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    Quotables: The Roots of American Order

    March 14, 2012 by Brandy Vencel
    The Roots of American Order
    by Russell Kirk

    All the way from the Roman Republic to the American Republic, a continuity runs. {p. 98}

    Certainly the Roman understanding of the rule of law still lives in the modern world, restraining destructive impulses. This Roman concept of law and obligation, as variously expressed by Polybius and Livy and Virgil and Cicero and the Stoics, passed into American political thought and jurisprudence, and is permanently embedded in the American Constitution. {p. 98}

    A sense of duty and an attachment to honesty and honor worked upon their leading men. {p. 99}

    Polybius’ historical analysis of Roman character and the Roman constitution, about the middle of the second century before Christ, was earnestly studied by the leaders of America’s Constitutional Convention two thousand years later. {p. 100}

    This system incorporated both the checks and balances upon political power, and provided for separation of political functions…It was the “mixed government” praised by Aristotle, but which Aristotle had thought almost impossible to maintain on a grand scale. {p. 101}

    At its height, this republican constitution had the high advantage of uniting all the citizens for strenuous public efforts. It was peculiarly suited for enabling men of strong practical talents to rise to authority…The best of the senators were heroic; even the worst of them were able enough in more than one walk of life. {p. 101}

    Two thousand years later,…the framers of the American constitution would emulate the Roman model as best they could. The Roman institutions of checks and balances in politics, and of separation of powers, would be imitated in the frame of government for the United States. {p. 101}

    When this is done [government becomes a democracy], the government will assume indeed the fairest of all names, that of a free and popular state; but will in truth be the greatest of all evils, the government of the multitude. {p. 102}

    [T]he family was believed to be a spiritual continuity of the dead and the living and those yet unborn, united by blood. {p. 103}

    A pious man, in the Roman understanding, was one who fulfilled his duties, religious and social–one who subordinated his own desires to the claims of others…[snip]…A pious man…submitted himself to things sacred, and believed unflinchingly that it was better to perish than to fail in his sacred duties. {p. 103}

    [T]here cannot be a good commonwealth unless most citizens are virtuous, and the citizens find it difficult to hold by the old morality in a time of political disorder and corruption. [T]hat fall from virtue accelerated the political disintegration of the commonwealth. {p. 104}

    Directly or indirectly, the mind and life of Cicero are bound up with the American understanding of order more than are the thought and action of any other man of classical times. {p. 105}

    [T]he study of Cicero lay at the heart of the curriculum, both in Britain and in America, all during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. {p. 106}

    [N]atural law may be defined as a loosely-knit body of rules of action prescribed by an authority superior to the political state…[snip]…Also natural law sometimes is confused with assertions of “natural rights,” which may or may not be founded upon Greek and Roman concepts of natural law. {p. 109}

    Natural law is not a written code, but rather a means for doing justice by referring to the general norms for mankind. {p. 110}

    Recourse to the law of nature kept Roman law from becoming archaic as Roman society changed. {p. 110}

    [P]roperly understood, the law of nature is the moral imagination, and that natural law enables us, through reason, to apply customary and statutory law humanely. {p. 112}

    If a dictator, like Caesar…has flouted or overthrown the constitution of a state, then their decrees do not have the moral force of true law. {p. 112}

    In the old Roman definition, a proletarian is a man who gives nothing to the state but his children. Rootless, impoverished, unemployed, fierce but cowardly, what had been the People had decayed into what was only a heavy burden upon the imperial city. {p. 114}

    Indeed there is magic in Virgil’s lines, but the magic that operates upon conscience rather than upon material objects. {p. 116}

    And his aim is not happiness, but virtue. {p. 118}

    Sickly from birth, Epictetus is said to have been tortured by his master, and so have learned from helpless suffering that happiness is the product of the will, not of external forces. {p. 118}

    Social regeneration does occur now and again in distressed societies… {p. 119}

    “Power tends to corrupt,” Lord Acton writes, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet is was not so with Marcus Aurelius. {p. 121}

    [Marcus Aurelius] never ceased to restrain himself. {p. 121}

    In the long run, the Christian faith which Saint Peter and Saint Paul had brought to Rome would renew the moral order, even though it could not save the state. But Christianity was a revealed religion, the worship of a crucified God, and it would touch the heart. {p. 125}

    Grinding taxation impoverished every class. {p. 126}

    Human nature being a constant, the same virtues and the same vices appear in every era, though political forms fade away. {p. 128}

    [T]he very diversity of these exotic cults destroyed religious and ethical consensus among the Roman population. {p. 132}

    [A] people who have lost both their religious convictions and their freedom cannot feel [pietas]. {p. 133}

    The Roman experience was mentioned repeatedly in the constitutional debates at Philadelphia. {p. 134}

    The Roman law though influenced by philosophy was close to reality. {p. 135}

    What was the Roman tension is today’s American tension. {p. 136}

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    3 Comments

  • Reply Cindy Rollins March 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    These are actually mostly different from mine but I had to restrain myself from underlining the whole chapter and reading your selections I wonder why I skipped these.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 17, 2012 at 11:36 pm

      I feel like if I read this book again next year, I’d underline another third…and then the remaining the year after that! It is all so, so quotable and worth thinking about! I cannot thank you enough for hosting this club.

      When I’m underlining, so much jumps out of me because of what else I read directly leading up to this club, which is to say that CM was correct when she said that our education was a making of relationships between things.

      I’m also deliberately trying to note exactly what the early Americans knew. I was fascinated that Plato and Aristotle were low on the list while Cicero and Marcus Aurelius were high. Surely that has to mean something! 🙂

  • Reply Go quickly and tell March 14, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    Of the ones you’ve selected, the following is my favorite ~

    Human nature being a constant, the same virtues and the same vices appear in every era, though political forms fade away.

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