Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ides of March

On the Ides of March, about 2055 years ago, members of the Roman Senate butchered Julius Caesar.  Having assumed the title of dictator in a time of civil war and societal collapse, the ambitious proconsul believed the Republic was dead and increasingly took on the trappings of royalty.  When he "crossed the Rubicon," both literally and figuratively, on the heels of his success as a commander in Gaul, his political rival Pompey and many Senators fled for their lives to Greece.  Eventually Caesar would cut down the Pompeian forces; in the course of the campaign, the dictator, according to later Roman historians, would pen the immortal words: veni, vidi, vici"I came, I saw, I conquered."  (For those of you taking notes, grammarians refer to this threefold literary construction as a tricolon.)  Once relative peace returned to Rome, the Senate waited for a chance to remove Caesar and replace him with a more compliant successor.  So Brutus, Cassius, and their co-conspirators cut down the tyrant on the floor of the Senate.  "Liberty!" they cried.  "Freedom!  Tyranny is dead!"  Good riddance, I say!  Down with dictators!  Come on!  Who’s with me?  Grab your pitchfork, y’all.

Would that life were so simple.  If I had benefited in some way from Caesar’s reign, heck, I would have fought against the Senate.  After all, the people of Rome largely supported Caesar.  Dictators usually receive support from the masses, at least initially.  He initiated a few reforms that helped the poor, including a public works program and efforts to relieve debts.  You don't bite the hand that feeds you.  That’s how it works for myopic mammals such as ourselves.  I still say that Thomas Hobbes had it right.  Our basic wants and desires guide us primates more than lofty ideologies.  Like Machiavelli but with greater focus and an analytical eye, the English philosopher looked back to  ancient as well as contemporary conflicts for insights on human nature; yet he was also ahead of his time.  He didn’t have a Darwinian framework at his disposal, and he anticipated Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents by four centuries.  Critics have faulted Hobbes for thinking he could provide an airtight science of human behavior.  His premise was a sound one, even if his methodology was perhaps too ambitious.  That is, one thing you can bank on when it comes to the Homo Sapiens is self-interest.  For this reason, ironically, I don’t accept his conclusion.  Writing and thinking during tumultuous times in England, Hobbes advocated a strong Leviathan ruler, that is, an absolute monarch who would forge stability out of decades of chaos.  Who's to say that this king wouldn't be just another naughty monkey like the rest of us?

Just because I oppose Julius Caesar's dictatorial actions doesn't mean I put my faith in the Senate, an assembly of equally ambitious men with corrupt hearts and bloody hands.   But you gotta pick and choose your battles, and I'll go with the Senate on this one.  As suggested above, if one believes in the innate self-interest and corruptibility of Man, as does Hobbes, why would one place so much power into the hands of one man, an absolute monarch?  But like I've written above, how we side in a conflict depends on our self-interest.  So I would have supported Julius Caesar had I been one of the many poor saps on the lower rung of the social ladder.  As I write, government forces and rebels wage a civil war in Libya.  The rebels, with inferior weaponry, hope to oust Muammar Qaddafi and his oppressive regime.  Who 's fighting for such an evil man?  Those who benefit from his regime, pure and simple.  Keep in mind I'm not comparing Qaddafi, a loon and cruel kleptocrat, with Caesar, a master of both pen and sword, a leader of men.  But dictators are dictators the world over.  Give them an inch, and they'll take a mile.  Et tu, Viator?  Yes, that's my dagger in your heart, Mr. Dictator.  Here's a tricolon for ya: Love it, live it, learn it!