The Symbols Of Power Are Not Substitutes For Real Power

Some are tempted to confuse the symbols of power with the reality of power.  They are not the same thing.  Power is the one thing that cannot be faked.  For a time, perhaps, the bluffer can maintain an illusion of authority; he can go through his empty pantomime, imagining he is fooling everyone; but sooner or later, the truth will shine through.  And then he will discover that the only one who has been deceived is himself.  Symbolism, bombast, and slight-of-hand are no substitutes for the real thing.  Some anecdotes from the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, so often mentioned in these pages, help us to reinforce this point.

In 362 A.D., soon after the emperor Julian had been elevated to the throne upon the death of his cousin Constantius, he was traveling near the city of Ancyra (currently known as Angora).  Like many prominent public officials, he was constantly assailed by petitioners, office-seekers, and others from the general public.  As you might imagine, it was the type of situation that would test any man’s patience.  Yet despite all this pressure, Julian maintained his impartial and judicious tone.  Ammianus says that Julian was

A more stern judge than Cassius or Lycurgus [famous law-giving figures from antiquity], and evaluated the evidence in his cases with legal neutrality, giving to each what was due to him, and never straying from the truth [suum cuique tribuebat, nusquam a vero abductus] [Res gestae XXII.9.8]

Julian had a special dislike for those who spread malicious gossip about others.  As a youth, he had often been the victim of such back-stabbers and trouble-makers, and these experiences made him acutely sensitive to the harm they could cause.  On the other hand, he always tried to maintain his even-tempered judgment, never veering into overt rage.

About this time he was approached by a man who made venomous accusations about some personal enemy.  The accuser essentially accused his enemy of having committed treasonous acts, and wanted the emperor or one of his officials to do something about it.  The actual transgression was this:  the man was alleged to have made, and worn, a purple silk robe.  Now, this may sound like a ridiculously trifling offense, but in those days the wearing of purple garments was reserved for the head of state only.  The emperor could don the purple, and no one else.  To attempt this was a crime.

Julian tried to dismiss the man and his complaint, believing it was nothing more than an attempt to remove a personal enemy on some trumped-up pretext.  Yet the accuser persisted, and refused to take the hint.  Julian then lost his patience with the man, and said this to him:

I want a pair of purple shoes given to this dangerous big-mouth, so that he can give them to his enemy, whom he claims has a purple cloak.  He will then learn what mere garments mean without real power behind them.

And with this, he had the man removed from his presence.  Mere clothing–mere symbols–mean nothing unless they are backed up by true authority.  From this we can extrapolate a general rule:  the symbolism of power is not a substitute for real power.  This may seem obvious, but it is not.  If you follow the news on a daily basis, or interact regularly with your friends, family, and co-workers, you will find that many people are too willing to replace illusion with reality.  They believe that bragging, bombast, or symbolism can be used to hide failure, to assert authority, or to confuse others.  In time, they will discover the pure folly of this way of behaving.

Another example here is relevant (XXII.10).  One time, Julian was presiding over a legal proceeding.  Two parties were trying to adjudicate a dispute they had with each other.  The plaintiff was a former court officer, and the defendant was a female citizen.  When the defendant appeared in court, she saw that the plaintiff had (inappropriately) put on a belt (cinctum) that symbolized the authority of his former position.  Apparently, the man thought that, even though he was now a private citizen, he might be able to score points with the judge by wrapping himself with this former symbol of authority.  The woman protested angrily at the plaintiff’s effrontery, believing that her opponent might be getting an unfair advantage.

But Julian waved away her concerns.  He said, “Continue with your case, woman.  This man has belted himself in order to wade through the mud more easily; it cannot do any harm to your case.”  By this he meant to say that he, as an impartial judge, would not be influenced by the plaintiff’s antics, or by the empty symbol of his power.  He was capable of distinguishing real power, real authority, from an empty charade.


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