“All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”
The story of the Late Roman Republic is an example of one society’s failure to face up to the ultimate dichotomy, which all men and every society must face; the challenge is that which all human civilizations must face. Plato discusses it in his “Republic”. Here he calls it “Justice”.
In this essay and the two others on this website (see below), I discuss three primary concepts that affect every society and its citizens, and in particular the late Roman Republic. These are: Trust, A Code of Conduct (the warrior’s code), and finally in this essay, the Good.
All of these concepts were known to, and discussed by the Greek philosophers who preceded the time of Caesar. In particular Plato wrestles with these concepts in the “Republic”, although using a somewhat different terminology. Caesar having been nurtured on all things Greek, and being himself an aristocrat of a people who prided themselves on the study of management and administration in the world of affairs, surely was also conversant with these concepts. If anything his character shows that he had indeed internalized them and incorporated them into his overall strategy. What the Greeks seemed to have never completely mastered, i.e. the combination of both the philosophical man and the man of action, the Romans never really bothered about, being the most practical of people, that is, until Caesar.
But Caesar had seemingly become the ideal, which the Greeks long sought, but found only in myth or religion. A levelheaded genius, combining the proper amounts of philosophical wisdom and practical savoir-faire, along with being one of the greatest men of action the world would possibly ever know. But even with all of this, the tragedy of his almost sacrificial end, harkened back to the end of Socrates himself, the philosopher who found that principles were in the final analysis even more important than life itself. But I digress; so let’s resume our discussion of the “Good”.
There is a point at which a human must present its views to others; it must in essence relate what is in itself to the rest of the world. The Ego within which it is wrapped must come to grips with the ultimate dichotomy. Its viewpoint, which sees the world from only within itself, must come to see the world from outside of itself 1 . This affords it an almost god-like perspective, which sees the world as a place of interaction between many creatures with diverse and often inharmonious aims. The reconciliation 2 of these two separate and often incompatible views is the business upon which a society relies. The two main elements (there is a third, the warrior’s code of conduct, mentioned above, but it is essentially a practical implementation of these two) upon which all societies are based are, trust, which I have spoken of in another essay, and this universal concept of the “Good” which I will now address.
The fact that humanity has within itself the capacity to be capable of obtaining this other view is the very thing, which distinguishes it from all other creatures on the earth. This ability is what the human uses to perceive a system, which seems to exist apart from the world and all other creatures, a system which espouses no particular view, or purpose, but a general all purposeful view, yet furthering all other views. It is this very ability, which calls the human to a higher and supreme arbiter for all his concerns. Some (those of the various Religions of the earth) say this is the voice of God in humans; others see it as the way in which a human creates God, who is created in the likeness of a human, but without its imperfections. Indeed this ability, whichever way interpreted, is the very thing, which marks out a human’s imperfections and defines his morality. Psychologists today might call this the human conscience or Super Ego. It allows a person to distinguish such nebulous terms as “right” and “wrong”, or “good” and “evil”.
This ability, which is an attribute of the human condition, perhaps the highest attribute of humanity, I will call the “Good”.
The place where this faculty resides in the human is often called the human heart. It is a place that many see as the place where perfection shows itself in an imperfect being or creation; where soul and matter come as close, as it is ordained for them to approach one another; where indeed a human becomes God, or God enters the human. It is not a mistake that this power or ability resides in the same place where most have found the other most distinguishing characteristic of humanity, love, or perfect innocence 3 to reside. In fact it seems that the latter is what allows this ability to grow in a human. The actual evolution of the human (from birth to death) as I see it, is an ongoing battle to whittle away this original innocence, in the constant struggle of the human being to deal with the imperfect nature of the body within which it is enveloped, and the imperfect world which in turn envelops it. The development of all the inimical feelings: fear, anger, hatred and retribution, which create the erosion of this innocence, also erode, debilitate or narrow the “Good” in him. The attack on this innocence, which I have described in the course of the human’s evolution, is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it is this very process or struggle, which a human must knowingly undergo to be awakened into the light of its own imperfection, and ultimately also the perfection, which can allow it to overcome the realities of a mortal existence.
I believe the life of the Christ to be the supreme analogy, to the life of every individual person. His crucifixion and death was a liberation in the very way that a human is liberated by the hardships of its individual life. Thus the impact of Christ on humankind was a broadening of the viewpoint which very few before him had attained. It was a heralding of, and broadening of the power of the “Good”. 4
The structure of government which the human builds to create and regulate the society, within which it lives, must of necessity be imperfect since it exists in an imperfect world. But it can be structured on this very basis, which lives in the heart of every human… the “Good”. When Christ uttered the words: “render therefore to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s”, he meant not only what is usually meant, but also to emphasize the imperfection of society and its governing bodies. What governments could not provide, lives inside of each of us, in the kingdom, which God brought into the heart of every human, which is made known through the “Good”.
As each individual must come to grips with the imperfections that bind it down, so society must come to grips with the interactions of its members and the growth of imperfections, which no longer embody the “Good”. The overall outlook of society must embody this one outlook or view, since this outlook alone embodies all in society and in turn is achievable by all.
The equity that the “Good” holds out to all is at the same time a part of all, and functions to create the trust, which allows a society to be a cohesive whole.
The family is the place where all of this originates because it is the place where the young grow up, and learn to gradually accustom themselves to the hardships of life. It should be the place where the “Good” is fostered, and trust grows through the loving care of the parents. If the society itself grows out of this environment, and models itself upon it, then the “Good” will function automatically to create a society centered on it, and truly representing all equally.
The problems of society are a direct outcome of the narrowing of this universal viewpoint through the cycle of greed and power. The universal truth, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was known long before the Christ, but was not incorporated fully into societies because of the a narrowing of the “Good” within their leaders through the decadence which greed causes.
Fear is the primary cause of all that is evil in the human. Fear grows in an unsafe environment, which is really the result of mortality. The young know nothing of fear until they confront the world. The expulsion of the tiny human into a world where it is not confined in the protection of the womb is the initial explosive trauma that awakens mortality. Fear is triggered as a safety mechanism to protect it, but if not checked can develop into a habit that will cause the broad outlook of the “Good” to never flourish.
Deprived of this the passions grow, the selfish instinct of survival causes a distrust of all around it, and eventually a need for the material displaces a need for the spiritual. Material gratification becomes the essence of life since the joy of fellowship and the trust of others is lost.
The parents must correct this imbalance with a love which is essentially unlimited in scope, but which must always also be tempered with a sense of duty to the rest of society. Thus the “Good” grows, and with it the trust in others that allows a society to grow.
As I first mentioned, the “Good” is a perspective that allows one to perceive a perfection, which transcends the imperfections of man and his world. The ancient Greek philosophers spoke of it, and fostered a discipline that was in line with it. This discipline was applicable to both the harshest of human conditions, war, and also to the daily hardships of life. This was the warrior’s code I spoke of elsewhere.
I believe that the character of the man Caesar was nurtured on just such a regimen by the family he grew up in, and that the society he tried to reorganize was destroyed by the corruption, which he saw grow in a leadership 5 , which let greed distort and narrow their conception of the “Good”. The “Good” no longer reflected that purposeless view which furthers all, but had been distorted into a view that saw only self-interest as the main goal of existence; this is the very same barren illusion, which greed still holds out to our societies today. 6 The troubles and destruction of the late Republic were a direct result of that society’s inability to reconcile its confrontation with the ultimate dichotomy.
1 The view or viewpoint I speak of here is of course a total view, that is, a view of humans and their motives; in essence it is identical to the view that the contemplative man or woman makes of themselves internally. This ability which humanity possesses, allows it to also extend this externally, and divine the motives and intentions of others as if they were its own. Psychology calls this the conscience, but it is more expansive than this; it is what allows a human to contemplate the perfect or absolute, the “Forms” of Plato.
[Added: November 22, 2007] I want to emphasize one important point about the Good that may have been overlooked. The Good includes the conscience, but is more than the conscience. The conscience of the human being provides an authority by which man can reconcile his actions with the authority of the mortal world around him. The Good also allows him to transcend the needs of the world, which are reconciled in the conscience, and reconcile himself with the divine law of Perfection. That divine law is the truth which every human has in his heart which I described at the end of the essay “What is Truth?”.
This brings up another point: the connection between Machiavelli’s virtu and the agency of the Good. Machiavelli’s virtu was the agencies of a person’s will, which enabled him to overcome the fortuna (the arbitrariness) of fate. We see that this is very similar to the idea of the “superior man” in Chinese philosophy. The man with virtu and the superior man almost control, or stamp their surroundings with the power of their will. They are what I call the person who lives by the Warrior’s code I have mentioned elsewhere. If we see this connection, we see that it is the Good, which creates the virtu in a person, which allows him to mold his surroundings (through cooperation with his fellows in society) according to his will, and thereby minimize the arbitrary affects of fate (fortuna).
2 This reconciliation is one of judgment, in that it allows one to perceive another’s motives as his own and understand his viewpoint as if it were his own, almost as if we were a God looking into the hearts of others. This is the empathy, which allows us to temper our judgments because we feel the same as those we are judging. In this capacity it becomes the basis upon which a human is enabled to form societies. It is a communal instinct, which allows a human to realize his gregarious nature and rationalize it into a society.
3 I equate love with perfect innocence, which it is, since the state of perfect innocence is a state of continual non-judgmental love, which accepts all without exception.
4 The impact that the Christ had on the whole world is felt also by atheists, agnostics and heathens alike, for it brought this awareness of the “Good” out of the realm of scholars and religionists into the world of affairs.
Governments, rulers and all aspects of social life felt the impact of the spiritual unity of humanity. After the Christ, the world could never again look on a human the same way it looked on it as Cicero and his cronies had looked on it. Oh, there might always be both good and bad men and women, but all were now brothers and sisters that shared the same destiny, the same hardships and the same outlook. The few, in the time before the Christ, who like Caesar saw the inkling of the kinship of humanity, had now become the majority. Caesar had indeed come upon this inkling through the brotherhood of war, where all are equal on the battlefield. But others also had been leaders, but had not made the connection. Sulla always saw himself and his kind as different than the soldiers he commanded. What he accomplished through fear, Caesar accomplished through example and respect.
[ADDED: October 11, 2007] On reading this footnote again I can see some questions arising out of seeming paradoxes of later history, namely: Why did the middle ages turn out to be such a dismal failure (in fact, a double step backward, for all mankind), in spite of the awareness of Christianity and the spread of the Good? I will address this in another essay soon, but to give the gist of it, I will say this, a quote we all know: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew, 22:21) … to be continued in an essay called: “Religion and Dogmatism”.
5 The leadership: the Nobiles, who Cicero ironically called the “Good men" (In Latin: "Boni").
6 [Added November 30, 2007] The Good is an agency that harmonizes both the individual and society. The human needs both to live a full life. The Greek philosophers saw happiness as that toward which all humans tended. The happiness of the individual is actually the “joy of living” which man finds in the pursuit of the code of living that the Good enforces. The Greeks saw this in the contemplative life, but they also realized that the human’s interactions with society were also an important part of reaching this “happiness”. In our own time we have seen such philosophies such as Ayn Rand’s ‘Philosophy of Selfishness’ downplay the part of society, and elevate the spirit of the individual as being able to soar to the heights through creativity and will power. But she doesn’t mention that not all humans can create or soar above the mundane hardships of life. Talent, or even luck doesn’t befriend most. It is the Good in a human being that shows him that through love and cooperation, not selfish egoism, is the true happiness of life found. Even the worst misery can be endured if this happiness in the oneness of the human condition is realized and felt (see the essay on “Just plain musing: Living”).
Originally Published:November 22, 2007
Revised:July 4, 2014