Archive for October 2009

Fear and Trembling, by Soren Kierkegaard

October 31, 2009

The author describes a knight of faith. This individual stands apart from society and does what God commands, even when the command is to do what is foolish. This knight has no aide-de-camp. His work is solitary.

The first knight of faith is Abraham, who listened to God’s command to do what was foolish to him. Only by slaying his son, Isaac, could the old man fulfill the promise to become a father of many nations. This was foolishness, but to resist the divine command would be to give up being a knight of faith. Kierkegaard grabs on to this thought like a terrier and won’t let it go. Does God command what is unlawful, or is the law just what God commands? Modern man hears no voices and has to take his revelation secondhand. Accept Abraham’s story as true–what does it mean for someone today who wants to follow God’s law?

The author imagines a contemporary knight of faith. He is outwardly a bourgeois, and no stimulus will make him react. Everything is acceptable to him. Prayer has no place in his schedule, and it would seem to be unnecessary. This is Abraham without voices, a son, or Moriah to climb. He gets along.

Greek myth tells a similar story of a man and his daughter–Agamemnon and Iphigenia. He had to slay his daughter to appease the gods and win his way to Troy. He was a man of duty and went through with the ceremony. The Greek gods tricked him and put an animal in her place. She was sent to Tauris to live a life dedicated to the gods, though he thought she was dead. The myths say that Orestes found her there after Agamemnon’s return from Troy to well-loved Clytemnestra.

This book and its thoughts are not of the English-speaking world. This is Continental philosophy. There is nothing practical here, or analytically precise.

Stonewall Jackson, by James L. Robertson Jr.

October 5, 2009

Major Thomas Jackson landed in Lexington, Virginia, after service in the Mexican war and duty thereafter in Florida. He was a native of what is now West Virginia, but his time at VMI in the 1850s made Lexington his true home. A West Point commission was his only after another young man from his town left the Academy after one day. Jackson was next in line to go. He struggled through his classes and nearly flunked, but learned to study by the time that he was an upperclassman. He was making such progress that they said that he might have been top of his class if he had just had a few more years there.

In Mexico, he showed his fearlessness in battle and in peace. While stationed in Mexico City, he decided to investigate the Catholic religion. He made an appointment with the archbishop and questioned him about it. Jackson left Mexico with a love for tropical fruit and the Spanish language, but he was true to his Scotch-Irish roots in matters of religion.

In Lexington, he became a faithful member of the Presbyterian church and could be found there every Sunday. Without fail, he slept through the sermon. He started and taught a Sunday school for black children, which he faithfully continued to remember during his war service. His first marriage ended in his wife’s death during the birth of their first child, who died as well. He went on a tour of Europe and the Northeast and returned to Lexington and a happy second marriage.

Jackson was not one of the first to call for secession, but he knew his duty. It was time to “draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.” He led a troop of VMI cadets and reported to duty in Richmond. He was nearly put in a desk job, but his valor in Mexico was remembered, and he was sent to the field. At First Manassas/Bull Run he earned the name Stonewall, though he always insisted that his brigade properly owned the name as a group. During the Valley Campaign, he received a fan letter addressed to “Stone W. Jackson.”

The legend grew in the Shenandoah Valley, where he was more successful than he should have been. Robertson details Jackson’s constant movement; he pushed himself and his men to the utmost. Jackson would often have the men move out at 2:30 a.m. (“early dawn,” he called it) on cold rations. He slept in fence corners and on tree roots. He tried to observe the Sabbath throughout the war and even was reluctant to post mail on Sunday. He had no sense of humor and was ruthless to the enemy and deserters, though Robertson is thorough enough to find him making some exceptions.

The book stays close to Jackson. There are no digressions into war policy, economics, or politics. Jackson is never offstage. The book is thoroughly researched in the primary sources; it seems that the author has mined every letter and diary entry by Jackson and those in his service.

Robertson makes some excuses for Jackson at Seven Days, based on his lack of sleep, which Robertson seems to have calculated himself. He also points out where Jackson missed opportunities along the way. Still, it’s a sympathetic portrait of an American character. Jackson and Sherman may never have met, but Jackson seems to have agreed with Sherman’s view of war. It was only because Jackson fought almost entirely on his home ground that he did not take the fight to the civilians. He was not afraid to urge his men to use the bayonet, though they almost always found a way to avoid it.

He was shot in the arms during the dark confusion after his brilliant flanking attack at Chancellorsville. (Robertson is sufficiently fair and sober to note that it is disputed whether the plan was wholly Jackson’s, or Lee’s, or a joint project.) He lingered long enough to see his wife before a happy death. His arm is buried near Chancellorsville, in a shrine that I visited years ago off of Interstate 95. The rest of him is in Lexington.

Lee is in Lexington, too, having gone to Washington College as president. What if Jackson had lived? Imagine the faculty meetings and the stories they would have told.