The Tyranny of Ancient Thought

Few questions have as much staying power and contemporary relevance as those concerning the best form of governance, and few political assassinations have exercised as many minds as the slaying of Caesar. In 1400, Antonio of Aquila asked Coluccio Salutati whether he thought that Brutus and Cassius were traitors for slaying Caesar. The question possessed some immediate literary importance to both of these men, given that Florence’s poetic hero Dante had seen fit to punish Brutus and Cassius in the very inner circle of Hell. In the tradition of the times, Salutati composed a lengthy epistolary response to Antonio, beginning with an elaborately florid Florentine preface, followed by a carefully delineated set of topics: the definition of a tyrant, justifications for tyrannicide, whether Caesar was a tyrant, whether Caesar’s murder was justified, and (most important for the pedant) did Dante make the right choice in placing Brutus and Cassius in Hell? There is also an awkward appendix designed to answer the question whether Aeneas and Antenor were traitors to Troy, a question which Antonio had posed along with the apparently more salient one about Caesar’s murder.

Salutati’s tackles the definitional question in the initial section titled What Is a Tyrant and from What  is the Name Derived? by engaging in some amateur etymologizing. Salutati’s own etymologizing may not reflect the standard of scholarship achieved by men like Lorenzo Valla, but he does cite St. Gregory for what is effectively the proper definition of a tyrant:

“A tyrant is, properly speaking, one who reigns in a communal republic by something other than right.”

Proprie enim tyrannus dicitur qui in communi re publica non iure principatur.

Salutati cites Gregory again, this time displaying a Tacitean cynicism about human motives. In effect, Gregory believes that everyone is a tyrant in their own sphere, and will naturally seek to exercise as much power as they can:

“But we must recognize that every haughty person exercises tyranny in their own particular way. One person is the tyrant of a province, another of a city, another in his own house, and yet another – on account of his worthlessness – simply exercises tyranny in his mind. God is not concerned with how much evil someone can perpetrate, but only with how much they wish to perpetrate. When he is lacking causal power in the world, the tyrant is by himself, and his iniquity reigns supreme inside; because, even if he cannot afflict his neighbors outwardly, he yet harbors inwardly the desire to be able to afflict them.”

“Sed sciendum quia omnis superbus iuxta modum proprium tyrannidem exercet. Nam nonnumquam alius in provincia, alius in civitate, alius in domo propria, alius per latentem nequitiam hoc exercet apud se in cogitatione sua. Nec intuetur deus quantum quisque mali valeat facere, sed quantum velit. Et cum deest potestas foris, apud se tyrannus est, cui iniquitas dominatur intus; quia, et si exterius non affligat proximos, intrinsecus tamen habere potestatem appetit ut affligat.”

This line of thought, cited approvingly by Florentines during the Renaissance, was still popular centuries later and half a world away. Benjamin Rush, writing to John Adams, claimed that “Rulers become tyrants and butchers from instinct much oftener than from imitation.” Rome, Florence, and America are linked not only by their republican governments, but also by the cynical fear which served as the intellectual and emotional foundation of those republics. The generalized fear that any one person given sufficient latitude and power would subjugate the entire population to his will is often cited as the primary motivation for maintaining a republican (but not democratic) form of government.

Moving from his definition of tyranny to the question of tyrannicide, Salutati makes the general claim that because an individual would be justified in slaying another for violating his right to personal property, so too must it be lawful to slay one who invades the state, which is the property of all. Like Plato before him, Salutati engages himself in the pleasing error of confusing and conflating the individual and the state for the purpose of ethical reasoning.

Moral reasoning on classical principles would not be complete without the citation of ancient exempla, but Salutati makes a puzzling choice in his exemplum for justifying tyrannicide: the murder of Tiberius Gracchus. Through a curious inversion, Salutati reasons that Scipio Nasica was right to goad on the murder of Gracchus, a tribune of the people, because he was supposed by some sources to be aspiring to regal power. Salutati has let his own aristocratic bias overcome the apparently republican or demotic tone of an essay against tyranny, and has adopted the viewpoint of ancient aristocrats who likely saw Gracchus as a dangerous instrument of what they (or in modern times, someone like Mitch McConnell) would dismiss as “mob rule”.

But perhaps this is the problem with any republic – it is simply aristocracy under the guise of popular government. Perhaps that thin veneer of demotic sovereignty is just the political form of bread and circuses. When someone in America complains that the government is doing a poor job of representing the popular will, they are commonly treated to a curt civics lesson intended to remind them that this is a republic, not a democracy. Caesar was not killed for infringing the liberties of ‘the people’ more generally. Rather, in monopolizing power within the Roman state, Caesar offended the pride of other aristocrats who were denied access to the political power and prestige which they regarded as their rights. It is fashionable to dismiss the Augustan “restoration of the Republic” as a cynical PR sham, but (however much it may have later devolved into outright despotism) it is not clear that the reign of one man within a broadly constitutional framework differed substantially from the reign of a handful of traditional aristocratic families. Regardless of party, even America’s political elite are drawn almost exclusively from a class defined not by family lineage, but by access to one of a few prestigious universities (usually their law schools) which serve as bastions of privilege and entry points into the world of real and efficacious power within the political and corporate system. (This problem of elite “choke points” in the course of the rat race is similarly prevalent in academia.)

The third portion of Salutati’s essay, taken up with whether or not Caesar could be considered a tyrant, relies heavily on Cicero, whom Salutati affectionately refers to throughout as “our Cicero.” This is not wholly surprising, given that Cicero supplies the best contemporary documentary evidence for the period. Moreover, Cicero possessed for men like Salutati a kind of unparalleled authority, as is clear from the affectionate use of noster, “our” Cicero. Despite the fact that Cicero famously exulted over Caesar’s death, Salutati cites a number of Cicero’s letters and writings to prove, wholly on Cicero’s testimony, that Caesar was not a tyrant, but a popularly chosen (if supremely powerful) magistrate.

“Anyone who looks through Cicero’s writings diligently will find far greater praise than detraction of Caesar.”

Qui diligenter ipsius scripta perspexerit longe maiores Caesaris laudes invenerit quam detractiones.

Salutati rather naively or disingenuously takes the confirmation of Caesar’s political acts and appointments following his death as proof that even his enemies did not regard him as a tyrant. This may appear on the face of it to be mere idle fatuity on Salutati’s part, but he draws out a salient point: the conspirators objected to the man and the wounds which he inflicted upon their pride more than they objected to his political program.

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.” Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

In his dialogue with Cicero, Salutati argues that Caesar’s dictatorship was the logical and inevitable outcome of decades of simmering civil war. He then claims that Sulla’s dictatorship, though bloody, was nevertheless a stabilizing force for the Republic. At this point, it begins to seem that Salutati’s strongman theory of government depends in no small part on minute hair splitting about what exactly constitutes tyranny. Indeed, Sulla’s military seizure of the state, whether or not it was in crisis, is a perfect example of what the Greeks meant by tyranny.

Though Salutati and other Renaissance thinkers did much to throw off the shackles of scholasticism, some of the medieval schoolroom still stuck to his mind. He upbraids Cicero for forgetting his Aristotle. Salutati is only able to argue against an ancient authority by citing an even older and more august ancient authority. It is on this Aristotelian basis that Salutati makes his most appalling and dangerous claim: that nature herself fashioned some to rule and others to serve. As almost invariably happens, Greek political philosophy is being used to advocate for a reactionary aristocracy.

Salutati’s essay combines two of the most dangerous modes of classical reception and engagement: the practice of reasoning through uncritical dependence on historical exempla, and the citation of ancient philosophers as final intellectual authorities. Aristotle here represents the tyranny of auctoritas. The Enlightenment may have bequeathed to modernity its own set of intellectual horrors and stumbling blocks, but at least it helped to free the mind from this stifling tyranny of authority. As supporters of the classics, we should fear the prospect of lapsing back into this mode of reception. Indeed, the period in which classical learning suffered the most was not the 20th century decline classics courses in high schools and universities. Rather, it was the period of medieval scholasticism during which classical learning became ossified and inert – an instrument for justifying institutionalized power, a cudgel to be wielded against those without access to it.

Classical learning exhibits the most vitality when it is actively engaged – soaked in and fully digested, yes, but also thoroughly interrogated and wrangled with. Salutati attempts this kind of interrogation in his argument written directly against Cicero, but he fails in that he is only able to cite authority against authority. (If medieval and early Renaissance thought were a card game like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon, the Plato and Aristotle cards would be so wildly overpowered as to render the game wholly unbalanced.)

Some readers of On the Tyrant have been surprised, perplexed, or disappointed with Salutati’s reasoning, perhaps especially with his ardent support for political strongmen. This is apparently at variance with his more general belief in republican government, but his thoughts on tyranny may seem less surprising when we consider more carefully the ways in which tyranny and republican government are not wholly dissimilar. If we understand a tyrant to be one who governs without securing popular consent, might this definition not clearly apply to a president who attained office without winning the popular vote? Is that not a form of constitutionally institutionalized tyranny? Any political or social thought which is not informed by but rather based upon ancient thinkers is bound to be reactionary and aristocratic, because this is what survives: endless talk of “liberty” but a generalized paranoia about both monarchic rule on one hand and democratic power on the other. The ancient partiality for “balance” and “moderation” – that peculiar fetish for the golden mean, the aurea mediocritas which certainly has a tendency to foster mediocrity – suggested strongly to ancient thinkers and their successors that aristocratic republics were the sensible middle ground between the monarch and the mob. Salutati concludes that Dante was right to place Brutus and Cassius in the deepest pit of hell – but now we’re the ones who are suffering.

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“An Ass with a Crown” – Advice for Future Rulers (VOTE!)

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Liberorum Educatione IV:

“The study of literature offers a great aid to attaining virtue, and this befits no one more than a king. With this understanding, the Roman Emperor sent a letter to the king of the Franks, with whom he was then joined in friendship, in which he urged him to have his children brought up in the study of letters, and in which he claimed that an illiterate king was no more than an ass with a crown. I find that the Roman emperors were themselves not uneducated when the empire was at its height; then, learning prevailed in both the senate and the army. Yet it is obvious to all that, once learning was abandoned, all virtues fell into decay, because the strength of the military and the imperial office were weakened as though cut at the root. Indeed, Socrates – as is related by Boethius – used to think that republics were fortunate if it should chance that their rulers were caught up in the pursuit of wisdom, because only those people are perfect, who wish to mix civil business with philosophy and who earn themselves a double good; for, their lives serve the public interest, and is spent in the greatest tranquillity, disturbed by no troubles, engaged in the pursuit of wisdom. Therefore, princes and all those who are to reign should strive with the utmost effort that they both perform their public duties and engage in philosophy, as much as will seem fitting for the times.”

Ad virtutem autem capessendam litterarum studia plurimum adiumenti praebent, nec cuiquam magis quam regi doctrina congruit. Quod intelligens Romanus imperator Francorum regi, quocum tunc amicitia iunctus erat, per epistulam magnopere suadebat, liberos uti suos litteris erudiri curaret, illiteratumque regem quasi coronatum asinum esse dicebat. Nec ego Romanorum principes, dum res publica floruit, illiteratos esse comperi, sed domi atque militiae, et in senatu et in exercitu dominatam esse doctrinam; manifestumque omnibus est, postquam exclusae sunt litterae, omnes elanguisse virtutes. Nam et armatae quoque militiae infirmata est manus et ipsius principatus quasi praecisa radix. Socrates quidem, ut est a Boethio relatum, fortunatas esse res publicas opinabatur, si rectores earum studere sapientiae contigisset. Soli namque perfecti sunt homines, qui civiles cum philosophia partes quaerunt immiscere sibique gemina vendicant bona, nam et eorum vita communi servit utilitati et summa cum tranquillitate nullis obiecta fluctibus per sapientiae studia versatur. Principibus igitur et qui regnaturi sunt experiundum est totis viribus, ut et publica conficiantur negotia et philosophia vendicetur, quemadmodum pro temporibus attinere videbitur.


American Vainglory

J.E. Sandys, Harvard Lectures on the Revival of Classical Learning:

“In 1499 (as we are all aware) a son of Florence, Amerigo Vespucci, took part in the discovery of Venezuela. But it is not perhaps so widely known that his graphic description of the third and most famous of his four voyages was translated into Latin by none other than Fra Giocondo himself. This translation was printed by Martin Waltzemuller at Strassburg in 1505, and also reprinted with the narrative of the three other voyages in 1507, and it is in this reprint that we find the first suggestion that the newly discovered continent should receive the name of America. In this volume Amerigo makes a vainglorious display of his classical learning in the form of quotations from Pliny, Virgil, and Aristotle.”

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Yes to Vergil, No to Lucan

J.E. Sandys, Harvard Lectures on the Revival of Learning:

“Cicero and Virgil became the principal text-books of the Revival of Learning. Petrarch describes them in one of his poems as the ‘two eyes’ of his discourse. In his very boyhood he had been smitten with the charm of Virgil, and, even in his old age, he was still haunted by the mediaeval tradition of the allegorical significance of the Aeneid. But, unlike the mediaeval admirers of Virgil, he does not regard the Latin poet as a mysteriously distant and supernatural being; he finds in him a friend, and he is even candid enough to criticise him. Under his influence the Aeneid was accepted as the sole model that was worthy of imitation by the epic poets of the succeeding age. A German critic regards this result with regret, a regret that few, if any, will share; nor is it easy to believe that any scholar would really have preferred seeing Petrarch throw the weight of his example on to the side of any other Latin epic poet, such as Lucan.”

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Accumulated Capital of Classical Scholarship

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff,

History of Classical Scholarship (trans. Alan Harris):

“We are all living on the capital accumulated by the industry of Casaubon and Stephanus; Scaliger is our great exemplar because he showed us the true end of all our labours. The writers treated by Casaubon, particularly Athenaeus, led him to the study of literary history, and he produced the first critical survey in his De satyrica Graecoru poesi et Romanorum satira, which has gone through many editions and can fairly be called a model of its time. After the murder of Henri IV, Casaubon too, a Protestant, had to leave his country; England gave him a hospitable welcome, and he is buried in Westminster Abbey.”

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How to Pronounce Ancient Greek

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff,

History of Classical Scholarship (trans. Alan Harris):

“Erasmus’ name is linked with the Erasmian pronunciation of Greek, with the result that modern Greeks to a man – except the few trained philologists among them – curse him loud and long. Having learnt the languages from books, rather than from the lips of Greeks, he very naturally insisted on the pronunciation that had been current at the time when the script was formed. Nor was he even the first person to do so (as Ingram Bywater has demonstrated with rare learning); that was the Spanish humanist Antonius Nebrissenis, and no less a man than Aldus Manutius shared his view. Now that scholars have come to realize that every language in every age sounds differently as spoken by different people, and that in the course of time the accepted pronunciation of the written characters also changes, the dispute has lost its relevance. How we are to pronounce, or try to pronounce, ancient Greek is a purely practical question that admits of no universally valid answer, and the idea of condemning the living language of modern Greece as ugly, because, like ours, it has lost its sonority, is one that no scholar at least should ever entertain.”

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Stifling the Spirit of Humanism

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff,

History of Classical Scholarship (trans. Alan Harris):

“By the time the church recovered its strength, inwardly and outwardly, after the shock of the Reformation, its attitude to antiquity had completely changed. The spirit of humanism was stifled by the Jesuits, who countenanced nothing but formal training in Latin grammar and rhetoric, and used it in their schools with ruthless efficiency to further their own ends. Romantic feeling of any kind was entirely alien to the age of the baroque, when ancient remains were recklessly sacrificed for the sake of ambitious programmes of new building. The famous quip Quod non fecere barbari fecere Barbarini was just; Sixtus V would have liked nothing better than to rebuild the Colosseum itself to house some new foundation.”

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Don’t Waste Time – Read Read Read!

Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, LIV:

“There is indeed good reason to gather together those times which others tend to neglect, as when we read at dinner or awaits sleep (or avoids it) by reading. Yet, the doctors tell us that these practices are bad for our sight and eyes; this is true if we read too much, that is to say, either too intently or after an excessive meal. But it will also be to our advantage if we set up, in our libraries and right before our eyes, those instruments which are used to measure the hours and times more generally, so that we may see time as it flows and slips away from us. It would also be useful if we were to use those places for nothing else than what they were established, allowing there no external business or thought.”

Bonae etenim rationis est ea quoque bona colligere quae solent neglegere ceteri, ut si quis super cenam legat et somnum quidem inter libros exspectet aut certe per libros fugiat. Quamquam physici obesse ea visui luminibusque contendunt; quod et verum est, si modo praeter modum, id est, aut intentione nimia aut super multam saturitatem id fiat. Sed et illud quoque proderit nonnihil, si intra bibliothecas nostras coram atque in oculis instrumenta haec constituamus, quibus horas ac tempora metiri solent, ut quasi tempus ipsum fluere labique videamus, et si eis ipsis locis ad nihil aliud quam ad quod instituta sunt utamur, nullam ibi aut occupationem aut cogitationem extremam admittentes.

Combating Barbarism, Reviving Knowledge

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff,

History of Classical Scholarship (trans. Alan Harris):

“In his Elegantiae Linguae Latinae Valla gave proof of the same historical sense in the linguistic sphere by showing how to distinguish the various periods and styles of Latin and waging war, not only on current barbarisms, but also on the practice of mixing words and phrases from entirely different departments of Latin literature – though of course adherence to the best models was bound to end in Ciceronianism, and the case for greater latitude, as advocated by Politian, had its points. Finally, Valla’s philosophical writings, in which he tried to do justice even to Epicurus, were equally bold and equally characteristic of the outstanding acuteness and independence of his mind. If we look deeper, we cannot avoid the conclusion that it was Valla’s contact with the Hellenic genius that lent wings to his soul, and that the advance from humanism to scholarship was entirely due to the influence of Greek literature, which alone could put new life into philosophy and natural science.”

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Wild Etymology of the Night

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, 1.9:

“The fact that Night is clothed in a painted coat clearly indicates that she is the very decoration of the sky, by which the sky is covered. Night (nox) however, as Papias says, is so called ‘because she harms (noceat) the eyes’; for she takes away their power of sight, since we see nothing at night. Night is harmful, further, in that she is well-suited to evil-doers, since we say ‘one who does evil hates the light’ – from this it follows that the evil-doer loves the shadows because they are more suited to the evil work. Even Juvenal says, ‘Thieves rise at night to cut the throats of others.’ Furthermore, Homer calls her the subduer of the gods in the Iliad, by which we may understand that since great-spirited people turn over important matters in their hearts at night, nevertheless night (not being suited to such things at all) oppresses their overflowing spirits, and overpowers them, subdued, all the way until the light.”

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Quod autem picta palla amicta sit, facile videri potest illam celi ornatum significare quo tegitur. Nox autem, ut ait Papias, ideo dicitur quia noceat oculis; aufert enim illis videndi officium, cum nil nocte cernamus. Nocet insuper quia male agentibus apta est, cum legamus: Qui male agit odit lucem; exquo sequitur ut tenebras amet tanquam malo operi aptiores. Et dicit etiam Iuvenalis: Ut iugulent homines surgunt de nocte latrones. Omerus preterea in Yliade eam domitricem deorum vocitat, ut sentiamus quoniam nocte magnanimes ingentia pectoribus versant, tamen nox minime talibus apta ebullientes opprimit spiritus, eosque tanquam domitos in lucem usque coercet.

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