Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Shakespeare, Scriptures, Smith, and a cast of thousands

Have you ever heard that old bit of wisdom, something to the effect that the beating of a butterfly's wings in Madagascar can affect the weather in Kansas? When I first heard that, I couldn't help thinking that if an insect brandishing its wings in Madagascar influences weather in Kansas, just imagine what an elephant breaking wind in Uganda does for the climate in Missouri.

Anyway, the matter of this influencing that surrounds the discussion of a lot of things. I've come to the conclusion that when an author writes a long dissertation that a influences b, and he cites numerous sources and events to buttress his point, he probably is right: a does influence b.

The problem is, while a may influence b, there is a really good chance that b is also influenced by c, d, e, f, and g. Plus assorted butterfly wingbeats and random elephant farts. It's largely a matter of the individual investigator's focus--he's not saying c doesn't influence b, mind you, it's just that this isn't his personal interest, which is demonstrating to the world that a influences b.

You should always remember that when you read what someone has to say about what inspired the Framers as they crafted our United States Constitution.

Take the Bard of Avon. How much of a factor were the works of Shakespeare in the writing of the Constitution?

If you pick up a copy of Forrest McDonald's Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas Press, 1985)--hailed as "The best single volume on the origins of the Constitution" by a review quoted on the back cover--you might conclude that we have a very non-Shakespearean Constitution. Professor McDonald's 359 page book contains just two fleeting references to the great Elizabethan playwright. (By contrast, there is a 46 page chapter entitled "Systems of Political Economy" that dwells in depth on the role the work of economists such as Adam Smith and James Steuart had in shaping the world of the Framers.)

Ah, but now check out George Anastaplo's volume The Constitution of 1787: A Commentary (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989). He devotes an entire chapter to the Constitutional significance of Shakespeare, particularly The History Plays. On page 75, Anastaplo states, ""Shakespeare was (the author) who probably provided early Americans with a comprehensive moral and political account of things. They encountered in his plays an entertaining instructor in constitutional principles..."

Later Anastaplo gets down to specifics: "The History Plays, insofar as they address both the problem of what happens when rulers are not properly selected and the problem of what happens when rulers, however selected, do not conduct themselves properly, very much touch upon issues that should be evident to us as we examine the provisions in the Constitution for the Exectuive and for the Judiciary" (pp. 87-88). Anastaplo also wrote a book entitled The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce, and with a resume like that, it's no wonder he'd be enthralled with tying Shakespeare and the Constitution together.

But including one thing sometimes entails leaving another out. Near the beginning of his chapter on Shakespeare, Anastaplo advises, "When we wonder what it was that the Framers brought to their Constitution-making, we must remember the influence of the greatest English authors as well as the Bible" (p. 75). It seems a bit odd that he would bring up Scriptures at all, since the chapter doesn't take up the topic of Biblical influence at all and there are only a few references to the Bible in the whole 339 page book.

Of course, if you really want to read about how we have a Constitution heavily influenced by the Old and New Testaments, well, you can find that out there too. Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers by John Eidsmoe (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987) is an argument that religious leanings shaped the thoughts of the delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and the results are evident in the great document itself. For example, Eidsmoe notes that Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution, concerning the presentment of legislation to the executive, reads "If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it..." This reference to Sunday, Eidsmoe insists, is a part of the Ten Commandments written into our basic law--Exodus 20:8-10 admonishing: "But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God; in it thou shalt not do any work."

Cynic that I am, I might note that there are times I think Congress and the President don't do any work on days other than the sabbath, either.

The point is, I'm not criticizing McDonald for not closely examining Shakespeare's role in Constitutional thought, nor am I demeaning Anastaplo for not probing the Bible question more thoroughly, nor am I arguing that Eidsmoe spent too much time on religion in neglect of all else. Everyone who writes a book or article on the Constitution has the right to focus on whatever aspect of it interests him the most. I feel better for having read McDonald, Anastaplo, AND Eidsmoe.

But just remember this, especially if you are undertaking an examination of the Constitution for the first time: the men who wrote it were learned gentlemen who were influenced by a LOT of things. If you peruse only one or two sources of Constitutional thought, you'll miss a lot of theory because no one scholar covers everything.

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