On March 22, the world’s oldest conscious being, Adwaitya (“The One and Only”), an Aldabra Giant Tortoise, died of liver failure at the Calcutta Zoo. Adwaitya (1750[?]-2006) was regarded, with fair reliabilit~ as approximately 260 years old, having appeared for the first time on the stage of history as a gift presented to Sir Robert Clive (1725-1774), the founder of British India.
Adwaitya was the last survivor of the 18th century, the century that, more than any other, created the modern world. Industrial capitalism, the representative republic, limited government, the idea of absolute individual rights – these things first appeared, in a recognizably modern form, in the 18th century. So did modern ideas of manners, modern ideas of scientific investigation, and modern ideas of relations between men and women, parents and children, self and society.
It was in the 18th century that America instituted the world’s first firm separation between church and state. At the same time – and not by coincidence – America experienced the two great revivals of religious feeling that established its permanent character as the West’s most religious nation. The 18th century was the age of Jefferson and Madison, Godwin and Wollstonecraft, Voltaire and Gibbon and Franklin and Talleyrand and Chesterfield, men and women of the world and of this world. It was also the age of Jane Austen and Hannah More and John Woolman, of William Blake and John Wes- Ie)’, of religious visions and romantic poetry, of prison reform and the reform of social mores and the beginning of Chris- tian agitation against slavery. It was the age of the “Messiah” and “Come, Thou Fount”; it was the age when Mozart used the same lovely tune in the Coronation Mass that he used in “The Marriage of Figaro.” It was the age when Washington laid the cornerstone of the Capitol in a Freemasonic rite, when the Great Seal of the United States proclaimed, as it still proclaims, that God Has Favored Our Undertaking.
In 1858, Oliver Wendell Holmes published a comic poem called “The Deacon’s Masterpiece; Or, the Wonderful One- Hoss Shay: A Logical Story.” We know that mechanical devices usually break at their weakest point. That’s “logic.” In Holmes’ story, a man constructs a carriage that can never break down, because every part is so much like the others, and every part is so perfect, that there is no weak point anywhere. That’s his theory, anyhow.
According to the story, he builds the Wonderful One-Hoss
Shay in 1755, at the heart of the Age of Reason, and it endures for a century with no apparent change. Then, on the first of November, 1855, the village parson takes the wonderful ma- chine out for a drive; and suddenly … there is
First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill – And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half past nine by the meet’n-house clock.
Well, what had happened?
What do you think the parson found, When he got up and stared around?
He found himself surrounded by the ruins of the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, lying shattered into bits all about him. He found that if something is so logically built that all its parts fit together perfectly and are perfect in themselves, it won’t fall apart bit by bit – it will fall apart all at once – as the Old Regime in France fell apart in 1789, and the Bolshevik regime in Russia fell apart in 1991.
Holmes’ poem has been regarded as an allegory of many things, including the collapse of the 18th-century Age of Rea- son, of the whole idea of an Age of Reason, and of the free institutions that have been built on the 18th century’s ideas and theories. Well, if that’s the truth about the poem, and if the poem itself is true, then libertarians should be dismayed when they consider the passage of time, because the roots of liberty are so embedded in the Age of Reason that they will never survive its final passing.
Many libertarians, indeed, regard liberty as a gift of pure logic, pure theory. They suppose that it cannot exist if its theory and practice are not complete and perfect in every part. Many opponents of liberty agree with them – in away. They view individual liberty as merely a product of theory, a relic of an age of theories that, like all other products of human reason, are as weak and vulnerable as the One-Hoss Shay. Would you fight and die for Locke’s theory of tacit consent? I don’t think so. Or for Adam Smith’s theory of economic value? No, definitely not. What about Jefferson’s idea of an agrarian democracy? No again …
But that’s not my view of individual liberty, or of the 18th century. To me, the Great Century is like Adwaitya the tortoise – huge, lumbering, armored for battle around and above, yet within, all tender with sensibility; individual, and possessing all the internal diversity and contradiction of individual life, but, like a real individual, always the One and Only. I take Adwaitya the tortoise, the 18th century’s last literal survivor, as an image, not of the vulnerability or failure of the Age of Reason, but of its determination and ability to survive. Wherever the idea of the rights and significance of the individual – however difficult or cranky or slow or passionate or inconvenient to others that individual may be – survives and continues its slow, erratic, but persistent progress in the world, the 18th century is still alive. Yes, very much alive.