A Wealth of Examples

Comments comparing modern society and politics to the ancient Roman republic.

[AUC 001-01, part 3]: Mutually Beneficial Treaty

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[These remarks refer to Book 1 Chapter 1 of Livy’s history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita.]

In discussing the Trojan refugees led by Aeneas, Mr. Livy attributes their acceptance in Laurentum entirely to the fact that Latinus “admir[ed] the nobility of the folk and of the man and admir[ed] that their spirit was prepared for either war or peace”. And that was certainly a necessary part of it. We can infer from events in the next chapter, however, that the Aborgines had a sticky political problem of their own for which a big influx of experienced and motivated soldiers would be very helpful: a neighboring state was attempting to annex Laurentum. Thus, it seems to me that the key to this treaty was that each group was in a position to help the other and to help itself by joining with the other.

Alternate Traditions Regarding First Contact: Parley vs. Battle

Mr. Livy says that there were two traditions regarding the initial contact between the Trojans and Aborigines. One, which he describes in some detail, starts with Latinus asking and Aeneas answering questions about who the strangers are and what they want, and continues with a discussion between them leading to a treaty. The other he recites dutifully in a single sentence: that battle was joined, that the Trojans won, and that the defeated Latinus then negotiated a treaty with Aeneas. In both cases, a treaty resulted from the meeting, the peoples united, and the union was sealed in a stereotypically symbolic manner by the marriage of Aeneas with the daughter of Latinus.

In the latter case, we can assume that the history and current status of the refugees became known to the Aborigines after the battle. So the only real difference in the latter version is that there was a battle which the Trojans won. This kind of beginning would place an extra burden on the task of creating a single nation, beyond the normal difficulties noted below. On each side there would be mourning for those who had been killed, and survivors recovering from and living with injuries received in the battle. And the Aborigines would have a lot more resentment.

This alternate version is not impossible, but it would make the subsequent events much more remarkable. I will ignore it just as Mr. Livy does after dutifully mentioning its existence.

E Duobus Unum

To make sense of the treaty between Aeneas and Latinus, we need to acknowledge the difficulty of merging two ethnic groups, initially complete strangers to each other and probably speaking different languages, into a single nation. The situation contains plenty of opportunity for resentment, rivalry, misunderstanding, xenophobia, bigotry, and all the other problems of mixing together people of different cultures.

These two populations appear to have been of equivalent size. One tradition reports that the Trojans were numerous enough and militarily capable enough to defeat the Aborgines in a battle on equal footing. The other suggests comparable armies arrayed for a battle. Therefore, this was not a case where a large nation took in a relatively tiny number of refugees, which would be of little economic impact.

The difficulty was ameliorated to some extent by the fact that the Trojans built their own separate town, reducing the amount of day-to-day contact in the early stages, The new town was presumably far enough from the existing town to be surrounded by previously uncultivated land where the newcomers could plant their own crops. Once those farms began producing, the Trojans would be self-sustaining and would contribute to the joint economy on an equal footing. But there would have been a transition period when they were dependent on (and a significant burden to) the Aborigines.

In the next chapter, Mr. Livy mentions some of the policies that the leaders used to encourage individuals of both groups to regard the new polity as a single nation. From top to bottom these people knew how serious this was, knew that a failure could lead to bloody consequences. This kind of merger is not likely to be attempted nor to succeed unless both populations have strong motivations for its success. We know the Trojans’ motivation but must infer the Aborigines motivation from subsequent events.

The Trojans’ Behavior

Mr. Livy tells us nothing about the Trojans’ goals or strategy, other than looking for a place to build a town and live their lives. Oh, and those divine words that were guiding Aeneas “to bigger historical beginnings”. It is fruitless to speculate about their plan and expectations for the cattle-rustling raid that began this encounter; but we can note some of their conduct which may have had a positive influence on the outcome.

The Trojans did not attack any persons nor did they approach the Aborgines’ town. Either of these behaviors would have greatly increased the distrust felt by the Aborigines; or rather, abstaining from these behaviors allowed the natural distrust of thieving strangers to abate somewhat. Thus, in reaching an agreement, the Aborigines only had to forgive the newcomers, now recognized as hungry and desperate refugees, for the attempted theft of some food, not for any more serious transgressions.

Mr. Livy refers to drawn up battle lines standing face-to-face. When it became clear that they could not get back on their ships in time to avoid a confrontation with the Aborigines, apparently the Trojans organized themselves for battle in an orderly and disciplined way, and apparently waited to see what would happen, as they were, apparently, “prepared for either war or peace”. This might mean nothing, but might be different from the behavior of ordinary pirates.

A Peek at the Next Chapter

Although Mr. Livy does not mention the local political landscape until the next chapter, it is certain that Latinus was aware of it at the time the Trojan refugees landed on his shore. We ought to be aware of it, too, in trying to understand this event and the treaty that emerged.

Reading between the lines of the next chapter, it appears that Turnus, king of a neighboring people called Rutuli, was attempting to annex Laurentum and its people by means of diplomacy and marriage under a tacit threat of force.

Latinus’s Perspective

It does not seem likely, as Latinus responded to the alarm about thieves stealing cattle, that he thought that these marauders would be of benefit to Laurentum. But he would have been interested in every detail he could observe about them as a means of assessing how much of a threat they represented and as data in considering how to deal with them.

Besides their behavior mentioned above, he might have been able to notice (and yes, this is raw speculation) that the Trojans looked haggard, perhaps that some of their clothing was ragged. Possibly some Aborigines had been able to see and report that there were women and children on the strangers’ ships. Even the fact that they had undertaken a raid that they could not complete before a defense was mustered, thereby exposing themselves to attack, would have been a clue that these were not ordinary criminals.

These observations alone might have been enough to raise the question of whether the matter could be handled without the risk and injury of a battle. Any losses here would make the Aborigines that much more vulnerable to the Rutuli. Such considerations could initiate the conference that Mr. Livy describes between Latinus and Aeneas.

I do not think that simple admiration for the Trojans and their attitude, as Mr. Livy says, would have been enough to persuade Latinus to take them in as refugees. But in considering the implications of such an act, even briefly and fully expecting to turn them away, Latinus might have seen that the Trojans could also be useful to the Aborigines by increasing their population and their fighting strength, and improving their position with respect to the Rutuli.

This would be taking a risk since the Trojans could turn out to be scoundrels and could betray the Aborigines in various ways. But Latinus was balancing risks and attempting to judge whether his people would be better off united with the Trojans or merged with the Rutuli. It is only reasonable to suppose that Latinus told Aeneas all about the local political situation in the course of the treaty negotiations so that the Trojans would know just what the conditions in their new home would be. And it seems to me that, if the Rutuli were inimical enough to the Aborigines that the situation justified taking in strangers as allies, then they were even more inimical to the Trojans; and this factor in turn would mitigate the risk to the Aborigines by creating an even greater incentive for the Trojans to keep their part of the deal.


Beautiful as it might be to imagine the Aborigines taking in the Trojans just out of sympathy for their plight and because the Trojans were admirable people, I think that the success of their treaty was based more on mutual benefit and mutual appreciation. We do not, however, have enough information in this chapter to investigate this in detail.

Copyright 2009 Verbifex


Written by Verbifex

2009 July 13 at 00:55 UTC

[AUC 001-01, part 2]: Preventing Invasions and War

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[These remarks refer to Book 1 Chapter 1 of Livy’s history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita.]

It is not apparent why the Trojan survivors and the Eneti, their allies, could not continue to live in the region where Troy had stood, building a new (obviously much smaller) city. The Achaeans did not remain there after they destroyed the city; they had not come for the purpose of occupying the land. But Mr. Livy says that some surviving Trojans sought refuge elsewhere and, since doing so seems harder and more dangerous than just rebuilding their society in the same place, we have to accept that there was a good reason for it, some remaining hazard in the region of Troy that outweighed the privations and perils of wandering on the ocean looking for a new home.

Antenor and his followers (the Veneti, as Mr. Livy says they came to be called) invaded and stole the land of the Euganei, who were minding their own business in northern Italy and bothering nobody, certainly neither the Achaeans nor the Trojans. The Veneti group of refugees was not (presumably) composed of lawless individuals or criminals. In fact, Troy, as an ancient city, seems to fit the standard definition of a civilized people and (presuming again) had the usual laws of a successful state, whose citizens would not be accustomed to committing murder and armed robbery. Yet they did so here on a grand scale.

Of course, most historians and others who study events like this would not refer to the Veneti’s action as criminal, although a similar action on a smaller scale within a country would clearly be a crime. One reason for this is that historians and related professionals attempt to determine what happened and why without judging historical figures by modern values. For these essays, it is equally unnecessary to judge historical figures, but we can critically examine actions, attitudes, and policies in an effort to find insights which may influence our own behavior.

Another reason that historians do not call this event criminal may be that we generally regard these ancient cultures as less civilized than our own; and the people, therefore, not really accountable. I will argue that they really were not less civilized, although certainly many of their practices differ markedly from our own.

Just as we are more informed than the ancients were about scientific and technical matters, we also have the advantage of 3 more millennia of political science experiments (governments and revolutions, autocrats and legislatures) and administrative experience; plus, since Mr. Gutenberg anyway, better distribution and preservation of the records of the experiments and the reflections of observers. Technical knowledge has allowed the world population to increase and has provided economic and military resources the ancients could not imagine. We can bring all this knowledge, wealth, and technical power to bear on statecraft in ways that were simply not available to the Veneti and their contemporaries.

But although we may now have the technical ability to prevent injustices like the Veneti’s invasion of the Euganei’s land, it will be a long time before we have the political ability to do so. As in health, prevention is the key: there is no real cure for a population placed in dire straits, or driven from its land; nor for genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other related political diseases. The political requirement for prevention of these transgressions is a single worldwide civilization which all peoples have joined voluntarily because they recognize its value. This is not likely to occur for several more centuries, if ever.

A Functional Definition of “Civilization” for this Discussion

The word “civilization” has been used in a variety of ways. In this essay I concentrate on the colloquial notion that a “civilized person” recognizes and respects the rights of other persons, recognizes and fulfills some kinds of obligations toward other persons and society as a whole, expects most other persons to be “civilized” too, and regulates his or her personal actions accordingly. In this colloquial usage, “civilized” behavior is considered the norm and a “civilized” person’s behavior is expected to be the same towards all persons without exception so long as those other persons also are behaving in a “civilized” manner. Implicit in the notion is a recognition of the value of reciprocity: the belief that when everyone behaves in the “civilized” manner, certain benefits accrue to everyone which would not be available in the absence of “civilization”.

This differs from the standard definition in not relying in any way on the material possessions or method of living of the persons under consideration. Hunter-gatherers, owning only what they can carry and having no fixed abode, may be just as “civilized” under this definition as the most affluent residents of an industrial superpower. The key is the recognition of a system of mutual rights, obligations, and benefits.

The concept of “civilization” in this colloquial sense is the set of rights and obligations of “civilized persons”; together with recognition of the benefits which derive from their mutual action.

A “civilized polity” is a population (tribe, nation, etc.) composed of “civilized persons” acting with mutual respect and mutual obligations and enjoying the mutual benefits.

Some clarifications are in order. It is common for the word “civilization” to be used both for the concept, as I did here, and for a specific culture; e.g., Aztec Civilization. This may be because a culture that is regarded as a “civilization” is not always limited to a single polity; e.g., Western Civilization. Sometimes, for lack of a better word, I will call such a collection of polities a “civilized system”.

Some General Comments about Civilizations

I have defined “civilization” for this discussion without regard to wealth or living style because it seems to me that, in a functional sense, there are hardly any uncivilized populations anywhere on the planet. The exceptions might be those populaces that we call “failed states” although even there I think the failure is in organization, leadership, resources, and trust rather than a failure to understand the value of civilization.

In particular, it is a mistake to imagine that hunter-gatherer societies are composed of unruly, undisciplined, “savage” persons. Military organizations have a concept called “unit cohesion” which may be summed up by noting that the effectiveness of a unit requires that every member of that unit work with all the other members in a trustworthy and reliable manner in all circumstances. O. Henry describes a similar need for trust and reliability among partners and companions on the Western frontier in the 19th century. Some kind of “unit cohesion” is also needed by a nomadic cultural unit (clan, tribe, etc.). Its members live from hand to mouth on what they can reap from the landscape and are constantly vulnerable to natural forces, wild animals, and hostile or predatory humans of other groups. This polity has individuals with varying capacities as a result of age (from infants to senior citizens) and as a result of disabilities (congenital and due to injury or illness). In order to survive (let alone thrive) it requires a comprehensive set of rules regarding interpersonal behavior among the individuals and contribution to the needs of the people as a whole. Agriculture, cities, and other aspects of a “sedentary” lifestyle did not originate civilization; they simply required new sets of rules to accommodate new circumstances (and the use of writing provided a better record of these rules).

Societies big and small, rich and poor, all seem to have some organizing principle for trust and cooperation among individuals and groups internally, and for collective action of the whole population. The details of the rules, obligations, and benefits vary widely, however, from one polity to another.

Civilization’s Imperfections

In the definition above, and in the colloquial understanding of civilized behavior, there is no idea that uncivilized behavior would be proper toward persons from some particular country, or of some particular religion, or race, or whatever; but tacit exceptions of these sorts have been common in practice in many times and places. They indicate disruptions in the universality of the polity’s civilization: disagreements either real or perceived about the rules of the society.

And within a population there seems always to be a tacit exception that no duty of civilized behavior is required towards persons outside that population. But this exception generally has its own exceptions for neighboring polities and for allies.

These variations and inconsistencies arise from the fact that we have many local civilizations rather than a single universal civilization. And that results from the lack of resources available to early humans; only very small polities were possible until recently.

It is not necessary to speculate about the very first band of Homo Sapiens, about whether they inherited any traits of civilization from the hominids that went before them, nor how long language might have taken to develop, and so on. At some point communal organization and cooperation became established because these practices produced good results. But there were limits to the size and uniformity of early polities.

One practical limit on size is the difficulty of maintaining cohesion in a group larger than 150 individuals without formal institutions and procedures. As the size of each group reached the limit, the group would tend to split. Since these splits would not necessarily be rancorous, a civilized system could develop consisting of several such groups who maintained contact and commerce, and who might join together from time to time in specific projects. Another limit on size is the number of people who can live on a particular piece of land, which is very low if they are living only on what they can find there naturally. This would require the groups to disperse over a larger and larger area as the population increased. Eventually contact among them all would become impossible, the details of their respective societies would diverge, and various practical matters would require a difference of treatment between members of a polity and outsiders.

The first practical limit to civilized treatment of neighbors for an early society would be lack of resources. Living themselves from hand to mouth and limited in number, there would be a limit to their ability to help a neighboring polity which fell on hard times or was attacked by others, however sympathetic they might be. The effort expended in such cases would depend also on the degree of affinity between the polities.

The second practical limit to civilized treatment of neighbors for an early society is the difficulty of knowing whether a stranger can be trusted. In fact, some entire societies derived at least some of their livelihood by stealing from other groups, by kidnapping, enslaving, and other activities which modern states regard as crimes.

Thus, there would develop a patchwork of many tiny civilizations and possibly a few small civilized systems. In each of these, the lack of resources and the uncertainty regarding the behavior of foreigners would lead to a tacit understanding that civilized behavior was required only toward fellow citizens. This notion persists today.

Agrarian Civilized Systems

Agriculture brought a new way of life: larger populations, fixed in place and living in close proximity. It required new cohesive mechanisms to augment the familial loyalty and interpersonal affinity that hold smaller groups together: formal authority, explicit laws regarding behavior and property, law enforcement, judicial procedures; all the familiar societal details which scholars living in such societies have mistaken for civilization itself. Again it is not necessary to speculate about how much time was necessary for all these matters to be worked out; indeed, some work continues to be done even now.

Just as there was continued success in regulating domestic order, civilization’s imperfections in foreign relations continued under the new paradigm. These were still mostly very small states with limited resources and a limited ability to help each other. Communications were slow and a community could be wiped out before its neighboring friends and allies even knew it was under attack. States from time to time invaded other states. Sometimes the purpose was to take land for an expanding population. Sometimes the purpose was only to take personal property that could be transported back to the invaders’ home territory to enrich the invaders. Sometimes a king just wanted to rule over more people or more territory. In the last two millennia, religion and race have been added to power and economics as purported reasons that foreigners (or, indeed, even fellow citizens) may not be entitled to civilized treatment. Add to these the hubris of Menelaus in the Trojan War and the desperation of the Veneti.

Larger Civilized Systems

Since the time of the Trojan War there has been a steady trend toward larger and larger civilized aggregations. Most of these aggregations were the result of the ambition of specific individual rulers who used the power of their states to annex adjacent regions. A few were formed by voluntary unions for the purpose of mutual protection externally and peace and order within. These aggregations enjoyed varying degrees of success. The very large aggregates (empires) often disintegrated after the death of the founding ruler, or after a few generations of his heirs, because the aggregated polities had little or nothing in common. Even the attempts to use religion as the primary cohesive force for large aggregations failed to achieve lasting civilized systems. Smaller aggregations of similar or closely related polities, however, coalesced over time into most of the modern nations.

In every case, the pattern persists: civilized behavior is required within the nation (among citizens), but is optional for the nation as a whole in foreign relations. We need only look at the history of recent centuries to see this.

Naturally, some nations are better in this respect than others. But even the nation we consider the most enlightened and well-run (our own, of course), sometimes asserts for itself the right to ignore international law and even to violate its own law in dealing with foreigners.

In Search of a Solution

Until recently, there was no mechanism at all to address this problem because there was no one with both the authority and the resources to intervene.

I speculated in discussing the Preface that the Romans may have taken control of the region, at least in part, in an attempt to achieve national security; especially to avoid invasion of Rome specifically and Italy in general. This also would include maintaining conditions conducive to trade and therefore, inter alia, suppressing wars and the kind of violent migration under discussion here. (See, for example, the matter of the Helvetii in Book 1 of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War.) But that policy was unilateral and mixed with the pursuit of Rome’s own interests; it may have created as many problems as it solved. Certainly the other nations never granted Rome any formal authority to perform this role.

In fact, no nation can realistically have authority over any other nation; the one will misuse the authority and the other will resent it. The only restraint that can make any difference is the restraint of peers. It is not acceptable to attack another member of one’s own civilized system and other members have authority to intervene as peers of both parties. To avoid the transgressions we are discussing, there must be no population which may be considered outside the civilized system; in short, there must be a single worldwide civilization.

Technology and increased world population have made possible some serious attempts to mitigate the problem. Whenever one of these events occurs, it is known to the world almost as soon as it begins, which allows some opportunity for quick intervention. Modern nations, by treaty, have created international agencies (e.g., the United Nations and regional alliances) to attempt to deal with these problems and the conditions that lead to them; and have provided some resources to support interventions. But the treaties under which these international agencies operate are not anywhere close to union or confederation agreements. They are a first step that can only be described as “better than nothing”.

The solution will take time and can not be hurried. A certain minimal uniformity of attitude toward civil rights and civil liberties is required in a civilized system. If changes are necessary before a polity can reasonably join a larger system, those changes can occur only when the individuals of the society recognize the value of new attitudes; and social changes proceed very slowly and are resisted at every step. Here the process will be even slower because attitudes toward foreigners will have to be adjusted in many countries and trust will have to be built in many places where mistrust is now the rule. It is likely that regional solutions will develop first and at different rates; demonstrable success in one area may help accelerate acceptance elsewhere.

One experiment of this kind has been in progress for nearly 60 years in Europe. After the region had been wrecked by major war twice in less than 50 years, a few nations entered into some modest international economic agreements intended to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”. Early success led to expanded economic agreements, and these over the decades led to treaties of wider scope and more member nations. The latest organization in this series is the European Union. It is important that this process has been entirely voluntary and democratic at every step, with voting and referenda on every expansion, and everyone has been very careful to get the details right. This process, just getting started really, has already been more successful for a longer time than either Alexander or Napoleon.

I suggest that the rest of the world is watching and will see the value of this kind of cooperation, that more such regional unions will appear, and that eventually there will be a really united world. But none of us will see it. All those folks who talk about making a better world for their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren should pay attention. This is it.

Copyright 2009 Verbifex


Written by Verbifex

2009 May 21 at 07:38 UTC

[AUC 001-01, part 1]: Checks and Balances vs. Personal Agenda

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[These remarks refer to Book 1 Chapter 1 of Livy’s history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita.]

The Romans began their own history at the end of the Trojan War, asserting that some of their ancestors were refugees from the ruined Troy. So, since the purpose of this series of essays is to see whether anything can be learned about republican government by examining the successes and failures of the Romans (and, for the first few chapters, their predecessors), the Trojan War, as a political event, may be worth examining even though it is not technically part of Roman history.

In particular, that war was a massive misuse of public resources in pursuit of a private agenda. The separation of interests among the city-states, which normally might have acted as a minimal defacto set of checks and balances and which might have prevented the war, was disabled in attempting to deal with another problem. Could anything like this happen today?

A Modern View of the Trojan War

It was not necessary or even appropriate for Mr. Livy to describe the Trojan War; he could assume that his readers knew enough about it to understand the situation of the Trojans who sought refuge in Italy. But since I am discussing it I will give a very brief summary to provide a context for my remarks. Anyone who does not know the details can easily consult Wikipedia. Apparently the actual history of the actual war that destroyed the city that Homer and the other ancient Greek authors called Troy has been lost, obscured by fantastic, inconsistent, and contradictory mythological fables. This tradition (omitting many details) starts with the goddess Aphrodite promising Paris, a son of the king of Troy, that she would arrange for him to have the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Queen Helen of Sparta, who was, inconveniently, already married to Menelaus. A digression is required to note that before this marriage, the kings and princes of most of the Achaean (southern Greek) city-states had been her suitors; her father was afraid to make a decision about which one would marry her, for fear of violence from the others, until it was suggested that he first make them all swear an oath to support and defend whatever marriage he decided on. Paris went to Sparta (when Menelaus was conveniently away on personal business), met Helen, and took her with him back to Troy (on the western shore of Asia Minor). Invoking the oath (although Paris had not been one of the earlier suitors), Menelaus mobilized the Achaean kings (and their armies) to go to Troy and take Helen back, by force if necessary. After ten years of indeterminate battle and siege, the Achaeans defeated the Trojans and their allies, not by straight-out military ability but by the trickery of the Trojan Horse. They slaughtered the populace and burned the city. Very few of the Achaeans who survived the battles actually returned home due to storms, shipwrecks, and other mishaps.

It is not fair to call this history and it is impossible to know how much fact may be reflected in the general outline of the story. But we have to suppose that it reflects some attitudes of the ancient Mediterranean peoples. Otherwise they would not have accepted this as (artfully embellished) history, but would have relegated it to some genre of fiction while maintaining some more factual record of the actual war. If we can untangle some of the themes, logic, ambiguities, and contradictions of the story, we may be able to identify some of those attitudes; and those attitudes will tell us something about the world the Romans inhabited and maybe highlight modern ideas from which they differ. Let us sift the “evidence”, treating the story as true, as much as possible, and see where it leads.

Apparently there was confusion among the storytellers regarding whether Helen went with Paris willingly or was kidnapped; some tell the story one way, some the other. But there is no ambiguity in the description of Aphrodite’s deal with Paris: she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, not assistance in kidnapping (and holding captive) the most beautiful woman in the world. So the only logical story line is that Helen went willingly. If so, she presumably assisted by misdirecting her servants and issuing such orders as would allow her and Paris to be long gone before anyone suspected anything unusual. And if so, her active participation would have been clear to the Spartans. Helen might well have been surprised by this sudden love for Paris and amazed that she was eloping, but if she had felt any kind of coercion or even ambivalence it would have been contrary to Aphrodite’s promise. Even if Paris were stupid enough to tell Helen that Aphrodite was messing with her mind on his behalf, she would have no way to confirm or refute it and would perhaps just attribute the comment to poetic hyperbole about her sudden change of mind.

But Paris knew. And it is rather creepy that he would contract with Aphrodite to acquire this kind of artificial relationship. Maybe this is why some authors treat the event as an abduction. Certainly if Aphrodite had been a mortal who conspired with Paris to deceive Helen in some way that led to the same result, we could call this fraud and regard it morally (and maybe even legally) as a kidnapping.

Aphrodite’s alleged involvement, however, is of no consequence in considering this war as a government action. Menelaus and the other Achaeans were simply responding to the behavior of two mortals. If Helen had been removed by force, then the Achaeans were right in demanding her return and could consider a refusal as an act of war. We can only speculate whether they would have gone to the trouble for anyone other than Helen. If on the other hand Helen had gone with Paris willingly, then (at least by modern standards) the Achaeans had no right to demand that she return and the Trojans were right to deny any request to force her to do so. We can only speculate whether they would have gone to the trouble for someone with less status. But this is a modern analysis.

In contrast, the Achaeans, as the story is told, do not seem to have been interested in Helen’s opinion. Perhaps in part this reflects contemporary views of marriage and of gender roles generally. Also, in a monarchy with hereditary succession, there are valid political reasons to avoid any doubt about the paternity of royal offspring. In any case, the Achaeans treated Paris not as criminal but as rival; the voluntary nature of Helen’s departure made them no less hostile to him, nor any less determined to bring her back. Certainly there is nothing here about protecting the safety and liberty of citizens generally.

In summary then, an entire society went to war to force an individual woman to return home, at huge economic cost and loss of life, and in the process destroyed a city and killed or enslaved the entire population of that city; and did this because her husband would not accept that she had left him for another man: a soap opera in which over 100,000 people died because the personal business of a political leader was made the basis of government action.

We will see instances in the early, monarchical period of Roman history where the personal ambition or greed of a king led to war, but nothing on this scale.

Checks and Balances

It is time now to consider whether anything remotely like this could happen in the modern world, especially in a democracy. Fortunately, no spouse of a president or prime minister has run off recently with a foreign dignitary, a notion which seems absurd. And even more absurd is the idea that this might result in a war. That absurdity is based on our notion that in a well-organized republic no single person has sufficient power, alone, to commit the nation to any particular course of action, of either public or personal benefit: the famous “checks and balances”. This applies to any emotions that can cause rash behavior, lead to unwise decisions, or create a conflict of interest between personal goals and the duties of an office; e.g., greed, lust for personal power, desire for revenge, ideological zeal, and religious fervor. It applies to internal malfeasance as well as to misbehavior toward the nation’s neighbors. Checks and balances are supposed to prevent misappropriation of public resources for any reason. But there is no shortage of republics where the rule of law has failed at one time or another, where the checks and balances were overcome or disabled or evaded or not enforced or simply ineffective.

There was in fact a natural, de facto set of restraints in effect at the time of the Trojan War. The Achaean city-states were all independent nations each with its own king. Menelaus was king only of Sparta and had no authority to order the others to do anything, nor did they have any general obligation toward him. Stories tell of two prominent Achaeans trying to avoid joining the war; I think it likely that others were reluctant or at least unenthusiastic participants in it. So, personal and local political considerations may well have prevented the Trojan War under normal circumstances.

But they were united by that specific, ad hoc oath about Helen, which probably was never intended to cover an elopement. I think, whatever her charms, the possibility of violence (if any) was due not to a desire for her personally but to the fact that whoever married her would become king of Sparta after her father died. Her father was choosing not so much a husband for her as a successor for his kingdom. The oath was to remind them all that taking Sparta by force would be wrong and to bind them all to ensuring a peaceful transition. Nobody imagined that Helen would later take it into her head to skip town with a foreign prince. Thus the vague and very general wording of the oath that allowed it to be applied to an event for which it was never intended.

We generally talk about checks and balances in relation to the branches of government as a whole: legislative, executive, and judicial. But really, the concept is more general than that. It means that everyone in the country has a part to play in keeping the nation on course, every government official and government employee and also every citizen. We see this explicitly for legislators and officers in the Constitution, Article VI, third paragraph:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several State legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; …

Checks and Balances in Action

In our recent history, this principle was perhaps most dramatically illustrated during the 1973 investigation of President Nixon’s attempted cover-up of the Watergate burglary. The Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General resigned in protest when Mr. Nixon decided to dismiss the first special prosecutor appointed for this investigation. The ensuing public outrage forced Mr. Nixon to accept the appointment of another special prosecutor. Evidence of Mr. Nixon’s involvement in (at least) the cover-up eventually was discovered and Mr. Nixon resigned in order to avoid being removed from office via impeachment. He was thus held in check not only by the Legislative and Judicial Branches but also by other officials of the Executive Branch.

Mr. Nixon shows us one way that abuses of power occur: the notion that a president is not restricted by law. In a later interview he said, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Apparently many of his staff and colleagues believed this also, or allowed themselves to be seduced by it, and were willing to commit crimes on his behalf. Military training includes the concept of an “illegal order”; a soldier is expected to know when an order is illegal and is expected not to obey an illegal order. This often requires more personal courage than following the illegal order. Surely some similar principle applies to civil servants. In any case, Mr. Nixon’s staff would have served him (and the nation) better if they had refused to participate in these activities.

Rather than supporting the Trojan War, someone in Menelaus’s social circle ought to have taken him aside for a little talk. “You need to face the facts. Helen never loved you. She only married you because Tyndareus chose you and in our culture a woman in her situation has no other choice. She ran off with Paris because she actually loves him. She is not coming back. Get a grip, settle down, and find someone else who really cares about you.” His brother Agamemnon would have been the ideal choice, and he could have brought with him his wife, Clytemnestra, Helen’s sister, who could have made it clear to Menelaus just how miserable his life might be if he made his wife suffer the unbearable. Agamemnon also could have learned something from this discussion. But, of course, this was never going to happen in ancient Achaea. Agamemnon and the other royals, and I suppose also the common people, all had the same view: even Odysseus and Achilles, who tried to avoid joining the war, are not quoted in opposition to the general principles that drove it.

President Nixon, too, had peers who could have saved him from his folly but did not. In particular, John N. Mitchell, director of the Committee to Re-elect the President, who was up to his eyebrows in the Watergate illegal activities and was later convicted of several felonies in connection therewith, ought to have known better: until recently he had been Attorney General of the United States of America. But he thought that something special about Richard Nixon and his reelection justified breaking the laws he had so recently been in charge of enforcing. It is useless to speculate how the Watergate investigations might have been hampered if he had still been at the head of the Justice Department.

Other Aspects of Checks and Balances

This look at the Trojan War only begins the discussion of political corruption by illustrating one aspect of it: the use of public resources to advance a personal agenda. Mr. Nixon illustrates part of the dynamic at the level of a head of state: thinking that a president is a kind of elected king with unlimited authority. There are glimpses here of other aspects of political corruption. They may be listed but will have to wait for another time to be treated in depth.

Mr. Nixon and his staff behaved as if their political party were organized and operated not for the purpose of achieving some public purpose or representing a view of public policy but to advance the personal interests of its members. More loyalty was expected to the party, or at least to Mr. Nixon, than to the country, even to the extent of committing crimes against other political parties and individual political opponents. Members of the party in public office were asked to give preference in the conduct of their official duties to other party members. One discovery of the Watergate investigation is that Mr. Nixon attempted to use Federal agencies (in particular the Internal Revenue Service) to harass individuals on his “enemies list”.

Mr. Nixon and his staff also exhibited the hubris of believing that their own opinions were so important to the welfare of the nation that the people should be prevented (by deceit, trickery, crime, and other means) from voting for anyone who represented another view.

The motivation for the Trojan War was explicitly and intimately personal. Political corruption also may be motivated in other ways; e.g., ideological zeal, religious fervor, and desire for revenge. Because corrupt motivations and goals cannot be openly discussed in public, they are often further exacerbated by bad logic, bad judgment, wishful thinking, and arrogance.

Finally, where a corrupt goal must be achieved by overt action, a corrupt official resorts to a variety of techniques to deflect public opposition; e.g., fear-mongering, misdirection, fabrication, distraction, and propaganda. An example is advocating that a desirable result (e.g., removal of a foreign despot) be achieved by improper means, or arguing that improper means is justified by desirable result (the usual argument advanced in favor torture).

If we believe the traditional stories about the Trojan War, all the inhabitants of ancient Achaea accepted the premises that led to that war (although perhaps Clytemnestra represents the dissent) and that disaster played itself out to the end. Mr. Nixon was supported in his illegal actions only by a small minority of his own party; once he was exposed, the nation moved with all deliberate speed to prevent further offenses and to remove him. Between those extremes, a leader with more popular support, with more opportunity for demagoguery, with more personal friends in official positions, at the head of a more ideological and personally loyal political party which also controls the legislature, and with the unexpected good luck of a terrified populace, might indeed be able to launch a war for private reasons even in a well-organized modern democracy.

Copyright 2009 Verbifex


Written by Verbifex

2009 February 26 at 07:29 UTC

Posted in Checks and Balances, Statecraft

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[AUC Preface]: Unintentional Chauvinism

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[These remarks refer to the Preface of Livy’s history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita.]

Mr Livy says we can find in history, especially in Roman history, patterns of behavior to imitate and others to avoid. Let us start right away with his Preface.

A striking feature of the Preface is that Mr. Livy had a very good opinion of the Roman nation. This should not surprise us, of course. We expect everyone in every country to love their native land and to be proud of the accomplishments of their fellow citizens; including the Romans.

But something about Mr. Livy’s tone seems to me to go beyond a simple pride in the actual achievements and strength of the country. I see evidence of a national attitude that probably impeded good relations with other nations. A tricky aspect of discussing this is that some of the attitudes most harmful to international good will are unconscious and unquestioned stereotypes about one’s own nation, which are rarely stated explicitly and which appear only as unstated assumptions in discussions of other topics. In Mr. Livy’s Preface, these are more interesting than the overt expressions.

Mr. Livy’s Overt National Pride

We will begin, however, with Mr. Livy’s conscious and intentional expressions of national pride. First:

Besides, either the love for this project which I have undertaken misleads me, or there has never been a country greater or more venerable or richer in good examples, nor any community which greed and extravagance entered so late, nor where poverty and thrift had so much respect for so long.

I think we have to grant that this statement was literally and objectively true at the time Mr. Livy wrote it, at least according to any information available to him. Rome did have a long written history and was a successful nation. Further, Mr. Livy has softened the impact by acknowledging that he might be a little biased. Finally, elsewhere in the Preface, he can barely restrain himself from commenting at length on the problems of his own time; clearly he does not regard Rome as perfect. Therefore, the statement seems to me appropriate in the context of advice about the utility of studying history as personal and political instruction.

Next, in connection with his comment about the mythic nature of some of the early traditions:

… if it is proper to permit any nation to immortalize its origins and to relate its founders to the gods, then when the Roman nation, having such a source of pride in war, calls the supremely powerful Mars its ancestor and its founder’s own father, the human races may indeed tolerate this as calmly as they tolerate its political dominion.

Did Mr Livy believe that Rome had a special relationship with the gods? The conditionals and the structure of the sentence suggest that there may be more here than meets the eye. Mr. Livy and most of his intended readers must have known that those other nations did not bear the domination of Rome calmly; there was always some country trying to break away from the empire or some king outside the empire trying to snatch a chunk of it and Rome maintained armies throughout in order to keep this activity to a minimum. So there is irony in the statement and suspicion that the irony was intended. Perhaps this is sarcasm directed toward the notion of divine origin for the city and toward people who believed in it, worded very carefully to avoid offending anyone important. In any case, Mr. Livy goes on to say that he gives these myths no importance. So he, himself, apparently did not consciously consider Rome to be guided by the gods.

Mr. Livy’s Unconscious Chauvinist Stereotypes

But, although Mr. Livy and other thoughtful, educated Romans could reject the idea of divine origin as unbelievable when it was presented explicitly in this “myth”, I think this tradition reflects some important, widespread, stereotypical Roman ideas: that Rome was destined from the start to be a rich and powerful city and that it was simply right for Rome to dominate its part of the world. And I think that Mr. Livy, like other Romans, accepted these ideas unconsciously; and that they are unstated assumptions in much of Roman public policy.

It is a stretch to justify this thesis simply on the basis of this one 770 word Preface. We have only one or two glimpses. For example, among the aspects of history that Mr. Livy suggests ought to interest his readers he includes:

Through the actions of which men and by means of what skills, at home and in war, was dominion brought forth and increased?

Mr. Livy seems to have considered “dominion” to be a good thing for Rome in and of itself, something separate from the life and customs, separate from the moral character and subsequent moral decay of the nation. He appears interested only in how it was achieved; not in events, conditions, rationale, or policy decisions that led to it. This unadorned use of the word suggests that he and Romans of his time generally accepted a national policy of dominating the neighborhood as an unquestioned feature of their government. Perhaps the praise of “poverty and thrift”, above, reflects this, too, as those characteristics might direct citizens’ energies into improvement of public fortunes as distinct from the “greed and extravagance” of private fortunes.

We may also wonder about the observation of “having such a source of pride in war”. This does not seem to be the simple pride of having a strong and prosperous country that can defend itself and help defend its allies, but seems rather to give War, in and of itself, a priority among civic activities. In contrast, while there is evidence elsewhere that Romans valued freedom, justice, rule of law, respect for civil rights, and competent government responsive to the needs of the citizens (although their understanding and practice in these areas differ from our own in the details), they do not seem to have regarded these as a source of national pride (except perhaps freedom).

I do not suggest here that these unstated assumptions made the Roman nation on average over time any more militaristic or aggressive or rapacious than its contemporaries; I suggest only that when the Romans were presented with an international problem, these assumptions caused war and imperialism to be the tools that they were most likely to use.

Certainly I do not know whether military domination was the best policy under the circumstances. We may suppose that the Romans, if they thought about the matter at all, regarded this as important to their national security. No institutions for avoiding wars, such as the United Nations, were available in Roman times, not even in concept; nor any regional alliances like NATO. These are recent developments and still obviously imperfect. So possibly no other strategy for constant security existed but to take actual control of their part of the world themselves and to try to administer it according to some set of principles. But if there was another strategy available (perhaps less bloody or less expensive), the ingrained and unquestioned nature of their attitude of domination, especially if reinforced by the ideas of divine support and pride in war, may have precluded the Romans from even thinking of it or recognizing its value if it were suggested by others.

Modern Examples of Unconscious Chauvinism

Having noticed in Mr. Livy’s time a pattern of behavior that may have been detrimental to the Romans, we can consider whether anything similar is found in our own time; whether in the United States we also have unconscious and unquestioned stereotypes about our nation. I think we do, although not the same ones as the Romans had. Some of them, ironically, are based on an excessive appreciation of the principles on which our country was founded. Let me unfold this carefully, in an effort to avoid being flamed.

Of course we do have an excellent country and are proud of it; and the principles on which the government is based are a major part of its excellence and our pride. These principles are all the familiar tenets of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, including free speech, freedom of religion and separation of church and state, rule of law, checks and balances in political power, and civil rights and liberties for all; in short, competent government of the people, by the people and for the people. These principles give us an advantage compared to the Romans in managing our republic because they have been stated openly and explicitly from the beginning and were thoroughly debated at the beginning of the nation; they serve as an anchor and a guidepost to help us keep to our civic values in the turmoil of a crisis.

We have some objective evidence that our pride is justified. Over the years various foreign leaders and countries have stated openly that they were inspired by our example.

But we need to acknowledge that sometimes in our unconscious thoughts we go beyond a healthy patriotic pride, accepting the notion that, because our government is based on these principles, the U.S. is morally superior to other countries. This concept, when it is presented explicitly, can readily be seen as chauvinism. But it has been an unstated assumption in a large part of our recent political discussions; as, for example, in the assertions that the U.S. can properly and should actively attempt to remake the politics of the Middle East, perhaps even by force.

Unstated though it may be, both friends and opponents can recognize when a position relies on the assumption of moral superiority; and it is ticking off our friends and making it harder to deal with our opponents. Some Americans assert that we do not need to pay any attention to anyone else, a concept which also seems to rely on the same unstated assumption of moral superiority, unless it is sheer arrogance. The Founding Fathers would not agree: when listing the grievances of the colonies in the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress said

… a decent respect to the opinion of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them …

Apparently, respecting the opinion of mankind is as American as any of the other principles in our founding documents. In contrast, there is nothing in our values that encourages thrusting those values on other countries or justifies an attitude of superiority.

Because we do value these principles, however, it is natural to advocate their adoption elsewhere, and even to lend a hand when the people of a country choose to adopt one or more of our principles. But the world is a complex place and people do not change their attitudes quickly. Our own experiences with slavery and race relations and gender rights ought to tell us that changes in culture proceed very slowly and are resisted at every step even when the impetus for a change comes from within the country, and even when the impetus for the change derives from the nation’s very founding principles. We cannot from outside demand, or even expect, changes elsewhere; certainly not overnight changes. In the meantime, while hoping that others will recognize the value of our ideals and waiting for them to do so, we need realistic principles and strategies for dealing fairly with nations that run on other values.

Domestic Implications of Unconscious Chauvinism

Unstated assumptions also cause problems in the internal politics of a nation. Perhaps unstated assumptions are not disruptive in a small population, such as Rome had at its founding, because these assumptions are held in common by the entire populace. But their disruptiveness appears when the population has increased enough that there are two or more large groups in the nation with incompatible sets of assumptions. As these assumptions remain unstated, neither group acknowledges either the unstated nature of their own assumptions or the existence of the assumptions of the other group. The unstated assumptions have no chance of being considered; a group neither assesses the validity of their own assumptions nor assesses whether there might be some validity to the assumptions of the other group. In this environment, then, policy discussions consist of arguments by each group which are unresponsive to the arguments of the other; each group distorts the goals and aspirations of the other; and no consensus can be reached. With no rational basis for agreement on government policy, partisanship prevails; and later, rancor and perhaps political turbulence.

When I began this essay, I thought the subject would be how to distinguish valid and healthy patriotic enthusiasm from the excesses of chauvinism and jingoism; in particular, how to encourage the former without straying into the latter; and especially, how to create a society in which every citizen knows the difference. But the subject turned out to be more general and these matters are examples of applying it. If every citizen were aware of the unspoken ideas that lead to quasipatriotic excesses, we might avoid the constant bickering over whether every given expression, statement, or policy crosses the dividing line. We might avoid the distraction and impediment to serious debate that occur when any doubt or question about the wisdom of a national policy is labeled (and libeled) as treason. And we might avoid, most pernicious of all, the political infallibility fallacy: the notion that because we are an accomplished, enlightened, good, and strong nation, anything we do must automatically be right. Then, avoiding sanctimony on all sides, we might arrive at policies, consistent with our explicit national values, which balance the concerns of our disparate political philosophies, and meet our actual needs.

We cannot, of course, draw any conclusions from so small a bit of data as this Preface. We may find as we read the history that the assumptions prevalent in Mr. Livy’s personal views, explicit or inferred, reflect only his own time, when Rome had already slipped out of republicanism into the new monarchy of the imperial period. In that case they would tell us nothing about the earlier periods when Roman republican government developed and later began to fail.

Even so, these speculations may be of use to us. The purpose of this exercise is not to prove anything about the Romans or about ourselves. The purpose is to see whether looking at another culture can suggest, about our own motivations and actions, hypotheses which we might not have thought of otherwise. These hypotheses can then be measured against our own experience, and by each individual against his personal experience; with the goal of being more aware of the complex nature of political reality, of accommodating that complexity in our policies, and of improving the quality of our decisions.

Copyright 2008 Verbifex

Written by Verbifex

2008 October 7 at 06:11 UTC