On the Greatness of Rome

Anyone with any brains knows that in order to be successful in any endeavor, a man's got to have two things.  The first is circumstances favorable enough to make the endeavor possible, and the second is a personal ability to take advantage of the circumstances.  The latter is majestically overemphasized by the Republicans; the former is criminally overemphasized by the Democrats.

So when I read a review in The Economist about how the Romans were powerful only because they were lucky, I'm forced to out the writer as a leftist.  Only a leftist, after studying the immense virility and courage and constitutional genius of the Romans, would say something so characteristically backward.  It's the same voice that says the Americans changed the world because the bullets went through Washington's coat instead of his chest, or that Protestant countries survived only because the ocean swallowed the Spanish Armada.  Of course Protestantism survived and America changed the world for the better.  But if there's any reason why they did, it was because neither of them were run by the Spaniards.

It was also said that the Romans stumbled into success because they were forced to adjust their politics on the fly.  If this isn't proof of Roman genius, then there isn't proof of any genius.  If the genius of Rome was a constitution made before they became great, then it is a testament to the genius of their lawgiver Numa, not a testament to the genius of the Romans.  If countries were constitutionally static, then they would be intellectually stagnant. 

Genius is a measure of our ability to adapt to our circumstances, not to profess a total mastery of them before they've all arrived.  The Romans did things on the fly because life happens on the fly.  They saw the way the wind was blowing, and their understanding of a political reality, combined with their ability to determine what to do with it, is the definition of political genius.  To have one genius who lays the law is to have a master.  To have a single famous leader is to be given a surprise.  To have hundreds of years of successes is to have a lot of careful parents.  To be known for establishing law and order across the wild world of antiquity is to be nothing less than godlike.

What the author at the Economist has failed to realize is that the only other country to have an empire anywhere close to the glory and grandeur of the Roman's is also a country without a streamlined constitutional ideology.  In fact, it's a country accused by Thomas Paine of not even having a constitution.  Anyone who's remotely familiar with English law knows that England is a matter of patchwork, and we know this not only because the patchwork was stitched over the course of a millennium, but because the principles framing England's laws have often been found contradictory.  If this makes England an accident, then the greatest accidents ever made were English.  If this makes the English dunces, then praise the Lord – for the Lord has used the foolish things to shame the wise (who happen to write for The Economist).

The great danger of an article like The Economist's is that by suggesting that the greatest nations were a matter of accident, it suggests that there is nothing we can really learn from those nations.  It implies that there is nothing to learn about liberty, nothing to learn about manners and ethics and religions and law.  And when we're convinced there is nothing to learn, we're convinced there is nothing deserved.  Everyone's success is handed to him, and so it can be taken from him and given to someone else who wasn't as lucky.  We admire men for their wealth instead of their virtue, in jealousy and not in admiration, to take and not to mimic, to shame and not to celebrate.

The outcome of a philosophy of accidents is robbery and tyranny.  The outcome of a philosophy of self-mastery is liberty and prosperity.  The former belongs to the Soviets and the denizens of Detroit.  The latter belongs to the Romans and the English.

Jeremy Egerer is the editor of the troublesome philosophical website known as Letters to Hannah, and he welcomes followers on Twitter and Facebook.