The Orchestra of State
October 13, 2010

Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen a...
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I’m reading Anthony Everitt’s stellar biography of Cicero right now, and rediscovering why I used to be a little obsessed with Roman history. The Late Roman Republic, in particular, is interesting from a modern perspective for reasons that have nothing to do with the usual cable news-ready historical analogies for people who don’t know history.* There aren’t many parallels here, but variations on a theme: economic turbulence and class warfare exacerbated both by the shockingly petty behavior of the political elite and a badly malfunctioning engine of state. On the latter point, it’s interesting just to see how many hasty political reforms were instituted and hastily repealed between the murder of Tiberius Gracchus and the rise of Emperor Augustus, the first emperor.

Cicero’s lifelong project seems to have been trying to achieve some stability in the Republic’s political system, and prevent its collapse. While he was ultimately unsuccessful, his efforts, and thoughts on the matter, made him an inspiration for millennia of other thinkers and small-r republicans. (The back of this edition has a quote from John Adams: “All ages of the world have not produced a better statesman and philosopher combined.”) Here’s Cicero on his vision of the Republic:

Just as in the music of harps and flutes or in the voices of singers a certain harmony of the different tones must be maintained … so also a state is made harmonious by agreement among dissimilar elements. This is brought about by a fair and reasonable blending of the upper, middle and lower classes, just as if they were musical tones. What musicians call harmony in a song is concord in a state.

You can see echoes of this idea in our own Constitution. It’s worth holding in mind as we discuss reforms to the current political system.

Of course, political architecture on its own has limits. The Republic lasted as long as it did partly because of a strong network of allegiances, communities, and familial units to which individuals were honor-bound. We need not just institutional reforms but political figures who adhere to certain norms of behavior—who have some measure of dignity and respect for democratic debate. The Roman code of conduct was maintained through centuries of tradition and a state religion; since we don’t have the state religion, I’ll just say that any institutional reforms will only achieve their full potential if they’re accompanied by sweeping reforms in Washington’s secular religion.

*Don’t you get it?? This is just like the Banana Weimar Republic!

Our Founding Fathers’ Fathers
July 4, 2010

U.S. Declaration of Independence ratified by t...
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Happy Independence Day, everyone!

Today is, of course, the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—a remarkable document in many ways, but of particular interest to me because it confirms, in its most famous line, one of the central theses I keep hammering on this blog: that philosophy is alive, vital, and very much a concern for each and every one of us.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As most of you who have taken a high school civics course likely already know, that bolded section is a paraphrase of the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who argued for a natural right to “life, liberty and property.” It’s a crucial, high-profile nod in the direction of the towering philosophers who laid the groundwork for the framers’ grand project.

This isn’t to downplay the genius of the founding fathers; their ranks included some of the greatest thinkers in American history. But all brilliant men are scholars first and foremost, and if Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others had not been political philosophy students of the first order, then whatever form the government of the post-revolution states took would be but a shadow of the vibrant, resilient American Republic.

They were giants, yes—but they stood on the shoulders of other giants. I refer not just to Locke, but also Hobbes, Voltaire, and even the ancients. The evidence lies not just in the shout-out I cited above, but in the collected writings of our greatest founders. The Federalist Papers, to name one particularly good example, were a relatively sophisticated work of political philosophy in their own right.

We’re living the result.

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