What Aeneas Told Washington

VITAL REMNANTS (ISI Books, 1998), edited by Gary L. Gregg II.

VITAL REMNANTS (ISI Books, 1998), edited by Gary L. Gregg II.

Well, ok, the two never met.  At least not in this reality.  Still, many Americans of the day regarded George Washington as the American Aeneas.  Of course, he was also known as the American Cato the Younger, the American Cicero, the American Achilles (his only Greek title, as far as I know), and the American Cincinnatus.

A lot of scholarship has examined the English (from King Alfred on), the liberal/Enlightenment, republican, and the Protestant influences on the culture and ethos of Revolutionary America.  Sadly, though, very few scholars have looked at the classical and antique origins of America.

Of those few, however, one of the very best is CU’s very own Chris Kopff, a professor in Boulder since 1973.  A classicist with a love of the American Founding, Kopff has not only absorbed the literature that exists on the subject, but he’s also contributed some very original thoughts to it as well.

Kopff, as many can attest, is an excellent speaker as well as writer.  One of my favorite pieces he wrote, “Open Shutters on the Past: Rome and the Founders,” can be found in an excellent anthology put together by Gary Gregg and published in 1998, Vital Remnants: America’s Founding and the Western Tradition.

The opening paragraph will give you a sense of Kopff’s abilities as a scholar and writer:

If direct contact with the classical tradition was essential for the American Found, it may be equally essential for a contemporary attempt to restore freedom and creativity to the United States.  If the classical tags of eighteenth-century political debate were as incidental to the achievements of that age as its powered wigs and snuffboxes, the classical past will be all the more irrelevant to our age and its dilemmas (Vital Remnants, pg. 71)

Kopff, not surprisingly, finds the past very relevant to the present, noting that while the Founders did not try to recreate the classical world, they did live and breathe it in their actions, their ideas, their letters, their debates, and their architecture.

And, this takes us back to Aeneas.  In Virgil’s classic story of the men of Troy searching for a home in the Mediterranean, Aeneas, through a myriad of trials against human and god, comes to forge a new civilization on the Tiber.  Neither Trojan nor Latin, it combined into the best of each, thus assuring the firm foundations of the republic and (unfortunately) the empire.

Washington in his own words and actions did the same in America, at least at a deeply symbolic level.  Just as with Aeneas, Washington sought not to create an entirely new civilization, but, instead, sewed together pieces of the past to make something acceptable to the present.  America was not something entirely new.  Instead, it was Hebraic, Christian, American Indian (the equivalent of the Latins in the Aeneid), Greco-Roman, and very English.

Though perhaps the least liberally educated of the American Founders, Washington exemplified the spirit of antiquity.  He possessed the physical prowess of Achilles, the fortitude of Cato, the humility of Cincinnatus, the wisdom and patience of Cicero, and the hope of Aeneas.

Conserving What Is Liberal

I'm not sure who this guy is, but I'd like to have a beer with him.

I’m not sure who this guy is, but I’d like to have a beer with him.

Innumerable persons throw around the term “conservative.”  Some mean it in admiration, others in shame, and still others in bitterness or fear.  A huge number of schools within what might be regarded as “conservative thought” exist: libertarian/anarchist, individualist, communitarian, traditionalist, imperialist, nationalist, humanist, and religious.

And, of course, within each of these schools of thought reside innumerable variations.  Wheels within wheels, nuances, and fusions at every level.  Disagreement and tension at almost every level as well.

Almost everyone–left, right, above, below, next to–neglects the single most important question when it comes to conservatism.

Exactly what is it you or they want to conserve?

If it’s petty national pride, racial bigotry, religious intolerance, genocide, or slavery, count me out.

At some level, conservatism must be culturally specific as each place and people develops its own norms and mores.  At another level, though, many of those norms–such as “do not murder”–exist in nearly every culture at anytime and must be regarded as particular manifestations of universal truths, no matter how clouded or weighed down by custom.

As the second University of Colorado-Boulder Scholar of Conservative Thought and Policy (God bless mighty Steve Hayward!), I very much want to conserve lots of things: human dignity, individual diversity, excellence and innovation, piety, etc.

I also want to be a patriot of western civilization.

Within the humane as well as the Judeo-Christian traditions of The West, much should be conserved.  During my year here at CU, I especially want to conserve what is liberal.

Traditionally, liberal has meant “to be liberated from the things and cares of this world,” from the immediate day-to-day drudgery, to escape what is ephemeral and to contemplate the highest of things: the eternal good, true, and beautiful.  To escape the Cave.  And, to throw the Ring of Gyges into the Cracks of Doom.

One can identify a nearly continuous tradition of humane and liberal thought from Socrates (and even the pre-Socratics) through Cicero, Augustine, Alcuin, Aquinas, More, Burke, Adams, Newman, and Eliot.  By engaging this lineage, each scholar (student, professor, or otherwise) speaks to generations upon generations of those who have come before and, in anticipation of, duty to, and honor of those who are yet to come.

These voices, I want to conserve.  A liberal mind, after all, is a free mind.

Eva Brann Wins Paideia Prize From Circe Institute

Eva Brann, St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland.

Eva Brann, St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland.

Eva Brann, arguably the finest exponent and scholar of the liberal arts today, has just received the Paideia Price from the CIRCE Institute.  Her acceptance speech, not surprisingly, is a thing of beauty.

That means: be bold to shamelessness in your book conversations in the following ways: Ask and take up the simplest, most naive questions, because they are often the deepest. Do not be ashamed to express ignorance, because that is the beginning of learning. Face writings way too hard and high for you, because just as a cat may look at a king, so plain humanity may confront greatness; textbooks come graded by degree of preparation, but great texts were meant for all of us, and the best ones tend to be both approachable and self-explanatory; like a certain kind of really worthwhile person, they might be prickly outside but cordial inside Be loose enough to live with a lack of learning; it is not necessary to look up every word, or to understand every argument—much better to get good at guessing what matters.

One can read Dr. Brann’s full speech at The Imaginative Conservative: http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/07/eva-brann-acceptance-speech-russell-kirk-paideia-prize.html


Economist Bob Higgs on His Childhood Home

Crisis and Leviathan (Oxford, 1987).

Crisis and Leviathan (Oxford, 1987).

I’ve been reading the works of economist and economic historian, Robert Higgs, since his magnum opus, CRISIS AND LEVIATHAN, first appeared in 1987.

In this book, Higgs rather expertly demonstrates what he calls the “ratchet effect”–an argument that claims that the easing of a domestic or international crisis only slightly diminishes governmental intervention at home.  It’s an argument that seems to explain much of the history of the U.S. government since the rise of the progressive movement at the end of the 19th century.

Much of Higgs’s scholarly work since has looked at the economics of war and medical regulation.  All of it is excellent.

Not only a mentor intellectually, Bob has never failed to encourage my own work in history.  As anyone who knows him can readily verify, he’s as kind to his friends and students as he is innovative and intellectual in his own scholarship.  There are a LOT of us who love Bob, and I very proudly fall in with their number.

Therefore, when I saw a recent post of his, I was deeply moved.  It has nothing to do with his scholarship.  It is an intensely beautiful and poetic reflection on the loss of his childhood home.  Before my introduction to the piece becomes longer than the piece itself, let me repost it here.  Enjoy.


This is a six-year-old photo of the house in which I lived during my high-school years. When I visited the area with my lifelong best friend Henry Leng in 2008, the house was abandoned, boarded up, and in an advanced state of deterioration, with large holes in the roof and the desert encroaching on all sides where well-watered lawns and a lush garden had once grown. Today, when Henry and I visited the ranch, the house had disappeared without a trace. The ground where it had stood was completely bare and lacked any sign that a habitation had once stood there — indeed, had stood there for well over fifty years, housing a succession of families.

That bare ground tells no tales of a boy who did his homework faithfully five nights each week while sprawled across his bed, a boy who dreamed of catching giant trout in Canada or Argentina, a boy who hoped to become tall enough to dunk the basketball someday, a boy who rode the last bus on its long, meandering trip from the distant high school to bring him home after athletic practice, a boy who scarcely imagined the places he would go, the things he would see, and the people he would know and love during his lifetime, a boy who never foresaw that he would write a scientific article, much less a serious book, a boy whose parents were too poor to send him to college, yet generous beyond all accounting in the love and trust they gave him.

Gone now, without even a minute trace, is the house that sheltered that boy, but somewhere in the man the boy became, the house remains in memory still standing, firm and well kept, with a mother’s prized roses growing in front of it and the smells of her apple pie wafting from the little kitchen, while his father reads the Fresno Bee and the boy tinkers with his fishing gear or works on an English essay for Mrs. Malm’s class. Only when the boy-become-man has given up the ghost will that house truly have disappeared–Bob Higgs, July 2014.

The boyhood home of Bob Higgs.  Now, gone from this earth.

The boyhood home of Bob Higgs. Now, gone from this earth.


An Introduction of Gratitude and Patriotism

Six Birzer kids and a dad.  Photo by mom.  Lily Lake, July 18, 2014.

Six Birzer kids and a dad. Photo by mom. Lily Lake, July 18, 2014.

I’m generally not nervous or shy when it comes to posting.  In fact, giving me a keyboard, a screen, and access to the internet is probably a bit like handing money to a politician.  I have next to no restraint!

But this is a bit different.  I’m following in the footsteps of the mighty Steve Hayward, a hero of mine for years now.  This task and honor is as daunting as it is exciting.  While I don’t possess Steve’s humor or his scholarly standing, I will do my best to live up to what he did so brilliantly over the past year.

Let me offer just two thoughts in this first of what will be, certainly, a huge number of posts between now and July 1, 2015.

First, a huge thanks to all of those who helped me get here: Steve Hayward, Winston Elliott, my wife, Jim Otteson, Ann Carlos, Scott Hall, Clint Talbott, Chris Kopff, Martha Sherneck, Kerry McLean, my kids, Mike Rosen, and the committee that listened to me bloviate for a day and actually thought I was worth having here!

What an overwhelming honor.

Second, let me state once against how utterly thrilled I am to hold this post and, of all places, at the University of Colorado.  And, this is for all kinds of reasons, to be sure.  I’ll mention several over my posts this year, but let me begin with a bit of patriotism.

Colorado is almost as much a home to me as is my actual home state of neighboring Kansas.  Born in 1967, during the Summer of Love (if such a thing existed in Great Bend, Kansas), I graduated high from Hutchinson High School in 1986, only to take off for the University of Notre Dame that fall.

While Coloradans might not realize this, any Kansan living east of Topeka considers himself or herself more a Coloradan than a Missourian.  Central and western Kansas, culturally, looks West.  Certainly, to the standpoint of a Kansan, Denver is the best of cities, while St. Louis is merely interesting.

Raised by a mother who taught school and, therefore, had her summers off, we almost always vacationed in Colorado.  Names and places such as Estes Park, Durango, Canon City, Cripple Creek, Lamar, Rifle, and Gunnison carry as much weight in my soul (a rather glorious weight) as do Dodge City, Garden City, Wichita, and Salina.

Each of these Coloradan names carries a sense of wonder for me.  As I asked my mom as a child, “why wouldn’t every one want to live in Colorado?”

Colorado is much more than a place of wonder and fancy for me, though.  I grew up with the stories how Colorado saved our family.  During the Great Depression, my grandfather, Wendelin E (no period) Basgall, the most dignified man I’ve ever known, spent summers living out of the back of his car, following the migrant workers, picking beats and doing whatever else needed to be done.  A teacher by profession, the Kansas schools only paid him eight out of the 12 months.  Harvesting in Colorado as well as serving for a time as a short-order cook provided sustenance and, over time, longevity to our family.  I, born four decades after the depression, would not be writing this post or teaching at this august college without the determination and sacrifice of my grandfather.  And, without the resources and opportunities Colorado provided, my family might have experienced a stillbirth early on.

My wife, six kids, one cat, and I just moved to the area a week ago.

One of the first things I did was put a map of Colorado on my office wall.  It sits next to my computer.

Looking at it as I type this, I realize there are almost no roads in this state that I have not explored at some point in my life.  And, almost every single place marked on the map has meaning to me at a variety of levels.  Highway 287 from Fort Collins to Laramie is certainly one of the most beautiful drives in this grand country.  Other places jump out at me as well.  I realize that Stephen King, for example, has made The Stanley the most haunted place in America.  And, Estes has an aura of mystery around it, to be sure.  But, as I look at the state map, I can’t help but slide my glance toward Sand Creek.  Could any place in this country be more haunted than the site of the 1864 massacre?  Anyone who has visited there knows that the names of the dead float upon the wind.

But, so much to see.  So much history.  So much humanity.  I can look at the high tech corridor across the front range and feel pride.  Or, I can look toward the raising of wheat in the eastern part of the state or toward the venerable Hispanic culture of the southwestern part of the state or toward the great dinosaur remains in the extreme western area of the state.

In Colorado, I can picture myself running down the Great Sand Dunes, avoiding a herd of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, or holding on nervously to something. . . to anything. . . as I peer into the Royal Gorge.

What a state.

And, best of all, my family and I not only get to live here for a year and breathe the freshest air in the world and see some of the most dramatic scapes any where, but I actually get to do it all while doing what I love most in this world: teach, write, and being a part of a vibrant intellectual community.

Thank you, Colorado.  Yours, sincerely, Brad