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Three Classical Works That Inspire Us
A comic, a journal, and a defense speech
One thing that unites the authors of the Classical Futurist is a love for the Classics — and we wanted to explore the different ways this arose for each of us. Accordingly, this month we each spent a little time dwelling on the following prompt:
What is the one work from or about antiquity (art, literature, anything) that most inspires you, and why?
Our answers follow below. What are yours? Let us know.
In trying to respond to this prompt, I found myself facing a common feeling of being poorly read in the classics. It’s not quite true, compared to most, but on the other hand I am writing an online magazine about antiquity with two people who are obviously classics buffs. My own inadequacy gets highlighted time and time again, regardless of the reassurances of my friends.
What have I read about or from antiquity? If I think long enough I find some answers. Mémoires d’Hadrien, by Marguerite Yourcenar. Some of Plato’s dialogues, and Aristotle’s writing on friendship. Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô and its delightful depiction of ancient Carthage. I’ve even read the Iliad and the Odyssey, and, to my regret, James Joyce’s Ulysses.
But if I have to think about it, to dig into the layers of my memory to unearth some almost forgotten piece of literature, that can hardly be interpreted as saying it “inspires” me.
And then suddenly the answer made itself obvious to me. It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. It didn’t feel… serious enough.
The work of literature that deals with antiquity and that I think about the most is, clearly, the entire Asterix series of comic books by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo.
Although Asterix has been widely translated and exported, English-speaking readers may not realize the extent of the influence the series has had in the French-speaking world. Almost everyone has read the books as a kid, often multiple times. It was adapted into several movies that have achieved cult status. Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra is, to me and many others, the equivalent of Monty Python films in the Anglosphere: a movie that you’ve watched often enough that you can quote its jokes at any time, to almost anyone. Older generations refer back instead to animated masterpieces like The Twelve Tasks of Asterix.
The series is set in Gaul around 50 BC, mostly in a village of Celtic warriors that is the only part of the region to not have been conquered by the Roman Republic. But here you must forget everything you know about Rome. Julius Caesar, starring as the prominent villain, is described as an emperor (he wasn’t). The various cultures encountered across the series — such as the Britons, the Goths, the Helvetes, and of course the Romans and the Gauls themselves — owe less to historical descriptions than to playful stereotypes of their modern equivalents (the Britons drink tea, the Goths wear the Pickelhaube, the Helvetes eat cheese fondue). Many historical events are referenced, but in anachronistic fashion. Much liberty is taken with technology and culture: the Gauls did not erect menhirs, for instance, despite the prominent role these stones play in the books.
Does that mean Asterix is useless, perhaps even harmful, to the serious study of antiquity?
I think not. To me, Asterix highlights a fact that is often forgotten by people who like history: that it’s okay to have fun with it. It’s okay to use history as play material. Sometimes you do want to be serious, precise, and accurate, but other times it’s perfectly fine and even beneficial to let go of all that.
It seems likely that I wouldn’t be writing about antiquity today if I hadn’t read Asterix as a kid. And it seems likely that I wouldn’t have read Asterix as a kid if it had been written, say, as serious nonfiction.
This is a point I consider really important. There aren’t that many other works of art that stage history like Asterix does. It’s plausible that this paucity partly explains why history is often, today, considered boring, useless, or even irrelevant. To catalyze the study of history (and, from there, extrapolation to the future), then we need vastly more silly historical fiction. This is in fact the core idea of the novel I have been writing, in that case focussing on Quebec history.
Responding to this prompt was difficult because I was looking in the wrong places. What inspires me is not serious scholarship around the classics. It’s important that some people do that, of course. But I’m okay with leaving the task to my friends. For myself, I’m perfectly happy to derive my love of the ancient world from wildly anachronistic but hilarious portrayals of the past.
Meditations is, of course, the personal diary of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
It’s full of his personal thoughts, quotations of various sources, and philosophy.
It’s laconic and cryptic. Insightful and incisive. It’s the work that crowned Aurelius the philosopher king.
He’s writing to himself, for himself. The thought is both original and a repository of the thought at the time – he quotes other philosophers and poets liberally. All of this is meshed into one work. At times, the argumentation is weak. Marcus Aurelius assumes much of the philosophical machinery of the day. Its value derives from the practical use of the work, historical importance, and expressed perspective on the world – not persuasive power.
In epistemology, there’s a difference between propositional and perspectival knowledge – knowledge that such and such is the case versus knowledge from a particular vantage point. It’s in search of knowledge of the latter variety that Meditations is best approached.
William O. Stephens has argued that the piece should be thought of as Memoranda instead of Meditations – Marcus Aurelius is writing down general principles that he internalizes and wants to live his life by. You can see him do this as he writes down variants of the same principle over and over again. Recording, remembering, and refining each principle.
Consider the relatable struggle with the temptations of book-learning:
This thing that I am, whatever we are to call it, is flesh, spirit, and the command center. Forget your books.
Meditations II, 2
Get over your thirst for books, so that you don’t die grumbling, but with true serenity and with heartfelt gratitude to the gods.
Meditations III, 3
Don’t be sidetracked anymore! You’re not going to read your notebooks, or your accounts of Roman and Greek history, or the commonplace books you were saving for your old age.
Meditations III, 14
On the margin, the typical person may want to spend more time with Roman and Greek history – but Marcus Aurelius was exceptionally well-read and apparently struggled more with overreading than the usual vice of the opposite.
Simple phrases clearly capture philosophical concepts of the day:
The universe is transformation, life is supposition.
Meditations IV, 3
Transformation expresses the idea of Heraclitan flux. Everything is coming and going and impermanent. One cannot step into the same river twice because of constant change. Supposition references the Stoic model of the mind, which was essentially cognitive. According to Stoics, our experience of the world was completely shaped by our judgments about it. Virtuous and equanimous activity is essentially true judgment.
It’s enough if one’s current belief is true, if one’s current action has the common good as its objective, and if one’s current state of mind is willing acceptance of every externally caused thing that happens.
Meditations IX, 6
This line gestures at the three key Stoic ideas. The first highlights the importance of objective judgment. The second, virtuous action. And the third, the Stoic rejection of externals. A good life is not determined by externals like status, power, or wealth. It’s determined by knowledge and character. Those are enough.
In this way, Meditations serve as a piece of Stoic philosophy, but also a model for our own meditations.
I first visited Athens in the summer of 2013 with some friends, as part of a post-grad eurotrip.
Greece, at the time, was in the depths of a debt crisis. To call the mood of the country pessimistic would be an understatement; there was a palpable sense of gloom that served as an unsettling backdrop against the bright Mediterranean sun.
I remember walking through the ruins of the ancient Athenian Agora for the first time; walking under the colonnades of the Stoa of Attalos, standing awestruck before the Hephaisteion — and being appalled by the graffiti and trash that I saw strewn amidst the majestic ruins of Athenian monumental architecture at the height of its glory.
What a perfect metaphor, I thought, for the state of Greece at the time: what was once the cradle of Western civilization, whose past cultural and intellectual achievements were a source of enduring glory and fascination, was now a country struggling to maintain solvency on the periphery of the EU, reduced to begging for German aid in Brussels to prop up its moribund economy.
As we walked up the path from the Agora towards the Acropolis, we were accosted by a young boy handing out fliers which advertised a live reenactment of Socrates’ Apology in the shadow of the Parthenon that evening called Socrates Now. Intrigued, we decided to check it out.
The Apology had always been my favorite Platonic dialogue. It is a record of Socrates’ speech given in his own defense towards the end of his life, when he was charged with “corrupting the youth” and other vague misdeeds by an Athens that was looking for a scapegoat for its recent misfortunes, like the loss of the Peloponnesian War and the collapse of the Delian League.
Socrates was an appealing target because he went around annoying prominent people by asking them questions that they found difficult to answer, questions that pointed out logical inconsistencies and absurdities in their deepest-held beliefs.
In the Apology, Socrates explains his reasons for doing this. He says that, years prior to the trial, his friend went to the Oracle at Delphi and asked him who the wisest man in Athens was. “Socrates”, answered the Oracle. On hearing of this, Socrates was perplexed. How can I be the wisest man in Athens, he thought to himself, when I don’t consider myself wise at all?
Accordingly, he came up with a plan to falsify the Oracle’s pronouncement. Surely, by talking to the Sophists, poets, politicians, and other wise men in Athens, he would be able to show the Oracle had spoken wrongly, because it would become clear in the course of the conversation how much less wise he was by contrast to the luminaries of his day.
But, one by one, his discussions revealed that none of them really knew what they were talking about. Socrates’ rigorous questioning showed how their strongly held beliefs often contained many inconsistencies and errors that; he showed how few people could justify their convictions
Socrates explained that this investigation of the Oracle’s claims made him many enemies, who as a result of being made to look foolish (though that was not his intent), spread groundless rumors that he was going around teaching falsehoods. At the same time, the youth of Athens began to follow him around, seeing that in Socrates’ method of dialogue, there was something valuable to be learned about the very process of how to reason and seek the truth.
The Apology tells this story from Socrates’ point of view, who narrated it during his trial as a way of explaining both that he was not guilty of what he was being accused of (denying the gods and corrupting the youth), and also as a way of explaining the origin of those accusations. But in the end, he was convicted by the court of his Athenian peers, who sentenced him to death.
That evening in Athens, we watched a native Greek actor, playing the character of Socrates, perform this entire defense speech from memory. He spoke in English, but each line was projected in ancient Greek on a screen behind him, like reverse-subtitles. The audience was small — maybe 40 people at most. Half were tourists, the other half native Greeks. We sat facing the actor-Socrates just like the Athenian jury once did long ago.
It was an excellent performance. The actor, Yannis Simonides, channeled Socrates’ essence and brought his words to life — capturing also Socrates’ humor, his wit, his nonchalance in the face of death, his sense of irony. Afterwards, you could see the audience was moved. Though witnessing the recreation of a 2,500 year old trial, we felt as if it had just happened. There, on the slopes of the Athenian Acropolis, the ideas and spirit of fifth-century Athens were brought back to life, if only for a brief moment.
A spirited discussion sprang up among the Greeks after the performance, with the rest of us listening keenly on, about why the same Athens, the same Greece, that had once boasted one of the most vibrant and creative civilizations in history was now in the unfortunate state they were in. The Greeks saw themselves in their ancestors; they walked the same streets, sailed on the same seas, spoke a kindred language. Why, then, had they fallen so far behind? Where had they gone wrong?
No easy answers were found, but I remember thinking how it was not just the Greeks that might ask themselves that question. As an American, I saw that the United States’ longstanding hegemony was also starting to slip, and that though the Western world still stood on the shoulders of giants, we were losing our footing.
If I think about what one work from antiquity most encapsulates my reasons for being fascinated with it, though the competition is heavy, I must therefore ultimately answer that it’s Plato’s Apology. I believe it epitomizes many of the most edifying and valuable principles of antiquity — like the value of free inquiry, the power of reason, courage in the face of the unknown, the importance of being principled, the beauty of an examined life, the inherent worth of seeking truth no matter the costs, and the fact that what is popular (like the wish to kill Socrates for offending the sensibilities of the day) is not always right.
Indeed, if Socrates’ defense speech has one overriding message it is that arguments from authority cannot be trusted — that consensus is not truth.
In this way, more than any other single work — even Homer’s epics — I think The Apology captures distinguishing characteristics of classical antiquity. These are the core values, in my eyes, that make the Greco-Roman world such a golden thread in the tapestry of our civilization.
As for the reenactment we saw that night, I’ll never forget it. Walking down from the Acropolis later that evening, we saw the Parthenon lit up against the night sky, shining like a beacon across time. Most of the tourists had gone, and the area in the immediate vicinity of the Acropolis had cleared out, so there we stood for a while in solitude, looking up in awe. It felt to me in that moment that the past and present had briefly merged, that the spirit of antiquity lived on, and that the ideas expressed in the Apology still had a powerful role today in shaping the future