To repurpose words from “Macbeth,” social media and politics are “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For proof, look no further than the response to Sen. Tom Cotton’s claim that Chinese students who study in American universities should not be taught quantum computing.
Instead, Cotton said, “If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America.” He called it a scandal that American universities have trained the brightest minds of China to have them “ultimately … steal our property and design weapons and other devices that can be used against the American people.”
In a sane world, Cotton’s point would have been debated and actually discussed. It’s not as if this is the first time anyone in government has accused the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of stealing American secrets. In October 2018, Bloomberg News reported a massive hardware hack by Chinese agents, which affected companies (including Apple), banks, and government contractors. Beijing has perfected techniques of getting former government employees to pass it secrets. The CCP has even recruited Chinese nationals studying in American universities to spy for it.
But sane times today are rare. The left’s take was that Cotton had claimed William Shakespeare was American. To compound the insanity, Joe Virgillito’s take at BTRtoday was that Cotton’s remarks proved his xenophobia since he had basically shown his “Western civilization superiority complex.”
It’s patently ridiculous to claim that Cotton was saying Shakespeare was American simply because he said Shakespeare was something Chinese students should learn “from America.” Any other interpretation is a hoax on scale with Trump’s “very fine people” comments, one created solely to make Cotton appear the stereotypical hick from the South.
What leftists are actually doing is condemning the American education system. A simple Google search will show that Cotton graduated from Harvard with an A.B. magnum cum laude after only three years of study. He then earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. If Cotton is such an idiot that he thinks Shakespeare was a great American playwright, the blame falls on the institutions that taught him that or failed to correct his mistake.
Shakespeare Explored England’s Theme of Liberty
In a very powerful way, however, Shakespeare is American in the sense that his work is part of the Western canon and tradition, specifically the Anglo branch of that tradition, meaning he is part of the tradition of ordered liberty.
If the United States is the beacon of liberty today, it is because she inherited it from England, which held that torch until the post-World War II era. This is what made England unique. Of all the European countries that formed and began after the fall of Rome, England was where the idea and tradition of liberty took hold and retained a grasp for the longest time.
The strongest way England was the beacon of liberty from the Middle Ages through World War II was through its adherence to the rule of law. Where other European countries drifted toward despotism with monarchs, England saw the law as the true monarch, even above the king. This is evidenced in a long line of legal documents, such as the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Bill of Rights of 1689; major events, such as the English Civil Wars; and institutions, such as common law. This tradition gave England trial by jury, innocent until proven guilty, and the idea that a man’s home is his castle.
In this way, the English kings could not act arbitrarily. Every Englishman had certain rights the law recognized that could not simply be violated because of a king’s caprice. It was ordered liberty, or liberty under the law, that gave citizens room to move and breathe without a king or lord’s interference.
As a British subject of the Elizabethan and Stuart periods, Shakespeare was fully aware of this tradition of liberty under law. Many of his historical plays, in fact, explored this theme.
Ordered Liberty Is a Shakespearean Theme
Shakespeare also went deeper than the legal aspects of ordered liberty. As author and professor John Alvis explains, political liberty, or ordered liberty, had two components: liberty from government (being left alone) and liberty for government (freedom to help shape public policy). Alvis says Shakespeare’s genius was in demonstrating through his plays how the two components fit together.
Alvis says Shakespeare — as a believer in natural law, which “owes its authority to the design inscribed within being, in the nature of things,” and in Plato’s metaphysics as it pertains to the human person, where man is composed of reason, passions, and spiritedness — believed a person is only truly free when his reason, buttressed by his spiritedness, controls his passions. When a person attains this state, he enters into personal self-government.
Only within a society of people who have achieved self-government — or are striving for it — can society be free, since they no longer need an overruling hand to govern them. They govern themselves, being “genuinely free and yet regulated, voluntary yet not arbitrary.”
This, Alvis argues, is the overarching theme of Shakespeare’s three Roman plays — “Coriolanus,” “Julius Caesar,” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” In “Coriolanus,” Romans establish their republic after the defeat of Tarquin, the last Roman king, with the understanding of political liberty already described. Ordered liberty is stabbed in “Julius Caesar” and eradicated in “Antony and Cleopatra,” in which, according to Alvis:
There exists no longer any awareness of the common good. … The positive form of political liberty disappears without a trace. … [The people] can no longer conceive what it means to be responsibly free. They only know freedom as doing what they desire at the moment.
This idea of personal liberty Shakespeare displayed in his plays was part of his inheritance as a man of the West. Plato, as already mentioned, believed and argued for this vision of freedom. But so did the pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Heraclitus, Zeno, and Cleisthenes before him. So did the Stoics and the Roman statesman Marcus Cicero after him, meaning Shakespeare was, in his own time, part of the Western tradition of ordered liberty England inherited.
America Inherited Ordered Liberty
America, as British colonies and part of the West, also inherited it. Contrary to popular imagination, the Americans of the 18th century were not 21st-century libertarians in periwigs. Their ideas of liberty were much richer and more Western than that.
Barry Shain, in his book “The Myth of American Individualism,” says that for 18th-century Americans, “Perfect Liberty is the Latitude of voluntary Conduct informed by Reason and limited by Duty.” Jonathan Boucher, in a 1774 sermon, defined “true Liberty then is a liberty to do everything that is right, and being restricted from doing anything that is wrong.”
This vision of liberty, according to Shain, lasted in the general American culture for well over 100 years. While some more individualist definitions of liberty began to be bandied about in the 1790s, that vision wasn’t fully embraced until the end of the 19th century. Abraham Lincoln is proof of this, famously declaring that liberty is the ability to do what we ought and not what we want.
Even more, Americans’ understanding of ordered liberty was more than likely reinforced by Shakespeare’s plays themselves. As Edwin Willoughby says, by 1750, Shakespeare was being preformed on American stages and read by Founding Fathers such as George Washington and John Adams. His words were even used in political pamphlets.
Since Shakespeare and America are both part of the West, it can be said Shakespeare is like an older cousin of American culture. That shows the ignorance of Cotton’s detractors.
But one more element must be grappled with: the charge of a “Western civilization superiority complex.”
The West has never been infallible. Neither has any other country, culture, or civilization. But while every culture and civilization possesses at least some truth, goodness, and beauty, some clearly have more than others. Roman culture, while obviously flawed, was superior to Carthaginian culture, which permitted babies to be burned alive to Moloch. The conquistadors were not saints by a long shot, but they were culturally superior to a society that practiced mass human sacrifice.
While Western civilization has many flaws today, it is superior to a totalitarian culture that cracks down on democratic protests, herds Muslims into concentration camps, and only recently lifted its barbaric one-child policy. Chinese students saturated in this kind of culture also need to know about the West’s tradition of ordered liberty.