Friday, January 29, 2016

Gravitas non Grata

Gravitas, which has been translated variously as dignity, seriousness, weightiness in one's bearing and conduct, was a trait much admired by the Romans, especially in their leaders.  Like pietas (faithfulness, dutifulness) it was considered a distinctly Roman virtue, a characteristic of Romans since ancient times, a part of the mos maiorum, the ways and customs of their sometimes legendary forbears.

It's a familiar enough Latin word, though likely not as familiar as the phrase persona non grata (plural, personae non gratae), meaning an unwelcome person.  And so the title of this post, intended to convey that the virtue of gravitas is unwelcome here in our Great Republic, particularly in our leaders and those who wish to be our leaders.

This is apparent in the tiresome gaggle seeking to preside over these United States, honking platitudes and boasts, fear-mongering, pandering and posturing continually throughout the seemingly endless horror show of the presidential campaign.  But it's apparent even more so among us citizens, because we permit them to do so and even, God help us, encourage them to do so.  Worse yet, we eventually vote for one or the other of them.

Look what we have done to ourselves.  We tolerate circumstances where the highest office in the land is pursued by a rogue's gallery including a snake oil salesman; a blustering, boorish brat; a secretive, artificial person who seems venal and narcissistic; a well-meaning but clueless old man; a right wing demagogue and holy roller.  These are only the more popular of the candidates.

Perhaps I exaggerate.  But I think it accurate to say that not one of them possesses the characteristic of gravitas.  One in particular is even juvenile in demeanor, and this apparently delights his supporters.  It's impossible to think of him as having dignity, or being dignified.  He doesn't seem to aspire to dignity in any case.

To be fair, there are few presidents or candidates in recent years who had gravitas.  Certainly our first president did; it seems to have been his primary characteristic.  This was appropriate given the Founders' evocation of Rome in our institutions and laws.  The fond recollection of the real or not so real Rome of the Republic can be seen in The Federalist Papers, and fondness for it and its traditions was prevalent during the Enlightenment.

Among more recent presidents, one may have to go back to Eisenhower.  He had of course accumulated considerable regard and respect from being Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during WWII, and this certainly accorded him great weight as a public figure.  Nixon seems to have struggled to obtain gravitas, but his own personal flaws and the slings and arrows of those he angered kept him from it.  Reagan, I think it's fair to say, appeared to have gravitas on occasion.  But he was an actor (Gore Vidal liked to call him "The Acting President"), and whether he had gravitas or merely was able to act as if he had it on solemn occasions isn't clear.

Sadly, "gravitas" isn't a word that comes to mind with respect to any of the our candidates, or anyone in national office for that matter.   They are all small, petty, venal and nasty climbers and necessarily for sale in our money-driven political system.

This lessens our standing in the world.  Our leaders' lack of dignity results in our country's lack of respect.  This lack of respect baffles some of us, and it seems those baffled think we must be obnoxious in order to regain respect (I suspect that too many of us associate obnoxious conduct with being powerful and respected).  But those people or countries who lack dignity, seriousness, and weight in bearing and conduct are not respected, though they may be hated.

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