Wednesday’s Child: An Old New Order

A university friend of mine, Peter Baldwin, whose book on the pandemic I mentioned here some months back, has just come out with another. The title is Command and Persuade: Crime, Law, and the State across History.  Were I a libertarian, it would always sit on my bedside table, next to a tome of Ayn Rand and a sepia print of the Unibomber in a silver frame.

Trouble is, I’m not a libertarian.  As a denizen of the residually free West, I perceive my habitat as the eventual Lebensraum of totalitarian predators that have encircled it, with the consequence that I wish the state that governs me to grow stronger rather than weaker, even if this should deprive me of ever more liberties. At any rate, such is my emotional impulse. Whether in reality this putative Leviathan would defend its denizens from the surrounding predators better, or at least for longer – or else, to the contrary, would be more likely to conspire with them against its own people, as authoritarian juntas often conspire with totalitarian dictatorships – is simply something I don’t want to think about.  As I say, I’m not a libertarian because my emotions are in the way.

The author of this remarkable book, however, is under no obligation to spend time in the mind of this particular reader, a Russian émigré’s mind warped by decades of jaundiced geopolitical speculation.  Baldwin is a historian who is addressing readers for whom libertarianism may well become an emotional as well as a ratiocinative lifeline, and the wealth of scholarship he marshals is extraordinary.  Mind you, there’s not so much as a hint in the book that its author is a libertarian himself, or even harbors any more than very broadly libertarian sympathies.  But his masterful handling of the subject matter, as indeed the translatory impetus he gives to the subject itself, is such that his book would make a libertarian of Pol Pot.

At times Command and Persuade reads like one of those “Did You Know?” or “Food for Thought” sidebars in Sunday newspaper supplements, but this only goes to prove that it is not a drily academic tract – as one might expect of a 450-page text fully one-fourth of which is taken up by footnotes – but highly readable and intellectually entertaining.  Here is an almost entirely random sample, from a chapter entitled “Crimes of Thought”:

Sin and crime were eventually separated out. The transcendent religions of the Axial Age – Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism, then Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – desacralized the world. God and the divine were elevated to a higher plane, no longer interacting much with the mortal and certainly not on a daily basis. By the nineteenth century, the legal reformer Anselm von Feuerbach was able to argue that God could not be insulted and that he certainly would never stoop to exacting revenge for injured honor.

Did I know that?  And did I know that “the first national police force, the French marechaussée from the 1760’s, had 3000 men, the French army 400,000,” while today the police force in the United States all but outnumbers the US Army?  Or that “the last known duel with a lethal outcome in England was fought by two Frenchmen”?

The book is a feast. I’m proud to have known the Chef de Cuisine when he was still an entremetier, a humble kitchen hand, with a portrait of Karl Marx pinned to the wall over the dormitory bed that we shared at university.  His was the top bunk, which was just as well, because I never washed my clothes and slept with my shoes on when drunk.

Andrei Navrozov

Andrei Navrozov

7 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Thank you Andrei for the suggestion. It’s always perplexed me to read observations such as “We live in a time that is more orderly and peaceful than ever before in human history.“ This, at the same time the 20 century is the notorious and historical spectacle for the bloodiest century ever recorded in “human history.”
    I suspect the culprits are in that evil peace described by St Augustine and that’s probably because I have been reading Peter Brown’s biography of the saint from Hippo so will finish that before I take up Mr Baldwin. But it is a question that has interested me for some time and anecdotally preposterous for me to believe personally and provincially but not necessarily statistically.
    The towns of my youth are burned out shells and vacant lots of huddled addicts but my beloved country, government and civilization might be doing better than ever.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Was the reference to the Ritter von Feuerbach intended as a joke? The man, though he unconvincingly denied the charge of atheism ridiculed the Christian God as an illusion. One cannot take such a man’s religious views seriously.

  3. Michael Strenk says:

    I have known any number of Orthodox clerics that would take extreme exception to Mr. Baldwin’s notion that Christianity has “desacralized the world” or that God is “no longer interacting much with the mortal and certainly not on a daily basis”. I also have it on good authority that sins against the Holy Spirit are the only sins that are unforgivable.

    You are to be commended for your loyalty to your friends, but Marxists and “post-Marxists” of whatever fashionable ideological persuasion, have always been flatulating in the faces of the tradition-minded as might be inferred from your above account and they apparently continue to do so.

  4. Michael Strenk says:

    When I was playing rugby we had an unofficial contest on the team to see whose practice duds would get up and walk under their own power by the end of the season.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The subject of the divorce between religion and law deserves a serious treatment. One can see the gap beginning to open up even in the Odyssey and far more so in archaic Greek writers such as Solon and Xenophanes. The Greeks–and whether this is unusual or not, I don’t know and haven’t thought about–were forever refining their notions of divinity to bring them closer to the conclusions they were reaching through reason, and in Sophocles and Herodotus, to take two examples, this tendency of accommodation without sacrificing faith in the supernatural reaches a real height. In a cruder way we can see the later Prophets of the OT grappling with some of the issues, but, lacking the intellectual clarity of the Greeks, they could not adequately systematize their insights. I fear Prof. Baldwin knows very little of either set of developments.

    Of course it is not Christianity but the Enlightenment rewrite of Christianity that has desacralized the world. I used try to make this point, by letter and in person, with Alain de Benoist, who was always really a disgruntled Catholic under his pagan surface. His debate or discussion with Thomas Molnar on the decline of the sacred is well worth reading, and one forgets there were once people described as “conservative” with the intelligence and erudition of the Catholic Molnar and the pagan Benoist. Ah well, it is what we call Progress.

  6. andrei navrozov says:

    Dr. Fleming – Tom, on your cavil with Baldwin citing Ritter von Feuerbach, I think his point is only that such a man could put such an argument forward at such a historical juncture. There is no question there of assessing the argument on its merits, the point is merely that an argument of this sort would have been unlikely to have been publicly sounded in another epoch.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Andrei, I join Mr. Strenk in commending your loyalty to a friend.