Sunday, 31 July 2016


In this essay I wish to summarize, quote, and comment on what I found in some of the works of Poul Anderson on the issue of political legitimacy. One very important point to be found in his thought where it touches on politics is his insistence on the need for the state, any state, to be LEGITIMATE, for it to believe itself having the right to govern and for its people to also believe it is legitimate.  And it does not matter what form, republic or monarchy (or any other form), a state has--it still needs to be regarded as legitimate if it is to govern reasonably well (or at least not too badly).

In THE REBEL WORLDS we see Dominic Flandry doing his best to ruin the revolt of an Imperial admiral, Hugh McCormac, against the reigning Emperor, Josip III.  And this despite McCormac being a vastly better and more able man than Josip.  In Chapter XV we see Flandry explaining to McCormac himself why a successful usurpation would have been disastrous for the Empire: "You'd have destroyed the principle of legitimacy.  The Empire will outlive Josip.  Its powerful vested interests, its cautious bureaucrats, its size and inertia, will keep him from doing enormous harm.  But if you took the throne by force, why shouldn't another discontented admiral do the same in another generation?  And another and another, till civil wars rip the Empire to shreds.  Till the Merseians come in, and the barbarians.  You yourself hired barbarians to fight Terrans, McCormac.  No odds whether or not you took precautions, the truth remains that you brought them in, and sooner or later we'll get a rebel who doesn't mind conceding them territory.  And the Long Night falls."

I quoted the bit about the principle of legitimacy to Poul Anderson in my first letter to him and asked why Flandry later supported a usurper who had seized the throne by force.  In a letter dated 8 May 1978 Anderson replied: "As a matter of fact, you are not the first to point out the inconsistency in Flandry's remarks about legitimacy as the basic necessity of government, in THE REBEL WORLDS,  and the fact that later he supported Hans Molitor, whose only claim to the throne was sheer force.  Perhaps I should have spelled out in more detail what was left implicit: that Flandry was making the best of a bad situation."

An admirably clear statement of Flandry's views about legitimacy can be found nearly forty years later in Chapter VI of A STONE IN HEAVEN: "Once as a young fellow I found myself supporting the abominable Josip against McCormac--Remember McCormac's Rebellion?  He was infinitely the better man.  Anybody would have been.  But Josip was the legitimate Emperor; and legitimacy is the root and branch of government.  How else, in spite of the cruelties and extortions and ghastly mistakes it's bound to perpetrate--how else, by what right, can it command loyalty?  If it is not the servant of Law, then it is nothing but a temporary convenience at best.  At worse, it's raw force."

As a conservative/libertarian Poul Anderson was very skeptical of the state and frequently warned in his works of how easily tyranny can arise.  And he declared democracies were more prone in some ways to becoming tyrannical than other forms of government.  A good example of one of his characters expressing libertarian skepticism about the state or a society can be found in Chapter XXI of OPERATION CHAOS,  Steven Matuchek speaking: "I wouldn't think much of a youngster who never felt an urge to kick the God of Things As They Are in his fat belly.  It's too bad that most people lose it as they get old and fat themselves.  The Establishment is often unendurably smug and stupid, the hands it folds so piously are often bloodstained."  I immediately thought of "legalized" abortion as one of those bloody horrors we tolerate too easily and smugly.

However, Poul Anderson was also a conservative and realist who knew the state was a necessity, as this additional quote from the same Chapter XXI of OPERATION CHAOS shows: "And yet...and's the only thing between us and the Dark Ages that'd have to intervene before another and probably worse Establishment could arise to restore order.  And don't kid yourself that none would.  Freedom is a fine thing until it becomes somebody else's freedom to enter your house, kill, rob, rape, and enslave the people you care about.  Then you'll accept any man on horseback who promises to bring some predictability back into life, and you yourself will give him his saber and knout."  In other words, every state has bloody origins or will have blood on its hands. And I argue that one means for any state becoming less tyrannical is for it to become accepted as legitimate.

In the Introduction he wrote for the Gregg Press (1978) edition of THE LONG WAY HOME, one of his earlier novels, Poul Anderson said on page v: "You'll note where a born-and-bred slave, intelligent and well-educated, argues in favor of slavery as an institution with the shocked hero.  I intended the incident as a touch of character and background.  After all, people usually do support the regimes under which they live, if only passively.  No government which lacked that kind of acceptance would last a day.  It is a sad commentary on our species--a commentary I thought I was making--that by and large, the most monstrous tyrannies have been endured, yes, excused by their most immediate victims."  The points I'm stressing being how that ACCEPTANCE fits in with what I quoted from OPERATION CHAOS and how it's a necessary condition before any government can survive and be thought legitimate.  I want to prevent a possible misunderstanding about THE LONG WAY HOME: the regime ruling Earth in that book, the Technon, is NOT that bad.  It compares favorably to many actually existing regimes in our real world.

It's my belief that what matters is whether a government rules not too intolerably badly, more or less respects the rights of all its people, and accepts limitations on its powers, not what form it has.  If a republic or monarchy is accepted by its people as rightful and governs not too badly, then I have to say that kind of government is legitimate for that nation. Which means I disagree with dogmatists who rigidly insist that only ONE kind of government is right for everybody, for every nation.  And Poul Anderson would agree with me as this additional bit quoted from his letter of 8 May 1978 shows: "...I've long felt that legitimacy is the basic problem of any government and demand ["insist" might have been a better word, SMB] upon it.  Legitimacy can have any number of sources in different societies, such as tradition, religion, or heredity; in our country [the USA],  the Declaration [of Independence] and the Preamble [to the US Constitution] spell out  quite explicitly the basis on which the government claims its own rights.  But what does one do when this set of principles is no longer taken into account?  I doubt that much is possible except supporting whatever strong-arm contender seems likeliest to give the people a breathing spell."

In his letter of 31 December 1978, Poul Anderson wrote to me discussing, among other things, responses to my comments and questions in a letter I had written asking why so many in the Flandry stories despised (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion) the Terran Empire.  Part of his reply was a summarizing of the American theory of legitimacy in greater detail: "Perhaps the most succinct formulation is in the Declaration of Independence--though it takes for granted a contractual theory of legitimacy, whereas in fact governments have claimed legitimacy on many different bases.  The ultimate point is that most people will accept their government as rightful, and be prepared to make great sacrifices for it, as long as they perceive it as serving--however imperfectly--the larger interests of its society.  When it ceases to do that, it loses all claim on their loyalty, and any service it gets is mostly from expediency or, still more, fear."

I discussed the Chinese Confucian theory of legitimacy, the Mandate of Heaven, in a later letter (dated 18 November 1979)  to Poul Anderson, who responded (21 November 1979) that he was aware of the Chinese theory of legitimacy.  Anderson said that the Maoist conquest of mainland China fitted the Mandate of Heaven pattern in many ways, despite the Communists denying that and trying (for many years, SMB) to "scrub" (PA's term) Confucius from the culture. He even wondered if, even then (about 1979), the  Mandate of Heaven theory was not yet dead.  I mentioned the Confucian theory of legitimacy to give another real world example of a theory of rightful government.  Only time will tell if the old Chinese theory of legitimacy is dead or not.

Poul Anderson was a masterful writer deeply knowledgeable not only in the sciences but also in history and philosophy.  All of which gives unusual depth and  nuance to his works. Who were some of the saints and philosophers who helped to shape his beliefs about history?  To answer that question I'll again quote from his letter of 31 December 1978: "Turning to less profound matters, you ask why my imaginary Terran Empire is so despised by so many characters in the stories.  To explain in detail would require a book on the philosophy of history, with references to authors as diverse as St. Thomas Aquinas, Rousseau, Locke, Toynbee, Voegelin...well, the list alone would take longer to write down than I have time for." Anderson would soon include the work of John K. Hord as a major influence shaping his philosophy of history, especially as regards how civilizations rose and fell (see Anderson's article: "Concerning Future Histories," BULLETIN OF THE SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS OF AMERICA, Fall 1979, pages 10-11).

(I have argued with Poul Anderson that he was sometimes too hard on the Terran Empire.  I gave arguments  in others of my letters for believing it was not as bad as some of his characters thought it was.  I wrote that compared to many actually existing regimes, the Empire looks far better, even very GOOD, compared to them.)

I must urge readers not to be deceived by my ponderous commentary on some of the works of Poul Anderson--they are FUN to read, well written, and with very plausibly described backgrounds and character development.  Anderson never let his deep and learned interest in philosophy and history to get in the way of what he modestly called his primary job: telling stories readers will enjoy and want to read and reread.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Andersonian Themes and Tropes, by Sean M. Brooks

Dr. Paul Shackley's "Poul Anderson Appreciation Blog" focuses on the works of Poul Anderson.  And he has also discussed other writers whose own works he believes are appropriately compared to those of Anderson.  One of these writers is S.M. Stirling, whom Dr. Shackley rightly considers a worthy colleague and successor of Poul Anderson.  Mr. Stirling has sometimes left his own comments in the blog.  On January 30, 2016, in the combox for Dr. Shackley's "Wealth and Labor" piece, Stirling wrote: "It's pretty safe to assume themes and tropes from Poul's work carry over into mine--he was an inspiration, and we corresponded and occasionally visited for many years."

I have more than once found very Andersonian echoes, allusions, themes, tropes, and homages to Poul Anderson in Stirling's own works.  I felt the wish to point out some of these "echoes" myself.  For example,  one theme or trope to be found in both writers works is how they agreed all organized societies need to have SOME signs of respect or ceremonial for their leaders or states.  In Chapter 7 of Poul Anderson's novel THERE WILL BE TIME (Nelson-Doubleday: 1972, page 63) Caleb Wallis, Sachem of the Eyrie, said: "I am the founder and master of this nation.  We must have discipline, forms of respect.  I'm called 'sir.' "  Another example can be found in Chapter 7 of THE DAY OF THEIR RETURN (Nelson-Doubleday: 1973, page 54) after Tatiana Thane showed resentment at the idea of the planet Aeneas reestablishing its loyalty to the Terran Empire Commissioner Desai said: "The loyalty I speak of does not involve more than a few outward tokens of respect for the throne, as mere essential symbols.  It is loyalty to the Empire--above all, to its Pax, in an age when spacefleets can incinerate whole worlds and when the mutiny in fact took thousands of lives--it is that I mean, my lady.  It is that I am here about..."

Echoes and allusions of this Andersonian respect for due and proper ceremony can be found in Stirling's novel CONQUISTADOR (Roc: March 2004, pages 363 and 364), in Chapter Fourteen.  The Founder of the Commonwealth of New Virginia, John Rolfe VI, was formally greeted like this: "Adrienne stepped forward first, bowing low, taking his outstretched left hand in hers, and kissing it."  Then she said, in Italian: "Baciamo le mani."  Both Piet Botha and Roy Tully (with a slight shrug to Tom Christiansen by the latter) repeated the ceremony.  Tom felt embarassed and foolish, but he too performed the ritual.  The Chairman Emeritus, noticing Tom's discomfort said: "In any organized society there must be forms, gestures of respect. I am founder and master of this nation.  My fellow Virginian Washington followed a similar policy of emphasizing formal etiquette during his presidency, for much the same reason; I've often found his solutions useful when an analogous problem came up."  Notice how "I am founder and master of this nation" is nearly a word for word quote from THERE WILL BE TIME.  To say nothing of how close Stirling's "gestures of respect" is to Anderson's "forms of respect"!

In my letter of January 21, 1995 to Poul Anderson I discussed how the Later Roman Empire, in both West and East, developed increasingly elaborate and seemingly exaggerated gestures of respect for the Emperors. To such an extent that it seemed to me the Romans, even after they became Christians, gave their sovereigns virtually divine honors.  This disturbed me until I came across these texts in Thomas Hobbes LEVIATHAN (Collier Books: 1973), Chapter 45, on page 467: "The worship we exhibit for those we esteem to be but men, as to kings, and men in authority, is civil worship; but the worship we exhibit to that which we think to be God, whatsoever the words, ceremonies, gestures or other actions be, is divine worship.  To fall prostrate before a king, in him that thinks him but a man, is but civil worship: and he that putteth off his hat in the church, for this cause, that he thinketh it the house of God, worshippeth with divine worship."  And on page 469, in the same Chapter 45, I read: "To be uncovered, before a man of power and authority, before the throne of a prince, or in other such places as he ordaineth to that purpose in his absence, is to worship that man, or prince with civil worship; as being a sign, not of honouring the stool or place, but the person; and is not idolatry."

I then became convinced that the seemingly exaggerated respect shown by the Romans to their Emperors (or the New Virginians to their Chairmen) were merely gestures of respect meant to show patriotic loyalty to them. Which meant I could no longer scorn such rituals as the proskynesis or the kowtow.  In his reply letter of January 28, 1995, Anderson wrote: "On the matter of elaborate gestures of submission to royalty and the like, I suspect that, while the extreme forms of the late West Roman and the Byzantine Empires were theoretically just gestures of respect, in fact they reflected an attitude derived from the ancient Orient.  The distinction between a king or emperor who was a god and one who was God's anointed got somewhat blurred.  There was something supernatural about a crowned head--which didn't prevent some rather murderous changes of personnel!  I think that in our own time we have seen the same basic psychology at work in the--from your viewpoint or mine--obscene degree of adulation accorded Hitler and Stalin, even though in those cases all connection to the divine was disavowed."  The even more grotesque adulation shown to Mao Tse-tung, during his misrule of China, also comes to mind.

However theoretically unobjectionable the proskynesis or kowtow might be, such ceremonies still caused problems when ambassadors from foreign nations refused to perform them to the Emperor of China .  As Anderson wrote, from the same letter cited above: "It's a nice question whether the British ambassador to China in the 19th century did right when he refused to kowtow to the Emperor.  On the one hand, he definitely compromised his mission; on the other hand, as Queen Victoria's representative he was not going to admit, even symbolically, that any other monarch was superior to her.  If nothing else, that could have set an awkward precedent."

Poul Anderson then ended by saying he had no personal objection to such ceremonial gestures: "As a private citizen, I don't face such problems, and would in general go along with whatever forms and titles, such as "your Majesty" are customary.  Partly that's a matter of courtesy, partly respect for the office, especially within one's own country."  In the last part of that sentence Anderson was about to discuss the propriety of showing customary respect for Members of the U.S. Congress.

It was interesting to see a clear example from two of Poul Anderson's books, THERE WILL BE TIME and THE DAY OF THEIR RETURN, of "themes and tropes" carrying over to Stirling's  CONQUISTADOR.  I think this would have happened only if Stirling had agreed with Anderson on the desirability, even necessity, of a society's leaders being accorded some ceremonial respect and deference.  To again quote Anderson's letter of January 28, 1995: "Symbolism IS important.  It may act subtly, but it often has very practical consequences."  That is, I argue the ceremonial accorded a nation's leaders will reflect how that society regards its rulers and how power should be used.  I would even suggest that ceremonial SOFTENS the hard, sharp edges of the state's power, by helping to make sure, at least sometimes, that power is used only in  accordance with fixed laws, rules, and customs.