We saw that Mazzini believed that the spread of ideas was the first and most important step in starting the revolution he wanted to transform Italy. It is attractive to think that history moves by ideas, not mere force. But does it move by true ideas or, sometimes, merely meretricious ones? What does a society need to judge well the alternative ideas that are set before it?

Show Notes

My recent episode on Mazzini included an opportunity to see how closely tied the past often is to the present. Social media was yet to be invented, and the press was subject to censorship, but Mazzini still found ways to spread his ideas even where they were not welcome. He believed that his thoughts, and other similar thoughts, were the crucial first step toward revolutionary change and, by implication, that they were even more important than Garibaldi’s exploits on the battlefield. Recall Mazzini’s statement that “Great revolutions are the work rather of principles than of bayonets, and are achieved first in the moral, and afterwards in the material sphere.”

I would not be surprised if Mazzini used the phrase “material sphere” to emphasize his disagreement with Karl Marx, who at one point lived just down the street from Mazzini in London. Marx insisted that our ideas are merely the consequences of our underlying material and social conditions. Similar in its determinism to the belief that our so-called identity is the source of our opinions, Marx stressed economic class as the cause of what people think. The bourgeoise have bourgeois thoughts about justice, marriage, and individual rights, for example, while proletarians have revolutionary thoughts. Our class dictates our consciousness.

Nevertheless, a co-founder of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci, echoed Mazzini, not Marx, on the power of ideas. As he put it, “The conquest of cultural power comes before political power and this is achieved through the concerted action of intellectuals.” These intellectuals do not sit idly in some ivory tower, they must infiltrate all areas of “communication, expression, and academic media.”

It is flattering to think that our ideas matter, and I do, but I would be quick to add that the truest and best ideas don’t always win competitions for power or influence. You can even hear the difficulty in Gramsci’s remark: he says concerted action and infiltration are necessary to win even wars of words; to be victorious, words must be shouted, repeated endlessly, spread far and wide, and dressed up to appeal to those who hear them. Hopes must be raised to justify taking risks for radical change, and the evils of the old order must be exaggerated to energize efforts to overthrow it. Needless to say, those who resist revolutionary change use similar tactics. The war of ideas is crucial, but it is not simply wisdom or truth that determines the victor. The vigorous promotion of a particular point of view can compensate for its superficiality or falsity, as good advertising can sell a mediocre product, especially where it is difficult to test performance or do so in a short time span.

Along with other reasons to study Rome and Western Civ more generally, Rome’s long history offers an excellent opportunity to consider the question on which Marx and Mazzini disagree: What are the causes of fundamental social change? The spread of Christian principles in the fourth century and the renaissance of classical ideas in the fifteenth century make for excellent case studies. Did the truth conquer in both cases? Did new ideas spread primarily or only because of their merit? Did intimidation, cultural cancellation, or political authority ever play a role?

We will soon turn again to Constantine, the emperor who began the official Christianization of Rome. Here are some alternative ways of looking at him: Did he jump on a fast-moving Christian bandwagon, thinking the ideas of the new faith would conquer no matter what he did? Or, on the other hand, did he choose to use his vast powers as emperor to curtail pagan practices and give Christians the authority they had not won for themselves? Ideas matter, but whose ideas matter most? In democratic times, it is the ideas of the people; but what about in the time of Constantine or Augustus?

To see that ideas have crucial social consequences is only a small first step. It’s easier to map out a strategy for winning a war of ideas than to determine what ideas most deserve the victory. Mazzini and Gramsci want intellectuals who are deeply engaged in their societies and who aim at revolutionary change. The risk that accompanies their excited hopes is that we may race to accomplish something grand without first really determining that it is something good.

I do not know what Mazzini thought would enable any given population to judge well what ideas most deserve to be put into practice. Surely just handing people the vote is not sufficient to enable them to judge well the issues of the day. Cavour knew this even as he was using simple plebiscites to support the claim that Italians from all over wanted Victor Emmanuel to be their king.

The Hamilton made so famous by a recent musical remarked that experience, or history, is “the great oracle of wisdom,” and I would agree that we are likely to do better in sorting through conflicting ideas about what makes a good society if we look around at some of the major alternatives and think patiently about where things have gone well, and why. You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m hoping our look at ancient Pagan, Medieval Christian, and Modern Secular Rome might be of at least a little help in this important regard.

For the next episode, it’s back to Augustus, the founder of a very different kind of regime from the one established by the Four Fathers of the Italian Fatherland. He moved Rome not toward freedom and democracy but away from them, and in so doing, he silenced many whose republican ideas opposed his autocratic policies. His idea, not theirs, prevailed: Was the peace it promised sufficient to justify it? Can the promise of domestic peace justify the curtailment of liberty and democracy even in our own day?

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