It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an interesting book in possession of a good topic, must be in want of a title. The title of Thomas Ricks’ new book, ‘First Principles,’ is less than ideally informative, and it is perhaps some indication of the author’s consciousness of this fact that he appends such a lengthy subtitle to it. Ricks got the title from his returning to “first principles” following the most terrifying moment in modern American history, the improbable and to this day still literally incredible election of Donald Trump. While many of us idly fumbled about in rage or reached for the distilled consolations of the bottle, Ricks went to the library and cracked open a copy of Aristotle’s Politics. Perusing Aristotle impressed him with the Classical influences upon this country’s founding generation, and he wrote this book as a meditation upon American political history in an era which has delegitimized both politics and history. This is a much more general treatment of the history of the period than Carl J. Richards’ The Founders and the Classics, which dealt more comprehensively with the subject of classical education and influence, but was perhaps far less suitable for the general reader with a broad interest in both the founders and the classics. Ricks’ new book is a fun, engaging, and accessible, and though a few regrettable errors (particularly on the classical end of things) seem to suggest that the book was rushed to meet a publication date coinciding with post-election fervor, some of those may be easily glossed over in light of the satisfaction afforded by reading these reflections on the American experiment so shortly after Donald Trump received the old boot from the ballot box.
First Principles presents a portrait of America’s first four presidents (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison) with special emphasis on the way in which they drew upon Classical Greek/Roman history in their political lives, and how this shaped the nascent republic. Ricks’ reason for not proceeding beyond the apparently arbitrary limit of Madison becomes clear somewhat later in the book, when he suggests that Classical learning simply did not have the same currency in politics by the 1820s as it did in the latter half of the 18th century. While James Monroe and John Quincy Adams of course had their Classical educations, there was a growing impatience with the use of all the old Caesars and Catos and Catilines in public debate, and the ascendancy of a cruel and illiterate barbarian (Jackson) followed by the cynical party-machining technocrat (Martin Van Buren) effectively ended the golden age of Classical politics in a country which had long shown marked anti-intellectual tendencies anyway.
Because he is a military historian, Ricks steers a large portion of the book onto terrain with which he is intimately familiar. The large early section on Washington focuses on his military experience. Ricks writes about Washington’s early setbacks in the French and Indian War as a counterpoint to the traditional education enjoyed by Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Later in the book, Ricks will emphasize Washington’s various Classical roles enacted in the theater of life: Cato, Fabius, and Cincinnatus. But the portrait of Washington as educated in the camp and not the college makes him the American Marius. As Sallust presents it, Marius was proud of having attended the school of hard knocks on the battlefield and avoided the enervating effects of book learning:
My words are not artfully chosen. I don’t give a shit about that. Virtue shows herself without any help. Only those who want to hide their shameful conduct with rhetoric have need of artifice. I also didn’t learn Greek literature: I had no desire to learn that, since it apparently never did anything to enhance the virtue of its teachers. Instead, I learned all about the things which do the best for the Republic: to assault the enemy, to move the defenses, to fear nothing except a bad reputation, to suffer summer blazes and winter frosts equally, to sleep on the ground, and to tolerate neediness and labor at the same time. I will exhort my soldiers with these precepts, but I will not coddle them with art, and I will make myself, not my glory, their work. This is useful, this is civic power. For, when you conduct the army safely through idle softness and drive it on with punishment, that is to be a master, not a general.
Yet, at the same time, this entire exercise may itself suggest the absurdity of insisting too firmly upon Classical parallels for contemporary figures. In so doing, we are far more apt to mold the historical figure to fit the contemporary point of comparison than we are to seize upon genuinely significant parallels, and so it is likely that we will in this way simply distort our understanding of history, rather than illuminating either present or past by the comparison. Perhaps Plutarch is to blame for this enthusiasm for comparison.
Apart from the pitfalls of comparison, though, sometimes we simply learn the wrong lesson from classical figures. Ricks cites Cato’s possession of wealth and his rejection of luxury as an admirable example of public virtus, but surely it is a form of villainy to possess substantial wealth which you have no real intention of using? I am always struck by the adulation given to Warren Buffett for living such a simple and frugal lifestyle despite his possession of billions of dollars. One is reminded of the story of Herodes Atticus, who professed to Trajan that he had no idea how to use a fantastic financial windfall, and was urged to abuse it then instead. If Warren Buffett neither needs to use that wealth nor wants to abuse it, is it not a more villainous and miserly form of avarice than the hyper wealthy who at least seem bent on blowing through a good chunk of their fortunes?
George Washington is supposed to be the American Cato (because of his stern patrician virtue), but Ricks notes that he had an early enthusiasm for Cato’s worst enemy, a certain Julius Caesar. This view was shared by Alexander Hamilton, who once claimed that Julius Caesar was the greatest man ever to have lived. If we were to insist too much on the adequacy of classical parallels, we might feel some discomfort at trying to square Washington the Caesarian with Washington the Catonian (especially given that Caesar is a purely villainous force in Washington’s favorite play, Addison’s Cato), but luckily we have progressed to that enlightened point in the progress of this review where we have learned to abandon strict classical parallelism.
Washington gets several classical roles, but for Adams is reserved the role of the American Cicero. This comparison is actually fairly apt, given the tendency of both men to feel a kind of petty sense of offended dignity and petty grievance which could easily sprout rhetorical wings and take a flight of fancy. Unlike the patrician Virginians Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, John Adams was indeed a “new man” like Cicero, and had to work his way from the agrarian middle class into the upper echelons of power. But, just as Cicero did, he was eager to identify himself with the ruling elite once he was there, and hardened into a kind of anti-democratic and anti-populist conservative once he had his first real experience with the heady vapors of power.
Ricks gives us the familiar portrait of Adams: the upward striver who originally hated his studies, but found a corrective in the hard ditch labor which his dad once forced upon him. As with many of the founders, Adams seems to have gotten much of his early classical knowledge from secondary sources like Rollin’s Ancient History and Dodsley’s Preceptor. If it ever seems that there is a universal frame of classical reference among the founding generation, it is for just this reason: many of them internalized a framework of classical knowledge from these pre-digested sources before they applied themselves much to reading authors in the original. Edward Gibbon confesses to doing this in his youth, and compared the speed with which he could internalize whole quires of translated history to the plodding pace of parsing Greek verbs all day to work through one speech. Indeed, as I have written here before, it seems that many of the men of the late 18th century kept up just enough of their classical languages to quote some approved tags, but preferred for the most part to read for reference either in translation or digest form. On the other side of the Atlantic from John Adams, James Boswell was filling his diaries with constant exhortations to get back to his Greek studies, but found the temptations of conversation and prostitutes too alluring. Ricks quotes Adams’ diary from January 1759 to the same effect:
Let no trifling Diversion or amuzement or Company decoy you from your Books, i.e. let no Girl, no Gun, no Cards, no flutes, no Violins, no Dress, no Tobacco, no Laziness, decoy you from your Books.
There was a deep anxiety in the souls of late 18th century men of letters for drawing up plans of reading, and one gets the sense that study was something that they really had to force themselves to.
The most novel and interesting part of First Principles is Ricks’ focus on the Scottish Enlightenment as a driving force in the development of the American intellectual character. In particular, the connections between enterprising Scottish bankers (who experimented with establishing branch offices in the colonies) and the tobacco trade led to an influx of Scotsmen to the southern states. At the time, Edinburgh offered a more robust education than could be obtained at Oxford, and it seems that Jefferson and Madison owed their comparative ease and fluency with Greek culture and history to the fact that they each had Scottish tutors early in life.
Jefferson doesn’t receive the strict classical parallel treatment, but we understand that he is steeped in classical learning thanks to this Scottish influence. We also get a portrait of Jefferson as the dedicated Epicurean. Ricks seems to suggest that Jefferson’s lax style of Epicureanism can help to account for his contradictions – a champion of liberty who owned slaves, who did nothing to fight for liberty but rather ignominiously retreated in the face of danger. That is to say, some of Jefferson’s perceived detachment and desire to be above the fray of real politics may be owing to the traditional Epicurean injunction against real political involvement. This has its parallel in the modern Stoic movement, which in its own way counsels a kind of passivity in the face of injustice, and serves as a useful shield for the willful amorality of powerful figures in the tech and finance sectors. It was all very well for a famous Stoic like Seneca to recommend poverty and powerlessness when he was himself rich and powerful. What was hypocrisy then is still hypocrisy now. Nothing good can come from the anachronistic adoption of ancient life philosophy. Indeed, there is something fundamentally childish about pretending to subscribe to the teachings of a long defunct philosophical school in a world which they could not have foreseen. While there is no deep absurdity in approving of individual doctrines of Epicureanism or Stoicism, any kind of wholesale acceptance of one of these philosophical programs amounts to intellectual indolence and moral cowardice. Jefferson was most corrupted by power when he pretended not to have any.
Ricks is on solid footing when he assails the tendency of Jefferson’s prose to grow Latinate and otiose when writing for any audience other than the general public. (Indeed, throughout the book, it becomes clear that Jefferson and Adams are the vain and irascible fops of the early presidency, while Washington and Madison serve as the steady bookends of virtue and intellectualism which counterbalance them.) Much the same could be said about Milton’s poetry, or Samuel Johnson’s fondness for ridiculous Anglo-Latin coinages. Ricks penetrates through the thick fog of Jeffersonian mythopoiesis when he writes, “Contrary to his image, Jefferson was not really a literary man.” One of Jefferson’s blunders in literary judgment was being taken in by the impostures of James MacPherson, whose publication of the works of the fake poet “Ossian” did indeed dupe many people at the time. For some reason, Ricks defends Jefferson by noting that Napoleon, too, was taken in, but it is not clear why he is cited as a paragon of literary judgment.
Throughout the book, Ricks makes much of the fact that Washington was the least classically educated and yet the most “Roman” of all the founding fathers, but the central conceit of this apparent paradox is the idea that the Roman heroes (from whom we distill the notion of “Romanness” that is applied to Washington) were themselves educated in any meaningful sense of the term. This could hardly be more misleading. What was Cincinnatus but an illiterate farmer? Marius boasted of his lack of education. Cato the elder flaunted his ignorance of Greek before condescending to learn it in old age, and the younger Cato was not exactly an egghead. Washington was the closest to the mythico-propagandistic projection of the idealized Roman yeoman who lives a simple life, does some glorious military service, and does not covet power. Education is antithetical to this stock character type. And yet, the highly polished Romans of the Late Republic – the ones with fancy “classical” educations in the Greek poets – seemed to have been entirely covetous of power. Cicero was positively drunk on it. If the Roman spirit were really so noble, patriotic, and averse to the seizure of individual power, the Republic would not have been destroyed by a series of bloody civil wars conducted by megalomaniacs and finally culminating in an autocratic imperial system. To buy the Roman propaganda and argue that the Sullas, Caesars, and Octavians weren’t exemplars of the true Roman spirit is just as silly as to believe Joe Biden when he looks into the camera and reminds America, “This isn’t who we are.” Sorry Joe – it looks like it is. To be sure, Washington is the closest of the founding fathers to the mythic Roman heroes, but they are so much less real than the Ciceros and Caesars who tore the state apart for their own petty grievances.
In that respect, the identification of Adams with Cicero seems particularly apt, given his petulant temper, his inflated sense of self-importance, and his strikingly reactionary impulses in the midst of revolution. The Adams of the Alien and Sedition Acts is paradoxically ranged against the very thing – free speech – which lifted him from poverty and obscurity, and made him a public figure. But could anyone really doubt that Cicero would have employed the strong arm of state suppression to silence his enemies if he could have done it?
Each of these men appears to be marred by their classical molding, with the exception of James Madison, who seems to have approached the classics with scholarly detachment and not imitative zeal. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson each took the classical exemplar theory too far, and turned themselves into theatrical productions of ancient figures, as though the American Revolution really were a continuation of or parallel to the ancient struggled which they read about in their favorite books. James Madison benefited from the educational influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, and a deep engagement with Greek history and literature, as opposed to the shallow and almost exclusively Roman preoccupations of the other founders. Yet, this fascination with Greek history posed its own dangers to the nascent republic, and Madison’s ancient reading lives to tyrannize over us today. Ricks notes that the outsized power of states like Wyoming (allotted the same number of senators as California) can be traced to the inspiration which Madison drew from the Amphictyonic League. This is enough to make one resent Madison’s library, and the entire study of Greek history.
Despite the fact that much of the American experiment succeeded, we should not lose sight of the fact that the founders had a remarkable knack for taking some of the worst lessons away from their ancient studies: a distrust of democracy, the valorization of ostentatious public virtue (what was Cato if not the inventor of virtue signaling?), and a tendency to favor deeply reactionary conservatism dressed in the language of revolutionary liberation. The Romans themselves expelled kings from their politics in 509 BCE, but this “revolution” did not usher in an unprecedented turn to democratic power. In fact, the story goes that some people grumbled that they had merely exchanged one king for two in the form of the consuls. The Tarquins were gone, but Rome’s wealthy patricians were still the ones running the show. When George III was given the old heave-ho from the colonies, the lion’s share of real governing power still lay with the wealthy patricians of the new Rome who were running things even when the king still held nominal sway on this side of the Atlantic.
When historians make the obligatory comparisons between the 18th century’s two main revolutions – the American and the French – they often express wonder at the comparative stability of the American. But when set against the French Revolution, the American hardly appears to be a Revolution at all. Really, it looks more like a change in administrative bookkeeping. France experienced genuine upheaval, and a total overturning (revolution) of the ruling order. Society itself was being restructured. Ricks notes that John Adams felt uneasy with the growing power of the common people in America at the beginning of the 19th century, and this gives the whole game away. Just as in Rome, the ruling class was jealous of its own freedom from an individual tyrant, but was content to leave the great mass of people largely disenfranchised. The revolutionary fervor of Brutus’ sic semper tyrannis was quickly morphed into a staid preservation of the mos maiorum for the good of the Republic.
We all do it, but asking questions like “What would George Washington think about Donald Trump?” is a frivolous rhetorical exercise of the sort mocked by Petronius and Seneca. One may as well ask what he would make of quantum computing, instant access to an infinite sea of pornography, or AI-guided nuclear weapons. We would like to think of Trump as just a do-nothing demagogue, a kind of stock type universal character recognizable in antiquity, but how do you make sense of him without the full and frightening context of the 21st century: the acceleration and provocation of global capitalism, the horror of infinite war elided with the society of spectacle, the reversal of Puritan decorum into a prizing of personal scandal as a new mode of American celebrity? Would the Washington who understood the war of posts be able to comprehend shock and awe, or the way that entire media empires were built upon showing the American public live feeds of bombs exploding over ancient cities? The founders simply did not possess the capacity for horror which we now do. We have seen death camps, carpet bombing, and nuclear holocaust. They could rail on about Catilines and Caesars subverting the republic, but Aaron Burr never had an atomic arsenal. The founders never had to worry that one man could provoke an international incident which, with “fire and fury” could end human civilization itself. No host of delatores can compare to the NSA.
In short, the founders had neither the experience nor the intellectual framework for understanding our American monster. Even today, we who have lived through the nightmare from which we struggle in vain to wake cannot make sense of this man or this moment. While we should certainly study the founding generation and their intellectual influences to understand how we got here, we must cease to ask ourselves what they would think of this moment, because it is no longer their country. In his discussion of Americans’ growing impatience with classical exempla, Ricks cites Benjamin Randall: “The quoting of ancient history was no more to the purpose than to tell how our forefathers dug clams at Plymouth.” Let the Pilgrims dig their clams, and let the founders lie in their tombs. This is a country for the living, and we must cease to ask what the dead might think if we are ever to wash away the miasma of this American carnage.