In this edition of Radio Free Acton, we speak with cultural historian and author Victoria Coates on the capacity of democracy to inspire great works of art. Coates is the author of David’s Sling: The History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art, and spoke on the topic as part of the 2016 Acton Lecture Series. You can listen to the podcast via the audio player below, and her full Acton Lecture Series presentation is available here.
On November 3rd, Acton welcomed Victoria C. G. Coates, cultural historian and Ph.D, to talk about her argument that democracy has had a unique capacity to inspire some of the greatest artistic achievements of western civilization. She lays out this thesis in her latest book, David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art. In her Acton Lecture Series address, Coates takes as her case studies Michelangelo’s “David” and Albert Bierstadt’s “Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak“, describing the roles each played in their respective civilizations as well as the underlying political meanings of each piece.
You can watch Victoria Coates’ lecture via the video player below.
I caught last week’s premiere episode of NBC’s Kings. I was curious to see how the biblical parallels between the Old Testament and the contemporary Saul and David story would play out. I also find anything with Ian McShane in it hard to miss, after appreciating his masterful performances in HBO’s Deadwood.
Aquinas has some relevant ruminations, and in preparation for this week’s episode on Sunday night it’d be worth scanning the section from his Summa Theologica that touches the question, “Whether the Old Law enjoined fitting precepts concerning rulers?” (Aquinas thinks so.)
Thomas writes in part that God
prescribed how the king after his appointment should behave, in regard to himself; namely, that he should not accumulate chariots and horses, nor wives, nor immense wealth: because through craving for such things princes become tyrants and forsake justice. He also appointed the manner in which they were to conduct themselves towards God: namely, that they should continually read and ponder on God’s Law, and should ever fear and obey God. Moreover, He decided how they should behave towards their subjects: namely, that they should not proudly despise them, or ill-treat them, and that they should not depart from the paths of justice.
Reading through the narrative of king Saul in 1 Samuel, it occurs to me that it is in part an object lesson of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting influence of power, in this case political. The story begins in 1 Samuel 8, when Israel asks for a king.
When Samuel was old and had passed on his rulership of Israel to his sons, who did “not walk” in Samuel’s faithful ways, the people of Israel clamor for a king. They say to Samuel, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” Samuel is taken aback. He sees the request as an indictment of his ability to lead.
When he takes the request before the Lord, however, Samuel is set straight: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”
God then proceeds to enumerate some of the differences in authority and the exercise of power that will distinguish the period of the judges from that of a monarchy. “This is what the king who will reign over you will do,” says Samuel:
- He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.
- He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
- He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.
- He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.
- Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use.
- He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.
That doesn’t sound very good, does it? Samuel warns that all these things will happen, and “when that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
Why do the people still insist on having a king? Do they not believe Samuel? Or do they simply not care? “But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.'” Here we get to the crux of the issue. The people were willing to sacrifice many of their freedoms and rights in order to feel secure.
Isn’t this a perennial tension? In 1755, Benjamin Franklin noted, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Duly warned, the people get what they want. God gives them Saul as their first king. And the safety they receive, especially from tyrannical rule, is certainly short-lived (and deservedly so, at least according to Franklin). At first, Saul is a good king, and successfully leads the people against their enemies, the Philistines.
As Saul takes up his kingship, there are a number of references to the divine blessing on him. For instance, in chapter 10, the text says that “God changed Saul’s heart,” and later on, before battle, “the Spirit of God came upon him in power.”
In time, however, Saul began to fulfill some of the prophecies that Samuel had predicted: “All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines, and whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into his service.”
When fighting the Amalekites, Saul does not listen to God’s command to destroy all the spoils of war. Instead, “Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.”
Because Saul sins he is rejected as king. He admits and repents his sin, blaming his own weakness and fear of the people (only after claiming that he was disobedient out of piety). God indicts Saul’s motives, however, noting that following the battle he had “set up a monument in his own honor.”
After Saul’s disobedience, the tyranny degenerates and he becomes more and more corrupt: “The Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.”
Even under the previous system of rulership, by means of judges, evil and corruption was possible. Despite a rule of fairness and justice under his own administration, Samuel’s own two sons were wicked and corrupt. But the extent of their authority was limited when compared to that of Saul. And not even Israel’s true king David was immune to corruption, as his covetousness of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah illustrate.