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Victor Nuovo: The worldview of Sir Walter Raleigh

There is a well-established tradition among political philosophers that there are three types of government, distinguished according to the number of persons who rule: one, few, or many; hence, monarchy, oligarchy (or aristocracy, when the few are of noble character), or democracy. For the sake of consistency, the latter might have been designated “demarchy,” but this word has another meaning. A demarchy is a form of representative government of a city or state, which is subdivided into districts. The people of each district choose their representative or “demarche,” either randomly or by preferential vote. The demarchs make up a council with the power to govern. In a pure democracy, there is majority rule of all the people in a common assembly. Accordingly, a demarchy is a representative democracy, a form of government with which we are intimately familiar: a democratic republic, that is, a representative government whose representatives are democratically selected, by popular vote.
In the wake of Columbus, the various European governments engaged in the colonization of America were monarchies, and the adventurers whom they empowered were all dedicated monarchists. During this age of discovery, the Pope, thinking himself to be the spiritual monarch of the world, divided this new world between the two leading Catholic political monarchies, Spain and Portugal. Little was known then of North America. Like Columbus, the Spanish Conquistadores claimed the lands of South and Central America for the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and for their successors. All this was accomplished by conquest.
The early English colonies in America were more interested in enrichment than conquest; they assumed that America was a wilderness, land free for the taking and for commerce. However, their politics were no different. The first English settlement in North America was established on Roanoke Island, in the Chesapeake Bay in 1585, and abandoned, settled again in 1587, and soon the whole area came to be known in the minds of the settlers as “The New-Found Land of Virginia,” named in honor of the English queen, which suggests that in spite of prior Indian settlements, and the commercial relations between them and the English, it was taken to be English territory, a domain of the Queen. Sir Walter Raleigh was a major sponsor and financier of the Roanoke colony. He was favorite of the Queen, who knighted him for his services. He was a Renaissance man: adventurer, statesman, soldier, entrepreneur, but also a poet, philosopher, scientist, and historian.
The Roanoke colony was ill-fated. The second settlement was also abandoned, how and by what cause, is unknown. Its settlers simply disappeared. According to one theory, they were massacred by the Indians, according to another, they were at the point of starvation and sought refuge with neighboring Indian tribes and were assimilated by them.
The first permanent English settlement was established in Jamestown ten years later. It was named after James I, who succeeded Elizabeth. Raleigh took no part in this later settlement. Indeed, when Jamestown was founded, he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. A few months after Elizabeth’s death, he was accused of treason, of plotting against the James’s succession. He was convicted and imprisoned for thirteen years. In 1616 he was pardoned and allowed by the King to lead an expedition in search of El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, supposed to be located somewhere in what is now Venezuela. His voyage enraged he Spanish, who considered this their territory. The Spanish ambassador persuaded James to punish Raleigh. The sentence of death was renewed, and he was beheaded on October 29, 1618. It was reported that when he mounted the scaffold, he asked to see the axe that would be used to kill him, and noting that its blade was very sharp, commented “This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries.” His last words, to the executioner, were “Strike, man, strike!”
While in prison, Raleigh passed the time reading, writing, and reflecting. He was well supplied with all that he needed, books, pen, ink, and paper, and he wrote The History of the World. It is a masterpiece. It is also a very long work, and few have read the whole of it — I have not. But there is an abridgment of it that gives the sense of the whole. And it contains the reflections of a man of refined literary taste and penetrating thoughtfulness. It presents a view of the world, and of history, exemplary of its time, a succession of kingdoms and sovereigns, good, bad, and indifferent. Raleigh’s preface gives a brief survey of English monarch, it is frank and unvarnished. Reading it, one is reminded of Shakespeare’s histories, which were written about the same time. They complement each other.
In his prison cell, Raleigh reflected on the meaning of history. It was a fitting subject to think about for someone in prison and under a sentence of death. It was a way of escape, for he perceived that history “triumphs over time” and its misfortunes. By studying history, we are no longer confined to the present moment. Historical memory and imagination transport us to the most distant times past, to the origin of the world, and to its successive generations. In the historical imagination the dead are made to rise “out of the depth and darkness of the earth” and pass in review in the present. Raleigh’s purpose was not to escape his present misfortunes, but to judge them and himself, and to make even more universal judgments, to draw out of the past “a policy no less wise and eternal.” Policy or policies of prudent social action, of just institutions and practices, of political wisdom, and there is a good deal of this, spread throughout the many pages of Raleigh’s history. One can randomly open the book and read and be edified.
We are all prisoners of the present, and in these doleful political times, the present may seem a place of hopeless confinement. But, joining Raleigh to Aristotle, we are also historical and political animals; our greatest talents are historical memory and a capacity for prudent action; and history is our best teacher.
Postscript: Raleigh’s cell in the tower of London was not a dark dungeon, nor was it anything like a modern jail cell. It was a spacious room, with windows, a fire place, cabinets, a writing desk and chair. It was large enough to accommodate a library of 500 books and also scientific equipment, for among other subject that interested him was natural philosophy, especially chemistry, which allowed him to conduct experiments. Like all early chemists, Raleigh had was curious about the possibility of transmuting base metals into gold. A useful abridgment of Raleigh’s History of the World was published in 1971 by Macmillan Press, edited by C. A. Patrides. It has a fine introduction.

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