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Posts Tagged ‘Roman Republic

“Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government”*…

Yes, the private sector deftly turned publicly-funded technologies into commercial successes, and there was a place for individual genius in that. But those successes were also built on long hours by tens of thousands of engineers (many of them immigrants, many of whom went to public schools). The Ayn Rand image of the solo entrepreneur — Hank Reardon toiling alone in his laboratory to invent a new kind of steel — is a pernicious deception.

Myths have their place, and America’s worship of individual innovators inspires real achievement. The opportunity for success attracts the ambitious and those willing to work hard, like my parents, along with millions of others who land on American shores. But the myth becomes a liability when society becomes so enamoured with the idea of individual success that it forgets, and even attacks, the very institutions that enable it…

The efficiency of public-sector programmes can be seen all the time. An American family with an annual income of $52,000 per year pays approximately $16,000 a year in federal, state, and local taxes. In exchange, that family gets roads, public schools, environmental protection, national security, fire, and police. Try assembling that as a package of private services and see what it costs.

Antipathy to government institutions is often called “conservatism,” but it bears no resemblance to any principled tradition by that name. Conservatism is rooted in a respect for institutions. Its intellectual founding father, Edmund Burke, wrote, “Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.” The observation comes from his most famous work, a criticism of the anti-institutional, pro-individualism of the French Revolution and the bloody terror that followed. There is plenty to criticise about the American administrative state, but idolatry of the individual is hardly a true “conservative” critique.

Nor can the current, degraded notion of freedom be found in the works of America’s founders. The premise of the Declaration of Independence is not simply that our rights are “self-evident” but that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” This is to say, the founders respected “government” — they saw the state as a vehicle to guarantee freedom. In the years after the American Revolution, those who fought for liberty spent the rest of their lives progressively strengthening the central government they had formed in order to secure that freedom. Their legacy is the stability and prosperity we have come to take for granted. The exaggerated emphasis on individualism imperils their achievements.

In the U.S., Covid-19 did not find an exceptional country. Instead, the virus found a land of individuals — too many of them poor, overweight, under-educated, and overly imprisoned. It found underfunded institutions and a population teeming with a sense of entitlement rather than community.

What separated America from countries that staunched Covid-19 is neither size nor geography. China has the world’s largest population (Wuhan has more people than New York City). And though many countries that did well are islands, oceans offer scant protection from a pandemic. (The first person to die of Covid-19 in Iceland was an Australian, and the virus reached America from China and Europe, not Mexico or Canada.) No common political system or cultural tradition links the successful countries.

America’s response was inept because the institutions designed to protect the public failed or were enfeebled. At almost every level of society, people chose individual convenience over collective well-being.

What can be done to reverse the country’s self-destructive course, and to repair and prepare? America should use the pandemic as a turning point for renewal. Just as the human immune system develops antibodies from one viral infection to fight off another, Covid-19 presents us with the opportunity to build “societal antibodies” — practices to fend off the contagious disease of selfishness.

The country needs a “Corona Corps.” Similar to the armed forces or the Peace Corps, it would consist of people largely aged 18 to 24, trained and equipped to fight the virus. The Corps would conduct contact tracing, staff testing, and vaccination centers, and work with people required to isolate, providing anything from food delivery to a sympathetic ear. Corona Corps members could not only be paid but could also earn credits to reduce tuition and lower their debt — as well as gain experiences that serve as an on-ramp to jobs post-graduation.Once the virus is tamed, we should transition Corona Corps into a robust national service programme. 

A second reform is our tax system — a government function that is fundamental to all public programmes, but which has been ravaged by our disregard for the state institutions. Allowing the super-wealthy 0.1 percent to enjoy a greater share of spoils while we cut their taxes is not the hallmark of a functioning society. 

Regardless of the tax rules we adopt, administering them requires an efficient institution — and America’s Internal Revenue Service has been severely underfunded. A recent congressional report estimated that a $100bn investment in tax enforcement would take in $1.2trn — yes, trillion — in revenue over the next decade.

But the bigger point is that we must pursue a cultural shift: a renewed recognition of the value of institutions, and of the balance between the individual and the community in a prosperous society. Certainly, people should complain about the arcane and sometimes onerous regulations that hamper entrepreneurship — at the point of contact, institutions often feel like friction, like something to be avoided. Yet we must also recognise that beyond disagreements over the size and specifics of government institutions, those institutions are essential and honourable — as are the people who serve in them.

Individualism is embedded in America’s cultural identity, but it is a sign of national character to act together as a community. 

An excerpt from an essay by Scott Galloway (@profgalloway): “Institutions,” eminently worth reading in full. Indeed, this piece is a slightly-abridged version of “Scott Galloway on recasting American individualism and institutions” in The Economist (but behind their paywall).

See also the apposite (but differently-focused) piece by Scott’s NYU colleague, Davis Stasavage: “Lessons from all democracies.”

* Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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As we seek a middle path, we might recall that it was on this date in 44 BCE, that Casca and Cassius decided that Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) should not be killed with his ally Julius Caesar in the assassination planned for the next day; rather, that he should be waylaid so as not be in Senate at the time. It was the conspirators’ undoing.

They believed Caesar’s death would restore the Republic. But Caesar had been immensely popular with the Roman middle and lower classes, who became enraged upon learning a small group of aristocrats had killed their champion. Antony, as the sole consul, soon took the initiative and seized the state treasury. Calpurnia, Caesar’s widow, presented him with Caesar’s personal papers and custody of his extensive property, clearly marking him as Caesar’s heir and leader of the Caesarian faction. Antony negotiated a crafty compromise with the conspirators… then, on March 20th, gave his famous speech at Caesar’s funeral– which ended with Antony’s brandishing of Caesar’s blood-satined toga… Several buildings in the Forum and some houses of the conspirators were burned to the ground. Panicked, most of the conspirators fled Italy. The few remaining– including Brutus and Cassius– were assigned distant (and relatively menial) posts in Sicily and Asia by Antony “for their own protection”; insulted, they fled instead to Greece.

George Edward Robertson, “Marc Antony’s Oration at Caesar’s Funeral”

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“The one who believes he can control violence by setting up defenses is in fact controlled by violence”*…

Envy_Invidia

Pieter Beugel, “Envy” (source)

René Girard (1923–2015) was one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their grand, synthetic theories about history, society, psychology, and aesthetics. That race has since given way to a more cautious breed of “researchers” who prefer to look at things up close, to see their fine grain rather than their larger patterns. Yet the times certainly seem to attest to the enduring relevance of Girard’s thought to our social and political realities. Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably “Girardian” in its behavior…

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison on Girard’s life, work… and its cautionary relevance to our time: “The Prophet of Envy.”

* René Girard

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As we deconstruct desire, we might recall that it was on this date in 63 BCE that famed Roman orator (and Consul) Cicero gave the fourth and final Catiline Oration, an accusation that Senator Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline) had led a plot to overthrow the Roman government.  At Cicero’s urging (and over the the more moderate wishes of some other senators), Catiline was convicted and sentenced to death.

Some modern historians, and ancient sources like Sallust, suggest that Catiline was a more complex and sympathetic character than Cicero’s argument declares, and that Cicero, a career politician, was driven by a desire to establish decisively a lasting reputation as a great Roman patriot and statesman.

In any case, most accounts of the events come from Cicero himself.  And as he was an accomplished self-promoter, this is one of the best, if not the very best, documented events surviving from the ancient world– one that presaged the series of political struggles throughout history that pit state security against civil liberties.

cataline oration

A fresco by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919 CE) depicting Cicero denouncing Catiline in the Roman senate.

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Written by LW

December 5, 2018 at 7:50 am

“For the nobles will be dissatisfied because they think themselves worthy of more than an equal share of honors”*…

 

Gaius Gracchus attempted to enact social reform in Ancient Rome but died at the hands of the Roman Senate in 121 B.C.

Long before Julius Caesar declared himself dictator for life in 44 B.C., essentially spelling the beginning of the end to the Roman Republic, trouble was brewing in the halls of power.

The warning signs were there. Politicians such as Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus (together known as the Gracchi brothers) were thwarted from instituting a series of populist reforms in the 100s B.C., then murdered by their fellow senators. Old and unwritten codes of conduct, known as the mos maiorum, gave way as senators struggled for power. A general known as Sulla marched his army on Rome in 87 B.C., starting a civil war to prevent his political opponent from remaining in power. Yet none of these events have become as indelibly seared into Western memory as Caesar’s rise to power or sudden downfall, his murder in 44 B.C…

Mike Duncan explores the forces that ate away at the Roman Republic, and cleared the way for the imperial Julius Caesar: “Before the Fall of the Roman Republic, Income Inequality and Xenophobia Threatened Its Foundations.”

[TotH to @averylyford]

* Aristotle, Politics, Book 2, 2.7

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As we recall George Santayana’s warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we might send birthday greetings in hexameter to Aulus Persius Flaccus, better known simply as Persius; he was born on this date in 34 A.D.  A Roman poet, his work satirized both the society of his time and his contemporary poets.  His tendency to stoicism helped him achieve wide popularity in the Middle Ages.

 source

 

Written by LW

December 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

(Not) all roads lead to Rome…

 

click here for larger, interactive version

In about 300 CE, Imperial cartographers created a road map of the Roman Empire; hundreds of years later, medieval artisans copied it, creating the Tabula Peutingeriana

Now, René Voorburg and a team of like-minded enthusiasts have re-copied the Tabula.  Using a set of techniques described here, they have mashed it up with Google Maps to create Omnes Viae: Tabula Peutingeriana— replete with Iter Vestrum (“Your Trip”), a handy route-planning tool…

As readers will see, while during the time of the Roman Republic, all roads did lead to Rome, imperial expansion– which began with the Empire in 44 BCE– rendered that kind of “hub and spoke” transit architecture impractical.  The Tabula dates from relatively early in the Empire.  Soon after, Constantine became Caesar and created Constantinople as an Eastern capital; in another 50 years, the Empire was divided…  and the roads became even more decentralized.   The Western Empire collapsed in 473, and the roads pictured in the section of the Tabula pictured above became past of a larger network of European roads.  The Eastern Empire lasted until 1453, when it fell to the Ottoman Turks; and its roads became part of that burgeoning empire’s network.

 

As we feel an inexplicable craving for polenta, we might wish a mysterious Happy Birthday to Agatha Christie; she was born on this date in 1890.  Dame Agatha published 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections  (featuring creations like Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple), along with a number of  successful plays.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time– her novels have sold over four billion copies– and, with William Shakespeare, the best-selling author of any type. And according to Index Translationum, she is the most translated individual author (at least 103 languages), with only the collective corporate works of Walt Disney Productions surpassing her.  Her play The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London on November 25, 1952 and is still running– at more than 24,000 performances, the longest-ever initial run of a stage play.

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Being dense…

The nifty site PerSquareMile.com points out that, if the entire world’s population lived in a single city with the density of New York, it would fit into the state of Texas.  But if that “city” had the density of Houston, it would cover the entire Mid West (and then some)…

to enlarge, click the image above– or here— and again

[TotH to Flowing Data]

As we reconcile ourselves to looking even harder for parking, we might recall that it was on this date in 30 BCE that Mark Antony won a small victory over the invading forces of Octavian (AKA, Octavius– the future Augustus) in the Battle of Alexandria during the Final War of the Roman Republic.  But Antony suffered significant desertion from his ranks; when Octavian attacked again the following day, Antony’s navy demurred.  Antony committed suicide (followed several days later by his consort, Cleopatra)… and with Antony, the Republic died a final death: with his Triumverate partner dead, Octavian ( known as Augustus after 27 BC ) became uncontested ruler of Rome, accumulating all of Rome’s administrative, political, and military authority. When Augustus died in 14 AD, his political powers passed to his adopted son Tiberius; the Roman Principate had begun.

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket.

Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra, Act 5, Scene 2; William Shakespeare

Mark Antony (source)

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