Great Men are Seldom Good Men: Agricola and Tiberius

Jakub Grygiel and Robert D. Kaplan are both literary classicists, foreign policy realists, geopolitical thinkers, and exquisite writers and thinkers. Both harken to Rome, at times, when seeking a mirror for the dramas of the present day. But they come, in the past, to very different conclusions concerning what from that past we ought to learn. Two passages, one profiling a good Roman, the other a great Roman, illustrate the differences in Kaplan’s and Grygiel’s analyses- differences which have troubling implications.

Grygiel’s Orbis essay “Agricola: A Man For Our Times” meanders from Roman decadence to counterinsurgency strategy, but its chief wisdom is in its commentaries on the Roman provincial governor Agricola. In short, Agricola was a family man and a skilled military strategist who served the Empire honorably in putting down native rebellions in Britain. When he returned to Rome, he was disgusted by the decadence of Emperor Domitian and the court, and retired to his farm to serve and protect his family. Grygiel argues that virtue is so crucial, that if it cannot be maintained in public life, it is honorable to retire from that life.

Kaplan’s concluding chapter in Warrior Politics, “Tiberius,” looks at the Roman Emperor (and first successor of Augustus) Tiberius, examining his career and accomplishments. These accomplishments- mainly in bringing peace to the northern frontiers and restoring dignity to the Emperor’s position- were huge, and Kaplan notes that some have argued that Tiberius kept Rome great for the succeeding centuries. In the second half of his imperium, however, the Emperor devolved into “the worst sort of tyrant,” and thus is justly remembered not for the prudence of his middle-aged statecraft, but the cruelty of his old-aged rule. Kaplan more or less concludes that Tiberius ought to be remembered for his skill, rather than for his character.

In a way, Grygiel’s Agricola represents the public virtues of a Thomas More, humble principle in the face of decadent corruption and naked power, the salvation of individual honor and conscience in a cruel world. Kaplan’s Tiberius, meanwhile, represents the public virtues of a Machiavelli- a results-oriented quasi-utilitarianism that values skill and success for the sake of the peace and order it brings. Agricola embodied goodness; Tiberius embodied greatness. To paraphrase Lord Acton- great men are seldom good men.

One is tempted to recall Isaiah Berlin’s The Originality of Machiavelli and conclude, throwing their hands in the air, that one may either live the life of a saint, or the life of a prince. Berlin himself, in that magisterial essay, counsels that a dialectical synthesis of Christian and Machiavellian virtue is impossible, and would only make hypocrites and monsters of those who tried. Machiavelli and More, too, seem to echo this sentiment- for Machiavelli loved his city more than his soul, while Thomas More died first a servant of God and not the king.

There’s a moral price-tag on each ethical system. Agricola’s character, in compelling him to resign the public service, forfeited all ability to positively influence the direction of the Empire in a public role. It is of course impossible to know how things would have turned out, had he remained in public life; but there’s a sense that Agricola, for all his virtue, in some sense yet abandoned his responsibility to the glory of Rome and the survival of his civilization. Whether or not that is justified by his duty to his family, I am not quite sure.

Tiberius’s character, meanwhile, was cruel and calculating, at least in his later years. And despite his great triumphs in the defense of Rome, his capriciousness and cruelty- which in some ways bolstered his ability to stay in power and keep order in the Empire, and were in some ways arguably necessary- hollowed out his support and destroyed his reputation, to the detriment of the office of the Emperor. Worse, the conduct of unprincipled bad behavior on the part of Tiberius paved the way for further cruelty, this time divorced from Tiberius’s cunning wisdom, by succeeding Emperors like Nero and Caligula. Cruelty, the ultimate price of order, destroyed order in its own time, where virtue could have saved it.

So is this the ultimate reality of political ethics, then- that one may live honorably but ineffectively, or dishonorably but effectively, in public life? Must we be either Richard Nixon- brilliant, visionary, and indomitable while cruel and deceptive and paranoid- or Robert Gates- a man of great character and duty and talent, yet consigned to resignation to uphold one’s own dignity?

I’m not quite sure, because there seem to have always been exceptions of sorts- President George Washington comes to mind.  Baltasar Gracian’s maxim- cunning as a serpent, innocent as a dove– reminds the ambitious of the need to wear many masks, and be many things, simultaneously. Washington was, as most of his biographers learn, in every respect a good and decent man. But he was also a man who knew how to “be not good” and use cruelty and deceit when his country required it.

It may be that temperance, moderation, and prudence- being as they are unteachable and undefinable, yet somehow learnable and practicable- make up the only path to reconciliation of goodness and greatness (and George Washington was nothing but temperate, moderate, and prudent.) The greatest quality of a statesman, then, would not be the ability to get things done in the interests of the greater good. Nor would it conversely be self-sacrifice and duty to higher principles even to the point of death. One must be neither Caesar nor Christ- one must, in some odd and imperceptible way, be both, if they would lead and serve.

The real political virtue would in reality be prudence, directed towards the twin imperatives of goodness for its own sake and for the sake of honor and image, and greatness for the sake of the preservation of the common good. This does not easily lend to an easy moral code- rather, it is something that must be taught through reflection on and practice of the contradictory truths of life.

Were it not for the life and legacy of someone like George Washington, it’s hard to believe that this synthesis is even possible. It’s still hard.

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