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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

When in Rome, A Tale of Two Words

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/07/07 at 09:00 AM

Cullen Murphy, former managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, has written a book comparing contemporary America to the Roman Empire: Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. Gary Kamiya has reviewed it in Salon. Here are two paragraphs from the review:

Murphy illuminates one key facet of the decline of Rome by citing the Oxford historian Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, who explored the evolution of a single Latin term: the word “suffragium,” which originally meant “voting tablet.” Citizens could cast votes, although in practice great men who ran patronage systems controlled large blocs of votes. Over time, Roman democracy withered, but the patronage system remained, and the word “suffragium” came to mean only the pressure that a powerful man could exert on one’s behalf. Eventually, the word came to denote simply the money paid for a favor: a bribe. Ste. Croix’s devastating conclusion: “Here, in miniature, is the political history of Rome.”

In a telling historical-etymological comparison, Murphy looks at the history of the word “franchise.” It too originally “had to do with notions of political freedom and civic responsibility”: It denoted the right to vote. “Only much later, in the mid twentieth century, did the idea of being granted certain ‘rights’ acquire its commercial connotation: the right to market a company’s services or products, such as fried chicken or Tupperware ... In the Wiktionary, the commercial meaning of ‘franchise’ is now the primary definition. The definition involving political freedom and the right to vote comes fifth.” Murphy’s disturbing conclusion: “Looking back at the history of ‘franchise,’ then, it’s tempting to write this epitaph: Here, in miniature, is the political history of America."


For Heidegger, tracking semantic drift was identical with doing depth psychology.  For Murphy and Kumiya, it appears to be merely a nice way to form a metaphor.

Here, in miniature, is the political history of post-modernity.

By Herr Ziffer on 06/07/07 at 10:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll make the obvious point: using minor similarities to extrapolate enormous speculative narratives is almost always a misleading process.  (Pyramids in Egypt! Pyramids in Mesoamerica!  Therefore the world was colonised by space aliens!)

Politics is a radically different thing in contemporary USA to what it was in ancient Rome, not only because of its scale and inclusiveness, but because mass media (which in the US seem, to my outside eye, to saturated by politics to an impressive degree) interpenetrates everyone’s life all the time.  One of the many consequences of this of course is that minor ructions (say, where Clinton keeps his cigar) get bounced around the hysteria echo-chamber and can assume grotesque proportions.  But US politics remains fantastically more inclusive and representative now than Roman politics ever was.  The reason Bush is President now is, if you get right down to it, that a little over half the population wanted him to be President with a large wodge of the other half wanting somebody a bit like him in most respects.  Which is to say, US democracy did what it was designed to do.  Rome was different in so many ways and to such a degree that it’s hard to know where to start.

Mind you, I haven’t read Cullen Murphy’s book.  Cillian Murphy’s neither.

By Adam Roberts on 06/08/07 at 04:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The only reason Bush was even on the ballot in 2004 was because democracy didn’t do what it was supposed to do in 2000.

By Adam Kotsko on 06/09/07 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This point about “us” being Rome seems increasingly relevant and obvious to me—more than just two pyramids across a pond.  I’ll definitely take a look at this book.

Someone might be interested:

By Casey on 06/12/07 at 12:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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