Cleopatra≈Game of Thrones

Have you heard about the series Game of Thrones? For sure it’s a stupid question because even a squatter in the middle of the woods has the mass market paperback. Christina and I started the HBO show about 4 years ago, and I finally convinced my parents to give it a try – they are almost caught up after binge-watching for a month straight. I started to read the first book because I figured in 50 years it will be considered a classic like Lord of the Rings – there are five total installments in the series with two more set to release in the distant future. The reason I love Game of Thrones is that it reads like historical fiction and it helps me understand real life ancient history. Of course, the plot, characters, and dragons are not real, but the foundation of the series is based on an era of our very own past: an era of kings and queens,  love and murder, conquests and defeats. While reading the first book in the series – A Song of Ice and Fire – I was concurrently digesting a nonfiction work on Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. At times I thought both books were fiction because Cleopatra’s life mirrored the drama taking place in the medieval fantasy. Cleopatra’s rise and fall is no fantasy, but I hope to clear up a few misconceptions about one of the world’s most powerful women.

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Cleopatra was born in Alexandria, Egypt and was a member of the royal Ptolemaic family. The Ptolemaic dynasty began its rule over Egypt after Ptolemy I – a general of Alexander the Great – was appointed the leader of the region. The Ptolemies believed in keeping their family line pure and hence practiced incest. The very close-knit and confusing family tree of the Ptolemies resulted in an endless stream of murder for the sake of political power. By the time Cleopatra took control in 51 BC, the Ptolemaic dynasty was in a severe decline from its once prosperous beginnings; that decline was primarily due to the rising power in the west – the Roman Empire. Cleopatra was a ruthless politician who understood how to wrestle with Rome; her domestic resume included killing her brother-husband and most of her family members to ascend the throne.

 

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The most authentic image of Cleopatra we have today…not what most people imagine.

 

Along with murder, Cleopatra understood the art of seduction, and she found favor with Rome’s highest official – Julius Ceasar. The couple would have a child together and Cleopatra gained a critical military alliance. All came crashing down however for the Queen when Ceasar was assassinated by his fellow senators. Wasting no time, Cleopatra seduced Ceasar’s predecessor Mark Antony. Mark Antony was one of three Roman rulers after Ceasar’s death and was the man most likely to take total control of the empire. Antony would eventually be defeated by his co-ruler Octavian – later known as Ceaser Augustus. Cleopatra and Antony both committed suicide in their defeat; arguably history’s most dramatic love affair.

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Cleopatra’s life is fascinating, and throughout the ages, her image has been negatively caricatured. She is portrayed as a beautiful temptress who used sex to advance her political power. This picture is not entirely accurate and doesn’t give the Queen her due justice. Cleopatra was not physically beautiful, and she had to use her personality to seduce the greatest playboys of the age. That speaks to Cleopatra’s intelligence and wit during an era when women were little respected for their minds. Cleopatra also was not a sex-addict who was only concerned with hedonism. She was a compassionate ruler who was loved by the Egyptian people – her conquests of love brought prosperity to the citizens and her dynasty. More than anything, Cleopatra genuinely loved Antony and her children – a benevolent wife and mother until the very end. Cleopatra was one of the most wealthy and powerful women in the history of the world. We turn her into a sexual sound bite today, but have no doubt, she was an intelligent, reliable, and compassionate ruler. To understand Cleopatra’s success, let’s remember that the span of the Ptolemaic dynasty covered three centuries – a period longer than the current age of the United States of America. Cleopatra was the most successful and famous leader during that long rule. Before you dig into Game of Thrones, read about Cleopatra; incest, murder, politics, and power has no better model.

John D. Rockefeller – Sinner or Saint?

A way to a man’s heart is through sex, food, and Ron Chernow books. The last one is probably particular to me, but thankfully my wife knows me very well; for Christmas last year she bought me Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr by – you guessed who – Ron Chernow. I first became interested in Rockefeller after watching the History Channel series The Men Who Built America which profiles the dominant imperialists of the Gilded Age. The History Channel usually churns out complete garbage, but this show was actually informative and entertaining – compared to the ubiquitous alien conspiracy theory shows. Rockefeller is one of the most complicated men I have ever read about and hence Chernow’s biography of him took up a mammoth 700 pages.

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Rockefeller, unlike Vanderbilt or JP Morgan, was not your typical Rober Baron who accumulated money for the sake of hedonism. Wealth and success to Rockefeller represented God’s blessings – blessings which could not be squandered. He lived a simple life relative to his fortune which in today’s money was worth 400 billion dollars. Oil was the foundation of that fortune and for decades his company, Standard Oil, dominated the global refining business. With vast wealth comes enormous controversy – Rockefeller was a ruthless businessman who negotiated unfair trade deals with the railroads – squeezing out small refiners in the process. These shady business practices were during a time when industry was mostly unregulated in America. Ida Tarbell, the famous Muckraker journalist, vilified Rockefeller – subsequently rallying public opinion and the US government to break up Standard Oil’s monopoly. Ironically, the break up of Standard Oil made Rockefeller even wealthier – he continued to own large shares of his stepchildren’s companies still known today: Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Chevron, Sun, Conoco.

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Rockefeller stepped away from the oil business in his late 50’s and enjoyed a long retirement of philanthropy. Thanks to several Rockefeller foundations, the fields of education, medicine, and research were expanded. It can be argued that the United States world-renowned college system is a direct result of Rockefeller – he set the standard for medical research and founded the prestigious University of Chicago. Before Rockefeller, the state of medicine in the US was that of snake oil salesman – after Rockefeller medicine evolved into a rigorous scientific discipline. Some would question whether we should support philanthropy from “dirty” oil money? I would argue that Rockefeller made business decisions like a strict father; they were harsh but many times fair, as the oil business was in large part saved by Rockefeller’s big thinking principles. During the financial crises of the late 19th century, many small refiners went bust all while Standard Oil maintained record low prices for the consumer. Capitalism is tough and Rockefeller was one of the toughest. When we critique his decisions, we must look at things contextually. Rockefeller was not without blame, but I don’t think that his legacy is one of a sinner. I think his legacy is complicated and the fairest assessment should come from his opponents…

“The press, once hostile to him, formed his biggest cheering section. ‘It is doubful whether any private individual has ever spent a great fortune more wisely than Mr. Rockefeller,’ Pulitzer’s World editorialized in 1923, while the Hearst press, not to be outdone, states, ‘The Rockefellers have given away more money and to better advantage than anybody else in the world’s history since the ark stranded on Ararat.'”

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I believe that Rockefeller is no saint when compared to the world as a whole…but maybe a saint when compared to the wealthiest individuals in the history of the world. Excessive wealth usually corrupts and leaves no positive legacy. Rockefeller following his religious views used each penny wisely. Those pennies may have been tainted, but in the end, they were shined up for a noble purpose; a purpose which Rockefeller pursued until his death at 97 years old. So what’s your verdict? Was Rockefeller a sinner or a saint?

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How are Plato and Jesus Buddies? – Chapter 1, 2, and 3

Scroll down for Chapter 1, 2, and 3 – download the book to answer the question –  “How are Plato and Jesus Buddies?” If you are new please read below. 

I am happy to announce that the second installation of the Tackle the Library series is finally here! This book took me five months to write and I am thrilled to have the project completed. Plato is a tough dude to study and I read over 4,000 pages of text to write this tiny book. Do not fret, I guarantee that you will be able to understand Plato’s philosophy in this easy-to-read narrative. Below is the description.

Plato’s philosophy, political theory, and scholasticism shaped our modern day world. His ideas and writings are both important and honestly confusing. Have you ever wanted to learn about this crucial man but felt overwhelmed by the number of books on the subject? Have you tried to read dry Wikipedia articles on the “Forms” or the “Philosopher King” which soon made your eyeballs glaze over? Do you simply not care that much about Plato to commit a lot of time in dissecting his complicated beliefs? 

The Tackle the Library series takes the top 5 books on a subject and turns them into a cohesive story that is not only interesting to read but highly informative. Plato is one of the greatest philosophers of all time and is worth learning about because he attempted to understand topics which impact our everyday life: ethics, desire, virtue, wisdom, love, politics, and purpose to name a few. This book makes nonfiction a painless process – no other text naturally explains the background, the evolution, the application, the history, and the paradoxes of Plato’s philosophy in a way that keeps the pages turning. Stop staring at that dusty shelf of nonfiction texts in the library and crack open a book that you’ll actually want to read.

If your curiosity is piqued, please give this book a try. It will take you a couple hours to finish and you will gain an entirely new understanding of the world. Just like my last book, We’re all Chihuahuas, I am having a special weekend sale where you can download it for free. Please click this link or any link you see on this page to download. For the next three days, I will post the first three chapters as a thank you to my readers. I hope you enjoy and gain something from the experience.

Without further adieu…

Chapter 1 – The Cave

“The beginning is the most important
part of the work.” – Plato

The path seems to meander in the distance and turn hazy in spots from shimmers of light-reflected heat. You’re on a hiking trail and slowly ascending a steep hillside during the peak days of summer – magnificent in beauty but sweltering in humidity. A quick glance off trail reveals a shaded spot and a possible resting place before the final push upwards. Sitting under the shade, you set your bag down and notice a small opening. It is a hole that emits cold air – what appears to be the entry to a natural cave. After an arduous dig, the gap widens to a large opening that teases the curiosity. Slowly you descend until your eyes adjust and all of the surroundings become discernible; this is no ordinary cave but rather one with a group of mystified inhabitants staring at a particular wall. These inhabitants were born in the cave and were forced, since birth, to watch the shapes and figures on the stone – created by the tiny holes of light behind them. They believe these shadows are actual objects and there is no more to the world than what is observed on that slimy edifice. You tap a few on the shoulder and break the spell of their imprisonment. You turn them towards the light source and show how the images are created; they are stunned and cannot believe that their reality was just a mirage.

Exalted in your good deeds, you try to lead them further out of the cave. Surprisingly though, you see the inhabitants turn back to their familiar wall and continue in their most comfortable state – ignorance. The truth is too much for them, and they prefer to look at the shadows instead of understanding their outer and inner worlds. Frustrated, you grab a few by the arm and you force them out into the summer day. The cave dwellers’ eyes sear from the brightness and they are unable to see. You slowly get them use to their new reality, and eventually, they grow in their belief and reason of what the world entails. They go back to the cave and try to get more people – only a few more decide to step out – most remain steadfast to the wall. Having done your job, you continue on with your hike and immediately tap your phone and post about your experience. You get to the top of the hill and check the news, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and various other media outlets; looking up for a second you see the horizon and have a weird thought pop into your head – “Am I also looking at the wall of a cave?”

The idea of “The Cave” is one of Plato’s most relevant and endearing metaphors. In today’s world, we no doubt would have an easy time finding “cave dwellers” who propagate stupidity and selfishness – just imagine Plato reading the comment sections of an internet post. Plato was not pretentious in his view of humanity but hopeful that man could turn from ignorance and reach a better life through active reasoning; Plato wrote, “Apply yourself both now and in the next life. Without effort, you cannot be prosperous. Though the land be good, you cannot have an abundant crop without cultivation.” This cultivation begins with the belief that wisdom is something worth pursuing and that we can climb above our “sense perception” to a greater realm of understanding. Plato’s highest goal in life was not understanding the physical realities of the world – which our cave eyes could quickly ascertain – but rather the light source itself. The sun in the Cave metaphor is the source of all things good in this life: virtue, happiness, love, justice, courage, beauty, and loyalty are a few examples of the “goodness.” Plato wanted to understand a universal standard for the “Good” and a level of knowledge which would allow us to fully grasp our inner self – ultimately leading to a greater appreciation of life.

Plato made it clear that most people will never leave the wall in the cave and few will cross over the threshold of understanding the highest truths. The journey out of the cave is a lifelong process and I wanted to give the ascent my best shot. Like Bilbo Baggins exiting the Shire, I soon realized that my path towards truth was not an easy road and not a solitary pursuit. To understand Plato, I enlisted the help of others and decided to read the top five books on the subject: Plato: Complete Works – edited by John M. Cooper, Plato’s Ethics by Terence Irwin, Preface to Plato by Eric Havelock, Plato: The Man and His Work by A.E. Taylor, and The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman. These books were challenging and entailed 4,000 pages of cave-exiting illumination. My eyes are now turned from the wall and it is my job to help you understand how beliefs morph into knowledge and how knowledge morphs into wisdom. We will climb through the mountains of Plato’s philosophy and cover subjects which have perplexed humanity since the beginning of time: the soul, desire, virtue, wisdom, love, politics, and purpose. Plato lived over 2,400 years ago, but his teachings seem more relevant today than any other time in history – our world sinking further into a “virtual” reality. Ultimately, we study Plato to open up our perspective of our inner self and our humanity so that we can live a better existence and help others to cross over the bridge of ignorance. So let’s turn our heads from the wall and take a step towards the light – let’s TACKLE THE LIBRARY.

Chapter 2 – Dead Poets Society

“Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.” – Plato

The streets of Athens bustled with all sorts of people going about their daily tasks: traders selling goods in the market, toga-wearing statesman negotiating policies in the corridors, crowds listening to poets animate the past, and intellectuals discussing the solutions to life’s most significant problems. Athens was the epicenter of Greek philosophy during the life of Plato. To fully appreciate the Greece of Plato we must go back centuries before his birth to understand why philosophy was even a topic of consideration. Three centuries before baby Plato even knew what a cave was, there was a famous poet named Homer. Homer is the author of the Greek epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which were myths that encompassed the journeys of countless well-known characters: Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Ares, etc. These poems, for hundreds of years, were transmitted through oral memorization; Greeks passed down their entire culture through the use of poets. These poets were not the finger-snapping goatee poets of our modern age but rather an odd amalgamation of trades – “The poet was in the first instance society’s scribe and scholar and jurist and only in a secondary sense its artist and showman.[1]“ Poetry was used as the primary tool for educating individuals and the process of memorization usually entailed music, body movement, rhythm, and regular recitations among groups.[2] The poems focused on actions and events involving characters that could easily be remembered by the listener – the student’s job “…was not to form individual and unique convictions but to retain tenaciously a precious hoard of exemplars. These exemplars of tradition made a student’s mental condition, though not his character…one of passivity, of surrender…”[3] There was no separation of self in the tradition of oral poetry because the student had to accept the content through group recitation to continue seamless memorization. This “group” identity spread throughout the entire culture and was the psychological zeitgeist when the initial philosophers began to think outside the box.

The oral culture of Greece began to change in the 8th century with the advent of the Phoenician alphabet – an improvement over rudimentary forms of syllabic symbols which were used before this time.[4] With this complex alphabet, artists, scholars, and the first-philosophers started recording entirely new information outside the usual confines of group memorization. The first works were primarily kept in a poetic form, but the famous author Hesiod changed this by using the alphabet for cataloging detailed information.[5] Writing allowed men to take a step back from the “passivity” of oral tradition and begin to think of abstract ideas for the first time – “As it did this, the conception of ‘me thinking about Achilles’ rather than ‘me identifying with Achilles’ was born.”[6] Finally, intellectuals could escape the restrictions of memorization and use ideas that could only be relayed through text – “man in his new inner isolation confronts the phenomenon of his own autonomous personality and accepts it.”[7]

“The Greek ego in order to achieve that kind of cultural experience which after Plato became possible and then normal must stop identifying itself successively with a whole series of polymorphic vivid narrative situations; must stop re-enacting the whole scale of the emotions, of challenge, and of love, and hate and fear and despair and joy, in which the characters of epic become involved. It must stop splitting itself up into an endless series of moods. It must separate itself out and by an effort of sheer will must rally itself to the point where it can say ‘I am,’ an autonomous little universe of my own, able to speak, think and act in independence of what I happen to remember.’ This amounts to accepting the premise that there is a ‘me,’ a ‘self,’ a ‘soul,’ a consciousness which is self-governing and which discovers the reason for action in itself rather than in imitation of the poetic experience.”[8]

The act of writing allowed the early philosophers to look into their inner selves and question the very state of consciousness. Instead of identifying with events and characters from poems, intellectuals were beginning to construct views of individual “thought” about those events and characters. A framework of abstract language was needed for this new understanding of the “self” and words enabled thinkers to understand the different attributes of “knowledge.”

This newfound journey into knowledge required the first philosophers to search for absolute definitions. There was a push to understand the autonomous person as “subject” and how that subject interacted with various abstract objects. The familiar Homeric Epic was full of contradictions which didn’t provide any working definitions – “…Agamemnon is noble at one point and base at another, or the Greeks were at one point are twice as strong as the Trojans and at another point are half as strong.”[9] This made it impossible to connect the “subject” with any solid relationship that would be unchanging. To truly understand the “self” and the world as a whole, philosophers began to pursue abstract ideas that were steadfast. These desires for the absolute eventually led to the vocabulary and syntax of equations, laws, formulas, and topics outside time;[10] through trial and error, the Greek mind engendered ideas of the Right, the Good, the Pleasurable, the Expedient, the Natural, and the Conventional.[11] For three hundred years, the first philosophers worked to form the tools of language to understand these new ideas better. After three centuries, it was time for a teacher to take these tools of mental power and forge them into an all-encompassing philosophy; a philosophy which focused on consistency and a higher form of objects. By the mid-fifth century, one man, in particular, walked the streets of Athens and grasped the true power of the “psychological and linguistic consequences” of his philosophical forefathers.[12] This eccentric man organized the abstract tool shed and pushed for a methodical understanding of the theoretical to attain true wisdom. We care about this man in particular because he is the main character in Plato’s writings and Plato’s one-time mentor – Socrates.

Chapter 3 – A Plane in the Horizon

“An honest man is always a child.” – Socrates

In a sense, this book should not be titled Plato, but rather Plato – The Student of Socrates. Most scholars divide Plato’s writings into three distinct periods: the Early, Middle, and Late Dialogues. [i] These divisions are not a hard and fast rule for understanding Plato, but they do follow a philosophical evolution. The Early Dialogues were primarily written through the historical figure of Socrates – whose original ideas formed the bedrock of Plato’s budding philosophy.[ii] Plato is the main reason we know about Socrates’ teaching because it was still uncommon at the time to record lessons and most pupils simply listened – a holdover from the oral traditions of the past. Socrates believed that “dialogue” was the best way to achieve understanding and knowledge; Plato wrote in a dialogue format to mimic the small question-and-answer circles of intellectual Athenian society.[iii] The age of Socrates saw an explosion of professionals who had supposed “wisdom.” These individuals were called Sophists, and they would charge men for the ability to acquire special knowledge. The Sophists all had different beliefs and different theories on how to achieve the optimal life. Socrates was the polar opposite to these Sophists because he did not sell his knowledge – paradoxically he stated he had no knowledge to give. Socrates only believed in the power of reason and that truth was never an individual possession – true revelation came from interactive questioning.[iv] Not one teacher or author had all the wisdom of the world and Socrates heartily disliked writing as a form of static information – “Accordingly, no book can actually embody knowledge of anything of philosophical importance; only a mind can do that, since only a mind can have this capacity to interpret and reinterpret its own understanding.”[v] Plato did his best to record Socrates’ wisdom through dialogue so that readers could come to their own conclusion; this is also why Plato never appears in his early writings – not wanting to claim any personal “truth.”

It is ironic that Socrates detested the written word when it was the written word that allowed Greeks to think about consciousness in the first place. Plato eventually moved on from purely “Socratic” philosophy – the Middle and Late Dialogues contained most of the philosophy which we now identify with Plato. Nevertheless, the Early Dialogues shaped the foundation for our understanding of virtue, the soul, wisdom, and the absolute forms of objects, all of which were pursued before the time of Socrates. What distinguishes Socrates most from his contemporaries is his sheer love of wisdom. He didn’t desire money, fame, or status; wisdom was the ultimate goal and Socrates spent his life teaching others that they did not truly understand their firmly held beliefs. He would regularly go up to prominent citizens and ask them about virtue, the soul, or even love. Each time Socrates had a dialogue, the person who thought himself wise ultimately left feigning ignorance.[vi] Sometimes, when knowledgeable people get corrected in a conversation, they get mad and seek revenge as if knowledge was a game. Targeted payback may materialize in a future argument or maybe a Facebook comment – usually harmless and uneventful; this was not the case for Socrates because he pissed off one too many “wise” Athenians. People were sick of the “know it all” who persisted in highlighting ignorance – they ended up accusing Socrates of corrupting the youth and sentenced him to death for his misdeeds.[vii] It was at this trial where Plato in the Apology recorded Socrates’ most endearing praise for the occupation of philosophy – “…the unexamined life is not worth living….”[viii] Philosophy for Socrates was not just a hobby or an impracticable set of beliefs but rather the means of living the best possible life. He believed himself to be a midwife of thoughts – “… he has great skill in assisting at the birth of a younger man’s thoughts, and in discerning whether they are healthy and well-formed or sickly and misshapen.”[ix] If one could not accurately understand the roots of happiness, justice, bravery, or the virtues as a whole, how could one lead a positive existence? In the Phaedo, Socrates professes that he would sooner be killed unjustly than give up philosophy because the latter would be the equivalent to death. [x]

Socrates would go on to become a philosophical martyr and inspire his star pupil Plato to continue the lifelong pursuit of wisdom. Without Socrates, there would be no Plato and many other classical philosophers who took up his torch after his execution. The philosophy of Socrates forms the heart of Plato’s future work and helps us understand the reasons behind Plato’s ultimate goals of defining the abstract. Socrates taught Plato to always question and identify the paradoxes of this life – not to end in failure but rather to push past ostensible answers towards a higher level of thinking.[xi] To better understand this high-minded goal, think of wisdom as a vintage WWII plane flying through the air. You want to get a better glimpse at it, so you start to walk and then you run. Eventually, you use reason and ingenuity to go faster and find the best vantage point. The plane is always in the horizon, and you fail to reach its actual source. The effort, however, is worthwhile because you are able to witness something spectacular and along the way you acquired new tools for navigating the world; especially compared to the people straining their vision and not moving at all. Now that you understand the background and purpose of Plato’s predecessors, it is possible to follow his philosophy and his motivation for pushing onwards to the horizon of wisdom. In the following chapters, we’ll focus on Plato’s most prominent pillars of thought which were expanded upon from Socrates’ own views; our starting point begins with the metaphysical: the Soul, the necessary component of our consciousness.

Chapter 1

 1.Plato: Complete Works edited by John M. Cooper (1997)

2.Plato’s Ethics by Terence Irwin (1995)

3.Preface to Plato by Eric Havelock (1963)

4.Plato: The Man and His Work by A.E. Taylor (1926) (Dover Edition 2001)

5.The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman (2013)

 Chapter 2

 [1] Preface to Plato – Pg 94

[2] Preface to Plato – Pg 198

[3] Preface to Plato – Pg 199

[4] Preface to Plato – Pg IX

[5] Preface to Plato – Pg 295

[6] Preface to Plato – Pg 209

[7] Preface to Plato – Pg 210

[8] Preface to Plato – Pg 200

[9] Preface to Plato – Pg 247

[10] Preface to Plato – Pg 259

[11] Preface to Plato – Pg 303

[12] Preface to Plato – Pg 302

Chapter 3

[i] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XII

[ii] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XVI

[iii] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XVIII

[iv] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XIX

[v] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XX

[vi] Plato’s Ethics – Pg 278

[vii] Plato : Complete Works – Pg 37

[viii] Plato: Complete Works – Pg 33

[ix] Plato The Man and His Work – Pg 324

[x] Plato: Complete Works – Pg 50

[xi] Plato’s Ethics – Pg 7

 

 

12 Rules for Life

I’m trying to get back into psychology books after my excessively long venture with the American Presidents. This blog aims to document my journey of reading Philosophy, History, Psychology, and the Classics. This week I am posting about an excellent book –  which in a way covers all those categories. The book is 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson. Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. I thoroughly enjoyed this book because it is written in a balanced manner – both conservatives and liberals find it hard to argue against these tips. Peterson writes almost like a philosopher and these 12 rules are backed up with plenty of metaphysical pondering – a big reason you should read it for yourself. Below are the 12 rules to life.

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1. Stand up straight with your shoulders straight

Try to carry yourself in a confident manner that doesn’t allow people to take advantage of you. Life is hard as it is – feeling mentally and physically slouched makes things worse – so fake it until you make it.

2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

Why do we take care of our loved ones but fail to take care of ourselves? Self care is not selfish.

3. Befriend people who want the best for you 

Iron sharpens iron. We need people in our lives that make us better. Stray from being a hero and don’t try to fix everyone – dysfunction many times wins over in a relationship.

4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not the useless person you are today

Don’t compare yourself to others because there will always be someone better. Instead compare your current self to your former self. Are you improving or stagnant?

5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

Children need discipline and are born with inherent aggression. Adults need to guide children and teach them how to function in society. Don’t let your kids control you because you lack discipline – they will grow up to be terrible adults.

6. Set your house in order before you criticise the world

Before questioning the problems of the world get your own problems in order. We aren’t perfect so stop expecting life to always go your way.

7. Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient

Life is all about delayed gratification. The things that take the most sacrifice are the most meaningful.

8. Tell the truth. Or at least don’t lie

Lies lead to problems in the psyche and the soul. Don’t lie because it just causes more issues in the future. Similar to the idea of rule number 7.

9. Assume the person you are listening to knows something you don’t

Seek first to understand and remember the wisdom of Socrates – “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”

10. Be precise in your speech

Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t be vague when a problem arises. Confront issues head on and be truthful to yourself.

11. Do not bother children while they are skateboarding

Let men be men and girls be girls. There are biological differences between the sexes which should be fostered and not suppressed. Overprotecting children is not a form of love.

12. Pet a cat when you encounter one in the street

Life is tough, and we can’t explain away our suffering. If you see a cat in the street pet it and – experience for a second – the mystery of life.

Which is your favorite rule? I particularly like rule number 6. If we practiced just half of these rules daily, I’m sure we would be happier and healthier. 

US Grant – America’s Unlikely Hero – Part 1

A long time ago, my good friend Chuck asked me an interesting question. “Jon do you have a favorite author that writes like a fine wine or a three-star Michelin restaurant? I honestly had no answer to this detailed inquiry. At that time I was just starting on my journey of reading, and I couldn’t distinguish an average author from a great author. My palate was not entirely up to par, and my neural taste buds were still in an immature state. I finally have an answer for my friend after being exposed to so many different writing styles – the author Ron Chernow. Chernow writes biographies in such a detailed way that the reader feels like a fly on the wall of history. He is most famous for his book on Alexander Hamilton which became a hit Broadway play and his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on George Washington.

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His books regularly make appearances on the New York Times bestseller list even though they are on antiquated topics and extremely large in breadth. I picked up his most recent book Grant, which is 1100 pages and a fascinating tale of 19th-century history. I would argue that any person who dislikes history would love this book and find newfound interests. Think of Chernow as a gourmet chef and Ulysses S. Grant as a prized but unknown ingredient. Through excellent writing, Grant’s powerful life hits you in the mouth like Emeril Lagasse throwing spice into a hot skillet.

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US Grant was born in Ohio on April 22, 1822. His father was a tanner and he grew up as a shy boy underneath an outspoken father and overly standoffish mother. Grant was described as silent, modest, respectful of women, and courageous against neighborhood bullies. From a young age, he stood up for the underdog and spoke few words of malice towards even his most ardent detractors. He was sent off to West Point by chance since a cadet was kicked out at the same time Grant’s father requested his son’s admittance. While at West Point, Grant excelled at horsemanship but was no star pupil. He did excel at mathematics, but his career in the military did not look promising. Upon graduation, he was stationed in Missouri where Grant met his future wife Julia Dent and his future Confederate father-in-law Colonel Dent.

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During this time, America entered into war with Mexico and Grant was jettisoned into combat – an environment he excelled in. He served as a logistics specialist and honed critical military strategies during this conflict. Grant also learned something even more indispensable while in Mexico: the characteristics of the future generals of the Confederacy. Upon the completion of hostilities, Grant was stationed in the burgeoning gold rush town of San Francisco and Northern California. This was a difficult time for Grant because he missed his new wife and his family. He took to drink and was reprimanded for drinking by a persnickety leader – eventually leading to resignation and a marred reputation for the rest of his life. Grant did have a drinking problem, but it never got in the way of his leadership. If it had, he would not have achieved his remarkable feats after leaving the military in 1854.

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Civilian life was hard for Grant and he struggled to find his place in society. At one point he was so economically distraught he had to pawn his watch for Christmas presents and take a job at his Dad’s tannery store as a simple clerk. He walked around Galena, Illinois with his old military jacket and an unkempt beard – most people astonished to see his state of poverty. Compounding his problems, both his Father and Father-in-Law saw him as a failure and regularly forced their views upon him as if he were a child. He was a beaten man during this time, and his woes continued to worsen after his former California business speculations soured; these speculations were undertaken because Grant overly trusted acquaintances and people in general.

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He had such high integrity for himself that he couldn’t understand how other people could be cruel in their business dealings. When all seemed lost in Grant’s life, the most significant conflict in American history broke out – the Civil War. As if awakened by a jolt of electricity, Grant felt it was his chance to use his former military talents and serve the Union. The only problem was that no one wanted him because of his previous drunkenness and his paltry political connections. Not receiving any worthy commissions, Grant decided he would bake bread for the soldiers. Just before applying for this culinary position, fate opened up her doors. To be continued…Part 2 next week.

The friend in my adversity I shall always cherish most. I can better trust those who helped to relieve the gloom of my dark hours than those who are so ready to enjoy with me the sunshine of my prosperity.
– Ulysses S. Grant

The Last Founding Father vs. Donald Trump

It seems to be another hectic week for our President – Donald Trump. A government shut down never looks good for the leader of the government. I heard this news from my Dad who was quite upset – not at Donald Trump – but at Democrats. See, my Dad is not an anomaly. Whenever our views are attacked, our elephant instincts kick in. We “react” first and “rationalize” later – usually, that rationalization is far from sensical. My Dad and I like to bump chests politically, but in the end, we always just sit on the couch and watch sports. However, our discussions about politics are not zero-sum gains. Trying to understand another person’s views takes time, patience, and empathy. My Dad and I have learned a lot from each other and our conversations keep getting more civil – our tandem elephants are becoming more docile.

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As an extension of last week’s post about James Madison, I am going to further question what it means to be “presidential.” Time will tell how Trump does over the next years but how can we truly judge his performance? We need to know how other Presidents have done in the past so we can have rationale conversations into the future. To achieve this goal, I am reading every US President’s biography and writing about them for your enjoyment – here is a list of all the previous posts: George Washington, John Adams (coming next week), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover. This week I read about America’s fifth president – James Monroe – The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger.

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James Monroe was the last founding father to be President and was actually born shortly before the American Revolution in 1758. Monroe was raised in Virginia, but unlike Washington, Jefferson, or Madison he did not own substantial plantation property. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was actually with Washington in the Battle of Trenton when the famous crossing of the Deleware River occurred; he was wounded in the battle but eventually recovered. The military at the time had a glut of officers, so Monroe was never able to receive a position of command. Upon National Independence, he took up law to begin supporting himself and his wife, Elizabeth Monroe.

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Throughout this time, Monroe was mentored by a fellow Virginian – Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson pushed Monroe to join him in politics and Monroe initially split his time between law and the Virginian House of Delegates. He would go on to serve in the Congress of the Confederation and help ratify Virginia’s Constitution. His political career took off when he became Ambassador to France during the French Revolution, Ambassador to Britain and Minister to Spain – negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, land treaties, and peace negotiations while overseas. He would go on to be the Governor of Virgina for four terms, US Secretary of State, and US Secretary of War. While Secretary of War, he virtually ran the government because Madison was inept during that period of conflict. He would go on to be the most popular President since George Washington.

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Monroe committed over 40 years of his life to public service and served in more public posts than any American in history. While President, he pushed for Western expansion and acquired more land from the Spanish in modern-day Florida. He protected American interests at a time in history when European powers could quickly take advantage of the young country. The Monroe Doctrine was a masterpiece of diplomacy for the Western Hemisphere and allowed independence for myriad nations in Central and South America. Monroe was described by friends and foes alike as having plain and gentle manners. He was a bold and robust leader in times of war and peace and fought for the Bill of Rights and against secrecy rules in Congress – opening the halls of Government for the first time in history.

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Monroe established the first state-supported public schools and pushed the development of public roads and canals to further commerce. Monroe was secretly an excellent President who accomplished more than I had ever thought. He transformed a fragile nation into a glorious empire – by making the United States impregnable to attack and rich in natural resources. He allowed Americans to expand westward and gain a democratic vote through the ownership of land; his Presidency saw the largest redistribution of wealth in the annals of history. Monroe was so popular that there were no political parties during his presidency; he was able to bring people together and put his country first. James Monroe indeed achieved “presidential” status during his Presidency – unfortunately, Trump is nowhere close to his level at this point…but I’m hoping he will pull through.

The Forgotten Genocide

I found myself last night eating a double-decker plate of apple pie with an unfortunate amount of whip-cream on top. While feasting, I thought about how thankful I was to be able to shove my face with food. Have you ever been without food before? Not like a diet or a 3 pm snack type of hunger; the kind of hunger where there is no escape and no relief to the pain of emptiness. I am thankful this holiday weekend that God has blessed my family with the polar opposite of that painful state. Unfortunately, there are individuals around the world who suffer from hunger on a daily basis – over 796 million people lack enough sustenance to lead a healthy lifestyle (foodaidfoundation.org). That statistic is doubly disheartening with the fact that the world wastes one-third of all food production each year – 1.3 billion tons (fao.org).

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I bring up hunger specifically because I just finished a book that details one of the worst genocides in our modern history – Not Even My Name: A True Story by Thea Halo. This genocide took place between 1913 and 1922 against the Christian ethnic groups of Turkey – Armenians, Assyrians, Pontic Greeks. In total, the Turkish government killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, 300,000 Assyrians, and 500,000 Greeks through blatant murder and death marches. The book pointedly tells the story of Sano Halo – a Pontic Greek – who experienced these events and actually escaped with her life to America. As you’ll read, the Turkish authorities were ruthless against Halo’s family and used hunger as their principal weapon.

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The causes of this genocide are myriad, but one of the most significant catalysts was the Ottoman Empire’s fall during World War I. The Ottoman’s were prolific during the medieval ages but slowly declined by the 19th century – their central territory located in modern-day Turkey. At the turn of the 20th century, the Turkish government began changes in their state that aimed to lift up Turks and bring down historic ethnic groups located in the country. These “reforms” mixed with defeats in WWI to form a true hatred for everything “Western”; leading to the systemic extermination of millions of people to purify the decaying Turkish state and bring it back to its once glorious Ottoman apex. The government forced these “foreigners” – who historically lived in the area for thousands of years – into work camps, deportation marches, and mass graves.

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Sano Halo was 10 around the time the Turks came to her village and told her family to prepare to leave the next day. With guns pointed at their heads, they abandoned all their possessions, their livelihood, and their history. They were forced to march all day without breaks for food or water. The Turkish guards would beat them if they took a break or begged for food from local villages. Sano would end up marching 6 months straight – her younger siblings all died from hunger during that time. Eventually, even her mother died of exhaustion and Sano was forced to live with a Turkish family as a maid so she could have regular food.

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Sano was poorly treated by this family and eventually ran away. She was ultimately taken in by a family friend who arranged her marriage to an Assyrian man from America. She was able to reach Ellis Island and eventually had a happy family of 10 children. Sano was the unfortunate exception to this horrific story, and the Turkish government did their best to cover up its despicable deeds. In the aftermath of the genocide, textbook producers were paid by the Turkish government to exclude their actions and paint the country as a modernized beacon of the middle-east. This cover-up is one of the reasons Hitler felt so empowered to begin his own genocide…

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
-Adolf Hitler 1939

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Sadly, this Holocaust is still seldom recognized, and the Turkish government refuses to officially refer to it as a “genocide.” However, the genocide and death march was crystal clear for Sano, and thankfully her story was recorded so we can honor her family by spreading this knowledge. I challenge you this Thanksgiving weekend to think about how hunger can destroy and think about how blessed you are have not only food but a place to call “home.” Spread this message and help others learn this history. Not only will it help us prevent another genocide but it will help us be more thankful for the blessings we take for granted each and every day.

Further movies and books on this period in history…

Aghet: A Genocide (Documentary)

Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial, and Depiction (Documentary)

The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (Book)

1% Christian History

My old college roommate and I started a tradition last year. Each Christmas, we buy each other a book that we think would be beneficial reading. I didn’t know what to expect from my greasy friend but waited patiently for my gift to arrive. One day, I walked up to my porch and saw a package that looked like a wrapped encyclopedia. I wasn’t too far off; my dirtbag roommate bought me a 1000 page book on the history of Christianity – Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This book loomed over me all year and I kept putting off what seemed like a Sisyphean task. By the end, it took me about 50 hours spread over a month.

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Christian history is difficult because it isn’t like normal history – it is a weird dance of facts, figures, and eternity. Having eternity involved complicates everything because you either have to take the Thomas Jefferson route and get rid of all supernatural events or take the Jack Van Impe route and prepare for the apocalypse. These two extremes frame the gamut of Christian beliefs and preface why Christian history is one continuous story of division. From the moment Jesus died on the cross, his disciples went out and preached the Gospel – within a generation, groups were already disagreeing on the intricacies of theology. The Christian church as we know it today is like a box of peanut-brittle that has been shaken by a two-year-old. Originally there was one solid chunk but now there are thousands of variant morsels. This post will only focus on one tiny but very important nugget of Christian history – as the title surmises, this book could fill 99 more blogs.

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The 1% we will cover is one of the most important moments in the Christian church – the Chalcedonian Schism. The Council of Chalcedon met from October 8th to November 9th in the year 451 AD. This Council was called by the Roman Emperor Marcian as an ecumenical meeting for all the important churches at the time – the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Oriental Orthodox. At this point in history, the Christian church needed to clarify theological doctrine and adjust the power roles of western and eastern leaders. The main reason for this meeting was to clarify the true nature of Jesus.

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How could Jesus be both God and man? Before the meeting, there were groups who believed Jesus appeared on earth as a man disguised as God (Docetism) while other groups believed Jesus was, in reality, a normal man chosen by God (Adoptionism). These beliefs led to Nestorianism (which viewed Christ as having some mixture of divine and human elements) and Eutychianism (which viewed Christ’s divinity as completely consuming his humanity like a drop of vinegar in the ocean).

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The Council of Chalcedon sided with a watered down Nestorian view which became known as Dyophysitism – which states that Christ is one person in two natures – “distinctively” man and God in one. This led to the creation of Miaphysitism which held the belief that Christ is one nature and that nature has “inseparable” components of man and God. Confused yet? Again, Dyophysitism believes that Christ is one person with two separate natures while Miaphysitism believes that Christ is one nature which is both divine and human.

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This Dyophysitism decision at the council was agreed upon by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, the Oriental Church broke off from this definition and became known as Non-Chalcedonian. The Oriental Church includes the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. This schism had drastic effects on the eastern church as a whole by shifting power to the west and decreasing overall cooperation. This separation was one variable that allowed the new religion of Islam to take over eastern strongholds of Christianity; the west would not realize their mistakes until the first crusades 600 years later.

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Our current world is shaped by the decisions at this council: The politics of countries, the religious makeup in the Middle East, and the West’s ignorance of the Oriental Church. So what can we learn from the Council of Chalcedon? One huge lesson is that Christianity can come in many different flavors, shapes, and sizes. Christians shouldn’t be divided into little pieces of peanut brittle. Christians should work together under one absolute truth – Jesus is the son of God who died for our sins so we can have eternal life and spread His message of grace; in a world still divided, we need to focus on that point more than ever. Don’t get hung up on the details and throw your hands in the air thinking religion is stupid. If you focus on loving others, you will obtain the other 99%. 

 

Flint, MI – The Best City in America

Many of you know this already but for those who don’t…I live in Flint, MI. Yes, pause for gasps of wonderment but wait a second before you do a Google search for the “most dangerous cities in America.” Flint is actually not that bad of a place to live in. Sure we have lead in our water and crime in our streets. Sure we have decaying roads and decaying homes. Sure we have Michael Moore and Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield). But Flint is actually on the up and up. We have a Red Lobster and an Olive Garden. There is a mall that has cute puppies and free samples of Chinese food. And most importantly, Flint has citizens who participate in nonfiction book clubs.

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In all seriousness though, I enjoy living in Flint most of the time, and the city is in the progress of reinventing itself. So, as an ode to the Vehicle City, my feminist- librarian book club decided to read a book about Flint – Tear-Down: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young. This is an account of a former Flintoid trying to reunite with his childhood city after living in San Francisco for the past decade. The memoir, for me at least, was a great look at the history of Flint and how its past is just as complicated as its future trajectory. 

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It is believed that Flint was formerly called Pewonigowink, which translated to “place of flints.” The area was originally a trading hub for furs and in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French author of Democracy in America, visited Flint. The fur trade was eventually surpassed by the lumber business which blossomed in the city from 1855 to 1880. At the peak of the lumber industry, there was a significant need for transporting logs – this led to Flint’s next big industry – carriages. By the turn of the century, Flint was producing 150,000 carriages, making it the largest carriage producer in America and most likely the world.

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One of these carriage makers was Billy Durant who ended up investing heavily in a new burgeoning car company called Buick – he would eventually combine Buick with various other automakers and parts companies to form General Motors in 1908; he then went on to create Chevrolet in 1911. The rest is history – the automobile became an American necessity, and Flint provided that dream for millions of people. By 1955, Flint peaked with a population of 200,000 people and had one of the highest per capita incomes in the world at the time. That year the city celebrated its centennial parade that featured GMs 50 millionth car – a gold trimmed 55′ chevy. Flint was the poster child of manufacturing potential and the middle class – the model city of the future.

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Everything seemed to go to crap in 1973 with the OPEC oil embargo that brought higher gas prices, fuel shortages, and lines at service stations. GM, at this time, was at near peak employment in Flint but soon began layoffs after the crisis. This led to an unstoppable pattern which culminated in the 80’s and early 90’s with GM closing factories like Buick City which employed nearly 30,000 people. At its pinnacle, GM employed 80,000 Flintoids, after the closures, less than 10,000 remained. Today, the population of Flint is half of its 1955 zenith – with around 100,000 inhabitants. This dramatic loss of jobs and population led to increases in crime and infrastructure breakdown. In 2016, Flint had the highest vacant home rate in America  (source).

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Flint today is struggling with a tax base which is forcing the city to consolidate police, firefighters, parks, school buildings, and almost every public service imaginable. Funds were even cut on treating the drinking water – causing lead to leach from aging pipes and a multi-billion dollar public health crisis. Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with Flint, but the people that still live here are resilient and make it a better place to live in every day. Here are some recent examples: the city will be replacing all lead service lines (funding is already secured), the crime rate is no longer one of the highest in the country, and abandoned homes are regularly being removed to decrease blight. Is Flint, MI the best city in America? No. But in my opinion, it is far from the worst, and I am proud to call it my home. Flint shaped America, and it is compelling to live in a place with not just a significant history but also a promising future.

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America’s Jello War

Have you ever made Jello? The process is pretty simple: mix jello packet with water, place in molds, let set. The setting process is critical – if you jump for the treat too soon it will lack any firmness and wiggle; you’ll basically bite into thick fruit punch. Jello is an excellent metaphor for America during the first years of its nationhood. After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, America was far from the firm consistency of Jello; there were many forces which wanted to prevent the setting process.

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Domestic and international threats were constantly trying to undermine the Constitution and the office of the presidency. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, was a famous advocate for a hybrid-monarchy and wanted America to mirror components of British government. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson was constantly paranoid that a King would take over the states or that the New England colonies would secede to the Brits. We look back at those years with 20/20 hindsight but people were freaking out about the state of their “Jello-Nation.” So when did the Jello finally set?

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The United States really didn’t become a unified nation until the War of 1812 – America’s Jello War; the War of 1812 is always skimmed over in History Class but it was the war that gave America its familiar consistency. To learn more about this important-congealing period, I read 1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman.

In the years that led up to 1812, America was in a constant struggle with Britain over their policy of “Impressment.” Impressment was the policy of British ships stopping vessels at sea in order to search them for British citizens – the captured Brits would be forced into military service. America didn’t like being pushed around on the seas and especially didn’t like when American citizens were unjustly impressed to serve the Royal Navy – more than 10,000 by 1812. Added to these grievances, the British restricted international trade as a way to counter Napoleonic France – this was ruinous for American exports.

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The seas were foaming with anger between the two countries but the problems also extended to the terra firma. America was trying to expand westward but the British were slow to exit forts which were lost during the American Revolution and were quick to help Native Americans fight for contested territory. These territory disputes were constant and many westerners were salivating for more land – Canada looked like a low hanging fruit. Everything came to a head in 1812 after impressment searches led to American vessels being militarily attacked – James Madison reluctantly declared war on Great Britain.

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The war was fought on land and sea. Battles took place along Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Saint Lawrence River, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the western frontier. Many battles were small skirmishes that pitted a weak American militia against a veteran British regiment; Native Americans many times joined the British or fought on their own. By the end of the war America had 35,000 troops compared to nearly 50,000 British troops with casualties of 2,200 and 1,100 respectively.  At the beginning of the war, many thought it would be simple to annex Canada, but after several failed attempts the American forces realized it would be much more difficult. The Americans and British kept swapping victories and the war seemed to be at a permanent stand still – the Americans were unorganized and the British were under resourced due to concurrent wars in Europe.

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James Madison had in theory the power of a united nation but in reality was a bystander to a conglomerate of individual states. Men were hard to recruit and funds were no where to be found – hence, the fighting kept puttering along with each nation only putting a toe into the cold water of  war. It all came to a head with the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 which saw for the first time support for the War by the New England states. This victory ended any thought of the British increasing their fleets in the Atlantic and became a rallying cry for the entire nation – Francis Scott Key would write the Star-Spangled Banner during the battle.

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A peace treaty was soon signed and America was reborn in the eyes of the world as a “real” nation that could hold its own. The War of 1812 birthed the national careers of two future presidents: William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. It stopped any talk of New England succession, led the way for the Monroe Doctrine, expedited westward expansion, increased federal power, and was the catalyst for the future sale of Alaska from Russia. After the War of 1812, the Jello Nation was set and molded. Or in the words of the then Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, to Thomas Jefferson…

“The people now have more general objects of attachment with which their pride and political opinions are connected. They are more American; they feel and act more as a nation and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby secured.”