Alabama’s Election and Lessons from Ancient Greece and Rome

Americans are by and large the political heirs of Democratic Athens and Republican Rome.

Democracies and republics are rare success stories in history.  At their best, they are worthy of imitation.  For a moment, Alabama and the wisdom of the ancients overlapped in this last election.  The lessons of Greece and Rome prove valuable.  The lesson of Alabama may yet as well.  


Democracies are notoriously fragile. Athenians who lived some two generations after fending off Persian invaders in 480 BC would affirm as much.  After a meteoric rise to superpower status in the fifth century BC, the golden age of Athenian democracy crumbled under stress of civil war with Sparta and unscrupulous politicians seeking personal advantages through public office.  Socrates balked, and paid with his life.  His protege Plato, and in turn Plato’s protege Aristotle never forgot the lesson. They spent extraordinary energy trying to convince Greek youth to think carefully about the ugliness of misdirected populism fueled by unrestrained political ambition.

Rome fared better than Athens, taking lessons from the Greeks and allowing legislation to move through a bicameral process that offered a measure of checks and balances between the Comitia of the people and the aristocratic Senate.  Here too, however, a lethal muddle of banal populism and elitist corruption reoriented the Republic.  By the middle of the first century BC, despite warnings from a nervous Cicero and a melodramatic Cato, people demanded security more than freedom.  They received their wish first in the form of a dictatorship and later an emperor.  Venerated Roman political rights evaporated, and supreme power became coextensive with birth and calculation.

Americans are by and large the political heirs of Democratic Athens and Republican Rome. As such there is much benefit from studying our Western roots.  This legacy informs our politics in general but also Alabama’s recent senate election in particular.  History matters in Alabama, even ancient history. Three points are worth considering as we reflect on the election:

First, ancients were cautious about appealing to “higher law” to support a political cause. Fate, will of the gods, and destiny, yes; but higher law was more perilous.  With Plato in the early fourth century BC we first encounter politics as the pursuit of ideal human activity.  But his was an intellectual program for the few, not an activity for the many.  Plato’s teaching did not give politicians freedom to claim higher law for their actions.  Rather, it allowed that some were simply more intellectually and morally fit to govern than others.  Higher law arguments were different in that they always risked the vice of pride.  Some fifty years before Plato founded his academy the playwright Sophocles’ warned in the play Antigone that appeals to higher law, or rules of conduct that supersede human law, though sometimes legitimate were nevertheless treacherous and potentially fatal.  While human law could be tyrannical, unjust, and uncompromising, higher law arguments are often impetuous, arrogant, and indiscreet.  The lesson is a hard one. Americans on the left and right want a higher standard supporting their political cause.  Sophocles, however, urged that nobody wins when wisdom is sacrificed to pride.  Alabama, it appears, agrees.

Read More