Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

Speaking Pro Re Publica in Ancient Rome and Today (Part 4)

by Chris Barker

Debates, Games, Veterans’ Events, and Republican Values

Whether it is police misconduct or political correctness on college campuses, the current mood is populist and even majoritarian. Power goes to majorities in the inner cities. Power goes to the majority on campus. Power goes to the majority of each party’s primary voter base. It is not that the other Republican presidential candidates do not see this, but that they refuse to be flexible enough to speak to majorities in the language that they demand—to shift with the times, as Machiavelli said while praising Septimius Severus, one of the “bad” emperors of the Crisis of the Third Century. That nasty period, described in Herodian’s shocking History, rewards the fox and the lion. If you forego the fox and choose the stolid ox, as Jeb Bush did, you are choosing to go home empty-handed.

When Cicero delivered his fourteen Philippics criticizing Mark Antony, Antony had just abolished the constitutional office of dictator that Caesar had used to become perpetual dictator (Philippics I.3). The Philippics also detail other themes that anticipate concerns of today: judicial independence, judicial qualifications (not only wealth, but worth), and legal relief for rioters (I.19–20)! Cicero’s First Philippic provides further context. Amid lavish games staged for the Roman people by Marcus Brutus, Mark Antony bribed the people by creating a Board of Seven, chaired by Antony’s brother, to distribute Italian lands to Caesar’s veterans. He visited the veterans at key moments of 44 B.C.E., about a month after the murder of Caesar.

The current political context bears some similarities. Our debates resemble the Apollinarian games, and Trump’s attempt at alternative programming—his tragicomic veterans’ event in Iowa—resembles Antony’s counter-strategy of flattering Caesar’s veterans and the people. The assassins of Caesar (the Liberators) played into Antony’s hands by fleeing the city after Caesar’s death, and the fact that the assassins were members of the Senate, who had sworn to defend Caesar—and who had received gifts and honors from him—delegitimized the only real deliberative institution of the Roman world.

The common denominator of these Rome and American scenes is majoritarianism. We’ve moved, through fraud and financial crises and Wikileaks, from the power of “The Smartest Guys in the Room”—Remember that line?―toward the power of the loudest collective voices. This is so true that Donald Trump openly flatters “the level of genius in the public,” lauding their ability to pierce the veil of our “corrupt, horrible system” and the “dishonest” media that prop it up—with his help, of course. To flex to the people’s power is, as Machiavelli argues in The Prince, part of the “effectual truth” of politics, but there is an argument to be made for a certain amount of principled inflexibility, of sticking to truth without effect. Enter (and then exit) poor, principled Jeb.

To change contexts from Antony to Caesar, our candidates have reached the rhetorical Rubicon that divides democratic-republican politics from ochlocracy. This election cycle has thus far gone to the Republican willing to cross it. Amid the increasingly ugly violence and increasingly violent and un-presidential rhetoric of Trump’s rallies, for Trump to show up at the convention in Cleveland with a palace guard of angry, armed Oregonian farmers would tear a final page from Antony’s playbook. Thus Trump has promised riots at the convention if he is “way ahead” and the party blocks him. The other candidates should be reminded of Cicero’s question to Antony: “Why are your hangers-on listening to me with their swords drawn (Philippics II.112)?

When, in the South Carolina Town Hall, Marco Rubio argued that we do not need to read useless philosophy, it was not the first time that he spoke up against philosophy in the debates. It was a moment that the elder Cato, who warned of the danger of Greek learning, would have understood. But the advice is misguided. As Cicero recognized in Paradoxa Stoicorum (as quoted in Rex Stem’s paper), “…nothing is so unbelievable that persuasion cannot make it acceptable.” The average voter feels threatened by bankers, CEOs, and politicians. The people have giddily occupied the majoritarian moment as if it were the mons sacer. They are using Trump as a surrogate in the hope of regaining the feeling of dignity. This is neither deliberative nor even democratic. But it is republican in theory.

The Romans called the key value in democratic government libertas. As defined in On the Republic II.43, it stands for un-dominated self-mastery—the refusal to bend the knee to crouch and pay lip-service or eye-service to others. Ideally, what neo-republican theorist Philip Pettit calls the “rich old ideal of freedom” is attained when citizens act so as to deserve the title of fellow citizen. However, in a demagogic synecdoche, if citizens can’t attain self-mastery, they’ll accept the promise of dominating others. Thus, Cicero basically demands of Antony: Be angry with me, if you must, but be angry with me as a citizen rather than imagining that I am a personal enemy (Philippics I.27). Cicero means that he is doing and saying the right things for the res publica, whereas Antony is only serving his own interests.

Without getting too speculative, the reason behind Trump’s appeal is that the people have lost confidence in their representatives in Congress. Congressional approval is abysmally low (12.4%), and democratic dis-integration makes it seem as if special interests control the res publica. In the absence of efficacious direct representation, the electorate is willing to risk electing an uncontrolled, inexperienced surrogate who promises to do battle for them against their direct representatives. In doing this, the people are substituting a different mode of representation for direct representation―virtual representation, where one figure, such as a king, can speak for the whole people. That is the final step of the anti-democratic synecdoche of power, where the whole becomes embodied in the part.

The Machiavellian lesson is to get someone else—a Mitt Romney, for example, or Anonymous—to take down Trump. It is to avoid being hated by the base while staying politically viable. However, if we wanted to be Roman about our political principles, we would recall that the mixed constitution combines libertas and concilium, freedom and wise counsel, as Cicero argued in On the Republic (I.47–55). The alternative is license (licentia)—“a frightening, grotesque, and disturbing development in American politics,” as Rubio called it before he suspended his campaign.

The desires for dignity and liberty are democratic-republican, but our emotions should be those of citizens rather than of private individuals. We the people are not unwise to question the value of the vote, which John Dunn calls the “reconciliatory offer” of democratic politics. It is an odd bargain to voluntarily subject yourself to rule, gaining only the power to choose your leader. But that is the democratic bargain.

In my final post, I conclude by considering what it takes to communicate with bad and self-serving demagogues.

Other posts in this series can be found as follows:

Chris Barker teaches political thought at Southwestern College. He has previously held positions at Ohio University, Boston College, and Harvard University, and recently completed his first book manuscript on John Stuart Mill’s liberalism.

Image: Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito | Wikimedia Commons

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1 thought on “Speaking Pro Re Publica in Ancient Rome and Today (Part 4)

  1. Come on now, there is no moral equivalence between Trump’s populist republican movement and the mobs of Ferguson or the college campus student censors of free speech.

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