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giza view from cairo

We were watching a TV show about ancient Egypt and the voiceover told us the pyramids we were visiting were “35 centuries old,” and that phrase suddenly struck me in a new way.

I am now 68 years old, which is a bit more than two-thirds of a century, and I have a body-sense, a memory-sense — a conceptual awareness — of what a century feels like. I wrote for the newspaper for a quarter of a century. Four times that and Bingo! So, a century has a palpable meaning for me. I feel it in my bones. Hearing the TV presenter, then, made me react, “Thirty-five is not a very large number.” I can picture in my mind’s eye what 35 centuries might be, and it really doesn’t seem like all that long. The Viking Age ended only 10 of them ago.

Anton and Laura Nilsen

Anton and Laura Nilsen

After all, my grandfather, who I knew when I was a boy, was born in 1890, which was the year Vincent van Gogh died. It was also the year Sitting Bull died, and the Elephant Man (John Merrick), and Heinrich Schliemann — the man who discovered Troy. My grandfather was seven years old before Johannes Brahms died. These historical figures seem that much less remote when I think of it that way.

Rowan and Nancy Steele

Rowan and Nancy Steele

For my wife, it is even more present. When she was a girl, her great-grandmother lived with her family. Her great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Steele, was a Civil War widow. She married Rowan Steele after that war, but Rowan had been a cavalry soldier during the battle at Appomattox. That dumps the War Between the States right in my wife’s lap. History is not some remote collection of facts gathered from a book, it is family.

The word, “century,” has its roots in family. The Latin word was “saeculum,” which was an indistinct time period that measured, basically, the time from your grandfather to the time of your grandchild. Caesar Augustus regularized that time to be 110 years, but in effect it varied from 90 years to about 120 years. It was an “age.”

History, as a subject, is different if you think of it that way. It is not a set of facts for a trivia contest, but a continuity, of which we are each a knot along a string.

For many, these days, that continuity is found in genealogy: How far back can you trace your ancestors? With various DNA tests, you can discover ancestry beyond the civic records of the standard genealogy. A y-DNA test can follow the paternal haplogroup all the way back to Africa, with punctuated stops along the way. A maternal mitochondrial DNA test can do the same for the distaff side.

It means that you are very personally connected to the history you study in school. Somewhere among those pogroms, crusades, wars and massacres, your strands of DNA were either slaughtered or doing the slaughtering, and probably both at different times. Looked at through the small lens, genealogy is your story; looked at through the big lens, all of history is your story. How can one not be interested?

Carol Lily

Carol Lily

My granddaughter is now studying AP world history, and sometimes, she comes to me for help understanding the subject. I wish I could somehow inspire her to see it not as an impersonal school subject she has to be graded on, but the story of how she got here, what happened on the way to her creation, and how she fits into that grand, long picture. She makes good grades, but it would be more important to think of history as something personal, something that informs her life: She is Southern, so the slavery that ended 151 years ago colors her life every day; the arguments held in Philadelphia in 1787 affect what she can and cannot do today; that the battle of Plataea in 479 BC is part of the reason she speaks English today and not some descendant of Farsi.

The horsemen from Mongolia shaped what later became Russia, which became the Soviet Union, which defeated Nazi Germany, became our enemy in the Cold War, and led to Vladimir Putin today. It is not ancient history, it is merely the dangling end of a long cord: The same people who gave us Xanadu and Kublai Khan gave us the Silk Road and the Golden Horde, and is one of the reasons given for why Hungary is named HUN-gary, and, incidentally, gave their name to the tartar sauce you put on fried fish.

Know-Nothing poster

Know-Nothing poster

It is disappointing to see so many Americans with so little sense of history, of where we came from. We hear the resurrected Know-Nothing-ism of Donald Trump and too many of his followers hear no resonance of the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment of the earlier wave of xenophobia. The past, for them, is a black hole out of which no wisdom can emerge.

Presentism, as it is sometimes called, is rampant: the belief that what is now is somehow “true,” and the past was all a big mistake; it is the error that what we think and believe now is the “right” and “correct” version of the world, and those benighted people of old were merely beta-versions of humanity. We require more humility; history can provide that humility.

I can remember when the faces of Eisenhower and Stevenson on the tiny black and white television we had in the house when I was yet too young to go to school. I remember the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. I remember when they added the second deck to the George Washington Bridge. ike and adlai 1952These things are now history. They are ink on a page in the history book my granddaughter reads for class. But I was a real person who lived through them. My father lived through the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. My great-uncle wore puttees as a dough boy in the first War to End Wars. My wife’s great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. Somewhere, back before my genealogy became writ into the family bible, I surely had ancestors who went a-viking and worshipped the lord Odin.

I feel those connections, not as dry intellectual answers to history-class homework questions. History is not something merely read, it is red, it runs through our veins. It’s been there for 35 centuries, at least.

 

 

Three graces Louvre

The Renaissance is finally ending.

That great rebirth of Classical learning sparked the greatest growth of art, science and technology, but it seems to have run its course: Science is now suspect; pseudoscience gains enthusiastic converts every day. Democracy, misunderstanding the dictum that no one is better than anyone else, has come to believe that the lowest common denominator is also the highest possible intellectual achievement and that the idea of learning from our betters is somehow ”elitist” — or at any rate will depreciate our self-esteem.

Listen to the illiterate sentences of bystanders interviewed on the evening news — heck, listen to the local news anchors themselves — and you wonder whether anyone still knows that sentences require both nouns and verbs, and that together they make for articulate thought.

What has changed, more than anything else, is that we have begun losing touch with that Classical learning that undergirded those 500 years of human glory. Another Dark Age is setting in.

The real problem is the loss of the influence of Classics on the general population. For 500 years, art, culture, even technology, were based on a general acceptance of Greek thought. When we lose that, we lose our connection to our culture — and not merely European culture, but the widening world culture. If Asia or Africa once had cultures without roots in Greece, it is no longer true. Sony could not make electronics equipment without the rational, scientific turn of mind made possible by Greek ideals; budding African democracies owe their politics to the same ideals. Not solely, certainly. And we gain from them as they gain from us. But the world culture is at bottom Classical.

It is not merely, or primarily, a body of knowledge that is important, although that has its place. What is more important, and what is most Greek, is a method of approaching knowledge rather than the mere facts of it. It is the Greek skeptical approach that demands rigorous proof. We owe our medicines and our TVs to such an approach.

SONY DSC

Multiculturalists — and I usually count myself among them — sometimes denigrate the Greeks, blaming them for racism, sexism and a host of other ”isms.” And the Greeks are guilty. They were not perfect.

But that misses the point. All human endeavor is imperfect.

We should not be so quick to condemn the failings of our ancestors; better to try to learn from those failings.

The critics are themselves guilty of an ”ism,” which is the moral arrogance of ”presentism,” the belief that the current state of morals and intellect is somehow the ”correct” one and that they may judge the failings of the past from their own certainties. The radical feminist argument is not fundamentally different from that of the Spanish priests who burned the Pre-Columbian codices on the grounds that those writings were harmful to ”their” present.

A little humility, please.

What’s more, even the critics use the dialectics of Classical thought to deconstruct what they object to. It is always ironic to hear a feminist use Greek argument to berate the Greeks. Feminists disparage the Classics as being misogynist — and make no mistake about it, the Greeks valued what they considered ”masculine” virtues and often made little place for women in their theory.

Yet, one only has to open Homer’s Odyssey to see a wealth of women — strong women — and feminist virtues. Other plays, such as the Antigone, present strong, thoughtful women. Greek actuality is much less coercive than is sometimes thought. And that aside, even if we take account of some of the cultural peculiarities of the ancient Greeks, inherent in their thought — and more importantly, in their thinking processes — are the seeds of all current thought, including multiculturalism. It isn’t Eastern thought or Third World thought that values diversity: It is the Greeks who gave us that.

There are at least four important reasons for maintaining our connection with Classical learning.

From least to most important, they are:Derek Walcott

-› Knowledge of Classical myth and literature. Losing the Classical references means that our literature will become increasingly undecipherable, and in consequence, we will lose tradition, our connection with our past — all our pasts — and we will be in danger of repeating old mistakes. It isn’t only Milton: We cannot read Derek Walcott’s Omeros without understanding Homer.

–› Clarity and precision in discourse. Greek thought is about clarity of language, if nothing else. Greek (and Latin) language does not easily permit sloppiness. We would be better writers and speakers if we were exposed regularly in grammar school to the Classics and Classical languages. The anti-Classical cabal is led by the trendily popular deconstructionists. The postmodernists and deconstructionists: Why read them, since, by their own argument, what they write is meaningless?

–› Acquaintance with the tragic view of life, which is the true view. Americans are becoming a nation of slack-jawed optimists who seem to think life is perfectible, whether they are liberals and think government can perfect it, or conservatives and think that private enterprise can perfect it. Both are wrong. Life is made up of impossible choices. We can only make the best choices in the future if we acknowledge the worst choices of the past. Choices made from ignorance or denial breed more bad choices.

The tragic view is that life causes pain, that there is no alternative, that you must do your best to make moral choices, knowing that whatever choice you make will turn out in the end to be immoral. People will die, suffer or at least be disenfranchised. You cannot act without injuring someone, yet act you must. The Greeks can toughen our hides.

The Mahabharata

–› Finally, the Classics can provide us with the deep, satisfying enjoyment that makes life worth living. If we open ourselves up to the Classics, we will find a deep well of pleasure, the powerful aesthetic experience that illuminates our lives. The Iliad, for instance, is the best book I have ever read, and I have read some good ones, including the Mahabharata of India and the Old Testament of the Levant, both of which have their own power.

Still, compared to them, the Iliad is more aesthetically complete. It makes a world from the greatest panorama down to the smallest detail, all filled in by Homer in just the right proportions to convince us of its reality.

In the end, it has nothing to do with dead white males: The Classics include Sappho, to say nothing of the Odyssey, which convincing arguments say was written by a woman. It matters nothing to me. Sappho and the Odyssey have given me some of the greatest pleasure of my life.

Perhaps we must give up the Classics: It is happening de facto if not by choice. But I dread what will replace it: superstition, intolerance, confusion and chaos.

It is a lesson of history: Clarity breeds uncertainty, which in turn leads to humility and therefore tolerance. On the other hand, confusion and chaos tend to invite political takeover by arrogant tyranny: Inclarity in discourse, public and private, masks the sloppy thinking of the self-righteous.

The Classics are not irrelevant.

myron diskobolos