July 22, 2010

The uses of Rome

So why had God created the Roman Empire? Augustine did not believe that providence was ever purposeless. History was directed and intended from on high. Individuals on earth might act without instruction, God's will might not be obeyed, but in the end his design would be. The history of Rome was, Augustine acknowledged, a history of suffering and courage. He remarks on Brutus who slew his own sons for the state (V 18), Scaevola, Curtius and the Decii (who flung themselves into battle to save their army) and several other praiseworthy Romans (V 15). He suggests that these men were indeed 'heroes' (V 15). They fought of course for the things of this world. As Augustine argues 'they sought a Kingdom not in heaven but upon earth; not in the realm of life eternal but in the realm where the dead pass away and are succeeded by the dying' (V 17). This contrast between the lustre of their deeds and the dismal object is one that Augustine develops all the way through this passage. There is no sense for Augustine that the greatest of the Roman heroes is to be compared to the least of the Christian saints.

Save that is in one particular. The example of what the Romans were prepared to do for so meagre an object is used by Augustine to argue that the Christians should be prepared to do more. This is both used as an admonition: 'How is it any great thing then to despise all the blandishments of this world, however sweet, for the sake of that heavenly fatherland, when, for the sake of this temporal and earthly one, Brutus was able to kill even his own sons'. (V 18) As Augustine notes, Christians are not asked to slay their own sons, merely to 'regard Christ's poor as their sons' (V 18). He argues that if the Romans were able to disdain Camillus who defeated the Gauls, the Christians should likewise hold it no real feat for a controversialist to defeat the pagans. (V 18). The example of Mucius who put his hand into the flame to show Porsenna that all Romans would suffer that much for their city, is used to remind Christians that martyrdom was performed for lesser causes (V 18). Augustine uses the heroes of Rome to remind Christians that 'they are not on this account to puff themselves up with boasting? For they do this in order to obtain a place in the company of angels whereas those others, the Romans, though they did the same thing, did only so to preserve their own glory'. (V 18)

This point is crucial. What Augustine is trying to do is two things. Firstly he is trying to maintain the taint upon Roman history. Roman history was a history of glory motivated by vice. Secondly because he believes that and feels he has persuaded a Christian audience of that, he also feels that he can use it. He can use it to remind Christians that their actions are not so dissimilar from those who only intended viciousness. The deeds of the Romans deflate the deeds of the Christians. The only and key difference between the two groups becomes the faith of the Christians- sola fides indeed will in this passage justify the christian saint.

Mammoth Undertakings

When Thomas Jefferson dreamed about the Republic he and the founders had created, he dreamed about an innovative regime which would transform politics and the relationship of the citizen body to the executive. Many Americans feared about the site of this new republic. Two separate problems emerged. Firstly would the European settlers regress to the level of the Indians that they had swept away. If climate and land were destiny, then America's might be to return to the world of the Indians. Many Europeans looked at the American West and believed that Americans were regressing back to the savage state of the Indian: many American Federalists feared that that was true. Jefferson in particular was eager to persuade his contemporaries that this was false: that the dream of the American founding, a new society, a new order (according to the dollar note comparable to that brought by Aeneas to the Italian world), could become true.

Jefferson had not merely to take on those who sneered at the American West, he also had to take on those who sneered at American animals. French naturalists wrote that American animals were smaller and less impressive than their old world equivalents. Tapirs, they sneered, were not the equivalent of elephants. Environmental degredation was inevitable. Jefferson in Paris encountered these views and sought to win over the snobbish intellectuals by extracting bufallo and other samples from his friends in the States. Horns, bones and skulls sailed across the Atlantic in ships to the Plenipotentiary in Paris: Jefferson apologised to his French friends that such specimens were not the best he could find, but they did convince some. Buffon promised to rewrite his great work on American nature: but died before he could complete the revision. But the American had made his point. Animals might thrive in the new world and therefore so might men.

The story is piquant. The ambassador receiving bits of animals from over the sea. The concerns of Americans about a climate that they were in the process of changing. The great forests were being flattened by the axe, the great plains turned into fields. But it is also deadly serious: when 10% of the population of Philadelphia died in 1793, Jefferson concluded that the disease was a permanent condition of the New World. The future President believed that it might retard the growth of cities throughout the Americas. The culmination of this concern about the involvement of the environment in American life was the discovery of a mammoth in 1801 in New York: finally the Americans had a beast that could compare with African Elephants and excelled anything seen in Europe. When Dr. Caldwell, a physician, argued that the Americas would make more progress than the Europeans- he suggested it was because they had a bigger country, the new world might furnish greater diseases but also it furnished greater animals and acheivements.

Republicanism became in this sense a mammoth undertaking. It is odd looking at this material (I'm coming here from a reading of Gordon Wood's magnificent histor of the Early Republic- he cites many more examples on pp 385-94). Ultimately what this betrays though is a habit of thought- a model of the universe- which depended on widespread ignorance. Wood comments that the French scholars writing about the Americas had never been there. Furthermore few of the Americans had been to Europe and definitely not say to Russia or to Africa. Discussions about the civilised nature of the Indians missed out the entire history of the North American Indians. These were the findings of a society still beginning to explore the world, rather than one where travel is a commonplace and where MacDonalds can be found everywhere. Lastly Jefferson's anxiety about the citizenship of the country and the effects of their climate upon them, ignored the ways in which they changed the climate and environment, but more importantly begged a more significant question: whether the model of a classical civilised citizen was neccessary for a democracy or republic to function. Such a question presumes that there is a kind of civic life that is above and beyond natural life: in a world in which an opinion is a natural right, Jefferson's view of the obligations of democracy is almost as passe as his search for the mammoth!