I’ve been reading the biography of Catherine the Great (by Joan Haslip). Though I am less than half-way through it, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with the wider public.
I find my self admiring her – for her cunning, patience, determination and the suffering she endured prior to her rise to power. Here was a woman who knew what she wanted, set her goals high – and achieved them without undue bloodshed. Her treatment of my ancestors, though not fair, certainly could have been a lot worse. Nevertheless, the things she did, in order to seize power, might be considered morally questionable today (to put it mildly).
But, compared to Empress Elizabeth (who preceded her – if we disregard her infantile husband, Peter), she was quite merciful. Empress Elizabeth had found it necessary to incarcerate the infant Czar, Ivan VI in the fortress of Shlusselburg, where he rotted for his entire miserable life. This dastardly deed was considered acceptable in order to gain power. Empress Elizabeth was a deeply religious woman. Apparently, she felt there was no sin in locking an infant in a dungeon for life so that she may rule. Perhaps “superstitious” would be a more appropriate description of her than “religious”. For her, religion was no more than one, of many, means to further her advancement and secure her power.
Catherine also shamelessly used religion to fool the masses into thinking she was as sincere in her faith as they were. We are told about the throngs of peasants, who came to pay their last respects to Empress Elizabeth at her funeral (pg. 108):
Not one of them could fail to notice the veiled woman in black, kneeling at the foot of the bier and apparently so lost in prayer that she seemed unaware of their presence. It was the new empress, sharing the mourning of the Russian people, kneeling on the cold stone and prostrating herself in prayer like the most fervent of Orthodox believers. She was there every day and almost all day, a heroic effort for even the healthiest of women, but doubly so for one who was already six months gone with child… but never did she falter, thereby winning the crowds…
Things have not changed much regarding the role of religion in politics. Politicians still feign devoutness to win over the masses – and it still works.
But Catherine knew tenderness, passion, shame, anger and pity – just like the rest of us. She was no less human. In studying this woman, and in asking myself why I admire her, I found myself asking why I have admired the Romans. Especially given the horrors they perpetrated upon my own people. Until now, I had never given it much thought; I had simply assumed it was some sort of misplaced nostalgia, romanticism or a holdover from the education of my youth, when Roman civilization was still highly regarded (for their accomplishments and culture) in public schools.
It is possible that all the above is correct – but, in any case, now I have a more legitimate reason: The Romans – and Catherine the Great – represent a perfection that I, myself, lack. Having been raised in liberal America, I am flawed. My flaw is that I care too much about other people. I am too sensitive and have too much empathy. I am not the only one; much of Western civilization suffers from this affliction. If we view, as a continuum, a lack of empathy that progresses toward an overabundance thereof, the question presents itself: Where, in this continuum, should we strive to stand? A society composed of sociopaths cannot function. It should be obvious that too much empathy is also not a good thing. Clearly, Western society has taken empathy too far, and this excess empathy is leading us to our demise.
What is the optimum amount of empathy? I do not believe there can be a precise answer to this question, but there surely must be a range, at the middle of the continuum, that is healthy. Perhaps we can view this in terms of genetic interests. We should strive for just enough empathy to benefit ourselves and those close to us – but not so much that we worry about outsiders to the detriment of family or clan. As we move to the right, we pass through an area of “praiseworthy”, which gradually fades into “foolhardy”.
In a monarchy, like 18th century Russia, a person like Catherine could rise to the top and make a difference for her nation. I admire her for her (apparent) good balance of empathy and cruelty. What about recent American presidents? Did they also maintain such a balance? I can’t answer that question – but here I tread on dangerous ground. It’s against my faith to admire politicians – and I just shot myself in the foot!