O tempora! O mores!
When will you stop testing our patience? How long will you mock us? How long must we endure that famous audacity of yours? The people are alarmed — doesn’t that mean anything to you? Even the Senate feels the need to defend itself against you. Don’t the worried faces in this august assembly worry you? Don’t you know that your plans already have been found out? Everyone here knows what you are up to. We know where you were last night, and the night before that, where you met, whom you met with, the schemes you hatched. Didn’t you think we’d find out?
Marcus Tullius Cicero, In Catilinam
The proximate cause of the conspiracy of Catiline in 63 b.c. was debt: Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman nobleman from an ancient and celebrated family, a man of great physical courage and mental acuity, but he was utterly dissolute. Having wasted his fortune and spent himself hopelessly into debt, he assembled a small army of similarly ruined noblemen with the aim of overthrowing the Roman republic, murdering their creditors, and pillaging their rivals. Public debt in Rome was at record highs as the result of an unexpected economic downturn, expensive foreign wars, and a real-estate crisis that saw thousands of foreclosed-upon farmers lose their lands and flee to the city. Private debt was a problem, too, along with unfunded liabilities for veterans’ benefits and social spending. Catiline, a senator, had emphasized the issues of economic stimulus for the poor and more spending on veterans’ programs, which won him the support of the plebs, but it was his own debts that weighed most heavily upon his mind, along with his political future. Wise men long ago learned to be suspicious of very rich men demanding to be invested with political power on behalf of the poor, but that is one of the many lessons that the rest of us keep failing to learn.
In his famous denunciation of Catiline, Cicero described his coconspirators as the worst sort of riff-raff and lowlifes, but in truth they came from the cream of respectable Roman society: Publius Cornelius Lentulus, known as Sura, had been consul only a few years before, while Lucius Cassius Longinus had served as praetor with Cicero himself. But Lentulus had lost his position because of a political scandal, and Cassius had lost his race for the consulship and was widely regarded as a political has-been. Others who had been frustrated by their lack of political success joined the conspiracy — former senators and the less fortunate sons of illustrious families, men who had, in the words of Sallust, “dissipated their patrimonies by gambling, luxury, and sensuality, and had contracted heavy debts.” Children of privilege up in arms, pursuing their own agenda under color of seeking justice for the masses against the financial elites: Occupy Rome, basically.
One cannot fault Catiline’s strategic analysis: Given the decayed state of the republic — Julius Caesar was elected pontifex maximus that same year, quite possibly through bribery — controlling the levers of political power meant the opportunity to put the machinery of the state to immediate use crushing one’s enemies and rewarding one’s friends, with very little standing in the way of an aspiring tyrant other than what Sharron Angle might have called “Second Amendment remedies,” had she and the Bill of Rights been around at the time. (Cicero was a defender of the right to keep and bear arms, but within limits: “Suppose,” he wrote, “that a person leaves his sword with you when he is in his right mind and demands it back in a fit of insanity — it would be criminal to restore it to him.”) Cicero demanded summary execution of the conspirator — “The senate is aware of these things, the consul sees them, and yet this man lives!” — which may seem a bit excessive, but the alternative was civil war, which was just what the Romans got after Catiline escaped. He died in battle, and Sallust noted with grudging respect that the corpses of Catiline and his men were found with their wounds in the right place: in the front.
Cicero, being a shrewd social analyst, recognized that Catiline’s conspiracy was not the moral failing of one man, or even that of the entire class of ambitious sons of privilege. It was, rather, a comprehensive failure of Roman institutions from the senate and consuls on down to the self-interested veterans and envious plebs. His most famous words were not uttered lamenting the decadence of Catiline but the decadence of the age: “O tempora! O mores!” It is better to have a republic defended by civic virtue than to have one defended by swords and spears.
Catiline was hardly the first rotten apple to fall from the tree of the Roman aristocracy, but he was wildly and enduringly popular with the plebs and with those who presumed to speak for them. He survived in legend as a kind of Robin Hood figure well into the Middle Ages, and beyond: Ibsen’s first play was a sympathetic treatment of Catiline, whom he regarded as a forerunner to the revolutionary movements then under way against the Habsburg empire. Catiline’s crime was not only to plot to kill a few senators and walk away from a few debts: His crime was to render the unthinkable thinkable, that a Roman ruler might set aside all of the hard-won liberty of the uncrowned republic and treat the state as his personal instrument, to become the thing that Romans hated most: a king.
In his De Officiis, Cicero meditated upon virtues that are necessary for political life, those “by which society and what we call its ‘common bonds’ are maintained.” The cardinal political virtue was justice — “the crowning glory of the virtues, and the basis upon which we call good men ‘good’” — which when applied to political questions entailed the ability to distinguish the common good from private interest. “The first order of justice is to keep one man from doing harm to another,” Cicero wrote, “and the next is to lead men to use common resources for the common good, private property for their own.”
Our House of Representatives has a hilariously long-winded and specific set of guidelines for helping members of Congress decide what is private and what is public, published under the heading “General Prohibition Against Using Official Resources for Campaign or Political Purposes.” But it is a very serious matter, which you can learn from the House’s declaration that
the misuse of the funds and other resources that the House of Representatives entrusts to Members for the conduct of official House business is a very serious matter. Depending on the circumstances, such conduct may result in not only disciplinary action by the House, but also criminal prosecution. Moreover, while any House employee who makes improper use of House resources is subject to disciplinary action by the Committee on Ethics, each Member should be aware that he or she may be held responsible for any improper use of resources that occurs in the Member’s office. The Committee has long taken the position that each Member is responsible for assuring that the Member’s employees are aware of and adhere to the rules, and for assuring that House resources are used for proper purposes.
The general principles outlined above are very good ones, and Cicero would have recognized them. Using public resources for private political purposes is not just an ethical violation; it is a crime very similar to bribery: one part extortion, one part abuse of office. And it is a crime for which superiors bear some responsibility for the actions of their subordinates.
No less than the actions of Catiline all those centuries ago, the actions of the Internal Revenue Service are a criminal conspiracy not only against the agency’s particular marked targets but against the republic itself, against the very idea of a republic, predicated upon the abuse of official power for private political gain. Such are the mores of these tempora that this scandal has unfolded as though the main question were how it might affect the 2014 congressional elections, or possibly the 2016 presidential race. But those are short-term considerations. This kind of scandal — from the Latin scandalum, or “stumbling block” — goes to the very heart of whether we remain the sort of people who can be trusted to govern themselves. It is a scandal in both the political sense and the Catholic sense of the word: “Any action or its omission, not necessarily sinful in itself, that is likely to induce another to do something morally wrong. Direct scandal, also called diabolical, has the deliberate intention to induce another to sin. In indirect scandal a person does something that he or she foresees will at least likely lead another to commit sin, but this is rather tolerated than positively desired.” (Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary)
Already there are suggestions that other agencies, possibly the EPA and the ATF, have similarly abused the power entrusted to them, to say nothing of the worrisome developments at the (possibly misnamed) Department of Justice. The precedent that has been set cannot be undone, and the unthinkable is now thinkable, and everybody will be thinking it every time anybody is audited. The opinions of every crank and conspiracy theorist in the land just got a little bit more respectable. The wrongdoing is widespread and systemic; top managers knew about it and lied about it. The public trust has been entrusted to the untrustworthy. The question is not how much damage this scandal will do to the White House, but how much it will do to the country.