Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, March 07, 2011


“The American people” is a common phrase in American politics. Both parties claim to speak for the people. This is only natural in a democracy and it’s one of the things we’re proud of as a nation. “We, the people of the United States of America” is a bedrock foundation of our society. But Shakespeare’s play about Coriolanus makes us take a step back and look at democracy from a different angle. What if the people are wrong? What if the people can’t govern themselves? What then? Shakespeare’s portrayal of Roman democracy is not pleasant. He paints an unflattering picture of “the people” not as a romantic theory but as an ugly reality. Here’s the argument FOR democracy: SICINIUS (speaking for the people): What is the city but the people? CITIZENS: True, the people ARE the city. This is the best argument for democracy; the State is formed for the good of the people who live in it. That may be true. But here’s the argument AGAINST democracy: CORIOLANUS: That is the way to lay the city flat; to bring the roof down to the foundation. It may be true that the State is formed for the good of the people, but all people are NOT equal. The leveling tendency of democracy is resented by those who aren’t satisfied with mediocrity. The Roman aristocrat Menenius puts it this way: There is a difference between a grub and a butterfly. Coriolanus is a good example of the difference between man and man. Coriolanus has this advice for the common people: Bid them wash their faces and keep their teeth clean. The people don’t appreciate this kind of attitude. And what makes his attitude rankle even more is the fact that Coriolanus can back it up. He’s a great warrior and a noble spirit. He stands out from the common herd. This is dangerous to the ordinary men who want to be democratic politicians. Nietzsche might have appreciated Coriolanus but ordinary citizens don’t. Here’s their attitude toward the Roman aristocracy: CITIZEN: They ne'er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their store-houses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily, to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there's all the love they bear us. That sounds like the generic argument against the wealthy: they’ve gotten rich on the backs of poor working folks. But Menenius points out that the aristocrats aren’t just sitting around idly wasting time. They’re out there working hard for the good of the State: The senators of Rome are this good belly, And you the mutinous members; for examine Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly Touching the weal o' the common, you shall find No public benefit which you receive But it proceeds or comes from them to you And no way from yourselves. What do you think, You, the great toe of this assembly? It is, in fact, the aristocrats who are doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to national security and good governance. It’s the people who are the lazy ones idly wasting their time. CORIOLANUS: your affections are A sick man's appetite, who desires most that Which would increase his evil… Hang ye! Trust Ye? With every minute you do change a mindIt’s the people who demand more and more from the State. And to make matters even worse the people are fickle and can’t even devise a coherent policy, much less carry it out. BRUTUS (speaking for the people): We do it not alone, sir. MENENIUS (speaking for the aristocrats): I know you can do very little alone; for… your abilities are too infant-like for doing much alone… You know neither me, yourselves nor any thing… When you are hearing a matter between party and party… (you) dismiss the controversy bleeding, the more entangled by your hearing: all the peace you make in their cause is, calling both the parties knaves… more of your conversation would infect my brain. Name-calling doesn’t help in politics: your abilities are too infant-like for doing much… Neither does calling the other side stupid: You know neither me, yourselves nor anything. Americans should read more Shakespeare.


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