The American Founding Fathers knew a thing or two, and one of those things was how to read the Classics. By this I don’t mean that their Latin was good (it was), or that their knowledge of ancient history was infallible (it wasn’t).
I mean that they didn’t use Classical writing the way modern thinkers often do, as an Ultimate Authority to be unerringly obeyed. Instead, the statesmen who founded America treated those who founded Athens and Rome as equal partners in an ongoing debate. They challenged their ancient forbears like college roommates haggling over a philosophy paper. That dialogue is the one that built America.
Take Thomas Jefferson: he hated Plato. Hated him passionately, almost with relish, the way beleaguered high school readers often hate him. The Republic, Jefferson wrote, was…
“the heaviest task-work I ever went through,” full of “whimsies . . . puerilities, and unintelligible jargon.”
He was shocked “that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense.” I remember a few kids in my 11th grade Civics class expressing similar opinions.
Jefferson preferred Epicurus, whose philosophy survives through the Roman poet Lucretius. Lucretius wrote that only knowledge and science could redeem humanity, which “lay crushed under religion” and irrational superstition. Those words appealed to Jefferson, an amateur scientist who mistrusted the Bible and would eventually re-write it to excise any mention of the supernatural: “I too am an Epicurean,” he enthused. He proved it by arguing forcefully and effectively for a controversial new doctrine — the separation of church and state.
Now, Jefferson’s enduring legacy is the epoch-making Declaration that “all men are created equal.” Of course the man who wrote those words abhorred Plato, who advocated brainwashing the lower classes to believe their souls were made of inferior material, destined to subservience.
This kind of open élitism repulsed the radically populist Jefferson. Epicurus, Jefferson thought, had it right: different souls are just different arrangements of identical atoms, uniform matter recombining in endless structures. No one is born to rule: we’re all made of the same stuff, quite literally “created equal.”
But we might never have heard of those words — might never have broken away from England — if it weren’t for John Adams and Marcus Cicero. From boyhood, Adams treasured a copy of Cicero’s Orations. Rome’s great statesman became Adams’ confidant, his lifelong friend, and most of all his role model. He worked hard to emulate Cicero’s iron-willed integrity and compelling rhetoric.
That came in handy: when Jefferson’s Declaration came down to a nail-biting vote, it was the powerful oratory Adams learned from Cicero that tipped the scales in favor of independence. In a two-hour speech, with Ciceronian flair, Adams convinced the Continental Congress to vote for revolution. Colleagues called Adams “the man to whom the country is most indebted for . . . independency.”
For the country that was born in Philadelphia that day, we have Adams — and Cicero — to thank.
Later, as Adams advised the writers of the new constitution, he turned to his tried and true mentor for advice. Cicero gave Adams the idea of “a mixed constitution of three branches,” each restrained by a delicate equilibrium of checks and balances. Adams adopted that concept in his Defence of the Constitutions, which guided the framers as they wrote their own founding document — the one America upholds today.
These days, modern thinkers tend to put the Ancients on an untouchable pedestal, hailing them from afar without really engaging. Politicians from Obama to Palin use quotes from Plato and Aristotle as indisputable maxims, truths they can cite to support their agenda.
That leaves listeners with an all-or-nothing choice: either you agree with this lapidary, monolithic authority called The Classics, or you don’t. That choice is an illusion. There’s never been any such authority. There’s only ever been a motley crew of gifted, contentious intellectuals, arguing tirelessly, contradicting one another — and sometimes themselves — with vehemence and urgency. The history of Greco-Roman thought is a history of incessant bickering. That’s what makes it great.
By doing some bickering of their own, the Founding Fathers picked up where the Greeks and Romans left off. Early American thinkers treated Classical writers as interlocutors, as adversaries — most of all, they treated them as old friends.
Old friends don’t tiptoe around each other or pretend to agree unconditionally: they mix it up. They debate. Old friends speak their minds and hash it out. The early Americans kept the ancient conversation alive — they used it to found a nation. The beauty of the Classical canon is that it makes us part of that conversation, puts modern readers face-to-face with discussion partners across thousands of intervening miles and years. It’s not our job to revere them. It’s our privilege to argue with them.