History’s first liberal?

How often have I said, following Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose, that liberalism is defined by loss of belief in the truths that once were the objects of a society’s veneration, combined with continued respect for the external forms and names that express those truths? If we accept that definition of liberalism, then perhaps we may say that Augustus, in Edward Gibbon’s treatment of him in the third chapter of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was the first liberal. Indeed, it could be argued that he was the most successful liberal leader in history, given that his reconstruction of Roman political society under the image, but not the substance, of the old self-governing Republic, following the destruction of the Republic during a hundred years of civil war, kept the Roman world alive for another four centuries.

Gibbon writes:

The tender respect of Augustus for a free constitution which he had destroyed can only be explained by an attentive consideration of the character of that subtle tyrant. A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition prompted him, at the age of nineteen, to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards laid aside. With the same hand, and probably with the same temper, he signed the proscription of Cicero and the pardon of Cinna. His virtues, and even his vices, were artificial; and according to the various dictates of his interest, he was at first the enemy, and at last the father, of the Roman world. When he framed the artful system of the Imperial authority, his moderation was inspired by his fears. He wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government.

The death of [Julius] Caesar was ever before his eyes. He had lavished wealth and honors on his adherents, but the most favored friends of his uncle were in the number of the conspirators. The fidelity of the legions might defend his authority against open rebellion, but their vigilance could not secure his person from the dagger of a determined republican; and the Romans, who revered the memory of Brutus, would applaud the imitation of his virtue. Caesar had provoked his fate as much as by the ostentation of his power as by his power itself. The consul or the tribune might have reigned in peace: the title of king had armed the Romans against his life. Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom. A feeble senate and enervated people cheerfully acquiesced in the pleasing illusion as long as it was supported by the virtue, or even by the prudence, of the successors of Augustus.

(I have used Dero Saunders’s modernized punctuation.)

- end of initial entry -

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

For reasons that you adduce, Augustus might well have been the “first liberal,” although the Macedonian “saviors” in the aftermath of Alexander compete for the nomination. But the first emperor was also a thoroughgoing cultural conservative, who punished relatives for the offense of promiscuity and even exiled a poet, Ovid, for having published sexually destabilizing verses. Augustus coerced the Senate to pass laws favoring the traditional Roman family. (He believed that divorce had become too easy and that sexual laxity was undermining the civic health.) He commissioned Vergil to write a poem, The Aeneid, about the origins of Rome that stressed piety, duty, and filial obligation, and many other old Republican virtues. With the exception of Marcus Aurelius, Augustus was probably the best of the emperors. His reign brought peace after a hundred years of civil wars; his immediate successors were an assortment of perverts, madmen, and ruthless empire-builders. Incidentally, the first Keynesian was Diocletian.

Also, whatever Augustus was, Gibbon was definitely a liberal. The Decline blames the proverbial “Fall of Rome” on Christianity, which Gibbon, in true Enlightenment fashion, despised. Gibbon is in this way a precursor of Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche. I am not saying that conservatives should ignore Gibbon. On the contrary, they have a great deal to learn from him; but Gibbon himself was no friend of tradition.

LA replies:

Yes to all your points and qualifications, and I stand corrected. I was making one discrete point which the Gibbon passage triggered in my mind.

Except for one point of yours: Augustus was not followed by empire-builders. The very first point Gibbon makes in the first chapter is that Augustus put an end to the growth of the empire, based on the view that Rome had more to lose than to gain by trying to expand her borders further; and that his successors, with just a couple of exceptions (the conquest of Britain, the brief conquest of Dacia/Romania), followed his policy.

Roland D. writes:

Looking at Roman history, it’s pretty apparent that Catalina and his followers were leftists/liberals.

But I believe that the distinction of being the first identifiable leftist/liberal in history probably goes to Pericles, with things being carried to their logical conclusion by Alcibiades, who was shaped by his goo-goo liberal teacher, Socrates.

And although he came later, Plato also should be cited as a notable liberal/leftist, as well.

LA replies:

But Plato is usually hated by people on the left as a “fascist.”

October 17

James R. writes:

Augustus tried to prop up traditional morality in Rome, though his own family misbehaved in ways that undercut this.

As for “the first liberal(s)”, the Gracci brothers would have a better claim to that, and arguably unleashed the forces that demolished the Republican order of Rome. For better or worse, by the time Augustus appeared on the scene, it wasn’t a choice of whether the old Republic would survive or be replaced, but which Generalissimo would replace it and what sort of order he would replace it with.

That understood, all things considered Augustus’ refoundation was the least worst of available options (once the romanticizing of Marc Antony especially is stripped away).

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

To the extent that modern liberalism is a type of aggressive, messianic reality-denial, determined to get inside peoples’ heads and dictate their beliefs, certain features of antique and late-antique society do seem to forecast it. Alexander’s successor in Egypt, Ptolemy I, and his successor in Syria and Anatolia, Antiochus I, both styled themselves soter or “savior.” The Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasts uniformly developed a style of governance that mixed secular authority with priestly officiousness tending toward the claim of living divinity. The “Greek East” was the breeding ground of Gnosticism, as Baur and Jonas, among others, have noted. Augustus, having brought the East to heel, stood out from the princes whom he defeated for being remarkably free from cult-trappings and the tendency of self-deification. He did, however, permit the senate to declare Caesar deified.

Mystic governance arrives with the Severan Dynasty, at the beginning of the third century; its culmination is not Constantine, who resembles Augustus in a number of ways, but Julian, whose “paganism” was really Gnosticism and who seems to have thought of himself as semi-divine through mystic initiation. (He seems also to have believed that he was a reincarnation of Alexander.) Julian was a fierce anti-Christian, who planned to suppress and eventually eradicate the Church. Julian died on the Persian border after only three years on the throne. I nominate Julian as the first anti-Christian ideologue to gain political power. The Christianity of the early Byzantine emperors was often quite nominal; many of them were Gnostics too, and as fiercely intolerant of paganism as Julian had been of Gospel religion.

Gibbon admired Julian, seeing him as the last apostle of Greek clear-sightedness, an index of how wrong Gibbon could be in his judgments. I once remarked in an article that Gore Vidal’s Julian resembles Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. Vidal admires both, of course, as have many in the “progressive” camp since the late eighteenth century. I make an exception for Ibsen, whose play represents Julian as a madman who gradually goes out of touch with reality.

LA replies:

I apologize to readers for touching on a huge subject inadequately with my context- and qualification-free observation about Augustus as a liberal. I feel there is something to my idea, but presenting it in the manner I did was not particularly helpful.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

You shrive yourself too severely. Augustus really was the author of a “second reality” (in Eric Voegelin’s sense) in that he strove to maintain the illusion that the Roman Republic had not ceased to exist, but that it somehow continued in a new, imperial context. Augustus was probably not himself an ideologue, but the office that he inaugurated was bound to develop an ideology; and Augustus’ successors were bound to become ideological. The pattern of the Priest-Emperor was innovated by Alexander’s successors; insofar as the Roman Empire was the successor-empire to the Diadochic kingdoms, the Imperium was bound to acquire the trappings that, in short order, it acquired. Vergil’s Aeneid, commissioned by Augustus as an apology for empire, is a fascinating work because Vergil seems to argue that empires are necessarily cruel and inhuman, as when Aeneas spurns Dido, incurring the eternal wrath of the Carthaginians against the (future) Romans; or simply in the pathos of the war-imagery. The unstated corollary is that a republic is more conducive to genuine human values. A large first-century BC literature, including the Latin Epicurean literature (much misunderstood) makes the same argument explicitly. (And Vergil was deeply influenced by Epicureanism; he went to school at an Epicurean academy in Naples.) Lucretius, invoking Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his own daughter Iphigenia at Aulis, implies that imperial schemes are necessarily sacrificial, hence also morally reprehensible. So please don’t beat yourself up. You’ve opened a fascinating line of discussion on a topic about which modern people know far too little.

October 18

Leonard D. writes:

This subject cannot be considered complete without noting Johnson’s saying, “the first Whig was the Devil”:

Johnson: I have always said the first Whig was the Devil.

Boswell: He certainly was, Sir. The Devil was impatient of subordination; he was the first who resisted power:

“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”

(The whigs were the left of the that time.)

Joseph A. writes:

Kristor might beat me to this, but …

I choked when I read Roland D.’s comment that Socrates was a “goo-goo liberal teacher” and that Plato was a “notable liberal/leftist,” and not because I think that there is any merit to Popper’s accusation that Plato was a fascist. I would like to know why Roland would label these men as ancient Greek leftists? Surely, that designation might make sense for sophists like Gorgias or Protagoras, but not for Socrates and Plato. What is leftism if not a rejection of order, a rebellion against the hierarchical structure of being where some goods are better than other goods? What is liberalism if not the refusal to articulate that hierarchy of goods for society as a whole. A liberal is skeptical that such an effort is possible for the human mind, and he certainly does not think that a society is just in imposing such a ranking of values on its citizens. Liberalism is a denial that there is a human good by nature or at least that men can discern it.

By the strongest contrast, Socrates (as portrayed by his disciples) and Plato (through the dialogues) make the very purpose of human life the struggle to know that which truly is. There is no higher life than to see the really real and to pattern one’s soul on this transcendent reality. The good is the center around which everything revolves in the Platonic understanding of the world. There is no moral neutrality in Platonism. Plato is the anti-nihilist and, as such, an intellectual enemy to the relativist, nihilistic left.

The left deifies politics, and in dialogue after dialogue, Plato’s Socrates (or his Athenian Stranger in the Laws) consistently posits the philosophical life that strives after truth as much higher than the bestial life that strives after power. Politics is important, and, as Plato’s student stresses, man is by nature political. Therefore, decent men have to involve themselves in matters of the state. Yet, that is a necessary evil for them. No leftist would see attaining political power as an evil. Political power is the left’s idol.

The only thing that might lead someone to call Socrates and Plato leftists is their contempt for convention. Yet, all philosophy involves contempt for convention, at least for the seeker of truth. Yet, you can see how important convention is in the dialogues that deal with politics. Plato knew well how powerful education, myths, and civic celebrations are for a culture, and that is why the Republic and the Laws have so much to say about civic indoctrination. The left shares this insight, but so does anyone who thinks. What you feed the soul alters the soul. Feed it trash, and it will become trashy. Nourish it with songs that celebrate virtuous men and with stories that depict the gods as benevolent and good, and the soul will become fine and noble. Plato, like all the wise, clearly saw the limits of convention, but he likewise appreciated its powers and the limits to which we can expect “enlightenment” among the masses. leftists are principled egalitarians. There is no illusion about equality in the dialogues. Indeed, I cannot think of any topic where the left can claim Plato as its own, except when the left happens to be right (which is rare and accidental).

Ken Hechtman writes:

I’ll second James R.’s nomination of the Gracchi brothers as the first economic liberals. I’ve always thought the moderate left should adopt them in the same way that the hard left appropriated Spartacus. After all, they were just serious enough about class politics to get themselves killed, not nearly serious enough to win. As such, they set the standard that would be upheld 2,000 years later by the likes of Salvador Allende, Patrice Lumumba, and the Spanish Republicans.

What strikes me about class politics from that time, and even from Athens centuries earlier, during the time of Solon, is how un-Marxist it was. The left of that time never played winner-take-all, never tried to abolish the class system as a whole. It was all about checks and balances, assuring the lower classes a seat at the table and their control over enough political veto points to block the worst depredations of the rich. Even the Gracchi brothers were never more ambitious than that. Anybody trying to design a post-Marxist left would do well to look at the best features of this pre-Marxist left.

On the other hand, for truly visionary multicultural one-world liberalism unequaled until our own time, you have to go to Alexander the Great.

LA replies:

It seems to me that you are incorrectly attributing the virtues and wisdom of Solon to the “left” of his time. The “left” wasn’t thinking of a balance between left and right, any more than the “right” was. Each side wanted what it wanted. It was Solon who resolved the conflict with his idea of a balance of forces that satisfied neither side entirely but formed a stable society through a dynamic tension of opposites.

Similarly, the “left” at various stages of Roman history was not interested in a balance between left and right. That balance grew out of the conflict between the two sides. For example, early in Roman history, the people, frustrated by their lack of political power which was monopolized by the old families and the Senate, went on strike and withdrew from the city. The conflict was resolved by giving the people a measure of power, embodied in the People’s Assembly and the tribunes whose persons were inviolate. That’s how Rome became a republic, by distributing power among the different components of the society. The balance of powers, the checks and balances, was not desired by either side; rather the balance emerged as the way the conflicting demands of the different sides could be resolved.

Something similar happened at the 1787 Federal convention in Philadelphia. There was a standoff between the big states and the small states. The big states, represented by James Madison with his Virginia plan, wanted power in Congress to be purely a function of population, which, combined with a Congressional veto over state legislation which Madison also wanted, would have given the large states unrestrained power over the small states, which would have been rendered nullities. The small states refused to accept this, they wanted representation by states as equal entities, not by population at all. The Great Compromise, combining representation by population (in the House of Representatives) and representation by equal states (in the Senate) was not something anyone started out wanting, including Madison (which is why it is incorrect to call him the Father of the Constitution). It emerged as a practical compromise between the conflicting interests.

At the end of the Convention, George Washington was not happy with the result; indeed, he was almost apologetic about it. He felt it was very imperfect, and merely the best that was possible under very difficult circumstances. But as the weeks passed and he followed the debate on the ratification of the new plan of government and he contemplated the Constitution at more leisure, he began to feel that it was something very good indeed, and he became eager for its ratification. He felt, further, that it was the result of Providence. This was because no one had envisioned or wanted this particular outcome. It had happened, as it were, by itself. During the Convention, no one had had a grand design. The Constitution was a collection of separate points, each one haggled over and debated on separately. But once away from the Convention, Washington and the others began to grasp to their astonishment how excellent was the result of their work. The extraordinarily impressive design, with its beautiful symmetry of checks and balances, was an unanticipated product of the conflicting forces in the Convention.

Roland D. writes:

In my experience and reading of history, leftists a) wish to deny absolute traditional morality whilst simultaneously b) proclaiming and enforcing their own brand of morality and c) taking the view that intentions, rather than results, are what counts.

Plato quite clearly expresses his preference that the hoi polloi ought to be ruled by their presumed philosopher-king betters in a totalitarian society; Karl Popper pretty effectively demolished him in _The Open Society and Its Enemies_ (which itself is problematic, of course).

Socrates didn’t believe in evil, nor that people sometimes deliberately performed evil deeds, worshipped supposed intellectualism as the font of all that is good and just, and believed that good intentions were all that was required to be considered virtuous.

This pretty much makes the case for both of them as intellectual fathers of modern leftism, IMHO.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 16, 2010 05:40 PM | Send

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