ivy

ivy

15 November 2017

Pride before a Fall

I feel a bit like a citizen of Rome, teetering on the edge right around the time of Christ (i.e., shortly before the Republic fell and became an Empire). 

The parallels with our own nation are strong:  an intensely arrogant civilization capable of tremendous technological progress that took what it wanted through overwhelming force and promoted nation building in its own image.  Sure, the scope of our empire has been a bit narrower:  decades to conquer Native American tribes in North America and various islands here and there vs. centuries conquering kingdoms throughout much of the then civilized world.  But we have followed the Roman model in dotting the globe with strategically placed military bases and creating a web of treaties offering carrots (direct aid, trade deals) counterbalanced by those threatening sticks (sanctions, withholding defense).


With so many parallels for our rise, might they exist as well for our fall?  Rome slipped irrevocably under the rule of an emperor after ~500 years as a republic, while our republic is but 240 years old.  After 2000 years, is an acceleration of the process the only thing that material and technological advance has brought us?  Two thousand years later, do we still countenance Pride before a Fall?

OK, maybe I'm just thinking about Rome because I've been tucking away a few more installments of Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series.  However, you can't really miss the parallel between the consulship of Cicero and the near-election of Catilina with the presidency of #44 and the election of #45.  Cicero was an elegant and persuasive orator who had campaigned as a reformer and won by a landslide, but once he got into office proved to be more moderate and pragmatic than the lower classes had expected, resulting in considerable disappointment.  This frustration culminated in very strong populist support for Catilina, a ruthless, unprincipled opportunist who, shunned by his fellow 1%, instead courted those who had lost out in recent recessions by promising debt relief.  Hmm, vaguely familiar.


Luckily for Rome, this parallel ends there.  Because the rich had more votes than the poor, conservative candidates won over the wildly popular Catilina.  Moral:  no, unlike some of our Republican representatives, I'm not proposing we disenfranchise the poor, but rather I am heartened by the contrast between their respective legacies.

Cicero's speeches were right next to classical philosophy as a mandatory component of education for nearly 2000 years, famous for their masterful use of both logic and manipulation.  Although riddled with flaws and both loved and hated in his time, he nonetheless made very important and lasting contributions to not only Roman life but western civilization as we know it. Even among those who opposed him, Cicero was considered a uniquely Roman product.  In contrast, Catilina's only claim to fame is his attempt to overthrow the republican Senate (having led a failed coup the year after his electoral defeat), and the best that can be said of him is that he was "not really any more corrupt than any other politician of his time".

I suspect that even these legacies have their parallels:  posterity will one day view Obama with greater favor (already seen as our least embarrassing President) and acknowledge that for all his horrors, Trump was not in fact outside the normal range of modern day politics, which has sadly reached a low-point.

In the meantime, we'll just have to wait and see if this nadir coincides with the peak in Pride that presages our Fall.



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