An Etude on Time, Chance, and Charters

"When in the course of human events…"
— Thomas Jefferson

The words “in the course of human events” open the Declaration of Independence. These words were delivered in a specific context, overturning a form of government, based on a principle of the divine right of kings. Divine right of kings would be displaced in favor of government republican in form and rooted in notions of consent which had made appearances in the colonies of America, in documents such as the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, even before these ideas were whispered among and penned by the high intellects of Enlightenment Europe. Today, a course of human events has brought us to a place of discord, or crisis, if you will. In one direction lies a path that is increasingly compulsory. In another lies a kind of restructuring grounded in reflection and choice. 

The Problem

The course of human events is the activity of human beings over time. What is time? 

When you look at a map, you can see opinions about the meaning of space define the boundaries of the world. Where the Mississippi River begins and ends is a matter of opinion, albeit one that can be stripped of controversy and determined—with only the faintest, often undetectable, political deliberation—by definitions derived from the sciences. Political geography is a determinable phenomenon. Where the United States begins and ends is clearly a matter of measurable practices, though ones that proceed from political opinions. Politics more generally is a determinable phenomenon. It is so thoroughly dependent on opinion, however, that it is today often assumed—all too casually—to have no ground in any permanent underlying reality.

Time, its boundaries and its characteristics, are likewise matters of opinion. These opinions were, perhaps, once largely uniform, based as they were on prescientific experience common to all human beings. Modernity, however, has sown confusion into opinion about time. 

Since the 19th century, political science has elevated “history”—an evolving endoxa about the past and present arrived at independently of the workings (or competence) of any individual human virtue—to the essence of morality and political right, or “progress.” In this view, history is not merely the record of such experience or opinions about it; rather historical records themselves are part of the collective experience, altering it, changing the conditions for a revealing endoxa that makes what comes “after” in political opinion inherently superior to what came “before.” “Go to Hell” as a potent expression has been displaced by “History will judge you.” 

The paradox of the concurrent elevation and degradation of man by this change is often overlooked. History, the judge, itself proceeds, it is supposed, by subconscious and inevitable processes—in some opinion towards an end and in other opinion without direction (to be wrestled with authentically)—hoped to be benign, such that today people tremble at the judgment of the opinions of future men and women, or other people, where formerly people trembled before the judgment of the divine.

Suffice it to say, what was once commonly understood, time, is today a matter of debate.

Our Understanding of Time:
From Ancient Egypt to Einstein

From our earliest days, we consider events in terms of “before” and “after.” The experience of “before” and “after” is soon, if not immediately, interwoven with conditionality, “if” and “then,” and from there to causality. Some events that occur “before” appear to force the occurrence of events that happen “after,” like one ball striking another ball causing the second ball to move. Some events which happen “after” are thought in another sense to force what happened “before,” as in a sprout emerging from a bean. Some events that happened “before” are thought to be related causally to events “after” but not directly, as in, I opened my umbrella and it began to rain. Some events happening “before” and happening “after” appear to be related causally but are only so psychologically, the result of a logical fallacy of post hoc propter hoc. After a lifetime of experience and education, some modern men, such as Hume and Kant and their intellectual descendants, removed such uncertainty and maintained that what happens “before” and “after” have no causal relationship that is not psychological. 

Below is a line segment

Let the line segment represent a “finite” amount of time. Any point on the line represents a “moment” of time. Any point to the left of that point represents a moment “before.” Any point to the right of that point represents a moment “after.” The ends of the line represent a “beginning” and an “end,” respectively, which confounds because it raises the question of what comes “before” the “beginning” and what comes “after” the “end.” A “beginning” and an “end” are, by themselves without context, unintelligible.

The line also symbolizes all moments of time between the “beginning” and “end.” All moments in a linear progression are infinite, and so even the line segment itself as a representation of time is unintelligible without more information. Our line segment, though intended to represent a finite amount of time, to the extent it represents all unquantized time, is indistinguishable from an infinity.

Below is a circle.

Let the circle, having no beginning or end, represent an infinite amount of time. If time is posited to run in a “clockwise” direction, and one thinks of a point on the circumference of the circle, every other point defined by a “counter-clockwise” position on the circle is “before,” and every point defined by a “clockwise” position on the circle is “after.” This, however, only holds true if we have some opinion as to the ordinal progress of circumferences traced on the circle, like the hour hand of a clock. This introduces a “beginning” back into our concept, although this “beginning” can be resolved to preserve our representation of infinite time by designating circumferences traced “before” the “beginning” as -1,-2,-3 . . . and so on.  

Time so conceived is a function of something like orbits of a rigid body around a knowable “fixed” point, e.g., another rigid body. This—perhaps it is too obvious to state—is how human beings first understood time. 

The experience of the Earth turning on its axis is the beginning of time for human beings. At birth, human beings have some cognitive awareness of time as the experience of needs; hunger then satisfaction has an ordinal quality to it. But the Earth turning on its axis is a definitive, inescapable time counting mechanism. It creates defined periods of light and dark, always paired together, repeating with the same interval, subject to seasonal variation of the duration of light and dark. 

We know a day as a unit of time, and immediately take to breaking it into its naturally obvious quarterly periods of dawn, midday, dusk and midnight. From the very beginning, human beings experienced this unit of time, the day, known by the experience of two bodies changing position relative to one another in a regular pattern.

The early notion of time expanded to embrace orbits of the Moon around the Earth (months) and orbits of the Earth around the Sun (years), with the inclusion of a number of arbitrary conventions (leap years) to address fractional issues such that months and years vary slightly in duration. The solar period is quartered into seasons. The lunar period is quartered into weeks. Such seven day periods, already common in the ancient world, were punctuated by a Sabbath day codified on Mount Sinai into Sacred Law. 

By convention, the day was further divided (as with so many things) first in Egypt, into hours—as 1/12 of darkness (night) and 1/12 of light (day)—and then later into sexagesimal fractions of minutes and seconds. These derive their names from the Latin pars minuta prima and pars minuta secunda. This sexagesimal division of minutes and seconds is not entirely arbitrary, as a sexagenary numeric system simplifies many fractions permitting hours and minutes to be divided easily into subunits of halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, sixths, tenths, twelfths, fifteenths, twentieths, thirtieths, and sixtieths. The convenience of such fractions aids communication about time and punctuality, although devices which accurately measured the smaller of these units of time did not emerge until the development of precise mechanical clocks, probably in the 17th century.

A Greek by the name of Hipparchus in the second century B.C. first established meridians of longitude. One hour of time corresponds to 15 degrees of arc. The quarters of a day—approximated by dawn, midday, dusk, and midnight—are designated by a right angle, i.e., 90 degrees of arc, or one quarter of a full rotation of the Earth. Thus, if you are given a coordinate in longitude and latitude, the longitudinal component is also a function of time and geometries of position. Hipparchus grasped something of the intertwining of space and time, long before Einstein.

A simple pendulum clock is an analog computer that simulates by its mechanisms within an event occurring without. Its movements predict with sufficient precision changes in the positions of actual physical bodies, the Earth and the Sun, and if it is a complex timepiece, the Moon as well. Although scientists have changed the definition of a second to “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom” an atomic clock is little more than a computer derived in concept from a pendulum clock which substitutes periodic electromagnetic radiation for a mechanical earthbound pendulum and thus simulates, in varying degrees of nearness to the truth, the basic concept of what time is for man, the regular changes in position of rigid bodies specific to man, the Earth, Sun and Moon, in space.

Applying Abstract Symbols to Organize
Complex Events Occurring in Time

Let’s return to our line segment and circle, which represent notions of time without any reference to moving bodies. If you take our circle and designate a point on its circumference like so:

You can call that “Point A” (or any other name you like). 

Now place the circle on our line segment.

Now roll the circle like a wheel along the segment, and place a vertical line at every point at which Point A touches the line.

When finished, the line segment will be populated with vertical lines, like so:

Now our line segment, or timeline, is intelligible because it is divided into segments of regular periods based on the circumference of the circle and its rotation along the distance of the line. We have now in our control a clearly finite number of units of time distributed along our line segment making our infinite number of theoretical moments cognitively manageable.

Time is both the order of events and the simultaneity of events. There is another “dimension” to time as well, which is that events are distinct. That is, we grasp our experience in terms of which events occur “before” and which events occur “after” and which events occur “at the same time” because such events are distinct from one another. Events occurring in a series in any ordinal account of time may be the same kind of events. In such ordinal events, even if we cannot determine precisely whether the events themselves are of a different kind, we can still adequately grasp their order in time. To grasp, however, events occurring at the same time, the events themselves must be distinct from one another. They must be discrete somethings of one kind or another. 

Now, our timeline depicted above would be adequate if all events occurring on the timeline were the same. Then each event could be represented by a dot on the line. Intelligible simultaneity would be a difficult concept because the same event occurring at the same time would be indistinguishable from a single event.

But some events are similar, some events are different, and some events are simultaneous. What’s more, some events seem not congruent or related causally and some events seem unrelated. Below are five simple events.

  • A man walked to the market to buy a cabbage and there bought a cabbage. 
  • A man walked to the market with my umbrella and on the way back it rained.
  • A man walked to the market to buy a cabbage and a man there repaid a debt to him.
  • A man walked to the market and on the way back was struck by a car. 
  • A man walked to the market and heard a dog bark.

Some events appear causal, directly or indirectly. Some events appear accidental, but conforming or contrary to some intention or wish, and we say they are lucky or unlucky. Some events we perceive to be congruent, even where not directly causal, such as bringing an umbrella to the market and having it to shield me from the rain on the way back. Some events seem completely unrelated and meaningless, such as walking to market and dogs barking. Some events must occur in a serial order. No one bought a cabbage at the market before arriving there. Some may occur either serially or simultaneously. Did the dog bark before, after or at the same time as the man walked by? Can he be sure he remembers? Our experience of time, psycho-temporally, is enormously complex. 

We experience causal, accidental, congruent, and discordant events, some of them inducing euphoria and some inducing dysphoria. Sometimes different people witnessing directly or indirectly form similar opinions about them. Common positive opinions about events are, well, common. “A good time was had by all.” But different people often do form vastly different opinions about the same events. Eris rolls the apple of discord. Herodotus writes of the opinion of the Persians on the abduction of Helen: “There followed next a massive escalation of what until then had been nothing more serious than a bout of competitive princess rustling—and the fault was all the Greek’s. . . . So it was, the Persians claim, that people in Asia remained pretty much unperturbed by the theft of their women—but the Greeks, simply to get back the wife of a single Spartan, assembled a huge task-force, invaded Asia and annihilated the empire of Priam.” 

If one were to try to represent and organize, in a simple form, this complexity of many events, about which there can be one or many opinions, one could add to our single line segment a few additional line segments, like so:

A series of differentiated events and simultaneous events could then be depicted by placing symbols on the lines and between the lines. 

If the above has begun to look familiar it is because it is a rudimentary illustration of sheet music. Sheet music is a representation of a series of differentiated events for which some occur ordinally and some simultaneously, and sometimes in a way that seems related, consonant or pleasing, and sometimes in a way that seems unrelated, dissonant or unpleasant.

adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

Music as the Mastery of Time

Hearing is the detection of changes in air pressure which manifests themselves psycho-acoustically as sound. In its most primitive form, hearing is a passive sonar used to detect prey and predator, bounties and threats, goods and evils, over distance. 

Social animals also use hearing for communication. In simple social animals, such communications are confined, perhaps, to communicating pleasure and pain. In human beings, alone among social animals, sound is used for speech, which is the communication of specific ideas (this dog jumps over that fence) and universal ideas (dogs jump over fences) about things, actions and their relationships to one another, in accordance with a logic embedded in a grammatical and linguistic structure. 

In all but the most primitive societies, speech is reduced to symbols, phonetically or as glyphs, as writing. Speech is used in political life to frame questions in terms of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and in science to record, transmit and multiply knowledge, some technical or practical and some purely theoretical, making political life and prosperity possible, along with, in rare instances, philosophy.

Music, like politics and philosophy, is unique to human beings.

Wann dann die Flur vom Frost befreit und wiederkehrt die Sommerszeit; was einst in langer Wintersnacht das alte Buch mir kundgemacht, das schallte laut in Waldes Pracht, das hört’ ich hell erklingen: im Wald dort auf der Vogelweid’ da lernt’ ich auch das Singen. 

[When the meadow was free from frost and summertime returned, what previously in long winter nights the old book had told me now resounded loudly in the forests’ splendour, I heard it ring out brightly: in the forest at Vogelweide I also learnt how to sing.]

Richard Wagner, “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Act 1, Scene 2

While young, untrained Walther of Wagner’s Meistersinger claimed to have learned music from the “finches and the titmice,” the human being is the only animal that deliberately (as opposed to instinctively or purely mimetically) organizes sound as music

Music induces pleasure and pain, and a variety of related emotional states, including desire, anger, fear and disorientation—various forms of euphoria and dysphoria—in the listener, although most listeners are interested primarily in the euphonic—and not dysphoric or cacophonic—experience of music, except to the extent that dysphoric or cacophonic experience, like working up an appetite before a meal, enhances the euphoria to be later induced.

Music in its both rudimentary and sophisticated forms represents an extremely efficient transfer of data, in a manner that creates, with immediacy, a certain synchronicity of emotion and motion in the listener, and in groups of listeners. As Plato observed—along with all watchers of videos of babies listening to Beyonce—music as a method of transmission of emotion and motion is so efficient that its inducement to movement has the appearance of being involuntary. Play music: babies dance, fools sing alone in cars, lovers waltz, and soldiers march.

In all cultures, the conventions of music are built around an octave. The basis of an octave is the doubling of the frequency of waves of sound. A pitch or tone that has twice the frequency of another tone, sounds similar. That is, it sounds like the same tone but higher. Tones played with other tones two to any power apart in frequency sound harmonious. 

Where an octave starts is somewhat arbitrary so long as the start is confined to an audible frequency. The octaves can then expand within audible frequencies in either direction, by halves or twos. Thus if you start with the note designated as A at a certain frequency, the next A note will be double that frequency. So if the A note is designated to be 440 hertz, the next A note will be 880 hertz, and the next A note four times the first A note, or 1760 hertz, and so on until you reach a range that is no longer audible. 

A standard piano has 88 keys. The 52 white keys represent the “natural” notes. The 36 black keys represent “sharps” (designated #) and “flats” (designated b) The first key on a piano is an A note, but the keyboard is organized around “middle C,” and spans 8 octaves from the first C note to the last. The last C note on a tuned piano produces a frequency of 27 (or 128) times the frequency of the first C note. 

In Western music, a chromatic scale of 12 semitones comprises the octave. The origin of the convention of a chromatic scale of 12 semitones can be traced to Pythagoras and what is known as Pythagorean tuning. Pythagoras observed the harmony of the simple fraction of 1:2 represented by an octave, and deduced that the simpler fractions, when combined, produced the most pleasing, consonant, or harmonious sounds. His method of tuning uses the ratio of 3:2. For reasons of convention this interval of 3:2 has become known as an interval of a fifth.

To construct a chromatic scale from an octave beginning with A and ending G#/Ab, using Pythagorean tuning, we take any audible base tone, multiply by 3:2 to obtain a semitone and then multiply again by 3:2 and so on. This, however, will produce semitones that are outside of our octave, and to cure this we move those semitones outside our octave one octave back (because it is the same tone at twice the frequency). This is repeated until the octave is complete with 12 semitones.

Below is a depiction of the chromatic scale calculated using Pythagorean tuning, assigning the first A note a value of 440 hertz. Each interval of a “fifth” is designated with a matching color.

Graphic by Claire Traynor

Pythagorean tuning has some defects, in particular, what is known as a “wolf interval” in which the frequencies arrived at by Pythagorean tuning are not pleasing, consonant, and harmonious but create a “beating” interference that induces displeasure. In addition, the distances between the semi-tones—as you can see from the above—are not the same, and this is because 3:2 does not stack into an octave of 1:2 exactly. Pythagorean tuning uses some fudge factors, such as what is known as the “Pythagorean comma,” to fix this. Today, some alternate methods, such as equal temperament tuning, use different kinds of 12 tone tuning to resolve some of these difficulties (and create others). 

The most important thing is that 12 roughly equal tones in an octave are distinct enough from one another that most listeners can actually hear these events as distinct, and these specific 12 tones offer a variety of possible combinations sounding pleasant together and in sequence in a composition. It is possible to have more than 12 tones in an octave that also structurally offer many possibilities of sounding consonant together; for example, one could tune one’s way into 166 microtones with similar concerns for consonance. Most ears, however, are unable to cope with such slight differences in tone; they would be unable, psycho-acoustically, to make much of it. So as it is possible to have too many friends (or too many Apostles), the convention in Western music has settled on 12 tones. 

Music, however, generally is composed using fewer than all the 12 tones in a chromatic scale. Twelve is just more than you need or can pleasantly use all the time. Instead, music is composed using diatonic scales which include only seven of the 12 semitones, such as the white keys on the piano from C to B, such as C-D-E-F-G-A-B, commonly intoned using the familiar Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti and known as C major. A diatonic scale consists of five whole tones and two half tones. Major and minor keys follow specific patterns, e.g., major: (W-W-H-W-W-W-H) or minor: (W-H-W-W-H-W-W). 

Despite the irregular intervals, a diatonic scale is perceived, psycho-acoustically, as an orderly progression. 

Keys are the scale and specific chords, or groups of harmonic notes, used in a particular piece. Music is a compilation of inter alia key, harmony, dissonance, counterpoint, polyphony, volume or dynamics, and melody, all of which work together to produce euphony and dysphony or cacophony.

I have left out a component. The most important aspect of this organization is . . .  time. 

The simplest music is a beat made by a single tone. The most complex music is a storm of musical elements all knit together by their arrival for some purpose at an exact designated moment. Without time there is no music; bare time is the most elementary music; complex music represents the mastery of many distinct events, some like chords to act together as a single event, and some to act independently, all to convey ideas, particularly emotions, that could not be conveyed more efficiently or better by other means. 

Below are a few bars of simple music, which you know as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

A treble clef tells you the position of G on the staves. The absence of a key signature tells you the key is C major. The time signature tells you the duration of each beat and the number of beats per bar or measure, and is represented by a large C, indicating 4/4 time. When you have 4/4 time it means a quarter note is a beat and that there are four beats per measure. The notes tell you the distinct events, in this case single notes—no polyphony and no chords—which are to occur at each moment of time in the music. The notes themselves each have a time component. There are quarter notes and half notes.

Below are a few bars of more complex music, Mozart’s Divertimento No. 8, K 213:

Now we have staves for six instruments, two oboes, two French horns, and two bassoons, The clefs, treble clefs for the oboe and horn and bass clefs for the bassoons, tell you the positions of G and middle C, respectively, on the staves. The time signature is again 4/4. The b tells you the key for the oboes and bassoons, F major. The horns play in C major. C major is the dominant of F major (it’s a Pythagorean fifth larger) so when playing together, i.e., polyphonically, they sound consonant, harmonious and pleasant. Six instruments start playing together, each doing its part, commanding the souls of listeners. 

Mozart, it is said, could compose his orchestral music in his head without corrections. Music for a full orchestra is even more complex, with staves for many instruments, detailing what, and the precise time at which, notes are to be played. A composer, whether improvising or composing formally, marshals the elements of music into teams, squadrons, battalions, and armies to alter the emotional state and even the will of the listener. The composer has the freedom to call forth harmony, melody, consonance, meter, dissonance and resolution at different times by commanding different pitches, chords, and discord. 

Music in a sense represents the mastery of time, and success in music in practice depends on the command of musical elements to arrive at their designated times. Perhaps it is pleasing as a whole because it is closely analogous to our complex experience of time in the exterior world. 

The Art of Musical Composition and the Art of War

It is fitting that in the states of the Holy Roman Empire—where music probably had more meaning and importance, both popularly and among the elite, than anywhere else in the world—there were two very large parts of a nobleman’s budget. The first was the army. The second was the orchestra. These were not unrelated. 

When not at war with one another, these tiny states headed by princes and even tinier states headed by minor princes, competed with one another by the production of music. This was done by acting as a patron to a composer with a reputation for gifts and commissioning pieces on occasions to be played by a nobleman’s orchestra before his noble peers and guests. Major princes had full orchestras; minor princes had chamber orchestras, for which they demanded chamber music. A requirement for the commissioned pieces was that they be not only excellent by the standards of the time, but novel, something not heard before.

The musicians were employed by the state. The composers more often than not were freelancing. They gave lessons, usually in piano, as their principal means of making money. The composers often taught the lessons to talentless students, wealthy dilettantes and the daughters of persons of importance who desired to make brides of them. The purpose of the lessons was not to develop their talents but rather for the composers to earn daily bread. For the composer, the purpose of the excellent and novel compositions was to establish a broader reputation to acquire new paying students. Thus, this cycle of demand for money to meet the financial needs of the great composers, to pay for their families and luxuries, drove the proliferation and quality of continental baroque, classical, and romantic music.

In addition to a competitive alternative to war, the art of producing orchestral music and the art of war were to those who paid for them and understood them, like music and our experience of time, closely analogous. It is no accident that one of the greatest military minds of all time, Frederick the Great, was also a gifted baroque composer. Just as orchestral music represents the precise management in time of various distinct events, the practice of war represents the management in time of the application of distinct events of locomotion and force.

Carl Von Clausewitz, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At the height of the classical period of music, Carl von Clausewitz wrote Vom Krieg, or On War, which remains the definitive scientific, if not philosophic, account of war. On War is a complex book, but its fundamental principles are, like music, mathematical. Clausewitz assumes for the sake of his study of war the existence of armies, like those that existed in Europe at the time, of roughly equal armament and training. That is, the two armies were soldier for soldier roughly equal. 

He then proposed that war is similar to a duel between equals with respect to which each party has a roughly equal chance of triumph. Scaling this concept up to many duelists, each with an equal chance of triumph over the other, Clausewitz speculated that the result would be that, all other things being equal, in a clash between two armies of equal size, and comparable armament and training, who would prevail was a matter of equal (50/50) chance based on a one to one rate of attrition.

That said, in practice, Clausewitz understood the distribution of chance does produce one to one attrition until a last man standing. For example, if you flip a coin one time there is a 50/50 chance for each party of heads or tails. And if you flip a coin many times the average number of times the coin lands on head or tails will converge on 50/50. At any given interval of flips, however, results may be different, and may accumulate in one direction or another. Paradoxically, if you flip a coin X times the probability that it lands on an equal number of heads or tails is less than half. For example, the likelihood of any four flips of a coin producing two heads and two tails is only 3/8. The chance in any four coin tosses that each coin toss comes up heads is ½*½*½*½, or 1/24 or 1/16. That’s not very likely, because there is only one combination of coin tosses out of 16 permutations that produces that outcome. But the chance that three out of four coin tosses come up heads and only one comes up tails is higher. There are 4 combinations of 16 permutations that produce that outcome. That’s 1/4th of the possible combinations that produce that outcome. Conversely, the chance that three out of four coin tosses come up tails and only one comes up heads is also 1/4. Thus the chances that in four coin tosses one side or the other wins more tosses is 5/8s. 

The effect of this, when scaled up in Clausewitz’ theoretical war, is that at some point even a battle between equal numbers of equally equipped and trained soldiers may turn, and the number of favorable 50/50 outcomes may deviate enough from the probabilistic average, such that one side may attain numerical superiority. Numerical superiority changes the odds, because three men fighting two have a better chance of surviving the fight than do the two who oppose them. The perception alone of numerical inferiority may even be sufficient, because the prospect of loss due to numerical inferiority may induce hesitation or, worse, a disorderly disengagement by the losing army, or a rout, and the exploitation of the rout by the victorious may create conditions of severely disproportionate loss for the defeated. 

Since armies never meet one another in exactly equal conditions, what is the purpose of Clausewitz’ intellectual exercise? It is to show a competent general may manage the chance events of war by seeking the production of “numerical superiority at a point.” The production of “numerical superiority at a point” requires carefully timed maneuver. Victory may be won by using timed maneuver to bring “numerically superior” forces to bear repeatedly so as to force disproportionate losses on the enemy until his will is broken. Because what matters is numerical superiority at a point rather than numerical superiority overall, a competent general does not have to leave the defeat of a larger force with a smaller force entirely to chance. Reduced to its essence, as one general with a rustic gift for brevity and precision said, the art of war is “being firstest with the mostest.” Time, as it was the essential element of music, is likewise an essential element of generalship.

Media Museum/SSPL via Getty Images

The Mastery of Events in War is Dependent Upon Time

Indulge for a moment a few examples of this element of time in conflict. All watchers of films about World War I know the tension building scene in which an officer perseverates on a timepiece, waiting for the preset moment to blow the whistle ordering men over the top. If the artillery batters the enemy’s defenses too soon, or worse if the artillery batters the enemy’s defenses after (or during!) the assault, limbs, lives and the objective are lost. 

Prior to the development of small timepieces, like the pocket watch, coordinated military movements required direct communications or were limited to less specific times of day, the quarterly interval: attack at dawn. 

The importance of time in conflict is known, too, for casual students of World War II. In December of 1944, Hitler launched an attack. The German armies were to charge across Belgium to Amsterdam, trapping a large portion of the Allied forces in a pocket and severing Allied supply lines. The destruction of the trapped armies, and the compromise logistics, would break Allied will, collapsing the artificial cooperation with the Soviet Union, changing the fortunes of war.

German past success in Blitzkrieg depended on the timed and coordinated use of air power and tanks. In 1944, German air superiority had been lost, and the German objectives had to be reached before the weather cleared and Allied air superiority could be brought to bear. German Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt laid his plot in a complex coordinated, time-driven plan of attack. The early capture of Bastogne, a small town in southern Belgium where seven critical roads intersected, would enable all the parts to be played, securing the roads needed to move German men and material to their objective at the sea in the north. The Allied forces were caught by surprise, and were saved by three time dependent things

The first was U.S. Army tank doctrine. U.S. Army tank doctrine held that tanks were divided into two kinds, slower tanks outfitted with lower velocity guns for infantry support and faster tanks outfitted with high velocity guns for engaging enemy tanks. The M4 Sherman tank with its 75 mm gun and top speed of 25 to 30 miles per hour was designed for the former role. The M18 Hellcat destroyer with its high velocity 76 mm gun and top speed of 55 miles per hour was designed for the latter role. This doctrine for a variety of reasons was not terribly successful. In the Battle of the Bulge, however, it worked. As the German attack unfolded, M18 Hellcats used their top speed and high velocity guns to create the appearance of numerical superiority at a point. The sudden appearance of the same American tank destroyers at different places close in time led the Germans to believe they were facing many enemy tanks rather than a few. The quick-timed action destroyed a large number of German tanks, and stalled the German advances long enough for General Anthony McAuliffe, artillery commander of the 101st Airborne Division, to lodge his forces in Bastogne to mount a defense. 

Once lodged in Bastogne, McAuliffe’s forces were surrounded and outnumbered 5-1. McAuliffe, however, when faced with a demand of surrender or destruction from the German commander whose forces surrounded Bastogne, replied only “Nuts!” Stubborn fighting spirit is necessary but not sufficient. McAuliffe also possessed a paradoxical territorial advantage. Circumvallated, or surrounded, McAuliffe’s forces had the advantage of “interior lines.” McAuliffe’s forces had only to cover a small distance over established infrastructure (the roads of Bastogne) to oppose any attempt by the surrounding Germans to overrun the defenses at the perimeter. McAuliffe could be “firstest with the mostest” at any point on the perimeter because the enemy, to concentrate at the same point, needed more time to cover a greater distance over rough ground. This command of time and space permitted McAuliffe’s force to fight like, and appear to be, a much larger force. This triggered German hesitation. The outnumbered Americans, however, could not exploit the advantage of interior lines forever, and the timing of the relief of the American 101st in Bastogne grew more urgent with each passing hour. 

When the German attack began, Patton’s Third Army was fighting in southern France. A clairvoyant Patton had foreseen a German attack, and weeks before had his staff compose plans to move several divisions of his Third Army from the south of France to attack any Germans in the north. These complex plans depended on the coordinated, and timed, disengagement, transportation, and then reengagement of a very large number of men, equipment, and related auxiliary support. 

The plan had the complexity of a symphony. It would only work if each part of the Third Army did its part, in the order and in the manner in which Patton’s staff had put down in the plan. When it became clear that the German attack was not a feint but a heavily armored, well-supported attack that appeared to be succeeding, General Eisenhower called Patton along with other key officers to Verdun to discuss countering the German attack. When Eisenhower asked Patton how long it would take him to deliver six divisions to relieve Bastogne, Patton responded that he could begin immediately, moving with full force in a matter of days. An incredulous Eisenhower did not believe him. Patton rebutted the disbelief by phoning his aides uttering “Play ball,” a coded phrase for the Third Army to execute the plan he had already “orchestrated.” 

Six divisions of the Third Army, 133,000 vehicles, consuming 70,000 tons of supplies, including 4,500 tons of ammunition per day, made a 90 degree turn and relocated 100 miles in the dead of winter, and attacked and penetrated the flanks of the German salient, and relieved McAuliffe at Bastogne. When the music stopped, Germany’s chances of trapping Allied forces in the north of France were finished, and Germany never again launched a major offensive.

There are many other possible examples from many other conflicts, battles, and wars—Caesar at Alesia, Napoleon at Borodino, Grant at Vicksburg, Von Moltke and mobilization for the Franco-Prussian War, and on and on. But the example above should be both easily confirmable and sufficient to illustrate the point concretely.

The Political Realm: Chance and the Judgments of the Divine

“[T]he objective nature of war makes it a matter of assessing probabilities. One more element is needed to make war a gamble, chance: the very last thing that war lacks. No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance. And through the element of chance, guesswork and luck play a great part in war.” 

Clausewitz wrote this to sum up the methods and medium of war. War he defined as “. . . an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” and a “continuation of political intercourse by other means.” 

If Clausewitz is correct and war is on a continuum of politics, the character of politics is similarly intertwined with chance.

The ancient Greek view of both natural and political events, things coming about by nature and things coming about by thought (which includes opinion and therefore exists within a broader endoxa) or choice, is that they are affected by things that do not come about either always or for the most part (hos epi to polu). For the ancient Greeks, even determinate events come about not always but for the most part. What comes about for the most part was sufficiently predictable to be considered a certainty. But the ancient Greeks also considered events outside of this certainty—we would say “non-linear” events which, while having a certain probabilistic character, are like a rogue wave—unable to be predicted with precision. 

According to this view, a successful course of political action demands not merely causal analysis but a certain habitual orientation towards, as well as the intellectual management of, probabilities or guesswork. These chance events, which affected human affairs were often thought of by ancient Greeks in some sense to be divine, in the context of continually changing human affairs. Nature and human events compose melody and counterpoint, directed towards euphony, but including a good deal of improvisational instrumentals. 

In one way or another, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all regarded events that the ancient Greeks regarded as chance, as acts of God, Providence, or the will of Allah. 

From one perspective, chance translates into occasional intervention of the divine in events—such as God’s interventions in Genesis and Exodus here and there, in part acting through other actors, e.g., Noah and Moses and the prophets, and in part directly, e.g., the destruction of the Walls of Jericho. In this view, from one particular perspective, God, having created the universe to live, to “pitch His tent,” among his likeness, in particular the children of Abraham, housed in the temple, is a player on the stage alongside other stock characters, e.g., the Egyptians, the Medes, and the Persians and other Gentiles. It is a story of two main protagonists, God and the Jews, a light unto all the other stock characters, caught in a relationship that is at once loving, disputatious, and indestructible. 

“One generation passeth away; and another generation cometh: but the Earth abideth forever.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4). The ancient Judaic understanding of time evokes both descriptions of time we introduced earlier, the line segment “In the beginning . . .” and the circle “[t]he sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5). The music in this view, however, is not a natural harmony—there being no clear concept of nature in the ancient Hebrew—but is partly scripted, with plenty of room for improvisational categories of symphonia concertante, instrumental solos, choruses and arias. It is certainly not lost on Jewish thought that time is the essence of this music: “ . . . time is the heart of existence. To gain control of the world of space [work] is certainly one of our tasks. . . . Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern,” said A. J. Heschel. The Sabbath—a concept originating in Judaism though not unique to it—represents sacred collaboration in the mastery of time, the punctuation of our line segment with measures against which the meter and melody of lives are played.

From some Christian perspectives, chance edges toward the continual and frequent divine guidance of human affairs. Rather than God creating the universe to live among us as characters in the same play of innumerable acts and scenes, God chooses a people, the Jews, for the sake of bringing forth Himself in the midst of his fallen likeness as “word . . . made flesh” for all mankind that the lacuna between man and God made by the Fall may be closed not by God living among men, and giving them law, but by men participating directly in God through faith and resurrection. This perspective necessarily supposes the staves have been composed with a beginning “in the beginning” and an end “Armageddon”—evoking our earlier depiction of time as a line segment—and the arc of events is in some way the subject of a continual intervention or plan. 

From some Islamic perspectives, as in Islam’s iteration in the philosophy of Al-Ghazali, all events become equally arbitrary, unpredictable, and unreasoned acts of Allah—reason or logic having become themselves arbitrary selections of Allah in the final revelation in the grammar and language of Arabic. And lest we neglect their mention, there are many, if not countless permutations of this understanding—such as the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, an admixture of determinism and indeterminism, that eludes clear explanation. God, however, in these views, is the composer of the symphony of human events, improvisations of which may be illusory, having been scripted in advance. 

These more deterministic religious interpretations are likely suspects for the seed thoughts behind the modern notion of History, which in time (no irony intended) unseated the God that birthed it.

Philosophic History and the Judgments of Future People

Immanuel Kant, interestingly, first debuted in physics on the subject of the motions of the lunar and solar systems. Kant rejected the permanence of the orbital periods of the Moon, the Earth and the Sun. In metaphysics, Kant divided the universe into the noumenal (the within) and the phenomenal (the without). The experience of the “without” or the phenomenal was limited to the psychological or noumenal, and essentially an a priori apprehension of them. The gulf between the noumenal and phenomenal, between the psychological and the physical, had no resolution for Kant. This amounted to a rejection of Plato’s thought about reality as distorted reflections of the Forms or Ideas and of Aristotle’s similitude of the prime motion and the active intellect which served as a ground for the isomorphism, or structural similarity, of human thought and the truth of things. 

Hegel shares Kant’s view to an extent but in the end returns to the classical view of harmony between the ideal and the actual. 

Freedom has found the means of realizing its Ideal—Its true existence. This is the ultimate result the process of History is intended to accomplish . . . 

G.W. Hegel, The Philosophy of History 

But Hegel does not do so all at once; he posits himself as privileged in time, in History and the endoxa, or Weltanshauung, to observe that the Spirit or Idea has been working behind the scenes through a process of historical dialectic. One melody plays and then another melody plays and then the two melodies merge into a new melody. That new melody plays then another related melody plays and the two new melodies merge into yet another melody and so on. Hegel did not describe this in terms of music, but rather used the terms thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. But it does not really matter what terms he used so much as that to this work of dual counterpoints a final melody emerges, the end of History, the highest possible practical realization of the Ideal in the final state. 

Philosophy escapes from the weary strife of passions that agitate the surface of society into the calm region of contemplation; that which interests it is the recognition of the process of development of the Idea has passed through in realizing itself—i.e., the Idea of Freedom, whose reality is the consciousness of Freedom and nothing short of it. That the History of the World, with all the changing scenes which its annals present, is this process of development of the Spirit—this true Theodicaea, the justification of God in History. Only this insight can reconcile Spirit with the History of the World—viz., that what has happened, and is happening every day is not only not ‘without God,’ but is essentially His Work.

G.W. Hegel, The Philosophy of History.

Hegel, though the most popular thinker of his time, dominating the German university, was not without his critics. Arthur Schopenhauer assessed the peddler of History as God as follows: “Hegel, installed from above, by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense.” I will not pass judgment whether Schopenhauer’s wit was as accurate as it was sharp. But Hegel’s reign in philosophy was very soon overturned.

Three offspring of Hegel’s thought quickly displaced the Weltanshauung Hegel had propounded from the lecterns at Jena, Heidelberg, and Berlin. Marx took Hegel’s idea and turned it on its head. Rather than an unseen God and Idea directing the impulses of historical dialectics, the feet, material interests directed History as class struggle, master-slave, serf-lord, and capital-labor until the means of production and labor are so alienated from one another that world-wide revolution sweeps away the existing order. A dictatorship of labor follows, leading to the elimination of private property, and with it, the abolition of the family. Conveniently, this is followed by an increase in productivity and the withering away of the state. Man, so relieved of his burdens, could fish in the afternoon and philosophize after dinner, and be the hobbyist he was really meant to be.

Friedrich Nietzsche took the same idea, wove it with a unique gift for language and denied History an end. Noumena are time-bound but there is no revealing of an objective truth or coincidence of an “Idea” and an “Actuality,” nor is there any a priori truth to provide moral instruction at least noumenally, as in Kant’s “categorical imperative.” Marx’s hobbyist appalls Nietzsche, and the physical need to produce subsistence driving an unfolding process is simplified. Will to power.

But it’s not so simple. Martin Heidegger, star of the University of Heidelberg and a dilletante Nazi, systematized Nietzsche’s thought in Sein und Zeit, or Being and Time, radicalizing the time-bound character of thought, terminated philosophy and called what remained merely thinking. Truth merges with technology, and is reduced to manipulation of standing reserve (Gestell).

Most modern thought that followed—Sartre, de Beauvoir, Foucault, Derrida, Marcuse—were, in one form or another, reiterations, and inter-weavings, of Marx, Nietzsche, or Heidegger. What remained in the American universities, which succeeded the German universities as the preeminent schooling in the world, in the social science you see today in the more controversial iterations of feminism, critical race theory, gender studies, intersectionality, and the like, all borrow basic threads of thought of these historicists and apply them to new problems. All this “thinking,” as Heidegger himself would agree, is not philosophy and to the extent that it considers philosophy a possibility, it is something of a delusion. Instead, the world must be changed and here are the intellectual tools to do it. In the popular mind, however, the articulation of History as a benign end remained. America is an optimistic place, after all, and in American thought, History has a happy ending.

Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks, wrote:

My fear is not that Democrats lose the midterms—it will have totally been worth it. My fear is that Democrats in Congress will make fantastic policies like the expanded Child Tax Credit temporary to make budget numbers look good. If they do that, the coming Republican majorities will simply let these policies expire. 

If that happens then all this will have been in vain. The Democrats will have squandered what has truly been a set of historic accomplishments. Voters may judge Democrats harshly next November, but if they act with strength, history will judge them well.

Hegel’s God has exited stage Left. The old Right—which Brooks somehow has come to represent—has exited with Him. Time is their supreme judge of the world, which means there isn’t one, other than a majority of future people, whomever the survivors may be. At the risk of confirming Godwin’s Law, that is exactly how Hitler felt about it. 

Who Masters Time?

In one sense, we do not control time or history. It unforgivingly moves in one direction placing all events, all relationships of bodies, in the past, immutably behind us, and leaves only the future ahead. The question of modernity is whether or not actions today can affect the future.

I intended our discussion of music to establish a metaphor for considering the problem. Music represented the mastery of local time. We experience the causal, accidental, congruent, and discordant events in passing time, some of them inducing euphoria and some inducing dysphoria. Sometimes different people witnessing a course of events, or time, form similar opinions about them, and sometimes different people can and do form vastly different opinions about the same events. For some history may seem a cacophonous pointless series of unrelated, boring dates. For most, events are perceived as if time were playing a tune that one only needs to listen for to hear. 

One tune played is that America is an exceptional nation that triumphed in World War I, World War II, saved the world from Soviet Communism during the Cold War, and will always be trapped in the glorious amber of those heroic achievements. Cue triumphant horns in C major. 

Another tune is that America squandered victory, pursued elite-absent endless war, and stubbornly consolidated the engines of wealth while eroding the economic and political power of the middle class. Instead of delivering that class the life depicted in “The Jetsons,” the middle class got bleacher seats to watch the jet set fly to Davos to discuss new and better ways to deliver technologies as habit-forming as cigarettes but even more destructive. Meanwhile, the people were divided ever more cleverly by fictionalized identities. Cue the low horns in A minor, in the style of a requiem.

The tunes are always being played, how the dissonances resolve is the question. Are they uncertain, or do they always or for the most part (hos epi to polu) resolve in their own way, making efforts at intervention fruitless, and denigrating hope into passivity. Who masters time like music? 

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An Example of this Mastery of Time

Winston Churchill wrote in his preface to The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his six volume memoir of World War II, “One day President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once, ‘the Unnecessary War.’ There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle.” 

Churchill never abandoned the view that human virtue could swing what he called the Hinge of Fate, altering outcomes. In his essay, “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” Churchill asked, “Is History the chronicle of famous men and women, or only of their responses to the tides, tendencies and opportunities of their age?” His claim that World War II could have been not just avoided, but easily avoided, is based on his own assessment that if his warnings had been heeded to arrest the rearmament of Germany and to oppose Hitler militarily when France and England were considerably superior to a rising Germany in arms, Hitler’s support would have collapsed, and the cataclysm that Hitler unleashed on the world would have been avoided.

Churchill was an intense critic of his government and his own party with respect to their actions in dealing with Nazi Germany. When Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin passively permitted German rearmament, Churchill opposed this, sharply criticizing Baldwin and the Conservative Party, of which he was a senior member. He both solicited the Liberal and Labour politicians while not sparing them the lash. 

I have only one more thing to say, and I address myself to the Liberal and Labour Oppositions. We read almost every day—certainly every week—in the great and popular papers the most searching and severe criticism of the existing German regime. Nowhere is that criticism put forth with greater force and ability and from no quarter is it, I believe, more resented by the present rulers of Germany because it is in the main true. Things are said which are capable of raising the deepest antagonism, not in the breasts of the German people, because they have nothing to say as to their own destiny, but in the breasts of the powerful men who control the people. How can the honorable Members opposite reconcile that criticism with other parts of their policy, which is to cover with contumely and mockery and odium every attempt to secure a modest and reasonable defense to maintain the safety of the country.

When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938 claiming that he had in his hand “peace with honor,” Churchill criticized Chamberlain, the leader of his own party saying, “You were given a choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.” Needless to say, Churchill’s influence within his own party was at low ebb, having pestered, insulted and demeaned his party’s leaders, in an effort to get them to abandon their policies of passivity and appeasement. Churchill’s influence among the opposition was not much better. 

It was a matter of chance, something that does not always or for the most part happen, that Churchill was given the opportunity to form a war government in May 1940. In a moment of political catastrophe, of the collapse of the government in the middle of war and the general inability to form a new government through ordinary parliamentary means, Churchill ascended to prime minister without an election or the enthusiastic support of his own party. 

Almost immediately upon Churchill’s appointment, members of the Conservative Party, with the support of their leader Chamberlain, and with the initiative of the well-connected Lord Halifax, launched an effort—an extension of their failed policy of appeasement, to establish a back-channel with Hitler through Mussolini to discuss terms. This was undertaken in the belief that the position of the British Expeditionary Force, which was being choked into a single beachhead at Dunkirk, meant Hitler’s eventual success was inevitable. 

Churchill, through a series of tireless maneuvers carried out while he was also leading the deteriorating military situation, cornered Chamberlain and Halifax, so that when Churchill told the war cabinet “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground,” they, who had sought negotiation as an alternative to suicide, were obliged to cheer Churchill’s paean to suicide, rendering any further maneuver for parley with Hitler too shameful to voice. Had Churchill not achieved this, Great Britain might have been out of the war along with France, and all the benignant successes of the 20th century, which fortunately fell to the United States, would have been impossible.

This series of events, which took place over just a few days in May 1940, illustrates the possibility of one person intentionally influencing events in a dramatic way. But one has to distinguish this from a dramatic accidental influence of events. For example, if Churchill had without intention merely opposed Baldwin and Chamberlain because he found their conduct foolish and repulsive, and then accidentally was made prime minister and then following his instinct for bravado had impetuously uttered “let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood” that would be very different than if it were part of a larger plan based on an estimation of probabilities of various events. 

The former makes Churchill a feather riding the currents of chance events; the latter makes Churchill more of a composer, who is anticipating the unfolding of events, the resolution of various notes and dissonances and playing his notes at the right moment and in the right way in an attempt to bring about a euphonic conclusion. In this latter light, Churchill is calculating. Churchill’s criticism of Baldwin and Chamberlain anticipates that if the incompetency produces the misfortunes Churchill anticipates, Churchill will be a credible alternative. When Churchill is appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, and later when Churchill is appointed by the King to lead a war cabinet on May 10, 1940, he is regarded by all parties—Conservative, Labour, and Liberal—not with trust, but only with less suspicion than any alternative. 

Churchill is in on this state of opinion, because he created it. He is also aware that there is a strong opinion, rooted in the experience of the seemingly uncontrollable destruction of a generation in the last war, that events are inevitably rolling forward, and that based on the demonstrated energy, quality, quantity, and genius of the German Wehrmacht the outcome of the conflict is already decided. The elite ranks of Great Britain had embraced a pacifism embodied by The King and Country Debate, at which the Oxford Pledge that “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country” was adopted by an overwhelming vote of 275 to 153. 

The British elite was thoroughly prepared, psychologically and intellectually, for surrender. They felt that a gentleman could honorably discharge his responsibilities attempting a deal with Hitler. Only Labour and the Liberal parties, having seen how Germans had treated their communists to which the Labour and Liberal parties were misguidedly sympathetic, thought a deal was not possible. But they were by popular election a minority, with Conservatives holding 387 seats in the House. And, ultimately, they shared with the Conservative elite the opinion that the likely outcome of continued war with Germany would be, as was later expressed by Marshal of France Phillipe Petain, in a few weeks Great Britain having “its neck wrung like a chicken.” The difference between Labour and Liberal, on the one hand, and Conservative, on the other, came down to the belief of Labour and Liberal that their necks would be wrung either way. 

Churchill saw things differently. In his first speech to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, Churchill declared that his aim in prosecuting war against Germany was “victory.” While many people hearing the speech were encouraged by its ebullient optimism, many also considered it to be mere words of encouragement in difficulty. Churchill actually believed it. 

He believed it because he had composed his own score detailing how the war might unfold. It was based on probabilistic estimates of events, some of them chance and some of them things that were likely to occur for the most part, which Chamberlain and Halifax could not see any longer because their habits of pacifism and defeatism blinded them. 

First, Churchill recognized that, whatever the fate of the British Expeditionary Force, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy represented a massive obstacle to a successful cross channel invasion of Great Britain. A cross channel invasion was an enormous undertaking which required not months, but years of planning. Churchill knew that Germany, other than in submarine warfare, was a second class naval power. Churchill further knew that Hitler would know that a failed cross channel invasion with the attendant losses might be a sufficiently adverse event to dislodge Hitler from power. Thus, Churchill could guess that Hitler, who was daring on land, would hesitate to prosecute an amphibious invasion, and certainly not without air superiority.

Churchill deduced as well from this that Hitler would attempt to subjugate Great Britain by airpower. While Germany possessed quality frontline fighters and bombers and the German aircraft outnumbered British aircraft, Churchill also knew that with each passing day of aircraft production in Great Britain, to which every resource was being dedicated, the gap closed, and that the conditions of the battle between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force would favor Great Britain. German aircraft would have to cover a greater distance to engage their targets in England, limiting the time they could spend over their targets. Also, all downed Luftwaffe aircraft and airmen would be destroyed, killed or captured, but some downed RAF aircraft and airmen would be recovered and would be back in the air. The attrition dynamics favored Great Britain. There was thus a likelihood that Germany would be unable to defeat the RAF, a condition to subjugating Great Britain from the air.

Churchill had maintained a personal correspondence with President Franklin Roosevelt while he was at the Admiralty. The impetus behind this correspondence was the belief that the United States was on a path that would force it to enter war. Churchill had a good sense based on this correspondence of the tension in the United States between isolationism—which was different from British pacifism, although it had a similar effect in the neglect of defense preparation—and the need for the United States to prepare for eventual war with fascist powers. This jocular assessment of the Americans—“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing once they’ve tried everything else”—reflected Churchill’s confidence in America’s eventual entry into the war. Churchill also understood that the “cash and carry” policy which Roosevelt put in place, an end run of the Neutrality Acts of 1936, placed the United States in a shadowy belligerency with Nazi Germany. 

In the interwar years, Churchill had begun work on A History of the English Speaking Peoples, a multi-volume work, the main thesis of which was the rise of the “Great Democracies” from the Anglo-Saxon deliberative tradition and their union as a force for good in the world. He was familiar through his research, and his own provenance—he was half-American—with Americans, and he believed that based on the American Civil War, that belligerency lurked beneath the commercial surface of the United States, and that American notions of individual liberty made the United States inherently hostile to Nazism. 

Finally, Churchill had carefully read Mein Kampf, Hitler’s detailed score for world conquest. Churchill knew that Hitler’s real aim was conflict with Bolshevism, which for Hitler was an extension of his anti-Semitism. Hitler’s thesis in Mein Kampf was similar to Hegel and Marx in that it interpreted all history as a dialectical struggle. Hitler substituted his own twist that the struggle was not between thesis and antithesis or class struggle, but between Germans and Jews, which would culminate in a struggle between Nazi Germany and international Bolshevism. Knowing this, Churchill believed that the alliance between the USSR and Germany was temporary and would end in war between the USSR and Germany. 

In summary, Churchill believed that a probable outcome of refusing to parley with Hitler was not suicide but the failure of Hitler to invade or subjugate Great Britain, war between the USSR and Germany, and the entry into the war of the United States. He designed the actions of his cabinet around this and, as luck would have it, eventually they all came to pass, some only in the nick of time. Once all these did come to pass on December 11, 1941, Churchill believed the war was won, because the draining of Nazi Germany’s resources in Russia and the overwhelming industrial power and military might of the United States meant eventual victory had transitioned from possible with all the right breaks to highly probable. 

In May 1940, however, Churchill could not lend his gift of clairvoyance to his cabinet. The core cabinet members Halifax, Clement Attlee, Arthur Greenwood, and Archibald Sinclair, and the 25 members of the outer cabinet, lacked the imagination and experience to see what Churchill anticipated in a vast chain of guesswork about chance and timing. As a result, Churchill, through various backchannels, had to shut down efforts to open negotiations with Hitler and so he framed his argument around the valorous embrace of “each man choking in his own blood” rather than being explicit about his notions of a path to victory. The timing was not right.

That is how Churchill played his tune in World War II, improvising, with a broad view of the possible and the likely, a narrow view of the certain, and a definite understanding of the dishonorable. No man exercised more benignant mastery over time and chance in the 20th century than Winston Churchill, and there are few better rebuttals of the reigning thesis of time, bedeviling History, than Winston Churchill.

JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Back to the Beginning

Shakespeare’s Richard II closes with the lamentations of the feckless king inside his prison, “I wasted time then, and now time doth waste me.” Richard II is Shakespeare’s model of the tyranny of selfish incompetence. As a crisis builds around him, much of his own creation, Richard II is incapable of acting except reactively to his desires. He composed no tune, he had no plan to unfold for England, and finds himself finally in prison from which escape is beyond his potential for control altogether. 

The lesson in the crisis which Shakespeare has left is clear enough. No problem will solve itself. There is no moment where enough is enough, and the resolution into harmony resolves on its own as the pendulum swings back. There is no inevitable bright future apart from the carefully laid and complex plots—organizing moments and people, in dramatic ways, where the resolutions of the dissonances are not apparent until perhaps several movements on—all for the sake of some carefully considered euphoric end. 

The American revolutionaries sought to amend their form of government not merely because it was based on a principle that had the defect, from time to time, of delivering an “ass for a lion” but because that form of government had in practice delivered selfish and incompetent government, directed at the “good people” of the colonies, as they are called in the Declaration. That incompetent government viewed the people as factotums at best and as enemies at worst, and in either case not as friends. In this context, the Americans sought to establish for themselves a new government, in a form—specifically under a charter ratified by the new people—that would better provide for their safety and happiness. It was not enough to do this once. 

By 1787, having secured their liberty in war, the new nation was at risk of losing their liberty to a new, selfish, and incompetent government under an ineffective charter, the Articles of Confederation. Behaviors the Articles fostered had cast the United States into a sea of out-of-control creditor and debtor disputes which impeded the happiness and threatened the safety of Americans. And so a charter was made again, without an impeccable respect for the legality of it, and a new Constitution was adopted. This new Constitution endured—survived a civil war—was perfected by amendment until a point. 

Somewhere along the line, it ceased to be a living expression of the people living under it by virtue of its periodic ratification by deliberate amendment. The last time the Constitution was fully amended, start to finish, was 1971; few living adults can claim to have had any material role in this. What Americans know today are the penumbras, the expansion of and blurred separation of powers, and a fortified capital. Who in 1965, when Griswold v. Connecticut was decided, could have imagined that there were rights to contraceptives in the Constitution but no guarantee to trial before punishment? Like Peter Pan’s shadow, penumbral rights derived from the Bill of Rights have the appearance of living without connection to the objects that cast the penumbra in the first instance. 

On January 28, Nebraska became the 17th state to call for a convention of states to make changes to the Constitution. That’s half the number needed to trigger said convention. Perhaps they are right and the United States needs an amended or new charter, a new composition, using of course the same original melodies. As Churchill put it, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing . . . after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

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About J. Eric Wise

J. Eric Wise is an attorney practicing restructuring and finance in New York. Opinions are his own.

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