The Power of Cincinnatus

September 22, 2020

I am led to relate these particulars for no other reason than to let all the world see what kind of men the leaders of Rome were at that time, that they worked with their own hands, led frugal lives, did not chafe under honourable poverty, and, far from aiming at positions of royal power, actually refused them when offered. For it will be seen that the Romans of to‑day do not bear the least resemblance to them, but follow the very opposite practices in everything — with the exception of a very few by whom the dignity of the commonwealth is still maintained and a resemblance to those men preserved.

Dionysus of Halicarnassus wrote this two thousand years ago, speaking about a figure five hundred years distant named Cincinnatus. So we’re two and a half millennia removed from the story, but you probably read the quote above (assuming you read the quote above) and thought of the “good ole days” of your time.

That’s a fairly well known cognitive bias - called rosy retrospection - that makes sentiments like these easy to identify with. It’s hard to feel nostalgic about something as far removed as Rome these days. Even accounting for the disposition of the primary sources, the story of Cincinnatus has a strong lesson and is little known.

Cincinnatus was a patrician and farmer in early Rome. In two separate crises needing strong leadership and authority, he was asked to leave his farm and take over as a complete and total dictator of Rome. He did so both times and averted both crises. And then he did the most amazing thing of all:

He relinquished the power he was given and returned to his farm.

It’s hard to overstate the power of this action. It is a profound act of humility. Apply it to the times we live in and imagine any one person with significant power doing the same, or stepping down from their position after a major job is completed. And our times aren’t particularly special. It’s the natural state of humanity to want to remain at the top once they’ve climbed the ladder.

What Cincinnatus forces us to do is reconsider this value proposition. For example:

  • There is never a politician that willingly gives up a position of power. As the 21st century continues, it seems like largely the same cast of characters that just keeps getting older and older. Mitch McConnell is 78 and Nancy Pelosi is 80. There are many calls for term limits on high positions of power, but they haven’t been implemented yet.
  • Politicians pander. It’s not sufficient for them to state their view and for the public to agree or disagree; their view needs to be fluid and malleable enough to agree with as many constituents as possible to consolidate power. This is why presidential candidates move towards their base during a primary and towards the center for the election.
  • Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction”. As new companies, new innovations, new techniques, and new industries are formed they naturally destroy the incumbents and take their place. Facebook wrecked previous networks. Google destroyed other search engines. The steam engine eliminated huge amounts of labor. The iPhone destroyed cameras, video recorders, tape recorders, GPS boxes and about a dozen more devices. The original Luddite rebellion was retaliating the creative destruction of their industry. It’s hard for a company to recognize and accept when it’s time has come and it’s going to be supplanted. Companies hold on to their profits and their market placement as long as possible. If they were better able to see and accept the end, it’s possible they’d be better at innovating internally.
  • Our society has become addicted to unobtainium. We idolize and drool over celebrities, apps, unrealistic fashion and beauty, and we all waste far too much time on social media. One of the reasons we all do this is because we want to be on the other side of it. We all want our own moment and those in the spotlight have a really hard time giving it up. Fame is radically addicting.

Activism and Social Movement

But the most important lesson is for our activists of today. We constantly see social and political movements declare in stark terms the dire consequences of inaction. Biden says we will lose our country with four more years of Trump. Trump says the same. The nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement has just become The Most Important Issue In Democracy. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion say our planet is dying. Progressive rights activism move to the next thing and then the next thing, never giving an inch. Right-wing activists move down the line of allowed weaponry and carry permits to AR-15s, never giving an inch. We’re continuously confronted with issue after issue along a spectrum with supporters so converted to The Cause that it’s The Most Important Thing.

So what’s wrong with it? Well, everything’s wrong. But the problem is that people have their identities so wrapped up in the issues that it’s not even possible to have debate.

Identity is the problem. Paul Graham said “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.” That’s true. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn said it even more strongly, and he had a direct view of the problem:

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

Ideology is the core problem, and the one trait of humanity most likely to be abused to create great evil. Intentions don’t matter, all ideologies start with good intentions. But if they drive towards a consolidation of power, there’s a major problem.

Greta Thunberg will only ever be that incredible child willing to stand up and shout that we’re doing it wrong. She can’t back down from her shouting now; her identity is tied up in it. Even if the entire world went to zero emissions immediately there would still be some new cause, some issue driving the next thing. She will never stop.

Compare this with Boyan Slat. Many less people know who he is but his story started out in a similar way. As a teenager, he became frustrated and disillusioned with the plastic he found while diving. Instead of shouting about it and trying to drive political change, he started looking into solutions and founded The Ocean Cleanup project. Their latest projections suggest they can remove 90% of the plastic in the oceans by 2040. They’ve also moved on to understand that 80-90% of plastic in the oceans comes from just ten specific rivers in the world. So now they’re intercepting the plastic in those rivers before it ever gets to the ocean.

The real lesson of Cincinnatus is to strive to keep our identity and our ego out of the equation. To do this, we need to focus on the problem at hand and present a definable goal. A mountain to climb always has a summit.

There’s a corollary here to science. It’s easy to define what is and is not science. That test is called ‘falsifiability’ and was coined by Karl Popper. If a hypothesis is falsifiable - that is, possible to disprove - then it’s science. Otherwise it is not.

I’d like to propose a similar litmus test for activism and politics, which I’ll call the Cincinnatus Test. If activism has a clear and definable goal, specifically an end where the organization and the cause are no longer needed, then it’s a rational actor and worth applauding and following or debating (depending on whether you agree with the cause). If it does not have a goal and instead focuses only on ‘furthering the cause’, then it’s nothing more than power agglomeration.

A lot of wise people believe there’s something missing in our public sphere today. Some say it’s simple civic virtue. Others say it’s humility. I say we have too many moving goalposts tied to ideology and identity and not enough achievable, definable ends and not enough leaders to step aside when the ends are met. We need a few more people like Cincinnatus.

Greg Olsen
Hi I'm Greg. Occasionally, I do things.