It is a simple story. One faction so committed to old and emptied pieties that they have proven incapable of recognizing the “necessities” of the times, the other so disordered that they have mistaken political disease for health. With homonoia lost, the parties descended into mutual hatred, and their animosity plunged the republic into years of futile “Red-Blue trench warfare” that resulted in political paralysis. Kept alive by the autonomic ministrations of the state apparatus, the body politic is today like Alcaeus on the ocean: carried this way then the other, “much distressed in the great storm,” static amid the discord that the Greeks called stasis. Do nothing and the ship drifts absent leadership and indifferent to its passengers. At best it is kept afloat by the autarky of its crew, at worst it sinks entirely. Wrecked with corruptions, plagued by “a litany of ills,” preyed upon by outsiders, victimized by cabals, driven without mandate, the pseudonymous Decius is certain the republic is dying. Rotten with neglect and sedition, it has already degenerated beyond the help of conventional remedies. To invert a phrase, there remains nothing right with America that can cure what is wrong with America.
And it is an old story. Some five centuries ago, little Niccolo, that Roman born too late, observed that Italy stands “more enslaved than the Hebrews, more servile than the Persians, more dispersed than the Athenians, without a head, without order, beaten, despoiled, torn, pillaged, and having endured ruin of every sort.” A polity so wholly corrupt, the Florentine knew, can no longer rely on its orders and laws as a check against degradation, and may be set right on its foundation only with difficulty. For polities so debased the ordinary remedies no longer suffice, and “it is necessary to go to the extraordinary.” Above all a prince must seize control and dispose of the republic in his way as the times require. Only a “rare and marvelous” man, an able prince, can restore a corrupt republic, or failing that renewal, found a new republic on the ruins of the old. Corrupted into impotence, Italy could only pray that God might “send her someone to redeem her from these barbarous cruelties and insults.” And so, “left as if lifeless,” drowning under a “flood of foreigners,” she awaited “whoever it can be that will heal her wounds … and cure her of her sores.” The times, Niccolo saw, were ripe to herald a new prince to reignite “the virtù of an Italian spirit.”
Decius does not appeal directly to a new American prince in his own exhortation. He does, however, appeal indirectly for one. His call is to a dormant American people who might “rouse themselves” to muster whatever vestige of that old spirit of American virtù remains to elevate an unusual man by the usual means to the country’s most princely office. For that man, Decius believes, has identified the country’s “fundamental” ills, promises the necessary remedies, and portends the “restoration of our cherished ideals.” He vows to purge the country of the “alien cultures” infecting it, to assure the nation’s “survival,” and to restore the “national health.” Many talk of “civic renewal,” but here, Decius contends, is a man with the accidental insight and the congenital insolence to attempt it. Here is a man who “has shown the way toward renewal or rebirth.”
If this man is not a Machiavellian prince, at least he has the odor of one. And if that prince is not a Roman dictator in fact, at least he is one in affectation. To retell Decius’s hope in Roman terms, the plebs should reclaim their place as the republic’s fount of legitimacy by exercising their liberty to endow a man for a time with the potestas and even the imperium to pursue their good, restoring the republic to its proper order as a res populi. Such Caesarism, as Strauss teaches, is hardly tyranny. Far from an “unjust usurper,” a Caesar is “the savior of a country with a decayed republican order that can no longer function, and of a corrupt people no longer capable of self-government.” Have not the virtues and institutions of the American republic decayed beyond recuperation? Have not its constitutional remedies already failed? Have we not arrived already at that “late republican” stage when Caesarism, that radical remedy of last resort, has become inevitable? Ought we not ask whose Caesar will rise to answer Fortune’s turn?
I still occasionally see myself as a reader for the poorly read, and judging from the replies and retorts that he elicits, Decius is often poorly read, both by those intending to counter him, and by those wishing to concur. By some he is tossed aside for being distasteful and repugnant. Others discount him for adopting a pen name, or scold him for the defect of hyperbole. Still more, with no understanding of what he has written, acclaim him for appearing a friend rather than a foe among the partisan lines. To chastise anonymity is to denigrate the independent force of writing, which even when nominatively claimed, always retains the capacity to overstep any assumed boundary of authorial voice. The literary prudes who scorn hyperbole do no more than make a fetish of dispassion. They are marmish scolds who would complain of a polemic’s combativeness without pausing to consider whether that character is the polemic’s point. The partisans are rank counters, not readers. And I mind the uninteresting more than the distasteful and repugnant. The Devil would have no draw were he not so intriguing.
Whatever his vices, Decius is intriguing. His writings are alive and compelling, which is more than one can say for the mass of contemporary scripted ephemera. Reading his unfashionable, even anachronistic dialect refashioned to speak to modern politics elicits an antiquarian delight, and his work is a reminder that our political language could be more vibrant and expansive if anyone bothered to read old books. There is also something marvelous about a conservative writer breaking with the complacent vapidity of that label to advocate for a brash and extraordinary political convulsion. Of course, the aim of this upheaval, as Decius views it, is to restore the nation to its rightful and righteous footing and thus conserve it. In this way the radical, that which acts upon the root and the “heart of our problems,” is transformed into the conservational.
I should expect a Straussian to make arguments of this sort, as they still see merit in a cannon that contains the models and understandings to craft them. And if those arguments sound dissonant with the common tunes, if they explode the accepted conservative intellectual context, if they seek a new, politically effective intellectual alignment, then by all means let Decius “apply what little political education” he has to the “task of understanding” this new prince and these new times. After all, there can be no thinkers, great or otherwise, without the boldness to break from the accepted and the average.
Draw back to the generality, and Decius’s politics could be the basis for a potent movement, animating to its adherents and abhorrent to its antagonists. Having freed himself from the bromidic hymns that lulled so many into waking slumber, his temerity and indiscretion could make our politics at once richer, wider, livelier, and also considerably more harrowing. But the general cannot here be detached from the particular. For the particular is more boor than Borgia, more louse than Lorenzo. An inveterate vulgarian, bereft of all “experience in things beautiful,” Decius’s intended is so tempestuously unthinking that he mistakes the cheap noise of his vanity fair for the highest in human experience. That this base and obnoxious blunder is more kakistocrat than statesman, Decius admits with mordant understatement when he characterizes him as “worse than imperfect.”
Why the elevation of a fatuous rake to the presidency would disrupt the administrative state rather than create a power vacuum that it readily fills, and why the installation of an incompetent lout should stave off or reverse the decline of the republic, remain mysteries. Decius’s faith appears more wistful than real, an effect, one suspects, of the cavalier freedom obtained when someone asks repeatedly what difference does it make, and answers in each instance that it makes no difference at all. He resists the admission, but Decius has already accepted the inevitable: for things of this world the end must come and does come. Against this certainty, something – anything – too often appears preferable to nothing. At least disruption stands against the wretched sadness of despair, and even when ungrounded, even when futile, desperate hope can be strangely persuasive.
The worth that radiated axiomatically from a man the Romans called his dignitas. The public character of this worth was his auctoritas, a word that spoke to the capacity of a man to reign without rule by virtue of his presence and opinion. In auctoritas, Caesaristic dictatorship was uniquely devoid. When Decius writes that though “We can lament … the lack of a great statesman to address the fundamental issues of our time,” and yet concludes that, in want of anyone adequate, “we have no choice but to make do” with one so deficient, he submits to dignity’s loss, both for the republic and for himself. It is true an able prince, statesman or otherwise, must know how not to be good, but it is false that the irredeemable should willfully hail a Savonarola or an Agathocles.
Full of fever dreams, he envisaged the elixir for which he yearned. But remedies are poisons carefully selected and dosed, and fearful desperation gives no warrant to lunge for whatever phantasmic pharmakon conjures before the eye. Peer intensely into the depths and an esoteric mirage is apt to manifest. Fear and desire dance like shades behind the shadows.