Friday, September 5, 2008

Historical Lessons

This article is an 'oldie' but its message is important

Author: Tim Radford

Edward Gibbon opened chapter seven of volume one of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with a set of characteristic sentences about power and stability and hereditary monarchy. In the cool shade of retirement, he mused, one might try to devise an imaginary form of government bestowed on the most worthy by the free and incorrupt suffrage of the whole community: experience, however, teaches otherwise.

"The army is the only order of men sufficiently united to concur in the same sentiments, and powerful enough to impose them on the rest of their fellow-citizens; but the temper of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and to slavery, tenders them very unfit guardians of a legal or even a civil constitution," he wrote.

"Justice, humanity or political wisdom, are qualities they are too little acquainted with in themselves, to appreciate them in others. Valour will acquire their esteem, and liberality will purchase their suffrage; but the first of these merits is often lodged in the most savage breasts; the latter can only exert itself at the expense of the public; and both may be turned against the possessor of the throne, by the ambition of a daring rival."

All this was a preface to the story of Maximin, the giant barbarian who seized the imperial purple from Alexander Severus in AD 235. He might have been talking about Francisco Franco of Falangist Spain, Idi Amin of Uganda, Jean-B├ędel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, Leopold Galtieri of Argentina, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, the colonels who seized power in Greece from 1967-1974, or the military junta that terrorises Burma now. There, in a few elegant 18th century sentences about 3rd century Rome, is a brief and brutal lesson in the political history of the 20th century.

All scholarship has its rewards, but history is the one that might deliver the richest rewards of all: if we learn from it, we might gain from it.

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