"Well, Govan, if we must die, let us die like men."
Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne
Joined: 08 Mar 2007
|Posted: Post subject: Don Vito Corleone, Friendship and the American Regime
by Paul Rahe
The opening scene of Francis Ford Coppola's classic film The Godfather is justly famous, but unjustly neglected for what is tell us about the kind of political society in which we live. Connie, the daughter of Mafia Don Vito Corleone, has just been married, and a celebration is taking place in the ample backyard of her parents' Long Island home. Inside the home, her father is doing business, conferring with a series of visitors who have come to ask for his help. They know that a Sicilian can deny no one's request on the day his daughter is married. In any case, Connie's father is known to be a generous man. As Mario Puzo puts it in the book that inspired the film:
Don Vito Corleone was a man to whom everybody came for help, and never were disappointed. He made no empty promises, nor the craven excuse that his hands were tied by more powerful forces in the world than himself. It was not necessary that he be your friend, it was not even important that you had no means with which to repay him. Only one thing was required. That you, you yourself proclaim your friendship. And then, no matter how poor or powerless the supplicant, Don Corleone would take that man's troubles to his heart. And he would let nothing stand in the way of a solution to that man's woe. His reward? Friendship, the respectful title of "Don," and sometimes the more affectionate salutation of "Godfather." And perhaps, to show respect only, never for profit, some humble gift—a handmade wine or a basket of peppered tralles specially bake to grace his Christmas table. It was understood, it was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service.
Among Don Corleone's visitors is an undertaker whom the Don greets with a marked lack of enthusiasm. He is at the wedding because his wife is a close friend of Don Corleone's spouse; Mrs. Corleone is, in fact, godmother to their daughter. But the two men do not share the affection that unites their wives.
The undertaker has a story to tell. "I raised my daughter in the American fashion," the man begins. "I believe in America. America has made my fortune. I gave my daughter her freedom and yet taught her never to dishonor her family." But eventually a problem presented itself. "She found a boyfriend, not an Italian. She went to the movies with him. She stayed out late. But he never came to meet her parents. I accepted all this without a protest, the fault is mine." The results were too predictable:
Two months ago he took her for a drive. He had a masculine friend with him. They made her drink whiskey and then tried to take advantage of her. She resisted. She kept her honor. They beat her. Like an animal. When I went to the hospital she had two black eyes. Her nose was broken. Her jaw shattered. They had to wire it together. She wept through her pain. 'Father, Father, why did they do it? Why did they do this to me. And I wept.
"Why did I weep?" he asks. "She was the light of my life, an affectionate daughter. A beautiful girl. She trusted people and now she will never trust them again. Then after a pause, he continues:
I went to the police like a good American. The two boys were arrested. They were brought to trial. The evidence was overwhelming and they pleaded guilty. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison and suspended the sentence. They went free that very day. I stood in the courtroom like and a fool and those bastards smiled at me. And then I said to my wife, "We must goto Don Corleone for justice."
Throughout, Vito Corleone has remained silent. When he speaks, it is only to ask, "Why did you goto the police? Why didn't you come to me at the beginning of this affair? the undertaker carefully sidesteps the question. "What do you want of me?" he asks. And when the Don inquires as to what he has in mind, he whispers something in his ear, and the Don responds, "That I cannot do. You are being carried away." Then the undertaker brings the conversation to an abrupt halt with the statement. "I will pay anything you ask."
In a voice that Puzo compares with "cold death," the Don replies, "We have known each other for many years, you and I, but until this day you never came to me for counsel or help. I can't remember the last time you invited me to your house for coffee though my wife is godmother to your only child. Let us be frank. You spurned my friendship. You feared to be in my debt." When the undertaker murmurs, "I didn't want to get into trouble," Don Corleone stops him.
The Don held up his hand. "No. Don't speak. You found America a paradise. You had a good trade, you made a good living , you thought the world a harmless place where you could take your pleasure as you willed. You never armed yourself with true friends. After all, the police guarded you, there were courts of law, you and yours come to no harm. You did not need Don Corleone. Very well. My feelings were wounded but I am not that sort of person who thrusts friendship on those who do not value it—on those who think me of little account." The Don paused and gave the undertaker a polite, ironic smile. "Now you come to me and ask, 'Don Corleone give me justice.' And you do not ask with respect. You do not offer me your friendship. You come into my home on the bridal day of my daughter and you ask me to murder and you say"—here the Don's voice became a scornful mimicry—'I will pay you anything.' No, No, I am not offended, but what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?
"America has been good to me," the undertaker exclaims. "I wanted to be a good citizen. I wanted my child to be an American." This elicits ironic applause from the Don:
"Well spoken. Very fine. Then you have nothing to complain about. The judged has ruled. America has ruled. Bring your daughter flowers and a box of candy when you go visit her in the hospital. That will comfort her. Be content. After all, this is not a serious affair, the boys were young, high-spirited, and one of them is the son of a powerful politician... So give me your word that you will put aside this madness. It is not American. Forgive. Forget. Life is full of misfortunes.
When the undertaker asks again for justice, the Don responds contemptuously, "The court gave you justice." And then Vito Corleone nods as the undertaker denies the claim. "No," says the supplicant. "They gave the youths justice. They did not give me justice." And when asked what he means by justice, he replies, "An eye for eye." But, says the Don, "you asked for more... Your daughter is alive." And then undertaker gives way: "Let them suffer as she suffers." And in despair he adds, "How much shall I pay you?"
You go to the law courts and wait for months. You spend money on lawyers who know full well you are to be made a fool of. You accept judgment from a judge who sells himself like the worst whore in the streets. Years gone by, when you needed money, you went to the banks and paid ruinous interest... But if you had come to me, my purse would have been yours. If you had come to me for justice those scum who ruined your daughter would be weeping bitter tears this day. If by some misfortune an honest man like yourself made enemies they would become my enemies... and then, believe me, they would fear you."
Finally, the undertaker concedes: "Be my friend. I accept." With his hand on the man's shoulder, Don Corleone replies, "Good... you shall have your justice. Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service in return. Until that day, consider this justice a gift from my wife, your daughter's godmother."
Contract versus Friendship
The moral of the story is easy to draw: one cannot be "a good American" and be "armed" with what Don Corleone calls "true friends." Puzo brings this home by naming the undertaker "Amerigo"—after the Italian who discovered America—and by giving him the surname "Bonasera," which in Italian means "Good Night." By accepting Don Corleone's "gift" and agreeing to become his "friend," Amerigo Bonasera says good night to America.
Of course, none of this would matter were there not some truth to the claim intimated by Puzo and reiterated by Coppola. Can one be a "good American" and be "armed" with "true friends?" On the face of it, the answer should be yes. But we may well wonder. Clearly there is a radical difference between the republics of classic antiquity and our own, and that difference in turns, in part, on the status of friendship within the public realm.
No one steeped in ancient history can watch Coppola's film or read Puzo's novel without recalling the role of friendship—amitcitia—and what we now call "patronage" in the public life of ancient Rome. Amerigo Bonasera wants to confine his relationship with Vito Corleone to the contractual realm: he wants to pay up front for services rendered; he wants his freedom and autonomy, the independence required of a "good citizen;" he wants distance from the man about to act on his behalf; he has no desire to incur moral obligation, for he knows all too well that obligations of this sort can be crippling. Keeping a distance and retaining one's independence is part of what it means to be "a good American." Bonasera would easily understand why Americans might cringe at a waiter who simultaneously presents the menu and himself by his first name—thus intimating friendship. In the modern republic, dignity in the exchange of services depends on the distance established by formalities, on the impersonality of a relationship by contract.
Don Corleone insists that there is more at stake in the doing of a service. He is about to confer a favor—what the ancient Romans called a beneficium—and he asks for no payment in return. His services cannot be bought. When they are rendered, they are rendered solely as a "gift." Instead, he exacts reciprocity for this "gift" in a form perfectly familiar to students of anthropology. In return, he expects the offices that a client owes a patron, respect, deference, undying gratitude and its outward signs. Don Corleone insists that Bonasera's "first allegiance" be to him. He asks of Bonasera what the Romans called a deditio in fidem—his surrender to Corleone's faith, loyalty, or trust. Puzo summarizes this ancient order of relations in the scene with which Coppola ends his film, the passing on of succession to Vito Corleone's youngest son, Michael. As Michael's wife sees her husband accepting "homage" from his subordinates, she is reminded "of statutes in Rome, statues of those Roman emperors of antiquity, who, by divine right, held the power of life and death over throw their fellow men."
If we are to understood Don Corleone—and the premodern order of political life he represents—we must remember that our English word patron descends from pater, the Latin word for father. Don Corleone is very much the Roman paterfamilias. The Don claims paternal authority over his family and his subordinates, the true friends who entrust themselves to his care. The Don's preferred term "godfather" is, of course, a usage of the Christian church, and the authority the Don claims is something akin the Christian notion of "divine right."
Don Corleone insists—and his status depends on his insisting—that the relationship between himself and his subordinates is more than merely contractual. In fact, is is not contractual at all. It is moral and quasi-familial. In the classic understanding, friends are like kin—they are one's own kind. In Homer, the words for friends can be used to describe the members of one's own body. In the Greek and Roman worlds, one's friends, first of all, were members of one's own family, and then those outside the family whom one most loved. We still say of a man's familiars that they are like family.
The question is whether what I here call "the politics of friendship" is appropriate or acceptable to the modern political regime. If Don Corleone embodies the Old World ethic of "true friendship" and familial politics, as I think he does, the answer is clear: this kind of friendship of friendship and politics is foreign to the New World. The American regime is grounded in what I call "the politics of distrust."
In what follows, I will examine the role of friendship in the political order of premodern society; and, with the help of Niccolò Machiavelli, Michel de Montaigne, and Sir Francis Bacon, I will look at the suspicion of friendship that underpins impartial governance in the modern republic. The comparison will make some of the roots and political dangers of modern attempts—such as the program put forward by the advocates of multiculturalism—to base public policy on group membership rather than on an equality in individual rights.
Politics and Family
No civil society possessed a more fully developed understanding of what I call "the politics of friendship" than classical Rome. Nowhere is the tradition of patronage exemplified by Don Corleone more visible. Our most important terms for this politics of friendship derive from Latin: patron from patronus and client from cliens. As early as the Twelve Tables (circa 450 BC), patronage was given sanction at Rome. In Roman primeval law, a patron who betrayed a client was said to be sacer or sacred. To grasp what this means, we must consider the etymology our word "sacrifice"—which derives from two Latin words, meaning "to make sacred." to sacrifice an animal on the altar, to roast and distribute the flesh, to burn and offer up the fat and the bones—this was to make the animal sacred. At Rome, the betrayal of a client was a matter of supreme seriousness. it was a political and religious infraction that rendered the perpetrator sacer—worthy of death. It was comparable to betraying a member of one's own family. Indeed, the client was a marginal member of what the Romans called the familia. The politics of friendship is the politics of family, involving one's familiares—those who are near and dear.
Roman legend conceived of the familia as the bulwarks of liberty. Thus, to avenge the rape of Lucretia by Sextus, son of Tarquinius Superbus, Brutus led her father and husband in ousting the monarchy of the Tarquins and then founded the Roman Republic. Another story recounts how Verginus, in order to preserve his daughter Virginia's virtue against the lust of Appius Claudius (one of the ten extraordinary ruling magistrates or decemvirs,) took his daughter's life and then employed this act public act to stir up the plebian secession that restored political freedom to Rome.
There is a sense in which the republic—the public thing or res republica—comes into existence for the sake of the household—the private thing or res privata. The public order does not just fulfill needs that the private order cannot meet, but it preserves and defends the chastity essential to the integrity of the private order. To say that the family takes precedence over the political community would be to exaggerate. After all, when Brutus caught his sons plotting to overthrow the republic, he saw to their execution. And if the story of Lucretia teaches anything, it is that the res privata depeneds for its very survival on the res republica: Brutus cannot prefer his sons to Rome at the same time undermining the foundations of his relationship with them.
What is the res privata, or household? As its name suggests, it is a realm of privation or deprivation because it cannot satisfy all needs, such as friendship and virtue (which in Aristole are closely linked,) the practice of virtue and the happy life. Aristotle makes clear in the Politics that the political community may come to have a public purpose that transcends the private reasons for which it came into existence in the first place. But as Aristotle's critique of the community of wives and property in Plato's Republic reminds us, the res publica depends for its continued existence on the integrity of theres privata: it cannot be cut loose from its origins; and, as a purposive entity, it remains suspended forever between the mundane needs that called into existence and the noble activities that its existence makes possible. The res publica is neither fish nor fowl.
The Politics of Friendship
Friendship is everywhere in the ethical and political writings of the ancients. Homer makes it a central theme in The Illiad. Sophocles explore it in depth. Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero gave it careful consideration. No one seems to doubt that understanding the nature of friendship is vital to understanding what it means to be a good citizen, to be a good man, and to live the good life.
In Greece, one frequently encounters "the politics of friendship." In Plato's Republic, when Socrates asks Polemarchus what justice is, he has a ready answer: justice is helping one's friends and harming one's enemies. This was the common sense of the matter—strange as it seems to us—and Sophocles devotes a great deal of attention in his surviving tragedies to exploring its implications. Aristotle distinguished between friendship grounded in pleasure, friendship grounded in utility, and friendship grounded in virtue, while tacitly conceding that most friendships are at least in some measure grounded in all three. Patron-client relations may not have been the prominent role in Greek politics that they did in Roman life, but there is no doubt that friendship was central to Greek popular ethics. Perhaps it would be best to say that in Greece the politics of friendship took another—perhaps, the other—form.
Here again foundation myths are revealing. The Athenian analogue to the legends of Lucretia and Virginia is the story of two lovers, Marmodious and Aristogeiton. Despite the best efforts of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Aristotle to persuade the Athenians otherwise, the man in the street persisted in tracing the origins of Athenian liberty to these two homosexual lovers who were putatively responsible for expelling the Peisistratid tyrants from Athens. The Athenians set up statues of these men in the agora or public square. In the cities of ancient Greece, the role allotted Lucretia and Virginia at Rome seems ordinarily to have been assigned to adolescent boys. In verses that would be sung at symposia for generations, the poets of Hellas celebrated the feats of lovers—subjected to torture or killed in the end—who fought to protect their young favorites from the lust of tyrants. Antileon was so remembered in south Italy; in Agrigentum, Melannipus and his young beloved, Chariton, were honored for their plot against the tyrant Phalaris and for their steadfast refusal, when caught, to divulge the names of their fellow conspirators. By the same token, tyranny was thought a direct assault on the skein of personal relations that made of the city a men's club. Political participation was supposed to foster friendship, while the stereotypical tyrant seemed as incapable of having friends himself as he was of allowing others that much-treasured possession. To be a good Spartan, a good Theban, a good Athenian, a good Roman was to be "armed" with "true friends."
The Politics of Distrust
In modern times, the subject of friendship is hardly ever discussed. Apart from Montaigne and Bacon, no thinkers of the first rank ever bother to address the question. And neither of these two essayists can be listed among the advocates of friendship in politics. Montaigne treats true friendship as a phenomenon so rare that in ordinary life it cannot be relied on, while Bacon intimates that is chemrical.
Montaigne's discussion of friendship begins as a lament concerning its virtual absence in the world. True friendship is "so perfect and entire that few such can ever be read about, and no tract at all of it can be found among men today. It is so rare, he observes, that "Fortune can achieve it once in three centuries."
What of family? The family—far form forming a natural society of friends and allies—is in Montaigne's view an obstacle to perfect friendship. Between fathers and their children, murder is more likely than perfect friendship. Perfect friendship cannot exist between parent and child:
because of their excessive inequality; it might also interfere with their natural obligations: for the secret thoughts of fathers cannot be shared with their children for for fear of begatting an unbecoming intimacy.
Nor, he adds, can children presume to counsel their fathers. Indeed,
there have been peoples where it was custom for children to kill their fathers, and for fathers to kill their children to avoid the impediment which each constitute for the other: one depends naturally on the downfall of the other.
Similar obstacles bar true friendship between brothers. As Montaigne puts it, "sharing out property or dividing it up, with the wealth of one becoming the poverty of the other, can wondrously melt and weaken the solder binding brothers together." In any case, the relationship of brothers—and, for that matter, all relationships of consanguinity—is dictated by convention and lacks the crucial element: "willing freedom."
What of marriage? Montaigne grants that "willing freedom" no doubt plays a role in marriage, but marital friendship suffers from other burdens:
Apart from being a bargain where only the entrance is free (its duration being fettered and constrained, depending on things outside our will,) it is a bargain struck for other purposes; within it you will soon have to unsnarl hundreds of extraneous tangled ends, which are enough to break the thread of a living passion and to trouble its course.
According to Montaigne, the effectual truth of friendship is a mutual utility. Even outside the family, where "willing freedom" can be presumed, friendship in virtually all cases turns out to be defective. Except with regards to "the unique, highest friendship," which "loosens all other bonds" and "is moreover the rarest thing to find the world," Montaigne argues that "you must proceed from wisdom and caution, keeping the reins in your hands: the bond is not so well tied that there is no reason to doubt it." He even cites with approval the adage: "Love a friend... as though some day you must hate him: hate him, as though you must love him."
With rare and neglible circumstances, Montaigne believes that alliances "only get hold of us by on end." In these circumstances:
we need simply to provide against such flaws as specifically affect that end. It cannot matter to me what the religion of my doctor or my lawyer is: that consideration has nothing in common with the friendly services which they owe to me. And in such commerce as arises at home with my servants I act the same way: I make few inquiries about the chastity of my footman: I want to know if he is hard-working: I am less concerned by a mule-driver who gambles than by one who is an idiot, or by a cook who swears than by one who is incompetent. It is not my concern to tell the world how to behave (plenty of others do that) but how I behave in it... For the intimate companionship of my table I choose the agreeable not the wise; in my bed, beauty comes before virtue; in my social conversation, ability—even without integrity. And so on.
By the time Montaigne concludes this discussion, his lament concerning the virtual absence of true friendship in the world has become an argument hinting that religious toleration and civility has become an argument hinting that religious toleration and civility can be sustained in a society which utility—not moral judgment—dictates the pattern of human relationships. That an experienced soldier in the midst of a religious civil war entertained such a proposition in the midst of religious civil war entertained such a proposition should not escape our attention. Montaigne's contemporaries and successors through a number of generations were acutely of the historical context within which he penned this passage. Figures such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Adam Smith took care to articulate in full the case for commercial society that Montaigne obliquely pointed out.
Like Montaigne, Francis Bacon set out to debunk the classical understanding of friendship, and he devoted two chapters to friendship. in the first, Bacon contests Aristotle's suggestion that someone who "delighted in solitude" might be a god rather than a wild beast. In denying to man the possibilty of achieving a godlike capacity for serene and solitary contemplation, Bacon denies to man the capacity for logos—for speech, for reason, for reflection—that he must possess, at least in some measure, if he is to be capable of a friendship transcending utility and the desperate craving men feel for a "discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart." Bacon emphasizes throughout the degree to which "those that want friends to open themselves unto are cannibals of their own hearts." Thus, when Bacon writes that "a natural and secret hatred and aversion towards society in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast," and when he contends that "it is a mere and miserable solitude to want true friends," he depicts what he takes to be natural man's state.
Bacon ends his second essay on friendship with a blunt admission that echoes Montaigne:
There is little friendship in the world, and least of all between equals, which was wont to be magnified. That that is, is between superior and inferior, whose fortunes may comprehend the one the other.
The examples Bacon presents in the first essay—the friendships between Sulla and Pompey, Caesar and Brutus, Augustus and Agrippa, Tiberius and Sejanus, and Septimius Severus andPlautianus—illustrate the conclusion of his second essay. Among other things, these examples suggest that he recognized perfectly well what Aristotle had in mind when he suggested that inequality is an obstacle to friendship and noted the relative friendliness of kings. Each friendship cited involves a relationship between "superior and inferior, whose fortunes" do, in fact, "comprehend the one the other"—at least for a time. Each friendship is, naturally enough, fraught with tension; all but that of Augustus with Agrippa ends in betrayal.
Bacon's approach is oblique. Like Montaigne, he accepts provisionally the inherited presumptions of his readers and then by indirection subverts those prejudices. His rhetoric is aimed at dispelling illusion and bringing home to his readers "what solitude is, and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where is no love.
The Perils of Friendship
Why the project to debunk the classical understanding of friendship? To understand, we must ponder the implications of Bacon's allusion to the fifteenth chapter of The Prince, in his acknowledgment that he is "much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do." In that famous chapter of The Prince, in which he presented his shocking suggestion that virtue and vice should be distinguished solely with an eye to "security and well-being," Machiavelli attacks the moral imagination. He is writing "a thing more useful for one who understands it," and so it is "more profitable" for him "to go behind to the effectual truth of the matter rather than to that matter as represented in the imagination."
Machiavelli thus dismisses as worthless the efforts of the "many"—his classical and Christian predecessors—who "have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in truth." He will expose the dichotomy of results between how men really live and how they have been taught they "ought to live": "he who abandons that which is done in favor of that which in favor of that which ought to be done learns rather his ruin than his preservation." The prince who would survive or "maintain himself" must "learn how not to be good," as the term is conveniently understood, and "use this knowledge or not as necessity demands." Such are "the modes and government" appropriate for dealing "with subjects or with friends."
The foundation of Machiavelli's teaching on politics and friendship—that one treat subjects and friends as enemies—in his Heraclitean claim that "all the things of men are in motion and cannot remain fixed: they must either rise or fall; and necessity leads you to things which reason does not lead you."
By this he means something akin to what Thomas Hobbes and David Hume had in mind when they asserted that reason is the slave of passions. As Machiavelli put it: "the human appetites are insatiable"; "by nature" human beings "desire everything" while "by fortune they are allowed to secure little"; and since "nature has created men in such fashion" they are "able to desire everything" but not "to secure everything," their "desire is alwys greater than their power of acquisition." As a consequence of this doctrine, the Florentine rejected Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, arguing that the pursuit of moderation is a species of folly; in a world in constant flux, there simply is not and cannot be "a middle road."
His position, which slyly attributed to "all who reason concerning civic life," is that anyone intent on setting up a republic and ordaining its laws must "presuppose that all men are wicked and that they will make use of the malignity of their spirit whenever they are free and have occasion to do so." Machiavelli thus advises rulers in ordinary circumstances to use against subjects and friends the very weapons that Cicero thinks a political community should employ only against enemies—and at that, only in time of war. On friendship, in the conduct of public life, one simply cannot rely.
Francis Bacon summarized the moral consequences of Machiavelli's understanding of the passions quite elegantly when he ascribed to his Florentine mentor two great principles. First,
that virtue itself a man should not trouble himself to attain, but only the appearance thereof to the world, because the credit and reputation of vritue is a help, but the use of it is a impediment.
that a politic man should have for the basis of his policy the assumption that men cannot fitly or safely be wrought upon otherwise than by fear; and should therefore endeavor to have every man, as far as he can contrive it, dependent and surrounded by straits and perils.
In short, in rejecting the politics of friendship, Machiavelli preached the politics of distrust. In The Prince, as one would expect, when he speaks of friends, he nearly always has clients, dependents, and the partisans in mind. It is telling that he follows the same practice in his Discourses on Livy. Never does he explore or even acknowledge the possibility that a friendship might exist between equals or be grounded in a common dedication to human excellence rather than in utility narrowly understood. In tacitly repudiating that possibility, he rejects the common-sense understanding of friendship articulated and probed in the writings of Homer, Sophocles, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and their medieval successors. Machiavelli scoffed at friendship, except the species of association that is derivative from calculations of self-interest.
A Productive Disunion
Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy
In the political sphere, this debunking of friendship had two implications. To begin with, it led Machiavelli to reject as chimera the classical and medieval quest for concord and to embrace, in its place, a politics of conflict. Those who are inclined to denounce a political turmoil and to argue for social and political harmony, he wrote, "have not considered how it is that in every republic there are two diverse humors—that of the people [popolo] and that of the great ones [grandi]—and that all the laws that are made in favor of liberty are born this disunion." He insisted that "good examples arise from good education, good education from good laws, and good laws from the tumults which many so inconsistently condemn.
The appetites of the two classes, the people and the great ones, vary. The people "have less of an appetite for usurpation" than the grandi. "The nobles" are motivated by "a grand desire for domination,: and the people act "solely from a desire not to be dominated." The former "desire to acquire" while the later "fear to lose what they have acquired." "The demands of a free people are seldom pernicious and rarely endanger their liberty," Machiavelli argues. "They arise from oppression ro from the suspicions they entertain that they are about to be oppressed; and then those opinions are false, there is a remedy in the public assemblies where a good man can stand up and, in speaking, demonstrate to the people that they are in error." He therefore recommended that "every city... have modes by which people can vent their ambition."
Machiavelli's debunking of friendship cause him to deny respectability to the role hitherto played by friendship in public life. In an important and as yet insufficiently appreciated passage in hisFlorentine Histories, he distinguishes between salutary and unhealthy political conflict, linking the latter with the acquisition of "reputation" by "private modes," which, we know, were prevalent in Rome. Public reputation, he writes,
is acquired by conquering in battle, acquiring a district, conducting a legation with care and with prudence, counseling the republic wisely and to good effect. Through private modes, it is acquired by doing favors for this or that other citizen, defending him from the magistrates, aiding him with money, securing for him undeserved honors, and by gratifying the plebs with public games and gifts. From this mode of proceeding are born sects and partisans, and the reputation thus earned wreaks harm as much as reputation helps when it is not mixed up with sects, because that reputation is founded on a common and not a private good.
Much could be said concerning this passage. For in denouncing the "private modes" by which citizens acquire reputation, Machiavelli is silently condemning as "corruption" much that is visible in the actual conduct of political affairs in republican Rome. In so doing, he severs the time-honored link between civic virtue and friendship—a link visible in Plato and Aristotle as it is in Cicero. And he prepares the way for the extraordinary emphasis that the moderns place on impersonal governance and on political, moral, economic and intellectual independence. The Rome depicted in his Discourses on Livy is neither classical nor Christian—and in it there is no place for Ciceronian amicitia.
The Modern Res Publica
One might ponder, in light of the question of friendship, the character of what is excluded from the world of public concern by modern social-contract theory. The absence of the theme of friendship, indeed the social debunking and banishment of friendship as a mode of politics from the modern political order, including that of the American regime, is more than merely striking.
One might ponder, in light of the question of friendship, the character of what is excluded from the world of public concern by modern social-contract theory. The absence of the theme of friendship, indeed the debunking and banishment of friendship as a mode of politics from the modern political order, including that of the American regime, is more than merely striking.
Friendship is found nowhere in that critic of early modernity, that apparent admirer of antiquity, that advocate of romantic love, Jean Jacques Rousseau. What is the role of friendship in the thinking of the greatest of the modern moralists, Immanuel Kant? What is the notion of virtue implicit in the peculiar selection of classical subjects made by the painter David?
One must also consider the link between Machiavelli's critique of the classical politics of friendship and John Adams' emphatic claim that
there must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty. And this public Passion must be superior to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and he happy to sacrifice their private Pleasures, Passions, and Interests, nay their private Friendships and dearest Connections, when they stand in Competition with the Rights of society.
One might similarly explore what Benjamin Rush had in mind when he expressed the hope that the proliferation of colleges and schools throughout America would make it "possible to convert" his countrymen "into republican machines" and then added:
Our country includes family, friends, and property, and should be preferred to them. Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught, at the same time, that he must forsake, and even forget them, when the welfare of the country requires it.
In this light, one might also examine Thomas Jefferson's attribution of virtue to agriculturalists, and of vice and "corruption" to those dependents on "the casualties and caprice of customers." In the same fashion, we should consider the welcome that this model American extended at the time of Shay's Rebellion to what he called, in language pioneered by Machiavelli, "the tumults of America." And then we can ponder the counterintuitive contention, advanced Federalist No. 10 by James Madison, that the division of a society into a multiplicity of rival religious sects and contending special interests may serve the cause of promoting a more perfect union characterized by domestic tranquility.
The Ultimate American Virtue
First, I suggest that the ultimate American virtue is independence—of mind, of means, of temperment; that we can stand together only in so far as we can stand apart. Consider in this connection the last public communication of the quintessential American democrat Thomas Jefferson, in a letter he drafted to decline an invitation to festivities for the fiftieth anniversary of America's Declaration of Independence:
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessing and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God.
Not only does Jefferson reject tutelage: he also makes it clear that republican 'self-government' is inseparable from the intellectual liberation brought about by modern science.
Second, the practice of this virtue of independence requires of Americans the species of public prickliness that I have labeled the politics of distrust. This explains why Thomas Jefferson could look favorably on "tumults" such as Shay's Rebellion and remark to Abigail Adams that "the spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive."
While in Europe, Jefferson had become persuaded by the force of Machiavelli's distinction between the grandi and popolo. There, he observed, "under pretence of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolf and sheep." It was his fear that the same could onl to easily happen in the infant republic in America. Once the people "become inattentive to public affairs," he warned a friend, "you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind."
The American regime was not founded on a deditio in fidem: when we choose our rulers, we do not surrender ourselves and make them a promise of faith, loyalty, and trust. With Jefferson, we are inclined to the view that "confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism," that "free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence," and that "it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power."
Third, the spirit of modern American republicanism requires impartial governance. It precludes the notion, taught by Don Corleone to Amerigo Bonasera, that there is a geniune distinction between the "justice" and the "justice" due his daughter's assailants. It rules out the legitimacy of using one's government to help one's friends, and harm one's enemies. And it thereby condemns as "corruption," a practice which is perfectly normal in all premodern societies and which is all too common in politics that have not yet fully completed the transition to modernity.
Forth, I believe that impartial governance is virtually impossible in the absence of pluralism of the sort suggested by Montaigne's discussion of "alliances" that "only get hold of us by one end." What I have in mind is that our unity as a people depends upon acceptance of our diversity: that it rests on an abstraction of citizenship from religion, ethnicity, gender, and—to some degree—even moral ideals. In our public and, to large degree, even in our professional lives, except with regard to questions of utility such as competence and reliability, we quite rightly pay little attention to whether we our doing business with Catholics, Protestants, Unitarians, Muslims, Jews, agnostics, or atheists; with individuals of European, African, Asian, Native American, or mixed origin; with men or women; with adulterers, monogamous heterosexuals, or the strictly celibate; with drunkards, gluttons, drug abusers, cigar smokers, or the abstemious.
True Civic Virtue
Above all, our understanding of civic virtue is inconsistent with the species of multiculturalism embraced by Don Corleone and advocated by an increasing number of disaffected intellectuals hostile to, or alienated from, our liberal democratic society—a phenomenon that is characterized by one left-liberal fiminist critic of multiculturalism as the "construction of difference as a form of group homogeneity that brooks no disagreement or distinction within and can maintain itself only as a redoubt against threatening enemies from without." "The language of oppression," she laments,
now appears as a cascading series of manifestos that tell us we cannot live together; we cannot work together; we care not in this together; we are not Americans who have something in common, but racial, ethnic, gender, or sexually identified clans who demand to be "recognized" only or exclusively as "different." Think about how odd this is on the face of it: I require that yourecognize that we have nothing in common with one another.
One need not be so pessimistic: the fact that the spirit of American republicanism explains what began in America as a radical, postmodern attack on the spirit of the melting pot has a tendency, when put into practice, to be transmuted into a renewed commitment to our modern ethic of pluralism.
Let me add that the all-pervasive power exercised by the spirit of our peculiar form of republicanism explains as well why the Old World ethic of "true friendship" represented by Don Corleone tends gradually to either and die when imported into the New World. Think about the initial intentions of Amerigo Bonasera: in attempting to hire Don Corleone to kill the boys who disfigured his daughter, is he not trying to form one of those "alliances" that, as Montaigne puts it, "only get hold of us by one end?"
That we fall short of meeting the standards I have outlined—that dependency is a problem in our society; that over the last half century we have been insufficiently jealous and have tended to place too much confidence in government; that favoritism is by no means unknown; that religious, ethnic, sexual and moral convictions sometimes dictate discriminatory public and professional behavior—all of this goes without saying.
There was a time, not so long ago, in American society when we had an establishment of what the Romans called ordines or "orders:" we distinguished in law between castes comparable to thepatricians and plebians of early Republican Rome. Members of one legally defined group were accorded special privileges as such, while members of another legally defined group were subjected to special disadvantages as such. It was illegal in many states for those of African descent to marry those of European descent. There are elements—relics, I would say—of a similar partiality evident in our public policy today; affirmative action comes to mind. Our failures need to be acknowledged: the politics of friendship and of religious, ethnic, sexual and moral favoritism come easily—I would even say, naturally—to us. To discover the roots of this, one need only reflect on the behavior of parents at Little League games.
But our failures are largely beside the point. Human frailty is a given, and La Rochefoucauld was certainly right when he argued that "hypocrisy is a homage that vice pays no virtue." Given the weakness of human nature and our remarkable capacity for self-delusion, the absence of hypocrisy is more likely to mean the absence of virtue than a liberation from vice. In any case, when pushed to the limits the ethics of impartiality and distrust seem cold and inhuman. What matters is that we give these standards lip service, that we deny public respectability to their breach, and that to a degree we feel awkward and ashamed when we connive in their subversion. We must honor and admire citizens who fight to establish and maintain their independence, who strive to be impartial, and who, in their public and professional dealings with others, give meaning to the American adage of "live and let live."
In American public life, the politics of distrust is still very much alive. That much should be obvious from the widespread anti-incumbent mood in politics. But it is hardly peculiar to this moment. Among other things, its prevalence helps explain what Harry Truman had in mind when he said some years ago that, if you live in the District of Columbia and really want a friend, you should save up your money and buy a dog. Can anyone doubt that Don Corleone would have understood what he had in mind?
Reprinted with permission of author Paul Rahe
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