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The Republic Was Never Supposed to Be Forever

As I write this second part of the series, the origins of the rise of the modern nation state [1], our own nation state looks—financially—nothing short of pathetic. At the end of 2017, the federal government’s official estimate for deficit spending is $666 billion. For all kinds of reasons, this is a really scary number, and not just because it causes one to think of the mark of St. John’s envisioned beast. Rrroawr!  $666 billion is a number so terribly large that it is difficult for any of us—even those of us not suffering from innumeracy or apocalyptic dread—to comprehend. And, of course, this is just the recorded and admitted deficit spending for one year. That is, it accounts for those things the government admits to, on the books and on budget.

According to the U.S. Debt Clock, we’re at nearly $21 trillion in debt, and the number increases so quickly that seizures might very well result. As the number made my stomach turn, I thought, perhaps the site should come with a warning akin to those found on PS4 and Xbox games. That’s all we need, right?  Another law and another regulation.

As Tom Woods and all sensible economists have recently claimed, the United States of America is simply insolvent. The only shocking thing is that no one in the mainstream media or financial institutions seems to care.

Whither the American republic? It is worth remembering that no one founds a republic believing the republic will last forever. To believe such a thing automatically negates one’s conservatism. Like all living things, a republic must experience a birth, a middle age, and a death. The question is never if a republic will die, but when. The stronger its soul, the healthier its body. Conversely, the less a people have a purpose, the faster will they decline. A republic, American or not, is a res publica—a common good, a good thing, a public thing. Whether our government still resembles the republic of the American founders is yet another question, and one for another post.

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It is also worth remembering that in the long history of western civilization, no political arrangement—with only the rarest exceptions—has lasted more than a few centuries. Political bodies come and go. The two longest lived institutions in the West are not political, but, ethnic and religious. The oldest sustained cohesive people in the world are the Jews, and the oldest institution in the West is the Latin church. We can conservatively date the first at 4,000 years old and, the second, at roughly 2,000 years old. Not a single political body that existed during the time of the Pentecost still exists today. Indeed, even the very form of government that so predominates in the world—the roughly 200 nation states of the world—did not exist until the fifteenth century.

In the previous post, I mentioned what a libertarian skeptic God seems to be, as understood in the Books of Samuel and in Jesus’ handling of the coin of the Roman Empire. This skepticism about what would be called caesaro-papism arrived not just with the Jews, but also with the ancient Greeks and Romans as well.

The classical Greeks believed in community rule, that is, rule localized to each polis, its citizens deciding over and across time what rules, norms, and laws should prevail. At the height of ancient Greece, roughly 150 poleis existed, each with its own form of government. The Athenians were relatively democratic, the Spartans monarchical and militaristic, and the Corinthians free traders. What they held in common was a despising of the Oriental (Persian) belief in a godking. Equally, the Persian “godkings,” Darius and Xerxes, also despised the Greeks and what they perceived as anarchic and archaic liberty. When the Persians warred against the Greek poleis in the early fifth century, their war was far more about pride than logic. As the eminent twentieth-century historian, Christopher Dawson argued, the Persian War was, at its essence, a spiritual struggle.

The Greek patriot Herodotus described one Persian invasion gloriously, the defense of the Gates of Fire (Thermopylae) by Leonidas and 300 Spartans.

But Xerxes was not persuaded any the more. Four whole days he suffered to go by, expecting that the Greeks would run away. When, however, he found on the fifth that they were not gone, thinking that their firm stand was mere impudence and recklessness, he grew wroth, and sent against them the Medes and Cissians, with orders to take them alive and bring them into this presence. Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others now took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few men. (Herodotus, The History, Book VII).

Real men, Herodotus implied rather strongly, fought because they chose to fight, not because they were forced to. Only “free societies” allow the flourishing of real manhood. However brave a Persian might be, no real man could fight for Xerxes. Such warriors were, simply put, slaves, playthings of a false godking. “It was as ‘free men,’ as members of a self-governing community, that the Greeks felt themselves to be different from other men,” Dawson argued.

It would not be absurd to argue that when the last Spartan died at Thermopylae, the Occident was born. Though the Greeks (under the hubris of the Athenians) ultimately squandered their inheritance, falling into empire, civil war, and ruin by the end of the fifth century, the successes of the first few decades of that century are not lessened. The Greek achievement against the Persians proved a glorious watershed in the history of liberty, in the history of dignity, and in the history of civilization.

A full three decades before the Spartans and Persians battled at the Gates of Fire, the farmers of Rome overthrew their Etruscan overlords, proclaiming within a year of their rebellion, a republic. True to their own fears of godkings, the Romans insisted that their republic was not created—implying a man or group of men had the divine ability to declare such a thing out of nothing—but, rather, grew. Our republic, Cicero writes in his dialogue, On the Republic, “in contrast, was not shaped by one man’s talent but by that of the many; and not in one person’s life time, but over many generations” (Cicero, On the Republic, Book II). Though far from perfect, the Roman republic grew, adapted, and evolved over centuries of time, lasting 400 years before succumbing to the dread and fate of outright empire.

Again, one must remember that no republicans believe their republic can last forever. A republic, by its very essence, must rely on its organic nature, a living thing that is born, flourishes, decays, and dies. It is, by nature, trapped in the cycles of life, bounded by the walls of time. While a cosmic republic might exist—as understood by Cicero’s “Cosmopolis” and Augustine’s “City of God”—it existed in eternity and, therefore, aloof of time.

For better or worse, the Roman Republic reflected not just nature, but the Edenic fall of nature as well. We can, the Roman republican Livy recorded, “trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice.” The virtues of the commonwealth—the duties of labor, fate, and piety—gave way to the avaricious desires for private wealth. When young, the Romans rejoiced in the little they had, knowing that their liberty from the Etruscans meant more than all the wealth of the material world. “Poverty, with us, went hand in hand with contentment.” As the republic evolved and wealth became the focus of the community, not sacrifice, so the soul decayed. “Of late years,” Livy continued, “wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective.” (All Livy quotes from The History of Early Rome, Book I)

Not long before his own martyrdom at the hands of a would-be Caesar, Mark Antony, Cicero lamented:

Thus, before our own time, the customs of our ancestors produced excellent men, and eminent men preserved our ancient customs and the institutions of their forefathers. But though the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colours, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak its general outlines. For what is now left of the ‘ancient customs’ on which he said ‘the commonwealth of Rome’ was ‘founded firm’? They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but are already unknown. And what shall I say of the men? For the loss of our customs is due to our lack of men, and for this great evil we must not only give an account, but must even defend ourselves in every way possible, as if we were accused of capital crime. For it is through our own faults, not by any accident, that we retain only the form of the commonwealth, but have long since lost its substance. (Cicero, On the Republic, Book IV)

As we consider our own nation state with its immense debt and bloated empire, we might wonder if Cicero’s words written during the reign of first caesar might not equally apply to 2017.

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishesTAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "The Republic Was Never Supposed to Be Forever"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On December 20, 2017 @ 5:51 pm

I appreciate your ‘long view’ on this. I would add a [slightly] more contemporary angle, one that is less focussed upon dollars; [some Conservatives are not obsessed with money as the measure of everything].

If Gustavus Adolphus had turned left instead of right, the world might look different today. The Peace of Westphalia gave us the kernel of what we call the nation-state: Issues of religious practice, princes, national vs ethnic loyalty, and ‘balance of power’ were all addressed, if not ‘solved’. It took another 200 years, but these ideas gave us the ‘modern world’. Had they been extended to the parts of the world that have sucked dry the American taxpayer, killed so many of our underclass, and squandered most of the US’s credibility and any remaining post-Vietnam good will, the global-scale tragedy of neo-con swashbucklers may have been avoided.

Thank you –

#2 Comment By Fazal Majid On December 20, 2017 @ 6:29 pm

The Persian kings were not “godkings” or pharaohs. That would be anathema to them as Zoroastrians, members of the oldest monotheist religion (save possibly the short-lived cult of Aten).

Their pluralist system of religious coexistence and toleration compares favorably with the oppressive Westphalian system of “cujus regio, ejus religio”. It’s not for naught the Jews revere the memory of Cyrus the Great.

#3 Comment By mike On December 20, 2017 @ 8:46 pm

After Israel, the best thing God ever gave to mankind was the English Constitution – Rule-of-Law and Christian Civilisation.
American secular-liberalism, democratic-statism flushed it all down the toilet.
Now England is totally shot. Just call it Englifornia – an island of hip, trendy, embarrassing rubbish.
England lost an empire and found a role – as slavish fad-chasers endlessly seeking the approval of Hollywood.
From the New Jerusalem to the global clown college, in a few generations – history’s greatest tragedy.

#4 Comment By connecticut farmer On December 20, 2017 @ 9:12 pm

Rome began it’s decline once it lost its republican status and became an empire under Augustus and the parallels with America’s decline are similar and indeed it wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest that we are witnessing is the gradual dissolution not only of the American nation-state but of the entire concept of the nation-state as traditionally understood. What it will evolve into remains to be seen. And exactly when it will be possible to determine that the America of The Founders is officially “dead” is hard to say, given that the era from Octavian (Augustus) in 14 AD to Romulus Augustus circa 476 encompasses a period of over four hundred years. Life is short, history is long. Nevertheless, “sic transit gloria”-for Rome, for America, for all societies.

#5 Comment By Youknowho On December 20, 2017 @ 11:52 pm

The author forgets the main weakness of Greece. Its city states spent a great deal of time warring against each other.

In comparison, in the Persian empire, the Emperor kept the peace. no province went to war against each other, much less a city against each other. The resources and effort that would have gone to build fortifications went to build highways to facilitate commerce. The Persian empire was known for its prosperity. Add to it, respect for local religions and customs, and you see that most subjects were happy with it.

Of course, the ones who wrote the stories were the Greeks…

#6 Comment By JonF On December 21, 2017 @ 5:50 am

Re: Their pluralist system of religious coexistence and toleration compares favorably with the oppressive Westphalian system of “cujus regio, ejus religio”.

Historical quibble here: The principle you cite was decidedly pre-Westphalia, and its breakdown due to populations that strongly disagreed with their ruler’s religion is what sparked the Thirty Years War.

#7 Comment By TR On December 21, 2017 @ 3:13 pm

Organic metaphors are not really in favor these days.

As for the Peace of Westphalia, I often wondered why the pope would ever agree to “cuius regio.” The answer was he (they) didn’t. I stopped looking at examples 150 years out and the successor(s) of Peter were still railing impotently against it–and in language worthy of Rush Limbaugh.

#8 Comment By William Foster On December 21, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

My, my! Between Birzer and James Kunstler, TAC is downright gloomy lately. Why? Your team is running the show, with all three branches of the government under GOP control. You should be ecstatic! MAGA! But no. You’re morose. Could it be that you’re looking at the failure of American conservatism, and calling it the failure of America?

#9 Comment By Kevin E Kelly On December 21, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

What’s astonishing to me is the time it has taken us to get here; 70 years. My own lifetime began with a sense of responsibility to my family, my religion and my country. I have been asked to relinquish many of the things which enabled me to meet those responsibilities. All in the name of fairness.
I believe that this Republic will survive what we’ve taken it through. What will change is who it will serve and who will serve it.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that if it endures the likely victim of its survival will be the English language.
To think that in the end the Armada’s defeat was only the beginning. That Senators will one day converse in the Well of the Senate in Spanish. They will meet on Sunday morning outside of Church after 7am Mass. This is the irony I think of. The Enlightenment wasted by its proponents. The Latin Church reestablishing their dominance.

#10 Comment By Patrick County On December 22, 2017 @ 6:37 pm

Good article –

Federalism, unfortunately, by its very nature and design, is a pitstop on the constant inevitable u-turn BACK to Feudalism.

‘Confederation’ leads to Liberty (as it is voluntary / consent-based )-
‘Federalism’ leads to Neo-Feudalism and Tyranny.

Federalism is at best a broken rudder that you can temporarily, with great force and effort wrangle back onto course for a period of time, until the assets and power of the amassed corrupting forces finally overcomes you.

Favored groups and demographics are eventually singled out for favorable treatment, special legislative assistance, and deficit expenditures, in order to create a obligated feudal rank who – in exchange – are used to act as a check on the feudal masses, or those without means to engage in exchange with the ruling elites.

This was Rouen Normandy in 1100 AD and it is modern Washington DC. Only the lingua franca and terminology differs.

Federalism’s effective period of legitimacy is wholly dependent on the luck of a band of educated, but principled and honest elites taking power who are inherently motivated by altruistic motives.

Our founders usually made a example by refusing multiple terms in office during the early years of our nation, declined being crowned as ‘king’ (Washington) when it could have given them eternal familial wealth,

and often turned down post-revolution ‘Lord Fairfax’ style estate grants that were to mimic New Ulster Plantations, in favor of disbursing lands to private ownership by their landless countrymen.

Eventually, however, a Marcus Aurelius gets replaced with a Caligula or Caracalla.

In our Neo-Feudal society the norm is now for crooked money grubbers to sell out their minions for cash either to, or as, lobbyists, and scheme to please the most venomously corrupt magnates to maintain a federalist office for half a century, in order to direct favors and disburse the treasury to their partners.

These Neo-Feudalists have now hollowed out the nations interior in complicity with trans-national commercial or foreign interests, in exchange for mutual financial enrichment.

A legitimately representative govt intrinsically is a entity that you can leave through a civil-political process (Brexit), and that maintains its continued communal acceptance because it continues to serve the interests of all.

Federalist states needs to split amoeba-like over time to maintain legitimacy, because the regional population interests diverge and cannot be reconciled any longer –

When that does NOT take place, you have a oppressive, garden-variety Empire, humanity’s norm, which OFTEN may maintain some of the imagery of representational legitimacy, (Saddam’s reliable 99% electoral victories) but it is merely Feudal pomp and circumstance, and actually designed to allow for a more efficient oppression.

Brutus was right. Patrick Henry was right. Liberty is the goal of honest men. Liberty is always temporal, and its not the natural state of man outside of purely tribal societies.

The ONLY CHECK on Federal empire and tyranny is a right to a procedural means of legal secession- a right to ‘agree that you disagree’, which is the great fear of Tyrants. Federalism is a effective means of compelling unwilling people to do what you want.

Honest representatives who possess no designs on control or raw power are happy to see you go your own way and not trouble them anymore – tyrants will always fight to the death to maintain power over you.

Many would crow that this is sedition, but the founders recognized this as the single kernel from which liberty spouts.

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”

Brutus – Anti-Federalist =

1) He prefers a true confederation, which would be: a number of independent states entering into a compact, for the conducting certain general concerns, in which they have a common interest, leaving the management of their internal and local affairs to their separate governments

2)He believes the power to hold a standing army in peacetime as evil and highly dangerous to public liberty.

3)Congress’ unlimited power to collect revenue and to “”borrow money on the credit of the United States” as well as the Necessary and Proper Clause, are highly dangerous to the states

So, Swiss CONFEDERATION along the lines of Brutus’ accurate observations has led to a society with the highest standard of living in the western world, and extreme liberty.

Federalism has created exactly the tyranny Brutus predicted, with run-away courts attempting to remake western society, a private society printing our currency and loaning it back at interest, and a choice between two parties who both sold their platform to consortiums of funding sources, none of whom represent most of the citizenry’s interest.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 22, 2017 @ 7:03 pm

“But no. You’re morose. Could it be that you’re looking at the failure of American conservatism, and calling it the failure of America?”

One of the realities of this presidency and nearly all that surrounds it has been a revelation about the political machinations that got us here. Whether intentional or not, the mask is being peeled back. And it didn’t look good before and may look a tad worse as reality confirms some of one’s worst suspicions.

And while some prefer the dark . . . it may not be unhealthy to to turn from the cave walls on occasion.

I finally broke down and watched House of Cards this week — thus far reality has not revealed itself as that dark.

#12 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On December 23, 2017 @ 6:31 am

Not only the Republic but any system will not exist forever. Then what about the fairness of this statement, which also can not be forever fair?
In the Ancient world, people appreciated and made many good sophistries because there was a lot of idle time both to invent them and to reflect on them.
The heart can not contract forever, because fatigue sets in and the heart is forced to relax, but in a relaxed state it can not be forever too, since energy accumulates and the heart muscle is now forced to contract. One day the heart cycle will stop and the person will die, but before he leaves this world, he will leave the offspring and everything will be repeated again.
It seems to me a truly dramatic moment was not the death of republics, states or peoples, which in the history of mankind was in excess, but the so-called “bottleneck” through which the entire human species in the number of 10-15 thousand representatives slipped 75,000 years ago. Then the Mankind stood before the challenge: to remain as a species or disappear from the face of the earth forever. Those ancient people were mentally in the position of the child, who looks at the child’s picture – the puzzle and must find some objects there, but can not, because the brain does not have enough information to analyze the picture in full.
Under the feet of those people were located like today: metals, oil, coal, electricity, nuclear energy, trees grew around in abundance, but man was not able to take advantage of this all for his salvation. Everything is determined by Demography.
A person looks at the world through the eyes of billions of people who live now and have lived before.
All that the ancient man had to do was to follow the basic principles of life: to preserve himself, to preserve his species and multiply. If every Roman or Greek woman gave birth to 7-10 children, then the expansion of the Ancient World would not end in the west in the area of the British Isles, in the south and east in the coastal zones of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. It would continue to the Americas, China, the southern edge of Africa.
However, the Greeks and Romans preferred democracy with all its free attributes.
Their descendants in the amount of 11 and 60 million respectively live in the modern Greece and Italy, which will not be able to claim the role of the world’s influential powers ever. Contemporaries of the Romans – the ancient Chinese have never had a democratic style of government and now their country has about one and a half billion people and this is the second economy of the world.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, it was alarming and sad, but time passes, sadness dissipates like smoke and people are having fun again.
I wish a merry Christmas to all readers, editors, thinkers, wonderful journalists of the American conservative!
My grandfather frost, my grandfather frost
I want from you bouquet of roses!
I’m Santa Claus, I’m Santa Claus
I carry a bouquet of roses to you!!

#13 Comment By JLF On December 24, 2017 @ 9:37 am

No one can look at 1945 and its leaders, compare it to 2017 and its leaders, and have anything but contempt for what has come to be.

#14 Comment By JonF On December 27, 2017 @ 4:33 pm

Re: If every Roman or Greek woman gave birth to 7-10 children, then the expansion of the Ancient World would not end in the west in the area of the British Isles, in the south and east in the coastal zones of the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

Huh?
You’re forgetting the Malthusian limits to population growth. Birth rates in antiquity were higher than now, certainly, but huge numbers of those children died young. If more had been born then more would have died.
You’re also forgetting geography. The ancients had no way to expand across the Atlantic Ocean: their naval abilities were not up to that sort of voyage (and they had no reason to suspect that there night be habitable land beyond the ocean). Nor could an agricultural civilization expand into a desert where they could not grow crops. And of course there were other people in the way of their expansion north and east.

#15 Comment By Youknowho On December 28, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

@JLF

You may look on the 1945 leaders with admiration, but do not forget the leaders that came before who, by their bad decisions made WWII inevitable.