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The Republic Was Never Supposed to Be Forever

The Origins of the Modern State, Part II: Ancient Greece and Rome

As I write this second part of the series, the origins of the rise of the modern nation state, 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.

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.



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