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Works and Days

Modern Wisdom from Ancient Minds

December 17th, 2012 - 11:58 pm

Stasis

I was thinking of the class strife in Sallust’s Conspiracy of Cataline the other day as well; I used to teach it and the Jugurthine War in third-year Latin. In my thirties I never quite understood the standard hackneyed redistributionist call of the late Roman republic for “cancellation of debts and redistribution of property!” But recently I reread Sallust with a new awareness — in the context of all the talk of mortgage forgiveness, credit card forgiveness, student loan forgiveness, wealth taxes, and new estates taxes. The subtext of those Catalinian platforms, of course, is that someone else was culpable for having enough money in the first place (rather than prudence, character, dutifulness, etc.) to pay what he had borrowed — and therefore as atonement should pay for others who were defrauded by the system.

In the Roman state, those who borrowed unwisely periodically needed a clean slate — paid for by those who mostly did not, albeit always dressed up in the sense of the noble poor and the rapacious rich. “Pay your fair share,” “fat cat,” “you didn’t build that,” “at some point you’ve made enough money,” etc. are right out of the demagoguery so brilliantly chronicled by Aristophanes, Plutarch, and Sallust. Debt relief and redistribution were not quaint classical topoi, but inherent in the human condition. For now our would-be Gracchus in the White House seems a lot more like a Publius Claudius Pulcher (author of the expansion of the grain dole), an upscale elite who chose demagoguery as the best route to power, fame, influence, and riches — and who can’t finish a sentence without blasting “millionaires and billionaires” as the source of all our woes. How did it happen that those in government, with higher than private sector salaries, with access to free perks, with better than normal pensions and benefits, so often talk about the need for higher taxes without anyone replying that they were selfish in asking the worse off to subsidize the better off?

The Golden Mean

One theme sort of resonates through classical literature. Character consists of moderation, of avoiding hubris and thereby escaping nemesis. Character is formed through balanced behavior, from the trivial of not overeating, oversleeping, and overdrinking (“glutton,” “sloth,” and “drunk” have disappeared from the American vocabulary, though they were ubiquitous in Western languages for the last 2500 years), to being humble in success and resilient in humiliation and defeat as well. But here is the warning: the good man — whether Ajax or Socrates — should expect — perhaps even welcome? — the disdain of the crowd, and usually will not win acclaim or receive what he deserves in this life. (Achilles finally came to accept that.)

Once upon a time in Hollywood, great directors grasped that, and so in their versions of The Iliad or the Sophoclean play — think Shane, Ride the High Country, High Noon, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — the man with character, if not killed, rides off into the sunset alone, glad to be free of those he saved. We don’t like our George S. Pattons and Curtis Lemays, at least until we are faced with the Waffen SS and the Japanese imperial military. Today, Marshal Will Kane might be dubbed a “loser,” or Ethan Edwards as “obsessed.”

Whatever character is, it was not Susan Rice’s recent letter/op-ed bowing out of consideration for nomination to the office of Secretary of State. Instead it was Euripidean projection, Pentheus-style, as she alleged politicization and cheap partisan distraction on the part of her critics, even as she unleashed a pattern of obfuscation of her own and race/gender pandering from her supporters.

Ave atque Salve

I was given a great gift to have been a student of classics, to have lived on a farm, and to have had a father who was nobly self-destructive in the Ajaxan sense (on his Selma gravestone reads Sophocles’ chiastic aphorism, “live nobly, or nobly die”). He practiced an archaic code that won him admiration, but made his job, his career, and his life almost impossible, whether over Tokyo in a B-29, or on a tractor, or in the Byzantine labyrinth of junior college administration, at which he excelled with his colleagues and students, but was deemed too eccentric by his administrative superiors. When I came home at 26 puffed up with a PhD, he met me in the driveway and said “The shed needs new shingles,” a not too subtle reminder right out of Hesiod that with intellectual progress can come moral regress.

One of the great, though inadvertent gifts of the Obama administration has been to remind us that the Rhodes Scholarship, the Harvard Law degree, the Stanford PhD, the Princeton BA mean, well, nothing much at all, if not perhaps a suspicion that a lot of intellectual branding and grandstanding came at the expense of two years on a tuna boat, or a year picking apples, or four summers at Starbucks, or of anything to remind the young genius that he was not so smart after all, and that character is not created by getting an award or being stamped by an unworldly elite institution.

In this age of Obama and a corrupting equality of result, we must continue to speak out, with dash and style, with the knowledge that most of our peers prefer sameness and mandated equality to freedom and liberty, if the latter result in inequality. But at least we are not alone; the best of the ancient world nods with us.

And that is the point, is it not — to keep the ancient faith and so welcome rather than fear the popular anger of the age?

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