“There was once a dream that was Rome, you could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish.” Marcus Aurelius, ‘The Gladiator’.
Republics are funny things. They are resilient; not brittle or sclerotic like we are told but bending and morphing amazingly without breaking and shattering upon the winds of invention and the changing tides of culture. Our marvelous spontaneous order, millions of free people making free decisions, responding not to the question “Who will let me?” but instead “Who will stop me?” They are hard to control, too decentralized for those who seek power to find that sacred fulcrum which would allow them to seize the state, maneuvering the ship by enslaving the citizens-become-oarsmen. “If you are facing in the right direction, all you have to do is keep on walking in order to reach your dreams,” we are often told, music playing softly in the background. Unless we are being marched to the gulag. “Stupidity, outrage, vanity, cruelty, iniquity, bad faith, falsehood; we fail to see the whole array when it is facing in the same direction as we…” as Jean Rostand said.
Which is what make our republics also tremendously weak; people crave authority and tend to think in collectivities; part of our DNA perhaps, where we consider often the ‘pack’ and seek protection in numbers from our predators. Or we ourselves strive to become the predators in humanity’s endless efforts to impose our own ‘sacred values’ upon others. And this becomes existential when the pillars of our republic stop serving the purpose for which they were created, losing themselves in their passions as they align their interests with others ‘because it’s an emergency’ – cue our famed fourth estate.
Perhaps this is why republics have never lasted long: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage,” said Alexander Tytler. It’s a sad irony that a true democracy, a true republic generates such tremendous prosperity in excess that it produces a natural ‘spillover’ (usually in the form of entitlements through taxation) which allows the idiots to conspire and the miscreants to concoct great acts of national sabotage.
“There once was a dream that was Rome.” I often return to the Gladiator – the story always gives me chills; “A general who becomes a slave. A slave who becomes a gladiator. A gladiator who defies an emperor”. A story of sacrifice and honor and suffering. There’s something rebellious about Americans; something which does not suffer too great authority nor allow ourselves to be told, “It is not your place to challenge”. Because challenge we will – and we do. Product perhaps of our wide open spaces, our ancient history of revolt, and the knowledge that returns on life will be as great or as small as the efforts we invest.
But I am also wary. Hugo Chavez in an interview, back when he was still among us, was asked to identify his favorite movie. “The Gladiator,” he responded, much to my shock and dismay. Proving that the desire to authority often takes many paths both straight and torturous, and those who can do the greatest harm rarely see themselves as their own republic’s ‘Commodus’.