For too long history was just the study of great men, but with the rise of intellectual history we have focused more on how people have changed their ideas over time. In another sense, studying history is about studying the struggle for power. The host of Portraits of Liberty, Paul Meany, joins the show to highlight historical thinkers who may not have been strictly libertarian, but argued for a freer world. Portraits of Liberty celebrates a broader historical libertarianism.
What is valuable about studying intellectual history? Why do certain philosophers get completely forgotten? What is the difference between tradition and truth?
00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is our colleague Paul Meany. He’s the Intellectual History Editor at libertarianism.org and host of the new podcast Portraits of Liberty. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Paul.
00:20 Paul Meany: Thanks for having me.
00:21 Aaron Ross Powell: What is Portraits of Liberty, and why when you decided you were going to host a new show for libertarianism.org did you choose to do this one?
00:31 Paul Meany: So I’ve always been very, very interested in history ever since I was about, I think, about eight years old and I really started properly reading about it because of video games like Age of Empires and Rome Total War. I got really into ancient history and medieval stuff. And it was brilliant. And I read so much about history, and it was always just these big battles and great leaders and kings and generals, I decided that that would be what I want to study for the rest of my life or whatever. I would be a historian. I decided then and there. And actually got to be one, so that’s pretty great. But the thing I realized as I got older was that it’s kind of weird. We just learn about all these generals and kings and battles, and we don’t really learn too much about the normal people in history too much or even a lot about the ideas.
01:13 Paul Meany: So when I got into college, I started reading much more about intellectual history, how people thought about things, why they changed their mind on so much, because when you look back into the past, there are some truly, truly bizarre beliefs that modern minds… You really can’t understand them whatsoever. And so I tried to figure out why they believed these things, but also how it came to change in the first place and how we have such a free world now, well, in comparison. How did this change? How did this ever happen? We went from being serfs who believed in divine monarchy to believing in elected representatives and democracy and whatnot. So I just thought that was the most interesting thing. So I decided that when I was going to host a podcast, it would be about people who pushed a vision of a freer world. And originally, this would just be cataloguing all the important libertarian thinkers, well, the most important ones, but I started to realize that that misses out on a lot of the other traditions.
02:05 Paul Meany: So you could talk about people like John Locke or John Stuart Mill but not that they’ve been done to death or anything, but there’s just so many other thinkers out there that come to similar conclusions but in so many different and unique ways. And I started to realize that there’s so many different ways to come to conclusion, like conclusions of a freer world. There’s not just one set way. You don’t have to just go through it, through property rights or just through it through natural rights. There’s so many different methods. And that’s kind of what Portraits of Liberty is about. It’s about exploring all those different ways people came to these conclusions. Now, a lot of people aren’t libertarians per se. They don’t believe in limited government always. Some of the people I cover are medieval people. They believe in divine monarchy and whatnot. But they come to different kinds of conclusions that can lend themselves to a freer world in the end. And so a lot of it was about… Talking about these underrated people who really went against the grain of their time and argued for really radical ideas.
02:58 Paul Meany: But today, they wouldn’t be so radical, ’cause what’s radical, it constantly changes. A hundred years ago, the ideas that were radical then are pretty normal and commonplace these days. And so I kinda wanted to celebrate those people who really pushed for a freer world even though they probably got a lot of ridicule a lot of the time. A lot of time, they had to educate themselves. They weren’t even allow to be educated, some people, especially women. And so it’s just about that, it’s about celebrating a broader kind of libertarianism, a broader kind of historical libertarianism.
03:24 Aaron Ross Powell: We’re going to talk a bit about some of those people that you’ve been exploring in the show. But I want to go back briefly to something you said when you said you started reading history, and it’s all the stories of generals and politicians and battles and nations conflicting with nations and so on. Why is that? I mean, that is the case. And I’ll say I’ve been… As part of my quarantine reading, I’ve been going back to reading, well, Durants’ Story of Civilization, which I know is probably… Real historians probably cringe at those books, but they’re beautifully written. And they’re a lot of fun. And one of the striking things about them is how much they’re not that standard story, right? They’re like… He seems uncompletely uninterested in the battles, and it’s all like, “Here’s the art, and here’s the ideas, and here’s the culture.” And it’s fascinating. And it seems weird that that doesn’t play more of a role in history education and typical history writing than we get right now, that it is all these generals and battles. Why is that? Why is the focus on those sorts of things?
04:28 Paul Meany: Well, for me, when I was young, it was ’cause I thought it was the coolest thing. So I thought military history was the coolest thing ever. But I can’t really explain why it is. Maybe because people think history is the study of great men, the big leaders of society and that’s… Yeah, you’re allowed to believe that if you want and all that. But there’s so much more to it. There’s so much more in living… Seeing how people lived their lives, how people changed their ideas. And that’s become more of a trend in recent times, especially with the rise of intellectual history. There’s a more focus on how people lived and what they… How their vocabularies worked and how they changed their mind on a lot of different things, how they went back sometimes and how they re‐appropriated different historical texts.
05:04 Paul Meany: But for a long time, it was really just the study of great men. And I can’t think of any clean answer to it but probably because that’s what the elites of the time wanted. The people… It was always that classic quote, “The victors write history.” That’s kind of true. A lot of the time, it was not only written by them, the victors, but also commissioned by them to look a certain way. And so when you read someone like Plutarch, for example, who wrote these biographies of great Greeks and Romans, there are always these great generals and politicians and leaders. It’s never really about the small guy, especially ’cause they had a lot of disdain for them. The aristocratic classes throughout history have always had a disdain for those beneath them. And so they looked down on it and don’t think that regular life is particularly important.
05:44 Trevor Burrus: When we’re talking about some of these political philosophers, although it’s kind of interesting to say political. It’s such a different world in some of these places where you have 13th century or 12th century, that even the state is different. So is it fair to sort of transplant some of these thinkers to modern times with sort of post‐Westphalian and Enlightenment states given that they lived in worlds that are hard to even comprehend the way that they viewed the power structures?
06:00 Paul Meany: Well, I think that the value in it is that you can see that no matter what kind of society that they lived in, there were always going to be people who would argue for these ideas no matter what. And there are… The world is very different now with the modern nation state, but there’s still people pushing back at the typical problems we’ve always seen before. Nothing really changes too much. A lot has changed, but there’s always these fundamental underlying problems of how we deal with power going back to the ancient times.
06:38 Trevor Burrus: So let’s start with one of the first ones that you’ve discussed. And it’s a fitting… It’s a fitting one, with Cato’s Letters, which is where Cato gets its namesake, it’s not Kato Kaelin from the OJ Simpson trial or even Cato the Younger or Cato the Elder, although that’s indirectly.
06:55 Aaron Ross Powell: Or the line of clothing stores.
06:56 Trevor Burrus: Or the line of clothing stores…
06:58 Aaron Ross Powell: Yes.
06:58 Trevor Burrus: That almost ripped off our logo.
07:00 Paul Meany: I saw that in Romania, there’s a clothing store called Cato.
07:02 Trevor Burrus: Yeah exactly, but let’s talk about Cato’s Letters. What were they, when were they written, who wrote them, what do they say?
07:08 Paul Meany: So Cato’s Letters are a collection of about 144 essays written in the London Journal from 1720 to 1723. And they are written by a person… Well, two people, Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard and they wrote under the pseudonym Cato. And they chose the name Cato because of Cato the Younger, who is a very famous Roman who fought against Julius Caesar and his tyranny. And his… What he’s most famous for is that Julius Caesar basically had won the civil war against the Roman Senate. He was about to win, he’s about to become dictator in perpetuity to some extent. And a very normal thing for Romans to do was to pardon their political opponents, because that way it shows how magnanimous you are, how accepting you and how you let everyone back into the fold and it makes it easier to surrender. But Cato had decided that he would not surrender whatsoever and decided instead to kill himself. He decided instead to disembowel himself with a sword while his friends weren’t looking, after reading Plato’s dialogues.
08:04 Paul Meany: And so he became famous for this, it was a really big act of defiance. And at the time there was a play by a famous writer, Joseph Addison, and it was called Cato, A Tragedy. And it was kind of about all this kind of civic virtue and sacrificing yourself for your country and the writers of Cato’s Letters, Trenchard and Gordon, were really obsessed with ancient history and it constantly comes across in their writing. They’re always discussing the Romans and the Greeks, ’cause they think that they are the greatest civilisations that we need to take from and appropriate and learn the lessons from them. And so, a bit about Trenchard and Gordon. John Trenchard first off, was born into a pretty wealthy family. He was pretty well‐off, married into an even wealthier family, so he had a lot of time on his hands to write about all sorts of things. He made a name for himself originally writing against the establishment of a standing army in England. And he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. Which is where I went to college, that’s great too, but… Then there’s also Thomas Gordon, who we know way, way less about… Possibly, he did a degree in law.
09:03 Paul Meany: We don’t really know, it’s kind of hard to exactly pin him down. What we do know is eventually… Is that Gordon starts writing these kind of humorous essays and eventually goes into writing about religious tolerance. And he catches the eye of Trenchard, and Trenchard and him, they meet in a coffee house and they decide to write these letters together. Originally decided to write something for the Independent Spectator about religious freedom. They talk all about that and they talk about the separation of church and state, but eventually they move on to the London Journal to write about Cato’s Letters. And at first, it sounds a bit weird. There’s 144 essays and it looks like they’re kind of a hodgepodge mix of a lot of different topics, from contemporary ideas to sometimes discussions about classical or ancient history and then sometimes about more philosophical topics. But throughout the whole essays, there’s always this theme of how do we deal with the problem of power. The kind of fundamental idea is that we need some sort of state, power has to exist, without power there can’t be liberty.
10:01 Trevor Burrus: So as you said, Trenchard and Gordon were writing mostly in the early 1720s, right, but what kind of issues were they writing about? Was it all high‐faluting political philosophy or were they addressing issues of the 1720s?
10:16 Paul Meany: So it started off about the South Sea Bubble, which is a very complicated affair. But basically a lot of people in government were implicated in insider trading in a company that had a monopoly on trade in the South Sea, obviously. But what happened was a huge amount of people in… Who were supposed to be in positions of power were basically shown as criminals. And so lots of people completely lost faith in the political system. There was uproar about it, there was massive amounts of rage. So a good deal of the first few letters are just talking about the nature of the South Sea Bubble and how all these people should be punished for what they’ve done and how they’d completely misused the people’s trust and whatnot.
10:52 Paul Meany: And from this kind of springboard of, “Look how bad people can be, they’re supposed to be… We trust them as our official representatives, they put on a smiley face and they look like they care about us, but in reality, all of that goes out the window once you realize how selfish people are.” And this is kind of the beginning of it. And that’s where they kind of have their springboard, but eventually they move on to the more abstract topics, as they go. And I feel those are the more interesting ones, I feel if someone was to read their letters chronologically, they might become a little bored, ’cause for the first 20 or so, it’s just the South Sea Bubble, the South Sea Bubble again, and again and again.
11:22 Trevor Burrus: What about the play? And I know it’s not exactly… The play is related, as you said, the play is a little bit later, but did he title, did Addison title the play after the letters?
11:33 Paul Meany: The play came before the letters…
11:35 Trevor Burrus: Before the letters, okay.
11:36 Paul Meany: But it was massively popular. I think it was… It became extremely popular in America as well. Plays banned in America during the Revolution, but at Valley Forge, they had Cato, A Tragedy as their one play. It was hugely popular as… It was really popular in England as well because it didn’t look like it was for the Whigs or the Tories, it kind of appealed to everyone, everyone just liked Cato. So it wasn’t a big deal, but it was a very… It’s actually a very weird play, ’cause it reads almost like fan fiction. It’s like they get the character of Cato and they just put him in all these situations where he can be amazing and so cool and say all the right things. So it’s actually impossible to read these days without cringing at how over the top it is.
12:14 Aaron Ross Powell: Except for a Cato fan boy, like you.
12:17 Paul Meany: Yeah, I love it but no one else does.
12:18 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah.
12:18 Paul Meany: I’ve never… If you look it up on YouTube, you can find one or two people doing monologues of it, no one performs it. [chuckle]
12:24 Aaron Ross Powell: What was the reception to the letters like, at the time that they wrote them?
12:28 Paul Meany: In the very immediate time, people loved them. There was a wide readership for the time and like it might seem like, oh, maybe they sold 10,000 pamphlets for a… Or 10,000 of one particular letter, but you have to remember people handed these pamphlets around constantly. Some people estimated that every pamphlet was handed around to 10 different people, so there actually was quite a wide readership, people that could read, and that was increasing as we went on.
12:50 Paul Meany: But the most important kind of part of their reception is how they went over to America, how they became extremely popular in America and became really commonplace reading, especially during the Revolution. And people like Benjamin Franklin quote them. John Adams talks about them for a little while. Everyone kind of really gets into them. And their main idea is, especially about resisting tyranny, which is a big part of what their letters came to be about, they’re constantly quoted. And some people have even argued, like Bernard Bailyn, that they’re almost on a par with John Locke’s influence, who is colossal. So they’re kind of forgotten about, but there’s a lot there to see in their reception.
13:28 Trevor Burrus: Do you have any particular favorites among the Cato Letters?
13:31 Paul Meany: My favorite? A lot of the ones about human nature, I always love. I can’t give you particular numbers. But any one that has that phrase “human nature” in the title is always going to be pretty interesting and good. Actually…
13:42 Trevor Burrus: It’s about the South Sea Bubble than it is about abstract political philosophy, I guess.
13:47 Paul Meany: When they get to their more abstract political philosophy, it’s much more interesting in my eyes. But there is a good five in a row that are about human nature that I really, really enjoyed. And that’s probably my favorite part. They also talk a lot about standing armies, resisting tyranny, constitutional limits on power, the importance of separations on power, the importance of free speech. They really cover a massive amount of topics. It’s pretty impressive, actually.
14:11 Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Well, so let’s go back. We started with Cato’s Letters because, fittingly, for the Cato Institute, but that’s a kind of an Enlightenment era artifact and thought. But we have, go back to medieval. And so you have one medieval feminist you just have, Christine de Pizan. Is that how you say it?
14:30 Paul Meany: Christine de Pizan, yes.
14:33 Trevor Burrus: Who was she and what did she do?
14:36 Paul Meany: So when I told people that I was going to do the first episode about Christine de Pizan, the first question was who is Christine de Pizan. And I tried to explain to people that she’s a medieval feminist, everyone thought I was crazy. But I got the idea because I was reading all these different kinds of books about the history of liberty or whatnot, and they normally don’t really mention women. [chuckle] Women are kind of this almost… This afterthought. A lot of people don’t really discuss classical liberalism and feminism too much until John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft in the 17 and 1800s. And so I thought that it’s kind of… It’s weird that we talk so much about feminism these days, but we never talk about how far it goes back.
15:08 Paul Meany: A lot of people think it starts with people like Mary Wollstonecraft or the Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s Rights, but I think that there’s an argument that there’s a much longer tradition than we normally think. And I think it starts off at Christine de Pizan. And so she was born in 1364. And she’s born into a pretty wealthy family. Her dad goes off to work for the French king in his court. And she has access to this massive library, and she learned… Her father was very interested in teaching her the exact same way she taught his son. And so she learnt basically the same things that men would learn at that time but in private.
15:43 Paul Meany: She doesn’t really write too much. She gets married to a man called Etienne, who she thinks is the greatest husband ever. But eventually, a lot of things go bad for Christine. Her father dies, and her husband dies, and she has no real access to their inheritance. Lawyers kind of trick her out of her inheritance somehow. She’s doesn’t really have that many legal rights as a woman, so she turns to writing to try and support herself. And she starts off writing about this thing called The Romance of the Rose. The Romance of the Rose is this very long, epic tale about a knight trying to get a maiden’s favor. But basically, it ends with kind of this… It basically ends with sexual assault, and it really degrades women. And so she first writes a response to this. And after that, she starts becoming much more popular, and she starts writing about all kinds of topics.
16:25 Paul Meany: In her lifetime, she wrote a biography of a king, she wrote military strategy, poetry, prose, everything. But her arguably best work and most influential is called The Book of the City of Ladies, written in 1405. And this book is… It sounds odd. [chuckle] It’s a dream. It’s like written as if she’s having a dream. And the dream, she’s being visited by three ladies, Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice. And they explained to her how everyone’s basically wrong about women because back then, there was a very, very poor… Women had a very, very bad rap.
17:00 Paul Meany: Ancient philosophers said the women were the worst. People like Aristotle thought that women were basically mutilated men. That they were always kind of just inferior. He believed that there was always a ruler and a ruled, and he thought women were naturally the ruled, obviously. And then people like Galen, the medical… Not sure what to call him exactly. One of the first kind of medical researchers in ancient Greece. He thought that women really, they weren’t particularly rational, and their humors were always out of order. And then even the Bible has a lot of different lines such as St. Paul saying “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of very woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” So women should always be subservient to men.
17:34 Paul Meany: There’s also the story of Adam and Eve. Eve ruined everything, basically. And the medievals tended to blame women for all the calamities of the world. And so Christine basically had to fight about a thousand years of terrible rhetoric about women. And she does this in The City of Ladies, where she basically… She uses… A lot of times in the medieval ages, people would quote authoritative sources. They didn’t like being too original. They liked the idea of quoting really important people. So they always quote the Bible or ancient philosophers or theologians. And she kind of goes back against them and quotes them selectively to show you can actually make a good case that they treat women as equal if you just think about it for a little bit.
18:11 Paul Meany: Then the rest of her book is her building this allegorical city with the three ladies showing that women can have all the same capacities as men, in war, in politics, in writing, in all these different aspects of life. And it’s not just for noblewomen, it’s for everyone. Anyone could be… Like women can always be equal to men, and they’re always capable of virtue. And she argues that if it was customary to send little girls to school, teach them all the same subjects as men, they would be the exact same. And that this is all artificial. You’ve just made this up. And so this doesn’t sound too libertarian particularly, but I think what’s radical always changes. And if you look back, Christine de Pizan was probably one of the most radical people at that time, arguing that women should be, like, educated similarly to men and they should have a lot of the same rights, and she represented.
18:52 Paul Meany: Now, of course, there’s problems. She isn’t… She’s not too big on the whole sexual liberation thing or anything. She still believes women should first and foremost be wives, but she’s starting to break out of that mold. And a lot of writers were inspired, a lot of female writers were inspired by her and decided to take up the pen in defense of their sex as well. And Simone de Beauvoir, the famous French feminist in the 20th century, she would eventually say that Christine de Pizan is the first person to take up her pen in defense of the female sex.
19:15 Trevor Burrus: Do we have any concept of backlash? I mean, I imagine that ’cause you said the intellectual climate was not very good for how it treated women. But was there a backlash for what she did?
19:26 Paul Meany: So she has some letters where she discusses ideas with people, but surprisingly, she did very well. She was an amazing writer, and she was actually one of the first female professional writers in the Western world, seemingly. She made a lot of money off her writing. So she was writing commercially, and it did very well. So the backlash isn’t that bad really. There are people who always say things, but it’s not particularly terrible.
19:46 Aaron Ross Powell: She’s writing this in the early 1400s and the status of women remained pretty grim for quite a long time after that. So what happened to her ideas? If she was… So there wasn’t much of a backlash you said and she was pretty popular. Was there a movement that followed on from her or did she just disappear into obscurity?
20:10 Paul Meany: There’s a tradition of Renaissance women who are educated by their fathers and a lot of those women took up Christine’s kind of challenge and they kept moving it forward. And this kind of goes on all the way to what’s called the Querelle des Femmes, what’s called basically the woman question. It turns out this is actually a debate that goes on for hundreds of years, all the way up to the next person we’ll cover, actually, who is François Poulain de la Barre. But basically there was a lot of people who wrote in her tradition in this vein, and it was always about are women equal or superior or inferior to men. And the superior side was always kind of people only did it a kind of challenge to their own eloquence. They’d only write this to make the argument for fun. The inferior people genuinely believed it and were terrible. And then the people who argued for equality were the exceptions. But yes, she actually did influence a wide variety of different thinkers, especially in Italy, and they went on to argue this.
21:00 Trevor Burrus: You already mentioned the next one that I was going to ask about. So François Poulain de la Barre is one of these egalitarians?
21:07 Paul Meany: So, I find his story tragic, personally. It’s so sad. There’s a story of this psychologist called Henry Puron and he’s in this massive library in Paris, and he’s walking around and he finds one of Poulain’s books, he takes it, he looks on it and he realizes the pages aren’t cut ’cause no one ever actually read the book. No one ever cut open the pages. But it turns out he’s a genius, so he’s a man who was born in 17th century France. He was born into a wealthy enough family, goes off to school, goes to a college. Doesn’t like it at all. He thinks that college really just prepared him to talk about things in Latin they didn’t really understand whatsoever.
21:41 Paul Meany: And so, he’s not too interested, but then he goes off and he goes to a conference on Descartes, the famous French philosopher, and he starts to realize that oh, Cartesianism is a really great idea. What he takes from that is the idea of getting rid of all your preconceived notions and getting rid of all this idea of authority. He starts to question; again, even in the 1600s, people were really, really relying on authorities. A lot of arguments relied around quoting selectively important thinkers to support your case. But Poulain is like, “This is ridiculous. We need to stop relying on authority, and start relying on reason, and reason alone.”
22:11 Paul Meany: So he decides to write from 1673 to 1675 these three different works on the equality of the two sexes, on the education of ladies, and then this one called The Excellence of Men, which is a satirical destruction of his, he’s talking from the other point of view. And the reason he wrote that was ’cause no one was replying to him, ’cause everyone thought his arguments were so outlandishly ridiculous ’cause he was arguing for the equality of all people, basically, and no one really took him seriously. But he basically has the idea that basically all of us really have enough reason to seek the truth. We don’t really need all this authority. And he kind of goes back and wonders like, “Why have women been so oppressed?”
22:48 Paul Meany: He basically comes to conclusion that men and women’s minds are basically the same. The mind has no sex is his most radical conclusion and he kind of goes back and tries to do some anthropology on why are women so oppressed in society and why do we have these opinions. And so, he first off makes the historical case, like, okay, well, this is all because of chance, violence and custom. You know, with primitive mankind, it was all about physical strength. Women were weaker and had to bear children, so they were kind of left out of hunting parties and whatnot. But then, this was kept on and as civilization developed with all these different writing and strategy and all these different high intellectual topics, women were just kept left out of it, even though they could easily take part in.
23:27 Paul Meany: But he thought it was just kind of this hang over from an earlier age that we have to get rid of. But then, he said that the real reason that this keeps going, is ’cause of prejudice. Prejudice, he calls the greatest enemy of truth. And he starts to say that the real problem isn’t just that people are bad and people are going to oppress other people, it’s that we make up our mind without really thinking about it too much. He says our problem is imagination. We can’t imagine the world a different way. If something is well‐established, then we think it has to be the only way we can do things. We find it really difficult to ever change our mind about these things. And he keeps saying like, “No, follow the method of Descartes. Take away all your preconceived notions, take away all these ideas you’ve been given beforehand and approach things with a blank slate.” And he says, “And you’ll realize the way the world is.”
24:12 Paul Meany: The reason he chose to discuss the topic of women was he thought that it was the most ingrained and worst prejudice that we all had, or they all had at the time. And so, he thinks if he could unlodge this one big prejudice, the human mind could be open to all different kinds of ideas and we can really change the world, ’cause he goes on to talk about well, why do we have all these nobles who get to do everything they want all day and have loads of money? But then, the real wealth of the world is made by the peasants who farm in the fields. Why is that the case? Maybe he could have had a more radical bent and he could have kept going, but seemingly his writings didn’t really get much attention. They kind of fizzled out and then he moved on to other things and he never really visited it too much again. So I think it’s tragic that such a genius person who was such an egalitarian and so forward thinking. Possibly, there’s an argument that Poulain was the most radical person on the planet at the time, from what I know.
25:05 Paul Meany: It seems like no one else goes as far as he does. He doesn’t just say women should be allowed to do these jobs. He says they should be allowed to lead armies, they should be allowed to be in government, they should be allowed to do everything. There shouldn’t be any real distinction. It shouldn’t really matter whatsoever. So I think he’s amazing for that, but he went against the grain of his time completely.
25:22 Trevor Burrus: Was that, you said, you hear about the discovery of his book? I mean, was he forgotten in the sense or you’re just saying that you got books that weren’t even, the pages weren’t even cut or was there like a later rediscovery of him?
25:34 Paul Meany: There’s been a few books written about him recently. There was a few authors in England who started to quote him and you can kind of see him every now and again popping up, but he’s really, really obscure. But Simone de Beauvoir actually quotes him as well. In another of Simone de Beauvoir’s references, she says that he says that we shouldn’t trust things men say about women because they’re both judges and litigants at the same time because of what they say. He thought that was in their own self‐interest. He thought if someone says women shouldn’t be lawyers, it’s ’cause they’re lawyers and they want to cut off the competition, they’re always talking in their own self‐interest, they’re just trying to keep people out of it.
26:07 Paul Meany: But yeah, he’s not particularly famous, at all. If you look him up, you’re not going to see too much, there’s only a few books about him. So I thought it’s just a real tragedy that someone like him doesn’t get much more credit in history when you have so many philosophers who have terrible opinions of women and terrible opinions on lots of different things. Why is this guy the one who gets sidelined?
26:24 Aaron Ross Powell: I’m struck. So one of the things that is valuable, I think, about studying intellectual history is coming across the ideas of people quite a long time ago, whose thoughts and arguments are echoed in your own today, and seeing how they wrestled with them. And so, I’m struck as you’re talking about this, that this core insight of his, of just peeling back the layers of assumptions, which yeah, comes from Descartes, but he took it in a different and potentially more interesting direction, that how much of that is, mirrors the kinds of arguments that we continue to make and the kind of frustrations that we as libertarians often have. And so, as you were saying that, I was thinking of Trevor has his Statrix argument that he makes.
27:14 Paul Meany: It’s exactly the same.
27:16 Aaron Ross Powell: We’ve got an episode of Free Thoughts on, that we can link to in the show notes or The Visions of Liberty, the book that libertarianism.org just released, is about asking people to step away from the world as they think it must be right now, and imagine a radically better alternative, and that that continues to be really hard, and the frustration of mixing up tradition and truth. That, “This is the way we’ve always thought about things,” or, “This is the way we’ve always done things, and so therefore it must be right,” and then not really having foundations for that belief other than, “Well, it’s just what we’ve always had.” But just that idea that these arguments have been around for a long time, and on the one hand that’s encouraging, because if people keep coming back to the same kinds of arguments it means there might be something there if they’re being independently arrived at, but it also… It’s also potentially a little bit discouraging, if people have been making these same arguments forever and we keep having to make them.
28:28 Paul Meany: Yeah, it seems like the Poulain point is that we have a problem of imagination and we think that the past is some… Well, at least back then they thought the past was infallible; It was some wise old man who sits in the corner, but it’s like no, it’s just as fallible as everyone else. And if we just thought about the world differently for a second and yes, it is very depressing to think about that. This guy came to all these conclusions. Like nowadays, saying that men and women are equal, the mind has no sex, women should be allowed to have all the same professions as men, that’s normal; that’s the new normal and that’s a great thing, but back then it was truly this radical idea, and it shows how radical it is, that people didn’t even bother to contend with it, cause they thought he was joking.
29:04 Trevor Burrus: Moving to the next one, we were talking about Cesare Beccaria. That is how you say it, Cesare, correct?
29:13 Paul Meany: I think so, ’cause I’m uncultured, but I’ll just say Beccaria, ’cause that’s what I know how to say.
29:17 Trevor Burrus: Famous on criminal justice issues.
29:19 Paul Meany: Beccaria was born in Italy, about 1738. He was born to a very noble affluent family. And kinda like Poulain, goes off to school, doesn’t really like it whatsoever. A lot of these thinkers, they kind of… They don’t really like their education, they always do something else. But he goes off to school, doesn’t really like it that much, thought it was very dry, esoteric, traditional. But then he eventually goes back home and he meets these two brothers called Pietro and Alessandro Verri. Pietro’s an economist, Alessandro was a writer, and they were leading figures in this group called the Academy of Fists, which sounds like it should be in a super hero movie, but it isn’t. It turns out it’s ’cause they were like this coffee house of intellectuals who got together and discussed things, kind of similar to Joseph Addison’s idea of The Spectator. But apparently, they were known that their debates were so ridiculously over the top and they got so angry that they get into fist fights, but this is obviously not the case, but…
30:11 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s Fight Club.
30:12 Paul Meany: Yeah, Fight Club for intellectuals. But… So Beccaria keeps getting asked to write things, but apparently Alessandro and Pietro thought he was extremely lazy. He’d have really enthusiasm for a topic, and he pick it up, and then he’d put it down again, then he wouldn’t bother going back to it. So they basically forced them to sit down and write this book, they make him write a book on criminal punishment. So he writes On Crimes and Punishment in 1764, and he’s only about 26, and this book goes absolutely crazy. It’s hard to explain how crazy it is, but it goes off to a lot of different people who are really important and famous, so it goes off to people like Catherine the Great wanted to hire Beccaria at one point, but he says, “No, I want to stay at home.” People like the monarchs of Tuscany, I think, and Austria, they also wanted to have something to do with Beccaria. They abolished the death penalty based off of him.
31:01 Paul Meany: Frederick the Great abolished torture and the death penalty because of Beccaria; it’s all attributed to him. So, how did this book go so crazy? The main idea of his book is that every punishment beyond necessity is tyrannical. So, Beccaria kind of believes in a Hobbesian world. We all come into the… We all start off in a state of nature and it’s pretty terrible. We’re always fighting, always getting into tussles with each other, and eventually we all come together and we have to agree on laws. And he kind of describes laws as the conditions why free and independent men come together to form a society. But he believes that law has to chain all people together, so he reaches from the throne to the hovel, is his kind of famous line. And the only way law is justified is in two counts.
31:42 Paul Meany: It affects… It chains everyone, and that it maximizes the amount of individual liberty, ’cause he thinks that no one rationally would ever want to give up their freedom unless everyone else gave up a bit of their freedom, so you can only have the minimal amount. But when Beccaria starts to get really interesting is where he starts talking about punishment. And it’s hard to explain how gruesome and barbaric punishment was back in the day; there was a lot of capital offenses, so… Back in England, they had over 200 capital offenses at one point in the 18th century, they were trying to cut down on crime. There wasn’t many police, they couldn’t catch people. So the best idea was, “Oh, we’ll just towards the people in front of everyone to show what happens.”
32:18 Paul Meany: And in the 1600s in England, if you stole over a shilling’s worth of goods, you were hung. So it was ridiculous and there was huge amounts of torture as well out in the mainland Europe. Torture was a perfectly legitimate and valid way to get confessions. It doesn’t seem particularly fair but during the Inquisition it was perfected as a practice. So the justice system was pretty arbitrary, really cruel and above all, it was very… It wasn’t particularly impartial. There was a lot of favors for different people. Elites could get away with certain things, they didn’t really have to respond to laws in the same way. If a rich man stole a shilling, it wouldn’t matter, but if a poor man did, he would be hung.
32:51 Paul Meany: So Beccaria’s idea is to rationalize the justice system, to make it equal for everyone. But what he’s most famous for is being one of the first people to argue extensively against the death penalty. And his idea is he kind of goes back to John Locke. And he has this idea that the human mind is like a blank slate. And the trick is we have to build these impressions on our mind. And so, you might think, okay, if we have to build up these impressions of habits of how things are, if we hang someone in front of everyone, that way they’ll completely… They’ll never do a crime ’cause they’ve seen what happens, they’ll make the connection. But he’s like, that really doesn’t work ’cause most people don’t really treat these executions as if they’re educative things. They’re more like spectacles, people went for fun and they cheer and love it when they get beheaded and hold up the head in front of the crowd.
33:33 Paul Meany: It was more like a spectacle. It didn’t really teach people the wrongs of crime. It’s actually much scarier to go to prison for the rest of your life and do hard labor. If you start to explain, this is a much better way of deterring people. Crime is like… He asks, “Why should we bother torturing people?” He says, “Can the wailings of a wretch turn back the clock? No. It’s not about punitive punishments. It is not about torturing people in prison. It’s about stopping current criminals and deterring future criminals from doing it again.” But then he starts talking about like, you have to look back at history. In history the societies that have killed people for the smallest of crimes tend to have the most crimes and are the most barbaric, actually.
34:04 Paul Meany: He was saying that this is like a hangover. We’re the enlightened people now, we need to make a much more humane and fair justice system. And so in that way he is very, very forward thinking and his forward thinking was taken up by a lot of people, as I said before. People like Catherine the Great in Russia referenced him and one day abolished the death penalty and torture. Similar with Frederick the Great. But in America he was actually extremely popular and one of the reasons he’s extremely popular in America as well, is not only because of his stuff on the death penalty but also his stuff on gun ownership, where he talks about, “You’re not really going to stop people from getting guns if you ban them, you’re just going to make it harder for people who really want to have a gun to defend themselves to have them.” He’s like, “You’re disadvantaging the person who’s going to be attacked, the victim.” So he sounds pretty modern in a lot of ways.
34:46 Trevor Burrus: Is that like a… Does he have a whole essay on gun ownership or…
34:50 Paul Meany: It’s a chapter in the book. He has all these little headings and there’s about two, three pages, but it was quoted quite often. Thomas Jefferson quoted it a few times in his Commonplace book and I think he mentions it in one of his documents about Virginia’s… Yeah, Virginia’s penal laws and other draft legislation, he talks about it.
35:07 Trevor Burrus: Do we know much more about criminal justice? Did he do broader political philosophy or other kind of thought?
35:13 Paul Meany: So he becomes really, really popular and people around the world are asking for him. People are asking to employ him to reform systems. He’s asked to go to Paris. He goes off to Paris to these intellectual salons to make a name for himself, but he’s extremely introverted. And he was very, very dedicated to his wife and he loved his home. So he kind of goes back home, he kind of slinks back in, he doesn’t really go out to the broader world. He wrote about economics as well, but he never really wrote that much else after. But he didn’t stop doing important things. He taught law and economics in college, then he’s put in a supreme economic council, put on a board to reform the judicial code of Milan. So he did a lot of work on the ground, but this one essay was massive, but he kind of never really followed it up with much else.
35:58 Aaron Ross Powell: For our last person, we’ll turn to someone you’re going to be talking about on an upcoming episode of Portraits of Liberty, John Cook.
36:05 Paul Meany: So John Cook is another person who is so sadly obscure, it is so unfair that he is. But he is the first person to head the prosecution of a head of state, which all libertarians should love. He’s an amazing person, but there’s so many great stories about him. To start off, he’s just a… He was born in the 1600s, 1608 in a ridiculously poor family in a place called Burbage, a really small village in England. And at the time, divinely ordained monarchy was all the rage. Everyone thought that that was the way things were, there were always monarchs. They are appointed by God. You have to obey what they do. The King James, who was the king for the first half or so of his life, he wrote a book which was kind of like this advice to his child and he talks all about how the king is the absolute master of the lives and possessions of his subject, his actions are not open to inquiry or dispute and no misdeeds can ever justify resistance. In other words what the monarch says, goes. His word is law.
37:01 Paul Meany: And so John Cook is born into this world. And eventually what happens is, in the 1640s… In England there was the agreement of Magna Carta which that parliament and the king would share power. King Charles I decided that wasn’t really in his wheelhouse, not really a big fan of that. So he disbands parliament for 11 years and rules on his own, basically. Then parliament gets sick of this, they put something forward called The Grand Remonstrance which was all of their grievances and their plan for reform. He kind of scoffs at this and eventually civil war breaks out. There was a terrible civil war. Some people estimate 1 in 10 Englishmen died in it, a similar proportion to World War I. So really, really devastating.
37:41 Paul Meany: So this war happens for four years. Under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell and with the reformed New Model Army, eventually the parliamentarians win and they imprison Charles. And they can’t really imagine a world without a monarch either. They’re kind of like, “Okay, we’ll put them back as head of the state but we’ll have some limitations on power.” While he’s in prison, Charles is a devious man, he goes off and plans another civil war, paying the Scottish to invade England and getting royalists to start riots throughout the country. This is put down and eventually they’re like, “Okay, what are we going to do?” And so they decided that the whole reason they started this civil war was over Magna Carta and respecting it and respecting the rule of law. And so they decide they’re going to put Charles I on trial. And this has never been done before, no one has ever done anything like this. And so when this is said, every single lawyer leaves London and does not bother to even think about touching the case with a barge pole.
38:35 Paul Meany: Cook’s originally only going to be a person who’s collecting evidence and making legal arguments, because he was a real radical person at the time. He argued in favor of softening on the death penalty. He argued poor people should be treated with more leniency. He even defended a doctor who didn’t have a license to practice medicine. He even said, “Maybe we should get rid of the licenses so we can have more doctors to begin with.” He had all these great cases. He even established the right to silence when he was defending the leveller, John Lilburne. He was a really progressive forward‐thinking lawyer for his time and he wrote a decent few pamphlets about how he thinks the law ought to be.
39:09 Paul Meany: He hated the idea of particularity. At the time, there was a lot of benefits for people who were higher up in society. So for example, there was something called the benefit of the clergy and it was like, if you’re educated and this is your first time committing a crime, we’ll just waive it, it’s fine, don’t worry, you’re educated. And he thought this was the biggest affront to reason and justice possible. So basically, he was a very radical person, really smart legal mind, but maybe couldn’t be trusted because he was too radical and so they kind of put him on a, they put them on a, a not front‐facing part of the trial, but then the person who was going to head the prosecution, Matthew Steele, he decides that he’s going to back out, he says he’s ill, and refuses to leave bed. So John Cook is kind of pushed to the forefront and he has to prepare this case against the king in about two weeks, which isn’t a particularly big amount of time, but there’s a great story about the courtroom opening.
40:01 Paul Meany: Now, you have to imagine that these people were, for a long time, they really did believe the monarchy was divinely ordained. And so, it’s Westminster Hall, it’s the biggest hall in England and everyone’s watching ’cause they want to make this trial as public as possible. But it was also really dangerous because there could be royalists assassins who would do suicide charges and just kill anyone. There were so many different dangers that the President of the Court, John Bradshaw, at his wife’s behest, he put a lead lining in his cap so he wouldn’t get shot in the head and he wore armor beneath his robes. It was really dangerous.
40:31 Paul Meany: But Charles comes out, he sits down in the seat in front of all the judges, and as Cook’s about to read the prosecution, he taps him on the shoulder with his silver… A cane with a tip of silver and says, “Hold.” Cook then looks back at him and turns back again, he starts reading out the prosecution, and yet again, Charles taps him with the cane, says, “Hold,” and he’s kind of like, “Okay,” and then he eventually starts reading out the charge one more time and Charles whacks him across the back with the cane and the silver tip dislodges, and both of them just stand there for a second, looking at the cane kind of tickle onto the floor and the king starts gesturing towards Cook to pick it up.
41:13 Paul Meany: Now, Cook was a common born man, he was a, when he was in college, which he only got to because of a scholarship left by a very wealthy man, he was literally described as a plebeian. This man is a common born, his dad was a farmer, his granddad was a farmer and if he didn’t get to go to college, he probably would have been farmer as well, but they both look at the silver tip and Charles makes this kind of gesture like, “Pick it up, pick it up,” and Cook just doesn’t even look at him and he starts reading out the prosecution anyway, but then he turns to him and looks at him directly in the eye and says that he is a “tyrant, traitor, murderer and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England,” and as he says this, Charles kind of stoops to the floor and pick up his silver cane himself.
41:52 Paul Meany: And so the acoustics in Westminster were terrible, so people couldn’t really hear, but there was like a kind of a journalist gallery where some of the newspapers could write and no‐one, the symbolism wasn’t lost on anyone, everyone was like, “Oh, my God, divine law has bowed the laws of men,” and this is what Cook is famous for. And so the trial goes ahead, Charles refuses to even acknowledge the legitimacy of the courts, which actually turns out to be a very common strategy of leaders on trial, ’cause it’s the same thing that Saddam Hussain and Slobodan Milošević would do later on. He just says, “The legitimacy of the court doesn’t matter,” da‐da‐da, this goes on for a few days.
42:28 Paul Meany: Eventually, they’re like, well, Cook makes the argument, this is what’s called a pro confessio. You haven’t pleaded to the court so we’re going to have to go ahead anyway, without this. You can’t just sit there and completely not say anything. And so, eventually, people aren’t really happy with this, we have these evidenciary sessions to show that he had what they call command responsibility. He was in charge of the army, he was directly there for a lot of the battles, he didn’t have to do all the war crimes that he did, including pillaging innocent people, killing prisoners of war, torturing people and so, Cook makes this kind of almost modern‐sounding war crime argument. But then he… So he never got to use his prosecution, though, ’cause eventually, Charles is carted away.
43:08 Paul Meany: They decide they’re going to execute him ’cause he’s just too dangerous. Some people even think that Charles was actually using, he was trying to waste the court’s time to try and think of another scheme to escape or get out, but eventually, he is executed and Cook releases his, what would have been his speeches. And what he goes into is a mixture of, the first off, he has the argument about war crimes. That Charles committed crimes that were against humanity. These are no matter who commits them, they’re wrong, but then he goes on to the idea that all political power is not derived from divine authority, it’s derived from the people and once you betray that trust of people, it’s perfectly legitimate for them to rebel.
43:47 Paul Meany: And that was a commonplace argument at the time, but Cook goes a step further and he says, “Well, since it’s all about the consent of the people, they can withdraw their consent anytime. You don’t have to be a tyrant. They can just decide they want to change the way the government is and they can reform it whatever way they wish.” And then the most radical thing he says is that he goes to natural law, which he describes as, he describes it as the messages written in every man’s heart with a pen of diamonds, where he talks about the one big law that he thinks is most important is that if a man becomes a tyrant, he will die for it.
44:18 Paul Meany: There’s no way that someone could possibly live on a life with impunity after their dictatorship is over. And so, eventually, my poor my, poor lovely John Cook, the Republic of England was declared, but it didn’t last particularly long. Eleven years later, Charles’ son, Charles II, very original name, he comes along, he becomes the king, and he says, “I’ll give a general amnesty to everyone except for the people who are responsible for the death of my father.” So Cook is hauled on trial, he makes an excellent defense of himself. He argues that I was given this brief, I couldn’t say no to it. It’s called the cab rank rule today. Lawyers have an obligation to defend whoever they have to defend, it’s just the way it is, it has nothing to do with them, it’s impersonal. But then, Charles II, he had a, it was a packed court, he had the jury rigged, he changed the laws as he went. So, Cook is eventually subjected to one of the worst punishments possible for commoners, the punishment for treason, which is hanging, drawing and quartering. It’s a terrible way to go.
45:07 Paul Meany: But even with this, he wasn’t particularly afraid, he was a very pious man who believed everything happened for a reason. And I think the best way to sum up Cook’s life work is with a quote he writes while he’s in prison. He has this letter he writes to one of his friends and he says that he dedicated his life to that noble principle of preferring universality before particularity. So, basically applying laws to all people equally, whether they’re a pauper or a king, it doesn’t matter. So I think it’s extremely sad that a man dedicated to such fairness dies in such an unfair and gruesome way, but the sacrifice that Cook made eventually led to a much more assertive idea of the rule of law. After the Civil War and after Cook’s prosecution of the king, parliament never really got put on the sidelines again, and it led to the Glorious… And it’s kind of led to the legal norms that led to the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, which came to enshrine the Bill of Rights which eventually would become the American Bill of Rights when they copied them off the English.
46:11 Paul Meany: And so, Cook has a lot of influence around the world, but it’s really not particularly known, ’cause it’s this esoteric and odd trial that a lot of English people are actually ashamed of, ’cause they killed their own monarch.
46:22 Aaron Ross Powell: These are all, the stories you told us today are fascinating, tragic, interesting, gruesome, but what is the, I guess, contemporary value of studying stories like this, or the stories of other thinkers, the kind of people that you explore on Works of Liberty and will explore in the future, if we’re not, if it’s not just for the historical interest, right? What’s the value to a young libertarian today who wants to make the world a freer and better place to know about all of these people who came before as opposed to just knowing the arguments that libertarians give today?
47:13 Paul Meany: Yeah, well, I think when I was younger and I became a libertarian, I read Milton Friedman and I decided then and there that the economic arguments were the best in the world, and that was it. And I was kind of closed off to a lot of other ideas. But I think you just start to realize just how many different ways you can argue for this. There are just so many different ways from so many different cultural perspectives, and whatnot, that you really just become, you just become more versed in arguing these things in general and talking about the precedents before, and it also, I think a lot of it is it makes you appreciate the time you live in a lot more, you start to realize that things haven’t always been this way and actually it’s quite fragile, how we’ve held on to them, as you start to realize the importance of constantly asserting these values, it’s not just, they’re not God‐given, they’re not, it’s not determined that it’s going to be this way, they can always change.
47:55 Paul Meany: I think the value is you learn a lot about how to argue from all kinds of angles, but also you just appreciate the struggles that people went through to get what we now take for granted. It’s like a, sometimes freedom is a bit like air, you don’t really care about it too much until it’s not there.
48:18 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.