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soviet unionRonald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” and as usual he was right. It was an empire and it was evil. But must an empire always be evil?

I’ve been reading recently about the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire and what struck me was that the Republic wasn’t killed by Julius Caesar. It was already corrupt and controlled by the rich and powerful elite. The Republic was not killed. It committed suicide.

Julius Caesar’s assassination was ostensibly an attempt by noble-minded senators to preserve the republic. Was it really? Or perhaps it was an attempt to preserve the power of the Senators and their families and friends. In the end Julius Caesar’s assassination plunged Rome into a bloody civil war which ended not in a restoration of the Republic, but the rise of the first true emperor, Caesar Augustus.

Was the Republic worth saving and was the empire necessarily evil?

By all accounts Caesar Augustus was a hard-working, well-educated, intelligent, and noble idealist. His reign initiated the Pax Romana, in which the world was largely free from large-scale conflict for more than two centuries. He enlarged the Empire and secured the borders. He reformed the tax system, developed an infrastructure of roads, a courier system, maintained an efficient standing army, created official police and fire-fighting services for Rome, and rebuilt much of the city.

Furthermore Rome’s “first citizen” as he called himself was intent on encouraging personal virtue. He lived in noble simplicity and instituted generous plans to assist the ordinary people. He wanted to support marriage and family life and did so through grants of land for those who got married and had children. He wanted employment and enjoyment for the people. He wanted security, peace and prosperity for all. In other words, he wanted Rome to be great again.

That puts a slick and quick gloss on Caesar Augustus in order to make a more basic point—that a Republic is not necessarily superior to an Empire. Common sense reminds us that any form of government is only as good as the individuals in it. A virtuous Emperor would be better than venal Senators. A pious monarch is preferable to an oligarch, and a self sacrificial dictator would be better than a self-serving president.

Furthermore, the true happiness of a population has little to do with the form of government. The most virtuous leader—whether he be an emperor, a senator, a dictator, a monarch or a judge—cannot rule virtuously over a vile people. For true prosperity and peace to prevail the people as well as the ruler must seek true virtue.

I have not been able to track down the person who said, “All arguments are theological arguments.” It may have been G.K. Chesterton, or it may have been Chesterton quoting Hilaire Belloc, or it may have been Belloc quoting Cardinal Manning, but whoever said it said the truth. Any system of government is only as good as the people within it—both the governed and the governing, and if this is true then the system’s efficacy and efficiency will be determined not by ideology, but theology.

Any system of government can be virtuous if the people are virtuous, but the people cannot be virtuous without a system of virtue, and a system of virtue cannot be established without a greater authority than government to establish it; for if the system of virtue is established only by the government authority, then it will inevitably support the government and those individuals in government. In other words, the system of virtue that does not transcend the government must be governed by the government, and I do know whence this quotation comes. It was Chesterton who said, “Once abolish the God, and the government becomes the God.”

For any government to be good the people must be good, and the people can only be good inasmuch as they obey God. Therefore, religion is more important than politics because you cannot have good politics without good politicians, and you cannot have good politicians without goodness, and you cannot have goodness without truth, and you cannot know truth unless you have embarked on the religious quest, for that is where truth and goodness are hidden.

Some pundits and prognosticators are predicting an eventual end to the American Republic. Collapsing under the weight of our own corporate decadence and despair, they recall history and see that the next step must be an empire.

If they are right, the question arises, “Would that necessarily be a bad thing?” Whether the empire is evil or not will rely whether the emperor is evil or not, but it will also depend on whether the people are evil or not.

And when I look around me and look in the mirror, I am not optimistic.

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5 replies to this post
  1. “Therefore, religion is more important than politics ”

    This is a really good point, and possibly why the left wing is so rabid about trying to discredit religion.

  2. It’s true that an empire isn’t always evil, but I would rather have an imperfect republic than a thriving empire. For while a republi might be flawed, and is often deeply so, at least a man has a chance to think and act freely, the ability to do so even in an enlightened empire is diminished. Augustus, the enlightened, banished the poet Ovid for writing poetry he found objectionable. Is such an action the mark of virtue, or cowardice? You’re right that Julius Caesar didn’t kill the republic, but he didn’t make himself dictator for life for any virtuous reason. It was an insatiable lust for power that drove him to commit high treason and wage war against his own people. Yes the senators were corrupt, but they were certainly a better option than the Gracchi, Clodius, or Caesar.

    I might be speaking heresy on this site but it’s not the job of the government to get the people to be virtuous. Throughout history there has been a cyclical pull between hedonism and virtue. Right now we are in what most people would call hedonistic times. Virtue forced through government will never last. Augustus failed to bring the old virtues back to the Romans, and there isn’t anything we can do to bring back morality to the western world.

    Expecting goodness from people, or politicians, in any age is tilting at windmills.

  3. “This is a really good point, and possibly why the left wing is so rabid about trying to discredit religion.”

    And why the right wing is so intent on co-opting it.

    • We haven’t “Co-opted” anything, but simply accepted the truth of religion, Christianity specifically. In contrast, when it comes to religion, all the left wing can do is sneer.

  4. Fr. Longenecker, it may well be Cardinal Manning who expressed the thought, “All arguments are theological arguments” as it is interesting that Chesterton, Belloc, as well Irving Babbitt all lived during the same era following Manning and expressed the thought similarly. Babbitt begins his Democracy and Leadership, “According to Mr. Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with the relations between capital and labor. In that case, one is tempted to reply, the future will be very superficial. When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.”

    Stephen Johnson, I don’t think it is only the right that attempts to co-opt “religion.” Those of the left consider themselves more “Christ-like” in their injunctions not to judge others and to be more “inclusive,” never mind that it is nothing more than a religion of sentimental humanitarianism which then allows such to set themselves up as a god and ends with the self-righteousness of a Pharisee. It’s as old as Genesis, denigrate true religion to establish one of your own.

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