Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Remembering the Ides of March

We have much to learn from Rome, and particularly from the conflict between friends Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Junius Brutus. From the Founding until today, America has always seen her shadow in Rome's reflection. It was the greatest republic to exist before our own, and so much of our republic is purposefully connected to the Roman tradition-- from the structure of our public places to the Latin mottos on our various symbols. The Framers had Rome, and particularly Caesar, in mind when they crafted our Constitution; how do we get a Republic without the threat of what happened two thousand and fifty five years ago happening again?

Both Brutus and Caesar loved Rome and believed they were fighting for what was best; the former for liberty, the latter for peace. The success of the American Republic is that we have managed to take these better parts of Caesar and Brutus and combine them-- for now. It is constant work to keep this balance, as Ben Franklin famously admonished when he left the Constitutional Convention. So, on these Ides of March, it is good and noble to remember both Caesar and Brutus for their better parts. I shall leave this commemoration to Shakespeare's Antony, who spoke best of these two titans of history. The first quote is when Antony comes upon the butchered body of his master, Caesar, and the second is when he comes upon the man who did that, Brutus:

"O! Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers;
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood."

"This was the noblest Roman of them all;
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He, only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, 'This was a man!'" 
Categories > History

Discussions - 18 Comments

I've always been uncomfortable with the Roman analogy. Even as a Republic, Rome was a bully and more-or-less parasitical. Is that what we want people to think about America? While I realize that the Founders idolized Rome, we have the benefit of 200+ years of additional scholarship.

I'd prefer to focus on the Northern European traditions - the Althing, the meeting house, local governance and charity, and English common law. This is our true heritage; the Roman veneer is just that. Even when the analogy seems most apt (in our 'foreign adventurism'), our motivations are vastly different from Rome's. Other than conquering the American West, I can see no analogies to Gaul or Dacia in American public policy. There are no Jewish captives laboring away to build our football stadiums, and no Dacian gold and silver to prop up our crumbling finances. America is not Rome. If anything, we are the Anti-Rome.

I think that may be exactly why we will, in the end, be more successful than our ancient predecessor. I read a book a few years ago by Cullen Murphy called "Are We Rome?" It started with Virgil's phrase, "Urbs antiqua fuit...Urbs antiqua ruit." Cullen calls Rome the "eagle in the mirror." Apart from a few military-industrial complex and pseudo-isolationist potshots, it was very well done in showing all the more practical comparisons between the United States and Rome.

However, in an interview on the Colbert Report, he emphasized his conclusion: we share many of the problems that Rome had, but in the end we are not Rome. Americans lament but accept that collateral damage happens in conflict, though we try to limit it as best we can; the Romans viewed violence as totally impersonal and did not lament "innocent" deaths at all (on Colbert, he made the point that if the Romans were running Iraq right now, they would crucify every man, woman, and child in a village where a soldier was attacked-- unlike us). He also points out that America eventually ended slavery, unlike our Roman predecessors.

While our tradition and mores may therefor be different than the Romans, the understandable fear is that our fate will not. Nations are not permanent; they all eventually fall. Liberty is not guaranteed; it is a difficult, costly thing to maintain-- and without reminders of what happens when it is lost, people get tired and weary and seek comfort in Caesars who can solve all of our ills for us. In some Roman film or series I remember a distraught Pompey Magnus muttering to his slave: "You must be happy to be a slave and have no will to make hard decisions. Like driftwood. How very peaceful it must be." Peaceful, indeed.

Machiavelli's critique of Rome points to redistribution of property as perhaps *the* cause of Rome's decline (Discourses, I.37)

The Founders were certainly very aware of Rome, and the lessons to be learned from her fall, as they were aware of all pertinent history available to them at that time. But their genius was Scripture-soaked, deeply aware that man is inherently evil, not inherently good; that all truth is God's truth. That is why Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other...”, remembering that, in that day, 'religious' meant 'some denomination of [what we would call these days a particularly conservative] Protestant Christianity'.

Having given up on both God and any remotely reasonable reading of our Constitution, we are well on our way to some form of the same fate that befell Rome. This does not end well.

Man is not "inherently evil;" nor can he be said to be "inherently good."

No government at all could possibly be created to handle a society of "inherently evil" people. For such a society would inevitably pit man against his neighbor, in an immoral and lawless scramble for wealth, prestige and power.

Furthermore, if all are "inherently evil," how then did some rise above this evil to create such a society? The grace of the Almighty I presume? But what of societies outside of the embrace of Christ?

Some denominations are truly uncomfortable with certain tensions.

I prefer to believe God rather than you. Scripture, and common experience, makes it clear that man is inherently evil, although he is not as evil as he could be, thanks to common grace.

A society that deliberately turns its back on God is doomed. This does not end well.

You got it, Doc!! That's what the Westboro Baptist folks are trying to tell people!

That's all right, Craig, I'll pray for you too. Clearly you're in so much denial that you aren't willing to acknowledge the obvious fact that the actions of the WB people are in direct contradiction of the commands of Christ, and they are an incredibly tiny number of people compared to Christendom.

That's right, Doc. And the Phelps clan will say precisely the same thing about you. I love your insinuation that truth is determined by numbers of followers, too. Pat Robertson has a lot of followers - is he the real deal? What about Catholics? You know, John Hagee considers them a "false cult."

So, as long as someone simply does the same reasonable reading of the (right version) of the Bible as you no doubt do, then they'll arrive at the same conclusion as you on such matters, right? It's all just self-evident, "obvious fact[s]"!

Also, why do I have the feeling that you praying for me is some variant on voodoo? You probably need to pray for Dan, as well.

Normally I wouldn't enter into such a discussion, but today will do so.

My guess is that the Bible is trying to tell us man is inherently sinful, not inherently evil. There is something of a difference there. Sin does not automatically equal evil, though evil requires sin. But it is the choice to willfully and unhesitatingly indulge in that sinful nature (beyond the usual) in a way that affects others (to their detriment) that bridges the gap from mere all-too-common man to evil.

Man is neither inherently evil nor inherently good. It is the choice before all of us. When Christ warned of the fate of those who corrupted the young, I believe he was speaking of this dichotomy. A toddler is not inherently evil--but can show fierce and selfish passions, and often does. He can also be the sweetest, friendliest, most noble creature in the world, ready to be playmates with everyone he meets.

What chases him away from this path of love (Greek agape) as he grows is the inner nature that is within us all, the circumstances of his environment and times--and the impact of the natures and characters of those who influence him as he matures.

As my challenge exit question of the day, before I move on to another subject: Is not the phrase "I'm praying for you" a possible sign of pride? For if it is best to make one's donation to the temple without much public display or attention, is it not best--if one genuinely feels one must "pray for someone" whom one is not exactly friends with (in fact, someone whom one is actually having a disagreement, and that person has not been overly rude or disagreeable)--is it not best to do so privately, without telling that person? Which one is the more sincere intent, one designed with the good of that person in mind--and not an attempt to claim the moral high ground? The prayer said in private after the conversation (and no mention ever made to the person in question), or the utterance "I'll pray for you" used to end debate (and that may in fact be a prayer never delivered)?

I have my own personal opinion. Others may have theirs.

As far as the original subject of this blog post--what we should admire about the Romans is the rough and ready manly virtue of the early Republic (with all its flaws). What we should learn from them is how that virtue ended over a period of two centuries and how the Empire rose.

So, as a parting thought--the Republic rose, in part, because of the adulation and honor that the Roman citizen gave to whomever did great things for Rome. And it fell for the exact same reason. An evolutionary trait had outlived its usefulness--or was subject to abuse.

Its still a thesis under development, so I will leave it there, as well as the corresponding parallel for our times.

As a reattack--in looking over the replies again, I first want to say that upon reconsideration that I do not think anyone has used the phrase "I'll pray for you" in a passive aggressive way. I apologize for the impression to the contrary I probably gave in my above post.

Secondly--there is a strong link between the fall of the Roman Republic and a main thrust of the Bible. But I must be off to other things, so another time, perhaps.

9 What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”[b]
13 “Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”[c]
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”[d]
14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”[e]
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.”[f]
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

"If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"

Both passages above direct quotes from the Bible. Sorry folks, it is obvious that God knows and states that man is inherently evil. This has been accepted wisdom in Christendom for centuries. Let God be true and every man a liar.

Incidentally, Rome's decline began with the advent of Christianity...

Doc, I believe you are correct about what Scripture has to say of man's evil (Genesis 8:21). But your proof that this biblical wisdom applies to the Founders is not as robust.

You need to read historians other than Gibbon (e.g. Philip Daileader). Rome began struggling with an autonomous process of demographic decline in the 3d century A.D, the responses to which exacerbated the Empire's political predicament.

I personally think Rome's decline started with Hadrian and his decision to cease expansion (of course, the earlier fiasco in the Teutoburger Forest had something to do with this as well). Also, the whole "decadence" angle is probably accurate; when a people become comfortable and complacent in their daily lives and in their worldviews, they also become unwilling to make sacrifices for personal OR civic improvement. And there are always lots of people "out there" (e.g., Alaric and his Visigoths) who want a slice of the good life (which is, after all, what most barbarians wanted in Rome's latter days) who ARE willing to make such sacrifices,

In the last sense, the analogy between Rome and America may be apt. We still have a "centurion" class of people who are holding it together, but the parasitic classes are growing all the time.

The Founders had many influences on their thought as they created a novus ordo seclorum: Judeo-Christian thought especially covenant theology, the classical tradition of Greece and Rome, the Anglo-Saxon heritage and their traditions of Great Britain, the moderate British and to a lesser degree the radical French Enlightenment, and their experience in the colonies.

Also, I think that Doc is overestimating the sole influence of conservative Protestant Christianity, though it was very important. Most were Protestant, but they greatly varied in Baptists, Presbyterians, congregationalists, Anglicans, etc., not to mention the Catholics, Jews, Quakers, and the unorthodox (few were outright Deists strictly understood), etc. The Founders erected a government granting freedom of conscience and opposing a national established church, but most recognized that religion was the foundation for morality and virtue necessary to a self-governing people. In short, we were more pluralist that I think he sees.

Art, understood. I was being a bit facetious there.

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