Thursday, August 23, 2018

Liberty, Responsibility, and Character in Plutarch's "Parallel Lives"

From the Online Library of Liberty:

"The concise biographies of famous Greek and Roman men (Parallel Lives) written by the Greek philosopher and priest Plutarch under the early Roman Empire are true classics in the literature of Western civilization. Following the Renaissance’s rediscovery of ancient Greek literature, his Parallel Lives inspired leading authors and thinkers. Montaigne, Shakespeare, Dryden, Rousseau, and Emerson––all were avid readers of Plutarch. The public loved Plutarch, too: from the founding of this country until well into the nineteenth century, a translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives was the second most likely book to be found in American homes, following only the Bible. Plutarch’s biographies were regarded as essential reading for young people because they revealed in dramatic fashion just how much character mattered in moral choices.

Plutarch writes biographies focused on individual character, not the details of history. Therefore, he explores his subjects’ characters and their responses as free and responsible individuals to moral challenges, whether posed by small things or momentous events. Plutarch concentrates on crucial moments in their lives at which they face difficult decisions. When right and wrong are not obvious in these situations, Plutarch is not reluctant to judge his subjects, but in the end he expects his readers to shoulder the task of evaluating the wisdom of the choices his subjects make. Plutarch’s goal in his biographies is to present readers with examples of conduct to imitate and to avoid in their own lives. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives therefore has important insights into liberty and responsibility. These qualities combine to make the Parallel Lives a worthy candidate for [study and discussion] by high school teachers [and their students], who daily face issues of character and morality and thus can bring some important insights into these texts.

I: Alcibiades and Athenian Democracy. ...As Plutarch reveals, Alcibiades of Athens was an individual whose great talents and advantages in life were matched by his desire and ambition. His aristocratic birth, his wealth, his brilliance, and his freedom of action in Athens’s democratic society and politics gave him both a high level of individual liberty and of personal responsibility for the fate of his homeland. He could have led Athens to victory in the Peloponnesian War in defense of its independence and imperial power, but instead he fled into exile when attacked politically and gave strategic and tactical advice to the Spartans, gravely damaging Athenian prospects in the war. This ...raise[s] issues of the intersection of private conduct and public leadership in Alcibiades’ career, especially in the context of ancient Athenian democracy and the contested issue of whether it privileged equality at the expense of liberty. Finally, ...consider whether a commitment to individual liberty can ever justify betrayal of one’s homeland.

II: Coriolanus and the Roman Republic. ...As in the case of Alcibiades, he was, as Plutarch shows, a man of tremendous talent and equally powerful ambition. ...[C]onsider what went wrong in his career and where responsibility lies for his failure at Rome. He was a citizen with the social rank to enjoy individual liberty in early Republican Rome, yet he betrayed his country in war. Did he fail to balance his liberty with a concomitant sense of responsibility? Plutarch offers judgments in his short comparison of Alcibiades and Coriolanus...

III: Alexander: Conqueror or Liberator? The biography of Alexander the Great opens with our best surviving description of Alexander’s youth and the formation of his character. Plutarch narrates Alexander’s tortured relationship with his father, king Philip of Macedon, and his mother, the foreign Queen Olympias, the formation of his character as a youth, the tumultuous events surrounding his father's assassination, and his violent accession to the kingship of Macedon and the hegemony over Greece. Plutarch paints a fascinating and evocative picture of a young man nurtured by conflicting forces: the violent, hard-drinking machismo of Macedonian society and the intellectual aspirations instilled by history’s most distinguished tutor, Aristotle.  ...[C]onsider what effects Alexander’s upbringing had on his astonishing career as a conqueror and diffuser of Greek civilization in the territories of the former Persian Empire.

IV: The Personality and Politics of Julius Caesar. Plutarch shows Caesar yearning to equal Alexander’s fame and struggling to gain power in the violent politics of the disintegrating Roman Republic. Like the other men whose biographies we are reading, Caesar must wrestle with the issue of how to balance his desire for personal glory with his responsibility to his community. ...[W]hy does Caesar [become] so wildly popular at Rome and also why he encounters such bitter opposition from a faction of the senatorial elite[?] ...[Do] the reactions to Caesar reflected traditional Roman attitudes to the liberty and responsibility of the different social classes at Rome[?] This question becomes more pressing as the story of Caesar proceeds. In the later years of his life, a dilemma arises that provoked his murder and destroyed the republic: how a charismatic leader should suppress anarchy and restore peace after civil war without ruling as a king and therefore abolishing the liberty of the citizens by turning them into subjects.

V: Antony as Roman General and Politician. The life of Mark Antony provides appropriate material for the meeting’s final two sessions because it is significantly longer than the other lives and also describes Cleopatra and her plans to remake the Mediterranean world politically. Plutarch starts out by describing Antony's family background, the early evidence for his character as revealed in adolescent improprieties and worse, and the development of his ambiguous political relationship with Caesar. Plutarch then shows how Antony’s ambitions for power after Caesar’s assassination contribute to the turmoil that explodes into another civil war, one that would end the republic and bring to power Octavian, the eventual founder of the Roman Empire (as the first emperor, Augustus). As with Alcibiades, ... how important Antony’s outrageous private conduct is in influencing the deterioration of the public sphere in his homeland: does he misuse his personal liberty so seriously that his behavior amounts to shirking his responsibility as a free Roman citizen of elite status?

VI: Antony and Cleopatra. In the latter part of the biography of Antony, Plutarch provides our best surviving evidence for Antony’s erotic and political entanglement with the remarkable Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Plutarch implicitly poses the question of whether the pair’s personal passions fatally undermine their innovative plans for ruling the eastern Mediterranean world as a shared Roman-Egyptian sphere of interest. Plutarch depicts in detail Antony’s indecisiveness and enslavement to passion, character flaws that turn out to be fatal in the face of Octavian’s cold and calculating approach to life, love, and politics. ...[C]onsider in what sense Antony and Cleopatra are free actors in this drama, and what would have been the effects on individual and political liberty in the Mediterranean world if they had been successful instead of Octavian.

[Each of these lives] depict extraordinary individuals who, through the force of their characters and the power of their actions, had extraordinary effects on their societies. Since they were all free citizens, not subjects, they could operate with liberty, and they had corresponding responsibilities."

From Article and Lesson Outline at:

References to Plutarch’s Lives. The Translation called Dryden’s. Corrected from the Greek and Revised by A.H. Clough, in 5 volumes (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1906)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Abraham Lincoln and the Constitution

by Jeffrey Sikkenga, Ashbrook Center

“…Abraham Lincoln entered the presidency with a deeply developed view of the Constitution’s meaning and significance. Alluding to Proverbs 25, he called it the “picture of silver” inside of which was the “apple of gold,” the Declaration of Independence.[1] “I never had a feeling politically,” Lincoln declared, “that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” especially the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” in their God-given natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Indeed, from his earliest days in politics, Lincoln maintained that equality of natural rights “is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest.” Americans are not bound together “by blood,” he declared; rather, it “is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” It was the Declaration, not the Constitution, which formed the moral and political basis of the Union. The Declaration made Americans into “We the People” who then gave the Constitution its authority by their consent. 

Unlike some people (especially abolitionists), however, Lincoln’s love of the Declaration never led him to denounce the Constitution or think that it should be set aside when it seemed to be in conflict with the principles of the Declaration. The Declaration and the Constitution had to go hand-in-hand so “that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or broken.” Both were charters of freedom, and both part of the same great end: self-government. 

Thus, throughout his public life, Lincoln spoke and acted to keep the two together. In his early political career he was part of the Whig Party (before it disintegrated), and he embraced the “Whig” view that Congress has broad power under the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause to finance internal improvements like roads, canals, and railroads. Lincoln accepted this view of the Constitution not out of party loyalty but because of political principle: in his view, developing the country’s resources was a vital way to encourage the people to exercise (and be attached to) their rights, especially the right to the fruit of their own labor. For Lincoln, this right was “[m]ade so plain by our good Father in Heaven, that all feel and understand it, even down to brutes and creeping insects,” and the more individuals exercised their own right to labor, the more prosperous they would become and the more they would see the injustice of depriving others of their right. He therefore believed that the Constitution permitted federal policies that promoted the progress of free labor, which would show “to the world that free men could be prosperous.” 

The idea of promoting “Liberty to all” through the Constitution (and not outside of it) underlay Lincoln’s view in the 1850s that Congress had the constitutional power to prohibit slavery in the Western Territories (because “negro slavery is violative of” the natural liberty and equality of human beings), but did not have the power to abolish slavery in the states where it existed at the time of adoption of the Constitution. The people of many of the states would not have agreed to immediate abolition in 1787, so the Convention did not grant Congress the power. But in Article IV, section 3, the Constitution did specifically give Congress the “Power to make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting” the Territories, and so—in accord with “the great fundamental principle” of equality—it could prohibit slavery in the Western Territories as the earliest Congress did in the Northwest Territory that became Ohio, Michigan, and other states. Where Congress did not have power from the Constitution, it could not interfere with slavery; but where it did, Lincoln believed, it must promote freedom. 

He knew that the Supreme Court had rejected his view in the 1858 Dred Scott decision. But, Lincoln said, the Supreme Court is not the Constitution itself, and the Constitution does not say that the Court has the final say on its meaning. The job of interpreting the Constitution belongs just as much to the president and Congress, and ultimately to the people themselves. Supreme Court decisions therefore bind everyone else only when they are indisputably “fully settled,” and Dred Scott clearly was not. In Lincoln’s view, the people and their representatives too must interpret the document because, as he told the country in his First Inaugural Address, “if the policy of the government on vital questions affecting the whole people … is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court … the people will have ceased to be their own rulers.” 

The same constitutional views guided Lincoln in his speeches and actions as president, including his most famous. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he was very concerned that, as president, he had to articulate a constitutional basis for emancipation; so he did not free all the slaves in the US or even in all the slave states. Citing the constitutional power of commander in chief, the Proclamation freed slaves only in states where the people were “in rebellion against the United States,” and then only on the ground that it was “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.” Lincoln was criticized by those who thought he should do much more, and by those who thought he had no power to do what he did. He believed both criticisms were wrong constitutionally: where he had power as president, he could advance the principles of freedom; where he did not have the constitutional power, he could not. Even in his most controversial actions during the Civil War—such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus—Lincoln claimed that he always tried to follow the letter of the Constitution as closely as possible, given the overriding importance of saving the Union, without which “the Government itself would go to pieces.” 

Lincoln believed that the “picture of silver” must not be tarnished in word or deed because it embodies what James Madison described as “that honorable determination, which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government” (The Federalist #39). In ratifying the Constitution through their “reflection and choice,” the American people made the idea of “the equal rights of men” into the organizing principle of their law and their lives. They made freedom their own. In Lincoln’s view, the success of the Constitution demonstrated that they made the right choice—that ordinary men and women really can govern themselves on principles of justice, not just self-interest. Freedom can work for everyone

This was always Lincoln’s great concern: ensuring that the American people remained true to the constitutional principles of natural rights and the rule of law from their Founding. Even in his crowning constitutional act—the 13th Amendment—Lincoln saw himself not as changing the principles of the Founders’ Constitution but as making its words indisputably reflect its principles. At moments of national crisis, the Constitution and its principles didn’t need to evolve; they just needed to be remembered. They didn’t need to be updated; they just needed to be practiced. This was Lincoln’s constitutional lesson to the people of his day, and it is his lesson for us today…”
[1] Concerning the relationship of the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln wrote the following meditation on Proverbs 25:11 (“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”): ... “[The prosperity of the United States] is not the result of accident. It has a philosophic cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of "Liberty to all" -- the principle that clears the path for all -- gives hope to all -- and, by consequence, enterprise and industry to all. The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government and consequent prosperity. The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word "fitly spoken" which has proven an "apple of gold" to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple -- not the apple for the picture.  So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, bruised or broken … That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.” Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham LincolnVolume 4, p. 168 (italics in original).