“’We are free!’ But, my Lords and gentlemen, we must remember that virtue alone can preserve liberty. The mischief of tyranny is that it discourages virtue. Tyranny teaches flattery and base fear. “ –The Emperor Claudius, Claudius the God
There is a problem with conservatism when it comes to books.
If you ask your average conservative to recommend a good book that makes you think, they’ll give you Friedman or Sowell, maybe Coulter or O’Rourke. But you tell them you want something that is fiction, because, to be honest people prefer to read fiction, I can guarantee you that almost without exception you’ll get Atlas Shrugged and The Foutainhead. Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand. And it’s not that these are bad. They’re just not particularly good. And it’s not that conservatives don’t know good books, it’s just that Rand puts so bluntly what they’ve been trying to say for so many years so it’s the first thing that pops to their minds. I may think of her as being the Dr. Seuss of philosophy (a good place to start but a terrible place to stop), but you have to admit with the last few years of headlines you have to wonder if you’re actually living in Atlas or if she wasn’t just a little prescient.
However, this makes conservatives come off as a little unread…when that’s not the case. You can mention other books to them and they’ll say “Oh yeah, I remember that, it was a great book.” And they can even discuss these books quite intelligently. But since we keep going back to the fall back of Ayn Rand, it leads to this impression that we don’t have any other books (that Tolkein and C.S. Lewis are almost always the 2nd choices isn’t really helping either.)
So in addition the movie reviews I’ve been doing, I’m going to start doing book reviews…and not necessarily of books that have just come out, just because a book just came doesn’t mean that’s it must be read now. There are a lot of books that need to be read that you may have missed. Another caveat, even though there are some great books that are sometimes taught in school, if you had the misfortune of being taught by an idiot, as so many English teachers are, the emotional trauma of the bad teaching overpowers any greatness the book may have had, so I’m also going to avoid most of the books you may have read in school. But that still leaves a lot of books up for discussion that I believe have some very conservative principles (or at least can spark the kind of thinking that will lead to conservative principles).
So let’s talk about the first book I’m going to recommend for conservatives: I, Claudius
“I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.”
Did you like the HBO series Rome? Well I, Claudius is that same story, it just picks up where Rome left off. All the Machiavellian backstabbing, all the intrigue, all the lust for power…only this time it has even more larger than life figures. The noble Augustus Caesar, his scheming wife Livia, the flawed Tiberius, and the truly insane Caligula. And in the middle of it all the narrator of this tale, Claudius. The shame of the royal family. A dimwitted scholar, who through a variety of physical afflictions limped, stuttered and often drooled a little on himself. But Claudius isn’t as dumb as everyone thinks and this is why he survives the purges of all his relatives to become one of the better Emperors of Rome.
The book is told in a first person voice but with a lot of history in it as well, as Claudius sees himself as a historian. And this leads to the narrative being a little dry at times but never dull. History of the Julio-Claudian dynasty is never dull…and if you power through some of the drier parts you will be regaled with a tale of villainy and virtue that is made all the more awe inspiring because, artistic license aside, this really happened.
Now what makes this an excellent book for conservatives?
Well, one of the central themes of the book is the struggle between those who desire to return to the Roman Republic and those who push forward with greater and greater power of Empire. It shows the very flaws of a government that gets more and more power and how, even when those in power try to do what they believe is actually good for society (Augustus in particular) they find themselves drawn further and further into corruption and just trying to keep hold of their own power, despite their best intentions. There is a lot we can learn from the mistakes of Rome. A lot. Mostly because we’re making them again. And while the tale starts with the good-natured Augustus trying to build a government that will stand the test of time, it turns to the corrupt Tiberius. And it finally falls to the insane Caligula–A man who thinks himself a living God, who cares nothing for anyone but himself, who lavishes himself with the people’s money, bleeds them dry with bad policy and would be quite content to let the whole thing burn so long as his name lived forever…but we don’t know any leaders like that, do we?
And in amongst all of it is Claudius. The literary Claudius is probably a better person than the historical figure was, but who cares. The Claudius of the novel learns from his physical impediments. Despite being one of the brightest of his family he is humble; despite being the one who survives machinations that make Game of Thrones seem tame he is not tainted by the viciousness. He has an understanding of justice and prudence throughout his whole life, and is always shown as compassionate to those around him. Not perfect, but certainly admirable. While he is a little less admirable in the sequel novel Claudius The God* it is partly because you cannot wield the power of Emperor (even with his plans to return to the empire to a republic) without getting your hands a little dirty. But through it all he maintains high standards of virtue.
But it is not just Claudius who stands out. There are several members of the royal family that all shine of virtuous characters (notably Claudius’ father and brother). Each one of them is also depicted as a defender of the Republic who would break the empire and return people to a Republic if they could. Thus showing the very clear point that it is not that power corrupts (as they are all close to the center of power and often tempted by it) but that power attract the corruptible. Those who believe in what is right are not as easily led astray. A very Aristotelian concept that most of modern society has forgotten.
So as a warning against the power of government, as a warning against petty dictators who put their cult of personality above all else, and as an exemplar of virtue, I, Claudius stands out as a very conservative piece…that it is also an enjoyable read just makes it all the better.
Book up for discussion in two weeks: Evil Nazi Bunnies.
*Honestly you can skip Claudius the God, while it may be the end to the story, it’s much less fun. However you should check out the BBC production.