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Ignorance of History and Moral Weakness

“Those ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it” — an oft-iterated maxim that is both often ignored, and, perhaps, misleads. Some history ought, perhaps, to be repeated. (Originality is seldom all that it is praised for being.) Nevertheless, an ignorance of history does have pernicious consequences. It makes us narrow-minded, arrogant, selfish, and ungrateful. Moreover, it seems to render us lacking in fortitude, a vicious absence notable today. Most especially conducing to that lack of fortitude, it seems, is the contemporary disdain for historical accounts of war and the inherent dangers of antiquity. This will be our topic for today’s Philosophical Happy Hour.

Life or Death in the Ancient World

Consider this passage from Edith Hamilton’s Roman Way:

“To the people of Romulus I set no fixed goal to achievement,” Virgil makes Jupiter in the Aeneid say of Rome’s future glory, “no end to empire. I have given them authority without limit.” Unlimited is what the Romans were, in desires, in ambitions, in appetites, as well as in power and extent of empire. There is a note of exaggeration in Rome, contradicting on first sight the outstanding national quality of practical sagacity which made them great empire builders. But upon closer view it ceases to be a contradiction. The Romans were pre-eminently men of war. They only choice they had for centuries was to conquer or be conquered. Possibly war was their most natural expression; certainly it was the price they must pay for being a nation. Under the spur of its desperate necessities in eight hundred years of fighting, as Livy reckons them, from the founding of the city to his own day, they developed extraordinarily one side of their genius, a sure, keen-sighted, steady common sense, but war, with its alternations of stern repression and orgies of rapine and plunder, was not a training to modify violent desires. Always rude, primitive, physical appetites were will to the fore.

What constitutes Rome’s greatness, in the last analysis, is that powerful as these were in her people there was something still more powerful; ingrained in them was the idea of discipline, the soldier’s fundamental idea. However fierce the urge of their nature was, the feeling for law and order was deeper, the deepest thing in them. Their outbreaks were terrible; civil wars such as our world has not seen again; dealings with conquered enemies which are a fearful page in history. Nevertheless, the outstanding fact about Rome is her unwavering adherence to the idea of a controlled life, subject not to this or that individual, but to a system embodying the principles of justice and fair dealing.

Edith Hamilton, 1932: The Roman Way, 192-94.

-Edith Hamilton, 1932: The Roman Way, 192-94.

Or consider this from Herodotus’ account of Thermopylae:

Xerxes listened [to his scout] but could not understand: that the Lacedaemonians [the Spartans] were really preparing to kill or be killed, to fight as much as was in their power, seemed to him to be the height of folly, the action of fools. So he sent for Demaratos son of Ariston [exiled king of Sparta], who was in the camp, and when Demaratos arrived, Xerxes questioned him about everything he had been told, trying to understand the meaning behind what the Lacedaemonians were doing. Demaratos answered, “You heard what I said about these men before, when we ere just setting out against Hellas, and you made me a laughingstock when you heard my view of how these matters would turn out. But it is my greatest goal to tell the truth in your presence, so hear me now once again. These men have come to fight us for control of the road, and that is really what they are preparing to do. For it is their tradition that they groom their hair whenever they are about to put their lives in danger. Now know this: if you subjugate these men and those who have remained behind in Sparta, there is no other race of human beings that will be left to raise their hands against you. For you are now attacking the most noble kingdom of all the Hellenes, and the best of men.” What Demaratos said seemed quite incredible to Xerxes, and he asked for the second time how they could possibly intend to fight his whole army, since there were so few of them. Demaratos replied, “Sire, if things do not turn out just as I claim they will, treat me like a liar.” But even by saying this he did not convince Xerxes.

Herodotus

Herodotus c.430BC: The Histories (Landmark edition), 585-86.

Do we today understand the concept of conquer or be conquered or of kill or be killed? Not long ago the notion, doubtless, was familiar to the Western mind: the Great Wars of the 20th century were waged against this threat. (Many, it seems, are ignorant enough to believe that World War II was fought because of the Holocaust.) But we see, in most of our contemporary media representations even of these events an idealism at work which would have been incomprehensible to our ancient forefathers. The movie 300, an absurd exaggerated re-telling of the Persians pyrrhic victory at Thermopylae, portrays Xerxes as something of an alien; of their army as monsters. That men could choose evil through natural circumstances—this truth is obscured. That one might have to choose to kill ordinary human beings, following an ordinary human leader: this painful truth of courage as a virtue is removed.

Retrieving Historical Understanding

It is right that we study philosophy, and theology; that we retrieve the arts and the disciplines that go with them. But we need also to make present again in our curricula a direct encounter with great history. Mostly, the great history relates sacrifices undertaken because someone believes in truths greater than themselves. Join us this evening as we explore the historical heritage all-too-readily abandoned in our modern Western world. Links below!

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.