With the unanimous assent of his cabinet, the recently inaugurated Thomas Jefferson decided in May, 1801 to send a naval squadron to Tripoli, albeit with limited, defensive objectives: to provide safe convoy for American shipping, and to enhance the professionalization of the Navy with what amounted to cost-effective, on-the-job training in the Mediterranean.
Command of the small, first Mediterranean squadron—the frigates President, Philadelphia, and Essex, and the schooner Enterprise—fell to Commodore Richard Dale, one of the original six frigate captains. Shortly after reaching Gibraltar on July 1, 1801, Dale learned that the bashaw had months previously cut down the flagpole standing before the U.S. consulate in Tripoli, signaling the commencement of war.
Ours is an age of skepticism and there is nothing more vulnerable to the skeptic than everyday human experience. Tradition and cultural inheritance, which shape human experience, are especially subject to doubt. One need only observe the decline in church attendance and in the number of married women under thirty in Britain, France, and the United States to understand that doubting tradition and custom is more fashionable than embracing them.
In 336 B.C., on the death of his father, Alexander the Great set out to conquer an empire—the largest empire the ancient world had ever known. It reached from Greece to India along one diagonal, Bactria to Egypt along the other, and it lasted until . . . well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Alexander died in 323 B.C., only a dozen or so years later, and in many ways his empire died with him—immediately carved up into rival satrapies by his generals, relatives, and friends.
With an artist as familiar as Rembrandt, it is difficult to make his work appear fresh. It is even more difficult for a curator to avoid overwhelming an exhibition’s guests with example after example of virtuosity. Yet that is precisely what the Morgan Library and Museum in New York has achieved with “Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece,” which is on display through September 18.
Every now and again, when politics reaches an unbearable fever-pitch of idiocy, one is tempted to trade the eternal push and pull of democratic consensus for that perfect mixture of wisdom and power found in the person of Plato’s un-democratic Philosopher-King. Plato’s paradox—that the just, happy city will elude us until kings learn to philosophize or philosophers become kings—is meant to sober our expectations of earthly governance. If we set our sights somewhat lower, maybe the best to be hoped for are philosophers or the philosophically inclined to find their way to the halls of power, ready to serve those among the less wise who at least have the virtue of good listening skills. And this is really, in the final analysis, what the brilliantly conceived The Professor and the President is all about.