Thursday, September 07, 2006

"Scribble, scribble, scribble..."

", Mr. Gibbon?" Thus is Lord Chesterfield reported to have greeted Edward Gibbon as their paths crossed one day in eighteenth-century London. Chesterfield, of course, was a bit of a scribbler himself, as evidenced by his once-popular letters to his illegitimate son, so perhaps he was just paying friendly tribute to a fellow author. But Gibbon's masterful "Decline and Fall" far outweighed (six volumes to one) Chesterfield's output in both bulk and literary merit; he who scribbles best laughs last.

Churchill is said (by himself) to have "devoured" Gibbon's magnum opus, the full title of which is "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," and seems to have modelled his own elegant prose on Gibbon's example. And both men were attracted to and wrote about history; Churchill even made some himself, for that matter. For them, the past was prologue, and they well knew that those who do not learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

How, then, shall we in 2006 view Gibbon's analysis of the ancient Romans? A letter in this month's "Harvard Magazine" suggests that as the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire, and the rule of law was overthrown, their civilization sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Can it happen here?

Garry Trudeau has been portraying President Bush as a centurion's helmet (although of late the introduction of St. Edward's crown suggests that there is some thought to making the Bush family into a hereditary monarchy, with Princess Jenna as the heir apparent). Behind Trudeau's humor lies the reality of Gitmo and the lawless - dare one say imperialistic? - behavior of America in the world at large. "Why do they hate us?" I remember asking after the events of 9/11. I no longer wonder.

Now the President is seeking to legitimize the law-breaking of the past by passing new laws that make heretofore illegal behavior legal. It's an interesting approach, and has the virtue of at least paying lip service to the rule of law. But the further we stray from the Bill of Rights - the principles for which we rebelled against King George III - the more we become like the oppressor, not the oppressed. Pogo said it well: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." King George IV, anyone?

As I recall, it was when the Romans did away with those pesky, inconvenient elections and started appointing First Consuls for life that things began to get sticky. Pretty soon you had the emperors, and shortly after that you saw Caligula make his horse a senator. Hitherto, we in America have only had some horses' posteriors in the Senate; will we, too, see the day when a full-grown horse climbs the steps of the Capitol?

It can't happen here, you say, and I hope you are right. But I'm sure Cicero would have said the same thing, back in the glory days of the Roman Republic.


Blogger saraclaradara said...

It *IS* happening here.

That's the scary part.

We've got a chimp in the White House.

September 17, 2006 10:29 PM  

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