Nameless Altars and Human Sacrifice

Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum 1.110 [Epimenides]

“Epimenides was known among the Greeks and was thought to be extremely beloved to the gods. For this reason, when the Athenians were once afflicted by a plague and the Pythian oracle prophesied that they should cleanse their city, they sent a ship along with Nikias the son of Nikêratos, summoning Epimenides.

He made it to Athens at the time of the 46th Olympiad [c. 596 BCE] and cleansed the city. He stopped it in the following manner. After obtaining white and black sheep, he led them to the Areopagos and then allowed them to go wherever they wanted there. He ordered the people following them to sacrifice the sheep to whichever god was proper to the place where each sheep laid down.

This is how the plague stopped. For this reason it is still even today possible to find altars without names in certain Athenian neighborhoods as a commemoration of that ancient cleansing. Some people report that Epimenides indicated the pollution from the Kylon scandal as the cause of the plague along with a resolution for it. For this reason, they killed two youths, Kratinos and Ktêsibios and the suffering was relieved.”

(110) γνωσθεὶς δὲ παρὰ τοῖς ῞Ελλησι θεοφιλέστατος εἶναι ὑπελήφθη. ὅθεν καὶ Ἀθηναίοις ποτὲ λοιμῶι κατεχομένοις ἔχρησεν ἡ Πυθία καθῆραι τὴν πόλιν, οἱ δὲ πέμπουσι ναῦν τε καὶ Νικίαν τὸν Νικηράτου εἰς Κρήτην, καλοῦντες τὸν Ἐπιμενίδην. καὶ ὃς ἐλθὼν ὀλυμπιάδι τεσσαρακοστῆι ἕκτηι ἐκάθηρεν αὐτῶν τὴν πόλιν, καὶ ἔπαυσε τὸν λοιμὸν τοῦτον τὸν τρόπον· λαβὼν πρόβατα μέλανά τε καὶ λευκά, ἤγαγεν πρὸς τὸν ῎Αρειον πάγον, κἀκεῖθεν εἴασεν ἰέναι οἷ βούλοιντο, προστάξας τοῖς ἀκολούθοις, ἔνθα ἂν κατακλινῆι αὐτῶν ἕκαστον, θύειν τῶι προσήκοντι θεῶι· καὶ οὕτω λῆξαι τὸ κακόν· ὅθεν ἔτι καὶ νῦν ἔστιν εὺρεῖν κατὰ τοὺς δήμους τῶν Ἀθηναίων βωμοὺς ἀνωνύμους, ὑπόμνημα τῆς τότε γενομενης ἐξιλάσεως. οἱ δὲ τὴν αἰτίαν εἰπεῖν τοῦ λοιμοῦ τὸ Κυλώνειον ἄγος σημαίνειν τε τὴν ἀπαλλαγήν· καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἀποθανεῖν δύο νεανίας Κρατῖνον καὶ Κτησίβιον, καὶ λυθῆναι τὴν συμφοράν

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Kylix showing an armored youth offering a sacrifice. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, around 480 BC

Reading Gibbon and His Naughty Footnotes

Winston Churchill, My Early Life:

“So I resolved to read history, philosophy, economics, and things like that; and I wrote to my mother asking for such books as I had heard of on these topics. She responded with alacrity, and every month the mail brought me a substantial package of what I thought were standard works. In history I decided to begin with Gibbon. Someone had told me that my father had read Gibbon with delight; that he knew whole pages of it by heart, and that it had greatly affected his style of speech and writing. So without more ado I set out upon the eight volumes of Dean Milman’s edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empre. I was immediately dominated both by the story and the style. All through the long glistening middle hours of the Indian day, from when we quitted stables till the evening shadows proclaimed the hour of Polo, I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all. I scribbled all my opinions on the margins of the pages, and very soon found myself a vehement partisan of the author against the disparagements of his pompous-pious editor. I was not even estranged by his naughty footnotes. On the other hand the Dean’s apologies and disclaimers roused my ire.”

Who’s Your Favorite Historian, and Why Is It Tacitus?

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (XVI):

“Notwithstanding it is probable that Tacitus was born some years before the fire of Rome, he could derive only from reading and conversation the knowledge of an event which happened during his infancy. Before he gave himself to the public, he calmly waited till his genius had attained its full maturity, and he was more than forty years of age, when a grateful regard for the memory of the virtuous Agricola extorted from him the most early of those historical compositions which will delight and instruct the most distant posterity. After making a trial of his strength in the life of Agricola and the description of Germany, he conceived, and at length executed, a more arduous work; the history of Rome, in thirty books, from the fall of Nero to the accession of Nerva. The administration of Nerva introduced an age of justice and propriety, which Tacitus had destined for the occupation of his old age; but when he took a nearer view of his subject, judging, perhaps, that it was a more honorable or a less invidious office to record the vices of past tyrants, than to celebrate the virtues of a reigning monarch, he chose rather to relate, under the form of annals, the actions of the four immediate successors of Augustus.

To collect, to dispose, and to adorn a series of fourscore years, in an immortal work, every sentence of which is pregnant with the deepest observations and the most lively images, was an undertaking sufficient to exercise the genius of Tacitus himself during the greatest part of his life. In the last years of the reign of Trajan, whilst the victorious monarch extended the power of Rome beyond its ancient limits, the historian was describing, in the second and fourth books of his annals, the tyranny of Tiberius; and the emperor Hadrian must have succeeded to the throne, before Tacitus, in the regular prosecution of his work, could relate the fire of the capital, and the cruelty of Nero towards the unfortunate Christians. At the distance of sixty years, it was the duty of the annalist to adopt the narratives of contemporaries; but it was natural for the philosopher to indulge himself in the description of the origin, the progress, and the character of the new sect, not so much according to the knowledge or prejudices of the age of Nero, as according to those of the time of Hadrian. Tacitus very frequently trusts to the curiosity or reflection of his readers to supply those intermediate circumstances and ideas, which, in his extreme conciseness, he has thought proper to suppress.”

Historical Wallpapers: Great Fire of Rome (Magnum ...

Nameless Altars and Human Sacrifice

Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum 1.110 [Epimenides]

“Epimenides was known among the Greeks and was thought to be extremely beloved to the gods. For this reason, when the Athenians were once afflicted by a plague and the Pythian oracle prophesied that they should cleanse their city, they sent a ship along with Nikias the son of Nikêratos, summoning Epimenides.

He made it to Athens at the time of the 46th Olympiad [c. 596 BCE] and cleansed the city. He stopped it in the following manner. After obtaining white and black sheep, he led them to the Areopagos and then allowed them to go wherever they wanted there. He ordered the people following them to sacrifice the sheep to whichever god was proper to the place where each sheep laid down.

This is how the plague stopped. For this reason it is still even today possible to find altars without names in certain Athenian neighborhoods as a commemoration of that ancient cleansing. Some people report that Epimenides indicated the pollution from the Kylon scandal as the cause of the plague along with a resolution for it. For this reason, they killed two youths, Kratinos and Ktêsibios and the suffering was relieved.”

(110) γνωσθεὶς δὲ παρὰ τοῖς ῞Ελλησι θεοφιλέστατος εἶναι ὑπελήφθη. ὅθεν καὶ Ἀθηναίοις ποτὲ λοιμῶι κατεχομένοις ἔχρησεν ἡ Πυθία καθῆραι τὴν πόλιν, οἱ δὲ πέμπουσι ναῦν τε καὶ Νικίαν τὸν Νικηράτου εἰς Κρήτην, καλοῦντες τὸν Ἐπιμενίδην. καὶ ὃς ἐλθὼν ὀλυμπιάδι τεσσαρακοστῆι ἕκτηι ἐκάθηρεν αὐτῶν τὴν πόλιν, καὶ ἔπαυσε τὸν λοιμὸν τοῦτον τὸν τρόπον· λαβὼν πρόβατα μέλανά τε καὶ λευκά, ἤγαγεν πρὸς τὸν ῎Αρειον πάγον, κἀκεῖθεν εἴασεν ἰέναι οἷ βούλοιντο, προστάξας τοῖς ἀκολούθοις, ἔνθα ἂν κατακλινῆι αὐτῶν ἕκαστον, θύειν τῶι προσήκοντι θεῶι· καὶ οὕτω λῆξαι τὸ κακόν· ὅθεν ἔτι καὶ νῦν ἔστιν εὺρεῖν κατὰ τοὺς δήμους τῶν Ἀθηναίων βωμοὺς ἀνωνύμους, ὑπόμνημα τῆς τότε γενομενης ἐξιλάσεως. οἱ δὲ τὴν αἰτίαν εἰπεῖν τοῦ λοιμοῦ τὸ Κυλώνειον ἄγος σημαίνειν τε τὴν ἀπαλλαγήν· καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἀποθανεῖν δύο νεανίας Κρατῖνον καὶ Κτησίβιον, καὶ λυθῆναι τὴν συμφοράν

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 Kylix showing an armored youth offering a sacrifice. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, around 480 BC

Purchasing Political Power

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (V):

“The Praetorians had violated the sanctity of the throne by the atrocious murder of Pertinax; they dishonored the majesty of it by their subsequent conduct. The camp was without a leader, for even the praefect Laetus, who had excited the tempest, prudently declined the public indignation. Amidst the wild disorder, Sulpicianus, the emperor’s father-in-law, and governor of the city, who had been sent to the camp on the first alarm of mutiny, was endeavoring to calm the fury of the multitude, when he was silenced by the clamorous return of the murderers, bearing on a lance the head of Pertinax. Though history has accustomed us to observe every principle and every passion yielding to the imperious dictates of ambition, it is scarcely credible that, in these moments of horror, Sulpicianus should have aspired to ascend a throne polluted with the recent blood of so near a relation and so excellent a prince. He had already begun to use the only effectual argument, and to treat for the Imperial dignity; but the more prudent of the Praetorians, apprehensive that, in this private contract, they should not obtain a just price for so valuable a commodity, ran out upon the ramparts; and, with a loud voice, proclaimed that the Roman world was to be disposed of to the best bidder by public auction.

This infamous offer, the most insolent excess of military license, diffused a universal grief, shame, and indignation throughout the city. It reached at length the ears of Didius Julianus, a wealthy senator, who, regardless of the public calamities, was indulging himself in the luxury of the table. His wife and his daughter, his freedmen and his parasites, easily convinced him that he deserved the throne, and earnestly conjured him to embrace so fortunate an opportunity. The vain old man hastened to the Praetorian camp, where Sulpicianus was still in treaty with the guards, and began to bid against him from the foot of the rampart. The unworthy negotiation was transacted by faithful emissaries, who passed alternately from one candidate to the other, and acquainted each of them with the offers of his rival. Sulpicianus had already promised a donative of five thousand drachms (above one hundred and sixty pounds) to each soldier; when Julian, eager for the prize, rose at once to the sum of six thousand two hundred and fifty drachms, or upwards of two hundred pounds sterling. The gates of the camp were instantly thrown open to the purchaser; he was declared emperor, and received an oath of allegiance from the soldiers, who retained humanity enough to stipulate that he should pardon and forget the competition of Sulpicianus.

It was now incumbent on the Praetorians to fulfil the conditions of the sale. They placed their new sovereign, whom they served and despised, in the centre of their ranks, surrounded him on every side with their shields, and conducted him in close order of battle through the deserted streets of the city. The senate was commanded to assemble; and those who had been the distinguished friends of Pertinax, or the personal enemies of Julian, found it necessary to affect a more than common share of satisfaction at this happy revolution. After Julian had filled the senate house with armed soldiers, he expatiated on the freedom of his election, his own eminent virtues, and his full assurance of the affections of the senate. The obsequious assembly congratulated their own and the public felicity; engaged their allegiance, and conferred on him all the several branches of the Imperial power. From the senate Julian was conducted, by the same military procession, to take possession of the palace. The first objects that struck his eyes, were the abandoned trunk of Pertinax, and the frugal entertainment prepared for his supper. The one he viewed with indifference, the other with contempt. A magnificent feast was prepared by his order, and he amused himself, till a very late hour, with dice, and the performances of Pylades, a celebrated dancer. Yet it was observed, that after the crowd of flatterers dispersed, and left him to darkness, solitude, and terrible reflection, he passed a sleepless night; revolving most probably in his mind his own rash folly, the fate of his virtuous predecessor, and the doubtful and dangerous tenure of an empire which had not been acquired by merit, but purchased by money.”

Didius Julianus

F**k Your Faulty Footnotes, Fool!

Henry Edwards Davis,

An Examination of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of Mr. Gibbon’s History:

“The remarkable mode of quotation, which Mr. Gibbon adopts, must immediately strike ever one who turns to his notes. He sometimes only mentions the author, perhaps the book, and often leaves the reader the toil of finding out, or rather guessing at the passage.

The policy, however, is not without its design and use. By endeavouring to deprive us of the means of comparing him with the authorities he cites, he flattered himself, no doubt, that he might safely have recourse to misrepresentation; that his inaccuracies might escape the piercing eye of criticism; and that he might indulge his wit and spleen, in fathering the absurdest opinions of the most venerable writers of antiquity. For, often, on examining his references, when they are to be traced, we shall find him supporting his cause by manifest falsification, and perpetually assuming to himself the strange privilege of inserting in his text what the writers referred to give him no right to advance on their authority.

This breach of the common faith reposed in authors, is particularly indefensible, as it deceives all those who have not the leisure, the means, nor the abilities, of searching out the passages in the originals.”

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Manly Paternal Indifference

Aelian, Historia Varia 3.1:

When Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was talking seriously with his companions, someone came to him and told him that his two sons, the only ones he had, were dead. Anaxagoras, not a bit disturbed, said, that he knew that he had fathered mortals.

When Xenophon was sacrificing, a herald from Mantineia came to him saying that his son Gryllus had died. Xenophon set aside his garland and finished sacrificing. When the messenger then added to the previous sentence the fact that he had at least died victorious, Xenophon put the garland back on his head. This story is common, and has made its rounds among the masses.

Dion, the son of Hipparinus and the associate of Plato, happened to be engaged in some common business of the people, when his son fell from the roof down to the courtyard and died. Dion did not turn his attention toward this, but continued doing what he had been working on at first, and finished the business he was engaged in.

They say that Antigonus the Second, when some people brought his son’s corpse to him from the battlefield, looked upon it and without changing color or shedding a tear, praised him as a good soldier and ordered that his body be buried.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Chp. V):

The emperor Gallienus, who had long supported with impatience the censorial severity of his father and colleague, received the intelligence of his misfortunes with secret pleasure and avowed indifference. “I knew that my father was a mortal,” said he; “and since he has acted as it becomes a brave man, I am satisfied.” Whilst Rome lamented the fate of her sovereign, the savage coldness of his son was extolled by the servile courtiers as the perfect firmness of a hero and a stoic.

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᾿Αναξαγόρᾳ τις τῷ Κλαζομενίῳ σπουδάζοντι πρὸς τοὺς ἑταίρους προσελθὼν ἔφη τεθνηκέναι οἱ τοὺς δύο παῖδας οὕσπερ οὖν εἶχε μόνους ὁ ᾿Αναξαγόρας.  ὃ δὲ μηδὲν διαταραχθεὶς εἶπεν ‘ᾔδειν θνητοὺς γεγεννηκώς.’

Ξενοφῶντι θύοντι ἧκέ τις ἐκ Μαντινείας ἄγγελος, λέγων τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν Γρύλλον τεθνάναι· κἀκεῖνος ἀπέθετο μὲν τὸν στέφανον, διετέλει δὲ θύων. ἐπεὶ δὲ ὁ ἄγγελος προσέθηκε τῷ πρότερον λόγῳ καὶ ἐκεῖνον τὸν λέγοντα ὅτι νικῶν μέντοι τέθνηκε, πάλιν ὁ Ξενοφῶν ἐπέθετο τῇ κεφαλῇ τὸν στέφανον. ταῦτα μὲν οὖν δημώδη καὶ ἐς πολλοὺς ἐκπεφοίτηκεν.

Δίων δὲ ὁ ῾Ιππαρίνου μὲν παῖς Πλάτωνος δὲ ὁμιλητὴς ἔτυχε μὲν χρηματίζων ὑπέρ τινων δημοσίων καὶ κοινῶν πραγμάτων, ὁ δὲ παῖς αὐτοῦ ἐκ τοῦ τέγους κατενεχθεὶς ἐς τὴν αὐλὴν τὸν βίον κατέστρεψεν. οὐδὲν οὖν ἐπὶ τούτοις μετεβάλετο ὁ Δίων, ἀλλ’ ὅπερ οὖν ἐξ ἀρχῆς ἔπραττε, τοῦτο καὶ δρῶν διετέλεσεν.

᾿Αντίγονόν γε μήν φασι τὸν δεύτερον ἐπεί τινες τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῷ ἐκ τῆς παρατάξεως ἐκόμισαν νεκρόν, εἶδε μὲν αὐτόν, οὐδὲν δὲ τρέψας τοῦ χρωτός, οὐδὲ μὴν ἐπιδακρύσας, ἐπαινέσας δὲ ὡς ἀγαθὸν στρατιώτην, θάπτειν προσέταξεν.

From Odysseus to Lindsey Graham: Apologetics for Despotism

Ye gods, what havoc does ambition make among your works!

Joseph Addison, Cato 1.1

As news reports make clear that the grim specter of despotism has begun to prevail all the world over, it may be a salutary exercise to remember that tyrannical abuse of authority is enshrined and even championed in some of our oldest literature. In the Iliad, when Agamemnon makes a trial of the Achaeans under his command, he finds that – contrary to his expectation – all are eager to abandon the field and head home after years of fruitless war. (Perhaps the Trojan War can be viewed as a precursor of America’s foreign adventures – military quagmires waged for dubious motivation, entailing that unpalatable combination of wholesale slaughter and crime at which humanity seems to excel.)

Odysseus rallies round and attempts to stop the men by doubling down on this cheerfully antidemocratic sentiment:

Let there be one ruler, one king…

…εἷς κοίρανος ἔστω, εἷς βασιλεύς… [Iliad 2.204-5]

Perhaps we ought to be more surprised that the men are recalled to their martial project not by a speech calling for common effort or reminding them of the chance for personal emolument which may follow a successful siege, but a miniature disquisition on their personal inferiority to the king. Thersites is meant to be a reviled character, and Homer paints an unflattering portrait of him, but he is the only one to advocate for what a dispassionate observer of the facts might call common sense.

After pointing out that Agamemnon has already appointed to himself a hefty share of plunder and captive women, he notes that Agamemnon had erred in affronting Achilles, who was a better man than himself. Thersites urges the men to return home and let Agamemnon finish the war on his own, when Odysseus strikes him. This violence inflicted upon their champion actually instills a sense of delight in the men for whose benefit Thersites had just advocated.

This acceptance of personal despotism may strike the attentive reader as unrealistic, but it is easy for to be idly carried away by this propaganda, and Odysseus’ soundbite formulation, “Let there be one ruler,” has the sort of captivating quality which all propagandistic sloganeering is meant to. “Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less.” has such a harshly commonsensical sound about it that all more prudent alternatives are gracefully elided by its elegant tricolonic balance of six syllables.* Sideshow Bob, in a Simpsons episode in which he steals the mayoral election, explains why the citizens of Springfield need him:

Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside, you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king.

Many (I am among them) have expressed surprise that so many Republicans have abased themselves to such a shocking degree for a man who seems so patently unworthy of it. The subtext of this is of course that we could, though still appalled, understand the fervor to defend him if he were more intelligent, more charming, less loathsome and vile. Yet this seems to miss the point that loathsome and vile is what Republicans have been shilling for over the past several decades. Who are the mainstream figureheads of their public outreach? Hannity, O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh. They are loud, obnoxious, and perfectly content to advertise their stupidity as a kind of common-man credential. Roger Ailes developed the Fox News model with the specific intention, not of vying with CNN for straightforward news coverage, but of appealing to an audience who would find ready comfort in propaganda already prepackaged for their prejudices.

After Romney’s defeat in 2012, the Republican party reportedly did some strategizing, and decided that they may need to jettison racism, misogyny, and other forms of unregenerate barbarism in order to win elections. Four years later, Trump offered a kind of catharsis for real Republican values, and became so beloved because, like so many reality stars and social media figures before him, he showed that it’s okay – nay, even profitable – to be a vile piece of shit. Trump ungirded the belt of restraint imposed by the fastidious managerial class of Republicans (like William F. Buckley, Romney, etc.), and urged Republicans to stop sucking it in, to let the fatty accretion of 19th century prejudice hang free.

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If only yesterday were farther away.

In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon explains that Commodus was killed by his domestics once they had reason to fear his violence. Commodus was succeeded by Pertinax:

Such an uniform conduct had already secured to Pertinax the noblest reward of a sovereign, the love and esteem of his people. Those who remembered the virtues of Marcus were happy to contemplate in their new emperor the features of that bright original; and flattered themselves that they should long enjoy the benign influence of his administration. A hasty zeal to reform the corrupted state, accompanied with less prudence than might have been expected from the years and experience of Pertinax, proved fatal to himself and to his country. His honest indiscretion united against him the servile crowd, who found their private benefit in the public disorders, and who preferred the favour of a tyrant to the inexorable equality of the laws.

Chafing under the virtuous discipline of Pertinax, and missing the vicious and licentious indulgence of Commodus, the praetorian guards murdered Pertinax in turn and literally sold the office of emperor to Didius Julianus. In much the same way, the Republican base, molded by years of racist, misogynist, and crackpot ranting, was eager to throw off the oppressive yoke of feigned civility, and return to the gilded age of honest and forthright evil.

Having lived my entire life in the south (Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee), I remember friends’ dads who were still ardent enthusiasts for the Confederacy, the “lost cause”. Of course, this was peppered with the sort of apologetics (developed during Reconstruction) which insisted that the Civil War was a conflict about states’ rights. Though we may lament the “rise” in white supremacy, I suspect that the old Pertinacious restraint has simply been removed, and that these guys are just happy that Trump allows them to be honest (a privilege which he rarely affords himself). That is, we have experienced, not a rise in racism, but simply a revelation of it.

The narrative of the “lost cause” is central to the current crisis. Much has been made of the kompromat which may have induced certain once reluctant Republicans (like Lindsey Graham) to lodge their lips on the Trumpian sphincter, and there may be something to that notion. Yet the simplest explanation is that they are simply engaged in the bald and unapologetic pursuit of power. One may modify Samuel Johnson:

Greek, sir, is like lace despotic power; every man gets as much of it as he can.

Any sensible and cynical power broker could easily see that the base won’t go away, even if Trump does. They have become unshakeable in their faith, and regard him as something close to a savior. (Lest this seem exaggerated, just watch Rick Perry talk about him as God’s Chosen One, or look up the videos of the Trumpians saying that they would pick Trump over Jesus.) One day he will be gone. But the damage won’t. His ideas won’t. His base won’t. And what began as but a recrudescence of infantile barbarism will be revealed as one of the dominant forces in our politics for some time to come. Trump himself will be “the lost cause.” Whether he is impeached or voted out, he will always be a martyr to his acolytes. Every time his swamp monsters abase themselves in public, they are simply auditioning for the role of St. Peter to Trump’s Christ. Trump revealed that what had begun as a base loosely organized around talk radio and cable news talking points could be transformed into an intensely loyal hive mind ready to give obeisance to one person.

It may be time to consider altogether abandoning executive power as a governing instrument. Even Agamemnon was ostensibly just primus inter pares, serving as something like a president of the Trojan expedition (seeing that the other kings did not owe him hereditary fealty or anything of the sort). Yet, his wanton abuse of power in his conflict with Achilles lay at the root of the suffering in the Iliad. Had all decisions been made by a council of equals rather than an irresponsible executive, it is likely that the conflict would not have led to Achilles’ withdrawal. Yet, Agamemnon’s position as executive meant that he stood as a metonym for the war effort itself, and so Achilles justified renouncing what was at root a communal and cooperative endeavor because he could not brook the insolence of the man presiding over it. (It is moreover clear that the problem was not simply the intransigence of the two men, but the wanton abuse of power on Agamemnon’s part.)

Much of our popular entertainment is devoted to the pursuit of power in the hands of one person. Audiences who wasted the better part of a decade on Game of Thrones were eager to see who would finally sit on the Iron Throne, despite the fact that the internal logic established by the narrative itself showed a.) that it actually didn’t matter to practically everyone in Westeros who sat on the throne, and b.) that there is no finality implied by that first sedentary moment upon the throne, since several rulers were killed off in the course of the series. Amidst all of the other interesting narratives, we really just wanted to know who would seize power – the very possession of it has the power to enchant us.

Similarly, our contests for president have resulted in a twisted political system which rewards organizing, not around an idea, but around a person, and regarding that person as the captain or figurehead of the team. This was true even during the Clinton years, when Democrats mounted a defense of a man who really didn’t need or warrant defending simply because he was the boss.

Of course, the presidency, like all of the basic elements of our government, was a contrivance of the founders, some of whom floated the idea that it (along with senate seats) should be a lifetime appointment. It was intentionally designed to be limited to a small elite (indeed, so petty were many of the founding generation, the requirement that a candidate be a citizen born within the U.S. was designed to exclude Alexander Hamilton from ever attaining the office) and was not intended to be a democratically elected office.

It was a bad idea then, and it is a bad idea now, especially given the size of the population governed by this one person, and the immense power which they have at their disposal. No individual, irresponsible to the will of the nation, should be trusted with such power, especially as it has apparently become the operative norm that no president can be held accountable for any crime. What is this but semi-elective, short term despotism? Indeed, a recent Pew Research poll suggests that Republicans in particular have become more keen on eliminating the system of checks and balances altogether, granting presidents more absolute and unrestrained power in order to “address the country’s problems.” Naturally, this is because they think that their man (and by extension, their team or even they) will be the conductor of the old tyranny train as it takes off from despotism depot.

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Naturally, like most critics, I have no useful schemes to suggest as alternatives, if for no other reason than that I suspect that the human drive for individual power is too deeply entrenched to allow for such a radical shift in political organization. In America, the popular will has repeatedly been thwarted by design. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the founders had something of a fond partiality for classical learning and exempla. Although Classics department websites may tout knowledge of Greek as some introduction to “the civilization that invented democracy,” one would be hard pressed to find a literature as virulently anti-democratic as the classics. And to think, it all started with Odysseus’ assault on Thersites. Maybe it is time to reconsider Thersites as the true tragic hero of the Iliad – the one man who, in arguing that the common soldier’s subservience to Agamemnon primarily benefited Agamemnon, could have saved countless lives had his counsel prevailed. In this light, maybe Odysseus deserved another ten years of suffering. I only fear that we can expect at least as many for ourselves.

What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? (Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, 5.1)

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As Augustus knew, despotic power is most effective when disguised as republican government.
*I confess that this is Joel’s favorite example, and I have used it here as a tribute to his sagacity in analyzing political rhetoric.

Forget Aristotle, Julian Founds the Lice-eum

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (XXII):

In a satirical performance, which was designed for the public eye, the emperor descants with pleasure, and even with pride, on the length of his nails, and the inky blackness of his hands; protests, that although the greatest part of his body was covered with hair, the use of the razor was confined to his head alone; and celebrates, with visible complacency, the shaggy and populous* beard, which he fondly cherished, after the example of the philosophers of Greece. Had Julian consulted the simple dictates of reason, the first magistrate of the Romans would have scorned the affectation of Diogenes, as well as that of Darius.

*[In a footnote, Gibbon hints at what he means by a ‘populous’ beard, but leaves the passage which he references in (as he would say) the decent obscurity of a learned language. Julian writes, in his Misopogon, Ταῦτά τοι διαθεόντων ἀνέχομαι τῶν φθειρῶν ὥσπερ ἐν λόχμῃ τῶν θηρίων. (“I put up with the lice running up and down my beard as though they were in a park for wild animals.”)]

Emperor Julian

 

Religion & Unregenerate Villainy

Edward Gibbon,
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Chp. XV)

The writings of Cicero represent in the most lively colors the ignorance, the errors, and the uncertainty of the ancient philosophers with regard to the immortality of the soul. When they are desirous of arming their disciples against the fear of death, they inculcate, as an obvious, though melancholy position, that the fatal stroke of our dissolution releases us from the calamities of life; and that those can no longer suffer, who no longer exist. Yet there were a few sages of Greece and Rome who had conceived a more exalted, and, in some respects, a juster idea of human nature, though it must be confessed, that in the sublime inquiry, their reason had been often guided by their imagination, and that their imagination had been prompted by their vanity.

When they viewed with complacency the extent of their own mental powers, when they exercised the various faculties of memory, of fancy, and of judgment, in the most profound speculations, or the most important labors, and when they reflected on the desire of fame, which transported them into future ages, far beyond the bounds of death and of the grave, they were unwilling to confound themselves with the beasts of the field, or to suppose that a being, for whose dignity they entertained the most sincere admiration, could be limited to a spot of earth, and to a few years of duration. With this favorable prepossession they summoned to their aid the science, or rather the language, of Metaphysics.

They soon discovered, that as none of the properties of matter will apply to the operations of the mind, the human soul must consequently be a substance distinct from the body, pure, simple, and spiritual, incapable of dissolution, and susceptible of a much higher degree of virtue and happiness after the release from its corporeal prison. From these specious and noble principles, the philosophers who trod in the footsteps of Plato deduced a very unjustifiable conclusion, since they asserted, not only the future immortality, but the past eternity, of the human soul, which they were too apt to consider as a portion of the infinite and self-existing spirit, which pervades and sustains the universe. A doctrine thus removed beyond the senses and the experience of mankind, might serve to amuse the leisure of a philosophic mind; or, in the silence of solitude, it might sometimes impart a ray of comfort to desponding virtue; but the faint impression which had been received in the schools, was soon obliterated by the commerce and business of active life.

We are sufficiently acquainted with the eminent persons who flourished in the age of Cicero, and of the first Caesars, with their actions, their characters, and their motives, to be assured that their conduct in this life was never regulated by any serious conviction of the rewards or punishments of a future state. At the bar and in the senate of Rome the ablest orators were not apprehensive of giving offence to their hearers, by exposing that doctrine as an idle and extravagant opinion, which was rejected with contempt by every man of a liberal education and understanding.

File:Woodcut illustration of Porcia Catonis counseling Marcus Junius Brutus, Julius Caesar's death at the hands of Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, and Porcia's suicide - Penn Provenance Project.jpg