Saturday, May 06, 2006

Cicero, Tacitus, and American Despotism.

I’m always leery of drawing parallels between the past and the present or trying to argue a political point based on the Classical Antiquity that I teach and study professionally. It can get one into a good bit of trouble: I think for instance of the hawkish Professor Hansen and how he waxes poetic about Thucydides, the glories of democracy, and the violence inherent in the human condition (though I have the impression he’s rarely stopped to consider that it is inherent because we’ve decided to make it so – just as for so long the indisputable truth that some were fit only for servitude or that women were inherently inferior to men were truths not worthy of dissent); yet he seems to willfully disregard some of the most pertinent and instructive lessons in Thucydides. Hybris, overreach, restraint with the threat of force rather than the actual reversion to armed conflict, and the uncertainties of any conflict that should make us wary of resort to force are central themes for Thucydides, and perhaps deserve greater attention than Hansen tends to give them. However there has been something on my mind for many months and I simply need to get it off my chest. It concerns what Cicero and Tacitus tell us about the nature of tyranny and free government.

Cicero tells us in the De Re Publica (The Republic) that the fulcrum of the free state consists of the mutual bonds of affection between its citizens. When that disintegrates, and fear begins to govern a populace, it can no longer be said to be free; it will look to centralized authority, which itself has a tendency to govern through fear.

Indeed, the central characteristic of the tyrant, as understood by Cicero (who draws on Plato), is that fear is the means by which he rules. In turn, he himself is largely motivated by his own fears to govern through it. It is a dread dialectic. Tacitus in his Annales explores this still further – for Tacitus the emperors - Tiberius, Domitian, and their ilk – are subjected to fear and suspicion, which serve to isolate the emperor, who consequently has no choice but to govern through intimidation in order to ensure his own personal security.

I will confess that this is a much more complex matter both for the Romans and for us than the crude and hasty schema I have just presented. However at base what we have at the moment is a society and a government that is not driven by Cicero’s mutual affection (caritas), but by fear (metus). While it would be naïve to think the world is an entirely safe place, it is also not nearly as dangerous as some would have us believe. Will we run in panic mode today over a nuclear Iran that is ten years away and even further from using those nuclear capabilities against us? Is Bin Laden under our bed? Do we hide and tremble under the sheets from bird flu, same sex marriage, speakers of Spanish, or the color-coded threat system changing its colors from pastel to neon today? Or, worst of all, is some college prof polluting the malleable minds of our young with subversive authors such as Horace, Aristophanes, or Sophocles?

What Frankenstein will our administration construct today from the assorted moribund and decayed parts of its policy? And what will such a state, itself pieced together by corrupt members, look like?

Run – run very fast and vote for the person who will protect you from some freshly stitched monster – one who pens illegal riders to every speck of legislation he signs, one who will not flinch from the courageous policies of torture and illegal detention, who will not hesitate to protect you by razing Fallujah, by making sodomy against prisoners in Iraq policy even as he decries gay marriage on the domestic front, who has shredded the Constitution's fourth amendment, derided Geneva, and mocked Nuremburg, who has no regard for history’s judgment or the reputation of his nation, who believes in social Darwinism even as he decries Darwin, who is a decider and stands by his square peg convictions in this round round world, who believes only in three things, power, power, and more power. But as you run bear in mind the observation of the historian Barbara Tuchmann, that to see an enemy where none exists constitutes cowardice.

Perhaps because it has been said so many times, perhaps because it’s such a common part of our political discourse, that Roosevelt’s admonition, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”, has all but been forgotten. Yet it remains profoundly true. In the end free government is not about security – and it’s dubious whether free government and security can go hand in hand (and they most certainly cannot in this country so long as it pursues unjust policies abroad). No. In the end it is about courage and justice, and if you practice the later there will be no real need for the former.

Ultimately, as Cicero and Tacitus tell us, fear is the truest enemy of a free people - and the greatest friend of the despot.



Blogger Drakos! said...

I disapprove of your use of Frankenstein. You clearly meant Frankenstein's Monster and not the doctor himself. I would expect that sort of careless oversight from certain men and women in our administration, but not Homo Edax. Don't think graduation is going to cease my pestering.

4:16 PM  

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