September 13, 2008

Tom Lehrer on Nuclear Destruction

Chris asks

The Large Hadron Collider didn’t cause the end of the world. But would the end of the world really be worse than one’s own individual death? I mean, one reason why we dread death - if we do at all - is that we leave others behind, we don’t’ find out what happens next. But if we were to perish at the end of the world, these motives would be absent. What I’m asking is: could it be that death is partly a positional bad?
The only thing I can think of to reply with is this video

Tarquin the Proud

Now began the reign of Tarquin Superbus, Tarquin the Proud. His conduct merited the name (Livy I.48)

Tarquin was of course the last king of Rome before the Principate- which was the immediate political context in which Livy wrote his history. Its worth pausing a moment therefore over the way that Livy introduces Tarquin. The sentence above performs a bridging function- between the fall and assassination of Servius Tullius and the introduction of Tarquin's reign. I think it is interesting because it explains what Livy does not like about Tarquin, one of his villains, and it links together two important themes in the history- two ideas that Livy wants us to take from the character of Tarquin. Curiously they are ideas which link the character of the demagogue with that of the tyrant- they link them through the concept of pride. Ultimately everything in Livy about Tarquin comes back to the fact that Tarquin is superbus, he is arrogant and proud.

When Servius Tullius falls, a King that Livy directly tells us had a good reign and with whom true Kingship in Rome came to an end (I. 48), he falls through a popular insurrection. What Livy describes in his fall is the way that Tarquin inspired the population of Rome or a segment of it with passionate hatred of Tullius and that segment then overthrew the old King, in confusion, we are told that Tarquin forced his way into the Senate House and proclaimed himself King, forcing the Romans to choose between their loyalty to their King and their fear of Tarquin. Servius arrived and Livy tells us that a mob battled the population to prevent him from speaking- Tarquin interrupted by seizing the old man and having him assassinated. Leaving Tarquin as the only monarch in Rome. (I.48)

This description of the way that Tarquin destroyed Servius may not be historical- who knows- but it is definitely in accord with the character of the demagogue in classical literature. Livy is telling us that Tarquin inspired irrational and temporary emotion to sweep away his predecessor and have him assassinated. Everything Tarquin does changes the emotional and not the rational situation in which the Roman people found themselves and Livy is keen to restate that what Tarquin did was aided by a mob. (I.48) Tarquin's inner motivation for this move is as irrational- a demagogue does not have reasonable arguments but he has emotional appeals. Tarquin's emotional appeal is based upon the fact that he is the son of the previous King but one (Lucius Tarquin) and that Servius was not. That is his argument in the senate- it is also his argument in his own breast. Tarquin is proud and irrational- and moves the assembly to being irrational. The demagogue is the seed of the tyrant.

One should also recognise that this seeding goes further. In Livy's view what is constant about Tarquin is his refusal to take advice. He tries capital cases 'without consultation', he breaks 'the established tradition of consulting the senate', 'he was his own sole master' and he insults Rome's allies in Latium (I.48-50). The point of this condemnation is to get us to reflect on the fact that Tarquin has not changed. He is still the demagogue but now in control of the resources of the state. The mob he leads has become his private guard instead of just being a segment of the irrational populace. Livy wants us to understand this- because it is the key to understanding the type of character that cannot thrive in any political system. We shall see that Tarquin's lack of counsel precedes his fall- it makes him prioritise his scheming son, Sextus Tarquin, over the virtue of a Roman matron. Tarquin lacks the ability to govern as well as lacking the morality to govern well. His pride precedes his fall in a way that goes beyond a proverb.

The point about this analysis of Tarquin, bringing together the Demagogue and the Tyrant and arguing that both have the same root in the human character is one that is common within classical literature. Livy did not invent it: but the case of Tarquin enables our historian to demonstrate a classic instance of the way that demagogues proceed to tyrants. Though Thucydides might well have agreed with Livy- Cleon did not become a tyrant in Athens. The uncounselled King as a villain is something that endured long after the classical era had ended- Livy's work was still read- and you can find elements of this critique in the civil war arguments about Charles I and vague shadows even in the recent film Downfall about Hitler. The point about Livy's critique though is that it was written at a certain time- and it was written I'd suggest with the characters of Caesar (another populist who rose to the principate), Catiline and others in mind. The warning to Octavian is clear- demagogic tyranny may lead to the throne but it also leads to bad government which leads inevitably to the destruction of that government. Lastly what this passage does is provide a formidable classic account of the distinction between popular and constitional government- the one leads to the rise of the demagogue, the other leads to restraints on him.

Livy's history is about the creation of constitutional government- and that is ultimately why Tarquin is isolated from it, we are told that Servius might well have founded the republic and was the last good king. Tarquin's reign is thus in parenthesis- between the virtuous monarchy and the virtuous Republic.

September 12, 2008

Gone with the Wind

In an essay on Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell the great English essayist, defined a good bad book. What he meant by that was a book which had manifest flaws- flaws which in any other book or author would drive you to deem it bad- but that the sheer vitality of the work, the bravado of its execution not to mention the virtues of its story telling made you wish to read it again and again and again. There is something of this about the classic American film, Gone with the Wind. Made self consciously by David Selznick, in a formula he would try to repeat for the rest of his career, as a blockbuster- it is over the top, extravagant, probably too long, struggles to maintain a consistant line and yet it is fantastic. It is one of the greatest films ever made- and has as its centre a performance- by Vivian Leigh- of a character both lovable and despicable- that will be and should be remembered so long as film retains its fascination. Put simply her magnetism and ability drives this film on- aided by her two male protagonists- Leslie Howard, doing what Leslie Howard does best- and Clark Gable in a career defining role.

The point of the four hours of Gone with the Wind is simple. We have three main characters, dancing through the civil war, a minuet which reflects the changes in the south. Ashley (played by Howard) is a retiring aristocrat of the South- an intelligent and virtuous representative of the class that had run particularly Virginian politics since the 1700s, and had provided America with her first Presidents (in Washington, Jefferson, Maddison and Monroe- four out of the first five Presidents, the other Adams only had a single term). Rhett Butler is the roue who represents the new South- the South that will recover from the civil war- like Ashley he is intelligent, unlike Ashley he is vicious. And the centre of the cast is Scarlett O'Hara- tied to the land of the South by her family- desperately in love with Ashley despite the fact that he loves his cousin, Melanie Hamilton- and the counterpart in every sense to Butler. She might represent the choice that the south has to make- looking back to Ashley, looking forward to Rhett. By the end of the film, she has made her decision- to leave Ashley, the man she wished to marry but couldn't- and to reconcile herself to her love of Rhett. Its an appealing allegorical interpretation- but there are deeper layers to this particular cinematic onion.

There is something deeper here than the simple allegory that we have just described. Another way of seeing the story is to see it as a less specifically American story- but one about the way that societies in general cope with war. As an account of that subject- you have three reactions to the war. One is that of Ashley. Ashley tells those who think that they will beat the Yankees easily that they will fail but he is content to go down with his civilisation. He knows why that civilisation should go down- because of slavery and beleives that the slaves should be liberated. But he is not cut out for the world of struggle. Second strategy is that of Rhett. Rhett has no roots in the south- and his strategy is to exploit any situation to his own benefit. Canny enough to realise that the south must lose, he does feel the odd pang of conscience and wants to establish roots within the old south. There is an anxiety about where he fits visible in Rhett, but there is also a survival instinct. Neither of those things are shared by him and Ashley. Thirdly there is Scarlett- she is rooted in the south but reaching out to survive as well. She is as unscrupulous as Rhett but as solidly southern as Ashley.

This is a story about survival. The Civil War here is represented, as it was, the first modern war of devastation. It gets just right the fact that to inhabitants of the south the war changed society forever. In the thirties, when the film came out, the war was still within living memory. The children of the characters of the film would have been in the cinemas- one of the children of the war (John Nance Garner) was in the White House when the film came out. This is a film about the impact of the civil war and the way it uprooted people- sent them to madness (Scarlett's father), death (her first husband) and destroyed their lives (Ashley). At this point, as the men left to die in the war, it was women who took over society and provided it with stability- they were left behind and as Scarlett does in this film provided the economic backbone of continuity. Scarlett here sets up a business- is unscrupulous enough to marry new money at various points in order to raise her family from the ground- is a good friend and a bad enemy. She is vicious to those who work for her, fiercely protective of those she loves and singleminded to a fault.

There are blindnesses in this film- race is the major one. I can't think of a single black character who does not buy into the philosophy of their masters and mistresses and who isn't obnoxious. This is a lament about the world that went with the wind- its sympathies are with Ashley like Scarlett's despite the fact that the world is changing and that change is not merely neccessary, it is moral. The South was based on a repulsive institution and you cannot get away from that. I suspect one of the interesting points about the film is that this is the view of the Civil war from the 1930s- it is a film that could not have been made after the civil rights movement. It reminds us though of something worth remembering- in a sense it reminds me of the Woman of Berlin- the costs of even a just war are terrible and often inflicted on the innocent.

Ultimately this film comes back to a simple truth. It is an emotional truth rather than a great philosophical one- which is that a struggle impresses. Scarlett keeps going, keeps struggling and ultimately the film is about her success. From the very bottom of her despair, she never stops, never ceases to work, you cannot but fail to admire that story. Sometimes the characters overact- but that merely strengthens the central point. Vivian Leigh acts here- like in Streetcar named Desire- on the brink of madness and that merely strengthens the character. The point is not subtle- nor is its handling and it works!

September 11, 2008

Telling Tales?

What are we to make of Livy's stories about the Roman past? The historian was fond of sprinkling his history with tales of what Romans had done. In the first chapters of his work, discussing the invasion by Rome of its ancestral city Alba Longa, Livy discusses a famous episode involving two sets of brothers. The Romans and Albans were about to plunge into war when the leader of the Albans, Mettius, proposed that they both elect three champions to fight for each city and against each other- victory in the fight would give that city the spoils. The three brothers Horatii volunteered for Rome, whereas it was the Curatii brothers who fought for Alba. Two of the Horatii were killed, but the last managed to slay the Curatii and thus Rome conquered Alba. On his return with the army from the field, Horatius came across his sister outside Rome- she had been engaged to one of the Curatii and seeing her fiance's bloodstained cloak on the shoulder of her brother, she burst into tears. Horatius drew his sword and plunged it into her chest- killing her instantly. He was put on trial immediatly and the King, Tullius Hostilius, gave the right of deciding his punishment to the citizens who voted that he be symbolically punished with performing a ritual observance (that Livy tells us his family had been performing down to Livy's day) but he be let off the horendous punishment for treason that awaited him.

So much the story that Livy tells. It is piquant if nothing else and most readers would find it exciting. But there is more going on here than meets the eye. Firstly its right for us as modern readers to ask whether this could have happened and whether it happened the way that Livy says it did. Its worth stating to begin with that we must be cautious- Livy presumably did not have written records that this had happened. What he did have was the family recollection- and my guess is that this was a family story. Whether it links to the events in the civic history of Rome- the conquest of Alba, the right of the people to decide the punishment in cases of treason- is a separate matter and my guess is that the fabulous story became attached to these events- rather than that it actually happened as Livy tells us. But there probably is something here at the root of this story- possibly quite different from described in Livy's account. Families in clan based societies tend to preserve memories of family dishonour and blood feud down the generations- they tend to keep these stories particularly if they are tied to a peculiar family religious ritual. This particular story involves both the honour of the Horatii (the sister weeping for a non-Roman, the brother committing sorricide) and a religious ritual that was peculiar to them: it seems like just the thing that they might have passed down, exaggerated and transferred to great public events though it might be, my guess is that there is a kernel of truth here.

That ultimately tells us something about the value of Livy's history to us as historians looking back on ancient Rome. His history is the end of a game of Chinese whispers- he tells us the records of early Rome were destroyed- and his historical sources go back scarcely a couple of centuries. But family traditions, stories and fables- even songs that we do not know about- often preserve things where histories are not written. If we say that Livy is not completely accurate- and we can never guarentee that everything described in the early parts of his history happened- we cannot say that his history was a work of fiction (he obviously researched) nor can we say more importantly that it had no connection to the times it described. Livy's history is a limited but useful source- and in stories like that about the Horatii we may be getting a glimpse of primitive Roman society- and just as importantly we are getting a glimpse of what a Roman family wanted to remember about that society. That tells us something about the family and its concerns. It demonstrates their desire to fix private history to public history- and also the fact that they remembered this story demonstrates their piety and an interesting sexual and civic politics- which saw the tears of a young woman for her dead fiance as a threat to the masculine state and civic order.

A threat that had to be met with violence and ultimately murder- murder that the state acquiesced in whilst sacrafices expiated the wrath of the furies.

September 10, 2008

Of Kings and Constitutions

So far the journey Livy has taken us upon has seen a perfection of Kingship emerge- on the one hand the King as a charismatic ruler, on the other the King as religious and moral leader, on the one hand the King as general, on the other the King as priest. We now need to come to another aspect of Kingship- the King as the creator of constitutions. Livy describes in fine detail the way that Servius Tullius, the King after Lucius Tarquin and the penultimate King of Rome, created the Senate and the concept of the popular vote. Popular votes were used before- Livy describes them being used for judicial reasons by Tullius Hostilius (I.26). But before he can describe the revolution that will bring down the Republic- he needs to provide an account of how the senate and the Roman people developed an appetite for politics and an awareness that they might be involved in it. So how did that happen? And what did the King, Servius Tullius, gain that he gave up his sole hold upon political power?

Livy provides an explanation and an answer. From the earliest days, Rome was involved in warfare. Whether in the age of Romulus, where he implies personal charisma would win the Romans battles, to the age of Ancus, war had been a way of life for the Romans. In the reign of Lucius Tarquin- he had proposed the extension of Rome's cavalry forces and had partially succeeded in expanding the armies of the new city (I. 36). His successor obviously thought that this small progress needed reinforicing. Rome needed an army. Unsurprisingly, Servius turned immediatly to his own citizens in order to provide that force. He organised them into tribes- 12 at the beggining- and compelled those tribes to produce both resources and military forces for him- indeed Livy suggests that the name tribe derives from the Latin for tribute. The Roman census which began at this point was for Livy a compulsary activity.

But Servius had to give up something in order to gain this, he gave up to the population and the senate the power to vote on proposals. We can already see a theme of Roman history about to develop- in that Servius deliberately set up the electoral system so that the richest would decide for the poorest- the tribes voted in order of wealth and the highest classes could thus decide the fate of the poorest. Livy imagines that there was a sort of manhood suffrage before this (I. 43), a kind of primitive democracy- but what this did was establish the organisation of the Republic- an organisation which endured down to Livy's day- and thus established a permanent basis for power outside the royal house. Livy is offering us here a model of transition- from a dictatorship of plebiscite to a monarchy of legal form. The first sees a kind of primitive equality, the second raises the aristocracy above the rest of the population. But he also more interestingly provides us the mechanism that explains the change- the exchange between the King and his new complicated society is that for his willingness to entertain the wishes of his subjects, they allow him to regulate their complicated society. By placing property institutionally inside the law, he acquires the right to both regulate and tax it. By placing men's wishes at the heart of political debate, he acquires the ability to dispose them upon the battlefields of Italy. His successor accused him of using the census to tax and to find men for war: Tarquin Superbus argued that Servius was motivated not by an unusual royal generosity but by the creation of new powers for the King through the creation of new rights for others. The Senate were joined thus by a people- and by a people disposed according to property.

We do not know if this was the actual sequence by which a republic was slowly created. What we can know is that this is a plausible way that such republics are created. The great representative institutions being formed and strengthened because they fortified the power of the King. The other side of the coin is the argument that citizenship is linked to being a soldier- an argument found in Livy's greatest interpreter, Machiavelli, for example. That argument dominated thinking about Republicanism right up until the Scots formulated the notion of commercial citizenship- something which marks our world as modern is that we are fellow citizens of David Hume and Adam Smith, not of Titus Livius and Nicollo Machiavelli.

September 09, 2008

The Establishment of the Priesthood of Jupiter

He [Numa, Rome's second King] foresaw that in a martial community like Rome future Kings were likely to resemble Romulus rather than himself and to be often, in consequence, away from home on active service, and for that reason he appointed a priest of Jupiter on a permanent basis, marking the importance of the office by the grant of special robes and the use of the royal cural chair. This step ensured that the religious duties attached to the royal office should never be allowed to lapse (Livy I.20)

This passage from Livy's first volume- slightly before the discussion of Ancus Martius that occupied my last post- refines it. Livy describes one of the key reforms of Numa- the institution of a priesthood of Jupiter- and in doing so what he brings up is the notion of what in his eyes early Roman Kingship actually was. Part of the role of the King for Livy is the 'religious duties' that attach to the person of the King. A priest might maintain their authority through the use of a royal chair- a King needed a deputy in religious matters for when he was away from the throne. It is an interesting reflection- because what it reminds us of is a feature of the Roman state right up until the time of Livy and beyond. Religious and political power have been split in Europe since the days of the early medieval papacy- but in the Roman state they were not. The priest was another magistrate- this goes back through the Republic where the Pontifex maximus (chief priest) was a political officer as well and aristocrats held priestly roles and kept rituals going- Livy later discusses one such ritual that reminded Romans of the patriotism of the Horatii (I.26) and such rituals emphasized the continuity of the Roman state and the important role that various families had played in it. (We shall think about the Horatian tradition later because it is interesting in its own right.)

Was Livy right- could the origins of this priestly power lie with Numa? One suspects that religion and politics have been married for a long time- but we cannot prove it. Rather I would see this account as less an account of the way that things actually happened- than an account of the way things might have happened. To say such and such began with Numa allows Livy to do two things- he can bring forwards a reason for it happening like that- the absense of the King from Rome justifies the creation of a Royal Priestly office which would continue through the consulate. It also allows him to project that office back into a past so ancient as to be beyond political- it establishes the priesthood as a norm in Roman politics- tied to no one regime (it is not Republican but Royal) and thus to be continued under the Principate- and as something that cannot be questioned. Like 17th Century English lawyers who projected laws about feudal tenure back into the time of King Arthur, the Roman historian was taking a position about the present in projecting the religious arrangements of Rome back into the far past. They may, who knows have been founded much later, but by crediting them to Numa what Livy was doing, even if he was not recounting the facts, was demonstrating that these religious practices should be respected.

They had survived Tarquin and Brutus- they should survive Caesar and Brutus- and even Octavian.

September 08, 2008

Ancus Martius

Many may have heard of Romulus, fewer of Numa his successor, and some of Tarquin the proud the last King of Rome- but there were four lesser known Kings who deserve rescue from oblivion: Tullius Hostilius, Ancus Martius, Tarquin the elder and Servius Tullius are all interesting characters in the history of Rome, even if the likelihood is that none of them ever existed. The stories told about them are significant because they indicate the way that Romans thought that characteristics of the Republic had evolved- they also give us indications of what the Romans thought was essential about various societal practices and the ways in which Livy, whose history I am of course relying on, thought about the origins of civility and society. We have already seen that the origins of society might lie with the reign of Romulus- the origins of civility lie in the later reigns and run into the Republic. Numa, Livy tells us, gave Rome a 'second beggining' (1.19) based on laws instead of wars. I want to concentrate though for a specific reason upon a later King- Numa's nephew and successor but one- Ancus Martius.

Martius is interesting because he is so little covered. The myth of Martius's rule is evidently not as strong as that of Romulus's or Numa's or Tullius's let alone Lucius Tarquin's. In my translation of Livy it occupies barely four pages- and two of those are given to an interesting subject which is the topic of this post. Martius, according to Livy, brought international law to Rome. The form that this took for Livy was the creation of a rite of war- an envoy performed certain ritual acts at the border, in front of a foreign witness, in a foreign city and if they were not heeded, the Romans then declared again through a ritual act, a spear thrown across the border between the foreign city and Rome. The system of performing these rights is convoluted- and the words used are no doubt crucial to what Livy wants us to see. Livy wants us to see that whereas Numa had provided peace with religious ceremony, Martius provided war with an 'equivalent solemn ceremonial' (1.32). Of course that is what he does- but by doing it he reveals something of the nature of his understanding of international law and thus of the ancient world's understanding of international law.

Livy tells us that now this ceremony is in the hands of the Fetials. The Fetials were a college of priests- significantly revived by Octavian (no accident then that here the King of Rome is given a role as their founder and a religious reformer)- whose responsibility was declaring war. If enemy territory was too far away to throw the spear, in later times they would hurl it into the temple of Bellona, goddess of war. What this demonstrates though is the close tie between international law and religion. Whilst reading Livy's account of Ancus Martius, I couldn't hold myself back from an anachronistic reflection on Locke. In chapter 14 of the Two Treatises, Locke characterises a state of war as a state in which the only appeal is one to heaven- there are no judges but God (or in Livy's case, the Gods). Of course what Livy is pointing out is the origins of the international law of his own time- and this is the fascinating thing- like Locke, he sees the origins of international law as lying in that appeal to heaven. Because the Roman state went to war by appealing precisely to heaven- the Fetial priests would invoke Jupiter and Janus as they declared that Rome was aggrieved and wished to fight. Ancus Martius therefore stands at the beggining for Livy of the concept of international law- and international law begins with an appeal from a King to the King of the Gods.

But there is something more to this which I think is interesting. This is a myth. Livy could not have known that this was true- indeed he has already told us that Numa began another ceremony to describe war and peace religiously, by opening and closing the temple of Janus's doors depending on the belligerent status of Rome. Livy though thought it interesting to tell us about both Numa and Martius- and he informs us that both of them died peacefully. I think it is no accident that this is so. What Livy is offering here- and I go back to Octavian's reign to substantiate my point- is a point about social stability in monarchy. Augustus had sought in his reign to reinforce religion- I think what Livy offers in his account of Ancus Martius and Numa is an account of the stability that that might bring. If his account of Romulus is a warning to Augustus, then his account of the two later king is an offer of hope. He is suggesting that to remain in power kings must become servants to ritual- that these customs can solidify and stabilise rule. Its significant that amongst Martius's other acts- Livy says that he founded the first Roman Prison (1.33) - in a sense what Livy is doing is endorsing a program of moral reformation in the 1st century B.C. by describing its effects in the 7th Century B.C.

Livy's career was built on the foundation of civil war- he lived through the wild times when Roman slew Roman. He rejected the Octavianist argument that tyranny could create peace- we have already seen his scepticism about Romulus's ability to do that (another Caesar perhaps!) What we find in Livy's description of Ancus Martius though and of Numa Pompilius is not merely an account of how Roman religious practice began, but an account of the real reason for Roman instability. Pious Kingship succeeded in maintaining stability in a way that violent kingship failed- it was not so much the nature of the government as the nature of its moral reform that mattered. Living at the beggining of the Principate, Livy could agree that the Republic and early Principate were part of a 'process of moral decline'(1.1)- he argued that the society of the Principate was 'in love with death both individually and collectively' but could not prove its trajectory (1.1).

Roman history awaited Tacitus and Suetonius to describe that issue.

September 07, 2008

Livy's Romulus

Livy's portrait of Romulus raises some interesting questions about the generation of Kingdoms. Livy was writing here about myth- he himself acknowledges the limits of his knowledge at several points- but what it demonstrates is the way that Livy thinks about leadership. Livy's history was written in the years immediatly after the battle of Actium- to which he refers- and the foundation of the Principate by Augustus. The previous hundred years of Roman history were dominated by a series of charismatic generals- Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Antony and finally Octavian. What Livy does with his account of Romulus is really give us the account of a personal ability to inspire loyalty. He notes several times the ways in which Romulus was able to inspire loyalty- through for instance the use of augury and ceremony, through the creation of allies- new senators- and the unscrupulous creation of conflict (the mass rape of the Sabine women is one of the most horrifying stories in the ancient world- the Romans raped them according to Livy and then faced them with a dilemma either they could be subject to an honour killing or they could marry their rapists). The point of these stories is that they offer a commentary on what political strategies worked in the creation of a government- unscrupulous charisma sounds like the model followed by the politicians of the late Republican era- the attempt to fortify that system created by violence with law.

Livy though in detailing Romulus's end- where he mentions both the story that he was elevated to heaven in a cloud and the account in which he was torn to pieces by the senate- demonstrates the way in which tyranny's methods can be turned on the tyrant. The senate manufactured- he implies heavily- an account to justify their assacination of the King. They made him a God in order to avoid him as a tyrant- the warning to Augustus in the first book of Livy's history could not be more explicit and the commentary on the Principate more acute. For what Livy demonstrates is that Romulus created peace but also the aspiration to replace and destroy him- the ambition to create legal frameworks to turn tyrants to Kings, or Kings to Republics, is always immediately vulnerable because they must be set up through unscrupulousness- and that unscrupulousness teaches a nation not merely the arts of law, but the arts of treachery and war.