Last night for bedtime reading I was flicking through the philosopher Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic.
Seneca was born in Roman Spain about the same time as Christ fetched up in a stable, and for balance, on the back of the book cover there’s this:
Seneca may well be history’s most notable example of a man who failed to live up to his principles.
Be that as it may, Letter XC in part considers the character or lack thereof of politicians. It’s striking that Seneca refers to a “Golden Age” in which politicians were chosen for their character, and in which government was in the hands of the wise:
They kept the peace, protected the weaker from the stronger, urged and dissuaded, pointed out what was advantageous and what was not. Their ability to look ahead ensured their peoples never went short of anything…To govern was to serve, not to rule. No one used to try out the extent of his power over those to whom he owed that power in the first place.
But with the gradual infiltration of the vices and the resultant transformation of kingships into tyrannies, the need arose for laws…
Reading this gives me some perspective on our current political plight: we are by no means in a unique political situation, though its manner of expression is peculiar to its context. Seneca didn’t have social media, for example from which platform heads of state threaten one another and life on earth with extinction. But the same moral dilemmas are in play. Abuse of power, tyranny, self-interest, contempt, greed, arrogance, stupidity, cruelty and all the vices. Was it ever thus? Is Seneca’s description of a Golden Age nothing more than a doomed attempt at wish fulfilment? It does read like a fairly tale, or a child’s dream of fairness and justice.
It’s difficult to choose, but if I had to single out one dominant characteristic of the Turnbull government, I think it would be cruelty. I was going to write intentional cruelty, then I realised that cruelty is by its very nature intentional, whether that intention is acknowledged or not. I think we have had governments of which this could not be said, and perhaps that was a relatively Golden Age.
Governments such as ours are not only cruel to individuals and groups, they are cruel to the earth in their exploitation of her resources, and their indifference to the catastrophic consequences of this exploitation.
Each new cruelty is justified by the government as an economic necessity, necessary, that is, for the furtherance of the interests of the already comfortable.
For the Turnbull government, power is cruelty. Its members have no other understanding of power, such as that favoured by Seneca and likely regarded by most of us as, after decades of desensitization, as a laughably unattainable ideal. Cruelty has largely become normalised. There are scattered groups who continue to hold out for kindness, but obviously not enough to ensure a government that performs according to those ideals.
I have no idea how we get out of this most ungolden age, this age of cruelty, but I do think the first step is calling it what it is, consistently and unflinchingly. The cruel rarely enjoy being named as such. As Malcolm Turnbull once complained, it hurts when mean things are said about them.
Cruelty isn’t strength, and it is born of weakness. The Turnbull government is synonymous with cruelty. Let’s not call it, or the politicians in it, anything less than weak and cruel.