Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Santayana and I Were Wondering

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George was right.  If we don't look backwards we can't understand our future.  If we're smart, we'll examine the past and learn our lessons.  Wouldn't that be nice?  Not likely these days, with the elevation of ignorance over knowledge (see the global warming "debate" or minimum-wage earners lusting after Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan as exemplars) but I'm an optimistic sort of a girl these days, so I thought I'd take a chance and share my thoughts with you.  

Perhaps you were as ignorant as I was when it comes to the history of Ancient Rome.  The Cuters, with more than a decade of Latin between them, were always more articulate than I on the subject.  Big Cuter brought his painted miniatures to explain Caesar's battles to his high school classmates; the visuals made all the difference.  I'm finding that age and cynicism is making the difference for me right now, and I can't resist the urge to let you in on what was going on back then.

I wonder if the parallels strike you as forcefully as they did me.  

Plutarch lived at the turn of the Christian Era and wrote biographies and comparisons of influential Greek and Roman leaders.  They are compiled under Lives and The Fall of the Roman Republic, the Penguin Classics edition of which is the source of these quotes.  He is eminently readable and the stories are those which underpin much of our shared consciousness; Shakespeare cribbed from him shamelessly. Truth or fiction, they have been a standard reference for every classicist's class I've ever taken.  

It might be because his stories are relevant to our own history.  For example
...it was Fortune who had presented him with a perfect opportunity, a great theatre in which to play an active part himself; and so he displayed every kind of bravery.  It was a hard war, but he was not afraid of any undertaking, however great, and was not too proud to accept any task, however small.... (H)e won much affection from the soldiers by showing that he could live as frugally as they did and endure as much.  
Do you see George Washington at Valley Forge?  Do you see him leading his men, astride his white horse, at the front of the charge?  Not convinced?  How about this:
...(W)hat a Roman soldier likes most to see is his general eating his ration of bread with the rest, or sleeping on an ordinary bed, or joining in the work of digging a trench or raising a palisade. The commanders whom they admire are not so much those who distribute honours and riches as those who take a share in their hardships and their dangers...
Plutarch was writing about Marius (157-86 BC) but you could've fooled me.

Remember when our foreign policy was set by Nancy Reagan's astrologer?  Marius
...did in fact carry round with him in great state a Syrian woman, called Martha, who was supposed to be a prophetess.  She was carried in a litter and he made sacrifices in accordance with her directions.  She had previously sought an interview with the senate... and had volunteered to predict the future; but the senate would have nothing to do with her.  She then addressed herself to the women and showed them what she could do. Her most important contact was with Marius's wife..... (who) sent her to her husband and Marius himself was much impressed by her.
Is it comforting or frightening to see how little has changed in 2200 years?

Proving that I can find Democratic as well as Republican politicians to skewer, tell me if this doesn't sound like Bill Clinton to you.
...(P)eople thought that he was acting in a manner very ill-suited to his age; and he ... cheapened the reputation of his high office....
I'm seeing him jogging in too short shorts, stopping into Mickey D's for a drippy Big Mac, talking about briefs or boxers ... in short, reducing the stature of the Presidency by bringing it down to his stuck-in-his-youth distractions.  

It gets even better.

..(H)e seems to have been almost pathologically prone to sexual indulgence, being quite without restraint in his passion for pleasure.
I rest my case.


  1. Oh, my - what a good post!! Though I'm a democrat (reg. independent), I love the comparison to Clinton!! He was embarrassing back then.

  2. It reminds me of the term American Exceptionalism used by some politicians. It's kind of a contradiction in that we aren't really that exceptional and yet some celebrate mediocrity or in my opinion ignorance. It's like that one woman politician from Alaska that is always spouting off about elitism. When she's really putting down smart people. Annoys the heck out of me. It's as if she's saying that being dumb is part of American exceptionalism and anyone that excels at education and learning is somehow a snob. Education is everyone's ticket to a better life. I just wish people would stop putting down education as if it's bad.

    I know I'm going to be in the minority, but I like Clinton. Always have and because I liked him so much, I was able to put aside his transgressions. Please don't think ill of me though. LOL.

    Great post.

    Megan xxx


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