Category Archives: Philosophy

Livy’s Class Warfare – 2700 Years and Counting…

livy_historyofrome_165x260_1Livy, Latin in full Titus Livius (born 59/64 bc, Patavium, Venetia, Italy —died ad 17, Patavium), with Sallust and Tacitus, one of the three great Roman historians.

The History of Rome (Books I-V) – a foundational work in the history of western thought – covers the earliest history of Rome, from the arrival of Aeneas and the myth of Romulus and Remus to its capture and burning by the Gauls in 386BC. Livy’s storytelling radiates in vivid accounts of constant class warfare interspersed with military adventure. Here we learn about the Rape of the Sabine Women, the Alban Compact, Coriolanus, Cincinnatus, the Fabii and the slave Vindictus, the rise and fall of the Tarquin kings, the battle of Lake Regillus, the Commission of the Ten (the Decemvirs) and their law-code known as the twelve tables, the coming of the consuls and the tribunes, the winter soldiers, and finally the Gallic sacking of Rome and Camillus’ memorable speech echoing the foundation of the city.

Livy recorded his history of Rome at the end of the first millennium, hundreds of years after many of the events he describes, in a period when Rome was just emerging from nearly a century of civil war. His retelling of these traditional stories handed down from ancient times was heavily influenced by political strife more contemporary to his day. Myth, history and tradition fuse together within a political superstructure that depicts early Rome in perpetual turmoil, featuring constant power struggles between the masses (Plebeians) and the elites (Patricians). He writes in 2.23, “Nevertheless, danger was threatening the city’s peace . . . [in the form of] ever-increasing bitterness between the ruling class and the masses. The chief cause of the dispute was the plight of the unfortunates who were ‘bound over’ to their creditors for debts.”

The author interweaves the entire narrative with this class-warfare theme. Plentiful throughout are stories about pressure from below for political and economic reform vigorously countered by ruling elites. Over and over we read that the primary method for bolstering the bulwark against popular change was the manipulation of external threats to divert popular opinion. Nowadays we’ve heard the standard refrain all too many times, eerily similar to that of Livy– an enemy, real or perceived, threatens the national safety so an army must be raised. Senate (Patricians) can vote for war, but the Tribunes (Plebeians) can block the troop levy. Brinkmanship ensues, lines are drawn and scapegoating begins, political vacuums emerge and are filled, frequently by dictators, then more war. Dictators rise and fall, heroes are worshipped and human frailties frowned upon, gods are angered and placated with religious offerings, consuls and tribunes come and go. Through it all the populace is kept in constant fear of the barbarians just outside the gates. Rinse and repeat.

History reveals that the Plebeians have not fared well on average over the years in this environment. On the rare occasions when popular sentiment won the day the victors sometimes gained only the appearance of more power. Take the story of Servius for example. In it Livy explains that there was fairly broad suffrage among men in Rome, but that each vote did not carry the same weight from class to class. “The political reputation of Servius rests upon his organization of society according to a fixed scale of rank and fortune. He originated the census, a measure of the highest utility to a state destined, as Rome was, to future preeminence; for by means of its public service, in peace as well as in war, could thence forward be regularly organized on the basis of property; every man’s contribution could be in proportion to his means.” Livy states that “this had the effect of giving every man nominally a vote, while leaving all power actually in the hands of the Knights and the First Class.” (Livy, 1.44) Hence a narrowing of the field upon which the struggle for power is contested to a small number of privileged property owners. 

Now think about how the US Congress is stacked against the popular will. By the time each Congress comes to order for the first time we the people have already surrendered a significant portion of our popular will by allowing ourselves to be winnowed down to 535 representatives (plus DC’s 3 electoral votes), some of whom stay on for decades. This narrowing of the target range to a manageable size creates a distinct advantage for influence peddlers (lobbyists and their benefactors). Then we double down by giving the less representative Senate the filibuster, thereby allowing a determined minority to kill bills that might emerge from the popular passions of the more representative House. The founding fathers did this by design to offset the tyranny of the majority. This is one of the famous checks and balances, and to be clear, by itself it is a strong philosophical concept and a serious requirement in a democracy. How else to offset the rule of the mob? In an oligarchy unfortunately it becomes a device to lock-in the desires of the ruling class. So, in the Senate, Wyoming has just as much power as California. Two senators each. Again the targets are narrowed even further for those fortunate enough to be allowed on the shooting range. Add a pinch of Citizen’s United and a dash of Gerrymandering and just as in Livy’s day there is broad suffrage, but most power actually resides in the hands of the Knights and the First Class. In that environment it is easy to see how the hopes and aspirations of the many can easily be hamstrung by the wishes of the few. Any wonder that it took one hundred years after the Civil War, and numerous failed attempts, to pass a civil rights act?

Livy writes in the preface: “The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” 

The class struggle still exists, and it is still rotten. For the Plebeians hope is the dope their masters keep pushing, but it’s a weak dose, just enough to keep ’em strung out. The Patricians meanwhile continue to sit high on the hog. The history is there for all to see, but the power elite owns powerful tools to blind people from seeing it, and hence learning lessons from it. They keep a nice clean the sheet of the collective memory. When is the last time you saw a history of American labor on the TV? We get barraged with content on the history of war, and capitalism, and politicians, and celebrity, but you will be hard-pressed to find anything on the struggle for unions, equal rights and fair wages and better working conditions. If you go to the Newseum in Washington, which is supposedly the national museum on the history of the American media, you will find precious little material on those topics. How much of this information were you taught in school? How much is in the textbooks? Yet most of us spend a large portion of our waking lives laboring. I imagine you will hear plenty about ISIS today though. Not much has changed in the 2700 years since Livy’s tales. RF

Guns in American Society – No Magic Bullets

640px-Tiananmen_Mao Portrait_GandhiMao famously said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Suggesting that in order to take outright political control the armed struggle is an absolute necessity. And although this is known as one of the famous creeds of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory, it has also clearly been adopted by those on the other side of the barricades, most aggressively by the United States.

Gandhi on the other hand taught that the monopoly on courage is held by those who stand and face the cannons, not by those who cower behind them. Guns (or insert drones here) are for the cowards in other words.

Until American society chooses Gandhi’s message over Mao’s message as its overarching philosophy on violence, and commits to teaching it from the earliest grades in schools and to echoing it repeatedly and endlessly in the media, no mere tweaking of easily circumvented gun laws will make the fundamental difference. There are no quick fixes, it will take generations. Shame is a powerful human driver and nobody aspires to be known as a coward…

Pascal’s Wager: Place Your Bets

800px-6sided_diceEinstein famously said: “God does not play dice with the universe.” Centuries earlier the christian philosopher Blaise Pascal similarly ruminated on God’s connection to gambling. Pascal’s Wager simply put says:

  1. If you believe in God and God does exist, you will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven: thus an infinite gain.
  2. If you do not believe in God and God does exist, you will be condemned to remain in hell forever: thus an infinite loss.
  3. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded: thus a finite loss.
  4. If you do not believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded, but you have lived your own life: thus a finite gain.
God exists God does not exist
Believe in God Infinite gain in heaven Insignificant loss
Disbelieve in God Infinite loss in hell Insignificant gain

(Above is from From Rationalwiki.org)

Pascal (1623 – 1662) was reacting primarily to the essays of Montaigne, the most popular skeptic of the day. Medieval theology was by then fading almost entirely from vogue, crushed on the shoals of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. For the religious set the trend was certainly in the wrong direction. In response Pascal crafted an apologetic for Christianity which is basically an exercise in managing on the margins of reason. Based on probability theory and game theory his Wager attempted to show that it is a no-brainer for someone to believe that God exists, even though this cannot be proved or disproved through reason. If one is willing to “bet” on the existence of God, even without certainty or proof, with no guarantee of winning the bet, that option still far outweighs the alternative with regard to potential gains. Makes sense…

But this assumes that God has taken the bet. After all, the Wager appeals to a base, some would say biological, instinct for self-preservation rather than to an ideal faith in some cosmic omniscient being. In fact, if God does exist, and is indeed a gambler, might not a person who is willing to take a big risk for his/her belief (or disbelief as the case may be) rate higher in God’s estimation than one who is just defaulting to the safest position to cover his bet (or rear-end)? Should one spend a lifetime collecting silver bullets on the off chance that there are werewolves bent on killing him? Or take a risk and ignore the wager? The answer: who knows?

BBC- A Brief History of Disbelief

BBC – Disbelief Exras

Einstein on God

Richard Feynman on God

George Carlin on God

Richard Dawkins on God

Why I Am Not A Christian – Bertrand Russell

The Three Stages of Mao’s Revolutionary Warfare

Mao in 1935.

Image via Wikipedia

Like all craftsman and builders in history, Mao worked with the materials available at hand– peasants. It wasn’t the crisis of overproduction, or the alienation of the worker, that mattered to them. No, what a Chinese peasant dreamed of was land; Mao understood this well… More>>