Dead Symbols

I am reading a book recommended by a friend called “The Culture of Classicism”, written by history professor Caroline Winterer. The author notes that the book “charts how Americans over the course of the 19th century fundamentally changed their relationship with classical antiquity, seeking in the remote past new guides for modern life.”

The late 18th and early 19th centuries were a time of momentous ideological change in America. The rise of industrialization, materialism, democracy and specialization changed the lives of every American and put enormous pressure on the classical educational tradition.

The classical tradition was transformed during the mid to late 1800s and what was once a narrowly language-based focus (on Latin and Greek) quickly took on a broader study of the humanities, fueled by a revolution in classical scholarship which began in the late 18th century. The focus of American scholars and educators shifted from an intense love affair with Republican Rome to a greater emphasis on the earlier Greek system, from which the Roman tradition evolved.

Professor Winterer goes on to note that America’s link to classical antiquity was further refashioned because “[c]entral to Germany’s New Humanism was an infatuation with the art, literature and other achievements of the ancient Greeks.” The educational reformers ushered in an “alternative locus for aesthetic and literary cultivation…”

Americans were steeped in antiquity not too long ago. I was surprised to hear in a podcast by Stanford University professor Robert Harrison that James A. Garfield, who served as our 20th President during my great-grandparents’ time, amused friends by taking up pens in his left and right hands to translate a given phrase simultaneously into Latin and Greek. Knowledge of these languages provided an important link to antiquity, and as such, an important context for understanding the foundation of our country.

If you’ve looked at a one dollar bill lately, you probably noticed the rich variety of symbols chosen by our forefathers. The Roman (not our presently esteemed Bald Eagle) eagle, the pyramid, the “Eye of Providence” hovering in the capstone above the base of the pyramid and even the text derived from book IX of Virgil’s Aeneid “ANNUIT COEPTIS” (“He approves of our undertakings”) can and should serve as potent reminders of the Greek and Roman antiquity from whence they were borrowed.

The formation of our great nation was undertaken at great risk to its architects. Not only did they take great pains to think through a new system of government free of the perils of the monarchies that dominated the political landscape of the time, but they set in it living symbols that can serve as points of connection to the patterns of thought that inspired them so deeply.

What do these living symbols mean to you? Do you have a context for understanding them or are they dead to you? While it is certainly possible to “pledge allegiance to the Republic for which it stands” with only a cursory understanding of the classical ideas that form its foundation, it seems to me that we would be much stronger as a nation and much less likely to succumb as individuals to the more troubling influences of modern life if we were to cultivate a deep appreciation for and understanding of the lines of force that trace back to Carthage, Greece and Rome.

As a final note, I wonder if obsessive compulsive materialism and the over-consumptive malnutrition that accompanies it prevents (both figuratively and literally) an overwhelming majority of our citizens from realizing their full potential in much the same way that commoners were kept in the dark during the Middle Ages by not reading or writing Latin? Such a diversion of attention would not be the first in history, but certainly could be the last if left unchecked.

7 thoughts on “Dead Symbols

  1. Kolya

    This is such an interesting topic. Without the understanding of why we do things or where we have come from, this leaves us with a very shallow context of ourselves. I think education is so important for many reasons. It allows you to connect the dots between past, present and future and opens your mind to creative, inspirational thinking.


  2. Colin

    Throughout history, there has always been an excuse for people to not reach their full potential. One example from the Roman times being bread and circuses! Yet there have also always been those who eschewed the distractions of their times. It is those people who mainly began and maintain the traditions that you write of. I hope to be one who carries on that tradition Thanks for continuing this blog that helps those who read it maintain and improve in that direction.


  3. Doug

    You pose some interesting questions. It is apparent that education has usually separated the leaders from the masses. With the world a global community, if the republic is to continue to stand it must be part of the leadership yet I think our current educational system may be creating the “serfs”.


  4. Chris Lentz

    Your recent posts have really got my wheels turning. I think you have a very valid point in the comparison you make between citizens today who live at a substandard potential and the commoners kept in the dark during the Middle Ages. The statistics you shared in yesterday’s post on education support this. Look at the immense resources going into our education system and yet what a high percentage of people reach adulthood illiterate, just as one example of how the means for staying connected with and understanding the significance of the “living” symbols you mentioned. The implications many and significant.


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