LETTERS OF A PHILOSOPHICAL STATESMAN
Cicero's Letters to Atticus
Trans. & ed. by D.R. Shackleton Bailey
Harmondsworth, Mdx.: Penguin Classics, 1978
736 pp., $5.95
By J. Jackson Barlow
Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great statesman and orator of the Roman Republic, left behind him a remarkable collection of letters, philosophical treatises, and orations. His works run to many volumes, an output that is the more astonishing when one reflects how much has been lost. Cicero is remembered today chiefly for his philosophical works, but philosophy was always a secondary occupation for Cicero: his philosophical works were written late in his life, when his political career was over. Cicero himself thought his most important contribution was and would remain his political career in the Roman Republic. That career is disclosed to us through his speeches, and through his letters to Atticus and others. The letters to Atticus-his best friend-reveal Cicero himself in a way that no public document or speech could. The Cicero of these letters is not always the thoughtful statesman; he could be, and often was, petty, vain, and selfish. Yet the private Cicero and the public Cicero are not all that dissimilar, for both are shown to be concerned above all with the public good.
The letters to Atticus-over four hundred of them-cover roughly the last quarter-century of the Roman Republic, the years 68-44 B.C. [All dates are B.C., unless otherwise noted.] Those years saw the rise and progress of the crisis of the Republic, and saw Cicero preeminent at the Roman bar and prominent in the Senate. There are unfortunately no letters from the year of Cicero's consulship, 63; the bulk of the letters was written during and after his exile in 58, i.e., in the twilight and eclipse of his career. By the time the Republic's political crisis came to a head in 49, and civil war broke out between Caesar and Pompey, Cicero's public career was over. He joined Pompey's army, though he never saw action, and after Pompey's defeat he was well treated by Caesar. Cicero did not venture into politics again until after Caesar's assassination; but he ran afoul of Antony and was murdered on his order in 43. Even after his retirement from politics, Cicero retained a keen interest in political affairs at Rome. Throughout his career Cicero depended on Atticus to supply him with political intelligence and gossip of Rome, and also to give him the advice, encouragement, inspiration, and sometimes the scolding he needed.
Titus Pomponius, later called Atticus, and Cicero met when they were students together in Rome. Both were members of the equestrian class, the class of knights which stood between the patricians and the plebeians. Pomponius was from Rome itself, while Cicero was from a country town, Arpinum, which had been granted the Roman franchise. There was some suspicion of this "foreign" origin in Rome. (It was often thrown in Cicero's face by his political enemies.) Atticus' friendship and connections were often useful to Cicero, because Atticus could open doors which were closed to Cicero. While Cicero aimed at primacy at the Roman bar and in politics, and devoted all of his considerable energies to that end, Pomponius led a life of refined leisure. Shortly after his father's death, around 86, Pomponius left Rome for Athens, where he lived and studied philosophy for twenty years and acquired the cognomen "Atticus." No letters written before 68 survive, although it is likely they corresponded. Atticus would often have traveled to Rome on business, and Cicero visited Athens for six months in 79. Further evidence of their cordial relations is the marriage of Atticus' sister, Pomponia, to Cicero's brother, Quintus, about 70. Although the marriage itself was unhappy, it did nothing to undermine the friendship between Cicero and Atticus. The mature years of their friendship begin with Atticus' return to Rome in 65, and correspond to the height of Cicero's political career and to his subsequent fall.
Atticus was one of the richest men in Rome (he sometimes kept Cicero out of the financial soup), sophisticated and charming. The two words most characteristically used to describe him are "discreet" and "urbane." In short, he was an ideal confidant for a politician, for his money and his connections made him welcome in every house in Rome. He was in a position to see and hear everything that went on in the city. When Cicero was away from Rome he begged and pleaded with Atticus to send him the news of the city; and when Atticus was away Cicero complained because he was not there. Although a friend of Cicero's, Atticus never publicly took a side among the factions of the day, and remained friends with everyone. By keeping to himself and acting behind the scenes, Atticus managed to survive the civil war and its aftermath and lived on into the reign of Augustus. His granddaughter married the Emperor Tiberius.
It is a misfortune that we do not possess any letters from Atticus to Cicero. They would surely be informative about the Roman political climate, and might even be more interesting than Cicero's. But Cicero's letters by themselves are invaluable historical documents. They are among the few firsthand accounts which we have of the political situation, and of the way men lived and thought in Rome. By far the most interesting series of letters covers the years from 51, when Cicero was governor of Cilicia, to 47, when Caesar finally defeated Pompey in the civil war. The year 49, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon and the war began, is particularly interesting, because Cicero was courted by both sides. His deliberations are recorded in his letters: they show both his great hope that the Republic might be reborn, and his great fear that either Caesar or Pompey would destroy it. Cicero was concerned, because in his youth he had seen the dictatorship and the constitutional settlement of Sulla. The crisis of 49 had been prefigured in the crisis of the 80's: it is there we must seek the origins of Cicero's attitude in 49.
The main institutions of the Roman constitution remained the same for some two centuries; but the constitution which was in operation at the outbreak of the civil war was primarily the work of the dictator Sulla. Sulla's project had been to restore the authority of the Senate, and of the aristocracy in general. That authority had been weakened by the plebeian reforms effected by Tiberius and Caius Gracchus between 133 and 123. Sulla restricted the powers of the tribunes and revised the court system, in an attempt to restore the ancient Roman constitution. He sought to perpetuate this settlement by forging a political alliance between the equestrian class and the patrician class. By attaching the interests of the moneyed class and the businessmen to those of the old aristocracy, Sulla hoped to create a solid ruling coalition which would put an end to the factional strife which had plagued Rome for a generation.
One of Sulla's young lieutenants was Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known to history as Pompey the Great. Pompey had a truly spectacular career. He won many battles as a young man, was consul fully seventeen years before he was legally eligible, and was Rome's first citizen for a generation. Whenever the Republic was in trouble or in danger, Pompey got the call. He was given an extraordinary command to rid the Mediterranean of pirates. He was given the task of ridding Asia of Mithridates. He was given the job of regulating the corn supply. More than anyone else, Pompey kept Sulla's constitutional settlement alive (although he revised or even repealed some of Sulla's legislation). But great general though he was, Pompey was not a very good politician. Gradually public confidence in him eroded, and he began to make enemies. Finally, by 49, another man's power-a power which Pompey had helped him acquire-had grown so great that he could challenge the great man. That man was, of course, Julius Caesar. Pompey, having brought Caesar into the informal arrangement known as the "First Triumvirate," had brought this crisis on himself. The trial would be a trial by battle.
Cicero was a rare man in the history of the Roman Republic, for he had built a solid political base without the aid of an army. Although the machinations of the triumvirate had kept him on the political sidelines for several years, in 49 Cicero was still a force to be reckoned with. As a respected Senator, an ex-consul, and a forceful orator, Cicero would have lent respectability to either side. His letters show Cicero very much divided in his mind. Both sides promised him that they would take his advice; and he weighed Caesar's likelihood of success against his own loyalty to and friendship for Pompey. Cicero did not think much of Pompey as a politician: Pompey exasperated him with his inconsistency and vagueness. Cicero respected Caesar, but he could not stand Caesar's henchmen and adherents. Cicero's decision could not be merely or simply a private decision, for he was committed to the survival of the Republic. He was determined to do the right thing, and that meant being able to influence the conqueror.
Cicero is often assailed by historians and critics for being either wishy-washy or unprincipled-or both-for failing to take an immediate stand in the civil war. They want him to have committed himself wholeheartedly either to "reaction" or to "reform." But those kinds of moral absolutes were not and could not have been part of Cicero's deliberation. Cicero deliberated at great length precisely because he was able to see farther than the parties-or their modern partisans. The Republic must be saved, he thought, and although neither Caesar nor Pompey would save it, Cicero was compelled to judge which one would leave it in a condition to be saved. But in 49 his choice for the near future had to be a choice of tyrants. When Atticus thought of leaving Italy for Greece, Cicero replied:
Why certainly I approve of . . . this fence-sitting of yours, and I look upon your position as different from mine. Not that right is not right for both of us as citizens of the Republic, but the Republic is not at issue. This is a fight for a throne. The expelled monarch [Pompey] is the more moderate, upright, and clean-handed, and unless he wins the name of the Roman people must inevitably be blotted out; but if he does win his victory will be after the Sullan fashion and example. Therefore in such a conflict you should support neither side openly and trim your sails to the wind. My case is different because I am bound by an obligation and cannot be ungrateful [to Pompey]. (Letter 198, pp. 395-6)
Although he thought many times of reneging on his obligation, Cicero finally embraced Pompey and went to join him in Greece. Later he was pardoned, and even well-treated, by the conqueror.
The war between Caesar and Pompey was a peculiarly Roman struggle, not because it was a war but because of the character of the Romans. The characteristic virtue of the Roman was courage, courage in battle: virtus meant courage. But courageous men do not always seek the most moderate course: courage and recklessness are closely related. Once the Romans had conquered the world their courage and their fighting spirit had to seek other outlets. From the time that Carthage was destroyed, the political crisis in Rome was almost continuous. The struggle between Caesar and Pompey was the final chapter of that crisis. Nothing within the institutional structure of Rome allowed for its resolution, and so the only appeal was to arms.
It is now commonplace for historians to view the political conflict in the late Republic as a struggle between "left" and "right," between the optimates and the populares. Cicero's letters show this to be a simplistic interpretation. Pompey and Caesar were very little concerned with ideology, or even rhetoric: they were bent on power. Not only did they not care how that power was acquired, but they did not care whether their constitutional settlement might persist after them: one could win as good a reputation as a tyrant as one could as a leader of free men. "This is a fight for a throne," Cicero said: it was not a fight for principles, but for power. Cicero, who did have principles, stayed out of the civil war for many months, not because it posed for him a question of principle, but because he wanted to know how best to moderate the victory of whichever one conquered. He had seen Sulla's conquest, and remembered the bloody proscriptions, the confiscations of property, and the condemnations of innocent men. Cicero knew what to expect, no matter who won.
Cicero has been accused of opportunism, of "trimming his sails" to the slightest political breeze in an attempt to save his own skin. The fact that he could advise Atticus to trim his sails shows that he could have done so, that he knew how to do it if he so desired. But he did eventually join Pompey. Cicero knew in advance that he would not be responsible for the constitutional settlement after the issue between Caesar and Pompey had been settled. The great vice of the Roman regime, one which Cicero tried to circumvent but which finally defeated him, was that it depended not on its institutions, but on men for its perpetuation. Men were not loyal to the Republic, but to Caesar or Sulla or Pompey, or whichever leader they chose to follow. The factions-Caesarian, Sullan, Pompeian-ran their course, slugging it out with one another until one was the winner; and then things went along constitutionally until another became more powerful. The civil war, far from being a war between ideologies, or between different ideas about good government, was a war between two ambitious party leaders, one desiring to capture, the other to maintain, control of the existing institutions. A man who, like Cicero, was loyal to the Republic was forced to act very circumspectly if he was to influence the conqueror, and thus the behavior of his party after the victory.
Cicero attempted throughout his career to moderate the violence of Roman politics; but he was compelled to play the political game at the same time. In the absence of a moderating principle in Roman politics, one which would channel the ambitions of a Caesar or a Pompey into service to the Republic, Cicero was forced to shift one way and then another in an effort to make up the lack. His letters chronicle this attempt, and also give testimony to the consistent vision of the Republic which lay at the center of his apparently inconsistent actions. We cannot expect from political action the smooth periods and perfect logic of theory. Cicero, in letter 21, condemns Cato for trying to act strictly according to theory: "He speaks in the Senate as though he were living in Plato's Republic instead of Romulus' cesspool." These are not the letters of an idle visionary, a philosopher out of his depths in the world of politics. Nor are they the letters of an unscrupulous politician, a manipulator in a corrupt age. These are the letters of a thoughtful politician and a philosopher in action, who saw things for what they were and tried to move them in the direction of good government. He failed. But we cannot condemn him for his failure, for Cicero's failure was more noble than Caesar's success.
These are the private letters of one of history's greatest public men. Atticus was Cicero's best friend, and knew both his understanding of Roman politics and his concern for Rome's well-being, and these letters help us understand Cicero as well. Of course, we also see petty jealousies, frivolous quarrels, and personal ambitions. Cicero was ambitious and vain; he never tires of blowing his own horn. But he was also capable of laughing at his ambition and his vanity. Cicero complains bitterly to Atticus about his misfortunes: his exile, his exclusion from public life, his governship of a remote province, his failure to get a triumph. He more than once reports to Atticus that he is so overwhelmed by his misfortunes that he is dissolved in tears. However overwhelmed he was by his misfortunes or his private grievances, Cicero always tried to act for the public good; and if these letters reveal the intensity of his ambition they also reveal the depth of his love of his country.
A word about the translation. D.R. Shackleton Bailey has spent many years studying, correcting, and translating the texts of Cicero's letters. He has done a truly splendid job of all of these, and particularly of the difficult task of translating Cicero's informal style into English. Professor Shackleton Bailey has avoided both excessive formality and an overly colloquial style, the two great temptations of the translator. Above all, he resists the modern conceit that he knows better than Cicero himself what Cicero meant to say or should have said. When Cicero says "boni," Shackleton Bailey translates "good men," and not-as some have done- "aristocratic party." The one problem which neither he nor any other translator has successfully solved is what to do about the frequent Greek phrases and quotations which Cicero uses. Shackleton Bailey has adopted the procedure of translating quotations into English- which is fine-and single words or phrases into English or French or sometimes Latin-which is not. A more sensible approach might be to leave them in Greek, and supply translations in footnotes (which are copious, scholarly, and informative). Professor Shackleton Bailey has none the less done an admirable job of capturing the informal tone of the letters. If we are to understand Cicero's thought it is critical that we be able to confront it directly. That means that a translator must be unobtrusive, and let the subject speak for himself. This translation is an excellent exercise in doing just that.
Everyone who is concerned about modern politics, about the problems facing us today, should read these letters. Modern politics confronts us with a situation no less complex and dangerous than the situation of Rome in 49 B.C. Tyranny in its most powerful and frightening form is today a threat from the left: it is Caesarism reborn with the addition of that modern weapon, ideology. Moderate or decent regimes must learn how would-be tyrants mask their intentions, and ask how much benevolent declarations are to be trusted. The rise of extremism here at home is no less our concern than the rise of extremism abroad. We must, as citizens of a Republic, beware of the Caesar or the
Pompey beneath the gentle rhetoric of compassion. We cannot afford to forget that a tyrant never looks like a tyrant until it is too late. More than two thousand years ago Cicero tried to preserve moderate government in Rome from tyranny, and he failed. We must either learn from his failure, or prepare for his fate.
ON ANTI-FEDERALISM: A SCHOLARLY POLEMIC
What the Anti-Federalists were FOR
Herbert J. Storing. Ed. by Murray Dry
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981
111 pp., $4.95 (paper)
(Vol. 1 of The Complete Anti-Federalist. 7 vols.)
By David B. Broyles
The late Herbert J. Storing's recently published collection of Anti-Federalist papers is an admirable piece of scholarship. Unfortunately its scholarly accomplishment is marred by a secondary purpose, a partisan one. This secondary purpose is suggested by the way the title of the introductory volume is capitalized: What the Anti-Federalists were FOR. Storing attempts to make the Anti-Federalists' position a positive contribution to the continuing debate about American politics. He argues in the Introduction that they had a political theory of considerable worth; that even though they lost the battle over the Constitution, they remain in the field with sizable forces; and that their cause is as truly American as the cause of the Federalists. Readers may well be reminded of contemporary apologists for the South. They argue, on the one hand, that the South was right in "giving up" slavery. On the other hand, they argue that since the South honors cultural distinctions-which act as an antidote to excessive political equality-the South was also right in preserving itself as a culture.
According to Storing, "The Anti-Federalists themselves understood their negative conclusions about the Constitution to derive from a positive political theory or set of political principles" (p. 5). This is an observation which is not explained or supported by Storing, and which stands out in strong contrast to both Federalist opinion and contemporary scholarship. The authors of the Federalist papers, speaking with one voice as Publius, saw their opponents in disarray (Nos. 1 and 38). Similarly, such contemporary commentators as the late Martin Diamond teach that union was the common objective of Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike. Many were persuaded, Diamond argues, to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve union, and to that end they approved the Constitution. Others were unwilling to make these sacrifices and remained Anti-Federalists, but they were not left in possession of a coherent theoretical alternative. Insofar as Anti-Federalism found expression in the demand for a Bill of Rights, it was not understood as alternative organic law but as something like a preamble, as Storing himself notes, intended to improve rather than to change the Constitution. Despite his statements to the contrary then, Storing's admirable collection of evidence and his analysis leave open the possibility that Publius was right when he characterized his Anti-Federal opponents without reference to their theoretical position. They were, said Publius, men often possessed of good intentions, but subject to error and goaded into opposition by leaders with selfish and vain purposes. Such leaders, adds Publius, were often in possession or at least in prospect of state offices. They stood to gain personal and political advantages by nourishing local loyalties among their adherents.
The Storing polemic is not, however, directed primarily to scholarly quibbles over the intentions of the Founders, or their capacity for "positive political theory." It is directed to contemporary controversy. Storing concludes his introductory essay with a comparison of Anti-Federalists and Federalists that points to the defects of Federalist principles. These defects or tensions are said to have been, and to continue to be, the subject of Anti-Federal thought.
The Anti-Federalists were committed to both union and the states; to both the great American republic and the small, self-governing community; to both commerce and civic virtue; to both private gain and public good. At its best, Anti-Federal thought explores these tensions and points to the need for any significant American political thought to confront them; for they were not resolved by the Constitution but are inherent in the principles and traditions of American political life.
The reader is prompted by this comment to ask again whether it is right to call Anti-Federal thought a positive theory. Can such a theory be constituted principally in the exploration of tensions? Even if this were possible, would the Anti-Federal theory properly complement the Federalist Constitution? That is, would it explore the centrally problematic features of the Constitution and its principles? One competitor for this honor springs immediately to mind. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy In America, distinguished between manly and slavish alternatives in a way that has captured attention for decades as the most penetrating analysis of modern democracy. Other scholars would argue, as does Leo Strauss in his introduction to Natural Right and History, that our present Constitutional problems stem not so much from an original defect as from a latter-day invasion of American universities by European thought. Storing's failure to recognize such claims, and to enter the field against them, mars his presentation. If he had done so, his statement that "significant American political thought" must confront Anti-Federal thought might have been supported by references to a recognized body of Constitutional criticism. Alternatively, the apparent need for Anti-Federal critical thought might have been more plausible had a new case been made for the Constitution's defectiveness. But neither case is made, and the possibility of the latter becomes unlikely upon the discovery that Storing's presentation of the Federalist position contains serious distortions.
Storing pays slight attention to Publius' own view of his Anti-Federalist opponents. What is worse, he interprets the Federalist teaching in light of the lowest element of its rhetoric. He recognizes its intention to check evil with evil, but not its intention to develop a system which refines and enlarges the public view-and the public itself. Storing also denies that Publius recognizes the right of revolution as inherent in any sovereign people. But Publius knows well that the various representative branches could not preserve those qualities of character (such as the desire for fame in the Presidency) which are assumed to be their distinctive features, were it not for their members being elected by a population whose dignity and virtue arise out of revolutionary principle. The Constitution provides a nonrevolutionary expression for the pursuit of happiness which aims at dignity and virtue in accordance with principle. It thereby encourages dignity and virtue both in the people and in their representatives. The failure to understand properly Publius' view of the right of revolution leads Storing to a formulation of the principles of the Constitution which would only be comforting to contemporary behavioralists or positivists. Such men see the Constitution as no more than an instrument for balancing and checking self-interest, exactly the Storing view.
Storing's omission shows up especially in the Conclusion. There he attributes to Publius a distinction between the activity of founding a nation, which is carried on at one time only, and the activity of operating a government, which is carried on at all other times. According to Storing, "The basis of this argument [Federalist No. 49] is a radical disjunction between the founding of the government and its operation" (p. 74). He relies on Publius' observation that while a variety of interests may be a hindrance to forming a government, they "have a salutary influence on the administration of the government when formed" (No. 37). However, he makes of Publius' observation somewhat more than does Publius. He claims that,
The circumstances conducive to the good operation of a government under a properly constructed constitution (e.g., a wide variety of interests) are extremely pernicious, [emphasis added] in the making or altering of the Constitution.
This exaggeration of what Publius says is prepared for by an earlier comment:
The Constitution was designed so that, as far as possible, the ordinary operation of government would call for little more than the reliable inclination of men to follow their own interests, fairly narrowly understood, (p. 72)
Storing claims as well that the authors of the Constitution "took for granted," that is, did not provide for sustaining, "a certain kind of public spirited leadership" and "the republican genius of the people." His position thus differs from Publius' by radicalizing the separation between the founding and the ordinary operation of the Constitution. For Storing, once the Constitution was founded it encouraged the pursuit of private goals and, in effect, made sure that the concern with public goals would atrophy through benign neglect. The ordinary operation of government thus differs from the founding by being without public goals and principles. This view is far from Publius' view in Federalist No. 49, on which Storing claims to rely. Publius does not accept the idea of a "radical disjunction" between the founding and the operation of government. Publius' view is like that of the Declaration of Independence: the people retain a continuing right of revolution as well as an awareness of the basis on which such a revolution might be justified.
In Federalist No. 49, Publius in fact argues for a continuing right of revolution. But he retains the hope that the necessity to exercise that right will arise infrequently. The essay presents a rather commonplace distinction between means and ends; between everyday operating procedures on the one hand, and abiding principles on the other. As Publius points out, there is little doubt that abiding principles are frequently lost sight of in the passions of ordinary political life. Jefferson's proposals, which are under examination in No. 49, would have confounded the two and increased the frequency with which ordinary routine would provoke "great and extraordinary occasions." On such occasions, Publius affirms, "a constitutional road to the decision of the people ought to be marked and kept open." However, an unnecessarily frequent appeal to the people, occasioned by only routine political passions, would convey to the people "an implication of some defect in the government." Where only ordinary legislation is involved, Publius argues, let the public opinion on Constitutional matters remain supported by examples of its success which are "ancient as well as numerous." He adds that after memories of the Revolutionary War have faded, such Constitutional supports will be even more necessary. Publius' critique of Jefferson looks to an adequate support for maintaining the separation of the powers of the Constitution. The discussion culminates in the famous argument of Federalist No. 51, where Constitutional and social arrangements are made the basis of Constitutional integrity. The powers are to be kept separate by what might easily be regarded as merely mechanical contrivances. Nevertheless, as is clear from No. 49, questions of Constitutional amendment, and even more drastic change, are always just beneath the surface.
Another objection to Jefferson's plan sheds light on Publius' own understanding of amending the Constitution, and of the full exercise of the right of revolution. What might happen on those "great and extraordinary occasions," when direct popular action is necessary? Publius argues that Jefferson's plan would stir up passions when the "reason, alone, of the public . . . ought to control and regulate the government." It would do this by making virtually certain that the "legislative party," or to use Wilmoore Kendall's language, the "legislative majority," would be on the side of Constitutional change. Now the legislative party, as Publius makes clear throughout the Federalist, is the locus of self-interested passions. These are precisely the passions which ought to be excluded from the public counsels on great and extraordinary occasions. The means which Jefferson proposes would therefore be inappropriate to the ends he purposes, since passion and not reason would sit in judgment.
In disagreement with Storing, but in agreement with the Jefferson of the Declaration of Independence, Publius sees a continuing right of revolution, however cautious he may be about provoking it to activity. His discussion of the dangers of legislative partisan passions prompts the reader to consider how they might be avoided in a critical revolutionary situation. The ordinary procedures for giving these passions full play in the legislative branch must be foregone in favor of what is much less evident in ordinary politics; that is, the appeal to fundamental principles and to special leadership. In his central essay, No. 43, Publius mentions both moral obligation and the Declaration's statement of principle as continuously present sources from which come reasons for revolutionary activity. Preceding this, in No. 40, he explains the mechanics by which leadership might develop. Storing seems to have overlooked these discussions, as he has overlooked in much of his discussion, we believe, the significance of Publius' thought about the less obvious but decisively important role of principle in the routine operation of government under the Constitution. This omission may well have been the cause of his mistaken project to reinstate Anti-Federalist thought as a necessary corrective for what is supposed to be Publius' excessive reliance on self-interest.
Storing's analysis lends itself to the argument that the Federalist and the Anti-Federalist positions are different facets of a single American political and social order. At any given time in American history, one or the other view predominates only to be replaced by what is in many respects its alter ego. The transition from one to the other becomes necessary whenever partisans of one view are so successful as to yield to the temptation to exclude the other altogether. Like the pulsing cosmos, the American political order seems to oscillate between a positive Federalist consolidation and expansion and a negative Anti-Federalist decentralization and contraction. Sometimes this oscillation is regarded as inherent and desirable in all political orders, or at least all democratic ones. At other times it is regarded as undesirable, and a defect of the Founding. Apparently this remains to be rectified by a latter-day theorist who will properly assess the original defective foundation of modern political theory. Either view associates its holders, to their disadvantage, with those presently powerful disciples of positivist and behavioral political science who hold that contemporary American politics is not enlightened by traditional political theory. And, either view associates its holders with those who have little real use for scholarly research into the thought of the Anti-Federalists.
TOO RUM FOR MODERNS
The Dean's December
New York: Harper & Row, 1982
312 pp., $13.95
By Mickey Craig
The Dean's December is a kind of reverie. For the most part, the novel is a series of reflections by Dean Albert Corde (while in Burcharest, holed up in the solitude of the bedroom of his wife's childhood). The reader is compelled by Corde's reflections to raise a serious question about the modern condition. He leads the reader to that question, but then leaves us confused. Corde is on the brink of a discovery, but he has not completely thought through his position. Whether his confusion is part of Bellow's art or a reflection of Bellow's limitation remains open to further consideration. To understand the question to which Corde leads us, let us consider how some of the other characters in the novel misunderstand him.
Corde became a dean at a university in Chicago after first returning to the university as a professor. He returned to the university even though he was a successful (that is, famous and influential) journalist residing in Paris. He first established is fame in the New Yorker, reporting on the Potsdam Conference. Years later, as an old acquaintance interpreted it, he turned around and unmade himself by going to the university. That is how Corde's friends and family interpret his return to the "unreal world" of the university. His brother-in-law was a tough lawyer, schooled in the "hold their feet to the fire" mentality typical of the Chicago jungle. Corde's return to the university confirmed his brother-in-law's view that he was an effete intellectual. "The Dean had given up the real world to take refuge with philosophy and art. Academics were hacks and phonies" (p. 42). His brother-in-law despised him because Corde was "a man large enough to be forceful, smart enough to be rich, [and] proud enough to be contemptuous" (p. 84). Corde's acquaintance from youth, Dewey Spangler, now himself a famous journalist, gives a less harsh but similar interpretation of Corde's return to academia. "The Dean was a delicate spirit, a genuinely reflective person. This was why he gave up journalism and took cover in the academy" (p. 299). (Spangler's name reminds us of Oswald Spengler. His career reminds us of George Will.) Spangler agrees with Corde's brother-in-law that Corde is effete. However, Corde's brother-in-law believes that Corde could have accomplished something in life, whereas Spangler excuses his old chum's literary taste as a desire to return to those joyous and comfortable days of their youth when together they read great books in the park. (Actually, one must wonder if Spangler is secretly glad that he does not have to compete with Corde anymore.) Both Spangler and the brother-in-law view Corde as a middle-aged man who has given up on accomplishing anything in his life, and who has found in the university a comfortable and undemanding way to spend the rest of his life.
Now Bellow allows the reader to see as well Corde's own understanding of his departure from the "real world" to the academic world, and his self-understanding is anything but one of giving up on life and a search for comfort. Late in the novel Corde offers a full explanation of why he gave up journalism. "I gave up writing for the papers ten years ago because-well, because my modernity was all used up. I became a college professor in order to cure my ignorance. We made a trade. I teach young people to write for the papers and in return I have an opportunity to learn why my modernity was used up. At the college I had time to read scads of books. In Paris I was too busy doing art items and intellectual chitchat. . . . I came to Chicago to continue my education" (p. 228).
Corde's education, in part, is an inquiry into modernity. He traces modernity to its roots. His observations of the public realm lead him to see a fundamental agreement underlying the apparent differences between modern societies, specifically the Soviet Union and modern America. "When we've worn ourselves out with our soft nihilism, the Russians would like to arrive with their hard nihilism" (p. 276). But it is nihilism in either case. He sees that a belief in progress underlies both the Soviet and the modern American world-views. Americans are different only in that they have not "accepted the Leninist premise that this is an age of wars and revolutions. Where the Communists saw class war, civil war, pictures of catastrophe, we only saw temporary aberrations. Capitalistic democracies could never be at home with the catastrophe outlook. We are used to peace and plenty, we are for everything nice and against cruelty, wickedness, craftiness, monstrousness" (p. 199). "Worshippers of progress," modern Americans and the Soviets agree on the end, they merely disagree regarding the means. The Soviets believe that progress (the bringing on of the end of history) can be accomplished by one stroke (world revolution), and without mercy. The Americans believe that a worker's paradise can be established by slow and gentle processes. Albert Corde wonders whether this is the only alternative facing modern man. He attempts to step behind or beyond the nihilism that he sees underlying modern society.
Corde's understanding of the bankruptcy of modern society is more clearly revealed through his observations about his relationship to a scientist named Beech. Corde had written a series of articles for Harper's on Chicago, specifically on the plight of the inner city. He had written powerfully about the decay of modern society, about the loss of human dignity, and the threat to human life. Beech was moved by Corde's concern. He wanted to help Corde, and he wanted Corde to help him. He thought that through writing some articles together they could solve the problem in the inner city. He understood the source of the problem, and Corde could write in a manner that touched a nerve in serious opinion. Beech described to Corde the real explanation of what happens in the inner-city slums. "Millions of tons of intractable lead residues poisoning the children of the poor. They're the most exposed. The concentration is measurably heaviest in those old slum neighborhoods, piled up there for decades. . . . Crime and social disorganization in inner city populations can all be traced to the effects of lead. It comes down to the nerves, to brain damage." Corde is dubious, and silently reflects. "Once more, a direct material cause? . . . Direct material causes? Of course. Who could deny them? But what was odd was that no other causes were conceived of" (p. 137). Later Corde reflects on Beech's theory. "The doubtful part of his proposition is that human wickedness is absolutely a public health problem, and nothing but. . . . I can't bring myself to go with this medical point of view, whether it applies to murderers or to geniuses" (p. 227). (Beech is a polite Lysenko.) By his own education, Corde is forced to step back beyond the modern physiological and materialistic interpretation of phenomena.
Corde has stumbled onto a proposition that would disturb those who make their living from psychoanalysis: perhaps there are events or phenomena which cannot be traced to their material causes. The fundamental problem with the modern understanding of the world is that it limits the natural to the material; that is, it limits natural causes to efficient causes. The moral, the political, the conventional, laws and restraints, a consciousness not wholly determined by what is unconscious, are considered as unnatural or as naive superstition. Corde sees limits to the kind of progress that, in his opinion, most believe can be attained through technological advancement or world revolution. But what could Corde mean by a cause that is not material? No doubt it is something highbrow, for when you retrace his sources it takes you back to "Baudelaire and Rilke, even Montesquieu and Vico; also Machiavelli; also Plato" (p. 163). Bellow gives us a clue in two places as to what Corde means by a nonmaterial cause. First, in a conversation with Dewey Spangler, Corde says, "I meant that we'd better deal with whatever it is that's in us by nature" (p. 243). Later, while in conversation with his wife, Corde is asked by her, repeating something he had said, "What does that mean, 'If we were everything we should be'?" (p. 262). What is in us by nature, and what does it have to do with what we should be? Corde seems to be saying that human beings have something in their nature which makes them responsible for their condition.
Corde is doubtful that the collaboration with the scientist Beech could be successful. "It was not so much the inner-city slum that threatened us as the slum of innermost being, of which the inner-city was perhaps a material representation." Corde wants to educate the world. The solution to human wickedness does not come through alleviating the conditions of poverty and filth in the inner cities, but through education. Corde wants to teach people to live well, and wonders if this merely means living morally. He wants people both to accept their responsibility, and be moral. "Nobody actually said, 'An evil has been done. 'No it was rather' An unfortunate crazed man destroyed a woman, true enough, but it would be wrong of us to constitute ourselves judges of this crime since its causes lie in certain human and social failures'" (p. 202). He illustrates modern society's ability to excuse evil with the excuse that the causes of evil lie in social shortcomings.
Corde reflects on the inability of the individual in modern society to perceive events properly. "As matters are, people feel free to plug in and plug out. . . . Whatever it is, or whoever it is, contact can be cut at will. . . . It's the position of autonomy and detachment, a kind of sovereignty we're all schooled in. The sovereignty of atoms-that is, of human beings, who see themselves as atoms of intelligent separateness" (p. 262). Corde seems to be suggesting that we, as individuals, do not have the right to "plug in and plug out" of relationships, however much we may desire to do so. He seems to be saying that that which is in us by nature obligates us to others. He wants to compel us to use words like good and evil, responsible and guilty, moral and immoral, and just and unjust as if they were more than prejudices or infinitely malleable concepts. Corde backs off from this harsh conclusion. It is difficult to understand why, but that he does back off is clear. When he describes a particular act of his wife's as "unjust," he says to himself that the use of that word is childish pedantry. And when someone reminds him that in one of his articles he used the phrase, "a moral life," he replies, "that was unfortunate. You've got to be careful about the big word" (p. 102).
To understand why Corde backs off from his reactionary conclusion would entail understanding what he meant by phrases like, "He would have liked to tell his nephew that men and women were shadows, and shadows within shadows, to one another" (p. 32). Does this interpretation of mankind, "as shadows, and shadows within shadows, to one another," mean that men are by nature autonomous, or are those shadows somehow the Dean's poetic manner of describing a nonmaterial cause or unmoved mover in the human breast? Corde compels us to raise this question. By so doing we may label him as reactionary, if we mean by reactionary someone who would ask you your opinion and then tell you that you are not entitled to your opinion because it is wrong or immoral. We are, it seems, left with the reflection that Corde backs off from his reactionary conclusion because he is confused. His education is incomplete. However, he does compel the reader to consider that the human condition can be understood in a non-modern or pre-modern way. What the consequences of this would be is unclear. Perhaps Bellow's next novel will be about a real reactionary and not a confused one.