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Waiting for Cincinnatus

by Ricardo Pachon
4 minutes read

The confrontation between Rome and the Aequi had reached a critical point when Consul Lucius Minucius was besieged in the camp he had set up near Tusculum. In Rome, the Senate, seized by panic, resolved that the only recourse was to appoint General Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus as dictator. It was a risky bet, as the powers of a dictator were unlimited, and there was a risk of opening the doors to someone with so much ambition for power that it would later be impossible to control.

Legend has it that when the Senate delegation arrived at Cincinnatus’s location to inform him of his appointment, they found him plowing the land on his small plot in front of the humble hut where he lived with his wife. As soon as he received the dictator’s toga, he left for Rome where he summoned an army with which he attacked and defeated the Aequi. Sixteen days later, having completed his task, Cincinnatus resigned as dictator and returned to his plot to continue plowing the land.

The story of Cincinnatus fascinated the Romans of the Republic, who saw in his actions the model of the perfect leader, capable and brave, but above all detached from the thirst for power. The fears of what would happen when one person accumulated too much power only materialized four hundred years later when Julius Caesar declared himself dictator for life and Rome entered the era of the emperors.

Yesterday I wrote about incentives, those external influences that shape our behavior, and I reflected on what, in my opinion, is the one that most affects politicians. I also noted that motivation is something different from incentive because it comes from within the individual and marks their long-term aspirations. So the question remains, what are the motivations that drive politicians?

I think it would be too cynical to doubt the service vocation that politicians generally have, and I can accept without problem that anyone (or well, let’s say the majority) of the candidates for an elected office has a firm conviction to want to help their community. However, I also believe it is valid to observe that, as a group, politicians have a natural ambition for power. I don’t know if it’s a psychological need they have to control others, to tell others how they have to live, but one recognizes a pattern that repeats in all corners of the globe, in all eras of history. Above all, the politician is convinced that they are indispensable, that history has called them to save their people.

Of course, when asked about their motivations for entering politics, candidates invariably recount narratives of a higher calling to serve the public, but we never hear someone, looking into the camera, say “well, look, what drives me is a great thirst for power.” However, as issues and scandals unfold—declaring, “Here I stand, and here I remain,” amending laws to “save the nation”, or releasing a former president for “humanitarian reasons”—we see the elected politician, entrenched, fighting off any suggestion that it’s time to step down.

We’ve been dreaming for two thousand five hundred years that Cincinnatus will return, that the great general will humbly accept the task we assign him to come and save our republic. But above all, we dream that once everything is in order, and without us having to ask him, he will renounce the immense power we have conferred upon him and return to his plot to continue plowing the land.

Elections, so fragile, so manipulable, so damaged, have proven to have a very limited capacity to curb the onslaughts of power-hungry politicians. There will be those who do not see a problem in this and believe that a strong leader anchored in power is the ideal recipe to fix a country. However, this strays far from democratic principles and ventures into darker, authoritarian territories.

Can we design a democratic system in which the rulers we choose cannot perpetuate themselves in power?

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