It’s all the rage these days… No matter the position on the political spectrum, folks go out of their way to illustrate their righteousness.
Dubbed ‘virtue signaling’, it takes form in the humblest facebook profile (whether it’s become the latest color, supports the trendiest badge or flies the appropriate flags), all the way to whatever messages sprayed on $100,000 dresses worn by ‘it’ people on fancy carpets.
But what effect do these hashtag missions have? Are they divisive… or do they promote greater morality? Do they feed from and into mob mentality… or are they just a way to… show off?
‘Arete-signaling’, as I like to call it, would have fit in better in the ancient world. We can all agree (I hope) that living a life in search of Arete (the ancient Greek concept for virtue) is a good thing. After all, that’s basically Aristotle’s schtick. The point of virtue is to live life well, to perform exceptionally at being a human being, and it is this complete virtue which is the key to happiness.
Great, so you are virtuous. Does everyone else need to know that?
Well, in the ancient Greek world, yes. As a community based culture that relied more on shame than guilt, what others thought of you – your reputation as an individual as well as within your family name – was essential.
For instance, let’s look at the term “Kleos”, which is usually roughly translated into ‘Glory’. This can be misleading though, as us moderns can see glory as potentially resulting from an array of sources, including from within. To the Greeks, however, Kleos was more specifically what others said about you. Many times the story of your actions was more important than whether the action even took place or not! (I think the Odyssey proves this point nicely).
To this effect, ‘Arete-signaling’ would have been very popular… in both ancient Greece and Rome. This could be achieved with an array of methods, such as the creation of public works, statues or actual coins telling everyone how great you are.
Similarly, the first Roman Emperor Octavian-turned-Augustus, spent some serious denarii making sure everyone and their dog knew exactly how ‘virtuous’ he was… from elaborate monuments to whole epics, Augustus portrayed himself not only as incredibly moral, but in direct contrast to the ‘decadent and depraved’ Antony and Cleopatra.
Indeed, it’s only relatively recently that we are seriously questioning this official narrative, and attempting to see events (like the pivotal battle of Actium) from alternative perspectives.
NB: If you haven’t already registered, make sure to save your spot for our upcoming panel on the War that Made the Roman Empire. This Wednesday at Noon EST, we’ll discuss how Octavian won… what role Cleopatra really had… and the exciting new archeological discoveries that tell a very different story than what was previously thought….
All this is to say that in the ancient world it was what people said about you that often figured most.
This view, however, changed dramatically with Judeo-Christianity. In the ‘guilt’ culture, the afterlife looms heavy as a punishment…it no longer matters whether anyone else knows the action (either virtuous or sinful), because God does… as well as the person who committed the action. (Here Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment would be an excellent example).
This redirection on the individual, on the internal thoughts and motivations rather than the public display, has continued to this day… or has it?
And it is here that we come to today’s mailbag question, dear reader. Are acts of virtue greater when others know about it? Or is the act itself the most essential? Or furthermore, is it more virtuous when done in private?
Essentially: Is Virtue Less Virtuous if Known and Shown?
I’m literally dreaming about Cleopatra and Mark Antony these days… images of them, in splendid garb imitating their respective gods, Dionysius and Isis, dining on the Egyptian Queen’s floating barge fill my slumbering mind.
You see, I’m knee-deep in preparation for this month’s exciting panel on the Battle of Actium, arguably one of the most interesting and pivotal events in ancient history. And yet, despite its substantial position in the annals of history, the battle itself and the thoughts and motivation of its famous actors, are still shrouded in a great deal of mystery.
Part of the reason for this is because history is often written by the victors… and in this case, (spoiler alert), it has been very much viewed from the perspective of Octavian, the first Roman Emperor.
Indeed, Caesar Augustus went out of his way to ensure the poets, the historians, the artists, everyone really, put ink to papyrus in order to glorify him for all of prosperity.
He also made a concerted effort to actively destroy Mark Antony’s perspective… his legacy… anything to do with him. It’s only through small chance findings (like the lover’s coin) that we can get any sense of Mark Antony at all.
When we do, however, the Augustan ‘official line’ quickly becomes blurred. Cleopatra has spent millennia being depicted as a wonton seductress… rather than a brilliant, polyglot leader. Mark Antony, a drunkard with low morals who was easily corrupted by that exotic concubine… as opposed to a competent general who embraced the Eastern culture.
At the time, the history most likely seemed much more black and white… but with thousands of years of hindsight, the ability (nay incentive) to see events from different perspectives, and with (hopefully) unbiased efforts to understand the truth, events appear much more gray.
It is here that we ask today’s question, dear reader:
Can history ever be simple? Is it possible for it to be black and white?
Like no doubt most of you, I’m absolutely devastated by the current events in the Ukraine. This feeling is only complicated by the fact that for the majority of my life, I’ve been an out and out Russophile.
I lived in Moscow in the early 2000s. I’ve been to 7 of the 15 former Soviet Union countries (including an autonomous separatist region on the border of Ukraine). I spent years studying Russian, persistently trying to translate Pushkin (though to be honest, with little success).
It is the only place I’ve ever been where people actually think I’m local. Having a name like Anya didn’t hurt either.
It is the culture I admire. My heart swells when I listen to Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. I adore Chagall and Kandinsky. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy forever compete in the indecisive competition for favorite author. (The latter is currently winning).
Trying to understand Russia and Russians is a lifetime endeavor. It is so both familiar and exotic, both East and West, both ‘civilized’ and ‘barbaric’.
It makes one wonder if this is the moment to go in the reverse of War and Peace… to ‘De-Russify’ (Orlando Figes’ excellent Natasha’s Dance beautifully explained this process in Tolstoy’s masterpiece).
And yet, it seems clear enough to everyone involved… to the world looking in, to the Ukrainians both on the ground and fleeing… to the Russians at home, and even in battle… you can hate the invasion and not the Russians.
The reason for this is two fold.
All things considered, Russia and Ukraine have a lot in common, as well as a great deal of shared history. In the words of Marina Zaloznaya, a good Ukrainian friend (who happens to be a Sociology professor specializing in corruption and political stability in Ukraine, Russia, and other post-Soviet republics):
“Culturally, religiously, and linguistically the differences are minimal,” she said. “Most people have a relative or two in the other country, so this is a tragedy that is comparable to a civil war. People are being asked to stand up and fight against their families a lot of the time.”
Footage of civilians walking up to tanks and blocking the way (and not being run over) illustrate this perfectly. Not to mention the thousands and thousands of Russians protesting -at their own peril- the war.
It’s important to remember that during the USSR, people were moved all around the entire region. Just as the British Empire relocated Indians to the Caribbean and in Southern Africa (among many other peoples), so did the Soviets. This means the current state of ethnic groups is not very cut and dry, to say the least.
The second reason is Putin.
Fellow Tolstoy fans may recall the second epilogue in War and Peace describing the role of prominent leaders in the movement of history as either row boats tailing behind… or tug boats leading the way.
Sadly, it certainly feels like Putin is the latter.
But watching a once calculated man become frantic and desperate isn’t new. We all know power corrupts… and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In fact, it is at exactly moments like this that history, ancient included, can help us understand the situation.
So this week, I’d like to ask you, dear reader, which moments in history do you think can help us make sense of this invasion?
What parallel characters should we bring up in order to comprehend Putin and his plans better? What ancient history can illuminate… if at all… the current predicament the world is in… and perhaps, help us prepare for whatever comes next?
The weather changed, quite suddenly, over the weekend. Perhaps it did for you too, dear reader, it is that time of year after all. Here in Buenos Aires, Argentina, however, it meant the end of the searing summer.
And it was a very welcome change.
The oppressive humidity was replaced with pleasant sunshine, laced with a cool breeze. One can imagine the wind picking up fresh off the massive, icy glaciers of the south, and racing across the grassy pampas in order to bring a refreshing breath to the heaving metropolis.
As such, everyone was outside: at the park, walking down the boulevards, or enjoying good conversation at a friend’s asado (a barbecue). Your editor fell into the latter category.
I was meandering from group to group, glass of Malbec in hand, when I stumbled upon the most fascinating conversation.
“Well, that proves that you believe in the existence of the soul,” ventured a friend, an American, in fact.
“Which is strange, of course, because you say you are an atheist.”
I stopped immediately and began to listen. What fodder for you dear reader!
“No, not at all” was the reply.
“You are stating that not all biological processes are responsible for your decisions…”
I actually spilled my wine, I was so excited to jump into the debate. My previous conversations had stalled on the banal… such as the weather (You know, cool breezes off the glaciers type of thing). Finally, here was a topic to make the brain tick!
But I won’t go into my answer, because I want to hear yours first. So, before this time next week, please write me at [email protected] with your response to the question:
What, if anything, is the soul?
Now, if you’d like to do some extra reading on the subject, then check out Classical Wisdom Weekly’s ebook, the Ancient Theologians and see what they said. You can do so for a limited time here:
This week we will start with a reader mail again… though this one is in response to last week’s submission and is quite harsh on your editor:
Re: Is Nationalism GOOD?
Dear Anya Leonard, It says very little for your professionalism, your ethics, or your credibility that you would print, in your newsletter, a letter from a reader calling the history of WWII and Germany “fake news” and include them in a round-up that you so cheerfully deem “very worth reading.”
It’s disgusting and forces me to question your commitment to academic research and advocacy.
You should be ashamed. I’ll be unsubscribing from your newsletter and blocking your Twitter account.
Well, first off, I was (believe it or not) extremely pleased with Jane’s email. I was happy she caught it and wrote in expressing her views. I had actually included the mailing on purpose in order to prompt the next discussion.
But before we delve into that, I would like to quickly address the accusation at hand. We believe publishing is not equal to endorsement and this is evident by the wide spectrum of ideas present in every mailbag.
Moreover, I can most definitely assure all my readers that I am not a Holocaust denier. Indeed, many branches of my family tree were unceremoniously shorn off in one single day, ancestral villages and communities ‘alive’ only in memory and on plaques.
Moreover, I’ve been to Auschwitz twice, the second time while pregnant – a poetic triumph in my mind. So the idea that the camps, the events both during and leading up to WWII were all ‘faked’ seems absurd.
So why print a reader mail that suggests that? Excellent question, dear reader!
Unfortunately antisemitism (which is tragically on the rise) grows in the shadows and is enflamed by censorship, whether it’s well intentioned or not.
The whole “don’t shout fire in a theater” analogy is the perfect example. While many erroneously feel that this statement justifies a level of control over what is or is not printed, the actual events tell a very different story. The case of Schenck v. United States included Yiddish socialists protesting the draft… the exact opposite from inciting violence.
So where does this leave us? When we see or read a bad idea… what should we do to combat it? How do we make the change we want to see?
This is particularly pertinent right now. There is a movement to ban a platform because of an individual podcast or podcaster, for example. While I’m not saying ANYTHING about the particulars of said podcast (we have enough controversial topics at hand at the moment, thankyouverymuch), is shutting down the medium in which it is presented Right?
From truckers blocking borders and Iranian teachers crowding plazas to individuals rebelliously going to school or carefully penning letters to the editor… there are many ways -both violent and nonviolent- that folks make their voices heard.
Of course there are plenty of fantastic (many apocryphal) tales of protest from the ancient world. On the comic end, we can think of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, where the women on mass withhold sex in order to force their husbands to negotiate for peace. Women once more take center stage in the story of Agnodice, the first female physician who was sentenced to death for the gall of practicing while female, until the citizen wives stormed the courtroom and demanded her release.
On the historical spectrum, in 508 B.C., the people took to the streets to protest the system in the hopes of revolutionizing politics in Athens, resulting in Democracy… and in ancient Rome, the plebs would abandon the city en masse in a protest emigration and leave the patrician order to themselves, a process formerly called the secessio plebis.
While protests still take place in our modern era (which is more than evident for anyone taking a passing glance at the newspaper), we have many more options for distributing ideas. Beginning with pamphlets and concluding with twitter hashtags, everyday people can chime in on big topics, whether it’s national policy, the education of our children, or the dangerous undercurrents of prejudice.
But now that we all have a voice, what should we do with it? Once more I ask you, dear reader, how do you combat bad ideas? What is the best way to make change?
Today we will begin with an excellent query as posited by one of your fellow readers, Inês from Portugal:
“Hello Classical Wisdom! Happy new year!
I’m a huge fan of your work and all things of the classics.
I’ve been attending your webinars and I think that a great theme for discussion would be “The classics and Nationalism.”
I’m from Portugal, and I’ve been noticing that all Nationalist pages on instagram make great references to the classics, be it the philosophy, the architecture, the Roman legions, the art, etc.
I think this theme would be extremely interesting and I personally am a Nationalist, and I don’t think that Nationalism has any type of bad meaning.
The classics are the backbone of European/ Western civilization, and with a lot of young people searching for inspiration and references of their culture and countries growing day by day, I thought it would be an interesting idea to bring to you.
Thank you so much for the amazing work you do, and I look forward to all your new activities.”
First off, a big thank you to Inês for writing in with ideas for investigation. I think it’s important that we can inspire a dialogue and that we can hear and learn directly from each other… after all, we want nothing more than to continue ‘the great conversation’.
As to the request on hand, it is an interesting history of Classics and Nationalism… not all of it so cheerful, unfortunately.
In fact, there have been many times when the Classics were used to justify or prop up one or another political faction, some of which have had a downright negative impact on civilization. Mussolini’s grand archeological works and Hitler’s bizarre search for Atlantis pop to mind.
And this hasn’t happened just in Europe either…
Even today in China, ancient Chinese works are used to promote the current government.
Over in the new world, Rafael Trujillo, the 1930’s Dominican Republic Dictator, invoked the classics as vindication for their dominance on the island of Hispaniola.
All this to say, is that before we delve into the themes of Nationalism and the Classics… perhaps we should first ask if they should be connected at all? Some of these efforts have resulted in remarkable works and discoveries… others not so much.
So this week we ask: Should the Classics be used for Nationalistic endeavors? What benefits or dangers come from this collusion?