Postmodern Conservative

Rome and the Dynamic of Freedom and Virtue (Conclusion)

 With the rise of Rome there is a decisive shift from what might be called “vertical” to “horizontal” figures of transcendence.  Every political form, as well as every adequate philosophy, articulates human transcendence in some way because it necessarily addresses a human openness to some purpose, some goodness, some “divine” meaning that is not fully grasped or securely possessed by mortals.  Classical transcendence, that is, the transcendence articulated in classical political philosophy as it addressed the classical polis, is clearly vertical in orientation.  This is to say simply that the good beyond our imperfect moral condition is understood hierarchically or aristocratically by reference to the concrete and visible virtues of character that rule in the city.  The complete and happy life is modeled, for example, by the man most honored by the city, the great-souled man.  Classical philosophy completes this picture by ranking the divine activity of philosophy still higher than practical magnanimity:  the philosopher must be supposed to possess the rare and self-sufficient goodness and enjoy the most honorable pleasures that the man of practical virtue only claims to possess and to enjoy.  Classical transcendence is vertical because the human openness to some extraordinary meaning is interpreted concretely and aristocratically:  the highest good is thought to be like what is in fact most honored in an actual city, only higher still.

It is this prejudice in favor of a concretely vertical or aristocratic transcendence that is overcome (for better and for worse, no doubt) in the new political form that is Rome.   Roman transcendence is more open-ended, more restless and more expansive precisely because it is not limited by a stable and concrete virtuous common good.  The spirit of undefined freedom, the common human longing for some condition beyond the limiting claim of some definite and honored way of life, begins to overpower any stable moral and political hierarchy.    This is not to say that morality loses its rigor; indeed, as we saw in the case of Stoic philosophy, the emphasis upon sheer duty as the principle of morality is enhanced when a concrete sense of the inherent goodness of a shared way of life subsides. 

In the ethic of sacrifice is much more pronounced and in a way radicalized in Roman morality than in the classical ethic portrayed by Aristotle.  Montesquieu, the great 18th century political thinker, in fact saw the willingness to sacrifice, to die willingly for some cause beyond oneself, as a great clue to the power and the tragedy of Rome.  Rome strove restlessly for something beyond present goods and known limits; a certain ethic of duty, sacrifice and even suicide is thus linked with Rome’s penchant for expansion.  This limitless striving that first manifest itself in the Roman Republic issued into the boundless and disordered ambition of the tyrannical Empire.

There is thus a certain fit between Stoicism and Rome, and the Roman ethic is indeed understood as the prime example of an ethic of duty. But when virtue loses its innate loveliness as embodied in a stable and shared way of life, in a ruling ethic represented in the rule of a definite human type, then the context of moral obligation, the implicit rationale of duty shifts to what I am calling the horizontal plane.  The sacrifice of individual desires and ordinary goods can no longer be understood as directed towards some concrete “higher” or nobler Good, and so now must point towards some other kind of justification.  Now of course the most obvious justification for sacrifice is the power and glory of Rome itself: duty is understood as duty to one’s country, one’s fatherland (republic or empire).  In this sense morality retains some connection with what is given, what is inherited from the fathers.  But the more the fatherland expands to include various peoples and ways of life, the more detached the glory of Rome becomes from any concrete inheritance.  As Roman duty and Roman power become more and more abstracted from a definite and shared way of life, Roman transcendence assumes features that strikingly anticipate modern understandings of man and society.  On the one hand, the emulation of shared virtues gives way to the administrative protection of private rights.  Even death for the fatherland, as Montesquieu noticed, becomes more an expression of individual striving for an unnamed transcendence than a testimony to the common good.  On the other hand, the declining relevance of the old ways produces an openness to innovation and an orientation towards the future as promising some unprecedented spiritual possibility.  The alternative to the verticality of the classical common good is horizontal in (1) its movement toward abstract universal rights and individual expression, and (2) in its openness to a future not limited by the “nature” of the past.  Such considerations lead Pierre Manent to conclude that a “passage from Ancients to Moderns had already come about in Rome at the end of the Republican period.” (Metamorphoses of the City)

A final point on the emergence of the horizontal dimension of transcendence:  the first determination (private rights and individual expression) is finally conditioned by and thus in a way subordinate to the second, that is, the projection of human meaning upon some indefinite future.  The shared sense of the purpose of rights and the meaning of individual expression depend finally on a faith in some future dispensation of spiritual meaning.  The horizon of a larger meaning has not been abolished, but is drifting from a concrete-vertical (aristocratic) to an open-horizontal (democratic-progressive) dimension.  The turn away from the stable ancestral good, the good situated in the past in the popular mind and captured by philosophers in the concept of a higher “nature,” can only be a turn towards the good of some as yet undisclosed future.  Christian revelation will situate this ultimate good, a good transcending all human hierarchies, in another world beyond the scope of human action and thus beyond politics.   Exploiting impatience with this otherworldly strategy, modern political philosophy promise a new world to be brought about by very human means, thus translating the horizontal inflection of transcendence into the spirit of “progress.”  The restless and expansive spirit of Rome thus must appear in retrospect as a kind of half-way house; it can be understood either as a transition to Christian Rome or (as we find in Machiavelli and Montesquieu) as a foreshadowing of the modern project of secular human progress.  Or as both. 

 

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