Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Calling John Walker, Or, Can Anyone Be a Citizen Anymore?

 

When he joined us for the Ricochet podcast last week, John Walker got me thinking. (To judge from the comments, he got a lot of us thinking.) One of John’s points: That as knowledge expands, each of us can know only a smaller and smaller portion of the whole. Computers, for example, used to be simple enough to enable John and a couple of his buddies to design them from scratch, then sell them. Today that would be impossible. Computers now rely on too many layers of software. John could still design a computer from scratch, of course, but it would seem so primitive, so much like a crude toy, that it would have no commercial value.

This brought to mind Jeffrey Hart, the professor who had a profound influence on me when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth—and the professor who in turn had influenced him. Consider this passage from Professor Hart’s magnificent volume, Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe:

In 1947 and 1948, when an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I studied with a professor of philosophy named Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a refugee from the Nazis. During World War I, as a soldier in the German army, he had fought at Verdun. On one occasion, during a lull in the bombardment, he wandered out into the pitted and scarred no-man’s-land. Suddenly the artillery on both sides began firing again and he took refuge in a crater….”I was a naked worm,” he told the students in the classroom. In 1933, he experienced another extreme negation in the form of the Nazi revolution…In consequence, he had thought long and deeply about education…He had two phrases he repeated so often they remained in a student’s mind.

He would say, “History must be told.” He explained various ways that history is to a civilization what personal memory is to an individual: an essential part of identity and a source of meaning.

He also said that the goal of education is the citizen. He defined the citizen in a radical and original way arising out of his own twentieth-century experience. He said that a citizen is a person who, if need be, can re-create his civilization.

No one could ever have held the whole of human knowledge in his mind—not, at least, for several thousand years. The Romans may not have known anything about electricity or the internal combustion engine, but no one man could have held in his mind all that they knew about engineering or the whole of Roman law. But could certain ancients have held in their minds the essentials of their civilizations? The intellectual kernels from which their civilizations could have been rebuilt? I think so. Moses could have re-founded ancient Israel. Pericles could have recreated Athens and Julius Caesar could have re-established Rome. Moving much closer to the present, I’d be tempted to argue that Jefferson or Adams could have recreated much of what was known and valued in the early United States.

Could anyone pull it off today? Who? To recreate the United States—the contemporary United States—what would he have to know? To put the question more realistically, what should young people learn to make them true citizens of this country—not citizens of the world, the ridiculous phrase so in vogue on campuses today, but citizens, again, of this country?

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  1. Eric Hines Inactive

    To recreate the United States—the contemporary United States—what would he have to know? To put the question more realistically, what should young people learn to make them true citizens of this country…?

    It’s the wrong question. We shouldn’t want to recreate what our country is becoming–the contemporary United States. We should want to recreate what we were in our Beginning. Principles of civilization, underlying principles of morality, don’t change, only the implementation tools evolve.

    To answer your second, more realistic question, a true citizen of this country needs to understand our Judeo-Christian foundation, including our Christian and Jewish holy books. Move on from there to an understanding (in no particular order) of the strengths and weaknesses of political philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx.

    With considerable overlap here and with the foregoing, understand the nature and value of Conscience; Free Will; the sovereignty of the citizen, both individually and collectively, over government. Understand, too, the nature of natural rights and their associated duties, and the relationship between legitimate civil/statutory law and obligations on the one hand and natural rights and duties on the other.

    That will provide a good foundation; much of the rest will be engineering implementations.

    Eric Hines

    • #1
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:29 AM PST
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  2. Casey Inactive

    It seems to me that the thoughts and ideas of all modern Americans rest on a set of assumptions that we deny exist. Therefore, I do not believe we moderns could recreate much of anything.

    • #2
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:30 AM PST
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  3. Mike Rapkoch Moderator

    I’ll have to think about the “wat he needs to know,” but the first name to pop into my head is Paul Rahe.

    • #3
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:35 AM PST
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  4. MarciN Member

    I think any educated two people–a man and a woman of child-bearing age who love each other–seeking freedom from oppression in any western European country today could and would re-create the United States from scratch.

    The United States was not born in a vacuum.

    The ideas the early settlers brought with them from Europe were the genesis of the American experiment.

    Since that seems obvious to me, I am wondering if I am misinterpreting the question.

    And by the way, this is a really great post. :) Love thinking about this.

    • #4
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:36 AM PST
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  5. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Peter Robinson: Today that would be impossible. Computers now rely on too many layers of software. John could still design a computer from scratch, of course, but it would seem so primitive, so much like a crude toy, that it would have no commercial value.

    I think products like the Raspberry Pi, the Gumstix, and the Arduino, are evidence that this sort of “designed from scratch” design actually is still commercially viable.

    • #5
    • February 17, 2015, at 10:36 AM PST
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  6. Arahant Member

    The issue with this thought is that it was never one man who created any of those societies. How many hands were involved in creating the Constitution of the United States? How many men’s thoughts went into the building of Rome? Might have someone held enough information to recreate the Roman Republic ex nihilo at some point in time? Possibly. Could one man hold all of our philosophy and the mental seeds of our technology today? Doubtful. The philosophies might be boiled down to two or five main themes. One might also have enough knowledge of the scientific method and the seeds of electrical engineering, higher mathematics, materials engineering, etc. But how many of us could identify the base materials? You need good steel for this. What does iron ore look like? How do you extract the iron from the ore and convert it to the right kind of steel? I could give a hundred more examples. The layers are too broad and deep for a generalist to know it all.

    • #6
    • February 17, 2015, at 11:06 AM PST
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  7. James Gawron Thatcher
    James GawronJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Paul & John,

    “the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me”

    – Immanuel Kant

    The Critique of Pure Reason makes a computer manual read like a beach novel. (James Gawron said this not on his best day.)

    As difficult as Kant is, once you get the hang of it, you really feel you’ve got the inside track on Western Civilization.

    As for recreating the United States, well from the Kantian point of view it’s not only a free Country but it’s a free Universe. So yah I’d say it would help recreate America. I just hope we don’t need to do it.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #7
    • February 17, 2015, at 11:53 AM PST
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  8. John Walker Contributor

    In the very first of the Feynman Lectures on Physics, “Atoms in Motion”, Richard Feynman poses the question of what single sentence he would choose to transmit to a future in which all scientific knowledge had been lost. (This was in 1961; today we’d say what would you tweet to the post-apocalyptic world.)

    If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

    Now, of course, Feynman was speaking only of science, not the culture and institutions which underlie the society and without which nobody would have the ability to do science at all. But his “one sentence” challenge is a useful heuristic to try in these other domains as well, as it forces one to think about the single most important thing we have learned from millennia of human trial and error.

    • #8
    • February 17, 2015, at 12:00 PM PST
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  9. John Walker Contributor

    I am just about to finish James Wesley, Rawles’s (the comma is not a typo—that’s how he writes his name) latest book, Tools for Survival. I’ll review the book here when I finish it.

    Rawles concentrates on the tools and skills required to live in what amounts to a 19th century homestead lifestyle (augmented by some modern technology, such as electricity generated by solar power) as may be required if some kind of societal collapse or technological cataclysm (EMP, solar flare) occurs. He has discussed these scenarios in his fiction, but this book is all facts.

    My key take-away from the book is that the skill set required for true self-sufficient living is just too large for a single person or family to master. Even if you had all of the tools (and a place to keep them), developing and maintaining proficiency in using them is just too much. In his other work Rawles has emphasised that in a grid-down situation, the survivors will be members of small communities with a diverse collection of skills who cooperate and barter among themselves. I believe this is absolutely correct and that perhaps the most important skill is knowing how such communities work and how to build and maintain them.

    • #9
    • February 17, 2015, at 12:17 PM PST
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  10. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    John Walker:My key take-away from the book is that the skill set required for true self-sufficient living is just too large for a single person or family to master.

    When was this ever not true? When in human history did small families survive alone without drawing on the support of (and contributing their own support to) some form of community?

    When I read Into The Wild, the takeaway that I got was that young Chris McCandless wasn’t rebelling against modern society, but was rather rebelling against the idea of society completely, and that’s why he starved to death. At no time in human history did individual humans ever live alone (especially during an Alaska winter). They had villages, tribes, nomadic clans, etc, to draw on for support.

    • #10
    • February 17, 2015, at 12:27 PM PST
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  11. John Walker Contributor

    Peter Robinson: Moving much closer to the present, I’d be tempted to argue that Jefferson or Adams could have recreated much of what was known and valued in the early United States.

    But Jefferson and Adams (and Washington, whose formal education ended at age 15) stood on the shoulders of intellectual giants, being intimately acquainted with the classics and with European and British history. (At his death, Washington’s personal library numbered more than 900 books.)

    Perhaps the most important thing in rebooting a collapsed civilisation is knowing that these great books exist and knowing where to find them. Isn’t that what the liberal arts were supposed to teach young people? Maybe we should give it a try once again.

    • #11
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:13 PM PST
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  12. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    John Walker:Perhaps the most important thing in rebooting a collapsed civilisation is knowing that these great books exist and knowing where to find them. Isn’t that what the liberal arts were supposed to teach young people? Maybe we should give it a try once again.

    In 18th century America, way fewer people had access to this knowledge than today.

    Maybe that was more of a help than a hindrance?

    With so many more people today being educated at a graduate level, how on Earth would anybody expect them to accept the authority of a small group of white male landowners like Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Hamilton, etc, to write a Constitution for them.

    You couldn’t have someone recreate America because, thanks to the proliferation of higher education, there are way more people today who are intellectually capable of opposing its recreation.

    • #12
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:22 PM PST
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  13. Arahant Member

    John Walker:But Jefferson and Adams (and Washington, whose formal education ended at age 15) stood on the shoulders of intellectual giants, being intimately acquainted with the classics and with European and British history. (At his death, Washington’s personal library numbered more than 900 books.)Perhaps the most important thing in rebooting a collapsed civilisation is knowing that these great books exist and knowing where to find them. Isn’t that what the liberal arts were supposed to teach young people? Maybe we should give it a try once again.

    The original post seems to imply that it is the man and his memory, with no crutches such as books. Give me books, and I can create a civilization. Just the few thousand paper volumes here in my home (Yes, I have more than George Washington did.), not even counting the wonders on my e-book reader, could lead to much of it.

    • #13
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:25 PM PST
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  14. Done Contributor

    Arahant:

    John Walker:But Jefferson and Adams (and Washington, whose formal education ended at age 15) stood on the shoulders of intellectual giants, being intimately acquainted with the classics and with European and British history. (At his death, Washington’s personal library numbered more than 900 books.)Perhaps the most important thing in rebooting a collapsed civilisation is knowing that these great books exist and knowing where to find them. Isn’t that what the liberal arts were supposed to teach young people? Maybe we should give it a try once again.

    The original post seems to imply that it is the man and his memory, with no crutches such as books. Give me books, and I can create a civilization. Just the few thousand paper volumes here in my home (Yes, I have more than George Washington did.), not even counting the wonders on my e-book reader, could lead to much of it.

    Are we allowed to count Dungeons and Dragons rule books into the count for our “personal library”? If so, mine grows substantially.

    • #14
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:28 PM PST
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  15. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Frank Soto:

    Arahant:

    John Walker:But Jefferson and Adams (and Washington, whose formal education ended at age 15) stood on the shoulders of intellectual giants, being intimately acquainted with the classics and with European and British history. (At his death, Washington’s personal library numbered more than 900 books.)Perhaps the most important thing in rebooting a collapsed civilisation is knowing that these great books exist and knowing where to find them. Isn’t that what the liberal arts were supposed to teach young people? Maybe we should give it a try once again.

    The original post seems to imply that it is the man and his memory, with no crutches such as books. Give me books, and I can create a civilization. Just the few thousand paper volumes here in my home (Yes, I have more than George Washington did.), not even counting the wonders on my e-book reader, could lead to much of it.

    Are we allowed to count Dungeons and Dragons rule books into the count for our “personal library”? If so, mine grows substantially.

    Are we allowed to count ebooks? I have way more than 900 books if you count the books in my Calibre library.

    I haven’t read ’em all, of course, but how do I know that Washington read all 900 of the books in his library?

    Heck, if you count all the books available for free at gutenberg.org, we all have access to way, way, way more books than Washington had access to.

    • #15
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:33 PM PST
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  16. Titus Techera Contributor

    I’ve got two examples of stories, both very ancient in their own ways, so they do not really deal with the stuff people know how to make today.

    One is Lawrence of Arabia–there’s a man who knew how to make a nation. When people ask you to keep the miracles coming, you’re a few steps away from Moses!

    The other is Xenophon–what John Walker said about the knowledge of running a small community in an extreme danger made me think of Xenophon’s autobiography–he had to rise to rule a moving army of 10,000 mercenaries in enemy territory, beset by every danger known to man, & make sure they’d stick together & at the same time obey him, who was a stranger. So if there is some kind of knowledge of community or citizenship, I expect he had it. I do not have a really good idea why it would be different today; people make different things, but basically need each other the same–the facts of life have not yet changed.

    • #16
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:34 PM PST
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  17. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera:

    One is Lawrence of Arabia–there’s a man who knew how to make a nation.

    And look how well that project has turned out so far. I’m still unclear why Arab rule is superior to Ottoman rule.

    • #17
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:37 PM PST
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  18. Sabrdance Member

    I like the sentiment, but I think it needs a more esoteric reading to make sense. If a civilization were reduced to one person, the civilization would be dead -civilization by definition requires multiple people. Everyone back to Aristotle recognizes that what makes civilizations is the relationship between the constituent members, from the first parents, to their family, extended family, community, city, and eventually polis. Removed from that framework, man ceases to be civilized, even if he speaks Greek and drinks wine.

    So the question is not “what does the one person need to know to reboot civilization” but “what habits must people have in order that their relationships would maintain and then rebuild that civilization.” Asking that question reveals just how much modernity runs on inertia.

    Eliminate all knowledge and memory of the Bible and Philosophy, and have two people in close proximity. Who is taking bets on whether this civilization outlaws rape and murder, let alone lasts a single generation? I like John Locke as much as the next Ricochetti, but if a hulking brute of a man is stripped of all civilizational memory and dropped next to a small woman, I don’t think reason is going to go straight to “we should develop a contract whereby we respect each other’s rights…” Even Locke didn’t think this, which is why he has that long section on the development of families and the first commonwealths expressly to solve the problem of the -what’s we’d now recognize as -superman.

    • #18
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:37 PM PST
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  19. Casey Inactive

    Frank Soto:

    Are we allowed to count Dungeons and Dragons rule books into the count for our “personal library”? If so, mine grows substantially.

    The best part about Ricochet conversations is that there is no awkward silence immediately after someone embarrasses himself.

    • #19
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:46 PM PST
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  20. Done Contributor

    Casey:

    Frank Soto:

    Are we allowed to count Dungeons and Dragons rule books into the count for our “personal library”? If so, mine grows substantially.

    The best part about Ricochet conversations is that there is no awkward silence immediately after someone embarrasses himself.

    Says the Pirates fan.

    • #20
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:49 PM PST
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  21. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Casey:

    Frank Soto:

    Are we allowed to count Dungeons and Dragons rule books into the count for our “personal library”? If so, mine grows substantially.

    The best part about Ricochet conversations is that there is no awkward silence immediately after someone embarrasses himself.

    Yeah, no kidding. What kind of weirdo admits to playing anything other than Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition, naturally)?

    • #21
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:50 PM PST
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  22. Arahant Member

    I don’t have D & D, but I do have Traveller. It’s like D & D in space, without the magic and with spaceships.

    At least they have lists of technologies, if not how they are achieved. On the other hand, my engineering and chemistry books could be more useful.

    • #22
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:56 PM PST
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  23. Casey Inactive

    Arahant:I don’t have D & D, but I do have Traveller. It’s like D & D in space, without the magic and with spaceships.

    OOOOOOO….Kay…. there was an awkward silence there…

    • #23
    • February 17, 2015, at 1:58 PM PST
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  24. Arahant Member

    Casey:

    Arahant:I don’t have D & D, but I do have Traveller. It’s like D & D in space, without the magic and with spaceships.

    OOOOOOO….Kay…. there was an awkward silence there…

    My youth was no more misspent than anyone else misspent theirs. Okay, so building the database to emulate the character, ship, and planet generation when I was in my forties might have been right out, though.

    • #24
    • February 17, 2015, at 2:01 PM PST
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  25. James Gawron Thatcher
    James GawronJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant:

    Casey:

    Arahant:I don’t have D & D, but I do have Traveller. It’s like D & D in space, without the magic and with spaceships.

    OOOOOOO….Kay…. there was an awkward silence there…

    My youth was no more misspent than anyone else misspent theirs. Okay, so building the database to emulate the character, ship, and planet generation when I was in my forties might have been right out, though.

    Frank, Casey & Arahant,

    I don’t know why you guys feel so embarrassed about your D & D experience. You may be the only ones qualified to deal with Putin. Never let solid strategic thinking involving organizing the elves to fight the trolls go to waste.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #25
    • February 17, 2015, at 2:07 PM PST
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  26. Peter Robinson Founder
    Peter Robinson

    I love the Feynman Test, namely, how might you best convey the knowledge in an entire field or discipline in just a single sentence? I don’t want this whole fascinating conversation to go off on a sectarian jab, but there’s a world of theology in the first two sentences of the old children’s hymn: “Jesus loves me, this I know/For the Bible tells me so.”

    Okay, we’ve reduced all of science and all of theology–Christian theology, that is–to a single sentence each. What’s the one sentence we would choose to transmit about political institutions and the rights of the individual? Has Lincoln already given it to us? “Government of, by, and for the people.” Not bad, no?

    If Rob can come up with a single sentence on cooking, we’ll have reduced all of western civilization to fewer than 50 words. Honestly. Is there anything the Ricochetti cannot do?

    • #26
    • February 17, 2015, at 2:12 PM PST
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  27. Casey Inactive

    James Gawron:

    Frank, Casey & Arahant,

    I don’t know why you guys feel so embarrassed about your D & D experience. You may be the only ones qualified to deal with Putin. Never let solid strategic thinking involving organizing the elves to fight the trolls go to waste.

    Whoa whoa whoa…. Sorry, Peter. Just excuse me for a moment…

    If there’s one sentence I want to shout from the rooftops right now it’s “I have never dungeoned a dragon in my whole life!”

    Carry on.

    • #27
    • February 17, 2015, at 2:26 PM PST
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  28. Eric Hines Inactive

    What’s the one sentence we would choose to transmit about political institutions and the rights of the individual?

    Plainly this one: But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    Eric Hines

    • #28
    • February 17, 2015, at 2:37 PM PST
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  29. Arahant Member

    Peter Robinson: If Rob can come up with a single sentence on cooking, we’ll have reduced all of western civilization to fewer than 50 words. Honestly. Is there anything the Ricochetti cannot do?

    I was just thinking it would be fun to have a Ricochet cooking meet-up.

    • #29
    • February 17, 2015, at 2:46 PM PST
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  30. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    James Gawron:I don’t know why you guys feel so embarrassed about your D & D experience. You may be the only ones qualified to deal with Putin. Never let solid strategic thinking involving organizing the elves to fight the trolls go to waste.

    Errr… The way my friends and I play(ed) the game, we rolled up several characters to use as backups. We had a very high mortality rate in our games. Maybe we shoulda played modules other than Tomb of Horrors?

    • #30
    • February 17, 2015, at 2:59 PM PST
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