Blessing must arise from within your own mind. It is not something that comes from outside. When the positive qualities of your mind increase and the negativities decrease, that is what blessing means. The Tibetan word for blessing … means transforming into magnificent potential. Therefore, blessing refers to the development of virtuous qualities you did not previously have and the improvement of those good qualities you have already developed.
― Dalai Lama XIV
My column today is a bit different. It looks at what happens when the people of a superpower gradually come to realize that their leader is mentally unstable (and thanks to Liza Donnelly for the cartoon of Caligula above). There are lessons to be learned, so read!
The Times has an important article noting that blacks and Latinos are even more underrepresented in university now than in 1980. In short, affirmative action policies haven’t helped as much as we might have hoped. To me, one of the lessons is the need to start earlier to create opportunity. The evidence is overwhelming that early childhood education is essential to get disadvantaged kids on a better footing so that they can eventually get into college a dozen or more years later. Rather than invest in a border wall, I’d like to see the U.S. invest in early childhood programs for every at-risk child.
Jack Rosenthal, a long-time editor at the Times, has died at the age of 82 (RIP, Jack), and his passing has me thinking about a famous government report he edited in 1968 warning that the United States is moving “toward two societies, separate and unequal.” That’s still true. We’ve made some progress in reducing race gaps, but class gaps have become wider — and the challenges for a black or Native American child in a disadvantaged family are particularly great. What’s frustrating is that we know some of the policies that will help, and they mostly involve investing in children, especially young children.
My Thursday column challenged President Trump in his denunciations of the news media, and one of my concerns is that he buoys dictators around the world who are trying to muzzle their own journalists. I wonder if one example of that isn’t now unfolding in Cambodia, where the autocratic government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is moving to close down the Cambodia Daily, a critically important watchdog there. I hope the U.S. will forcefully back the Cambodia Daily.
We raised our kids speaking Chinese, so friends often ask us if we recommend it. The answer’s complicated, but I definitely believe that all American kids should learn Spanish, which will be an increasingly important language in the U.S. My colleague Simon Romero offers a glimpse of this bilingual future and notes that the U.S. already may have more Spanish speakers than Spain.
Here’s a powerful editorial about the man-made famine in Yemen, and the U.S. and Saudi role in making it happen.
And now for my column today about a megalomaniacal, probably crazy leader of a great nation, a greedy narcissist who rolled around on piles of gold coins, who dressed as a god (when he wasn’t cross-dressing), who apparently slept with his sister, who said he could get away with anything — yet who eventually was defeated because of the robustness of institutions and traditions. Read!
What happens when the people of a great nation gradually realize that their leader may not be, er, quite right in the head?
When Caligula became Roman emperor in A.D. 37, the people rejoiced. “On all sides, you could see nothing but altars and sacrifices, men and women decked in their holiday best and smiling,” according to the first-century writer Philo.
The Senate embraced him, and he was hailed as a breath of fresh air after the dourness, absenteeism and miserliness of his great-uncle, Emperor Tiberius. Caligula was colorful and flamboyant, offering plenty of
pportunities for ribald gossip. Caligula had four wives in rapid succession, and he was said to be sleeping with his sister. (Roman historians despised him, so some of the gossip should be treated skeptically.)
He was charming, impetuous and energetic, sleeping only three hours a night, and he displayed a common touch as he constantly engaged with the public. His early months as emperor brimmed with hope.
Initially, Caligula focused on denouncing his predecessor and reversing everything that he had done
. Caligula also made popular promises of tax
reform so as to reduce the burden on the public. He was full of grandiose pledges of infrastructure projects, such as a scheme to cut through the Isthmus of Corinth.
But, alas, Caligula had no significant government experience, and he proved utterly incompetent at actually getting things done. Meanwhile, his personal extravagance actually increased the need for tax revenue.
Suetonius, the Roman historian, recounted how Caligula’s boats had “sterns set with gems, parti-colored sails, huge spacious baths, colonnades and banquet halls, and even a great variety of vines and fruit trees.”
Romans initially accepted Caligula’s luxurious tastes, perhaps intrigued by them. But Caligula’s lavish spending soon exhausted the surplus he had inherited, and Rome ran out of money.
This led to increasingly desperate, cruel and tyrannical behavior. Caligula reportedly opened a brothel in the imperial palace to make money, and he introduced new taxes. When this wasn’t enough, he began to confiscate estates, antagonizing Roman elites and sometimes killing them.
A coward himself, Caligula was said to delight in the torture of others; rumor had it that he would tell his executioners: “Kill him so that he can feel he is dying.”
Caligula, a narcissist and megalomaniac, became increasingly unhinged. He supposedly rolled around on a huge pile of gold coins, and he engaged in conversations with the moon, which he would invite into his bed. He replaced the heads of some statues of gods with his own head, and he occasionally appeared in public dressed as a god. He was referred to as a god in certain circumstances, and he set up a temple where he could be worshiped.
“Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody,” he told his grandmother, according to Suetonius.
Caligula had a thing for generals, and he periodically wore the garb of a triumphant military commander. He removed the breastplate of Alexander the Great from his sarcophagus and wore it himself at times.
The Senate, dignified and traditional, watched Caligula with increasing alarm. He scandalized the public by sometimes dressing as a woman, and he aggravated tensions by scathingly denouncing the Senate, relying on sarcasm and insult, and showing utter contempt for it.
One of Caligula’s last allies was his beloved racehorse, Incitatus, who wore a collar of precious stones and lived in a marble stall. Caligula would invite Incitatus to dine with him.
Edward Champlin, a historian of Rome at Princeton University, says that Caligula pursued “a love of pranks that a 4-year-old might disdain” and had a penchant for “blurting out whatever is on his mind” — such as suggesting that Incitatus could become consul. These rash statements rippled through
Rome, for leaders of great powers are often taken not just seriously but also literally.
Yet as Caligula wreaked havoc, Rome also had values, institutions and mores that inspired resistance. He offended practically everyone, he couldn’t deliver on his promises, his mental stability was increasingly doubted and he showed he simply had no idea how to govern. Within a few years, he had lost all support, and the Praetorian Guard murdered him in January 41 (not a path I would ever condone).