Postmodern Conservative

Rome and the Dynamic of Freedom and Virtue (2)

Continued from my post of November 12 – again much indebted to Pierre Manent’s Metamorphoses of the City.

Such a marvelous equilibrium could not be expected to be stable. The truth of human longing could not be captured in the figure of a virtuous polis looking up to a serenely self-satisfied philosopher. To state the problem in Platonic terms: If the Good that all human beings are somehow seeking, whether they know it or not, is indeed  “beyond being,” as Plato’s Socrates said (Republic 6), then the philosopher’s claim to possess what everyone else is looking for is dubious at best.  The restless freedom and glorious sacrifice of the common man point to a truth of the human condition that is not exhausted in the finite form of aristocratic transcendence. 

The whole history of Rome bespeaks the infinity of human freedom and its expression in glorious sacrifice. The classical polis understood itself in the light of its own concrete notion of human excellence: an Athenian legislator laid down laws that aimed to favor the formation of a citizen of a definite type of virtue, and the Athenian citizen deliberated and acted in view of a notion of the common good that reflected that concrete virtue.  In a sense, then, the polis was immediately visible to political reason; political action there implied a concrete and limited vision of achievable political ends. But in another sense the classical city depended on the unquestioned acceptance of its givenness, its naturalness as a city; this is what was expressed in the Platonic “noble lie” of autochthony: The citizens must believe that their city, with its ruling virtues, springs as it were from the earth, that it is just a given, a fact of nature. The Aristotle’s Athenians reasoned together about the means to virtue and the common good, but the very integrity of the city depended on taking as naturally given the character of virtue itself. (Again, Aristotle would refine and to some degree rationalize the political virtues of the Athenians; he would not radically question their givenness, their naturalness.)

It is here that the Roman republicanism came to distinguish itself explicitly from the classical political equilibrium. The Romans were very clear about their debt to Greek philosophy and culture, but they claimed to have in a way improved on the original. The Romans claimed a kind of rational advantage in being late-comers; they touted the superiority of their what might be called their derivative status or their “secondarity.” Unlike the Greeks, they did not consign the nature of their republic and its virtues to some mythic generation from nature, but took pride in a process whose beginning and unfolding they held to be available to rational understanding. The Roman historian Titus Livy thus held Rome to be “the work of a kind of genius common to a large number of citizens . . . by a labor pursued by generations over many centuries.” This work was not that of a distinct people who took their city to be a product of nature but rather of “outsiders . . . a motley crowd, an indistinct mix of free men and slaves, all searching for something new.”

 Rome produces a new political form as the notion of the virtuous common good, the rule of a concrete character type taken to be good by nature, is forgotten or left behind in this search for “something new.” The principle of association, the basis of community, is no longer the classical ruling claim to a shared way of life, a way that is largely taken for granted as inherited from divine ancestors (and interpreted by philosophy according to the standard of nature). What then, is the alternative?  To what authority or ground of meaning will Rome appeal as a principle of association, a bond of common action? It is the openness of this question that will give Rome its unprecedented energy, the restless and often cruel dynamism by which Rome would expand from Republic to Empire, by which it would reshape the world and form the crucible of Western civilization. 

 With the rise of Rome there is a decisive shift from what might be called “vertical” to “horizontal” figures of transcendence.

More to follow.


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