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Is Shakespeare’s Coriolanus a key for our crises?

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 30, 2017

Shakespeare’s unknown Roman play and what it bodes for us

With its popularity trailing far behind Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus is perplexing on a number of levels.  Not lacking in ether violence or passion, the bard’s not-so-secret formulae for success, Coriolanus seems saturated with the wrong sort of passion, and by comparison to that  other dark horse, Titus Andronicus, not nearly violent enough to make an Elizabethan B-grade movie worthwhile.  Coriolanus features a Rome without romance.  Women, yes, men, yes…but in the form of a nagging mother, and a wife long past the honeymoon stage, these against a background of uncountable war widows.  In other words, it focuses on the reality of relationships, not their rosy initiation.  Today people might, out of a sense of guilt, be willing to pay to see that kind of fare, but the Elizabethans were far too sensible to put up with it.   Yet they put up with Coriolanus, and so should we, for in that play Shakespeare is telling us a story which is political in a way that is far different from his other productions. It is closer to instruction than entertainment, although, for those with an eye for the nuances of history, far more interesting than simple entertainment.   Furthermore I maintain that Coriolanus speaks to us today in a prophetic voice that few past generations could have decoded.  After a few preliminaries, I will attempt a decoding…with what success, you may be the judge.

There is a difference between narratives where politics is embedded in human (especially sexual) relationships and those stories where relationships are embedded in politics.   Yes, and I know that “embedded” will be taken as a bad pun!  None the less, we don’t go to see Anthony and Cleopatra because we want to understand how the Second Triumvirate unraveled.  For the Elizabethan, sex and circuses were still an intermission within the normal life of the body politic.  Above sex, circuses, work, and all the other activities of civil society was the dreadful, and indeed numenous, question of sovereignty.  I say numenous since sovereignty entailed not just power over life and death, but, keeping in mind that the Reformation was still playing itself out, possibly power over eternal life and eternal death.  Thus, the dark shadow of the Tower of London fell across the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, at least mentally, if not quite physically.  For frequenters of the Globe, politics was close, perhaps closer than for all the intervening generations between them and us, we whom are beset by social media, and for whom politics is becoming all-in-all.  Against this dreadful background, theatergoers were torn between the drive to escapism and the drive to understand.  Arguably, Coriolanus satisfies the latter urge.

Not only that, but in addition to being political rather than erotic, Coriolanus is political in a way which is uncharacteristic of Shakespeare, and shows a surprising grasp of issues which one might have surmised were far beyond his scope of knowledge and interests.  Arguably, Coriolanus is the only Shakespearean play in which the dramatic action takes place in the context of a still-vigorous constitutional republic.  Normally, we expect a Shakespearean narrative to take place against a feudal background.  Even where the background is nominally republican, it is likely to be a Venetian facad or a Rome in transition to empire.  After all, Shakespeare was a subject of the Tudor, and briefly, Stuart, dynasties.  Yet Coriolanus reveals that Shakespeare was fully capable of appreciating the problems of electoral politics in a state where sovereignty was divided among different authorities.  A deeper look as Shakespeare’s life and times will soon show that he had a good knowledge of 16th century Italy, where republican institutions, though mostly usurped, were still a living memory.  Furthermore, he lived at a time of emerging republican sentiment in northern Europe, stimulated by the Reformation, and various constitutional experiments, conducted by the armed prophets of the more radical (Calvinistic, Zwiglian, Anabaptist etc.) branches of the Reformation.  But whether due to his sources, contemporary events or the universal solvent of his imagination, the bard could write with conviction and with empathy about life in a republican context.

Now, allow me to briefly spoil the play for you.  Apart from eccentrics (e.g., myself) and undergraduates under harsh curricular discipline, few will ever pick up the written play, and even fewer are likely to see a stage enactment, so spoiling is eminently justified.  If you know the ways of the bard you won’t be surprised to learn that he lifted the plot from Plutarch.  Plutarch in turn based his narrative on events which allegedly happened around 493BC in Rome.  This wasn’t our Hollywood Rome of the glittering marble temples, rather, it was a village, or perhaps a federation of villages, built of mud and straw and unified by a surrounding fortification, a wall or a ditch, allegedly built by Romulus, founder of the city.  None the less, this early Rome was already showing signs of its future destiny, encroaching on the surrounding tribes and subjecting them to its sovereignty.  Most importantly, for understanding Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the Roman state was already divided among distinct socioeconomic classes, notably the plebian class and the senatorial class.  Furthermore, the fundamentals of the state’s constitutional order had recently been consolidated, with a republic being declared one generation prior with the expulsion of the last monarch, King Tarquin.

Going by the standard sources, mainly Plutarch, the most successful Roman military leader (a.k.a. “general”) around the year 493BC was a certain Caius Martius .  As per already established Roman custom, he acquired the cognomin “Coriolanus” when he conquered Coriolus, a city of the hostile Volciian federation.  Of course, there are recent critics who claim that Coriolanus is entirely mythical.  I don’t know on what grounds this is maintained, but I do know that making these claims is a great way to gain notoriety and possibly promotion in the academic world.  Indeed, I would wager that Coriolanus was not only an actual historical person, but that about 80% of Shakespeare’s dialogue gives us, while certainly not a verbatum transcript  of what transpired in 493BC, at least the gist of the historically salient events.  The contemporary reader of Shakespeare has to be tolerant of his occasional anachronisms, and keep in mind that the historical Coriolanus was speaking proto-Latin (significantly, intelligible to nearby Italian tribes) not Elizabethan English…and of course wearing neither a ruff collar nor buckled shoes.

Even so, if anyone wants to doubt the historical existence of Coriolanus (the person) it need have no bearing on the value of Coriolanus (Shakespeare’s narrative) as useful matrix for political thought.  To that end, all we need is a capsule summary of the the story’s highlights.  The play begins as Coriolanus, a Roman senator, returns victorious from beating the Volcii, and capturing one of their cities Coriolus.  He is promoted by his friends as candidate for counsel, the supreme magistrate of the Roman republic.  However Coriolanus refuses to make the obligatory and traditional appeal to the masses (the plebs) by showing his war wounds publicly.  The representatives of the pleb class, the tribunes, distrust Coriolanus from the start, knowing that he despises the common people as cowards and moochers on the public purse.  The inability of Coriolanus to change his public image by pandering to the masses gives the tribunes an excuse to revoke the election of Coriolanus to the consulate.  This causes a row with Coriolanus counter-claiming that the tribunal authority has been abused and that the office of tribune should be abolished.  Through all these altercations both the friends, i.e., senatorial class peers, and family (mother and wife) of Coriolanus urge their stubborn leader to tone down his rhetoric and appease the common people with flattery, or at least tolerance.  These attempts fail to make any headway with the proud and stubborn Coriolanus.  The issue is decided in favor of exiling Coriolanus, on the grounds that he was plotting to unilaterally change the constitution (abolishing the institution of the plebs’ tribunes) albeit exile is a milder sentence in lieu of capital punishment.  Bitter and seeking revenge, the exiled Coriolanus shows up at the doorstep of his, and Rome’s, arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius, leader of Antium, chief city of the Volcian federation.  Coriolanus offers to join his invincible military skills with that of Aufidius in a war against Rome.  Aufidius agrees and together they conduct a successful military campaign all the way up to the gates of Rome.  The terrified Romans send out emissaries to Coriolanus asking him to have mercy on his own people.  Coriolanus, in character, refuses all attempts at compromise and threatens to sack the city.  At last his mother and wife come out of the gates to beg mercy from their son and husband.  Moved to pity by this maternal and conjugal appeal, Coriolanus at last relents.  Hence the Roman General of the Volcii, having liberated the lands that Rome had taken from her enemies, even though sparing Rome itself, returns to Antium, expecting to be hailed as a hero.  However Aufidius, jealous of being overshadowed by his Roman ally, gathers together conspirators from those who’s families were harmed by Coriolanus during his earlier, anti-Volcian, campaigns.  They assassinate Coriolanus in the public square of Antium.  As soon as they are satisfied by the death of Coriolanus, their mood instantly changes and they decide to grant full honors in burial to him as a military genius and ally.  Thus ends the play.

Pondering this old story from the perspective of the here and now, situations and personalities jump out which are disturbingly familiar.  The old saw about history repeating itself tempts us to judgement.  And yet…not quite so fast, for as soon as we think we have recognized a familiar face, the image dissolves into a kaleidoscope of incoherent fragments.  Therefore it will behoove us, before we join in the chorus of moral indignation, to familiarize ourselves with some classical political concepts.  Don’t worry, I will soon lead you to where we all want to go…an encounter with the clear and present dangers, here in America, now in the 21st century.  But if we want Coriolanus to serve us faithfully as a tool of political analogy to our own times, we will have to take a leisurely stroll through the forum of political conflict.  Then, perhaps, we will be able to separate ideas from innuendo.

The Fourfold Root of Classical Political Analysis

Why is Coriolanus important?  Not, as Freudian critics might wish, because it yields novel insights on the mother-child relation.  Indeed, not due to the depth of any of  its corporal characters or their mutual esteem or lack thereof.   Rather, the republic itself, is a kind of intangible lead character in its own right. Coriolanus is important because it deals exhaustively with the problem of sovereignty.  Our contemporaries have lost sight of the ultimate significance of sovereignty, and would rather avoid its correlative truth, which divides the ethical world into four parts, two pertaining to the sovereign, and two to the subject.  If the fundamental concept of politics is sovereignty then all permutations on politics will pertain to valuations of either the sovereign or the subject, which may be expressed as positive and negative couplets.  The classical term for wicked sovereignty is tyranny, while the classical term for the condition of being a wicked subject is treason.  Conversely, the good subject is the loyal subject.   The only terminological issue is how to characterize the antithesis of tyranny.  Coming at the end, not of history, but of Whig history, libertarians and conservatives are apt to characterize the couplet as liberty vs. tyranny.  However this opposition, however dear to us it might be, is not as robust a characterization as the classical usage which simply contrasted tyranny with justice.  So our classical couplets are justice/tyranny and loyalty/treason.  Obviously we can schematize this as a four cell diagram and use it as a general framework for any political situation involving sovereignty. This might refer to this as a political quadrilateral, namely, tyranny:justice::loyalty:treason.

I have outlined what seems to me the common sense framework for understanding politics.  However, there are numerous others,such as the Marxist interpretations. There are infinite variations on modern positivist and quantitative political analysis, some of which, and I am thinking particularly of the Public Choice school, have considerable merit.  Then there is Leo Strauss and his school, which sees misdirection, obscurity and esoteric meaning behind every political movement and manifesto.  While all these claim to be schools of politics, for none of them is sovereignty paradigmatic, rather, they embrace a bevy of other notions such as class struggle, human choice, literary deception, or simple “force.”  Any of these might be, for all I know, the key to the kingdom, but they differ from the classical consensus about the state and sovereignty.  The latter was a useful tool in the days of Aristotle and also those of Cicero, and it was also the mental window through which Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed and understood his political works, plays such as Coriolanus.  Even today, it still lies at the bottom of libertarian and conservative political theory, but usually in tacit form.

Armed with this classical framework, we should be able to read Coriolanus as something other than a simple morality play.  To be sure, our purpose should be to extract some moral conclusions from the work, however it will not be a “morality play” in the sense of positing a war between predetermined “children of light” and “children of darkness” from the outset.  We shall be called upon to judge, but our judgement should strive to be Christian, not Manichean.

First I will show how one could treat Coriolanus using a populist-leftist formula, and subsequently show how the same material could be used as the apology for a dictator.  Neither of these completely faithful to Shakespeare’s narrative, and both are unedifying for contemporary political discourse.  They both stop short of recognizing that  the dramatic action in the play consists of an exchange of places between the tribunes and Coriolanus who are each in turn tyrannical and just, loyal and treasonous to the Roman state and its constitution.  In other words, if we go beyond persons to principles we will see that there is no one character or group of characters who personifies either justice or tyranny.  Rather, in unpleasant reflection of both past and  current politics, the protagonists exhibit, by turns, integrity or corruption of character depending on their ever-changing relationship to the political order.

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, Personality over Principle, the Left-Wing variation, “The tyrant exposed.”

Unfortunately, Marxism (defined as including those schools which are derived from it) seems to be the main highway of contemporary literary interpretation, preeminent on account of popularity, ease of understanding, and safe passage through the labyrinth of academic acceptability.  Honestly, I don’t have any particular critic in mind, but the method is so obvious that you or I can quickly whip up a dissertation with all the aplomb of a literary short order cook.  For starters, we can take it as axiomatic that Coriolanus is a simple tale of conflict between good and evil, between the masses of humanity and fascism.   It is an edifying and cautionary bit of ancient lore, featuring a particularly obnoxious villain as its protagonist.  The moral?  Stick on the right side of history and “the People”…or risk an unpleasant end.

Because the theme of Coriolanus is perennial, the left-wing critic need never fear obsolescence or  lack of employment, since in every generation the nuances of politics will easily reduce themselves to the same common denominator.  All that needs to be done is to find your man, your Coriolanus, your aristocratic bully, and voala! therein lies the contemporary political analogy.  But today, circa 2017, there is no need to search around for a scapegoat since ubiquitous Trump-hatred makes the choice obvious.  We all know that Donald J. Trump is bad, and with just the right reading of Coriolanus we might actually discover, if not precisely why he is bad, certainly just how bad he truly is.

While, obviously, I am being sarcastic toward the left-wing method, I am not saying that it is completely inaccurate.  Since left-wing literary criticism is always a species of propaganda, it behooves us to remember that effective propaganda must invoke a sufficient array of sound facts and verities to convince the target audience.  There is something incontestably sound in the identification of Donald Trump with Martius Caius Coriolanus.  We easily see the blowhard egoist in both, and frequent resonances of an all too familiar and obstinate pride in Shakespeare’s prose.  Coriolanus, like Trump, is not willing to stick to anyone’s script, however well intended or lovingly suggested.

A very little I have yielded to.  Fresh embassies and suits,  Nor from the state nor private friends, hereafter will I lend an ear to.  Coriolanus Act. 5, scene 3

But there is more to both Donald Trump, and even Coriolanus himself, than pure villainy.  The problem for the left-wing method is that it dare not go beyond this initial purview, lest the power of moral condemnation be dissipated within the complexities of the play.  It is only a safe method as long as the critic is restricted, either freely or under duress, to the stereotypes of class conflict.  It doesn’t particularly matter how these classes are defined, whether as a classical proletariat or the numerous victim classes of contemporary cultural Marxism.  What is important is that everything be seen from the point of view of distributive justice, that is, an unequal distribution of “stuff” among concrete persons and groups of people.

Now as the left-wing critic would surmise, Coriolanus has lots of “stuff” which the plebs lack.  Naturally, a significant part of this rests on an economic foundation, and an important conflict within both the play, and the early Rome which it portrays, was the bread dole for the non-landed citizens.  Whether to provide or withdraw this entitlement serves as an initial ground for the conflict between Coriolanus and the tribunes of the people.  However the most prominent “stuff” which Coriolanus flaunts, and the tribunes envy, are the intangibles of life such as dignity, reputation, virtue (especially courage) and power.  It is the attacks on these intangible disparities which drives Coriolanus to fits of self-justification, therefore confirming his status as a “hater” according to the nomenclature of modern leftism. Thus Shakespeare portrays him as cursing the common man, and under the only condition that Coriolanus would stand a chance to respect: man-at-arms.

You souls of geese, that bear the shapes of men, how have you run from slaves that apes would beat!  Pluto and hell!  All hurt behind.  Backs red, and faces pale with flight and augued fear!  Mend, and charge home, or by the fires of heaven I’ll leave my foe and make my wars on you.  ibid, Act 1., scene 4.

Vitrolic words, but prophetic ones as well!  For we observe General Coriolanus progressing from “international” conflict to internecine class conflict and finally waging war on Rome itself as a kind of one-man government in exile.

The list of putative villains, especially of the “fascist” ilk, could be extended almost indefinitely.  But Donald J. Trump?  Really?  Yes, really, albeit in a reality which is dictated by the rules of left-wing interpretation.  You see, the secret of left-wing interpretation is that it isn’t interpretation at all, rather, it is what more properly is called imputation.  The difference between interpretation and imputation is that interpretation uses observation and induction to guess the nature of external things, while imputation determines unilaterally the nature of external things based on its own unchallenged and supreme judgement.  A good example of imputation, and the one most germane to our inquiry, is the indisputable (within the sphere of political correctness) fact that Donald Trump is a fascist.  True, Donald Trump might be mentally and emotionally opposed to fascism, and his actions might also be inimical to fascism, but none of these factors count from the point of view of left-wing criticism.  The criteria of left-wing criticism regarding whether a person is a fascist or not, lies in whether fascism has been imputed to the person in question by the left-wing critic.  Of course the critic does not exercise any autonomous authority, but rather exercises a mandate, within the bounds of a specialized field, derived from the collective will of society.  The collective will of society, in turn, derived its authority over reality by displacing the sovereignty which had once been the prerogative of God.

 

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, pt. 2 Personality over Principle, Right-wing version, “The strong man pushed out” or “The scapegoat.”

 

Coriolanus starts off his career as a harsh but just military taskmaster.  That he is a hero of the republic is admitted not only by his peers in the senatorial class but even the common people, although the tribunes are uncomfortable with this admiration and seek to subvert it.  However Coriolanus gets into the danger zone when he, at the behest of his friends, begins to seek high civil office.  Although the masses of the people recognize his merits, they are offended by the aristocratic pride which is inseparable from the career of a roman warrior during the early republic.

The symbolic gesture, or rather non-gesture, which brings this antagonism to a crisis, is the ritual showing of the warrior’s wounds, an acceptable “political advertisement” in early Rome which is all but guaranteed to secure office for a qualified (i.e., wounded) candidate.  Coriolanus is over-qualified, with more than a score of war-wounds to his credit, but he refuses to show them in public, on the grounds that this would be pandering to the sentiments of the masses.  The refusal of Coriolanus to remove his robe might be  mischaracterized as  “a failure of disclosure.”  This, however, is one instance where a concrete action reverses the psychological reality behind the symbol.  If Coriolanus had divested himself of his robe and shown his wounds, he would have joined the ranks of candidates who were willing to purger themselves behind a mask of false humility.  However in failing to remove his clothes Coriolanus actually exposes his psychological nudity, revealing to the masses his proud contempt for their opinions.  A possible modern misinterpretation, though far closer to the spirit of the events than any anachronistic  notion of bodily modesty, would be that Coriolanus was “refusing to play the victim card.”  On the contrary, these ancient wounds were a source of pride, like the “fruit salad” ribbons worn on modern uniforms.  Remember that this (5thc.BC Italy) was still a primitive era and military decorations for the Roman army were far in the future.  In the mind of Coriolanus, the wounds were not too cruel, but too honorable, to be exhibited in public.  The non-landed classes had not earned the right to view them.

Although this is a major turning point early on in the drama, it does not manifest a clear division in the body politic over legitimacy or sovereignty.  There are as yet no clear tyrants or traitors.  The refusal of Coriolanus to reveal his wounds is a breach of custom, not the constitution.  It hurts his electoral chances, but not so badly that he doesn’t squeak by to victory at the polls.  The common people, or at least the politically aware among them, are deeply offended by the attitude of Coriolanus.  However offense is a psychological state, not an institutional reality.  Shakespeare shows himself wiser than our Postmodernist philosophers, and never conflates public action and objective states of affairs with the psychological reactions of his characters.  His masterful art in portraying the latter shows that this is not the result of an inability to portray mental states, but a respect for the independence of public institutions from subjective consciousness.  Significantly, in the play which bears his name, Coriolanus never engages in soliloquy, which further encourages us in the belief that this drama is fundamentally about political actions and institutions rather than psychology or human nature in general.

Actual constitutional problems start to arise in Coriolanus when the tribunes, further appraised of Coriolanus’ intended austerity and disciplinary program, threaten to revoke their election of him as councilor magistrate, Rome’s highest civil office.  Arguably, the tribunes have, through violation of due process, put themselves in a potentially seditious posture.  They are understandably incensed at what they consider a threat to the interests of the class which they represent, but this does not justify voiding the election.  One of the tribunes warns of Coriolanus,

Did you perceive he did solicit you in free contempt when he did need your loves, and do you not think that his contempt will not be bruising to you when he has power to crush. ibid, Act. 2, scene 3

The senatorial class rallies around Coriolanus and, for a while he is saved from the crowd, albeit his office is in jeopardy.  Due to the the impetuous and possibly unconstitutional stance of the tribunes, the impeached consular magistrate is in a position of relative strength which his friends and family urge him to capitalize on through a judicious and moderate appeal to the public.

Instead of moderating his tone, the irascible Coriolanus ups the ante by calling for the abolition of the people’s tribunes.  Now it is Coriolanus himself who seems to be threatening the constitutional order, hindering his friends from saving his career and possibly his life.  A decree of exile is passed, and Coriolanus leaves Rome, a putative tyrant but still not a traitor.  The final step is taken when he arrives at Antium and offers his services to Aufidius, the premier military leader within the Volcian federation.  As Coriolanus himself explains the situation,

Farewell, O world, thy slippery turns!  Friends now fast sworn, who’s double bosoms seem to wear one heart, whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise are still together, who twin as ’twere in love unseparable, shall within this hour, on the dissension of a doit break out to bitterest enmity; so fellest foes, whose passions and who’s plots have broke their sleep to take the one the other, by some chance, some trick not worth an egg, shall grow dear friends and interjoin their issues.  So with me, my birthplace hate I, and my love’s upon this enemy town.  I’ll enter.  If he slays me, he does fair justice; if he give me way, I’ll do his country service. ibid, Act 4, scene 4

This is the penultimate turn, with Coriolanus cast as traitor against just Rome.  Unfortunately for Coriolanus, the potentially ultimate turn of events, which would have featured the sack of Rome as the epitome of a tyrannical city, and the apotheosis of its conqueror as the incarnation of justice, is averted by the timely supplication of his wife and mother.  Failing to nip Rome in the bud, the reputation of Coriolanus is hence fixed in amber as not so much a tragic as a pathetic figure.

However one must question whether, even if Coriolanus had sacked Rome, whether his action would have been rendered just simply on account of his success.  Indeed, Shakespeare’s play is a testament against the “might makes right” philosophy which the left has inherited from Machiavelli.  In the end Coriolanus recognizes that triumph over his native city would have been an empty victory, and there are higher principles of justice than military success and avenged pride.  The tendency of modern criticism, influenced by Freud and feminism, is to highlight the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother, and indeed much can, and has been, said in that regard.  However the general’s abdication of final victory can also be seen as a surrender to higher principles of political morality, albeit the sanctioning power of this Platonic ideal is conveyed through the very tangible force of maternal and conjugal affection.

This principle of justice restrains both collectives as well as individuals.  The minions of Coriolanus refer to him as an “engine” which in Shakespeare’s English means a siege mechanism such as a battering ram or a siege tower.  When the “engine” comes to a halt before appeals to pity, we have a good example of a “right wing dictator” being stopped in his tracks.  However we have also observed that tyranny and justice are categories which can be occupied by the same people or groups of people successively.  Significantly “democracy” is a word which never drops from the lips of the tribunes, although it would have been totally within their character to use the term.  Rather, Shakespeare shares with most pre-Enlightenment thinkers a wary suspicion of what has, since Rousseau, been called the general will.  Although the late modern terms “democracy” and “general will” were not current in Renaissance times, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were well aware of the general formula.  Thus a tribune declares,

What is a city but its people.   ibid, Act 3, scene 1

The events which transpire throughout the drama show that Shakespeare, though recognizing the populist formula as a truism, was keenly aware of the mischief which results when raising it to a supreme political principle.  The rejoinder of Coriolanus, though he speaks as an antagonist, and no doubt a villain in the eyes of the tribunes, utters verity when he cynically observes,

That is the way to lay the city flat, to bring the roof to the foundation and bury all which yet distinctly ranges in heaps and piles of ruins.    ibid.

Principles above Personalities: The Constitutional Reading

Both the action of the tribunes and the action of Coriolanus, taken to their extremes, threaten to ruin the city.  The injured pride of the general, unchecked, will burn the city to the ground in vengeance, while the envy of the tribunes, in promoting a forced equality, threatens to reduce the order of society to chaos.  In spite of their atavistic tendencies, neither the tribunes, nor Coriolanus, nor any of the other characters can escape the equilibrium of the political quadrilateral, namely, justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason.  Loyalty to justice is treason to tyranny, while treason to tyranny is loyalty to justice.  The principles involved are transparent, however the placement of particular individuals and groups within the quadrilateral are, at least in real life, opaque.  One virtue of the stage is that heroes and villains can reveal their status with impunity to the audience.  Shakespeare is notoriously complicated, and instead of heroes and villains we often get synthetic hero/villains.  So in a psychological play like Hamlet these compound characters lend themselves to a kind of psycho-analysis, with fragments of the protagonist’s mind in constant motion.  However Coriolanus is a political play, and the various dramatis personae, while retaining their unity of character, move about within the space of the political quadrilateral, being treasonous villains in one instance, and loyal heroes the next.  Now, if you don’t see something very contemporary about this, I suggest you may be living on a desert island.

There is no better support for this assertion than to note how Coriolanus would have been a tragedy even if, or especially if, the treasonous general had been unconvinced by the supplications of his wife and mother.  If Coriolanus had sacked Rome he probably would have emerged as a king, the first king of a new dynasty.  Ironically, we are told that at the age of sixteen he was one of the heroes of the fledgling Roman republic, and had fought to expel the last Roman king, King Tarquin.  Unquestionably, Coriolanus sincerely believed in the principles of the republic, and that King Tarquin had been a tyrant.  If he had set himself up as a king at the end of his life, he would have effectively canceled his actions on behalf of the republic during his youth.  In effect, he would have annihilated the meaning of his own life.  As it was, listening to the plea of his family, he simply vanished from history, a tragic character perhaps, but not a true villain.

So yes, we may call Coriolanus a tragedy by common consent.  However when we resort to that label, without reflection, we are in fact highlighting the fate of personalities rather than the application of principles.  From an institutional point of view, Coriolanus is actually a comedy, in the sense of a drama with a fortunate ending.  After all, the republic is saved.  It is saved primarily from the revenge of Coriolanus, but in such a way as preserves the prestige and influence of the senate over the tribunes.

So what is the moral of this story?  And does it profit us in the least?

 Coriolanus is a play in which the  dramatis personae exhibit a chameleon-like shift of moral meanings, where a man’s virtues in war may be vices in peacetime.  It is Shakespeare’s gift to us, showing us, on the one hand, that politics has made a hell out of the blessings of creation, and on the other that personalities in the political world are not so much good or evil, as droughts on a checkerboard who take on their meaning from their position.  None the less, it is not an illusory or relativistic world.  The positions, the quadrilateral of justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason, are timeless principles.  Rather, the personalities and factions which occupy them are subject to maturation and degeneration, from time to time exchanging position, which creates the illusion that the categories themselves have undergone a metamorphosis.

Once we recognize the difference between personalities and principles, it will be safe for us to handle the knowledge which Coriolanus imparts.  The main principle which Coriolanus can teach us is that the problem of sovereignty is fundamental, however that sovereignty works itself out differently in a republic than in a monarchy.  If sovereignty is real, then each of the terms of the political quadrilateral is also real, and there can be no escape from coming to terms with justice, tyranny, loyalty and treason.  The sanctions which underpin sovereignty may be terrifyingly present, like the axe and bound rods carried in front of magistrates of the Roman republic, which give us the root of our word “fascism.”  Or the sanctions may be conveyed through some subtle nemesis, like the persuasive, maternal, embrace of a treasonous son.  However the sanctions are just symbolic of a higher reality, which is sovereignty itself.

However in a republic the political quadrilateral is not fated to to go through the endless cycles of musical chairs characteristic of a monarchy.  If “republic” and “justice” are synonymous, then the fatal symmetry of the political quadrilateral can be broken by bracketing out “tyranny.”  Hence in the schema of a republic may be represented as  Justice:[tyranny]::loyalty:treason.  The constitution provides a touchstone which prevents the formula from endless iteration among favored personalities, a relativistic cycle which leads ultimately to nihilism.  In a republic loyalty is absolute loyalty and treason is absolute treason, for which reason probity and forbearance is more important in a republic than any other form of government.  Thus Coriolanus and the tribunes are on alternative occasions absolute traitors and absolute loyalists, because the system is asymmetrical and unchanging.  How radically this differs from Shakespearean dramas which take place in monarchical contexts, plays such as Romeo and Juliet with their factional cries of “Montague! Montague!” or “Capulet! Capulet!”  In these factional states, it is hard to feel any strong dramatic appeal to justice, rather pathos is the predominating sentiment.  However Coriolanus, while personally pathetic, is just one personality in a drama with broader implications for justice.  If Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most republican play, then it is the one which comes closest to an adequate treatment of the relationship between sovereignty and justice, a relationship which can only be resolved (at the human level at least) by a republic.

It is characteristic of our present, globalized world, that  people have lost their belief in sovereignty.  It is a corollary of modern atheism, especially prominent in the peculiar atheism of people who profess to be religious, and who may even profess to be Christians.  We moderns, in our desire to be both enlightened and spiritual, find it most convenient to worship a god who has been emptied of the primary characteristic of God.  This theology is not without ramifications on the mundane level, and has led to a hollowing out of the social order.  It is leading to the abandonment of the nation state, to what one commentator has called the abolition of “borders, language, and culture.”

However if the question of sovereignty is inescapable, then it behooves our contemporaries to consider which kind of sovereignty is more palatable, monarchy or republic.  A republic is characterized by division of powers and geographical limitation.  Rome was a republic because there was a division of powers between the senate, the tribunes, and various other institutions.  Even more fundamentally it was a republic because it was limited by boundaries.  Originally this boundary was the ditch plowed by Romulus, but ultimately the boundaries became the limits of the known world.  In the process of boundary expansion and effacement, freedom was lost.  Coriolanus represents an early, unsuccessful, attempt to breach to the wall.  Much later, Caesar would successfully breach the Rubicon, a kind of symbolic wall.  The former action was, both dramatically and politically, comic, the latter tragic.  Today the citizens of sovereign nation-states should consider whether, as bad as the tin-horn dictators of yore might have been, whether our masked globalist elite (remembering that Greek for mask is “hypocrite”) is playing their role of the vengeful spoiler today, and with far greater sophistication.

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Art, Constitution, Culture & Politics, Fiction, History, Law, Libertarianism, Politics, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Slouching towards the Post-Legal Society (Introduction: “The Beast”)

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 23, 2017

Cultural Marxism:  From show trials to no trials

If property is the proverbial nine points of the law, it is not surprising that Marxism, its frontal attack on property having stalled out (NB: ideology aside, we all like our “stuff”) would have eventually gotten around to launching a second front against law itself.  The total annihilation of law never succeeded with Communism Classic (Stalin’s version), since the Soviet state needed a judicial apparatus to highlight its superiority to “bourgeois law” …not to mention providing a half-way house on the way to the Gulag.  The nightmare of totalitarianism having been quietly put aside, if not entirely exorcised, we have emerged into the glaring, and presumably lawful, light of the Global Village.  Or have we?

Today, the legal “reforms” of the (allegedly) defunct Soviet state are held to be little more than antiquarian curiosities.  However this does not mean that “bourgeois law” a.k.a., classic legal principles of the Civil and Common law, have triumphed throughout the world.  Rather, the struggle against law has gone underground, or rather above ground and hidden in plain sight.  It dares not risk exposing itself, and therefore avoids clear opposition to the institution which makes civilization possible: Objective Law.  Since it eschews both thesis and antithesis, running for the dense cover of ambiguity, it must be tracked like a beast…by locating and examining its spores.  We know not what it is, but like W. B. Yeats, we can at least pose the question…

And what rough beast, its hour come at last

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

But at least we have a track, where the beast has digested large swaths of civilization’s foliage and left us a species-specific excrement where form has been neatly reduced to matter.   If we can track the down the spoor-dropper, perhaps it can be slain.  Or perhaps not.  But at least we may come to know who, or what, our adversary is.

Antinomianism

We must pick up the beast’s trail in the foothills of religion, and especially false religion.  The journeyman tracker will think that we have found the beast itself, and with a gleeful cry of “Antinomianism! Antinomianism!” presume that they have him treed, when in fact it is just a spoor, albeit very a significant find.  Actually the beast has moved on to an entirely different part of the forest, since the “true” false region of today is not a religion at all, but science, or rather scientism.

However there are enough who still believe in ersatz-Christianity to cloud the contemporary scene with a subtle contempt for law.  This is an Oedipal Christianity in which the God of Law is slain by the Son of Love, a doctrine preached by a vague figure named Jesus something or other.  Scientifically this is supposed to be Yeshua ben Yosef, but it really doesn’t matter, since this ersatz-Christianity has been purified of all but universal truths which all good natured people ought to be able to agree to.  Among these is that law is mean and should be dispensed with in favor of good will.

Yeats was assuming that the reader of his poem knew that he was talking about the “Antichrist.”  However if we get too hung up on the idea of the Antichrist being an ugly, brutal, beast then we are likely to be deceived.  Granted, there are many cults which like to dress up in spandex costumes, going about sporting horns and tridents.  They may even enjoy frightening middle-class people on Halloween and sundry sabbaths with their clownish antics.  But this is all an exercise in misdirection.  Such cultists may be “anti-Christs” but not the final beast who arrives at the end of history. The real threat to our spiritual well being doesn’t come from avowed nihilists who dance around impersonating a cartoon Satan.

The real threat comes when the world-system (what the Bible calls the “Aeon”) proceeds to abolish law in favor of a “higher morality.”  In today’s virtue-signaling pseudo-saints we see a harbinger of the real Antichrist.  The real Antichrist will not look evil or demonic, in fact the real Antichrist will try to resemble Christ to  whatever extent that might be possible.  After all, Christ did transpose law-abiding to a higher abiding in Him.   Call that a “higher morality” if you will.  However the “higher morality” of the Antichrist will not be based on fear of the Creator, but fear of the creatures.  Specifically, it will involve fear of the Human collective, a fear that will initially manifest itself as virtue-signaling, but in fact will rest upon appeasement of human (and ultimately demonic) lusts.

Having broken through the firewall of law (whether we choose to call such formal restraints law, culture, morality, ethics, or whatever) the direct confluence of collective human lusts and fears will create a Democracy of Desire.  Initially such a state of affairs may not seem ugly to behold.  It may even appear to be morally beautiful.

A beautiful beast.

 

Posted in Anthropology, Appologetics, Charismata, Christianity, Constitutionalism, History, Law, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Constitutional Contrary or Conundrum? The Imperial Presidency vs. the Unitary Executive

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 4, 2017

Strong President, Weak President

Setting boundaries and limits to power is the essence of politics in a republic.  No Latin word was ever belabored more than imperium in the era prior to Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.  Originally it referred to the “sphere of power” which was exercised by a magistrate, great or small, beyond which the office holder infringed upon the rival authority of some other elected official.  With the atrophy of the Republic, it became a personal noun, the Imperator, the root of our term for a King of Kings, an “Emperor.”  The word, thus transformed, described a  person who’s “sphere of power” had become the whole world, thus annihilating the use to which its root had once been put, namely, to define and limit power.

Last year I predicted that Donald Trump, if elected President, would not become a fascist dictator, an “Emperor” so to speak.  Rather, the tremendous forces arrayed against him would ensure that the office would be brought to heel to a much greater degree than those who fear an Imperial Presidency are wont to imagine.  None the less, even I have been surprised by the extent of the weakness in the executive.  If we have passed any Rubicon, it seems rather that we have passed over from a concealed, to an open, form of oligarchy.

One way of coming to grips with this non-revolution is to admit from the outset that 1) the Imperial Presidency, and 2) the unitary executive, are contraries, not complements.  If we were to talk about official spheres of power with the fastidiousness of the ancient Romans, we might call the first, the President’s “lateral power” and the second the President’s “upright power.”  Imagine that presidential power is a rectangle of fixed area which loses depth whenever it is stretched horizontally.  I know that is a rather strange image to put in the service of a radical hypothesis, but bear with me.

Why the unitary executive is a great Constitutional doctrine

Generally when we ( and by “we”I mean, libertarians, conservatives, traditionalists, natural rights advocates, strict constructionists, etc.) hear the word “president” modified by the word “strong” we go into a fit of moral indignation, if not outright hysteria.  Yes, generally heads of state should be weak, lest they turn into tyrants.  However the American presidency is a unique institution, one which the founders of the Republic intended as a safeguard of liberty, just as much as the legislative and judicial branches.  To begin with, the very notion that the American president is a “head of state” is an extra-Constitutional notion, one which arises from the necessity of adjusting American nomenclature to the standards of  diplomacy.  Indeed, since the Congress is our premier branch of government, the Speaker of the House has a fairly good claim to be the federal head of state, on the analogy of parliamentary systems.

Leaving aside the symbolic, and rather silly, issue of heads of state, let’s turn to a more fundamental question which impacts on the idea of the unitary executive.  Each of the branches of the Federal government must conduct its internal affairs in hermetic isolation of the other, while being in constant cooperation as corporate bodies to conduct the governance of these United States.  Naturally, each of the branches will attempt to extend its sphere of authority, or what the Romans called, their imperium.

Now the matters which are of concern to each branch are well spelled out in the Constitution, but each of the branches always attempts to grow its authority by multiplying those things by which it exerts authority.   Thus the legislative branch attempts to grow its authority by increasing the volume and complexity of legislation, while the judicial branch attempts to grow its authority through the multiplication of rulings, judgements, and injunctions.  On the other hand, it is primarily the executive branch which attempts to grow its authority through the multiplication of offices.  Sad to note, but the three branches may remain evenly balanced while all of them grow in concert, disrupting the larger balance between governmental and non-governmental institutions in civil society.

Whatever cure there might be for the exponential growth of government in the legislative and judicial spheres, the theory of the unitary executive provides both a unique analysis and possible cure for burgeoning bureaucracy.  How so?

Strictly speaking, in the American republic there can never be more than one government officer at a given time.  The name of this officer is the President of the United States!

Oh yes, if you must quibble, there is also a deputy in case of death or incapacitation, the anomalous Veep.  None the less, two officers is a pretty strict limit for the bureaucracy of a large republic.  It reminds one of the twin consuls of Rome, a historical precedent which was never far from the thoughts of the American founders.  In terms of modern political theory we have arrived at genuine “minarchism”…an ungainly word which has been coined to express the most limited of limited governments.

Of course, for true unity of will and purpose, a person can never really trust anyone else to do their own job.  Hence the most pristine unitary executive would be one in which the President did all the work of executive branch personally.  We can imagine a President who, dispensing with the service of a secretary, was able to handle all executive correspondence personally.  (NB: The reason we can imagine it is that we live in a world of word processors, computers, and the internet.)  However other things, such as warfare, might be a bit more tricky, unless our chief magistrate had the strength of the Biblical Samson or a modern-day comic super-hero.

So to be on the realistic side, even our pristine unitary executive would, of necessity, need to contract out for a few staffers.  Hopefully these would all be temporary workers.  After all, the chief magistrate himself is a temporary worker, limited to four, or at the maximum, eight years of employment by the American people.

Now before you dismiss this as nothing more than utopian swamp fever, perhaps we should take a look at the way the doctrine of the unitary executive has played out in the history of the Republic.

 

The historical roots of a weakening unitary executive

Unfortunately, while the imperial Presidency is the most realistic of real-political realities, the concept of a “unitary executive” is little more than a constitutional doctrine which has had to go hat in hand through the corridors of history in search of application.  To put the theory in its clearest form, the unitary executive is the President himself, who is at once both the only employee of the American people, and also the boss of every federal office holder outside of the Congress and the Judiciary.  The theory seemed most incarnate in the reign of those generals who seemed to be able to wield their authority with the same imperious might in the Oval Office as on the battlefield.  One thinks of Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt.

That was then, and now is now, when Mr. Trump’s executive leadership seems more like an exercise in herding cats.  Yet people with even a tad of historical lore under their skulls recognize that The Donald didn’t suddenly fumble the unitary executive to the horror of his fans and the delight of his detractors.  Common wisdom suggests that the unitary executive began to unravel, at the very latest, in the aftermath of the Watergate (1973) scandals.  Legislation which sought to limit the presidential imperium resulted in severe checks on arbitrary presidential power.  However these reforms failed to check arbitrary governmental power in general, or to stave off the multiplication of executive projects, expenditures and offices.  Rather, by setting up checks and balances within the executive branch of the federal government, they added to the executive bureaucracy.  And this went to the extent that the “special prosecutors” who were the plumb in the cake of the post-Watergate reforms threatened to become a “Fourth Branch” of trans-Constitutional governance.

Those who can see beyond the historical horizon of Watergate are more likely to see the first unraveling of the unitary executive in the New Deal, and the multiplication of those “alphabet agencies” such as the ICC, TVA, and NRA, each of whom were endowed with judicial as well as executive authority.  Yet an earlier starting point is the Progressive era, which saw the rise of the intellectual in the federal administration, a creature who was less likely to be constrained by, or even understood by, whatever folksy president inherited the legacy of those hybrid characters like Wilson who both studied and practiced administration.

Loyalty vs. Merit

However these movements were actually just footnotes to the unitary executive’s original fall from grace, which coincided with the rise of a merit based civil service.  It was the Pendelton Act of 1878 which consolidated the system of permanently employed government service.  After that there was little reason to think that officers would be loyal to a politician who’s term of office was likely to be far shorter than the duration of their career.   Like all sea changes in the policy of the republic, the effect of this reform was not immediately apparent.  After all, presidents in the late 19th century were just expected to be “weak.”  Think Grover Cleveland.

Today, because we read history from public school textbooks, the pre-reform civil service gets a bad press.  Typically it is referred to as the “spoils system” which conjures up images (not entirely unsubstantiated) of bribery and largess.  However there is another side to this issue.  We should at least try to be “Mugwumps” that fanciful word for a person who was willing to consider the merits and demerits of a permanent civil service.  In the interests of fairness, I would like to exercise a bit of Mugwumpery and dub the temporary civil servant system the “Loyalty System.”  After all, the politically appointable (and removable) civil servant would at least have no vested interest sabotaging the chief executive who, unlike him or herself, was directly chosen through the electoral mechanisms of the Republic.

In certain moods our progressives and our conservatives might even agree that disloyalty is a bad thing and moreover presidents should at least have the chance to formulate policy on their own turf before being challenged by either the courts or the legislature.  However there is a libertarian remnant which stubbornly insists that a strong president is a bad president, and indeed that a strong administration is nothing more than a step along the primrose path to empire.

However, as illogical as it may seem, the presidency became “weak” before it became imperial.  After WWI and as the 20th century wore on, there was need to have an emperor to complement the existence of an empire.  However the discipline of the bureaucracy which manifested itself at this time was not due to the charismatic appeal of those politicians who became, willy-nilly, chief magistrates of the republic.  Rather, it was due to the professional association of those who had a vested interest in the expansion of state power, both internationally and domestically.  Presidential orders were obeyed because presidents of whatever party were (to a greater or lesser extent)  aligned with the expansion of a robust administrative state. In 1952 Sen. Taft of Ohio lost the Republican nomination against General Dwight Eisenhower.  Taft was the last mainstream presidential candidate to seriously challenge the operational premise of expanding state power.  Barry Goldwater and Ron Paul would later mount doomed, albeit educational, campaigns dedicated to challenging that same premise.

Then in 2016 Donald Trump was elected after campaigning on many of the same anti-statist planks that animated Taft, Goldwater, Paul and (very inconsistently) Reagan.  Trump had the good sense to mix his contrarian rhetoric with a dash of jingoist appeal.  So far, the bureaucracy is in somewhat less than full scale revolt.  But only a very naive observer would be surprised that the doctrine of the unitary executive has been utterly abrogated.

The not-so-deep-state and the demise of the unitary executive

Today when “deep state” has become a household expression, it is easy to substitute James Bond intrigue for fundamental political analysis.  No doubt there is a great deal of skulduggery going on in high places these days, but the unitary executive would have floundered without any alienation between the Oval Office and the intelligence services.  It is not just the Praetorian Guard who are in revolt, but the clerks…and there are a lot of clerks.  It is not just a cabal, but the system, a system in which managers are independent of elected policy-makers.  In the EU this system appears in its most naked form.  In the US it still has to make end runs around the remains of a Constitutional Republic.

As Richard Weaver said, “Ideas have consequences!”  One of the great, pure, ideas of the 19th century was civil service reform.  However in creating a permanent state independent of politics, civil service reform ensured that all future reforms would be bound inside the parameters of the managerial state.  The owl of Minerva takes flight at night, and only now do we see the luster of those single-minded individuals whom the progressives have been eager to denounce as dictators-in-waiting.  The aristocratic Washington, the Jacobin Jefferson, mean old Andy Jackson, the imperious Polk and (though they were already compromised by the permanent state) later figures such as Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

Finally, we can at last see the wisdom of the Founders in endowing one third of the federal government with a vestige of monarchy.  At very worst a monarchy, but never, ever, an empire, since a strong individual, unencumbered by bureaucracy and backed by the people, might indeed succeed in ruling the daily affairs of one nation…but then it would be bedtime.

 

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