Yesterday: Theory of the Leisure Class Tomorrow: Break Tuesday: Commentary on Crisis of Extravagance in United States
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Book: The Bubble Boys: How Mistaken Educational Ideals and Practices are Causing a Warped Social Fabric
The leisure class is enormous and, as one reader told me yesterday, we appear to be in a second robber-baron capitalism stage which is being sponsored by policy and the Supreme Court. This of course is dangerous in itself. But a destructive leisure class is nothing new, and a look at the great rebel Catiline should provide a unique lens into the dangers presented by an expanding leisure class.
The extent of Catiline’s conspiracy, as described by Sallust as a historian and by Cicero in his own speeches (he was consul, the name for the top executive position, and was responsible for dealing with the threat), is almost absurd. There were dozens of Roman nobles who shared with Catiline a life of debauchery and extravagance and, in the ultimate manifestation of this lifestyle, debt. Many if not most of these were supportive of Catiline’s efforts to burn Rome, thus destroying the class of creditors to whom they were beholden; rather than get rid of the claims, they wanted to get rid of the men and the city they represented.
The big problem for Catiline eventually was how bad of a human being he was. One can question the veracity of Cicero’s characterization of him as “wicked”, and characterize it as a way for Cicero to justify his own activity, but there were a number of people to whom Catiline appeared distasteful, and a few of these became informants. So, for instance, Catiline sent henchmen to kill Cicero in his bathtub (one of the great places for political murders and the one where the great Greek leader Agamemnon was killed by his wife. But Cicero was informed about it ahead of time and put a stop to it.
Then there were the Allobroges, a tribe hostile to Rome that Catiline thought he could use to accomplish his conspiracy–but they were so distrustful of him that they in fact worked with Rome to shut him down.
Now a couple things should be noted: first, this event is where Cicero is at his most compelling as a speaker, even more than in his Philippics against Antony later on. Cicero in essence refused to arrest Catiline, and refused to execute him, insisting and demanding that he leave the city of Rome immediately. The shameless Catiline was even showing up in the Roman senate in the early stages of the conspiracy. Cicero did this because he did not want Catiline to become a martyr and he felt that with so many followers, killing Catiline would not itself solve the problem, as others would simply pick up where he had left off.
Second, the great story told by Plutarch about Julius Caesar in the Senate during the debate as to what was to be done with the conspirators. Some argued for excessive severity, and some argued for leniency, and when Caesar took his place among the latter it was hinted that he may have been involved. So as the debate progressed and Caesar received a private letter in the senate one day, the great figure of Cato rose and demanded that Caesar read the letter aloud. Caesar instead handed the letter to him, which when Cato read it he handed back and said “take it, drunkard.” So what was in the letter? A love note from Cato’s sister Servilia, whom Caesar was porking in adultery. Who says the classics can’t be fun?
Third, and last, I want to give a list of Roman enemies and rebels, because I think each of them ought to be studied and I would personally love to do a course just on rebels against Rome:
Marius and Sulla
Attila the Hun
A study of just these seven figures would contain a complete picture of depravity, debauchery, and wickedness, just as it would provide a contrasting picture of purity and patriotism in many ways. While there are differences between the figures–some operated in opposition to the Roman government, and some operated from within the Roman government–each one has his reasons for fighting against the existing order. Since the civilization of the Romans lasted a thousand years, and the first and last of these figures are about some 700 years apart, one can see the development and transitions in Roman society clearly. And perhaps that would help explain terrorist attacks and rebellions against our own order, since we and the Romans are next-to-identical.
Sallust’s account, for the record, is a smooth 45 pages in the modern Penguin Classics edition. It is, again, a quick read, a one-night-before-bedtime deal. Study it with me.
I am taking a break tomorrow, but I think I am going to make a commentary on the present on Tuesday.