Thursday, August 06, 2009

Berkowitz reviews Allitt's The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History

Peter Berkowitz reviews Patrick Allitt's The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History in the latest Policy Review. Berkowitz explains that Allitt helps explain the "paradoxes that constitute conservatism in America."
The questions that guide his study are straightforward: “Where did conservatism come from, what are its intellectual sources, and why is it internally divided?” In answering them, however, he is obliged to undertake considerable intellectual legwork because a recognized conservative movement in America only came into existence after 1950. This doesn’t prevent Allitt from reconstructing “a strong, complex, and continuing American conservative tradition” stretching from The Federalist to the Federalist Society. It does mean, though, that to justify his decisions about whom and what to include and exclude in the absence of a formal conservative tradition, a common canon, and an established set of spokesmen, Allitt is compelled to spell out the conflicting elements that distinguish a distinctively conservative approach to politics in America.

Allitt does not seek to go beyond his role as a historian. Yet his learned and fair-minded reconstruction lends support to the view that the proper way forward for conservatives is neither greater purity nor a more perfect unity, but a richer appreciation of the paradoxes of modern conservatism and a more assiduous cultivation of the moderation that is necessary to hold conservatism’s diverse elements, frequently both complementary and conflicting, in proper balance.
I particularly liked Allitt's definition of American Conservatism (as summarized by Berkowitz):
According to Allitt, conservatism is, first, “an attitude to social and political change that looks for support to the ideas, beliefs, and habits of the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy.” Second, it involves “a suspicion of democracy and equality.” This can be divided into a concern that the formal equality of men before God and law not be confused with equality in all things, particularly virtue, and that too much government power not be placed directly in the people’s hands. Third, conservatism reflects “the view that civilization is fragile and easily disrupted” and therefore it teaches that “the survival of the republic presupposes the virtue of citizens” and calls for “a highly educated elite as guardians of civilization.”

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Burgundians and Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun

N.B. Cross-posted at Burgundians in the Mist.

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun--his reworking of the Germanic/Norse legends of Sigurd and the subject matter of the Niebelungenlied, the Eddas and others--was published earlier this year to mostly positive reviews (but not all). As with all of his father's posthumous works, Tolkien's son Christopher culled and edited notes rough drafts (including lecture notes given by Prof. Tolkien who was an accomplished academic linguist) for presentation in a book. The younger Tolkien also offers his own editorial commentary on the source material and, most importantly for the historically inclined, provides some of the notes taken by his father concerning the origins of the various legends. Thus, we have J.R.R. Tolkien's own thoughts--the most contiguous presented in the appendices--on the various interpretive problems and it is here that scholars interested in the historical roots of these ancient Northern European works may profit the most.

J.R.R. Tolkien used other legends such as Widsith and Beowulf to inform his interpretation of how the stories may have evolved from history.

[Gunther/Gundahari's] tale is one of downfall after glory--and sudden downfall, not slow decay--sudden and overwhelming disaster in a great battle. It is the downfall, took, of a people that had already had an adventurous career, and disturbed things in the west by their intrusio and by the rise of a considerable power at Worms. It is easy to see how their defeat by Aetius only tow years previuosly [in 452 AD] would be telescoped in the dramatic manner of legend into the defeat by the Huns (if not actually connected in history, as it may have been).

[Gunther/Gundahari], already valieant and a generous goldgiver as patron in Widsith, must have been very renowned. Mere downfall, without previous glory, did not excite minstrels to admiration and pity. However, we are probably not far wrong in guessing that there must--quite early--have been some other element than mere misfortune in this tale to give it the fire and vitality it clearly had: living as it did down the centuries. What this was we can hardly guess. Gold? It may well have been that gold, or the acquisition of some treasure (that later still became connected with some renowned legendary gold) was introduced to explain Attila's attack. Attila (when legend or history is not on his side) is represented as grasping and greedy. It may have been in this way that Gunther/Gundahari ultimately got connected with the most renowned hoard, the dragon's hoard of Sigemund [in Old English], of Sigurd [in Old Norse]. (p.340-41)

There is also a discussion concerning Attila's part in all of this (as Atli) that is interesting and concludes with a summary by C. Tolkien that his father:

...sketched out his view of the further evolution of the Burgundian legend when the story that Attila was murdered by his bride had taken root. Such a deed must have a motive, and no motive is more likely than that it was vengeance for the murder of the bride's father, or kinsmen. Attila had come to be seen as the leader of the Huns in the massacre of the Burgundians in 437 {again, telescoping--ed}; now, the murder was done in vengeance for the destruction of Gundahari and his people. WHether or not Ildico {Attila's bride} was a Burdundian, her role in the evolving drama must make her so . And she avenges her brother, Gundahari.

Tolkien believed that the more mythical legends of Sigurd and the Nibelung horde were intertwined with the more historical fall of the Burgundians. He based this on a close reading of Anglo-Saxon poetry, particularly Beowulf and Widsith, as compared to the stories as told in Low or High Germany. From his readings, he concluded that the legend of Sigurd was fit into the fall of the Burgundians because both dealt with some sort of gold hoard. He also offers a theory as to how the Burgundians became known as the Nibelungs. In short, it makes for an interesting--if complicated--read.