December 21, 2005
Jesus, Julius, and George

Since discovering his wonderful, and hilarious, series on the Left Behind books, I’ve considered Fred Clark one of the best around, worthy of an RSS syndication — and I currently only syndicate sixteen blogs (not counting Bad Attitudes and Belisarius Blogs, my other home, so I can see what our RSS feeds generate).

In addition to his excellent writing and penetrating wit, he has one of the coolest blog names around, slactivist, properly rendered in lower case, natch.

In fact, my only beef with him is that he’s never blogrolled us here at BA ;-]. We, of course, blogrolled him a long time ago.

So after all those good words, I hope he’ll let me slide on quoting half of his recent post on Bush’s eavesdropping.

“This is a different era, a different war,” President Bush said in defending his right to be free of all checks and balances. What he means, clearly, is that this new war and new era also requires a new form of government. Democracy and republicanism, he is arguing, are luxuries we can no longer afford in this new era.

The astonishing thing to me is that only “some” oppose this claim.

“He’s acting like a king!” I say, only to realize that not all of my fellow citizens view that as a bad thing. They don’t disagree. They don’t try to argue that this assertion of unfettered executive power is in any way compatible with the idea of democracy or our democratic Constitution.

Instead, they simply try to reassure me that George W. Bush is a good king who can be trusted to wield unlimited power benevolently. Loyal subjects, they insist, have nothing to fear.

And, of course, if only the disloyal and dangerous have reason to fear the unchecked power of the president, then any apprehension about such unchecked power must be perceived as a sign of a dangerous disloyalty.

Nail on the head.

I know I sound like a broken record on this, and it’s embarrassing. But it still seems to me that we might try to benefit from our knowledge of history. In particular, what happened to the Romans when they got to this point?

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First of all, you probably know that the Roman empire, in the territorial sense, was created by the Republic, not the Empire. Only one emperor after Augustus took serious territory, and the next one gave it back. Augustus left in his will the advice to future emperors to settle for what they had, and try to defend it — which made sense, because they already had most of the arable land in Europe, North Africa, and Britain, plus everything west of the empires of the Tigris and Euphrates. Mostly, his successors did just that. This is why we still have remnants of Hadrian’s Wall in Great Britain, for example: they got to Scotland, and said, Screw it, it’s cold and wet, and the inhabitants are barbarians (the Scots were the only free people other than the Germans — the Persian empires used slave armies — to resist the Romans). They hunkered down, more or less successfully, for five centuries in the west. By 500 CE, of course, the Roman Empire spoke Greek and didn’t own an inch of Italy, or follow the Pope for that matter.

The Republic, in other words, was powerful enough to take more than it could defend. Hint, hint! Amazingly enough, the world had not yet discovered the balance-of-power concept, as a result of which the Roman infantry, which was vastly superior in training and technology, was able to conquer Rome’s rivals one by one. Rome was then left with a huge empire, any part of which it could control easily through its military might and its system of roads (if you’ve never seen a map of the Roman roads, this one will show you where the expression “all roads lead to Rome” came from). It was the equivalent, a couple of millennia ago, of the US concept of force projection: they could get a bunch of guys anywhere, pretty fast, who could kick your ass. And if you made ‘em show up, they’d arrive pissed.

But by that time, nobody loved ‘em, because they were soldiers of the empire. At one time, Roman armies would show up at the walls, and the citizens would throw open the gates, knowing Roman rule would be a much better deal than the king they had, who was both greedy and weak. Plus, the Romans had an alphabet. And they had a system of food distribution that largely prevented bad harvests from wiping out populations, an issue familiar to anyone who’s read Braudel’s classic, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. (I rank Fernand Braudel as the greatest historian of the twentieth century, and my second favorite overall behind Gibbon. I’m sure you care.)

But Julius Caesar — okay, a digression here on JC. Dante is widely considered to have written the most impressive fiction of the Middle Ages. Personally, I agree with Joseph Campbell that Parsifal is better and more important, especially, as he maintained, in the von Eschenbach version. But Catholic monks wrote most of the history of the Middle Ages, being the only literate people in Europe at the time, and they were partial to Dante for obvious reasons.

On the other hand, the Common Wisdom — and we all know how accurate that is — is that Niccolò Machiavelli was a godless son of a bitch who believed only in power for its own sake. This, like most characterizations from that time, is badly biased. I offer this comparison.

When you follow Dante to the bottom circle of Hell, and begin to climb up the mountain, which turns out to be the body of Satan, you eventually arrive at the mouth. In Satan’s mouth are three people, being chewed for eternity. They are Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius.

In other words, Dante viewed the two JCs as morally equivalent: the guy who squealed on Jesus was as bad as the two guys who killed Julius. Excuse me? I’m leaving out here the contrarian stories about Judas being picked by Jesus as the only apostle he could trust to squeal on him; ambiguity, even duality, certainly seems to be a theme of Christianity. The stories about Julius, on the other hand, seem to be pretty clear. And historical, to boot.

Machiavelli, you might be surprised to learn, considered Julius Caesar to be the lowest of the low: a man who subverted a republic, which Machiavelli considered the best form of government, for which ideas and participation he suffered serious torture (three turns on the wheel, supposedly). He wrote The Prince after that experience, and is sometimes said to have dedicated it as a sardonic tribute to the family in whose name he was tortured, the Medicis. He’s less frequently quoted from Discourses on the First Ten Decads of Livy, in which he clearly stated his preference for republics. As Bertrand Russell says, “Those who do not read also the Discourses are likely to get a very one-sided view of his doctrine.”

It is to be noted that Machiavelli never bases any political argument on Christian or biblical grounds. Medieval writers had a conception of “legitimate” power, which was that of the Pope and the Emperor, or derived from them. Northern writers, even so late as Locke, argue as to what happened in the Garden of Eden, and think that they can thence derive proofs that certain kinds of power are “legitimate”. In Machiavelli there is no such conception. Power is for those who have the skill to seize it in a free competition. His preference for popular government is not derived from any idea of “rights,” but from the observation that popular governments are less cruel, unscrupulous, and inconstant than tyrannies.

So, back to Julius. When he cast the die and crossed the Rubicon, the civil war he engendered changed the centuries-old Republic, which had survived Hannibal, into an Empire. Brutus and Cassius led the opposition to royal rule, as had their ancestors. His nephew Octavianus, later titled Augustus, was one of the all-time great politicians, the like of whom has rarely been seen. Franklin Roosevelt might have been at that level; and, God help him, Lyndon Johnson. Augustus was smart enough not to call himself Emperor; after all, doing so had killed his uncle. He continued the forms of the Republic, and simply waited, at the head of forty-four veteran legions, a force which had defeated Antony and Cleopatra, and was paid by his family, for the Senate to vote to force him to accept responsibility for the safe-keeping of the Empire.

These days, it appears we’ve dispensed with the smarts, but we’re still stuck on the catch-all excuse of “national security”.

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at December 21, 2005 05:27 AM
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Thanks, Chuck, for the link to the Left Behind analysis, a mesmerizing discussion of the Visitation Pastor role, which took me back a decade to my offer to our non-megachurch preacher to visit the sick while I spent all day, every day, for months in a megahospital, mostly in a waiting room, waiting.

Posted by: Joyful Alternative on December 21, 2005 10:49 AM
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