of the Second Part of his Summa Theologiae Aquinas lays out his Treatise on Law. Within that treatise, in question 95 article 4, Aquinas argues for five forms of government.  Within his discussion of the forms of government a series of important questions are brought forth including, the relationship between law and regime, the place of the ecclesiastical within the civil society, and what can be determined as Aquinas’ best regime despite what he explicitly states.

First it is necessary to examine the regimes laid out by Aquinas and also their corresponding form of law. By understanding the type of law associated with each regime and what Aquinas believes to be the best regime as a result we may gain a better understanding of their relationship. From there it seems proper to discuss the place of the ecclesiastical authority within the civil society and in particular whether or not Aquinas gives any authority to the ecclesiastical. Finally, based on his three statements found in questions 95, 105 of the Summa and On Kingship we may come to some understanding of what Aquinas understands as the best regime.

Aquinas explicitly discusses his regimes and their relationship to human law in question 95 article 4. The first regime Aquinas mentions is monarchy, and the form of law associated with this regime are “royal ordinances.”[3] Aristocracy is the second regime and is associated with “authoritative legal opinions and senatorial decrees.”[4] Oligarchy is associated with “praetorian law” or what Aquinas also calls, “honorary.”[5] Democracy is the final regime associated with law, as tyranny is lawless, and democracy has, “acts of plebian assemblies.”[6] It is curious that Aquinas does not place the distinction of human law in particular on any of the regimes. The closest are Aristocracy and Oligarchy yet even those are only “opinions” and “honorary” laws. And considering the regimes and the form of law associated with them, Aquinas declares that none are the best government. This is unique given that in question 105, and in his work On Kingship where Aquinas declares that Kingship is the best form of government.[7] Yet in light of the relationship between regime and law none seem to have authoritative human law associated with them. This may be because Aquinas states that the best is a mixed regime with Kingship, Aristocracy and Democracy.  However, if, none of the political regimes have law proper, then where does one receive law? Can authoritative human law be achieved through the temporal, or must one look towards someplace else? Aquinas exhibits four kinds of law: Eternal, Natural, Divine and Human law. The Human law is a reflection of the Natural and Divine laws. The Natural law is the Eternal Law’s participation in human reason. Therefore, it would appear as though only the ecclesiastical can make authoritative human law.

While Aquinas does not, in these sections, directly reference the relationship between the temporal and the ecclesiastical. However, using what Aquinas states in questions 95 and 105 of the Summa and On Kingship it nonetheless appears important to discuss that relationship. The polity is declared in question 95 to be the best regime. In question 95 of the Summa, polity, a mix of Kingship, Aristocracy and Democracy, is declared the best regime; this polity could be likened to the regime found in England. However, does Aquinas mean by polity a mix of temporal and ecclesiastical authority with the Papacy at its head as king, and local aristocratic and democratic assemblies to deal with the day to day operations of the civil society? At the time the Papacy was only beginning to take the traditional title of Kings, “Vicar of Christ” for itself. However, based on Aquinas’ view of the Human law, it would appear that the ecclesiastical authority is necessary in the creation of human law. And so looking at this possible relationship between the two spheres, temporal and ecclesiastical, then one may see in Aquinas his willingness to give to the Papacy political authority in connection with the Papacy’s emerging claim to the title of Vicar of Christ.  Authoritative Human law could be possible under Papal rule, if one assumes that Human law is a reflection of the Natural and Divine laws and that they can only be decreed by members of the clergy. If this in fact is true, then a starker contrast can be seen between Aquinas and the moderns, even a starker contrast between Aquinas and a fellow medieval like Dante. The alternative to seeing Kingship as filled by a temporal, civil leader rather than by the Papacy would call into question Aquinas’ belief that the ecclesiastical has any authority within civil society at all.

And so having examined what Aquinas defines as the political regimes, and what he explicitly states as the best regime and the place of the ecclesiastical within civil society we can now turn our attention to be better understand what exactly Aquinas’ view of the best regime is. Within the Treatise on Law and On Kingship Aquinas states his view on the best regime three times. In question 95-4 the best regime, as already stated, is a polity with Kingship, Aristocracy and Democracy. Yet ten questions later Aquinas contradicts himself by stating the best regime is Kingship. And then again in On Kingship the best regime is seen as Kingship. Looking at On Kingship we may dismiss the account of the best regime on one major premise, the treatise is written to the King of Cyprus. The seriousness of Aquinas’ claim in On Kingship, therefore, can only be taken in light of question 105-1 from the Treatise on Law. Yet, an understanding here may be taken in light of question 95-4 where he indicates polity will include kingship. However, in his On Kingship Aquinas states, “Man therefore needs something to guide him towards his end.”[8] This guide is a ruler, whether it is a King, aristocrat, oligarch, or democrat and the end appears to be, “man may devote his reason to some particular branch of learning.” The best guide or form of government, in On Kingship is Kingship. He further defends his argument for Kingship as the best regime on the grounds that government of many is more likely to become unjust than the government by one.[9] The question of government by many is explained by Aquinas as, “For there is no beauty in a body unless all its members are properly disposed, and ugliness arises when even one member is improperly so”[10] In each instance throughout On Kingship Aquinas appeals to what might be called the energy and efficiency of the one over the many. In addition, Aquinas considers that if there are three rulers and one is corrupt than the whole is corrupt. Both of these reasons are why Aquinas suggests that Kingship is the best possible regime.

However, in his Treatise on Law it appears that the best government, polity, corresponds to that government with the most authoritative law. Throughout the whole of the Treatise on Law it appears that law is the ultimate good given to man by God as it allows man to know and participate in the Divine As such, it appears that the best regime must have the best human law associated with it. As Aquinas says in questions 90 and 92 in his Treatise on law, “A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order to the common good,”[11] indicating that the best regime should be the one that best orders the common good. He goes on to say, “Consequently it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is “that which makes its subject good,” it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect.”[12] And as before, it would appear that the best regime would be the one that best makes its subject good. And since Aquinas argues that the best regime in relation to law is polity, it would follow that the best regime simply for Aquinas would be polity.

Therefore, in looking at his description in the Treatise on Law and On Kingship of the best regime, the argument from the Treatise on Law that the best regime is the one with the best law seems to be stronger than the one in On Kingship. Because the argument in the Treatise on Law appears stronger, we may assume that Aquinas believes polity is the best government albeit with the proper form of kingship. This appears true because the role of law is so important in human affairs for Aquinas throughout the Treatise on Law.

Aquinas’ description of the regimes calls into question three key things, the relationship between regimes and law, the role of the ecclesiastical in civil society, and what appears to be Aquinas’ view of the best regime based on the relationship of regimes and law. Some may question the necessity of addressing the role of the ecclesiastical in society because Aquinas himself does not address this. However, because of the historic role of the Church at the time of Aquinas and the centuries immediately following his life one cannot exclude the possible implications of ecclesiastical in society. And because Aquinas states in various locations differing views of what can be called the best regime it is necessary to attempt to better understand Aquinas’ view based on what he says but not necessarily what he says is the best regime; i.e. the role of the regime in human life, and the role of law.


[1] Plato’s Republic book VIII. Plato also states that Aristocracy degrades into Timocracy, which degrades into Oligarchy and then into Democracy and finally into Tyranny.

[2] Aristotles’s Politics book III and IV. Aristotle claims that Kingship is the most desired regime and this differs from Aquinas’s view in On Kingship where he calls it the best regime. Aristotle calls polity the best possible regime and it is here in Question 95 of the Treatise on Law that Aquinas agrees with Aristotle’s account.

[3] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae IaIIae 95-4 in  Aquinas: Political Writings edited by R.W. Dyson, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008) pg. 135

[4] Summa Theologiae I, II, 95-4 pg. 136

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “A kingdom is the best form of government of the people” Summa Theologiae I, II, 105-1. And, “The rule of the King is best.” On Kingship, pg. 11.  One must call into question Aquinas’s declaration of kingship in On Kingship as it is a letter written to the King of Cyprus. As such, one may argue that Aquinas is simply appeasing the king in declaring kingship to be the best regime. His seemingly contradictory statements in the Treatise on Law may be rectified by demonstrating that Kingship is one of the regimes in the Polity and that Polity should be in the form of a kingship, albeit with Aristocracy and Democracy elements.

[8] Aquinas Political Writings, pg. 5

[9] Aquinas Political Writings, pg. 17, “If, however, one man rules…” and “For when dissension arises.”

[10] Aquinas Political Writings, pg. 13.

[11] Summa Theologiae, 1.1.90-3

[12] Summa Theologiae 1.1.92-1

Evil men do not understand justice


What recourse does one have when a King, who rules by Divine Right, is deposed and usurped by another? The Heavens who have chosen the now usurped King cannot be thought to sit idly by while an illegitimate sovereign now reigns. Shakespeare’s second installment of his Second Tetralogy explores how the Heavens resolve the problem of the illegitimate sovereign. In particular the First Part of Henry IV explores how the Heavens attempted to solve the question of the illegitimate King. The first act of the play demonstrates that an uprising of supporters of the slain King Richard II is underway and both Prince Hal and his friend Falstaff discuss the relation of the Moon’s power to govern the affairs of men. It appears that the Law, which governs the Heavenly Bodies and men, is personified by Shakespeare in the First Part of Henry IV as a means of gaining satisfaction against King Henry IV for his usurpation of God’s chosen King, Richard II.

Some have seen Henry IV, Part One[1] as a play about the creation of a Prince and King in the character of Prince Hal; however, the play focuses on the career of a usurper.[2] Falstaff and Prince Hal discuss the new situation that they find themselves in. Falstaff says to Hal, “let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.” (Act 1, scene 2, lines 28-31.) The moon has the power to make the ocean rise and fall at will and that same power governs men according to Falstaff. The moon is governed by God, and therefore the moon appears with water, the prominent literary image of redemption and a new beginning.  The moon will be used by God to cleanse the Kingdom of England by stirring the passions of the people into a outright rebellion.   The rebellion of the Welsh seems to be caused by stirrings of the moon in accordance with Falstaff’s belief of the moon’s power over mankind. The Prince responds to Falstaff by saying, “Thou sayest well, and it holds well too, for the fortune of us that are moon’s men doth ebb and flow like the sea, being governed, as the sea is, by the moon.” (Act 1, scene 2, lines 32-35) The question that Prince Hal now must face is how to protect stability in England despite the wrath of Heaven against his father. Yet, to demonstrate to the Heavens that he, Prince Hal, is deserving of the throne his father stole, Hal acknowledges, “And pay the debt I never promised” (Act 1 scene 2, 216) This prophetic statement by Hal indicates that his father will in fact be saved from Divine justice, instead the Prince and the English people will be forced to pay for the sins of Henry IV.

Having disposed the King, Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke is prepared to turn his attention to the restoration of time and the kingdom of England; he proposes a crusade to the Holy Land. However, as King Henry IV, Bolingbroke faces his first threat from the Welsh, who as supporters of the late King Richard II are prepared to revolt against the usurper King.[3] Because of threats to his throne the crusade must be put on hold.  The play of the First Part of Henry IV focuses around the hostilities the new king faces in the aftermath of his execution and disposition of the previous king. In particular, a theme of the play is posed by the King’s son Hal; he will be forced to pay for the actions of his father in taking the thrown. The play looks to the relationship of the Heavenly Bodies and political affairs; England’s political affairs throughout the play are chaotic. Something seems to be seeking retribution for the deposing of God’s chosen monarch. The Law appears in various forms throughout the play, each seeking retribution against the King. The threat of a Welsh uprising is also an indication that Shakespeare plans for Part 1 of Henry IV how the Heavens handle usurpers.  Henry’s rule has ushered in a period of lawlessness in England that will last until the last of the Lancaster Monarchs has reigned. As Falstaff states, “I am accursed to rob in that thief’s company.”(2, 2, 10) The only way to restore the rule of law and order in England is restore the monarchy to a King who represents lawfulness rather than lawlessness. Henry’s choice to overthrow his cousin Richard plays out in the play to show the consequences of his choice: England and his family will suffer Divine justice.

The final element of the story of Divine Justice against King Henry IV is the war against the Welsh.[4] Falstaff says, “Rebellion lay in his way….” (5.1.29.)  The rebellion, a result of the moon’s power over the passions of men, symbolizes the Divine Justice against King Henry and as Falstaff indicates the rebellion was predestined when Henry usurped Richard. Rebellion by the Welsh calls into question the English Constitution under Henry IV and even his successors; primarily the weakness and irresponsibility of the King. Prince Hal comes into his own during the war as his plan expressed in his soliloquy in the first act. He draws others to himself, much like a jeweler places a diamond against a black background. And by executing his plan, and taking part in the war, Hal has made himself the object Divine Justice will aim toward.[5] This is evident by the action of Part II of Henry IV as Henry IV is terminally ill rather than dying from an external condition. Prince Hal kills the rebel leader Hotspur at the end of the play; and if the rebellion is the heavens seeking Divine Justice upon Henry then Hotspur must be the chief sword for that Divine Justice. This action places Hal, and not Henry, in the sights of the heavens as they seek retribution for the death of their legitimate, Divine Right King Richard.  As the Kingdom is taking account of what has happened in the rebellion, the King observes, “Thus did rebellion find rebuke…”(5.5.1) The divinely ordained rebellion was rebuked by the son of the man who disobeyed the Lord’s command that Richard be King of England. The theme at the beginning of the play, the restoration of time and the Kingdom, alludes to the words of Henry after the rebellion has been put down. Time represents a temporal order, indicating that Henry has restored a temporal monarchy after a period of Divine monarchs.

Many Shakespearean critics claim that the story of the play Part I of Henry IV is the story of Prince Hal and his career on the path to becoming king of England. Yet, the story of the play focuses on the Divine Justice planned out by the heavens against the usurper King Henry IV. The Prince interferes with this plan of the heavens by intersecting himself in the rebellion and killing the leader of the rebel army. The movement of the play does involve the establishment of Hal as the true and proper heir of Henry IV but in the sense that Hal becomes the focus of Divine Justice throughout Part II of Henry IV and Henry V where Hal becomes King Henry V. The rebellion is the main object of the play whereby Prince Hal reveals himself as the proper heir to the lawless, usurper King Henry IV. Rather than being good, this event actually shows the inevitable downfall of one of Shakespeare’s most important characters.


[1] All quotes from the play taken from Folger Shakespeare Library: Henry IV, Part 1. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: New York, 1994.

[2] David Berkeley and Donald Eidson, “The Themes of Henry IV, Part I” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter, 1968), pp. 25-31 accessed from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2867838 on 5/1/10. The authors argue in “The Themes of Henry IV, Part I” that one of the themes in Henry IV, part One is the education of a prince. However, they ignore that the play also demonstrates Divine justice on usurpers. More importantly they fail to notice that Prince Hal, while “learning” to become King models himself on his father who is a lawless usurper in the eyes of the heavens. Thus, the Prince’s education is complete when he kills the leader of the divinely ordained rebel army, Hotspur.

[3] Trafton, Dain A. “Shakespeare’s Henry IV, A New Prince in a New Principality” in Shakespeare as a Political Thinker edited by John E. Alvis & Thomas G. West, (ISI Books: Wilmington, DE. 2000) pg. 94-104. This article is similar in the argument that I make in that the story of Henry IV is about Henry IV despite other underlying storylines. In addition, Trafton argues that Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 demonstrate the consequences of Henry’s decision to overthrow the Divine Right King Richard II.

[4]Leggatt, “Henry IV, Part 1: A Modern Perspective” in Folger Shakespeare Library: Henry IV, Part 1. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: New York, 1994. Similar to the argument made by Berkely and Eidson, Alexander Leggatt in his essay “Henry IV, Part 1: A modern perspective” argues that the movement of the play is towards the establishment of Hal as the true heir to Henry. However, his focus is on the battle of Shrewsbury where Hal proves himself the heir by killing Hotspur. This point I do not disagree with, as Hal’s killing of Hotspur shows him the proper object of Divine Justice.

[5] In Hal’s soliloquy at act 1 scene 2 he hatches a plan to make himself appear as the proper heir to Henry’s thrown. He says, “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill….”(1.2.223) Indicating that he will throw off attention on his father, making himself appear as “the sun.”

Emergence of the American Military Power


Have you ever wondered where the military power of the United States came from? We haven’t always been a super power capable of destroying our enemies, our friends, and ourselves.  For most of the early years of the American republic we had to rely on allies to assists us in our military campaigns. The French aided us in the American Revolution, although we did have minor successes prior to their entry into the war. We fought to a stalemate with the English during the War of 1812, yet our Nation’s Capital was burned down.

We were able to defeat the Mexicans during the Mexican-American War, but we still weren’t a super power. We had to rely on the British to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, which stated that the Western Hemisphere is closed to European Colonization. Yet, one event in American History stands alone as ushering in the advent of American military supremacy.

During the Civil War advancements in technology were made that made obsolete all other militaries in the world. The mini ball made for more accurate gun fire, destroying a military fighting style that had spanned centuries. The CSS Hunley was only the second major attempt by Americans to create submarine power (the USS Turtle was used during the American Revolution, which was a one man submarine that operated on a similar concept as the Hunley.) And ultimately, the clash of the Iron Clads (CSS Merrimack & USS Monitor) made all other navies in the world obsolete. By the end of the Civil War there were over 1 Million soldiers in America’s Army. Within a couple years that number would drop significantly to 125,000 military personal.

In the wake of the Civil War and the assassination, and attempted assassination, of President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State Seward two nations attempted to capitalize on a war torn nation. Emperor Louis Napoleon III had fashioned himself as a French Andrew Jackson, but like his famous ancestor became an Emperor. With the coup that destroyed the French Second Republic, Napoleon sought to take advantage of a perceived weak America.

Napoleon conspired with the Arch-Duke Maximilian of Austria to take over Mexico and create an Empire that would threaten the existence of the United States. Secretary Seward recovered from a carriage accident and being stabbed in a failed assassination attempt the night Lincoln was shot by Booth to challenge Napoleon’s plan. General Grant sent 50,000 soldiers and General Sheridan to the Texas-Mexican border to secure America from an attack. In the mean time Seward sent General Schofield to deter Napoleon from his plan. Publicly Seward published a letter to the Emperor that was more diplomatic than what Schofield was sent to deliver. Napoleon backed down and the Mexicans murdered the Arch-Duke.

In the mean time, the British were attempting to secure Canada from the United States. War was England was eminent during the Civil War, it was only Ambassador Charles Francis Adams  (Son of John Q. Adams and grandson of John Adams) that helped prevent war from breaking out. The British, Sir John A.  MacDonald created a plan to create the Kingdom of Canada, a confederacy of the Canada territories. When northerners along the border cried for war, the English monarch Queen Victoria signed into law a bill creating the Dominion of Canada; regardless, the damage was done and a permanent reminder of the English monarchy was created. And in a major coup for the United States, Secretary of State Seward purchased Alaska from the Russians. This purchased, declared “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Ice Box” was actually a tactical victory for the United States. With Alaska, the United States surrounded Canada from the South and the West. The arctic circle to the north meant that Canada only had it’s Eastern boarder free from America. In the event of a war with England, the United States could secure Canada and blockade it’s Eastern shore ports.

The United States came out of the Civil War a military power house. Over the next thirty years the US would continue to grow stronger as the industrial revolution took hold. By the time the United States went to war with Spain she had one of the strongest navies in the world, and was able to defeat the once mighty Spanish. Following the destruction of Europe in World War I, the United States stood as the most complete and most powerful military in the world. It wouldn’t be until the end of the Second World War that the U.S. was officially a super power, with enough fire power to destroy the world.

Notes on The Tragedy of Caesar


When looking at Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar it is important to consider first and foremost the situation of Rome at the time the play takes place. In his unofficial Tetralogy of Roman History, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is the third installment following the “Rape of Lucrece” and Coriolanus. To consider the situation of Rome one need only look at the beginning of the play. A group of commoners are confronted by Flavius, a Patrician. The commoners are not recognized as citizens by Flavius and they are not wearing badges indicating their position. The great Roman war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great has ended and the commoners are calling for a celebration, a holiday. Yet, this call for a celebration is an indication of the fracturing of Roman politics and the dissolution of the Republic. Only victories over foreigners were traditionally celebrated by Rome, and so celebrating Caesar’s victory over a great Roman general is an important element to observe in the play.

From this point the play takes two positions, one as the Tragedy of Julius Caesar and the second as the Tragedy of Brutus.

In regards to Caesar, the commoners view Caesar as a “Super” Tribune though he held no official office. Historically speaking Caesar was a dictator at the time but there is question over whether the Senate recognized this office. If they didn’t recognize it, then Caesar was left to strive for something even more: the crown of King. This is the situation of the play, as Caesar has returned home there is discussion of naming Caesar Dictator for Life and providing him with a crown (albeit the Senate will insist it only be worn outside the city.) In addition to seeing him as “Super” Tribune, the people generally regard Caesar as a living god which some suggest is what Caesar is truly after. However Caesar suffered from epilepsy, got sick, and lost a swimming race, all of which may call into question the divine nature of Caesar.   One thing is very certain though, Julius Caesar was a very accomplished conqueror.  Caesar is also a shrewd politician who is well aware of the nature of the Roman people and so despite any desire to hold the crown he will refuse it knowing the people’s hatred of monarchy.

Throughout the play Caesar speaks of himself in the third person and refers to himself as the “unmoved mover”, which those familiar with theology and Aristotelian metaphysics will note that the unmoved mover is God. And to drive this point home further, Caesar calls himself Jupiter who was the Chief god of the Romans.  As a result of this  Shakespeare departs from his source (Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans) who suggests that Caesar struggled with his assassins and yet Shakespeare’s Caesar does not. This may indicate that Shakespeare’s Caesar desired some more than the crown of King or Dictator.

Caesar’s assassination calls the audiences attention to problems within the Roman Republic. The people’s devotion to a man who may or may not have desired to become King or at worst a god suggests that the people cannot rule themselves and are in need of a Caesar. This may be a result of the nature of the Roman Republic, which is also an Empire. One of the faults of Empire is that Republic is not possible. This is in part because you will constantly be on extended military adventures and will need a General willing to lead these exhibitions. As a result the soldiers that make up that General’s army will become devoted to their General more than to the republican government. A Republic exists so that no one person can say that anything is done according to their will, yet in an Empire such proclamations is feasible.

Caesar’s death comes early in the play and Brutus’ struggle to understand himself dominates the rest of the play. At Caesar’s death  Shakespeare reports his last words as “Even you Brutus?” However, despite Shakespeare placing Latin words into Caesar’s mouth he is reported historically to have used Greek. The translation of Caesar’s historical Greek last words are, “Even you child?” Causing the question to arise, was Brutus Caesar’s bastard? Brutus’s view of the “self” is that it is only possible to see and know oneself through others. Brutus views himself as his ancestor who helped to overthrow the Tarquin Kings. Every action he takes are with this image in mind; Brutus portrays himself as a lover of “res publica” and opposed to the private goods. The Roman Republic is his chief concern, not his private fears. His devotion to the cause of the Republic links him to the persons of Lucretia and Junus Brutus (his ancestor.) He places a strict emphasis on honor, but unlike Coriolanus who places an emphasis on honor without regard to the ancestral, Brutus sees honor very much in the light of the ancestral. Brutus, therefore, regards Rome under Caesar as not different than Rome under the Tarquins. It is at this point that Brutus chooses to take part in the assassination of Caesar.

Two important questions are to be considered in Brutus’ decision to join the conspiracy. First, what should a responsible Roman, committed to the common good, consider when deliberating joining a conspiracy against Caesar, which will end in his death? Secondly, the issue of Republic: how do you maintain Rome as a republic with Caesar’s death in particular when only a handful of people take part in the assassination?

As a result of taking part in the conspiracy Brutus objects to the attempt by the others to recruit Cicero to the cause; Shakespeare departs from Plutarch on this point. Brutus may fear that Cicero may take all the honor from the assassination, stealing Brutus’s role as savior of the Republic. In addition, Brutus is careful to make want Caesar’s death look as a sacrifice and not as a murder. Brutus is so high minded that he neglects seeing the assassination as others may see it: a crime.

In his speech following the death of Caesar, Brutus appeals to “Friends, Romans and lovers” in contrast to Antony’s “Friends, Romans and Countrymen.” For Antony the people are primarily fellow citizens and Romans but for Brutus they are less fellow citizens and more as lovers and friends. Brutus’ devotion to honor causes him to betray his Countrymen and his Friends causing him to have to exile from the city in the midst of a war. The speech is important to note as well because it is given in prose, typically Shakespeare used verse for the educated and noblemen and prose for the base.

Brutus’ suicide is a result of two factors: A. Brutus believes he can stand outside himself and view his actions and B. because he cannot be honest with himself as a result of the conflation of honor and justice. Ultimately, his suicide is a result of his persistence to see the assassination of Julius Caesar as an act of justice and because he still believes he is seen as Junus Brutus.

Roman Foreign Policy between 264 and 146 B.C: Why They Fought


From the First Punic War through the Third Punic War there was much change in the reasoning for Rome going to war.  Roman conquest of Italy in the years leading up to the First Punic War gave the Romans confidence about their military power. Their success at unifying most of Italy under the Roman banner must have given them an adrenaline rush to spur them into a war with Carthage in an attempt to take Sicily. Successive wars appear to have been encouraged by Roman desire to dominate trade throughout the Mediterranean world.

Roman involvement in the First Punic War was spurred on by ambition to add Sicily to their territory. The Second Punic War and the wars with Greece were brought on primarily through a desire to dominate trade.  The wars with Spain and the Third Punic War, however, appear to harken back to the desires which spurred on the First Punic War and the Italian wars.

According to Polybius, the First Punic War marked the first time the Romans engaged in sea warfare. Whether or not this is completely true or not does not detract from how important such an idea is to the motives of going to war. There is little doubt that the Romans probably engaged in at least some minimal trade prior to this war. Yet Polybius’ account of the construction of wartime vessels demonstrates that the Romans most likely had not yet engaged in naval battles[1]. If this account is true then the motives for going to war over Sicily were not about trade, at least not entirely. To some degree Rome must have sought to have dominion over Sicily and to remove foreign influence in Italy all together. Polybius’ account of the treaty between Rome and Carthage, which ended the First Punic War, gives further credence to the idea Rome was not fighting for the sole purpose of trade. Polybius says, “’The Carthaginians to evacuate the whole of Sicily…. The Carthaginians to give up to the Romans all prisoners without ransom. The Carthaginians to pay to the Romans by installments in twenty years 2,200 Euboen talents’’[2] Polybius also accounts that the Roman people demanded, “they reduced the time of the payment by one half, added 1,000 talents to the indemnity, and demanded the evacuation by the Carthaginians of all islands lying between Sicily and Italy.”[3] These accounts given by Polybius support the belief that Rome’s first conquest outside of Italy was spurred on by a desire to continue unifying Italy, or at least to expand the territory they possessed.

The Second Punic War and the wars subsequently with Greece on the other hand were almost entirely about improving trade and Roman economic status. The Second Punic War was triggered by Carthaginian interference with a Roman ally in Spain. While the sources concerning the war do not directly demonstrate that this war was about economic gain through trade, it is clear through the terms of the treaty that the war was at least on some level about trade. Polybius once again demonstrates, “they were to surrender their ships of war, with exception of ten triremes.”[4] Without their former naval power the Carthaginians would be hard pressed to continue trading on such a scale as they once enjoyed. This left Rome as the most dominate naval power in the Western Mediterranean both militarily and trade wise. Without war ships the Carthaginians could not protect their trading vessels from pirates and other warring states.

With the Western Mediterranean locked up Rome focused her attention on the Eastern half. Rome’s attempt to subdue the Eastern Mediterranean was not so much like their attempts in the West. Unlike the West, the Romans did not seek to have dominion over the East. Instead the Romans sought to dismantle the alliances and empires throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. By doing this Rome was successful in destroying the economic power of the East. Their tactics with the East resemble in some manner their attempts in Italy to subdue the Latin tribes.

The Third Punic War and the wars with Spanish tribes appear to be more about revenge and expansion of the Empire than about acquisition of wealth. Carthage had been the nail in the Roman’s side for better part of a century. When they finally broke the Treaty of Zama the Romans found the opportunity to finally put Carthage away for good. With Carthage completely destroyed the Romans were able to take dominion over all of North Africa and eliminated the only threat to Roman dominance in the Western Mediterranean for good. If for nothing else the Roman destruction of Carthage demonstrated for her enemies that Rome could, if brought to bear, annihilate any and all foes. The Third Punic War demonstrates an almost entirely unique episode in Roman foreign policy between 264 and 146 B.C. It was not about acquisition of land, nor of furthering trade. Rather the Third Punic War was about revenge for the Romans.

In Spain however, the attempts by the Romans were almost entirely over conquest of land. Unlike Carthage and the Eastern Mediterranean, Spain was not governed by formal empires or kingdoms. With the ever expanding population in Italy, the Romans needed more space for citizens. Spain was the prime location after the Second Punic War. Unfortunately for the Romans the Spanish tribes were troublesome and required a full on assault to attempt to subdue Spain; even then, the Spanish tribes were not completely subdue until the time of Caesar Augustus. Yet Rome’s conquests in Spain were necessary in order to provide more land for her citizens. Not only was this, but Spain was rich in minerals, specifically in silver which was important to the Romans.  However, the Roman desire to conquer Spain was not primarily out of a desire to exploit Spain but rather to incorporate it.

Rome’s foreign policy from 264-146 B.C. was spurred on by two primary motives: expansion and trade. Ultimately, however, the Romans desired to create a Mediterranean wide empire. The true motive behind the Roman foreign policy was simply and purely imperialism. While their foreign policy began with an attempt to have more sovereignty, such as in the First Punic War, it ultimately landed on the need and desire for more territory as was the case in the Spanish wars.


[1] Naphatali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, Roman Civilization, vol. 1, Selected ReadingsThe Republic and the Augustan Age, 3rd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 159-160

[2] Lewis 161.

[3] Lewis, 162.

[4] Lewis, 180

Alienation in Post World War America


World War II ended with the surrender of the Japanese Empire in August 1945 leaving a wake of destruction on almost every continent. America was elated, not only had they defeated the Nazis but the Japanese were defeated as well. Yet, America’s place in the world changed as a result of the war in a way very few people would have thought possible. Only an up and coming nation in the last World War, the United States emerged from World War II as the preeminent world power. Amidst the jubilation of victory in both theaters of war, Americans had to come to grips not only with America’s new place in the world, but with what had happened in the war to America. The story of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye demonstrates the alienation some particular Americans felt in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The beginning of The Catcher in the Rye takes the reader to a boarding school and a character named Holden Caulfield. Holden is arguably one of the most controversial characters in literature, but his story is an important one as it is the story of America after World War II. Holden’s alienation from the rest of the world is central in his story. Throughout most of the story Holden is unable to find the good in the world and insists that everyone he knows or meets is a phony. Holden is a confused young man who is attempting to reconcile the world of his childhood with the world of his young adulthood. At sixteen when the story takes place, Holden was born two years after the stock market crashed and was still too young when the United States entered the Second World War in December, 1941. America, in a lot of ways, has grown up rapidly in the span of Holden’s short life.

The main antagonists in Holden’s life are his roommate Stradlater, his neighbor Ackley, a friend from home Sally, and a pimp and a prostitute he meets while staying in New York. In each case, the antagonists choose to ignore the realities of life by distracting themselves with sex, money or theater. Holden faults each character for being a phony, and considers his dead brother Allie, and his younger sister Phoebe as two of the only real people he has ever met. Holden has been affected by the war and its aftermath and maintains a child-like opinion of the world. In fact, he states, “Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”[1] Holden is alienated from those who are his age, or close because of his own inability to grow up. The various encounters Holden ha leave him more alienated than before. In the case of Sally, Holden contacts her and makes a date only to alienate himself from her by saying:  “You give me a royal pain in the ass…”[2] Holden is completely unable to maintain friendships and continues to draw further and further away from the world.

As Holden is unable to maintain friendships with anyone he meets, he is also a contradiction. At the beginning of the book he states, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.”[3] And yet he goes to see a movie at Radio City after his date with Sally. He goes into the bar at his hotel and has a low opinion of everything about it from where they seat him, to the band, to the patrons.[4] Holden constantly belittles people, places and things only to turn around and immerse himself in them. This further alienates him from the world and people around him as they view him as an immature person.[5] His sense of superiority, which results in his alienation, prevents Holden from having any meaningful relationships with anyone aside from his sister and dead brother Allie.

Holden is so disillusioned with the world around him that the only thing he can think to do is protect those who he views as innocent. Holden’s depression is lifted whenever he is around kids. The first instance the reader sees this is in the streets of New York. On his way to find a record store open on Sundays, Holden follows a family of three. The parents are on the sidewalk and immediately gain the disapproval of Holden when he says, “They looked sort of poor, which implies that Holden views the family, at least the parents, as beneath him. The child, however, entertains Holden as he is walking behind the family. The child is in the street singing, “‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye.’” The child and song make Holden, “feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.”[6] Holden is not alienated from children the way he is from those closer in age to him because he is able to find a truth in children that doesn’t exist for him in his contemporaries.

Holden’s alienation goes even further, to a desire to remove himself completely from society. At first, Holden pleads with Sally to, “drive up to Massachusetts or Vermont….We’ll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out…I could get a job somewhere and we could live somewhere with a brook and all….I could chop wood in the wintertime and all.”[7] His feeling of superiority has alienated him not only from any meaningful relationships but also a desire to quit society almost all together. Later on he says, “Everybody’d think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they’d leave me alone. They’d let me put gas and oil in their stupid cars, and they’d pay me a salary and all for it, and I’d build me a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there the rest of my life.”[8] Both times, Holden suggests leaving society to live away from a world he doesn’t fully believe he belongs to.

Holden’s alienation also drives him to attempt to save those he believes he cares most about. In his first desire to leave society, he invites Sally to go with him only to alienate himself from her when she refuses to go with him. Holden also feels a need to assist a roommate at a previous school before he ultimately rejects him. His roommate Dick Slagle is poorer than Holden and doesn’t have as fancy of luggage as he has. As Holden describes the situation: “The thing is, it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs…”[9] But he goes on to clarify, “You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do.”[10] Holden both creates his own alienation, as in the case of Sally, and is a victim of society’s mandated alienation as was the case with the former roommate. Yet in both cases, Holden attempts to save that person from the phony world as Holden perceives it.

Finally, Holden’s struggle not to care about what others think or do and his desire to save people from their phoniness comes to a head. His sister Phoebe questions whether or not Holden actually likes anything, or if he simply hates everything.[11] As he avoids Phoebe’s questions, she finally prompts him, “All right, name something else. Name something you’d like to be.”[12] And it is here that Holden admits to his desire to protect children and to allow them to maintain their innocence when he tells Phoebe, “I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”[13] Holden’s alienation from friends closer in age; his hatred of cars and movies all stem from his own desire to return and protect the innocence of childhood.

Yet, it takes Holden until he has nearly broken down psychologically that he realizes he can’t protect everyone from everything. While on the way to  deliver a note to Phoebe at her school, Holden notices writing on the walls outside the school. He desires to protect the innocence of the children from the writing  and dreams of killing the person responsible for writing obscenities on the school’s walls. The second time he finds the obscenities, however, he realizes that it has been craved into the wall.[14] It is at this point that Holden comes to the realization, “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world. It’s impossible.”[15] He finally realizes that things won’t return to how they were when he was a child and life was simpler. Holden recognizes that the world is full of things he hates and wants to protect others from but it is a fool’s mission to try to protect the world from all the bad.

The story of Holden Caulfield could be analogous to the story of the United States after World War II. Like Holden, the United States was alienated from the rest of the world, including our allies. As the most powerful nation in the world, the United States had a responsibility not shared by her allies. Both the Soviet Union and the allies of the United States differed from the U.S.and did not seem to share many beliefs held by America. The United States, as well as Holden, had to come to grips with the reality of the world. Holden was never going to achieve living in a world where people were to be exactly as he wanted to be more ready to believe exactly what he believed. Holden is defined by his alienation from the world and weather he is finally able to reconcile himself with both the world and people around him.


[1] Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye(Boston: Little Brown and Company 1951) page 122.

[2] Ibid. 133

[3] Ibid. 2

[4] “they gave me a lousy table anyways…”, “The band was putrid”, “show-offy-looking guys with their dates.” Ibid. 69

[5] “Same old Caulfield. When are you going to grow up?” Ibid, 144

[6] Ibid. 115

[7] Ibid. 132

[8] Ibid. 199

[9] Ibid. 109

[10] Ibid.

[11] “You don’t like anything that’s happening.” Ibid. 169

[12] Ibid. 172

[13] Ibid. 173

[14] “I saw something that drove me crazy…”, “I went down by a different staircase….” Ibid. 201, 202

[15] Ibid.

 

Considerations on the Religion of Numa on the Roman People


For many ancient peoples religion was a connection to the past. Above anything else, religion was supreme in the city. Everything focused on religion and the worship of the city’s gods. For the Roman people this was no different and like other ancient peoples their religion began when their founder died. Romulus was said to have been taken into the sky and deified. The Romans worshipped Romulus (named Quirinus) as the god of agriculture. However, it was not Romulus who succeeded in creating the Roman state religion; rather that honor went to Numa Pompilius (here after simply Numa). Niccolo Machiavelli states, “It will also be seen by those who pay attention to Roman history, how much religion helped in the control of armies, in encouraging plebs, in producing good men, and in shaming the bad.”[1] Certainly this importance was due to Numa rather than Romulus as the former is credited with the foundation of religion in Rome. Numa based the Roman religion on the physical world. Unlike their better known Greek counterparts, the Roman gods were based on the things of nature. It was possibly this distinct difference which led the Roman religion to dominate state affairs in such a way until the Second Punic War when Rome was invaded by Greek thought and religion. Until the Second Punic War, the Romans were dominated by a religion created by Numa with the intent to subdue a savage spirit introduced by Romulus. Numa’s importance is certainly clear as both the founder of the state religion and the law giver for the Romans; his religion would go on to play a vital role in three ways for the Roman people: the calendar, daily life and war. Even into the Second Punic War, when the traditional religion of Rome was nearly eliminated the strands of Numa’s religion still held onto the Roman people. In the Roman state during the regal and republican years, the religion introduced by Numa served as a significant influence on the affairs of the state and of the people.

Rome’s founding is hidden amongst fables, myths and legend. Whether or not there ever was a Romulus or Numa is a matter of dispute. What is not a matter of dispute, however, is that their supposed influences on the people of Rome made it the most dominate city the world has ever seen. Based on Plutarch’s account of Numa’s life, he was roughly forty years old at the time he was offered kingship of Rome[2]. Numa’s example would ultimately affect the Roman people in general. Plutarch records:

He banished all luxury and softness from his own home, and while citizens alike and strangers found in him an incorruptible judge and counselor, in private he devoted himself not to amusement or lucre, but to the worship of the immortal gods, and rational contemplation of their divine power and nature.[3]

His character alone was enough of an example on the Roman people; however he did more upon accepting the office of King. Before accepting the kingship, even, Numa requested that the auguries be taken to show that the gods did in fact favor his rule.[4] In his second act as King, Numa, “add[ed] two priests of Jupiter and Mars a third, in honour of Romulus, whom he called Flamen Quirinalis.” [5] Thus, having won the favor of the people, Numa began to subdue the harsh Roman spirit in favor of a more gentle nature. He introduced religion as a means of tempering the soul, as Plutarch explains, “Wherefore Numa, judging it no slight undertaking to mollify and bend to peace the presumptuous and stubborn spirits of the people, began to operate upon them with the sanctions of religion.”[6] Numa is said to have received the Roman religion from the goddess Egeria, whom he conversed with by the river.

Numa introduced a number of new offices, which were of religious significance; among these offices was Pontifex Maximus whose job it was to declare divine law and to rule over sacred ceremonies; the Pontifex Maximus was fifth in the religious hierarchy behind “the rex sacrorum and three great flamens.” [7] In like manner, Numa concerted a temple to the goddess Vesta who was the oldest of all Roman goddesses and a symbol of purity. Her priestesses, called Vestal virgins, were given the task of keeping lit the sacred flame. The virgins were to remain as such for thirty years, if they broke their vow of chastity or allowed the sacred flame to go out the offending virgin would be buried alive. This office was the most sacred of all holy offices within the Roman state. The Pontifex Maximus lead the six Vestal virgins.[8] The first ten years of a Vestal’s service were spent in training, the second ten were spent performing her duties while the final three were spent training new Vestals. The Vestal Virgins were so important that it is said when another official passed one that they would order the fasces lowered.

The second god to receive such high favor was Janus, Vesta’s counterpart. Janus was the Roman god of doors and beginnings and his priest was first in the hierarchy, the rex sacrorum. It is with Janus, in Numa’s attempt to further temper the spirits of the Romans that he established the month of January. Janus was closely related with Juno and unlike Vesta was a creator. The rex sacrorum holds a specific place of honor in the Republic as being the only office to bear the title of rex, which according to many Roman historians was loathed by the Roman people. The great gates of the city were in honor of Janus, when they were open the city was at war and while they were closed the city was at peace. During Numa’s entire reign as king the gates were never opened. Plutarch specifically mentions two other priesthoods founded by Numa, “the Salii and Fecials.” [9] Both of these other priesthoods will be discussed at a later point when it is appropriate.

The influence of the offices of the Vestals and Janus priests dealt with the daily lives of the Roman people. Numa successfully diverted the attention of the people away from war towards religion. He demanded the utmost respect towards religion by the people, as Plutarch describes “Numa, in like manner, wished that his citizens should neither see nor hear any religious service in perfunctory and inattentive manner, but, laying aside all other occupations, should apply their minds to religion as to a most serious business…”[10] Cicero concurs with Plutarch by state, “He desired the performance of religious rituals to be difficult but the equipment for them to be very simple: he required many things to be learned and performed, but he made them inexpensive; he thus added effort to religious observances but removed the cost.”[11] There certainly were plenty of occasions for the people to turn their attention away from other occupations. He is credited with organizing the people into guilds based on their occupations. Plutarch once again describes:

So distinguishing the whole people by the several arts and trades, he formed the companies of musicians, goldsmiths, carpenters, dyers, shoemakers, skinners, braziers, and potters; and all other handicraftsmen he composed and reduced into a single company, appointing everyone their proper courts, councils, and religious observances. [12]

Their placement according to their occupation created structure within the Roman state and made each guild responsible for certain aspects of their daily lives. This helped to divert their attention away from war by focusing on the daily tasks at hand.

Numa’s greatest accomplishment came in the ordering of the calendar. In order to remedy the differences between the lunar solar orbits, Numa instituted an intercalary month. This month would consist of twenty-two days and according to Plutarch was called, “Mercedinus.” Numa also changed the orders of the months: March went from being the first month to the third, January went from being the eleventh month to the first and February went from last to second. Numa added the months of January and February as Plutarch accounts “for in the beginning they had had a year of then months.”[13] The month of February comes from februa; the month was a purification month filled with offerings to the dead. Plutarch explains Numa’s decision to place January first as, “he wished to take every opportunity of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are preferred before those of war.”[14] In order to do so, Numa instituted festivals and games for the people, “He also began markets and games and all sorts of occasions for gatherings and festivals. By these institutions he restored to humane and gentle behavior the minds of men who had become savage and inhuman through their love of war.”[15] Among the festivals fixed to the calendar, Jupiter and Mars had the most festivals held in their honor but Mars had the most between the two gods. Jupiter had two major festivals of a political nature, Regifugium on February 24th and Poplifugium on July 5th. Mars had one festival on two separate dates connected with war, Equiria on February 27th and March 14th both of these were connected horses who were sacrificed to Mars. Quinquartrus on March 19th and Tubilustrum on March 23rd saw arms and trumpets dedicated to the god. October saw the end of the military campaign season and two feasts held in honor of Mars: equus october on October 15th and the purification of arms (Armilustrum) on October 23rd.[16] Festivals to the gods occupied much of the Roman calendar, mostly in hopes of diverting the war like nature of the Romans towards more peaceful endeavors.

As a major portion of daily life, Numa altered some aspects. As well as being the founder of the state civil religion in Rome, Numa is credited with being the law giver to the Romans. His office as law giver works closely with his duties as founder of the civil religion. For instance, Numa repealed the “law which gave power to the fathers to sell their children…”[17] Plutarch continues by explaining, “he exempted such as were married, conditionally that it had been with the liking and consent of their parents; for it seemed a hard thing that a woman who had given herself in marriage to a man whom she judged free should afterwards find herself living with a slave.” [18] These are significant changes insofar as Numa has changed pater familias, or father of the family, which gave rule over the family completely to the eldest male member. Numa also changed the governance of burials; he required the Romans to worship Libitina, who presided over all burial ceremonies. He regulated the days in which mourning could take place, Plutarch outlines, “a child of three years was not to be mourned at all; the longest time of mourning for any person whatsoever was not to exceed the term of ten months….”[19] Any woman who remarried before the end of ten month mourning period ended was required to sacrifice a pregnant cow.  The Romans were especially concerned with belief in life after death, “maintained by sacrifices and libations, and governed by strict observance of rites the neglect of which brought terrible dangers to those who failed to keep them up.”[20] The Romans also believed in a deity called Manes, who would come back for retribution if the proper rituals were not kept up by their decedents. Many feasts were held in honor of the dead, the feast of the Lemuria took place on the 9th, 11th, and 13th of May.  The pater familias was required in the middle of the night to run through each silent room barefoot snapping his fingers to ward off the spirits of the dead. He was then to wash his hands three times in running water, “and took black beans in his mouth, which he spat over his shoulder, he cried nine times: ‘I spit out these beans and with them I redeem me and mine.’” He would then purify himself once more and strike “his hands on a bronze vessel, saying nine times: ‘Manes of my fathers, begone!’”  The extent in which religion touched on the private life was significant in Rome. Numa insured that the religion would be preserved both in the private and public.

After all these great accomplishments, Numa finally perished of old age after living roughly eighty years. Numa’s reign lasted forty-three years versus Romulus impressive thirty-seven year reign. According to Livy, “When Numa died, Rome by the twin disciplines of peace and war was as eminent for self-mastery as for military power.”[21] Numa’s legacy on the Roman people lead them to become prosperous, Machiavelli writes, “All things considered, therefore, I conclude that the religion introduced by Numa was among the primary causes of Rome’s success, for this entailed good institutions; good institutions lead to good fortune; and from good fortune arose the happy results of undertakings.”[22] His institution of religion allowed the Romans the good fortune they experienced for the next few centuries. The people were diverted from military conquest by the religion; their belief that the gods took part in human affairs caused great alarm against breaking the law. Numa succeeded in his quest to subdue the Roman spirit. Numa became the Roman par excellence for the people. Machiavelli explains, “Marvelling, therefore, at Numa’s goodness and prudence, the Roman people accepted all his decisions.”[23] Machiavelli goes so far as to say that the Roman people were more indebted to Numa than to Romulus.

However, despite his attempts to temper the Roman spirit away from war it was inevitable that the Romans would once again take up arms. As a result of Numa’s influence, even war was regulated by the priests. The Fecials were charged as guardians of peace and would be dispatched by the Romans to receive satisfaction from injury by another city. If that city refused to provide satisfaction for the injury the Fecials declared war by calling the gods and their country as witnesses. [24] The Salii have their origin from the eight year of Numa’s reign, Plutarch elaborates:

A terrible pestilence, which traversed all Italy, ravaged likewise the city of Rome; and the citizens being in distress and despondent, a brazen target, they say, fell from the heaven into the hands of Numa, who gave them this marvelous account of it: that Egeria and the Muses had assured him it was sent from heaven for the cure and safety of the city, and that, to keep it secure, he was ordered by them to make eleven others, so like in dimensions and form to the original that no thief should be able to distinguish the true from the counterfeit….The keeping of these targets was committed to the charge of certain priests, called Salii….[25]

The Salii priests would carry the shields through the city in March. They wore “short frocks of purple, grit with a broad belt studded with brass; on their heads they wear a brass helmet, and carry in their hands short daggers…”[26] Both of these priesthoods represent the lengths that Romans went to ensure that they were always in the right, specifically the Fecials.

In her first major conquest, Rome took the city of Veii through influences of religion. Machaivelli explains,

During the year, the Alban lake had risen in an extraordinary way, and the Roman solders, tired of the long siege, were desirous of returning to Rome when it was discovered that Apollo and certain other oracles had said that the city of Veii would be taken in the year in which Lake Alba overflowed.[27]

Religion had so conquered the minds of the people that it was able to be used against them as it was in the battle for Veii. The soldiers wishing to leave were swayed to remain in the siege despite their fatigue. After a ten year siege the Romans finally took Veii when Camillus was made dictator. The civil religion demonstrated it’s usefulness in controlling the people ultimately leading to the victory.

Throughout Roman conquest of peninsular Italy the Romans were able to maintain their religion and culture as the Italians had similar religious and cultural views. Yet with the advent of Roman expanisionism, even within Italy itself, the Roman religion began to slowly change although the changes were not as visible as later on beginning with the First Punic War.  Along the way they adapted the gods of various other peoples into their own catalogue of gods. Their conquests lead to the evolution of their gods form primarily Etruscan to a more Greek concept of the deities. Mercury was introduced into Roman society around 494 B.C. as the god of commerce. A century later Hercules was introduced into the pantheon of Roman gods. This Hellenistic tendency of the Romans would continue until the traditional Roman religion founded by Numa was all but a shadow of her former self. This adaptation was used in all situations in order to present the best possible view point. For example, Alan Wardman explains:

The war against Hannibal shows how religious institutions were adapted or borrowed as the Romans faced the most serious invasion in their history. The civil conflicts, including the civil wars, after 113 B.C., provide evidence that the civic gods could be manipulated by both sides…[28]

Rome faced crises that resulted in the expansion of their mythology concerning their gods and in some cases the use of religion against itself as in the civil war.

While Rome added to their catalogue of gods starting with the conquests of the Veii and other Italians, they were in some ways able to maintain their religious identity as given to them by Numa. However, by the time of the First Punic War the Roman religion began to make a major fundamental shift unlike the changes which occurred during the conquest of peninsular Italy. There are two major schools of thought which attempt to describe this change, one is present by Alan Wardman and the other by Alain Hus.

By the late Republic religion had become more political than ever before. Festivals were used by politicians to demonstrate their greatness instead of supplicating the gods. Expansion in the Roman games was enormous; Alan Wardman explains why, “it is a process of adding to religious forms because the politician can make use of them to express his superiority not to the gods but to his would-be peers.” [29] Wardman’s view of the religious changes in Rome is not as serve as other writers. Wardman accounts the changes in Roman Religion with the changes of the political atmosphere of Rome beginning with the Second Punic War. Wardman views the changes in Roman religion as a result of warfare. He states, “Other gods came from towns which Rome had defeated in war….”[30] The changes that occurred around the time of the Second Punic War should be viewed with the changes in politics during the same time period. Rome’s religion was very closely related to their politics and thus any changes within their political structure were bound to have an effect on the religious aspects of the society.

The opposing view on the changes of Rome’s official religion starting during the Second Punic War is presented by Alain Hus. Hus argues that the changes did not occur so much because of Rome’s conquests but because Greek thought had invaded the Roman culture.  The changes in the religious attitude of Rome were perpetuated by the Second Punic War as Hus describes, “The change that was taking place in the religious psychology of the Romans was accelerated by the crisis of exceptional seriousness produced by the Second Punic War.” [31] Greek gods and philosophy were more wildly accepted by the Romans during the Second Punic War especially during the early years when it looked as though Hannibal might succeed in conquering Rome. As a result of the impending doom many abandoned the traditional Roman gods and religion for that of the Hellenistic Greeks. However the problem that existed with this scenario is explained by Hus, “Greek religion was officially substituted for the ancestral Roman religion, just at the time when its preservation in Greece itself was half artificial.” [32] Thus, the Roman people were abandoning their own religion for a religion on the decline in Greece. As a result, like in Greece, the Romans began to turn to cults. Hus explains once more:

The success of these cults and their doctrines, the importance of which during the Republican period should not be exaggerated, bears witness to the inability of the Roman religion, even when Hellenized, to fulfill the spiritual needs of the Romans in these strangely new times.[33]

The official religion was also being directly attacked by the Roman senate when in 181 B.C. they ordered the books of Numa to be destroyed. Religion, while still important to the Romans, had become a skeleton of itself. “Superstition”, Hus argues, “flourished.” [34] Many prominent Romans began to openly question religion and skepticism ran ramped throughout the city.  General disrespect was very prominent in the city during the Second Punic War, as Hus describes, “In the middle of the Second Punic War we find Claudius Pulcher turning up his nose at the sacred hens, and Flaminius proclaiming the futility of supplications to the gods….”[35] The Second Punic War presented a problem for the Romans that they had yet to face in their history. As a result they were more than willing to abandon the gods of the fathers for the gods of the Greeks.

And yet both of these arguments pointing towards a similar point of view; Rome’s expansion into foreign lands, customs and religions lead to a change in their own cultural customs and religion. This was partially precipitated by Rome’s need to govern her new acquisitions, allowing citizens of Rome to become free of Roman authority and develop new ideas. When these provincial governors returned to the city they introduced problems into the Roman constitution, which had been avoided for centuries. This was most evident during the Second Punic War.  Political upheaval as a result of the Second Punic War lead to fear among the Romans, which gave to the belief that their  gods were not longer looking out for them and ultimately lead them to abandon their gods for those of the Greeks. The political situation within Rome was certainly changing slowly during the Second Punic War and after the war. The political and religious aspects of the city were intentionally connected to each other by Numa as previously explored. Religion played a key role in the regal and Republican periods and it is clear by the abandonment of the traditional religion by the Romans that the Romans still viewed religion as important during crisis of the Second Punic War. If this had not been the case then for what reason would the Romans have to accept new gods rather than just simply abandoning religion all together? Certainly there were some who openly were skeptical of religion and disrespect towards the gods was rampant throughout the city. However, the fact Greek religion was imported to Rome during the Second Punic War, and widely accepted by the Roman people, demonstrates that their connection to religion was still strong and that the important role religion played in Roman daily and state life was nevertheless still very strong. Whether or not either side is truly correct is probably never going to be discovered. However, both sides of the argument can be viewed in connection with each other and not in opposition to each other. Rome at the time of the Second Punic War and after was remarkably changed from the time previous to the war. The war played a significant role in the development of both the political and religious life of the city.

Ultimately, the impact of religion on the Roman people following the reign of Romulus is clear. Numa’s foresight that without religion the Roman people would be a brutal city that favored war over peace is remarkable. His religion affected the lives of the Roman people and the city itself throughout the regal and Republican periods. Republican Rome owes much of its prosperity and relative peace to the institution of religion by Numa. The introduction of the gods themselves provided the Romans with a distraction from the earthly. Numa’s additions to the calendar and the introduction of many festivals allowed for the Romans to be preoccupied with the gods even more. Reverence to the gods went so far as to make it near impossible for the Romans to wage war unless it was clearly viewed as a defensive rather than offensive war. Laws regulating morality helped to create a much more humane and civilized people than what had existed during the time of Romulus. Even with the problems of the Second Punic War the importance of religion is still clear to see. For the average person religion was everything and the politicians clearly knew that by providing funds to build more temples or adding more days of festivals to the calendar. Daily and civil life revolved around religion. Without religion it is impossible to know how the Romans would have turned out, or if they would have merely become a footnote for another civilization on its way to historical immortality. Certainly the biggest contribution religion made to the Roman people was in making them able to govern themselves. The Roman Republic certainly survived in part because of the fear of the gods. Without the influence the gods had on the Roman people the Republic could certainly have failed or never been started to begin with. Machiavelli is right when he observes, “So that if it were a question of the ruler to whom Rome was more indebted, Romulus or Numa, Numa, I think, should easily obtain the first place.” [36] Romulus gave the world the city of Rome, but Numa gave a people an identity and soul through religion. Therefore it is Numa, not Romulus who gave us the Roman state that we are familiar with today.


[1] Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Discourses. Translated  by Leslie J. Walker, S.J. New York, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003.  Book I section 11 pg. 140

[2] Plutarch. Lives: Volume 1. Translated by John Dryden. Edited by Arthur Hugh Clough. New York: Random House, Inc., 2001.  pg. 85.

Numa’s age at the time he became King is disputed. Cicero places his age at 39.

[3] Plutarch,  83

[4] Livy. The Early History of Rome. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. New York, New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc. , 1960.

[5] Plutarch. pg. 87

[6] Plutarch. 2001. pg. 87

[7] Hus, Alain. Greek and Roman Religion. Translated  by S.J. Tester. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1962. pg. 103

[8] Hus, 103

[9] Plutarch,  91

[10] Plutarch,  94

[11] Cicero. On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Edited by James E. G. Zetzel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. pg. 41

[12] Plutarch, 96

[13] Plutarch, 97

[14] Plutarch, 98

[15] Cicero, 41

[16] Hus, 109-110

[17] Plutarch,  97

[18] Plutarch,  97

[19] Plutarch, 91

[20] Hus, 100

[21] Livy, 56

[22] Machiavelli,  141 Book I section 11

[23] Machiavelli,  141 Book I section 11

[24] Plutarch, 92

[25] Plutarch, 92-93

[26] Plutarch, 93

[27]Machiavelli, 146 Book II section 13.

[28] Wardman, Alan. Religion and the Statecraft Among the Romans. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1982.  pg. 22

[29] Wardman, 24

[30] Ibid.  3

[31] Hus, 135

[32] Ibid. pg. 135

[33] Ibid. pg. 137

[34] Ibid . pg. 136

[35] Ibid. pg 137

[36] Machiavelli, Book I section 11 pg. 140.

Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.


My friend Ashok asked that I provide a commentary on Hamlet.

As a student of Political Philosophy and American Studies I may not seem like the proper person to provide a commentary on William Shakespeare’s epic play Hamlet. However, this semester in pursuance of my Master of American Studies, I am taking a class on the playwright.

 Hamlet begins with a question; more importantly, it is a challenge by a watchman. The question is returned with yet another question, or challenge, by a second watchman. The Kingdom of Denmark is on alert after the King’s untimely demise.  Questions and challenges play an important role in Hamlet, some of the questions penetrate throughout the entire play. How did the King die? Is Claudius, the new king and the dead king’s brother, the cause of the king’s death? Is the dead king’s wife Gertrude guilty as her new husband, the new king? Is Hamlet, the son of the dead King, truly insane or is he simply putting on an antic-disposition? All of these questions riddle throughout the play, but there are even greater esoteric questions that one can ask.

In the second act of the play, Prince Hamlet is charged by the ghost of his dead father to kill his uncle. Thus presents our first question, is it right for a Christian to commit tyrannicide? Is it right for a Prince to commit tyrannicide? And if it is right, under what circumstances can a Christian or a Prince commit tyrannicide? Hamlet spends the play in contemplation, in fact he spends more time in contemplation than any other Shakespearean character. Yet he spends very little time contemplating the justice in his charge to commit tyrannicide. Instead, Hamlet spends his time contemplating the meaning of life. His time thinking causes him to delay in his charge, yet at other times (death of Polonius) Hamlet acts quickly and almost without any thought.

Before we can answer the key question of whether or not he has a right to commit tyrannicide, we have other questions that  must be asked. Hamlet has to have a justification for tyrannicide, even in Protestant thought tyrannicide is only acceptable with a just cause. As it stands in the play only two people know for a fact that Claudius killed Hamlet the elder…Claudius and Hamlet. Hamlet the younger only knows this fact through a ghost, which he doesn’t know if the Ghost is a belligerent or not. As Hamlet himself admits only, “Heaven and Hell” know whether or not the Ghost can truly be trusted. And since no other character attests to having heard the Ghost, Hamlet is left alone to defend his actions based on the information of a Ghost. As a result, Hamlet does have legitimate cause to delay in his cause so that Claudius has a chance to incriminate himself. But before Hamlet can even consider killing Claudius, he must be prepared to take the throne once the deed is done. This brings us to our first problem of committing tyrannicide. Hamlet is considered by other characters in the play a competent leader. Ophelia in her sentiments supports the theory that Hamlet is capable of being king. He also appears to be capable in foreign policy, but he doesn’t appear thrilled to become King.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas Tyrannicide is acceptable in two situations, when there is a Tyrant by Usurpation or a Tyrant by Oppression. In this instance, is Claudius a Tyrant by Usurpation? Did he usurp the legitimate king and take his throne? In Denmark the monarchy is elected, albeit for life. The first time we see Claudius we find that he had the support of the people for his reign and in this instance Hamlet cannot legitimately commit Tyrannicide. But is Claudius a Tyrant by Oppression? Again, Claudius appears to have the support of the Danish people. He also doesn’t seem to be an oppressive ruler, and only resigns to become such towards Hamlet once it becomes clear Hamlet seeks to murder him. And so at least in the Catholic understanding, Hamlet does not have just cause to commit tyrannicide.

The first question of the play then, whether or not Hamlet is entitled and justified in committing Tyrannicide, is answered in the negative at every turn. Hamlet is not prepared to take the throne, and Claudius is neither a usurper nor an oppressive ruler.

The second major question then is found throughout Hamlet’s soliloquies. Hamlet has more soliloquies than any other Shakespearean character with seven. The soliloquies are important, because throughout the play, with the exception of his first appearance, Hamlet is putting on his antic disposition. As a result, Hamlet’s true thoughts and feelings come through in his soliloquies. As such, to what extent is Hamlet’s concern with Fortune and Honor in contest with his charge to commit tyrannicide?

The first soliloquy is the most unique because it comes before Hamlet decides to put on an antic disposition and even before the Ghost appears to him. The first theme found in the soliloquies is suicide. Hamlet contemplates suicide so that the, “sullied flesh would melt away.” In this instance, flesh can mean either the actual physical human flesh that covers the body, or it could mean the passions. Flesh is another theme found throughout Hamlet’s soliloquies and it seems that it is constantly connected to the theme of Fortune. Finally, in the first soliloquy Hamlet does what he does throughout, he generalizes. In this instance, Hamlet generalizes about life through the particulars of his own. He also generalizes about women through his mother Gertrude. In his generalizations about women he comes to feel that they are weak and fragile and this is something he ultimately generalizes about Ophelia.

The struggle for Hamlet about tyrannicide is deeper than it’s proper justice. Like in his thoughts of suicide, Hamlet is concerned with saving all from the flesh and in particular Claudius. He doesn’t want to send Claudius to Hell, he wants to save him from his passions or his flesh. Flesh and passions are connected to Fortune and as a result Reason is connected with God. Passion and Fortune govern the affairs of men, and neither Reason or God can rule over them and this upsets Hamlet to the point that he wants to be released and wants to release everyone else. Hamlet’s anger over the inability to govern the Passions and Fortune are expressed in the recitation of Aeneas’s story to Dido about the Fall of Troy. Hamlet sees himself as Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles who wants to murder Priam to avenge his father. But like Hamlet, Pyrrhus is unwilling to do what he must to avenge Achilles.

Hamlet contemplates this speech in his third soliloquy, where he is aware of his father’s death but cannot bring himself to perform the murder. As a result, instead of action Hamlet decides to catch Claudius in speech. He does this in part to find if the Ghost is from heaven or hell. Hamlet authors lines to insert into the play within the play to convince Claudius to admit the murder. What is odd about the lines is that Hamlet doesn’t create the lines to bring out Claudius’s guilt, but rather to torment his mother over her disgrace. Her frailty has been a point of contention for Hamlet throughout the play.

The typical reading of Hamlet’s fourth Soliloquy, the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, is that it is about suicide. Hamlet begins the soliloquy generalizing about life itself, “being or not being.” Again fortune and flesh play a key role in Hamlet’s thoughts. The passions are always in concert with fortune, and reason can never rule over them and so it makes life unbearable for Hamlet. He sees death as a passageway to Heaven, which is our native country; but like the famous Hotel California, once you check in you may never leave. It is also in this soliloquy where Hamlet admits clearly that the passions do not submit to reason.

The problem with reason for Hamlet is that he sees it as two functions: the faculty that has the ability to understand events and actions and the faculty which governs the passions.Hamlet strives to see them both as one but cannot; the play itself is about these two functions of reason. The ability to control the passions with the ability to understand. Hamlet must be able to rise above his passion to kill Claudius to avenge his father, and use the ability to understand to do it.

The final soliloquy before the end of the play concerns itself with one basic premise of the play. Hamlet’s deliberation always resolves down tot he futility of action, in particular political action. Yet Hamlet admits that he has, “cause, and will, and strength, and means to [kill Claudius.]” The final soliloquy focuses around the concept of honor, and like the first soliloquy it stands unique. The final soliloquy centers around Hamlet recovering himself and is no ready to do what his dead father charged him to do. What prompted this change is difficult, was it the encounter with Fortenbras’s men? Or was it Ophelia who saved him? If it was Fortenbras, does Hamlet want to be like him? Fortenbras seems to be the timocratic man to a fault.

Finally, Hamlet finally resolves to kill Claudius only after he himself has become Claudius. His murder of Polonius has caused the suicide of Ophelia, and now his unwillingness to take responsibility for the destruction of Polonius’s family will bring about the destruction of Laertes.

So to conclude, the play Hamlet is about the justice of tyrannicide, and overcoming the passions.

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