By Olivia Pierson
The profound ignorance of philosophical and historical matters in modern politics today depresses me beyond words. Politics is the fifth branch of a disciplined philosophy which covers the important human question: “In what way are men to be governed?” A monarchy? A republic? An oligarchy? A meritocracy? A timocracy? A direct democracy? A totalitarian state? Anarchy? History is literally littered with real life examples of all of these governing systems, yet the average voter now would be hard pressed to describe what any of them actually represent.
Someone recently asked me why I care so much about American politics and so little about the politics of my own country. To be honest, I am surprised that more people who know me, have not asked me that question before now, given how vocal I am about how much my own country’s politics bores me to death and how much American politics interests me. In our New Zealand election two weeks ago, I nearly didn’t vote at all. Nearly.
The reason for my interest in American politics is simple: small Western democracies such as New Zealand (and the rest) owe not only a philosophical debt to America that they are never honest enough to admit was ever transacted, but also a military debt. Because modern people have such little interest in history, they remain militantly ignorant, so much so that most Kiwis under 60 today are not even aware that only 70 odd years ago we were protected by America from the Japanese when Winston Churchill could not spare resources from Mother England to make sure we were not attacked by the Empire of the Sun, as Darwin was in Northern Australia. We were literally a sitting duck, an indefensible island jewel of natural resources in the South Pacific, until America sent around 45,000 troops here to protect New Zealand civilian life in exchange for having an allied base from which to launch American attacks on the Japanese.
But I digress from my main topic.
Aside from this important detail of World War II, the philosophical debt Western democracies like NZ owe America has its roots originally in ancient Rome, planted firmly by Marcus Tullius Cicero, who died in 43 BC.
It was Cicero who acquainted the ancient Roman people with the Greek philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It was Cicero who during his time on Earth wrote and spoke of the wisdom of the Greek philosophers and the knowledge they could impart to a Roman Republic, at a time when Romans had strong anti-Greek sentiments and had forgotten that they had learned everything worth knowing about republics from the ancient Greeks - just as the modern world today has strong anti-American sentiments and has forgotten that we learned everything worth knowing about democracy from the United States.
The 18th Century framers of the American Constitution: Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, et al, drew heavily on the 17th Century Enlightenment thinkers: John Locke, James Harrington, Baron de Montesquieu and Algernon Sidney. Those thinkers had drawn heavily on the 13th Century philosopher Thomas Aquinas, who drew from the writings of the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, and from Cicero - the man who delivered the Greek philosophers into readable Latin for the Romans (when Mary the mother of Jesus was not even an immaculate glint in her grandfather’s eye).
In 66 BC, the Roman Republic was already over 400 years old when Cicero, a consul of Rome, was considered one of its greatest statesmen as well as being an eloquent and prolific writer. He came from an ordinary equestrian family. Through the vehicle of practising law, he distinguished himself as an orator and rhetorician (most people today wouldn’t even know what that was) and became the most powerful defender of the Roman Republic version of governance in a time when the Republic was dramatically disintegrating into tyrannical rule via what would go on to become the cult of the Caesars; the end of the Republic and the beginning of an empire.
Cicero was not invited to partake in the brutal murder of Julius Caesar on the senate floor because his colleagues thought he would disapprove. He did not. He quietly celebrated Caesar’s death because he equated Caesar’s rule with dictatorship. He believed in the constitutional rule of natural law, laws that were in accordance with the nature of man:
“True law is correct reason congruent with nature, spread among all persons, constant, everlasting. It calls to duty by ordering; it deters from mischief by forbidding. Nevertheless it does not order or forbid upright persons in vain, nor does it move the wicked by ordering or forbidding. It is not holy to circumvent this law, nor is it permitted to modify any part of it, nor can it be entirely repealed. In fact we cannot be released from this law by either the senate or the people. No Sextus Aelius should be sought as expositor or interpreter. There will not be one law at Rome, another at Athens, one now, another later, but one law both everlasting and unchangeable will encompass all nations and for all time.” [Cicero - On the Republic]
Some 1800 years later, Thomas Jefferson expressed the same idea when he wrote two years before the American Revolution:
“A free people claim their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” [Thomas Jefferson - Rights of British America, 1774]
After Jefferson had twice served as President, he wrote in a letter to Henry Lee:
“With respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects.
When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. [Emphasis mine]
All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc..“ [Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Henry Lee, 1825]
John Adams, who had a particular fondness for Cicero, wrote:
“As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.” [John Adams]
Thus Cicero’s love for his dying republic was transmitted through the ages to the American Founding Fathers as they busied themselves creating a new one - a better one - not only for American citizens to flourish within, but also as an example to the whole world of what living under self-governance and true liberty would look like. Their success was staggering evidenced by the fact that their example is now the common, daily experience of all Western democracies today.
But can it be preserved?
Without understanding our history of how we came about this radical idea of self-rule, whether one lives in NZ, Australia, England or America, I do not believe we can preserve it, for the condition of freedom requires knowledge and a tenacious spirit of vigilance - protecting that which is valuable, right and ideal is befitting of a free people. But how can a free people protect what is valuable, right and ideal when they by volition prefer to remain ignorant of how we even came to have the immeasurable gift of hours, days, weeks, months, years and decades of liberty?
I refer back to Cicero to have the last word on this, since not only was he put to death under the new Emperor Octavian/Augustus (at the will of Marc Antony) - the Roman Republic was lost from that point on, never to be revived again over the next 500 years of its existence as an empire, where it died on the doorstep of the new dark age of Catholic theocracy.
“Ancestral morality provided outstanding men, and great men preserved the morality of old and the institutions of our ancestors. But our own time, having inherited the commonwealth like a wonderful picture that had faded over time, not only has failed to renew its original colours but has not even taken the trouble to preserve at least its shape and outlines. What remains of the morals of antiquity, upon which the Roman poet said that the Roman state stood? We see that they are so outworn in oblivion that they are not only not cherished but are now unknown. What am I to say about the men? The morals themselves have passed away through a shortage of men; and we must not only render an account of such an evil, but in a sense we must defend ourselves like people being tried for a capital crime. It is because of our vices, not because of some bad luck, that we preserve the commonwealth in name alone but have long ago lost its substance.” [Cicero - On the Commonwealth]
That’s Cicero’s eloquent way of saying “where have all the real men gone?”
OK, I’ll let myself have the last word after all…
I recently stood in Rome and gazed in wonder over the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum where the glorious senate once gleamed in white marble, where Cicero himself frequently orated, where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. This haunting, melancholic question was with me all the while I looked: “how did all this come so irretrievably undone?”
I believe Cicero has answered this for me. The commonwealth lost its substance through failing to bring forth outstanding men to preserve the morality (wisdom) of its founders. To preserve the morality of a civilisation’s founders requires an acute knowledge of history.
The people in my country today are not even knowledgeable about who helped to preserve us right here on our own soil only 70 years ago, but they are frightfully knowledgable about the correct pronoun - which is not even in the English language - to use when addressing some freaky weirdo who is on powerful drugs to make the transition from one sex to another.
If you enjoyed this article, please buy my book "Western Values Defended: A Primer"