It may seem inappropriate to compare Caesar Augustus to George Washington, that is, Rome’s first emperor with a president who rejected any idea of kingship. Both men, however, made strikingly similar statements, as their death approached and they left their beloved governments in the hands of other men. Their thoughts were of eternity, not only in a land beyond, but here on these earthly shores.
“May it be my privilege to establish the republic safe and sound on its foundations, gathering the fruit of my desire to be known as author of the ideal constitution, and taking with me to the grave the hope that the basis which I have laid will be permanent.”
Augustus wrote this in his final life statement (Res Gestae Divi Augusti) inscribed on the bronze pillars of his tomb, believing with the rest of Rome that Rome could last forever. His immediate successor, Tiberius, overwhelmed by the bloodbath which broke out during his reign, famously declared: “After me, the deluge.” And so ran the course of Rome until its inevitable collapse, as its august foundations proved anything but permanent.
In his farewell address, George Washington says to his fellow countrymen that having passed together through the years of discouragement and rivaling passions and shifty fortunes, it is their constant support which has made the dream a reality.
“Profoundly penetrated with this idea, I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained.”
American still stands, yet the party factions which our first president warned against nearly tore the country apart, beginning with his immediate successors (the Adams and Jefferson political war), and up to a Civil War, and up to today.
This is in no way meant to be a gloom and doom assessment of America. It’s a simple fact, verified by all of the history before us. Nothing earthly lasts.
There is another man who who knew this well, and who advised to go ahead and render to Caesar what is his, for Caesars come and go as do their empires, so long as we give God’s what is his. That man is Jesus, and to him belong some of the most sobering and practical words in the history of man.
“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Mt 24:35).
Jesus is very clear, but do we take him at his word? How much time do we actually spend with his words, instead of the passing this which surround us. Even the best Catholic commentators on social issues aren’t an adequate substitute for, simply, time we spend with Christ’s words.
Yet the question also remains why we’re this way, why we humans fall into the same trap every generation, that far from accepting this fact, we behave as if heaven and earth depend upon our response, our take on the issues of our day, our war to wage. We behave as if America must go on. That’s a good instinct, in a way. The crumbling of any nation is never pretty and seldom just. And, yes, there is reason to be worried about certain events and trends in our society, on both sides of the party line. But what society has ever escaped these? The more we read our history books, that imagined place becomes very difficult to identify. Still, America may be the one, we must press on…
So why do do we believe that? The historian Charles Norris Cochrane is helpful in assessing why the Romans did.
“They truly believed it was possible to attain a goal of permanent security, peace and freedom through political action, especially through submission to the ‘virtue and fortune’ of a political leader. The Christians denounced this and… traced this superstition to the acceptance of a defective logic, the logic of classical ‘naturalism’, to which they ascribed all the characteristic vices of the classical world” (Christianity and Classical Culture, 18).
Who of us hasn’t seen this in our own day, the “naturalism” of which he speaks, that if we let everything simply be as it is, the world will get better. But it simply never has and never shall. T.S. Eliot was once taught by Henri Bergson, before rejecting his philosophy as the source of most modern error, a progressive movement of history where it’s simply bound to always get better. For Eliot and for all Christians, humankind is a bit more cyclical than that, still glorious in its saints and sages of each age, still stumbling into the same sins, all stemming from the one we call original.
I love America, just not her headlines. I love her history, even as I learn more of its complexity. I love her the more that I meet many of the faces living in this land, all of us who have received from her more than we could ever pay pack, which leads to the classical virtue of piety. But I don’t pretend she will last forever on this earth, as neither will I. We are both here for a time. And so for a time, I stay involved, but always with one foot very much on the other side of the sea, in Rome. Not the one which has long since dissolved, but the new Rome which is truly eternal, the Church, because She is the Body of Christ, Christ’s one true love, and so mine as well. America has given me shelter and provided for all of my needs on earth. The Church has given me heaven already, in the grace of the Son of God, whose words shall not pass away.
So, without further ado, I bow out of any further commentary, at peace with God to guide the world as He wills, and I hope to spend more time listening to His words. The Lord knows we need that more than all else, in times like these, or in any time at all. In this land of ours, or in any land at all.