On the greatness of Rome: a review of a review

Dear Hannah,

Anyone with any brains knows that in order for you to be successful in any endeavor, you have to have two things.  The first is circumstances good enough to make your endeavor possible, and the second is the ability to take advantage of those circumstances.

To believe you only need one of them is to believe wrongly; but to believe wrongly in two different sides of a matter is to end up with different results.  If we believe that against all odds we're going to win with a little genius and a lot of elbow grease, we'll soon discover whether we'll win.  If we focus mainly on the circumstances and say winners are only lucky, we'll probably sit around hoping someone else will do things for us.  Which is why so many of us register as Democrats.

The fact that so much of our lives is beyond our control is an obvious fact; but it isn't the only fact.  The other fact is we never know what we're capable of until we try.  And when I read a review in The Economist about how the Romans were only powerful because they were lucky, I'm forced to out the writer as a leftist.  Only a leftist would say, after studying the obvious virility and courage and genius of the Romans, that the Romans were only powerful because they were lucky.  It's the same voice that says the Americans changed the world because the bullets went through Washington's coat instead of his chest, or that Protestant countries only survived because the ocean swallowed the Spanish Armada.  Of course Protestantism survived and America changed the world for the better.  But if there's any reason they did, it's because neither of them were run by the Spaniards.

It was also said that the Romans stumbled into success because they were forced to adjust their politics on the fly.  If this isn't proof of Roman genius then there isn't proof of any genius.  If the genius of Rome was their original constitution then it's a testament to the genius of Numa, not a testament to the genius of the Romans.  If countries were constitutionally static then they would be intellectually stagnant*. 

Genius is a measure of our ability to adapt to our circumstances, not to beat them all before we get there.  The Romans did things on the fly because life happens on the fly.  They saw the way the wind was blowing, and their understanding of a political reality, combined with their ability to determine what to do with it, is the definition of political genius.  To have one genius who lays the law is to have a master.  To have a single famous leader is to be given a surprise.  To have hundreds of years of successes is to have a lot of careful parents.  To be known for establishing law and order across the wild world of antiquity is to be nothing less than godlike.

What the author failed to realize is that the only other country to have an empire anywhere close to the glory and grandeur of the Romans is also a country without a streamlined constitutional ideology.  In fact, it's a country accused by Thomas Paine of not even having a constitution.  Anyone who's remotely familiar with English law knows that England is a matter of patchwork; and we know this not only because the patchwork was stitched over the course of a millenium, but because the principles framing England's laws have often been found to be contradictory.  If this makes England an accident then the greatest accidents ever made were English. If this makes the English dunces, then praise the Lord -- for the Lord has used the foolish things to shame the wise (who happen to write for The Economist).

The great danger of an article like The Economist's is that by suggesting that the greatest nations were a matter of accident, they're suggesting there's nothing we can really learn from them.  It implies that there's nothing to learn about liberty, or manners or ethics, or religions, or law.  And when we're convinced there's nothing to learn, we're convinced that nothing's deserved.  Everyone's success is handed to them, and so it can be taken from them and given to someone else who wasn't as lucky.  We admire men for their wealth instead of their virtue, in jealousy and not in admiration, to take and not to mimic, to shame and not to celebrate.  The outcome of a philosophy of accidents is robbery and tyranny.  The outcome of a philosophy of self-mastery is liberty and prosperity.  The former belongs to the Soviets and the denizens of Detroit.  The latter belongs to the Romans and the English.

Your father,

*Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the Mexicans copied our constitution almost exactly, only to end up with a murderous wasteland.  Solon once replied, when told that the Athenian constitution was the greatest ever made, that it was only the best the Athenians would accept. The spirit of the lawgiver has to be equaled by the people who receive him, or else his legislation is a waste of time.