Living 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.

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