We all know the usual reasons why we are prodded to read the classics — moving characters, seminal ideas, blueprints of our culture, and paradigms of sterling prose and poetry. Then we nod and snooze.
But there are practical reasons as well that might better appeal to the iPhone generation that is minute-by-minute wired into a collective hive of celebrity titillation, the cool, cooler, and coolest recent rapper, or the grunting of “ya know,” “dah,” and “like.” After all, no one can quite be happy with all that.
Classics are more than books of virtues. Homer and Sophocles certainly remind us of the value of courage, without which Aristotle lectures us there can be no other great qualities. Instead, the Greeks and Romans might better remind this generation of the ironic truths, the paradoxes of human behavior and groupthink. Let me give but three examples of old and ironic wisdom.
The Race Goes Not to the Swift.
The problem with Homer’s Achilles or Sophocles’ Ajax was not that they were found wanting in heroic virtue. Rather they were too good at what they did, and so made the fatal mistake of assuming that there must be some correlation between great deeds and great rewards.
How many times has the natural hitter on the bench sulked at the novelty that the cousin of the coach is batting cleanup? How often has the talented poet suddenly turned to drink because the toast of the salon got rich with his drivel? He should read his Homer: the self-destructive Achilles should have enjoyed more influence among the dense Achaeans than did the university president Agamemnon. By any just heroic standard, Ajax, not Odysseus, the Solyndra lobbyist, should have won the armor of the dead Achilles.
In the tragic world, thousands of personal agendas, governed by predictable human nature, ensure that things do not always quite work the way they should. We can learn from classics that most of us are more likely to resent superiority than to reward it, to distrust talent than to develop it. With classical training, our impatient youth might at least gain some perspective that the world is one where the better man is often passed over — precisely because he is the better man. Classics remind us that our disappointments are not unique to our modern selves. While we do not passively have to accept that unfairness (indeed Achilles and Ajax implode over it), we must struggle against it with the acceptance that the odds are against us.
Again, think of the great Westerns that so carefully emulated ancient epic: what exactly does Shane win (other than a wound and a ride off into the sunset)? Or Tom Doniphon (other than a burned-down shack)? Or the laconic Chris of The Magnificent Seven (“The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”)? Did he even collect his $20?
Or what about Will Kane (yes, I know, but a buckboard ride with young Grace Kelly to where exactly?)? Or Ethan Edwards (a walk to where after going through that swinging cabin door?)? Medals, money, badges? The lasting admiration of Hadleyville? Hidden gold from the Mexican peasant village? The mayorship of Shinbone? An hour with Jean Arthur?
Society is as in need of better men as it is suspicious of them when it no longer needs them. Most of Sophocles’ plays are about those too noble to change — Antigone or Philoctetes — who cannot fit in a lesser society not of their own making. Read E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed and cry over the great Marines who were ground up in the Pacific. So often they were like Lieutenant Hillbilly Jones and Captain Haldane who saved the U.S. and are now all but forgotten. In today’s collective history, they are simply the anonymous cardboard cut-out race and class villains who needlessly decimated the Japanese out of racially driven animus and thereby bequeathed to us the abundance that we take for granted and that allows us such self-indulgent second thoughts.
Thucydides’ Pericles warned us that orators had to be careful when speaking of the dead lest they so emphasize the gifts of the deceased that such praise invoke envy in the listeners, who in anger realize that their own lives fall short of the fallen.
Becoming Affluent and Breaking Bad
Another classical downer: with material progress often comes moral regress.
Cranky Hesiod saw that in the fading tough world of early 7th-century Boeotia, as the advent of the city-state led to more claim jumpers, oath breakers, and crooked judges. The idea of the need for a daily struggle to survive to keep moral balance is best explored in the great tetrad of Roman imperial pessimists — Juvenal, Petronius, Suetonius, and Tacitus. If late republicans like Horace and Livy had hinted that a rich, globalized Roman Mediterranean was destroying the old rural Italian virtue, then the later four chronicled in graphic detail just how — and how fun it was to squander what others far better for seven centuries had bequeathed. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner might as well take place in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.
It is not just that plenty of slaves, purple dye, marble, forced vomiting, and piped-in water mean that we don’t have to rise at dawn to hoe the vineyard and bathe in ice-cold streams and therefore become lazy, corpulent, and decadent. Rather, material progress is usually accompanied by moral regress largely because of the leisure to master a critical consciousness and intellectual gymnastics well apart from the fears of religion: if we can explain, in a sophisticated and convincing manner, why something bankrupt is true, then it surely must be true: Vero possumus! Who is to say that Lindsay Lohan is not more interesting than Gen. Mattis?
Language in the postmodern world becomes more layered — and fluid — (compare “overseas contingency operations“ for terrorism or “investments” for deficit spending). The sophistic citizen has the leisure and training to third-guess ancient protocols. Without a soul, the good life here is it. Sarcasm, cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism so abound that there must always be a third and fourth meaning. The in-the-know smirk of Jon Stewart or David Letterman and the gobbledygook mush that pours out the mouths of our talking head analysts conspire to make us incapable of saying any of the following: ‘The Tsarnaevs are repulsive and evil. Their mother is unhinged. Fire those who let in these repellent people. Something has gone terribly wrong with the FBI.” Say that and you are guilty of a thought crime greater than the mayhem committed on the street.
Major Hasan kills 13 and wounds 29, yelling out Allahu Akbar as he shoots. In response, the head of the Army joins the Obama Borg (of Brennan, Clapper, Holder, and Napolitano) to lecture us that the greater tragedy in this “workplace violence” would be the loss of the Army’s diversity program. Next thing, the head of NASA might be lecturing us that his foremost aim is reaching out to aggrieved Muslims.
It is not just that Juvenal’s Sejanus, Petronius’s Trimalchio, Suetonius’s Caligula, and Tacitus’s Nero are evil, but that they are products of a society in which the more clever it sounds, the more clothes it has, and the larger the house it inhabits, the more amoral it becomes. If Rome did not have a Caligula, it would have had to invent one.
Thus the weird backlash romance that arises for Ovid’s Philemon and Baucis with their simple beech wood cups and daily material grind. From Virgil’s mythical Arcadia to Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego, there grows always this wish of the metrosexual to give up the world of Justin Bieber, Facebook, and the Upper West Side for something simple and true — but perceived as gone forever.
How odd that these guys are not even happy when they win what they sought. By hook or crook they win Obamacare and now those who wrote the bill wish themselves and their staffs to be exempt from it, as if ol’ Doc’ is still around to practice folksy medicine out of his office at home. They want the dwindling rivers to run freely to the Bay deltas to allow mythical salmon to swim to the Sierra, but count on the awful man-caused reservoirs alone to give them the water to waste.
Palo Alto and Menlo Park got everything they ever dreamed up: Obama, diversity, vast cash redistributions, a left-wing governor and legislature, a new race/class/gender school curriculum, unionized state employees, a blue political class, vast riches from a green Silicon Valley … and what? The young millionaires scramble to get their children into one of the growing number of private academies so they will not have to study the curricula with the “other” and join the poorly prepared students who are the logical ramifications of their own ideology. If they had a drawl, it might be the South’s 1965-era academies all over again.
When I see the contemporary CSU campus — larger than ever, more administrators than at any time in its past, greatest enrollments in history, students on generous subsidies with an array of electronic gadgetry and new Camrys and Accords in the brand-new solar-roofed parking lots — and I hear of “crippling budget cuts,” “shorting the students,” and “a campus in crisis,” I assume that most of those who graduated in 1960 would find the current curricula a bad joke, and that today’s students would flunk most of the classes offered fifty years ago — iPads and Twitter notwithstanding. If the choice for today’s serious student with ear phones is either to text an earth-shattering “I just walked into the Student Center” or to memorize “amo, amas, amat,” then it is no mystery where the never-to-be regained minute goes, in this zero-sum game of 24 hours in a vanishing day.
Societies of Chaos
Most classical literature, let us admit it, is anti-democratic, moralistic in a reactionary sense, and deeply pessimistic — and therefore if not a corrective, at least a balance to today’s trajectory. Would you not wish to see in advance where zero-sum interest, $1 trillion deficits, 50 million on food stamps, $17 trillion in debt, and the quality of today’s BA degree all end up?
The world of fourth-century Athens is one of constant squabbling over a shrinking pie: “Don’t dare raid the free theater fund to build a warship. Pay me to vote. Give me a pension for my bad leg. The rich should pay their fair share. You didn’t build that. That’s my inheritance, not yours. Exile, confiscate, even kill those who have too much power of influence.” It is not that the Athenians cannot grow their economy as in the past, but that they despise those among them who think they still can.
The message reminds us that the health of the commonwealth hinges not on material resources, but always on the status of the collective mind. Usually the man who sees this — a Socrates in 399 BC, a Demosthenes in the shadow of Philip, even a shrill Isocrates — is branded a nut, ignored, or done away with.
In Roman times, the same “bread and circuses” themes arise. Let us be honest: to the ancient mind, the most dangerous thing is the empowered mob that wants to be lied to (vulgus vult decipi). Travel with Petronius to Croton, and you might as well be in Washington.
Examine today’s headlines: as I write this, the Pigford farming settlement is shown to have been simply a way to grant hundreds of millions of dollars of somebody else’s money to political constituencies on the idea of “fairness.” Reparations, not legitimacy or legality, is the issue. The number of disability insurance recipients has reached an all-time high. We may be living longer, with superb health care and fewer physically dangerous and exhaustive jobs, but apparently we are less able to work. The government is advertising in Spanish to encourage people to spot those in need in of food stamps — fifty million with EBT cards are too few. The attorney general of the United States swears that those who entered the United States illegally will be deprived of their “civil rights,” if not granted amnesty and eventually citizenship. So old, so boring, so ‘”we’ve seen this all before” and where all this leads — to the New World Order of Alexander, to the banquet at the House of Trimalchio, to the crumbling estates in North Africa where aging grandees hide behind gated estates terrified of what they helped to create.
Classical literature really does remind us that the problem is usually caused by doing the opposite, once we have arrived, of what we once did to get there. Our ancestors built Hetch Hetchy to give us drinking water, irrigated agriculture, flood control, and cheap electricity; once we enjoy all that, we have the luxury to scheme how to blow it all up.
In this regard, the Tsarnaev monsters were valuable symptoms of the present age, or perhaps pseudo-Romanized tribesmen right out of Caesar’s Gallic Wars: The endangered “refugees” freely revisiting the supposed deadly environment they escaped; the shop-lifting mother damning the country that took her in and cheaply resonating jihadist themes; the “domestic abuse” charge lodged against the “beautiful” boxer Tamerlan; the abject failure of the repeatedly warned FBI; the self-righteous Mirandizing to stop inquiry about other possible threats; the immediate liberal effort to blame the U.S. (e.g., as if the liberal Boston world of our first Native-American senator and up-from-the-bootstraps Secretary of State John Kerry must be an especially harsh, cruel society, where help is rarely afforded the needy and redneck prejudice is ubiquitous).
If there are 500 murders a year in gun-restricted Chicago, or Sandy Hook still takes place in idyllic gun-regulated Connecticut, or pampered “refugees” slaughter their most generous hosts in postmodern, tolerant Boston, there must be a message of some sort of enduring good and evil here.
Be Not Afraid
Great literature and a knowledge of history serve as friends that reassure us that we are neither crazy nor alone. We can anticipate disasters rather than always having to learn through them. We expect paradoxes, given human nature, and so we do not need to weep over what happens to us, as if it is unique and unprecedented.
One day in April 2008 I went to sleep and now I woke up to April 2013. The new normal is zero interest, 7.5% unemployment, no ammunition on the shelves of America’s stores, a new debate over using the words “terror” and “Islamist” 12 years after 9/11, laying off air-traffic controllers amid a $3.8 trillion budget, and the thug Vladimir Putin doing more than the FBI to protect us from the terrorists among us.
But all that is up on the shelf. And so I think I’ll pull down Thucydides or Dante for comfort that we are not alone.