Liberty Matters

“What’s In a Name?”

There were some aspects of the Roman senate that attracted the attention of early modern thinkers and some that were happily left where they lay. In the former category, one finds the senate's judicial functions, which were the subject of curiosity and emulation to such a degree that in some places the terms "senatus" and "curia" came to be used interchangeably. Among the Roman senate's forgotten functions, its religious duties seem to me to stand out, something that is not surprising given the place of Christianity in early modern European politics. If Machiavelli and Madison tell us why it makes sense to study a senate and emulate at least some of the elements of the Roman version of that institution, Professor Moses reminds us that we are facing a new version of an old problem: the challenge of introducing moderating forces into a regime that forcefully tends in one direction. Moses eloquently describes the extent of contemporary democratic distrust of anything that is or is perceived to be anti-democratic.
If the problems with the word "senate" are more readily apparent, those stemming from the word "Roman" are no less important. While in early modern times a basic knowledge of Roman history was a warranted assumption, that is no longer the case. This otherwise indifferent curricular minutia seems to me to have some important consequences. For our purposes, the most immediate is that most people nowadays are unaware of the variations in Roman history that might lead one to think of the senate as a moderating force, even a safeguard against tyranny. Even among academic historians, it is not unusual to hear the term "Roman" used in ways that leave one unsure as to which of the periods that Professor Sabetti listed one is talking about. The differences between them, as Sabetti notes, are vast and crucial, but they are currently lost in what is increasingly becoming a caricature of an irrelevant past. Therein, the idea that a body of aristocratic citizens could have played a role in preserving freedom is simply lost. Further barriers are erected by the contemporary certainty that anything old was morally inferior and, therefore, to be dismissed. Rome is likelier to evoke images of war and conquest than of elaborate political institutions and thoughtful legislation. Thus, even if one were open to the proposition that not all political institutions in a democracy should be purely democratic—which, as Moses observes, is inimical to the democratic spirit of our age—it would still be challenging to accept that an aristocratic institution of one of the world's most aggressive states is the thing to be emulated.
Yet, the uncomfortable questions that arise from that realization are the very ones that contemporary democratic citizens need to ask themselves. Moses raised the key issue of excellence. One of the reasons why early modern thinkers gave serious thought to an aristocratic institution was that it was inconceivable to them that a polity without an aristocracy could exist. Listening to contemporary American and European political language, one might think that our world has achieved what no other could, but aristocratic and oligarchic elements are everywhere in contemporary democratic societies, despite profuse assurances to the contrary. To questions of aristocracy and oligarchy, I would add others about the relationship between expansion, conflict, and freedom, precisely the challenges that Machiavelli, Madison, and others grappled with. Markus Fischer has used the apt term "rapacious republicanism" to describe Machiavelli's lessons from Rome's rise, and that term seems to me pregnant with pressing questions about the material conditions of liberty that contemporary democratic thought and especially political discourse prefer not to raise. All this returns me to Professor Kewes' call for a return to the study of the Roman senate in early modern political thought. I do not harbor illusions that Sabetti's Contarini, my Bodin, and Kewes' Zamojski and Manutius will change the minds of any democratic citizens about historical and contemporary institutions, but I do hope that they will complicate even a little bit the overwhelming ease with which scholars of politics follow the crowd.