Sunday, August 31, 2014

Caesar, Civilization, Dealing With Change — and Building a Better World

After nearly five hundred years, the Roman Republic had grown from a small city-state to a major world power: and it was a mess.

I'm not talking about the chronic SNAFUs perpetrated by America's Congress.

If America's government was like the Roman Republic's, we might see the House ways and means committee lead an armed assault on the Senate: while their assassins took care of a filibuster the hard way. Yes: things could be worse.

Run-ins like the Catilinarian Conspiracy and Second Catilinarian conspiracy made the worst Washington mudslinging seem like a sedate poetry reading.

The Roman Senate finally named one of their members "dictator perpetuo" ("dictator in perpetuity") — hoping that Julius Caesar would solve their problems.

A few Senators got nervous: cutting the term, and Caesar's life, short.
"...And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry, 'Peace, freedom, and liberty!'
(Brutus, in "Julius Caesar," Act III, Scene I; William Shakespeare [Hudson edition];
via Project Gutenberg)
That's fiction, of course: based on what happened on the Ides of March, 44 B.C., in Rome.

I'm willing to assume that Gaius Cassius Longinus, Marcus Junius Brutus, and the others involved, thought they were saving the Roman Republic from a tyrant.

The Republic went down anyway.

Julius Caesar's assassination left Rome with the same massive social, political, and economic problems, a Senate that couldn't stop fighting itself; and no effective leadership.

After two decades of civil war, Rome finally got another emperor: and the Roman Empire lasted nearly five centuries: about as long as the Republic.

We can look at the past in quite a few ways.

Poems, Movies, and Slow Progress

Folks in the 19th century often idealized what Edgar Allen Poe called "the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome."

In movies, the Roman Empire has been shown as an emblem of depravity and excess, a source of order and prosperity, and sometimes little more than a cool setting for the actors.

There's a bit of truth to 'all of the above.' The ancient world, like today's, wasn't all good or all bad.

On the 'down' side, Greece and Rome, along with all the ancient world, practiced slavery. It was a bad idea then, and still is. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2414)

It took nearly two millennia to convince folks in some parts of the world that owning other people is wrong. I was around when America cleared some of the last vestiges of legalized slavery from our laws: and human trafficking is still an issue here.

It's slow progress: but we are making progress. (May 6, 2012)

The Grandeur that was Rome

On the 'up' side, Rome's Constitution, Senate, and laws gave many folks a measure of freedom: and some rights. Slaves were considered property, not people: but under Roman law, a slave could buy freedom; unlike some other systems.

Don't misunderstand me: slavery is a bad idea, and we shouldn't do it. But I think it's prudent to remember how the institution actually worked in different cultures and different times.

Romans were also very good engineers. We're still using some of their roads and aqueducts: partly because they used (what else?) Roman numerals, not the Hindu-Arabic numerals we adopted; partly because they apparently didn't see the point of building structures that weren't permanent.

If the ancient Romans had known that folks would be driving multi-ton vehicles more than sixty miles an hour: we'd probably be using even more of the old Roman road network, and that's another topic.

(From MM, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
("The Appian Way (Via Appia), a road connecting the city of Rome to the southern parts of Italy, remains usable even today."

Fear, Flappers, and Europe Flambé

This post was going to be about something.

Let's see: Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar;" Edgar Allan Poe; movies; slavery; constitutional law and the Roman Senate. Really durable roads. Right.

After World War I, some folks were more than a bit apprehensive — understandably.

Someone shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914. Assorted diplomats, royals, and politicos stirred national pride and diplomacy into a marinade of old assumptions.

Europe's leaders baked that ragoût in a system of interlocking treaties — and about three months later, you had Europe flambé.

Ironically, the treaties were supposed to prevent a large-scale war: as I recall.

That's an enormous oversimplification, of course.

World War I left quite a few folks with the impression that the world would never be the same again.
"...Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world....
("The Second Coming," W. B. Yeats (1919))
They were right, but the situation wasn't quite as bad as it seemed.

It's the End of Civilization as We Know It: And About Time!

Since then, we've survived jazz, flappers, the Great Depression, World War II, disco, polyester leisure suits, and Thighmaster commercials. Europeans killed each other in wholesale lots again, about two decades after the 'war to end all wars:' but have acted in a refreshingly civilized manner since, for the most part.

I don't think the European Union is perfect: but it's better than the mess we had before.

Maybe the Internet will do what the telephone and television didn't: bring humanity to its knees. I don't think so, and that's yet another topic. (February 20, 2014)

Occasionally, I run into someone who seems convinced that it's the end of civilization as we know it: and see that as a bad thing.

I think it's the "end of civilization as we know it, and about time," and that's not another topic. (February 9, 2014)

If I thought the world couldn't get any better than it was in the 1950s, I'd be terribly upset. As it is, I remember the 'good old days,' and they weren't.

I was one of 'those crazy kids' in the late 1960s and 1970s because I was convinced that humans could do better. A lot better.

I wasn't a Catholic at the time, and wasn't your standard-issue hippie, peacenik, or red-white-and-blue-blooded 'regular American.' It's not that I don't like conformity: I'm just not good at it. At all.

I didn't become a Catholic because the Church agreed with me. But after I (grudgingly) joined, I have been learning that what I thought made sense in conservative, liberal, and other, ideologies is what the Church has been teaching for two millennia.

The Code of Hammurabi, Plus 3,700 years: Looking at the Big Picture

"Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared to the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good."
(Abraham Lincoln, Response to a serenade (November 10, 1864))

"2 But man himself begets mischief, as sparks fly upward."
(Job 5:7)

I talked about positive law, human-made rules; and natural law, universal principles; Friday.

Basically, positive law — the name doesn't mean that it's "positive" in the sense of good, affirmative, or constructive. The term comes from Latin, ius positum, and derives from the verb to posit — are human-made laws defining how folks may act, and what rights they have.

Sometimes positive law works. Sometimes it's the 'outmoded morality' some of my contemporaries didn't like. (August 29, 2014)

When positive law works, it's consistent with natural law: universal ethical principles built into the universe.

Positive law changes: and must change, as conditions we live in change. It varies from one culture to another, too. We're not all alike, we're not supposed to be, and that's yet again another topic.

Natural law is the same now as it was when Abram moved out of Ur.

Theft, for example, was was wrong then: and will still be wrong when the Code of Hammurabi, United Nations Charter, and whatever comes next, are seen as roughly contemporary. (Catechism, 1954-1960, 2259-2262, 2268-2270)

Part of our job is bringing the positive laws of our cultures closer to natural law. (Catechism, 1928-1942)

I don't think we'll have a perfect society two millennia, or ten millennia, from now. But I think we have a reasonable hope of building a better world. We certainly must try.
"...We ... have a mandate to maintain what is true and just in our societies, change what is not, and build a better world for future generations...."
(May 18, 2014)
These posts may be better-organized than today's, or maybe not:

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.