Posted by: ken98 | September 21, 2009

Witches, Fame, and Explosions

Day 9 – Ken here

I’m so tired I can hardly keep my eyes open – a sleepless night up in the woods and not for any good reason – just couldn’t sleep. So this Sunday has been kind of a wash-out, time-wise.

Chapter 3 continues with a review of the government of the Principate (this is a technical term princeps “the first one/man) – a form of government Augustus kind of made up on the fly during his long tenure as the 1st Roman Emperor. The Principate mimicked the Republic without having to actually do the things a Republic did – like have an active legislature. This is the beginning of the famous Empire solution to the late Republic’s spreading cycles of increasingly violent civil war.


In Dune, Frank Herbert has one of the Bene Gesserit (witches) remind herself of an Ixian saying “When a creature has developed into one thing, he will choose death rather than change into his opposite.” The Republic hated the word King, because the King meant there were limits to a citizens power/fame. Rome as a Republic was a society built on competition for fame – a kind of fame-economy – where every patrician Roman was a king, and those Patrician Romans who ruled Romans did so because they had convinced all the rest to allow them to rule. The engine that drove society was this fascinating game of gathering support from your equals, getting them to cede their authority to you so that you could gain more. The game became ever more intense as Rome got richer and larger. The problem with the game was that the natural outcome of the competition eventually ended in Armegeddon – a total war between a few immensely powerful men – which would break and bankrupt the state. Yet (as the Bene Gesserit above mentioned) once started, the game was very difficult, if not impossible to stop.

Modern U.S. society has similar problems – capitalism and monopoly/oligopoly – how to preserve competition and allow companies to try and dominate markets, without actually letting them accomplish it. You don’t want to tamper with the engine driving the economy – the desire to succeed – yet you can’t allow success. The Romans had the same problem, but theirs was an economy based upon slave labor, the plunder of war, agriculture, and trade with semi-independent city states.


Augustus’ solution was to declare a winner: himself, yet allow most of the rest of the game to continue – kind of like declaring who will win the super bowl for the next 100 years, but not specifying 2nd, 3rd, etc place. The race was still on, there was plenty of money to be made, and plenty of fame to be had, but the entire state was no longer allowed to be a prize. Just pieces of it were available.

It worked and the cycles of civil war grew longer. They still existed, but there were longer possible stretches of peace in between. Something like the SEC, or Federally Insured bank accounts – they smooth out the rough bumps and prevent recessions from turning into depressions and depressions from turning into revolutions.

The only problem is that people aren’t stupid – and eventually society chooses the second choice in the Bene Gesserit saying – choosing death. People stopped believing in the Empire and the fame-economy, and when that happened, the engine that drove the ancient world wound down and stopped entirely.


That’s one way of looking at the Decline and Fall – a death. Its certainly Gibbon’s opinion – the end of the ancient world. One of my favorite phrases, and actually a key turning point for me when I was studying Late Antiquity and the Fall of the West was an author (and I’m too tired right now to even think of his name or the book, it’s in storage someplace – although I just finished re-reading it a year ago) – who described the 200’s (which were a time of crisis and turmoil and great creativity and great changes in the West) – who said in essence – although it looked like the ancient world collapsed into itself and ceased to be (starting the Dark ages in Europe), actually Europe was like a set of 2 walls with heavy beams between them expanding and pushing against the walls – it did not collapse, it exploded. What grew to take the place of the fame-economy finally exploded through the forms of the ancient world and burst out – beginning the small plant which would grow through the Middle Ages to become the modern Europe/Western World we have today.

until tomorrow –


  1. If I were voting on change or death to win – I’d (reluctantly) vote for death. But, maybe it’s not so bad, maybe we’re just in the process of becoming something different (although, what that “different” may be looks dismal). You’re right, “Money=Free Speech” is a pretty scary thing, especially if no one sees the danger.

    Supposedly, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were very much-concsiously constructed in such a way as to AVOID Rome’s fate (Decline and Fall, rule by military, rule by mobocracy, rule by oligarchy(well…maybe they DID want a rich oligarchy to rule…)). Let’s hope that whatever mechanisms are out there and still in place (like Libertarians, ACLU, old-school Conservatives and Liberals, etc (all strange bedfellows of course – but this is America)) will stop the madness before we end up (again) like the late 1800’s – a country owned by robber barons.

    • To be clear, the Supreme Court said the ability to raise as much money as one can without limits in order to spend on campaigns is the same thing as free speech. It just reminded me all to much of the cult of fame in Rome and convincing others to throw in their lot with yours. Would love to see the strategies and fear tactics in which that was achieved. I am sure not much has changed. But the witches of Dune, that was brilliant, Ken (small disclosure, Ken is my brother, and we share genetics, so calling him brilliant is [small toss of the hair that I don’t have] calling me brilliant in some way) – the creature not wanting to change itself – that is the American machine right now. This is a good blog to pull such things together. Cheers.

  2. One quick comment on Day 9 “Witches” – From Dune – “When a creature has developed into one thing, he will choose death rather than change into his opposite.” An added note on modern parallels on the inability to change a creature – the USA’s empire’s support and defense for Money = Free Speech in supporting Patricians, I mean, candidates. No one wants to tamper with that economic engine although most would admit that there is no rudder available to steer the engine. Like the Roman dice game and convincing others to support you and the cult of fame, the stakes for getting elected have risen astronomically in our own lifetime. Our US Supreme Court has supporting the money = free speech in terms of elections opened the gates. It is not all that different from Rome and fame and patricians if we add in how television and “likabililty” play a part. We at least currently have a speed-limiter on companies being able to give money to elections. But there is another case before the US Supreme Court this term which may reverse much of that. And most of the people (republic) have no idea it is happening. If mega-corporations (practically city states themselves) can get behind candidates freely, then our parallel with ancient Rome comes all that much closer. The creature knows it must change, but death of the creature may come first. Having said that, I need an espresso and a pastry. Good day.

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