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Our Silly Modern World

Why Study Dead Greeks?

Someone just asked me that at a reception the other night, wondering why anyone would prefer to write a book on the Peloponnesian War rather than something more modern and readable.

I confess at least part of the reason is to read Greek literature. In fact, I get asked what’s so good about the ancients a lot lately, even after retirement from some 20 years as Greek professor who taught Greek 1A-B, Latin 1A-B, and then an upper-division Greek class (something like Sophocles’ Antigone or Xenophon’s Hellenica) and corresponding Latin course (e.g., Virgil’s Aeneid Book 6, or Livy, Book 22), interspliced with independent studies in Greek and Latin composition, and sometimes Greek and Latin literature classes in translation.

For a hectic period between 1993 and 1997 my colleague, Bruce Thornton, and I each taught 10 semester classes a year in classics to keep the program alive during the California budget meltdown, mostly to minority youths who came to Greek or Latin with no preconceptions but often left after four years far better educated than many of their professors. We were so busy that we never stopped to think much abstractly why we did what we did, but as one ages and looks back, the answers are now clearer.

Ten years ago, John Heath and I co-authored Who Killed Homer? to answer that question about the need to study Classics. But again as I look back, I would put it something like this.

I came to look at the world of Greek and Latin literature as a garden on the other side of a strong door of modernism, a barrier which could not be opened. We look at this fascinating world through a tiny key-hole only (given the loss of most of classical literature and our feeble efforts to make-up for it with archaeology and epigraphy).

But knowledge of Greek and Latin allows us, through some mysterious power of transformation, to glide through the keyhole and into the other side, where suddenly everything comes alive and continues to instruct and entertain about the unchanging human condition. And what a lesson it is in the world of Thucydides, and Euripides, and Horace and Tacitus! Like stale air before a fresh wind, immediately gone is the falsity of the modern politically-correct age.

Old-age is never golden, but hard and humiliating, a time of illness of the worst sort from incontinence to deafness, assuaged only by the accumulation of experience and wisdom, and a certain resignation for what’s ahead. Teen-agers are not always vulnerable victims preyed on by their elders, but sometimes smart sassy pros who use their youth and beauty to humiliate pathetic old gawkers and hangers-on. Thracians are wild and uncouth, Cappadocians big and stupid, Athenians oily-tongued, Boiotians hard-working but boring, dull rustics.

The Greeks don’t believe these stereotypes are ironclad, merely funny and more often than not accurate—and couldn’t care whether you the reader find them offensive. Farmers appear more reliable than rhetors, poets more inspired than educated, and the rich as fragile and over-refined as the poor are uncouth. The more you hammer or plow, the more hardened you become; the more your read or think, the softer and more impractical—the mean, to meson, then being critical, this elusive combination of thinking and exertion.

Virtue is pretty simple in this other world: duty to the state, civic participation in all its manifestations; abidance to the truth; avoidance of sin as defined mostly by avoidance of overindulgence, as in too much money, talk, drink, sex, food, and sleep; financial and social loyalty to children and friends; and unceasing cultivation of mind and body. Public secular shame, not private religious guilt, is the goad that keeps us on track.

Absent is the modern notion of victimization in which any character lapse is automatically attributable to some past childhood, parental, gender, racial, or class infliction. Usually you screw up because you were weak, or selfish, or stupid, and if you don’t make amends, it was due to an innate character flaw rather than momentary weakness.

And most importantly, there is no myth that human nature is malleable, and radically changed by money and education. Thus there exists on the other side of this modernist door, in this enticing garden, our old now taboo words like lazy, stupid, traitor, cowardly, no-good, disgraceful, shameful, etc., and an expectation that when a society is given too much money, leisure, and affluence, people will usually do all sorts of ludicrous things, being people after all—perhaps in our own time like watching Anna Nicole Smith Fox News Alerts, complaining that Wal-Mart has run out of motorized shopping carts as you devour Big Macs (I saw just that two days ago), and spending $10,000 on batteries and hydraulic lifters for your car while not investing $200 a month for catastrophic health insurance plan.

Then you put down the poems of Catullus or Homer’s Iliad and get sucked back through the keyhole into our modern world, in which there is a veneer, a falsity really, that coats almost everything we do, sometimes for good reasons, more often for the bad. So it is a fine thing to read a little Greek and Latin each evening to remind us that the modernist mindset is antithetical to almost everything that preceded it, and mostly a human reaction to a novel generation of once unimaginable and now unlimited choices, appetites, and opportunities.

A Winning Campaign?

In today’s divided red/blue state America at war in Iraq, it is hard to imagine that there is much of a pubic consensus on anything. But, in fact, there are a lot of things upon which most Americans agree—and would like done from any future President.

First is fiscal sanity. For most Americans piling up debt is as much an emotional and spiritual crisis as it is an economic one. An indebted America makes all of us feel collectively lousy—weak, dependent, and self-indulgent. Who likes to be lectured by the Chinese, Germans, or Japanese that we are spendthrifts? Tax cuts are great and really did bring in more gross revenue, but who cares if we still spent far more than we took in? The first four years of this administration did more to discredit the sound policy of tax cuts that any other: had they just kept spending rises to the level of inflation, the ensuing surpluses would have proved that budgets can be balanced through the stimulation of less taxation.

The public also doesn’t want any more lectures about the hidden benefits in massive trade deficits. We don’t believe anymore that a dollar-rich, but import-dependent and rival China is as vulnerable as we would be in a future financial war.

Americans are tired of being lectured that massive billion-dollar annual budget deficits are actually a tolerable percentage of our gross domestic product. And they don’t believe that our national debt is not really much of a worry compared to burdens carried in the past as during World War II.

These apologies for all this indebtedness are usually economic arguments—many of them valid—that suggest deficits, imbalances, and debt are nothing to worry about. But what is forgotten again is the psychological element. Americans are shamed by spiraling debt—whether their nation’s or their own—and the dependence and vulnerability that accompanies it.

Second, we want the borders closed. Period. Again, elites make all sorts of arguments for the utility of illegal immigration—from the advantages of unclaimed social security benefits to global competitiveness. But aside from such questionable short-term math, for most Americans illegal immigration was all along simply a moral issue of dishonoring the law.

Americans are uneasy when millions simply flaunt their legal system—whether skipping a green card, not having a driver’s license, or falsifying social security numbers. The public also senses that the melting pot works well with a few hundred thousand annual legal immigrants, but hardly at all with a massive yearly influx of nearly a million aliens, who arrive without legality, education, or English—but often with the tacit approval of politicians, employers, and church officials who find personal advantage in open borders.

Despite liberal preference for the multicultural salad bowl, the public still prefers the assimilation and integration that alone turn many races, religions, and ethnicities into a common American culture—and thereby avoid the mess we see abroad from the Balkans to Iraq. Politicians need to stress that the melting pot is in everybody’s interest, especially now in an increasingly multiracial America of conflicting languages, ethnicities, and religions.

Third, voters also worry that their voracious oil appetite enriches lunatic regimes in the Middle East that will use the trillions of dollars they did not earn for nefarious purposes. We know that paying such a huge import bill weakens our fiscal health while warping US foreign policy.

Yet Americans don’t want some massive government Manhattan project— just common sense compromises that will reduce our daily appetite for foreign oil enough to bring down the world price. They want us to open up Anwar’s 2,000 acres in a multi-million acre Alaska for safe drilling. Most don’t think our coasts should be off limits to fuel our cars when other countries’ shores aren’t that send us oil.

If friendly Brazil can supply us cheaper ethanol, let it to do so without exorbitant tariffs. Nuclear power could power plug-in commuter cars, and curtail the burning of fossil fuels for electrical power. But the larger point again, is to cut our appetite now. And that requires environmentalist Democrats to be encourage more exploration and nuclear power, and free-market Republicans to allow the government to establish conservation standards.

Finally, the public is sick of Washington corruption—both the Jack Abramoff tawdry kind, and the more subtle insider earmarks of a Congressman John Murtha. Voters want Democratic lectures on reform to apply to their own pork-barrel waste, and Republican moralists to moralize also about the crooks in their midst.

A winning message is simple—quit spending money we don’t have, stop flouting our immigration laws, free us from Middle East oil blackmail, and cease equating politics with profit. Americans may not agree on the war in Iraq, gay marriage, or abortion, but there is plenty of common ground on which a sober politician can still find a bipartisan majority.

And now enough of that ranting!