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The Best of Classical Futurism, Year I
A retrospective on AUC MMDCCLXXIV–MMDCCLXXV
The kalends of September marks one year since the publication of the first issue of The Classical Futurist. Since we launched, we’ve published 38 essays and built a community of 400+ subscribers. We thought that a good way to commemorate this milestone would be to reflect back on our biggest lessons and favorite essays of the past year.
Our Biggest Lessons of the Year
What sticks with me most from my research for The Classical Futurist this year is the incredible degree to which Americans of the revolutionary period were steeped in the classics. As I wrote in The Founders of the United States Were Classical Futurists, Jefferson’s classmates claimed that he studied Latin and Greek fifteen hours a day in his early years, and John Adams’ father was so dead-set on him learning Latin (because of what it meant for his prospects of class mobility) that he had him dig ditches for two days of back-breaking manual labor just to prove that the mental labor involved would be worth it.
For me, these facts just reaffirm the degree to which the United States’ civilizational roots can be traced in a straight line back to classical antiquity, and the American Republic is best understood as a self-conscious imitator of the Roman Republic, with architects who were deeply influenced by the history of their progenitor and the political philosophy of the Greeks who preceded them.
It’s strange to think of myself as having some sort of authority in writing about classical antiquity. When I started contributing to The Classical Futurist, I felt like an impostor: I’m an amateur student of history, sure, but I’ve never studied it formally, and haven’t read most of the classics. It’s common to read historians complain about bad amateur history, and that has made me hesitant, even fearful, to claim anything strongly.
But I was wrong to be afraid, and now that worry has mostly dissipated. As long as you have what me might call epistemic hygiene — and I certainly try to say only true things, or else state my confidence in the truth of what I say — then you can write about anything. Moreover, the project of classical futurism isn’t really to advance scholarship in the classics, but to use antiquity to find interesting truths about the present and future. I think my co-authors and I have succeeded in that. My essays on aesthetics, on cultural dynamics, and on golden ages, among others, have examined ideas that I consider valuable for our understanding of the 21st century.
I am not an authority on reading ancient authors in the original text, or on writing scholarly papers on the Spartan political system or the Roman military strategy during the Punic Wars; but I am certainly qualified to draw from ancient history in order to figure out the modern world, and I’m happy I learned that about myself.
Noticing the extent of difference between antiquity and now is unavoidable. The ancients’ values, religion, and politics are radically distinct from ours. This is to say nothing of the differences between our and the ancient's ordinary lives. Such differences bring to mind the prospect of radical discontinuity between us and our descendants. How will our descendants transform their values, religion, and politics? In 2000 years, it's likely that the differences between us and future beings will be even greater than those between us and the ancients.
Nonetheless, a key role of a classical futurist is to find values, heuristics, or principles that persist through the ages. To that end, going more deeply into the work of Josiah Ober and others was enlightening. Ober brings contemporary theories of economic and political development to bear on antiquity. It's useful and upsets a commonly held belief about ancient Greece – most importantly the idea that it was so poor. The application of these ideas to the future is suggestive.
I'd like to continue applying ideas like these to illuminate our past, future, and present. Let’s make them as concrete and specific as possible. This matters both for the smaller scale of our own individual lives and the larger scale of society.
Our Top 3 Essays of the Year
Virtual Violence, Real Peace by Caleb Ontiveros
Virtual violence, real peace is an examination of how Roman attitudes towards violent entertainment were different from our own — not only because they lacked the technology to simulate violence that we now have, but because their very morality around death and violence was so different from the post-Christian West.
To modern eyes (and some ancients, like Seneca), blood sport appears barbaric and cruel — a waste of human life. But for the Romans, courage in the face of death and suffering was a higher value than empathy. Their ethical system meant that people who put their lives on the line in violent combat, regardless of the context (military campaign or bloody spectacle), were seen as doing something admirable.
This essay considers the decline of violence over time, and the causes of this decline from both a materialist and cultural perspective. — SM
Let’s Build Cities of Marble, Not Metal by Étienne Fortier-Dubois
Let’s Build Cities of Marble, Not Metal is a paradigmatic classical futurist post. Too many of today's cities are aesthetic dumps. This is, in part, due to the decline of architectural innovation. The most beautiful buildings of San Francisco, where I live, such as the Palace of Fine Arts and Legion of Honor were built one hundred years ago. Grace Cathedral was built 50 years ago. The Salesforce Building does not compete – it's not even the same kind of thing. Many other major cities are much the same.
We should "expect something better from our future." We cannot go back to classical architecture, but we can go forward and build better. — CO
Meditation on the Ides of March by Sachin Maini
It’s no coincidence that Sachin’s Meditation on the Ides of March has been one of our most popular posts. Julius Caesar remains one of the most iconic historical figures, and alternative history — asking “what might have been,” in this case, if Caesar hadn’t been assassinated — is both fun and useful as a thought experiment.
But there is an additional reason to be impressed by that essay: Sachin’s steadfast commitment to look for valuable insight in ancient Roman civilization. In a world where history is more often examined suspiciously, and in which we tend to view powerful empires as the bringers of various evils, it’s refreshing to discuss what the Romans, two thousand years ago, did right. This attitude is more productive than to focus on what they did wrong in order to condemn everything from the past. — ÉFD
To Our Audience
We’d love to hear from you as a Classical Futurist reader.
Which essays would you choose as your favorites from the past year, and why?
What topics or collaborations would you like to see over the next year?
What is one piece of feedback do you have for us?
We thank you for following our writing so far. We’re excited to push our Janus-faced, in the best sense of the term, project into Year II.
See you in the next issue.
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