In the year 79 AD. Lucius Cornelius Sulla retired from public life. He’d twice been elected consul of Rome and had been appointed dictator for an unlimited term. He’d marched his armies on Rome, won a civil war, and violated the sacred boundary of the city. His power supreme and unchallenged, he forcibly remade the constitution, and massacred his enemies. Every day he posted the lists of his proscriptions, those declared public enemies, whose deaths were to be rewarded with a large sum of money. After hundreds if not thousands had been killed, and his reforms had been accomplished to his satisfaction, he laid down his office and went back to his farm to write his memoirs.
It is not only Sulla’s public record that is remarkable but perhaps more so is this quiet and peaceful exit. Historians may explain, excuse, exonerate his actions at the remove of millennia, but the friends and relatives of those he’d killed must have burned with a simple and implacable hatred. A man who’d butchered his fellow citizens and given over Athens to sack and slaughter was permitted to withdraw from the fray and live in peace. Where were his enemies? Were there none left alive to take vengeance? He went unguarded. There was no troop of armed bodyguards about his person. He walked the streets unattended and yet perfectly safe. Was there no orphaned firebrand, no vengeful father, no bitter widow to strike down the tyrant? It is difficult to understand this immunity. Perhaps he was so feared that none dared strike at him, even when he seemed so helpless. Maybe he was just lucky. Good fortune had always attended his endeavors and he had always boasted of his proverbial and unbroken good luck.
Whatever the reason, Sulla lived on to die of natural causes. Yet leaders who were kind, benevolent men, later revered by their countrymen if misunderstood by their contemporaries, were struck down by assassins while the Roman dictator, a man only a biographer could love, escaped any retribution for his crimes. Abraham Lincoln had presided over a long and terrible war, and as commander in chief, he had sent the mighty armies of the Union against men who believed that they were fighting for their freedom. He had not sought this war, and had done everything he could to avoid it but in the end, he accepted the war rather than let the nation perish while his enemies made war rather than let it survive. He did not himself condemn men to death, and he is remembered for pardoning the guilty rather than proscribing the innocent yet his enemies believed him a tyrant and a butcher. One of these adversaries later assassinated him. Having won the war, he was struck down before he could make the peace. John Wilkes Booth left the South to the mercy of those who would remake her in the swiftest and roughest way possible.
Henry of Navarre reigned over both Protestants and Catholics in an age when adherents of the two faiths had been slaughtering one another for decades. Himself a survivor of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when thousands of Protestants were butchered, he granted freedom of faith to both sides and ended the Wars of Religion. With the aid of his brilliant finance minister, and the opportunity of peace, he brought forth an age of prosperity to France and laid the foundation for her future power. All of this naturally made him widely hated and many tried to assassinate him. Another incorrigible pardoner, he frequently spared men who’d just attempted to murder him. One of these men ultimately succeeded, and by killing Henry Francois Ravaillac put himself beyond the reach of his mercy. The assassin was executed in the gruesome manner reserved for traitors and regicides.
Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. practitioners of nonviolent social protest, were likewise assassinated by men who weren’t constrained by the same scruples. The Kennedy brothers both came to violent ends before their time and with their work unfinished. Although the list is lamentable and all too long, not every wise and compassionate leader is murdered by a madman or fanatic, and not every tyrant survives to die in bed. Yet we are troubled that this happens at all. We want to believe in a cosmic justice, where the good are rewarded and the wicked punished. We hope that wisdom really leads to happiness. We pray that suffering may find its consolation.
Maybe none of this is true. Maybe the wicked live happily and die contented. If happiness consists in one’s achievements coinciding with one’s hopes, there is no reason to think the vilest among us don’t lead wonderful, fulfilling lives. Maybe the wicked aren’t afflicted with Dostoyevskian torments. Maybe the conscience atrophies from disuse. Maybe the voice of guilt grows fainter and fainter and fades away entirely. The man who murders his friend to seduce his wife, may marry her and go on to live in marital bliss with an unsuspecting partner. The clever embezzler may get away with his plundered riches, living in comfort and plenty while his victims pine in misery and poverty.
Some have said that virtue is its own reward, and sages from the beginning of history have extolled the blessings of virtue and given dire warnings of the penalties of vice. Yet none of them has offered virtue as sufficient to itself. There is always some attendant benefit to good and some inescapable sting to evil. The religious promise that this short vale of want and suffering will be followed by an eternity of bliss and plenty. The philosophic promise that wisdom brings contentment and joy while the vicious are torn and savaged by their basest passions. The idyllic allegories of Plato and the graphic descriptions of Dante hold out prizes and punishments, to be enjoyed or suffered in this world or the next. Is anyone strong enough to hold onto the good, come what may, with the same grim determination that Milton’s Satan embraced evil? Must wisdom, justice, and virtue always be coated in sugar for us to find them desirable?
Game theory teaches that tit for tat is an exemplary strategy. We are a social species and by nature work together. Those who abide by the rules, return benefits with gratitude, and prove trustworthy, are accepted and promoted while those who do not are despised, penalized, and cast out. The vicious and the criminal sometimes do escape punishment and reap the fruits of their misdeeds but not often. We must be made aware of this probability and reminded of it because sin can be all too tempting. Those who break the rules and caught, are themselves broken to serve as an example to the rest of us. Sulla was lucky and he was exceptional in his luck. Most lives of blood and violence end in blood and violence. Caesar was mobbed and borne down in front of the statue of Pompey. Macbeth met his doom in a man not born of woman. Gilles de Rais died on the gallows. Kindness, consideration, and moderation are not the only courses to a long and happy life but they are the most likely. This truth has served us in the past and must guide us through the future.