Sunday, March 13, 2011

Three Cheers for the Union Jack

The first post on this subject was Three Cheers for England, which covered the first five of the ten greatest events in British history. This will cover the next five and is entitled Three Cheers for the Union Jack, which sneaks Scotland into the fold. Sure, it’s arbitrary, but, it’s no fun to just write ten things that were maybe okay in British history.

5. Winning by losing - . The events of the decade,1664-1674, changed the course of history. They might surprise you, a little, because the loser was the winner. We call that unintended consequences.

Remember, for almost the first century and three quarters of European settlement in America, it was British, not United States’ history. 1664 was a momentous year. In 1607 Britain had begun a successful colonization at Jamestown, Virginia. Actually, it was only eventually successful. At the beginning, it was a disaster - starvation, illness, war and death being prevalent. But, eventually, you know what happened. In 1609, the very famous Captain John Smith, whose life was far more exciting and dangerous than any movie or tale about him has ever shown, left the hellhole of Jamestown. A few years later he was surveying New England including an area he named New Plymouth. A colony was established there six years later by a group of English Separatists we know as the Pilgrims. You know the names from early school – The Mayflower and The Mayflower Compact, Plymouth Rock, Thanksgiving, Miles Standish and so on.

Not much later the Massachusetts Bay Company founded a colony which was soon thereafter heavily populated by Puritans, which, despite a lot of confusion, are not the same as Pilgrims. An early governor, John Winthrop, gave the City on a Hill speech on his way to America in 1630. Late in the century, the Massachusetts Bay Colony swallowed up the smaller Plymouth colony.

The British were not the only Europeans to follow up on Columbus. The French, the Spanish, the Dutch and the Portuguese (Russians, Swedes and I'm sure others) were exploring all about, fishing and trading with the Indians. Around the same time as the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s meager beginnings, the Dutch followed up well over a decade of exploration around Manhattan and founded the colony of New Netherlands and the settlement of New Amsterdam. The timing of the development of the two colonies is complicated and I could not say who really has primacy (although Jamestown and Plymouth definitely preceded both). It didn't matter to the British who believed that the settlement at Jamestown gave them the right to the entire continent.

The European countries were not like today, by any stretch. They were competitors and sometimes violently so (in 1565 the Spanish slaughtered hundreds of French in Florida near St. Augustine, starting the fun). 

Between 1652 and 1674 the Dutch fought three naval wars (a fourth soon after if you include England’s Glorious Revolution, a Dutch invasion, and yet another one during our own revolution the next century). The first of these three wars was a draw, the second a Dutch victory and the third mostly a Dutch victory too, but ended with a treaty, the importance of which was not then recognized. Maybe it’s still not.

But, first, in 1664, something seemingly just a move on the global chess board, but actually quite momentous, happened. There was officially peace between the two powerful maritime nations after their first war. But, then, under a patent to The Duke of York, a British fleet appeared off the Manhattan coast. Peter Stuyvesant, the director of the Dutch East India Company, had no way to defend the colony and they surrendered. Actually, the leading citizens petitioned to him not to fight. New Amsterdam became New York. Actually, nothing happened to the Dutch citizenry or the many other peoples who resided in what was already an extremely diverse population. The English guaranteed the rights of the residents, and the transfer of power went fairly smoothly. Many Englishmen already lived and already had much influence there, and once the English conquered, the Dutch, who were the preponderance of wealthy citizens, continued to dominate the fairly autonomous government.

But, this act arguably was among those that set off the second Anglo-Dutch War, although the reasons were more so commercial, and which war ended two years later in a Dutch humiliation of the British. Yet, as there was no treaty signed, just the neutering of the English fleet, Manhattan Island remained New York.

After that, though, the English rebuilt their fleet. They were not looking for another war with the Dutch, but France’s Louis XIV was and Britain was bound to him at the time. Louis was unsuccessful in his land invasion due to the Dutch brilliantly using their lowland position and letting water in to block the French troops. So, along with the British navy, they attacked the Netherlands by sea. Once again, the Dutch humiliated the British fleet along with the French fleet to boot. More, as is little known and definitely not taught to American high school students, the Dutch (the nation though, not the Dutch East India Company, which had controlled it until then) actually retook Manhattan in 1673. And, this time there was some actual fighting. It was brief, as the British were not prepared to defend themselves either. Everything that had been changed by the British was changed back and that included the official language.

And then, with the English Parliament refusing to pay for more war, another treaty was signed in 1674. The Dutch and British essentially exchanged some island colonies to bring back the status quo. The Dutch received a number of islands in the southern climes and the British got New York back (which by the way – was known in the interlude as New Orange, after the house of Orange – and I bet you never learned that in high school).

Why is this important? The British had lost two wars in this turbulent decade, yet managed to wind up with the prize. Not that the Dutch really cared that much. Their other holdings were more important to them. The Dutch were on the rise at the time at least for a little while longer. I am not suggesting that America might have ended up Dutch if the British had not acted prudently, but it is possible. The following decade the Dutch William became Britain's king, and there were Dutch troops there for a while and then an alliance against France. The Dutch naval power began its decline and the Brits their great rise.  And, if we swing ahead almost two century, Winston Churchill pointed out that the most fortuitous thing for the British in WWII was that they and America spoke the same language. And, it was the British Empire and America which saved the free world in the 20th century.

4. Three little rules – There is no doubt that Albert Einstein was brilliant. After his Annus Mirabilis (Miracle Year), many other scientists, even many of those who quarreled with him about the science, recognized that there was something special about him. Yet, it has to be acknowledged that he reached so far for the stars, he was very often quite wrong about some his theories. The right ones however, being so important, easily drown out his misses. Einstein is often put in a scientific league which is occupied by only one other person – Sir Isaac Newton. As much as I appreciate Einstein’s mind and theories (to the degree I can understand them), I do not think he can compare to Newton, who revolutionized science in many fields. Although it may be argued by some that Gottfried Leibniz, who independently discovered some of innovations to calculus at the same time as Newton, was as brilliant, this is about Britain, and we will not consider him.

Even studying Newton biographically is an awe inspiring task. His work with physics and astronomy has dominated the hard sciences for over 200 years until Einstein’s theories of relativity. His PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"), published in 1687, provided the world with the two of the most practical and dramatic theories ever discovered – gravitation and the three laws of motion.

Einstein did not prove Newton wrong with relativity theory, just that there was more to it than Newton could have understood. And, just as Einstein worked from the discoveries of others, Newton too acknowledged “If I have seen a little further, it is from standing on the shoulders of giants” (which was not his saying – but many centuries old – look up Bernard of Chartres).

Without even discussing his theories of optics and sound, his discoveries (even if shared) in differential and integral calculus, other mathematical developments and his building of a useful reflecting telescope, the theories of gravity and motion made a couple of centuries of technological wonders possible and are the basis for all modern physics – even to some degree relativity.

There is actually a controversy with gravity too, this time with another genius, Robert Hooke. Newton acknowledged that Hooke and even others had conceived of the theory of gravity's main principle – the inverse proportion between gravity and the square of distance (I sound like I understand the math, don't I?) However, he pointed out that without his proofs, the theory was mere guess work, and he also claims he learned nothing new from Hooke (although some scholars recently dispute that).

Yet perhaps his greatest achievement were the three little laws of motion. I’m certainly not a physicist. I never took it in high school or in college (although, oddly, I took a course my freshman year called Physics0/WesternCiv0, which was neither a physics course nor a civics course – long story). But, I read laymen physics books and articles for fun and like to speculate on it. Here, I’m going to give the watered down of the law from the Principia which seem so simple now, it is hard to see at this late date, why Aristotle or someone like him didn’t figure it out.

One - a body initially at rest or in uniform motion continues in that state unless a force changes it. This is the law of inertia.

Two - The change of momentum of a body is proportional to a force made upon it, and the change is made along the same line on which the force is made.

Three – to every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.

These laws are the basis of classical mechanics (which preceded relativity) and work in the world at large as we know it. The rules break down or must be modified at extremely high speeds or extremely small sizes, which is where relativity and quantum mechanics come into play. But, together with his theory of gravity and calculus, it explained all mechanical physics at the time.

Of course, science didn’t stop there and if not Newton, some day these theories would have been discovered by someone else. But, he put a rocket under the physical sciences. Einstein himself has said:

“[Newton’s] clear and wide-ranging ideas will retain their unique significance for all time as the foundation of our whole modern conceptual structure in the sphere of natural philosophy.”

“In my opinion, the greatest creative geniuses are Galileo and Newton, whom I regard in a certain sense as forming a unity. And in this unity, Newton is [the one] who has achieved the most imposing feat in the realm of science.”

When Albert Einstein, the third man on that Mt. Rushmore, says you achieved the most imposing feat in the realm of science, everyone should listen.

Two things in this world have made our lives so good – the development of a social order that gives us unparalleled freedom in the history of nation-states, and the development of science which has made it so much easier to live and enjoy ourselves, and gives us so much time to read about Newton and Einstein or anything else we want. In the words of Austin Powers – “It’s freedom, baby, yeah.”

3. The Glorious Revolution of John Locke – That’s a little pun there, son, you see. The Glorious revolution was the defeat of King James II of England by parliamentary forces and a Dutch invasion, putting King William of Orange-Nassau on the throne. But, it wasn’t as simple as that. As part of the deal, William agreed to the English Bill of Rights in 1689, the basis of much of our own bill of rights almost 100 years later. Although much more was needed to be accomplished in terms of individual rights, it was a landmark achievement of liberty in the world.

That same year, John Locke, returned to England after exile, published his Two Treatises on Government.

The first treatise was an argument against absolute monarchy – the divine right of kings. Locke had written it at the beginning of the decade, but clearly, with the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights, England didn’t need him to publish in order to come to the same conclusion.

It is his second treatise that is of interest today. In it, he had some revolutionary ideas. Like others before him, particularly Hobbes, he had a social contract theory. Men were born free in nature (although, it might shock some who quote him that he qualified this with the idea that some people God clearly put in a position of authority over others). Men gave up some of their freedom for the security of a society – “for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.”

Again, it might be shocking to some that this revered figure of liberty perhaps writes to justify slavery and conquest. This is not the consensus for most scholars, who claim he was arguing against a right of slavery. Maybe that's a post for another day.

His ideas on property seem to be an expansion of Hobbes and by capitalists and communists alike he is considered a father of capitalism (not that it didn’t already exist in practice).

It has to be remembered in judging Locke that he was a 17th century man, not an 18th century one. Although celebrated as a founder of modern democratic thought, he could accept things that would be more difficult for us. Thus, he was okay with forms of monarchy and oligarchies (although not absolute power). However, in his philosophy, there was a guarantee against their tyranny, and men were obliged to revolt when government stopped serving the people’s interests.

Not only didn’t England need him for the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights, but they didn’t really even know what he wrote. Unlike Hobbes’ work, it was mostly ignored (which gives me hope that my own theory of our free will being actually under control of invisible aliens resembling M&M's will some day be taken seriously).

Although he had gained some renown in England, it was really long after his death in America that he gained his greatest fame, and his theories were put to good use in support of our revolution. And, we all know the magnification of freedom that came out of that little experiment.

But, Locke’s contributions were not limited to the Second Treatise. I am here ignoring his psychological and epistemological work, which were important, particularly as they inspired a number of other philosophers (like Hume, see below),  But, as I have two other events to get to,  I will just mention a little known work of his – really a letter – which also was ignored, but was a forerunner of better government and civil life. If you have an interest in enlightenment values, you take a look at Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, also written in the same year of 1689.

“Let anyone have never so true a claim to all these things, yet if he be destitute of charity, meekness, and good-will in general towards all mankind, even to those that are not Christians, he is certainly yet short of being a true Christian himself. . . It is in vain for any man to unsurp the name of Christian, without holiness of life, purity of manners, benignity and meekness of spirit.”

* * *

“The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.

Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.

It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all the people in general and to every one of his subjects in particular the just possession of these things belonging to this life. . . .?”

2. Like a bright torch on a dark night – That’s my description of the philosophy of David Hume, who I put in my own little pantheon, even over Locke. Hume, I believe, now out of fashion, was the wisest of the wise, not least because his philosophy is closest to my own. Isn't that how we usually judge brilliance?

Hume was a Scot, a member of a vaguely later defined group of Scotsmen who brought about what is now called The Scottish Enlightenment, whose work inspires and guides us down to this day. While Locke, who inspired Hume to some extent, is given great credit for inspiring our own founders, particularly Madison and Jefferson, the Scottish philosophers that came about in the next century probably did more so. I cannot even begin to cover them in the page or so I dedicate to them here, and will just speak of Hume, who I deem the greatest of them. However, I will recommend to any interested in the founders and what led up to them, Garry Wills’ great work – Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which details how the Scots, and not Locke, was Jefferson's inspiration (although, in later additions, Wills admitted he made a mistake in excluding Locke as an influence completely). Or, if you aren’t going to read a book, you might be interested in my own Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence (3/7/09) where I discuss Jefferson's sources, including what I learned from Wills (although the point of that essay was to cut Jefferson down to size, which is never Wills' point).

Hume was an empiricist (as was Locke) and his own A Treatise of Human Nature was revolutionary (the truth of much of it being proved by how unpopular it made him with those in power) and more far reaching than Locke’s Treatise on Human Understanding which long preceded him. Inspirational is not a big enough word for this work. He inspired Kant, who said Hume “woke me from my dogmatic slumbers.” Some credit this work with founding the modern science of cognition – that is – thought processes. I think it is a little too much to say, although certainly he made a great contribution. More, Adam Smith, perhaps the most practically important philosopher to come out of the enlightenment thanks to his work which explains the benefits of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, credits Hume with heavily influencing his economic theories. Smith published a eulogy for Hume upon his death, which was brave in itself. Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy has been described as Humean and he himself (at least sometimes) recommended reading Hume or an imitator (for those who know my feelings about Jefferson, it is not his philosophy I criticize so strongly, but his character) although he had one picayune problem with him that colored his thinking and also made him harshly criticize him.

Even last century, he was highly influential to Karl Popper, who may be the most influential philosopher (even if still not widely known to the public) of the 20th century for his work on scientific theory (though I prefer his political theories), and also Ludwig Wittgenstein, Popper’s competitor. Wittgenstein's best friend, by the way, was David Hume Pinsett, the great philosopher's descendant.

You can throw in William James, John Stuart Mills and Arthur Schopenhauer too, but that’s just getting started. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is deemed by most (sorry intelligent design theorists), as one of the greatest achievements of the 19th century. To see the degree to which Hume influenced him read

But wait, there is still more. Einstein’s theory of relativity is considered the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century, and for some, ever. Here’s what he wrote about Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature: “[Positivism] was of great influence on my efforts, and specifically E. Mach and still much more Hume, whose treatise on understanding I studied with fervor and admiration shortly before the discovery of the theory of relativity. It is very well possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution. (translation taken from

Is it unfair to say that the man who inspired or influenced Smith, Kant, Hamilton, Jefferson (although, again, in some aspects, TJ reviled him - but mostly his famous history, which he found too Tory - it's complicated), Popper, Wittgenstein, Darwin and Einstein was the greatest philosopher? He’s got my vote.

I cannot go through the entire output of Hume’s work here (he was a historian and economist as well as a philosopher), but I can state a few ideas which attract me and seem important. He wrote on the problems of induction, that is, whether we can prove causation by past experience. He didn’t invent the idea but is still the best guide to this day on the subject, and, he understood better than others that you can’t prove anything by past experience, you were crazy to ignore it – because experience is still the best guide. That may seem obvious as you read it here, but too often I am frustrated by the argument of others who condescendingly state that you can’t prove anything, to which I like to reply, that’s true, but it is always the argument of last resort by those who have no evidence at all.

Hume understood that we are emotional creatures and that our reason was dominated by passion rather than reason. ‘”Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." I would argue, that the need for science is, in fact, to help reduce the problems caused by the seductiveness of inductive reasoning and our natural inclination to confirm our feelings with faulty rationalization. Reason does exist to help us make judgments, Hume explained, but our passions determine what we do with these judgments. Thus morality is based on feelings, not reason. You can understand, I’m sure, how this would make him unpopular with religious groups.

All great thinkers stand on the shoulders of others, as Newton confirmed, but Hume was quite original. His theory of self is difficult to intuitively grasp. There is no self, in fact, no real essence of anything. We are a bundle of sensations that are linked by our memory as with a chain. To speak of a self without the properties is to speak as if there was a chain with no links. This is the opposite of Plato’s essentialism where the reality is the idea as an essence, and all copies a degradation of it. I am not sure if this would be born out by modern cognitive science centered on the workings of the brain.

Hume's religious philosophy would earn him the nickname The Great Skeptic. For example, he asked, if there is evil and God is all powerful, then he must be part evil. If he cannot control or stop evil, then he is not all powerful. Of course, like any prolific writer, there are aspects with which I would disagree, even vehemently.

If you don't at least momentarily feel like going out to buy a book on Hume after all this, then you just don’t like philosophy, which is fine. In the immortal words of Stan Lee, ‘’Nuff said”.

1 - Let’s wrap it up with the Great Man – I can’t write about Britain and not mention Winston Churchill. In World War II his greatest contribution was the indomitable will to survive and prevail he inspired in his nation. I’ve written on him specifically before, so I will just give two quotes here which riveted not just the British, but freedom lovers all over the world.

“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

* * *

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

See more on this iconic figure at Move Over Einstein – The greatest man of the century is . . . (5/9/07).

And . . . All Hail Britannia!


  1. Ah, my dear Frodo, I'm so gland I annoyed you into finishing this. You are truly at your best rambling through history. Magnificent posting. I disagree with your exhultation of Hume. Brilliant? Yes. "Greatest" philosopher? Oh, pish-tosh. And much as you are troubled by Jefferson's stance on slavery, I am troubled by Churchill's stance on India. So, while I'm a big fan, and he's on my short list of heroes, his flaws are not minor.

  2. Pish tosh? You dare pish tosh me? No problem with you disagreeing that he is the king of philosophers, but I rely not only my own appreciation of him, which I admit is biased b/c we agree on many things, but Einstein's, Darwin's, Smith's and so on's opinions of him. Still, can you suggest a greater philosopher and tell me why? And don't say Cap'n Lou Albano. As for Churchill, when did I say write he was without flaws? Of course he was wrong about India. You might be interested in some notes from Elliot Roosevelt at concerning his father's and Churchill's discussions about Indian. But, I'm afraid Jefferson's appalling lack of character cannot be rescued by pointing out that Churchill or any other person had flaws as well. Uh oh, I sense another anti-Jefferson post coming on.

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .