In the matter of passion, whether of love or war, excess is inevitable. Yet I have always been bewildered when, in the ease of peace, men raise the questions of praise or blame. It seems to me now that both judgments are inappropriate, and equally so. For those who thus judge do not judge so much out of a concern for right or wrong as out of protest against the pitiless demands of necessity, or an approval of them. Necessity is simply what has happened.--Maecenas to Livy, in John Williams Augustus: A Novel (70)
You forget that I am artist myself, and know the necessity of asking what to ordinary people would seem the most insulting and presumptuous things. How could I take offense at that which I myself would do, without the slightest hesitation, for the sake of my art? I detect the odor of a moralist. And it seems to me that the moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon making judgments rather than gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgment is easy and knowledge is difficult. He is contemptible in that his judgments reflect a vision of himself which in his ignorance and pride he would impose upon the world I implore you, do not become a moralist; you will destroy your art and your mind. And it would be a heavy burden for even the deepest friendship to bear.—Maecenas to Livy (128)—John Williams Augustus: A novel
There was no possibility of virtue without the idea of virtue; and no effective idea of virtue that was not encoded in the law.--Octavius to Damascius (302), John Williams Augustus: A novel
If we allow ourselves the thought, we probably tend to think of propaganda as not-art or, perhaps, as bad art.+ Williams's clever novel reminds us that some of the greatest art (Virgil, Horace, etc.) is, in part, propaganda for what we might call, military dictatorship and empire. In addition, in the second quoted passage above, Williams portrays the chief artist-propagandist, Maecenas, not just as a Spinozistic-fatalist -- with his repeated invocation of necessity --, but as would-be-censor of the historian Livy. It is to Williams's credit that he makes us see both the case for benevolent, imperial dictatorship as well as the price the establishment this extracts not just on the protagonists themselves (notably Augustus and his daughter Julia – ultimate Augustus trades the daughter of flesh and blood for an "adoptive daughter" [the Roman empire], a trade that, in turn, is said to be made legitimate because "acknowledged" by "the adoptive daughter" [that is the laws] (306; as if all trade requires the sanction of law) -- ), but also on the arts (history, poetry, and philosophy).
Few professional historians would claim that they are in the business of judging. In so far as Historicism has won the day (see Beiser's majestic book), historians see themselves as scientists (if not akin to natural scientists than at least as practitioners of their very own special Geisteswissenschaft) and not as moral judges. Obviously, even those that advocate moralism in history would wish to see it consequent knowledge.* Williams's (1972) novel (recall this post) subtly invite us to see constraints and power in (or outside) the margins of works of art, history, and philosophy. Williams's readers were familiar with the McCarthy era, of course, so, perhaps, they need little such reminding. It is an open question to what degree some readers at the time thought the US was, itself, heading -- amidst major disagreements over civil rights and Vietnam war -- toward its own civil war (and to what degree they were tempted to follow the model of benevolent dictatorship). Perhaps, too, Williams makes the reader reflect on the nature of the post US-Civil War settlement (which, after all, is a key feature of Butcher's Crossing (recall my post)).
In Williams's portrayal of Maecenas, art (poetic and historical) is (amongst other things) supposed to be useful. In context, it is entailed that if political circumstances had been different some other art would be useful. The moralist is said to be useless because he can't contribute to knowledge-generation and, less explicitly, change what's happened. Meacenas's argument presupposes not just the Hobbesian idea that within the context of state of nature, there is no justice, but a distinction between two kinds of judges (moralists/artists). Those that judge appropriately with authority (and force) and those that judge – for lack of a better word -- frivolously. By 'frivolous' (recall) I do not mean consequent-free; the novel is very clear that death (Cicero) and exile (Ovid) may well await frivolousness.