Earlier in the month I was looking at the stats of where blog readers here were located, and in the shortened screen of my mini laptop I saw hits from four different countries with names beginning with “United”. I honestly didn’t know there were that many, and I had to expand the view to see what they were. Being as I myself am originally from the United States of America, of course that was at the top of this list. Having strong connections to “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” it was no surprise to find that second. I have also taught people who have later moved to the United Arab Emirates, so that was also to be expected. The fourth, which taught me something new, was that Tanzania is officially a “United Republic.” That got my curiosity going and I searched the web to see what other “United” countries there are. In fact there is officially just one other: the United Mexican States, better known as just Mexico.
This also got me curious about what other common terms are used in the official names of Countries. Those of you who are fascinated by such trivia might enjoy the following list. Among the official names (in English) of the 193 member nations the UN, the following terms are repeated most often:
Federation, Independent, Principality, Socialist and Union – 2 times each
Commonwealth – 3 times
Federal and Islamic – 4 times each
People’s and United – 5 times each
Democratic – 8 times
State(s) – 12 times
Kingdom – 16 times
and Republic – a whopping 123 times
(This doesn’t count the general terms “confederation,” “sultanate,” “abode,” “grand duchy” or “city” in such names, which each appear just once.)
So what is it about the idea of a “Republic” that makes the vast majority of countries in the UN want to identify themselves as such? The history of political philosophy isn’t really my strong suit, so I had to poke around a bit to look up answers on this one.
I know that Plato’s greatest work is called “The Republic” in English, but that is not really faithful to the idea of the original Greek name. I know that in the movie “Gladiator” wise men debate over the idea of turning the Roman Empire back into a Republic, only to be foiled by an ignorant evil tyrant; but I know that is a questionable Hollywood interpretation of history. But from those references I can see how Medieval political idealists may have nostalgically taken Athens before Alexander and Rome before Caesar as ideals to imitate, though it is unlikely that the people of those societies would have recognized the modern republican ideal as something based on their own form of government.
After a bit more poking around I found that the origin of the term “republic” as we use it today –– indicating a government without a monarch of any sort, ultimately responsible to a larger group of voters –– goes back to early renaissance Italian authors in general, and Machiavelli in particular. How very interesting. Machiavelli wasn’t much of one to promote the virtues of non-hereditary forms of government, and he also believed that atheism should be outlawed, so there are limits as to how much can be said for his forward thinking in republican terms.
It’s probably fair to say then that “the republic” as an ideal that the majority of the autonomous nations in the world today subscribe to really comes from the mix of political theories behind the American and French revolutions in the end of the eighteenth century. It is old news to say that both of these had their serious moral imperfections as well as being radical leaps forward in political thought.
Recently and randomly I have been looking into this latter revolution by way of Victor Hugo, and I’ve been rather fascinated by what I’ve found. In my last weeks in the Republic of South Africa this year I came across a collection of old paperbacks on a sidewalk vendor’s table that included a copy of Victor Hugo’s “Ninety-three” with an introduction by Ayn Rand. I hadn’t heard of this particular work before, and the sheer irony of the creator of Quasimodo being introduced by the creator of Alan Greenspan convinced me that I had to fork over the equivalent of 25 US cents to get it. Nor was I disappointed. There was a fair amount of crap in the intro and a fair amount of dull editorializing within the novel itself, but overall it was a fascinating thought stimulator.
The essential theme of the book is the various moral justifications given on each side for the atrocities of the Vendée conflict –– which wiped out somewhere between a quarter and half of the population of the region in question in the early years of the French Revolution –– and in the establishment of the “Committee of Public Safety” and the “Reign of Terror” in that same period starting in 1793. Apparently this novel wasn’t very well received in its time –– a couple generations after the events it describes –– because as it happened Paris had just gone through yet another mini civil war and no one was interested in reading anything about justifications for such atrocities.
Rand’s introduction to this novel is all about praising the Nietzschean superman styled characters that Hugo creates, even if she doesn’t care for the politics of compassion he promotes along the way. In many ways this reminds me of the talk I heard by film maker Ilmar Raag about his tragic drama Klass (“The Class”) about the evils of school bullying. Raag told of how it disturbed him to find out that when this film was shown to younger audiences many of those immature viewers expressed particular admiration for the character of the leading bully. I imagine that if Hugo were to read Rand’s introduction to his novel he might feel much the same way.93 also shares one of the features I most appreciated the Paul Haggis film Crash: each of the main characters has such a combination of moral flaws and underlying moral goodness that you can’t really pick out any ultimate good guy or bad guy.But what I see is something entirely different: an examination of how strategically cold-hearted we can be without destroying all that is worth fighting for within ourselves; a consideration of what needs to be done for “the good” to survive when it is surrounded by competing groups of psychopaths. And beyond that there is the question, why is it that some people fight so hard to protect systems which go against all of what might be assumed to be their best interests? All of these remain very relevant questions to this day.
To start with we have the “Red bonnet brigade” of republican revolutionaries from Paris, working their way north through the French countryside looking for leftover royalists to stomp out. On their way through a forest they discover a starving young peasant widow and her three young children hidden in the bushes. They didn’t have had any serious qualms about killing royalist women and children, and this widow clearly had little interest in supporting the revolution per se, but their canteen lady talked them into adopting this little family anyway. Later they are practically annihilated, and their surviving handful of fighters struggle to get as much revenge and die with as with as much glory as possible, ready to die to defend those children.
Then there is the Marquis de Lantenac, who earns the respect of those smuggling him back into France from England for his icy cool demeanor in killing one of his own men who fails at his duty; who is ready to die for his own cause, but equally ready to slaughter whole villages for his cause without flinching. He promises a peasant who saves his life out of sheer pity that he will not go out to do evil, and he promptly breaks that promise and wreaks havoc across the countryside. But then when it is least expected he somewhat redeems himself with a self-sacrificial move, not for his political cause, butto protect the innocent (whose lives were endangered by his actions to begin with) as a matter of honor .
Then there is the commander Gauvain, nephew of the Marquis as it turns out, who is ideologically committed to the ideals of the Republic in spite of his aristocratic family connections, and who is a profound military genius in his own right, but who is suspect among his fellow republicans for all the mercy he is willing to show to their enemies. In the end Gauvain might or might not be justifiably branded as a traitor to the Republican cause.
And then there is Cimourdain, the former village priest who first instilled Gauvain’s sense of social conscience into him when he was but a school boy. Cimourdain is now an embittered revolutionary, disillusioned with the goodness of mankind and ready to do anything whatsoever to stomp out the enemies of the Republic. His only sense of human sympathy lies in trying to protect Gauvain from all forms of harm as far as possible.
All of these characters are given their own extended dialogs and soliloquies in which they consider their own inner conflicts. Then as further reinforcement of the moral problems involved, Hugo tosses in an extended, heated debate between the historical characters of Danton, Robespierre and Marat –– each with their own clear vision of what should be done for the good of the Republic, to the exclusion of both of the others’ viewpoints –– each destined to die within the next year and a half, not due to attacks by royalists or foreigners, but as victims of the infighting between the republican fractions. Between these various speaches you find justifications for all sorts of political opinions of the day, giving the impression that Hugo doesn’t really fully support any of them.
The grand finale includes a very visually evocative verbal image of the sunrise revealing a medieval castle tower and a hilltop guillotine rising next to each other –– the symbol of the old evil and the symbol of the new evil side by side. The tragedy lies in the way each of the characters were forced to choose between these evils, not allowed the luxury of neutrality in the matter. And in standing with either the tower or the guillotine they are just as likely to be killed by their allies as their enemies. They must each navigate their way through the varieties of evil on either side then, doing their best to keep some resemblance of personal integrity intact. In the end it can be nothing but a tragedy.
Yet it was out of that mess that the concept of the republic that achieved prominence in the twentieth century politics arose. Well… that and the American Civil War. These late eighteenth century experiments in pure representative democracy –– with no kings, no state church, no automatic privileges for the aristocracy and radical new discussions going on over how determinant one’s sex, skin color, parentage and/or land of origin should be over one’s rights and role within society –– were incredibly messy. Those revolutionaries made many mistakes that we need to make every possible effort to learn from and not repeat. That would have been Hugo’s main point in his final novel.
One of those mistakes is to pledge one’s allegiance unquestioningly to either the tower or the guillotine, and to the system of control for which it stands. Neither a conservative dogma insisting on the preservation of all of the ancient traditions of abuse at all costs, nor revolutionary fervor to do away with all traditions and leave nothing standing, is a recipe for a just and productive society.
Beyond that we should not depend on our ideological ends justifying our barbaric means, but we should rather try to make our noble means a source of dignity for our ideological ends. And in terms of the realization of these ends we should dare to believe in “somedays,” when the political and logistical problems of the current generation will no longer stand in our way. There’s a lot to be said for pursuing certain kinds of utopias, but at the same time being willing to compromise on the incremental steps it is currently possible to take in the right direction. If you’re able to get a hold of a copy of Ninety-three I recommend taking some time to savor the final dialog between Gauvain and Cimourdain there in this regard.
I had actually planned on finishing this essay much sooner, but as it happens that just yesterday the US Supreme Court upheld President Obama’s health care law, I’ll take that as a sign that the timing here is as it should be. Thank God for little steps that bring us closer to a more just, sustainable and harmonious world.
“Long live the Republic!”