“The Devil’s Advocate”: A History

So I’m in Law School now, which means that I pay more attention to lawyery things than usual. And with the recent canonization of Mother Teresa this last Sunday, I got to thinking about one of the more interesting, law-related Catholic expressions that has slipped into everyday usage.

I’m talking about being “the devil’s advocate” – you know, like when you argue for a different side of an issue just because, or when you don’t agree with something but you speak for it anyway: that’s being the devil’s advocate.

It’s one of those marvelously clear expressions: you don’t like the devil, but you’ll advocate for him. Straight-forward. Makes sense.

What does this have to do with Mother Teresa, you say? Well, did you know that “the Devil’s Advocate” was originally (and still is) a title used in the process of Catholic canonization, of making saints? Continue reading

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George. Freaking. Washington.

soft portrait_of_george_washington

“Simple truth is his best,
his greatest eulogy.”
– Abigail Adams, speaking of George Washington

America’s first President. General of the Continental Army. Dude on the $1 bill.

Everyone’s heard of George Washington – but what do they actually know about the guy? Answer: not much. He’s lent his name to countless institutions, organizations, and places, including a north-western state and the nation’s capital itself. His face is carved into a mountain. Yet for all this, he comes off as just about as relatable as the marble obelisk erected for him in D.C.

Truth is, this estrangement isn’t a new phenomenon – even in his own day, George was something of an enigma to his contemporaries. As you can imagine, 200 years haven’t improved the situation.

George Washington is the #1 example of the problematic way we have approached the American Founding Fathers for too many years. In our noble efforts to honor him, we have instead succeeded in making him inhuman and distant. If he seems boring, it’s because we made him that way. Which is such a shame, because I love George.

So let’s start afresh. Continue reading

Alexander Hamilton: Well, That Came From Nowhere

A. Ham

“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory: you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
Hamilton, An American Musical

Sometimes vindication and fame come a little late.

Alexander Hamilton would appreciate this fact. Despite featuring on the $10 bill (a privilege he may soon be losing), the youngest of the Founding Fathers has been (until recently) supremely undervalued for all that he accomplished on behalf of our country.

To read off a little of his resume, he was Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolution, and an active participant in writing the Constitution. He penned 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers that rallied support to the Constitution and the new form of government it embodied (they are still used today in court as a source of Constitutional interpretation). He was America’s first Secretary of Treasury, rendering us stable economically, establishing America’s good credit, and making us an international contender in the financial sector. He founded New York’s first bank, the first National Bank, and America’s first political party. He personally saw to Thomas Jefferson’s election as president. He also founded the Coast Guard.

He accomplished all of this as a bastard immigrant from impoverished circumstances before dying at the age of 49.

I never cease to be amazed by Alexander Hamilton – he was the ultimate wildcard. No other founding father came from such a complete disadvantage, and absolutely no one saw him coming…kind of like a certain spectacle that debuted recently in New York.

But I will get to that in a minute. In the meantime, let me give you the skinny on Hamilton’s unexpected rise to prominence.

Continue reading

Roman Legends: Crossing the Rubicon

Caesar Crossing the Rubicon

“Alea iacta est.”
(“The die is cast”)
– Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon

“So successful was Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon that it has come to stand for every fateful step taken since.”
– Tom Holland, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

Some decisions change everything.

Julius Caesar knew he was making just such a decision. It was 49 B.C., and Caesar stood paused on the banks of the Rubicon river marking the border between Gaul and Rome. His armies were gathered with him by the river, awaiting his orders to either advance or retreat.

It was the moment where the entire history of the west hung in the balance. To remain or retreat would mean an end to Caesar’s political career and everything he had worked for all his life. To advance was to forever put an end to the Roman Republic.

The fate of an empire was at stake as he stood at the Rubicon and pondered his choice.

Continue reading

Theodora & Justinian: Reign of Equals

Port of Constantinople by Ivan Aivazovsky

Port of Constantinople by Ivan Aivazovsky

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“One’s not half of two; two are halves of one.”
― E.E. Cummings
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Why write about an Emperor and Empress who ruled a forgotten empire 1500 years ago?

Sure, they lived around 500 AD in what is now Istanbul, Turkey. They spoke the dead languages of ancient Greek and Latin. Most of us have a hard time even pronouncing “byzantine” (biz-an-teen). But I like to think that Theodora and Justinian have more to teach us than we might realize.

As I explained in my last post, they lived something close to a fairy tale –  two ordinary kids from the lowest social classes one day found themselves Emperor and Empress of the Byzantine Empire. Yet the story of Justinian and Theodora endures beyond their rise and flows into their reign: one that defined their empire for nearly 1000 years, and still stands as one of the greatest examples of a power couple at work in history.

And I’ll be the first to admit it: I am a huge fan of Theodora.

Let me back up a little bit and give you a sense of what this very strange Byzantine Empire was. Continue reading