Thursday, August 25, 2005


The Distance Between Ruler and Ruled

Seneca, in his treatise De Clementia (On Mercy) addressed to Nero, contrasts the isolation of the leader with the freedom of movement enjoyed by the ordinary citizen (1.8.2, 4, tr. John W. Basore):
It is possible for me to walk alone without fear in any part of the city I please, though no companion attends me, though I have no sword at my house, none at my side; you, amid the peace you create, must live armed. You cannot escape from your lot; it besets you, and, whenever you leave the heights, it pursues you with its magnificence....Our movements are noticed by few; we may come forth and retire and change our dress without the world being aware; you can no more hide yourself than the sun.
The Emperor Nero chafed against his forced isolation:

Miriam T. Griffin, Nero: The End of a Dynasty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 111, tried to interpret Nero's behavior in a favorable light:
Should we rather see in this practice the estimable desire of a young ruler, normally escorted everywhere by guardsman and lictors, to find out for himself what his people really thought?
She compared Shakespeare's Prince Hal, and we might add Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales, in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. If that were truly Nero's motivation in gadding about incognito, it would be a praiseworthy motivation.

Modern heads of state, no less than ancient ones, are isolated from those they govern. I can think of one in particular, who never meets with his ordinary fellow citizens unless they have been screened in advance to ensure their ideological purity; who spends his time surrounded by professional athletes and wealthy campaign contributors; who doesn't have the magnanimity to meet with his critics; who lives in a cocoon.

How different the behavior of our first Republican president! Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, volume 2 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1939), p. 236, tells an interesting anecdote. Chided by Major General Charles G. Halpine for wasting his time receiving ordinary citizens as visitors to the White House, Lincoln replied:
I feel--though the tax on my time is heavy--that no hours of my day are better employed than those which thus bring me again within the direct contact and atmosphere of the average of our whole people. Men moving only in an official circle are apt to become merely official--not to say arbitrary--in their ideas, and are apter and apter with each passing day to forget that they only hold power in a representative capacity. Now this is all wrong. I go into these promiscuous receptions of all who claim to have business with me twice each week, and every applicant for audience has to take his turn, as if waiting to be shaved in the barber's shop. Many of the matters brought to my notice are utterly frivolous, but others are of more or less importance, and all serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage out of which I sprung, and to which at the end of two years I must return.
Lincoln was truly a man of the people. Others just pretend to be.

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