Monday, March 21, 2011

5th March 2011

After 40 years of a culture of tyranny, what hope for Libya’s future?

Plato describes how the tyrant comes to power: he is smiling, affable and promises much. Some enemies he does away with, others he conciliates. The courageous, intelligent and wealthy he eliminates, and appoints a cabinet of creeps. Aristotle pinpoints the general strategy from there on: keep the people demoralised, mistrustful and weak. In that condition they lack the spirit of enterprise, the confidence to put their faith in each other and the sheer manpower needed to force a tyrant out.

The problem is that, from that position, the tyrant leaves himself no alternative but to continue. As Pericles argued before the Athenian assembly, Athens had to maintain a stranglehold over her empire ‘because of the danger from those whose hatred you have incurred in gaining your empire … which you now possess like a tyranny. It may be thought wrong to have acquired it, but to let it go would be extremely dangerous.’

When the first Roman emperor Augustus defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 31 bc, he did not bring about a revolution: senate, consuls, praetors etc remained. Rather, he changed the terms of the game: power, which in the republic had been up for grabs between the great Roman families, would now reside in one man: himself. The day of his death, therefore, was a key moment: what next? Would there be a succession? Or would the system collapse? When his stepson Tiberius took over, the answer was given. Imperialism was now ‘legally established’ and would soon become ‘ancestral’. Farewell, freedom, unless someone was prepared to strike the emperor down. But would that change the system or merely lodge power somewhere else?

There was a further problem. Under the tyrant-emperor, only the obedient could climb the political ladder. This culture became so ingrained that bodies like the senate effectively gave up their authority. So when e.g. Caligula was murdered in ad 41, the senate flapped, and the army imposed Uncle C-C-C-Claudius.

None of this bodes well for Libya.

19th March 2011

Recent cases over Christians refusing gay couples hotel accommodation and Christian couples wanting to adopt have brought Christian belief into conflict with the law.

Recent cases over Christians refusing gay couples hotel accommodation and Christian couples wanting to adopt have brought Christian belief into conflict with the law. The Christians have lost. Lord Justice Laws, arguing in 2010 that Christian belief was ‘subjective’, laid a marker for those judgments by drawing a distinction ‘between the law’s protection of the right to hold and express a belief, and the law’s protection of that belief’s substance or content’.

In classical Athens, a number of charges could be brought against individuals on religious grounds, under the general heading of asebeia (‘impiety’). These included perversion of ritual, desecrating religious property, revealing ‘mystery’ cults, entering holy places when disenfranchised, introducing new divinities and expressing certain opinions about the gods.

What, then, was Greek religion’s ‘substance or content’ that was felt to need such protection? Despite the absence of any divinely inspired texts for guidance, it was the virtually universal belief that gods were unpredictably hostile or benevolent, and that the listed infractions guaranteed their hostility. Since the state subscribed to those beliefs, it was a matter of simple self-protection to uphold them in law. Plato in his Laws reached the same conclusion. For him, gods were the benevolent upholders of moral virtue. So anyone who tried to persuade people otherwise had to be punished, for society’s general well-being.

Lord Justice Laws’s judgment applied to beliefs which he characterised as ‘subjective’. Since Athenian society did not regard its beliefs on asebeia as subjective, an Athenian Laws would presumably have ruled differently. But is the real legal distinction between an individual’s beliefs, which (whether subjective or not) must by definition be private, and their application to justiciable public situations, e.g. when you own a hotel or want to adopt? If so, Christians might console themselves by accepting the judgments, and reflecting on the behaviour of early Christians. On the ‘Render unto Caesar’ principle, they argued that Christians obeyed the law far more rigorously than pagans ever did.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

26th February 2011

The point about crowds, as Gaddafi is now learning, is that there are more of them than there are of him. Romans knew this only too well and, like Gaddafi, went out of their way to prevent large gatherings. Time, therefore, for Libyans to take radical Roman action.

In 494 BC, the Roman poor were in conflict with aristocratic landholders because so many of them had been placed in bondage through inability to pay their debts. The Senate refused to move on the matter and, in the face of riots and disturbances, threatened to bring in the army to quell incipient mutiny spreading among the ordinary people (the plebs). So in order to protect their interests, they moved as a body to the Sacred Mount, overlooking the Tiber a few miles upstream from Rome, where they constructed a fortified camp and refused to move: a potential ‘state within a state’.

The result in Rome was panic among the whole remaining citizen body. If they were attacked by enemy forces now, and the plebs refused to fight, they would be in serious danger. So Menenius Agrippa was sent to appeal to the plebs to reunify the state. He used the analogy of a body which, fed up with the lazy belly that did nothing but enjoy all the goodies it received, went on strike: the hand would carry no food to the mouth, the mouth would not accept it nor the teeth chew it. The result was that the whole body started to waste away. The plebs saw the point and agreed to return, as long as concessions were made.

The final result was the formation of the plebs’ own corporate organisation—a legal assembly with its own officials, the tribunes of the plebs. These tribunes were designated as inviolable, and could therefore bring force to bear on anyone who threatened a pleb in any way. In time, these plebeian tribunes were given seats in the Senate, where they could veto any business. Plebeian ‘aediles’ were also created, probably to oversee the grain supply and in time to run the markets, protect Rome’s fabric and put on games—good, popular moves.

Pleb power worked then. Intelligently organised, it will work again.