A Wealth of Examples

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

[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 +00:00

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