Beware Slippery Slopes

  • Dean Hammer  

What would the Romans say about giving up freedom for the sake of security?

According to Dean Hammer, they’d warn us to be wary of slippery slopes.

The John W. Wetzel Professor of Classics and Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College argues that the Romans have lessons to teach us. One is about the pitfalls of seeking security to the detriment of personal and corporate freedom.

In his new book, Roman Political Thought and the Modern Theoretical Imagination, Hammer compares Roman and modern thinkers and reflects on the messages we can learn from Roman political thinkers about modern political problems.

“I think that the Romans are talking about the affective dimension of politics: what moves us as political beings? What are the sentiments that make our public world collectively recognizable, accountable and changeable? And what are the ways in which that animating spirit of politics can be lost?”

For example, Hammer says, consider the “war on terror.”

A lesson to be learned from Roman history is that the loss of political freedom and the loss of an animating political spirit actually can occur very slowly, and often quite comfortably, he said.

“Imperial Rome was able to remove political power from its citizens in two ways: by providing material comfort for those who complied and instilling fear in those who did not,” Hammer said.

We are not imperial Rome, Hammer adds. But like the Romans, “we find ourselves occupying an expansive and secretive domestic and global realm whose rules we had little role in making and decisions that we have little chance of knowing. And we are told not to ask questions since we cannot understand how the government is protecting us or helping us. Instead, we are supposed to go home or to the mall and shop,” Hammer said.

But, he added, there is a potentially hopeful message that emerges from this reading of the Romans.

“We might be able to reclaim our democracy from the meaningless cliches, manufactured emotions and ideological blinders that obscure our political vision,” Hammer said. “But that requires that we begin to see politics as important, because it gives form to human thought and aspiration.”

The book, a must-read for classicists, historians and political scientists, provides an interesting comparison between individual Roman thinkers and modern theorists.

Roman Political Thought and the Modern Theoretical Imagination can be purchased by special order at the Campus Bookstore or through Amazon.com.

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