Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Do the classics create people with progressive politics? (2)

Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-05-21

To Skeptics of my "classics predispose to progressive views" post,


I agree the opinions of ancient authors do differ from our more sympathetic views, but think we approach the works differently.

Perhaps it’s because, of Snow’s two cultures, my circles were natives of the hard sciences, our exposure to music and literature "tourism", to round us out, not make us expert.

With globalization, a rounded education now needs knowledge of East Asian wisdoms, as well as Mediterranean.  Confucius and Tao are of equal import as Cicero and Logos, and more alike than most fathom.

What impresses is not the positions of classical writers, but their processes.

The greats of the classics were their day’s radicals, still-worthy heroes, though their conclusions differ from ours.

We reflected how Epicureans saw the need for different atoms, some smooth, some with hooks, anticipating valence shells.  The "uncertain swerves" of particles, used to explain the complexity they saw, prophesies quantum mechanics or chaos theory.  (See Lucretius).  We wondered about their mindsets, and what people with such attitudes could see if given 20th century knowledge.

We looked upon classical works not as static truths, but as examples of how people can re-examine received wisdoms.

Did they have the answers?  No, of course not.  Were they hungry enough for the truth?  For sure.  It’s an admirable hunger, one of few ennobling appetites.

Confronted by views changing over millenia, we are forced to believe in evolution of notions both scientific and moral, to hope for days when our own ideas, proudly claimed progressive, are criticized as ignorant and inhumane.

Exposure to classics creates dialectic across ages, fosters a too-rare empathy with different cultures.

We see what happens when progressive spirit falters: loss of knowledge, the rise of warlords, feudalism, and politically powerful religious institutions.  We understand regression is possible, perhaps inevitable without continuous efforts to better our world.

Regression and repression are often hand-in-glove.

We see the problems of Common Law, which looks to the past, against promethean Civil.

We see John Howard a regressive threat, dangerous to democracy as Sulla, harmful to free thought as Constantine (see this later post for my review of Pell’s flawed analysis of Constantine).

More modern times hazier, contrasts lower, lessons are harder to learn.  The Enlightenment slave-owning Jefferson, writer of "all men are created equal", was more modern than Cicero, closer to our own views, yet Cicero shines brighter for dark surrounds, and teaches us more about questing for harmony.

Finally, three challenges from nearly two and a half millenia ago:

1. Confucius called for righting of language, to keep it real, tell it like it is.  He’d abhor the weasel-words "collateral damage", demand the more truthful "dead innocents".

Are we there yet?

2. Aristophanes, a male, wrote that women might run states with more peace, more smoothly, than men engaging in macho one-upmanship.  (See also the later post "Founding father of femmo-bolshevism")

Are we there yet?

3. Aristotle saw politics as the highest of arts, needing thorough understanding of sociology and economics married to most ethical behaviour.

Are we there yet?

O the times, O the mores, O the wait!


5 Responses to “Do the classics create people with progressive politics? (2)”

  1. […] argued elsewhere (here and here) that a classical component of a curriculum (more common in private schools, but there are state […]

  2. […] Comments Do the classics create people with progressive politics? (2) « Balneus on Do the Classics create people with progressive politics?International valuation of our […]

  3. […] "Do the classics create people with progressive politics? (2)" (2007-05-21) discusses how the study of the classics prompts you to ask questions.  While focussing on occidental classics, the same applies to the oriental. […]

  4. Leon said

    A glaring counterexample is Plato’s elitism. What about Virgil’s agrarianism, nationalism, and emphasis on heritage?

    Progressives have plenty to find within the classics, for sure, but one reads what one wants to into such things. And that applies even more when considering an entire period than it does for individual texts.

  5. Dave Bath said

    Yep, I’ve certainly read my Plato, and we had to translate large chunks of Virgil at school. You are right in that we need to look at the corpus.

    But, Plato’s elitism (esp in Republic, and I’ve read Laws too) is very much noblesse oblige. The guardians don’t rest on their laurels!! Republic, however, is more lefty/collectivist than the more practical Laws (although the city founded on its principles by a Syracusan dilettante dictator, I forget who, failed).

    It’s also important in reading to think of the common attitudes of the times, and how many works pushed ideas forward from the times.

    And, for those who’ve read Virgil, it’s pretty easy to see him as an also-ran plagiarist of Homer, writing to please the powers of the day, (however decent you think Augustus was in his latter years, and if you read Res Gestae Divi Augustus, his autobiography, you’ll see what he wanted to be remembered for: keeping shut the temple of war and putting up infrastructure. Yep, we had to translate that volume as well!).

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