Benjamin Studebaker

Yet Another Attempt to Make the World a Better Place by Writing Things

Tag: Roman Empire

The Dilemma Over How to Reproduce the Elite

I’ve been reading Edward Watts’ book, The Final Pagan Generation. Watts focuses on Roman elites born during the reign of Constantine in the 310s. These Romans were born when paganism was still dominant in the empire, and they died near the end of the century, when pagan temples were being ripped down and destroyed. Christianity slowly crept through the empire between the 310s and the 390s, but even pagan Roman elites did very little about it. Why? Trying to oppose Christianization could result in loss of imperial favor. It was a risky career move. But it goes further than this. Roman elites relied on patronage networks. These patronage networks were predicated on exchanges of favors. When these elites began their careers, there was broad toleration of both paganism and Christianity. The religious division had not yet become the primary marker of political identity. Consequently, elite patronage networks often contained both Christians and pagans, and this meant that pagan Roman elites often owed favors to Christian elites and vice versa. During the reign of Julian, the last pagan emperor, pagan elites often defended their Christian friends from Julian’s effort to purge the Roman school system of Christian teachers. The Christian teachers were part of the elite network, and individual pagan elites felt a loyalty to their network that was more powerful than religious identity. They owed their positions to the patronage system and they put the patronage system first. In the United States, we have made an effort to eliminate patronage systems in favor of ostensibly fair, impersonal, meritocratic mechanisms. But while our system of elite reproduction differs from Rome’s, we have not fully eliminated the role of interpersonal ties in elite reproduction. I want to suggest that our system of elite reproduction is caught between the old patronage model and a more impersonal, technocratic model. Both the old and new models have some disturbing features, and this keeps us from fully embracing one or the other. But in trying to balance the two models together, we have created a system of elite reproduction that is too opaque to function properly.

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Against the Stoics, Skeptics, Epicureans, and Buddhists

This is going to be an odd post about Greek philosophy and the contemporary analogues of Greek traditions. Its purpose is threefold. First, I’ll argue that the Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans had similar conceptions of the good life, that this conception closely resembles the conception preferred by Buddhists, and that this conception of the good life is mistaken. Second, I’ll argue that the Stoics and Skeptics both make similar–if opposite–errors with respect to meta-ethics, with the Stoics asserting an unrealistically ambitious epistemology and the Skeptics denying that epistemology without acknowledging less ambitious alternatives. Third, I’ll argue that many contemporary political and moral antagonisms are essentially new versions of the Stoic/Skeptic antagonism, and that there is a popular Epicurean response to this antagonism.

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The Left Must Stop Helping the Right Racialize the Concept of Citizenship

There are many lovely political concepts that have been distorted by the right. “Citizenship” is one such concept. Increasingly, the right hides behind it. Accuse the right of caring only about people of one ethnicity, race, religion, or culture, and the right will answer that it’s interested in protecting citizens, regardless of background. Of course, if you ask the right what makes someone deserving of citizenship, the right will often argue for jus sanguinis, the idea that citizenship is a matter of blood heritage. When citizenship is about blood, it becomes a thin cover for ethnic nationalism.

Unfortunately, the left has largely responded to this by simply dismissing all appeals to citizenship as ethno-nationalist, racist, or white supremacist. Instead of fighting to stop the right from appropriating the concept, the left has simply conceded it to them. This means that whenever right wing politicians argue about the importance of defending American citizens, all the left can do is shout “racism!” at them. Increasingly, the left calls for “open borders”, arguing that citizenship doesn’t matter at all. This concedes far too much to the right. The right is advancing a very poor conception of citizenship, and we are able to offer something much more compelling, if we merely try. Here, let me show you.

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Five Forms of Retreat

In the Roman Empire, during the Crisis of the 3rd Century, everything began falling apart. The army was swapping emperors out left and right, and the political system could no longer generate the legitimacy or stability that had prevailed in the two centuries prior. Chunks of the empire lost faith in the ability of the central authority to restore order, and began looking to their own defences. It was bleak:

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Notre Dame is Not a Monument to “Whiteness” or “Western Civilization”

The fire at Notre Dame in Paris might have been an opportunity for us to come together to express our appreciation for history and for the beautiful things that emerge from it. But there are some people who think Notre Dame is about contemporary political debates to do with racism, colonialism, or terrorism. Already I am seeing wokescold anarchists rejoicing in the fire, calling Notre Dame a symbol of “whiteness” or “colonialism”:

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