Sunday, July 20, 2008

Batman, Tacitus, Livy, Suetonius, and Sun Tzu.

These are just rough memories of the quotes at the beginning of the movie, The Dark Knight:

Dent: "When Rome was threatened, they appointed a dictator to be their temporary leader."
Rachel: "Yes, but the last dictator was Caesar, and look what happened."

And so we have a bumper sticker treatment of a few centuries of Roman history, which forms the philosophical framework that this movie is constructed on. This theme of absolute power continues with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) being given access to everyone's cell phones simultaneously, but does the heroic thing by shutting down the system and turning in his resignation at the end of the movie. The leap from information to power is a modern American obsession which I will leave for a bit further in this post.

Tacitus provides a summary of the Roman dictatorship (Annals, I.1):

"Rome at the beginning was ruled by kings. Freedom and the consulship were established by Lucius Brutus. Dictatorships were held for a temporary crisis. The power of the decemvirs did not last beyond two years, nor was the consular jurisdiction of the military tribunes of long duration. The despotisms of Cinna and Sulla were brief; the rule of Pomnpeius and of Crassus soon yielded before Caesar; the arms of Lepidus and Antonius before Augustus; who, when the world was wearied by civil strife, subjected it to empire under the title of 'Prince.'"

Reading Livy's The Early History of Rome, it is clear that the Roman Republic was frequently so consumed with bickering that only a dictator who had been entrusted with absolute power could provide the kind of timely defense of Rome that was needed. Things did begin to sour when the Roman people decided to put an end to the nearly annual attacks from the nearby city of Veii. This required a lengthy siege, which meant that the rights of the citizens were overruled for a long period of time. The increasing of the bickering resulted in a period where all authority had broken down, the defenses could no longer be organized, and the Gauls went in and completely destroyed the city of Rome. Again, a dictator was appointed to assembled the remnants of the Roman empire from the nearby cities and the Gauls were driven out. Reading Livy, it seems that freedom was a greater threat than dictatorship.

Suetonius, in The Life of Julius Caesar gives us this quote: "Everyone knows that when Sulla had long held out against the most devoted and eminent men of his party who interceded for Caesar, and they obstinately persisted, he at last gave way and cried, either by divine inspiration or a shrewd forecast: 'Have your way and take him; only bear in mind that the man you are so eager to save will one day deal the death blow to the cause of the aristocracy, which you have joined with me in upholding; for in this Caesar there is more than one Marius.'"

Marius seems to have had a bad reputation, especially with Sulla. Sulla's real claim, however, is that Caesar's problem was related to character and ambition, rather than any special fault in the organization of the Roman Republic, but the issues of character were subordinate to the concerns of political power between the factions. In the Batman movie, this seems to be the concern too of the new Dent, who shows such promise, but we are wondering about his true character. The movie explores this in a wonderful way where one inmate demands a detonator with some threatening language, and then does the right thing with it. His upright looking counterpart on the other ship does something similar, but does not show the clear minded resolution needed until after some serious waffling. In the end, Dent's character proves flawed too. For our modern politics, this situation is really sad. With accusations of character flaws being hurled everywhere and entire web sites devoted to lambasting the other party, I assume that nothing sensible can be sorted out regarding character, but character is the most important factor in how someone will handle power.

Moving onto the telecommunications issue, Americans are quite quick to note that complete access to information is something which totalitarian regimes always demand. What we don't admit is that some free countries, like England and France, also use these techniques to track down criminals and few are really protesting. There simply is not enough resources for law enforcement to track down the IRA and al Qaeda and worry about the Tories at the same time - especially when the IRA and al Qaeda have a coherent, organized plan that can be thwarted and the Tories don't have a plan and will thwart themselves. Better to work on an imminent problem.

The telecommunications paranoia is really something I fail to understand. Maybe if I am a drug dealer or involved in some other illegal dealings this is an issue. Then there are the anarchists plotting the overthrow of the government. Moving on from here, there are the genuinely paranoid. Then there are those who apply the admonitions of Sun Tzu all the time, whether in the office, in the family, in politics, in the university of in the church: "He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk; He who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes win and sometimes lose; He who nows neither the enemy nor himself will be at risk in every battle." - The Art of Warfare. Do we really need to take a warfare stance all the time with everyone?

In the end, this movie does raise some important questions: To what extent should we give up our rights to preserve our freedom? Is it possible that belief in a hopelessly flawed human being can become a necessary rallying point for our culture? Is there really any source of goodness to counter our depraved nature? It is this last question which is the most important - particularly to me as a Christian who believes that God will bring everything we do to account, whether it was good or bad. The movie raises questions, but gives no answers.

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