Monday, June 25, 2012

Welcome to History's Interesting Times

Interesting times, eh? Army Tanks are set to hold 'urban exercises' on the streets of St. Louis, political parties prepare to panic in response to the Supreme Court's imminent judgment upon some or all of Obamaocare, worldwide financial 'instability' is setting up new shock waves, the 'Arab Spring' unexpectedly (!) blooming into flowers of the Muslim Brotherhood taking over Egypt, which is setting up a backdrop of grand spectacle for the Presidential campaign of 2012 as it moves into full swing.

With the lessons of history in mind - the main lesson being that they are continually ignored and so are retaught again and again and again - I've been rereading Sallust's the Conspiracy of Cataline & the Jugurthine War (surely Sadam Hussein took more than a few pointers from this on how to defy, mock and play the most powerful nation on earth for fun and profit (while, of course, missing the point of the lesson)), and while alternating between shocks of recognition and slowly shaking my head, I came to the realization that:

People have been this dumb for a long, long, time.

Not that there's anything directly to be learned from the political theater in such things as the restless and unenfranchised Latin's (no, no reason to think of undocumented workers, move along), or the unprecedented 're-elections' of Marius, or from the ruthlessness of Sulla. Not even from the 'wages of liberality' paid and earned by men like the ultra-rich Crassus (no matter how tempting it is to insert a 'cough*George Soros*cough' with a sly nudge-nudge wink-wink to your fellows), and surely no reason to relate the impassioned desire of Cataline and his fellows to tear down and overthrow what stood, because it stood, to movements or people such as Occupy Wall Street (or Van Jones or Bill Ayers... nah, move along) or in the ambitions of mighty Caesar.
Cicero denouncing Cataline

There is in fact a danger in pointing to one event or person or another and calling them 'a modern day Caesar' (though I have and likely will again), because then we tend to focus on that person's traits (general, politician, dictater, etc) and so miss the true and timeless principles of virtue or corruption which animate them. While we're then carefully on the lookout for the 'new Caesar', we can so easily miss the far more common and forgotten others so soon to reappear on the stage, such as this mention of "Marcus Manlius Capitolinus"; it's the also rans such as this, who pose an even more serious threat, as their common occurances are what actually lead to the once and future 'new Caesar' stepping onto the stage:
"Just such another Deceiver, false Friend, and real Enemy, they had in Marcus Manlius Capitolinus. For the People are ever the servile Tools of such as know how to blind them with false Tales and Appearances. He was, indeed, a brave Soldier, had nobly defended the Capitol against the Gauls, and done many signal Exploits in War; but, full of Ambition, and envying the famous Camillus, attempted Royalty by the Means of Popularity; and, in order to gain the People, took such Measures as will ever gain them: He deceived them with magnificent Professions and Undertakings, and corrupted them by bribing them; and as he was profuse in his Gifts and Caresses, they were equally extravagant in their Zeal and Adoration. Whilst he was giving Money to many, or paying their Debts; becoming Security for some, and even assisting and rescuing others by downright Violence; whilst he was continually proposing popular Schemes, popular Projects, and popular Largesses; it never entered into their credulous Heads, that a Benefactor, so infinitely liberal and zealous, could possibly intend them any Harm, much less Misery and Chains. Yet it was obvious to common Sense, that either Manlius, or the Government, must fall; especially when he came to be constantly guarded by the Croud, and to bid Defiance to the Magistrates. But the People, corrupted even to Blindness, either saw no Danger to the State, or regarded Manlius more than the State, or perhaps as the best Friend to the State; and much Difficulty there was in securing the State against him, by depriving him of Life. His Friends, the Multitude, who strove to rescue him from Justice, loudly lamented him for having suffered it; and, as the Plague happened soon after, they said, that it was a Judgment, sent by Jupiter, to avenge the innocent Blood of Manlius, the Defender of his Temple the Capitol. For, as they were perpetually infatuated by the Projects and Harangues of their Tribunes and Demagogues, they were always sauntering in the Forum, and reasoning about Matters of Government. Thus they neglected their Labour, and the Manuring of their Lands; and, when Famine followed, which was very natural, they railed at their Governors."
There is more timely and relevant information in that one paragraph from over 2,000 years ago, than in all of the 'Social Studies' textbooks that my kids have ever brought home over the years, or than any of the 'Timely and Relevant!' take home excerpts of 'Time' magazine, have ever even dreamt of. But it takes imagination to dream, and philosophical sense and historical grounding to make it relevant and useful in living your life. And so the lessons will simply go on being re-taught to us as history patiently waits for mankind to wake up.

In this excerpt, Sallust relates how the senate deliberated upon punishment for the wouldbe usurper Cataline and his fellow conspirators, in this, a hard speach from Cato, in opposition to the cautious and merciful pleas of Caesar's (It's perhaps also not pointless to keep in mind that neither speaker's recommendation really 'worked', and that Cato would come to his end in defiance of Caesar's own later usurpation, and that Caesar would not long after fall to the knives of those his later mercies would spare, and Cicero would be killed soon after that to still his truth telling tongue):
"When Cæsar had done speaking, and the rest of the Senate were, either in Words, or by Signs, approving or opposing what had been differently proposed, Cato was demanded his Opinion, and he delivered it in the following Speech:
‘My Spirit feels very different Impressions upon this Occasion, Conscript Fathers: First, when I attend to our present Situation, with the Perils which surround us; and then consider within myself the Counsel offered by certain Senators, they seem only to reason about settling the Punishment of such, who are combined to make War upon their Country, upon their Parents and Kindred, upon Religion and private Property; whereas our present Situation warns us to have another Point in View, and rather to concert Means for securing ourselves from them, than what Punishment ought to be inflicted upon them. For other Enormities you may take Vengeance after they are committed; but if you provide not against the Perpetration of this, in vain, when once it is accomplished, will be your Appeal to the Tribunals. When the City is once taken, nothing further remains to the poor Citizens.

‘Now, by the immortal Deities, I conjure and exhort you, You, who have ever had more at Heart your Houses, your Retirements, your Statues, and your Pictures, than the Interest of the Commonwealth; if you would but preserve these your Enjoyments, which, whatever be their Value, you thus cherish; if you would but enjoy your Pleasures in Ease, and without Interruption, rouse yourselves for once, and assume the Protection of the Commonwealth. This is no Debate about Tribute and Revenue; none about Injuries done to our Confederates. No: Our common Liberty, our very Lives, are, at this Instant, precarious.

‘I have often, Conscript Fathers discoursed in this Assembly; I have often bewailed the prevailing Luxury and Rapaciousness of our Fellow-citizens; and, for this Cause, I bear the Despight of many: But, as I never gratified myself in Vice, nor suffered my Soul to harbour it, neither could I humour the Debauchery of others, by countenancing their Excesses. Yet, however you slighted these my Complaints, still the Commonwealth stood firm and secure: Such was her native Potency, as to bear with the Defects of her Rulers. But the present Conjuncture admits no Debate about the Pravity or Amendment of our Morals; none about the Might or Splendor of the Roman Empire. The Debate is, whether this our State, whatever it be, continue our own, or, together with our Persons, become the Prey of Parricides.

‘Will any one now interpose, and mention Gentleness and Commiseration? Surely we have long lost the genuine Names of Things. It is called Liberality, to be free of the Property of others; Fortitude, to be daring in Iniquity: Such is our Degeneracy, and thence the desperate Situation of our Commonwealth! Let them, if they will, since such is the present Mode, let them be liberal of the Wealth taken from our Confederates, merciful to the Plunderers of the public Treasure: But let them not make a Present of our Blood; nor, out of their Tenderness to a few Parricides, consign to Destruction every worthy, every guiltless Roman.

‘Cæsar has just now, in his Place, reasoned, with great Elegance and Accuracy, concerning Life and Death: Nor, do I doubt but he holds for Fables, all the received Traditions about an infernal World; where the Wicked, far apart from the Virtuous, are confined to dreary and dismal Mansions, full of Darkness and Horror. From this Principle his Counsel is, That their Estates be confiscated, and their Persons kept in Bonds, apart, in the several great Cities of Italy; from an Apprehension, I presume, that, were they to be kept in Rome, they might be released, either by the Efforts of their Fellow-traitors, or by the Violence of the mercenary Multitude: As if evil and profligate Men were only to be found in this City, and not all over Italy; or, as if such a desperate Attempt were not most likely to succeed, where there is least Force to oppose it.

‘If, therefore, he really apprehend any Peril from these Criminals, his Counsel is airy and unsolid: But if, under so much general Terror possessing the Hearts of all Men, he alone dreads nothing, so much the greater Cause do I find of Dread, both for myself, and for you.

‘Be therefore assured, that your Decree concerning the Fate of Lentulus, and the other Prisoners, will comprize in it that of Catiline, and the whole Body of Conspirators. The more Vigour you shew, just so much the less Spirit will animate them: But if they perceive you ever so little relenting, they are, to a Man, ready to fall upon you with terrible Confidence.

‘Deceive not yourselves with an Opinion, that it was by Arms our Ancestors raised this our State, originally very small, to such Might and Grandeur. Were this the Cause, we should now possess it in its highest Degree of Lustre and Perfection; since we far surpass them, both in the Number of Confederates and Citizens, as well as in Horses and Arms. But it was from other Sources that their Greatness arose; such Sources as utterly fail us. They exercised Industry and Vigilance at Home, with righteous Government Abroad: They had Minds sound and free in Council, and in Judgment biassed by no Guilt or Crime, swayed by no evil Passion.

‘Instead of such Virtues as these, amongst us, Rapaciousness and Debauchery take Place; great Poverty in the State, profuse Wealth in private Families: We admire Riches, we are resigned to Sloth, make no Distinction between the Virtuous and the Wicked; and all the Rewards of Merit and Worth are ingrossed by Ambition
. Nor, whilst, in all your public Councils, each of you intends only himself separately from the Whole; whilst, at home, you are inslaved to your Pleasures, and, here in the Senate, to sordid Interest, or Partiality and Favour, is the Result at all strange, that such alarming Attacks are made upon the Commonwealth, when thus deserted and forlorn. But I drop these Considerations.

‘Certain Romans, the most illustrious amongst us, have conspired to lay waste their native Country with Fire and Sword, and engaged the Gauls, ever inveterate Foes to the Roman Name, to join in the Conspiracy. He who has the Command of the Enemy, is with his Army, as it were, hovering over our Heads; and, even at this dreadful Conjuncture, you linger and hesitate how to deal with such of these unnatural Rebels. as you have seized within your Walls.

‘Would you shew them Pity? Let it be so: They are young Men, and have transgressed thro’ Ambition: Nay, dismiss them too, and even dismiss them with their Arms. What would follow? Even that this Mildness of yours, this Mercy towards them, whenever they were free and armed, would end in your Perdition.

‘Our Situation, in truth, is threatening and direful: But you fear it not. Yes, you do fear it; fear it exceedingly; and it is only from Impotence of Spirit, and Effeminacy, that you are thus in Suspense, every one looking and depending upon another.

‘Perhaps you trust for Deliverance to the immortal Gods, who have often preserved this Commonwealth from the highest Dangers: But it is not by Vows, nor by Supplications, and devout Wailings, like those of Women, that Succour is procured from the Gods: It is by Vigilance, by active Measures, and provident Counsel, that all Difficulties, are vanquished, and all Pursuits succeed: When once you have abandoned yourself to Sloth and Indolence, in vain afterwards you will implore the Gods; the Gods will be provoked, and make you feel their Wrath.

‘In the Days of our Forefathers, Aulus Manlius Torquatus, in a War with the Gauls, doomed his own Son to die, because he had engaged with the Enemy without Orders; so that a young Man of signal Hopes, died to atone for an Excess of Bravery. And do you now doubt and linger about the Doom of the most bloody of all Parricides?

‘Perhaps their present Treason is unsuitable to the Course of their Lives past: Well then; be tender of the great Dignity of Lentulus, if you find that ever he was tender of the Purity of his own Person, or of his Character and Fame, or of what concerned the Gods, or of what concerned Men, in any one Instance. Pardon also Cethegus, in Pity to his Youth, if this prove not the second time of his making War against his native Country. For why should I at all mention Gabinius, Statilius, and Cæparius? Men who, had they possessed the least Grain of Reflection or Virtue, would never have harboured such pestilent Purposes against the Commonwealth.

‘To conclude, Conscript Fathers, were it not, that an erroneous Step must, at this time, prove fatal, I should readily leave you to be corrected by the Consequences, seeing you slight my Reasoning. But we are beset and exposed on every Side. Catiline, at the Head of an Army, advances thro’ the Passes to assail us: We have Enemies within our Walls, Enemies in the very Heart of Rome: No Preparation which we make can be kept secret, nor any Counsel which we take: Hence the greater Cause of Vigour and Dispatch.

‘This, therefore, is my Counsel, That since, by a horrible Combination of blood-thirsty Citizens, the Commonwealth has been reduced to the most imminent Danger; and since they stand convicted, by the Evidence of Titus Volturcius, and that of the Allobrogian Deputies, as also by their own Confession, to have formed a Conspiracy, by Slaughter and Conflagration, and other direful Cruelties, to destroy their Fellow-citizens, and native State; they be treated like guilty Criminals, condemned by their own Mouth, and doomed to die, according to the primitive Usage.’
When Cato had ended his Speech, all those of Consular Rank, indeed, the greatest Part of the Senate, assented to his Opinion, with loud Applause; exalting to the Skies the Virtue and Firmness of his Soul, and reproaching one another with Timidity. Cato passed for a great and glorious Patriot, and just as he proposed, the Senate decreed.

Now as I had learned much by Reading, much by Report, concerning the glorious Actions of the Romans, in War and in Peace, by Sea and Land, I was exceedingly curious to discover, by what principal Cause such stupendous Events were accomplished. I knew, that with a Handful of Men, they have combated mighty Hosts: I was apprised, that, with small Forces, they have maintained War against mighty Monarchs; that they have often borne, and even braved, the Storms and Traverses of Fortune; that, in Eloquence, they were surpassed by the Greeks, in military Renown by the Gauls.

So that, having canvased every Cause, it appeared manifest to me, that only to the signal Virtue of some particular Romans, all our Superiority was owing. It was thus that great Wealth was vanquished by Poverty, great Multitudes by a small Number. Even when Rome became depraved by Voluptuousness and Effeminacy, still such was the surpassing Power of the Commonwealth, that she was thence able to support herself under all the Faults and Excesses of her Magistrates and Generals: Even when, like a Mother superannuated, she forbore, for long Intervals, to produce any Citizen of transcendent Virtue. Two I myself remember, Cato and Cæsar; different indeed in their Pursuits, but both of surprising Abilities: And since it here fell naturally in my Way, I would not omit displaying, according to my best Ability, the Temper and Accomplishments of each.

In their Race, Years, and Eloquence, they were nigh equal. Both possessed the same Greatness of Spirit; both enjoyed the same Degree of Glory, but in different Ways: Cæsar was celebrated for his Generosity and Munificence; Cato, for his unvaried Integrity of Life. The former gained Renown by his Complacency and Acts of Compassion; the latter heightened his Dignity by an inflexible Severity. Cæsar derived Fame from his Readiness to give, to relieve, and to pardon; as did Cato from his Austerity in bestowing nothing. In one was found a sure Refuge to the Wretched, in the other, certain Vengeance to the Guilty. Cæsar was extolled for his Flexibility; Cato for his Firmness. Cæsar, in short, had intirely turned himself to active Life, to a Habit of Pains and Care, Night and Day; was zealous to advance the Interest of his Friends, regardless of his own; and refused to grant nothing worthy to be granted. His own ardent Aim was to command in Chief, to lead Armies, and to be engaged in new Wars, thence to signalize his military Virtue: Whilst the whole Bent of Cato was to Simplicity of Life, to regular Conduct, and, above all, to invincible Strictness. He contended not in Wealth with the Wealthy, nor with the Factious in Practices of Faction; but yielded not in Bravery to the most undaunted; nor in Temperance, to the most reserved; nor in Purity of Morals, to the most upright; and aimed not so much to appear, as to be, a virtuous Man: So that the less he courted Renown, the faster it followed him.

After the Senate had, as I have related, concurred with the Proposition of Cato, the Consul judged it the securest Way, to snatch the instant Opportunity, without staying for Night, though it approached; lest any Time should be given for new Attempts. He, therefore, ordered the Triumvirate of Justice to accelerate all Measures necessary for the Execution; and, having posted proper Guards, conducted, in Person, Lentulus to the Prison, as the Prætors, by his Orders, did the rest.

In the Prison, after a small Descent towards the Left, there is a Place called the Dungeon of Tullus, sunk about Twelve Feet under-ground, fortified round with strong Walls, above with an Arch of Stone; a sad Solitude, full of Stench and Darkness, loathsome and hideous to behold! As soon as Lentulus was thrust down into this Place, the Executioners strangled him, as they were ordered.

Thus this noble Patrician, he who sprang from the Cornelian Race, a Race of the first Eminence and Lustre, he who, as Consul, had borne the supreme Magistracy of Rome, suffered a Death worthy of his Life and Crimes. Upon Cethegus, Statilius, Gabinius and Cæparius, the same Execution was done. "
I can't help wonder how many people will click upon, and then click away from this page, impatient to get to something more 'relevant' to their lives, missing the beat and the rhyme of history, and putting themselves into the position of being retaught its lessons once again.

But that's ok, History has no shortage of lessons to teach, and all the time in the world with which to go on teaching them.

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