What’s Past Is Prologue: Coriolanus and Trump
“We all were sea-swallow’d, though some case again,
And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what’s is past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.” — William Shakespeare, 1610
As I was recently rereading Plutarch’s The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, I came across the chapter of Coriolanus, a general from the 5th century BC in Rome, who was recognized for his exceptional valor at a battle in the Volscian city Corioli.
Coriolanus was later exiled from Rome for his anti-plebian (perhaps fascist?) views, and he subsequently led Rome’s enemies the Volsci to attack Rome itself.
There were some passages in Plutarch’s work that reminded me of some of the political rancor to which we’re subjected today. In particular, the way the GOP front-runner conducts himself:
“But when the day of the election was now come, [Coriolanus] appeared in the Forum, with a pompous train of senators attending him, and the patricians all manifested greater concern...he had always indulged his temper; reason and discipline had not imbued him with that solidity and equanimity which enters so largely into the virtues of the statesman. He had never learned how essential it is for any one who undertakes public business, and desires to deal with mankind, to avoid above all things that self-will, which, as Plato says, belongs to the family of solitude; and to pursue, above all things, that capacity so generally ridiculed, of submission to ill-treatment...Marcius succeeded, to an extraordinary degree, in inspiring the younger men with the same furious sentiments...”
Hmm. Sounds an awful lot like what we’re witnessing today.
When he was later called to account for some of his public affronts (including misappropriation of grain), Coriolanus was less than apologetic, showing the same kind of hubris we get today:
“He came, therefore, as it were, to make his apology, and clear himself; in which belief the people kept silence, and gave him a quiet hearing. But when, instead of the submissive and deprecatory language expected from him, he began not only to use an offensive kind of freedom, seeming rather to accuse than apologize, but, as well as by the tone of his voice as the air of his countenance, displayed a security that was not far from disdain and contempt of them, the whole multitude then became angry, and gave evident signs of impatience and disgust.”
Have you ever heard Trump apologize? I don’t think you’re likely to. Or if he were to begin an apology, it undoubtedly would end like an insult.
Plutarch wraps up:
“the ungraciousness, pride and oligarchical haughtiness which [Coriolanus] displayed were the abhorrence of the Roman populace.”
The Bard’s Take
Shakespeare had his own contribution with the play Coriolanus (c. 1608), in which we meet a character who is less likely to pause for self-reflection through a soliloquy than Hamlet, King Lear or MacBeth. In fact, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus isn’t at all forthcoming about his intentions, motives, or why he isolates himself from Roman society.
How much do we really know about Donald Trump and his motivations? His connections to Russia are certainly suspect.
As a side note, it is also interesting that the authoritarian leader in The Hunger Games series is President Coriolanus Snow. Sensing a pattern here?
The American people — at least the reasonable ones — are just as abhorred with Herr Trump’s ridiculousness as the Romans were with Coriolanus’.
Should we continue to inflict upon ourselves this repeat joke of a leader, we can only hope that like after Coriolanus, the decline of our civilization is still some 8 centuries away.