Ideas and Ideals as Empowerment: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Unknown.jpegThe key to every man,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is his thought…. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own.” According to Emerson, real change comes from how we think and the ideas to which we are exposed. When we adopt such thinking for our own, we unlock our potential for great things. This argument is also made in Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, based in China during the Cultural Revolution. The narrator and his companion Luo live in a village to be re-educated through labor when they, along with the titular Little Chinese Seamstress, come across Western literature, which gives them ideas of their own, leading them into adventures. As they read and question, they begin to confront their intellectual liberty. Thus, in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie contends that individual empowerment comes from internalizing new ideas and then putting them into practice.

According to Dai, reading confronts people with new ideas and perspectives on the world around them through which to see life and appreciate its richness. When Luo and the narrator help Four-Eyes, he gives them Balzac’s Ursule Mirouët, and they instantly fall in love with it. Reflecting on the reading, the narrator explains, “Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather … all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me” (Dai 57). Still an adolescent, the narrator is in the prime of his youth. He has not yet seen and felt all life has to offer, so the experience of reading something other than the propaganda he has been force-fed opens him up to an entirely new world that was previously “hidden from [him].” After referring to himself as “slumbering,” he goes on to Unknown-1.jpegcontrast this state to “a story of awakening desire,” as if, upon reading the book, he has been shocked out of a daydream. All his life, he has heard nothing but lies through fanciful propaganda, so he has only been exposed to illusions; whereas, after reading the Western book, he is shown that what he has been taught so far is false, and that there is more depth to life than he could have imagined. Not only does he become aware of this truth, but the “story of awakening desire” can also be interpreted as his finding a care and passion for reading. Because he is young, he is naïve; he has a lot to learn, and this is verified by the fact that he is astonished by the different experiences he finds in Balzac. Another instance in which the narrator expands his worldview is when he reads a book that he steals from Four-Eyes’ suitcase. While Four-Eyes is celebrating his departure from the village, the narrator and Luo steal his books. The narrator says this about one of his books: “Without him [Jean-Christophe] I would never have understood the splendor of taking free and independent action as an individual. Up until this stolen encounter with Romain Rolland’s hero, my poor educated and re-educated brains had been incapable of grasping the notion of one man standing up against the whole world” (Dai 110). China is a collectivist society, influenced by Confucianism and Communism, meaning it emphasizes community, censorship, and strict adherence to traditions. Accordingly, growing up, his “poor educated and re-educated brains” have not been taught there is imagessuch a thing as “free and independent action,” or even “an individual.” Therefore, the narrator’s epiphany regarding these things is just as foreign to him as the book itself. The book becomes a symbol for all that is foreign to him, literally and figuratively, for the whole thing is a “stolen encounter” between the narrator and free thought, forbidden by the authorities. Seeing as the narrator was born and raised in China, he sees it as “the whole world” against which he is fighting. Individualism makes the narrator realize that he has worth outside of society; Jean-Christophe’s individualism dislodges the narrator from his place in “the whole world,” or microcosm, such that he need no longer serve only Mao and the country, but himself. The narrator gains a new perspective that enables him to listen to his conscience, to follow his will and not that of the nation’s, to acknowledge his value independent of his use in society. Further in the book, the narrator’s indebtedness to Western literature is made explicit when he takes the Little Seamstress to get an abortion. Offered Balzac, the doctor agrees to do the operation, naming the translator, who has been imprisoned like the narrator’s father. The narrator says, “His remark brought tears to my eyes…. It was hearing the name of Lu Fei, Balzac’s translator—someone I had never even met. It is hard to imagine a more moving tribute to the gift Unknown.jpegbestowed by an intellectual on mankind” (Dai 172). So powerful is the influence of Balzac and the language of Lu Fei that the narrator is moved to tears. Each narrative is a part of him, as they add to his own story. The fact that the narrator cries for someone completely unknown to him, someone who exists for him only in name, points to the timeless, interpersonal effect of ideas on him. Here is paper bound by leather, with lines written in ink, authored by someone already dead—and still it is considered a “gift bestowed … on mankind.” Ideas have a lasting effect on those who read them, wherever and whenever they are. It does not matter if the book is old or if the author is dead: ideas are eternal, and they live not through books, but through living people. Thanks to the translator, the narrator realizes that the ideas he has come across will always stay with and impact him. Perspectives are not objects that can be exchanged, but permanent outlooks. Through the narrator, it becomes clear that seeing the world through lenses of different ideas makes life more liberating, fulfilling, and meaningful.

Ideas not only have the power to influence our personal beliefs, but also how we act on those beliefs. When we internalize these ideas, Dai believes they become our most cherished ideals. One instance of this is when there is a storm in the village. Luo and the narrator need to cross a narrow ridge to get to the Little Seamstress. Halfway through, the narrator gets stuck, thinking to himself, “I couldn’t move, and there, stuck in the middle of the ridge, I wondered what my good friend Jean-Christophe would say if I were Unknown.jpegto turn back…. After all, how could I die now, without having known love or sex, without having taken free individual action against the whole world, as he had?” (Dai 114). Having read about individualism, and having internalized the idea, the narrator is now drawing upon that knowledge. It would be one thing for him to ask what “Jean-Christophe would say,” another to actually do something about it, which is what he does when he turns back. He is engaging with the book insofar as all interactions with ideas take place intentionally, in reading, and actively, in using it. Rather than just agreeing with the idea of individualism, he lives it, embodies it. The storm puts him in a life-or-death situation that triggers self-preservation. Considering he still has his whole life ahead of him, the narrator wants to be able to act on the ideas he has gained from his reading of Balzac and Rolland. His individualism preserves him, in theory and in practice. He has something to live for, namely expressing his individuality, standing up against conformity and blind obedience. Jean-Christophe inspires him to take action that will serve himself. Similarly, the narrator tends to reject old ideas that he has not chosen for himself and instead practice those which he chooses freely. The old tailor stays with the narrator and Luo one night, asking to hear one of their famous stories to sleep. However, the narrator does not want to recount traditional propaganda: “As it was, the stark proletarian realism of those stories, which had represented the sum total of my cultural education until a short while ago, struck me as being so far removed from human desires and true emotions, in short from real life, that there seemed little point in bothering with them” (Dai 124). Despite living in the village and suffering through labor, images.jpegthe narrator sets “the stark proletarian realism” against “real life.” This suggests that the narrator views his ideas of individualism and love as more real than his ordeals. In the village, there is no time for reflection, love, or happiness; in Balzac, though, there is “human [desire] and true [emotion].” To him, the perspectives in the novel represent the human condition more accurately than the tales told in his home country. Significantly, this means he cherishes his inner world more than he does his outer. The intensity of life can only be found in true, expressive experiences, which can only be captured open-endedly, not close-endedly like the beliefs of the Communists. Because Mao imposed strict conformity, the propaganda he spreads is “so far removed from … real life” that it does not focus on what actually happens, but on what should happen, compared to Western literature, which depicts, not prescribes. The Cultural Revolution is so grounded in reality that it dehumanizes; literature, contrariwise, is interpretive and surreal, encouraging imagination. Even though the narrator matures throughout the novel, he never truly actualizes his ideals, unlike the Little Seamstress. At the end of the novel, the boys learn she has run away to the city. They find her, and Luo asks her why she is leaving, to which he gets the following answer: “She said she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price” (Dai 184). Arguably, the Little Seamstress always had an idea of her self-worth; however, this is refuted because it is something she “learn[s] … from Balzac.” In other words, she runs away after a realization that had never occurred to her, namely that she is independent and valuable in- and of-herself, which she gets not from Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 2.40.57 PM.pngherself, but through reading. She, like the narrator, internalizes this truth, accepting it for herself, convincing herself that she really is worth something. What this implies is that her worth is not determined by Mao, her father, or the boys; she determines her own value. Her “beauty is a treasure beyond price,” meaning that she is neither an object nor dependent on others, but that she is a unique individual. Starting as a simple village girl, she becomes refined and knowledgeable through reading, which gives her new ideas. With these ideas, she comes to the conclusion that she cannot be owned by anyone, that she possesses something others want but which is hers alone, that she is endowed with innate potentials. Consequently, she is empowered by ideals, empowered to start a new life that is uniquely hers. Thus, the narrator and the Little Seamstress illustrate how, when people gain new ideas and accept them as personal beliefs, they can be driven to resolute, self-willed actions for their own sake.

Dai Sijie claims in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress that the exploration and subsequent appropriation of new ideas opens a person up to their world while also encouraging their intellectual liberty, resulting in autonomy. We learn from the novel that a close-minded life in which we believe everything we are told unquestioningly is empty; it is only when we grow passionate and curious about other worldviews in literature that the world is seen from new and interesting perspectives that shape how we act. Ideas, although not concrete, can be enacted when we believe in them, for our thoughts influence our actions. Education is not an ideal to be imposed, but freed: It is the idea of opening the mind to new possibilities.


Davis on Embracing Risks

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 3.54.37 PM.pngAny life truly lived is a risky business, and if one puts up too many fences against the risks one ends by shutting out life itself.



Kenneth S. Davis (1912-1999), American historian.

Commentary on the Tao te Ching, Chapter 1

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

Unknown.pngThe Tao is ineffable in its being both immanent and transcendent. In other words, the Tao, arising, from Nothing, is Everything; yet to identify the Tao with this or that particular thing, is to miss it completely, for such is to confuse the part for the whole. As we know, the human mind, with all its intellectual faculties, is unable to comprehend or imagine either Everything or Nothing—they are inconceivable. After all, who can possibly with words describe Everything or Nothing? The truth is, no words can capture them, for these dual, complementary concepts—Being and Nonbeing—are unthinkable, and therefore ineffable, or unspeakable. A tree or a rock is a particular entity, a being, something finite and limited; the Tao is neither finite nor limited, but infinite and limited. At once, the Tao is all-encompassing, pervasive, underlying. As soon as one names the Tao, it is gone; its essence has been missed, like the swing of a net, which, when we check it, has caught nothing; the Tao evades all names, as it is the unnameable. Think of it this way: To name something is to define it, to limit it to something, and to make it definitive. But the Tao, we have said, is ineffable; it transcends, or goes beyond, all concepts, including Being and Nonbeing, whence it has its origins.

According to the text, “naming” is the act of manifesting. That is to say, by naming things, we call them forth out of themselves. To name a rock is not to name the Tao, but to name the rock, whose source is in the Tao. The rock becomes manifest to us thusly, appears to us.

The only way of apprehending the Tao—recall that comprehending is impossible—if even it be possible to apprehend—is to release oneself from desire, otherwise translated as passion. For sake of understanding, we take passion and desire to mean “wanting”—Unknown.jpegthe word “passion” comes from the Latin word for “suffering.” We see this same thing in the Buddhist Dharma, where the cessation of all suffering is in the cessation of wanting, or desiring; we understand this to mean that, as soon as we stop wanting, we are no longer troubled, insofar as wanting is an endless cycle; and it is only then, when we are without passion, or what the Stoics called “apathy” (without suffering), that we may have insight into Truth, specifically the Truth of the Way. When we want something, we become greedy, and we grab for things; as soon as we get what we want, we want something else. Consequently, we miss out on the very thing which we seek. We see this same thing in the Buddhist Dharma, where the cessation of all suffering is in the cessation of wanting, or desiring; we understand this to mean that, as soon as we stop wanting, we are no longer troubled, insofar as wanting is an endless cycle; and it is only then, when we are without passion, or what the Stoics called “apathy” (without suffering), that we may have insight into Truth, specifically the Truth of the Way. When we want something, we become greedy, and we grab for things; as soon as we get what we want, we want something else. Consequently, we miss out on the very thing which we seek. We read, further, that it is “with passion,” or when we are “caught in desire,” that we see what manifests itself—i.e., phenomena, finite beings, what is brought into the light of the clearing. Earlier, we noted that naming is the source of manifestation. Given this, we know that manifestation is the appearance of the Tao, Unknown-1.jpegalthough in its phenomenal form. Before going on, it’s important to note that there are two Tao’s, not just one: The unnamable and the nameable, the finite and the infinite, the limited and the unlimited; verily, this is a crucial idea, for it adds to the dual nature of the Tao. What this means is that we can know the Tao that is named—it’s just that it is not the Eternal Tao, or the True Tao. On the contrary, we are perceiving the manifest Tao, the “outer fringe.” In truth, we are not yet beholden of the Tao. We have established that the changing Tao is knowable, the unchanging unknowable. Therefore, clinging to desire, caught in the cycle of wanting and suffering, we are attached to particular things, causing us to lose sight of the Way. Appearances are deceiving; the false Tao is illusory, and what we see can be likened to hallucinations. This is because desire attaches itself to its object, narrow, stubborn, closed-off. We must be open to the Tao. To be open, is to be free—to be free of wanting, because it is only through the loss of desire that we are freed, unchained, unbounded. Then, when we achieve non-attachment, when we no longer care for the earthly, worldly ambitions of fame, power, materialism, and everything unessential to life—it is then that we see “the Secret of Life,” that we may apprehend “the Mystery.” But to see the Mystery is not to see the Tao—be not deluded, yet; for the Way is a path.

Once more, the dualism of the Tao is pointed out in the disclosure that “mystery and manifestations / arise from the same source.” Hence, the dialectical monism of Taoism, by which we mean the single union of the opposite yet complementary forces in their interplay. But how is it possible, that what is shown is revealed through what is hidden, and vice versa? Surely, this is a paradox, that Being arises from Nonbeing, that the Mystery derives from its manifestations. Does not the child come from the mother, not the other way around? We must realize the duality as it unfolds, namely in giving way to Unknown-2.jpegone another, in mutual reciprocation. For consider: Day is contrasted to night, yet they are birthed from each other; Life and Death are opposites, yet one leads to the other; left is on the same continuum as right, up and down—we see that the opposites coincide, what in Latin is called “coincidentia oppositorum.” To think that day is Truth, and night falsehood, is again to deny the principle of the Tao; for surely day is not isolated, but is in context with night; our life is numbered by both days and nights together. In this way, the True, unnamable Tao and the False, namable Tao are reconciled within one another. We know day, but night remains a mystery. We live our lives, yet death is Nothing to us. The Tao is infinite, but our perceptions are finite, limited to manifestations, whose origins are in the Tao. We see, then, that the mystery of the Tao and its manifestations both come from the Tao itself, canceling each other out, at the same time giving form to one another. Of the Tao, we learn that it is either “darkness” or “the Mystery,” from whence all things come and go. What are we to make of this? Firstly, that the Tao is preeminently grounded in the abyss. By this, we mean to say that the Tao, in being All, is None. There was chaos first, we are told; and then there was the Tao. The originally Tao is born into the chaos, the Unknown-1.pngdepths of the Nothing, from which was birthed Everything. Essentially, the Tao created Everything from Nothing. This, we understand, is itself a mystery, which is why the Tao is called the Mystery. What follows next requires the help of another philosopher: Heidegger. According to Heidegger, Being itself is not a being, but Nothing, in that Being is not a thing, a “no-thing,” because Being is an activity—Being is itself. Applying this to the Tao, we know that Something comes from Nothing in that the Nothing delimits Being; while we said the Tao is unlimited, this still holds true since delimitation is what the Tao is not. Nothing is not the Tao, for Nothing is of the Tao. Therefore, Being is limited by Nonbeing. The Tao is both Being and Nonbeing—the mystery—because the two are dialectical, and therefore bound each other. Secondly, we make of this that the Tao, originating in darkness and mystery, is obscured and shrouded. Darkness here is twofold: It is both Nothing and concealment. Out of Nothing blooms Being, rising from concealment into unconcealment; that is, from hiding, Being, or manifestations, arise, are made clear, are brought into the light.

Conflict-As-A-Gateway-To-Peace.jpg“Darkness within darkness” is no repetition, but refers to the obscurity of Nothingness. We cannot penetrate the Nothing; we can only see it manifest. Through insight, free from desire and passion, we reach into the Nothing and fish out Being. Truth, according to Heidegger, is “unconcealment,” or “disclosure.” Based on this interpretation, the Nothing, being supreme concealedness and hiddenness, covers itself up, and is only revealed, or unconcealed, in the opening, or clearing, of man’s insight. When one thing is revealed, another is hidden; and vice versa. Day conceals night; and night day. When we learn to see Nothing, we peer into the Gates, and we see the Everything in the Tao.


A Poem Inspired by the Tao Te Ching

Who possesses himself,
Possesses the world
Who loses himself,
Loses the world


For turn inward an eye,
The answers therein lie
To seek Truth from without,
Is to impoverish the treasure within
To place oneself in the hands of another,
Is to tear oneself from one’s own Mother,
From whence we derive life

Heed not the words of the crowd,
Lest it cover your view as by a shroud
Be not the with the herd,
But be the shepherd,
Leading your fellow man
But not following blindly
For whoso follows,
Himself hollows

The man who surrounds himself with people,
Is surrounded by emptiness,
Neglects the emptiness inside,
The man who surrounds himself with himself,
Is surrounded by emptiness,
Yet acknowledges the emptiness inside,
The former knows not his lot
The latter has found what he has sought


The outward man himself deceives
The outward man pursues naught
The inward man in himself believes
The inward man discovers aught

Who loses himself, loses the Way
Who finds himself, finds the Way
Thinking he is ahead, naught is afoot
Thinking aught is afoot, he is ahead

To the words of the many,
The Sage does not hark
He listens inside, for the few,
Hears the beauty of the lark,
Hears the call of conscience
As it calls to him
He into himself withdraws,
Examines all of his flaws,
And thereby himself perfects,
So virtue becomes like a reflex

Who possesses himself,
Possesses the world
Who loses himself,
Loses the world.


What Happened in 1066? (2 of 2)

Click here to read part 1.

At 9 a.m., William started the battle, ordering his archers to fire up the hill, while he and the bulk of the army slowly advanced toward it. Immense showers of arrows rained down from the skies, but they were entirely ineffective; the English infantry were packed together tightly, and their shield wall prevented the arrows from penetrating their defenses. Still, William persisted. His men tried to get up the hill with little success, being the-battle-of-hastings.jpgeasily cut at by the high-up English. To change the tide of the battle, William sent several cavalry charges, one after the other, in an attempt to break through the line. Each time, the attack was repulsed. Normally, cavalry charges were extremely effective, yet the shield power of the English was astounding. The English had no cavalry. In the midst of one of the charges, William was killed—or at least, that is what his army thought. There was utter chaos on the battlefield. Not only was the ground wet and moist from the marshes, but it was also covered almost entirely with dead bodies, over which the troops had to climb, in addition to the hill. Moving about the disorder, William took off his helmet and shouted to his troops to show them he was still alive, giving them a needed boost of hope; knowing that their Duke was still alive, the Normans did not give up. In fact, this was a much-needed boost, for the Normans were actually losing—and losing badly. Whatever they did, they could not get up the hill. Bodies kept piling up. Again, the American Revolution comes to mind: The better-equipped army, predicted to destroy the smaller one, was being crushed due to sly tactics; just as the Americans used guerilla warfare, so the Anglo-Saxons utilized their position to get the upper hand. By this point, William’s horse had been slain, and he was riding a new one.

images.jpegOn what happened next, the historians unsure: The Norman cavalry broke away from the battle entirely, as if in retreat, deviating from the battle, away from it all. The English, noticing this, went after them, in order to take out the outliers. What the historians are not sure about is whether the Norman retreat was serious or strategic; either way, the Normans suddenly turned around, and charged straight into the pursuing English, completely wiping them out. A hole was then made in the shield wall, and the right flank became vulnerable and exposed. Their formation broke, perhaps out of early celebration, perhaps because the Normans had tricked them. Immediately, William took advantage of the opening, having all his men go through it, then slaughtering the Anglo-Saxons in front, from behind, and in the middle, as if they were fish in a barrel, trapped on all sides. King Harold, fighting heroically in the middle, was surrounded and overwhelmed. He took an arrow to the eye, was blinded, and then was hacked up and dismembered by cavalrymen. The English, demoralized upon the death of their King, managed to still put up a good fight. During their retreat, they managed to kill one of William’s generals. All in all, the Normans suffered 2,000 casualties, the English 4,000, much of their remaining forces fleeing from the scene. William had three of his horses killed.

Unknown.jpegBefore William could claim the crown, the Witan, being a bunch of geniuses, tried a last-ditch effort to prevent the Norman from being King: They elected the six-years-old Edgar, grandson of Edmund Ironside—a previous English King. As we know from Roman history, it is never a smart idea to put a youth on the throne, because you might just get overthrown by foreigners… (We’re looking at you, Romulus Augustulus!) This did not quite work, as the Normans went into London without any resistance. William deposed Edgar. A few months later, on an auspicious day—December 25, Christmas, 1066—in Westminster Abbey, William “the Bastard,” Duke of Normandy became William “the Conqueror,” King of England. The Bayeux Tapestry, a 230ft. x 20in. embroidery, was made before 1082 and depicts the events leading up to William’s coronation, starting from the momentous Battle of Hastings.

Right away, William’s rule was rejected. As when he was young, so when he was old. Just as the Normans were slow to accept William, so the English were slow, although they never fully accepted him, even at the end, for he was still in their eyes a foreigner. The 11th century was a time of xenophobia, intolerance, and nationalism—not so different from today, in truth. Two revolts, occurring within two years of each other, one in 1067, the other 1069, sprung in England, exploiting the fact that William, at this time, was occupied with business in Normandy. He was pulled out of his business, forced to come back and deal with the rebels. With his customary mercilessness, William stomped on both rebellions in person. He eliminated the last of the radicals who opposed him. Thenceforward, the revolt against Norman rule would be internal, never to be expressed outwardly. The last of the rebels, situated on Ely, united under their leader Hereward, was destroyed in 1071, formally ending all violent rebellions, securing William’s hold. By killing his enemies, William managed to cement his power in the foreign land.

robin-hood-and-his-merry-men-newell-convers-wyeth.jpgSome of his laws, known as forest laws, because they pertained to the local forests, prohibited them as being used for hunting ground, reserved only for the King and his nobility. Prior to the Norman Conquest, such laws had never been made. This made the English unhappy, and many tried to resist the new laws. One such man was Robin Hood, a man whose real life is unknown, but whose legacy still carries today in legends, as the vigilante who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The mythic and symbolic figure of Robin Hood as a stand against Norman rule eclipsed the man himself. Robin Hood became the mascot, if you will, of the English, because he stood for everything the Anglo-Saxons believed in, and this meant resisting the Normans, whose local sheriffs, officers of the law, they considered abusive and tyrannical. Others followed Robin Hood’s image; many a crime was reported to have happened in the royal forests, crimes in which sheriffs had been shot, or nobles ambushed.

The greatest economic reform of William I was the introduction of feudalism to England. He claimed virtually all of England as his own. Every square inch of the country was now the King’s property. Having done this, he then lent some of his lands to the Norman nobility. Then, he reinstated the Danegeld, which was like the tax we now pay to keep the police going. Originally, the Danegeld was used to sustain an army to keep invaders fig01-Domesday-Book.jpgaway, like how we sustain the police force. William used the Danegeld as a property tax. In order to properly apply it, though, he had to know what kind of property he had; but England is a big country, so how could he possibly know the proper tax rate? In 1086, William commissioned the famous Domesday Book. The Domesday Book—deriving its name from “Doomsday,” sardonically, because the book spelled the end of economic freedom for the English—was a massive census undertaken by the Norman administration to keep track of all the land, population, property, and all their appraisals in England. Obviously, it was a tremendous project, very extensive and very thorough in its recordings. Importantly, it is the first census for its time. From it, we know that the majority of Norman-England was made up of serfs, about 85% of the population. This would remain true in all the major feudal countries during the Middle Ages. Unsurprisingly, as we also see in history, the nobility—mostly Norman—and the clergy—also mostly Norman—made up the minority, forming the wealthy and elite upper-class.

When William implemented feudalism, he made sure to improve the version in use in Normandy. A basic overview: The King, called the overlord, owned all the land, some of Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 9.34.16 AM.pngwhich he gave to the nobility, who would be called vassals, or, because they were higher-ranked, tenants-in-chief; the tenants-in-chief, if they should decide to give some of their lands to someone lower-ranked, would then become lords in their own right, while the person who worked the land was called a mesne vassal, or serf; and the land was called a fief, giving rise to the word “fiefdom.” To summarize: King (overlord) —> Vassal (lord, tenant-in-chief) —> Vassal (mesne vassal), who, in serfdom, worked the fief. Therefore, feudalism was hierarchical. A person could be both a lord and a vassal at the same time, for the King was always the supreme holder of the land, the serf the worker thereof. For safety precautions, William wisely did what the Normans did not: He made all the vassals swear their allegiance to him at Salisbury. This way, neither the lords nor their vassals could turn against him. Should a lord revolt, he and his vassals would be punished; should a vassalage revolt, the vassalage and their lord would be punished. He hereby ensured security for himself.

Many other reforms outside the economic realm took place—political, social, and religious.

  1. First, as has been suggested, the English clergy and nobility were replaced by Normans. It appeared Edward’s rule had never truly gone away.
  2. Second, William issued a curfew, which prevented the English from being out too late at night, but it mostly applied to blowing out fires.
  3. Third, he taxed all importing, exporting, and traveling. This seems extreme, and maybe it was; but for being used in a Medieval kingdom, it must have had positive effects on England’s economy, promoting trade, artisanship, and industry.
  4. Fourth, and majorly, William worked to separate the state from the Church. In a big move, the Conqueror appointed his own clergy. Why is this so major? For one, he was acting against the Pope, Gregory VII, who, if you recall, was previously the Unknown-1.jpegadvisor who supported William’s conquest and gave his assent—William bit the hand that had fed him. Second, this was an overlooked advancement in the infamous Investiture Controversy of 1075. The Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, in a similar manner to William, elected his own clergy, for which he was excommunicated—multiple times—by Gregory VII. Together, Henry IV, Philip I of France, and William I, each powerful rulers of European kingdoms, asserted their dominance to the Pope. The Investiture Controversy was crucial because it would determine whether Europe would be ruled secularly, by Kings, or religiously, by the Pope. To stand up against the Pope was dangerous, risky business. Henry IV was crippled by the Controversy. Unfortunately, William’s role in it is overlooked; he successfully went against the Church in choosing his priesthood. Understand that, to this point, it was the Pope who crowned the Holy Roman Emperor, and it was the Pope who owned a majority of the land in Europe. We see this Controversy truly culminate about half a millennia later, with King Henry VIII’s notorious break from the Catholic Church and establishment of the Church of England, with Thomas Cranmer as its archbishop. While Henry VIII’s motivations were more personal than monarchical, it can still be seen as continuing William I’s legacy of asserting the state’s power.
  5. Fifth, in terms of reforms, and building off the previous, William replaced the Anglo-Saxon Archbishop Stigand with his longtime friend Lanfranc in 1070. By this, he truly displaced the English; he had now stripped the Church and state of all English people. The Norman era had begun.
  6. Sixth, William abolished the Witan. In its place, he founded the Magnum Concilium, the Great Council, and the Curia Regis, the King’s Court, all headed by Normans, of course.
  7. Seventh, the new King retained the Royal Army and the Fyrd.
  8. Eighth, despite what has been said thus far, William was a tolerant and just man, so he kept many of the English’s customs and traditions. You would expect a man like William, firm and unyielding, who replaced all important officials with his own people, to act like any other Conqueror would, and impose his own beliefs on the people; yet he did no such thing, but let them do what they had done, without interference. This is quite surprising in the 11th century, and more so from a Conqueror of William’s status.
  9. Lastly, William created a balance of powers between himself, the King, and the feudal lords. In other words, he made a system that would preserve peace and stability, a system that involved the King and the local powers, neither too powerful for the other.

Over time, used to luxury, William grew overweight. One day, Philip of France insulted him, basically fat-shaming William (how rude). In response, William did what every logical toddler does: He threw a fit, and so burned and sacked Mantes in France. Apparently, he did not take jokes very lightly. Tragically, during the raid of Mantes, William’s horse got skittish, causing William to get an injury, from which he would die. Truly an underwhelming ending for so exciting a man as William “the Conqueror.”

Norman influence was not a wholly bad thing, we must note. Several enduring things stand which we owe to the invaders. First, there was the intermingling of French and Anglo-Saxon, an intermingling that would shape the development of the English language as we now speak it. The nobles used Norman over English, but this is not to say that English disappeared, only that it became aristocratic. A similar thing would happen to Germany in the 18th century, when German aristocrats began speaking French. Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 9.37.48 AM.pngInstead, the two languages coexisted. One of the most notable examples cited is the words for animals. The Anglo-Saxons used “ox,” ”cow”, ”calf,” ”sheep,” ”swine,” and “deer,” while the Normans used the French “beef,” ”veal,” ”mutton,” ”pork,” ”bacon,” and “venison.” Other examples, provided by Robert Stuartson in The Development of Modern English, include “table” versus “board,” “labor” versus “work,” and “chair” versus “stool.”[1] While today we can appreciate this mingling, others were not so appreciative. Macaulay cynically wrote, “During the century and a half which followed the [Norman] Conquest, there is, to speak strictly, no English history.”[2] He did not mean to say that the history of England abruptly ended and ceased to exist; rather, what he meant was that no genuine, authentic English history was made, because it was dominated by the Normans. England was not English, Macaulay was saying, since it was more Norman than English, and such was a tragedy in his eyes, that a nation should become estranged from itself to such an extent.

Durham_Cathedral._Interior.jpgAnother result of Norman influence was a rise in the Jewish population, which was accompanied by a rise in industry and trade. Next, the French-English, continental connection led to a surge in literature and ideas. The 12th century Renaissance saw great progress in religion, philosophy, and education, with the rise of numerous universities throughout England and Normandy. Architecturally, based on Edward’s reign, Norman-Romanesque, as it is called, became commonplace, and was used in great structures, especially castles and churches. Further, the Norman Conquest brought to England the centralization of government and development of administration. Lastly, the Norman Conquest was the last of its kind—that is, the Norman Conquest was the last conquest to ever touch England; never thereafter has England been successfully invaded.

130024-004-5F0375E4.jpgIn conclusion, the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is a neglected, albeit important, event in history, responsible for much of today’s political, social, linguistic, and religious ideas. The Norman Conquest is the basis for a lot of events in European history, and by studying it alone, one can derive a lot of the patterns that come after it. Arising from political turmoil, it shows how muddled politics can be, particularly when there is miscommunication between leaders; as someone can think they are doing the right thing, while someone else will have a different perspective. We learn solidarity from Godwin and his son; strength, resolve, and determination from William; and opportunism from Tostig and Hardrada. Three great empires clashed for the throne, but only one of them prevailed. The English 220px-Bayeuxtapestryodowilliamrobert.jpghad their first major victory against the Vikings, putting an end to their raids; the Normans had their own major victory when they conquered England. William “the Bastard” became “the Conqueror.” While it had its negatives, like lots of death, 1066 also saw the assertion of secularism against the Church; the spread of ideas, both economic and intellectual, from the continent to England; the reorganization of politics; the influx of French words, especially legal and political ones, into the English language, shaping it forever; the rise of industry; the popularization of architecture; and the halting of any future conquests. In short, in the year 1066, England in the Middle Ages was changed forever.



[1] Stuartson, The Development of Modern English, 2nd ed., p. 46
[2] Macaulay, History of England, Vol. 1, p. 10


For further reading: The Story of Civilization Vol. 4 by Will Durant (1950)
The Development of Modern English 2nd ed. by Robert Stuartson (1964)
Commanders: History’s Greatest Military Leaders by R.G. Grant (2010)
The Encyclopedia of World History
6th ed. by Peter N. Stearns (2001)
History of the English People 
Vol. 1 by John Richard Green (1882)
100 Battles That Shaped the World
by Parragon (2012)

History of England Vol. 1 by Lord Macaulay (1967)
History of England 
4th ed. by W.E. Lunt (1957)
The Battle 100 
by Michael Lee Lanning (2009)
Scaling the Centuries
by Edwin J. Urch (1939) 
Battle: A Visual Journey
 by R.G. Grant (2005)


Play a fun, educational strategy game based on 1066!

What Happened in 1066? (1 of 2)

220px-Jean_Froissart,_Chroniques,_154v,_12148_btv1b8438605hf336,_crop.jpgWhy is it that the English language is a hybrid of French, Latin, Germanic, and other languages? Why is it that, throughout history, the English and the French warred with each other so much? Why is it that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor? All these questions have to do with English culture, but they also have one more thing in common: They are the result of the year 1066, the year of the “Norman Conquest of England,” as it is called by historians. The Middle Ages were a time of learning, worshiping, and kingdom-building. Around the 9th and 10th centuries, European powers as we know them today slowly began to emerge, often in small, unorganized towns and villages, becoming stronger as their ambitious rulers expanded their territories and claimed new land through wars. Before the 11th century, England and France were hardly recognizable. It was only until the Norman Conquest of England that not only the English, but the French too, managed to become independent powers with their own customs and traditions. Students hardly hear about what happened in 1066; and those who do, probably have a cursory understanding of it. However, the events that transpired in that momentous year had tremendous effects on Britain, on France, and on history. Today’s blog will explore the historical circumstances that produced the Conquest, the Conquest itself, and its aftermath.

Before jumping straight into the Norman Conquest, it is important that we first look at the state of the world at the time, around the fall of the Roman Empire to the blooming of the Middle Ages. What was England, and how did it come to be? An isolated island with nice, fertile land, England was originally inhabited by the Britons, who were also known as the Celts, who were attacked and defeated early in the 1st century A.D. by the Roman Empire. The Romans had an extensive empire, and they were constantly on the lookout for new land to conquer; England was just off the coast of France, which had been previously occupied by the Gauls, another sect of the Celts, on whom Cæsar famously waged war. After several expeditions, England was conquered, named “Britannia,” and settled. At its heart was the city of Londinium, later to become London, the capital of Unknown.jpegEngland. All was fine at this point—that is, until the 476 A.D., when a series of barbarian attacks carried out by various Germanic tribes in Europe brought down the glorious Roman civilization, putting an end to its over-a-millennium-old history, decentralizing Europe, resulting in the fragmentation of the Empire into different kingdoms, each of which was ruled by a German tribe, such as the Franks in France. A group of these German tribes—the Angles, Saxons, and, less importantly, Jutes—came to Britannia to create their own kingdom. Between 400 and 600 A.D., the Angles and Saxons, or collectively Anglo-Saxons, colonized the island. Westerners referred to it as Angeland. As you might guess, this is from where we get the name England. The realms of Angleland were named after the Saxons. From them, we get Sussex, Wessex, and Essex, thought to be a combination of Saxon and the cardinal direction from which it was derived; in other words, Sussex is thought to be South-Saxon, and Wessex West-Saxon, and likewise for Essex. Over the course of the next few centuries, these realms were formed and molded into independent kingdoms. While such ones as Sussex, Essex, and Kent existed, they did not play so big a role; instead, the four most important kingdoms at the time, which shaped much of politics, were Northumbria, Wessex, East Anglia, and Mercia.

Unknown-1.jpegGiven this general background, we can now look at the more immediate events leading up to the Conquest. Edward “the Confessor” (1003-66) was the King of England before the Conquest. Raised in Normandy as a child, taught to speak French, he came to the crown more loyal to the place of his rearing than his birthplace; upon ascending to the throne, Edward favored the Normans over the English. He imposed Norman traditions on the English; he appointed to the most important and prestigious religious and political positions the Norman nobles; he favored his Norman subjects more than his English ones; and he opted to build with the Norman style, constructing the illustrious Westminster Abbey in 1055, with its many vaulted arches and spires. Of course, none of the English liked this, and they despised their King. Despite being English in blood and in name, he was truly a Norman at the core. This man was not fit to be King of England; no, he was a foreigner with a crown, in the eyes of the Anglo-Saxons. This led to bitterness among the nobles. One such man was Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, the most powerful man in all of England, even more powerful than the King himself, for he was a crafty leader and had strong allies. His daughter married King Edward; his son married into the Kingdom of Flanders; and his nephew happened to be the King of Denmark. As such, Godwin was not a man to be trifled with. Principled, prideful, and conscientious, he opposed Edward’s Norman reforms, and actively protested them. With his power, he was able to alter the political climate of England, as if it were a game of chess, carefully navigating his pieces around, influencing the nobles, casting doubt on the King’s decisions, acting as an advisor to the King while trying to dissuade him from causing any more damage. One day, however, a scuffle went down between an Englishman under Godwin’s rule and a Norman who was a friend of King Edward. Godwin was forced into a tough position, pressured by the King Godwine-s-Death.pngto carry out a fitting punishment on his subject for starting the brawl and killing the Norman. This Godwin refused to do; no longer would he put the Normans before the English, his countrymen, his brothers, so he was exiled, along with his son, Harold Godwinson, who shared in his father’s resentment. The King dealt with the problem himself, to the gain of his Noble friends, which angered the English nobility. Now, at this point, the Normans having gained more land and money, the English nobles sent for Godwin, promising their armies and their allegiances to him, asking that he come back, depose the falsely English King, and restore the greatness of England. So, raising an army, Godwin and his son returned to England while under exile, joined now by the armies of the nobles, so that they had a substantial force, with which they ravaged much of Northern Europe, tearing apart villages, soundly defeating the King’s forces. Edward conceded his loss and gave Godwin back his earldom over Wessex. Shortly after that, though, Godwin died. His son, Harold, became Earl of Wessex, and his other son, Tostig Godwinson, became Earl of Northumbria. Such were the immediate circumstances of England prior to the Norman Conquest.

Now we must ask: Who were the Normans, and what business had they invading England? The Normans were a collective of different Germanic tribes who lived in the 250px-Normandy_in_France_2016.svg.pngNordic Countries, or Scandinavia, which consists of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. These days, we would refer to them informally and loosely as “Vikings”—indeed, those rugged, violent, barbaric seafarers and warriors who raided the coasts in their small, maneuverable ships. Now, it would be naïve to say the Normans were French, because that is not the case: The Normans were not French, but, we have said, Nordic. How is it, then, that Normandy, land of the Normans, was located in France, and why is it we associate the Normans with France? Simply, the Normans, being Vikings, raided the French coast, and to stop these raids, the Franks gave them land to keep, land that would end up becoming Normandy, located in Northern France, right below England. Not only did the Normans 250px-Scandinavia.svg.pngown land in France, but they adopted the French language. For this reason, also, we associate the two—the two cultures, though separate, were practically indivisible, to the extent that the Normans borrowed their culture from the French—”cultural appropriation.” Another wrong assumption is that the Normans and English were total opposites, like the Minoans and Mycenæans of Ancient Greece, the Normans being warlike and uncivil, the English peaceful and civil. In fact, Normandy and England were very similar in terms of their cultures; it was only until the introduction of Christianity to England that the two drifted in separate directions. But our cultural stereotypes are not wholly wrong, either, as the Normans and Vikings were notorious for their raids on England from the mid to late 800’s, or the 9th century, their victims usually rich Christian monasteries. The main star of Normandy to whom we must give our attention is a man named William, Duke of Normandy. Born the illegitimate son of Robert I of Normandy, William was given the epithet “the Bastard.” Robert left the throne abruptly, leaving his son to lead the kingdom at a very Unknown-2.jpegyoung age—seven—when he was thought unfit by most; as a result, the Normans did not initially like William, calling him by his then-known title William “the Bastard.” Like many other successful rulers, such as Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, William earned his right to keep the crown. He proved to be strong, firm, and inflexible. His iron will impressed the people, and he came to be respected by them. William, Duke of Normandy, emerged triumphant amidst the chaos that was Normandy, and with this newly earned respect and power, he would do great things. Yet another misconception is that, because England and France had so many feuds, they must have hated each other from the beginning. Rather, Normandy and England had always been on good terms, notwithstanding the raids from the North. Their leaders often intermarried, and both countries had safe-havens for each other. As fate would have it, these good ties, blessings, we say, might actually have been curses in disguise—it was their good relationship which would fate them to one of the greatest Conquests in European history.

In 1066, Edward died. Having had no children, Edward nominated Harold (surprisingly, considering Harold fought against him). On January 6, the Witenagemot, or Witan, an early assembly that functioned like Parliament, elected Harold King of England. William Unknown-3.jpegheard of this and was outraged, because he had been betrayed. In 1051, William said, Edward himself promised William the latter would get the throne after him. To add onto that, William was Edward’s first cousin, once removed, whereas Harold was not related to Edward whatsoever. To William, it was clear he was the rightful King. Secondly, two years earlier, in 1064, Harold’s ship was wrecked in Normandy, and he, seeking safety in the duchy, went to William, to whom he swore his allegiance, saying he would serve under him. Even though Harold confirmed this story, neither Edward’s nor Harold’s word was valid, the Witan declared, since they had not been present when it was made; seeing as there were no other witnesses, neither really happened, so Harold was the King, not William. Determined to get the crown, William knew he had to take it by force. He did so with the support of the Pope.

During Edward’s reign, there was a Norman archbishop who was absent, so Godwin, using Edward as a puppet, installed an Englishman, Stigand, as the new archbishop; however, Leo IX stated that this was not allowed, considering the Norman archbishop could not be replaced if he was not dead. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Godwin did not heed this, but still got Stigand into power. In response, Pope Leo IX excommunicated Harold. The next Pope, Alexander II, under the supervision of Hildebrand, later Gregory VII, gave William his blessing. An old time friend of William, Lanfranc, joined William’s side, calling for a holy war on the Harold, the excommunicated English King—in effect, calling a crusade. If things were not intense enough, however, a third variable came into play: Harold’s brother Tostig.

After Tostig became Earl of Northumbria, his kingdom revolted in 1065, and Tostig was exiled. Like William, when Tostig heard the news of his brother’s coronation, he grew jealous and sought out a way of getting back into power. Exiled in Norway, he befriended the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada, with the help of whose Viking army he would invade English. In return for his help, Hardrada, Tostig promised, would be crowned King of England.

Facts_Harald_Hardrada_Last_Great_Viking.jpgAccordingly, Harold was put in a precarious position, a true dilemma: To the north was Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson, and to the south was William of Normandy. Although both posed a great danger, William was the stronger of the two. Because of bad winds, William was delayed; so the Vikings led their attack first, landing at York in September, where the first battle was fought, the Battle of Fulford. On September 20, Tostig and Hardrada defeated the English, killing the Earls of Northumbria and Mercia. As promised, Hardrada was crowned King of England. Three days later, the message of the Viking attack reached King Harold, who, hearing the news, surprised by this attack, and not expecting William any time soon, decided to take back his land from the invaders. He and his army covered 200 miles in under a week. Reaching Stamford on September 25, the Royal Army, BattleofStamfordbridge.pngnumbering around 10,000, faced off against the Norwegian interlopers, around 5,000 of them. Harold commenced the attack, but he was quickly rebuffed when his brother and the Norwegian King launched a counter-attack, although it was no use; for during the battle, Harald Hardrada took an arrow to the throat, killing him, leaving Tostig isolated, Tostig, who refused to back down, who would not compromise with his brother, ultimately ending in his death. Viking reinforcement arrived, but it was too late. By the time the battle ended, with the Anglo-Saxons victorious, only 24 of the 300 Viking ships that had come returned to Norway (so only 8% survived, while 92% were slaughtered!). This victory was not to last long, however, for a storm was brewing in the south, literally and proverbially.

Harold, when he left the south in order to attack the Vikings, decided William was not going to attack, so he pulled all of his troops out, leaving the coast entirely unprotected. Furthermore, the harvest season was going on, so much of the English army left to tend to their farms. This was a poor decision on Harold’s part, although it is hard to blame him, in truth, because what else could he have done? There was an immediate threat in the north, as opposed to a possibly imminent, albeit more dangerous, one in the south. Forced to act quickly, he went for the immediate threat, not counting on the latter. Unknown-4.jpegUnfortunately for him, as soon as he left, the weather in Normandy turned good, allowing William and his army to sail to England without obstacles. Departing on September 28, with either 700 or 1,400 ships—as with most historical events, the details are shoddy and conflicting—and on them 7-15,000 men and 2,000 horses, William, Duke of Normandy, left his homeland to conquer what he thought was his, rightfully, and with the assent of the papacy. He landed in Pevensey Bay, located in East Sussex, almost directly opposite of York, where Hardrada and Tostig landed. Now, Harold had even more reason to be alarmed: His enemy, whom he did not expect to come, had come, and with a sizeable, prepared army, in contrast to his worn-out, mostly untrained militia, which was composed, for the most part, of farmers; and his enemy had come at a terrible time, when large parts of his force had left for harvest, and after having defeated the Vikings, resulting in a large loss of Anglo-Saxon soldiers.

At first, Harold was reluctant to face off against William, understandably: He had not the forces to fight him. But William did not come to England for nothing; he was not going to sit around and wait for Harold to build up his forces again, so William, fortifying himself near London, had his men construct little castles, from which they could get food and other supplies, while they anticipated Harold’s next move. When it dawned on William that Harold would do no such thing, he decided that he needed to lure the King of England to him. The Duke of Normandy wanted to get it over with and become King himself, which is why he intentionally stayed close to the coast, such that, when he won, he could go back to Normandy. Hence, he would not take the battle to Harold, but what have Harold bring the battle to him. To gain the King’s attention, he and his army went around Southern England, pillaging villages, setting fire to them, wreaking havoc wherever and to whomever. Harold could not handle the stress, and so his forces marched in two days, from October 11 to 13, toward London, than which they would go no farther, to their advantage. Setting themselves up on Senlac Hill, the English forces, tired, anxious, jittery, jaded, awaited their foreign invaders. The next day, October 14, 1066, would become famous in history—the Battle of Hastings.

Unknown-5.jpegArriving with around 7-15,000 men, the Normans would be going against the English, of whom there were 9,000, who were up on the hill, which was 50 feet high, giving them the height advantage over the Normans, who would have to travel across wet swamp marshes and around ravines to reach them. Looking at the English army, it was made up of the Royal Army and the Fyrd, which was the local militia, recruited from the nearby counties, similar to the Minutemen of the American Revolutionary War, all of whom had no experience in battle. In contrast to the Fyrd, the Royal Army stuck around the King and was highly trained, equipped with chainmail armor and double-handed axes that were capable of decapitating horses with a single blow. The Fyrd wielded spears and swords, but they were most apt with shields, which would come in handy. Across from them, the Norman army was more diverse and—clearly—superior. In the front were the archers, and behind them the infantry, behind which were the cavalry, and among them William himself, on his own horse. In addition to his Norman troops, William had on his side the Flemish and the Bretons, another branch of the Celtics. Harold, too, would be in the front lines of his own infantry. Both commanders were skilled and excellent fighters, each of whom had fought and won numerous conflicts. The battle is reminiscent of the American Revolution, but in reverse: The highly trained Norman army versus the rag-tag, weakened Anglo-Saxon army—the victor was apparent before the battle began.



For further reading: The Story of Civilization Vol. 4 by Will Durant (1950)
The Development of Modern English 2nd ed. by Robert Stuartson (1964)
Commanders: History’s Greatest Military Leaders by R.G. Grant (2010)
The Encyclopedia of World History
6th ed. by Peter N. Stearns (2001)
History of the English People 
Vol. 1 by John Richard Green (1882)
100 Battles That Shaped the World
by Parragon (2012)

History of England Vol. 1 by Lord Macaulay (1967)
History of England 
4th ed. by W.E. Lunt (1957)
The Battle 100 
by Michael Lee Lanning (2009)
Scaling the Centuries
by Edwin J. Urch (1939) 
Battle: A Visual Journey
 by R.G. Grant (2005)


Play a fun, educational strategy game based on 1066!

Adam Smith on Compassion

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 3.58.11 PM.pngWhen our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?

Adam Smith (1723-1790), Scottish philosopher.


From The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 137 

Gail Wynand and the Second-Handed Dialectic of Power

Unknown.jpegBesides money and pleasure, what does a man want? Power. The desire for power is an innate human drive, an impulse that has throughout history shown itself time and time again to be a formidable factor that has shaped civilization, for both good and bad. In the hands of one, it can turn horribly wrong; the few, it can quickly deteriorate; and the many, it also not exempt from corrupting. Overall, the pursuit of power over others proves a fickle, destructive thing, whereas, say, power over oneself, is thought to be more respectable. But power itself is not a bad thing, only in the hands of men, who, upon achieving it, will succumb to their darkest instincts and show their true selves. To dominate and to control others, is to control the world, a sentiment which has given rise to the notion of ruling the world, or world domination, which, as seen in history, never leads anywhere good. As such, humans are driven by a desire that they cannot escape, but which will lead to their ruin in the long run. In Ayn Rand’s philosophical novel The Fountainhead, Gail Wynand, the owner of a newspaper called the Banner, makes it his sole mission to get power over his peers, to show the world that he is capable of ruling, to prove everyone wrong who doubted him. Unfortunately, by the end of the novel, his rise Unknown-1.jpegUnknown-2.jpegto power takes a turn for the worst, leading to his personal destruction and the ruin of the only things for which he cared. Rand, who carefully constructed each of her characters, made Wynand’s need for power his weakness, the very thing that would destroy him in his pursuit, eventually. About a century earlier, the 19th-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, in a famous section titled “Lordship and Bondage” of his work Phenomenology of Spirit, explains the process by which a person, or self-consciousness, achieves knowledge of itself through a power struggle with another individual, demonstrating the perils of power in relation to other persons. Therefore, this post will explore how Hegel’s ideas clarify Rand’s cautionary tale of Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead—the second-handed dialectic of power.

In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel tells the story of the Absolute Spirit and its progression through the course of history. As pure self-consciousness, Spirit must be able to reflect upon itself, to be conscious of itself, if it wants to become complete. It is only through self-recognition that self-consciousness comes to fruition and realizes its place in the images-1.jpegworld and in the lives of men. Spirit is manifest not only in the world, but in individuals. Every self or person that exists is an individual self-consciousness that partakes in Spirit. Pure self-consciousness is a hard thing to imagine, surely, and it can best be explained using the Law of Identity, used by both Hegel and his predecessor Fichte: A=A. This merely means that self-consciousness is itself—nothing more, nothing less. If you were to have a person, and if you took away all their properties, e.g., physical, intellectual, emotional, etc., then you would have their irreducible, simple self-consciousness, which is itself. Anything that is not self-consciousness is an object for it. For this reason, self-consciousness consists both of the self, the subject, and an object, such as another person, or self-consciousness. It is the subject that thinks about the object. So self-conscious must be able to think about itself as an object, despite its being the one doing the thinking at the same time. Such is the essence of self-consciousness. Without an object, consciousness is not itself.

Unknown-3.jpegTo achieve contemplation of itself, self-consciousness works through what Hegel calls “desire,” which is the need to dominate external objects; in a word, self-consciousness appropriates, it takes something for itself in order to have it and make it its own. This important idea says that the self comes to know itself through what it is not. Simply put, self-consciousness learns what it is through every object that it is not. The self knows itself from the not-self. In Fichte’s writing, this is called the Anstoß, or “impetus,” the instant in which the self springs back from the world and into itself. The problem is that desire does not lead to knowledge of the self, only of the not-self. Desire, mind you, is only a function of self-consciousness, a means of obtaining consciousness, the by-product of which is a faint idea of reflection. In other words, desire is not self-consciousness itself; desire informs self-consciousness because it is not reflexive; desire does not act like a mirror in which the self can see itself. Further, desire is object-centered (allocentric), rather than self-centered (egocentric). This means desire is not what leads explicitly to self-conscious reflection. Instead, desire for another self is what leads to self-conscious reflection. Now, the self becomes social, and it interacts with other selves, from which it obtains knowledge of itself.

When two people meet, they are separate from each other in that they see the world differently, yet they live in the same world nonetheless. Each self-consciousness exists in itself, disconnected from everyone else. Two persons are like bumper cars: They can drive around and interact with each other, but only by coming into contact with each Unknown.pngother violently. Person A seeing person B, a reciprocal process ensues. Person A desires person B—that is, desires to own them; and likewise, person B desires to own person A. There is a mutual recognition between the two, and a mutual resistance. Both realize what the other wants, but they are also resistant to it. Tension builds between the two, for they both want to conquer one another. Asserting themselves, person A will try to establish its dominance in an attempt to bring person B under their control. This subjugation of the other, this literal objectification—turning the other person into an object for oneself—means both persons use the other as a means-to-an-end rather than an end-in-themselves. Neither person A nor B respects the individuality of the other, sees the other as an equal, but immediately assumes a superiority toward them. Recognition, in this sense, is not the friendly kind, as between two friends who see each other and wave, thereby recognizing each other, no; this is a vicious recognition between two enemies who begrudgingly acknowledge each other’s existence. Neither person is respected as a person, but seen as an object for taking.

In our everyday lives, this hardly seems an accurate portrayal of our encounters with other people, yet it was also championed by another philosopher, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who said that, by looking at another person, they become an object for us, and vice versa. Under our gaze—”the Look,” as Sartre called it—the other ceases to be an independent consciousness, but degenerates from a subject into an object. If two people were to look at each other, then, a battle between the two would follow. Sartre said that the two selves fight to assert their self-consciousness in the face of the other. Going back to Hegel, though, person B serves for person A as a mirror kind of. Unknown-4.jpegUnlike desire, which we said is not a mirror, the other person, who is perceived by desire, does become a mirror for us. Self-consciousness requires another self in order to be conscious of itself. “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself… only in being acknowledged,” writes Hegel.[1] He also says at this moment that the two selves “recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another.”[2] What this means is that A realizes that it is desiring B, and this must mean that B is doing the same thing. In a strange way, it is basically saying that the two selves feel a kind of empathy toward one another. A wants B, and A and is aware that B wants A at the same time. The same goes for B in terms of A. Children develop at a certain age what is known as a “Theory of Mind” (ToM). Theory of Mind is the ability of a child to reason what another person is thinking. Once the child is able to do this, it is able to think by means of analogy of what is going on in someone’s head. “When I want milk, I cry,” the child says, “and this boy is crying, so he must want milk, too,” he observes. In effect, this is what self-consciousness does when it “mutually recognizes” another self-consciousness. The two are aware of their own thinking, and they attribute it to each other, equally.

images.pngBecause a subject needs an object, a thinker a thought, A desires to control B as a means-to-an-end. This much we know. We know, further, that in order to control B, A needs to assert itself to gain supremacy. The problem is, when both A and B engage in self-assertion, they risk destroying each other. Should B be wiped into oblivion, A would lack its mirror. Thus, destruction of the other is counterintuitive, and, in a sense, self-destructive. To have A gain control of B without destroying B in the process, thereby preserving the mirror, A forces B not into subjugation, but subordination. A does not destroy B; A must enslave B, must make B lower than itself. A life-or-death struggle involves both parties. Whoever comes out on top, retains their dignity. “It is only through staking one’s life,” Hegel says, “that freedom is won… that [self-consciousness] is only pure being-for-self.”[3]  There is no other option, in other words. Engaging in battle, self-consciousness has nothing with which to bargain except for its own life. These two self-consciousnesses, A and B, are like medieval jousters—only, they are not putting their pride and dignity on the line, but their very lives, as that is all they have, being self-conscious individuals, “pure being-for-self.” To assert self-consciousness is to put one’s life at risk. The end of life means the end of 20150724001158840212-original_drupal.jpgconscious experience. For sake of understanding, we can equate “life” with “self-consciousness.” Understandably, putting one’s life at risk reveals the fragility of one’s life. When we consider nothing else besides our life, our self-consciousness, when we confront our bare existence, what are we left with? Pure being. This is very Heideggerian, this speaking of “pure being.” However, what Hegel is implying is that consciousness qua pure being is what one is. One is nothing more than one’s life. You are not your clothes, or your thoughts, or your emotions, or your likes or dislikes—you are a living individual, and when you risk your life, you realize that life is not some sort of solid, empirical object that can withstand such a trial, and so you face your mortality, the threat of non-existence, non-consciousness.

This conception of Hegel’s is summarized by Thomas Melchert: “So being self-consciousness in this strong sense is engaging in an absolute abstraction from all the facts that make you the existing individual that you are, turning every facet of yourself into an object for yourself.”[4] It all boils down to one thing: Self-consciousness. In finally risking one’s life, in finally facing another conscious individual, one confronts one’s finitude, one’s mortality, and then becomes aware of themselves, not as this or that, but as essentially aware, as self-consciousness, pure and simple. Self-consciousness is itself. Such a confrontation with death strips away everything but pure being-as-such—Heidegger would very much agree with this statement. Hegel predates Heidegger even more in the following excerpt:

For this consciousness has been fearful, not of this or that particular thing or just at odd moments, but its whole being has been seized with dread; for it has experienced the fear of death…. But this pure universal moment, absolute melting-away of everything stable, is the simple, essential nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure being-for-self….[5]

Indeed, this whole excerpt sounds like it could have been written by a Heideggerian-Sartrean hybrid. Piece by piece, we shall examine it. The first part discusses the experience of existential dread, or anxiety, which has been taken up by authors like Kierkegaard (who hated Hegel), Heidegger, and Sartre. Hegel says that self-consciousness, in staking its life, experiences a fear unlike any other, insofar as it is of nothing in particular. In fact, the essence of dread lies in exactly that—that dread is a images-2.jpegfear of Nothing. And dread is not some kind of fading emotion; rather, self-consciousness’ “whole being has been seized,” suggesting that it is a very powerful, moving feeling. It derives explicitly from death. Death is characterized by Nothing. Life is consciousnesses, death the end of consciousness, the experience of Nothing. Contemplating this, the individual feels dread. Through dread, pure self-consciousness arises as its own object, quaking in the face of being-as-such. Because self-consciousness is a subject, something that thinks, and because in facing death self-consciousness acknowledges its mortality, self-consciousness suddenly becomes… self-conscious. Everything but Life and Death themselves disappears, leaving self-consciousness alone with itself. However, risking one’s life in self-assertion requires courage, and only the most courageous soul will emerge from an encounter with death. The battle is over, and when the dust settles, A has won the battle, has faced death, leaving B defeated. B is thus forced into servitude under A. The two self-consciousnesses now take up a new relationship: Person A is the lord/master, B their bondsman/slave. We will now undertake a study of both of these roles and their relationship.

The [master’s] essential nature it to exist only for himself; he is the sheer negative power for whom the thing is nothing. Thus he is the pure, essential action in this relationship, while the action of the bondsman is impure and unessential. But for recognition proper the moment is lacking, that what the lord does to the other he also does to himself, and what the bondsman does to himself he should also do to the other [i.e., mutual reciprocation]. The outcome is a recognition that is one-sided and unequal.[6]

main-qimg-16ee790f3911c03019c882b5d2b39b3a.pngHegel is saying that the newly emerged master—person A—is now self-sufficient. The master serves no one. He, the master, cares only about his own existence, and he need not bother with the slave’s. Being self-consciousness, his concern lies not with things or the slave, but himself. Taken this way, the master is considered “essential,” as he is the one being served, he is the important one, whereas the slave is “unessential,” expendable, living a lowly existence, the one who serves, the unimportant one. While the master is independent, the slave is dependent. Recall that self-consciousness’ goal is only to gain recognition of itself. This it has done through staking its life against another consciousness, which is now become a slave. However, this creates a problem: If respect is a mutual thing, then so is recognition; recognition is only gotten through two people on equal standing—equals. The master gets work from the slave, who in turn gets nothing out of the relationship. Only the master profits. This, Hegel notes, is “one-sided and unequal.” The balance is tipped to one side, and this means there is no mutual recognition. The slave recognizes the master as his “everything,” recognizes his subservience to him.

And the master? The master recognizes the slave as… well, nothing, nothing at all. Bluntly, the master does not recognize at all, as there is no one, nothing, to recognize. To him, the slave is nothing. Therefore, the master cannot recognize the slave, and this means that, although the slave recognizes the master, the master will never acknowledge this—and this, readers, means that the master lacks the self-awareness he needs. The master no longer recognizes himself, and summarily loses self-consciousness. Reciprocity in the relationship has been compromised. If you have read The Fountainhead before, then you will have already seen some parallels, but for those who have not, now begins our formal comparison between Hegel and Rand. Gail Wynand, talking to his wife Dominique about an upcoming trial, intimates,

Dominique, I know you’ve never been able to understand why I’ve felt no shame in my past. Why I love the Banner. Now you’ll see the answer. Power. I hold a power I’ve never tested. Now you’ll see the test. They’ll [the public will] think what I want them to think. They’ll do as I say. Because it is my city and I do run things around here (Rand, 655).

Here, Wynand explains his position. As the owner of the newspaper the Banner, notorious for its sensationalist, eye-catching stories, Wynand is able to write stories that will spread a specific message. With his control over the people of New York, he can do whatever he wants; he can the people them vote a certain way if he tells them to. This, he says, gives him his feeling of power, a feeling which he enjoys very much, enabling him tonewspapers.jpg take control of his past. Little does he know, though, that in doing this, in “enslaving” the people of New York, depriving them of their power, their self-consciousness, in this context, he is actually depriving himself of the very self-consciousness, the very self-assertion, that he himself desires, to the extent that the people who read his newspapers cannot give him anything in return. He impoverishes himself by mediating himself through the people. The Banner, Wynand’s source of power, makes him a master, an independent person, but it prevents the people from giving anything back, from giving him equal recognition. His belief that he owns the city and that he can direct it blinds him even more from his predicament, for he is blinded by power, such that he cannot realize that, in asserting himself, he will have nothing left to reel in. Wynand has put his entire self out there, into the world, leaving nothing salvageable behind, by risking his life for recognition, which he will now never get. This, we have said, is the position of the master, and Gail Wynand is the representative of it. Hegel further says of the master:

[The lord] is a consciousness existing for itself which is mediated with itself through another consciousness…. And since he is… now at the same time mediation, or a being-for-self which is for itself only through another, he is related (a) immediately to both, and (b) mediately to each through the other.[7]

Seeing as the master gets his self-consciousness from the slave, he is “mediated” through the slave, which is to say that he uses the slave as a means of reaching his own agenda. He is not doing it on his own, but through the slave. The slave is not “for itself,” because it is dependent on the master, but the master is “for itself” since it is independent. Based on this, he is himself while maintaining his relationship with his slave, hence the immediate relation, but he is also himself and the master of the slave through the slave, mediately. The master is only a master who recognizes himself through the slave.

Wynand, similarly, walking through the empty streets of New York at night, feeling guilty for having betrayed his closest friend, looks up at the buildings around him, at the ordinary people going about their routine days, admitting his defeat, submitting to each and every one of them, because he realizes that, in trying to gain power, he has become their slaves, rather than their master, and the realization terrifies him, makes him feel Unknown-5.jpegworthless. He thinks to himself, “You were a ruler of men. You held a leash.” But then he sees the truth of this: “A leash is only a rope with a noose at both ends” (Rand, 691). The significance of this quote is that Wynand thought of himself as a powerful man, the most powerful man in New York, so he had a leash on everyone, to keep them in check; yet in reality, this hold on other people, this ability to manipulate others, kept him in check, too. In enslaving the people, he enslaved himself to them. The masses became his master, he their slave. Wynand, pandering to the masses, was really serving them, not the other way around. Like a dog owner, Wynand held the leash, the tool of power, in his hands, meaning he was able to control where the dog—the people—went. But he forgot that dogs, too, can pull and yank, sometimes stronger than the owner can. When he was not looking, the dog ran at full speed, dragging Wynand with it. Having a noose at both ends, the leash chokes both of them; they are bound to each other, and yet there is no equal recognition, no mutuality. The master depends on objects for desire, not caring about the slave; the slave wants to serve his master in recognition of him, albeit unsuccessfully, since the master refuses to lower himself to the slave’s level.

What of the slave? What becomes of the slave if the master is revealed to be less powerful than he thought? The slave, forced to work for the master, produces. He labors for the master, and he finds himself therein. By this, Hegel means that the slave finds Unknown-6.jpeghimself through his work, which is a creation of his, a reflection of him. Looking at his craftsmanship, his handiwork, the slave sees the fruits of his labor, sees himself in them, because he has put his effort into them. He differentiates himself from the world, from the objects of his creation. Compare this, again, to the Fichtean Anstoß, the kick-off whereby the slave sees all that is not himself, and therethrough finds what is his. Self-realization comes when the slave compares himself to the master, who is a self-consciousness like himself, against which he can mirror himself, and to his material labor, allowing the slave to achieve reflexive self-consciousness. “[T]he bondsman realizes that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own,” states Hegel.[8] We see this in The Fountainhead, too, when Wynand reflects further on his fall from power:

I released them all [the public]. I made every one of those who destroyed me. There is a beast on earth, dammed safely by its own impotence. I broke the dam. They would have remained helpless. They produce nothing. I gave them the weapon. I gave them my strength, my energy, my living power. I created a great voice and let them dictate the words. The woman who threw the beet leaves in my face had a right to do it. I made it possible for her.

Anything may be betrayed, anyone may be forgiven…. Bot not I. I was not born to be a second-hander (Rand, 694).

Had Wynand not tried to shape public opinion, had he not sought to exert his power over others, had he not underestimated the public by being condescending, then, he says, his fall would not have happened. By letting things go as they had been, everything would have been fine, but he intervened, causing his own downfall. The “beast” he talks about is the mediocrity, the conformity, of the masses, and this very mediocrity and conformity is what held them back from doing anything. Their own standards and artificially made beliefs were precisely what kept them from making their own standards and beliefs. Wynand, however, is the one who “broke the dam.” His vehement articles stressing the urgency of the trial, his pleas to acquit Howard Roark provoked the people, let them make up their minds, form their opinions, gather together in protest. His power struggle released them upon himself. He put his life on the line, his being, and he had won judging by his success in the world, his riches, his art collection, his personal life—he was the master. And in so doing, he surrendered himself to the people, became subordinated to them, paradoxically.

Interestingly, he says, “They produce nothing,” which can be linked to the slave, who produces for the master and finds awareness in it. It is true the masses never produced anything for Wynand; but then again, he never recognized them as they recognized him; he did not give them reciprocal acknowledgement; he desired the objects, instead of his own self-consciousness; but the people, the consumers of the Banner, the mindless noose-e1337727704742.jpgreaders, the manipulable crowds—they were the true laborers, and Wynand, it is also true, was dependent on them. He could not exist without them, could not have been as successful as he was without them. He needed them; he was dependent on them. He sought power of them. He went so far in pursuit of power, that he could not look back from where he came, and he lost perspective. He lost the ability to recognize the people, who became to him an anonymous, faceless crowd. With great power comes great responsibility, we know from Spiderman. Wynand’s power, symbolized by the “leash,” got him caught up in his own noose, to which he was tethered. The laborers could not give what Wynand demanded of them, and this empowered them through their production, of which he had none, except for the Banner, his form of control, causing the inversion of the master-slave dialectic, so that Wynand was the slave, the people the masters, the collective. Wynand, had he not risked his life in the power struggle, would not have provoked and alienated the people from their labor.

In chapter XI of part 4, Howard Roark and Gail Wynand are sitting on the latter’s yacht, talking about the “beast,” the mediocrity of the masses, which Roark appropriately titles “second-handedness,” or the tendency to live second-hand, vicariously, mediately, through other people. They formulate their principles based on what others before them have said; they follow the latest trends; they do not think for themselves; they seek the approval of their peers; and they depend on others, instead of relying on themselves. Wynand agrees with Roark, who declares that he is happy that Wynand is not a second-hander himself. At this, Wynand smiles. Unbeknownst to Wynand, Roark thinks: “I haven’t mentioned to him the worst second-hander of all—the man who goes after power” (Rand, 636). Secretly, Roark disapproves of Wynand, knowing that his pursuit of power will not end well for him, for it never does; after all, it is second-handed. This moment becomes all the more meaningful when we reread what Wynand says to himself later, about how “Anything may be betrayed, anyone may be forgiven…. Bot not I. I was not born to be a second-hander.”

Unknown-7.jpegIn conclusion, it is human nature to want power, especially over others, yet Gail Wynand from The Fountainhead serves as a warning to us all about the dangers of pursuing power. The master is but a pawn in the grander scheme of things, Hegel thinks, for the dialectic of Spirit continues onward, through thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Two self-consciousnesses meet, they fight, one becomes subservient but ends up becoming the master, only to repeat the process infinitely. If one independent consciousness is the thesis, another the antithesis, then the resulting self-consciousness is the synthesis; but now this self-consciousness meets another one, and the cycle continues, as you can see, ad infinitum. The seeking of power, therefore, is futile and never-ending. Recognition is grounded in mutuality and reciprocity, which simply cannot be achieved when narrow-minded, individual power is sought after. Both Gail Wynand and Howard Roark grew up poor, working for the entirety of their childhood, told they were worthless, that they would never amount to anything, yet they both became incredibly successful, Wynand with his newspaper business, Roark with his architecture. They are a rags-to-riches story, full of inspiring individualism and idealism. But Rand wanted to demonstrate that something separated Roark from Wynand. Whereas Wynand goes after power to show others that he can be Unknown-8.jpegin charge for once, rising to identify as a master, Roark, it can be argued, is a slave by nature, in the Hegelian sense, of course. He finds himself not in other people, but in his work, his labor. Every draft he draws up, every granite block he touches, and every building he builds—they are all in his image. Roark finds self-recognition, self-assertion, self-consciousness, purpose, meaning, in his passion, which is really his whole life. He is full of dread because he is always risking his life for his work. For months, he goes without any commissions, yet he endures it, because “it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own.” Roark was not born to be a second-hander. The worst second-hander is “the man who goes after power.” Who seeks to become powerful, thereby becomes powerless.



[1] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, §178, p. 111
[2] Id., §184, p. 112
[3] §187, p. 114
[4] Melchert, The Great Conversation, p. 410
[5] Hegel, op. cit., §194, p. 117
[6] §191, p. 116
[7] §190, p. 115
[8] §196, p. 119



For further reading:
A History of Philosophy Vol. 7 by Frederick Copleston (1994)
Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit
by G.W.F. Hegel (1977)

The Great Conversation by Norman Melchert (1991)
History of Philosophy by B.A.G. Fuller (1952)
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1986)