“And why should Caesar be a tyrant then? Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf but that he sees the Romans are but sheep. He were no lion were not Romans hinds. Those that with haste will make a mighty fire begin it with weak straws.”
Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III
Hello, good morning, happy Thursday, and for those in the United States, Happy Independence Day!
This is an important holiday which has lost some of its meaning over time. In saying this, I might sound a little like those who bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, but I mean it quite seriously. The date—the 4th of July, of course—is the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the more-or-less “official” birth of the United States of America…though I think it might more appropriately be called the conception of the USA. The Constitution’s ratification thirteen years later was the true birth of the United States of America.
As the first truly secular Constitution in the world—it only mentions religion to state that no religious test shall ever be required for government office, and that there shall be no establishment of religion nor prohibition of its free exercise (the former in Article VI, clause 3, and the latter in the 1st Amendment)—it was groundbreaking. At the time, this secularity was somewhat scandalous, but the founders of the United States were well aware—through personal experience and through the lessons of history—of the corruption, persecution, and violence that tend to arise when religion and government are entangled. This is an important point, and it is not clearly understood by many modern Americans.**
In a broader sense, I think it’s worthwhile to remind modern Americans how revolutionary it was to institute a Constitutional Republic whose government’s power, as stated explicitly and implicitly in both the Declaration and the Constitution, derived solely from the consent of the governed, not from any other authority. The idea was—and should still be—that our representatives, our senators, our presidents, etc., are our employees, our servants. They are certainly not our “leaders”. They, like our military and our police forces, exist in principle to serve our greater good, to the best of their ability and to the best of our ability to hold them true to their duties. We would do well to emphasize this notion to ourselves on a regular basis, because it’s all too easy for humans to fall prey to authoritarianism, and for would-be authoritarians to take advantage of that tendency.
It’s worth remembering the historical (and literary) lesson of Julius Caesar, for it is all too easy for a popular strongman to turn a Republic into a totalitarian regime that can endure as such for centuries…even after the initial strongman is ousted or assassinated.
It’s said that the price of freedom is constant vigilance, and I agree, but I would go even further: The price of survival is constant vigilance. Quite apart from the need to sustain yourself physically in a rather heartless universe, if you give up your freedom then your very survival itself is no longer in your hands. You live and die—and you thrive or suffer—at the whim of those you have allowed to have power over you. And no one else can be ultimately responsible for your personal survival and freedom if you are not.
It’s for these among other reasons that I bemoan the fetishization of the American flag (on which topic I’ve written previously, here), and its glorification in our national anthem. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of the flag. And I understand that children find bright patterns in primary colors engaging. But remember, the design of the flag was and is arbitrary. It has no real, deep meaning.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, on the other hand, are neither arbitrary nor shallow. They are expressions of great and important ideas and ideals. They are the soul of the United States. The flag is, if anything, just our hairstyle or our eye color (if you will)…and fireworks are, perhaps, just glints in that eye.***
It’s true that the founders of the USA fell well short of the noble ideals they expressed so well…and it’s pretty clear that they knew that. That’s part of why they made the Constitution amendable and included the Bill of Rights as the first ten of those amendments. We have far exceeded the founders in realizing some of the notions expressed in the Declaration of Independence, including a greater implementation of the notion that “all [people] are created equal.” But we have fallen far behind them in other respects, and such backsliding is dangerous.
We’ve become more parochial and more provincial, ironically; we are undereducated in certain crucial areas (including the very recognition of how absolutely essential education is for the survival of a republic such as ours); we’ve fallen too far into the glorification of “leaders” and the worship of symbols rather than the exploration and elevation of ideas and ideals, which must be constantly submitted to testing, criticism, and exploration if they are to endure and improve. And we must strive constantly to improve them—rigorously and meticulously, not haphazardly—in the spirit of the acquisition of scientific knowledge, with distrust of arguments from authority and with constant vigilance, especially against our own biases and failings. For if things do not improve, then it’s more likely that they will deteriorate than that they will simply remain static. After all, there’s only one zero point on the number line, but there’s an endless expanse of negatives.
So, that’s me on the soapbox for today. By all means, of course, do enjoy the holiday for the fireworks, and for the cookouts, and for the time spent with friends and family. But please, do also remember what it’s about, and how important it is always to be on guard—at least as much with respect to your own biases and errors as anything else—against the accidental or deliberate betrayal of the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
As part of doing this myself, I refer to the holiday only as Independence Day, not just as “the fourth of July.” It’s a little thing, but it might be worth doing.
*The former in Article VI, clause 3, and the latter in the 1st Amendment.
**I highly recommend the recent book The Founding Myth by Andrew Seidel as an exploration of this topic.
***Apologies for the strained metaphor.