Three simple rules to live by

Do not take what does not belong to you.

Keep your promises.

If you fail to abide by the first two, then you must make just compensation for what you took or what you failed to deliver.

Try to do some good in life.

Within two separate Free Thoughts podcasts on the topic of the philosophical underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution, Dr. Roger Pilon does as remarkable and scholarly of a job as anyone I have ever heard on the topic. He discusses in great depth the intellectual traditions embodied in the Constitution as well as how that has evolved from its originalist and natural law construct over time to something much more expansive and interpretative that has moved significantly away from the original guiding principles of a federal government that is a necessary evil that should be deliberately kept small. It was so small in fact, that in the move from Philadelphia to the new White House in Washington D.C. in 1800, all of the federal government files could be transferred in just 12 boxes. Imagine that! The most salient moment for me is when Dr. Pilon distills all of the Constitution and the philosophy behind it into four simple rules for us to live by, which are quoted above.

The first rule is the concept of property rights and rights to be free from physical harm and is embodied most visibly in the opening words to the Declaration of Independence. The second rule is the concept of rights of contract and enforceability of contracts that are freely entered into by citizens. The third rule is based upon the concept of remedies and justice and is essential in upholding the first two as general principles, allowing us to retain trust in the good of fellow man and of just redress if they happen not to be good. The fourth rule is something that Dr. Pilon indicates is entirely optional. If we are to retain our essential freedom and a true good and virtuous nature, we can’t be compelled to do good. However, a preponderance of people doing good seems to be the most secure way in which to uphold a free society and thus ensuring that government does not grow in scope inexorably. As Benjamin Franklin indicated – we have a Republic, if we can keep it. It increasingly seems to be appropriate, given how large and arbitrary our federal government has become, to say that we had a Republic, and we have the blueprint for how to get it back, if we want it bad enough.


Foundations for Lasting Friendships

These types of friendships (based on pure love of the other person for their lovable character) are likely to be rare, since such people are few. Further, they need time as well, to grow accustomed to each other before they have shared their salt as often as it says, and they cannot accept each other or be friends until each appears lovable to the other and gains the other’s confidence. Those who are quick to treat each other in friendly ways wish to be friends, but are not friends, unless they are also lovable, and know this. For though the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not. – Aristotle 

Aristotle outlines three types of relationships that people might consider friendship – those that are based on usefulness, pleasure, or those based purely on virtue. Friendships based on utility/usefulness are prone to decay rapidly once the utility of the relationship no longer exists. Friendships based on pleasure (for example, someone who makes you laugh or that you have a good time with) are also prone to decay, since human emotions and whims and what entertains us is often changing, and much like friends based on utility, once the pleasure is gone, we may find that we actually have little in common with the other person.

In contrast, friendships based on mutual respect and admiration are the most enduring. Consequently, they may take much longer to form, but once they are formed, they do not so easily decay.  These observations from antiquity are still easily applicable today, with the lesson being that we should endeavor to form bonds of like-minded people whom we trust and whom we love by sheer nature of who they are and their character. These friendships will stand the test of time. It also means that introspectively we should work to be lovable and to develop a character that is worthy of others’ love, admiration, and respect. Surface level affections based upon humor, attractiveness, and what we can do for others, is much more fleeting.


Presidential Politics and the Tendency Towards Mediocrity, Savagery, and Ultimately to Tyranny

A recent Wall Street Journal oped by Joseph Epstein asked the question on the minds of most Americans viewing this tragicomic circus going on that we call the Presidential race: “These five are the best that we can do?”

Readers of this blog and my close friends recognize that over the last few years I have turned Greek and Roman history and philosophy and finding the modern equivalents into an interest and hobby. In this vein, Epstein quotes the ancient Roman general and politician Sulla when he opens with, ““There are some systems which naturally take control out of the hands of good men. There are even some which necessarily put it in the hands of bad ones.”  So it seems with the American two-party system of primary selection  and election process of the leader of the free world. What was historically an expectation of leadership, experience, character, substance, and virtue holding preeminent roles in the winning of votes has devolved into a vulgar race to the bottom based on celebrity and style for the job. Anyone who cynically doubts my previous point about winning the office based on substance needs to go back and read George Washington’s musings and writings on the office of the Presidency as well as the Lincoln Douglas debates and compare and contrast these grand idealistic visions to Trump talking about the size of his genitals to recognize the depth of the abyss we have sunken into.

Epstein takes aim at our media culture as a primary culprit of this devolution. The main thesis of his oped is as follows:

The media and Internet are the major instruments of contemporary political degradation. The media were once more restrained, operating under a largely self-imposed control. During the Kennedy administration, journalists agreed not to photograph the president smoking or playing golf; as for his high jinks above stairs in the White House, that was never up for public discussion. In earlier years, no reporters brought up the lady friends of Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower, and focusing on FDR’s physical incapacity during wartime was unthinkable.

Things changed under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. His position on the Vietnam War went contrary to that of most members of the media, who decided that opening the president to attack was not only feasible but honorable. The media’s adversarial role intensified under Richard Nixon. After Watergate, “investigative journalism” became one of the heroic professions. What investigative journalists chiefly investigated was malfeasance and above all scandal.

The advent of the Internet made this all the worse. The Internet is without an ethical standard. On it anyone can say anything—and usually does. Donald Trump has added to the demeaning quality of the proceedings by using the Internet—those endless insulting tweets—and attracting press and television with his steady stream of attacks on the personal lives of his opponents.

While I tend to agree that the media is a perfectly culpable standard bearer and complicit in vulgarity and sophomoric coverage and analysis, I believe that they are a mere reflection of the overall culture that we have become, which is a culture at large that is fueling the demand for “bread and circuses” to fill our appetites, as the Roman satirist Juvenal would quip. The media is simply following reader and viewer demand, rather than a media conspiracy to dumb down our preferences. We can’t let ourselves off of the hook and blame the media for our own vulgarity and mediocrity.

Furthermore, I don’t believe the American appetite for savagery is unique in the historic perspective. We can look to ancient Greece for the same lessons. In Plato’s Republic, much of the effort of his philosophical writing is towards defining the ideal city that is led by people of great virtue and character. When asked why such people of character so rarely choose to enter politics, Plato, using Socrates as the speaker,  offers up the poignant observation that, “Now, the members of this small group (people of great character and virtue – philosophers in a word) have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and at the same time they’ve also seen the madness of the majority and realized, in a word, that hardly anyone acts sanely in public affairs and that there is no ally with whom they might go to the aid of justice and survive, that instead they’d perish before they could profit either their city or their friends and be useless both to themselves and to others, just like a man who has fallen among wild animals and is neither willing to join them in doing injustice nor sufficiently strong to oppose the general savagery alone.”  The implication is clear that for time immemorial, people of great character stay away from political leadership out of fear of being torn to pieces by the wolves involved in it or perhaps worse, becoming a wolf themselves. Epstein uses Mitch Daniels as an example of a man of great character who stayed away from politics for the reason that Plato outlines above.

More chillingly, Plato uses his writings in Republic  to give voice to Socrates’ opinion that of all forms of government,  democracies are most prone to giving way to tyrants, as that form of government is most likely to succumb to the majority elevating a tyrant. The tyrant in turn promotes members of this class to bodyguards and sycophants who allow them to create and hold on to more powers that are subsequently used to confiscate and redistribute wealth back to the majority, further entrenching this majority party in power. In Socrates’ estimation, the careful balance of a democracy that gives way to tyranny is when those that would protect freedom cease to have virtue and give themselves over to excessive vice and hedonism. A class of people (Socrates derisively calls them idlers) gains power due to their forcefulness and loudness (seeing the parallels here to current politics?) who unite behind a leader willing to advocate their views. Socrates likens such a leader to a wolf who is willing to spill kindred blood and justify it as necessary to get power in order to address wrongs done historically. Thus, acts of evil and vulgarity have their excuses. The tyrant eventually suppresses dissent and any form opposition is not tolerated. Eventually the wolf likely even turns on those he purported to be helping originally on the path to power. Once the blood spills, it can’t be stopped.

While I am not jumping to a dramatic conclusion that current Presidential candidates are the personification of the tyrant wolf so described in the discourse above, I do think Plato’s Republic has some tremendously useful and relevant warnings for American society and the path to devolving into such tyrannies. I don’t believe that America has some preternatural destiny to keep our grand experiment in self-governance going perpetually absent the will and the requisite virtues of the people to keep it going. While our institutions are more durable than countries in Eastern Europe or Latin America, I don’t believe they are absolutely unassailable, especially if the majority of the population are not inclined to defend them. I do believe that if we continue to elevate political leaders that are of weak virtue and character that under the right conditions we could devolve into the dystopian tyranny that Plato describes. As Plato writes, the tyrant comes to power because in every society there are a subset of people that perpetuate evil and wish to do evil to others and wish to extract wealth and natural power from others through the force of government. In well-governed societies, these evil and mindless people become petty people of little repute, perhaps even criminals. They may become successful money-makers, but Plato is careful to point out that making money is not to be confused with virtue. In a place where there is no regard for virtue and poorly governed societies, tyrants are elevated to the leadership by force of will of the majority.

Astonishingly and with incredible prescience and similarity to today’s politics, in describing the nature of a would-be tyrant, Socrates explains that they are,  “those whose nature is filled with fears and erotic love of all kinds… isn’t this harvest of evils a measure of the difference between a tyrannical man who is badly governed on the inside – whom you judged to be most wretched just now, and one who doesn’t love a private life but is compelled by some chance to be a tyrant, who tries to rule others when he can’t even control himself. He’s just like an exhausted body without any self-control, which instead of living privately, is compelled to compete and fight with other bodies all its life…In truth, and whatever some people may think, a real tyrant is really a slave, compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery, and pandering to the worst kind of people. He’s far from satisfying his desires in any way that is clear – if one happens to know that one must study his whole soul – that he’s in the greatest need of most things and truly poor. And if indeed his state is like that of the city he rules, then he’s full of fear, convulsions, and pains throughout his life… And we’ll also attribute to the man what we mentioned before, namely, that he is inevitably envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless impious, host and nurse to every kind of vice, and that his ruling makes him even more so. And because of all of these, he is extremely unfortunate and goes on to make those near him like himself.”

These are powerful words of warning to the citizens of democracy and predict our turning to savagery and mediocrity in our political leaders and why we lack in the truly gifted of great moral character.

Quote of the Week – cherishing causes but hating the consequences


“God laughs at men who complain of the consequences while cherishing the causes.” – Jacques-Benigne Bossuet

With the ongoing American Presidential election drama proceeding apace, I can’t help but connect to the quote uttered by a 17th Century French theologian to those that support Donald Trump. Their mistaken views that this self-declared outsider (that really is just the ultimate insider masquerading as an outsider, as Kim Strassel puts so well in a recent WSJ op-ed) will buck the establishment will end in a certain epic let-down.

Trump supporters naively support this outsider campaign as some form of, “sticking it to the man.” This is their cause celebre, their “cherishing of the causes.” There is no doubt a certain amount of glee in watching the party “establishment” watch helplessly as Trump continues to go from victory to victory. Meanwhile, their support is of someone who has no scruples in the way that he conducts his life, business, language, treatment of others, or marital affairs, nor does he have any specific guiding philosophy other than doing whatever it takes to serve his own interests. Thus, there are millions of well-meaning people being duped out of some mistaken sense that somebody needs to go in there and clean house in the henhouse. What they fail to see is that they are not sending in a fox to do the job, they are sending in a strutting rooster that will do nothing more than add more fights, feces, and more chickens into the coop. They are enjoying the ride and the vicarious voicing of their fears through the adult version of a bully while thinking very little of the ultimate consequences. If Trump happens to make it all the way to the White House, it seems to me to be an easy prediction that his followers will fall into one of two future camps. Either they finally see Trump for what he is: a grubby and self-serving cult of personality-inducing fraud that has absolutely zero concern for their needs, or they will continue to bury their heads into blind support of someone who clearly does whatever serves his own ego and ambitions and nothing more. What is certain is the consequences of their support will not be vindication and support of their own causes. What is certain is that the consequences will be the certain loss of any civic probity or decency in our affairs of state.

What the Ancient Greeks can teach us about democracy and freedom


The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the 400s BC, has lasted the test of time due to the remarkable clarity in which he reported the historical facts as well as the philosophy that is woven into the account of the internecine war between Sparta and Athens. This philosophy is most gripping when it comes in the form of a recorded speech from one of the statesmen involved in the war. I wrote about one such account from the Spartan  King Archidamus II  in a previous blog post. Today, I turn my attention to a speech from a leading man of Athens, the General Pericles.

The setting for the speech of Pericles is a funeral oration at the conclusion of the end of the first battles of the war. It was a ritual in Athens for a leading citizen to deliver an encomium in honor of the dead. What I am struck by when reading this particular speech is the relatability to today when Pericles praises the Athenian way of government, individual life, and draws the connection that it is all worth fighting for. The society of Athens outline by Pericles has important parallels for the modern Western society member to consider. Aside from that, the speech is full of tremendous quotes. One of my favorites is when Pericles indicates that it is impossible for the audience to truly venerate the dead appropriately given that, “Praise of other people is tolerable up to a certain point, the point where one still believes that one could do oneself some of the things one is hearing about. Once you get beyond this point, you will find people becoming jealous and incredulous.”

Pericles description of the Athenian government and society should be strikingly familiar to Americans, or at least, it should be what we strive for but seem to fail to achieve these days:

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”

I think there is much that we have lost in America that I wish we could get back – merit based public service, laws that demand respect because they are wisely crafted by wise people and were thus respected in turn by citizens, the ability to live our own lives as we see fit without interference by the long arm of the government, etc.

Pericles lauds the openness of Athenian society as well with the statement that:

“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.”

Pericles describes an open society that benefitted from eager foreigners that wanted to come in and contribute to Athenian society and a state willingness to let them do so, even if sometimes it caused Athens harm. On the whole, Athenian life benefited from immigrants and the whole of Athens would not cower in fear over the relative few that harmed society. I think the current fear-mongering environment in American politics could learn from this ancient approach.

Pericles is careful to carve out the importance of individual responsibilities and individual ethics, balance, and well-roundedness as critical in preserving such a democratic and open society:

“Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.”

Wealth is properly an instrument for good, not a tool for hedonism or boasting. Poverty is not something to be ashamed of or judged, but also not to be something that one hopelessly stays mired in.

A free society is undergirded by courageous people willing to preserve it. The courage of man is not defined by rashness, but careful considerations of the consequences and still choosing to act:

“The worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated…. But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”

As a corollary to this, Pericles indicates throughout the speech that only those who have stake in society should make its most important decisions, even admonishing citizens to have more children since, “it is impossible for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not, like everyone else, children whose lives may be at stake.” . This gets at the heart of the Pericles speech and the importance of individual responsibilities in upholding a democratic society. I personally view some of these quotes as a bit of a classical liberal/libertarian manifesto:

“Each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility… Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”

And finally, Pericles includes an honor to the fallen that theirs was a sacrifice not entirely in vain, for one’s honor is preserved for time immemorial:

“One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one’s fellow men.”


Quote of the week – Friedman on Freedom

“So long as freedom is maintained, it prevents positions of privilege from becoming institutionalized. Freedom means diversity, but also mobility. It preserves the opportunity for today’s disadvantaged to become tomorrow’s privileged and, in the process enables almost everyone, from top to bottom, to enjoy a fuller and richer life.” – Milton Friedman.

A socialist society advocated by Sanders becomes an ossified one. The free market is not perfect and not advertised to be, but is still the only way known to man to provide equality of opportunity and the most effective way to ensure that people can escape poverty.

What is a sweatshop? Should they not exist?

MI Touring Nike's Factories
**FILE**Workers at a Nike factory on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, assemble shoes in this Oct. 10, 2000, file photo. Michigan State, among many schools with sponsorship agreements with Nike and the school will have senior associate athletic director Mark Hollis joining Nike officials for an upcoming tour of manufacturing facilities in Vietnam and China. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

The fundamental question on the existence and morality of sweatshops through this podcast, as presented by Economist Ben Powell, who is located in my hometown of Lubbock, Texas at the Free Market Institute of Texas Tech University and happens to be a friend of a friend, provides a thought provoking view of sweatshops and whether we should focus our philanthropic energies on shutting them down, demanding higher wages and better workplace conditions, and/or boycotting the goods produced out of sweatshops. One would expect an economist to point out the unintended consequences of utopian decisions we would like to impose. Powell does a remarkable job of distilling economic frameworks such as price theory and immigration to their reducible and translatable components so that even the layman can enjoy and learn from them, hence my pitch to my friends and followers to give it a listen since one can rarely find economics topics presented with such clarity for the non-economist.

One of the chief insights in the podcast is that we must not fail to keep philosophy (in this case, perhaps we should call it humanism) from a connection to economics when evaluating policy and what we advocate for and support. While those of us in the West might get tremendously squeamish about sweatshop conditions and profess a knee-jerk reaction that of course they should be shut down (our humanism instincts), we must consider the unintended consequences of what would happen if we could in fact enact our plans. Economics + Philosophy must guide our knowledge, thoughts, and responses to such issues.  This ultimately forces us to consider what the next best alternative of the sweatshop worker is and to more critically examine why the individual chooses employment there. It must be stated that nobody should support slave labor, so let’s put that red herring to rest since in the vast majority of cases individuals choose to work in these factories that we in the West would admittedly deem abhorrent conditions. Thus, there is in fact an element of localized choice in these cases that we must consider. The great challenge and the deeper level to focus on is the fact that the overall range of employment options for these individuals is remarkably poor and sweatshops likely offer the best alternative on hand for them to be able to feed themselves and their families. In essence, the choice can often be working in a sweatshop or working in subsistence farming, which often offers far less money and far more grueling conditions, nor does farming provide a step onto the industrial skills ladder that sweatshop work often provides. While we may reflexively want to attack a symptom, the broader disease is nations with venal and corrupt government that have little institutional foundations that support an open and growing society that would facilitate the individual escaping their condition. The essential foundations for such a dynamic society can be summarized as limited and competent and non-corrupt government, individual property rights, the rule of law and freedom from arbitrary prosecution and perspection, freedom of contract, and a strong and impartial judicial system.

As it relates to individual choice, one might easily be led to believe that sweatshop workers should be given better working conditions such as more time off, more vacation, and safer and more elegant working conditions. Such a simplistic analysis would miss the point of economic tradeoffs. One might ask anyone in this world whether they would like more pay and better working conditions and all except for the world’s few true masochists would provide an invariable “yes” as an answer to that trite question. When pressed as to whether workers would trade off lower wages in order to receive those benefits, the vast majority of people working in sweatshops would invariably say “no” given their high dependence and relative value of cash in hand. Furthermore, to explore and get to the heart of how a worker in Bangladesh could get paid substantially far less pay than a textile worker in North Carolina, it is also absurdly simplistic to compare hourly wages. A true analysis must look at wage rate/productivity ratios for the differences between these two types of workers. Intuitively, the highly paid North Carolina worker is going to produce a tremendous amount more than their Bangladeshi counterpart through a combination of higher skills and better use of capital, dictating a higher relative wage. If a Bangladeshi is not paid significantly less, then their alternative choice to the sweatshop becomes unemployment.

Another interesting insight from the podcast is the alcohol prohibition analogy of Baptists and Bootleggers in grouping the cast of characters in the sweatshop debate. Baptists are the NGOs and philanthropists who are actually committed to the cause of reform, at least making them morally principled. They just often have wrongheaded and misinformed notions of policy prescriptions that should be pursued as a result of their convictions and their effectiveness. Bootleggers are the Unions and others who have a tremendous vested interest in pushing sweatshop wages to a higher point such that they are rendered uncompetitive, thus boosting their own wages. Bootleggers will thus remain unrepentant hurdles to reform while cynically acting as if they have the sweatshop worker’s interests at heart. The intent of the podcast is implicitly to convince the “Baptists” that they will do more harm than good with their approach and to direct their energies elsewhere.

This begs the question of where the concerned over the plight of sweatshop workers should direct their focus. As Powell indicates, the most effective policy reforms would be to support more open forms of immigration. This simple act of changing one’s domicile from a nation lacking the foundations I listed above to one that does (i.e. from Bangladesh to America) increases their wage earning potential 1000% overnight, according to Powell. In the long run, policies that support institutional and government reform will greatly aid in lifting millions from their plights within their native lands. What is clear is that demanding higher wages could very well result in no job and is therefore the opposite of what we should be advocating. Similarly, demanding safer workplace conditions will result in lower wages, which will harm those most in need of straight up cash.

As an aside, I can’t help but notice that uses some of the same visuals that I do for this blog – Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and Plato’s Academy. I am not sure whether I should feel validated or concerned that people will assume that I am a copycat, but I assure you that the usage is purely coincidental. I began the blog back in October and just recently picked up the podcast. Great minds think alike…

Quote of the Week


“Acting well or badly requires both thought and character.” – Aristotle, from Nicomachean Ethics

For Aristotle, the essence of happiness comes from a life of virtue, which is defined as man having command over his thoughts and actions in pursuit of command over the rational and passionate functions of the soul and body. Virtue from Aristotle’s vantage point is the intermediate state between some defined excessive of deficient states with boundaries amongst these that can depend on the situation. An example of an intermediate state would be that within the virtue of courage, bravery is the mean virtuous state, cowardice is the deficient state, and rashness is the excessive state. An example of boundary flexibility is that one could be justified in getting greatly angry if someone strikes them or strikes a loved one, while one would present the excessive state of irascibility that gets greatly angry at a child spilling her water.

One suspects a modern day Aristotle would have much to say about the tenor of the current Presidential race regarding brashness, vulgarity, and dishonesty and how our would be statesmen fail to measure up to these intermediate virtues of bravery, prudence, moderation, justice, and many others.



Quote of the Week


There is no need to suppose that human beings differ very much from one another: but it is true that the ones who come out on top are the ones who have been trained in the hardest school.

                                                             -Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides is quoting from a speech attributed to Spartan King Archidamus II during deliberations amongst Sparta and her allies on whether to break a treaty and go to war against their rival Athens. Archidamus was a lone voice presenting the case for not immediately going to war and rather dedicate efforts to repair the relationship and amend Athenian behavior through diplomatic efforts. The first part of his statement meant that the Athenians were not all that different than Spartans and that he could understand their motivations and that Sparta should endeavor to make peace with them on common understandings of both of their growing power, interests, and needs of their allies. The second part of his statement is critical for understanding his nuanced balance between peace and war, namely that amongst nations the prospect of the latter prosecuted with vigor assures the former. His statesmanlike balance to diplomatic overtures was that he understood quite well that diplomacy does not always resolve issues amicably and that a polity must always prepare diligently for war in order to effectively safeguard peace. Archidamus would go on to argue that war preparedness is its own form of ensuring that diplomacy can function and that adversaries can be dragged to the negotiation table. I think of this as the ancient predecessor of Teddy Roosevelt’s, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” version of foreign policy.

This quote also serves as an example of how much we can learn from ancient history as well as an example of the remarkable feat achieved by Thucydides in creating a historical narrative that lasted the test of time. The reader of Thucydides comes away fascinated with the similarities in human nature between then and now, a space covered by the passage of almost 3,000 years of time. The technology and fashions may change, but oh how mankind remains ever the same in our passions and lusts for power and notions of security and our penchant for “us versus them” tribalism. Thucydides supplements historical narrative with a fair amount of speeches given by political and military leaders on both sides of the war. Within these speeches are some of the finest forms of philosophy on offer from ancient times, that once again seem remarkable in their modern applicability. Thucydides’ ancient account has lasted the test of time due to his genius in weaving a tapestry of historical military facts about set-piece events and battles together with political science and speeches replete with powerful philosophy. If the reader of this blog post still has little desire to read hundreds of pages of history related to an internecine war that happened thousands of years ago in Greece, I would submit to you to at least read the funeral oration delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles. It is a fine example of the types of dialogue that occurs throughout the account.

My favorite book of 2015 – Augustus by John Williams


Augustus by John Williams was my favorite book read of 2015. John Williams is a relatively obscure author who produced only five novels, most of which he penned while serving as a literary professor at the University of Denver. What he lacked in volume, he made up for in quality in this powerful novel alone, which was published in 1971.

Augustus imagines the rise, reign, and ultimately the death (both physically and politically) of the Emperor Augustus. The novel is purely historical fiction, with much of the writings in the epistolary format in the form of letters and journal entries between and by the main characters. While the pace of the events is consistently marked by actual events that are known to us by virtue of being handed down by Roman historians, the dialogue that tracks the meteoric rise of Augustus to the Roman throne shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar are masterfully created works of fiction and provides an imagined sense of the types of political rivalries, the machinations that occurred, the friendships betrayed, and lovers won and lost in such a world in which power becomes the sole pursuit of one’s life and the reason for one’s existence. The reader is treated to a panoply of famed historical figures throughout, including: Marcus Agrippa, the poet Ovid, the future Emperor Tiberius, King Herod, Cleopatra, Marcus Antonius (more commonly called Mark Antony), and many more.

Fascinatingly, it is not these well-known figures that deliver the best narratives, rather the book’s most poignant moments arise from the journal writings of the exiled Julia, Augustus’s beloved and highly intelligent but ultimately tragically flawed daughter. Julia is exiled to the island of Pandateria upon the order of her own father, who has his hand forced politically by an adultery law that he implemented in a vain attempt at changing the morality of Rome. Due to other political maneuvers by Julia’s husband, Tiberius, Augustus’s unfortunate alternative was to allow Julia to be subjected to a public trial of treason, so exile seemed to him to be the lesser of two evils.  I won’t provide any more details than that so as not to spoil the enjoyment of anyone that picks up the book, but the despairing diary entries that Julia enters from her lonely island of exile provides a melancholic sense of a life wasted and perhaps a life that was born in the wrong time, as powerful and intelligent women could only advance themselves through hidden alliances and marriages to the men around them. Indeed, some of the most profound philosophical musings come from Julia’s diaries on this topic. Of her both stepmother and mother-in-law, Livia (the mother of Tiberius, a husband Julia detested), Julia observes, “Of all the women I have ever known, I have admired Livia the most. I was never fond of her, nor she of me; yet she behaved toward me always with honesty and civility; we got along well, despite the fact that my mere existence thwarted her ambitions, and despite the fact that she made no secret of her impersonal animosity towards me. Livia knew herself thoroughly, and had no illusions about her own nature; she was beautiful, and used her beauty without vanity; she was cold, and thus could feign warmth with utter success; she was ambitious, and employed her considerable intelligence exclusively to further her ambition’s end. Had she been a man, I do not doubt that she would have been more ruthless than my father, and would have been troubled by fewer compunctions. Within her nature she was an altogether an admirable woman.”

This challenge of craving power in subtle and hidden ways is something that Julia would turn to later, only remarking on her own inner pangs on the subject: “In this island prison, my life over, I wonder without caring at things I might not have wondered at, had that life not come to an end…It is odd to wait in a powerless world, where nothing matters. In the world from which I came, all was power; and everything mattered. One even loved for power; and the end of love became not its own joy, but the myriad joys of power…I have often wondered how I might have managed the power I had, had I not been a woman. It was the custom for even the most powerful of women, such as Livia, to efface themselves and to assume a docility that in many instances went against their natures.”

“Had she been a man, I do not doubt that she would have been more ruthless than my father, and would have been troubled by fewer compunctions. Within her nature she was an altogether an admirable woman.”

Aside from Julia’s powerful writings, the most compelling dialogue happens at the twilight of Augustus’s own life at the end of the book, when the reader finally gets to view Augustus’s life from the contemplative and often regretful musings of a dying emperor who seems to be asking the painful question through his letters to Nicolaus of Damascus of whether his life devoted to ambition and power was actually worth the high cost of losing most of his friends and loved ones in the end. Interestingly, much of what we learn from Augustus in the preceding pages is indirectly from the writings of others, or when he does speak, it is in the form of commands or is in the form of active plotting for gaining power or keeping it. The writings at the closing of the book are the reader’s first glimpse into the emperor’s soul. Williams sets up the contemplations beautifully, as Augustus writes out to Nicolaus what he wants inscribed as a historical self-serving paean to himself to be posted on tablets at the Senate Forum, but then Augustus turns to how much folly is in those inscriptions and how much reality they fail to capture; how much ugliness of power that he can’t possibly divulge. He writes these introspections to seemingly the one man he can trust with them. One of my favorite paragraphs will give the reader of this review a small taste of the ability of Williams to bring a character to life and to infuse philosophy into the narrative attributed to the imagined words of Augustus:

“Mankind in the aggregate I have found to be brutish, ignorant and unkind, whether those qualities were covered by the coarse tunic of the peasant of the white and purple toga of a senator. And yet in the weakest of men, in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the cruelest of men, flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men, moments of simplicity and grace.”

I have put my focus on the writings of Julia and Augustus, and in so doing perhaps I have neglected the significant components of the book that are devoted to Augustus’s ascent to power and his lifelong struggle to maintain that control. Indeed, this is perhaps part of the book that moves the quickest, as there are plenty of moving scenes and lines delivered within the subtext of dark plots, friends betrayed, friends that betray Augustus, political marriages devoid of true love, significant battles, and the paradoxical weaknesses and strengths of man on full display throughout. I encourage my friends to give the book a read in 2016.