Before getting ready for tomorrow’s event, I’ll admit I was woefully unknowledgeable about the man. After all, I deal with the 12th century BC to the 5th AD…. what did I have to do with an Italian living in the 1300s? That’s positively modern in my books!
But just in my preparatory readings, I have already been hugely inspired. Not necessarily by his specific philosophies (those are interesting of course), but by his way of thinking… and his way of thinking about thinking.
Considered to be the father of humanism, the first tourist, the first mountaineer and the man responsible for finding and preserving so many ancient Latin texts and thus making them popular, Petrarch is credited with beginning the entire Renaissance.
What did this man discover that kicked off an entire enlightenment? And how can his profound insights help our here and now?
We barely made it out… the window in which the Argentine border was open and flights were leaving closed almost 24 hours after we safely landed in Houston Intercontinental.
Yes, dear reader, we made it to America… and just in time for the summer. And while many of you nationwide are enjoying the unofficial start to the season with outdoor BBQs, lakeside swimming or frantic online shopping, we do want to pause for a moment to reflect on the reason for the holiday.
Here in Texas, the streets are lined with American flags, lest you forget it is Memorial Day. It is a day to remember and mourn military personnel who died in the line of duty.
Throughout history it was often considered the greatest glory to die for your country and the ancient world was no exception. In fact, Sparta may exemplify this expectation more than any other place or time in history.
Pluratch described it best:
“Another, as she handed her son his shield, exhorted him, saying, “Either this or upon this.””
ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς,
Ḕ tā̀n ḕ epì tâs
“Meaning “either you will win the battle, or you will die and then be carried back home on your shield”.“
“It was said by Spartan mothers to their sons before they went out to battle to remind them of their bravery and duty to Sparta and Greece.”
“A hoplite could not escape the field of battle unless he tossed away the heavy and cumbersome shield. Therefore “losing one’s shield” meant desertion. (Plutarch, Moralia, 241)“
“Come back with your shield – or on it” was supposed to be the parting cry of mothers to their sons. Mothers whose sons died in battle openly rejoiced, mothers whose sons survived hung their heads in shame.
Spartans probably did not need a ‘Memorial Day’ to honor their war dead; the conscious act of respecting fallen warriors was most likely part of every day, seamlessly integrated into their daily routine.
Today, however, the practice seems… a little out of sync with modern culture. Anachronistic, if you will… A throwback to when we still worshipped heroes.
Nowadays it seems as if we live in the age of the victim. Young folks scrambling to collect as many points as possible in order to get ahead. Even our comic book blockbusters focus on the tragic tales of the villains rather than glorifying the triumph of the hero.
In fact, when looking up another synonym for hero just then, the online thesaurus only referred to a sandwich!!!
Which brings me to today’s mailbag question…
What happened to HEROES? Have we lost the concept completely? Are we living in a culture of victimhood? And should it – could it – reverse?
But before you go, a brief moment of housekeeping…
We are opening up registration for our Summer Course. If you haven’t taken the Essential Greeks Course yet, then now is the time! Sign up to make sure you reserve your spot and finally understand the Essential Greeks. From Homer to Aristotle, we cover the historians, the philosophers, the dramatists, and the poets.
Can we understand the Classics without the Classroom? A guide to getting (really) educated… with Dr. James Hankins, Professor of History at Harvard University, Anya Leonard of Classical Wisdom, and Alexandra Hudson of Civic Renaissance.
If you already know WHY we should preserve the classics… It’s time to ask HOW… and how YOU can help. What are the resources? Where can we begin? And who can help?
As mainstream educational institutions move away from a classical core in the liberal arts, it can be tempting to feel despondent about the future of this educational model that has educated men and women for millennia. Yet there are a growing number of organizations around the world committed to remedy this. These non-accrediting institutions are nourishing those who care about ideas and the wisdom of the past and are offering people a chance to engage in the Great Conversation.
What can we learn from these initiatives? How can we promote more of them? How can these new organizations nurture the values of curiosity and lifelong learning?
About the Speakers:
Dr. James Hankins, professor of History at Harvard University and an intellectual historian specializing in the Italian Renaissance. He is author of many books, including, Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft. You can purchase his book here.
Anya Leonard, Founder and Director of Classical Wisdom, a platform dedicated to bringing ancient wisdom to Modern Minds. You can learn more about Classical Wisdom here: https://classicalwisdom.com/
Alexandra Hudson, curator of Civic Renaissance, a publication and intellectual community dedicated to the wisdom of the past. Sign up for Civic Renaissance here: https://www.civic-renaissance.com/
“The Forgotten Virtue” explores the classical notion of humanitas, or love of humanity, that the ancients cultivated through education and the Renaissance Humanists revived in their own era. Hankins shows how a liberal arts education teaches us to love and respect our fellow man–the essence of civility. Read it here: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/12/the-forgotten-virtue
– Clemente Course in the Humanities. Founded by Earl Shorris, he powerfully described the origin of this course in the humanities for low income and minority individuals in a beautiful Harper’s essay, As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor.
– Liberty Fund. Publishes affordable paperback editions of great books, with hundreds of editions also digitized, annotated, freely available online in their Online Library of Liberty.
– Circe Institute They aim to promote and support classical education in the school and in the home and provide tools to help classical educators.
– https://platosacademy.org/ Help restore Plato’s Academy! An exciting new initiative by Donald Robertson to help restore the original site of Plato’s learning in Athens.
“A Great Idea at the Time” by Alex Beam A wonderful, though often tongue and cheek, history of the the Great Books movement in America
“Know Thyself” by Ingrid Rossellini This sweeping history of Western Civilization is readable, exciting, and an education in and of itself.
“How to Live on 24 Hours a Day” by Arnold Bennett A delightful defense of the intellectual life with very practical tips for how to find more time to read (he suggests creating a “day within a day” and where to start one’s reading (He suggests poetry!). Free on Project Gutenberg.
“Virtue Politics” by James Hankins. This book explores the Renaissance intellectuals that sought to reform society through reforming and crafting the souls of elites. The Humanist’s focus on character building through classical learning helped improve society for generations.
“Lost in Thought” by Zena Hitz. An excellent book explaining the need for leisure and the fulfillment one finds in spending time on thoughtful activities.
It was raining gold. The hazy autumnal light caught the cascading leaves, brilliantly illuminating them as they gently drifted to the pavement. The noonday sun, already sinking low to the horizon, stretched out the branches’ shadows, creating a speckled mosaic on the ground.
Down here in South America the season has suddenly shifted to the cold, just as it has no doubt for my northern counterparts, sprung into warmth. And as we swiftly move into our shoulder seasons, it becomes evident once again of the continuous movement of the earth, the never ending cycles of life, death, and rebirth.
With this timeless perspective of constant change, we are forced to take a step back and look at our place within it. What is our individual role in relation to this incomprehensible experience of the world forever rotating, the life giving star directing movements of growth and decay like a grand conductor of the heavens?
What are we really in control of? As the earth turns and the seasons change – are we but a cog in a great machine? Are we simply reacting to the environment around us? Do we have free will?
Yes dear reader, the response to last week’s question was so plentiful, I’ve decided to make a two-parter. To that end, I have a sampling of your fellow classicists’ musings with more to come next week.
In the meantime, feel free to contribute to the conversation with your own ideas on what is in man/woman’s control. What can we choose? And do we have free will?
It quickly became a spirited debate… after all, there is a lot on the line and it’s certainly not a point to be conceded without a fight.
We were discussing the concept of free will… and whether we have it… or not.
My interlocutor was steadfast and impassioned.
No, he said. None at all. Zero free will.
He was quick to quote others.
“The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect.” Writes Stephen Cave in the Atlantic.
“The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat.”
He continues, “Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.”
It is this understanding of neuroscience that has led many to relinquish their fundamental belief in the control of our own choices.
But where does insisting on a diminished Free will leave us? How does it affect our moral codes, criminal justice systems, religion, and indeed, our very understanding of life itself?
If every moment in life is simply the result of predictable outcomes of mechanical laws, what’s the point of it all?
Of course this debate has been raging since the birth of philosophy. Early myth-makers were, in their fear of the gods, more than ready to submit themselves to the Moirai (the Fates), who were thought to determine every person’s destiny at birth.
The pre-socratics (or as I like to term them, the first philosophers) wrestled control from the gods to nature. Thinkers like Anaximander and Heraclitus believed in the logos behind nature, while the materialist philosophers Democritus and his mentor Leucippus claimed that all things, including humans, were made of atoms in a void, with individual atomic motions strictly controlled by causal laws.
Socrates famously claimed ignorance was the cause of evil (since no man does wrong willingly) rather than individual agency whereas Aristotle, in his Physics and Metaphysics, said there were “accidents” caused by “chance (τυχή)”, though this is a gross simplification of Aristotle’s more nuisance exploration into the inquiry.
Nonetheless, so far it appears Free-Will isn’t storming ahead.
Then Epicurus and the Stoics came into the scene and formulated clear indeterministic and deterministic positions.
One generation after Aristotle, Epicurus builds on the Macedonian’s understanding of why things happen by adding a few other causes;
“…some things happen of necessity (ἀνάγκη), others by chance (τύχη), others through our own agency (παρ’ ἡμᾶς).”
…necessity destroys responsibility and chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.”
It wasn’t until the Peripatetic philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 150–210) defended a view of moral responsibility, that we find something that we would call libertarianism today. While Greek philosophy had no precise term for “free will” as did Latin (liberum arbitrium or libera voluntas), Alexander termed the discussion in regards to responsibility, what “depends on us” (in Greek ἐφ ἡμῖν).
Man is responsible for self-caused decisions, Alexander argued, and can choose to do or not to do something, adding to the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus.
So where does this leave us, dear reader? Sorting through the wisdom of the past and the science of today, we have to take a step back while looking deep inside our own thoughts and decisions and ask:
Do we have free-will? And if we don’t… Or if we do… What are the many consequences?
“In 1897, British colonial forces razed Benin City, massacring an unknown number of people and bringing a violent end to the Kingdom of Benin, which had thrived for centuries as one of West Africa’s major powers.
“During the raid, British troops looted at least 3,000 precious items made by the Edo people, including ivory statues, carved elephant tusks, ceramics, masks, carved portraits of Obas (or kings) and their mothers, and more than 1,000 intricately decorated brass plaques that once adorned ancestral altars and court buildings in the city’s royal palace.” – Smithsonian Magazine
It was significant then that recently several museums have committed to returning the stolen loot from the kingdom of Benin – most prominent being the 13th century Benin Bronzes.
Indeed, they hide behind conveniently created laws, such as the British Museum Act 1963 and the Heritage Act 1983…
The Benin bronzes no doubt throw up the old conversations, the ones that continue to plague those interested in the ancient world. Namely, what should be done with the Elgin (or more accurately names Parthenon) marbles.
If Nigeria can house these historic pieces in their “small but growing museum ecosystem,” according to Alex Greenberger of ARTNews, then surely Greece can too?
“Of course, we do have our problems, in term of the state of our museums in the country, but that will not remain as it is forever,” said Abba Isa Tijani, a member of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, during the conference, per ARTNews.
While the removal of the marbles from the parthenon was not as violent as Benin City’s razing, they were no less unceremoniously taken from 1801 to 1812 by agents of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin.
Controversial even in its own time (Lord Byron, likened the Earl’s actions to vandalism or looting) the debate still rages on… should the British museum return the marbles to Athens?
Should they give them back? Should historical pieces housed in museums around the world be repatriated? If Benin’s Bronzes, then why not “Elgin’s marbles” or any other significant piece, for that matter?
And at what point does it keep going? How far back? And to whom should the pieces go?