Do the Classics create people with progressive politics?
Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-05-10
The responses to an article on another blog (and cloned here) that barely mentioned Cicero prompted me to think that an ultra-conservative education pushes people to red-green politics. The modern true believers in "Traditional Western Values" are the progressives (lefties and wet conservatives), rather than neocons and dries who give them mere lip-service.
The more I think about it, the more sense it makes.
The classics are full of questions, rather than pushing preconceptions. The common dialogue form usually gave fair treatment of all views. The constant questions were "What is Good?", "How can society achieve it?", "How can we moderate our desires?"
Is this the education agenda of Julie Bishop, Australia’s Education Minister?
In our most ancient epic, Gilgamesh is a warrior, frets about death, wastes time searching for eternal life, but learns his duty is simply to be a good king. At the end, his greatest pride, and immortality, is in the walls he built to protect his people, and a town square paved with fired brick.
Do our pollies concentrate on justice and infrastructure?
The goriest war-poem, the Iliad, describes in anatomical detail the death of each soldier, while lamenting that no longer would he enjoy the simple beauty of the valley where he tended his sheep and played flute to the sunset. Odysseus, the Greek given most sympathetic treatment, was a good fighter, but his true glory was as a conciliator.
Have the warmongers learnt from this?
A constant theme in epics was the demand to show hospitality to strangers and travellers, offering them hearth, food and clothes, lest the wrath of the gods descend on you. If someone clasps your knees, or an altar, you must grant protection.
Our treatment of refugees and immigrants falls short.
A core thesis repeated through the Histories of Herodotos was that weather and landscape were the key shapers of societies and conflicts.
Climate change skeptics take note.
The teaching of stoics makes the "Golden Rule" seem selfish: want everything for others, nothing for yourself but the chance to serve.
Consumerism does not bring contentment.
Some time back, I was asked by some 3rd year philosophy students to be tutor for their Classical semester. They thought it would be simplistic and dusty. I took them to the sources, sometimes giving them the originals and a dictionary, and they were amazed at the subtlety and freshness, their amenability to a 21st century progressive reading.
"Get past the blinkers of the Edwardian translators" I urged, showing them Cicero, pointing out that "the common bonds between all men", so fundamental to Enlightenment constitutions, could be more accurately rendered "the duties all sapient beings owe each other". Cicero would have accepted chimpanzees, dolphins and martians as deserving "human" rights, upon evidence of Mind.
The rights we give others define our own humanity.
They nearly wept reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (the good Emperor in "Gladiator" for novices), wondering why we humans have so rarely enjoyed such a diligent, humble, and truly spiritual ruler. He is one of the very few in history who deserves the title of "Philosopher King" that Plato thought necessary to bring about a good society.
Absolute power need not corrupt the properly educated.
Alexandrian academics, asked whether they were Roman by empire, Greek by heredity, or Egyptian by geography, answered: "None of these, we are citizens of the kosmos."
Nationalism is irrelevant and damaging.
Far from backward-looking, the classics prompt promethean reflection about how visionaries see better alternatives to the status quo. What did their minds imagine that their time-constrained hands could not grasp?
- What new rights would a new Hammurabi infer in today’s constitutions?
- How might Athenians, who leveraged the wisdom of pensioners in juries, create advantage from today’s ageing population?
- Can we invigorate the world economy by forgiving debtor nations, as Solon unleashed a city-state by legislating away debts of the underclass?
- How would early participatory democracies harness the internet?
What advances would an innovative politician achieve today?
Steeped in the classics, you don’t get answers. You learn a process of setting assumptions aside, searching through alternatives, living ideals, and knowing that it is always possible to become ever more civilized. Indeed, this is your duty.
These are the jewels of our heritage. These are what the Howard regime throws in the dust to piss on.
- History Wars
- Followup on this article(not a Part 2, but close).
- Unrecognized Allies – an earlier post that stimulated this one.
- A more recent (2007-08-10) post with notes on themes and a short rendering of The Gilgamesh