Anglo-Saxon England, Part I

After the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, first spurred by the Visigothic sack of Rome in AD 410 followed by the collapse of the western Empire in AD 476, a cloud of darkness overcame the island of Britain. Very little writing or culture emerged as the world of the Britons became immersed in constant war. The bloody and murderous assaults were regularly perpetrated by the Picts and the Scots as they overran Hadrian’s Wall and fought the kingdoms of the Britons. However, a growing threat also emerged from the East: the seafaring Germanic warring culture known as the Saxons. Amidst this hazy picture of anarchy, Winston Churchill notes, there were four windows into a “dim and coloured glass” offering us a glimpse into what truly happened between the Britons and the Saxons: Gildas, Bede, and then much later, the Historia Britonium, and the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The first writer who documented the destruction of Britannia by the Saxons was Gildas “The Wise.” In the 6th century, he penned a diatribe from the perspective of the Britons entitled De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (or “On the Ruin of Britain”). Gildas was a monk and his Latin text is composed of a series of sermons condemning many of the political and religious leaders of post-Roman Britain. In contrast, nearly 200 years later, from the perspective of the invaders, the Saxons, came the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede was a provincial Anglo-Saxon monk from Northumbria, born in 673. He was sophisticated and well-educated and his chronological history is sober and reflective, with just a hint of contempt for early Britain. Still the haze enveloping this epoch makes it difficult to discern truth from fiction. Hundreds of years later Geoffrey of Monmouth celebrated this era for its fabled aristocracy, chivalry, Christian faith, knights and ladies and so on. Out of the cloud of this mist emerged the legend of King Arthur, a defiant British king who upheld the chivalrous customs of his ancestors while defending his kingdom against the Saxons. King Arthur was made popular in the chivalric romance tradition, and his story is echoed in the writings of Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Malory.

How did the Saxons ultimately succeed over the Britons? After many years of coastal raids along the British isle, Gildas writes of how a naive king of the Britons, King Vortigern (“Mighty king”), was in need of military support to defend against the Picts and the Scots. Finding no help from Rome, he regrettably called upon the Saxons, led by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa. Vortigern fatefully invited them to the British island like a Trojan Horse being led across their network of coastal defenses. The Saxons were lured with the promise of payment in exchange for military support. However, in the absence of Roman bureaucracy, payment was difficult, slow, and not always accurate. Money became a growing bone of contention between the Britons and the Saxons. Thus, the Saxons soon turned their swords against the Britons, and eventually an all-out war erupted. Whole towns were sacked and entire populations were horrendously murdered across the entire island. Scores of Saxons flooded into Britain. The invaders were merciless, running naked through the countryside, sparing none, slaughtering all. Where once stood walls and roads, now sat piles of human bodies, toppled architecture, and scattered limbs with blood lining the roads and villas. However, at the Battle of Mount Badon (late 5th or early 6th century), one lone British royal hold-out secured a victory under the military guidance of Ambrosius Aurelianus around AD 490. But by the end of the 6th century, almost everything south of Hadrian’s Wall had been completely re-populated by Saxons.

From the opposite perspective, Bede tells us of three primary Germanic groups who invaded Britain: the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. They were a mostly egalitarian people without kings, ruled by blood and kin. They were part of the greater diaspora of Germanic tribes, forever the enemies of Rome. Their German homeland lay on the plains between the River Elbe to the east and the River Ems to the west in a region still known as “lower Saxony” (Neidersachsen) in present-day northern Germany. For the Saxons, the tribe was the family unit and money was the supreme law, and the position of king grew in purpose and authority following their invasion of Britain. Upon the takeover of Britain, the Anglo-Saxons began creating feudal hierarchies intended to dominate their subordinates. Saxon leaders began referring to themselves as rex (“king”) and new laws were created. Much of the ethnographic information on the Germanic tribes, like the Saxons, comes down to us in the writings of the late Roman aristocrat, Tacitus because the Saxons were illiterate.

The Saxons had no cities, they disliked close neighbors. They lived in a smattering of hamlets throughout the countryside. Their houses were made of wood and their garb was simple, muted.

There is a rousing debate that continues to this day between whether the invading Saxons wholly exterminated the native Britons or instead intermingled and reproduced with at least some of them. I tend to agree with the latter -there is enough evidence to suggest the Saxons kept some living Welsh noblemen on their lands, and they likely took some British women as concubines. However, the overwhelming majority of the Britons were wholly massacred by the Saxon incursion.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the writings of Gildas, the Venerable Bede, Historia Britonium (perhaps written by Nennius), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Tacitus, and Geoffrey of Monmouth.

An Appeal to Common Wisdom in the Final Tale: The Parson’s Tale

The “Parson’s Tale” is the final story of The Canterbury Tales.

In the “General Prologue,” the Parson is described as a ‘good man of religion.’ He is erudite, scholarly, devout, and forgiving. The Parson believes that in order to be a good priest he must be perfect, because sheep follow their shepherd, but only if he leads by example. Above all, the Parson is a man of integrity: an essential example of Christian humility and charity. Naturally, his tale is not a fictional story (despite the Host’s request), and instead it is a perfectly honest and perfectly dreary essay -certainly not a tale that will be seriously considered as the winner in the competition.

By now, the sun is quickly setting the and group has reached the edge of a town. The Host says, “fulfilled is my sentence and my decree” (17) -does this mean the Host has abandoned his initial request for each pilgrim to tell two stories on the road to Canterbury and, again, two tales on the return route? The only pilgrim who has come close enough to fulfilling his oath of telling two stories en route to Canterbury is Chaucer, himself, bur only because his first tale is interrupted and abandoned.

The Host asks the Parson to tell his tale quickly, but instead we are offered a lengthy theological diatribe that ends with a plea to the reader not to blame the author if offense is found in the tales. In blending his own voice with the Parson’s, Chaucer disguises his own particular preferences against the common prejudices of his era, namely the political power of the church, despite his numerous satirical jabs at clerical overreach throughout the Tales.

The form of the “Parson’s Tale” is prose, a form which the Host has already expressed distaste for (see Chaucer’s first tale). The tale, which is hardly a tale at all, discusses the topic of Penitence and its three effects, it is Chaucer’s apologia for his rowdy and occasionally ribald, but entertaining, collection of tales. As in Plato, Chaucer ends his Tales with an appeal to conventional wisdom, while also addressing a number of recurring themes throughout the tales, such as marriage (or rather the ongoing dialogue about the nature of a successful partnership). By selecting the Parson as the final storyteller, a man who clearly practices what he preaches, coupled with the fact that his tale is unpalatable, Chaucer highlights the necessity for a certain degree of authorial untruth in telling a tale. The idea of authorship and authority (both taking their linguistic roots from the Latin auctoritas) is at the heart of the final tale.

The “Parson’s Tale” is Chaucer’s justification for poetry. What is the best way to convey a message to a group of people? A fable? A poem? A chivalric romance? A philosophic essay? As previously evidenced in the Tales, the travelers find organized theological treatises less persuasive than fables, images, stories, or narratives. Thus, Chaucer sees poetry as superior to theology.

The “Parson’s Tale” ends with a brief note from the author, Chaucer, as he proudly announces his many books and translations (like Boethius) while also professing a meek spirit of contrition and penitence. The epilogue appears to have been written close to the end of Chaucer’s life, perhaps while he dwelled in Westminster Abbey. It contains the seed of Shakespeare’s Prospero as his ‘revels now are ended.’ The poet’s goal of both delighting and informing is now complete.

Thus concludes my chronological reading of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

Notes on the “Classic of Poetry”


“The Classic of Poetry” Handwritten and illustrated by the Qianlong Emperor, Qing Dynasty (17th to 20th centuries)

Also translated as the “Book of Odes” or even the “Book of Songs,” the so-called “Classic of Poetry” (or Shi Jing) contains 305 poems, hymns, and songs that address a wide range of daily issues in ancient China. Traditionally, Kongzi (or “Master Kong” or “Confucius”) hand-selected each of these poems.

Like the books of Psalms or Proverbs, the “Classic of Poetry” is a compilation of much earlier folklore that appears to have been considered canonical around the era of the Han Dynasty in China (202 BC–220 AD).

Admittedly I did not read every poem in the collection, but rather I read through a variety of them. The poems are impressionistic, simple, and seemingly scattered with central theme or consistent message. Here is one example of one of the more famous poems that has broadly entered the public vernacular commonly in China:

关雎 Crying Ospreys

Merrily the ospreys cry,
On the islet in the stream.
Gentle and graceful is the girl,
A fit wife for the gentleman.
(Translated by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang)

Gone With The Wind: An American Epic of Nostalgia and Survivalism

“…tomorrow is another day.”


In a rare interview with the Atlanta Journal in 1936, Margaret “Peggy” Mitchell described her debut (and only) novel, Gone With The Wind, as follows: “…the story of a girl named Scarlett O’Hara, who lived in Atlanta during the Civil War and the days of Reconstruction. The book isn’t strictly a book about the war, nor is it a historical novel. It’s about the effect of the Civil War on a set of characters who lived in Atlanta at that time.”

In essence, this is an accurate summary, though it is quite a terse overview for the greatest bestseller of all time. Gone With The Wind is a beautifully written and thoroughly researched novel that offers the essential mythology of the American South before, during, and after the Civil War, from the antebellum period to Reconstruction. While the prose in Gone With The Wind is gripping, no review of the novel would be complete without discussing the inaccurate, disappointing, and dehumanizing portrayal of black people in the novel. Throughout the book African Americans are characterized as one-dimensional simpletons who are untrustworthy, ill-educated, and in need of strong guidance from white people. Many black characters are compared to animals or children, with frequent references to “darkies” or “negroes.” The racist tone is pervasive throughout the novel and it casts a dark shadow over an otherwise compelling but extraordinarily dense novel (the original first edition published by MacMillan was 1,037 pages long).

Ironically, while on the surface the novel presents a potent cocktail of nostalgia for the antebellum South, the only characters who successfully survive the Civil War are those who look forward to a better future, not the reactionaries who look backward. Self-seeking, ignoble, and unpatriotic people are shown to be the truly strong survivors while others are cast to the wayside amidst Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia destroying farms, plantations, and railroads. Sherman’s troops eventually torch and loot the city of Atlanta -a key metropolitan juncture for the Confederacy. I had never truly grasped the tactical importance of the city of Atlanta prior to reading this novel, nor did I fully understand how small of a city Atlanta was at the time. Most of the South was rural, pastoral, and agricultural with only several small pockets of towns and cities. Atlanta was an important city primarily because of its railroad intersection connecting Georgia to the ports of Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington, and therefore it was a hub of communication and trade, as well as a gathering place to care for wounded soldiers.

At any rate, the central theme of the Gone With The Wind is: survivalism. Which characters have the necessary gumption and leadership in times of extreme turmoil? Who survives the aftermath of the Civil War? And why?

Our central protagonist is Scarlett O’Hara, a frustratingly flighty, selfish, and spoiled Southern belle. She lives on her family’s vast North Georgia cotton plantation, and she comes of age right on the cusp of the Civil War, however she cares little for the war. Her days are spent mostly fretting over dresses and parties and toying with young men who might become potential suitors, like the Tarleton twins. Mitchell provides a brief but telling summary of the antebellum South when describing Scarlett’s Irishman father, Gerald O’Hara:

“He liked the South, and he soon became, in his own opinion, a Southerner. There was much about the South – and Southerners – that he would never comprehend; but, with the whole-heartedness that was his nature, he adopted its ideas and customs, as he understood them, for his own – poker and horse racing, red-hot politics and the code duello, States’ Rights and damnation to all Yankees, slavery and King Cotton, contempt for white trash and exaggerated courtesy to women. He even learned to chew tobacco. There was no need for him to acquire a good head for whiskey, he had been born with one” (62).

The Civil War is merely the setting of Gone With The Wind, but the central tension lies in Scarlett’s hidden love for her neighbor -a graceful, blonde, country gentleman named Ashley Wilkes who is betrothed to his shy but innocent, lady-like cousin, Melanie. On the other hand Scarlett is pursued by a curt and arrogant scallawag named Rhett Butler. While neither Ashley nor Rhett are particularly supportive of the war, Ashley is overwhelmed by a sense of duty to his home state when Georgia secedes, but Rhett is unimpressed by the foolhardy men of the South. In turn he is reviled by his compatriots for blockade-running and managing a seedy prostitution business. Rhett maintains neutral business activities both North and South of the Mason-Dixon line throughout the war –he notes the impossibility of victory for the South due to an extensive network of Yankee resources, technology, manufacturing, and manpower, while he characterizes the Confederacy’s call to war as Quixotic and naïve.

As the novel progresses, the war explodes amidst much enthusiasm. Scarlett hurriedly marries a young suitor named Charles Hamilton in a foolish attempt to make Ashley jealous, but her young husband Charles soon dies of a disease while en route to the warfront, leaving Scarlett pregnant and alone with a child. And despite her obligatory public displays of mourning, she moves to Atlanta and quickly begins attending parties and engaging in playful banter with the unscrupulous Rhett Butler while he is in town. She stays at her Aunt’s home along with her sister-in-law Melanie (now pregnant with Ashley’s child) and she tends to the wounded soldiers who increasingly fill the streets of Atlanta while a steady stream of Confederate forces continue to fall back. Just as Melanie goes into labor, the Union army begins their assault on the city of Atlanta. In desperation, Scarlett finds Rhett Butler who helps them escape the tumult just as Atlanta is torched to the ground. The loss of Atlanta essentially spells the end of the Confederacy -a shock to many prideful Southerners.

In the second half of the novel Scarlett quickly grows up. She returns to her family’s plantation, Tara, and becomes a survivalist -caring and providing for a postpartum Melanie, as well as her ill and depressed father (saddened by the loss of his wife), and other members of the house –including a handful of former slaves who have chosen to remain at Tara. They raise livestock, pick cotton, and grow vegetables to survive. Ever-present is the threat of Union soldiers or General Sherman’s troops storming their land, taking their possessions or else much worse. At one point, Scarlett displays her own gumption by killing a stray Union soldier who enters the house, presumably to rob and rape the women. Scarlett becomes the de facto leader of her household. However, as Reconstruction begins, the Radical Republicans take control of everything in Georgia and they begin brutally punishing former Confederate sympathizers. For those they cannot imprison they disenfranchise and raise exorbitant taxes on the old properties. With little money to spare, Scarlett travels to Atlanta to beg Rhett Butler for money only to find that he has been imprisoned. She offers herself as a mistress in exchange for money but an amused Rhett claims he has no access to his money. Meanwhile, Ashley stumbles his way to Tara after surviving a Union prison camp. With more mouths to feed, Scarlett grows desperate. By happenstance, she runs into an old acquaintance, Frank Kennedy, a gentleman from the antebellum days. Although he is betrothed to Scarlett’s neighbor, she quickly concocts a lie and marries Frank for his money, earning her the ire of her neighbors.

In order to secure herself a lasting income, Scarlett uses her husband’s money to build a lumber mill which quickly grows into a successful business despite Republican efforts to thwart Southern enterprise. The entire order of Georgia is cast aside as crime and lawlessness rules the day. However, Scarlett grows arrogant with her business and one night she rides through a notorious shantytown filled with vagrants. Two men attempt to rob her, leading a “vigilante” group to seek vengeance –the infamous Ku Klux Klan. In the chaos, Scarlett’s husband, Frank Kennedy, is killed but Rhett Butler saves Ashley Wilkes from imprisonment by providing an alibi: the men were drinking all night at a local brothel (which, as it turns out, is owned by Rhett Butler). The story checks out and Ashley is allowed to recover from his wounds.

Almost immediately after Frank’s death, Rhett Butler proposes marriage to Scarlett and in a heated passion she agrees. They honeymoon in New Orleans while spending Rhett’s vast sums of money before returning to Atlanta -to Peachtree Street- to build a house near where Scarlett stayed during the Union Army’s assault on Atlanta years earlier. Scarlett gives birth to a baby girl, much to her chagrin, and Rhett nicknames her “bonnie” because of her blue eyes -an allusion to the “bonnie blue flag,” an early flag of the Confederacy. Rhett dotes upon bonnie day and night, and he proudly takes her on carriage rides around town. One day, Scarlett visits her lumber mill where Ashley is now employed and they reminisce about the old days before the war, but while caught up in nostalgia they are spotted and the scene is mistaken for impropriety. It causes a great scandal amidst the Atlanta gentry, and Rhett Butler grows furious. He drags Scarlett to a party in order to embarrass her, and in the evening (Mitchell suggests) Rhett assaults his wife. As an aside, Gone With The Wind is filled with all manner of shameful acts that shocked early 20th century readers and continue to remain scandalous to this day. Scarlett becomes pregnant with another child, but in a fight with Rhett she lunges at him and accidentally falls down a flight of stairs, breaking her ribs and causing a miscarriage.

She flees home to Tara to recuperate with her children:

“They left the village behind and turned into the red road to Tara. A faint pink still lingered about the edges of the sky and fat feathery clouds were tinged with gold and palest green. The stillness of the country twilight came down about them as calming as a prayer. How had she ever borne it, she thought, away for all these months, away from the fresh smell of country air, the plowed earth and the sweetness of summer nights? The moist red earth smelled so good, so familiar, so friendly, she wanted to get out and scoop up a handful. The honeysuckle which draped the gullied red sides of the road in tangled greenery was piercingly fragrant as always after the rain, the sweetest perfume. Above their heads a flock of chimney swallows whirled suddenly on swift wings and now and then a rabbit scurried startled on the road, his white tail bobbing like an eiderdown powder puff. She saw with pleasure that the cotton stood well, as they passed between plowed fields were the green bushes reared themselves sturdily out of the red earth. How beautiful all this was! The soft gray mist in the swampy bottoms, the red earth and growing cotton, the sloping fields with curving green rows and the black pines rising behind everything like sable walls. How had she ever stayed in Atlanta so long?” (645-646)

However, tragedy soon strikes again. Bonnie falls in a horse-jumping accident, much like her grandfather, and the fall tragically snaps her neck. Her death cases Rhett to fall into a deep, alcoholic depression just as Melanie Wilkes becomes pregnant again, causing her already frail body to grow deathly sick. Scarlett goes to speak with her just before her death. Scarlett also speaks with Ashley and she finally realizes that she does not love him anymore. Maybe she only ever loved the idea of Ashley. In truth, Ashley is an effeminate relic of the old Southern aristocracy -incapable of caring for himself or his own business interests. Rhett Butler describes Ashley as follows:

“…Ashley Wilkes-bah! His breed is of no use or value in an upside-down world like ours. Whenever the world is up-ends, his kind is the first to perish. And why not? They don’t deserve to survive because they won’t fight – don’t know how to fight. This isn’t the first time the world’s been upside-down and it won’t be the last. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. And when it does happen everyone loses everything and everyone is equal.” (Rhett Butler defaming Ashley Wilkes to Scarlett pg 719)

Scarlett runs to Rhett Butler in love and hope, but her dreams are dashed as he apparently has already moved on, uttering the book’s most famous line:

“My dear, I don’t give a damn.” 

The novel ends with Scarlett finally overcoming her girlish infatuation with Ashley Wilkes, but filled with the hope of winning back the love of Rhett Butler …for “tomorrow is another day.”

The title of the novel is derived from the third stanza of an 1894 poem by English writer, Ernest Dowson. It refers to a deep loss of love that will never be regained, while ‘gone with the wind’ in the novel refers to the old antebellum Southern aristocracy, an agrarian economy of gentlemen farmers, as well as a caste system predicated on human enslavement. In summary, the wind that sweeps through Georgia decimates an entire way of life, for better or worse, and the soft romantic aristocrats of yesteryear are left behind while the hardened survivalists are the ones who endure.

The 1937 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The selection of Gone With The Wind as a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1937 was controversial. There was a growing chorus of accusations decrying racism in the novel, but the Pulitzer decision was also criticized for apparently caving to vulgar popular opinion (Gone With The Wind was a smash-hit bestseller). The Pulitzer Prize has often been forced to balance its decisions between commercial popularity and lasting literary quality.

The 1937 Novel Jury was composed of the same three people for the eighth and final year in a row: Jefferson Fletcher (Chair of Columbia University), Robert Lovett (a literary scholar), and Albert Paine (an American biographer known for his work on Mark Twain -he died later that same year in 1937). This trio would be the longest serving consecutive group to populate the Novel Jury. Apparently, in 1937 they provided a list to the Pulitzer Advisory Board of the top 6 novels recommended for the award. The two at the top of the list were Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind and George Santayana’s The Last Puritan. The Pulitzer Advisory Board simply unilaterally selected Gone With The Wind.

Today (as recently as 2014) Americans continue to rank Gone With The Wind among their favorite books, second only to The Bible. Nevertheless, controversies continue to plague the novel. Gone With The Wind has frequently found its way onto lists of banned books (remarkably the Nazis banned the book in Germany in the 1930s), and even as recently as 2020 an online video streaming service removed the 1939 classic film adaptation from their selection our of a fear of featuring racist content on their service (Gone With The Wind was later re-added with a detailed introduction discussing its racist content). As with many of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels on my list, reading Gone With The Wind has been strangely timely amidst continuing demands for a national conversation on race in America following the tragic death of George Floyd in 2020 and the ensuing protests and riots.

Who Is Margaret Mitchell?
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) was raised among the traditions and mythology of the old South. She grew up hearing the stories of the time before the war, as well as the difficult days of Reconstruction. Her father, Eugene Mitchell, was an attorney and a remarkable historian of the Civil War, particularly with regard to Georgia. In one of her few interviews, Margaret Mitchell recalls how her father could recite every single battle of the Atlanta campaign, the names of the commanding officers, and if they were shot and where. Her mother and brother were also amateur Civil War historians.


Mitchell attended Smith College for one year, but when her mother died she returned home and never finished college. In 1922, at the age of twenty-two she began working as a writer for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine (she was one of the first female reporters in the state of Georgia). A few years later she married John R. Marsh and left her job due to recurring injuries, including an ankle injury. Bored and restless, she began writing her epic, Gone With The Wind. Her writing style was haphazard –she typed some pages here and there while scribbling down others on handwritten notes, and various editions and pages were hidden around her house. Only a few friends close to Mitchell actually knew about the book. For nine years Mitchell continued writing and re-writing the manuscript.

One day a publishing agent for the MacMillan Company (from New York) was touring through the South hunting for new literary talent. A friend referred Mitchell, and the rest is history. After a few months of editing, Gone With The Wind went on sale on June 30, 1936 and became a national phenomenon –it was a surprising turn of events for everyone involved. The novel won the Pulitzer in 1937 amidst both celebration and controversy. When she received her congratulatory phone call for the Pulitzer, Mitchell simply continued about her evening routine: attending service at a black church. The press hunted for her all over Atlanta but they never did find her.

She was often asked if she would write another book, but Mitchell always responded that she was far too busy being the full-time author of Gone With The Wind. She was paid $50,000 for the rights to the film by David O. Selznick -a massive sum in those days- and the incredible technicolor film later won Best Picture in 1939 (read my review of the film here). Margaret Mitchell attended the premiere for the film at the Loew’s Theatre in Atlanta, alongside the mayor of Atlanta, Producer David Selznick, Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, and a cohort of surviving Confederate Civil War veterans. The whole city was filled with cheering crowds and parties honoring the Old South.

Despite persistent accusations of racism (in both the film and the novel) in the 1990s, it was revealed that Margaret Mitchell had anonymously funded the education of many Black/African-American medical students to attend Morehouse College throughout her lifetime. She risked her life to do so. In addition, she was outspoken about the plight of women in America – she was a flapper girl and a debutante in her 20s, as well as a tomboy. As with most writers, a greater degree of complexity lurks just beneath the surface of their works and this axiom holds true for the enigmatic and reclusive Margaret Mitchell .

In 1949, while en route to see a movie on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, a street that ironically plays an important role in Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell was struck and killed by an off duty cab driver. She was only 48 years old. Gone With The Wind was the only novel she published in her lifetime. Years later, another short romantic novella surfaced that she wrote in her teenage years and it was eventually posthumously published and entitled Lost Laysen.

Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With The Wind. Scribner, 1996.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Political Theology in the Bible: An Exegesis

The account of human life offered in the Bible is radically different from the writings of Plato and Aristotle in classical antiquity.

In the Bible, an infinitely distant God creates the world and then places humans in it. He is an artisan and a poet -He speaks life into existence. However, the account of His creation was not witnessed by any living human, yet curiously an anonymous narrator shares the story of creation through revealed scripture (tradition holds this narrator to be Moses). God’s initial intent for humans is that they be immortal yet blissfully ignorant denizens of the Garden of Eden, but they immediately disobey the law laid down by God which is not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Initially, humans are unsatisfied to live according to mere need (as a Marxist might claim) nor by pure hedonistic self-interest (as Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham or Adam Smith might claim). This dissatisfaction points to a human desire to know good and evil -an Aristotelian stretching out toward knowledge. After the humans disobey God, their eyes become opened, just as the cunning serpent suggested. God banishes the humans and their new knowledge from the Garden of Eden, never to return again. God is disappointed and resentful of the humans and their disobedient desire for knowledge. As further evidence of this, God punishes future human offspring: Cain is punished for killing his brother Abel out of jealousy. Abel is a shepherd and a nomad, and God approves of his sacrifice; whereas Cain is a settled farmer who works the land and whose seed beholds future creators -musicians, builders of cities, and other human crafts. However, the human genealogy of the other brother, Seth (born after Abel’s murder), is what carries the human race through Noah. The humans are mainly a people who “walk with God” (Genesis 5:24). God prefers humans to have an unsettled, uncomfortable, and nomadic life. He is skeptical of human greatness, autonomy, and knowledge. The Bible calls for “righteousness” rather than “civilization.” Theology comes to light as skeptical of knowledge and human potential.

However, as time passes mankind grows wicked. There are no laws and humans lives in freedom. They possess the knowledge that they will one day die (perhaps not unlike Gilgamesh) and this causes them to live in rebellion, so God endeavors to destroy life through a catastrophic flood, saving only Noah and his family. When Noah emerges from the receding floodwaters and sacrifices, God finally acknowledges man’s evil nature and he makes a concession -a promise never to destroy innocent life again. Notably, God performs a similar act to Cain’s earlier sin: murder. At any rate, God is learning how to best handle human beings.

Next, humanity becomes divided. First, Noah becomes the first man to grow a vineyard and he becomes drunk while his son Ham transgress an unspoken law -seeing his father’s nakedness. Ham (the future father of Canaan) is cursed and his other two sons are praised, humanity becomes divided into the “cursed” and the “blessed.” In addition, the descendants of Noah under Nimrod build the mighty tower of Babel in order to penetrate the heavens where God dwells and also to make a name for themselves as one people, until God ‘comes down’ and thwarts human efforts toward self-reliance, pride, and techne. He confuses languages and scatters humans in different nations across the earth. There is presumably something dangerous or threatening to God’s authority if humans live according to one single city or state.

Next, God chooses to elevate one nation as his “chosen people” under the fatherhood of Abraham. What characterizes Abraham as important? For starters, he circumcises himself and his household as a sign of his devotion to God, but more importantly there are three chief passages that demonstrate Abraham’s increasing awareness of his own mortality, as well as a deeper faith in and a love for God. First, in his old age Abraham has a son named Isaac (meaning “he will laugh” -because of the way Abraham laughs at the thought of a child, though not in a contemptuous way because that form of laughter would presuppose a distinction between things that are possible and impossible). At any rate, God seemingly breaks his own covenant with Noah and commands Abraham to sacrifice his son as a show of his true obedience and child-like love for God without qualification. However, at the last moment God rescues Isaac. Only by accepting God as wholly unfathomable, yet also perfectly just, can a person come to be rewarded by God. Thus the Bible preserves the classical idea of self-sacrificial love: a Biblical hero is one who commits wholly to God’s unfathomable demands. Throughout the Bible, humans are blamed for their downfalls, but God claims all the glory for their accomplishments.

Next, we follow the descendants of Isaac, particularly Jacob or “Israel” -the patriarch of the future nation, and his son Joseph’s rise through slavery in Egypt to become Pharaoh. The pure despotism of the Egyptian government is contrasted with the simple, nomadic life of the burgeoning Israelites. As time passes, the rule of Joseph is forgotten and the Israelites become an enslaved people with no proud leaders of their own anymore, nor any experience in ruling themselves until Moses rises up to lead the people (i.e. God’s people, not Moses’s people). He leads them out of Egypt and to the promised land. In the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we are provided with a vast array of laws handed down to Moses who delivers them to the wayward, wandering people of God. Unlike the works of political philosophy found in the writings of Athens, there is no explicit teaching of the “best regime” in the Bible. Instead, we are offered a glimpse into the theocratic teachings of ancient Israel, most of which are prohibitive injunctions.

The closest example we find in the Bible to a political teaching is through the narrative: an exemplary, chosen people wrestles with their political existence as a series of successive systems of authority unfold. Only through a painful and purifying process can humans hope to live up to their nature: made of dust, yet also created in the image of God. This process requires the search for the “best regime” for humanity (which now possesses a certain divine intelligence). In the Bible, humans struggle to rule their fellow lowly humans.

The first regime to appear in the narrative is the patriarchal regime, best exemplified in the story of Abraham, but this regime proves faulty as the sons of Jacob and their tribal offspring can hardly keep peace among themselves. What is needed is the rule of law -divine law- but in the second regime we gain a glimpse of the pure despotism of the Pharaonic regime in Egypt, completed by Joseph when he abolishes all private property in Egypt. The Egyptians are a nation who have mastered control over their environment (such as irrigation canals from the Nile) and thus they do not require dependence on the whims of the natural world. They are an irreligious people as well, though they do praise the power of human magic. The Pharaoh embodies the desires of Nimrod and his construction of the Tower of Babel. A higher power embodies the necessary constraints on this kind of regime.

The third political order is the Mosaic liberation from Pharaoh and toward divine law. The laws handed down at Sinai are intrinsic and they do not rely on any modern notion of the ‘consent of the governed.’ In delivering these holy laws, God further continues His quest toward becoming ruler of humans, and His authority is absolute. According to the law, the economic sphere protects a certain degree of private property -fraternity and charity is not merely encouraged but rather enforced- and in the erotic sphere sexual pleasure is allowed only insofar as it serves the perpetuation of the patriarchal lineage. Lastly, the principle of retribution rules the penal code of ancient Israel. Nowhere is the distinction between Jerusalem and Athens more apparent than in the Mosaic laws which are contra Plato’s Laws and the oft-repeated Socratic assertion that virtue is knowledge, and vice ignorance.

Mosaic law details injunctions in order to instill a “pure” and holy people, but the laws are unclear on the future regime, or how the laws will be enforced.

In the fourth regime, we encounter Joshua, the conquering warlord who rules the Israelites with a zeal for exterminating surrounding tribes. However, following the rulership of Joshua comes the problematic rule of Judges -a reign characterizes by chaos and by a tribal confederacy that is mired in near constant disagreement. However, scripture seems to indicate that God favors this reign of the Judges, wherein humans are fragile, vulnerable, and internally chaotic.

Lastly, we see the sixth and final political regime offered in the Hebrew Bible: a divinely anointed monarchy. The kingship begins with a demand from the people that they become a ‘nation like other nations’ and so the tallest man, an all-too-human man named Saul is chosen by lot but he is soon proved to be an insufficient leader. The monarchy allows Israel to rise to its cultural heights, but it eventually devolves into despotism, as with the Pharaohs in Genesis and Exodus. Saul is initially brought to the kingship against the wishes of the prophet Samuel, as well as in opposition to God who allows the Israelites to experience a human king only insofar as it may show them how corrupt and evil a human ruler can be, however the Judges are the most stark symbols of corruption. In contrast, Saul is a dependable king by all measures. His chief flaw is that he governs humans in their own interest and does not obey the commandment of God when God instructs the Israelites in one of their conquests of the Philistines to offer up everything as an offering to God, but Saul tells them to keep what is good and offer the rest to God.

At any rate, the kingship is passed to David, a short and unassuming shepherd-boy turned lyre-player in the court of Saul. He humbly defeats the giant philistine warrior named Goliath. David’s heroism lies in his meekness and humility, but all the credit goes to God, as the Biblical narrator indicates. Thus David assumes power. He marries Saul’s daughter Michal, a refined lady of higher society who is ashamed of David’s wanton musical ways, such as his erratic dance in a loin cloth after the end of battle. David is a craftsman, a musician, and a creator like Cain (David is traditionally held to be the writer of the Psalms) and thus he is a privately selfish person but a publicly righteous leader. He is complex and flawed, as in the infamous case of his lust for Bathsheba. David is famed throughout the world because of his self-centered nature: he is the humble, warrior, poet king who also represents the height of Biblical political and cultural flourishing. He is the king that all future kings of Israel are compared to, including the fabled Messiah, or the divinely anointed king of all peoples.

David and Bathsheba have a son named Solomon who longs for wisdom above all else. He is a writer, like his father. Traditionally Solomon writes the Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. He begins with a series of wisdom quotations, followed by the book of deep love, and lastly his thinking leads him to become morbid and even fatalistic, perhaps approaching quasi-philosophy, yet the wise Solomon is overshadowed by the poet king, David, the height of Biblical political philosophy.

Following David and Solomon, the leaders of Israel grow increasingly decadent until the nation is once again enslaved, this time by the Babylonians. Between enslavement and a decline in the old ways of doing things many Israelite prophets call for a messiah, or a savior-king to restore the order of David, such as a tolerant leader like Cyrus of Persia. Christian scriptures, collectively called the “New Testament,” identify Jesus as this messiah. However, he has apparently not been sent for political rule (recall Jesus’s encounter with the devil who tempts him with ultimate political power in exchange for devil-worship). Instead Jesus gathers a group of followers and performs a variety of miracles, but only when he summons a large enough crowd does he deliver his famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ -in which Jesus spells out his vision of the right way of life in the Beatitudes (or eight “blessed are the…” rather than “thou shalt…”). He intensifies Mosaic law by commanding the fullest extent of moral purity, the criteria for which few ‘Old Testament’ figures would ever meet. All pride is condemned, and surrendering to evildoers is praised -it brings to mind the definition of justice offered by Polemarchos in Book I of Plato’s Republic in which the distinction between friends and enemies is central to the just city/man. Jesus erases this distinction and suggests prayer for enemies, and instructs the new purified people to turn the other cheek to abusers and so on. He reorients the Mosaic idea of neighborliness into a universalist idea of neighborliness (i.e. the parable of the Good Samaritan). People are not only encouraged to love another, but now they are commanded to love (Paul notes the primacy of Christian love: ‘faith, hope, love abide: but the greatest of these is love.’)

Because of his large following of people, many of whom are drawn to miracles, Jesus draws the ire of the Pharisees and other traditional Jewish authorities. They are resentful of his popularity. They press Pontius Pilate to condemn Jesus to death under Roman blasphemy laws. Jesus’s gruesome death on the cross becomes a symbol of redemption for all humans, and the possibility of eternal life (as was once offered in the Garden of Eden). Classical heroism is replaced by modern martyrdom. Jesus’ offer of eternal life is further buttressed by his corporeal resurrection from death. He appears to his apostles with varying claims about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -opening the door for future theologians to puzzle about a trinitarian God who is no longer a god for one particular chosen people, thus the new scriptures represent a claim to the fulfillment of the Jewish Biblical saga. In Acts, a council is gathered to determine which parts of Mosaic law will be upheld, such as circumcision (which is no longer a held to be a divine requirement). Rather than signs and symbols of a covenant between God and Man, the apostle Paul zealously argues that belief in Jesus’s claims alone is the new criteria for the faith which supersedes Mosaic law. Distinctions are removed between friends and enemies, slave and free, men and women. Regarding private property, for early Christians most every personal possession was held in common, from each according to his need.

However, Jesus’s teaching raises more questions than it answers: how are redeemed Christians to live in an unredeemed world? What does it mean to give unto Caesar what belongs to him? What exactly is the property of Caesar? How are Christians intended to act as both earthly citizens as well as patient pilgrims waiting for a second coming of Jesus? Paul and Peter attempt to answer these questions to an extent, however the incomplete nature of the scriptures forces these and many other problematic questions to be addressed by other Christian theologians, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

This essay was heavily influenced by Thomas Pangle and Timothy Burns and their writings on “Biblical Political Theology” in their book The Key Texts of Political Philosophy.

Deprivation and Excess in The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Melibee

Chaucer, the pilgrim, is the only member of the group who is allowed to present a second tale on the way to Canterbury. He delivers his second tale following the failure of his minstrel song, “The Tale of Sir Thopas.”

The second tale is told in prose form. It is about a rich man named Melibeus (meaning “honey-drinker”) who lives with his wife, Prudence, and daughter, Sophie (meaning “wisdom”). One day, Melibeus wanders out into his field to entertain himself while three of his enemies break into his house and abuse his wife and daughter, leaving them nearly dead. When Melibeus returns he weeps deeply for them, Melibeus and his wife Prudence, along with a group of Melibeus’s friends, engage in a lengthy philosophical discussion about the nature of sorrow: at what point is it unbecoming of a wise man to weep excessively?

The tale contains echoes of the Hebrew Biblical figure, Job, as he laments his woes to his friends. Job is explicitly cited in the tale, along with a slough of other classical writers, such as Ovid and Seneca, among many others. The Tale of Melibee is dense, intellectual, and quite frankly a bore. Why would Chaucer deliberately give himself two of the worst tales in the collection? Perhaps there is a degree of Chaucerian irony in these two tales.

Both of Chaucer’s tales are characterized by immoderation: the Tale of Sir Thopas is characterized by deprivation. It lacks classical form and edification, and it is simple, comedic, light, and un-engaging. On the other hand, the Tale of Melibee is characterized by excess -it reads like an extended philosophical treatise or a dialogue, though it is far less powerful than any Platonic dialogue. It is overwhelming in its length and breadth, and almost nothing happens in the tale.

Chaucer gives himself two of the worst tales in order to highlight the limits of the poet and his craft. There is a certain Aristotelian moderation required for the art of poetry to succeed, and this moderation is bounded by philosophical excess, as well as comedic distance. In other words a certain blend of heavy and light material is necessary for a good story: a tale which both delights and informs. Each of Chaucer’s performs one or the other but not both.

In the end of the “Tale of Melibee,” and against the counsel of his warmongering friends, Melibeus relents to his wife and he calls upon his enemies to express forgiveness for harming his household. Continuing with the marriage theme, in Chaucer’s tale the successful marriage is one in which spouses may listen and also be persuaded, or put another way, a husband and wife must both govern and be governed according to their nature (a la Plato’s Republic).

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.