Friday, September 12, 2014

"Christianity and Classical Culture" I.II

Part I: Reconstruction

II. Romanitas: Empire and Commonwealth

The "Augustan settlement" brought nearly unbridled hope out of despair over the fate of Western Civilization. Virgil is the picture of this, giving "human history... a cosmetic setting" as the culmination of mankind's effort. The principate was the solution to the problem of politics. (27-28)

Virgil's idea becomes the "basis for imperial solidarity" (28-29), and the "final utterance to the spirit of classical paganism, the religion of culture." (29) This had been Rome's problem since the time of Cato the Elder and its rise from a local to an international power. The threat to the state was already evident in the exceptionalist mentality of the Scipios and in the reactionary virtues of Cato the Elder. (30) He was right to condemn Hellenism and Greek philosophy, since even Aristotle was willing to defer to a King if he were the most virtuous person in the state. (30-31) Cato with his peasant wisdom stood against Hellenization. (32) He became the first agrarian and proponent of the villa system using work as "the moral counterpart of war." (33) Even in his own time, but especially in later generations, all the evils Cato predicted came to pass. (34-35) Morals slid into decline on all levels of society. (35)

Lucretius' Epicureanism attempted to offer an escape according to the law of reason. Our true problem is irrational religion, which must be replaced with the rational truth of reality: that of atoms in the void. Salvation thus comes "through enlightenment." (36) Enlightenment, in turn, involves observation, apprehension, and finally relaxation.

And yet, even the existence of Lucretius shows how "Greek" Rome had gone since the time of Cato. (37) The state had become a mere compact, and Epicureanism, while of limited actual effect, became the first attempt to solve the "Roman problem" outside of Roman culture on the plane of reason, nature, and principle. (37-38)

Cicero, the most important Latin writer, picks up this new stream of thought. (38) He affects all subsequent thought, including Christianity. (38-39) Cicero responds to the same problems as Lucretius: the psychological lust for power and the running amok of "expansive emotions" (39-4), as well as "self-assertive egoism." The answer to all of these problems is, for Cicero, philosophy. But not the Epicurean philosophy, which destroys both freedom and virtue. (40)

True philosophy is religion, not superstition, but rather "high" religion. (40-41) This meant essentially a conservative skepticism. (41-42) Reason becomes the "link between man and man, and between man and God." (42) Reasoning is judging, and is built into our nature, and in this natural justice we find the state, the freedom thereof being the highest good.

Yet, all his life political realities offset Cicero's idealism, and in practice he often wavered. (43-44) He attempts to find a middle ground between right and left, and associates order and freedom in the state with private property. (44-45) And here, with the idea of a private sphere (res privata), the Romans surpass the Greeks. (46)

Cicero's social thinking, found in On Duties, reflects his view of uniquely human appetites: social impulses, thirst for truth, thirst for glory, love of order and propriety. (47-48) From this springs a sense of ethics (the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice). These virtues are communal, and salvation through them is corporate.

Justice especially is the realm of civil society, especially economic justice. (48-49) Even more, justice applies not only to individuals forming communities, but to communities forming the brotherhood of nations, i.e. international justice. Even slaves are included (49)

Courage too is a moral, intellectual, and social virtue. (50-51)

Thus, the "duties" in question are relational, being different for magistrate, citizen, alien, etc. (51-52) Public duties are a mix of morality and utility, with morality being first in importance--Crassus and Julius Caesar had switched that order. (52-53) The duties of government are ultimately to protect property with virtue, but include specifically:

  1. "to maintain the rights of property;
  2. to abstain from burdensome taxation;
  3. to ensure to every one an abundance of the necessities of life;
  4. to be scrupulously clean-handed, above the suspicion of greed or corruption." (54)
The conflict this clearly sets up between the ideal and the real gives rise to the distinction between the natural law (ideal) and the civil law (real), with the civil fitting the natural to work within the real world. (56)

The final goal of duties is to achieve human, civilized excellence. (56-57) 

Thus, the power of the state resides with the populus, and when magistrates overstep, they may be resisted. (57) 

Cicero's writing, though it couldn't save the Republic, gave it a legacy that had to be worked into the Empire, and has had to be acknowledged ever since (see such diverse writers as Machiavelli and Jefferson). (58)

Cicero also identified the strength of the public consensus, its need for leadership, and the ease with which that leadership could become tyrannical. (58-59)

Caesar's and Pompey's failures were failures of character, as they were dictators rather than monarchical leaders. (60) Such virtues, as pietas and iustitia ["devotion" and "justice"] were found only in the past. (60) Of course, this analysis was Academic (Platonic) idealism, and looked for fulfillment in the world of imagination, rather than in concrete reality. Thus Cicero shows the "strength and weakness of classical liberal idealism," (60-61) and became the source of Augustus' legitimacy.

Yet not Cicero alone, he merely provided the idea. Virgil provided the motive power. (61) Virgil gives Cicero's ideas religious and cultural sanction within the life of Rome. That Virgil was a poet rather than a philosopher just makes the point, since his primary appeal is to the imagination. (62) He is both like and unlike Lucretius. Both are poets (like), but Virgil puts fate over actual chaos (unlike). (62-63) In Virgil, the material order of the world points to a transcendent order, which in turn governs the material world. Thus Virgil emphasizes the will, while Lucretius emphasizes knowledge. (63)  Civilization, for Virgil, must be constructed (64) out of nature, using both effort and organization and culminating in the practical work of Rome. This may be compared to the Pilgrims of the New World seeking the Western dream of "a union of hearts." (64-65) The idea of will expressed through effort is the heart of the Georgics (65), but is given its final expression in the Aeneid (66-67). This work is physical (66), moral, and spiritual (67), as Eastern Orientalism seeks to drag down the virtuous West. History is the story of the struggle to do this work, and culminates in Rome as it becomes the "religion of this world." (68

Virgil unites Cicero, Varro, and Ovid--poetry, philosophy, and the state. (68-69) these three work to forge civilization against barbarism, the rule of reason and virtue against base impulse, the rule of Venus and Jupiter over Juno, until finally the barbaric itself becomes civilized. (69-70)

Fate, here, becomes freedom of a sort (70), but it is the freedom of submission and justification by works. Thus, the virtue of Virgil (which extends even to the next world) as adopted by Augustus becomes the city of man. (71) This city is not just another Carthage, Greece, or Troy, it is to be an eternal solution to the problems which brought those failed states low. (72) The transcendent virtue the Empire embodied set it apart from past states, and bound together Rome by the ideals of Romanitas, which is discovered in--but which also transcends--material wealth. (72-73) The Romans therefore retained their local distinctions, while being bound themselves by "natural reason." (73) 

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