Monday, January 26, 2015

How Jaffa’s Critics Remember Him








The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, by Armand-Dumaresq, (c. 1873)

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, by Armand-Dumaresq, (c. 1873)

American political science has lost a significant contributor with the demise of Harry V. Jaffa (1918-2015).  We mourn the death of Professor Jaffa, and acknowledge that there will be many celebrations of his life and scholarly achievements to appear, especially from his epigones. Important contributions from Ken Masugi and Peter Lawler have already appeared in this space. As a mentor, Jaffa inspired a large number of graduate students who have assumed posts in the academy and government.  We call many of these scholars our friends, and continue to appreciate their interpretative approaches and defense of the American political tradition.

He should also be remembered by those of us who disagreed with him.  We differed with Jaffa on his assessments of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, John C. Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, and contemporary conservatism, among other concerns.  While known as a severe critic of those with whom he disagreed, especially as evinced in various printed mediums, we found Jaffa to be willing to enter into frank and open dialogue with some regularity.  We believe his harshest criticisms were often reserved for those scholars he thought might “derail” his understanding of the Straussian philosophical mission.[1]
We were introduced to Jaffa by our friend, Melvin Eustace Bradford, Jaffa’s most famous and erudite interlocutor and respected adversary.  To understand Jaffa, Bradford opined that one must confront Jaffa’s argument that the Declaration was a revolutionary document; indeed, that it founded America on the principle of equality.  That “equality . . . is then both good in itself and good for its consequences.”  And that “the rooting of constitutionalism, and the rule of law in a doctrine of universal human rights, in the political act of a people declaring independence, is unique and unprecedented.”

Jaffa and some of his fellow disciples of Leo Strauss then argued that the natural law idea of universal human rights which they find in the Declaration, is also the guiding principle of the Constitution, and provides the surest means of interpreting the Constitution.  In Jaffa’s view, equality and universal human rights was the “deferred promise” of the Declaration (and the Constitution) that it fell upon subsequent generations to fulfill by continuing the radical Revolution.  With Bradford, we disagreed with Professor Jaffa: There is not a single shred of evidence that anyone at the Philadelphia Convention or any of the state ratifying conventions believed that the Constitution incorporated this version of a natural law understanding of universal human rights from the Declaration. Nevertheless, Jaffa criticized Robert Bork, Russell Kirk, former Attorney General Ed Meese, and Supreme Court justices William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia for failing to interpret the Constitution in light of his understanding of the Declaration, accusing them of being disciples of John C. Calhoun.  In fact, Jaffa argued that his interpretation was capable of correcting all of the alleged misinterpretations of the Constitution.[2]
Bradford responded to Jaffa that equality was not a conservative principle.  “Contrary to most Liberals, new and old, it is nothing less than sophistry to distinguish between equality of opportunity . . . and equality of condition. . . . For only those who are equal can take equal advantage of a given circumstance.  And there is no man equal to any other, except perhaps in the special, and politically untranslatable, understanding of the Deity.”  The only way such equality can be achieved is for it to be enforced by a totalitarian central government.  And people will demand that it is enforced because “envy is the basis of its broad appeal. . . .  Furthermore, hue and cry over equality of opportunity and equal rights leads, a fortiori, to a final demand for equality of condition.”[3]

We argue that the Declaration is not revolutionary at all. The Declaration simply “confirms an existing state of affairs.”[4]  By July 1776, Americans had been fighting the British for over a year (since April 1775).  The battles of Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, Sullivan’s Island had already been fought.  Congress had created the Continental Army, with George Washington at its head.  The colonies, led by Virginia, had already begun individually declaring their independence and adopting new constitutions that did not recognize the authority of either King or Parliament in their affairs.  In July 1776, a British army was descending upon Long Island, and the King had declared Americans to be in rebellion and outside of his protection.  As Pauline Maier, the foremost authority on the Declaration has said in response to Straussian attempts to incorporate it into the Constitution as one of our nation’s founding documents:  “The Declaration is not a founding document.  It is a de-founding document.”  That is, it did not found a nation, it was a secessionist document that declared the dissolution of a nation.

The idea of the “deferred promise” of Equality and universal human rights was engrafted onto the Constitution by Lincoln and subsequent generations of liberals.  It was not present at the Founding.  With Bradford, our primary objections to Lincoln stem from his “misunderstanding of the Declaration as a ‘deferred promise’ of equality.”  Bradford argued that “Lincoln’s ‘second founding’ is fraught with peril and carries with it the prospect of an endless series of turmoils and revolutions, all dedicated to freshly discovered meanings of equality as a ‘proposition.’”  Bradford called this peril a “millenarian infection” that could arm and enthrone a Caesar who would be empowered, through the rhetoric of the “deferred promise,” to “reform the world into an imitation of themselves.”[5]

Finally, in our disagreement, we also recognize Jaffa’s contribution to the ongoing debates in American politics.  Our understanding of the American regime was strengthened by our encounters with Professor Jaffa and his scholarship.  Jaffa was an unrelenting patriot, and his devotion to preserving our political order never wavered.  In many regards, the extended debate he and Bradford undertook proves that honest dialogue can take place even when confronting significant areas of disagreement.  It also suggests we have significant agreement on the vitality of the American regime and our need to defend the principles of the American Founding amidst the challenges that lie ahead.

[1] See Harry Jaffa, Crisis of the Strauss Divided (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012), for examples of his critique.

[2] “Do I not bring philosophy down from the heavens and into the city—making it practical and political—when I demonstrate by my critiques of Kendall, Bradford, and Wills, that their doctrines are merely varieties of Confederate doctrine, and that the vital center for their beliefs is derived from John C. Calhoun? Do I not do that even more profoundly, when I show that the ‘Marx of the Master Class’ is not, in the crucial respect, so very different from Marx himself, since the proslavery attack on free society, and the Marxist critique of capitalism, closely coincide?” (Harry Jaffa, American Conservatism and the American Founding [Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1984], 136)..

[3] M. E. Bradford, “The Heresy of Equality: Bradford Replies to Jaffa,” in Modern Age Winter 1976, volume 20, number 1, 62.  Also see Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Knopf, 1997), p. 186, et al.

[4] H. Lee Cheek, Sean R. Busick, and Nathan Coleman, The Founding of the American Republic (New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

[5] Ibid., 69.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr., is Dean of the Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science and Religion at East Georgia State College, and a Senior Fellow of the Alexander Hamilton Institute. Dr. Cheek's latest book is Patrick Henry-Onslow: Liberty and Republicanism in American Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2013).

Sean Busick

Sean Busick is Associate Professor of History at Athens State University. He is the author of A Sober Desire for History: William Gilmore Simms as Historian (University of South Carolina Press, 2005).

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Rethinking of Political “Thinking”





Freeden, Michael.  The Political Theory of Political Thinking.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, November 2013.


In a highly erudite and comprehensive manner, the prominent British political theorist Michael Freeden (University of Nottingham) raises fundamental questions about how students of politics and others engage in political thinking.  The author is concerned about the increasingly “slippery” language employed in political discourse, and while admitting that the meaning of political terminology is always undergoing change, there is nevertheless a need for decisiveness and finality to sustain the body politic (p. 74).  Most importantly, Freeden urges a reorientation and renewed linguistic refinement among political theorists, suggesting that such a process would reinvigorate the how we think about politics.  The complexities of the analysis in the work are necessary and do obfuscate from the author’s mission.  For example, “micro” level studies of political language usually fail to provide “interpretative flexibilities” that facilitate broad level of understanding.  Similarly, the goal of encouraging fluidity in political thinking may not always prove useful, suggesting an element of skepticism regarding relativism as a guiding principle for politics.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

New Work on Burke Reviewed

My review of one of the best books on Edmund Burke's political thought to appear in the last half century, Ian Crowe's _Patriotism and Public Spirit: Edmund Burke and the Role of the Critic in Mid-18th Century Britain_ (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 304 pp. ISBN: 9780804781275), just published in Perspectives on Political Science:

http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/eu5U438CS9CuuyuE3JWs/full

Friday, September 12, 2014

Remembering W. Wesley McDonald: Marylander, Friend, and Kirk Disciple





On September 9th, with the passing of Dr. William Wesley McDonald, the American academy lost a talented teacher and defender of humane learning.   The American conservative movement, or what remains of authentic conservatism, has also lost a strong advocate for restraint in social and political life.  From a very early age, Wes came to the realization that politics, properly understood, was the pursuit of the good the true and beautiful; and, at this early juncture, Wes also appreciated the imperfectability of humankind, and the necessary limits of politics.  As a great lover and sophisticated student of the limits of politics, Wes feared the inappropriate and increasingly commonplace aggrandizement of liberty by the modern state.  He spent his life fighting the usurpation of fundamental liberties. 

Wes loved his native Maryland, and within our federal arrangement, he considered Maryland to be a southern state in many regards, often referring to the “old Maryland” as a model of political moderation and civility.  Of course, as a realist, Wes derided the political class in power in Maryland during most of his lifetime, composed of career politicos and apparatchiks, whose guiding principles were antithetical to the inherited tradition Wes cherished.  With some regularity, Wes would recollect the role of Maryland in the Founding and in the evolution of the regime, and pray that all was not lost if a recovery of principle could take place.  Graduating from Baltimore’s Towson State University in 1968 with a degree in political science, Wes pursued graduate study in political science, earning a Masters of Arts in political science from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, in 1969.  He considered several options for graduate school before selecting The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  At Catholic, Wes studied with and wrote a dissertation under tutelage of the eminent conservative scholar, Dr. Claes G. Ryn.  He successfully defended his dissertation, entitled “The Conservative Mind of Russell Kirk: 'The Permament Things' in an Age of Ideology,” in 1982.  The dissertation would eventually be revised into a book, and the tome would serve as his most important contribution to scholarship.

No tribute to Wes would be appropriate without some stress upon his importance as a friend and mentor.  I first encountered a mention of Wes on the last page of Kirk's The Portable Conservative Reader (Viking Penguin, 1982), in a section entitled “A Note of Acknowledgment."  At the end of what is still the best single-volume collection of conservative thought available today, Kirk made the following comment: "Mr. Wesley McDonald spent months in close collaboration with me, choosing selections and finding accurate texts, and editing them."  This rather obscure reference introduced me to Wes, his work with Kirk, and Kirk’s willingness to take on research assistants who could benefit from studying with the Duke of Mecosta.  Having spent the final years of my undergraduate years engrossed in Kirk’s writings, and reading the corpus of the Intercollegiate Review, I came to view Kirk as a beacon of light amidst my academic darkness.  In 1983, I began my graduate studies at The Divinity School of Duke University.  I was totally unprepared for what was to follow, and instead of reading the assigned texts, I turned to Kirk and Voegelin.  During the semester, I also attended an Intercollegiate Studies Institute conference, and in the middle of a banquet event, I recognized Wes at an adjacent table from his picture in an I.S.I. speakers bureau booklet.  I approached Wes, and he immediately encouraged me to write to Kirk, telling him of my plight, and Wes also urged me to ask Kirk if he could use a wayward research assistant.  Thanks to the encouragement I received from Wes, my life was never the same.  In fact, I am now one of the more aged individuals who were blessed with the opportunity to work and study with Kirk in Mecosta.

            The next year my old friend from my undergraduate years, Dr. Al Gilman, a mathematician qua political theorist, and an acquaintance of Kirk’s, created an academic entity at Western Carolina University entitled the Center for the Study of Cultural Decadence, following the insights of Joad and Kirk.  Three decades later the center’s title and organizational focus appears a little quaint, as we now take such a high level of societal decadence for granted, and in some quarters we even celebrate decadence as the “new enlightenment.”  Nevertheless, the center was a noble, yet short-lived pursuit, but not before Gilman held a national conference on the topic of decadence.  Both Wes and I presented papers at the conference, and Wes’s contribution on Kirk was eventually published in the Hillsdale Review.  Before the conference ended, Wes advised me to dedicate my year in Mecosta to spending as much time with Kirk and to read constantly!  This was some of the best advice one could receive!

            After Mecosta, I returned to graduate school, and Wes quickly invited me to present a paper at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Political Science Association.  In 1987, under the kind auspices of Wes, I presented my first professional paper, and this effort would become my first published article.  For the remainder of his life, Wes and I remained friends and regular correspondents. 

            Of much greater importance than my personal narrative, Wes’s “mission” as a popular faculty member and student mentor at Elizabethtown College defined his professional life.  The devotion to teaching and mentoring students was Wes’s greatest gift–and his enduring legacy–and it is this academic witness that separated Wes from most of his colleagues.  In some respects, members of the professoriate are the last nomads to be found in American today.  Professors often make career moves to enhance their status or salary with reckless abandonment (and this writer is among the ranks of those who have followed such paths), and with the shrinking number of full-time academic positions, not to the mention the influence of the proprietary, on-line programs, the growth of institutional academic bureaucracies, and other threats to academic life, a professor with a lifelong commitment to an institution is hard to find.  Wes was a most honorable exception.  Wes taught at Elizabethtown College for nearly three and a half decades.  He was beloved by students and his resiliency of purpose is a model for us all.  He mentored countless students who would pursue graduate studies, legal studies, and become political practitioners of one variety or another.  When Wes was a candidate for full professor a decade ago, he asked me to write a letter of recommendation on his behalf.  He thought my status as an academic vice president, and my strong letter of support, would make his promotion a certainly.  In my letter I simply asked the President and the Trustees of they could name a more loyal and devoted professor at their college?  Wes was quickly promoted.

Finally, any celebration of Wes’s life should praise the importance of his great study, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, published by the University of Missouri Press in 2004.  In essence, the book is a valuable survey of a leading (nay, seminal) thinker of the 20th century, although Kirk’s contribution has for the most part been neglected for ideological reasons and assessed by less perceptive scholars than Wes (There are exceptions, however; see Russello’s The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk [Missouri, 2004], and Brad Birzer’s forthcoming study from the University of Kentucky Press.).

            Wes argued that Kirk was a political thinker, historian, historian of political ideas, journalist, and one who served in many other capacities.  Kirk’s significance was not limited to the conservative movement.  Wes was correct, and he teaches us a lesson that we should not easily forget.

In the first chapter of his work, entitled “Kirk and the Rebirth of American Conservatism,” Wes provided an excellent survey of Kirk’s plea for the return to traditional concepts of political order and power.  The description of Kirk’s education experiences was alluring, and at my insistence, he included Kirk’s private reading as an undergraduate at Michigan State, where he was engrossed in Donald Davidson’s Attack on Leviathan; and the influence of his two mentors at Duke, Jay Hubbell (English) and Charles Sydnor (History).  Additionally, Wes’s inclusion of  Kirk’s own commentary as contained in his Sword of Imagination made this an exemplary introduction to Kirk’s early intellectual life.

The next two chapters are central to his book.  Wes thoughtfully conveys Kirk’s defense of the moral basis of social and political life, and the appropriate role of rights and natural law.  Wes depended heavily on Irving Babbitt to explain Kirk, and the effort to distinguish Kirk explicitly from the Christian tradition of natural law thinking evoked some criticism.  While Wes may have overemphasized Babbitt’s influence and the insights of the New Humanists (and their contemporary disciples), he was still prescient in his understanding of Kirk’s worldview.  He was also correct to suggest the important role of literature and humane letters upon Kirk.  For example, Wes’s analysis of Kirk’s Enemies volume by is wonderful and this contribution alone will encourage a new generation of readers to encounter this tome. 

Wes’s chapters (four and five) on Kirk’s contributions to political theory scholarship are the best assessment of Kirk’s political thought every written.  Chapter six delineates the centrality of community to Kirk’s thought, and is presented with great accuracy and clarity.  Wes’s stress on the role assumed by self-restraint makes the chapter an important contribution to Kirk scholarship.  Kirk believed that humankind’s primary obligation lies in his or her community.  Self-discipline and love of neighbor begin with the individual, and spread to the community, and then to society as a whole.  In other words, Kirk’s concept of community serves to define the limitations of society and politics on hand, while on the other it presupposes and defends the necessity of a properly constituted community for securing the moral and ethical results concomitant to society's perpetuation. 


There remain among us many who knew and loved Russell Kirk, but very few of us who have devoted our lives to the exegesis of his boundless wisdom for the rising generation.  With the departing of Wes for the Heavenly Banquet, we defenders of the “permanent things” should remember one of the finest comrades and gentlemen to have come our way.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Georgia Political Science Association to Host Panel on EGSC Professor’s Book



The annual meeting of the Georgia Political Science Association will include a panel devoted to analyzing an East Georgia State College professor’s recent book.  The decision to organize a panel on a recently scholarly book at a professional meeting signifies the importance of the work, as well as the timeliness of the issues contained in the book.  The professor, Dr. Lee Cheek, and his new book, Patrick Henry-Onslow Debate: Liberty and Republicanism in American Political Thought, was published by Lexington Books, an internationally-respected publisher, will be featured at the meeting.  Dr. Cheek co-edited the volume, which gathers documents on one of the most momentous political debates about the meaning of republican government in the decades before the Civil War.
The debate followed the disputed Election of 1824. After an indecisive electoral college vote, the House of Representatives selected John Quincy Adams as president over the more popular war hero, Andrew Jackson. As a result, John C. Calhoun ended up serving as vice-president under Adams. Neither man was comfortable in this situation as they were political rivals who held philosophically divergent views of American constitutional governance. The emerging personal and philosophical dispute between President Adams and Vice-President Calhoun eventually prompted the two men (and Adams’s political supporters) to take up their pens, using the pseudonyms “Patrick Henry” and “Onslow,” in a public debate over the nature of power and liberty in a constitutional republic. “The great debate,” notes Kevin Gutzman of Western Connecticut State University, “arrayed Calhoun’s Jeffersonian republican vision of constitutionally restrained power and local autonomy against Adams’s neo-Federalist republican vision which called for the positive use of inherent power—a view that would become increasingly compelling to future generations of Americans.” The debate between Vice President John C. Calhoun (‘Onslow’) and President John Quincy Adams or his ally (‘Patrick Henry’) captures the clash between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian views at a pivotal moment in American history.
While the debate has not received the scholarly attention it deserves, the organization of this panel suggests renewed interest in the debate, as well as its continuing importance to American politics.  The annual meeting of the Georgia Political Science Association will take place from 13-15 November in Savannah, Georgia.  The panel was organized by Dr. Hans E. Schmeisser of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, and will include scholars from around the country
Dr. Cheek is Chair of the Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science at East Georgia State College, in Swainsboro, Georgia.  His many publications include Calhoun and Popular Rule (2001) and Order and Legitimacy (2004).

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Kind Praise from a Thoughtful Reader of My Cat Essay

Ashes From Burnt Roses: The Art of the Essay: An Ode to the Greatest Cat: I had to come up with a new category for this: an essay by someone I came across that I thought was noteworthy.  Since this is the first of...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

An Ode To Sophie, The World’s Greatest Tabster


Sophie, Constitutional Law Tutor: Cleveland, Tennessee (2004)

            As a traditionalist, a defender of the tried and true against the new and untried, a devotee of personal restraint when faced with overriding challenges, and a defender of the inherited tradition, the present writer has been a critic of change, especially dramatic upheavals, for all of his life.  However, twelve years ago he was encouraged to accept an addition to his family that changed his life.

By birth an agrarian, raised in rural, Piedmont North Carolina, in what the eminent historian Clyde Wilson describes as the Promised Land, old folkways persevere and nurture each successive generation.  In this world, hunting dogs are one of the most valued companions a gentleman can have in his life; for my family, our prized companion was the North American Beagle.[1]  These creatures were a source of great companionship and occasional sporting pride.  On the other hand, felines of all varieties were the most despised of creatures, especially the domestic house cat.  As a young man, I shared this unfortunate bias, an error of my ways that I eventually overcame.  During my childhood, only exceptional men of great perception, skill, and manly virtue were not willing to succumb to this ideological worldview.  Perhaps the greatest example of such a spoudias, or weighty man, was my paternal grandfather, William Spencer Cheek, one of the last mountain men, a native of Yadkin County, North Carolina, a center of the moonshining trade in the 1930s, and the genesis of NASCAR.  Grandpa Cheek, the sort of fellow often also described as a “man’s man,” was surprisingly a devotee of the American Domestic Shorthair, or the “tab cat.”  He went to great lengths to care for his cats, along with his other animals.  The seeds of this writer’s eventual feline redemption were planted early in his life.

Most of childhood was spent unaware of the beauty, grace, and love exhibited by felines.  In fact, I could not fathom how a cat could transform my life.  Providentially, while on a “sabbatical” from Duke Divinity School, I was given the opportunity to serve as the research assistant to a remarkable scholar and lover of cats, Russell Amos Kirk.  As a leading political thinker and man of letters of the 20th century, Kirk possessed many friends and admirers.  For Kirk, cats were a special gift from the Divine, and to be protected and cherished.  One of his friends, Thomas Stearns Eliot, composed the great affirmation of the feline, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and this obviously influenced Kirk, and eventually, your servant.

Guided by the inspiration of Grandpa Cheek and Russell Amos Kirk, even though closed to the prospect of having a feline in our house, some openness emerged after making a professional transition to Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, an exemplary liberal arts college.  My wife, Kathy, convinced me that we needed a cat.  I was adamantly opposed to the prospect initially, but my life experiences allowed me to consider the possibility.  In August of 2000 I walked gently into a pet store on Keith Street in Cleveland, Tennessee, and a beautiful tab cat kitten with white paws ran up to me without provocation; her paws glistened in the bright lights of the store, suggesting she had chosen me as her new factotum.  Little did I know that this kitten would change my life.  In a day or so we brought Sophie to our Georgia Bell Circle home.  Sophie was an adorable kitten, not in the typical sense that all kittens are adorable; she seemed to be able to discern your attitude and you intentions, and responded in due course.  At the beginning of her first night with us, we placed her in the kitchen, and between the kitchen and the dining room we placed an inflatable bed (vertically) so as to block her exit from the kitchen.  Sophie cried and obviously wanted to spend the evening with us, but she eventually settled down and we went to sleep.  Much to our surprise and excitement, in middle of the night, she was able to make her way into her bedroom, overcoming the “great wall” we had placed in her way!  We quickly discerned that Sophie was unstoppable and unflappable, even in the midst of difficult situations!  As she overcame her inflatable bed as barricade, she would overcome many challenges during her twelve years on this earth.

No memory or accounting of the life of Sophie would be complete without some mention of the special bond between Sophie and Kathy.  From the first time they encountered each other, a union of spirit and affection was created.  It is difficult to describe the connectivity between these two living creatures, a bond that never dissipated during Sophie's lifetime.  In many regard, Sophie should best be remembered as a feline genius.  At many points in her life, she approximated an understanding of human speech.  In addition to the spoken word, she was an expert at discerning human emotional needs as well.  She was a "two person cat," with only a duo of real friends for the duration of her life; it was a great honor to have been one of these persons, but I was the inferior of the two friends in Sophie’s estimation.

Dynamic Duo: Kathy and Sophie, Fort Walton Beach, Florida (c. 2001)

From an early age, Sophie was a source of profound amusement, occasional bewilderment, and inestimable joy.  When only a few months old, and still adjusting to life, we were visited by our longtime friends, the Teem family.  Our traditionally-designed house contained a long hallway.  During the Teem visit, in the midst of a  rambunctious series of movements, the youngest Teem, Kaitlyn, and Sophie, ran into each other at full speed in the middle of the long hallway without an exit of any sort.  The culmination of the head-on collision was the issuing of great shouts, and two living creatures making 180° turns away from each other!  Within a month or so later, Sophie had her first encounter with another cat.  Our dear friend, Dr. Mary Waalkes, brought over her cat, John Wesley, named after the great Methodist evangelist, to meet Ms. Sophie.  Yet again, Sophie would demonstrate, as she would on many more occasions, she was a two-person animal, holding every other cat and most humans in great disdain.

Sophie was a great lover of all games, but she had a particular preference for certain toys.  By accident, we discovered that an old belt renamed the “sneaky snake” would become Sophie's early favorite and lifelong source of entertainment.  She literally chased the improvised snake without ceasing when it was used to imitate an actual snake, often for hours, until both the snake enabler and the cat were exhausted.  She also loved small toy rats, and for that matter, any object a person would want to throw, and she would proceed to chase the object.  Unlike a canine, however, Sophie simply enjoyed the chase, and had no interest in retrieving any object. 

Within a year of her birth, we took Sophie on her first sojourn.  We traveled to Fort Walton Beach, Florida, en route to visiting Angie, my stepdaughter, in Tallahassee.  In 2001, they were fewer hotels willing to accommodate pets, but we hoped we could locate one nevertheless.  At the last moment, after not securing a pet-friendly hotel, and having Sophie with us for the duration of the journey, we faced the inevitable: a covert mission was the only course of action.  After being stowed away in my gym bag, and with the mid-afternoon Florida temperature rising, we decided to take her to our room.  What ensued was a week of feline hijinks, with Sophie scampering towards the door every time a housekeeper came to visit; ostensibly, she only wanted to introduce herself to the maid.  On several occasions, she tried to escape from a second-floor porch and explore the ocean and the sand more fully.  But this was not Sophie’s only trip to the coast.  Many years later we took Sophie to St. Augustine, Florida, on our historical tour of Spanish missions and other locales.  After arriving in St. Augustine—and much to our chagrin—we realized we had inadvertently chosen the Daytona bike weekend for our visit.  Because of the overflow of bikers, many of the self-professed easy riders were staying at our hotel in St. Augustine!  Sophie immediately became ensconced on the window ledge, scoffing at all varieties of bikers, from the ranks of counter culture hipsters, to doctors, lawyers, and indian chiefs—all with the same level of disdain.  Sophie was not a good traveler, but this did not prevent us from taking her on trips.  She traveled to Ohio, North Carolina, and many other places.

Sophie, Mountain Cat: Reliance, Tennessee (2004)

In Sophie's third year, will we moved to 600 8th Street NW in downtown Cleveland, Tennessee, just a five block walk from Lee University (my employer) into a Craftsman bungalow with asbestos shingles and a decorative metal roof, built during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.  The bungalow had a beautiful window seat in the front of the house, and Sophie located this perch within a few minutes of initially touring the house.  She found great enjoyment in watching the cars, trucks, bewildered Lee University students, and others, pass by her house.  Regardless of the situation outside, Sophie was impervious to the distractions of the world.  The greatest challenges she ever faced were her encounters with a militant mockingbird.  The mockingbird, often only a few inches on the other side of a glass storm door, was the only animal to evoke a spirit of fear within Sophie.  Kathy was completing her college degree at Covenant College, often taking classes that did not end until late in the evening.  The ever prescient Sophie, realizing her “mom” was away, would wait anxiously by the door for her safe return.  Upon Kathy’s return, Sophie would become the most excited creature God ever created!  Such was the bond between Sophie and Kathy.  At this old house, Sophie experienced her best days, spending many long days in front of the fireplace.  She had already become a legend in our lives and in the stories I regaled my students with great regularity!

In 2005 we returned to South Georgia generally, and to Vidalia, specifically.  This move was Sophie's first extended sojourn out of Tennessee.  We were able to hire our good friend and cat whisperer, Dr. Mary Waalkes as well, so Kathy, Sophie, and I were reunited with our pal Mary who had encouraged us so much in our cat pursuits.  Mary was the only person outside of my wife and me, who really understood Sophie, but this was an understanding not always reciprocated by Sophie.  On one occasion, when we were out of town, we asked Mary to feed Sophie for us.  On her way to church, Mary attempted to feed Sophie.  Much to her surprise, Sophie was more interested in Mary’s ankle than the food.  From that moment on, Mary was always on her guard around Sophie, but undaunted in her willingness to help with the wildcat.  In  March 2006, another cat, Mr. Macavity, decided he would join our family.  Sophie and Macavity would never become best friends, although they reached a level of d├ętente, and they kept each other on alert at all times.  Little Miss Sophie, or Sophirina, as we occasionally called her, was already a renowned feline, and was even awarded the “pet of the week” honor in the Vidalia Advance Progress.  After receiving this recognition, Sophie’s picture and personage became even more well-known throughout all South Georgia!

Sophie, Local Celebrity: Vidalia, Georgia (2007)

One of the most potentially dangerous events in her life was her accidental visit to the attic in our old, restored house in Vidalia.  Against all odds, Sophie was able to force her way into the attic during the heat of a South Georgia summer, and upon escape, there was never an animal more happy to leave the confines of a manmade purgatory.

In 2009 we moved to Athens, Alabama, where I assumed the duties of the associate vice president for academic affairs at Athens State University.  Athens was a much colder environment than Sophie had ever encountered before.  She fared well, even with her erstwhile companion, Mr. Macavity.  Unfortunately, she continued to be plagued by feline calicivirus, a disease that would eventually bring about her demise.  It is terrible disease, which she inherited, but was not diagnosed with until she was a year or two old.  Sophie confronted the virus every day of her life, and she required regular shots to battle the disease.  In 2011, we moved to Gainesville, Georgia, and Sophie continued to prosper.

video
Sophie at Rest, Gainesville, Georgia (2012)

She spent most of her days on a large back porch watching birds fly near her and fish in her koi pond.  Her health was fragile, but on occasion, she would rally and impress everyone with her energy and agility. The next year we returned to Vidalia.  As the Summer became Fall, Sophie’s health began to decline, but she was a feline of great internal strength, and she fought the good fight, as St. Paul always urges.  In November, on her last night among us, and while sick, she jumped into my wife's lap, and was her old self, albeit quite ill.  The next day we were forced to put Sophie to sleep.  This was one of the most difficult decisions my wife and I have ever made.  Few days pass without our reflecting on Sophie and that difficult night.  As a Methodist minister and former Army chaplain, I have grieved over the loss of this wonderful, stubborn, and brilliant cat as much as I have grieved for many departed humans I have known.  I do not consider my sentiments to be sacrilegious or unusual or extreme; my views are merely a sign of my great love for this amazing animal.  We miss her, we love her, and we will remember her forever.



Fragile Circle


We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached.

Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.

We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.

Irving Townsend

Here is Sophie in 2010 with Mr. Macavity, who always tried to be her friend!







[1] See Stuart Marks, Southern Hunting in Black & White: Nature, History and Ritual in a Carolina Community (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991).