The ancient Greeks and Romans had solutions for many of the problems that plague our country today. They recognized that human nature is a double-edged sword and that steps can be taken to mitigate the expression of its lesser qualities while magnifying its finer ones. They understood as well that liberty is not a given, rather, it is a delicate state that must be carefully protected from the foibles of the dark side of human nature.
One of the great challenges to any generation concerned with forward movement is to embrace change without diluting the foundational elements which contributed to the successes of previous generations. The Romans provide an excellent historical example of just how hard it is to navigate these waters. They sought to preserve the more successful elements of the ancient Greek culture, but ended up mimicking more than grokking, which means that the classical ideals were present in appearance, but not in fact. The Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire and liberty was lost in the transition.
The great minds of the Renaissance, some 1,500 years later, observed a decline in the arts and the humanities as well as a corruption of the classical educational system developed in classical antiquity. In an effort to stem this tide, they dedicated themselves to a passionate study of the classical period. The Italian author Niccolò Machiavelli, for instance, described his pursuit of this quarry in visceral terms:
At the door I take off my muddy everyday clothes. I dress myself as though I were about to appear before a royal court as a Florentine envoy. Then decently attired I enter the antique courts of the great men of antiquity. They receive me with friendship; from them I derive the nourishment which alone is mine and for which I was born. Without false shame I talk with them and ask them the causes of the actions; and their humanity is so great they answer me. For four long and happy hours I lose myself in them. I forget all my troubles; I am not afraid of poverty or death. I transform myself entirely in their likeness.
Nearly 500 years later we are faced once again with the erosion of liberty. The same arguments made by the authors of the Renaissance are being made daily by people of every station in our country. Virtues are waning, our educational system is organized around a misleading goal and while everyone seems to talk about it, nobody is willing to take off their “muddy everyday clothes” and “dress [themselves] as though [they] were about to appear before a Royal Court (Florentine for ‘think outside of the box’).”