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Tuesday 3 January 2023

Humble Living Is A Must


Humble Living Is A Must

Humble living is a must for a society to maintain its liberty. It cannot preserve it through wealth and hoarding. If it becomes too wealthy, or more accurately, too focused on wealth, it will become decadent. This happens again and again in history. 

I have written elsewhere about how important it is to place limits on the land the wealthy can own. I have even argued that people should be limited to owning one, maybe two houses, if their work requires it (for example for such a people who live in one state but must fly to say Canberra for work). Anything else will inevitably lead to the wealthier people gobbling up all the land (Isa. 5:8-10).

I am sometimes accused of being a socialist because of suggestions like this, simply because many people are trained to see the world in a binary sense, socialist collectivism and capitalist individualism; the former being evil and the latter being wholly good. But this is a false binary, there have been many different economic systems in history, and many of them, including the Bible’s own system, recognized the dangers of the wealthy owning too much land and therefore placed limits on what they could own.

The Romans had a similar system, where, in the early stages of its republic, people could only own a few acres of land. This seems to have been more from convention, than an application of the laws which required this (though they did have such a law, the Agrarian law). But this convention was followed by the Romans so consistently, that it had the same effect as righteous a law. The effect was that no Roman citizen was able to become too rich and too powerful, so as to be able gobble up his own citizens lands and rights.

Machiavelli notes how this limitation preserved the liberty of the Romans:

“Of the poverty of Cincinnatus, and that of many other Roman citizens.”

We have argued elsewhere that it is of the greatest advantage in a republic to have laws that keep her citizens poor. Although there does not appear to have been any special law to this effect in Rome, (the agrarian law having met with the greatest opposition,) yet experience shows that even so late as four hundred years after its foundation there was still great poverty in Rome. We cannot ascribe this fact to any other cause than that poverty never was allowed to stand in the way of the achievement of any rank or honor, and that virtue and merit were sought for under whatever roof they dwelt; it was this system that made riches naturally less desirable.

We have a manifest proof of this on the occasion when the Consul Minutius and his army were surrounded by the Equeans, and all Rome was full of apprehensions lest the army should be lost, so that they resorted to the creation of a Dictator, their last remedy in times of difficulty. They appointed L. Quintius Cincinnatus, who at the time was on his little farm, which he cultivated with his own hands. This circumstance is celebrated by Titus Livius in the following golden words: "After this let men not listen to those who prefer riches to everything else in this world, and who think that there is neither honor nor virtue where wealth does not flow."

Cincinnatus was engaged in ploughing his fields, which did not exceed four acres, when the messengers of the Senate arrived from Rome to announce his election to the dictatorship, and to point out to him the imminent danger of the Roman republic. He immediately put on his toga, gathered an army, and went to the relief of Minutius; and having crushed and despoiled the enemy, and freed the Consul and his army, he would not permit them to share the spoils, saying, "I will not allow you to participate in the spoils of those to whom you came so near falling a prey." He deprived Minutius of the consulate, and reduced him to the rank of licutcnant, saying to him, "You will remain in this grade until you have learned to be Consul."

Cincinnatus had chosen for his master of cavalry L. Tarquinius whose poverty had obliged him to fight on foot. Let us note here how Rome honored poverty, (as has been said,) and how four acres of land sufficed for the support of so good and great a citizen as Cincinnatus. We find also that poverty was still honored in the times of Marcus Regulus, who when commanding an army in Africa asked permission of the Roman Senate to return to look after his farm, which was being spoiled by the laborers in whose charge it had been left by him.

These instances suggest two reflections: the one, that these eminent citizens were content to remain in such poverty, and that they were satisfied merely to win honor by their military achievements, and to leave all the profits of them to the public treasury; for if they had thought of enriching themselves by their wars, they would have cared little whether their fields were being spoiled or not; and the other, as to the magnanimity of these citizens, who, when placed at the head of an army, rose above all princes solely by the grandeur of their souls. They regarded neither kings nor republics; nothing astonished and nothing inspired them with fear. Having returned to private life, they were frugal, humble, and devoted to the care of their little properties, obedient to the magistrates, and respectful to their superiors, so that it seems almost impossible that the same mind should be able to bear such great changes.

This state of things continued at the time of Paulus Aemilius, and these were the last bright days of the republic, when a citizen who had enriched Rome by his triumphs yet remained himself poor. And so much was this poverty still esteemed at that time, that Paulus, by way of rewarding some one who had distinguished himself in war, prescntcd his son-in-law with a silver cup, which was the first piece of this metal that had ever come into his house.

I might demonstrate here at length that poverty produces better fruits than riches—that the first has conferred honor upon cities, countries, and religions, whilst the latter have only served to ruin them—were it not that this subject has been so often illustrated by other writers.”[i]

The most striking thing that I observe here, is that Machiavelli calls owning four acres of land poverty. His definition of poverty appears to be different to our modern conception. He is arguing that if your citizens are not content to live humbly, your nation will be ruined. 

For instance, have you tried to buy four acres of land in Australia recently, anywhere near a major city? You need to be wealthy, incredibly wealth, especially if it is good land. There was once a time when it was more common in our society that you could afford such land. But those days are dwindling because people have been able to gobble up so much land through excess debt, negative gearing and other methods, and now to buy land you have to pay rich prices, which means you need to be reasonably rich to have even a small home block, let alone four acres. This has come about because of our culture of buying up as much land as income will allow. This creates a society where, eventually, fewer and fewer people can afford to buy land, because those with the most can push prices out of reach of those with the least. 

The Roman convention of each man having a little, and no one being allowed to gobble up all the land, sustained their liberty for decades. And if you observe what destroyed their liberty, it was the eventual breaking of this convention and the hoarding of land by the wealthy in the latter stages of the Republic, you see how important such a practice is. It was this issue of land ownership which the Gracchi sought to address, and why the wealthy crushed them, and it was their philosophical descendant, Julius Caesar, who refused to give up his military power so as not to suffer their fate, that destroyed the liberty of Rome. The gobbling up of land by a few causes many evils for a nation and its people.

So, call me socialist, call me anti-capitalist, call me whatever you want. But note that you have been warned, not just by myself, but also by an eminent historian such as Machiavelli on this same issue, who is in turn reflecting on the great Roman historian, Titus Livius's observation. Indeed, Machiavelli notes that many historical writers have warned of this very issue. If you let the ownership of land get out of control the ultimate cost is your nation’s liberty, maybe even its existence. Freedom cannot flourish where some have everything, and everyone else has very little. It’s a reality observed by all who read the histories of the decline and fall of nations and empires.

Our society is in late-stage decline of liberty and the early stages of either oligarchy, hard socialism, tyranny, or a combination of all these things. And this decline was precipitated by our people's addiction to a financial system that prioritizes wealth over everything else. And we all know what the Bible calls putting money above all else: a root of all kinds of evil. Money should be our servant, not our master, we let it be our master and now it is enslaving us all systematically. Jesus warned us about this.  

Limiting what people can own is not socialism. Socialism in its ultimate form is collectivist ownership, the concept that people together own everything, and how this works out is that only those in government positions really have any say over anything. Limiting what people can own is not socialism it is wisdom, and it is advocated by the scriptures, by the historical greats, and is reflected as practice in the most eminent phases of the greatest societies; even ancient Rome.


[i] Machiavelli’s Discourses On Livy, Castalia House, pp. 338-340 

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