May 5, 2014

The Divine Image

by William Blake

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

"The Divine Image" by William Blake. Public Domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (books by this author), born in Copenhagen (1813), the son of a wealthy wool merchant who left his son enough money to be financially independent for the rest of his life. Kierkegaard rarely left Copenhagen, but he enjoyed going to the theater, taking carriage rides out into the country, and chatting with people he met, including servants and laborers, whom wealthy people would ordinarily ignore.

Kierkegaard is widely considered the father of existential philosophy. His work touched not only philosophy, but also theology, psychology, literary criticism, and fiction. He also came up with two concepts that are commonplace to us today: One is "subjectivity," the idea that we all perceive the world — and "truth" — differently; and the other is the "leap of faith," that faith is not possible without doubt. One must doubt the existence of God to have faith in the existence of God. Belief without doubt is just credulity. He published several books at his own expense, including Either/Or (1843), Works of Love (1847), and The Sickness Unto Death (1849). Kierkegaard was unknown outside of Denmark until the early 20th century, when his work was discovered by European writers and philosophers. He influenced writers like Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus.

It was on this day in 1215 that a group of angry English barons renounced loyalty to King John. A month later, an agreement between the barons and King John resulted in the document known as Magna Carta.

King John was not a popular ruler. He launched a series of disastrous military campaigns in France, which led to his nickname John Softsword. He increased taxes to pay for his unsuccessful wars. He angered the Church to such a degree that the pope outlawed Christian burial in England and banned priests from performing most services. The king had a reputation for violent rages, and it was rumored that he raped the daughters and wives of some of his noblemen. When his nephew Arthur was murdered, many people believed that John was responsible. A contemporary chronicler, a monk named Richard of Devizes, said that John was crazy and that he "emitted foam from his mouth."

John was particularly unpopular with his barons, the group of noblemen who were just one step down from him. Barons were given land, and in return they owed the king military service — but they usually paid a levy, called a scutage, instead of serving. They also gave the king regular payments depending on the size of their holdings. John ignored the precedent set by other rulers and demanded extremely high payments, seized land, and seduced the barons' wives and daughters. When he heard that the wife of one of his most loyal barons had said that John was responsible for the murder of his nephew, John imprisoned the woman and her son and starved them to death. He demanded the scutage levy over and over again — 11 times, whereas the past king had only asked for it three times.

By the final time, a group of barons simply refused to pay scutage. They felt he was asking too much, and they had no faith in his military campaigns. One of the leaders of this group of rebel barons, Robert Fitzwalter, had a daughter who was rumored to have been raped by the king. On this day in 1215, a group of about 40 barons formally broke their oath of loyalty to the king. They were a minority — there were about 200 barons in England — but although some of the remaining barons openly supported King John, most simply refused to take sides. Less than two weeks later, the rebel barons captured London.

John agreed to negotiate with the rebels, who wrote up a list of demands. After days of negotiation, the king agreed to sign an agreement known as Magna Carta, which means "Great Charter" in Latin. Magna Carta was "signed" by King John not with his signature, but with a wax seal known as the Great Seal — in fact, John might not have been able to write at all. There was not one single official document. Once all the details were agreed on by both sides, scribes wrote out official copies of Magna Carta in medieval Latin, and it was sent to important people all over the country.

The barons were not trying to create a timeless document that would be the foundation for modern legal principles — they were just trying to restore balance to the justice system so that the power of the king was held in check by the power of rich noblemen like themselves. Magna Carta was full of specific rules about feudal issues like the scutagelevy, taxes, bridge building, inheritance fees, Jewish debts, and freedom for widows to remain unmarried after the death of their husbands. Of the original 63 clauses, only three are still law. One defends the rights of the English Church, and one protects certain privileges of London. The third is most famous, and was eventually used to establish the right to a trial by jury. This clause reads: "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, nor will we proceed with force against him, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."

The Atlantic Monthly was founded on this date in 1857. A group of American literary luminaries — including Emerson, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes — met for supper at Boston's Parker House Hotel. They were concerned with promoting a uniquely American voice in a world that was changing and expanding rapidly. In particular, they wanted to formalize something that New England intellectuals had been pondering for some time: "the American idea," distinct from the country's European roots. Frank Underwood, a young publishing assistant and abolitionist, envisioned a journal of American politics, art, and literature. He pestered his boss, Moses Dresser Phillips, until Phillips agreed to publish the new magazine. The two men led the supper meeting, and Phillips later described the meeting as the proudest day of his life. Holmes gave the new magazine its name, and Lowell was its first editor. The inaugural issue hit the stands the following November, billed as a "journal of literature, politics, science, and the arts" and featured American writers both green and seasoned. Lowell took great pains to recognize up-and-coming young authors and poets, and served as a mentor to them, launching many literary careers.

Today is Cinco de Mayo, the Fifth of May, commemorating the Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862 when 8,000 well-armed French troops were routed by 4,000 ill-equipped Mexican soldiers. It wasn't a crucial battle in the course of the war, but became a symbol of Mexican pride and a celebration of Mexican culture in the United States. Cinco de Mayo isn't widely celebrated in Mexico outside the state of Puebla, but it has been adopted by many Americans regardless of their heritage, much like St. Patrick's Day and Oktoberfest. It's been celebrated in California since 1863, and grew in prominence in the rest of the country along with the Chicano movement of the 1940s. It wasn't until beer advertisers decided to promote the holiday heavily in the 1980s that American celebration of Cinco de Mayo became widespread.

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