Only free citizens deserve the common good. Failing the test of self-government, we are in turn governed by others, and lightly may our chains weigh upon us.
I suppose it is passe to argue that a generation is losing something over the course of time. Our grandfathers and grandmothers remarked on the loss of certainty in the transition from the post-Second World War Norman Rockwell generation to the Revolution of 1968 and beyond.
That generation now consisting of the grandfathers and grandmothers despite all their efforts to resist the ravages of time, there seems to be a resignation that little else needs to be passed on other than a middling inheritance, one which will make the Millennials the wealthiest generation in American history.
The great Islamic historian ibn Khaldun writes in the 14th century work Muqaddimah (or Prolegomena for those familiar with St. Anselm of Canterbury’s work of the same name — yes, an introduction) regarding his sociology on how cultures renew themselves.
This quality called asabiyyah doesn’t have a great English equivalent. Community pride, social cohesion, or a general willingness to take care of one’s neighbor as you would take care of yourslef could all be shortcuts to expressing this sentiment. Imagine how the world felt after September 11th, after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, or in the Norman Rockwell era — that’s pretty close to what ibn Khaldun wanted to express.
ibn Khaldun’s theory can be expressed rather simply. A city is conquered in one generation, thrives the next, becomes decadent in the following generation, and is in turn conquered by another generation. Or if one is familiar with the meme:
Hard men create good times,
Good times create weak men,
Weak men create bad times,
Bad times create hard men…
If one were to impose this reasoning on the American experiment, you would get a rough correlation. In 1940, we were on the cusp of the Second World War. In 1860, we were on the cusp of the American Civil War. In 1780, we were fighting our War for Independence on the cusp of Yorktown. In 1700, Marlborough was fighting the War of Austrian Succession, a man whose demeanor and lieutenants did more to shape early Virginians than we perhaps understand or give credit.
In 1620, Plymouth Rock.
In 1540, Henry VIII.
In 1460, the War of the Roses.
Every four generations, a community gets to redefine itself. Not always for the best, either. One can perhaps feel the values of the old slipping away into the unknown, and perhaps this feeling is by no means limited to the present day:
And slowly answer’d Arthur from the barge:
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
How many of us, I wonder, are picking through the wreckage of the Christian West — and it is truly a wreckage — wondering aloud with Sir Bedivere:
But now the whole ROUND TABLE is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world;
And I, the last, go forth companionless,”
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.”
One wonders — and perhaps wonders against the tide — whether there is anything of the res publica left to preserve? Was Edmund Burke wrong? Was the spirit of Jeffersonian optimism incorrect? What William F. Buckley Jr. and his vision of American conservativism standing athwart history yelling STOP! only to be matched by a handful of Fabian operators who likewise stood athwart history murmuring SOON.
Most people don’t quite grasp that it took the West a solid 1300 years to emerge from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. In fact, it could be surmised that it took the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453 to finally give the burst of energy required to kick off the Renaissance. By 1800, London and Paris had finally achieved a degree of sophistication and population equal to that of the Romans. “Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health… what have the Romans ever done for us?”
Here is where the Roman Republic had its run. The word republic comes from a unity of two words: res and publica, something our English forebearers called the common weal. Other polities get to call themselves mere conditions; Virginia is one of the few whose condition is a verb.
So too is this grand experiment we call America. There is perhaps nothing more interminable than to hear some wonk call America a democracy only to hear some infant man-child respond that we are in fact a republic. They’re both wrong — America is a federation, intentionally modeled after Plato’s balanced constitution written in The Laws to produce the second-best model of governance. The balance between a democratically elected U.S. House of Representatives balanced against the formerly aristocratic U.S. Senate and the executive power of the American president all held in check by the “midnight council” of the U.S. Supreme Court produces a balance of both faction and partisan sentiment, at least as envisioned by James Madison. The remaining powers not yielded to the federal government are reserved by the state governments which created her — both as a bulwark against tyranny and a limitation on an expanding federal imperium.
Yet as time has worn on the old Madisonian framework, Americans have seem to have forgotten why we balanced the factions in the first place. Failure to recognize experience yielded to a complete submission to an easily manipulated demos whose passions could be easily swayed. Rather than deliberate and legislate, those in power found it to be far easier to aim public opinion at their opposition — first with the scribblings of newspapermen, then social media, and finally with a slightly-paid mob storming the halls of power itself. The French Revolutionary Georges Danton — himself a victim of the same forces he unleashed during the Reign of Terror — recognized that terror and virtue would spell both the beginning and the end of every utopia — as it most certainly did for him in the face of Robespierre — and rather than strive for the more perfect Union of James Madison, we began to tell ourselves the lie that the arc of history just might bend towards justice.
Much as the French Revolution fell victim to the likes of Robespierre, so too is the American Revolution under threat from a million little Robespierres who see every disagreement as hate speech, every other as an enemy, and every enemy as a pathogen to the body politic. Instead of the common good? Power and coercion become the watchwords of the day. Instead of deliberation and process, courts and public pressure become the temporary solutions which upend 10,000 years of human tradition — all in service to lesser gods.
The French would indeed surrender their attempt to forge a res publica in favor of perhaps the most famous imperator since Constantine and Justinian. Napoleon would flog the world for nearly 20 years. Yet unlike the Romans, the French Empire would not last for a thousand years. The Romans imperium would suffer emperors both good and bad for another 1,400 years after their brief 500-year experiment with self-government.
Which one supposes is a bit of a warning. Would the average Roman villa between the 1st century BC and 1st century AD really have noticed an economic difference between Marcus Cicero and Marcus Aurelius? Indeed, living standards in the Western half of the empire were rather stout until the Visigoths arrived in the 4th century AD. Sad truth is, an imperium can still provide bread and circuses in lieu of a res publica.
Are We Sliding Into An Imperium?
There’s a real easy answer to this. So long as we continue to trade self-government for tribalism, so long as we find it easier to tear down our institutions rather than participate in them, so long as we continue trade education — that Latin word ex ducare meaning to lead forth — for mere credentialism?
We are already well on our way.
In fact, the tipping point may have already been reached.
At the risk of offending, a decent polity would be worthy of heroes. We would be drowning in leaders such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and James Madison. James Longstreet and John Mosby would be recognized for their post-war careers as well as their pre-war deeds. George S. Patton — from stout Virginia stock — and Douglas MacArthur would be valorized. Leaders worthy of the name would be in Richmond and Washington alike, and the Old Dominion would indeed be in the vanguard.
Instead — look around.
But don’t blame the politicians; blame the people who elect them.
Yet the problem isn’t as simple as good people, good politicians, good polity. Or maybe it is? Perhaps the problem is that we are in a trough as natural to human nature as breathing. Perhaps we are overdue for the leaders who emerged to respond to the Second World War.
Perhaps because of our present generation’s failure to pass on the culture and civilization of America to the future, a certain self-consumptive nihilism has taken root. King Arthur is in the barge, and for those of us who sit on the shore who remember the glories of Camelot, we are left with the singular knowledge that what was will never be and isn’t coming back.
Failing to rule ourselves? We will be ruled by others. Which is how the flame of liberty flickers and finally fails.
For those who understand the point, perhaps I am not alone in wondering aloud what the solution is. For myself, the radical commitment to education remains an absolute, not just in the personal sense, nor in the sense of being able to wield judgment against those less educated, but rather in the sense of reigniting the curiosity that is the hallmark of an education. Plutarch states it best in his Moralia:
For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.
One sees many pails. Not too much kindling — which is great news for the imperium, indeed.
Yet if the object of any good government is the res publica, then it remains to the rest of us to find some place where we can contribute towards it. Pick a Beatitude and live it. Or get involved in education in some small way. If retired, offer to teach a class pro bono at your local private or parochial school. Or adjunct at the local community college. Or start a reading club. Or personally commit to reading one book a week and 50 pages a day.
More than this, we could use good examples. Our present method of talking to one another would make middle school students wince with disgust. We win arguments but don’t understand them, which means we really don’t understand our own. How easy is it for social manipulators to divide us into Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and nationalists, RINOs and Establishment, Blues and Greens, optimates et populares — all in order to whip us into false dichotomies.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The world isn’t a war of all against all as the Leviathan would have us believe. Rather, it is a war against want and ignorance, and only an attention to the common weal will break the chains of imperium — chains that at present, we so richly deserve.