Tenet ille immania saxa,
vestras, Eure, domos; illa se iactet in aula
Aeolus, et clauso ventorum carcere regnet. –VIRG.
His pow’r to hollow caverns is confin’d:
There let him reign, the jailer of the wind,
With hoarse commands his breathing subjects call,
And boast and bluster in his empty hall.–DRYDEN
We were out of the country this past summer, living in Oxford, and most days I ended up walking by the entrance of Green Templeton College (pictured above), the university’s newest institution, which was formed from the merger of Green and Templeton colleges in 2008. Green Templeton, which is primarily a management school, sits on a pretty little plot with an attractive quad encompassing North Oxford’s most notable landmark, the charming nineteenth-century Radcliffe Observatory.
As a classicist, I had been especially interested in the Observatory before coming to Oxford, since it is modeled after the still-extant Tower of the Winds in Athens, one of my favorite ancient buildings. It’s octagonal in shape, for starters, and features relief-portraits of each of Zephyr, Boreas, and the rest of the classical winds. The Radcliffe building no longer functions as an observatory and, in fact, doesn’t seem to have any real purpose anymore but to look nice. As with many things in Oxford, there’s no admission, but some Oxford undergraduates were allowed to make this video inside, in case you’re interested in seeing the largely empty interior.
Green Templeton holds another interest for me, however, since I live in Franklin County, Tennessee. The man who endowed Templeton College was John Templeton (later Sir John), a native of nearby Winchester, who went on to graduate from Yale and Oxford, as a Rhodes scholar, and then to become one of the world’s wealthiest men, managing the mutual funds that bear his name.
Out of his vast riches, Templeton created a charitable foundation, and he planned at one time to place its library in Sewanee on a spot overlooking the valley where he was born. The Templeton Library was in fact built on a bluff not so far from my house, but the foundation never took up residence. In front of this vast but vacant Palladian structure, there is a statue of Sir John, a little ludicrously holding a copy of his book, The Humble Approach.
Every year, the foundation distributes the Templeton Prize, an enormous sum of money that no less than HRH Prince Philip himself hands out at Buckingham Palace. According to the foundation’s website, the prize “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins—the world’s most outspoken atheist—sees it differently, describing the prize as “a very large sum of money given … usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.” The implication here is that to take the money is an act of intellectual dishonesty. Perhaps so, but I imagine there are responsible scholars interested in the issues the prize addresses, though many times, the money has gone to “usual suspects” like Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama, neither of whose causes really have lacked for exposure. But I think Dawkins is right about what the prize represents at heart, namely, a rich man’s intellectual hobbyhorse.
There are smaller prizes associated with Templeton that are distributed locally. The “Laws of Life” contest, now a quarter of a century old, offers a prize of $5000 to teen-agers in Franklin County, and very recently, one of my Sewanee colleagues received a giant grant from the Foundation to study the contest winners. “The Laws of Life are principles such as the Golden Rule or honesty is the best policy. Students choose the Law of Life that has been most important to them and write an essay on how it has touched their lives,” reads the Sewanee dispatch about the grant. I can’t personally imagine wanting to read or write about such topics, but as these things go, I suppose they’re less loaded than the Atlas Shrugged or Second Amendment essay contests one sees on scholarshiphunter.com.
At our local elementary school, students who are deemed most respectful of their peers are given the Templeton Award for Citizenship. Both of my sons have been winners, and while the award doesn’t come with any cash, it is rich in irony. In 1968, of course, Templeton renounced his US Citizenship to become a naturalized British citizen of the Bahamas, a Commonwealth nation that has long been a tax shelter, and thereby avoided hundreds of millions of dollars in US taxes. If you poke around on the web about this, you will find many sites praising Templeton’s financial shrewdness in doing so (especially in the days last spring following Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s decision to move to Singapore) and virtually none disparaging his lack of patriotism. It is true that Templeton gave much of this money away to charities of a religious nature, and for this reason, you can also read a great deal of on-line praise for his deep Christian commitments. But, for my part, I can’t see how Templeton didn’t run afoul of Jesus’ specific directive to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” when he moved to the Bahamas.
Now, I suppose you could say, So what? Templeton is guilty only of hypocrisy in deciding to reward citizenship as a concept while renouncing it in fact because of its more expensive requirements. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, as the old maxim goes, and I can’t say that if I had an enormous fortune like Sir John’s that I would act much differently than he did (though, if I were being honest with myself, I would have to admit that I was primarily being motivated by greed in doing so).
What I guess really bothers me about the Templeton tax dodge, though, is the way that this sort of hypocrisy about citizenship trickles down from the super-wealthy to people in the lowest socio-economic classes, who can hardly afford the double standard. In Franklin County, there are many people who think taxes are the work of the Devil himself, and yet depend upon the very services for which taxes pay. In addition to being a professor at Sewanee, I serve on the School Board in Franklin County, and I have had conversations with people who hate the “nanny state” and yet become irate about the idea of cutting school buses, because, of course, they need them. Public education is an inefficient business and it costs more money than you’d like it to, as do things like roads, police, and fire departments, but that is the price for living in a civil society. If you don’t want to render unto Caesar, you will end up in a place without services or schools, made up only of the empty libraries and towers of wind that are the monuments of billionaires who have no community and prefer to sun themselves on the beach.