Exceptions that test the rule

Rick Perry thinks that “the great men of history” all called on the Name of Jesus.


Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Hosea, Isaiah, Hillel, Maimonides, Rashi, Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, Hammurabi, Cyrus, Homer, Hesiod, Thales, Herakleitos, Solon, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Socrates, Plato, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle, Archimedes, Alexander, Scipio, Virgil, Gaius Gracchus, Caesar, Hadrian, Julian, K’ung Fu-tse (Confucius), Lao-Tse, Meng-tse (Mencius), Qin Shi Huang-Ti, Sun-tzu, Sun Yat-Sen, Deng Xiaoping, Katsushika Hokusai, Tokugawa Iyesu, Omar Khayyam, ibn SÄ«nā (Avicenna), Gautama, Ashoka, Gandhi.

Rick Perry, calling for a day of prayer, in partnership with the viciously anti-gay American Family Association:

The humility of the truly great men of history was revealed in their recognition of the power and might of Jesus to save all who call on His great name.

And the arrogant provincialism of Rick Perry was revealed in his belief that “the truly great men of history” all shared his religious convictions. This ought to remind Jews tempted to join forces with conservatives that, in the minds of the dominant faction of the GOP, we are merely honorary whites. But it won’t.

Everyone who cares about the Consitutional order ought to recognize Perry’s move for what it is:  a call for a completely sectarian campaign for the Presidency. It will be very interesting to see who comes and who doesn’t. Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa apparently wants to think it over.


Naturally, Perry doesn’t believe that there have been any great women, so I’ve left them out. Apologies if I’ve omitted your hero or included someone you despise. I’ve omitted Newton and Lincoln as dubious cases, and many others due to my ignorance of (e.g.) Hindu, African, Persian, and Arabic history and culture.

UPDATE Corrections made per comments.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

30 thoughts on “Exceptions that test the rule”

  1. And the dude’s been elected and re-elected and re-elected in Texas, right? Count me a happy if poor Californian.

  2. What exactly was great about Alexander? I thought this was a list of people of either virtue or accomplishment. Conquering does not count. Other than conquering a lot of people at a young age, did anyone have anything good to say about Alexander? I’ve never heard it. At least the Romans built things.

    And what’s wrong with Lincoln?

    But, otherwise, good point. Candidates shouldn’t be using religion that way. It’s cheap.

  3. NCG,
    He’s not called “Alexander The So-So”, y’know.
    Actually, for a conqueror I don’t think he’s supposed to have been a bad sort: intellectually curious about those he “visited”, not given to superfluous massacres, etcetera.
    I think the point with Lincoln is that Mark doesn’t want to get into a fight over whether Lincoln prayed to Jesus.

  4. Those are all foreigners and none of them played football, drove NASCAR or drilled for oil. I seriously doubt any of them even visited Texas.

  5. Maruda,
    Sun Yat-Sen had (fraudulent, admittedly) papers stating he was born in Hawai’i (there’s a Birfer joke there someplace) and spent sixteen years travelling around Japan, Europe, and the United States, raising money and awareness. I wouldn’t be surprised if he visited Texas. And Einstein could easily have visited Texas – and he was a naturalized American, and so no longer a foreigner.
    Deng Xiaoping definitely visited Texas (great picture there!) and probably ordered the drilling for oil someplace.
    The others, probably not so much (most having died long before Texas was even defined as a territory). And I’d guess none of them ever drove NASCAR. Though one or two (Einstein, Freud, Sun Yat-Sen, Deng Xiaoping – even Gandhi) may well have played “football” – though almost certainly not American football.

  6. I can’t see why Newton is a dubious case. He might have flirted with some gnosticism, but he was a devout Christian, of whatever stripe. Lincoln’s omission I understand. Washington should probably not have been omitted. He believed that Christianity was an excellent form of social control, but his personal religion seemed to have been a kind of Roman civic virtue.

    To address Mark’s more substantive point: I think that ultraorthodox Jews who lean Republican are very aware that the Republicans would put them back on the shtetl if they had a chance. In their eyes, that’s a feature, not a bug. They’re more worried about secularism than antisemitism.

  7. Well–I’m not sure that Gov Perry (or most Christians) would agree on Abraham…Hosea.

    John 8:56 “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad”

  8. I’ll never forget a conversation with the fellow student in my freshman sociology class who brought his Bible with him to refute the glorious teaching of Joel Horowitz, Atheist: “All dem people are jus’ here to fill up the world.” This was in 1974. Some things never change.

  9. Political alliances don’t necessarily need to make sense so long as a the attainment of a shared interest is being sought. Once achieved, all bets are off for the alliance!

    If indeed orthodox Jews throw their support behind a Perry candidacy, queerer bedfellows may never be found! If ES is correct above, keeping secularism in check and allowing for the crazy that comes with a Perry persona will not prove to be a long-term political positive for anyone save Perry’s kind of Christians!

  10. Phidias, Ictinus & Callicrates (from whom, almost all Xian ecclesiastical architecture and the building Perry goes to work in, see Summerson, The Classical Language of Architecture),Praxiteles, Galen, Zheng He, Jonas Salk,Carl Djerassi, Shah Abbas I, Ferdowsi

  11. Mark, Thanks for using a semantically correct form of the adage (…exceptions prove the rule). “Prove” equals “test,” not “demonstrate.” As for your main point: religion & leadership, I think that it is almost too easy to demonstrate that effective leadership is poorly correlated with strong religious conviction, especially Christian. Perry illustrates that abundantly and his attempt to associate himself with greatness is pathetic. There is a morality to be derived from the teachings of Jesus, but most “Christians” distort that morality to justify very unchristlike behavior. The “morality” espoused by Is no morality at all. I find myself agreeing with Ayn Rand’s assessment of Christianity -it is evil (her suggestions are just as evil). Having been raised a Seventh-day Adventist, I know something of the tortures devised in the name of Jesus. On second thought, I would assert that effective leadership is negatively correlated with religiosity, at least religiosity of the Christian persuasion. Perry is but one example of that.

  12. Newton would definitely not have met Perry’s (implicit) standard, which I assume includes Trinitarianism. Of course this same standard would also probably allow you to add Brigham Young to the list.

    It is I think instructive to look at a map of religious affiliation in the US; I suspect that from where Perry sits anything other than Southern Baptist isn’t really quite real. My wife grew up on the fringe of Queens, and all she knew were Catholic and Jewish: there was also an undifferentiated (and rare) lump called “Protestant”, but they didn’t show up much.

  13. Governor Good Hair is a perfect example why anybody running for president should be automatically tested for psychopathology.
    It should be mandatory.
    Whatever the latest and best test is…

    Unfortunately we live in a country where it is perfectly legal to force janitors to pee in a bottle…
    But require no analytics on our say-anything do-anything politicians.

    I don’t give a damn if a janitor smokes a joint…
    But it has always bothered me that GWB tortured animals growing up.

    Here is a question for you:
    Of the republicans running for nomination, which, if any, would you rule out as definitely not psychopathic?

  14. Ghandi

    Argh. I can’t believe I’m reading that in a post at RBC.

    You even managed to get the funky lines over the vowels in “AbÅ« SÄ«nā” … but you had to misspell “Gandhi”?

    Bringing it back on topic, what America really needs is a Rick Perry/Katy Perry ticket.

  15. OK, I object to Abu Sina. No, not to his presence–this happens to be the one combination of parts of his name that does not make sense. I usually see him referred to as Abu Ali ibn-Sina. You simply can’t separate “ibn” from “Sina”–it’s like dropping various van, Von, De, d’ prefixes form French, German, Dutch and Belgian names. For that matter, it’s the equivalent of referring to Disraeli as Israeli. Or claiming that Osama Bin Laden’s name is Laden. Wiki has a fuller name: AbÅ« ‘AlÄ« al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn SÄ«nā. But you can always skip the middle “ibn” clause.

    Omar Khayyam was not particularly testing–or, perhaps, more with poetry than with his scientific and political ideas. And if we’re going to include every poet that “tested the rule”, we’d have a lot longer list. If you’re looking for rule-breakers associated with that particular culture, al-Biruni would a far more worthy addition.

    I actually agree that Newton does not belong. Yes, he has accomplished something–even something new, by some standards. But it was not particularly revolutionary and thus not testing any rules. Religiously he was quite reactionary, in fact. His science followed Wallis and Barrow who did all the heavy lifting and he feuded with Leibniz whose ideas were a far more drastic departure from then-current theories.

    And if you’re going to go with the “testing the rule” theme, you’d have to include those with a net-negative impact on world history. Certainly Julius Caesar changed the course of history–there might have been another dictator who would have come long eventually to turn the Republic into an Empire, but he would have been just as important. So JC (this particular one) clearly is a significant milepost. Same could be said about Constantine who made a decision that’s had far-reaching consequences at least for the next 1400 years. And, in fact, it’s still having an impact, although a bit less direct.

    What makes Thucydides a testing rule-breaker? He recorded history–perhaps in a way that might have been somewhat unfamiliar to his predecessors, but not so different that it was “testing”. And, more importantly, we simply have a better record of his work than others from the same period (and of the same nature). So it’s not entirely clear how exceptional it was.

    Such lists are invariably vulnerable to serious criticism–and it makes absolutely no difference whom you pick for the list. Whatever the list includes, it’s bound to have holes and excesses. And not everyone will agree on what they are. So we get the same problem as with the “top 10 classical composers” and their ilk.

  16. Pericles is an interesting case. Yes, he presided over the Golden Age of Athens. But the Golden Age was based on tributes extorted from the subject allies. Then came the Peloponnesian War. No doubt it would have had a better outcome had Pericles survived, but the Funeral Oration is a monument to foolish over-confidence.

    As to Alexander, if he hadn’t done all that conquering – admittedly, not in general an admirable activity – we wouldn’t have heard of any of the rest of those famous Greeks. Caesar is a harder case, but he didn’t kill the Republic; he only buried its stinking corpse, fatally wounded by the Senatorial murderers of the Gracchi and finished off by Marius and Sulla.

    My point about rule-testing has to do, not with the actions of individuals named, but with the “test” they posed to to “rule” enunciated by Perry – that “the great men” all called on the Name of Jesus.

  17. Couldn’t one read it to say that he is testing only their humility? Perhaps the other truly great men just had big egos? Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that.

    But really I wanted to address what Brad said about leadership and religiosity. It’s entirely possible for one to be a devout Anything, and yet keep one’s mouth mostly shut about it. Let’s remember we don’t really know what’s going on inside anyone else, for the most part. It’s the doing and not the talking that matters.

  18. There is nothing arrogant about the belief that “the truly great men of history” all share one’s religious convictions. You do recognize the inherent subjectivity of the label “truly great” right? You realize that there are people out there who count Hitler and Osama Bin Laden as “truly great men of history”? So let’s don’t call that arrogance. Try to argue the case for or against their greatness on some sort of objective measure if you will (did I hear someone say moral objectivity??), but don’t mislabel this as arrogance. And let’s don’t pretend that we’re not all proventialists to a certain degree when it really comes down to it either. I know the appearance of open-mindedness is supposedly this great liberal virtue, but the irony is that liberals are the most close-minded people I’ve ever interacted with.

  19. NCG: I have no problem with a leader being devout. So long as that leader’s beliefs/morality don’t become the basis for defining what is acceptable. A Catholic who can and does distinguish between his church’s view on abortion and our societies view, I’m fine with so long as he doesn’t use his bully pulpit to try to legislate his view. I don’t want the president or governor – a leader – acting out of his religious conviction. (I’m not arguing for an immoral leader, just one who is able to accept the views of others, eve3n where the murder is used as in the abortion debate). Conservative Christians, as a rule are unable to make this separation. Since they know what is right, if you are not living as they think appropriate, you are a sinner and should be punished and better to use the power of the government so everyone is in line. The curious thing is that the truly devout people I know are much less interested in telling me what is right, and I sincerely doubt that most of those who want to apply their morality, as leaders, are really that devout. I am aware that my cynicism here is very colored by the problem of getting over a conservative Christian background. As a psychologist, I would assert that the experience of growing up in a fundamentalist religion qualifies as extended child abuse.

    Bux – re close mindedness: I would say the same thing about conservatives. For me, the difference is that most liberal positions have some empirical, or data based, background and it is difficult to tell someone they are wrong when the data are on their side. If you don’t believe me, try to bring reality to someone who watches FOX news regularly. But Facts have a well known liberal bias,and truthiness is so easy to buy into (and we all should bow to Colbert).

  20. Go ahead,Bux. Show me the objective standard against which Socrates and Moses and Lincoln and Einstein weren’t “truly great.”

    Yes, all of us are provincial, or my list of great men wouldn’t be so concentrated in a few cultures. But some of us regret our provincialism, while others glory in it, and appeal to our fellow-provincials in an attempt to run a sectarian campaign for the Presidency.

    Perry’s campaign is in frank violation of Constitutional principles, though not of the Constitution itself. The Framers forbade any “religious test” for public office. That was a reaction against English laws designed to ensure that all officeholders had the same religious beliefs. They didn’t seem to think that “all the truly great men” agreed with them theologically. But no doubt Rick Perry is a greater political philosopher than James Madison.

  21. The Bible warns against those who cynically use religion as a marketing prop, in the effort to profiteer from the association.

    Matthew 21:12 “Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” http://bible.cc/matthew/21-12.htm

  22. Bux: There is nothing arrogant about the belief that “the truly great men of history” all share one’s religious convictions. You do recognize the inherent subjectivity of the label “truly great” right? You realize that there are people out there who count Hitler and Osama Bin Laden as “truly great men of history”?

    Mark: Go ahead, Bux. Show me the objective standard against which Socrates and Moses and Lincoln and Einstein weren’t “truly great.”

    Mark’s response misses Bux’s point. Bux did not claim that there is an objective standard against which Socrates and Moses and Lincoln and Einstein weren’t “truly great.” He claimed that there are no objective standards. That means that, just as Mark is entitled to believe that Socrates and Moses and Lincoln and Einstein were truly great, he is entitled to believe that only Christians were truly great. It’s like whether you prefer vanilla or chocolate; there’s nothing to discuss.

    By the way, two great non-Christians whom no one has mentioned are Bertrand Russell and Sandy Koufax.

  23. John A Arkansawyer,

    I would’ve put in a word for Marcus Aurelius had I made the list.

    I understand you were considered, but just barely failed to make the cut. 🙂

  24. I’m not sure I agree that all greatness is subjective. How could curing a horrible disease not be great? What kind of an *idiot* would one have to be to not think that extraordinary? Or freeing millions of slaves? (Or even just a few. One, maybe.) That is “great” and I want nothing to do with the kind of faux “openmindedness” that would deny it.

    On the other hand, baseball is not one of my areas. But tell me, did Koufax juice?? (just kidding)

  25. “He claimed that there are no objective standards. ”

    Well, then Bux’s thesis is trivial: there’s nothing objectively arrogant about the particular claim in question because there’s nothing objectively arrogant about anything.

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