“Sic Semper Tyrannis” or Obama and His Opponents

February 16, 2013 @ 11:53 am · Filed under Culture, Reality

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” – Karl Marx


One of the things that makes the fall of the Roman Republic so tragic is that most of the crises that destroyed it were wholly unnecessary. But, at every opportunity for compromise, the political opponents of Caesar instead inflamed the situation. A strange mix of idealistic zealots and privileged aristocrats, Caesar’s opponents couldn’t compromise their principles, or rise above their pettiness. Surrounded by a society increasingly divided between extreme wealth and extreme poverty, a vanishing middle-class, and a political system corrupted by an irreversible connection between office and riches, the champions of the Republic lived in denial. The result was a depressing mix of unrealistic idealism combined with a corrupt determination to hang onto old privileges.

In contrast, Caesar, and later Augustus, are brutal pragmatists. They understand that times have changed, the political system is broken, and that their task is to restore it to stability. Their bows to the traditions of the past are strictly rhetorical. In practice, if the traditions of the Republic prevent the functioning of the state, they intend to do away with them. To them, no other course is realistic: the government of the past cannot be restored under the current condition of the state. This had clearly been demonstrated by Sulla, whose drastic attempts to strengthen the government of the Republic had only weakened it further.

As a pragmatist, Caesar was clearly willing to compromise with his opponents rather than risk the chances of all-out warfare, but his opponents were not. Cato’s unswerving and principled determination to prosecute Caesar when his governorship of Gaul was over led directly to the Civil War. In turn, Brutus’s and Cassius’s sincere conviction that Caesar wanted to be King led directly to the establishment of the Empire The opponents of Caesar saw any compromise of principle as a crime, while the wealth of their aristocratic supporters gave them a false conviction of their strength. Their contemporaries, and History, has recognized the purity of their motives, but the results of this purity were disastrous. By rejecting compromise, they rapidly brought about the end of the Republic, when more far-seeing politicians could have extended it’s life for many years.


Which brings us to the present day. In general, I would acknowledge that James Madison was a far smarter man than myself or his contemporaries. By now though, it is clear that his anti-federalist opponents were correct about the dangers of a large republic. As one wrote in Brutus #1:

“History furnishes no example of a free republic, any thing like the extent of the United States. The Grecian republics were of small extent; so also was that of the Romans. Both of these, it is true, in process of time, extended their conquests over large territories of country; and the consequence was, that their governments were changed from that of free governments to those of the most tyrannical that ever existed in the world”

Stripped of the hyperbole, Brutus argues that empires inevitably require large governments and a central concentration of power. This process has been long underway in the United States, and it is futile at this time to attempt to return to the highly limited government of the past. Regardless of the platform upon which they are elected, once in office, external events, the extent of their power and the need to reward their supporters will inevitably corrupt any officeholder. This was clearly demonstrated by George Bush, who was elected on a conservative platform promising a “humble foreign policy,” and who instead ended up fighting wars all over the world and justifying torture by executive fiat. And, this rapid extension of executive power has only accelerated under Obama.

Yet, while I believe many of Obama’s policies are both wrong-headed, and destructive of our Civil Liberties, he’s been blessed with enemies who seem determined to prove Marx’s aphorism about history true. Indeed, Newt Gingrich in the role of Cicero, and Karl Rove as Crassus makes a farce inevitable. More importantly, overwrought denunciations of Obama as a socialist, a budding tyrant, and an empty suit are both incoherent (how can he be all of them?) and worse than useless. Obama has proven throughout his life that he prefers to get along with everyone, and is willing to compromise. As such, the times call for measured resistance to specific policies, not hysterical opposition to every initiative. Even a rational opposition will probably not be enough to make a difference in the long-term trajectory of the United States, but the current tactics only ensure a quick failure.

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Pope Benedict the Sixteenth

February 11, 2013 @ 12:34 pm · Filed under Culture, Reality

Pope Benedict has resigned. As a theologian he showed seeds of greatness. As a Pope, he wasn’t particularly successful,. Part of that was due to the times in which he reigned, but most of the responsibility falls on him. The real failure of his papacy was his inability to govern the church in a way that reflected the humbling conclusions of his scholarship. Benedict’s thinking was shaped, as everyone’s is, by his upbringing. Born amid the disillusionment of post-WWI Europe, he was raised in a regime that insisted that traditional conceptions of good and evil did not exist, and that Christian morality was a dangerous illusion. Although he outlived that regime, he spent the remainder of his career in a increasingly atheistic Europe that, while rejecting the tenets of Nazism and Stalinism, also rejected Christianity. What is most striking about Pope Benedict’s writings is that he acknowledged this rejection, and understood that the Church was in a period of decline. In 1995, he stated:

“We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world.” [In Salz der Erde, Im Gespraech mit P Seewald (Christentum und katholische Kirche an der Jahrtausendwende Stuttgart, DVA Verlag, 1996]

Yet, in the end there was a yawning chasm between Benedict’s understanding of his times and his policies. His Papacy was noted for his defiant defense of traditional Church doctrine: a doctrine that had led to a shrinking of the church that continued on his watch. A policy more in tune with his writings might have led to a Church with more humility. He could have focused his energies on recruiting priests from among elder laymen, ensuring the continued existence of religious orders, and on religious education. Benedict had the opportunity to shape the Church and prepare it for the coming abeyance of influence he expected. He failed to do so. It seems a strange condemnation of him to say that he didn’t have the courage of his convictions, but, in the end, that must be my conclusion.

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Two Poems By Issa

December 20, 2010 @ 1:58 pm · Filed under Culture

In my opinion, the greatest haiku poet ever was Kobayashi Issa. Here are two of my favorite poems by him:

This world of Dew
Is but a world of Dew
And yet …


Writing shit
about new snow for the rich
is not art

You can learn more about Issa at the Kobayashi Issa Museum.

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The Assassination of Yogi Bear by that Coward Boo-Boo

December 13, 2010 @ 12:28 pm · Filed under Culture

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You Are Not Your Khakis

July 13, 2010 @ 8:17 am · Filed under Culture

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June 30, 2010 @ 8:01 am · Filed under Culture

Frozen Cherry Blossoms in the Snow

False Spring 1

Too close to my end

You awoke feelings long dead

Best we never met

False Spring 2

A single branch

blooms amidst the frost

Then, freezes

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Graham Greene’s After the Affair

February 22, 2010 @ 8:53 pm · Filed under Culture

The other book I read this weekend was Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. This book explores some of the themes of loss, commitment, and Catholicism that later show up in The Comedians, but it’s less mature in many ways. The story is less believable, and the rushed ending is irritating. Overall, though, it’s a an extremely moving account of love gone badly wrong. Many people group Greene with fellow Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh, and After the Affair is often compared to Brideshead Revisited. But, Greene was temperamentally far better equipped to realistically write about sex than Waugh, and this book shows it. There are some hauntingly beautiful passages in the book, particularly the diary excerpts that constitute the center of the book’s plot. My favorite quote, though, is the following passage on unhappiness and happiness:

“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem to be aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egoism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity. The words of human love have been used by the saints to describe their vision of God, and so, I suppose, we might use the terms of prayer, meditation, contemplation to explain the intensity of the love we feel for a woman. We too surrender memory, intellect, intelligence, and we too experience the deprivation, the noche oscura, and sometimes as a reward a kind of peace. The act of love itself has been described as the little death, and lovers sometimes experience too the little peace. It is odd to find myself writing these phrases as though I loved what in fact I hate. Sometimes I don’t recognize my own thoughts. What do I know of phrases like ‘the dark night’ or of prayer, who have only one prayer? I have inherited them, that is all, like a husband who is left by death in the useless possession of a woman’s clothes, scents, pots of cream . . . And yet there was this peace . . .”

For my thoughts on The Comedians, see my post Let Us Go Up to Jerusalem and Die with Him

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Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome

February 22, 2010 @ 8:34 pm · Filed under Culture

I read Anthony Everitt’s Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome on Sunday. It’s a pretty conventional biography of Hadrian. Overall, I’d say it’s about the same quality as his work on Augustus (Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor). But, that’ s not saying much I’m afraid. In the end, there’s no substitute for Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars.

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Metaphors of Science

February 16, 2010 @ 9:06 pm · Filed under Culture

“We proceed in step-by-step discussion from inference to inference, whereas He conceives through mere intuition. Thus, in order to gain insight into some properties of the circle, of which it possesses infinitely many, we begin with one of the simplest; we take it for a definition and proceed from it by means of inferences to a second property, from this to a third, hence a fourth, and so on. The divine intellect, on the other hand, grasps the essence of a circle senza temporaneo discorso (without the use of the profane reasoning) and thus apprehends the infinite array of it’s properties.”

— Galileo quoted in An Introduction to General Systems Thinking (Silver Anniversary Edition).

What Galileo discusses in this quote is the human inability to conceive of two properties at the same time. Similarly, we are incapable of thinking about two causes acting simultaneously. Instead, we are forced to break them out and think of them one at at time. Incidentally, this was a primary factor in my dissatisfaction with history. By our nature, humans are incapable of writing a coherent history of any event. Instead, we can merely contribute one of many complementary views. But God, as Galileo notes, is defined by his ability to conceive of a thing as a whole; rather than by a sequential consideration of properties. Now, what Galileo defined as Godly, will soon, I believe, be true of computers. One day, machines will have a richer view of the world than humans do, and will think of it in ways we cannot.

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Problems with Interpreting Observations

February 14, 2010 @ 9:40 pm · Filed under Culture

Recently, I’ve been reading An Introduction to General Systems Thinking (Silver Anniversary Edition). It’s a fascinating book, with insights on almost every page. Here’s the author’s thoughts on the problems of interpreting observations:

Whenever we observe a state that is both conspicuous and improbable, we are faced with a quandary. Do we believe our observation or do we invoke some special hypothesis?

Conservatism is introduced into the scientific investigation by the very assumption that observations must be consistent with present theories. An observation is more likely to be discarded as “erroneous” if it is out of consonance with theory. … The complete substitution of theory for observation is, of course, not scientific. Even worse is going through the motions of observing, but discarding as “spurious” every observation that does not fit theory.

This, then, is the problem. Raw, detailed observation of the world is just too rich a diet for science. No two situations are exactly alike unless we make them so. Every license plate we see is a miracle

“A statue is a situation which can be recognized if it occurs again.” But no state will ever occur again if we don’t lump many states into one “state.” Thus, in order to learn at all, we must forego some potential discrimination of states, some possibility of learning everything.

Science does not, and cannot, deal with miracles. Science deals only with repetitive events. Each science has to have characteristic ways of lumping the states of the systems it observes, in order to generate repetition. How does it lump? Not in arbitrary ways, but in ways determined by its past experience — ways that “work” for that science. Gradually, as the science matures, the “brain” is traded for the “eye,” until it becomes almost impossible to break a scientific paradigm (a traditional way of lumping) with mere empirical observations.

Now, if the issues outlined in the above quote are a problem for the hard sciences, they are a disaster in fuzzier disciplines like history, economics, and politics. They also have implications for business. Most of the time, you will find, that there is no widespread agreement among your co-workers on the state you are facing. And, if you all do agree, it’s probably just that your viewpoints are not really independent, not that you are all correct.

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