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Old Republic

As America continues on her path toward the twilight realm of decayed republics and bloated empires, it’s painfully difficult for the citizen not to reflect upon that great republic of the classical world, Rome, and its fate.

At its end, the republic produced its best man, Marcus T. Cicero, who could only remind those around them of what they’d lost. In speech, in letter, and in person, Cicero forced those around him to pause, to consider, to reevaluate the end of Roman life and citizenship.

Though Anthony caught up to Cicero and murdered him, declaring the Old Republic gone and ushering in a “New Republic,” Cicero’s words continue echo across the centuries. Perhaps his voice from the dead speaks to us more powerfully than even his voice did while among the living of his day.

I’m particularly struck by his words regarding the natural law:

True law is right reason in agreement with Nature. . . . it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, although neither have any effect upon the wicked. It is a sin to try and alter this law, nor it is allowable to attempt to repeal a part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freedom from its obligations by Senate or People, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable la will be valid for all nations and for all times, and there will be one master and one rule, that is, God, over us all, for He is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge.

Here, Cicero identified a republic beyond Rome, one existing beyond any single moment of time. With these words, Cicero understood that a true republic—a republic of women and men of good will—extends far beyond the bounds of a particular place. It is, ultimately, universal in its comprehension of cultures and peoples, knowing neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free.

To celebrate the death of Cicero, Anthony, Plutarch wrote,

commanded his head and hands to be fastened up over the rostra, where the orators spoke: a sight which the Roman people shuddered to behold, and they believed they saw there, not the face of Cicero, but the image of Antony’s own soul. [quoted in Kirk’s Roots of American Order]

Can one imagine a more important classical figure in the minds of the American Founders? All—as we know because of the work men such as Trevor Colborne, Christian Kopff, Carl Richard, and Bruce Thornton—of them did in some way or another.

As one powerful example, John Adams once admitted in his diary that he loved reciting Cicero’s orations as much as anything:

The Sweetness and Grandeur of his sounds, and the Harmony of his Numbers give Pleasure enough to reward the Reading if one understood none of his meaning. Besides, I find it a noble Exercise. It exercises my Lungs, raises my Spirits, opens my Porrs, quickens the Circulation, and so contributes to [my] Health. [Quoted in Carl J. Richard, Twelve Greeks and Romans Who Changed the World, 187]

But, Adams lived in a rather innocent age. Our age can claim no such thing.

Republics still decay and good man still stand for good. But, tragically, the modern State resembles the ancient State of Persia or the decadent empires of the Hellenistic period or of the early and late Roman Empire than it does the American Republic of the late 18th century.

Radicalized, bureaucratized, and ideological, the modern State is an evil; it is an abomination, in fact, a thing that believes itself to be Divine. The State continues to pillage and, at times, murder in the service of its own protection. Indeed, it seems to exist for the sake of its own existence. Throughout all of its activities, it claims its right to lord over its citizens the power of the gun and, equally dangerous, the power to educate and redistribute and define.

As conservatives bravely enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is worth remembering the work and ideas of Christopher Dawson, the brilliant English historian and man of letters. In 1942, he dedicated his best book, The Judgment of the Nations, “to all those who have not despaired of the republic, the commonwealth of Christian peoples, in these dark times.”

The crimes of the modern world, Dawson argued, stemmed from those shouting from the standpoint of “Progress,” whether on the so-called Left or Right. From these Progressives came “the unloosing of the powers of the abyss—the dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization and which have been set free to conquer the world.”

The darkest forces first emerged in the French Revolution and re-emerged in the Soviet Union, spreading “westward, into the very heart of Europe,” infecting even democracy with the “new black arts of mass suggestion and propaganda.”

But, Dawson reminded his readers, “to the Christian the world is always ending, and every historical crisis is, as it were, a rehearsal for the real thing.”

After all, some of the greatest men in western civilization have died at the hands of corrupt persons who have used the power of State for their own disingenuous ends. “The Athenians killed Socrates and the Romans killed Cicero and the English killed Thomas More” (see Dawson).

This seems, sadly, to be the ultimate nature of the State.

To be continued. Next: St. Paul and the State; Voegelin and Symbols of the State

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4 replies to this post
  1. I believe it was Ben Franklin, that when asked (what kind of government do we have) stated "a republic if we can keep it". Thank you for this article. Those who are ignorant of history are those who are doomed to repeat it. I hope and pray that the citizens of these United States will be armed with information and understanding in November. I pray that they will vote their patriotic and conservative convictions, in order for America to be revived and reconciled to her roots of "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands. One Nation under GOD, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for ALL."

  2. How wildly fortunate Dr. Birzer's students must be! I hope that they appreciate the rare vintages that he serves them, and I can hardly wait for the next installment. Many thanks indeed.

    Stephen Masty

  3. I just throw this out as fodder for debate. I read this in Voegelin's "New Science of Politics": "When the autonomous existence of the political entities in the Mediterranean area was broken by [emperor] Augustus, the apostles of Christianity could roam unmolested through the whole Empire and spread the Gospel; they could hardly have carried out their mission unless the wrath of the 'superstitions of the polis' had been kept in check by fear of Roman power."

  4. Mr. Masty, as I student of Dr. Birzer, I understand that I am blessed to have spent three consecutive semesters in Dr. Birzer's class. He is just as inspiring and knowledgeable in the classroom as he is in his writing.

    Dr. Birzer, thank you for this–you have reinvigorated my hope to hold onto those classical virtues of republicanism, even in Hillsdale, MI. Now, I must go work on studying them for the paper you have assigned…

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