Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Uprising of a Great People, the United States in 1861, to which is added A Word of Peace / Count Agenor de Gasparin -- NY: Charles Scribner, 1862.

Gasparin's Uprising of a Great People was written during the weeks before and after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. It was an attempt to sway public opinion in France in favor of the United States and against the southern rebellion. It was clear to Gasparin and probably clear to anyone following "the American Crisis" that if the North chose to vigorously supress the rebellion, the South's only hope lay in gaining recognition from Great Britain or France. Consequently, Gasparin's prose are stark and passionate.

Through out the argument, Gasparin asserts that he has no ill will toward the South, but that its well-being depends entirely on abolishing slavery. For Gasparin, the South's worst fate would be realized by delaying abolition, even if abolition required Civil War. Gasparin traces several scenarios for the South's future, none of which result in a flourishing Confederacy and the continuation of slavery. The crisis for the South was percipitated by the "uprising" of the people in the North against slavery, evidenced by Lincoln's election. For Gasparin, the writing was now on the wall: the North would no long tollerate the spread of slavery and without Northern assistance, the South would lose escaped slaves to the North and into the territories. Immigratants and capital would shun the South, and the power of Christian morality in American and in Europe would inevitably sap support for slavery.

With hindsight, it is easy to see that the prospects for the South were hopeless from the start, but that Gasparin could make such a strong case for this at a time when many thought the Union was doomed is a testiment to his political insight. However, a number of his assumptions seem incorrect. Most significant is his assertion that Lincoln's election was evidence of an "uprising." In fact, Lincoln was elect by only a plurality of voters and all of his main opponants tollerated or supported slavery to one degree or another. What doomed the South was not Northern impatience with the abolition of slavery, but a broad commitment to the Union and the material and human resources available to the North.

At the same time, British or French recognition of the Confederacy may well have prompted the North to accept Southern independence. Had this occured, Gasparin's predictions about the fianl fate of the South seems plausible. The security of Southern slave holders was too precarious to attract capital investment and European public opinion would likely starve the south of immigrants. According to Gasparin, these eventually would turn the South into an impoverished backwater that could not compete with other cotton producing nations. Meanwhile, the founding principle of the confederacy (the right of seccession) would result in border states rejoining the more prosperous United States, and finally the reconquest of the Gulf States by the North.

The most interesting aspect of the work is Gasparin's comments on political philosophy. Chapter X "Institutions of the United States" includes an extended criticism of democracy. Here Gasparin's French aristocratic status becomes clear. His treatment of democracy is either terribly confused or the very meaning of the term is radically different from what it is in the 21st century Anglo-American world. As a 19th century French aristocrat, Gasparin's notion of democracy likely is colored darkly by the French Revolution. Indeed, for Gasparin, "democracy" would imply nothing more than authoritarian government. However, several notable factual errors lead one to think he may simply be confused about political philosophy. It is also possible that Mary L. Booth's translation is at fault.

Regardless of the explanation of the oddities of his argument, it is fascinating to read a work that openly attempts to predict the outcome of the American Civil War at its outbreak.

Bound with The Uprising of a Great People is Gasparin's short essay, "A Word of Peace on the Difference between England and the United States." The "differnce" is the Trent affair in which Charles Wilkes, captain of the USS San Jacinto boarded the HMS Trent to seize two southern envoys to Great Britain. Gasparin councils Britain not to use the incident to abandon its neutrality and councils the United States not to resist Britain's demands for reparations. In his view, a rift between the two countries would serve neither.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Buddhist Suttas / T.W. Rhys Davids, trans. -- NY: Dover, 1968.

In 1879, the noted philologist Max Muller began publishing his massive, 50 volume series The Sacred Books of the East. Volume 11 of this series, Buddhist Suttas was published in 1881. The work contain translations of seven Buddhist suttas by T.W. Rhys Davids. Originally written in the ancient Indian language of Pali during the third and fourth centuries B.C., these suttas give us an important glimpse into the life of the Buddha and early doctrines of Buddhism. They are commonly included in what is known as the Digha Nikaya, the Anguttara Nikaya, and the Magghima Nikaya -- three of the five collections that constitute the Pali canon.

The longest and perhaps most important of the suttas in this volume is The Maha-parinibbana Suttanta or The Book of the Great Decease. This provides us with an account of the Buddha's last days, his death, and the grief of the surviving community. A central theme of the work is the transience of all things. In the course of the sutta, the Buddha explains the Four Noble Truths and exhorts his followers to master the truths that he has made known to them. These are the four earnest meditations, the fourfold struggle against sin, the four roads to sainthood, the five moral powers, the five organs of spiritual sense, the seven kinds of wisdom, and the noble eightfold path. While the sutta does not explain these truths, Rhys Davids provides a valuable note elaborating them.

Despite their pleading, the Buddha exhorts his followers to accept his impending death as the inevitable fate of all things. The varying success of his followers illustrate the degrees of success they have achieved in understanding the Buddha's message. In the end, relics of the Buddha's body are distributed among the survivors, leading one to think that mainly his message was not understood; however, it is easy to understand that veneration of the relics is not a morbid fixation on the material Buddha, but a means of reminding the faithful that enlightenment is attainable in this life.

Also included in the volume is The Dhamma-kakka-ppavattana Sutta or The Foundation of the Kingdom of Righteousness which concisely lists the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The importance of these make this sutta of supreme significance to the history of Buddhism.

Two suttas, The Tevigga Suttanta or On the Knowledge of the Vedas and The Akankheyya Sutta or If He Should Desire... present arguments against Vedic preistly and other methods of seeking enlightenment. The Ketokhila Sutta or Barrenness and Bondage explains the significance of zeal and determined efforts to gain freedom from barrenness and bondage. It elaborates the importance of maintaining confidence in the teacher (the Buddha), his doctrine (the Dhamma), and the Buddhist order (the Samgha) and avoiding sensuality, sloth, and craving for future life.

The Maha-Sudassana Suttanta or The Great King of Glory is a long chant-like work written in a fairytale style. It describes an opulent complex built by the Great King of Glory and his decision to renounce it and attain enlightenment. It is told in the context of the Buddha's last days and mirror's the Buddha's own decision to seek enlightenment over what had been his more likely destiny as prince of a great kingdom.

Finally, The Sabbasava Sutta or All the Asavas emphasizes that Buddhism is agnostic with regard to speculative questions like our past and future existence(s) and the existence of an individual soul. Indeed, fixation on such questions will positively inhibit one's pursuit of enlightenment.

In all, Rhys Davids's collection of suttas provide an valuable insight into the foundation of early Buddhism and its emphasis on personal salvation from suffering born of selfish desires. This translation fortunately has removed a good bit of repetition that appears in Buddhist suttas, but equally fortunately, it has retained enough repetition to convey the chant-like flavor of the original works. Reading them with patience and an open heart is most rewarding.