Sunday, October 11, 2015

Two terrible parents

 Dear Hannah,

Marcus Aurelius is known for being one of the wisest and justest emperors of imperial Rome.  The other thing he's known for is being one of the worst parents.

His reign is accounted as one of the last peaceful periods of Roman tyranny, in which the emperors still respected the pretense of republicanism and pretended the forms of constitutional law.  He was tough on himself, and kind to others; he attempted to make friends out of enemies instead of having them killed; and his moderation kept him from extravagant expenses and the excesses of licentiousness.  If any of this sounds unimpressive, it's only because we aren't too familiar with the emperors who came before or after him.  Before him Nero married a man, stabbed random citizens in the middle of the night,  and set Christians on fire to light the streets.  Tiberius raped everyone he could find, and murdered the wealthiest citizens in the nation.  Afterward Elagabalus had a harem of little boys, dressed like a woman, and placed his dancers and barbers in the most important positions of power.  An emperor could do nearly anything, which is why Marcus Aurelius is famous for not doing everything.

The one thing that Aurelius was incapable of doing was managing his own child.  After his wife gave birth to Commodus, he attempted to instill every virtue in the boy by means of the most respected teachers.  But Commodus was poorly disciplined, and Marcus and every one of his advisors knew it.  Something inside of Marcus was incapable of doing anything about it.  And when it came time to choose the next emperor (as Roman emperors at that time were in the habit of doing long before their deaths), despite all the warning signs of excess and stupidity and contempt of anything decent, Commodus was proclaimed heir to the empire.

After the death of Aurelius, Commodus continued in his footsteps for the first three years of his reign*.  Soon after, he murdered nearly everyone of any talent and virtue in the Senate, corrupted the courts so badly that any judgment could be bought, accumulated a large harem of around 300 little boys, and promoted the most avaricious people into positions of prominence.  He robbed the rich and impoverished the empire with lavish games and parties.  He even became a gladiator, and slew slaves who were too smart to put up a serious fight.  During his reign the most contemptible people in Roman society returned -- the informants, who enriched themselves by bringing malicious slander to the emperor and having rich men executed without trial.  All of Rome suffered under Commodus; which is another way of saying they suffered because of Marcus Aurelius.

The second terrible parent I'll mention is Severus, one of the three major generals who fought one another for the position of emperor.  Out of the three Roman generals, Severus was the wisest and most capable of ruling Rome, and immediately put into place a series of reforms that ended the political murders, corruption, and profligacy of the Roman government.

During his reign nearly everything improved to a state almost as tranquil as that under Marcus Aurelius; but he had two children who were completely useless -- one known as Caracalla, and the other known as Geta.  The distinguishing mark of these two brothers (aside from their effeminacy and their uselessness) was their mutual hatred of each other and desire for the empire.  Caracalla believed he should rule by birthright; his brother ignored his age, and made himself popular with the people and the military.

When it came time for Severus to choose anyone he liked to succeed him to the empire, he found not only that he was incapable of choosing anyone other than his worthless sons, but that he wasn't even able to choose between them.  And so doing what amounts to the stupidest thing possible, he chose two people who hated each other to share the imperial power equally.

The results of his policy were nearly immediate: upon the death of Severus his two sons divided the empire and the younger son was murdered.  Caracalla through a series of lies was able to win the army to his side, which he kept loyal by a policy of bribes and laxity which impoverished the state and made the army ungovernable.  But when Caracalla murdered 20,000 citizens for being "friends" of Geta, ruined the wealthiest families by confiscation and assassination, and murdered his closest advisors and even cities for the tiniest of displeasures, even the overpaid soldiers were forced into acts of self-preservation.  Caracalla was murdered, and the state was given off to someone who was less dangerous, but ultimately incapable of managing it: the ill-fated Macrinus.

The reason I'm telling you this is because I've realized this week that parenting has been much more difficult than I thought, and I'm frustrated because my expectations have been unrealistic.  Not only have I found you more unruly than I expected, but I've found myself less authoritative than I wanted.  I've come to a point where I realize that all the easiest moments were during your infancy -- and that as you develop your personality, your vices are becoming readily apparent.  It's my job to train them out of you.   I don't know if I have the balls to do it.

There's a question every parent asks himself when he has to first discipline his child, and that is whether or not his child is going to hate him.  The question doesn't make us weak, but the way we answer it may.  Marcus Aurelius and Severus despite their many virtues answered it wrongly.  They could handle their own passions and warfare and fathering the Roman empire, but their children were too difficult for them.  Softness conquered where hardness had no sway.  Fighting the barbarians on the frontiers was easier for these men than parenting, and parenting proved more ruinous for the empire than the invading barbarians.

People on the left are fond of saying that hatred is the thing that keeps us apart; but laissez-faire parents and the monsters they breed prove that "love" can be equally dangerous.  They breed men who our humanity requires us to hate.  They make people too unmannered to keep any company, too incapable of controlling their feelings, and too selfish to consider the feelings of others.   I remember attending a party in which a sixish-year-old boy screamed at his parents for five minutes, only to get a soft reprieve and an eye-roll from his father.  At that point I didn't want to see the child grabbed by the ear and dragged off into the distance.  I wanted to see it happen to his father.

And so this morning I've resolved that because I love you and want to continue to love you, I'm going to develop your character whether you love me or not.  I've decided that the kind of person you are is more important than the kind of person you believe me to be; because my judgment is refined, and yours is (at the moment of my writing this) piss-poor.  If you end up hating me, then so be it -- but it is better than me hating myself.  And I will hate myself if you turn out a mess and I didn't do anything to stop it.

What I'm trying to say is that today you begin your civilization.  Tomorrow when you read this, you will respect me -- and then you will like me.  A parent who gets them backwards gets neither.  Or he could get worse.  He could get Commodus.

Your father,

*The reign of Nero also began promisingly, with just decisions and the resulting popular favor

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