An elderly Marcus Aurelius tells the young(ish) protagonist Maximus of the fragility that he saw defining Rome, in a scene that sets up the grand sweep of the central conflict and setting of 2000’s blockbuster hit Gladiator:
“There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.”
This notion of Rome being a transient dream — an idea ripe for defeat, an ephemeral abstraction — is on vivid display throughout the drama and action of Gladiator. It is threatened with the menace posed by the narcissism of Commodus, who would rule Rome as a tyrant. It is threatened in the ease of manipulation amongst co-suffering slaves, who vie for their own survival at the fatal expense of their friends. It is imperiled in the gluttony and corruption of senators, who would trade the soul of Rome for a higher seat of power.
It is dying in the raucous delight throngs of Romans reap as they play spectators to the suffering and murder of fellow humans in grotesque “sport.”
This dream of freedom and democracy is everywhere failing – no one believes or defends it. And then, along comes Maximus. You probably know the story, that his fearless bravery in the coliseum and flat-out refusal to let anyone walk for their role in widespread debauchery ends up awakening Romans to the nasty state of their nation.
It is this notion of democracy as an idea – or, perhaps more accurately, an ideal – that also runs through Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton. It’s there in the script itself, without question.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel.” So sings Angelica Schuyler, in one of many, many lyrics that quote, describe, and comment on the founding fathers’ philosophy for America’s governance.
But it is also written implicitly into the casting decision that all major roles be played by non-white actors. George Washington was not black, so when Christopher Jackson walks on stage, everyone is forced to confront what that means.
What it may mean is many things, but certainly nothing less than the reality of America being intrinsically an idea. The Enlightenment gave Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison – the whole lot of them – a shared philosophical base from which to construct our entire system of divided powers, inalienable rights, the rule of law.
A quick refresher course on The Enlightenment, courtesy of Live Science: “Characteristics of the Enlightenment include the rise of concepts such as reason, liberty and the scientific method. Enlightenment philosophy was skeptical of religion — especially the powerful Catholic Church — monarchies and hereditary aristocracy. Enlightenment philosophy was influential in ushering in the French and American revolutions and constitutions.”
And here is the power of ideas. Because although they may come under threat, whether from corrupt senators, tyrannical leaders, or a population gone heartless from too much bread and circus, logical and true ideas will remain. And they are available to everyone.
That is not to ignore the inhuman atrocity that was America’s original sin. The first rendition of America restricted its ideals to white men. The first rendition of America allowed at least half of its states to enslave anyone with even a “drop” of African blood.
But whether by accident or some crazy providence, the foundation for “all men are created equal” was written into that original American declaration. It is for that precise reason that later generations could use founding documents to back up their rightful demands for equality.
Hamilton allows all Americans – regardless of race, gender, or religion – to claim this country’s ideals as their own. Not the evil of her past, not the problems of her present – but the idea of what America dreams it could be.
For educators, this is extraordinary. It’s full of nuance, and busting at the seams with inclusion. There’s so much to discuss, you could easily spend a whole year simply unpacking the messages of Hamilton as they relate to politics, history, and identity.
I’m not alone in that observation. In March, 400 public school teachers from NYC were invited to see the show and stay for educational training to take back to their classrooms.
Another program has helped 20,000 NYC students see Hamilton. (Living in New York has perks.)
As one of my much younger friends once commented to me, it is likely that future generations of artists across all genres will cite Hamilton as inspiration. And with the incorporation of the historic musical into schools across the country, this seems a reasonable bet.
If it is indeed an accurate prediction, then the idea of America stands a solid chance of survival.