April 18, 2020

1. David Quammen & Richard Preston

One of the best writers on pandemics is David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2012). For many years, Quammen wrote for a nature magazine called Outside. He also wrote for National Geographic. His most recent book is The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life.

Quammen seems to have found a “sweet spot” between the scholarly and the popular. As a Rhodes Scholar, Quammen’s specialty was Faulkner’s fiction, and he has written several novels. Click here for Quammen’s 10-minute TED Talk, here for a 50-minute interview with Quammen.

Quammen has high praise for an article on Ebola written by Richard Preston and published in New Yorker.1B Quammen thinks that Preston’s article is better than Preston’s two books on Ebola, The Hot Zone (1994) and Crisis in the Red Zone (2019). Preston wrote about smallpox in The Demon in the Freezer. Like Quammen, Preston has tried his hand at fiction; Preston wrote a novel about bio-terrorism called The Cobra Event.

2. Andrew Sullivan & Niall Ferguson

In a recent op-ed about the virus, Niall Ferguson wrote, “China caused this disaster, but now wants to claim the credit for saving us from it.” Ferguson wants to ask Xi Jinping, How exactly did the virus start?

If the virus originated from a bat at one of the disgusting “wet” markets... which your regime inexplicably has not shut down, that is bad enough. But if it originated because of sloppy practices at the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, that is worse. It is insanity for research on potentially lethal zoonoses such as coronaviruses to be going on in the heart of a vast metropolis like Wuhan.

Ferguson also wants to ask Xi Jinping, “After it became clear that there was a full-blown epidemic spreading from Wuhan to the rest of Hubei province, why did you cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China — on January 23 — but not from Hubei to the rest of the world?”

This implies that China may have been trying to infect the world with the virus. Does Ferguson have evidence to back up such a serious charge? His evidence seems to be a NewYorkTimes article about flights from China to the U.S. This article says,

On Jan. 17, the federal government [i.e., the U.S. government] began screening travelers from Wuhan, but only 400 more passengers arrived on direct flights before Chinese authorities shut down the airport. Scott Liu, 56, a Wuhan native and a textile importer who lives in New York, caught the last commercial flight, on Jan. 22.

So there were few flights from Wuhan/Hubei to the U.S. after January 17, and probably fewer still after January 23. If there were any flights from Wuhan/Hubei to the U.S. after January 23, they may have been carrying U.S. citizens, at the urging of those citizens, and at the urging of the U.S. government. So there seems little evidence to support Ferguson’s insinuation that China was allowing the spread of the virus to foreign countries. Another NewYorkTimes article says that the virus came to the U.S. from Europe. In my view, Ferguson has a strong argument when he blames China for the virus (for allowing the virus to start, and for concealing it after it started), but he carries his argument one step too far when he insinuates that China intentionally infected other countries.1

Andrew Sullivan picked up on Ferguson’s charge, and amplified it, apparently without examining the evidence for it. “On January 23,” Sullivan wrote,

President Xi locked down all air traffic from Wuhan to the rest of China — but, as Niall Ferguson pointed out, not to the rest of the world. It’s as if they said to themselves, “Well, we’re going under, so we might as well bring the rest of the world down with us.”

This shows how a wild charge can be spread and amplified, even by reputable writers like Ferguson and Sullivan.

Sullivan blames Trump, but he blames China more:

I’m not excusing Trump for his delusions, denial, and dithering — he is very much at fault — but the core source of the destruction was and is Beijing.... The Chinese dictatorship is, in fact, through recklessness and cover-up, responsible for a global plague and tipping the entire world into a deep depression.

All the Western democracies dealt with the virus in approximately the same way, Sullivan argues:

We obsess about the responses of our governments.... But when you look at the graphs of the viral curve in most of the major countries, most of them are unsettlingly similar. Yes, there are some more successful countries like Germany, and some outliers, like South Korea, but the rest seem to be following the same rough trajectory.

Should we conclude that democracies aren’t capable of foresight, of getting ahead of problems? Or should we conclude that the virus is a Black Swan, a problem we’ve never seen before, and therefore we don’t really believe it until it happens? We don’t want to shut down our economy unless it’s necessary, and we don’t believe it’s necessary until the problem is knocking on our door.2

Perhaps there’s an analogy with our response to Germany and Japan in the 1930s. Germany and Japan were on the warpath in the 1930s, and it was clear that the U.S. would end up fighting at least one of those countries. But we did little to prepare for war, we waited for the problem to come to us, rather than trying to get ahead of the problem.

3. Documentaries

A. Genes

I strongly recommend Ken Burns’ new documentary, “The Gene: An Intimate History,” which is based on a book of the same name by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The documentary is available at pbs.org. It’s a perfect combination of human-interest story and history-of-science.

It describes how Erwin Schrodinger, a physicist, made a major contribution to understanding genes. I noted elsewhere that breakthroughs in intellectual history often come from outsiders, not specialists.

B. Radio

I also recommend an older documentary by Ken Burns, “Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio.” The documentary is based on a book of the same name by Tom Lewis. The documentary focuses on David Sarnoff, Edwin Armstrong, and Lee DeForest. These three men battled each other for years, and spent millions on legal fees.

Sarnoff was the victor: he built RCA and NBC into an “empire of the air.” NBC was initially a collection of radio stations, then Sarnoff moved into TV. Armstrong, more technical than Sarnoff, developed FM radio, which overcame the problem of static. Sarnoff offered to buy Armstrong’s invention, but Armstrong wanted royalties instead. Sarnoff refused to pay these royalties, and used his financial, legal, and political power to quash Armstrong. Armstrong committed suicide at age 63.

The battles of these three men show how human affairs — including business and legal affairs — often resemble that most fundamental of human activities, war.

4. White Supremacists

When the pandemic passes, Western civilization will again confront three ongoing challenges:

White supremacists attack not only immigrants, but also politicians who befriend immigrants. A NewYorkTimes article says, “Over the last year, there were 1,240 politically motivated attacks on politicians and elected officials in Germany.... The risks have mounted to such an extent that some German towns are unable to field candidates for leadership at all.”3

These attacks show that Nazi ideas of racial purity/supremacy still resonate with many people. During the last century, there’s been a trend toward globalization of trade, ideas, etc. Part of this globalization is a mixing of races, a mixing that white supremacists resist.

5. Perry Miller on the Puritans:
The Social Covenant

My last discussion of the Puritans dealt with Covenant Theology, also known as Federal Theology, or Federalism (from the Latin foedus, meaning contract). Federalists viewed the relationship between God and man as a contract, voluntarily entered into by both parties, imposing certain obligations on both parties.

The first covenant was called the Covenant of Works. It was made between God and Adam. When Adam and Eve violated this covenant (by eating the forbidden fruit), God offered man a new covenant, a Covenant of Grace, which required faith, not adherence to a moral law. But once Federalists developed a mania for contracts, it was difficult for them to stop, so they developed yet another covenant, a Covenant of Redemption.

The Covenant of Redemption was between God and Christ. Christ engaged to redeem man’s sins, die for mankind, while God engaged to bestow grace upon mankind, or at least on some people. As one Puritan put it, “God covenanted with Christ that if he would pay the full price for the redemption of believers, they should be discharged. Christ has paid the price. God must be unjust, or else he must set you free from all iniquity.”4 Thus the Puritans converted one of the central mysteries of Christianity, the mystery of the Trinity, into a rational transaction, such as two English shopkeepers might enter into; Miller speaks of, “the blasphemous degradation of the tripartite divinity into a joint stock company.”5

Covenant Theology diluted the concept of original sin. According to Augustine and Calvin, “the depravity of Adam was communicated to his descendants as an inherited taint... a violent contagion.”6 As Calvin put it, “From a putrefied root... have sprung putrid branches, which have transmitted their putrescence to remoter ramifications.” While not explicitly rejecting this view, Federalists put a different spin on the question. “In the Covenant Theology, man has been expelled for non-payment, he is not spiritually polluted,”7 it’s a “legal responsibility,” not “a cancer or a leprosy.”8 According to Federalists, “man was born owing God a debt.... The debt remained a serious hindrance to man’s free action, but it was not an utterly crushing burden, and it did not obliterate the faculties of reason and will which man possessed as essential elements of the image of God.”

As Federalists diluted original sin, so they diluted predestination. By offering man the Covenant of Grace, God is making such a fair and reasonable offer that only a hardened reprobate would refuse it. So those who are damned are surely deserving of damnation, and everyone of good will is saved. This contrasts with the doctrine of predestination, with its “wholly accidental selection of the elect from the reprobate.”9

Christianity was becoming more rational, less frightening:

Through the covenants His hidden and terrifying intentions are brought into the open, and His terrors turned into reasons; the rule of salvation is made explicit and the elect may now prove the justice of their redemption by freely accepting the reasonable Covenant, while the reprobate will vindicate the righteousness of their condemnation by their unreasonable and obstinate refusal.10

Christianity was becoming softer, more humane, less Calvinist. New Englanders “would no longer bow abjectly before God in fear and trembling. While not explicitly rejecting predestination, they tried “to smuggle into it the elements of abstract justice, at least a partial reassurance that the award of life or death was not given with an utter disregard of moral endeavors.”11

So we’ve looked at three dogmas: the Trinity, original sin, and predestination. Federalists were modifying all three, making all three more rational, more humane.12

Covenant Theology was part of a broader trend, part of a trend away from the feudal and toward the modern, a trend “to change social relationships from status to contract,” to change the feudal idea that “society must be modelled upon an eternally fixed hierarchy,” to develop the idea of “constitutional limitation and voluntary origins, [and] the protection of individual rights.”13 Covenant Theology and Covenant Politics went hand in hand. Once people accepted the idea that God didn’t rule by fiat, that the relationship between God and man was a voluntary contract, then how could any earthly ruler claim to rule by fiat? How could any earthly ruler claim an authority that God Himself didn’t possess?

The relationship between ruler and ruled must be a voluntary contract, a contract that imposes obligations on both parties. As John Winthrop said, “No common weal can be founded but by free consent.” Before anyone can claim authority, said Thomas Hooker, “there must of necessity be a mutual engagement, each of the other, by their free consent.” Examples of such mutual engagements, according to Hooker, are “all covenants between Prince and People, Husband and Wife, Master and Servant.” Miller summarizes: “Throughout the large design of Puritan thinking was endlessly repeated the pattern of the covenant, of a mutual engagement between two independent parties, who, once they have given their oath, are eternally bound.”14

With this principle firmly established, the Puritans were ready to draw the logical conclusions, conclusions that we associate with Locke and Jefferson, such as

The first legal code in New England was Massachusetts’ Body of Liberties of 1641. This document says that no man can be tried or taxed “unless it be by virtue or equity of some express law of the country.”15 As Samuel Willard put it, “Where there is government there must be a rule.”

The idea of a political covenant was discussed in England before it was discussed in New England. It was a way of defending the English people against the high-handed ways of the Stuart kings. The first of the Stuarts, James I, said that kings make laws, laws don’t make kings. A king follows law, said James, “yet is he not bound thereto but of his good will.” The English people resisted Stuart absolutism for several decades, before finally taking up arms against the Stuarts. The theory of the political covenant was used to resist the Stuart kings.16

It has been argued (by Leo Strauss and others) that Locke and other theorists of liberal democracy have no moral or spiritual goal; they limit government power, they establish individual rights, and then they leave the individual to his own devices, and let him do as he wishes.17 This may have been Locke’s approach, but it wasn’t the Puritan approach.

To Puritan thinking, limitation of tyrants and the protection of unalienable rights were not the end-all and be-all of the state; it had a positive as well as a negative function.... Puritan theorists were not yet prepared to see the state as wholly secular, divorced from the church, unconcerned with righteousness.... After establishing society upon a covenant, with rights and equitable terms, they were obliged not to leave it to itself, but to identify the covenant of the people with the Covenant of Grace, to insert the terms of salvation into the political incorporation and to unite the duties of civil obedience with the duties of Christian worship.18

NewEngland Puritans viewed the religious covenant and the political covenant as one covenant, as it was in ancient Israel. “Out of the religious compact emerges in Judea the compact of society, as for instance, when Jehoiada ‘made a covenant between the Lord and the king and the people, that they should be the Lord’s people; between the king also and the people.’”19 NewEngland Puritans “conceived of their society as in covenant with God like Israel of old.” Covenant theory had Biblical roots.

In the political sphere, covenant theory had to compete with two older views of politics, two views that still had some influence with NewEngland Puritans: the Aristotelean view, and the Augustinian view. The Aristotelean view “regarded the community as an organism, man a naturally political animal, and government an indispensable and perpetual necessity, a fact in nature along with earth and air.”20 Puritans were inclined toward the Aristotelean view because they were just beginning to become aware of themselves as individuals, they were “just emerging from feudalism, were still a folk rather than an aggregation of disparate individuals, still possessed by a deep, an ingrained sense of the community that sometimes seems atavistic.” Miller says that conditions in the New World strengthened “this primitive tribal instinct.” In the American wilderness, a solitary individual had little hope of survival, and so the Puritans believed, “We must be knit together in this work as one man.”

The Augustinian view of politics differed from the Aristotelean view and from the contract view. It stressed original sin, and said that government doesn’t arise “from a natural social virtue in men, but from the necessity of curbing their lusts and restraining overt expressions of their depravity.” (As Madison put it in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”) Before the Fall, there was no need for government or police; “the name of Magistrate came in by sin, not by nature.”21 This is the Augustinian view of politics, which can also be called the Stoic or Christian or medieval view.22

Since the Augustinian view emphasizes man’s sinfulness, it “required an almost abject surrender to whatever powers that were, even a submission to injustice, and had generally tended to support absolutism.” To give sinful man a right of revolution would be madness; he would use this right to satisfy his evil urges.

The social covenant emphasized freedom, choice (“voluntarism with a vengeance”). On the other hand, the Aristotelean and Augustinian views made the state a matter of nature or necessity. “Each was politically fatalistic, each left the state a secular, natural agency, occupied with civil justice and the bodies of men; neither gave it any power to guide men to the kingdom of heaven.”

NewEngland Puritans liked contract theory because it could “justify them in subordinating individuals to the state.” In New England, the aims of the social covenant were “authoritarian and intolerant.”23 You were free to enter society or not, but once you made your choice, you had to follow the leaders, you had to tread the straight and narrow path of the saints. “A Christian people were committed to walking before God in active holiness and positive fulfillment of His commands, and the government was to see that they kept their word.”24

Covenant theory didn’t completely replace the Aristotelean and Augustinian views. One might compare these three views to Hegel’s Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

The Aristotelean and Augustinian ideas were not displaced, but coordinated in a new and subtler theory. Society still originated from the nature of man as God had created it and also from an ordinance for restraining the violence of depravity, but at the same time from a compact of the citizens.25

For NewEngland Puritans, the state was far more than a device for keeping the peace.

The Puritan state was seen by Puritans as the incarnation of their collective will; it was driven by an energy they had acquired in their conversion, it was the embodied image of their power, of their resolution, of their idea.... New England political theory made the state almost a kind of second incarnation, a Messiah fathered by God and born of the people.... leading men to righteousness and preparing them for the final reckoning.

In his fallen state, man is a beast, and the state exists to tame the beast. “But when Christ takes possession of his soul, a man conceives a great love not only to God but to his fellows.... Out of this love among the regenerate is born the community, the pledge of their common affection, the symbol and bond of their unity.”26 Divine grace leads us to create a nation. Our own free will prompts us to sign the social contract, but our will is guided by God. “The orderly ruling of men over men, in general, is from God, in its root, though voluntary in the manner of coalescing.”27

After the Puritans came to Boston in 1630, many of them pointed to contract theory to bolster their view that government power was strictly limited. Meanwhile, magistrates like John Winthrop insisted that they had the right to guide the people, and make decisions for the people. There was friction between the magistrates and the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court.

Winthrop complained about the “democratical spirit” of the deputies. John Cotton also took a dim view of democracy; “Cotton declared God did never ‘ordain [democracy] as a fit government either for church or commonwealth.’” Winthrop insisted that his learning and wisdom made him a suitable ruler. The state had a lofty purpose, advancing God’s glory, and only wise men could accomplish this lofty purpose. “Winthrop and the leaders took unto themselves the tremendous prestige which a Puritan laity accorded to learning, scholarship, and academic training.”28 What a contrast with the U.S. today, where learning has little prestige, and rulers are elected who have little learning!

According to Boston leaders like Winthrop, magistrates should interpret law as ministers interpret God’s word. Magistrates lead the political community, as ministers lead the church community. Political and spiritual leadership are interwoven, since the state exists to foster godliness. Magistrates can “punish heresy and sin as well as crime and injustice.”29 The power of the magistrate isn’t limited to following the letter of the law; the magistrate can make logical inferences from the written law, as a minister can make logical inferences from Scripture.

Winthrop won his long struggle with the deputies, but he had to make some concessions along the way, such as granting “their demand for a written Body of Liberties” in 1641. In 1645, Winthrop’s enemies said he had exceeded his authority, and impeached him. When he was acquitted, he delivered a famous speech, in which he distinguished between natural and civil liberty. Natural liberty is the liberty of beasts, the liberty to do whatever you want, evil as well as good.

Civil liberty, on the other hand, is “a liberty to that only which is good, just and honest.”30 Merging the political covenant with the religious covenant, Winthrop argued that the citizen should spontaneously obey the leader, as the Christian should spontaneously obey God’s laws. Once you agree to the religious and political covenants, you are “now bound to behave in one way only, with a dutiful subjection to the eternal law of God as expounded by those upon whom God had bestowed the gifts of exposition.”31 If you want the protection of authority, you must obey authority, just as, if you want the protection of God, you must obey God.

In many ways, the Puritans were conservative, even medieval. “Puritan theory [was] only in a slight degree progressive,” Miller writes. “It was for the most part the elaborate restatement of a medieval ideal, and for many years retained such medieval aims as fixing just prices, preventing usury, and prescribing wearing apparel according to social status.”

But the Puritan elders managed to persuade the people that, by consenting to the religious covenant and the political covenant, they had consented to obey the ministers and magistrates. “Contractualism in New England was almost a theoretical trap, a ruse for convincing men that they were engaged to support whatever learned ministers and magistrates could show was just, right, and honest.”32 But the ministers and magistrates weren’t being disingenuous, Miller says. They had to give the people enough freedom to stand up to Stuart tyranny, but not so much that they would “forget theological and social orthodoxies,” and degenerate into “Antinomians, democratical spirits, and Levellers.”

Puritan political thinking exemplifies the transition from the feudal to the modern, from the religious state to the secular state, from the rule of the elite to the rule of the people.

© L. James Hammond 2020
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1B. Quammen says that Preston published two articles in New Yorker about ebola. The first was “Crisis in the Hot Zone” (Oct. 26, 1992). Apparently the second was “Back in the Hot Zone” (May 22, 1995). This second article isn’t as long, or as interesting, as the first. back
1. Ferguson begins his op-ed by praising a sci-fi novel by a Chinese writer — Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem, which won a Hugo Award in 2015. Ferguson says that this novel “reminds us that the Chinese people are capable of great literature.” In this novel, “China recklessly creates, then ingeniously solves, an existential threat to humanity.” back
2. What the New York Times said of Spain is true of all the Western democracies: “The Spanish epidemic has become a painful example of the tendency of one government after another to ignore the experiences of countries where the virus has already struck.” (“Spain’s Coronavirus Crisis Accelerated as Warnings Went Unheeded”) back
3. See also this article. back
4. Ch. 14, p. 406 back
5. p. 407 back
6. p. 400 back
7. p. 400 back
8. p. 401 back
9. p. 402 back
10. p. 403. “Cotton admitted openly that for his part he intended ‘to clear the orthodox doctrine of predestination from such harsh consequences, as are wonted to be derived from absolute reprobation’ ...God in his special government of mankind ‘aimed chiefly at the manifestation of his grace and justice, above the manifestation of his power and dominion.’”(p. 404) back
11. p. 405 back
12. Miller says that contract theory undermined piety, undermined Christianity. “By building upon the rational choice of men, it asserted in effect that they were naturally good enough, intelligent and able enough, to ascertain what society should be.... By inference it denied original sin, proclaimed the competence of human reason, and allowed the autonomous individual a self-interest prior to all other moral concerns. It was voluntarism, but in its bare political form it was voluntarism with a vengeance.”(pp. 415, 416) back
13. p. 399. In the last issue, I discussed the Shakers. When they brought new people into their church/community, the new people signed a contract. This was perhaps 200 years after John Winthrop, suggesting that Federalism had a lasting influence.

When I discussed Ramism, I said it was controversial in Europe, but widely accepted in New England. The same might be said of Federalism. Federalism was somewhat popular in Europe, very popular in New England. As Miller says, “Only in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where theologians and politicians were able to treat it as the theoretical foundation of the state as well as of salvation, did [Federal Theology] succeed for a time in uniting a whole thought upon a single concept.”(p. 398)

But even in New England, Miller says, Federalism wasn’t taken “to the explicit rationalism and constitutionalism it ultimately became.”(p. 399) Federalists struggled to reconcile contract theory with “their inherited belief in unilateral authority and divine revelation.”(pp. 399, 400) Eventually these “latent antagonisms” led to the “disintegration of the federal theology.”(p. 400) back

14. p. 409 back
15. p. 410 back
16. As New Englanders borrowed covenant theory from their English predecessors, so the English may have borrowed covenant theory from continental predecessors. In 1579, Huguenots at Basel published Vindiciae contra tyrannos (Defences [of liberty] against tyrants), which spoke of a compact between people and kings.

Did covenant theory start in the political sphere or the religious sphere? “It is still impossible to decide the primary question,” Miller writes, “whether Perkins, Ames, and Preston deliberately extended the idea of compact from their social to their religious thinking, or whether they worked their way from theology to social theory.”(p. 412) back

17. Strauss preferred ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who had a conception of the Good, and the Good Life, and wove this conception into their conception of the state. As I wrote in an earlier issue, “Strauss opposes not only Nietzsche and Machiavelli, he opposes the whole modern tradition of political philosophy, including the liberal democratic tradition. ‘A liberal state must recognize and protect a private sphere, but to do this it must permit and thus in fact foster whatever evils are of a “private” kind.’ In the first edition of my book Conversations With Great Thinkers, I made a similar argument, I argued that ‘democratic theorists like Locke don’t make democracy part of a comprehensive philosophy, don’t build their political thought on an ethical foundation.’” back
18. p. 412. One Puritan leader wrote, “It is a carnal and worldly, and indeed, an ungodly imagination, to confine the magistrates charge to the bodies and goods of the subject, and to exclude them from the care of their souls.”(p. 441) back
19. p. 415, quoting 2 Kings 11:17 back
20. p. 416 back
21. p. 417 back
22. p. 417 back
23. p. 418 back
24. p. 421. “Civil law should be not so much a protection of subjects’ rights as an instrument by which the state defines their social duties and directs the exercise of their liberty.”(p. 425) back
25. p. 421 back
26. p. 419 back
27. p. 421 back
28. p. 423. According to Wikipedia, Winthrop “resisted attempts to widen voting and other civil rights beyond a narrow class of religiously approved individuals, opposed attempts to codify a body of laws that the colonial magistrates would be bound by, and also opposed unconstrained democracy, calling it ‘the meanest and worst of all forms of government.’”

Puritans like Winthrop felt that class differences were part of God’s plan. “The Almighty has appointed her that sits behind the mill, as well as him that rules on the throne.”(p. 428) Puritan leaders wanted “an authoritarian state, a society of distinct classes, ruled by a few basic laws administered by the wise and learned of the upper class through their mastery of logic, their deductions from the basic laws being as valid as the laws themselves, and resistance to their conclusions being the most exorbitant sin of which the lower classes were capable.”(p. 429) back

29. p. 430 back
30. p. 426 back
31. p. 426. By 1660, Miller says, Puritans felt they had achieved a “final synthesis” of religion and politics, they didn’t foresee “how short the time would be... until the findings of reason would suffice of themselves, until the compact and the deductions of logic would provide the content of political wisdom.”(p. 431) Perhaps Miller is thinking of John Locke, who published his Two Treatises of Government in 1690. While the Puritans advocated a union of church and state, Locke advocated the separation of church and state. back
32. p. 429 back