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American Civilization and the Classical Heritage

8/28/13, by Clement Pulaski


"Americans used classical symbols to communicate, to impress, and to persuade. They [derived] from the classics both models and antimodels of personal behavior, social practice, and government form. They [viewed] the study of the classics as an indispensible training in virtue...[T]hey derived from the classics a sense of identity and purpose that bound them together with one another and with their ancestors in a common struggle. They [drew] from the ancient poets and political theorists a pastoralism that glorified the rural, agricultural lifestyle. They [valued] the simplicity, ethics, and love of nature exhibited by classical authors and artists. In short, the classics [provided] Americans with one of their principle sets of ideological tools."
Carl J. Richard, The Golden Age of the Classics in America

Up until the modern era, the study of classical authors was the foundation of education in the Western world. The classical canon included the works of Greek and Roman philosophers, poets, historians, playwrights, orators and mathematicians. The intellectual and artistic might of antiquity was imbibed by reading the truly great authors whose achievements had been esteemed for generations. This was the common heritage of the West, and indeed Western civilization itself arose from the Greco-Roman world. It is from the Greeks that we inherited the very dichotomy between civilization and barbarism, the category of civilization gradually expanding to include the Romans and then all of Europe. Western science and analytical thought also has its origins in Greece. Without these fundamental achievements of antiquity, our intellectual world would be entirely different, and many of our greatest triumphs as a people would have been impossible.

When Europeans began settling the North American continent, they brought the classical tradition with them. Colleges in the British colonies and early America focused almost entirely on the study of classical authors, and a demonstration of reading ability in Greek and Latin was the normal admission requirement. This was the case not only at the elite universities of the East, but also at newly founded institutions in the recently settled regions of the West. The distilled wisdom of the classical cannon and stark beauty of classical architecture was easily transported to the latest frontier outpost. In his book The Golden Age of the Classics in America Carl J. Richard quotes historian Walter Agard as saying,

The classics served to bring intellectual and aesthetic values to the brutally pragmatic frontier and...helped keep the vital traditions of Western Europe, supplementing the ones forged by the challenging new environment.

Within a few short years of its foundation a rough frontier town might boast a library well stocked with the great books of antiquity and civic buildings decorated with Greco-Roman columns and arches.

When the Founding Fathers broke away from British rule their vision for a new republic was heavily influenced by their classical education. They drew inspiration from the institutions of the Roman republic and from ancient political thinkers. They also used various leaders of antiquity as models for virtuous behavior. Two of the most important of these models were the Roman military leader Cincinnatus and the Athenian lawgiver Solon.

When Rome was threatend by its enemies Cincinnatus was granted emergency dictatorial powers in order to deal with the crisis. But rather than attempting to hold on to these powers for as long as possible, Cincinnatus immediately relinquished them as soon as the danger had passed, and then returned to his farm. This combination of modest agrarian living and willingness to selflessly undertake great burdens for the sake of the community became an ideal in early America, and was embodied by George Washington who voluntarily retired from political life and returned to his plantation at Mount Vernon.

Solon was known for the law code that he gave to Athens when the city was experiencing strife amongst different social classes. Rather than siding exclusively with the rich or the poor, Solon sought a compromise which would lead to the harmonious cooperation of the different classes of citizens. Solon claimed that his solution was not the best government possible, but the best government that the Athenians would receive. Many of the Founding Fathers took to heart this concept of "the best government possible", and avoided the utopian madness of the Jacobin, the Bolshevik, or the Neocon, who believe that there is one perfect form of government for all mankind. Perhaps the most famous episode from Solon's life is his visit to the court of Croesus, which is related by the Greek historian Herodotus. Croesus was the king of Lydia (located in current-day Turkey) and was seen by the Greeks as the epitome of oriental wealth and luxury:

Having there arrived he was entertained as a guest by Croesus in the king's palace; and afterwards, on the third or fourth day, at the bidding of Croesus his servants led Solon round to see his treasuries; and they showed him all things, how great and magnificent they were: and after he had looked upon them all and examined them as he had occasion, Croesus asked him as follows: "Athenian guest, much report of thee has come to us, both in regard to thy wisdom and thy wanderings, how that in thy search for wisdom thou hast traversed many lands to see them; now therefore a desire has come upon me to ask thee whether thou hast seen any whom thou deemest to be of all men the most happy." 27 This he asked supposing that he himself was the happiest of men; but Solon, using no flattery but the truth only, said: "Yes, O king, Tellos the Athenian." And Croesus, marvelling at that which he said, asked him earnestly: "In what respect dost thou judge Tellos to be the most happy?" And he said: "Tellos, in the first place, living while his native State was prosperous, had sons fair and good and saw from all of them children begotten and living to grow up; and secondly he had what with us is accounted wealth, and after his life a most glorious end: for when a battle was fought by the Athenians at Eleusis against the neighbouring people, he brought up supports and routed the foe and there died by a most fair death; and the Athenians buried him publicly where he fell, and honoured him greatly.

Tellos was uniquely happy in that he both lived to see his children turn out well and also met a heroic end usually reserved for young men. To Solon happiness was not found in the enjoyment of wealth or luxury but in heroic glory and the raising of virtuous children to serve the community after one's death. This focus on simple, virtuous living was well received in early America, a young nation that boasted a healthy, vigorous populace but lacked the wealth of the old world.

Another influence that prevented the Founding Fathers from adopting a utopian view of politics is the idea of cyclic bloom and decay found throughout ancient thought. Plato taught that political communities naturally decay with time, and the poet Hesiod related the famous myth of the four ages which begins with the idyllic golden age but inevitably degenerates into the brutal age of iron.This classical understanding of the cyclic nature of life is reflected in a passage from one of John Adams' letters to Thomas Jefferson:

Will you tell me how to prevent riches from becoming the effects of temperance and industry? Will you tell me how to prevent riches from producing luxury? Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, vice, and folly?

This prescient statement from Adams perfectly explains the situation currently faced by America and the entire Western world, showing that the Founding Fathers were not as naive as many modern day patriots who believe in the eternal perfection of the American system.

The abondonment of classical education is likely one of the major factors that has contributed to our rapid decline. According to Richard, the "golden age" of the classics in America ended after the war between the states, and since then the curricula at our schools has moved further and further away from the study of Greek and Latin texts. Cut off from the elegance of classical poetry and oratory, our public discourse has become increasingly base and unsophisticated, while our ignorance of the history and wisdom of Western civilization has left us open to accepting egregious Jewish lies about the past and about human nature.

Much electronic ink has been spilled on the question of how to build an intellectually vigorous resistance to modernity. Many contemporary nationalists who are too uneducated to have been admitted into an early American university complain that America lacks a tradition of high culture, and they seek vainly for novelty solutions to the problem of intellectually reviving the West, when the clear answer to this challenge is right in front of us. The intellectual fortress and armory of Western civilization is our classical heritage. This was the high culture of America during its greatest period, and will undoubtedly play an integral role in our renaissance.



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