September 24, 2008

Freedom, Conflict and the State

Coriolanus became a major Shakespearian hero based upon his characterisation in Livy- but the character in Livy is interesting in his own right. He is interesting because the character is involved in a confrontation with the plebeians- a confrontation that takes the form of an argument about freedom. Coriolanus argues that for him to recognise the freedom of the plebs and the powers of the tribune is to make himself a slave (2.34). The plebs on the other hand think that his harsh policy offers them a false choice- a 'choice between death or slavery' (2.34). Coriolanus and the plebs exchange arguments about freedom.

The interest of this exchange lies in these two concepts of freedom. Coriolanus's freedom is his freedom to vindicate his honour- the problem is that his freedom includes the destruction of other people's freedom just to be. In a sense it is an argument that runs up to the present day. The problem is not that freedom is contradictory but that perceptions of freedom can contradict. I can see your freedom to choose as an insult to my position as a free individual- it is that feeling that leads to instability.

What Livy offers us though is not a normative view of the merits of these arguments- my own is pretty clear but Livy steers us away from such simplistic understandings of politics. For Livy the key question is the survival and the structure of the state- not the normative question of who is most free- Rome not Romans are the centre of Livy's attention. In that sense Livy is caught in a quandary and in a sense this is the meaning of Coriolanus's career: what Livy is interested in is whose freedom- the sense of honour that can only be redressed if others are kept down and kept inferior or the sense of freedom which demands equal rights for everyone.

Livy is uncertain- and his uncertainty comes not so much from a moral point of view as from a military one. Because as he points out, what happens is that Coriolanus defects and comes close to destroying the Republic, leading its enemies to the gates of Rome. From Livy's point of view, Coriolanus's victory 'indicated that the strength of Rome lay in her commanders not her armies' (2 38). The issue here is a dual one- Rome cannot afford to lose her commons as they staff her armies- but equally it is the commanders which make the armies special. That is ultimately the issue between Coriolanus and the commons- not an issue of right- but an issue of might- the question for Livy is what kind of freedom can stabilise the republic and because of the tension between the kind of armies Rome needs to levy in order to fight and the kind of commanders who can guarentee victory that puzzle remains problematic.

The issue is similar say to our arguments about homosexual marriage- with the Christians being Coriolanus and the liberals being the commons- but Livy's analysis is very different to ours. Rather than asking which argument is right, he provides us with a historical argument about consequences which presumes that the key issue is the continuation of the state. The heart of the issue here is that Livy cannot decide and by his account (which may be fictional, historians are very cautious about the career of Coriolanus), both the honourable commander and the free commons are indispensible to Rome's defence. The internal history of the republic could be seen as the attempt to reconcile the two in order for the city to survive: an attempt which culminated within Livy's own day with the destruction of the Republic.