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QUIGLEY ON TOP: Carroll I hardly knew ye.

September 5, 2014

I have never met anyone who had taken Carroll Quigley’s class at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service who has not agreed the experience was life changing, and that includes such diverse personalities as Bill Clinton and Pat Buchanan. Clinton in his Democratic Presidential Nomination Acceptance Address 16th July 1992, said this about Quigley:

“As a teenager, I heard John Kennedy’s summons to citizenship. And then, as a student at Georgetown I heard that call clarified by a professor named Carroll Quigley, who said to us that America was the greatest nation in history because our people had always believed in two things: that tomorrow can be better than today and that every one of us has a personal moral responsibility to make it so.”

I remember Professor Quigley, in the old military barracks that served us for classrooms back then, plunging down the aisle, arm outstretched as though it held a sword or a spear, shouting out the intimate details of whatever great world shaking battle we were learning about at the time. I recall also my shock when I learned that Plato was not just some Greek in a toga who was Socrates mouthpiece and talked a lot about caves and shadows, but that his ideas, for better of worse, but mostly for worse, may have shaped the fundamental beliefs of whole societies.

His book The Evolution of Civilization (1979) contains more or less the substance of his lectures. Tragedy and Hope (1966) containing over 1300 pages and the uncompleted Weapons Systems and Political Stability (1983) with over 1000 includes most of his lectures adjusted and expanded to cover the special focus of each book. The question this brings to mind of course is, given the multitude of facts and the breadth of the subject matter, how was it possible for the student to digest this knowledge. Even more remarkable is that many of us remember the specifics of the lectures, even as in my case over 50 years later.

He accomplished this feat of teaching by the immense theatricality of his lectures combined with breaking down the facts into repetitive categories and the surprising novelty of his insights. As an example of the latter, I opened Tragedy and Hope and extracted a random quote:

“Helmuth von Moltke, who had never commanded a unit so large as a company previously. Moltke’s great contribution was to be found in the fact that, by using the railroad and the telegraph, he was able to merge mobilization and attack into a single operation so that the final concentration of his forces took place in the enemy country, practically on the battlefield itself, just before contact with the main enemy forces took place.”

All I had ever known of von Moltke before was that he had humiliated the forces of Napoleon III of France. The surprise that he was an amateur and his vaunted strategy so simple, forever fixed these facts my mind.

Of course, the way it usually happens with successful military innovations, they become doctrines that others copy. The French military academies took the concept of mass assault and interpreted it as a question of morale. Unbelievably, French military doctrine following their defeat, maintained that defense was irrelevant, that mass attacks were the only strategy and the army with the highest morale would always win because the army with lower moral would run away. This also would produce fewer casualties. The Italians modified this theory to eliminate morale and opted to place machine guns at the backs of the troops instead of in front of them in order to shoot any who hesitated in the attack. Of course, at Caporetto it meant that the Italian troops charging the Austrian lines surrendered in mass when they reached the enemy’s trenches. Italian troops were not so dumb as to buy their leaders view of “Patria” as something to die for.

This military doctrine of bringing troops rapidly to a huge front for a mass attack collapsed in WW I when both sides ran into barbed wire, machine guns and trenches and died in huge numbers no matter how quickly they got to the battlefield or how high their morale.

Perhaps the central element of Quigley’s teaching is that it is the humanism of society and not its form of government that should be at its heart. For example, on the question of minority rights he wrote:

“I define democracy as majority rule and minority rights. Of these the second is more important than the first. There are many despotisms which have majority rule. Hitler held plebiscites in which he obtained over 92 percent of the vote, and most of the people who were qualified to vote did vote. I think that in China today a majority of the people support the government, but China is certainly not a democracy.

The essential half of this definition then, is the second half, minority rights. What that means is that a minority has those rights which enable it to work within the system and to build itself up to be a majority and replace the governing majority. Moderate deviations from majority rule do not usually undermine democracy. In fact, absolute democracy does not really exist at the nation-state level. For example, a modest poll tax as a qualification for voting would be an infringement on the principle of majority rule but restrictions on the suffrage would have to go pretty far before they really abrogated democracy. On the other hand relatively slight restrictions on minority rights — the freedoms of speech, assembly, and other rights — would rapidly erode democracy.”
The Mythology Of American Democracy

Teaching was Quigley’s life. Many of those he taught intended to enter the United States Foreign Service. He believed they needed to comprehend the cultures they would work in and therefore he developed a method of analysis of culture, history and society that would aid them in their vocation and hopefully create a better world.

He was always was an optimist. Later in life, however, that optimism began to wane. I guess it was like a person who builds one of the world’s most beautiful buildings and warns those who inhabit it that they must remain vigilant against rust and rot only eventually to find the residents too busy pursuing what appears important to them individually to bother with what was necessary for them all. In one of his lectures he opined:

“Many of you come to these lectures because you are intellectually frustrated, and you want to be exposed again to my insistent demands that you think about things. For example, we no longer have intellectually satisfying arrangements in our educational system, in our arts, humanities or anything else; instead we have slogans and ideologies. An ideology is a religious or emotional expression; it is not an intellectual expression. So when a society is reaching its end, in the last couple of centuries, you have what I call misplacement of satisfactions. You find your emotional satisfaction in making a lot of money, or in being elected to the White House in 1972, or in proving to the poor, half-naked people of Southeast Asia that you can kill them in large numbers.”

He ended one of his last lectures with the following:

“Now I want to say good night. Do not be pessimistic. Life goes on; life is fun. And if a civilization crashes, it deserves to. When Rome fell, the Christian answer was, ‘Create our own communities.’“

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From → Carroll Quigley

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