Today in history

August 27, 1775.

The Battle of Brooklyn.
A British victory was almost inevitable. George Washington was defending a city built on islands (Long Island, Manhattan Island, Staten Island) and his attacker had command of the waterways between the islands. The British had learned at Bunker Hill not to underestimate the American ability to withstand a frontal assault, and had won a maneuver victory by attacking the American flank after a night march. But perhaps the British had learned too much caution at Bunker Hill, or perhaps General William Howe was too sympathetic to the Americans, and thought wiping out Washington's army would make a settlement with the rebels impossible. For whatever the reason, the British had an opportunity this day to largely destroy the American army and they let them escape.

Winston Churchill once wrote about an admiral (Admiral Beatty in WWI) that he was the only person who could have lost the war in an afternoon. Was William Howe the general who could have won the American Revolution for King George in an afternoon, and let it go?

Goodbye to a great writer

When I wrote my post yesterday about the great divide, the example in the forefront of my mind of a writer who still sees the abundance of good in spite of the abundance of evil was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This man grew up never knowing his father (his father had died before his birth), as a young man believed Soviet propaganda about the USSR building a new society, until a critical comment about Stalin in a letter to a friend thrust him into the reality of the Gulag. And after surviving the Gulag, he survived a brush with stomach cancer.

The surprising thing is despite the depressing circumstances of Soviet prisons and/or cancer he discusses in his books, his writings are filled with optimism. Not foolish optimism, he knows happiness isn't just around the corner. But he believes that being good is still possible, that we can each choose to be truly human, a "tiny fragment of [our] own people", or a reflection in this life of eternity.

The news today is he passed away at the age of 89, from either a stroke or heart failure.

The great literary divide

Good writers are celebrated as keen observers of life. Keen observers can easily find things that are wrong in life. Disasters, malice and hypocrisy abound. While popular entertainment suggests that certain kinds of people are usually good and other kinds are usually evil, a keen observer will find that evil abounds in all kinds of people.
A keen observer who sees abundant evil in society can make two conclusions about it. One conclusion is that life is irretrievably flawed. If life was still under warranty we could return it, but since it isn’t under warranty there is nothing that can be done. There is no point in caring about anything because everything is broken. There is nothing better in life than to seek momentary pleasures where one can, and there is no reason to resist impulsive desires. There is a different but related conclusion; since I have suffered a great deal from life or society, life or society owes me compensation. I cannot really proceed with living until this arrives.

The other conclusion is while evil is abundant, good is also abundant. The individual is free to respond either to the good or the evil, and is also responsible for how she responds. She can choose to add to life’s quantity of evil or to life’s quantity of good. When tempted to condemn or avenge oneself against evildoers, one stops to ask ‘am I really any better?’

While the Christian world view favors the second conclusion, I also think a truly keen observer would find it by observation. I think the first conclusion arose because of the unstated assumption in the human heart that existence owes us an ideal situation.

Much of what is acclaimed as serious modern literature is by writers who opt for the first conclusion. I remember disliking English classes in high school, even though I was a proficient reader. My complaint: why did we have to read such depressing books where nothing ever happened? Partly childish, yes. But partly I think I was aware (although I didn’t express it that well) of the prevalent pessimism of these reportedly great writers