“I had forgotten the office of judge to which I was appointed . . . in 1835. This office was nominal. Nobody wanted to be judged. The Texans were like the Israelites when they had no king. Every man done what seemed good in his own eyes.”
Jesse Grimes, Letter to J. de Cordova (March 26, 1857).
The next county east of here was named Grimes in honor of the author of my epigram. Jesse Grimes came to Texas in 1826 and settled on an opening in the timber that was thereafter known as Grimes’ Prairie, and he served in many political offices under Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and the early State. It is said that he held “peculiar views in religion,” but I have yet to see a document specifying those peculiarities. Given that his parents named him Jesse, and were themselves named Sampson and Bathsheba, we may suppose that scripture knowledge was not absent from his upbringing, and that he therefore knew a thing or two about “the Israelites when they had no king.”
There is onomastic serendipity in the names of these three members of the Grimes family and the substance of my epigram. Sampson was, of course, the last of the judges who ruled over Israel when it had no king. He was not a judge in the sense that Jesse Grimes is speaking of, but he did mark the end of the era in Israelite history that Grimes likens to early Texas. Jesse is, meanwhile, the name of the father of David, Israel’s greatest king. And Bathsheba was the woman who caused David to sin and gave birth to Solomon, in whom the evils to which monarchy is liable more distinctly appeared.
Jesse Grimes observes that, in the early days of Texas, “nobody wanted to be judged” and everyone preferred doing “what seemed good in his own eyes.” I don’t suppose we have acquired a taste for being judged in the two centuries since Grimes was appointed judge, or that we have lost our taste for doing what we please. Aristotle spoke a very partial truth when he described man as zoon politikon, because man is a social animal only grudgingly.
“Can’t live with them and can’t live without them” just about sums up our opinion of our fellow human beings.
In his argument that man is zoon politikon, Aristotle quotes the Iliad saying,
“The ‘clanless, lawless, houseless’ man so bitterly described by Homer . . . is naturally a citizen of no state and a lover of war.”
By war, Aristotle means melee and rapine, or what Thomas Hobbes famously described as “a war of all against all.” The words from Homer appear in a speech of Nestor, aged counsel to king Agamemnon, in which he is attempting to stave off a schism in the Argive army. Here is what Nestor says:
“None but the clanless, lawless, houseless soul
Loves the heart-curdling game of civil fight.”
I will note that “house” here refers to a unit of social organization larger than the family but smaller than the clan, that civil fight means internecine war, and that “heart-curdling” means horrifying. The meaning of Nestor’s line is, therefore, that the horrors of a war of all against all are unleashed when men throw off the hierarchic authority of fathers, elders and kings.
The cyclops is Homer’s symbol for the “clanless, lawless, houseless soul.” As he says of the Cyclopes in the Odyssey:
“They have no laws nor assemblies of the people, but live in caves on the tops of high mountains; each is lord and master in his family, and they take no account of their neighbors.”
I will admit that I have a fair amount of cyclops blood running in my veins, so my blood does not run absolutely cold at the thought of living in a cave on the top of a high mountain, taking no account of my neighbors. Bound, as I am, in an over-organized world of pettifogging rules and remorseless bureaucracy, I feel considerable nostalgia for those long-ago days when “every man done what seemed good in his own eyes.”
But my cyclops blood is mixed with the blood of a civilized man whose heart is “curdled” by the thought of “civil fight” and a war of all against all, and who therefore sees good sense in the council of old Nestor. Indeed, I am not unfamiliar with the bleak and barren alienation of the “clanless, lawless, houseless soul.”
I expect that many of you share this ambivalence, that you see the partial truth of Aristotle’s zoon politikon, while at the same time feeling the hot blood of a cyclops in your veins.