Sometimes, to cope with the consternating whirlwind that American political life has become, I commune with my friends from distant antiquity and even not-so-distant antiquity to ask them what they think.
Pericles, Demosthenes and Cicero. Heraclitus, Plato and Aristotle. John Adams, Abigail Adams, James Wilson, James Madison and Cesare Beccaria. I ask them: Tell me, old friends, when you look at all this hullabaloo from a very great distance, what do you see?
They tell me three things.
Remember that you and your fellow citizens face a challenge that no one has previously faced.
Remember the difference between principles and tactics.
And remember, always, in whatever you do, to lay down a pattern of the good.
What’s that?, I say. Explain yourselves, O ancient men and woman. (I fear it’s true that except when I commune with more recent thinkers, the voices in my head are largely male.)
Luckily, they respond fulsomely. Here’s 18th-century Italian jurist Beccaria.
“Well, have you stopped to notice that the population of the world exploded in the wake of the Industrial Revolution? Not one of us had to design political institutions for a population of more than a few million, at the high end. Not one of us lived in a world with more than a billion people. Your world has more than 7 billion people, and 2 billion of them are talking to each other on Facebook. Friends, you have a tough job ahead if you want to build and keep democratic republics. It’s not at all clear that the tools we built for you are all the tools you’ll need. You’ll have to think the matter through for yourselves.”
To this the ancients and the early moderns all nod vigorously.
Then the Americans jump in. They have a sense of ownership, after all, of the modern versions of democratic-republics, the kinds that depend on representation to scale upward and to mitigate the problem of faction. Truly, they are dumbfounded. Here’s Wilson.
“Hey, guys, we gave you an owner-operator manual, you know. Haven’t you been paying attention? We laid it all out for you in that document we called our unanimous declaration and that you call the Declaration of Independence. You’ve got to lay a foundation on such principle and organize the powers of government in such form as you think is most likely to bring about your safety and happiness. Go back and read it again. Principle must be linked to institutional form; values to policies; clear ethical beliefs to tactics. I rather fear you haven’t paid much attention to us lately.
“Take that document Paul Ryan and his friends cooked up spelling out Republican plans on health care. ‘A Better Way,’ I think it was called. Their plan, they say, is built on five principles. The first is ‘Repeal Obamacare.’ My, God! Up here, we laugh out loud. Repeal Obamacare? That’s a tactic, friend Ryan, not a principle. If you can’t tell the difference between tactics and principles, you are lost. You don’t even know where to begin. As for you, Democrats, you’re all about brand and narrative, empty phrases signifying nothing if you have lost the ability to think through core principles and to tether your narratives to them.
“We hang our heads in disappointment. For this we risked our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor?”
Happily, at this low and dark point in the conversation, the truly ancient ancients, the Greeks and Roman, chime in.
“Friends, don’t be so morose. Remember, you can never step in the same river twice, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the same river!”
“Say, what, Heraclitus?” I say. And he responds, “You may feel as though everything is massively in flux and changing at unimaginable rates, but beneath that change there is still great stability. You are still the American people. You may pretty much hate each other’s guts right now, but you ought to be able to fix it because at least for now, you’re still the same old river of proud free people who have trouble getting your heads round equality. I recognize you.”
The river talk prompts Aristotle to speak up. “Heraclitus, my old friend, I always thought you got those water metaphors wrong. I think the one we need for this circumstance is the ripple metaphor. Every step you take in a pond or lake sends ripples outward. That’s what matters here. People’s ethical intentions reverberate, they set patterns in motion. Get the ripples going in the wrong way and there may be some nasty downstream effects. And by the way, on the subject of equality, it’s high time they figured it out, no?”
Now Plato interjects: “There you go again, Aristotle, bringing them down with your highfalutin virtue talk and your lofty aspirations. We can make things simpler. Here’s what the Yankees need to hear: All is not lost. At the end of the day, this stuff is simple. Every day, day after day, every human being makes choices: Do good or do bad. Every day, with these choices, we lay down the pattern for what will emerge after us in this world. Leave a pattern for the good. Embrace truth, fairness and human decency.
“We didn’t get it all right. We screwed up on slavery and patriarchy. (After all, I’m pretty much the only person who argued that women should be politically equal.) But strip habits of domination from your ethics, and you’ll be improving on what we left. You can do it. Build a path of good, day after day, in your individual actions, even within the chaos, and you lay a foundation on which to rebuild your republic and restore the health of your society.”