“A devil tempts a character to do something naughty, and the angel wags a threatening finger…I believe in these two entities as much as I believe in talking llamas…But I still kind of believe in a certain type of shoulder devil. I don’t “hear” him that much, but when I do he pretty much just tells me I suck at stuff. When he’s being particularly asshole-ish, he tells me I’m kinda no good at being a dad, husband, friend, or human being in general. When he’s slightly less of a prick, he tells me I suck at writing music and playing guitar.
There’s no prosaic “compromising situation” that I’ve put myself in when I’m hearing this crap in my head. It isn’t something Sunday school should’ve prepared me for but I somehow failed to see the smoking-brimstone signals on the horizon…I’m simply taking life, music, or whatever too seriously.
And the more serious I get—the more I try to stubbornly power through and get better at whatever I’m feeling bollocks at, the worse it gets. No amount of dwelling on the problem, no amount of practicing or switching guitars or twiddling pedal settings fixes it…I’ve come to realize these “I suck” moments are often mortality’s way of nudging me…”
One of the nice things about being old, sort of a philosopher, occasional alternative media pundit and blues guitarist is that I have no fear that I will ever be called upon to run the world, the nation or probably even an ice cream stand. The history of philosophers running things has generally not turned out well.
Plato got the chance with Syracuse and before too long, was run out of town and back to Athens. Cicero was a great orator, a competent Senator, an adequate Consul and a failure as a Dictator, and frankly not much of a philosopher. Seneca kind of ran Rome for a while until Nero hit puberty for real and all hell broke loose — he got to kill himself which was probably better than being parboiled in the bath like Nero’s mother, but still…Aurelius took Stoicism to new levels, and showed that a philosopher could be an emperor and die on campaign, producing a World Class Twit and Tyrant as an heir.
Jefferson had a run as President and wasn’t horrible at it by any means, but his autism and ADD probably helped a lot to keep his philosophical tendencies out of the way of governing. Imagine a party running Sartre, de Beauvoir, Malraux and Camus for positions in the Fourth Republic…Allons sie!
Heidegger got to run a university while dreaming of being something greater, only to lose credibility, status, and attention as a philosopher with his Brownshirt Rectorship at Freiburg.
I have no fear that I will ever be called upon to run the world.
So, it’s possible for us to be as silly as we want to be; after all, no one is likely to allow us to play things out in real life. Still, I find that at times, we all take ourselves too seriously despite the pettiness of our concerns. Philosophical arguments when they become arguments are often the equivalent of “You say potato, I say po-taa-to, so countdown to nuclear Armageddon 10-9-8…”
What I’m hearing in the current debate, if you can so dignify it in political circles, is pretty much the equivalent on the Republican side — the ever pleasant and amusing circular firing squad that really just messes things up. The Democrats seem to have a more rational approach going on, but then nobody ever accused Hillary, Bernie and Marty of being philosophers. What’s troubling to me is that the odds are pretty good that at least one of the final candidates will be totally whacko… and hey, I still have to live here. Come on folks, start making sense!
When I get depressed, I turn to history a lot and then follow that wherever it takes me.
So, I take Hammond’s advice often. When I get depressed, I turn to history a lot and then follow that wherever it takes me. Mary Beard is the ultimate British Public Intellectual — When a little girl on a TV show is asked what she wants to be when she grows up, and responds, “I want to be Mary Beard!” we’ve seen smart permeate the culture.
Mary Beard is an Oxford Don focused on the study of classics and ancient history. Her most recent work, SPQR, A History of Ancient Rome is an interesting study, looking at various themes and describing what’s going on. She has a great bit of thought that applies to Romanophiles like me, but I suspect it applies to anyone who tries to take some historical ‘golden era” and hold it up as a mirror for our world.
Anyone who reads history passionately knows that in the case of Rome and indeed everything else, we really have only a part of the story — and a lot of that is questionable to begin with. There are probably few Italians today who take the story of Romulus and Remus seriously; but, there were a lot of them in 10BCE.
According to our general understanding of Roman history, Romulus killed Remus over how the city was going to be drained depending on the hill they built on first; was followed by a succession of Kings, until one of the Kings and his family got too arrogant for the average Roman and they were run out of town on a rail…or the 509BCE equivalent. And, then there was the Republic, sui generis, with no issues to speak of in getting started. Kings out, and let’s have a Senate meeting.
Beard, who has spent her life studying this stuff is very clear — this is bullshit. We can’t be certain what happened and how it came about. Making policy decisions in the 21st century based how Sulla handled the disruption after the Social War is as silly as using Caesar to plan the invasion of Syria. Beard is critical of generals and defense intellectuals who claim that they are following the tactics of Caesar in this battle, or Hannibal in that.
“We hardly need to read of the difficulties of the Roman legions on the Syrian borders to understand that modern military interventions in western Asia might be ill‑advised, or that feeding inedible food to refugees is likely to rebound. I am not even certain that those modern generals who boast of following the tactics of Julius Caesar or Hannibal really do so, in anything more than their own imaginations; most military victories in the ancient world were achieved by massive superiority in numbers or by some variety of “going round the back” of the enemy and capturing them in a pincer movement (“tactics”, in any more sophisticated sense, just weren’t in it).”
Even more important, Beard is concerned that we take too much for granted in terms of similarities between the Roman world and our own. A lot of the headlines could have been lifted from the daily sheets posted in the Forum, a lot of the problem areas are the same, and a lot of the issues are similar. But, the Romans are not us; the Egyptians are not the Egyptians of today are not those of Cleopatra; the Germans of then are not the Germans of today; nor, for that matter, are the Gauls in any way similar to the French people of today.
The cultures, religions, concerns, beliefs and attitudes are radically different. The problems may be similar, of course. I’ve written here several times about my own belief that you can track most issues back to some variation on the Seven Deadly Sins. But, that framework is overlaid by some specific issues.
To study ancient Rome from the 21st century is rather like walking on a tightrope – a careful balancing act, which demands a very particular sort of imagination. If you look down on one side, everything does look reassuringly familiar, or can be made to seem so. It is not just the military escapades or the problems of urban life and migrants…On the other side of the tightrope, however, is completely alien territory. Some of that strangeness is well recognised.
The institution of slavery disrupted any clear idea of what it was to be a human being (neither Greeks nor Romans ever worked out whether slaves were things or people). The filth of the place was, in our terms, shocking. More than half of the Romans ever born would have died before they were 10 years old.
Childbirth was as deadly to women as battle was to men. Less well known are the thousands of unwanted newborn babies who were thrown onto rubbish heaps (or “exposed” to use the modern scholarly euphemism); the boundary between contraception and infanticide was a blurred one, and disposing of children after birth was safer than getting rid of them before.
Beard does a great job of telling the story while posing questions about parts of the story that either don’t make sense or drag it to some level of absurdity. One of the things that I’ve drawn out of it is that Rome matters because it laid a mental model that is still commonly in use for describing politics and intersection of politics with military matters. There are parallels — what difference between those swooning at the approach of a renowned charioteer and today’s Oakland Raider fan, dressed like a cross between a wolverine and a member of the Kiss Army?
Rome is our backlit fun house mirror.
Their differences bring the similarities into starker, brighter shades. The demons are visible; the difficulties well lit; we can see with little doubt just how hard it can be to stand as the most powerful, dominant and dangerous nation and not totally screw things up. It’s fairly clear that it’s pretty bloody hard, and we’re not doing that well at it.
In much the way we ended up with our “empire,” Rome did the same thing. It wasn’t really until the time of the first Triumvirate — Pompey Magnus, Crassus, and Julius Caesar — that Rome really made an effort to conquer. Most of the empire fell into its hands — which were as grasping and crooked as Halliburtons, and in fact, Rome employed lots of contractors, as opposed to having civil servants — as they were trying to accomplish something else. Caesar added Egypt to the empire basically because Rome needed it to be friendly and semi-organized, so it could sell grain to feed the Roman people, especially those on the corn dole. He was thereafter chasing Pompey for the purpose of stopping the nonsense of the Civil War.
Rome is our backlit fun house mirror
On arriving in Egypt with one legion plus, Caesar discovered that some Egyptian bureaucrat hired some displaced Roman Army soldiers, who had fought with Pompey back in the day, had arranged to ambush and kill the poor, old man. They chopped off his head and pickled it, presenting it to Caesar at the first meeting of the General and the Egyptian brain trust. (Of course, as I write that, I’m thinking Blackwater…)
Since Caesar’s approach to his Roman foes was to largely pardon them and try to bring them back into the fold, he found the death of Pompey inconvenient; and Roman generals were pretty unhappy conversing with and listening to demands from a bunch of eunuchs, while the 11-year-old Pharaoh giggled.
The Pharaoh was Cleopatra’s least attractive sibling, a younger brother, and his cabal had engineered the assassination. When Caesar was less than kind, words were said and blows feel.
Caesar decided Cleopatra might be a better fit for Rome and set her up as the ruler, there was a civil war and one Roman legion held the Royal area for about a year, while reinforcements came from Rome. Boy King was probably fed to the crocodiles by Queen Cleopatra; Cleopatra bore Caesar a son which almost messed up Octavian’s weekend later, and Rome was guaranteed cheap grain. Life was good…kind of, if you were Roman.
Another key difference between our culture and Rome’s was religious. The Roman approach to the Gods was fairly straightforward — some gods had human favorites, and some didn’t; some gods wanted something special from some humans and some didn’t want anything from the lousy creatures. Gods were fickle, very powerful and destructive children. Keep the bastards away from us! was the general consensus; the various temples with all the freaking gods represented in the empire was a place for bribes. You sacrificed a chicken, a bull, a bushel of wheat and the crazy loon left you alone.
Granted, various Patrician families claimed descent from the gods, since one of the things that the gods seemed to want a lot was to get in some human’s toga or stolla and have at it. Nobody paid any attention to that, really; it was handy in a Senate Speech or on a tombstone, but otherwise it wasn’t taken any more seriously than someone claiming to be the last descendant of Richard III, the last true king of England and hence the rightful heir to the throne. (Well, Ben Carson might believe that and attack the UK to put Reginald Nigel Frockbottom on the throne instead of whichever Windsor is currently in line. )
No, you bribed the Gods to keep them out of your business. I developed a complete cosmology about that a while back, and it actually seems very close to the Roman Vision. Instead of Jupiter, the chief Goddess was named Tiffany and her consort/brother was named Biff, but the idea still was still the same.
Gods were fickle, very powerful and destructive children. Keep the bastards away from us!
We, on the other hand, are convinced that our future is tied with divine rule. We are God’s chosen, the City on the Hill, the home of American exceptionalism. The Romans were not confused — their exceptionalism was based on groups of about 5000 highly-disciplined, highly trained and superbly equipped infantrymen armed with a 12-inch dagger, a 24-inch stabbing sword, a 36-inch shield and a sheaf of javelins, as well as having a lot of other neat pieces of artillery.
Of course to that mindset, we have this direct line to God, see? — Our God, who cheers for the Yankees, the Packers, the Spurs and the PAC 12 — So, we can do anything we want to because whatever we want to do is more than OK with him. It’s all part of his plan.
Christians, especially right wing Christians in the United States, really hold their god to a low standard for a god. The Romans were the same way — they just weren’t all that interested in pretending