Both of the books I’m reading right now are full of ambitious people. Luo Guanzhong’s Three Kingdoms takes quite a long to time to get from one collapsing empire to just the three kingdoms of the title; in the mean time, a score or more princes and warlords make Machiavellian deals and vie for supremacy. And where generals and near relations aren’t grabbing for the throne in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, their mothers try to steal it for them. Throughout every page in these two books, I read about people seeking positions of power. And it occurs to me that, as familiar as this tale is, I don’t personally understand it.
If I wink and tilt my head the right way, I can imagine myself wanting power. But in every scenario I can conjure up, I always find myself wanting to do something with that power. A slightly different version of myself would conceivably look for a political platform from which to serve society: power for the sake of doing good for fellow humans. The less altruistic K.S. in the next parallel universe probably wants an office as a means to acquire money, which in turn makes it possible to obtain stuff he wants. I can search my human heart and find sympathy with the desire for position as a means to pleasure, as a means to gaining the freedom to do whatever I want, or as a means to achieving a widespread reputation that might make a business involving the selling of creative work more plausible. But a position for its own pleasures? A title? Sycophantic treatment? Special clothes and accoutrements as visible signs of authority? These things attract me not at all.
The story that really got me thinking along these lines is Gibbon’s account of the brief reign of Didius Julianus. The Praetorian Guard has just murdered Emperor Pertinax. They have become accustomed to receiving a generous gift from any new emperor, and Pertinax’s next of kin doesn’t seem rich enough to provide a suitable donative. So they rush to the ramparts of the palace and offer the throne of the Roman Empire to the highest bidder. Didius Julianus is dining with his wife and daughter when rumor, rushing through the streets, brings this unusual news to the door of their spacious home, and his family tells him it’s a golden opportunity to gain the position he deserves. So he runs to the palace, pays up, and receives the rule of two-and-a-half million square miles of civilization. The guardsmen readily take the money, but immediately regret empowering a fellow base enough to give it to them. Septimus Severus marches to Rome with his legions, and the Praetorian Guard beheads Didius and hails a new Caesar. As Gibbon puts it, Didius Julianus had “purchased, with an immense treasure, an anxious and precarious reign of only sixty-six days.”
So here’s a man who gave up money, security, freedom, and length of days to hold on for a moment to a word: imperator. The pages of history are filled with such tales. The stories make sense to me in that they follow a recognizable path, but I don’t really understand them.