Three Books To Get You Out Of A Political Wilderness
I've heard activists in the Tea Party movement call on conservatives to study the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the collected works of Glenn Beck. In these wildly partisan times, what we really need is an alternative reading list — one suitable for anyone who finds himself in political exile.
Anger, Mercy, Revenge
Anger, Mercy, Revenge, by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, hardcover, 272 pages, University of Chicago Press, list price: $45
When you're out of power, it's easy to feel aggrieved. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, born between 4 and 1 B.C., was exiled to Corsica for eight years by the emperor Claudius. But rather than wallow in self-pity, he wrote a treatise. "On Anger" should be required reading for any person out of political power. Seneca called anger "the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions." He warned that "with its wish to bring others into danger, it lowers its own guard." He urged his readers to cultivate a pessimistic approach to life, and to expect both man-made and natural disasters to strike with regularity. This proved to be good advice for Seneca himself. After returning from exile and serving as the emperor Nero's tutor, he fell out of political favor and was later commanded by Nero to take his own life. Which he did, presumably without becoming at all peevish.
The Comedies of Machiavelli: The Woman from Andros; the Mandrake; Clizia
The Comedies of Machiavelli: The Woman from Andros; the Mandrake; Clizia, by Niccolo Machiavelli, paperback, 408 pages, Hackett Publishing Company, list price: $16.95
It's not anger, but desire that forms the basis for Machiavelli's play The Mandrake. Written in the early 1500s when Machiavelli was in exile from Medici-controlled Florence, the play is a darkly comic romp. It's the story of a frisky young man's attempts to outwit the aging husband of a beautiful woman he wants to bed. And it contains useful lessons about the dangers of unchecked ambition and the deeply human desire to control others. It delighted audiences and even Pope Leo X, who had it performed in Rome. But it's the portrait of trickery, double-crossing and amorality that will seem familiar to any student of modern politics. As one character in the play remarks, "I'm not sure who is tricking whom here."
Israel Potter, by Herman Melville, paperback, 247 pages, Penguin, list price: $15.00
Patriotism is another common theme among people in political exile. The unswerving loyalty of an American Revolutionary War soldier is the basis for Herman Melville's story, Israel Potter, published in 1855. Captured by the British and transported to England, Potter ends up chatting with King George III in Kew Gardens, conspiring with Benjamin Franklin in Paris, and meeting John Paul Jones and Ethan Allen. Despite these brushes with greatness, all he wants to do is return home to the Berkshires. When he finally does, 50 years later, his patriotic exploits have been utterly forgotten. A reminder of Americans' short political memories.
So while it's great to see Tea Party Patriots rereading the Constitution, I wish they'd also brush up on their Seneca, Machiavelli and Melville. Whether you're a disaffected progressive or a disgruntled conservative, all rebels could use a little literary anger management.
Christine Rosen lives in Washington, D.C., and is senior editor of The New Atlantis. Her most recent book is My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz
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