Yesterday I chanced upon a short interview on some children’s TV type show called T4, with the actor James Purefoy. ‘Purefoy’ is, I now finally know, pronounced ‘pure-foy’, rather than “pure-i-foy”, which I have often wondered about.
Anyway, James Pure-foy is playing Mark Anthony in the hit TV series, Rome, and one of the things he said struck me as really rather illuminating. He said that the difference between us and the Romans was that they regarded weakness as a vice and what we would call cruelty as a virtue.
To many readers here this will seem a banal and obvious observation, but I have never heard it put quite like that, or if I ever have I was not paying attention. Perhaps the clarity of this observation can be attributed to the fact that although the actors in this series are British, the producers are Americans. Americans do love to nail down in a few words what a show is all about. (Until Purefoy went on to say this, I did not even know that Rome was an American production rather than British.)
This cruelty-is-a-virtue meme pulls together lots of different things about the Romans that have never previously made proper sense to me. Basically, why were they such total and utter bastards, and at the very same time so amazingly smug about how virtuous they were? Did they like torturing each other, and even being tortured? Answer: no. But they did believe in it. They were not indifferent to pain. They believed in pain. They believed in inflicting it, and believed that being able to endure it was one of the highest virtues. A lot falls into place once you (by which I mean I) get that.
Given the kind of world that the Romans inhabited, you can see how such beliefs would answer the Darwinian necessities of that time. But perhaps because the Roman political system had such a modern feel to it, the ancientness of their ethical beliefs seems somehow jarring. But yes, the Romans spent a lot of their time ? in particular a lot of their education ? actively trying to be more cruel than their natural inclinations inclined them to be. (See also: Sparta.) I think this distinction goes a long way to explaining how Christianity fitted in to Roman civilisation, and in particular the kind of difference it made. You can agree about that, even if, like me, you regard Christian theological claims as crackpottery.
I think that this cruelty-as-virtue idea throws into particular relief the particular kinds of blunders that we now make. The basic Roman blunder, it seems to me, and judged by our standards rather than theirs, was that they were just too damn destructive. They killed too many people, shut down too many worthwhile rival civilisations, slaughtered too many of the extras in their version of Hollywood entertainment. Whether you explain the collapse of Rome by its destructiveness, or by the weakness of Christianity, like Gibbon, I do not see how all that destruction could possibly have helped.
The virtue we aspire to is kindness, and in everyday life this usually works pretty well. But the vices of our civilisation are mostly also related to that aspiration, it seems to me, and now more than ever before. Even as Christian theology is now laughed to scorn, by me among many thousands, Christian ethics are triumphant in our civilisation as never before. But the underside of kindness is weakness, meekness, sentimentality, thoughtlessness ? niceness as a substitute for competence and for thinking it through. Instead of thoughtful and because of that all the more hideously destructive brutality ? the Roman vice ? we indulge in impulsive and frivolous orgies of unthinking niceness.
This, if you think about it, is the running argument we have here at Samizdata with the zeitgeist of our time.
Some of our more vocal commenters think that our world is ruled by sinister power grabbers, who know exactly what they are doing. I think, in contrast, that we are ruled by sentimentalities which vaguely indicate what would be nice, but a not nearly sufficient idea of how actually to contrive such niceness. The power grabbers are merely the insects that thrive in the resulting chaos, rather than the instigators of the chaos itself.
To put the point in terms of a prominent British political personality, Tony Blair is and has for some time been our Prime Minister because, and unlike his Conservative predecessors, he is thought to be, in a word, nice. If he is now losing his grip, this is because the ideas he has tried to follow do not by their nature provide him with grip, rather than because he is some kind of secret Mark Anthony in our midst.
I actually suspect that, just as there is lots of surreptitious nastiness in our world, there was in ancient Rome, on the quiet, lots of surreptitious niceness going on. To oil the wheels, so to speak. The equivalent in Roman times of Peter Mandelson, screaming down a telephone threatening to chop your balls off and eat them at the latest posh restaurant du jour, was a Roman politician looking both ways down the street to make sure no one saw him at it, and then smiling at you and doing you a nice little favour. Niceness was, I suspect, a Roman fact but also a Roman secret. (How else could Christianity have ever caught on?) And then our nice Roman fixer would be back to the Senate to make blood-curdling speeches about the need to suppress with the utmost brutality whatever little challenge Rome faced that week.
I said above that “we” aspire to the virtue of kindness. Maybe that is a rather European view. Americans may be wondering quite where they fit into this dichotomy. In particular, they may be noting that it is precisely in the Christian bits of the USA that the semi-Roman virtue of cruel-to-be-kind foreign policy precision is still aspired to, and in the non- or anti-Christian bits of the USA where the kind of incompetent niceness I have been complaining about is most popular. Maybe Christianity has its own built-in safeguards against Christian and especially post-Christian feeblemindedness and sentimentality.
One of the shrewder things that the actor and (sometimes) wit Peter Ustinov used to say (he said everything he had to say many times over) was that the Americans were like Romans, and that he, the Brit, felt very Greek in their company. (I suspect he meant, in particular, Athenian.) Ustinov also used to say how impressed he was at the crispness with which Americans would sum up the central themes of the movies which they produced and directed, and which he acted in.
I see that John Milius was involved in the creation of Rome. I have always felt that there was something particularly Roman about that man. Milius is also the living embodiment of the notion that, faced with the choice between a politically correct miss and a politically incorrect hit, Hollywood always goes with the money, but that is another story.