April 11, 2017


OF POLITICAL CULTURE IN THE WEST (Pierre Manent, May 2017, First Things)

Brutus is not inclined to tyranny. He is in fact a good republican and would never become another Caesar. And yet, what is to be done with his superiority, which brings him Caesar's esteem as well as the trust of the republican conspirators? He does not lay down his superiority, since he exercises his influence over Cassius without the least reticence, but wraps it in an exclusive concern for "the common," in which every person's position, beginning with his own, becomes invisible. He is the most virtuous of Romans, but also the least self-knowing, or the one who knows least what he is doing. He does not manage to discern or produce action or conduct to match his capacities and deserts under the conditions determined by Caesar's exorbitant power. He can neither ally himself with Caesar, nor prepare himself to succeed him, nor kill him in a useful way.

This political and moral analysis runs counter to the mimetic interpretation of the tragedy proposed by René Girard. The core of Girard's thesis, and for me the stumbling block, is the characterization of Cassius as the "mediator of hate." I find the expression abstract, that is, apolitical. It neglects or rather dismisses the concrete reality of the action. Cassius is first of all the one who begins. He takes the initiative, pushed by no one, but he pushes all the others. Girard discerns well that Cassius is the "true father" of the conspiracy, the arch-actor who must persuade the other potential actors to join him. That he is particularly envious of Caesar is a secondary factor in comparison to the fact that Cassius initiates the action. This matters politically. The term "hate," employed by Girard, is otherwise perfectly adequate. There is no doubt that Cassius hates Caesar. But the word "hate" is so imprecise!

Unless we think that all hatreds are alike, that all hate is the same sin--and this may indeed be Girard's view--we will be led to distinguish between hatreds, and the qualities that hatred can take on. I will go so far as to say that there are noble and base hatreds. A very honorable political and moral tradition, one, I must emphasize, that is Christian as well as pagan, holds that hatred for the tyrant is a noble hatred, and that it belongs to the virtue of the good citizen. We might make all we can of the role of personal resentment in Cassius's hatred (which in any case he does not let us ignore). We can say that Caesar's tyrannical character is a matter of debate. But we cannot entirely pass over the meaning the actors give to their action or overlook the fact that the person who is the object of hatred is considered to be a tyrant by some of the most competent and honorable citizens. If we neglect this fact, we will be obliged to say, or at least to think, that hatred has settled on Caesar by chance.

It is a mistake to confuse the crystallization of the conspiracy with the contagion of hatred. Hatred is not contagious like an infectious disease. Cassius, moreover, does not awaken the hatred of the conspirators, who, with the exception of Brutus, already hate Caesar; he convinces them to act according to their hatred, which is something different, and which requires something besides hatred. In any case, Brutus, who will take the lead in the conspiracy, does not hate and will never hate Caesar. It is impossible to say why Brutus decides to participate in the action. One thing alone is clear: As tormented as he is before the decision, he is no less implacably resolute once it is taken. As I have emphasized, it is Brutus who knows himself the least. He is perfectly aware that the reason he cannot sleep is that Cassius "did whet" him "against Caesar." But he was troubled long before Cassius's devices. Again, Cassius does not awaken Brutus's hatred for Caesar, but sets off the desire to participate in the plot. How?

According to Cassius (an excellent observer of men and their actions by Caesar's own testimony), what is important for Brutus is the high opinion of him in Rome, the greatness of his name. Cassius holds a mirror up to Brutus: He must see himself as Rome sees him. His name fills Rome as much as Caesar's does. His name fills Rome, and Rome fills his soul. Caesar no longer really exists. So Brutus, like a logician who cannot be stopped, will soon distinguish the real Caesar that he continues to love from the possible Caesar that he is resolved to kill. One clarifies nothing by making Caesar, in Girard's words, "an insurmountable obstacle, the skandalon of mimetic rivalry." This leaves out the third term, which is Rome, the common or shared thing, the res publica. Rome comes between Brutus and his friends. Brutus loves Cassius but despises him because he is too human. He loves Caesar still more, but he kills him because he might become inhuman. He wants to have no moral relation except with what he calls the "general." The mechanism singled out by the mimetic theory is not at work here. The opposite is the case. Membership in the republic implies an enlargement that links the individual to the "common," and in republican form there is an unequal enlargement of souls that nourishes in some a legitimate and dangerous pride. The great citizen is not only greater or smaller than another great citizen. He is also greater than himself, for he has another body and another soul, that of Rome. This enlargement is bearable or controllable only when everyone acts under the view of the shared, of the republic, and with respect for its laws and institutions, as difficult as this may be, as the example of Coriolanus attests.

Caesar's disproportionate ascent, so well diagnosed by Cassius, has rendered this mediation of greatness by the common impossible. Since the real and effective shared has withered, Brutus allows himself to be carried away by an imagined universal in whose name he sacrifices a Caesar he himself has declared to be imaginary. His hand does not tremble, because, rather than carrying out a terrible action, he is presiding over a rite of his own invention.

The republic is the regime that allows and encourages the most action. This can be seen in Rome, and we see it in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a "republic disguised under the form of monarchy," as Montesquieu put it. We see it in America's founding, an extraordinary founding, and we see it in France in the great movement of '89, especially if this movement is understood to include, as it ought, the adventure of the empire.

Today we expect from a republic the opposite of a republic. We demand from it the least possible action, or what we call "freedom." For us, freedom is a world without commandment or obedience. 

A republic does not exist to vindicate freedom but to thwart it in favor of liberty, which is why Left and Right both oppose it. 

Posted by at April 11, 2017 10:07 AM